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The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT. Kael, the party cleric, lies dead—killed by the evil pirate warlord Vantajar moments before the warlord himself meets his end. Before Kael’s bodily remains can be salvaged, the enormous water elemental powering Vantajar’s warship escapes captivity and sinks the vessel. The surviving heroes flee into an extradimensional space (they are epic level, after all) and so avoid plunging into a sea of acid in the Elemental Chaos.

Chris Champagne (Kael’s player) jumps on the chance to play a new character, and I spend the rest of the session trying to facilitate this character’s introduction. I’m not a fan of new characters showing up inexplicably to a chorus of voices exclaiming, “You look trustworthy!” No, I much prefer well-staged entrances. Remember Captain Jack Sparrow’s entrance in Pirates of the Caribbean? Yeah—it doesn’t get better than that.

Chris’s new character is Kosh, an infernal pact warlock with the Prince of Hell epic destiny. After the surviving characters use the Plane Shift ritual to get back to their own ship, I orchestrate a roleplaying encounter in which Tyranny (the succubus concubine of the ship’s captain) concocts a ritual to summon Kosh from the Nine Hells. “Tyra” (as she’s known) is convinced that the party could use the extra firepower, but her ritual requires nine drops of blood from nine different mortals, and being an immortal, she has only the crewmembers aboard the heroes’ ship to choose from. She must also convince the player characters that this is a good idea, and that having an epic-level Prince of Hell in the party has certain advantages. Suffice to say, it’s not an easy sell.

In fact, it proves to be a very hard sell and takes more than an hour of back-and-forth roleplaying and conniving on my part to make happen. Meanwhile, Chris remains silent for most of the session, jotting down notes about his character’s background as I do everything in my power to bring Kosh into play—everything except shout to the other players, “Look, guys, Chris has a new character he wants to play, so stop roleplaying already and let him play!

I’m soooo glad I didn’t have to say that.

Thanks to a rash of conventions and summer vacations, many of us at Wizards are playing catch-up around the office. The interruptions have also impacted my Monday and Wednesday night campaign and thrown me off my game, to wit: Last week was the first time in a long time that I sat down at the game table and couldn’t remember where we’d left off the previous session. I had to check my notes to realize, “Oh yeah, the players are smack-dab in the middle of the biggest battle of the campaign!”

DM “spaz moments” aside, I run a very brisk game—as evidenced by watching the games I run for Acquisitions Incorporated and the writers of Robot Chicken. When I look back at my notes from the previous Wednesday night session, I see a long list of “stuff that happened” that needs to be organized and recapped for the players’ (and my) benefit. It also reminds me that a DM has the power to propel the campaign forward at a staggering pace with a few simple tricks.

This installment of The Dungeon Master Experience discusses the ancient art of contraction as it pertains to D&D game sessions. My impetus for tackling this subject comes from some recent encounters with DMs at conventions. One question I get asked from time to time is, “How do you pack so much stuff into one session?” I’m guessing that many DMs have experienced occasions when the campaign loses all forward momentum and plods along at an insufferable pace, either because the players lack motivation or because the players get distracted by too much nonsense.

In English grammar, we use contractions to neatly dispose of unnecessary letters and syllables in conversation and informal writing. “I’m” is shorter and takes microseconds less time to write and say than “I am.” I contract my campaign in much the same way; on a per-example basis, it doesn’t amount to much, but a minute saved here and there really starts to add up in a 4-hour game session.

Here are a few specific tactics that I use:

I cut my campaign the way a film editor cuts a movie. If I find the session is lagging, I jump ahead as far as I reasonably can without causing the narrative to become disjointed. It might be rounds, minutes, hours, days, or months, but I do my best to encapsulate the skipped time period and press on. In my Wednesday night game, the ritual that Tyranny casts to summon Kosh from the Nine Hells happens very quickly in real-time because I wanted to give Chris a chance to play. But at the same time, his entrance needs to be memorable yet appropriate, and so I go the route of a giant flaming pentagram. To take a more common example, if the characters are spending too much time shopping for gear in town, I might say, “After a couple hours spent gearing up in town, you find everything you need and head east, following the edge of a vast, dry canyon. Six hours later, as the sun begins to set, you descend into the canyon and make camp near a fat cactus that provides ample water.” With a couple sentences, I can push the story along and skip over countless wasted minutes.

