2016 D&D 5th Edition Dungeon Master Questionnaire

by Mike Shea on 31 October 2016

Four years ago, as part of my preparation in writing The Lazy Dungeon Master I surveyed a number of Dungeon Masters that I knew personally and knew held their craft to a high standard. This past summer and fall I sent out a similar questionnaire to a number of dungeon masters with the hope that, now that we've had a couple of years with the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, we'd see how DMs are preparing for and running their games.

I selected these dungeon masters based on those I either knew personally or came highly recommended as DMs who were excellent practitioners of the craft. These are people who think about D&D a lot and spend a great amount of time preparing and running their D&D games. It is far from a perfect and fully inclusive list but it does give us a view into wide range of styles and techniques for preparing and running D&D game.

A New Survey for All 5e DMs

This questionnaire goes hand-in-hand with a new survey for all 5th edition Dungeon Masters to help us all understand how we prepare for and run our 5th edition games.

If you are a 5th edition dungeon master who regularly runs games, please take the survey and help us all get this wider view of the mysteries of dungeon mastering.

Results of the Questionnaire

This page contains the full raw results of the questionnaire and will continue to grow as I get more responses back. I have not yet begun the deeper analysis of the results. Instead, I wanted to make these results available to all of us so we can see how these excellent DMs run their games and think about how we run our own.

Enjoy.

Respondents Index

Teos Abadia

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

Teos Abadia (Alphastream on Twitter) is a frequent contributor to organized play, freelances for Wizards of the Coast and other RPG companies, and writes at alphastream.org.

How long are your gaming sessions?

I like 4 hours for the amount of story we can accomplish. I feel like around hour 2 I see players really get into the role they play and their minds are fully on track with what a campaign is doing (team objectives, campaign story, personal goals, etc.). I do increasingly run 3-3.5 hour sessions just to accommodate schedules, but I prefer 4. With kids ages 12 or younger, I aim for 1-2 hours, due to attention spans.

How often do you run them?

Right now, I don't have a regular group. Long story, but my travel wrecked my regular groups and then after I stopped traveling I was writing a lot. But, when I run a campaign, I want it weekly. Bi-weekly, I think, leads to cancellations and players forgetting why it all matters. I find this when I play as well.

Where do you run your games?

I prefer my house, due to gear. I want to be able to leverage everything I have. Some of my players like a gaming store (we have a really good one), but I love running at home.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

At the end of the session, preferably that day, I write up a one-page summary of what took place. Then I review that. On my copy, I have written DM notes around player goals, secret DM stuff, etc., so I especially review that. This is all a strong story focus. Then, for the upcoming session, I look at what I want to create, pick/create monsters, develop encounters/scenes, and decide whether to go TotM or use some mix of battlemaps, minis, tiles, Dwarven Forge, etc.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

Hard to say, it really varies. On my own campaign I can spend a lot of time if the right monsters aren't there, or if I need to really develop NPCs, plot threads, locations. Most typical is an hour on monsters, an hour on encounters/scenes, an hour on plot, maybe 30 min on physical props.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I think I'm good on the time. I just want to play more often right now.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

Effort on plot with personal connections to players, cool props.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

When I run published, it is because I really like it and want to change it up, or because I'm playtesting. My ideal is homebrew so I can tell a more personal story. Certainly harder to try to come up with a great campaign plot.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

I prefer maps for the tactile and eye candy, but I run about 50% each.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

I use the encounter spreadsheet. I'll do things for players, such as create spell cards if they don't have them, or create fun player handouts.

I don't really think I do much tools-wise. Maybe the listing of MM monsters by type (such as elemental) and the listing by CR. Those are helpful. For minis, I use that gallery of maps to keep organized and pick one quickly. I use my minis tracker to search what I have.

One overlooked tool... Microsoft Word. I really like using it to sort my outline for the session, trying to get everything on 1-2 pages so I can easily see my plans.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Hard to think back on this one. The presentation on player types I did captures a lot of it - to try to understand what my players want out of the game and cater to/balance those needs. Creating a visceral experience, where the play matters to the character and their player, is always critical for attention spans. And, maybe just to DM for the goal of fun, vs. a sense of how the world/game should be.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Run organized play - especially the same adventure for many different tables.

Jay Africa

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

I'm Jay Africa, designer and former US Far West Local Coordinator for the D&D Adventurers League. I first started playing D&D in 1986 with the 1st Edition Mentzer Red Box. I played and DMed 1st, Ed., 2nd Ed., took an unplanned hiatus from the game during the 3/3.5th Ed. days, then returned to and fell in love with 4th Ed. in 2008. I started playing D&D Encounters, picked up DMing again, and have been playing D&D Organized Play in one form or another ever since.

How long are your gaming sessions?

It depends on the adventure I'm running. I typically prefer sessions that are between two to four hours long.

How often do you run them?

I try to run at least one weekly game. Additionally, I DM at game days and conventions, usually averaging an additional twice a month.

Where do you run your games?

I like running games in-store, though I've recently started running a monthly game at my home.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

I more frequently run published modules, so much of the prep is taken care of. Still, there's a good amount of figuring things out and connecting dots, even within pre-written adventures. My main focus is on giving the adventure a good read and preparing the story. I like to know how to begin the story (introducing the scenario to the players or recapping past events, and setting up the location or the situation), what paths the players may take during the session, what the session's "hook" or "emphatic element" is, and ideas on how I can resolve the story and conclude the narrative. I try to make sure that each session has a solid beginning, middle, and end. If I have time, I look up lore around specific settings and characters. If there are NPCs, I make characterization choices and decide how they might first relate to the player-characters. Next, I focus on what conflicts the players will or may face, whether combat or narrative. I prep stat blocks and maps, make notes about traps (check/save DCs and consequences), and figure out whether any parts of the story might require skill checks or a sequence of checks. If I'm not familiar with a monster, I'll look up its entry in the Monster Manual. Finally, I prep any physical materials I might need: handouts, maps, minis, props, etc.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

Like the timing question prior, it depends on the adventure I'm running. Generally, I'll take an hour or so to read the module or adventure chapter, then mull over the details over the next few days. The night before game time, I pick out or draw maps, gather up my DMing supplies (though they're mostly all in my pick-up bag already) and sort out minis. For a four-hour session, I'll do an average of two to three hours of prep, I'd say.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

Frankly, I've got my preferred processes down. If anything, I'd like to have more time to read up on lore or history for whatever I might be running.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

Thoroughly reading an adventure and getting to know the material well enough that I can say yes to whatever the players throw at me (as much as I can, at least).

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

I greatly enjoy both. I ran a 4th Ed. hombrew in a setting of my creation for a few years. Then I started DMing D&D Encounters, Adventurers League modules, and the 5th Edition hardcover adventures. In more recent years, I've not had as much time to dedicate to a homebrew setting, so I've run more published adventures than otherwise. Published adventures are great for quickly diving into play.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

I prefer some form of representation on a map, whether it be gridded combat or unscaled/relative positioning, with minis or just jotting down positioning directly on the map. I prefer this because it takes care of a lot of details that the players might find unclear otherwise. Also, I really enjoy drawing maps, and sketching a map out is part of the fun that I draw from the game.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

My first main set of tools are the D&D 5th Ed. core rulebooks. I'll often have my rulebooks to look up rules, spells, monsters, and magic items that I come upon in the adventures I read.

