Why Roleplaying Games Are Good

So now that I’ve explained what you need to get to start roleplaying, let’s talk about why you should start gaming. Roleplaying games are good. I’m not even talking about for children/teenagers either, but for people in general. Here’s a list of reasons for adults to play more tabletop games.

  • It’s a social activity. Unlike many other hobbies these days, a roleplaying game requires social interaction with others. Video games are typically played alone or with people online, more and more people are watching movies at home instead of going out, but roleplaying games require you sitting at a table with your friends.
  • It helps keep the mind sharp. Have you at any point in your adult life tried to use algebra or write an essay? It’s very hard if you’re not doing it on a daily basis like you were in school. Roleplaying games require some level of math and a lot of creativity.
  • It supports small businesses. With only a couple of exceptions, every roleplaying game or tabletop game company is a small, independently owned business. They have a handful of employees who work tirelessly, giving money to their local economy. Most of those companies are also American companies who subcontract out localization to other small, local companies when publishing in other countries and languages. Many independent publishers print and manufacture in the United States as well, and others try their best to do so within the limits of financial feasibility.
  • Reminds you to be a good host and guest. Games typically take place in a private home. If you’re hosting the game, you have to make sure your house is clean and you have food and drink for everyone. If you’re visiting, you should always bring something like a snack or some soft drinks/beer/bottle of wine for everyone to enjoy. Many gaming sessions I’ve played or attended ended up being potluck dinner parties that included polyhedral dice.
  • Low overhead investment to get started. Most hobbies have large initial cost outlay. You want to start a musical instrument or home improvement or carpentry, you have to buy hundreds or thousands in tools and raw materials. As I stated in my last post, you can start gaming for around $100-150 and be set. And that cost can be spread amongst the entire group.
  • No demands of your time. You can spend as much or as little time as you like gaming, from a couple of hours every few weeks to marathon all-day-long sessions every weekend. You can go months without gaming and pick it up again right away. Your character’s stats won’t suffer from being away so long and you won’t be incredibly far behind even if you spend years away from the hobby (unless a new edition comes out, of course).
  • Escapism. Sometimes, life just sucks. Roleplaying is an escape for a few hours, letting you slip into the life of someone else or running a game engaging in collaborative storytelling. It lets you get out of the cubicle  mindset for an evening and fight an epic battle against evil.
  • Learn all sorts of new things. Many of the terms that are common in roleplaying games are collegiate-level vocabulary. The monsters and races in fantasy games draw from the mythologies of many different cultures. A lot of adventures are based on classic works of literature. While a lot of the knowledge you gain may not be useful in the “real world”, knowing different types of medieval polearms might just make the difference between winning or losing on Jeopardy someday.

So if you need any further encouragement, there you are. Best to go out and buy one of those starter boxed sets, join your local gaming store’s D&D Encounters session, or look around online for a local group you can join.

Published in: on January 4, 2012 at 12:01 AM  Leave a Comment  

Adventure Interruptus

Tonight, I did something I’ve never done before.  I ran a pre-published adventure.  I talked about this before, but I ran into a little bit different of a problem this time around.  I’m used to pulling all-nighters.  Game sessions usually run until everyone’s nodding off or I’ve run out of material.  Due to scheduling issues, I’ve had to schedule my games on a weeknight.  And since we’re not in our teens and twenties anymore, we had to stop – not because someone was too tired or because I couldn’t pull anything else out of my ass – because someone had to be at work in the morning.  And it happened mid-game.  I’m going to talk about the first half or so of “Storm Tower”, the adventure appearing in Dungeon Annual 2009 and Dungeon Magazine #166 (D&D Insider account required to view the adventure) written by Chris Perkins and popularized by being the adventure in the second session of the Penny Arcade podcasts.  If you haven’t listened to the podcasts or read/played the adventure, some of this may not make sense to you.  Just keep pushing through, I really do have a point.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault.  Combat wasn’t too slow and things didn’t take any longer than normal.  The only problem was that everyone got too into things.  The first three hours of the session were all role play.  The PCs met John Briggs, the mayor of Briggfell (yes, I will post that write-up as soon as I’m finished with it).  And they had a lot of fun hating him.  I intentionally made the guy as annoying as possible, a boisterous former adventurer who bragged constantly about his life.  He committed a cardinal sin in the player’s eyes.  He asked them about their stories, then interrupted them to tell them about his adventure which was similar but much more dangerous, thrilling, and exciting.  I had to start glossing over the events of the night to keep them from killing him in the middle of the tavern!

