Tag: D&D

Tough Choices Make for a Good Game

Many years ago, when we were just learning to play D&D Third Edition, our weekly gaming group spent over a year exploring the Temple of Elemental Evil. What started out as a brief tutorial in a new game system never ended, and a year later several players grew bored and frustrated. Though I joined the group a few months after they began, when the PCs were already at 6th-level, I soon had a 9th-level fighter. Moreover, this fighter had a laundry list of magical items and equipment, though where he kept any of that stuff was beyond me. When my mind began to rebel against such senselessness, some players just shrugged, while others told me that the ‘campaign’ was only a tutorial so it didn’t matter. Well, after more time passed, one exasperated player finally said aloud that the campaign lacked any hint of realism, but rather than blame the DM, he instead took the high road and suggested that the group start, you know, role-playing. Now that we had most of the mechanics down, perhaps we should either start over or start playing the characters like real people. He pointed out that the PCs had been exploring the seemingly endless underground site for close to two weeks in a row (in game) without ever stopping to rest, to eat, to drink, or to sleep. Unfortunately, the players largely ignored his objections as trivial. The game dragged on for a few more months, but it eventually imploded because there was zero interest left. While that two-year campaign was torturous in many ways, we had a lot of laughs and also learned to play D&D Third Edition. More importantly, I learned something fundamental that later helped me as a DM: tough choices make for a good game. The reverse is also true, of course: a lack of tough choices often makes for a poor game.

Though this concept of tough choices could be the title of an entire series of articles, I wish to limit myself here to just three annoying practices that I have witnessed countless times. Though I hardly expect that everyone has had the same experiences, some of you, especially those that have played for a while, can probably attest to seeing a few of these. Perhaps you do these things yourself and even defend the practices. No matter. This isn’t about right and wrong or about assigning blame. I simply suggest that these practices actually detract from a good rpg game session (at least one in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons). If these practices are common in your game, you may not even realize that your game is hindered. I suggest trying a few changes. After a few sessions, you may notice that your game has changed a bit, and you may like it.

I have watched PC archers loose one or two arrows per round at their monstrous foes, doing so in six, eight, or ten encounters in a row, yet somehow they never run short on arrows. When is the last time that you heard a player say, “Guys, I’m down to two arrows”? Maybe your playing history is different than mine, but I honestly can’t recall a player saying that. Some characters purchase arrows during character creation and then go for months or years without every buying more. Talk about getting your money’s worth!

Art by Toren Atkinson for Meatshields!

If someone objects, a player might argue that keeping track of such minutia is boring. “This is a game about adventure, not book-keeping!” a player once told me. Two other players that I remember seemed more bothered by the loss of coin than the effort of tracking arrows. One wonders why someone like that would buy a weapon that requires ammunition. Who knows? However, when pressed, at least one said, “I can’t afford to keep buying arrows. The prices in this village are inflated.” By the way, he was not wrong.

Many years ago, my friends and I sent our PCs deep underground, venturing for days without ever giving a thought to our supply of torches or oil. I remember fighting many creatures in that place and eventually getting out alive with plenty of treasure. I don’t ever recall running low on light sources. More recently, I have seen a party of about ten PCs in a long file, winding its way through a narrow tunnel. When the PCs in the lead, carrying the only light source, ran forward to scout ahead, the DM told the PCs in the back of the party that they were now in the dark. An annoyed player grumbled, “We have torches, ya know.” To that the DM flatly asked, “Did you light them before the fighter in the front ran off with the lantern?” Annoyed and a bit incredulous, the player responded with, “We would have when we saw him move away.” This sort of play makes me bury my head in my hands. Yet, we did have fun, and we did so without worrying too much about light sources.

My opening anecdote already touched on how a group could completely ignore the importance of food and water, let alone rest. It was silly, and again a few players seemed annoyed at the suggestion that we start tracking such things. Yet, we had some fun. As a kid, I remember playing in Tracy and Laura Hickman’s desert-themed adventure called Pharaoh. It is still one of my favorites, but I laugh now at our silliness because I recall that food and water were never concerns during that adventure or during the two sequels. One could certainly argue that we had a blast without ever giving a thought to food or water, and that is true.

I submit that bags of holding and portable holes are perhaps the most useless magical items in the entire Dungeon Master’s Guide. Do I dislike the idea of those items? Certainly not! In fact, they’re great. My issue is that so many players and DMs completely ignore realistic limitations on what a person can carry that those items become pointless. A player might moan, “But the encumbrance system in AD&D First Edition is awful!” I couldn’t agree more. It may have improved in later editions, but I haven’t met a single player that has liked any system for carrying capacity.

More recently, my gaming group was exploring an old castle. I watched a fellow player run his seven-foot-tall, female, half-orc barbarian-cleric in her characteristic style. She has a penchant for bull-rushing enemies, dropkicking them, or tackling them. As a side note, I love that she does this for flavor, though some other players dutifully remind the player that the PC could deal more damage with standard moves and attacks (yawn). Anyway, twice or thrice in one recent session, the half-orc delivered a tackle that would have made Jack Lambert proud. After rolling around on the ground several times with her opponents, she then pulled out a javelin and hurled it at a new foe. I could not help myself and asked, “Where did she have this javelin all this time?” Without missing a beat, the player responded, “Tied to her back.” Ok. I laughed inside, for having fought full-contact, mock battles in medieval armor for more years than I want to admit, I can tell you that carrying just an extra longsword can be positively unwieldy when you’re in the grind of a melee. Carrying a long weapon on your back, not to mention rolling around with one on your back, is absurd. I laughed inside but said nothing. The half-orc missed with the javelin, but what did she do the very next round? “I try with another javelin,” announced the player. “Where did you get that one?” asked the DM. You know the answer, right? “It was tied to her back. I had two,” he said with a straight face.

