D&D Summer Camp #3: Last Night a DM Saved My Life

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The battle with Venomfang was going badly. Sprax, Ivy, Zola and Irinitis found themselves facing down the young Green Dragon on top of a wooded hill and a number of Dragon Cultists hemming them in at the bottom of it. With his poison breath, the dragon opened with a pretty devastating attack and I started wondering if all of the "OMG this battle is going to be so deadly" hype I poured on them all day was going to bear fruition. I had prepped the kids all day for a very dangerous encounter - "it looks like we might be putting some character sheets in the recycling bin today". And here they were, on the brink of death saves. Their adventure was bound to end in Thundertree, with Wave Echo Cave falling into the hands of the Black Spider.

But you know what, being a DM is an awful lot like being a DJ. You've got to keep the floor moving, you've got to read the room and see what is working and what isn't. You mark the get-down, you bring it back up when you want to shift the energy. They were low, and I could feel it. They were stunned by how much damage they took, seeing as this actually was the most dangerous fight of their short adventuring career and coming to the realization that it's not all just happily hacking your way through goblins.

So I moved the sliders, tweaked some knobs, and from out of nowhere Sildar Hallwinter of the Lords' Alliance appeared along with Reidoth, the Emerald Enclave druid they had met previously in Thundertree who had asked them to take care of the dragon in the first place. They had saved Sildar early on in the adventure, and even bothered to return his sword to him. So it only made sense that he would repay the favor by appearing and saving their bacon. He cut through the cultists while Reidoth entangled the dragon. 

They won- after Ivy's Flame Blade set the brush on fire and Venomfang fled, but it was still a brutal fight, and I felt like I still had to deliver on the promise of defeat. So the dragon wound up eating Reidoth. I made some mysterious, undisclosed, and secretly inconsequential die rolls behind the screen and delivered the bad news. It was the first time any good guy had died in the game for them, and it came across as appropriately shocking. My daughter's response to the Druid's death was "hey, he offered us some money to fight the dragon!" I suggested she send an invoice to his next of kin.

It was really a ruse though- I wanted to make them think that they could actually die there on that hill. They didn't of course, because I'm the DJ and that ain't the mix I'm playing for them. They were never really in any danger. I've had Bugbears roll critical hits on them and after the clatter of dice I report "take two damage". Because I want to keep them dancing, not losing heart that they are getting beat down by relatively low-level monsters that are rolling like gods. I'm effectively censoring the game to remove the possibility of their deaths - at 9 and 7, it's just not something I want them to deal with. Or explain to mom.

But it's not just fatality that I'm spinning out of the narrative - I'm also editing out anything I think would boring for them. We've hand-waved some of the travel, smaller encounters, and the more crunchy elements such as encumbrance, spell components, and some of the more detailed intrigue. There was a bit in the early part of Wave Echo Cave that is a maze. My son said "I'm not really having fun doing this part" so I just cut it right the heck on out. I'm tuning virtually every element for maximum fun.

This is all another strength that RPGs have over more fixed experiences like board games - with a DJ on the decks/a DM behind the screen, you can adjust everything on the fly to make sure everyone is having fun. We've all been in that game where one player or even all the players aren't having fun and the whole thing is really just a downer. Usually, the only way out is to stop playing, sweep the game into the box, and play something else. But I am really digging the ability to shape each session based on what I am reading from them.

And, I am especially enjoying the creation of bespoke narrative especially suited for my kids. I really like that they are playing druids (and Emerald Enclave druids at that) because we can fold in bits about environmental stewardship and animal welfare. With a more fixed format, those themes are either there or they aren't. You can't create them on the fly.

As far as some of the darker subject matter that D&D can often bend toward goes, I've not yet encountered anything I felt was too dark or adult that I needed to censor out of the game. In our household, we don't accept "too scary"- my kids are not allowed to be scared of monsters, frightful imagery, or other fantastic spookery. They know that the real monsters are human. The violence that is inherent in, well, chopping a Hobgoblin in half is something we sort of look past. I don't allow them to be overly descriptive or cruel. I do have to remind them occasionally "you are Lawful Good, you are the good guys."

So we may not be running Curse of Strahd, with its dream pies made of ground children, anytime soon. Unless I can figure out how to spin that in a different way more appropriate to their age and a general Rated T for Teen approach. That won't happen for a while anyway, as right now I'm working out how to match beats linking the end of Lost Mine of Phandelver to Storm King's Thunder via The Sunless Citadel using a story idea my daughter had about rescuing a horse farm from a deadly plague. Wish me luck.

Next Time: The Adult Table.

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Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

D&D Summer Camp
Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #298553 18 Jun 2019 13:19
This reminded me of when I was a kid playing D&D with my brothers and a couple of the neighbors. My younger brother Strider's character got killed, and he started crying. His mom came in and yelled at us all and made the DM make Strider's character be NOT dead.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #298554 18 Jun 2019 13:23
And that in turn reminds me of my favorite D&D censorship story. We used to play at this kid’s house and his parents were super Baptist. He had convinced them that we were not playing with any of the “satanic” stuff like magic.

So...”I’ll throw the torch at the goblins”...we had to come up with al of these non-arcane ways of casting spells. It was ridiculous.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #298557 18 Jun 2019 13:34
I love the accuracy of the DJ analogy. Every DM has their strengths and weaknesses, and one of my strengths is pacing. I have an uncanny sense of the passage of time, and I keep any eye on player engagement. I also have no shame in shutting down a rule argument if it threatens to derail an encounter. I will just make a ruling on the spot and suggest that we discuss the merits of the case by email later.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #298559 18 Jun 2019 14:14

Michael Barnes wrote: And that in turn reminds me of my favorite D&D censorship story. We used to play at this kid’s house and his parents were super Baptist. He had convinced them that we were not playing with any of the “satanic” stuff like magic.

