Finding a Great DM: Experience vs Talent

In a recent blog article, Teos Abadia (aka Alphastream) posed the question: Is a good DM “good” because of talent or because of experience? And is there even such a thing as DMing talent?

In a response to Teos’ article, Brian Benoit over on Roving Band of Misfits declares “DMing is a skillset, and every skillset can be improved.” He explains that the hallmark of a good DM is one that actually strives to improve and goes on to acknowledge there are certain aspects that make for a better DM, namely confidence and social skills.

I thought about what Teos’ question meant to me. Being deeply involved with organized play for several years, I volunteer to organize and run a lot of events. I am constantly searching for new DMs. I have seen DMs come and go, good and bad.

I find experience to be an altogether useless metric by which to measure potential DMs. Often DMs that have reached out to me feel obliged to present their “DMing resume”. If they didn’t, I used to ask for a DM’s RPG history as part of my process to evaluate if they were good DMs or not. I assumed that more experience equaled better DMs. I learned eventually that I was wrong.

I learned experience is no guarantee of skill or quality. It can be a yoke, weighing down a good DM, making them inflexible, unable to adapt or improve despite any superior qualities they might have. It can make them strangely jaded, lacking in enthusiasm and creativity. Now when I recruit DMs I don’t express interest in learning too many details about a DM’s gaming history – I’ve found it helps me focus more on the DMs other qualities.

If you translate “talent” as an inherent quality or ability; then maybe talent is what defines the DM. I think there are two qualities present in every DM. In fact, if you lack both of them you’re probably not interested in D&D to begin with (and you might be a zombie, you should get that checked out).

Confidence is the first. Everyone is capable of being confident. Some people have an abundance of it, but those who think they have none can discover wellsprings of it within themselves with only a little encouragement. Knowing if literally you can or can’t do something is relatively simple, but confidence is a measure of your willingness to do act and sometimes all you need is a nudge.

Speaking of encouragement, self-improvement is also an ability I believe is inherent to everyone, but the degree of possible self-improvement varies… so it might be more appropriate to say flexibility is the second important trait. A flexible DM can learn, improvise, be open-minded, creative, and is less likely to lack confidence in new situations. I have never known a person to be taught how to be adaptive and open-minded. If someone became flexible in their methods, it was really because the quality already existed within them.

Since I know experience is not needed to be a good DM, its clear to me that confidence and flexibility are the “talents” of a good DM. That is why I always say DMing is easier than you think – you just have to have the confidence to try it and the flexibility to improve every time after that.


Unicorns and Dinosaurs

Hey! How about some minipainting? Lets test out this embedded album and see if it works:

Stonehaven Miniatures’ Undead Unicorn was very inspiring for me. I painted this around the tail end of 2014 but I only recently got around to photographing it. I felt free to play around with it as I didn’t have a planned purpose for this mini. So when I based it I tried some OSL for fun, I didn’t want a gross rotting unicorn – I wanted a unicorn that was beautiful even in death. So I tried to make her look a little ghostly and glowing.

I didn’t really know how I wanted to base it at first. Its small enough for a medium base, but I didn’t want it on a base that small. Picking through my bits, I found the sort of fence looking piece and a tombstone and had an idea. The story just kind of formed itself in my mind as I assembled the base.

When the villagers found the cold body of the beautiful unicorn, they were appalled and uncertain. Its death lay at the hands of young Jeiner, an accident he claimed, when he thought the silky white hide glimmering in the shadows of the Esterwilds was a rare albino doe.

Skinning such a sacred creature was unthinkable, but so was leaving it to rot. The simple farmers and craftspeople were without guidance, else they would have realized leaving the creature to be reclaimed by the forest was the best they could hope to do. Instead, they did what they sensibly did with the dead body of every thinking creature that passed away in their hamlet.

The town’s leader was also the town’s only priest, a retired acolyte who knew only basic prayers but did his best to look over his small flock. They interred the body in the village cemetery. Obern said his solemn prayers and the villagers bowed their heads. Then… they all moved on. They resumed their simple lives.

