I Don’t Just Hit It With My Axe

You have to walk before you run, and this is a big topic.  Today’s entry is about introducing and encouraging role playing in your games.  There will, of course, be many, many more entries on this subject as it is one of the DM’s most important duties in making the game as fun and immersive as possible.  It is also one of the biggest complaints against Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, that the game has become less a role playing game and more a roll playing game*.  This is mainly due to the fact that the game books are written to cram as many rules as possible into as few pages as possible.  The Dungeon Master’s Guide, both volumes, attempt to give you options to inject more role playing into the game, but focus far more on helping DMs create and run a game.  And while this is a noble goal (and sort of the reason I started this blog), adventure and world creation in these books also push to the side.  Anyone experienced in role playing games will be able to get around this, but many new players and DMs (and many experienced ones as well once they get a few power cards sitting in front of them) have issues wrapping their minds around the power system and role playing.  However, there is one very easy way to get around this:  Describe what’s happening.

*Roll play (v): A pejorative term for playing or DMing style where rolls, tables, and character sheets are far more important than acting anything out in-character.  Example: Gary roll-played through the entire session, didn’t even look up from his character sheet once the entire time.

Seriously, that’s it.  As the DM, your style of running the game will rub off on your players.  If you yourself simply describe the actions of the monsters and NPCs in detail, your players will follow suit.  This effect will happen even faster if you have newer players as well as they’ll assume they’re “not doing it right” if they’re not describing things like you do, but even more experienced players will take your lead if you go into detail describing monster attacks and actions.  You are the central figure in your game and everyone’s going to be taking their cues from you, so the more you sell your character’s actions, the more your players will do the same for their characters.

Just like anything else very simple, though, you have to pay attention to the details or things will go horribly wrong.  If you describe every single action of every single creature on the board in excruciating detail, you’re going to burn out and bore your players (as I have mentioned previously on this site before when talking about room descriptions).  Just like with rooms, action descriptions should be treated the same way – describe the first attack in detail, then give the Cliff’s Notes version unless something is different.  You’ll also want to spend more time describing actions that are more iconic for the monster rather than just the basic attacks.  Let’s use the classic red dragon as an example.  There’s the claw and bite attacks, which are probably what will be smacking around your players the most.  However, the first thing any dragon (with those attack powers at least) will do is use their Fear power and breath weapon.  These are iconic, and should be described in detail the first time they happen.

“You see the flames start at the back of the dragon’s throat as it inhales deeply, letting out a roar that shakes you to your bones.  It’s all you can do not to soil your armor as the will of the dragon presses against your very self.”  You can keep chattering while you make your attack rolls, describing the effects as you go and using the clattering of dice as punctuation to your statements.  The more iconic you make your descriptions for the creature, the more you can also give your players clues as to what’s happening without flat-out using game terms.  If you described the fire breath as a spark forming in the back of the dragon’s throat, then described a deep inhale that turned the sparks into flames, then you can use this to let the players know that the power has recharged and is ready for use again (and watch them scramble to get out of the blast zone once you do).  This is most obvious when describing a monster getting Bloodied.  Just announcing “The orc’s bloodied now” is boring, but “Your blow dents the orc’s armor, opening a gash that oozes red.  Your follow-up stroke knocks his helm askew and opens a massive gash in his forehead, dripping blood into his eyes.” is far more exciting.  You can even help the players out if you want by describing the damage to the monsters each round, but only using the word “blood” or “bleeding” once the players have bloodied the enemy.

“Sure,” you say, “that’s easy for dragons because everyone knows what a dragon does.  But how do I come up with interesting descriptions for other monsters that aren’t as iconic?”  Well, this is where reading and re-reading your adventure in detail comes in handy.  There are a lot of clues you can pick up from the flavor text of the monsters and the power names.  I personally got burned once in a game because I didn’t bother reading those descriptions and missed what would’ve been an amazing moment.


I have a fascination with undead, so I use undead creatures a lot in my games.  It’s kinda become a trademark of my campaigns to eventually send PCs to the imaginatively-named City of the Dead at some point just so I can throw a crapload of zombies, vampires, ghouls, etc. at my players.  I was looking for something new to challenge them, and I found a creature in the Compendium named “Lasher Zombie”.  I did like most of us do, skimmed the attack values, damage, and defenses and then moved on.  It wasn’t until halfway through the encounter that I realized that the attacks I kept using were called “Viscera Lash” and “Burrowing Entrails”.  This meant that, when that first attack went off, I could’ve had so much fun describing a zombie digging into his guts, pulling out his intestines, and then whipping them out to grab my players.  Then I’d get to describe those entrails digging into their flesh and ripping their flesh from the inside.

What was the point of that story?  Well, if you just pay attention to the flavor text, you can learn a lot about what the attack actually does and what the creature actually is, even if you only have the stat block from the Compendium rather than the detailed description from the book/magazine.  Using that, you can let your imagination go wild describing what’s going on to all the players.  Even the more boring attacks like Claw or Slam can be aided by describing how the monster moves, how he flourishes his weapon, how its claws are shaped, etc.

But how is this going to make your players do more than name their power, roll, and nothing else?  Well, imagine for a moment you’re the player in a game.  After using the descriptions I did above, would you feel comfortable just saying “I use Sly Flourish” and then rolling the dice?  Probably not.  You wouldn’t want the DM to show you up, would you?

Published in: on December 31, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Feedback Poll

Well, I’ve managed to get a handful of regular readers…either that, or people seem to trickle in every M/W/F when I update for the first time at the site.  So I’d really like to know what you guys would like to see more from me since I haven’t gotten any real feedback yet.  Please vote in the poll below, and if there’s something else you’d like to see on this site, let me know in the comments.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 7:03 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Chekov’s Gun Isn’t a Phaser

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”  This quote is from famed author Anton Chekov, and is known in literary circles as Chekov’s Gun.  Every single D&D player I’ve ever gamed with in my entire life – myself included – subscribes to this theory.  If you describe it, your players are either going to use it or they’re going to go insane figuring out what it’s there for.  This is the flip-side of describing anything in detail is that you might as well have painted it with a targeting laser for the character’s attention

The most common way this is going to be invoked in your games is with the window dressing in a room – sometimes literally, the window dressing.  Say you get tired with the typical stone floors and cave walls of a dungeon, so you decide to spruce up the final room lair of the sorcerer who took the goblins as his cult.  Why would this powerful sorcerer live in a dank cave anyway?  So you put a chandelier hanging from the ceiling and a nice rug on the floor.  You have now guaranteed that someone will be swinging from that chandelier during combat and you will be spending 45 minutes after the encounter fielding questions about that damn rug.  Not only will they roll every skill test they can think of on the rug, they’ll re-roll and re-re-roll them just in case they didn’t get high enough.  Because it has to be a magic rug or covering a trap door or something because otherwise why did you put it there?

