On JB's B/X Blackrazor Blog, John Higgins asks with regards to teaching DMs to DM, "What kind of pedagogical infrastructure would make you happy?"
Coincidentally, I had planned to try this. The following source comes from my own gaming blog, Campaign Juvenis, which I've mentioned a few times this week. For the purpose of this experiment, I will be removing personal information and extraneous detail from the content, though it is all visible through the link I've just given, if the reader would like to view it unexpurgated.
I have already described the scene once on this blog, but for the sake of the player's comments and play, I'll present the post as written, so that it can be fresh in the reader's mind as we examine the content thereafter.
[Let me just say that the players here have managed their characters with excellence and due consideration; this is not a post challenging their ability to play, but rather an investigation into what is the role of the DM and what is required of that role. Starting this, I have some trepidation as to how long this is going to take to write ... I think this might be a very long post]
DM: You find yourself at one end of a bridge, sure enough. The chamber the bridge crosses is about 80 feet long and about 45 feet wide. The bottom is covered with water, far, far down, about 90 to 120 feet. Once in the chamber, hanging your head over the side, you can hear the water moving, but not rushing.The ceiling is only ten feet above you - and the stone seems to be cracked, along the length of the bridge. The crack is only a few millimeters to half a centimeter wide, or less than a quarter of an inch; this doesn't let in much light, but it does let in enough to fill the chamber. You can see a shaft of light in the far left corner of the room, from your perspective (sorry, forgot to add this to the map, I'll update it next time), from a hole about three feet wide, in hex 1403.There are no rails along the bridge and it is only a meter wide, plus, or 3 to 4 feet. The height is dizzying. It isn't a matter of dancing across this thing.You can hear a faint chittering sound, like a small, rattling mill wheel (that's as close as you can get to a description). It might be coming from anywhere.You can't tell what it looks like under the bridge; if it is natural or made, as you can't really get into a position to look over the side and under, without risking death.
Pandred: Anyone got a rope? Perhaps we ca have one of the lighter, or at least more observant members of our esteemed company try and cross, and we'll hold onto them with the aforesaid. Pandred herself is sitting at 5 hp, and Oddsdrakken is at 1. I'm going to politely rescind my earlier offer to have him try the rope maneuver. I do, however, think it's still a good idea. If Fjall would like to offer some potential covering fire with my crossbow, Embla and I surely have the strength between us to hold onto whomever is brave enough to give this thing a closer look. 1403 is a bit far, but we might be able to get a decent vantage on it. Volunteers or another idea?
Okay, this is me. A couple of things about the above. We haven't played in six months, and at this point both Pandred and I have forgotten that Oddsdrakken, her hireling, is actually on his way to town and not present. This is not a big deal. DMs and players forget this sort of thing all the time; there are a lot of details to manage, right? Anyway, we do get this sorted later.
Note the manner in which Pandred speaks to her party. Polite, patient, asking questions and not making demands. She describes what she can do, in the context of other player abilities, proposing cooperation. She does not leap in and start telling other players what to do or co-opting their characters without an agreement. This is what we want to see as a DM; we don't want to see players running other players' characters. If that happens, we have to step in and explain why that can't be allowed to happen.
I don't mean to stop after every line, but if there's something pertinent that can be used to teach a little DMing, I'll take advantage of it. Engelhart presumes there are bats. There aren't, but as a DM I have nothing to gain in telling him so! In fact, I want to be very careful not to say something that will give away this incorrect assumption; the party will learn the truth soon enough. My goal is to let them draw conclusions unimpeded.Engelhart: Place is full to the brim with bats. If we disturb them they'll whip up a frenzy of leatherwing and endanger us. Best that we kill the lights, adjust our sight and send for the darkvision (and sure-footed, to boot) half-orcess. Bridge is too long for anything less than 100' of rope to serve as safety line, and I believe we left it on the cage the other side of this complex. Not sure if there's any such length between us anymore (none on me).
