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.

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The one when the Paladin died twice!

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I have mentioned this tale a couple of times live on Howreroll, so I figured it was time to tell the entire story with all the juicy details.

Many years ago I was running a game of second Edition Dungeons and Dragons for a group every Tuesday evening. The group of players consisted of a Dwarven Fighter, an Elven Ranger a Human Paladin, a Human Barbarian, and a Human Druidess. The alignments spattered from Lawful Good (in the case of the Paladin) to Chaotic Neutral (the Barbarian). We had been playing a couple of years and had run through many adventures and campaigns including the most excellent “Curse of the Azure Bonds”. During the parties adventures, several times the Barbarians choice of actions would be borderline questionable when it came to the morality of his decisions, and typically the Paladin was there to keep him on the right track and prevent or dissuade him from carrying out his desired plan. Of course, this lead to several arguments between characters, and often the Druidess (being true Neutral) would find herself stuck in the middle playing devils advocate and trying to find the compromise. One such situation arose when they were rescuing a prince from an evil mage, and had to break into a stronghold to free him. On the way in they had a scuffle with a patrol or guards, and after defeating them, took one alive to question for information. Well firstly the Barbarian wanted to “slap him around a bit” to get him to talk, and the Paladin protested this course of action and instead wanted to make a deal with the guard. The paladin (like always) got his way and approached the tied and bonded guardsman. “Now my big brutish friend here would see harm done to you, where I would seek to avoid such unpleasantness” began the Paladin. “I am sure you are guarding this citadel for payment, so I shall offer you fifty gold pieces and your freedom if you tell us how many others are inside, and show us a way to get inside undetected“. Well as the Paladin had correctly deduced, the guard was indeed only here for financial reward, and had no real loyalty to his employer. He agreed to the terms and after informing the party that the citadel had a Garrison of forty men at arms and the wizard that employed them he showed them to a secret way in through the water drainage tunnel of the citadel. At this point the Paladin intended to just let the man go, but the rest of the party did not like this course of action. “I don’t trust him to sod off quietly!” said the Dwarf. “I agree” said the Elven Ranger, “what if he alerts them to our presence“. “I gave him my word!” said the Paladin, “and I shall not go back on it!” As was often the case the Druidess stepped in with some sense of compromise. “Why don’t we tie him up and gag him, and leave him just inside the tunnel for now“, she began. “We can free him on the way out, that way he can not raise the alarm and you sir knight will not be breaking your word.” After a little more discussion they agreed to this plan. All except the Barbarian. “I say we kill him to be safe“, he protested. “It’s the only way to be sure, besides what if we don’t come back this way?” “well then his fate is tied to ours,” said the Druidess. The party decided to tie him up and leave him in the tunnel despite the Barbarians protest, and made their way down the tunnel. The Ranger scouted a little ahead, with the Paladin not far behind and the Barbarian brought up the vanguard. However the Barbarian decided to lag behind a little and once he was sure the Paladin was out of ear shot, he promptly broke the guards neck, and caught up with the rest. Our heroes saved the prince and left the citadel by way of the same tunnel they entered through, as the Paladin was insistent that they go back to free the guard. Well upon finding the guard with his neck snapped, the Paladin immediately suspected the barbarian and set to questioning the rest of the party as to how the guard came to be killed. He stated that only the Barbarian and perhaps the Dwarf were strong enough to literally snap the guards neck like a chicken and  stated that he did not believe the Dwarf would do such a thing. The Barbarian denied the accusations, and eventually the party let it go and moved on, but the Paladin stated that he would be keeping a very close eye on the barbarian from here on out, and that he did not trust him in the least. These kind of things happened often through out their adventures and a deep seeded resentment began to take hold of the barbarian.

This brings us to where this tale really begins. During the Curse of the Azure bonds, our heroes had made some very powerful enemies. One of which was an Ancient White Dragon named Shiverlended. The Evil Dragon had sworn revenge on the party, and a couple of years later had found them and was ready to enact his revenge. He setup a trap in which one of his sons, an adult white Dragon named Ebenblight would attack some local farms and villages, and make sure he was seen retreating to some nearby mountains. Our heroes (as per the dragons plan) would seek him out to destroy him, and when they came to do so Shiverlended would also be waiting and together he and his son would destroy the heroes once and for all.

