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Behind the DM Screen: Return of the DM

Your time as caravan guards has been uneventful, aside from the random deer sighting and that unfortunate encounter with a “striped cat”. You are looking forward to finally reaching your destination, Greenest.  For Ashen this is a homecoming of sorts, having spent many years in his younger days hunting the forests around the town. 

As you near the crest of the final hill, you see plumes of smoke rising in the distance.  The faint smell of wood fires tickles your nostrils.  “The town is burning!” yells the foremost guard as he wheels his horse back towards the caravan.  Spurring your own mounts forward, you reach the crest and see the town below.  Many of the buildings seem to be on fire and many figures, mere dots from this distance, are scurrying about. 

A feeling of dread suddenly overcomes your group.  A noise like the rushing wind comes from behind you, becoming increasingly louder.  Looking skyward, your hair stands on end, and an electric shock seems to course over your bodies.  A large winged creature passes overhead, mere yards above the caravan.  Taking no notice of your group, it swoops down on the town, focusing on its target.

“By the hells!” yells the scout, as a very large dragon, scales shimmering like cobalt, closes on the town.

Thus began my return to Dungeon Mastering after nearly 20 years away from the game.  The impetus for this homecoming of sorts was the release of D&D’s 5th Edition, and my perusal of Of Dice and Men, a wonderful book by David E. Ewalt.  It pretty much summarized my experience with discovering D&D, and it brought to the fore my longing to play again.

I began playing D&D in 1980, when I happened upon a certain blue box in the hall of my junior high school.  I took it home, opened it up, and changed my life.  No longer was I a short, chubby kid with a wild imagination, now I was Peon Sneakabout, a halfling rogue!  I was entering tombs, exploring lost caverns, and visiting Isles of Dread.  I was disarming traps, either on purpose, or accidentally.  I was battling trolls, fleeing from hobgoblins,   and accomplishing so much more than I could in the real world.

After years of playing, I wanted to do more; I wanted to be the storyteller, the shaper of worlds, the designer of dreams.  I wanted to be a Dungeon Master.  It wasn’t about being the all-powerful, it was about wanting to bring my own ideas to the table.  It was wanting to make adventures that people enjoyed and found challenging.  When we played, I wanted to make memories for others, tales that would be told and re-told.

When I am asked, or see questions asked, what it takes to be a good DM, I realize there is no “right” answer.  You need to know the rules, certainly, but you need to know when to apply the rules, and when to adjust them to suit your needs.  You need to be able to tell a story, of course, but you also need to be humble enough to accept that your story is being told in large part by the players.  The rooms you spent months designing, and the treasure you labored over to get just right, can all be relegated to the trash bin by one decision made by a player.  More often than not, a player will do something unexpected, and not covered by the rules and the story, and this is where you discover the first and greatest rule of DM’ing:  Be flexible.

A DM needs to be able to think on-the-fly.  He needs to be able to come up with an instant story, a quick description, a prompt plotline, an unforeseen rules interpretation.  What does the pointless barn look like?  What does the headpiece of the random NPC resemble?  Oh, the gate to the stream is locked?  We go the other direction..what do we see? What do I need to roll to grab the rope trailing from the horse, and swing myself onto it, while grabbing my halfling partner from the fire?

Being a DM means performing 3-4 hours of improvisation, 3-4 hours of voice work, and countless hours of prep work, every week.  It is herding cats, it is juggling anywhere from 3-8 personalities at the same time, both yours and the players.  A DM has to control Chaos, instill some semblance of Law, and remain Neutral at the same time. It isn’t for everyone, it is hard work, but it pays off on the faces of the players.  When you see a group of grown men and women leaning forward in their seats in anticipation of what you’re about to so, or looking away in dread as the crucial d20 is rolling across the table, or actually cheering and high-fiving each other as the dragon falls, you realize why you undertook this task.  No matter the work involved, no matter the disappointments you experience, you love being a DM.

After I read Of Dice and Men, it reawakened a desire to play the game.  I knew 5th Edition was just around the corner.  I had been keeping an eye on the play testing threads and  tweets in the preceding years, and it looked like the game was headed more towards the story-based play I loved in the first couple editions, and away from the numbers play and min-maxing that seemed to be prevalent in the 3rd and 4th iteration of the game.

I downloaded the free D&D Basic Rules and read through them with the fervor of a Priest of Orcus in a room full of corpses.  Here was the terminology I had missed:  Armor Class, Elf, Paladin, Savings Throws, Proficiencies.  Familiar terms all, returning to my memory from long-forgotten rooms deep in my subconscious. I broke out some of my older modules and started using muscles I had ignored for many years.

Now that I had the desire, and some of the knowledge, I needed players.  D&D Adventurers League provided the last piece of my puzzle.  I contacted my local game store, Mind Games in Oneida NY, and asked if they were participating in the AL.  Tim, the owner, assured me they were and mentioned that they had a need for a Dungeon Master to run one of the games. Serendipity perhaps, but I think it was more of destiny.  I was meant to rediscover this game at this time with this edition.   We set up the game to begin on the opening day of the Adventurers League play.

