One interesting dynamic of games such as Dungeons & Dragons is that only one player at the table is allowed to break rules in ways that are not available to the other players. The Dungeon Master (DM) is allowed, if not downright encouraged, to cheat.
Perhaps cheating is too strong of a word – as I imagine many of you react strongly to reading it. How does a DM cheat during the game? First, the DM can change the details of non-playable characters (NPCs) or entire adventure plot points on-the-fly in service of any number of motivations such as streamlining the story, highlighting the abilities of a specific player character (PC), or pacing as a session nears conclusion. Second, the DM can modify monster abilities, hit points, and statistics to tinker with the level of tension in combat. Third, the DM can fudge rolls to produce desired results. While the first two DM actions may not even qualify as cheating, since making things up is “the very essence of the game,” the third seems to fall more firmly in that category.
For example, two sessions ago in our current campaign, the players were attacked by a number of ghouls while exploring a dungeon. As the DM, I rolled the attacks for the ghouls and missed with three of the four during the first two rounds of combat. When I did hit, the players easily saved against the paralysis effect. Meanwhile, the party was hitting quite well and the combat was not terribly interesting. During the third round, I had to roll the ghoul attacks again, and I had at least two options available to me:
Roll as normal and take the result, regardless of the outcome. A hit is a hit, and a miss is a miss.
Adjust the result of the roll to suit my desires for the flow of the session.
Below I talk about the option I selected, and why. In addition, I discuss my motivations for bending or breaking rules during a session, and what it means for the game that I’m allowed to do this while other players are not. In other words, I address why I sometimes cheat!
I recently had the good fortune to play a session of Game of Thrones using Dungeon World rules. The experience was quite differently from playing or running sessions of Dungeons & Dragons because the Game of Thrones’ setting brings a different atmosphere to the game. In addition to traditional fantasy elements, the Game of Thrones’ world features a high level of political intrigue, tangled relationships, and short lifespans. It is entirely possible to run a Game of Thrones-style campaign in the Forgotten Realms. However, sitting down and inhabiting characters in Westeros a few years before the events of Game of Thrones take place forces the players into a different mindset than the average D&D session. Our game featured numerous social interactions, a brief flirtation with a combat moment, and a bevy of characters being introduced into the story.
Cooperative storytelling is a part of every roleplaying game session, and it requires those around the table to be willing to jump in with ideas to shape the events. Many articles have been written about improvisation in roleplaying games, and Mike Shea’s interview with designer Steve Townshend really speaks to some of the points I discuss below. There are two approaches to shaping events in any given session. The first is to plan ahead of time what a character will do in a certain set of circumstance. The person running the session could prepare a specific quest to move the players in that direction while players can build characters that always respond to situations in a prescribed manner. For example, a Cleric in D&D may always take action to help those in need; it’s not so much a choice at the table as it is a personality trait that is created before the session begins.
The second approach is to improvise as a session goes along to take the story in an infinite number of directions. The person running the game gives an outline of the setting and situation, and the players can respond how they like. It requires all players (including the GM) to be creative, spontaneous, and accepting of the contributions and ideas of each player. Every session I’ve experienced of a tabletop roleplaying game has featured elements of preparation and improvisation. I learned through my Game of Thrones experience that I need to bolster my improvisation skills, and I imagine others out their struggle with this aspect of RPGs as well. The following article offers some ideas to increase the entire group’s willingness to accept and engage in improvisation, and how to improve individual improv skills.
It is fair to say that Darkest Dungeon has captured my attention and imagination in recent weeks. The game’s aesthetic vividly portrays how exploring dungeons and fighting foul monsters is a dangerous business. Heroes suffer physical wounds, yes, but it is the mental strain and suffering that often causes more complications and difficulty. It seems to be a wonderful concept to merge with an adventure in Dungeons & Dragons, and the good news is the foundation for building a Darkest Dungeons & Dragons adventure is already there in the latest Dungeon Master’s Guide.
How can the Dungeon Master add a new mechanic that forces additional strain on the players while still increasing the enjoyment factor for everyone at the table?
That question is tackled in this article!
