Thursday, March 28, 2024

F***ing Idiots

Started a post on Monday that was fairly wistful. Started a post on Wednesday that was more nostalgic. Started a post this morning that was full of irritation and ranting...real piss and vinegar stuff, calling out people, naming names, etc.

I ain't posting any of that. Heck, I ain't even going to give you summaries.

Here what I'll say instead:

Let's for the moment assume that you wanted to read a book explaining the path to being a great Dungeon Master. Because (let's say) you really like Dungeons & Dragons, AND you're the person (for whatever reason) that ends up in the Captain's Chair, more often than not. AND you've decided that, hey, maybe I could use some notes or insight or gosh darn instruction that might help polish my game. A handbook of practical information, untethered from considerations of rules and mechanics (as one finds in the DMG) yet structurally sound, applicable, and good for reading/reference. Something containing a paradigm that makes use of the BEST information found on various blogs BUT CONDENSED, in a way that meandering bloggers just can't seem to get going. Something with a table of contents, perhaps.

Let's say, as a thought exercise, that you wanted that. And let's say there WAS such a book, available in paperback and audio and ebook format...a platinum best-seller on DTRPG with a (near) 5-star rating and a ton of positive reviews and accolades. And let's say you bought it and opened it up to that table of contents...a table of contents that featured multiple authors giving essays on various aspects of running the game. Would you hope and expect to see chapters with these titles (in this order):

"Making Players Shine"
"Creating a Fun and Inclusive Game For All"
"GMing for Kids"
"Giving Initiative: Engaging Shy Players"
"The People At The Table"
"Advice for New GMs"
"Tips for Long-Time Gamemasters"
"Planning Your Campaign in Four Stages"
"Character Love Interests"
"Gamemastering on the Fly"
"One-Shot Adventures"
"Winning Player Investment"
"Knowing the Rules vs. Mastering the Game"
"The Art of Theatrical Gaming"
"Laughter, Cellphones, and Distractions from Serious Gaming"
"Roll With It! What to Do When It Doesn't All Go As Planned"
"Feasts and Famines: Handling Large Groups or Just One Player"
"Ditching the Miniatures: Playing A Smoother RPG"
"Getting Things Going Again"
"Dealing with a TPK: How to Save Your Players, Your Campaign, and Your Reputation"
"Moving the Perspective"

Really? This is going to show me how to be a Dungeon Master? 

With tax, the price of the book runs a bit under $22...a little more than $1 per essay. That wouldn't be an unreasonable price...if any of these essays looked worth reading, I suppose, if I'm bring perfectly honest, I do have some curiosity about one or two of these...what could a four page essay tell me about handling "large groups or just one player," for example, that couldn't be said in four sentences? Hold on, let me give it a try:
While D&D can be played with as few players as one (or even none, should a DM want to use the random dungeon generators, wandering encounters, and treasure tables to play an abridged "solo" game), the game functions best with a number of players, working in cooperation. Challenges will need to be adjusted based on the player number: I've found six to eight player characters to be optimal, and groups with fewer players benefit from a number of NPC companions that can fill the ranks to this number. Over the long term, campaigns can sustain play from a huge number of players, but practically speaking, it is difficult for a DM to manage a table with more than nine players at a time, slowing play substantially and diluting the play experience for all. If you have such large groups, it is best to run multiple sessions of smaller parties, rather than huge groups at once.
That's not bad for a first pass. I's about all that needs to be said, really (perhaps a footnote regarding large campaigns with multiple DMs).

But...whatever. Curiosity is about the only reason I could see myself spending money on this thing, because none of this looks like solid, practical information. In fact, much of it looks incredibly counter-productive and terrible advice; I could easily see individuals incorporating this nonsense into their DMing producing games that are far worse than what it would have been without these "tips."

Here's an excerpt from the first chapter (I'll remove some of the excess padded word count that adds little-to-nothing):
"...we're there to make the players shine and the world come to life, and the nice thing about doing so is that both activities feed into each other. The more engaging the world is, the more players feel encouraged to get involved and make their characters shine. The more the PCs shine, the more engaging the world becomes.

"GMs can make players shine by giving them as many chances as possible to succeed and look cool while they do it. That's it! ...

