Monthly Archives: December 2009

Player Absences, Part 2 of 3: “Puff of Logic” and “Spock Mode”

Last post was concerned with the primary ‘play’ or ‘not play’ decision surrounding player absences.  Once you’ve decided to play, you need a strategy.

The simplest adjustment  is to simply remove the character with ‘a puff of logic’ (Thank you John Love for the term).  One session he’s there, the next he isn’t.

There are a few things to keep in mind when losing a character for the short or long term especially in D&D 4th edition.  What was once a challenging fight could become a party killer, if you’ve lost the group’s only defender (the ‘tank’ to you World of Warcraft players) or leader (aka ‘healer’).  If you lose a striker, the encounter will probably take longer, and without a controller, all of those minions may be overwhelming.  The dungeon master should also check the encounters for level appropriateness and review the advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for managing a group who is missing a role.

In addition to the mechanical challenges, the sudden absence of a teammate can create immersion killing plot holes.  Story oriented players will particularly notice this.  Spending a few moments creating an explanation can help, but really, there’s rarely a point to putting lipstick on that pig.  It’s best to keep explanations simple and brief and to move on quickly.

In my group, we also made a practice of using ‘Spock mode’ to handle absences.  Do you remember the Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain”?  Come now, sure you do:  Mr. Spock had his brain stolen and for much of the episode his body was remotely controlled by another player…er, crew member.  In gaming terms, ‘Spock mode’ is when someone takes over the character sheet for the missing player.  This way the group retains its firepower and skills, but in general, no major decisions are made and no extraordinary risks are taken.

Our problem with this approach spawned from the complexity of 4th edition character sheets.  They easily grow to five pages after a few levels and each power has a different nuance.  Some of us actively dislike running other characters; even the ones who enjoy the challenge took longer for each turn as they shuffled through the powers and sorted dice.

We needed a new plan.  Check back  on Sunday 1/3/10 for the third and final installment of Player Absences where I discuss “Clone mode.”

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Player Absences, Part 1 of 3: A Quorum

I think my Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition group is fairly typical:  there are six of us, including the dungeon master, and our ages range from late 20s to mid to latish 30s.  We play about once a week, however between work and family commitments, we’re rarely in one place at the same time.  We’ve had no choice but to experiment with a number of strategies for managing player absences.

Before considering the game elements, the human element must be remembered.  Job and family commitments come first; at the same time, gaming is a social activity that requires a group to do properly.  It’s equally important for absent players to give sufficient notice as for the other gamers to respect the time pressures we all face.

The simplest strategy for dealing with player absence is simply not play D&D that session.  This is an opportunity to try another game (surely there’s an old favorite board game you don’t get to very often) or to shoot the shit for a couple of hours.  While D&D is a social game, there isn’t much chance to talk  about your dating life or the problems at work while you’replaying.  This can become that opportunity.

It’s a good idea to define a quorum in advance.  Roberts Rules of parliamentary procedure define a quorum as a majority of the group; for a typical D&D group, that means four out of six (including the DM).  It’s also reasonable to play if half or more are present.

Once you’ve decided to play despite an absence or two, you’ll need to make a plan for how to play.  Can you simply write the characters out of the plot for a session?  Is someone else willing to control his character?  Will the game bog down as someone becomes familiar with the new character’s 5 page sheet?  Watch for Player Absences, Part 2 for my discussion of these options.

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Directed Conversations

The law of group development states that all gaming groups will move from the polite ‘forming’ phase to the contentious ‘storming’ phase.  A few basic facilitation principles can help negotiate those early phases with minimal angst and annoyance.

People usually like to know things in advance, and it’s easier to have healthy discussions about things like rules interpretations and group expectations before problems arise.  The value of the forming phase is that everyone is looking for leadership and everyone is on his best behavior.  A wise dungeon master can take advantage by starting potentially sticky conversations early.  When in doubt, bring it up in a conversational, ‘let’s talk about it’ style.  While the DM is in the prime position to lead these conversations, anyone with concerns or ideas about the game can do it (which just might be everyone at the table).

In addition to these general conversations, another effective way to enhance a new group’s stability and to refocus a group who is experiencing some storming, is to create shared ground rules.  This is a fundamental facilitative trick that has proven its worth time and time again.  The steps are fairly simple:

1)  Prepare a space that you (or another volunteer) can scribe the rules.  Flip chart paper and smelly Mr. Sketch markers are ideal, but a white or chalk board will also work fine.  If you use markers, put the light colored ones away.  They are not useful in this situation (why do they even put them in there?).

2)  Ground rules are shared by the group, must be created collaboratively and can be enforced by any, at any time.  They can be added to or edited when needed.  Explain these principles to your group.

