Monthly Archives: May 2010

Who is on Your Team?

In a role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons, a group of players will sometimes coalesce into more than a group:  as I (and others) have described, they will form, storm, norm and start performing as a team.  Once a group has survived those early stages by aligning around a purpose and sorting out who is in charge, they can start playing at a very high level.  This is when characters start synchronizing attacks, players have learned who knows the most about the skills rules, and the group – or rather, the team – has developed ways of resolving tactical disagreements.

D&D presents an interesting dynamic because often times, the players don’t feel like they’re on the same team as the dungeon master.  Conventional player wisdom believes that the DM’s job is to create obstacles and challenges.  He has a screen that hides die rolls and limits information.  The group’s purpose is to overcome those challenges; the DM is their adversary, not their ally.

There is another way to think about these relationships:  the purpose of the gaming group is not to overcome obstacles, the purpose is to create interesting stories and to craft a fun and satisfying play experience for everyone involved.  While the player characters are certainly on different teams than the DM’s monsters, the players are on the same team as the dungeon master.  We’re all in this together.  We’re all trying to navigate the rules, have a good time and tell a good, exciting story together.

It’s much easier to resolve interpersonal conflicts after you begin with the premise that the DM and the players are on the same team.  Should a DM make an encounter too difficult, it’s much easier to forgive him when you begin with the premise that you have the same primary goals.  Naturally, the DM’s job is different from the players’, just as a baseball pitcher’s job is different from the first baseman’s and a striker’s is from a defender’s.  That just means we have variety in the roles to play in our pursuit of challenge and fun.

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The Episode List

One of the advantages to only being the dungeon master for one game per month is that I have a lot of time to prepare between sessions. I do have other pulls on my time, so I don’t spend much of that time working through the mechanics of my encounters. Instead, I use it to refine the plot points and characters. It’s easy to weigh the pros and cons of introducing a new super-villain while I’m on the bus or stranded in a boring meeting.

While planning my Planeary Adventures campaign I used a variation of the 5×5 Method to plan out the major quest lines in order to get a sense for where the campaign is headed. I also decided to make the sessions episodic, preferably with an injected piece of self-contained story in each. I’ve patterned this after typical comic-book and television story telling. As a group, we’ve decided to advance the player characters’ levels every other session.

With these decisions in mind, I most recently plotted out the ‘episodes’ of our adventure out about a year in advance. There are two purposes behind this project. The first is to gain a sense when, in real time, the group will hit the major plot points. I don’t want to spend too much time developing a story that doesn’t pay-off. I also wanted to have a sense for what level they will reach when the story begins to resolve and shift. This is not intended as a shoe-horn, and it works well because my group tends to stay near the rails. I will need to make edits as they drift from my plan.

Below you’ll find the first two entries, so you can see the format I’ve used. I’ve extended the episode numbers, dates, summaries and level fields out for the next ten months or so.

Ep # Name Date Summary Level
1 Escape March 2010 Having just escaped from the Zain-kin prison, the group flees to the edges of the territory and finds a hideout 3
2 Westfall April 2010 The group goes to Westfall to claim their reward.  Sonliin meets an old friend and they must defend the town from Shadar-kai raiders. 3

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Creative Teamwork

I haven’t been gaming much lately, and I’m a smidge under the weather, so this will be brief.

When playing any role playing game, either as player or game-master, keep an eye out for bits of creativity from your fellow players that you can hook on to. If a group is going to create a world that feels developed and real, it will take all of your brains and all of you will need to participate. Otherwise, you may wind up with five completely separate and parallel stories surrounding your adventure. There are certainly worse things, but if you find ways to interweave your creative minds, you’ll find that it all hangs together in a more satisfactory way.

Along with the idea of hooking on to the stories of your other players, support your other players when they want to add content to a story that you’ve created.

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Why I Hate Magic Items

I don’t really hate magic items. Individually, they are a lot of fun. As a Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition player, I really enjoyed my paladin’s +2 flaming long sword, and I love his +3 imposter’s plate mail. These widgets add to my gaming experience. I hate D&D’s magic item system, and here’s why:

1) Magic items aren’t special, they are expected. In fact, ownership is built into the game. If player characters don’t have access to level appropriate items, they lose their ability to fight level appropriate monsters. The math is engineered for characters to get items early and often.

I can’t think of a single fictional character who uses six different magic swords through the course of his career, but that is expected during a D&D campaign. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings provides an excellent example of high fantasy that resembles Dungeons and Dragons; those characters received several interesting magic items each. Still, they received the one set of elven armor throughout their careers. Not only did Frodo use ‘Sting’ for most of his adventuring career, it was a hand-me-down from his uncle. Authors most often treat magic items as D&D treats its artifacts. They are rare, interesting and often plot changing.

2) I hate giving up obsolete (but beloved) items. I gave that flaming sword a name, (“Oath”) and loved using a free action to make its damage fiery. Since my Paladin is a Tiefling, the fire worked well with the flavor of the character. While I was pleased to upgrade to a +3 vicious bastard I still miss Oath.

Have you ever seen a literary character carrying around redundant magic items? Why are we satisfied to include that into our gaming narrative?

