Build A Better Arena

Strip away the rules and combat mechanics. Take away the character-build and monster-creation options. Stop rolling dice and moving miniatures around the table. Now, look around . . . What remains is you – the DM – sitting down with a group of people communicating with each other. I explain below how communication between you and your players should take place in the Arena. There is a great deal of commentary on game mechanics, stats and rules, but a dearth of advice on how to properly communicate with your players. It is a niche I will humbly try to fill with this and future articles.

It is not my goal to regurgitate “pop-psychology” ideas or encourage you to “analyze” the players in your game. You do not need to be a psychologist or professional counselor to be aware of some basic communication factors that could be influencing your gaming sessions. What does seem lost in discussions of gaming is the ability of the DM to react and respond to the numerous dynamics between them and the players at the table.

For instance, a typical gaming group has one dungeon master and approximately five player characters. That means the DM is communicating with five different people all at the same time through speech, body language and gestures. On top of this, each player is communicating with the other four players and the DM at the same time through their speech, body language and gestures. At any given moment during a gaming session with a DM and five players, there are 30 lines of communication. Yes, 30!

I would argue the DM should be aware of all lines of communication during the gaming session, which is quite a daunting task. One method I believe can assist DMs to understand the communication patterns at the table is a theory, the Johari Window. The Johari Window is a 2×2 matrix that displays how communication between self and others plays out in any situation. The four quadrants are:

Consider each quadrant while running your campaign.

Arena: Both self and other are aware of.

Blind Spot: Self is not aware of, but others are aware of.

Facade: Self is aware, but others are not.

Unknown: Self and others are both unaware 

Continue reading “Build A Better Arena”

Losing My Miniature Virginity

Today, miniatures I painted for several PCs in my party were featured on Robot Viking. First off, thank you to Robot Viking and those that frequent their site who decided to come over to check out this blog. Second, I’d like to briefly discuss how I started to paint minis last year, and suggest how you can do the same if you haven’t already started the hobby.

Lelu Multipass - Elven Ranger

Do not let the sweet banner for this site fool you, I am not an artist! I assembled and painted (poorly) some Star Wars model ships when I was a teenager, but that is the extent of my craft work. Even when I got back into D&D a couple of years ago, I never considered painting miniatures because it seemed well beyond my abilities.

However, another player in my new D&D group asked me if I wanted to go to a free miniatures class/session at a local gaming store. He was quite earnest in his effort to get me to join him for the event, and I agreed to go. When I arrived at the store, I was able to paint a free mini while gaining tips and suggestions from the leader of the session and other painters at the store. It was a pleasant four hours, although it was slightly frustrating because my dexterity with the brush was just a shade less subtle than a train wreck!

The first experience painting minis was enjoyable enough that I committed to taking up the hobby at home. My friend suggested Reaper Miniatures and paints. The Reaper website also provided me with an essential guide for the materials I needed to start the craft. I used this list to buy all the products I needed to get started. If you are thinking about painting, please start with the guide of materials you need. It saved me a great deal of time, and also educates you about the craft.

I started with a small collection of Reaper Master Series Paints (red, blue, green, yellow, white, black, grey and a metallic silver and bronze) and a few Winsor and Newton Series 7 brushes (I primarily use the 1, 0 and 001 sizes). Later I purchased a magnifying OttLite, which improved my painting significantly. The OttLite Lamps are expensive, but the combination of clean lighting and magnification allowed me to focus on smaller details while painting. I found this magnifier lamp at a local craft store on sale for about $50. It truly is worth it!

If you are hesitant to start painting minis, then I suggest you start slow and begin with minis that you are not tied too emotionally. I would shy away from buying the “perfect” mini to represent your PC in a campaign or the big boss in your world as a DM. Start with a mini that is simple and experiment with the various painting styles. There are also tutorials on YouTube and other sites for techniques like dry brushing. I have also avoided building bases for my minis, which is another artform entirely. So far, I have used 1″ washers for each minis’ base. It’s functional for our games, but in the future I’d like to learn more about how to create more artful bases for the minis.

I’ve found that painting minis can be fun and relaxing. I structured the hobby by painting PCs for the players in my campaign. Now that the minis for the PCs are painted, I can go back to focus on my DM role . . . and form plans to kill those PCs in all manner of gruesome and creative ways.

Ride The Rails Like A Rockstar

The question of whether a DM should force the party along rails or allow them to stomp around in a sandbox continues to be addressed. The topic was discussed heavily in a blog carnival last year, and most recently this week at Critical Hits. It is not a new concern for DMs, and there are numerous suggestions for how to effectively run a sandbox style game for your PCs. My approach to the campaign I run has been slightly different, and I think other DMs may benefit from the structure I use to balance PC flexibility with central story arcs. The following post is my attempt to describe my structure for running the world and handling the railroad/sandbox situation.

Before 2009, I did not play D&D for over 15 years. I filled in that time with countless hours playing computer and console games – mostly action, RPG and sports titles. It is a major influence in how my brain functions to prepare adventures for my D&D campaign. When I received the opportunity to DM once again, I decided to create my own world for the PCs to inhabit. I leaned on the structure of certain videogame titles to keep my sanity and not have the process of “building a world” become too overwhelming.

Red Dead Redemption
Don't fear the rails. Own them.

