Thursday, May 28, 2015

Requiem for a Player Character: Part One


Fallen Heroes

The previous post here discussed how to handle damage sustained by a character. But what happens when that damage hits the ultimate limit? What happens when a character reaches the point of actual mortality? Among new tabletop players there are a number of misconceptions about the game, but character 'death' is probably the most misunderstood aspect of tabletop RPG.


The false impression that many people have about games like Dungeons and Dragons is represented in the above panel from a comic by Jack Chick. The assumption that the player invests their self in a singular character to the point that they 'become' that character and if that adventurer dies, their game is effectively over. Even on the TV show Community, during what was otherwise a pretty faithful representation of Dungeons and Dragons, one of the players is depicted turning in their character sheet and permanently leaving the room when they lose a character. This is representative of what might happen in tournament play, at a convention event where you are a guest, but it is certainly not the case at the game table with your friends.

In fact, this would be the equivalent of perma-death in video games, a process that would lock you out of your World of Warcraft account if you got ganked during a raid. In the early days of D&D, back in the first edition Gygax era, death was hard core and final, with few second chances or options to stabilize. If you ran out of health, that was pretty much it. However, there were five words that would soften the blow following such a loss: "Roll up a new character." That is, roll the dice to generate statistics for a new character to play.

This was such a standard of the game that most players know what that means. Dungeons and Dragons was supposed to be a game of life and death adventure, and that includes the basic principle that when one story ends, another begins. Players were never intended to immerse themselves in one character to the point of assuming their identity, they are simply affecting certain roles and characteristics as part of the shared game experience. So the simplest answer to the question "What happens when a character dies?" used to be that the player plays someone else. Maybe next time they will be a bard instead of a rogue, it offers the opportunity for new experiences despite the short-term loss.

Additionally, high-level adventurers could sacrifice treasure to bring their fallen comrades back from the great beyond, to prevent long-time players from losing characters they have invested a lot in. These days, the tabletop RPG has expanded its options for handling lethality, to accomodate a greater variety of preferences and a less immediate boundary between living and death.

The Backup Plan

You don't want a character's demise to ruin a player's night. But at the same time, it shouldn't be without cost. A game is fun because it is a challenge, and there is no challenge without cost. If players could instantly respawn then there would be little point to taking damage at all. So how I handle

Firstly, I almost always have a back-up on hand. Either a pre-generated character or a second character designed by the player, this is a fall back option in case of the first character's demise. The player should know this in order to reassure them that there is a safety net for their continued adventuring.

The most important thing in this whole process is what I consider my golden rule of player death: Never let any player sit out of the game for more than a few minutes. That means that even if they aren't in a position to play their new character, they should have some kind of role to play in the game at hand. If there is an NPC or minor character that can be introduced, let them play that character until they can get their official one. If that isn't available, let them play one of the bad guys. If all else fails, introduce their new character through a cheap contrivance, but don't make them sit in the corner doing nothing. The consequence of losing a character is enough of a bummer without exiling your player from the table, even for a little while. If there is any reason you wouldn't be comfortable with putting this player back in action ASAP, then you've got other issues that should be handled through different methods. Let them get back in there and get back to having fun.

To be continued...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Delivering Damage! "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?"

Image from Wizards of the Coast

Keeping Damage Realistic

Today's word of the day is verisimilitude, the appearance of realness or authenticity. This term is bandied about by us tabletop geeks when discussing the relation between the rules of the game system and the narrative it seeks to create. Whenever the game doesn't seem to reflect the logical reality of the situation, it damages the verisimilitude, the logical truth of the situation. It doesn't have to be realistic in terms of being true to the real world, but it does have to be consistent with the logic of the fictional world it is set in.

