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.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Dungeon Master: Ambushes

There are many tactical situations players can find themselves in. An iconic classic is the ambush. It mixes things up and provides the opportunity to safely remove a threat, to have a chance to win in a situation where otherwise there'd be no hope, or to put real fear into your players. However, it's a careful balancing act that is easy to mess up. A challenging ambush against your players could end up as an embarrassing defeat for the players. Having been on every end of an ambush I can think of, I hope my insights will provide some use to someone out there.

A Player Ambush

A Weak Enemy

An ambush against a weak enemy, either due to numbers or the monsters themselves, only makes things even easier. This typically results in an even less climactic game and in many cases makes players wonder why they even bothered. The more cinematic your campaign is, the more that this is probably true. However, there are exceptions. The most common one is if your players like dungeon delving. A weak and easy encounter can still provide tension in this case because your players are expecting a long war of attrition. The tension then doesn't come from the encounter itself but from the possibility of being starved of valuable resources that they'll need later. I've also seen it used for great effect for the story. Wait, this is the big bad's elite force? Something seems wrong. And then the trap is sprung or the complication is found. It can also be used to say something about the enemy and for the players to say something about themselves.

A Well Matched Enemy

Players look for opportunities for their characters to succeed. They typically want to do what they can to avoid the death of their character. Naturally, ambushes against a well matched enemy are one way to increase odds of survival. There is still room for things to go sideways, but if the players earned their advantage there is nothing wrong with giving it to them. Like the previous example, there is the attrition angle to add tension. However, things could also change from being a situation where the entire party is at risk of death to where one or two players might die. However, for a player that doesn't want to be one of the “lucky” ones, that could be more than enough to make things tense.

Overwhelming Odds

One of the coolest situation an ambush can bring is the part where overwhelming odds become conquerable. However, it is difficult to get right. The encounter can be tough but not hard enough to really give the massive feeling of accomplishment at the end. It can also be truly overwhelming but remain so even with an ambush in place. This may not necessarily be a problem, if the objective is specific and not to simply kill the entire enemy force. However, this still provides a similar problem. How do you make the objective super difficult to complete normally, but possible with an ambush? There is also a criticism that I think is quite fair. Isn't this a bit railroad-y? I mean, I may be assuming the correct way to approach the encounter.

If the only way to get past the encounter is an ambush, I would agree. However, if an ambush is one of many possible routes, each with their own dangers, things look far better. Of course, some ideas may need to be hinted and seeded to give your players somewhere to start. And if they arrive somewhere other than you envisioned from those seeds, even better. No railroad there.

A classic situation is a large group of enemies. These enemies can be dropped in a single not lucky hit. However, their sheer number makes them difficult to fight. In the case of an ambush and a surprise round (assuming 5th edition D&D rules), you can reasonably estimate how much will be left afterwards. This essentially means that the encounter we are designing is the one after the surprise round, but the free hits can make thing seem more impressive when not overused. This might not be enough to make things even. Only by using the environment or some other factor do things finally fall in line. The issue is that unlucky rolls leaving more enemies than expected after the surprise round will mean the encounter remains impossible. 

A Monster Ambush

Weak Monsters Strike

Surprise is a powerful tool. A weak enemy could be made formidably or at least worrying for a party through this technique. Imagine a party of level ones going through a forest. One wolf isn't much of a threat. However, if it has the chance to dart out of the trees and strike a target of its choice before being noticed, it becomes a threat. Not to the party, but to an unlucky PC who doesn't want to die. This can be further expanded by using non-standard tactics.

The most classic encounter to mix things up is the stealth attack encounter. Some creature coming out of the unseen shadows and attacking a player before retreating back to where it can plot its next move. With this advantage of stealth to return to, it can continue being difficult to fight. However, some creativity (readying an action for when it flies into the light of the torches or to light torches and throw them into the darkness to leave no room to hide) makes things no longer a challenge.

