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Dungeons & Dragons Adventures with Writer and Game Master Mike Shea
I speak with the prolific game master about the greatest RPG of all time.
“As a loner and inexperienced adventurer, you realize you must pair up with a group of more seasoned heroes to successfully pillage the dragon’s keep. The local tavern is full of all sorts of classes, giving you plenty of choices for traveling companions. The only “magic” you know involves spurious bar tricks to avoid paying your tab. A Wizard joins your party out of pity and the promise of gold. You’re also a bit slipshod with a broadsword, missing a pinky finger as a result. A Cleric with high level healing powers owes the gods a favor and joins your party as recompense.”
Thus begins your Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) campaign, and it opens up a world of possibilities, and hopefully a lot of fun and camaraderie with fellow players. Much of the success and enjoyment for a campaign is in the hands of your resident DM (Dungeon Master), who will lead you through harrowing exploits with all manner of interesting characters and environments. D&D is a game that millions have enjoyed since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published it in 1974, letting each DM craft unique and limitless experiences ever since.
The Lunar Awards went out in search of an experienced DM and RPG game master with years of experience introducing players young and old to D&D. We wanted all of our readers, whether you’ve played the game or not, to learn from the best. Our endeavor led us to Mike Shea, a writer steeped in monsters, magical items and fantasy lands far and away. Welcome, Mike, thanks for visiting and giving us the latest lowdown on the most popular roleplaying game ever created!
The Business of D&D
You’re primarily a writer and author, but that doesn’t adequately summarize your vocation. You’re a successful YouTuber with 50k+ subscribers, you helped run a Kickstarter that garnered 7,200 backers and nearly $290,000, you run a Patreon and are a game master. How do you describe your line of work?
I still consider myself a writer above everything else. Running my own small business means I do a lot of everything. I’m wiring microphones. I’m setting up mirrorless camera settings. I’m figuring out sound treatments for a studio. I’m managing international distribution. I’m reviewing paper quality for print books. I’m scheduling projects two years out. I’m handling marketing on like seven different platforms. My to-do list is pretty huge.
But all of this still comes down to being a writer first. I write books. I write articles. I write newsletters. I write scripts for the videos I shoot. That’s where my value to this industry lies, I think. The rest is trying to get attention to what I write and getting what I write in front of peoples’ eyes or ears.
I’ve done a lot more video and audio production work in the past couple of years. But I still see that as a vehicle for what I write first.
So yeah, writer.
Many avid D&D players have a prologue, the true-life adventure that led them to a lifetime of roleplaying fantasy adventures. What led you to start playing D&D and what were some of your early influences?
Mine’s not fancy. I got into the gold box D&D computer games first (Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Streams of Silver) and then picked up a 2nd edition Player’s Handbook to learn more about how this game ran. In high school I ran a D&D campaign I still look upon fondly with some friends. Then I got back into it in college but stepped back out until D&D 3.5 in the early 2000s. But since then I’ve been playing games regularly.
My father, Robert Shea, is my biggest influence. He wrote the book “Illuminatus!” and I just always remember him hammering away on his Apple II on his latest book. He also wrote and published “zines”. He’d type them out, print them, paste the paragraphs into pages, xerox them, and mail them out. It was blogging back in the 80s. I would give anything to see how he’d have operated in today’s world.
We have a good number of fantasy fiction writers that submit to the Lunar Awards and who publish on Substack. What kind of advice can you give for those that want to expand their reach and write professionally for roleplaying games?
Start a website and start a newsletter. Start building your own platform on your own terms. Don’t tie yourself to a single enshittified platform (see Cory Doctorow’s piece on the Enshittification of Tiktok if you’re not familiar with the term). Today, the big silo platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok, YouTube, Threads, and so on) are all doing everything they can to make sure people don’t ever leave their platforms. Their algorithms pretend to serve you but only serve themselves. Instead, we can build our own platforms on email newsletters, websites, blogs, RSS feeds, podcasts, and federated services like Mastodon. When we build up our audiences there, those platforms serve both us and our audiences, not some trillion-dollar megacorporation.
