Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Best Laid Schemes*

Improvement of one’s game s is often accomplished through some up front mental and social interaction, in advance of the game play.  It bears repeating, however, that the purpose of it all is to have fun.  It’s great to work out the best systems for managing your characters, and the initiative order, and it’s wonderful to have a dynamic character that feels and acts real, but if all that doesn’t add up to a great gaming experience, something is fundamentally wrong.

A good Dungeon Master will typically plan out the evening’s combat and non-combat encounters; some have the entire campaign charted out in advance.  There are times, however, when good planning isn’t enough to keep the game fun.  To compensate, it’s important to be purposely flexible.  The key is to be clear about what each portion of the experience should accomplish.  If the group is exploring a goblin infested dungeon, the purpose is probably simple: each encounter will illustrate how dangerous the hold is by sapping PC resource and elevating the sense of risk while they proceed toward the boss.  With that focus in mind, the DM can adapt the encounters at the table to maximize the fun.  As always, keep an eye on your players’ affects.  If they start to disengage, reflect on your purpose.  Are they getting bored with exploring the goblins’ cavern?  If the feeling of risk and anticipation wanes, it’s probably best to simplify the wandering and push the next fight to them.

On the other side of the spectrum, if the players (and you) are having fun, stick to it.  When the group responds positively to a location, NPC or encounter, look for ways to keep it around.  In my monthly game, my players found themselves in a small pocket plane far from home, and became very concerned about exchanging their money for currency of their current realm.  They went so far as to negotiate with the banker for a better rate.  While this was not part of my plan, and it had no bearing on the plot, they were enjoying themselves, it helped give the group a shared identity, and it added to the depth of the setting (who knew that there even were money exchangers?).

These principles apply to players as well.  When part of your character’s history grows tiresome, let it drop away.  If something more interesting emerges, keep it going.  If your group is obviously entertained when your rogue picks the pocket of every wealthy merchant, keep doing it (in moderation).  When your fellow players get annoyed or bored, it’s time to let that habit drop away.

*To a Mouse by Robert Burns



Filed under 4e D&D, Advice, Advice/Tools, Group dynamics

Plan-Do-Check-Act for Gamers

The Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle of improvement (also known as Plan, Do, Study, Act) is common among process improvement nerds like myself.  Really though, there’s no business-magic to it.  P-D-C-A is based on the scientific method, which is simply a structured way of learning, similar to what comes to most of us naturally.  The structure helps cultivate a mindset of unending improvement in your game.

During the planning part of the cycle, the topic of improvement is chosen, observations are made, goals are identified and a change is devised.  This change should be viewed as the best hypothesis currently available.  In a Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition context, many groups (mine included) struggle with initiative tracking.  An evening or two of play will provide you with plenty of observations, and a discussion with your cohorts should give you some ideas of small change.  “Let’s write the initiative order on a white board, so we can all see…”

After the plan, it’s time to do.  Give your change a try.  This experiment will test the hypothesis created during the planning phase.  Round up a white board and some pens; convince someone to use it for a few encounters.

When it comes to solving problems, this is, unfortunately, where the effort often ends.  If the change works at all, great – what other opportunities are there to make it even better?  If the change doesn’t help… the suffering continues.  Take a few minutes after your game and check your results.  What worked well?  What didn’t?  Did you learn anything unexpected?  What else emerged during the experiment?  “I couldn’t read the board from where I was sitting, can we move it?”  Perhaps the person using the board had trouble keeping track of his own character while wrangling the pens.

Then take what you learned and take the new ideas and act on them.  This pushes you back around to planning for your next improvement.  Think about a better place for the board; “we can track conditions here too, that way the healer knows when anyone is bloodied…”

The P-D-C-A cycle can be applied to all phases of your game.  While it’s probably most useful for creating norms around the table (such as the above mentioned encounter tracking), Dungeon Masters should be thinking in these terms all the time.  The planning and doing comes with the job.  Check how those encounters worked by asking your players and doing some self reflection.  What might work better next time?

There are a few things that can really help the P-D-C-A mentality take off: be clear about the purpose of any change.  Most don’t like change for change’s sake, especially if the change wasn’t their idea.  Keep most of your changes small, discrete and review them often.

If you’re still interested, here is a short video by from a webcast by Robert Lloyd, PhD from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement with a further explanation.  This can also be found at the Curious Cate Management Improvement Blog

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Filed under 4e D&D, Advice, continuous improvement

Character Arcs

While 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is primarily a combat game, it’s a role-playing game too.  As such, the entire game benefits when some extra thought is put into the character side of character creation.

There are several great models in popular fiction that show the options.  Regardless of what you may think of Star Wars, Episodes 1 – 3 or of Hayden Christensen’s acting, the arc of Anakin Skywalker as a young adult lends itself well to role-playing.  He starts as a hero, but with clear vulnerability surrounding the women in his life and some issues of pride and wrath.  We all knew how his story would end because we’d already seen Episodes IV through VI.  In a gaming context, it’s easy to imagine the other directions his story may have gone.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy presents a few other examples, some similar and some quite different.  Aragorn, Merry and Pippin are transformed by their adventures, similar to Anakin.  Others, like Sam, Gimli and Legolas, don’t change in any fundamental way.  Their relationships change, they learn things and become a bit wiser, but Sam is still the gardener who left the Shire when he returns.

