Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Flick of the Wrist, Roll of the Dice + Dice Rolling Adventuring Gear

A friend requested that I talk a bit about physical techniques of dice rolling. So get ready for something a little different as we dig into the flick of the wrist and clatter of polygons that determine your fate at the game table. Unlike most articles on this site, this one is primarily directed toward players, the primary dice-chuckers at the game table.

Dice Rolling Rules

These are my core rules of dice rolling. The Do's and Don'ts of the roll to keep your game running smoothly and avoid fumbling for results or having to crawl under the table.

  • Don't roll the dice unless it is called for by the DM. This was covered in this previous article. Rolling dice is noisy and distracting and sometimes entirely unnecessary. If you are itching to make a skill check, let the game-runner know before you send 'em flying.  
  • Don't throw your dice across the table. It's really annoying when your dice knock over the the playing pieces or end up in somebody's drink. Have a small flat-surface area to use as a designated roll area and use it consistently.
  • Roll your dice together, not one after the other. Not only does this save time, but it avoids the risk of the second dice crashing into the first dice you roll and changing its result. This was a sneaky maneuver that one of my players pointed out to me in jest, but it's not as funny to actually do this as a goof.
  • Combine your rolls when possible. Make attack rolls and damage rolls at the same time. If you trigger an ability that allows you to take the best of two rolls, make them both at the same time. It saves hassle and gives you immediate results. 
  • Roll on a flat, smooth surface. You want to make dice rolls as clear and legible as possible. You will also need to work out some house rules for when dice fall off the table or land slightly askew. My house rules declare that dice that fall outside the designated roll areas need to be re-rolled, as well as a cocked die that didn't land on a clear result. Your own rulings may vary.
  • Always have some spare dice on hand in case yours get lost. For your group, I recommend buying a pound of dice bag from online or at your local game store. Just generic ones of various shapes and sizes so that a missing d8 doesn't bring everything to a grinding halt.
  • Show respect for your fellow players dice and don't roll someone else's without their express permission. It's bad form to touch another player's gaming tools.

Dice Rolling tools

The following are basic descriptions of tools you can use to store dice and make rolling easier. Remember that hard surfaces of any kind will eventually wear down your dice and prevent them from rolling quite as consistently, so keep this in mind if you have fancier or more delicate sets. Most of the tools listed here come with padded variations to avoid such issues.

Dice Tray
A dice tray is a simple and elegant solution to keep your dice contained and managed. You can use many kinds of small containers, buy a specialty tray, or make your own with cardboard, cardstock, and maybe some felt lining(for smoother and quieter rolls.) You roll the dice within the confines of the container and it keeps them from flying off. Of course it has to be a flat level surface and be visible to other players at the table (No hiding your dice rolls) I use a small clear plastic container when I need a tray, it fits the criteria just fine.

Dice Tower
This is the Cadillac of your options, and these are sold at many game stores and resources. Basically a standing box with a whole on either end. The dice drop through the top, bounce off a couple of platforms and pop out the bottom where they land on a result. These are great for keeping your dice contained, but also make a fair racket when in use. They also are the hardest on your dice in terms of wear and tear, but they are fun and have undeniable appeal.

Dice Cup
A dice cup holds your dice and can also be flipped over to dump them out and get a quick result. Simple and elegant, they cut right to the chase when it comes to getting your result. Flip the cup over and see what you got. Leather dice cups are a popular version, and having one with a lid lets it double as a dice bag.

Dice Bag

While it is exclusively a storage option, a dice bag is important to players who want to keep their pieces seperate and protected. A simple little sack large enough for one or more sets of dice is best, with a drawstring to keep it closed. Some folks like the chain mail variations, but it is just a matter of taste. Whatever works best for you and feels right.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Eureka! Knowledge Skills!

Perhaps the most underrated subsection of skills in gaming are those that fall under the classification of knowledge skills. It isn't even the players' fault that these abilities get a short shrift. A lot of DMs just don't know how to make it worthy and effective to put a knowledge skill to use in the action-packed encounters that make up the majority of the game.

That's because most people initially view knowledge skills as something that is used before and after encounters rather than playing a major part in them. This is true, but if you are a DM that really wants to encourage a variety of character types and different methods of problem-solving, it will behoove you to make knowledge checks more useful to players.

