Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Thoughts: evolving as a DM

The other day, I was thinking about how my attitudes and ideas about dming have changed quite a bit over the years. This blog is a result of this evolution. But what about the various stops along the way? In the spirit of the New Year, here is a rough recap of my own evolution.

When I first started rping with friends, I was in sheer awe of the dm. "Wow," I thought, "that was really cool what he did, but I would never want to put myself in that position."

I'm not sure if I was intimidated by the rules and mechanics, or if it was the idea of being on the hook to entertain and challenge your friends, but I was sure that I probably wasn't going to stick my neck out and bear the responsibility of dming.

Of course, the way things go, there was only one guy in our group who was comfortable dming, but he grew restless and eager to make his own character. So, he pegged me as the guy who could step in as "relief" dm. I was reluctant, but before I knew it, I was behind the screen, terrified and having no real skills to help prop me up.

The experience was spotty, I'm sure, but not a complete disaster - the experience taught me some of my earliest lessons in the difference between what seems like a really cool moment to you as  you plan your evening, and what actually plays well with a group of players.

The one that sticks out in my mind was a time where the players got "had" by an assassin (in disguise as a fancy lady) who stole something from under their noses and slipped out before they could stop her(him). Now, this is the type of thing you see in movies all the time: a sudden reveal that adds suspense and creates further challenge. Unfortunately for me, a rping campaign does not function like a regular story and, instead of being wowed, the players were confused and frustrated as to why they never had a chance to try anything. For some reason, they didn't enjoy it when the dm (me) forced a situation down their throats and then used his god-like power over reality to (smugly) get the better of them.

Lesson learned.

The next phase was one in which I got better at running the game, but started to get much more involved in the "DM as group leader"

First, I started getting more comfortable with my muscles of authority - where before I had been intimidated to throw my weight around with my friends or enforce rulings, I started getting better and better at making snap judgements, and setting boundaries.

But on the downside, there were times when I know I took too many liberties with that authority. The role of DM came to be that of a"visionary" and I took pains to make sure people stayed within the confines of the world I had created - sometimes, perhaps, to the detriment of the game.

This was the phase where I started to feel the urge to meddle with the rules. I had many ideas about what would make the experience better, but here are just a few (I think you'll sense a theme here):

1. Blind Magic Qualities.
We all know that having something that is clearly a powerful magic item and not quite knowing what it can do can be a fun thing to pull out of your sleeve (One Ring to Rule them All!) However, I started doing it with all magic items. Everything was a mystery. But, to my surprise, people really preferred to know what their bag of goodies contained. Another lesson learned.

2. Blind hit points.
I took to keeping track of players hit points for them - ostensibly to make the combat feel more dangerous, but also to keep more of the game under my thumb. Players could get an approximation of where they were, but only if they took the time to roll. Now, there might be a group of players that this house rule would prove a perfect fit for, but alas, it was not one that I deemed a success.

3.Blind Character Intros.
This was actually a success - not necessarily a good fit for every campaign, but it works great for a "band of mercenaries" type opening where none of the characters know each other. I would open a campaign as usual except I would describe all the characters in the setting as if they were npc - I would base this on a short description each of the palyers wrote down. If, for example, we started in the luxurious sitting room of a wealthy merchent, players could describe their most notable attributes, and then add some touches based uponthe setting (ie: Player X stares into the fire wistfully, Player Y tracks mud around the room, or Player Z moves around brazenly, searching the room for cigars and brandy.) Then, as the situation unfolds, players step into the roles as they begin to interact with the situation. It's a little extra work, but executed well, it starts off the campaign with a big dose of personal expression for the characters - and a chance to actually get a real impression of the character (before you even know who is playing them!)

I swear not everything was focused on controlling info - but some of it was. Mostly, I just focused all my energy on how to improve the system rather than improve my own dming.

As I got more comfortable with the role of DM, (and as the demands of the adult world became forces to balance), I toned down the visionary quality to my idea of a DM. I started to see more and more that the DM was not there to remake anything or to be the central focus of the group. The DM's first goal was not to improve the system or achieve his own vision of a fantasy world, but rather the DM's chief job was to make sure that everybody had a good time.

I began to focus on sessions - how much fighting, how much intrigue? I imagined each evening as a mini campaign. What would make this evening unforgettable?

I began to focus on the players and their characters. I gifted them, I galled them, I provoked them, and prodded them. What would they do? Where would they go? My chief goal became to see them developed - because fun characters make for fun sessions. Period.

But I still held on to aspects of being a visionary dm - I still wanted to keep my hand on the scale.

But why?

Because I was convinced that I need the extra leeway to ensure that the night was a success.

And, gradually, I realized that I was wrong.

