Thursday, August 13, 2015

8 Tips That Will Let Any Idiot Improve Their D&D Game

You want to play D&D?  You want DM Immunity?
You want players to come see?  You better work bitch.

-  Britney Spear +2

All right, fair enough.  I do preach this refrain consistently and no, it doesn't help those craving lazy DM tips.

Okay, okay, okay.  I used to write for real estate magazines, dragging together articles that more or less translated into 8 Tips Even a Fucking Moron Can Remember When Buying a House [yep; once you've got those, real estate is easy!].  I can do this.

1)  Get rid of the damned screen

Seriously.  I've said this before on the blog and I included it in How to Run.  Ditch it.  Have a summer ceremony in the back yard and burn it.  Don't tell me about how convenient it is for looking up to hit tables and such, the thing is a barrier between you and your players, a wall, a great big 'fuck you' that screams, "I am the privileged class and you are DIRT!  Acknowledge my greatness!"  It promotes fudging, better known as cheating, it soothes the DM's need to be subversive while at the same time succoring the inner chickenshit coward.  Get out from behind that thing, lower yourself to being one with the great unwashed at the table and stop putting on airs.  Your players will appreciate it and - when you get over yourself and your fear of being held accountable - you'll appreciate it too.

2)  Get out of your chair

Yep, that's right, lift your fat, lazy ass out of that chair and try moving around a little when giving advice, watching the players roll dice, delivering descriptive speeches and so on, to give yourself a little character and presence.  Nothing screams "I can't be bothered to run this shit" like a fat oaf wallowing in a chair.  Try it.  Your legs will support your weight and it will inject energy into your campaign when it turns out you're not actually a slug.  At the same time, a little blood circulation might kick a few of the cobwebs out of your brain and start your creative process on a level well above your numb ass.

3)  Roll the damn dice where everyone can see

That's right, in front of people.  Proving that you're not a fudging, manipulative, supercilious asshole.  Roll the dice so that the players can have proof that you're subject to the rules of the game just as they are.  Oh, yes, I know, it means you'll actually have to be subject to the rules and I know that for a lot of you that is a hell of a long way out of your comfort level.  But you see, if you obey the rules, you'll have to get more innovative in your storytelling.  Nope, no more making sure the monster knocks out the paladin when it suits the narrative!  You'll have to figure out a plan B for when you can't roll above a 4.

4)  Stop acting

Get a hold of something - you can't act.  No, really, you can't.  Yes, I know you think you can, and I know the players suck up to you, but the fact is, you can't.  You suck at it.  Just tell the players what the NPC says.  For the love of gawd, paraphrase.  Make everyone happy.  It's been long enough.  It's time to let it rest.  Believe me . . . the sigh of relief that arrives when you take this advice will hurt your feelings, but in the long run it will save your energy for other things and the players will just . . . they'll just be glad.

5)  Please take off the baseball cap

And anything else that reminds us that were not actually adventuring in a fantasy world.  It really is hard enough to find a little immersion without looking into a BlueJays Logo while you describe the slime monster's steady passage along the hallway towards us.  And while we're at it, could you leave the Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey shirt in your closet on D&D nights?  I'm not looking for more reminders that I'd rather be drinking.

6)  Let's just play D&D, all right?

No, I don't want to change editions.  No, I don't want to play Pathfinder.  No, I don't want to play your D&D-meshed-with-RIFTS game.  Or the Champion variant, either.  Seriously.  I don't have anything against those other games, its just that when you keep changing the game from night to night, you just stay, well . . . shitty at all of them.  Sorry.  But since you suck at remembering which rules apply to which games and since we have to spend half of each night reminding the slower players at the table again that No, that's 5e, not 4e, it gets pretty fucking tiresome.  See, if we just played the same game every time, we'd actually get comfortable with the rules and learn how to play the fucking game.  More precisely, you, the DM, would learn how to RUN the fucking game.  So let's not change it up, okay?

7)  Stop talking

Please, honest . . . just hear me out here.  Shut up.  You've described the room, you've told us what's in the next room, you've given us all the details we need . . . just give us five minutes to talk about it without your contribution.  We already know what you want us to do - oh, no, really, we do.  It's the same thing every time.  This time around, we'd really like to just figure it out for ourselves, all right?  Do something else, keep yourself busy, roll up some hit points or something.

8)  Just leave

Okay, I'm not talking as a player this time.  This time, it's DM to DM.  Trust me on this.  Take a break from the game.  Do it as soon as you notice the players are less concerned with asking questions and more concerned with making a plan.  Get up, excuse yourself, don't say where you're going and just go.  Why?  Because sometimes you have to let the players play without you looking over their shoulder or making notes on their every word.  Sure, maybe you don't do that, but the players are plenty sure that you are, so give them a break.  Let them have a little personal time, a little time without monitoring.  Don't worry.  Your absence will be noticed.  And when you come back after a five minute constitutional out to the end of your front walk and back, you'll be amazed at how easy it is to get the players to fall in line and come to attention.  Yes, they will say things about you behind your back.  They do that anyway.  Only now, they'll be able to do it during the game and get it out of their system.

What, you're not comfortable with that?

Hey, all of these things are easy.  None of them require any planning, worldbuilding, game design or clever detail.  All they ask is that you stop being you.


  1. 1) Yes, yes and yes. I did this after reading your book and my god did my games improve!

    2) Well, I'm in a wheelchair, so... but for everyone else who doesn't have this excuse, do it!