After that, they got lucky.  I think I actually improved one bit of Chris Perkin’s adventure.  In it, he had an idea that Sorik Orvash would be a doppelganger, but he couldn’t figure out why he’d lead the PCs to the site if he was.  So he created this weird situation where the doppelganger is posing as a dwarf hostage who “escapes” then attacks them from behind and…it’s a bit of a mess, and I even Perkins said he wasn’t happy about it.  You can even see his desire in the podcasts to have Sorik be a doppelganger, but he couldn’t figure out how to make it make sense.  Well, I managed to.  Sorik Orvash made it back to town to tell them about the attack on the watchtower Goldenhawk.  However, Celk the doppelganger followed him, killed him in his sleep, and took his place to find out how much he’d told the city guard (Nathan Farringray of Fallcrest in the adventure, Sheriff Thiek of Briggsfell in my version).  After taking the dwarf mason’s place, he was unable to figure out a way to escape and report back to Jeras Falck without raising suspicion.  So he had to keep playing the part.  Thanks to the players setting up a watch each night (and having a Drow in the party, who is aware of his surroundings while in his trance), he couldn’t attack them in their sleep.  He figured his best move was to wait until they were distracted fighting the watch Falck set up and attacking them from behind.

However, the dwarf in the group figured out something was wrong.  The suspicion spread, and eventually they all did well enough on Insight checks to suspect him of duplicity.  I set up an impromptu skill challenge whereby they tried a combination of Bluff (to fast-talk the fast-talker), Insight, Diplomacy, History, and even Nature (the argument was made that the dwarf in the party would know about physical features of dwarven settlements or dwarven folklore to trip him up).  Once successful, they attacked him.  After a bit of torture (and a LOOOOT of Insight checks, since I had the doppelganger lie as a knee-jerk reaction), they figured out the whole story and even got some info about what they’d be facing in Goldenhawk.

All of that together ate up three hours of game time, and they hadn’t even gotten to the damn tower yet!  But everyone was having fun so I went with it.  They fought the guard set on the ground and had a curbstomp battle down below (the only reason anyone got badly hurt was the dwarven Warden decided for some reason to make his initial attack against the Chomper and then pulled it adjacent to him! In his defense, both the Mage and the Artificer did miserably on their Arcana rolls to figure out what it was, not even getting the most basic info.  But the killed all the big enemies within two rounds, and had to spend the rest of the time mopping up the bandits on the scaffolding.

At the end of this battle (and of course looting), a couple of my players realized it was almost 11 PM and, having work in the morning, needed to leave in order to get enough sleep.  I was feeling tired, but more than ready to keep going.  Unfortunately, everyone shared their opinion and I was forced to do something I really don’t like doing – ending  a session without an Extended Rest.  What this means is that there will be additional bookkeeping.  I have to put a lot of trust in the palyers.  They hadn’t used their daily powers really, so I don’t have to worry about that.  However, they do have Healing Surges to worry about.  Then there’s remembering clues seeded early in the adventure (and no, I’m not quite going to post those yet…never know if any of them are reading this, and if you know the adventure, you know what I’m talking about).  As much as I wanted to go on, I can understand their position.  I wouldn’t be happy if I had to work on four hours sleep, even if it was for gaming.  So I guess I’ll just have to go with it.

Of course, they seem to be having a bit too easy of a time so far.  And to make up for that, I’m going to have a full week to come up with new and horrible ways to make that final encounter just that much harder for them…Mwuahahahahaha!

