An Ode to the DM

Let the DM be the center of attention once again, since that intrepid man or woman is why D&D is different than MMOs or any other video game.

Support the DM, that bearer of great imagination, power, and responsibility, through thick and thin so that they may craft the game that they want to play (and that they can get players for).

Give unto the DM advice for combat and tactics, ideas for world-building and storytelling, knowledge of the rules and how to break them properly.

Support old DMs and entice new ones.

Teach DMs to be good DMs, because bad ones are so poisonous to keeping good players interested in our hobby.

Help DMs develop the humility to respect the sacred social contract that is a D&D game group, the courage to make the final decision on each and every aspect of the game they wish, and the wisdom to strike a proper balance for their tables.

And finally, if ever there came a time where DMs rise up and say they are not having fun, let the earth shake, mountains fall, and valleys fill with the wrath of developers and game designers who set things right and insure that DMs continue to be the main reason that all D&D players have fun.

Yes, WotC, be excellent to your DMs.

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What is a DM, really?

Over and above all the hats a DM wears, a DM is someone who provides D&D players with an immersion into an adventure. Various editions of D&D have tried to explain in a nutshell what a DM is, often within the confines of three or more DMGs per edition, but I believe that the absolute essence of DMing a D&D game boils down to those two words: immersion and adventure.

With regards to immersion, the 3e DMG distinguished kick-the-door-down dungeon delving from deep immersion storytelling. I get what they were trying to say, but I think that the whole spectrum of possible games should involve some sense of player immersion. When I used to watch a TV show called The Shield, or just when I heard the opening credits, I immediately wanted to go out and kick someone’s rear end. I don’t normally go out and punch random people in the face, and I’ve achieved mixed results at best in real fights, but man, did that show get me amped up. The point is that I would get so engaged with the vibe of the show – which was to kick a lot of butt – that I sometimes forgot myself. That’s what the best D&D games are all about – making players forget themselves and immerse themselves in their characters and in the adventures they are undertaking. Whether they are immersing from a story perspective or from a combat-tactical perspective, it all counts.

As the days roll by and the countdown to D&D Next keeps ticking, I’m hearing a lot about how this new edition will take advantage of something that no board game or online game can ever duplicate – the DM. I’m hoping that the new edition gives a lot more support to DMs than 4e did. In particular, as The Jester very eloquently put it in his 12 things 5e needs to do blog, the new edition needs to not just be open to roleplaying and story, but needs to actively encourage it.

From a big picture perspective, active encouragement means repeatedly emphasizing in the printed materials that the DM’s main job is to provide an immersive adventuring experience for his or her players. Ask any teacher – people learn by repetition, whether the repetition comes from practice or from hearing and seeing it over and over again. The 4e printed materials said all of the stuff that I’m saying about immersion, but it didn’t repeat it. In fact, 4e’s presentation inferred the opposite – there were so many rules that both players and DMs were afraid to touch any of it for fear of throwing other stuff out of whack. Besides learning how to DM, therefore, I think that there needs to be some direct engagement, deconstruction, and “un-learning” of some lessons that DMs and players got from 4e in the new printed materials.

From a nitty-gritty tools perspective, that means giving DMs specific resources and advice to tinker with their games as they see fit. Even for games that are 80% kick-in-the-door combat or above, there are ways to weave small details and storytelling elements into combats in such a way that the players forget themselves and become immersed in the experience. It could be through the skill challenge combat (kill the orcs while saving the princess), or through narrative descriptions of the action, or through rewarding players who want to do outside-the-box stuff (“My friend is about to die! Let me use my action point to jump in front of him and absorb the blow as an interrupt, please?” “Sure!”). Again, 4e never actively discouraged this stuff, and experienced DMs were able to do it naturally. But the education of new DMs as well as older ones is always ongoing, and a steady stream of tools, advice, and ideas are always welcome.

It seems like this is the direction in which the new edition is going to be, which is a good thing. I write this in the spirit of someone who wants to emphasize and continue the message so that it never gets lost in what I’m sure will be a barrage of new stuff to buy. D&D Next will welcome all players, from Shakespeare to Ceasar, and DMs everywhere should have the tools to dunk them all into out-of-body, escapist adventures that they (hopefully) won’t forget.