Using subtlety and guile, I help players get past points of indecision. If the players are mired in indecision, I have an NPC offer them a well-reasoned opinion or bit of sound advice, or I give a player some free bit of information his or her character would logically know. I use this technique a lot as my way of telling the players, “The DM thinks you ought to do this, as opposed to that.” Sometimes my players will ignore the advice, but that’s more because I have, on occasion, used NPCs to deliberately feed them bad information and advice (a topic which, by the way, really deserves its own article).

I keep my descriptions spare. If the characters are hired to escort a merchant caravan from Town A to Town B and I’ve staged an encounter with bandits at some point in between, I take one sentence to describe the caravan and one sentence to describe the journey from Town A to the bandit encounter. Then, if I feel so inclined, I add a sentence that describes a few pertinent or offbeat “character moments” involving the PCs and/or significant NPCs. For example, “Shortly before nightfall on the first day of travel, one of the merchants uncorks a cask of dwarven whiskey and passes out flagons. Those of you who partake of the whiskey find it difficult to stay awake during your watch.” These sentences might include inconsequential details to give the campaign color, but I don’t dwell on stuff that isn’t important. If the players want more information (such as the brand of dwarven whiskey), they’ll usually ask for it.

I keep my NPC descriptions brief as well. In the Wednesday night game, the adventurers recently faced their arch-nemesis for the first time. My description of Vantajar, the dragonborn pirate warlord, was that he was 9 feet tall—unnaturally large for his species—and had a metal eyepatch bolted to his skull, a la General Chang (Christopher Plummer) in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Everything else was left to the players’ imaginations. I generally like to give an NPC one distinguishing characteristic before moving on.

I don’t frontload information. I let it trickle out in dribs and drabs, and not just because I can always provide more information if the players ask for it. As the DM, I control the pace of the game, and if it takes me five painfully long minutes to describe the contents of a room, chances are good that the players will fail to pick up or remember important details that will then need to be repeated. My players don’t need to know that a balcony is 20 feet high until that information becomes relevant.

I keep track of initiative on a magnetic white board. That way, the players can see when their turns are coming up and plan accordingly. Giving them visibility into the combat order reduces the number of wasted minutes during a player’s turn.

I exhibit a low tolerance for player indecision in combat. Combat is supposed to be fluid and fast, and nothing causes the game to grind to a halt faster than an indecisive player who can’t decide what actions his character should take on his turn. I will press the player with questions such as, “What does your character do?” If this doesn’t push the player to swift action, I ask, “Would you like to delay?” (which, if answered in the affirmative, lets me skip forward until the player decides he’s ready to jump back in). Other favorite sayings of mine include, “You can always use an at-will power” or “Do whatever feels right for your character.” Another thing I do is have a monster or NPC verbally taunt or insult the character, which often incites the player to take immediate action against the offending enemy (and also breaks the lull with a touch of roleplaying).

I ignore a lot of conditions and ongoing damage effects. Ongoing damage and conditions such as “slowed” and “weakened” are useful in moderation, but they slow down the game. I urge novice DMs to avoid them like the plague. I would rather have a monster deal straight-up damage than apply “rider effects” that need to be tracked (unless they’re part of a monster’s “shtick”). Since most ongoing damage effects end after 1 round anyway, it’s faster and easier to have a monster that deals “ongoing 10 damage” simply deal 10 extra damage on the initial attack, and be done with it.

I dump irrelevant encounters. I imagine every encounter as a scene in a movie script and decide for myself whether it’s worth preserving or not. Even a minor encounter should advance the campaign narrative in some way or provide interesting “character moments.” At the very least, it should present a challenge unlike anything the players have faced before. If the players are suffering through their sixth “random wilderness encounter” in a row, I’ve done something horribly wrong.

Sometimes it hurts to cut stuff; case in point, I had to cut a bunch of planned moments from this year’s live D&D game at PAX purely due to time constraints, including a cool bit where the Darkmagic mansion decides it doesn’t like Binwin Bronzebottom and turns against him—a pity, but that’s just the way it is.

I sometimes use average damage values. Average damage used consistently and to excess is boring and predictable—two things a DM never wants to be accused of being. Still, it’s tech we’ve applied to minions with great success. In a given session, I roll lots of dice, and adding up numbers takes time. When running complex combat encounters, I alternate between rolling damage for monsters and taking average damage. I have a chart similar to the one below attached to my DM screen, and for the record, I treat monster “recharge” powers as encounter powers when determine average damage for them.

