Dungeon Master’s Guide Preview: Building Memorable NPCs

The cover for the new Dungeon Master’s Guide features a powerful lich who bears a striking resemblance to Iddy the Lich, the mascot for this blog. I have joked about Iddy being on the cover of the DMG on occasion through Twitter with team members from Wizards of the Coast in the hope that they would allow me to preview some pages before the book is released. Without burying the lead, the team at Wizards was gracious enough to send me two pages from the manual to share with the community!

If you Photoshop his staff to hold a d6, then it's basically the same character!
You would not like Iddy when he’s angry!

Many of the articles I have written about Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop gaming have been influenced by my background as a licensed psychologist. The team at Wizards thought it was fitting to provide me with two pages with details on how to create non-playable characters (NPCs) with personality. Below, I present the pages on NPCs, demonstrate how to use the tables to create four NPCs, and discuss how the Big Five personality traits can be used to develop memorable NPCs.

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But Now Here You Are, And Here I Am

Starter_Ex1_ToCth
Dragons! Dungeons! Onward!!

It has been approximately two years since I last played Dungeons & Dragons. I have supplemented my lack of D&D goodness with other roleplaying games such as Blade Raiders and Star War Edge of the Empire, and fun distractions like SolForge. But now that the next edition of D&D is alive and finally a real thing, I am quite excited to dive in, kick the tires, and butcher any number of metaphors while discussing the rules – and hopefully many future gaming sessions to follow.

During the past few days, I have read through some of the Basic Rules, which are available for free, and the Starter Set Rulebook. The following observations are from the perspective of a player and Dungeon Master that truly cut his teeth on 4th Edition, which may make me a bit of a rarity. And they are also made having not played the game yet. I am eager to try the rules and see if my initial impressions are accurate – or completely misguided. Below, I write about a few rules that caught my attention – for better or worse.

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Ego Check: Mike Mearls, Senior Manager of Dungeons & Dragons Research and Design Team

Several months ago, I posted an interview with Monte Cook, which was the result of an effort that started in January to interview a member of the Dungeons & Dragons Next Design Team. After Mr. Cook left the project, I continued to communicate with Public Relations staff within Wizards of the Coast in the hopes of contacting a member of the design team. These efforts recently led to the opportunity to interview Mike Mearls, the Senior Manager for the Dungeons & Dragons Research and Design Team.

Mike Mearls

At the same time, I also realized that many others have interviewed members of the Design Team and Mike Mearls even hosted an extensive Ask Me Anything on reddit to answer specific questions about D&D Next. I decided that if I had the chance to interview a member of the design team that I would ask questions that relate to topics I have written about for this site – or as in the case of the psychology of ownership – topics I am in the process of writing [look for a series of articles on this topic in the coming weeks]. In the following interview with Mike Mearls, he was kind enough to offer responses to these questions.

Below, he talks about the challenges and opportunities posed by the shift to digital media in our culture. He discusses the benefits and limitations of designing and playing D&D as part of a job, and responds to my belief that D&D and other tabletop roleplaying games have not advanced far beyond stereotypes that are approximately 30 years old. We conclude by discussing the role of the Dungeon Master and how D&D Next can be structured to take the creative burden off of the DM’s shoulders.

This week will bring a flood of D&D news and information with Gen Con, but let this whet your appetite and give you something to read as you are traveling to Indy . . . or stuck at work wishing you were traveling to Indy!

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Ego Check: Topher Kohan, SEO of CNN.com and Writer for CNN Geek Out!

It has been great to see “geek culture” featured more prominently in popular media over the years in a non-condescending manner. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept the Oscars close to ten years ago. Now, superheroes dominant movie theater box offices while zombies are featured in a popular television series and video games have become a multi-billion dollar industry. It was unheard of many years ago for a mainstream news outlet to feature a section on “geek news,” but CNN now does just that through their Geek Out! blog.

Topher Kohan, SEO of CNN.com

Recently, I was able to interview one of the writers for Geek Out!, Tophan Kohan. Topher functions primarily as the SEO of CNN.com; he was very kind to communicate back-and-forth during his quite busy schedule. He talks about balancing his roles with CNN while finding time to play games, including his dedication to his friendly local gaming store’s 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Encounters campaign. He describes how other writers can boost the findability of their website with a variety of SEO tools. We discuss the relative lack of mainstream acceptance of roleplaying games in popular culture and how that might be remedied. Enjoy the interview with Topher Kohan and follow him on Twitter @Topheratl.

Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. You are the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Coordinator for CNN.com in addition to a writer for CNN’s Geek Out! blog. What is a typical day like for you in those roles and how do they intersect?

So a typical day for me is a lot of writing, reading and meetings. I spend a lot of time looking around and meeting about what is the next thing we are doing on CNN to make sure I know the scope and understand what SEO needs will be on the product. I support CNN.com, CNN International HLNtv.com and a few more international sites. I also read a lot of content to keep up on the latest SEO news and Geek news.

