The Tome Show: Player Engagement & DM Preparation

I was recently invited to participate in The Tome Show, a long-running podcast devoted to Dungeons & Dragons news, reviews, interviews, and advice. I joined hosts Jeff Greiner and Tracy Hurley to discuss the topics of player engagement during a session and DM preparation before a session. Before we launched into those topics, the hosts discussed news items and articles leading up to the release of D&D Next. Listen to Episode 195 of The Tome Show for all the magic!

Jeff, Tracy and I discussed the challenges of keeping all players engaged at the table during a gaming session. Players have access to a limitless source of entertainment with cellphones, tablets and laptops, and we detailed how we cope with the technology during sessions. I personally do not mind the use of phones and other gadgets during a game; I find it very useful to see when a player is “checking out.” It alerts me to do something to bring the player “back in” to the session. We also covered the characteristics of a “good” player. As a DM, my list is fairly short – attend reliably (I’m personally bad at this!), play nice with others and contribute to the game. When playing the game, I enjoy when other players are cooperative, respectful and not offering too much unsolicited advice on how to play my character. We all have our gaming pet peeves, including announcing another player’s die rolls. Don’t do that!

We pivoted to the topic of DM preparation, and how best to use the time between sessions to create a fun and interesting game. I liberally refer to Mike Shea’s recent survey on DM Preparation at Sly Flourish and discuss my struggles with the combination of thinking about my campaign too much but procrastinating on actually creating content for the next session. We all offered suggestions for how to effectively use preparation time, and I detailed how I am now preparing more flavor text and dialogue to make combat encounters more interesting and engaging for the players. It all comes full circle!

I want to thank Jeff and Tracy once again for inviting me onto The Tome Show; it was a great time! Be sure to add The Tome Show to your list of roleplaying game podcasts! Finally, I decided to add a Podcast Category to the blog since I have now appeared on several podcasts during the past year. For those who would like to hear more of my thoughts on gaming – often with a lean toward psychological issues for players and DMs – the interviews can now be found in one place.

99 Problems But a Lich Ain’t One (Hundred)

Jay-Z runs games for Beyoncé and her friends, right?

The Id DM earns an Action Point today as it reaches the 100-post milestone. I previously expressed gratitude to all who have helped me and summarized the first year of the blog. With my 100th post, I thought it might be beneficial to offer some unsolicited advice to other gamers and writers who have a blog or are thinking about starting one in the future.

The following observations and suggestions are not meant to be a sermon on “how to do things,” so please consume at your leisure. In looking back how I went from not having a blog in March 2011 to winning Stuffer Shack’s RPG Site of The Year in April 2012, these things stand out as decisions that were helpful for me. Others may have a different way of doing things, and that is not wrong by any means. But for those curious, this is how I have operated.

Get the know the community. If you have not already, join Twitter and follow the discussions that are transpiring with the #dnd, #rpg and #dndnext hashtags. Join in the conversation and ask questions. Visit other blogs, read the articles other writers post and respond with concise feedback and questions in the Comments. Contact other bloggers by email to ask questions or offer support or feedback about their work. Become involved!

Continue reading “99 Problems But a Lich Ain’t One (Hundred)”

Selling The Drama

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sadly, the You Tube videos were all pulled by WWE since I published the article.

Regardless of the actions that take place during combat encounters in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, it is the responsibility of the DM to ensure the players know what they are fighting for and both how and why monsters are reacting to them in the environment. Earlier in the week, I discussed how DMs can respond to the increase of critical hits by players during Paragon Tier with new monster traits and immediate actions. These design features for critical hit protection may seem like “DM cheese” to players, so it is important to incorporate the mechanics into the story and flow of combat.

What do you see – two men standing around and hugging each other, or the most important clash of titans ever to take place on Earth?

I sometimes think of combat encounters as professional wrestling matches. Yes, I’m talking about World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), although I prefer the previous name – World Wrestling Federation (WWF). You have the heel (monsters) and the face (player characters) facing each other in combat in the ring (encounter area). They are both playing to the crowd (DM and players) while executing scripted manuevers (powers, etc). The DM needs to be a combination of Ric Flair and Jim Rosssell the events that are transpiring in the ring!

The moves of a wrestling match are often quite mechanical and boring, but when you have one wrestler acting like a move just broke his spine while the announcer is selling the audience that the wrestler may have to retire after the match, the viewer cannot help but be more engaged in the outcome. The wrestlers and the announcer are telling a story. During combat encounters, the DM must tell a story as well. Below, I provide examples of how this can be accomplished.

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Understanding Self and Other

In recent weeks, I have been asked for input from others in the online community about certain topics. It has been fun to communicate with other bloggers on their ideas and contribute in any way possible. I wanted to direct readers to two recent articles, which feature some commentary by yours truly.

The first is a post at Dice Monkey, which discusses how children learn to assume roles in games such as Cops And Robbers. The author, Mark Meredith, asked me how I thought a specific theory, The Generalized Other, applies to roleplaying games. I provided my perspective, which he incorporated into the article.