Formidable Enemies Strike

Giving a surprise round to a group of well-matched enemies has the potential to go very badly for the PCs. Some might die or be dropped before even having time to react. We DMs just live with this fact for our NPCs, but players often don't like it. After that, they then need to find some way to pull a win or at the very least avoid a loss. It isn't a good situation to be in.

Having said that, it is manageable. The party just needs some way to bring things back in line. It could be the use of an item, it could be clever terrain use, it could even be the assassination of the leader. It could also be the not very honorable but practical retreat. However, throwing them into a situation like this without a way to get out can rub players the wrong way. The exception is if players did something dumb. If it's their fault and a stupid decision in the beginning, or they knew what they were possibly getting into, it tends to go over better. However, it probably shouldn't be an instant total party kill if we want things to be fun. There should be a risky escape possibility or at the very least grant them one if they think of something clever.

Ambushed by Overwhelming Odds

I can't remember the last time I've seen this situation. Maybe this could work if your players did something stupid and they are in a campaign where death doesn't mean as much (revenant campaigns rock). It might also work in very specific cases. If killing the necromancer makes all their skeletons crumble, it could work. However, this situation's difficulty is already changed due to this condition so I'd argue it isn't overwhelming odds. However, generally I'd say avoid this kind of thing. If you are even thinking of this one, you should have a good reason and be cautious. The already overwhelming odds just become more so  when they also have the element of surprise. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Player: Be Ready for Death

If you play tabletop role-playing games for long enough, you'll eventually have a character die. It could be that the rule system has character death as a feature, the Dungeon Master is out for blood, or your dice decided to hate you that day. Regardless, as players we still have choices on how to deal with it. I've talked about this topic on the Dungeon Master side so I thought I should be thorough and look at the player side too.

Be Ready

This is really more advice for newer players, but it still stands. Be prepared going into the game that your character could die. As a player, you are there to experience a story through your character. Even if you are there for the dungeon crawling, you will probably come back with at least one story you like to tell people. Part of that experience is having the world, or at least part of it, against you. Risk is part of the game but also part of the fun. It makes those close calls meaningful. However, when death does strike, you have to accept it and get on with the game. Your Dungeon Master might let you come back or be revived or something. Even if your character doesn't come back, there is still a story to experience and you don't want to make things less fun for your fellow players. Your death could very well add something to the experience.

Investment

Part of what makes a character death painful is the investment. We put time into coming up with our characters, their mannerisms, their motivations, their actions and everything else we need over the course of the game. However, if you know going into a game that death will be extremely common, you might want to think twice about investing a couple of hours coming up with a backstory. Many of the games I played like that, the Dungeon Master specifically warned us a head of time not to get too attached to our characters and not to bother writing short stories about them. These kinds of expectations often happen. How can you expect your players to spend hours making their backstory if they won't last 30 minutes? If your Dungeon Master makes it hard to die permanently though, don't be too surprised if they also expect you to take more care in your character's background. This might not be the case though, so you might need to ask them point blank (though they might like it if you do, they might not expect it). Instead, you might come up with a large part of it as the game goes along or other things might be more important.

Think Ahead

Kind of like the earlier “Be Ready” section, a piece of advice that I think is quite good is to think about your next character a little bit. One of the issues that come up due to character death is that the story can get muddled on the player's side of the screen. If this bothers you, you can tie your next character to either your previous character's history/death or even to another character's (this can be quite fun, though you might want to ask the other player for permission so you don't step on their toes). Since the new characters are related, it ends up building on the story of the previous character.

You don't want to do this every time, though. Sometimes, the campaign could really use that one character death that brings home the costs of what's going on or just some fresh blood. It also can seem way too convenient if characters die very frequently and you use the same technique every time. People only have so many cousins and brothers who want revenge. Think of this idea more like a consideration or a possibility and less like a general piece of advice.

