Tag Archives: Group dynamics

Buzzed Gaming

There are no two ways around it:  I’m simply not as smart after I’ve had a drink as I am before.  It’s more difficult for me to track details, to follow processes, remember small things and to be creative.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good beer and some bourbon as much (and maybe more) than the next guy.  However, the facts are irrefutable at this point.

I noticed it most during a game of Robo Rally (a wonderful board game that you should play) last month.  Normally, I’m pretty good at this game.  My mind tends to compartmentalize information easily, and I can usually think pretty fast.  Early in the game, I rushed out to an early, dominant appearing lead.  Then I drank a beer.  My little robot started rolling in random directions, and my lead dwindled to almost nothing.

Then the buzz wore off, my mind cleared and I won handily.

I am acutely aware of this limitation when running a Dungeons and Dragons game.  Since I only DM about once a month, I don’t really have much experience, and there’s simply too much to track.  I need to stay sharp.  Normally, adding  a drink makes almost every good thing a little better, but that isn’t true when I’m running a D&D game.

I usually ride my motorcycle to my weekly game, and I have a strict, self imposed, zero drinking and biking rule, so I don’t know if that applies as a D&D player.  I do know that a cocktail or two goes just fine with most other board and card games.  Flux and Munchkin are casual enough that a buzz doesn’t hurt game play, as is Ticket to Ride.

What do you think?  When does alcohol add to your gaming experience, and when does it take something away?

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Filed under 4e D&D, Culture, Group dynamics, life meets game

Magic Item Resource Management

I take a decidedly lazy approach to magic items in my monthly Dungeons and Dragons game.  I award the player characters gold, and let them buy what they like off screen.  The economics are standard; they can sell existing items at 20% value and they get the appropriate parcels of value for their level.

While there is something lost for the players since they are never pleasantly surprised when a sweet item comes their way.  On the other hand, they aren’t disappointed either.  They can simply get the item that best suits their character without the roundabout ritual of giving me a wish list.

A controversy arose during last session about the best way to manage the financial resources:  one player suggested that the group pool its money, in order to get higher level items quicker.  The other player wanted to divide up the gold evenly and let each player manage his character’s finances separately.  None of the other three players expressed preferences.  Since I had abdicated magic item control to the players, I very intentionally stayed out of it.

I wonder, is there an advantage to giving one character a high level item rather than a few characters something of lower level?  I have contrary intuitions:  on one hand, it seems that you should get powerful items as quickly as possible.  On the other, the economy seems designed to work out evenly.

Am I (or my players) missing something?

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Filed under 4e D&D, continuous improvement, Group dynamics, Play

Self Grading

I know that I’m stronger in some areas of my Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition playing and dungeon mastering than others.  In the pursuit of continuous improvement, I’d like to share some recent reflections on my strengths and weaknesses.

I’m a good role-player.  I really enjoy crafting characters and sticking with their personalities during a game.  When fellow players or the DM provide story or character hooks, I try and grab them in order to expand the story.

On the other hand, I’m pretty average with the mechanical parts of the game.  After nearly two years, I still only vaguely understand the stealth and jumping rules, and I’m not particularly great at min/maxing during character creation.  I don’t often embarrass myself, though, and when I regularly play a character, I usually stay on top of what he can do:  I can’t remember how stealth works because I’ve been playing a plate mail wearing paladin since nearly the beginning.  Ayn couldn’t hide from a deaf, sleeping and blind mule in a snowstorm.

I’m not very good at adding numbers in my head either, especially after 10 p.m..  Since we normally quit around that time, I’m usually okay, but I have been caught accidentally cheating on to-hit rolls during the closing rounds of a long solo battle.  I wonder how many other times I cheated without realizing?

As a dungeon master, many of these strengths translate.  I think my players find my NPCs interesting, and I think the game’s story is reasonably compelling.  I feel good about my ability to run a typical combat (though, again, there’s always room for improvement), and to provide meaningful decisions throughout a game.  We aren’t a sandbox play group, but no one wants to ride on a single set of rails.

I do have a history of getting too cute with the difficulty of my encounters.  I once put my party of first level characters up against a vampire lord.  That wasn’t a badly designed encounter, but it was not a good fit for my group of mostly new players, and I was still a rookie DM myself.  Then there was the accidental near-TPK when I forgot to factor in a wraith’s ‘elite’ experience point value to the budget.  I won’t even mention the two close-call encounters…

On a few of those occasions, the encounters were more challenging because of decisions made by the players, and/or would have been easier had the players made different choices.  Lucky for me, my current D&D group is pretty forgiving of my mistakes.

