Understanding First level.

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So this may seem like an odd topic to cover. I mean we all know what a Level one character is right? well time and time again I see many players do not truly grasp the concept. It is mostly apparent in their backstory or attitude during role play. Now do not get me wrong, every player is new at some point or another, so these kinds of things can be expected (to some degree) in the fledgling role player, but I see it in more seasoned players too, and who quiet frankly should understand this better. And thus the reason for my article.

Character Creation and Back Story.

Lets begin at character creation. Now regardless of which order you choose to do things, be it pick race first, class first, roll stats first etc. You inevitably come up with a basic level one character. Too me however the character backstory should be interwoven during character creation, and thought out as you create the character. If you are playing a version that uses skill points for example, where you spend these points should be indicative of what your character has learned growing up so far. His attributes should influence the backstory as well, and if he has a high strength or intelligence, the back story should in part explain its former development. Now I know I am going on about backstory here, and you are right, this is not an article about creating back stories for your character, that being said it does require some brief attention.

A level one character is untested. He has no real experience at his chosen craft or career, and he has only his former life to draw from. A back story for a level one character should be thought out carefully. aspects like “He spent a year working for the local militia”, indicate some experience with combat and weapons training. It can justify his weapon and armor proficiency. However if it were to read “He spent many years as a sergeant in the militia,” it would suggest some real experience. He spent several years in service and rose to a higher rank, so it is not likely he did so without surviving some scuffles, being involved in some battles and arresting some criminals. “I toiled over my masters spell books when he was not looking” indicates some basic interest and understanding of magic, where as “I studied and practiced my magical arts for years, and accompanied several adventurers on their quests,” would suggest much more experience. The point here is to think about the basics. Your character has only a basic entry level understanding or apprentice level of aptitude. Also do not forget that experience is not directly tied to skills and talents and proficiency but to life in general. If your character has a vast array of life experiences in the back story, it is not likely he learned nothing from it and again it seems unlikely he would be a level one character. If you are creating a higher level character then naturally your back story should reflect his experiences in getting to the level he is currently at, but as a level one character his experiences should be limited.

Attitude and outlook.

The biggest area that I see players fall down on with their shiny new level one character is in the way they role play his attitude and outlook on life. Again he is untested in many ways so it is not likely that he will valiantly and fearlessly dive in to battle with the first Orc marauder he sees. He would probably be wary, scared and apprehensive. Only after several encounters and victories is he likely to become more sure of himself and less afraid. The first time he descends into a dark crypt, and hears the creaking of a coffin lid as it is raised by some undead creature should send shivers up his spine and make his skin crawl with fear. Yet time and time again I see people playing their level one characters as brave and sure as a level ten battle tested knight. At level one, you need to allow your character to feel. Feel scared, feel apprehensive, feel anxious. The exploration of these feelings will go along way to shaping your character and making him become a believable entity with depth as apposed to a shallow shell of numbers and statistics, (which I am sorry to say is the category where the majority or characters fall). Not only is is more believable to role play out these feelings but its fun. Another thing to consider is how naive and limited their outlook on life should be. Now of course you have to consider different racial aspects here, (as even a young barely mature elf may have lived one hundred and thirty years) but in general their lack of worldly exposure should be considered and taken into account during play. On a side note, I strongly suggest new players either do not play non human races or at least do their research first. I am not fond of players who chose to play a Demi-human race, get the racial benefits, and then proceed to play it like a human. You have a diverse cultural background at your disposal so EXPLORE IT!

Creating the back story and personality for your level one character is fun. We often like to make them exciting and interesting, but hold up a little. The biggest part of their life and the most exciting part is yet to come. This is the part that you are going to explore through play. Its OK for your character to be average or unexciting at the start. Its alright if he has no deep dark secrets. All this will come as you play through campaigns and adventures. Think of a novel that has a single main protagonist. The author does not spent chapters developing the past of the character (although many will give you a glimpse into their past). Instead the character develops throughout the story. Now, do not misunderstand me. It is OK to have some meaningful or even powerful events in your characters past prior to beginning his adventuring life, but its so easy to become cliche. Also think about the event you wish to have your character part of. How much should he have learned from these events, and should it have been significant enough that its no longer believable that he is only level one because of it?

When I do one shot adventures I am always wary of what bizarre and unbelievable back stories players are going to present for their characters. For a one shot (while often I cringe) I can live with it. For an ongoing campaign, I can not. I always get involved as my players create their characters, and make sure that some basic guide lines are observed. When it comes to our live show Howreroll, I have to be involved more so. Much as a director or producer has to be for a play or movie. Because we are creating stories for people to watch and enjoy (rather than just for our own amusement), We must maintain some elements of control, and we need to be sure the characters FIT.

In closing it is important to remind yourself about your characters range of experiences leading up to becoming a level one character. Focus as much on what he has NOT done, as you do on what he has done. Remember he is not just defined by his lack of skills, talents or proficiency but by his general lack of life experience and explored opportunities. Enjoy role playing the level one personality, not just the level one statistics………

 

Reactions to other player actions in D&D

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This seems to be a topic of controversy among the Role Playing community. That moment when a player declares their Character performs an action, and another member of the party does not like it, so says something like “I stop her doing that!” How exactly does that work? Can another character react fast enough to prevent an others action? How does the Dungeon Master handle it? We are going to look at this in depth in this article.

