Monday, 16 July 2018

Dungeon Master: Magic Items as Stories

Magic items are capable of a great many things. They can give players and villains alike a needed boost in strength. They can be the source of entire adventures, or trinkets that the players don't think twice about. However, they tend to get stories associated with them over the course of adventures. Even otherwise seemingly useless items may gain life for their utility, or be remembered fondly for the one time they proved to be useful. At this point they become more than just a magic item, they become a story. And it is this topic I hope to explore today.

More Than A +1 Longsword

An easy first step is to avoid giving +1 weapons. Make the item something special by adding a couple of details. Even something small like a few notched on the cross guard can lead to an interesting story when someone they run into finds it familiar. Now, I'd usually recommend something bigger but subtly can be surprisingly effective too.

In terms of function, I've found going big is most memorable. Something that changes the game. The real potential for story telling with these items isn't that it's just a sword like my old one but does more damage. It's that it opened up new options previously beyond the player's reach. The new options that open up allow for new stories to be told. However, you can do both aspects or one or the other. The great part about an item, even if it's just a +1 longsword in combat, is that it might open up role-play opportunities not otherwise possible. A +1 longsword in a world with almost no +1 longswords becomes something more. It will be coveted.

Let's Find Them!

There is always the classic story of trying to find an item. A whole campaign could revolve around finding an item. Whether that's because it's valuable to the players or the NPC that hired them is irrelevant: the item has value and they'll look for it. It takes care though, and players who are willing to go after such a goal.

However, I think that you can't rely on the item itself in this case to drive the whole campaign and story. Instead it's a catalyst for the players and forces who want it to perform actions. As such, the location where the item is and the path to getting to it is the real core of the story. Where and how an item is found, even one that wasn't sought, tells quite a lot about that item and can hint to a larger story. This may sound obvious but I've seen all too often that an item becomes all that is important in a campaign instead of a setup.


An item needs to be made by someone for some reason, and if the players aren't going to pawn it off at the nearest stand they'll need a purpose for it too. The purpose may not be foreseen, since it's up to the players to find creative methods to use items. However, if the players realize they are about to face a dangerous situation it isn't uncommon for them to look for ways to change the odds more in their favour. And a common method is through magic items. Scrolls, magic rings, world shattering devices, a sun blade in a vampire centred campaign, take your pick. What's great about these situations is that since the players are actively seeking these items out, it means they already have a purpose. Of course, the trouble with this method is that if the players always break to look for magic items and resources, a good portion of the tension will fly out the window. They can't always run into a situation perfectly prepared.

When it's on the other side of the DM screen I find that the items should help further the goal of the NPC in some way. If the NPC or villain is also chasing after the same item, they need to have a reason. Money is an easy one, but something more personal can often lead to better results. Potions to prevent aging, or the severed limb of a now crippled death knight who wants to regain his power. Those sorts of things.


Magic items can become part of the identity of a character. I think we can all remember a character we had that had a certain item that was closely associated with the character in question. Even if it's a published item like a sun blade, the moment it was used cleverly to kill 3 vampire spawn goes down in campaign history and leaves an impact. What it requires to become more in this case is a special moment and use for it. After all, a sun blade wouldn't have been nearly as fondly remembered in a campaign with no vampires, though it would still prove to be more useful than a regular old short sword. This also means that if a player character dies, their old magic items have a history attached to them. I've seen this occur both in cases where players reacquired items their old characters used to have (the campaign was set a thousand years after their previous ones), or where a new player joining a group received the items from their recently dead friend. The responsibility to do justice to their fallen comrade that the player role-played was something hard to describe. The reactions the players had to regaining their old items that now had a long storied history in the world was also hard to describe. The item became a character in the campaign itself, and it was like seeing an old friend NPC come back.

On top of that, some magic items can help tell the story of a character. It's not that uncommon to see a player character who is a disgraced noble or hero. Besides their magic sword, and memories of grander days, they have virtually nothing. You can also have the item grow in power over the course of the campaign as the player becomes more powerful and gains more control over their magic item. In this case, their starting weapon is closely linked to their personal story and has a history all their own. It's also a history you can let the player come up with. Whether it's the magic sword of their fallen friend that they will take to finish their work or whatever else, such a history is a great opportunity for telling stories and role-playing.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Dungeon Master: When to End a Session

Part of plotting a session is trying to figure out when you will call it a day. Eventually time runs out and we need to take a break. However, we also want the sessions to be fun and interesting. This is why it is so hard and so much of a skill. Balancing interesting things, and allowing players the chances to do what they wish within a defined time is tough. It's made even tougher by the nature of role-playing games: things often don't go as planned. Hopefully my thoughts on the matter will be useful and as always, I'm happy to hear other opinions.

Too Short Better Than Too Long

I am of the opinion that running too short is better than running too long in most cases. There are some exceptions that immediately come to mind, but the good thing about running short is that it means you still got through what you had planned. This usually means that there isn't much of a risk of a dead session where nothing happened. Some sessions will naturally be more interesting than others, but something happening is better than nothing. Of course, things could have gone off track but full of interesting events. My group also tends to have strictly timed sessions because of other commitments so I have this opinion by necessity.

