I’ve been gaming for a long time so I’ve encountered many, many great DMs. I’m going to tell you about three of them, and hopefully the first two will tell you why it’s actually the third one who’s my favorite.
My first excellent DM was pretty hard to top, since he created the hobby. When I was, well, much younger, I had the privilege of playing at a table with Gary Gygax himself. At the time, I had no idea what was going on, only that we were going after some filthy slavers! For those of you who want to carbon date how old I was, this was the adventure that would eventually become The Slave Pits of the Undercity. This was actually a couple of years before they would be more officially used for the D&D Open.
So here I was, a young Sith Padawan, sat down at a table with seven other players, and given a character … a thief! It was only many years later that I actually realized how lucky I was. So why was Gary such a great DM? It’s simple: here I was, a new player, and a young kid to boot, and I had a great time, despite the fact that there were eight of us in the game!
There were two things that particularly stuck out in my mind about the game: first, that Gary took the time to get everyone involved with what was going on, and to keep even the people who weren't directly involved doing something. This was no small feat given that none of us knew each other, and that the group spanned many decades of age. Everyone was involved, everyone felt like they were a part of what was happening and could contribute.
The second thing that stuck out was that Gary managed the entire game by asking “what would you like to do,” followed by listening, and then saying “well, let’s roll this and find out what happens…” Gary knew the rules. There’s no doubt that he did because he invented them, but when it came to do things, he’d just ask what you wanted to attempt and then fairly decide how it went. Dice were rolled, and everyone would just roll with the punches of what happened. Sometimes it went very well, others, not so much. The thing was, we all felt like we really could do whatever we want, even if it turned out to be a bad idea.
Years later I picked up the adventure we were playing, and found that it was really not a very good one. The thing was: the way Gary handled it, it was excellent: he took the bare bones of what was in the text and we went on a crazy ride based entirely on what we told him we were doing. And that’s the story of my first excellent DM.
So the second excellent DM I played with was about 15 years later. His name was Erick Wujcik, and you may have heard of him: he created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG, as well as one of my favorite games, Amber Diceless Roleplay. This is another Gen Con story, and serves to show how loooooonggg I've been going to Gen Con. At least this game was still in Milwaukee and was during my extensive six year stint at the UW as a Sith Apprentice. Erick ran a session of Amber at Gen Con that was six hours long, and had 30 players. That’s right: 30 of us! We were in a huge, open space and at any one time there were maybe half a dozen factions going about things. At the end of the game, he managed to get all 30 of us together and run a climactic battle scene. With 30 people. In a game where you pretty much use the power of BS to tell everyone what you can do.
Everything about this game should have been a disaster, but I still remember it today as one of the best games I’ve ever played in. So what did he do? What was the magic that kept this game from being a train wreck?
First, he encouraged us to plot, plan and simply roleplay with ourselves. This was the first time I had encountered something like that on this scale, and it changed the way that I play RPGs. It really did! A lot of the time when you’re playing a game, the DM’s focus isn’t on you, or if it is, what’s going on isn’t particularly thrilling. Maybe you’re navigating your way through a seemingly endless series of tunnels, or maybe you’re haggling over the price of a large sack. Whatever it is, it’s not that interesting. What’s fun in these situations is what you bring to the table. If the DM has planted some interesting plot seeds, you can plan things out or simply shoot the breeze with the other players in character. It can be a lot of fun, actually, and can help to get a consensus of what you’re going to do even when the DM isn’t around.
Second, he had an incredible amount of energy and was driven to keep the game rolling dynamically at all times. He was simply over-the-top fun as a DM. Imagine five or six groups, all plotting away, with Erick bouncing around (almost literally!) between them, asking what was going on, figuring out what we were doing, and them keeping that all straight in his head while moving between the groups. If one of us said we were going down to the tavern to check out rumors, off we went … to another group who was already there. When we got there, we’d be newcomers in an existing scene where people would likely be at each other’s throats.
It’s hard to describe the incredible energy that he had, but it all came together in some crazy manic Robin Williamsesque fashion. I still remember the game to this day.
What I especially enjoyed about the game was how it was rapid-fire, sink or swim. You didn’t have much time to explain what you were going to do, but when you did, man. I remember the encounter that my character had with Corwin (or, as we would learn, a Pattern Ghost of Corwin). I was faced with him, defending the Pattern from utter destruction. Erick asks: so, Corwin is coming at you, with Grayswandir raised. He’s serious. He says: ‘out of my way, cousin!’ What do you do?
I ended up getting punched in the face, knocked out and left for dead. And I'll tell you it was a great game. "I got punched in the face by Corwin." Sith can be so sentimental sometimes... And so Erick was my second excellent DM.
But I know what you’re thinking, and this time you’re wrong: this article wasn’t about excellent DMs, it was about your favorite DM. So how about I get to the point and tell you who that is?
My favorite DM is Cory Scanlan.