Where 4e Succeeded and Failed for DMs, and some suggestions for DnDNext

In one of the many articles about the announcement of DnDNext, Mike Mearls made a statement about the edition as a whole that particularly applies to DMs in 4e: “In some ways, it was like we told people, ‘The right way to play guitar is to play thrash metal,’ but there’s other ways to play guitar.” Maybe the analogy of thrash metal wasn’t the best one because it sounds like a very grognardy criticism of 4e – it is so mechanically loud and noisy that it’s practically impenetrable for those who want to chill out and listen to/ play something a bit more accessible.

I do believe, though, that Mearls hit the nail on the head that 4e was great for a specific and intentional ‘golden playstyle’ of games and DMs – the ones who liked to spend 50% or more time in combat, and who had PCs that were between mechanically terrible and highly optimized (what I call “solidly built” ). That DM could trust that a gang of at-level monsters was a decent challenge for those PCs, unlike in previous editions where a CR 10 monster could have been absolutely anything from a pushover to a world crusher. Monster roles made organizing monster groups really easy, and monster powers meant that DMs didn’t have to craft a bad guy’s spell list or do any of that kind of stuff. Further, there was p. 42 of the DMG that laid out all the relevant damage numbers, and also the chapter that made leveling monsters up and down really easy. DMing in 4e is fun, especially if you were an experienced DM that was able to weave together some RP elements into combats (like in-combat skill challenge). Poking around the blogosphere and podcasts, lots of long time DMs agree that DMing in 4e was a very user-friendly experience for them.

However, DMing became a lot more of a pain in the you-know-what if you weren’t in 4e’s specified wheelhouse. Specifically, for DMs who wanted less tactical complexity to make even more room for roleplaying, and for DMs who wanted more tactical complexity to keep up with optimizing PCs, 4e did not support either in any real way. It managed to come up short for both types of DMs!

For those who wanted a less complex combat system so that they had room for funky, interesting characters (cleric/ rogue, anyone?), or for those who wanted to do emphasize world building, exploration and other deeper roleplayer-type stuff, 4e didn’t provide a lot of help. Especially with 4e’s early books, there was so much crunch, so many rules, so many combat-lengthening options, etc. Granted, it didn’t intentionally hurt roleplaying and creativity as some contend, but the medium was definitely the message here. Plus, there is only so much time in a session. If most of it is spent calculating attack bonuses, figuring out exact movement to set up flanks, or arguing whether immobilized and grabbed were the same thing, that’s time not spent negotiating with the dragon that’s doing the grabbing, or imagining RP alternatives to the whole situation.

On the other side, I think that 4e didn’t do much to help DMs who were happy with the tactical end of things (or more accurately, who were happy that their players were happy), and wanted more options to help make better encounters. Player options spiked while monster options kind of stagnated. Players got wonderful online tools that kept powers, feats, and items organized, and forums both official and unofficial readily directed players to the best options, combos, and tactics. I think they finally got around to fixing the online monster builder about a month ago. I remember being overwhelmed while DMing for an optimized LFR party and then looking for the Monster/ Encounter Optimization board or something similar for advice on how to counter PC tactics. I found nothing. I will go as far as to say that official 4e DMing advice was very naive, almost dishonest, about the ways in which players could break 4e’s intended power curve. Increasing player power isn’t necessarily bad. I want players to be happy and feel powerful if that’s fun for them. But some real tools to help monsters keep up, or real advice on mechanical fixes to bring PC power back in line (for home games), would have been great.

Since we’re at the phase where lots of people are putting together their wishlists for 5e, and since we hope the powers-that-be are reading this stuff, here’s my DM-centric wishlist:

1) Keep what was good for DMs about 4e for those who loved it. As I said before, 4e was a huge success for that golden middle of groups. Please find ways to keep that good stuff.

2) Strip down the basic combat system for DMs and groups who want to spend more session time on roleplayer stuff, or on weaving together combat and RP. Once again, many experienced DMs have done this by instinct. But those DMs could always use more resources, and newer ones sure could use the help. Sounds like this is the direction D&D Next is going in, so no need to comment more here.