I use YouTube a lot to bring people to the rest of my work but I don’t trust it. They could start downgrading my stuff tomorrow. Luckily, I have a good email list of people who trust that I send them useful stuff. I have a solid podcast. I have a website where people can find lots of free articles and the books I write.
So that’s what I’d suggest people really consider — build and own your own platform. It takes years to build it up but it can really help in the long term and we have no idea where the internet is going.
Inspiration for fantasy fiction writers typically comes through the consumption of other media. Are there resources that you can provide or recommend that will inspire writers who may not necessarily be interested in RPG gameplay mechanics?
I don’t think I have anything better to offer than anyone else. Get ideas from everywhere — movies, books, TV shows, music, video games. Absorb your favorite art. Let it drive your own passions. Be a kid again.
The Culture of D&D
D&D has had a huge cultural impact, but it's not always perceived as positive. Can you talk about the current state of the game in relation to its past accomplishments and failures?
There’s sort of two questions here – the state of D&D itself (a brand owned by Hasbro) and tabletop roleplaying games in general. The biggest shifts happened earlier this year when Hasbro tried to pull back an openly-released and licensed set of rules called the 5.1 System Reference Document. That went really badly for them, permanently damaging the D&D brand and breaking Hasbro’s promise to be good stewards of the game. It did result in releasing the 5.1 SRD (basically 80% of the rules of D&D) in the Creative Commons. This means many other RPG publishers can write their own versions of “5th edition” (the latest edition of D&D). So now the game is more open than it’s ever been. You can play many different flavors of 5e from many different publishers.
But there’s also many different tabletop roleplaying games. I just played a game called “Shadowdark RPG” made by Kelsey Dionne which had 13,000 backers and made 1.3 million dollars on Kickstarter. There are thousands of different roleplaying games now and many different ways to play.
D&D is still the biggest one, no doubt, and it’s going to stay at the top for a long time. Someone figured out that it’s basically 100x as popular (in sales) than other big RPGs and maybe 20x to 50x bigger than the next most popular.
That’s fine, though. I love D&D. I love tabletop roleplaying games in general. I want more people coming to this awesome hobby and learning how much fun it can be to share stories with our friends around a table.
D&D itself has a new version update coming in 2024. They’re calling it “the 2024 update to D&D” or something like that but its basically an improvement to the extremely popular 5th edition version of the game. We hope it brings more people into the hobby but time will tell.
The occult is still a sensitive subject for many parents, even in the context of fantasy. If a younger player wants to get involved with D&D, how do you address their parent’s concerns?
This actually doesn’t come up very often these days. Conservative groups seem to have other targets in their crosshairs these days, so they haven’t targeted D&D since the 80s. In fact, many religious leaders, teachers, and parents have embraced the value of shared storytelling, teamwork, and social bonding that roleplaying games bring to the table — so to speak. Pop culture helped with that a lot. Stranger Things shows us how D&D can bring kids together instead of painting them as strange occultists.
The easiest way to convince parents is probably to let them watch the kids play, or play it themselves. D&D is a game of cooperation, storytelling, imagination, and mathematics. It brings kids together. It gets them away from their phones for a little while. It builds and strengthens friendships. It teaches team building. It helps with depression and isolation and various social issues. It’s used by teachers. It’s used by social workers and therapists. It’s an incredibly powerful teaching tool. D&D can literally save lives.
Wizards of the Coast has an Educator’s Resource page with tons of material that might help parents understand the value of D&D.
The Gameplay of D&D
It seems like the only way to start playing D&D is to read a large book with a bunch of complicated rules, round up a posse and hope a confident DM shows up and sends you on a killer adventure. That can be intimidating for someone new. How do you introduce excited, but overwhelmed newbies to the game?