But it couldn’t end that simply. A creature as pure and as powerful as a unicorn does not simply die. It lives on, its very spirit rejoining the forest in eternal unity. So it should have, but this unicorn’s spirit stirred, strained, and found it could not rejoin. It was chained, brutally bound by the simple rituals laid over the cemetery by wary priests generations ago when simple villages feared the restlessness of their ancestors.

So Moonscream was born in the cool night of midsummer. The spirit of the once joyous unicorn forced back into her decaying bones, her spirit tormented and chained. She wanders the tiny hamlet at night, seeking the creatures that denied her the rest she so well deserved.

I think I’ll make a mini adventure based on this and run it for my friends sometime.

Like the unicorn, I actually painted these dinosaurs in 2014 for my husband’s dino-druid and only just took pictures of them. There’s actually another dinosaur – a big carnosaur type – that I haven’t painted yet.

They aren’t the best photos I’ve ever taken, and I’m too lazy/busy now to clean each pic individually a real editing program at the moment.

All four raptors are from Reaper. The baby raptor is from Bombshell Miniatures, and the pterodactyl was from… some obscure company I found after many fruitless hours on the internet. I don’t even remember where I got them from but I remember I had to buy a bundle of them. I received roughly a dozen of them, and gave several away on /r/minipainting.

To the Tune of Auld Lang Syne

We’ve run about the lands of fey,
Then mucked things up with slime;
And, we’ve wandered many a weary foot
For the sake of a good time!

We’ve slain undead and demons foul,
And sliced up drow real fine;
Fell beasts, between us bloodied, roar;
For the sake of a good time!

So here’s a blade, my trusty friend,
And give me a hand this time?
We’ll take the flank and strike again,
For the sake of a good time!

And should your dice bag be forgot,
Then you can borrow mine,
And never roll against your luck,
For the sake of a good time!


Dedicated to all the wonderful people I gamed with in 2014. Here’s to good luck and good gaming in the New Year!




How We Grow – Part 2

This is Part 2 of 2 about coordinating organized play for D&D Adventurers League.

DM Appreciation Society

If there were no Dungeon Masters, there would be no Dungeons & Dragons. DMs shoulder the biggest portion of the table’s responsibilities when they take up the mantle, more so when they do it for Adventurers League.  They are the faces of Organized Play, the ambassadors of D&D.

If you’re an organizer that doesn’t DM, making sure you regularly acknowledging the time and effort your DMs puts forth is worth it. DMing is a mental marathon of decision-making and problem solving.  Studies have proven that each act of making a single small decision depletes your energy bit by bit, and DMs make hundreds of small decisions every session. Because players don’t always remember, or even understand, the level of effort it takes to manage a table of 4 to 8 strangers for 2-6 hours once a week, every week, for months on end, it is worth our time to make the extra effort to pat our DMs on the back and give them a reminder about why we appreciate them. You may be a DM yourself, in which case: pat yourself on the back for me! I think you’re awesome!

Supporting your DMs is not only about encouragement though. It’s also about creating a foundation for your DMs to stand on and a safety net for them to fall back on. A strong foundation helps your DMs by providing the tools and knowledge they need to do their best. At bare minimum it is your responsibility to distribute materials and make sure the modules get into the right hands. You can go above and beyond by following relevant news and keeping your DMs posted on any changes or useful information.

Secondly, a safety net is about trust and being there for your DMs to fall back on. Your DMs need to know you’re there to back them up – that you support them first, players second. Yes, thats right – DMs first! A DM that isn’t confident about their organizer is more likely to quit if there are problems. A DM that trusts their organizer will go to their organizer for help first instead of trying to solve it (perhaps incorrectly) by themselves. Be ready for those problems, at least try to anticipate the most likely ones.  What’s your plan if a DM calls out sick? Having a backup plan will help.  What will you do if a DM reports a player is harassing them or another player?  Make sure you are prepared to enforce a Code of Conduct. What happens if the players complain about the DM? You have to consider every complaint cautiously, and not cause backlash between players. Be prepared to evaluate your own DMs. For truly atrocious complaints, you might want to read my earlier post about disruptive players and remember: DMs are players too, in every meaning of the word.