The party did indeed take the bate and set out into the mountains to find the white dragon and slay him. Eventually they found evidence of a lair upon a large ledge on the mountains east side, and prepared to enter and slay the beast. They made their way into the large cave and in doing so found not one white dragon but two! “Remember me you filthy human scum?” bellowed Shiverlended. “Now DIE!” Both dragons unleashed their breath weapons in unison, and the heroes were terribly injured. Although none died (partly due to good saving throws) the Druidess was down to only eleven hit points and it was clear to the party that this was not a fight they could win right here and now. There only option was to retreat, but they had no time to discuss an exit strategy.

Now I will take this moment to mention these were some decent players. They did not meta game, or abuse player interactions around the table to discuss things at length that should happen in mere seconds in the game world. There was none of the common reactive actions that you often see from players. for example, when a player says something like “I rush forward and attack the wizard,” and another player says “No don’t do that we need to take him alive.” The players character did not SAY he was about to do it out loud before he acted, he just did it, therefore by the time the rest of the party was aware of his intended action it was happening. Their was no time to discuss it, so they could only react to it after it happens. This is a pet peeve of mine, and while I will be a little tolerant of it from new players, I have zero tolerance for it in players that should know better.

Anyway getting back to the story. With this in mind, the players did not discuss any plans, but just reacted in turn. The Paladin at this point declared in a bold voice, “There is no way we can outrun these beasts, I will hold them off as long as I can, you all save yourselves!” and before the rest had time to protest he charged head long at both the Dragons with a valiant war cry. This of course was suicide but as a Paladin he was willing to lay down his life so that his friends may live.

The rest of the party did indeed retreat as they realized if they did not they would also perish and his great sacrifice would be for nothing. The paladin of course was killed but it was a memorable death, and one worthy of a fifteenth level Paladin of Tyr. The rest of the players commended the player of the Paladin for his selfless act (one that I know many players would not have done, as they would not have voluntarily gave up a fifteenth level Paladin that they loved). At this point the Barbarian surprised everyone by simply saying “NO!” “We can not allow such a sacrifice to be made for us without trying to save our friend”. “I say we wait, and go back up there and reclaim his body, then find away to have him resurrected. Such a valiant act deserves no less“. The party agreed and I wrote a new side adventure in which the party would quest to have the Paladin resurrected.

The side quest took several weeks and during this time the player who owned the dead paladin was playing a twelfth level rogue in the short term. The quest was not easy, and the Druidess almost lost her life in the process, but eventually they were able to have the Paladin resurrected.

It was a joyous time around the table top. The Paladin was back! His heroic sacrifice to save the rest of the party was going to be talked about for years to come. And of course the Paladin himself was glad to be back among the living once more, ready to face the forces of evil in Tyrs name once again. And then it happened.

Freshly resurrected, the Paladin was low on hit points. A simple matter of a few healing spells from the Druidess would solve this minor issue however, that is it would have if she had been given the chance. Suddenly the barbarian launches a full attack on the Paladin and hacked him to pieces making him dead for the second time. The Paladin had barley been alive enough to thank the rest of the party for bringing him back and now he was dead once more. The rest of the players looked on in horror as this even unfolded, and as the Barbarian stood looming over the twice dead Paladins body he utters the words that to this day get repeated by the players. “I hated that guy, but no one kills the Paladin but me!“……

The art of war. Combat in Role Playing Games.

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Combat is a thrilling  aspect of any Role Playing Game. Many players live for the thrill of the fight and enjoy it more than the actual Role Play itself. Rolling dice and seeing those desired numbers show face up, or landing those critical hits is exciting. Combat is however more than just rolling dice and having the numbers dictate the outcome. In this topic, we will look at how to make combat really come to life, and how to get the most out of those battle encounters.

