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  • Links: Mike Pondsmith on His Past Future, and Wingspan for the Holidays

    by W. Eric Martin

    • In its December 2020 issue, Darryn King of The Atlantic profiles designer Mike Pondsmith and "The Role-Playing Game That Predicted the Future", namely Cyberpunk and more specifically Cyberpunk 2020. Here's how the article opens:
    About 30 years ago, in Santa Cruz, California, a man named Mike Pondsmith laid out a prophecy for the then-distant future — the year 2020.

    It was a future teeming with tech. He envisioned the dizzying data-winds of cyberspace, gigantic holographic video screens, bioengineered wheat-powered metro cars, and, everywhere you looked, the gleam of polychrome cyberoptic eyes. In his future, some of the populace suffered from an affliction he dubbed "technoshock" — an inability to cope with technology’s incursions into their lives.

    He called that vision Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk 2020 was the second edition of the world he'd imagined in 1988, when he created the Cyberpunk franchise. Now filling 50 books comprising more than 5,000 pages crammed with minutiae, it's surely one of the most extensively and fastidiously imagined worlds in fiction. And in its themes and particulars, it can feel startlingly like nonfiction today.

    It's great to see Pondsmith this type of mainstream coverage, and this quote is especially juicy: "'Writing,' Pondsmith tells me, 'is a lot like basically eating a pound of dough, a whole pepperoni, a couple of pounds of mozzarella, and a bunch of spices, then throwing up a pizza.' It takes a lot of work to make an unreal world feel real."

    • Did you know that artist Kwanchai Moriya has a Catan T-Shirt design on sale from Hot Topic? Did you know that Hot Topic had a Catan merchandise section, or that Hot Topic still existed at all? I've learned so many things today...

    • As Michelle Ridge explains in this finale post, the contributors at Girls' Game Shelf are going their own ways as of December 1, 2020, although they plan to maintain all published material for at least another year.

    • Noel Murray at Slate has published that site's "Best New Games You're Sure to Love", with Elizabeth Hargrave's Wingspan getting most of the ink and a handful of other titles being mentioned in passing.

    • In mid-November 2020, Shaurya Thapa at Screen Rant published an article titled "Top 10 Movies Based On Board Games, Ranked According To IMDb" —and given that the #10 movie on the list, 2000's Dungeons & Dragons, has a rating of 3.6, you might perhaps conclude that only ten movies based on board games even exist.

    Tied at the #4 spot with a 6.2 rating are Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story and Going Cardboard, and I happen to appear in both of those films. My presence merits a 6.2 rating, I suppose. I still haven't watched either of these films as I don't like seeing myself. I'd say "Maybe someday", but I know that's a lie...

    Younger Eric on front of a 2009 era Wall O' Games Read more »
  • Tag the Streets, Power the Cities, and Settle the Moon

    by W. Eric Martin

    • In mid-November 2020 I showcased two titles from Brazilian publisher MeepleBRBrazil: Imperial and Paper Dungeons — and as is often the case, once I started digging for details on those two games, I discovered several more from the same publisher that I hadn't known about previously.

    Luna Maris, for example, is a 1-4 player game from first-time designer Ricardo Amaral that plays in 30 minutes per player. Luna Maris is due out in the first half of 2021, and the setting and gameplay works as follows:
    Space exploration is developing thanks to the cooperation between private corporations and governments around the world. Before the challenge to occupy another planet, however, we need to create a Moon base to extract resources from our natural satellite. Iron, titanium, water, and a powerful fuel, helium-3, are natural riches available in the Moon. To get these riches won't be easy; it'll require lots of work to install lunar probes, process extracted minerals, and ensure the working conditions of scientists and engineers in the crew.

    In Luna Maris, you take on the role of a coordinator in charge of the lunar operations of a big company, organizing the crew, fulfilling demands, supplying worker's necessities, improving rooms in the complex, and respecting the strict environmental parameters.