Monster Level Non-Brute Damage (At-Will) Non-Brute Damage (Encounter) Brute Damage (At-Will) Brute Damage (Encounter)
1 9 13 11 16
2 10 15 12 18
3 11 16 13 20
4 12 18 15 22
5 13 19 16 24
6 14 21 17 26
7 15 22 18 28
8 16 24 20 30
9 17 25 21 31
10 18 27 22 33
11 19 28 23 35
12 20 30 25 37
13 21 31 26 39
14 22 33 27 41
15 23 34 28 43
16 24 36 30 45
17 25 37 31 46
18 26 39 32 48
19 27 40 33 50
20 28 42 35 52
21 29 43 36 54
22 30 45 37 56
23 31 46 38 58
24 32 48 40 60
25 33 49 41 61
26 34 51 42 63
27 35 52 43 65
28 36 54 45 67
29 37 55 46 69
30 38 57 47 71

Lessons Learned

One analogy I’m fond of using is that a D&D campaign is like a wagon. The players are the horses, and the DM is the driver holding the reins. As the players move forward, they take the campaign and you along with them, and you can guide them to a point, but they can be stubborn, hard to motivate, or just plain out of control. Sometimes you have to snap the reins, but if you “crack the whip” too often and keep the players running at full speed all the time, they’ll get worn out, so you need to set a pace that’s comfortable for them but also gets the wagon where it needs to go.

When it comes to setting a brisk pace, there are dozens of tactics I use to cram more “gaming time” into my game sessions, some of which are better witnessed than explained, but most of them boil down to being aggressive in my efforts to focus players on the important stuff and get them past distractions that might lead the campaign astray, cause the pace to slow to a crawl, or reduce the players’ overall sense of fun. I’m sure you have your own “tried and true” tricks for packing more punch into your game sessions, and I’d love to hear about them.

With regard to my Wednesday night game, it takes a special kind of player to sit still for an hour while his friends decide whether or not to let him play. Had I been “on my game,” I would’ve found a way to contract the back-and-forth debate about the merits of summoning a Prince of Hell so that Chris could put his cool new character in play. Still, I’m glad I didn’t go the route of having Kosh magically appear out of nowhere and ask, “Anyone need an infernal warlock?” Talk about dumb.

P.S. Thanks to everyone who voted in last week’s poll! The heroes of Acquisitions Incorporated made short work of Gygax the cat—for once it appears the butler didn’t do it.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Poll 08/25/2011 Results:

Which resident of the Darkmagic estate is an evil spy in league with the Wortstaff family?

  • Gygax, the family cat: 43.6%
  • Olivia Darkmagic, Jim’s sultry and conniving “kissing cousin”: 16.2%
  • Dimzi Ironwick, the dwarf handyman with a crush on Binwin Bronzebottom: 9.2%
  • Valkar the Magnificent, the drunk tiefling butler: 7.1%
  • Clatterby, the animated suit of armor: 5.7%
  • Snarl, the mute dragonborn coachman: 5.1%
  • Martha Darkmagic (Lady Shadowbright), Jim’s delirious mother: 3.5%
  • Wanda Darkmagic (Lady Severguile), Jim’s mysteriously guilt-ridden aunt: 2.4%
  • Dolores Darkmagic (Lady Wortstaff), Jim’s dotty grandmother-lich and Wortstaff exile: 2.3%
  • Wretched Darkmagic, the cousin who hides her face behind a mask: 1.9%
  • Gorgon Darkmagic (Lady Hellbranch), Jim’s mean-spirited aunt: 1.5%
  • Hideous Darkmagic, the antisocial cousin who plays with snakes: 1.5%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 09/01/2011

1. This week’s poll questions focus on the magazines. First, we’re exploring various themes for upcoming issues of Dragon and Dungeon. Which of the following theme ideas excites you the most?

Which of the following theme ideas excites you the most?
Demons and devils
Ravenloft revisited
Mystara revisited
Nautical campaigns
Greyhawk revisited
Gods and primordials
Dark Sun revisited
Secrets and intrigue
Planescape revisited
Constructs and artifice
The Feywild
Dragonlance revisited
Underdark campaigns
Spelljammer revisited
War campaigns
Eberron revisited
Everything on this list!
Nothing on this list!

2. The next submission window for Dragon and Dungeon magazine proposals opens in approximately one month (October 1 through November 30). How many article and/or adventure proposals are you likely to submit during that timeframe?

How many article and/or adventure proposals are you likely to submit during that timeframe?
More than 20. Consider yourself warned!

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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