Article Header Image
My Secret Life as a Dungeon Master, Part 2
Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard
by Shelly Mazzanoble

I would love to tell you how my first stint as a Dungeon Master went, but I can’t. You see, I was so good, all my skillz will be revealed in the next Dungeon Master’s Guide—in a section called “What Not To Do.”

Oh all right, I’ll give you a preview. Just don’t tell R&D.

It started normally enough.

“Let’s go kill stuff,” Sara said.

“But wait—there’s more to the story!”

“I think we got enough to go on,” she said.

I also remember my nerves getting in the way of how to read monster’s stats and what color each Post-It note referred to. I left out important elements to the story, couldn’t answer simple questions. Even I was frustrated. Why the pressure? It’s not like you can get fired for being a bad DM. Not even at Wizards of the Coast.

For a game that encourages using the imagination, I found it odd my group couldn’t pretend they hadn’t run this adventure before. Not even my woeful, inventive tale of mistreated dogs could mask it.

“The door on the right is open,” Marty said.

“I didn’t say that,” I countered.

“No,” he said. “But it is.”

“Maybe in your adventure,” I said. “But in mine...” I tear through my notes—“Okay it is unlocked. But it’s the left side that’s open.”

“And we see four sets of footprints,” he told the group.

“Uh …. no Marty Smarty-Pants. Three sets of footprints and four sets of paw prints.”

And all that work I put into my story? Wasted. Even my heartbreaking tale of Shadow Dog—the sweet, gentle pit bull who was banished from its home. With its spirit crushed and its will beaten, it was sent to the Howl Haven to live in peace. Even after the fall, Shadow Dog’s loyalty kept it here to live out a life imprisoned for sins it never committed.

“Are you crying?” Scott asks.

“No!” I say. “I’m… in character. There’s a lot of history in this room. Perhaps you should pay your respects.”

“We’re not here for conversation,” Scott says. “PilaafDokkurFljot is a red-hot killing machine.”

“Have you no regard for what the people of Charlesburg have gone through?”

“Brrr…” Marty overdramatically states. “A draft. Perhaps there’s a secret door by this large pillar.”

I didn’t care that he found the door by metagaming instead of a Perception check. I shoved the party right through the secret door into the lower tomb, where I pointed out two spots on the map.

There are two kennels, each blocking the entrance to a corridor. The room smells like… burnt fur.

We were about to have our first encounter. This should be exciting and empowering, but instead the way I say, “Roll for initiative,” sounds like Shaggy commanding Scooby Doo.

The group faced off against hobgoblins who work for Don Tijuana as ticket takers and debt collectors.

“Because Balthazar so loudly told everyone that he knows everything,” I say, “the bouncers had no trouble hearing you. They shoot Balthazar with their longbows. Does 21 hit your AC?”

“It does.”

“Sorry,” I tell him.

“Don’t apologize,” he says. “It’s part of the game.”

Then Jerika jumped on the kennels, which set off a trap.

“Oh no! 14 points of damage!” I say. “I’m so sorry.”

“Stop apologizing,” Scott says. “You’re supposed to kill us.”

True, true. I don’t even know these characters that my co-workers have taken all of 4 minutes to roll up. We’ll never meet again. But still I feel like I’m on their side. I want them to kill the bad guys. I want to help them.

Once they got to flex their muscles, they seemed happier. Both Balthazar and Jerika took enough damage to require healing from Pabst—Turducken’s mysterious, walking gauze pad—before taking the hobgoblins down.

“Okay, let’s move on,” I say. “Nothing to see here.”

“No treasure?” Scott asks.

If there is treasure I didn’t make a note of it in my version of the adventure. “Nope, no treasure. Move on.”

“New DM always leaves us treasure,” Marty says.

“I am not New DM!” I guess that goes without saying. “But maybe there’s treasure in the other room. Down the next corridor.”

They roll their eyes like greedy teenagers disappointed by their Christmas presents, but unenthusiastically move on.

You find your way into a cavern. In the distance you hear the mournful sounds of "Awoooo… awoooo… awoooo!"

“Tacos and Peanut Butter!” PilaafDokkurFljot says.

“Paco and Peanut,” I say. “Have some respect for the NPCs!”

The dogs are chained inside a magic circle behind a scary door carved to look like Don Tijuana’s face. They are visibly scared and feeble. When you approach, their howls grow more urgent and their tails wag furiously.

“Save us!” they call out. “Please! Help us!”

“Them are TALKING DOGS!” Turkducken notes. “COOL!”

“Just like the ones in Shelly’s head,” Scott notes. “Scary.”

What’s scary is what 2 hours gets you these days. We ran out of time and barely made it through one encounter. Whose job is it to keep the story moving? Oh yeah…right.

