OOC: An Interview with My Dungeon Master Brother who has Never Read a Rulebook
This week, I sat down with my brother Knute to talk about how we both started playing RPGs in high school, and then went down very different paths after we got started. This is transcribed from pretty terrible audio, so if any changes in topic seem abrupt, assume that I cut out a lot of reminiscing about old games we played.
LEIF: So, we’re talking about D&D and roleplaying games in general, and I guess my question is… you’re the one who got us into it. Because we didn’t know anyone who played. Even our dad, who had played in high school said, “I thought it was boring.”
KNUTE: I was probably watching Acquisitions Incorporated. And I was like, “that looks pretty fun.”
LEIF: We must have known enough to know that you’re supposed to use a d20.
KNUTE: I’m pretty sure I only had a d20.
LEIF: I couldn’t remember if we rolled for damage, or if it was just like a “hit”.
KNUTE: I’m not even sure. I may have just halved the damage. Or maybe I had a d20 and a d10.
LEIF: I know it was pretty basic. It was basically just roll a 10 and above…
KNUTE: And you hit.
LEIF: We would each run our own things. I remember running one for you that was a ripoff of a Lovecraft story with fish-people. I feel like I was just constantly coming up with huge worlds and then just running one session in them. Then I would get distracted or forget. But you actually got a campaign running with high school buddies.
KNUTE: Yeah, our first session was probably around seven hours. And none of them had played it before. One of them was up for homecoming king, and he said, “just don’t tell anybody.” We didn’t tell anybody, but he didn’t win. But I’d like to think if he hadn’t played he would have [laughter]. But they were all ambivalent about it, so I said we’d play it till we got bored. And then we ended up starting at 8 PM and ending at 2 AM. With just a d20 and maybe a d6.
LEIF: And we didn’t have the six stats.
KNUTE: We had agility, strength, intelligence, and charisma. That might have been it. And they could each have one special ability. If they wanted to try to do something cool to incapacitate an enemy, they would just roll for it.
LEIF: So I didn’t know you had actually played official D&D in Montana until recently. I ran a part of Against the Giants for you, where I made the mistake of actually building out level 11 characters for you all to use…
KNUTE: I’d say it depends on how big your group is, and who your group is. I think if you have a bunch of random people, you’re going to want to use 5th edition, you want everyone to be on the same page. But I think if you’re playing with your best friends, who are willing to go along and you’re not going to get a lot of pushback, and you know you’re not some piece of shit DM who’s going to put them through a lot of bullshit, then I don’t think you need it. Because combat always gets bloated. Even my combat got bloated, and I know if I had used 5th edition, the battles would have taken even longer.
LEIF: After we had been playing a while, I got into buying rulebooks. I remember visiting you in Montana once, and I read an entire rulebook [Fate Core] on the way up, and I got so mad at you because you weren’t playing it “right.”
KNUTE: I remember I was Winnie the Pooh, but not cute, and I was addicted to honey.
LEIF: Because you always make a goblin of some sort. Even if they’re not a “goblin,” they’re a goblin. I think that problem came up because I didn’t really understand how to…
KNUTE: I was also being an asshole.
LEIF: [laughter] Sure, but it’s not like you were acting out of character for how you play normally, and I didn’t know how to set expectations for how the game was going to be. Or to say, “you can be crazy, but this is what the game’s about.” Have you heard of a session zero?
KNUTE: Yeah, where you make the character and explain the world.
LEIF: And also setting up the expectations. Because I play a lot with people online, and meeting them for the first time I need to let them know what kind of game we’re going to play. And I need to know if you’re going to be interested or go along with that. Because I run more serious campaigns. Silly stuff will happen, but I’m also running almost entirely premade stuff. I haven’t run my own adventure in almost three years now? It’s just been so much easier on me. Like I used to be a wreck going into a session, being like “oh everything needs to be perfect and exactly in place.” I’ve gotten better, and I know because I ran a cyberpunk game in Fate with you and our cousin, and you played a goblin again, and I even told you “there’s no goblins. You can be a person who’s cybernetically modified into a goblin.”
KNUTE: I think that was the origin of Nazbog Bilgebottom, because he was born in garbage.
LEIF: Is that your 5e character?
LEIF: I don’t even know if I could tell you why I got into reading the rulebooks, but why do you think you never felt the need to?
KNUTE: Because I’m lazy [laughter]. Here’s what I’ll say about that first campaign. If I had played it with anybody else, it would not have gone as well. Because I’m playing with people I’ve known since I was in diapers. So they’re going to fucking go along with literally anything. And they were incredibly enthusiastic. So I think the reason I didn’t need it or want it even was because the focus was on players interacting with each other and with the world. And I don’t need to roll a dice to see how a conversation is going. When our rogue pushes someone off his horse who just saved their life from sandworms, I don’t need to roll a dice to see how they react to that. It’s a serious campaign, a serious setting, but with incredibly goofy people. The whole way through. If someone insults an NPC, it’s not like they won’t cooperate, but they’ll remember. I wanted these guys to play the game, And I’m the game engine, and I am every single NPC. And it worked wonderfully.
LEIF: Did you have story planned out, or did you just see where they went?
KNUTE: I did [plan a story]. I could only describe each region at a very surface level, but it was one of those internal things in your head where it was incredibly unique, and I can’t always explain that, but I know these guys are imaginative enough that each guy is going to fall in love with each region in their own way.
