a few thoughts and lessons learned from behind the dm screen

Last weekend, I started a 4E campaign for my son Nolan and his friends. The plan is to take them through the entire Keep on the Shadowfell module, and then probably into Thunderspire Labyrinth, with possible detours into various level-appropriate Delves, or something from Monte Cook's awesome new project, Dungeon-a-Day, if it makes sense to incorporate it into the campaign. All week, I've been posting about the session, and today I thought I'd wrap the whole thing up with some thoughts about what I learned from my first time behind the screen as a Fourth Edition DM.

As you can probably tell from my posts this week, I had a lot of fun running this game for my son and his friends, and I can't wait for our next session, which is when we'll actually begin The Keep on the Shadowfell.

If you've followed along in the comments this week, you know that I made a lot of rookie DM mistakes. Luckily, none of them were the kind that broke the game or ruined anyone's good time, but I sure made them. I knew that would happen, which is why I started us all out in a 3-encounter dungeon delve instead of diving right into the module that will be the starting point for our campaign. All this week, with the benefit of hindsight and without the pressure of players at the table, I've gone over the things I learned, and the mistakes I made during the session.

Today, I wanted to share some of the things that came to mind, as well as some other things from a lifetime of gaming that I hadn't thought about until this week. My hope is that this will be useful for DMs and players alike. I'd love it if you'd add your own comments, if anything related comes to your mind while you read this post.

First of all, in spite of our mistakes, we all had a lot of fun. As far as I'm concerned, the session was a HUGE SUCCESS as a result. The whole point of playing an RPG is to have fun while engaging the imagination, right? Mission accomplished, and not in the fake George Bush way.

Mostly, this session reaffirmed some of the core concepts that all DM guides share, from GURPS to T20 to D&D and beyond. Among them are surprise! Fear! Ruthless Efficie – wait. Sorry. That's wrong. Put down the soft cushions and I'll try again.

Among those concepts are such diverse ideas for DMs as…

Whenever you can, say yes. D&D is essentially a collaborative storytelling effort, and the best way to encourage everyone to contribute to the the effort is to take their input, and say Yes, and… This is something we drill into beginning improv comedy students, for a good reason: nothing derails someone's creativity faster than telling them, directly or indirectly, that their idea is stupid. You take their idea, say "Yes, that is a lovely hat, and it also has something tucked into the hat band!" This keeps the story moving forward and encourages everyone to feel safe taking risks, and just suggesting an idea can feel very risky to more people than you'd think.

Now, I don't mean that you let the players push you around, and you certainly don't let them do things that are dangerous or risky without serious consequences, but you nobody likes being stuck on rails and pushed around in the cart.

Example: At the beginning of our session, one of Nolan's friends wanted to climb a tree and look around. There was no need to do that, but the tree was there and it seemed like something for him to do, so I let him do it. I even had him roll athletics to see how high he could climb, and let him make a perception check when he got up there. He didn't roll very well, but one of the kobold slingers in the tower saw him, and told his allies about the intruders. This leads into…

Everything is important to the PCs. Don't mention it, don't put it on the map, don't even bring it into their minds unless you're ready for them to do something with it. Think about this from their point of view: they're trying to build the world in their heads, and you never know what's going to grab their attention. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's this: they will ignore bookcase you've spent a ton of effort stocking with cleverly-titled tomes of great knowledge and a hidden lever that activates the secret door, so they can focus with laser precision on the box you put in the corner, because you had a cool tile with a box on it or something. Of course, it's not the end of the world when they do that; you can either nudge them toward the bookcase, or simply move the lever next to the box.

This is even more important when you have NPCs. I keep a little folio of NPCs handy, just in case the blacksmith I thought would do nothing more than sell them an axe ends up being someone they decide to visit all the time for some reason or another. SPOILER ALERT: In this campaign, I'm using the missing mentor hook. I built more of a backstory for Douven Staul and his connection to the PCs than the text for Keep on the Shadowfell provides, and I have a feeling they'll want to interact with him if they find and release him. In case they decide to cut his bonds before all the bad guys in that encounter are dispatched, I've stuck a 3rd level NPC warlord into my bag of tricks, so they can enjoy the thrill of fighting by his side, if they want to go that way.

Listen to your players, and they will tell you what they want to do. Even if they don't come out and say it directly, they will reveal a lot to you with their actions, and you can tailor the game a little bit to make them happy.

Nolan wanted his dwarf fighter to mow down lots of bad guys, so I sent lots of minions toward him whenever I could. His friend who played the rogue wanted to do rogue-y things, so I turned a set of closed doors into a set of closed, locked doors. His other friend, who played the wizard, was excited to play, but seemed intimidated by the complexity of the whole thing. I remember feeling that way the first few times I played, and I was certainly anxious to be simultaneously running my first 4E game ever and sitting behind the DM screen for the first time in years, so I could relate. I made a concerted effort to put him at ease, and after we'd been playing for a little while, I could see him settle down and relax. As a bonus, it helped me relax, too.

Reward clever thinking. As a player, I want to feel like I'm a mythical, heroic character who can do things in a fantasy world that I'd never be able to do in the real world. When Nolan's friend wanted to leap around the wyrmling, I could have simply told him that was impossible, but since nothing is impossible in D&D, I just made it very difficult. Had he failed, he was going to find himself dazed and prone at the feet of a very angry creature. 

You can also use rewards, like little XP bonuses and NPC reactions, to encourage roleplaying, if that sort of thing is important to you (like it is to me.)

Keep it simple, especially if you're just getting started. I have this idea for an epic campaign, where the forces of Darkness and Evil are gathering to invade the world. Yes, it's as original as the color blue, but it gives me a reason for everything to happen. The events of Keep on the Shadowfell are tied to it, and it's simple enough to modify other modules to reflect this larger story that I have in mind. I love the idea of foreshadowing, and while there's a little bit of that built into Shadowfell and Thunderspire, the farthest I was willing to go with my first session was the suggestion that some of Coppernight's companions were kidnapped. (Irontooth may mean something to some of you, if you catch my drift.) I could have overdone it with harbingers of doom and stuff, but I'm saving that for later in Shadowfell, when the cultists really get going. I'll drop hints if it seems appropriate, but mostly I'm keeping this simple until I have more experience running things.

Know where you're going, but be flexible. By having some idea about where we're all going, but not
overdoing it, I leave myself a lot of room to branch out into delves or
other adventures, like the totally awesome Rescue at Rivenroar from
Dungeon Magazine #156. In fact, depending on how Shadowfell goes, I may
slide the PCs into the Scales of War campaign at some point, because
it's a pretty awesome story.

The more descriptive, the better. But didn't I just say keep it simple? Yes, but these things aren't mutually exclusive. While I can keep the story simple, I can still work hard to make the encounters more than moving figures around and rolling dice. For example, Nolan used a power to rip his maul through a pair of minions who were adjacent to him. He hit them both, but instead of just saying that, I told him, "your maul crashes through its head, streaming blood and gore behind it as the power of your swing carries into the other one. Their bodies fall to the ground with a wet thud."

When the rogue rolled particularly well with a ranged attack, I told him, "your dagger whistles through the air toward your target, and catches it in the throat as it lunges toward you. Its eyes widen and glaze over as it falls down, dead."

I also added smells, sounds, and anything else I could do to make the tower they were in really feel old and decaying. It helps that I've read more fantasy genre fiction than I'd like to admit.

Don't be afraid to improvise. When it looked like the final encounter, which should have delivered the greatest challenge, was going to be a cakewalk, I just looked at some stat blocks and added a few more creatures to the encounter so it would feel more climactic. I knew I had the cleric back in the cell, and if things got really, really bad, he could figure out a way to race in and save the day (as a general rule, though, I don't recommend doing things like this too frequently, or your players will figure it out and act accordingly.)