As the group filters out with their leftovers, I’m chock full of emotion. Relief, because it’s over. And misery, because I apparently suck as a DM.

As I was about to toss the adventure into the recycling bin, New DM said, “So you’ll schedule part 2?”

“Only if part 2 is a euphemism for a ‘massage’ or ‘tea party,’” I say.

“At this moment,” New DM says, “Don Tijuana is stealing innocent dogs from their cedar-chip filled beds and marching them into the ring where they will be forced to fight to their deaths. You’re going to let him get away with that?”

“I have to do this again?” I ask.

“Feel my pain.”

When I announced to the group they had to come back, I wasn’t the only one surprised by my command performance.

“I thought you said you’d rather wear Crocs everyday for a year than DM again,” Marty said.

“I may have said something to that effect in the heat of the moment.”

In order to win their favor, I once more promised lunch.

“I’m in,” Scott said. “Just don’t start crying again.”

I didn’t cry!

As if rebelling against having to DM again, I put off my preparations. Two days before the game I dug up the old adventure with my complicated Post-It Note system still stuck to its pages. I shoved it in my bag with the intention of reading it that night.I didn’t. And I didn’t read it the next night either.

Instead, I put all my energy into the menu. The night before, I stayed up late cooking and baking blue cheese and pear tarts, melon and mozzarella salad, sundried tomato and basil orzo salad, and chocolate cheesecake topped with homemade ganache. It was 1:30 A.M., and I hadn’t even watched Project Runway yet!

Yeah, I know. Roll your eyes. But that’s a very big faux pas at my job. A significant portion of our 9:00 A.M. team meeting is dedicated to dishing about the previous night’s show. If you don’t watch, you have to sit there with your hands over your ears or go stand in the hallway. It’s shameful.

I intended to getup early to read through the adventure but… well… I watched Project Runway instead. I thought I could read it during the team meeting, but there was a big debate over the show. I planned to read it at my desk between 10:00 and 11:00, but I figured if I was going to eat cheesecake in 2 hours I should go to the gym. In the hour I had left before the game I checked my email, returned some phone calls, and eventually made my way to New DM’s desk to riffle through his minis collection.

“You ready?” he asked me.

“No, but lunch is.”

When the group took their seats at noon, the table was set with cloth napkins and paper plates.

“Roll for initiative,” I say with a yawn. I could really use a nap.

“But we’re eating,” Marty says. “I’ll get gorgonzola on my dice!”

“Don’t you have some long drawn out, over-detailed story to tell us first?” Scott asks.

“Fine,” I say. “Last time, you discovered that Howl Haven was destroyed. You found Paco and Peanut. Then Kritter set off the magic circle trap causing the statues to attack you. Like this.”

I imitate the statues.

“They do the Electric Boogaloo?” Marty asks.

“Why not?”

The group rolls low for initiative, maybe slowed by the excessive amount of cheese I put in everything, but as the combat rolls into the middle rounds, I realize that my breakdancing statues are kicking ass. I must be seriously overtired, because I was kind of enjoying this.

“Take that, Little Dragon,” I say to Balthazar, who falls prone from a smashing fist. Every time he tries to stand up, I crush him with the statues’ reaction ability. I’m drunk with power!

“Wee!” I squeal. “5 points of damage.”

“I’m attacking the one on the left,” Pila says.

“I’m attacking the one ON THE RIGHT,” Turkducken says.

“I’m attacking the cheesecake,” Sara says. “Go on without me.”

The breakdancers take some damage from both Pila and Jerika who crit on their attacks, but they’re not even bloodied yet. They get their revenge by flanking Jerika.

“They’ve got her in a stone sandwich,” I say, knowing the thought of being manipulated by a couple of dimwit thugs is going to piss Sara off. “They use bump and grind as minor action.”

“Balthazar uses divine challenge to try and draw one of them off Jerika,” says the ever-chivalrous Marty

“The breakdancers thump their chests with their fists and shout, ‘You want a piece of me?’”

“Let’s take it outside, punk!” Balthazar responds, rising to the bait. And then I realized that I’ve seen this side of Marty before. In real games. With real Dungeon Masters.

In fact, as I look around the table, I’ve seen this side to all of them. Scouring the Player’s Handbook, whispering strategy to each other, trying to hide their glowers as they tick of hit points. The random table talk is limited to things like, “Pass the Orzo” or “My stomach hurts.”Even I’m not peppering New DM with as many inane questions like “Where’s the doorway?” or “How do I mark him?” It’s almost like I know what I’m doing.

My breakdancing statues proved to be tough villains, knocking both Jerika and Balthazar dangerously low on hit points. Fortunately, Pabst seems to have an endless supply of healing.