"Thinking of GMing as a service job helps make the game as great as possible for all of the players. If your focus as a GM is on your players and their awesomeness, and you are constantly engaged in making "shine moments" happen whenever they can, then you create a positive feedback loop: Players work to do cool things with their characters, you make the world react in a cool way to what they do, the whole table celebrates the cool moment as it's happening, and the loop continues. Players get more invested in the game, the world, and the story, and contributing more great ideas and story grist as a result. Everybody wins!"
Sure. Dance monkey, dance. Feed the narcissism at your table. 

The chapter continues with telling the DM to celebrate good dice rolls when they occur, to use elaborate descriptions of how awesome a player succeeded at their skill check or attack roll, so that the player can feel special and shiny. This is shitty, shitty advice. Just what, do you think, you're communicating? Hey, anyone remember Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey? Here's a comparable quote:

Children need encouragement. 
If a kid gets an answer right, tell him it was a lucky guess.
That way he develops a good, lucky feeling.

Yay. You picked up a 20-sided die and rolled a high number! Let's celebrate! You're really good at rolling dice! Glad to have you on the team!

Now, hold up a sec. Probably there are DMs out there who could benefit from some advice on managing players at the table: understanding the difference between DMing kids and adults, or extroverted individuals and introverted, and the general nuts-and-bolts of acting as a facilitator/referee for group dynamics at the table. Sure. But that's ONE CHAPTER, and (for my money) probably not a terribly large chapter. The fact is, being able to manage group dynamics effectively is DMing 101, and if you need a whole lot of training on that, you're probably NOT cut out to be a DM.  Sorry.

Tuesday, I had lunch with Rob, my oldest friend (we've known each other since preschool). It's been roughly fifteen years since the last time we got together; a lot has changed for the both of us in that time. For one thing, he's playing D&D now and is, in fact, acting as the Dungeon Master for his group. This despite never having much interest in the game in the past (to be clear, we played other Classic Traveller...and hex-n-chit war games. D&D was just never his thing). Amazing, quite frankly...never thought I'd see the day. Gave us PLENTY to talk about, even after catching up on all the fifteen years of history we'd missed.

He is, of course, playing 5E "but only because that's the version my game group wants to play." Never heard that before. He ended up becoming the Dungeon Master after the first session and "the DM decided she really preferred to be a player and not a DM." He says he enjoys the role mainly because it has stopped him from having to answer the question 'what do you want to do?' He'd much rather react (dance monkey!) to the players than have to generate his own proactive action. 

[comes from playing a directionless game with no focused objectives, I suppose]

Rob is VERY new to D&D...he doesn't know anything about 2nd or 3rd or 4th edition D&D, for example, though he has heard of Matt Mercer (*sigh*). He found my perspective on the"intriguing," to say the least; especially what the game is, what it does well, and how best to use it. "I might have to invite myself to one of your games," he said. Yeah, probably, should. 

It's too bad he lives in Everett. 

See, Rob is now the ripe old age of 49 and a half...some of the joy of Dungeons & Dragons. "Some" being the operative word, because there's also's like he can see the potential, but just can't grasp it. Like he sees there's an answer, but he doesn't know the right question. He knows people are having fun with the game, but he's not quite sure he is having fun...or (perhaps) not quite sure he's having the kind of fun that he wants to have. Or feels he could have. Or even knows what it would look like to play enjoyable D&D.

Is "fun" on the chapter list for the aforementioned 'gamemaster guide?' Hmm, let's see:  "Creating a Fun And Inclusive Game For All" would seem to suggest something about "fun," including "fun for the DM" (I mean, I'm just inferring that from the "For All" part of the chapter title). Hmmmm...reading through the chapter, the answer would be "no;" it's just about understanding and recognizing issues of diversity and privilege and being understanding of people's feelings, maybe using an "x-card," setting boundaries, etc.

Um. Okay. I guess that's good advice to being a better human being, but it's not really giving me information specific or pertinent to running Dungeons & Dragons. Again: small chapter on how to run a table: good. Maybe a couple sentences about not being an asshole or allowing people at your table to be assholes to each other. But this is really remedial shit, and if you need a six page tutorial on the subject, you've probably got bigger fish to fry, life-wise.


