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.