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The Transparency of Damage Dice Irrelevance

Frequent readers of The Id DM likely know the site started as a result of my interest in analyzing data related to combat speed in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. To satisfy that curiosity, I coded episodes of the Dungeons & Dragons Penny Arcade & PvP Podcast Series and presented the results. One of the more intriguing results was the findings related to the behavior of the DM, Chris Perkins. Here is what I wrote back in March 2011:

I analyzed the behavior of the DM. I was unable to break down the DM’s actions in the same two categories (Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions; Rolling/Calculating & Results) because the DM – quite frankly – moved too fast for me. The DM does not appear to be rolling for his attacks, and may be using an automatic dice roller . . . [and] takes significantly less time to take the monsters’ actions when compared to the PCs. Considering the DM is managing the actions of up to seven monsters, this is impressive.

And here is an excerpt from Mr. Perkins’ latest The Dungeon Master Experience column series:

As much as I like rolling dice to achieve random results, as a DM working behind the screen, I prefer to roll as few dice as possible. In fact, I usually keep only two dice behind my screen. That’s two dice total . . .

Two dice behind the DM screen, you say?

Why the heck not. I know how much damage (on average) a monster’s supposed to deal — I have a spreadsheet that tells me (with numbers derived from a fairly straightforward formula). Should my players care that I’m rolling 1d6 + 25 instead of 4d8 + 10, like the Monster Manual says I should? Why should they care? The only measurable difference is a narrower damage range with results edging closer to the average (26-31 damage instead of 14-42 damage), and my players have more important things to worry about than whether or not a monster’s damage range is wide enough . . .

If I have a choice between rolling 3d10 + 11 damage or 1d6 + 24 damage, I’ll take the single die and the big modifier. It seems like an insignificant thing, but it’s the kind of no-brainer shortcut that keeps overworked DMs like me alive and kickin’.

I informed you thusly. I so informed you thusly.

“The dragon breathes a hellacious plume of fire. You all take [rolls 3d10 + 4d6 + 2d8 and adds modifier] . . . hey, wake up! You’re fighting a dragon!”
I have considered alternatives such as pre-rolling attack and damage dice to reduce the number of rolls a DM needs to complete while running an encounter. But one person like myself offering alternative mechanics through an independent blog seems vastly different from the DM of Wizards of the Coast– the company that designed and published D&D 4th Edition – writing on the company’s website that dispensing with the damage-dice mechanic is a “no-brainer shortcut.”

The column by Mr. Perkins – regardless if you agree or disagree with him on the importance of damage dice – is noteworthy. Below, I attempt to explain why I find his column so intriguing and – in some ways – pleasantly shocking.

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Combat Speed in D&D Next

Over the weekend, I was finally able to play Dungeons & Dragons Next. Our group had first playtested the game over a month ago, but I had to miss that session. I jumped into the fray as Professor Giroux, High Elf Wizard. I enjoyed my time playing D&D Next, although I cannot provide grand conclusions regarding the game system for a variety of reasons.

Don't let his male-pattern baldness fool you. Professor Giroux can BRING THE PAIN.
Who needs armor when you have robes as resplendent as these?

First, it was the first time I played with a DM other than the gentleman who has been running our Scales of War campaign well for the past two years. The DM for our session of D&D Next also did a wonderful job and I enjoyed his style. Second, it was the first time I played with the specific collection of players at the table. A new player joined the group for their first D&D Next session and I had not met him previously. He was also a good addition to the game, but attempting to compare two game systems (4e and Next) between two campaign settings run by different DMs with different players is like comparing apples to hand grenades.

There have been many columns on initial impressions of D&D Next and I’ll certainly offer a few of mine before the end of the article. But I wanted to focus on the specific factor of combat time, which is how this blog started way back when. Below, I present preliminary data collected during my first D&D Next session, which illustrates a vast difference in combat time compared to other data available on 4th Edition D&D combat encounters.

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Dungeon Mastering: Theory & Practice

Several moons ago, I posed the following question on Twitter, “What is your biggest flaw as a DM?” I also asked, “What is your biggest strength as a DM?” It should come as little surprise that more DMs responded to the Flaw than Strength question because people remember negative events better than positive events. I had every intention of writing about the responses I got from DMs but was distracted by numerous things – one of which was rampant speculation about D&D Next.

Perfection? Look closer.

I have read with interest the updates regarding the design motivations for D&D Next. Many of the articles have focused on theoretical issues such as archetypal characters, edition reunification and other specific rule changes. When I finally returned to the list of personal flaws DMs provided, I was struck by how little their responses related to gaming mechanics and rules and how much they applied to the practical issues of running a game. While specific questions like, “How should Turn Undead function for a Cleric?” are interesting and perhaps even essential to facets of game design, the focus on mechanical issues seems to overlook the needs expressed by DMs.

Below, I discuss the numerous responses I received from DMs regarding their “biggest flaw” and organize their responses in several categories. Since I do not have access to the materials that will be provided for DMs to run D&D Next, I returned to 4th Edition manuals – specifically Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 (DMG 2) – to investigate the proportion of content that addresses the most common DM flaws. I conclude by advocating for a new paradigm in future DMG manuals with clear education on not only game theory (e.g., rules, mechanics) but also practice (e.g., communication with players, managing the table).

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