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Die, DM, Die!
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

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.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

MONDAY NIGHT. The good-aligned Knights of Ardyn have captured the evil Starlord Evendor and are preparing to turn him over to the Dragovar Empire. This is a big deal for a couple reasons. First and foremost, Evendor has been trying to destroy the Dragovar Empire and the rest of the world since the start of the campaign, so making him answer for his crimes would give this particular campaign arc some closure. Secondly, the Knights of Ardyn have been propagandized as terrorists because they violently oppose corruption within the Dragovar Empire. By handing over Starlord Evendor to the Dragovar authorities, they can prove they are truly working in the empire's best interests.

The Knights of Ardyn arrange to have Starlord Evendor picked up and transported to the prison-island of Zardkarath. Unfortunately, the Dragovar warship that arrives is under the sway of doppelgangers loyal to Evendor, and the Knights are too blinded by the desire to improve their public image to imagine that security aboard the warship might be compromised. Fortunately, the heroes are here to set them straight. After learning of a doppelganger conspiracy to smuggle Starlord Evendor to safety, they arrive just as the prisoner transfer is concluded. When the warship captain refuses to return the prisoner, the heroes help the Knights of Ardyn take the warship by force. Things are complicated by the fact that many of the warship's defenders aren't even aware that their mission is a ruse. Even as Starlord Evendor is sequestered below decks, these misguided dragonborn soldiers accuse the heroes and their allies—the deceitful Knights of Ardyn—of showing their traitorous hearts. They call upon Bahamut to guide their weapons in the name of justice, and suddenly the forces of good find themselves in bloody conflict. Time to break out the dice!

I n last week's article, I included a spreadsheet that outlines how much damage a monster of a given level and role should deal on its attacks. This reference, for example, tells me that a level 35 monster (non-brute) should be dealing an average of 43 damage with an at-will attack. The spreadsheet also provides different dice expressions to achieve such as result (4d8 + 25, 3d10 + 27, 2d12 + 30, and so on). When creating new monsters for my campaign or for published adventures, it's a fantastic reference. Dry as a 5,000-year-old mummy lord wrapped in sandpaper, yet fantastic all the same. I keep a copy of the spreadsheet in my campaign binder. However, I use it differently when I'm behind the DM screen.

What I'm about to say might be viewed as heretical, and it might even fly in the face of your own sensibilities as a D&D player and Dungeon Master, but I'll say it anyway: (deep breath) As much as I like rolling dice to achieve random results, as a DM working behind the screen, I prefer to roll as few dice as possible. In fact, I usually keep only two dice behind my screen. That's two dice total.

The first die is, of course, a d20 . . . for obvious reasons.

The second die is usually a d6. (Sometimes it's whatever random non-d20 die I pull out of my velvet dice bag or, on occasions what I forget my dice, whatever die I happen to have in my pocket or in my minis storage tray.) If I'm running an encounter with brute monsters, I'll sometimes double up on the second die and grab a pair of d6's. However, two dice is the norm.

Two dice behind the DM screen, you say?

Why the heck not. I know how much damage (on average) a monster's supposed to deal — I have a spreadsheet that tells me (with numbers derived from a fairly straightforward formula). Should my players care that I'm rolling 1d6 + 25 instead of 4d8 + 10, like the Monster Manual says I should? Why should they care? The only measurable difference is a narrower damage range with results edging closer to the average (26-31 damage instead of 14-42 damage), and my players have more important things to worry about than whether or not a monster's damage range is wide enough.

Here are truncated versions of the spreadsheet I shared last week:

Damage Tables for Non-Brutes (1d6 + X)

Damage Tables for Brutes (2d6 + X)

The numbers highlighted in yellow tell me what to add to my d6 (or 2d6) rolls when dealing damage for monsters. For example, in my game, a level 35 monster (non-brute) deals 1d6 + 40 damage with an at-will power on a hit, not 4d8 + 25, 3d10 + 27, or 2d12 + 30. It saves me a few seconds of dice collecting and addition—a few precious seconds that are better spent thinking about the game, as opposed to practicing my math skills or testing my players' patience.

At the point where I'm rolling a single die for damage, one might ask, "Why bother rolling dice at all? Why not simply take the average every time?" Valid question, but a little damage variability is a good thing; otherwise, players might start meta-gaming. For example, if Player X knows that my hill giant is dealing 27 damage every round and his character has 28 hit points remaining, then Player X also knows that the giant won't pound his character into mulch with one swing . . . and I'd rather Player X not play that game.

Lessons Learned

There's something to be said for picking up a handful of dice and letting them tumble like an avalanche behind the DM screen. It can startle and horrify your players, particularly when they're not accustomed to the sound, and that's worth doing once in a while for the cheap, sadistic thrill. However, I'm not the kind of DM who likes rolling and adding up small piles of dice after every attack. I already spend a great deal of behind-the-screen time subtracting hit points and tracking conditions, so I seize every opportunity to minimize the extra math. One way to accomplish my goal is to reduce the number of dice I need to roll to achieve the desired effect.

If all I have behind the DM screen is a d20 and a d6 (or 2d6 for brutes), I can focus on the more important aspects of Dungeon Mastering: figuring out what my monsters and NPCs will do next, dreaming up witty retorts in response to something a player just said, or thinking of some wonderful complication that will make my players rethink their tactics.

So, when it comes to dice behind the screen, here's my philosophy:

  • D&D is all about the dice. To quote Rodney Thompson, D&D without dice is like jazz without saxophones.
  • The quality of a DM is not measured by the number of dice he or she rolls.
  • A DM has more important things to do besides math. The less time it takes, the better.

Do I feel bad about leaving my d4's, d8's, d10's, and d12's in the dice bag? Not really. I try to imagine that they're all have a big party in there, and I still bust them out whenever I'm sitting on the other side of the DM screen. And let me be perfectly clear: I am a dice man, coo-coo-coo-choo. But I'm also lazy, busy, and pragmatic. If I have a choice between rolling 3d10 + 11 damage or 1d6 + 24 damage, I'll take the single die and the big modifier. It seems like an insignificant thing, but it's the kind of no-brainer shortcut that keeps overworked DMs like me alive and kickin'.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

What do you think of the companion character rules in the DMG2?
Honestly, I haven't given the rules much thought or put them to much use. 624 41.8%
What are these 'rules' you speak of? 317 21.2%
I love the rules and look for ways to introduce companion characters as my game allows. 273 18.3%
I've used companion characters to good effect, but they aren't that big a deal. 195 13.1%
I tried using the rules, but they didn't win me over for one reason or another. 85 5.7%
Total 1494 100.0%

In a perfect world, character level aside, how long should it take an average player to create a new D&D character?
Less than 5 minutes 40 2.2%
5-10 minutes 402 21.9%
15-30 minutes 975 53.0%
30-45 minutes 302 16.4%
45 minutes or more 120 6.5%
Total 1839 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #73

 How many dice are behind your DM screen?  
Zero. Where I DM, we don't need . . . dice.
All of them.
Not many to start with, but it sort of swells as the game goes on.
I'm from the future. I use a dice emulator, digital tool, or app.
All of my dice results are pre-rolled.

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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