Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dungeon Master's Notes

A prime question among Dungeon Masters: What should go into my notes? There is no one definitive answer for the question, but there are general rules of thumb that can be followed to help a game run smoothly while still allowing for improvisation and adaptation as the game commences.

For inexperienced DMs, detailed notes are essential. If you haven't run a lot of games, having more to draw from is crucial to a successful session. But even an experienced DM benefits from detailed notes! They save time by placing necessary information directly at your fingertips. They allow you to do the creative heavy lifting ahead of time and prepare your ideas. They keep the game on track, minimizing confusion. They help the game master achieve a higher level of detail and creativity than can be made purely on the spur of the moment. And excellent notes will also allow for flexibility and improvisation. 

What follows is a description of the very basic foundations of a notebook for a session. These simple preparations will give you enough to work off so that you don't get stumped during a game, and so you will have a lot of inventive ideas to include as your game goes on. It only takes up two or three pages of notes and a couple of maps, but follow these guidelines and you can take your adventures to the next level!

Essential Dungeon Master Notes
  • Invent at least a couple of encounters that are almost certain to take place. These are your set pieces, the most significant and important encounters in your adventure. Often these are 'boss battles' or significant milestones for the party to cross. These should usually be the most detailed of your encounter notes and events you have carefully considered. 

  • Example: The goal of a quest is to reach the Macguffin Amulet. This means that eventually the crew will arrive in the room the amulet is contained in. The amulet is worn around the neck of a mummy overlord. Flames will erupt from pits all around the room when his sarcophagus is approached, and he can summon a pair of giant scarabs. You know that the players must pass this challenge to finish the quest, so it is guaranteed to come into use. You can even draw out a map and be sure that it will come into play.
  • Devise a few encounters that MIGHT take place. These optional encounters give the players that much-needed sense of choice, allowing them to select their path from a number of options. These encounters don't have to be as elaborate as your certain encounters, but should still be unique and fun.  And if the players don't run across them at all, you can recycle them at some later point with none the wiser. An old DM addage is that if the party skips over a green castle they will later find themselves running across a red castle with the same layout.

  • Example: The players might attempt to gain entry to the governor's mansion through the front door, or they might brave the service entrance. The service entrance is guarded by a trained gorilla and a pair of heavy plated electrified doors. The players might skip this encounter entirely, but it is prepared anyway. If they don't encounter this area, you can save the concept for a future dungeon.
  • Have at least a high concept for each of these encounters. This is a description of the basic concept, the creative core that the action will be built around.

    Example: As the ship sinks, giant rats rush in a frenzy, biting and sweeping the deck, adventurers and all. (Or just 'Sinking Ship Rat Fight') If you have this information at the very least, you can reference the statistics and rules for the encounters from your sourcebooks, or create them on the fly.
  • Include a list of monsters, traps, and obstacles that might appear in your adventure. Use this a toolbox for dungeon building. With this list you will be able to efficiently craft improvised encounters.

  • Example: For this delve into the martian sewers, you would write out a list of potential threats that you might find in that environment. Creatures would include mutants, cleaning robots, space slimes, and a team of cyborg mercenaries who have a hideout there. Then you also include a list of obstacles and rooms like powerful sewage valves, underground caverns, churning fan blades, Martian fungi, or gaping pits into the planet's core. You can use these elements to create neat encounters that you might not have prepared for otherwise.
  • Use variety in your threats. Use terrain and obstacles to make encounters interesting. Avoid situations like a monster in an empty room. Use natural and man-made hazards and terrain to keep things fresh. Don't use the same enemy types too frequently. You can maintain a theme while also avoiding monotony.

    Example: A goblin camp will be filled with goblin warriors, but also pit traps, bugbears, wolves, and perhaps surrounded by boggy quicksand and roving ogres. Get creative with situations and it will keep your players' interested.

  • Write out ideas for events and occurrences that you might use.  Include some innocuous events for flavor (But remember that even innocuous events can become significant if the players get involved.) Use the dungeon world fronts, or just write out a list of plot hooks your players may investigate. Remember to find ways to tie things into your players own character backgrounds.

    Example: In the video game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, the players first arrival in the Imperial capital coincides with a public execution of a revolutionary. This establishes the harsh nature of the Empire as well as setting the tone of the civil war that will soon break out all over the kingdom.
  • Make at least two maps for visual interest and exploration. They need not be especially complicated. These give the players something to interact with as well as a reference for the positions of the characters and environment and a sense of immersion in the game world.

    Example: In preparing this mission to explore a haunted mansion, you could find and print out a blueprint for an old estate of the right size on the internet. Additionally, you can draw a layout of the village surrounding the manor with markers on a sheet of poster board so that the players can explore it at their leisure.