3)  Solicit your group for ideas.  Write them down for all to see (also called ‘scribing’), using the exact words of the suggester as much as possible.  If you aren’t sure, repeat what they suggested to check for understanding.  Observe the reactions of the group and if you aren’t sure that all agree, ask:  “does everyone think this is a good rule for us to follow?”

As the facilitator, you must remain neutral.  While the facilitator may provide suggestions, you may not use your position to advance specific content.  This is critical.  If the group feels railroaded, or doesn’t have ownership of these rules, they will not be followed.

4)  If the group stalls or has trouble thinking of useful rules, provide some suggestions.  Common ground rules include, “begin and end on time,” “don’t interrupt other players,” “monitor your own participation,” “respect everyone’s ideas,” and, most importantly, “have fun.”

This is a good time to talk about gaming norms, such as how to behave when the party is split (can players suggest ways to overcome challenges when their characters aren’t present?).  Don’t get into too much detail, however, and don’t spend too much time on this exercise.  When energy wanes, move on and get to playing your game!

5)  Post the rules where everyone can see them at the beginning of every game.

6)  At the end of the first session, and at the beginning of every session thereafter, revisit yur rules.  Ask if any need to be changed or added and how well they think the group complied with its own rules.  If you observed notable violations, now is a good time to observe this aloud, in a non-blaming, yet specific way.  Maybe the group doesn’t need that rule anymore, or maybe some of its members need to be reminded.

As your group moves into the norming and performing phases, the importance of ground rules wane.  While it’s always a good idea to keep them posted and active, if your group is following its rules unconsciously, and resolving controversies with minimal heartache, congratulations.  The group has entered the performing stage.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

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Dragora’s Dungeon Continues

I have an occasional Dungeons and Dragons game that meets about once a month.  My vision for this game has changed since we started last spring, mostly because half the players dropped out (D&D wasn’t for them).  After a few unstable player months, we played again last night to continue the adventure in Dragora’s Dungeon.  There will be some module spoilers below.

The first order of business was to integrate the two pairs of characters.  I suggested that the two newbies build in their connection somehow and they agreed.  It was a relatively simple to have them run across each other in the module’s underground dungeon swamp.

This was essentially the second session working through the module.  Since the group only meets occasionally, I decided to really try to focus.  I had originally intended to include one more significant swamp encounter, but really, the point of this module is the adventure in the lost city of intelligent apes known as the Zain-Kin.

This brings me to something all dungeon masters should keep in mind:  always be clear on the purpose of the campaign components, the adventure and the encounter.  As your game evolves, the purpose may shift, but you need to begin with some clarity on the key components, then you can update as needed.

In last night’s case, I decided to focus on getting the player characters into the lost city without excessive railroading.  The first encounter began when the party’s seeker (a controller class) triggered a pit trap filled with swarming snakes.  This was simple enough, and the real purpose was to give the players a bit of a warm up.   Two of them were playing new characters, and the group had never fought together before.  With his low hit points, the seeker dropped into the single digits rather quickly – leading the shaman healer to have a fun ‘you need to tell me if you need heals’ moment.

After some exploration and an extended rest, the group came out above the lost city.  And were harassed by little drakes.  Here came a decision point for the PCs:  would they kill the little flying lizards, or would they endure?  The dwarven fighter is not the enduring kind, and battle ensued.  Again, this was an easy battle.  I could have increased the challenge by adding drakes or upping their level, but I decided against it.  The purpose of the session was to  contact the Zain-Kin, and the purpose of the encounter was to make them decide how they would enter the city.  They did not enter the city quietly.

After the battle, and after their descent, they were met by a troop of armor wearing, Tiamat worshiping, ape man Zain-Kin.  Objective achieved!

Negotiations began well enough:  the group was generally willing to go with the apes, but when they tried to separate the warlock from the rest, things broke down.

While it would have been a blast to play that fight, time expired, so we ended on a cliffhanger.  This brings two advantages: 1)  it will be easy to pick up next time by rolling initiative and 2) I’ll have time to really optimize this encounter.  To optimize this encounter, first I need to determine its true purpose…

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Session Debrief

Many professions build in after action reviews to their daily work.  This is an opportunity for everyone on the team to think about the activity they’ve just experienced and express what’s on their minds.  The military does this well by focusing explicitly on fixing deficiencies and maintaining strengths.

In my experience, groups are most likely to debrief after something has gone wrong.  In Dungeons and Dragons, my own group spends more time discussing the tough encounters than the easy ones.  My wife’s World of Warcraft raid group always spends time discussing their tactics after they’ve wiped a few times.  This is not a bad instinct.  After all, if you’re characters are nearly dying (in my example) or repeatedly dying (in her example), you know you need to work on something.

