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The Secret Lives of Dungeon Masters, Part 2
Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard
by Shelly Mazzanoble

I just got back from the International Reading Association annual convention in Atlanta. I really do have a real job at Wizards that has nothing to do with playing D&D and writing about girls who play D&D. For those of you who aren't familiar with the reading strategies of five-year-olds or children's literature, let me explain. IRA (I know . . . unfortunate acronym) is a gathering of nearly 18,000 teachers, administrators, researchers -- just about anyone dedicated to teaching others to read.

I haven't talked to many principals and teachers since sixth grade when I declared war on Stacy Kendrick, and I still get shivers down my spine in the presence of academic authority. I kept wanting to shout, "She asked for it!" But no one was planning to stick my belligerent butt in detention (and she really did ask for it).

At IRA, these principals were attending for the sole purpose of educating themselves on how to best educate others. They want to learn about new books, meet authors, and gather up handouts and stickers to take back to use in their schools. (They also want vast quantities of red wine and are willing to listen to whatever you're saying if they've got a glass in their hand.) They'll take anything they can carry -- but not so they can rush back to the hotel and put it all up on eBay. It makes me sad to think of my teachers emptying their checking accounts so they can schlep around a convention center in the pursuit of some great new book that would awaken my imagination and take me on some great new adventure. (And maybe less of a Stacy Kendrick hater in the process.)

It was here I began to realize there are certain similarities between teachers and Dungeon Masters.

Back at Wizards of the Coast, renowned Dungeon Master and scribe of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, James Wyatt, (minus the sweaty brow and flashing pin on his lapel proclaiming him a Reading Diva,) was eager to help me become a better Dungeon Master. He was already waiting for me in a conference room called Waterdeep, reclining in a chair with a grande white chocolate mocha within arm's reach. Odd, I think, flashing back to the research data I collected while stalking -- er -- looking for him. It's not even 11:24 yet. Jane Goodall I am not.

"Thanks for meeting with me, James," I tell him, dropping a contraband printout of the Dungeon Master's Guide on the table. The impact rattles the contents of his recycled cup. I can hear the white chocolately coffee slosh against the sides.

"Sorry," I tell him, even though it's kind of his fault. If he didn't write so darn much, this printout wouldn't weigh 30 pounds.

It only took James nine weeks to write the Dungeon Master's Guide. Including over the holidays. It can take me longer than that to empty my dishwasher. Remember James has a full-time job. And a family. And he writes novels. The man is a machine. Perhaps he has a minion.

He's also incredibly modest. "Why me?" he asks. "I don't think I can help you."

It occurs to me that maybe my reputation has preceded me and while he could help most people, he can't help me specifically. Maybe New DM got to him first.

James has a reputation for being one of the best DMs in the building, which is like being one of the best hockey players in Moose Jaw. It means something. In fact, it's James's experience DMing for unruly kids and adolescents that made him a viable candidate to take over our group after Teddy left. And I tell him so.

"Wow," he says, half smiling, half grimacing. "That's quite an . . . honor."

Yep. He's definitely been talking to New DM.

We get down to business. I tell James what my mission is, how I've had a bad experience DMing before, how I'm chock full of anxiety thinking my friends won't have a good time. How New DM is forcing me to do this as some kind of atonement even though I'd rather plant trees or pick up litter from the side of I-5.

"I don't want to suck at it," I tell him. "Is that normal?"

"Completely," he says. "But if you go into it with the right attitude you won't. Everyone is there to have fun, including the Dungeon Master."

I ask James what's the best change 4th Edition brings.

"Monster design," says without hesitation. "Fights aren't over so quickly anymore because monsters are designed to last at least 2 rounds, instead of wham, bam, hit the pavement."

This is a change I've seen firsthand, as everyone at our table always seems to get a whack at a beast at least a couple of times, regardless of their initiative roll.

James goes on to say 4th Edition monsters aren't plagued with abilities they never use. "Stat blocks are streamlined. It may seem like monsters have less powers, but really they're more usable powers."

"Kind of like trading Pig Latin for Spanish, or your ability to flip your eyelids inside out for the capability to lay tile." I ask.

"Kind of . . . " he says.

Because monster mashing is streamlined, DMs don't have to keep track of so much unnecessary info, which means they can invite a wide array of monsters to the party. Uh oh, I think. But wait! I'm hearing this as a DM, not a player. This is all good news. Especially for the new Dungeon Master.

"Because the rules run more smoothly," James continues, "Play moves quicker around the table."

One thing I appreciate is the term "bloodied" -- the verbal detection that gives you an idea how badly you pummeled a monster, and vice versa. In the past we'd have to weasel information about the health of the monsters from Teddy. What the heck? Are they insured by Aetna too? How about some basic healthcare updates? We'd be sweating over our swords and fireballs, and all Teddy would tell us was, "That hits. You do damage. Next?"

"Come on, Teddy," I say. "How much did that hurt?"

"Oh, it hit pretty good," he would say.

"Like, what did the monster say when he saw the fireball coming at him?" Adam would ask.

"Oh, he was pissed," Teddy would answer.

It was difficult to keep track of the pissed off monsters and the really pissed off monsters. Now New DM tells us someone is bloodied and we know we're more than halfway to defeating it.

I ask James for some tips on DMing. He laughs off my question (again) telling me there are tons of others within 5 feet of us who could answer that better.

"I don't see their name on this book," I say and that seems to appease him. This is no time for modesty, James Wyatt. But it might be time for another round of white chocolate mochas. Out with it.