Failure Is An Option
Before launching into the mechanics of building a Darkest Dungeons & Dragons, a topic that should be addressed is failure. Colleagues have written about failure in roleplaying games for years. Scott Rehm (The Angry GM) defined failure as “the loss of a goal or opportunity” and discussed common (“stupid”) myths about failure in RPGs. Mike Shea (Sly Flourish) educated DMs on how to move away from mechanics and rules that result in only “either success or failure.” I previously wrote articles on how to roleplay failure for monsters in an encounter to make those setbacks for the DM more enjoyable and engaging to the players. The collective wisdom on this topic indicates that players of an RPG should be ready, willing, and able to continue with the story of the game regardless of success or failure.
That means DMs should avoid creating scenarios that can only be accomplished in a single, specific manner while players should be encouraged to continue playing their characters if they win, lose, or go sideways. This means that failure should remain an option for everyone at the table. As a DM, help the players be ready for contingencies. During game preparation, DMs often consider how to react if the players decide on taking one action or another. As a player, I was more of a straight-line thinker and struggled when the “next move” in an adventure was not clearly defined. The DM can assist players by feeding them possible options if they are greeted with failure – often through a timely NPC – and reward players for responding to setbacks with creative solutions. This atmosphere will eventually redefine success from “we killed the monsters, saved the day, and collected a ton of loot” to “we all got together and told one heck of story.”
Last week, I made the plunge (puns) and gave into the temptation to download the incredibly silly time-waster known as Mola Mola. From numerous people I follow on Twitter, I kept seeing notifications about fish dying in tragic ways. I was curious, and decided to give it a try. It’s free – what could go wrong? The game is like a million other products that run on the mechanics of behavioral psychology and a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule. There is even an achievement for tapping on your mola 3,000 in one game, which is ridiculous. Did I complete this task? Of course I did! When you play the game, the goal is to grow a bigger fish, survive grander adventures, and unlock more and better food. Rinse (oh, puns), and repeat.
The unique thing about Mola Mola is that death, which happens frequently, suddenly – and quite tragically I might add – actually makes you stronger in the next play through. When your fish dies, the likelihood that it will die again from the same cause is reduced. For example, your fish could die sunbathing (just trust me). The first time you go on the sunbathing adventure, you have a 50% chance of surviving. When you die by sunbathing the first time, the chance of survival increases to 75%. When you die by sunbathing a second time, the survival rate increases to 95%. Also, when you die, you earn Mola Points (MP) that can be used to buy food and adventures – so death makes you stronger. If MP reminds you of experience points (XP), then you are correct; it’s exactly like XP.
Death is often seen as a negative outcome in gaming. Death in videogames often leads to the player starting over from a checkpoint to progress through a level again in the hopes of learning from their errors. Death in tabletop games often ends the adventure for the character that has died – unless he or she is brought back to life through some type of game mechanic or divine/DM intervention. Mola Mola takes the outcome of death and turns it into something that is rewarding and makes it easier to advance further in future games. Below, I explore how Mola Mola-style death could be used to inject more life into your next roleplaying game session.
Minding my own business last week, I was passive-aggressively challenged by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish to return to my roots and perform an analysis on the latest installment of Dungeons & Dragons played by the members of Acquisitions Incorporated. My first blog post back in 2011 was an analysis of the Penny Arcade/PvP podcast to track the duration of combat in 4th Edition D&D. I followed this up with another analysis of a later combat encounter in the Penny Arcade/PvP podcast series. In those posts, I was able to add meaningful data to the (then) ongoing discussion about the length of combat in 4th Edition. Mike figured it made sense to task me with using the same technique to investigate combat in 5th Edition.
I'm looking forward to @TheIdDM's data-driven look at #dnd through the Acquisitions Incorporated video like he did with 4e!
I had not yet watched the PAX 2014 Live Game of Dungeons & Dragons featuring Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik, Scott Kurtz, and Morgan Webb of Acquisitions Incorporated. They were joined by a special guest, Patrick Rothfuss, and dealt with whatever Dungeon Master extraordinaire, Chris Perkins, threw at them. For those that have not yet watched the video, the two-plus hour session is below, and it is wonderfully entertaining!