Is this person pushing people away or welcoming them?

The second is a post at Sly Flourish, which details how functioning as a DM can grow frustrating over time. Mike Shea asked me several questions related to how DMs can cope with the frustration of running a roleplaying game. I responded to his questions with specific strategies to first identify and then manage stress caused (or exaggerated) by running games. I believe the information can be helpful to any DM (or player) who may wish to increase their level of patience.

A common theme in many of my articles is understanding behavior and communication patterns before, during and after roleplaying game sessions. Readers who have enjoyed those articles should find the two posts above interesting. And outside of the specific articles I contributed to, both sites feature a plethora of wonderful content to delve into and consume. Thanks to Mark Meredith from Dice Monkey and Mike Shea from Sly Flourish for reaching out to me for their articles!

Critically Hit by Mike Shea

I had the pleasure of talking about Dungeons & Dragons and several psychological components of roleplaying games with Mike Shea for the Critical Hits Podcast. You may know Mike Shea from his popular blog, Sly Flourish. Long-time readers of this site may remember he spent some time being interviewed by me last summer; but the roles have now been reversed!

During the podcast, Mike asked me questions about my approach to playing and running 4th Edition D&D games, which is certainly influenced by my education and professional work as a psychologist. I present ideas for how to monitor and manage communication before, during and after sessions, and we discuss how to respond if you happen to be “a bad DM” in addition to the notion that the DM is primarily an Entertainer. He also reviewed my previous research efforts on tracking combat speed and the progression of status effects in 4th Edition.

The 70-minute conversation is available for your downloading pleasure at Critical Hits, which should be included in your “I go to these sites at least a few times each week” list.

Diffusion of Responsibility & Open Playtesting

I am convinced the concept of diffusion of responsibility saved my life. About 10 years ago, I was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico with my later-to-be wife while on a cruise. I am a notoriously bad swimmer but in a slightly inebriated hazed over-estimated my ability to swim out to a floating dock. After a final push to swim to reach the dock, I looked up and realized it was still a good 30 yards away. Then I started to go underwater.

Cozumel. Where I almost died 10 years ago.

My wife, an avid swimmer who had taken lifeguarding lessons in earlier days, noticed that I was struggling and tried her best to keep me above the water. However, she was on vacation – not caring for little kids running around a community pool – so her training failed and she panicked. As we now both started to sink, I had a clear thought in my mind, “I am NOT dying like this!”

My wife and I were fairly isolated in the water and I realized calling out for help might not produce quick results. I yelled at one man about 20 yards away and got his attention. As I was losing energy to stay above water, I told him we please needed help. He swam over quickly and went to help my wife, which sparked the hilarious line, “No, it’s not me. It’s HIM.”

The man easily kept me afloat while my wife caught the attention of a young guy on a kayak. They placed my gasping body on the kayak and slowly brought be back to shore like some type of bizarre Viking funeral. Shaken on the beach, I cleared my head and thought, “Diffusion of responsibility saved my life.”

Below, I define diffusion of responsibility and humbly discuss how it could relate to the open playtest Wizards of the Coast is conducting for the next version of Dungeons & Dragons. 

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Discussing Optimizers With Misfits

I recently had the pleasure of being invited on the Level Up podcast hosted by the fine folks at Roving Band of Misfits. I cannot thank them enough for asking me onto the show. The focus of the episode is Character Optimization, and how to deal with players that may go “too far” or “not far enough” with optimizing their character.

It is an interesting topic because it relates to many group dynamics I have discussed previously on this site. My primary piece of advice is to evaluate the attitude of all players in the group regarding optimization, and figure out if there is a disconnect that creates tension. We discuss a variety of potential problems that can arise if one or two players are “optimizers” while the rest of the players are more “casual.” And we attempt to provide solutions for how to get everyone on the same page so all players can enjoy the game at their own pace. The conversation was enlightening to me, and makes me feel fortunate that my groups have not experienced much in terms of optimizer/non-optimizer squabbles!

(It also allowed me to receive feedback on my Rogue’s one-round 2 Encounter, 1 Daily, Action Point, 1 Daily combination that another player [frequent Commentor on the blog, Wayne] helped me plan for at Level 15. Do the hosts find it to be ridiculous? Find out!)

One point of clarification I’d like to add before you listen is that I responded to a question with an answer that – in retrospect – may seem harsh. I was asked, “What is the opposite of a character that is optimized?”

My first response was, “Ineffective.”

I believe I said this because Dungeons & Dragons is a game that requires the players to have some mastery over rules and the abilities/nuances of their characters. While often referred to as a cooperative game, the players are still facing challenges both in and out of combat. A character with woeful statistics can be a drag on party resources. It reminds me of a saying from the sporting world, “The team is only as good as its worse player.”

But one thing that optimization takes is time. It takes more time to understand the rules and options thoroughly enough to build a character that can take advantage of (some might say exploit) the system. And many people do not have the time – or motivation – to explore the many options to build such a finely-tuned character. I would guess that most players fall into this category; their characters are built casually with one eye toward creating an effective character and the other eye on the million other things going on in his or her life. I certainly fall into this category.

