Thursday, December 31, 2015

Justifying Your Wickedness: Evil Campaigns

Let's delve into a topic of tabletop RPGs that is a bit more controversial than most: what about running evil campaigns? That is, campaigns in which the party members are predominantly bad guys motivated by far less than noble goals. There are a lot of different positions that are held about this idea, ranging from nixing the concept entirely to endorsing it solely to enforce creative freedom at the game table.

But when it comes to evil campaigns, my main question is the same as it would be for any campaign: what is your purpose? What do you hope to achieve by setting your game to these parameters? In any normal campaign, the moral alignment of the characters is irrelevant to the main premise of the game. But I notice that a lot of people simply say 'Evil Campaign' as if that is an appropriate descriptor in and of itself. But, if you think about it, we don't describe any other game as 'good campaign' or 'neutral campaign.' They are simply a regular gaming session with characters of certain moral proclivities.

So what this basically comes down to is that you should never play an evil campaign for its own sake. That would demonstrate ignorance of both the nature of an RPG and the nature of morality. First off, evil can describe a wide range of things. But there are also a lot of things it does NOT describe. Some players I run into seem unclear as to what 'evil' actually means in the context of tabletop RPGs.

By the rules of Dungeons and Dragons, and by extension other game systems, evil is consciously taking action to hurt someone who has not caused you harm. This means that there are a number of actions that, while inappropriate in the real world, are not actually evil in the sense of game logistics:

Seducing a person away from their lover? Not evil, the target of affection is fully capable of making their own choices regarding their romantic liazons.

Seduction under false pretenses? Most likely evil, you can't consider it fully consensual if someone has based their romantic decisions on falsehoods.  

Torturing a prisoner for information? Not evil, an action that can be justified by a morally neutral character.

Torturing a prisoner for revenge? Evil, it's harm being inflicted for personal satisfaction.

Executing an enemy combatant? Not evil, a lot of characters and cultures have a fight-to-the-death mentality or lethal code of personal justice. 

Executing a civilian? Definitely evil, they have no stake in the fight.

Stealing? Certainly not an evil action. Neutral thieves do it all the time, and Robin Hood is an example of a classic good thief.

Stealing knowingly from those who can't afford it? Like orphans and beggars? Now that would be an evil action, certainly.

Now I'm not condemning or endorsing any of these actions for players at the game table, that's up to your own group and their personal preferences. Nor do any of these definitions reflect my views on real world morality. I am trying to clarify and define the issue so that we can get beyond calling any game that is not entirely "Lawful Good" an "Evil Campaign."
If you are running an evil campaign solely for the sake of acting out violent or anti-social power fantasies in which there are no limitations or consequences for the PC's actions... I really don't know what to say except to recommend seeking out healthier and more therapeutic outlets for those impulses. Role playing is a wonderful tool for creative expression, but like any form of expression, there are ways to use it that can be unhealthy and harmful. Being aware of this, and considerate of the feelings and sensibilities of the group, it is up to you as a player or DM to decide where to draw these lines to maintain a wholesome and friendly atmosphere at your game table.

If you truly want to play an evil aligned game to explore a different style or narrative perspective, you should be able to justify its purpose in your pitch. What is it that makes the game 'evil?' What are the characters' goals and could they change over the course of the game? A good story with a band of evil-doers typically requires some sort of unified goal or shared motivation that drives it forward, so they aren't just causing wanton destruction without purpose. You might even consider the fact that not every character would need to be technically "evil" in a campaign focused on bad guys. There are all sorts of morally grey archetypes that could fit well into scenarios like these.

This kind of thoughtful planning could lead to some very intriguing concepts for game sessions, such as: 

A band of Imperial Stormtroopers assigned to enforce the will of The Empire, right or wrong. 

A group of supervillains trying to save the world from destruction after aliens have abducted its heroes. 

A gang of cut-throat thieves pulling off a series of elaborate heists in a dystopian future.