Below, a description of the method used to code the first combat encounter featured in the PAX 2014 Live Game is given, and then data from that analysis is organized and discussed. Analyzing the session resulted in several intriguing questions including the surprising basic inquiry: Is the group playing Dungeons & Dragons?
We started a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EotE) campaign last year, and one of the more interesting components of character creation is the Obligation system. Obligation is introduced during character creation and remains an ongoing device throughout the life of the campaign that can be used by both player and game master (GM) to facilitate storytelling, increase tension, and introduce surprise action. I believe the Obligation system is an example of how mechanics can affect the amount of roleplaying and immersion at the table.
When building a character in Edge of the Empire, one of the steps is selecting the character’s Obligation. Quite simply, no one in the Edge of the Empire is a self-starter; every character owes somebody something. While some players may enjoy forming a backstory – complete with layers of drama and intrigue – creating a detailed backstory is not something all players (or GMs) enjoy. For example, a player does not have to create any meaningful backstory for a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons character; the character is built by selecting desired attributes, powers, and gear. The player is asked to select Alignment to designate his or her moral compass, but after that initial selection is complete, alignment rarely comes into play for most groups. In other words, creating a backstory with any detail for a 4e D&D character is up to the discretion of the player and GM; Edge of the Empire’s Obligation system forces players to create a bit of backstory for their character.
I believe the Obligation system is something that could be used by other roleplaying game systems to enhance character creation and increase immersion. It forces the player to not answer answer the question, “What do I want my character to do?” But to also answer, “How did my character get here?” I will discuss the benefits of consequences of the Obligation system below.
Outside a smattering of voyages into a few modules from earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons when I was still a teenager, my tabletop roleplaying game experience has been shaped by 4th Edition D&D. It was not until this past weekend I realized how much 4th Edition has influenced my view of how games should play and run.
Readers of the blog will note that I have spent some time playtesting a new roleplaying game called Blade Raiders. The game is very different from 4th Edition D&D and it still feels great to play. During the start of a new campaign with the system, I found myself slipping into a “4e” mindset – for better and for worse. Below, I process a few observations about habits learned while playing (almost exclusively) 4th Edition over the past two-plus years and discuss our first session of a Blade Raiders campaign.
Building a Badass
When I created a character for our playtest earlier in the year, I experimented with the Blade Raiders system and chose a combination of non-magical and magical talents. I certainly wanted to create an effective character but I was more interested in learning the system and trying new approaches to character design. But for the campaign, the “4e switch” flipped in my head and I was dissecting the various talent options in a surgical fashion.
How can I get the greatest bonus to hit?
How can I max out my damage per turn?
What talents will be most useful to me in the most circumstances?
Character optimization is not unique to 4th Edition D&D, but it is where I learned that craft! The Character Builder was (and remains to be) a wonderful tool to experiment with character creation; with a few clicks, one can see just how effective his or her character will be in combat and non-combat situations. It teaches the player the importance of statistical bonuses from a combination of skills, feats, traits and powers. And perhaps more importantly, it encourages and rewards that type of optimizing behavior. After all, why wouldn’t a player choose the options that produce the most damaging effects in combat?
So I examined he options in Blade Raiders and based my choices on the questions above. I chose talents that gave me bonuses to attack and damage rolls. I basically created a 4th Edition Striker in the Blade Raiders system. And my character, Bryce Brevard, was absolutely death on wheels. While I racked up kills and rejoiced in my ability to slay foes quickly, I experienced a creeping doubt that I was being “that guy.” You know, that guy on a basketball team that takes all the shots and celebrates the win by himself while his teammates look on in annoyance. It dawned on me that other people around the table were playing Blade Raiders – but in many ways, I was still playing 4th Edition D&D.
I was recently invited to participate in The Tome Show, a long-running podcast devoted to Dungeons & Dragons news, reviews, interviews, and advice. I joined hosts Jeff Greiner and Tracy Hurley to discuss the topics of player engagement during a session and DM preparation before a session. Before we launched into those topics, the hosts discussed news items and articles leading up to the release of D&D Next. Listen to Episode 195 of The Tome Show for all the magic!