Recruiting New DMs

I’ve heard reasons, excuses, complaints. “No one’s volunteered to DM Encounters for us!”  or “Someone offered, but they never showed up!” I’ve also heard “We only have one DM, no one else has offered to run,” from a weary, burned-out, but devoted volunteer DM.

A lack of raised hands is not necessarily a lack of Dungeon Masters, its only a lack of volunteers and sometimes potential volunteers need to know they’re wanted first.  On the flip side of that, never assume that just because they’re willing to volunteer means you’re obligated to accept them or keep them as your DM. If you believe they’re not a good fit for your program, you’re doing yourself more harm by keeping them instead of replacing them with a more compatible volunteer.  Some potential DMs will obviously identify themselves to you, others you may have to extend an invitation. Either way, the criteria you need to look for is generally the same.

Experience vs. Eagerness

You might think I’d say “More experience is better!”  Well, not exactly, at least it should not automatically qualify someone anymore than anything else. As we are in the fledgling year of  D&D 5th Edition, experience only goes so far – in fact I would be wary of any DM who seems exceedingly proud of their experience with previous editions or their many years of DMing at home.  Adventurers League DMs are required run the rules as written. A DM who too eagerly praises Edition X, Houserule Y, or Optional Varient Z  is often tempted to break AL rules. They choose their way because they feel entitled to do so by merit of their many years in the hobby.  This is not good for us, it is not good for your players. It alters the expectations of the current D&D ruleset, which sets them up for failure anywhere outside of that DM’s table. I’m not saying I’d refuse an experienced DM, but I would make sure they understand and accept Adventurers League rules.

A total lack of experience can be made up with a little wisdom and an eagerness to learn. A newbie DM is a blank slate, a sponge ready to absorb rules and good DMing skills, if mentored properly.  Spotting a potential DM should be on the radar of every organizer. Watch for players that seem like they have a understanding of basic rules and how to resolve disagreements without being disagreeable. Watch them play, if you can. Do they seem like someone constantly trying to manipulate the rules to their own advantage, or do they help other players instead? Do they constantly obstruct the DM’s goals, or do they anticipate the DMs needs and try to urge their fellow players to respond? The latter could be signs of a DM-in-the-making. If they haven’t already expressed interest, you could inquire politely if they’re interested. Sometimes a vote of confidence is all a player needs to know that its an option for them.

Mentor All the DMs

Mentoring at our store is a lot like an apprenticeship. First, they get to sit next to one of our established DMs, observe and learn.  Then they trade seats and their mentor will actively assist them while they learn to run their table. As time goes on, the mentor will do less and less, sitting back and letting them handle everything on their own.  Eventually their mentor won’t sit with them at all, and the time might come when we sit some other budding DM at their table and advise them: “Watch her, she knows what she’s doing!”

Its a good system for teaching new DMs, and its part of the reason we have over a dozen DMs in rotation at our store.  We also put experienced DMs through the same process, before we let them run a table on their own.  Partly to verify their claim, and partly because we are not a DM matchmaking service. It is an odd expectation, but we have experienced it. Some DMs come in hoping to get matched up to a tableful of perfect players that they can then do whatever they want with, as if we were some sort of concierge service for D&D. We’re here for Adventurers League and, as a matter of pride, we want our DMs to represent our program and our store with a consistent level of quality. So we mentor everyone, even if only for a single session.

Mentoring is easy for the established DMs teaching a new volunteer. In the beginning, it’s a lot like getting a personal assistant. The hardest part is the midpoint – when the new DM needs to learn but is still often uncertain or under-prepared. The mentor DM keeps the players from taking advantage of the new DM’s inexperience, and serves as a back-up when the newbie DM can’t rise to the task of managing an unusual problem. To be a mentor a DM simply needs to have a willingness to answer questions, confidence in the rules, and plenty of patience – all of which an Organized Play DM should have anyway!

