Review: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

This Christmas, I was gifted three Dungeons and Dragons books. The first was the Monster Manual, much to the dismay of my party (just kidding), while the other two were Table Fables: A Collection of Tables for the Weary Dungeon Master by Madeline Hale and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Today’s post is going to be a review, primarily of XGE but also mentioning Madeline Hale’s book as well.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is the newest D&D 5th edition resource book from Wizard’s of the Coast. This book includes resources for player and DM alike; new subclasses, spells, and names are designed to make character and NPC creation easier, and magic items, traps, and encounter building seem primed to assist DM’s in campaign creation. But just how effective does Xanathar’s Guide seem to be?

  • Character options

One of the first things readers see when opening the book is the range of new class options. All of the original classes from the Player’s Handbook get at least one new subclass. The wizard only received one new school of magic, but as the class with the most versatility of choice in the original book, it is understandable why WOTC did not feel so inclined as to include more options in this supplemental guide. Rogues are provided the most options in this book, with a grand total of four new subclasses: Inquisitive, Mastermind, Scout, and Swashbuckler (a personal favorite of mine for years based purely on principle thanks to the Connor Kostick novel Epic). Many of the subclasses are slightly adjusted versions of what was released as Unearthed Arcana over the past couple of years, such as the Samurai subclass for the Fighter and the Way of the Sun Soul for Monks. Although my experience with the Unearthed Arcana was limited, from what I have seen it appears that WOTC did a good job listening to playtesters and adjusting the subclasses to be more balanced. While it is difficult to judge the uniqueness and effectiveness of each of the subclasses without testing them all, most of them appear to be interesting and different from what has come before, providing potential and experienced players with a wide array of options for their characters.

Similarly, XGE has an entire section entitled “This Is Your Life” that can help any new, uncertain, or adventurous person to determine their character’s life and backstory. Within the section, there are random tables about one’s origin (parents, birth order, birthplace, family), personal decisions involving backgrounds and classes (the reason why they became what they did), life events (tragedies, crimes, wars) and other supplemental elements (alignment, social status, relationship to others in the family). If a player is new and uncertain on what to do for their character, or perhaps if an experienced player wants to try something new and let the dice choose their fate, these random tables are perfect. None of the tables are intertwined with any other and can be used completely separately from any other, making the whole section flexible and extremely useful. Additionally, if players are stuck on a name for their new character, there are roughly seventeen pages of names in Appendix B, ranging from Dragonborn to Half-orc and even to Polynesian or English-sounding human names. For players, this book is certain to be an excellent supplement to the PHB when building new characters.

Another important element to note for players are the new racial feats added within the book. There are twenty new racial feats introduced in this book, ranging from Dwarven Fortitude (increase in Constitution and the ability to use a Hit Die when taking the Dodge action) to Prodigy (allows half-elfs, half-orcs, or humans to gain a skill proficiency, a tool proficiency, and a language, as well as providing them expertise in one skill that the character is proficient in). There are even different feats for some subraces; drow, high elves, and wood elves all receive their own unique feat, while also gaining access to a feat that is applicable to elves of any kind. If counting the elf subraces as separate, then the race that gains the most options is halflings, with a total of four new feats. It is interesting to note however that all of the new racial feats are directed at the original nine races; there are no racial feats available for Tabaxi, Kenku, or any of the other new races introduced in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Perhaps down the line WOTC plans to release another supplement with new racial traits once the Tritons and the Lizardfolk take off, but until then it appears that what is in Volo’s Guide will simply have to do.

The final notable thing for players in XGE is the range of new spell options. Each spellcasting class comes with new spells, some with a greater range than others. Paladins receive the least with only three new spells (Ceremony, Find Greater Steed, and Holy Weapon), while Wizards get the most, coming in with over seventy new spells (although several of the new options overlap with other classes, such as Danse macabre, a necromancy spell which is available to both Wizards and Warlocks). This increase in spell availability could be a unique way to diversify one’s character and provide more options to get around obstacles a DM throws at you.

  • Dungeon Master options

One of the notable things about XGE is its usefulness to both player and DM. While the guide has many great options for players, many of the options included for players are actually quite useful for DMs too. This Is Your Life, the spell lists, and the naming tables can all help a DM to create unique and interesting NPCs as well as spice up some villains for a campaign. If you are a DM looking for a supplemental book to the PHB and the Dungeon Master’s Guide but don’t want more monster material, XGE is the book for you.

In addition to the character related stuff, the entire second section is devoted to DMs. The chapter starts out with clarifying some rules or providing variant ones for situations such as falling, sleeping, and tool proficiencies. The book spends quite a few pages discussing both complex and simple traps, how to build them, and how they work, and also provides an insight for how area of affect spells can work on a grid battle map, the kind that many DMs use for their games. Another useful section in the book discusses encounter building. As someone who has never really looked into the math involved with Challenge Ratings for monsters but rather gone by what Kobold Fight Club says is a hard or deadly encounter, I found this section to be quite useful. There is one chart in particular that shows a suggested max CR of a solo creature depending on the size of the party (from 4-6) and the level of the characters. The book also explains a DMs options when dealing with PCs of varying levels, which can be helpful for DMs who play with experience points but reward based on roleplay as well as combat. Another great element is an entire middle section filled with random encounter tables. The encounters are broken up by terrain first (arctic, coastal, desert) and then by character level (1-4, 5-10, etc.). Some of the encounters are not even directly tied into a monster, providing the characters for a chance to explore or roleplay. If you as a DM love random encounters, then this section is a gold mine for you.

Despite its love of traps and monster, perhaps what XGE focuses on the most are casual downtime activities. Not only does the book provide tool descriptions, uses, samples DCs, and skills, the book also provides a list of activities, from buying or selling magic items to relaxing or even working. Each activity comes with an explanation of the time and resources required of the activity, the check and/or result, and potential complications from each. These options are great for games that lack murder hobos and instead possess players that are invested in roleplay and the lives their characters live. However, if your players are more interested in who they get to kill next, then you are probably better off leaving these activities and tools alone.

Last but certainly not least for DMs, XGE provides a small section on magic items. There is a small section devoted to suggesting how to distribute magic items to a party depending on their level. One table explains the distribution by tier (divided by minor and major items) and another table explaining it by rarity from common to legendary (also divided by minor and major). It is natural of course that the exact distribution will vary per campaign, so this section is a minor one. What is particularly important however is the introduction of several new common magic items. XGE acknowledges the lack of common items in the DMG and seeks to rectify that with these new additions. Some of the items are relatively useful, such as the Candle of the Deep, a candle that can be used underwater. Others however are of a sillier nature, like the Cloak of Billowing, which allows to user to “use a bonus action to make it billow dramatically”. That’s literally all it does. The array of new items provides some unique additions to the game, allowing you to take your campaign to unique and dramatics places while offering silly and whimsical options as well. Additionally, on pages 140-145 there are tables of magic items (including those beyond XGE), separated by rarity and divided into minor and major. The tables contain the name of the item, their type, and whether or not they need attunement. Personally, I find deciding what loot to give to my players troublesome because there is quite a bit to choose from and a lot to read about, so having this table that I can simply glance at and see what is available to me is extremely handy. To those who prefer to roll their loot randomly or like to run low-magic campaigns, this section might not be useful, but I know that I personally will find great use for this section in my campaign in the future.

  • Random tables

One of the greatest strengths of Xanathar’s Guide is the random table that it provides players and DMs with. Nearly everything in the book comes with a random table, which can be excellent for indecisive or uncertain players, new DMs, and those who just want their experience to be random and weird. I personally haven’t used random tables before, but I have been starting to warm up to the idea of using them in order to maximize efficiency and provide new ideas as a DM. Particularly as a DM who is working and going to school, random tables allow for an easier time prepping. While the tables in XGE are quite excellent, another book that I received from my parents for Christmas is Table Fables: A Collection of Tables for the Weary Dungeon Master by Madeline Hale. The book consists entirely of random tables that can be used by a DM or GM of any RPG. Dreams, villain traits, weather, food, and hundreds of other types of tables can all be found in this book. While there are tables that can be found online, the book is unique in its versatility between systems and would be a handy addition to any gaming table. If you as a GM are a fan of using random tables or are a new GM unsure where to take your players, this book would be an excellent supplement.