I have no funny anecdote for this, but several times in the last few months, my fellow players have become disgruntled while their characters were in the middle of combat. It may have been a wounded character that wanted to drink a healing potion. It may have been a character that wanted to read a scroll. It may have been a character that wanted to make the equivalent of a Molotov cocktail with oil and rags. In each case, the DM informed the player that it would take at least one round to accomplish the task. In each case, the player grumbled. Again, I put my head in my hands. Of course, the DM was correct. Indeed, in the AD&D game that I run, I would have required a minimum of one round to do such things, and in AD&D a round equals one minute. In these instances, we are playing D&D Edition 3.5, and the players were annoyed that they lost one round, which is only six seconds! Few of the players can roll their dice in six seconds, yet they expect their character to back away from combat, take off the mysterious backpack (that holds everything and never gets in the way), throw it on the ground, rifle through it, retrieve the desired item, and then use it in six seconds.

“I don’t want to miss my turn,” a player might object. He might even continue, “It takes at least ten minutes in between rounds—on a good day—and I don’t want to wait ten minutes before I can actually do something!” I admit that there is logic there, and of course one can sympathize with not wanting to miss out. I think of my eight-year-old when she doesn’t want to go to bed because she doesn’t want to miss anything.

I just laid out three common practices, but in each case, I seemed to admit that the game continued, we usually had fun, and some of the players’ complaints were at least partially justified. So what’s the problem then?

Dungeons & Dragons, as initially envisioned, is a game of exploration and treasure hunting. In this game, player-characters, after carefully selecting their equipment, explore dark, dangerous, and sometimes remote locations in search of treasure, confronting any monsters that threaten them along the way. Exploration is a fundamental part of the game. Removing that, by and large, leaves mainly combat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if that is all that you want, why not just play a gladiatorial game with alien races? That could be fun, but the experience would be radically different from the initial vision of D&D. Some may object to the idea of clinging to a decades-old vision just for the sake of orthodoxy, and that would be a sound point. Yet, I submit that anyone making that argument has not given Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson enough credit. Their initial vision of the game took into account a very basic precept: tough choices make for good games. Consider the following ridiculous example:

Your DM allows your party to have the entirety of the equipment list in the Players Handbook, spread out between the various PCs. He doesn’t care how you manage to carry it all. Furthermore, he does not let the incredible burden that you now carry inhibit your ability to gather as much treasure as you want. This is every player’s dream, right? Even better, when the PCs realize that they need a particular item, even in the midst of a battle, the DM does not force the PCs to spend several rounds rummaging through their colossal hoard of possessions. Instead, a PC can find the item instantly and carry on without losing even one round of action. For the moment, let’s put aside the objection that this breaks radically from the initial vision for the game. Let’s ignore that this would break radically from the exciting and legendary literature on which the game in based (the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, the adventure tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber, the Lord of the Rings saga by J.R.R. Tolkien, or the various legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table). Let’s dismiss the fact that this would make the game much more akin to Pokemon with medieval trappings. I submit that more important is that the game would be BORING. Logistics force players to make tough choices, which in turn creates tension. Tension is what keeps a movie audience on the edge of its collective seat at the movies. Tension is what makes you keep flipping the pages of a book when you are an hour past your bedtime. Tension is what makes many role-playing sessions dramatic and memorable. Eliminating these for the sake of convenience actually does more harm than good to the experience. Consider another silly example:

Imagine playing a game of Monopoly with some friends, some of which have never played before. In this example, all of the players love the game (or at least the idea of it, though if they are over the age of eight, I question their sanity). The game begins normally, but as it progresses, half of the players get increasingly annoyed with having to pay rent, having to pay fines to get out of jail, or having to pay random fees like a luxury tax. Another player even grows tired of collecting rent and collecting money when he passes Go. Thus, several players advocate for doing away with the use of money in the game, as they find it trivial.

Hmmmm. Are they wrong? Should they be able to do whatever they wish with their game? Isn’t the most important thing that they are having fun? Well… no, yes, and yes. However, the real question is this: why would those people that wish to get rid of money play Monopoly in the first place? When asked, one might tell you that he loves rolling dice and just likes to see if he can move fastest around the board. Another might say that she likes seeing if she can avoid going to jail and can instead land on Free Parking, Broadway, or Park Place. These are not ‘wrong,’ of course, but the game without money certainly isn’t Monopoly. Anyone that truly loves the game, as is, and sits down to play in a game without money is in for a big disappointment. If they are new to the game entirely, they might not complain, for they have no idea what they are missing. That is my point though. They would be missing much of what brings tension to the game—much of what forces players into tough decisions. As this is a key ingredient of any challenging and memorable game, they are missing out.

Before I continue, a quick request: Please don’t write me to tell me that ‘having fun is what it’s all about.’ I already know that. If you think that I’m trying to stop anyone from playing their games as they wish, you haven’t read this carefully. I am suggesting that, if players have come to ignore logistics and other hints of realism in their games, they may be missing out. They may not even know that they are missing out. I merely suggest that they try reintroducing some logistics, as they may change the game for the better. How to do this, you ask? I think that players can certainly do their part, but I think that DMs must take the lead here. DMs can design their adventures in such a way that logistics can make or break the party’s chances for success. That’s the key. Consider the possibilities below.

