Ego Check: Mike Shea of Sly Flourish

Before starting The Id DM, I spent many months reading articles from other gaming websites, and one of my most frequent stops was to Sly Flourish. When I started this blog, I had very modest expectations for how it would develop over time. I have been pleasantly surprised at every turn, and most recently had the great opportunity to interview the creator of Sly Flourish, Mike Shea. Mike was kind enough to devote a good chunk of time discussing a host of issues related to D&D 4th Edition.

In an extended back-and-forth dialogue, we discuss the evolution of D&D from 3rd to 4th Edition as well as the evolution of 4th Edition since it was released. We focus the conversation on topics such as monster design, combat speed and Epic Tier campaigns. Finally, he discusses the relationship between Wizards of the Coast and the thriving online community of devoted D&D gamers. So get comfortable, relax, take your shoes off and enjoy the latest installment of Ego Check with Mike Shea.

For the readers not already familiar with your work, can you introduce yourself and discuss how you were introduced to roleplaying games?

I’ll keep this short because it’s the part I skip when I read everyone else’s interviews. I’m a web technologist living in Washington DC with my wife, a fellow gamer, and our dog. I’m originally from Chicago and one of my little bits of fame comes from my father, Robert J. Shea, who wrote the cult science fiction novel Illuminatus.

I got started playing D&D with 2nd Edition when I was in high school. This switched to 3.5 after I moved to Washington DC. I started 4e when Keep of the Shadowfell came out, before the sourcebooks were even released, and I fell in love with it. 4e’s simplification of base mechanics mixed with a modular power system is, in my opinion, a great evolution in the mechanics of the game. I also love how much easier it is to build and customize monsters.

I started Sly Flourish because I wanted to do more than just run a game. I wanted to get involved in the community, carve a clear niche for myself, and provide a service that could help people become great 4th edition DMs.

I think you have certainly succeeded in carving a niche out for yourself in the gaming community. Before I started my blog, I frequented your site often for ideas and tips, so I wanted to thank you for all of the support you (unknowingly) gave me during my attempts to get my a 4th Edition campaign off the ground. I recently discussed how a portal prop you posted over a year ago became a centerpiece for my Heroic Tier finale.

But let’s jump right in and discuss 4th Edition! You mentioned your enjoyment of 4e mechanics, including monster design, over previous editions. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

In previous versions of D&D, monsters were often built like PCs. They were heavily attribute-based and spells and powers were often taken directly from Wizard and Cleric spell books. Now there are some very simple mechanics for build a monster. Every monster’s attack is level + 5 vs AC or level +3 vs other statistics. That makes it very easy to build a new monster power based on whatever storytelling theme you want the monster to have. Reskinning monsters is equally easy. Just re-flavor some of the powers of an existing monster and you have an entirely new monster with hardly any other work needed. Back in my 3.5 days, I might spend two or three hours working out the statistics for a monster. Now it can be two or three (or zero) minutes.

The ease of monster design has been great for me. I would say the monsters in 4e are also built like the PCs, but they are significantly less complicated. Where PCs at Level 11 might have a menu of 10 or more different attack powers (not to mention those granted by magic items), a Level 11 monster has a menu of four or five attacks, which is easier to manage. The monsters also have the same economy of actions, and the Stat Blocks in MM3 really help the DM monitor the various options (Move, Minor, Standard) and traits (Auras, Feats). The only time I find myself getting into trouble is when I add a magic item to a monster; I haven’t figured out a great way to include the magic item as an option in the monster’s Stat Block, so there is something else I have to remember when running the encounter. With so much going on during a battle, I often forget. 

You are correct that monsters are extremely easy to reskin. You could literally flip to any level-appropriate monster in MM3 and insert it into your campaign just by altering the context of the powers. For instance, I just opened MM3 to a random monster – Gnoll on p. 104. The Gnoll Skulker is a Level 5 Lurker with two attacks, Dagger (Melee 1) and Shortbow (Ranged 15/30). A DM could turn the Gnoll Skulker into any humanoid monster such as a Human or Goblin and not change anything else. You could also reskin the powers and change the Gnoll Skulker into something like a Dire Porcupine by replacing Dagger (Melee 1) for Claw (Melee 1) and Shortbow (Ranged 15/30) for Quills (Ranged 15/30).

That example is a bit silly, but the flexibility frees the DM from sitting down and crunching numbers all the time when building encounters. Instead, the focus can be on other factors for the encounter such as the environment, terrain, other obstacles and roleplaying. In many ways, the monsters run themselves.

The monsters are more powerful now, and I can understand why they improved them since I just entered into Paragon Tier both as a player and DM. The players have so many options and I can imagine monsters getting steamrolled. It seems they have made positive corrections and allowed the game to evolve over time.

You’ve been playing 4e longer than I have. How has the game changed over time? For better or for worse?

Definitely for the better. Monster design is only one part of this but, for me, it’s a big part. Newer monsters create a much greater threat than monsters before the Monster Manual 3. This is just one piece of a larger solution WOTC has put in place over the past three years. A lot of folks have complained about the length of combat in 4e. WOTC addressed this first with the amount of hit points a solo monster has (4x now instead of 5x that of a regular monster). The second way they addressed it is a little more subtle and that is with the damage output of strikers in post-Essentials PCs. Thieves and Slayers put out a lot more damage than strikers from previous striker classes. They’re also a lot simpler to play so the player makes fewer choices during a turn which results in a faster game. Strikers previous to Essentials often had a lot of controller-style powers which resulted in a more complicated battle.

"What monster is Mike Shea creating now?"

Unfortunately, more advanced players got used to all of these complexities, both in the number of powers and in the effects those powers have. Now when these players look at Essentials characters, they don’t say “wow, this guy is so much faster to play!” they say “wow, this guy sure can’t do a lot.” Personally, I love faster and simpler PCs who deal out a bunch of damage so I’m happy with my thieves, slayers, and sentinels. Other players, like many in my group, not so much.

4th Edition products also changed a lot over the years. We’re now getting much more complete products than we got before. Three years ago, the dungeon tiles, miniatures, and adventures you might buy had hardly anything to do with one another. Now you buy a product like the Dungeon Master’s Kit or Monster Vault and you get the maps, tokens, rules, and adventures to run the entire thing. From a customer standpoint, it’s a lot easier to get the game rolling with one of these than with the mess of tiles, miniatures, and adventures we got three years ago.

I have not dabbled in the Essentials’ builds yet. One of my players changed her Ranger to a Hunter, and she was happy to have fewer options to deal with, although she changed from a Striker to a Controller. Since she had to focus on more than simply dealing out damage, it did not cut down on time too much. But I understand what you mean; I just leveled up my Dragonborn Rogue to Level 11 and had to choose a Paragon Path. I had 25 paths that I was eligible to take! I browsed through the options for a few weeks before finally deciding on a path. There is a glut of options for all of the PCs, and every additional power, feat, item or ability gives the players something else to think about when it is their turn. The PCs are certainly more difficult to run than the monsters. But most of my players like all of the options they have. I’m the same way as a player; it’s fun to customize my rogue and figure out how to build him in an interesting way to make him effective in combat. I take pride in managing my turns quickly, but combat speed is definitely an issue in the game.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like 4e has developed in the opposite way compared to previous editions of D&D. Instead of moving from a basic set of options for players and DMs to a more advanced set of options as the game matured, 4e started with a heaping helping of options and has tried to reign in the game to make it less complex over time. Have previous editions moved in that direction?

There was a similar evolution at the end of 3.5 with the Book of Nine Swords and the book of new magic builds that came after that. They definitely went more towards a power system than the traditional magic systems at the beginning of the edition. I don’t think it was as stark as D&D Essentials, though, which is clearly marketed as a more simple version of D&D.