Why Knowledge is Important

Knowledge skills and intelligence stand as a counterpoint to tricks like lock-picking or rope-swinging. They're not often viewed as equally practical, but if you showcase their uses in your games they certainly can be. Most good stories have at least one character who favors brains over brawn, so why not include that as a viable option in your games? The problem is applying knowledge effectively in encounters requires some homework on the part of player or DM. How does knowledge help you when a dragon is bearing down on you with its flame breath? Or when a cavern tunnel begins to collapse?

Knowledge skills should ideally have enough utility to measure up against other skills when choosing which abilities to develop. They shouldn't be limited to trivial or inconsequential effects in the game world. It's easier said than done, because by their very nature they require a lot more on-the-fly creativity and improvisation. Once you get the hang of it though, your players will be encouraged to use the skill more often and your adventuring parties will become more versatile and interesting as a result.

Brainy Characters as Support Characters

In encounters, knowledge is primarily a support skill. This means that it has indirect effects instead of direct ones such as causing damage. If a brainy character wants to take thoughtful action, they should be able to do so in a way that either opens up new avenues for more direct options, or provides a bonus to another action. That means you can reward them with a piece of secret info such as what the monster is vulnerable to (a new option) or give them a bonus for knowing a trick like having a water-soaked blanket to throw over their head during a fire (bonus to an existing option.) 
Adventure smarter, not harder

This is not to say that you need to make an intelligence roll to be a smart player. It just means that you can let your character's intelligence work for you. The thing to remember about smart characters is that they should not be limited by the critical thinking abilities of the player controlling them. If your player doesn't have a lot of clever ideas for thinking their way out of a situation, it shouldn't mean they are relegated to playing dumb mooks. They can instead make a knowledge check to come up with a clever thing their character can do in a given situation. 

A player should not feel like they have to do all the thinking for their brainy character, otherwise their intelligence stat would be immaterial. When your genius level wizard misses something in a dungeon because the player miscounted doors, it will make the players start to wonder if that stat makes any difference at all. 

Consider intelligence attributes a 'safety net' for getting through critical thinking scenarios. It doesn't do all the thinking and planning for the player, but it provides helpful tips to keep them smart. So when it comes to puzzles, the smart character shouldn't be able to cheat their way through it... but it's not unreasonable to give them a bonus hint if they succeed at an intelligence check.

As was mentioned before, providing a circumstance bonus or new option are the main ways that the knowledge skill helps out during encounters. Between encounters it provides additional clues and useful background info to the players. But coming up with results to be gained from any knowledge check is the hardest aspect of the skill, and why it can be such a headache at times. The trickiest part is that any success needs to imbue the player with knowledge that actually makes a difference. This is what really brings value to the skill and makes it useful in your games.

There should be a noticeable benefit to having the information when compared to not having it. It can't be superfluous or trivial. Knowing that some ancient ruins were built by goblins should help with translating signs, or preparing for goblinoid enemies. If the goblin backstory just a interesting historical detail then you should also include some more useful information, like the legend of a secret entrance behind a waterfall. Make your players see the benefits of spending points on knowledge, because they can think their way out of situations and sometimes avoid combat in a way that still feels compelling and fun!
Smart characters can make even supper an adventure!

Ideas From Players

Another quirky method of gleaning ideas for the application of the skill is to ask the player to propose a fact themselves. I was introduced to this idea of prescriptive knowledge checks in the excellent FATE game system. The player proposes something like "I remember that this variety of poison can be neutralized by citrus. Hand me that orange!" The DM then rolls behind the screen, modifying the roll based on how unlikely the statement seems. Then, if the player succeeds, that statement now becomes true in the game world. It is now a true fact that they may act upon and they gain all of its benefits. However, if the roll fails... the fact is not actually correct, but they think it is true, and you get to enjoy whatever hijinks follow from that misinformation.

Even if you don't ever use this technique, it may still be useful to crowd-source ideas for a knowledge check result. I often ask the players what they might include in a given scene, and when it comes to these situations a little friendly advice from your game table couldn't hurt. What might a monster's secret weakness be? What special technique do you remember for dealing with a giant wasp? Throw it out there and see what the players think. The collaborative aspects of game-running can often give rise to the coolest and most memorable moments.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What is Meta-Gaming?