Overall, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is a unique and fun addition to the WOTC canon. While certainly not necessary for optimal game play, the spells, feats, and character creation options give players a wide range of things to try for their characters, while the sections on encounter building, traps, and magic items are all good for both new and old DMs. While some of the races and classes are a little underserved in the book, XGE does a good job of balancing classes and races throughout all the books. I do hope that sometime soon we see racial feats for the new races from VGM, but as for this book, I think that it is a worthy addition to the D&D books due to its vast array of new information and usefulness to both players and DMs. If you are looking to try some new things for your campaign, I would highly recommend picking up XGE for your gaming needs.

Rating: Four out of five stars

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Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

Distraction and Depression: The Other D&D

Hey guys. So this post is going to be a bit different than my others. I was originally going to write about the Five Room Dungeon format but a lot of stuff has happened this week so I’ve decided to switch it. This post also might be a bit of an echo of the Burnout post and for that I apologize. Additionally this post has a content warning for discussion of death/suicide and depression; I don’t talk about it much but if you’re sensitive to these things I would either pass on the first few paragraphs or just skip this post altogether. Thanks for reading. 

D&D is an escape for many people. In a world where we have to constantly deal with responsibilities like jobs and taxes or emotions like stress and anxiety, who doesn’t want to escape to a world where you can break doors and kill dragons without a second thought? Both Dungeon Masters and players often use D&D as a way to shut out the world for a little while and just exist in another world. But sometimes even D&D can’t be an escape for everyone. 

This past week has been an extremely rough one for me personally. On Monday, Kim Jonghyun, Korean singer best known for his work with the group SHINee, committed suicide. SHINee was the group that brought Neli and I together; we saw them three times over the course of last year when they came to the United States. It may seem silly to grieve over something like this; we never really met him or spoke to him or knew him. But he still meant a lot to us. I won’t go into details, but this week has been extremely difficult for both of us. I know personally I’ve been trying to find things to distract myself; on Monday I started playing Stardew Valley, and the relaxing music and the monotony of the tasks have been mostly a great way to force myself to stop thinking about the situation and the grief. 

It’s strange though. Normally I find myself drifting to things that I can pour my soul into when I’m upset. It’s one of the reasons why I like fandoms so much; I can bury myself in them when the real world gets to be too much. Over my twenty-two years of life however, I have had two great loves: theatre and D&D. When theatre left my life in 2015, I didn’t have anything that I was incredibly passionate about until I started playing D&D a year later. Since then it’s been the one thing that I’ve been able to use to escape when the going gets tough. Particularly since I’ve started DMing, it’s been a wonderful way to destress from normal life and bury myself in what I love. But what happens when I can’t even enjoy this? 

It seems incredibly likely that our group will have to skip our January decision due to schedules with school, rehearsals, and work. Normally I would be upset over having to skip an entire month, but this time I’m actually relieved. Between where we left off at our last session (Session 7) and everything that has happened this week, my brain has shut down. Any average day a person could walk up to me and strike up a conversation about D&D, and I could talk for ages and ages. But now my brain has just shut down. Every time my brain drifts to thoughts of the campaign I feel lost. It takes up so much energy to play, to plan for the session, and mine won’t do it.  

I’m not here entirely to talk about my grief and my struggles. The reason I started this post was to encourage you, as either a player or a DM, to pay attention to both your fellow players and yourself. If your players (or your DM if you yourself are a player) are showing signs of reluctance when discussing the game, or refusing to talk about it, or requesting some time off, listen to them. Maybe they’re burnt out, maybe they just need distance, or maybe it’s indicative of something deeper. Whatever it is, listen to your friend, your player, your DM. If they need distance from the game because it’s hurting them more than it’s helping them, be respectful. Similarly, if you find that the game has become a chore for you, then put the game on hold. Nothing in the game is anywhere near as important as your mental health. 

I know this has been a rambling post, and I’m sorry for that. I can’t seem to bring myself to talk about anything else just yet. I promise I’ll get back to posts about sessions and advice next week. There are some people here from Twitter I know who just found out about the blog, and I hope you stick around for the better posts, though I understand if you choose not to. But for now, enjoy the game if you can, and tell those important to you that you love them, whether it’s your family, your idols, or your fellow gamers. Merry Christmas and happy gaming. 

 

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide, please reach out to this number: 1-800-273-8255. 

 

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Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

Session 3

Although we had played two sessions before, I still somewhat considered the August session the official start of the campaign. I knew that I needed to start thinking about the long game, about my character’s backstories and how I could use them, and most about the story I wanted to tell for my heroes. No longer was our game simply a game, it was becoming something more; a fairy tale of sorts, a legend we might recount to one another over and over again fifty years from now or a tragedy that we might long to forget in the weeks following. Whatever it was to be, I knew that I needed to take responsibility and work towards something greater that my players could enjoy. 

In order to kick off our journey, however, there was one order of business that I needed to take care of: getting the characters out of at least Goldcrest, if not Tovell entirely. As mentioned before in my Session 2 post, I knew that if the group stayed there, Lei would have no reason to remain with the group and would feel uncomfortable in the midst of a city of people who believed that she was not only a traitor but also dead. With this in mind, the first two matters of the agenda was easy: provide a reason for the group to leave the resistance and give the players plot hooks leading them away from the capital. 

I struggled for a while to find a good excuse for the group to leave, but I eventually settled on the fact that there was likely a traitor in the group somewhere and the resistance needed to temporarily disband. At the time it felt like a cheap excuse, a shoddy way to push the players out, although in the time since it has actually worked well with the overall plot points I would like to work in. With the announcement from Druvall that the rebellion was essentially “on break”, I then needed to introduce hooks that the players could then take. 

While coming up with what the players could do for the next session, I wanted to make sure that my players had options and freedom to explore the world. I came up with three distinct hooks, each taking them to a different part of the world. When Druvall temporarily disbanded the forces, he told the group about a merchant who was an ally that would take the group out of the city, and if they chose to go with him, would provide them safe passage to his village in Edotis, the southern kingdom of man in Dracia. Similarly, when discussing with some of the people they had met during their time in the rebellion, I made sure that the group heard about an ice dungeon in Vrotha, the northernmost kingdom of Dracia and another kingdom of man. If the group had gone to meet the merchant, they also would have seen evidence of a third plot hook, leading them to Thorean, the neighbor to Tovell and the kingdom of the mountain dwarves. (In the time since, I have snuck this hook elsewhere into the game, just to allow them to keep their options open). In the end, the group decided not to trust Druvall’s suggestion of the merchant, leading them away from Edotis and the third plot hook, and decided to head north to visit the ice dungeon. 

The journey to the ice dungeon took two weeks. Partially paranoid about the spider fight from the previous session, partially because I had too much stuff to work on, this time I didn’t worry about a random encounter. I let the journey pass peacefully, knowing that the group would have plenty to amuse themselves with once they got to the dungeon. Eventually they got to Berufell, the town nearest to the ice dungeon. There they met Peter, the keeper of the Silver Ore Inn and Tavern, and his two twin daughters (whom no one bothered to get the names of). On their first night there, Bel and Lei managed to start a fight with a neighboring table after discovering that one of the guys was cheating at a game of cards. Otherwise the night was unremarkable, leaving the four to rest from their long journey. 