So...”I’ll throw the torch at the goblins”...we had to come up with al of these non-arcane ways of casting spells. It was ridiculous.


Our local game club was looking to find a larger space a while back. The prospective landlord had seen people doing something in our old space, and thought it was an illegal poker parlor. When he was told that it was a boardgame club, he told us that we couldn't play poker, and we couldn't play D&D because it was satanic. Since D&D was frowned upon by the club officers*, missing out on D&D wasn't a deal breaker.

*At the time, the club officers didn't want the space to be taken over by D&D and M:tG players.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #298567 18 Jun 2019 15:17
I remember running a CHILL game decades ago... I killed one of the characters, and I was about to make him not dead, but then the player got pissed and tore his character sheet in half. Oh well!
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #298601 19 Jun 2019 04:18

But you know what, being a DM is an awful lot like being a DJ


This is a fantastic metaphor, as others have said. If you've ever run a game you'll know the truth of it already, but it's a great way to express the feeling to those that haven't.

This is all another strength that RPGs have over more fixed experiences like board games - with a DJ on the decks/a DM behind the screen, you can adjust everything on the fly to make sure everyone is having fun.


A while ago I had a discussion with some RPG folks on Twitter about DMs fudging dice rolls, something I had thought was totally uncontroversial. To my surprise, there was a vocal minority who were inherently against it. They felt it spoiled the contract of the game. When I pointed out that D&D can become pretty unfun without it, they painted it as a weakness in the D&D system and one of the reasons why it's an inferior RPG.

I'm not all that bothered about the rights or wrongs of that debate, so long as everyone's having fun. But it highlights how much of RPGs is down to the social contract at the table - that everyone has to agree on what kind of game they want and maybe make some compromises to ensure all the participants have an enjoyable time.

It's not often talked about, but the same is true of board games. If I'm going to sit down to a heavy Euro - and there are definitely some I like to play - you bet I'm still going to want to drink beer and trash talk. But there are some folk who really, really hate this. Not just the trash talking, but I met a guy who disapproved of beer because he felt having opponents made "sub-optimal" by alcohol reduced his enjoyment.

Still, the social contract in a board game is far more often framed by the rules, and you can often tell what isn't written down simply by the type of games a group favours. So it's a lot easier in board games than RPGs. And is, in fact, perhaps the key reason I left them in favour of board games. I'm still only really interested in RPGs with family - I have no interest in playing with a wider crowd, unlike board games.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #298602 19 Jun 2019 05:43
This is overly reductive, but I feel like this tension between fudging die rolls and playing everyting by the rules was there from the beginning. It seems like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax held very different views on what kind of game they were running. Arneson was the squishier DM, who was more about the story and was willing to toss on stuff that didn't work for him. Gygax was more the adversarial rules lawyer type, and seemed to really be more punishing as a DM. Gygax definitely won that debate in the initial AD&D edition, but I think everyone still played however worked best for them and just ignored stuff they didn't like. But the Gygax tradition of being by-the-book remains for some people, who want to play it as it lies every time. Hence people frowning on fudging die rolls, etc.

Matt brings up something that I feel I've circled around a few times in this forum. Playing D&D is inherently a vulnerable way to play. It requires you to got out there, make stuff up on the spot, and if you're the DM there are a lot of creative ideas that have to sink or float based on what happens at the table. It requires a huge amount of trust in the other players to not just play fairly, but in such a way that actually promotes the fun of everyone at the table. This takes a lot of practice, and it's not a skill set that gamers always value, being the rules-driven people they are.

For my part I have always played D&D with board game friends, but I am not really much of a randos-at-a-club guy anymore, and everyone I have gamed with regularly has become a really good friend. I would gladly introduce D&D to any of them and I feel confident that it'd do pretty well.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #298608 19 Jun 2019 08:26
I too thought DM fudging was just an accepted thing until I started playing with crunch heavy players on roll20 where EVERY dice roll can be displayed and logged. So no more rolling behind the screen! Player death didn't increase that much but the ability to narratively craft an encounter by making monsters easier or tougher on the fly did, since all you could do was adjust HP since everything else was out there. And at a certain point we had encoded a "bloodied" marker when a monster hit 50% damage so even changing HP didn't really work since I had assigned them all beforehand. Became a lot more like orchestrating a video game than a TTRPG but then again, it was all online so I guess that is just the way it is.

Introduced my oldest to Dungeon Mayhem, which is a very light DnD card game from WOTC. At 6 he can sorta read but it really doesn't matter since it is mostly just simple symbols. But it does teach you the basics of character classes (there is a magic-user, paladin, barbarian, and thief guy in the game) in that some characters are attack heavy, others can heal, and he has a new favorite thing, "LIGHTNING BOLT!!!" which he has used to cook me a few times. WOTC is doing a great job making content assessible to young players to be with the 123s and ABCs of DnD and the new Endless Quest books. Might get one to read to my son at bedtime just so he can do some decision-making.

He struggles with games because getting him to accept losing is tough. He'll often flip the table midway through if he thinks he is falling behind, even more so if he makes it to the end and loses. So there is a balance of me playing to let him win (or allowing him to adjust the rules/redo a turn) to keep him interested versus letting him lose and teaching him how to deal with that emotion as a rational human. I think in a RPG I can set up "you fail BUT then this cool thing happens" more than in a board game where failure usually means game over/elimination