The Yarning Portal mazzmatazz's blog

Feeling that Christmas Spear-it!

Whew, what a few days! I hope everyone is having a good holiday season. I know it can be a difficult time for some of you, so my love to those who are finding it tough. Soon 2018 will be upon us, and we can only hope that the New Year will bring good things.

The livestream went AMAZINGLY, once we got past the technical issues. OBS and Skype had been working fine in my test call earlier in the week, and I was confident I had set everything up as needed. However, on the night, the window failed to port in correctly on my group call and I couldn't make it work. Thankfully Rudy of Don't Split The Podcast swooped in, made a Christmas miracle happen and saved us all! If you haven't had a chance to watch it yet, you can find it on Don't Split The Podcast's Twitch channel for the next couple weeks, as well as on my Twitch as a permanent upload, or on my YouTube channel. (Please excuse the screen being adjusted at the start, Rudy was working his magic for us.)

Thank you to everyone who came along and watched! I was very touched by comments made in the chat. I couldn't watch it whilst streaming, DMing requires 100% of my focus, but I went back afterwards and scanned through the logs on the VOD. Before the game I was nervous about the NPC voices I do, so to hear that people liked those was cool. And someone said I make DMing look easy ... that means A HUGE AMOUNT! I want to make D&D as accessible as possible to everyone, which is the point of this blog. I believe that if I can successfully DM, then anyone should be able to, and if I can demystify the process enough to make even one or two people put up that screen and start leading players through a game, then I am proud to have helped.

I had an absolute blast playing with Noel, TK, Lysa, and Moth, and we hope to get together again soon for another game. I am very proud of the adventure I created, and it prompted me to write it out 'properly' and publish it on DMsGuild! Considering I got it out on Christmas Eve, and it's Boxing Day here today, a bunch of people have already downloaded it, and some have even contributed which is incredible! It's Pay What You Want, and whilst of course, being jobless right now, money is great, I'd also like to hear some feedback. It's my first attempt at formally writing an adventure, so I know I can definitely improve.

Anyway, I really should go. Although I got to celebrate Christmas yesterday for the first time in a few years, today is traditionally when my family does the Christmas thing together, and I need to go bake some cupcakes for later. Over the next few days I'm going to be setting up and starting my text based games, and also I'm looking to run a short stream on how to prepare a pre-written module for playing. I'll update my Twitter with that information once I decide when.

I hope the rest of 2017 is kind to you, and that 2018 brings you many good things!

-Mazz

Always trying new things...

It's scary to do new things, but unless we keep doing new things, life becomes stagnant and boring, and we never grow. So this weekend, I am doing two things I've never done before.

First, I've uploaded my very first piece of DMsGuild content! It's a festive themed character sheet, and it can be found here. I know it's very close to Christmas so I probably won't see as many downloads as I'd hope, but even one or two people enjoying it would be cool!

Second, I am DMing my first livestreamed D&D game on Twitch! I'll be running some really cool people through a homebrew Christmas adventure I've written especially for the holiday season. Catch us at https://www.twitch.tv/mazzmatazz/ at 9.30pm EST tomorrow (23rd December). I'm very nervous about running this, but with the people I'm getting to play with, it won't be anything but incredible fun!

As ever, thank you for reading!

-Mazz

DM Tutorials - Session Zero - Why should you bother with it?

Session Zero is probably the most important session you will have if you are going to be running a campaign, even if it is with friends. It’s the session in which you set expectations for the campaign going forward.

For those that are new to these terms, a campaign is a story told over a series of game sessions, whereas a one-shot is a self contained game in a single session. A campaign can last for weeks, months, or even years, whereas one-shots can be as little as an hour long.

Top tip: An agenda is a great idea. It will help you ensure that you cover everything you need to. Things you can cover in this session can be character creation, or going over character sheets; working out if characters know each other previously; and setting rules going forwards. In my online games, because I am usually bringing strangers together, I also like to run a short one-shot to see what the dynamic is like within the group, and if any players are potentially going to be a problem. This also helps the players to see my style of DMing and to see if they like it - it’s a two way process after all!

