Weird and Stubborn: A Tale of Omnipotence

My trip to DDXP last month did a lot for me, not the least of which was to make me hunger for playing D&D like a vampire in a carotid artery factory. (They come pre-filled.) It’s been over 2 years since I had a regular game going, and I was a bit lukewarm (read: had every popular misconception) about 4e. I played under some really good DM’s at DDXP, ones that emphasized the story and had lots of little tricks to make combat go smoothly. At one point, a little voice in my head started whispering “hey, you can do that too”. By the time I got home, it was very insistent. I had to have a talk with it. We’re friends now.

The end result of this, of course, is that I am scheduled to start playing with a brand new group in two days’ time. I’ve played D&D in some form since the late eighties, but almost exclusively as a player. I’ve dipped my feet into the DM pool a few times, though. There were plenty of ridiculous Monty Haul adventures in high school with a friend of mine, in which we rolled up characters and killed all the Greek gods (hooray for Legends and Lore!) As an adult, I’ve run a short games twice before, but they lasted no more than a handful of sessions. Regrettably, things went way off the rails during both and I decided to start letting everybody do whatever they wanted. The results were spectacular, but disappointing. In one campaign, a player polymorphed into a giant gorilla and defeated the main villain by — well, let’s just say it’s illegal in most states, at least when done by humans. (Feel free to contact a lawyer to find out other specifics.)  In the other, I don’t remember exactly how it happened but somebody got the ability to set everything on fire. So they did. I think they won, if you can call it that. I can see in retrospect that I did what I tend to default to when nervous – go completely nonsequitur and hope people laugh. While I succeeded in making the table have a few laughs and what I believe to be a good time, it’s clear to me that this is an untenable strategy for the long haul.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shaking in my boots. I have to come up with a cool plot, make (reasonably) balanced encounters, roleplay multiple characters, draw maps, track initiative, AND try to make sure everybody has fun…. it feels overwhelming right now. There are many bullet points flying through my brain right now. Look!

  • Music
    Is it annoying or worth it? Do I play it during battles or just when I think it might help the mood during roleplay? Am I wasting too much time thinking about the ramifications of music on my campaign? Is Chris Tulach right about the soundtrack to Bram Stoker’s Dracula being amazing for horror campaigns because it’s intensely oppressive? Do I have to worry about my players fainting?

    Regardless, I think this ought to be one of the last things I consider. It’s just one of the easiest to think about.

  • Initiative
    My bane in previous efforts, I always had difficulty keeping track of who went when. I’ve seen several excellent methods of dealing with this recently, not the least of which was the use of colored index cards the DM rotated through. It seemed ecologically unfriendly, but easy to track. My old DM Dante had a little dry-erase board with magnetic pieces he moved around. I’ve seen other DMs do it with just pencil and paper. I have to find a way that suits my way of thinking. It may involve pepperoni. Only time will tell.

  • Bloodthirst
    I’ve seen so many Dungeon Masters over the years curse when one of their monsters failed to hit a player. This always struck me as odd. They’re not trying to win… are they? Will I find myself consumed with finding ways to TPK that don’t seem too suspicious? Will I use secret knowledge about their backstories to blackmail them? What will I buy with all this ill-gotten GP? What will I become? What will I have done?

  • Better DMing Through Technology
    I am happy that I live in the future. Now I can have players create and/or level up characters quickly with the Character Builder instead of waiting forever for the people that forgot to do it the previous week. (Although, since I’m DM now, maybe we won’t have that problem…) I’d tried other automated solutions over the years, like PCGen. I never fully appreciated the complexity of a character builder app until using PCGen. It was like staring into the Abyss. While I have to administer props to those guys for making it work, there are a couple of my players that would self-destruct if they tried to use it. Say what you will about the new web-based CB, it will spit out an Essentials character for you in about 30 seconds flat. For a group of newbs, that’s a good thing.

    I’m also planning to use Obsidian Portal to organize and track all the stuff in our campaign. We used to use a similar service. We called her Stupid Ranger, and while her notes were very complete, they were not available over the Internets. To be honest, I’m not even sure where to begin. OP does a lot of stuff. For now, I’m going to get through our first session and hopefully bribe someone into being the party stenographer in the Adventure Log section. I’ve considered asking Stupid Ranger to listen to our sessions over Skype and then emailing me her notes. She’s very good at notes.