Exploiting a games 'source code' isn't actually this cool.

Meta-gaming is a term that was coined to describe the practice of acting on information that was not intended to be available to you as you play the game. This includes information that your character in the fiction does not have access to, as well as knowledge of certain rules and statistics that affect the game.

Meta-gaming will happen at some level, no matter what. The fact is, players can't help the fact that their decisions are informed by previous experience and awareness of the game. However, most groups will prefer to establish guidelines to prevent the abuse of strategising from this position of omniscience.

Player Knowledge vs. Character Knowledge

The first kind of meta-gaming comes from the distinction between character knowledge and player knowledge. Sometimes you as a player are aware of something that your character in the fiction is not privy to. In these cases, there is a tacit agreement not to act on this knowledge. For instance, if a player character is separated from the party, I will often describe areas and situations to that player that her character is aware of. Obviously the rest of the party cannot know these things, but the players will still hear me describing them. If the players attempt to take action based on this knowledge, I will have to point out that their in-game counterparts don't have that info to act upon right now. "You don't know who the traitor in the castle really is," I might say, "Because only Elaina knows, and you're not with her in the throne room. What else could you do?"

Playing With Restricted Knowledge

The other kind of meta-gaming is based on knowledge of the rules and statistics that drive the game. Not all knowledge of this sort should be considered taboo. Players should have a working knowledge of the rules and using them to make informed tactical decisions is a big part of the game. Knowing that your dagger will not be effective against a plate-armored troll isn't really meta-gaming, it is common sense. The statistics of your dagger and the enemy armor class reflect a very obvious difference in their value in combat. It's fair enough to say that you have a puny weapon facing a staunch defense, common sense would let your character tell the difference. Even openly sharing armor classes and hit point values wouldn't necessarily break the game. It means that your character knows how tough or healthy the enemy is by assessing its wounds and armor. In any case, the player character should almost always know this information, even if he doesn't know the exact numbers. If you aren't comfortable sharing the exact stats, terms like "It looks like one more hit would finish him," or "His spiky armor looks really difficult to penetrate," are very useful. And of course a skilled fighter could conceal his true ability to the naked eye, but a skirmish with him will quickly reveal his true mettle. The only things hidden from the character should be aspects that could plausibly be concealed.

 It's important to distinguish between the kind of common sense information I just described, and info that the PC is not supposed to have. For instance, knowing that a monster has a secret weakness because you have access to the monster manual is a clear abuse of the game rules and can disrupt the balance of the game as well as annoying DMs and players. Maneuvering carefully around an area because the DM tipped his hand about an upcoming encounter is another example of gaming the system this way. Tactical information is one thing, but insider intelligence that involves secrets and spoilers can become a real buzzkill.

Where is your god now?!
Power Gaming

The ultimate form of meta-gaming is performed by the infamous power-gamer. This involves exploiting the rules of the game system to produce optimized characters that overpower and circumvent encounters. Characters that are built with maxed out stats and bonuses that allow them to take on challenges far beyond their own level. This is perhaps the most common and problematic of all meta-gaming.

The final result of this type of gaming is the need for the DM to exercise responsible veto power over the game. It's a tall order, because you don't want to unfairly restrict the players but sometimes you need to be the troubleshooter who corrects a game-breaking bug in the system and keeps the playing field level. The best way to be fair about this process is to base any decisions of this nature on its affect on the players, not your personal preference. If you notice a character punching out ogres, you can adjust the difficulty by sending in more ogres. But if they are punching out ogres while the rest of the team is having trouble with goblins, something's gotta give.

All your players should be on the same page when it comes to game balance. Each character should be different and unique, but they should also be fairly equal in terms of power. In most cases, you don't want a discrepancy of more than one or two class levels between characters on the same team. And if one of your group is more focused on being the best or toughest character on the board, you have a problem.