Grow No More

Okay, maybe you don’t have space for another table, or not enough players show up to fill a new table. Why go through all the bother of mentoring when you already have a perfectly great DM who’s happy to keep DMing until the end of days?  Many reasons!

First, if you really think your current DM(s) will be there forever, you’re kidding yourself. Life happens, DMs get sick, or move, change jobs, have kids, start school, graduate, or fall down stairs and break both their ankles. Maybe you just cancel the game then, but you wouldn’t have to if you had a back-up DM – and if you really need me to explain this, I question your qualities as an organizer!  Furthermore, part of the support most DMs appreciate is the chance to step away, so having a spare DM or two to rotate behind the DM screen keeps your DMs from getting burned-out.  It also freshens things up with the players.  Every DM has their own style and players can benefit from experiencing different play styles.

Last and most importantly, remember when I said “If there were no Dungeon Masters, there would be no Dungeons & Dragons” earlier?  Running a program that teaches people how to play D&D should include teaching people about DMing.  As an organizer, it’s as much your responsibility to find and teach new DMs how to run a table as it is to teach new players how to build and level up a character. Quite frankly, if you’re not mentally evaluating every player that walks in the door as a potential future DM, you’re not doing your players justice.  More than anything, sparking that love of Dungeon Mastering in a player is how we grow our hobby – don’t neglect it!


I am a four-year veteran of D&D Encounters, currently coordinating for the largest gaming store in the Far West Region, along with my husband and a team of volunteers. Do you have a question about coordinating events or organized play in general? Ask in the comments or email me:

How We Grow – Part 1

This is Part 1 of 2 about coordinating organized play for D&D Adventurers League.

Getting Rid of Bad Apples

Sifting the wheat from the chaff. Culling the herd. Not letting a bad apple spoil the barrel. There are different ways to say it, different ways to think about it. It’s the reason why we have a Code of Conduct. There are bad players out there. At my store, we learned quickly how bad players influence new players and how to act on and remove such negative influences promptly to ensure the overall health of our organized play program.

We expect a lot of turn-over in Encounters. It’s an informal event as organized play goes and people join and leave all the time, but as we monitored attendance and informally polled players about their play experiences my husband, who is a very good reader of people, would pick up a pattern every season or so. Brand new players seated at a certain table would not stay more than one or two weeks. We’d observe that table and find one player was disruptive or rude to the other players. Or we’d actually receive complaints if the player’s actions were especially obnoxious. This would make new players uncomfortable or disinterested. In some cases the new players would be the target of the rude player’s attention and that would only hastened the leaving process. We immediately began intercepting these problems and trying to deal with them.

I’ve seen the idea circulate that because this is public play everyone has a right to play, so we coordinators should do everything to find a workable compromise for every player that comes to our store.

Not true. Any compromise that allows a bad player to stay and a good player to leave is a bad compromise. Everyone has the right to have fun and if a player is not contributing towards that goal, they forfeit their right to be part of a fun event. Those of us running D&D Encounters are volunteers. We are donating our time to make this event awesome and we do not have to tolerate it.

It seems like common sense, but we’ve seen the questions on forums or answered them at panels. “How do I deal with X type of roleplaying?” where X is not a type of roleplaying at all, but some disguised flavor of disruptive behavior. No, there is no obligation to accept “Its what my character would do” as an excuse. In fact, its a red flag for malicious PvPing in most cases I’ve witnessed.

Another example is “What should I do about this player?” where the player mentioned has demonstrated continued bad behavior. Some gamers believe they should try to tolerate these people, to find some way to make them better, to try to “fix” them, or at the very least find a coping mechanism. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

D&D Adventurers League is not Roleplayer’s Rehab. Cut out the bad apple and focus on the present players and the new players. If one new player’s experience is ruined by a bad player, think about what you’ve really done for them: their first memory of their first D&D game will be the bitter memory of something uncomfortable, uninteresting, and/or unsatisfactory. Don’t facilitate that. Trim the rot and help the good grow!