I experimented with rolling dice openly. I had resisted this idea, because, what would happen if the dice rolled the way I didn't want them too? Or what if I had to roll an attack or save that I didn't actually know stat on? What if I just didn't want something to happen?

But, see, it's the first lesson I learned - coming round to be learned all over again: you just can't force things. In the context of an rpg, it's neither fun nor interesting.

I would go so far as to say that if you continually find yourself in the position where you need things to work out a certain way for your story to work, then... you need to run your story differently. What beginning dm hasn't been tortured by their semi-serious friends who, when asked by their king to rescue the princess, they decide to taunt the king and bargain for huge cash reward? Now, I'm not saying that players should act like a jerk to the dm and not take the game seriously, but I am suggesting that you can't give players choices if you aren't okay with them choosing. Likewise, what is the point of rolling a dice if you already know the result?

It comes down to this: Free will and the toss of the dice - a good dm (and a good rpg plot) can survive both of those things.

What I have come to understand is that my job as a DM is simply to make sure the plot contains a problem and then to make sure that the problem gets handed over to the players as quickly as possible. It is not my responsibilty to know how they will solve the problem. I might make sure they have a few options, sure, but I do not want to go so far as to start laying track for them to solve it. I want them to follow their own impulses. Yes, they might have the aid of some magical goodies and the assistance from knowledgable npcs, but I try hard to make sure that no item or npc has the entire solution. Only the players can move this problem forward. The players have to think. They palyers have to struggle. Why? Because this game is about them. The DM is there to referee, entertain, provoke, and pester, but in the end, the players are the stars.

That's where I'm at!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What Chess Taught Me About DMing.

It's an old trope that people who love the fantasy genre also love chess. Here, for your reading pleasure, are some chess concepts I find highly useful as a DM (and, arguably, in other pursuits as well).

1. "Tempo"

In the broadest of terms, "tempo" is simply the concept of time as a commodity. The idea is efficiency of movement. Do something simple that has a complicated effect. The difference, as a DM, is that I want to keep the ball in the players court rather keeping all the control to myself.

2. "Positional play."

The idea is simply to understand the value of an ideal long term position. Basically a move can be good in the long view even if it has no point in the short view of things. NPC's, magic items, and loose plot threads (whether instigated or neglected by the players) all have a way of proving useful in ways that you might not have originally intended - so, always keep them in the back of your mind!

3. "Sacrifice."

Sometimes the hardest thing to know is when to let go of something - particularly NPC's and Villains. But, if you do it right, the return (in terms of story interest) can be very high.

4. "Trap"

Can you find ways to complicate the plot by means of the character's own wants and desires? I bet you can.

5. "Draw by Three-fold Repetition"

In chess, if you let the same position occur three times of in a row, the game ends. The lesson? Never let things stagnate.

6. Lasker's Rule: "If you see a good move, stop and look for a better one."

Same with RPG plots. In my mind this has pragmatic application to my previous post about finding "The Edge". 

7. "Mikail Tal's Hippo Story"

I won't bother trying to fully retell the story, but basically, Mikhail Tal found himself in a tough spot in a high stakes championship match. The position was very complicated and he was unable to reason out the correct way to proceed. Suddenly he fell into an intense daydream about, of all things, figuring out how to remove a hippo from a swamp. He claims he actually saw the hippo floating in the middle of the chess board and became immersed in imagining complicated sets of imaginary riggings and pullies!

So what happened? Well, ultimately, he admitted to himself that there was no way he could intellectually solve the problem of the Hippo - it was simply too complex. As soon as he did so, the Hippo dissappeared and he suddenly, irrationally, just knew the correct move.

The lesson? Trust your intuition. In the end, your gut knows what is the best.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thoughts on Character Creation.

It's been a while since I've posted (sorry Mike F!) and I thought this might be a good time to shift the topic. I've just ended a large campaign and am looking forward to getting to take a crack at being a player again!

So, naturally, I thought I'd post some thoughts on character creation. Here is my best advice.

Rule #1: Do something you will have fun with.

This might seem obvious, but I'm always surprised at how easy it is to over-think this point.

A pencil paper rpg has pragmatic realities that are attached to running a character - every class has it's own nuts and bolts stuff you have to deal with, each slightly different. In the end, there's no sense in saddling yourself to something you won't enjoy.

Rule #2: Strike a good balance between how you are TYPICAL of your class, but also how you are ATYPICAL.

The idea is that you want to embrace the nature of your class enough to be functionally sound, but also add enough spice to your concept to make it interesting to play.

For example, if you were playing a fighter who is only about fighting... let's face it, you might get a little bored. On the other hand, if you try to make your character TOO interesting - say you decide to play your fighter as a pacifist who refuses to enter combat under any circumstances - clearly this is just pointless and self defeating.