Yes, that’s right, the author of the Vorpal Chainsaw blog himself. And it wasn’t even close, it was by a mile! Yes, I just compared Cory to the creator of our hobby, and said he’s a BETTER DM. That. Just. Happened.
So why do I say that Cory is the best? Those are some pretty big shoes to fill, so what does he do that’s so excellent? Well, if you take a look at my previous comments, well, let’s sum them up:
- Get and keep everyone involved, even the people who aren’t directly involved with the action.
- Help everyone to try absolutely anything they’d like to do, and adjudicate it fairly, whether it’s a good idea or not.
- Encourage everyone to plot and have fun among themselves.
- Has near boundless energy reserves (perhaps fueled by Monster Energy Drink) and show incredible enthusiasm.
Those things pretty much sum up every game Cory runs. He puts everything he has into the game he runs and his enthusiasm is infectious. When I’m done with a session that Cory’s run, I’m thinking about what we’re going to do next! He’s sort of a mini Gen Con: the moment the game is over, I’m counting down until the next game! My poor wife gets to listen to me going on and on (and on, and on…) about the session when she’d much rather sleep.
As I was putting this article together, I thought of one thing that Cory does that truly puts him over the top, and has earned the jealousy of my friends who don’t game with him: he prepares.
When you’re looking to do something with Cory and Mary, quite often Cory will say “I’d love to, but I’m painting miniatures and preparing terrain for the next game.” That crazy attention to detail makes his games memorable. Since this is my article, I thought I’d take the time to share some of my favorite Cory memories about being prepared:
Cory goes crazy with miniatures. One of our characters in a long-running game is a dwarf who fights with a rapier. For those of you not in the world of roleplaying miniatures, there aren’t ANY miniatures of dwarfs using rapiers. I think the very notion is against the dwarf code or something. Can you imagine a heavily Scottish accented man with a beard threatening you with a rapier? But, that was the character that we had for us, so Cory went and made a custom miniature for this character so that it would be accurate. And the system this was for was pretty lethal, so the odds were that miniature wouldn’t be needed for long. But that fact didn’t deter him!
In a game he was running called The Gathering Storm, it was raining for the entire campaign. So Cory went out and bought not one, but multiple rain and storm soundtracks, and played them at gradually increasing intensity throughout the campaign. It was difficult to detect at first, but as the game went on and became more intense, so did the music. At one point during this game, we did something dramatic, and Cory stopped the music and put on a crazy Heavy Metal song that was dedicated to Sigmar. Until that song ended, we received huge bonuses to the heroic actions we did, so he told us to get to it!
At another game, we came downstairs and all the lights were out. He had set up lighting for the custom Tron lightcycle boardgame he ran for us that was the beginning of a campaign. It’s Tron he said, so OF COURSE the game would have to start with a lightcycle battle! When we moved to the roleplaying portion of the game, he had made custom disks with our character sheets on them that we could program with upgrades as we found them.
Then there was the time he ran a game about a spaceship that had been traveling with most of the crew in hypersleep. We were woken up to deal with some problems that had arisen, in a fashion similar to the movie Pandorum. Along the way Cory had taken some cut scenes from the game Doom and played them for us. He told us afterwards that the only way he could get all of them was to play the entire game through again! Ah, but the cut scenes were integral to immersion in the game, you see.
And those of you who made it to Scancon this year can testify about the custom tablets he had made to play his homemade Cyberpunk game. I don’t want to talk about that too much, since not everyone who reads the blog has actually played it yet. This game actually includes a Powerpoint teaching you how to play.
There are so many more stories about Cory and his level of preparation for a game that make playing with him so special. I can recall one Cabincon where he spent over an hour setting up a game of Mansions of Madness for us. I think we finished the game in two hours, and then it took another hour to clean up. So setup and take down times were equal to the time we actually spent playing the game.
And perhaps my favorite part of Cory’s DMing is the fact that he lets me play a character like Gunter, and doesn’t promptly kill him. There have been a couple of earlier Vorpal Chainsword articles about this campaign, but the fact that the character I’m playing in it is still alive is a testament to Cory’s DMing skills. Gunter is a character in the Warhammer universe, where Very Bad Things happen to even the most cautious character. Gunter dives right into everything and says “let’s do that again!” after almost drowning in the river or being hit by a meteor (really, I almost got hit by one, but I jumped at exactly the right time and survived…) I have no idea how Gunter is still alive, but he is, and that’s another reason Cory is an excellent DM.
All of this makes him the best DM I’ve ever had, but why does he do it? Is it madness? Genius? Too much Zip Fizz?
I don’t really know, but what I can say is that Cory is the sort of person who absolutely attacks things that are important to him. He doesn’t do anything he sets his mind to halfway. Ask him about all the things he did to win the Ready Player One Challenge if you want another example.
So I’m going to open the floor to all of you to comment about this: why does he do it? I have heard some amazing stories from campaigns he was in before I met him, but I didn’t think those were my stories to share. If any of you would like to add to the tales, feel free to do so!
Congrats, Cory. 30 Days of D&D Challenge Achievement Unlocked!