If you don't mind designing encounters of a proportionately higher challenge rating for an optimized group, then you already know you will be fine with a group of power-gamers. (As long as they don't exploit game-breaking gimmicks) If you have one power gamer in the group, it might even be okay for him to help the other players to optimize their own characters. The important thing is not for the players to be weaker or stronger, but for the playing field to remain level. Characters can be specialized in a varied array of abilities, but they should all have the same level of utility.

Unfortunately, if you have a player who doesn't understand this there is not a lot you can do for them. There are some individuals who are more competitor than player, and this can be a problem at the game table. If the rest of your group is feeling left out because of one players actions, they need to understand that and hopefully cooperate for the sake of the group's enjoyment of the game. If not, they may be better suited to another group of more like-minded players. Dems the breaks, but don't try to 'fix' a problem player if they refuse to acknowledge the feelings of other members.

Until next time, have fun and happy ventures!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Foundations of Gaming

Introducing the Big Seven

If you want to run a tabletop RPG game, then you also want whoever is playing to enjoy the experience. You want to express yourself creatively and build scenarios that will be remember fondly and often. To do this, you often need to place yourself in the position of player, either by playing in someone else's campaign or simply studying their preference and behaviors. You will need to empathize with your players, reveling in their conquests and despairing in their defeats. You will practice the particular breed of empathy that we call DMpathy!

When you run a game, this empathy should help you remember what it is that appeals to players. As a general guide for both veteran and new DMs, here is a list of the most basic foundations of quality gaming. These are the things that players get out of the game at its core. You will notice that many of these principles also apply to other forms of entertainment, such as video games. Gaming at its core is about fun. Each of these principles are enjoyable in a variety of activities, and represent the best parts of gaming.

The VICIOUS Model of Gaming

- Different types of encounters, traps, monsters, environments. New themes and locations to explore.

-Unique and interesting visual concepts, history, culture, ecology, technology, anything that would be fun to read about in a book.

- Branching paths, interactive environments, combat options, multiple avenues for success.

IMPROVEMENT (or advancement)
-The characters change along with the story, there is a sense of accomplishment or progress at the end of a session.

OPENNESS (or clarity) 
-A narrative that can be easily followed, enough clues to provide solutions, offering enough information to make informed decisions.

UTILITY  (playing your role)
- Opportunities for characters to do what they are good at, fulfill the role of their chosen class or character, and promoting interaction with their party.

STRATEGY (being challenged)-The possibility for failure exists, and is planned for! Combat rewards smart tactics and isn't unfairly weighted in either the player or enemy's favor.
A sense of grand adventure drives a player onward!

Don't squirrel away your best ideas or store them away for a rainy day! Use the best ideas you have as soon as you can! Keep inventing new ones. Imagination is infinite, there is always something bigger and better out there, so don't be afraid to put out your best material. Your players will enjoy themselves more, and you will be more inspired and motivated to create.

Closing Thoughts

None of these foundations is more or less important than the others. Keep them all in mind as you run your games, and remember that you can always adjust to provide more of what your group is looking for in a game. Don't give up on yourself and your game the first time something goes wrong, find out which of these elements were missing and do something about it.
Tabletop gaming can be overlooked some times as a mainstream activity. There are a number of reasons for this, including the difficulty in organizing and coordinating with groups of fellow hobbyists. But it is also due to the quality of an experience can vary a lot based on the encounters being run and the quality of the game runner. When you play your favorite video game, you are going to have an experience of roughly the same quality every time, directed by the same creative team. But with pen and paper games, it will depend heavily on the attitude and preparedness of who you are playing with. Not all DMs are equal in that regard. But with determination and willingness to improve, anyone can get better at it and really shine. Every time I unwind and play these games I learn something new and make note of it. That is part of the fun, and why it still remains a rewarding pastime.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Evolving Storylines

Not every campaign needs to have an overarching plotline and character development. Some folks are content with a series of missions to challenge their tactics and ability. However, some players like myself are very story-minded and enjoy treating the campaign like an ongoing TV show or series of adventure books. We like to introduce plot twists and allow the players to influence significant events as they develop throughout the campaign. If this is the kind of game you want to run, then you should above all else be ready to adapt to ever-changing situations. The best campaigns are born from planning, quick thinking and flexibility.

