Tag Archives: DM tips

How I Ran A Multi-DM Campaign (And How You Can Too)

I totally stole this image from Hit On Crit. Click to check out their site.

I ended up editing this article for length. I didn’t want to go on too specifically about “what happened in my campaign.” However, if you want to know more, please leave questions in the comments, and I’ll be happy to expound.

We just finished a very short summer campaign. The group I DM for usually only meets twice a month in the library basement (even in public buildings, the D&D players are relegated to the basement), but over the summer, we decided to try and pack an entire mini campaign into 12 once-a-week sessions. Even though the story took a weird hop (that I’m not sure anyone noticed), I tried a few new things that all worked out very well. The biggest experiment was a multi-DM model where everyone took a turn as DM, but since some of the other things we did fed into that, I’ll recap those other things first. (If you want the shorter version of the article, skip to “And here is the part about the Multi DM Campaign.”) Continue reading

DMing For One

A few weeks ago, my new Gamma World campaign was scheduled to start. I run for a group of high school kids, and we meet at the library to play. They’re a new group, so I was excited to meet them, and get things rolling. I had my Escape from the Badder Warren adventure all ready to go. I printed out their character origins cards and their origin power cards. When I got to the room though (in the basement, oddly. Even in a public building, RPG play is relegated to the basement…) only one of my players was there. I knew ahead of time that a couple of them wouldn’t be coming, but I was expecting three, not one.

“You the only one here?”
“Yup.”
“Have you heard from the others?”
“Nope.”

Decision point. I could just call it off, and tell my one player that because no one showed up, we’d just postpone until next time. Or, I could try a little “DMing for one” experiment. Continue reading

One Rule to Increase Roleplaying Engagment At Your Table

In the spirit of giving credit where it’s due, the idea for this post is not completely my own. It was mentioned in passing on the Dice of Doom podcast many episodes ago, and got my wheels turning. Since then, I have been testing the idea, both with my own group and with all of the tables I judged at Gencon. It works beautifully.

Getting players to go beyond naming off powers and actions in a generic way and move into being more descriptive can oftentimes be a bit like pulling teeth.  Sure, it’s easier to say “I use XYZ” power, or “I’m going to make an athletics check to jump,” but there is something lacking in the story when players don’t participate in the narrative to the same extent as the DM.  That is to say, the story and game are richer when players are as descriptive as possible with their actions. While I don’t think that there is one single rule that can help DMs to increase the level of description that players engage in, I do think that the following rule goes a long way. Continue reading

Where Do Water Genasi Fit In Your Campaign?

Image Copyright Wizards of the Coast

Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition has brought us a host of new races to choose from.  Bladelings, Devas, Shardminds, and yes, Genasi.  All of these races, and more, are brand new to the D&D universe, and many DMs struggle with how to fit these races into their campaigns. 

Some DMs take the kitchen sink approach, while others opt to limit the races allowed in their campaign.  Both approaches are valid, and both work.

Now, I am not going to talk about limiting choices for your players because I feel as though many bloggers more able than I have already fully covered this topic.  Needless to say, this is a decision best made by the DM and agreed to by the players.  Instead, what I’d like to do is approach this subject from the NPC angle.  After all, even if players are limited in their choices of race, that doesn’t mean the DM has the same restrictions (Drow, anyone?).  Assuming you agree, we ask ourselves: where would a typical PC find one of these new races in their campaign?

I first started thinking about this because we have very set ideas as to the environment in which one is likely to find the classic D&D races – dwarves, for example (underground) or elves (forest).  What about Devas?  Where would you be most likely to encounter a Deva?  Or (cue the title music) Water Genasi?

Let’s think about the Genasi in general and the Water Genasi specifically.  The obvious thing that jumps out about this race, and I mean really obvious, is the elemental tie that each of the Genasi types has.  In light of these special “affinities,” wouldn’t it stand to reason  that a Water Genasi would be found near, well, water?  And…boats?  (Let it sink in for a minute)  That’s right kids, Water Genasi make perfect pirates.  Which is great because there wasn’t really a “sailor” race in D&D before now.  But it makes perfect sense for your PCs to encounter, for example, a shipping company (legitimate or otherwise) run and staffed by Water Genasi, or a boat whose entire crew was the same.  And, of course, the aforementioned pirates.  It wouldn’t even have to be one random ship of pirates, either.  The PCs could be tasked with taking down a whole pirate cartel.