Wanting a Change

Sometimes players plan out their character deaths. It's that classic situation of a player who doesn't like their character anymore and wants a new one. In that case, it's often great all around. There gets to be a character death that makes things seem more dangerous and the player gets a new character. Just like the earlier case, you probably don't want to overuse this. There is the occasional person who likes playing the redshirt and has fun with a character that rarely lasts the whole session. If that's not what you or your Dungeon Master wants though, remember it's not the only option. It could also make player death feel too scripted and odd in a campaign where player death isn't very common, and resurrection magic is a trip to your local abbey away.

All That Starts

Some stories run longer than others. Some characters have stories that are shorter than others. But if you have a story you remember fondly or makes you want to go play D&D or whatever system you like, you are doing it right. Sometimes character deaths are one of them.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Dungeons & Dragons: Tales from the Yawning Portal Late Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.
A bit late to the party, as usual, but without much further ado, here is my Tales of the Yawning Portal review. At the time of writing this, I've read through the book and have run The Sunless Citadel.

Pros:
  • Lots of maps for dungeon delving
  • Production values we've come to expect for this edition (including art)
  • 7 adventures/dungeons with a nice spread of levels

Could Go Either Way:
  • It's all reprints and no new material (bonus if you like the originals, like the new version of D&D and don't want to convert them yourself)
  • Very dungeon delve heavy (if you like that it's great, if you like more narrative based stuff you won't be happy)
  • No new player creation stuff. It's all about the dungeons and adventure (anyone who read my previous reviews knows that's how I like it)!
  • Bundle of older D&D adventures updated to newer version (for new players who are interested in some of the older stuff this could be great but it makes it a far harder sell to the veterans)
  • Adventures are kind of release date clustered (if you just want good dungeons, you won't care)
  • Maps can shift styles from adventure to adventure due to the massive year gaps between them (if you like consistency, it's a con but if you like seeing different styles, it's a pro)

Cons:
  • The adventures included are quite disconnected. Connecting them together requires some serious work and creativity and still will probably end up feeling episodic. Not sure I'd end a campaign with Tomb of Horrors either.
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.

Introduction

It's obvious D&D has a history. It's been around a while and from modern role-playing games to some of the strange criticisms modern games sometimes receive, D&D has left its mark. Part of that history is the large pile of D&D modules created over the years. It's not so surprising then, at least to me, that sooner or later we'd get re-releases of some old adventures for the new version of D&D. Tales from the Yawning Portal is a collection of 7 previously released adventures, converted to the 5th edition rules, that explores some of that history.

The Adventure

New Old Monsters

Well, I guess they aren't really new monsters since they are from adventures previously released. Still, there are a few new ones for this edition. My favourite is probably the vampiric mist. However, the list isn't as big as it would first appear. Some of them, such as the spell casters, are copied exactly from Volo's Guide to Monsters. They also only take up about 18 pages so it's clearly not the main draw. On one hand it's convenient and nice not to need to buy Volo's Guide as well but it does bring down the useful page count down a little bit.

What You Need to Play

You'll need the core books. They are still making no effort to reference the SRD or the basic rules. Still, it looks like you can mostly get away with them if you really need to and if you know what you are doing when creating your own monsters. Still a bit disappointing though. Would've been a nice feature to keep in this edition.

The Adventures Themselves

Well, it's not just one adventure this time. We've got 7 of them. Naturally, since the adventures included aren't originally from the same edition or time period it makes things a bit difficult to talk about. Still, let's give it a shot.

There is a lot of dungeon delving here. Dead in Thay, in particular, is a massive monster dungeon. The structure of the adventures is to give some background and then define the dungeon for the adventure. If you love dungeon delving, and a lot of adventures seemed to be dungeon delves back in the day, you'll probably like this. There are also a lot of maps and encounters that naturally come with a lot of dungeon delving. Such things make for good inspiration. However, if you wanted some variety you might be disappointed. If you are a veteran player and you like the idea of running these adventures for D&D 5th edition without having to do a conversion yourself, this might be exactly what the doctor ordered. Likewise, if you are new Dungeon Master and wanted to see/run some adventures from D&D history, it'll be right up your alley. If the idea of re-released adventures is one you outright hate, there isn't much I can say or can be done to change your mind.

