Sunday, 13 August 2017

Dungeon Master: Restricting Movement

Movement is an important part of combat. It can keep you out of harms way, it can allow you to take on massive odds otherwise not possible, or it can doom you to be ripped apart by a group of zombies. It's also one of the major decisions, along with your action, that you can make in a round of combat in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. However, keeping it interesting can be a bit of a challenge. Often players will come up with a formation and stick to it. For that reason, I hope to share some of my thoughts and twists for making movement play a bigger role. In retrospect, I really should have done this topic before confined spaces and many enemies. Alas, here we are.

Reason to Move

From the start, there needs to be a good reason to move. Standing still can be the right choice in some cases. As a fighter, you might want to protect your wizard from arrows. However, in these cases movement options still need to look attractive or there really isn't a choice being made. What often tends to happen, from my experience, is that combat will start and something will happen. Maybe the enemy is primarily melee based and they will try to charge forward. However, after that the fight locks in place and stays static until something dies. Again, fights can go this way, but I think it should be a choice made by the players instead of simply the default and best option.

Avoiding

A classic reason to need to move is that something will happen if you don't. Maybe you'll get charged at by a giant creature. Maybe you need to duck down and move so that the wizard's fireball has a chance of missing you. In these cases, there is often a need for cover to hide behind or something special about the creature in question that can be avoided through movement but not by standing still.

Goal

A goal can force different kinds of movement and formations. If the players are chasing after someone who has something they need, they will be forced out of a static formation. Likewise, if they need to get something in the hands of one particular bad guy, it gives an incentive to break formation and go after the objective. When being used, I find it's better when breaking formation is a tempting option but not the only option. Perhaps they can go from rooftop to rooftop trying to shoot them down with an arrow. Perhaps they can chase after them on the streets. They can also try to get into formation and throw insults at the bad guy, hoping it'll force them to move. In this last case, they'll still be in formation but other options will probably at least be thought of. It also still something the players thought of and tried to do.

Environment

There are plenty of things you can throw into the environment in order to make movement look tempting. Adding some form of verticality to the encounter can give new tactical options. However, to employ them the character needs to get into position first. You can also have your encounter take place in a collapsing tunnel, forcing a weird encounter where both sides are running away while still trying to off each other. Another option is to have cover that might get destroyed if it takes too much damage. One of my favourites is to include environmental hazards or traps. Things such as drops, holes in the floor, or actual traps that might be noticed in combat and exploited all setup interesting encounters. Maybe the players will fake a retreat in order to get their pursuers to trigger a trap they noticed when fighting. Maybe the enemy will.

Direction

A common reason for a static formation is that the enemies always come from one direction. This means that the players can just set up their formation, block the tunnel and slog through the rest. When multiple directions are used, things tend to get more interesting. Even in the worst case scenario, the formation will need to turn to face the new threat. This can still be a tense moment due to the order things happen (initiative order can make things tense in such situations), unnoticed threats or simply being unable to respond completely perfectly in time.

Why Standing Still Is Bad

If you want to have elements of combat that prevent movement, then it should be a real loss. If you prevent a character from moving when they'd just rather stay in formation anyway, they haven't really lost anything. For this reason I like to consider why I'm adding an encounter feature that prevents movement. If I can't think of one, I don't put it in. If players are moving to areas of light and getting caught by a shadow hand coming from the ground will allow the shadows to catch them, there is a reason to move. Of course players can attack the hands and set each other free. However, when they know they have to in order to survive and need to consider giving up their important action to regain their ability to go to safety, both options can look tempting.

Forcing Movement

Built into D&D 5th edition are multiple things that force movement for players. I've seen far too many times when a Dungeon Master forgot about the ability to shove creatures or grab them and drag them out of the way. This is especially true where zombies are concerned. However, there are other such effects too. From feats to spells such as Thunderwave, there are many ways that movement might be forced on players or creatures alike. However, we can also do it in other ways. I'd call falling a method of forced movement. However, being on a ship as it's tilting can also end up forcing movement when the angle is too steep. Flying in a storm can do so as well. However, when I do so I don't want to just take away the players ability to move. I find that it works better to force players to trade something in order to move, or still allow them to move but shift it a little. If the player tried to fly 15 feet to the left, the wind might shift their movement path but they still moved. This means moving and dodging things can still be done, but there is a risk associated with it. For this reason I thing being careful not to take the option away completely, particularly when often holding formation is the go to choice, is important.

Enhancing Movement

You can also create special effects or conditions to increase movement. Getting double the movement speed or being in a special location where they can fly gives them new tactical options. Having these options lost to you makes the impact bigger.

Novelty

Many of the things I mentioned earlier will come off as novelties. However, it can depend heavily on your type of campaign. If your campaign is more horror oriented and players will often need to avoid contact with things or flee, it can be a reoccurring feature of your combat encounters. The big ones that apply most of the time is the direction the players are being attack, stealth, goals, cover, and environmental hazards. The other cases are nice and make combat memorable but don't feature as often unless your campaign is based around them from my experience.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Dungeon Master: Many Enemies

A Dungeon Master has many options and many decisions to make when designing combat encounters. One such decision is about how many enemies to include in an encounter. Large groups of enemies can give a feeling of tension while also making the players feel powerful. However, there are some possible issues with the approach. Rolling can take a while, and it's possible to end up with a combat encounter that isn't all that different than fighting one enemy with many attacks, among other things. Having seen many such situations, I hope to get my thoughts on the manner recorded. It helps me think through the topic for my own benefit and hopefully someone, somewhere, finds it useful.

One Enemy

We could approximate some large groups of enemies by using one that has multiple attacks. As it takes damage, it gets fewer and fewer attacks until it finally dies. Now, that can make for an interesting single creature encounter. The issue I see, however, is that in these cases there often isn't much of a difference. It would be best if when we use one or the other, there is a marked difference. The one difference that does exist is mobility. Many enemies allow you to restrict movement and also to position them in ways that threaten multiple people. One enemy fighting a party is the opposite situation. It is your single enemy that is or can be restricted.

Movement

There is a lot of potential for enemy movement and clever use of positions when many enemies are encountered. Some could try to go into tactical positions, block access to certain routes and force players to hack their way through, or go around and flank. They don't all need to move in the same way either. Some can attack at range, some close up, some could be flying, as well as many other options. This is one of the major differences from using one enemy. It also means that multiple people can be engaged while also avoiding opportunity attacks. If it was one creature attacking everyone in the party, it would need to move between them and possibly trigger an attack from every one of them if using melee. It's a bit different with ranged attacks but we could still get into such a situation when cover is used. It would also tend to go after one goal, where a large group lets you go after 2, 3 or even more. I find that a static encounter is what we want to avoid here. For more on that topic, you can check my other post here. That one was about confined spaces but the central issue is being locked down in an encounter in both cases.