When it comes to ammunition, keep track. A character that is heavily invested in a bow, for example, will only have so many shots. The game changes for him when he runs out of ammo. That should not mean that the fun is over. Far from it! This new challenge requires that PC to be more creative and more careful, at least until he can find more arrows. Great memories often result when characters face terrible danger when already disadvantaged. Moreover, such a situation allows the DM to place arrows as meaningful treasure. In a game in which even magical arrows can seem a bit hum-drum, the player can find satisfaction in finding two quivers of mundane arrows. This is how you keep the game fresh and avoid the slippery slope that leads to Monty Haul campaigns.

As a history nerd and a movie nerd, I cannot help but think of several movies in which a lack of ammunition plays an important role. I’ll offer here just one example. The 1979 movie Zulu Dawn is based on the true tale of the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, in which several thousand Zulu warriors attacked an invading British expeditionary force in what is now South Africa. The supremacy of modern industrial warfare is on full display during much of the battle, as the British soldiers, armed with Martini-Henry breach-loading rifles, just mow down the onrushing Zulu warriors. Yet, a beleaguered British soldier, nervously eyeing the Zulu lines, mutters, “but bullets run out, and those bloody spears don’t!” As the British fire volley after volley, the tension becomes palpable, and when the movie shows a diligent British quartermaster, handing out ammunition one small box at a time to a line of desperate soldiers, you want to jump through the screen and smack him. For a moment, try to imagine that movie (or the battle itself) if the British had endless ammunition. Yawn.

If tracking ammunition seems like added work that you, as the DM, do not want to do, ask the players to help. I do not mean simply asking players to mind their ammunition. In a group of great players, they will do this naturally, but if your group needs a little more accountability, try this instead. Fill out an index card, listing each missile-using PC and his or her ammo. Keep the card in the center of the table. Whenever someone looses an arrow or bolt, ask him to cross it off the card. You may need to remind players a few times, but after a while, it should become habit. This ammo card goes to the DM between sessions. Not only will there be an accounting of ammunition, but every player that uses missiles will notice when the group as a whole is running low on ammo. This may urge players to have their PCs start looking for more ammo, and if nothing else, it makes several players aware that their limited resources are dwindling. This adds tension. The ranger that has weapon specialization in a bow, a +2 magical bow, and only a few +2 magical arrows left will start to squirm, knowing that soon he will have to draw his non-magical longsword, with which he has no bonuses at all. For such a character, the next battle will be tense. Will they be able to prevail before he runs out of ammunition? If not, he’ll have to make do with his longsword, and that will be memorable! Even advancing down an empty tunnel becomes tense because the player will be anticipating the next combat at any moment. Does the party hear a noise coming from down the tunnel? While this may generate tension in any circumstance, it would now generate even more because of limited resources.

When it comes to food and water, keep track. This is admittedly more difficult to use, at least at face value, because most editions do not clearly state that you lose hit points or strength points whenever you miss meals or fail to drink enough water. When game mechanics ignore something, you can be certain that players will too. I am convinced that if the game mechanics did not have rules on drowning, many players would expect and demand that their characters be able to walk for days underwater without ill effect. Rules encourage or discourage behavior. It’s simple. Though the game often lacks rules on food and water, I suggest that you do what most early DMs were entirely expected to do: make up a simple mechanic. If a character is in a desert without shade or water, perhaps he loses a strength point every hour (if you are feeling strict) or every day (if you are feeling generous). Instead of strength, perhaps the PC loses one hit point every hour. There is no right mechanic. Just make up whatever seems sensible. Is this being cruel? Not at all! The goal is not to kill the PCs. The goal is to make the PCs aware that they will not survive for long in a desert without shade or water (imagine that).

If tracking food and water (not to mention strength points and hit points) seems like a lot of work, don’t worry. It need not be complicated. You need not calculate how many ounces each waterskin holds or research the exact hydration needs of the human body in certain conditions. Keep it simple if you wish, but clearly give the PCs a reason to carry and to keep track of water. If you wish to be grossly generous, perhaps each PC on your typical wilderness trek must consume at least one skin of water per day. If they do not, they lose strength or hit points. That certainly isn’t complicated, but it does provide complications for the group. Will they go off the trail to search for water? Will they drink from the stagnant pond that they come upon next (risking sickness and throat leeches)? Will they push on and risk dehydration, fatigue, and collapse? Remember—story complications (like dwindling resources) lead to tough choices, which create tension and make for a memorable game.

One small side note on the above: I tend to favor loss of hit points instead of strength points for two reasons. First, most players instinctively get that hit points mean life. Without them, it’s “Game over, man!” (quoting the late, great Bill Paxton in Aliens). Players may be less aware of the danger of lost strength points. The second reason that I favor hit point loss has to do with mechanics. In AD&D (First and Second Editions), a loss of strength only affects a PC if he initially had extremely high strength or if his strength drops to an extremely low score. That means that strength loss poses little threat. In contrast, in Third Edition and in later editions, a PC’s strength score does indeed affect most characters and in many ways (attacks, skills, etc.). This seems good, until you realize that it requires you to do many mathematical adjustments up and down the character sheet, which slows play and takes the focus off of the story. Hit point loss, on the other hand, has little to no effect on other mechanics (regardless of edition) so there is no delay or distraction.

