Daily Lists, Gaming, Nerdery

10 Dungeons & Dragons Tips From Dan Harmon and His Dungeon Master


Future You Pictures
Dan Harmon on the road in Harmontown

If you’re a Community fan, you’ve already enjoyed two episodes featuring the gang playing Dungeons & Dragons. But if you don’t listen to Community creator Dan Harmon’s podcast, Harmontown, you don’t know that you’re missing weekly D&D sessions. Spencer Crittenden, who guested on the VCR game episode of Community, is Harmon’s Dungeon Master. Yes, when you’re as famous as Dan Harmon, you get your own personal Dungeon Master. Every podcast ends with Harmon, his cohosts and celebrity guests sitting down with Crittenden for a short campaign.

So you know he knows what he’s talking about when he lays it down…

Now there’s a movie about Harmon’s podcasts, and that means D&D made it back to the big screen in a film far less embarrassing than the one with Marlon Wayans. The documentary Harmontown premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival and featured many scenes of live D&D playing. So when I had a chance to interview Harmon and Crittenden, I asked them for 10 tips for playing D&D and I came out with five each from Harmon and his personal DM.

10. Find a Bag of Holding

Jason Puckett
Look, someone actually made a real bag of holding.

The first one is pretty simple. Dan Harmon suggests, “Get a bag of holding as soon as you can.” A bag of holding is a coveted item to even a basic D&D player, because it can contain objects larger than its own size. Hitting a stash of dwarven gold and weaponry can be mighty bittersweet if you only have room to carry one axe away with you.

It’s kind of amazing how forward thinking D&D was in realizing that characters would need a large quantity of items to complete their quests. After D&D came out, video games from Sierra Online would have characters carry unlimited inventories with no explanation. They could have just cribbed the bag of holding from D&D to explain why you could tote a small storage unit’s worth of props with you on your quest.

9. Read Everything

Steve Berry
The original rule books for D&D

Take it from the professional Dungeon Master. Spencer Crittenden champions the importance of all the old official TSR, Inc. produced rule books. There are dozens of rule books on top of the basic three-part Dungeons & Dragons and the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons guides.

“f you’re the Dungeon Master, the first tip is you’ve got to read all the books three times in a row, cover to cover,” Crittenden said. “And then probably read [them]three times again. You should always do way too much prep work and not at all be offended or upset if it falls apart within the first couple of seconds.”

8. Don’t Drink

D&D Players
A classic D&D session

Role playing games are fun, but they’re not a party. Dan Harmon knows from playing D&D at shows with a full bar. He admits that he begins every Harmontown podcast drunk, but by the time D&D comes around, he’s not at his most alert. You think you lose your place trying to map your quest on graph paper? That could be a standard DUI test at random roadblocks.

“The unfortunate thing is we have it at the end of the show right now so we’re always so drunk by that time that we’re just really bad at doing a good role-playing session and I think it’s a little frustrating to purists,” Harmon said. ” I don’t think liquor and role playing games go [together]. A good role playing session should be several hours long and if you’re drinking, you’re going to get sloppy and sleepy.”

7. Take Your Time

Late Night D&D
Will Merydith
A late night D&D session

Speaking of several hours long, the D&D games on Harmontown are usually about 15 minutes, maybe 30 if the celebrity guests get really into it. Spencer Crittenden agrees that you should block off a whole afternoon or evening to devote to pillaging caves and slaying dragons. Don’t worry if your mom tells you to go outside (do parents still say that?). Need to eat? That’s what Hot Pockets are for.

“I’d say two to four hours is probably a good length,” Crittenden said. “I’ve had crazy marathon sessions that take place over a weekend where you play for like six hours and take an hour break and just keep going a whole weekend, but that’s tough. It’s tough to get together.”

6. Do Smoke

Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons

While drinking inhibits creative gameplay, other substances can make D&D even more fun. Dan Harmon is endorsing what he calls “herbal substances.” That’s pot, marijuana, Mary Jane, reefer. Maybe you can get a legitimate prescription for pot, or get it the old fashioned way: from a dealer.

“I would go for one of the many available prescription herbal substances that might be available in your state depending on where you live,” Harmon said. “Getting drunk is a depressant and it makes you less logical and more argumentative and sad. Then you start crying about your dad in the middle of a game. Pot, I think, you get more immersed in the game, you laugh a lot and it doesn’t kill your liver. After a while, you start sketching little swords on the back of your character sheet because everything looks amazing to you. It’s a good compatibility.”

5. Take Turns Being Dungeon Master

Dungeons and Dragons
Jason Coleman
Look at that exhausted Dungeon Master

Spencer Crittenden is pretty much full time DM for Harmontown, as well as his own private games. When you’re that good at creating campaigns, everyone wants you to DM them. I used to feel bad for making other people be DM so I could just have fun playing, and Crittenden agreed I should feel bad.

“It depends because in all groups it can’t happen,” Crittenden said. “Some people are more equipped for it than others, but if there’s a situation where you can cycle through DMs, that’s the best. What you’re doing is writing creatively and if you’re writing creatively, regularly, for a long time, you can suffer from burnout. If you have people that want to do it, that are willing to cycle through, that’s probably a better way to go about it but I don’t think that’s too common and it’s not necessarily necessary.”

4. Take Breaks

GenCon D&D Room
p med
The D&D room at GenCon

Like, not the hour-long breaks after every 4-6 hours of playing like Crittenden said in number 7. Take breaks from playing D&D altogether, or at least from being DM. Harmon realized Crittenden needed a break after being weekly DM for years on Harmontown. As soon as Harmon said D&D was not a requirement of Harmontown, Crittenden took him up on it.

“Spencer’s taking a little break right now because he felt like he had to do it every week,” Harmon said. “When he found out he didn’t, he immediately took a break.” See item number 5 re: avoiding burnout.

3. Listen to Your Players

Roll for Initiative
Dave White
Rolling for Initiative

Just because you’re the DM doesn’t mean you have to stick to the plan. A good DM loves it when the players rewrite the campaign with some clever suggestions and take the adventure in a whole new direction. Spencer Crittenden has learned to be open to the players.

“Players have really good ideas,” Crittenden said. “As the DM you have the tendency to think your ideas are the best, but if you incorporate player ideas it actually makes for a better situation.”

2. Avoid Combat

Gyla Shatterstone
Mark Campo
Gyla Shatterstone

Sure, everybody wants to slay a dragon, or maybe they just want to roll the 20-sided die, but fighting can be dangerous, and often unnecessary. The great thing about RPGs is there’s more than one solution to every danger. As you may have suspected from the emotional bent to most Community episodes, Dan Harmon is a lover, not a fighter.

“Try to find a non conflict resolution before you draw your sword,” Harmon said. “Oftentimes a monster might just be misunderstood, could be bargained with.”

1. Play With Celebrities Whenever You Can

Dungeons and Dragons
Seth Dodson
Dungeons and Dragons

Okay, this rule only applies if you are the creator of a beloved cult television show, have a public show where you play D&D, and can invite celebrities to come play on a weekly basis. Jason Sudeikis was particularly enthralled by Crittenden’s DMing, and he played along too.

“Actually, on the show he was into it,” Crittenden said. “He was the pilot of an airship and he crushed up a pool ball and blew it into Dan’s eyes. He was really getting into it and that was probably the best. They don’t always know what they’re doing or think they have that strong a sense of agency. Even that’s really fun.”

Previously by Fred Topel

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