29 Oct

Weather in Your Roleplaying Game

Uruk-hai in the Rain
“Really? Not one of you brought an umbrella?”

In my roleplaying game campaigns, the weather is often an afterthought. That is, of course, if it isn’t the focus of the matter at hand. I usually don’t give consideration to the weather in my Dungeons & Dragons game until someone asks about it. In non-fantasy games, like Shadowrun, it’s almost entirely window dressing. Regardless of what roleplaying game I’m running, I’m trying to be more conscious of it now. And I think, in part, it’s because of my recent experiences with the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game. Continue reading

6 Sep

Dungeon Master Tips – BYOB Means Bring Your Own Background

Neon Bar SignThe Dungeon Master usually has a lot on his or her plate. I know that I usually have maps to make, dungeons to stock, NPCs to name, and plots to devise. And, when it comes to the “big maps” such as the world, or even a prominently featured city, I often hand wave the details until they are immediately necessary.

For example, I never keep a list of the exact businesses that are present in a given settlement. I just determine if what a player is looking for is available if they ask. Plainly, it saves a lot of time because then I didn’t fully develop the cobbler’s shop and give him a cool back story only to discover that nobody in the party was not in need of footwear repair. That’s time I could have spent on a location they were more likely to visit. Continue reading

10 May

Authorizing Lethal Force

Lana Del Rey
"Look, Lana, I'm just saying Constituion might not be the ideal dump stat."

In preparing one of my regular gaming groups for a new campaign, I decided to take an informal survey from around the table. Surveys are the new thing, by the way. Maybe you noticed. The goal was to ensure that we were all sitting down to play the same game. We were playing Dungeons & Dragons and we intended to keep playing Dungeons & Dragons, the real question was how we were going to play it? And this goes beyond the obvious question of 4th Edition or Pathfinder or something earlier (or the infamous playtest rules). Because, despite the rules used to govern the game, there are a varying series of conventions adopted by the players (and DM) around each table. Of particular interest to me was the mortality of heroes.

There is something distinctly un-heroic to me when heroes troop out to face the dragon with the knowledge that they face an optimally balanced encounter that only results in death in the most unlikely of circumstances. Moreover, is it anything close to heroic when they know that even if a string of bad rolls gets them killed, they can be saved by the story? While the first half of that anti-heroic condition is usually rooted in the mechanics of a system, the latter is a product of the DM.

For years, I’ve always asked a player who just went below zero hit points if his or her character was ready for death or if they were going to have it staved off by unknown forces. It wasn’t always a fair trade. Sometimes it cost money and Constitution, like the old days, but other times it led to conflict with (or service to) deities, curses, or the destruction of prized items. But the option existed and I permitted it. At my table, the back-story of a character was usually bound to the world and the campaign. The characters themselves were adventure hooks and players wanted to see their stories played out to the end. Death got in the way of that.

LtL Round
Sometimes, 0 hit points looks like this...

But that was the implicit convention adopted at the table. Everyone had the option so it remained “in balance.” And not everyone took the option. In fact, several players could almost always be counted on to immediately whip out a backup character from the pages of their notebook and be ready to carry on before the corpse of their previous character was even cold. As a DM, it also made life easy because I didn’t need to tie up too many loose ends, contrive ways that a random (yet apparently wholly trustworthy) character was found in the ultra-secure lich’s tower, or devise many new hooks.

40mm rounds
...other times, it's more like this.

After years of running the game this way, I feel the game of D&D that I play has traveled far from its origins. And I don’t just mean the fact that it’s been through several revisions of the rules but the fact that there is no genuine danger anymore. When a player is unhappy because he died after charging into an encounter that “clearly wasn’t balanced” the barrier of playing along is broken. For lack of genuine danger, a player’s responsibility becomes acting frightened when confronted with powerful foes, roleplaying a sense of mortality. More importantly, an expectation of enemy CRs falling within a prescribed range shouldn’t override common sense (unless you used Wisdom as your dump stat).

At this point, DMs of the old school and draconian varieties should be saying (in a rather judgmental tone, no doubt) that they’ve never had this problem because they’ve been playing by the rules. Fair enough. But I can’t even count the number of happy players that the use of less-than-lethal force produced, and not just because their character lived. In fact, the surviving character was a byproduct. The player usually just wanted to see their story come to an end. A dead character is like a good novel that you never get to read the last chapters of. I get that.