Now, also, Engelhart means "infravision" here and not "darkvision." This is jetsam from playing a lot of different games, which tend to confuse one another. There's no need to correct him on his language, particularly in text. Eventually, after I keep using infravision as the term, Engelhart will get used to it and adapt his descriptions. I don't need to nag him about it.
He's quite right about the length of rope necessary. And it is SO much better for the characters to realize that on their own, without my having to jump in and say "no" right off. It's best in these moments of planning that I just shut up and let them sort out what they want to do. I can always nix impossible plans later on ... while a good party will usually come up with three or four solutions in the meantime. It's okay to say "No," as a DM, whatever you've heard ~ but you don't want to say it too quickly.
Embla: I have no rope, alas. I am happy to walk along the bridge, but if we want to look at the hole, I think we'd want someone a little lighter (I may be sure-footed, but I'm a big girl).Engelhart: The hole is out of reach, whatever we may make of it. Embla, if you're happy to go so much the better, because whoever goes had best go at it alone, since if you encounter trouble you may need to double back in a hurry, and that's where your sure-footedness would come into its own. Plus you're stealthy, too. You can guide the rest of us visually-impaired humans across once everything proves to be on the level. I don't think I currently have a lantern on me, but again, I urge you to douse the lights until we're across.DM: If there are bats, they won't see a light.
So why did I feel the need to throw that in? Basically, I'm playing into Engelhart's own projections. He has mentioned bats as the probable danger; his statement about dousing the lights can't be for the benefit of Embla's infravision, there is natural light in the cavern that would spoil infravision anyway. I assumed, therefore, it was meant to help conceal Embla against any enemies (bats?).
In a way, my comment is meant to be the sort of thought bubble that appears in one's head, reminding one of information that they may have forgotten or might need highlighting. Often, the player doesn't need it; but with more than one player, listening as I'm listening, this might be an important point. Anyway, I feel safe in doing it, since I'm not really adding information, while I am feeding the players' concerns that there may be bats. If I say the word, as DM, it is quite suggestive; so this is a sort of mind game, too.
Lothar: If the chittering sound is indeed bats, I see two options to deal with them. First, we could sneak across hoping to remain quiet enough that they won't hear us, which may be difficult for everyone in the party to accomplish. Second, we could raise a ruckus, throw a rock, and get the bats to swarm and fly off while we are all sitting safely in the tunnel. A cloud of bats issuing from the ground might be a signal to other froglings in the area. I'm willing to risk that though, since I don't know that we'll all be stealthy enough to make it across unmolested. Then again, the chittering may not be bats, but some sort of waterwheel powering an underground grain mill? Engelhart, do you have a light spell?Engelhart: I do have a light spell still primed and ready. I vote for the stealthy approach, but if the majority wishes it, I won't be at all exceptional to casting it.Pandred: I think the proper thing to do at this point is declarative statements, since we've more or less settled on a course of action. I offer to hold anything Embla is concerned about losing.
The phrase about making "declarative statements" comes out of my own requirements for players describing their actions. I prefer the active verb tense when a player describes what the character is doing, opposed to what they're going to do or mean to do. Often a player says, "I will go across the chasm," which is a way of not saying that my character is going across the chasm now, but at a later time. If something then happens, I have had players say, "But I haven't actually gone yet: I was just making plans to go." And while this splitting of hairs is clearly a tactic, the solutions is to have the player commit their intention in the form of verb they use.
Often, I let it slide; but if it is something truly dangerous, I will often wait for the player to state the verb in the present tense rather than in some other way.
Engelhart: I get the sling out and prepare to lay cover for Embla. Holding action otherwise.DM: Since Embla is the go-to person, just waiting for her to speak.
While everyone else has clearly agreed upon the plan, and even though Embla herself has said that she is happy to walk along the bridge, that's not a sufficient commitment in my book. A DM can get into big trouble with a player, or with their group, if they're not patient enough to wait and be sure about a given player's commitment. Often, a DM can get away with it several times ... but if it becomes a habit, it is bound to cause the players to feel that the DM is running their characters, while the DM believes that it's a matter of keeping up the "momentum."
