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Gary's Tips

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Hi, Brian Posehn and Friends!


If you guys were sitting at my game table, these are the things I'd tell you as a player or DM to help you get the most out of the game (i.e. maximum fun, minimum headache). In no way do any of my suggestions mean you're doing something "wrong" (i.e. it's your game, and you can alter rules as you see fit). They're all just tips, tricks, and advice that have worked well in my experience as a player, DM, and gaming professional -- take them or leave them as you see fit.




Casting Times

This is one you guys had been doing correctly for the longest time (since about halfway through Sark's time, shortly after you switched back to 2nd edition), but in the past few episodes you've been misreading the "casting time" entry on spells.


Here's what the entry under Casting Time means:

  • (number): This means you add this number to your initiative (if you're using individual initiative, which you haven't been). It's just like weapon speed, and it only matters if each of you roll separately for initiative. If using group initiative, a casting time this short can be ignored.
  • (number) rounds: This means the spell does not go off until the end of the indicated round. For example, "Casting Time 1 round" means it goes off at the end of the current round (the 1st round since you started casting), and "Casting Time 2 rounds" means it goes off at the end of the next round.
  • (number) (turns/hours/etc.): This spell takes a long time to go off -- they are rituals that take 10 minutes or more to complete, so they are essentially worthless in combat. (Remember that 1 turn = 10 rounds = 10 minutes.)

It's important to keep casting times handy so you can reference them during the game, so let's go to the next tip ...



Spell Lists

If you are a spellcaster, you have to keep a copy of all your spells easily accessible at all times. You don't want to be thumbing through the Player's Handbook in the middle of a fight.


To help you with this, I found a spell list generator that let me print up a basic spell list that includes all the basic statistics (casting time, duration, saving throw, etc.). It doesn't include the actual spell descriptions, so it's really important for you to add notes to all your regular spells so you remember the effect.


For example, for burning hands, you'll want to note "120 degree arc, 5 ft long, 1d3 + 2xlevel damage" over in the margin. (It's like a miniature wide-mouthed flamethrower.)


Similarly, for shocking grasp, you might write "touch attack, 1d8 + level damage" in the margin. (It's like a handheld Taser.)


You don't have to do this all at once because most of the important spell information is already in the lists. Instead, any time you cast a spell and you don't know its effect off the top of your head, look it up and write it down right then. That way, you never have to look it up again, and it makes it where you're never spending more than a minute or so adding notes at any one time. (Trust me, this works wonders.)


Here are the individual spell lists, which currently go up to 4th-level spells (i.e. you won't need to expand them until you become 9th-level characters). Each is a separate PDF for you to download and print.

  • Winter's spell list -- You will want to mark each spell that you have in your spellbook with an asterisk. Whenever you gain a new spell (1 free every time you gain a level, or any you find in captured spellbooks or on scrolls), be sure to mark it on your sheet so you know you can cast it.
  • Houg's spell list -- Note that it omits spells that illusionists can't cast, such as magic missile. (You can cast an illusionary magic missile or any other spell of a level you can cast by using improved phantasmal force, but the target normally gets an extra saving throw to disbelieve the illusion on top of any save the spell normally allows.) As with Winter, you'll want to put an asterisk next to each spell you actually know.
  • A New Friend's spell list -- Playing a hunch that Dan's new character might be a cleric, since you guys desperately need healing. Unlike wizards, clerics and other priests automatically have access to every spell in their list (i.e. no need to mark any of them with asterisks).

These lists include spells from books other than the Player's Handbook (e.g. Tome of Magic). The source for each spell is listed with its details, and there's a key at the bottom of the page. If you don't have a particular book, obviously, you can ignore spells from that book.



After you've marked which spells you know (if applicable), you'll want to mark how many copies of each spell you actually have memorized. See those little check boxes over on the left? What I do is put a single slash (/) in a check box for each copy I memorize, and then I cross out the slash (turning it into an X) every time I cast a spell. Whenever I have time to re-memorize spells, I erase the X and replace it with a / to show that I have it available again.


You can memorize multiple copies! This is critically important, and that's why this spell sheet includes three check boxes for each spell (but you can memorize even more than that, if you want). Winter, for example, really doesn't need spook very often -- but he sure as hell could use a 2nd or 3rd magic missile.