3) Release a book entitled The Dungeon Masters’s Strategy Guide that gives real advice about how monsters work, how to craft encounters, how to craft houserules, and how to adjust threat level up or down beyond just adjusting monster math. That resource could also have more monster themes and templates, more encounter templates, a database with traps, curses, diseases, terrain features, and environmental effects, (coupled, of course, with online resources that supplement what would be in here), and more. The DMGs of various editions had some that stuff, but they are necessarily and rightfully general, dealing with crafting good stories, managing interpersonal group dynamics, etc. That’s awesome, but please do not shy away from crunch from those of us who loved it!

4) Release more DM-centric content in general, especially in terms of online tools. Some of us are old hats and don’t need a lot of support. But if we want to grow the hobby, we need more tools for DMs to do the best job they can.

There are LOTS of DMs with LOTS of different tastes and styles. Get to know the full spectrum, and print stuff that supports all kinds. Please everyone. That is all.

What does it mean to be “cheezy”?

Over at the Roving Band of Misfits site,  there’s a really great podcast about PCs who optimize and how that affects table balance. The podcast differentiates between optimized and non-optimized (or ineffective) PCs, but I think there’s a middle ground where most people play at. For lack of a better term, I’m going to call them “solidly built” PCs. These middle ground PCs max out their attack stat (which is THE primary thing you have to do to make any 4e character effective), make good choices with their feats (Expertise, Focus, and whatever else appears on SlyFlourish’s list of default feats), and generally play well at the table.

The $10,000 question is, what’s the line? What separates solidly built PCs from optimized ones? At what point in that spectrum does a group or DM impose the value judgment of “cheezy”? Because at the end of the day, “cheeze” is not a descriptive term; it is a value judgment. This is a DM-centric blog, so from a DM’s perspective, a cheesy PC is one that makes me do more prep work building encounters than I want to, or makes me do prep work that takes away from other stuff I want to prep. Cheeze = more work for the DM!  This is true, at least, for any DM that wants to build challenging encounters for players. I should hope that is a pretty big percentage of them.

Just because “cheese” is a judgment call, that does not mean it is purely subjective. Lots of gamers handwave away accusations of cheese, claiming that cheese is in the eye of the beholder. Since so many people have so many different definitions of cheese, it is a meaningless term, right? I do not agree with this at all, mostly because a cheesy PC or a cheesy combo has a real, non-subjective effect on a DM’s prep time. If the DM is okay with the combo, and even relishes the opportunity to match tactical wits optimized PCs in their encounters, then there is no cheese. However, if the DM is like me and a) has limited time to craft encounters and/ or b) wants to spend time crafting better story hooks, interesting NPCs, etc., then you better believe there’s a line that some PCs or combos can cross. That line is around where the frostcheezing melee ranger, the “you shall be forever prone” fighter, or the “I stun and give vulnerable 10 to half the monsters before they can even scratch their butts” hybrid swordmage/ wizard hang out. If I’m crafting encounters specifically to counter certain PC combos and tactics and have no time left over to craft some awesome bad guy dialogue, then I’m not a happy camper. I LOVE bad guy dialogue! Do not deny me bad guy dialogue!

Or there will be days that I don’t have a lot of time to craft challenging encounters at all, and all I can really do is take stuff from the Monster Vault, put it on a map with some fun terrain, and go. With a group of simply solidly-built PCs, I know that will work. In fact, the whole of 4e is built on that assumption, as a couple of us on the Character Optimization official boards showed here. But with a really optimized group, I just know ahead of time that all of those encounters will be toast.

For those who stop to think a bit about the feelings of the poor DM, I think a some players assume that DMing is easy in 4e, that we have access to ready, easy tools for DMs to easily ratchet up encounter level. We do not. 4e makes it easy to increase monster math – level, hit points, damage, etc. But none of that does any good if its stunned, prone, immobilized, and probably dead before it does anything. Plus, there is no real central data bank for terrain features, environmental effects, and other “home field advantages” that a monster group might have to up their threat level. I eventually hope to put some of that stuff together in this blog. But just as players have a nice, shiny character builder that gives them access to all the feats and powers they want, DMs need easy access to these environment and other encounter-building resources.