DM Worksheet

Sorry the posts are a little lacking these days, but I’m completely reorganizing my notes as well as cleaning the apartment.  I’m also working on a town for my campaign I plan on releasing as soon as I finish up all the notes.  However, I do have one little thing to give you guys.  It’s a DM’s worksheet.  Yeah, it doesn’t look like much, but it’s a lot of good information to have at your fingertips during a game.  No more spoiling passive perception/insight checks by asking everyone what their skills are, and you won’t have to interrupt your NPC’s monologuing to ask what your method actor’s vowel-challenged multisyllabic character name is.  Hopefully you’ll find some use for it.

DM Worksheet in PDF format.

Dangers of Pop Culture References

In both of my long-term campaigns, I dropped in a lot of pop culture references.  However, in doing so, I made quite a few big (but different) mistakes in each.  Everyone loves a good joke at the gaming table or to live out their fantasies of being someone cool from a movie/book/comic/whatever (you have no idea how many Wolverine clones I’ve seen in Shadowrun).  However, I’m going to highlight the two massive mistakes I made in my two campaigns.

The first was my 3rd Edition campaign.  I’d DMed a lot by then, but nothing more than a few sessions and typically in games other than D&D.  So I didn’t know the rules nearly as well as my players did (especially since most of them had been playing since I was in diapers).  I was a big fan of the anime series Slayers and had just finished reading the Dragonlance books, so I decided to throw two of the artifacts from those into the game.  One was a Philosopher’s Stone and the other was an Orb of Dragon Control.

I knew what a Philosopher’s Stone was.  I was big into mythology as a kid, so I’d read about it.  The only problem was I’d read about it when I was 10 or 11 and was running this campaign at 19-20.  Therefore, when I decided to add in the Philosopher’s Stone, the two just weren’t linked in my brain for some reason.  I had just used it as a MacGuffin that the players had that the NPC needed for his “I’m going to destroy the world” ritual without realizing it was an actual magic artifact with game stats.  So I was stuck with a bunch of players who wanted to actually use the Philosopher’s Stone and getting annoyed everytime I’d tell them it didn’t do anything.

The Orb of Dragon Control was an even bigger screw-up on my part.  I knew that they were items because I’d ripped it off of a D&D property.  There was one big problem.  The Orb of Dragon Control listed in the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide was completely different from the Dragonorbs in Dragonlance.  I assumed the two were the same just with different names, so I’d only skimmed the item’s description.  This means I’d just handed a bunch of old-school minded players a friggin’ artifact that let them control dragons and cast a massive Wall of Fire spell anytime they wanted, amongst other insane buffs.  At level 5.  I tried repeatedly to get it away from the player who had it (since he’d started dominating every single game) and eventually had to trade him for three massively overpowered (but not nearly as much) magic items.

My last campaign, thankfully, didn’t get completely broken by my idiocy.  But pop culture references still had a massive impact on the game.  It started innocently enough.  I was creating an entire world including my own pantheon of gods.  My roommate was enamored with the idea of the Avenger class.  We’d been talking, and he was on his eighth beer of the night while I was on my fourth of fifth double vodka straight-up on the rocks.  So to say we were a little drunk would be a massive overstatement.  The first thing I did was create each god I’d need to cover an entire pantheon, then assign a gender, then keep randomly generating names until I got one that fit.  My roommate saw this and was helping me pick names as well as deciding on which god he wanted for his Avenger.  In the alcohol-fueled haze, I don’t remember who picked the name for the God of Vengeance.  But we decided to name him “Zod”.  Yes, after General Zod.  What did my roommate decide would be his character’s Oath of Enmity?  “KNEEL BEFORE ZOD!”

It quickly turned into an avalanche.  The group’s name was Wyld Stallyns.  Anytime anything died, I said “Huuuurk!  Blaaaaarg…“.  The fae-pact Warlock made her pact specifically with a Winter Court fae named Lea.  NPCs kept getting named (or renamed by the players) after movie characters.  So did magic items they carried around.  If it wasn’t from a movie, it was from a book, a TV show, a comic, a video game, an internet meme…I believe I may have actually created a pop-culture density that threatened to collapse a black hole when I cut my players off at the pass and actually named the half-vampire Avenger undead hunter NPC “Buffy D Blade“.  Guess what happened when the players killed the vampire who was her dad?  I double dare you to guess.

