Session Format for D&D

Following from my setting of expectations, I outlined a session format to remind our crew every session of expectations as well as the necessary preparations and wrap-up activities. That format is as follows.

  1. Open the initiative tracker on my own screen and the one viewable by everyone at the table. Also open up browser tabs for audio enhancements.
  2. Ask everyone if they are well-fed and have a beverage at hand.
  3. Speak an invocation that reinforces expectations.
  4. Recount previous events.
  5. Ask for the next action.
  6. Play.
  7. Distribute loot and experience.
  8. Ask when will we play next?

Here’s some color on those steps.

The initiative tracker is a Google spreadsheet with tabs for tracking initiative, loot and monsters killed. The initiative tab stays up on a screen near the table that anyone can view. A macro rolls initiative for everyone the party and for the foes. This makes combat go faster than if we were rolling dice.

At times, our younger players come to the table having skipped dinner. They may suddenly feel thirsty or hungry. Emphasizing the need to feed the body ahead of playing cuts down on interruptions.

I’ve been using a short rundown of expectations that I think of as an invocation. The players have heard it enough to being to memorize it. To add even more flavor, I recently created a poetic version, which follows.

Hokus pokus, all will focus. The game begins within this locus.
Let be no outside insult heard. Amuse us with your avatar’s word.
Without delay we make our call, clearly stated to one and all.
“Know yourself” is our creed. “Accept your fate,” fail or succeed.
Remind us once. Remind us twice. Ignore us should that not suffice.
Those not true will not be held. By sworn oath shall they be expelled.
Now we begin the one, true game. We call on spirits name by name.
We call on Gygax! We call on Arneson! We head for dungeons to slay their dragons!
Huzzah!

Empty Z Session Invocation II

The invocation done, I ask for a recap of the last session. Players who missed the last session need to be caught up. Some players may have forgotten what happened. Having a log of session events, which I prepare and publish on emptyz.com, serves as a handy reference. Immediately after, I might reveal new events that happened since play stopped last.

And then I ask the players what they want to do next. Play begins and continues for approximately 3 hours. When it ends, we look at the tabs in the tracker for monsters killed. It sums experience points and divides up by party size. Similarly, we review loot found and the players decide who gets which loot. As players head out the door, we may discuss availability for the coming week.

Setting Expectations at the D&D Table

I’ve been a professional programmer for more than 25 years. Most of those years my job titles have included words such as president or chief or officer. Long before that, I was one of the employees trusted with opening and closing the local Software, Etc. I’m also a father of two boys, now teenagers. I have significant years of experience managing people and systems.

I did not have the specific experience of managing a table full of pre-teens playing D&D for the first time when we started playing in May 2017. Sometimes the chaos churned out a half an hour of fart jokes. At its worst, it led to players leaving with hurt feelings. The typical struggle has been about focus. Dragging attention back to the game, away from phones or silly side conversations, produces annoying gripes from the adults.

It was a classic case of unspoken expectations. I addressed this with a short list of expectations that I now review at the beginning of every session as part of a session format that I’ll discuss later. I present the expectations that follow as commandments for maximum evocativeness.

Focus on the Game

We get to play once a week if we’re lucky. We all have other commitments. Many other pastimes of various worth (reading Reddit, eating candy, teasing each other) can be done almost any time. We only get to play D&D for this particular three hours.

Know Your Character

Certain aspects of the player character are clearly written on the character sheet or in the rules. It wastes time to mindlessly roll a 20-sided and then ask the table whether you hit. You should know your Attack Bonus. The DM has already told you the Armor Class. Likewise, if you wonder how many hit points are restored by the Cure Light Wounds spell, look it up well before you cast it.

Decide Without Delay

The flow of the game cannot halt for a player to slowly cogitate over the best next action. There is plenty of time when focus of the game is on other players. When your turn arrives, you should be ready to make your move or we will move on.

Communicate Clearly

Precision matters when describing character action. Leaving out details requires the DM to make assumptions. At its worst, lack of clarity is a tool used by players to test actions and yank them back as the consequences play out. You may not revise the marching order after the DM asks the lead character to make a saving throw avoid falling in a pit.