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There is a certain amount of work-creating cheeze that is baked into the 4e system, and I cannot blame players for taking advantage of it.  Multiattacks are truly broken, and simply hang there in the character builder like low hanging fruit for PCs to pluck. There is absolutely no drawback to making immediate action attacks or minor action attacks. How many rogues have Low Slash? How many avengers have Fury’s Advance? Couple that with piles of items and feats that give untyped damage bonuses, and you have the recipe for “winning” 4e as a player. In my epic level home game, I play with a dragonborn fighter who adds his Con mod and his Str mod whenever he pushes anything, which is pretty much all the time. At our level, that’s +15 free damage just for showing up! That created an arms race with the archer ranger, who picked up the dreaded frostcheeze combo (Wintertouched + Lasting Frost + cold-based items). That gave the ranger a cool (pun intended) +28 damage to his Twin Strike! Is this cheeze? Ask the solo lvl 28 dracolich that we brought to bloodied before it was even his turn, and couldn’t use his bloodied breath power because he was dominated at the time.

So, what can a DM do? Once again, the DM has to be aware of his/ her time, as well as how much fun they have putting together tactically challenging encounters. But if they are making a value judgment of “cheese” to certain things a PC can bring, here are three easy starter tips that I’ve been playing with:

1) Houserule some kind of drawback to immediate and minor action attacks. Some DMs restrict PCs to one immediate in their power list, some make it cost a surge, some make it reset the PCs turn in the initiative order, etc. There’s lots of ways to do it. In my game, the rule I go with is that any immediate/ minor action attack takes a -2 penalty (the power attack penalty), and if the attack misses, the PC grants CA until the end of their next turn. It doesn’t stop them from doing it, but at least it makes them think twice.

2) Add anti-status effect metapowers to your elites and solos. I have short list of Big Bad Evil Guy Metapowers here. Some of these are mine, most are blatanly stolen from other blogs like SlyFlourish.

3) Enforce item rarity. You can’t have frostcheese without frost weapons! Controllers can’t chain -12 to monster saves without a whole bunch of low level items that help them do it! What to do with magic items in a campaign is a whole other blog, but a lot of the really gamebreaking combos in the game depend on the PC having a certain layout of items. Communicate with your players, take a bit of time to look at the item they want and why they want it, and make sure they understand why you make whatever decisions you make.  But believe me, PCs cheeziness goes down quite a lot if only half of their magical gear are uncommon items.

Encouraging role playing at the table: The Seven Sentence PC

Ah, roleplaying. For some, it is THE reason they play tabletop rpgs. For others, its the complete and total BS that happens between combats. Roleplaying comes to some groups naturally, but definitely not to others. At some point, I’d like to gather every resource I’ve ever read on roleplaying at the table and distill some of the salient points into some kind of easy, quick hitting package that a GM can just pick up if he or she wants to kickstart that part of their sessions. Because I truly believe that even the most hardcore, optimizing, meta-thinking tables can be encouraged to do some sort of roleplaying. Whether its the role playing the DM wants is another question, but at least that table can be coaxed in a certain way.

The short answer to good roleplaying is that is comes from two sources: 1) somewhat developed and interesting characters in 2) well-described and interesting environments. Imagine a dungeon corridor with two doors. One door shines brightly with from all the gold and treasure behind it, while one is shaking and the screams of a damsel can be heard from behind. Which door do the characters open? An adventurer that’s basically a bag of hit points with a sword won’t really care. But for a player that’s put a hair of thought into his/ her PC, they might react one way or the other, depending on what kind of character they built. Roleplaying and player choice kind of dovetail with one another.

In terms of developing their characters, I find that a lot of players associate roleplaying with having a thick, Shakepearean backstory, and they quickly conclude that they can’t be bothered. There’s nothing wrong with the novella-length backstory, but that’s not the only way to develop a character. Back in the 3e days, Dungeon magazine ran a piece called the Seven Sentence NPC that I’ve used to this day. Just have the PCs fill it out as simply as they possibly can, and see what happens.

1) Physical Description: My PC wears a brown hunting outfit and carried a shotgun. He also has a gigantic head.
2) Attributes: He is dextrous enough to make a living as a hunter, but he’s really dumb.
3) Useful knowledge and skills: He knows about natural stuff.
4) History and/ or Occupation: He hunts wabbits.
5) Values and Motivations: He wants to get that darn wabbit.
6) Personality/ Interaction with Others: He is very focused on his job, and very shy around the ladies.
7) Distinguishing Characteristic: He stutters.

If the players can’t match the roleplaying depth of this guy, then something’s wrong.