This also fits very well with the recent adventures I ran for my group because they’d been traveling aboard a ship.  I decided to spring my large scale naval combat on them, and once the battle was more or less over, one of the players expressed the desire to do “a boarding action.”  Not wanting to be the type of DM who says “no,” I went home that night and planned out a fun skirmish in which the PCs boarded the ship and captured the pirate captain they were after.  And the crew was entirely Water Genasi.

Now, I don’t know if the players cared about it at all, but for me, using the Water Genasi just felt right.  Who better to spend their lives on the open water?  Below are the stats for the pirates I used, if you need a starting point to crew a ship of your own.  The Monster Builder has a few Water Genasi to choose from as well.

Let me know what you think of this article in the comments.  I’m willing to turn this into a series if there’s enough interest.

Storytelling For The Five Senses

As a DM, when I describe a scene to my players, I generally start with what the PCs see.  Unfortunately, I often stop there as well, assuming that my visual description is enough to draw the player into the scene.  This is a problem because when we enter new environments, our bodies give us a lot of sensory input that is non-visual.  In order to truly draw the player into the scene, we need to play to these other senses as well.  So we ask the question: how can we start to describe scenes more fully?  I’ve begun using a “blind characters” approach.  By that I mean, assume that the characters are entering an environment with their eyes closed, and at the end, they open their eyes.  With that in mind, I describe the visual last.  By filling in all the other sensory input before giving the full visual picture, I am forced to think about what the characters experience rather than what they see.  It’s a useful distinction to make.  In order to make sure I have all my bases covered, I use the palindrome mnemonic STHTS to help me remember the order in which to describe the environment; or if you prefer, Stop To Hearken The Senses.  Here’s how it works: First, look at the picture below.  How would you describe this scene to players?

Photo by Troy Lilly via National Geographic's Weekly Wrapper

A visual-centric description would focus on the vibrant green, the waterfall, and the odd concentric circles in the pool (what’s about to pop out of that?).  It’s an ok starting point; I admit it’s necessary to give players a frame of reference before filling in the rest of the sesory input, but we can’t stop there.  Instead, this is simply a setting of the stage with a quick visual sketch before adding some easy, vibrant detail for the rest of the senses.  You enter a moss covered clearing in the forest.  There’s a waterfall feeding a small pool.  The stage is set; we’ll fill in other visual details last.  Let’s use our mnemonic to flesh out the scene for the other four senses first.

SMELL

We start with smell because that’s one of our stronger sensory inputs, and probably one of the most neglected when describing a scene for players.  Smell can trigger strong memories, and the emotions tied to them.  While it’s difficult to actually bring a scent to the table, you can usually pinpoint a scent pretty well. The air smells fresh and wet. If you want to get more detailed: The earthy smell of wet soil is mingled with the smell of water mist and moss.

TASTE

I will admit that there is rarely a chance to describe taste to your players.  Unless they’re eating something, there really aren’t many opportunities.  However, there is a strong reaction tied to smell that makes this sensory input a logical one to follow.  Even if the characters aren’t eating anything, are the smells described likely to induce hunger, nausea, are they neutral?  In this case, I’m going to say there is no “taste” reaction, so we’ll leave this out.