Second, I love Gale Force 9's D&D Spellbook Cards. They're incredibly handy in gathering up spells that monsters and NPCs use throughout the course of the adventure.

My final tools are mapping supplies. I pre-draw maps about half of the time I DM, either on my Paizo Flip-Mat or with a marker on grid paper. I love Arcknight Games' maps. I have a selection of them and pull sheets out as needed.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

The Rule of Yes. As much as possible, I try to accept what players give me and work with what plans and schemes they concoct. It empowers them to make creative decisions and leads to fulfilling and entertaining moments.

Emphatic Elements. This is something I learned during my days studying theatre in college. Every play has "emphatic elements": aspects of the play that appeal to audiences in different ways and drive the play forward. Published adventures also generally likewise have emphatic elements (plot, characters, setting, spectacle, monsters, etc.) Knowing what the emphatic elements are in an adventure helps me draw in players, encourage progress within the story, and build tension.

Pacing and volume. Varying the speed at which I speak, respond to players, and demand player responses adds to the mood of the story. The same applies to how loud and boisterous or quiet and subdued I deliver the narrative.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Narrative is key. Run the game like you're telling a story around a campfire. Make sure the adventure has a distinct beginning (drawing the players in), middle (keeping the players moving), and end (leaving the players satisfied)—regardless of whether the adventure is a one-shot or a continuing story. Apply this to the shorter beats within the adventure and to combat, as well. Weaving a good tale keeps players coming back for more!

Enrique Bertran

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

My name's Enrique, but I blog online as NewbieDm. My first dnd product I owned was the BECMI red and blue boxes, but I've really been playing since high school, with AD&D 1e.

How long are your gaming sessions?

My gaming sessions are once a week, and they run for about 2.5 hours.

How often do you run them?

Once a week.

Where do you run your games?

From the comforts of my home office, as I run a Roll20 game.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

Right now I'm running a 3.5 published adventure, using it to complement an original plot I've created, but most of the monsters have no 5e counterpart, so I spend my time reskinning or seeing what monsters I can replace the ones in the adventure with.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

I spend about 2 hours per session prepping my digital desktops and creating monsters.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I wish I had the time to craft a more original story, but that would probably take me longer than what I'm doing now. my time is unfortunately at a premium these days.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

I think my players are just happy to be gaming.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

I want short, episodic adventures... most of WOTC's stuff is large hardbacks, which do me no good. After I finish this thing I'm running, my approach to campaigns will change.

I want to go episodic... short adventures that the party can go on without needing a long overarching plot that will only be resolved once they hit level 20. Nope. Because chances are we'll never get there.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

Gridded combat. Although if I were good at running TotM, I totally would. Less stuff to track.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

Roll20, a token making website I go to, and the Forgotten Realms wiki.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Look, listen and Learn. Try to gauge your players' investment through body language and how much attention they are paying to you... Listen to what they say they want to get out of the game, and learn all you can about different DMing styles and techniques. We are constantly learning, nobody is ever done.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Think small at first, then expand as you go. Don't try to be Tolkien from the get go.

Lauren Bilanko

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

I am Lauren Bilanko. I own Twenty Sided Store in Brooklyn, NY. I have a column on the D&D Adventurers League - Master, Dungeon Master - where I give tips to DMs organizing events in stores. I organize all the Dungeon & Dragons events at Twenty Sided Store.

How long are your gaming sessions?

Weekly Wednesday campaigns are 3 hours per session. Weekend One Shots are typically 4 hours per session.

How often do you run them?

I host multiple events weekly. You can check out our events calendar for more details.

Where do you run your games?

I run games in our game play space at the store. Twenty Sided Store is located in Brooklyn, NY. Visit Us next time you are in town!

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

I spend most of my time coordinating / scheduling DMs, plotting the overall story we want to tell, and making sure each DM has what they need to run a great game.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

Most of my prep is done before the season starts so week to week I mostly focus on Team DM discussions over email where we bounce ideas back and forth - what voice would a specific NPC take, how do we want to seed information without revealing too much too soon... that sort of thing.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I wish I had more time to write poems or songs a bard might sing, or come up with a really great riddle. I spend a lot of time looking for already published content, but I wish I could write something more specific with a sub-context that could seed a payoff later in the session or season.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

I find that it is best to know the story I want to tell really well and have a clear idea of where I want the players to be by the end of the session. From there I let the players dictate the path that will be taken to get there. I believe that a roleplaying game is a collaborative storytelling experience, so less can sometimes be more.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

I like a combination of both. Published adventures have great writers who can really bring people and places to life. I love the maps and the room descriptions, ideas for unfolding the plot, etc. Homebrew adventures are great because there is a kind of freedom to build the world as you go.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

I typically run theater of the mind for short quick combat encounter and bring out the map and grid when I have combat that has a lot of terrain features. I usually have a map on the table ready for whatever may come up. Sometimes I'll even let the players draw the map if it a location their characters would know.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

Spell Cards, Monster Manual, Team DM - a hive mind of ideas

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

A flow chart of the story timeline and events - players have choices, and their choices have consequences - good or bad.

A Reverie Deck - I made a deck of images so that when I need to describe something in game, I have a player pick a card, I then draw inspiration from that image to fill in details of the story in the moment.

Random Encounters - I always have a few up my sleeve just in case!

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

The Dungeon Master is just another player at the table.

Jeff Greiner

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

Jeff Greiner, founder of the Tome Show podcasts, played his first game of D&D at the age of 8. It was second edition, he played a half-elf ranger who once killed Strahd by himself, and he's never played a half-elf ranger since. He has recently leveled up and is now a 29th level mage.

How long are your gaming sessions?

5-6 hours

How often do you run them?

Every other week.

Where do you run your games?

My house.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

Lately...building interweaving storylines and NPCs to deliver those storylines. I also spend some time detailing interesting locations that might come up in each session and the opponents that might be located there that would then further that storyline. Second place, putting book marks in books so I can easily find monster stats quickly.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

Story prep - 1 hour.

Encounter prep (including book marking stats in various books) - 15 minutes.

NPC prep - 30 minutes.

Prop prep - 10 minutes.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I think I'm pretty happy with my current prep proportions. I mean, in a world where I have infinite time I would probably spend more time crafting props and maps and the likes, because that's sort of fun of it's own right. But given that time is limited I like the proportion of prep time use that I currently have, if anything, it would be good to simply increase the amount of time while keeping the ratios. That said, I wouldn't want to increase it too much. I want to have just enough prep time as it takes to be prepared and just little enough that I'm more inclined to stay flexible during the game session. I don't want to calcify my ideas about the story and session so much ahead of time that I'm not as willing to pay attention to where the players want to take the storyline.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

I think focusing my preparation on story and NPCs has the biggest impact. When I have story elements and characters tied to those stories ready to weave in an out at key moments in a session the rest of the game prep ends up taking care of itself. Figuring out locations and good opponents or interesting objectives...all of that falls into place when you already know the story beats and the people that highlight those storybeats.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

I prefer the published adventures for one main reason...shared experience. I try to be an active part of the gaming community and being able to have shared experiences with the other members of that community as a result of shared stories we told at our tables, that's meaningful to me. That said, my first rule of using a published setting, be it through an adventure or a campaign guide, is that you can't be afraid to tearing that setting to shreds, and making the story your own. It's okay to break the world beyond fixing...once your story is done you can move on and start in a new setting. Unlike publishers, you don't need the setting to continue on in perpetuity, and there are advantages to having that freedom. Use them, make the stories in published adventures your own.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

I prefer theater of the mind, probably simply because it's faster. If I map out encounters I probably accomplish half as much in a session than if I just ran it theater of the mind. That said, I still like to pull out the maps sometimes, but I reserve it for moments when a fight is supposed to feel like a bigger deal. Sometimes simply putting it on the map, because I otherwise don't do so very often, can make an encounter feel special.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

My laptop, where I have all my story map, a system that I use to keep track of how I introduce each session, and how one way to bring in an element from each storyline in each session.