We will begin by looking at designing a good combat encounter. Firstly we need to ask ourselves why will this encounter result in a combat? If it is a simple ambush, well then you already know the answer, but many encounters can result in combat where they perhaps did not need too. When I have an overzealous party that tends to hit first and ask questions later, or who has problems keeping their ego in check, I often deploy an encounter I like to refer to as a “swing encounter”. The Gorebad swing encounter is basically one that can go either way depending on the attitudes of the characters. For example I recently used a rather grumpy and agitated Weretiger to do just this. The characters had begun to bully their way through encounters, and had started developing egos that were eventually going to result in them biting of more than they could chew. I saw this eventuality looming so I decided to drop in this Lycanthrope. Now Weretigers are typically true neutral in alignment, so their actions are largely situational and are dictated by other outside social triggers. The characters met him in human form, and he was (for reasons that would become clear later) viewing the characters with suspicion and was a little stand offish. I had decided that he would either help or hinder them depending on how they interacted with him. A positive interaction would win them a potential ally, while a negative one would land them in a tough combat situation. I did this to illustrate to the players how sometimes you just have to know when to not push back and hold your tongue. The players chose wisely and avoided combat. If this had become a combat encounter however, I would have had a clear understanding of how and why the fight took place, and as such would have known how my Non Player Character or monster (in this case the Weretiger) should act. The combat would have taken place in a wooded area, one that my Weretiger would have been very familiar with and one that my players would not. This being said I would have used the monsters knowledge of the terrain to his advantage. Also depending on how the combat was going he may well have retreated and possibly came back at a more advantageous time. Determining the motivations behind the combat is important in being able to run it with substance. Are the players the aggressors or the victims? Is it on either sides home turf? Do the Non Player Characters have strong motivations to stand their ground, or may they break and flee? Are reinforcements close by? etc.

It is important to set the scene for the combat encounter also. Terrain and surroundings play an integral part in how a combat plays out. History tells us that three hundred Spartans held the narrow pass of Thermopylae for three days against tens of thousands. This was only achievable due to the location that the battle occurred. If they had met on an open battlefield it would have been a short and bloody massacre. Chapter ten of Sun Tzu’s the art of war discussed terrain and its effects on a battle. Indeed it enlightens us to how a battle can be won or lost based on where the battle takes place. This can and should be a factor in the combats in which your players find themselves in. Aspects such as height of terrain, difficulty of movement, items of cover, visibility and temperature all play a factor. Too many Dungeon Masters ignore this aspect of combat and allow combat to become a toe to toe turn based dice fest.

Not every combat has to start and end in one encounter. Indeed many good battles play out over several encounters. Recently on Howreroll the players took three separate encounters to take down one particular Necromancer. Making what could have been a simple end boss encounter, a chase that lasted a couple of weeks in game time. It also made for a much more climactic showdown when they finally did corner and ultimately defeat him. After the first battle both the characters and the Necromancer knew a little of the others tactics, so the dynamic changed the second and third time they fought. And again this change in dynamic altered the combat substantially. A good reoccurring villain can be a great source for great combat encounters in this way. Either he manages to evade capture time and time again or the players may keep slipping through his fingers if he is the pursuer, but each encounter has epic potential, especially if used with correct timing, and not over done.

The next thing we will look at is how to describe combat. Simply saying “you hit, you miss” is boring! I like to describe the combat step by step and blow by blow. Players love to hear the details of how the final blow dispatched their foe, or what the effect of a particular successful sword strike was. On our live Dungeons and Dragons show, I try to describe each and every hit, miss, crit and fumble. I keep the descriptions short, but I make sure they are imagined. My descriptions are dependent on the players actions and the outcome of the dice rolled. So for a narrow miss I may say something like, “you lunge with your long sword at the Orcs unprotected belly, but at the last minute he is able to bring his cleaver around and manages to narrowly deflect your blow to the side”. Or for a high damage hit that does over twenty five percent of the enemies hit points I may say, “your powerful overhead swing strikes the ogre and opens up a deep gash in his thigh. He glances at the open wound as the blood flows down his leg, and he takes a step back to reassess the situation. He no longer seems so eager to rush in”.

