You Say You Want a New Edition

Okay, so I’m probably the last to weigh in even though I woke up just as the news broke and followed the story all day today. And if you’re getting the news from me, you seriously need to expand your blog reading. Anyway, yesterday, Wizards of the Coast announced a “new iteration” of Dungeons and Dragons was in development and that they planned an open playtest. Despite all the “news” coming out, this is pretty much the only information there is. Everything else is speculation or extrapolation from obfuscating quotes from designers.

So here’s what I’d like to see in a new edition of D&D:

  • No Vancian magic. For you newbies out there, this was the old magic system used in Dungeons and Dragons up until 4th Edition, where spellcasters prepared their spells every day after resting and once a spell was cast, it was “burned” from their memory. Based on the novels of Jack Vance, this magic system isn’t a lot of fun and ruins anything approaching flexibility for spellcasters, something desperately wanted if the number of class features and feats that allow Wizards and Clerics to change their prepared spells. I’m just not a fan. Also, I always hated it when the wizard was sitting in the back firing a crossbow because they cast their one spell for the day and had nothing to do until the rest of the group rests – both as a player and as a DM.
  • Keep class balance. If Vancian magic is kept out of the game, this will do a lot to help as one of the big problems was that, as a caster class levels, it gets more spells and more powerful ones. Meanwhile, fighters are stuck with “I hit it with my pointy stick.” This Linear Warriors/Quadratic Wizards problem has its own page on TV Tropes (which I will not link to save your ability to be productive for the next week). One of 4e’s strengths is that no class is really much more complicated than any other to learn for a player, and no one ever feels like they’re left behind.
  • Make magic magical again. There’s two ways this is a problem in 4e, one of which I’ve talked about before. The first is that magic items no longer feel magical when they’re expected. As part of the character advancement in 4e, a PC is expected to get a full “set” of magic items (weapon/implement, armor, and amulet) and it’s part of the game balance. It takes a lot of the fun and mystery out of magic items when they’re treated this way. The other way to bring back the magic is to bring back the more utilitarian nature of spellcasting. In previous editions, only a handful of spells did direct damage to enemies, such as the classics Fireball, Lightning Bolt, and Magic Missile. The rest were less obvious direct attacks, with spells like Web, Sleep, and various illusion spells. This in turn helped…
  • Encourage player creativity. Since the casters couldn’t do as much direct damage, they had to think outside the box and use their abilities in ways the DM didn’t plan for. I can’t tell you how many times seemingly pointless spells like Create Water foiled very (at least in my opinion) ingenious traps. But it was more than that in previous editions. Exploration held a lot of weight in the game, with players fiddling with everything in a room to find secret doors and traps. Sometimes I’d throw things at my players with no specific idea in mind as to how they’d accomplish the task just to see how they’d do it. Players can be devious little buggers, and I like it when they’re playing their characters more and their power card list less.
  • No save-or-die effects or squishy first level characters. When I ran 3rd Edition games and, to a lesser extent, when I run Pathfinder games, it was an effort on my part as DM to keep the players alive in combat for the first couple of levels. Casters had no punch to them and dropped if you breathed on them funny (I once lost a wizard to a friggin’ housecat as a player), and even heavily-armored fighters would drop with one good hit from an orc. This and the save-or-die effects bothered me as a DM because it boils down to the same thing: PCs dying because of a single die roll that wasn’t in their favor. 4e fixed both of these problems brilliantly by making 1st level characters able to take a couple of hits before dropping as well as removing any save-or-die effects (the worst offenders still giving players three saving throws before killing them instantly). While it adds to the lethality of the game and thus the excitement, it’s no fun having to sit out half of a session because the DM happened to crit on the first attack and killed you outright. It encouraged players to not get attached to their characters as they could die at any moment, and made any sort of long-term storytelling difficult at best.