Immediately the next morning, the group set out for the ice dungeon, stopping only to gather some healing potions from a small potion shop. (I created Adelaide, the girl running the shop, on the spot, and the group did not take well to her, because she was a bit snobbish, though she still remains one of my favorite NPCs to this day). Eventually they found their way into what appeared to be the entrance to the dungeon, a small ice cavern with a door nestled inside. Deciding to investigate, Caileth examined the door while Solomon began looking at a skeleton inside the cave. Meanwhile, thanks to a not so great perception check, Lei and Bel noticed some ridges in the ice and decided to investigate-and by investigate, I mean “throw rocks at it”. Little did they know that the “ridges” were actually the scales of a young white dragon. 

The dragon encounter was one of the more difficult ones that the group has encountered in our time playing. A friend of mine adjusted the stats for a Young White Dragon so that it would be more manageable for a group of three level 4 characters and one level 3 character (since Reagan had only had one session, I didn’t want her to be overwhelmed, so I gave her an extra session to get used to the game before pushing Bel up a level). Still, the encounter got somewhat close. No one went down, but some of the group got low because of the amount of damage that the dragon was dealing each round. Luckily for them, the breath weapon never managed to recharge. The group was also close to smashing through the door to escape from the dragon, but Solomon managed to kill the dragon first, using his spell Shatter to cause an enormous piece of rock and ice to fall from the ceiling and crush the dragon’s head. As such, the first obstacle was defeated (and looted) and the group moved on to the next room. 

For the second room, I had designed a puzzle involving plates that depressed when stepped on and either caused a music note to play (if stepped on in the right order) or darts to fly out (if done wrong). I knew that my players had a fondness for breaking down doors, so I designed the puzzle with this in mind. The room was made of stone with only the door the group had come through visible. Once the puzzle was complete, stone on the other side would slide out of the way and reveal a passage to the next room. I had anticipated this puzzle to be relatively easy, however, the players actually had a rough time with this one. Nevertheless, the group made it through and arrived on the other side. 

In the next area, the group found three other humanoids struggling against a group of ice kobolds in a long hallway. My players decided to wait to see what would happen, and soon the other adventurers had defeated the kobolds and taken a rest. As usual, my players were distrustful of the newcomers, and instead of introducing themselves or outright killing them, they decided to intimidate them. Bel had skinned the dragon and had been carrying the scales of the dragon around as if it was a cape, Solomon had the ability to imitate any sound if he had heard it for a certain length of time, and Caileth had the ability to amplify sounds using Thaumaturgy. Down the hall Bel ran, the sound of a dragon behind him in an attempt to make the newcomers believe that a dragon was after them. Titus, the leader of the group was unimpressed. Cassia, a half-elf girl with arcane trickster abilities, was temporarily startled but quickly recovered. Bartholomew however, a rookie to the group, was completely terrified out of his mind thanks to a natural one on an intelligence check. Poor Bart spent the rest of the day terrified out of his mind of Bel, which Bel took great advantage of.  

After the encounter, Titus introduced his group and mentioned that they were looking for something very specific in the dungeon. He suggested that they team up, and so the players warily moved through the next room with them in tow. For the next room, I described a raised stone dais with several circular slots carved into it. Around the room were several coins with the symbols of the gods, and inscribed into the stone was a riddle. The riddle held hints of the gods that each symbol corresponded to. Lei and Caileth quickly made their way through most of the riddle, with some occasional hints from me through Cassia. However, the last coin was missing, which happened to be the symbol of Perceus, the god of tempest and the one that Caileth had pledged her allegiance to. Through a prayer and successful wisdom check, Caileth was able to summon the last coin to put into the slot, thus opening the door into the next room. 

In the last room of the dungeon, there was no monster lying in wait, nor any traps. There was simply piles of gold and other treasures, an old book, and in the center of the room a pedestal with a glass bottle containing a fragment of a map. It was at this moment that Titus revealed his group’s true intentions-they wanted the map fragment and nothing else. They offered to let the group claim the rest of the treasure if they would only allow them to escape with the map. My players of course did not agree with this and instead engaged in battle. Poor Bartholomew was too terrified to do anything but blindly swipe at Bel. Cassia on the other hand had the sole mission of retrieving the map and escaping at all costs. She nearly got out of the room too before Lei’s arrows brought her down. Titus was focused on Solomon at first, but as soon as Cassia fell he immediately sprinted for the map. He was out the door in moments, dashing for the exit, but finally met the same fate as Cassia. 

The group retrieved the map and searched the bodies of the two bandits. They found that each of them had a simple green circular clasp on their capes, and Titus had in his possession a letter from a “K” that detailed his instructions to get the map at all costs. After gathering up their treasure, they proceeded to grill poor Bartholomew about his involvement. He told them that he was a new recruit for the Jade Eye, a thieves’ guild in another Kingdom, and Lady Kyra was the one who had instructed them to come here. Despite Bel and Lei’s protests, Solomon freed Bart, handed him one of the valuable gems they had found, and told him to start a new life, warning him that if they ever ran into him again, it wouldn’t be on friendly terms. With that, Bartholomew scrambled away, and the adventurers were left to drag their gold back to the inn and get a good night’s rest. 

Over the course of this session, I learned a few things about how to run a game, as well as paying attention to the players. This session was a unique one for me, but is still to this day on of my favorites that we have ever done. 

  • Be careful about throwing a dragon at your players too early 

Plopping a dragon in front of your players is great at first. It’s intimidating and scary; your players will likely immediately be worried about if they’re even going to survive the encounter, and you’ll get a lot of delight out of finally being able to use a dragon in your game of Dungeons and Dragons. However, the fun stops once the dragon is dead. Theoretically, you can often have a dragon simply fly away, but if the dragon is trapped or specifically assigned to guard a place, it’s a lot harder to justify having it escape to reappear another day. Once your dragon falls, the players will feel on top of the world, which is in theory what you’re supposed to accomplish as a DM, but from then on the group won’t be afraid of most of what you throw at them, especially if someone doesn’t go down in the fight. Even if you emphasize that it was essentially a baby dragon that they killed, the players don’t care. So be careful about playing the dragon card too early in your campaign. 

  • Sometimes the NPCs we love are the ones we spend the least time with 

During this session, I introduced two characters that I was particularly invested in. Adelaide, as mentioned before, was a favorite of mine, but the players had no interest in her. I doubt the group will ever find out what her story is, and that’s okay; if your players aren’t interested in every little thing you as a DM create, they’re still playing in your world, and odds are they still like most of it. Even though I created her on the spot, I was somehow able to instantly know her story, and as such Adelaide was designed as someone whom the players could interact with and uncover the history behind. However, the world is open and the players have infinite choices, and as such it is perfectly all right that Adelaide got passed over. 

On the other hand, Cassia was constructed very differently. I came up with her in advance specifically to be both a potential ally and a possible antagonist. Although I knew little about her history, I had her personality figured out perfectly. She was spunky, flirtatious with everyone, and a little everywhere. When Lei swung at her with her sword, she let out a maniacal giggle and said “This is going to be fun!”, something that I hadn’t anticipated but had just happened. In many ways thinking about it now I see her as a Harley Quinn-type. Cassia wasn’t meant to have her past figured out, she was meant to be a puzzle piece, something to fit in the story that the characters could live in the present with. I wasn’t sure going into this session if she would come out alive, and when Cassia was killed, it was a weird feeling knowing a character that I had created and loved was no more. I don’t regret it; the moment was a great victory for the players, but it was an odd moment for me as a DM. 

