Workshop Notes: Passing the DM Screen

The first series of the D&D Storytelling Workshops came to a close last weekend, with a fully customized, Scene-by-Scene one-shot in which the children had the chance to take turns acting as the DM. The adventure was inspired by the students themselves, using their ideas from the first two Workshops.

In Workshop One, they created a plot outline together: a magical murder-mystery which featured a talking bird guarding a vault filled with dwarven gold. The bird is murdered, the gold stolen, and the party must figure out who is behind it!

Workshop Two focused on incorporating perspectives when creating Player Characters (PCs) and Non-Player Characters (NPCs). By the end of this session, the students had determined what kind of talking animals work in the bank, and what their roles are.

With that, I went to work developing a unique adventure that integrated each of their ideas into a fun story they could run themselves. This was the introduction:

“You stand in the middle of a crowded city street, jostled here and there by hurried and distracted denizens scurrying past, heading to work, school, shopping…the sky is the limit in a city like Alveardon. Often compared to a buzzing hive, Alveardon is a large, vibrant city that seems to never sleep. It’s home to a large university, centers for research and development (most notably The Magi-tech Collective), and a thriving banking industry. A large river runs through the center of the city, marking a natural boundary between the research and business sectors, with residential zones radiating outward.

You are a team of new recruits to the City Watch, hired for your rather unique sets of skills. Your first assignment: to investigate some trouble at Fortuna Bank.

The bank is considered to be the most secure in Alveardon, albeit the most unusual. Not only is it protected by the most powerful enchantments in the city, but it is also staffed with some of the most capable guardians. So what makes it unusual? All of the employees are enchanted animals.”

After introducing the adventure and covering basic game mechanics (ability checks, combat, etc.), the kids took the reins!

The One-Shot was divided into 8 different scenes, each a page long with setting descriptions, NPCs, skill check recommendations, and information the DM can convey to the players through the scene. I barely had to help at all, save for reminding them of certain mechanics and answering questions here and there, some of which are listed below:


How do I know when to ask a player for a skill check?


There are no clear-cut formulas for when to use Skill Checks, but a good rule of thumb is to ask for a check any time a player wishes to accomplish something challenging, or something that would impact the scene in some way. Some common examples include:

  • Using a Stealth (Dexterity) check to sneak up on someone without being noticed.
  • Using an Athletics (Strength) check to climb a rope or pull yourself out of a pit.
  • Using a Performance (Charisma) check when playing a song or acting a role for a NPCs.
  • Using a Perception (Wisdom) check to determine if someone is being honest, or if they are hiding something.
  • Using an Investigation (Intelligence) check to search for something specific, like a trap in a dungeon.

The list goes on, but those are just some of the most common Skill Checks you may use in your game.

When it comes to setting the Difficulty Class (DC) for a Skill Check (i.e. how high a player needs to roll on their D20 to succeed), use what you know about that character to help you decide. A character with a high Strength score should be able to move a boulder more easily than a less-beefy wizard. Therefore, you can set the DC at a 10 or lower for them to succeed. If the wizard tried to move that same boulder, it should be much more difficult for them so you can set the DC at a 15 or even a 20.


What is the difference between a Skill Check and a Saving Throw?


While a Skill Check allows the PC to take a certain type of action, a Saving Throw represents their ability to resist the effects of a spell, poison, illness, or some sort of action taken against them. One of the kids in the workshop made this comparison:

“A Skill Check is how a Barbarian tries to throw a Goblin across the room. A Saving Throw is what the Goblin has to make to try to land on his feet and not splat against the wall!”


When do you use Advantage and Disadvantage?


When you roll with Advantage or Disadvantage, that means you roll the D20 twice and take either the higher or lower number, respectively. There aren’t really any clear-cut rules on when to give a player Advantage or Disadvantage, so I tend to use this to add narrative flair to the action. I will often let a character role with Advantage to reward good role-playing or to encourage an activity that their PC should be especially skilled at. For example, if the party’s Bard role-plays a performance worthy of a Tony, I will let them roll with advantage to give them a greater chance of success (I will also give them a lower DC).

Alternatively, if that Bard tries to entertain an NPC that is notoriously grouchy, or perhaps the day before, the Bard had done something to offend this person, I may have them roll at Disadvantage to represent the more difficult task they are trying to accomplish. I also may use Disadvantage to indirectly communicate to the players that perhaps they should try to find another solution to a problem.


What are “Competing Skill Checks”?


Competing Skill Checks are exactly as the name suggests– when one character is attempting to counter or prevent the actions of another character in some way. These come into play in a multitude of situations:

  • Two characters are racing, wrestling, or competing in some sort of physical feat
  • An Insight Check to counter another PC’s Deception Check
  • Perception Checks against another PC’s Stealth or Sleight of Hand Check
  • Grabbing something before another character can get to it
  • Drinking contests in the inn (seems to happen in nearly every campaign eventually)

Competing Checks often lead to moments of hilarity when two PCs go head-to-head and can be used in creative ways for NPC interactions as well.

The Biggest Takeaway:

These kids ROCK! I purposely left some details out of the scene notes so the kids could practice the Improvisation Rules we had learned in the workshop prior, and they took every off-the-wall question and request in stride! Not only that, the improvised solutions they came up with were so imaginative I began to think that these kids might be more naturally suited to DMing in general.

As adults, we often approach a game like D&D with long-held biases that developed over years of reading certain genres, playing certain games…all which create ideas in our minds of what a story “should” be. Younger players don’t have these same limitations. Sure, they may have frameworks in mind for what a dragon is and how they should act, but these young DMs’ ability to change course at the drop of a hat with seemingly effortless improvisations was something to behold!



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