I recently had a private message from one self proclaimed “veteran Dungeon Master” (of ten years) who told me that I should not describe the players blows and I should let them do it themselves. I totally disagree and here is why. Hit points are relative to the creature. Hitting a goblin for six damage may be an almost fatal blow, where as to a hill giant it is little more than a scratch. The players do not know how many hit points a particular enemy has, especially in relation to enemies with a class, so they are not effectively able to accurately describe the outcome of any given hit. That being said I am all for and encourage a player to tell me and describe what he is TRYING to do, but the outcome of his action is mine to explain. I also like to improvise advantages and disadvantages that may occur to one side or another during combat. If the players make a particularly high damaging hit on a monster, I may have it back of, and hold its attack that round, as it rethinks its strategy. Or I may have a high damaging blow drop the target to one knee, robbing him of part of his move action the next round. While these things may not be part of the combat mechanic, they add something to the combat that makes it feel more real.

We just mentioned that we should encourage players to tell us what they are trying to do. I do not mean in them saying I attack the Troll, or I cast Magic Missile, no I mean describe how it is to happen. “I swing my broadsword with all my might at the Dire Boar” can be a descriptive way for a player to let you know he is using his power attack feat. Or a player who’s character is a bard may start singing an eighties power ballad and in doing so lets you know he is using his inspire courage ability. I like to encourage descriptive combat in my players also so I will often give bonuses or allow successful skill checks to infer combat bonuses. Here is an example of what I mean by that. A group of players are battling some pirates aboard a ship. One of them just finished of his adversary on the raised bridge of the ship and looks down and sees one of his comrades pressed by two cutlass wielding sea dogs. He knows if he runs down the stairs it will be two rounds before he can aid his friend so he asks “are there any ropes or anything I can use to swing down to the lower deck”. I like where this is going with this, so I tell him “YES, there is a rope within reach that is tied off on the rail behind you”. “OK” he replies, “I try to swing down on the rope and I want to try to slash at one of the pirates as I swing by”. In this situation I would have him make a skill check to swing down on the rope and a bad roll may land him in a compromising situation (or give him disadvantage in fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons rules) where as a good roll may have a bonus effect (or give advantage). Never be afraid to reward creativity in your players when it comes to combat. They will be more inclined to be descriptive and really get into the fight if their actions can change the outcome and make it more exciting.

A prime example of some of this coming together can be seen here at minute 42.30. During this episode of the Marks of intrigue, a bar fight breaks out and all manner of improvised attacks and terrain come into play.

Finally lets look at mortality in combat. When two groups of people engage each other with weapons and magic, people have a tendency to die. While it is common for the monsters and some Non Player Characters to bite the dust, it is a much bigger deal and less common when it happens to a Player Character. With this in mind what is a Dungeon Master to do when he confronts the players with a fair challenge and due to their poor dice rolls and his good rolls the players are loosing to a band of goblins that they should easily be able to defeat. Well this really comes down to your individual style of Dungeon Mastering. many Dungeon Masters will tell you that they will modify a few of their own dice rolls (behind the Dungeon Masters screen), to balance this. Others will tell you that they do not baby their players, and the dice can be a cruel mistress to all equally at times and it is down to the players to retreat from a fight that is going badly for them (assuming they have the option). I have my own views on this and they alter a little depending on who I am playing with. With a die hard experienced group of players, sometimes I roll openly and let the dice fall as they may regardless. Other times I may fudge a roll here or their to be lenient to a newer group of players. Regardless I always allow dice to fall where they may during epic encounters or if the players put themselves in harms way through stupidity, despite fair warning. To me it comes down to trust. The players must trust you as their Dungeon Master to be fair and treat them with consistency and equality. As long as you achieve this I am not going to berate you for your choices. My goal is always to strive for open rolls but I also realize from time to time this can add to much of a random element to something that should be less so.

