John Carlson – An Email Interview – 100 Sessions DMing AD&D on Roll20

I play in a weekly AD&D online game on Roll20. I have mentioned this before, most recently a couple of weeks ago when we hit session 100 and two years of play. Our DM, +John Carlson writes the blog, Dwarven Automata. He agreed to an email interview where I picked his brain about running a game on Roll20 for 100 sessions. This is the second interview posted here.

In my last article, about hitting session 100 on Roll20, I got a few responses on G+ that there were some that had lasted as long, and one that was over 200 sessions!

Last night was session 103, and John sent me his answers to my questions. I was flattered that he found it fun and was ready for more questions. I’m not sure what else I might ask, but I find it interesting and helpful to learn how other GM’s handle that role.

Some of my questions were spurred by conversations we have waiting for all the players to join the Hangout, such as the one about Cons.

I have two questions that are now standard questions for all future interviews, about having women players and women GM’s. This was spurred by an interrupted conversation about it with +Satine Phoenix at Gary Con VIII. I am hopeful that she will soon have time to respond to my questions for an email interview. I am interested in continuing that conversation.

What was your start in gaming?

My first experience with role-playing games happened when I was around nine or ten years old (in the mid-1980s). It was during school – perhaps a half-day – and the teacher said that when we finished our work we could talk quietly. There was this kid, Scott, who sat behind me and he asked if I wanted to play a game about adventures with magic and dragons he learned from his older brother. It sounded good, so he made some paper chits with numbers and had me create a quick character (probably a fighter).

It was a very short game. My character started on some foggy moor outside a village and soon ran across a terrible creature with greenish skin that kept coming no matter how many times I hit it – its wounds simply knit back together. While Scott kept reminding me I had a lantern, which seemed to me like an odd detail to fixate on while being clawed to death by an unstoppable monster, I had my character run for the hills. Not being nearly fast enough to escape, my character climbed a tree and hoped for the best. Scott continued to mention that lantern throughout all this, which was getting really annoying. Eventually, the creature found me and tore me to pieces.

I don’t remember if Scott explained what a troll was or why the lantern was important, but it didn’t matter. Even with that character’s brief and tragic experience, I was hooked on the concept of role-playing games in general and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. Shortly after that, I picked up the full set of first edition AD&D books and convinced my friends to play the game with me as Dungeon Master. Our group occasionally grew to ten or twelve players (including Scott), but the core of it consisted of four and I was almost always the DM from day one.

When did you first DM?

That’s pretty much answered above – sometime around nine or ten years old in the mid-1980s using the first edition AD&D rules (as interpreted by a kid that age with no background in RPGs). All things considered, I did a decent job from the little I can remember. I was pretty quick at eye-balling a situation and assigning probabilities to outcomes, had a decent recall of the rules, and knew instinctively that making fair judgments and keeping things moving was more important than being 100% correct.

Our group transitioned pretty seamlessly into second edition AD&D when that was released and played consistently through eleventh grade with a short break occasioned by hormones and the desire to “be cool” in eighth grade. There was another member of our core gaming group who tried to DM – a smart fellow who ended up going to Harvard and becoming a lawyer – but he was a bit of a rail-roader and the other players took great delight in running his campaigns off the tracks. In contrast to that, my trick was to roll with whatever the players did and make it look like I had anticipated their choices from day one by weaving the consequences of their actions into what was planned ahead of time.

What other RPG’s have you played?

I have played surprisingly few RPGs that are not Dungeons & Dragons. A member of our gaming group in high school tried to get us into the Marvel RPG, but no one else was really interested in the superhero genre (or comic books, for that matter; we were oddly focused nerds). At some point in the 80s, I picked up the MERP core rules because of my love for Tolkien, but that went nowhere because of the overly convoluted tables for resolving combat.

More recently, I tried Metamorphosis Alpha in the game you ran on Roll20. Besides that, my knowledge of other systems is mostly theoretical from reading rulebooks – probably the non-D&D system I would be most interested in running is Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number, although that has a lot of similarities to basic D&D underneath the hood and perhaps shouldn’t count as a fundamentally different system.

