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August 30, 2013


Happy Anniversary, Game Runners!  This blog is now about a year old.  I started off slow, didn't do much self-promotion, and focused on honing my writing skills and generating content.  Content, content, content!  I'm still not the best writer, but I've learned a lot in just a year.

Today's post is going to be about a literary technique that works in gaming.  Not all literary techniques work in tabletop RPGs, of course; but theme and motif are powerful in any media, from music (see Vivaldi... or Green Day) to cinema, and everything in between.  I mentioned motif briefly in my example about GNS and wildfires.  I figured it was time to expand on the idea.


Motif, in storytelling, is a recurring symbol connected with a story element, theme, or mood that the artist wants to emphasize.  Common symbolism includes loud noise for confusion, darkness for evil, flames for purity, water for death, and other stuff you were probably taught in high school and then quickly forgot after the test.  They take motif very seriously in high school.  They take it seriously on tvtropes, too.  Go here to see a list of motifs and examples for inspiration.

Motifs are also used heavily in cinema to add memorable connections to characters and settings without adding extra dialog.  They can include the way the scene is shot, the brightness and color in the scene, the music, background noise, clothing, posture, or more symbolic literary motifs, like snakes, eyes, or water.  As a GM, you don’t get background noise and camera angles.  Like an author, you are mostly limited to symbols.

GMs can use motif in tabletop roleplaying games, as well.  The connection of a symbol and a story element emphasizes the element, fixing it in the players’ memories and calling it back up on association, causing them to be alert for your story element when the motif is present.  Can you see how that would be helpful?  


Villains cry out for motif.  Unlike in novels or cinema, you don’t usually show the villain’s actions when they don’t interact with the PCs, so you can’t color in the villain’s character as well as an author or director.  You need to pack that villain with as much color as you can for the short time they appear in play.  Being the GM, you can cheat.  You can employ the motif even when the villain is not present.  Any time the PCs discover the villain's latest misdeed, employ the motif heavily.

I'm way too hooked on examples.  I need rehab.  But, for example, let's say that whenever the PCs come across the chess-master wizard’s latest crime, you employ the motif of silence.  
  • “As you get closer, you can tell that something has shocked the crowd of servants and liverymen.  The scene is quiet, as they look down on the corpse of the countess.”  
  • “As you enter the central vault, it is silent as the grave.  The light of your torches shines on the central pedestal of the vault, where the orb should be.  But isn’t…”  
  • “The wraiths glide silently toward you in the dim, candle-lit bedchamber, making no sounds.”  

The PCs will connect all of these acts to the evil wizard through their investigations, but the motif will be set up.  When they meet the wizard for the first time in the flesh -- and let's face it, in RPGs, the first face-to-face meeting with the villain is often the last -- the motif will remind them of it all more powerfully than their notes can.  
  • “The bearded man in white robes turns to you slowly and smiles quietly to himself in the silence of the somber funeral.  Then he turns to leave, blending into the crowd without saying a word.”


Themes need motif, too.  Themes are abstract ideas that you want to have recur over and over in your story, to emphasize them – like the “moral of the story” in children’s books.  They might merit their own blog post.  Themes are important in epic stories of heroism as well as gritty, cynical stories for different reasons.  Heroic themes are simple, like “people are good at heart if you give them a chance” or “hope springs eternal.”  Darker stories need themes even more, because they help the players buy into the darkness in your tale.  Let’s say you select the themes of “what is right is not always what is just” or “all that evil needs is for good men to stand aside.”  

Another example.  Let's say you assign the motif of rain for the first dark, cynical theme.  Every time you’re about to drop a scene where the PCs will be forced to choose between being painfully unfair to someone who doesn’t deserve it, and doing the right thing, it starts raining.  Pretty soon, your players are going to start to feel a deep dread when you say, “The morning is grey, with a chill rain blowing in from the sea.”  The gloomy rain will cue them that they will be put in a dark ethical conundrum.  They will grow to dread the rain, feeling it at a far deeper level than just a bit of setting color.