When it comes to light sources, keep track. While the need for food and water is obvious, it may not seem urgent. After all, you can live without food for weeks and can survive without water for about three days in temperate conditions. In contrast, the need for ammunition can seem immediate and pressing when in a dangerous dungeon, abandoned temple, ruined castle, etc. Yet, even running out of ammo pales in comparison to losing the gift of sight. Of course, darkness is a staple in horror movies, and for good reason. Even some action movies make limited use of the effect. We find a poor example in Raiders of the Lost Ark, right after the Nazis seal Indiana Jones and Marion in an underground chamber. As Indy tries to figure a way out, Marion fends off snakes and yells, “Indy the torch is going out!” If the torch had died, they would have been trapped underground in pitch darkness with hundreds of snakes. This is a poor example only because the condition does not last long enough for the audience to feel anxious. Indy sends a giant statue crashing through a wall and discovers a way out. If he hadn’t, though, the movie would be much darker (bad pun—not intended). The same is true with the classic movie Jaws (which is really a horror movie, but the second half of the film seems much like an adventure movie). Toward the end, after the characters spend hours excitedly hunting the shark, water damage to the boat causes the lights to go out. In that instant, despite all that you’ve seen to that point, the mood changes. This too is only a mediocre example because there is still some light outside. Imagine the movie if that had occurred in the middle of the night. Terrifying.

I think many DMs can use darkness to better effect in their games. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time that the party had no light source at all or was in danger of losing it for more than a few moments? I imagine that most DMs require the party to light a torch or lantern, but as time passes, can the characters simply light another torch or refill the oil lantern? Put differently, has the party really had to contend with being in a dangerous or hostile environment in compete blackness? If not, consider a few possibilities on how to bring about these conditions or how to use darkness once you have it.

First, keep track of torches or flasks of oil the same way that you track ammunition. An index card will do just fine. In fact, you can even put this light-related information on the back of the ammunition card suggested above.

Second, design your dungeon (ruin, temple, etc.) with an area that makes it difficult for PCs to bring torches through. A narrow underground tunnel may have a fierce draft that blows out just about any flame. Though you may know that the draft only exists in a limited area, the PCs should not know that. Will they turn back, will they push on while blind, or will they innovate and find another solution? Tough choices make for good games. In addition to drafts, you could use water as a barrier between two areas. This too is common in movies (even if light is not the focus). Consider The 13th Warrior, at the end of which the characters, trapped underground with monsters closing in, try to escape by swimming through an underwater tunnel in the hopes that they will find their way out (talk about desperation—would you do that?). Another silly example that comes to mind is in Conan the Destroyer, when they enter the wizard’s castle to get a magical key. Yes, the movie was terrible (I know), but my point is that the only way in was beneath the water. In your game, perhaps the only known way to access a certain cavern is by swimming underwater. Do the PCs push forward? If so, they will be without light at least temporarily. Will they manage to keep the torch dry so they can light it on the other side? If not, how would they see? Do they decide not to swim underwater and turn back instead? Do they seek another, perhaps longer or more dangerous route? Tough choices make for good games.

In addition to making it tough to maintain their light sources, consider how to use darkness effectively if they fail. For starters, remember the notion that the greatest fear is that of the unknown. While we often repeat this saying today as a way of implying that we actually have nothing to fear, in our games there may be very good reasons to fear the dark. Let’s start with terrain hazards. Pits (man-made or natural), crevasses, chasms, and crumbling ledges are common underground, and each could lead to serious injury or death.

Continuing with this idea of the unknown, consider how the DM can use darkness to make monsters more frightening. Though the PCs may not be able to see, a crafty DM might add tension by allowing PCs to hear creatures around them, to smell creatures around them, or even worse, to feel creatures around them. That hissing, slimy thing that just bumped into the character in the rear of the party may be terrifying and powerful or it may have one hit die. The players will not know (and will often assume the worst).

If it eventually comes to combat, a good DM will realize that fighting monsters should be exponentially more difficult, if not impossible, without any light. PCs suffer hefty penalties to both their attacks and their AC, and they may lack the ability to direct missile fire at enemies. A generous DM may allow a PC to fire blindly and have a tiny chance of success—though there should be an equal chance that the PC might hit a companion. PCs would also be unable to read from magical scrolls. They might not be able to cast certain spells if they cannot see or cannot find their spell components. A thief or rogue cannot use his backstab ability on a foe that he cannot locate. Even the ever reliable and inerrant magic missile requires a clear target. Furthermore, intelligent creatures that can see in the dark will use every advantage. They may strike from a distance. They may strike a PC and back away from the dumbfounded target. Why stand in a line and wait to be hit? More than anything, they would make every attempt to stop a PC from relighting a torch or lantern. In short, fighting in darkness should be terrifying and desperate. Realize too that your game can improve even if a battle in the dark never occurs. It is the threat of such a battle—the fear of such a battle—that can make a session more tense and memorable. Even better, if the PCs ever have such a battle, you can guarantee thereafter that tensions will rise whenever light sources start to run low.

Darkness brings one last side-benefit. In the Stygian darkness, even relatively weak creatures (like goblins) can be terrifying, provided that the DM runs them properly. This is another way to keep the game fresh without having to resort to increasingly powerful creatures to the keep the PCs engaged.