  • Be careful with your puzzles 

When I put the puzzles in front of my players, it was the first time I had ever done so in a campaign. I had assumed that the music puzzle would be easy for them and that they would struggle with the deities puzzle because it was an element of the world that most players had no knowledge of. However, Eli already knew some of the deities because she had seen me drawing the crests for them, and I tried to make the riddle as similar to the crests as I possibly could. Additionally, I made the “coins” out of cardstock and drew the designs on them, and provided the “dais” by drawing circles on a piece of paper and allowing them to put the coins in the necessary areas. Having a physical prop for the players to mess with I think helped enormously in them solving the puzzle. While I did try to provide a physical “map” of the room where the players encountered the music room puzzle, it was quite a bit more difficult to pull off. I had also included a mechanic where if they stepped on the wrong pressure plate after activating the first part of the puzzle a bunch of darts would shoot out at the person on the wrong tile. I made them do a dexterity save every time, which quickly got monotonous. In the future if I were to use this puzzle again, I would allow the group to automatically succeed on their dex save after the second or third time, or even perhaps allow them to avoid the darts because they had begun to anticipate them with how long they had been in the room. Similarly, the room had ten different tiles that needed to be pressed, and I think that perhaps I would change that number to five or six instead. Overall, I was proud of my players for being able to understand and defeat my puzzles, and it allowed me to realize that in the future I could throw some puzzles and riddles at my players without too much trouble. 

As I mentioned, this session is still one of my favorites. The puzzles, the defeat of the dragon, the unique NPCs, and the crazy dragon imitation encounter were moments that were unique and fun for both me and my players. It also felt like a beginning; the players had left their original base and ventured out into the wide world, looking for adventure and treasure and creating bonds along the way. This was the beginning of our campaign, and I couldn’t have been prouder. 


(Special credit to my friend Dyer who helped me build this dungeon!)

Session 2

Once the previous sessions had been completed, I was wary of DMing and had no plans to continue at the end of May. However, towards the middle of June, my dad suggested doing another session. Both he and my sister said that they both wanted to play again, and I wasn’t necessarily opposed to it, so after thinking about it for bit I decided to go ahead and run another one shot. I invited back all of the same people to play the same characters, and began working on another game plan.

Unfortunately, neither Jon (the elven rogue Varis) nor Matt (the dragonborn paladin Kava) could make it to the second session. This left us with Neli and my family, and while three players is not necessarily a bad number, I began to rack my brain for ideas for other people who could join our July session. I ended up inviting Reagan, one of the first friends I ever made in college, and who I am not entirely why I didn’t invite in the first place. Like many of my friends, she had never played before, but she was eager to try. After some deliberation, she created Bel, an angry little half-elf barbarian with red hair and a love for snakes, and was ready to go for our session.

Bringing Reagan into the mix was the easy part. Deciding what to throw at the players for that session was by far one of the hardest things that I have ever done in D&D. There were a few obstacles that I had to overcome when creating the session: 1) I believed that there was a strong possibility that we might not ever play again after this, so I wanted to create something that was self-contained and had no cliff hangers. 2) The original session took place in Goldcrest, the capital of Tovell, and Lei has a bad history with the city and its inhabitants, so I wanted to get them away from the city so that she could feel more comfortable. 3) I didn’t want to accidentally kill the players since they were all still 3rd level. Thus, I wanted something that was engaging but not overly dangerous.

However, it became apparently quickly to me that I could not come up with a satisfying story. The only thing that I could imagine revolved around a necromancer, but I knew that necromancers were dangerous, and throwing them against weaker characters with newer players was probably not the smartest thing to do. Still, three weeks passed and my brain refused to envision anything better for the session, and as such I decided to bite the bullet and go with it. I would try to scale the necromancer down to better fit my players in hopes of not killing them. As such, the plan was set in motion.

At the beginning of the session, Druvall, the leader of the resistance in Goldcrest, pulled Lei, Solomon, and Caileth aside and asked them to assist in a mission. They were to retrieve a wizard ally and some weapons from a blacksmith in a nearby town and bring them back to Goldcrest safely. Additionally, they would be teamed up with Bel, a new volunteer to the resistance. The team agreed to journey to the next town, taking a couple of days to reach the neighboring village. Along the way, the team rolled for a random encounter and got a 12 on a d12, meaning that they then were subjected to a hard encounter. While they were asleep, a group of four giant spiders snuck up on the group and attacked. It was a particularly tough battle, but the group managed to fight through and emerge victorious. Tired and wary, the group trudged on, and after another day’s journey they arrived at the village at nightfall. Solomon and Lei went off to scout for the blacksmith they were supposed to meet and the wizard they were to retrieve, while Bel and Caileth gathered the items to make a stew. (Including one blackberry, which was apparently the magical ingredient). Reconnaissance done and food digested, the group set off into town to rendezvous with their contacts.

Because they had found out definitively where the blacksmith was but had very few leads on the wizard, they decided to visit the blacksmith’s shop. After some quiet knocking that didn’t wake up the man and Solomon’s offer to jump up to the second floor and climb in through the window, the group began to argue loud enough that Galdoro, the blacksmith, woke up and let everyone inside. Once in, the group began to grill him for information, but like most players they were instantly suspicious of the man I had set before them, and thus ended up casting Detect Magic while talking in the first floor of his shop to see if they would be proven right. Unfortunately for me, Galdoro was actually the necromancer wearing a Hat of Disguise, so his entire body lit up as the spell was cast. At that moment, my suspicious players grew even more suspicious, and as such a strange comedy routine began.

As soon as Galdoro left them to retire to his room, the players began snooping around. Solomon offered to leap up and sit on his window to keep whoever the man was from escaping, but the group ended up vetoing the plans. After some searching, the group found some letters in a locked drawer, as well as a few blank pieces of paper that were purely innocent yet caused a frenzy to find out its secrets. After wasting time finding an old lemon and spraying the paper with it a la Nicolas Cage in National Treasure, the group found nothing to indicate that he was necessarily a traitor, and as such decided to get some rest.

When they awoke the next morning, Galdoro had seemingly escaped from the window of the second floor. Frustrated with his escape but proud of their suspicions being proven right, the group decided to set out for the inn where they believed that the wizard they had been sent to retrieve was staying. Despite the innkeeper’s suspicions, the group inspected the rooms and broke down not one but two doors. They discovered that the wizard had apparently been kidnapped last night and found a set of footprints leading to the mountains nearby. In a rush, the group took off to retrieve what they had been sent for.

Finally, it was time for the climactic battle, the necromancer and four zombies versus the PCs. It was revealed to the PCs that the Galdoro they had met was indeed the necromancer in disguise and he had kidnapped the gnome wizard that was an ally of the resistance. The PCs fought bravely, turning the zombies to ash with radiant spells and fighting the necromancer at every turn, until finally Solomon’s Vicious Mockery caused the necromancer’s head to explode. The entire battle was done in a few rounds, and was easier than the spider fight from earlier. All of the PCs walked away with few injuries, and even Tana the gnome wizard seemed unharmed, despite a nasty fall off the side of a cliff.

After the fight, the group went back to loot the blacksmith’s shop and find the weapons because they presumed Galdoro was dead. While they did find the weapons, they also discovered that the real Galdoro was actually being held captive in the basement. Once freed of his bindings, he determined that there was a traitor in the rebellion, and Solomon suggested that he come back to Goldcrest with the rest of them for his safety. Galdoro agreed, and so the group returned to the city, weapons, wizard, and blacksmith in tow.

I could tell that my players had a lot of fun this session from how they were acting and the tears of laughter that flowed from everyone’s eyes. Reagan in particular was hooked on the game, despite her nervousness about coming into an RPG for the first time. At the end of the day, everyone agreed that we should get together more regularly, perhaps once a month, and as such our campaign was officially born.

Just like my other sessions, this one taught me many things, some of which I had not had any experience with at all before. Some of these lessons I still struggle with to this day, and I often draw from my experience in this session when working on new ones.