The adventures cover a wide range of levels and can flow from one to another if needed. That is in theory, at least. I would be hesitant in running such dungeon delving heavy adventures back to back unless your players really like that kind of thing. I'd also be hesitant in ending a campaign with Tomb of Horrors. Whenever I saw it played, it was usually reworked to allow some kind of respawn mechanic (players were avatars of gods, there was some kind of cloning machine, the players weren't interested in role-playing their characters and just wanted to have the badge of finishing the tomb, etc.).

All of that said, it would be pretty easy to take a hand full of adventures from here and use them to create a campaign. 2-3 adventures could be combined into a sort of mini-campaign and padded out with more story elements and origin work. I like quite a few things from the dungeons presented here. Some of them are plot hooks, some of them are traps, some of them are encounters, but in general there is quite a lot here that can be used, retooled, or just plain lifted if you don't plan to run it. The number of maps makes it quite easy to retool for your own person use. Some are easier than others, though. Dead in Thay has such a large dungeon that parts can be recycled quite easily, but others would need to be sectioned off. This kind of sectioning off often makes it difficult to show your players a map, if you like doing it that way. If you make your players sketch their own maps, it isn't a problem. 

The selection of adventures is interesting. It's quite dungeon delve heavy, as I mentioned earlier, but there are 2 other potential problems. Dead in Thay came out quite recently so a newer player might have already tried to run it using the now outdated D&D Next playtest rules. Around that time there was also a D&D Next conversion in an issue of Dungeon Magazine for Tomb of Horrors (I want to say #213). If you've already got those recently, it's even harder to give a good argument for a newer version. This is compounded by the closeness of D&D Next compared to D&D 5e, especially in the case of later versions of D&D Next, making conversions pretty easy. The balance might be slightly different, but it does affect the value of the book when 2 of the adventures are less appealing.

What I've said so far may have come out more negative than I intended. I like classic adventures and I enjoyed getting the chance to read some old adventures updated to the rules system I'm more familiar with. However, the heavy dungeon delving and disconnect makes it one of those things that you'll either love or hate. If you like shorter games that can be finished in a few sessions, these kinds of smaller adventures may be exactly what you needed as well. All of this makes it hard to point at something and say “this is great”. I almost need to do 7 reviews. Instead it's a bunch of things that can go either way.

The Art and Book Build Quality

The build quality is more of the same we have come to expect. Some wavy pages may still be found but the binding seemed good and the page layout and design is inline with the rest. I like the cover art, though it still doesn't dethrone Rise of Tiamat as my favourite cover art. Luckily you can see some examples of the art and make a call yourself on the Wizards of the Coast website.

Price

It's the same list price we've gotten used to at 49.95 USD. If you are Canadian it's still 63.95 CAD. As always, you can find it for cheaper if you look online at the right places. Obviously this won't support your local games store. Make the choice that works for you.

What I felt was Missing

Besides what I already mentioned, there is the PDF thing I keep mentioning every time and have to continue to do so. These adventures are provided as PDFs already by Wizards of the Coast so a compilation of them would've been nice. It would have been really nice for completion's sake and for historical curiosity to include the original versions of the adventures too. Sure, they'd be unplayable using 5th edition rules but there were some conversion notes given earlier in the edition. It would also help the value for some people. Not too surprised they didn't do it though since it would probably appeal to only a small part of the community, and be unusable without getting the old rules for most.

The publishing date spread is interesting. We have 4 adventures between 1978 and 1981 and then 2 from 2000 and an odd man out published in 2014. That's a pretty interesting 20 year gap. I would have been curious to see how they would have done with a 4th edition adventure. The rules and economy of actions for players were so different it might have been more like a rewrite than a conversion. For those you liked that edition, it could also serve as an example of how to convert them over, assuming it turned out well.

With the page count being 248, I think they could have stuffed another short adventure or two from D&D history in here. Just a little more value would have helped make the book more appealing I think and closer to a must-buy.