Think about what would make an interesting story in written or cinematic form before you lay it down as the basis of your game. Why should we care about the bad guys? What makes them so bad anyway? Now you're not running an evil game for its own sake, now you are telling a real story. And that's a big part of what role playing games are all about!

One last thing to note: There is one restriction that I always enforce in my gaming groups when it comes to moral alignment... Chaotic Evil should never be used for player characters. Chaotic Evil characters represent pure malevolent id. They make terrible teammates, and their purely selfish and sadistic motivations don't provide any room for development or growth. A character  who follows this alignment not only acts on a whim, but also acts with intent to cause harm to others for their own pleasure. Look at how The Joker treats his allies in The Dark Knight. He quite literally throws them under the bus when given the opportunity. That's the epitome of chaotic evil. Don't inflict this on your gaming group. It's rude and obnoxious. Be considerate of your gaming group and they will surely return the favor.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Conversation With Myself: NPC Interactions

NPC on NPC dialogue can turn your game into a puppet show if you're not careful.

This is a classic problem I run into when I DM my games... what happens when you have more than one NPC in a scene? Eventually it may become necessary for them to interact. Then you will be placed in the awkward position of carrying on a one-man show, conversing back and forth with yourself in different voices. This can be both confusing and dull for players who will be forced to watch these interactions and try to follow them. 

So what is to be done about this? Well, there are a few options that can minimize the problems that tend to crop up in these situations.

Firstly, you can usually avoid situations where more than one NPC is speaking by simply minimizing the number of relevant NPCs in each scene. This is a good idea for a number of reasons. Players that are presented with a number of important characters simultaneously are more prone to digression and confusion that will delay the game and over-complicate things. If there is a single important NPC in the scene then the players can focus exclusively on their relationship and interaction with that character and get to the core of the scene more easily. This doesn't have to be a blatant decision, it can be pulled off very subtly. Have a character step out of the room to get them out of the way, or make it so that certain characters are only available to converse with at certain times. Create convenient circumstances that avoid having more than one major NPC in the scene and you will be able to keep things simple and clear.

When it is unavoidable and you need to have NPCs interact, there are also ways to make the conversation more comfortable for yourself and your players. One such method is having a script written up ahead of time. If you know there is a chance or certainty that two NPCs can converse, you can prepare a pre-written dialogue that will clearly and concisely convey the content of their interactions, and allow you to improvise off of this outline. Performing the dialogue for a single character while playing into their motivations and goals is hard enough, but playing out two or more personalities and voices can swiftly become an ordeal.  Having this framework to build off of will clear up a lot of issues.

Another option is to allow players to perform certain NPCs during these scenes. This is especially important in situations where the party is split and certain players don't have anything else to do while their character is "off screen." You may lay down the ground rule that players can't control an NPC to directly help or hinder the player characters. Otherwise, you can let them play the character as they see fit, so you can have exchange words with a real, interactive person rather than an imaginary dialogue of one. 
If you absolutely must include more than one NPC in a scene and perform them yourself on the fly, keep dialogue short and sweet. Try to use distinct voices and accents for each character, or simply describe what they are saying to the characters in narrative form(Such as "They argue about the specifics of the sale, but the merchants eventually reach a consensus.") Make sure they address most of their dialogue to the characters and make sure the players have a clear understanding of who is speaking and who they are speaking to. Just like playing combat encounters without a map, social interactions can become very confusing when they are abstract and involve many moving pieces.

Whatever you do, don't have frequent NPC on NPC interactions! Keep them limited and concise to avoid making the players into passive spectators in a non-player melodrama. The players are the key to your game, and they are the ones who are the most important. Keep the spotlight on them and use these methods to keep things as clear and simple as possible, and you will be much more likely to have non player characters with whom your players will welcome interaction. 

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Raising the Stakes

I want to take a moment to emphasize the importance of keeping the stakes high in your campaigns. By this I mean it is important to provide real, credible threats and not to negate the consequences of failure.

There are a couple of elements that make up a credible threat. It is important to remember these concepts when setting up a compelling scenario for your players to overcome.

