Learning to Dungeon Master: Starting Out and Rookie Mistakes

My learning curve for Dungeons and Dragons and DMing over the past two weeks has been fast, furious and fun. It started with buying two kits and getting a group together and it has now grown into my newest obsession. Along the way I have overcome a few interesting challenges, picked up a few tips’n’tricks and even made up a few of my own. But before you read any further you need to know what edition of the game I am playing with my group!

After a bit of digging and reading around online I decided on using the 4th Edition Essentials Line of products as my rules and gameplay basis. There are four reasons for this:

  1. You can start quickly and easily with the Red Box. It is cheap and if you spread the cost among a group of friends you have a group that is already invested in the game before you roll your first dice!
  2. You can then expand on it very easily with the other products like the DM’s Kit, Tile Sets and Player’s Books.
  3. They are the most readily available products because they are the newest. Other products might take some time to find. The Essentials stuff is everywhere and at a good price too!
  4. Even though there is lots of grumbling from the more vocal parts of the online D&D community about the Essentials line, it is the easiest way to get into the game. It is a set of ten products that stand out from the daunting lists of all the other 4th Edition products. It also integrates with the older products, if I want it to, with very little fuss it seems.

Stuff I have bought so far in my quest to play D&D and DM:

  • Red Box
  • Dungeon Master’s Kit
  • Rules Compendium
  • Extra Dice

Seeing as I have covered a lot of ground in just two weeks this first post will be a bit on the long side and be divided into four sections sections:

  • Group Organisation 
  • The Red Box and Session 1
  • Planning Session 2
  • Expansion

Group Organisation starts after the jump!

Group Organisation

One of the first things I did, which surprisingly hasn’t come up on any getting started guides or DM Tips posts, is set up a Facebook Group for the me and the Players to use. The group is secret so anyone who might be embarrassed to have D&D related posts filling up their public timelines can rest easy. The group is mainly used to bounce ideas back and fourth between me and the players which has been really helpful during this introductory process to the game. If anyone has a question or suggestion outside of the gaming sessions they can just pop it up on the Facebook group. We can also all post links to interesting sites and vids related to our D&D sessions. For example, posting a link to the PAX 2011 live game videos has left the players wanting to try out and do more roleplay, which is awesome! Then you have the Facebook Documents section of the group that can be used to give the players further details and information; reading lists, helpful tips, basic rules, etc.

The other, very important, function of the group is to organise gaming sessions in a quick and painless manner. All it takes is asking people to vote via a poll for which days they can play then forming an Event around the most popular date. Then on the page for the event (once again it is made secret so only players can see it) I can go into as much detail as needed for the session. I can give the players a bit more background on the evening’s adventure, introduce new rules, make last minute changes, etc. etc. 

Another tool I have found helpful and have been using alongside the Facebook Group is Dropbox. I setup a group account which everyone can access and in it are all the things the players need. They have character sheet templates and more detailed information along with the documents and scanned copies of material I’m using as pre-session homework. The homework is usually something to lead into the next session (I should really call it something else). For the first session I scanned in the Players Book from the Red Box and had have everyone run through it in their own time. It threw up a lot of confusion and questions on the Facebook Group at first but by the time it came to the first session everyone had a character ready to go and a basic understanding of the rules. 

Also as an added bonus because both things are digital I can access them during game sessions on my iPad, so no laptops getting in the way!

The Red Box and Session 1

Working my way through this starter set has been a blast. The player’s book only takes about an hour or so to run through and has been invaluable in grasping the core D&D gameplay. It guides you through the creation of your first character step by step and ends with a small solo encounter. While there are some big mistakes (a player arrived at Session 1 with no Constitution or Hit Points because he never got hit and the options for his character never sent him back to do it later on!) it serves as a nice intro and set up for the game. Because I shared the Player’s Book digitally I told everyone to stop when they reached the Goblin Cave and where you are told to pull out the Maps and Tokens (point 93 or 94 I think). I then decided to change the order up a bit and run Your First Encounter from the Red Box Dungeon Master’s Book as the players introduction to combat.

Storywise it was justified by the players each coming upon the cave separately and then realising there was too much danger for just them alone to handle. So they each headed back to Fallcrest and banded together in the Inn over drinks. Your First Encounter then happens on their way back to the Goblin Cave. The plan was then to jump straight into The Twisting Halls. In retrospect this was a huge mistake. I should have run the group through the encounter at the end of the Player’s Book at the start of the session. It only takes 10mins (give or take) and then done Your First Encounter. The encounter was a bit of a mess as we all got to grips with group combat and the finer elements of fighting. It also didn’t help that the players were one man down so a group of four was now a group of three. It took a long time, the whole session even, to finish the encounter but we all learned a lot which is stuff I am now incorporating into Session 2.

