D&D: DMing Storm King’s Thunder

I’ve written a few posts about playing D&D and about the neat stuff I’ve made or collected as a result of my last year’s developing interest in the game, but I don’t think I’ve said much about serving as dungeon master, which I’m now doing.

It’s fun, and it’s difficult. Pictured above is my setup for my latest session, which includes maps, monster stat blocks, many pages of notes, various tokens and minis (some of which I 3D printed), and of course lots of dice.

What makes it difficult is partially my still nascent familiarity with the game itself. There are still rules I need to refresh myself on sometimes, for example. If a wizard is concentrating on a spell and takes attack damage, does she lose concentration on the spell? (Answer: Maybe. Take the higher of half the damage or a rolled d20; if greater than 10, concentration is lost and the spell’s effect drops.) When do you roll for random shenanigans for sorcerers? If somebody wants to ride a horse, how do you resolve travel? There are all sorts of oddball scenarios that are covered by the rules but that you don’t even always know you need to know until you run into them mid-game and bring things screeching to a halt while you look them up (or make a potentially incorrect and frustrating ruling).

And then there’s improv. Your party is in a town and somebody asks you some random question about the history of the town or someone in it. Well, sure, you can make something up. But then you need to think about how your making things up on the fly might impact other things in the game. If you’re working from a published adventure (as I currently am), you have to try to make something up that won’t either break or spoil later important pre-written content. Here’s an example: I recently introduced a non-player character (NPC) who the written adventure describes has having a streak of white in her hair. I had forgotten the hair detail. Meanwhile, I had also introduced a teaser about another future potential NPC of my own devising who I had also given a streak of white in her hair (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps just inadvertently bringing in the detail from the original NPC). This entirely unintentional detail made my party perk up. Now they’re in the position of wondering what the significance of the detail is. Is something causing women to grow white streaks? Can we infer anything about people with white streaks in their hair? What if my character has white hair? Is this the key to unlocking the whole adventure? There’s so much room for inadvertent pitfalls like this.

Then there’s the need to give life to NPCs, and to have a stock of NPCs ready for whatever may come up. I’m not especially comfortable doing accents or voices, especially among grown-ups. I’m trying to push out of my comfort zone, though, because without a little play-acting, it’s hard to distinguish NPCs from one another and to give more texture to the game. Once you’ve invented a distinctive personality for a given NPC, you then ought to try to remember it and switch into that personality when playing the NPC, and this too can be tough if you have a bad memory like me (using distinctive personalities from your life or from TV/movies as references can help with this). And then there’s the case of the randomly spotted NPC to whom you must give a name and some personality and perhaps a memorable physical characteristic, without necessarily imbuing any of this with a great deal of significance (see above re white streaks), and without having them divulge things they shouldn’t or send players down the wrong paths. And without having everybody be “uhh, Kevin, who uh looks kind of average and sounds pretty much like me.”

Managing combat can be tough too. In my latest session, I ran four hours of multi-stage combat that incorporated something like 30 monsters, the four player characters, and four NPCs the players also operated. This battle included two big hand-drawn maps, four or five different character types whose weaponry, health, and other stats I had to track, and combat on two fronts that could have gone in any number of directions. One player split from the rest of the party right off, and I had to try to spend some time on his lone combat without neglecting the other players, and vice versa. The players could have chosen any of several paths I had prepared, or they could’ve done something bizarre and unexpected.

Because I’m new at this and still lack confidence in all of the areas above, I spent loads of time preparing. I’ll bet I have 12 hours of prep work involved in being ready for that combat session, for example. This I believe will get easier over time as I develop more comfort with the overall game mechanics and with improvising when something goes in a direction I hadn’t imagined it might.

Don’t get me wrong — this is a lot of work, but it’s also pretty fun, and I think it’ll get more fun as I get better at it.

Right now, I’m running my son and a few other people through an adventure called Storm King’s Thunder that so far has been really fun. We’re heading into a part of it right now that’ll afford me a lot of leeway in terms of what we do. It’s what you call a sandbox style of play. This is cool because it gives me a little latitude to steer things however I’d like to. It’s also tough because I have to sort of make up a lot of it and be more ready to improv if the party heads in a direction that the written adventure doesn’t really cover, or if they head in a direction very different from where the next portion of the adventure really calls for them to go. In our next session, we’ll head toward a city called Waterdeep that’s well known within the D&D canon. It’s neat because there’s a lot out there about Waterdeep; it’s intimidating for the same reason because there’s so much I could get wrong and there’s so much opportunity for the players to push me to improvise. I think and hope I’ve done enough prep that I can make the next session fun.

