Lest Ye Be Judged

Character alignment has been something that is largely overlooked in the D&D campaigns I am a part of – either as a PC or a DM. Generally the players are Lawful, Lawful Good or Neutral on their character sheet but this label is in no way connected to their character’s behavior. The purpose of this post is not to discuss the merits or lack thereof of the alignment system, but to present how I dealt with a concern I developed in my campaign related to alignment.

"Justice is blind, let's just do whatever we want."

My party is composed of “normal” players, meaning no one seems outwardly to be a dangerous sociopath. The group has mostly focused on “doing the good thing” and trying to save the day. There are times when morality is bent to achieve a certain end, and these situations have been roleplayed effectively by the players. But as the characters have leveled up and gained greater mastery in the world, the players also seemed to grow more confident in bending rules or blatantly disregarding laws.

I felt like the party’s moral compass was spinning in circles, but I did not see it as my job as the DM to tell the party what to do. I saw my job as developing appropriate consequences for their actions. They did not do anything this heinous, but there were questionable actions in the game world. Namely, a murder of an unarmed man in one town who the party learned was abusing his wife and the murder of another unarmed woman in another town during an interrogation. I began to feel like the players were running roughshod through the world I created, but I was not sure how to address it without forcing the players to conform to my sense of morality and judgement in a heavy-handed manner.

In the end, I decided to place the characters on trial and allow them to defend themselves from a variety of accurate (and inaccurate) charges. I was most curious to see how the players would respond, and it turned into an enlightening – and hopefully enjoyable – skill challenge/roleplaying experience. Below, I describe how I prepared and executed the trial.

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Dungeon Mastering: Theory & Practice

Several moons ago, I posed the following question on Twitter, “What is your biggest flaw as a DM?” I also asked, “What is your biggest strength as a DM?” It should come as little surprise that more DMs responded to the Flaw than Strength question because people remember negative events better than positive events. I had every intention of writing about the responses I got from DMs but was distracted by numerous things – one of which was rampant speculation about D&D Next.

Perfection? Look closer.

I have read with interest the updates regarding the design motivations for D&D Next. Many of the articles have focused on theoretical issues such as archetypal characters, edition reunification and other specific rule changes. When I finally returned to the list of personal flaws DMs provided, I was struck by how little their responses related to gaming mechanics and rules and how much they applied to the practical issues of running a game. While specific questions like, “How should Turn Undead function for a Cleric?” are interesting and perhaps even essential to facets of game design, the focus on mechanical issues seems to overlook the needs expressed by DMs.

Below, I discuss the numerous responses I received from DMs regarding their “biggest flaw” and organize their responses in several categories. Since I do not have access to the materials that will be provided for DMs to run D&D Next, I returned to 4th Edition manuals – specifically Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 (DMG 2) – to investigate the proportion of content that addresses the most common DM flaws. I conclude by advocating for a new paradigm in future DMG manuals with clear education on not only game theory (e.g., rules, mechanics) but also practice (e.g., communication with players, managing the table).

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Can The Id DM Be Your RPG Site of The Year?

EDIT: I want to thank everyone who visited Stuffer Shack and voted for The Id DM. With your help, I was able to move on to the final round. My fate – along with four other fantastic sites – is now up to the judges. Good luck to everyone remaing in the contest, and thank you again for your support!

As a winner of Stuffer Shack’s Site of the Month in June 2011, I was entered in their RPG Site of the Year contest. The contest is running each day this week and features a healthy dose of blogs you should be visiting. The Id DM appears in today’s list of finalists. If this is your first time to the site, then you check visit a recent one-year anniversary summary of my work.

If you feel so inclined, then I would appreciate it if you could click on the SOTY image (pictured right) and vote for The Id DM. However, the main reason you should visit Stuffer Shack to check out the contest is the variety of blogs nominated. I was not aware of all of them before and I’m glad they are featured in the contest. There are many talented people blogging out there, so check out their work! Congratulations to all of the blogs nominated.

While you are visiting Stuffer Shack, you can read two articles I wrote for their site. The first is a detailed background of Brother Laurence of the Chizoba Sect for their Steal This NPC series. In retrospect, my work on Brother Laurence for the column was a precursor to the No Assembly Required monster series. The second article discusses cheating in roleplaying games and suggests how DMs can understand and prevent it from occurring at the table.

Finally, Stuffer Shack has some wonderful products that can be used for roleplaying games. Our homegames use some of the products, including the various markers and mount miniatures.

The Complexity of Creating Compelling Campaign Conclusions

With the announcement of D&D Next, many gaming groups are likely now in the process of forming an exit strategy for their 4th Edition campaigns. It is first worth noting that most D&D campaign do not reach a conclusion. Even DM Extraordinaire, Chris Perkins, recently commented, “A D&D campaign is like a television series; statistically, the odds are high it’ll get cancelled before its time. The first ten years I spent playing D&D, I never completed a single campaign, either as a player or as a DM. My experience up to that point taught me that campaigns only ended when the characters died or when the next campaign began.” This is not a unique phenomenon as veteran DM, Randall Walker from This Is My Game explained, “I’ve been DMing for about 15 years (although I’ve been playing the game for 30 years now) . . . as a DM, I have not had a campaign reach a finishing state.” Campaign conclusions are difficult for gaming groups, and an enormous challenge for DMs.

I humbly request for you to clear your mind and consider the challenges of successfully ending a campaign.

Many wars and feuds did Iddy fight. Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, he became a king by his own hand... But how should this story be told? This, Iddy contemplates...