“Excuse me, Miss,” he says to Jerika. “Are you hurt?”

“Pabst gets a blue ribbon every time he heals someone,” New DM says.

When the break dancers finally bite it, the players celebrate with some high fives and chest thumping. I’m about to burst into tears but not as a result of frustration or animal cruelty. I’m so darn proud. They successfully brought down the villains and had fun doing it.

We move on to the final encounter. I feel the adrenaline burst through my veins because I know Don Tijuana is on the other side of the door, clad in satin robes, cracking his knuckles, and gearing up to kick my friend’s asses.

You follow the glow of black light and sounds of thumping bass to the coliseum. Bleachers are cut into the stone surrounding a deep pit in the middle. Rising 10 feet is a large pillar. When the mist clears you see a large figure glaring down at you.

“If you dare enter this ring, you better be prepared to fight to your death!” Don Tijuna proclaims.

From around the pillar comes four rabid skeletal Devil Dogs. And we’re not talking the chocolate kind with cream filling.

“Them ARE FIGHTING words!” Turducken partially shouts.

“You want fighting words?” Don asks, “You came to the right place. Sick ‘em!” He starts chucking Kong toys at the party from his perch 10 feet above. That wasn’t part of my original plan, but it works. Kong toys sting.

When it’s time for the Devil Dogs’ turn, I try to act strategically. I love the thought of knocking Jerika or Balthazar unconscious. I can’t get to Pila without causing an oppy, and why bother going after Turducken when his pesky sidekick is probably going to interfere anyway?

Sara asks Marty what he’s doing, presumably in battle, but he responds with a loud sigh and, “Just waiting patiently for my turn.”

“Oh really?” I ask. “Devil Dog 1 lifts his leg and pees on you.” I send all four Devil Dogs to attack Balthazar.

“That’s an interesting way to mark someone,” New DM says.

Pila and Turducken focus their energies on taking down Don, while Jerika and Balthazar fight off the Devil Dogs hellhounds.

Then it was like something from an old Western movie. One sly look in the wrong direction and we were in full-on combat. I’m talking daggers plunging, shields blocking, divinity challenging. This was a good fight and one I was somehow propelling? The action moved quickly, players acted purposefully, and I even used the DM screen to answer a question about blindness! I wish I had pictures for my mom.

When the first dog falls victim, every thing comes to an abrupt halt.

“What?” I ask. “Aren’t we having fun?”

“We killed a dog,” Scott says. “You okay with that?”

I hadn’t thought about it until now and admittedly, I do feel a bit remorseful. But then I remember I can control the story.

“Congratulations! You have unleashed this dog from it’s violent past. It reincarnates into a Golden Retriever and runs off to his forever home.”

Cheers erupt from around the table.

More cheering ensues when they take down Don Tijuana. The remaining Devil Dogs are another story. We only had 15 minutes left and I wasn’t about to leave unfinished. Dogs needed adopting! If we were going to finish this fight, they needed help.

The Shadow Dog who had monitored the action up to this point enters the ring.

“Avenge me…” he whispers, and kills one of the bloodied Devil Hounds.

“WHAT THE HELL is going on?” Turducken shouts.

“Good doggie!” Pila says.

“Devil Dog #3 becomes a beautiful black lab and makes some family very, very happy.”

And it makes everyone happy when the last Devil Dog reincarnates into a Beagle and runs off to find its forever home.

“Paco and Peanut charge out from the disarmed circle and show their gratitude with slobbery kisses!”

“Aww…” Sara says. “Sweet!”

“You loot the coliseum and take all the gold pieces from winnings and ticket sales. You are rich beyond your wildest dreams.”

“Perhaps we’ll use it to rebuild Howl Haven,” Marty suggests.

“You would do that?” I ask.

“After what the people of Charlesburg have gone through,” Scott says, “It’s the least we can do.

Now I really might cry.

As I clean up the remains of lunch and pack up my borrowed minis I am again chock full of emotion. But not relief. Definitely not misery. It’s…euphoria? But how? I’m a horrible Dungeon Master! I don’t even like DM’ing. Do I? I mean, I think that was a good game and my players felt challenged and dare I say:I had fun.But how is that possible if I didn’t even prepare? I guess one could assume I’ve played enough to know what makes a good DM. And a quick read through the Dungeon Master’s Guide provided the tactics. Maybe the old adage is true. Practice does make perfect. Or at least improvements.

I brought the leftover cheesecake to R&D to celebrate my victory DM’ing and immediately learned of my rookie mistake.

“The players are supposed to bring the DM food,” James Wyatt says. “Not the other way around.”

“I guess that’s okay,” I say. “There’s always next time.”

About the Author

Shelly Mazzanoble maintains that she never cried while running the game. What happened when she got back to her desk is another story.