Secrets of Dungeon-Mastering: Relics and Rarities

What is this? Deborah Ann Woll was on “True Blood” and played Karen Page on “Daredevil” and other Marvel shows, but she was always a closet geek and eventually got her own show as DM on Geek and Sundry. As with “HarmonQuest”, she invites on a celebrity guest to adventure with the regular cast every episode. These are horror stories set in the 20th Century, so you’d think they might play “Call of Cthulu,” but they’re playing DnD 5e.

The people involved:
  • Deborah Ann Woll is DM
  • Tommy Walker plays Veros
  • Jasmine Bhullar plays Beryl
  • Julian Denni plays Annabella
  • Xander Jeanneret plays Rikki
  • Matthew Lillard is the guest as Allister
What I learned about DM’ing from watching it:

The Power of Objects

Woll has something that other streams don’t have: props. She begins every game on a set where the PCs are encouraged to explore and find objects that will help them when they move on to the next room to actually play. She also dresses up in costumes to play the NPCs such as when she puts on a veil to play a mournful ghost. She also makes giant puzzles for the players to solve, which the players find delightful.

Enough with the Hanging Out:

You can play DnD without a lot of hanging out. One of my DnD advisors has been telling me that Critical Role totally changed DnD. Since that stream caught on, there’s a lot more of an expectation in home games that the characters will just hang out a lot and goof off in character. But some players, and DMs, would rather just play the damn game. Woll appeared on Brennan Lee Mulligan’s “Adventuring Academy” podcast and made it clear where she falls:
  • Woll: I don’t have a lot of sittin’ around the campfire talking moments in my games. I’m like “Action, progress, forward”, I wanna tell the story. I don’t do downtime. I’m like “sure, you spend a week, you buy some stuff, moving on.” Don’t spend a lot of downtime. I will admit that there’s a lot of players that want to play in that space, and I’m either not the right DM for you, or that’s an aspect of my game that I have yet to develop…But for me, I don’t like playing those moments as a player. I don’t want to have a conversation in character around a campfire, I want to get to the action and storytelling and play the game, so I don’t tend to leave a lot of space for that in my games.
  • Mulligan: I love plot-based players and I think that’s a very real thing because there are some players, people might lump character and plot into just being like “story”, but I really do think there are people for whom the game is an ability to just sink deeply into character, and then there are other players who are like “Nah, I am chasing this story down.” Like, “what are your deep character conflicts?” “None, baby, next puzzle!”
  • Woll: Like I remember for example for example Critical Role, because they are voice actors, I think they really do love that downtime conversation, that kind of stuff that they do, and I am unversed in that, I guess, so when I went on the show, we did it, we had a great time, we did the battle, we searched the thing, and at the end, there was this extra 45 minutes to an hour of talk, and I remember sitting there being like, “Oh, I don’t know how Twiggy fits into this,” so Twiggy was basically like, “Bye! Have fun, here’s the ball,” and I just left! And I’m not beating myself up about that, because I do think that just for me, the joy that I get out of DnD is that action-plot oriented joy. It’s just not as much fun for me to sit around and talk in funny voices.
Give them multiple hooks to go on this adventure and let them choose their own

Different players play for different reasons and it’s great to have multiple reasons to go on each adventure. Here’s Woll on “Adventuring Academy” again:
  • Woll: For every adventure, I try to include the emotional, the money and the plot hook, so you’ve been tracking down the henchman of the big bad, you find out that he’s kidnapped a family, and they’re staying in a cave that is known to contain treasures, and you’re like, “Great! We’re all covered! We’ll advance the plot, we can save a family, and we’ll get the money! We’re going to the cave!”
  • Mulligan: I like it! A little something for everyone!

Secrets of Dungeon-Mastering: Critical Role

What is this? Matt Mercer ran a Pathfinder home game with his friends, all of whom happened to be voice actors like himself. Eventually they switched the campaign over to Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition and decided around the same time to start livestreaming their games on Twitch, partially to raise money for charity. It became the most popular Twitch Stream, expanded to YouTube and podcasts, released official DnD materials, then eventually got adapted into the Amazon show “Vox Machina”. Each campaign lasts for many hundreds of hours, and they’re now on their third campaign. The early episodes are just on YouTube and not on the podcast, for some reason, so I watched this in real time.

The people involved:
  • Matthew Mercer, Dungeon Master
  • Ashley Johnson as Pike Trickfoot (gnome cleric)
  • Travis Willingham as Grog Strongjaw (goliath barbarian / fighter)
  • Laura Bailey as Vex'ahlia “Vex” de Rolo (née Vessar) (half-elf ranger / rogue)
  • Liam O'Brien as Vax'ildan “Vax” Vessar (half-elf rogue / paladin / druid)
  • Taliesin Jaffe as Percival “Percy” Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III (human gunslinger)
  • Marisha Ray as Keyleth of the Air Ashari (half-elf druid)
  • Orion Acaba as Tiberius Stormwind (dragonborn sorcerer) (He eventually has a falling out with the group, gets written out and gets retroactively removed from Vox Machina)
  • Sam Riegel as Scanlan Shorthalt (gnome bard)
What I learned about DM’ing from watching it:

This is in some ways the most traditional of the actual plays I’ve listened to. This is the only one where they have no time limit and spend half an hour haggling over the price of rooms at the inn. It can be rather tedious, but I think that’s also the secret of its success. Each of these voice actors has created very appealing characters (including the non-player characters) and it’s fun to just hang out with them, accomplishing very little.

