Be Gentle, It’s My First Time… Being the DM

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on July 22, 2009

Dungeons & Dragons 4e has been out for over a year now and I finally pulled my Dungeon’s Master Guide off the shelf and put it to use. As our regular DM was out of town, I stepped up to the plate and ran a Dungeon Delve.

I’ve never been a big fan of pre-generated adventures before. I prefer to write my own story full of plot hooks, intrigue, adventure and combat. I find that modules work best to introduce the PCs and the DM to a new rule set. As all the encounters are preset, everyone can focus on making sure that they understand the mechanics. The DM doesn’t need to worry about balancing encounters and can use what’s provided in the module as a template for building future adventures.

So it was with some hesitation that I cracked open the Dungeon Delve and selected an adventure to run. I suppose I could have created a small adventure from scratch, but between work and family I didn’t have the time. Now the first thing I have to say is that the Dungeon Delve rocks for its simplicity in running adventures. Everything that you need to run an entertaining adventure is right there in front of you. That’s all I want to say about the Dungeon Delve as it’s been out for awhile now and it’s been reviewed plenty. If you’re interested you can read a review here or here.

What I want to talk a little further about is the experience of being the DM in D&D 4e. My first impression is that it was extremely enjoyable. The layout of monster stat blocks makes running the NPCs very easy and intuitive. All the information is there for you, a quick glance provides you with all you need to know about the monster key stats and attacks.

The aspect of 4e I found most frustrating to track were conditions. On both NPCs and PCs. From my perspective I wanted to ensure that anything the PCs did was tracked and that conditions were enforced properly. For the PCs, I wanted to ensure that no cheating or laziness was at work. Now I should mention that my group uses MapTools, which has a robust macro system allowing us to track conditions. I had decided ahead of time that I would do my best to remind players of conditions the first time they were applied and after that would leave it to them to track. Even with these two systems in place I found that conditions were being missed, ongoing damage wasn’t always applied and saving throws were constantly not getting rolled.

I’m not sure if this was a result of too many conditions being applied or too many jokes being tossed around. Either way keeping track of the conditions, one of the aspects I love about 4e, proved to be the most difficult part of running the Delve.

Now I should qualify that remark. While it was the most difficult part of running the delve, that difficulty probably rated a 3 out of 10 on the difficulty scale of running a session as a DM. So not really very difficult.

What does this mean? It means that after a year and half of not DMing, jumping back into a new edition as a DM was simplicity itself. I actually got such a kick out of running the Delve that I’ve already planned another one for the next time our regular DM isn’t available.

What have your experiences been in running 4e sessions? Have you encountered any difficulties in tracking conditions or with other aspects of the mechanics?

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1 Karazax July 22, 2009 at 9:33 am

If you want an alternative to maptools, I would highly suggest checking out Fantasy Grounds II and the 4e ruleset that is under developement for it. It makes tracking conditions considerably easier and the guys working on the ruleset are doing a fantastic job adding new features and improving it on a regular basis. The 4e ruleset can be found at and for the actual fantasy grounds II program.

Here is a tutorial for an older version of the ruleset which has been improved on, but it still gives a nice idea of the general functions and how things look:

In fact it would be pretty cool to see you guys do a review on the 4e ruleset on Fantasy Grounds here.

2 Louis July 22, 2009 at 11:29 am

I’ve been DMing for a while now (a year plus), and the condition tracking is, by far, the most complex part of the whole ordeal. Especially when you get to Paragon level and higher, when the conditions get really screwy. For example, When you are restrained, you are also immoboloized, and when you are dominated you are also dazed. Yep, conditions stack contain other conditions in them. Throw in most of the different defenders having mark effects (I’m looking at you Warden), which you must also track.

To deal with this all, I created for myself a chart to track everything. Basically, I typed up a sheet of paper that listed all the cambat conditions on one side (for easy reference) on one side, and a table that tracks initiative, conditions, hitpoints, recharges, etc on the other. I then laminated it, and them picked up some overhead markers. Now, I track everything on this single chart, and wipe it down with a damp rag after ever encounter. It is really easy, and has made cambat go really smooth for me and the rest of the group.

3 Karazax July 22, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Yeah if you are not playing with a computer that is a good idea. With Fantasy grounds the combat tracker allows you to put different conditions on monsters and players and set when they expire (end of turn, end of next turn, on save, ect) and even gives the option to have it auto roll saves if you wish so you don’t forget.

For example in this screen shot you can see the kobold dragonshield with slowed effect on him:

4 New Zombie July 22, 2009 at 8:45 pm

condition tracking gets easier as you get familiar with the game.

i too use maptools and find tracking a lot easier than it used to be before i adopted a virtual tabletop.

what i can suggest is start at level 1 and share the load. if the players start at level 1 the complexity curve increases as their experience with the system increases. when it comes to sharing the load, any effects that are of benefit to the players i leave it to them to remember and remind me when they are in effect.

i also get the players to roll the dice for the monster attacks against their character. i simply describe the attack and inform them of the modifiers, they roll, if they hit i then tell them what dice to roll to damage themselves.

5 Toldain July 22, 2009 at 11:06 pm

One suggestion for those that don’t use a computer with play. I have a small whiteboard, and write everyone on it in initiative order. I can use this for conditions, too. And everyone sees who’s next; it makes it easy to keep focus. One shorthand that this kind of forces is that I usually have all the individual monsters of each type go at the same initiative.

Another possibility is using an erasable play surface for the figures. so things like Hunter’s Quarry, and Fighter marks can be put right on the board.
.-= Toldain´s last blog .."I Don’t Make Games, I Make Toys" =-.

6 Wimwick July 23, 2009 at 9:44 am

@ Karazax
I’ve taken a look at Fantasy Grounds before. One of the reasons why I haven’t investigated it further is because there is a cost involved. MapTools is free and has been working well for our group for the past four or five years. When time permits I may download the demo and see what it’s all about.

@ Louis
I agree conditions are the most difficult part to track, which is unfortunate as I really like the complexity they add to the game. At the end of the day if a conditions is missed I don’t see it as a big deal, I’m there to have fun and so I’m not going to stress out over tracking conditions.

@ New Zombie
I too find that MapTools is great for assisting in the tracking of conditions. So long as the players remember to apply the conditions everything works out ok!

@ Toldain
The idea of a white board to track initiative and conditions is a great idea. Even with a computer assisting the white board could be a useful tool to ensure that everything is tracked and applied correctly.

7 Kmack September 15, 2010 at 12:53 pm

For condition tracking without a computer, I absolutely love Alea Tools:

With these, it’s very easy to put a visual reminder right on the table that a condition is in effect, and even multiple conditions on the same target aren’t a problem. (Early versions of the markers used to interfere with each others’ magnetic fields and push figures around the table, but the new ones don’t.) I’ve been using these markers in my games for almost two years and can’t imagine running a game without them.

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