A spreadsheet of monsters that I can sort by CR, type, etc. for easy reference (although I really wish I had one that was updated with more of the monsters in other books that I own...maybe I should do that with some of my prep time).

The adventure(s) that I'm running. I'm currently running multiple published adventures simultaneously in one campaign, so keeping track of various locations, NPCs, etc. is difficult, I find myself referencing each adventure at least once as I prepare for each session.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Focus on stories and characters.

When adding new story elements try and directly tie them to different PCs, which encourages players to allow more sharing of the spotlight.

Have elements prepared to pull out...but don't plot out the actual direction the session will take. Let the session go where it's going to go, and have a handful of elements ready to use when the opportunities arise.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Don't get caught up in the mechanics. Avoid describing things in mechanical terms and instead focus on the setting and the story. My many years of 4e instilled in me a bad habit of saying, "the orc spear hits you for 7 piercing damage" instead of "the orc whips the spear at you, leaving you on your heels and vulnerable, the swipe was so close you could feel the air from the swing slap you in the face". The same is true in other places as well, rather than "make a diplomacy check to see if you can get the shaman to help you out" I'm trying to spend more time asking players to role-play the attempt to seek the shaman's help, and if they do a bang up job giving them inspiration or advantage or the like. I'm trying to be better about using the game mechanics to support the story, instead of making it a story about game mechanics.

David Hartlage

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

David Hartlage writes the DMDavid blog where he searches for unseen aspects of Dungeons & Dragons design and history. He writes to inspire dungeon masters and players-and because he loves spouting off about his favorite game. In 1977, the blue Basic Set made young David a DM.

How long are your gaming sessions?

The Dungeons & Dragons games I run at my neighbored store fit in 2-hour sessions, while the Adventurers League games that I run at conventions last 4 hours.

How often do you run them?

Once a week, plus several sessions at each of 3 or more conventions a year.

Where do you run your games?

Virtually all my play is in game stores and convention ballrooms. Sometimes I dream of a game where I can use my inside voice and still be heard.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

When I prepare a printed adventure, I pay special attention to three things: (1) the clues that lure players through the adventure, (2) any memorable non-player characters, and (3) climactic encounters.

Scenarios that fit in 4 hours typically lead players through some key scenes toward a climax. Where an adventure design expects players to take a certain path, I want them to feel they chose it as their best option. Where the design offers a real choice, I want to make it an interesting dilemma. When I run the adventure, I can miss a bit of color, but I must communicate the details that weigh on decisions.

For NPCs that deserve a spotlight, I tend to emphasize some personality trait or quirk that makes them lively or memorable. At the table, subtle characters disappear. I dream up ways to call out character traits in dialogue or action. I love drawing humor from character.

If the adventure features big combat encounters, I study the foes' spells and stats so they can offer a good fight. I aim for climactic fights that have the players feeling a sense of peril, bring them to their feet, and leave them excited by a hard-won victory. When a battle fizzles because I missed some monster's ability, I missed an opportunity.

I may invest too much time gathering maps and miniatures for encounters. I enjoy those trappings, but players at other tables never leave unhappy because they needed to use their imagination.

For more, see my post on preparing to run an adventure as a dungeon master at a convention.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

My time preparing typically equals the time spent in play. This holds whether I invent my own material or run published adventures.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I aspire to spend more time customizing my games to involve the player characters. I would like to do better at connecting NPCs, hooks, and backstory to the party members.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

I think my emphasis on preparing interesting decisions, memorable characters, and dramatic encounters leads to the most fun at the table.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

When I started as a dungeon master, I favored my own ideas and created a game that suited my tastes. I felt disdain for published adventures.

When public play required that I run published adventures, I improved as a DM. Many times, I prepared an adventure that included bits I expected to flop at the table. Instead, the players had fun, and my list of potential ingredients for a good D&D game expanded. Published adventures still encourage me to try new things I would not consider for my homebrew.

Although I mostly run published adventures now, when they fail to connect with my players, I may leave the book and dream up my own episodes. I still enjoy creating a game tailored for myself and my players.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

Count me as loyal to the grid.

During my games, I work hard to communicate with the players so they keep a clear vision of the game world. If players misunderstand or feel confused, I've failed in the DM's most essential duty. For clarity, I lean on visual aids more than most DMs. I like to show pictures of recurring NPCs. I sketch maps in dry erase. I use my battle mat like an instructor uses a white board. The battle map supports my drive for clarity. Even if I dispensed with the grid, I would still use a sketch or diagram so players can see an encounter.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

To manage my maps and miniatures, I rely on my own site's map galleries and the miniature database at dracosaur.us.

I lean on my scanner and printer. For my reference, I scan and print maps and monsters. For the players, I scan and print non-player character portraits, magic item descriptions, and other visual aids.

The rest of my tools come from the office supply store. When I prepare an Adventurers League module, I mark the pages in colored pens that stand out from the print. For published adventures, my notes must go on post-it notes.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Give each player as much spotlight time as possible. Part of this means administering the game quickly, so players spend as much time as possible playing. The other part comes from finding ways to bring players from the sidelines into the game. I love having NPCs single out the PCs in the background for dialog. I love throwing the what-do-you-do question to someone uninvolved. I love when monsters attack from the rear.

Project confidence. As a dungeon master, you channel the imaginary world to your players. When you seem uncertain about what happens in that world, it yanks the players out of their imagination and reminds them that you just make things up. Confidence in your rules knowledge matters much less, because players will happily look up rules and help apply them.

Delegate. Dungeon masters take on many more duties than the players. You can administer the game more quickly by letting players adopt some of those jobs. Have one player look up a rule and another draw the 50-by-50 room on the battle map. Sometimes I even have a player track the damage monsters take. I wrote more about delegation in Delegate to run better role-playing game sessions by doing less.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Watch your players. Listen to their reactions. If everyone seems intent, keep doing what you're doing. If a few seem uninterested, try to think of a way to involve them. If they all seem to lack interest, find a way to move the game ahead.

When I think back on my worst DM moments, they all come from times when I failed to shape the game to suit my players. They come from times I ignored what the players wanted because I decided to stick to my rigid notion of the game world, from times I let players fail because I stuck too zealously to a challenge, and from times I kept to material I prepared even though it bored the players.

I used follow the old-school notion that a DM should focus on applying the rules while testing players with challenges. I still value that part of the game, but now I see my part as less referee and more entertainer. I share the game so everyone at the table finds something they enjoy.

James Introcaso

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

I'm James Introcaso, a dungeon master, game designer, podcaster, and blogger who plays/reports on/designs for primarily the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset.

How long are your gaming sessions?

Usually 3 hours, though some can run as short as 2 or as long as 4.

How often do you run them?

In general I run about 6 games a month. I have two biweekly games and then a handful of games that meet once a month or so. Any given month at least one of those engagements gets canceled.

Where do you run your games?