Free Stuff

Some material is provided for free on the Wizards of the Coast website and can be found here. Compared to previous releases, it's not much. I don't think that's so unexpected since the book is conversions of modules they still sell on D&D Classics.

Summary

This is a hard one to talk about for me. The disconnected nature of the adventures makes it, for me, a book I'd far more likely use for parts and to pick and choose a small subset. Running all of them in a row would be tough unless your group really likes dungeon delving. Tomb of Horrors also has a risk of not going over well as a campaign finisher. On the other hand, if you are a newer player to D&D and want to see some of the older adventures from before your time, it could look tempting. It's a similar situation if you fondly remember these adventures and don't want to have to convert them yourself. However, it's hard for me to recommend it ahead of some of the other stuff we've already had in this edition. It's not a bad book, especially if a bunch of smaller adventures from D&D history appeal to you, but I don't think the value is as good as some other adventures we've had. It's also very dependent on the kind of game you like. Still, I liked the chance to get an updated look at these adventures since I had no prior experience with 4 out of 7 of them. If anyone reading this has questions, feel free to ask.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Dungeon Master: Owning Property

There are many different kinds of rewards at the disposal of the Dungeon Master. Money and items are the ones typically thought of. However, player owned property is another way to reward players. They are also something players could spend their rewards on. Expanding and repairing costs money. This kind of versatility gives them the potential to be very interesting for players. However, it also makes it harder on the Dungeon Master, can end up less effective than desired or cause unforeseen problems. 

Purpose

I've found property works best if there is a reason behind its inclusion. Try giving your party that love nothing else but raiding tombs ownership over a tavern and see how often they'll use it. Like all rewards, property really only work if your players actually want it.

Of course, there are other reasons to give your players property. At the start of the game, a property can be a great source of resources. If your players start off as nobles who each have lands, collect taxes, and have castles, the scope and kinds of issues they'll engage in will be different. Even the simple inn can be a great source of resources. Any business that earns money helps provide a way for players to finance some of their more complicated adventures.

As a Resource

I've lightly already touched upon the idea of property as a resource. Typically, it generates money. Money can be spent on things such as ladders, chisels, and enough gunpowder (or similar substance that goes boom) to blow open a tomb. However, there are often other things that come along with them. If you have a castle, you'll probably have guards too. Those guards present an incredibly potent resource when used in the right way.

Beyond their game mechanics as well, they provide a resource for role-playing. Having something that anchors your character to the world generally helps with role-playing. It provides a motivation, and also somewhere to return to when everything is over. Sometimes, that “beyond the end of the adventure” can be one of the hardest things to role-play. Thinking about where the property is located also helps. Some will have employees, suppliers or similarly related people. All of these are potential story ideas or elements for a character's background. You also can't underestimate the usefulness of connections, such as a supplier of wine and food.

Liabilities

Coming along with property are responsibilities. These add a liability side of things. You don't want to make the property nothing but a liability or the players will just try to pawn it off. You can't really blame them for that either. However, castles generally need castle guards to prevent them from being attacked or looted. They also need staff to keep it in decent repair and to keep it clean. This means a player could start off with an amazing amount of financial wealth for a level 1 character, but be able spend very little of it because it's almost all tied up. As well, buildings are typically hard to move. This means that if there is some kind of war drawing closer to their property, a player may feel far more of a personal connection to the conflict. There may be times where a property is not doing very well and need to be supported by the player. However, there needs to be promise of good times as well or it just won't be worth it. Likewise, the liability and repair costs of larger properties should generally increase and the potential (best case) and general (likely case) returns should increase as well. Otherwise why even expand?

The Math

I don't like a lot of the math involved with properties, and running businesses. D&D 5th edition has this problem as well. The thing is, the odds should be in such a way that they make sense. It's one thing to start off as the owner of a piece of property. However, it's another if you have to buy it first. Quite a few of the rules I remember reading will have your players die before they ever see a profit from a business they built.