Do you still play regularly? If so, what RPGs do you play? Do you play online, like with Roll20?

At the end of high school the pressure of college admissions (I went to a very competitive high school) brought an end to our gaming group and I stayed away from RPGs for the next ten years. I went to college, married a wonderful woman, had some kids, and started graduate school to study medieval English literature (an academic interest that grew out of my earlier fascination with Tolkien). I thought about joining a college gaming group, but didn’t have much free time. Or at least that’s what I told myself – looking back, I did find time for a lot of single-player CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape, etc., so perhaps it was a bit of academic snobbery and the need to keep up appearances as a serious scholar.

Fortunately, my wife was a casual gamer (tabletop and video) – she had actually tried playing with a group at our undergraduate college before we met, but did not have a good experience – and eventually got me playing D&D again. She moved with me for graduate school and took a job as a public middle school teacher for gifted students. When I picked up the third edition D&D books to check out the new system, she suggested I run an afterschool group for her students. I did that for several years before earning my PhD and getting a job in academic publishing.

Unfortunately, my job in publishing led to a pretty itinerant lifestyle with frequent travel that made running those afterschool games or finding any other in-person group almost impossible. That’s about the time I discovered and backed the Kickstarter for Roll20 (or rather Tabletop Forge, which was combined with Roll20), dug out my first edition books, and started playing and running games in earnest again. After a while, my travel schedule calmed down and I now run an afterschool game at my wife’s school in which my oldest son plays in addition to my online campaign.

Do you do board games and card games, or only RPG’s? 

My whole familywife and three kidsare pretty dedicated gaming nerds and we have a decent collection of board and card games (although we probably all spend more time and money on computer games). We have two full-size bookcases of games including Catan, Carcassonne, Pandemic, Legacy Risk, Small World, Five Tribes, Lords of Waterdeep, various Munchkins, etc. When our schedules aren’t too crazy, we host tabletop gaming parties for some of the neighbors and teachers from my wife’s school.

Do you play any video games? If so, what games? Which is your favorite?

Video games (especially CRPGs and adventure games) were what I occupied myself with during that decade away from tabletop gaming and I have continued playing in the years since – heck, I had a Steam account within a week of the system going live in order to download Half-Life 2. I won’t list all the games I play or have played because that would be an incredibly long and boring inventory (I currently have hundreds of games between my Steam and GOG accounts). My favorites, though, include Planescape: Torment, the Witcher series (especially the third game), The Longest Journey, the single-player KOTOR series, Baldur’s Gate (really all the Infinity Engine games), the Ultima series (especially VII), Tie Fighter, Deus Ex, and the old SSI gold box D&D games. Currently, I’ve been playing a good bit of Darkest Dungeon, Elite: Dangerous, and Euro Trucker 2.

You mentioned that you have never been to a con, after our last session, do you ever think about going now?

I wouldn’t go to a convention for myself, although it might be fun to bring my sons to one. My first reaction when exposed to large crowds is to retreat inward, so those kinds of gatherings are not likely to bring out the best in me. In addition, my preferred gaming style involves a slow burn where events take on significance in retrospect as the campaign progresses – not something one is likely to find in those modules and scenarios suited to quick convention play. Seeing my sons enjoy such an event might make it worth attending one, though.

Are you surprised at the longevity of our weekly game?

