Practical DM Tips #1…

July 15, 2010 at 2:08 am 2 comments

I ran my first game of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons last Friday night.  I’m pretty pleased with how it went and I look forward to running another game hopefully this week.

One observation I’ve made about 4th edition (4e) thus far is that it is much more accessible than previous editions.  I’ve had a few friends who were only ever interested in playing 3.5 say to me that they’d love to try and run a game of 4e.  Wizard’s provide all the tools you need to do so in  much nicer package than they did with 3.5.  The Core Ruleset (pictured below) is everything a budding DM needs to whip up a game of 4e D&D.  The core books are also laid out much better than they were in 3.5.  Take, for instance, the Dungeon Master’s Guide – I rarely used this book in 3.5.  Sure, there were one or two nice class options in it and yea, there were some cool magic items but it failed to live up to its raison d’etre – it didn’t actually help you to be a Dungeon MasterThis is where the 4e Dungeons Master’s Guide (DMG), in my opinion, excels.  It really helps you get to grips with how to run a game of D&D.     The Monster Manual is also great for building little encounters with monsters and even the mechanic for building a combat challenge is greatly simplified on that presented in 3.5.  Each monster has an XP value and the rules give a DM a kind of XP budget for their party.  To build an appropriate encounter, you simply pick a number of monsters whose cumulative XP values meet the XP budget.

With all of this – the rationalising of the rules, the ease of building adventures and the way in which 4e encourages players to DM for the first time, it got me to thinking… Sure, there are plenty of guides online regarding building great story, great narrative and great Michael Bay-esque  sequences in games, but with all of these new folks dying to try their hand at DMing, how about the practical aspects of the game?  Over the next few weeks (hopefully), I’m going to run a few posts on Practical DM Tips covering things like your basic table-top layout to how to structure your own notes and how to keep players in the game up to speed with what is going on on the combat grid or in the narrative within which their characters are enveloped.

Tonight, I’d like to say a few words, as a fellow DM once titled a post in a similar vein…

Of Maps and Miniatures

In the first game I ever played of D&D, the DM had no accessories whatsoever – he used a sheet of graph paper and we just pencilled our characters and monsters on to it as appropriate.  Let me be clear about one thing – this is absolutely fine!  If you don’t want to commit a lot of money, time and effort to your first game, this is a great cheap solution and, after all, I went back to the second game of that adventure with my first DM, so it must have been just fine!  I will say this, however.  If you have players who have had previous role playing game experience, either on a games console or on a table-top, they may feel like they are stepping back in time with a graph-paper based game.  Also, the graph-paper can get a little crowded and messy with lots of scribbling on it so maybe I can offer you a few cheap and easy alternatives.

The accessories I’ve used in game have gone through timely evolutions. In my very first campaign I simply printed and cut out circles and just wrote PC or monster names on them in pencil – these essentially just act as counters which represent each player or monster on the game mat. For that first game, the mat I used was the massive grid which was included in the back of the 3.5 DMG covered in a big sheet of clear plastic so I could write on it with a dry-wipe marker.  If you don’t have a 3.5 DMG, however, the 4e DMG has a battle grid on the last few pages which can be photocopied on to A3 paper.  This could be laminated or covered in acetate allowing you to draw dungeon corridors and landscapes on to it.  Alternatively, simply pop into a word processing program or a spreadsheet and whip up a few pages with 1 inch squares on it and, again, laminate them or cover them in acetate so you can write on them.

The next thing I invested in was a box of white eldritch gems. These served to replace the circular paper tokens.  Again, I could write on these with a marker and simply rub it off when I needed to. As the adventures scaled, however, I needed more and more monster counters and buying more ‘eldritch gems’ just wasn’t cost effective so I headed into town and bought a big cheap bucket of glass beads.  You’ll find these in any interior design shop and they are usually used in things like floating candle displays but they double up brilliantly as a medium sized monster. 

Eventually, I decided to invest in a few official D&D mini’s. At the time I was buying them, D&D Minis was a game in of itself and, unfortunately, this is no longer the case so some are much harder to get hold of.  Wizards of the Coast have offered an alterative these days in the form of the Heroes Series but choice is limited and they are quite expensive, so it may not be ideal for a first time DM. There are some sites that still sell old minis singly as opposed to in bulk boxes and it was actually these kinds of sites from which I purchased my first few official minis.  I just bought a spread representative of most playable races – a few humans, a halfling, a dwarf, a few elves etc etc. These single sites sell common minis as cheaply as £1 so they aren’t too expensive.  If you’re already a fan of Warhammer, why not use some of those minis in your D&D game?  Players don’t need a mini that looks exactly like their character and that almost never happens anyway.  As long as your players know where they are on the map, they’ll find the game much easier.