Preparation is key. I could improvise, stay flexible, and say "yes, and…" because I'd spent a lot of time preparing the session. When you decide to DM a game, you're in for a whole lot of fun, but you're also assuming a tremendous
responsibility. A good DM can overcome a bad system or module, the saying goes, but nothing can overcome a bad DM. The best way to ensure you don't become the dreaded "bad DM" is by taking this responsibility seriously, and investing – that's right, investing – time to prepare your sessions. Read all about your monsters, understand their roles (Brute, Lurker, Controller, etc.) and pay attention to the tactics the module's author tells you to use. In our third encounter, it says that the wyrmling is willing to catch a few kobolds in her breath weapon, if it means getting all the PCs. When she did, the kids were all surprised, and realized that she meant business. Without the tactics that told me to do that, I probably wouldn't have done it.

Get an official DM Screen. I think it's worth getting an official DM Screen, because it's filled with useful charts and tables. I saved a lot of time that I would have spent digging through the DMG and PHB because I had that right in front of me.

I recommend making index cards for each player and group of monsters, and using them to keep track of initiative order. On the PC cards, I wrote the player's name, and the character's class, race and name. It's a little thing, but when you use character names and descriptions instead of a player's name, it makes a difference and keeps the world alive, while encouraging the players to think of their characters as actual people, instead of stats and minis.

Never forget that you're doing this to have fun. 'nuff said, true believers!

Finally: The first couple of times you play, keep notes when you're unsure about things, and spend some time with the DMG and PHB after the session to see if you could have done anything differently. After you've done that, write about it in your blog so other people who are more experienced than you will share their own insights.

I hope you've enjoyed this week of D&D posts; they were a lot of fun to write. Now seems like an appropriate time to sponsor myself, and plug my shirt.woot design, which features polyhedral dice and science.

100 thoughts on “a few thoughts and lessons learned from behind the dm screen”

  1. You’re going to love it, Zack. Read the 4E DMG, and go check out as much of the website Gnome Stew as you can handle.

  2. I have to give the line that introduced me to what I could and could not do in a game.
    “You can plant flowers in your ass, just tell the GM you’re doing it.”
    That said, the failures are often the best stories. Wil, I think you should make a special post just for your most memorable failures in game.
    A quick for instance: I drove a large APC through the woods. A hostage we had tried to escape by opening the door. A door open light came on and I failed my roll to know what it was with flying colors. The result was my certain belief someone had a missle lock and I took evasive measures… in the woods… with a preverbal tank. Not only did the hostage fall out, so did half the party. GM gave me extra “playing in character” points. The rest of the party gave me glares.

  3. I really enjoyed this series of posts, Wil. I played a little D&D in middle school with my older bro and his friends. If we’d had a DM like you, I might have kept up with it. I was pretty shy and intimidated by playing with guys who knew the game a lot better and were all a few years older.

  4. Hey Wil,
    Awesome post—why aren’t you writing for us again? You touch upon a lot of fundamental points to running role-playing games, but I found the following one particularly poignant:
    “Listen to your players, and they will tell you what they want to do. Even if they don’t come out and say it directly, they will reveal a lot to you with their actions, and you can tailor the game a little bit to make them happy.”
    I think this point is an especially important when running a game for younger players. Prompting young players to tell you what they want to do is very helpful in crafting a story and an experience they’ll enjoy. I think older players are more accustomed to communicating their desires to the DM, though sometimes even they should be prompted for ideas.
    Regardless of the age of your players, you can learn a great deal from listening to them—especially when they think you’re not listening. I find that while I’m preparing a map or setting up an encounter, I can get a lot of inspiration from eavesdropping on my players. Sometimes their conspiracy theories and ideas are better than what I can come up with.
    Glad to hear you’re having such a great time. I look forward to your continued documentation of your game.
    Greg Bilsland
    Oh—and if you’re keen to play, don’t forget that this weekend is World Wide D&D Game Day. There’s even an avenger to play :). You can find a location near you at http://tinyurl.com/2moemt
    Sorry for the shameless plug :p

  5. Thanks for this, Wil. I’m about to embark on my own journey as a DM for 4E. Neither I nor any of my players have played any sort of RPG for twenty years or more.
    One piece of DM advice I’ve seen lately (cuz I’ve been reading like a fiend) is this:
    Players have a flashlight. They can only see what’s in front of them and some glimpses at the edges of the light.
    The DM has a 150 watt bulb: To the DM, everything is clear and well-lit, and drowns out the flashlight of the players.
    It’s too easy to lose track of what the players are interested in. You have to pay attention.
    I’d source it, but I honestly can’t remember where I saw it.
    Another good one was: The Players are the rock stars. The DM is the (super) roady.

