Embrace the Playground

In the April 13th episode of Dragon Talk, the official Dungeons & Dragons podcast, Mike Mearls gives some of the best Dungeon Mastering advice ever. The discussion is about the differences between adventure design concepts over the editions and how that has change from AD&D to 5th edition. He’s asked what advice he would give for Dungeon Masters who are picking up Tales from the Yawning Portal and want to run it for their group. Here’s what he said:

“Embrace the idea that these are environments that you are supposed to change and modify in reaction to what your group does. I think some people read this style of adventure and they look at it and they just don’t like it at all. Its like its just a room with monsters and another room with monsters and  so on. But what they miss…what I think makes these adventures fun, is that this as a Dungeon Master is your playground.

Part of is what you have to bring to the table is that performance element of really playing the role of the monsters and being as creative as the players can be. So rather than just say you see two orcs standing in the room and you fight them and they sit there and wait for you or whatever, do the thing like have the orcs run away. Have them try to plan an ambush and things like that. Don’t fall into the trap of running each room one after the other because I can guarantee if you do that – run the text strictly as written and don’t bring any creativity to it – you’re going to be bored because that’s not Dungeon Mastering. That’s just “I’m moderating a game” – I may as well be playing a video game.”

That last line rings so true with what Dungeon Mastering is all about. As the Dungeon Master, you don’t moderate the game. You bring it to life. You give the monsters, NPCs and areas life. You are what brings those things to the characters not as static events or individuals. You are what brings those things to life in a way that affects the PCs and their goals.

I love video games. I’ve been playing them since the Atari 2600 first hit the shelves and I’ve dumped enough quarters into arcade machines to finance a second home and a spare car. Having said that, video games have their place in storytelling. They do this by describing the characters, places and monsters you meet in ways that look, sound and feel (via that wonderful Rumble feature) like things you can identify with and remember. Before playing the new Mass Effect game, you had no idea what the characters and their stories would be like but once you started playing how they were introduced, how they spoke, acted and reacted began to give you memories of who or what they are. Take that concept and apply it improvisationally as you run your games. Change encounters as you play. Don’t make NPCs static or follow a specified course of action if you feel its not a good scenario for the game at hand. Don’t be afraid to change things, as these NPCs, monsters and areas are your tools to use as you see fit.

I’m currently running a group through the Sunless Citadel. This isn’t my first time running the adventure but this time through is radically different from my previous games. I’ve created 3 factions for the players (goblins, kobolds and the evil druid) and soon they’re going to have to make a decision which one or ones they are most loyal to. The others will then either become their enemy or pay fealty to the party if they feel the party is more powerful than they are. None of this is in the published adventure as I made it up on the fly as a reaction to the party wanting to just rush onwards through the dungeon. I saw that they needed a reason to fight and explore. By the time we’re done, I have no idea which faction they’ll choose but its going to be fun seeing them have to give up the other two.

Gygax said it best when he said the secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules. This is the key to having fun both as a Dungeon Master as well as for a successful Dungeons & Dragons game – as the DM you let the dungeon & monsters be your tools to having fun with the game and the group, and in no way are you limited to what the rules say, what the adventure text says, or what other people think you should do with your game. You aren’t a moderator of text – You are the Dungeon Master!

Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures – Initial Impressions

Today I stopped by my Friendly Local Game Store and picked up 3 blister packs of the new unpainted miniatures for Dungeons & Dragons from Wiz Kids. Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures are a brand new line of iconic monsters and heroes from Dungeons & Dragons lore. The name of the miniature line comes from the magic item “Nolzur’s Marvelous Pigments”. I picked up 3 packs:

Kobolds – Each had different weapons, with 1 wielding a shortsword, another with a bow and the third carrying some sort of 2 handed spear or polearm.

Gnolls. Both were wielding 2 handed axes:

and Mind Flayers, 1 of which was holding a staff:

All 3 blisters retailed for $3.99 and included bases for each miniature.

I am very impressed with all 3 releases. One of the nice features for these miniatures was that the entire line is pre-primed with Vallejo primer:

The size of the miniatures is surprising considering the amount of detail on the sculpts. I have yet to see this level of detail in an unpainted plastic miniature.

U.S. Penny included for size comparison. The bases that came with the Kobolds are the smaller size whereas the Gnolls and Mind Flayers had the larger bases included.

Each blister comes with bases that are of great quality but a bit thin in comparison to most standard bases. The bases are solid and lack the usual lip that most plastic bases have. I have yet to paint or glue any of these miniatures to the bases but I think this is going to be a “good thing” in that their thickness and solid construction will give the miniature less chance to fall over, a common problem with plastic miniatures on the slotta bases that are not completely solid in construction.