Well firstly lets look at what a reaction is. A reaction is an action performed or a feeling experienced in response to a situation or event. We are specifically looking at issues arising from dealing with a physical action. To do this we are going to break this down into two categories. We have primary and secondary reactions. A primary reaction is when you react to something directly happening to you. A secondary reaction is when you react to something happening to someone else.

Lets look at a scenario that arose during a recent gaming session on Howreroll. Marlowe ( a Monk), had been tricked into fighting in a Gladiatorial Arena. She was contracted to fight three combats in the stead of another person who would most certainly not survive. In her third fight, her opponent (The champion of the Arena), informed her that he did not wish to fight her, but had been told that if he did not, they would kill his wife and child. Marlowe defeated him and then went to see the Judiciary over the Arena to have her freedom granted. Radovan, ( a cleric of St. Cuthbert) was with her. Believing the Judiciary responsible for the threat against her opponents family, Marlowe struck the man with her fist. Radovan cringed at this as striking a Noble was a serious offense in this area. So in this situation what could anyone have done?

Well lets look at both the Primary and Secondary aspects of this situation.

In the Primary reaction we are looking at the Judiciary. He is reacting directly to a quick action that is being performed upon him. In this situation several things come into play. Firstly lets look at WHO is performing the action. In this case it is a tenth level Monk, a skilled unarmed combatant with lightning fast reflexes. She knows how to throw a punch. She can strike swiftly, accurately and without telegraphing it. The person who is to react to this is Judiciary, a nobleman who has lead a soft and privileged life. So in this instance their is little likelihood that he has much chance of reacting at all. Now if he had been a skilled combatant he could have read the intent (possibly with a successful Sense Motive skill check) and been able to dodge, parry or slip the punch. he may have even been able to counter. Also there was no real emotional situation as Marlowe offered no threats, performed no posturing and threw the punch extremely unexpectedly. Again, If she had been verbally threatening him, and had been acting aggressively, he would have had some indication that a possible attack was coming.

To give some point of validity to this, I have been involved in the combat world on a professional level for most of my life, and in my twenties worked in close personal protection and worked the door of a few night clubs in England. If you are trained and aware you can read an attack and react to it! Even the untrained will have defense reflexes that will at least allow them to cover up or shy away from a strike. The term “sucker punch” is often used to describe an unprovoked or blind sided attack. Typically these connect because the intended target is unaware of the attackers intent.

The process on a physical level for reacting to a strike is as follows. Your eyes must acknowledge that their is a strike coming towards you. they then relay that message to your brain, which intern triggers your muscles to react and allow you to attempt to block or evade the strike. This all happens in a fraction of a second. Trained combatants have faster reaction times in these situations and therefore react quicker and are more able to respond in time. Untrained people are much less likely to react in time.

In the case of the Primary reaction, whether or not someone can react is based on many factors. In Dungeons and Dragons players verbalize what their intended actions are. For example, the player controlling the Monk (Marlowe), could have said to the other players and the Dungeon Master, “I am gonna slug this guy.” This informs everyone else at the game that her Monk is intent on performing an attack. She could have also said, “Marlowe says I am gonna slug this guy!” which would have indicated that her character vocalized her intent before performing the action. Again this offers different degrees of ability and chance to react. In any case the Primary reaction lies with the person she intends to strike. And as we just examined if he is skilled and aware, or even has reason to anticipate the possible action, their is every chance he can react in some way other than getting hit and laid out by the punch.

Now lets look at the Secondary reaction. In this case that action lies with Radovan. Our Cleric found himself in a situation where I feel sure he would have like to have prevented the actions of Marlowe if he had the opportunity. Did he have an opportunity to stop Marlowe? or was their realistically nothing he could do in this instance?

A secondary reaction is very different than a Primary reaction. Firstly it offers a much longer processing time before the reaction can take place. In the example we are using, assuming Radovan was close enough to Marlowe to intercept her (which he was), his mental processing would have gone as follows. He sees Marlowe begin to throw the punch. His eyes send that information to his brain. His brain then has to acknowledge that it wants to interact. The brain then sends the message to the muscles to move and Radovan can then react. The big issue here is the processing time for deciding that he wants to react. This is not an personal instinctual defensive reaction. It is a desired responsive reaction. It takes longer for these actions to be processed by the brain. In this case his only real chance of successfully reacting is if he has prior awareness that the attack is intended.

In this situation Radovan was also behind Marlowe, which means he had no chance to read her facial expression, and limited chance to read body language. If he had been looking at her face, a successful sense motive skill check could have lead him to realize she was becoming aggressive, and as such he could have rushed in to restrain or intercept Marlowe. In this case Marlowe gave no indication of her intent, she did not act or appear aggressive (until she actually struck), and being a skilled unarmed combatant, moved with lightning speed. It is clear that without the use of some kind of previously applied divination magic, there was no way for Radovan to react.

This is of course only one example, and it shows how the ability to perform a successful Primary or Secondary reaction is based on many factors.

In other situations a player may say something like “I stop him before he says that!” Again we are looking at a Secondary reaction and your chance to cut in, distract or even muffle the words before spoken require that you have adequate warning that they are about to say what they are going to say. A more correct method would be to acknowledge that in this situation a particular character is prone to acting in a certain way, and taking steps to prevent the character from being in a position to say the kind of things you would want to prevent. I often hear things like “Before he says that, or before he does that I….” In these cases a player often has no time in which to have even been aware of what the intended action was, so in many ways it can be meta gaming. That being said there are many situations where a player may have reason to expect an action and be justified in their attempt to intercept.