HEARING

What do the characters hear?  Is it eerily silent?  Is water dripping somewhere?  This is a chance to create a little mystery because we can often hear things that we can’t see.  You can also set down some communication barriers as well – is it too noisy to hear others?  How will they commnuicate nonverbally?  The waterfall splashes noisily into the pool as the stream exiting it babbles happily away.  Birds are chattering and a steady breeze creates a pleasant hush sound…

TOUCH

Like taste, we might be tempted to say that there isn’t much chance to bring touch into the equation.  Unless PCs deliberately handle or touch something, there is no texture or weight to describe.  Let me disagree.  The human body is surprisingly sensitive to temperature and air movement.  If PCs touch or pick something up, by all means, describe away.  However, even if they do not, you must answer the following questions:  What is the temperature, and is it uncomfortable? Is it a normal temperature for where the characters are?  What is causing the temperature?  What about air movement?  Is the air still or active?  What is causing the air movement?  Will the answer to any of these questions make the hair on the back of the character’s necks tingle? …and rustles your hair.  The air is cool in the shade, but not uncomfortably so.  In fact, after a long hike through the woods, the idea of dipping your feet in the pool’s cold water may seem inviting.  (Note the word “may.”  As the DM, it’s unfair to dictate character action, though I’m not opposed to suggestion)

SEE

Finally, we will fill in any visual details.  This is not hard to do, looking at the picture.  It’s helpful to describe color (or lack thereof) and any details that the characters may find relevant.  It’s perfectly fair to layer the relevant information in pure fluff.  The waterfall is cloaked in a fine mist, and in the center of the pool, the water is generating strange concentric circles.  Looking more closely at the waterfall, you notice a dark opening in the rocks behind it.  Whether it is a shallow cave or the entrance to a deep cavern, you cannot tell.  Vibrant green moss covers most of the rocks, and birds happily hop from one to the next, fluffing their feathers as they bathe in the water.

Now, let’s put it all together.  If we were only describing visuals, we’d have this: You enter a moss covered clearing in the forest.  There’s a waterfall feeding a small pool. The waterfall is cloaked in a fine mist, and in the center of the pool, the water is generating strange concentric circles.  Looking more closely at the waterfall, you notice a dark opening in the rocks behind it.  Whether it is a shallow cave or the entrance to a deep cavern, you cannot tell.  Vibrant green moss covers most of the rocks, and birds happily hop from one to the next, fluffing their feathers as they bathe in the water.

And that’s pretty good, if I do say so myself.  But this is better:

You enter a moss covered clearing in the forest.  There’s a waterfall feeding a small pool. The earthy smell of wet soil is mingled with the smell of water mist and moss.  The waterfall splashes noisily into the pool as the stream exiting it babbles happily away.  Birds are chattering as a steady breeze creates a pleasant hush sound and rustles your hair.  The air is cool in the shade, but not uncomfortably so.  In fact, after a long hike through the woods, the idea of dipping your feet in the pool’s cold water may seem inviting.  The waterfall is cloaked in a fine mist, and in the center of the pool, the water is generating strange concentric circles.  Looking more closely at the waterfall, you notice a dark opening in the rocks behind it.  Whether it is a shallow cave or the entrance to a deep cavern, you cannot tell.  Vibrant green moss covers most of the rocks, and birds happily hop from one to the next, fluffing their feathers as they bathe in the water.

I should note that most of the “relevant” details in my description are in fact visual (the disturbance in the water and the cave opening).  It doesn’t have to be so.  I noted ways in which you can give players cues that are non-visual – sounds, smells, abnormal temperatures – and I would encourage you to do so.  For example, we could have used one of these for our picture above:

  • The air is filled with a strange ozone smell -or- …filled with the smell of baking bread.
  • The sound of ticking clockwork comes from somewhere.
  • There is an unnatural chill in the air.

At first, describing scenes so fully may seem a difficult task.  You will generally find yourself writing out the scene ahead of time to make sure you hit all the details.  With practice, however, you will begin to describe for all five senses with ease, and eventually will be able to do it off the cuff without even thinking about it.  Just remember STHTS – smell, taste, hearing, touch, see.  Stop To Hearken The Senses.  Let’s practice.  Describe the following scenes using our new technique:

Photo by Flora Liu via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

Photo by Jack Paulus via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

Photo by Jennifer Cortright via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

Photo by Luis Bermejo via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

All the images featured in this article are courtesy of National Geographic’s Weekly Wrapper webpage, where you can download any of them as desktop wallpaper.  Also, thanks goes out to the Dice of Doom podcast, who first got me thinking about this, and practicing it.