The hard part for us DMs, though, is how to manage it. I’ve switched over to a mini-campaign style of game where we have about 8 to 12 adventures in a particular game world with a particular story. This allows me to limit character options to just a few books. For my Dark Sun campaign, players were limited to D&D Essentials, Dark Sun, and PHB3 books. In my upcoming Gloomwrought game, players will be limited to Essentials and Book of Shadow classes. I still get angry looks but I think the game runs a lot smoother.

Magic items are another topic entirely.

I had an assassin in my group for a session or two and I recall how complicated his turns were with shrouds and powers. I have flipped through PH3 and find the “advanced” classes to be overly complicated. If I was to start another campaign, then I would likely take a closer look at the classes I’d allow into the game. As a DM, I think it’s well within your right to limit classes for any valid reason. Whether you think they will bog down combat or simply do not fit into your campaign world. The same thing goes for races; perhaps your world doesn’t have Half-Orcs, so your players are not allowed to select that as a race. As long as the DM explains it to the group ahead of time, then I don’t think it would become a problem.

You seem to have thoughts brewing on magic items?!

According to my poor calculations, there are about 9,000 different magic items. Granted, this includes the same item for each level it potentially supports, but even still, there are way more magic items than anyone can keep track of. Every one of those items changes the game a little bit. Sometimes it fits fine. Other times it can completely alter how your game might run.

I personally think it was a mistake for WOTC to design magic items with their own powers. As we already discussed, too many powers complicate the game, make it harder for a player to choose an action, and thus slow the overall pace of the game down. My ideal magic items are those that add static bonuses to your character and include those bonuses in the rest of the sheet. Some other bonuses like transforming weapon damage to fire damage are fine. Items with their own powers, however, just make things more complex.

DMs can counteract this complexity by hand-selecting the items that enter their campaign. It can be a bit of a chore, but picking out rewards item by item mean that the party never gets access to those items that add mechanics you might not want in the game. Again, this is easily looked upon with a sinister gaze by players who enjoy that added optimization.

Inherent bonuses are another way to go. I’ve used this in my Dark Sun game to great success. My players don’t seem to care that much and the few magic items they DO receive are more enjoyable to them. Handing out one major powerful per character every five to ten levels gives them the feeling of major accomplishment without adding a whole extra level of complexity to the game.

I just checked the Compendium; there are currently 9,069 items available in the game. It’s impossible to know about all of them, so while a DM can manage that list to hand out treasure parcels, it’s a great deal of information to wade through to find something that fits the party and doesn’t “break” your game. It’s also challenging for players because it’s option overload. I scroll through the Character Builder and wonder which items I should add to my Wish List to give to the DM. It’s like walking around aimlessly at a buffet.

Hmmm, fried chicken smells good. But maybe I want a slice of pizza. D’oh, the meat loaf also looks great. I need to save room for ice cream or cake afterwards. I just don’t know what to eat.

The options are good, but it slows down both the character-creation and treasure-disbursement process. I like your idea of giving out items that have static bonuses without special powers. However, I love my Dice of Auspicious Fortune, so leave those alone! Another issue with creating your own magic items is the functionality of Character Builder. I can build a magic item complete with Stat Card in an application like Power2ools, but to my knowledge, I cannot create a homebrew item in Character Builder and have it update the appropriate statistics for a player. The ability to do that would be enormously helpful.

We’ve talked a bit about how 4e has evolved over time. I wonder where you see the game moving into the future. Where do you think it’s going, and where would you like to see it go?

That’s an excellent question. There are a few things I’d love to see happen:

1. I want more products like Gloomwrought and Beyond, that sit somewhere between a sourcebook and an adventure. I want specific details on potential big encounters, stats for the local bad guys, and poster maps of neat and exciting areas. I don’t want things explained room by room but I need more than a four paragraph description of an area. I think there are a ton of potential areas for a product like this: Thay, Xen-Drek, the Thunderspire, the Undermountain, Tyr, the City of Greyhawk; any of these would be great locations for a product that’s more focused than a sourcebook but not as specific as a published adventure.