  • Know your bad guys

One of the most important elements of the game, and one that I still struggle with, is knowing my baddies. Knowing not only the villain’s motivations but also their abilities is extremely crucial. Reading a stat block repeatedly and ensuring that you are at least a little aware of what each of their spells and abilities will do will make the gameplay easier and can prevent your villain from getting caught in a tight spot. When Solomon offered to perch outside of the window and keep “Galdoro” in his room, I panicked. It was my intention to have him escape from the window, so having the bard perch right outside would have thrown an enormous wrench in my plans. However, somewhere along the way I had apparently forgotten that a) this was actually the necromancer and not Galdoro and b) the necromancer had access to the spell Dimension Door. If I had payed attention to what my villain had at his disposal, even outside of combat, that moment of panic would never have occurred. I still struggle sometimes with utilizing my villains properly, but after this session I realized that it was something I really needed to work on.

  • Scaling down baddies can be difficult

Scaling a bad guy down, or “nerfing” them, is something that can be useful but is difficult to do. Nerfing a particular bad guy can allow your players to face something that is thematically appropriate for the session but that might otherwise kill them. However, this particular technique is one that requires practice. When I nerfed the necromancer, I reduced his hit points, its AC, and took away a few of his heftier spells. I wanted to balance it so that I could include zombies in the fight as well, but I ended up nerfing the zombies as well, taking away their Undead Fortitude feature. This resulted in the players having an easier time fighting a necromancer than they did the spiders from earlier in the session. Scaling down bad guys is almost an art, something that needs to be done carefully and with practice. I particularly like this video from Matt Colville discussing how to scale a monster both up and down. I hope one day to be able to accurately sale down a creature so that it neither kills my players nor allows them to trample over it.

  • Bringing in a new player isn’t that problematic

I was worried about bringing in a new player, both above the table and in game. Luckily, everyone had met Reagan before and liked her a lot, so I wasn’t worried about her dynamic with the other players. I did know however that both her and Neli had no acting or role-playing experience, as opposed to my family which is full of theatre people. Everything went well though, and even though we still struggle sometimes with RP at the table, we’ve slowly been warming up to the idea of it each session.

As far as introducing Bel into the game, I was lucky that we had ended the original one shot in the midst of a resistance, meaning that I was able to place the barbarian in the midst of the scenario instead of having to resort to some sort of “meet in a tavern” scenario or anything peculiar. Additionally, the group was also fairly chaotic, and as such were not too distrustful of having another character join them on their journey. I know that it varies sometimes between tables, but sometimes adding in a new player isn’t as much work or stress as it might seem.

  • If you give an NPC a nickname…

It seems like nearly every time I DM for a group, there has to be at least one character that ends the session with a strange nickname attached to them. This particular instance the name fell to the necromancer. Early on in the session, I had described how the necromancer had a mostly shaved head except for one long dark ponytail, “Like Zuko from Avatar”. Then during the battle, I proceeded to make a strange sound for one of the zombies which to my players apparently sounded like a duck quacking (let’s just say my voice acting is nowhere near the caliber of Matthew Mercer’s). This prompted them to ask if the necromancer controlled zombies or ducks, and thus the nickname “Duck Zuko” was born. While the nickname was somewhat sad because it minimized the threat of having a necromancer around, it made what probably was a forgettable fight at least somewhat memorable. To this day we still remember not only Duck Zuko, but “Tuna” (Tana, the wizard they rescued) as well due to my poor handwriting on the initiative screen. Memorable nicknames are an inherent part of D&D, and though it can be a bit frustrating for a DM at times to have your characters dismissed, it provides a unique experience for the players and often becomes a way for players to remember an NPC or villain that they might otherwise have forgotten.

At the end of the session when my players told me that they had fun and admitted to wanting to play more, I realized then that this is why those who choose to DM love it so much. The satisfaction of knowing that your players have enjoyed something that you have created specifically for them is unlike any other. It was at the end of my group’s second session and the start of the campaign that I realized that I did in fact enjoy DMing, despite my misgivings, and was determined to see my players through the best game I could possibly give them. I left Session 2 nervous for the mantle and responsibility that I had taken upon myself, yet eager to see what stories my players and I could tell.

 

Notable quotes from the session:

•Caileth: We’re pancake fueled and ready for destruction!

•Me: Tana walks up to the edge of the cliff and *rolls an athletic check* *gets a 1* trips and falls and dies

•Me: You use the old lemon on the paper and… nothing happens. The place just smells lemony fresh now

Eli: Don’t you mean lemony old?

•Solomon: “You wart on a cat’s butt! Eat dirt and die!” *Cue necromancer’s head exploding*

Session 1.5

After my birthday session, I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to DM again. I had enjoyed the game and had fun DMing my friends through my first official session, but it was a much different experience than I had anticipated and I was worn out. I also felt that I had done perhaps not a crappy job but certainly not a very good one. However, my sister had already asked me to DM her friends through a session about a week and a half after my first one, so I was already committed to at least one more trial run.

At the end of May 2017, my youngest sister Eli and I went out of town to visit our middle sister Skylar who lives about six hours away from us. While Eli (Caileth in my main campaign) loves playing D&D, Skylar has never been a fan of the game. So you can imagine my surprise when she texted me asking me to bring my D&D stuff when we visited. It turned out that several of her friends had always wanted to try the game but never had found anyone to run it. As such she volunteered me for a one-shot for the group. Luckily, she asked me quite a bit in advance of the trip so I was able to plan for the session, but planning this session and the birthday one so close to one another was a bit rough. Still, I managed to come up with something that I was sure the group would love.

Since the first session had taken place in Tovell, a human kingdom towards the center of the continent, I wanted to change things up as far as terrain for the new campaign. I picked Vrotha, the northernmost kingdom, to base the new session in. Although it was still a kingdom of man, it was a very different area due to the freezing temperatures year-round. Since I did not have an idea of what monsters to make the group fight and no resource books outside of the Player’s Handbook available to me, I ventured to Kobold Fight Club and looked through all of its Arctic monsters to get an inspiration. Eventually I came across the Yeti, a CR 3 creature that would be just perfect for a group of six level 3 characters, and thus my plan was born. The players would enter a small village near the capital of Vrotha and discover that children had been going missing. It would appear at first that a Yeti was taking the children, but I had planned that once the players killed the Yeti, another kid would disappear. In reality, there was actually a group of cultists that had been kidnapping children to use them as a sacrifice to the goddess Talona. (This one-shot took place before I had created my pantheon, as I never anticipated having to use my world again after this game). The Yeti had actually been trying to rescue the children from the cultists. Once the players had defeated the cultists they would be rewarded and celebrated, and thus the session would end.

The group consisted of six players: Skylar, Eli, Tessa (Skylar’s roomate), Trevor (Tessa’s brother), Tyler (Trevor’s fiancé), and Vicky (Tyler’s sister). Eli tends to stick to druids and clerics, and as such played Leush, a tall half elf swamp druid. Tessa and Skylar both chose to play rogues; Tessa’s a tiefling named Melethril, and Skylar’s a very gold-toned elf named Alaky Yarith. She also only agreed to play if Alaky could be chaotic evil, which might have posed a problem in some situations, but nearly all of the group was chaotic neutral, meaning that conflict never arose. Trevor’s character was was Persephonia Celestios, a noble from Tovell turned tempest cleric. Tyler’s dwarf, Felipe Von Pennyweather, was a bard. Finally, Vicky played a mysterious human fighter known only as “The Pirate”. The group was eccentric, intriguing, and silly, perfect for D&D.

Ask any DM and they’ll tell you that sessions going as planned is rare. But this session actually went off the rails before the game even started. We had originally planned to meet at 5 on Thursday night and play for quite a while, but because my sisters and I had driven to Austin for our cousin’s high school graduation that morning, the three of us were exhausted. All of us ended up falling asleep in Skylar’s apartment and didn’t wake up until nearly seven. We finally managed to make our way over to the other apartment and play; but we ended up only getting through about half of the session. I offered to DM the next night and since they had fun they agreed to keep playing. The second night they managed to finish all the material I had, but they were having so much fun that they asked to play a third night. I agreed, but since I had no other material planned I scrambled to come up with something for the players to do.