Carving a Path

When surrounded and forced to move, not every creature necessarily needs to be killed. Also, not every goal needs to be chased. The players could pick one and pursue it fully. They could also choose to escape. In this kind of case, hacking their way through to escape is a valid option that isn't otherwise available. A crowd of weaker enemies, however, makes this a tactical option. Where this can get a bit tricky is when movement is included. How does it interact with their attempt to hack through? It's also worth noting that moving through like this triggers opportunity attacks as well. And with a large crowd, it would be quite a lot of them. This makes it a rather risky tactic, though in such a situation risky may be better than certain death. It's part of the reason why them being weaker is necessary. It tends to work best with creatures that fall from a single attack or at least have a good chance to. Player multi-attack, area of effect spells, or other means to attack more than one creature allow the players to go through more than one square at a time this way.

There is another issue when trying to do this. When they break an opening, initiative order and movement rules can result in a case where the crowd just catches up to them and tries to swallow them again. There isn't much of an easy solution in these cases beyond moving away from combat at that point and handling it as a chase. However, it can sometimes work out anyway. It partially depends on initiative order. If it happened just right, the enemies could end up blocking their own from moving and allow the party to get a good lead on most of their pursuers. This was a rather cool situation in a game I was a player in. However, it was probably largely due to luck on our part and also because zombies don't get as much movement. In our case the party outpaced the entire group of zombies except one or two. The other thing to keep in mind is that it would take the enemies more movement to move around the front of your players. Of course, it also takes the players some of their movement to escape too. The deciding factor then comes down to terrain features. A choke point after they break out can ensure they no longer get surrounded.

Too Many Layers

If we have too many layers of enemies, it's theoretically possible to create an encounter where everyone is stuck. It is sort of like the stalemate situation in the Carving a Path section above. The difference, however, is that in this case escaping may not be the goal of the players. However, this can still be a problem because it restricts movement and therefore tactical choices. You probably don't want to lock down all your players in a large crowd of enemies that they can't ever break out of. For this reason just keep in mind how many layers of enemies you'll be throwing at your players. There is such a thing as too many at once and I believe this is when it happens. To avoid this but still throw large groups at your players, you'll probably need to break them up somehow.

Break Em Up

Having many enemies allows you incredible freedom in deciding how many will arrive and when. They all don't have to arrive in a massive crowd. The encounter can be in multiple waves, or at least what seems like multiple waves due to initiative order. This allows a turn or two for players to strategize, get better positions, pick off a few at range, maybe have a couple rounds of skirmishing, and do whatever else they need to do.They might still be able to see all the enemies at once. It just might take some of them 3 turns to arrive as opposed to 1.

Identity

Of course, having more enemies means you have a chance to give each one their own identity and character. This may make some of them more obvious targets. It also gives things more personality and allows some of them to get killed in combat while others retreat. The impact of this won't be combat related or tactical but it's important all the same. Some could even turn on each other mid-combat if things aren't going well. 

Rolling A Lot

Many enemies tend to mean a lot of rolling on the Dungeon Master side. It also isn't as easy to handle as other situations. Rolling many dice at once is a common way to speed things up but we'd need to think of ways of assigning the dice to players. If you have 4 or less, having different colour dice ready to go works well. Each colour corresponds to a player so after you roll, you don't need to decide which dice corresponds to who. This way you aren't playing favourites. Of course, you'd need to plan and prepare the dice ahead of time to make sure you have enough. Otherwise, you'll be taking quite a bit of time rolling. Rolling a lot of dice in these cases is unavoidable, just like with enemies that have many attacks. However, how we actually roll them can help save time.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Dungeon Master: Confined Spaces

There are many different locations in which combat can occur. However, due to the nature of dungeons, often times it's in a confined space. It could be inside a small building, inside the tunnels of a mine, or on a floating platform. Regardless, these kinds of situations restrict the movement of players and enemies alike and come with their own challenges. It is these elements that I hope to discuss. As always, I'd be happy to hear other opinions.

Getting Locked Down

One of my big enemies when designing combat encounters is the static encounter. I don't want my players to get locked into one position where they'll just spend their turns rolling dice and nothing else. The problem is that confined places make it easier for this to occur. There isn't much distance to cross so the enemy can quickly get up close. There is also often nowhere to go. In systems that have some form of penalty for leaving reach, moving away is often not worth the penalty and we end up with a static encounter. In a confined space this is compounded further. Even if we do try to move away, there's often not much room for us to move.

Quick Encounters

One of the best solutions I've found in these kinds of situations is for the encounter not to last long. This way, even if players do get locked into a position, combat will be over soon after. What this often means is enemies are easily dropped and tend to deal a large amount of damage. This can be a bit hard to balance, particularly at higher levels, since this kind of combat can be very swingy. At low levels most enemies do a fairly large amount of damage relative to the health of a player character anyway. However, doing things this way ensures that the position chosen matters (a good position will result in fewer resources lost) but avoids the long slog. They can do normal amounts of damage too, but in that case it'll be a series of encounters that tries to chip away at the party. It naturally doesn't work as well with set-piece encounters though. In those cases you'll want something else since the idea is to have something a bit longer and more epic.

Sub-Optimal Dungeon Master Actions

It takes two sides to get locked down. What this means is that in situations where you can't reasonably expect players to move since it's against their own interests, you can break the stalemate. This way things get to be more dynamic. So what if your NPC gets an opportunity attack against it? The player can now move now and make for an interesting encounter. Of course, there will be times when someone will get past the player. This is great because the players will now need to decide how to deal with the NPC that slipped past their defenses. In some cases, though, this won't make sense. It will also get stale quickly if we take the same sub-optimal actions every time. The enemy shouldn't be leaving reach only for the sake of making combat more interesting. There should be an in-game reason for doing so, such as wanting to take out the spellcaster or retrieve an item held by a different player.

Obstacles

In a confined area with no obstacles, often the only thing blocking line of sight and preventing movement are other people. In a small enough place this can be a real limiting factor. However, we can also put obstacles into the area to further block line of sight in certain situations and extend the movement needed to reach someone. Sometimes these kinds of constraints can be exactly what we need to change things up. The extra distance can also work wonders for creating different kinds of situations. We want to keep multiple paths so that meaningful decisions involving movement still need to be made. With small enough rooms, we can link multiple ones together to make a less uniform area.Not all obstacles will prevent both line of sight and movement. It could be one or the other.

Bends in the Road

The reason I thought of this topic was because of a situation I ran into during one of my sessions. The session involved some plane and time hopping. Naturally, the players had found themselves in trenches in a roughly WW1 situation where I had used a tile set to build a trench system. One particular combat encounter happened around the bend in the trench. Different characters were lying in wait for people to try to peek around while others party members were peeking around and trying to attract attention. One tried to use the flooring to build some impromptu cover. It's a different kind of encounter but it's one worth considering. It's also something that can be kept in mind when creating an encounter close to a bend in a dungeon. You may accidentally run into this situation. In this case, the confined space itself provides ways to break line of sight. Doorways can result in similar situations as can other choke points.

