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This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT The campaign has ended, and my players are hounding me for information on when the next one will get underway. Before I kick off what I assume will be a multi-year, multi-level campaign, I want to make sure the character-building and encounter-building components of D&D Next are more or less locked down. Until then, I remain confined to my cabin, poring over navigational charts while my players go stir-crazy on deck, wondering when the ship will finally leave port and begin its long and glorious voyage.
Before work began in earnest on the next iteration of the D&D game, folks in R&D (myself included) ran a series of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Edition games for the express purpose of reminding ourselves what makes every edition withstand the test of time. For me, it was a great opportunity to rediscover old rules and relive moments that turned me into a lifetime D&D gamer.
More recently, I was one of several Wizards employees interviewed by filmmakers working on Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary, which got funded through Kickstarter last fall. As we reminisced about past editions of the game, it occurred to me that my DM experience is not confined to any one edition. I ran 1st Edition games for nine years, 2nd Edition games for eight years, 3rd Edition games for eight years, and 4th Edition games for five years. That's what you call a well-rounded DMing experience. Throw in a few non-D&D RPGs for variety's sake (Marvel Super Heroes, Top Secret/S.I., Gamma World, and Star Frontiers, to name a few), and it's no wonder I have so much to say on the topic of DMing.
I found 1st Edition exhilarating and terrifying. Most of the time I had no clue what I was doing. I didn't know how to create balanced encounters, and many of the rules that sounded very important were also very difficult to remember and/or adjudicate (case in point, the rules for surprise). Is it okay for the PCs to fight thirty trolls? What do you do when the party's 7th-level fighter is turned into a 1st-level fighter by a pack of energy-draining wraiths? Is it kosher to demand system shock rolls if the party finds itself standing in the presence of a god? You get the idea. In the back of my mind, I always felt I could be a better DM if only I had a ring of invisibility and used it to sneak into Gary's house on game nights so that I could watch the master at work. It never occurred to me that Gary might break or reinvent rules on the fly, which, I'm told, he did often and without regret.
I found 2nd Edition a little more liberating and much more forgiving, mostly because the core rulebooks went out of their way to tell me, "Hey, DM, only use the rules you like. And, by the way, if you can't remember how a rule works, make it up. It's your game." The 1st Edition rulebooks said the same thing, but this advice really took center stage in 2nd Edition. I was the boss, so naturally I started making up all sorts of crazy house rules. If a fighter could have 18/00 Strength, why couldn't a wizard have 18/00 Intelligence? Why can't elves and dwarves have dwelf babies? Heck, let's dispense with the class level caps placed upon nonhuman races and the alignment restrictions placed upon certain classes. Say "YES" to chaotic good half-orc paladins named Haxx Two-Pieces! (Remember, I was still a young DM.) If 2nd Edition taught me anything, it's that I can make the game my own, and to my credit, not all of my house rules tanked. I had standardized XP advancement rules for characters long before 3rd Edition did, and while I can't claim "at-will spells" are a Perkinsian invention, I remember tinkering with the notion in the early 1990s. I also did away with energy drain for the sake of sanity. The great thing about 2nd Edition, if I recall correctly, is that a DM could do no wrong . . . because there was no right way to play. I still had no clue how to create a balanced encounter, but vive la difference!
Third Edition rebuilt the game on a sturdy and level foundation. It had strong mathematical underpinnings and put more effort into balancing the various classes. The game demanded a lot from DMs (particularly at higher levels), but I appreciated the strides taken to determine how to make a challenging encounter. For the first time, I felt that I could rely on the rules to settle arguments at the game table, and thus focus my attention on creating adventures and wrapping my head around monster stat blocks. It was the first edition I worked on as a TSR/Wizards employee, so I was seeing the game from a whole new angle. The term "Behind the Curtain" springs to mind; the phrase was used in rulebook sidebars that explained why the game worked in certain ways, although the "behind the curtain" advice for magic item creation still causes my head to rip from my shoulders and fly about the room, screaming like a deranged penanggalan. Third Edition taught me that if I wanted to run a really good campaign, I needed 250,000 hours of prep time, but the payoff would be worth it, and my campaign would forever be immortalized in the hearts and minds of my players. And to its credit, 3rd Edition was kind enough to provide several excellent Adventure Paths, not to mention Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, for DMs without thousands of hours of prep time to spare.
Fourth Edition focused on making life easier for the DM, if not the player. Simpler monsters, easier ways to mix-and-match monsters by role, treasure parcels for fair magic item distribution, you name it. It got me thinking about how to build adventures that were not only fun roleplaying challenges but also tactically engaging. How can I use terrain to make this encounter more memorable? How can I combine two disparate monsters in a way my players have never seen before? Like every edition before it, it has flaws. It's hard to make an epic-level adventure that doesn't just feel like a heroic-tier adventure with higher attack bonuses and damage outputa challenge I hadn't really faced before as a DM. I remember when the Wednesday night group busted out of paragon tier into epic tier, and then promptly got blown to bits when their ship exploded the session after they turned 21st level. I remember thinking, "Ten more levels to go. How do I top that?" It takes a lot of gumption to keep a campaign alive for five years and thirty levelsa real test of a DM's fortitude and mettle. Fourth Edition forced me to deal with that particular problem, making me a better DM in the process.
During the filming of the documentary, I was asked what "D&D Next" will mean for every previous edition of the game. My response was emphatic: No edition ever dies. Everyone has an edition they like best, and all of them are D&D through and through. Do we hope lots of people make D&D Next their experience of choice? Yes. Are we bothered if someone wants to play 1st Edition instead? No.
DMing, like D&D, is about exploration and discovery. It's safe to say that every edition survived has made me a better DM, because every edition is like a sea to be navigated, with its own storms and reefs and fog banks and remarkable discoveries. No two seas are the same, but once you've sailed them all, you know the world.
This year, we're celebrating the journey home, and as much as I hate trumpeting products in my advice column, I would like to draw your attention to some products that will help you as a DMand not in the traditional advice-giving or time-saving way. These aren't new products, per se, but rather re-releases of some golden oldies. In the back half of last year, we re-released the 1st Edition and 3rd Edition core rulebooks as premium-edition reprints, and very soon we're re-releasing the 2nd Edition core rulebooks in much the same fashion (not to mention hardcover compilations of the classic "S" and "A" series adventure modules). If you haven't tried any of these earlier editions, I urge you to assemble your players, get them to roll up new characters, and enjoy some kickass D&D the way we used to play it . . . the way some of us still play it. The experience will make you a better DM because you will face challenges you've never faced before and discover new ways to succeed and fail in the role.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,