    I’ve considered several ways to harness the power of the Intertrons to make my job easier, like for handling maps, but I’m not convinced at this point that they won’t just get in my way at the table. Not everyone is going to have a laptop, and WotC’s tools are all built with Microsoft products that hate everything but Windows. So much for my dream of every player with a tablet computer and a battle-map. I’ve considered trying to roll my own solution for this, but it is definitely not going to happen in two days. Even with caffeine.

  • Frequency
    We’re trying something I haven’t done before in our group: we play every week, but D&D only happens every other week. The alternate sessions are for board gaming and other leisurely pursuits. We have a few players that either can’t commit to a regular D&D group or just don’t want to play D&D, and this lets them join in.

    I’m also fielding a somewhat unique situation in that my wife is gunshy about playing D&D, but said she might join in on occasion. I’m willing to accommodate this because getting her to love something I do is one of the things I enjoy most in life. I’ve asked her to let me know several days in advance if she plans on playing, and I plan to adjust the encounters accordingly. There are a few obvious problems with this arrangement, not the least of which is I barely know how to set up encounters, much less adjust them. However, I was able to make sense in the story of her coming and going via the party being part of a larger army. My wife’s PC would simply get assigned and recalled (or I would take over if it didn’t make sense to have her disappear). I have every hope that I can make this work. Time may prove me a fool, but that never stopped me before.

  • Expectations
    I think it’s safe to say I’ve reached the “oh my god what am I doing here” phase. I hope it’s not like this every session. I’m trying to gear up for being a DM not so much as a rules-arbiter but more as a fun-causer. Dave the Game talks a lot about saying “yes” to your players whenever possible, and while I don’t want any more gorilla-incidents, that is what I plan to do. I plan to fail. Badly. Then, I plan to get up and try again as many times as it takes. That’s what they’re going to put on my tombstone. “Weird and Stubborn.”

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse as to what was in my brain during its last processor cycle. They say a man thinks about sex once every 10 seconds. Be glad it wasn’t that one.

Though I am nervous, I have a really good group of friends playing and I’m pretty much surrounded by the RPG equivalent of G.I. Joe Headquarters. I’ve got a lot going for me and I am so excited I might warp space-time. My group gets together on Thursday night. Some of them haven’t met, so we’re going to say hello and eat pizza, go over a social contract for the group, and I’m going to spend the rest of the time doing my damnedest to hook them into the story before we all turn into pumpkins promptly at 11pm (fact: pumpkin magic is all based on Eastern time.) It’s been awhile since I played on a weeknight.

Wish me luck! I shall recount the events that transpire in next week’s column.

P.S. if you’ve got any advice, for the love of Pelor, NOW’S THE TIME.

Photo Credit


  1. Shawn Merwin says:

    Nicely done and nicely written. The only advice I can really give is “HAVE FUN.” If you are having fun, and the players are anyway near the same wavelength as you, they will have fun too. OK, two pieces of advice: in all the little fidgety parts of the game, have the players help. Have one keep initiative. Have another keep track of conditions. This takes a lot of the burden off the DM and gives them something to do during their “downtime.”

  2. 1. Music – I was on the fence about this, until I saw it done really well. One of my DMs used the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, as well as Conan soundtrack and it was awesome for battle sequences. Keep the volume fairly low, and avoid lyrics, and it can be awesome!

    2. Initiative – Coolest initiative system I’ve seen (and fairly eco- friendly) is using clothespins with names of players written on them clipped to the DM screen. Whoever goes first gets clipped on one end of the DM screen, on down thru initiative order. Once a player has gone, tap the clothespin to the left. Its a great visual reference for when your turn is about to come up, and really speeds up combat. For multiple types of enemies with different inits, we just use roman numerals on the pins. We used index cards for awhile, but it was usually a surprise as to when your turn came up.

    3. Bloodthirst – TPKs are a bummer, except maybe in gamma world. That being said, the dramatic death of one PC can really heighten the tension of an encounter. One of our defenders who was thought to be pretty much invincible was just consumed and destroyed by a soul gem. It gave us pause.

    4.Tech – I’ve been using googleGroups to not only write up a synopsis of what happened the last session, but schedule the next gaming session. Its a great way to organize events, and share the story with just the people in the group. Also dropbox ( is a great way to share files in a D&D group. We use ours for maps, character sheets, and other graphics or resources.