There were a lot of things that I didn’t plan for and we ran with. When they finished what was essentially supposed to be the first campaign, and then we just kept playing, it was basically infighting between two players. But it was super fun.
LEIF: Like in-character?
KNUTE: Yeah, because one of them had a bounty on his head and was hiding in the desert. And they reunited, but that wasn’t planned, and as the DM I didn’t want to railroad that. I already know the city, the region they’re going to, and I know all the characters they could run into, so why not give them a little extra adventure?
I didn’t need a rulebook, I didn’t need all the different dice. Because we had a story, we had characters, and I want them to focus on the interaction. It was kind of like that old-school wargaming we were talking about yesterday, where someone just says “you can’t do that. Or you can do that.”
LEIF: It’s funny, because as you’re talking, I’m thinking about how the way you’re playing fits into all these debates online about how to run a game. Because there’s this whole thing between fiction-first vs mechanics-first gaming.
KNUTE: That’s what I would say I am, fiction-first. We’re just telling a story together as a group of friends, but I’m in charge [laughter].
LEIF: That’s me! When I’m a player, I’m bored a lot. Because I don’t want to step on people’s toes, but I also want to be doing something. But then when I’m the GM, I’m always the person people are talking to, unless an argument happens, and that’s its own fun when they make the stories themselves between them. But that’s also more chance for me to think about what can happen next.
There are certain games like D&D where you either fail or succeed, and others where you have degrees of success. Like in Fate where you can succeed at a cost. You can always choose to succeed and have something bad happen too. Do you ever do anything like that, or is it pretty straightforward yes or no?
KNUTE: So let’s say someone fails an agility save, but just barely, they’re not going to fall face first. But I will say that I’m probably more rewarding of nat 20s than punishing nat 1s. It got to a point where you could roll a nat 20 throwing a cigarette, and a tree would blow up. Because that makes it way more fun than “you hit them, but you hit them pretty hard.” I want people jumping up and down. When someone rolls a nat 20, they know they’re going to get some cool shit.
LEIF: That’s just way different with me. There are a lot of introductions to D&D where you have to say, a nat 20 is not going to be this huge thing.
KNUTE: Fuck that shit.
LEIF: That’s how I run it. But I will say that nat 20s are still exciting, even with just extra damage. The last session I ran had two characters each get two nat 20s. And it was “just” extra damage, but it was also… part of the excitement is that because they know I’m playing by the rules, the monster has a set number of hitpoints. I’ll tell them when their huge hit left it at one hit point. I think that kind of builds this tension of “we’re this close,” which means if you miss on that next hit, it’s an even bigger swing back and forth.
KNUTE: For me, the focus is on story. Your players are not going to remember “My favorite thing was when I hit level 12 and my stats moved from nine to ten.” They’re going to remember the story beats, the interaction, the crazy thing they did. So that’s what I focused on. Basically improv and shooting the breeze in a fantasy world with your friends.
LEIF: What was it like going from being a GM running this improv off-the-dome type stuff to a player in a 5th edition game. Did you feel constrained, or did it just feel like a different kind of game?
KNUTE: No, it didn’t feel that different, because the campaign we did was super fun, and I got to play with people I was comfortable with. I had fun being a character, so no, it didn’t feel that constraining. I know I wasn’t as worried about all the different moves, until I realized how useful they were, and then I’d use them, because combat was essentially just “I’m going to hit the thing.”
LEIF: That’s a big complaint by people who play other games, and even those who play D&D.
KNUTE: People need to have bosses that have mechanics. Because that’s what I would do. To be fair, the final boss was more just cinematic. Because they had to fight this archgoblin, which looks nothing like a goblin, and there were four portals, and he was behind a shield, but he’s got these trolls with ballistas on them manned by goblins. So they had to take out the trolls, but also close the shield, and they had to figure out how to enter the portals and grab a chalice. So it’s like, there you have mechanics beyond hit the thing. You need to go in under fire, get the chalice, get out… and then you get to hit the thing [laughter].
When you play Halo, you can’t sprint, you can’t even look down your sights. From that point, it sounds like it must be a pretty boring shooter, but that’s not what’s interesting. What’s interesting is what your enemies are doing. The enemies you fight are intelligent, they’ll have roles to work together to take you down. That’s where you get a real sense of accomplishment, is the problem-solving aspect. Not just fighting, but a riddle or a mechanic. There’s a bigger sense of reward. Like Sigurd killing the dragon. He digs a hole and stabs its belly when it come in. That’s a way cooler story than someone charging their horse up a hill and hitting a dragon in the chest with their lance.
LEIF: I’m trying to think of how to end this.
KNUTE: I’m trying to think of more shit I need to tell DMs. Oh yeah, DMs, your game is in a magical-ass world. I get it, you want a big setting, but then you want something more mundane, like worldly. I get that, but you have to remember that you have them in this magical-ass world where there’s magic. So let them do fun-ass stuff. One of my player had a staff of animal control. They had a quest to defend a king’s cattle. Turns out vampires are eating them. So he jumps on a cow, it gets bitten, and now he’s on a vampire cow. He asks me, “Can I use this staff on a vampire cow?” If you’re having fun, you can just say yes. I think it’s better to say yes, or “yes, but” because ultimately it’s your players’ game as much as it is yours. Let your players be creative, and it will be more fun.