Let’s give the second dark and cynical theme the motif of money.  It works well for “all that evil needs is for good men to stand aside” because the want of money is the root of all evil, right?  (Notice how applying a motif enriches the theme even before it's employed.)  You want to make sure that the PCs associate descriptions of money (or want of it) with cowardice and evil.  When the PCs encounter a good man, if he is wealthy, they will know they can’t count on him, because he is afraid to lose everything he has worked for.  If he is poor, they can’t count on him, because he is afraid to lose what little he has.  Whenever you emphasize the pecuniary status of an NPC, it means you are calling up the theme, “all that evil needs is for good men to stand aside.”  The players will know evil is afoot, and those NPCs will not help, no matter how important it seems.  They will grow cynical about the world, which is the point of using a theme like “all that evil needs is for good men to stand aside” in the first place. 

Entire plots can have motif.  You should consider running at least two simultaneous plots (more on that next week).  Let those plots develop motif.  Some GM bloggers recommend splitting off loose ends like Slash on a humid day, which is great advice, but not all of those loose ends deserve the kind of emphasis a motif can add.  You don’t want to emphasize every plot (it stops being emphasis if you emphasize everything, duh!) – just the ones that will recur frequently throughout your campaign.

How to Use Motif

It’s a little challenging to remember to employ motif.  An easy way to do it is to make a list of major villains, major plots, and major themes.  Then connect each one with a motif.   (Example time again!) 
  • Evil Chess-Master Wizard (Villain) – Silence
  • Can the Heroes Purge Corruption from the Knightly Order (Plot) – Gluttony
  • What is Right is not Always What is Just (Theme) – Rain
  • All that Evil Needs is for Good Men to Stand Aside (Theme) – Money
  • Can the Heroes Stop the Dragons from Mysteriously Disappearing (Plot) – Cold/Ice
  • Great Red Wyrm (Villain) – Fire

Naturally, plan to add motif to any "greybox" you write, or any big reveals you plan.  If you don't write that sort of text, and prefer something like The Angry DM's bullet point method instead, add a bullet for motif at the top to remind yourself to use imagery and symbols.  When you're adding imagery, remember that motif is about efficiency, not an excuse to use unabashed purple prose, so don't go overboard with it!  (Personal note:  One group of my players like cheesy stuff like overblown greybox text, so I go nuts with it; the other doesn't - so to each his own.)  I'll give a full gameplay example at the end to show how to be judicious, but still get the idea across.

You can use your motifs every encounter, or at least most encounters.  Hopefully most encounters in your game will connect to a villain, plot, or theme, with the important exceptions of side plots and PCs going off on random tangents.  And here’s the big payoff for you as the GM…

Let’s say the PCs go off on a random tangent, but then you want to connect it to a villain, plot or theme.  In order to do that, you can start introducing symbolism, until the players catch on to the connection, and respond to the implied connection.  Because they’re reacting to the symbolism of the motif, their actions start to shape the world around them in preparation for your villain, plot or theme, making it easy for you to drop it in.  

So here's a game-play example to demonstrate that…

Francis:  You return to Radua through the Southern Gate. A sentry recognizes you and lets you pass, even though night is falling and they are preparing to lock up.

Alfred:  Hey, I wonder if the town guards know anything about who killed the Baron?  I stop and ask if he can answer a few questions for us.

Francis was not prepared for this.  He quickly thinks about his themes and motifs, and decides to use the theme of “All that Evil Needs is for Good Men to Stand Aside.”  This should redirect the players, and may even add to the story.

Francis:  The guard looks at your party again with suspicious eyes.  “I’m sorry good sirs, but I must get home to bed.  I work the fields by day and the militia at night to help my poor family get by in these trying times, and I need what little rest I can get.”

Alfred:  I offer him ten gold pieces if he’ll talk.  That’s like a month’s pay.

Francis:  “Sir, your generosity warms my heart.  What do you wish to know?”

