I kick sand in his face!

In the previous post I’ve discussed a method to make environmental effects and terrain powers more engaging to the players, making the battlefield itself matter. Still, those are somewhat big things, and it’s not always easy to come up with an appropriate terrain effect to a given encounter. And not every encounter needs them. All too often, a battlefield doesn’t have any major features to it: it’s just a forest clearing or a tavern or what have you. Sure, there are moss-covered stones on which people could slip or furniture to be thrown around, but it just doesn’t seem significant enough to warrant a terrain feature. The DM has enough to work on as it is, so if a terrain feature doesn’t immediately spring to mind, they’re probably better off concentrating on something else.

Why not let players bring the scene to life? It’s a roleplaying game after all, shouldn’t they do their part in making terrain interactive by, well, interacting with it? Unfortunately, while every now and then someone at the table comes up with a flavourful explanation of how a particular power worked out in particular surroundings, most of the time everyone’s too preoccupied with what the game says matters: mechanics. It doesn’t really matter how you managed to achieve a given effect, as long as you have a power to do it. Tactical combat is complicated and enjoyable enough, and with no reward for thinking about anything other than powers and positioning inherent in the game, we prioritize. Battlefield becomes decoration.

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Perfectly Spherical Adventurers in Vacuum

4e adventurers can do a great many things on the battlefield, arguably more than in any D&D edition before. They dart, fly and teleport; taunt, pummel to the ground and plow through. Due to the nature of character powers, they can do so anywhere and anyhow. What works on a swaying ship in a storm will work just as well in a tavern brawl or at the heart of an exploding volcano. Adventurers are, by design, a thing in themselves, a perfect sphere in vacuum.

Which is why we use terrain powers and environmental effects to make encounters truly different from one another. That and enemies, of course. But while environmental effects are cool, they tend to focus on battlefields interacting with characters, not the other way around. Everyone may be forced to make an Acrobatics check at the start of every turn on a ship in stormy waters, falling prone on a failure. As for terrain powers, most of the ones I’ve seen allow characters to spend their actions on something they normally wouldn’t be able to do. Isn’t that what we want? Well, not really. Players have spent significant time on building up their perfectly spherical adventurers. They have likely thought out all sorts of little combos and contingencies. They have picked their powers to cover various tactical situations. They don’t need an option to do something entirely different. This is especially true for standard action powers. The character building philosophy of 4e doesn’t mesh well with terrain powers.

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Reality Breakdown

As their transition to epic, the party I run had to defeat a kobold named Eep. A near-omnipotent, channeling the power of a cthulhu-esque Far Realm god and the Big Bad of the whole campaign (the Patient One), ex-PC kobold. It’s been a long campaign, and it’s nowhere near over yet. For this adventure, I wanted to maximize the feeling that the world around them is falling apart, as reality itself is being ripped to pieces by the waking god.  And as that is happening, normal rules cease functioning. Here are a few of the tricks I’ve used. Continue reading

Are you sure?

Tonight’s post is a general GMing advice. While it’s a basic thing, it’s something that even after 10 years of running games I occasionally forget. It’s also something I’ve promised to write about in one of the previous posts: misunderstandings.

Every now and then, PCs fail, and fail spectacularly. Hilarity and mass death ensues. While that could be a fine outcome for particular play styles, especially in one-offs, and roleplayers accumulate tales of favourite TPKs, it’s not something you really want to happen in a campaign. Even if it doesn’t destroy it outright, it still causes the GM to scrape all their immediate plans and start again, all the while wondering: “What the hell were they thinking?”

In GM’s mind, the sequence of events leading to the party’s demise is obvious, it is the only logical outcome of their own actions. And, with the benefit of hindsight, the players would agree: yes, they’ve screwed up. Why didn’t they see it coming? There are several reasons.

First, they could simply have been missing vital bits of information, due to bad rolls or lack of foresight to ask the right question. Having access to crucial information be dependant on a die roll is a well-known trap, and should be avoided at the stage of adventure planning. Gumshoe system deals with this remarkably well, for instance. But the smaller details still slip through the cracks, or are forgotten.

Then there’s the fact that players perceive the world through the eyes of their characters, which sometimes makes it harder for them to take a step back and survey the global picture on which the GM operates. This isn’t necessarily caused by deep, immersive roleplaying, but perhaps simply by the difficulty of switching mental gears, the extra cognitive step it takes to move from considering what a single character would do to what the whole world would do, and back again.

But the more insidious cause is different expectations. Common within a group that’s new to each other, but still creeping up occasionally in groups that’ve been playing together for years, it stems from the fact that we all think differently. Given the same set of inputs, different people will produce different projections of the likely outcome. But it’s the GM that’s the logic engine running the world, and it’s his or her projection of the outcome that becomes the in-game reality (at least in conventional RPGs).