    Prototype components
    You start the game with six scientist cards, with which you can perform actions; to do so, place a scientist meeple in a room in the lunar complex, discard the appropriate scientist card, pay the activation cost (energy, water, oxygen, etc.), then receive the benefits of that room. The ten rooms each have their particularities and special rules:

    —Exploration Plant: Don space suits and install lunar probes to extract minerals.
    —Industrial Complex: Process extracted minerals. Also, control the air filters and decrease the CO2 emissions.
    —Greenhouse: Create food to sustain the crew members.
    —Expedition Area: Ship cargo to Earth and receive victory points.
    —Mining Room: Extract basalt and titanium to sustain a high level of production.
    —Communication Room: Hire better scientists and improve the human resources of the lunar base.
    —Power Plant: Juice the solar boards for an extra energy supply.
    —Recycling Plant: Recycle your waste to obtain resources in a green sustainable economy.
    —Laboratory: Use research to improve the Industrial Complex, Recycling Plant, and other facilities.
    —Dormitory: Take time off to recuperate.

    Food cards
    A game lasts five rounds, and during that time you can focus on installing lunar probes and producing raw resources; investing in the industrial complex to guarantee access to water and helium-3; hiring high-level scientists and optimizing your actions; or doing other things that will deliver victory points in the long run. After five rounds, players tally their scores to see who runs the base and who gets ejected into orbit. (Kidding!)

    Grafito is a 2-4 player game from Rennan Gonçalves, another first-time designer, and the game is currently being aimed for release in the second half of 2021. Here's an overview:
    The four elements of hip hop are deejaying, rapping, break dancing, and graffiti painting, and these elements inspired Grafito, a rondel-based game about street art in the modern cities. Each player takes on a role of a graffiti artist, and you need to pick paints, and combine and use them to create great panels with your signature. Are you ready to control the walls of the street?

    To set up, place eight paint cubes in each of the four rondels of the main game board; each rondel looks like an old-school LP record divided into eight colored sections. Use only primary paint cubes (blue, red, yellow and white) for now, then place the wall board next to the main board. Take an individual player board to organize your components, then shuffle the mural cards and reveal four face up.

    On a turn, collect paint cubes or use a mural card to occupy a place on the wall board. By scratching the LPs — that is, turning the rondels — you can collect paint. You can rotate a rondel one space for free or spend workers to move more spaces or a second rondel; by matching colors across LPs, you can collect paint. By discarding a worker, you can use Basquiat's Lessons to duplicate paint cubes in your bag, change their colors, or obtain secondary colors.

    Digital version
    Once you have the necessary components, you can complete a mural card by discarding the paint cubes required, possibly creating secondary colors along the way by discarding primary cubes. You receive points for these cards at the end of the game, and these cards depict different elements of hip hop, with you scoring bonuses from bonds of matching elements on the wall board.

    When the wall board is finished, the game ends, and whoever has the most points becomes King of the Wall!

    • The third title from MeepleBR is Eléctrica, a 2-4 player tile-laying game from Lucas Machado Rodrigues that might see release before the end of 2021.

    Here's a summary of gameplay:
    In Brazil, a great amount of energy is produced by hydroelectricity. Dams are responsible for providing energy to industries, markets, and houses across the country. This electricity is distributed by great networks of transmission. It's a big business that moves billions every year.

    Elétrica invites you and your friends to take on the role of energy entrepreneurs. During the game, you need to increase the size of the map and construct lines to supply energy to cities. With each new line, you can complete contracts and receive victory points.

    In more detail, following a set-up phase in which you each place a tile next to the starting spring river tile, on a turn you either (1) reveal and place a new tile or (2) build. The tile-laying works as you might expect, with tiles needing to be adjacent with the elements on each side matching. After placing a tile, you can place a marker on it to reserve it.