  • Finally, include whatever miscellanious resources to which you frequently refer. This usually includes a list of names for NPCs, loot to reward your players, or notes about the campaign setting. Tailor these to your own style, but if it is something that will come up a lot, it is best to have it on hand in your notebook.

  • Example: As your party enters Paris to search for Doctor Diabolic's evil lair, you can consult your list of French surnames to identify any of the random NPCs they might encounter. You also might have a brief description of the sights and sounds of the city on hand from a travel guide. Once your players fight the villain's bounty hunters, you also have the stats for their ray guns ready for when they are looted.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Backup Characters!

Gotta keep those replacement goldfish on hand.

"Splitting the Party"

In previous entries, I have touched upon the need for backup characters in case some terrible fate may befall your players. In fact, character death is not the only instance that a contingency might be needed. One of the more difficult cases that groups are faced with is one in which a particular player character doesn't mesh well with the group. A paladin travelling with a band of thieves, or a character who has betrayed a fellow party member in some way would not logically travel with them and share in adventures. In these cases, the group may never address the fact that they are not a functioning team, and continue to keep the group together for the sake of pragmatism. 

A player whose character is incompatible with the group need not take it personally. Their character may not be a good fit for the team, but the player shouldn't feel attacked. Instead, they may be encouraged to create a character that will support their party and cause less disruption. In this case, having a backup character is important. Having a fallback that is immediately on hand can relax a lot of the tension that might happen if the players feel like their adventuring party needs to be reorganized. 

I believe that characters should be able to decide who travels with their party (Characters, not players. If your players have real difficulties between each other, that should be resolved somewhere other than a game table.) 

The group of knights who see one of their team mates steal from an orphan shouldn't be forced to venture onward together simply because there is no other option. Nor should this case be allowed to escalate to player on player combat in which player feelings are more likely to become a casualty. Instead, the group can simply agree by majority that they need a new travelling companion. The player can be offered a backup character by whatever means appropriate and the tale continues on. 

If you have this system in place, your party should be more comfortable with the idea of role playing freely, as they don't have to worry about being stuck permanently on the team. In fact, sometimes a player might decide to retire their own character from the team because it is incompatible with the other party members or no longer fun. Doing this and picking up a backup character is much better than alternatives like deliberately getting their character killed off. 

Pre-Made Characters
"Here's your new character"

One way of handling backup characters is making them yourself.

Sometimes I have guest players drop into a campaign, players who don't have time to make a character for themselves. Having a pre-made character ready eliminates the muss and fuss of slapping something together at the last minute.

If you wish to save yourself some time and energy, you should check online for free supplementary materials. Many game systems have sample adventures that often include pre-generated character examples that can be used as quick and easy fallback options for players in a pinch. 

Pre-generated character sheets don't have to be permanent for players who want to make their own characters. You can use these options as stop-gap measures, giving them to a player who loses their character so they can finish the session. Then they can design their own character for the next session. Never let a player sit out more than a few minutes of your game session. Get them back in action and involved in the game as soon as possible. 

Improvising and Planning Ahead

I've never had to add a replacement character with no explanation or justification in my adventures. When adding a backup it is important to work out the logic of who they are and where they come from. Rather than just having a new cast member pop out of thin air, it is preferable to give them some kind of connection to the story in progress. If they are pregenerated, this will be fairly simple. When a character drops in, it may be tricky to justify why they would suddenly be accepted as a new member of the team. That's why it is best to require that player to add some kind of pre-existing association to the group. A character might be someone's old war buddy, or be assigned to work with the group by a commanding officer. Whatever helps get the team together and back on track.

One easy trick to introducing a backup is promoting an NPC to player character status. A non-player character who has been introduced previously can be statted as a full-fledged playable character. Of course there will likely be a discrepancy between their NPC stats and their new character sheets, but players won't usually be picky enough for that to be a problem. 

In the end, your focus is on keeping everybody involved in the game and getting along. Backup characters are great because they can smooth over the "what if?" of what happens when a character is removed from play. Even temporary measures will help the players feel more secure. Every new character is a new opportunity, and your players should know that. As long as you encourage them, and let them create a new story, you will always have new material to craft an exciting adventure!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

RP-like Tabletop Games With No Game Masters

Once in a while, you just need a break from game mastering. What follows are the games that I break out when my previous plans fall through, or I don't have time to prep for a session, or I just think the players want something other than a traditional RPG.

Betrayal at House on the Hill

This big 'ole board game is for spooky adventures in grand Lovecraftian fashion. I like putting on an eerie soundtrack and reveling in the absurd B-movie feel of this one. Putting you in the shoes of a band of people exploring a haunted house, this game is different every time you play. The house is mapped out and built room by room as players draw and place special tiles on the table, so the floorplan is unique every time.

