Session 5

Session 5 was to take place in October, and like many DMs, I wanted to try and do something spooky in preparation for Halloween. Due to school and work, I didn’t have much time to prepare anything new, so I decided to insert the Blind Demon scenario from Session 3.5 into the campaign. This was intended not only to provide a horror-themed scenario, but also to provide another group to playtest the adventure that I had created and was particularly proud of. I knew that the adventure would last about four or five hours, and our monthly sessions tend to run eight or nine (including breaks), so I added some extra content that the group could explore once the demon encounter was over.

The group was enjoying breakfast at the Lion’s Blaze Inn and Tavern when the matriarch, Sonia DeMarcus, burst into the establishment looking for Sybil. She explained that she had left her house to go into town and retrieve supplies because it was her servants’ days off. However, when she returned she glimpsed a monster inside of her house, and in her fear she ran to find the only friend she had. Unfortunately, the players were not particularly fond of Sonia (and their opinion did not improve over the course of the adventure), but knowing that the lady was rich was enough to motivate them to help. This moment was a particularly tricky part for me, because when I ran this adventure last I simply dropped the group into the scenario, but I couldn’t do that to a pre-existing group, so I took my chances, hoping that the promise of gold would be enough to motivate them.

Unlike the first time I ran the Blind Demon scenario, the adventure ended up being true horror experience, instead of a suspenseful and mysterious one. (In the months since, my players have claimed that the trailer for the new horror film A Quiet Place reminds them heavily of what occurred in the house with the Blind Demon). The group was anxious, unsure of what they were about to experience, and were constantly on edge while they prowled through the house. Caileth and Lei in particular said more than one prayer to their deities; this is particularly profound because neither of them are religious, not even the cleric ironically. The party’s discovery of the secret passage led to some clever thinking on their part, allowing them to occasionally bypass the creature that they knew would eviscerate them. However, they had some difficulty locating the candles crucial to the banishment, though much of this was likely due to their hesitance to go into the attic. This led to one particular instance where the PCs were trying to sneak up the stairs from the second floor into the attic, with the Blind Demon lurking on the bottom floor next to the stairs. Caileth, Solomon, and Lei all made it to the attic with no problem, but Reagan unfortunately rolled a 3 for Bel’s attempt, resulting in him tripping while trying to climb up the stairs. The enormous sound he made after tripping alerted the demon, forcing Bel to bolt to safety with the creature hot on his heels. He darted into the attic, the rest of his party slamming the door behind him. The Blind Demon pounded on the door, but alas his claws kept him from opening it, and he soon wandered away.

Eventually, with careful maneuvering and more than a little tiptoeing, the group made their way around the mansion, collecting the elements needed for the banishment and encountering the ghost of Vivian DeMarcus. The PCs realized that Peter, the son, was likely the demon who failed while trying to bring his sister back, and began to take on an even more unfavorable opinion of Sonia after finding Peter’s journal entries discussing his mom’s behavior since the passing of her daughter and husband. Finally, they assembled the ritual, lured the demon into the circle, and banished the demon from Peter’s body. The group returned to the tavern, reuniting Peter and his mother, though they confronted Sonia over her poor parenting skills despite her apparent mental instability. Sybil, angry at the group’s attitude towards her friend, defended Sonia from the group and took her back home. With that, the adventure of the Blind Demon came to an end for this band of adventurers.

A listing for warriors for hire was placed on the adventurer’s board, so the group grabbed the flyer and set out to meet the people responsible. A group of druids, known as the Glacius Tribe, were searching for protection for a yearly pilgrimage they embarked upon once a year. Elmyar, the leader of the tribe, was a tall moon elf with silvery blue skin and long, dark black hair. His husband, Thatoris, was an even taller wood elf who possessed long blond hair and pale skin. Elmyar was particularly flamboyant in demeanor, showing an enthusiasm for life that was balanced with his fierce loyalty to his people and a devotion to his love. Thatoris was the quiet calm in contrast to the druid leader, showing his age and his lack of sight through his caution and continuous close proximity to Elmyar. The group took a liking to the elves, and after an interview they signed a contract with them, promising to accompany them when they departed on their small journey a few days later.

With some time left in the day, the group took another flyer from the tavern, one that asked someone to stop a band of goblins who had taken to ransacking incoming merchants. After talking to the head of the merchants and being given a list of items that had been taken recently, the group set off to find where the goblins would set up shop. They quickly found the goblin cave and followed the creatures to the road where they would later ambush an unsuspecting merchant. Due to a not so great stealth role, the goblins noticed a few of the PCs, but because I for some reason like to play goblins in a Three Stooges/idiotic style, they didn’t care that these random humanoids were watching them. None of the party knew how this was going to go and were curious to see what the goblins had in mind, so they waited until a merchant came along. As the poor traveler drove his cart underneath the tree, the goblins launched themselves onto the man, distracting him while two hobgoblin buddies began grabbing items from the cart.