Temporary Area Denial

Confined areas can be full of many things. Some of these things are flammable and can prevent certain areas from being used. I say this because in my last session, a barrel caught in a fireball ended up exploding and blocked off access to part of the room. Traps are another common method to temporarily block access to part of a room. This is especially true for some traps that need to be reset since once they are set off, they may be no-longer a hazard. If there was a span of time since players were there, rain could have made rather large muddles or have made certain parts of the dungeon slippery. When possible though, don't forget to apply them to your own NPCs unless they have some kind of immunity. There is nothing wrong with a fire-immune demon walking through a wall of flames or a ghost walking straight through a trap. However, your regular bandit shouldn't be able to without consequences.

Random Events

Even in confined spaces, some interesting events can occur to break things up. A third group could join the fight, the statue in the centre of the room could be attacking the party and their enemy indiscriminately, shells could be exploding (in the case of the trench example above) or a host of other situations. From my experience the ones that work best will somehow chance the area. Either areas will be further restricted, new temporary ways of breaking line of sight appear, or obstacles previously there are taken away.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dungeon Master: Splitting the Party

A sage old piece of advice is to never split the party. It usually ends badly for the players, and some monster out there becoming extremely wealthy. “Why is that the case?” some innocent new player might ask. Is it always true? I've seen this occur a few times, mostly with horrible failure as a result but a hand full of times with amazing success. And so, I'll be recording the situations and issues I've seen in the hopes that it helps someone out there. That way it can be avoided or the issues can be minimized.

Encounter Balance

How an encounter is balanced and constructed plays a bit of a role when talking about splitting the party. If you had an adventure meant for solo play and ran your party through it, splitting up wouldn't be a problem. However, combat encounters are typically balanced around the size and level of the party. In the case that set-piece style encounters aren't used, the number and type of enemies are still roughly determined based on the strength of the players in some way. If you bring less than expected into a combat encounter, things can go very badly very quickly. It's kind of like taking some party member(s), throwing them into a room with the big bad and locking the door. The only difference is that in this case, the party members are going there willingly and locking the door behind themselves.

Of course, not everyone balances their encounters in this way. If your Dungeon Master likes to send weaker encounters that are meant to whittle down your resources, splitting the party can be a viable option. However, having everyone committed to one encounter instead usually results in a far easier time and fewer resources spent. It's just a result of typical action economy and being able to do more per turn. 

Risk vs Reward

Players will make risk vs reward calculations for the positions they are in. In many campaigns, there isn't much benefit from splitting up and the risk massively increases. Most of the times this happens, it involves stealth. However, players typically attack from stealth for an advantage, which is more effective if backup is close by and more people are involved, or when trying to sneak into somewhere. The deeper they sneak in, however, the more risk.

There can of course be exceptions. If the intention is that players will split up, the Dungeon Master might try to make it lucrative to do so. However, if the threat is too high they still won't do so and prefer to go after one objective. If they know that they can go after the second objective afterwards, this further shifts the risk vs reward calculation. They also might feel it's a trick because it was never the right choice before and staying together is safer. This is one of the challenges of making it lucrative to split the party. Even if you do, they could choose not to. If you modify the encounter depending on decision of the party, it changes the nature of the choice. This is especially true if they notice it's happening after trying enough times. The choice is no longer about which choice has the best chances of success, but which approach is more advantageous from a meta-game perspective. This could be mostly a non-issue if your players don't meta-game though. Of course, the encounters should still make sense in context. How death and retreat are handles also factors in.

Ease of Running a Session

It's typically easier to run a session for one group of adventurers. This also means that this is the more common option to go for. As a result, trying to split up in such a situation leads to fighting 2 encounters undermanned. The encounters just might not have been setup for such situation. The Dungeon Master might skew things a couple of times and put fewer things to fight, but most of the time they'll just run it as it was. This does mean, however, that the adventure was intended to be tackled as a group. This is good, since it gives everyone something to do and a challenge. However, it also has a way of making splitting up not worth it.

Why is it easier? If your party is split up, you have to give both smaller parties things to do. Giving them equal attention while keeping the party members that aren't playing from being bored can be difficult. If everyone is good at what they do, the other party might have fun just watching. However, if things go unexpectedly well or badly, the attention each party gets shifted. Keeping it somewhat equal and both groups engaged is tough. It's often just easier to have everyone together. Something else needs attention? Send the NPC party there while yours handles this. If players often like to split up, what you sometimes end up with two sessions that are going on at the same time. I've been witness to a campaign where the Dungeon Master just gave each group their own time and then a week or two later they rejoined into one bigger group. I've only seen that once though.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Dungeon Master: Players Killing Everything

At a certain point a Dungeon Master typically reaches that phase where they no longer want their players to be a death-mobile killing everything that stands in their path. However, the methods to do so and even the reasons that it previously happened are numerous. As such, I want to try to collect them here along with my thoughts.As usually, hopefully it helps someone out there. And as usual, I'd be happy to hear what other people think.

Player Side

Some players are more likely to want to go around killing everyone than others. Combat is one of the things they enjoy, or they want to play a character who embraces the dark side. Even a role-player tends to want some combat in their games. Though that's an often used excuse, it sometimes is a legitimate desire from a player. Naturally then, they'll want to go around picking fights they think they can win.

However, there can be other reasons your players often get into fights or at the very least end up killing most things they come across. Doing so in games tends to reward players. They get treasure and experience. What can be better? If this is combined with a lack of consequences for killing, you end up in a situation where even people who generally don't want to kill everything in their way will. It's just clearly the best choice and players can typically only hamstring themselves for so long when you are trying to kill them.

Dungeon Master

Experience

Out of the gate, experience points can have a big impact on these sorts of situations. If you reward experience on kills, players will go for it. The alternative is to reward experience on a victory. In this case, they'll still receive experience for making enemies flee. This removes the desire to hunt down everyone who flees for experience. This option is still open in order to prevent intel from reaching the enemy. However, there is the metagame implication that for long term experience, it may be best to always let fleeing enemies go. It's sort of like catch and release fishing. They'll come back with more loot and experience. Milestones get around this entirely (awarding levels based on progress in the story), but change the experience for players.

By Design

When I design an combat encounter, how to avoid it completely tends to be one of the last questions on my mind. However, it's still an important question to ask. If you put your players into a dungeon, with the door closed behind them, fighting room through room, it should not be too much of a surprise if they start thinking of combat as the first option. In these kinds of dungeon crawls, it may not be much of a problem either. It could be what your players are here for. However, you can accidentally create these kinds of situations as well. When someone is trying to kill their character, a player is rarely in a talking mood. This means often the default choice is to fight. It also relies on the precedence previously set. You can't throw one encounter that should be solved through non-violence into a dungeon crawl full of nothing else and be surprised when they fight through it. If they run into at least one non-violent situation though, next time there's a better chance that they'll investigate first.