Over the course of the three sessions, the players had fun and enjoyed their time with the game. I also had fun, more so than I had for the birthday session, and began to reconsider whether I wanted to DM again. The mini three-day campaign also taught me so many lessons that I still think about when prepping sessions, even six months later.

  • The difference between railroading and sandboxing is astonishing.

In my Session 1 post, I discussed how I felt that I had tried to push the players a certain way because I had relied so much on the tunnels being the centerpiece of the session and the need for the fight to happen at the end of the tunnels. Because I was not flexible with my planning, the players ended up feeling forced into things and the session wasn’t as fun as it could have been. Without even realizing it, however, I planned the Vrotha session with much more flexibility. By making the area open to investigation and populated with different NPCs, the village felt alive. My players were able to choose where to investigate and who to talk to without feeling forced into anything. Although the players eventually ended up in the spots that I wanted them to, they did it because I left clues that lead them there, not because I told them they had to. I didn’t realize any of this at the time, but all of this led to the session being much more enjoyable. It ended up being much more fun for the players and extremely freeing for myself.

  • If you mess up and show your hand too early, it isn’t the end of the world.

When the group found out that children were missing, they split up into 3 groups of two. Two of the people went to visit the elder of the village, two more ventured to the remains of the house that one of the missing children used to live in, and the last two headed toward the river where a corpse had been found. At the burned down house, there was a set of human footprints, and by the river was a set of footprints that were more monstrous. The groups got back together and told each other their findings, and Trevor suggested following the footprints. I intended to ask him if he wanted to investigate the human footprints or the monster ones, but what instead came out was “Do you mean the human footprints or the Yet-“.

I froze, panic surely forming in my eyes as I locked eyes with Trevor. He asked me if it was a Yeti that they were tracking, and in vain I claimed that it was actually a “Yellow” (whatever that might be, I panicked so who knows). Naturally they didn’t fall for it. But surprisingly, letting them know that it was a Yeti really had no bearing on the session. Sure, they laughed about it and teased me, and they insisted on calling the Yeti the Yellow from now on (or alternatively the “Yeet-i” based off of a Vine they were obsessed with), but they didn’t treat the rest of the game any differently. In fact, it actually made the night more memorable. Now of course this might not always be the case; revealing that an NPC is actually secretly the bad guy above the table can have far bigger consequences than accidentally giving away the monster of the week. But if it happens, don’t beat yourself up about it. More than likely there will be few if any consequences, and it might even make for a memorable moment.

  • Sometimes the players will come up with cool ideas. Let them be right.

Originally, the cultists who were sacrificing children were going to be a random nameless group of people who had taken up residence in the mountain. However, at some point the players began to suspect that Elder Reinhart (fondly nicknamed “Elderberries” by my players) was actually involved in the kidnappings. When they voiced those concerns, I realized that this was far better and changed my plans. This was not only a clever idea that allowed the situation to have weight instead of the nameless cultists, but it gave my players a certain amount of satisfaction when they learned that he was indeed behind the disappearances. They felt justified that their suspicions had paid off. Allowing your players to be right about something can make the session even more enjoyable for them and can make them feel like heroes.

  • Know your players and what will intrigue them.

Perhaps the biggest mistake that I made was making the plot point focused around children. When the six of them heard that children were being kidnapped, none of them felt pity or were interested in trying to rescue them. The only reason they actually decided to help out the village was because Tessa’s character Melethril was particularly infatuated with the mother of one of the kidnapped children and wanted to garner her favor by rescuing her son. Had it not been for this one specific element, there was a possibility that my players would have been entirely uninterested in my plot point. However, if I had been playing with a group of people who were parents, aunts, or teachers perhaps, they might have jumped at the chance to save the kids. This game made me realize that if you, as a DM, have the ability to spend time with your players and understand who they are as people and as players, you can use that to your advantage. Not only can you bring in plot points and characters that will interest your players, you can also avoid lulls or things that your players simply won’t care about.

  • Letting your players steal everything from a house can be worth it.

Okay, I know this sounds weird, but hear me out. Skylar has never particularly enjoyed D&D or many of the other nerdy games that I have played, and the only reason she agreed to join us for these sessions was because all of her friends were eager to try it. However, despite what she claims, I could tell she had one point that she actually really enjoyed. After Elderberries was killed in the battle against the cultists, she decided to go back to his house and take everything. And I mean everything. Four doorknobs, a door knocker, three rings, two robes, two doors, and a freaking crystal washbasin: she took it all. Normally if my players wanted to steal everything, there would be consequences, but the elder was dead, the rest of the town had no idea what was happening, and the group left the village the next day. Additionally, the game was essentially a one shot, and above all else Skylar enjoyed being able to steal everything from the house. Sometimes as a DM you might have a player that is not as interested in engaging as the others are, but if you manage to find the one thing that does pique their interest, take advantage of that to draw that player in.

  • Festivals are great when you have to come up with a plan quick.

When the players wanted to play a third day after I had already gone through the material I had prepared, I had a moment of panic. It usually takes me quite some time to prep a game session, so I wasn’t sure how I would be able to plan 3-4 hours of material in less than 24 hours. However, I remembered a festival that my own DM had done for us one session, and I realized that a festival was my answer. I quickly looked up some games for my players and some competitions that they could participate in, came up with some prizes for them to win, and drew up a menu for a food tent. The games included card games, strength games, and balance games, while the competitions featured pie eating, archery, dancing, and music so as to give every character the chance to show off. Although there were no real consequences to the festival, the players were able to have fun, play with each other, and show off. When a DM doesn’t have a clue what to do for the end of a session, throwing in a festival can be a good way to fluff up a session or lighten the mood.

Throughout this three-day extended one-shot, I learned a lot about DMing and had much more fun than I ever had previously. Occasionally when I have sat in the DM’s seat after this, I think back to this particular session and reflect on what I learned. It taught me that no matter how important I think something is, it is never as important as allowing your players to explore, engage with the world, and have fun, and I hope to remember that for as long as I play D&D.

Burnout

Sometimes while playing this fantastic game of Dungeons and Dragons people get burnt out. Players, DMs, even consumers of D&D based media, at some point tend to run into this obstacle. I know, blasphemous, right? How could anyone get tired of such a fantastic game. But the reality is is that it happens, whether we like it or not. So how do we, as DMs, combat when we get burnt out from running the game, or when our players get burnt out from playing?

Originally on this blog I had intended to recap the sessions I had DMed up to the present day and impart the lessons I learned from those games onto you before moving on to more strictly generic advice posts. However, I have recently begun to experience burnout, and I felt that it was pertinent and appropriate to bring this up on my blog. Today I want to tackle things like why burnout happens and different ways to overcome it.

My players and I all have busy lives with work and (in most of our cases) school. This plus the distance between some of us makes it difficult for us to play, so we try to schedule a monthly all-day session. While it works well for us, most of my players would love to play more. However, I know from experience that it takes me nearly a month to prepare everything I need for the next session (which would probably not happen if we were to play four hours instead of eight, but I digress). Often after each session, I give myself some time to stew over what the players did in the last session and brainstorm what I can do for the next session. Since I have had problems with railroading them in the past, I want to be careful and make sure that there are plenty of ways that players can choose to go or multiple options for them to solve a puzzle. If you’ve been a DM, you know how much work this is. If you’re not a DM, keep this in mind for if you ever do want to try your hand at it.

I tend to work on my session plans on Thursdays. One of my jobs is a tutor at the local community college, and this semester I work 1-8 on Thursdays. (Yes, I know boring personal stuff. Feel free to skip to the actual advice but I promise this won’t take long.) If there are no students to tutor, the tutors and teachers are free to do as they please, be it doing homework, reading a book, or working on D&D stuff. This semester has been fairly slow for students, meaning that I essentially have seven hours to work on my campaign. Last Thursday (11/16) was the first Thursday after our latest session, and normally I would take things slow when planning for the next session, but I had thrown something pretty important at my players that I hadn’t really fleshed out at all and I knew that I needed to get to work on these elements ASAP.