Finally, the group decided to intervene. And by “the group decided to intervene”, I mean Caileth decided to run up to the merchant, grab the goblin off of his face, and throw him into the snow. The other two goblins, seeing this, decided they wanted their turn, and promptly demanded that she throw them as well. A well-timed natural twenty resulted in the goblins being promptly launched into the forest. Meanwhile, the two hobgoblins were overpowered and tied up by the rest of the party. After assuring the merchant that he was okay and collecting the items the fiends had stolen, the group walked back to the capital and turned the goblins in to the guards. What was originally intended to be a combat encounter was solved with goofy shenanigans in true D&D fashion.

Overall, I really enjoyed this session, and I was grateful to get a chance to playtest the Blind Demon encounter again. There were a few definite things that I learned from the session, and it made me look at one particular type of encounter in a new light.

  • The same scenario will play out very differently with different characters, even if the players are the same

A big part of why I think this iteration of the Blind Demon scenario was a lot more tense was due to the fact that Eli was no longer playing a blood cleric. The blood cleric had the ability to use a creature’s blood to track it, but neither Caileth, nor anyone else in this group, had such an ability. This meant that the group had to be much more careful about the location of the demon at all times. Suddenly, the encounter became much more frightening, and potentially more lethal; it was some strange haunted house/slasher film that the PCs were trapped inside. Even to this day, my players still tell me that this was an incredibly terrifying adventure, which is the effect I was hoping to achieve, one that I don’t think I truly managed to find with the first group. It allowed me to realize that even minor character abilities can affect a scenario in ways that I had never imagined, and one of the most important things to do as a DM is have a basic understanding of how your PCs’ abilities work. That’s not to say you should have everything the players can do memorized; knowing exactly how the classes work should be up to the players. But knowing if your team has decent stealth, good range attacks, or, yes, the ability to track a monster through their blood can really help you as a DM determine what elements of a story will work best for your players, providing a nice challenge while still allowing them to feel heroic.

  • Social encounters can also have a victory condition

When I came up with the druid encounter, I didn’t really imagine a scenario where the group would fail to get the job once they met the druid leader. In retrospect, I would likely have made the encounter a little more serious, providing a more in-depth interview of the PCs and providing an option for them to “fail”. While a big part of the DM’s job is to ensure that the players feel like the heroes of the story, a realistic tale also doesn’t have the characters succeed at every angle. Building in a scenario where the players don’t have to work makes the players lazy and the characters Mary Sues/Gary Stus who are practically perfect at everything. I don’t necessarily regret not making this encounter trickier, but in retrospect it makes me want to try harder when designing social encounters, knowing that they can be just as unique and challenging as combat encounters or skill challenges if we as DMs allow them to be.

I really enjoyed this session, and although I can’t say it was an absolute favorite, it was a lot of fun and allowed me to learn some valuable things about my DMing style. Additionally, being able to try my hand at the horror genre in D&D was fun and refreshing. I still hope to keep playtesting my Blind Demon scenario, tweaking bits and pieces until it becomes a more well-rounded adventure. Until then, I am so pleased to keep adventuring with this awesome party of players and learning more and more as a DM.


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

How to not be *That* DM

If you, like me, enjoy consuming D&D-based media content because it is enjoyable and helps you improve your own game, you’ve probably watched Critical Role at some point. And if you’re really into Critical Role, that probably means you’ve seen a panel or two from the cast at a con. One of the most common questions that Critical Role’s esteemed Dungeon Master Matt Mercer seems to get is “Why/how did you start DMing?” This is a fascinating question to ask DMs, for there are as many unique answers as there are DMs, but I always find Mercer’s answer to be particularly fascinating. When asked, he mentions that he started out as a player, but his group had an awful DM. This inspired him to start DMing himself, and the years of investment and hard work has turned him into the master of the craft that we know today.

Even though this story is fascinating and explains a lot about Mercer and probably many DMs today, every time I hear this story there is one worry that crosses my mind: What if I’m that original DM? What if I am so bad of a Dungeon Master that people tell stories of how bad I am thirty years from now? I think that most DMs have that fear; we constantly worry if our players are having fun, if a good story is being told, if we’re remaining impartial, and all of the other million things that DMs have to or tend to worry about. So how do we, as DMs, keep ourselves from becoming that DM? After thinking about this heavily over this subject the last week, I have come up with some ways that I think new DMs can keep themselves from falling into the Bad DM Trap, both as a storyteller and as a friend to your players.

