March 29, 2011

Molding Your Players

For better or worse, DMs have the ability to mold the way their players game. At its best it’s a way to keep everyone on the same page; at its worst the DM will not even know he is doing it and catastrophe occurs. What do I mean by molding their players? How a DM reacts to his player’s decisions teaches them how to play within his game. If a DM reacts negatively to a player’s action they will know that action is frowned upon and will likely in the future avoid said action. Likewise, if the players know they can “get away” with something then that course of action soon becomes the standard to do.
Let’s use my current games for some examples of what I am talking about. I am running two completely different D&D games and I have molded the players differently in each with different outcomes. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize what I was doing until too late in the first game.

My first game is story and plot driven. The characters are tainted with demonic blood and are constantly waging a war between their human side and their demonic urges. As I was designing the campaign I had a few things I wanted to occur to set a mood and feeling of the story. I wanted the characters to feel alienated from regular society. I wanted them to rely on each other, so that no matter the situation they would not turn on each other (this was done to offset the openness of alignment choices). Keeping those points in mind, I reacted to their character’s actions to augment and enhance those thoughts.

-Whenever the characters went to an authority figure, the NPC was always less than helpful, either because they couldn’t or wouldn’t help the characters. Eventually certain authority figures began to pursue the characters because of their demonic heritage. The players learned to not bother wasting their time going to NPCs or to trust any NPCs.
-From the start the characters were faced with overwhelming odds. First it was an evil altar they had in their possession that wreaked havoc in their community; of which they did not know how to dispose of. Then it was an invading army of superior force (one member of the army was a hard match for the entire party of low level characters). Then it was an evil mastermind always one step ahead of the party. All this led to the players feeling underpowered and beset upon. The players learned to always stay on the run and avoid confrontations. The players learned it is best to let a bad situation get worse rather than expose themselves to the dangers.
-Each location they approached there was always something negative there to impact their characters. One character saw his mother being stoned to death. The party saw villages destroyed in their wake. One character saw her mother burned at the stake because she gave birth to a demon spawn. The party found danger everywhere they went. The players learned to avoid new places. The players learned to not care about anyone other than themselves.

From these examples, I accomplished my goals of alienation and party bonding, but at the expense of exploration and adventure seeking. All these things I taught them as the DM. In some ways it makes for a taut and tense campaign, but in other ways it makes for a sometimes dull night of “adventure” when in fact the players are trying their hardest to avoid as much adventure as possible.

My second group is different, and again this is because I took a different approach to the game. It is a sandbox campaign wherein exploration and adventure are the end result and not something the party does on the way to fulfilling a story goal.

-The town the characters started in was drab and the NPCs uninteresting, not to mention since it was a frontier town there was nothing to do there or to buy. The players learned there was nothing to do in town and had to look elsewhere, i.e. the hexes outside the town.
-The party is given extra XP for every hex they explore. The only way to get better gear is to explore the hexes in the wilderness. The players learned that exploring the world is a positive thing.
-When encountering the unknown, the party is given a chance to access the situation and potential combat lethality before the engage. The party has managed to escape when the odds are not in their favor. The players learned that even dangerous encounters will not guarantee an end to their characters.

The outcome of my DMing style herein has led to the players being willing to explore the unknown, to push their characters into potentially unsafe situations, i.e. to “adventure”. If I had come down too hard on their explorations the players may have become timid. Let’s face it, charging into a battle or exploring a mysterious cave is not a “safe” thing to do, but in this campaign I do not want the players to always make the “safe” decision, in fact I want them to be bold adventurers willing to take risks because it’s the fun thing to do.

This is the old carrot/stick discussion. If you reward the players and their characters after they pursue a certain course of action they will remember that and conform their future actions along the same lines. If you “punish” them they will avoid doing the same thing in the future. How you, the DM, react to the player’s actions dictates what they will and will not do in the future.
So, be careful and thoughtful in how you react.
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