In terms of sheer number of hours of entertainment that a franchise has foisted on the world, this ranks up with “Days of Our Lives”, and the audience seems to be somewhat bizarrely insatiable.

This is the only actual play I consumed where I really got the feeling this story could go anywhere and the DM would be willing to follow it there.

You can throw out a lot of the rules:

Matt is very much a “rule of cool” DM, which annoys some of the people who watch the stream and comment live onscreen. (How he can read the comments and still DM is beyond me.) He warns the commenters: “For all you hardcore gamers out there, a lot of this is house rules, loosey-goosey, having a good time, so all you number crunchers, stop paying attention there, just have fun with it.”

One issue is that they transferred the game over from Pathfinder (where you’re allowed to have gunslingers) to DnD mid-campaign, so they have to loosen DnD up a lot to bring over the elements they want. (“I’m playing Percy the gunslinger so I’m the reason all the rules are messed up”)

Matt doesn’t require anywhere near as many perception checks as Brennan Lee Mulligan. He just tells them that they notice things.

You can juggle different motivations for different players

Percy wants to free his hometown. Vax and Vex (Yes, there’s a Vax and Vex and they’re both members of Vox. Yes, this is confusing.) want revenge against a dragon. Scanlon is just looking for love. You can see in the Amazon show that one character’s quest predominates at all times. Ultimately it works because these characters love each other and are willing to help each other achieve what they want. It’s much harder to juggle different quests if your players and their characters aren’t bonded.

Pets aren’t worth the trouble

One of them has a pet bear, which is a fun idea, but the PC keeps forgetting that her bear would be with her (freaking out every non-player character they meet) or having to leave it behind for long periods of time. It quickly gets ditched in the Amazon show.

Secrets of Dungeon-Mastering: Dimension 20, Fantasy High

What is this? Brennan Lee Mulligan is a veteran UCB improv teacher who got hired by College Humor’s spinoff Dropout TV, where he started a DnD channel called Dimension 20 to “vodcast” a series of actual-plays, starting with this one. The show exists as a YouTube channel and podcast. The odd numbered episodes are entirely theater of the mind role-playing and the even numbered episodes are entirely combat with custom made models and miniatures, so I ended up listening (sped up) to the odd episodes and watched the even episodes on YouTube.

The people involved:
  • Brennan Lee Mulligan is DM
  • Emily Axford plays Figueroth “Fig” Faeth
  • Zac Oyama plays Gorgug Thistlespring
  • Siobhan Thompson plays Adaine Abernant
  • Lou Wilson plays Fabian Aramaris Seacaster
  • Ally Beardsley plays Kristen Applebees
  • Brian Murphy plays Riz “The Ball” Gukgak
I should say at the beginning that this is the very best of the actual plays I consumed. If you only do one, do this one, even though it’s long (This season takes about 30 hours). It’s the best because the DM and all the players are professional improvisers and really know how to create a compelling and funny story on the fly. This one will make you laugh and cry.

What I learned about DM’ing from listening to it:

DnD can be anything

The idea for this season is “What if John Hughes wrote a DnD campaign?”, and the show is set in a very modern-feeling high school with cell phones (called crystals) and motorcycles. It’s sort of like the movie “Onward”, with all the realities of modern life with a fantasy overlay on them. Brennan is just having fun throwing in any story element he wants. In Brennan’s “Adventuring Academy” podcast,, he says:
  • It’s funny to hold Tolkien, for example, as the gold standard for fantasy, because specifically what Tolkien set out to do was create a new mythos…He was like, there should be a mythology for England, and mythologized Hobbits as these little country squire English people that are pretty identical to how he lived his life, like, a bunch of snacks during the day, smoking pipe weed, sounds like what that dude was about in his personal life.  So if you’re an American DM living in 2020, why not mythologize the subject of your own real life and create the fantasy version of that?
You can take time for character if you keep things snappy.

Brennan makes a daring decision: He starts with all six characters at home with their respective parents, and the other players just have to listen to each scene. One risk is that the other players could get annoyed at having so much time not focus on them. He gets away with this, first and foremost, by having all six scenes be very entertaining. The other risk is that it could take forever for the adventure to get going after six scenes. But this brings us to Brennan’s greatest skill, one which all of the other DMs I listened to weren’t as good at: He’s really brutal about cutting off scenes. He cuts away to other characters mid-scene to keep things snappy. This is a such a nice change from DMs who let scenes drag on forever.

The three levels of DM’ing.

