Scientific GM: Methodology Playtest #1


Mar 19, 2009
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The Adventures of Johnny Tek

Episode 1: The Dungeon of Doom

So I'd signed up with the NYC Dungeons and Dragons Meetup Group to start testing out tools I'd suggested for use in my article "Professional GM: Methodology and Theory Complete".

The first game was today at the Compleat Strategist. The day started out pretty rough. City workers had started working across the street with jackhammers a few days ago and my sleep cycle has been greatly disturbed. I'd barely gotten 4 hours of snooze time before I left for the session. Yeesh. I'm the sort that needs at least 8 hours of sleep to function well.

It was my first time seeing the basement game room of the store. 7 gaming tables. I was blown away. The store looks a lot smaller above ground level.

Three players showed up. The party consisted of an eladrin rogue, an elf cleric of the Raven Queen, a human wizard, and a dragonborn paladin. I filled in as the paladin due to the group's need for a defender.

Here's what I tested/remembered to test this time around.

-Plastic silver stars to represent action points. The players liked this. It was easier to remember points as well as "spend" points. the stars were tossed into a pile as they were used.

-Dramatic statement. Just as the players were about to enter the dungeon I'd prepared (for the purpose of adventurous exploration), I let loose with the "pony" lines. The players' reactions seemed indifferent at the time.

-Battle Challenge. I created semi-hidden objectives to end encounters but as I was advised in the article thread, I kept mum about it. The players really got into solving the puzzles and tactical dilemmas I'd laid out. I'd tossed XP out the window and used an infinite generator for minion monsters without thinking twice. I'd also used moving terrain. The second encounter lasted over 2 hours but the players loved every round of it (I think about 14 or 15 rounds - one of the players was keeping track of initiative).

It was a DnD 4e session for 1st level characters, with the party exploring a strange dungeon that was recently unearthed as the result of an earthquake.

The dungeon was an ever-changing building imbued with the essence of chaos. It was located under an ancient temple devoted to a long-forgotten goddess of chaos with three heads, six arms, four eyes, and a double forked tongue.

The first level of the dungeon was a room featuring a "chess board" battlefield. The PCs had to solve how to activate a "game" and then how to defeat the 16 chess piece monsters that showed up for the "game".

The second level of the dungeon was a room with automatically moving platforms and switches for moving the platforms manually. The PCs had to figure out how to use the moving terrain to get to a pair of magic circles that would open the way to the next level. The stationary terrain in the room was divided by a bottomless chasm. At the end of every player's turn, there was a 50% chance of a zombie falling from the ceiling down on top of the player's character, potentially knocking the character prone with the zombie automatically "grabbing" the PC. With a successful Perception check, the attacked PC could shift 1 square before the zombie landed.

It got tense at times with moving battles and dangerous jumps and PCs tossing PCs to get around. The players got smart and started readying actions to knock zombies off their teammates with ranged attacks when they weren't moving. One player readied an action to attack a zombie if one fell on top. A zombie did indeed fall, right on top of the PC's short sword. The PC tossed the zombie into the chasm.

The session ended with the third level, which was a chamber that had a large valuable-looking crystal orb. The orb was guarded by a black dragon that opened the battle with a surprise acid breath attack (I gave the party a chance to detect the lurking foe though. They all failed their checks.). They weren't really supposed to win, just remember the option of escape (it was getting late so we had to leave the store soon). The PCs escaped the chamber with the orb in tow. The dragon lunged itself at the PCs at the last moment but they teleported out just before black death came down on their location. Vengeance was sworn by the draconian foe as it roared in anger over its lost treasure...

I bent the rules a few times to let the players perform cool cinematic actions and the moving terrain worked out incredibly well. I was inspired to design the moving terrain from my experience playing Legend of Zelda on the SNES.

I was heaped with praise at the end of the session for being open with the game rules and for my creative dungeon design. It had been a while since I DMed so I was a bit nervous. I improvised half of what was played on the spot so that was a bit wracking as well. I was relieved to see and hear their pleased reactions.


-Toy tokens are fun to use for representing "special" resources.
-A dramatic pep statement might not make much of a difference. I'll have to try different ones for different situations though. This needs more data.
-Battle challenges, especially those that involve the battle terrain, can make an encounter last more than twice as long as normal without making it feel like a drag. On the contrary, fighting lots of monsters while solving a puzzle as a team can be a very immersive experience. Careful monster design/selection is crucial.
-It can be freeing to do away with XP rewards but is not for those unfamiliar with building encounters from scratch. If I had never DMed for 4e before the session, then it probably would have turned ugly.
-It's important not to be too strict on the rules as written so that everyone has a good time. As long as the rules bending makes sense in a storytelling context.

Next Playtest (on the 24th if anyone signs up - otherwise probably at next month's meetup)

-I'll be trying out the last story concept I'd come up with before I ended the ill-begotten business that was "Caravan of Blades".
-I'll be trying out the "game master's mask" for a specific NPC that the party may communicate with a few times during the session.
-I'll have my "cinema stand" up and see how well it works for creating battlefield backgrounds and assisting with storytelling.
-I'll be allowing the spending of action points to recharge encounter powers (1) and daily powers (2).
-I'll be getting my minimum 8 hours of sleep.



Member #86
Aug 7, 2002
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The Heartland
llUnited States
Btw- you should hit up University students for you "Professional GM" gig those guys would rather pay & jump into playing than "waste" time creating D&D adventures.