The first is that real threats escalate. If left unaddressed they will have worse consequences. That's why it is always best to ask the question "What would differently happen if the player characters did nothing?" If the answer is that things wouldn't end up very bad for the players or others, you should reconsider. A situation like that will make your players feel insignificant and bored, like spectators rather than participants. Maybe the city will be destroyed if the players don't stop the evil cult, maybe the players will be set upon by monsters if they make camp too often.

In any case, you also want to show the escalation whenever possible. The cult burns down a house, the players see the bones of the monsters' previous victims... make sure that these threats are clearly affecting the players. As the session progresses, don't be afraid to toss increasingly dangerous challenges at the players that reflect the rising suspense of the adventure, the need for the heroes to triumph. Show tangible damage caused by enemies, and make them genuinely threaten things the PCs care about.

When a dice roll goes bad or a player leaves themselves vulnerable to a danger, don't ignore the threat altogether. If a player leaves an opening or fails a roll and you avoid acting upon it, that will give them a sense that failure is a bad thing that you want to avoid. Quite the opposite, failure is a compelling consequence that provides both a sense of challenge in gameplay and a sense of drama in the story.

I myself am against adversarial GMing, in which the game runner treats the players as their opponent and seeks to 'defeat' them. However, it is important in most game systems to maintain a sense that failure is possible. In fact, failure is necessary to keep things fun for your typical player. Having everything handed to you with no risk isn't nearly as fun as facing situations that could go good or bad depending on your actions. That's why instead of erasing players' failures, a good DM should find a way to make that failure drive the adventure forward in a compelling manner.
This is why it is important to be careful about using threats like the world or universe ending, or something that would be too horrific to move beyond. If you say "roll to see if you stop Dr. Mayhem from pressing the Doomsday Button," then what happens if the player fails? If the world ends, that's not going to be a very satisfying way to continue the adventure. Instead,  you want to have consequences that can still move the story forward. If the players fail to stop their plane from crashing, they may all sustain heavy injuries going forward, but they won't all be wiped out in that single event. If Dr. Mayhem presses the button it will begin to lay waste to the city but it won't instantly destroy everything. Don't make complete and utter failure a possibility for your game unless you and your players are truly ready to accept that contingency.

There are many ways to make failures costly without being so terrible as to dishearten your players. Some players might be more easily discouraged by setbacks, of course. But that's why it is important to show them that it is okay and even fun when they do not succeed sometimes. Player character deaths are often the most discouraging of these events, but there are many ways to help players embrace it when it happens. You can offer a player a less final consequence of their defeat in order to survive. You can allow the character to be resurrected at a future point in the campaign. Or you could allow them the opportunity to play a brand new character and experience something new. This kind of logic can be applied to any bad situation the players face. What's the upside? What new opportunities are presented by this turn of events?

If you shield the players from failure, your players will start to fear it to the point that they panic when faced anything other than success. Or, more commonly, they will just start to feel invincible and get bored with the whole undertaking. Make the stakes of your game direct enough for your players to care about. Make them get worse if the players do not act on them. Control the dramatic tension and allow for setbacks and failures to drive the players to action. And above all, make sure your players are entertained and engaged when they are at the game table. When all this falls into place, you just might find you are having as much fun running the game as they are playing it!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Power Gamers in Your Campaign: Bow Before the Archmage!

We now conclude our series on various player types with the final entry... the dreaded Power Gamer. This is the guy who wants to win but plans on achieving his triumph through the meta-game of character design and planning.

The power gamer wants to overcome a challenge before it is even presented. This means finding ways to optimize their character to its utmost potential and create the ideal build that will allow the player to immediately bypass obstacles that might oppose him in the game.

Perhaps the player builds a character with massive attack bonuses, or one that can turn invisible at the beginning of each encounter. Whatever the case, it will be a very powerful addition to the party, one that might cause problems if it steals the spotlight too often.