2. I want more options for Essentials’ style PC so my players have more room to customize their characters but will end up with characters that run fast and furious at the table. All of those big choices that players want should happen on character creation, not at the table. I think, with the Heroes of Shadow book and the upcoming Heroes of the Feywild book, we’ll see more of this. I’m particularly excited about the multi-role character class they mentioned in the D&D podcast a few months ago. Whatever classes they come up with in the future should be designed to run 30 second turns at the table. They can be complex, but that complexity shouldn’t manifest itself during the player’s actual turn.

3. I want to see more support for epic tier play. I hear they’re going to be doing a series of adventures at the epic tier for DDI, so that might fit the bill. An epic-tier Gloomwrought style boxed set would be cool though. How about “Thanatos, Realm of the Undead” that is sort of a rewrite of Throne of Bloodstone for level 25 to 30 PCs?

4. All D&D products should use tiles from the Dungeon Tile Master Sets. They went through the trouble of making an evergreen tile set. Now they need to use it everywhere so we can have complete products. I was a little dismayed that the Gloomwrought boxed set included tiles from sets out of print long ago.

5. I want to see an Unearthed Arcana article or published book that provides optional rules to fix some of 4e’s bigger problems. For example, I’d like to see new rules for interrupts and reactions, new rules for daze and stun that player and DM’s won’t hate as much as the current rules, and rules on running a 30 minute skirmish battles that challenge players but don’t require a lot of time; this would be their chance to polish off those larger rough edges with some optional rules that wouldn’t completely change the game for those that don’t want it changed.

I think those are the big things I want out of D&D in the future.

All of those are interesting ideas that I’d like to react to, but the first thing that stood out was #2 – more options for Essentials’ characters. You mentioned earlier that Essentials’ characters run so well because they do not have as many options compared to the original classes in 4e. It seems that is the problem; either limit the options too much for players where they are unhappy with the builds, or give so many options that analysis paralysis sets in. How would you find a balance there? Seems like you want to have your cake and eat it too. (Still thinking about the buffet!)

We’ve briefly mentioned combat speed a few times already, but I must say that I don’t think a 30-second turn is realistic for the vast majority of gaming groups out there, even if the PCs have only two power options each round. The data I have coded indicates that a turn – perhaps under the best of circumstances – is going to take 90 seconds or more to complete. Unless you want to focus your group on having quick combats through houserules (i.e., sand timer on the table, penalties for taking too long, major quelling of side chatter, etc.), you’re looking at an average of approximately two minutes per turn per round for an encounter.

I want to move the complexity of a PC to character creation instead of at the table. I want players to have a lot of potential choices for just a few actions. If we say that a player may only have one immediate action power available, but we give them a selection of nine, they can spend a long time figuring out which one they want but, at the table, they still only have one.

Think about items. If we tell each character that they can have one special magical item per tier but they can select from the 9,000 potential available items, analysis paralysis happens away from the table instead of during the game.

I think PC creation could have been a lot simpler if players were limited to a single magic item with a power, only three total encounter powers, only three potential daily powers, and only three potential utility powers. This alone would reduce the amount of decisions someone can make at the table.

There are ways to get combat rounds down to 30 seconds but they aren’t pretty. I’ve had monsters that removed a PC’s ability to use encounter or daily powers. They were limited to just at-will powers. That makes for much faster turns. Not every turn is 30 seconds but some are 10 seconds and some are 40. Ninety-second to two-minute turns are probably closer to the norm.

Yes, you can run a combat encounter with cold efficiency, but I think that takes a fun game and turns it into something that is stressful and more like work for everyone at the table. I think many of us would prefer quicker combat so more encounters could be played during each session, but at the same time, many people enjoy discussing tactics, talking about off-topic subjects and generally goofing around. I think every DM needs to learn the preferences of the group and also know their own preferences. DMs should also talk about combat speed at and away from the table – What do your players want? Are they having fun at the game or looking for a different experience?