My suggestions for these kinds of situations are quite simple. Establish quite earlier that there are other ways to solve the problem and put a consequence for killing. If it's someone innocent, they might be able to get away with it once or twice but eventually there will be issues. Maybe more guards will be present in the streets, creating problems for your band of ragtag thieves. The point is that it should make sense. Loud noises in a dungeon can draw more attention. A missing patrol sets a camp on edge though sometimes people do skip watch duty to sleep or do other things. The last is to try and have some kind of alternatives ready and if not, not to be afraid of rolling with them. This is where it gets tricky. You also don't want a min-maxed charisma character to just talk through your entire campaign. In these cases the best advice I can think of to give is to remember that what is said is also important, not just how it's said, and that not every fight can be talked out seconds before erupting. It tends to be quite specific and on a case-by-case basis though. Remember that actions have consequences.

Doesn't Work?

Worst case scenario might be needing an out of character talk about what the players want from their campaign and what you want. You need to be on the same page or nothing works. Things get stale quickly if your players decide to just hang out at the inn every session instead of doing things. Only so many bandit groups can keep attacking the inn for protection money. Just like we have expectations that our players will go after something, players have expectations about what they'll be doing in a session. Of course, such talks can be had far earlier, such as at the start of the campaign. For experienced players, this may be needed. Dungeon Masters each have their own style of game and players, coming from a different style, may be expecting something that isn't coming. Sometimes it's for the best, sometimes it's for the worst, but those expectations are important to consider. A good part of our a Dungeon Master's job is managing expectation.You could have a lot of fun with a death-mobile party. However, people need to be alright with it and expect it. Typically, however, people prefer a mix of combat, role-play and storytelling (add humour to taste).

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Player: Hitting A Slump

Players can hit a slump just like Dungeon Masters can. However, the ways to deal with them tend to be very different due to the nature of the role. In some ways, players have more tools to work with. In others, they aren't nearly as free. For this reason, I'll be talking about it in this separate post than the one I did focusing on the Dungeon Master side of the screen.

Being the Dungeon Master

Making the switch to Dungeon Master could help get over the slump. The role is vastly different so some people really do enjoy the large change. However, it's also a large commitment and usually needs more preparation time than being a player. You don't really want to start a campaign you don't think you can finish. I think it's also far more common to have Dungeon Masters who have previous experience as players than players who have previous experience as Dungeon Masters (though I have met the occasional Dungeon Master who started in that role and never left). This lack of experience can make things quite a bit tougher at first and more stressful. It's not that the switch can't be done or that it's necessarily a bad idea, but I can't blanket recommend it. It will depend heavily on the player in question.

Playing a New Character

As a player, your character has a large impact on your game. It's also quite common to fall into a pattern of making rather similar characters. These similarities are usually the personality of the character, or the class. Either way, trying something new in either of these categories can help make things seem new again. The switch between a martial class, a skill monkey class or a magic class tends to be the most pronounced in terms of changes. The way they handle themselves in combat and outside of it is different enough that it can make the game feel completely different. It often also leads to making different characters to suit the strengths of the new class, though this isn't always the class. Switching up the background of a character can also go a long way due to the large changes and challenge role-playing presents in those cases. It may also be worth thinking about your spell list from an in-world perspective. I also often see (I'm guilty of this too) spells being chosen for their usefulness in combat instead of if they make sense for a character to have. Choosing spells you wouldn't have normally can lead to interesting combat solutions and unorthodox utility use.

Working Through It

There are times in a campaign where things need to be done to lead to better and newer things. Sometimes it's worth just going along for a bit and hoping things change soon. This will of course depend on your previous experiences in the campaign and whether you can reasonably expect such a thing. However, it's worth considering and thinking about, particularly if you want to keep your character.

A New Twist

Sometimes, all it might take is a new dynamic or event to mix things up. To achieve this, you might decide to plan something with a fellow player. Stories between players can be just as important as the stories between the players and the Dungeon Master. I do need to say that you need to be a bit careful not to hijack things from the Dungeon Master in these cases. You can also try talking about possible twists or events that involve your character with your Dungeon Master. Having your character as a central part of an event has a way of opening up new role-play opportunities. It's important to note, however, that what I'm talking about here is if you are alone in your feelings. If everyone else around the table is feeling out of it, it could be that the campaign needs to be shaken up in general. Adding an event that has your player as a central focus might not be enough. It'll need to be more drastic in scope and involve the whole party.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Dungeon Master: Hitting a Slump

Sometimes, we Dungeon Masters hit a slump. I know I do. It's one of those things where it just doesn't feel the same way. It's a hard thing to describe to someone who hasn't felt it. That spark of inspiration just isn't there the same way compared to earlier in the campaign. That feeling like you wish you could run a session right this moment isn't there either. Getting past it is hard but I hope that some of what has worked for me will help at least someone out there. I'll be focusing on home games as usual. Organized play is a different situation.

Responsibilities

There are certain responsibilities that come with being a Dungeon Master. Even if we aren't feeling completely up to it, we need to run sessions for our players. That said, there is a certain contract between players and their Dungeon Master. If your off feeling is something just happened and you can't quite tell why, it's not much of a problem. For me, it would often go away quite quickly as I got back into the game after a few other sessions. However, if it comes from dysfunctional players or something else that is a long term factor, it's a different situation. In that case, you know what the cause is and it should be dealt with. When it's your slump or just general feeling, the cause isn't as blatant.

Other Things

Dungeon Masters are people too. It could be that something else came up. Maybe you really got into a book series, TV series, movie, video game, whatever it is. Work and other aspects of life could also make you less enthusiastic about your campaign. For me, I find that getting some preparation done or even reading through a game book, particularly Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide like books, greatly helps my enthusiasm. Finding an adventure and taking some parts you find really cool can also help, since it could replace that slump feeling with a desire to run that new cool thing. It's basically a search for inspiration at that point. Of course, getting into something else can also have the opposite effect since it can jump start inspiration. Sometimes it's worth reflecting on why you got into that other thing and seeing what you can try to bring back with you. It can lead to surprising results.

Taking a Break

Sometimes, you might just need to take a break. This is a hard thing to say, because I personally don't like taking a break in the middle of a campaign. It's how I've seen many campaigns fall apart before reaching the end. However, you can take some time between running campaigns to play in someone else's game instead. Switching sides of the screen can help with that feeling. It also depends on the kind of campaigns you typically run. If it's more episodic in nature, you might be able to get someone else to guest DM for a little while. There are some things, such as family or job related stuff, that you can't ignore either. If you do decide to take a break, finding the willpower to come back may be an issue. Be prepared for that.

Timing

The frequency of sessions plays a big part in all this. You can reasonably allow yourself a week or so break if your sessions are every 2 weeks. However, it's tougher to fit in for weekly sessions or if you run multiple campaigns weekly like a Dungeon Master super star (it takes serious dedication and is appreciated). It's not uncommon to have a bit of a break between campaigns too. The start of a campaign tends to involve a lot of Dungeon Master planning and thinking, even if it's just running a published adventure. At that time, you can reasonably allow yourself a bit of a break. It really shouldn't be a chore though. I find starting can sometimes be the hardest part if I'm into something else at the same time. Once I start, I enjoy it and might continue thinking about it for some time. I recommend coming up with a self imposed deadline just to keep on track.

When Does It Happen to Me?