What happens if we get through everything we planned? We could of course keep going and in many cases, I'd say this is the correct choice. We have the time so let's use it and continue in the story. The risk we run into is pacing and structure issues. Jumping into a half completed segments, combat encounters especially, can be rough. If we know that we only have 20 minutes left, it may be a good idea to break early instead of expecting everyone to jump right back into a half finished encounter. We could also end up ending on a low note after a tough and engaging combat encounter. In practice, I'm not really worried about this option. I find players often appreciate some breathing time after and to reflect on what happened. Still though, it should progress even if slowly. Some extra time at the end is also perfect if you plan to do a session postmortem.

When Is it Better To Run Longer?

There is also the option of running the session a bit longer sometimes. It will depend on who you have. It could be the only thing they have left for the day so whether they leave at 11pm or 11:20 doesn't matter as long as it ends reasonably close. In these cases, the right choice might be to just do the encounter and end on the high note. We'll run long but we can afford it. It is also sometimes a good idea to let your players know the session will run longer if you know ahead of time. This is especially true for the end of a campaign. If you normally have sessions that run 2-3 hours, it might be a good idea to run a longer 4 hour session and finish everything in one chunk. That way everything is fresh and rolls together well.

Why Are Breaks Bad?

It's been my experience that sessions tend to be scheduled weekly or by-weekly for groups. A week or two are perfect amounts of time to forget things and even with experienced groups, it can take a little bit of time to file the rust off and continue. I find it's somewhere in the 10-15 minute range. For this reason, starting a session in a half-completed combat encounter doesn't generally work the best. If you are using digital tools, it's less of a concern because the map will be untouched. Physical maps and miniatures need to be put away unless you don't need that table for 2 weeks. Sometimes it's unavoidable. I found my players prefer ending a bit early and starting the combat encounter next time. Some combat encounters can be very large and ornate, and in those it's more reasonable to find a logical spot to stop and commence. If the fight takes place in a tower where floors are breaking, stopping just as they fell to the final floor is better a less defined and memorable situation. And obviously the longer the time span between sessions, the worse it is.

Play Until Done

I've played in sessions where the target was about 2 hours, but everyone would stay until it was done. As a result things would often run long (3 hours, and once 4 hours) but each session felt like a complete experience. This worked great for this group, but not everyone has that kind of flexibility and out-of-game factors overrule the game in these cases. But man, is it satisfying to spend a most of a day playing a tabletop game.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Dungeon Master: What A Roll Says

Chance is an important part of a tabletop game and the dice is our tool for introducing it. That little object can determine success or failure for our actions. However, one thing I've wrestled with for as long as I've been gaming is what the roll actually says. In some cases it is rather straight forward. You swung your sword and you hit. In others, such as rolling to determine if someone is lying, things get weirder. As a player, you can even ignore your roll in this case. And it is with the intent to explore this idea that I write today.

Same Idea

Regardless, I find things work best when the meaning of a roll and its result is understood by all at the table. It makes things work far smoother. That way a player knows what the roll failure means and can role-play accordingly. Restarting a scene is something I feel should not happen during play. It takes away one of the great strengths of tabletop gaming: the commitment to choices and progression of story. It is also a major thing that marks it to be different than most video games, though some try to do this as well (though some fiddling with your appdata folders is still possible).

The Roll

So I roll my dice to see if the character was lying. Whether I succeed or fail, we are in a bit of an odd situation. If I failed, and they are in fact lying, do I think they are telling the truth? If they are telling the truth, do I think they are lying? This also adds an extra issue: if I do this consistently, the meta-game becomes obvious. If I failed I get the opposite result. If I rolled a 1 I know what is going on by process of elimination. I can obfuscate it and sometimes tell the truth and sometimes lie. I can also say they don't know when they fail and give the players an answer when they succeed. I'd say this last one is the most common and the simplest to implement. In general, it would be my suggestion for those things that involve recollection or mind related checks. Of course, introducing some exceptions into the mix can make for fun gameplay moments.

Ignoring Them

I don't mean ignoring them like when you don't bother to roll because a player role-played their character well and brought up an excellent point that doesn't need a charisma check. What I mean is that even if a player thinks a character isn't lying, they may still choose not to believe them. This is where things get a bit rough. Is a lie of omission a lie? Technically it is, and I'd argue that a roll should help you figure out that something is being hidden from you based on things you notice from the person who told the lie. However, even if that checks out, a player may still choose to ignore the result and not believe the character. This character broke their word thrice already. Why would I believe them again? Even if they don't lie, they are setting something up. There is a trick somewhere. These moments are great since it's the character the player created overpowering what the player knows or think they know. The roll gave them something, be it knowledge or a new position after climbing a wall. What they choose to do with what they gained is their business.

Did We Succeed?

Your character is trying to convince someone of something. Maybe they are lying, maybe they aren't. Still, how do you know if you succeeded? In this situation, it's hard to tell until the results come back to you. If a bad guy saw through your lie because they are better at reading your actions, or because they know something that directly contradicts what you said, you won't know until they spring their trap. Sometimes you will by a change in disposition. However, sometimes the result of the roll won't be known until farther along, because they'll use the chance to trap you. Again, it's fine and niche in application, but still important. Just make sure to note it for later use. It's easy to forget that your bad guy noticed if you don't.