  • Fix the 5 Minute Workday problem. This is another previous edition problem that was fixed in 4e (but that caused others, see below) where, especially at lower levels, players would explore around, get into a fight, blow all their biggest spells to end the encounter quickly, and immediately camp and rest for the day to get all their spells back. The At-Will/Encounter/Daily power structure prevented this problem because players got most of their powerful attacks back at the end of the encounter and just saved their Dailies for the “big boss”.
  • Fix the Encounter-Heavy design.When 4e fixed the 5 Minute Workday problem, they shifted almost all of the resource management of the party to an encounter-basis rather than a daily-basis. This means that, between encounters, players can spend healing surges to get themselves back to full HP and recover almost all of their powers they used except Daily Powers. What this means is that, as a DM, each and every encounter has to be unique, interesting, and dangerous. In previous editions, you could have one or two goblins lurking in the tunnels taking potshots at the characters to whittle down their HP, but in 4e that just isn’t possible because they’d just kill the goblin in question with an encounter power and be done with it. This also makes traps ineffective because what’s the point of fiddling around with a bunch of skill checks when you can just walk into the trap, take the damage, spend a healing surge, and move on? The way 4e is set up makes it challenging for me as a DM to create an interesting adventure and encourages burnout because I have to constantly come up with new and creative encounters for the players.
  • Keep the ease of encounter design from 4e. Yes, I know that’s kind of the opposite of what I said above, but starting a Pathfinder game this week really made me appreciate how simple it is to design an adventure for 4e. The most challenging part is just coming up with something fun and new, while in previous editions up to and including Pathfinder, the bulk of the time is spent generating monsters/NPCs. Since monsters in previous editions could take class levels and you only had one stat block for any one monster, any variation between say Random Orc Grunt #5 and Grand Clanmaster Oog was that the latter had class levels, which meant you had to make a friggin’ character for every important NPC including feat choices, attributes, skills, etc. Sure, it wasn’t as big of a headache as making a PC because you could bend the rules, give an extra feat or boost an attribute if you want. But it’s still time consuming. It takes in my estimation twice as long for me to design a Pathfinder session than a 4e one, even though 4e has more combat and thus more monsters. Because everything in 4e is balanced, I can just thumb through the Monster Manual/Vault books and drop in whatever I need. Aside from writing the story, I spend probably 80% of my prep time as a DM in 4e tweaking encounters, terrain, and maps so that each encounter is interesting and only 20% of the time futzing with picking monsters and fiddling with their stats. In Pathfinder and 3rd Edition, flip those. What this means is that in previous editions, the NPCs may have been more well-developed, but encounters were boring because I just didn’t have the time or energy to make them more interesting after having to fiddle with pretty much every single creature in the game so that there was a bit of variety in the enemies.
  • Keep Minions. I’m trying to figure out a way to use minions in Pathfinder, but it’s just not working for me (I don’t have the math skills to do deep game design like that). But I friggin’ love minions. Players love them because they get to mow through bad guys and it makes them feel powerful. I love them because I get to put a crapload of minis on the board and cackle without actually risking a TPK in every encounter, and it’s a crapload of creatures on the board where I as DM don’t have to keep track of a damn thing. No HP, no damage rolls, no nothing. They’re hit, they’re dead. They hit, they do X damage and we move on to the next one. Brilliant and simple. I love them and want more of them. Don’t get rid of minions!
  • Backwards compatibility. One of the rumors floating around based on a quote from one of the designers is that you’ll be able to use products from every edition of D&D with the “new iteration”. While 1st and 2nd Editions weren’t too different from each other, 3rd Edition was a big leap in design philosophy. I know this first-hand because I’m currently bastardizing a bunch of old 1st Edition modules for Pathfinder since direct conversions just aren’t possible. And if 2nd to 3rd was a leap, then 3.5 to 4th was a three-stage rocket. I just can’t see how I’ll be able to use material from each edition. I’d love to be able to pull out Keep on the Borderlands or the old GDQ modules and run them as-is with a new and updated version of the rules yet still keep all the push/pull/slide effects that make 4e combat so much fun.

