What’s your name? Who are you?
I’m Erik Jensen, I’m known (if at all!) as an OSR type gamer; I used to run the Wampus Country blog, and for several years I organized TridentCon, a small/local rpg-focused convention in Maryland.
I recently wrote about how my first session as a DM was a total disaster. How did your first session as a DM go? What system were you running?
I wish I had more solid memories of my first several D&D games! This would be in 1983 or ’84, using the Moldvay B/X version of the game (still my favorite). I didn’t have a regular, proper table group until a few years later – ’87 or ’88 – and at that point we were freely mixing B/X, BECMI, and AD&D without thinking twice about it. I wager a lot of groups were doing that throughout the 80s.
Early on, though, I can remember “running D&D” without any dice on the playground in fifth or sixth grade. Lots of improv and roleplay, not much actual gameplay in those sessions…I remember using The Isle of Dread, and the PCs being captured by the phanatons (these raccoon-monkey things). For whatever reason, the PCs being interrogated by raccoon-monkeys is burned into my head.
I think not only those sessions, but the “middle school sessions” GMing for relative strangers – kids I barely knew – went well primarily because we were all so forgiving. Everybody was learning the games, learning the idea of RPGs. The bar was low, and it was kind of expected that everybody would take a turn DMing, so there wasn’t a lot of “DM on a pedestal” stuff going on.
Tell us about how you game these days. How many games do you run? Do you mostly play online or in person?
These days getting gaming in between Adult Responsibilities isn’t always easy, but I’m pleased to say that I run a monthly 5e game and play in a monthly 5e game, both online. I’m playing in a Rappan Athuk campaign, and my own home game has been using a mix of old TSR material and Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures.
Once or twice a year I make it to a local con or gameday, and at those I try to run old-school B/X D&D, often sessions aimed at kids. I want to do my part to show new gamers that the old games are as valid and fun as ever, and in some cases, are actually easier to play than the modern versions.
What do you think is the biggest hurdle DMs face?
The biggest hurdle DMs face is self-doubt. Both when you’re trying to get started (or re-started after a lapse), and when you start to worry for any reason when you’re running. You might start to doubt yourself in the middle of session, or get down in the dumps about how last week’s session went, wasting a lot of time overanalyzing and picking your performance apart.
I don’t believe that level of scrutiny is helpful for DMs of any experience level. Yes, we should look back at the choices we made, what worked and what didn’t, but if we’re spending all our time mired in doubt, we aren’t really preparing ourselves to be our best DM for the next session.
If you could give advice to yourself before you ran your first game, what would it be?
If I could give twelve-year-old me advice, I don’t think it would be about D&D! Seriously, though, “relax, have fun, and remember that everyone else is here to have fun too”. Unfortunately some DMs just can’t relax when they’re running; but it’s something that comes easier with confidence. Practice, confidence, ease – that’s kind of the ladder of expertise.
Who are three DMs, online or in person, that you admire? Why?
Most DMs I watch at conventions have something they bring to the table that’s worth emulating, or learning from.
I’ve played with Harley Stroh (Dungeon Crawl Classics author) a few times, and he’s the sort of DM who just exudes energy out of every pore for the entirety of a four-hour con session. Just nonstop, full-speed. It’s inspiring to see, and the sort of thing that reminds you to DM with gusto. Stand up, lean in, get a little loud, make some noises — summoning up that ancient storyteller vibe that’s deep down within each of us.
Beyond that, I think I’m often inspired by DMs who are so obviously good at the parts of DMing that I’m NOT good at… tight organization, exciting gridded combat, things like that.
What custom creation of your own are you most proud of?
My old blog Wampus Country has a lot of good nuggets of which I’m proud. There are plenty of setting posts, spells, items, and a bunch of nonsense appropriate to a humorous tall-tale setting, but there are also lots of huge random tables that could be useful to anybody running a fantasy or Western game.
I’m also proud of the work I did for the Secret Santicore community project. Any scheme that forces you to write things outside your comfort zone is good for you as a writer.
Quick, in one sentence, invent a magic item. No stats necessary.
I get a lot of D&D ideas from things my kids say and do, or random things I see throughout the day, so I’ll riff off something I see… okay, my toddler has this Very Hungry Caterpillar puzzle half-assembled on the floor, so that’s my prompt. Here’s the item:
Tablets of Transmogrification: This series of interlocking brazen plates bears ancient runes and radiates alteration magic. If all nine plates are collected and properly assembled on a flat surface, any caster who understands the secrets of the tablet may lie down upon the tablets, fall into an altered state of consciousness, and thereby ritually cast polymorph (self) in ten minutes’ time. The polymorph will last four hours rather than the typical one hour, but is otherwise limited by the spell description in the PHB, save that the Tablets replace all verbal, somatic, and material components. The Tablets may be used once per day.
Naming just one tool, what’s the most valuable tool you use to help you prepare for your campaign?
Although I sometimes run with a laptop or tablet around, I prefer the classic aesthetic, so I do a lot of my work with a notebook and pencil just like I always did; and there’s something very satisfying about mapping by hand, isn’t there?
Honestly though I think a DM’s best “tools” are their ears. When you’re running a game, you’re listening to your players – what they’re saying, what they’re NOT saying – and reacting accordingly to keep the game moving and the table fun. And when you’re not running, you should be keeping those ears open to listen to voices and cadences to imitate, weird noises to replicate, and great vocabulary and turns of phrase to steal for your descriptions!