DM skills need sharpening? Do some cross-training

Toon from Steve Jackson Games is a great "cross-training" game for developing improvisational dungeon mastering skills.

While it may not seem so at a glance, there is something a world-class athlete and the average dungeon master (DM) have in common: both can benefit from cross-training.

Every method of physical training provides benefits and enables shortcomings. For example, running offers superior cardiac benefits, but isn’t so useful for building muscle mass; weight training can build muscle mass, but isn’t the best way to increase cardio-vascular fitness. Many athletes therefore make use of mutliple training methods to improve their overall performance.

A dungeon master can do the very same thing by refereeing different role-playing games (RPGs), particularly those which emphasize that DM’s under-developed skills for running an RPG, in order to improve his or her overall performance.

It may be best to define the concept by example. Consider Toon, the cartoon role-playing game by Steve Jackson Games, which is an excellent game for cross-training a DM. In this simple, d6-based, quick-playing RPG, players assume the role of Warner Bros. style, slapstick cartoon characters, who engage in random acts of idiocy and violence en route to accomplishing loosely defined objectives. Unless the players decide on a different objective. Or unless they start fighting each other, which really doesn’t matter anyway, because cartoon characters can’t die. And the game master, dubbed the Animator in this system, must reign in this chaos, remaining flexible, building upon and connecting any plot elements that happen to appear, and directing the action without stifling player creativity or slowing down the game.

In short, it’s a nightmare for DMs who prefer to have every last detail prepared in advance, and an ideal cross-training exercise for developing improvisational skills while running a D&D game.

Of course, there are many elements of Toon that won’t transfer to a serious D&D campaign – not even elements listed in Toon’s D&D parody, “Dungeons & Toons,” presented in the Tooniversal Tour Guide – but several of the game mastering skills necessary to run Toon will transfer. In order to run a successful cartoon in the system, the Animator must develop the ability to see and interweave loose plot threads as they appear, to capitalize on quick-witted suggestions from players, maintain a quick, steady game pace and keep track of the activities of characters run amok, all ideal skills for a DM running a D&D game.

For example, in a Toon game run by this writer, one character attempted to fast-talk another character into hugging a recently-ignited rocket, which had been cleverly disguised as a fetching female were-penguin (there isn’t time or space here to explain); the fast-talk attempt succeeded, and the male were-penguin was launched into space, embracing his burning girlfriend, who exploded at the top of her trajectory. 

While that sounds like poorly-written adult fiction, it was a perfectly innocent cartoon.

As the Animator, this writer (who had no foreknowledge of were-penguins and no expectations of intergalactic travel appearing in the cartoon’s Stone Age setting) was prepared to rule that the were-penguin had “fallen down” – Toon jargon having to sit out of the action for a few minutes, usually due to running out of health points or being too far from the action – but the player rightly suggested that his were-penguin was incredibly dumb, and may not realize that he can’t breathe in outer space. A failed “smarts” check revealed that the were-penguin didn’t know he should suffocate, and was therefore able to breathe under the laws of Toon physics. The player then threw another wrench into the plot by asking if the U.S. Space Shuttle was in the vicinity and, upon hearing that it was (determined by random die roll), began hitchhiking and persuaded the astronauts to give him a ride back to earth, where he resumed his Stone Age adventure.

And that was only the actions of one of the player characters. There were three more doing equally random things, so the Gentle Reader can imagine the level of improvisation needed to keep the game going.

After six weeks of playing Toon, the group returned to D&D. Although there was adjustment period, during which players suggested attacking stirges with giant flyswatters and putting lit sticks of dynamite down the back of an orc chieftain’s pants, the level of player creativity appeared to increase, even after the silliness had worn off. And this writer’s improvisational ability improved drastically: after moderating a hormonal were-penguin’s interstellar love-quest with an incendiary device from its innocent start, through literally reaching an explosive climax to a lonely journey home, hearing the players say that they wanted to explore an undetailed ruin over the next hill was nothing.

If the Gentle Reader has run other games that develop under-utilized dungeon mastering skills in a cross-training manner, please consider describing those games and your experiences related to them in comments to this post. 

Lastly, for those interested in attempting a Toon experiment, out-of-print copies of the rules are available through auction sites and used book sellers, or a .pdf download of the Toon rules can be purchased directly from Steve Jackson Games.


4 comments on “DM skills need sharpening? Do some cross-training

  1. Swordgleam says:

    I was once unprepared for a sidequest my 4e group wanted, so I suggested that we run the session in Wushu instead. Everyone had a great time, and even after we switched back to 4e for the final encounter, the players’ descriptions were much more evocative. It was something I’d like to do more often.

    • Alric says:

      What’s Wushu?

      • Swordgleam says:

        It’s a free RPG. The original site seems to be down, but here’s some info:

        The core mechanic is that the more you describe your action, the more dice you get to accomplish it. So “I walk over there and stab him in the face” is not a great choice since it’s only two dice, but “I grab the rope, swing across the ballroom, drop onto the table, jump-kick him on the chest, then use my momentum to carry me into the guy behind him, whom I stab in the face” is worth five or six dice (depending on how you count), and thus much more likely to succeed. Which is the inverse of your standard game, where the second set of actions would require half a dozen different skill checks and take a ton of penalties to attack, and the first set of actions would be a simple attack roll that’s probably going to hit.

      • Alric says:

        That is an outstanding example of what I was trying to describe in this post. Thank you.

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