The Nature of Tabletop Storytelling

As I have mentioned in previous entries, tabletop RPG is a form of storytelling that is cooperative in nature. It is a group of people shouting out ideas around a table. It is not a singular vision, but a chaotic hodgepodge of collective creativity. That's the simplest explanation for why most tabletop settings are filled with such cheesy and far-out content, from the cyborg cowboys of Rifts to the mutants of Call of Cthulhu and so on. There isn't a lot of concern with being down to earth with the story-telling when its a story told by committee (even with the DM acting as chairman.) The broad assumption is that the players should have plenty of wild and crazy material to play around with and have fun.

This doesn't mean that you can't craft a compelling story for your game night, it just means you don't need to expect an epic yarn worthy of publication. The entertainment of the players is the foremost goal. Let the players themselves set the mood and build the scene, and work with them to carry it out. Don't try to force a dramatic storyline or patch up plot holes that the players don't seem worried about. Have fun with the natural direction of your narrative.

The Elevator Pitch

The first step for a good campaign is the elevator pitch. As explained here, this is a short synopsis of your story, boiled down to its basic elements.

The pitch for my first D & D campaign was: A secret society fights back against a league of vampires and their werewolf servants who seek to conquer the world.

As the campaign progressed, I added details such as the vampires' dealings with demonic forces, a feud between the gods which caused imbalance in the world, and a set of magical reality-warping crystals. But it all started with a simple concept.

Once you have a basic idea for your storyline, there is an important question to ask. If the player characters did not exist, or chose to do nothing, what would happen? If the answer is that events would be just the same or better than they would be without their involvement, it is time to go back to the drawing board. The characters are the protagonists, and are not incidental to the storyline. Their choices should be the fulcrum on which the story hinges. This means you can't always plan ahead to the very end of a campaign in exact detail. Even in pre-published adventures you might need to make some changes to the text in order to accommodate choices made by your players.

Building Toward a Goal

The good news is that once you have a pitch, you also have an end goal of your campaign. It's not even necessary to know how your players might achieve this goal, but at least you know that it is possible and logical for them to follow through.With this goal in mind, you can then produce short term obstacles to overcome on the way to completing it.  As you allow the players opportunities to take actions that can affect the direction of the campaign, you can then tailor subsequent sessions to take their choices into account. There is no need to 'railroad' players by limiting their ability to control the story, instead bring the story to them. Find ways that their actions can pull them deeper into the adventure, and don't worry about sticking to your initial script. Be confident about rewrites that advance the adventure for your players. And above all, keep it exciting and filled with adventure!

Happy ventures!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

I Am DMpathy, Ask Me Anything

Hello fellow tabletop enthusiasts,

As you have been following this blog you know that I have posted every Tuesday and Thursday for the past few months and sharing my thoughts on running tabletop games to enjoy with friends and family.

Now I almost have a solid foundation of my most frequent and relevant advice, and by the end of this week I should have just about covered the basics. Now I would like to open the blog up for requests.

Is there something you want to know about tabletop gaming? Is there an RPG book or module you would like me to review? Would you like to know more about my gaming experiences? Fire away with any questions or recommendations, and I will put it on the itinerary for future articles.

Thanks for reading and sharing, and happy ventures!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Loot and Merchants

Image from Wizards of the Coast
Tracking supplies and managing equipment is a part of the game that appeals to some but not all players. For the simulationist or player who likes resource management games it may be a big part of their experience. For others it might simply be an annoyance. To be fair, restocking and divvying up loot is something that needs to be done at the right moment or it becomes tedious. Ideally, this process will take place at the beginning or end of something. By that I mean it should not interrupt the flow of an adventure by occurring in the midst of the action. Write in potential breaks in the urgency of the story that would allow for some down time so the characters can take inventory in addition to training and preparing for the future.

The Right Time for New Stuff

My preference is to have shopping encounters at the beginning of a session. It makes for a good build-up to the real action and allows you to keep notes clear and separate before things get busy. I don't recommend role playing shopkeepers and merchants during resupply missions unless they are part of a bigger storyline or serve a purpose beyond stocking your players. I used to run some shopping trips like this, and became needlessly time consuming and left players worn out for the important RP moments. A line or two about the shops in the area, the time and resources needed to gather them, and what kind of reaction you get from the merchants is all that is needed for most resupplies. Aim for wrapping up the shopping trip within a few minutes, or when players start getting antsy.