Fortunately, there is still a place for considerate power gamers at the game table. For many, clever character design is simply a part of the appeal, and they mean no harm in creating such powerful builds. The easiest way to deal with them is to challenge them at their own game... find ways to exploit their strengths and weaknesses. Target vulnerabilities they may not have considered. Throw the super-strong barbarian into a diplomatic crisis, or pit the invisible character against monsters with heat vision. Force the player to constantly adapt, as they try to figure out ways to respond to the new threats you present them with.

If your power gamer is disproportionately powerful compared to his team mates, it might even be fun for players to ask his advice on getting the most out of their characters as well. After all, if all the characters are excellently designed you can just send tougher encounters their way and it is all balanced out!

Of course there should be limits to character optimization. Don't let a power gamer build contradictory or nonsensical characters for the sake of minimizing weaknesses and maximizing strengths. And don't allow the exploitation of loopholes or glitches in the rules that produce game-breaking results. Use your judgement and ask the power gamer to limit their optimizations to some reasonable parameters that you will define for them. The two things you want to avoid are a power gamer hogging the spotlight from team mates  (by winning encounters themselves every time) or succeeding at every encounter with no risk or challenge.

Besides that, let them have fun using the rules of the game to build something effective. If the game-within-a-game of character design is what appeals to them, base your challenges around that. Test their abilities and allow them an opportunity to shine. At the end of the day, fun is your foremost goal. And fun comes in many flavors and styles. Everyone has their own taste, so keep an eye out for these tendencies and techniques as you identify the classic player types in your own gaming group.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Storytellers in Your Campaign: Listen to the Bard's Tale!

In previous entries I have discussed actor type players who interact with the game world mostly by advancing their own storyline. But there is also a similar player type that is defined by their commitment to advancing the story of the campaign itself. Their focus is external rather than internal. They are the Storytellers, and they are a great benefit to any tabletop game with a strong focus on the narrative.

The defining difference between actors and storytellers is whether they prioritize their own story or the broader storyline of the game. A PC played by an actor might reluctantly go on a mission because they were asked by their mentor, but storyteller's PC may go simply by virtue of the adventure it presents. The storyteller puts the main storyline, the adventure that the group is on, ahead of their character's own development.

Storytellers are experiencing the game like reading a book or watching a TV show. They want to find out what happens next. They will follow plot hooks based on what seems most interesting to them, rather than what would be most important to their particular character. Often they will adapt their own character to match the campaign's storyline rather than demanding the storyline be changed to fit the character.

Storytellers are most happy if the game has a compelling and interesting narrative. They are looking for high stakes and an emotional pay-off. They are looking for plot threads that unfold as the game progresses, leading to new situations and possibilities. Above all, they want a story that will be remembered fondly after the campaign ends.
In order to satisfy a storyteller, it helps to be good at storytelling yourself. Don't be afraid to borrow from your own favorite books and movies to add interesting plotlines and characters to your own campaign. Create rough outlines of plot hooks to present to your group, and give them opportunities to make important decisions that will effect future events. Storytellers will like having this kind of control over the story, and will be eager to add details that will take your campaign in exciting new directions. Sharing control of the narrative is one of those aspects of tabletop RPGs that few other storytelling mediums allow for, so it is very important to use this feature to its fullest potential.

There are an infinite number of stories to tell, so always challenge yourself to create something new and unique, and your storyteller players will have plenty of material to keep them amused. If your storytellers are happy and allowed to flourish, they will help you to craft stories that will not only be fun to share at the game table, but also great to reminisce about many campaigns later!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Jokesters in Your Campaign: Laughing With the Halfling

Everybody knows the old standby of the class clown. The guy or gal who is always looking for a laugh. They crack jokes, put on voices, and generally goof off whenever they get the chance. These jokesters can be found in many tabletop gaming groups, and they often play a vital role in the entertainment.

Gaming is, of course, a form of entertainment. So a sense of humor and levity is a great for supporting a fun atmosphere. The jokester often does a great job of playing the comic relief or comedic counterpoint to the more dramatic moments in your campaign. They can help create some of the most memorable and hilarious moments of your tabletop interactions and help ease self-conscious anxiety with their light hearted hijinks.