I’ve found that combat speed is less of an issue as a DM than a player. I have communicated with the party and learned that they want combat to move along at a good pace. As the DM, I can respond to that feedback and move things along when the play slows down. For example, if a player is deliberating too long, I can give a gentle nudge at first or a firm, “Okay, there needs to be a decision now.” I can engage the other players to ensure that they are remaining interested in the encounter with things such as off-turn skill checks or roleplaying. As a last resort, you can simply skip a player who is taking too much time. Since the DM is in “control” of the game, it is acceptable for him or her to manage the flow of combat. I have also incorporated combat outs and other strategies to end an encounter when it feels like it has run its course. But as a player, I’m very limited when combat speed slows down.

When playing, I can encourage people to keep focused on combat, but I don’t see it as “my place” to pester people to speed up their turns. I don’t want to be “that guy” who is running other players’ turns. And believe me, I realize I have a tendency to do that too much already! I know a flaw in my game is fretting too much about tactics and wanting to maximize each turn. Since I play out my turn in my mind in advance of when I act, I also start to “help” other players with their decisions. I’m sure I do this because I like the tactics and want us to work as a team, but I also do it to subtlety shepherd along the combat. Thinking about it now, I realize that I’m trying to DM my party while playing! Good lord, I must be a total d*ck at the table at times! (Sorry, Heroes of Overlook!) I’m aware of it though, and I’m trying to avoid fretting too much during the game when I play.

I come back to the interpersonal dynamics of the group – Are people already good friends? Can you be brutally honest with another player when they are fumbling with dice or power cards for minutes on end? Does the group even care about rapid combat or do they just want to hang out for a few hours and leisurely play the game? Communication is key; DMs shouldn’t assume anything. Since players are a bit hamstrung because of their role in the game, the responsibility really does fall onto the DM’s shoulders to initiate the communication about combat speed. Once the expectations have been set, then I believe players will be more comfortable assisting with speed management. And of course, gaming groups who want to speed up combat need to participate by staying prepared and focused during the game.

You’ve supported the analyses of I have completed on combat time. I’m curious to learn your thoughts about the results I have found.

Yeah, all good points. I’d just like an option for faster combat for smaller side battles. I’m fine with larger battles taking a while and I don’t want to rush players outside of their own enjoyment of the game.

"I'm sure this will only take a few minutes."

I think the results of your analysis are pretty interesting. It goes to show that the most time spent in a battle are the first four rounds. In my epic tier game, most battles didn’t go beyond four rounds but still took somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes. I think there are ways to tune the encounter to spread the time out a little better across the battle. For example, having monsters come out throughout a battle instead of all at once is always a good trick as long as your first wave doesn’t get killed too quickly. Anyway, there are probably a lot of ways to handle this in encounter design. I’ve only explored it a little bit.

I think my last analysis demonstrates that adding monsters or obstacles to the encounter in later rounds will prolong combat. I think you could spread out a fewer number of enemies over the first two or three rounds, but when a major bad guy or new threat presents itself past Round 2 or so, it really shuffles the deck because players are likely going to reconsider their tactics.

I’ve thought about running combat as a skill challenge, but haven’t executed that idea yet. I think it would be possible to set up a “dungeon” that has guards (or whatever) and the goal is to get to the heart of the base. The party could use any number of skills to breach the stronghold and get near the Big Boss. You could then run a normal combat encounter or two in the heart of the base, instead of having the party grind their way through two or three encounters (e.g., outside the base, great hall in base, etc.) to get to the heart of the dungeon.

There are many great ideas out there to speed up combat. I encourage DMs to talk with their group and experiment. Most importantly, change gears throughout the campaign. Even battle-hungry players will get weary of grinding through combat-after-combat without end.