So if you were an amateur Dungeon Master who happened to trap James in a conference room and bribe him with fancy coffee drinks, here's what he'd probably advise you to do:

Play to your group. If they're a bunch of maniacs looking to slice and dice everything in their path, don't spend the first 45 minutes getting to know NPCs. Get to the killing.

Prepare. This may seem like a big duh, but James suggests imagining how each encounter will go before the game. This will make running it smoother. And use dungeon tiles! No one wants to wait while you spend 2 hours drawing squares with a Sharpie.

Fudge. Yum! But not that kind of fudge. Did you know some DMs actually misrepresent die rolls? You did? I didn't. James doesn't use a screen, so his players know exactly what's going on. But for some reason it never occurred to me that other DMs might have more than just a die-tossing hand in our fate.

"I only fudge when I'm playing with kids," James explains. "I might let their characters live an extra round."

Hmm . . . I wonder how many times Teddy may have fudged an attack on Astrid?

Get all Dr. Phil on their Asses. No one likes a smart ass. And no one especially likes a know-it-all pseudo-shrink. But sometimes we need one, don't we? If your players get surly, remind them we're all there to have to have fun and you're just trying to tell a story. They're supposed to be friends -- at least in the game. What happens in the parking lot is their business.

Get all Mrs. Sortman on their Asses. Mrs. Sortman was my kindergarten teacher, and she thought there was something unique about all of us. The same is true for PCs. 4th Edition gives every character a little something extra. James really likes to play that up and incorporate backstories into the game. New DM does this too, and I love it. For one thing, it helps explain why a bear in a fez and tutu is always following Tabitha around. And should anyone rat out a fellow adventurer, they'll have to spend the rest of the game with the tattle-tail pinned to their butts. Mrs. Sortman hated turncoats. Almost as much as I hate know-it-all pseudo-shrinks.


Before I let James go back to work I ask one more question. Not just as a DM, but as a PC.

"How do you decide who a monster is going to attack?" Or, how much does revenge play into a game?

"First, are the monsters marked? If yes, whoever marked the monster gets it."

I just love it when the fighters and paladins mark the bad guys. I feel like a reality show contestant who gets to stay on the island one more week.

"If not, it may depend on who's closest, who's already beat up pretty bad, or who's in your line of sight."

"That's it?" I ask.

"Or who pissed you off. That matters too."

Great. Remind me to leave New DM a booster pack of Against the Giants before our next game.

The first thing I do when I get back to my desk is write an email to Teddy asking if he is of the "Save their characters, save their sanity" school of thought. He responded right away.

Are you crazy? I love TPK! In fact, there was one room in the jungle temple in Xen'drik where Astrid came this close to dying. I wanted you all to get the broadest exposure to D&D, and that included watching your characters die.

No! Not the jungle room! No one is supposed to talk about the jungle room! Go to your happy place. Go! Happy place . . . warm shoes. The walls are made of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Look over there! A puppy!

I'm not planning to force anyone to watch their characters die. That seems a little Rob Zombie-movie for me. This is supposed to be fun, damnit!

I picture myself as Julie McCoy on the U.S.S. Sembia. The Dungeon Master is the universe's purser, guiding her players through lido decks, short buffet lines, shuffleboard, and oh yeah, some skill-honed monsters. In fact, I think I might have just come up with my own campaign.

My return flight from Atlanta was the perfect place to get some studying done. Want to know the best way to ensure your airline seatmate won't get all chatty on you? Make a big production out of yanking your 30-pound confidential print-out of the DMG from your carry-on bag (drop a few protein bars and bags of Swedish Fish in the process) and deposit that sucker on your tray table. Then leave it there in full view why you hit up the flight attendants for more cookies.

Upon returning to my seat, the conservatively dressed woman in 34E shot me a tsk-tsk look and didn't wipe that scowl off her mug for the next 1,500 miles. What did 34E think the Dungeon Master's Guide was about? Oh. Right. I get it . . . .

After a quick review of Chapter 1 (How to Be a Dungeon Master) I move on to the adventure New DM suggested, Escape from Sembia. I've never read through an adventure before, just in case Teddy or New DM chose to run it for our group. It's a fascinating exercise as I see the tale unfold before me, and I can't help but picture how my group will react in these scenarios. In this adventure there are fruit carts manned by merchants who flee at the first sign of combat. If the PCs tip over the cart, then the squares filled with fruit become difficult terrain. Interesting. Tabitha needs to start using the resources New DM gives us and quit wasting those fireballs. Perhaps this exercise won't just make me a better DM. I might learn a thing or two about being a better player. Perhaps I'll nudge the drink cart as it passes by on the plane just to see what happens.

Halfway through the adventure I get really into it. I notice my lips are moving and I'm giving voice to words like dagger and brandish. My fist crashes down on my tray table after a particularly exciting encounter. 34E is really freaking out now, squirming in her seat and trying to use her bodice-ripping romance novel as a shield. Maybe I can work her into the story somehow. Maybe she's running a puppy mill deep in the hills of Sembia and my adventurers have been summoned to shut it down. A puppy mill! When 34E asks me to get up so she can use the lavatory, I glare at her.

"Why don't you give me an Athletics check?" I tell her. Well, in my mind at least...

Yes, I might be able to get into this Dungeon Mastering thing after all.

It's cool being on this side of the fence. I feel like I'm getting a private tour of how my favorite beer is made. It doesn't take away from the flavor. Quite the contrary. I appreciate it all the more knowing how much work went into the amber goodness in my pint glass. Cheers to you, Dungeon Masters!

Now, about that menu . . .

About the Author

Shelly is no longer afraid of principals. Flight attendants are the new enemy. (And Stacy Kendrick.)