Category Archives: Dungeon Master Tips

Our First Virtual D&D Session

My group played our first remote D&D 5e session last night. As it happened, my notes (written before I knew this would be online) called for them waking in the middle of a cavalry battle between centaurs and horsemen. It was certainly a lot easier to manage with a virtual tabletop!

We had problems with the Roll 20 app’s audio and switched to JoinMe halfway through: that went much better. We will do that going forward. Unfortunately, virtual D&D brings all of the fun of conference calls to your gaming experience. People talking but not being heard, people talking over one another, and calls dropping. In the future, I need to do a better job making sure everyone gets their turn to speak, as it is easy to speak over another and miss cues that others want to talk.

I didn’t always realize that what players saw was different than what I saw. For instance, I didn’t realize people couldn’t see my initiative order, which I did by dragging the text of player names into a new order. So I need to figure out how Roll 20 handles that.

I loved being able to, on the fly, add art that related to the story (like the giant hand above, summoned by a spell). I need to research simple terrain backgrounds for next week.

Overall, virtual D&D is better than no D&D. In fact, now I know that I’d love a digital table for playing in person together in the future.

But the last thing I want in my life for the long term is another reason to sit alone in my office at my computer.

For strong tips, and a well-structured way of considering the technology stack needed, see: How To Move Your RPG Campaign Online.

Two Hours of D&D Play from One Sentence!

Last night I got two hours of O5R play out of one sentence of my session notes! That sentence:

A dead man, an arrow in his eye: you find no food or weapons but a saddle and shield.

Reacting to my players’ actions, I ended up roleplaying the dead man (thanks to Speak with Dead), the grass (!) his body was found in (thanks to Speak with Plants), and his murderer.

The key resource I used during play was a random name generator I had written at the start of the campaign, when the situations arose and I needed to name the dead man (Zerbal), three of his enemies (Ayuhrono, Himingel, Orjeromen), and his murderer (Osad). (As one of the players pointed out, I tend to turn Speak with Dead into a game of Monkey’s Paw, technically answering the questions but in an often-useless way: when the cleric asked about enemies, Zerbal complained about fellow tribesmen.)

I hadn’t thought too much about who the murderer was but realized it related to conflict between three factions in that part of my campaign world. This led to a long fascinating debate among the PCs as they weighed the pros and cons of avenging the murder victim vs. allying with the murderer’s faction.

The best part is that their actions last night will reverberate across future sessions!

Why does low prep work? Because you just can’t anticipate what players will react to and be interested in. The players ignored clues about a chimera and other nearby happenings to focus on this particular detail.

The key resources that got me comfortable with low prep were Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Hexcrawl’s The Alexandrian, and Alex Schroeder’s Hex Describe.

Another tool to go low prep is to rely on Google. Last year I switched from paper notes to a laptop, originally to use D&D Beyond during play. But then I started using Google for other details during play. So last night when one player rolled a 1 in combat three times in a row (!), I found a critical fumble table to use for the last two rolls. When he later decided to harvest body parts from the chimera, I Googled “5e dragon body” and found a Google Doc on Dragon Harvesting.

Now sometimes low prep can be the result of a good return on investment on high prep. August is usually a slow month at work, and that month I invested time in creating my hexmapmy one-page pantheon, random tables for names, terrain encounters, even random tables for common landmarks (temples, towers, barrows), and running a Session Zero. This was knowing that during most other months I’d be too busy to spend more than an hour a week on session prep: for last night’s session, I spent about a half hour during lunch two days in a row coming up with one page of notes.

I’m pretty sure I’ll need more than two sentences for next week’s session, but I’m comfortable that low prep will continue to pay dividends.

(Photo credit: Musa reading a volumen (scroll); Attic red-figure lekythos, ca. 435-425 BC. from Boeotia; the artist is identified as the Klügmann Painter.)

Provide Your Players with Situations Rather than Scenes

The best book I’ve read on gamemastering so far is Matt Shea’s The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. The key philosophy is to prep only those things that you find hard to improv. Session prep typically follows this template:

  1. Characters
  2. Strong Start
  3. Scenes
  4. Secrets and Clues
  5. Fantastic Locations
  6. Important NPCs
  7. Potential Monsters
  8. Potential Treasure

While still following Matt Shea’s advice, instead of “Scenes”, I’ve relabeled that section in my notes “Situations”. Here’s a good example of why.

Last night my PCs encountered a band of 19 orcs: I had prepped interesting terrain for a battle or a staged retreat, plus I had written a sentence about the leader’s motivation. The players could engage with this situation in any of the Three Pillars of roleplaying: exploration, social, or combat.

One of the PCs had ended up in prison at the end of the prior session (he had been possessed by a ghost and then, possessed, tried to commit regicide). So his player introduced a new PC, whom I knew nothing about beforehand: a 16-charisma dragonborn archeologist.

