Last time I took a look at the DM’s Binder, I concentrated on what I’d call the Campaign Binder: a three-ring binder that contains the campaign-specific materials you need to organize and run a game at the table. Things like player- and DM-specific lore and maps, some tools you can utilize when things go off the rails or you need to name some random blacksmith, and a few house-rules that are specific to the game you’re running that week.
Now, I’m going to go a bit more high-level in concept. But, if I’m being honest, I’m starting to think that after 30+ years of gaming, this might be a better place for DMs to start. Even if that’s not the case, it’s certainly the kind of stuff DMs want to have handy to read, re-read, and reference over and over again for their Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, even if they aren’t the kind of thing you use at the table on game night. What I’m talking about here is basically a self-made Dungeon Master’s Guide, the kind of thing that tells you how the game works and how you can get it to work simply, logically, and in the most fun way for everyone at the table.
Let’s take a look!
There are two things I think haven’t been addressed well regarding running D&D and D&D-like roleplaying games until very recently, in relative terms: understanding the process of running a game that’s fun for both players and DM, and running combat that is challenging and varied without being a slog.
The first concept — the process of running fun games — is something I think the game Dungeon World tackled best, because it laid the subject bare and gave you the concepts and tools you need to make sense of D&D-style gaming. The entire Game Mastering section of that game — available freely through their SRD website at the link — is a treasure! It lays out in simple phrases the ideals we strive for in collaboratively building a game session or campaign. It then provides principles a DM might use to guide how they run a game, some of which are unique to the more narratively focused Dungeon World game but can be extrapolated for D&D, and others that are more universal, such as “begin and end with the fiction,” which is a simple concept that reinforces the campaign world, style, and game’s core conceits. It then provides “moves” — a mechanic in Dungeon World, but a concept easily portable to any RPG — that tell you what to do in response to how the players act and react to the world their characters live and operate in.
The second concept can be applied to any action scene, but it’s most commonly the foundation for making combat interesting, keeping things from devolving into a simple “I roll to attack, I deal damage.” That concept is “impact,” as it’s called in the Goblin Punch article conveniently titled Impact. What we’re talking about is establishing very obviously and concretely for the players (and the DM) what the stakes are of any individual encounter, along with some analysis on ways to shake up encounters so the stakes aren’t always, “kill all monsters to get XP or flee.” The article talks about different things to target: don’t just go after the party’s hit points or spell slots, but actually target different parts of their character sheets, or flat out tell them they’ll get XP for resolving an objective rather than just killing all the monsters on the field.
Speaking of combat…
Theater of the Mind
Theater of the Mind combat is what happens when you put away the gridded battle map and miniatures and simply describe the ebb and flow of combat, relying on descriptive detail, questions and answers, and “the rule of cool” to resolve a fight between the PCs and their enemies. Not everybody wants to do Theater of the Mind combat, but for those that do, two articles really sell how to do it: Merric Blackman’s A Quick Word on Theatre of the Mind and the fully realized guide to TotM, Sly Flourish’s Guide to to Narrative “Theater of the Mind” Combat in the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which contains a one-page cheat sheet for handling battles in that format.
Perhaps more broadly, theater of the mind-style combat leads to a lot of thinking about tactics, regardless of whether or not you’ve got a grid. The guide Live to Tell the Tale: An Introduction to Combat Tactics for Dungeons & Dragons Players will help players understand the underpinnings of the D&D 5th Edition system, and the same author maintains the crucially important monster tactics blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. But beyond that, you’re thinking about “what moves can players and monsters perform that aren’t strictly just an action listed on their character sheet or stat block?” And to that end, “how can I make the terrain and circumstances of the battle interesting?” Well…
Running Cool Combat
Merric goes into more detail about fun terrain in Terrain of the Mind, and that Impact article we mentioned before contains lots of useful ideas, too. But that’s not all there is to combat and action encounters. There’s an underlying concept we missed in the first part of this article, although you might find lots of hints about it in the Game Mastering chapter of Dungeon World (especially in the Moves) as well as the article on Impact, but it’s not fully spelled out:
Combat is pacing.
It’s not just a pacing mechanism in the game system, i.e. a way to deplete resources and force periods of rest and downtime on the players. Combat is pacing in the narrative that evolves out of the game session, and if combat abruptly changes the flow of everybody’s language, the interactions around the table with miniatures and dice (or even the snacks laying on the grid!), that’s going to affect the pacing of the session. Ultimately, you want to transition to combat in a way that’s obvious but also smooth, which is a hard thing to grasp. But someone’s got it: How to Manage Combat Like a Motherf$&%ing Dolphin by The Angry GM. This article tells you how to simply and quickly setup a combat dashboard to track not just initiative order but everything going on in an encounter — monsters, hit points, conditions — and it also goes into how to convey the pacing and urgency necessary to keep things moving.
These are all concepts core to any D&D experience, but having them spelled out in this manner is something we haven’t seen nearly enough of before. Reading about them will make you a better DM, guaranteed, and that’s the purpose of this article: to point them out and make them a part of your gaming library in the same way your Dungeon Master’s Guide is. What I did with them was right click on the web page, select Print, and using CutePDF writer or Adobe or most built-in browser commands nowadays, save the whole article as a PDF. Then I printed them all out and stuck them in my DM’s Binder, so I can read and re-read them to make sure I’m on point every session. They’ve made my life easier, and they’ve made my games better.
I’ll end on one more article: Designing RPG Adventures With the Players And Not the GM In Mind, Part Two. It talks about advice from How to Write Adventure Modules That Don’t Suck and frankly the article in question they are talking about has a title that says all you need to know: “Run Your Best Game Tonight.” It’s advice I didn’t hear until 20 years into my gaming, and unraveling the bad habits I had gained by that point has been a constant struggle: I always plan too big, too long-term, and I have to constantly undo my own ideas and writing to get to the heart of what the players find fun. Don’t be like me! Instead, heed the advice of all of the above and be so much better, with every single game session!
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