If we were to conceptualize Character Optimization as a single variable, the lowest scores would place characters in the “Ineffective” range while the highest scores would place characters in the “Effective” range. The problems likely arise when players in the same group are at different ends of this spectrum or – perhaps more accurately – perceive they are at different ends of the spectrum. Changing the language from “optimized” to “effective” may help to understand the conflict that could arise between a player and DM, and two or more players.

The players play to win the game, and some of them may have different ideas of how to win the game – or even what winning the game means. It is a worthwhile topic to explore with your gaming group, and one way to approach the optimization “Cheese Weasel” issue.

Now go listen to the podcast for more discussion on the topic!

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Improv

Regardless of how often I tell myself that I need to prepare for sessions well in advance, I still find myself finalizing session details seconds before I drive my car to run the game. I’ve written how procrastination has fueled my campaign in the past and led to some dynamic moments, but it also creates a cycle of anxiety that repeats itself once every two weeks. The cycle goes something like this . . .

Finish a session and have every intention of waking up the next morning to write out some notes and plan the next possible steps in the campaign. Get distracted by other activities and put off said planning until “later.” Delay final preparations and increase my anxiety about the next gaming session. Stuff two weeks of planning into a few hours the night before (and day of) the next session. Run the session in an adrenaline-and-anxiety fused state and forget exactly how I pulled it off without the game totally collapsing on itself.

Rinse. Repeat.

I have been working to change this routine, and one way I’m challenging myself is to feel more comfortable improvising during a session. While I still relied on some final-minute planning and organization before the last session, I attempted to scale back on my preparation of specific events and allow for a greater amount of improvisation. I discuss the results of those efforts below, including a breakdown of observations from one of my long-time players about the improv-heavy session.

Continue reading “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Improv”

I Am The Entertainer, And I Know Just Where I Stand

The players are at the table to win. The DM is at the table to entertain.

The statements above seems stark and cold, but – for me – it rings more true than false. I have often wondered about the role of the DM, and how Dungeons & Dragons is referred to commonly as a cooperative game. I struggle with the cooperative definition, because I find that playing D&D is laden with competitive overtones. The role of the DM is quite complicated and in many ways – contradictory. During any given session, I am engaged in the following:

  • Encouraging players to develop their character by setting goals in the campaign world.
  • Deterring players from achieving their stated goals with a litany of hazards and enemies.
  • Rewarding players for taking risks and engaging in creative storytelling and roleplaying.
  • Punishing players with penalties, including death, for taking risks and engaging in dangerous behaviors.
  • Improvising to match player interests in the campaign world.
  • Railroading players to keep them (and the gaming session) on track in the campaign world.
    Billy Joel, who provided the title for this post.

In addition, the game features a major resource imbalance between DM and player away from the game table. The DM spends time creating a quest and a set of challenges that must be overcome before the players can achieve the quest. If the DM creates a challenge that is too difficult, then the game either stalls or the players die, which results in more work for the DM and players since new plotlines and characters need to be built. The DM is responsible for creating challenges that are properly balanced for the players.

The players are there to win. The DM is there to entertain.  

Below, I discuss how I have executed the mental gymnastics to ensure my own happiness as a DM while running a campaign during the past two years. I present how my chosen profession – psychologist – grants me an intriguing perspective on facilitating a roleplaying game like D&D, and contemplate why the bulk of hand-wringing about editions, rule sets and “the future” of the product(s) is conducted primarily by DMs and not players.

Continue reading “I Am The Entertainer, And I Know Just Where I Stand”

Leveling the Party

During my last game as everyone’s favorite Dragonborn Rogue, J’hari Wrex, our group played for approximately 10 hours. As the session concluded around 3AM, I asked if we had enough experience to level up. My DM informed me that I just made it to Level 12, which made me quite happy. But then I learned that everyone else in the group during the session was already Level 12. I had no idea I was a level lower throughout the entire marathon session.

Given that it was 3AM and I had to drive home, I didn’t have the time to ponder the implications of not being at the same level as the rest of the party. In the following days, I reached out to our DM (AJ, who is also a player in my campaign and host for both games) and asked why I did not level up at the same time as everyone else. He has decided to link Experience Points (XP) to attendance and he plans to run the rest of the campaign with players within the group possibly being at different levels. I disagree with this approach for several reasons. As we discussed the topic in an email chain, I decided it would make a decent blog post. Since he recently started his own blog (the power of Iddy compels him!), I told him we should answer the following question in our own way:

Should DMs level up all members of the party at the same time in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition?

I’m firmly on the Yes side, and I will explain why below the fold. Either before or after you read my reasoning, check out my DM’s firm No answer at The Dungeon Maestro.

AJ and I did not read each other’s answer before posting our responses. And check out the rest of his blog for other good D&D commentary and information about his Ultimate Gaming Table.

Continue reading “Leveling the Party”