Eventually, the game automatically designates a player as the 'traitor' and they basically become a GM, attempting to defeat the rest of the cast with their special abilities and sometimes their own minions. The rules will also randomly select from one of fifty unique scenarios, including a zombie attack, a mad bomber, shrink rays, or mummies! This game can either run really short or really long, so you might even have time to play a second round in one night.

PROS: Atmosphere! Fun art design and flavor text make this an all around appealing game. The chaotic nature of its randomly generated maps and scenarios add to the suspense of "what-will-happen next?" The exploration elements and the traitor gimmick leads to lots of fun times, rivalries and camaraderie between players.

CONS: Game balance. The random aspect of this game can also lead to some annoyance. A lot of the scenarios can end up lopsided in favor of either the traitor or the adventurers. Not all scenarios are equal, some have more going on for them than others and of course you never know which one you're going to get. Finally, you need to play this one with players who are good at rules comprehension. The traitor in each scenario has his own secret playbook with a couple of special rules, and if they can't understand the rules themselves, thinks will go a bit topsy-turvy. The game itself is also quite pricey.

CONCLUSION: If you like spooky imagery and chaotic gameplay that is always surprising, give "Betrayal" a shot!

Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island is also a game in which the maps are built from  random configuration of tiles. This game is a cooperative one, in which the players' goal is to collect all the treasures and escape the island before it sinks. Simple but very tactical, this one is also limited to a specific number of players, (two to four) but is good for those who just want a nice challenge without any performance or story elements.

PROS: Cooperative play, so everybody gets to work together. Scaling difficulty levels so you can choose the level of challenge. Each player gets a unique special ability for added layer of tactical goodness.

CONS: Purely a game of strategy. The elements of randomness could skew the difficulty from game to game.

CONCLUSION: For those who like thinking games and challenges, and prefer cooperative gaming, The Forbidden Island will be the adventure they are looking for!

Fiasco is an improvisational story-telling game in which the players act out scenes to tell the tale of a frenzied, chaotic caper. The original theme is farcical Coen Brothers (Burn After Reading, Fargo) inspired antics, but there are playbooks for all sorts of genres and settings. You need a pile of six sided dice of two colors to play. The dice are used by the players to generate concepts for their characters, motivations, items, locations, and more. Then it is up to the players to act out their interactions with one another and improvise the story as if it was a movie or TV show. At the end, the players get to roll the dice one last time to determine whether their character's story ends in tragedy or triumph.

PROS: Strong focus on storytelling and simple rules. The dice are used to influence outcomes, but there are no rules for combat or interaction between players, that's all handled by the players' cooperation. There really is no winner or loser, it's more about telling a fun story. Great for people who are into writing or acting.

CONS: There's not much of a strategic element in this one. Won't really work if your players are shy or don't like to perform. It requires a very specific number of players (between three and five) to work. Some of its core material isn't family friendly.

With its rules-lite system and theatrical play-style, Fiasco is a great pick for a game where the game mechanics take a back seat and storytelling rules!

Time/Space Tear

This one is my own hack of FATE Core  intended for player versus player. I will share the rules for this system in a future article here. It's basically setting rules to the game kids play when they imagine what would happen if Spider-Man fought Robocop.

PROS: Translating characters to FATE allows you to include characters from any genre or setting and let them duke it out. The characters are generally balanced evenly against each other. Both physical and mental combat are permitted, so even weak but crafty characters can be included.

CONS: The system for adjudicating success is more art than science, and this game won't really tell you who will win in a fight. If your players tend to argue over rules, this isn't the game for them.

CONCLUSION: For a game that lets player combine their favorite characters and pit them against each other like tabletop Smash Brothers, T/ST is the way to go!

Do you have a favorite game system for fast fun with friends and no prep-time required? Share in the comments and keep following DMpathy for more tips and reviews. Happy ventures!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Running a Tabletop Adventure for New Players

Whenever you run a game session for first time players... or introduce players to a new game system... there are certain guidelines that will help them to ease into the adventure and have a good time. These rules of thumb make for a smooth first game that the players can learn from and enjoy. They could be applied to the first session of any campaign.

Don't be afraid to Put your Adventure 'On Rails'

When you introduce your game system, the players will already have enough to process when grasping the new rules and setting. Wandering around the map and trying to find plot hooks or adventures to latch onto can become tedious for any player, especially someone new to the game. Don't be afraid to put the game on rails at first, presenting the players with a preset starting mission with a clear goal and starting point. The classic opener is "You all meet at a tavern." followed by a patron giving your team a quest. Something like that is appropriate and ideal. It's more about getting the ball rolling than having an entirely unique introduction.

Some examples of opening scenes:
  • The party starts in a dungeon they have already traveled to, and the adventure is already in progress.
  • A tavern keeper tells the group of a treasure rumored to be in a dangerous area. 
  • The group is part of a military unit or organization charged with a special mission.
  • The party members have just escaped imprisonment or enslavement and now must begin their lives as renegades.

