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.

March 25, 2011

A Complete Dungeon

One of my players made a map of what she called "A Typical Dave Dungeon" about 18 years ago to lampoon my dungeon building. I particularly like the Type 7Billion Demon. Here it is (you should be able to click on it for a bigger picture)...

March 22, 2011

Modern Morality + Medieval Mores

The majority of RPG fantasy settings are set in pseudo-medieval time periods, carrying with them a lot of the trappings of that earlier time frame. This is done because it gives the DM and the players a common ground to base their actions on. There are a number of assumptions built in when playing in a medieval time period as opposed to playing in a completely alien setting. There are kings and social power structures we can relate to, even if it’s just something we read in a history book.

However, there is a natural inclination to overlay modern morality onto our fantasy and medieval based settings. This only makes sense in that modern ways of determining what is right and wrong is what we are used to. We have not grown up in medieval times. We live in structured societies wherein “everyone is equal” and “everyone has rights”, at least in concept. This was not the case in medieval times. What we perceive as moral and just is widely different from what our game settings are based on.

March 18, 2011

Birthright the Setting

I have long said that Birthright is one of my favorite D&D settings. However, as time has gone by and I’ve thought about it more, I have come to realize I am less enamored with the setting (Cerilia) than with the mechanics of the setting.

The fluff of the setting, that which is the story behind the setting, is fairly generic. It has its Medieval European style kingdoms at the center of the setting and on the fringes there are the esoteric cultures, such as the Norsemen and Arabian mythos. This is very similar to many other campaigns settings out at that time. There are some minor changes to the setting (Blooded, Shadow World, racial differences) but at its core it was a fairly generic fantasy setting.

Perhaps the fact that the Birthright setting is like every other fantasy setting that had come before it was intentional. The setting is less about the story and more about the mechanics of the setting; the ability to manipulate the game setting. Perhaps the designers wanted something “comfortable” and familiar. Perhaps they wanted the mechanics of Domain control to be at the forefront of the setting, the complex part of the setting as opposed to the setting itself.

As a setting it is not a bad setting and is actually fairly strong as settings go, but it is not distinctive enough to set it above other similar settings. So, why do I claim Birthright as one of my favorites? It is because of a couple of other components Birthright brought to the gaming table that other settings did not.

Domain Play
I love the fact a character is the head of a wide ranging organization. This style of play has always fascinated me and I actually liked the way it was done in Birthright. However, Domain play does not require the setting Birthright came with. The rules can be easily moved to other, stronger settings.

Epic Monsters
Birthright is populated with aberrant and monstrous kingdoms that are on power equal to or slightly greater than those around them. They are readily acceptable enemies that the player characters can do battle with while keeping a clear conscious. They were the Cylons of the campaign. A player could make war without feeling a measure of guilt for killing them, after all, they were only monsters. Again, the concept of Epic Monsters can easily be carried over to a new setting, one outside of Birthright.

Would I like to see Birthright as the next remake of a setting for 4E? Yes and no. The setting material on Cerilia, while nice, is not enough for me. I would want something that felt unique, different from the other settings out there. Perhaps they could keep the basic material of Cerilia, while changing some of the material to make it more distinctive. Add a new race or two. Add a new power source. Add

However, I would like to see the Domain rules used somewhere, something other than Eberron and Forgotten Realms. If they can not make Cerilia unique by itself, perhaps they could update and transform another established setting. While Greyhawk is also fairly generic, a fusion between Birthright mechanics and the Greyhawk setting would be of interest. Or perhaps Planescape could bring the focus of planar warfare to a new level of game play. Or they could go in a completely new direction wherein the Domain rules are used in a low-magic setting.

There are a lot of options for a future Birthright game that does not need the original setting. It could keep the core concepts of what truly made Birthright unique, Domain level play, and bring it to a more “modern” game system.

March 16, 2011

Vanir is Wrong Wrong Wrong!

Vanir of Critical Hits wrote a nice article yesterday (“By The Seat Of My Omnipotent Pants“) detailing his ongoing game, in particular focusing on his lack of preparation and its effect on his game. I suggest you read it, but in a nutshell he had claimed to have put off his preparation of the night’s game until the last minute and then sort of had to wing-it free-form. In the end it all worked out and people had fun but the core aspect of Vanir’s article is wrong. Yes, Vanir is wrong!

Vanir made a claim that he had not prepared for his game and certainly not enough. I will say that he had indeed prepared adequately and I will use his own words to expose his base lies. As I do this, I recommend you pay attention because there is something for all of us who GM in here.