Combat is not the be all and end all of Role Playing, but it is a fun and integral part of any system. Taking steps to bring it to life and make it believable, is just as important as the work you put in to develop a viable world for your players to explore. There is so much more I could say about combat, but rather than lengthen this topic any farther I will just leave you with this.

“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead”. ~Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

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.

the-one-with-the-enraged-college-student

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…………………..

Creating a memorable character.

Creating-a-memorable-character

One of the most fundamental skills for a pen and paper Role Playing Games player to learn is how to create a character. Knowing what dice to roll, how to read charts, how to assign points, how to fill out that character sheet etc. These tasks however are simply book keeping and creating and recording statistics. If I asked you “What Character are you playing”? how would you answer?

I want you to be honest with yourself, when you read the two examples I am about to give and choose which you feel would be closer to your answer. Do that before reading on to the next paragraph.

  1. “I am playing a Human fighter who specializes in two handed weapons and the cleave feat”.
  2. “I am playing a  Human male named Devero Shen, who grew up in a small village as a blacksmiths son, and after his father passed away, he joined a local mercenary group as a camp attendant, but eventually became one of the mercenaries.”

Both of these are generic examples but here is the point. The top answer is what character class and skill specialization you are utilizing for your character. The second is closer to describing what character you are playing. Most of you will (if honest) have chosen option one. It is rare I ever get an answer similar to option two. You see who and what your character is, is not the same as what class or skill set does he have. Look at the real world. Do you define who you are by the job you do and what job skills you have? I would hope not. I have spent a lot of my time doing the day job of Communications Manager for an Internet Service Provider. If some one asks me to describe WHO I am, I would not say “Hi I am a commercial internet sales person, who has great communication skills”. I define who I am by much more than that.

The fundamental problem for many, is that when they create a character they do so with the idea of performing a role. That’s like being born and your parents training you to be nothing more than a production line worker. Now don’t get me wrong, most games kind of make it seem like that’s all character creation is about. Choose a race, choose a class, pick feats, spend skills etc. The thing is, that is just the mechanical part of your character and the “role” it will play. WHO and what your character is goes beyond that.

My challenge to my players is always to make a character that is memorable. We have fleeting memories of that time we rolled three natural twenties in a roll, or that time we “one shotted” the Troll. The  characters that I have long lasting fond memories of,  are the ones that came to life as individuals and had, real CHARACTER! I see a lot of people concentrating on character builds. And optimizing their character. To me if this is how you go about creating your character, you have already lost the plot and are missing out on the whole concept of playing Dungeons and Dragons! Imagine if at birth (or in your late teens or twenties, when you suddenly become conscious as a player character) you sat down and planned out every aspect of your future career and life. No one in the real world does that. Yes we may make and set goals for ourselves, and some of these may stay constant or change as we go through life, but we do not set things in stone and strive monotonously towards them. Now before I piss of those that play Dungeons and Dragons much as if they were playing a video game, if you want to play characters that are min maxed, build determined and optimized that is your choice. You may even have a Dungeon Master that is OK with it. Just know that most DECENT Dungeon Masters don’t want you in their games. I for sure don’t! I could care less about your characters stats to be honest. I am more interested in your characters back story, personality, mannerisms and quirks. You see to me your character should be a personality. Not a list of numbers and statistics. I also want to see your character organically develop through game play, and not be preset. As a Dungeon Master I love it when players make choices for their characters based on the events that happen to them. They learn new skills based on the situations that they have recently been exposed too, or multi class into something because it fits the story or an event opened up that avenue for them. I am far less a fan of the guy who says “I am going to make an arcane archer so here are all the pre required stats, feats, and skills I am going to need to have by the time I reach the entry level requirement. SCREW THAT! How about you start out playing a low level character and see where it goes!

