New DM has exacted the ultimate revenge!
“He’s on vacation?” I whined. “He’s supposed to be here helping me with my encounter!”
Technically he did help, as you might remember from last’s month column. But that was a month ago. You can’t expect me to remember everything he said about traps and tactics. I can’t even find my notes.
This was bad. Very bad. But there was one thing that kept going through my head:
I am the Dungeon Master. I control the universe.
Do I really need New DM to fight all my battles? Well, it would be nice. But this was my encounter. No one, not even me, knew what was going to happen. If the monsters are supposed to get a surprise attack but I wind up attacking a huge tray of brownies instead, so be it. I am the Dungeon Master.
Maybe his ill-timed vacation is New DM’s way of shoving me out of the nest and teaching me to fend for myself. I hope he doesn’t try to feed me. I can chew my own brownies, New DM.
The only way to make this happen is to get the invite on the table. I sent a calendar event to the Wyld Stallyns, minus New DM, plus Chris, my Newest DM who runs us through a weekly D&D Encounters game.
“You think I’m tough as a Dungeon Master?” He asked. “Just wait until you see me as a player!”
“I … I … never said you were a tough DM!” I stuttered. At least not to his face. Is he reading my emails? “I like you as a Dungeon Master! Happy DM Appreciation Month, by the way. Want some … oatmeal?” I extended a spoonful over our shared cubicle wall. “It’s got raisins in it.”
Thankfully I don’t need (only) New DM to help prep for my adventure. Sure, I have access to an entire bank of cabinets bursting with D&D gear—minis, dungeon tiles, sourcebooks. I could probably dig up a t-shirt too if I really wanted to freak the group out. But I’d feel more honorable if I got my goods the old-fashioned way.
“Psst,” I whispered, outside Chris Perkins’s cubicle. “I need some minis. Help a sister out?”
“Why are you whispering?” he asked.
“I’m DMing an encounter tomorrow,” I said, “and I don’t want anyone to overhear who they’re fighting.”
Chris looked around his work area. Out of the seven cubicles within earshot, only one was occupied, and we could hear the bass line emitting from his headphones.
“What do you need?” He sighed.
“Some minions, Earth cultists to be exact, a couple of gargoyles, and a big-ass earthquake dragon.”
Chris rummaged around in his tackle boxes full of minis. They’re all compartmentalized—goblins, skeletons, orcs. He tossed out a handful of minions, way more than I needed.
“I can’t afford all those minions,” I said. “I only need five.”
“You say that now, but you’ll want more,” he said. “Just take them. When one goes down, add two more. They’ll love that.”
What’s with the high-pressure minion sales pitch? Where am I, the Nordstrom shoe department? I’m pretty sure they won’t love that at all, but if Chris Perkins, Dungeon Master to the Stars, says to do it, I’ll consider it. My number one priority is not to overwhelm myself.
“Now, where did I put my dragons,” he said, digging through a dozen more plastic containers.
Not having any luck, he reached under his desk and pulled out a giant purple tub. Not kidding. This thing was massive. Like big enough to fit a real dragon.
“What the …?”
Inside was quite possibly every mini Wizards has created and 24 of their identical twins. This could take a while.
“Um, how about this guy?” I said pulling out the first large dragon I saw. “He looks cool.”
“It’s blue,” Chris said, dismissing it. “I’m picturing something more earthy. Something brown or gray. Maybe green.”
Again, if Chris wants me to have an earthy dragon, I’ll use an earthy dragon.
In a matter of minutes I had what I needed. I guess there was some organizing method to his Tupperware madness. He even let me borrow one of his plastic toolboxes. Wow, I feel so Dungeon Mastery.
Feeling that I’d bugged him enough, I gave my thanks and went off in search of more help.
I found Mike Mearls in the kitchen.
“Just the man I was looking for,” I told him.
“Really?” Mike always looks hesitant when I come around.
“Nah, but you’ll do.” I explained that I was DMing an encounter the following day. “And I wrote it!”
“So, about sneak attacks?” I asked. “Do I need to make my players roll a Perception check?”
“You could,” he said. “Or you could pretend the monsters were sleeping in a different room and woke up because a skirmish broke out between a band of slapdash adventurers and a gaggle of minions.”
“Pretend? As in lie?”
“Absolutely!” Mike said.
I knew it! Oooh, Dungeon Masters!
“You’re the Dungeon Master,” he said, walking back to his desk. “You control the universe.”
“I’m going to be a great Dungeon Master,” I proclaimed, drunk with power. “I wonder how many PC’s I will kill!”
“Easy, Tiger. Don’t judge your greatness on how many players you kill,” Mike said, getting all serious on me. “Judge it by how much fun your players are having.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I control the universe!
