Dungeons and Dragons


Welcome to what I hope will be a rather large-ish category in my blog! I’ve DMed off and on since the late 80s now, and while I’ve always (and probably always will) play a bit more than I get behind the ol’ Dungeonmasters’ Screen, I do enjoy DMing when I get the chance.

Thing is, I think that most – perhaps even the majority of DMs – have got their thinking set up a little bit wrong. If you’re a player, I am sure you know this type: the DM who spends literally dozens of hours handcrafting their gameworld, making each little town shine, spending time even coming up with the individual pubs in each town, their menus, what the local patrons think of them, etc. Closely related is the DM who comes up with an ultra-cool plotline with more twists and turns and dives and ramps than any six roller coasters, complete with all kinds of subplots and other cool stuff. Or perhaps your DM comes up with intricate puzzles or rooms laid out in such a way that you can only hope to defeat the monsters that inhabit it by solving the riddle of the room itself. Or… well, I’ve already discussed these types at length in an earlier blog entry so I won’t bore you any further here.

Each of those DM types have their good points and drawbacks and chances are, if you’ve played under enough dungeon masters, you’ve not only seen all the types but have had a good time with each. I don’t think that the natural style of a DM is what’s at fault here. Instead, I think that it’s the preparation itself, no matter what the preparation is about, that makes so many DMs less than what they could be.

This kobold has been cunningly placed to distract you from boring old definitions. Rarr rarr!

My initial idea was to call this blog within a blog The Lazy DM, which sounded semi-familiar to me in the way that a good title often does. However, further research revealed that it sounded semi-familiar because there’s already another blog by that name and a couple of cybersquatters sitting on what could become a couple more. That being said, I think “indolent” actually fits this better. Here’s the definition of the word, according to Merriam-Webster.com:

1 a : causing little or no pain b : slow to develop or heal <indolent tumors> <indolent ulcers>
2 a : averse to activity, effort, or movement : habitually lazy b : conducive to or encouraging laziness <indolent heat> c : exhibiting indolence <an indolent sigh>

Disclosure time: I have a degree in English and the love of language that comes with it. The important bit that I want to emphasize is definition 2a. Indolence isn’t *exactly* laziness, it’s being averse to do anything. That’s pretty much what I am going after: DMing without doing anything. Of course, you can’t get away with *no* preparation; even if you’re really good at improvisation, the lack of prep will show. But doing significantly *less* prep than what is commonly considered proper, that’s what I’m going after. Also, definition 1A, while it’s not the one we’re specifically going after, still sits in there in a symbolic sense: indolent DMing ought to be painless, not just for the DM but for the players.

Here are the reasons why I think overprep can become a problem:

It tends to lock a DM into a particular way of thinking about a plot point or a problem or… whatever it is the DM took so much time on. Look. It’s only natural to think this way. You take 12 hours devising this aWesome maze with traps around every other corner and a great monster in the middle, and what do your players do to it? They burn it to the ground and walk in to take the (melted) gold. A lot of DMs would say “no, you can’t do that”, which is perhaps the last phrase a DM ought ever utter. Even if you do allow it, a little piece of you dies inside and part of you can’t help but blame it on those insolent (note: not the same as indolent), creative, diabolical players. The same applies to adventures with big old hooks the party cheerfully ignores, rich ducal histories the parties don’t care a whit about, and so on.

It discourages improvisation. Closely related to the point above, I suspect many DMs overprepare precisely *because* of this reason. Improvisation can be a very scary thing, especially if you’ve never done it before. It can feel like you’re talking out of your rear end for hours at a time, and that’s because you *are* talking out of your rear end for hours at a time. The thing is, improvisation is a skill that you can really only get better at through practice. And you may as well start practicing it from your first DM session because there *will* come a time where you’ll need to use those skills you built up.

Not amused.

It also discourages the group dynamic. I know that it’s a lot of fun to come up with a world of your own, populated with a bunch of people you’ve created, and so on. In addition to the DMing I’ve also written a novel that, frankly, will probably not get published any time soon because it’s a bit on the silly side. William Howard Taft is a villain and he throws explosive soaps at people. Right. Too silly. The point is that I took quite a bit of time to do that because I *do* understand the awesome feeling that goes with creation. Dungeons and Dragons or any other RPG for that matter is not a novel. At its essence its a collaborative story told, yes, by the DM but also by the other players. Even if the players contribute a normal amount, if you spend a massive amount of time in preparation, their contribution will by definition be less than that of a DM who is indolent.

(In fact, I have ways of making players contribute *more* than their classical fair share; I’ll talk about that in an upcoming blogisode.)

