Pages on RJD20

28 August 2020

Learn About Tasha and Tasha's Cauldron of Everything


The newest Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition book is Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, an expansion of both the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It’s a welcome sight after a slew of adventure modules and setting guides. The minds and mouths of D&D 5e Dungeon Masters and Players alike are salivating for new content, whatever form it might take, and Tasha’s Cauldron appears as if it’s prepared to deliver. Content inside the book will include: 22 new subclasses (and 5 reprinted ones), alternate features for every class, the artificer (de-Eberronized), novel spells & magic items, group patrons, exciting tools for Dungeon Masters, and the usual beautiful art that arrives with all D&D products. November 17, 2020, the book’s release date, cannot arrive soon enough.

Wizards of the Coast took an interesting approach announcing this book’s release: influencers released tidbits of information across social media platforms like Twitter. It was a new strategy and I did enjoy listening to some of these people passionately ooze about Tasha’s Cauldron. However, this article seeks to explore the origins of who the titular character of the new product is and to gather what we can expect inside her cauldron in a single place.

Tasha’s Hideous History and Bright Future


Following the positive reception of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, Wizards of the Coast decided to snatch another character from D&D’s grand legacy to head their next rules expansion: Tasha. So, who is Tasha? Is she a key character in the history of D&D? What is her story?

In universal D&D canon, Tasha began her story in the world of Oerth, where Greyhawk is set. The adopted daughter of the terrible witch Baba Yaga, Tasha’s upbringing was inspired by dark magic and teachings of doom & destruction. During her early years as a mage, she was supposedly called Natasha the Dark (though this is disputed). In her later years, she became known as Tasha, a reputable spellcaster who joined Greyhawk’s Company of Seven. She invented quite a few spells; some of them are available for use nowadays: Tasha’s hideous laughter and planar binding are two. Later in life, Tasha adopted the persona of Iggwilv, a demi-god of wizardry and evil. Surprisingly, though Iggwilv and Tasha are both quite old icons in D&D history, this new persona was retconned into Tasha’s past. Until 2007 and the publishing of Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, Tasha and Iggwilv were different people. In that book, history was altered and they became the same person.

That’s where everything becomes interesting and weird.

Iggwilv first debuted in the unique dungeon crawl adventure The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, published in 1982 by Gary Gygax. One of the co-founders of D&D, Gygax created the character of Iggwilv to serve as a powerful witch. He was said to be inspired by the Finnish epic Kelevala’s character Louhi, a “...shamanistic matriarch” and “...a powerful witch with a skill almost on par with that of Väinämöinen (the hero of the epic).” Iggwilv continued to appear in adventures and the lore of Greyhawk, becoming an archmage of power comparable (if not greater) than Mordenkainen and Elminister.

In Dragon #67 (a magazine dedicated to D&D), Tasha’s uncontrollable hideous laughter was included on a list spells for magic-users. This was the first mention of the wizard Tasha and, surprisingly, it was brought on by a young girl’s request — in crayon — to create a spell based on laughter. It wasn’t until almost 20 issues of Dragon passed by that Tasha was mentioned again. When she was brought up in Dragon #83, it was simply the addition of a complete spellbook of Tasha which contained a variety of spells related to communication. Examples include the aforementioned but renamed Tasha’s hideous laughter, message, and legend lore. In the same issue, an adventure including Natasha the Dark was present, although it’s unclear whether or not Tasha = Natasha the Dark was an intended connection of Gygax. Nevertheless, people picked it up and Tasha became Natasha the Dark.

Iggwilv continued to appear in module after module. Eventually, as expressed before in this article, Iggwilv was hinted to be Tasha in Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk. Initially, this connection was extremely unclear. Rumours in the module stated that Iggwilv joined the famous Company of Seven disguised as Tasha. Why? The answer is unknown. However, this hint led people to demand to know whether or not this innocent, child-requested creator of Tasha’s hideous laughter, Tasha, was indeed the vile demi-god sorceress Iggwilv. In the ultimate print issue of Dragon magazine (#359), an answer was finally given. “Tasha and Iggwilv were one and the same, and were also related to Baba Yaga's adopted daughter Natasha.”

That answered it: the icon who engineered the creation of Tasha’s hideous laughter, based on the request of a young girl, was a chaotic evil villainous mastermind. And somehow, the answer still muddied waters: many thought Tasha equaled Natasha the Dark, but now Natasha is simply related to Tasha? Oh, the confusion. However, that’s not where Iggwilv’s/Tasha’s/Natasha’s story ends, not at all.

The creators of fourth edition decided to include Iggwilv in the edition’s brand new setting: the Nentir Vale in the land of Nerath. This points of light setting drew connections between Iggwilv and the demon lord Graz’zt, turning them into lovers and rivals. One of the edition’s supplements, Demonomicon, was based on the evil demi-god’s in-universe work and includes pieces from her own writings (quite like what we see in today’s new books). Further adding to the identity crisis of Iggwilv, Dungeon #196 (a cousin to Dragon magazine) established that Natasha the Dark would become Iggwilv. This new line completely omitted her arc as Tasha. Then, a year later, in Dragon #414 (a digitized Dragon magazine), authors explored the various affairs, betrayals, and romances between Graz’zt and Iggwilv. In this history between the two D&D icons, it was confirmed that "she [Iggwilv] has been known by many names over the years: Natasha, Hura, then Tasha, and finally Iggwilv.” Another confirmation: Tasha = Natasha = Iggwilv and now = Hura. That’s where fourth edition left Tasha: a chaotic evil demi-god who uses magic and seduction to forward her plans. However, with her arrival to fifth edition, that past vision appears to be changing…

D&D’s newest book is Tasha’s Cauldron to Everything. In it, Tasha/Iggwilv will act as the narrator, as Volo, Xanathar, and Mordenkainen have in their respective D&D supplements. It would not be odd to have the Iggwilv of old narrate the book despite her clearly being evil in D&D’s past, we’ve already had Xanathar, an insane beholder, narrate. However, the Iggwilv we know will not be present in Tasha’s Cauldron.

Lead rules designer of D&D Jeremy Crawford refused to state that Tasha was a singular alignment, instead treating her like an amorphous being. She wasn’t chaotic evil, she was a brilliant wizard open to everything and anything. I like that.

In a recent interview, Crawford said:

“Tasha is a person who is unfazed by beings of many sorts—in addition to having consorted with darker beings, she also has consorted with, you know, beings of the upper plains. Basically, Tasha, in her brilliant curiosity, is untroubled by the various moral variations in the planes of existence. If there is knowledge to be learned and to power to possibly be gained, Tasha is unafraid to face it.”

Tasha’s story is moving forward and that’s fantastic. I’m glad that the days of mortals being a set alignment: lawful good, chaotic evil, etc are steadily fading away. Characters have personalities and flaws, bonds and ideals, goals and thoughts of their own. The world has an impact on them and their mindsets can change over time. With the old system of alignment, that was discouraged. Change wasn’t rewarded, it was punished. I think change in something as interesting as one’s moral view of the world is fantastic and a stellar way to develop a character in D&D, or any narrative-based game. I’m glad the fifth edition designers are taking a chance here with Tasha, and I’m excited to see what she has to say about her story in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.

What’s Inside Tasha’s Cauldron?


Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything is set to be the largest expansion of D&D’s rules for Players and Dungeon Masters since Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. There will be a wealth of content inside. This is what we know will be included.

Elle Osili-Wood excitedly discussed the official addition of sidekicks to D&D! Previously included in the “updated” starter adventure Dragons of Icespire Peak, sidekicks are NPCs who assist the PCs but don’t hog the spotlight. Meant to be usable by either Players or Dungeon Masters, sidekicks are customizable, easy-to-manage, and spectacular in one-on-one campaigns. They can round out the party, providing heals to a down-and-dirty pit fighter, protection for a feeble spellcaster, or danger sense to an aloof, heavy-armored cleric.