Most often I run them on Roll20, since I have players spread out all over the East Coast. I have one group that meets in person and we play most often in my own apartment and occasionally at the home of two of our players, since they have a child.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

If I'm running a homebrew campaign (most often) spend my time reading through my player's notes about what happened last session and looking through and updating my campaign outline for the overall story, crafting the story for the next session, and preparing maps and encounters.

If I'm running a prewritten adventure, I read the section I'll likely be running that night, and then spend time thinking about how I'll modify the adventure to fit the backstories and actions of the players so far.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

If I'm running hombrew, I spend 15 minutes going over my notes, about 30 minutes crafting the story, and 1-2 hours preparing encounters.

If I'm running prewritten, I spend 45 minutes going over the adventure, and 30 minutes thinking and writing down what I want to change.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I really need time to think of stories that will lead to more original combat, exploration, and social encounters. At this point, I've been playing with the same players for 8 years in some groups (one player for 14) and I want to wow them with something fun and different. That keeps getting harder and there are times I feel if I was less focused on creating enough content for the game, I could focus on making ORIGINAL content for the game.

When I'm running something prewritten, it's usually because I don't have more time to spend, but if I did have the time, I'd spend it on shaping that story to better fit the backstories and actions of the PCs.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

The crafting of the story. A surprising twist, a great mystery, a tough choice, or an element that relates directly to a character's backstory seems to beat a fun combat any day of the week.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

Homebrew adventures are best for me because I feel more in control. I'm more comfortable improvising on the spot and creating a new villain, NPC, organization, location, dungeon, etc. In a world as huge as the Forgotten Realms or Eberron, I might make something that already exists and not know it, or contradict something that's an established truth about the world that may confuse some of my players if they're part of another group that's also playing in that world (which is a common occurrence with organized play).

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

When playing on Roll20, I find gridded combat draws the players into the story more and keeps them from wandering to check Facebook or their email.

When I'm playing in person, I usaully only whip out the gridded combat for big set piece or climatic battles. I find theater of the mind in person speeds up play since I don't need to draw out or build a map and the players take less turns by committee (saying things like, "Well if you put the fireball here you can hit one more orc," or "You should move here instead because then when I cast dissonant whispers you can hit the enemy.")

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

Kobold Fight Club - The encounter building math for 5e is time consuming and this site makes it so easy. You can even use it for monsters not in the Monster Manual, by simply selecting a equivalent challenge rating monster.

Roll20 - The marketplace has some great cheap maps and tokens that make it easy for me to build the exact encounter I want when I'm short on time. As a pro member I can swap tokens and maps between tables to make my life easier.

Google Docs - It's synced to all my devices, so I can work on game prep during my commute, when I'm in line at the grocery store, in bed at night, or when I get an idea in the middle of the day. I have all my notes there, including session recaps, a loose outline for the entire campaign, and anything else that I need.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Make it meaningful to the players by bringing in their PCs' backstories. From session 1, start involving their personal histories, stories, and motivations to get them involved. Not only will this give each player personal investment, they'll get invested in each other's stories and create a strong bond between the heroes.

Don't wait. If you have an idea for a great encounter, cool NPC, or plot point, introduce it as soon as you can. It will make every game exciting and interesting, instead of a constant build up to something you're "saving for the final session." (that may never come because of schedules, life, etc)

Write all your ideas down. It's why I love Google Docs. This way when you sit down to prep you won't think, "What was that great idea I had for Mike's PC?" You'll know by looking at your list and you can begin preparing for it.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Relax and remember it's a game. You're just telling a story with friends. If you mess something up or something doesn't go as planned, that's ok. It's like sex. As long as everyone agrees and everyone's having fun, you're doing it right.

Will Jones

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

My name's Will, I'm a 20 year old Brit who runs EncounterRoleplay; a D&D Twitch Stream broadcasting 5 days a week. I started playing as a kid 10 years ago, now it's my job!

How long are your gaming sessions?

3 hours long.

How often do you run them?

I run 10 games a week, two every day, and a 24 Hour Stream every Month for over a year now.

Where do you run your games?

Online via Roll20 and on my Twitch Stream.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

The story mainly, and important combats. I like to map out flowcharts of possible routes and spend lots of time finding voices and personalities for the main NPCs in my games.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

Per 3 hour session I tend to spend 1 hour on preparation overall. Due to the amount of games I run I try to prep as much work into the least amount of time. I tend to spend the most amount of time preparing the story elements and flow chart, then a small amount of time balancing encounters and the like.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

Part of me wishes I spend more time on Encounter building, but honestly that tends to bore me. As a player, I'm rarely that interested in the Combat Encounters, and this translates into my DMing.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

I think all player's want a strong narrative and evocative characters to interact with. I've had some great responses from creating unique handouts in the past, too.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

Homebrew adventures, for the most part. I enjoy the freedom in creating my own narrative and characters. That being said, 5E has had some brilliant Adventure Modules that I've had a lot of fun switching around to fit my own style - Curse of Strahd, for instance.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

Theater of the mind every day! It saves me hours upon hours of time, it's less restrictive than mapping, and generally fits with my group's style of story above all else. We still have challenging and engaging combats, but that's not the reason I or my player's play D&D.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

Roll20.net, Google Documents and the LOTR OST.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

The "Yes, and" or "Yes, but" rule is invaluable. It's a improvisational actor's best friend, and as a DM it's yours too. If a player pitches you an idea, you roll with it and see where it takes you, it always ends up somewhere cool and unexpected.

Always assume omnipotence! There are plenty of times I have no fucking clue what's about to happen, but if you show that fear with your player's it makes you story less powerful. Even if something goes wrong, it went right! If I get a rule wrong I'll tell everyone though; this only goes for story points! I find it immersion breaking when a DM says "Oh god I have no idea...uhhh...." so I try to eliminate that from my own games.

Make mistakes. It's the only way you learn anything. Be honest with yourself about those mistakes too, because no one ever "makes it" as a DM. I probably make more mistakes than most when DMing even though I play a silly amount of D&D, and that helps me improve for the next time around.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Expect the unexpected! You're never going to be able to prepare for everything the player's are going to throw at you and that's one of the most enjoyable things about D&D. A lot of newer DMs struggle with that idea. A friend of mine put it far more eloquently than I ever could: "No one wants to read your shitty unwritten fantasy novel." It's so fucking true. Collaborative storytelling is the most fun for everyone.

Derick Larson

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

My name is Derick Larson. I'm a husband and father, Star Wars fan, and gamer. Dungeons and Dragons began for me in 1979 with some friends at my local hobby shop - I was in 9th grade. I've played a lot of different games since then, but it always comes back to DnD. You can find me online on twitter @wookieedaddiee or at dragonrobotgames.com.

My thanks to Mike for including me in his survey. I learned a lot about myself and my prep for games by answering these questions.

How long are your gaming sessions?

Gaming sessions with my adult group average about 3 hours. Sessions with my kids are between one and two hours.

How often do you run them?

The adult group meets weekly and we rotate between 3 DMs about every 5 weeks. So, I DM weekly for about 5 weeks and then get a couple months off. For games with my kids we normally play every week.

Where do you run your games?