  6. On the topic of overcoming a bad module, one of my very few forays into DMing was the demo adventure at the back of what I believe was the original Fighting Fantasy book. (I Googled that for a reference and found to my entire surprise that it’s alive and well at fightingfantasy.com–I’ll have to look into this now.)
    Anyway, there was a hallway on the map which faded off towards the edge of the page. It had a note that said something like “This passage is endless. The players can go down it as far as they want; when they get back, remove X endurance for every Y time they were in the passage.” When they inevitably wandered in, I started doing math, and given the bullheadedness of the party leader, it quickly approached the point where just walking around casually was practically going to get them killed. I dropped as many hints as possible–“this is really wearing you out”–and when they did finally turn back, I reduced the penalty by more than half. They were still surprised and annoyed, completely understandably, and in retrospect I wish I’d scrapped it or done something else with the passage altogether.
    Have you ever been tempted by system design? Something about the way I tick makes me much more interested in trying to design my own X than use someone else’s X, and roleplaying games are no exception.

  7. We use clothes pins with the players name printed on them. We put those across the top of the DM Screen then we put something small on the end. We used one of those colored plastic rings you put on your keys but we lost it. We just used a bottle cap for a while. I put the monsters in there too. Everyone has a nice visual queue on who’s turn it is and who’s going.

  8. From my grasp of Star Trek (I’m not an obsessive always-watch type, but do enjoy watching it when I get the chance) I get the impression the writers probably felt the same.. and also ignored and created restrictions as they saw fit to try to dig themselves out of a plot hole transporters could fix. Sometimes it’s seriously ugly.
    A perfect example: The TNG episode I saw on Sci-fi (sorry “SyFy”) the other day, where Wesley was failing to enter Starfleet Academy, whilst Picard was being investigated. Wesley’s “special offer: for 1 episode only” friend in the mean time decided to hijack a shuttle and accidentally attempt to crash it into the planet.
    The writers, in an effort to add drama to the situation, suddenly decided that the shuttle was out of range for transporters despite the fact the shuttle was between the ship and the planet and they’d been merrily beaming people to and from the planet all day!
    I know they had to come up with some reason to allow the drama to unfold and have Picard save the day, so I totally forgive them for that atrocious logic gap, but still part of me can’t help but be incredulous when it happens.

  9. Yes, and it’s worse than that. They’ve clearly established that it stores someone’s pattern in storage. Given this, there’s no reason to believe you couldn’t just start randomly cloning people (this was pretty much established as canon in the two Riker episodes).
    SO … if that’s the case, every morning you report to the transporter, go through it and then if you happen to die, they just reassemble you, tell you what happened, and you’re just down a day.
    Of course, if you add in some extra easily considered technology, you could also effectively never age. If we take as a given that aging is caused by DNA decay over time, just have it reassemble you with fresh DNA.
    They never really did any of this in Star Trek because they have the luxury of TV writers, but in a RPG, your PCs will take every advantage they can.

  10. I’ve DM’d before mostly d20 Modern stuff, I just love that setting, and I play in 3.5 Ptolus campaign. The podcasts are great and have spurred me into finally starting up a regular 4e game in April. (once I cleared it with the wife)
    I ran two different groups in my d20 modern game through the same adventure. Talk about change in play style.
    The main thing I can say about being a DM is keep the game moving. I’d rather make something up if it isn’t on the screen or readily available. If I have to search the book I’ll just make something up. If you have to stop to read the book it tends to pull all the drama out of a situation.
    One other thing is put a time limit on turns in battle. I usually give players a minute then ask them what they are going to do. If they don’t give me answer they get skipped. It seems harsh but I’ve played with pen and paper veterns. It keeps the action moving and really speeds up encounters.

