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Review of Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips by Mike Shea

Advice is seldom welcome, and those who need it the most, like it the least.” ~ Lord Chesterfield

When I sat down to work on this blog, I simply could not think of any good “zingers” from movies or novels that referred to advice or tips.  I am not sure exactly why I started putting them at the beginnings of my blogs, but I find that choosing the right quote has become this strange ritual, and it actually helps to set the tone for my writing.
sly flourish cover art
I think I would have to blame the late great Robert Aspirin for this habit, who loved creating snarky quotes to begin each of the chapters of his Myth Adventures Series.  Given his penchant for really short chapters, Mr. Aspirin used to have to come up with a couple dozen per book, and they ranged from the smirk-worthy to actually eliciting a chuckle out loud – which always gets you an odd look at the coffeehouse, if you are sitting there with a book in hand and giggling to yourself.

So anyway, I ended up going to a nifty little site called ThinkExist.com which is a searchable database of all manner of quotes from books, newspapers, and other media to find a good quote about “giving advice”.  I found myself torn between two quotes – the pithy one from Lord Chesterfield and this other by Oscar Wilde:

“The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.”

Frankly, I think both of them are appropriate when considering a Review of Mike Shea’s new release: Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Masters TipsGame Mastering is a very personal trial which some of us subject ourselves to, putting on a game for friends (and sometimes, strangers), pouring hours of our time and effort into a creative process which is often taken thanklessly for granted.  Many Dungeon Masters who have been at the task for a long time – myself included – tend to think they have seen it all, heard it all, and done it all when it comes to creating and running a Dungeons & Dragons game.  So why should we listen to some other Dungeon Master give us advice on how to run our game?

The answer is short and simple: 4E

Wizards of the Coast pitched us quite a curveball when they created D&D 4E.  And whether we want to admit it or not, even the most experienced Dungeon Masters are still struggling to get a handle on the best ways to run the game.  Even though it calls itself Dungeons & Dragons, few of us can deny that it is truly a “new” game, and still two years after its release, there is still a lot that can be done to perfect our Game Mastering skills under the new ruleset.

But when considering Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Masters Tips, one has to ask: “What does a book by Mike Shea have to offer to D&D 4E Dungeon Masters, and who is this Mike Shea guy anyway?”  So I figured it might be worth taking the opportunity to find out a bit more about the Author behind this collection of Dungeon Mastering Advice.

The Dungeon Master Behind the Book about Dungeon Mastering

Mike Shea started writing his Sly Flourish blog back in July 2008 with a review of the newly released Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition books.  Claiming to have been playing since the age of 16, the Author did a solid review of the new Wizards of the Coast release, discussing not only the good points and bad points of the renovated system, but also the beginnings of the Edition Wars and the “fear of change” that 4E would create.

Since then, Mr. Shea has published an average of about five 4E related blogs per month on this Sly Flourish website, discussing everything from game props to terrain to optimizing monsters.  He has also posted the occasional “guest blog” to the Critical-Hits site, and tweets daily DM tips on Twitter.  But I wanted to get some more information regarding this current project, and so asked him some questions regarding his Dungeon Mastering experiences and his motivations behind penning Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Masters Tips:

  • Neuroglyph:  I noticed in your bio that you have been playing D&D since the 1980s and Second Edition.  Have you been mainly a DM over the years?  What campaign setting did you first use as a DM?
  • Shea:  I have always been more comfortable behind the DM screen.  I have DMed since my very first days. It is comfortable for me and something I really enjoy doing.  My first campaign was a Forgotten Realms campaign that ended when the party battled Lord Manshoon of the Zhentarim and he broke his fully-charged Staff of the Magi, blowing up his own tower and sending the party into the Abyss.  Good times.
  • Neuroglyph: So as a Dungeon Master, do you have a favorite setting?  Do you enjoy using modules?
  • Shea: I’m very much enjoying the Nentir Vale generic campaign in the H1 through E3 modules. I like the idea of not really knowing the 10,000 years of history and letting the actions of the PCs in my group guide how the world feels to them. I really enjoyed H1, the Keep on the Shadowfell. It reminded me of all the things I loved about D&D.
  • Neuroglyph: How about a favorite monster or NPC?
  • Shea:  My favorite NPC is probably Kalarel from KotS. I built him out as a serial killer who liked to sacrifice young women. It made him really creepy and made the players really want to take him down.

    I think Liches are my favorite monster but I haven’t really found a 4E Lich that I’ve really liked. I’ll probably build one.

  • NeuroglyphI know you’re very active on Twitter, and compile a very nice #dnd TwitterTip archive on a monthly basis.  Was that what sparked the idea to start this particular project?
  • Shea:  I’ve always liked Twitter but I wanted to try to turn it into something other than what sort of sandwich I was eating.  I wanted tweets that were actually directly useful to the reader of the feed. I figured a daily tweet to help DMs make better games would be a good differentiator from all of the other D&D-focused tweets out there.  So that’s what I’ve done.