The only con I could find with the miniatures was that they did still have mold lines on them. This is standard fare for all cast miniatures but do remember to reapply primer to any areas that you remove mold lines from.

You can see the mold lines on the Gnoll’s right arm and the head of its axe.

I’ll post more pictures once I paint a few of these but for now I am very impressed and look forward to using these miniatures in one of my games soon!

D&D Beyond – Initial Thoughts

Wizards of the Coast and Curse gaming recently announced their new project, D&D Beyond.

From the official page:

“We are excited to announce development of D&D Beyond, an official digital toolset for use with the Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition rules. We have partnered with Curse to take D&D players beyond pen and paper, providing a rules compendium, character builder, digital character sheets, and more—all populated with official D&D content. D&D Beyond aims to make game management easier for both players and Dungeon Masters by providing high-quality tools available on any device, empowering beginners and veterans alike!

Today was the first day of the open beta and so far the basic rules compendium rules material is available for use. I’ve played with it for a few minutes now and here’s my initial thoughts:

  1. The search function is very good. Very, very good in fact. Wildcards aren’t necessary as the search function returns any results containing your search parameter. As shown in the screenshot, when I searched for “Goblin”, it returned both “Goblin” and “Hobgoblin”. That was really nice as I often forget to use wildcards when searching and that can lead to me missing related information.
  2. Sorting works extremely well for search results.
  3. Filters are great for when you need a monster for a particular challenge rating, size or environment. I was able to quickly make a list of Arctic monsters then sort them by challenge rating. This will be extremely helpful for when you need to make an encounter quickly.
  4. Item results being color coded based on rarity is a direct port from World of Warcraft and a fantastic move! I’m an ex-WoW player so I admit bias here but it was nice to quickly see how rare an item is when I was searching for random items.
  5. The Compendium is excellent but sorely lacking a search feature.

That’s all for now. More as I use the program over the coming weeks. Overall this looks to be a fantastic tool for players and DMs alike. If the mobile apps work as well as the web version, this is going to be an incredible resource for the game!

Appendix N

The original Dungeon Master’s Guide had numerous appendices but perhaps the most well known is the legendary Appendix N. Gary Gygax was a voracious reader, his father having filled his childhood with numerous stories and tales told to him & his siblings. Gary felt that this was one of the strongest sources of inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons, so when writing the Dungeon Masters Guide he included a list of authors who helped build his love of fantasy and science fiction.

I believe it is important for every DM to have his/her own list of books that inspire them and help them in their work as masters of the game. Here’s my own version of that list. Some of these are directly related to running the game while others are just good stories that fill me with ideas.

Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin Laws

Role-Playing Mastery by Gary Gygax

Master of the Game by Gary Gygax

Dungeon Masters Guide from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 from Dungeons & Dragons 4rth Edition

The Elric Series by Michael Moorcock

The Conan the Barbarian series by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter

The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski.

What books are on your Appendix N? Share your list in the comments.


Delta Green

My campaign launches this weekend. My players are already missing key points on things they’re seeing.  Ok, I’ll be nice and say maybe they’re just not talking about them but I’m more leaning towards the latter.  This is a great thing, as Delta Green often bombards players with information and they have a short period of time to sort out what’s real, what’s not real and what will help them keep alive.

It should be a lot of fun. Delta Green is my #1 favorite RPG of all time and this will be the first time I’ve run something longer than 1 shot. The new version of the game has a lot of really awesome mechanics for representing the players and their struggle to stay sane while combating cosmic horrors. Bonds are a particular area I’m excited about that. More on those later. For now, its all about the buildup to the first session.

I’m using all manner of tools to make this game go far past the table. From social networks to real life locations and people, the players are going to see and experience a whole different kind of roleplaying game.

So far, the players are going to be connected and receiving information that’s relative to the game in these mediums:




-?? via phone number (Yet to be revealed but they had to provide me a phone number)

-?? via email (Yet to be revealed but they had to provide me an email address)

I have a full schedule of fun things planned for the players for this whole week. We’re only on day 2 and things are just now starting to ramp up. Tomorrow is going to have twice as much as today did. (That’s my tease for any of my players who might be reading this).

Do you mind if I do this thing?

One of the most common questions I get asked when I’m running games at my local gaming store is “Do you mind if I do ________?” I like it when players ask this question as it shows me they are thinking of things they want to try. That part I am 100% supportive of and encourage people to keep doing.

The part I’m not supportive of is the asking of my permission.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game. Its something people play for fun. I’ve been playing this game for a long time and I’ve seen people experience all manner of emotions over it. Laughing, crying, happy, sad, scared, anxious, worried and even depressed – no emotion is safe from Dungeons & Dragons touch.