As you can see it is clearly not a cut and dry, can or can not subject.

The situation of Primary and Secondary reactions must apply to Non Player Characters too! As the Dungeon Master you also have to consider these things when deciding how your minions can react to the players actions. This can not be a one way street.

To conclude I will draw on a few situations from my past that I feel exemplify what we are discussing in a real world setting.

One evening I was picking up a friend from work, it was very late and I parked my vehicle and went to the front door of where he worked to wait on him. The front door was glass, and was set inside a small covered alcove with two steps leading up to it. I was standing on the first step and was leaning in to peer through the glass. my right leg was stretched out behind me as a counter balance as I leaned. Suddenly I felt my rear leg kicked and as I turned around two clearly drunk men were standing behind me, and one was about to lunge at me. Being drunk their actions were slow and easily interpreted. I wont go into the details of what followed, but lets just say I was able to anticipate and react to the situation and came to no ill harm.

Another time I witnessed two individuals get into a verbal altercation. One of the men had a friend standing next to him. As the situation became more heated, the man who was accompanied by a comrade suddenly attempted to throw a punch at his verbal sparring partner. His friend anticipated this move and grabbed him before he was able to truly let fly. he was able to do because the situation had slowly escalated and it was becoming probable that the action was about to happen. He was already prepared to react.

In the third and final anecdote I will share I witnessed a man walk into a bar, smile and say hi to a few friends, slowly walk over to a table and then promptly smack a gentleman in the mouth. I was a good twenty feet away so clearly their was nothing I could do but say What the FU*K! The man who was struck was sitting with three friends all of whom were in range to react but did not. Why? well because their was absolutely no warning that the fellow in question was about to attack. I am sure it was over some past indiscretion by the foul language and words that were exchanged as the other three men dove into action to separate the two involved in the altercation. While they did react, they were reacting AFTER the punch had been thrown and had connected. They were aware the situation was even going to arise prior too.

As a player, try to utilize circumstance and ask yourself if your character realistically can react based on what the CHARACTER is aware of and not you, the player are aware of. As A Dungeon Master evaluate the circumstances to determine if your players reaction is a valid and justifiable course of action, as well as remembering to consider all these factors where it applies to your minions. Happy Gaming.

 

 

How to handle the non physical stats.

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So in almost every Role Playing Game you have statistics or ability scores. Those numbers that are used to measure how strong, smart, quick, good looking, wise, lucky, educated and so on your Character is. These statistics typically relate to influencing the chance of performing certain actions or skills during a game session. Now the physical stats like (in Dungeons and Dragons) Strength, Dexterity and Constitution, are easy to Role Play. Its not hard to describe how your character with a seventeen Constitution runs at a good pace for twenty miles, or how your character with a high Strength, busts open a door with his shoulder. The challenge comes when we deal with the mental stats like Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma (yes Charisma is partly a mental stat). This article is going to examine and address an age old problem in Role Playing games, and that is how does a person Role Play a character that is gifted or blessed in the mental department when the player himself is lacking.

Lets start by breaking down exactly what each of the three mental stats are and what they encompass.

Intelligence.

Intelligence in Dungeons and Dragons determines how well your character learns and reasons. It represents your characters ability to analyze information and the depth of complexity in which the character thinks.

Wisdom.

Wisdom determines your characters common sense, perception and intuition. It also relates to how much willpower your character has.

Charisma.

Charisma is a measure of your personality, personal magnetism, persuasiveness, leadership ability and physical attractiveness.

I will point out here that I personally believe that physical attractiveness should be a separate stat, but for this article that is neither here nor there.

In Dungeons and Dragons the typical range (before modifiers) of these Ability scores is between three and eighteen (the result of rolling three six sided dice). A three Intelligence for example is on par with an IQ of about 57, while an eighteen is about 143. A character with a three wisdom is largely oblivious to the world around him and just drifts through life, where as a character with an eighteen is extremely intuitive. In the case of Charisma, a three represents the social skills of a sponge and looks of that guy from the hills have eyes, while an eighteen represents someone with real personal magnetism, great personality and incredible good looks.

This is where my earlier point comes into play, I know some very good looking people with limited social skills, and some that look like they got hit with the ugly stick who have great personalities.

So where is the issue with this. The issue arises when a player is not particularly smart and he is playing a character that is highly Intelligent, what happens when the player can not see the answer to a solution, but believes his genius Wizard should be able too. Or someone who has limited tact and social skills is playing a Sorceress with very high Charisma, yet just does not have the skill set personally to bring that out in the Character. As the Dungeon Master do you test the Character or the Player? Do you allow the player to fall back on his Ability Scores and simply roll dice, and if so what happens to the Role Playing aspect?

Firstly in some cases the game mechanics do take care of this. For example, if you want to make a knowledge skill check, it pulls a modifier from your Intelligence ability score. Or in the case of Intimidate it will take the modifier from your Charisma ability score. Other times however the mechanics do not have a solution, and this is where the dice stop getting rolled and the Characters start getting Role Played.

Now you can (if you really want a mechanical and personality lacking game) roll for everything. Example. DUNGEON MASTER: “You see a strange looking mosaic on the floor. It appears that many of the tiles are not in the correct place. The door on the other side is firmly shut and has no handle!” PLAYER ONE:”I bet we have to solve the puzzle to open the door. OK Tom, your Wizard has a seventeen Intelligence, you solve the puzzle.” PLAYER TWO: “What Do I need to roll to solve the puzzle?” “The difficulty is a sixteen for this one.”