You might strike a balance by playing a soldier who has seen too much killing and see's no glory in bloodshed, choosing instead to venerate the ideal of diplomatic relations. Suddenly, you have an interesting twist on your fighting skills, but not so interesting that it will keep you from swinging a mean sword when you have to (and, I'm guessing you WILL have to...)

Other examples: I once played a bard who desperately wanted to prove himself a brilliant general. He was more bravado than blade, but it made for an fun time. Also, a good buddy of mine once had a great weapon master who was as tough and deadly as they come - and completely fastidiously about his appearance - almost OCD. He even refused to drink out of tavern mugs, preferring his own silver chalice.

Rule #3: Have a strong POV (Point of View).

There was a time where I might have used the term "goal" or "objective" for this rule - which is more typical of characters in movies, plays, and stories. Of course, the problem is that you might not know what an appropriate goal for the campaign might be. For example: you decide that your over-arching goal is going to be to kill the man who killed your parents, but your DM is starting a story about traveling under the sea to defeat and evil race of water-breathing monsters.

(The caveat to this is if a goal emerges from DM approved character creation, then, obviously, go for it!)

A strong point of view is, in many respects, superior to a specific goal - at least in the context of an RPG. It does two immediate things: first, it adds dimension to your character and, second, it provides a lens through which you see the world.

And it can be almost anything (though you may already have the seeds of it from the typical/atypical balance you have struck within your class). Put simply, a strong point of view is really just having a strong opinion about the world or about an aspect of the world.


Never trust a dwarf.
Gold is always worth it!
Those with power should never let innocents suffer.
Power should be in the hands of the people.
I care about me. End of story.

Take care to make sure you don't pick anything that will make it hard to participate in adventure. Thinking back to our example of the war-weary fighter: rather than having him detest combat, he might see the greater value in unity and diplomatic strength. This way, it's not that he's unwilling to fight, it's just that he places a high value on the idea of taking the high road. (And imagine how he would react to npc's or eve fellow pc's who revel in destruction or who are divisive by nature! Notice how the character has much more dimension than some brainless fighter who simply waits for the DM to bring on the next fight.)

Remember: stats alone do not make you an interesting character. Being an interesting character is what makes you an interesting character.

Rule #4: Embrace your flaws.

First, I mean this literally as I think playing a character with a bad stat is always interesting!

But I also mean this figuratively. To me, the worst thing about a meta-gamer is not necessarily that they are trying to find the loophole in the game or stay one step ahead of the DM, but rather that they are often less able to make interesting choices. Why? Because a meta gamer is inherently trying to come out on top. But, to me, doing something dumb just because your character would is simply more interesting. And keeping the game interesting is what's it's all about.

(See related entries: on Stupid Courage and Optimization Guides!)

Have fun chewing on that - and happy gaming!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Stupid Courage

I remember watching the DVD commentary for Princess Bride. William Goldman, as I recall, said something along these lines (I'm paraphrasing):

There is nothing on this earth that moves me as much as stupid courage.

The most fascinating thing about roleplaying is that is allows for rational irrationality. That moment that occurs every once and a while, when we stick our neck out and do something that seems risky, something that seems crazy, but we just know deep in our character's imaginary bones that they have to.

Lest you think I'm going to ask you what your character would die for, please don't worry. Deciding in advance the way you want to go out probably not as helpful as simply considering: What does your character love?

It might be money, it might be power, it might be a place, it might be a person, it might be a cause, it might even be themselves! Whatever it is, when your character's desire toward this goal starts to override their common sense, the game becomes incredibly fun to play (and fun to dm for).

So, whatever it is that your character cares about, you should feel good knowing that having that extra dimension will make your game so much more fun.

Monday, April 9, 2012

DM Preparation PART THREE: Example?!?

In an effort to to demonstrate how I personally organize my campaign prep, I'm offering this "sketch" of a campaign idea. Please note that it is an intentionally absurd idea, partly for the fun of it and partly to avoid wasting a good idea for a real campaign... the point here is simply to demonstrate how I personally tend to structure an idea, not necessary to come up with anything that is itself brilliant.

So, just for kicks, let’s say you want your next campaign to center around Justin Timberlake’s deranged plot to take over the world via Mass-Produced Christmas Sweaters of Devious Mind Control!

You could sketch it out like this:

  1. Big Bad = Justin Timberlake.
    Secretly never having gotten over his ex (Britney), Justin has fallen into a dark world of crime and global domination! He has hired top scientists to work in his secret lab (built under his Hollywood mansion) where they develop mind-controlling “super-sweater” getting this nefarious device ready for mass production just in time for the Christmas shopping season.