    The game includes five types of constructions — hydroelectric, electrical substation, transmission tower, utility pole, and city — and to build one of them, you use workers on a tile and choose an available construction, following certain limitations on building. A hydroelectric construction must be placed on a tile with water, for example, while a city can't be built next to a transmission tower and three constructions can't be neighbors to one another on a triangle of tiles.

    Prototype components
    When you build a functioning network, you can complete a contract and score points. Two constructions of the same type earns you 2 points, for example, while more complex combinations earn you more.

    Once the final tile is revealed and placed, the game ends and whoever has the most points becomes an energy magnate!
    Read more »
    - Newest Items

  • Tenfold Cyber Monday Collection [BUNDLE]
    Publisher: Hero Games
    This special bundle product contains the following titles.

    Regular price: 0
    Bundle price:
     MP3 File
    A solemn, minimal, 26-second instrumental piece to give ambiance to RPG settings. If you desire a short piece to introduce a tavern setting, a theme for a wistful bard to be played as the characters approach, or something in that vein, this may fill that role....

    Tenfold: Basic Set
    Regular price: 0
    Bundle price:
    Welcome to the illustrious world of Tenfold. Here, you may find an overview of the lore and races of the Tenfold world: a world filled with magical races, idiosyncratic elements, and plentiful factions locked in an ever-changing yet never-ending conflict for the fate of the world. If you wish to design campaigns within the Tenfold world or merely understand the overarching lore for usage combined with other, full-scale supplements, this book may just serve your ends. Contents include: 1 full-color cover 5 black-and-white interior illustrations 12 pages of lore and character/setting creation guides 2 pages of character creation game mechanics 10 pages containing 40 character template sheets 4 pages of explanatory material Adventures await you in the world of Tenfold. Fare well....

    Tenfold: Fief de L'ombre
    Regular price: 0
    Bundle price:
     PDF and MP3 Bundle
    Welcome to the illustrious world of Tenfold. Here, you will find a full guide for a highly detailed castle setting, usable as a base or adventure locale. Complete with maps, lore, gameplay, and background music, this can be used to add flavor and interest to your campaign, whether your players are friendly or hostile to those who live in this castle. Contents include: Fief de L'ombre PDF:1 full-color cover 3 pages of full-color grid maps, one for each level of the eponymous castle 2 pages containing 21 sets of random encounters and treasure 5 pages of miscellaneous lore and explanations 3 pages of blank grids for map design Fief de L'ombre MP3:1 ambient music file clocking in at 2 minutes long Adventures await you in the world of Tenfold. Fare well....

    Total value:0
    Special bundle price:0
    Savings of:0 (38%)
    Tenfold Cyber Monday Collection [BUNDLE]Price: $4.76 Read more »
  • The Cook at the Crossroads - Adventure for Zweihander RPG
    Publisher: Grim & Perilous Studios

    Soup's On!

    You find yourself at a quaint and idyllic inn. The sights and smells are all perfect to rest your weary bones. But the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as your sixth-sense tells you something is wrong. 

    The Cook at the Crossroads is a drop-in adventure that can be used in any ZWEIHANDER campaign or as a one-shot. Depending on playstyle this adventure should last anywhere from 2-3 hours. 

    The Cook at the Crossroads includes:

    • An open ended adventure scenario that allows the players freedom to do as they wish.
    • A fantasy-horror scenario suitable for ZWEIHANDER.
    • A mystery to be solved.
    • A horrible fate worse than death.


    More from Earl of Fife!

    Explore Heroes and Hardships, Earl of Fife's gritty original setting agnostic RPG system

    The Quickstart Guide is Pay What you Want!