You mentioned Epic Tier play again, and I wanted to return to the third point you mentioned above in terms of where you’d like to see 4e go in the future – more Epic Tier support. While playing Heroic Tier for the last year or so, I flipped through the Monster Manuals and other source books and felt jealous, “All the cool stuff is in Paragon and Epic!” However, you’ve been a strong advocate for Epic Tier play and monsters, who you claim are wimpy pre-MM3. You even created your own book, Sly Flourish’s Running Epic Tier Games, to fill in the void. What specifically is missing from Epic that is already featured in Heroic and Paragon support?

The Monster Manual 3, Dark Sun Creature Catalog, and the Demonomicon all have good epic-tier monsters but the Monster Vault is sorely lacking in epic tier monsters.

When I think about D&D, the adventures I remember the most are the epic level ones. I love epic tier monsters like demiliches, balors, demon princes, and ancient dragons. I even managed to write a DDI article about demiliches. I’d like to see an easier way for players to get a shot at these big guys.

To answer your question, the thing that epic is missing that exists at the paragon and heroic tiers is simplicity. The game bogs down a lot at the epic tier for all the reasons we’ve been talking about. Epic tier characters get about 18 feats, paragon path abilities, epic destiny abilities, and dump trucks full of magic items. Players who just barely touch on character optimization can make it very hard for a DM to provide them a real challenge. I had to run my group through Orcus twice just to make sure I could make one hard enough for them. That’s where my totem idea came from in Pimp my Orcus.

"Other the other gods laugh at me. NO MORE!"

Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about your collaboration with Wizards of the Coast. How did that opportunity present itself? And what do you think of the relationship between WotC and the online gaming community? How do you think WotC can best collaborate with those who are most vocal and pushing 4e to its limits?

And finally, what are your personal goals for Sly Flourish moving forward? Do you have new projects we should be looking out for soon?

They actually approached me about doing a series of articles for them. After some initial email conversations we agreed that the Monster Makeover article series was a good fit. The first two are out now – Shademaw the Black Dragon and the Demilich. One more is likely on the way.

WOTC also recently recruited a bunch of the blogger types to write various articles for them. My first of these has been submitted but I couldn’t say when it will be posted.

A lot of folks will tell you to keep submitting stuff to the slush pile. I never had any luck there. Instead, I’d suggest writing what you love, make it useful to as many people as possible, and post it regularly on your own. If you do it right and do it consistently, you can get a lot of eyes on your own stuff on your own. That’s the beauty of the Internet these days.

I think WOTC works well with the community. It makes sense that they go after those who have already proven their love and their ability to ship good articles. I think recruiting new writers from those who write great articles already on the web is a fine way to keep the quality of their site high.

As far as the future of Sly Flourish, I had a lot of writing projects over the past few months so I’m taking a bit of a break from anything outside of the standard articles that go up every week. I have an idea for another book I’m thinking about writing but it’s a big project and I don’t yet have the energy to dive right into it. I’m doing a semi-monthly podcast series over on the Critical Hits podcast where I do one on one discussions (very much like this) discussing one particular aspect of the game. I love doing these so I’ll be keeping that up as much as Dave the Game will let me.

My other big goal for Sly Flourish is to put out really quality articles that help DMs run their games. I’ve promised to put out an article every Monday morning and I still plan to but I’m thinking more and more about how I can put out better quality articles less frequently to keep visibility on the most useful stuff. My new “About” page attempts to highlight those top articles. Right now people generally come for the latest article and then traffic on that article dies. I’d like to see fewer articles that are consistently sought out. I’m not sure how to do that yet.

Really, though, my goal hasn’t changed. My goal is to help dungeon masters build awesome 4th edition D&D games and I plan to do so through one form or another as long as I’m able.

Thanks again for letting me do this interview. It’s been lots of fun.

* All photos are from Mike Shea’s home D&D games.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

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