When it comes to carrying capacity, keep track. In the games that I run, I am a stickler with this, but not as you might suspect. The encumbrance rules in AD&D First Edition were indeed awful. They measured weight in gold pieces, each equal to a one-tenth of a pound. Moreover, each item had an encumbrance value, representing not only its weight, but also its bulkiness. Your strength and your armor type indicated how much you could carry and fast you could move. It was logical (sort of), but unplayable. In Second Edition, things improved some. They started measuring things in pounds, and they did away with encumbrance points. This was certainly better, but still a bit clunky for my tastes. In Third Edition, much remained the same, though they simplified the five categories (unencumbered, light, etc.) to just three (light load, medium load, and heavy load). While this is manageable, I opt to use an even simpler way.

As DM, you need not use a Byzantine system to track carrying capacity. I simply ask each player to note on their character sheet where each item is on the PC’s body. Some find it easier to draw a stick figure diagram, showing me where each item is. Before we start, I ask each player to give me a sixty-second rundown. Reason is our only guide. Usually, players are very practical, and I recognize that the PCs are sometimes stronger than the players that run them. Yet, I insist on common sense. A few months ago, when a player told me that he had a spear strapped to his back, I marched into my garage, produced a nine-foot spear, and offered to strap it to his back while he ran around my front yard. He declined. Sometimes we just need a visual as a reality check. When dealing with a simple list on paper, it is sometimes too easy to keeping adding stuff.

When it comes to retrieving items, use common sense. If you ask each player to note where each of his items is located (as suggested above), then this becomes easy. Before we go any further, remember that editions matter here. In AD&D (First and Second Editions) the combat round is one-minute long, while Third Edition and those that followed use a six-second round. Keep that in mind as you use common sense. My rule of thumb is that if a character has an item within his grasp and does not need to look for it, he can usually grab it in one round or less (though using it may take longer). If a disagreement arises, I just ask a player to walk me through the steps that his PC would need to take. Through experience, I have noticed that disagreements usually begin when a player starts with a vague statement like, “I reach in my pack, grab my flask of oil, light it, and throw it at the monster.” Rather than being argumentative or authoritarian, I usually just ask him to clarify each step for me. My favorite phrase here is “I just want to make sure that I understand you correctly.” This is often followed by something like this: “You have a shield in your left hand and a battleaxe in your right. You have one troll in front of you and one to your right. You now want to withdraw from combat—how far by the way? Ok. You want to withdraw 25’. Then you want to drop your axe and shield. Then you want to shrug off the leather pack that was on your back. How many items do you have in there? Sixteen? You want to rummage through those and grab a flask of oil, a rag, and the tinderbox. You then want to open the flask of oil and stuff the end of the rag into the flask, put down the flask, open the tinderbox, remove a piece of charcloth, wad up a bunch of tinder, grab the flint and steel, hurriedly make sparks until one hits the charcloth, blow on it until it flames, throw the tinder on top, blow on it again, use that flame to light the rag, get up, and then throw flask at the monster? Ok. How long do you think that would reasonably take? Usually the conversation never gets into the weeds because just calling attention to the many steps involved helps the player to realize that it would take longer than he imagined. Sometimes a player responds with, “Forget it. I’ll just attack again.” But more times than not, a player will say, “OK. I’ll do that as fast as I can. If it takes two rounds to prepare the oil, so be it.” I want to stress this point: As DM, I don’t want to stop PCs from doing certain things. Quite the opposite! I just want players to be clear on how long it would reasonably take. I have found that the more we discuss this stuff, the more reasonable their desired actions become. They don’t stop doing fun things; they just realize that it may take them a round or so to pull off their cool idea. In the end, they get to choose. Does the PC continue fighting a losing battle against trolls, trying to save his companions from injury and death? Does he call for the whole party to retreat? Does he withdraw from the battle, leaving his friends even more vulnerable for a few moments, while he tries to put together a weapon that might turn the tide? Tough choices make for good games.

If you have not used logistics in your games (for whatever reason), consider dabbling with some of the above ideas in your upcoming sessions. I think you may need to try them for more than a single session, as enough time must pass for supplies to dwindle. Yet have no fear. The ideas are easy to implement, and they force PCs to make tough choices. This adds tension, which players will remember, regardless of what their characters choose to do. Freaked out, frustrated, and anxious players may even thank you afterwards for the wonderful experience. As DMs, we indeed have a weird job.

RPG-ology #34: Invisible Coins

This is RPG-ology #34:  Invisible Coins, for September 2020.

This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Invisible Coins on July 27, 2001.  It is only slightly edited for republication here.

You’ve probably heard the line about our strange and beautiful relationship—in which I’m beautiful, and you’re… well, I’ll assume you’ve heard it.  My relationship with Multiverser creator E. R. Jones was, from the beginning, strange on both sides.  There were many things about us that appeared similar (to the point that we were mistaken for brothers, and sometimes still people aren’t certain which of us the bearded dark-haired bespectacled faces in artist Jim Denaxas’ sketches depict).  But the more we got to know each other, the more it appeared that we did many of the same things for very different reasons.

He wore a beard because shaving was inconvenient.  I wore one because I didn’t like the feel of the sweat and oils on my face after shaving.

We both put ice in our coffee.  I did it because I’m not very patient about beverages, and would certainly burn myself on it before it cooled.  He, on the other hand, preferred his coffee cold, a throwback to his army days when that’s the only way he could get it.  (And he was the cook.)

