It’s been a lean year for me in the writing department, at least in terms of reporting, having segued away from newsroom editing and journalism into design work that carried me from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio to Austin, Texas (and then back again).
What i have been writing, and reading, and watching and playing is a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, which likely comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me or picked up on any of the countless subtle or overt references i’ve made right here.
In lieu of any reporting gigs, i settled on steering this ol’ blog towards my favoritest of favorite pasttimes. A friend and i have been talking about perhaps starting a YouTube channel or podcast about D&D as well. But i don’t know much about how to do that and i already have this site going. i can talk about D&D all day so, instead of jabbering at my friends about it, i’ll dump it here instead! There’s plenty of published adventures to review, tips and advice to offer, and campaign stories to share.
A really vibrant gaming culture exists in Austin. There are at least a dozen game shops offering gamers a chance to meet others of their ilk and participate in the tabletop gaming hobby. Organized D&D games through the Adventurers League take place in at least three stores i know of, and gave me a chance to dive back into a hobby that’s captivated my interest since the early 80s when my older brother’s classic red box ensnared my imagination.
Supplementing the already deeply ingrained love of the game, a bevy of YouTubers streaming live games, tips, advice and campaign diaries speaks to the powerful resurgence of this decades-old hobby. In particular, Matt Colville’s channel has a heaping helping of videos aimed at inspiring players and GM’s alike.
If you’re more interested in seeing what a game of D&D being played can be like, it doesn’t get much better than the immensely popular Critical Role, where a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors stream their homebrew game on the regular every Thursday night on Twitch. (Videos are also at Geek and Sundry’s YouTube channel.)
i’ll include some additional links at the end for further exploration at your leisure.
Traditionally, i’ve always preferred to be a D&D player, rather than the DM. It’s much easier and, from a certain point of view more rewarding, to create a character and direct their actions along with the other players. This attitude is not uncommon amongst tabletop gaming enthusiasts – there are woefully fewer DMs/GMs than there are players out there. There are a lot of different playstyles, and some groups will trade DM duties every so often to give everyone a chance to play and a shot at running the game.
Despite a usual preference for playing, more often than not i wind up DMing because i’m usually the one among my friends who organizes getting a game together. But i did have an eye-opening moment a few months ago regarding the DM/player dichotomy: being the DM is like being the ultimate player – you get to create unlimited characters! Better still, they’re not bound by the same strictures as standard Player’s Handbook PCs. So to all you active and hopeful players out there: if you’re currently without a game, start one yourself! It can seem a daunting task, creating your own adventures or even running published ones. But once you sit down at the table and get going, keep in mind the only goal is for everyone to have fun so if you simply keep the flow going you’ll be all right.
And that’s exactly what i did. Over the last few months, i worked on my own campaign setting and a sort of tutorial introduction adventure. It started off with a literal bang, plunging players into the middle of a decisive battle between two opposing armies. The conscripted characters were quickly overwhelmed and their world fades to black. When they come to, a year has passed and they learn that another group of adventurers took their comatose bodies far away to recover, as they miraculously still had a spark of life in them – the only survivors of the conflict.
Despite wildly different schedules and responsibilities, i managed to get together a group of friends to play. One of them had never played a TTRPG before, and one hadn’t played since high school about 25 years ago. The other two had both played on-and-off with me over the years. At our first session, one of them asked if he could bring an out-of-town visiting friend who had never played. That fella had coincidentally gone on a high school trip to Japan with one of my close friends who’d played with me and they were both amazed to be reunited at the gaming table.
One of the most important lessons for a DM came to the forefront almost instantly once we started playing, and that is that, no matter what you anticipate your players might do and consequently plan for, they will invariably do something different that you didn’t expect. Essentially they went off script and off the reservation pretty much immediately. But that’s perfectly okay by me. i consider that an opportunity to test my improvisation skills and roll with wherever the players take the story (and hopefully steer it without them realizing it).
At the end of that first session, everyone expressed how much fun they had playing, and despite me winging it with a heck of a lot of stuff, that was the only benchmark i felt we needed to reach. Did they know there was a fully-populated village to explore? Were they aware i depowered some monsters because i didn’t expect them to go to the giantish ruins until they’d leveled up a bit? Had they picked up on the subtle clues about the nature of their benefactor, the battle they’d fallen in to start the adventure or the connections between the cultists and villagers?
Instead, they cheered at their critical successes, laughed at their failures, relished in their participation in the story we were all creating together. They took notes, remembered NPC names and distinctive details, and slowly started to let their characters make decisions in a natural way. We all had fun, and that’s the only rule i adhere to as a DM.
Since that first game session, we’ve gotten together a few more times, and added more players to the party. Just the other night, they managed (barely) to defeat the classic boss monster Explictica Defilus, a powerful naga.
In her chamber, they made a couple of amazing discoveries. The monk, failing a saving throw, was given a vision by a strange crystal beacon. Given a glimpse of the world’s cosmology, he was particularly intrigued because earlier that night the player and i discussed his hermit background discovery feature being related to this very thing. As a DM i was filled with glee, knowing what would come later that evening. As a player, he was super excited that his character’s story intersected with the adventure in a profound way.
The party also found a strange ship shaped like a cobra. On the bridge was an elaborate chair upon which a corpse sat. Using the Speak with Dead scroll they found elsewhere (thankfully they held on to it since i put it there expressly for this purpose) they were confused to learn the ship had crashed there. Sitting down in the chair, the warlock character found his senses expanding to encompass the entire vessel, and expressed his desire to get out of the chamber.
Before they knew what was happening, the island they’d been trapped on was rapidly shrinking below them as the ship hurtled upwards, through the clouds, into the blackness of space. Confronted there by a battle barge captained by a dragonborn, she hailed the ship and commanded them to stop and be boarded…and that’s where we ended.
That’s right – i took my players to the wonderful wildspace of Spelljammer.
Next time, i’ll ramble on about something. Maybe classic modules that i enjoy? An update on what happens when the party finds themselves quite unexpectedly taken off-planet?
Links to some online D&D-ish content i enjoy: