Here’s the text for what may go in our training manual. Feedback is welcome:
How Dungeon Mastering Prepared Me for Virtual Facilitation
I discovered Dungeons and Dragons in the fifth grade. It was love at first sight. The funky box art, the spooky, mathy dice, the idea of a story lived and a world discovered through the power of pure imagination, all took me in and never let me go. Through Dungeons and Dragons, people like me began creating outstanding virtual experiences for their friends long before Zoom, the internet, and even personal computers were part of daily life.
A true virtual experience doesn’t live on a screen or a cloud server; it lives in the minds of the participants. They cast visions together with their super-power of conceptualizing things not yet manifested. Their ability to imagine collectively creates unique interactive and problem-solving opportunities.
A truly virtual experience must provide a sense of agency. When participants cannot affect change through meaningful choices, their experience is passive or vicarious, not virtual. Engagement, investment, and synthesis characterize optimal virtual experiences. In Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) the choices the participants make shape their outcomes. The Dungeon Master (DM) describes the setting and situations, but the players decide the actions of their player characters (PC’s). What emerges is a shared virtual adventure that can be as enjoyable and memorable as an actual experience.
The players’ ability to visualize the DM’s descriptions make virtual experiences possible. The players and DM create a virtual world together, each one seeing it from a different perspective. They experience the outcomes of one-another’s choices, and feel the thrill of risk and danger as they search for gold and glory.
A good D&D session is a highly curated experience. The DM considers lighting, sound, and insists on the all-in presence of the players. Everything the DM does is intentional and aimed at immersing everyone deeply in their virtual world. Distractions must be minimized; table rules for players’ behavior are as important as the rules of the game. Cell phones in a basket, people! There’s no texting in the Fever Swamp.
To be a good DM, you must be a rules expert, a compelling narrator, and a master of description. As the rules expert, you need to know how the game works: what the characters can reasonably do, what they absolutely cannot do, and how to determine the outcomes of their decisions. What makes D&D a game as opposed to a cooperative storytelling exercise is the welcome element of uncertain outcomes. Just as in facilitation, the DM knows the rules of the game but not how it will turn out. The more a DM or facilitator is invested in a particular outcome, the less meaningful participants’ choices are. Without the skill and courage to manage agency and uncertainty, virtual experiences are boring at best and destructive or divisive at worst.
To help the participants make the most of their agency, they DM or facilitator will need to master skillful narration. Narration for DM’s and virtual facilitators means describing action in a way that optimizes the pace and momentum of the session. D&D players lose focus if they are out of the action for too long or if the narration seems irrelevant to them. The DM solves this by keeping narrations short, punchy and vivid, and once a players’ turn is resolved, directed at the next player in order. Quick summaries, frequent reminders of critical information, and occasional over-cuing are tools DM’s use to keep the players focused and the game moving forward.
Finally, the DM must master the art of succinct, evocative description. This is different from storytelling. A story resolves a question, and that’s the PC’s job. The DM’s job is to evoke a shared story-space full of meaningful choices. In an RPG, as in a facilitated session, the outcome is unknown; the story emerges as the participants engage with problems. Because the focus is on surfacing critical content, the DM’s job is to make the situation as clear as possible: what are the stakes, what are the dangers, and what resources are available to the PC’s? Selecting just the right details to bring the environment, situations and setting to life is the hallmark of a varsity GM. Description should always enhance player agency.
When working in a virtual environment, it’s important to remember the actual needs of the participants. Taking turns so everyone gets some attention, using music to transition between scenes or activities, and stretch/bio breaks are all critical for comfortable, cooperative participants.
Great DMs and great facilitators have the following traits in common: they are patient and eager to serve their attendees, they use “Yes, and…” to keep the conversation going (excepting the times when only “No” will do), and they visualize various outcomes before the session to anticipate what they attendees will need next. The RPG luminary Hankerin Ferinale creates binary nodes at critical decision points: if A, then B happens; if C, then D happens. Thinking ahead and planning for both success and failure won’t provide the exact answer for whatever your wiley attendees decide to do, but it will give you a set of options that you can recombine or synthesize with new information to create the next node of your adventure quickly and seamlessly.
The quality of a D&D session can be measured by how vividly and fondly the attendees remember it. Do they carry the experience with them? Do they reminisce about defeating the red dragon or the blood plague or the zombie invasion? Do they make art or write stories about it? Does their behavior reflect something they’ve learned through play? These are responses to deeply impacting, moving experiences. If your players change their thinking, to consider new possibilities, make the invisible visible, or create lifelong friendships, you have done more than entertain them. You’ve given them a memorable, meaningful virtual experience.