Of course the fun for all concerned is in the players actually solving the puzzle themselves, but what if they just can not solve it. What if they do not have the IQ that their characters have and make tough work of something that in theory their characters should have been able to solve easily. As a Dungeon Master where do you go at this point? Should you have created a puzzle or a situation on par with what the characters should be able to deal with, or should you have created it on par with what you believe your players could deal with?

Firstly I want to say that peoples opinions on this are going to vary, and there is no finite correct answer to this one. However there are several different options that you can use to deal with these situations, and the goal is to detail some of them and hopefully help you find the solution you feel happiest with.

My personal opinion (and that is all it is, so don’t get your Dungeon Master panties in a wad if you disagree) is we are playing a game, first and foremost. That implies that the PLAYERS are playing the game and not the characters. With this in mind my goal is always to “test” the players. I test their Role Playing skills as well as their mental talents with various situations, encounters and problems. I hate it when a player asks to use an ability roll to solve something that should be resolved through Role Playing and story telling. Sometimes however I over estimate my players and they get stumped. Now there is nothing worse than a game session where players just sit around and struggle to solve a problem. They get frustrated and bored, and often forget that while they detest the idea of toiling over a puzzle for thirty minutes, the situation their characters are in, feels very different to the character and they would be more motivated. Sooner or later this will happen to you and you will be faced with a dilemma. My usual approach to these situations is as follows.

Firstly when I create a puzzle or problem, I always make sure there is an out. It may not be an attractive one, but there always is one. For Example. I created a scenario during the Children of Drakhar campaign I ran on Howreroll. My party had a wealth of magical items at their finger tips, but had to solve a puzzle to get their greedy little hands on them. There was a one way portal out of the chamber, so they could leave at anytime. Now of course they did not want to leave, but they were able too. The key point here is they had an out. If I had made it to where they could not leave without solving the puzzle, I basically presented them with a solve it or die problem. You may be OK with that, but I never like to present players with no win situations. Alternatively you can present those kind of problems as a side room or encounter. Offer a reward if they solve it, but no detriment if they do not. Another option is to set an amount of experience points for the problem, and allow them to burn some of that EXP for hints. The hints get progressively stronger as the EXP goes down. Finally you CAN always allow them to roll against a Statistic, but inform them that there is no Experience point reward for solving it that way.Whichever method you use, you can still test the player first, and allow them to fall back on the characters ability scores as a last resort.

When it comes to social situations and the Role Playing of Charisma, it can be a bit more tricky. Some situations can be resolved by a dice roll such as a Diplomacy or Intimidation skill check, but even then its a ROLE PLAYING GAME PEOPLE so Role Play the situation! In the situations I like to let the Role Play happen first and then based on how well that went I apply my own modifiers. In 3.5 I may give a plus or minus to the skill roll based on how well they Role Played the interaction. In 5e I may give advantage or disadvantage. You still run into the issue of a player with poor social skills failing where his character with high Charisma should not have, but it is still a game so you have to allow the players to play and their performance in the game yields the consequences for their character. Another option, is to consider the characters Charisma ability score during the interaction, and be more lenient to a player who has a character with high Charisma. In other words, if they are talking to a Non Player Character, and what they said could be taken in more than one way, always let him take it the right way instead of the wrong way. Or visa versa if they have a low Charisma Score. This way the player still controls the interaction, but his characters ability scores still come into play.

I will wrap this up by repeating that I know this is a topic for contention, and is it right to test the player or the character? Well I think it is a choice of personal preference. I prefer to test the Player, for the reasons I stated above. This being said, I will not condemn  anyone that prefers the other route. What I do know from my decades running games, is that testing the players ALWAYS yields a much better Role Playing experience and a better story……………….

 

 

 

 

 

Character creation & development. Thinking outside the box.

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So we all know that in most editions of Dungeons and Dragons there are just some skills, talents, feats or abilities that seem to rise to the top. For example a fighter in 3.5 just about has to take the desired weapon focus and specializations for his weapon of choice, and feats like power attack and cleave are almost impossible to ignore. So more often than not we start too see the same old fighter, rogue and wizard rising to the surface, with only the alignment, race and the way they are role played to offer diversity. Well of course if you are going to play in a min max environment, then you are going to take whatever feats you can to make you as bad ass as possible right? Most people immediately gravitate towards making their character powerful. However in this topic I am going to challenge you to think outside the box and remember that the best part of any role playing game, is the role playing itself!

Now when you create your character you have a wealth of options available to you, but yet most people only concentrate on getting big stats, and feats or talents etc that make their character Mr awesome. I have had many epic characters (stat and ability wise) in the past three plus decades and many gimp ones. The most boring character I ever played was a Knight who was seriously over powered. At the time I fell foul to the same trap as many and continued to take him down a development path to ultimate power. The luster of slaughtering every foe wore of quick and what was left was the fun of role playing his personality. In contrast the most fun I ever had was with a one armed thief with poor stats. He was so much fun to role play, and the failures he had were down right entertaining, while his successes were more epic due to his minimal chance of victory.