    5. Frequency – Sounds like you’ve got a good system. Most players are cool with a fairly barebones explanation as to why a PC is/isn’t there. This works especially well if you guys get to a good stopping point. Although its less dramatic to end a session after defeating the big bad, if you end a session opening the last door staring into the face of evil, then a PC suddenly disappears, its a bit harder to explain.

    6. Expectations – You’ll do great! Having an experienced group is a big plus, in that they’ll help you manage all things you’ve got to keep track of. Can’t wait to hear how it goes!

  3. Music
    I have never done it so good on you. One day maybe. The only music we get is the guy who had too many beans for dinner. Breaks the tension up nicely and sometimes clears the room.

    Just like the clothespin idea mentionned by Thorynn, I take a sheet of paper and cut it into rectangles, 1 inch by 3 inches. One for each player and one for each monster(or groups of monsters). I fold them in half and write names on the bottom of each side so when you hang them on your screen your players and you see who is up next. Just for clarification, I add another piece with an arrow drawn at the start of init showing direction of play. It is the best thing I have ever done.

    Keep it simple. DM is a moderator between monsters and players. The monsters are there to be defeated, whether through slaughter or just a plain rout. Play them fairly. There are sites that talk about this such as 20ft Radius or dungeons master.(click on my site to see articles about monsters and such)

    Better DMing Through Technology
    My experience dictates that technology for character creation is excellent. As for automation, good old pen and paper do well for me.

    sounds great to me.

    As for new players, or pickup players, play them, prisoners or last minute run up the hill to catch up with you party members. It does not matter. Just have fun.

    See above. If you have fun, your players will have fun. See my attached article.

    Good on you. Playing on a weekly basis is very gratifying. Have fun with that.

  4. Castlemaster says:

    Having begun DM’ing with 4e when it came out, my best advice is to always start with a mod. After you see how different things play out, you can start writing your own stuff if you desire.

    Also, delegate. I have one player keep track of initiative, and my rule is that if you apply a status effect, you are responsible for remembering it. The DM has enough to keep track of.

    Oh yeah, #1 rule, make sure you are having just as much fun as your players.

  5. Music is good because it provides mild background noise. When there’s no music at all, I notice. I find that distracting. It may just be because now I’m used to it. We didn’t use it for years and I didn’t have an issue then. I have a Pandora station that jumps between movie scores and Metal. It works surprisingly well at low volumes. I should say, that I haven’t found a significant difference in distraction/enjoyment between a custom playlist and a friends current ipod playlist. Just make sure its not music that anyone hates, and its not too loud.

    I track Initiative on a small whiteboard, and a list defenses of enemies there as well. I was opposed to listing defenses at first but I think it has helped keep things fluid. If I used a DM Screen, I’d use cards on the screen to track things. I’ll be playing with this at PAXEast.

    You will never, ever finish updating Obsidian Portal. Its an awesome tool, and I love it. You just have to remember that you don’t have enough spare time, to ever feel like every important piece of information has gotten to the page. I reward players who make significant additions to the portal. I give them a choice of a boon, of their level or lower, or a single ability point increase. So far, no ones updated the portal enough to abuse this.

    I also support the use of dropbox. It means I have access to my notes from any computer, in case I forget something. I don’t make it public to the players. Public information goes on the portal.

  6. For initiative, have a player do it. Have a different player keep track of damage and effects. Give a different player a bunch of tokens (or if you’re like me, pieces of colored clay) so they can mark creatures when they’re granting combat advantage, being marked, have a Warlock’s Curse, etc. Divide the responsibilities so that you don’t have as much to do and the PCs are more invested.

    As for music, don’t use it with 4th edition. Combat takes too long, and the music just turns into background annoyance.

  7. The answer to the first and all subsequent questions is METAL. After all:

  8. It was the Penny Arcade PvP podcasts that sucked me back in. I played D&D years ago and am now DM for a new group of 4e adventurers. My re-introduction has been fantastic – hope yours is too. You’re thinking about a lot of the same things I have been – mechanics at the table, bits and pieces, how not to railroad, how to be patient (the day to confront the Mind Flayer will come… just not at Level 1), etc.

    On music: I’ve never been one to go that far to set mood, but during our last session I put the Dragonage soundtrack (Bioware videogame) on in the background… for the most part is went unnoticed, but there were a couple of really cool (completely unplanned) moments during combat when the music came to the foreground at just the right time. I think I’ll use it more often in the future.