When it comes to “rolling up a character” I still believe (especially for newer players) that rolling is what you should do! I am not a fan for the points buy systems. I have allowed veteran players that I know and trust use points buy (all players in a group must use the same system, be it roll or buy), but they used them to create fun characters to play and not min max the crap out of their chosen class etc. I can here some of you bringing up the various arguments for using points buy. “Its more fair to everyone”, “It ensures I can play the class I want because some classes are More ability dependent than others “, “I don’t want to play a gimp character”. My general method is the 4D6 (drop the lowest) method, and the players roll two sets and pick the best set. Rarely does it mean you can not play a certain class, but if that arises then we re-roll or drop and raise a stat to get to the required number if there is one. (old school paladin requiring a seventeen charisma for example). PLAYING a character is about embracing the personality and developing a being. Bringing it to life in a game world. It is less about how much damage you can do, or how many hit points you have.

I have often chosen to take flaws just to have more to role play. I once created a thief and had him start life with his right hand missing by choice. It made it fun to role play. I have had a fighter who lost an eye at fourth level, and I loved the fun it was to make concessions for my lack of depth and field of view. If you are a person that contributes how much fun you have by how “bad ass” your character is, well to that I say, whatever makes you happy. Yes as a new player I wanted these things too. I grew out of it. I realized the true fun to be had in a role playing game, was in the role play itself and in the story telling for both player and dungeon master alike.

Now with all this being said how do we make our character memorable? Well first he or she must be real! OK yes its a character in a game so it isn’t real, but you know what I mean. They must be believable and have their own personalities.

I have said in other articles that I encourage players to write a minimum five hundred word back story for their character. I want to know (and want them to know) where they are from, how they grew up, what events shaped their lives, why did they start a life as an adventurer, what family do they or did they have etc. This gives you the basis for developing a personality. It helps you decide how trusting your character is of others. It can determine your characters demeanor. It can provide future plot hooks and help define relationships. You should do as much work on this as you possibly can. The more the better. Once you start playing you should have this back story in mind. Our pasts are part of what shapes us in the real world, and it should be no different for your characters.

Get yourself comfortable with “becoming” your character. Around the table you are for the most part the character and not who you are in real every day life. Make decisions based on what you believe the character would do, even if you as a player may know it is not the best idea in the world. Embrace the negative things that happen to your character and allow them to shape who your character becomes as much as the positive things. Assign some personality traits or quirks to your character, is he moody, grumpy or happy. Does he have a nervous tick or a habit that manifests under certain types of stress? Above all allow him to emotionally, mentally and physically develop naturally. Do not pigeon hole your character with per-determined decisions.

Playing a real and well developed character (flaws and all) is so much more rewarding than playing “mister perfect”. When you learn to truly embrace your character for all it is, and not concentrate on improving its stats, or doing more damage, you will realize their is just as much role play to be had in your characters weaknesses, if not more so.

When you allow your character to become real and embrace every aspect of it, then the experiences it has have more depth and value. The weak character that somehow survives the battle with two ogres and overcomes is memorable. The max strength and constitution barbarian that slaughters the same is not. One is a triumph, the other is just doing what was expected. As such one becomes memorable, the other does not.

When you look back at the characters you have created and played the ones you will remember years from now are the ones you formed attachments too and that did some truly amazing things. It will be the ones that seemed to truly “live” and had memorable experiences that stick with you.

One example of this is a cleric that was played on Howreroll during the “marks of intrigue” Campaign. He was an abused orphan that ended up in the priest hood devoted to St. Cuthbert. Due to his up bringing and difficult child hood he struggled with the day to day doctrines of his chosen religion. He embraced its core concept, but often went about doing things his own way, much to many others disapproval. With theses challenges in place he turned to drinking a good bit, and ended up becoming an alcoholic. We imposed a game mechanic that caused his character to have negative skill and trait checks if he went to long without a drink, as the “Delirium Tremens” set in. He became disheartened and eventually had to make a decision to help free a friend from imprisonment who was facing the death sentence or stay true to his religious belief. He chose to save his friend and as such lost favor with his deity and was stripped of his powers. The player made these choices knowing it was not the best thing statistically or mechanically for his character, but due to the events that occurred during game play it felt right for the character and the story. I can tell you that already Radovan Renier has become memorable. Not only to the player and the Dungeon Master, but also to all the viewers of the show.

Having a powerful character is fun in the same way that winning all the time is fun. Sometimes though its the struggle we remember and not the victory……….