    I’ve been kicking around the idea of a DM Tips book for a while.  I wanted to write a book and I haven’t seen any 4e focused DM tips books being published so it looked like a good niche to fill.  I wanted it to be totally original words, not reprints from my blog or reposts of my tweets.  While the topics covered in the book often stem from ideas I’ve discussed in tweets or on the blog, each topic was written exclusively to fit within the core concept of the book.

  • Neuroglyph:  So how did the project begin, and what obstacles were there to overcome (if any) to bring this book to print?
  • Shea: Writing an E-book is a very different experience for a lot of people. I spent a lot of time early on messing around with formatting that I ended up throwing away. I found that writing the book in Markdown and converting it to HTML, ePub, PDF, and Mobi (for the Kindle store) worked the best. Formatting is really tricky. It took 17 iterations to get the ePub version looking right on the iPad and iPhone.

    Getting a couple of good editors was also critical. I’m very lucky that my wife is an excellent editor and a friend at work has done so professionally for many years. Both of them edited this book and made it a lot better than my scratchy first drafts.

  • Neuroglyph: I enjoyed that you’ve included art by Jared Von Hindman in your book.  Do you know the artist personally, and are the illustrations original pieces inspired by your work?
  • Shea:  Jared was my first choice [for illustration].  He and I met at Gencon, although neither of us remembered until well into our project.  I had sent Jared a note a few months ago apologizing for using some of his art without permission.  He was very gracious and ended up submitting some unique art for some of my Sly Flourish website articles.  I loved the stuff. Jared’s art has exactly the right sort of attitude we have at our games.  We enjoy high drama, but we love to have fun too and none of us take our stuff too seriously.

    All of the art in the DM Tips book is original, although he has published it to his website as well.  Many of the pictures come from the book and even a couple from the game I run. The player who plays the cleric in my regular group was very happy to get his own visage immortalized in Jared’s piece showing the dragonborn turning a bunch of ghouls with Turn Undead.  I’m really happy with Jared’s work in this book.

  • Neuroglyph: This book contains a wide range of advice on a variety of Dungeon Mastering topics, but if you could narrow it down to just one piece of advice, what do you find the most essential advice you could give to a 4E DM?
  • Shea:  My first chapter in the book beyond the introduction is on focusing on your very next game.  This, to me, is a critical factor that DMs often miss.  We can spend all our time building out rich worlds and ancient histories but none of that matters next to running a fun game for the players you have coming next Tuesday night.  This chapter is right up front in the book, as well as available in the book’s free preview, because I feel it is a really important tip that people might easily miss.  You don’t have to build out a fully rich world or have 30 levels worth of adventures ready to go.  Just make your next game as awesome as possible and let the future write itself as you go.

The Review

Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Masters Tips
  • Author: Mike Shea
  • Illustrator:  Jared von Hindman (cover & interior)
  • Publisher: Michael E. Shea
  • Year: 2010
  • Media: PDF (72 pages)
  • Cost: $7.99

Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Masters Tips is an ebook providing tips and advice for Dungeon Masters by Mike Shea, author of the Sly Flourish blogsite.  The majority of the tips are focused at DM’s running 4E Dungeons & Dragons, although some of the suggestions and advice could be applicable to any edition of D&D.  While written as an electronic book, and available not only in PDF and Kindle versions, the Author also has plans to distribute an iPhone/iPad friendly version from the iBookstore, as well as a print-on-demand edition from Lulu.com.

The Production Quality of the ebook is good, with an easy-to-read writing style, and a format which is fairly straightforward for a book of this type.  It is divided up into three main sections, with individual topics given their own subsection, allowing the book to be browsed for advice on a particular subject, should a Reader wish to do so.  Some of the sections feel a bit run together at times, which might have been alleviated with a bit more creative use of fonts or bullet points.  And the lack of bookmarks in a PDF of this size was a little surprising, although the Author does provide a table of contents to allow the Reader to find topics fairly well.

The artwork by Jared von Hindman is always fresh and amusing, and it definitely enhances the quality of the ebook, relating often to a particular topic being discussed.  The style of art keeps the ebook feeling “fun”, even when discussing some of the more annoying and frustrating issues facing D&D 4E Dungeon Masters.

As mentioned in the overview, Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Masters Tips is divided into three sections: Build Your Story, Design Fun Encounters, and Run a Great Game.  These three topics are really the keys to running a successful Dungeons & Dragons game, and the Author brings up a considerable number of tips to achieving these goals.

The first section, Build Your Story, deals with some general Dungeon Mastering campaign and adventure design theory, and is the least 4E specific part of the book.  Touching on topics like keeping a “Focus On Your Next Adventure”, “Tell Organic Stories”, and “Create Awesome Villains”, the Author discusses a why these are important to successful Dungeon Mastering, and offer a number of ways to attain these ideals.  I had to admit that even for a veteran Dungeon Master like myself, while I “know” a good portion of the general concepts that the Author discusses, it was rather self-affirming to hear another Dungeon Master point out their importance to a successful game.  And the Author does bring up a few methods which were new to me, quoting “creativity” advice from other sources like Twyla Tharp and Stephen King, and demonstrating how it can be applied to writing campaigns and adventures.