The key, of course, is to begin from the same line, hence the pre-game survey. The choice is simple: spend the campaign roleplaying fear and self-preservation or behave genuinely with the knowledge that there is actual risk involved in achieving rewards. As a player, I want to earn my accolades not receive a “Participant” trophy. As a DM, however, I want the make sure the players are getting what they want: fun.

I have to admit, they (pleasantly) surprised me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go empty the rubber bullets from the shotgun and reload it. It’s game night.

11 Apr

Points of Experience: Square Roots

A later incarnation of our old AD&D battle board.

In the earliest days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, my gaming group relied on the descriptions of the DM and the players to track positions in combat. During intense moments, a character sheet would be flipped over and rough sketches would outline positions (and, over time, provide a record of battles gone by). You knew where you were, and where your allies were, or you paid the price for it. If you snoozed through the fighter and the ranger charging into hand to hand combat and decided to throw a fireball at the orc patrol, you’d better be sure you killed the fighter and ranger as well because there was going to be hell to pay if they lived… Put another way, there were no “take-backs.” You were responsible for knowing what was going on.

Movement and range was expressed in inches, a holdover from the game’s roots as a tabletop wargame, but these became 10’s of feet or yards, depending on whether the party was indoors or outside. As I recall, we eventually did away with the yards, treating everything as feet. After all, nothing really changed mechanically because you were supposed to keep spell effects in feet whether you were inside or out. I’m getting mad just thinking about the math so, rest assured, I’m glad we were all about feet.

How did I survive a childhood playing with toys made of lead? Easy. I didn't eat my toys.

At some point, though, we opted for more complexity in combat. While intended to do away with the occasional dispute over who was standing where, it also ushered in a new layer of tactical thinking in combat. (And my early D&D group was extremely tactically minded.) I believe the solution came in the form of a grid drawn on a wooden board with a sheet of Plexiglas or clear plastic placed over it for using colored markers on. This, combined with a handful of lead figures and a box of wooden “barrels” became the foundation of our combats.

"I see one gnoll. He might be a sentry."

The wooden barrels were available, cheaply, from a local craft store and were sized perfectly to fit in the gridlines of our battle board. They represented everything from kobolds to hell hounds. A few of them were stained a different color to represent leaders, NPCs, and other exceptional troops. Despite the proxy-like nature of the barrels, I don’t recall ever being unable to imagine my foes’ appearances in my head. I never felt like I was fighting barrels and when I pointed to one I’d say, “I’m attacking this gnoll” without any sort of disconnect occurring. As a tool, they worked exceedingly well.

Some foes, however, got the royal treatment. The worst villains and most dangerous foes often got a special figure. It was an important moment when a particular miniature was placed on the battle board because it signified a turning point or even the climax of an adventure. One could argue that it was meta-gaming to see a special figure and know that the ensuing fight would likely call for the majority of your resources. But I would add that every fight was potentially life-threatening and every single one received the party’s full effort. Casualties were high enough before the special figures came out.

By the time later editions made tactical movement part of the rules, I had unfortunately moved away from my original group. Other than during all-too-infrequent visits, I never got to see later iterations of the rules put into play there. But, in my own experience, the mechanics played out in a very similar fashion to what we had been doing all along. While there were no attacks of opportunity, we ruled that disengaging from melee allowed your foe a “free hack” against you. If an ally was adjacent to you, he could cover your retreat, preventing the parting shot, if you spent your full round moving away from your opponent.

"Use your imagination, Luke."

There’s a part of me that considers tactical movement a fundamental aspect of the game, but as one that developed through house rules. The battle board was a tool to play a game, not the game itself. It was a means to continuously and collectively agree on positions as the rounds progressed but the action still took place in my imagination. If someone removed the board from the table, I could still carry on with combat as if nothing had changed and, to a point, could picture the battle even clearer in my mind (even if what I imagined wasn’t precisely the same as the players around me).

I recently had the opportunity to return home and play some D&D with my old group. They’re playing Pathfinder these days and tactical movement is as important as ever. The battle board has been taken to a new level with a ring of numbers surrounding the grid for tracking initiatives and spell durations. There’s a box on hand filled with the D&D figures put out by WotC over the years. But when there aren’t enough of a particular creature in the box (or when there’s just too much digging going on to find the right monster) out come the barrels. I never realized how much I missed them.