How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Improv

Regardless of how often I tell myself that I need to prepare for sessions well in advance, I still find myself finalizing session details seconds before I drive my car to run the game. I’ve written how procrastination has fueled my campaign in the past and led to some dynamic moments, but it also creates a cycle of anxiety that repeats itself once every two weeks. The cycle goes something like this . . .

Finish a session and have every intention of waking up the next morning to write out some notes and plan the next possible steps in the campaign. Get distracted by other activities and put off said planning until “later.” Delay final preparations and increase my anxiety about the next gaming session. Stuff two weeks of planning into a few hours the night before (and day of) the next session. Run the session in an adrenaline-and-anxiety fused state and forget exactly how I pulled it off without the game totally collapsing on itself.

Rinse. Repeat.

I have been working to change this routine, and one way I’m challenging myself is to feel more comfortable improvising during a session. While I still relied on some final-minute planning and organization before the last session, I attempted to scale back on my preparation of specific events and allow for a greater amount of improvisation. I discuss the results of those efforts below, including a breakdown of observations from one of my long-time players about the improv-heavy session.

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Post For StufferShack.com – Steal This NPC: Brother Laurence

I was recently asked to contribute an article for Stuffer Shack, and decided to use their Steal This NPC model to further illustrate my previous post on using NPCs as questing hubs to build your campaign world.

Please visit Stuffer Shack for the complete presentation of Brother Laurence of the Chizoba Sect and other great roleplaying gear and information. I know players from my campaign read this blog, and I warn them there are spoilers regarding Brother Laurence that have not yet been divulged in the campaign. To my players, if you can resist the urge, then hold off on reading the article . . . but still check out the rest of Stuffer Shack.  

Let Brother Laurence bring his wisdom to your campaign.

For my homebrew Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition campaign, I started my world with the idea that a religious/military organization acted as the King’s right hand to protect the kingdom, enforce laws and provide spiritual guidance to the citizenry. All the other details about my world flowed from that single idea. If you are intrigued by the story of Brother Laurence and the Chizoba Sect, or if you would like to incorporate Religion more thoroughly in your campaign, then I highly recommend reading Johnn Four’s article on using Religion as a focal point in your campaign.

Final note, the artwork for Brother Laurence was a commission completed by freelance illustrator, Grant Gould. He also designed my website and mascot, Iddy the Lich. Check out his site and buy his great art!

Dungeon Master Definition (Part II): Ambushes & Destiny

In Part I earlier in the week I discussed recent communications with other gamers on Twitter, which led me to question the role of a Dungeon Master. I wanted to use an encounter I created last year as an illustration of some of the issues at work regarding the DM’s role in a campaign. I also wanted to present reactions to the encounter from one of the PCs in my group.

Download Merchant Ambush in PDF (1MB)

In this set of encounters, the party was charged with protecting a shipment as it moved from one town to the other. If you would like to see the encounter, then please download the file above. To provide some background on the design of this encounter, I had previously implemented the Sly Flourish Song of Power suggestion in our campaign. The players made song selections, and the Cleric in our group chose an instrumental tune from the original Star Trek series. (Check it out – a menacing Cleric song choice, if you ask me!) I knew our Cleric was a Star Trek fan, and I wanted to play around with the Redshirt character as the party escorted the shipment between towns.

I only dropped one or two hints in my description of events, and mentioned – casually, I thought – that Jerrod, one of the NPCs traveling with the shipment, was wearing a red cloak. I cannot recall exactly who, but someone in the group joked (out of character) about the connection and said something like, “Oh, he’s going to die.” Everyone laughed, but our Cleric indicated to Jerrod (in character) that the party would protect the shipment and their lives.

Only problem for our Cleric – red-cloaked Jerrod was going to die. I had numerous ideas for how Jerrod would die, but regardless of the PCs’ interventions, he was not going to make it through the encounter. The party was going to be ambushed between the towns, and Jerrod would fall in combat at some point. As the encounter played out, our Cleric tried to stay close to Jerrod, but he got separated during a round in combat. Once poor Jerrod was left alone in one of the wagons, phase two of the bandits’ trap kicked in and a fiery cart trundled down the hill and slammed into the wagon with Jerrod inside. I thought it was a fairly epic death scene for him.