Imagine you are a DM of a campaign that has played out over the course of multiple years. During that time, the DM has introduced his or her players to a variety of railroad and sandbox game experiences with a wide array of characters, storylines and plot points. The DM has managed content to accommodate individual player interests, which have taken shape over the course of the campaign and continue to change to the present day. Also consider the gaming group has not been composed of the same players throughout the life of the campaign; some players have been in the gaming group since Level 1. But other players in the group have only joined recently, and thus their knowledge of the campaign setting and associated characters, storylines and plot points are not the same as those who have been in the group since Level 1. In addition, players who participated in the campaign at Level 1 may no longer be included in the group because they no longer had time to participate and had to leave for other duties.  Each time a player leaves the group, a part of the shared experience is lost for everyone since the entire campaign is formed through a collaborative process between the DM and players.

In terms of successfully ending a campaign, the DM faces many obstacles to bring closure to the events in a manner that is acceptable to everyone remaining in the group. Imagine how this DM must feel with the responsibility of concluding a campaign on his or her shoulders. The DM must consider the preferences of each player left in the gaming group, who have all had a very individualized experience during the entire campaign. How does a DM find a way to unite a diverse set of characters, storylines and plot points with players who have experienced those factors in different ways or not at all? Picture that DM as they sit at a desk attempting to develop a clean conclusion to their campaign. Can you see the DM wrestling with the task?

Now imagine the DM is Bioware and the campaign is Mass Effect.

Continue reading “The Complexity of Creating Compelling Campaign Conclusions”

No Assembly Required: Kemah Timmonen

The April edition of my monthly monster-building column, No Assembly Required, is now posted at This Is My Game.

The column, No Assembly Required, features a monster that can be inserted into a Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Each monster in the series includes comprehensive information including Origin, Lore, Combat Tactics, Power Descriptions and Stat Block. Visit This Is My Game to review this month’s monster, Kemah Timmonen. Kemah is an Paragon-Tier female shadar-kai that will feel right at home in any campaign, but certainly an adventure in The Shadowfell.

My goal with Kemah was to create a ruthless villain to go along with the uneasy and violent themes of The Shadowfell. I wanted her to enhance her abilities as a Controller and crafted powers to fit into this theme. I modified what it means to be Dominated and created a new status effect, Conflicted.

And I also wanted her to have orange and black in her color schedule because it’s playoff hockey time and I’m a huge Philadelphia Flyers fan. The Flyers are currently battling in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs – so Let’s Go Flyers!

Visit This is My Game for the full description of Kemah Timmonen, and check out previous entries in the series!

Many thanks to Grant Gould who provided the fantastic design and illustration for Kemah.

Discount Fares to Shattered Isles

I previously detailed a skill challenge that featured the party chasing their prey along the rooftops of Gloomwrought. Once the party finally corners their prey – in this case, traitors of Ghost Talon – the unstable building in the Shattered Isles collapses. The challenge I faced was bringing the Shattered Isles to life for the ensuing encounter. The Shattered Isles are described as a series of five island jutting out of the water. A bit of the flavor text provided in the Shadowfell boxset (p. 58) is below:

Some parts of [the Isles] are eternally on the verge of collapse . . . Parapets droop at extreme angles, black stone seeming to flow down their faces like wax running down a candle. Cracked edifices lean together over narrow cobbled streets and end abruptly at the shore . . . Monsters of many sorts lurk among the ruins, and these creatures can snatch even the canny folk who live near such threats and know of them. The thick, black fluid known as necrotic seepage sometimes boils up from the polluted earth, and islanders who know enough to stay away from it can avoid contracting the disease it carries.

I could have drawn a map, which would have made my life significantly easier, but I imagined something else entirely. The images conjured from the flavor text seemed to need something more than a two-dimensional hand drawn map, and this is what I created.

Behold the Shattered Isle!

Below, I present my low-cost solution to bringing the Shattered Isles to life.

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Gloomwrought’s Final Destination

One of the fun challenges of running a session in the Shadowfell is trying to convey the magnitude of wickedness, gloom, despair and violence. The DM can hit the five senses quickly through flavor text, but the Shadowfell seems to call for even more attention to detail in terms of convincing the players that they should be in a constant state of fear.  It is a challenge I continue to face each week as my players continue to adventure in Gloomwrought (and Beyond).

Weep now and despair!

A tool provided in the Shadowfell boxset is the Despair Deck, which is a nifty tool to layer additional mechanics into the game to demonstrate the negative effects of simply spending time in the bleak realm. The suggestions are to use the Despair Deck any time a character takes an extended rest while in the Shadowfell or if they witness a rather nasty scene such as “a lair where ghouls have been feeding off townspeople.” I tweaked this second approach over the weekend when the party arrived at an enormous pile of rotting corpses. The party decided to search through the pile in the hopes of finding gold or other valuables. At this point, I asked everyone who was searching to roll a saving throw; those that failed were required to draw a card from the Despair Deck.

The Save vs. Despair option seemed appropriate to the story, and I believe it’s a good tool for any DM to utilize. A fellow gamer suggested the DM should consider the character’s Race with Despair effects. For example, perhaps characters with the Shadow origin are not affected; also, there is now a Warforged in my adventuring party and I probably should have skipped him saving against Despair (his roll was successful anyway, so it turned out to be moot). Even without the Despair Deck, the DM can create potential “Save vs. X” effects based on the story and encounters in the campaign.  This is another interesting way to navigate the Save vs. Death issue.

There are many other ways for a DM to convey the required emotions the Shadowfell outside of the Despair Deck. Below, I talk about additions I made to one of the published skill challenges in the Shadowfell Encounter Book to increase the level of horror in the adventure.

Continue reading “Gloomwrought’s Final Destination”