Mike Shea joins the show once again to talk about the changing dynamics of tabletop roleplaying games. He explores how technology like streaming has advanced the hobby and spread its growth. We discuss the possible differences between what makes an excellent game to watch through streaming, and what makes an excellent game to play in with friends. He details his reasoning for launching his latest Kickstarter for Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, and explains the purpose of its content. He emphasizes the importance of game masters focusing on the player characters in the game, and how that is now his first step during preparation for any gaming session. He offers advice for how to maintain a consistent, weekly gaming session while managing a rotating cast of players at the table.
Enjoy the 27th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
As detailed in an earlier post to launch my Patreon campaign, I plan to create additional content beyond the articles that appear on the blog. One format for new content is an interview podcast series, Ego Check with The Id DM. I have been conducting interviews with members of the gaming community through email for the past five years, and I wanted to move the interviews to a podcast format. I now have equipment and software to adequately record, edit, store, and host the audio files, which is exciting. My plan to speak with guests on a range of topics while mixing in discussion about psychological elements of gaming, and to post new episodes on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month.
Now this is podcasting!
That’s right, I referenced a quote by young Anakin Skywalker.
Deal with it!
Episode 1 – Shea’s Rebellion
My first guest is Mike Shea, also known as Sly Flourish. Mike was gracious enough to sit down with me for the first episode of the podcast, and we enjoyed a sprawling conversation about mindfulness and roleplaying games. Mike shared his insights about the journey from roleplaying-game fan to freelance writer for companies such as Wizards of the Coast. He also offered tips for running more-effective RPG sessions and breaking in to the RPG industry as a writer and designer.
Enjoy the first episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
I have not been behind a DM screen since my group’s final session a few months ago. There are certainly aspects of gaming on a regular basis that I miss. Creating a world and watching players inhabit that domain and make it their own is a great source of joy. On the other hand – I must be honest and say I do not miss the hours of mental and physical preparation to run each new session, which was often fueled by a combination of desperation and anxiety!
Writing this blog over the past two years has been a method of teaching myself to be a better DM. By organizing my thoughts on any given topic, it forces me to think about how and why I am doing any given thing while sitting at the table with the players. If my thoughts have helped someone else as they go along their journey as a DM, then that makes me happy. But I never set out to create a comprehensive tome to instruct DMs on how to run gaming sessions without investing tireless hours on preparation.
As the name implies, Mike instructs DMs on how to become lazier. Below, I review his book and discuss why his strategies and guidelines for game preparation and management are worthy of your time. I end with a brief interview with Mike Shea and Jimi Bonogofsky, the talented artist who created the cover art and one of the winners of this year’s Iddy The Lich Art Contest.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
~ Bob Dylan – The Times They Are a-Changin’
What follows is likely the most personal entry in the history of my blog. It is the culmination of a number of major events in my life and many weeks of thought. There will not be any specific tidbits or suggestions for running a RPG campaign (those will return next week), although I believe some of the things discussed below (e.g., shifting priorities, work/life balance) may resonant with others in similar situations.
Perhaps the best place to ignite this self-disclosure fire is a conversation I had with my Unofficial Blogging Mentor, Mike Shea. He asked me an interesting question during dinner one night at Gen Con:
Where do you want to take The Id DM?
While it’s a question I considered often during the life of the blog, I did not have a very good answer for him in the moment. Spending a few days at Gen Con rubbing shoulders with other prominent bloggers, writers and designers in the D&D and RPG community was fantastic . . . but it also resulted in a personal swim through existential waters. It forced me to really think about the question, “What am I trying to accomplish with the blog?”
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.
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 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 theDM 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.
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.
I am discovering a growing “problem” in my campaign. The number of critical hits leveled against monsters during any given combat encounter in our Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign is getting out of hand and it is effecting my ability to balance encounters. For example, I built up a villain over the past two months in my home campaign. The party was informed the leader of Ghost Talon was a murderous criminal set to rid Gloomwrought (and Beyond) of all but shadar-kai. Last week, the party finally took him on in battle . . . and absolutely crushed him and his guards.
I imagine the players enjoyed the session much like one might enjoy lazily reading a good book on a beach while the sounds of the ocean massage his or her ears. The question I have asked myself and others since the session is, “How do I respond to the critical overload happening in our sessions?” Below, I describe the growth of critical hits I’m witnessing in our games and discuss a variety of methods to cope with the problem.
With the announcement of D&D Next, many gaming groups are likely now in the process of forming an exit strategy for their 4th Edition campaigns. It is first worth noting that most D&D campaign do not reach a conclusion. Even DM Extraordinaire, Chris Perkins, recently commented, “A D&D campaign is like a television series; statistically, the odds are high it’ll get cancelled before its time. The first ten years I spent playing D&D, I never completed a single campaign, either as a player or as a DM. My experience up to that point taught me that campaigns only ended when the characters died or when the next campaign began.” This is not a unique phenomenon as veteran DM, Randall Walker from This Is My Game explained, “I’ve been DMing for about 15 years (although I’ve been playing the game for 30 years now) . . . as a DM, I have not had a campaign reach a finishing state.” Campaign conclusions are difficult for gaming groups, and an enormous challenge for DMs.
I humbly request for you to clear your mind and consider the challenges of successfully ending a campaign.
Imagine you are a DM of a campaign that has played out over the course of multiple years. During that time, the DM has introduced his or her players to a variety of railroad and sandbox game experiences with a wide array of characters, storylines and plot points. The DM has managed content to accommodate individual player interests, which have taken shape over the course of the campaign and continue to change to the present day. Also consider the gaming group has not been composed of the same players throughout the life of the campaign; some players have been in the gaming group since Level 1. But other players in the group have only joined recently, and thus their knowledge of the campaign setting and associated characters, storylines and plot points are not the same as those who have been in the group since Level 1. In addition, players who participated in the campaign at Level 1 may no longer be included in the group because they no longer had time to participate and had to leave for other duties. Each time a player leaves the group, a part of the shared experience is lost for everyone since the entire campaign is formed through a collaborative process between the DM and players.
In terms of successfully ending a campaign, the DM faces many obstacles to bring closure to the events in a manner that is acceptable to everyone remaining in the group. Imagine how this DM must feel with the responsibility of concluding a campaign on his or her shoulders. The DM must consider the preferences of each player left in the gaming group, who have all had a very individualized experience during the entire campaign. How does a DM find a way to unite a diverse set of characters, storylines and plot points with players who have experienced those factors in different ways or not at all? Picture that DM as they sit at a desk attempting to develop a clean conclusion to their campaign. Can you see the DM wrestling with the task?
Now imagine the DM is Bioware and the campaign is Mass Effect.
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.
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!
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.