It only surprises me in retrospect since week-to-week it just seems natural to show up Wednesday nights and run the game whether its session ten or session ninety. I think there are a number of factors that have helped the game last this long:

  • A core group of dedicated players (both experienced and not) who serve as the institutional memory of the campaign, bringing new players up-to-speed and making sense of the weekly madness in terms of the overall setting. This basic stability has made it possible for the game to survive several changes to the player roster.
  • A sandbox campaign design in which the only plots are those of the party’s enemies and allies that evolve over time and react to the changes the group makes in the game world. This also helps with the changing player roster since no PC is essential and no particular adventure hook needs to be followed or completed for the world to keep turning.
  • A very consistent schedule so that everyone playing knows that every week (excepting maybe one or two DM vacations per year!) we will have a four-hour game session Wednesday night at 8PM EST. My experience with other Roll20 games is that scheduling inconsistency and last minute DM cancellations kill player dedication and foster the attitude that skipping games without good reason or prior notice is fine.
  • A well-organized G+ community for the campaign with player written summaries for every game session and other documents to provide an ongoing record of the party’s triumphs and setbacks. This encourages the players to think about and anticipate the game between sessions.
  • A steady drip of information about the game world and its peculiarities delivered not via exposition or any other info dumps, but through the party’s interaction with the world’s factions, civilizations, and dungeons (i.e., the slow scratching away of the trappings of a generic fantasy setting to find the gooey center of weirdness underneath).

Do you ever get bored or burned out by it?

I don’t get bored or burnt out with my campaigns, although certain combinations of players (especially in my afterschool groups) can be tiring. Of course, specific activities in-game where the results are foregone conclusions can bore me in the moment (e.g., enemies trapped in web being slowly turned into pin cushions by archers); also, I tend to spread out my preparatory work since too much map keying or NPC creation in a single sitting can leave me itchy to move on to something different.

It’s likely that my feelings about the campaign owe something to its sandbox nature – it’s hard to get bored when I don’t know exactly what the players are going to do week-to-week and how those actions are going to impact the evolving plans of my various NPCs and factions. I can say that the idea of walking a group of players down a narrowly defined adventure path sounds like the stuff of nightmares, although I wouldn’t knock anyone who enjoys that style of play. I’m sure that just reflects my own weirdness, much like my complete inability to run a module or campaign setting written by someone else.

Do you play in any other online games on Roll20 or other outlets?

As I mentioned above, there is the Metamorphosis Alpha game that you were running last year on Roll20. In addition, there have been a couple of first edition AD&D campaigns run by other players in our Wednesday game – both first-time Dungeon Mastering efforts that I found particularly enjoyable. The thought that playing in my campaign has inspired others to try their hand at running a game is a flattering one and probably the best compliment possible for a DM. That same element of teaching and inspiration, given that the middle schoolers are almost all first-time players, is probably why I have stuck with the after school D&D club for so many years.

There was another fun campaign I played in for over a year on Roll20 – around the same time that our game began – that started with second edition rules and switched over to fifth edition after that ruleset’s release. That game focused more heavily on tactical combat than my own games, but it was nice to broaden my horizons in terms of what is possible with online play. In fact, the implementation of maps with line-of-sight and lighting effects in our campaign stemmed from things I learned playing that game.

Are you in any regular in-person games as a player or DM?

The only regular in-person game I have right now is the after school group for my son and his classmates. That campaign has run for almost two years, with frequent hiatuses to accommodate my work travel and school vacations. It’s quite a different experience from our Wednesday night games even though I am using the same campaign setting and house rules – the impetuousness of inexperienced players ensures strikingly different responses to the same situations when compared to more experienced players who are both cautious and accustomed to the conventions of tabletop gaming. Seeing these kids discover through trial and error the best practices for dungeon delving (i.e. , listen at every door, never split the party, always check the mouths of gift horses for traps) is great fun, as is being their introduction to RPGs and (hopefully) inspiring them to start building their own campaigns.

How many women players have you had in all of your games?

My childhood group didn’t have any women, although that might owe something to the fact that I attended a high school that was all boys. Since then, there have been quite a few women players in my games, but still a definite minority overall. Our own Roll20 campaign had one female players who stayed for ten or fifteen sessions towards the beginning (first-time player whose prior RPG experience was of the MMO kind) and there have also been a dozen or so in my after school club over the years. I suppose it would be fair to count my wife, too, since she played in a game I ran for my sons, so the total is probably just under twenty woman players. In practice, though, I haven’t noticed any real difference in play-styles between men and women so this is not something I bothered to count before.

