Category Archive: Mutterings of a Misdirected DM

Mar 14 2013

Arms and Equipment Guide for Travelling Game Masters

Friend of the Show, Eugene, asks, “hat GM-Specific equipment should I bring to run games at a convention?”

Awesome question, Eugene.

I think a lot of GMs try to bring everything they own, and that is a mistake. If you are a travelling GM your goal should be to travel light. I think a lot of people consider the ThinkGeek Bag of Holding an excellent bag for GMs. It’s the bag I use, and I know several of my fellow GMs who use it, so I’m going to describe what I think is the best way to pack that specific bag. You should be able to adapt most of the advice here for your own game bag. The key is to pack only what you know you will need first, then fill in any left-over space with goodies.

Bag of Holding - ExteriorFirst, let’s look at our bag. The Bag of Holding contains three external pockets and four internal pockets. One of the internal pockets is sealed by magnetic button and subdivided with internal pockets for pens, calculators, cell phones, and the like. All of the other pockets are sealed by zipper. One of the external pockets is padded for a laptop, or other sensitive equipment. There is an adjustable shoulder strap, and a flap cover sealed by two magnetic buttons.

Next, lets look at the list of gear we’re thinking about taking. I’m going to list every single item I own that I’ve ever used as a GM, organize it, and pare it down.

Books, Printed Maps, Grid Mats, Miniatures (or other positioning tokens), Status Markers, Dice, Writing Utensils (pencils, pens, sharpener, eraser, dry erase markers, etc), Scissors, Printed Adventure Modules, Handwritten Adventure Modules, Laptop, Tablet and other small electronics, Calculator, Playing Cards and other Specialty Card Decks (e.g. Deck of Many Things), Player Handouts, 3D terrain features, Index Cards, Tape Measure and area effect templates, Laser Pointer, Projector, Laser Level, Elevation Markers, MP3 player (or other source for sound effects), Character sheets (blank and pre-gens), Initiative Tracker, batteries, post-it notes, Pipe Cleaners, GM Screen, Miscellaneous Props.

So, lets start with the basics. Books, Maps, and Miniatures. Surprisingly, all three of these things should be very low on your priority list. Books are bulky, and you never know which ones you will need. At worst, you should have your Player’s Handbook, Rules Compendium, and Monster Manual. At your best, you are bringing a Tablet with PDFs of all of your books pre-loaded on it. Miniatures are big and bulky, and require lots of space to store. Instead, use a sheet of cardboard tokens, like the ones that come in the Monster Vault. These are easily transportable, and a lot more versatile. Maps that are rolled up in tubes are a nightmare, because they don’t fit anywhere usually, and you have to carry them by hand to keep them from getting damaged. If you have a folding printed map, you are better off, but your best bet is a foldable grid mat, so you can draw all of the maps you need.

Dice are important. You can’t play without them. Additionally, if you are running a lot of games for new players, you may want to bring extra sets, as new players often don’t have a set of their own. However, if you are rolling with an experienced crew, only bring your own set. And only bring a single set. Not the gallon bucket of dice that you paid $5 for at Gen Con. I know some of you have superstitions about the need to switch out dice that are misbehaving. Suck it up and roll the same die again. If you are bringing a tablet, or a smart phone, load it up with a dice app and leave your dice at home. You are much less likely to lose them at the convention that way, but see the tablet section below before going down this road.

Writing utensils are important. But avoid bringing #2 pencils and a sharpener. Pencils break easily, and make a mess when you sharpen them. Bring a couple of cheap mechanical pencils. Make sure each one is loaded with lead, rather than bringing an extra case of lead for them. Don’t bring a sharpener. Do bring an extra eraser. You don’t want to use the erasers on the mechanical pencils, because they get lost easily, and they are usually what is holding the lead in. If you are going with a foldable grid mat, bring 2 black dry erase markers as well. Do not bring wet-erase, unless you need to. They are more hassle than they are worth.

Bring a printed copy of your adventure. Don’t expect to print one out on site at the hotel. Don’t expect to borrow one from the convention organizers. If your organizers are giving you hand-outs for your adventures (typical at Gen Con and Origins for LFR) don’t bring your own. Otherwise, bring enough to last you for all of your games.