A common example of this lack of realness occurs accidentally in games with hit points,  a numerical value representing the health of a character and how close to death or defeat they are. The purpose of this number is really as a countdown timer. Each HP lost is one mark closer to an unfortunate conclusion for the character. But a character can often take this damage without being impeded in any other way. In many games, treating each loss of HP as a physical wound might get downright silly. For instance, in Dungeons and Dragons a player character might have forty or fifty hit points. If they get hit for five points of damage each time, like being cut from an ax blade, they could keep on battling like a champ despite being covered in lacerations. That's why rather than treating every point of damage like a literal wound it's important to keep that countdown timer concept in mind. HP damage doesn't have to represent literal wounds every time. It can also symbolize combat fatigue, a loss of advantage in combat, or a character's luck starting to run out.

Also, any damage taken should be paired with a fictional explanation, so never just leave it at 'you take 'four HP damage.' Whether it is a slight cut on the wrist, an arrow whizzing unnervingly past the head and making them sweat, or a sense of impending doom, let the damage be part of the action of the game rather than an abstract value.

Also, don't even give damage a value if it is either superficial or overwhelming. The game's verisimilitude can be broken in spectacular ways, like a character surviving  a thousand foot drop off a cliff, or an infamous Dungeons and Dragons quirk in which a house cat could kill the average peasant in some editions. Make sure you don't undermine the game by violating the internal logic of its own universe. (Unless your players want that kind of cartoonish action, in which case anything goes!)

Throttling Damage

Keeping track of HP values is important to track the difficulty of your encounters and the capabilities of the players. One common house-rule that can be useful is asking players to declare whenever their character is bloodied, or reduced to half of its total hit points. Frequently asking players what their remaining total is will keep you abreast of the situation and prevent situations like wiping out the entire party unintentionally. At the same time, if HP is too high it may be time to increase the challenge of the following encounters and give them a run for their money. This method of throttling damage and difficulty is especially useful in unfamiliar systems being run in your group for the first time, but it is always a good idea to implement. Throw a couple of easy encounters in the players' way, gauge how much damage was taken, and then use that to get a feel for what level of threats you want to present the players with. And remember that monster HP has just as much influence on this equation as their damage. Apply the same logic to determine the ideal durability of the enemies.

More monster damage= More dangerous encounter.

More monster HP= Longer encounter. (Which could also make it more dangerous)
Image by Toei Animation
Other Forms of Damage

Other games treat damage like a series of injuries or consequences that have a cumulative effect on the character... injuries like broken bones, bruised ribs, or even psychological trauma. Even games with hit point systems often include such effects in the form of magic spells, poisons and other lingering status conditions. This kind of damage gives you something new to work with as a DM, because it is another element for you to use in any given scene. It adds an additional complication to combat and makes the next fight that much harder. In these cases, the type of injury or condition should be proportionate to the amount of damage sustained. A broken leg won't heal overnight without magic, so plan for that being a relatively long-term development for a player. Equally, being grazed with an arrow is something the average action hero deals with on a regular basis, so it shouldn't cripple a character for a week.

Damage isn't the only consequence that players can be faced with, and shouldn't be overused. There are other threats, such as losing inventory items, discovering new dangers to themselves and their allies, or being forced to take additional risks. But whenever damage is delivered, it is a wake up call. Its purpose is to challenge the players, not kill them outright. The ideal scenario allows a solid chance for victory, but at a cost. Sometimes the cost might be a player character's demise, but it shouldn't cost the enjoyment of the campaign. The average damage output can also vary depending on the type of game you are running, and how deadly it is meant to be.

To summarize: Use the 'countdown timer' visual when monitoring the damage and health status of monsters and players alike. Use it to get a better outlook on your game pacing and threat level. Don't let your players think of it that way, though. Encourage them to think in terms of the in-game fiction.