Alfred:  “Listen, on the day of the Baron’s murder, did anyone leave in a hurry?  Act suspicious?  Do the guards tell stories about that day?”

Francis:  “Oh, sir.  I… hadn’t realized…  Please, take back your coins.  I can’t talk about the Baron’s murder.  The new Regent told us to be silent…”

Francis realizes he’s mixing in a second motif (Silence), but that’s OK.  By employing his theme, he’s realized how to connect this scene to one of his villains.  He makes sure to sit still and not rustle any papers or make any unnecessary sounds as he continues...

Francis:  He continues in a whisper,  “We have to stay quiet about… [pause]… He won’t have it, and I’m afraid of what would happen to my family, if…”

Francis:  He grows quiet, and a long moment passes in silence as he struggles to bring himself to do the right thing.  Ultimately fear prevails, and he whispers, “…no, that’s all I can say.  Good night to you, Sir.”

Denise:  Hardly surprising.  Everyone's scared to stand up to the bad guys in this campaign.

Charlotte:  That damn scheming wizard...

Denise:  Oh!  You're right!

Barry:  And that new Regent?  That’s news to me!  He has this town in an iron fist, and we’ve only been away for one month!  No doubt that wizard is behind this.

August 22, 2013

4e Skill Challenge Example

The 4e D&D DMG and DMK are solid resources for a good game.  But they do a terrible job teaching GMs how to use their skill challenge system.  Without a good explanation, the system, as presented, looks:

  • Rigid, with strict rules and poor adaptability, in case the players do something off the rails;
  • Linear, with skill check successes leading to a single result, leaving no room for player improvisation or alternate resolutions; and
  • Monolithic, with very few alternative ways to use it (the way it looks is everyone makes checks in turn, you keep score, and then it succeeds or fails).
In my experience, it isn't like this.  It's just a structure for balancing what you always did in 3rd edition, and continue to do in Pathfinder and in just about every other game system that has skills!  The point of the system is to make character skills relevant and useful, keep skill DCs predictable, and make players think strategically during a skill scene.

The skill challenge level, skill DCs for that level, and successes/failures mechanic are designed keep the system balanced within fairly tight bounds, and let the GM worry about the roleplay, not the math.  I remember running 3.5 and wondering where to set skill DCs so that there was still tension, but not so high as to prevent most of the party from participating.  Since at level 14, Diplomacy scores ranged from -1 to +29, this was often impossible.  Say what you will about treadmills, the exploding variance we had in the skill points system of 3.5 and have in PF is worse.

The sad truth is, the skill challenge system could have been demonstrated with a game-play example, but they didn't include one.  Here's one for all the GMs out there wondering how to make the 4e Skill Challenge system work smoothly...

A 4e Skill Challenge Play Example

The Cast of Characters…

·         Alfred, and his character Alphrydd, elf ranger
·         Barry, and his character Bear, goliath warden
·         Charlotte, and her character Cara, human warlord
·         Denise and her character Dogfinger, halfling thief
·         Erica and her character Erebus, human wizard
·         Francis, the GM

The Scenario…

The heroes are rushing down the road, trying to catch an assassin who just killed the Baron of Radua.  The assassin has taken the South Road, making for a fairly lawless area near the ruins of Verdidum, a city that was razed to ash and rubble in the war against the invading Empire of Jaskar a generation ago.  The empire of Jaskar was repelled, and eventually retreated back over the sea, but now suffering refugees and hungry bandits fill the area around Verdidum.  The heroes are pressing hard day in and day out, not sleeping but a few hours when they’re ready to drop.  Suddenly, they’re ambushed by bandits…

The Setup…

The setup tells the players what their characters see, what the challenge is, and what the objective of the challenge is. 

Francis:  You come across a fallen tree blocking the road.  Alphrydd, with his keen eyes, spots two humans to his right, trying to remain hidden in the brush, and peering deeper, sees three elves hiding up in the trees above.

Alfred:  I look left.