Have you ever had a woman GM?

I have never been in a group with a woman DM, although there has been at least one female player in my afterschool group who went on to run her own campaign in high school. She was one of those players who you know will run their own game from the first day: a quick study with the rules, interested in the process of running a game, and full of setting ideas.

I like the scripts and other things you have shared on your blog. How long until we get to see some of the promised PERL scripts?

My intention is to have those posted soon. The holdup has been the last major script I wrote to prepare for our Roll20 campaign: it allows the user to generate the entire population of a city district using some of the demographic assumptions adopted in D&D supplements during the third edition era (there wasn’t too much official information along these lines prior to that). Unfortunately, that particular script uses versions of both the leveled NPC and commoner generation scripts as subroutines I have since improved and published on my blog separately. Ideally, I would like to tweak the district generator to use the most recent versions of those other scripts before publishing, but that involves combing through the code and remembering how it fits together.

At this point, I’m leaning towards just posting the current version of the district generator with a note explaining its limitations and my own decision to stop using that particular tool in favor of building up the generic NPC population of a city on-the-fly as gameplay progresses. Once I do that, I will publish the source code for all the PERL scripts on my blog for others to tinker with as they wish.

What does D&D mean to you?

This is not an easy question to answer without resorting to something glib – in fact, part of the reason I don’t grow bored with Dungeons & Dragons is that the game’s meaning to me is not a static idea. Sometimes I see it as a simulation engine that allows me to model both mundane and fantastical events, resolving their outcome through a combination of logic and random chance. At other times, though, it strikes me as a multi-faceted outlet for creative energies of all sorts, allowing one to dabble in illustration, improvisational drama, fiction writing, fantastic architecture, and other artistic endeavors. Perhaps it is ultimately that tension created when one explores the chaos of imaginary creations by imposing the rigid logic of mathematical formulae that fascinates me most. Such work is a Sisyphean task in which the reward (i.e., fun) comes from trying and failing and then trying again while sharing that experience with others.


This was a cool exercise and helped me learn a bit more about someone I have known online for over two years and would know his voice anywhere. But I don’t know what he looks like, as we are audio only for our Google Hangouts to improve performance. John is an interesting guy and has areas of knowledge and experience that make him a great storyteller. He has intricate descriptions and leaves us wanting more. John doesn’t do funny voices or make noises to move the story along. He role plays NPCs plainly, almost flat sometimes, but the content of what they say is relevant and fits the situation.

One of the players has recorded the audio of several sessions. John commented that he doesn’t like the sound of his own voice. I think most of us have that issue. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his voice.

I find myself being curious of one thing, what would it be like to play face to face? Being able to see his facial expression and body language would contain a lot more information. I think that after this long, I can tell from certain pauses and intonations a lot more than I would otherwise.

We use a theater of the mind style and early adventures the players did the mapping, but for quite some time, John has used the lighting features to reveal the map. This has sped things up and saved time trying to figure out the map.

I like John’s presentation with the breadth and depth of his world. I have learned a lot from him. I appreciate his way of making it work, and have learned some things from his interpretation of AD&D. He welcomes questions and explains where he is coming from. If we make a good point, he changes his mind. Be we have had rulings I did not agree with, but it is his game, and we move on.

A couple of times I have asked for the page in the DMG he used to make certain rulings, as I had no recollection of his interpretation. Sometimes, the way my brother and I, and our original group did things is nowhere near the way John does it. I find that I could be a rules lawyer without too much prompting*, but don’t like it. I hate interrupting play. It takes our group far to long to make decisions about actions. We’ll spend an hour of our play time arguing about how we want to do something. It is role played, not necessarily with voices, but with the attitudes and motivations of our characters.

I look forward to many more sessions, not necessarily with the same character, unless we survive our current predicament….

*How many have the guts to admit that? I think that is yet another argument for fewer rules and the players not needing to know the rules.

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