I almost always run at my home. It's nice to have all my supplies nearby.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

Two things take most of my time, NPCs and Combat. Whether I'm running a module or something of my own, I try and make the NPCs have their own motivations and hopefully something that makes them memorable. I've taken to recording information on 3x5 cards for each NPC (or group) so that I can remember and reference it easily. Combat takes more time right now, because my group is higher level, and they and their opponents have more options.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

In general, prep time is about twice actual gaming time. I normally spend more time preparing ahead of my first session, and find that I have "extra" prep for the next few sessions already done. For DMing my kids I will do less prep and improvise more. Twelve and thirteen year old boys throw more curveballs than "adults". About half of the time is spent on NPCs which can include parts of the story/conflict and their options and abilities. The remaining time is divided between researching opponents, combat prep (environment options), going over PCs to see how they incorporate into the adventure, and recording what has happened in previous sessions.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I wish I could spend more time on maps. I've always had a deep love of maps. Drawing a map is often my first step in prepping an adventure because it both stimulates and puts limits on your imagination. I also wish I could spend more time on physical props, notes, letters, etc.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

Two activities make the game fun for the players. First, getting to know their characters, and taking the time to incorporate something about them into the game. Including their backstory in the history, or bringing someone from their past in as an NPC or villain. I also try and make sure that there are moments for everyone to shine. Let the wizard visit the Arcane College or make sure the village has a temple for the cleric. The second activity is to ask questions of the players for what they want to see. I've been playing with the same group for about 20 years, but still find it valuable and surprising what they want out of gaming.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

I normally prefer to run my own homebrewed adventures. Creating my own adventures gives more freedom to me and my players to explore. I learned long ago to never come up with solutions, only come up with problems for the group and this can be an issue with some published adventures. However, right now we are getting close to completing the Tyranny of Dragons adventures from Wizards. The first book was fairly rail-roady (not sure if that is a word) with a set progression of encounters/solutions. I am enjoying the second book better with its plug and play options. It feels like I can give the players more control of the story.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

When I first started playing 5e we did almost all grid based combat. Now we are gradually moving to theater of the mind. It started when one player moved out of state, and only joins via Google Hangout. Tough to focus on a map when one player is restricted to the camera on a laptop or iPad. Now that we've started getting off the grid more, I find that I enjoy it. Not focusing on a map can help folks think of outlandish actions and the players imagine more than I can draw. One of the downsides of theater of the mind is that it can marginalize some of the abilities of classes and races. One that I have a hard time with is speed. I have a monk in my current group that is 15 to 20 feet faster than most of the other players. Something like that is hard to model in theater of the mind. My reality for combat is often a hybrid. I will draw "not to scale" map and then use a miniature to represent characters and NPCs just in relation to each other.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

Number one prep tool - 3x5 index cards. I cannot imagine how I ever DMd without using index cards. I use them for everything from NPC info, magic item tracking, initiative cards, temporary terrain, and of course just plain notes. Getting them in different colors can also be helpful.

Number two - Evernote. I use this application to record what happened in the previous session, and to outline what I think will happen in the next session. It's free and works across multiple platforms. I don't normally use it during a game, but it is where all my thoughts and plans go between games.

Number three - Internet. For published adventures I search for previous examples of play and get ideas on what works, what doesn't, and any possible customization. For homebrewed I search for specific monsters, or terrain areas. The DMs Guild is also useful for premade encounters and other ideas to drop into my own adventures.

I didn't include any of the game manuals as tools - take them as a given. Outside of any module, I normally just use the PHB and the Monster Manual. The DMs Guide is helpful, but I use it more for a magic item reference than anything else.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Number One - Call the players by their character names (stolen from Dungeon World). Make Players always think about their character and their relationship to the other characters.

Number Two - Forget the rules. There's no way you can remember all the rules so don't even try. (OK, learn as much of the rules as you can, but understand that you can't learn them all.) Don't stop the game for rulings, just make it up and come back later.

Number Three - Yes, And... This one is the most important for fun. Build on the ideas of the players. Encourage their creativity and it will spread to other players.

If all else fails - bring beer.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

The single most important thing that helped me is to play in as many other games as I can and see how other game masters run games. This is one of the things that keeps me going back to GenCon year after year. Conventions are one of the best places to experience a wide variety of games and game masters.

Mike Mearls

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

I'm Mike Mearls. I run the design and development team for D&D at Wizards.

How long are your gaming sessions?

My Monday night game runs for about 2 hours. My theoretical Friday afternoon game is about the same length, though we meet fairly rarely right now (vacations, conventions, special projects, and so on put a damper on gaming at work). Having a toddler at home makes it much harder to set aside long stretches of time for gaming, but I manage!

How often do you run them?

Both games are weekly, though the fall is a rough time for scheduled games. Working at a game company has the benefit of giving me a big pool of players, but it also means that convention season makes getting together difficult.

Where do you run your games?

I run both at the WotC offices.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

I focus entirely on story elements - the why behind what's going on, what my NPCs are up to, what interesting stuff is happening in the world. Combat prep is my lowest time. I copy down a few stat blocks and make notes on what makes an area interesting. I don't use the encounter building rules. Fights are as tough as is appropriate to the location and situation.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

For story, I have it in the back of my mind and stew on it for a few days. I spend an hour before the session organizing my notes and creating maps as needed. For combat stuff, 30 minutes copying stat blocks and making notes. However, that prep usually lasts 3 - 5 sessions.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

None I can think of. I am fairly prep light, though I do miss having the time to paint miniatures for specific villains and monsters in the campaign. When I do use minis, I like to try to make it special.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

Interesting NPCs to mess with. I think a hallmark of my campaigns is that the players find plenty of people to hate. An NPC-focused campaign is also easier for me to make open-ended. No matter where the PCs go or what they want to do, my NPCs can meddle in their plans or spark their next line of action.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

I mix the two. I scavenge published stuff all the time. I start with what I need, and then grab the published thing that is the closest fit, and then modify it as needed. I've used The Lost City as a stand in for sunken Atlantis (run at 10th level), Master of the Desert Nomads for an expedition to hunt down yetis for their fur (converted from desert to tundra), and a few other adventures.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

Theatre of the mind. Faster, and it allows me to spend more time describing things in dramatic terms. However, I do sometimes use a grid. I don't snap to grid when I do use minis. Distances are rough, I don't count squares, and so on. It's a loose representation of what's going on rather than a strict simulation.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

My PDF catalog of classic D&D titles. I print maps and refer to the PDF as needed.

The Monster Manual. I reskin like crazy. I've used the cockatrice for statues that turn intruders to stone, and the aboleth as the avatar of a demon lord.

A nice organizer with a stout cover, plenty of pouches, and a pad of graph paper.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Keep combat interesting by describing every blow in a dynamic way.

Make your NPCs devious and awful. If the players hate your villains, you're doing a good job.

When in doubt, make it weird.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

The key to a good game is giving your players' characters exactly what they want with plenty of strings attached.

Shawn Merwin

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

Shawn Merwin, freelancer of Wizards of the Coast, Programs Manager for Baldman Games, Lead Editor for Encoded Designs, and co-host of the Down with DnD podcast.

How long are your gaming sessions?

From 1-5 hours, depending on the games I am running.

How often do you run them?

I generally play in a regular game every other week, and then on top of that, at least once a month, I either run playtests of works in development or run games at conventions.

Where do you run your games?

For our regular bi-weekly game or playtests, we run at the house of whomever is best suited to host depending on the situation with travel needs and child care/family issues. For conventions, wherever the wind takes me.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

I generally spend very little time preparing outside of reading and re-reading the adventure. If there are special rules for situations or monsters, I will take the time to freshen up my knowledge of those. I sometimes make maps beforehand, but only if I know I am going to be running the same adventure more than once.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

How long it takes to read an adventure or chapter twice depends on its length. Reading special rules takes less than an hour. Preparing maps generally takes less than an hour as well.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I wish I had the time and money and storage space to make nicer maps and models that the players might enjoy.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

Reading and understand the adventure is the most valuable thing the DM can do. Not having to take 20 minutes to read a section of an adventure before proceeding is the greatest gift you can give players.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

I generally end up doing both. Since I publish a lot of adventures, I am generally running a publish adventure that I wrote. I do prefer, however, to run other people's material rather than my own. It gives me a greater feeling of excitement to explore the adventure with the players rather than running something that came out of my own head 12 months ago.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

I don't have a preference per se, but I understand the benefits and drawbacks of each, and I try to use each when the encounter will minimize those drawbacks and maximize the benefits. Theater of the mind is harder to do well, but works best when it can be done well. Grids are easier to run and less mental work, but much slower than a well-run TotM encounter.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

Erasable flip-mats, index cards, and the 3 core books.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Ask your players to provide on aspect of their character that makes them unique, and make sure you use that somehow, somewhere in your game.

Be quiet as often as you can when the players are keeping the game moving on their own.

Learn to read social and body/face cues.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Have fun running the game, and make sure that the fun you are having is expressed clearly at the table. Speak slowly and clearly with a smile, making eye contact with all the players.

Russ Morrissey

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

Russ Morrissey, or Morrus, owner of EN World, EN Publishing, and the ENnies.

How long are your gaming sessions?

3-4 hours, usually. We run from about 8-11, maybe a bit longer if things are exciting and nobody has to be up too early the next morning.

How often do you run them?

Weekly, on the same evening each week.

Where do you run your games?

At a friend's home. I've never run a game in public or in game store.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

Preparing handouts and props are a big part of my prep time.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

Not too much; I like to be able to wing it a little. It also depends on if I'm running a published adventure or a home-brew - the latter I will wing a lot more.

Handouts and prop making are a large part; I feel they add to the game immensely.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

Reading published adventures. I find it hard reading pages of room descriptions, so it often gets left until last.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

Handouts, having the info I need ready so there's no "hang on while I look this up", making sure I'm in the right mood/frame of mind for a fun adventure.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

I prefer home-brew, but don't necessarily have the time to prep them (unless I just wing it). I find published adventures can be hard to read, especially site-based ones with lots of room descriptions. I've also never liked boxed text; I always try to be sure I know what's in the room, what I want to highlight, and describe it myself in my own words.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

Both are very different experiences and I love them both. The former is more tactical and the latter is more cinematic. Both can be used to set different tones or moods depending on the scene; they're tools in a toolbox to be used when appropriate.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

Peace, quiet, and a printer!

Depending on the game, of course, I might use electronic tools to prepare stat blocks and the like.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Don't look for reasons to say "no".

If you don't know something, make it up and move on. There's nothing less exciting than watching a DM reading a book. The secret is it doesn't really matter what you decide, as long as the game moves on.

Ban mobile phones at the game table. In my D&D games, if somebody touches their phone, the DM gets an inspiration die which is used against the PCs on the next roll I make. Peer pressure means that doesn't happen very often!

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Listen to your players and if they suggest something which sounds cooler than what you have planned, run with it and pretend like that was the plan all along. They can unwittingly provide some fantastic plot twists!

Davena Oaks

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

I'm Davena Oaks, TheSheDM, and I am the Oregon Senior Local Coordinator for D&D Adventurers League. I began with D&D 3rd edition and got involved with organized play with 4th edition and never stopped volunteering after that. Sometimes I update theshedm.com, but can't right now because it is infested with kruthiks.

How long are your gaming sessions?

On average, my D&D sessions last about 4 hours.

How often do you run them?

I run D&D sessions weekly, sometimes twice in a week.

Where do you run your games?

90% of my sessions are played at my local game store, and a few sessions happen at my home, in the living room.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

I spend time preparing the key story elements I want to reveal, deciding how the NPCs will act, and planning combat or skill encounters.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

I spend a little time for every session just thinking about NPCs - how they should sound and act, trying to anticipate what they'll need to say in response to the players actions. I spend the most time working on the story elements, but I tend to spread it out over several days - working on ideas and notes for 10 or 20 minutes at a time. Preparing for a combat takes less time, but I'm more likely to sit down and try to get it all done in an hour or so.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I wish I could spend a little more time crafting unique and clever encounters, but often it is the last thing I work on, so it tends to be thrown together hastily the evening before.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

I think preparing interactive materials draws a big "Wow!" from the players. Things like physical puzzles, props, terrain, even well-done player handouts do a lot to make the players invested in what is going on right now.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

I enjoy running many published adventures and they provide a great convenience, but I prefer my homebrewed campaigns. As wonderful as the best published adventure may be, it'll never be as deeply satisfying as running a successful homebrew adventure. I enjoy worldbuilding and a published adventure will never satisfy that need. I also enjoy character-driven narratives and most published adventures tend to focus on events and locations the characters can react to - rather than be the driving force behind.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

I enjoy using miniatures and maps, especially full color maps vs. hastily scrawled diagrams on my vinyl. I used to abhor "theater of the mind" and avoided it at all costs. However, 5e has taught me to love "theater of the mind" and I use it quite a lot now, especially for quick or unplanned combats. I think TotM keeps players focused on more instinctive-type actions and ensuring swift turn resolutions, while maps and grids get players looking at broader tactics: thinking two or three turns ahead, considering their allies and environment more, and making more thoughtful, deliberate actions. I keep that in mind when I'm planning my encounters.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

My top three tools right now are Google Docs (for organizing notes and images), Kobold Fight Club (for encounter building), and Youtube (for sound effects and ambiance).

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Let the players contribute to your world - have them name NPCs, create minor locations, or describe small details. Occasionally something created this way has a chance to be important in your campaign - which means the contributing player will feel immensely invested!

Pay attention to pacing - in both the short and long term. In a single session try keep a rhythm to the activity and don't let interactions lag for too long without good reason. Over the course of several sessions, interrupt longer arcs of similar activity with something different to keep your whole campaign from feeling too much like a wash-rinse-repeat cycle.

Always strive to improve. Let your player's know you are open to feedback. Ask for feedback often and if your players are too shy to give you their feedback directly, find a way to let them share it privately or anonymously - with notes or tools like google forms or online surveys.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Here's a simple trick that helped me improve my DM craft: record your play session, then play it back to yourself at a later date.You don't need fancy equipment or a sound engineer. I have found my phone's microphone works quite well if I just place it near me on the table, preferably on something soft like a mousepad or an empty dice bag to dampen the table's bumps and bangs. The recording won't be podcast quality, but you'll gain so much value from hearing your session after you've had a few days away from it. The best moments will make you feel proud and happy. The weak points will give you guidance on how to improve. You'll learn what you sound like to your players - do you say "Uh" a lot? Do you forget to describe environments? Do you take too long figuring out initiative? These are small things I learned about myself from listening to my recorded sessions. DMing takes a lot of focus and energy and sometimes you can't stay on top of everything that is unfolding at the table - but if you record and review your sessions, you'll catch every detail and it will be fresh in your memory when you sit down to DM your next session.