Establishing loot is another resource management task that is an even more involving process for the DM. Preparing loot ahead of time is usually the easiest way of handling its distribution. It is always recommended to ask your players about their "wish list" of items that they would find useful so that loot gained will feel rewarding and tailored to your group. You can also determine what kind of loot is acceptable and appropriate to an adventure, so you don't end up giving the player a greataxe from the body of a beholder and so forth. If you prepare loot pre-game it is a good idea to have some generic 'packages' that can be used for encounters you may not have planned for, or some appropriate treasure tables.

Of course, there is always the option to hold off until later to handle the distribution of the loot. This can be a problem if your players need new magic weapons before fighting a major encounter, but in my groups this hasn't been that urgent a problem. When my players loot a room, I will sometimes say "I will tell you what you found, but at the end of the session." Or I provide the list of goods at the beginning of the next session, or even posting a loot list to a shared online group so that divvying up can be done between sessions.

This brings me to one more idea: use an online group to handle merchants and shopping too. You can list various items to purchase, offering players a menu of choices and take their requests for specific purchases. This will speed things up during your face to face game time and also allow for more time for your group to shop and compare.
Image From Green Ronin Publishing

Keeping the Game Economy Balanced.

When pricing items that the players buy or sell, don't worry too much about the economy. As long as you are paying attention to the value and cost of the players' inventory and you are satisfied with it, any amount they have will be fine. You might even change the prices from the book to support a differently scaled currency. Just measure how much your players have and how much value that amount should be.

If the party hordes too much coin, it can be easily remedied. There might be a fee or tax required for passage to the next area, or a damaged wagon wheel that needs to be replaced. Don't abuse this technique, and don't present challenges that are unreasonably beyond the party's means. Use them to add interesting catches to the adventure as well as to shave off some gold that could be used to give the team an overpowering advantage.

Swag to Satisfy Any Player

Loot can be in the form of cold cash, but if your players enjoy the setting and story, it is more interesting to give them some income in the form of trade goods and art pieces they find. These can be tailored to your game, and if you tell the player the items value right away you don't even need to keep a record (Something like a small charcoal drawing of an elegant man, 50 coin.)

And remember not to be too stingy with special gear, it is part of what maintains interest in the game. Upgraded arms and armor are one element of this, and necessary to get the team through the escalating difficulty of future encounters. But besides the stat boosting items like +1 and +2 swords, there are also many other neat features to be offered.

Items that provide the players with new combat and adventuring options are very popular, like one-time use potions, magic lockpicks, a device that allows the character to cast a particular spell at will... anything that gives them the ability to do something new and exciting.

Lastly there are those items that don't have an obvious practical application that are simply fun for the characters to play around with or find a use for. A couple of examples of these are a dagger that lets you hear the most minute variations of an instrument's musical notes, or a rubber ball that always bounces directly into your hand. This is all the sort of stuff you should take a little time to think about between sessions, and use to wow the players with your generosity. Right before hitting them with the next harrowing encounter!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"The DMPC Must Die!"

He is every player's nightmare.
He knows more than the players already.
He is a higher level than the party members.
He has an incredible secret that won't be revealed until the time is right.
He speaks for the player characters, and sometimes fights their battles for them.
He can't be killed and his inclusion in your adventuring party is mandatory.
He is to be escorted and protected, yet instigates conflicts.

He is The Bad Dungeon Master Player Character.

The "DMPC" is sometimes helpful to balance out a smaller party, fill a tactical role in the group, or deliver information to player characters. But there is a type of DMPC that shows up far too often in campaigns, a character who insinuates themselves into the adventure and undermines the game itself. A character like this is the most common DM mistake in the book. I have heard, read, and experienced many stories about this guy. It is with the best of intentions that I broach the subject, because I don't like to emphasize the negative, but we will all be better off once this contrivance is put to rest.

At some point in your DM career you may fall prey to this. You create an NPC to facilitate the characters' adventure, to help give you a voice in the game world and move things along. A trail guide, if you will. But here's the thing. This isn't their story. Your focus should be on the quest itself, not the characters undertaking the journey. And sometimes the characters you create to join your players become an unwanted intrusion in their adventures.