    314553-thumb140.jpg 323627-thumb140.jpg


    326845-thumb140.jpg 310047-thumb140.jpg 291628-thumb140.png 337723-thumb140.jpg 316506-thumb140.jpg 316507-thumb140.jpg 


    The Cook at the Crossroads is presented by Earl of Fife Games. Learn more about Earl of Fife Games at

    The Cook at the Crossroads - Adventure for Zweihander RPGPrice: $2.99 Read more »

    Gnome Stew

  • Intro to Israeli Theory – Your Character Does Not Exist
    Intro to Israeli Theory – Your Character Does Not Exist

    For the past decade, the Israeli RPG theory scene has been developing its own approach to roleplaying games, an understanding of the game and its players that seem to be unique in-, or at least useful for-, the greater landscape of theorycraft. We previously introduced some of our ideas to the English-speaking world when we presented the genre of Israeli Tabletop and the way one community of Israeli GMs design their games using this framework. In this series of articles, we will present some of these insights and terminology, focusing not on high-falutin theory – but on actionable ideas that can be implemented immediately at your gaming table.

    We will focus on these topics:

    1. Characters don’t exist – We can only affect actions and feelings through the players, and not the characters, and this simple understanding can take us very far.
    2. There is no GM – At the core of the gaming experience there are only “Guiding actions”, actions that powerfully affect the game’s experience for some or all players, and a GM is basically a designation given to the person we expect to use them, but she’s not the only one doing so.
    3. The game doesn’t have a story – The concepts of story, narrative and plot as we usually perceive them do not really apply to the core activity of tabletop games, requiring a new paradigm.

    Before we begin, one important thing: in this series, we will not give a lot of attention to definitions. We could spend thousands of words arguing about edge cases and exact phrasing – and we have, in Hebrew. Here we present our best ideas, in a way that should allow you to try and implement them immediately.

    The weird case of the Shoggoth and the Coke

    The PCs are walking into an abandoned house. It’s dark and silent. Then, suddenly, something comes out of the shadows! A giant, alien monster, made of black slime, with innumerable floating eyes.

    And around the table, the players are laughing and passing around the pizza. One of them, her mouth full of pizza, says “Oh, it’s a shoggoth.” The GM looks pleadingly at the players, and eventually one of them blurts out “my character shrieks in horror,” and another adds, “yeah, my character is scared speechless, could you pass the coke?” It takes less than a minute for one player to announce “I’m attacking the shoggoth!” referencing an old D&D skit.

    Rust: much scarier than a huge dragon
    Image courtesy of York Museums Trust

    Most GMs would not be happy with this scene. The game is supposed to be scary, yet everyone is laughing. The players put in a token effort to make their characters act frightened, but no one looking at the game table would even think this is a horror game.

    Let’s look at another example. If you’ve ever had a long-running D&D campaign, you probably encountered the following weird juxtaposition: high-level characters, when encountering a huge, deadly dragon for the first time in their lives, are thrilled to rush into combat, no questions asked; yet those same renowned heroes become scared to their bones when a Rust Monster runs into the room. This small monster, with only 27 hit points and a challenge rating of ½, can cause even a group of 5th or 10th level characters to stop in their tracks and ask themselves if entering combat is really necessary. Although there’s absolutely no chance for the characters to die – they are more scared than when they’re facing a deadly threat.


    But Why?

    Why do these things happen?

     The characters don’t exist. They are figments of our imaginations. 

    It’s because the characters don’t exist. They are figments of our imaginations. The characters can’t make decisions because the players make decisions as them. They can’t have thoughts and feelings of their own, because those are just thoughts or feelings the players have about the characters. And the characters don’t act, because everything and anything a character does is dictated by the players actions.

    When the players around the table are laughing, drinking beer and eating pizza, we will never have truly scared characters. The players will act based on how they are feeling, which is happy and relaxed. When these players encounter a scary dragon, they might be able to portray their characters’ fear of dying, but this can feel hollow, because their decisions regarding that dragon will probably be dictated by tactical considerations, not driven by actual fear. However, when the players feel that the pieces of equipment they received as rewards for many hours of game time, and provide them with useful and important bonuses and abilities, and aren’t usually in danger of being taken from them are suddenly at risk from a giant bug that destroys metal, they’ll experience a level of dread that their tough characters are unlikely to actually feel.

    We can’t scare a character when the player is laughing and asking to pass the coke.