So were a lot of my desires contradictory? Of course they were! So are most of everyone else’s, to be honest. I believe that @TheAngryDM summed it up best yesterday on Twitter: “Feedback says players want: simple games with tactical combat and a high degree of customization but not too many choices…”

Published in: on January 10, 2012 at 10:15 AM  Comments (3)  
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Another Apology for Late Updates

I currently have a pulled lower right lumbar muscle which has left me in a crapload of pain. I really intended to keep updating regularly again, but when rolling over in bed leaves me trying to strangle screams of pain, it’s a bit distracting to try to write. I’ll have a few new posts up as soon as I possibly can.

Published in: on December 20, 2011 at 1:48 AM  Leave a Comment  

Late Post

Sorry, I really wanted to stick to my old M-W-F update schedule, but life interfered in the double-punch of my father going to the ICU for a blockage in his carotid artery (he’s okay now) and my back leaving me bedridden for the past 24 hours. My plan is to have a proper post up by this afternoon.

Published in: on December 16, 2011 at 8:10 AM  Leave a Comment  

Update on the Blog’s Status

Wow…did NOT expect this. One exclusive unboxing for a tertiary product from Wizards of the Coast and I get more pageviews in a single day than I did the entire time I was updating this blog regularly. And not even on that page. So I’ve decided to start updating this blog again, and I’m going to try to stick to a proper schedule again. Not entirely sure what that schedule will be yet, but expect to see more content on here starting next week.

I’m shifting the blog from focusing on new DMs to being more broad in teaching the art of Dungeonmastering in general. It’s part art and part craft and it requires a lot of skill. Some people seem born with the ability, and some learn the hard way through experience. I’m going to try to share my 20 year experience in running games of various systems and genres with various sizes and style to make things easier on you. Hopefully, your games (be they Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, MechWarrior, Eclipse Phase, Paranoia, or anything else) will run more smoothly and be more fun for everyone involved.

And for all you new readers out there, feel free to comment on anything. If you think I suck, tell me exactly why so that this blog can improve. I’m only doing this for you, so if there’s something you don’t like, let me know or it won’t get better.

And thanks for checking out Dungeon Mastery.

Published in: on December 9, 2011 at 8:01 AM  Leave a Comment  

Definition of a Geek

Or nerd or dork or whatever moniker you prefer. I’m going to list some activities and you tell me whether or not they’re geeky.

1. Sitting around with a bunch of friends playing a Fantasy game, using statistics and guesswork to figure the odds to score the most points and win the game.

2. Discussing the intricacies of different designs, going into minute detail on the advantages and disadvantages of different options and modifications.

3. Playing in an immersive MMORPG which requires questing with your friends in order to upgrade your items.

4. Regularly spending hours with friends discussing plot points and character motivations for a genre series.

Alright, time’s up! NONE of these activities are considered by the mainstream population geeky, nerdy, or dorky. They’re considered perfectly normal activities that perfectly normal people do.

1. Fantasy Football/Baseball

2. Muscle car shows/magazines

3. Farmville

4. Twilight

The strange thing is, each of these can also describe an activity which IS considered geeky/nerdy. Pokemon, case mods/overclocking/OS customization/programing, World of Warcraft, and Star Trek/Star Wars/Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Firefly/Dresden Files/Doctor Who/etc.

So tell me, what exactly is the difference between a grown man pretending he’s Tommy Lasorta trading players in Fantasy Baseball and a guy playing Magic: The Gathering?

Published in: on August 30, 2011 at 1:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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I’m Not Dead Yet!

Yeah, my players will find the title funny because I have a unilateral ban on Monty Python jokes at the table.  However, I just wanted a quick post letting you know that, even though I haven’t updated in a while, I haven’t abandoned the blog.  I just don’t really have anything to say at the moment.

Published in: on March 16, 2011 at 7:50 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Time for a New Name?

This post isn’t so much about D&D as it is about the blog.  When I started this, it was originally meant to be a blog to help new DMs or to convince players to become DMs.  The reason behind this was a selfish and altruistic one all at once.  The more DMs there are, the more games there are and the more chances I could get to play in a game instead of always having to DM.  I figured many others out there were having the same problem, so I might be able to help them.

Quickly though, the blog became less about helping new DMs and more about exploring the art behind DMing a game.  The reason for this shift came unconsciously then consciously to me.  I’m not the best with rules or all the crunchy stuff like balancing encounters and giving treasure of an appropriate level and all that.  What I am good at when it comes to running a game are the more abstract qualities a good DM needs.  The ability to read your players, improving, creating interesting NPCs, things like that.  So my articles went more in that direction and a lot of it wouldn’t be that helpful to new DMs.  Also, my google search for similar blogs to my concept came up dry and it turns out there’s dozens of them already, so I made the conscious decision to shift the focus.

However, writer apathy set in.  Also, the style I was using was horrible.  Big blocks of text and complex sentences (the earlier articles came in somewhere around a 8-10th grade reading level…even 8th grade textbooks aren’t written at an 8th grade level) made everything hard to read and I was using a lot of wall of text articles with no cool pictures or videos or even links.  On top of all that, my attempts to convince my friends to play D&D fell flat and I didn’t have a game.  So I put the blog on hiatus.

Almost immediately, my friends were suddenly really interested in D&D.  Not coincidentally, this was around the time Community aired its D&D episode.  I also had started re-listening to the D&D Podcasts and YouTube videos.  So I was exposed to D&D stuff all over again almost constantly.  Again, I put up a post on a Sunday I was putting the blog on hiatus and less than one week later all this was happening.  So I had a lot of D&D floating around my head and needed an outlet for it all aside from my adventures.

So I started posting on here again.  And instead of the thrice-weekly update schedule from before, I was posting daily.  Only the style had changed.  In case you haven’t noticed, everything I’ve written since then was conversation in tone and just about D&D in general.  While I’d like to think the posts are still helpful, it’s just not the same site I originally created and I’m just not sure what to do with it.

I like having this blog.  I don’t really have an audience (my biggest page view numbers in one day so far has been 25…and the second highest is 14 and the third is 5…not exactly ready for a big IPO yet), but I like that there are a few people reading what I write.  However, I think I’m confusing people with the name of the blog.

This blog isn’t about new DMs anymore.  Again, the advice I give will be helpful to them because the art behind DMing a game is probably the most important but least written about aspect of the game.  It’s also one of the things that only experience can give you, either by experiencing it yourself or reading the experiences of others.  Also, I’m not new to the DM game.  I’ve been doing this for 20 years at this point.  I’ve run two long-term weekly campaigns, one 3rd Ed that ran for about 16 months and one 4e that ran for 8 months.  I’ve run literally hundreds of one-shots in D&D (2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions), Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, D20 Modern, MechWarrior (yes, I got the name right…I’m referring to the roleplaying game based on BattleTech), Paranoia, Earthdawn, Star Wars (d20 version), a few indie published games I can’t remember because they’ve faded into obscurity, and dozens upon dozens of homebrew games.

What this means is that people coming to this site for the first time will see the name and assume either A) I’m a new DM writing about my tribulations and/or B) I’m writing for new DMs to help them out.  So I’m asking you, my three regular readers and whoever clicks on my links I post under #DnD on Twitter.  Should I keep posting on here or move to another blog with a more appropriate title?  Or should I just try to rebrand this website (which apparently will take an Act of Congress or a crapload of money if I’m reading WordPress’s options correctly which I’m probably not)?  What do you people think?

If you have an opinion, please leave a comment.  If you don’t…leave a comment anyway so I know you’re reading but just don’t care what I do.

Published in: on February 26, 2011 at 8:45 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Yeah, no new updates for a while.  And I was doing SO well keeping on schedule!  Unfortunately, while I still have plenty of ideas for more articles, something about the format feels wrong to me.  I’m essentially writing very dry and wordy articles with no pictures or links, which would’ve been great in 1998 but for 2011, just ain’t going to cut it.  Plus I’m not currently running a game and, though it appears I have a couple (probably literally) regular readers, I haven’t gotten any sort of feedback.  So I’m going to put this blog on hiatus and leave the articles up as they are for now.  As soon as I have the time (and honestly, the motivation) to do this right, I’ll revamp the site.