Pre-Gen Character sheets are important, and don’t take up a lot of space. Don’t bring more than 6. Blank sheets are not important. You might think that a blank sheet is more versatile. You’re right, but it also takes a long time to generate a character. If a player shows up who hasn’t prepared, or you are running with new players, just hand them a pre-gen and go. Don’t waste time building characters from scratch in a convention setting where time is limited.

There are a few things on the list that should not be taken at all. Topping my list of excluded items are Laptops, Projectors, and MP3 players(or other sound effect devices). The Sound Effects are great at home, but in a convention center, you are likely fighting against other noise already. Don’t make that situation any worse. Leave the projector at home too. You won’t have room for it, let alone a power supply. Similarly, most laptops won’t last for a full 4-hour game without being plugged in, and very few convention centers provide power for laptops at a table. See the section about Tablets below instead. Don’t bring a stand-alone calculator. At this point in our society, someone at your table will have a smart-phone. You probably have one yourself. It will have a calculator on it, so use that if you must, but try to do most of the calculations in your head. Most calculations should be basic addition and subtraction. If something comes up that you need a calculator for, and you don’t have your own smart-phone, ask your players to do the calculation for you. Don’t bring your tape measure, or laser level. These are sometimes used to accurately judge distance, or determine line of sight. In a convention setting, this wastes time. Unless you are participating in Tournament Level play, just eye-ball it and go. If it’s too close to call, rule in favor of the players. Just keep the game moving. This goes for anything else that you may use to try to determine accuracy. Unless your adventure is specifically focused on elevation and aerial combat, leave the elevation markers, or other specialized position tracking tools at home. Leave your 3D terrain at home as well. This stuff normally doesn’t travel well, it is bulky, and it tends to be too expensive to allow to get broken or lost. At worst, bring a single piece of 3D terrain for the major battle of your adventure, to add a little coolness factor. Don’t bring a DM Screen. Don’t worry about rolling your dice in front of the players for 95% of your rolls. For that one roll that absolutely needs to be secret, just cup your hand and roll behind it, then pick up the die when you see the result. The only reason I would bring a DM screen is for the quick-reference tables printed on the back. If you can get by without them, don’t bring it. Leave behind any miscellaneous props. For example, one guy I know had a stylized dagger to show us how a cultist’s ceremonial dagger of sacrifice would look. This is especially bad because it’s also a weapon. Do not bring any weapons to a convention. Ever.

Now, lets talk about things that should be included. Surprisingly, I’ve always found that I need to bring a pair of scissors to a convention. There are usually handouts that need to be cut before they can be handed out, or things are printed 3 to a page, so I need to separate them. You should bring Index Cards, or Post-It Notes, but not both. I prefer Index Cards. They are useful for handling initiative, passing table notes, jotting down hit points, or any number of other things. They can even be folded into table tents to help you remember player/character names. If you choose to have your players make table tents, I always find it useful to bring a template to show them exactly how you want it done. If you are running Savage Worlds, bring a deck of playing cards. Pipe Cleaners are flexible little pieces of colored wire that works wonderful as a status marker, or as a way to mark off areas that are under an effect that lasts more than one round. I try to bring a small selection in a variety of colors, unless I’m strapped for space.

Finally, lets talk about things you should bring if you have space.
Status Markers and Area Blast templates should be made obsolete by pipe-cleaners. However, if you have an abundance of room left, these can add a level of visual appeal to your game that may make them worthwhile. Specialty Decks, like random treasure cards, injury cards, or tarot cards are cool to have. They usually travel well. Specialty Initiative Trackers are usually made obsolete by Index Cards. However, if you are the type who doesn’t like the card system for initiative, this can be a nice thing to have. It doesn’t take up a lot of space either. Finally, the biggest space hog in my bag is the actual Miniatures. These add a great visual effect to the game, but they are bulky. It’s always a difficult decision to decide whether or not you should make space for these. I tend to bring my box of player minis if I know I’m dealing with new players, or a small set matching up with Pre-Gen characters. On the monster side, I bring 5 orcs with various weapons that I use to distinguish between generic humanoid/medium enemies, a pair of large creatures, a pair of small creatures, and whatever mini I have that matches best with the big-boss of my adventure. From that base, I customize as needed to meet the demands of my adventure.