Now we had a lot of fun with all the references, don’t get me wrong.  But it got in the way of the plot.  Everyone’s backstory, every quest, every NPC, everything ended up some sort of reference.  Any attempt to tell a real story was derailed almost immediately by our need to cram just one more reference into the game.  Looking back, I wonder if things would’ve been different.  Would the ritual book they were hunting after have stayed more in focus if they hadn’t decided to rename it the Necronomicon (Evil Dead reference, not Lovecraft)?  Maybe the players would’ve taken the liquid metal golum more seriously if he wasn’t listed on the initiative board as “T-1000”.   I’ll never really know because not only did I encourage this sort of action from my players, I participated in it.

I’ve made a pledge to myself with my new campaign I just started.  Pop culture references will be OOC only.  I’m going to thoroughly read every magic item I hand out, then Google the damn thing just to make sure I’m not missing some historical background.  I’m not going to stop my players from having fun and being silly at the table, because that’s a lot of the fun of playing a game of D&D – sitting around a table with your friends and hanging out.  But that doesn’t mean I have to let those things seep into my game world either.

I don’t it’s going to help, though.  My roommate’s Drow Assassin is already triggering his at-will teleport ability Shadow Step by saying “Bamf!”

Ain’t No Party Like an Infighting Party

One of my fears happened last night…I only had three players for a game that was designed for 5-6 players.  They even screwed up and let the kobold watch get away which warned all the kobolds inside their lair know they were under attack.  This made the two easy Level 2 encounters combine into a hard Level 4 encounter as they were in one room instead of two and in defensive positions.  But they managed it even though they were horribly outnumbered and outmatched.

Unfortunately, it took so long since there were only three of them that it was too late to do the last encounter.  And they were beat.  Thankfully, they were able to find the potion hidden in Siwos’s private room that granted them the benefits of an extended rest (seriously, I didn’t make that part up just to help them.  It was in the adventure I wrote).  So we’re going to get together today to finish up before we move the game to a friend’s house that is cat-free so we can fill out the party.

Something interesting I didn’t anticipate happened though.  My roommate is playing a Drow Assassin.  S is playing an Elf Barbarian (laugh if you want, she has INSANE mobility).  They spent the entire encounter bickering between one another.  It was hilarious, and it managed to bring back some of that previous edition feel.  At least for me.  It’s possible that it just may have been my group I played with when I was younger, but there was a lot of party infighting in the old days.  Lots of passed notes and secret rolls so that not all the players knew what was going on.  Sure, when the monsters came around, we stopped fighting each other and focused on whatever was attacking us, but we still worked alone as much as we did as a team.  My last campaign, I never bothered with secret notes because anytime I did, they reported it to the others.  They got along famously and there were no problems between characters.  And frankly, it was boring.

Buddy cop movies are fun because the two cops never get along properly.  Ensemble casts on TV series are the same way.  Each character has their own motivations and they act accordingly.  They never get along 100% of the time, and that interplay between them is what makes you want to watch the show.  Would you want to watch a movie or TV series about a group of people who get along all the time and always agree with each other?  Hell no!  You’d be bored senseless.  Jayne doesn’t get along with Simon.  Everyone distrusts River.  Shawn and Gus are horrible to each other.  Spike spent five seasons trying to get all of Buffy’s Scooby Gang killed.  Are Veronica Mars and Weevil working together this week or at each other’s figurative throats?  Are Spike and Angel working together this week or at each other’s literal throats?  You’d need a flowchart to understand all the interpersonal relationships on Galactica, and can you name one companion of The Doctor who ever, ever stayed put when she was told to?

So what’s the difference between this sort of interaction and a party falling to in-fighting and PvP combat?  When the chips are down, they have each other’s backs.  Even if their motives are less than pure (Spike only wanted to stop the world from ending because it was like an unlimited buffet of fun torturing people), they were still able to work together and overcome the bigger threat to everyone.  That’s the difference.  I’m fairly certain that, at some point, the Elf Barbarian and Drow Assassin are going to come to blows.  But I do know that it’s not going to happen when they’re in the middle of fighting the big bad black dragon I’ve got waiting for them under the kobold’s lair.