For me, I can get my attention shifted to something else for a bit. Usually I lose myself in a book or a book series. Pulling yourself out of that can be difficult but I usually come back with something that can inspire me. The key, I think, is to try and not letting it affect your players. Even if you are feeling slightly off, you should still be enjoying yourself when you get there. Like all things, there are layers of severity. More serious situations might need more serious and drastic solutions.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Dungeon Master: Shy Players

Players come in all different personalities. The outgoing and social players can come with their own challenges, but what I found more difficult was dealing with shy players. There are many different reasons for a player to be shy and different methods are usually needed for each. It's also generally easier for a social player to realize they need to yield the stage compared to making a shy person take it.

Circumstances

One of the things that can make a player shy is circumstance. It can be hard to find a gaming group, and when you do the group has often been around for some time. Jumping into that can be a challenge even for social people. You don't only need to step up and take part in the game, but also get to know everyone in the group. Public play has a similar yet different problem. There, you also often end up playing with a group of strangers but you might not run into the same people next time. This could keep things constantly in that early stage where you need to be getting to know the players as well as stepping up in the game.

The public play option is probably the hardest to deal with. If you are shy in those kinds of situations but don't have another way to play, there isn't an easy solution. You usually just have to push yourself to get involved. In a small group, however, it might take a few sessions but once the player feels comfortable things tend to run much smoother. Those sessions between joining and feeling comfortable, however, can be rocky. In those cases it's important to have something that they can contribute to. This means they need to play a part and aren't completely ignored. However, you shouldn't be dragging your player into the limelight when they don't want to be there. That balance is a hard thing to find and varies depending on the person. As they feel more comfortable, the balance can shift as well.

Are They Happy?

The amount a player needs to contribute to a session to be happy varies depending on the player and even the overall campaign. Players are there for a multitude of reasons. Some want the tactical grid combat and dungeon delving, some want the role-playing and some are there to be part of and listen to a story. A shy player might be happy with contributing to combat like everyone else, and role-playing a little bit but not as much as the party's natural actor. If they are happy, that's fine. The thing I will mention is that power gamers/min-maxers tend to not go well with shy players unless they also have such inclinations from my experience. It could be just the luck of the draw but min-maxing can threaten to push a shy player out of their niche. Of course, it also depends on the nature of the min-maxing and if they share the same class. It's just something to keep in mind.

Comfort

From what I've seen, comfort plays a big part for shy players. If they feel comfortable even a shy player might end up speaking as often as anyone else in the group. Part of this is the understanding that failure is part of the game and tells a story. Getting mad at someone because a combat encounter did not go well will create discomfort and worry generally. It does so even for not shy players on occasion. It's also important to remember that once they get comfortable, one new player could be enough to make them self-conscious.

They Want to Be There

If they came to your game when they are shy, they want to be there. If you are all strangers, you can be sure they really want to be there since they are fighting their shyness to do so. They might not always succeed, especially at the start, but I find keeping that in mind generally helps. You don't want to blame them for it or for not contributing as much as some other party members and you don't want the other players to do so either. It might take some time, but I've found generally things work out if you are patient, give them a chance but don't push too hard. 

Niche

What I find helps quite a bit is making sure the shy player has a niche and their own role. This means that they have a particular role in the group. Of course, this will put them as the centre of attention for at least a little but of time. It's along the same lines as what I said last week. However, in this case the focus will be expected so it tends to go over better. We don't want to dwell on it longer than we have to though. What that means in practice can be difficult to pin down but at the very least we don't want to focus on them heavily just because they haven't had focus. There should be a reason relating to their role or character and then take it off when it makes sense. 

Conclusion

This is of course based on my experiences. If you have different experiences or something you disagree with, I'd be happy to hear about it. This is a short, general article and some specific situations may need specific measures.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Dungeon Master: Players Shining

Keeping all of your players involved and relevant is one of the things a Dungeon Master wrestles with. However, it's also something that is difficult to deal with. Magic items can do a lot to shift player focus. This is especially true in combat. However, a clever player can also make this happen in other areas of the game. There is also the question of whether it is fine to have some players that are focused more than others. What if you have a shy player? These are the ideas and aspects I hope to work through by putting into words.

What Can Shift Focus

I've already mentioned in passing that magic items can shift the focus to one player or character. However, it goes further than that. The location that something takes place in can also shift the focus. If you have a character that is native to the area, they will naturally be a focus for events in the story. The type of adventure can also do a lot to make some characters more of a focus than others. In D&D 5th edition they have what they call the 3 pillars of the game (combat, exploration, and role-play/interactions). Some classes are better and one than another in certain situations. You might find that the situation or campaign you came up with will naturally gravitate towards certain players or their characters. There is also the question of player experience or mastery of the rules. Some players can just work their skills and weaknesses in amazing and clever ways that makes them shine.

Should All Players Shine Equally?

When you first think about how players shine during the course of a game, the first thought that usually comes to mind is that they should all be equal. This isn't necessarily true. Or more precisely, what exactly does that mean? What I find is more accurate is that there is a certain amount that if you don't meet, your player(s) will feel unfulfilled. For some, this amount is more than others. They'll also get to shine in different moments and not all moments are perceived equally. It might also depend on the long view of things as well. They might want things to balance out in the long run, but for this session they might be fine taking a back seat. After all, last week's session was theirs.

Round Robin Focus

You could try to make a few of your party members the centre of focus for the session. The focus characters will be rotated between sessions and the end result is that everyone roughly gets the same amount of focus. It's kind of like when a TV show has episodes focusing on different characters. Of course, not everyone likes that kind of thing. It's also a bit different. You have the risk that someone might accidentally hijack the session by doing something clever or thinking outside the box. That might very well make sense, but it defeats the purpose of this approach.

Design Situations

You could instead design the situations players will end up in. Players will then decide how to approach the problem and when they do, decide who will shine in that moment. It feels quite naturally and lets the players decide who shines partially, but it still keeps the possibility of someone being overshadowed.

You could also combine the two ideas above, which is what more often happens naturally. You design situations for your players but you might try to target some of the strength of your players. There will be a combat encounter for your combat focused character, some kind of social interaction, maybe a history related element, and end it with a twist that involves one of your player characters.

Shy Players

Shy players are one of the harder ones to bring into the game. From my experience, they tend not to need as much time shining to feel like they contributed enough to the session. It can also be shining in a different way. You also don't really want to try and force them into the centre of attention, especially at the start. What I find typically works best is to let them get comfortable and choose when to be the centre of attention. At first, this might not seem to work. However, once they get used to the game and the people they are playing with I've usually seen them have no issue jumping in. I chose to say tend here because it really does depend on the person in question.

The early part can be a bit rough though. In this case, you probably don't want to have someone else stepping on their toes all the time. Having one rogue played by a shy person and another played by a social butterfly is often a recipe to have the shy person overshadowed (it isn't always the case, particularly if the two builds are very different with very different skill sets). Some overlap isn't so bad, since someone else can pick up some of the slack just in case. However, there needs to be some individuality and some cases where the shy character makes the most sense. It can also be a problem when the shy person feels more comfortable and finds themselves competing with someone else in the area that overlaps.

