Mike Shea runs Sly Flourish, the website devoted to "building the better Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master." In our ongoing efforts to help better promote D&D’s community of sites and blogs, we asked Matt about running games, challenging players—and what monster might next be optimized.
Wizards of the Coast: Who are you, and how did you get started in the world of Dungeons & Dragons? As we’re fond of nostalgia, do you have favorite memories to share about early adventures in the game?
Sly Flourish (Mike Shea): Who am I? That's the ultimate question isn't it...
OK, enough philosophy. I'm a web technologist and writer living in Vienna, VA. My father was Robert J. Shea, the co-author of the cult science-fiction novel Illuminatus, so I've always had writing in my life and he was very supportive when I started playing D&D. He taught me that the imagination was worth exercising and to always channel our inner children. He read Buck Rogers comic strips from age three to the day he died.
I started playing D&D in high school with 2nd Edition, back in the dark days when we couldn't use the word "demon". I played through college and then got a D&D 3.5 group together with my girlfriend (now my wife) a few years back. Most recently I've been running a weekly 4th Edition level 1 to 30 campaign that started the day Keep of the Shadowfell came out and is due to end this year. We've got about three levels to go and I have my gargantuan Orcus miniature ready for one hell of a send-off. This is my favorite gaming group so far.
As long as I've played D&D, I've always been a DM. I was always the one getting the games together, gathering the friends around, and keeping the story rolling. It comes naturally to me. I still play in a bunch of games but I much prefer DMing. I'm lucky that I've always found people who love to play, so it's been a good fit.
I'll not bore you with stories of my old games, but one trend I've noticed is that main NPCs who reappear in my games often turn out to be something else. In one game, an NPC wizard with whom the party adventured had been possessed by a demilich early on but the group didn't notice for nearly two dozen sessions. I did this same thing again in an Eberron adventure with a House Deneith companion character being exposed as a spy of House Canneth. More recently one of my players secretly played an agent of Orcus posing as a shadar-kai bard. That was quite a surprise and ended with much cursing and gnashing of teeth, not to mention one dead shadar-kai bard. Now my group puts anyone new under the sword until they're convinced they aren't actually some vampire or doppelganger just waiting to get the drop on them.
Wizards of the Coast: Wizards: What was the origin of Sly Flourish at all? As advertised, yours is a site with the goal of building the better 4th Edition Dungeon Master. So let me ask—why focus on the DM? Why not a blog about the game in general?
Sly Flourish: Around the time I was getting into 4th Edition, I listened to an audio recording by web technologists, Merlin Mann and John Gruber, who talked about successful blogging. They suggested not simply writing about Star Wars but instead being the go-to guy for any information on that one Jawa in that one scene in the first Star Wars movie. Essentially they talked about being very focused on a unique topic instead of writing about the same general topics everyone else is already writing about.
So I took that advice to heart. I decided to start a blog focused on not just D&D and not just on 4th Edition, but D&D 4th Edition Dungeon Mastering. There are a lot of great sites out there that talk about RPGs and even a handful that focus on 4th Edition. There aren't many that focus exclusively on 4E DM tips and that was the area I really wanted to talk about, and so that is where I've focused the site.
My overall goal for the site is to help DMs (myself included) make their D&D games awesome.
Wizards of the Coast: Wizards: To this end, what types of articles are you looking to present—that is, what areas do you feel DMs especially look for advice in order to better run their games?
Sly Flourish: I keep articles short so they're easy to digest and give DMs tips, advice, or mechanics they can use right away. I try to avoid abstract concepts and rants about my own pet peeves. I try to skip the fluff and get into specific elements. I want people to come to the site because they consistently get tips, tricks, or advice every Monday morning that helps them improve their games.
I think DMs are looking for a few things. I know a lot of them are looking for better ways to run skill challenges. This is actually something I don't write a lot about because guys like Quinn from At-Will spend a lot more time on them than I do. I'm also not very good at running skill challenges and my group has never really loved them, so I tend to write articles about keeping skill challenges short and focused which has always worked well for me.
I tend to focus a lot on combat mechanics. I'm always looking for ways to speed up combat and keep the challenge high. My Monster Optimization articles are pretty popular. People love to see how combinations of monsters can really put a party of PCs to the test.
I also like to write about the ideas behind organic storytelling—the idea that we can let stories grow from game to game instead of trying to build everything out ahead of time. This is how Stephen King writes novels so there's no reason we can't build a game the same way. I think this is different from how a lot of DMs do it so I like to write about it as a contrast to other methods. I love taking characters and storytelling concepts from TV shows like Deadwood and Breaking Bad and applying them to D&D.
Writing about D&D is very rewarding. Because DMs have ultimate control over their own games, I can focus on giving DMs useful tools to make those games better. That’s a lot nicer than writing about computer or video games where the best you can hope for is a developer to read your work and change their game because of it. While Wizards produces the books, we DMs actually run the games. If a single DM reads something on the site that they like and that makes their game more fun, then the site has been successful.
Wizards of the Coast: Wizards: In addition to DM advice, Sly Flourish does a fair bit if monster optimization as well. Do you feel that monsters need all the help they can get these days to face player characters, or do you simply prefer your monsters be as ruthless as possible? Now that Monster Manual 3 has come out, are there any creatures in there you’re eager to tackle?
Sly Flourish: Yeah, I think monsters have had a rough go of it until the release of the MM3. Ever since my group hit paragon, I've had a harder and harder time keeping them challenged. The combination of feats, powers, paragon paths, and items opened up so many possible combinations to neutralize monsters and negate their threat. I've had to house-rule my way around it until just recently. This works fine, but I preferred an official solution.