Metagaming. The worst kind of cheating.

metagaming

What is Metagaming? Metagaming is any action, method or strategy used inside of the game environment which is taken from an external factor. It is taking knowledge gained or known from outside the game world ,and then utilized and deployed during game play in such a way as to usually gain advantage, or avoid a negative situation. It is knowledge a player has that his or her character does not!

Metagaming is by far one of the worst things for a Dungeon Master to deal with, and a player to employ. I consider it the worst form of cheating! It takes a well disciplined player to have a ton of game knowledge, and then act in contrary to this knowledge because he knows his character is unaware. Yet that is what is expected. When a Dungeon Master is confronted by obvious meta gaming he typically has only a couple of choices open to him. he can call “foul” and tell the player your character would not know to do that and as such deny the action, or he can let it go unchallenged. Either way it causes an issue.

So why is metagaming such a taboo in Role Playing Games? Well as a Player your job is to take on the role of a character. You have to act and behave in a way as to become that character. Your character is an entirely different persona than you, and has a different skill set and a different upbringing and education. When you deploy knowledge that you have as a player, and transfer it to your character you are breaking down the walls of division. The real world crosses over into the game world and causes damage to the integrity of the world as well as to the immersion for all involved. As a Dungeon Master I consider it treason to the game!

Lets give you a good example of metagaming. A Fighter who grew up in a small town as a blacksmiths son has been adventuring for several years. He enters a dark damp cave and encounters a ghoul. It is clear to him that it is a form of undead, but he has never encounter the undead before. So far the Fighter has entered every combat with his broadsword and shield and battled valiantly against all the foes he has faced. After hearing the description of the creature from the Dungeon Master, the player announces that instead he wishes to use his short bow instead. The player knows that ghouls can cause paralysis if they touch you, the character does not. The player in this case is metagaming by using his knowledge of the ghoul special attacks to avoid risk to his character in a situation where the character has no way to know this information.

Now if the character had typically used his short bow in the past in similar situations, the Dungeon master may accept the action as typical, but it is the non typical when deployed in these situations that cause the Dungeon Master to expect metagaming. As the Dungeon Master it is down to you to determine when metagaming is afoot. Some players are crafty, and may argue a path of reason to try to justify their action. In the above example the player could say “well it looks nasty and it smells so i just don’t want it close to me”. Is that a reasonable reason to change from his higher damage broadsword to his lower damage short bow, in the dark where he will take penalties to hit at this range with the short bow? Sometimes it can be hard to determine if the player action is a direct attempt to metagame or not, but typically a metagamer will commit multiple and frequent offenses and develop a visible pattern.

Now for the player let me say this in regards to metagaming. DON’T! just DON’T! I do not care how attached you are to your character, or how much you think that you need your fighter to survive to help his fellow adventurers. Metagaming is cheating and ruins the game for everyone.

For the Dungeon Master I say DO NOT tolerate it and confront it when it happens. Challenge a suspected metagamer (I always suggest privately when possible) and explain why you want him to stop. Also remeber you can change anything at anytime as the Dungeon Master, so i often change things up from the norm so a metagamer who expects his knowledge to be accurate finds often that in my world it is not. This is also a great way to baffle rules lawyers.

NOTE: I want to take this opportunity to tell you, the players, something you may not have realized. You can only discover any one piece of information once for the first time. The first time you encounter the ghoul, and through actual play learn about it, is unique. The first time you discover that a glowing golden sword is a sun blade is exciting. Much like a child with life, a new player has the full wonder of the game ahead of them. Once you know almost everything about every monster, every magic item and every spell the game is forever changed for you. It is tempting as a new player to look up monsters, spells, magic items etc that do not relate to you. I suggest strongly that you DON’T. You deprive yourself from a sense of wonder and discovery, which is a fun  aspect of the game, but also you open yourself up to potential metagaming or worse the act of over compensating where metagaming is concerned.