Accidentally Overshadowing

There are some things, magic items in particular, that could cause a player to be accidentally overshadowed. Easy access to healing magic items in particular can make things harder for the cleric. Likewise, certain magic items can make combat far easier for the player that has them. I usually weight magic items that don't have a limited number of uses very carefully to prevent this. Such items are fine, however, if your party is lacking something. If your 2 player party doesn't have a cleric but they have easy access to healing magic, there isn't a problem. Otherwise, care should be taken. It can especially be an issue at low levels. At that time even small bonuses make large differences and access to abilities that target large areas are disproportionately powerful. It's also a good idea to consider whether a magic item will make a particular class feature or character feature redundant. A sentient, and autonomous pair of lock picks can be a rogue's worst nightmare.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Dungeon Master: Where to Start

You did it! You decided to be a Dungeon Master! We are happy to have you join our ranks. However, now you need a campaign. Starting to plan one out can be difficult, especially if you've never done it before. So, let's talk about how to start planning one and what approaches are available. Starting can be one of the hardest parts so hopefully I'll be even a little bit of help. Feel free to ask questions as well.

Relax, You'll Be Fine

First thing first. If you are running a game for the first time, relax. It's not so scary. There is some responsibility and some preparation work that goes into it but it'll be fine. We all had to start at some time before getting where we are. Being a Dungeon Master is a very fun and in a different way than being a player.

Do You Know Your Players?

If you are starting off as a new Dungeon Master with a group you've played with for a while, you'll know quite a bit about your players and what kind of game they like to play. However, you might want to ask them some questions ahead of time if you plan to try something very different than they are used to. If you don't know your players at all, it might be worth having a session to just talk about what they want and taking care of the ground work. I find that with some of the people I play with, this can be a tall order. Getting everyone together in a physical place to take care of that can be tricky and might not seem worth the effort for your players, though they'd be willing to do it for an actual game. For this reason, this kind of stuff quite often ends up in a pre-game Skype call from what I've seen.

If you are playing with a brand new group, you should be asking questions a head of time. You should also be ready to go in a different direction if it turns out that what you had planned isn't being received as well as you thought it would. You can do that, and you should be prepared to. Even if it is being well received, it could go in a direction you didn't expect. This is also true for groups you know, but I find that new players are more surprising for me until I get a feel for them. That's not to say the ones I'm used to get boring and I can perfectly predict them, but I get more of a feel for them. However, the first few sessions of a campaign can be more fluid as you get things rolling.

Pre-Made

There is a large amount of pre-made material available for use in tabletop role-playing games. Some will obviously have more material than others. However, one strategy to start a campaign is to go into the pre-made adventures or campaigns. It's a different set of skills than coming up with a campaign from scratch, but it provides a starting point. That starting point should in theory come from someone with more experience than you and so help you make your first campaign better. Even if you don't run it exactly as written (this is very common), it can work as a good starting point and result in encounters, characters, situations, and story that you wouldn't otherwise think of. I will say though that you should make sure to know what you want to do though. You aren't just running the adventure as written; you'll be bringing it to life and making it your own. This means you need to have a good feeling for it, even if you are changing things.There will also always be blanks in the adventure that you'll need to fill in. I find it's best to see it as a reference and inspiration instead of a script that needs to be followed.

From Scratch

World First

You can start your own campaign by thinking about the sandbox it'll take place in. Building up the world to have its own interesting elements can help you come up with your own, hopefully unique, conflict. Different worlds help inspire, or at the very least reinforce, different kinds of stories because of their rules. It can also allow an interesting place for your players to go feeling around for what they want to go after. You can dangle multiple setups in front of them and just go after the one that gets a bite. This becomes a lot more enjoyable if the place that they are going through is interesting. You don't need to come up with the entire world at one time, but you should at least think about the place where things will start.

Conflict First

Flipping things, you can think of the rough outline of your big bad(s). Characters are an important part of stories and villains are often the best remembered ones of them all. Making their motivations, their means, and their power make sense goes a long way. It can also help you come up with completely different stories when you come up with a particular villain you've never thought of before. Villains and conflict can also be very inspirational. A certain kind of character, such as a classic vampire, might inspire a Gothic style location (oh, hello Raveloft). It could also inspire a different location by taking that classic style of villain and putting them in an unfamiliar situation. Your conflict could be not centred around one being either and instead be around a force of nature, a war featuring many different complex threads but a small number of goals at their centre, or something far more bizarre (as gods, hunting down piece of an item that was never meant to enter the mortal realm over centuries).

Tools

You can arrive at the same stories regardless of which of the above you choose. It's just a technique to help get you thinking and it's sometimes useful to change to the other to get the creative juices flowing and coming up with new campaign ideas. If you are having trouble coming up with an idea in the first place, trying one approach and then the other can help you get some ideas you can turn into a workable campaign after a couple more passes through the above.

Too Many Ideas

That's great! Write them down. You never know when it might come in handy. You might use one later for a subplot, or an alternate climax, a new villain, the next story, etc. There are a lot of uses for such a thing. Now, we need to pick one. Sometimes, it helps to just leave it for a bit and look at them afterwards. Sometimes you'll find yourself drawn to a couple while you are doing things and realize that you really want to run one of those. If it's just one, that's great! We got our idea. Otherwise, you might just need to sit down, look at what your players want, look at what you have, reduce to a smaller list and finally make a tough choice. This stuff will be quite high level so it's very unlikely you'll be dooming yourself here. However, the right idea can make things very easy going forward because it makes role-playing and improvisation for you a breeze.

Sanity Check

When I have something that you want to run, I typically like to run it through a sanity check. This takes the form of looking at the situations and campaign as a player would and think about what options I would have. What I'm trying to do here isn't predict what my players will do, but make sure that the situations I have allow for multiple solutions. A situation on its own might be fine, but the next scenario might presume something about the previous. If I find something like this, I'll either change it so it doesn't or note that there will be a factor that influences the situation from before. Depending on how the rest of the campaign goes before that point, this factor may be different because of how my players dealt with it. If it's so important that I can't leave it as just a note, it's probably too railroady and I'll change it. 

Other Useful Things I've Written

There are some other things you can read as well. Out of the things I've written I would recommend precedent, reducing difficulty through situation, degrees of influence, and designing a combat encounter. These are additional readings and you can be perfectly fine without them. You just might find them a bit helpful. You can always come back later if one of those elements sounds interesting. When starting out it's not good to get overwhelmed.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

So You've Ended Your Campaign

All campaigns eventually come to an end. Hopefully it was because of the natural end being reached instead of being left unfinished. Regardless, we have to make decisions about what we will do next and these decisions can be extremely important for the success of the new campaign. It's also not a very simple subject. As usual, I hope my thoughts on the matter will be of some help.

