Sunday, 17 June 2018

Dungeon Master: Traveling Between Locations

Sooner or later, players need to cross some area to get to somewhere else. Whether it's moving from one city to another, or even one dimension to another, it's a process and there are many ways to handle it. Do we just skim past it and go to the action after? Do we give side content (some levity and variety could be welcome)? If we do, is it a distraction or does it give them resources they need later? Do we do meaningful stuff that somehow ties back into everything? There are many ways to handle such a situation and what makes things even harder is that it can be very situationally dependent. For these reasons I wish to explore the topic a little.

It's Not Easy

Traveling between locations is difficult in tabletop role-playing games. You want to make it interesting as a Dungeon Master, but it's easy to get mired in side details that people don't enjoy. At the same time, you'll find yourself needing to do something involving it if you have a ranger. Otherwise they'll feel a bit ripped off. Part of this is choosing the right granularity. If there's only one choice to be made for a 3 week journey, you might not want to do a day-by-day (asking everyone on every day what they wish to do) unless it feels like something can happen in between. You might want to give your players a day-by-day break down after they set their path and made decisions, especially if they know where they are and where to go. Or, they might want to know every time something in the journey changes and make a decision. There's a swamp in the way. Go around or go through it? Lose time in one, lose resources because of combat and struggles in the other. If you go this route, I'd recommend at least knowing generally what the location is like. A map makes things far easier. Still I find opinions can greatly vary from player to player.

Did the new Dungeon Masters reading this get scared? Well, don't be. It doesn't instantly mean that all your players will hate your game if you get it wrong. Just be aware of the possible issues that might arise and be prepared to change your approach if your group likes things differently. Experienced Dungeon Masters also run into this when playing with new groups or players. They just know how to handle it due to their experience.

Choosing Granularity

If you have a map in a pre-made adventure, you know roughly what the party will run across when setting a course and can describe it in ways that best suits your group. If you are making a map, that's where it gets difficult. You typically at least want to describe the general layout of the land, and possibly weather. If there is a change of location, such as rolling hills to desert, you'll also want to describe that. However, the big thing is to keep in mind when decisions will be made and these decisions often result in a time vs risk trade off.

Story or Simulation?

Part of this comes down to if you want a more simulationist or story driven experience. For some, role-play the travel can be the highlight of an adventure. Keeping an eye on food, trying to avoid detection, facing the elements, and still trying to arrive on time to their destination. On the other hand, the environment can be something to just skip past. Maybe nothing happened. A bear attack doesn't happen every time someone goes into a forest. Likewise, the trip can be unimportant. So make your choice.

Pressure

When traveling between to locations, I find that there should be some sort of pressure. Whether it's a competing group trying to reach a legendary ruin first, weather getting progressively worse, or the threat of supplies running out, there needs to be a catalyst for tough decisions. It also means that the travel paces in D&D 5th edition start to have meaning where usually they don't. Without this kind of thing, a fast travel pace will very rarely be chosen. Why are your players traveling anyway if they don't have a reason to?

Being Chased

A common and rather effective method for getting players from one place to another is through a chase. Such a setup ideally forces difficult choices to be made and provides a sense of tension. However, we also need to put some complications in. Otherwise it'll just involve the party running away as fast as possible. There also needs to be some solution to the problem at hand. We can't have an unwinnable situation behind the players, forcing them to run forward at full speed right into an ambush they can't win. And at the same time, if the situation they are supposed to run from is unwinnable, the players should know. Looking back, a hilarious number of situations that were meant to be chases ended up as slaughters because players picked fights they thought they could win and failed.

Risk vs Reward

There is an idea of risk and reward when talking about going between two locations. Why wouldn't I explore every place I run across between here and my destination? Well, often times it's the risk of losing time towards our goal. Perhaps having that town indebted to me would be helpful in the long run, but I'll also lose time and give my enemy a head start on the important magic item stored in the vault of the city 4 days away. If I only have so many rations and no ranger, I might not be able to enter every ruin I come across either. Instead, I need to selectively pick them, mark them down, and maybe revisit them later.

This idea also comes back into getting lost. What does it matter if the party gets lost if there is no risk or penalty for doing so? Oh, it takes me longer to get to my destination? So what? The exception to this is when inadvertently finding locations. In this case, getting lost found me a new cool location, new resources and/or allies. However, without risk and reward the party may often just go at a normal pace because they don't want to deal with getting lost. Or they might go at a slow pace because they want to sneak. This decision depends on your party, of course, but the party will typically have one approach they use for everything. This can be fine in general, but there will be cases where you want that added pressure.