    When we’re running a game, we can only affect the players, and therefore we should plan our game accordingly. We can’t scare a character when the player is laughing and asking to pass the coke. We can’t make a character excited when the player is completely spent after a long day at work. We can’t make a player worried if the rules we’re using fill them with confidence. Anything and everything we do around the table – we do with players, and not with characters.

    Some of these ideas are already prevalent in the GM advice of many games. For example, it is well known that for a horror game to actually be scary, it’s important to control the game’s physical environment (there’s some excellent advice in Engine Publishing’s Focal Point). Many of us learned that GMs shouldn’t tell players how their characters feel, partly because that violates the player’s autonomy, but also very much because it just doesn’t work. 

    How to use this

    We suggest that this outlook is useful in many other cases, for example: 

    • Using players’ backgrounds: Knowing the players well can make it easier for us to influence their characters’ choices. For example, I once had a player who had a personal issue with authority figures – he didn’t get along with his bosses, didn’t like receiving orders, and so on. In many cases, when I wanted the characters to get themselves into trouble, I had some authority figure NPC tell that player’s character not to go somewhere. His character wasn’t the rebellious type, so my planning was not at all based on the character’s personality. Knowing the player, and how he’s expected to react, I was able to nudge his character, and the entire group, in some direction. I was acting on the player, and not his character.
    • Running an engaging investigation: Focusing on the players has a dramatic impact on investigation games. When we imagine an investigation scene, it’s very clear what the investigators do: they look around, flip things over, search in various compartments, and so on. However, when we try to translate these actions into a roleplaying game, we find that while the characters are active, the players are just rolling dice. Some games have tried to solve this problem by getting rid of investigative dice rolls (GUMSHOE). Others have abstracted investigation to focus on the investigative questions rather than actions (investigative moves in PbtA games). But in general, when designing an investigation game, we have to ask ourselves what the players will be doing around the game table, and how to make that interesting. One possibility is rushing to the part where the players have all the clues in their possession, which transforms the game into puzzle-solving – figuring out how to fit pieces together. Another is the “scientific method” approach, in which players create hypotheses and test them until they find an acceptable solution. There are other options, but the main idea is to make sure that what the players do is interesting.
    • Externalizing internal processes: Sometimes, your character experiences a huge revelation. Or, your character is repulsed by something. Or maybe she’s really suspicious of someone. But because characters don’t exist, and the game is after all a social interaction, these internal thoughts and feelings don’t really exist in the game unless you make them explicit in some way. Actions like describing that your character looks excited, or how she’s backing off from something and covering her mouth, or saying “I really don’t trust that NPC we just met”, are critical to make sure that what your character is going through actually becomes a part of the game.
    The most important question in a roleplaying game is, what do the players do? 

    To sum up: while in roleplaying games we usually invest a lot of time and effort in imaginary worlds, with characters who act and feel real, fundamentally the game happens around the table. It’s most useful for us, as designers and participants, to see it as a conversation between real people. When we’re trying to create some sort of effect in the game, we first have to create it around the table, with the real people sitting next to us. The characters don’t exist – so to make them do things and feel things, we have no choice but to go through the players. Many RPG designers start by asking “what do the characters do?”, as in, what is the fictional story going to be about. In our community, superstar GM Michael Gorodin puts the emphasis on what’s actually happening in the real world, with a common saying: “the most important question in a roleplaying game is, what do the players do?”.

    (This article is a joint effort by a big group of Israeli RPG theory writers. It was graciously edited by the illustrious content editor Eran Aviram, with helpful comments from Michael Gorodin, Itamar Karbian, Yotam Ben Moshe, and Gil Ran.)


    Read more »
  • VideoGnomecast #105 – Playing in a Recorded Game
    Gnome Stew's Gnomecast

    Join Ang, Jared, and Senda for a discussion about the ins and outs of playing a game for broadcast or recorded media! Can these gnomes produce a good enough performance to avoid being thrown in the stew?