When you create your character, other than selecting a race and maybe the base class, you should begin by write his or her back story. I know many people write the back story after the character has been created, but doing it first will change the outcome of your decisions. A point about race selection. If you are going to be demi-human then for the love of Gygax make sure your character feels demi-human! Do not play it like its a human with special abilities. Explore the culture of the race in your character creation process, and let that be a part of who they are. Go back to your characters childhood and decide on things that happened to him that shaped his personality and desires. Put thought into his past life before becoming an adventurer, and then take this well developed story and decide where he would have gone next. At this point you can begin building the character, but instead of picking the “go too” talents for your class, pick ones that make sense for him to have acquired. Spend skill points based on experiences and not just on what skills make you the most effective.  It can be challenging to do this, as often you will be picking situational abilities that may be great at times but not as commonly used as something like Dodge, and the desire to be a powerful combatant will need to be repressed.

In regards to stats. Just because a clerics prime stat is wisdom, should he always put his highest stat in that ability? what if his wisdom was just adequate, but he decided to be smart and use his head as much if not more than his divinity? What if a fighter decided to make dexterity his highest stat, and use light weapons and go for feats like weapon finesse instead? Would a swashbuckler or duelist emerge instead?

As your character develops and levels, try to think about the tasks he performed, and the situations he went through, and spend skill points and pick feats that reflect them. Do this instead of picking the next logical feat that improves his bad assness. Try selecting non common feats for your character. Feats like improve trip or improved sunder are often ignored, but they can bring a lot of diversity and fun to the game and make your character something different from the norm.

In our current Howreroll campaign “The Children of Drakhar” , we have a female monk with some interesting ability choices. I am very interested in seeing how this character develops, and already her choice of improved trip has proven far more useful than something like cleave.

With a non standard character design your options for role playing this character will change. When this happens you will find you are able to embrace a different personality for the character, and as such break from the cliche. The fun to be had role playing a weak or less than perfect character, or just being different is far greater than that when your warrior kills an ogre in one attack round.

Giving your character a few quirks, even if they offer some type of disadvantage (like only having one eye) can give depth and open new doors when it comes to role playing the character. Choosing to be hard of hearing may mean you take a penalty to your listen checks, but it could be fun in certain social situations.

The characters I remember most from my years of gaming are the ones that were different and stood out. Not because they had max stats and were seemingly invincible, but because they were memorable due to being different and the unique quality they brought to the gaming session. For example. The Green Flash was a ranger who acted like a super hero. Bruce Custard was a Halfling chef and barber who fought primarily with a sling. Thaal was a barbarian that used to rip enemies apart bare handed. Tom “Nubby” Denton was a one armed human thief. Lindsafel was an overly compassionate and gullible female Druid. Fritzgig the bull headed dwarf, that played chicken with a charging Rhino and liked to headbutt his enemies. All these characters stick with me due to their interesting quirks and not their effectiveness in a situation. In fact many times Nubby Denton failed as a thief, and his failings out numbered his successes by far. Thaal could have done more damage with a two handed axe, yet when he lost his temper and just waded in fist firsts, it was far more memorable. And the Green flash was so full of himself and loud in both personality and appearance that he stood out like a sore thumb in any wilderness setting.

In time the joys of playing a powerful character fade, and you look back and do not even remember the names of the characters you played, or met along the way. That being said some will stick with you for ever. For me it has always been the ones that broke the mold or challenged the norm. Seeing the joy those characters bring to a gaming session can not be quantified for me as a Dungeon Master, and I am always willing to work with any player that wants to bring something “unusual” to the table, as long as it is going to improve the story and enrich every ones experience at the gaming table.

My challenge to any player is “make me believe in your reality”. I want to know without asking why you performed a certain action. I want to understand who you are and why you do what you do. I lose interest in cliche characters that act based on what is “best” for themselves all the time.

Learning how to create a good character is more than just knowing what stats to put where and what feats or skills make you optimal. I cringe at the growing movement for optimal character builds, and the way people are encouraged in making their characters like its something from a video game. A pen and paper role playing game character needs to have many more levels to it than just its stats, skills, feats and abilities.

Try building your next character outside the box, and really “going for it” in a role playing sense. You wont be sorry…………………

About the Mechanics. Initiative.

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About the Mechanics is a new series of topics where we will discus and examine a particular aspect of the game mechanics and how and when to use them. Now this may seem redundant and you may be thinking “well I already know how to use the game mechanics, what is there to discuss? Well hear me out and keep reading….

In this post we are going to look at Initiative. Initiative is what determines the order in which players and Non Player Characters act in an encounter. Depending on what edition of Dungeons and Dragons you are playing, typically you will be rolling a D20 and adding or subtracting a modifier from the roll. For example in 3.5 Edition you may have Plus two from your dexterity bonus, and the improved initiative feat, giving you total plus six to your Twenty sided dice roll. Usually you roll initiative at the start of combat, and then that order stands for its duration. The Dungeon Master will roll for the adversaries in the encounter and then the order of action for all involved will be determined. Some Dungeon Masters may choose to roll initiative for every single Non Player Character or monster in the encounter, others may roll once for them all, or once for all types. I personally roll for each type and separately for leaders or key Non Player Characters such as leaders. For example if my players face four orcs, four goblins and an Ogre, I would roll once for the orcs, once for the goblins and once for the ogre. Combat can be hectic enough to keep track of without having a ton of different initiative numbers to keep track off.