Base your games lethality on the tastes of the players, and review their character statuses when possible. Employ damage and conditions in a way that maintains the verisimilitude of the game, and always describe the damage in an interesting way. Don't roll for damage that is too high or low to quantify. And as always, happy ventures!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fudging The Dice: Honesty Behind The Screen

Too much fudging will make your players bellyache.
Let's talk about honesty. And while we're being honest, let's all come clear that one prime reason that DMs roll their dice behind the screen is to maintain a degree of control over the outcome. Once in a while, the dice don't cooperate and the game runner may have a situation that threatens to ruin the fun of the game.

'Tweaking' Dice Results

'Fudging' the dice roll is a term I use when you declare a success or failure for an action regardless of the dice's actual result behind the screen. This is the most dangerous game for the DM to play, as it skirts the boundaries of the unspoken contract between himself and the players. The agreement to adhere by the particular guidelines set down by the rules and dice. The art of deception when it comes to dice rolls has its uses, but it cannot be used frequently or carelessly without running into serious problems.

First off, most of the time you can resolve an in-game situation without using the dice. There are times though, when dice rolls are required by the rules and not making a roll would be a glaring contrivance. Sometimes you just gotta roll. But when a monster misses a player six times in a row by sheer chance, it can become either a slapstick farce, or worse.... boring.

Don't Announce That You Are Fudging Rolls

The first and most obvious rule is not to discourage players by telling them that you are manipulating outcomes. Telling the player you are tossing them freebies or buffing their opponents will take away any sense of fair play, no matter how minor the manipulation might have been.


The Fake Roll 


Fake rolling, or rolling when it is not always necessary, is a good idea for keeping the players from analyzing your DM technique. When you are frequently rolling the dice and checking the result, players will not know when they are being surprised by an ambush, tracked by a scout, or if you just like the sound it makes. This is all part of the smoke and mirrors that keeps the players from worrying about the randomized aspect of the game, and avoids tipping your hand regarding your dice-slinging technique.


Don't Fudge Rolls Frequently


Once again, do not do this except in rare circumstances, and only in cases which would make the game more fun for the players. Most of the time, this is when the dice continuously produce identical results. Like a fight in which the enemies hit every time or miss every time with their attacks. Otherwise, stick to the rules and non-dice based solutions to your problems. Bend the rules, but don't break the game. Keep all this in mind when tweaking dice results, and it will improve your game rather than ruin it.

If there is a case in which your monsters just aren't rolling well and they are missing every time, your players needn't ever know that is the case. By giving the monsters an occasional 'free hit,' you can maintain a sense of jeopardy. Your players won't feel like they were unchallenged, but it won't change the inevitable outcome of their victory either. As long as it is not skewing the odds too greatly, it can add to the fun and help avoid being caught in a slog. A friend of mine introduced me to the technique of adding some 'leeway' into the rolls, by secretly adding a bonus of plus one or two their monsters to future rolls if they have been missing for many rounds in a row. That kind of system is one example of fudging a bit but maintaining guidelines to keep yourself in check.

Of course there are some players who would rather have the dice rolled openly, right on the table with no screen. They'd prefer letting the dice fall as they may. Many of these players want a serious challenge, or prefer the war-game experience. Gauge the general preference of your game group, and the way that rolling openly will affect the difficulty and pace of your game.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Recognizing Player Types and Preferences

Image from Wizards of the Coast
Just about every good game master's guide or book on DM theory eventually touches upon the idea of particular classifications of the players in your group to identify what makes them tick. What do the enjoy most out of the game? What can you expect from them at the game table? The answers to these questions are unique to each player, but there are a few broad categories that can be used to distinguish these types of players.

The following categories aren't exclusive, and some players might fall into two or more of these classifications. Having a grasp of what they are will give a DM a better understanding of their likes and dislikes, so that your game can be tailored to its audience. The following list will provide a basic rundown of different player types and sub-types, along with general advice for handling them. Future articles will explore each of these player types in detail, getting down the real nitty-gritty of their play styles. Consider this a road map to the player types, just to get you thinking about their differences and similarities.

NARRATIVE PLAYERS

The Explorer 


Likes: Map-making and discovery. Lots of variety in monsters and environments.