The second section, Design Fun Encounters, focuses on some very solid D&D 4E theory-craft which every Dungeon Master should consider when creating their game.  Topics included in this section are:

  • Balance Challenge and Fun
  • Build Exciting Battle Maps
  • Make Environments Enjoyable
  • Use Minions Effectively
  • Improve Solo Creatures
  • Design for Fast Combat
  • Optimize Your Monsters

The Author gives some very good advice on these topics, and I particularly enjoyed the sections on effective Minion use, and the improving and optimizing of monsters, solo or otherwise.  Certainly, experienced Dungeon Masters have been doing many of these things for years with previous editions of D&D, but the Author takes the time to recommend new ways to do handle Encounter creation within the 4E rule structure, which often needs a completely different and counter-intuitive approach.  Obviously, not every piece of advice will mesh with every Dungeon Masters’ own gaming practices, and a bit of trial-and-error will be needed to find out what is the best fit.

The final section of the ebook, Run a Great Game, goes back to more general Dungeon Mastering theory, and mainly focuses on keeping your Player’s engaged.  Although most of this section would be considered “old hat” to experiences DMs, the Author’s take on dealing with electronic distractions like iPads and Blackberries at the table is an interesting read, and something which us ole’timer DMs are only just now having to deal with in great profusion.  I would have liked to see more discussion on the subsection on “Run Exciting Skill Challenges”, as this newest form of encounter is still, as the Author himself puts it, “controversial” and “misunderstood”.

However, I did like some of the Author’s new ideas on “Get Your Players to Roleplay” and “Use Effective and Entertaining House Rules”, some of which I am likely to start implementing in my own games.  It was refreshing to find new ideas which will help out in both of my 4E games – particularly when one game has veteran “old edition” Players in it, and the other has newer gamers who have only experienced 3.5 edition, or only 4E.

The Author was also gracious enough to devote a whole section on how to “Tap Into the D&D Hive Mind”, referring to the abundance of excellent online resources, blogs, and fansites available to aid Dungeon Masters in their struggle toward gaming excellence.  The Author mentions a number of very good sites, and has links to them straight from the PDF, making it easy for the Reader to learn about some great content and advice out there, just a click away.

Overall Grade: A-

I really think that Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Masters Tips is an ebook that all 4E Dungeon Masters should consider picking up.  While it does read rather like a “self-help” book for DMs, and some may find that the advice in it has been “known for years”, it is still a good read, and has some great points to make alongside the fun artwork of Jared von Hindman.  There are still an awful lot of good ideas regarding 4E Dungeon Mastering in this ebook, and whether we want to admit it or not, 4th Edition is still too new for any Dungeon Master to claim perfect “mastery” over adventure and campaign design using 4E rules.  As to whether the ebook is worth the price, well that is always a hard judgment call, and more difficult to quantify when dealing with a book of theory rather than module or other sourcebook.

In the end, a Dungeon Master has to ask himself:  “Is having an ebook on 4E Dungeon Mastering advice, which will be useful for making my game better possibly for years to come, not to mention a collection of great von Hindman artwork, worth more than a trip to Taco Bell (or insert the name of your personal favorite fast food joint here)?”  When put that way, it is pretty hard to deny that adding a book like Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Masters Tips to your virtual bookshelf is better than scarfing down a couple chalupas.  Unless you’re really, really hungry…

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Editor’s Note: This Blog’s Author received a complimentary copy of the product in PDF format from which the review was written.

On a personal note, I would like to congratulate Mike Shea on his first release, and wish him all the best with this book!

Grade Card

  • Presentation: A-
  • - Design: B+
  • - Illustrations: A
  • Content: B+
  • - Crunch: B+
  • - Fluff: A-
  • Value: A-

About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

Comments

2 Responses to “Review of Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips by Mike Shea”

  1. A. Scott Bay says:

    I’m also fond of epigraphs, although I was watching the HBO John Adams special again and felt somewhat personally addressed when Mrs. Adams said, “You do not need to quote great men to show you are one.” So now I quote great women, ba-doom-CHING!

    Joking aside, it’s nice to see good reviews of Dungeon Mastering advice, especially acknowledging some of the traps we fall into when approaching them (I know this/my way is fine).

  2. The funny thing is that “this/my way is fine” might very well be fine and dandy. But when a book like Sly Flourish’s DM Tips comes along, it challenges our thinking process as DMs and should make us ask ourselves if a new way might not be better. I think there is a certain ego that comes with being a long-term DM – we are, after all, all of the gods, the creator of the multiverse, and the “head referee” all bundled into one human sized package. How does one go about giving the lord and creator of a multiverse advice on anything?

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