Articles & News >> Mastering Dungeons


In this blog column, veteran RPG freelancer Shawn Merwin looks at the field of RPGs from all angles: from running and designing games to navigating the pitfalls of the industry as a freelancer.

Lessons Learned: The Design of “A Shock at Evenfeast”

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The fourth mini-mission of Defiance in Phlan is the most controversial, the hardest to run for many DMs, and the one that can be the most satisfying to players if everything goes well. As I attempted to highlight each pillars of play within the various mini-missions, this is the one where I decided to let roleplaying interaction have its time in the spotlight. Roleplaying, as a skill, can come naturally to some and harder to others....

Lessons Learned: The Design of “The Dead at Highsun”

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In this series of blog articles, I have so far looked at the design of the Adventurers League Season 1 introductory adventure Defiance in Phlan, including the first two mini-adventures: “The Meeting at Deepnight” and “The Screams at Dawn.” Today I want to take a closer look at the third mini-adventure, “The Dead at Highsun.” In the overall structure of the adventure, I wish I had placed this one second instead of third. In hindsight, this...

Lessons Learned: The Design of “The Screams at Dawn”

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The previous two blog articles in this series at the overall structure, and then the first mini-adventure, in the Adventurers League introductory adventure Defiance in Phlan for the Tyranny of Dragons storyline season. This week I am looking at the second mini-adventure entitled "The Screams at Dawn." For those of you who do not want to witness self-flagellation, turn away now. This is my least favorite of all the missions in this adventure, and I...

Lessons Learned: The Design of “The Meeting at Deepnight”

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Last week, in my blog post called "Lessons Learned: Four Years Designing 5e," I talked about writing Defiance in Phlan, one of the first 5e adventures available to the public, and the first for the D&D Adventurers League. The design restrictions and mandates for that adventure made it one of the most challenging I have every written. It had to introduce a new edition of D&D, a new organized play campaign, be comprised on five...

Lessons Learned: Four Years Designing 5e

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When the Adventurers League launched at Gen Con 2014, in conjunction with the release of the 5th edition of D&D, there were a great many question marks. How would the new edition be received? How strong would sales be? Would the new Living campaign, referred to as the D&D Adventurers League, be a comparable replacement to the Living campaigns of the past? Overall, what did the future hold for D&D in particular and roleplaying games...

Six Years Ago today…

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Wow! Six years ago today I finished penning this article for the D&D website about my work on the lead adventure in the 200th issue of Dungeon Magazine. It is no longer available on the Wizards of the Coast website, but if you have any nostalgia for the history of the game, and for 4e adventures, give it a read. Enjoy! The Enduring Flame The first issue of Dungeon magazine was published when I was in high...

The DMs Guild and You!

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Brains crave stories. Some brains want fantasy, some want dramas, or romances, or comedies. Some brains prefer stories delivered as novels or short stories, but just as many enjoy TV or movies or plays or musicals, or video games, or songs, or just hearing people talk. My brain is no different. It wants to hear stories constantly, and it wants to tell stories, and through those stories it hopes to understand actions, emotions, and the...

Welcome to My Lair

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For an imaginative young DM growing up in the heyday of AD&D in the 1980s, the hours and days and weeks spent creating fantasy worlds was anything but wasted time. Starting with the expansive creation stories for your home-brewed gaming world (a staple for excited young—and old—DMs), you inevitably had to focus on the adventures—the places where your players would actually interact with your world. And for me, at least, one piece of adventure design...

And then there was Gen Con…

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One does not simply return from Gen Con. You don't simply immerse yourself in the best 4 (or more) days of gaming, and then walk back into normal life unscathed. The dive into the deep ocean of tabletop gaming nirvana brings you to magical places, but the decompression sickness can break you as you surface. This Gen Con was much different for me. I am usually running 20 - 40 hours worth of games, and this time...