Tablets (and to an extent, smart phones) are always a tricky decision. They have a better battery life than a laptop, as long as you turn off their wifi and other radio connections. Bonus! If you do have a tablet, you can pre-load it with a dice-rolling application and save yourself that space in your bag. The downside of a Tablet is that if you are doing back-to-back games, it may die on you in the middle of your second game. If you have a portable power supply, like a spare battery or solar charger, you may be able to work around this. If not, don’t expect to be able to charge your tablet between games. Only bring your tablet if you have time to charge it between games, or a portable battery to go with it. Never rely on it as your source of adventure material. Always bring a printed copy of the adventure. If you don’t bring anything else, you can still get by with borrowing dice and other material from players, but they won’t have a copy of the adventure for you. I usually bring my smart phone no matter what.

So, lets start fitting things into the bag.
First, I start with my specialized pockets.

IMG_20130315_190801

I’ve got the padded laptop pocket, where I keep my tablet, and my pre-gen character sheets. I rarely use my tablet, except when I need to look up something in a book on the PDFs stored on it. I keep my pre-gens here in the external pocket because if I get to the table and I’m running late, these are the first things I want to pull out, so I can give my players something to start looking at while I set up.

 

 

 

IMG_20130315_190711In the small pocket on the outside of the bag, I keep my scissors. I don’t like them getting mixed up with anything else because of the possibility of cutting myself if I’m digging around in the bag for something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_20130315_190930In the inner Button Up Pocket, I keep my writing utensils, my Specialty Card Deck, and a charger for my tablet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_20130315_191028In the largest inside pocket, I keep my miniatures inside a plastic box that you can get at any craft store. This helps keep them well-organized and sorted. Next to the box is my folded Grid Mat, and any folded maps I am using. Next to that, I keep my printed adventure and my index cards wrapped in a rubber band.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_20130315_190953The smaller inside pocket holds my dice. I keep extra dice packs because of the new players I often deal with. I also keep my Pipe Cleaners in here in a plastic baggie.

My cell phone goes into my personal clothing pockets, rather than into the game bag, but I may set it down at the table if I’m using it to track time, roll dice, or do calculations.

 

 

 

 

IMG_20130315_191142Finally, bring a snack. A granola bar, or something similar, will keep you going if you find yourself fading in the middle of a session. There is a small secret pouch in the Bag of Holding inside the largest pocket. This is where I keep a granola bar wrapped up. Try to remember to put a fresh one in every convention, rather than being stuck with a stale one. They won’t go bad, but as a rule, I try to avoid eating very old food. Bring a bottle of water as well. I keep mine clipped to the side of the bag, so I can get to it, even if I’m walking around the convention center with my bag slung over my shoulder. And if you are going to be doing a lot of talking, bring some cough drops. Your throat will be raw by the time you are done running 5 marathon GM sessions, and these little babies can help keep your voice from giving out.

I still have a lot of room left in this bag for any extras that I may need, such as my rule book, or even another box of miniatures. When I go to a large convention, I usually end up getting free stuff, or buying more materials which I end up carrying in my bag. Having the extra space available comes in handy when this happens.

 

There you have it. That’s my guide to packing for a travelling DM. What do you think? do you have advice of your own?

May 03 2012

Party Members, ASSEMBLE!

One thing that 4th edition D&D introduced was a codefied set of roles for characters to fulfill within the party. The roles were the Defender, Striker, Controller, and Leader.

After our last podcast, I started thinking about what roles a player might fulfill as part of a gaming group. I came up with the following.