    On initiative: I settled on a cardboard grid and tokens: one for each character and then one for each monster group I’m running. One of the players positions the tokens on the grid at the start of combat and we all use it from there. Works pretty well.

    On bloodthirst: I don’t want them to die… just hurt a little. 🙂

    On technology: I played my first session with a laptop open and really didn’t like it… I found it distracting and made it difficult for me to get into the game on the table. So I use Microsoft OneNote (comes with Office) to capture notes, plan the campaign, etc. It’s great and it syncs everything online so I can get to it from a browser, but still have it offline. The character builder is really good (though I’m hoping they add support for custom stuff soon). We’re pretty much full analog at the table though… and that’s where I find bits helpful.

    On bits: I’ve got some new players in my group, so things like physical power cards (we use print outs in card sleeves), actual action point tokens, tokens for psionic power points, etc. help bridge the gap for them. These all give the game more weight and you don’t have to keep as much in your head at a time. I also use diy condition tokens on the encounter grid to track things like SLOWED and BLOODIED.

    I’m rambling at this point… anyway, good luck and have fun!

  9. Bo Williams says:

    Bloodthirst- you want to make things challenging at times, and at other times you want the party to blow off steam and just dominate a fight. Think about the pacing of the story, and make the combat match. I don’t fudge dice rolls, but I will give a monster a trait/action point/adjusted defenses/attack rolls/etc. if a combat is turning into a boring slog. As someone said above, TPKs (unless in the service of story) are no fun, but if the party is never in danger that’s no fun either.

    Magic items- this is my bane. Right now I’ve been a slave to the player’s wish lists, and it seems like every round someone blows some amazing daily power that negates anything bad that could happen to them ever. If I had it to do over again, I’d use inherent bonuses and save magic items for really special rewards.

  10. You will make story mistakes. Roll with them. Over at Roving Band of Misfits today, we just posted a technique for turning story blunders into gold. Check it out:

  11. This was a great glimpse into your brain.

    I also just returned to DMing after a five year absence or so. Here are a couple tricks that have helped me:

    1) There’s always a player who’s willing to run initiative for me. Sometimes I’ve rotated, but in my present campaign, my friend Mike loves doing it. So I let him. He uses sticky notes.

    2) I use Microsoft Excel to track monsters, damage, and effects. I just make one column that has the name and XP value (with the stat block pasted in from a pdf or adventure tools), a column for HP and bloodied value, a column for damage and effects, and then columns for AC, Fort, Ref, and Will. This way, I can flip quickly between stats, and I can record damage and effects quickly on my laptop. Maybe you don’t like having it out at the table, but I find it so much more compact than books. I do usually keep it on a tray table or something, though, not on the table itself.

    3) To keep myself consistent with storyline, and to “retcon” a tinsy bit if I have to, I keep a Capaign Log on the wizards community blog. I just summarize the important events and dole out XP between sessions. It helps me keep track of things, and it helps the players see through my eyes which plot points and encounters were most important. It also lets me avoid leveling up mid-session, which throws off my preparation and wastes time.

    Anyway, these things helped me a ton to run the game incorporating technology, and to keep things rolling smoothly. My weekly game has benefited greatly from it.

  12. Oh, and as far as your wife is concerned don’t worry. I have between 4-6 (sometimes 7 and once 8) PCs in each session. People have lives, I understand that, and if there’s a friend/spouse/significant other around that wants to play its rare I’ll say no.

    So I plan it for five players. It works fine for a group of four or six. The encounters that end up being hard or easy, often take me by surprise anyway. I have creative players and the dice gods are cruel. If things get really questionable about how many people are showing up I pick a monster a monster of their level or plus 1 for each encounter and mark it with an asterisk. If more people than planned show up, thats the monster that there 1 to 2 more of.

  13. As for technology,
    You should REALLY try maptool. It’s free, runs on all platforms (it’s a java app), and can tackle two items in this list, technology and initiative. Its built in initiative application does what it advertises and it’s mapping features work in environments where the DM has his/her own laptop. My DM has used it to place maps on his TV with tokens representing the characters. The players have their own mouse to manipulate the tokens on the TV. The DM’s laptop has his own copy of MapTool running, as a server, and tracks initiative and monsters that way. All other DnD business is simply tracked on paper. You can get as deep or as simple with it as you like.