Planning Session 2

Despite the difficulties with Session 1 the players enjoyed themselves and wouldn’t stop talking about it, which was awesome! Because they were talking about it so much and there was a bit of buzz amongst the students of the Game Design course I am on. So I decided to let the players decide if they wanted to add two more people to the group. They said yes and voted on who they wanted to join in. So I now have six players to provide adventure for. This presented me with two challenges:

  1. How do I get them to fit into the game organically along with the missing player from the first session?
  2. How do I keep the game challenging with more players than the recommended amount forThe Twisting Halls?

The second question was fairly easy to answer after looking around online, asking a few questions in the right places and consulting my copy of the Dungeon Master’s Book from the Dungeon Master’s Kit. All I have to do is adjust the XP level for each encounter and add the appropriate number of extra monsters to keep things challenging. For the start of The Twisting Halls however I’m going to keep things at their default values to allow the players (especially the newer ones) a bit of breathing room to grips with the game a bit better. It will also allow me to gauge how much I need to increase the difficulty. In the next session I will be ramping up the difficulty a bit. MWHAHAHA!

As for the first question, the answer was staring me in the face! The Goblin Cave! A short encounter that acts as a very quick intro into the basics of combat and a good opportunity to introduce the new players into the game! So I set about creating my first encounter which was a lot of fun and increased my knowledge of the rules considerably.

The encounter I came up with is, Assault on the Goblin Cave. It is way below the level of the number of players for the group (only 275XP!) but it serves it’s purpose. To introduce the players to the basics of group combat and to provide an in point for the three players entering the game. All there is are six goblin minions and a hex hurler all using the pre-made stat tables from the Red Box Dungeon Master’s Book. It will give the players a taste of the tactics deployed by the Hex Hurlers inside The Twisting Halls  and should only take two to three rounds to complete. We can then move onto The Twisting Halls and the adventure that lies within.

So for Session 2 I have planed out Assault on the Goblin Cave, Encounter 1: Purificationor Encounter 2: Worship from The Twisting Halls (the players have a choice of which one to do). This should then provide a good stopping point or if there is time they can move onto the Skill Challenge (I’m not going into to much detail here because my players might be reading this!) or any of the other surrounding encounters, 1 or 2 (depending on which they did first) and 3 or 6 depending on which path they take. 

The pre-session homework I set was an optional questionnaire players can fill out to flesh out their characters a bit for them to get more attached and for me to try and incorporate these backstory elements into the game. 

The questionnaire goes a little something like this:



General physical description: 


Relationship status: 

Current family: 

Family background: 


Other close relationships:


Attitude to religion/Alignment: 

Favorite pastimes: 


Favorite foods/drinks:

Strongest positive personality trait: 

Strongest negative personality trait: 

Sense of humour: 


Consideration for others: 

How other people see him/her: 

Opinion of him/herself: 

Other traits, especially those you would like to be brought out in adventures and the wider game story: 


Philosophy of life:

Most important thing to know about this character: 

Simple and effective I say as a starting point for their characters.


Even though we have only just started playing there is a lot of enthusiasm flying around the place. This has lead to simple forms of expansion such as me buying and using extra dice, The Dungeon Master’s Kit and Rules Compendium to help me organise and play games. To me running through a few solo adventures to generate and level up a character of my own to use if anyone else in the group wants to try their hand at DMing, he is a Halfling Wizard named: Crukal Milltall of Many Spells by the way. From doing this I have a better understanding of combat from the players perspective too which is always helpful. The players themselves have gotten in on the action as well with most of them ordering miniatures to represent their characters or talking about getting their own sets of dice. They are also planning on buying a couple of copies of the Essentials Player Book: Heroes of the Fallen Lands between them soon so they can advance their characters past level two. I have also been looking around online and grabbed further adventures from the D&D website that don’t require an Insider Sub to obtain. Finally I have been religiously reading and checking websites such as The Role Playing Games StackExchange and the brilliant Learning to DM Reflections on Running a 4E Campaign which has become my go to place for D&D ideas, help and advice. 

So there we go! That was hopefully the first of many Dungeons and Dragons related posts! Please feel free to send me questions and/or messages about D&D if you wish. Also any advice is always helpful!

Weekly Update

This past week has been all about getting to grips with the basics of Dungeons and Dragons. So the other two projects, the Time Travel game and Superman game have fallen by the wayside a bit due to D&D taking over!

So the plan for the coming week is to make major headway in at least the Time Travel game design. Basically any free time I have this week will be spent working on that design. Then at the weekend when/if I have time I will switch to Project Superman and start making major headway on that.