By this stage I was DM-ing weekly so I decided to upgrade my combat grid aswell. I bought one of each of the official sets of Dungeon Tiles. Now I’ve seen these online as expensive as £60-£100 but I shopped around and grabbed them for the reasonable price of £4-8 each. Obviously the 3.5 ‘Dungeon Tiles’ are harder to get hold of now but Wizards have released quite a few sets of 4th edition Dungeon Tiles which can be bought with relative ease online or at your local gaming shop.  If you are considering buying Dungeon Tiles for the first time right now, I’d be tempted to hold off for just a little while.  As part of an initiative to get more players into D&D, Wizards are releasing a line of what they are calling EssentialsPart of this line is three sets of core Dungeon Tiles Master Sets (like this one for adventures set in Dungeons)  which new DMs will probably find really useful.

Over recent years, I’ve built up a reasonable collection of miniatures. I now have about 60 miniatures for playable characters representative of various races, classes etc. I also have well over 100 non-playable character minis covering everything from generic monsters like goblins, trolls and undead to basic human npc’s like guards and barmen. What I’ve done is put little numbered labels on the bases of each of the npc mini’s. It just means that players can easily identify what they are doing and who they are doing it to as well as making it easier for me, the DM, to keep track of hit points, effects etc. Then, because,as you’ll find out in due time, I’m a little obsessive compulsive when it comes to organisation, I bought a partioned box at a local hardware store so I could organise and label groups of minis. It’s no bad thing, mind you, to be organised when it comes to running a game.  When I need to lay my hands on a random undead monster for a skill challenge or combat encounter, I know exactly where to find it.

The Dungeon Tiles have been great and I’m still using them in all of my games but oft-times, I find that it’ hard to account for larger scenes with dungeon tiles.  When an enemy is running away but a character wants to take one final shot at him with his bow, that character usually needs to have some idea of how far that enemy is.  There’s also times when you’ll have gaps in between Dungeon Tiles which are significant somehow but don’t have any concept of scale within them.  To cover this, I now place my Dungeon Tiles on a Chessex Megamat which I ordered a few months back.  After seeing the picture of it, a regular player of mine commented saying that It’s big enough for a sun rod.  That is exactly why the big space is useful.  Sure, you have a nice arrangement of Dungeon Tiles in the middle of the mat, but if your players need to get an idea of scale when it comes to bigger area of effect features in the game, having the tiles laid on a mat like this really puts things in perspective.

16482323[1] My final thought Of Maps and Minis is that of the z-axis.  Don’t get me wrong, there are times in your D&D game, especially as a new DM when you’ll just want to ignore the question of verticality.  There are, however, times when you simply can’t ignore it.  Some of the newer sets of Dungeon Tiles have even started to include three-dimensional scenery and terrain. There are simple ways to convey height to your players.  16483836[1] A quick-fix and personal favourite of mine is the humble six-sided dice.  In one game I was playing, for example, the DM wanted us to understand that some of the goblins were in towers, ten feet off the ground.  Stacking 2 six-sided die on top of one another was an easy way to overcome this problem.  You’ll also usually find that when you buy a set of standard polyhedral dice, they come in a little dice box like this.  This is also a useful asset to have on-hand when facing z-axis issues.  Things can be placed on top of them and within them to show payers creatures on two different levels for instance.  34455436[1] In almost every campaign I’ve ever ran, I’ve had some kind of big, epic, siege-type battle ad it’ almost impossible for players to get an idea of the scale of these kinds of battles on castles wall etc without some kind of impression of height.  I’ve seen DMs create wonderfully elaborate wire frame or paper mache scenery (to scale I might add) for these kinds of battles and, again, if you play Warhammer, you may already have hugely detailed mesas you could use for this.  There are also companies which specialise in three-dimensional terrain and if you have the time and money to invest in them, by all means, you should!  If not, let me offer you a simpler solution – the jenga block. A few weeks back, I set about trying to design a Helm’s Deep D&D encounter to induct new players into the game.  What would Helm’s Deep be without the Deeping Wall?  The picture below should give you some idea of how I’ve used minis, jenga blocks, dungeon tiles and a battle mat altogether to produce an interactive representation of what is going on in the game without too much expense to myself.  When your players see a little effort like this, it can really up the enjoyment of the game for them.


Hopefully that has given you a few practical ideas on how to run your game visually.  Next time, I’m going to try and give you some advice on how to run a game mechanically.



Entry filed under: Dungeons & Dragons, Games, Posts by Jim. Tags: , , , .

Thirteenth Rain…

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. swampwalking  |  July 15, 2010 at 3:28 am

    I never thought about using those dice boxes as towers. Genius!

  • 2. boccobsblog  |  July 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Thanks for the tips. Great post.


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