    RPGWatch Newsfeed

  • Immortals Fenyx Rising - First Impressions @ C4G
    C4G checked out Immortals Fenyx Rising: Immortals Fenyx Rising Feels REALLY Familiar | C4G Impressions loading... Read more »
  • Assassin's Creed Valhalla - Review @ C4G
    C4G checked out Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Assassin's Creed Valhalla - C4G Review After 60+ Hours | Is it Worth Playing? loading... Read more »

    Sly Flourish

  • VideoOwlbear Rodeo: A Simple D&D Virtual Tabletop

    If you're seeking a lightweight virtual tabletop, try out Owlbear Rodeo. It's awesome.

    Covid-19 forced many DMs to move games from in-person to online. For a lot of us, running games online is an entirely new experience. I moved all of my games, about three a week, online and lept into trying out all sorts of systems for online play. My favorite, and the one I've been using for eight months now, is to run D&D over Discord. By copying and pasting pieces of maps, usually grabbed from Dysonlogos, I can show the players where the characters are without using a full virtual tabletop like Roll 20. For combat, I use text-based combat tracker for rough zone-based combat more similar to theater of the mind than gridded combat.

    There are times, however, where dropping down a map with tokens for monsters and characters can be useful. Many players and quite a few DMs prefer this style of play.

    The big dogs among virtual tabletop tools are Roll 20 and Fantasty Grounds. There are other popular and well-loved tools as well like Foundry but these two typically come up when someone talks about virtual tabletops.

    These other VTTs are fine all-in-one systems that integrate D&D's rules with the rest of the tabletop.

    The problem is, I'm fine with running games mostly on Discord. I don't need a fully integrated D&D experience in my VTT. My players like using D&D Beyond and I'm not picky about how they roll dice, whether it's with Avrae in Discord or a plug-in like Beyond20.

    Unleash the Owlbear Rodeo

    When I want a VTT, I really just want a map and tokens. That's what Owlbear Rodeo provides. Owlbear Rodeo is a slimmed down virtual tabletop that focuses on maps and tokens. It has no integrated ruleset, although it does have a shared dice roller in it if you want one. Owlbear Rodeo makes it easy to drop in a map and includes a bunch of default tokens you can use if you don't feel like adding your own.

    If you do want your own tokens, you can upload a bunch of them right into Owlbear Rodeo all at once, whether your tokens are from Printable Heroes (my personal favorite tokens; search for "vtt") or your own hand-made tokens using Token Stamp. Grabbing an image off the net, dropping it into Token Stamp, and uploading it to Owlbear is fast and easy.

    Owlbear Rodeo requires no login or account from either you or your players. You can log in if you want to keep track of your previous maps and tokens, but it isn't necessary. Owlbear uses some sort of cookie to keep track so if you come back it will likely remember what you already uploaded but only if you're coming in from the same machine. Not requiring a login makes it easy for players to jump right in. No accounts means any player can move any token around since everyone's permissions are the same. I'm assuming your players aren't a bunch of 4 year olds (that's a big assumption, of course).

    Owlbear Rodeo has two features that aren't the easiest to figure out at first: grid alignment when bringing in a map and using the fog of war. This three minute video by GoGoCamel camel shows how to use both the grid-alignment feature and fog of war. It's well worth the watch.

    If you're used to a more full-featured VTT like Roll 20, you're likely to find features missing from Owlbear that you really want. If you dig more powerhouse tools, it probably isn't for you. I prefer to keep my D&D games as minimal as possible. I want tools that only do what I need them to do and keep the cruft out of the way. Owlbear Rodeo does just that. I can run the rest of my game in Discord and only drop into Owlbear when I need to use a VTT. When I'm done, we drop right back out again.