Approaches

If decisions are being made there should be some outcomes at some point. Approaching a camp in the woods might allow multiple approaches. If we sneak, we might be able to get a sneak attack or poison their water. If we go fast, maybe we can get their before their hunting party gets back and use divide and conquer. Maybe we know they have hunting parties looking for us. If decisions are being made while traveling, they journey will probably be glossed over with a quick description. That's fine as it lets the party get to what they consider the good stuff. However, keeping in mind what choices the party has over their travels is a good starting place to make it more interesting. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Dungeon Master: Yanking Narratives

A common topic of discussion with tabletop role-playing games as well as role-playing games in general is the idea of freedom. The desire to avoid railroading is commonly mentioned and player control is important. However, at the same time, players don't have unlimited control over a game either. That's part of the point of having rules as opposed to just sitting together with friends and coming up with a story. In my experience, regardless of your feelings on railroading or player control, yanking your players back on track doesn't go over well. This, however, is different than just railroading players. It's about taking control from your players, and yanking them to where you think they should have gone. And it is this topic that I will talk about today.

Some Situations Have Fewer Options

Based on your player characters, their level, their magic items, the help they have access to and many other factors, your players have a set of tools at their disposal to solve problems you throw at them. However, it also means that not all campaigns are created equal and not all parties need or want the same tools. This also means that some situations will be more desperate with the players having fewer options at their disposal. I find it that in these kinds of situations, limitations are important. Working within limitations in creative ways is part of the fun You don't want to make your players irreverent either. Find a balance between these two for your players and things will be fine. I've played with groups who liked playing more structured narratives. However, they still wanted choice. Don't take away all choice from the players.

Yanking Back On Course

Problems often happen when players are trying to play the game and they keep getting yanked back on course. You want to avoid situations where players need to replay a scene except in special circumstances in particular. What this does is takes away the meaning of choices and forces them to make the choices that you make. This is one of the more extreme examples, however. In general the game should be going forward with players making decisions to keep pushing the story forward.

This doesn't mean that players can't make mistakes. However, if they do, it works best if they realize that a mistake happen and try to correct things. The alternative is you throwing something in their way that forces them to change paths. The specifics here are important but not really well defined. However, there is a difference between a nudge in the right direction when players are lost (from my experience they often appreciate it) and taking all control by yanking their leash. That said, giving nudges is a bit of a skill in itself.

Different From Hints

Though it was hinted in what I said before, we have to note that there is a difference between yanking players back on track and providing hints. Hints need to be decoded and players then need to use them to set course. They also don't always tell a player what to do, just what they need to work towards. Them being told where they can find information about what they are looking for doesn't help them get their. It only sets their direction. These distinctions are important because it's an inherit part of the give and take relationship of tabletop role-playing games. Dungeon Masters set up a world and conflict while players navigate them and try to influence outcomes through their agency.

Player Sabotage

Players who don't want to play can sabotage a game. However, trying to yank them into the story you want won't help. They'll be unhappy and you'll be unhappy that they aren't playing. I don't think it helps anyone to try and solve these kinds of problems at the table. They are personal problems that need to be handled as people. Once the real problem is handled, the game can continue and you can all have fun. After all, you can throw you players into an undead apocalypse and have them want to do nothing. Then, if you attack them, they can choose to forgo their actions and get killed. At a certain point you need to realize that you can't force them to play. You can put challenges in their way, you can put restrictions on them that make the struggle meaningful, but you can't and shouldn't play for them.

Challenges to Be Solved

I've written before that I find the best way to think about these kinds of things as challenges for my players to solve. However, they need to solve them. I know what's afoot. I designed it. Of course it will be influenced by their actions and I may need to adjust on the fly, but my fun comes largely from handling what my players come up with to solve the problems I put in their way. It isn't fun for me anymore if I can play the game for them. That's what I'm doing if I yank them onto my story path. But again, that is far and away different from giving hints and providing methods to achieve what they want. There is a difference between telling the characters where the magic sword is, telling them exactly how to get it down to the minute detail, and taking control from them to get it.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Dungeon Master: Hooking Players

When running a tabletop role-playing game campaign, we want to draw people in. We want to hook them and have them looking forward to the next session. And as is the pattern for this kind of thing, it isn't easy. Different people may need different things to draw them in. Though I of course cannot offer a definitive opinion or an exhaustive list, I hope I can offer a few helpful tips at the very least.