Specifically, I relied on a model used by Rockstar Games for titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. Both of these games offer expansive worlds for the players to explore while participating in a wide variety of activities. However, there is also a primary storyline the player can complete at their leisure. Recently, I took a break from Dragon Age Origins (80+ hours in and still haven’t finished it!?) to play Red Dead Redemption. The game is phenomenal, and I got wrapped up in that for a few weeks while completing the game’s primary storyline. There are several interesting components to the Rockstar titles that translate well into building a D&D campaign.

Continue reading “Ride The Rails Like A Rockstar”

Analyzing Combat Encounters – Returning to the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series


Numerous voices are currently discussing the resting mechanics and speed of combat encounters during D&D 4e games. More specifically, the problem addressed is the sometimes agonizing length of combat encounters and how it can drain the momentum from an otherwise good night of gaming.

The most recent addition to the fray is the thoughtful article by Robert J. Schwalb, which presents a possible solution for the slow grind of combat and awkward rest mechanics in 4e. As the speed of combat is discussed on forums and blogs (not to mention blowing up Twitter on some days), one thing seems to be missing from the overall discussion.

Hard data.

Perhaps I’m not looking in the right place, but I haven’t seen anyone analyze a gaming session in terms of how much time is spent on specific tasks before, during and after combat encounters. The thought occurred to me that I could record our next gaming session, but I reailzed that no one reading this article would know if our gaming group is similar to the majority of groups out there or an outlier. The data would be easy for many to dismiss and ignore.

However, I remembered the Dungeons & Dragons Penny Arcade & PvP Podcast Series, which is one of the main reasons I got back into D&D in the first place. The Second Series introduced me to the mechanics of 4e and reminded me how fun it could be to sit around a table with some friends, goof around, roll dice and beat the hell out of monsters.

Also, everyone can still access these podcasts (and if you haven’t, then you’re absolutely cheating yourself) to determine if their home games are in the same ballpark in terms of pace and style. There are other articles that discuss and respond to the series, but I believe a time-analysis will show interesting – and perhaps surprising – information about how time is spent during any given combat encounter in 4e, and how best to alter the experience to improve the game for DMs and PCs.


The first task was to create categories to code the podcasts. I kept the categories simple because it is possible to spend hours listening, rewinding, and listening again to get exact statistics. I settled on the following two categories to analysis the time of the turns during combat:

  1. Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions
  2. Rolling, Calculating & Results

If I had more time, then I would expand upon these categories. But they will do for now.  I split each PCs’ turn into the above categories. The first category counts everything between the DM informing the player it is their turn to when the PC decides on their attack and prepares to roll. The second category begins when the PC rolls, calculates damage (if applicable) and any other discussions before the DM informs the next PC it is their turn. 

I am not including the first episode in the series in the analysis; the group spends approximately 31 minutes on introductions and role-playing to begin the adventure. During those 31 minutes, the party interacts with each other and various NPCs. They ultimately arrive at their destination, and a combat encounter begins just as the episode concludes.

I analyzed the second episode of the series, which begins immediately with the process of assigning initiative. Initiative is established within 30 seconds, and I removed that small fragment from the time analysis. The combat encounter includes no terrain effects except for a large hole in the floor of the tower; the hole never comes into play although it is discussed tactically as an option. The enemies for the encounter are two human crossbowman and four human minions.

First, I recorded how long each turn lasted for the PCs and the DM. Whenever the DM prompted a PC that is was their turn, the timer started. As soon as the PC made their decisions and rolled dice to attack, then I stopped recording time for the Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions portion of the turn, and started timing for the Rolling/Calculating & Results portion of their turn.

For example, Binwin Bronzebottom is the first PC to act in the encounter. The DM notifies Binwin that his turn is ready 30 seconds into play (after initiative was decided). During the next 162 seconds, Binwin asks the DM questions about the environment, consults with his party and debates on movement and action options. Binwin decides on his actions, including an attack, and decides to roll his d20 at the 3:12 mark of the podcast. These actions were placed in the first category described above – Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions.

Binwin rolls and consults with his party to ensure he is adding up his modifiers correctly. He checks with the DM and is informed his attack hits. The DM records the damage and then announces at 4:34 of the podcast that it is the monsters’ turn. The 97 seconds between the 3:12 mark when Binwin rolled and the 4:34 mark when the next turn starts were placed in the second category described above – Rolling/Calculation & Results.

All turns were recorded with this system (yes, it took awhile!).


The results are presented in a few ways below. To begin, let’s simply look at how much time was spent in each round.


Continue reading “Analyzing Combat Encounters – Returning to the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series”

Allow Myself to Introduce . . . Myself


Thank you for seeking out/stumbling upon this site.  I am looking forward to writing about my experiences with Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition (D&D 4e). The majority of posts will focus on the task of running the game as the Dungeon Master (DM), although I will discuss my experiences as a player character (PC) on occasion. 

I started playing D&D 4e back in the summer of 2009. Before that, I hadn’t played D&D in 15-20 years. I’m now 34, and don’t have nearly the amount of free time on my hands as I did when I was a teenager! This results in me having to do what I can in a short amount of time to get ready for each night that I DM. If you’d like to know more details about me (or why I chose the name, The Id DM, please check out the appropriately named About Me page.

If I can offer only one piece of advice in this first post, then here it is – All PCs should try to DM a few sessions, and all DMs should play a few sessions as a PC.

I played 4e for months before I tried to create and run an adventure, and I continue to play as a PC on the weeks when I am not DMing a separate campaign.  The knowledge and perspective gained from functioning on both sides of the DM screen have increased my enjoyment while playing and DMing.

I’ll elaborate on this and many other topics in the future. I look forward to receiving feedback and interacting with other DMs and PCs out there.