Rolling Into the Next One

One of the big things that need to be decide is whether a new campaign will be started right away or a break will be taken. When I say right away, I don't mean necessarily that things will continue on the old schedule. The beginning of a campaign has a way of often being more complex than a normal session because many details about the world, characters, player characters and the general story going forward needs to be thought up. However, you can still have the first session of your new campaign scheduled in 2 or 3 weeks. I typically like to do it this way because I find it is much easier to keep things rolling if the people involved know when the next session is. Trying to gather people back together after a break of unknown length can be its own challenge. In some cases, this is very hard to avoid. If it will be a month or so away it can be very difficult for people to predict if they will be free. However, if they already liked playing in your games and want more game time they will typically give it their best shot.

Switching the Dungeon Master

Rotating the roles can be a great way to mix things up. There are some people who like to play and some who like to run the game. If that's how the group runs and they are happy, that's great. However, I've also seen groups where people enjoy being on both sides of a game. It can also be helpful for a Dungeon Master to get some time to let their ideas stew. Being able to have a campaign going and still working on their next campaign can be an amazing blessing for a Dungeon Master. One thing that I will warn about, however, is some unintentional leaching. You might think of things that would make a great addition to the campaign you are playing in but would be out of place in your own. You also want to be wary of having your next campaign being too similar to the current one as well.

New Campaign Length

One of the decisions that tend to be made is about the length of a new campaign. Many people want to just keep the game going until interest is lost or they run out of things to do. Some, however, prefer to have an ending in mind and work towards it. A short campaign may just span levels 1-5. The nice thing about shorter campaigns is that they can be extended and built on if needed. It also means that a suitable and manageable big bad can be chosen for the planned range. The risk is that things may seem a bit disjointed if no thought towards the next possible extension is made before the end. I find many people make these kinds of decisions even if they don't realize it. These choices can be seen from elements such as world building, enemy choices, magic items presented and sometimes even player advice (when it comes to character building, some builds work better than others at certain level ranges).

Switching Groups

The end of a campaign can be a good time to switch groups if things weren't going well. I also find that it's easier to handle when a player leaves at the end of a campaign compared to leaving in the middle of one. That way, it gives time to find other players if needed instead of scrambling in the middle. There is also the barrier of getting the new players caught up and integrated so they don't feel left out, which is avoided when a new campaign is being made.

Taking A Break

Personally, I view this option as a last resort. I find it much harder to find the time later instead of when I already have time scheduled. It can also be a bit hard to jump back in due to some of the reasons I mentioned earlier. Campaigns can run longer or shorter than expected but they typically run a few months at least from my experience. However, if in a slump it can be a great way to get rid of fatigue and get excited about the game again. I've seen some people for who this works great. Personally though, I prefer playing anyway and the fatigue goes away on its own when new, exciting situations are encountered.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Dungeon Master: Recycling Story Ideas

Inspiration can come from many places. It's great when it just hits and results in something new and unique. However, that kind of moment tends to be rare. Instead, I often find myself needing to take inspiration from something already existing and trying to turn that into something that feels fresh and new. That is easier said than done. I'll share some of what I find sometimes helps me. Hopefully at least one of you out there finds it useful or at least interesting. In this case I'm talking about home games that you don't plan to have published. Some things, like improperly lifting things, can get you into hot water if you try to publish it. The distinction between these different types can sometimes be muddy but that's fine. They are meant as a starting point and to help inspire you.

Distilling

Distilling is one of the easier methods and also a common favourite. What you do is start with something you like or at the very least find interesting for one reason or another. Then, you start to hack away and remove details or elements to get it into a form that contains what you see as the essence of what you started with. Since this is naturally based on the interpretation of the person who is doing the process, it can be very personal and even create different results if you try it after some time has passed. Many complex works also have more than one thread or idea that runs through them. This brings even more variation to the technique. Once you get this essence, you can then build back up to something new. When you are done, it should look different than what you started with.

Let's try an example. Star Wars has a long history and also quite a few well liked characters. Let's try to hack off some of the characters first. We'll remove Lea and Han Solo, leaving us with Luke and Darth Vader. We can decide that the central idea between those two was something along the lines of temptation, with Luke tempting Vader to the light (successfully, at the end) and Vader trying to tempt Luke to the dark side. Now we can start trying to build it up. Maybe we can have a character who leads armies, as the second in command, against a rival faction. He wants his son to take his side and succeed him but his son feels conflicted about what he would have to do since he is disillusioned with his own faction. At this point, we can have the son change sides and throw our characters into things. Or, we can decide that it might happen and let your players influence things to see where it might go (decide based on their actions or have some modifier bonus based on their actions to a roll). If we keep filling out the specifics, we can end up somewhere different than where we started pretty quickly. What if it was from his first taste of combat? What if it was because of a particularly sneaky move that was done (poisoning water, assassinating a child king, etc.)? Was this event a normal occurrence or a common exception? Maybe they don't want to switch sides but want no part of things until someone with a very good diplomacy bonus comes along? The key is not to keep too much of the original and not to think of where we started from when building back up. We want something distinctly different when we build the scenario back up.

Lifting

Sometimes, we can just shamelessly borrow ideas or scenarios from something. When talking about something reasonably complex, you can often borrow one or two things pretty easily without it being too obvious or too blatant. It still needs to be small enough that it can be fit into the scenario seamlessly. If you steal the entire story of Star Wars, someone will notice. If you steal just the Han Solo arc of coming back at the end to help unexpectedly for something other than money, you might get away with it. Maybe just once though.

Coat of Paint

There are a lot of things out there to read, watch, and play. Enough that you can't go through all of it in one lifetime. This means that if you know of something obscure enough, you can take significant chunks of it, cover it with some fresh paint, and use it. Old space opera stuff tends to work quite well, though you'll need to be a bit careful to avoid comparisons to Star Wars when that wasn't your intention. Obscure historical events also work quite well for this sort of thing. No matter where you are, there tends to be at least one place in the world or one period of time where your players have no idea what happened. The Russian Time of Troubles is one of my favourite situations since it makes for very interesting and easy conversions. It's really a great source of inspiration for a particular kind of campaign and story.

It has to be obscure though. If you use this kind of technique, you are taking a large part from the original. You can of course distill a historical event, but that would be distilling and not adding a coat of paint, really.

Crashing

Instead of removing things to get down to the essence, you can add things. One thing I've seen used successfully, though not as commonly as the above, is to take two or more different ideas, story lines, or even collections of tropes and throw them all in. Though the elements on their own aren't very unique, the way they fight each other can end up being so. It typically works well for more comedic games from what I've seen. It can work for more serious games as well, as so many works have multiple plot lines and elements, but it is generally harder to pull off. 

Your Own Campaigns

Everything I've mentioned above can be attempt on your own campaign games or even published adventures. However, I'd be careful with doing this on a group that has seen the original. You run the risk that it will be too similar to the original. You can probably get away with distilling, but the others may come off too blatant and similar. It can also defeat the original purpose of coming up with new ideas for your tabletop game. 

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Dungeon Master: Ending Campaigns

Beginnings are hard, but so are endings. As a Dungeon Master, you want the campaign to end well, your players to be happy and for campaign stories to be told for years to come. However, they can be extremely tricky. Will you ever come back to those characters again? What do the players want their characters to do after? Do they want a slow ending with a wind-down and time to look back on their campaign fondly, or end on the high of an epic situation? With that in mind, I hope to share some of my experience and hope it helps someone out there.

