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Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Greatest Dungeon Masters in the World: Chris Perkins

I found the archive of DM Experience articles. Go here, click on "Narrow by" and scroll down to The Dungeon Master Experience.

Chris Perkins has been referred to as "The best DM in a building full of good DMs." He has a waiting list for his campaigns. He has worked for the D&D brand since 1997. He is the guy who runs the insanely popular Acquisitions Inc games.

Chris even played in Monte Cook's original Ptolus campaign way back when.

He has mentioned some of his major campaigns: "My 3rd Edition campaign, Arveniar, was built around the idea of a kingdom in the sky. My 4th Edition campaign, Iomandra, was built around a draconic empire scattered across islands on a vast sea. My D&D Next campaign, Valoreign, is about a chivalric kingdom transformed by a mysterious magical event."

The Origin of Chris Perkins

Dungeon Magazine issue #200 has a long piece written by Chris about his beginnings in the RPG business. Here is what we learn:

First Published Work: He submitted a Top Secret adventure to Dungeon that was ultimately never used: "Operation: Ice Capade." His next submission did make it: "Wards of Witching Ways," published in Dungeon #11. He wrote it at the age of 17.

Submission Overload: He sent so many submissions that editor Barbara Young told him: "“I’ve seen so much of your work that I’m starting to say, ‘Which of these Perkinses should I take?’ You’re competing with yourself by sending too much at once.”

Real Life Job: In his 20's, he was teaching English classes to adults who had gone back to school to get their high school diplomas. In 1997, he was called by Wizards of the Coast to be the new editor of Dungeon Magazine.

Rejected Dungeon Adventure: "Kevin Wickerclock's Whimsical Adventure": An AD&D adventure that included a World War I flying ace, ninja assassins and more. 

Problems at the Border: Chris was headed from Canada to his first Gen Con, but he got stopped at the border. The patrol officer thought his Wizards of the Coast paperwork was a forgery and threatened to confiscate his car. Chris actually missed Gen Con because of this dude.

Job Perk: Artist Tony DiTerlizzi gave Chris the original painting from his Dungeon #55 adventure, "Umbra." It hangs in his bedroom.

Dungeon Master Expertise

During the 4th edition era, Chris wrote a series of columns called "The DM Experience" which ran for a few years on the wizards site. They are extremely popular and have become difficult to find. There was a working link for it but for whatever reason, as far as I can tell, these columns have been removed from the site.

The DM Experience was full of advice from someone actively going through what all of us DMs go through. His column made me a much better DM and kept me going when I had a terrible session.

I'd like to share with you some of the advice and ideas from this column that helped me the most.

Don't Save Ideas: Throw a cool idea in there and figure it out later. A PC woke up with a magic tattoo and Chris figured out how and why later. Don't squirrel away your ideas - incorporate them while you are excited about them.

What It's About: Chris compares a campaign to a serialized TV show. "It’s about the journey of the characters and the bad things and hilarious s**t that happen along the way."
DM goes overboard
Origins: Help players create origin stories for their characters. Figuring out how the PCs meet isn't important. Help them know enough about your world to make an interesting and relevant background.

Spotlight the Characters: Make sure each of your characters gets the spotlight.. have "character episodes" for each of them.

Making a Good Villain: The best villains are the ones that the PCs can interact with. The villains make mistakes, they don't know everything, but they are clever like a player. They'll often have a gimmick, like a deformity or maybe they eat babies (that's what Chris did in his Iomandra campaign).

The Social Contract: After talking about a session that he had to make up on the fly when a PC decided out of the blue to summon and cut a deal with Dispater (a lord of Hell), he has this to say:

"Before you blow up the heroes’ stronghold and start layering on the drama, stop and consider the social contract of your campaign—the unspoken agreement you have with your players whereby you promise to be entertaining and fair, and they promise to respect your campaign and each other’s right to enjoy the experience. Some players have enough drama in their normal lives; all they want is to kill monsters and take their stuff. That’s okay if it’s part of the agreed-upon social contract. Campaigns without social contracts are doomed, and if your game group feels dysfunctional, chances are your contract is not being respected or acknowledged by everyone around the table."

Naming NPCs: Make a list of names before you play. If the PCs interact with a random guard or passerby, you can pick a name and go. The "Bob" joke gets old real fast.

Voices: He has a whole column on doing voices. He has a pile of great suggestions: Imitate a favorite actor, a bad accent is fine, and try changing the shape of your mouth to create a different sound.