OK so why do I feel a blog post needs to be dedicated to this mechanic? well it is not the mechanic itself that I want to discuss, but WHEN to say that well known phrase “Roll for initiative!” You see when the Dungeon Master utters those words, everything changes. The players mood changes, their attitude changes and the tension level changes. The rolling of initiative typically marks the beginning of combat. No matter where your players heads were at, unless they were already hell bent on a fight, telling them to Roll for initiative is almost like ringing the bell in a boxing match and is going to start a fight. If they were thinking of trying a diplomatic solution, or evading the encounter, being told to roll initiative kind of implies the fight is on, and will most likely stop the characters from continuing with other courses of action, and just wade in to battle. On the other hand if you do not ask your players to roll for initiative your players may perceive that the encounter may not be intended for combat, or that the Non Player Characters they are facing are not hostile. This of course may be totally wrong and then, when the Bad guys suddenly jump the players they may be upset that you did not give them a chance to roll for initiative to begin with.

Rolling or requesting a roll for initiative also drastically changes the mood and mindset of the game and the players at that point. If I (as the Dungeon Master) ask them to roll for initiative during a heated discussion, it snaps the tension bar and says to the players “OK FIGHT”! This may rob them of any continued diplomatic efforts or role playing options. In my story I never want to alter the natural flow, feel or atmosphere of the game at an inappropriate time. If I am going to ask them to roll for initiative, I want it to be the epic start of the conflict and battle and not disrupt a flow of negotiation or exploration of non combat options.

I know some Dungeon Masters that like to PRE roll initiative. They get each player to roll a number of times prior to the game session and then use them in order for each encounter (applying modifiers as needed at that time). This is not a bad idea, but I feel it also offers to take away some of the epic tension moments that arise as combat is about to kick off.

My solution is to never prompt a roll for initiative without a combative or aggressive declaration first. Either I will say something like “The ogre rushes towards you, with his club raised high, intent on crushing your skull”, or a player will declare that they are engaging in some way. At that time, I will often say “EVERYONE roll for initiative to determine the order should it be needed”, or just ask the specific individual who chooses to enter combat to roll, depending on the current situation. I use descriptive language and I roll play demeanor and intent to let my players know how an encounter is going. They can tell by my voice and actions if a negotiation is going sour and a fight may be imminent.They can then choose to act first if they wish or wait and see what happens. Either way I am not going to request an initiative roll until a blow or spell or other timed action is about to take place. It can be hard enough to get the correct feel for an encounter, without ruining the immersion by bringing game mechanics to the fore front. This is why I do not mention the initiative roll, until it is one hundred percent clear that it is now required.

Initiative can also be used in non combat situations of course to determine the speed of almost simultaneous actions. I remember one time I was running an encounter where everyone tried to rush through a door first. The situation leading up to that lead everyone to the same conclusion and each player (in turn around the tabletop) declared the same action. So I had them roll initiative to see who has the faster reflexes in that situation and got their foot in the door first. If I had said prior to the declaration of intent “OK I want each of you to roll for initiative” I guarantee they would have all stopped and hesitated, as they as players would have expected a possible combat, even though there had been nothing to suggest that to their characters. Even those that try hard not to meta game, still fall foul to a change in emotion and may act differently when lead to expect something is going to happen.

In closing, treat initiative as the mechanical resolution to an in game declaration. It should not be requested before it is needed, and the Dungeon master should do his job properly and allow the scene to imply weather or not it may be imminently required. It should be the last thing to happen before a sword be swung, a fireball be cast or a dagger thrown. If you do not care about the feel and immersion of your game, then I guess it matters less to you when to request a roll. I live to tell a story, and not play a game. I believe in immersion over mechanics and Role Playing over ROLL playing. If a dice is going to be rolled it better be for a good reason, and as it is almost always going to determine the outcome of an action, I want the appropriate tension level to be present when it is rolled.

happy Gaming……

Gorebad.

Controlling your Emotions in a Role Playing Game.

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As a Game Master or Player in any Role Playing Game, we have the opportunity to become something other than ourselves. We are afforded a chance to be a powerful wizard, a space marine, a great warrior or even a dragon. As we play out these roles we act in a manner different than our own true nature right?

Well truth be told while most of us do in fact “play” the character or Non Playing Character and give them a twist of personality, many of us inject our own subliminal character traits into said character without much thought or control. Often we will allow our own emotions that we feel as the player, directly influence the actions of the character. In many cases this is not a bad thing, as if we feel empathy to a situation, then maybe our character would too, or If we feel saddened by something that occurs during the game, maybe our character is upset also. For example. Recently during a game session on Howreroll two of our heroes were faced with a dilemma to acquire the song of a Siren. They needed it as a bargaining chip to free a fellow part member and sister to one of the characters. They made a deal with the Siren, that they would find and return to her a stolen heirloom, in exchange for her voice (that she would sing into a magical box that they had been given). Upon returning to her with the heirloom it was time for her to make good on her part of the bargain. She was very emotional about parting with her voice and as such the players began to feel guilty, So much did I pull at their heart strings (sad back ground music and all), that one of the players actually teared up. Her character in turn became very emotional and it made for a great moment of role play.

I have also had many other occasions when a player allowed their negative emotions to affect the decisions of their character. Either the player getting mad at an influential Non Player Character (or me as I am the one playing it), and then in turn their character reacts in a foolish way or in a way that really should not have been characteristic of that particular character. I have also had situations when a player who has had a bad day, projects his grumpiness on his character and as such the character is short and snappy in his responses to others. When the negative emotion of a player is allowed to affect the choices made by their character, it often leads to issues at the gaming table. Poor choices and decisions are made, where calmer and less emotional people would have chosen better ones.

The unchecked emotions of a person can have a negative influence on game play both as a player and as a Game Master. We will look at both separately, but several of the points we will touch upon apply to both sides. Then we will look at ways to help control the situation so that it does not have a negative impact on play.

