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Four Tips for Dungeon Masters and Indie Filmmakers

January 17, 2011 | David

Just a few tips on making your project the best it can be from David Nett, filmmaker & Dungeon Master.

I’ve been a Dungeon Master on and off for some nineteen years, I’ve been producing theater for ten years, and producing indie film and TV for the web for nearly three years. In the gaming realm, my past and current RPG groups all seem pretty well pleased with my campaigns. I don’t know it all by any stretch of the imagination, but here are four tips that I try to follow when working on any film/TV/theater/gaming project. These are the broad strokes - the foundations of quality. You can probably have success without them, but I suspect you will fight a lot harder for it.

(For the record: I’m defining an indie film project here as a low or no-budget endeavor of which you are the creator and the primary driver. A project you are hired onto often has its own, very different, set of needs and motivations.)

TIP #1: BE PASSIONATE

Passion cannot easily be faked, and faked passion cannot be long maintained. When you’re creating an indie film project or preparing to DM a campaign, you’re likely not getting paid. In fact, you’re probably losing money. Even if you’re lucky enough to be getting paid, you’re probably working on multiple projects to cobble together rent and living expenses. That means you’re working crazy hours, late into the night, for months and maybe years on the same project. Some of that work will be boring (making budgets, calculating experience), some of that work will be frustrating (wrangling people and their schedules) and some of it will be infuriating (the 50th re-write). Without a burning passion for the project, it is be difficult to complete all that needs to be done, much less maintain high quality.

Passion is also of critical importance in two other key areas:

  • On-Set/At the Table
    Whether you are a Dungeon Master, Writer, Producer, Director, Creator or all of the above, on your indie project you are a leader. The tone you set will infect everyone else working on the project. If you come to set filled with unbridled excitement, that will lift spirits and motivate others to participate to the best of their ability. Your passion and enthusiasm are signals to your people that something awesome is going down. If that passion is genuine and lasting, others will join you and help pull the project to be the best, and most fun, it can be.
  • The Long Tail
    Indie film projects and RPG campaigns can have a long lifespan. I’ve filmmaker friends who just got a DVD distribution deal for an indie film they shot four years ago, which was written a couple of years prior. For six-plus years they’ve been working on this single project, first raising money (crappy), then making it (fun), and then promoting it (alternating fun and awful). If they were not passionate about their project, they could never have weathered all that. GOLD was written in late 2007, and the Season 1 DVD dropped in June of 2010. That’s two and a half years, and only a sliver of it has been the actual making of episodes - promotion, fundraising and technical rigamarole have filled the bulk of that time. And we’re still raising funds for Season 2. My longest RPG campaign, a Ravenloft serial campaign that started in late high-school, lasted five years. And the group got together and played a big conclusion adventure several years after that (those of you paying close attention may notice there a plot parallel to a certain mini-series in the middle of its release schedule ;-). It’s difficult to spend the time and do the grueling work a project needs to shepherd it from inception to successful conclusion without a burning passion for the project.

TIP #2: FIND THE BEST PEOPLE

In both an indie film and a typical RPG campaign, there are a lot of roles to fill - you just can’t do it alone. Here a DM has a distinct advantage over the filmmaker - as a DM you need only find three to six great people. For a typical film, you need actors, a director, camera, lighting, sound, etc. etc. But whether you need three people or twenty people, you need the best possible people. You need people who are enthusiastic about the project and great at what they do, who collaborate and play well with others, and who are willing to take on more than just their narrow role in order to ensure the success of the project.

The best people can be had, but it takes time and work to find them. And, once found, they can sometimes be a pain in the ass, scheduling-wise. You see, the best people are in great demand. They are busy. Scheduling a lot of the best people to work together on a project can be a nightmare. But if you can make it happen, all that work will be absolutely worth it. The best people can save your ass when you make mistakes (and you will). The best people will inspire each other to be their best. The best people will raise the quality of your game or indie film to a higher level than it would be without them (did I mention GOLD’s Streamy nomination for Best Ensemble? Or NOTZK’s IndieIntertube nomination in the same category?).

A word on finding the best people: the best person sometimes needs to be convinced to spend his or her time on your no-money indie project, but the best person is seldom someone who needs to be coerced. Convincing someone is different than coercing him or her. Sometimes the person you think is the best does not feel like your project is the right fit - that’s okay. But if you coerce someone you think is a best person into your project and he or she does not want to be there, you will not get all those best person benefits.

TIP #3: BE PREPARED
Preparation is the key to turning your passion and best people into a successful project. All of the talent and passion in the world don’t get you very far if, when they show up to set or to the table, you have no plan. Careful, detailed planning ahead of time allows you to focus on each task/encounter as it comes, field questions from your people, and troubleshoot when the need arises (and it will). It’s not always the most fun part of the gig, but it is an absolute must if you want your project to go smoothly. For the DM, understanding your NPC/Villains motivations, knowing your encounters and dungeon inside and out, and knowing your PC’s strengths, weaknesses and backstory will provide a rich, deep and engaging experience for your players that just reading out of some adventure can never match. For the filmmaker, solid comprehensive preparation means that your cast and crew is never standing around waiting to find out what comes next and that you’re never going back to your script and wondering “did we shoot that?”

There are a lot of DMs and filmmakers out there who are great off the cuff. In fact, you need to be great at improvising to be truly successful at either - there will always be times when things don’t go as planned, there will always be suggestions from your best people about how things might be done differently, and your ability to improvise will save you in those moments. Strong fundamental preparation allows you to field questions and suggestions from your collaborators, evaluate them and incorporate them into the project.  If you’ve solid planning underneath your session - you know your shots, your pages, your NPCs, your dungeon - you can riff on that preparation to make your improvisation seem as polished as every other part of your shoot/adventure.

TIP #4: SERIOUSLY, BE PASSIONATE
Yes, tip number four is simply a repeat of tip number one. We all do lots of things in this life about which we are less-than passionate. Your indie film or RPG campaign should not be one of them. Your indie project is going to eat your time (and maybe your money) like a ravenous Tarrasque who just woke up from his millennial slumber. If you are not deeply passionate about it, your experience and your end product (if you ever get there) are going to suffer for it.

In the end, a Dungeon Master and an Indie Film creator have very similar jobs: to wrangle a bunch of talented, specialized people together to tell a compelling story over a period of time. Both jobs can be great fun and incredibly rewarding, at least I’ve found them to be so.

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