My experience as a DM has been a unique one compared to a lot of other DM’s out there. I suspect many people DM’ing D&D started out early on, with the boxed sets, then AD&D, and followed the logical footsteps of the game up until the point where we are today with D&D 4e. My DM’ing experience was the following: one session of 2e, one bad session of 3.5, and a few session of Star Wars d6. It wasn’t until I hit my stride with 4e that I branched out with Star Wars Saga, and now Dragon Age.
As you can see, the transition assuming you started 25 years ago, is rules light first, rules heavy second. After all, you have to learn to crawl before you can run. But for us DM’s that began with 4e, we skipped that step. As a Newbie DM all over again with Dragon Age, I’ve found that having experience with 4e has been both a help, and a hindrance. I’ll explain why.
4e D&D is a game that was meant to be as easy for the DM as possible, and in that they succeeded hands down. 4e gives DM’s the tools that we need for our game prep without requiring much thinking beyond the creative placement of creatures, treasures and traps. Everything including the actual design work or math is done for you quite well, and presented in an easy format. Dragon Age, on the other hand, is very different. (Let me preface this that I’m speaking of the first boxed set here, which covers levels 1-5 of the game. Other future boxed sets address this, but I’m looking through the prism of a new DM who doesn’t know that). Dragon Age has no encounter building rules to speak of. In fact, the way experience is handed out, it’s all very abstract. Was the encounter easy for the players? Give them X experience points. Was it a bit hard for them? Then give them XX experience points instead.
Well… what if the encounter was supposed to be hard and ended up easy? or the other way around? What is an easy encounter mathematically anyway? What are the guidelines? How do I know if this enemy is too hard? You don’t, because the game doesn’t really answer these questions as well as 4e does. Set 2 supposedly goes into the game math a bit, but that doesn’t really help people running games with set 1, does it?
Another thing that struck me about this transition has been the thinking that had gone behind my encounter prep with 4e, and how that method just doesn’t work for me now. While prepping 4e, (and I’d like other 4e DM’s reading this to tell me if their experiences are similar), I would look at my encounters and balance them against how much time I had to play. So I would tell myself that “this encounter seems tough enough that the fight will last X amount of time, so let me make the second one lighter so that it will only last me X amount of time to resolve it”. This being due to the time constraints I have in our gaming sessions. 4e made me think like that due to the nature of tactical combat. With Dragon Age, I’ve found myself under preparing sometimes. I still haven’t shaken the mentality that “2 or maybe 3 encounters will be enough”, and that thinking just doesn’t apply for me. Granted, I have a couple less players, but I still think that overall the games are just that different. The combats move faster but then that makes for more planning for the night’s adventure, because I have to fill the gaps between fights. Are we roleplaying more? Yes we are, no doubt, and my players will all attest to that.
So yes, game prep has been affected in that there is more room for stuff now, when compared to my old way of trying to fit encounters into a set amount of time.
One of my main gripes with 3.x D&D and beyond is that the game suddenly got full of rules that were once the realm of the DM’s judgment. Perhaps it comes from my days as a player when the DM was actually referred to as a judge, but I find that there are now plenty of opportunities for players to call out a DM on something and have that in a book to back it up. In Dragon Age, DM’s have a lot more leeway for things. I think this is part of the “feel” that the game has as an old school game. You’re probably going to ask me for examples, so I’ll just link you to this instead. That’s mostly what I’m talking about.
A rules light game like Dragon Age gives you the power (but also the responsibility) of making judgment calls on situations as you think that they should be handled, and not by the rule written in a book. It’s a big deal for DM’s who are used to only running D&D in the post year 2000 era. One of the main issues with that is consistency. You can’t decide things work one way today, and then decide the same thing doesn’t apply tomorrow.
With Dragon Age, I’ve had to learn to be quick on my feet and take in the scene I’ve set up and be ready to describe and be consistent with what I’m setting up for the players. DA is a game where the battle mat can be used, yes, but the rules also allow for an abstract combat, all-descriptions style. I’m partial to using the mat and minis, but have indulged in a couple of off the grid fights just to keep the brain engine running smoothly 🙂
I’ve had to learn to really be lot more descriptive with the situation at hand, the layout of the land, and the flow of the fight. The stunts system in Dragon Age (in a way similar to powers in 4e) allow you as both a player and a DM, to describe how they work and what’s happening on the battlefield. I could easily drop tiles down on the table, say “you see this” and move on with the fight, but I don’t want to do that with this game. You know why? Because I have too many gaps to fill in, because the combat not being the main focus of the game, is quick, and I have three hours to fill. Rich descriptions of locations, npc’s and situations don’t really take time away from anything else, so they are both necessary and welcome. I don’t want this to sound like I’m coming down hard on 4e, I’m trying not to. But it is very apparent to me that they are two very different types of experiences that each provide at the table.
I’ll admit, my preference is to use the grid in Dragon Age, just to avoid my brain having to keep up with placement and making abstract calls in the middle of a fight. I like having the grid and minis or tokens. I don’t feel like I’m playing the game in a way it’s not meant to be played by using them, so no need to change that.
Things I Miss
There are a ton of things I miss as a DM that 4e gave me:
- Online Support. There are just tons of resources for D&D. Dragon Age is lacking heavily from both the community and the publisher.
- Encounter Building. Hands down 4e has this down to a science. Dragon Age… not so much.
- Material. One boxed set, a Gm screen, and an adventure book is all that’s available for DA. Give us something else Green Ronin, at least on your website. What can a couple of adventure hooks cost you anyway?
- Community. The DA community is still pretty small, while D&D has, well, 40 years of people behind it. The DA forums aren’t that busy either, really.
To sum it up, the transition from D&D 4e to Dragon Age has been one of re-learning many things. Learning to be more descriptive, more abstract, and think a little quicker on my feet. While it’s also taught me not to take for granted some of the great work that went into 4e’s tools for the DM’s, as they certainly help.
Going from rules heavy to rules light can be a bit of a shock as well. I’ve had several “is that it? am I doing this right?” moments at the table recently, surprised to find that the answer is “yes, you are”.
I’d love to read your thoughts about changing systems and having to relearn ways of DM’ing in the comments below.