Adventuring party in corridor
Adventuring party in corridor

I have been running D&D games at my local library since October of last year (2023). Since that time various players have come and gone. Most have only played a few times prior to joining the group, or they played a fair bit but long ago.

Of those players that have participated once or twice and then left the group, all but one did so without giving a reason why. The one player who gave a reason stated they felt the old-school rules we were following made it far too likely for their character to die. Based on that feedback and the input of the players that stayed, we adjusted our table rules to address it (with a death save based on CON score).

As a Dungeon Master, if I were running a story-driven game, it would be very frustrating to have players come and go like that. Not knowing what the party makeup would be from one session to the next would wreak havoc on my planned campaign. Considering I’m using a more sandbox style approach, where the players decide what they want to do and where they want to go, it’s been a lot easier to handle the shifting party.

Throughout this process, it has been interesting to see the different dynamics and motivations for each player. Some joined the group because they’d dabbled in 5th edition but wanted to give old-school play a try. Others had played 5e and found it lacking for various reasons. Others have only played 1980s or even 1970s rules and never tried the latest editions.

Dungeon Masters are there to serve the players, not the other way around.

Each player has their own motivation of why they show up to a game, and each player has their own play style and preferred reason to stay. For example, some really like role-playing their character and get a lot of enjoyment when interacting with NPCs in town. They’ll get into character and delve into the nuance of negotiating with a jewelry merchant, the innkeeper, or Captain of the Guard.

Other players like the tactical strategy of planning a raid on an orc lair and leave their interaction with a vendor back at town to single sentences. “Do you want to buy this battle axe I took from a dead orc chieftain or not?”

There is a bit of advice on YouTube that DMs should cover the bases and ensure every game session has something to suit the diverse motivations and desires of all possible player types. I don’t think this is bad advice but I do feel it’s difficult to accomplish in each session. Rather, I prefer to have one session devoted to the tactical combat and strategy, while another is focused more on the role-playing aspects of the game.

As an author, I’ve learned the value of capturing my reader’s attention and holding it fast with intense action, then giving them a breather chapter where not much happens — or nothing dangerous, anyway. Filmmakers have learned this maxim decades ago. Like most pop songs, there’s a particular pattern and rhythm that people unconsciously expect. I think a D&D campaign can follow an ideal rhythm, too.

Ultimately, though, a good Dungeon Master isn’t a songwriter or artist or author, where their work is an expression of themselves and their audience can either like it or not. Instead, I think a Dungeon Master is a facilitator. They learn the desires of the players at their table and dynamically create an experience that suits them best.

The DM may tailor their game in a particular way for the players around their table, but as players come and go what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. Flexibility and the ability to read the room is an important soft skill for the DM as they strive to make the experience as fun as possible. They are there to serve the players, not the other way around.