Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Dungeon Master: Degrees of Influence

We all know we aren't supposed to railroad players. If we wanted to have full control, we can just write a book. However, written into the game are restrictions for players and some arguably even for Dungeon Masters. The extent of the control the Dungeon Master should have over events as well as the degree of influence players should have is an interesting topic and I hope to share some of my thoughts on it. I won't be able to fit everything I want in here but I feel like I should start somewhere.

Rules Are Restrictions

Games like D&D allow a lot of freedom for players to try things, particularly when compared to things such as video games, but the presence of rules still imposes some restrictions. If we wanted to tell a collective story, we could do good old fashioned collaborative story telling. The issue is that, again, we end up basically writing a book together. Role-playing happens in one direction. We don't want to need to come back and revise an event. We want to keep the story going forward. The result is that we start to develop a resolution mechanic. The player needs to know how it's handled so they can develop their characters within that framework to be what they want. It also adds some structure to what we are doing and makes it less about just making things up as we go along.

Of course, we do make things up as we go along as Dungeon Masters. We still need to come up with a world, characters, and enemies. However, we are also armed with a resolution mechanism that takes some control out of our hands and into the hands of the players. It gives the game some transparency and lets the player understand how things work so that they can act accordingly. It also adds some unpredictability to the outcomes of actions (without it, we'd just be deciding things as the Dungeon Master). By removing some possibilities and shifting likeliness, we have something more interesting. Players work within their restrictions to solve problems and can think of intriguing ways to use their restrictions in interesting ways.

What's Wrong With Restrictions?

Too much restriction is a bad thing as well. Just like being able to do absolutely anything in a game at any time for any reason is boring, it's also boring to be able to do absolutely nothing. Some people are naturally good storytellers and listening to them speak or their audio book is great. I can't remember ever hearing someone complain that their audio book was too railroady. However, tabletop role-playing games are more than that. We come into them with the expectation of interactivity and creating a story together. It's a different experience. We want meaningful choices on both sides of the screen. Even interpreting and running a pre-written adventure is a creative task and requires decisions on the part of the Dungeon Master.

Reason For Railroading?

The main cause for railroading I've seen is that the Dungeon Master wants a particular and specific story event to occur. It's more than just coming across a particular situation. Putting your players into a situation is perfectly fine. The problem is when the solution to that situation is already thought up and you refuse to consider any other, even when they should make sense. Say you want your players to be captured. Fine. It might even make sense. If they just killed someone high ranking, it would make sense someone might be after them. However, if they think of a clever way to escape and roll appropriately, they won't be captured. You can force them onto the railroad and capture them anyway, but in that case it feels cheap. There isn't much of a choice in cases where you want to railroad because even if they think of something, or beat the odds and win a straight up encounter, you'll still go back and try to force them onto the path. Railroading often leads to more railroading.

Players eventually ending up at a particular spot is fine. However, they still need to choose their path to where they are going. The extent and specifics of this is hard to discuss since it depends on a number of things including the players themselves, the stories being told, and the Dungeon Master themselves.

How Much Restriction?

This is a hard thing to talk about. Rules are restrictions and the way we interpret and actually use them are important. Do you let a player succeed based on the pure logic or points of their argument that they role-played, their character's charisma and persuasion score combined with a roll, or a bit of both? Does it depend on the situation? What situations fall under what rules? All of these put restrictions on what player characters can do.

If you are playing a comedic game, your player's arrow might very well be able to hit the moon on a natural 20. In this case, the tone of the game will play a part into the restrictions. Some players also like some degree of restriction. There is nothing wrong with a good dungeon delve. Having your players being part of a guild that chooses from some number of missions and does it is more restrictive than a sandbox world where your players are looking for tombs in the desert. However, the guild scenario still allows your players to choose how they approach the mission they decide on. Some might hate this restriction. Some might like not spending half an hour arguing with each-other over which direction they should look for the tomb next. Regardless, both need to have meaningful choices and your players should be comfortable with it. Of course, the exact definition of meaningful varies from person to person. Sometimes you need to adjust on the fly as well. Don't feel like you need to be locked in.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Dungeon Master: Magic Duration

The duration of a magical effect has a great impact on its usefulness. It also enables different tactics depending on the kind of magic your players have access to. For that reason, as well as to get my own thoughts on the matter down, I'll briefly go over the different duration of magic that can be used. Hopefully someone finds them useful. Since magic items feature so often, I'll be mentioning them quite often.

Time Limit and Single Use

Potions are typically a single use item with a time limited effect. These work great since they introduce some resource management, and they are not long term so any mistakes in giving a too powerful potion is only felt once. However, some players tend to hoard this kind of item for that perfect moment and end up not using it at all. Or, when they do use it, combined they become more powerful than foreseen.

