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!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

DM Preparation PART ONE: My Full Disclosure

I come at role-playing campaigns from the perspective of an adult with a busy life. And, naturally, this affects what I want out of a campaign. Perhaps it's better to say, it reinforces my desires. For one, I just don't have the time to invest in a meandering "sandbox" style campaign where the group wanders far and wide and does a little bit of everything under the sun. This approach is best when time is plentiful and/or DM's are scarce. On the other hand, a pre-packaged module (or an overly prescriptive original campaign) starts to feel like a drag on your day, an activity that takes more than it gives back. A role-playing experience, for me, needs to be compelling enough to clearly justify the activity (or, another way to say it might be: I need the experience of RPing to be it's own end, rather than having any traces of doing it with a "killing time" mindset - RPing because there's nothing better to do.)
So, assuming you agree with me that Free Will is the central cornerstone of what makes RPing great... the question remains: how exactly do you prepare for a game where people can, in theory, do anything?!?  
I say, reject either extreme and shoot for a middle way - plan, but try to plan simple and plan smart - and plan in a way that you can move the story forward no matter what crazy thing the players might try (or, perhaps better to say: move forward by riding on the backs of the crazy things they try!)

More soon!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Edge

A piece of advice for other DMs: find the edge.

What do I mean by that?

I mean, you have to figure out where the line is between comfort and discomfort, success and failure, and walk it.

Players, by their nature, will usually seek the comfort and security of their own percieved exceptionalism. They tend to build their characters with one thought in mind: how will I be awesome? There is nothing wrong with this. But as a DM, if you let your players lounge in this realm of comfort, your session will simply not be compelling. (Likewise, you cannot expect that players will enjoy themselves if all you do is beat them down and negate anything they are supposed to be good at.)

You've got find ways to get them to the point where they teeter on the edge, on the brink of disaster, where their abilities are challenged, but not negated... where their future is uncertain.


Becuase it is only when we walk the edge that the choices that we make truly matter - both for the players themselves and the world around them.

As a DM, you should be asking yourself: What do your player's stand for? What are they willing to sacrifice for success? What are they not?

You'll only find the answers if you can push them to the edge.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why I'm down on Optimization Guides. (kind of).

Okay, I'm not actually down on optimization guides. The truth is kinda dig 'em. I like getting the thoughtful analysis, and I appreciate getting an editorial slant on spells/powers/etc. There is a lot of precision and effort that goes into writing these things.

But that's the problem. If you aren't careful, the math starts to stack up so well that it's hard to imagine arranging your guy any other way and you quickly end up with the same character that everyone else who happened to read that guide. Where's the fun in that?

Now, like I said, I'm not really trying to pour cold water on the idea of guides. But I DO think that you need read them carefully, remembering to take their advice with a huge grain of salt.

I say this because guide writers have no idea what the group you play with is like, what the dm you play for is like, or what your campaign might have in store. All they have to go on is the relative value of the crunchy stuff and so they base their judgement on synergy and combat potency.

And...I can only speak from my own experience here, but there has never been a character that I've ever had in one of my campaigns that is worth remembering simply because of how well they were built or because of the loophole they were built to exploit.

For me, it's the illogical quirks that are truly compelling: the fears, the drives, the fascinations, and the foibles. It's the moments where somebody sticks their neck out and does something stupid, something brave, something unexpected simply because it's what their character would do.

Here's another thing to consider: When I've optimized my guys, (and I most certainly have done my share of optimization), there's been another thing that I've noticed: My favorite aspects of the characters end up having nothing to do with the jacked up stats.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the optimized parts have actually been slightly disappointing. Why? I'm not totally sure, but if I went out on a limb I'd guess that, hidden underneath the idea of optimization, is the implicit promise of success - a promise which flies in the face of a game where you roll the dice for everything you do.

Optimization is not a dirty word, so long as it's a means and not an end. (And so long as you can keep it in your head that an RPG is not a video game in need of a walkthrough).

Sunday, February 12, 2012

DMing: “Always Say Yes”

This is the first rule of group improvisation and it needs a little explanation.

“Always say yes” does not mean that you literally always say "yes" to whatever your players ask. If you have people begging you to give them +5 sword of ungodly awesomeness to start the adventure, you can (and probably should) say no.

What “always say yes” actually means is that you should make a habit of accepting what players bring to the story and use their actions as the base upon which you build the story forward.  To frame it in the negative, this rule says: “don’t shut them down”!

If they want to make a pass at a queen? Let them. If they want to kill an NPC? You can offer resistance through the NPC, but you can't stop them from trying. Heck, if they want to spend two hours trying to head butt their way through a brick wall, you can have an NPC warn them against it, or you can have them roll to see how many points of intelligence they lose (and whether, by some miracle, they actually break through).

But remember: while success is never guaranteed, players should always be able to try.
If your players are at all decent to work with, even their most crazy intentions contain some thread that you can weave into the tapestry. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Collaboration and DM Flexibility.

If you've ever DM'ed before, you know that there can be a lot of ego invested in developing your campaign, a lot of pressure to provide a satisfying game experience for your friends.

Quite naturally, our first instinct as DM's is often to find ways to "ensure" success; we do things like pre-planning awesome moments and sketching out great character arcs for our players.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn't start with your players. in other words: you're forcing it. And that's bad because when a DM forces things, a player has really only two options: resignation or rebellion - both of which I view as game killers.

Something I plan on discussing at more length in the near future is DM flexibility and player free will. To me, it is the part of the game that is least talked about - in part, because it is the least quantifiable.
At it's essence, it boils down to this: A great DM does not just create an unforgettable story; they CO-create it. And that difference is huge.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Why Roleplay?

There are so many options available to the modern fantasy loving nerd: movies, books, tv shows, video games, strategy games, card games, table top miniatures... so why do we keep coming back to the pencil/paper RPG?

I am writing this blog because I want to explore the flip side of d20, the side that often gets left behind in favor of stat blocks and character optimization. Don't get me wrong, I love the crunchy stuff too, but I think it's only half the picture. Or, maybe this is a better way to say it: if all d20 roleplaying had to offer were the stat blocks and character builds, I think we'd all have abandoned it long ago for video games, stratagy games, movies, books, etc. But we haven't. And I want shed a little light on why. 

In my opinion, a pencil-paper style RPG remains special because of it's potent cocktail of three things: uncertainty, camaraderie, and, the best of the bunch, free will.

By uncertainty, I mean that the future is a blank slate. Books, movies, and video games have endings that existed before you ever began reading/watching/playing them. In roleplaying campaign, however, players begin a story that is not just unfinished but one that will depend upon the player’s own actions to help determine the course and ultimate resolution.

By camaraderie, I mean that players experience this story together as a group.  You and your friends get to stand shoulder to shoulder, stare into the abyss of hell, and then piss on its raging fire.  Good roleplaying campaigns generate “war stories” that you and your buddies will talk about for years.

By free will, I mean players are totally in charge of their own action. When faced with a problem, they can try anything they want! Take a ship across the ocean to do some magical research? Why not! Burn down a house to distract the local police? Nothing stopping them! Run for public office just to rally community support and piss off the main bad guy? Absolutely! While success is never guaranteed, thinking outside the box is more possible here than in any other form of entertainment.

More to come...