    Why? Because even after becoming a star on the charts as a solo artist, a beloved host on SNL, and a star at the box office, he still has not been able to win Britney back. So now he concentrates on taking over the world, misguidedly thinking that global domination is the only path he has left to impressing his beloved Britney

  2. The Seed: You know who the big bad is (Justin), what he wants (global domination), and why he wants it (to win Britney back), you know where he operates out of (Hollywood mansion).. you might develop some idea as to who Justin’s underlings are (maybe the other members of N’Sync?), what stage his development of the technology is at (Mind Control via hypnotic dance grooves?), etc, etc. Don't forget to figure out a couple key facts about Britney's current situation and... Viola! You’re set!
  3.  Hooks and Pins: 
    Many potential things you could play here - some, obviously, you might not have a full sense of until you know who the characters in your particular group are going to be (it's a different story if your group is full of characters who are in college and desperately want to be on American Idol than if your characters are police officers and psychology professors).

    Are the heroes Christmas shopping only to discover several zombie-like shoppers creating disturbances in various stores (perhaps attacking young and trashy blond girls) while humming “Cry Me A River”? Are they working in retail?
    Does one of their friends receive (or give) one of these mind-controlling sweaters as a gift? Also think about what might happen if they do not immediately get hooked:  how bad does the crime spree get if left unchecked? Again, the particulars of your characters will help provide some openings for hooks and pins, but, at least in a broad sense, you still have some things to work with.
How will the players deal with the mind controlled customers? What do the players make of the strange sweater? Where do they head next? How do they approach Justin once they figure out that he is involved? What happens if Britney gets involved?

Again, this example was intentionally ridiculous (and betrays my dated sense of pop culture) - but it demonstrates how you can organize your core information while never having to dictate the players’ actions – only presenting them with threads to start pulling - threads that get their attention and will ultimately drive toward some some sort of confrontation with the Big Bad (aka Mr. Timberlake).

You have complete flexibility in terms of how the players arrive at their confrontation with Mr. Timberlake, and the vast number of routes for the players to take toward the finale. And, remember players will generate their own avenues of interest for you to use. If momentum lags, you can use more hooks to keep them going. Or even let the Big Bad catch wind of their actions! One way or the other***, you can keep the story going forward without prescribing paths.
Your job is to get the ball rolling and then ride it out until you get to a satisfying ending - whatever that might prove to be.

***((In fact, even if the players decide to do something really crazy, like sell their services to Justin, you still can ride out the story. In that rather extreme case, you simple adjust your equation: Britney becomes the endgame and the players might fight their way through whoever might be protecting Britney (sword-wielding Kevin Federline?) Or even the ghost of Michael Jackson?!? (after all, he was the King of Pop…). And, really, even if they get Britney for Justin, is he going to want to leave any witnesses? ))

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

DM Preparation PART TWO: A Managable Core!

For me, the key to prepping for a campaign is keeping a solid core of information that you use to guide you as events develop forward.

Broadly speaking, all I think you need to prepare three main things:

-The “Big Bad” –the oppositional force, the enemy, the villain. What do they want and why do they want it? How do these desires lead them into conflict with the heroes? And what happens if the heroes do nothing? Make the your bad guy strong, give them a clear motivation and well defined perspective.
-The “Seed” -the core facts upon which you build your story, or you might say: “what’s really going on." Ideally, the seed is not so big as to bog you down with details, but full of crucial information that you can use to build outward where you need to build out (if A is true and B is true, therefore C, D, and E must also be true) Keep the underlying information succinct and dynamic.

-A Sense of the "Hooks" (and also "Pins") – In the "Hero's Journey" sense, this might be called "The Call to Adventure". The Hook involves how the story "appears" from the outside and how it pulls the characters in. A Hook is like a stray thread (or threads) that, if you pull hard enough, could unravel the entire proverbial sweater (and potentially tangle you up in yarn!!!) I would offer a "Pin" as a twin to "Hooks" - Pins are the way a story deals with characters that ignore or fail to deal with problems.

These three areas comprise a dynamic core that will keep you afloat as you navigate the story forward.

Next up: dare I say examples?!?

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Weekly Grind

Me and my boys play weekly. Personally, I enjoy the rhythm of a weekly encounter. Every week is a little different; sometimes you never get to anything you had prepped or sometimes the follow through for the next session is obvious. But, broadly speaking, my week tends to look like this:

Monday is Nerd Night.
Tuesday I wake up with the afterglow. But that is short lived. Very quickly it turns to "How the hell does this move forward?"
Wednesday I think about how stuck everything seems.
Thursday I watch tv.
Friday I watch more tv.
Saturday I clean the house and start trying to figure out what I find intriguing about our current fictional circumstances, what loose ends might be left over, what broad questions/curiosities I have about the players' futures...
Sunday I start thinking about the nuts and bolts of what I consider to be the likely direction for the next session. (Knowing full well that players might prove me dead wrong).
Monday I have one last startling realization that suddenly shifts everything I have prepped.
Then it's go time!