Gandalf is a special case:  Gandalf the Grey doesn’t change from when he is introduced in The Hobbit until he falls in the Mines of Moria.  Gandalf the White’s personality is consistent from when he appears in Forest Fangorn until he departs Middle Earth at the end of Return of the King.  In essence, however, those are two different characters.  It’s as if the same player created Gandalf the White after Gandalf the Grey failed his third death save.

When creating your own character, first understand what he’s about at that time of life.  Next think about where he’ll be at the end of his story.  Will he evolve from the wilderness ranger into king of the known realm, or will he go back home and live happily ever after in domesticity?  How will his outlook on life change during that journey?  Think about the triggers he’s built with.  What might throw him into a rage?  What will provoke him to fundamentally re-examining his life?

Flexibility is key when it comes to creating a character’s arc for a long term campaign.  A player character’s development shouldn’t depend on a specific plot line; while some campaigns focus one PC, you’ll probably have to share screen time and plot involvement with the others.

As you play, you may find that your original concept doesn’t work anymore.  That’s okay.  Lee Adama in Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica had significant arc shifts throughout his story – from Viper pilot to captain of the Pegasus to defense attorney to acting president – that were mostly unplanned when he debuted in the mini-series.  The purpose is to add enjoyment to your campaign, so there’s no benefit in sticking to an arc that is no longer compelling.


Filed under 4e D&D, Character, continuous improvement, Fluff/Inspiration

Character Sheet Management

Everyone at my regular game manages his character differently.  One is completely digital, a few use power cards (hand written and pre-printed), two of us, I think, use character sheets.  To be honest, I’m not sure how my fellow players’ systems work.

For those unfamiliar with the Character Builder’s format, the first two pages it offers are the standard Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition character sheet.  Your character’s stats, skills, feats and whatnot are on the first page; a list of your powers, equipment and personality notes are on page two.  Beyond that, it compiles the statistics for each of your character’s powers, up to nine per page.  It calculates the math based on your abilities and magic items.  The powers pages are formatted so that you can cut them apart and use each piece as a card.

There are some key things about the power card system that I don’t like.  The natural state for a group of cards is in a stack, and a stack of cards can only be viewed one at a time, with some shuffling required to find most information.  While it is possible to lay them out to see everything all together, this feels chaotic.  Besides, a card might be dropped, and the layout’s sequence is different every time unless you take pains to keep them in a specific arrangement.

I recognize that the ability to remove cards that are no longer available (an expended daily, for example) simplifies the sorting you have to do.  However, you also lose the ability to make a quick comparison of resource availability versus expenditure.  The fact that you have one remaining daily card doesn’t immediately tell you that you’ve already used two others and that your character’s adventuring day is, more or less, 2/3rds over.

Instead, I keep the sheets together after printing from the Builder.  Each page offers generous information, without being overly complicated.  I write a light ‘x’ on each expended power, and erase them when appropriate.  When I’m short on space, I pile all six sheets together. 

What I’d really like is to shift to an 11” x 17” sized paper character sheet.  That would double the amount of easily available information, and a quick fold down the middle, would allow it to stack and store as easily as the standard 8 ½” x 11”.  I wonder if the character builder supports large paper…

What system do you use?  Are there advantages to power cards that I’m overlooking?


Filed under continuous improvement, Information management

Analog has its Advantages

Now that we have fully entered the 21st century, more digital tools and resources are available than ever, and the trend is shows every sign of continuing.   The tension between digital and analog in gaming is nothing new, – I programmed my first character creator for my Commodore 64 in 1987 – and parallels the conflict found in the music and movie industries.  Now that we’re a year and a half into the 4th edition / DnD Insider era, it’s time to focus on a few things that analog does well.

When I started gaming in the mid 80s, role-playing games were referred to as ‘pen and paper’ games to differentiate them from video games and board games.  Dungeons and Dragons begins with the rule books and character sheets.  What advantage do books have over digitized information?

The first is the pure joy of holding a book, looking at its pages and smelling the ink.  Subjective pleasures aside, if you have space, you can spread your books out and have lots of information available, all at the same time.  Unless you have three or more 19” monitors, digitized information can’t compete.  During 4th edition character creation, I’ve also found that using books and paper forces me to really learn the mechanics behind the new character. When I have to calculate each advantage and disadvantage myself, I find myself better prepared to start playing.