Francis:  You see two humans to your left as well, and three more elves.  The two humans step out of the brush, and you hear the other two stepping out.  They all carry large axes, and it becomes clear how this tree came down.  Since she’s trained in Streetwise, Dogfinger knows that bandits used to attacking mounted foes usually carry axes or heavy blades to hack at horses’ legs. 

Denise:  I dismount, and signal to the rest group to get off their horses, too.

[The party dismounts.  The GM produces a battlemap and draws out the scene, placing the four human bandits and six elf archers on it, then places the five poker chips representing the horses on it.  The players place their miniatures next to the horses.]

Francis:  As you dismount, one human takes charge, signaling the other three to surround you.  One moves next to Erebus, one moves next to Dogfinger, one moves next to Cara, and one moves next to Bear.  Though he looks a little nervous about Bear.

Francis:  The one that took charge then says “My lords and ladies, I apologize for this, but since the King failed to protect Verdidum, our families have suffered from Jaskari brutalities and the loss of our home.  Food and funds are scarce, so my elven allies and I must ask you to continue on foot, without your purses or weapons.  If you wish recompense, ask your King to repay your losses.  He owes us, and you are the unfortunate deliverymen.”  The elves draw their bows and the four bandits heft their axes, knowing this is where things will either go their way… or not.

Player Agency...

At this point, the players can decide whether they wish to have a combat encounter or not.  And if not, they must decide quickly how they will handle the scene.  The players are used to roleplay, and they sense that because of the tense moment, table talk should be kept to a minimum.

Barry:  Bear looks down at Dogfinger, taking his cues from the savvy thief.  He’s sure Dogfinger must have been in this situation before, from one side or the other.

Charlotte:  Cara nudges Dogfinger, whispering, “Bandits deserve death, but this area was forsaken by King Pasquale   They’re just doing what they have to.”

Erica:  I try to edge away from the bandit next to me.

Francis:  Away from your horse?

Erica:  I suppose that would be smart, since that’s what he wants.

Francis:  The bandit lets you get inside the circle of the other PCs, then he takes your horse’s reins.

Denise:  OK, Francis.  I’m going to try to bluff them.  First, what do I know about these particular bandits?

Francis:  Hold on…

A Quick Conversion…

Francis is ready with my quick conversion formula.

He has designed a level 6 encounter for his level 4 PCs (1350xp in this case – 100 above the budget for 6, but 150 below the budget for 7).  For reference, it uses six L2 Artillery Elf Archers and four L3 Soldier Human Town Guards as the bandits.  The elves are in trees, which would make the encounter hard, except that the party has a bow ranger and a wizard, so it’s no real problem for them.  Francis quickly uses the formula: 

One Combat of Level L for C Characters = Skill Challenge of L+2 requiring 2*C successes before 3 failures

Level L is 6 (the level of the encounter), C is 5 PCs.  So it becomes a level 8 skill challenge requiring 10 successes before 3 failures.  The level 8 DCs are 12 (Easy), 16 (Moderate) and 24 (Hard).  Francis’ level 4 PCs have good trained skills around +12, decent trained skills around +9, decent untrained skills around +6, and bad untrained skills around +2.

Given the plan the players seem to have come up with, Francis sets the Easy (12) skills as Bluff, Insight, and History. 

He sets the Moderate (16) DCs as Diplomacy, Streetwise, Stealth (in case they want to conceal their riches), and Intimidate. 

Anything else he deems inappropriate, and therefore won’t work, or would be Hard if the player comes up with a creative way to adapt it.

Skill challenges 4 levels over the party's level are hard because the Moderate DCs aren't reliable, so they require some luck, and the players need to stick to the plan, so that they're typically hitting the Easy and Moderate DCs with their best skills.  Francis decides that the situation is one where some characters can be more active than others, since the bandits' attention will focus on one or two at a time anyway.  Plus, forcing them to go in turns could make it harder, and it's already going to be hard.  (Keep in mind that the consequence is "not getting to skip the combat" -- so failure is still interesting.)