“…I procrastinated a bit too much. By that, I mean that by about 2 hours to game time, I had managed to be indecisive enough to know several major plot points – just not the specifics or the order in which they would appear.”
2 hours to game time and you claim to have done no prep work and yet…you mention that you already had several major plot points. Sounds to me like you had already done some prep work. We’ll see if this bears out later.

“Not having any combat encounters worked out…”
Oops you got me there. No combat encounters built! Let’s see if this also bears out.

“I ended the last session on a cliffhanger, with the PC’s army’s camp under attack by a cement zombie horde.”
All the prep that you had already put into everything that led up to this cliffhanger was prep work. You had already designed the attacking army, you knew their compositions (undead) and from there it was easy to move forward. You already had a solid base to work from. Sometimes a DM will forget all the prep he has already done to get to where he and the campaign are, but it is all used in the story for that night.
This also slightly invalidates your previous assessment that you had no combat encounters built; you already know that the antagonists are undead so determining the type of antagonists is already done.

“When they got to the town, I decided to use another of the plot points I had picked out”
You were now using one of the plot points you had already thought about before the game began that night. Sounds like prep work to me.

“I threw up forcefields around the town and started dropping cement on them from the sky (the same process that created the zombie-producing block from the first session).”
Again, you used the solid base you had established in earlier nights of adventure to move this night’s adventure forward. See, you were prepping without even realizing it.

“I could hear Dave The Game’s voice in my head, Obi-Wan-style, saying “Matt…. say ‘yes’ to your players…””
And now here, you are bringing in knowledge you had gained before the night of the game. By reading and listening to other DMs you were in effect prepping for this night’s adventure. His advice allowed you to react to the player’s actions and keep the adventure moving forward. What would have happened if you had never heard his advice before? How would you have reacted? Maybe differently, maybe not as well. Very likely you would have tried to implement a solution you were not prepared to implement; instead you allowed the players to solve the problem, instead of you doing it for them through the story.

“But I did have KMonster open on my phone.”
No offense, but did KMonster suddenly leap onto your phone? No. You had gotten the app before the night’s game. Again, you had prepped before hand, this time in the form of an app you could easily use at the table. You knew how to use it; you were not struggling to understand it at the gaming table.

“…checked to make sure their abilities were mostly what I wanted.”
How did you know what you wanted? Because you had thought about it before hand, again playing off the solid campaign base you had already built.

Sorry, Vanir but time and again I keep seeing a multitude of ways you had prepped for the night’s adventure beforehand. Some may claim I am only playing a game of semantics here; that Vanir’s definition of ‘preparation’ is different than mine. However, I will say that every time you read a module, read a blog post on how to DM, print out a random table, every moment you spend thinking about your upcoming game, every minute you talk with others about your game are all moments of preparation. All that time not spent sitting at a table writing things down onto a piece of paper but still thinking about your game is still prep.

All too often we get it into our heads that we are not prepared unless we have everything written down, especially in a form we are used to seeing in a published adventure. We dwell on a lack of precise detail- what color are the chairs in the room? – how high are the rose bushes? etc. I say prep does not need to be done to that extreme to be prep. I will go further and say that those levels of details are not needed to be prepared or to run a good game. Prep work does not require every detail to be written out ahead of time. Most DMs are more prepared than they realize and if they only realized this fact, they would be a lot more relaxed.

March 15, 2011

How to Handle Divinations

Yesterday Ameron over at Dungeon' posted a good article on the nature of divination in RPG games. Continuing his train of thought I figured I would present some suggestions on how to deal with characters that use such magics, especially when it can derail a plot. I am making an assumption that the divination spell/ritual used by the characters is going to cause problems for your plot/story and you are looking for ways to deal with this. Perhaps the characters are questioning the faithfulness of their patron, a person you need the party to trust, at least for a little while longer. Perhaps the characters are seeking a way to destroy the villain of the story and you haven’t prepared that portion yet, because you intend to keep this particular villain around for awhile longer. There can be many reasons why a DM does not necessarily want a divination to be answered. So what can a DM do when his players start casting divinatory spells/rituals to help solve a quest?

March 11, 2011

Door Puzzle

Here is a puzzle I made up that barred access to a door the party had to go through (I made it about 15 years ago). Hanging on the wall beside the door was this set of picture tiles. Each tile could be pushed. If the incorrect tile was pushed the pusher took damage and if the right tile was pushed it lit up. The right sequence would open the door. There was no explanation along with the set of tiles; the players had to figure out what the puzzle was looking for, which made it a bit more difficult.