If you’re new to each other, take some time to introduce yourselves. It can help to find out what each person’s experience is with D&D, so you are aware of which players may need more coaching. You can support them yourself when asking for rolls by clearly stating what you are asking for, or you can team them up with a more experienced player (if you have one at the table) who can help them understand what they need to do. I teach new players quite often, so I explain what I’m asking for quite clearly (“I’d like you to roll a perception check, so that’s a d20 plus your perception modifier which is on the skills list”), and I have various handouts that I’ve written that I can give to new players to help them along. It’s also good to find out what people want from their games. Some players love combat, and would like to have one or two encounters per session, whereas others love the roleplay aspect, and would be happy to have sessions where there is no combat present at all. Knowing this at the outset helps you tailor your game so the players can get the most enjoyment from their sessions, as you will all be aware of where the balance needs to lie between roleplay and combat.

An important thing to do in this session is to write conduct rules. Make this a collaborative process and make sure everyone agrees by the rules you come up with. As a DM, it’s your role to enforce them, and by setting these out right at the beginning, there is less chance for any disagreements later on. Having said that, make your rules flexible enough so that you can add a rule in later on if it doesn’t occur to you at the time.

I have some preset conduct rules for my games, and I invite players to read them, agree them, and contribute their own suggestions. They’re very straightforward standard things, but what I allow and disallow at my table might be different for your table. For example, I am personally uncomfortable with graphic sexual descriptions. I won’t allow erotic roleplay or any descriptions of this type at my table. However, if you want to go into gruesome detail as to how your character has brutally maimed this orc chieftain, be my guest. I also have some house rules on critical hits that I use in non Adventurer’s League games, that I like to explain to my players.

If there are rules, there also need to be consequences for breaking those rules, and if these are also clear at the outset, then a player who is penalized should not be surprised when this happens. I tend not to remove people from my table unless it is really warranted. Again, I highlight communication here. Usually speaking to a player in private is enough to highlight an issue and rectify it. Some players may not even realize they are breaking a rule, if it is something like “no metagaming”. Give people a chance to change their behaviors where you think it is appropriate.

Something you can do if players are breaking minor rules is to impose setbacks at the table. If you give a player a clear warning to not talk over you or to abide by a ruling you have made, and they continue to disregard your warning, then you could impose disadvantage on their next roll. This doesn’t remove their agency or harshly penalize their character, but it does give consequences to behavior. And ultimately, if you cannot resolve issues, you do reserve the right to remove someone from your table. As DM, you are there to have fun as much as the players are, and managing a disruptive element is generally not a fun task.

Here are a few examples of things I include in my agendas and rules. They are not an exhaustive list, and as ever, what works for me may not work for you. This is just intended as inspiration, for you to use and amend as your own.

Sample Agenda:

  • Introductions
  • What do you want from the game?
  • Character Creation
  • Rules and how to apply them
  • One-shot (if running at session zero)
  • Agree schedule going forwards
  • What we will do if people can’t make a session

My rule examples:

  1. HAVE FUN! (This is the most important rule!)
  2. Respect everyone at the table. Be engaged when it’s not your turn and not on your phone or having a conversation with someone else. Personally I find that kind of behavior rude, and I will ask people to focus if they are not doing so.
  3. No real world sexism/racism/other isms are acceptable. I may incorporate NPCs who have prejudices to affect interactions, and equally I will allow PCs with prejudices in my game, as this can add an interesting dynamic, but this does not represent my real world views and I do not condone that sort of behavior outside of the game world.
  4. No graphic sexual descriptions or erotic role play. It’s not necessary to tell a good story. I have no problem with romance, I just do not need to know exactly how it played out in the bedroom.
  5. I don’t do critical success or failure on skill checks. RAW, that’s not a thing, although I know a lot of DMs rule that it is. That’s their table, this is mine. Also, don’t assume you succeed or fail on a roll. I’m the one that determines the success, and I work DCs in my own way. I may have a sliding scale of information, I might have a higher or lower DC than you anticipate, or it might be different for different PCs depending on their character, background or environmental factors! I also don’t like players saying “I’ll roll perception/investigation/whatever”. Again, you should describe to me what your character wants to do, and I’ll tell you what skill to roll, because it might not be what you are expecting!
  6. Leading on from that, I don’t like people to rules lawyer, metagame, or otherwise ruin people’s fun in this way. My table is there to collaborate and tell a shared story. As a DM, I am here to interpret the rules. I don’t know all the rules, so I may have to pause and look something up. Sometimes the answer won’t be immediately obvious. I’ll make a ruling that makes sense at the time based on my judgement of the situation and we’ll move on. Abide by that ruling at the time. When I go and check up on it later, if I find that I’ve got it wrong, I’ll own up, and we’ll work out a fix going forwards, but at the time, we’ll adjudicate, move on, and enjoy the game.