It promotes an inequitable relationship at the gaming table. The DM, because he is sort of the storyteller (other game systems call him just that), is going to put in more work on a particular gaming session than any of his players. That’s just the way the system works. As mentioned, much of the prep-work is fun in and of itself so it’s not really thought of as a chore. The problem is, especially in groups where the DM is the guy who is most willing to spend the time and/or money to make the gaming group run, that that relationship between the DM and the player gets rather one-sided. This can create a lot of bad feelings: from the DM’s side, it’s easy to think that the players don’t appreciate all the work you put in to making things work, and from the players’ standpoint it can get very frustrating when the DM seems to be doing more than his (already significant) duties as referee, controller of NPCs, adversary in combat, etc. I’ve even seen attempts by dungeon masters to get paid for what they do!

In the series to come, I will discuss tips, tricks, and strategies I’ve learned about/seen/handled over the years. I don’t pretend to be an expert, just a proponent of a particular style of play. I hope to be able to pass on a bit of my learning and learn a lot in return.

4th Edition has a lot of good little bits in it, not the least of which is its depiction of many of the more popular player types that you will deal with over the course of a campaign. It’s by no means all-inclusive and most players are a combination of types but it’s a good start. The human mind is really good at recognizing patterns, so even if you read through the player type list and say “okay, whatever. Bob is not a Slayer or a Powergamer but he’s even less of an Actor”, that’s a good start. The point of them is not really to label your players so much anyway as it is to get you thinking about what sorts of things you can do to make them have the most fun in a gaming session.

That being said, it could be useful for you as the DM to think about what kind of gamer *you* are. Player types don’t quite translate into DM types in part because the DM wears so many hats over the course of a session and a campaign. That being said, here are some types that might get you started:

The Reluctant Dungeonmaster. No, this isn’t the person who doesn’t even want to play Dungeons and Dragons but gets sucked into it by his buddies. Really, if you’ve gone out and bought a couple of the core rulebooks and actually want to *be* a DM, that’s several steps beyond that point. This is a DM type who really prefers to play (especially with all the wonderful options in 4E) but who got hounded into DMing because nobody else wanted to and he knew the rules better than anybody else.

Don’t fret! Being a DM is much, much different from being a player, I will admit, but it need not live up to all the stereotypes. First up, you don’t necessarily need to spend several days planning each adventure (more on that in an upcoming series of posts… if I get around to it, wink wink). Second, if you remember what it’s like to be a player, that IMO is a significant advantage you have over the guy who’s done nothing but DM for the last 25 years, because you know first hand what’s boring for a player and what’s fun.

No, Mister Adventurer. I expect you to die.

The Adversary. You frankly forgot that Dungeons and Dragons is not like Monopoly and you play the game as though you are on one side and the players are on the other. There is nothing technically wrong with this way of DMing; this was really how the game got started, after all. However, times have changed and a lot of people who want to play RPGs aren’t looking for a battle of wits so much as they are looking for a chance to help create a cool story involving a pretend person they created. You probably want to let any prospective players know what they’re getting into before they play a session with you. Ironically, though, it’s this class of DM that never does this because they are also the variety that does not understand that the game itself and the genre of the RPG in general have moved on from the late 1970s.

The Battle Tactician. You focus every game around encounters, and you love throwing in new things to torment the players. You aren’t really the Adversary in that winning isn’t necessarily your primary goal, although the Adversary mixes “well” with the Battle Tactician. You encourage your players to powergame because if they don’t maximize their combat effectiveness they will fall behind your planning skills and eventually start losing a lot. You tend to be very strict about the mechanics; dice-fudging to save a character’s or a party’s skin is generally but not always seen as a mortal sin.

Again, this is a perfectly okay way to run things so long as your party knows about it first. This gaming style is primarily built for Slayers and Powergamers, but Thinkers can also find a niche in trying to outthink you in the chess game that sits behind the mechanics of 4E. Actors and Storytellers are not going to have a lot of fun in your game. Instigators are likely to get frustrated as well; your combat tactics don’t necessarily encourage thinking outside of the box, and since you’re wedded to the mechanics you’re not likely to have a “Rule of Cool” that encourages people to swing from chandeliers and so on.

The White Wolf Guy. This is the DM type who probably started going in the 90s, back when Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension, Werewolf: The Furry Pervert and so on were really popular. Roleplaying is king to this type. Some DMs of this variety like to have you roll for everything and then roleplay your success or failure. Others toss away the dice whenever they can and let the flow of the game dictate whether the party learns the information that they need or what have you. In combat, you’re as concerned with your monsters being memorable foes as putting together a halfway decent assault or defense or whatever it is they’re supposed to do. You’re probably the most likely of all DM types to include the dreaded DMPC in a campaign.