Controlling your Emotions as a player.

As a player you have a character that you are in control of. This character is represented by statistics, skills, abilities and traits that provide the understanding for the make up of the individual you are playing. He may also have an alignment (in the case of Dungeons and Dragons) that lay out some basic guidelines to how he should act. Beyond that the personality of the character is decided upon and played out by the player himself. Everyone is different. Some people are laid back while others are bold. Some are quiet while others are loud and boisterous. The challenge is in playing a character that does not match up to our own personality. Its easier for a quiet and timid bookworm to play a withdrawn and reclusive wizard, just as it is easy for an outgoing and confident person to play a bold and brash warrior. For the bookworm to play the “in your face” Barbarian, that is the challenge. To see him be able to  act in a fashion that he typically shy’s away from is more outreaching. The test for a player comes in being able to separate the feeling he has as the player and decide if those feelings are appropriate for his character. To do this it requires you to be able to take control of your personal feelings and emotions and put in your own stop checks.

Firstly if you are one of those people that can be honest with yourself and are able to understand your personality, then you are far more likely to be able to take steps to control it. Some people have issues with confrontation, or have a problem keeping their temper in check as in the player I mentioned in a previous post that you can find here. Of course in that post it was more an issue with the temper of the player around the table and not that he injected his temper into his character. More frequently the issue is that the player allows his personality to affect the actions of his character. I have even seen a very negative individual try to play a Paladin, and it be one of the worst portrayals of that class that I have ever seen. in fact after only four sessions his Paladin lost his abilities and fell from grace. Sometimes even the most level headed and positive individual has a bad day. Being able to put that in check when you sit down at the gaming table is important. Bringing negative emotions to the game can literally get you killed!

It is vitally important to remember that the Non Player Character you face is NOT the Dungeon Master! If you are ticked at your Dungeon Master you should not transfer that to each and every Non Player Character he presents you with. In turn you should not be aggravated at your Dungeon Master just because a particular Non Player Character got under your skin. It is a foolish player that does this, and it will only ever serve to hurt your character in the long run.

Many people have an Ego. An ego at the gaming table is rarely a good thing. Keeping your ego in check is important, even if your character has a big ego. Your personal ego will cause you to write checks that your characters body can not cash. Understand that your ego and the characters ego should come from different places. Whatever events that happened in your life to shape your ego are different from the ones that happened to shape the ego of your character. So once again it is important to separate your ego from your characters.

Controlling your emotions as a Game Master.

As the person who is ultimately responsible for the control of the game, you can less afford to have unchecked emotions than a player. If you have read other topics on this site you may have heard me say several time that not everybody should be a dungeon master. This is another reason as to why. If you are the kind of person that can not control your emotions you should never be a Game Master. I mean it, NEVER! There is nothing worse than a Game Master that acts based on feelings towards his players or based on his emotional state that the day has caused.

As the person running the game, it is your job to serve a great game to the players and do so with fairness and impartiality. You must also have the trust of your players. If you can not be impartial you will not have trust and your game will implode. I have seen way to many dungeon masters play favorites, or due to a current negative feeling towards a player they pick on his character. I cringe when I see this. They can try to fob it off with excuses but as a student of personality and as an empathetic person I see right through it.

Here is a hint. If you ever play in one of my games, do not ever think you can fool me by reacting in a certain negative way and then trying to palm it of as “that’s what my character would do.” I see the expressions on players faces as they act, and I can tell when an action is based of off personal emotion state, or made with a level head.

For the Game Master trust is everything. If your players do not trust that your actions will always be fair and impartial then you can not have a good game. I will not play with a Game Master who clearly plays favorites, or with one who is guilty of emotional outbursts. The biggest issue (when discussing emotional control) I see with Game Masters is in unchecked egos. There is no place for an ego in a Game Master. You can be an egotistical prick in real life but if you can not park that ego at the gaming table do not run a game! As a Game Master you can do anything. You can kill the players on a whim so what is there to be egotistical about? The player all know you have the ability to kill them, so you have nothing to prove. This being said it is frightening how many Game Masters have “god” syndrome or feel they need to remind their players of the power they wield. Once again these people have unchecked egos, and they do not have the respect of their players. I actually heard a Game Master say this once. “Hey you better be nice to me, or I will upgrade those six orcs to six trolls and then your fucked!’ He was kind of joking (partially at least), but this was the kind of personality that he had. These kinds of comments are just a reminder to the players that you (the Game master) are god. Well those who think that need to get over themselves and learn what being a Game Master is really about. As I have said before you are more servant than ruler.

So we have outlined the responsibilities of both player and Game Master when it comes to emotion and ego management. It is fair to assume that some of you reading this may have difficulty at times in checking your feelings, and may even be able to own up to times when you have been guilty at the gaming table. Lets look at some ways to help you keep it in check.

  1. Create a ritual that allows you to switch into game mode, and shed the negative aspects of your day. This is one of the reasons I believe a thirty minute pre-game session is a good idea, as it lets you get the stink of the day off of you and get mentally prepared to play.
  2. STOP and remind yourself before any action that you are NOT your character. It can help you refrain from acting on personal feeling and allow you to rein back in those emotions.
  3. Remember that nothing is personal to the player during the game. The negative things that occur during game play are to the character, and not the player.
  4. Develop and practice trust. Make sure that you remember that the players and Game Master need to have mutual trust, and remind yourself of it before you act.
  5. Remind yourself that it is a game. Yes you can have personal ties to your character but at the end of the day it is still part of a game and the negative things that happen to it should never be allowed to cause negativity in the real world.
  6. Be honest with yourself. Being able to realize when you may be acting in a negative way is important in keeping it in check.
  7. If its that bad DON’T play. If you really are having a hard emotional time of it, then its better to remove yourself from the situation. No one likes missing sessions and in the case of the Game Master we often feel obligated to play even if we do not feel like it. Truth be told if you do play under these circumstances you are probably doing an injustice to your fellow players.

