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!

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.


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.



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.