Types of Games

The nature of the games we're playing has a large impact on the kind of things we can use to hook people and how important they are. In a one shot, doing so quickly and efficiently is very important. We have very little time to work with so we need to make use of it effectively. In more relaxed settings, such as a long home campaign, we have a bit more time to work with. However, getting players interested in the goings on is still extremely important. It's just we can be more subtle and measured instead of being forced throw our players right into the thick of it.

Hooking vs. Maintaining

Hooking, grabbing the interest of players at the start, is different than maintaining interest. Of course, both are important but I want to focus just on the hook for now. It also wouldn't say one is easier than other, and there are many overlaps. However, they often work in different ways.

Start With Actions

One of the easiest, most straight forward and effective ways I've come across is to make sure things start with some sort of actions or events. It's similar to the idea of show, don't tell. Particularly when you don't have a lot of time to work with, the adventure might need to come to the players. Of course, the players still need to make the choice to go on the adventure.

What do I mean by actions? Let's take the classic situation of all the players being in an inn and meeting each other. This kind of thing is more of a setting for an adventure and not an event. If we now had the inn catching on fire, attacked by someone or have an injured stranger collapse into the room, we've got an event that can capture the interests of players. These kinds of events, from my experience, tend to work best when they hint at something bigger. They are parts of stories, and that's a source of their power. However, they should also be able to stand alone and be interesting on their own. In a long campaign your first session may be aimed with the expressed goal to try and hook your players as well as introduce them to your world. In this case, it should probably still be part of a larger story, but also function as a story on its own.

Keeping this kind of thing in mind is a good idea in general. Instead of hearing about some event, you can instead show the consequences of the event. As an example, show the large influx of people as a result of armed conflict to the north instead of just hearing people discussing it in the bar. You can still keep the discussion, especially since not all details will be immediately noticed. That's fine though. After hearing the conversation there can be that “aha!” moment. 

Also don't be upset if they don't bite at first, or go in a different direction. They may be waiting for more details before jumping in, or have great ideas you never thought of. I also find it helps to think of this as setting the stage. We'll set events into motion, and the players mess it up, twist it, and turn it towards their outcomes. Don't forget it's a shared story.

Themes

People often have their own pet themes that they love to see. I know I am guilty of it. If you know some of the themes your players find interesting, incorporating some of them is often an easy way to increase interest. Of course the execution matters too. But there are certain things that just resonate better with us. It might be time travel, or it might be the nature of undeath, but regardless it still helps. I've made my opinion on the matter of themes extremely clear. Having an overarching theme or themes helps in other ways too. It allows players to have a vague idea of the kinds of things they'll experience, without telling them what to expect. If your players are speculating about things that might happen or planning for the next session, you know you hooked their interest.

Combat

Combat, is of course, an event. It can also be a great way to get generate interest at the start of a campaign. However, there are a few things that I think need to be kept in mind. Even when doing so, the role-play considerations should be kept in mind. One of the great things about interesting combat encounters is that they have real risk and force players to weigh options. However, once over, they can often be forgotten and fade into the back ground. Having the combat encounter be an event that relates and pushes the story forward means that it is not so easily forgotten. Instead, it keeps generating interest because it still has a link with the future. Fighting random wolves in the forest doesn't do this, unless of course it turns out that the reason that the wolves are forced out of the forest is an army of undead moving ever closer.

Even if there is a reason in the background for it, your players need to know or at least have a suspicion or it won't work. Instead you'll have a revelation moment, no speculation, and no real payoff. I want my players to feel something is off and want to discover what that something is. Another thing to keep in mind is the general skill level of your players. Throwing players right into combat can be daunting for a new player. However, when planned properly, it can also be a good way to introduce them to the combat rules. It also helps establish the kind of game they will be playing. Will the battles be big and grandiose, forcing the players to use all of their skills and abilities? Will it be a longer battle of attrition where one battle won't kill them, but using the wrong resources at the wrong time will? Or is it your special blend of both? A well designed combat encounter can be talked about years later.