Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Improvisation

I’m going to begin today’s article with an anecdote because I don’t want to appear conceited or full of myself when I explain my problem. One of the players from my Friday game (a personal friend) paid me a compliment many weeks ago as we were walking into the game store. He said, “Papa Farmane, I don’t think of you as our dungeon master. I think of you as the dungeon master.”

It may have been the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

But it does leave me with a dilemma. I have a lot of game ideas and a lot of friends who want to play in my games. Before a few weeks ago I was actively running 2 different games and playing in a third. That third game is going on an odd hiatus which means that I’m stepping up to fill that role. In other words, I am now running 3 separate games.

Planning and running a tabletop game is more fun than I can actively explain to you but it’s also exhausting. Imagine planning a five course meal three times a week but halfway through the first course your diners decide they want to skip two courses and go straight to dessert and that they don’t want to eat the fish you prepared and would prefer steak. Steak you don’t have in the freezer.

I might be hungry while writing this. Preparing a tabletop roleplaying game takes time and effort. Usually I’m willing to commit about 3-4 hours of preparation time for a 4-5 hour session and assume I can improvise plenty of extra content to keep my group entertained. Running 3 games would mean a commitment of at least 15 hours a week of preparation time for games that would consume at least 20 hours of time. Some people don’t spend that much time on their for realsies job (though if you have suggestions on how I can make money off this please don’t hesitate to comment).

My newest game will be run exclusively by improvisation. I refuse to prepare for it ahead of time and will make everything up as I go. For our first session it was a resounding success.

I had three players who were brand new players to DnD 5 but who had some experience with tabletop gaming. We made characters for two hours and played the game for 5. Here’s what I learned about improvising.

  • Be an active participant in character creation: Dungeons and Dragons 5 has plenty of built in mechanics to improve player interaction and have them help to craft the world. Mandatory backgrounds that affect skills, equipment, and talents really help players sink into their character. But working with each player as they create their character means that I understand exactly what they want to get out of my game. Here are the characters we are working with so far.
    • A half-orc ranger on a constant quest to find his wife. He despises elves and slavery.
    • A human warlock on a quest for absolute power. He’s weak but suave and prefers the finer things in life. He’s a bit of a liar, too.
    • A dwarf barbarian who was a soldier turned gladiator who now wants to help end all slavery in the world.

  • Plan campaign conflict on player interests: Two of my three players have issues with slavery. Should I include that in my campaign as a major conflict that exists in the world or should I ignore what my players are interested in? As a dungeon master I should always take into consideration my players’ interests. If I spend a lot of time dealing with religious conflicts or the politics of elven fae courts then my players are going to disconnect. If my very first scene is of a slave auction where they are in attendance then I can get them to engage right away.

  • Understand how buildings work: You don’t have to have a degree in architecture to know how a cathedral should be laid out. A mansion or a manor house should have lots of unnecessary rooms showing off wealth and status. Dungeons are allowed to have long winding corridors that can stall players while you think of upcoming dangers. Study temples, courthouses, government buildings, mansions, and even bar layouts to have some blueprints on hand in your head. My players stalked one of the slave owners to his cattle ranch outside the city. Thank goodness I knew what a large plantation house should look like.

  • Give conflict a memorable quirk: Rely on monster manuals and handbooks to help populate your improvised world with quick NPCs and beasties but make sure conflicts have some substance to them. A battle in a dwarven forge should have an oppressive heat about it that makes palms slippery and spellcasting difficult. An overwhelmed villain should want to flee and try and live more than anything. That could mean he jumps out a window and off a balcony but that means your fight becomes a chase. Chases are fun.

  • Give treasure, not money: I’ve already spoken on this blog about treasure. I like treasure. When you’re trying to give yourself every second to plan or think ahead give your players things to argue over. Give them treasures that they can only guess at the value of or perhaps appraise with a bit of natural wisdom. This means they have to go sell these treasures before they can buy supplies or weapons. A silver ring with bloodstones might sell for 100 gold coins. Or maybe 500. Do you know the value of a jeweler’s craftsmanship? Is it an elven ring or a dwarven ring? That matters to some players and some merchants.

  • Take breaks: As a dungeon master, don’t feel bad about needing to step away to use the bathroom. Thirsty? Take 5 and get some lemonade. Hungry? Go on a food run and give yourself 20 minutes to quickly map out a dungeon. If your game session will likely go for 5 or more hours then breaks are necessary for the dungeon master. Running a prepared game is exhausting. Having to develop the game as you play can easily be overwhelming. Are your players about to visit temple ruins in the middle of a jungle? A food run can give you time to figure out a boss monster, a few traps, a few quirks, and some treasure.

