Week 4: I Have Lost Six Dungeon Pounds

This week will be my D&D group’s fourth session. I’m starting to get the lay of the land a little better. I’ve learned that a plot won’t burst into flames if not kept on the rails the entire session. I’ve also learned that tacking it down in a couple of spots sure won’t hurt, and drawing a path in the dirt with a stick where you might like it to go isn’t such a bad thing. I decided to go back to my first article about starting a gaming group and look at the things I was concerned about with a few sessions under my belt.

  • Music
    I keep planning to try it, but every session I remember to do it as everyone is walking out the door.  I think I am going to list out my encounters – combat and otherwise – on a sheet of paper along with a track to play. I haven’t been using a computer for anything (aside from Kmonster on my phone), so keeping Grooveshark open on my tablet with all tracks one press away shouldn’t get in my way much. Who knows if it will be awesome or annoying? Probably never me. I anticipate serially forgetting about this for at least another six or seven months.
  • Initiative
    I’ve been writing out the initiative order on a sheet of paper, trying to guess based on their rolls how much space to leave on the rows above and below. This is clunky, I don’t like it much, but to be honest it’s not really getting in my way too much. I plan to get some index cards this week to try, having the PCs write down their defenses, hit points and bloodied value, and other info on them. Then I’ll make enemy cards and combat order should be much simplified.
  • Bloodthirst
    I haven’t once wanted to kill a PC. Truth be told, I don’t really like combat that much. It’s not really a surprise to me, I used to wish the combats were over so I could roleplay some more when I was a player. I’ve caught myself wanting to halve an enemy’s hit points just to get things over with a couple of times. Some of my players are really into combat, so I’m going to avoid that.
  • Better DMing Through Technology
    Maybe I’m just oldschool. Maybe I’m not using the right tools. But, as I said before, I hardly use any tech at all in the actual running of my game – certainly nothing I have to enter info into. I don’t have to fight notebook paper to record something really fast. I don’t have to open the right window, or enter things in any particular format. I scribble something down, possibly circling it. This surprises me a lot. I was half-expecting to look like something out of freaking Neuromancer while running my game – sitting motionless, speaking to my players only via voice synthesis, and updating a digital battle map. With my brain waves. I feel like a hippie or a luddite or something.
  • Frequency
    We’ve had to swap weeks a couple of times, and last week’s board game “D&D off-week” night found every last person with a scheduling conflict. Overall, though, I think we’re proving somewhat flexible. One of our group has his son’s soccer practice to go to on our D&D nights for the next month, so we’ll be doing some dancing around that. Keeping him in every week during this might not happen, but I think it’s safe to say we’ll be playing.
  • Expectations
    This has probably been the hardest to bear of the lot. You’d think after blogging in one form or another for nearly a decade would give me immunity from worrying that people will think what I come up with is stupid, but it’s more nerve-wracking for me when the people you’ll be attempting to entertain for the evening are mere feet away from you for hours on end. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun. I love it. But it’s making those little insidious self-doubt demons  come out to have a picnic in my brain a lot more than I’d like. They make me second-guess the story I’m writing and bring out my Anxiety-Fueled Perfectionist who doesn’t write things other people understand (in a bad way). They make me want to procrastinate. They make me worry I will be the D&D equivalent of Forever Alone. They must die.

It’s a little different than where I expected to be at this point, but I feel like I’m getting better and people are having a decent time. Now I have different concerns and goals to put into bullet points:

  • Player Engagement
    I have some players new to D&D who are somewhat shy at the table. I want to try to get them out of their shells. I realize there are a lot of different types of people, and that means there are also a lot of different types of players. This also inevitably means some won’t like the things I do, so I can’t just fire up the Master Roleplaying Computer and determine their optimal RP algorithm. Stupid free will. So, my task right now is to watch my players carefully for signs of delight, and to exploit these weaknesses in their psyche to… well, give them more delight. I am never going to pass the Evil DM exam at this rate. 

    I’ve also been considering several reward systems for good roleplaying or teamwork. One idea was to use Fortune Cards as a reward. Another is to give out story awards like I saw used at the Living Forgotten Realms events at DDXP. It’s been my experience that it doesn’t take much to light a little fire in a player’s heart. Or maybe I’m just extra flammable. We’ll have to see if my group is.