Addressing Problem Players: Ask. Warn. Remove.

Ask them to stop first. Discuss the problem but stay firm. Remember that intentions are unverifiable and are almost completely irrelevant to the consequences. Anyone can lie to you about why they did it. It really isn’t about why but about the what and the fact is they did it, and the outcome was negative.

Warn them of removal second. Step one you could be open to discussion, but in Step two accept no negotiation. They have violated their social contract by breaking the rules a second time. Be polite but precise in your expectations. The behavior must stop or they will be excluded from the game.

Remove. Three strikes, you’re out. The player demonstrates they’re either incapable or unwilling to alter their behavior. Here’s your litmus test: would WotC approve of this behavior? Would they proudly put this behavior forward as an example of what D&D is to someone who has never played D&D? If the answer is “No”, hell if the answer is “maybe not”, consider cutting the bad player lose and dust off your hands without regret.

You can skip to any step as you deem appropriate based on the severity of the ill behavior. Don’t tolerate cheaters. Don’t tolerate threats or violent behavior. Don’t tolerate bad hygiene – soap is cheap. Most of all don’t tolerate bullies or creepers. Remove the player and suspend them from playing in your program. Suspend a bad player for an amount of time proportionate to the crime. Suspension times can be a week, a month, a season, or forever.

If cutting bad players seems to be a bad idea because it will decrease the number of players to an insufficient amount, consider this: how will you make room for new players if the seats are filled with bad players? Better still, bringing in a new player means bringing in someone with no bad habits, no misconception about how to play. Cultivating new players into Great Players is a lot easier without any bad influences around.

Part 2: Planting Seeds

I am a four year veteran of D&D Encounters, currently coordinating for a large gaming store in the Far West Region, along with my husband and a team of volunteers. Do you have a question about coordinating events or organized play in general? Ask in the comments or email me:


Preview: Bog Oak Dice from The Root Dice

The nice fellows over at The Root Dice sent me a pair of dice to preview for their kickstarter. I was very excited to receive them and the moment the package came to my desk, I had to tear them open right then and there.


Unwrapped like delicious candy!


These dice are sexy. Pictures don’t do them justice. This set is made from 5,000 year old bog oak.

“Our Bog Oak was born at the end of the last ice age. Huge oak forests throughout Europe flooded, and the trees died standing and fell into the muck. The swampy conditions have not only preserved these trees, but have turned the wood a deep black color. The bog oak we use is 5,000 years old.”

They’re not kidding about the color. Its not even a “dark brown”, but a deep true black, nicely varnished so that they’re not too glossy. The numbers are unglossed so they show up by contrast. Everyone I showed my dice to assumed the dice were stained/painted black. When I explained they were naturally that deep true black, its surprising because you don’t expect a shade so pure to occur naturally.

Not enhanced, the bog oak dice are naturally this smooth, pure black color.

Not enhanced, the bog oak dice are naturally this smooth, pure black color.

They roll nicely and they’re not as heavy as they look. They’re not so light as to feel insubstantial, but not any heavier than a set of plastic d6s. They roll with a soft bounce and the corners aren’t sharp enough, nor are the dice heavy enough, to damage tabletops. I feel free to use them on any surface safely.

Altogether these are possibly the coolest dice I have ever owned and they’ve gotten nothing but positive reactions from everyone I’ve shown them to. The Root Dice guys have a fairly straight-forward no-nonsense Kickstarter going with 9 days left on the clock and slots still open for their Founders Edition set. I recommend checking them out if you love cool and unique dice.




Codename: Morningstar

Bp31QBBIEAAk3BlYou know what is really exciting about this D&D Codename:Morningstar stuff?