It’s actually not nearly that bad. D&D Starter Sets include everything you need to play the game and go for about $10 to $20 with just a couple of booklets and some pre-generated characters. The rules can get a little crunchy sometimes but those big thick books are like 80% spells, monsters, and magic items. The actual rules — including the core rules — are very easy to pick up. Grab a 20 sided die. Roll it. Add a modifier based on what you were trying to do. Match that up against a difficulty class (a number between about 10 and 25) and if you’re at it or higher you succeed. That’s about 80% of the game.
Here’s an article with more on getting started:
What ultimately, is the objective of D&D? Are there winners and losers, and how are those terms defined in the context of D&D?
The true objective is to share in tales of high adventure with your friends. That’s the ultimate goal. Each adventure or campaign usually has its own theme or objective as well – kill the vampire Strahd before he destroys the land of Barovia; stop the rise of the dragon god Tiamat; end the scourge of the giants; save your planet from the destruction of the astral elves. Some campaigns change objectives as the story changes.
There are no winners or losers in D&D as players. D&D is all about watching the story unfold as you and your players play through the game. Objectives come and go. The story grows as you play.
What are the skills required to play the game, average time commitment, and what type of personality is likely to enjoy it?
The skills largely depend on whether you’re a “dungeon master” (the person running the game) or a player. For dungeon masters, you need to have enough leadership skills to get the group together and explain the game. You need to be able to think a little bit on your feet as things play out in ways you didn’t expect. You probably want to enjoy reading, there’s a lot of material you can digest to make your game better. For players, having a good imagination and a willingness to work with the other players to build out an enjoyable game are the most critical skills. If you want to be a real hero — take notes. Your DM and players will love you for it.
The game takes about two to four hours to play at a sitting. Campaigns can be short — just one session — or go on for many months and even years. Some campaigns have been going on for three or four decades!
What is the smallest number of players you would recommend for a successful D&D campaign, and if a new player wants to join a campaign party, how might they find these people in real life?
You can play with as few as two – one DM and one player. The boxed set called the “D&D Essentials Kit” has rules for “sidekicks” so one player controls two characters. I played a couple of campaigns this way and loved it. Here’s more:
The most common way people find others to play D&D with tend to be the following:
Friends and friends-of-friends.
At local game shops and hobby shops that sell D&D stuff or host games.
Online through places like Discord, Meetup, and other D&D LFG places on the web.
The easiest way to play D&D is to run D&D. Many DMs found themselves in the seat as a DM simply because they were eager to play and no one else was willing to run it. Then they kept doing it for 40 years.
Can players bring an existing character into a party that already has an established inventory, skills, levels, etc., that they’ve built up over a number of campaigns? How does that work, and are they taking advantage of inexperienced players?
This works best with a type of play called “Organized Play” or the “Adventurer’s League”. These are shared campaigns with set adventures you can play in game stores or online. In these shared campaigns, your character can go from table to table or adventure to adventure run by different DMs and still stick with the same character.
Alternatively you can enjoy trying new characters out in each campaign — building your character to suit the story of the campaign and the world or area in which it’s set.
The Internet has really changed how the game can be played. What are some of the unique challenges of playing over Discord and do you recommend this for less experienced players?
The internet has definitely changed things. Of the groups I’ve polled about half are playing games online and half in person. It was as high as 70% playing online during Covid. Playing online has its advantages and disadvantages. There’s nothing quite like seeing real people sitting around the table with you but digital tools also make some parts of the game significantly easier like mapping and using tokens to represent monsters and characters.
Here’s more on this topic:
Do you have any parting words of wisdom as a D&D DM and game master?
Sure! Here are my top tips for DMs new and old:
Let the story unfold at the table.
Set up situations and let the characters navigate them.
Be on the characters’ side.
Use tools and techniques that help you improvise.
Focus on your next game.
Build your world from the characters outwards.
Pay attention to pacing.
Focus on the fiction first and mechanics second.
Many thanks to Mike for spending his time with our Lunar Awards community. When he is not acting as DM, you can find him hanging out in the following places: