Character Connections & Motivations, Longer Thoughts

I recently ran an impromptu game of D&D 5e for some friends. While I was asking the players for their character’s connections to the other players and the world around them, one person said (I paraphrase) “I don’t have any connections. I live alone in the woods and don’t know or care about these people.”

I was a bit short with the player in response, and pushed them to come up with some connections, even if they didn’t feel like close ones. The player did.

Reflecting on that moment…  Continue reading

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Hiding your Rolls, Quick Thoughts

This will be another quick one, I’m still with family. These thoughts are brought to you by an excellent post on hexcrawls I read a while ago… one I’ve unfortunately forgotten and thus cannot cite here.

In RPG systems where the storyteller must roll dice, there’s a long tradition of storytellers hiding the results of their rolls. There are plenty of reasons for this (fostering tension, keeping secrets, the fact that sometimes characters don’t know whether they’ve succeeded, etc.), and some of them are useful. But it’s worth noting that not every roll needs to be hidden. This especially applies to combat in D&D.

I’d argue that—whenever possible—not hiding your rolls is the better course. There’s more to this: when you don’t hide rolls, it’s okay to not hide foes’ stats. You needn’t reveal them immediately, but as PCs spend a while fighting an NPC they will slowly get a feel for the NPC’s capabilities, and that is perfectly natural. This also speeds up play, as you needn’t try to reference material while keeping it secret from players.

With this approach, there are still times when hiding your rolls is better for the feel of the story. For example, hiding your rolls works well when the PCs are surprised or don’t know what they face. This experience of information asymmetry matches the experience of the PCs. In fact, when players are used to getting information about their foes, the sudden lack of information might completely change their assessment of a situation (likely for the worse).

Note that when you’re not hiding your rolls, you aren’t able to fudge them for or against the PCs. Some players love this, some hate it… and it’s definitely more dangerous to the PCs, as dice are random and capricious. Simply put, when not hiding rolls it’s harder for you to protect your PCs from your own mistakes in creating challenges without foreshadowing them sufficiently.

When you’re not hiding rolls, I would suggest playing more openly in all ways; talk with players about what the PCs are able to see, what they might guess based on their previous experience, and what capabilities they know their opponents have (thus far). Be generous with that information! Nobody likes to be “gotcha’d,” and there’s no need for you to trick players in that way. Save that cleverness for creating exciting and tricky encounters, puzzles, or what-have-you.

Of course, all these suggestions cultivate a particular flavor of game. You needn’t use them if you don’t like them. But I’ve had good experience with them, and I think my players felt more rewarded by their victories when they knew that I hadn’t coddled them by fudging die rolls in their favor. I hope you find them useful.

Forbidden Spells & Summonings, Quick Thoughts

My family is waiting for me to run a game, so this will be short.

My brainworm of the day was wondering why wizards in D&D 5e have so few summoning spells. That’s morphed into thinking about what kinds of summon spells wizards would have.

Traditionally, at least in my brain, wizards have a long history of calling on powers they cannot control and meddling with things they do not understand. It’s part of why wizards have a bad rap in some places. It’s also part of why the ones that survive end up so powerful. Drinking from the firehose and all that.

In the 5e Player’s Handbook (and the other official 5e spell collections I’ve seen), wizards are able to safely summon elementals and a few spirits (Unseen Servant, etc). And if you think of the official 5e spell collections as the “mostly safe and authorized” spells, these limits make sense.

But there’s a model for unsafe summoning spells, via Contact Other Plane. So what if PC wizards researched their own forbidden spells, to let them summon dangerous entities without any guarantee of control? These summoning spells might take the shape of an encounter table, with one entry being the entity the PC was aiming for while the other entries are unknown to the PC.

If clerics can summon celestials, and druids can summon the fey, perhaps wizards dabble in the unsafe arts of everything else. If they manage to make bargains with the things they summon up, they might become warlocks. If they fail to contain the dangerous things they call on, they might become dead—along with most other people around them.

There’s probably some correlation between the level of the spell and the power of the creatures it could reliably control. A PC wizard might begin their spell research by learning about what to expect, with early missteps possibly leading to greater danger down the road.

Clearly, the more ambitious the wizard, the more dangerous the spell.

I’ll explore this more later. Right now, some eager adventurers are calling for me.

Taking PCs’ Stuff: better D&D via Apocalypse World

This post is primarily about D&D’s 5th edition (5e), though it is more broadly applicable. If you don’t know anything about roleplaying games, you might want to read this article first.

This post looks to Apocalypse World (AW) for inspiration on when to take away, use up, or activate the downsides of PCs’ stuff in 5e. Some of these ideas are already present (or suggested) in 5e, but I’ve frequently forgotten to use them. My hope is that this thought-jumble will remind me to use them in the future, and that my ponderings can be useful to other people as well.

Some games are better served by *not* using these ideas. They create a specific tone, more consistent with gritty explorers and dungeon delvers rather than high-powered fantasy adventure or flashy social intrigue.

Lastly, I think it’s important to implement these ideas from the outset, or to introduce them gradually and explicitly. Using these ideas changes the way the PCs’ world works, and might not meet the players’ assumptions. It’s rude to pull the rug out from under the players by making changes suddenly and without warning. I’d want my players’ buy-in before incorporating these ideas into my game, whether that means setting the game’s tone at the start or getting the players’ agreement to them mid-campaign.

With that out of the way… when should we take away the player characters’ (PCs’) stuff?

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World Building: Where Have All The Dwarves Gone?

Today’s post is brought to you by the caffeinated musings which have distracted me from my homework and encouraged me to write world background material instead.