Chekov’s Gun can be used to your advantage as well.  If you want to drop the hint that the fireplace in the corner is important, spend more time describing it.  You can also use it as misdirection if the fireplace isn’t what’s important but the bookshelf on the other side of the room is.  They’ll be so intent on the fireplace after you describe everything on the mantle and the color of the coals, you can use it to justify a penalty to Perception checks to notice someone sneaking out of the hidden passage behind the bookcase.

This doesn’t just apply to inanimate objects, but to NPCs as well.  Three people walk up to your PCs.  “The one on the left is wearing a night-black cloak and armor polished to a gleaming shine.  The clasps on his leather gauntlets are inlaid with silver and gold, and a large ruby amulet hangs from a platinum chain around his neck.  The likeness of a dragon is carved into the hilt of his sword, the maroon sheath appearing as a ray of flames shooting from its mouth.  The other two guys…ummm…are wearing armor and have swords.”  You have immediately identified the one on the left as the most important of the three.  If this is your intension, perfect.  If you wanted some mystery about who the lead man of the trio is, you can either describe all three in generic terms or describe all three in detail.  If you want it to be a fake-out, make the guy on the right the leader while continuing to describe the guy on the left in as much detail.

Positioning can also lend importance to a character or an item.  We as a species are trained to recognize patterns, and we crave balance and symmetry.  Did you feel weird when I said there were three people and then described the one on the left as the leader instead of the one in the middle?  Not as weird as I did writing it.  A leader should be flanked by flunkies, not having them stand by his side.  Objects are the same way.  “There are five potion bottles on the table.  Bob the NPC will take one first and drink it, then each of you choose one.”  If Bob takes one off of the right side, even though there still four choices left, there’s a 50/50 chance your player will take one off the left side.  If he doesn’t, it’ll be the next one on the right side.  We crave balance, and you can use this against your players.

You can also play it to the other side in order to drive your players crazy.  Have a non-combat encounter with an NPC and watch them dissect everything you said to figure out what the purpose of the encounter is.  You can then take their musings and convoluted conspiracy theories to drive your own game, using the best of their theories to finally reveal the secret.  Your players will be thrilled they figured it out while praising your storytelling for being so complex and intricate.  I honestly believe there’s at least a couple of screenwriters out there that pull this exact trick using online forums for the show.  The Chekov’s Gun in this case doesn’t have to be a person, but a single room in the dungeon as well.  Put a completely empty room in a dungeon or a locked door that’s too hard for them to pick or smash through, and then watch them scramble to try to figure out what it is.  Because if it’s in the scene, you must have placed it there for a specific reason and you will drive your players crazy (in a good way) trying to figure it out.

No matter how you decide to take advantage of Chekov’s Gun, you’d better be aware of it as a DM.  It will happen to your game no matter what and if you’re blind to it, you’ll drive your players insane – in a bad way.  You’ll leave plot holes in your player’s minds even if there isn’t a single flaw in your writing, and your player’s enjoyment of the game will suffer.  But if you’re aware of Chekov’s gun, it can be a very powerful weapon in your DM arsenal.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Storytime – The Importance of Planning OR Cut and Run

These Storytime articles are a break from my normal format of me writing an essay on a topic and instead just telling you a real-life story from one of my game sessions.  This particular session happened way back during the first few months of 3rd Edition and I was a player, not a DM.  It’s the only time I’ve ever been part of a TPK*.  It really sucked to go through it at the time, but like all good games of D&D, I still had fun and got a great story out of it.


The campaign was very different from the types we used to play at the game store.  Normally, it was typical kick-in-the-door style games.  However, this time the store owner decided he wanted to run an urban-based game set in Forgotten Realms, specifically in the town of Waterdeep.  We were a group of 2nd level Rogues attempting to start a thieves’ guild.  After a few minor exploits (including a horrible experience trying to steal a gem from the political figure in the town square, which is another interesting story), a local dockworker came to us with an offer.  A ship loaded down with valuable cargo would be arriving and, for only 100 gp, he’d get us onto the docks after the crew had left the ship.  Seeing as that was all the money we had, we had a debate before we decided to go for it.


We geared up and went out to the docks that night.  There were seven of us.  Three of us stayed on the docks as lookouts, I stood on the deck of the ship as a relay to the other three, who went into the hold for the goods.  The first sign I had joined the Marx Brothers of thieves’ guilds was when I found out that while all four of us lookouts had brought crowbars, none of the three in the hold had thought to do so.  While I climbed down the rope ladder into the hold (4 Climb checks, don’t roll a 1 to not fall was the ruling from the DM) to give them my crowbar, one of them had the bright idea to use his rapier to try to pry a crate open.  Not his dagger, but his rapier.  So by the time I got down, he’d broken his sword.  I handed over the crowbar and climbed back up again.


I also got to relay to the lookouts on the docks that the cargo wasn’t the gold or gems we expected.  It was ivory.  Unprocessed ivory.  In other words, massive tusks.  We had no gear to carry that sort of thing and started brainstorming ideas as the group down in the hold started going nuts cracking open cases and pulling out ivory into a big pile.


Suddenly, I got the signal from the docks that the captain was on his way back.  I climbed down the ladder and told them we were in trouble.  Now, everyone else had min-maxed their characters for a 20 Dexterity.  I, on the other hand, had gone a different direction and made my character more of an archeologist, focusing on skills rather than fighting ability (please note that this was 3rd Edition, where these sorts of builds were more possible).  The DM put us into initiative as soon as I told them to see if we could get away in time.  I, of course, rolled the lowest.  So everyone pushed past me to climb up the ladder.  Remember, roll 1d20 four times and you only fall on a 1.  First guy shoves past me, makes all four rolls, and runs.  Next guy, the same.  The third guy shoved me out of the way, saying “Maybe next time you’ll be faster” before he climbed up.  20.  14.  18.  1.  He fell 40 feet to the ground right in at my feet.  The falling damage was bad, and he was down to 1 HP.  Not believing that karma was good enough, I kicked him hard (doing 1 HP damage) before climbing up myself and running.


So now the three of us are on the deck of the ship with a 10 foot gap to the dock or a 30 foot ramp to run down.  We all decided on making the jump.  We re-rolled initiative (rather than using the same scores for the entire combat) and I rolled very high, getting the second highest.  The first guy jumped from the deck onto the docks in a perfect tuck and roll.  I rolled and missed by 1, falling into the water under the docks.  Thankfully, the 20 foot drop didn’t do a lot of damage and I was able to swim away.  Finally, the last guy decides to jump.  Please note, the player of this character was the brother of the player of the character I kicked to unconsciousness and left in the hold.  We called them “The Dumbass Brothers”.  So he jumped and made his roll.  Then he opened his mouth.


“Nice!  I got all that ivory too!”

“Wait, what?” the DM said.

“I tied a bunch of those ivory tusks onto my back to take with us,” he said.

“How many?” the DM said.

“As many as I could carry!”

“What’s your Strength?”

“14, why?”


The DM consults the tables and figures out what the maximum encumbrance was for the character and what the penalties to the Jump check would be with that amount of weight.  Not only did he miss, but he fell into the water and drowned due to the weight of the ivory dragging him down.  Two down, five to go…


So we ran and regrouped back at our headquarters.  We were broke and down two men.  This didn’t look good for us, so we had to make use of that information.  So we decided to go take the ship, sneaking on even if the captain was there and taking our plunder.  We geared up for a fight and started heading out, hugging the shadows.  We snuck onto the boat perfectly…until someone (okay, me…) blew their check with a botched roll just as we’d climbed onto the boat.  So while I was clanging around with a bucket stuck on my foot, the captain woke up and started arming himself.  But there were five of us and only one of him, right?


Yeah, apparently a 100 gp bribe isn’t enough to include the information that, in order to get a bunch of tucks, you must be able to lead a crew capable of killing multiple very large and very dangerous animals.  Like say a Level 8 Rogue/Level 4 Fighter Tiefling.  We were slaughtered in less than two turns.  I was the only survivor of the fight.  After I’d taken a very nasty blow, I played possum and laid there until the captain was busy killing the rest of the party, so I rolled off the ship and back into the water again.  Unfortunately for me, the falling damage was just enough to knock me back out again and I was unable to keep myself above water and drowned.


The moral of this story?  Well, there’s two of them.  Make sure you know what you’re getting into and don’t be afraid to cut your losses.  Take your pick.

Published in: on December 27, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Comments (1)  
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But This Weekend’s the Bad Religion Concert!

The duration of your campaign depends upon a lot of different factors, only one of which is your personal tastes.  Some people prefer a long, sweeping campaign arc while others prefer something more episodic, with each session telling its own story.  This is one of the few times I’m going to tell you that what you and your players want is not the most important factor in determining the type of game you play.  What you and your players need is far more important.

As much as we may wish, your regular gaming session is not the most important thing in your life.  There are many other activities which must take priority.  Work, school, and family are the most common enemies in war for your session, and sometimes they absolutely have to take priority in your or your players’ lives.  Making a long, epic story arc where each session’s adventure leads to the next can be amazing, especially as it builds to its epic conclusion.  But what do you do if someone can’t make it?  These days, gaming has become far more acceptable than it was in years past, and even the social butterflies amongst your friends who never seem to be at home aside from when it’s time to pass out each night may want to join in on your game once they hear about it.  More and more “older” gamers in their thirties and forties are around actively looking for a new way to spend time outside the clubs, opening up a new can of worms when it comes to the cost and challenge of finding a babysitter for every session.  Even hardcore gamers who have jobs with flexible hours or trust funds supporting them may overbook themselves and have overlap between their different gaming tables.

These sorts of problems can sink a long-arc campaign in a heartbeat as your players may not be able to show regularly.  If each adventure builds on the next, with the party travelling together from one place to another together or all down in the same mega-dungeon for weeks on end, then it won’t make a lot of logical sense for characters to keep popping in and out, causing a large break in the suspension of disbelief.  Many groups will be able to ignore these sorts of continuity errors, and others wouldn’t have problems handing over their characters for others to play in between sessions.  However, these sorts of logical disconnects should be avoided whenever possible because of the breaks in suspension of disbelief they cause.  Also, missing players themselves cause as many problems as missing characters as the player must be brought up to speed at the start of every session, and if you have small clues set to be revealed over many sessions, they can be lost if not everyone’s there.

Purely episodic adventures bring their own challenges.  Even as your player’s characters level up to the Epic Tier, your games won’t feel as epic solely because you never build toward anything.  You kick in the door, fight whatever’s there, then move on to the next.  Sometimes, that’s all you want from a game.  And sometimes, you can cram a good story into such a short arc, giving you a beginning, middle, and end to the story in a single game session with a satisfying story.  But if you’re craving that epic feel from your games, having a stand-alone story with each session just isn’t going to cut it.

So what’s a good DM to do?  Take a cue from Joss Whedon, J Michael Straczynski, and Chris Carter.  I honestly have no idea if any of these iconic sci-fi television showrunners was the first to pull the season-long story arc idea, but it’s become one of the more popular ways to do drama in television.  To explain, each episode of the series stands on its own and can be watched for the most part without having seen the episodes before it.  However, if you do watch the episodes in order, a story arc will emerge.  Perhaps it’s running in the background of each episode as a B-story (such as is done with Burn Notice), or maybe it’s done subtly in each episode (such as Battlestar Galactica).  Sometimes, the story arc only becomes important in specific tent-pole episodes (like with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

No matter which approach you take, this can be one of the easiest ways to tell your overreaching story from session to session with an irregular group, whether each dungeon has a different piece of the item to defeat the Big Bad, every few sessions the group runs across the plots of the bad guy, if only one small portion of each session tells the story, or some combination of all three.  All you have to do is make sure your players know which sessions can be passed on more easily and which are critical to the story, and you’re all set up to give your game that epic feel every campaign should have.