I’m sure Jack Chick had lots of emotions about Dungeons & Dragons

A big part of playing in a game is investment. Buy-in. Active participation. Whatever you want to call it, games need players to be involved else they stop being games and either end or become expositions for the other players.

When a player asks me, “Do you mind if I do ________?”, my response is usually something along the lines of “This is your game. Your character. Not mine.” I don’t want to kill that spark of imagination when a player dreams of something they want their character to do. A huge part of roleplaying is being someone or something you’re not. Most of the time that persona is something you could never be in your own life so you tend to do things that you would never do when you’re not at the table. So once that process of breaking down psychological barriers begins and a player dreams of something they want to do, then #1 easiest way to hinder or kill that urge is to tell them, “No the rules won’t let you”.

This isn’t a picture of Dungeon Master telling Hank and Shelia what they can’t do.

Granted, this doesn’t mean players can do whatever they want however they want it. You start by not telling them “No” and then help them find how the rules of the game can be used to fit the mental picture they have of what they want their character to do. This, to me, is one of the most fundamental parts of being a Dungeon Master. I never have liked the term “referee” when referring to Dungeon Masters/Game Masters of any game system. I don’t feel its the Dungeon Master’s job to watch the game and make sure the rules are being enforced “correctly” but I see the job as more of an interpreter for the rules. The players know what they want to say – you just help them say it in the language of the game.

As a DM, I feel we need to encourage players’ imaginations. We are all in the game together so (with due apologies to families who do play together) we’re not in a parental/child role when it comes to the Dungeon Master/Player interactions. We’re a team of equals who work together to find a solutions on how to bring imaginations into the game and have fun together.

Recent articles worth your time

DuIn keeping with the original intent of the site (helping new DMs) as well as the upcoming workshop I’m helping run, here are two recent articles that I feel are essential reading for DMs new and old alike.

Mike Shea, better known as Sly Flourish to the Dungeons & Dragons blogosphere, wrote a fantastic article recently about the importance of “Make” versus “Let”. Mike consistently puts out quality articles but in my opinion this one stood out for Dungeon Masters. Knowing when to push or pull the dynamics of a game and/or game group is one of the most useful skills a Dungeon Master can have and Mike gives some great suggestions on both when to push and when to pull.

DM David recently updated one of my favorite articles from his website, his photo guide to Dungeon Master tools.  He originally wrote this back in the days of 4rth edition Dungeons & Dragons and I have referenced it many times for my own DM’s repertoire of tools. Not much to say about this other than once again I feel he has published the definitive list of what tools a Dungeon Master should use.



Today in Gaming Feb 12 2017

Kinda of a busy weekend and I broke my streak of 1 post a day for the first week of my site but the best part about this is that there’s nothing wrong with that! So here’s things that are occupying my brain right now.

My friend Michael and I are running a workshop at the local library for helping Dungeon Masters improve their skills. If you’re in the central Arkansas area, come join us.

Wizards has a new board game launching this week – Assault of the Giants. 2 versions, 1 with unpainted miniatures and 1 without. Tribality has a great article here about the game. Looks to be fun.

After some personal issues over the weekend that prevented me from writing, I am hoping to finally begin my local Delta Green game this week. Its been a long road coming but I’m running a game set in the town I live in. A group of friends are super excited about the game so expectations are high. I hope to not let them down.

What’s going in your gaming world right now?

Moving Force

Last night was the night for me to run a public game at the local game store. I do this every week as a way to both help the store grow the local Dungeons & Dragons community as well as provide a game for players who otherwise wouldn’t have a group to play with.

A big part of being a Dungeon Master for a public group like this is being able to manage multiple players with different personalities that I know very little about until they’ve played in the game a few times. It is often a challenge to find out what player personality types are in the game in such a small window and then find out what invests them in the game or what takes their interest out of it.

In managing these groups, dominant personalities often emerge. This is particularly prevalent when the game is going “well” and people are having fun. When the game is lively, players will be eager to shout out what they’re doing as soon as its their turn. Often they’ll roll for the check they want to make before you can say a single word.

In last night’s game, the 10 players involved were having a lot of fun. Much laughter was had, a great story was being told and people were generally in very high spirits. There were multiple moments when I told a player it was their turn that they quickly shouted out everything they planned to do and immediately began rolling dice.

I can attest to you that games like this are when your Dungeon Mastering skills are going to really be put to the test.

