Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Tabletop Tuesday! DMing for the first time

Hello! Sorry I missed last week's post, we were so busy that I didn't have a chance to sit down and write anything about tabletop RPGs (the only thing we've been playing lately)! This is the post I meant to write last week, and I really want to get back to playing our collection of board games so I can write about those. Unfortunately, tabletop RPGs, bagpipe lessons, and working on my PhD are taking up all of my time...

Last Sunday I DM'd a D&D game for the first time. The DM, or Dungeon Master, leads the game for the players, taking on the role of the non-player characters (NPCs), describing actions and locations to the players, and trying to make their experience fun.

image via Amazon

My regular DM wanted to play, and asked if anyone was interested in leading a game for him and some of our regular players. Because no one was available to DM on the weekend he suggested, I offered. Hit the jump if you're interested in hearing about my first experience running a game!

I only had a few days to prepare, but this weekend group is full of awesome and helpful people, so I wasn't nervous about screwing up too bad. And everyone said they had a fun time, and told me I did a good job, which is all I could have hoped for!

Since this group plays the D&D Adventurers League Expeditions, we chose a level-appropriate adventure from the summer 2015 season, Elemental Evil. The adventure was one we hadn't played yet, called "Boltsmelter's Book." Fun fact: this adventure actually debuted at SDCC, and became available to play on August 1st. The Boyfriend and I considered playing it at Comic Con, but decided not to in case our weekend group wanted to play it!

The description of this adventure from the Adventurers League website:

"A dwarven expedition has stopped in Mulmaster for much-needed supplies. Furgis Boltsmelter, their founder and leader, is looking for some “no questions asked” protection for the duration of his stay in the city. Whatever he is trying to protect may not stay hidden for long. Can you keep his secret treasure out of the wrong hands?"

Preparing to DM
To prepare for the game, my DM emailed me the PDF of the adventure. This PDF includes some basic instructions for the DM, descriptions of characters and locations that are part of the adventure, stats and attacks for NPCs, and some scripted dialogue options. There are also maps, and sometimes puzzles for the players to solve. These adventures are password protected, and many DMs get their access by running games at comic book stores or hobby shops that participate in the Adventurers League.

I read through this PDF, highlighting and marking important parts, taking notes, and cross-referencing game mechanics with my DM Guide. I made some forms for combat encounters to keep track of rounds and when new NPCs were supposed to be introduced. I also kept track of the initiative order on these sheets - initiative is the order in which everyone takes their turns. I also made lists detailing each combat encounter and what NPCs would be involved (this changes based on the average player character level, so they are challenged but not easily overwhelmed).

My DM kit included the print-offs I made (including the avdenture PDF), paper (a regular legal pad and a graph paper pad), pencils, my DM Guide, and my dice bag. The Dungeon Master's Guide is not 100% necessary, but does make it easier to DM because it includes item descriptions, game mechanics, and tips for creating and running an adventure. This guide retails for $49.95, but can be found on Amazon for under $30.

DMing involves a lot of preparation... and the ability to improvise. The DM can't predict what the players will always do, and the game becomes boring if the DM over-prepares and follows the rules and script to the letter. It's a balancing act.

One thing I didn't prepare very well for was how I would use some of the NPCs - some enemies were spell casters, which I don't have much experience playing, while some allies were available to join in the combat. I didn't want to overuse the allies, because the game would turn into me playing against myself, leaving the players to watch. In the end, I left the allies on the sidelines, bringing one in when the players needed a boost to their damage or a heal. As for the enemy spell casters, my regular DM said he usually creates a spell "script" for those that lists what attacks he'll use in what order, and he loosely follows that - of course, the players can always throw curveballs, making the script useless!

Playing "Boltsmelter's Book"
I don't want to go into too many details about the story in case anyone gets to play it, but it was a lot of fun. It's combat heavy, but the encounters are mostly different - there is a chase that involves saving throws and ability checks to escape, there is an encounter that can involve the rescue of an NPC, and there is a fight that requires the players to think in 3-dimensional space. To play through this story, the players can use information they learned in previous Expeditions or rely on new information from the NPCs to navigate the city.

I DM'd for a group of four players, with characters between levels 2 and 4. Besides my regular DM and The Boyfriend, there were two other players from our weekend group who I enjoy playing with. Everyone was very nice and offered tips and suggestions when I asked, but did not try to butt in or take over. It was the perfect group to DM for!

The variety presented in this adventure was interesting to me as the DM, but left me with some questions about the game mechanics - such as the chase event, which deviated from the normal chase rules in the DM manual. These mechanics were not explained thoroughly in the adventure PDF, and while this leaves room for interpretation and customization by the DM, it was confusing to me as a 1st timer.

The groups of NPC enemies were also balanced strangely - many of them had very high Armor Class stats (AC, a number influenced by the armor a character is wearing and designating how high a dice roll needs to be before an attack hits). Because a player had to roll a 17 or higher to land a hit on these NPCs, combat dragged on as attack after attack failed to land. This wasn't helped by my players having high ACs, too! Other NPCs had lower ACs and few hit points, making it possible for my players to take them out in one or two hits - which was unfortunate, since one encounter with that type of NPC was supposed to make the players feel overwhelmed (for storytelling purposes), and they really, really weren't! All of the players noticed this, and commented on it after the game was over.

"Boltsmelter's Book" was a fun adventure to DM, but it was also a long one, with a suggested playtime of 4 hours. Because of the dragging combat and role-play, it took us close to six hours to play through. Running a shorter adventure might have been better for my first time - I was exhausted by the end of the game! But I had a lot of fun, and would recommend running a pre-made adventure, like the Adventurers League Expeditions, to anyone who wants to try their hand at DMing. Having the stats and story information ready made this experience easier, and it can help new DMs identify what mechanics and intrigue they like if they are interested in writing their own adventures.

I am glad I had the chance to DM, especially with such a good group of players. The tips and tricks I picked up playing with different DMs helped me organize the game, and it was a great learning experience. I would definitely DM again if asked, but I think right now I enjoy playing my characters more. Like teaching, the DM needs to look over the materials ahead of time and come prepared, and I don't have time to devote to that regularly.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to leave any questions or comments below! Until next time, GAME ON!

Dungeons & Dragons logo and Elemental Evil artwork from the Adventurers League website.

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