Dungeons & Dragons: The Books

I’ve written a few things now about D&D, most recently about my penchant for dice. Another big draw for me are the books. Here’s my collection so far:

They’re really beautiful hardback books with vivid art, imaginative world-building, all kinds of fake lore, and even some humor. The art has sure progressed over the years. Here’s an early drawing of a monster called a Beholder:

And here’s a spread from the Art and Arcana book showing some of the evolution of the Beholder art over time:

And here’s the art of a Beholder from the latest Monster Manual:

That’s quite a difference in art quality over the years! Here’s an example of a description and art of a creature called a Tabaxi. It’s gorgeous and comprehensive and really helps bring the creature to life. The thought that has gone into crafting creatures and environments and religions and planes of existence and magical items is really impressive.

Some books are devoted to describing rules or creatures, but there are also adventure books that guide you through a bunch of encounters, landscapes, dungeons, villages, and so on. Here’s one map (of many) from one of the books I own:

And here’s a map of a whole walled city:

The adventure book I pulled these from has easily a dozen or two such beautifully rendered maps.

I’m a sucker for the front-matter in books. I actually read the copyright and similar stuff, and sometimes doing so turns up little touches like these:

I don’t especially love the style of the writing in these blurbs, but I appreciate the silliness and the attention to detail.

All of this is just to say that D&D has been enjoyable to me not merely because it’s a hobby my son and I have done together and not merely because of game play itself or even because of fun things like dice, but also because there’s this whole culture of art and writing and world building in these books that really appeals to me. In short, it’s a really well fleshed out hobby that’s turning out to tick a lot of boxes for me.

Dice

I’ve written a few times about things pertaining to Dungeons and Dragons, which I’ve been playing over the last few months along with my son. Initially I developed the interest for his benefit, so that he could have the opportunity to play. The more we immerse ourselves in it, the more I’m enjoying it for myself.

Game play can be fun, but there are also just a lot of neat accoutrements. I’ve written about dice towers and DM screens, but I’ve added more trinkets and goodies to my collection since then. For example, you can get neat dice trays to roll your dice into so that they don’t roll all over the place (I have two). You can get dice vaults and boxes. You can get dice bags (of which I now have several). Then of course there are miniature figures for game play, and battle mats for drawing out landscapes for battle, and loads of marvelously detailed and illustrated books (I now have several).

Among my favorite accoutrements are the dice. A standard set includes seven dice with different numbers of sides and used to roll for various things in the game. There’s a big variety of dice types, and I just really enjoy seeing the different designs and finishes. My favorites right now are metal dice manufactured by Jovitec and Bescon (I don’t remember which are which). They’ll dent a table if you’re not careful (the dice tray helps avoid this!), and they just have a really pleasant weight and they roll really satisfyingly. I also have a few sets of the “Ancient” line of Hedronix dice from D20 Collective — Ancient Copper, Ancient Malachite, Ancient Clay, and Ancient Stone — and these look neat at a distance but seem more plasticky up close and are a little sluggish to roll. My other favorite set is a set of dark green sort of marbled looking dice from Chessex. I’ve bought a few other sets too just to have around for others to play with, and my son has a few sets, including a big random grab-bag we emptied into his stocking for Christmas this year.

It feels a little silly to be so into dice, but I really do just enjoy getting a new set and having a growing collection. They are, at least, small (I used to collect books).

Dice Tower

I’ve written about Dungeons and Dragons related things a couple of times now. What was a hobby I had undertaken semi-begrudgingly for my son’s benefit has become something I’ve begun to spend time on for my own interest. I watch Critical Role with interest now (not every episode and not always full episodes, but I’m sort of hooked). I spent many hours over the last couple of weeks preparing for session three of the Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign that my neighbor and I are running (alternating turns as DM and players) for our kids, and our third session yesterday ran to nearly six hours. I’ve looked at lots of game play accessories (dice, DM screens, dice vaults, dice towers, miniatures, and so on) online, and as a result, I’m now seeing ads for a lot of these things in Facebook, and I click them with interest.

Initially, I had sort of sneered at the idea of having a DM screen and certainly at the idea of having a dice tower. Who needs a special box to roll dice when it’s dead simple to just roll your dice by hand? But after I made my DM screen, I began to hanker for a dice tower after all, so I picked up some more wood and made one. What is a dice tower, you ask? It’s an apparatus you can use to increase the odds of a fair roll rather than relying on what might be a bad toss from the hand. The tower is essentially a box with some little ramps inside that a die will carom off of as it descends through the tower and rolls out onto the table (or, if you’re really fancy, into a dice tray).

I didn’t take step by step photos as I did when making the DM screen. Construction of the tower was, in theory, pretty simple. But I twice glued the thing together incorrectly and had to dismantle parts of it, sand, and reglue each time. Finally I got it put together correctly and then sanded a little and applied another coat of stain and another of finish. It’s not the best made or most beautiful thing in the world, but it roughly matches my screen and is surprisingly satisfying to chuck dice into. The dice make a nice fast rattling sound as they tumble through the tower.