Dislikes: Generic dungeons, lack of history and lore.

Tips: Include lots of notes on the background and science of your setting. This is also a good player to have helping you manage maps and miniatures. It pays to have good notes and lots of vivid imagery for a player like this.

The Storyteller


Likes: An ongoing plotline, dramatic story developments, a world with some history.

Dislikes: Mindless or extensive combat, being railroaded with a lack of control over the narrative.

Tips: You want to make especially sure this player's character has a personal connection to the story, through plot hooks and association with the other characters. Also prepare for branching plot paths based on the character's decisions.

The Watcher

Likes: Enjoying the company of other players, watching the game unfold.

Dislikes: Being forced into the spotlight, being asked to act out a role.

Tips: Don't put too much pressure on this shy player, but remember that they are easily overlooked, and be proactive in asking them questions. Make sure they don't end up feeling left out.

PERFORMANCE PLAYERS

The Jokester

Likes: Goofing off, making people laugh

Dislikes: An overly serious or dramatic tone, strict adherence to the setting's lore.

Tips: A little humor is fine and necessary in any campaign. It is a game after all! Let this player provide some comic relief as long as it is welcome among their fellow players.

The Macho

Likes: Being a cool character, feeling like an action hero.

Dislikes: Looking foolish, or being unable to perform cinematic actions for the sake of realism.

Tips: Provide plenty of opportunities for really evocative moments in the game, and remember that failure should be dramatic but not humiliating.

The Actor

Likes: Playing a role, acting out parts, interacting with other characters.

Dislikes: Long periods of combat or dungeoneering.

Tips: Interaction with NPCs and role-playing characters are a big draw for this kind of player.

COMBAT PLAYERS

The Slayer


Likes: Fighting monsters and enemies, tactical combat.

Dislikes: Talking to NPCs, long periods without action.

Tips: Combat, combat, combat! That's what this player is about. They can make a good initiative tracker. 

The Instigator

Likes: Being the first into the fight, starting trouble and flying by the seat of the pants.

Dislikes: Being punished excessively or ignored.

Tips: Throw this guy a bone and give him a situation where he can justifiably start a ruckus. Otherwise allow the players to run interference when his instigation becomes disruptive.

The Power Gamer


Likes: Optimal character design and challenging encounters, learning the ins and outs of the rulebook.

Dislikes: Encounters that are too easy, lack of adherence to the rules as written.

Tips: This is can easily become a problem player if his goal is to break the game system and auto-win. However, if he or she just enjoys optimizing their characters as part of the challenge, there's nothing wrong with playing along and throwing more powerful enemies at them. Just remember to discuss tweaking the rules if this player is unbalancing things too much.

Ask yourself, which of these play styles show up in your game sessions? Which of these tendencies do you favor yourself? Remember, this is not a determiner for what your players are good at, but what it is they enjoy doing the most. When I identify these interests in my players, I usually find that there are at least two that stand out as defining interests. So I identify their primary and secondary interest and now I know what to do to give them the most enjoyment out of the game. 

For instance, I myself am a Storyteller/Explorer. I value the development of the plot first and foremost, but I also enjoy finding out about the lore and other details of the setting.The easiest way to find out the interests of your players is to ask, but if you pay close attention sometimes it is just apparent.

Stay tuned for more details about player types, when and how to survey players about their play styles, and a rundown on dealing with problem players!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

'Escape The Room' Puzzles!

Point and click adventure games are among the most old-school genres of computer and video games, offering challenging brain-teasers that test the players' problem solving skills. They are also one of the easiest formats of electronic gaming to convert to the tabletop. Puzzles that involve the use of special items and interacting with the environment are good for players who want more variety in their games. The ideal manner of delivery in a tabletop RPG is presenting the challenge in a closed system, where the items needed to solve the puzzle are all placed in the same area that they need to be used in. The puzzle then boils down to searching areas of the room for the proper tools, using the tools to collect any items that were previously inaccessible, and then using the right items to acquire the key or whatever other objective you are after. Because this all takes place in one room for practical purposes (Force your party to traipse around and search the entire map every time they encounter a puzzle and you will have a riot on your hands) the goal of the puzzle is most often a key or means of egress. These are escape the room puzzles, popularized by flash games and live challenge courses!