  • Listen to your players

This may seem like a fairly obvious tip, but often on Twitter or in Facebook groups I hear players complaining about their DM not listening to them or ignoring their wishes (this goes both ways; I see a lot of DMs upset that their players won’t listen to ground rules set or trust them, so make sure that there is respect on both sides). Sometimes the things that players want their DMs to do are a bit outlandish, but more often than not these things are simple requests that should at least be talked through with the player. D&D is a not just a game, it’s a form of collaborative storytelling, and if the players don’t get a certain amount of input, they’re going to feel cheated and that they might as well be playing Candyland. This doesn’t just go for story ideas however; if your players are having an issue at the table, pay attention to what they’re saying. Maybe there is some turmoil between two of the players, or perhaps something that happened in the story went too far and the players are no longer comfortable with the direction that the story is taking. D&D is a great way to challenge players, particularly their creativity and expectations, but it is important not to push them past a breaking point. This is a great way to lose players and even friends forever. Listening to your players as a friend and a Dungeon Master is the most important thing you can do.

  • Use the backstories of your PCs

Often when you have a group of players, each of them will come up with a unique backstory for their characters. Not everyone gets invested in the backstories, but most people will come up with at least a little something. When creating a story for the game, it is important to pay attention to the stories that the players have given you. It can be tempting to focus on the epic story you might have in mind, and often the players will still go along with what you have, but applying elements from the backgrounds of your player’s characters will get the players invested and make the story feel more real. Bringing back an old mentor, a dead lover, or a fierce rival from a character’s past can widen the scope of the adventure and provide some emotional investment that a player might not otherwise have. The more you can get your players invested and pay attention to the characters they have created, the better of a DM you will become.

  • Constantly be working on your world

This point is particularly relevant for homebrew campaigns, but whether you are creating everything from scratch or using a pre-made module, it is vital to constantly be working on the adventure and shaping the world that the players exist in. This will not only help you as a storyteller, but it will also give the players a lot to work with and help make the world feel real. Often the players will have questions about the circumstances they have found themselves in or the background of the town or kingdom they are currently occupying. If you can produce an answer quickly, either off the top of your head or through a quick notes search, it will appear that you have put so much thought into the game. In reality, you don’t have to know everything ahead of time; you can make something up on the spot as long as you write it down, because if it comes up again and you don’t remember what you said, the players might catch on. However, when I say constantly I certainly don’t mean 24/7. (Believe me, I work three part-time jobs, go to school full time, and suck at time management, so I know how precious of a resource that is). However, it is good to spend time throughout each week working on aspects of the world, even if you aren’t prepping for a session. Maybe it’s ten minutes each day, or a full hour once a week; however you can fit in, try to make a habit out of occasionally world-building to make your world even more awesome. The players will appreciate how much work you put into the game for them, and your creative skills will keep growing.

  • Practice your poker face

A lot of DMs worry about struggling with NPCs because they aren’t particularly good with accents or body language. All of these do help provide a fun and authentic experience for the players, but they’re not absolutely crucial to the gameplay. One item that a DM should have in their toolbox however is a good poker face. I personally struggle with this; even as someone who did theatre for seven years, I always sucked at staying in character when something went awry. When my players do something like predict the plot twist or joke about something that might actually happen way down the line, I have a hard time hiding the big goofy smile that has wound up on my face. During my time as a DM, I have become slowly better at holding a poker face when it comes to important things (there’s a difference between smiling while in character because a PC made a joke and grinning because the players guessed something really important that will pop up by the end of the session). However, I still have a lot of problems with this, and it’s something that I hope to keep working on. A good poker face can be a powerful asset to a DM, both when acting as an NPC and while simply observing the players interacting and planning, so working to perfect it can take your game to the next level.

In the end, there’s no formula for how to be the perfect DM. Everyone makes mistakes, even Matt Mercer, Matt Colville, Chris Perkins, and undoubtedly Gary Gygax himself. That’s one of the best things about D&D; it’s a game with a lot of rules but a fluid nature, and we as DMs are in charge of figuring out how to work within the rules, or even throw them out. The only true guideline to being a good DM is to ensure that your players are having fun. Whether that fun is nitty-gritty realism and depression or bust-a-gut laughter, you as a DM are responsible for it, and to make sure it happens we must pay attention to our players and give them what they ask. As long as we DMs allow our players to have fun and facilitate a thrilling and creative story for them, we are not that DM, and we can be proud of the work we have put into the game.


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

Session 4

After having killed a dragon, looted a dungeon, and dispatched some thieves, my players were pretty confident in themselves. When session four came around, they knew that they could kick ass and take names and were ready to move on to bigger and better challenges. At the end of the third session they had informed me that they were going to be heading to the capital city of Vrotha, and as such I began to plan accordingly.

However, I had not anticipated exactly how thorough the players were going to be. The party had already scavenged some scales, blood, claws, teeth, horns, and an eye from the dragon when they returned from the dungeon, and as such I figured they would take what they had found and move on. Instead the group bought a carriage, went back to the dungeon, and began looting the body even further. Meat, gallbladder, kidneys, and anything else that could be torn from the corpse of the white dragon was quickly removed. I had planned out ahead of time the basic values for each piece and who would be most likely to buy what (or who could turn the items into what they wanted in certain cases), but these new items left me completely blindsided and scrambling to keep up.

