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The True Blood of a Dungeon Master

In Geek & Sundry’s Relics and Rarities stream, Deborah Ann Woll teaches an old Dungeon Master some new tricks …

I’ve been watching a lot of real-play Dungeons & Dragons sessions lately. Why? Part of it is because I’m just finally getting to the point where watching other people play tabletop games online is entertaining. Part of it, also, is that I’m getting back into playing and running D&D after a long time away from it; I’ve kept collecting releases as the game’s 5th Edition has progressed, but a few years back I moved away from my gaming group of friends and haven’t had much luck, until recently, making new connections I’m comfortable with.

I’ve played 1st Edition AD&D, 2nd Edition, DM’ed a lot of 3rd and 3.5, and collected but basically skipped 4th Edition.

Now, I’m getting back into the swing of things as a Dungeon Master with help from the digital tools of D&D Beyond and the new Essentials Kit.

But I’m also so far removed from DM’ing that I needed to remind myself how a game flows. The handbooks can only take you so far. That’s where the streaming comes in.

My first stop in D&D streaming, of course, was Critical Role. It’s kind of hard to ignore this juggernaut of celebrity voice actors coming together and roleplaying. But as entranced as I am by superstar Dungeon Master Matt Mercer’s solid storytelling skills, and I’m definitely along for the ride now, I’m not going to immediately delve into the vast back catalog of adventures the CR team has recorded — that’s just too daunting.

Penny Arcade’s Acquisitions Inc. may be the granddaddy of real-play recordings, starting over 10 years ago and now featuring in a new, officially sanctioned Acquisitions Incorporated D&D sourcebook. But while I listened a bit in their early podcast days and have mad respect for what they’ve built, the overall tone wasn’t really what I was looking for right now. I found something else that scratches the itch for the moment, and I’ll tell you about it.

While poking around on YouTube, I discovered Geek & Sundry’s delightful Relics and Rarities, with Daredevil and True Blood actress Deborah Ann Woll DM’ing for an eclectic group of players group that includes a rotating recognizable celebrity each session, such as Kevin Smith and Janina Gavankar. And I can’t stop listening. For one thing, it’s accessible — there are only about a dozen hourlong episodes produced so far, so years of lore aren’t weighing down upon it yet. And, although Woll sometimes sacrifices strict adherence to the rules as written to accommodate a good story beat, it’s been tremendously helpful re-acquainting myself with the way combat and other tabletop D&D challenges work in action.

There’s also R&R’s underlying conceit: set in a home base of a curiosity shop that provides tangible props that both inspire and aid the adventurers. In fact, Woll uses props quite a bit for special magical items and puzzles — and, at first, that was actually a bit of a turn-off for me … until it showed what a cunning Dungeon Master she really is.

I’m not a big “roleplayer” — nor am I strictly a “roll player” who sees the game as just one dice battle after another. I’m not comfortable with a lot of full-on improv acting myself, but it doesn’t bother me when others I play with are. Relics and Rarities strikes this balance I need, with a group of players who provide teachable examples of both inspired roleplaying, necessary meta-talk and creative use of character powers.

I personally didn’t know that Woll was one of the many celebrities opening up about loving D&D until she appeared in the “Stream of Many Eyes” event last year, but Woll’s also sat in with the Critical Roll crew. She is as well versed in the rules as anyone I’ve ever seen, and as crafty storyteller as she is an accomplished actress — but she really became the DM I needed to look up to most right now when I saw how she used a real-life puzzle to meld the game’s rules with actual player activities.

I’ve never been a huge fan of practical puzzles at the RPG table. A player doesn’t know everything a character knows, and vice versa. So, me at a table solving a Rubik’s Cube or playing bad chess IRL doesn’t represent the best use of my character’s fantasy skills.

I guess I just didn’t get it before. What Woll did that so affected me was present such a puzzle — in this case, a stained-glass window-like pattern that needed to be colored in — and let the players’ abilities and skills determine what they knew about it, only then revealing to the players at the table that it needed to be filled in so the colors formed a symmetrical pattern.

It’s a little thing, and perhaps obvious to someone wiser, but as I look for inspiration to bring my own fantasy adventures to life, Woll’s example is helping me realize I can do this again. She and Matt Mercer and Chris Perkins and other celebrity DMs make it look so easy, but they struggle with the same things anybody else does when trying to make a game of D&D entertaining for everybody. Streaming their games shares this reality and its lessons with the world.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I took away from Woll and all these great Dungeon Masters is to never let the rules get in the way of a good story moment or, even more important, come between the Dungeon Master’s screen and everyone’s enjoyment of the game. Woll’s DM’ing style won’t be for everyone, but I’m in. There’s so much to learn from everyone embracing this hobby.

Joe Manganiello, left, and Deborah Ann Woll help unveil the Dungeons & Dragons storyline, "Waterdeep: Dragon Heist" during a live streaming event at the Line 204 Studios on Friday, June 1, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Jordan Strauss/AP Images for Dungeons & Dragons)
About the photo: Joe Manganiello, left, and True Blood co-starDeborah Ann Woll helped unveil the D&D storyline “Waterdeep: Dragon Heist” during a live streaming event at Los Angeles’ Line 204 Studios on June 1, 2018. (Jordan Strauss/AP Images for Dungeons & Dragons, provided by Wizards of the Coast)

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