We were both highly respected for our skills at running Dungeons & Dragons, both of us having begun some time in 1980.  My reputation was that I was closer to the book rules than just about anyone else.  He, on the other hand, built his entire game on that phrase in the preface, “the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game,” regarding the rest of the system optional.  We learned much from each other in the process of playing together, but our games were never the same, perhaps in some sense not even remotely similar.

And both of us had the habit of periodically tossing an invisible coin into the air and catching it, slapping it on our wrists ostensibly to see whether it was heads or tails, when someone asked a question which required thought. Read more

Prep for Single Session Adventures

Part 3 of a series on designing and running one-shot scenarios. 

If you missed any of the earlier articles, find them here:

Designing the Adventure part 1 • Design part 2

Give out Characters Beforehand

If you decide to use pre-generated characters, send the character sheets to your players before game day. This will allow them to familiarize themselves with the character a bit. This is especially important for spell-casters, which are more complex to run than fighters. Distributing the sheets early also fosters excitement and anticipation for your game.

Bring Extra Stuff

Expect a few players to forget dice, pencils, and paper. These things take only a few minutes to gather, and the players in question will be grateful. Besides, you don’t want anything to delay you, as time is fleeting on game day.

Preroll For NPCs

This is a trick that I’ve used successfully for years now. The slow pace of the combat round has been a bugbear in most versions of D&D, and I imagine that other games have similar problems. Though I learned from experience that AD&D (or 1st Edition) can move combat along quicker than later versions, pre-rolling attacks and damage will speed things up, no matter what version you play. Of course, you can do this in your regular campaigns too, but the practice is doubly helpful with single-session adventures.

I usually roll between three and seven attacks for each monster, but use common sense. If you have twelve goblins, then perhaps thirty rolls are enough. Several goblins will likely die in the first few rounds, and if they are getting stomped, they will likely flee and end the combat. After rolling attacks, you can usually eyeball the numbers and figure out how many potential hits you have. If I rolled thirty times, I might see only ten rolls that are above a 14. Roll that many damage rolls and then add a few extra for good measure.
When you pre-roll damage or attacks, ensure that you include all known modifiers now. The more math that you do beforehand, the less you’ll need to do on game day, and combat will move that much quicker. Make sure that you are clear on what modifiers you already included (jot it down if necessary). Read more

The First Line of Offense

For the first time, I left the evening of D&D feeling accomplished. This time, things seemed to click. The DM drew us further into our character development, and I felt more connected to the character I had essentially created as a joke, as well as a game that was still extremely foreign to me. My character now breathed. There was a specificity to the spells that he cast that resonated with me in a way they wouldn’t have if the DM would’ve continued to explain every attack and action for us. He had stopped holding our hands and telling our stories, to allow us to start cultivating our own facets to the overarching narrative. I cast fire bolt from my right arm, and it wells up from my chest, down through my veins, boiling hot, welling up on my pointer finger until it propels toward its target.

Simple, I know. Rudimentary, even. Yet, allowing me to describe my attacks has enriched what was, up to this point, a difficult play style to get into. After the DM handed the reins over to the players to think quicker and to be more decisive, the game comes across much more alive. It’s as if we’re racing a clock that doesn’t keep time, but does push the passing of time and the narrative forward. Once we took too long deliberating over our next move and, all of the sudden, incredibly jerky kobolds start chucking rocks at our heads. As *plonk* annoying *bump* as *boof* being pelted by rocks is, it is equally refreshing to feel the narrative being pushed, to have that sense of urgency and purpose. Time didn’t stand still, there is no pause button, and I deeply appreciated that!

Read more

Designing Single-Session Adventures part 2

In part 1 of this series on single-session adventures, Michael gave the broad strokes of adventure design, from the desired playstyle to decisions on system and settings. Now we move into more specific adventure construction advice.

If you missed the previous article, find it here:

Designing the Adventure part 1

Consider Multiple Environments

George Lucas explained that when making his original three Star Wars movies, he wanted three very different environments in each film. This practice conveys to the viewer three very different moods in a single movie (in just a few hours), and it also lends a slightly epic feel to the story. In the original Star Wars, we have the barren desert of Tatooine, then the cold and colorless interior of the Death Star, and finally the black vacuum of space as the rebel ships try to destroy the Death Star. In The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas gave us the frozen wastes of Hoth, the humid swamps of Dagobah, and the ethereal cloud city of Bespin. In Return of the Jedi, we start in the lifeless desert of Tatooine, move to the lush forest moon of Endor, and end inside the colorless reconstructed Death Star. Gary Gygax, consciously or not, used the same approach in G1: Against the Giants. The PCs first infiltrate the timber-framed steading of the hill giant chief, then invade the glacial rift of the frost giant jarl, and conclude in the volcanic halls of the fire giant king. Read more

RPG-ology #32: Doing Something

This is RPG-ology #32:  Doing Something, for July 2020.

Although this is actually about a gaming referee technique, I’m starting with an example from a book, my novel Verse Three, Chapter One, freely accessible on the web.  It also begins with magic items, but moves beyond that to objects in other settings and genres.