When outlining these puzzles, it is easiest to reverse engineer the process. Start with the end goal and work backwards from the last step. The key is inside the chandelier, how will they get to it? Maybe there is a chair they can stand on, but it is bolted to the floor. How will they unfasten it? And so on, until you have a series of about seven steps that will make for an interesting challenge.

When introducing these puzzles, allow for some flexibility and adaptation in potential solutions. Eevery step of the puzzle should be solvable with the proper item in the room, but if the player can logically substitute something from their inventory, it just makes sense to allow it. That's why this kind of puzzle works best in scenarios that do not allow players access to a lot of special utility gear or high level magic. Flying, opening locks, exploding doorways, and the like can provide easy shortcuts to circumvent a carefully crafted puzzle like this, so always be aware of your party's capabilities.

Strong visual cues are mandatory, so remember to have a drawing of the room ready to give players something to mentally grab onto, and to help keep things clear and organized. There will be a lot of details to keep track of, and a giving the players a floorplan handout will speed things along and prevent confusion. Colorful and detailed images are not required, but a nice looking illustration will certainly be more interesting to your players if you can pull it off. Either drawn by hand or put together from clip-art, you will need this layout ready before your game begins.

As an example, here are two escape the room puzzles that I used in different campaigns over the years. The third is a bit rougher and untested, for a Star Wars game in Edge of the Empire that never got far enough to implement.

They are each adaptable for a variety of settings, but sometimes feature unique elements that are endemic to certain types of setting. The first was used in a Spelljammer adventure and plays off the idea of a zero gravity room where every wall can also be a floor. The second can be used in any low-magic fantasy adventure where the players can't bypass its obstacles with spells. The third is the previously mentioned Star Wars scenario. Enjoy!

ZERO GRAVITY ESCAPE

PUZZLE SETUP: The players have been tossed into a space-age cell and divested of their supplies. The room is an empty cube with no gravity.
PUZZLE ELEMENTS
  • A single dirty coin
  • An air conditioning vent
  • A row of sharply made beds
  • A liquid-filled crystal globe with holes for inserting hands
  • A zero-G toilet
  • An exit door with large keyhole lock
  • A small hatch above the door (FEEDING COMPARTMENT)
  • Bookshelf of magazines
  • Poster of actress Razel Velge

SOLUTION:
  1. Use COIN to unscrew bolts on AC VENT
  2. You don’t have enough leverage to pull loose the HEATING/COOLING RODS
  3. Tie together and use BLANKETS to pull loose the RODS
  4. Open FEEDING COMPARTMENT, take LIQUID NUTRIENTS
  5. Pour LIQUID NUTRIENTS (or WATER from the GLOBE) into lock
  6. Freeze the LIQUID NUTRIENTS (or WATER) with COOLING ROD
  7. ESCAPE!

BONUS:
Search BOOKSHELF for HOLLOW BOOK. Collect BONUS ITEM
Get SPOON from serving plate
Pry loose brick from behind POSTER


Collect BONUS ITEM

THE KEY TO THE MANOR

This Manor stands overlooking the bay. Guards patrol the overlook, and the back section is walled off except for a garden ringed by an iron barred fence. A pair of servants attend to the stables adjoining the manor itself. They are nicely dressed but sweaty and caked in dirt.



PUZZLE SETUP: 

Players overhear a servant discussing a key dropped into the storm drain near the gardens. The key is attached to a wine cork.



