DM Interview – Sam Kemp

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Sam Kemp

I think the biggest hurdle DMs face is the tension between the story that they want to tell and the legend their players are trying to make.

What’s your name? Who are you?

My name is Horace Samuel Kemp III. My friends and players call me Sam. I am a St. Louis native who has been playing and running D&D games (mostly 3.5) for 17 years.

I am the producer of an actual play D&D podcast called Challenge Rating: Zer0, and I teach kids and their parents how to play 5th edition D&D at local game stores and comic shops around town.

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?

It’s been a while, but the first session I ever ran was a 1-on-1 encounter in the original version of D&D. I made a dungeon for a friend of mine while he tried to survive by himself without any healing magic or allies. I had no idea what I was doing, and after my friend got cut by a goblin once for most of his health, I just couldn’t think of any way to continue without murdering him.

Tell us about how you game these days. How many games do you run? Do you mostly play online or in person?

I mostly game with a group of friends I have been playing with since high school. We play every Monday night without fail (nothing comes between us and the game — it’s our holy day). I run the campaign we play for the podcast, and I run simple one-shots for level 1 newbs and kids so that they can learn how the game works and have some fun killing monsters.

Kids are very good at playing pretend, and they don’t see the twists coming like grownups do. Besides that I have dabbled in running a few side games over the years for nerdy friends I’ve met along the way.

What do you think is the biggest hurdle DMs face?

I think the biggest hurdle DMs face is the tension between the story that they want to tell and the legend their players are trying to make. In the communal storytelling of D&D, the DM can create an entire world from scratch. History, cosmology, geography.

You can prep for a session for weeks and find yourself bursting at the seams with excitement for what you are going to reveal to your players, and they wont take the bait, and sometimes just don’t care.

The game is about the PCs: they are the main characters of the story. But it can be frustrating when your creativity has to take a backseat to the goals your players have. Especially when they run counter to the story you are trying to tell.

If you could give advice to yourself before you ran your first game, what would it be?

The best advice I could have given to myself when I started is to calm the heck down and tell a story. I was so worried about using the rules properly and making sure that everything was in line with RAW. The narrative suffered because I didn’t put enough time into fleshing it out.

I would write myself into these massive corners and have to retcon half the sessions we played through. Devotion to a compelling (or even just coherent) narrative is the main point. Rules second.

Who are three DMs, online or in person, that you admire? Why?

The three DMs I admire are Griffin McElroy, my friend Mike, and my D&D guru Ron.

  • Griffin is a D&D celebrity who has played a role in making D&D a performance art. His vision and attention to detail are something to aspire to.
  • My friend Mike is someone I’ve seen develop his DM skills in front of my eyes. He has learned quicker than I though possible, and now helps me with the teaching gigs. Mike never says no to a player. Ever. No matter how crazy or seemingly destructive, Mike always rewards player decisions, and that is admirable.
  • Ron is the man who introduced me to D&D. He is my oldest friend, my first DM, and the man who taught me everything I know about running a game. I still use the things he taught me about evoking the 5 senses, taking time to work on player goals, and standing up from the table when running a game to help act out the combat, bringing a sense of dynamic motion to the story.

What custom creation of your own are you most proud of?

I once made a BBEG for a campaign (three years long, and the first one I ever completed) that was very big. I mean HUGE.

This was an aboleth mage that the party had met in the first session. It came back for the final fight as a colossal creature miles long. There was a castle on its back holding other baddies for the players to fight. There was an entire naval battle in its open mouth as it tried to devour the good guys ships. The party had to travel up its spine to its brain in order to kill it. It had like 200,000 health points and a stomach the size of a lake.

My sense of scale was completely whacked, but we still talk about it to this day.

Quick, in one sentence, invent a magic item. No stats necessary.

Rod of Attraction. The user speaks a command word and says the name of a certain type of object, and 1d4 small objects of that type within 60 feet are instantly drawn to the rod.

Naming just one tool, what’s the most valuable tool you use to help you prepare for your campaign?

Honestly, Google Docs. Before that it was notebook paper. I have a very heavily improvised style, and too much prep can be too limiting for me. I jot down a few ideas and then just lay the track as we go.

More about Sam
You can follow Sam on Twitter @horuskemp3 and at @challenge_zero.

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