The Monster Manual 3 and the June rules update with the new damage-per-level chart gave us that official solution. A balor's wimpy 2d10+10 in the original Monster Manual turned into a 6d10+10 in Demonomicon. It cuts through resistances, it severs through temporary hit points, it hews through all those free action no-surge heals. Now our monsters have teeth!
All that's left is some form of status effect protection. I still house-rule my way through this and offer tips on Sly Flourish with monster templates that help limit the over-effectiveness of status effects on elite and solo monsters. I'd still like to see a better official solution, though.
What monster do I want to really use out of the MM3? I've already used Imix and plan to use a variant of Ogrémoch and Allabar but there's one other I can't wait to use. Lolth.
Wizards of the Coast: Wizards: In fact, some of this advice has recently been compiled in your Dungeon Master Tips—can you tell us about this book (hey, that cover looks familiar): what it contains, and how it came together?
Sly Flourish: My wife told me I shouldn't plug my book, but since you asked...
I'd been kicking around the idea of a short DM-focused book of tips and tricks to make our games run better. It wasn't going to cover all of the advice and concepts in the two DMGs, instead it would offer short focused chapters on specific areas of the game. I broke it up into three sections: Building Your Story, Designing Fun Encounters, and Running a Great Game. It has advice ranging from building creative habits to using soda bottle rings as status markers.
While I wrote about some of these concepts on my website, the book is completely original, written from scratch. My lovely wife and a good friend helped with the editing so it didn't sound like a 2nd grader wrote it. I was very lucky to convince Jared von Hindman to do all of the art for the book and it's fantastic. I love his style and it fit the down-to-earth theme of the book.
The cover throwback to the original PHB was his idea. I love how we're seeing a party of adventurers just before everything is about to go horribly wrong for them.
I could also write a thousand words on how great a time it is to be an independent writer and e-publisher, which is another reason I wrote the book. The tools aren't really there yet—I had to spend way too much time formatting and reformatting for the Kindle, PDF, print, and ePub versions—but the audience for e-books is finally there and the market is more supportive of the author than it's ever been. So learning how to independently publish a book from top to bottom was another reason I did it. I really loved writing it and publishing it and I'm very happy with the result.
You can read all about the book at slyflourish.com/book.
Wizards of the Coast: Wizards: There’s some amount of reviewing at Sly Flourish. When it comes to new material entering the game, what tends to stand out for you?
Sly Flourish: I actually try to stay away from product reviews on my site. Again, there are a whole bunch of other sites that review products and do a better job than I could, so instead I try to offer suggestions on how these products can make our games better.
That said, there are a few things that stand out for me when I'm looking at a new product. First, it has to be something I can easily use in my game. I like the modularity of 4th Edition products and I like that there's a good bit of crunch in newer books like Demonomicon when compared to the 4th Edition Manual of the Planes. Good monster design always gets my attention. For this reason I'm still in love with the Monster Manual 3 and equally happy with the demons in the Demonomicon. I couldn't wait to use these at my game and so far the results have been great.
It probably goes without saying that I gravitate towards the DM books rather than the player books. With level 27 PCs in my group, there is no way I can keep up with all of the items, feats, powers, paragon paths, and epic destinies that people have. I have a strict "police your neighbor" policy that works well in my game and a very dedicated and objective rules lawyer but the combinations still get out of control. Instead, I focus my time on the DM's side of things and so those are the books with which I spend most of my time. Luckily, this summer has had some absolutely excellent DM books so I'm very happy.
I'd love to see heavier use of read-aloud text in upcoming products. I find myself re-writing fluffy descriptions in published books to turn them into something I can read aloud to my players. These books would be a lot more usable for me if fluff was written as read-aloud text to begin with so I could simply read it from the book when the time came rather than having to paraphrase it or rewrite it myself.
I'd also like to see Wizards of the Coast publish maps that use Dungeon Tiles in all published adventures. That sort of thing makes a book like Dungeon Delve (probably my third favorite book next to the DMG2 and the MM3) more useful at the table than a book like Tomb of Horrors which uses all hand-drawn maps.
Those quibbles aside, I love my 4th Edition books. I have a shelf full of them and I'm not unhappy with any of them. I'm really looking forward to Dark Sun and I can't wait for the D&D Essentials Monster Vault with what I assume will include new math for old staple monsters like the chromatic dragons. They're due for a refresh and I can't wait to see them.
Wizards of the Coast: Wizards: One of the features of Sly Flourish is your Twitter feed. What do you tend to use the feed for, and how has the response been? Between blogs, twitter, podcast, there seems more ways than ever to stay connected to the hobby. Any future plans for where you’d like to take your blog, or your content?
Sly Flourish: When I started Sly Flourish I wanted to use Twitter as another way to give DM tips to players. While most people use Twitter to stay connected as people, I wanted to use it as a feed of 4E DM tips. I wanted it to be something directly useful to people rather than typical Twitter pontifications.
I try to keep a human face on it though. I'm on Twitter all day retweeting stuff that I think helps people build their game and staying connected to the other hard-working bloggers and podcasters who do the same for their audiences. I've made a lot of good friends through Twitter and the response has been great.
I love how the net has completely changed D&D. Twenty years ago we all used to interpret the game differently with no way to talk to other DMs. We were like tribes lost in the jungle that didn't know what Coke bottles were. I don't think I even talked to another DM until about ten years after I started running games. Now we have this huge hive-mind of DMs who can all work together to make the ultimate Orcus. That's just awesome.
I have no other major future plans for Sly Flourish outside of what I'm already doing. I've been really lucky to expand out into writing for Critical Hits and being a guest on the Tome Show, the Newbie DM Minicast, and the DM Round Table podcasts. This lets me keep the site focused on its primary goal.
I plan to keep the site focused on helping DMs build and run the best games they can.