  11. Be wary of doing this too much. Sometimes PCs will start to get all “I’m not saying that because then the DM will make it happen” and not express their fears, etc.

  12. Wait, I seem to remember an episode where Scotty from TOS actually put himself in a constant transport cycle for something like a hundred years. So he in effect created a time machine to the future. Just set yourself in the transport for a 1000 years and come in the year 3000 just like Futurama.
    Wow but really DnD has the raise dead ritual. I’ve also seen parties head to a plane and physically (or metaphysically whichever you prefer) drag a dead party member back to life. Its all about the story telling IMHO. Sometimes you just have to believe someone can out swim a shark.

  13. True, I think it’s better to vindicate the PCs theories rather than use what they say against them. That is, if a character has suspicions, it’s rewarding to occasionally alter the plot to confirm their beliefs or play off their ideas. As a PC, it’s frustrating to feel like you’re always one step behind the villains and events. Sometimes you want to catch up. As a DM, I think it’s important not to be too stuck to your own story that you aren’t willing to engage in cooperative story-telling.

  14. “Of course, if you add in some extra easily considered technology, you could also effectively never age. If we take as a given that aging is caused by DNA decay over time, just have it reassemble you with fresh DNA.”
    That happened to Picard. He and a few others got turned into kids for a while. Dr. Crusher figured out how to reverse it with of all things the tranporter. So it can clone you, make multiple copies of you, age you, de-age you and make food. The food replicators are said to work off transporter technology.
    Whoa…. sorry my inner geek just wanted out at the end of a very long week here at work… I’ll try to make sure the chains are tighter next time…

  15. I had (thankfully?) forgotten about the teenage Picard episode.
    But think about it. Have a pimple? No problem, use the transporter! Have cancer? No problem, transporter! Have to take a really large dump? Transporter!

  16. When the show was in production were the actors allowed or encouraged to critique such plot weaknesses and suggest alternatives, or were you all pretty much just expected to put up and shut up?

  17. It is so true that everything is important to the players. My husband and I have been playing D&D online with the same group of people for years now. In one campaign, my husband the DM, introduces this NPC he makes up on the fly. This NPC is completely irrelevant and at some point later in the campaign, one of the other players brings him up and he’s now a central in our current campaign.
    I’ve seen a comment above asking about knowing of any gaming groups – have you ever considered finding a game online? I have only ever played D&D online, never face to face. It can be a bit difficult to find a good group of reliable gamers but once you do, it’s great. In our group, my husband and I live in VT, one player lives in SD, another in WA, another in TX, and another in OR. We’ve even had someone from Australia playing with us. We play using a program called OpenRPG. It’s basically a chat program designed specifically for RPG’s. Many groups have no problems letting people lurk in on a game, including ours.

  18. I got the 4E Starter kit with the condensed DMG/PH to start with but of
    course i couldn’t stop there. The full DMG and PH should be arriving the
    mail any day now and I’ll be devouring them as soon as humanly possible.
    Thanks for the redirect to Gnome Stew! Looks like a veritable treasure trove
    of information.

  19. I don’t know what it was like for the other guys, but nobody ever listened to me.
    And to be honest, it’s probably for the best that they didn’t; I was an idiot teenager who couldn’t find his ass with both hands.

  20. These D&D posts about the game you ran for Nolan and his friends have been awesome to read. I also just listened to episodes 1 – 4 of the Penny Arcade game you played in. It’s all made me really excited about 4e. I played in a short battle in from “Keep on the Shadowfell” and I have to say that 4e is really awesome. I like this wrap up post because I think it has valuable information for players as well as DMs. I’ve played with players who don’t understand the “Yes, and…” game and/or don’t really seem to be playing for fun. There’s lots of good advice to take away from your DM posts. Thanks for writing!
    Regarding the Penny Arcade D&D podcasts. Wow. Those are insanely entertaining and informative. I just about lost it every time I heard the sound of four dice rolling followed by a chorus of whispered expletives. Been there, rolled that. Also, I would totally not have remembered what “shifting” was without listening to the podcasts. Awesome.

