I have been playing D&D and various other pen & paper games since high school. I’m pretty sure I would have been playing them earlier if I’d grown up in a place where they were known, but in La Scie roleplayers were (probably still are) limited to the Fifty Shades crowd.
My first DM was a guy named Bryan, under whose watchful and merciless eye I played in a 2nd Edition Ravenloft campaign. My mage died at least once, possibly twice. The guys had apparently gotten themselves a treasure hoard worth thousands of gold at one point (prior to my joining, of course), but I think my grand loot total for that campaign was 1 pair of Bracers of Defense (+2) and 42 gold.
My second campaign, at least in my memory, was Rifts, with Jimmy as the DM. That setting is still my favourite of all time. Ubiquitous gonzotech (nuclear power armor, drug fueled superheroes) set against a magical dystopia of unbelievably epic stature is the kind of thing I can’t believe they failed to make a movie about. I played a cyborg and at one point gained a cybernetic penis. I shit you not. This was a very weird moment for all involved.
My third campaign was really a bunch of campaigns under Ian, all set in the World of Darkness. Ian’s probably the best DM I’ve ever played under; his stories fused action with intrigue, and he gave you all of the rope you wanted, and then he hoisted you relentlessly with it. Every game I played in that setting blends together into one giant mishmash of atmospheric, frustrating, occasionally transcendant gameplay. At one point I played a blind shaman through a blood-soaked dream realm full of dinosaurs, at the end of which I’d given up on ever shamaning again, then immediately got to face down a bunch of fire elementals with pure spirit healer juju.
I wish I could tell you that somewhere in there I played a Mage game that didn’t suck, but I can’t. That game is the best thing ever made that isn’t possible to do correctly.
Eventually I hit that point a lot of dungeoneers hit, which is the place where you really enjoy running the game more than playing it.
In my case I still enjoy playing it a lot, but as a result of that shift even when I’m a player I probably give the DM a harder time than the “average” player . Example: In a generic arctic D&D setting, I played a human, and another guy played a gnoll. The DM introduced us by having our tribes fighting, then having us stranded together in the midst of a blizzard. In some games, this would have lead to a begrudging but ultimately deep friendship. For us, however, the game turned into nearly killing each other over and over while the DM found ways to keep us apart as we tried to make our way back to civilization. It was possibly one of the most rewarding character interactions I’ve ever had, but I’m not sure the DM could have kept it up forever.
But the real sauce is, for me, in writing and running original material. I wasn’t always a very good DM; the aforementioned failures in Mage are rife with examples of this. But somewhere in my mid-20s I became passable, and when I picked up the hobby again in 4th edition, with the creative winds of uber-DM Mike Krahulik from which to draw inspiration, I started to feel pretty good about it all.
My favourite original experiment was something I call Mix-in D&D. This is where you take a game everyone already knows and loves – Munchkin, say, or Saboteur – and use it as the jumping-off point for a pen and paper game. With Munchkin it’s pretty easy – a 10-level game gets the characters to 10th level, and by the time you’re done they have plenty of interesting gear and consumables to boot. This can unbalance things if you’re not careful, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
I’m an improv DM rather than a planner, so I have developed shortcuts that play nicely with on-the-fly adventuring. I use very short NPC descriptions, for example, with slots for relevant ideas – archetype, motivation, dark secret, whatever suits the game. I create minigames, many of which fail the test of actually playing them quite miserably. I use sheets of looseleaf that have blank grids on them as maps (graph paper is the classic way to do this, but I like my grid cells a little larger) so that I can run an extended challenge like, say, digging through a Kruthik hive without needing to do a lot of prep work.
I also had a good time building maps and set pieces with modelling clay. Given the expense of things like Dwarven Forge and the somewhat unsatisfying nature of paper maps, clay set pieces strike a nice balance. They’re a pain in the ass to transport, so you have to plan your map carefully. At this point I am of the opinion that clay works best for creating individual set pieces to be placed on a paper map.
Speaking of DF and paper maps, there needs to be a digital map generator that lets me create amazing custom paper maps. Somebody get on that.
The last thing is something I’ve only just started working on, which is the concept of a micro-adventure. Ideally, a micro adventure is a single-encounter adventure which can be customized quickly and on the fly. As I said, I favour improvisation over planning, but this does lead to an ass-hanging-in-the-wind feeling at times. Having a number of encounters in my back pocket that I can tune to the situation could at least button the flap on that.