Improvising a game is an experience I heartily recommend a dungeon master engage in. Hopefully some of these tips can help in any game, however.

Papa Farmane.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

How Death is a Good Thing

I have an evil party that I play with but they tend to be more like a traveling theatre troupe. They pretend and play at being evil because it serves their true purpose: acquiring money. If there were more money in being good they would do it. I can respect that. Who can’t? Gold is awesome.

My other group I DM for has tried to be very good most days. They kill villains who were truly evil, they help the innocent with only a little monetary incentive, and they are willing to listen to neutral characters rather than kill them outright.

But this Friday … something changed.

Their healer was a Cleric of Tyr, God of Justice. He’s been fairly grounded as a source of good and law in the party who will only take a life if they’re guilty of a crime. To evil, he is a target. Something that needs to be taken out in terms of story and roleplaying. Since he’s the party’s healer, he makes himself a target in terms of game mechanics as well.

By this latest game he has died 5 times and been brought back each time. I believe in permanent injuries and consequences for dying so after his fifth visit to the beyond he lost the ability to see into the color spectrum but he gained the ability to detect traces of magic. But I also think that shuffling off the mortal coil weakens your soul’s ability to resist darkness and temptation. That’s the sort of thing Evil Gods might take advantage of.

Scene: The party has just incited a loose alliance of dragon cults into an all out brawl. Blue, Red, and Black Dragon cultists are going insane. Kobolds are chanting “Tiamat! Tiamat! Tiamat!” and the blue dragonborn mercenaries they hired are trying to get everything under control. One of the young blue dragons under their command is trying to eliminate problems as they come and the party is trying to escape out a narrow canyon exit with fifty prisoners. The young dragon decides they are his target.

The dragon unleashes the full brunt of his lightning on the escaping prisoners and the cleric steps in to intervene. That’s when the cleric gets his right eye and the right half of his face eaten off. Who’s there in the afterlife to offer him a second chance? Bane, God of Tyranny. Not Tyr, God of Justice.

So now the party has an Evil Cleric Healer who considers the death of all dragons his end goal. His ideas clash beautifully with the Paladin of Bahamut, the Good Dragon God, who just wants to kill evil dragons.

None of this was planned. I could never have planned this. But sometimes you need to give players the option of turning their character into something bigger and badder. In real life, trauma and life-changing events can give us the need to reflect and reassess. Dying is a great opportunity to give a roleplayer the opportunity to try something new and different and a little bit crazy. Here’s my advice.

Offer players a way out of death - This is advice from Chris “my man-crush” Perkins. In his personal games he kills players constantly but he makes certain to do it out of realism and not out of spite. When he kills a player he speaks to that player about whether they want to role a new character or come back with some new trick or intrigue to throw into the party. I think it’s a wonderful system. Perhaps they have to make a deal with a devil to come back to life. If they truly were devout or died while sacrificing themselves then their God might grant them a boon and return them to the world with a mission. A fae creature or an elder god might intervene to gain the allegiance of a servant in the material plane.

Make death a regular occurrence - Your players are going to kill a lot of things in a D&D or other tabletop gaming campaign. Many players are only there for the thrill of combat. But if they think they’re invincible then they will become bored. It doesn’t help that a group of players can often outsmart and out-power a fully grown dragon. Make sure to kill a player when you have the chance. If zombies drop a character unconscious they are likely to begin eating them, not move on to the next potential snack. Bandits are only noble if they think they can sell a prisoner back to someone. Otherwise, they don’t need the hassle of prisoners. Monsters don’t need prisoners, either, they need food. Main villains should burn babies and eat villages … wait.

But make death matter - A player that dies and is brought back should have consequences. Whether that death was their fault or the party’s fault, there must be consequences for failure. A permanent injury, the loss of a magical item, a decrease in max hit points or an ability score, or any other action on your part that punishes the player without scolding them. For example, I like taking hands from Fighters, Paladins, and Barbarians and giving them magical replacements that aren’t quite right. It’s a punishment, it’s a roleplay opportunity, and it makes the game a bit more interesting. Magic-users should get something that tinkers with magic.

Sorry for two months of silence but life sometimes gets in the way.

And other times we’re just pretty lazy.

Papa Farmane