I am also working on a few D&D related posts because they are relevant to designing Hunters of the New Dawn and they are also going to be interesting….hopefully! I haven’t played D&D in about 8 years so I am very much coming from a newbie’s perspective when it comes to both playing and DMing. I seem to be coping well enough for now and I have come up with a few tips and tricks that others might find helpful. So I figured that seeing as this is a game design blog and D&D is pretty much the basics of game design, why not document the process?

So watch this space!

Games I Have Been Playing:

I haven’t had much time for playing games this week but over the weekend I was visiting a friend and he showed me Star Trek Online. It looked interesting so I downloaded it and gave it a whirl now that it is Free 2 Play.

The immediate barriers of entry to people like me (I only like the original series and the new movie) are calmed somewhat by the wealth of detail and backstory available. You are quickly brought up to speed on what’s going on and who is who. With each race being fully detailed for people like me who don’t know their Klingons from their Tribbles. The gameplay is also fairly interesting. It is split into three distinct areas: Exploration, Ground Combat and Space Combat. Exploration is a mix of the non-combat forms of Space and Ground gameplay. So you spend your time exploring the galaxy, planets, space stations and interacting with other players. The space combat is fun if a bit clumsy and difficult to get the hang of. You get the feeling of them being big epic space battles (the explosions help with this!) and while the pace is maybe a little bit slow for my liking, it is still fun and engaging. Ground combat can be played in two ways. The traditional MMO-style combat of action bars and cool downs. Or as a shooter that incorporates the action bars and cool downs into the gameplay. The shooter controls are a bit ropey but add a much needed extra punch to the proceedings. It is great to mix up the tried and tested MMO-style combat with more actiony, over the shoulder shootouts. Not for everyone but I like it and if I continue to play I am pretty sure that I will use the shooter controls as much as possible. It is certainly worth checking out if you have an interest in the Star Trek franchise. 

Weekly Update

This week has been spent getting the two parts of my honours project organised before I start making the big push of starting to make the documentation for the two different games this week. This involved creating two checklists for the design documentation. Each is structured into sections that need to be done, ones that could be missed if needs be and finally ones that a supplementary. The check lists are presented below (apologies for the weird formatting I had to export them as images and Numbers did not like it!)

Project Superman Checklist:

Time Travel Game Checklist:

Hunters of the New Dawn:

Apart from starting to fleshing out the IP Statement document for this project I have spent the week getting stuck into the Dungeons and Dragons starter set. Testing out the rules and looking at the game from the player’s and DM’s perspective. Wednesday this week will see me DMing my first game with my assembled group of adventures! I’m looking forward to it. The plan is that after a few sessions I will start modifying the rules and game to fit the Hunters of the New Dawn design. Then we can start playtesting the prototype version of Hunters.

Games I Have Been Playing:

It seems I have been in a very shooty mood this past week. I’ve managed to find the time to finish both the MW3 and Battlefield 3 single player campaigns. I have also been slowly continuing my playthrough of Halo:CE HD. The other big gaming related thing I did in the past week was head into Manchester to check out the PS Vita Rooms to get some hands on time with the console and it’s launch games. The full write up is over on my other blog The Nerd Is The Word and you can check it out by heading here.

Weekly Update

In an effort to keep content appearing on here regularly I will start doing these weekly updates. These posts will be on top of any other, more detailed, posts I make regarding the various project I’m working on. So let’s get on with the update!

Project Superman:

The final documentation for this part of my honours project will be in the form of one sheet posters giving the viewer all the key information they need. So this past week has been spent messing around with Adobe Illustrator and teaching myself the basics of it. This week has also been spent making titles and headers for the various sections the posters will cover. Here’s a few samples of them in their basic form:

It the font looks familiar, it should! I have managed to find the font, Atomic Wedgie, which bares a close resemblance to the Action Comics font used by DC Comics. The very comic that is a major influence on the design of the game!

These titles are images taken from a web based preview application for the font. So all that needs doing now is a bit of light editing and they should be ready for use on the posters! While this might not seem like a big step in most game designs, for this one it is. Mainly because it is a very visual way of showing the documentation for the game. The titles and overall presentation are all part of the final design so every element has to fit in with the style and tone of the game. 

In other Project Superman related stuff, this week also saw me looking at Factor 5’s now cancelled Superman game and giving my thoughts.

Time Travel Game:

So this past week saw me make a start on what will eventually be the prototype level for the game in UDK. You can see that by heading here. I also finally received my copy of The Time Traveler’s Pocket Guide and read though it. (The website for the book can be found by heading to timetravelbureau.com) It is a great quick and funny read that fits in with the lighthearted tone of the game perfectly. So I expect it to be featured quite a bit in the final design.