Gaurav Gulati eloquently laid out the reprinting of the group patron system. Originally placed in Eberron: Rising from the Last War, the group patron system gives the Dungeon Master limitless inspiration on quest-givers and plot-lines. It also provides Players with a common ally, something to tie all their characters together. For example, characters could all be working for a silver dragon who prefers to stay in the shadows, an agent of a powerful celestial from the Upper Planes, or a wealthy merchant who pays in land, not coin. If the tables in Eberron: Rising From the Last War are any indication, anyone with a knack for creativity is going to love this tool.

Mica Burton explored the inclusion of a new warlock subclass: the genie patron. Printed in Unearthed Arcana before its official addition to D&D, this warlock patron allows a character to form a pact with a genie. Pacts with each of the four genie varieties (djinn, efreeti, dao, and marid) are possible and every expanded spell list includes the wish spell! In addition, you can choose the vessel your patron is found in; it can be anything from the typical golden lamp to an urn or a chubby statuette. Xanathar’s added quite a few strong warlock options; will Tasha’s do the same?

Critical Bard sang of a new bard subclass: the College of Creation. As the genie patron, the College of Creation was included in Unearthed Arcana earlier this year. The subclass gives bard characters the opportunity to imbue allies, objects, and enemies with notes from the Song of Creation. It embraces all the facets of a bard: support, versatility, and raw creativity. From how it played in Unearthed Arcana, I do hope there are some tweaks to it mechanically. Its flavor is fantastic, pulling from some my favorite creation myths, those involving the universe starting with a song, but it appears mechanically weak.

Sam de Leve raved about the new magic items and magic tattoos Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything will bring. Unlike many of the magic items on the pages of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it looks like Wizards of the Coast decided to break out the flavor and give stories and flair to magic items again. +1 weapons are great. but unique weapons with a history to them are far more interesting, especially if they’re mechanically enticing as well. A confirmed item is a spellbook that will look like a romance novel (Finally, romance novels exist in D&D canon.) to anyone reading it besides its owner. Alongside new magic items, magical tattoos will give characters the opportunity to make marks on themselves that will aid them in battles and social interactions. For example, magic-users can get tattoos that improve their unarmored AC.

Viva La Dirt League laid out a few of the new spells, focusing on the school of conjuration. They focused on the addition of new summoning spells that will allow characters to summon a wide variety of creatures to travel and fight alongside them. Spells include summon aberrant spirit, summon celestial spirit, and summon construct spirit. Even better, these spells give characters options within them. One cast, a wizard might summon a golem with summon construct spirit. The next cast, they might create a modron from Mechanus.

In addition to all of this, we know that:
  • The artificer will be in the book, updated to fit in any world and not just Eberron.
  • There will be at least one new subclass for each of the 13 classes.
  • There will be 22 brand new subclasses and 5 reprinted subclasses (Bladesinger Wizard, Oath of Glory Paladin, College of Eloquence Bard, Order Domain Cleric, and Circle of Spores Druid). The reprinted subclasses are from a variety of old books, many of them setting specific.
  • The long-awaited new class features will be present.
  • New origin stories for characters like magical origins will be in the book.
  • There will be psionic-themed subclasses.
  • There will be a new lineage system that allows players to customize their characters to a degree not previously available. This includes completely forgoing the racial traits outlined in the Player’s Handbook. Henceforth, the races from the Player’s Handbook will be known as “archetypal” versions of those races.
  • Negative racial modifiers given to orcs and kobolds in Volo’s will be removed.
  • There will be new spells, at least nine new conjuration ones. A few new Tasha spells will be present as well.
  • There will be new feats that give reasons to multiclass.
  • New Dungeon Master tools include: advice for running a session zero, talking with monsters, running puzzles (as well as puzzle examples), and supernatural environments and hazards.
  • The book will have 192 pages.
  • The book will have four chapters: Character Options, Spells & Magic Items, Group Patrons, and Dungeon Master Tools.
  • The book will be an entirely optional buy; nothing in it is required to play D&D.
  • There will be a standard cover and an alternate cover; the alternate cover will only be available in local gaming stores. The alternate cover features Tasha and Graz’zt.
When Tasha’s Cauldron to Everything releases this November, I’ll be grabbing a copy and letting all of you know my thoughts. At first glance, it appears to be a worthy addition to any D&D collection.