Another thing to remember is that characters should all have clear reasons to be travelling with their fellow party members. Depending on the players, it might even help to establish some pre-existing relationships between them. You want the group to be a stable adventuring party and avoid any in-fighting during this first session.

It is also recommended to restrict new players from playing evil characters. It takes more experience with role playing to play a villainous protagonist in an agreeable way, avoiding anti-social behavior and cooperating with the team. Let the players know that their characters moral proclivities are not necessarily a code that they force everyone else to adhere to, and keep an eye out for that errant player who likes to play paladins as dogmatic fanatics. In short, if you see someone trying to RP a character with obvious anti-social characteristics, discuss it with them. Hopefully you can direct them to more reasonable choices.

Start Off With Self-Contained Exploration

Rather than starting your players in a tavern encounter, or a fight with a band of brigands, I recommend running some kind of basic dungeon as your first introduction to the system. Let them face some basic traps and monsters. This lets the players learn the ropes, fight, and explore without the added complication of dealing with NPCs right away. It gives the players a protected sandbox to explore and play in, and gives you a simple starting point. Intrigue is best introduced after exploration, as it adds an additional layer of complexity. Their first dungeon will give players a chance to interact with the system and setting before deciding how to role play social encounters and relate to the characters within your world.

Imagine your session like the first level of a video game, a tutorial that gradually introduces the features of the game as it plays out the establishing scenes of the developing storyline. Try to introduce the game mechanics sequentially and organically if you can, and walk the players through each step so they can learn how to do it themselves.

Go Easy On Them At First

Until your players hit their stride, keep it light and easy. Start them off with something they can certainly overcome.  Choose something exciting, but simple. Shambling skeletons, wolves, goblins, something that introduces them to the game and setting without imminently threatening the end of their character. Also make your policy on character mortality clear up front.

As your game progresses, you can ramp up the difficulty of encounters. Remember that when making changes on the fly, it is always easier to make encounters harder than it is to make an encounter easier. Gradually increase the challenge rating as your players become more capable. Soon enough your group will be taking on elite monsters and squads of minions like pros!

Ask Lots of Questions and Show Them They Are In Control

One of the great things about pen and paper gaming is the amount of control the player has over their surroundings. Introduce the players to this cooperative method by asking them to fill in blanks for themselves. Make sure you frequently cue them by asking "What do you do?" and provide opportunities for them to share more about their character. This is good in any game, but it is especially important for new players to understand that they are the driving force of the game and have control over the action.

Be warned, new players sometimes abuse this level of influence to act out with their character, taking reckless or aggressive actions. Sometimes after finding out that taking any action is possible, players may act out and get themselves in a lot of trouble. This is when it is up to the DM to gently demonstrate the consequences of those actions.

Remember, don't 'punish' players. Let every action have a logical reaction and sequence of events. Allow the players to make mistakes, give them lots of opportunities to patch things over.  It is up to the DM, but you might even give them of hints and warnings if something is going wrong for them. Find their comfort level and decide how much to guide them through things in the early stages.

Keep It Comfortable

Keep the word 'noob' out of your vocabulary, and welcome your players to the game table without judgement or criticism of their previous gaming experience. Even a first time player is deserving of your respect at the game table. Keep them confident, even as a new player, and maintain a degree of patience yourself as you walk them through their first game. Help them understand that failed rolls and plans that go awry are all part of the game, and what keeps it fun. As always, emphasize fun over rules, and don't get frustrated if things don't go according to your original plan.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Adventuring Gear: Role Playing Cards

(Today's entry provides another fun gaming aid for adventurers who like to delve into rich story-driven campaigns with ongoing plot threads and characters who change and develop over time!)

The interactions between player characters are some of the most interesting situations to unfold during a campaign. If you are as entertained by the storytelling aspect of tabletop gaming as I am, you will want to see your players build friendships and come into conflict with one another. Dungeon World, FATE, and other systems have built-in mechanics for bonds and aspects that represent connections between the player characters. But a lot of times players have difficulty knowing how to play out these out during the campaign, and there is rarely an opportunity to share such moments between characters. The kind of moments that redefine relationships and establish new stakes between the party's heroes. And even when the time comes, players often struggle to find a resolution or know what they want to say.

With that in mind, I devised a system for aiding player characters in interacting with one another. Its main goal being to give the player a framework that will lead to a conclusive result from their interaction. If a PC offers an olive branch or starts up a rivalry, it should be significant in some way. It should redefine their bond and set their relationship in a new direction. With these cards, your players can more clearly view their options for interacting with their team and get some ideas for what kind of story they want to build together. Remember, these tools are not for casual banter, so don't pull them out too often!