  21. I ran a D6 Star Wars RPG campaign from 1989 to 1999 on and off. A couple of years ago I was introduced to playing Star Wars using an IRC channel with a dicebot. It’s all text. No online maps and such, but we had a blast for about a year. We also had lurkers who could post in an out-of-character chat window.
    The GM was from the UK, there was another player from the UK, one in Korea, one in Canada, one in Texas, one in Arizona and I was in Malaysia. Timing was nuts. We usually played so it was early evening in the US, morning in the Pacific rim, but the poor UK guys were nodding off at their computers playing from around midnight to 6am local time.
    We had two campaigns, here’s the “group portrait” of the campaign I ran:

  22. FYI: Check out my blog for the game notes from the The Keep on the Shadowfell game we are playing in. We are at Game 10 and about 3/5 of the way thru. With the blog, there is some play by play for the battles, but changed to more simple note for better game enjoyment.
    Game on.

  23. I’m curious as to how much time you spent preparing for this session. I’m seriously thinking about DMing for my GF and her two girls (13 and 10), but I’m worried about how much time it would take.

  24. Great posts, Wil! It’s kind of appropriate that I read them on the same day my D&D group got together to finish up an encounter with a zombie horde and an abomination before finding (and killing and allowing our kobold rogue to eat) a mad elven wizard who’d been impersonating a priest of the Sovereign Host in a local village before creating said zombie horde to kill and zombify the villagers. Our kobold can get pretty bloodthirsty, so we allow him some concessions from time to time, especially when he has difficulties making good attack rolls against the baddies. Anyhow, thanks for your take on the game and your thought processes through some of the events. It gives me an idea of what my husband goes through every time he DMs our rowdy little group.

  25. I read the delve start to finish a few times, studied all the stats and tactics, and made sure I understood the maps. I figured out how I would tie this one session into the larger campaign I have planned, and made up some story points to make sure that happened. I probably spent a total of 5 hours over the course of a week on that.
    I reviewed all the quickstart rules from Keep on the Shadowfell, and reread the combat and movement rules from the PHB. I probably spent another 3 or 4 hours over the course of the week doing that.
    I also reread all of Keep on the Shadowfell, which was probably another 3 hours, and I invested another 2 hours reading forums and websites.
    I spread this all out over 7 days or so, spending about 2 hours a day doing something or other that could be counted as preparation.
    I should point out, though, that it never felt like “work” to me; it was a lot of fun.

  26. Wil – thanks for the great advice. We just started getting back into D&D after 15 or years ways away from it, and it looks like I’ll be the DM for Keep on the Shadowfell. Reading your posts (and listening to the hysterical “1st season” of the PA/PvP podcasts) have been a tremendous help in getting my confidence up to get a good adventure going.

  27. Wil,
    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and tips! After decades of being an occasional player, I’ve been inspired by your posts and the two PvP podcasts to start my own game. It’s REALLY hard to not jump into designing my own world/races or completely redo the setting just to suit my own over-ambitious imagination, but you’ve reminded me to not overstep my fledgling skills. I think I may need to put a post-it on my shiny new DM’s screen: KiSS, DI! (Keep It Simple Stupid… Damn It!)

  28. Wil,
    I’ve just come across your blog and I thoroughly enjoy what I’ve read, especially the Spanish Inquisition reference. Reading about your experiences as a DM make me want to come to your house and join your game, but that would be just about as awkward as this post, so I’ll just stay at home.
    On a side note, I’ve been watching a lot of ST:TNG lately, mostly first and second season. Man that was some pretty cheesy stuff. I also enjoy your comments on the VH1 countdown shows.
    @Craig’s first comment: I LOVED the original Star Wars d6 game. Nothing more epic than grabbing a handful of d6 and making a huge roll for something crazy, thinking “No sweat, I can pull this off with 10 dice” and then rolling all ones and twos.
    Anyway Wil, I enjoy your blog and I think it’s cool, and look forward to more from your campaign.

