Friday, June 22, 2018

GM 101: How Not to Run a D&D Convention Game

I debated whether I wanted to write this. I am the first to admit I am not the greatest DM out there. Almost all of my advice columns come directly from mistake that I made at the table that I only recognized in retrospect.

This is not a substitute for a room description.
However, I had yet another sub-par experience with D&D Adventurers League and there seem to be some obvious adjustments DMs could make for both games at conventions and in their home. Forgive me if this gets a bit ranty, but looking back in retrospect has bubbled up all those frustrations I had during play.

Don’t Skimp the Descriptions

This is my single biggest beef with organized play… and it has happened to me on more than one occasion.

DM: You’re enter the room and here’s what you see (places some markers on a map). Roll initiative!

Seriously, this pisses this shit out of me. D&D is a game of imagination. Players can’t immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the game if you don’t freaking give them any mental picture. A square with some squiggles on a dry erase map is not freakin’ enough!

Sorry. I should not get emotional, but this is soooo important and I’ve had more than one session ruined by utterly lazy DMs (and not in the good @SlyFlourish meaning of the word).

This is where poor DMs badly misinterpret “Show, don’t tell” advice. If you draw a square room and place a couple minis, that doesn’t “show” the room. Hell, even if you have a massively intricate Dwarven Forge set up, you should still describe the damn room and its occupants.

As cool as it looks, this is still not a room description.
What do the PCs see? What do they hear? What do they smell? What are the large features of the room (an altar, a dais, a butcher block table, a chest… whatever)? Is it damp? Is it dry? Dusty with age? Or recently inhabited? Don’t just put minis on a map and call for initiative. Give some damn atmosphere.

This should be D&D Adventurers League 101. Just because you have a grid does not mean you should not create the mental picture. It is even more important to be descriptive in the same way you would if you were playing theater of the mind because the players will look at the map and believe that everything they see is exactly what you drew, when in actuality this is almost never the complete picture.

You should absolutely do all of the description before setting the first miniature in the space. Get the players to pay attention to what you are saying, not the little plastic pieces on the board. Allow them to ask questions about the scene, then put down miniatures.

On occasion, I have downloaded DDAL modules I’ve played from DM’s Guild only to find out that a crap-ton of description was just never given to the players. This past weekend, my party had an entire combat in the room before the DM told us that there was a dais with an altar and some statues at one end. Wait, what? WTF?!?

Don’t Skimp on Exploration and Role Playing

D&D isn’t just about combat. I know the format of con games can be a pain because there may be a lot of story to unpack in a 4 hour block and if there are more than 2 combats, getting it all in can create a serious time crunch. You are going to have to keep combat moving quickly (and there’s a lot of advice on the internet on how to do that), but you also have to give the players the opportunity to look around and talk to NPCs.

I know it’s hugely tempting to put everyone right onto the plot train and ship them directly from one combat to the next, but avoid that temptation. Conversely, you don’t have to role-play shopping in town in a con game. Get your players in front of NPCs that have clues to give, but don’t just data dump. Give the clues, but also give the players the opportunity to explore the environments and ask the right questions. Even when they don’t ask the right questions, you can give leading answers.

Lead the Players to the Clues

Sometimes puzzles or mysteries may appear obvious when read from the module, but when described at the table, fail to land just right in order to light the brain bulb. Be the player’s advocates in the game. You don’t have to give them all the clues, but nudge them when they are moving in the correct direction.

As an example, in a game I played recently, these was a floating, glowing gem thingy (again, I don’t have all the details because the DM did a crap job describing it). Apparently, there was some kind of skill challenge connected to deactivating the gem, but we weren’t given any clues that this was a skill test. My wife’s PC, knowing something was up with the floating gem, literally jumped atop of it and tried to strike it with a weapon.

DM: “Nothing happens. Take XX damage.”

We had to ask several times what the source (and type) of the damage was, or how the gem reacted to her attack. No other clues were given. Apparently, there was even a Strength check that could have been made, but the DM didn’t give her that clue despite her literally standing atop the damn thing. There was absolutely no other information about the gem provided, or about the nature of the skill challenge to deactivate it. It almost seemed like a red herring. Seriously, WTF?

The DM said they were given explicit instruction not to give any clues related to the gem, but I’m guessing that did not mean the DM shouldn’t explain what we were seeing, or experiencing when interacting with the gem. Even a tiny hint like, “There appears to be some kind of arcane energy emanating from it. Now that you are standing on it, you can look closer.”  We don’t know if it had any runes, or roughly what shape it was. Seriously, throw us a frickin bone.

And for the record, if the DDAL crew did tell the DMs not to give even the slightest hint about the skill test, then that’s the crappiest adventure design ever. Just damn awful… but I get the strong feeling that most of the fault lies with the lack of description from the DM.

Get Some Tokens

So if you are going to be an Adventurers League DM (or Pathfinder Society, for that matter) and you play on the grid, invest or craft some tokens or other creature pawns. This was almost verbatim the conversation I had in the last game:

Source: Printable Heroes
Me: Wait, what is the blue d6?
DM: An allip
Me: And those dice?
DM: Those are wights…
Me: And?
DM: ...but that other one is a wraith.

