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.

The Year of the Dragons

I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year! I was born in 1976, which just happened to be the Year of the Dragon. And 2012 marks the Year of the Dragon once again, which seems highly appropriate given that I hope to continue posting about not only dungeons – but dragons as well.

Year of the Dragon.

The lack of recent posts is a result of my travels during the holidays. Now that I’m back home and getting into the swing of things, I will be back on schedule with writing regularly for the site. Coming this week will be an article on improvisation and another installment in the No Assembly Required series.

The first order of business before moving on to new topics is to provide an update on my last post regarding the notion that the DM is primarily an entertainer. I included a poll at the end of the post, and the results are presented below.

Click for larger view.

Only 9 of the 83 (11%) voters disagreed with the statement that the DM’s primary role is to entertain the players. And only 1 of the 83 (1%) strongly disagreed with the statement; I would love for that person to post a Comment and tell me why he or she feels that way because it is good to hear from the outliers too. The vast majority of voters either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that the DM’s primary role is to entertain the players.

The original post presents suggestions for how to be a “selfless” DM and keep the focus on the players’ level of enjoyment during the game. The results demonstrate those suggestions could be quite useful since the predominant view is that the DM is there to entertain the players.

Finally, WordPress sent me a fancy “Year In Review” summary of The Id DM, and it illustrates just how thankful I am to those that have come to my site to read articles and make comments. Thank you all, and have a wonderful New Year!

Power Options, Status Effects & Mutual Assured Destruction

Last week’s Legends & Lore column by Monte Cook discussed issues related to rule complexity. Many have suggested in that past that 4th Edition is too complex, which is one of the primary reasons for combat encounters grinding to a halt. The problems with complexity become more prevalent as the players advance in level to the degree that DMs face problems creating combat encounter that can challenge the party. This week’s Legends & Lore column expanded on the issue of complexity by asking, “What can you do on your turn?” The topic of 4th Edition’s complexity and how a rumored 5th Edition will resolve those issues is hotly debated, and the Legends & Lore columns only add to the speculation.

It is at these times that I enjoy delving into data and analyzing things before adding my two cents of opinion to the conversation. There are several assumptions that are behind claims that 4th Edition is too complex and becomes increasingly unmanageable as the party advances in level, which culminates in Epic Tier combat encounters that take longer to run and longer to design. Let’s examine a few of the assumptions:

  • Combat includes too many moving parts and the parts move more dramatically as the players advance in level.
  • Players gain more options in combat as they advance in level.
  • Players gain more powerful options (i.e., status effects) in combat as they advance in level.

Below, data is presented that address these assumptions.

Continue reading “Power Options, Status Effects & Mutual Assured Destruction”

Dungeon Economics 101

Managing treasure parcels for the my players is always an interesting challenge for me while DMing. It takes zero preparation to dish out monetory rewards to the party, “The lair has been cleared of enemies. In the corner, you find a chest with 200 gp and a brilliant red gem that you estimate is worth 50 gold pieces (gp).” A DM can get creative with describing expensive jewelry and art objects and even tie them in to the plot of the campaign, but the party is simply going to sell the treasure and split the gold equally. Monetary treasure parcels are typically split evenly whereas magic-item treasure parcels create potential balance issues within the party. The DM needs to invest more time in ensuring a good balance of magic items are found so that all in the party benefit equally over time.

Gold, Gold, GOLD!

In addition, I find discovering treasure parcels and splitting them with my fellow party members entertaining as a player. But something about the economics of 4th Edition has always trouble me, and I was never able to put a figure out why. As a player, I’d look at the gp I have saved up from many levels of adventuring and look at the price of items and think, “I could save up forever and never afford a decent magic item. What else can I even do with this gold?” Months ago, I reached the conclusion that treasure parcels and the economics of D&D 4th Edition were “broken,” but I didn’t have anything to substantiate that belief.

I returned to the question last week, and decided to finally add some structure and data to my belief that the economics in 4e are a problem. My primary means of addressing the issue was returning to the suggested Treasure Parcel list that appears in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I wanted to know how much treasure an adventuring party can expect to earn during a Level 1-30 campaign. The graphs below illustrate the data, and a discussion of potential uses for the data follows. It turns out that my belief that the economy is broken may not be entirely accurate. And serious bonus points to anyone that understands the reference in the picture above!