I think it's generally a good idea to keep both sides of the equation in mind. You can increase the costs of a building or the potential costs if they have a bad period of business, but the earnings should increase as well. The average case, the best case and worst case are all important in this regard. The average case is particularly important to make sure things are viable in the long term. It's also affected by the prices in your campaign. Though I don't see it done too often, some Dungeon Masters like to price things their way. This, of course, includes property.

Focus

One of the issues with something like player property is that it can shift the focus. Something that big, profitable and important to the players naturally would. Unfortunately, I don't have much advice in this case. If everyone starts with a castle, you might want to think about if they will all ever get used. Some players are perfectly fine with a castle that is being run in the background by their advisers and they get to spend the money generated. Some will want to see it and have it take part in the action. If the plan isn't to have the action shift between the castles (it can happen with other properties but castles are what I've seen used most often), it may be a good idea to think of a way to have everything centered on a shared piece of property. Everyone being a relative of the real owner and currently no heir being named generally works fine the few times I saw it employed (though it depends on the inheritance structure of your world). You can also locate them all fairly close by and have them be part of the same tight network of defense.  

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Dungeon Master: Precedent

When you are a Dungeon Master, you make rulings. However, one of the things that makes things difficult is that rulings often end up setting a precedent. You don't want to live with a bad decision for the entire game, but inconsistent decisions make can make things harder for the player. After all, how can they decide what they want to do when they aren't sure about how things work?

What Kind of Precedent?

Precedent is quite a broad concept encompassing everything from rules interpretation to campaign specific things. The most common ones are the rareness of magic items, death, and rules. Unlike consistency, which you want your campaign to usually be, precedent is often implicit (sometimes I've seen Dungeon Masters making an announcement that this is how things will be from now on) and as such allows for more accidents.

So You've Made a Big Mistake

If you realize you've made a serious mistake, I found that it's generally better not to stick to the precedent. It can be annoying in the short term, but a bad precedent is annoying in the long term. All that said, it's still worse than not needing to in the first place. Keeping in mind the idea of precedent when making a ruling helps catch some of the obvious issues ahead of time.

Recently I played a game where a player tried to push someone into a fireplace. This did a lot of damage and killed the enemy. However, from then on everyone tried to throw everyone into the fireplace. If you do the same thing for combining oil and fire, for example, expect that your players may make it a staple of their combat style. You could also make exceptions in special situations, but you'd need to have some way for your players to know. Otherwise they won't realize it was a one-time thing and try it again, or since it never worked before they won't try this time.

Death

The first death of your campaign tends to be a trend setter. Going forward, they are going to expect more of the same. However, if you go easier sometimes you might run into issues. You don't want to play favourites or look like you are playing favourites in most cases. It just goes over badly.

Magic Items

Magic items are the easiest to fool around with. Even in a low magic world, you could have some bad guys who have been hording magic items for centuries. This means that even though the world is low magic, your players might still run across and use many. It also means that as your players level up and face bigger threats, they can get into a position where magic items are no longer a rare sight for them. For the result of the world, it still is. Where issues tend to come up is with the usefulness of magic items and how they are allocated. If the only item the party comes across is a bow for the ranger, there may be problems. I say “may” because if you rolled stats and use the bow to even thing up, it could be fine. However, players tend to expect magic items if someone else in the party got one.

Changing Precedent

It can be perfectly fine to change the precedent of the game in the middle of a campaign. Magic items might have started out very rare but now that they are at a higher level, they might be more common. If you are starting out with new players you could start the first few levels being very merciful when it comes to death, but after they reach a certain threshold remove the training wheels (this can be a good way of helping players get used to the game but I'd advice to make sure the players know this will happen or it may blindside them).


A lot of this comes back to the idea of having some level of internal consistency. In order for your players to be able to make satisfying decisions, there needs to be some level of understanding and consistency. Precedent change in favour of players will probably go over better than something that comes out of nowhere and blindsides them. If there is a reason for it that they know ahead of time, it tends to go over better.  