Oh, for f#ck sake.

I’m not asking that you invest in 100's of dollars worth of minis… But if you are planning to run a table for literally hundreds of D&D players over the course of months, if not years, buy a pack of stand up pawns from Pathfinder ($45) or ArcKnight ($80)... or print your own tokens for pennies on the dollar.

Here are some links:

Put a selection of common creatures in a craft or tackle box and bring them to the con. This is especially important if your descriptions are craptastic.  Yes, you don’t need miniatures, especially if you play theater of the mind, but if you are going to be on the grid, make sure you are clear to the players who and where the foes are. Tokens or pawns may be the best way to do this.

Final Thoughts

I know how hard it is to DM. I've been doing it in my groups for years because pretty much no one else wants to do the work. I also know from personal experience how hard it is to run a big table. Add in the time pressures associated with running a convention game, and I get it. It's super hard.

But if you are going to do it, do it well. You are representing the hobby to newbies as well as old dogs. Be prepared. Don't skimp. Use evocative descriptions. Describe rooms, NPCs and foes in detail. Be clear on the objectives. Don't hide clues from your players. Make sure combat options and positioning is clear to all. Pass the spotlight to different players. Keep combat moving. Give opportunities for exploration and role play.

It's hard work, but it's not rocket science.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Gaming 101: Bullies and Samaritans

Miniature skirmish games often have awesome terrain.
I hate to start a post-con wrap up with this topic, but I think this is singularly important to point out what I witnessed this weekend. Notice I didn't say “discuss” because there is no discussion. What happened was awful behavior and I want everyone to recognize it and put a stop to it when they see it.

While this incident happened in a miniatures game, I've seen this kind of behavior in many different kinds of games, and even once at my own table... so the lesson here is universal.

My wife and I attended a miniatures event this weekend at a well known convention, which should have been incredibly fun, but was hamstrung by events that occurred in the first turn. The set up was this: the players were all monsters and the town was the focus of our destructive behavior. It was a players vs. the environment situation. It was like “Rampage” (the video game) but with giant miniatures and a pseudo-medieval setting.

However, there was a caveat -- PvP was allowed in the game. It wasn’t against the rules to attack another player, but it was obvious (to me at least) that this kind of thing might happen later in the game when chaos was in full swing and the event was winding down.

So, here’s where things went sideways.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Ep 8: The Slog at Grudd Haug - Running Storm King's Thunder

The long overdue episode 8 where you can learn from my DM'ing mistakes!

Not only did it take my group forever to finish off this particular giant lair (basically, my fault), this video also runs a bit long... So if you just want the meat of my advice, watch the beginning and the end using the index below.

Addendum: One thing that I don't think I stressed enough in the video, is that I didn't create enough of a sense of urgency. As an example, the party didn't know Guh had prisoners that were on the menu. Even when the thief scouted, he did not specifically scout the prison area. I should have created a scene for him to witness with the prisoners suffering at the hands of the bugbears or similar to emphasize that time was a critical factor in their assault on the lair.

01:45 Considering the challenges in running a large lair with a multitude of opponents
2:00 Will it be a cakewalk or TPK?
4:20 How will the lair react once combat breaks out? Where will the creatures move?
6:40 When the PCs do commit, how to the monsters react based on their intelligence and allgiences?
8:40 How does one present clues and options to the players without telling them what to do?
9:00 When you group meets infrequently, how do you optimize sessions and keep momentum to get through a large lair like Grudd Haug?
10:00 - 35:00 My group's hit and run tactics on Grudd Haug
38:48 Send opponents in waves to amp up the combat pressure.
46:45 Give scouting hints.
47:10 Don't save them if they get over their heads, but consider non-TPK options if it happens.
50:00 Don't hold back intel. Better to overshare clues to keep them party moving than to give them too little.
52:00 For giant lairs, chop it up into larger combats, instead of lots of small combats with few opponents. YMMV.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

GM 101: Ep 1 - The Importance of Session 0

The first episode of my new GM 101 video blog is a companion piece to my earlier article on Session 0, I talk about what "Session 0" is and why it's so important to establish a baseline of expectations for your campaign before it starts, including aspects such as play style, realism, PvP, and character compatibility.

Sorry that the color balance is so far off. I may need to re-shoot, but I hope the content makes up for the video quality.

0:55 What is Session 0 and what does it entail?
1:50 Session 0 establishes the campaign framework and sets player expectations.
3:00 What is the genre? What is the level of realism? Heavy RP or kick-in-the-door combat?
5:00 Establish your genre and play style baseline.
6:50 How incompatible play styles can harm the fun.
7:55 Session 0 involves some compromise.
8:30 Discuss home brew rules so players aren't unpleasantly surprised.
9:40 The dangers of PvP aspects in a game, and how it can be handled at the table.
11:45 Example of how incompatible play style can break up the game.
17:20 Don't make a character incompatible with the group.
19:05 Discuss how the characters know one another and trust each other.
20:50 Next video teaser: the Social Contract

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Did the OGL save D&D?