The success condition is clearly as Denise described it:  She will bluff them into leaving the party alone.  The failure condition is that the combat begins, with a surprise round for the bandits and archers because the PCs would still be focused on trying to talk things out when the arrows started to fly.

The Skill Challenge Begins…

Francis:  OK, sorry.  I had to write something down.  Make a History or Streetwise check.

Denise:  Streetwise, definitely.  [Dogfinger has Streetwise trained, and has Charisma 14]  I got a 19.

Francis subtly makes a check mark on his crib sheet for the first success.  

Francis:  These are The Winston Gang.  King Pasqule’s Seneschal has put a 50gp bounty on each of their heads.  The elves aren’t part of the gang, though.  There’s an elf settlement near Verdidum that has suffered since the razing of the city, so it could be that they’ve made an alliance.

Denise:  I can work with that.  “Mister Winston, I presume?  We’re from Radua.  The only man keeping that pretender Pasquale’s corruption out of our land was just murdered, and we’ve given up.  We’ve come down here to join the rebellion.  We’re going to need our horses and weapons.”  Bluff… oh crap, I rolled a 4…  That’s 13? 

Francis makes another check mark, the second.  He does this behind the screen, and doesn't make a big deal of it.  The players may not even notice a skill challenge is happening.

Francis:  That’s good enough, actually.  He’s a bandit, not a magistrate.  He believes you, but he’s not persuaded to let you go.  “Welcome to Greater Verdidum, then.  History lesson, kid:  Everybody who was born here was born without a copper to his name.  What makes you think you can come in here with fancy clothes, fine horses, and fine weapons when every other new recruit started off with a tattered shift and a cudgel he made himself?”

Barry:  “You’re not being too polite to sympathizers, Winston.  You want to get off on the wrong foot and piss off an armed band who’d make far better allies than… enemies?”  Intimidate.  Rolled a 15, so that’s a 20.

Francis marks a third check.  He decides to adjust the enemy positions as a result of the PCs' success, to give the PCs a little advantage if the fight does break out.

Francis:  The thug next to Bear backs up a little.  The one doing all the talking looks a little nervous.  “We’re not your enemies, big guy.  We just want to spread the resources out.”

Charlotte:  He’s not going to spread the resources out.  I’m giving him a dubious, judgy look.  [Glaring] Judgy!  Judgy!

Francis:  Give me an Insight or Intimidate check.

Charlotte:  I suck at both, but I'm not as terrible at Insight.  Aww...  Rolled a 6.  That’s a 9.  Screw you, purple die.

Francis marks an X for the first failure.

Francis:  He looks pained at her silent accusation.  Cara doubts her harsh judgment for a moment, and she shows it.  He's gained some moral advantage and clearly feels more in control of the situation now.

Erica:  Erebus is also making a judgmental glare, with all the implied hidden wisdom of a wizard.  15, so that’s 22 Insight.  Boom.  I glare lightning bolts at him.  Not literally…  Yet.

Francis makes a fourth check mark.  

Francis:  Great!  You've made up a little of the ground Cara lost.  Give me an Intimidate for Erebus, too.

Erica:  Uh oh.  I suck at…  Oh, 18!  That’s a…  19!

Francis makes a fifth check mark.  He wants to show that they've made a lot of progress.

Francis:  The leader continues, “Well, perhaps your weapons are better off in your hands, if you’ve come to join.  Since they’re the most valuable things you seem to own, you won’t mind leaving your cash and mounts.  None of you looks like cavalry anyway, and the rebellion is going to need horses for messengers and guerilla attacks.”

Denise:  What rumors, if anything, have I heard about this rebellion?   Streetwise, 19 total.  The purple die is redeemed!

Francis makes a sixth check mark. 