And when all these causes are combined, when players make decisions based on incomplete data, within a limited scope, following logic that’s different from the underlying logic of the world/GM, it’s no wonder that the outcome is often not what they’d expect. So how can GM minimise such occurences? By providing the likely outcome of the actions the PCs are about to take, with some knowledge check or without, and asking: “Are you sure?”

If it’s the logic of the world that demands for PCs to be thrown in jail after starting a fight in the middle of a city, the PCs should know this, as they’re part of the world. It goes against the adversarial reflex most GMs have, the desire to shout “Gotcha!”, I know. What it doesn’t go against is the capacity the GM has to surprise the players. It’s only the expected outcome that is revealed to them, after all.  And based on it they can make an informed, meaningful choice. That way, they get to own their mistakes and embrace the consequences of their actions.

Death and Danger in D&D

This topic has been preying on my mind lately. So much, in fact, that I’ve decided to resurrect this blog. Not even blog death is permanent! The question I’ve been asking myself is this: what purpose does death play in RPGs, and D&D4e specifically?

1. Excitement
D&D is a game about heroic combat. Kill monsters and take their stuff. Sure, there’s roleplaying, complicated plots, moral quandaries, loves and betrayals and all that good stuff. But eventually there comes a time when you have to kill monsters. And take their stuff. Which is fine, tactical combat is fun, and I wouldn’t be running D&D if I didn’t want it to be a big part of my game.

When you regularly fight and kill monsters, sometimes they get to kill you. It’s only natural. If they could never beat you, the thrill would be gone. The threat of death makes combat exciting. It is this constant threat of death that makes easy resurrection necessary.
TPKs as a result of a string of bad rolls and poor tactical choices is the extreme example of this.

2. Consequences
More often than not, character death comes as a direct result of their choices. Heroes choose to defend the village from the orcs. Potential death is the price they’re willing to pay for the safety of the villagers. It’s what makes them heroes.

An ultimate case of this is final sacrifice. Someone has to stay and guard the bomb until it explodes. “I’m taking you bastards down with me”. Certain death for the cause.

3. Utter Failure
Sometimes characters fail completely and irredeemably through faulty planning and diverging mental pictures of the DM and players (this is a topic for another post). “You said what to the lich-king?”. In this case, death could even become a cut-scene, where the character is unable to oppose the greatly superior force that munches on him or her. Once the story gets to this point, the logic and consistency of the world demands for the character(s) to die. It is a penalty for failure.

4. End of a Story
Death can be a logical end to a character’s path. He has gained revenge on the archenemy, and now can be reunited with his wife in the afterlife. 3.5’s Complete Divine, I believe, had a very interesting note on resurrection requiring not merely agreement from the dead, but drive and willpower to make the journey back, too. Afterlife, even a ghastly one, brings peace and a sense of belonging. Only those with unfinished business in the mortal realm and great motivation (i.e. PCs) can break away from it.

5. Start of Another One
Depending on the cosmology of your setting and the circumstances of the death, resurrecting the character may require an adventure in itself. Free their soul from the clutches of the evil god in whose temple the character died; help the soul escape the Underworld.

Of these roles death plays in RPGs (and feel free to suggest more in the comments), 4 is entirely in player’s hands, just as 5 is in DM’s. 3 is up to them both. These points don’t really require system’s intervention. Which leaves 1 and 2, excitement and consequences. Continue reading

Vignettes

Let’s start with something small. See what I did there?.. Never mind.

This idea isn’t terribly original. Something similar was in DMG 2 (4th edition), and probably in other places as well. But it works surprisingly well, so, hey, why not. Sometimes a bunch of NPCs need to talk to one another, and it would be nice if the players could witness it. A war council meeting, an inquisitorial trial, a courtly intrigue, whatever. Sometimes PCs can participate in it, often they’re not important enough to contribute, or simply aren’t there. But watching a GM talk to himself for half an hour is boring, and gives said GM headache.

Solution? Simple. Let the players do it for you. Print out brief character descriptions for each participating NPC, anything from a single sentence to a paragraph. Who they are, what they want, how they’re going about it. Simple conflicting motivations. Add a picture if you’ve got one.  And distribute them amongst the players however you see fit. I tend to leave a tie-breaker NPC to myself, in order to help steer the discussion and the overall plot direction. Presto! You’ve got your vignette.

Let it play out for a while, for everyone to introduce themselves, state their positions and argue their cause. Sometimes, players will surprise you with their interpretation of your NPCs. Which is of course fine, as long as they’re not obviously exploiting the situation in favour of PCs.

It probably shouldn’t last too long, as the game is about PCs, after all. Which is where the tie-breaker comes into play. As soon as the players start getting bored and the discussion starts to circle, it’s time to wrap it up. But that’s true of any discussion.

One thing I want to try out with this setup, is have enemy minions report on PCs to the Big Bad, perhaps as often as after every adventure. And let the players define more and more about the mysterious villain and his connection to them, without even realising it.