As you might expect, the Actor loves this DM type most of all. Storytellers and Explorers are down with him as well, particularly if they get to contribute to some of the scenery the Actor is busy chewing on. Powergamers might get bored at battle encounters that don’t really push them due to the need for your monsters to engage in less than ideal combat behavior. Paradoxically, Slayers will probably like this just fine, although it might be tough to keep them and the Instigator from jumping the gun on combat after your Actor just spent the last half hour bartering with your NPC alchemist.

The Novelist. You’ve planned out this intricate gameworld and wonderful plot, complete with subplots. It spent you literally MONTHS to put this bad boy together and now you’re going to use Dungeons and Dragons to show off to your friends how awesome you your world is. You understand the mechanics of the game pretty well but aren’t afraid to fudge the dice or bring in a deus ex machina to win a battle you needed the party to win to keep the plot going. When anybody deviates from the script one iota, your heart races and the walls seem to close in on you.

The Storyteller is the most likely person to appreciate this game. The Powergamer and the Slayer will probably be okay with it as well as long as there’s enough combat; just don’t expect them to ooh and ahh over all the time and care that you took. The Thinker, strange as it may sound, is likely to not like this way at all; they want to figure out how to make a quest as easy as possible and when you’ve designed it so that there’s no way through things but to fight a couple warm-up encounters followed by the Big Bad Evil Guy, his thinking will be stifled. The same goes with the Instigator; in fact, you and he will probably get fed up with each other before the campaign is done.

Is this your ideal DnD campaign?

The Puzzle-Master. Your favorite games when you are not playing Dungeons and Dragons are found in Games Magazine. You delight in setting up elaborate mazes, traps that require players to solve them logically rather than make a Thievery check, runes that you borrowed from Myst, and so on. Sometimes combat can turn into a puzzle like this thanks to the use of terrain and so on. You have a tendency, in fact, to punish a party that can’t figure out your puzzles with the dreaded TPK, followed by a party debriefing that includes the phrase “it was OBVIOUS” five or six times.

The Thinker – wow, whodathunkit! – lives for these kinds of games, so long as he didn’t just buy the issue of Games Magazine you are stealing this week’s puzzle from. The Instigator might help or hurt depending on how flexible you are and on what levers, panels, etc. he decides to trip in order to make things happen. The Slayer is liable to just get frustrated if you have too many combat-related puzzles; after all, he’s there to kill stuff, not play the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. The Actor’s not going to find a lot of chances to act and so might get frustrated, but not nearly as much as the Storyteller and the Explorer, the former because he’s less interested in how to solve the puzzle as why the puzzle is there and the latter because your elaborate puzzles are usually predicated upon the party going to specific, pre-determined places.

The Buddy. The opposite of the Adversary, your game style is to always let the players win, get the coolest stuff, and constantly feel the warm glow of satisfaction. There’s only one problem with this: after a while the lack of real risk gets boring. Although your players are not likely to ever tell you that the game’s too easy (maybe more experienced ones will), they’ll still feel it and you’ll eventually feel it when they find other things to do on Sunday afternoon or whenever it is that you play.

It should be noted that Adversary DM types think that basically everybody who does not play the game on an adversarial basis is this kind of player. That doesn’t make it so. To be honest, the Buddy is a fairly rare kind of DM. But they do exist.

The Jack of All Trades. This is the DM who knows how to mix in a little bit of each type to fit their party’s needs. He gives RPing chances to Actors, chances to explore the world to Explorers, good adventure hooks that eventually compound upon themselves to Storytellers, fun and interesting combat to Powergamers and Slayers, and lots of stuff to break for Instigators. He’ll even try his best to bring the Watcher into play, as he realizes that sometimes the Watcher is just another player type waiting to be enthused by DnD. Above and beyond all, he’s willing to tailor his game to the party: if he built an elaborate plot but the party insists game after game that it wants to just find the closest goblin lair and sack it, he’ll eventually turn it into more of a sword and sorcery kind of thing or at least find different ways to hook the party back into his plot structure.