We often miss the opportunity to improve even after things have gone well.  If you don’t explicitly identify the good stuff, you aren’t as likely to sustain those strengths.

When you’re debriefing your games, it’s best to begin from a position of ‘what can we do better?’  This feels a lot better than starting with ‘what did we suck at?’  By holding to a spirit of improvement, you’re free to compare what went well with ways it could be improved, and you can also discuss mistakes and ways to avoid them in the future.

Even if you can’t find time to debrief with your group, it pays to do it electronically via email, group forums, twitter or whatever.

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Why Does My New Gaming Group seem like a Reality Show? Part 2 of 2

The storm will pass, and the groups who have survived leave the reality show behavior behind by the transitioning into the norming phase.  At this stage, the power dynamics have been worked out, everyone is speaking to everyone else, and perhaps the first wave of house rules have been adopted.  In my weekly group, most of us started bringing our own dinner to the game, rather than trying to negotiate delivery options.  Power decentralizes as the group develops its culture.  The game master has rules to follow just as the players do.  On a whole, this phase is much more pleasant than storming.  It isn’t all good, however:  excessive courtesy can stifle creativity.  In a drive to get along, members can lose sight of the real goal of having fun.

The groups who stay together and develop a healthy enough culture will enter the performing phase.  These groups share decision making, find ways to have healthy debates and, on a whole, have members who are interdependent.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Virtually all successful teams, whether in work, gaming or sports, have reached the performing phase.  In my weekly group, no one cares about the food anymore.  We remember who understands the rules well, we know who really enjoys the role-playing parts, and, most importantly, we trust and respect each other.

It is common for groups to cycle through these stages as they evolve.  Every time a new player joins the game, you have to start again by forming.  It will probably be easier this time, especially if the group has established habits and expectations.  On the other hand, those habits and expectations can make it harder to integrate new players.  Remember how it was always better to start in a new school at the beginning of the year?  Every time a player leaves the game, you’ll probably have to start again at the beginning.  This is especially true when the vacating player had a specific role within the group. 

As you may have guessed, you can’t perform until you’ve stormed.  If your own gaming group has never shared a tense discussion over a rule interpretation and is filled with players who have never been annoyed with one another, you haven’t skipped to performing:  you’re still forming.  Hang on, because the storm is coming.  If your new gaming group just had a session that ended with everyone annoyed with everyone else, hang on.  The storming phase will very likely pass and things will improve.  There are many ways to make storming as quick and relatively painless, but those details will have to wait for another day.

The Chatty DM has also written about this topic in a series of posts titled, “The 4 Stages”.

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Why Does My New Gaming Group seem like a Reality Show? Part 1 of 2

As the producers of reality shows have learned, dramatic personalities lead to dramatic interactions.  In the intro to MTV’s The Real World, the voice over reminds us that we are about to watch what happens when people “stop being polite, and start being real.”  This can make good entertainment, but if you’re trying to play a game, especially if you’re trying to run a game, these shenanigans can ruin an evening of play.  Worse yet, those conflicts can ruin your entire gaming group.

In the mid 1960s, an American psychologist named Bruce Tuckman developed a theory that explains why good groups can go bad.  It also helps us understand how to keep groups moving through rough spells and into the smooth sailing beyond.

When any group first comes together, it enters the forming stage.  In a typical gaming group, this is when everyone meets, creates characters and gets to know one another.  People tend to be on their best behavior when groups are brand new.  Players are less likely to complain about any dissatisfaction with the game because new groups usually defer to existing hierarchical leadership.  In other words, players will look to the game master to lead them.  Since players aren’t particularly invested in the game, they might drift quietly away if other demands for their time arise or if they are dissatisfied in the game.

Sometime soon, maybe during the first session, maybe the second, sometimes it takes three or four, the group will begin to Storm.  When the rules debate turns heated, it’s a sign that you’ve entered the storming phase.  In my own weekly group, it was most clearly signaled by an argument about the food arrangements.  Another group I played with had rules debates that could last for hours.  The storming phase is when the struggle for the group’s identity takes place.  Power dynamics are challenged, feelings often get hurt, tempers flare and it’s all perfectly normal.  The good news is that the group members care enough to express themselves.  Since the purpose of gaming is, more or less, to have fun, this phase brings its own risk.  During this phase, players who were having fun might quit over hurt feelings.

Be brave.  Storming is only the second of four phases, and if you can keep the group together long enough, it will pass.  My next post will discuss the other two phases of group development, norming and performing.

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