  • Loot, Or Lack Thereof
    One of my players made a point to remind me that they hadn’t gotten any loot yet. I’d forgotten about it entirely, what with my head being firmly up my precious story’s ass. In the interim, I came up with nifty Weapons O’ Light for them to use, the powers of which may scale with the players’ level. I don’t think this is enough. It’s a weird state of affairs when everybody has weapons made of pure light and I’m worried nobody is going to feel special. I need flavor for these items. I want offbeat things that make this story belong to the players. I used to do this with magic items all the time. It’s harder to come up with them, for some reason.
  • I Prefer Rolling My Own
    I’m starting to think I might be a masochist, or an egomaniac, or both. I have heaping mountains of sourcebooks and articles and other pre-made materials to choose from, but I want to come up with something brand new 99 times out of 100. I tend to prejudge pre-made material as a whole as “boring”, and I think this attitude needs to change. I know an awful lot of very bright people with excellent ideas waiting to be appropriated for the good of all playerkind. And it’s not as if I am a neverending fountain of The Best Ideas. If I hadn’t been introduced to the concept of reskinning, I shudder to think how combat might have gone these last few sessions. I think this problem stems from a few times in a previous campaign where our DM decided to drop in a pre-made module and we all couldn’t wait for it to be over. I also need to remember another campaign we were in, made completely from scratch, that was far worse. This is not really helping my anxiety.
  • 4 x 2 x 7 x 1
    The “fast and loose” approach I’ve been taking the last couple of sessions has rained cosmic destruction upon the delicate 5×5 plot diagram I’d made in the infancy of this campaign. I’m having trouble figuring out how to guide them where they “should” go without chasing them around with a horde of cement zombies. I tried to lay clues for them in our last adventure, but they didn’t take the bait. Upon complaining about this, the Internets graced me with the Three Clue Rule and the knowledge that players are neither master detectives nor inside my brain. I’m not going to feel so bad about gentle use of the Clue Bat or letting Leopold, the Dancing Plot Point earn his keep. I’m going to try sprinkling a little more structure into our game, and hopefully it’ll go somewhere. I think the trick is not to care exactly where, as long as you are still tracking it via DM plot-satellite.

I’m certain that, as long as I am a Dungeon Master, I will always have a bunch of bullet points in my head. There’s an old saying we have in karate. I can’t remember it, so it is possible that I will not have all my teeth this time next week. What I do remember is that it describes the search for perfection of one’s character as neverending; as being in a boat atop an ever-rising sea; as playing Pac-Man and never splitting the screen. So too shall I approach the mastery of my dungeon.

In the end, there is only one truth: don’t use dry-erase markers on a battlemat.


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  1. For music, there is the RPG Soundmixer which really is a nice piece of work. It takes a little work to get to know it, but once you do, it really is a powerful tool. You can have playliosts for diferent scenes that swap on the touch of a button (and you decide which playlist is next, depending on what the SCs decide), you can have sound effects run without interrupting the music, you can time effects, run them a set number of times…

  2. This all sounds pretty familiar, especially the low-tech part. People expect me to be all high-tech about stuff, but I too use paper for most as-it-happens things.

    I keep my laptop open because that’s where my pre-planning session notes are, and I try to make a point of adding NPCs to my Obsidian Portal campaign as they are encountered, but otherwise I’m pretty much a paper guy.

    As to players missing clues, that’s par for the course. Long ago I gave up on subtlety. I’m kind of convinced that it’s pretty much impossible to get players to notice something without shoving it in their faces. Plus, I’ve found that if you throw in enough random (or at least not-deeply-planned) stuff, players will make up their own stories for it and you can just run with those. You get a seemingly subtle campaign world, and the players get to feel like they’re figuring out clues. Everybody wins.

  3. Let me help bring in the 21st century for you a little.

    Try last.fm for your music. Create a station using these three artists for an epic gaming soundtrack.
    – Totakeke
    – Num Num
    – Keef Baker

    No, I hadn’t heard of them before either, but lots of scrobbling helped build the list.

    The only downfall is its hard to implement “theme songs”.

    If you have the Xbox Kinect, you can run last.fm through your gold subscription. This allows you to say “Xbox, next!” to skip a song without ever leaving the game table.

    As for initiative, “If it ain’t broke…” I guess. I’d encourage you to stop tracking initiative. That’s a job one of your players should do. A DM has enough going on as it is. Designate one player to track it and set it up for all to see. Personally I use small tabs of paper folded across the top of the DM screen. This allows all to see it and can easily be rearranged due to held actions and such.

  4. Thought provoking and useful as always, thanks! Some ideas.

    Bloodthirst: Ideally the combats are fun for you, so your energy doesn’t lag. Are the players enjoying the combats, or do they want to see the monsters die faster too? Look at the reasons why. Would it be better if you:
    – Lowered monster defenses by 2 so PCs hit more often? (Look at the Dark Sun monsters as guides- they hit harder but have low defenses and often low HPs).
    – Added more interesting terrain
    – Added skill use during combat, such as minor actions to do a jump attack from a trampoline or to turn off a necrotic field
    – Added RP elements, such as a captive that begs for help or a villain that has dialogue and can be tricked into revealing plot elements
    – Added more traps and hazardous terrain
    – Chose monsters with more interesting attack powers, such that you have more tactics at your disposal

    Player Engagement: How much backstory do PCs have, and does it matter? Do PCs have goals? I like to keep a file on the PCs. The file has a section for each PC with their backstory summary and ideas on how to use it. In each game I try to touch on 2-3 backstory elements. When PCs do something interesting RP or story-wise, I note it and use it in the future.

    Loot: Better than typical loot is to grant Boons or similar rewards. Tie them to PC backstory and plot elements. For example, in my Dark Sun campaign a wizard determined that within them was a strange entity. The entity was drawn from him and bound into an obsidian orb with a tiny white fleck. Over time, the fleck has grown larger and even telepathically communicated a few things. Another PC swallowed obsidian orbs and seems to get ill at times… they know something is afoot, but no powers have been found yet.

  5. Add me to the low-tech list. I think the most high-tech thing I bring to the table is the wet-erase marker and battlemat. Next would be the mechanical pencil. I personally am not a big fan of tech at the table in part because I don’t want players surfing the web on their phones, sending email or text messages, etc.

    As for initiative, I’ve done index cards in the past and that worked really well. Now though, I’ve gotten into the habit of printing out the monster stat blocks from the monster builder (or compendium) and using those for tracking HPs and initiatives. As such, I now have the PC stat “cards” on 8.5 x 11 paper as well and have plenty of room for initiative modifiers, defenses, etc. Now I just shuffle the sheets as we go through the battle, can pull them out when somebody readies or holds, etc. I find this easier than index cards because I don’t have an extra sheet of paper to check. Before I had the index cards for initiative, and then the stat blocks for monsters on a separate sheet. Much more streamlined now. Additionally, this allows me the opportunity to roll initiative for the monsters before the session starts, saving me one more step during the session. I find anything that streamlines the encounter process to be a godsend. I take enough time drawing the encounter area, placing the figs, describing the scene, reviewing the tactics etc., eliminating a number of dice rolls helps that extra little bit and ties in initiative can be quickly broken without having to ask players what their modifier is, etc.

    As to music, I think it can be a great addition, but it can also be distracting, particularly when the sound level fluctuates. Personally, I don’t use music in my games at the moment, though one of those games is at the FLGS and the other is at a friend’s house (neither being particularly conducive to bringing and playing music).

  6. On your “I Prefer Rolling My Own” point, there’s something to be said for creating something all your own! Whether it’s your own adventure, monster, or magic item, that’s part of the creative excitement of being a DM.

    That said, quickly digestable bits of all these things from fellow gamers can always be a great source of inspiration. I find the Dungeon Delve sourcebook, to that end, invaluable.

  7. @ Initiative – I think you’ll like the index cards, it makes it a bit easier to let players know who is “on deck”. For my encounters games, I have a stack of 1″ by 2″ slips of paper that I’ve cut up from paper that would have otherwise been recycled. These function just like tiny index cards. Reuse is better than recycling. 🙂

    @ Bloodlust – It’s natural not to want to kill your players (unless you’re a jerk), but at some point you’ll have to balance lack of bloodlust with providing a few difficult combat challenges. And if things get rough, you can find “plot outs”… or in the case of TPK, the party doesn’t necessarily have to die– they could be knocked unconscious, end up captured or enslaved, or have to perform tasks for “death” in the netherworld to earn back their freedom. You can take a TPK in all kinds of fun directions. 🙂

    @ Premade vs. Original – It seems that many new DMs want to rebuild the universe in their own image… but that’s A LOT of work. Remember that you don’t have to run premade content 100% as is, it can be easily modified to fit into a larger story arc, and you’ll spend a lot less time trying to balance encounter xp budgets. Or, in the case of my home game, I chose to build a new city within the existing LFR world. This way, I can create a lot of my own original content, but still rely on the rest of the LFR universe as needed.

  8. re. initiative

    Just like Sunyaku, I too have little bits of paper 1×4 bits. I have 2 different colours, one for players and one for monsters. I write the name of the character at the bottom of each end, fold the paper in half and hang these on my DM screen with a piece of paper with an arrow on it indicating the flow of the initiative. Delaying and readying actions have never been easier. This way, players can see who is next in init and prepare to go. Your DM side sees the same things as the players.

    re. old school

    Cannot get enough. I have been playing virtually with a group for six years now and using gaming tools such as MapTools is driving me up the wall. With all the automation, I feel it will soon become just another video game. Good on you.

    re. railroading

    Just go with the flow. Players can visit the town you want them to visit even if they take a detour. If your world is already planned out, change the name of the town. It will have the same effect. Remember players don’t know any better.

  9. Castlemaster says:

    The quote from martial arts is, “on the path to perfection you find excellence”