Accept Rulings

While there is a some room to question results, generally the rulings of the DM should be accepted without argument. Fine points of spell effects might be missed, but forward progress of the game is more important than be technically correct with every encounter.

Entertain In-Game

We gather to have fun in the context of the game. Jokes made in-character increase immersion in the game world and provide opportunities for the emergent story to advance. Conversation unrelated to the game represents an interruption of play.

Remind, Ignore, Expel

When expectations are violated, we first remind the player of the expectation, perhaps a second or third time. After it’s clear the player is failing to honor expectations, we ignore the player. Ridiculous suggestions may meet silence. Turns may be skipped. This lack of attention from the rest of the players can turn the play back to the game. In the most extreme cases, a player will be asked to leave. Rarely, a player asked if he’d like to go home will accept and the game moves on.

My Return to Weekly D&D

Drawing of a mural

In May 2017, I began running a D&D campaign for my two sons and our friends. I use D&D here generically. The rulebook we use is Basic Fantasy, which is D20 refactored to behave similarly to Basic D&D. This successful campaign came after a few false starts with Microlite20, Pathfinder and Dungeon World. These initial failures were some combination of the kids being too young and the rules being too complicated. In retrospect, we probably would have been fine with Microlite if we’d waited a couple of years, but I took a left turn into trying popular games before sorting out what I really wanted out of the game.

My initial aim was to provide for my sons the experience of gaming I had as a child and a young adult. Remembering my own playing fondly, lead me to reading retrospectives which would turn my thinking towards a return to playing. My group of friends had stopped playing after giving D&D 3E a good shot and after we all had babies to take care of. Boardgames were an easier format for constantly shifting players. General dissatisfaction with the 3E game also meant any talk of returning to D&D triggered hard lobbying for 2E from our most fervent RPD advocate, Jeff.

The conversation about the 1E DMG’s Appendix N I’d stumbled into enabled my successful run by focussing attention on the inspiration behind the original role-playing games. I began identifying why the older games were more fun than the newer games we’d tried. And given my primary goal of exposing my two sons to the tabletop RPG experience, I discovered the lever I could use to pry Jeff away from 2E. The pitch: a game for the kids with rules simple enough for 8 year olds and with dads at the table for coaching.

The regular game has evolved over the past two years to bring the adults in as equal players. We continue to learn and adapt to best serve each player’s needs, which makes the games better over time. I can now consider D&D a primary hobby rather than something I had fun with as a kid. And when I observe my sons engaging with the game away from the table, planning their own adventures, I feel deep satisfaction.

London Town Movie Review

The whole family caught this fine film via Netflix last night, finding it quite entertaining. Just like the year 1979 in which it takes place, the story is more earnest, innocent and romantic than most fiction you’ll encounter these days. Esthetically, the film produces warm feelings with it’s remembrances of vivid color and Clash songs you can sing along to. The plot moves along without lingering on useless atmosphere. The protagonist is a likeable kid who faces challenges, conquers them and grows as a result.

You’ll find nonsense criticism of this movie that complains about it being unrealistic, which misses the point as much as complaining that Van Gogh’s paintings are blurry. It’s romantic. It features Joe Strummer the mythical hero. It presents a vision of things how they ought to be. It has something profound to say about being 15, about transforming into an adult.

The Martini Available in Hardcover

I published a hardcover book containing the play I wrote this year, The Martini. The blurb on the back is as follows.

Martinez Cocktail — Martinez Special — Martini: the libation universally celebrated as the quintessential cocktail enjoys no documented nativity. Despite aspirations of adoptive metropolises, the sensible historian recognizes a likely heritage that begins in Martinez, California. Yet, like the last swallow of gin, vermouth and olive brine swirling at the bottom of a glass, the veil of time obscures important details of this sought-after story. Now, inside this book, you will find clarity in a delightful martini tale, told twice. Illustrated prose encourages gathering close and reading aloud, while a second form provides a play in one act to be performed and enjoyed by a gathering of friends.

You will find The Martini for sale on Lulu.com for $19.79. On Amazon.com, The Martini sells for $21.99, with free shipping if you already subscribe to Prime.

You might purchase this book because your gift-giving skills rival those of the jolly old elf himself.

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