Instead of simply allowing the players to roll some dice to solve the puzzle I made the players actually figure it out themselves.  However, if you were to utilize this puzzle yourself then you can allow your players to solve it in any way you deem. I also recommend printing out some extra copies for multiple players to look at. Its annoying for everyone to be looking at one sheet and eventually some players will simply stop trying, which is not the goal here. You can rationalize it by saying the characters quickly draw copies.

Below is a hint that you can give the players if they seem to be stuck and they make an appropriate roll on a releveant skill (History, Intelligence, etc). I'm moving the hints further down in case you want to try and solve the puzzle yourself first. Behind the break will be the answer.

Hint #1: With so many unique symbols, perhaps you need to find two of the same.

March 10, 2011

4E Hot Chicks

Those of us playing 4E are falling behind the curve! That retro blog, The Underdark Gazette, which is all about non-4E editions has seized the initiative away from us 4Enards. He is using Hot Elf Chicks to put forward the message that people can still play earlier editions of D&D (and its clones). Now the retro blog-o-sphere has united in their pursuit to crush us and Hot Elf Chicks are everywhere! WE ARE FALLING BEHIND!

Therefore, I propose all the 4E blogs do something similar. Only we can't use Hot Elf Chicks, since THEY are using them. We need something original and unexpected. Therefore, I propose Hot Orc Chicks!

We will win the day!

(PS I'm open to moving away from Hot Orc Chicks...maybe some nice Trolls.)

March 8, 2011

Perception- What is it Good For?

For the purposes of this article Perception is that skill or game system that allows the players to “see” the hidden things in a scene. Most scenes have description text that showcases the readily apparent things the characters can see and interact with. Most systems also include methods by which hidden (or not easily seen) things can be revealed to the characters. These hidden things can include secret doors, secret compartments, a specific relevant paper in a much larger pile of papers, a small item such as a drop of blood or piece of hair, or a unique pattern in the stonework.

March 4, 2011

DMs Creating Player Characters

How much control should a DM have over character creation? Is it ok for a DM to create a character and force a player to play it?

At the beginning of every campaign one of the first questions a DM asks himself is, how will the characters the players build fit into my campaign concept? Sometimes the question requires no answer since the campaign is designed to allow for all types of character concepts. But there are other times when it does matter.

March 1, 2011

Shameful Games

Yesterday I did an article about the games I have the most pride in the fact they are sitting on my bookshelf. Today I will talk about those that bring me shame. I don’t mean that I am embarrassed to have them when non-gamers stop over. No, these are the games that make other RPG gamers stop and look at me like I’m a weirdo. I end up having to make excuses about why I have the game, things like “it’s not as bad as looks”, “I only played it once”, “it was cheap”, “hey, look, have you seen my new dice set, it’s over there, far away from this bookshelf”.

Hercules and Xena
The role-playing game based on the popular TV series’ of the 90s. It was put out by West End Games in 1998. The next year they declared bankruptcy and this game was the last one the company known as West End Games released as a core game. However, I am sure this had nothing to do with the quality of this game.

All kidding aside, this is actually a pretty good game. The system is sleek and meshes well with the setting. The material in the nice boxed set is well done and full of useful setting material and adventures. Overall it is a good game. However, it does draw a snicker from my gaming friends when they see it.

Street Fighter
White Wolf put this out in 1994. Its actual title is Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game and uses the White Wolf World of Darkness rule set. Yes, it is a game based on video game combat marketed as a storytelling game. It makes the mind boggle. To be honest I have not read the book, only skimmed it. And yes, it was in the discount bin and I got it because it was cheap. I have not played it so I really don’t know how it would play, but again, my friends look at me sideways when they see it on my shelf.

Hidden Kingdom
This game is safe from my friends’ derision. It is a nice boxed set which pulls out to reveal some really nice maps (actually they really are nice) and a rule set in a useful three-ring binder. Released in 1983, it is a fantasy RPG game set in Arthurian times. From the outside it looks really good. Until you actually try to read the rules. To me it reads like a bunch of pretentious hippies got high one day and wrote an RPG. The rules are this mass of high concepts mashed together in the most outlandish jargon possible to describe things only someone smoking something illegal could pretend to understand. It is made up of 4 chapters, no wait, chapters is too light a title and they used the word Mode instead of Chapter. Everything they could do to remove themselves from any common ground in RPGs they did. In the end, for me, this RPG is the epitome of what not to do when creating an RPG. Why do I still have this game on my shelf? To remind myself what not to do when creating RPG material, a cold, harsh reminder. Thankfully, my gaming friends can’t hold the game against me since it looks so safe from the outside...and they will never, ever be allowed to look inside of it.

What game books do you wish you had taken the time to hide before your gaming friends come over?