If you are one of those two or three people who have been reading this blog, feel free to send me an email at and let me know if there’s anything I can do to improve the site.  And trust me, I won’t fall behind schedule next time.

Published in: on January 16, 2011 at 3:46 AM  Leave a Comment  

Feedback Poll

Well, I’ve managed to get a handful of regular readers…either that, or people seem to trickle in every M/W/F when I update for the first time at the site.  So I’d really like to know what you guys would like to see more from me since I haven’t gotten any real feedback yet.  Please vote in the poll below, and if there’s something else you’d like to see on this site, let me know in the comments.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 7:03 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Odds are you’ve played your favored game as a player and you’ve decided that it’s time to run a game of your own.  Maybe you’re wanting to start a game but none of your friends want to run one, so it’s fallen to you to run the game.  Perhaps you played when you were a kid and decided to get back into it after years away.  No matter the reason, you’ve decided to become a Dungeonmaster (or Gamemaster or Storyteller or Referee or whatever your particular favored game system chose to avoid getting a trademark lawsuit).  May the Gods have mercy on your soul.

You have just decided to devote a large amount of your free time and doing a lot of work to run a game.  You may very well spend ten or fifteen hours or maybe more prepping for a quick four hour gaming session.  It’s all down to you now.  You are in charge of knowing the rules for your game system.  You need to know everything that’s going on in the game world, from the big things like where the treasure is hidden and what exactly is guarding it to the color of the socks the waitress is wearing at the tavern and how the temple’s priest feels personally about the regent’s son.  Your players each run one character, while you run everyone else in the entire game world – as well as designing every physical aspect of that entire world.

Scared?  You should be.

But you should also have a nice feeling of anxious anticipation in your gut too.  I’m not going to lie to you.  Running a game is a lot of work.  But it’s also a lot of fun.  If you’ve ever been the host to a party or helped organize an event, it’s the same feeling.  You may be working your ass off surrounded by people who are having a good time, but you’re got the feeling of accomplishment that you are responsible for all the people around you enjoying themselves.  You get to see the hard work you put into the game pay off when your players laugh and smile at the gaming table.  And then there’s the icing on the cake…those few moments you get as a DM your party-throwing compatriots just don’t get.

Your players have been digging through dungeon after dungeon to stop the plans of Evil Archmage Whatshisname, collecting these artifacts and bringing them to the temple where Priestess Whatshername has been purifying them…and after they bring the last one to the priest, that’s when they find out that the priest is actually Evil Archmage Whatshisname!  And after the final artifact is in his possession, allowing him to take over the world, he reveals all the clues they’ve missed that would’ve pointed out that their trusted ally was actually their greatest enemy!

You will never in your life have a high as great as the one you get in those moments.

Those few moments of joy are why you run a game.  If you’ve never done it before, it can be a bit daunting.  Thankfully, there are a lot of resources out there to help you plan and design your games from individual sessions to a grand, sweeping campaign world.  This blog is less an attempt to give you a list of random generators and worksheets (though there will be plenty of those), but more about hone the skills needed to keep a game running smoothly and to maximize the enjoyment for everyone at the gaming table. And yes, it is an artform. A good portion of DMing is writing as you are creating stories as well as characters. The other important (and obvious) skill is improvisational acting, to switch characters rapidly and act out what they do without a script. But the art of DMing also involves elements of engineering and architecture – both in the literal sense of creating the buildings and items the players encounter as well as more figuratively in creating art using a set of defined rules (in the real world, those rules are called “geometry” and “physics”). And of course, the art of being able to quickly and efficiently manage a group of people to get them toward a common goal. These are all skills and disciples required for being a good DM, and the best teacher is experience. If you’re just starting out, you don’t have that experience. Hopefully, you’ll be able to learn from the posts here and make your first (or five hundredth) game as enjoyable and fun as possible.

Published in: on December 4, 2010 at 4:44 PM  Leave a Comment  
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