  • Rules Lawyer
The Rules Lawyer is the player who knows the rules the best. Whenever a question about the rules comes up, this player is quick to settle the dispute. I tend to equate the Rules Lawyer with the role of Striker. You can get along without one, but the game can bog down and turn into a grueling slog. It’s rare for a party to ever consider not having at least one Rules Lawyer on the team.
  • Secretary
The Secretary is the player who keeps track of what has happened in the game. This player takes notes, and can often remind other players about important details that happened several sessions ago.  I equate the Secretary with the Controller. Often, this role is the first to be considered non-mandatory, but without someone meeting this need, a game can derail into a mess of searching through DM’s notes, or maybe a wiki on Obsidian Portal.
  • Instigator
The Instigator is the player who breaks down the door when things start to get boring. The instigator will drive the plot forward, and often set the pace. I equate an Instigator with a Defender. Defenders are often the first in the room, setting up the front line, and setting the pace of an encounter. If you don’t have an Instigator, you may spend 5 minutes standing outside of a door in a dungeon, debating 3 different courses of action, which all end up boiling down to ‘open the door and kill things’.
  • Glue-Man
The Glue-Man is the player who keeps the group together by filling in cracks. When the DM gets into a fight with the Rule’s Laywer, the Glue-Man keeps the peace. When the Instigator breaks down a door and finds that they just walked into an overwhelming trap, the Glue-Man keeps people from blaming the instigator for biting off more than the party can chew. The Glue-Man is like a Leader, making everyone perform their jobs better, and shoring up weaknesses. Many people consider a Leader to be the must-have-role for a party. The same goes for a Glue-Man.
There are a few secondary roles that may also bolster a party of players.
  • Mapper
The Mapper will draw out maps as a party traverses a large dungeon, or can sometimes draw embellishments on tactical maps that create a more interactive environment. Having a mapper in the party can help make a boring 10×10 room into a den of cultists with altars, pools of radiance, swirling vortices of elemental energy, and decaying corpses of ritual sacrifices.
  • Storyteller
The Storyteller builds up the story of the world and the adventure. The Storyteller will also often break up a mundane tactical encounter with fantastic descriptions of mundane actions. Storytellers don’t just swing their sword at an orc. They sucker him into lowering his guard with a feint, and then drive their steel blade through his neck, and use his now lifeless body as a shield against an incoming volley of crossbow bolts.
  • Artist

The Artist will sometimes spend time drawing sketches of characters, or important scenes. This generally happens when the player feels their character can’t contribute strongly to whatever scene is currently taking place. Some DMs see this behavior and think the player isn’t paying attention. Don’t make that assumption lightly. Allowing an Artist this expression may be what keeps them interested.

 

Lets talk about how these things mix and match a little.

I had an Instigator who was an Artist as the secondary role. When it was time for combat, this player burst in and set the tone for intense combat encounters, but would then retreat into the Artist role during non-combat scenes.

I had a Glue-Man who was a Mapper as a secondary role. Whenever I broke out a grid, I could ask this player to draw me something like a temple ruins, and as I set up minis, got stats up, and rolled for my monster’s initiative, he would sketch out an amazing layout with me providing slight nudges to get what I needed for the encounter I had planned.

Between sessions, the Secretary can then document events, update Wikis, and email players with updated group treasury numbers.

I had a Rules Lawyer with a Storyteller secondary role once. It was awesome, because this player would keep the rules flowing, and still describe amazing scenes as he took his character actions.

 

GM – Yes, the GM is a player, and he can fulfill these roles too. The GM should be a little bit of everything above. The GM knows the rules, pushes the game forward, generates maps, keeps peace between warring personalities, and tracks the history and future of the game. In short, the GM is the Bard class.

 

Tell me about your players, and what roles they fill as part of the party. Are you missing any specific role? How has it affected your group? Do you have a role that I’ve missed? How does it fit in with the rest of the party?

Mar 16 2012

Missing isn’t Fun. Never Missing is worse.

“So, what kind of character would you like to play?”

“Some kind of barbarian guy. I want to get in their face and do lots of damage. Definitely not a human either. I want an interesting race.”

Back when I helped my friend build a character, there was no barbarian race available for 4th edition D&D. We ended up settling on a Warforged Ranger. I had also just learned how much missing sucked by playing a wizard who failed to hit about 70% of the time. This was also before the wizard encounter powers had a lot of miss effects.

So, I went in with the approach that I wanted my friend to have fun, and not have to experience the lameness of my previous wizard. I started with giving him the high-proficiency bonus longsword. I gave him the expertise feat that gives +1 to attacks with a heavy blade. We upgraded to a Bastard Sword later on for more damage but still having that high proficiency. I gave him a warforged racial feat to give him a bonus to Attack whenever he had an ally next to his target. He always flanked. His strength was maxed at 20 and kept getting better. He started out with a base attack bonus of 5(str)+3(prof)+2(flank)+1(wfg tactics)+1(expertise)+1(half lvl) = +13 at level 2. Most Soldier type creatures at level 2 have an AC of 16-18. My friend had to roll a 3-5 in order to hit any of the most heavily armored creatures in the game at his level. Any thing that wasn’t the most heavily armored had no hope of surviving.