PUZZLE ELEMENTS:
A FOUNTAIN that is currently not working. 
A TOOL SHED containing a HAMMER, WRENCH, A SCYTHE, and a LADDER.
A STORM DRAIN, which is too dark and deep to see into and too small to reach into.
A STATUE of a boy holding a FISHING ROD.
A LOCKED DOOR, framed by a system of RAIN GUTTERS that directs rainwater into the lush garden.
The FOUNTAIN PUMP which is hidden by a clump of THICK BUSHES. SOLUTION:
1. OPEN THE TOOL SHED, collect the TOOLS

2. CLIMB LADDER and USE WRENCH to loosen RAIN GUTTERS


3. COMBINE RAIN GUTTERS with FOUNTAIN and STORM DRAIN


4. TRIM THICK BUSHES to find the FOUNTAIN PUMP


5. USE FOUNTAIN PUMP to flood the STORM DRAIN, bringing the KEY to the top


6. Use statue's FISHING POLE to grab the key


7. USE KEY on LOCKED DOOR


RAIDING IMPERIAL MEDICAL SUPPLIES

PUZZLE SET-UP
The heroes need to steal some useful and/or dangerous medical supplies from the tyrannical Empire. On their way in to the medical center, they find out that  a rogue patient actually tried to break into the medical storage unit before, but he was stopped before he could steal anything. He may have left behind clues to getting into the safe.

PUZZLE ELEMENTS

A ONE WAY FLEXIGLASS WINDOW that looks into a room with a  BACTERIAL CONTAINER

COMPUTER CONSOLE (needs power cells)


STORAGE CONTAINER (needs an access code)


TABLES AND CHAIRS

PATIENT BEDS*

*PATIENT INFO ON EACH BED: Marvo Durge Borotavi syndrome 60cc Coagulin Durwig Tell Triflexia 100cc Elisinandrox Raxis Steng ** Seumadic Fever 50cc Metacycline

** This bed has the POWER CELLS lying on it.

SOLUTION: 1. Get the POWER CELLS from the BED labelled RAXIS STENG
2. Use POWER CELLS on COMPUTER CONSOLE

3. COMPUTER CONSOLE will ask for PATIENT NAME, AFFLICTION, and PRESCRIPTION

4. Use the PATIENT INFO from RAXIS STENG'S BED on the computer.

5. The computer plays the recording of Raxis Steng pointing to the panel in the bottom of the SIDE TABLE. There is a LASER CUTTER tool and a note: "TO FIND THE CODE FOR THE SAFE, YOU WILL NEED AN INVENTION THAT LETS YOU SEE THROUGH WALLS" 6. The answer to this riddle is a window. Use the LASER CUTTER to remove the FLEXIGLASS WINDOW.

7. The code to the STORAGE CONTAINER is on the back of the one-way FLEXIGLASS. It can only be seen once you cut the window off.

8. Use the CODE to open the STORAGE CONTAINER BONUS: 
Use LASER CUTTER to open BACTERIAL CONTAINER and collect BACTERIAL VIALS

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Dwarven Rogues and Halfling Paladins: Remixing Fantasy Races


When it comes to the classic Dungeons and Dragons settings, the fantastical races that populate the realms can all trace their roots back to the works of JRR Tolkien. The quintessential volume The Lord of the Rings laid the foundation for the most common depictions of race in a high fantasy setting (dwarves, elves, hobbits, etc.)

And yet the way these racial distinctions were handled for decades afterward could be described as archaic in their execution. Racial bonuses and penalties rigidly defined what archetypes each group was suited for and, perhaps more annoyingly, what they weren't suited for. While there is nothing inherently offensive about these limitations, they do represent a simplistic view of races and cultures. We now know that phenotypical differences in our own world don't define our strengths and weaknesses as much as we thought, so why not reflect that in our fiction? More recent settings like Dark Sun and Eberron have shown a willingness to change up established conventions, and so should any dungeon master who wants to stretch their creative muscles.