Anything about running a long-term campaign or the benefits thereof? No. Anything about commitment to world building and the mindset necessary for engagement? No. Anything about studying real world history, politics, sociology, mythology for the betterment of your campaign world? No. How about the absolute importance of knowing and understanding the rule system being used, in order to provide the players with consistency and a referee that they can trust? No, in fact we get gems like this instead:
"Understanding when to strictly apply rules instead of maintaining game fluidity is one of the true marks distinguishing the novice GM from the master GM...the GM has to learn how to balance the impacts of ruling on the fly to ensure that the game continues without making it "too easy" as well as ensuring that the carefully-crafted player character abilities are not swept away and ignored.

"Game play can be improved in both the short term (flow) and long improvised decisions. To master the game, you, the GM need to be agile enough to decide when to just make a decision rather than go with the rules or rulebook...

"...What is important is that you spend game time actually playing, and not consulting rulebooks every 15 minutes. True mastery of tabletop roleplaying means that a GM has control of the table...this, in my humble opinion, is best accomplished by maintaining game flow and progress.

"One of the most definitive differences between modern games (such as Pathfinder and 5th edition) and the old style games (like OSR games) is that in the former, rules and not pure rulings govern play."
What in the actual F is this guy talking about? Are you f**ing kidding me? You know, I happen to play an "old style game;" it's called first edition AD&D. "Pure rulings?" Are you a f**ing idiot?

Yes. The answer is yes. He is a fucking idiot.

Sorry, sorry, sorry. I said at the beginning of this post that I was NOT going to rant. But that was before I started digging into this thing, this boondoggle of an "advice" book. It is full of shit. Just dreck. Reading it will make any novice DM stupider and less competent or (at best) do ALMOST NOTHING to improve their ability to run the Dungeons & Dragons game.

And I am angry. I am angry that there are smart, enthusiastic people out there who want to play this game, who want to RUN this game, who want to be Dungeon Masters, who are not getting the help they need. Who are instead given dreck like this. That and a thank you from WotC for buying their a product and a middle finger for those asking for some solid advice.

Yes, I'm angry. I'm angry at myself. I should have already written a book on how to run this fantastic, amazing game. A helpful, no-nonsense, non-padded book. Something that ANY novice DM...middle aged, like my buddy, or kids like my own...could benefit from. Man, I've wasted a bunch of my time. 

That's the next project. That's the new project. Everything else is getting back-burnered.


  1. I truly believe that any book that promises to teach the reader how to be a great DM is a scam.
    There are some really great books on a subject (like DMG 1E), but they're written for a specific game and give specific advice.

    1. Hm.

      I'm not sure I agree with any of that.

      1) I think that in some/most cases, people aren't trying to "scam" the buyer. They're just doing a really, really poor job.

      2) I don't think there ARE "really great books" on the subject. I think there are (maybe) one or two "good" books (How To Run by Alexis Smolensk is valiant, but even he admits to that needing an update). The DMG has good information, but it glosses over a lot, implies a lot, and is more concerned with baseline rules than systematizing advice.

      3) If there are other books for specific games (other than D&D)...well, that MIGHT be so. None are coming to mind (and I'd be happy to hear suggestions from any that you've read). I played Vampire the Masquerade (1st and 2nd edition) from 1990-95 and read a lot of essays on how to be a "better Storyteller" for THAT game and large...most of that advice was crap, too.

      Now, whether or not *I* have the chops to write such a book...well, that's a debatable subject. But at least it wouldn't be a scam. And I'm not really aiming for "great;" mainly, I'm hoping to hit "serviceable."
      ; )

    2. A scam in a sense that the book just unable to do what it promises to do. Just unable to improve DM skill in any meaningful way. Sorry if I'm sound off; my English is not that great.

      I think that "being good" at running the roleplaying game largely consists of three main parts.

      1) Knowing how to use a game system. The ability to understand and manage all the different rules and systems that comprise the game, and the ability to manage the typical scenarios and situations (i.e.: dungeon crawl) for that game.

      That's what DMG1E is doing. Sure, it's not perfect (but again, what is?), but still very useful in this regard.