I myself have been guilty of creating characters that I really wanted to be popular with my players, but ended up being loathed. This can be worked to your advantage, as I have described previously. Just don't try to force a character onto your party, or introduce the dreaded Mary Sue. If your NPC fits any of the characteristics listed at the beginning of this article, it is worth considering a change.

Bad DMPCs take the power away from the player and the satisfaction they get from overcoming challenges by their own abilities. They steer the plot along a strictly controlled route that they have little to no say over. At their worst, they make the players feel inferior, or become a channel for the DM to act out passive aggressively.

There is a place for NPCs, but challenging your players for heroism isn't one of them. The player characters should be the main characters in your campaign, and the main agents of change and story development in their environment. This is the main difference between writing scripts and novels and playing tabletop RPGs... the writing process. A novel is a singular vision realized. An RPG is like a brainstorming session. It is ideas being shouted out from around the table. Does this always produce the best stories? Sometimes it does, it has given us series like Dragonlance and Malazan: Book of the Fallen. But the purpose of the RPG is fun, entertainment, and community. A crowd-sourced story may not be anything worth publication, but it can still be a story that is enjoyed and remembered fondly by the players as their own.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Sharing With Players and Clear Communication

A classic anecdote from the early days of Dungeons and Dragons goes like this:

Dungeon Master: You see a well groomed garden. In the middle, on a small hill, you see a gazebo.

Player: (Pause) I sheathe my sword and draw my bow and arrows. Does it respond in any way?

Dungeon Master: No. It's a gazebo!

Player: I shoot it with my bow.

*A few moments later, after the player expresses confusion as to why his arrows are ineffective, why the gazebo does not respond to him, and so forth.*

Dungeon Master: It's a gazebo, Eric, a GAZEBO! If you really want to try to destroy it, you could try to chop it with an axe, I suppose, or you could try to burn it, but I don't know why anybody would even try.

Player: (Long pause. He has no axe or fire spells.) I run away.

Dungeon Master: (Thoroughly frustrated) It's too late. You've awakened the gazebo. It catches you and eats you.

-Original story by Richard Aronson, 1986

Aronson's tale of The Dreaded Gazebo highlights a common issue of what happens when players and DM just aren't on the same page. Sometimes it results in entertaining misunderstandings like the one above, but other times it can be just plain frustrating when someone is lacking a piece of vital information about the encounter at hand.
Don't force players to fight blindly.
Full Disclosure

Sharing is caring, and sharing information with your players is something worth caring about a lot. For instance, giving players more information about the statistics of their allies and enemies allows them to make more informed tactical decisions. I've seen a lot of games that have a move or power squirreled away in some splatbook that allows you to determine the HP of a target, or its current status effects. But why would you even need to keep that info secret in most cases? Sharing the numerical health level not only assures the players that they are following the rules, it gives a clear sense of progress and greater enjoyment than having them beat against the target until it hits that indeterminate tipping point and falls down.

Let the players know the basic requirements for missions, as well. Obtuse objectives and unclear motives may seem to put the players in control, but it is also very frustrating. Present something to the players in the form of a treasure map, request from an NPC, or orders from an officer that give them a reason to care about completing the quest, don't expect or attempt to force them to risk everything in a dungeon just for the heck of it. Your players want adventure, so give it to them! A series of interesting and compelling events that they can clearly react to and build a story around. If your players are wandering aimlessly or without purpose, it is time to drop them another clear plot hook so that they can resume following the thread of the story.

Ideally, a successful campaign will make a good story to tell, and a story that involved crawling around a dungeon looking for a reason isn't what most players are looking for. Delving dungeons to find an ancient treasure or rescue a princess? Now that's the ticket! Make the goals apparent before you try mixing up the adventure with unexpected twists. Make the players feel like part of the story, not spectators being pulled along.

Of course any plot hooks and incentives should be presented to the players, not forced upon them. Players don't respond well to being 'railroaded' or having their options reduced to zero. But presenting interesting rewards and consequences is the first goal for the dungeon master.