Obviously, there are times in which the players may prefer a more dramatic tone. Rather than forcing jokesters to adopt a more serious demeanor, it is frankly better to direct the spotlight away from them during such moments. Let the actor types carry those scenes, and don't pressure the jokester to "take things seriously." At the same time, joking around shouldn't result in the player acting incompetently or purposely causing disruptions. The jokester's japes should be humorous for their fellow players, and deliberately sabotaging their efforts is certainly not.

Considerate jokesters in your group will understand that the best source of humor when role playing comes from playing a certain archetype to the hilt. The funniest moments in any campaign I have played have sprung from players reacting broadly in a manner that fits their character. Fans of any work of fiction will tell you that some of the best moments are the ones you can look back on and clearly identify with a particular character... Han Solo being overly confident, Sherlock Holmes being emotionally detached, or Liz Lemon stressing out. Jokesters don't even need to tell classical jokes to be funny, they can just play their character in an amusing way. And most of them do!

Tabletop gaming is a place of escape and socializing for many players, so let them have fun and unwind with a healthy dose of humor at your game table. As with any element of your game it shouldn't be overdone or distracting, but don't worry about it at all if your players are having a good time. If laughter is what they like, then throw some ridiculous scenarios at them. Introduce some quirky NPCs, give them some sillier missions and monsters. You can send them to sneak backstage to get a local bard's autograph or pit them against an all-too-familiar purple dinosaur with magic powers. Don't be afraid to play along to share in the jokester's tastes.

Don't let the jokesters be the only source of comedic entertainment either. Set up the situation and let the comedy be carried by the entire group's reactions, not just the humor of the GM or an individual player. Let the other players feel like they are part of the fun.

Once again, your players don't need to be trained comedians to do this, they can just play their roles to bring the joy. Macho players may entertain by tossing goblins through walls or giving the dark lord a noogie. Quieter players may be funny in the way they retreat from a high society ball like it's a war zone. Let the group feel like they are laughing with each other rather than at each other by not singling any one player out as a source of ridicule.

The party that laughs together can last forever, so embrace the jokesters in your own ranks and make their shenanigans an enjoyable aspect of your next hilarious and exciting campaign!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Slayers in Your Campaign: Hail to the King

One of the easier player types to recognize at the game table is the guy who likes to fight. This one is your Slayer, the combat-oriented player who is most engaged when it is time to throw down and do battle. They are often the most familiar with the mechanics of the game rules, as the rules are what determine their advantages and disadvantages on the battlefield. Slayers love to rack up points through vanquishing enemies and winning glory and XP from combat encounters. 

Since slayers are often very well versed in the game rules, it really pays to be aware of these rules as a DM. You can even learn from a slayer's knowledge and apply their lessons to your encounters as you develop them. Knowing the rules well allows you to challenge a player fairly, using the limitations and advantages agreed upon by player and game master alike. 

Slayers also tend to think tactically about how to best their foes. For this reason, clear mapping and use of miniatures or some other signifiers are very important. These players care about the battlefield, so it is preferable to give them a clear overview of all its elements in relation to one another. 

Try to challenge slayers with scaling encounters. Give them plenty of minions to fight and feel good about defeating, but gradually put their skills to the test. Slayer types want to overcome obstacles, and will embrace a good challenge (If they are a player who cares more about victory and being cool, they are probably a Macho instead of a slayer.)

Remember to implement combat encounters frequently enough to keep this player's attention. Include interesting hazards and enemy types to keep things fresh. Watch the player's strategy and find ways to counter it with the threats you present. Force the player to adapt their strategies and keep them on their toes. On the other hand, don't force them to sit through too many lengthy role-play sequences without any dangerous encounters for them to overcome. The slayer can bring a strong sense of excitement and strategy to your game. Let them do their thing. If things have been a bit slow, feel free to drop in the ninjas and let your slayers get to work!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Macho Players in Your Campaign: Let the Wookie Win

A Macho character likes to keep things cool.
The Macho is a player type who wants to do everything with style. They might enjoy anything from an elite class of paladin to a beautiful and elegant princess, but they always want to feel like they are competent and cool. They can bring a lot of energy to the game table with their impulse to keep things exciting and dynamic. But they can also be easily discouraged by failure, so it is important to help them to understand that victories and losses are just part of a fun and compelling game.