The party made their way through the icy landscape of Vrotha to the capital city, Whitepoint. There the players entered and found the city separated into seven districts, each with its own purpose. First, they ventured into the merchant district, looking for people to buy the raw materials. A good charisma roll from Solomon meant that a large portion of the 18 pounds of dragon meat they possessed was bought by a doubting man named Quincy who was currently running Merle’s Meat Market. This exchange gave the group nearly a thousand gold, which combined with what they were given by Simone and Nikolai, the twins who run Augury and Alchemy (the newest and biggest magic shop in Vrotha), amounted to quite a large amount of gold. Solomon also asked the twins if they could do anything with the bile from the dragon, and the two promised to provide him with some options in a week once their alchemy book came in. Finally, the group commissioned some jewelry, a new bow, and some armor using the remainder of the dragon materials they possessed before finding their way to the library.

Caileth was particularly interested in the old book that the group had found in the final room of the ice dungeon. However, the journal was written in celestial, a nearly dead language in the realm of Dracia. This meant that in order to understand the knowledge hidden within the tome, they would need to hire the services of a professional translator. The Library of Vrotha, one of the biggest libraries in Dracia, was home to several professional translators, and Shae Jin, a young eager woman with a love for books took upon the case. However, the book was lengthy and the language was old, meaning that it would take about 30 days for Jin to translate it entirely. This meant that the party would need a place to stay.

Towards the center of the city sat The Lion’s Blaze Inn and Tavern (a reference to an Olan Rogers skit in the vein of RPGs), a place designed specifically (but secretly) for adventurers. Sybil, Tamara, and Martha, the ladies who own the inn, were former adventurers themselves, meaning that they knew exactly how important it was for young adventurers to have a space where they can get new quests and stay out of the eye of the disapproving government. The players found shelter there, paying in advance for thirty days room and board. Inside the tavern rested a secret board, filled with calls for help that potential heroes could pursue. Here the group found their first call to action in Whitepoint.

A group of shepherds had been losing sheep to a strange creature on the outskirts of the city. Despite the government’s insistence that citizens not rely on outside help, the farmers had gotten tired of their livestock being picked off and getting no military help, so they reached out to The Lion’s Blaze for assistance. When the PCs arrived at the house of the head shepherd, they were informed about the situation and instructed to rid the capital of whatever creature had been taking the sheep. With some hesitation, the group set out to the outskirts of the city to see what they could do to help the poor farmers.

Using the corpse of an old sheep, wool, and some tar, the group created a dummy to trick the creature so that they could kill it. After waiting for some time, the creature, a “terracabra” (a modified version of the legendary Chupacabra), swooped down and grabbed the decoy. The PCs followed the creature, attacking it and forcing it to fight back. Solomon found himself being carried away in the claws of the monster, and fell several feet as Caileth struck the killing blow with a blast of sacred flame from the circlet she had found in the ice dungeon. After destroying the terracabra, they returned to the shepherds, and were rewarded with 150 gold, an immovable rod, and a sheep named after each of them. Satisfied with their work, the adventurers returned to the tavern for a night of rest, promising to continue fulfilling quests through the rest of their stay in the city.

This particular session was certainly one of the more relaxed ones we have had, even since the time of this session. Since the group spent much of their time either scavenging materials or shopping, much of the session was spent focusing on the individual characters’ needs and the roleplay between them and NPCs. Nonetheless, the session was informative and I feel like I came away from it with important knowledge, not just DM knowledge but that pertaining to my world, my players, and their characters.

  • It is perfectly acceptable for players to ignore a branching plot point

For many people, D&D is a way that they can escape from the rigorous cycle of real life and the demands placed upon them. Being a DM that does not railroad your player not only provides better storytelling potential but allows your world to become an escape for your players. This means that if you set up a potential plot point and your players show no interest in it, that is completely okay. On their journey to Whitepoint, my players came across the town of Rakski (from Session 1.5) and found the bare traces of a new plotline building. However, the group expressed no interest, spent the night in the tavern, and went on their merry way. My players were not motivated to investigate further, and that is perfectly fine. The whole point of a sandbox campaign is to provide option for the players and to allow them to feel like they are immersed in a real world. This being said, if players ignore a plotline, it is okay (but not necessary) for them to see the consequences of skipping it. Keep in mind that “consequence” and “punishment” are not the same thing. If the players ignore a farmer whose chickens keep getting eaten by foxes, that doesn’t mean they have to see his body drug down the streets in a cart full of people dead from the plague. Rather, you can twist the plot so that the farmer overcomes the foxes on his own, taming the foxes into pets, and when your cleric decides she wants a pet fox the farmer can look her dead in the eyes and tell her no because they didn’t help him when he needed it most. The consequences can be a punishment, but they don’t have to be, and they can be negative without being punishing, but they don’t have to be. When running a sandbox campaign in particular, an important thing to remember is that the best way to make the players feel immersed in the game is to remind them that their actions have weight. Don’t panic if the players aren’t interested in one particular plotline you were sure they would take the bait for, and don’t punish them either, especially if it’s their characters who are not interested rather than the players.