However, as I was trying to work on my campaign it felt like I was crawling through mud. Every time I would try to type something into my document, I wanted to cry. Thinking about what I needed to do made my chest feel heavy. I simply could not bring myself to work on a game that had, for the past year and a half, brought me such joy. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and I don’t think I have either one, but that day I think I had a taste of what both must feel like.

That day I wound up closing my laptop, putting away my books, and contemplating why I felt that way and what I could do about it. After a bit I realized that I had tried to plan so soon after the latest session, and that I must have gotten burnt out for the game. I resolved to spend the weekend not thinking about D&D at all, giving myself a break and allowing me to reinvigorate my love for the game. What I did spend time thinking about however was different ways that DMs can prevent or recover from burnout either themselves or with their group. I think that this list will be particularly helpful for games that meet more than once a month.

  • Try a different system

Sure, D&D is an awesome game with lots of versatility and wonder, but there are a lot of options, a lot of rules, and a looooot of dice. Trying a new system for a one-shot can be something that allows you, as the DM, to engage in a story that you otherwise might not have been able to tell using the rules of Dungeons and Dragons. Three systems that are simple to learn and use but lend themselves to a different kind of story are Dread, Honey Heist, and Roll for Shoes. All of these are tabletop RPGs with relatively simple premises and executions.

Dread stories usually take the form of a horror story, perhaps an abandoned spaceship infested with aliens or a monster stalking a group of kids through the woods. Instead of dice and character sheets, however, the system uses simple character questionnaires and a Jenga tower. When a player wants to do something that their character would not or could not normally do, they make a pull from the tower. If they manage to pull without knocking over the tower, they succeed. However, if the tower falls during a pull, the character is removed from the game, usually due to death or insanity. Players can choose to stop pulling if they feel that the tower will give out, at the consequence of something bad happening. Alternatively, a player can choose to knock over the tower on purpose to sacrifice themselves. The tower provides a unique suspense that lends itself to horror stories, and allows for a very simple roleplaying experience.

Honey Heist is nearly the opposite of Dread. In this game, the players are bears attending HoneyCon and they are attempting to steal the honey. The players have two stats, Bear and Criminal, that they are trying to keep balanced. To achieve something, the players must roll a d6 (or two depending on if they are particularly good at that skill) for either Bear or Criminal, and try to get below the number of their stat. There are six different bear types to choose from, six different roles to fill (from driver to hacker and even the brains of the operation) and seven-that’s right, seven-different hats that can be worn. The rules are simple, one page for the players and one page for the GM. If you’re looking for a silly, unique, and fun roleplaying experience, Honey Heist is one that your players will love and will require little preparation.

Roll for Shoes is another simple role-playing game that can be used for almost any scenario, from sci-fi to fantasy or anything you can imagine. Once again using d6s, players roll the corresponding skill with the appropriate amount of dice and try to get a higher roll than their opposition. For instance, all players start with the skill Do Anything-1. This means that the first time they try to do literally anything, they will roll one d6 and try to get a higher number than either the GM or another player (depending on the situation). If they succeed any roll with all sixes, they get to add a new skill related to whatever they were doing at one number higher. If they fail, they gain one experience point, which can later be used to turn a dice into a six for the purpose of leveling up a skill but not to win the roll. This system is a tad more complicated than Honey Heist or Dread, but it is still simple and enjoyable.

All of these systems are simple and unique, and allow for a very different form of storytelling than D&D normally would. However, because of the simplicity of the rules, these games rely more on the storytelling aspect. If you are like me and not very talented at stroytelling, this might not be the solution for you. I often get ideas for what to do with my players next by looking in guide books and examining creatures, traps, magical items, and other things that you won’t find in these systems. So if you have trouble coming up with a story for you group, it might be best to either use a pre-written adventure or stick to D&D.

  • Run a one shot

If you like the idea of changing things up but don’t want to change systems, another option is running a one shot using the same system you have been using. This can give your players a break from characters that they might find difficult to play or tiresome to keep track of. You can also explore new parts of your world this way too. If your main campaign is currently based in the northern human kingdom, try basing your one shot in the middle of the continent in the dwarven kingdom, or in the south where your elves live. Or if you have more than one continent, change things up even more. While this can be a fair bit of work, this will allow you to expand your world and figure out things you had no clue you needed to know. Your players will also be amazed at how big the world is, and it will help your world feel like a living entity with more than one set of adventurers.

  • Let someone else take over the DM’s seat for a while

If you have been the DM for so long you’ve forgotten what it feels like to play, it can be a weird feeling to just hand over the reins to another person. A lot of DMs like to feel in control of the game table, and that can be fine as long as it doesn’t go too far. But allowing one of your players to have a shot at being Dungeon Master for a bit can be a freeing experience. Your players are all unique people who have different stories to tell, and allowing those stories to shine can be one of the best things you as a DM will do. Even if it’s just for one session, taking a step back from the head of the table can do so much. Most of the time playing is a much less stressful experience than DMing, particularly if you play as something like a barbarian that doesn’t have twenty million spells and abilities to keep track of. Allowing yourself to experience D&D through the eyes of a player can be invigorating, fun, and a good way to destress.

  • Simply take a break

I know it sucks to not be able to play, but sometimes you have to do it. Life gets in the way, as much as we all wish it didn’t, and in the end D&D is a game. It’s supposed to be fun, and if it becomes more of an obligation or a chore, then maybe it’s time to take a break. This can be particularly helpful for groups that meet more often, such as those that gather once a week or once every other week. For monthly groups, or groups that only get to meet when everyone comes home from school or to visit for the holidays, taking a break is often less effective because they get to play so little anyways. This type of situation would lend itself more towards switching systems or letting someone else DM for a turn. Whether you end up taking a break or not, it is a good option to consider, especially if more than one person at the table is experiencing burnout.

In the end, players are often a sort of family. If anyone, especially the DM, is experiencing any kind of burnout, the most important thing is to be open and honest with their players. Sometimes you have to try new things. Other times, such as for me, you just have to spend a weekend refusing to even think about the game and things will return to normal. You as the DM are responsible for communication with your players and listening to them, just as it is your players’ responsibility to tell you if they are having a problem. An open, friendly, and communicative role-playing table is a happy role-playing table, and the sooner players talk about their issues, the sooner everyone can get back to killing dragons and cursing the DM.

Session 1

At last, the day that I had been waiting for had finally arrived. It was the day of my official “debut” as a Dungeon Master, something that I had been looking forward to and planning for nearly three months. This was what I had requested as my birthday present from my friends and family; all I wanted was for them to join me for the one-shot campaign that I had prepared. I had prepared food, drinks, and desserts for the festivities, and even bought a pack of dice so that each person could receive a set, as most of my players had never played before, and thus had no materials. Hours of prep had gone into the session, and now the time had arrived.

Prior to the session, I spent time with each of my friends and family members to build their 3rd level characters. My friend Matt (the aforementioned DM for the game I play in and one of the players for Session 0) I did not supervise since he had nearly a year of experience playing and knew how to build characters. He chose to play a dragonborn paladin named Kava. Another friend, Jon, preferred the sneakier characters and so created Varis, a wood elf assassin rogue. Neli, another friend of mine, brought to life Kao Lei, a skilled marksman who once served as a soldier in the Tovellian army but has since become a ranger who discloses little about her past. As mentioned from Session 0.5, my sister played Caileth, the tempest cleric of Perceus, and my father was Solomon Sollew, bard extraordinaire. Together, the five made an eclectic team, and my players were ready to go.