The first step in bringing about this understanding is to make sure that you let this kind of player feel effective even when things don't go according to plan. Even when critical failures occur, you shouldn't make this kind of player feel foolish or ashamed of their bad roll. Instead, point out circumstances and conditions that might have caused this misfortune. Let them feel heroic as they face challenges and obstacles. Their barbarian didn't fall on his face wen he rolled a one, he was blindsided by a ninja's nimble dodge, or the power of his attack carried him all the way into the opposite wall! Sometimes a failure can be as impressive and cool as a success, like when a fireball wreaks havoc with collateral damage. As long as the player feels like they are a force to be reckoned with, they shouldn't mind the occasional setback.

Machos benefit most from vivid description of their character's actions. Take a moment every now and then to describe how they dramatically burst into a room. Give them opportunities to throw out witty one-liners before striking down a foe. Include NPCs to admire their reputation and skill, and reference their past victories as they press onward.

Macho players don't look at explosions.
In fact, a good way to satisfy a Macho player is to let them describe their own actions. Machos will enjoy acting out the sweep of their blade, or the magic words they spout as they smite their enemy. You may have to reign in their evocative descriptions to keep them plausible within your own setting ("No, you can't run up the wall while spin-kicking the goblin") but they will appreciate the privilege of building their own scene in which they are the star of an action-packed moment. These tips are true for all players, but it is especially important when it comes to this particular player type. At the end of the day, your players' enjoyment of the game is what is most important. And what the Macho enjoys is being awesome!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Actors in Your Campaign: Applaud the Elf With Style

Players with interest in drama and the performing arts make for very natural and entertaining participants at the game table. Though many spectators might consider it off-putting to to speak in character, immerse themselves in the role of their tabletop avatar, and base their most important decisions on their chosen motivations, this is the way of The Actor.

The actor wants to get into the headspace of their character, to find out what makes them tick. They want to explore and develop the story as it relates to their personal role in it. Unlike The Storyteller, who wants to see the overall plot unfold, The Actor is more focused on their own part of the tale and how they respond to its developments.

Actors can sometimes be intimidating to more self-conscious players when they really get into their roles. Talking in-character, sometimes with an invented voice or accent, they are the epitome of immersion in the story, and the kind of player that is most often recognized in mainstream depictions of tabletop gaming. Often viewed as quixotic and quirky, the actors are really just entertained by the idea of stepping into the shoes of their character in a world of fantasy and adventure.

The easiest way to please this kind of character is fairly simple: Give them lots of material to interact with, and include plot points and complications that are relevant to their character's background. Include NPCs related to their past, or perhaps just a situation that would have deeply personal stakes for the character. Maybe the character meets a child who was orphaned in the same manner as she was herself. Or perhaps the treasure hunter hears of an ancient artifact that he once thought to be a myth. Anything that gives the actor something to build upon to craft their own story.

Remember that actors tend to overshadow some of the less talkative player types, especially watchers. Don't let them monopolize your attention. Provide them with an engaging scenario and then shift your focus to include the other players as well. When one player is more active and immersed in a game than others, you should be careful to avoid having your campaign become a one man show.

Actors bring a lot of energy to the table, so they can be used to spread their enthusiasm throughout your gaming group. Give them opportunities to act out the roles of NPCs as well if the opportunity presents itself. Their infectious zeal for taking on roles will bring some welcome excitement to the table. A session full of fun dialogue and player interaction is going to be both memorable and fun, and is the type of environment in which the actor will excel. Seek out these opportunities to help actors in your own group to bring your game to the next level.

Happy ventures!