  • Be careful with rare items and creatures in your world.

In the world of Dracia, dragons are extremely rare, so much so that they are considered extinct or merely fairytales by the people of the world. When I decided this in my worldbuilding phase, I hadn’t considered the potential of throwing a dragon at my players, nor had I thought of the ramifications of them scavenging and selling the parts. What was originally a storytelling element became a way for my players to get quite a bit of gold-and at fourth level nonetheless. Normally, the people in Whitepoint would have simply believed that the players were lying to them (with the exception of Simone and Nikolai, who are well-trained in the history of magical creatures and the arcane arts), making it hard for any of the dragon parts to be sold. However, thanks to some clever thinking and talking by Solomon, his high charisma, and some lucky rolls, they were able to convince the gentleman at the meat market to buy the meat off of them. Because I had made one thing extremely rare, I had inadvertently made the players far more powerfully financially then I had intended to. The important thing to remember is not to panic and try to undo what you just did, as that will leave the players feeling frustrated and robbed-literally and figuratively. Rather, allow for other opportunities to arise, such as a market or shop with cool trinkets that allows the players to spend their hard-earned gold on something that they like. You are here to tell the player’s story, not your own, so allow the players to learn, grow, ad gather some gold-they’ll feel much more like accomplished adventurers and heroes in the end.

This session was one of the least memorable ones we had played so far simply due to the lack of intense combat or complicated puzzles. Yet it was useful and necessary; the intensity of a necromancer and a dragon back to back was a bit much for the players, so providing them with an outlet for shopping and roleplay helped to revitalize them. Additionally, their commissioning of items required some time for the items to be made, tying the group down to one spot for a small portion of time as I began to plot out the next leg of the campaign. This strange bit of a lull was the perfect spot for the next portion of the heroes’ journeys to begin.

 

Notable quotes from the session:

  • Me (as an old man): Helloooo??

Caileth: Oh… that’s not what I expected.

Old man: Well, you’re not what I was expecting either, but we don’t always get what we want, do we?? *Slams door*

  • Eli: Can I use spiritual weapon to make a sheep-shaped bomb?

*AKA the moment the cleric officially broke the Dungeon Master*

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

The Five Room Dungeon

In the 21st century, Dungeons and Dragons has made an enormous shift from-well, dungeons and dragons. With the introduction of Fifth Edition and the rise of shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, the focus of D&D has started to shift away from the pillage-and-loot style of play and more towards a narrative-based gameplay. Stories that could not ever be told before are now being brought to life through RPGs. That’s not to say however that the age of the murder hobo is entirely past, nor are the dungeons and dragons of D&D extinct. It is rather how DMs incorporate these elements in their stories that makes them great.

One of my personal favorite ways to incorporate dungeons into my campaign is by using the Five Room Dungeon format. This format allows a DM to drop a dungeon into their campaign with relatively little effort, and gives the players a chance to experience the adventurous nature of a dungeon without anyone having to commit to seven sessions worth of a deadly, resource-taxing dungeon. If your players tend to get frustrated if certain plot points take too long or if things regularly slog, the Five Room Dungeon is great for a quick pinch of adventure to pep things up. The format is flexible, allowing for DMs to rearrange as needed and perhaps drop in special plot points related to other quests the PCs might have going on. Similarly, because of its effective but relatively short nature, this type of dungeon works extremely well for creating one-shots.

I first heard about the Five Room Dungeon back in August when I was trying to create the three separate options for Session 3. I knew that I wanted one of the options to lead to an ice dungeon, but I had never created a dungeon crawl and was absolutely clueless on how to start. Frantically, I Googled around, trying to find some semblance of advice to help my creative process. Luckily, I stumbled across this fantastic post by Johnn Four rather quickly into my search. Using the format, I was able to whip up an outline for the ice dungeon, and although there was a lot more work to be done to make the dungeon functional, knowing what I needed to do made the whole process so much easier.

Since discovering the Five Room Dungeon, I have used it twice in my campaign. Both of the dungeons were unique creations and had very different atmospheres to them. The format is designed to be flexible and balanced, meaning that you can run a similar format multiple times many different ways without them feeling like a repetitious slog. The Five Room Dungeon format has, naturally, five distinct sections: Entrance/Guardian, Puzzle/Roleplaying Challenge, Red Herring/Trick or Setback, Climax/Battle, and the Reward/Revelation/Plot Twist. While there is a relatively basic order that the rooms should appear in, you can often switch pieces around among the first three rooms to provide unique moments for your players.