      2) Ability to create interesting situations and environments for players to explore. It's a very wide subject; from dungeon design to maintaining interesting dialogues with NPC and much, much more.

      I just don't think it is possible to cover this in a single book.

      3) Ability to manage players, maintain functional relationships with your group and so on.

      Again, it is a wide topic. Sure, there is a question of a "being able to manage group dynamics effectively", how you've put it, and it's a question of a life experience mostly. But I think there is more; managing different expectations, making sure that players are engaged and so on. Often these things just work out organically, but often not.

      And I don't think that roleplaying books should try to cover this topic at all. Except maybe some really short basic advice which, I guess, is obvious anyway. Plus some of it is a job for a whole group and not for the DM only.

    3. Redrick, I understand you mean well, but you're wrong. Obviously the sort of book that JB wants can be written; where it comes to the most complex subjects known to human beings, D&D is not in the top 1,000. But you are right that the books being written are scams. And you're right to distrust anything being sold to you, especially sight unseen.

      But that begs the question: if someone handed you the information you claim can't be written for free, would you pay for it after the fact? Is it information you'd not only embrace, but be willing to sell your soul for?

    4. Well, at this point I'm not very interested at being "a great DM". Somehow it's enough for me as it is. So now I'm not very interested in that kind of books.

  2. F*** that's a bunch of terrible shit.

    "GMs can make players shine by giving them as many chances as possible to succeed and look cool while they do it. That's it!"

    Who is this for? People who's favorite sports team is the Harlem Globetrotters?

    Good luck with the project. I'm sure I won't agree with all of it, but sounds like the world needs it.

    1. Hmm. This would not be opinion. It would be instruction. But, feel free to disagree with it all you want.
      ; )

      As for the "target audience:" I mean the introduction states:

      "Whether you're a newbie GM or you've been doing this a long time, there's plenty of great advice in this book."

      So, I guess the target audience is...everyone?

      However, I have to say I disagree heartily with the statement, i.e. I do NOT think there's "plenty" of "great advice" to be found in these pages. More's the pity. Some of the tips are helpful least...not harmful. But a lot of it is wrong-headed or bone-headed or counter to playing to the strength of the game.

      But, hey: maybe I'm the bone-head here. Maybe people LOVE LOVE LOVE playing the kind of game that this type of advice promotes. Cool. Then they have their book.

      My plan is to write something for the other people.

  3. I love it when one of the good guys goes off. Alexis was similarly inclined earlier this week. When I returned to D&D a few years ago I started watching Youtube videos. There ARE some helpful videos there. And some decent contributors. For a while. And then they realize they're played out, or people aren't watching anymore so they start spewing the same thing over and over OR dumbing down the message to the lowest common denominator or repeating the same advice that everyone spews because it's what the masses want to hear. And the rest of us? If we're lucky we find the right voices.

    1. Oh, man…oh, man. I haven’t checked up on the Tao for the last week and a half…completely missed that post Sunday.

      Yeah. I feel like that, too. In spades.

  4. Thank you, JB. First post you've really written about D&D in months.

    Yes, I've been thinking of that 2nd Edition for some time now. And I know what's keeping me from it. It isn't a lack of potential interest, it isn't Redrick's comment that it can't be done ... and I'm quite sure at this point in my thoughts that I could greatly improve on my earlier work.

    A book, a proper book, is an enormous task. It's addressing the subject, cutting open one's veins and bleeding a set number of hours each day, whether at the keyboard or letting one's thoughts be possessed by the venture at hand. At first, it sounds marvelous, exciting, something to be wished for ... but I know too well from experience that much further down the road it is just misery, absolutely misery, until it's done and left behind.

    To put myself through that again, for this book, another book telling people how to DM, that's going to get a sort of mild "that was interesting but ..." sort of response, I just don't know it I give a damn. I just don't know. And for the present, when I have honestly better things to do with my time, I haven't made a decision about shackling myself to this particular masochism.

    But if you'll indulge me, I'd like to tackle Redrick's three points.

    1. I haven't written you...I'm getting rather tired of trying to find new ways to say the same thing.

      Easier to just writing a fucking book? Maybe. I'll be sure to include your works in my bibliography.