Karl Resch

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

Hi, I'm Karl Resch, also known as @artificeralf on Twitter. I've been playing D&D for about 7 years now, and with that I've had some amazing opportunities to get involved with the game and the community. I wrote Court of Stars: The Trinket Lord in Dungeon 205, and recently published a Rage of Demons side trek called Fear of the Dark on the DM's Guild. I've also been a playtester for many of the recent D&D products in the last few years, starting with Murder in Baldur's Gate and the recently published Storm King's Thunder.

How long are your gaming sessions?

My gaming sessions typically run between 4-5 hours.

How often do you run them?

My group typically plays once a month.

Where do you run your games?

Aside from running at conventions, my games are always at my house.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

Map preparation Combat Encounters Adventure outline major events, NPC's, treasure, etc

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

By my estimate, the following is how long it takes me to put pencil to paper in preparation, not my brainstorm sessions that come to me whenever:

2 hours map preparation (drawing, assembling tiles) 1 hour any combat encounters 2 hours outlining adventure, major events, NPC's, etc

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I always feel like the "boxed text" read aloud portions of my adventures could use a little more work, especially after watching live play games with Chris Perkins or Critical Role's Matt Mercer. Those guys always create these sensory descriptions that make the game come alive. It's always something I think can be ad-libbed successfully, but I always walk away after the game wishing I had done better. It's definitely a delicate balance, because I don't want my descriptions to become too boring the players miss the point. I want enough to evoke a sensory response, and then let them decide how to proceed.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

My group has a Facebook page that we post our downtime activities in. As the DM, I can also use it to introduce events that are happening to lead in to the next session. I don't ever post anything the characters wouldn't know or be interacting with, because I feel that those surprises and plot twists are best discovered through the characters' actions, not as prior PC knowledge.

I also try to continually ask players about their characters. Some players come to the table with a full backstory about their character. Others come knowing a few main points ("my family was betrayed by my uncle"), and by continuing to ask as the game proceeds, these details become more and more fleshed out ("he opened a portal to the lower realm, unleashing fiends upon my family"). These details then give incentives to me as a DM as I put together various plots and adventures. In the above example, knowing what I know about the character's backstory, I could begin giving some of the enemies connections to the uncle. This develops the story in a new way for me as a DM, while presenting more character development opportunities for the players.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

I run about a 50/50 mix between homebrewed adventures and published adventures adapted for our home campaign world. Despite an adventure already being published, I still find the prep time to be about the same! Homebrew adventures allow me to explore ideas and directions the players have wanted to go, while published adventures provide ideas to tweak and play with. Sometimes I just I love the layout of a particular dungeon and decide to borrow it for my own. There's a ton of amazing maps, traps, and stories to be found if one dives in to the older modules. Some personal favorites that I've adapted include Evil Tide, by Bruce R. Cordell, and Fane of the Sun Swallower by Christopher Perkins, Robert J. Schwalb, and James Wyatt (part I of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle). My most recent adaptation was of Menace of the Icy Spire, a 4th edition adventure from Dungeon 159 by Sean Moley.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

I prefer gridded combat with maps for a few reasons. First, maps and miniatures provide a visual gaming experience, which my group really enjoys. Gridded combat allows them to choose/create their own PC miniature, adding more imagination to the game as they look at their figure on the board and imagine them interacting with their current environment.

Another reason I prefer maps is because I love to draw them! While this takes a lot of time (and preparation), the payoff is always worth it to me. It creates a sense of wonder that pulls the players in to the game more, and there are some amazing things one can accomplish that theater of the mind cannot. For example, when running Writhings in the Dark by Alan Patrick at Winter Fantasy 2016, I filled every square on the grid with black and purple crosshatching. The result was a trippy-looking map, perfect for what I wanted to convey about fighting a mind flayer in its lair. Such a thing would have not been possible had I chosen to run theater of the mind.

Additionally, Dungeon Tiles are a really cool resource, but the preparation for them takes quite a bit of time. A session based around Dungeon Tiles adds serious prep time to my games.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

Old Modules/Poster Maps I cannot stress enough how much inspiration I draw from the wealth of material I was able to collect from 4e. I spend a lot of time reviewing my old Dragon/Dungeon pdfs for maps and adventure hooks. I've also been able to track down a number of the old 4e Lair Assault modules, and try to use those maps whenever the moment seems appropriate, as they are quite unique and flavorful.

Art Inspiration/Campaign Guides I have a large number of books that showcase concept art and published art. As I write this, a few that I see are The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Art of Magic the Gathering: Innistrad, and The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia. These texts allow me to find interesting looking locations, characters, or in some cases, maps that I can take and develop in to something I want to make use of. For example, I might peruse the Zelda book looking for some sort of volcanic location if I need to prepare for a fire motif in some way in my home game.

Twitter when I get stuck on an idea, I like to tweet my thoughts and ask for help. I get tons of ideas from other DM's who have either used a similar situation in an adventure, or have a new insight I may not have. I also favorite and re-tweet maps and other pictures people post, as they serve as ideas I can borrow and adapt. The Internet is a powerful tool. Use it for good!

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Wow the players. This is that one big moment of the gaming session. Maybe it's revealing something dramatic to the players, such as realizing the mundane trinket they acquired is a lich's phylactery. Maybe it's bringing forth an amazing set piece, like an inclusion of 3d terrain. Or maybe it's just placing a single figure, like a tyrannosaurus rex, on the map. These become the moments that define the session, and you want to make them count. It's always worth spending some time before each session to figure out what your moment is, and how to make it as dramatic as possible.

Play Your Strengths Some DM's prefer combat encounters, while others prefer the social or exploration parts of the game. All of those things are ok. In fact, it's what make every DM unique and creates different play experiences for those that partake in playing in your games. While not every session focuses on each of these three pillars equally, be sure to try and include one of your strong points for at least one part of the session. Chances are, it will make you feel more comfortable running the parts you're not entirely sure of. I struggled with combat for a while the bookkeeping, the monster powers, etc. I felt slightly overwhelmed and didn't believe I could give my players a solid experience. However, I always enjoyed letting the players explore the world and learn interesting tidbits about where they were. By playing up the exploration part of the game, I went in to combats feeling more comfortable since I was already riding that DM high for the night.

Believe in Yourself One of my favorite trinkets of advice is "you only have to believe to achieve". While it's not an umbrella statement for everything in life, it definitely applies to DMing! The fact that you have decided to DM for your group is already a momentous task in and of itself. Don't downplay it! The entire table is there to have fun, so just roll with it. Chances are you've spent a good deal of worry and preparation to make sure things go smoothly, so take the time to enjoy it. Worst case scenario is that you have to take a moment to gather your thoughts, which is totally ok. If players have to do it from time to time, so can the DM!

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

I got this piece from one of Chris Perkins' DM Experience columns: Don't squirrel away your ideas. Use them, even if you're not sure how to get the most out of them.

There's not too much more to add, as Mr. Perkins wrote an entire column around that sentence (I Don't Know What It Means, But I Like It, March 3, 2011). It's a simple statement, yet there are huge implications for following it. First, it encourages the use of whatever ideas one is excited about the most at that very time. Have gelatinous cubes on the brain? Find a way to use them in the next session! Have a super interesting NPC you want to introduce to the party? Guess what, they are currently staying in the same village! I've been on both sides of the table when this piece of advice has been used. From a DM's perspective, I had the idea of introducing the idea of an Unseelie fey with ties to winter. With a little DM creativity, I was able to take Menace of the Icy Spire and turn it in to an adventure that fit where the campaign was currently, as well introducing the ideas I had suddenly been inspired by. It definitely shook up the players expectations for what they were expecting for the night, and I got to see my ideas play out in a way I was happy with.