Keep in mind the physical attributes of the races. Each racial group will have a range of size and proportion, quality of eyesight, and so forth. These are the only aspects that will limit a race, and should be kept in mind when building characters and cultures. Besides that, the sky's the limit. What should be considered foremost is what kind of societies and factions exist in the setting, and the possibility that no single race is comprised of a unified front. There could be five different goblin nations, each with their own traditions and attitudes toward the world around them.

The next thing to keep in mind is that the cultural make-up of any group is going to be the primary factor determining what the majority of its individual members are good at. Here is where you can really have some fun and mix things up. A group of elves who are always at war might be more savage and militant, a bunch of halflings who worship the gods of knowledge might be predominantly wizards. The thing to remember is that you don't have to define your own setting based conventional stereotypes of magical races.
Image from Wizards of the Coast
The most common change-up I make in my own games is to do away with the concept of orcs or other "savage" races as exclusively evil. Introducing various factions with their own strengths and ideologies prevents anyone from getting the impression that sentient races can be categorized on sight. Additionally, every culture may have its own outsiders that deviate from the norm, so this allows even more diversity in terms of allies and enemies. Evil halflings and good bugbears just serve to make things more imaginative.

Another way to shake things up is to change the real-world cultural inspirations for a group. For instance, dwarves are often given cultural templates based on Nordic or Celtic societies, but there's nothing to say that they couldn't be based off a Meso-American theme or wielding scimitars like the Saracen empire.

The intention is not to trick the players or shock them with these changes. Nor is it to make the changes just for the sake of being different. The idea is to challenge convention in order to open up the possibility for more unique and interesting story-telling opportunities. It also allows the players to think about the game as a living world filled with unique characters rather than conventional tropes.

When it comes to established classical settings, this method can be implemented without damaging its core elements. You don't need to drastically alter the dwarves and elves to be less conventional, but you should remember to treat individual characters as more than just a product of their environment. A dwarf doesn't have to be brash and drunk like all his peers, and not every goblin is born a killer. Keep all that in mind and you'll avoid the most common pitfall of racial classification in RPGs. Play around and remix these humanoids, let them develop into something new and unexpected, and you will have a rich world filled with characters that are sure to be memorable.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Adventuring Gear: Music and Sound



When you go to the movies, play a video game, or watch a television show, sound is an important component that draws you in and sets the mood of a scene. That's why a lot of folks like to add a soundtrack to their own games. There's nothing like blasting a powerful crescendo when a climactic confrontation begins!

Ambient Songs and Musical Cues

Because music has to match the action of your campaign, I usually start by grouping my soundtracks into two categories: ambient songs, and musical cues.

Ambient Songs are softer pieces with no lyrics that can be played in the background to set the mood. Sometimes background music can be very distracting, and cause attentions to wander or affect focus. Remember to fade out your playlist if it is becoming disruptive.

Musical Cues are particular themes that match an encounter or scene that was planned for. For instance, a particular location could have a bombastic fanfare theme, or an angry NPC is associated with a song about revenge. I often have a theme song for each player character, decided upon in collaboration with the player, that will play when that character does something spectacular or significant.

Setting the Scene

The music should set the mood of your game, but also the tone. Your playlist should reflect the kind of setting the game depicts... classic movie soundtracks are the best for a high fantasy setting like Dungeons and Dragons, techno and electro-synth beats are good for cyberpunk worlds like Shadowrun. If your game is light and goofy, pop songs and rock tunes may be in order. If it is a dark horror setting, you want something more eerie and somber. The best way to know what music to use is to check out some soundtracks for movies and media that is set in the same setting as your game. By playing similar themes, the audience will draw a connection between those settings and yours, putting them in the state of mind for the world you are building together.