Later at home, I moved the dog-eared Nordstrom catalogs, Lucky Magazines, and Sephora shopping bags off the dining room table and laid out my dungeon tiles, difficult terrain, and traps. I visualized where the monsters would be placed. The two gargoyles and earthquake dragon would enter from the chasm. I’d allow the party to see two of the Earth cultists. I’d unleash the last three minions (or ten if you’re Chris Perkins) during the second round.
I skipped Top Chef in favor of writing read-aloud text. I studied the Monster Manual before bed instead of reading a novel. In the morning, I wrote up the features of the area in place of scanning Facebook and sending emails. When I got to work I noticed an odd feeling. “Something’s different about me,” I told my boss.
She spun around in her chair. “You’re not wearing heels? You forgot your gym clothes? You finally stood up to your cat?”
“No.” Like I’d ever stand up to Zelda. “Something ... bigger. I’m not nervous about DMing.”
“Oh,” she said, turning back to her computer. “That’s cool.”
I didn’t even give the encounter much thought until it was time to head into the conference room I’d booked. I arrived a little early, set up my tiles, my DM screen, minis, rulebooks, and paper plates.
The group arrived and settled in with the usual chatter expected from people who haven’t seen each other in at least two hours. But something was definitely wrong.
There was no cake. Nothing. Not even a hint of cake.
“It’s Dungeon Masters’ Appreciation month, you guys.”
“Are you guys forgetting something?” I asked.
They looked down at their dice, their pencils, their Player’s Handbooks.
“We forgot to wish New DM a Happy DM Appreciation Month,” Marty said.
“I’ll make him cookies,” Laura said.
“Oh never mind,” I said, trying not to let my falling sugar level flavor the game. But man, I had been talking about German chocolate all week! I guess I knew what I was having for dinner.
We began with some backstory.
When you arrive in Charlesburg, the townspeople are frantic. This once beautiful town is dotted with rubble. Beautiful stone buildings are caving onto themselves. Piles of rocks line the road. The mayor greets you. Gratitude spills from her eyes.
“Thank you. Thank you for coming. We didn’t know who else to call. Dogs are disappearing!” she continues. “This is serious!”
“Of course,” Marty said, rolling his eyes. “Got to save the puppies.”
Marty is a cat person.
“While you’re talking to the mayor,” I continued, “a tremor erupts across the land. Marty falls on his face.”
“It happens all the time,” the mayor says. “We no longer suspect a restless Earth. We believe something much more dangerous has taken residence on the hill where our beloved animal sanctuary Howl Haven stands. What remains anyway. We have to stop this beast before our good intentions are reduced to rubble.”
“In the interest of time,” I continued, “we’ll assume you have accepted this mission. Let’s go!”
They placed their minis where I told them the entrance was and I immediately realized I hadn’t figured out a good enough reason for them to go inside.
“It’s raining,” I said. “Really hard. Good thing the door is open!”
Once inside I placed two of the cultists on the mat about four squares from the chasm. No one’s Perception check was high enough to grant any more information than the name of what they were about to fight.
“Earth cultists?” Hilary asked. “Is that like hippies?”
“Sure,” I said. “They’re hippies. You also hear the sounds of the Grateful Dead wafting from the other room. And the stench of patchouli makes you gag.”
“If they’re wearing Birkenstocks, we’ll be able to outrun them,” Bart noted.
Trying to shift the focus away from these perceived Earth-loving hippies, I went back to my read-aloud text.
“You notice they are carrying two large bowls. You can tell one has liquid from the way it splashes over the side. The other one looks like it may have tiny bits of food.”
“Like kibble?” Laura asked.
I asked her to roll a perception check.
“Yes, like kibble. Now please roll for initiative.”
I have to say, it was weird and cool and heady to see them pick up their dice and roll just because I said to! It’s almost as good a feeling as your dinner guests asking for seconds.
Four out of five party members rolled higher than my minions and got to go first. Fortunately, the first two missed. Then Bart’s inebriated wizard, Merlot, busted out his new, fancy magic missile (you can thank your Player-in-Chief for that fix!) and took out one of my cultists. Stupid magic missile. I hadn’t thought about how putting the magic back in the missile would affect my minions. Good thing I had extras.
Meanwhile, I rolled initiative for the gargoyles that hadn’t made their debut yet. I inserted them in the order under the minions.
“Suddenly from the bowels of the chasm,” I said, “you hear a rustling and then a piercing screech as two gargoyles bolt out from the chasm!”
“Oh I see,” Hilary said, “I’m going to use everything I have because we’re never coming back here.”