Heck, I didn’t even know there were dragonborn in this world!

That provided me with a good reminder that roleplaying is co-creation between players and the DM, even in a homebrew setting.

While I never would have expected an archeologist, the overall campaign arc is about exploring ancient ruins to learn why the empire fell, so that was a good call on the player’s part.

As mentioned, an hour or two into play, 19 orcs appear on the horizon. Selma, our naïve half-orc PC, wants to approach the orcs but gets talked out of it. The dragonborn player, whose regular PC has by now been broken out of prison, decides to make a point of how evil the orcs are and sacrifice his new character by marching him off to the orcs all alone.

Off the dragonborn goes. But he rolls a 24 on a Persuasion check!

All I knew about the orc leader, besides his name, Jomongen, was that it was his motivation to study the old empire to establish a new one. So now Jomongen wants to bring the architect back to his citadel to explain his land’s role in the old empire!

With this unexpected new ally, suddenly secrets and clues (again from Sly Flourish’s guide for session prep) now end up being volunteered by their new orc ally instead of discovered in other ways!

And I accidentally have the orc leader talk about the dragonborn’s tail, so now dragonborn have tails in this world. (That’s canon now.)

So, yeah. The DM’s job is to provide *situations*. The players’ decisions will create the scenes.

Questions to Ask During Session Zero

I ran a Session Zero on Friday for our new homebrew campaign. We had just wrapped up a 41-session, open-table campaign set in Melvaunt in Forgotten Realms, and this time we’re doing a homebrew, closed-table campaign. Every group’s Session Zero has different things to cover, but here’s what we found useful.

The questions I asked to better tailor this campaign:

  • What was your favorite moment from the last campaign? Least favorite?
  • What did you like in general about the last campaign? What did you dislike?
  • Do you want to play one character over the new campaign or play multiple characters?
  • Should we allow players to be resurrected or not?
  • Do you like creating maps?
  • Do you like codes and ciphers?
  • What kind of records are you as a team going to keep about the world and your adventures?
  • What types of monsters would you like to encounter?
  • How would you feel about a session with no combat?
  • How can we speed up combat? [We have 7 players, so I feel like it can bog down, though not every player felt that way.]

Introduction to any house rules. For instance:

  • For a player who is not present during a session, their character is assumed to be present and along for the ride but not contributing much. An absent player’s character cannot be killed.
  • At the end of a session, the players reach consensus on where they want to go the next session. [A complaint was how long it took them to decide which clue/quest to follow at the start of a session.]
  • While the DM’s guide says a permanent magic item every five levels, we are going to have some different items that come along more often.
  • Combat ideas:
    • Everyone rolls for initiative (including me as DM for monsters). High roll goes first, then combat proceeds in clockwise order around the table.
    • Players can postpone their turn if they are not ready. [We were already doing this.]
    • If the AC is obvious (humanoid wearing armor), I’ll tell the players it. Everyone will roll d20 and damage die together, ignoring damage die if they didn’t hit.
    • I’m going to provide better feedback into the declining health of the opponents.

Discussion of how the world differs from Forgotten Realms or other player expectations. In my case:

  • There’s a shop with common magic items only, but anything rarer – even uncommon – will require tracking rumors and legends to find.
  • Rather than copper, silver, electrum, gold, and platinum pieces, the lands use electrum pieces universally, though their home city is unique in that it has copper pennies too. The electrum pieces are the only reminders of the wider world of the vanished empire: which city-states used the minotaur coins, the winged horse, and the lion?

After much discussion of character races and classes, I had every player tell us about their character. I had already encouraged them to think of a high concept and troubled aspect of their character’s background. Then also had to tell us how their character knows the character of the player to their right.

I’ve already tweaked the encounter tables based on what I learnt from the session, and I have changed some of the clues and potential story lines. For instance, while one of our past players loved riddles and ciphers, that wasn’t something any of the current players wanted much of, so that series of clues is being revamped.

I believe the Session Zero is going to pave the way for another great 40-session campaign.

Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels.

Floored – Floor Plans for RPGs

I’ve been running an open-table Dungeons & Dragons 5e campaign since September at my FLGS. One of the players earned enough loot that he wanted to buy a house in the city at the center of our campaign (Melvaunt, on the Moonsea, in Forgotten Realms, using 9 great modules from Baldman Games).

I searched for some house floor plans for RPGs, and most that I found looked like something from Zillow rather than something from a medieval setting. One from Wizards of the Coast even had indoor plumbing (not sure what level spell that is!).

Older houses had few rooms, and if they did have bedrooms there was a big bed or a few big beds. For those in North America, we don’t have any medieval construction, but if you get a chance to visit Colonial Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation you’ll find better analogs. Having toured Paul Revere’s house, I turned to its floor plan as an example of an upper class home in Melvaunt:

scan of floor plan of the Paul Revere House