Francis:  Not much.  It’s a new development.  You’ve heard that the bandits might all be working together, which sort of signals a rebellion, but nobody’s actually saying the word “rebellion” in the city.  They’ve said that Boss Tabitha is the bandit making all the alliances.  She’s the daughter of the former watch commander of Verdidum, who was flayed publicly by the Jaskar torturers.  It’s said she has a Jaskari arcane codex that was left behind, and her younger sister Daphne is studying the Forbidden Arts to start a Shadow Coven in the ruins.  It’s also said that Tabitha is a monster, has two heads, etc.  Basically anything to make her sound bad.

Denise:  Good stuff…  Hmm…  “We’re to meet Boss Tabitha in less than one week’s time.  What would she say if we turned up penniless and on foot, and explained that the Winston Gang robbed us on the road?”  Bluff…  Natural 1.  What is it with purple dice?  Give me that red one.

Francis marks a second X, and wants to show that the PCs are close to failure.

Francis:  “Tabitha would laugh you out of the Shattered Temple, is what.  You’re not worthy of an audience with her.  Leave your cash and mounts and go home, halfling.”  He laughs scornfully.

Barry:  “You oughtn’t be so eager to test our worth, little man.”  Intimidate.  21.

Francis makes a seventh check.

Francis:  The bandit that’s been talking to Dogfinger backs up five feet.  The other two still next to PCs do as well.  The one who’s been talking glares at you, “We have you surrounded, goliath, and you make an big target for my elven friends.  I wouldn’t be so cocky.”

Barry:  Bear cracks his knuckles and pulls his horses reins to move him out of the way so he can clearly see the talking one.  Then he slowly walks toward him, stopping just one square away.  Intimidate.  19.

Francis makes an eighth check.  While he moves figures on the battle map, he takes time to think about his response.  The PCs are still closer to defeat than victory.  He wants to ratchet up the tension as the scene comes to a conclusion -- either the PCs strategy will work and they'll feel great snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, or it will not work, and he needs to build toward that now, too.  He also wants to show Barry's action's effect, while giving someone else a chance to participate.    

Francis:  Winston flinches back five feet.  Then an arrow shoots into the ground between you and him:  A clear message that while you’ve made your point, any further aggression out of you will start a fight.

Alfred:  Things are getting heated, and all the attention is on Dogfinger, Bear, and Winston.  So I want to use this as an opportunity to disappear into the underbrush.  I think if they lose track of me, it will make them feel like they’re losing control of the situation, instead of controlling it with their threats.

Francis:  That’s a good point.  So far they’ve been acting to keep control.  Make a Stealth check.  But know that if they catch you, it might push them over the edge...

Alfred:  That's OK.  I rock at Stealth.  But...  I rolled a three. Crap.  Uh...  That’s a 16?

Francis makes a ninth check.  Full count!  The next check will make or break the scene, so he wants to turn up the heat even more.  Notice here that Alfred is a player who hasn't contributed much.  If Alfred hadn't chipped in, Francis could have thrown in an unexpected opportunity or challenge to Alphrydd.

Francis:  Wow.  You on a bad day are better than those other elves at their best!  While Bear is stalking up to Winston, you slip into the brush over here…  and when Bear stops, after the arrow shot, the bandit who was “covering” you and Erebus freaks out.  “Boss!  The elf’s gone!”  The leader shouts back, “You were supposed to be watching the elf and the wizard!”  “I had my eyes on the Goliath.”  “Moron.  Find him!”  Everybody seems to get tense, looking around, weapons at the ready...

Denise:  Dogfinger takes advantage of their panic.  “The elf?  You thought we only had one?  Hahahaha!”  Bluff.  Bam!  Go red die!  Natural 20.  Take notes, purple.  That’s a twenty effing nine. 

Francis, marking another check: ten of ten.  The PCs have won, so he concludes the scene.  He moves figures off the map as he narrates...

Francis:  The one near Erebus says, “Boss, I swear I have no clue where any of the elves went.  Hey, our elves are standing down!” ... Winston shouts, “Gwyd!  Get your men back in the trees!”  ...  But the elf named Gwydd shakes his head and makes a hand signal for “fall back.” ...  As the four humans back off, it’s clear who was really in charge in that encounter.  

Charlotte:  As they back off, Cara points at the leader with her longsword.  “One last thing, Winston.  Tell the other ‘rebels’ not to mess with us.  We’re in a hurry, and the next group we meet, we won’t feel as much like talking to.”


With that, the scene is over.  

Note the exposition that happened during the scene.  If the PCs had decided to attack instead of talk, they still would get some exposition, assuming they captured at least one bandit to question him.  The alliance between elves and humans would have cued them to ask about that.  Even if they hadn't, the exposition is optional -- when they get to the ruins of Verdidum, they'll learn about Tabitha and the rebellion.  

Notice that the PCs could have chosen other alternatives.  They could have used stealth and athletics to run away, into the brush.  They could have focused less on bluff and more in intimidate, or even been honest about chasing the assassin, using diplomacy primarily.

It's Fun to Make Up People...

Players build characters to suit their style, and choose how to handle challenges according to their style and character's abilities.  In my example, I envisioned Alfred as the sort of player who likes to break from the group to try something on his own, which is why he played a scout-type ranger.  He waited for a chance to get away to cause mischief   I envisioned Erica and Charlotte as the sorts of players who enjoy taking charge of the scene, with Erica playing more of a silent authority (since she's got a wizard), and Charlotte playing a take-charge leader type (suited to the leader role of the warlord).  I envisioned Denise and Barry as the fairly common, talkative, engaged sorts of players who are always trying to contribute to solving the problem at hand, if their characters were any good at it.

August 9, 2013

A new golden age?

The renaissance was marked by the gradual decline in the power of the monarch, and a rise in power of a diverse class of diverse, powerful oligarchs.  No, I'm not talking about the sixteenth century.  I'm talking about the state of tabletop roleplaying.

As I write this, D&D has slipped from its position as the top-selling RPG product.  Its undeclared bastard heir, Pathfinder, has usurped its position.  The monarchy still holds the throne:
- Mike Mearls leads the D&D Next team, and with Ed Greenwood working on a new Forgotten Realms, its bound to have some traction.
- 4th edition D&D is still selling well, in the #2 spot, despite the lack of support from WotC.
- Pathfinder has been reigning as the #1 selling RPG, and continues to be supported at Paizo.

But growing in power are a few new fantasy RPGs that threaten to shake the old regime to the core:
- Numenera, by Monte Cook, a designer of 3rd edition D&D
- 13th Age, by Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, the lead designers of both 3rd and 4th edition D&D

Then there are a ton of other RPGs, such as Gumshoe with new Night's Black Agents; FATE Core and the Dresden Files RPG by Evil Hat (who I think of as my local game designers); Legend by Rule of Cool; God Machine Chronicle by White Wolf; and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

I want to play all this stuff.  But here's the problem:  I lock into campaigns!  I wrapped up my 3.5 campaign just this year.  When I started it, there was no 4th edition.  I'm in two 4e games, a 3.5 game, a Pathfinder game, and I'm running 2 4th edition campaigns.  Granted they won't go on forever... but they could go on for years before I get space to run these other new things!  Asylum may come out by then.

And I may even try my hand at game design.

August 2, 2013

Protagonists always seem to Win

OK, DMs, what are your chances of beating the PCs?

Today's post is about making toys, and the joy the toy-maker feels reflected back when his products are enjoyed.  As a GM, especially a D&D Dungeon Master, your job is to make toys for the players to play with.  They're also toys for you to play with, of course.  And part of your fun is tuning the challenge level so that the players have a thrilling time.  Some DMs take this too far, and get very adversarial, acting as "killer" DMs.  Those DMs need more help than I'm giving here.  I'm mostly talking to every DM who's built a cool encounter just to have the players come up with a creative way around it, or to have the PCs stomp the monsters to dust before they could pull off their awesome, slow-build bomb attack.  I'm talking to every DM who complains that his PCs have it too easy, or who feels like he has too hard a time really challenging the party.