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Dungeon Master: Survival

The world is often trying to kill you. This is even more true in tabletop role-playing games where the trees themselves can run after you and avenge their brethren. Regardless of the reason, survival elements can come up in a typical D&D game as your players attempt to cross a desert or climb a mountain. With that in mind, I hope to share some of my thoughts for consideration and comment.

What Do I Mean?

For my purposes, I tend to think of survival in tabletop role-playing games as quite a broad idea. Hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and weather effects are the easiest things to think of and generally included in rule sets (in D&D 5th edition they are covered though some probably prefer more in depth rules). I'd also say they are some of the most common ones I've seen. However, I also include things such as dangerous terrain, poisonous food or plants, sickness, ease of tracking and navigating as well. Things that hinder your players from making it to their objective that aren't social or combat are generally a good place to look at. It isn't necessarily always the case, but it leaves room for a lot of creativity. For example, wind might not play a big role for your normal party getting around on horses. On a sailboat, however, it becomes a serious problem as does spending time at sea without being able to resupply.

Side Consideration

When talking about survival in tabletop role-playing games, you probably don't want to drop your players in the middle of nowhere and let them try to survive the hunger and cold. Instead, the survival elements are usually present in order to add extra tension and difficulty in accomplishing the main goal. This means that they should generally be impactful, but not overly annoying. They are also not the focus when used in this way. You don't want to annoy your players with this kind of thing.

Situational

The situation itself plays a big role in deciding if a survival element will make sense. We can all agree that characters should be wearing warm clothes at -30 Celsius, but before that point can be tricky. There are also many factors that go into it. It might make sense to use the rules for cold situations or make your own situational ones if it's a particularly cold night and one of your players ended up in the river. Those situations where it's obvious that some survival aspect is at play are easy to rule. However, they aren't the only situations where such rules may apply. I've seen someone use the heat exhaustion rules in D&D 5th edition for a quick method to handle a character with a fever (I can't remember if they made changes to it but I seem to recall it reminding me of the heat exhaustion rules).

Who Does it Hurt

Some elements of a game will hurt certain people more than others. If your rules system is class based, it also means some classes take more of a hit from certain survival elements. One example is cold weather. If you decide everyone can wear warm clothing over whatever they usually wear, things will go as normal. However, anyone who needs to rely on their armour will take a big hit if you don't allow them to wear it underneath. There may be some survival situations, such as being poisoned by something or particularly cold weather, where you might decide that a wizard will need to roll concentration. Not handling this like a rule (they don't need to roll every time they are in cold weather) gives you some flexibility as a Dungeon Master to tailor things to the situation but also not expand the rules (keeping it as a ruling, not a rule).

What's the Result?

Hunger and thirst usually do one of two things. It forces the players to slow down and forage for food on their route. The result is they can't travel overland as fast. It also helps your ranger shine if they like that kind of thing. If time is a critical element in your game, this can be a big deal. It also allows your players to plan out their route. They can buy enough rations for their trip and resupply in cities along their path. This might be overall longer than the direct route but could be faster in terms of time because the roads are better. It will also allow the characters to arrive at their destination without taking levels of exhaustion. In some cases, if the path is particularly long without a chance to resupply, the players will need to think of a way to proceed. They might plan for half and forage the rest, they might jump in straight away and not waste time buying supplies, or they might take extra horses or a cart to carry their extra supplies.

A group tends to have a clear cut answer in these kinds of situations. I've seen some prefer to just start moving now and worry about supplies later. If their ranger has a good history of making due just fine, this helps to contribute to the selection of this option. Balancing these kinds of situations can be a bit difficult and also depends on how adverse to risk your players/and or characters are. To tempt players to take the riskier forage option might take a lot for risk adverse groups, or it could be the without-a-doubt best choice for a group that loves risk.