It's very easy to commit a lot of sins using the justification of momentum. I don't believe that this is a good habit; always, always, get the player to specifically sign off on whatever action their character is taking; and if there is any feeling that the player might be in doubt, stop the game right there and ask, "Is this something you feel right about doing?" A DM has to keep an eye out for the player who is being railroaded by the rest of the party; it is easy to feel, as one player, that you don't want to be the one dissenting voice when the rest of their party has already made up their mind about the plan. The DM is there to even out the player lacking a supporting voice at the table, by being a good listener in the equation. Then, if the rest of the party begins to browbeat the single player, the DM can be there to say, "Now, wait; if the player doesn't want to take part in your plan, you shouldn't bulldoze her."
This can go a long way towards helping your players trust you.
Embla: I give my backpack to Pandred, equip my javelin, and stealthily make my way across the bridge.DM: Embla has the advantage of Stability, which gives her a 19 dexterity for checks, should there be a chance that she'll fall. It doesn't give her extra bonuses for combat (like the balance skill will), but I'll rule that she doesn't have to check her balance as she crosses, nor will she feel (as virtually anyone else would) the compulsion to get down on her hands and knees and crawl across.
Embla, you get about half way across. At this point, I'm going to need you to roll a d20. It isn't a dex check.
Okay, a few things here. Embla has used the active tense and committed herself, while the conversation about the cave has helped instill some concern about what might happen.
At this point, because Embla is using a house rule to get across (note the link), I want to provide a quick synopsis about the rule to forstall any doubts about how I'll play it. There are voices out there who talk about how searching for rules or calling out rules destroys momentum; I strongly disagree. Not knowing how the rules work exactly destroys momentum, particularly if the DM assumes everyone knows the rule, when they don't. The DM should have the rule handy, be ready to explain it clearly and quash any unnecessary discussion of the rule at the time it is being used. This helps everyone be on the same page, reduces argument and definitely maintains momentum. I was able to do so here in text; in speech, we're talking 30 seconds of game time.
Finally, I tell Embla what die I want her to roll. I do not tell her why. Unless the die succeeds in this particular case (noticing the thing hovering in the gloom), it is none of her business why. This is why I don't say a "perception roll" or any other such description.
I understand that in most games, the players themselves declare that they're going to make this roll or that, depending on their abilities. I consider this very poor game management. The players, being voyeurs in the setting, should have no idea whatsoever that a given roll is needed or useful. If Embla, in the case above, were to say, "I roll a dice to find out if I can see anything," my answer would be that no, she can't. She has to get to the middle of the bridge, first. I know that; Embla doesn't. Nor do I want to warn her that she has to get half-way across before any check is necessary? Her character wouldn't know this.
All die rolls, therefore, are my bailiwick. I run the setting and the relationship between the setting and the characters. Therefore I, and I alone, will say when a die roll is needed, and unless the matter is obvious, I won't say why a die is needed.
This forces the player to run the character and not the situation. And it helps build tension, as the character cannot control their own intel. They have to put themselves out there, moving forward, unsure of anything they might find, making themselves vulnerable to the setting that I run.
Embla: I roll a 10.DM: About half-way across the bridge, you take notice of something floating in the air, about 20 feet to your right, just below the ceiling. At a second look, it seems to be a large insect, about 18-24 inches in diameter.
Note I do not tell Embla what she rolled for, exactly. In fact, she rolled her wisdom or under, and I'll often say, "You made your wisdom check." But that isn't the main point here. The main point is what she sees because she made the check, so I skip over the die roll and go straight for the details. This is another way to maintain momentum. It isn't that the die rolls aren't important, but we don't need to spend overlong discussing them in the context of what's happening.
At this point, because of the play-by-post structure of the campaign, we were having issues with availability; I jumped ahead and had Embla's character point out to Engelhart the location of the hovering thing. At a game table, I would never do this, but sometimes the blog requires adaptation to keep the game going, particularly on a day where I have plenty of time to run, and one player may not be available to comment regularly.