Wait, What Does That Power Do?

A lot of focus in the rulebooks for the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is on combat and powers.  This doesn’t mean you have to turn your game into a glorified board game or mini-wargame though.  The books can only cover so much, and with the new power system, there’s just not any room for a lot of playing around.  This has unfortunately led many to compare the new edition to an MMO without a computer.  Perhaps this is a function of the number of new players, but far too many are playing it like an MMO, seeing non-combat encounters as just the thing to get through to get to the fighting.  It’s really a shame, because there are so many opportunities in D&D 4e for so much more.

It’s surprising how much color and character can be injected into your game and your characters with just a few tiny little changes in your feats, classes, and powers.  If it doesn’t have a game-related function, anything else can be changed.  It’s just window dressing.  As long as it’s a hole in the wall and has glass, it doesn’t matter what sort of curtains and blinds you use.  It’s still a window.  A word of warning here, though.  Always talk with your DM about this, as it can throw off more experienced 4e players and DMs if you go around renaming everything.  Make sure everyone knows exactly what is going on to avoid confusion and to make sure you’re not changing something that actually affects the game.

For classes, all you need to take into account is power source and role.  Your role defines what you do in combat, while your power source defines how you have that ability.  Beyond that, it’s completely up to you to change what’s written to suit your concept and your Dungeonmaster’s campaign.

Your ranger doesn’t have to be a clone of Strider or Robin Hood.  Twin weapon builds can be a swashbuckling pirate or two-sword wielding samurai.  Archer rangers can take a cue from John Woo movies, subbing a bow and arrow for double-fisting .45s.  The charisma-based rogue seems to be made for the Errol Flynn swinging from chandeliers sort of fighting.  A modernized version you can draw from is Spider-man, who jumps and swings around making wisecracks in the middle of a fight.  If you want a completely different example, though, look to Evil Dead and Ash.  No one on this planet with that collection of one-liners (or that chin) while still kicking that much ass could be said to be anything less than a charisma-based rogue.  Many popular literary wizards come from all over the spectrum.  Gandalf the Grey and Merlin are the stereotypes, but we recently have Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files, Willow and Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and of course Harry Potter.

Powers are even easier to customize.  I want you to take a look at a power block with new eyes.  Grab your Player’s Handbook and open to any random power.  I will bet that you looked immediately at the name, then the to-hit modifier, then the damage and effects, then maybe back up at the keyword section to see what keywords are part of the power.  Did you see that little bit there at the top in italics?  Nope, I bet you skipped over that entirely.  That’s flavor text, which tells you what the power looks like and does.  It has absolutely zero game effect and you can change it to anything you want without ruining game balance one iota.

Let’s play with one of the powers, specifically the wizard 1st level at-will power Cloud of Daggers.  The flavor text and attack description talks about a mass of glowing energy daggers whipping around everywhere for a turn.  But why does it have to be daggers?  Why are they in a cloud?  Why are they “whirling”?  They don’t have to be.  You can change it as you wish to anything else as long as you keep the same – Area 1 square within 10 squares, force damage, cast through an implement.  The form beyond that is meaningless.

Say your backstory is that you’re an Eladrin who comes from a long line of swordmages, casting using the Eladrin Sword Wizardry feat in Arcane Powers.  Why wouldn’t it be a cloud of swords then rather than daggers?  Or even a single sword whipping about?  If you do so, the name Cloud of Daggers no longer fits, so you have to rename it Sword of the Arcane Master or something like that.  Maybe you’re a bookworm tome mage who focuses on summoning but lacks for an at-will that does damage.  Turn it into a swarm of flying books of force smacking anyone who steps into it.  Now you’ve gone from Cloud of Daggers to Librarian’s Revenge.  From a game standpoint, it’s the exact same spell with the exact same effects that does the same damage and same damage types, but it is light years more appropriate for your character.

The problem with these sorts of customizations is making sure that the keywords don’t change.  For the aforementioned summoning wizard, the cloud of daggers cannot be changed to a creature holding a dagger because power that have the Summoning keyword have specific rules associated to them which do not apply to simple force conjurations as this.  If you’re a pyromage who focuses on fire, you can’t just change the cloud of daggers to a pillar of flame.  Fire has a specific meaning involving vulnerabilities, resistances, and feat-based increases, which is different from force.  You could change it to force-based “fire”, but you have to be careful it doesn’t step into the realm of Illusion, which is another keyword.  So some of them may take more imagination than others, and remember to consult your DM.

You can do the same with feats, but since feats take such a backseat in 4e to powers, it’s usually not worth modifying or renaming them unless there is a power associated.  In some cases, it may be more important for you to change the feat name.  You’ve created a sword-and-shield fighter who takes Shield Push, but find that name far too boring for a highly-trained warrior as yourself.  Your backstory has you training in a specific school of combat, which probably created lofty and impressive names for each of its techniques.  Why call it Shield Push when you can call it Breaking the Line or (for a more Eastern feel) Ox Pushes the Wagon.

It may not seem like that big of a thing, but making just minor changes to character theme and renaming a few powers and feats will go a long way to making your character feel more unique and powerful without actually changing a single game mechanic.  Suddenly, your boring 2nd level halfling rogue isn’t as boring anymore when she becomes an archeologist rather than another thief.  With the at-will attacks Laughing Shot and Cutting Remark (Sly Flourish, with the ranged and melee options for the power each having their own name) as well as Mobile Strike (Deft Strike), encounter attack Stab n’ Swap (King’s Castle), daily attack Not in the Eye (Blinding Barrage), and encounter utility Superfluous Backflip (Tumble) plus the feat I’m the One with the Gun (Two-fisted Shooter); the character suddenly becomes less Bilbo Baggins and more Lara Croft.  Sure, it’s a bit hammy and lame, but you’re running around pretending to be in the middle of a Tolkien novel slaying orcs.  Have some fun with it!

Published in: on December 22, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Comments (1)  
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D&D Is Not a Spectator Sport

So you’ve got someone hanging around.  They’re not there to play, for whatever reason.  They’re just there to watch.  This is one half of the dreaded GFS and it can kill a game dead.  What’s GFS?  “Girlfriend Syndrome”, originally named for the girlfriend who just has to tag along to the game session even though she isn’t playing.  I’m sure it’s gotten a new name that’s far more politically correct in this day and age where geek girls are a more common occurrence than ages past, but the effects on a game are well known.  It may be a significant other of either gender, a sibling, a roommate, a parent, a child, or just someone who happens to have a car and offered to give others who aren’t playing a lift to the game.  These looky-loos can kill a session dead as they spend the entire time hovering without purpose – or worse, distracting everyone with conversations about anything and everything but the gaming table.  Due to the relationships involved whether they are romantic, familial, or just bonds of friendship, this problem can be a very touchy one to deal with and must be handled with care in order to avoid damaging those relationships.  There are several approaches you can take to solve this problem, but first you need to figure out is why the person wants to watch the game rather than play.


If someone just wants to watch because they’re curious about the game but feel intimidated in playing, encourage them to watch and ask questions.  This will slow down or distract from the game, so expect this.  Also be prepared to kill any line of questions that are inane and won’t help them learn about the game – as what happened in the climactic encounter of a two-session long quest for my players where a non-gamer friend showed up to go bar-hopping and then proceeded to spend the next half hour asking what each individual miniature on the board did and why they were there, including “What’s the deal with all the eyeballs on the basketball?” as he removed the Beholder from the table, forcing me to try to remember where the hell it was in the first place.  If you’re patient, though, you might be able to win over a convert, especially if they see everyone else having a good time.


If you can convince them, try giving them a character sheet and a Cliff’s Notes summary of how the game works.  Once they get the basic idea of “Roll dice, add or subtract modifiers, tell the DM the result”, sit them next to a more experienced player (preferably one who can handle both questions from the noob as well as manage their own character without slowing down the game) and let them play.  This is actually the way many people get their start in D&D, showing up to a session with a friend and being handed the stereotypical “I hit things with a sword and nothing else” Fighter character sheet.


If they’re not even remotely curious about the game, you’re in a much harder situation and the idle chit-chat can bog down even the most succinctly run sessions.  You may just be in a situation where the person doesn’t understand how much they’re harming the gaming environment.  After all, if you were playing Monopoly or a friendly poker game, chatting between turns wouldn’t be a big deal at all (and in most cases would be expected and encouraged).  Role playing games require more concentration than any other form of tabletop gaming outside the most intense chess matches and professional poker games.  Many times, calmly explaining the difference between the two to the person in a very polite way will resolve the issue.


If the outsider is a gamer or if he/she does realize that an RPG requires more focused and constant attention than a video or board game, odds are he/she is just bored.  Find some way to get them involved without actually playing a full-fledged character.  Have them move around the NPC minis for you so you don’t have to constantly reach over the DM screen.  Maybe they could take over a minor NPC like a familiar or animal companion during social encounters.  They could be in charge of drawing the map if you have one of the erasable vinyl mats.  If they have hobbies like calligraphy or drawing, put them to work creating hand-outs for the players like wanted posters or a letter from an NPC.  Worst case scenario, turn them into the group’s waiter/waitress and send them to the kitchen or store for snacks and drinks.


Maybe they’re well-behaved while the game’s going on but start chatting with other players as soon as that player’s character is out of commission (due to character incapacitation/death, the scout character sneaking ahead to get a lay of the land, or just the party getting separated).  I’ve heard suggestions of a sort of “loser’s lounge” area where players go when their characters aren’t part of the action, such as a bedroom, a patio, or the garage.  The idea is that players whose characters are not in the action and anyone who isn’t playing can talk and socialize as they will without interfering with the game.  However, I would highly recommend against this action for several reasons. First, having your character out of the fray is hard enough without being isolated.  Letting players sit around and learn what their character’s wouldn’t know due to being unconscious or dying isn’t as game-breaking as you might thing because, as soon as they’re revived, the first thing the character would ask is “What happened?”  And finally, being isolated like that feels a lot like being the first kid on the playground out during dodgeball or tag.  You get to sit around twiddling your thumbs all alone while your friends get to have all the fun.  If this is the sort of problem you’re having with your players, you may just ask them to move to the kitchen or living room or whatever other room is nearby but not completely isolated until the encounter’s done.   You’re not sending them away so much as putting them at the other end of the table so there’s less cross-talk.


If all of that fails…well then you need to examine exactly what reason the person is coming to the game if all they’re doing is disrupting it.  Odds are they’re a friend who sees everyone else getting together and having fun but they’re not invited.  It’s possible they’re just want to hang out and be sociable and don’t care that they’re disrupting the game.  If there are players who are chatting with them, odds are they either don’t mind or don’t see it as disruptive…or they don’t care either.  Something as simple as a non-gaming movie night or weekly bowling game might resolve the issue by letting everyone hang out together and socialize without having anything on the agenda.


If that still doesn’t work, you’ve gone past a problem with the game and into a problem with your friendship.  A friend or significant other of you or one of your players continues to show up to your games even though they have no desire to play, no interest in what’s going on in the game, and no wish to be involved at any level.   They know they’re being disruptive and yet continue with the same actions, and scheduling time specifically to hang out with this person isn’t enough to appease them.   You have much deeper problems than the scope of a single gaming blog, problems for which there are hundreds if not thousands of self-help and psychology books written on the subject that would be far better suited to address the issues at hand.  Thankfully, things will almost never get that far and one of the ideas here should resolve your issues with the spectator at your gaming table.

Published in: on December 20, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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A New DM’s Kit

A lot of new DMs are worried about whether they have everything they need to run a game.  I and older gamers like me don’t help with the situation.  I won’t lie, gamers are by definition geeks, and geeks love collecting stuff.  I’ve got two dice bags (one for my “core” dice that’s black leather and a large Crown Royal bag whose seams I worry about at times with my extras), three erasable mats (two vinyl of different sizes and one laminated cardstock), a magnetic dry-erase board just for tracking initiative, three massive boxes of minis, and of course a bookshelf full of books.  And I’m considered rather restrained in my gaming pack-ray habits.  So it’s no wonder many new DMs worry that they have everything they need to run a game once they see everyone else’s collections.