When and How to Use the Cards

I recommend printing or copying the text from the samples below onto whatever size of index cards you prefer. I also like the idea of using three different colors of paper to mark each card as an Initiation, Response, or the Tone card. The cards are primarily intended to be used as an activity during down time between actions, while the players gather at home base or their encampment. Like a TV show, the characters get to gather their thoughts and resources and share a moment before moving on to the next adventure. These cards could also be used in a more impromptu way if your players want to have a heart to heart conversation after a particularly harrowing scene. If your players would like a bit of inspiration for their role playing, or if their major character interactions with the other players just aren't going anywhere, these cards are just the ticket!

Download a PDF copy of the card text here!

Here is how to use the cards:


One player chooses another  with whom they have been meaning to exchange words.


This is how the character will choose to address their fellow party member. This helps to define what state their relationship is currently in, and perhaps their general mood at the moment. Notice that there is no middle ground, to avoid neutral conversations and motivate the dialogue to a certain direction. Also, the attitudes on either end of the spectrum cannot  be used against one another, to avoid weirdness like one PC firing off barbed remarks while the other smiles and offers a hug. This list of tone options should all be on one card.


*Hostile/Friendly tones cannot

be used as responses to one another


These cards each have a statement or approach to take with the chosen player character. They also include a brief sample of dialogue that sums up what that statement might sound like when presented to that character. Finally, each of the seven cards also includes a list of the relevant responses that the other player can choose during the last step. Remember that whenever a player chooses a card, they are then also free to role play their character and act out their conversation however much they please.

1 Ask for advice

"What do you think?"

You try to get the honest opinion of a
party member on a situation.



2 Question them about their past

"Tell me a little more about yourself"

You attempt to get the party member to

open up about their past, sharing a story
or detail about their background.


-Turn Against

3 Give them a gift

"I have something for you"

You offer an item or service to the party

member without asking for compensation.
You need not have the gift on hand at
the moment.



4 Propose a deal.

"I have an offer to make you."

You propose a trade or business arrangement

with the party member.



5 Tell them what you really think about them.

"You know what you've been doing? I'll tell you."

You inform the party member of the particulars

of your bond with them and your feelings about it.



6 Ask them if they need help

"Need a hand, pal?"

You offer to provide a service, advice or




7 Threaten

"Don't cross me, you will regret it."

You warn the party member of an aggressive action

you will take if they do not meet your demands.

-Turn against



Now the player being approached gets to choose a tone from that first card. Remember that agressive and friendly tones can't be used against one another.


This is how the targeted player chooses to respond, and in the process fundamentally change the relationship between them and a team mate. There's no middle ground of just ignoring the situation, it has to be addressed in a decisive manner. Once again, this player can RP and act out their reply as much as they want.  After the conversation resolves, you may allow another two players to have an interaction, or even let the first two players switch places and have a follow up interaction. Encourage your players to take note of this interaction, and the result it had on their relationship.

1 Accept
"Of course, sounds like good idea."

You agree with the request, offer, or

observation made by the party member.

2 Befriend

"I really appreciate this."

You respond in a tone at least one level

friendlier to the party member and consider
them more trustworthy and important to you

3 Turn Against

"How dare you?"

You respond in a tone at least one level more

hostile to the party member and consider them
less trustworthy and more dangerous

4 Deceive

"Don't worry about it."

You try to convince the other party member that

you are trustworthy, though they may see through
the ruse

5 Challenge

"You are wrong about that because ______.
So I will ______ instead."

You strongly disagree with the party member

and refuse to take their side.

6 Negotiate

"Okay, I can agree to that. But only if _____."

You agree with the party member, but only under

the condition that you set.

7 Share

"There's something you should know about me."

You feel willing to open up and share something

about yourself that may change someone's view of you.

Example of  Play

Tasselhoff and Flint have just returned from a pulse-pounding adventure. While making camp and collecting their thoughts, Flint chooses to confront Tas about that moment in the goblin mines when Tas ran away and left his dwarven comrade to brave the tunnels alone. Since it was something that Flint's player feels he would take very personally, he chooses to take a defensive tone with the halfling.  

Flint is probably very annoyed and ready to vent his frustrations upon his teammate, so he chooses his initiation to be card 5: Tell them what you really think about them. Flint stomps up to Tasselhoff as he builds a fire and in a gruff voice berates him for his cowardly and dishonorable behavior. 

Tas now chooses his response. He knows that he shouldn't have left his friend behind like that, so he takes a polite tone when replying to him. Then his player looks at Flint's initiation card to see what options he can reply with. He sees that he can challenge, befriend, deceive, or share. Since he is in agreement with Flint, he doesn't want to challenge him or attempt to mislead him. Flint isn't really offering friendship either, so that's out. Tas chooses to share about his past. He apologizes and explains that years ago he was trapped in a cave in for days. He still has nightmares about it and he is sorry that his fear got the best of him. He promises never to abandon his friend like that again. Flint understands and in exchange he decides to make the same promise to his halfling pal.