As the story unfolded I needed to have one character, effectively a support character or non-player character, give one of my main characters a specific small magic object in a magically-shielded bag, but had to do it in a way that would not make it seem obvious that this was my intention.  The easy way to do that was to put several other small magical objects in the same bag, so that the immediately important one would be just one of several.  That’s one trick you should note.  Somewhere in the Harry Potter books, probably in The Half-Blood Prince, Harry enters the Room of Requirement in its guise as the place to hide things so no one can find them, and Rowling mentions several objects as examples of the mass collection of junk.  One of them is a tiara, I think sitting incongruously on the head of a bust of a man, if memory serves.  Then in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, we come to a place where he has to find the Diadem of Ravenclaw, and neither he nor we know where it is–but in fact he and we have seen it already, and just didn’t realize it was important because it was hiding amidst all the other junk.  I had already done the same thing with my important object, dropping it into a bag with four other objects.  My five objects were a paper clip, a coin, a six-sided die, a cat’s eye marble, and an acorn. Read more

Designing Single-Session Adventures part 1

Part one of a four-article series on designing and running a one-shot, single-session adventure. See the end of the article for links to the rest of the series.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been to a gaming convention, but for years I have been intrigued by the early tournament adventures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

At Origins II in 1976, several DMs ran Gary Gygax’s new science-fiction/fantasy crossover, later called S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. This stand-alone adventure was a simple one-round affair, in which various gaming groups competed. A uniform scoring system allowed DMs to give each group a score (and perhaps each player—I’m not sure).

Later, Gygax expanded the scope of his idea to a series of linked adventures. At Origins IV in 1978, over the course of two days, DMs ran dozens of groups through Gygax’s new, three-part adventure, later titled G1-3: Against the Giants. The groups that did best with the first adventure in the first round got to play the subsequent adventures in the second and third rounds, either later that day or on the following day. The sequel, D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth, was not used in a tournament, but at GenCon XI that same year, DMs ran two follow-up adventures in the series, namely D2: Shrine of the Koa-Toa and D3: Vault of the Drow. Two years later, at GenCon XIII in 1980, DMs ran players through the entirety of Gygax’s new Slaver series, including A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers’ Stockade, A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Sometime after each convention, Gygax published the adventures. Generations of gamers have rated several of these series as their favorites of all time.

An experienced DM that tries their hand at writing a single-session adventure, whether for their personal gaming group or for strangers at a convention—whether as a scored tournament or not—will quickly find that it requires a very specific design. You simply cannot plan it in the same way that you would a long-term campaign or even a stand-alone adventure that will take many gaming sessions. What are the required differences? What tips can we use to produce successful single-session adventures? Let’s take a look. Read more

Faith in Play #32: Zealots

This is Faith in Play #32:  Zealots, for July 2020.

Some years back in one of my games an important local military official was murdered, and under the authority of their cavalier the party took over investigating the crime.  They had out-of-character reason to believe that a certain local cleric and his two acolytes were responsible, so they focused on these.  They had been told that the acolytes had taken vows of silence, but were intent on getting them to talk, so they used torture.

Simon the Zealot by Reubens

After the session I commented that their adventure “grades” were going to be penalized for acting against their alignment.  One player objected.  His character was a Neutral Good cleric/fighter, and he said that he could see penalizing him if he were Lawful Good, but somehow he did not think that he had to be quite as Good if he were “only” Neutral Good.

My response was, for what does a Neutral Good character stand, if not Good?

This is the trick to the “side alignments”, that they are ultimately about one value.  In our miniseries on alignment we recognized that the character alignment is the True Religion of the characters in the game, and talked about what each of the four values means in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism.  We also considered neutrality in Believing Balance, and that can certainly impact how you play your side alignment.  But ultimately someone who declares an alignment of Lawful Neutral has as first priority the interests of Law, the orderly preservation of the social order, and so with each of the side alignments it is the non-neutral part that ultimately matters.

And it matters pointedly.  Someone who is Chaotic Neutral is zealously interested in the rights of individuals.  The Neutral Evil character is unmitigatingly selfish.  This is the one principle that drives your life, the one thing you believe matters, the one concept from which your actions spring.

For my player of the Neutral Good cleric, if he had been a corner alignment, there would be other values at play–but that’s really a subject for the next article in the series, the corner alignments.  We’ll get to that.

Previous article:  Magic Roads.
Next article:  Psionics.

Faith in Play #30: Conflict

This is Faith in Play #30:  Conflict, for May 2020.

A few years back my band Collision left its equipment set up in a church in which we had been practicing.  The drummer had gotten our logo made as a drum head cover, so there was this picture of the earth crashing into a giant cross and exploding.  (I don’t know whether you can see that in the picture, but that’s what it is.)  The youth pastor saw this and complained to the pastor about it; the pastor replied, “Are you kidding?  That’s what it’s really all about.”

My Multiverser co-author E. R. Jones was at a church service somewhere and the pastor asked the congregation how they would define Christianity in one word.  Several other people gave the kinds of responses one expects, and then he gave his:  War.  Our religion is, on one level, about a major spiritual battle between God and all that would oppose Him; we are soldiers in that battle.

When I first read about Dungeons & Dragons™ back in 1980, I was drawn to it because it sounded like this was finally a game that could actually reproduce the kinds of adventures we read about in Tolkien and Lewis and other fantasy authors.  Once I started playing it, though, I realized that it went much deeper than that.  Its use of magic and demons, of good and evil alignments, of spiritual forces, made it a wonderful metaphor for the real battle in which we are all immersed, whether or not we are aware of it.  It reminds us that only spiritual weapons can be used against spiritual adversaries, and that our enemy often is not flesh and blood, even when it uses people as its weapons.