Also, here’s a little freebie for you.  In case you were wondering what that monster is on the side, let me explain.  The party of three consisted of the two aforementioned strikers and a controller – a Human Mage with a very blaster-strong build.  I knew they were going to get hurt badly without a leader, so I gave them a little friend.  With the help of a few people on the Wizards of the Coast D&D Forums, I was able to get this to its current form and I can say it works pretty well.  It kept everyone on their feet, but didn’t unbalance the game in the PC’s favor.  Feel free to use it in your games as well.

Published in: on February 21, 2011 at 7:50 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Back in the Saddle Again

I’m writing this the night before, but when this goes live, I’ll be in the middle of DMing my first real session of D&D since October 2009.  I wonder how hard it’s going to be to get back in the swing of things.  I’ve been working on my adventure for about two months now, and I’ve even playtested the major encounters twice to make sure they’re challenging without being overwhelming.  I’ve got my minis already in a little plastic bag under my spot at the table so I can set them up behind the screen.  The adventure’s printed out and I’ve double-checked it to make sure everything printed out properly.  But I’m still worried…

What if I’ve lost my touch?  I prepped a lot for this session, but I’m not usually big on the advance prep.  I like having a vague idea about where the story needs to go, the NPCs/monsters for the encounters, a map, and that’s it.  The more I plan, the more I feel locked into those plans so I can’t adapt on the fly nearly as well (and I’ve got at least two players who are really going to make me think on my feet it seems).  I mean it’s pretty straight-forward for one of my adventures, and it was designed that way.  I’ve got too many new players to have too much fun with terrain.

What if no one shows up?  I’ve only got a couple of people I know are going to be here.  My roommate obviously will.  But what about L and her husband?  I might’ve said something to piss her off when we talked tonight, and I said they couldn’t bring their dog (I have two cats who’ve never been close to a dog larger than chihuahua sized).  And M and R haven’t said a word to me, but my roommate says they’re both playing (which is odd because I thought R was very allergic to cats).  M and R are also married and have had a tendency to get into fights over M hanging out with me and my roommate – not like that, but it’s a very long story that’s frankly none of your business.  I’m making braised pork for everyone, but I don’t know if anyone’s even going to show.

And no one’s playing a Leader.  Sure, M, R, and D haven’t made their characters yet.  But my roommate and S are both playing Strikers, while L is playing a controller.  Knowing M’s personality, she’s probably going to go for a Striker too.  R could go either way.  And D’s really green when it comes to D&D.  If no one plays a Leader, what am I going to do?  I don’t want to run the game with the kid gloves on, but at the same time I don’t want a TPK.  I’ve got a couple of solutions up my sleeve that might help, but it just won’t be the same without a Leader to keep everyone on their feet.

And, worst of all, what if I completely bomb?  I suck at doing accents and voices.  I don’t know if they’ll want to interact with the NPCs much, but I just can’t think of anything interesting I can do with the one NPC they’ll be able to interact with.  I know M plays a lot of Storyteller/World of Darkness games, which are a lot more talky than D&D is.  How is that going to work out when I can’t even hold a British accent for more than a few sentences?  What if I can’t get the new players to understand the rules?  What if everyone hates the adventure?  Or me as DM?

Of course, this is just nerves.  Once I sit down behind the screen, I’ll be fine.  This happens every single time I’m about to start a session, from the moment one ends until the moment I say “Okay, so you’re…” and start everything off.  Once I get going, I’m never worried or nervous or stressed.  And once it’s done, I never worry about how well I did.  I already know exactly how well or poorly I did the second we’re done.  It’s always the next session I’m worried about.  But once it’s started, all I see is the game world, the map, and the PCs.  And honestly, that’s how it should be.

Pining for the Fjords – Player Character Edition

The rogue shifted himself too far back and got caught in the wizard’s blast.  The fighter just couldn’t save against the stunned effect and the monster front line made a beeline for the wizard.  The cleric just couldn’t get to them in time to heal them.  However it happened, someone’s dead.  And not “I’m at 0 HP and I’m making my saving throws” dead, but dead dead.  Negative bloodied value dead, failed three death saving throws dead, the spirit is no longer in residence in the body dead.  Now you have a problem.