Time Limit and Limited Use

In older editions of Dungeons & Dragons, wands and the like had a certain number of charges. After they were used, the item crumbled to dust. In this case it remains a tactical choice like the single use item, but the item will eventually run out. While having a larger impact on the campaign, it still is less of an impact than a permanent effect (though it potentially allows for more burst use than the next option). This is an optional rule in the current edition (default is the next one).

Time Limit and Limited Use (Recharges)

In the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, many items have effects that can be used a certain number of times and recharge the uses at a certain rate (usually involving a die roll). The magic effect has a time limit as well (in cases such as detect magic). Since these items recharge, they remain useful throughout a campaign, but because they have a certain number of charges they still need to be managed. This still presents choices for the players. This kind of magic effect system can also be used if making your own role-playing game or campaign and I'd say is a common choice. The D&D 5th edition system has some magic items that are permanently lost under some condition. This partially combines the features of this category and the one before it. I'd say that overall, however, it's closer to this category.

Time Limit and Unlimited Use

Though these kinds of items aren't very common, an item can theoretically have a limit magic effect but an unlimited number of uses. Cantrips are an example of a non-item version of this use (like minor illusion). These kinds of items or effects tend to be weaker so that they don't overshadow the other kinds above. If made stronger, it can overshadow the natural abilities of a class or character (if the party is understaffed, this may be desirable). A staff that allows fireball to be cast as an action with no charges would be one such example (in higher level play this may be weak enough to be fine). At the same time, an item that allows detect magic, dispel magic or counter spell to be cast by anyone could stand in for a wizard if needed. 

No Time Limit and Limited Use

For completion's sake, this is the last type. I would say this is one of the rarer types to use. When I have seen them, it's usually in the form of a potion that permanently raises a stat or a curse that permanently lowers a stat. They can be quite hard to control. They always need to be remembered and accounted for.

Unlimited Effects

A character can be given a magic effect that lasts forever. For example, a character can be resistant to all forms of damage. Such a change would be huge, but can be warranted in some cases (become a god, major blessing from a god before fighting a god, etc.). Regardless, these effects are the most dangerous for a Dungeon Master to give and have the largest effects typically (unless a comic book style depowering occurs later). Typically, they are given to NPC baddies that are fought later in a campaign (the vampire is a classic example as is the invulnerability or resistances of werewolves).

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Dungeon Master: Control

There is inherently a power dynamic between the person who runs a game and their players. Different rule systems and even different campaigns can have wide differences in power between the players and the one who runs their game. These differences result in a very different feel and experience. However, they still maintain the heart of tabletop gaming, which is collaborative story telling. Since I find this to be an interesting topic, I'll be trying to put my thoughts into words and hope someone else finds it interesting.

The Default Method

I find that the default Dungeons & Dragons structure is that players control how their character acts within the framework provided by their Dungeon Master. In this kind of setup, the emphasis is immersion and relation with a character. They only control things the character has control over. As well, the gap between the player and the character comes from knowledge. This knowledge might make it tempting for a player to go out of character because it is more beneficial by the rules. These kinds of out-of-character actions cost us the story. However, any knowledge they have out of character can still only be used to influence their character's actions. This generally works well but sometimes a change is welcome and leads to stories that your group otherwise wouldn't get to experience. You could rotate Dungeon Masters, and generally this works well, but I found that the way things go is still different compared to giving players more power.

Giving More Power to Players

We can, however, separate the player and character further by giving more power to the player. By far the most common method from my experience is allowing the player to come up with a backstory for one of their items. It's a bit risky, since the player might come up with something that contradicts the story. Usually it isn't even intentional. Since they don't know all of the Dungeon Master's plans, it just happens. However, when done with responsible players and given a point or two that need to be included, it can create a different experience.

I've seen once or twice where the players might be called upon to create some bad guys they would like to go up against. You aren't completely bound to take their characters exactly as they made them, but it can help in situations when you don't know what to do or what your players want.

Giving the players more power over other characters also helps messes the power dynamic. If you make your player have complete control over their entire kingdom, including possible attempts to overthrow them, they have a far bigger hand in influencing the story. The extent of the control can vary. In the case I'm thinking of, the player told the Dungeon Master what the attempt would generally look like and result in. The specifics were still left up to the Dungeon Master. This helped to keep the vision that a player had of their kingdom but still allowed interesting situations to arise. It also helps that in these kinds of situations, even though a temporary setback is experienced, there may be a long-run benefit. The attempted overthrow was not pleasant in the moment, involved risk and resulting in some lost resources. However, in the long run it resulted in the resources of the entire kingdom coming together more united behind the player. The reward was viewed as worth the risk by the player to come up with a reasonable and well thought out overthrow plan.