The plot for my one-shot was supposedly simple. The group had been summoned to Goldcrest, the capital of Tovell, by a mysterious dragonborn named Druvall who knew Caileth from her time at the church in the capital. Druvall was the leader of a resistance that had popped up in Goldcrest; a small group of people had become dissatisfied with the corruption in the kingdom and desired a change. However, in a recent attempt to attack the government, one of the resistance leaders had gotten captured. Sandrael, an elven wizard, was set to be executed by morning. Druvall wanted the adventurers to sneak into the prison by using the resistance’s inside man, free Sandrael, and escape through the abandoned thieves guild tunnels under the city to return Sandrael to the resistance. Towards the end of the tunnel system, the PCs would encounter a group of thieves, indicating that the tunnel system was not as abandoned as anyone thought it was. The plan seemed simple and clear cut. I had prepared for this session probably twenty times more than I had for those simple improvised sessions, and if we had fun for those, then surely we would do even better this time!

Things certainly did not go as planned, however. While the plot ended up going in essentially the same direction that I had planned, there were some crucial differences that I had not planned for. We still enjoyed ourselves, but the session did not feel as fun as the first two, and it made me question whether or not I actually enjoyed DMing. Fortunately, I learned some extremely important lessons as a DM that I still consider to this day.

  • If your players are suspicious of NPCs, there is only so much you can do about it

My players had decided right from the beginning of the session that they did not trust Druvall. They felt that it was extremely peculiar that this mysterious dragonborn guy who Caileth barely even remembered had suddenly sought them out for help. I in no way was anticipating this level of suspicion. Maybe from Matt, who had been playing for quite some time and knew how D&D and stories worked, but all four of the other people agreeing? In hindsight that probably just shows how naïve I am as a player, but at the time it frustrated me to no end. It seemed ridiculous to me that they would believe that I was setting them up so early. Even though they agreed to help rescue Sandrael, they were explicit in the fact that they did not trust Druvall or his organization.

It didn’t help however that many of my players’ characters were from Tovell, including Lei, and so several of them did not feel safe regardless of the situation. Even though during this first session most of my players did not have anything worked out for their backstory, most of them at least knew where their character was from. Without even realizing that most of my players had chosen Tovell as a home base, I had structured a story around a place that these characters were likely to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps if I had been more aware of my players and their decisions concerning their characters, the suspicion could have been avoided. This issue would actually come up again in future sessions, making this something I regret a bit. However, it has also allowed me to set up for story elements down the line now that we play regularly, so this has been a mixed bag of fortune.

  • Your players are going to want to talk to local people; try to be prepared for that

When the characters were given the mission to sneak into the prison, they decided to case the joint while they were waiting for the changing of the guard that Druvall had told them would be their opportunity to strike. Not only did the players try to interact with the guards, some of them decided to visit the local shops. For some reason I hadn’t actually mapped out what was around the prison, so when the group wanted to talk to people, I had to quickly come up with some shops around the area. I settled on an alchemist’s shop, a blacksmith, a bakery, and a tailor. Kava chose to go into the alchemist’s shop, and ended up purchasing some healing potions. Two of the other members decided to talk to the tailor, hoping to find (translation: steal) a guard uniform. Instead they found a woman who was repairing a uniform but unfortunately it was not fit to wear yet. Through conversation they found out that the girl was infatuated with one of the guards, but otherwise there was no information to be had, primarily because I had not thought this far and was coming up with things off of the top of my head.

Solomon, on the other hand, was far more interested in learning about the person they were supposed to meet up with. With a particularly good perception check, he was able to notice that one of the guards had a letter sticking out of his uniform. By pretending to be drunk he was able to grab the letter, take a look at it, and put it back. The latter contained information about the meetup and was signed by “D”. While the players might not have trusted the kid, they knew at this point that he was the one to stay on the lookout for.

Even though the scenario ended up working, the players got almost nothing from the scenario because I hadn’t had at least a basic outline in place before the game. Everything from the letter to the tailor girl had been improvised on the spot, meaning that I wasn’t able to give the players as much detail as either of us would have liked. I could tell that they were fairly frustrated with the scenario and felt that their efforts should have garnered more reward. Because I hadn’t thought through the people who lived in the area and had assumed that my players would have moved in a straight line towards the suggested target. I found out that players will feel as if their efforts are not paying off if you lead them in a direction and yet leave them no clues.

  • Practice variety in your NPCs

During this first game, I found it difficult to differentiate my NPCs with acting and voices. Outside of Druvall, the first NPC the players interacted with was a barmaid who wound up with an increasingly high-pitched voice and a progressively more southern drawl (the Texan in me was strong that day I guess). My players joked that she was actually just me putting myself in the game. This was fine at first, but later on when they met the tailor, she also had a high-pitched voice, particularly when talking about the guard that she had a crush on. The players once again joked that I had simply made the NPCs copies of myself.

I did have NPCs that were more distinct; Druvall had a gravellier voice, and since Sandrael was an elf from a foreign land I gave her a slight accent. What exactly the accent was I couldn’t tell you, but it was probably some strange mix of French, German, Russian, and probably some other eastern European accents. Dimitri, the inside man at the prison, I didn’t give a distinct voice, but I managed to keep him from being high pitched or Texan in his speech. However, having those two characters who were so indistinct in the beginning made me realie that I need to work on things like pitch, tone, and accent. An excellent resource for DMs (and players too) is IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive). By listening to and practicing along with the various accents and dialects, RPG players, voice artists, and actors can become much better at using their voice, and DMs can learn better to differentiate their characters.

  • Make sure to have options so you aren’t railroading your players

This is perhaps the biggest mistake I made during this session. I hadn’t prepared for much variety in my plan, and so when my players tried to do something different than what I had expected, I panicked and tried to persuade them to do what I wanted them to. Once the players had infiltrated the prison and broken Sandrael out of the cell, I had intended for the players to escape down a secret tunnel that led to a forrested area close to the rebel encampment. If they rolled badly on their stealth checks, the guards inside the prison might notice, forcing them to flee quickly and take Dimitri with them. However, my players (perhaps suspicious of Druvall from earlier on) were hesitant to go into the tunnels and instead wanted to venture out the way they came and take a chance with the guards outside. I had not prepared for this opportunity and so when the players were discussing their options, I tried to prod them along the path of the tunnels using Sandrael and Dimitri. Eventually my players gave in, although I could tell they were a little frustrated, although they didn’t leave without a parting gift. Dimitri was unable to go with them but the guards were fast approaching, so to save his cover he asked one of the group to stab him (non-lethally of course). However, Kava took it upon herself to beam the poor guy upside the head with her hammer, effectively knocking him out. Effective and traumatic. Nice.

Dungeon

Another thing that was frustrating for my player was the “dungeon” I had created for them. To create the tunnels, I decided that a maze would be a good way to go, and so found a decent looking map online that I could use for my purposes. Neither too simple nor too complex, the map gave me the ability to customize the dungeon so that even dead ends could provide some interesting treasure. I set up traps in the form of pit traps, nets hanging from the ceiling and poisoned chests, and sprinkled in some untrapped chests with some less cool prizes along the way. Yet my party managed to circumvent almost all of the maze. Lei used her ranger instincts to find north, and with a good survival roll she not only knew where north was but she knew where the old mines that the rebellion had utilized were. This allowed the group to make their way through most of the maze of tunnels relatively unharmed. It didn’t seem like the players minded terribly, but I felt that by railroading them into this situation, the players had become anxious and wanted to get out of the tunnels quickly, resulting in a mad dash through the dungeon.

At the end of the day, all of us had fun, and most of the people claimed that they had a good first experience with D&D, which was all that I could have hoped for with this encounter. Even though I fumbled quite a bit during my first major session as a DM and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue, I still enjoyed getting to try it and spending time with my friends and family. Even though I haven’t been DMing for very long, I still consider that the worst session I have ever DMed, and I am incredibly grateful to the players who have stuck with me long enough to turn my idea into a full campaign. To new DMs, the first time is always going to be rough because it is a big seat to fill, but if you relax, have fun, and keep at it, you will get better and your players will have fun.