Thankfully, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition makes it much harder for a PC to actually die.  You start the game with more hit points than you did in any other edition, you can go far deeper into negative hit points than you could before, and if you drop, you have a better than 50/50 chance to make it until the end of combat (assuming your party doesn’t also fall).  There are feats and racial traits that can even keep you on your feet at negative hit points, making it damn hard to actually die in a game.  At least one race, the Eberron campaign setting Warforged, literally cannot die unless you as DM actively attack him or her after the character is down.  But even with all these safeguards in place so that the PCs can lose a battle without dying (which in my opinion is a good thing as a character will stick around longer, causing the player to become more attached and able to add more depth to the character), characters can still die.  It’s been a challenge of the story-oriented DM since the dawn of gaming, and there’s a few ways of handling it.

The first, and probably the least desirable from a story-standpoint, is the hand-wave.  There’s a lot of ways this is done in many cases.  Beldar the Dwarf Fighter dies, but his brother Delbar the Dwarf Fighter (who happens to have the same attributes, skills, powers, feats, and gear) is ready to go in the next room.  While this may satisfy some, I’ve always found it to be the least imaginative and clunky story-wise way of bringing a fallen character back into the game.  The good news is that the player can carry on as if nothing happened.  The bad news is that the player can carry on as if nothing happened.  It greatly reduces the threat of death and the dramatic tension if players know that anytime their character happens to die, they can just pick right back up like they found that 1-Up mushroom on Level 1-1.  If there’s no chance of death, there’s no tension in any given combat.  And without that dramatic tension, there’s no fun.  Ever played DOOM with iddqd turned on?  Sure, it was fun, but it just wasn’t the same as the tension and panic when you rounded a corner only to be confronted by a massive demon with a chaingun for an arm.  Taking that bastard down by the skin of your teeth was a massive rush, but without that tension of death, you lose a lot of that triumph.

If you want the player ready to go, you can always have them create a new character.  Depending on the player’s experience, this may only take a few minutes or it could take the rest of the session.  Sometimes, this is the best way to go.  The player may be out for a bit longer and they’ll have to switch to a new character, but sometimes, you want a character to go out in a blaze of glory.  If the death was dramatically satisfying enough, let them have their moment and start anew.  If the death was just a matter of bad rolls, though, then that character’s story shouldn’t be over quite yet.  This isn’t a decision you should make on your own, though, as this is not something you want to force on an unwilling player.  Talk to the player and find out if they want to go in a different direction or if they want to stay with their same character a bit longer.   They may be tired of playing that race/class or they may have read something else they find more interesting, or maybe they’ve done all they feel like they can do with the character story-wise and are ready for a change.  Or maybe they feel there’s still a lot going on for the character that hasn’t been resolved.  They haven’t slain their evil twin brother or restored their father’s honor or whatever other character motivations the player created.  If that’s the case, then switching characters wouldn’t be the best option.

So your player’s made his or her choice and either wants a new character or wants to stick it through with this one.  Depending on how high level the party is, it may take them some time to make that new character, possibly longer than is left in the session.  Or there may not be any logical place for a new character to come in.  If they’ve decided to stay with the character, the other PCs still have to get that Raise Dead ritual completed to bring them back.  So you’re left with a player staring into space, chatting, and otherwise sitting around not able to be part of the game.  You can always try the tips I’ve provided in more detail before for spectators at your game, such as letting them run an allied NPC, play assistant during combat by moving minis and tracking initiative, or be the snack and drink provider.  You could also make a “quick version” of the new character by simply assigning attributes and picking powers as they play through the game with the option to change them, or play a “ghost” of the deceased character by applying a template to the character.

No matter how you decide to deal with player character death, it should be a rare thing in your games.  The threat of death should be there, but actual character death should be rare.  You should think about your style of game and your players in order to determine what you will do, and you should think about it long in advance so that it doesn’t blindside you.  But whatever choice you make, be sure to keep your players in mind.

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 6:00 AM  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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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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