As a D&D player or DM, what are you good at?  What are you trying to improve?

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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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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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Filed under Advice, Advice/Tools, Character, continuous improvement, Culture, Fluff, Fluff/Inspiration, Group dynamics, Inspiration

Don’t Look Back: Ideas to Keep the Game Moving

Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition can be a complicated game.  During any one turn, one player can have a shifting variety of options that depend on the specifics of the situation.  As a result, turns can take quite awhile as players analyze the possibilities and make decisions.  According to the Wizards of the Coast D&D podcast, a player’s turn usually averages about a minute each, and dungeon master’s takes about twice that.  In my weekly game, it’s not unusual for turns to take even longer.  This is not necessarily a problem, depending on your group.  Analyzing the situation and making tactical decisions is part of the fun, so our group has decided not to be too concerned it.

It’s also not unusual for a player (myself included) to realize he has overlooked something on his turn.  Sometimes this is substantial, such as a dazed or immobilized affect, sometimes less so, like a few points of damage.  In my mind, this is a larger problem.  Rewinding to the point of divergence is the purist’s answer.  Most D&D groups place at least some value on Getting the Rules Right and this is the only way to really fix a mistake.  There is a price:  depending on how far you rewind, the mental set-up and activity of other players is wasted, results of good dice rolls evaporate, and combats take even longer.

The other, simpler fix is to always move forward.  Did you forget about those additional two points of additional damage from your daily?  Too late.  Did you forget to use a move action to stand from prone?  Don’t worry about it.  The game will probably move faster, but this can feel unsatisfactory when it comes at the expense of accuracy.  Battles might last even longer if many to hit and damage bonuses are abandoned.

Instead of either absolute, I’ve been developing a middle path.  In almost all situations in life and in game, the middle path leads to greater serenity.  My first guideline is to never interrupt a player turn or remove a dice roll because something was missed.  Seek balance in the medium term by incorporating the missing element to the current state of the game.  This is easy with points of missing damage or healing because hit points are already abstract and there’s little difference between the exact timing of heals and hits.  If a player took too many actions (because of a dazed affect, for example), add the penalty to a future turn:  extend the dazed affect through the turn following his successful save, for example.  This does add accounting to a player who has shown a capacity to forget details, but it’s worth a try.

If a player took two few actions (perhaps they forgot an additional saving throw or invulnerability) two options come to mind:  either let her take those actions after the current player – but don’t change their initiative order, or let her take all her actions on her next turn.  For example, if a player erroneously thought her character was dazed and only took a single action, let her take two additional actions when her turn comes back around in the initiative order.  Like the previous solution, this creates some bookkeeping, but it helps keep the game balanced, fair and, perhaps most importantly, moving forward.

I have to admit I haven’t trialed this much.  What am I missing?  Are there solutions that I haven’t considered?

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Filed under Advice, Advice/Tools, continuous improvement, Group dynamics

First Who, Then What

Not long ago I came across the audio version of Jim Collins’ Good to Great.  While the focus of the book is to understand the difference between truly great companies with great leadership and enduring growth from the merely good companies who’ve experienced brief periods of strength, many of its themes apply to any group of people assembled for a long term purpose.  For example, great companies first assemble key leadership teams, then they decide what roles team members should hold and what the strategy of the company should be.  This applies directly to gaming.

Games are often formed from a hodgepodge of available players.  Perhaps someone posts an online ad, perhaps it’s an assembly of friends.  Whatever the case, some attention should be paid to the type of player one invites to the table.  In gaming it isn’t as crucial to assemble great people, after all, we’re all here to have fun.  It is crucial, however, to assemble gamers of compatible temperament and style.  One really bad player can spoil the entire group, just as two diametrically opposed players can.  Ideally, the bad eggs and troublesome relationships should be identified before they’re allowed into the group.  If someone already in the group consistently spoils the fun, it may be time to have that difficult conversation and disinvite them from the game.

The uncomfortable truth is that troubled players tend to hang around for too long because few people are willing to have that difficult conversation.

Once the right players are at the table, and the wrong players are away from the table, a group can decide what it wants to do a the table.  While many dungeon masters do much of their campaign planning before they’ve gathered their players for the first time, there are hazards here.  It’s better to adapt the campaign to the strengths and interests of the players.  Similarly, it’s best to hold character creation until all the players are identified and can participate.  Creating after the sharp minds have been assembled will lead to more interesting origins and sharper character builds.  Most importantly, this should lead to increased fun of the entire group.

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