  29. Well, Scott Kurtz, who writes and draws PvP also is on both podcasts, so you’re technically correct in either case.

  30. Wil,
    I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this series of posts. I hope there will be more. Felt like we were right there in the room with you.
    I had that red book Basic set too, as a kid, but I never got to play a single game with anyone. Spent untold hours rolling characters for myself.
    About a year ago I gave my kids the Basic Game (linked to 3.5, I think) but for one reason and another, we never got around to actually starting a game until today–inspired in no small measure by your posts (so thanks, a ton, for the great morning you gave us today). I was DM for my 3 oldest girls, ages 13, 10, and 8. We had the best time. And now I’m all hung up on the 3.5 vs. 4E question. We’ve got several more encounters to go in this Basic Game, and after that–? Will I confuse them terribly if we then switch to 4E modules? Would we be better off looking for used 3.5 stuff? We don’t have the Player Handbook, DM Guide, etc yet in either edition. It sounds like the rule changes between these two editions are pretty extreme (from what I’m picking up here and in the Amazon reviews, etc) and I can’t decide which direction to go.
    How do you like 4E compared to the games you remember from before?
    Any thoughts (Wil or anyone) about the points made in this review: http://www.amazon.com/review/RKIY4CR76HPI8/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm ?
    Many thanks!

  31. Cool, thanks for the reply!
    Yeah, I figured I’d be reading all the manuals and stuff, because that’s what I did the last time a played. I just wasn’t sure how much extra effort went into the DM side.
    And of course this is totally not like work! :)

  32. I don’t see an email address in your profile, so I’ll just reply to you here (apologies to Mr. Wheaton).
    At the risk of giving away all my carefully crafted mystique, visit kingworkscreative.blogspot.com to find what you seek.
    (Rhyme not intentional, but I’ll run with it)

  33. Best advice I’ve ever heard: Good DMs cheat.
    I’m still learning how to do that (well), and it’s actually harder than it sounds.
    For instance, some folks here posted about screened vs. “open” rolling for bad guys. I’m still working that out.
    Example: In one intense battle, a big baddie was standing against two PCs (the rest were unconscious) and my rolls behind the screen kept coming up as misses. Later, (after-session) one player said he thought I was probably missing on purpose to avoid a party-kill. I wasn’t but it was perceived that way…I certainly didn’t want that BUT I wouldn’t have wanted the whole party to be toasted.
    Also, the concept of rewarding creative thinking is right on, and that (I think) means less roll-playing and more role-playing. The emphasis on roll/role is a matter of preference, I guess, but I’m finding as a DM it’s EASIER to rely on rolling, but “role-ing” leads to more discoveries and creative ideas. Still working on how to push the latter.

  34. Hey Wil I never got into D+D too much but ya know your stories about your sessions have at least gotten me interested again. I don’t even know of groups in the Arcadia area. Ah well, back to work. Thanks for the stories and detailed descriptions

  35. Wil,
    First of all, your D&D4e campaign series of blog posts was great, and it has me really excited about running H1:KotS next Sunday for some friends–in fact, ’twas the Acquisitions Incorporated podcasts that got me excited enough about 4e to bite the bullet, 1-click the Core Rulebook Gift Set, the DM screen, and H1:KotS, and talk my wife into trying D&D “just once, and if you don’t like it, I’ll never bother you again!”
    I just wanted to make explicit something that fits in with your lessons learned: whenever the DM makes a judgement call that is designed to keep the game flowing, it is *always* the Right Thing.
    I just wanted to call this out because of a few lines like the following in your blog posts:
    I decided that I’d make a roll against their Will on d20, and if they rolled higher, they made it. I have no idea if that was the “right” thing to do, but it kept the game moving […]
    Of course it was the right thing, silly Wil! And I think *you* know this, given the amount of fun you and the lads had, but to the reader who was little or no D&D or P&P RPG experience, it may not be as obvious. So, let me paraphrase the DMG, H1:KotS, and many blog posts and essays by experienced DMs:
    The rules are simply a framework for collaborative storytelling, and as such, the DM should feel free to bend, break, or suspend them when doing so advances the story, ups the ante, or simply makes the game more fun.
    –Josh, who is warming up his unlucky D20 as we speak (for rolling critical failures when the PCs really need a break, you see)