How to Handle Problem Players: Chris writes about handling problem players. He suggests handing the following letter to such a player:

"D&D is a game about heroes working as a team to complete quests, defeat villains and monsters, and interact with the campaign that I’ve created. Right now, because of you, our D&D game isn’t working, and I need your help to fix it.

It’s my job as the Dungeon Master to present a world for your character to explore and fun challenges to overcome. It’s also my job to set the rules of the game, be fair to all players, and keep things exciting. I’m hoping the campaign can last a while, and that your characters have a chance to become more powerful and face new threats at higher level. It’s a lot of work—and frankly, you’re not making it easy on me.

It’s your role as a player to have a good time, but not at the expense of me, the campaign, or the other players. When we sit down to play, there’s an unspoken agreement that must be respected so that everyone has a good time. You can’t have a rock band if one player refuses to take it seriously or doesn’t allow everyone else to enjoy the experience. The same holds true for D&D games. That’s not to say you can’t have fun, but we need to agree on what’s fun for everyone.

Here’s what I’d like to do: I want to create the best, most fun campaign—not just for me, and not just for you, but for all of us. In return, I want to hear about the things you like and don’t like about the campaign, as well as ways I can make it more suitable for your style of play so that you’re having fun. I also want you to think about what makes the game fun for me and everyone else. Ultimately, we all want to have a good time, but right now that’s not happening."

Dealing With Curveballs: He has some great advice on winging it when a PC has an out-of-the-box idea: "Allow it. Imagine the logical outcome and proceed from there."

Railroading: "One analogy I’m fond of using is that a D&D campaign is like a wagon. The players are the horses, and the DM is the driver holding the reins. As the players move forward, they take the campaign and you along with them, and you can guide them to a point, but they can be stubborn, hard to motivate, or just plain out of control. Sometimes you have to snap the reins, but if you “crack the whip” too often and keep the players running at full speed all the time, they’ll get worn out, so you need to set a pace that’s comfortable for them but also gets the wagon where it needs to go."

Multiple Story Arcs: Chris believes in having multiple story arcs and allowing the PCs to choose which to deal with: "The benefits of having multiple campaign arcs in a long-running or multi-tier campaign are many. First and foremost, it's like having slightly overlapping safety nets; no matter what the players do, their choices have a pretty good chance of landing them smack-dab in the middle of one of your campaign arcs eventually. The arcs are so encompassing and pervasive as to be nigh unavoidable, and if your players are clearly turned off by one arc, they have two others to choose from. Having multiple arcs gives players opportunities to decide which threat they care about the most, and I promise you, each player will have his or her own opinion on the matter, based on which arc ties in most closely with that player's character. Having three arcs also makes your campaign feel less like a "one-trick pony." Finally, there's the benefit of allowing you, the campaign's primary storyteller, to entangle plot threads and create opportunities or occasions when two or more arcs intersect."

Making Memorable NPCs: One of my favorite columns is his tips on how to make a memorable NPC. Here's the five things you need: Name, Secret, Stats, Voice, and Layers. Some of these are self-explanatory, others less so:

"Secret: Campaigns are built on secrets. Without them, players have little incentive to explore the world and uncover its mysteries. "

"Layers: That's layers, not lairs! (Sometimes NPCs need lairs too, but that's a topic for another week.) If all you need is a faceless NPC to remind your players that the world has other people in it, don't worry about adding layers. Layers are what you need to turn a "cardboard cutout" into a fleshed-out NPC as real and three-dimensional as the heroes."

He even provides a chart of "layers" which includes things like:

"Doesn’t like children because they’re reminders of an unfortunate childhood."


"Has a “thing” for members of a particular race (such as elves or gnomes)."
Bad Players: "Behind every good DM are good players. I've seen good DMs run games for bad players, at least until the paralysis sets in or until they're reduced to shambling wrecks. Bad players are DM kryptonite. That said, I recommend that every DM endure at least one horrendous player experience to remind him or her of the value of great players, of which I probably have more than my fair share."

Most Important Advice: He had a poll asking readers what the most important piece of advice was. Here's the top 5:
  1. Honor the social contract.    
  2. Lighten up.    
  3. Don't be afraid.    
  4. Forget what the rules say about building encounters.
  5. Don't forget to roleplay.    
I could go on forever. Heck, I've only glossed over the first half of his columns. But I think the point is made: Chris Perkins is one of the most prolific, smart and successful DMs going right now, and maybe ever.

For more Perkins-ness, check out my recaps of his online Curse of Strahd campaign.

Here are my columns on the other greatest DMs of all time:

Gary Gygax
Ed Greenwood
Dave Arneson
Monte Cook

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