    Check it out:

    See you at PAX East!

  14. Music is very nice to have playing during a session. It just needs to be unobtrusive and not too loud. It helps if you can get speakers or some kind of surround sound system going on. You don’t want it just coming out of your laptop, because that makes it kind of difficult for them to hear you, and breaks that feeling of immersion. Music can get the players into the game; you turn it on at the start when you summarize the previous sessions, and it will keep them in that frame of mind until you turn it off. There’s a great list of music here;

    Obsidian Portal is great. I just started using it for my recent campaign, and am loving it so far. It’s a little challenging getting the players involved, but that depends on the group. Also the map function on OP is great; load up a jpeg of a map, and get a Google Maps powered map, complete with zooming, scrolling and the ability to set markers linked to your wiki.

  15. Initiative: in my group the party has a representative roll initiative and the DM gets one roll for all the NPCs. When it’s the players turn they go in order around the table so everybody can see their turn coming. The players may delay and go at any point after their turn in the rotation, but it is their responsibility to remember to actually do something.

    Bloodthirst: Remember not to become too attached to any monster, NPC, or your vision as to how an encounter should go. I struggle when players find a shortcut or flaw in my strategy.

    Remember, it’s not just saying ‘yes’. It’s ‘yes and…’ or ‘yes but….’ Good luck!

  16. My advice is to win the fight I struggle with: spend the bulk of your prep time on what matters most, the adventure. Don’t spend four hours picking music and then rush to be prepared with the adventure. Your time spent on the adventure, NPCs, ideas on adjusting challenge on the fly, encouraging backstory and feeding off of it… those will pay far greater dividends than Obsidian Portal.

    Tools like OP (or Epic Words, which I like better) and music have really low payoff amounts. Great to have but really low return on investment. Adventure design is actually the inverse. You end up getting often more than what you put in because each idea cascades providing more options for this encounter and the next.

    A little fear/apprehension is also healthy. It keeps you on your toes and helps you treat the session as important, which it is. At the same time, these are friends and a hobby and they didn’t jump to DM. Remind them they get what they pay for! And, don’t put it all on your shoulders. Make this the group’s campaign. What do they want to help you create?

  17. Along with Alphastream, I have to say that bringing the players in as much as possible is really rewarding. As a DM, you can always guide the flow of story, but sometimes it’s worth relinquishing a little just to be surprised! That doesn’t always happen, so I try to cherish it.

    I have my players each invent one or two NPCs that their character knows really well, and come up with an interesting adventure the PC has had in the last month of game time. Then I pull from there when my own well feels a little dry. It makes the players feel loved, and it takes a big load off my shoulders.

  18. Tech: Take a look at Fantasy Grounds. It’s primarily Windows, but can be run on Linux under Wine.

  19. Music – It’s great to add mood or dramatic effect to certain sessions, but I’d try not to over use it. My wife tried to create a “DnD” channel on her Pandora account, and that’s been amusing to have in the background at times.

    Initiative – Index cards work well. Personally, I do the same with little 1″x2″ slips of paper I cut up from old character sheets. If you have purchased enough fortune cards, you can slip cheap plastic card protectors over the initiative/status cards and use those as well– it’s similar to the white board method.

    Bloodthirst – It’s always good to have an emotional ebb and flow to encounters, and this won’t happen if encounters are always the same difficulty. Sometimes the DM wants the encounter to be hard so that the players feel a greater sense of satisfaction when they overcome the obstacle. If the player gets through the challenge to easily, the DM can get frustrated, ultimately, because he failed to provide the kind of experience he wanted. And then again, some DMs really do just want to kill their players.

    Frequency – Don’t worry, once every two weeks will work out fine if everyone is having fun. My private group plays about every three weeks due to travel/life issues.

    Expectations – Try your best to say “yes”. Even when you feel like you aren’t saying “no”, sometimes you unintentionally begin to play the monsters and scene in a such a way that you are actually saying “no”, just without actually saying it. A gentle form or railroading, as it were.

    And lastly, read lots of DnD blogs! There’s lots of great advice for DMs out there. 🙂


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gato, CH News Robot, Shawn Merwin. Shawn Merwin said: Check out @direflail and his new Critical Hits column. Great stuff for new/returning DMs! #dnd […]

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