If you enjoyed this explanation of the book and want to buy the book, consider purchasing it through my Amazon affiliate link; if you do, a few coins are thrown my way for no extra cost to you!

Related Article:

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email.

First piece of art credit: Art by Wylie Beckert

21 August 2020

How to Use One-Shots to Enhance D&D Campaigns


In Dungeons & Dragons, campaigns are stories told over the course of many months or years, comprised of multiple adventures and narratives and a diverse cast of characters. During campaigns, players usually portray a single character, unless their character dies or retires. These characters strike out into a wild frontier crawling with goblins and cave spiders, race against a vicious demon lord’s cult, and descend into the labyrinthine depths of the Underdark to retrieve primeval relics. They develop. They grow in power. They explore the world. The players might be having a swell time, you might be having a fantastic time…

But all of you could use a break from those characters and their story sometimes and that doesn’t mean sacrificing the intensity or development of the campaign. In fact, you can build a brief adventure that enhances the campaign as a whole while giving the players and yourself the opportunity to build on the story in an interesting way.

One-shots are a stellar tool to segment and zhuzh up your D&D campaign. They also provide ample opportunity to test new and provocative ideas.

If you’ve never heard of them before, one-shots are single-session adventures. Usually, the players make characters specifically for the one-shot, knowing that they’ll likely only live to see this single escapade. One-shots are excellent ways to introduce people to D&D or play a quick adventure on the fly, but I’d also argue they can be a welcome respite from an ongoing D&D campaign while deeply enhancing that very same campaign.

Let’s explore this concept.

The Other Side of the Story


One-shots can give the players the opportunity to portray the folk they fight when playing their regular characters. They also give you the chance to portray the player characters’ allies in a different light.

Imagine this: the player characters are battling a group of mysterious radicals in the main campaign who are targeting people of power in a city district. Their intentions aren’t yet clear, but their methods are: they use a combination of necromancy, artifice, and manipulation to get the job done. After a few conflicts on the surface, the party decides to delve below the city to confront the enemy faction.

Before they do, however, you decide to run a one-shot for which the players will create characters a part of this enemy faction. This not only gives the players a chance to play the bad guys, it allows them to curate the nasty beasties they’ll be battling as their main characters. During the one-shot, the players will learn interesting tid bits about their enemy’s structure and possible goals. They will also participate in the successful completion of a vile objective of the villain. Perhaps they’ll even carry out the execution of one of their main party’s allies — truly horrible. Of course, you need to be careful not to reveal too much during this one-shot; layer it with snapshots of everything, don’t lay it all out for the players. They’ll want to discover the truth with their main characters.

I can vouch for the “other side of the story” one-shot style because I just used it in my Caught in Galen campaign. In fact, it’s the example outlined above. We reached a perfect moment in the story for a one-shot, one of the players couldn’t play that week, and I knew the group was up for playing the baddies for a moment. For this style of one-shot, you definitely need players who are ready to “be evil” and not meta-game with the knowledge they learn. It might take some discussion to plan, but it’s definitely worth the trouble.

Into the Past


While most campaigns stay firmly in the present, one-shots can take the world to the recent, ancient, or mythic past for a session or two.

Ideally, hundreds of events lead up to the events of a D&D campaign. The world is ancient. It’s full of conflict. Some of these ancient conflicts are bound to directly impact the origins or story of the campaign. If you and your players are looking for a quick break, search the lore vaults for a key moment in world history and create a session around it. The outcome might already be determined since it’s already happened, but there has to be room for the players to add their own flair or unique touch to the event.

Here are six “into the past” one-shot ideas:
  1. In the present, the party attempts to slay a demon lord in its abyssal home. In the past, the play as the very first heroes who fought and trapped the fiend in the Abyss.
  2. In the present, the party engineers a peace treaty between warring nations. In the past, they participate in one of the greatest battles in the war’s history and witness sheer devastation.
  3. In the present, the party delves into the ancient dungeon in which all their parents descended and vanished. In the past, they portray their parents and discover hints of their ultimate fate.
  4. In the present, the party explores the wide world together, not remembering a time when they didn’t know each other. In the past, they play out the first time they all met (the campaign must have started with all of them knowing each other).
  5. In the present, the party treks across a savage land trying to collect the pieces of a powerful entity. In the past, they engineer the entity’s fragmentation as villains.
  6. In the present, the party slowly blazes a trail through a silver-filled archipelago. In the past, they depict its native inhabitants first dealing with the arrival of outsiders.
These ideas merely serve as inspiration for you and your campaign. Float this concept past your players. I guarantee at least a few of them will want to try it out! Who could turn down a chance to shape history?