  5. “Knowing how to use a game system.” Redrick speaks of this the way most people do, as though every game system is this profoundly unique set of rules that can’t be understood by READING and MEMORISING them. This second part is the impossible ask that upsets the applecart. Memorise the damn rules. Know them by heart. It’s not magic. A 10-year-old can memorise this many rules, if motivated to do so. Pick one set, memorise them, apply them. Then try them long enough, a couple of YEARS, to ensure that yes, they work or no they don’t. It’s not rocket science. It’s also not something any DM I’ve met in the last 30 years is willing to do. Back in the 80s, when I ran AD&D, I could have quoted parts of the book verbatim, cold. The only reason I can’t do that now is because I’ve changed so many things, I need a wiki to keep track of the changes.
    “Ability to create interesting situations and environments.” The rest of the sentence is redundant. Specifying dungeon design and dialogues is redundant. Basically the answer is, grasp cause and effect. “A” happens; “B” happens. When we were all kids, and bored, and inventing questions like, “Would you come to school naked,” we were training ourselves to succeed at this incredibly simple process. The entire internet right now is dedicated to creating interesting situations and environments and putting them on YouTube. A DM needs to do this too. But … to do it well begins with an understanding how numerous small effects happening first make a big EFFECT have weight. People want the big effect to happen out of the gate, without build, because “B” is what they think it’s all about. “A” has to happen first. Teach them to make “A” happen; teach them how “A” makes “B.” Problem solved.

    “Ability to manage players.” The rest is redundant. Here’s how to manage players. Have expectations. Enforce them. Don’t let your fear stop you from having expectations. Start with yourself. You want to be a DM? Expect something of yourself. Then enforce that expectation. Most people can’t do it. They just can’t. They let themselves off the hook, let it pass, and end up indulging their weaker selves instead. Don’t do that. Have expectations.

    See, simple advice. Go write your book. I hope you sell many copies.

    1. I really don't think it's rocket science. It is SO DIFFICULT not to have a very low opinion of these authors and publishers who...probably, some of them (at least)..."mean well" but who are just such fucking idiots. Or, rather, they're not, but their writing is just sooooo counter-productive.

      Your answers are bang on, by the way, all three of them. I think "B" is where there is room for elaboration...but "B" is a false premise anyway. "Creating interesting situations and environments" is stupid and unnecessary to running good, solid, engaging D&D.

      That's what my book (should I shed the blood necessary to write it) will hopefully address.

  6. If someone were looking for GM advice, I would highly recommend Mike Shea's Lazy Dungeon Master series. Mike's advice is concise and practical. The cost is well worth the information. He also offers lots of free stuff as well.

    1. Since you bring up Shea's name, I will divulge that one of the chapters in the book I reference above was penned by him. With regard to the "advice" he gives, it is...for the most part...innocuous; that is, it is not harmful.

      [some might quibble over his admonition to "watch live play videos" or study unrelated game systems and adapt their ideas to a system already designed to function in a particular way]

      But it is otherwise mostly EMPTY prattle. "Keep learning!" Great advice, Mike. Now tell me how to run the game. "Check your ego! Not everyone games like you!" Got it, but tell me how *I* can make *MY* game better.

      I would not promote any book series that implies laziness is a tolerable quality in a DM. Where's the "Get Off Your Ass" series? Will he next be selling a series of books aimed at helping the "Hopelessly Stupid DM?"

      Poor advice, freely given, is not something that holds much interest for me.

    2. The Lazy DM's version of learning to skiing well: "Don't do things you don't know how to do!" "The slopes are full of other people!" "Go downhill!"

      If I want this sort of non-advice advice, I can now find buckets and buckets of it on chatGPT. Shea has been made obsolete.

  7. "Dealing with a TPK: How to Save Your Players, Your Campaign, and Your Reputation"

    ...this one's a joke, right?

    I feel some of this frustration myself, but for me, it comes from the increasingly unavoidable conclusion that what I think D&D (and ttrpgs in general) and what the current generation of gamers (and I mean generation in terms of time in the hobby, not actual age of the players) think D&D is are two completely different, incompatible entities.