Musical Resources

An appropriate CD or I-Tunes compilation can work well for your games. Other useful resources are Bandcamp and Soundcloud, or Spotify. Pandora could also work, but its radio format precludes having a lot of control over what is playing and when. Here is a link to my own Spotify playlist for fantasy adventure settings. (Full disclosure, there is a single track of Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up hidden among the company of classic film soundtracks. It brings some extra levity to my games.) If you can divide your music into playlists, I recommend making two separate lists for your game session's Ambient Songs and Musical Cues I mentioned before, just so you have control over when the cues play, and they don't trigger at random moments.

Building Ambience

Besides music, the other kind of sonic addition is ambient noise. The melding of background activity and sound effects can create memorable soundscapes that are attention-grabbing and immersive. These are harder to manage on the fly, and can distract quite easily, so I recommend using these effects at your discretion. They are most useful early in the session or at the beginning of a new scene anyway, just to set a tone before being phased out as imagination takes over. This ambient sound mixer site is great for finding pre-made mixes for various RPG settings, or creating your own. Some of the already existing options include haunted castles, busy streets, medieval taverns and space station interiors.

Because selecting and running tracks can be a distraction from managing all the other notes, it is advisable to have another player run the playlist for you. This not only frees you up to focus on your work, but it gives a player something else to keep them focused and entertained. A music lover or somebody with dramatic flair makes for the ideal DJ for your session.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What's Behind That Door? The Living World of the Tabletop

The Hunger Game Masters know how to switch things up on the fly.

The Modular Dungeon

The key to a dynamic game as I have described it so far is flexibility. One way you can be flexible is to remember that the encounters and elements that you design and prepare for your games are modular and can be moved around behind the scenes to suit the needs of your players. What this means is that as long as you have not introduced an element of your game world to your players yet, you are free to alter and tweak that element as needed. This also allows you to recycle unused ideas and implement them in other ways when the time is right.

At the end of a successful dungeon crawl, rather than forcing players to trawl every room for one hundred percent completion, I will save my favorite rooms that were left unexplored and transplant them in a future dungeon. No sense in letting anything go to waste. If I can adapt a pre-built trap or puzzle for my next adventure, it is all the more efficient!

Adapting Non Player Characters

This principle often extends to NPCs as well. Let's face it, the characters that are the DM's favorites are not always as popular with the players. And sometimes the guy you intend to be window dressing is considered more interesting than the major quest-givers and allies you designed. This is where I apply this idea of flexibility, and adjust the role and behaviors of the characters slightly based on how the players respond to them. If the players view the local bard as a shifty sneaky character, they may have a good reason to feel that way, even if I didn't initially intend it. I will play to the audience, have him whisper to mysterious compatriots and generally skulk around. Maybe he's actually a spy working for a good cause, or maybe he's just as sinister as he seems. The point is I incorporated the players' reaction to him into his character itself. Rather than telling the players how to feel about something, it is better to take note of their natural responses and use that as a jumping off point.

Transparency and Offering Choices

It is still necessary to play fair of course. That's where the principle of transparency is important. Transparency is the measure of information you make available to your players. Sharing more openly with your players will bring them further into your world, but once you reveal a detail it is difficult to take it back. The trick is in controlling the flow of information. Not too much, not too little.

When a player reaches a crossroads, they should have at least some clue as to what lies in each direction. The choice should never be between two identical paths, because that doesn't really represent a real and satisfying decision. Instead, as described in many Game Mastery guides, they should be given enough information about each option to come to an informed decision. It doesn't have to be very detailed, or give anything away. They might hear running water coming from one corridor, and smell brimstone and ash from another. Once this happens, the rooms beyond must match those details, no 'take backsies' or changing of the narrative on the part of the DM.

If you are trying to decide between two different rooms or encounters to set before the players, there is no need to set up a blind crossroad and have the players decide. You can simply roll the dice and place whichever room they indicate at the end of the next hallway. Don't give players 'fake' choices, in which they can only guess blindly. Making informed decisions and seeing them take effect is one of the most rewarding experiences players can have. Keep giving them those opportunities and your campaign will be brimming with adventure!

Happy ventures!