With twin strike, he regularly rolled twice, hit twice, did quarry damage, + 5 str damage each. His damage roll was 2d8+d6+10. That averages to 21. If he action points, he kills anything that isn’t a brute, or an elite/solo. When he upgraded to Bastard Swords, with that magical ability that does an extra d6 when he’s bloodied (and he was always bloodied), he went to 2d10+3d6+18 for an average of 39 on Twin Strike. Probably more there that I’m forgetting.

By the time we were done, this character was the living embodiment of destruction. He didn’t miss. He only rolled the dice to make sure he didn’t get a critical failure. It was an epicly amazingly awesomely fun character to play.

For about 2 levels.

After awhile though, it became a little monotonous. When his turn came around, I would end up asking him ‘Ok, who do you want to kill? Did you crit fail? No? Ok, it’s dead. Don’t bother rolling damage. It can’t possibly survive.’

Failing every time was boring. But there were ways around it. I could have fun during the role-playing scenes. I was useful during skill challenges because of my knowledge skills. And every so often, I could drop a daily power, or hit something unexpectedly, and get a little thrill in combat. My Rituals even came in useful on rare occassion.

Succeeding every time seemed like a fun for awhile, but it got boring too. And even worse, because the character was such a combat monster, his skills in the other areas of the game were weak. He didn’t do well in skill challenges, unless athletics was involved. Even then, he was just someone with good athletics. Other people, like the fighter, did just as well. The player wasn’t much of a role-player, so he faded to the background during those scenes. And when he did miss, he would usually just action point, or use some other resource to get a reroll and kill it anyways.

You need to have a niche to fill in each of these scenarios, in order for your character to give you the most enjoyment possible.

Mar 07 2012

Encounters

I’m going to play Encounters tonight. Encounters is a program initiated by Wizards of the Coast. It’s purpose is to provide players with a regularly scheduled bite-sized portion of D&D. It’s also a great entry point for new players. I’ve been playing in and running Encounters sessions since the beginning of the program, and I’ve learned a few things.

  • Tokens

Using Tokens is a double-edged sword. They are fantastic for cheap, portable markers. They are terrible for immersion, and description. Of course, if you are using a bugbear mini in place of a hobgoblin anyways you aren’t losing much. Where this really hurts is with the characters. Each character should have its own mini that gets close to what the character actually looks like.

  • Poster Maps

I love the Poster Maps concept, but it seems to fall short when every map is made from Dungeon Tiles. The maps that come with printed modules like Thunderspire Labyrinth are amazing and wonderful. The maps that come with Encounters are not wonderful, but they are appropriate for the Encounters format.

  • Character Restrictions

One thing I don’t enjoy about Encounters is the restrictions placed on character creation. I understand that Wizards is trying to support their product, and the store, but I don’t see it doing a whole lot in either area with my group. I’ve started allowing experienced players to bring in any character they want, as long as its thematically appropriate. I encourage the use of Essentials characters, especially ones that use the source from the book associated with the current season, but don’t restrict it to only that. For newer players, I try to guide them to follow the rules, and I always make sure those who break the rules have a backup character which does follow the rules, in case they get a DM who isn’t as lenient as I am.

  • Prizes

I’ve started a tradition of giving away prizes at the end of each Encounters season. I usually buy the book associated with the upcoming season of Encounters and give it to whoever earned the most Renown Points. I then buy a 2 packs of Fortune Cards and give them to the runner up. I think a store would earn a lot of credit with the players if they did this regularly.

If you are looking to get involved in some D&D, Encounters is a great way to go about it. Find your local store at  https://www.wizards.com/dnd/event.aspx?x=dnd/4new/event/dndencounters

Feb 28 2012

How to be a Good Dungeon Master

Being a Dungeon Master means that you are ultimately responsible for whether you have a good game or a bad game. Here are some tips on how to separate yourself from the pack of Dungeon Masters who just picked up the book and started playing.