    3) I can't believe DM's even make secret dice rolls, sincerely, I don't understand the purpose. The worst thing you can do at your table is tell a player that you don't trust him not to cheat, but when you make a roll in secret, that's exactly what you are broadcasting to every other player.

    4) Couldn't agree more, it goes for players too. I don't care if your character is scottish, unless you are scottish, I don't want to hear your attempt at the accent.

    5) Also, just because clothing is D&D branded or contains pictures of stuff relevant to D&D doesn't make it ok to wear either.

    6) -- I'll just say that there are contexts in which it is ok to change system. But generally, yes I agree.

    7) Could not agree more

    8) This is easily the best point on here, for me!

  2. I hadn't realized how much this was missing from my life. Thanks for a good laugh, especially on the subject of standing up. I will add a sticky note to my list of game reminders that says "DON'T BE A SLUG."

  3. I actually hadn't read this post yet before commenting on your next post. Pretty much agree with everything here. 1, 2 and 3 are of particular importance I think. My feet may sometimes be sore at the end of the game but that is probably more because I don't like wearing shoes when I DM (I do make sure my feet aren't smelly). I still won't sit down. I do keep a chair behind me for the stack of extra reference books (actual books, not D&D books) that sometimes get pulled out for visual aids. I have to admit the occasional flouting of #4 when the spirit particularly moves me (although I draw the line at funny voices - every now and then I just feel inspired and let rip a speech in character of an NPC rather than paraphrasing). I actually am a good actor though (objectively verified, with tons of experience in community theater and low/micro/no budget movies - although I probably draw more on my experience as a competitive extemporaneous speaker when I do this), but acting is definitely not a DM prerequisite or even something I could honestly recommend even for those who can pull it off. And can we just make #5 a general rule for life?

  4. Ok, let me do some self-analysis:

    1. I don't use a DM screen, and haven't since high school (which, trust me, was a very long time ago). I don't think they would be so useful in 5e, where the rules are simplified to the point where constant references to "to hit" tables is no longer required. On the other hand, I think it all depends on how they're used. They can add a bit of mystery, and I think they can also encourage players to avoid thinking meta. It can also reign in some rules lawyering. But, it's important that players get the sense that they're playing in a fair world where things operate with at least some rudimentary consistency (i.e., by some set of rules).

    2. I could definitely get out of my chair more. I think I'm going to take this suggestion to heart. I do this some - for example acting out how a particular monster moves. My players are mostly a high-energy group, though, so I'm often the calmer, balancing voice.

    3. I not only roll dice in the open, whenever I can I have the players do the roll. Not for opponents to-hit or damage rolls of course, but anytime I have a random chance of something happening, I ask one of the players to roll a die for the outcome. I think it makes them feel more like they are determining their own fate.

    4. I'm not sure about the "stop acting" one. I'm not great actor (although I've had a couple of classes), but I have 3 aspiring actors at my table. I try to do a mix of both - just enough acting to let the PC's feel they can approach and talk to the NPC as if they were a real person, but not enough to get in the way of the story.

    5. Now, If I could only get my youngest player (22) to put his cell phone away.

    6. I'm not as certain about this one either. My campaign is on a side test where we're trying out the 5e Mass Combat rules which are only available as an Unearthed Arcana article in a playtest version. I'm trying them out on a small scale now because I have plans for recasting a big end-battle in the second module of Tyranny of Dragons as a mass combat.

    7 & 8. Agree totally about getting out of the way and letting the players roll with it. Last session I had a puzzle for them to, well, puzzle over, and I just left the table for a bit to get some coffee and let them talk. Then, a few minutes later, I came back and an NPC supplied a hint. And a few minutes later, I dropped the last hint. I use a rule of 3 with puzzles - 3 hints or clues available to help them out at crucial points. They ended up solving it and having a lot of fun in the process.

    Thanks for these ... there's some good wisdom therein.

  5. 1) I own exactly three screens for three very chart heavy games. They make lovely place mats and great handouts for if someone is currently searching through the rulebook for something else. Using these as a screen is kinda pointless when you share a couch with a player during play anyway.

    2) How else will I get the players snacks?

    3) Yes! Besides, it creates more fear if the players know their roll. Nothing quite like asking for a check to notice something and having a big fat 1 show up on the die.

    4) I have taken acting classes and public speaking courses, thus I agree heartily.

    5) I disagree with this one. Costumes are expensive, formal and business casual are just as distracting, and only two of my players are actually comfortable with me being naked, so it will be me running the game in pjs or street clothes or not at all.

    6) Uh... I own so many games... I'll think about it.

    7) I believe that is why games snacks are there- if you lack the will power, literally stuff it.

    8) See 2 above.

  6. See, I do fudge the dice rolls. And I will continue to do so. See, I'm running a campaign with at least 9 pcs at a time, and I have to work a lot to balance the monsters. Oftentimes, they end up being a few challenge ratings higher. The group's besting this monster, and then, on it's turn, it one-shots a pc. Or it would, if i didn't fudge the roll so the pc is merely unconscious. Call me a bad DM for not balancing the monsters right, or the traps, but sometimes I need to fudge stuff to keep the game moving. As long as the players don't see me fudging the rolls, the reality is not broken. I do NOT use fudging as a means for lazy story-telling. I use it to fix my mistakes. Sometimes, if i didn't fudge, I'd have TPCs on my hands, and that would not be good.


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