DM: Engelhart has his sling ready. Engelhart, you'll have to roll a d20 to see if you can see it in the shadows.Engelhart: A 9 is rolled.DM: Engelhart, you can barely see it. The thing is wobbling, moving ever so slightly and definitely not attached to the ceiling or wall of the cavern.Embla: I scan to see if there are other insects within view.
Although Embla can see it because of her position, I'm ruling as a DM that Engelhart can only see it if it is pointed out ~ and then, only if Engelhart also makes a wisdom check. Engelhart is a cleric, so it is no problem.
Embla will naturally ask me if there are other creatures she can see. This is a deep-set player habit and one that is hard to break. Because of her check, I have revealed this one. She can see this one only because of the check; if there were others that she could see, I would have told her ... but the default is to ask the DM if there are others the player can see, that the DM has not revealed.
I understand this; it is bred from hundreds of hours of bad DMing, and the habit of letting the player roll for information, when the player wishes. I am grateful that Embla is a good enough player that she says, "I scan for ..." rather than "I roll for ..." The latter is far more common and far less correct.
Engelhart: I loudly whisper for Embla to get back and take my aim as I girate the sling. I don't yet wish to strike however, as I don't want to provoke it... but I will if it starts getting nearer to Embla.DM: None others that you can see, Embla. Engelhart, Embla is not remotely in your line of fire. It's 20 feet to Embla's right, and Embla is out on the bridge. Engelhart is still at the mouth of the tunnel, not on the bridge. You'll have to step out onto 0306 to use your sling.
Of late I've been seeing people talk about "DMing of the Mind," which means the running is managed by description alone, without props or maps. The above is an example of the problems this creates. Engelhart has misunderstood and thinks the floating thing is in front of Embla, and wants to avoid friendly fire. In fact, there's no friendly fire here to worry about.
I'm a little terse with the word "remotely" in my answer. I wanted to stress the safety of Engelhart's shot; instead, it sounds a bit like I'm reproaching his error. Again, too many statements like this can get on a player's nerves, and hard feelings are the result.
My last point to the above is that Engelhart has failed to specify his own location before firing, and he has failed to indicate if he is using a stone or a sling bullet. I can't fault him. This particular oversight is so regular that everyone does it, constantly. There is just something resistant about players who use slings specifying the object being slung and the whole matter of stating clearly where a character is standing. I manage this as a DM by indicating the necessity of stating a position; I've forgotten in this case to correct the lack of naming the missile. Usually, I designate the character has used a bullet as a default; it reduces the number of bullets while the bullet offers the best possible damage. Costs the player money though.
Also, Engelhart (and Embla as seen below) both seem oblivious of the fact that they're 40 feet apart, and can't really whisper to each other. But this, too, is a typical player error. It is often really, really hard to put oneself into the actual situation, and see the actual distances in one's mind. In this case, I let it go; how loud they speak makes no difference to the creature anyway.
Embla: I retreat to Engelhart. I whisper to Engelhart that perhaps we could try waking it up before we attack it? We don't know what it is, and we might be able to scare it off - we're certainly fighting at a disadvantage here, and I doubt we could all sneak across the bridge without alerting it.DM: As you step back a hex, it whizzes out of the dark, staggeringly fast; you stop from reflex, expecting that it is about to attack. Instead it stops in flight, ten feet away. It can be seen clearly now. It has the fat body of a dragonfly, with a long tail and SIX wings, not four. These wings are beating like a hummingbird's, creating the chittering sound. There is a long proboscis emerging from the front of its body, which seems to have an armored helmet-like front.
This is what I've been waiting for: Embla to move. Embla's statement indicates that she makes her full movement towards Engelhart, but I discount that. Once I say that the creature swoops in, because of her first movement, I have to give room as a DM for Embla to change her mind, with the new info I'm giving her. Often, time has to be retconned in this way; a DM has to be flexible when interpreting the practical aspects of giving actions in words, when actual senses aren't in play. If they were in play, no doubt Embla would have her eyes firmly fixed on the creature ~ and would react instinctively to the creature moving at the moment she moves. I have to take that into account when DMing.