  36. HAH. Great post. The wisdom of the true gamer. Shuffle a few words around and this is actually a pretty good way to run your life, huh?
    I’d add two more pieces of advice.
    1- When improvising… take notes. At the very least, take better notes than your players. It can be very embarrassing when the player remembers the name of the Kobold Chieftain and you get it wrong in the middle of play.
    2- Unless you want the life’s breath sucked out of your amazing cliffhanger ending because an important player misses the next session, make sure you have an up-to-date copy of everyone’s character sheet.

  37. Hi Wil,
    VERY well done.
    A great guide to new DM’s.
    Dare I say it you have taken me back to my D&D and AD&D days.
    I’d not even known about 4E and D&D style games were still going.
    Your writing style both here and twitter has prompted me to search out one of your books. (I think Just a Geek takes my fancy. :) )
    Hokies Lets see, DND 4G plus Wil’s book, what else can you put me onto?
    Thanks mate for the many years of entertainment and enlightenment you have and still continue to provide.

  38. What an EPIC post.. Thx Wil. I only recently started giving my PCs extra XP for smart ideas.. I really wish I would have learn to do that a long time ago.
    I just wanted to contribute a quick tip when it comes to more advanced players. I found that obviously will start to read the DM’s guide. But you might actually find that some even get a bit more adventurous and will read the monters manuals as well.
    I found to twist things up, I would prep by modifying the monsters stats and abilities. For example a few years back, I was playing with some friend I had played with for years. They were higher level and had come upon a group of orcs. The PCs were out numbered 5-1, but they were fairly confident they could easily over run the orcs..
    Well what they didn’t know is that all the orcs had been bitten by radio active spiders and had all the special abilities of a medieval spiderman.
    Nothing gives me more pleasure they making the PCs have to escape with the tails between their legs..

  39. Wil,
    I’ve been playing DND since I was 9, DM’ing since I was 11. I’m now 32 years old and have kids of my own. I run an online game based on 3rd Edition DND – *** http://winter.mushpark.com Mush client connect: winter.mushpark.com port 3000 *** (Text based gaming ROCKS!) using the Tinymux platform, and we’ve been around for about 8 years. I’m trying to teach my son how to use the gaming environment (He’s 6), so that eventually I can teach him the game of DND and have these experiences with him. How old are Nolan and his friends? Do you find it easier to teach them as they get older?
    I’m excited about sharing my favourite past time with him and teaching him the excitement of being a hero in an RPG…just worried that he may be a little young yet to teach.

  40. There are a few products out there that do exactly this. They came out around 3.5 time (I know because I released a very similiar product at the same time at GenCon). Anyway, if you want one of these Wil go to http://www.readyandwaiting.biz and write me. I’ll send ya one to try.
    Also, one thing that I feel you left out. Lots of people who think they might like DMing get burned out and don’t realize it. No need to press on if you get down in the dumps like this. If you have created a world switching out for another DM can be a nice change of pace all around.

  41. Sadly a lot of this stuff died with the end of the open gaming lisence agreement. Can’t print that stuff and charge for it.

  42. Melissa,
    I wonder if you will even read this as it is almost a month since you posted, but here goes.
    The people that like 4e tend to really like it. It is less rules heavy and a lot of things seem to have been streamlined that simply were not before. That being said, I’ve not had a chance to play 4e, just read the rules.
    3.5 and 3 both have a lot of little rules and while it does not take a lot of knowledge to play the game, it can take a lot to run one (looking at all the BDFs out there). I personally am more familiar with 3.5 and its setup. I think it has more to offer in creativity and customization of the character than 4e, but that’s just me. Realistically I think that DnD lost a lot of its storytelling when second edition was shelved.
    Used 3.5 stuff is out there on ebay and can often be found used in gaming stores for pretty good prices.

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