    At this point I've used Owlbear Rodeo with dozens of players and have heard no complaints. Many have described it being the exact kind of VTT they want. If you're in need of a lightweight virtual tabletop, give Owlbear Rodeo a try.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

    Read more »
  • VideoPaths for DM Expertise

    John B., a Sly Flourish patron, sent me a note describing an awesome video series by Wired on levels of complexity. Two of them really grabbed my attention, the levels of complexity of origami and Tony Hawk's levels of complexity of skateboarding. Tony Hawk's video begins with the basic ollie and ends with two moves having never been done at the time of the video. It's fascinating to see how the levels of complexity get exponentially harder the further along the rank you go.

    D&D complexity, however, doesn't always make our games better. I'd argue Matt Mercer's Vecnca Ascended; the finale of the 114 previous episodes of Vox Machina, is about as complicated and amazing as any D&D campaign we're likely to see. It isn't, however, a realistic model of the vast majority of D&D games. Like pulling off a 1260 on a skateboard, games like this are nearly unattainable. And that's ok because complexity doesn't make great games.

    I'm fascinated to look at D&D through the lens of escalating complexity but it isn't exactly practical. We may have run incredibly complex campaigns from 1st to 20th level, with detailed character story arcs, amazing tabletop dioramas, beautiful handouts, and cool props; but they're not necessarily the model of all great D&D games. A great D&D game might be a one-shot drawn from the inspiration of the DM at the spur of the moment. It might be run totally in the theater of the mind. Sometimes the best games are the simplest games: four adventurers crawling through a dangerous dungeon seeking a valued treasure.

    Though simplicity may be a virtue in great D&D games, that doesn't mean we DM's can't get better at DMing. What are the paths we DMs can take to get better at running D&D games? What would it look like as a curriculum?

    Instead of breaking D&D games down into levels of complexity, I'll describe potential paths for getting better at DMing D&D games. These are often parallel tracks, not a single path. There are likely as many paths for DM proficiency as there are DMs but I'm going to offer my own suggestions here.

    Along with the videos on complexity in origami and skateboarding, this article was also heavily influenced by Mark Hulmes's Youtube video on Becoming a Better DM. Check it out.

    The Beginner's Path: Running the D&D Starter Set or Essentials Kit

    One can do far worse than to start running D&D games with either the D&D Essentials Kit or the D&D Starter Set. A set of pregen character sheets from the Starter Set is a great way to get new players on board with D&D. Other than making your way through the rules and through the adventure, I wouldn't expect a new DM to do much else. We're not necessarily going to have deep character background integration, detailed story threads, or amazing tabletop displays. This is just plain and simple D&D and it can still be an awesome time.

    In reading tons of posts on Reddit's D&D Next, and the DM Academy subreddits and clearly many new DMs choose to go the homebrew route. I don't recommend it for new DMs but likely others disagree and I doubt I'll be listened to by those who want to anyway. I do, however, recommend keeping things simple. Avoid house rules until you know the system. Choose straight forward character options. Start at 1st level characters and be nice. That said, I still recommend starting with the Starter Set or Essentials Kit.

    Recommended reading: Getting Started with D&D, D&D Starter Set, D&D Essentials Kit.

    Running Your First Short Campaign

    With a few games under one's belt, the next level of experience occurs as a DM runs their first campaign up to about 5th level. Here I'd expect the DM to begin to customize the adventure to fit the backgrounds of the characters. Maybe the guy running the inn is the cousin of the dwarven cleric. DMs here should likely begin improvising some scenes as they come up, including building NPCs on the spot when the moment calls for it. DMs here can hopefully start developing situations instead of building scenes already planned out.

    Beyond this is when the complexity of DMing goes up and the paths to becoming a better DM split into parallel tracks. Each of these parallel tracks shores up different areas for being a well-rounded DM.

    Becoming the Characters' Biggest Fan

    Once we get beyond the basics, it's time for a DM to look at the people around the table and the characters they bring to it. We can deeply internalize a concept from Dungeon World to become the characters' biggest fan. Here we put aside any idea that we're competing with the players in a game. We put aside our own drive to force a story down one particular path. We play to see what happens. We put the characters first and foremost in the spotlight. We make reviewing the characters the first step in our game prep. We run session zeros to calibrate everyone's expectations of a campaign.