3) As a Dungeon Master, I do not enjoy the prep involved in treasure distribution. I have three motives for DMing: 1) I like to facilitate fun with my friends, 2) D&D provides a creative outlet for my storytelling and 3) I like reading modules and integrating their content into my own encounter design. I don’t have time or inclination to learn the nuances of every player character in my group. I also don’t care to familiarize myself with every magic item each may find useful.

A player generated wish list is a helpful work around, but if you’re going that far, why not let them pick what they want directly? In the game I currently DM, I only award gold, and I encourage them to convert it into items between sessions.

I’m ready for a system that allows players to have interesting items (like swords that glow when goblins approach), but doesn’t force PCs to replace their family heirlooms every three levels.

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Character Sexuality

As a combat oriented role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition holds a tension between the tactical parts of the game and the character elements. I’m a fan of both, so I constantly try to inject flourishes into my player characters.

One often overlooked and avoided way to inject true character into your PC is to reflect on and identify a sexual orientation. Many gamers avoid anything to do with sex in their game: for some of us, our early gaming experiences were as teenagers when we knew little about human sexuality; when the topic came up, it likely to descend into adolescent silliness. There is also the concern of the gaming group becoming creepy or feeling threatening to those uncomfortable including sex in the game.

These concerns are fair. While it is reasonable for a group of adult gamers to focus on romance and other aspects of human relationships, most D&D groups frankly aren’t interested. As an aside, the Book of Erotic Fantasy by Gwendolyn Kestrel and Duncan Scott is a supplement that is compatible for the 3.5 rule system that focuses exactly on “intrigue and manipulation, marriages of power, dangerous seducers, sex and magic.”

Even for standard hack and slash Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, simply identifying your character’s sexual orientation is a large step toward making him seem more real. It is then interesting to flesh out a character’s interest in relationships. Consider Westley’s situation before the action really started in The Princess Bride. He is clearly straight, but when he was away, becoming The Dread Pirate Roberts, he had no interest in pursuing other relationships. Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, Wildstorm comics’ Midnighter (member of Authority) and Moorcocks’ Elric of Melnibone are other characters with established sexual orientations that added something to their personas.

If your group isn’t in to it, there’s no need to role-play any of the details. This doesn’t mean you can’t add story elements to the back story or into the out-of-play scenes.

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Encounter and Initiative Tracking 3.0

When I started as an occasional dungeon master in Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, I used initiative cards to track initiative, defenses and passive perception and insight for players and defenses, initiative and some powers for monsters. Gradually I simplified things (using the plan-do-check-act cycle that I’ve written about previously), and when I purchased a laptop last fall, I thought it was time for a change.

In version 2.0, I used Excel tabs to track initiative and other key elements. This worked pretty well, but led to lots of toggling between tabs and felt a little complicated in larger combats with more than two monster types. Before long I trialed initiative tracking onto a single worksheet. After some reflection and adjusting, I’ve prepared my brand new and improved encounter tracking system in Excel.

I learned in 2.0 that I absolutely like to have image captures of my monsters from the DnD Insider Monster Builder. While I also prefer to have the book open for the knowledge check information, tactics and art, the stat block gives me everything I need for the round-to-round combat. I have the initiative tracker grid also ready to go, along with the hit point calculating formulas. When battle begins, I will simply record the damage, as incurred and Excel will do the math for me. I was an English major: I hate doing math. I have some extra cels associated with each monster where I’ll note conditions and which mini is which.

If you’re a player in my group, don’t look too closely at the image until after Saturday’s game; it might spoil some of the fun for you.

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Skill Challenges: Every Roll should Matter

I’d bet that skill challenges are the most analyzed, discussed and tinkered-with elements of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons. On a whole, the writers, designers and players want the system to work, but the whole thing doesn’t seem to hang together yet, especially when compared with the rest of the game. For example, if an adventuring party has an encounter that’s within the normal experience budget, it will be dependably challenging. The math is clean, and it applies well to actual play.

It’s much more difficult to make a skill challenge interesting and, you know, challenging. While I’m no pioneer on running or designing them, it may be useful for others to hear some of my dungeon mastering principles when designing and running skill challenges.

Every success should matter. In fact, every roll of the dice should change the environment. The characters have interacted with their world, they’ve used their skills, and the players have rolled some dice. What’s different now? In last week’s game, my group had to repair the mystic/mechanical defenses of a small town in advance of a bandit attack. Each success earned them more functionality, and each attempt took about an hour. If the characters got distracted, or wanted to spend their time on other preparations, the earlier portion of the challenge wouldn’t be wasted. If they failed three times, the mechanisms would break, the magic would discharge and they would lose their asset.

When designing social skill challenges, I parse out key bits of information and/or specific behaviors. With each success, they either learn something key, or they earn a new level of cooperation. In last week’s game, the villagers could be convinced to participate in their town’s defense. However, convincing someone to assist is very different from recruiting someone to fight on the front line, and recruiting someone to fight is different from having a genuinely useful ally. During actual play, the party’s warlord wasn’t interested in putting the villagers in harm’s way, but he did want some indirect, supportive help during the battle. As a result, he broke off the challenge after a single success, and I didn’t push it.

I’ve had the most success by including a lot of structure to my challenges, and then playing them with flexibly. It works, though I struggle to find target numbers that create a sense of possible failure without making them impossible.

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