This weekend I DMed my first tabletop RPG. I was really nervous about it, but it was actually way easier than I thought it would be.
Our tradition in my Dungeons & Dragons group is whenever someone has a birthday, someone else will run them a one-off in the system of their choice. Our current birthday boy really wanted to play The Sprawl, a cyberpunk-themed game in a system that’s a little bit more about roleplaying than dice rolling. No one other than me had played that system before, so I volunteered to run the game. The only problem was I’d never DMed anything before.
I get pretty anxious about being in the spotlight, and I’ve never been awesome at thinking on my feet. I’m the kind of person who prefers a lot of prep time, which you’d think would make sense for DMing. But people are unpredictable, and knowing the group of players that I normally played with, they’d find all sorts of loopholes in my campaign.
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In the cyberpunk world of The Sprawl, each player has to come up with a giant megacorp that will impede the progress of the player characters. One person decided that it would be interesting if the English royal family had been bought out by Circuit City—yes, the now-defunct electronics store—and was now an entertainment and tourism-based enterprise. Every year they cloned new royals to have a new royal wedding. Another player made up a corp that they described as “data Switzerland,” which handled the world’s fiber optic cables and transmissions of data with a libertarian approach. My favorite corp was Thiel.Place, which I wrote down in my notes as “Peter Thiel’s fucked up Reddit island.” On the fly a player decided that the corporation that handled all cyberware would just be the empire of Dr. Zizmor, an infamous former New York dermatologist whose ads used to plaster all the subway trains. These were all fantastic ideas, but how was I going to incorporate them into a cohesive campaign?
At the start of the session, I had a basic idea for a heist and some notes on what the world would look and feel like. Our team included a Pusher, who is basically a cult leader with high charisma, A Driver, A Hacker, A Soldier and a Reporter. Missions in The Sprawl are segmented into four distinct parts. You give your team a job and they negotiate the terms, research the job, enact their plan, and then get paid. While I was giving my team a job and introducing the terms, the Pusher, an effete courtesan named Kiyo, couldn’t understand what would motivate him to accept it. He wasn’t interested in money, and his skillset didn’t really make him useful for a heist. The other players had to help me guide him towards his character motivation for doing some crimes on the side.
Once that was made clear to him, though, I started to realize what my job as DM actually was. All my little notes didn’t really matter. I was just giving my players a chance to talk about all their cool ideas. In The Sprawl, once per mission each player can make up an NPC that I have to roleplay. That’s when I got into the swing of things. My players had to get into contact with a scientist in order to access the research lab they were planning on robbing, so Kiyo described an NPC to me who was a colleague of his who also entertained rich people for money. The scientist was an older guy who wanted to appear hip, so Kiyo’s colleague, Nebula, was a beachy surfer girl who was basically a professional manic pixie dream girl. Describing the way that Nebula’s black nail polish was perfectly chipped off, and how she kept shaking out her wavy blonde hair allowed Kiyo to get into his character and sink his teeth into the game and the mission I had laid out.
My players latched onto the smallest of details. When another player made up an NPC named Francis Ford Gondola, who, they told me, was just Francis Ford Coppola, I offhandedly said they were smoking a holographic cigar, and they asked me to describe how it worked. I made up some stuff on the fly, and then Kiyo told me that he offered Gondola a better cigar from a selection he was keeping in his apartment.
By the end of the game, after the driver—a guy named Skrrt who worked for the waste management company New Jersey Inc.—made it to the drop off after a daring chase involving two security guards on motorcycles, I finally understood why people like DMing. I made everyone feel special and important, giving all their characters a chance to shine and use their special skills. My players’ smiles and satisfaction made me prouder than when I, as a player, complete a mission successfully. My players did precisely none of the things I had planned for, but that was okay with me. If they had, we’d never have met Francis Ford Gondola and learned about holographic cigars.