The Forgotten Plot


What happens to all those narrative strings that get torn apart by the massive tapestry that is the main campaign’s story? With one-shots, you and your players can find out!

The stakes are often raised at a rapid rate in D&D campaigns. One day, the party might be slaying giant rats for a petrified merchant who is probably infected with wererat lycanthropy. Two weeks later, the party is ascending Mount Celestia to save a doomed celestial from a surprise devil invasion from the Astral Plane. Unfortunately, there’s no time or proper reason to discover whether or not the petrified merchant is a wererat — the doomed celestial needs to be rescued! Unless, of course, you decide to formally end the loose plot thread with a one-shot.

One-shots are ideal for concluding plots that the players outleveled or forgot about at the time, then remembered down the line and really wanted to discover how it finished. Use “the forgotten plot” one-shot style to break up the campaign and finish off these stories.

Unsure of what might constitute a forgotten plot? Here are four ideas:
  1. The one-shot explores what happened to a beloved but pushed-to-the-side nonplayer character.
  2. The one-shot delves down an unexplored but enticing passage in a dangerous dungeon.
  3. The one-shot pieces together what a retired/split player character is up to nowadays.
  4. The one-shot establishes the fate of a villain who became to weak for the party to notice.
As always, be up front with your players about these ideas. Some players might not like the idea of tying loose plot threads in one-shots, preferring to forgo the finality and leave them open-ended.

Disconnected, Maybe?


Doing away with all these other options, you could drop your players in a quick and dirty adventure completely unrelated to the primary campaign.

While not directly enhancing the story of the campaign, a one-shot will break-up the monotony of playing the same character week after week or month after month. It’s a breath of fresh air and will be welcomed by most. “Disconnected, maybe?” style one-shots also leave lots of room for you to be creative and crazy as the Dungeon Master. The main campaign might be a political intrigue masterpiece in an urban environment, but the one-shot could take place in a frozen northland that’s scoured by gnolls, a tropical paradise haunted by a lovely medusa, or a temperate moon inhabited by savage tribes of lizardfolk and mind flayers.

Of course, if the opportunity presents itself, the one-shot might not end up disconnected at all. Sometimes, plots weave themselves together beautifully.

A Testing Ground for New Ideas


No matter which type of one-shot you decide to pursue, you and your players can use one-shots to test new concepts in your D&D game or world.

Since it’s a single session, don’t be afraid to try something radical. If you’ve always wanted to try using Matt Colville’s action-oriented monsters but thought they’d be too powerful, test the idea in a one-shot! Desperate to design an interesting and effective trap but don’t want it to accidentally kill the primary party? Put it in your one-shot. This also goes for roleplaying. Iterate on your existing practices and do new stuff. Get up and walk around during the session if you don’t already do so. Pitch a few new voices to your players, they’ll love them (no promises there)!

As for your players, encourage them to discover new aspects of the game they enjoy. Convince them to play classes they’ve never considered before. Allow them to use Unearthed Arcana or even homebrew of your or their own design. Throw insane magic items their way, but remember those items might make it back to the main characters. Let them portray monsters like beholders or dragons. Truly, go wild.

In the one-shot I ran this week for Caught in Galen, I tried out a few concepts. First, the entire party was evil (or at least morally grey) and monstrous. It was made up of a troll, a bugbear, a lizardfolk, and a kobold. That was new for me. Second, I decided to start the session by handing out notecards. Each notecard had a secondary objective I said was unique to each character, something they had to try and achieve in addition the the entire party’s primary objective.
  