The players take note of this on their character sheets: "Ever since the mines, Flint and Tas always watch each others' backs." This could lead to some interesting new developments down the road. If one of them is ever endangered, they will be beholden to their vows. If that vow is broken, it could have consequences for their friendship and honor. How will they be tested in future adventures? What dangers might this place them in? Only time will tell!

Example of Play 2

Sam has been worried about Frodo for the past few days. He seems tired and unable to carry on at the pace they have been keeping. Sam chooses a polite tone and offers to carry the Ring of Power for a while. He can choose either card four, Propose a Deal, or card six, Ask If They Need Help. Sam chooses to propose a deal in which he carries the ring at night to give his comrade a chance to rest. Frodo's player decides that the evil ring's corrupting influence has made him very irate and protective of it, so he takes a hostile tone. His options to respond are accept, challenge, and negotiate. If he negotiates, that would imply that he would still agree with Sam's offer, but on different terms. Instead he chooses to challenge. He refuses Sam's help, and berates Sam for suggesting it. 

The challenge card requires Frodo to make a counter-argument. Frodo says that Sam seems jealous of his mission, and he will keep a sharp eye on him from now on to make sure he doesn't try to steal the ring. The players make a note "Serious trust issues between Frodo and Sam." This may lead to trouble down the road, or a problem that they will soon seek to amend.

Download a PDF copy of the card text here!
Happy ventures!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Role Playing and Social Skills

Image from NBC's Community

Tabletop RPG is an excellent creative outlet for those who wish to hone and practice their dramatic and improvisational skills. Acting out scenes and dialogue can often be the most fun aspect of a game session. However, I have also seen a lot of people unfortunately alienated from groups because of their shyness and natural reluctance to playing out such scenes. Over time, I have learned that there are many ways to engage players in the social encounters of pen and paper adventuring at their own pace and within their comfort zone.

Shy Versus Dramatic Player Types

Why do people often insist that all player perform their dialogue in-character, speaking their character's lines verbatim? On the most basic level, it is a matter of immersion. Putting on a voice and speaking lines of dialogue is the easiest way for a player to prove that they are invested in the world of the game, and it often reduces the feelings of self-consciousness in other players. It also allows for some more nuanced details by acting out the scenes in detail. The practice can loosen up the game table but at the same time it can become tedious, especially if applied equally to even the most innocuous scenes (Like I have said about the classic Trip to the Market scenario.) Worse, some players might start to feel uncomfortable when asked to basically perform in front of an audience in this way, and it can lead to the unfortunate exclusion of players who would otherwise enjoy participating in gameplay.

Some groups may require a player to "act it out" whenever they take an action, which is fine for very outgoing dramatic types. But it's not everybody's cup of tea The trick is to create an atmosphere where players do not feel pressure to perform improvisational sketches or forfeit their participation in the game. Shy people should get to play too! As long as a player can say "I will talk to the barkeep and asks about the disappearances in the local mines," they don't have to include the details of every line of dialogue that might have passed between the characters. In fact, some players might not mind if the DM fills in those details himself, letting the player know how their character sounds: "Your troll barbarian says 'Og heard about trouble in mines. What you want Og do?'" Once again, you want to find the vibe that works for your group and makes your players comfortable while still letting the story be told. As the game goes on, players will tend to become more comfortable in a natural way, and you can encourage them to open up and have fun without putting them on the spot in a way that will make them anxious.

Being a good, confident performer is a vital to being a DM, but the active participation of the player doesn't necessarily mean the confidence and skill to step completely into the shoes of their character.

Balancing Social Encounters and Exploration

In fact, there is a lot of unnecessary emphasis placed on dialogue in general in these games. While there are plenty of instances in which talking to NPCs can be fun, it's not the sole focus of a good campaign. It is usually a good idea to balance dialogue-heavy encounters and episodes with some more isolated exploration-based scenarios. The classic Dungeons and Dragons dungeon delves were made up of chambers full of monsters and traps, with few talking sentient beings within. As a new DM, I was tempted to pit the characters against sentient NPC opponents all the time, but I soon learned that too much of anything can be a detriment to my games. Walking, talking enemies can draw the focus away from your PCs, become generic and tiresome at the same time. 