In Gary Gygax’s book, “Master of the Game”, Game Masters (aka Dungeon Masters) have seven principal functions which are intrinsically connected to the game. The first of these is that GMs/DMs is “Moving Force”. Gygax defines this as the ability to muster players and inspire continued vitality. On the surface, that sounds like the Dungeon Master has to keep the game moving. However, motion is directly related to speed and Dungeon Masters also have to make sure that players aren’t moving so fast that they shirk the game rules, the spirit of the game or both.

Back to the player who has already planned out their turn before they take it. Don’t be afraid to tell players that the most important part of their turn isn’t deciding which skill they should use for the check. Human nature to succeed is going to push them towards the skills they have the best modifiers for.

Its more important to know what they want to do rather than what skill check they should make to do it. Remind them that as the Dungeon Master you will help them decide which skill is best suited for what they want to do but first and foremost talk about what they want to do. Talk with them about their actions without using game terms such as character stats, skill checks or modifiers. Only after all of that is clear should you bring in the game mechanics of how that will be accomplished, what checks are necessary, what dice need to be rolled and so on.

So how does the Dungeon Master do this? The rules exist to complement the story so let the story come first. Its going to be difficult with some players, as player personality archetypes will greatly affect how you communicate with the player. Some players have to be told directly not to roll for the skill check first. Others need a more indirect approach first where you put the emphasis on telling them what to do (i.e., say what they want to do first) instead of telling them what not to do (roll a skill check first). You as Dungeon Master will have to find which approach works best and use it to gently point them in the direction of keeping the story moving forward.

Last night I had quite a few moments where players were tossing dice in their hand as soon as their turns began, ready to roll them to see if they succeeded on the skill check they were about to take. I tried to always ask them to first tell me what they were doing without using game terms by saying things such as, “So how are you going to do that?” and “But tell me exactly what you’re (looking for/paying attention to/investigating) after they announced what check they wanted to make. The reason this was so important was that we were establishing story first before we saw the results of the dice roll. A critical failure can quickly crush the plans a player has made if the dice roll is the end all be all of the moment. As discussed in my previous article on critical misses, even failures can be turned into narrative opportunities.

The job of the Dungeon Master is to keep the moving force of the game going in a direction that creates a good story and provides fun for all by establishing the story first then using the rules as a complement to that same story. As Dungeon Master, make sure you are the force moving your games in the direction that maximize both good story and good fun.

What can Dragonball Z teach a Dungeon Master?

Dragonball Z. Just the mention of that television series brings forth emotions from people Some good, some bad, some indifferent, and some who still don’t understand it.

A popular anime series in Japan in the early 90s, Dragonball Z gained a tremendous amount of attention when American audiences were first introduced to it in 1996. The series had just ended in Japan but Funimation hired Vancouver, Canada based Ocean studios to dub the first two seasons into English. This ran until 1998 when funding ran out for the dub. Reruns on Cartoon Network’s Toonami afternoon programming series increased its exposure and Funimation began dubbing the rest of the series as a result of that. They finished the dubbing of the series on their own and it ran until 2008.

Enough history. What does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?

Humans love to analyze things. We want to figure out “why” and “how”. Dragonball Z’s popularity is not immune to this. People have long discussed, debated and argued over why the series was so popular. Some say it fed into our inner child. Boys in particular loved the violence in the series but there were also many girls who loved it just as much. Its appeal spanned across gender, race, social status and age. People even wrote books about the culture behind the series.

So what can a Dungeon Master learn from this series? First, go watch it. Ok well maybe not all of it. Read the synopsis of the series if you don’t want to watch the hundreds of episodes. (I certainly wouldn’t). Then, pay attention to some of the common themes:

  1. Good versus evil is a constant struggle.
  2. Good often wins but at a price
  3. The price for victory can mean death, even for the most beloved characters
  4. Idealism is a constant. Never give up, you can always train more and you can always improve yourself. This idealsim is often what overcomes #1-#3.

Back to Dungeons & Dragons. One of my previous articles about Critical Misses encouraged Dungeon Masters to take failures and turn them into narrative events. Dragonball Z executes this beautifully. No, it isn’t always realistic and quite often its fantastic in that if we were beat to a pulp we wouldn’t want to go fight again as fast as Goku does. However, that’s kinda the point of a hero like the characters in Dungeons & Dragons games. They will face dark times, they’ll make mistakes and they’ll roll critical misses. Bring in that idealism when the players need it most and remind them that this is a heroic story. They are the ones who bards will write songs about for years to come. They are the ones who are going to save the townspeople even if they can’t hit a goblin to save their life. Encourage them to never give up, to persevere no matter the odds and find those moments of Inspiration (pun intended – be generous with awarding inspiration to those who show Dragonball Z-like zeal) that will help the party make it through those dark hours of constantly rolling “1”s and failing Perception checks.