The secret world of D&D dungeon masters

The magical world of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is thriving at NAU, giving creative minds throughout Flagstaff the opportunity to create fantastic adventures through roleplay and develop friendships through collaborative storytelling. 

D&D has a long legacy of stereotypes: It’s nerdy, it’s only for boys and it’s always about, well, dungeons and dragons. But the fantastical role-playing game has grown since its origin in 1974 to be a more inclusive game for all. Connor Danley, NAU graduate and campaign creator, or dungeon master (DM) said D&D was a game his parents cautioned him against when he was a child. After a first rough campaign as a player, Danley became fascinated with the world of D&D and taught himself to become a DM. 

Since then, Danley said he has led several campaigns with different genres and characters and has become skilled in the many arts of a DM, such as acting, improvisation and writing. 

Danley described campaign writing as a creative storytelling process with his players. Unlike a typical story, DMs write the outline and direction of the campaign, but the players are the ones that decide the majority of the story.

“When you first get into DMing you think you’re writing a book, and you’re telling a story that way,” Danley said.  “Eventually, you have to let go and allow players to make choices.”

Danley said the shared control of the story is part of the magic of D&D, though it can also pose significant challenges to the DM. He explained that once in his early DMing years, he allowed a player to break a key rule of D&D: never betray the party. 

“I thought that everyone should be able to have their fun, no matter the price,” Danley said.  “So, I let [the player] be evil and she coerced with the bad guys and ambushed the party.”

The betrayal caused the permanent death of several characters and taught Danley that a DM shouldn’t sacrifice everybody’s fun for the enjoyment of one. 

Sophomore and DM Colette Barteau started her D&D adventure as a player in Danley’s campaign. Barteau said she has her own difficulties in campaign writing. She explained that one of her campaigns was a twist on the classic trope of a princess being locked in a tower, with the dragon being benevolent and the princess an evil, unusually powerful druid. 

“I accidentally spoiled the fact that she was evil in the first session,” Barteau said. “I had to walk away and rewrite the entire plot.”

Pesky plot holes and disastrous slip-ups are only a few of the difficult aspects of D&D DMing, Barteau explained. Perhaps the most difficult problem DMs face is the stifling and often inaccurate stereotypes surrounding D&D.

Such stereotypes often scare players from the game and may intimidate potential DMs.

Danley said a stereotype that needs to be broken is that a DM must have acting experience to lead a campaign. 

“Even though [acting experience] helps, you don’t have to have it,” Danley said. “As long as you have a story to tell and a whistle in your heart, you can play D&D. It feels more like being interactive in a TV show.”

In the lengthy list of stereotypes, Danley also said the idea that a campaign must be high fantasy — putting the dragons and dungeons into the name isn’t always true. 

Barteau said she has tapped into high fantasy campaigns like her princess in the castle trope, but her campaigns often include historical themes such as Norse mythology and vikings. 

DM and sophomore Anthony Zapata described his first campaign as a genre of alternate historical fiction, in which the world is based on ancient Greek culture and values.

With genres ranging from fantasy to historical fiction to thriller, players have endless possibilities to make the stories their own. And that, the DMs said, is the highest compliment. 

“The more they care about my stories, the more I also care about it,” Barteau said. “It makes me want to put more effort in return.”

 The work of a DM is effort to the highest extent, the DMs explained. The combination of writing, acting and improvisation makes DMing an exciting experience, but also a challenging one. 

For those interested in entering the world of D&D, the DMs explained the best tip is to get connected with others in the community. Organizations like NAU’s Roleplaying Game Clubprovide opportunities for new players to find a DM, join a campaign and start making magic. In Flagstaff, game stores like The Geekeryhave the answers to players’ D&D questions and needs. 

The Geekery owner Steven Brently said he opened the shop in 2010 to create a space for Magic: The Gathering fans. The shop offers a selection of merchandise for Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammerand more.

Magic: The Gathering posters featuring druidic women with glowing eyes, gorgons with heads full of snakes and armored muscle men baring axes adorn the walls. A wall entirely decorated with playing cards lines the back of the game room, where tables are set up for tournaments of various games. Playing mats, D&D dice, Magic: The Gathering cards and even snacks like donuts and muffins are available for purchase to provide players what they need to enjoy a night of gaming, Brently explained. For the first time, The Geekery will be hosting a D&D Live Action Role Playing (LARP) session Oct. 22 through 30. 

“D&D always involves some aspect of role playing,” Brently said. 

Even in a non-LARP D&D session, Brently said acting out a character can inspire the DM to give certain modifiers, or advantages, to the player. 

Whether a D&D player is highly involved in the LARPing scene, or prefers to stick solely to tabletop, the diverse range of genres, characters and clubs in D&D make the game a promising opportunity for anyone.