A classic dilemma that I run into as the DM is when the players think the only way to solve a mystery is to take the last remaining evil minion alive and interrogate him for information. This often leads to another lengthy questioning sequence as the group tries to squeeze details from their target that they could have discovered themselves through exploration or in-game research. Players should always be encouraged to look for clues from the environment as well. Tracks in the dirt, a tapestry on the wall, a letter from a superior officer, or a mysterious key can all lead to players drawing conclusions without being directly informed by an NPC. Tabletop gaming, just like any form of creative entertainment, benefits greatly from the principle of "SHOW, DON'T TELL." When players learn things through their actions it can be much more satisfying than being told directly by an NPC. 

Letting Charismatic Characters Do Their Thing

The same rules for knowledge checks apply to social checks. No character should be limited by their own social adeptness, or however their own personal social ability may be percieved by others. When a character clearly makes a social move, an action that would use a diplomatic, deceitful, or intimidating skill, they don't need to act it out in order to succeed. They just need to clearly describe the statement their character is making. ("I act friendly and try to make the goblin our ally. I also tell him that we have put away all our weapons." )

In other words, if a player says they want to seduce the baroness with their charm and wit, they don't necessarily have to come up with a clever quip to perform the action. They don't have to be as charming as their dashing don. Now there is nothing wrong if they want to add something clever themselves, but there should be no pressure to put on a show just because their character is a scoundrel. As long as it is a reasonable move for the character to make, let them describe their social attempt in general and then roll the dice. You can determine what happens based on their result. And as always, there are some successes that a fast talker should be able to achieve automatically. After all, some folks just have the gift of gab!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Name Game

Today's article is meant to help players come up with names for their characters, but these basic principles also apply to Dungeon Masters when naming NPCs.

Names are important. They not only identify the characters in your adventures, but they serve as an impression of your character that will hopefully stick in the group's memory and become iconic. Not all names are created equal though, especially when you factor in the variety of names that can be invented purely from a player's imagination. The goal of any name should be something that invokes a certain tone for your character as well as something that will be easy to remember and say. Darth Vader, Gandalf the Gray, James Bond, and Lord Voldemort are just a few examples of iconic monikers that are both memorable and suggestive of the kind of character to which they belong. Names should be able to conjure an impression of the character's basic essence, a feel for who or what they might be.

Finding a Name That Fits

The name should also be consistent with the tone and setting of your campaign. You don't want to have a bunch of player characters with names like Ser Davos Stronghelm II, Trooper Number Five, Princess Elendel and Bob unless you are clear that you are playing a silly hodepodge of the serious and silly. It's better to at least set a consistent tone that will provide guidelines as to how silly the character names should get, and what kind of sounds and spelling would be appropriate for the languages of the setting (Using real-world languages as examples and base-lines is a really easy way to do this.) And always make sure it fits with the genre, setting and time period.

Test the memorability of your fantasy names. Like a good melody, there are some combinations of syllables that are catchier than others... and some names that just won't stick with your fellow players. Consonant-heavy names are a big red flag to avoid. Long-winded names of more than three syllables are impractical.  Names that make people laugh or crude names have a finite life expectancy before the joke wears thin. This also applies to names that are deliberately difficult to pronounce.

Number one rule for player characters: nicknames are great! They add character and give you a more personal way to relate to fellow party members. Having a name that can be shortened into a nickname is a good way to make it so that your teammates have something easy and memorable to identify with you. Elves with names like Elethebriam are going to be annoyances unless they have something catchier to go by. This is also why audiences call the character from Assassin's Creed 3 Connor instead of his Mohawk name Ratonhnhaké:ton.
And never ever use something like this
Good Names Roll Off the Tongue

The sound of a name is important, and can really make the difference of how a character is perceived. One of my more whimsical NPC creations was a tiefling named Devox Abraxas. Devox was a showman and illusionist known for his voice, so the inclusion of the word "vox" in his name also had meaning. His surname is a Greek word related to Gnostic mysticism. The result was a catchy name that with old-latin roots that sounded like it was based off actual language, so it stuck more easily than a name made by smashing vowels and consonants together. That's why I recommend looking into real-life names and getting a sense of how the sounds go together, just to get a sense of what makes the more common names from around the world so appealing.

Another good way to make a character memorable is by a very distinct naming convention. Some cultures will have ways of naming their people besides a unique phonetic combination. Once again, it has to be consistent with the setting and with the approval of the DM, but this provides a lot of interesting new possibilities. A character from a society without sentimentality or individuality might have a number for a name. High fantasy characters often have surnames that are descriptive combinations of adjective and noun, like Quickfoot or Strongheart. Distinctive titles serve as an interesting alternative to surnames, like Ivan the Bold, or Thatch of Many Fingers. Names can be made from real world phrases as well, like the famous real-world Indian chiefs Red Cloud and Sitting Bull.  These types of designations can add some unique flair to your character, and make them stand out from characters with standard phonetic names. And remember, it always helps if your game group adopts name tags or character standees to remind everybody who you are playing as!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Slaves to the Dice

When you roll dice as the game master, you don't ever do it while expecting a certain result. When you call for a roll from your players it is no different. 

