This was the first week of the second season of Shop D&D at MCM. I had thought we’d be splitting the group, but then we were short 3ish people and that didn’t make sense anymore. So I ran a game for 7 or so. And I, of course, did some things wrong…
For the basic structure of the game, I attempted to do a live MtG pack adventure. This did not go as well as I had hoped. The biggest issue, I think, was how it ate into the time I had available. I try as best I can to start wrapping up around 8’30, which means when we get a later start like we did (6’45 or so) we can’t get through everything and we feel rushed. Or at least I feel rushed. And when the DM is rushed, description is the first thing to go, followed closely by satisfying game play. I hate being rushed. But I also have to remember that this is Shop D&D, and the hours we play are not my own. Unfortunate when I wish to continue, but dem’s the breaks.
The first thing that cost me time was not having an improv foundation. Going away from planned materials is an essential skill for DMs. Doing a 100% improv night is a rush. There is this elated feel that you get when you are dancing with Khaos and can’t afford to let him lead, no matter how much he chose the music. And the rules of D&D are helpful in this, cutting in and providing stalling points like the jealous Order, watching for a place he can cut in…
Extending metaphors aside, improv may lead to a fun session, but it doesn’t lead to a good game. At least, as far as I have seen. When improving, important narrative elements are neglected. Foreshadowing, character development, heck, even the all important descriptions take a hit. If you have 20 minutes to jot down some notes about your town is based off of Louisiana cities, with notes and maybe some screenshots, it is going to be a better game any time your players are standing in a place you thought about then when they are standing in a place you’re making up on the spot.
“But wait,” say the thronging masses of players who have gamed with me for years, “Aren’t you a champion of SlyFlourish’s Lazy DM style of running games? Isn’t that your thing? Isn’t running a game with no prep the point of your training in that dojo?” (D&D dojos sound intriguing…)
The answer to these exclamations is, well, that times change. My first game changing D&D volume was Xtreme Dungeon Mastery. This was my first step into my expansion of DMing consciousness that, at this point in time, has yet to end. The XDM book was above all, really fun to read. And it led naturally into the Lazy DM style. The biggest thing I learned from the XDM guys is what the die rolls meant. A nat 20 or a nat 1 is just a 5% likely outcome. I know you can stand there and scoff at me, (I am naturally scoffable) but that blew my mind a little. Trying to set an exact DC didn’t matter as much to me anymore. It came down to the die roll, in many circumstances. Sure, being a super awesome skill monkey made it more certain that you could get through challenges, but that just adjusted the die roll I was looking for. My style of play became more fluid, more ready to respond to player shenanigans.
The Lazy DM era was a pretty awkward time of transitions for my group. We were a fairly…. whipped group, as players went. We rarely did much to rock the boat. We never questioned plot inconsistencies, we just went with whatever was going on. So when I learned about Lazy DMing, my mind exploded and I suddenly grabbed my players and said “Okay, you’ve got a vague quest. You can go anywhere. Go!” And they stood there, (well, the players sat, the characters stood) and the looked uneasily around. There was nothing for them to latch on to, no threads for them to easily chase. “Where was the plot? Where was the dungeon? We came here to play D&D, not explore an open world!!”
Eventually, with practice on both parts, we grew as a group and we could move away from a set plot and into a more dynamic play/DM structure.
Then I learned of my 3rd DMing fad. Fad isn’t quite right, but it’s pretty close. I’m currently studying at the AngryDM dojo. I like how his articles contain details of storytelling elements. The magic and mystery of good storytelling is being pulled away from my preparation and that’s not a bad thing. All magicians must except that as they become proficient in the craft that the wonder of “How did the ball vanish?” is replaced with “Ah, he does a MacArthur Twist, followed by a Force and misdirection at the relay.” (All of that jargon was gibberish, FYI)
The same loss of wonder happens to DMs, as we perfect our craft of creating stories, sometimes in the moment, and relaying it to a table full of participants. That doesn’t mean we can’t be impressed with other DMs. We all have something to learn, and, if math can be applied to langauge and the inverse is also true, that means we all have something we can teach. This is why I love to watch Chris Perkins, DM to the Stars, run a game. He has this style that I wish I could emulate better.
Now I am here, writing articles on how bad of a DM I am. Maybe someday, I will invert my Articles and they will be about how I rocked at D&D and you can too! But not for now.
What the heck was my subject?
Ah, yes. First, build a base of Improv. Improving is a lot of fun, but if your random additions are modifying your base, say a city with a few established NPCs, events, and quests, with some foes and locations all figured out, well, if your random additions won’t work, then you still have all of that to rely on. And you won’t be scrambling for names.