Jeff, Tracy and I discussed the challenges of keeping all players engaged at the table during a gaming session. Players have access to a limitless source of entertainment with cellphones, tablets and laptops, and we detailed how we cope with the technology during sessions. I personally do not mind the use of phones and other gadgets during a game; I find it very useful to see when a player is “checking out.” It alerts me to do something to bring the player “back in” to the session. We also covered the characteristics of a “good” player. As a DM, my list is fairly short – attend reliably (I’m personally bad at this!), play nice with others and contribute to the game. When playing the game, I enjoy when other players are cooperative, respectful and not offering too much unsolicited advice on how to play my character. We all have our gaming pet peeves, including announcing another player’s die rolls. Don’t do that!
We pivoted to the topic of DM preparation, and how best to use the time between sessions to create a fun and interesting game. I liberally refer to Mike Shea’s recent survey on DM Preparation at Sly Flourish and discuss my struggles with the combination of thinking about my campaign too much but procrastinating on actually creating content for the next session. We all offered suggestions for how to effectively use preparation time, and I detailed how I am now preparing more flavor text and dialogue to make combat encounters more interesting and engaging for the players. It all comes full circle!
I want to thank Jeff and Tracy once again for inviting me onto The Tome Show; it was a great time! Be sure to add The Tome Show to your list of roleplaying game podcasts! Finally, I decided to add a Podcast Category to the blog since I have now appeared on several podcasts during the past year. For those who would like to hear more of my thoughts on gaming – often with a lean toward psychological issues for players and DMs – the interviews can now be found in one place.
I was asked by the fine folks at The Going Last Podcast to participate in their May of the Dead Carnival. The blog carnival features a wealth of articles devoted to the undead. Realizing that many other talented writers would take on the task of creating monsters, campaign arcs and other gaming mechanics with an undead theme, I spent some time pondering a different angle for my May of the Dead column. I landed on the topic of character death and player grief during a roleplaying game. (EDIT: The painting below was created by Gene Gould. I first found the image through Google Image Search and did not know the origin. Check out other works by the artist!)
It is interesting to think about character death from the perspective of the player in terms of attachment. I previously discussed some thoughts about character death and how save-or-die mechanics can take away a player’s attachment to her or his character. How does one cope with investing effort and time creating a character and bringing that character to life at the gaming table only to see the character die? Everyone does not experience character death in the same manner, and while some players may grieve the loss of their favorite character, other players may not give the matter a second thought after their poor Paladin is pounded to pulp by a Purple Worm. Below, I discuss ideas for how a DM can handle the death of a character at the table. I frame the discussion by detailing the five stages of grief and present ideas to ensure the death of a character is not overlooked in a campaign.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sadly, the You Tube videos were all pulled by WWE since I published the article.
Regardless of the actions that take place during combat encounters in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, it is the responsibility of the DM to ensure the players know what they are fighting for and both how and why monsters are reacting to them in the environment. Earlier in the week, I discussed how DMs can respond to the increase of critical hits by players during Paragon Tier with new monster traits and immediate actions. These design features for critical hit protection may seem like “DM cheese” to players, so it is important to incorporate the mechanics into the story and flow of combat.
I sometimes think of combat encounters as professional wrestling matches. Yes, I’m talking about World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), although I prefer the previous name – World Wrestling Federation (WWF). You have the heel (monsters) and the face (player characters) facing each other in combat in the ring (encounter area). They are both playing to the crowd (DM and players) while executing scripted manuevers (powers, etc). The DM needs to be a combination of Ric Flair and Jim Ross – sell the events that are transpiring in the ring!
The moves of a wrestling match are often quite mechanical and boring, but when you have one wrestler acting like a move just broke his spine while the announcer is selling the audience that the wrestler may have to retire after the match, the viewer cannot help but be more engaged in the outcome. The wrestlers and the announcer are telling a story. During combat encounters, the DM must tell a story as well. Below, I provide examples of how this can be accomplished.