Slow or Quick Burn Ending?

An important choice to make is between a slow or quick burn ending. A slow burn allows reflection, to think about where things started from and where they are now, and maybe tie up some loose threads. Some people really like this kind of thing. If you do, it really helps to show the direct results of player's actions. Maybe show a city that was destroyed at the start of your campaign now rebuilt, though not yet achieving the same grandeur. It can also be a time to show the results of some less than good actions and the lasting consequences. Not everything that happens immediately after will be because of the players, but having a good portion of it helps. I also find that it tends to be what players want in their ending. If you go too far away from that, it starts feeling more like setup for another campaign instead of closure for this one. You also don't want to turn it into a lecture and instead keep your players acting through the ending. Even for people who like a slower ending, there is such a thing as too slow and too long. You want to address the important details but not to waste time.

There is also the far rougher approach of ending things almost right after the climax. Leave the details of recovery and what the player characters do up to the imaginations of the players. Instead, you might do some minor thread tying but very little. If the climax happened this session, the rest of the campaign is finished this session as well. The good thing about this is that it wraps things up on a high. This, of course, also depends on how well received the climax of the campaign was. If the response was lukewarm or worse, it might be a good idea to go for a slower burn, particularly if your players have no strong opinion one way or the other. I say might because it could also just make things worse. The idea is to not do too much more than you have to when ending quickly. Let the story told until now speak for itself. Being in the dark can be a good thing.

Beware Unmet Player Ideas

Chances are that your players have ideas of where they want things to go after they stop playing. Neatly summarizing that kind of stuff without their involvement often ends badly because it's about their characters. They don't want you to tell them about what their characters did. They want to tell you what they would try to do and you to put obstacles in their way. However, I find that this kind of collaborative storytelling is harder at the end of a campaign because of the scale involved. A campaign's path is composed of many checks, events and decisions. Trying to work with this at a higher level has a way of summarizing details. However, your players care about details, particularly where their characters are concerned. They know them better than anyone. Something that might sound fine to you might go completely against what their character would do in their hands. It might also seem insignificant in scale, but to a player that spent months or years in their character's head, it can be jarring to say the least. Campaign epilogues are not an easy thing on the Dungeon Master side.

The Next One

Will the same characters ever come back? It can be quite awkward to backtrack on previous epilogue explanations of what happens next because you didn't expect that there would be another campaign. It can also be an unintentional shot in the foot to your next campaign if you have to start plotting around your epilogue, particularly if you didn't give it too much thought ahead of time. If you feel that there might be more or aren't sure, it might be a good idea to just wrap things up quicker and not to focus too deeply into specifics that occur after. That way, players can imagine where things go from there if there is never another session, and the Dungeon Master has a far easier time if the characters ever return. Of course, the players will go after what they wanted for their ideal ending but in this way collaborative storytelling is maintained instead of the Dungeon Master deciding the ending. You may also decide to make your next campaign take place in the same world and those old player characters may make appearances (this is also a matter of taste as some players love it and some completely hate it). Best to ask permission first to avoid difficulties if you decide to do so. You can, and in fact I prefer to when using player characters, ask your player about what their player would have done and said in that situation.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Dungeon Master: Weird Narratives

Sometimes, we Dungeon Masters like to shake things up a little bit. You know, do something we haven't done before. Unleash some chaos. Subvert rules and expectations we usually adhere to. These kinds of desires can lead to very entertaining and fresh sessions. However, there are also some difficulties with this approach. I hope to address some of them and hopefully make things a little easier for someone out there in the process.

What's a Weird Narrative?

For my purposes and for this article (blog post, whatever you want to call it), what I mean is a type of narrative that does not follow the typical rules (could be mechanical or could be thematic, such as good always wins), methods, ideas, or take place in a typical setting (a setting is influenced by the previous things I mentioned but might not be thought of the same way) that the players are used to. Based on that definition, the real meaning could vary largely from group to group. Since expectations also change over time, the same kind of narrative could be "weird" if enough time has passed. If you haven't seen it for a 5 years, it could be weird to you and a pleasant surprise.

The Start

When your players are first thrown into a weird narrative, a couple of things can happen. New players tend to be cautious from my experience because they don't know what to expect. They often don't even have a firm grasp on the rules so are often willing to go along with whatever comes. However, more experienced players have an idea in their heads of what the session will be like. This can be a factor when you have experienced players join your in-progress campaign, but it can be far worse when the basic assumptions they have are invalid and they don't know it.

It might be a good idea to warn your players coming into it that things will be different. You can also do this in less direct ways through the game itself. Having an assumption shown to be false right away makes it just as obvious but sometimes doing it in-game can really enhance the experience. On the narrative side though, your players might end up freezing if they don't know what to do. If you have some players that will just make a decision and roll with it, it's not a problem. Otherwise, the players will need at least a little bit of knowledge. I'd also argue that giving your players some knowledge tends to work better. This is because often times the characters your players will be playing will be familiar with the weirdness even though your players won't be (unless your players got pulled into the world D&D cartoon style).

Grasping the Rules

When you play around with non-standard narratives, either through rules/world reasons or through story telling itself, your players end up being in the dark on a large variety of subjects. This is good. Some fumbling around in the dark can make for a fun experience. However, I'd say you can't keep that state going on forever. To do so would be to try to violate cause and effect. As your players take actions and see their results, they will get a sense of how things work and start to figure things out. This won't give them 100% clarity, but it does make it no longer completely unknown.

Discovery

I find that a large part of the fun in these kinds of cases is the discovery. How do things work? What is the relationship between those 2 characters? Why are things as they are? What makes the narrative weird is that they probably don't know what to expect. It's not just a subversion, where they expect one thing and get another. It's different from normal so they don't quite know what to expect. However, the discovery has to come. The goal is not to try and hold of the players understanding of the rules or to keep the players away from the discovery. It's to make it impactful and earned when it does come. It also doesn't have to be, and usually isn't, a single discovery. A weird narrative tends to have many different twists and turns.

Don't Hold Things Back for the Sake of Holding Them Back and Don't Let It Become Pure Randomness

Always a Dash

Most campaigns I've played in have at least one part where the players can't be sure about which option leads to the best outcome. This is a good thing. Being completely predictable isn't a good thing. Likewise, being completely unpredictable isn't a good thing either since it leads to a feeling that choices don't matter. It's still not to enough of an extent to make it a weird narrative, since weird narratives rely on the weirdness and on the players being in the dark (it's almost a mild confusion). However, it is a somewhat similar idea. It's based on what the players are used to and novelty is part of the reason for them.

An Example

The story of Planescape: Torment takes place in a rather odd setting (most Planescape fans would agree) and features a story I'd argue is quite different from the norm. However, it is governed by rules and as you go through the story, you discover things. The rules aren't continuously broken. There is a consistent narrative. Of course, if you've been playing in that setting for a while, it will no longer feel weird to you.