Okay, the creature itself. This is a stirge in my game. It's a large dragonfly like insect, one that can flit around very fast. I know most see it as a bat-like creature, or sometimes a mosquito; but that hasn't felt scary enough to me. The dragonfly is the most deadly of insect hunters and there is no giant dragonfly in the original AD&D lexicon. So long ago I settled on the stirge fitting this role.
Note that while I describe the creature, I don't say that it is a stirge. Nor do I describe what the creature is about to do, as I often see DMs do. That's just bad form. It is important when describing anything to keep the descriptions in the immediate present. What the creature intends will be revealed when the time comes (or when a spell reveals it).
Embla: Oh dear. Is it fixated on me, or the rest of the party?DM: Definitely you.Pandred: You're in front Em, and there's no room to maneuver. Duck for cover and let our slinger get this sorted! I'll hold the pack Embla gave me in one hand and start fishing for my handaxe with the other. I'd rather not lose it to the chasm but I'm sure as hell not getting whatever disease this bugger has!
It's only one stirge; but that potential fall is high in the players' minds and even through the blog format it is easy to see the tension. I want to play on that as DM by keeping my answers to the player's concerns short and cold.
Another sign of stress is seeing the players make up additional dangers in their minds. I don't know from what in my description that Pandred got the idea of a disease, but something tipped that concern. It's nice when overthinking works in a DM's favor!
Embla: I throw my javelin at the creature and retreat I throw my javelin at the creature and retreat as far as I can to the other side of the bridge (towards 1806). Javelin: 10+1(Str)=11 to-hit.Lothar: Fjall has a partially loaded crossbow for you Pandred. Last I remember it had two rounds completed, not sure if they still count though.DM: The javelin misses and is gone. The flying thing shifts to dodge it.
Strictly speaking, Embla needs to roll for initiative. However, at the time I was prepared to believe that the creature would not move until Embla did; and that her javelin throw could be reasonably expected to happen before the stirge reached her. Therefore, I discarded the initiative roll, maintaining momentum, without feeling the need to explain why. I have the players well in hand at this point, if I need to impose an initiative roll, they'll simply accept it; while I have a clear, fixed idea of when the roll is needed and when it isn't. That ideal is this: if multiple combatants come to the same place at the same moment and have an equal chance of affecting the other first, then initiative is rolled. If, on the other hand, on is using a missile while the other is dependent on body contact (whether or not through a weapon), then initiative can be discarded.
Sometimes, and this is hard to call, if the missile-using combatant has reason to fear the charge of a body-contact assailant, there is a chance that the missile-user will freeze up and lose initiative, if the distance between combatants is slight. But I did not think that was the case here.
I was watching the others as they discussed Fjall's crossbow. Fjall is a hireling, so I have some control over his actions, though I tend to let the party dictate what the hireling is doing. The party did not say so, but in my mind I had Fjall move up behind Engelhart and finish loading his crossbow. The online party is still a little fuzzy on how my crossbow loading procedure rules work, otherwise one of them would have said specifically the words, "Fjall finishes loading his crossbow."
Anyway, Engelhart has been whirling his sling for enough time now, as the creature has hovered, so he will need to fire.
DM: Engelhart, as Embla makes for 1806, the creature will zero in on her. I'm going to give you initiative, so please let go a stone or bullet [indicate which] if it pleases you.The tunnel is so narrow, Pandred, that only one of you can stand in it and see the chamber. It is just large enough to fit Engelhart's shoulders. He has to step out onto the bridge to fire.Embla, please tell me what your movement rate is.Embla: I have 4 AP currently.DM: Okay, Embla has 4 AP. Halfway across is 1006, she backed up to 0906, now she moves towards 1806 (as fast as she is able); that puts her in 1306.Technically, all this moving, plus her javelin throw, accounts for two total rounds. This gives time for Engelhart to emerge from the tunnel, spin his sling, roll to hit, and still have 2 action points to spend.I know that Engelhart said he has his sling "ready," but I have to read this as having his sling in hand. He has time to move 1 AP, load, fire, then be left with 2 AP after.