As luck would have it, real life interfered and we began play the second week of the AL.  This gave me another week to peruse the material and learn the module, or at least what I needed to know to run it!

The first night arrived, and with it a table of 6 players, and myself.  To my joyful surprise, one of the players was brand new to D&D and we were his first game.  It’s always exciting to see someone embrace the game.

We sat down and I brought out the Faction Folders.  The players were very excited at the swag, and chose their desired factions.  The folders are very well done, with the small disclaimer that the shiny smooth record sheets (Players Sheet and Adventurers Log) were too smooth to work well with most pens.  Naturally, I had foreseen this, (by that I mean I had read the complaints on the internet) and made copies of the sheets for the players

Game table for Behind the DM screen by Sean Hallenbach

The character creation process has always been a favorite time of mine, with all the excitement of a new baby, but without the messy diapers and crying.  The players dove right in with vigor, and I helped with their characters as I made my own Sorcerer.  The process did take nearly the entire first session, as we had 7 players, myself included, and 2, count them, 2 copies of the D&D Players Handbook and one set of Basic Rules. Pages were flipping with abandon, as the questions flew:  What is my modifier for xx score?  What do I get for starting equipment?  What should I choose for a back-story?  Can I have a bag of flour as starting equipment?  (Of course)  What’s the damage for a short sword?  Can I use a custom weapon, with a hammer on one end and a pick on the other? Do you allow Chaotic Evil characters? (Not in AL, no)

We chose the method of taking the preset scores (15,14,13,12,10,8) and then applying the modifiers for races.  Our new player noticed and wondered about the seemingly unbalanced feature of a Human; gaining a +1 to EACH ability score. I had him look over the other races, see their various features, and then determine the balance of said increase.  A short while later, he chose Dwarf as his race.

Being a beginning player, he asked the group which character he should play.  I asked him some of his interests, and we decided he would make a good, pure, Fighter.  “Role-playing and working your character are more important than numbers” I told him, and made sure he wanted to be a fighter due to that, and not just because he had a higher chance of survivability as a tank. “No”, he assured me, “I always wanted to be Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit, and now I can.”  I think that’s why I first wanted to be  a mage; because I loved Gandalf and Merlin.

When all was said and done, we had the following group make up:

Falconhoof – Wood Elf Ranger

Wayrockett – Gnome Fighter (Pound for pound, our toughest member)

Mist Hunter – High Elf Ranger (See a pattern yet?)

Ashen Lorethain – Half Elf Ranger

Angus – Dwarf Fighter (Brand new player to boot!)

Fyn – High Elf Warlock

A couple of the players noted the distinct lack of healing power, but they figured they would make do with Potions and the generosity (and paid services) of others for healing.  They did all opt to spend the 5GP each on a Healers Kit.  (“Good choice”, I was heard to say).  One player surmised that with the firepower they had, most battles would end without the party taking much damage.

I enjoyed creating my character as much as the players did.  I created Laran Silcarnum, Human Sorcerer.  I chose this combination for the role-playing aspect of it.  I think of him as a mutant, with the power to shape magic.  Of course, he is unable to fully control his powers, so he has the Wild Magic origin path.  As a small foible, he is often heard uttering the phrase “here goes nothing” as he casts a spell.  The new PHB offers many different bread crumbs for back-story and ways to make your character a more complete entity, and not just numbers on a page. The PHB is very well done in my opinion, and I look forward to reading it and rereading it multiple times before I get my Monsters Manual.

Once character creation was finished, we had about 30 minutes left to play.  I really wanted the new player to experience the game, so we jumped right in.

The dragons passing has left you breathless.  What do you do?  “I charge down the final stretch to the town, following the dragon” said Mist.  “I go with him” was Falconhoofs response. The rest of the party secured the caravan, having them make their way slowly, and on guard for any more trouble, to the town.

The smell of smoke and burning wood greets you as you pass between two buildings and into the town.  Screams can be heard from all directions, and you catch glimpses of scaly creatures passing in and out of your field of view.  “We dismount and move forward slowly, examining the closest building” said the ranger.  “As you near the building, a man and woman, with three children in tow, run out from around the corner.  Fear is etched upon their faces, as their pursuers come into view”.  “Go on!” yells the woman, as she turns and faces the kobolds, broken spear in hand.  She takes on a grim visage, as she faces her enemy, determined to protect her family.

“What do you do?” I ask?  “We charge to intercept the kobolds before they reach the woman”.

Roll initiative….

It’s good to be back

Ed Note: This post was originally published at Geek Dad as part of the D&D Adventurers League Session Reports.






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Sean Hallenbeck

Chef at Teddys Restaurant
With over 30 years of gaming experience, and nearly as much cooking experience, Sean is an eclectic soul.Enjoying gaming, reading, and child-rearing make him a very busy fellow indeed.
Sean Hallenbeck
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Author: Sean Hallenbeck

With over 30 years of gaming experience, and nearly as much cooking experience, Sean is an eclectic soul. Enjoying gaming, reading, and child-rearing make him a very busy fellow indeed.

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