Roll High or Roll Low?

This is one that throws you guys off from time to time, so just a short reminder:

  • Attacks and Saving Throws: Roll high!
  • Ability Checks and Thief Skill Checks: Roll low!

You have recently been doing saving throws backward, which would make your saving throws get worse as you gain levels. Obviously, that's not how it's meant to work.



Making Attack Rolls

One thing I've noticed is that you guys really don't have a good feel for the underlying mechanics of the game. You know a natural 20 is good, but you don't know what to make of a 5, a 10, or a 15.


Here's a method that will help you get a much better idea of what your character can do; more importantly, it will help you know when you're in over your head and you're fighting something way too tough for your level.

  • Roll a d20. Don't announce the roll unless it's a natural 20 or a natural 1. Instead, you need to ...
  • Add your attack modifier. This comes from a high Strength (for melee attacks), high Dexterity (for ranged attacks), weapon specialization (for fighters), and your weapon's magic bonus (if any).
  • This is your attack roll. Announce this number out loud. But you're still not done, because you still need to ...
  • Subtract your attack roll from your THAC0 to determine what Armor Class you would hit. Announce this along with your attack roll, so everyone know how good an attack you actually made.

For example, let's say Dag (THAC0 16) makes an attack with his frostbrand (+4 to attack normally, +7 vs. fire-using creatures) against a blue giant (not fire-using). Brian rolls a 9 on the d20; he adds +4 to determine his attack roll (9 + 4 = 13); he then subtracts that from his THAC0 to see what Armor Class he hits (16 - 13 = 3). Brian announces, "Attack roll 13, hits AC 3."



In other words, this is actually a pretty good attack -- good enough to hit a normal human wearing plate mail -- but you'd never know that if you don't announce what AC you would hit. (Keep in mind that this was a roll of only 9 on a d20.)


This might seem pointless, but you'll have to trust me on this -- players start to internalize the rules really quickly when they do this, and it really makes things easier for the DM because he hears what AC you hit. (If the target's AC is the same or higher, you hit; otherwise, you miss.)


More importantly, you will have a good idea how tough an opponent is just by looking at your attack roll. In this case, if Brian misses when he would have hit AC 3, you know this target is harder to hit than a guy wearing plate mail. That might mean this target is tougher than you thought, and maybe you guys should retreat (yeah, right!) or more likely change tactics (e.g. use spells that don't require an attack roll).



Blaine, first off, you're doing fine. It takes around a decade to really learn how to DM, and you're way ahead of the curve for where you started.


I just want to offer a few suggestions that really helped me when I was learning to DM, and I hope they'll give you ideas that help you make the game even more fun than it already is.


Alignment and Attitude are Two Different Things

Evil does not mean "hostile," and good does not mean "friendly." When dealing with intelligent creatures (humanoids, giants, dragons, etc.), have them act like a real person would act in that situation -- real people don't attack on sight unless they're guarding something and the players are clear intruders.


When in doubt, use Table 59: Encounter Reactions (DMG p.103) to determine how they react to the players' actions. (This table should be on your DM Screen, so you won't even have to look it up.) Just roll 2d10 and add them together, add the Charisma modifier for whatever character is doing the talking (if applicable), and apply morale modifiers from Table 50: Situational Modifiers (DMG p.70) if the monsters are outnumbered, if the players have used magic, and so forth.


If the PCs look impressive, numerous, or powerful (or use illusions to that effect), potential opponents are much more likely to try to find a peaceful way to interact (or to flee if the PCs attack).


This might not seem like much, but applying this will dramatically change the quality of even random encounters by turning them into memorable roleplaying opportunities.


Speaking of random encounters ...


Random Encounters are Speedbumps -- They SLOW DOWN the Game

Random encounters are an important part of D&D and they really help to establish the setting for the players, but they generally should be used no more than planned (i.e. story-driven) encounters that advance the plot of the adventure.


A single random encounter can eat up the whole hour for the episode, but it won't advance the plot. Players begin to forget what their objectives are, and eventually they get frustrated by the endless revolving door of hostile random monsters.