One complex issue regarding metagaming is when a player overcompensates to ensure they are NOT meatagaming. This is when a reasonable course of action may be open to your character, but you refrain from doing it so as to avoid metagaming. In this situation, trust between you and the Dungeon Master comes in, as well as a mutual gained respect. If you are a good player that does not metagame, and a situation presents itself where you feel a certain action is reasonable, even though there could be a case raised against you for metagaming the Dungeon Master will probably respect your choice and allow it.

There are a few forms of metagaming that are a little less obvious and not standard. One such type is acquiring “on the fly” knowledge. This is when a player looks up information on the spot. The Dungeon master describes a monster and then the player reaches for the monster manual or whips out his phone to google it so he can know what it can do etc. A player may not intend to use this information to his characters advantage, but it is poor practice. It not only artificially alters the tension level of the encounter, but it ruins the wonderment for the player and often those around him. If I see a player reach for a monster manual or attempt to google it I tell them STOP! Firstly it is not the players concern at that time, and distracts from the current mood. Secondly people will assume that any action taken that seems like metagaming during that encounter is so! I have been challenged in the past by players saying things like “well Rob knows what it is, so what does it matter if I look it up?” my reply is always “I cant control what Rob already knows, but now is not the time to look things up. We are involved in the encounter and your attention is required.”

This is a good time to remind players and Dungeon Masters alike, it is good practice not to allow players to have access to certain books, Ipads, laptops or smart phones during game play. It is the one thing I wish I could control on Howreroll. A few unique matagaming opportunities exist when using a virtual tabletop that do not exist around a physical table. Sadly as we play using a virtual tabletop, a computer is essential for the players. As I only see their head and upper torso die to playing with web cameras, I can not see what devices or books they may have around them, or if they google something in a different window. They could metagame by chatting privately using our text chat program. Character chat should always be heard by the Dungeon Master and is part of play. Here is an example. John (who plays Ragnar the barbarian) privately messages Sandra (who plays Salindra the cleric) and tells her to cast hold person on the chief when it is her action. In reality the characters are in the heat of battle and Ragnar would have to shout this suggestion to Salindra. In doing so the chief would be forewarned. make no mistake this IS metagaming. They could even get passed info privately by some of our experienced viewers ,in the same way and told how to do something that they themselves would not realize to do. I have to trust that they are not doing so. I would be deeply disappointed in them if they did. If you play over a virtual tabletop you just have to trust your players do not employ any of these methods.

Another form of metagaming is what I call probing. This is when you ask deliberate questions in order to try to create justification for your desired actions. Asking questions is fine, but you need to consider why you are asking them. Is it to clarify something for the character, or is it to create a window of opportunity in which you can get away with something. For example. The party rogue has been deprived of his share of treasure because he was not present when it was found. Due to some of his past indiscretions the rest of the party have decided not to include him in this round of wealth sharing. He begins to ask questions like, “Does Ragnar the Barbarians back pack look fuller than usual?” or “When Salindra goes to sell her jewelery can I follow her to see what she tries to sell?” These actions are being made because the player knows what happened but his character does not. He know better than to react openly, so instead he tries to alter the situation to gain knowledge to be able to react. This too is metagaming.

Now a final point on metagaming. Dungeon Masters can be guilty of metagaming too! “What?” I hear you ask. “How can the Dungeon Master metagame, he knows everything and can alter things at will. How can he be accused of metagaming?” Well if you adjust a course of predetermined action due to something a player just did in a way that is directly aimed to counter his action, that is metagaming. If an Non Player Character alters his course of action due to something you know about the players that the Non Player Character could not possibly know, that too is metagaming. If players feel that their good ideas have been thwarted by the Dungeon Master in an unfair way, or in such a way as to force an action to happen the way he wants it too, it can cause distrust. As the Dungeon Master you have to have the trust of your players, and doing anything that damages that trust is a failing on your part.

In closing. Metagaming is a vial form of cheating in pen and paper Role Playing Games and something that every player and Dungeon master alike should strive to eradicate from their game. It can be hard sometimes to allow your character do act in a way that you know he should but as a player you also know it is to his detriment. You should do it anyway. The integrity of the story and the game demands it!