This led to something I usually abhor during the main campaign: player versus player combat. However, it wasn’t frustrating in the slightest. It was a great twist. Even though the one-shot wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be (mostly my bad), I’d consider this experiment a success and it encourages me to continue to foray into more unknown territory using one-shots.

In Summary


One-shots can be utilized in numerous ways to enhance your D&D campaign. To be succinct, I narrowed these unlimited enhancements to five concepts:
  1. One-shots allow you to explore the other side of the story and let your players be the villains. Be careful to not reveal too much during these villainous excursions, though; instead, entice your players.
  2. One-shots give opportunities to venture into the past and forge history.
  3. One-shots help close loose plot threads. From the mystery of the magic golden bauble from session three, to the forgotten disappearance of that swell halfling woman, you can finish off anything!
  4. One-shots break-up the monotony of the campaign.
  5. One-shots provide a testing ground for new ideas for both Dungeon Masters and Players.
Don’t discount how useful one-shots can be. They can help transform a repetitive, year-long campaign that will end thanks to boredom to a three-year campaign with a vigorous and excited group of players.

Related Articles

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email.

16 August 2020

Begin Here


RJD20 is home to a massive amount of content for D&D Dungeon Masters, Players and Worldbuilders. Started in 2018, it's grown immensely in size, helped numerous people improve at D&D, and inspired creators young and old. On RJD20, you can learn how to track your D&D campaign, the best way to hold a session zero, and why changing your lore is perfectly acceptable, among other concepts. From its beginnings with Legendary Lessons to the addition of Musing Over Monsters, Worldforge, and whatever the future brings, I hope that it continues to help novices and veterans of D&D for years to come.

This page was last updated on September 16, 2020. This is the new Begin Here page. It outlines the most helpful content on RJD20.

RJD20 on Social Media

RJD20 Supplements

RJD20 Article Series

Dungeon Master Advice

General D&D Tips

First time reading RJD20? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email.

14 August 2020

See How Far You've Come, Explore Old D&D Notes!


I recently ventured into the recesses of my vault of Dungeons & Dragons memories. Determined to forge compendiums for each of the campaigns I’ve run in the past, I pored over old notes, read over player accounts, and deciphered scrawlings that resembled dungeon maps. I must say, it sobered me to witness my transformation as a Dungeon Master over the years. My writing style, notes, nonplayer characters, plots, everything evolved at a rapid rate and I hadn’t realized it.

On RJD20, I constantly write about how we all need to improve as DMs and how it happens naturally. However, as with many other aspects of life, it’s difficult to judge yourself on how much you’ve improved. 

Is your storytelling more dramatic?

How do your notes of the present compare to three year old ramblings?

Are your maps becoming clearer?

Are your players having more fun?

Delving into my notes from past campaigns helped me realize I am improving.

My plots are more compelling.

My notes are more concise or, when they’re longer, they focus on the important details.

My maps are significantly better.

My players are enjoying themselves more.

Stuck in the present, I wouldn’t have realized this. Generally, I see myself as improving over time, albeit slowly. Now that I’ve gazed into the abyss of the past, I know how far I’ve come.

For example, take a look at a note excerpt from my first campaign in 2015:

The party has two different paths they can take when traveling to the woods. They may take the Wildland Path, a fairly safe road that passes by the woods on its southern end, and then either walk through the woods to the eastern edge, or walk along the outer ring of trees and enter at the end, or they can travel through the Greenfields the entire way, an large region of grassland dotted with farms, small groves, hills, and the like. Encounters along the road will be few, while the grassland will encompass more fights.

There are multiple parts I dislike about these notes. First, I limit the players options. Nowadays, I refuse to do this. There’s not option one or option two in D&D. I might prepare for one or two options, but dictatorially stating in my world notes that there are only two ways to arrive at a destination is treasonous to me. Next, I focus on extremely broad strokes and am not specific...in the slightest. I focus on two main things: safer path, more dangerous path. Currently, I’d specify — briefly — an encounter or two on the road and an encounter or two in the grassland. On the road, the party might encounter the remnants of a traveling circus troupe infiltrated by a curious incubus. In the grassland, the party might happen upon a sleeping hill giant, a halfling trapped in his tightly wrapped haversack. What I focus on in the ancient notes is pointless and doesn’t help me run the game in an interesting way. What I just outlined does.