1. We heard absolutely nothing about it beforehand. No drawn-out weeks of hinting and clue dropping. Remember previous digital projects WotC announced early? How long did we wait? How well did they come out? How many turned out anything like what they started as? Its a nice change to see something announced that actually surprises me.

2. Trapdoor has clearly already done enough work to get something into early beta testing and they’re playtesting it right now at Origins! Why does this matter? See above. Shit got done here, clearly. They might be a small company I’ve never heard of, but so far it seems like they have their head on right for developing stuff. Yeah, its not finished, but already they’re one-up on previous failed projects.

3. WotC has fine-tuned their alpha playtesters into a well-oiled machine (more or less) and its all already in place ready to playtest digital tools. Why am I bringing this up? WotC shouldn’t (and probably won’t) reinvent the wheel. They already have this carefully built network of playtesters. They already know the ins and outs of 5e. They’ve already signed NDAs and will happily sign them again. These are the people that are going to get invites to playtest new digital tools besides the individuals that make it to conventions.

Then there’s the news that on launch it will support browser, Android, and iOS? Very encouraging.

D&D Adventure League

28680Hoard of Dragon Queen_LGYesterday we all saw the announcement from Wizards regarding the D&D Adventure League, which was very interesting.  As my husband and I manage the Organized Play at our FLGS, any new developments in the Organized Play program affect us deeply. After reading it, I’ll admit I was a little excited. The indication of something akin to a “living campaign” with material for higher level play is very encouraging. Encounters sees a lot of turn-over in its players. Partly because players naturally bond and move on to form their own home groups, but also partly because Encounters perpetually cycles players through the first levels of play, which gets dull after a while. Players crave more challenging games.

The owner of my FLGS forwarded this link to me:
ICv2 – ‘D&D’ Adventurers League Launches with New Edition

The previous link about D&D Adventure League is a lot of fluff, but this link has some interesting insights to be gleaned.

“The redesigned kits support up to 20 players and four Dungeon Masters, and will include gameplay aids and new components like certificates for special items or awards, table tents, blank character sheets, and more. The adventure portion will be available as a complimentary PDF from Wizards.”

This is great. Traditionally 1 kit = 2 tables. That’s fine for most stores, but my FLGS’ Wednesday Encounters last night hosted 5 tables of 7 people each! We received 2 packets from WotC this season, but thankfully now all my DMs can have their own PDF of the module instead of sharing a hardcopy.

Additionally, if a single packet now supports 4 tables, that means smaller stores, which would normally get a single packet worth 2 tables, will be able to more easily encourage a third or fourth table if they so wish.

“D&D Expeditions play is intended for higher-level character play, either for experienced players or those that have completed the D&D Encounters portion of OP (…) Stores are encouraged to use these kits to support local convention events, and contact Wizards’ retail support team if they require more than one kit.”

Beyond the general Encounters info, this part is intriguing. I’m going to be interested in seeing how often these “Expeditions” are released. I can’t help but think that for areas that don’t have a lot convention events, stores will be able to run these as Game Day events or perhaps routinely, much like  the old Lair Assault program, for more dedicated players (but with more roleplaying).

The ICv2 link doesn’t mention D&D Epics at all, but Wizards says those will be the big convention events.

Our first D&D Epics adventure will take place at Gen Con Indy this year. Entitled Corruption in Kryptgarden, it will be a massive, multi-table event that will shape the Tyranny of Dragons story and bring renown to those that experience it.

Wish I could be there for it!


Recommendation Level Up!

Some of the positive effects D&D can have outside the game store or away from the table is measured in the skills we gain from a game that is complex enough to require social, math, and reading skills, not to mention creativity and problem solving. One of our volunteer DMs for Encounters at our FLGS (Guardian Games) requested a letter of recommendation for his volunteer hours so he could use it qualify for a certain program he was trying to get into. I mentioned it on twitter and gladly obliged. I wanted to shared it here because it was pretty special to be able to help that DM use his D&D experience for an application. Edited for privacy: letter-of-rec