The players cleaned up the bandits and eventually won the day, saving a good majority of the shipment from the resulting fire. But the Cleric in our group was really dissatisfied and bummed out the rest of the night. He had wanted to protect Jerrod, and even though he was aware of the Redshirt foreshadowing, he wasn’t able to keep him alive. At the time, I was somewhat pleased that I created a scenario that resulted in some real emotion from the player/PC. However, I return to that encounter now to discuss the DM’s role in allowing PCs to dictate the campaign.

Continue reading “Dungeon Master Definition (Part II): Ambushes & Destiny”

Dungeon Master Definition (Part I) – Chefs & Menus

Last week, I posted a quick tip on Twitter (which is a device I blatantly stole from SlyFlourish) on running encounters:

I thought it was a fairly harmless suggestion. The intention was to encourage DMs to be aware of the objects and terrain they describe in their encounters. It had been my experience that PCs sometimes focus on objects or environmental features that were not intended to be important to the encounter. The best example of this I could think of were how our gaming groups (one I DM, the other I’m a PC) interact with altars. In our two gaming groups, the appearance of an altar halts play as players persist in investigation even if it does not get them anywhere. There have been times when the altar is important and key to success, but others when it is not. My suggestion was for DMs to be aware of the likelihood that an object such as an altar could distract PCs.

I was surprised by some of the responses I received after I posted the tip. Perhaps my original post on Twitter seemed to be “player bashing,” but that was never my intention. A few other DMs supported the tip, but others indicated that I was approaching the issue incorrectly. For example, a few of the responses of that ilk are below:

  • give the altar something to do. It hits for 5points necrotic on any failed divine power/skill use. 3 MedDC religion checks to stp
  • Or, don’t complain when players want to spend 15 min. examining each doorway, altar, chest, door, etc. for traps or clues
  • If they find it important, it is. Work it into the story. Some of my best narratives were orig. rabbit trails.
  • not really, it’s their story, not mine. I don’t need to know where things are going, pcs just need to think I do.

The first response is certainly helpful if you want to go with the players’ desire to have the altar be a key element of the encounter. The second response caught me off guard, and I had to ask for clarification; the author clarified that if a DM introduces one treasure chest that is trapped, then the party will investigate all future chest for traps because it is the safest route. The last two responses were from the same person, and there were two ideas that struck me, which I summarize below:

If the PCs find something important, it is. It is the PC’s story, not the DM’s. The DM does not need to know where an encounter or story is going, but hold the illusion that they are under control.

While I welcome all feedback and agree with this point of view in some situations, something about the exchange that afternoon nagged me in recent days. Below, I attempt to explain why, and start by trying to wrap my head around the definition and purpose of a Dungeon Master.

Continue reading “Dungeon Master Definition (Part I) – Chefs & Menus”

Ride The Rails Like A Rockstar

The question of whether a DM should force the party along rails or allow them to stomp around in a sandbox continues to be addressed. The topic was discussed heavily in a blog carnival last year, and most recently this week at Critical Hits. It is not a new concern for DMs, and there are numerous suggestions for how to effectively run a sandbox style game for your PCs. My approach to the campaign I run has been slightly different, and I think other DMs may benefit from the structure I use to balance PC flexibility with central story arcs. The following post is my attempt to describe my structure for running the world and handling the railroad/sandbox situation.

Before 2009, I did not play D&D for over 15 years. I filled in that time with countless hours playing computer and console games – mostly action, RPG and sports titles. It is a major influence in how my brain functions to prepare adventures for my D&D campaign. When I received the opportunity to DM once again, I decided to create my own world for the PCs to inhabit. I leaned on the structure of certain videogame titles to keep my sanity and not have the process of “building a world” become too overwhelming.

Red Dead Redemption
Don't fear the rails. Own them.

Specifically, I relied on a model used by Rockstar Games for titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. Both of these games offer expansive worlds for the players to explore while participating in a wide variety of activities. However, there is also a primary storyline the player can complete at their leisure. Recently, I took a break from Dragon Age Origins (80+ hours in and still haven’t finished it!?) to play Red Dead Redemption. The game is phenomenal, and I got wrapped up in that for a few weeks while completing the game’s primary storyline. There are several interesting components to the Rockstar titles that translate well into building a D&D campaign.

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