Teos Abadia (@Alphastream) posted a “controversial” tweet about the Open Game License (OGL) which spurred a good debate about D&D and RPGs in general. I wanted to write more about that… not as a virtual poke in Teos' eye (whose ideas contribute greatly to the community), but more as a reflection of how I think the OGL has benefited the hobby as a whole.

@Alphastream wrote:
My unpopular opinion: I don’t think the OGL does much to keep our game alive. Real “life” comes from active community and active developing rules. You can keep playing the same old edition, but that is unlikely to thrive. Look at 5E for thriving.
So, I think I know where he’s going with this. If I am not taking him out of context, the opinion is that a new edition has the power of active designers publishing new materials, as well as an active player community. Whereas “old” editions slowly dwindle because there is little new development and new players aren’t really being brought into the community.

He’s not entirely wrong. D&D 5th Edition thrives because of the very active designers and players in the community, creating enthusiasm and outreach to a broader audience.

But I think that he missed the point of the OGL/d20 SRD as a “savior” (for lack of a better word) of D&D. The OGL was a preventative measure to ensure that D&D (as a concept, not a brand) would continue to be played as a tabletop RPG, rather than a shuttered intellectual property. The OGL was really an insurance policy against a large corporation acquiring the brand and sitting on it.

As Ryan Dancy wrote: "I also had the goal that the release of the SRD would ensure that D&D in a format that I felt was true to its legacy could never be removed from the market by capricious decisions by its owners." (Paizo forums, Nov 23, 2010)

You see, when a company like Hasbro acquires an IP like D&D, that doesn’t necessarily mean its future as a pen & paper tabletop game is assured. D&D as a brand is valuable for video games, movies, board games, and other future media (VR? Augmented Reality?).

Luckily for us, Hasbro (it seems) recognized that the value in the brand has tabletop at its heart and has given Wizards of the Coast the autonomy to grow the tabletop part of the brand in the best ways they are able… but it could have gone very differently.

The other point I think Teos didn’t closely consider is that the OGL is largely responsible for a large portion of the growth of RPGs as a hobby outside of D&D. This is the critical detail, in my mind, of how the OGL benefits the hobby. The OGL is largely responsible for the success of nearly all of the 3rd party publishers out there, making content not just for D&D, but also other IP developed under the OGL.

Paizo, Goodman Games, Kobold Press, Troll Lord Games, Green Ronin, Monte Cook Games, Frog God Games… the list goes on. Most of these companies were founded during d20 era when WotC published the d20 System Reference Document. The OGL allowed these nascent publishers to build D&D content (or D&D-like games) without having to worry about hiring costly lawyers to advise on all the IP and copyright restrictions (hazards) of publishing D&D-adjacent titles. The OGL was a one-stop shop for avoiding WotC/Hasbro lawsuits.

After these publishers established success using D&D as a stepping stone, many of them moved on to build other games. Pathfinder, Numenera, 13th Age, Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Mutant Future, Spycraft, Cypher System…  Manyof these spawned directly out of the d20 SRD, while the others are new creations that grew due to the economic benefit provided by the OGL. These publishers have also grown their own player communities within the hobby.

Final Thoughts

While the OGL may not have “saved” D&D, as a brand, it certainly has provided the hobby the fertile loam upon which independent publishers have grown and flourished which has, in turn, created a healthier ecosystem for D&D and its brethren.

In that way, the OGL has preserved D&D (and other TTRPGs) for future generations, regardless of what company holds the brand.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

GM 101: Quick & Dirty Memorable NPCs

Pathfinder Face cards or similar NPC artwork
can help imprint NPCs into your players' memories
There is a plethora of great advice on the web on making a memorable NPC, but often that advice assumes that NPC is one you have hand-crafted for a campaign as a spotlight character. Sometimes, you need an NPC on the spot, and you don’t want your players to regard him or her as “Random NPC #5”.

In a vibrant campaign, the potential should be there for the party to create a relationship with any NPC met along the way. Often times, the most surprising role playing can come out of a chance meeting with a random NPC.

There are a couple quick and dirty tricks I use which I call the “Quick & Dirty NPC Generator”. It's basically a sheet of paper with some notes to have nearby during your sessions. Here's how it works.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

D&D/OSR: Encumbrance Made Easy Redux

Ridiculously Encumbered PC
OK, but do you come with a cork screw?
Encumbrance is a bit of a pain in the rear, and has always been a tug of war between players and DMs, which is why most DMs hand-wave it. Players rarely track their weight, and PCs end up carrying all kinds of ridiculous equipment that apparently takes a single object interaction to get out of who knows which hole on the PC’s body.

In a previous article, I attempted to come up with a solution to the Swiss Army PC, but my players pretty quickly found the holes in the system, and I did not enforce its restrictions as I should have. Working on my BX-5 home brew rules, I’ve attempted to come up with a simpler, improved solution which can be more easily enforced.
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