In the “Adventuring Academy” podcast, he frequently tells the story of the one time he tried to DM a pre-made module, back in high school. He carefully prepared all the maps for the big dungeon crawl beforehand. To start the adventure, he just wanted to do a little scene-setting, so he told his players that they were at an arranged dwarf wedding, and he mentioned a few details such as the fact that the bride wasn’t super into it. His players unexpectedly said, “If’s she’s not super into it, we’re going to rescue her from this.” And so they did, and the wedding party came charging after, and that became the adventure, and they never got to Brennan’s wonderful maps. He returns to this story in several episodes to make it clear that you have to let the players take the story in any direction you want and so there’s not much point in pre-planning. 

 But here’s the thing: In every other episode of Fantasy High, they play an action scene with elaborate figurines and models that had been made weeks before by his model maker. In the fourth episode, there’s an elaborate car chase with Tieflings, and the way they had wound up in that car chase felt totally organic. It had felt like they had wound up there because of some surprising, unpredictable decisions the characters made. But clearly Brennan wasn’t surprised, because he’d told his model maker what to make weeks in advance.

Realizing this, I decided there’s really three levels of DM’ing.
  1. The first level is: “Stick to the story, stay on rails, don’t improvise, do what I tell you to do, just let me finish this pre-made module.”
  2. The second level is: “Anything can happen, let the players lead and the DM scrambles to keep up with their imagination.”
  3. But the third level is, “The players feel like they’re in complete control, but actually the DM is invisibly channeling the story in the direction he or she wants it to go.”
It’s like the gambling scene in “War and Peace”, where Dolokhov has total control of the card game against Nikolai, deciding in advance just how much he’s going to win, and Nikolai has no idea, and just thinks he’s having bad luck.

There are just a few places where Brennan’s efforts show. Near the end of the season, all six get calls from their parents begging them to rush home because the parents are under attack. But two of the characters, who don’t really like their parents, refuse, and say they’re going to stay at school investigating the mystery. So Brennan lets them do that for a while, but then he has their parents call them back and really beg them to come home. It just briefly becomes clear to us that Brennan has decided they all have to go save their parents in order for him to get the story he wants and he’s not going to take no for an answer. It’s one of the few times you can spot him putting his thumb on the scale.

Secrets of Dungeon-Mastering: The Adventure Zone

What is this? Griffin, Justin, and Travis McElroy had a freeform podcast that dated back to earliest days of podcasting called “My Brother, My Brother, and Me” Similar to HarmonQuest yesterday, they ran out of content and decided to play DnD for just one episode to kill time, inviting their father Clint along. It was an instant hit and they spun it off into its own episode called “The Adventure Zone”. DnD 5th Edition had just come out. It had a Starter Kit, but didn’t have a Player’s Handbook yet. This is the only actual play I listened to that’s using a pre-made module, “The Lost Mines of Phandelver”, from the Starter Kit.

The people involved:
  • Griffin McElroy is the game master. He’s never done it before.
  • Clint McElroy, the father of the other three, is Merle Highchurch, Dwarf Cleric
  • Justin McElroy is Taako, Elf Wizard. He pronounces it “taco” and wants to invent the taco.
  • Travis McElroy is Magnus Burnsides, Human Fighter
What I learned about DM’ing from listening to it:

How to play with players who find DnD hard to take seriously.

One brother (I can’t tell their voices apart) talks about how, as a kid, he was a nerd, but he did like to say “At least I don’t play Dungeons and Dragons.” Both brothers who are playing bring a little of that attitude here.

Unlike the other shows/podcasts I checked out, these guys aren’t (yet) being paid to do this, aren’t hardcore gamers, and think they’re a little too cool for it, which I think is common. Griffin isn’t helping, because he’s sort of groaning at the names in the starter kit as he’s reading them.
  • Griffin: I’m nervous, like I’m not psyched about saying things like Neverwinter, and Gundran Rockseeker.
  • Brother: You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.
Finally, he realizes he’s losing them and improvises a solution:
  • Griffin: Gundran is actually going up ahead of you guys, with a fighter escort named Syldar Halwinter.
  • Brother: His name one more time?
  • Griffin: (apologetically) Syldar Halwinter.
  • Brother: Ugh. Sounds disgusting. I’m just going to call him Silly.
  • Griffin: Barry… Barry Bluejeans. I can call him, this is what I’m saying, this is our game, we can do whatever we want, I can start calling this guy Barry Bluejeans.
  • Brother: Syldar Halwinter does not stick in my head but Barry Bluejeans I’ll never forget.
  • Griffin: Okay, Barry Bluejeans, that’s his name now.
He adjusts his style on the fly until he’s taking the game just as seriously as his players. If they won’t accept serious DnD names, he’ll give them silly ones to see if that engages them more, and it works. Soon, they’re totally on board.

Other tips:
  • Unlike Critical Role, which we’ll look at later, Griffin announces they will never go shopping. “There’s a lot of like, game shit about having to stop and forage and how much money are you spending on food, but I hate all that stuff, I’m gonna leave it out”
  • Another way to adjust for people who don’t take DnD seriously: curse a lot. They come across “a very goddamn big spider.” At one point, they have this exchange: “Make a perception check.” “I rolled a 23.” “You see the shit out of anything.”
  • One thing I find frustrating and so do the brothers: When the DM says “roll initiative”, which just means “Kill this thing” but you still want to talk. The problem being that your turn lasts six seconds now, and it’s hard to say anything in six seconds.