It’s probably pretty obvious that I think the last DM type is the ideal one. The difference between him and all of the other types isn’t natural skill or interpersonal skills or anything else so much as it is the ability to be introspective. Too many DMs do not make an attempt to see their game from beyond their own eyes. Coming in with a “my way or the highway” attitude seems to be standard operating procedure for many DMs. Even the Buddy generally sees himself as inadequate to the task and piles on the treasure in a misguided attempt to get the rest of the group to like him. A DM has to get past that insecurity that either makes him feel as though he’s not good enough or that twists that line of thinking around so that he refuses help or feedback lest someone tells him he’s inadequate. Like anything worth doing well, DMing is something that’s worth doing poorly for a while. And just like anything else, the way you get better at it is not just to repeat the badness over and over again but to see where your strengths and weaknesses are and work on them all.

It’s the post you have been waiting for! Or fearing. Or saying “meh” about. Or laughing at in an embarrassed manner. Well, let me tell you something, you who find Dungeons and Dragons hopelessly nerdy. It… is. But lots and lots of other things are as well. Hey, World of Warcraft player who “grinds” for 20 hours a week: do you *really* think your pastime is less nerdy than me hanging out with a bunch of my friends for 6 hours every other week? At least I have 5 guys pretending to slay the dragon with me (no, that last sentence does not help). For that matter, is there *really* a large difference between this and, say, poker night or being a “fan” of a sports franchise that has absolutely nothing in common with you save the fact that they play home games in a city near you and occasionally allow you to buy tickets to see them?

THE ANSWER IS NO. BE QUIET.

Moving on… I assume you have the DM’s guide, the Player’s Handbook, and the Monster Manual, since these are required to play the game. You also need dice, of course, and your mother’s basement. You can rent it out during the week to baseball statheads.

Monster Manual 2. I will give you Reason #1 why you need to buy the Monster Manual 2: the rust monster. Yes, for some reason this beast was left out of #1. It’s at once perhaps the stupidest monster idea and the greatest ever. Basically, when you encounter one, it is the DM telling you that you have too much cool stuff and he needs to balance the game, with feet. Now they have a new iteration of the rust monster called the dweomer stealer, which… steals dweomers. WTF is a dweomer? Anyway, it eats magic items the way the rust monster eats plate mail armor. I always find these things to be f’ing hilarious: they flat out suck but the fighter in your party who will charge at an adult red dragon will run from one of these things like a little beeyotch.

Featured on the cover, the Demogorgon. Yeah, it’s a two-headed baboon orangutan with tentacles for arms. Say that five times and you will become as autistic as Jenny McCarthy’s child.

Not featured, and by “not featured” I mean “they damn well better be in MM3”: blink dogs.

Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. I am really high on this guide, which could have been a really useless piece of crap… or could have been useful by having stuff in it that should have been in the original DMG. Instead, it’s a great supplement. It’s not as heavy on paragon-level attributes as it advertises, but that’s really fine with me – I think the other books that are out there do a good job of that, particularly if you choose to play in one of DnD’s pre-created gameworlds (more on one of them in a bit).

What the DMG II adds more than anything else is a really, really nice blueprint for adding some heavy RPG elements to your game. DnD has long been the last bastion of fantasy tactical wargaming before you dip over the edge and into Warhammer. It’s decidedly to the RP side of that but at the same time it’s built nowhere near, say, a White Wolf game of Fantasy Monster: The Adjective. 4E is deceptive in this regard: mechanically, it’s a lot more complicated for some classes and only a little bit less for others. Also, virtually all the powers, skills, abilities, magic items, and so on are designed to have some sort of direct application in combat.

The deceptive bit is that this “mechanics are everything” dynamic actually makes it *easier* to roleplay a character of your choice. First of all, there are lots and lots of decisions to make at every level for every character. No longer is your character development limited to a feat every other level, a few spells, and maybe a STR gain at 6th and 11th. Now, every time you gain a level, you literally add a new wrinkle to what your character does on the battlefield.

But that’s not all or anywhere near close to all. By moving all those BS skills like Cooking or Singing off the character sheet, you actually free your players to come up with their own backgrounds to a much greater extent. Was the character a master pastry chef (note: ridiculous example used for effect) before embarking on a life as a bard? Well, you just note it in the background and roleplay it. In 3rd, you had to spend skill points on Cooking: Pastry, skill points that would not be spent on things like Spot Hidden or Appraise and which would therefore make your character less aWesome than a guy who concentrated on nothing but combat.

The DMG2 expands on this by giving the intermediate GM a set of questions he can ask of all new characters as they’re being created. This allows the players to create a fairly complicated backstory without having to do a bunch of homework and in turn allows the DM to get something that he and the rest of the party can work with to generate a campaign around. This was, of course, possible before but it’s nice to see a game company codify things. Additionally, it provides a means of literally allowing the entire party to help provide flavor, more input in the world than “I choose to fight the goblins”, and to stay in the game when the plot calls for the party to split up or for some backstory or a major decision to be explored via a dream sequence.

