February has been designated as the month when we should go out of our way to let our DMs know what a good job they’re doing. Of course, I’d like to think that many players do this on a regular basis already, but for those who need prompting it’s time to say thank you. As a DM I get a lot of thank yous from my players so I know how big a morale boost it is to hear you’ve done a good job. With that in mind I’m taking the time in February to write a few blog posts that feature some of my very best DMs I know. It’s my way of saying thank you to them.
This time around I’d like to tell you about DM Liam (a.k.a. Bauxtehude). We met as while playing Living Forgotten Realms together at my FLGS shortly after 4e D&D was released. It only took me a few session to realize that Liam didn’t care for the rigid structure that canned adventures in 4e followed. Fortunately he’s the kind of guy who is willing to put up or shut up, and he put up. He decided that he would rather spend his time running a game that could go in any direction and not have to confirm to a 4-hour time block. He recruited a few players from the FLGS and we began to play in DM Liam’s new home campaign called The Shattered Sea.
Unlike some of the other articles I’ve written about DMs this month I’m not going to talk about the campaign, instead I want to focus on DM Liam’s style. For him story is everything. He wants the story to drive the action. He wants the story to drive the characters’ interactions. He doesn’t worry about mechanics. And quite often he doesn’t even worry about dice.
I’ll admit that the first few sessions I played under DM Liam I was disappointed because I was expecting a campaign and play style that was more traditional, more like the games I ran. I knew DM Liam wanted to run a sandbox adventure, but I was expecting a certain conformity to the 4e rules. When I realized he didn’t care about the rules I learned to enjoy the game a lot more.
The players were encouraged to really get into character and focus on role-playing and development. Some nights we’d play for 4-5 hours and no one would role any dice. It was entirely dialogue-driven. You’d describe the encounters including your own PC’s successes and failures during short, quick combat. It took some getting used to but once I did I found it exhilarating. This DM gave me a chance to try D&D in a way I’d never really experienced it before and it was great.
In 4e D&D skill challenges were a mechanic introduced to encourage role-playing and reward PCs with XP for doing it right. I believe DM Liam liked the idea that role-playing should be just as important as combat and you should earn XP for good role-playing, just like you would for fighting a monster. He disliked the rigidity of X number of successes before Y number of failures, but it gave him inspiration to design his own version of skill challenges. See DM Liam’s articles Creating and Running Engaging Skill Challenges (Part 1 | Part 2) and Exploring Skill Checks and the New DCs (Part 1 | Part 2).
But DM Liam wasn’t all talk and soft-skills. He also was the master of huge set-piece combat. He would spend hours drawing insanely intricate and detailed maps on 1-inch grid paper and when the PCs finally got there and combat happened it was a total free-for-all. Where we’d had session previously with no dice, some nights when there was a lot of combat we’d spend 4-hours on one map fighting for our lives. I’m not talking about high paragon tier/low epic tier battles, I mean level 4-7 battles. Just because 4e was supposed to be a system that stressed balance didn’t mean DM Liam followed that direction.
When we had big combat encounters they were vital to the story. They took place in significantly important locations and had huge campaign-wide consequences when the fighting stopped depending on how successful or unsuccessful we were. We learned very quickly that we would often face opponents and situations that were beyond our capabilities. See Fighting an Opponent You Can’t Beat inspired by DM Liam.
Now that you see how comfortable DM Liam was with making the rules fluid, keeping what he liked, dismissing what didn’t, and adding what he felt would will work better, it shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn he spend four years as a counselor at D&D Camp. That’s right, he spent his summers teaching kids how to play D&D. Talk about an audience that doesn’t play by the rules. He was the perfect DM to take that job since he wasn’t a big fan of playing by the book either. Read all about his awesome and hilarious experiences in Confessions of a D&D Camp Counselor and the follow-up articles.
Like any hard-core gamer DM Liam couldn’t limit himself to just one game at a time. He became a regular player at my weekly Sunday night D&D table. Although he was a player most of the time, he did take the lead as DM when we finally moved to the epic tier in 4e. His adventures only lasted a few weeks but they were the most creative and most fun. Everyone in my group took a turn running epic games and none of us came close to doing as good a job as DM Liam. When we asked him how he managed to make it so fun he simply said something along the lines of “Nothing was off-limits. If I could imagine it, I put you up against it.”
Let me give you an idea of the crazy antics we faced during his stint as the epic DM. A tractor-beam pulled us up to the moon giving us fantastic areal combat. Then we were on the moon’s surface without air, fighting monsters, and trying to get inside the structure housing the tractor-beam before we all suffocated. Once finally inside (I still can’t believed we all survived that far) we had to face more monsters, turn off the tractor-beam and get home. It sounds silly and crazy but it was oh so much fun. And we all lived which was even more amazing!
DM Liam is unlike other great DMs I’ve played under because he’s so willing to throw the rules out the window when it suits the game and the story. He was always good at maintaining balance and didn’t screw us over by nerfing an established rule. He did what the situation called for to make every game fun and exciting. He was willing to help each player develop their PC and often worked in elements of your character’s life into the bigger camping seamlessly. DM Liam is by far one of the best DMs I’ve had so to him I say thank you. I can’t wait to play at his table for the upper levels of 5e D&D. That should be a lot of fun.