Nice Job, DM! Feat. Matías Valero

Some of us aren't fortunate enough to earn money from DMing, so we need to seek employment elsewhere! Welcome once more to Nice Job, DM! where we spotlight DMs with intriguing day jobs.  

Today, we're digging deep with Matías, a lifelong gamer, forever DM, co-director of the Twin Portals Podcast/Live Show on Spotify and iTunes.

Matías Valero

Hi Matías! Please tell us what you do for a living.

I'm an ecological engineer for the State of Minnesota. Essentially I lead a team that manages and designs publicly funded conservation projects related to soil, water, and wildlife health in the northeastern part of MN.

How did you get into that line of work?

I worked summers with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota which assigned me to the Soil and Water Conservation District in Duluth as an apprentice. When I finished school, I started full-time as an engineering technician, and one month into my job the region was rocked with the 2012 flood, the most destructive rainstorm in decades. This essentially defined my work for the next several years, learning the practices involved in flood management, stream restoration, and erosion control. 

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I love the even split between time outdoors studying, surveying, and implementing projects, and time indoors modeling, designing, planning, and doing the backend work that leads up to conservation being installed on the ground. It feels balanced and there is so much variety in the work around the region that I feel like I'm always learning and stretching my comfort zone.

What advice would you give to people who are interested in having that job?

There is a huge need for conservation professionals worldwide. If you want to feel connected with your local landscape and ecology, I highly recommend a government conservation job. You'll get to know the regional professionals across the different ecological sciences, and spend a lot of time outdoors digging into the details of the natural world around you. There are so many angles to approach this field, you could start by finding things in nature that you're interested in, studying up, and asking around about work that will get you connected with it. There are also many local conservation organizations and government programs that will help you get your foot in the door through volunteering or seasonal work with various agencies. Again, there's a huge need, and it's rewarding work.

When and why did you start DMing, and for what systems?

I've been DMing since I was in elementary school... for myself. I would make up game systems and rules and draw out maps and have stick figures and spaceships wage epic sagas of battle in my notebooks at school, and with my Legos at home. In high school I learned about D&D and DM'd a bit for friends in D&D 3E and 3.5E, but it wasn't until my 20s that I really began DMing consistently for a wide circle of friends, in Pathfinder and D&D 5E. After leaving engineering school I became extremely involved in regional theater acting and improv (a yin and yang thing with engineering I think) which brought me in touch with all kinds of wonderful nerdy people, many of us realized we were fans of D&D, and we were naturally inclined to making up characters and letting our imaginations run wild. So, we were quickly off to the Forgotten Realms. Now that I'm a parent, I barely have time for theater outside of improv (which rehearses less frequently), so TTRPGs and Twin Portals are my main creative outlets.

How often do you DM now?

I'm a part of a handful of home games that I get to DM for once or twice monthly, and I DM a session for our Twin Portals podcast and live show every month. I also run a long-standing West-Marches-style game for anyone on our discord server looking to play, and I occasionally do paid events with Tales & Taverns and Heroes B&B as well as volunteer DM events around the community.

What is your favorite part of DMing?

It's such a rush. I love the sense of connection between the DM and the players at the table. Your job is to listen to everyone, and invite everyone to listen to you, and people get so excited and put so much feeling into playing the game and feeding each other's imagination, it's incredible to experience and be a part of. As a dad of two young kids, on a more basic level, I also appreciate that it's a thing I can offer for my friends that brings us all together face-to-face regularly.

Can you tell us your best memory from the table? 

There are way too many to choose from. One that popped into my head immediately was the first time I had a player die during a live show, to an audience of 40-50. It was completely unexpected for me and for the player, the unfortunate result of a high roll on a disintegration ray. A moment after it happened as the audience and players recovered in stunned silence, I instinctively, quietly told my dead friend, "I love you buddy", and they immediately replied, "I love you too", and it was very low key but immediately brought me back into the game and reminded me just how joyful this is, through all of the highs and lows.

Do any skills you use for your day job help you when you DM?

I do a lot of work with streams, rivers, culverts, and bridges, so the sewers and underground rivers that my PCs explore in urban settings are always very detailed with a clear explanation for why water is flowing where it's flowing. There are some incredibly detailed maps of the Waterdeep sewer system out there, by the way. I also work a lot in CAD and other mapping software, which translates well to sketching out adventures on maps at home. Generally speaking, the science of ecology is the science of world-building and how everything is interconnected, so there are a lot of parallels that feed into session prep and running the game.

Can you please tell us about the live performances of your podcast, and what the process was like to gain artistic grants for it from the state of Minnesota?

Twin Portals records live episodes every quarter at the Teatro Zuccone in downtown Duluth, MN. We have a steady crowd of friends and gamers who come out to cheer us on and laugh through our antics while we play through our long-running campaign live on stage (up to episode 52 at the time of writing). Our cast are all veteran theater and improv performers, so the show has the atmosphere of a home D&D game while also unraveling a tight, entertaining, and hopefully inspiring thread of adventure and comedy. After each show we hang out and talk shop with other fans of TTRPGs, and we have a very active discord server ( ) where we talk about the game and all things geeky every day. My co-director Scott, who also edits each episode and manages our equipment, has done almost all of the grant application work, and in short we're very lucky to have a variety of supportive programs for artists in Minnesota. A few of our cast members have a lot of grant writing experience, so by our powers combined and by Scott's amazing hard work we've been incredibly fortunate to receive a few grants to expand our hardware and software tools, rent stage space, and pay our cast and technical help.

What advice or house rules would you share with new DMs?

Well this is the kind of thing I could go on about all day (and often do on our discord). Some bullets:

  • You've got this. When in doubt, bring snacks.
  • Keep it simple! There is so much material out there, use it, reskin it, iterate on it! 
  • Session prep doesn't need to be a huge time sink! Check out Mike Shea's Lazy DM series for some excellent guidance on ways to make prep easier and more effective.
  • Also, check out the Five-Room Dungeon method. Getting a handle on this approach will help you to throw together a night of D&D at a moment's notice if needed.
  • Scheduling is easily the biggest obstacle to getting together for games. Either keep it regular, even if some folks can't attend, or schedule things out weeks in advance. Try to leave some time at the end of any game night to schedule the next one!
  • Listen to your players' ideas and let them guide your prep work. You're playing the game together. No big worldbuilding or encounter idea matters if the players aren't interested. It brings me a lot of joy to listen to my players talk through their plans and ideas, and then modify the upcoming adventure to make their ideas pay off.
  • Ultimately this is a hobby about getting together with friends to express ourselves and learn about each other. As long as everyone is included and having fun, you've already succeeded, all other worldbuilding and encounter management aside.
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