  • Entrance and Guardian

The first room in the FRD format is relatively simple and self-explanatory. Every good dungeon needs a worthy entrance to scare off potential adventurers. A good guardian will do wonders to strike fear in the hearts of your players if utilized correctly. For the ice dungeon, I ended up using a very young white dragon as the guardian, which at the time was a fantastic way to terrify my players in the moment, but (as you might know if you have read my Session 3 post) in the long run has made my players a bit fearless. Having to face a dragon, or any fearsome creature, before you even get into the dungeon is certainly a wake-up call for players. However, the FRD doesn’t necessarily require a guardian in the form of a creature. In our 7th session, the first thing my players encountered was a riddle embedded in the metal door in the ground. Scattered around the hatch were tiles, each one holding a letter that could be put into the notches to answer the riddle. Once the tiles were correctly placed, the hatch would click open and grant the PCs access to the dungeon. The puzzle was as effective as the dragon in forcing the players to strategize and work together, but it set a much different tone for the rest of the dungeon. Putting yourself into the mindset of the creator of the dungeon can be very helpful on determining 1) what theme the dungeon should carry throughout it, 2) why the creator would want to keep people out/what the creator wants to keep secret so bad that they would build this entire dungeon, and 3) what steps the creator would take to keep people out of this place. Having a worthy guardian or puzzle at the entrance of your dungeon is key to making sure your players are having fun and being challenged.

  • Puzzle or Role-Playing Challenge

The second portion of your dungeon when using the FRD format should generally be some sort of puzzle or role-playing challenge. This section will depend somewhat on what you chose to do for the first room. If you used a guardian or some sort of monster that the PCs were forced to confront before making it further in, then it would be wise to stick to a puzzle challenge so as to ensure that the PCs get a break from combat and do not drain too many of their resources. That’s not to say however that the puzzle room should not come without risks; perhaps if the PCs get the answer to the puzzle wrong multiple times, a minor trap is set off, causing the characters to take small amounts of damage. However, it is wise to be cautious with this. In the ice dungeon, the second room consisted of a music puzzle that forced the PCs to step on certain tiles in the room in a certain order to reveal the door; if the tiles were pressed in the wrong order, they would get pelleted by darts and the puzzle would be reset. The puzzle ended up being more difficult than intended, resulting in the players being repeatedly pelted with the minor trap. In the future I would say after the first few times of this happening the players would be anticipating the darts and simply mention that they managed to avoid it in order to make the puzzle feel less like a slog. However, if you used a puzzle for the first room, you can flip the rooms somewhat and make the second room a combat or damage-heavy encounter. The second time I used the FRD format, I used one of the complex trap examples from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. This trap involved a mix of a path of blades, pillars of crushing, and a sphere of annihilation. Although I ended up running the trap much differently than had been intended, it still ended up knocking a lot of hit points out of all of the characters. If I had done this on top of a heavy encounter it could have been extremely deadly to the PCs, but by having one of the rooms be a puzzle and the other a combat/trap encounter, both dungeons were dangerous without being overtly lethal.

  • Red herring, trick, or setback

This room is the one that can have the most variety to it. Often this room is used to provide a sense of false security, or conversely to build the tension for what is to come. Sometimes there is an illusion that might make it seem as if the dungeon is a dead end, or that there is only a small amount of treasure and that’s it, no more hiding behind this spell at all, no sir. Other times it can be a puzzle that forces the players to pause and think things through, or even another combat or roleplay encounter. Two good guidelines for this room to consider are 1) consider what types of encounters your parties the most and put another dose of that here, and 2) if your players took some pretty hard hits in the first two rooms and you still have a tough combat encounter planned ahead, make this area a potential safe spot for a short rest. When I first used this format, the third room was actually that of a long hallway, wherein the players met a group of thieves which would later betray them. The second time I used this format I put in place a puzzle. In front of the players were six doors, and the inscription on the ground stated “Go through the seventh door”. The trick was to go through two doors consecutively that equaled seven in order to move on; otherwise they would reappear through the first door into the room. Both of these rooms allowed the players to keep their minds going and stay in character without causing any further damage to their hit points.

  • Climax, big battle, or conflict

This room is one that I also take quite a bit of liberty with at times. In theory, this is the last big stretch of the dungeon; the room where the players meet the final guardian or are betrayed by the ally that they brought into the dungeon with them or met inside the dungeon. When employing this method, it is often useful to start off with some sort of roleplay so that the PCs know what the “baddies” intentions are. During the second time using the format, the fourth room was a strange hallway in which lived a clay golem that was assigned to guard the last room. It was essentially the boss of the dungeon, and because he could not talk, it was important that he be a major conflict for the party. However, when I ran the ice dungeon, I wanted the players to have more time with the thieves, to get to know them a bit before the thieves turned on them. I ended up making the fourth room another puzzle, so as to help flesh out the characters I had introduced and allow the players some time to feel comfortable with them. Although it is often recommended to be the room with the big conflict, the FRD format is perfect for adjusting little things like this to best suit a DM’s needs.