Speaking of plot and objectives ...


Review Long-Term, Medium-Term, and Short-Term Objectives at the Start of the Game

This helps immeasurably. The players do a LOT of things between game sessions, so they're likely to forget what they're doing in the short, medium, and long term.


Go over their current objectives as you understand them, and give the players a chance to chime in with questions, to discuss options, and even change objectives (if they decide their current goal isn't important anymore).


For example, right now you might say something like this:

  • Long Term: Find the Golden City. (Why? What's there? What are they hoping to accomplish? What will they need?)
  • Medium Term: Avoid the nearby blue city inhabited by electric giant assholes. (Which roads lead away? Is it safer on the path, near the path, or away from the path? Why?)
  • Short Term: Find a new friend! (There's no reason normal-sized humans, dwarves, elves, etc. couldn't live in isolated enclaves in the giant lands, for the same reason goblins and orcs live on the outskirts of human lands -- so, where do you look for them?)

Something like this will help to refocus the game on achievable goals and give the players direction.



In fact, whenever the players seem genuinely confused about what to do next, the single best things the DM can do is go over these goals again, and don't be afraid to suggest a couple of options for each goal if they're really out of ideas.


Don't want to give away ideas without a fight? Don't worry, I came prepared ...


Use Ability Checks to Their Full Potential

Ability checks are, hands down, your most valuable and flexible ad hoc tool for adjudicating the game.

  • Want to see if anyone remembers a detail from a few episodes ago? Have everyone make an Intelligence check.
  • Does a player suggest something that their character would know is a stupid idea? Have them make a Wisdom check. (Great example of this is when Rick was playing Winter and he had no fucking idea how bad an idea it was to confront the blue giants because he wasn't there to see how tough they are.)
  • Trying to talk someone into something? Make a Charisma check, and then roleplay the result (using the initial encounter reaction and NPC attitude, above, as a starting point).
  • Need to keep moving without normal rest, or need to concentrate despite environmental distractions? Make a Constitution check.
  • You already know plenty of places to use Strength and Dexterity checks, so keep it up!

Intelligence and Wisdom checks are by far the most important to keep the game moving (and not flying off the rails) but still basing it on each character's abilities. Use them early and use them often so the game doesn't get bogged down.


Speaking of getting bogged down ...


Players Need Regular Reinforcement to Keep Things Interesting

I know you've been doing free-form XP so far, but you might want to consider changing that. Little things like actually getting XP after each encounter help the players to see that they're actually accomplishing something even if they didn't find any cool magic items or complete some huge goal.


By my calculations, everyone should have at least 20,000 but less than 32,000 XP. Pick a number -- say, 25,000 or 30,000 -- and start tracking XP individually from now on. Every time they finish an encounter, figure out the XP and divide it up. If a player shows ingenuity, creativity, or good roleplaying (as Ken did when he thought to wrap up the weapon hilts to avoid the shock damage), give them a little bit extra.


Don't forget to let the PCs find magic items and other treasure regularly. Each monster has a treasure listing for a reason. Try using this random treasure generator to speed things up. (There are lots of other good random generators on that page ... poke around, you won't be sorry you did.)


Encounter Building

The goal with building each encounter is to make the PCs feel challenged but confident. Go in too hard, and they'll feel helpless and overwhelmed; go too soft, and they'll feel bored and disengaged.


The bad news is that earlier editions of D&D weren't very helpful at giving guidance for balanced encounters. The good news is, I can give you a rough ballpark to aim for and it will work more often than not.


Assuming you want to level up every 4 to 8 sessions, and given that you rarely have more than 1-2 encounters per session, you'll want each player to earn around 1/10th their XP needs for the next level in each encounter. (Some will be higher and lower, of course -- this is just an average ballpark.)


So, looking at Winter and Houg (their class has the highest XP requirements), they need 20,000 XP to go from 5th to 6th level, so they you want each character to get about 2,000 XP per encounter right now. This means an XP total of 6,000 (three players) to 8,000 (four players) -- equivalent to a single fire giant (8,000 XP) or frost giant (7,000 XP), or 2-3 hill giants (3,000 XP each).