Here I am in full DM-mode. There are a lot of things going on; there's information I need to have and things I need to relay to the party, so that everyone understands what is going on. Though the party are all here together, they form three basic groups: Embla, Engelhart and those in the tunnel.
Primarily, I have to establish two principle details: placement of people and time. No one has really talked about how long any of this has taken, so I'm stepping up. I'm measuring time from the moment Engelhart wants to fire at the stirge; nothing before that moment really matters in terms of time. With time established, I want Embla to know exactly where she is, I want Engelhart to know the same, and I want those in the tunnel (which is very narrow, only four feet wide) to know that only the front person there can take a meaningful action.
I want to do this as fast and as clearly as possible, to maintain the slightly freaked out moment that Embla has as she runs for the end of the bridge before being potentially struck and knocked off the side. I don't want to spend any time discussing this possibility: I don't have to, for one, the player's imagination is stronger than my words would be and again, I don't want to talk about the future. Not until it happens.
In my book, How to Run, I talk about how important it is for the DM to predict the future in gaming. This is just such a case. However, I don't want to predict just one future. While managing the details, I'm lining up in my mind what rolls Embla will have to make if the stirge hits her and stuns her; and what will happen if the stirge hits and doesn't stun, but grips her clothing and drives its proboscis into her body, to start sucking blood. And what will happen if the stirge misses. And even what will happen if I roll a 1 to hit and the stirge fumbles.
It isn't just about what will happen to Embla, but what the stirge will do next if Embla falls, or the stirge fumbles, or the stirge misses and has reason to search for another target.
And because I've been playing D&D for 38 years, I'm running all these future movies in my head in a couple of seconds; if I'm doing it at an actual gaming table, I'm doing this without thinking, in the blink of an eye. It's called pattern recognition and the book explains how this works.
Oh, and I remembered here to ask Engelhart to designate a stone or a bullet for his sling, even though it was technically already loaded. But these things can be retconned. He never did tell me, though ... which, as I say, is typical and not really a big problem.
Engelhart: I fire. 18 to hit, 2 mighty damage.DM: That hits! And this may surprise you. The creature spins out of control and drops into the cavern. Lucky shot. It was AC 2.
Because of my mass to hit dice rules, a stirge does not weigh very much and therefore, though 1+1 hit dice, cannot have many hit points. They're a lightweight creature, but fearful in large numbers.
I thought the combat was over at this point, and I was glad. I did not really want to throw a stirge at the party; I hoped for an easy kill. Unfortunately, I needed to get the party to the kitchen that came after, which needed a chimney, and which could not logically buttress the chamber the party had been in before encountering the bridge (this can all be discerned from the Juvenis blog). Moreover, I'd dropped a lot of water out of the previous chamber with a mechanism, so I needed somewhere for that water to go ~ and so I conceived of this bridge chamber, with water running on the bottom.
With a passage to the outside, I could not rationalize that such a chamber would be empty, so, I had to put something in the room. A stirge seemed frightful enough, given the potential fall. Mostly, however, I wanted to get the party to the kitchen, where there was treasure, which they had earned through overcoming many obstacles and at least one big fight.
Unfortunately, after "killing" the stirge, the cleric wrote (and this got eaten by blogger):
Engelhart: No, wait. I forgot I don't have proficiency with the bloody thing! Shouldn't have posted from the hip, many apologies. Rewind as needed, I will have to turn in.
I really considered several ways of letting this pass. Oh, I really wanted to have the thing just fly away or justify Engelhart hitting the thing, so we could move on ... but no, the right thing was to retcon the incident, which I did.
Okay, I'm going to stop here. This has been four hours of writing and I'm done. I hope it helps deconstruct the moment to moment pattern of my running experience; I hope it helps crystallize what I'm sure most DMs do, but don't recognize, in their own games.
If you feel that it is helpful enough, I might consider writing another post like this, or a regular post like this (though given the brain-sweat it takes, I might put it on my Patreon for a minimum $3 to $5 donation).