This week also saw me make a start on the documentation side of the Time Travel Game, the online Wiki. It is very bare at the moment as I get to grips with wiki editing but expect more content to appear there rapidly over the coming weeks. You can get to the Time Travel Game Wiki by heading here.

Hunters of The New Dawn:

After a successful IP Presentation (which I will upload soon) I have taken that presentation and turned it into a very rough draft of my IP Statement. I have also ordered and am now eagerly waiting for a Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Starter Set to arrive in the post. 

There are multiple reasons for getting this starter set:

  1. After much soul searching, lack of information and Bethesda being slow, it has become to unrealistic to prototype the game in the still yet to be released Skyrim Toolset. I could use other RPG toolsets such as Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age’s (this is still a possibility) but this is next easiest and funnest way to do it! I can quickly modify the game and it’s rules to suite my design and get people testing it ASAP. Which is essential for the timeframe I have for the project.
  2. Lots of articles I have read recently and advice given to me by both my tutor and people in the games industry is to play more games like Dungeons and Dragons. DnD is at the heart of many of today’s games and it’s stat system the basis for how many seemingly unrelated games work. The general consensus is to mess around and have fun with DnD as an easy way to bounce ideas off a small group of players quickly, with the minimum of fuss.
  3. I haven’t played DnD in years! The last time I played it was around 7-8 years ago! So a small part of me is looking forward to getting back into it after such a long time away from the game.

Also it has things like 20 sided dice and d20s are awesome!

Games I Have Been Playing:

I have returned to my Insanity Mode playthrough of Mass Effect 2 because I am determined to finish it 100% by the time Mass Effect 3 comes out in March. I have also been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic in one or two day bursts. Then to play something not made by BioWare I have been jumping in and out of the odd bit of Halo: Reach/CE:HD multiplayer. On the go this week I have mainly been playing Infinity Blade on my iPad when it decided to work (I keep getting persistent crashing).

That’s it for this week and the first of these regular updates!

Greetings stranger….whatch’ya buy’n?

Hi there!

If you’re not familar with me, my name is Callum Langstroth and I am a recently graduated and budding young (25 is young right?) Game Designer. This little place is eventually going to be the home for my game design portfolio and gaming blog, which you can currently find by heading to langstrothgamedesign.co.uk.

Over the next couple of weeks I will slowly be moving all the content from my original site to  this one and after that I will begin posting all my updates and content here. So for now enjoy the slow trickle of my backlog of portfolio work and blog posts about anything and everything gaming related!

Factor 5’s Superman Game

Factor 5’s Blue Steel character models – Via Kotaku

Here’s some interesting character models that have popped up on Kotaku today from Factor 5’s cancelled Superman game. Some interesting ideas and it seems they were trying to go with a familiar and timeless design for the characters derived from the pre-New 52 comics rather than the films. But it does one big thing that makes me mad: It puts Lex Luthor in a suit of armour!

While Lex in his trademark green and purple armour isn’t a new thing, particularly in video games, I have always felt it is a cheap and easy way to put Luthor and Superman on the same playing field combat wise. It is also something I feel flies in the face of what Lex stands for as a character, he is meant to be the best and worst of humanity. The armour at is most basic is Lex Luthor trying to be Superman and working to put himself on the same god-like level. I have always been of the viewpoint that Lex would very much prefer Superman to come to his level and his schemes should reflect this. These schemes typically comes in three forms:

  1. Lex giving Superman a gauntlet of tasks to tire him out to the point where he can be defeated easily. Uniting Superman’s enemies to take him down collectively or the most common type of gauntlet, teaming up with Brainiac in an evil master plan!
  2. Outsmarting Superman by often making Supes his own worst enemy. It also usually plays into the schemes exemplified by point 1. This can also be Lex “beating” Superman by simply sticking to the rules of man. Such as getting out of jail in Superman Returns because Superman didn’t keep his court date to testify against him.
  3. Science! Technically the suit falls under this category but at this point in the franchise’s history it is very, very, very overused. Other science based Luthor schemes involve creating doomsday weapons, robots and genetically engineered monsters.

When approaching the villains and their motives in my Superman game design I am finding very helpful to look at the most basic elements that make them who they are. Luthor thinks what he is doing for the betterment of mankind. Zod wants revenge on the House of El and will do anything to achieve that goal. Parasite is an addict to power, his compulsive need to obtain greater and greater sources of power is the whole driving force behind the character. The list and basic summations goes on and on!

More soon…