  • Keep a Tight Schedule

This is as simple as it gets. If you have a weekly game scheduled, every Thursday at 8PM, make sure that you are ready to start gaming at 7:55PM. Don’t be late. Don’t skip games if you can avoid it. Your players will appreciate your reliability, and they will work to keep room for your game on their schedule as well. Don’t forget to schedule some time for banter, and small talk. If you want your game to actually start at 8:00PM, have the players show up at 7:30PM, so they can talk and chat, and get food. Don’t short-change your players either. If you promise a 4 hour game session, don’t deliver just 3 hours of enjoyment.

  • Keep the Pace Moving

A smoldering, tension building, slow-burning, easy-paced game can be fun on occasion, or with certain groups, but in general, you should keep a fast-hitting, quick-moving, dynamic tempo. Don’t rush so fast that you miss the enjoyable parts of the game, but if you let the game bog down, players get bored, and find other things to do with their time. As you are learning the game, look for points where the game slows down, and come up with ways to move through them quickly.

  • Be Energetic

Stand up when things get exciting, instead of sitting in a chair. This gives you a boost of energy, and your players will feed off of that energy. Move your hands in broad gestures. Stand up on a chair and talk in a deep voice when you are Role Playing as a giant. Don’t fall off the chair. (MM is not responsible for accidents resulting in chair-standing). Use other voices to immerse your players. Let that excitement and enthusiasm creep into your voice as you tell your players to roll for initiative. When your monsters die, gurgle and curse them with your dying breath. Whatever it takes to make your game energetic will keep your players on the edge of their seat, and always coming back for more.

  • Be Prepared

Have your maps drawn ahead of time. Have your miniatures and other props neatly organized, or pulled out and ready. This helps with the pacing, because you don’t have long delays between encounters while you set up the table. Read the module, so you know what to expect, and where to look for important pieces of information. Don’t let the game stall as you flip through pages of notes trying to find some tidbit of data. Be careful that you don’t lose flexibility here. Over-preparation can lead to a campaign on rails.

  • Learn from other Dungeon Masters

Find someone who is a great Dungeon Master, and play in a game they run. Copy their good ideas and incorporate them into your own games. That may seem obvious, but there is a flip side to this. Find someone who is a terrible Dungeon Master, and play in a game they run. Find out what they are doing wrong, and make sure you aren’t making the same mistakes.

It doesn’t take a lot to distinguish yourself as a Good DM. Put in a bit of effort and you will find that you have players constantly asking you whether there is an opening in any of your games. Stay tuned for more advice and soon, you will be a Great DM.

Feb 28 2012

Generations

It seems like there is a Generation Gap among D&D players.

We have the Grognards, who are late 40’s and up, and we have the new generation of low 30-something, like myself. But we don’t have a lot in between. Granted, this is all based on my personal observations. I haven’t done any in depth research on the topic or any demographic polling.

I wonder if there is a reason for this gap.

Hypothetically, is there some age limit on RPG interaction? When the Grognards were playing the game in mass numbers, did they actively exclude their little brothers and sisters? Did they avoid including people up to 10 years younger than them in the game on purpose?

I didn’t have anyone older than me introduce me to the game. I had known of the game, and I was curious enough about it to seek it out and try it. But now I look at kids in the 18-25 year old range and I have the urge to yell at them to pull their pants up and get off my lawn.

Are we doomed to have another generational gap because of this sort of thing? In another 10 or 20 years, will we see a surge of new gamers who are drawn to D&D 7th edition?

What do you think? Have you ever been excluded from a group of older gamers? Have you ever excluded younger players from your gaming group?

Feb 10 2012

How to be a Dungeon Master

So, you want to be a Dungeon Master? Well, I’ve got good news. It’s an easy process. You can be a Dungeon Master in 3 easy steps:

 

  1. Purchase the game you wish to play. Starter Sets are usually good.
  2. Gather a group of friends together, who are interested in playing the game.
  3. Play the game.

Congratulations. You are now a Dungeon Master. It is not complicated or difficult.

Stay tuned for our next installment, where I will discuss how to be a Good Dungeon Master. There is a little more involved to it, but it still isn’t anything you can’t handle. Especially after you’ve come this far.

 

Game On!
-Mark