  • Reward, revelation, or plot twist

Finally, the party has arrived at the final room. Here is where everything goes down, or at least comes to fruition. If the party is after loot, they should find it here. Similarly, if you as a DM and worldbuilder have been leading up to important information, this would be an excellent place to put it. Alternatively, you can pull a plot twist in the form of the information/loot being gone entirely, taken by another person or moved years ago by the dungeon’s creator. In the ice dungeon, this is the moment where the thieves turned on the PCs, insisting that all they wanted was the map inside the room and that they would let the others leave without harming anyone. For the second run through, the fifth room held the long-abandoned study of an old researcher and inventor. They had been sent to retrieve a set of plans, and soon enough they found them-except the plans appeared to be for that of a gun. In a world where guns do not exist yet, it was hard for the characters to understand, but they all had a horrible feeling about what was to occur. Sometimes, the revelation or the reward that comes at the end of the long journey can be bittersweet, or even unsatisfactory, but it needs to feel earned. If there isn’t any good loot, there should be a reason why, perhaps another quest or a hook into the campaign’s overall narrative. As a DM, the fifth room is your opportunity not to end your dungeon, but rather to further the entire game for your players.

The Five Room Dungeon format is one of the most useful tools I have encountered so far as a DM. Its useful and versatile nature allow me to use the same basic idea multiple times, and it takes some of the workload off knowing at least a basic structure of what to do. It’s important to remember however that these are just guidelines; if you don’t like the format, there are plenty of other ways to build not only dungeons but campaigns. There is no right or wrong way to play D&D and create your world, as long as you are having fun.

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

Session 3.5

After my group’s third session, I was starting to get more comfortable with DMing. Thus when the DM from the group that I generally play in asked me to DM a one-shot, I felt ready to take on the challenge. However, the scenario in front of me required a bit of an adjustment from the games that I usually ran, and I wanted to challenge myself, so I set to work to create a one-shot that I hoped would be fun, unique, and scary.

When I played with my other group, we ran generally from 12-4 because we got together on Fridays or Saturdays, meaning that I had to leave for work. Every time I had run a session prior to this, I had a good six or seven hours to work with and no solid end time to worry about. This time I knew that I needed a concise adventure that could be wrapped up in one session and take about 3 hours (figuring in time for eating and restroom breaks). But I struggled with a good plot thread, a concept to use in the session. I have never been particularly good at creating unique ideas from scratch, and as such I was at a loss for a while.

Around this time, Sagas of Sundry: Dread was airing on Geek & Sundry’s Project Alpha. I had been eagerly watching the episodes week by week, clinging to the unique characters and air of suspense surrounding the series. As I drove to work one day, I found my mind toying with the idea of a horror one-shot. However, I have always been a weakling when it comes to horror entertainment; if I couldn’t watch a horror movie then how could I expect to provide a suspenseful and scary D&D scenario? I was about to pass on the idea when a thought struck my head.

Out of nowhere, the idea for a monster popped into my head. It was tall, lanky, with enormous arms and legs. Its head was pale, and nearly featureless. Skin was stretched over where eyes should lay, and two thin slits rested where a nose might be. A grin, devoid of lips but filled with sharp teeth, was framed by dark horns that emerged from the sides of the creature’s head and curved around to stick out next to the mouth. The pale skin at the head gradually fades into a pitch-black color, allowing the creature’s strange cloven feet to blend into the darkness. Finally, where fingers should have existed on the creature’s hands, instead there were lengthy thin claws, dragging behind the evil as it moved. To me, the creature was terrifying, and to this day I still am unsure how the idea for it popped into my head.

Once the demon popped into my head, the rest of the scenario quickly fell into place. In order to keep the scenario contained, I decided that the group would have been asked to investigate a monster inside the house of a rich elderly lady. Once inside, the house will have been transported to a pocket dimension with no exit, forcing the group to stay inside the house until the mystery was solved. The basic plot would be that the son of the older lady had been trying to bring his younger sister back to life, but had accidentally summoned a demon and subsequently been possessed. Over the course of the session, the group would be given opportunity to uncover the mystery behind “The Blind Demon” and potentially exorcise the demon from the body of the son.

The party consisted of a monk, a barbarian, a rogue, and a cleric, all at fifth level. Since it was a one-shot, I wasn’t terribly concerned with the characters and their abilities when setting up the scenario, although there were multiple moments where the PCs’ skills came in handy. In order to start the session quickly and ensure we had enough time to play, I essentially info-dumped the scenario on to the group, telling them enough details about the house, the lady who hired them, and the creature that resided within. While I would never have done this in the middle of an actual session, it worked for a group like this, involved in a one-shot and short on time. The group gave no pushback, and when I essentially dropped them off at the house they hit the ground running.