While Wizards of the Coast does a great job of adding content to 4th edition via the Insider, there are a number of other companies who also add interesting content.  Third party publishers can push the edge of the design envelope that you won’t see from WOTC, and, in many cases, they’re able to explore design space long in advance.  Goodman Games published books featuring the Dragonborn, Eladrin and Tiefling races throughout 2009 (some may have appeared in 2008), while the ‘official’ racial books won’t begin appearing from WOTC until 2010.  Mongoose Publishing has a line of Quintessential class books that may be interesting to those playing rogues, fighers or wizards.  None of this content is integrated into the DnD Insider, so if you want to use it, you have to start analog.


Filed under Third Party Publishers

Dragora’s Dungeon, January Edition Part 2

My last post focused on the things that went well in last Saturday’s games session in Dragora’s Dungeon.  Now I’m going to dig into the bumps and other opportunities for improvement that I noticed.

As usual, the module’s layout vexes me.  I’m familiar with the content, so the stumbles were minor; in particular, the PCs asked for some descriptions of a key building, and while I remembered the overall features, I couldn’t find the tower’s exact description.  Like any good DM, I improvised, but I would have preferred to have the information at hand.

An aspect of the session that the players did suffer from was the escape from the big fight.  I can’t blame the module, since adding the flight option was my idea (hmm, maybe it should have been in the module…).  I hadn’t thought through all the details, so it was hard for me to provide them with clear options.  My group is pretty good at innovating with terrain, and some of them took advantage of emerging opportunities, but there was some frustration that I could have avoided with a bit more planning and clarity.

Around two thirds of the way through the session, the exploration of the city slipped into the un-fun zone.  The PCs had lots of options, almost all of them workable from my perspective, but they had trouble deciding.  This might simply be the way it is in a game like this.  They didn’t have enough pieces to put the whole puzzle together, yet smart players really want to make the best decision.  When I play, I do the same thing, and maybe that’s okay in moderate doses.  The Evil Hat game “Spirit of the Century” advises ‘sending in ninjas’ at times like those.  Let me tell you, I considered it.

I also have a few things that I’m still chewing on.  As a militaristic society, the Zain-kin are almost all soldier type monsters.  Lots of soldiers typically mean long combats.  This was no exception, but it didn’t seem excessive considering the scale of the battle.  Their high defenses did make them tough to hit, so even the minions hung around.  My point is to remember that encounter make-up matters.  Too many soldiers can be boring, and I definitely felt that potential in this encounter.

My initiative tracking system is still imperfect.  It worked for the most part, and this is only the second time that I’ve used Excel on my laptop to track it all.  I think I would have preferred to use a mouse (I left mine at home), and I’ll have to think of more ways to improve my process.  Maybe next time I’ll try some third party applications.  What recommendations do you have?

Not surprisingly, the last thing on my ‘things to hone’ list is the skill checks to travel through the city.  Originally, I had imagined a more complicated skill challenge structure that would require multiple failures before the PCs felt negative affects.  In practice, their chance of success for each check was quite high.  I have no problem with that, but if (when?) a majority of the group does blow their stealth check, there should be a consequence.  I have some ideas on tightening this up that I can try next session, and I’ll let you know how it goes.


Filed under continuous improvement, Session Debrief

Dragora’s Dungeon, January Edition Part 1

Last night I continued dungeon mastering my group through Dragora’s Dungeon.  We all had lots of fun, and I’ve identified some things that went great, some things I’ll revisit in the future and some things to keep an eye on in my play.

At the end of their December session, the player characters had entered The Lost City of the Parhok and encountered a group of tall monkey men called the Zain-kin.  Negotiations broke down and a battle was about to begin.  Reinforcements entered the fray after a few rounds, the party tactically withdrew and started sneaking around the edges of the city.  After questioning a pair of Zain-kin children, they presented themselves to the tower of one of the city’s main factions, the Zamosh.  They were in discussion with the elders of the clan when the session came to a close.

A lot went really well.  Right off the bat, the large complicated battle with 14 bad guys and 5 PCs moved okay and was fun.  I spent some time designing the battle map, included a rushing river, a handful of buildings and some rocky cover.  The terrain made a difference and was heavily used by the PCs.  Overall, the party felt like they were in danger, but it didn’t seem hopeless.  The question of whether to flee or fight came up early, and just as the tide was turning in the PCs favor – I think around the third round – Zain-kin reinforcements arrived.  While the PCs may have been able to defeat their enemies, this was uncertain, and they didn’t know if more were coming.

I place a lot of value on meaningful decisions, and this was the first of the session.  Had they fought and loss, they would have been taken prisoner.  Instead, they fled.

A large part of the session involved moving through the city and trying to figure out what was going on.  This involved talking to people, watching the movements of Zain-kin and making some educated guesses.  This felt very organic as they pieced it all together.

The module includes a bit about the language of the Zain-kin that proved a lot of fun:  they speak an old dialect of Common.  PCs must make a history check to have an ear for the language.  My own ear for language is poor, but I managed to describe the effect well enough.  Most importantly, the half of the group who could communicate wasn’t the half that was skilled at diplomacy.  This set us all up for some great role-playing and hilarity.

It wasn’t all perfect, of course.  I’ll dig into the areas for improvement on Thursday.

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Filed under continuous improvement, Session Debrief