Luckily, there’s a difference between what you need to run a game, what’s helpful but not necessary, what people like me collect just because we can’t help ourselves, and what is flat-out unnecessary and actually detrimental to a game.  While I’m not going to go out endorsing or reviewing specific products (at least not until I start getting free stuff), I’m going to tell you exactly what you need and what will just get in the way of running a game.


Player’s Handbook: At least three copies, one for the DM and two others for the players to look up stuff during the game (though you can drop this to one copy for the players if your group has less than four players).  You can also substitute the Rules Compendium from the Essentials line as well.  This is mainly for looking up rules during the game, as at least one of your players will want to find out the rules on some weird action they have in mind while it’s everyone else’s turn at the same time you’re trying to figure out the rules for the weird action another player’s trying on their turn.

Dice: The more, the better.  But each player will need at minimum 2d6, 1d8, 2d10 (of different colors or one with 1-10 and one with 10-00 so you can simulate a d100 roll), and 2d20.  Wait, why two d20s?  Because one of them will inevitably roll under the fridge or across the room (or will get thrown across the room in frustration after one too many low rolls) and it’s good to have a back-up.  They’ll also need any other dice needed for their attacks without needing to re-roll any.  You as DM should have at least two of each die and a total of 4d6.  Of course, more is better and it’s always good for the DM to have enough dice to loan a few to their players if needed.

Dungeon Master’s Guide: One copy for you, and you may not even need it during the game (especially if you have a Rules Compendium).

Monster Manual or Monster Vault: You only need one of them and it doesn’t matter which one you pick.  The reason you want this at hand is for that moment that comes once every three or four sessions when your players completely ignore the story you have planned and run off to start a fight you weren’t ready for (usually a tavern brawl but sometimes they decide to go hunting for dinner while camping).

Some way to track PC and NPC locations in combat: Old school gamers will scoff at this being under the “needed” category, but I feel it’s impossible to play without some form of visible indicator of positioning.  Doesn’t matter if it’s the official Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures, those nice cardboard tokens for Wizards of the Coast, painted minis from a third-party company, or really anything at all (some favorites I’ve seen are minis from other games, the pieces from a Monopoly game, those cheap plastic army men, coins, and one time M&Ms (for which we had to determine rules for when someone at the table accidentally ate the pirate captain before we’d killed him)).

An adventure: You have to have something to run.  You can run out of a published book, print out something from the internet, or write it yourself; but you need something.

Character sheets: Doesn’t matter if it’s pre-printed or just notebook paper.

Lots and lots of paper: You’ll want to make notes.  Your players may want to pass notes.  You have to track initiative somehow.  And there’s always at least one doodler at the table.  There’s no such thing as too much blank paper at a gaming table unless you’re playing in a paper warehouse.

Pencils: Not pens, but pencils.  Make sure you have at least two per player as one will get dropped under the couch.  I prefer buying the cheap mechanical ones that come in bags of 20, and while you don’t have to, I would highly recommend mechanical as they don’t need to be sharpened in the middle of writing down initiative order or tracking damage.

Snacks and drinks: You don’t have to have a 7 course tasting menu of gourmet food ready, but you have to have something edible around.  I’ve got an entire article in the pipeline about gaming refreshments (including the pros and cons of alcohol at the game table), but hungry people are grumpy people and snacks help prevent that.  Yes, they’re necessary.  Buy some chips and soda or better yet, get everyone to bring one thing and spread the cost around.


Battlegrid: You can go out and buy one of those nice vinyl wet-erase mats that are bit enough to double as a table cloth, use Dungeon Tiles, or buy a tablet of chart paper with a 1” grid on it from an office supply store.  It will help your games run just that much faster.

Other tracking methods: If you’re just flat out dead set against using a grid, there’s another method.  First, get one of those flexible tailor’s tape measures for tracking distances.  Then make circles or cubes in one inch, three inch, and five inch diameters out of anything at all (pastry/cookie cutters work well, empty and clean cans with the tops and bottoms cut off do well, or you can just roll up a piece of flexible cardboard) for marking out blast/burst radii.

Calculator: You will regret not having one the first time you have to divvy up XP.

DM screen: Again, it doesn’t have to be the official one, but the official release has some amazingly useful charts to save you time from looking up tables and rules.  However, you need something to hide your notes and your dice rolls because there will be one player who is capable of reading upside-down and will do so to get an advantage.

More dice: You can never have enough dice.


Magnetic dry-erase initiative tracker: I swear this is the best $10 I’ve ever spent for my gaming sessions.  The entire thing is dry erase and it has little tags for you to write each character’s name and each monster.  You can then slide them around if there’s any delayed/readied actions.

Little clear plastic stands: They’re made for miniature wargaming, but they’re great for flying or levitating characters.  You can also stack up 1” tall blocks, cylinders, etc.

More dice: You can never have enough dice.  I’m not kidding.


Side books: Anything outside the core rulebooks will add far more complexity to the game that you may be ready for.  If you and your players already know the rules well enough, you can add them in.  However, be careful about biting off more than you can chew.  Complexity can add more fun, but it also adds more complexity.

Terrain minis: Things to represent trees, pedestals, stairs, hills, pillars, etc.  There are some great sculpts out there, and you can also use the terrain minis used in model railroading (check on the scale before you order online).  Just makes the game more interesting to have them around.


These are items which are very tempting for gamers to buy/bring, but will only detract from your gaming experience, especially for new players and a new DM.

Laptops, cell phones, etc.: Many players like keeping track of their characters on the computer and many DMs like running off the computer (I’ve done it myself a few times to save printer paper or when my printer broke), but it’s far more likely people will get distracted with Mybook, Twitface, or just flat out browsing.

Custom minis for each monster in the session: If you’ve got the money to blow on a mini collection large enough to support that sort of gaming, that’s great.  It can be more immersive if every mini matches what the players are fighting.  But going that route does take a lot of money that (especially when you’re starting out) may be better spent elsewhere.  Like on more dice.

Fancy dice: Another money sink for players and DMs both as it’s a great status symbol to have your twenty-sider made of hematite, brushed steel, jade, or even solid gold or carved from an actual meteorite (I’m not kidding, they’re out there).  You do not need them.  Repeat to yourself slowly, you do not need them.  Why buy one die for $20 when you can get a hundred dice for the same price?  Also, every single person I’ve ever seen with those fancy dice have horrible, horrible luck with them.  I’ve never seen one roll a crit but I have seen dozens of 1s pop up on them.  Spend your money on more minis and more dice instead.