    We serve the fun of the game first and foremost. Our goal is for everyone, including ourselves, to have a great time.

    Recommended reading: Dungeon World.

    Run Lots of Games, Run Lots of Systems

    We get better at DMing by DMing more games. We also get better by playing more games, with as many other DMs as we can, good or bad, so we can see how it's done. Playing and running other roleplaying game systems also helps us become better DMs. There are lots of ways to run RPGs and lots of systems to help you do so. These systems often have great ideas we can bring back into our D&D games. Running games for a wide range of players also teaches us a lot. Convention games and organized play programs offer great opportunities to run games for many players.

    Recommended reading: Numenera, Fate Condensed, Blades in the Dark, 13th Age, Shadow of the Demon Lord.

    Flexibility, Adaptability, Improvisation

    As the most valued DM traits; we can follow a lifelong path for improving our flexibility, adaptability, and improvisation skills. We can work harder at thinking on our feet, building scenes as they occur during the game instead of planning them ahead of time. We let go of fixed scenes and predetermined stories and build situations. We can learn how to improvise NPCs. We can seek out the tools that help us best improvise during the game. Learning how to stay flexible, go where the story goes, and steer it delicately towards the fun is an advanced DM trait that leads to more enjoyable games for both DMs and players alike.

    Understanding Pacing

    According to RPG veteran Monte Cook, there is no more important skill for a DM to learn than pacing. Robin Laws teaches us that understanding how upward and downward beats feel during the game and knowing how to shift them one way or the other to avoid apathy or despair is an advanced and critical skill for running great games. Like a curling player, our job is to smooth out the path in front of the story, not grab control of it. Recognize and take hold of the dials you have available to change up an encounter, a scene, or a whole adventure to fit the feeling and theme of the adventure's pacing as it plays out.

    Recommended reading: Hamlet's Hit Points.

    Maps, Props, Terrain, and Handouts

    Physical stuff increases the immersion of a game. When players have things they can see, touch, and hold that ties them to the world, that world becomes ever more real. While not necessary to run a great game, tabletop accessories, when used well, can make a great game better. Some of these things can be made at home for almost nothing. Others can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. These exponential costs often result in linear gains, however. Before spending a lot of money, consider that there are often ways to make our games better that cost nothing at all.

    Rules Proficiency, Not Rules Mastery

    One might think that a better understanding of the rules is critical to run a great D&D game. Certainly being proficient enough with the rules to run the game is important but, according to tens of thousands of surveys conducted by Baldman Games for their organized play program, rules mastery, as one of four tracked attributes, has the least correlation to a fun game. Instead, being friendly and being prepared have a far greater correlation with running a fun game. DMs should have enough of an understanding of the rules to keep the game running smoothly. Rules mastery, however, isn't required. Instead, focus attention on the other areas that have a higher impact described above.

    Recommended Reading: Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual.

    Learning from Other DMs

    The internet has given us unparalleled access to other DMs. We have unlimited sources to run our ideas by other DMs, see what ideas they have, and get differing points of view. I argue that the D&D-focused subreddits on Reddit offer some of the best access to DMs of all experience levels. Look at the questions those DMs are asking and learn from the answers they receive. Further, if you happen to be running a published campaign book, there's almost always a subreddit focused on it with advice, tips, tricks, and accessories to help your own campaign run well.

    Recommended reading: DM Academy, D&D Next, DM Behind the Screen, numerous campaign subreddits.

    A Lifelong Pursuit

    Being an expert DM is a lifelong pursuit. Never have we had more access to more knowledge about being a great DM. We have access to videos of more D&D games than we could ever watch. With a few clicks we have access to the knowledge of thousands of other DMs. Spend time figuring out what makes a great D&D game for you, build your own path, and keep running D&D games.

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    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

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    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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