There is some reason to think, and some believers do think, that the ritual of bread and wine was never intended to be a special moment overseen by a priest, but was supposed to force us to take our everyday meals as a reminder of what Christ did, that every time we opened a meal with a bite of food and closed it with a final drink that this would remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice, of the body and blood given for us.  Our faith is filled with images and objects whose purpose is to remind us, to cause us to think in terms of our faith.  How wonderful would it be if we played a game that also reminded us, that we are in a spiritual battle fighting on God’s side against the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.

That’s where we are, what we are called to do.

Fight the good fight.

Previous article:  Victims.
Next article:  Magic Roads.

RPG-ology #28: Character Death

This is RPG-ology #28:  Character Death, for March 2020.

A couple times recently I have seen social media posts calling for role playing gamers to express their opinions about character death.  The promoter indicated that he was planning to write an article on the subject, and eventually I had the opportunity to read it–but honestly when I read over his survey I found no response even close to what I think and feel on the subject.  So I thought I would broach it here, and see if I can help other gamers with it.  Diana Jones Award winner Ron Edwards once wrote that my game, Multiverser, had some of the best answers to the problem of player character death, and I’ll get to that, but lets not start there.

I believe it was the first time I had ever run a role playing game, and I had never previously played one nor seen one played.  It was what I’ve come to call Basic Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, or BD&D1, often identified as the Holmes version or Blue Box set.  My three players, all also novices at role playing games, took four characters into the dungeon, encountered four goblins, killed them all, but lost their party leader, a first level human thief.  There was some expression of disappointment and some statement that they buried him, and then the player created another thief whom we identified as the son of the original, plus a fighter, and they hired another fighter and continued their adventures as a party of six.

I have written a couple times about how game characters don’t seem to mourn for their fallen comrades, most recently in Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  This, I think, was the closest I have ever seen to characters holding a funeral.  I have mentioned the time one of my Gamma World characters was killed and I played the other from the couch across the room, but although the player in that game mourned the loss of the character, the other characters did not, not even the other character I played.  I also remember another Gamma World game in which I had started with an upbeat optimistic raccoon-based character and a depressed pessimistic lizard-type.  In the third game session the raccoon was killed, leaving me only the pessimist; by the end of the fourth session, the referee canceled the game and had us create new characters.

The point is that character death can be very disruptive to the game.  After that first session I started running games with kid gloves, doing my best to keep the player characters alive without letting them feel invincible.  One of my Multiverser referees once said that the game let him remove the gloves, because the way it handles player character death means it is no longer a thing to be feared.

That, though, is the other side of the coin.  For there to be tension in play, the players have to fear something, and therefore they have to have something at stake.  A great illusionist referee of my acquaintance was able always to keep every player character alive no matter what happened, while at the same time making us all feel as if death were one wrong step away.  It has been suggested that one of the functions of non-player party members is to provide a member of the party the referee can kill so that the players all feel as if it might have been their character.  I know a referee who never tracks damage done to the monsters but rather remaining hit points of the party members, so that the monsters will die or flee when the player characters are in dire straits and see the end looming.  Yet if player characters never die, players get suspicious, and once they see through the trick the fear is gone and the game is not so exciting.  Player character death must be possible, and sometimes it happens whether the referee wants it or not.

I have come to recognize two factors that are essential to making character death work in a role playing game.

The first is that the death has to have meaning within the game world.  Even a total party kill can be a fun and memorable game if they were facing the ultimate villain of the game, and the more so if they brought him down with their last breath.  The character who dives on a grenade to save the party leaves behind a player who is satisfied that he saved the lives of his companions, that he was the hero they will remember.  If the character gives his life to save the girl, or get the maguffin, or destroy the One Ring, it gives his death meaning in a way that it doesn’t get from taking one too many hit points from an orc ambush.  Try to make the death count, even if (illusionist technique) you have to backwrite a reason why this particular orc ambush was important.

The second factor is that the player whose character has died has to be able to continue being part of the game, if the game doesn’t end there.

One way to do this is to have players run more than one character.  I generally have my D&D players start with one character each, but once they have a solid sense of who that character is I permit them to start a second character of a different type.  This not only gives them more to do in play, it strengthens the party as they go against tougher opponents, and it means that if one of a player’s characters dies he’s still got the other to continue play.

Some referees don’t like that, but instead have players roll more than one character at the start of the game, and then choose one to begin.  Then if that character is killed the referee finds an excuse for another of the player’s characters to join the party.  In games expected to have a low death rate referees will sometimes have the player create the new character when the original one dies, while the other players continue the game.

Another option converts the player into a sort of referee’s helper.  Typically this means that the referee gives control of significant non-player characters, possibly party members or allies, possibly villains, to the player.

I promised to give you Multiverser‘s answer to the problem.  When a player character dies in that game, he immediately returns to life in another universe.  Because of this, as Ron Edwards said, death advances the plot.  It is always best if the character’s death is part of a critical scene, and that often happens, but the essential aspect is that the story continues–which addresses the second part of the problem, because the player is still playing, the character who died is still alive, and we have now moved to a new scene, a new plot, a new chapter in the story.

So my attitude toward player character death now is that it’s a good thing when it has meaning in the game and moves the player into new adventures, new play opportunities.  Find a way to do that in your games.

Previous article:  Cures for Dropping Dice.
Next article:  Political Correction.