The setting of For The King! is largely lacking playable non-humans at the moment.  There are a few dwarves or elves who might be somewhere in the realm of Duval, and there are some gnomes and halflings and others scattered around, but most people, in most places, are human.  The orcs and half-orcs mostly live to the northwest of the kingdom, generally part of the large nomadic tribes which roam through those sections of the Trade Lands.  Heck there are centaurs too, but they generally stick to the lands northeast of the kingdom of Duval, and don’t have much direct contact except with traders who venture out onto the northern plains.

And yet there are remnants of dwarven architecture throughout the center of the kingdom of Duval, and historical records definitely suggest that they used to live in the area.  So… where have all the dwarves gone?

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Awesome RPG Material Generators

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 3.18.58 PM The above image may not look like much, but it is actually amazing.  It’s the product of a brilliant set of GMing tools, too good to pass up.  This site (http://donjon.bin.sh/) offers you a random dungeon generator, with settings for party size, level, hall layout, shape, room size, and more.  It gives you easily legible maps with mouseover text notes, and downloadable “secret-free” versions for your players.  Other sections of the same site offer more random generators than I can shake a stick at, ranging from inns and magic shops to weather, treasure hoards, and encounters.  It’s not perfect since it’s all pretty, uh, random, and you’ll want to edit features to fit your settings and stories… but it’s amazing when it comes to giving you rapid access to otherwise fiddly information for barely any effort. I do still want the ability to edit generated maps without having to convert them into some other system or format.  But I’ve had so much fun playing around with this for the past few days, and it’s given me piles of ideas.  Suddenly, almost all the prep work that I usually don’t like doing for D&D can be offloaded onto this, and that inspires me.  If you run games and tell stories of any sort, check this out.  It’s too cool to miss, even if you never end up using it yourself.

World Building: Making The Outer Planes Better

500px-Outer_planes

Once again, I find myself investigating the cosmological background of the setting I’ve most recently created.  I was reading through the Dungeon Master’s Guide again, reading the section on planes near the beginning, and I’m in that usual place: somewhere between excited and miffed.  Fortunately, it’s easy enough to change the things that haven’t excited me.

I’m comfortable, for the most part, with the material the DMG offers on things like the Astral and Ethereal planes.  I’m more okay with the DMG’s ideas for the Shadowfell, the Feywild, and the various elemental planes.  I’m not very happy about their ideas for the Outer Planes.  I have some rewriting to do; let me tell you why.

Continue reading

Shenani-games: Random Character Generation is GREAT

This weekend was a good one for gaming.  On Saturday I ran a last minute seat-of-the-pants adventure involving a great deal of bullshitting, and on Sunday I continued to run a standing campaign based on the material I started posting about last fall, in the setting I’ve been writing about this spring.  I had a great time with both sessions.

I’m not going to tell you much about the campaign, since that would potentially expose spoilers, but I absolutely have to share the basic setup of the Saturday game with you.  You remember whothefuckismydndcharacter, right?

Because we had very little time to set up and run the game, I decided that the players should roll down the line, which is to say that they had to roll their ability scores in order without being able to shift them around and spend too much time thinking about what they were going to be.  Then Spaige whipped out whothefuckismydndcharacter and got “a fucking sentimental Human Warlock from a cavern without echoes who is a recovering cannibal.”  I immediately decided that people could rearrange their ability scores as long as they shifted them to match a randomly generated character from that site.  Two of our players (Thom and Whitney) were hardcore / lucky and both rolled down the line AND used the random character generator.

The party ended up with an elven wizard, two warlocks (one human, one half-elven), a rock gnome rock bard, and a dragonborn barbarian.  The party’s wisdom scores were (I believe) 6, 6, 7, 8, and 12, with the barbarian as the wisest party member.  The lowest charisma score for the party was 14, and most people had 16 or higher.  Marvellor the Shit had a 20.  How did he end up with a name like that?  Well…

As the first few people figured out who their characters were, everyone decided that the PCs should start at 3rd level and that everyone would need an epithet of some sort.  We made a joke about the gnomish bard rocking out, and so he quickly became Duane the Rock, rock gnome rock bard.  The dragonborn barbarian, who had once survived a cookpot (it said so in his backstory), was described as having proportions like unto a Red Delicious; he’s bigger up top than down low, but he’s all around larger than he really should be.  He came to be known as Horgrin the Vast.  Spaige’s human warlock took the Great Old One pact, and was thus able to communicate telepathically (Spaige, seriously, I still want the fluff you came up with for that demon-tainted cave of the cannibalistic thought-collective, it was great), so she became Chathi, the Last Disciple of Silent Whispers, or Chathi the Last for short.

Whitney still needed an epithet and was randomly generating her character name (she got extra bonus points, because she randomly generated everything including wizard her spell list), but she quickly realized that her name was her epithet.  She ended up playing The Gart, which was perfect because it continued the tradition of four letter epithets.

By this point people were starting to get a little cracked out and/or drunk.  Thom showed up late and generated his character as quickly as he could, randomly generating the name Marvellor for his half-elf warlock, but was stumped for what to call himself until we pointed out that he needed a four-letter epithet.  Thus was born Marvellor the Shit, and his less impressive imp familiar Bixby the Crap.

Together these hooligans decided to search out a treasure as yet untouched by the adventuring group which had touched (more like scarred) all of their lives.  There’s so much that I’m skipping over, like the beautiful way in which they connected the fragments of backstory given to them all through the random character generator, but suffice to say that they had reason to despise and outdo the people who had ruined the lives that they once led.  As such, they journeyed into the land of Kraskya, the ancient and ruined city, and promptly fought a large number of things that they were hilariously ill prepared to face.  And despite the fact that high charisma types and people with enchantment and deception spells rarely do that well against the undead, they triumphed.

Of course, we left off while they were still stuck underground, more or less trapped by a very very large number of skeletons, but I’m sure that will be a good story for another time.