Unfortunately this is not a universal policy. I have participated in a convention game where the DM kept calling for skill checks for the group to overcome a certain challenge. There was no consequence for failure, but he kept calling for rolls anyway. After a couple minutes of laughing and joking our way through the repeated failures, boredom set in. A silence fell over us all, filled only by the sound of plastic polygons clattering across the tabletop. It was like some grim ritual as we waited for the dice to provide us with the right numbers to free us to adventure again. It's times like those that remind me why tabletop gaming often gets the short shrift as a mainstream activity. That sort of monotony is unheard of in other media, and misses the basic concept of entertainment as a whole.

Dice rolling doesn't need to impede your progress, and you don't need the dices' permission to advance. Rolling doesn't do anything but create a branching path of outcomes, and if the eventual outcome will be identical regardless of the result, it has no point. 

And then there are the worse cases where a roll is called for when performing a simple action, like ordering a drink from a bartender or tying your horse to a post.

 Remember the message you are sending when you call for a roll. A roll doesn't represent a character's action within the fiction, it represents their risk of failure. It represents danger. At the very least it represents the chance that things won't work out as well as you planned. 

Critical Success and Failure in MY Game? It's More Likely Than You Think.

In many systems, rolling the lowest value has extra serious consequences. Critical failure, botch, whatever you want to call it. But in most systems, it is not that unlikely an event. In a D20 role playing game, that's one in twenty chance. That makes it so much worse if it is applied to basic and everyday actions. 

Don't turn your bold adventurers into this guy.
If every single time you used your car there was a one in twenty chance of being involved in an accident, you'd soon find yourself taking the bus everywhere. So it is with dice rolls to determine success at basic out-of-combat actions like climbing a tree, dancing a jig, or taking their dire badger for a walk. Your players will stop taking decisive actions if they are afraid that the most basic move might result in a negative consequence. It's like being trapped barefoot in a room of broken glass, your players are just going to end up stuck in a corner or tiptoeing around at a glacial pace. Or worse, it becomes a comedy of errors with characters randomly tripping over their own feet and causing mayhem when they attempt to accomplish anything.

Conversely, don't ever tell a player to make a roll and deny them success even if they roll the highest value. It's deliberately misleading the player into thinking they have a chance of success so you can pull the rug from under them, and watch their shock when a critical success is denied. If an action is impossible, it does not need a roll. Your players should always be considered a friend. And you shouldn't play those kinds of tricks on your friends, it just ain't right.

In the heat of combat, of course, things become more difficult. That's when a character is under pressure and will often need to roll for actions that would usually be easy to perform. This principle applies to non-combat scenarios too. If the character is under pressure, and there may be consequences for failure, it is time to start chucking dice. Let's put it this way: making yourself a sandwich is routine, but making a sandwich for the Crown Empress will require a roll, and the player had better hope it's a good one!

There are always those few instances where failure is inevitable.

Routine Skills, Abilities, and Training

If you want a player to know something, then don't require a skill check for it. Instead, look to the earliest writings of Dungeons and Dragons for inspiration on how to handle these things. In some of the early modules, such as the Isle of Dread, there are scenarios in which a player character of the thief class has the ability to navigate certain hard to reach locations regardless of their statistics. Why? By virtue of their basic training as a thief, of course.

Computer programs often have features that work by triggering automatically if the conditions are met. "IF/THEN" statements, or conditional statements. This provides a great framework for how we treat player characters. If they ask to do something that would help to progress the game, don't play dice with it. Instead of rolling the dice on vital information or basic actions, first determine if that player's class has training or specialization in the skill. Then treat it as a 'routine' action, one that doesn't require a roll. The player has passed a 'gate' by having the proper skill. They still get to perform their role in the game, practicing their specialty, and you have encouraged them to use their skills rather than fear them.

This way you can plan adventures and scenarios around the characters in your party. A thief may already know of a local smugglers' guild, and a wizard may notice a spy using a common disguise spell. These things can happen by fate rather than chance, paving the way for the story while showcasing the unique skill sets of the PCs.

How do you know the difference between a skill check that should be routine and a skill check that needs a roll? Here are my general guidelines when making that call:

View this table as an image here.
One Last Note

One of the worst thing any dungeon master can say is "Oops." It makes everyone nervous and damages your own confidence. Though it happens to the best of us, we can prevent a lot of oops moments by remembering not to let sheer chance undermine your game. No DM should feel like they are a slave to the dice. They aren't artifacts of power, or sacred stones of fateful import. They are gaming aids to keep things lively and exciting. Your main tools are still your knowledge of the rules, creativity, and of course your own awareness of your players!

Happy ventures!