Round Robin Dungeon Mastering

Rotating Dungeon Masters throws a wrench into the usual power dynamics of a group. Sure, the absolute power of the Dungeon Master is maintained but the Dungeon Master themselves changes after a certain amount of time. This means each person in the group has a chance to decide on their character's actions and also the world's actions as a whole.The resulting world was shaped by all of the players in different ways on both sides of the screen.

External Rewards

The reward structure in an RPG like this makes a big difference. In something like Dungeons & Dragons, good things happening to their player and bad things not happening are a reward. However, nowadays D&D isn't the only RPG system out there and there are others that reward players for putting their characters into bad situations. In D&D as well, rewarding a player for role-playing well is an old technique. The reason is because it helps tell interesting stories. Stories where players never face setbacks are generally not interesting. By rewarding players for acting in character and resulting in setbacks, the cost-benefit analysis is shifted so otherwise sub-optimal choices might look temping. Balancing this so it isn't too game-y is tough though. You don't want to go too far or players will make their characters trip every 10 feet of movement in order to get the nice benefits.


Player competitiveness is an issue and I found tends to have worse results the more power the players have over the story. This is because they'll go out of their way to use their power in order to try and make things worse for a different player (it tends to be 2 people against each-other instead of the whole group).

That's not the same thing as having characters that are competitive against each other. If the players are there to have fun and tell a story together, they won't have a problem with sometimes winning and sometimes losing against their rival (in some cases one might have an inferiority complex against the other character and always lose, but this kind of thing should still be agreed between the players or it tends to get nasty).

D&D 5th Edition and Inspiration

Inspiration is a mechanic that shifts the power away from the players in my mind. Generally, that kind of advantage would be decided by the Dungeon Master based on the situation and the players actions. However, with inspiration, it's the players turn to decide when the advantage happens. It can be a bit awkward if it's used purely mechanically. However, when also combined with giving a player a moment to add to the story (why do they have inspiration in the case they used it?) it's an example of a subtle shift of power. At the end of the day though, the Dungeon Master gets to choose when inspiration is granted (including never) so I don't think it should bother you if you don't like it. It's just another option in your bag of trips if you want to use it. Similarly though, you might let them spend inspiration in other ways to warp the story or to come up with your own mechanic.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Wilderness Tower Map Review

  • Nice looking map of a tower in the wildernes
  • Marks denoting the bounds of squares are included
  • Properly sized variant for battlemap use is provided
  • Smaller version for reference is provided (I often like printing these kinds of things off and noting starting locations for creatures)
  • Free!
  • If you already have wilderness tiles, this is more wilderness tiles
  • No internals of the tower are provided. If they were, even blank, it would make the set far more reusable. Hopefully that's the case in the adventure that served as the prototype for this map.


I've talked about maps before. Dave Zajac's Wilderness Tower Map is another map that can be used in your games. While being quite small, it is properly scaled for use with miniatures. If you are always looking for new tiles and maps to use, it's worth a look.

The Map

The map itself is quite small and simple. It's made up of two pieces that can be printed and connected. However, you can create a rather large chunk of wilderness by printing that page multiple times, rotating the pieces randomly, and connecting them. For a better effect you can include other wilderness tiles of the same size. Trees and other features are included and provide some tactical options as well as using the tower itself for cover. Towers are a classic dungeon setting so you can get some mileage out of it. Compared to some other tower maps I've seen and adventures I've run, the dimensions are a little small. However, it's easy enough to add a giant basement or something else to make it bigger if needed while keeping its outward appearance.


The art is generally nice. It could be a bit more photo-realistic but at the same time it is close enough that it didn't bother me at all. I think I've seen similar quality maps with prices instead of free. It really is quite nice. It's also nice that the smaller map is provided, allowing me to plan how I'll unleash my evil undead hordes upon my players. Other than that, there is no other art. I don't think there really needs to be more.


It's a nice map containing a chunk of wilderness and a tower. The wilderness chunk is easy to reuse. The tower chunk isn't as reusable, but seeing that towers are a common dungeon setting, you can still get some mileage out of it. If you need another wilderness tile or you are new and simply need some tiles to get started, this is a good one to have in the collection. It's not as flexible as some multi-tile systems that let you create whatever you want, but it is still effective for what it is. Being less flexible also means you can just grab it and slam it down when you run into a wilderness combat encounter. Go ahead, grab it. I don't regret doing so and even if you do, it didn't cost you a cent. That's the best kind of advertisement.