It can be intimidating at first, but you can run a game successfully on under $100, and if you shop well and take advantage of sales and used products, you can get a game started for $50 or less.  Don’t feel you have to go out and buy every toy all at once.  Talk to experienced players and read reviews online before you buy.  Basically, be smart with your money and your collection of gaming tools will grow organically to fit your game and your style.  And if $100 seems like a lot to you, look at other hobbies out there (carpentry, cooking, sculpting, car repair, etc.) and check out the cost of the most basic tool sets and raw materials and suddenly a few books, a bag of dice, some minis, and a battlemat don’t seem like such a huge investment compared to the amount of enjoyment gaming can give you.

Published in: on December 17, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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How Many is Too Many…Or Too Few?

Seems like an easy question for the new DM. How many players do I want in my game to make it as easy as possible? As few as possible! Like most things in life, the answer really isn’t as simple as that. While a large party can get unwieldy quickly and combat will slow down fast, there are more challenges to a small party than first meets the eye. Again, it’s a personal thing. Some people feel more comfortable with large groups, some feel overwhelmed and do better with smaller groups. Here are the pros and cons of groups of various sizes. Just so we can make sure we’re on the same page on terms, I consider a “small party” being a group of one to three PCs, an “average party” being four to six, and a “large party” being seven or more PCs.

With a small party, things tend to move a lot faster. With only a few PCs in the initiative order, combat will seem to whip right past. Having fewer players also means that everyone gets the spotlight more often, which can solve problems of someone feeling lost in the shuffle constantly. If you have a smaller group, you’re able to tell more personal stories as you can spend that time in the spotlight to explore the character in a more in depth fashion, drawing from their backstory and creating relationships with NPCs more easily. And, of course, fewer players means less that you have to deal with in terms of keeping track of what each PC can do.

However, you’re going to end up with an unbalanced party, no ifs ands or buts about it. This doesn’t matter what the game system as the Striker/Leader/Controller/Defender dynamic exists in a different form in every gaming system. Shadowrun (my favorite non-D&D game system) is a good example. To have a good shadowrunning team, you need muscle (be it street samurai or adept), magic, a face, and a hacker/decker (depending on edition). You can overlap roles more easily in a game like Shadowrun than D&D, but it still makes you a jack of multiple trades and master of none, and the group suffers for the lack of focus. D&D 4e has it even worse as missing any one of the four roles will seriously hurt the party’s ability to handle what’s thrown at them. No striker seriously drops their ability to do damage, no leader means everyone’s struggling to stay on their feet, no controller means a lack of options for herding (and just generally annoying) enemies, and no defender means your party is far more likely to get smacked around.

This doesn’t just mean that the party will have difficulties in combat, it makes your life as DM much more of a headache. Any pre-published adventure you want to run has to be heavily modified, and just putting them through adventures geared for a level or three below them won’t cut it. Because the encounters are designed for characters of a specific level, things like attack bonuses, skill check DCs, defenses, etc. are all built around that level. Putting a group of three level 7 characters through an adventure meant to challenge a group of five level 5 characters will mean that the monsters will have a much harder time hitting the characters and the PCs will be able to roll over them far easier than they should. The only way to really scale those adventures is to reduce the number of monsters or encounters the group will have. Also, you’ll need to recognize the weaknesses of your group due to the lack of a role. If your group is missing a striker, throwing a solo at them is going to make combat that much harder as it’s going to be neigh impossible for them to quickly grind down the massive amounts of HP those creatures have. If you throw a large group of minions at the players and they’re lacking a defender, the leader and controller are going to have a much harder time of things because they’ll be getting smacked around much more frequently.

What about when word gets out that you’re playing D&D and all your friends want in on the game? One of the first ongoing campaigns I ran at the local comic book store had between eight and twelve players in every session. It can be hard to manage that many people, and everyone’s going to be fighting for their moment in center stage. Again, published adventures are going to cause problems because a party of seven or eight will steamroll their way through every encounter without being in any particular danger. Upping the number of monsters will help, but that will just slow down combat even more than it already is with the large number of players, and a single combat encounter – not even the last encounter of the session – can take upwards of an hour. The problem with using a higher level adventure or monsters goes in reverse here, as the players will get quickly frustrated when they’re unable to hit the bad guys.

The plus side is that more players mean more brains and therefore more ideas. A larger group is going to be much more likely to give you cool moments as someone’s going to do something crazy every session. You can also throw stronger challenges at a larger party knowing that they’ll be able to prevail – or at least have the cash to pony up a Raise Dead if someone shouldn’t make it. While combat may be slower due to the extra steps in the initiative order, other aspects of the game will typically run faster as the “hive mind” will come up with solutions to problems much more quickly. This collective intelligence of a large party will also help you out while running the game, since odds are at least one player will remember the specific rule governing the current situation or at the very least remember where to find it. You’ll never have to worry about not having all your bases covered when it comes to party roles as at least one person in the group will have a strong desire to fulfill each role. And when your players are playing characters they want to play rather than playing what they feel the party needs to be complete (as nothing kills enjoyment of a campaign faster than “Meh, I guess I’ll play the cleric since no one else is”). Speaking of which, you’ll also be covered if one or two players can’t make the session. If you have a group of eight players and two of them are out of town, you’ve still got a six player party so you don’t have to cancel the session or work too hard to adjust.

Don’t feel discouraged from running a game just because you don’t have as many people willing to play or if you get an overwhelming response once word gets out. It’s great if you get that perfect 5-player group, but it’s not going to ruin the game if your numbers don’t match what Wizards of the Coast suggest. The reason that all the published adventures, treasure parcels, and the rules in general are set up for a five character party is because it’s one of the easiest to manage. With four to six players, you’ll have every role covered, you can run everything out of the box with only minimal modifications, and you won’t feel overwhelmed by managing a party that size. But there’s a trade-off for that “perfect” party size because you don’t get that intimacy (for lack of a better word) of the small party or that built-in backup system and “collective intelligence” of a large party. So don’t fret if you can’t get the perfect party together and learn to love the group you have rather than try to fit your game into someone else’s mold.