Each time they gain a level (6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th), the approximate XP requirements double, so aim for 16,000 XP at 6th, 32,000 XP at 7th, 64,000 XP at 8th, and 128,000 XP at 9th or above. (The XP charts level out above 9th to 10th level, depending on class.)


As I said, this method of balancing encounters is very rough, so it's always best to start small with encounters and escalate with reinforcements if necessary (or just make future encounters a little tougher).


And what do you do when the players really shouldn't engage with an encounter?


Don't Be Afraid to Be Blunt

You're the players' only link to the game world. There are countless intangible details you can't provide to a player but that the character would easily pick up on. ("Shit, that giant looks really fucking big ...")


So, don't be coy.


If the woods look dangerous (and keep in mind, these are seasoned adventurers), just say it. "These woods are crawling will all sorts of fucked-up electrical blue monsters. Shit, just this electric tree octopus alone looks like a handful." You don't have to let them blunder into random encounter after random encounter to give them the hint.


If they will avoid most encounters (or have the best chance of "finding new friends") by sticking to the road, just say it.


Basically, if there is any reasonable logic that the characters could use to come to a given conclusion, just say it.


The only time you should be deliberately subtle is when the characters genuinely have no idea what they're getting into, and none of their preparations will help them sort it out. This should happen sparingly, because the characters are constantly on guard for threats and trying to size up potential enemies. If you do it too much, the players get frustrated, feel lost and directionless, and they stop having fun.


(Again, when in doubt, you can always fall back on an Intelligence or Wisdom check before giving them the information so they'll feel like they earned it.)


The Story is Where the PCs Are

PCs should never wander around directionless, unsure where to go, and bumbling repeatedly into random monsters. That shit gets old.


Instead of tossing them yet another random encounter, put the next plot element right in their path.


But what if the next plot element is in the windmill, but they went down to the river?


Then you fucking move the plot element down to the river.


Just because you know you moved it doesn't mean the players ever will, so don't worry about breaking verisimilitude. In my experience, you can change shit left and right and they'll never catch on -- just don't change anything once it's "on screen," so to speak.


The goal is to have fun, and part of having fun is by being a part of a compelling story. Random encounters are like traffic accidents -- they're real problems, you do occasionally have to deal with one in person, but if you're spending most of your time in them then something has gone horribly wrong.






OK, that's it. Remember, these suggestions are just tips and ideas I would give to anyone sitting at my game table -- they're offered on the off chance that they might help you out, not to tell you you're doing it "wrong" or anything like that.


You're doing great, and I just want to help you guys have more fun playing because it makes all of us have more fun listening. :)

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Fantastic post. I found stuff to take away for the 5e campaign I'm in. I appreciate the DM tips too. I'm trying to learn as much as I can about that to give my DM a chance to PC in the near future. Thank you!

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This. Is. Awesome.


I hope the guys take a look at this post.



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I've been wanting to try DM'ing for awhile. Been slow to engage because it feels to me like a steep mountain to climb (plus, y'know, full-time work and freelance and stuff), but posts like these drop a paved road across it. Great insights we can all take to the table; much appreciated, Gary! Must've taken you ages to build this post.

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Glad you guys like it! :)


I write these posts to be helpful (obviously), but a big part of my motivation is that they help me, as someone who makes games professionally, think through these things and figure out how to make a better game. Taking the time to write things down helps me to crystallize my thoughts, reflect on what games are and why we play them, and so forth.


Nerd Poker has been so much fun for me because it lets me think about these things from the perspective of an observer, and that's something I rarely get to do. Most of the time, I'm running the game or (rarely) playing the game, and being inside the game inherently limits your view of the big picture. Listening to someone else playing has helped me think about games in a much deeper way, and it really helped me get past some serious writer's block on my own game design work.


Ultimately, a lot of this is stuff I'll need to cover in the Gamemastering chapter, so I'd eventually need to write it down, anyway. Might as well share these thoughts now and see if they help. :)

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...Might as well share these thoughts now and see if they help. :)

I'll be the first to say, they absolutely do. Thanks again!

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The Story is Where the PCs Are

PCs should never wander around directionless, unsure where to go, and bumbling repeatedly into random monsters. That shit gets old.




You're absolutely right. Just sayin'...

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