Open Grave. I am not the biggest fan of zombie horror movies, or really horror movies in general. I guess that as far as horror movies go, I like zombie movies more than most other horror sub-genres. That being said, I *love* Shaun of the Dead and the video game Left For Dead and, let’s face it, what would be cooler than moving that meme into a fantasy roleplaying session (note: if you are not a DnD player I forbid you to answer this question)? Again, you could always do it without an official supplement, but Wizards of the Coast make it much, much easier with this bad boy.

Also, there are several mini-adventures in here – always helpful if you, like me, prefer pulling a campaign out of their own rear end rather than meticulously plan out every single dungeon yourself  – and lots and lots of new undead monsters, including several different kinds of brains in assorted jars, disembodied hands if you want to go with an Addams Family theme, and lots more kinds of zombies and ghouls and so on (MM1 and MM2 have plenty of “normal” undead, so the baddies in here tend to be a little creative). On top of that, there are all the elements to play a 28 Days Later style campaign with zombie-ism caused by infection, undead that sprint after you, and so on.

Dungeon Delve. This supplement actually serves several purposes. For me, it is a wonderful piece of insta-encounter that allows me to cover for when the party I am DMing does something that I did not anticipate in a big way. Boom! “You see an abandoned keep”. That buys me 2 or 3 hours, including some extra RPing I like to throw in, and might just allow me to buy enough time to close the session and spend the next week or two figuring out what to do with the PC choices.

It also helps with more or less the exact opposite situation: if you don’t really want to DM but just want to send a party on a quick, level-appropriate one-shot before the regular DM gets back from vacation or perhaps just to test out how some character designs will work in combat, this Delve‘s for you. You could theoretically take a party all the way from level 1 to 30 just by playing through this book. You’d have to fudge the XP a little bit and maybe hand out a few more magic items, but it could be done.

The third and perhaps most important thing that Delve does is plot out a whole bunch of sample encounters: 3 per level for a total of 90 in the book. You can read through this and get a great idea as to how to both set up an individual encounter that’s fun and challenging and also put together an entire day’s worth of matches. The dynamics of the encounter have changed a great deal from earlier versions. This book helps you to understand just *how* they’ve changed.

Eberron: The Campaign Guide and The Player’s Guide. Okay, I cheated on the last one because it’s two books. Since you really need both to run this gameworld, I still stand by it.

First, buying a pre-generated gameworld just plain saves time. There’s still a lot to learn about Eberron and you’d (eventually) do well to go out and buy all the 3.5 material that’s available for this world, but reading a couple hundred pages with pretty pictures and fancy graphs takes a whole heck of a lot less time than making everything up on your own. I know, I know, a lot of DMs do what they do precisely because they *get* to make up their own world, but here’s the thing: that’s really not your job as Dungeon Master. Your job as DM is to facilitate a good time through everyone involved. If that means having your party explore a detailed world because they’re all Storytellers, so be it. If that means getting into lots of combat because they’re all Slayers… well, that’s a perfectly legitmate reason to play as well. If you want to bring those Slayers out of their slaying shells and, you know, roleplay more and get into the milieu, the way to do it is not by forcing them to digest lots of world-related crap but to draw them in session by session.

Having a pre-genned world actually helps with this in that it allows you to take a step back and work more on the game-facilitation aspects of things. I know first-hand how tempting it is to just make your party play the game your way: after all, you’re the one who spent dozens of hours making that world and designing all those maps and creating all those world leaders, and now a bunch of jackoffs who couldn’t even create their own characters ahead of time want to sidestep your main plotline and just go break into houses??? ARGH. Anyway, the players aren’t hijacking things because they hate you, they’re trying to play the game their way. Using somebody else’s game world helps you to see that.

So… why Eberron and not Forgotten Realms? FR has pretty much become the generic gameworld DnD is based upon. That’s all well and good, and I guess if you are bringing older players back into the game, introducing Baldur’s Gate and Elminster and so on can help get them into it, but Eberron is just plain *different*. It’s a lot more Star Wars than the “points of light” system DnD calls its base. You’ve got individuals rather than races embracing good and evil, far-flung lands to explore, creative applications of magic that look a lot like technology (see: sending stones and the lightning rail), and lots of competing factions that can put together a really The Third Man kind of feel if you allow it to. There’s a good deal of Indiana Jones in this gameworld as well, not to mention The Maltese Falcon if you can think that way about an RPG. In its own way, it takes players just a little bit out of the genre without blowing up the game mechanics. And that, to me, is cool.