Published in: on December 15, 2010 at 10:40 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Skill Challenges Are NOT Pure Evil

Skill challenges throw even experienced DMs for a loop. They involve mechanics that aren’t used in any other aspect of the game, and they aren’t used very often. It’s a shame, because a lot of depth can be added to a game by making good use of skill challenges. The problem is a lot of DMs don’t approach them with the right mindset, and putting a skill challenge at the wrong spot in an adventure can grind the game to a halt. Some people even see skill challenges as replacing role playing as skills like Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate replace what should be normal interactions between PCs and NPCs, reducing them to a simple skill roll.

If players have to complete a skill challenge to advance to the next area of the adventure, something’s wrong in the design. This happens a lot when adventure designers (be it a published adventure, something you found online, or an adventure you wrote yourself) use a skill challenge when a series of skill checks is more appropriate. What’s the difference? Skill challenges have a specified ending point. If the characters have to scale a 100 foot cliff, this should be handled as a series of Athletics checks to climb rather than a skill challenge because, if they fail, they just fall and can try to climb again (if they survive the falling damage). If there’s a definite end, it’s a skill challenge. If they can keep trying indefinitely, it’s a series of skill checks. But keep in mind that things that might not seem like they have an ending, they still do. For example, you can’t keep using Streetwise over and over as eventually, you’ll use up all your resources and contacts (there’s only so many bars you can buy rounds at to get info).

You also don’t want the entire adventure to grind to a halt. If finding the orc camp requires multiple Nature and/or Dungeoneering checks, the failure at a skill challenge with a failure set at “They don’t find it” means that the party is stuck with nothing to do but wander in circles until the players happen across it (typically when the DM gets bored of rolling for random encounters). The easiest way to fix this problem is to look at skill challenges as combat that doesn’t involve sword or spell. In combat, a three or four bad rolls in a row don’t usually mean the players fail immediately. They just get hurt. A skill challenge should have a definite reward if successful and penalty if failed, but it should never stonewall the game. Failing to convince the captain of the guards that the evil necromancer is actually an evil necromancer simply means that the guards won’t take sides in a fight. Success would mean that the guards will arrest him or possibly help out the players in combat if a fight breaks out in the streets. Success on tracking the orc camp mentioned above may allow them to find the camp faster than failure, or let them find it before bumbling in, giving them a chance for a surprise attack.

The worst thing you can do with skill challenges, though, is let them replace role playing. Letting the characters simply make skill checks instead of talking to NPCs is one of the things people talk about when they say “role playing vs roll playing”. This doesn’t have to be the case, though, as you should still require your players act out social encounters. Giving a bonus for good role playing of +2 for good performances and +5 for amazing ones will encourage your players to stay in character during the encounters. Sometimes this can give you a disconnect from reality if the player gives a Shakespearian-quality speech, but botches the roll. There’s a logical explanation for this situation though. Just like in combat, what your player says is what he means for the character to do. The roll determines how well that idea goes through. Just as the player would say “I scramble up the wall after him and grab his ankles” when in fact, there are two rolls involved to determine how the action plays out (the Athletics check for the climb and the Basic Attack for the grab), the player’s sweepingly epic speech for the Diplomacy check or thoroughly convincing story for the Bluff check are what he’s attempting to say, while a botched roll means that he in some way stumbled – using the wrong form of address or speaking an incorrect language for the Diplomacy check or some tell or inconsistency giving the lie away in the Bluff check.

My favorite trick to use in skill challenges isn’t really using the rules as written, so it’s technically a house rule even though it’s not since the rules aren’t changed in any way. It’s adapted from another role playing game that I personally love called Shadowrun, where skill checks are used for combat as well as non-combat. In Shadowrun, you a number of dice equal to your skill rating, and each die is compared to the target number. One success means you’ve accomplished your goal, but more successes mean you’ve done better. So rolling the equivalent of a Bluff check and getting one success means the NPC is willing to go along with the lie but isn’t quite sure if you’re telling the truth or not, but five success means he’s a complete convert to the lie willing to shave his head and start handing out pamphlets to spread the word to others.

The skill check system in D&D 4e isn’t really set up for this sort of sliding scale of success, but modifying the skill challenge very slightly can let you pull this little trick. Instead of the normal skill challenge set-up of “Get X successes before you get Y failures” (which can take as few rolls as the number of failures if the players roll badly right off the bat), you have the players make a set number of skill checks and the more successes they get, the better the results. This requires a little more work from you in designing the skill challenge, but it’s worth the effort to prevent skill challenges from becoming tedious.

Let’s create one of my scaling skill challenges. The players have learned that a wizard has plans to perform a ritual which the players want to stop. The wizard is in a tower outside a city which the players have only recently arrived at. They want to get information about the wizard and his tower so they know what to expect. They’re performing a 5 roll scaling skill challenge. Their choice of skills are Streetwise (getting the word on the street), Arcana (studying where the tower is and what sorts of energies are coming from the place), and Diplomacy (getting access to the city’s official records on the wizard and his tower). If they get no successes out of the five, the information they get is “There’s this wizard…and he has a tower…it’s outside the city though.” However, the amount of information they get depends on the number of successes they’ve achieved:

1 success: The wizard paid a good price for five different farms in order to build his tower, and he didn’t even use all the farmland. It’s as if he needed that specific spot for some reason.
2 successes: Normally, the tower is very quiet. But the past few weeks, messengers have been coming and going regularly, and there have been strange noises in the middle of the night.
3 successes: The wizard’s master was known in his prime for developing new uses for arcane fire, and the wizard himself was in trouble regularly for arson when he was younger.
4+ successes: A red dragon was spotted flying to the tower, and sometimes his cries can be heard in the night.

How does this affect the encounter when the players go to the tower? Not at all really. All the same monsters and traps will be there waiting for them just the same. But if they did well on the challenge, they may have learned some important information. The first piece of information tells them the location of the tower is important to the ritual, the second that whatever is happening is happening soon due to the increased activity, the third lets them know to expect a lot of fire-based attacks and traps, and the last tells them there’s a dragon waiting for them. This will help their wizard prep the correct daily spells and let them do a bit of shopping for items that give them fire resistance before storming the tower. Failure means they’re unprepared for the challenges ahead of them, while success gives them a better chance at prevailing.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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