The Absolute, Absolute Basics of D&D

(If you are just here for the basic character sheet template, here you go! )

Reading through some of the developer comments on what they want for 5e, it looks like they are trying to get at the “soul” of D&D. “Cut the bullshit, lets play some D&D!”, paraphrasing Mike Mearls in the Ghost of the Future article on Escapist. The Tome Show just put up a podcast wondering, among other things, what are the basic, basic mechanics that make a game feel like D&D.

This is a cheat sheet I’ve been tooling with for 4e games that I run for stone cold beginners. Like I said in a previous blog, for beginner games, I handwave a lot of the technical rules like opportunity attacks, interrupts, etc., and just try to focus on a pure introduction to dice rolling, roleplaying, exploring, and all of the stuff that has been constant throughout the editions. I’ll give my beginning players the premade sheet if they want, but then I’ll give them an index card that looks like this:

(EDIT – Thanks to some of the guys on the official forums, who told me I forgot to write in the dagger and also gave me some very good pointers about what the “core” of D&D mechanics should be).

Seriously, is there more to know about the numbers in D&D than this? These are the numbers that matter for every single combat, as well as for every single role playing situation that might require skill checks (I’m not going to use that dirty phrase that starts with an S and ends with Challenges). There is also a space for the player to note something special about their character, or for where the DM could jot a little note. Even on the absolute, absolute basic sheet, there needs to be room for the DM and player to interact a bit.

I know, I know, most races get +2 bonuses to certain skills. And I know, some classes have a different attack bonus with basic attacks. But for a beginner, who cares?!?!? Upon this basic structure, the DM paints a situation, and the imagination of the player fills in the rest. You would be shocked how much life little Finnan has in the hands of a very imaginative person.

Will 5e look something like this? Please, please, please understand that I do NOT want all of D&D to be this basic. I’m a veteran player, I can handle more complexity. But for my 13 year old nephew who wants to get into the game? I think this is a perfect start. I’d love to hear what other people think.

Here’s the template if you want to use this or something like this in your own game for new peeps: Absolutely Basic Character Sheet – Template

What do I want the new edition to look like?

What a time to start a new blog! Not that I’m really expecting anyone to read this, but I may as well use this space to think out loud now that 5th edition has been more or less confirmed. Thanks to Robert J. Schwalb for his pointer to this article in his blog.

So, what would I like to see in this edition? In essence, I’d like to see the most portable and flexible D&D edition to date. Here in New York City, I’m something of a “have dice, will travel” DM. I’ll DM anywhere, for any group. I’ve DMed for hardcore powergamers who eek out every single mechanical benefit that they can possibly justify for the sake of maximum killing power. It can be a little bit of a headache, but I’ve had a lot of fun at those tables.

I’ve also DMed for a whole range of people who have never played D&D before, from drunken and/ or stoned artists in a studio to screaming junior high school kids in an inner city school. For those groups, I found that a bunch of rules really got in the way. Once I caught myself explaining an opportunity attack to an 11 year old, I knew I had to ditch most of the rules I knew, identify the absolute basic mechanics that they had to know about their characters (which I identified to be attributes, hit points, attack bonus, damage dice and bonus, and defenses), and just build off of there. In the artist game, there was a male elf wizard who was squaring off against a female version of himself (don’t ask). He didn’t want to kill it because it would be killing a part of himself. Instead, he wanted to use fey step to teleport inside of his other half and resolve his inner ego conflict. After I figured out what that meant, I said “sure! Roll an Arcana check!” Much more memorable than just casting an at-will power against it.

I probably prefer the more open-ended game, but I love me some mechanical crunch as well. Is it possible to craft an edition of D&D that satisfies both kinds of players, and everything in between? Maybe some kind of basic rules frame with modular pieces that either add or take away layers of complexity, depending on the group? I certainly hope so.

While I’m wishing for stuff with no one to stop me, I’d also like for the new edition to hold up at high levels. I don’t know enough about Pathfinder to say whether they solved the high level problem, but 3e at high levels was kind of a nightmare. 4e is much better, but the combats famously bog down and the players are generally too powerful compared to the poor monsters. High level play is where its at. Caravan duty is cool, but I’d much rather storm the gates of Mordor or slay Tiamat. If they find a way to make running high level games a pleasure for a DM (and not just because it makes their players happy, but an actual pleasure to run), I will love Mike Mearls, Monty Cook and co. forever.