Frank has given me some good points to add in regarding the last rule. If you don’t know the rules well, having someone more experienced at the table who does can be a huge help and you can lean on their experience and ask them to help adjudicate. This was certainly my situation to begin with. Later on, once I was confident enough with my knowledge, I had to step up and say to my players that I was now confident enough, and that whilst their experience was valued, I was now taking charge and would only solicit that experience if absolutely necessary. At my tables, my word is final and that is how it should be with any DM running a game. This doesn’t mean you should be in an adversarial situation. The point is to avoid the argument by saying “this is what we will do on this occasion, let’s move on with the game and look at the detail later”

I hope this article has helped you understand why Session Zero is a good idea, and given you some inspiration for what to include in your Session Zeroes! 

-Mazz

DM Tutorials - Herding Cats

You’ve probably heard this phrase a lot. Other DMs will tell you - schedule organisation is one of the worst/toughest/soul-destroying parts of running a D&D game. We all have one of those pesky life things happening. Work, school, hobbies, clubs, TV, even just plain old emergencies can make scheduling a D&D game a nightmare.

My own schedule for games is intense. I run games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in my own homebrew world, I run two Curse of Strahd campaigns on alternate weeks on a Thursday night (So every Thursday I’m playing a CoS game, but the groups experience the sessions fortnightly), I run in person sessions every other week at my local gaming club, I have a family game that we get together every month or so to play, and I’m setting up a play by post Discord server for people who are either unable or unwilling to play in person or by voice chat, so they are able to play a text based D&D game in a safe environment.

Because I run so many games, something I have done in my groups to avoid burnout is to schedule a week off every month for the two homebrew games. My groups knew from the outset that the first week of the month is going to be a break week, so I get time to relax, catch up on writing the arc going forward, and don’t get too overwhelmed with how much I have to do. Some of my players are now stepping up in that break week to run oneshots, which is brilliant!

Depending on how you play D&D, and who you play with, scheduling games is made easier or harder. If you are running a oneshot, then you only need to find one time when people are available to commit to that game. Starting a campaign? Well… you’re going to need to work out how frequently people can commit to those sessions and hope they are often enough to keep the momentum of the story going. You’re going to need to decide how you are going to tackle this challenge before you even get to Session Zero.

If you’re setting up a new campaign, either online or at a gaming club, or starting your own weekly club, theoretically, it’s easier. You decide a time that works for YOU, and then post about it in relevant places, and watch the applications fly in. Which is mostly true. Some people will beg you to change times to slightly earlier, or later, or another day.

Set expectations early, and stick to your guns. DMs have enough to worry about without becoming the group’s Personal Assistant. You’re not there to manage their schedules. If you’re going to give warnings to people for dropping out, and/or kick them from the game if they can’t commit, make this clear at the start. Decide how many people are going to be the absolute minimum for running the session. If you have a 4 person party in your campaign and 2 drop out, is it feasible to continue to run the story that session with the other two? Could you run a sidequest or oneshot instead?

Decide how much notice people should be giving you before dropping out of a session. Obviously if there is an emergency, then it can’t be helped, but generally you should have notice so that you can make a decision on whether you want to cancel or reschedule. Some players are flakier than others, are you happy to allow that at your table? It might be that you have a good friend that is an amazing player, but they sometimes have other things going on and cancel at short notice because that’s just how they are. You might be okay with that and be able to work around it.

Don’t be afraid to put scheduling back onto the players. If they want to reschedule, tell them the times you’re available to run the session, and then make it clear that it’s up to them to organise themselves and let you know when to join them, else there will be no session. And don’t be afraid to just not have a session if people can’t get organised. Sometimes it needs to happen to make people realise that you aren’t going to be doing all the running.

Most importantly though, and a theme I will keep returning to in these articles, is communication. If you and your players all talk to each other outside of the game, scheduling and other issues will be much easier to resolve. For my online games, we have a discord server, and we are always hopping in to check times and notify each other of schedules, as well as just chatting about anything else that comes to mind. We were strangers at the start of this campaign, and we've now built up a good friendship group outside of the table.

To sum up: You’re not the groups PA. Although the DM role is to adjudicate and ostensibly run sessions, you are also there to have fun and play the game too. Everyone needs to shoulder the responsibility of scheduling themselves for a game. And don’t be afraid to take a break if you need to. It’s better to take that break and avoid burnout, rather than pushing on and potentially making your group, and yourself, resent the game you are running.

Hope this helps, and I’ll see you soon for another article!

-Mazz

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