Continue reading “Dungeon Economics 101”

Obey Omar: Authority and Player Choice

Earlier in the month, Scott Rehm spoke about the importance of player choice during the life of a campaign. While there is certainly nothing wrong with traveling to a dungeon and clearing out monsters just for the sake of doing it, he emphasized that a DM should ensure that the party is actively choosing their path and making decisions that resonate throughout the campaign world. I have strived for this in my homebrew campaign, but I want to avoid making every decision a moral quandary. If you give players the same moral litmus tests repeatedly, then the campaign will become boring. I’ve been thinking about new ways to develop a storyline for a campaign that includes player choice, morality and potential conflict amongst party members. And when in doubt, I return to my roots in psychology.

Participant in Milgram's research.

While communicating with Sarah Darkmagic and others recently, I had the thought that a DM could benefit from borrowing concepts from some of the most famous psychological experiments to date. A great book for anyone even mildly interesting in psychological research is Forty Studies That Changed Psychology. One of the most ground-breaking series of studies featured in the book was performed by a Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in the 1960s. In his research, Milgram set out to learn more about the behaviors and sense of morality that led to the Holocaust. He devised experiments that examined the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. The results demonstrated that ordinary people were capable of inflicting a great deal of pain on others when ordered to do so by an authority figure. Milgram summarized his work:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Below, I briefly describe Milgram’s research, and then offer an example of Omar, a well-respected NPC, to demonstrate how the concepts of authority and obedience can be used to engage your adventuring party with real choices throughout the life of a campaign.

Continue reading “Obey Omar: Authority and Player Choice”

Introducing RPG ATTACK

I started The Id DM after being motivated by a lack of data on combat encounters in Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition. There was a great deal of discussion about the length of combat in 4e but no real numbers to analyze. I believed that a deeper analysis would elevate the discussion of combat speed and shed light on important dynamics involved in the pace of combat. I still believe this, and I was quite fortunate to be contacted by another that shared my point of view.

Soon after my first post analyzing combat speed, The Prince of Dusk contacted me and inquired if I was interested in starting a Roleplaying Game Statistics Initiative. The idea certainly had merit, and we continued to discuss how to implement such a strategy. After several weeks, he sent me a link to an application that allows one to easily code combat encounters. I later dubbed this tool the Roleplaying Game Application To Track/Analyze Combat enKounters (RPG ATTACK).

"Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives."

The project is still very much in development, but we wanted to share it was other dungeon/game masters and players to begin receiving feedback. I believe the application can be improved moving forward, but it is already a fabulous tool to analyze the flow of combat in Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games.

Please visit the RPG ATTACK section of the site for more details about the development of the application, screenshots of the program and instructions on how you can begin coding combat sessions today with ease.

Combat Encounter Analysis: Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series Enters “The Dungeon”


I recently listened to an episode of the DM Roundtable Podcast and someone – can’t remember who – suggested that if you do not see the type of information you are looking for, don’t complain and go create it. I had not heard the podcast until this past week, but the message therein is what drove me to start this blog. I had been lurking around online reading other blogs and absorbing information, but I felt something was missing. I felt like I had a voice to contribute, and it culminated with my dissatisfaction during the wrangling about combat speed in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition . . . which continues to this day.

Many opinions had been offered and numerous useful suggestions were outlined to speed up play, but I never saw anything approaching scientific data about how combat encounters transpire. Motivated by the notion that other people might be curious about the same information, I started The Id DM and my first post was an analysis of a combat encounter from Season 2 of the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast series. The post is – by far – the most successful article I have written in the short life of the site. It was always my intention to continue analyzing the podcast series, and I was finally able to return to the project recently.

I had the pleasure of piloting a new method for tracking combat encounters, and I hope to discuss that system in a separate post in the near future. In the meantime, I picked up where I left off in the last analysis and coded the time in the next encounter, The Dungeon, in Season 2 of the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series.  After a brief review of my methodology, I present the results below.

Continue reading “Combat Encounter Analysis: Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series Enters “The Dungeon””