The Most Important Phrase

The most important phrase to any game-runner is "What do you do?" This is a call to action and active participation. It challenges the player to resolve something, and also reminds them that it is their game to play. If the answer you get is "I don't know," the player may need more information. Provide additional details about whatever is happening, or take this opportunity to deliver a recap of the situation so far. Remember that you can freely provide information that would be known to the player character, and it is in fact preferable to do this rather than have it delivered by NPCs. It is generally more satisfying for a player to be told that they know which flowers are poisonous because they paid attention in the academy than to need a professor on hand to point them out.

Making Mysteries

The ultimate test of player communication is building an adventure that includes a mystery. Unclear communication can make the resolution of a who-dunnit nearly impossible. That's why the best plan is to over-prepare for these segments. 

When it comes to planting clues, the simpler and more numerous the better. This isn't to say that your audience is ignorant, but once the group is around the table shouting out ideas and following their own trains of thought, you will find it will take much longer than if you had presented the same puzzle to a single player. Also, mysteries are hard to design in such a way that the solution is clear yet challenging for the players. So like all things RPG, it is better to have too many clues prepared than too few. Always having new information to provide is the key to generating a steady flow of activity and keeping the game's pace up.

Illustration Is Key

One more thing to remember is that visuals always help. Use those maps, tokens, and miniatures when possible. You can draw out and illustrate things from the game world yourself, and any kind of visual aide you have handy can prevent confusion among your group. Spatial relations between characters, monsters, and the environment can quickly become a chaotic mess if you don't have a way to map it out for everyone to see. This includes tokens for status effects and conditions, so the players have a comprehensive understanding of what's going on during the encounter.

Even outside of combat, it can be useful to know that the dwarf is drinking at the bar, the elf is standing by the stairs, and the paladin is at the table. It will become very important when deciding who noticed the spy in the corner, or when a bar room brawl breaks out. And when travelling through a dungeon, be sure to confirm the marching order of the PCs and set up a visual reminder so you always know who sets off the trap or gets flanked from behind!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Requiem For a Player Character: Part Two

Bringing Characters Back 

A lot of players become very invested in their characters, and would not like to permanently lose them in a campaign. That's why a lot of games make it very difficult for characters to die at all. Some of them allow one or more options to stabilize, others don't even typically feature lethal combat (Like superhero settings.) But when player characters do die, I always follow up the session by asking the player if they think they will want the character back. If no, then they have a brand new character in the form of whatever new concept they have chosen to continue the campaign with. If yes, then I have time to come up with an explanation for how their first character will return. This isn't as difficult as it sounds, since comic books have been bringing characters back to life all the time.

If I wish to put the onus on the players, I can associate the character's resurrection with some kind of special quest or expensive cost like old-school D&D. Usually, though, there is some way to bring the character back or reveal their death was not what it seemed. This means that the player spends two or three sessions as a different character. It may sound like a short time, but it seems longer for a player itching to play their favorite character again, and it serves as a decent motivation for a player to avoid falling in battle.

There is something to be said for letting the fallen rest in peace, however. For one thing, it can create a cool and dramatic narrative for players who like the story-telling aspect of the game. Letting character death happen naturally lends a dramatic weight to the game's events, and gives players the opportunity for new experiences with their new character. Be sure to have open communication with your players if you want to make death "stick" more often, and surely don't implement perma-death if they carefully crafted a character with the intention of taking them to the campaign's end.

Making It Matter

Finally, if you are running a story-focused campaign, (especially with fleshed-out character backstories and personalities) try not to let death occur as a trivial or anti-climactic incident. I typically reserve even the possibility of a lethal outcome for serious and dramatic encounters. Minor events like minion ambushes and booby traps should bring the characters down to their last leg, but having a character dropped by some bad luck and a half-dead goblin archer will make that moment seem pretty nihilistic by most counts There are some groups that will work well in, but make sure that's your audience before going for it.

A good rule of thumb is that a character's death should occur at a point that it would make for a good story to tell. Sometimes this means it is a dramatic encounter with a major nemesis, sometimes it might be something ironic and darkly comic enough that I know the player will appreciate the hilarity. The point is that the player should be able to greet his fate like the legendary Vikings of yore, with a smile on his face and a laugh on his breath! Valhalla or bust!

Happy ventures!