Because Role Playing Games are a social endeavor, it is important to understand how emotions can play such a large part in the outcome and fun of the game. Most of us know better than to be rude to a stranger in real life just because we got a parking ticket ten minutes before, yet many are OK with their character being a total ass to the first Non Player Character they meet, just because they themselves are in a piss poor mood. Remembering that during play, you are responsible for the actions of your character, and his or her actions should be based on their situations and experiences within the game world. They should be unaffected by the events of our world, and by your emotional state…………….

The one with the enraged college student.

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Many years ago I was running a weekly game for a group at my local college. I was attending this particular institute one a week as part of a course I was taking at another learning establishment. Meeting new people was always something I enjoyed, and I was eager as ever to expand my social circle. A few of the other students informed me that they enjoyed tabletop gaming, and asking if I would be interested in running a game after class each week. There were four individuals, three guys and one girl and one of the guys had a friend who was taking another class that he said wanted to join too. We all got together in a vacant classroom and rolled up some characters. The group make up was a Fighter, Magic user, Cleric, Thief and a Barbarian. The game started that following week and my initial impressions were optimistic.

We continued for several weeks. As I recall they were exploring a sunken temple in search of a lost scrying orb that belonged to some priestess. The Party had battles with several undead and a few unsavory underground denizens, but eventually they recovered the orb. It was then that their troubles really started. You see they were not the only ones looking for the orb. An evil warlock was also after the prize, and he set his minions against the players and tried to take it from them before they could deliver it. He succeeded, so now our players had to recover it from him.

This is where the first red flag went up. If you remember I mentioned one of the students in my class wanted to bring along a friend? well the friend became very irate when they lost the orb to the Warlocks minions. Now I would like to make the clear distinction that it was the player and not the character that became irate. He began raising his voice at his displeasure, and slung his pencil and sent several dice flying. The look on the other players (all except his friend) was one of surprise and awkward discomfort. I am sure my face displayed a similar look. When Mr angry realized how everyone was viewing his little outburst, he tried to play it of as role playing his Barbarian, but I do not believe there was a single person who bought that excuse. As it was the end of the game session for that week, we all moved past it and tried to ignore it.

Then next week we were back at it. The party had traveled to the Warlocks citadel and were contemplating how to gain entry and steel back the orb. The players were having an open strategy discussion on how to go about gaining access and a few different ideas were floating around. The thief and Magic user wanted to take the covert approach, and have the thief scale the wall and try to find a way to let the rest of the party in. The Fighter and Cleric wanted a more direct approach, but one which still employed strategy, and the Barbarian wanted to just bust down the gate and charge right in. As the players discussed their various points of view, I could not help but notice that the player who had the little tantrum last week was becoming noticeably agitated. He was fidgeting a good bit and getting a little red faced. He was also struggling to keep his voice at the same volume as the rest of the players. Once again he (speaking as his Barbarian) reiterated his opinion that he could lift the gate and they could charge in, catching the Warlock and his minions by surprise. This is where things turned ugly.

So the Fighter of the group (still being in character), looks at the Barbarian and says something along the lines of “Well this is the kind of stupid and fool hardy plan I would expect from you”! Well Mr angry lost it. He stood up and hurled his D20 at the player who was controlling the fighter. He then threw loud and enraged verbal insults at him and made his way to the end of the table where the other player sat. The player stood up to meet Mr angry, and said “hey, its all in character man don’t take it personally. I am talking to your Barbarian, not you”! “BULLS**T” was Mr angry’s reply and he then shoved him. Everyone got up and moved away from the table, the girl protesting that this was absurd behavior and the situation was clearly out of hand.

I dived in between the two players, and told Mr angry to cool off and that I was not going to tolerate that kind of emotional outburst, let alone anyone getting physical. I called an early end to the session and everyone went home. That evening I called Mr angry’s friend, and told him that his friend was no longer welcome at the game, and did he want me to tell him or would he rather do it. “Oh no you tell him”, was his reply. He then informed me of his friends anger issues, and that he often was the cause of social unrest. I asked him why? if he knew this, would he invite this person along. He told me that he did not so much ask him, as he overheard a discussion about the upcoming game and invited himself.

There are a few lessons to be learned from this:

One. keep your emotions in check. While bringing a little acted emotion to your character is a good thing, allowing actual unchecked emotion to surface is not.

Two. Keep a line of distinction between player and character. If your character is unhappy with the actions of another character, then that displeasure should be confined to within the game.

Three. There should never be a situation where two players allow things to become heated between them. We are all human and as such will have disagreements, but they need to be handled with civility and decorum.

Four. It is the Dungeon Masters responsibility to deal with these situations should they arise. It may become necessary to involve the players in making decisions, but it is ultimately down to the Dungeon Master to finalize and execute.

At the end of the day, A Role Playing Game can be very engaging. It can cause a variety of emotions to rise within us. It is still our responsibility to control those emotions, and if you can’t, well you probably shouldn’t be playing…………………..