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.