Once inside, the group found a pool of blood in the center of the hallway. Lying next to the blood was a piece of paper torn from a book, which held information about a specific demon and the details about performing an exorcism, as well as the words “HELP” written in blood. The cleric, actually a blood cleric, used his ability to connect the blood to the originator, and thus the group knew the location of the Blind Demon. Using the list of required materials on the piece of paper they had found, the group set off on a mad dash to find the ingredients, avoid the demon, and save the son.

Going into the session, I had very specific ideas of how I thought the entire situation would go, which is, as a DM, one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Still, I felt that the session went well, and to this day I am incredibly proud of this one-shot. I hope to continue working on this one-shot, playtesting it and tweaking it, then eventually publishing it on DMs Guild one day. But until that moment comes, it is important to reflect on what I learned from this session, both as a DM and as a content creator.

  • Your PCs might have abilities that circumvent elements of your story-and that’s okay

I hadn’t realized when creating this session that Eli’s character was going to have the ability to sense where the Blind Demon was at all time. At first it threw me off guard, but I was able to adapt to a certain extent. However, this ability did inherently change the nature of the game. Instead of being a straight up horror/haunted house type of story, it morphed into a suspenseful strategy situation. The group knew exactly where the Blind Demon was at all times, meaning that they had to carefully plan every move, every step to ensure that they did not run into the creature and endanger their lives. While this was an unexpected occurrence, it was a welcome one, and reminded me that as a DM the most important abilities are adapt, overcome, and improvise.

  • Repurposing monsters can be useful, but do so carefully

When I came up with the Blind Demon, I knew that I would have a hard time finding something that matched what I wanted as far as stats. I went into the Monster Manual looking for something to reskin that seemed powerful and frightening, but also matched the physicality of the demon. I settled on the Goristro, a demon itself, to fill in for my creature. The goristro has an ability called “Charge” that allows it to gore a target with its horns if it can move at least fifteen feet straight towards the target before it hits. Originally, the goristro had two fist attacks and one hoof attack, but I changed it to two claw attacks and one horn attack. What I adjusted on the monster felt like it held little difference because of how I intended the adventure to play out, which was a tremendous mistake on my part.

The goristro is a monster with a challenge rating of 17, an encounter which would be quite deadly for a group of four level-five adventurers. This might seem like madness, but when I picked the monster, I had a purpose. I wanted the Blind Demon to be a fearsome creature, a horrible monster that none would care to face. Because the demon was actually the son of the lady that had recruited the adventurers, I wanted to players to save the son and not kill him. I had hoped that the “HELP” on the paper found in the hallway at the beginning would lead them to that conclusion on their own, but I hoped that by making the demon a horrendously powerful creature I would force the players to avoid combat. At one point however, the players got caught in the same room as the demon, and instead of running, they decided to fight. I was worried about killing the players, so after a couple rounds of combat, I had the demon run away. While it saved the players, it weakened the story. I realized after this that it was important to allow room in the scenario for the players to defeat the demon, to kill the son, and that in order to make this scenario better I would have to rework the demon to provide more versatility in the outcome.

  • Creating unique props can help draw the players into the story

When I concocted the idea of the scenario, I wanted the paper that the PCs found to be a real piece of paper that the players could look at. On one side, the paper contained background information about the Blind Demon and its origin, as well as how to summon it, while the other side held the instructions and materials for how to banish it. I typed up the information on a plain piece of paper then asked my mom to help me age it. She used brown and tan paints to give the paper an older look, smudged some of the ink, wrinkled the page, and tore some of the edges. To lend the page a more horrific look, she mixed up more paint to look like blood, splattering it across the paper and tracing the word “HELP” in thin bloody letters. Finally, she drew a six-pointed symbol on the bottom corner, the symbol that the group would need to make to banish the demon, and tore that portion from the rest of the page. The prop was wonderful, scary, and engaging. My players knew immediately that it was important to their quest, skimmed it for clues, and began a hunt for the section that was torn away. Having such a unique prop immediately immersed the players in the story and helped to establish the atmosphere I wanted, that of a sense of urgency and suspense.

To this day, I have run the Blind Demon scenario twice, and I hope to continue to keep running it with different groups, fine tuning it and playtesting it. Eventually I want to work out the problems with the scenario, write it out properly, and publish it for others to use. I am incredibly proud of this scenario, and each time I have run it so far it teaches me powerful and unique lessons, both as a DM and as a content creator. It is important to remember when running the game that above all else, the most vital thing you can do as a DM is to not set expectations for how a scenario will go. The more of an idea you have for how the situation should go, the less likely you will be able to adapt to the players and their needs. Whether you are running a premade adventure or creating something yourself, remember that adaptability and improvisation are your two greatest assets in the world of DMing.

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

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*

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.