As a player, I've had moments where I'm completely surprised by events that have unfolded, both for and against the party. It seems that these ideas, which can be seen as random, really do define characters and some of the adventure moments. For example, I play a satyr warlock in another 5e game (the satyr is homebrewed, since I didn't get to play one in 4e). While at level 3, one of the treasures given to us by a sage was a +1 flaming longsword. As a player, I was floored. This was an incredibly powerful magic item, in the hands of a third level character! Our DM knew what he was doing though, as the sword had a rich history and was gifted for a purpose. The young, carefree satyr has slowly learned the responsibility of wielding such a weapon, causing him to grow in the process.

In short, never second guess yourself when it comes to the story you and your players are telling. It creates something better than one would expect.

Allison Rossi

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

You can introduce me as Allison Rossi, but I also go as "Ehloanna" online - (Ell-oh-ah-na). (Yes, I did steal that from Ehlonna, but I always read it with an A in there. When I realized my mistake it was too late, and I actually liked how it sounded. So I stole it. LOL)

My relationship with tabletop games started in college, where a friend introduced a few of us to Gamma World. After I graduated from college I needed to play more TTRPGs, so I ended up searching high and low for a D&D group. Within a month I found a local group on reddit who were looking to play around with D&D Next, which we all now know as D&D 5e. About a week or two later I picked up an online group running 3.5e via Roll20, and we actually just celebrated our three year anniversary as a group. We average about 30 sessions of D&D a year, with some Dungeon World and Stars Without Number thrown in. Outside of my groups where I play, I've also been a D&D 5e Dungeon Master for the Adventurers League for two years as of this month.

If you wanted more info about me as a person outside of D&D (like, other hobbies) let me know and I can add more info there. Wasn't sure what all you wanted to know specifically. :)

I DM in Falls Church. I generally have anywhere from 4 to 9 players. We could probably fit one more DM in the space if there was interest, but otherwise the shop is pretty packed between us and the Magic players.

How long are your gaming sessions?

Generally 3-4 hours.

How often do you run them?

Once a week.

Where do you run your games?

I run games in a comic shop that also sells RPG/tabletop/card related games.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

I probably spend the most time thinking out the possibilities. "If my players do this..." type situations. If they choose not to follow my hints, how do I give them more hints, or keep them going in the generally correct direction.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

Reading the module. I try to reach each part of the module at least 3 times. I can spend up to an hour on this depending on how many times I read it, and how much I take notes in between making NPC or town info sheets. If you count these somewhat separate from regular notes, I sometimes make special table tents for NPCs. I also sometimes do a lot of outside research on towns, places, or things they may encounter. I try not to spend more than an hour on this.

Taking my own notes. I spend probably 10 minutes on this.

Making physical props. This is expensive, so I spend generally zero time on this at this time. I DO try to make big/fun things for finales like when I made the Temple of Tiamat for RoT. I spent about 10 hours on that total. I also made all the floors of Death House, which took me just about as long because of the painting and cardboard cutting I had to do.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

I would like to spend time on props, but it's just too expensive.

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

NPC and town prep. Giving them photos and being able to have a deeper understanding of their backgrounds and where they art allows me to add so much more flavor to the dialog.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

Right now I prefer running published modules. I don't have the time to develop an entire storyline of my own since I like to spend my evenings PC gaming. If I had infinite time, sure, I'd love to write some homebrew. Until the publish stuff stops comin' off the printer, I think I'll be mostly running those.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

Yes and no. I like miniatures and combat grids, but with the size table I have and space I have...it isn't really easy. It's too hard to reach across the table or spend time drawing when we've got such short sessions that have to end at a pretty set time every week due to the shop closing.

I do really enjoy narrative combat a la "theater of the mind" play, but with big combat sometimes it's just too confusing for me or the players to keep up with.

In an ideal world I'd have a digital tabletop using Roll20 with a touch screen that all my players could use to move themselves around. I can dream...

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

The internet is where I get a lot of my ideas. Reading posts, asking for help, using generated content like NPC info, towns, etc. It's fantastic the resources we have.

Other DMs - I love talking through things with other DMs when I have the time to. Every few weeks I'll pose a question on Twitter about my game and I often get a ton of helpful or creative replies/DMs.

Flipping through modules or rpg related books - sometimes when I'm unsure how to handle something or where to go next, I try to flip through old modules or the core books to get inspiration for where to go next.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Avoid saying "no" whenever possible - if it's even remotely feasible, try and find a way your players can do their actions.

Develop rapport with your players and know their characters as best as you can. What motivates them? Why are they adventuring? What's their attitude like? How do they act with different types of NPCs? What angers their characters?

Have digital resources at the ready - I use a spellbook app and the 5e srd often to make my job quick and easy. If you can't do digital, have things bookmarked in your core rulebooks!

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Minimize your prep if you can. You shouldn't be spending more than 3 hours a week prepping for a normal campaign once it's successfully "up and running." If you do, I think you're going a little overboard with prep, and potentially putting your players on rails. Know where you ended the last session, where you're beginning this session, and 2-3 possible directions you could take the storyline.

Liz Theis

How would you like to be introduced on Sly Flourish for this questionnaire? Who are you and what is your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons?

My name is Liz Theis (pronounced like "nice"), and I've been playing D&D since I was about 5 (~23 years). I also worked in the tabletop RPG industry for a few years, though I recently went back into the non-gaming work world.

How long are your gaming sessions?

Usually 6 hours or so.

How often do you run them?

Usually ever 2-3 weeks.

Where do you run your games?

My house.

What elements of the game do you spend time on during preparation?

General plot points, important NPCs, and villain/monster details.

Per session, how much preparation time do you spend overall and on each element?

I usually spend 3-4 hours prepping, though I'm not really sure how much per element as they're usually so related.

What game preparation activities do you wish you could spend more time on?

Everything! I feel like I'm always racing against the clock, trying to get everything ready for the next game (in between work and school).

What preparation activities do you feel makes the game the most fun for your players?

Spending time thinking about what I could do if the players go off the rails at any important point.

Do you prefer to run published adventures or your own homebrewed adventures? Why?

Homebrew! I'm probably biased because that's what my dad did as I was growing up. I didn't experience a published adventure until after college.

Do you prefer to run gridded combat with maps and miniatures or more narrative "theater of the mind" combat? Why?

Theater of the mind. Again, that's what I grew up with. I think the moment grids aren't introduced it gets more focused on very specific battlefield tactics rather than story and broader strategy.

What are your top three favorite tools to help you prepare your game?

Google Drive (for writing notes, sharing images across computers, etc.), Hero Lab for easily creating encounters by challenge rating and customer villains, and most recently Hexographer to map out my world as I create it with the players.

What are your top three favorite tricks for running a great game?

Involve your players' characters' backstories in the story and encourage connections between their characters (this is why it's important to do a Session Zero)

Be open to your players' twists and turns and influence on the story. If you're running a published adventure, think of ways to personalize the story to your characters.

Read the table. If the combat is running long, wrap it up - drop the creature to near zero and allow for an exciting finish. Are they really enjoying what's going? Note it, so you can recreate it again.

What single tip, trick, or piece of advice helped you run a better game and become a better game master?

Don't worry too much about the official rules and minutiae. Even better, set that expectation with your players from the beginning. At the end of the day, it's about having fun.

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