Here’s the tower as seen from the front (the players’ view, if I’m using the tower myself as DM):

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Now here’s the view from the back, with the opening that the dice come tumbling out of:

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Looking down into the top, you can see one of the little ramps (mine has three, with the bottom one angled so that it sends dice shooting out of the opening):

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Since I didn’t join the two hinged panels of my DM screen together, I can place the tower between the two panels, which gives me a little extra width on the screen and lets me easily pop dice into the top of the tower when I need to make a roll:

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The tower’s height doesn’t match the height of the screen, so I suppose it looks a little weird. I enjoyed having it, at any rate. Wonder what random thing I’ll add to my growing D&D collection next?

Dungeons & Dragons

I was never into Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. I grew up in a hick town that I later thought kind of just never got the memo about D&D. We were more of a chewing tobacco and cow-tipping people. In recent years, I have run back across childhood friends who, it turned out, at some point or another, did get exposed to D&D. Whether that happened in our podunk town or later I’m not sure. After my sophomore year of high school, I attended Governor’s School, and I recall that there was a D&D contingent there, but I managed not to get folded into that group. I was more sporty than nerdy at the time, I think. When I was a kid, there was a D&D cartoon that I liked a lot, and in fact I did a pretty spot-on impression of this little unicorn companion in the show, and for a while I had a recurring dream in which a one-off character in one of the episodes and I became friends. Anyhoo. I think probably that when I was a kid, my mom would’ve discouraged me from playing had the opportunity presented itself, on the basis that it was probably just veiled devil worship. A couple of years ago at a company gathering, there was an opportunity to play D&D, and I thought about trying it out, but I chickened out because I figured I’d be too self-conscious to do the role-playing bits. That’s pretty much the sum total of my exposure to D&D until recently.

Fast forward a whole lot of years to my now-11-year-old son’s exposure to Ready Player One (first in book form, as is our way) and to Stranger Things, in both of which D&D makes appearances.

For his birthday this year, my son asked for the D&D starter kit, and I blindly bought it for him, not really having thought about the fact that it would require that he have people to play it with him, and furthermore that it’s a complex game with lots to learn. In other words, it was likely to require a bit of an investment on my part. His birthday was in March, and he’s been patiently waiting ever since for some way to play this game. I found the whole thing daunting. Would it require that I go into public and do role-playing things with people I didn’t know? Perhaps worse, would it require that I do with people I do know? Was the horror of extra-familial human contact a sacrifice I’d be willing to make so that my son could play this game he was desperate to play?

I’ve spent a few weeks ramping up. First I read a bunch of the rules. Then I found a local Facebook group about D&D, where I learned that I could indeed sign up to meet strangers in public to play, a prospect I really did not relish. Then I found some campaigns to watch on YouTube. Then I read the rules some more. Then I bought a campaign that I had read could be played with just a DM and a single other player, so that my son and I could ease in. And we started playing it. And my son is wild over it, and I don’t hate it either.

I mean, yes, it is kind of weird. It’s a mix of sort of fun collaborative story-building and annoying arithmetic and game mechanics whose vagaries I have a lot of trouble navigating confidently (“which die do I roll for this? do I need to do a saving throw? does Thrognar have a bonus action? is a gray ooze fire resistant?”). But it’s also sort of fun. I’m a terrible dungeon master when it comes to the game mechanics, and I think probably I’m too dependent upon the specific narrative the campaign lays out (mostly out of a fear that if I mess up one encounter, it’ll cascade to later encounters that then won’t make sense), but I think I may have enough of a flair for bits of the story-telling that I’m at least able to keep my son engaged for a few hours at a time with it. We played a couple of sessions over the weekend and logged nearly three hours last night that went by in a blink.

Once we get through this campaign, we’ll see about finding a couple of his buddies who are interested in playing, and I’ll try my hand at DMing for them, and we’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, I’ve by now watched hours of videos about how to DM by Matt Colville (these are really great, and he has cool stuff to say about gaming and fun and social interaction and even bits here and there about like ethics and philosophy) and have started watching Critical Role to see a really magnificent DM in action. I watched the end of their first session last night and was cackling one moment and riveted the next, and I mean this is just a bunch of people sitting at a table talking to one another (I’ve watched campaigns by other groups that are real snoozes). I think that once I get some of the basic mechanics a bit more by rote and have a few more best practices for DMing down (I’m playing right now with Trello for managing the game), this could be fairly fun and I could be not horrible at it, at least as far as the standards of 11-year-olds go.

I’ve got more dice on the way, and I’m trying to decide whether to keep this Tiefling Rogue character I started with or whether to go with something less flashy, and the next time you see me, I don’t know, maybe I’ll have grown my beard long and braided it and be in full dwarf regalia and speaking in the Scottish accent we tend to assign to dwarves and suggesting that you roll for Charisma if you’d like to chat with me.