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Old Advice Is The Best Advice

posted Wednesday, September 2nd 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceFourth EditionThird Edition

I’d like to share a classic DM’s tip that really helped me in the last game I ran.

At the beginning of the session, ask your players for their core stats: AC, Fort, Ref, Will, and the Perception (4E) or Spot/Listen (3E) skill bonus. Write these down in a table with player names on the left and stats along the top.

Player stats chart for a DM.

This table has two uses. First, you can see stats at a glance, so you can quickly tell if your attacks hit without asking the player. This is particularly useful in internet games where communication is slow, and in 4E games where Fort, Ref and Will are flat numbers like AC instead of player rolls. Remember that your players may have temporary bonuses or penalties that aren’t listed on your grid, so take care if your roll is only a few points off the number when you know that there are modifiers in play.

Second, you can use it to make secret rolls for the players. It’s particularly useful in third edition for secret Spot/Listen checks (so you don’t tip the players off if no characters notice anything) and secret attack rolls and saves (mainly for illusions and mental domination effects). You might also record other skills where the DM rolls so the player doesn’t know if he’s failed, such as Stealth (4E) or Disable Device (3E).

If it helps, you can do the same for your monsters. I find this useful when holding the Monster Manual open at several pages and flicking between the two. This keeps important stats like a monster’s AC readily available during player turns.


  1. kaeosdad

    September 2nd, 2009

    The character builder is super handy for this. When you print the char sheet and power cards the very first card is lists all their ability scores, defenses, passive scores, hp etc… on a single easy to read normal size playing card.

    Very handy.

  2. Doron

    September 2nd, 2009

    Here’s a .doc sheet I created just for this. up to 6 players and for 4E players:

    BTW great advice about writing down the monster’s defenses, it sure will save a lot of time flipping pages..

  3. Michelle

    September 2nd, 2009

    It’s a good idea, but I’m afraid it may lead the DM to assume he knows the defenses when he really doesn’t. Sometimes they add up.

    When a badly wounded ally ends his turn adjacent to my Dwarven Cleric, it’s easy for him to have up to a +6 bonus to AC and +4 to his other defenses. That’s +2 from Second Wind, +2 from Shield the Fallen (if he is still bloodied), and +2 (AC only) from Shield of Faith.

    At the very least, I think the DM should be prepared for reminders after every successful attack. “Did you remember the AC bonus from ?”

  4. Chris Cumming

    September 2nd, 2009

    I’ve recently taken to writing this information on the back of the little 3×5 initiative cards hanging on my DM screen. This way I can quickly jot down conditions or modifiers too. In addition the order presented (in initiative order) is easy to see at a glance.

  5. Dyson Logos

    September 2nd, 2009

    The battleboxes by Fiery Dragon had a great little pad in each box that was used for the DM to track the primary scores (AC, HP, Saves, Spot, Search, Listen, attacks) of four characters per page.

    They are great for 3.x games.

  6. Joseph

    September 2nd, 2009

    *Really* old advice:

    Tell your player to roll a d20. If they ask “am I rolling high or low?”, you shrug your shoulders. Then make a call based on your judgment.

  7. Asmor

    September 3rd, 2009

    For a 4e GM, it’s probably better to note the passive perception specifically.

  8. Toord

    September 4th, 2009

    Your group has 5 players?!?!? :o

  9. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Sunday Seven: 2009-09-06

    September 6th, 2009

    [...] Old Advice Is The Best Advice This is, indeed, very old advice, but it’s so great and precise that I had to share it as well. Any GM worth his salt not only knows his world, the adventure(s), the monsters and vital NPCs, but he also knows the characters in the players’ hands and the players sitting at the table. [...]

  10. Jhett

    July 12th, 2011

    I love reading these articles because theyÂ’re short but infromatvie.

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