Compare this section of my old notes to a similar section from a session I ran a few weeks ago. I prepared these potential encounters before the party descended into the depths of a dangerous warehouse controlled by an enemy gang:
  • Interrogate Kinit about the Rusty Corkscrews and the Verdant Skull.
  • Explore the Bloodstone Storage Sanctum.
  • Fight the loyal followers of Varmin who’ve created a barricade.
  • Investigate Marenzo Katel’s study.
  • Learn of Gerdur’s toils and taking.
  • Break through the Jungle Grate.
Concise. Action-oriented. Open-ended. Narrative-driven. That’s what I want from my notes today. It leaves lots of room for imagination at the table. While I’m preparing, I might think that Kinit will not give away any important information about the Verdant Skull, but during the session, I can throw that away with ease and reveal what I may, making up facts & figures as I go. I’m not restrained by my own notes, which is something I ran into a lot in the past. I’d write something down and feel compelled to follow it. It’s a silly but relatable concept, I’m sure. I don’t have that problem anymore.

For anyone who has run D&D for over a year, try this out. Wander back into your old notes and see what you used to do. Ask yourself, how does this compare to what I do now? Have I improved in any ways? The answer is most likely yes. Gazing at your past scrawlings will help you realize this.

And really, it’s one of the best parts of D&D.

Over time, you constantly improve. You might not realize it, for it creeps and creeps up, like a scale in winter. Your stories improve. Your table becomes more fun. You incrementally become a better, more thoughtful DM, and it’s a process that won’t stop until you stop playing.

Which, let’s face it, will be never. For those of us who play D&D, we know it can never be taken from us. All it requires is a willing imagination, funky-looking dice, a few writing utensils, and blank sheets of paper.

If you’ve read this, taken my advice, and explored your old D&D miscellany and discovered that you haven’t changed much, that you’ve not improved (or become worse which can’t really happen as long as you’re having fun), try out the following ideas:
  1. Ask your players for feedback. After every session, ask your players what they liked and disliked. Did your voices draw them into the world or rip them out? Were the combats confusing or dramatic? Simply asking about what your players prefer can drastically help you figure out where you need to improve, especially if they recur adventure after adventure.
  2. Pay attention to how your players react. Do they laugh a lot? Are they constantly smiling? During combat, do you hear their heart thumping inside their chest and see sweat dripping down their neck? Do they pull out their phones all the time? Watching your players in the moment reaffirms how your game is going. Don’t just slog along, play off your players’ emotions. Make sure everyone is having fun and is attentive.
  3. Try focusing on improving a few parts of your DMing style. Explore voices in one session, reflect on how it went, then try again. Ensure you prepare for a tactical encounter if you struggle with those, and figure out if the encounter played out in a satisfying way. Breaking areas where you want to improve into modular chunks might work better than trying to improve as a DM in general.
  4. Journey into other ways to run D&D. If you are used to writing six pages of notes for each session, go into a session with a few notecards and a map. If you primarily game using a grid, try out theater of the mind for a combat or two. Exploring new ways to prepare and play might open up your mind and let your creativity run wild. You won’t know unless you try!

In Summary


Old D&D notes are a mine of great stories, jumbled plots, hearty laughs, and doodled maps. If you’re a veteran DM, delve into them and see how you’ve improved over the months and years. If you’re a new DM, flag this article and be sure to check back whenever you feel the time is right. Remember:
  1. Almost everyone improves at the role of DM over time. It’s incremental and hard to notice, but peering into the past might help you see how far you’ve come.
  2. If you’re at a standstill as a DM, there are plenty of ways to grind forward! Ask your players for feedback, pay attention to them during the game, try improving at different modular chunks of DMing, and try out entirely different ways of preparing and playing D&D.
There’s always room to improve as a DM, whether you’re new or old, bad, good, or great. Whatever you do, don’t become complacent. Improving as a DM means greatening the adventure and excitement at the table. That’s all we want when playing D&D: a great, exciting, and fun experience.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

Most Popular Articles