Category Archives: Techniques


B51-duskA friend of mine who just recently started playing D&D wanted to run a game. Previously, she had played a session or two with me using LotFP and separately a number of organized games (mostly Adventurers League using 5E but also one or two Pathfinder sessions). She asked me to recommend a module, planning to use 5th since that is what she had books for and was most familiar with.

I had no immediate candidate because 1) there are not that many modules for 5th, 2) most of them are wordy or bland, 3) while recently more directly usable modules have been published such as Forgive Us they still require prep especially for a new referee that will need to deal with stat conversions to 5th, and 4) I believe the true potential of tabletop RPGs lies in personal creativity. So, mindful of information overload and the value of time time limitation, I suggested a compromise approach that I felt would be capture the best of both worlds while minimizing low-payoff preparation.

Following is the advice I provided.

Option 1: use one of Michael Prescott’s one-page dungeons:

Option 2: pick one of Dyson’s free maps and stock it by hand according to guidelines I will send momentarily:

Option 3: use one of Dyson’s adventures here:

For a guide to dungeon stocking, I sent a copy of pages B51 and B52 from Moldvay Basic. This is the single most useful short explanation that came to mind regarding what referees actually do for effective prep in D&D. In outline:

  • Part 8: Dungeon Master Information
    • A. Choose a scenario
    • B. Decide on a setting
    • C. Decide on special monsters to be used
    • D. Draw the map of the dungeon
    • E. Stock the dungeon
    • F. Filling in final details

I heard that she created a island scenario in mythical Ancient Greece and ran a session last night. I am hoping I can get her to write up a postmortem about how the game went and what was most useful as a new referee since there are a lot of opinions about decreasing the barrier to entry for new tabletop gamers but not so much thoughtful reflection on the experience of actual new players and referees.

Optimization and preparation

From An apology to some min-maxers:

In fact, if anything, my sub-optimal character builds were me being lazy, and not doing the homework other players were doing to build more optimized characters.

At the same time, as GM you should min-max the opposition to the same level as you have allowed for your players. Dig into the system and look for how to optimize NPC’s and monsters. That is likely going to be more work for you, as you may need to take stock stat blocks and beef them up, but it will create challenging opponents for the players, making encounters more exciting.

This concisely captures why I gravitate away from games that support or require significant optimization. It’s just making more work for everyone involved, and not in a way that adds to the play experience. It’s work inflation: everyone needs to spend more time in order to get the same result. And the result is the same, assuming that competition has no value (which it does not, for me, in RPGs).

Compare this to working more on setting detail or even character personality. Such preparation can consume as much time as you want, but it can also qualitatively improve the play experience. Optimization and what I am going to call (for lack of a better term) preparation can thus be seen as two independent dimensions of out-of-game work required by RPGs, leading to four rough categories of game: high-op/high-prep, high-op/low-prep, and so forth.

optimization and preparation bw

A railroad is a way of constraining preparation requirements. There may be some overall conservation law operating such that sustainable games on average tend to be low in either or both dimensions. This may be why it is difficult for me to find an example of a game that is naturally high in both categories. Games associated with high optimization (Pathfinder, 4E D&D) can be played using sandboxes or with more extensive world building, but doing so ends up being a higher-maintenance activity.

As an observation it seems that many games in the focused design tradition, especially Forge and Story Games, seem to prize minimization of both kinds of work. Games like Lady Blackbird and Apocalypse World, for example, put few barriers before getting started (AW requires the MC to create some fronts, but the instructions seem geared to avoid potential scope creep). Minimizing out-of-game work a way to increase approachability by decreasing cost. If the reliability of play experience varies with the prep time, that is seen as a flaw in this tradition. The system is seen as “not working” if play is inconsistent, as it will surely be if preparation is required given that different groups or players will invest in different amounts of out-of-game work. Other traditions seem to focus more on the other side of the equation: increasing value (such as the intricate setting and art of Warhammer, or atmosphere of the World of Darkness, separate from amount of work required). Obviously, the two approaches are not exclusive, but there still seem to be trends toward one or the other.

And yeah I may have been working on a data analysis assignment before writing this post…

20 Quick Questions: Rules

Jeff Rients has a great list of 20 quick questions to add campaign details in ways that are likely to affect actual play. I was thinking, based on this other post by Jeff about treating all editions of D&D as a toolbox and this post by JB over at B/X Blackrazor about creating his own version of D&D, that it would be useful to have a list of rules that often change from campaign to campaign.

Here are 20 rules clarifications that are likely to be needed anyways at some point.

  1. Ability scores generation method?
  2. How are death and dying handled?
  3. What about raising the dead?
  4. How are replacement PCs handled?
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
  13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
  14. What do I get experience for?
  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
  17. How do I identify magic items?
  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
  19. Can I create magic items? When and how?
  20. What about splitting the party?
If you decide this stuff early, you are less likely to have misunderstandings and more likely to all be on the same page.

Edit: index of some responses here.