Storytelling in D&D: Making Potions of Lemonade

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Last week I looked at the recent D&D Adventurers League article “State of Mulmaster", which revealed that the casting of unsanctioned arcane magic within the city of Mulmaster would be punished harshly. The comments on my blog and elsewhere on the Interwebz were (generally) thoughtful and helpful in creating a dialogue to explain the various effects of the ruling and minimize the problems that the ruling might cause at the table. Many of the commenters here,...

Storytelling in D&D: Interesting Story or Player Abuse?

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An intriguing discussion popped up last week in the D&D Adventurers League world. The administrators of the large and popular Organized Play campaign released a document called State of Mulmaster. The first part of this very interesting article highlighted the city of Mulmaster, where the second season of the D&D Expeditions adventures—in the Elemental Evil storyline—is taking place. Mulmaster is a highly volatile setting for a campaign, and is thus a very interesting one. The controversy...

Storytelling in D&D: Plot vs. Story

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With a background in creative writing and English academia, I’ve read a lot about creating and understanding stories. And while it is debatable if I actually learned much from all that reading, I cannot deny that I have picked up a few things. And one of those things is directly applicable to storytelling in D&D. In a set of famous lectures given by acclaimed writer E. M. Forster, he answered a question often posed to him...

Building a Narrative in D&D

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In the last installment of this column, I fretted over the question, “Is D&D a Storytelling Game?” I looked at that question in terms of establishing semantics and defining terms. Now I have to start to work on answering those questions. For the seminar I will be presenting at Origins and Gen Con, the main question is going to be this: How can the Dungeon Master (DM) manage the narrative when running a game of...

Is D&D a Storytelling Game?

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One of my many freelancing gigs is to act as the DM Training Seminar Coordinator for the Herald’s Guild of DMs. We are in the process of creating content to help DMs get better at the craft of running D&D games. One seminar that I am responsible for personally creating, in preparation for presentation at Origins and Gen Con, has to do with “Storytelling in D&D.” I’ve written a couple different drafts of the seminar,...

Mastering Dungeons: Adventure Pacing

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So far in this series of blog posts on pacing, I have been looking at pacing at the table, from keeping players and DMs on their toes to managing initiative. Now I’d like to look at a different kind of pacing: adventure pacing. When designing an adventure, whether for a home group or for publication, whether for a one-shot event or as part of a long-running campaign, adventures must deal with pacing and encounter flow. Just...

Mastering Dungeons: A Team Effort

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When you design an adventure for publication, whether it be for D&D or any other RPG system, it is no different than performing any other creative task. You may start with certain design goals, or the traits of the end product may take form through the design process. Either way, the form of the end product is informed by the goals and the process – and if the designer has done her job, that product...

Mastering Dungeons: Back to Pacing

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This week we are back to looking at pacing at the table in D&D games. Just as a reminder, this pacing discussion is most relevant to games being run when time is an important factor, such as during conventions or at game stores when the game has to end at a certain time. This advice, however, even applies to home games when certain parts of the game—especially combat—are dragging on too long or not going...

Mastering Dungeons: When Races Attack

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I am delaying my planned post on pacing a game to talk about an issue that popped up recently with the release of the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion PDF for 5e D&D. This document, offered by Wizards of the Coast as a free download, supplies some new options for players about to take part in the Elemental Evil storyline, driven by the hardcover adventure Princes of the Apocalypse and the steady stream of D&D Adventurers...

Mastering Dungeons: Taking Initiative on Pacing

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Last post looked at some of the immediate, at-the-table and on-the fly methods a DM could use to keep a quick pace while DMing. This time, I want to look at some pacing issues that crop up with more mechanical parts of D&D, particularly 5e. As I mentioned in the last post, initiative is one of the most pivotal parts of the game when it comes to pacing (and all the other parts as well). I...

You (and I) Are DMing Wrong (Part 2) – Pacing

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Before 2000, I DMed almost exclusively for the same group of people using AD&D and 2nd Edition D&D rules. I knew their play styles by heart, and I could create and run with almost no effort the kinds of sessions and adventures they wanted to play. Since 2000, I have DMed mostly in the Organized Play programs of Wizards of the Coast -- most recently the D&D Adventurers League. That means most of my DMing has...