In Context of Travel

I find it easiest to consider survival aspects in the context of travel. It's also the most common situation I've come across and it probably extends to other tables as well. They are factors that players need to consider when traveling and influence their path. A path that might look absolutely nonsensical can be made promising because of the sources of water along it, for example. Beyond the rules dealing with exhaustion, some terrain features overlap with survival aspects. They also behave in a similar way. If your players come across an area with places of quicksand, deep snow (that 10-foot pole can be very handy when going across icy terrain to check for hidden places you could fall into), or swampland, your players are forced to make a choice about the best way to go towards their objective. Similarly, there is a risk with going through the dangerous terrain, and there is the less dangerous but more time consuming way of avoiding it.

Overstay Welcome

These kinds of elements should add something to the game and your players should enjoy them. If they generally don't, you can probably get away with it once or twice. If it's their first time in the northern ice lands of [insert land here], it can help accent their new location. However, if you hammer them with it every 15 minutes of play it could get tedious quickly. In such situations you'd either want the problem to go away as soon as they get proper clothing or not spring it on them in the first place. It's similar to how long everyone enjoys tracking experience or encumbrance. Some people really like how it adds to the world and makes it seem more real while others find it tedious. When used sparingly, such as encumbrance stuff coming into play when trying to move a very heavy object, it disappears into the game and it isn't a problem.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Dungeon Master: The Rare and Wondrous

Wonder often plays an important part in a fantasy world. Discovering alien environments, monstrosities beyond imagination and items of nearly unbelievable power are common parts of many campaigns and contribute to the wonder. However, there is quite a lot you can play with in these areas. And as you run more and more campaigns with the same group, you'll need to come up with new ways to make the world full of wonder.

The Value of Rareness

Rareness by its own has a large impact on what fills players with a sense of wonder. A while ago I played in a campaign where the first large part was spent out in the wilderness. It was nice, but the contrast of the big city when we finally got there was something special. The fact that we hadn't been to one and experienced the difference made it something that created a sense of wonder. Similarly, I ran a campaign a while ago that was heavy on political intrigue and so was largely set in cities. However, due to a series of events that involved assassins and a political overthrow, they were forced into the wilderness. That the players hadn't experienced much wilderness exploration and features made it interesting, a welcome change, and gave the new environment a sense of wonder. These same kinds of ideas extend to creatures, magic items, etc.

The Impossible

Impossible situations or locations are a common method I've seen to create wonder. This is similar to the above, however, it's one step further. Instead of playing with rareness in terms of physical things, impossible situations play with the rules themselves. Rare exceptions to the rules can themselves create a sense of wonder. Again, the trick is to not break the rules too often. If you do, it really is more like a new rule instead of being an exception to a rule. How much such a rule is broken is very situational. For some, having a situation where falling is greatly slowed down will be enough to inspire wonder. For others, it might take full weightlessness to be wowed.

What Kinds of Things?

Big, impressive things tend to be best remembered from my experience. Incredibly large pieces of architecture, giant forest fires, large armies clashing, tall waterfalls, the vast open oceans (ship based campaigns are a bit tough to run but a one-shot on the open seas tends to go over well after a classic campaign) and kilometer long cliff drops are all examples of such big things. However, when I say big things, I don't mean just in terms of physical size. Big and impressive effects are enough. There was a very low magic mini-campaign I was a part of where one of the magic items we got was an old music box that seemed to be impervious to damage and time. In such a situation, even such a seemingly small and non-useful effect seemed wondrous. It also helped that the party was offered a lot of money on multiple occasions for it.

Over Description

We of course want to occasionally inspire wonder, but the line between that and tedious can be very thin. In these kinds of cases it's better to just cut your losses and move forward. An interesting location that doesn't quite inspire wonder is better than a situation that bores players by running too long. Careful choice of words and situation are far more effective. Choosing at least one sense when possible is also a good idea. When close to the tall waterfall, maybe describe the sound or the feeling of the mist. Architecture is usually more difficult in this situation because you mostly have appearance to go on. Complicated architecture is also hard to get across in a succinct way. However, I'll usually try to identify at least one architectural feature to focus on and describe. You don't have to describe all of it at once either. If they are far away, you can leave out the fine carving detail on the door.