I don’t know if she was referring to the danger the party was in or that she just decided she never wanted to play in one of my encounters again. Regardless, I felt a swell of pride. My gargoyles were met with disdain. Yah! Go me!
With my two gargoyles, remaining minions, and one dragon waiting in the wings, I realized the importance of placement. I was kind of throwing minions out there willy nilly and kept forgetting the gargoyles could make better distance by air than ground. Aeon had a minion and a gargoyle marked, Anwar was bloodied, and I was overlooking opportunity attacks at every corner. Dungeon Masters have a lot to keep track of!
While Bart managed to wipe out the minions practically on his own, Aeon took out a gargoyle and nearly bloodied the other one with flame cyclone. There was no better time to bring out the Earthquake dragon.
“There is a massive tremor that rocks Howl Haunt. You are nearly knocked over as a huge gush of wind blows from the chasm!”
Actually, I have no idea what sounds or feelings would erupt from a chasm housing a sleeping dragon, but that’s the beauty of being the DM.
The party was not happy with this new development. Their eyes got wide, they giggled, they shook their heads in disbelief. I can only imagine what complaints I would have lobbed at New DM if this happened in our game.
Chris’s character, Daylin, hit the dragon with a power that pushed it back one square. Good news for me because that triggered an action.
“Everyone in the dragon’s aura is knocked prone!” I shouted. I was so excited to use this effect I forgot to act it out.
Our hour was up and I was left with a barely touched dragon, a just bloodied gargoyle, and plenty of beaten up PCs. Was it wrong to feel giddy inside every time I heard Anwar whispering his healing words?
So what did I learn about Dungeon Mastering this time around?
Be Prepared, But Not Too Prepared
I only like having parties on Saturdays so that I have all of Friday night to prepare. And by “all of Friday,” I mean two weeks before the event. But no matter how much time I give myself, I always seem to light the last candle seconds before the first guest arrives. So much for the vision of me with my kitten heels propped on the freshly dusted coffee table, sipping a glass of merlot and reading Bon Appétit when my guests arrive.
I didn’t do much to prep with this adventure outside of the hour New DM and I spent talking about it. I had most of the story in my head so I didn’t even write much. Last time I spent a month sweating it and guess what? It sucked. I’m OK admitting that (now). I’m not saying don’t prep. You should. But don’t obsess. You may be surprised by the results.
Point Where You Want Them to Go
I used to serve a lot of dips at my parties. (And no, I’m not talking about the guests. At least not all of them.) The weird thing was, no one ate them. My beautiful beer dips and labor intensive salsas—ignored. Was it the bread? The crackers? The dish I served them in? It wasn’t until I put a serving utensil in the dip that people started eating them. I guess a fan of Bavarian pretzels surrounding the bowl was not enough of a hint.
My trap doors went unnoticed. Maybe, given the adventure, no one wanted to walk on the fur-skin rugs that were masking them. Just like the special actions associated with some monsters, if you want the PC’s to do something, you have to give them a reason to. I should have positioned the rugs to be between the monsters and the players. Those without a ranged weapon would almost have to walk on the rugs to attack. Or maybe fur rugs are just gross.
Cater to Your Audience
No one wants appletinis and cucumber sandwiches at a Super Bowl party, and my health conscious friends would be very disappointed to find a big bowl of white pasta swimming in three-cheese sauce. Knowing the environment and the people you are serving is half the battle. Even those who didn’t play in my last adventure knew this one would probably have something to do with animals.
“I’d be disappointed if it didn’t,” Kierin said after.
The fact they have eight dogs and cats between them between them helps too.
Timing is Everything (Or Don’t Forget the Brownies!)
I remember having dinner at a friend’s house where everything we ate was bought at a take-out pasta joint. That’s cool. I’m all for shortcuts. But maybe while there, they could have thought about picking up some tiramisu. After dinner, we sat around for 15 minutes before the host asked if we would like some brownies and ice cream. Of course we did! At that point she retired to the kitchen, where I spied her reading the back of a brownie mix box while her oven preheated. Again, I have no problem with brownies out of a box but umm ... maybe you could have made them before we came over?
A good menu does not just consist of food that works together. It’s also about timing. Should I have brought out the bonus minions Perkins supplied me with? Did the gargoyles enter the fray at the most opportune time? When do you spring a dragon on the party? I don’t know yet, but I will with practice.
I’m going to schedule a Part Two to my encounter. I can’t leave a dragon with 176 hit points hanging. But first, I need to work on my audition tape to be the Next Food Network Star. I think we’re on to something here.
About the Author
Shelly Mazzanoble has mastered this whole Dungeon Mastering thing. Now can anyone tell her how to stand up to her cat?