Second, have a list of names. OMG, I lost so much time trying to come up with names for things, people, and places. I can see where having an established pantheon would have been helpful, as I cast around for too long, before naming a temple the Raven Queen’s. I really need to get better about having a list, but I never know what I need. This is where all the prep would have helped a lot. Knowing the name of 3 inns in town, with 1 sentence about their staff and style would have been amazing.
Third, know what is in the Magic Shop. Now, this point is a little unfair to me. I knew that I wanted to have the players cash in from the previous adventures and trade vast sums of money for magic items that I would have to make up on the spot. Having a well established setting like I plan for TSI will help, as will breaking down how money and magic items work as I intend in my MttMA series. Ideally, as far as I’m concerned, Magic shops should have 3 strong magic items available for purchase and one powerful magic item available for a quest, plus some minor bits and pieces of enchanted gewgaws that don’t really matter, like potions and such. I didn’t have all of that prepared, so the Magic Shop, Mundan’s Bazaar, took a lot longer than it should have. Running the magic shop well is now on my personal rubric of a good DM.
One of the things that will make my magic shops better will be my future effort in creating Item Cards. These are not a new idea, I am sure, but I hadn’t used them before. ATM, they take a bit of effort to set up, as I don’t have a template to simplify adding text. That means I had to go and align all of the wordage by hand, which was mucho annoying. That’s on my list of Things to Figure Out How to Fix if I Ever Have Several Hours of Internet Access But None of My Standard Distractions Seem Fun. I’ll get to it, eventually, I’m sure. But these cards are going to help in several ways. First, they’ll restrict me from offering up just whatever in a magic shop. Second, they’ll remind players what items they have. I once had a player who had an awesome custom magic item for two months and had never used it. Which was a shame as I created it to aid in party balance. The cards will also help me get a handle on balance at the shop game, which has fallen to the wayside a little due to Attunement and trading.
Attunement is a 5e rule that I have ignored since it came out. It’s a way to limit what magic items people have. You can only have 3 items attuned at a time. I took a look at the rule and thought “Yeah, that’s not for our high magic style of play” and pushed it to the wayside. But, now that I’ve been handing out items nilly-willy at the shop, I’ve noticed an unfair power creep. Mainly, some players have a bunch of really good items, and some players have none. Now, part of that is… seniority? The longer you’ve played, the more options you have for magic items. But it is also do to Item Trading, which I was vaguely aware of, but was mostly going on without my authorization.
See, I don’t have a problem is someone is like “Oh, I found this Ring of Nullify Poison. I don’t eat, so you should have it, fleshy creature.” I’m not even upset if there is a bit of tit for tat in there, some gold exchanged. But that’s not the trading that’s been going on. People seem to think it’d be okay if, when there character departs the group, if he dumps all his magic items on members of the party. And that is not a thing I am okay with. First, that is not a thing a character would do, in the meda-game. Magic items are supposed to be important and you’re probably going to keep them as an inheritance or something. Second, Oh, man, does that mess up the game balance. And, third, sometimes I tailor items to players. I don’t always, but when I do, I kinda what that character to keep a hold of it.
While I can’t fix trading other than applying my stern disapproval, game balance is firmly in my domain and is something that I can fix. And bringing back Attunement is the game plan. Not all magic items will need attunement, but plenty will. But that’s a future thing. Know that it is coming, at least.
Fourth? Is that where we’re at? Man, I’m verbose today. Fourth, I’ve been teaching the wizard wrong. See, he reads this blog and he’s heard me gripe about how fireball can be an encounter ending spell. But, see, that’s nothing on his side to learn. It’s entirely on mine.
Okay, so D&D is ALL about resource management. Hit points, spell slots, encounter powers, hit dice, all of these are resources that the party has available to defeat what ever the heck I have to throw at them. But the players aren’t the only ones with resources. And there are a lot of tricks I can do to make it so a single fireball, or even a second or third, don’t ruin my day.
First, fireball is only really guaranteed to kill mobs when they have less than 30 hit points. If I start mobs at a baseline of 40ish, then they can eat 1 fireball to the face, and, if they roll well, they might can eat a second.
Second, stagger the foes. Send out some cannon fodder, let them get fireballed over, then a second wave of tougher smarter enemies can move forward.
Third, I have more tricks, all the time, but to tell them before I use them, well, Spoilers. Muhahahaha.
Fifth, I miss charging in 4e. We had a scenario where the fight started a bit out of reach and there were 2 untenable options available to the players. First, they could double move and be right adjacent to the mobs as their turn was starting, which no one rightly wanted to do. The second was to move just once and wait. And I don’t like that. 4e had a charge action you could do on your turn, that was a extra move plus a basic attack. I know there is a feat for 5e, I just haven’t looked at it yet. I actually have had a blah week and haven’t done any of the research I ought to have for this, but I think that will do it for this week! If you have any question, please comment below!!