To illustrate the uniqueness of your role as a DM, I've posed the question, "What are your chances of beating the PCs?"

A Tough DM

To answer the question, I want to talk about a "combat heavy" 4e game I'm playing in.  The DM uses encounters harder than the basic "-1, 0, 0, 0, +1, +1, +1, Boss" spread.  We've had 66 combats and we're halfway through 11th level.  Normally we'd have had to win 80-100 to get to this level.  He's not a "killer DM" by any stretch.  Overall, our experience as long time veteran D&D players, with optimized characters we've been playing for years?  This campaign has some really tough battles in it.

That's what the DM is going for, of course.  So it's good he's doing what he intended.  He's making us feel like we're getting through by the skin of our teeth sometimes.
So what are this DM's actual chances of beating us PCs?  1.5%

In all 66 battles, we've had a lot of PCs drop or even fail a death save.  It happens about every three or four encounters -- remember this DM makes it hard.  And once -- just once -- we had to retreat.  This was a forced retreat, not a plot event.  We were defeated by an encounter we could have won.

We've lost 1 in 66.

The truth of the matter is our characters have almost never been in much danger.  But the game makes us feel that way.  We're smart.  We read the optimization boards.  We memorize the Monster Manuals. Yet every other battle, we're on the edge of our seats.  Harder fights take a lot longer, of course - more rounds and more cautious players thinking through every move making every round take longer.  Because of that, we feel like this particular campaign is all about combat -- which the DM in this case is going for (normally he's very light on combat).  Not every campaign needs to feel that way.

As a DM, I try to keep that in mind.  The basic spread of "-1, 0, 0, 0, +1, +1, +1, Boss" gives the PCs one of those "we might all die here" fights every eight, plus three "don't mess up or we're in trouble" fights out of the other seven.  But half the fights are easier, and can wrap up in twenty or thirty minutes.

You don't want "we might all die here" fights to be the norm.  Even our hardcore DM limits the Level+2 or higher fights to an occasional instance.  Otherwise, he knows, we'd grow far too cautious to feel like we could take risks.  We would analyze every square of movement, spend ten minutes placing area bursts, and agonize over the use of a daily.  Who wants that?

In sum, this is a combat-heavy game, meaning the combat is harder, so it takes longer and fills a greater proportion of our table time.  There are fewer easy fights, and we're more cautious as players.  And still, we have won 98.5% of the encounters we've had.

Takeaway:  You can make the fights harder.  Harder fights take longer.  Longer fights take up a greater proportion of your game time, and combat wariness takes up a larger part of the players' attention and time.  So if you want harder fights, overall, you're going to have a more combat-focused game.  And the PCs are still going to win 98.5% of the time!

In My Games

For my own players, knowing that the fight around the corner could be an on-level fight as easily as a harder one keeps them going.  They're confident when it comes to kicking down a door with just one or two healing surges left and no Dailies.  They're comfortable walking into a spooky room and picking up the mysterious orb on the altar.  They don't need to take five minutes to figure out their turn, because it's not the kind of game where that's required.  The story they're in doesn't punish boldness; It rewards it.

Note that easier fights don't have to be throwaways.  Every encounter should have some reason for being in your story.

They're confident I'm here to give them a story about badass heroes.  When they win a tough fight, I make sure to cheer along with them.  That's the reward I'm talking about:  "Oh man, that minotaur almost had you, but you focused fire at just the right time.  Good tacics!"

I made a toy, they played with it, they had fun.

When I come out from behind the DM screen to roll a monster's attack against the Knight with three HP left, I start a cheering section.  "OK," I say, "I have to roll a 12 to hit you.  The gnoll growls, 'Die, dwarf!' and swings..."  Meanwhile, they start chanting "Whiff!  Whiff!  Whiff!"  When that die comes up a six, there's jubilation.  Naturally, I stroke my beard as if to say "Next time, Gadget.  Next time!" Inside, they know I'm thrilled because they're happy and engaged.  That's the point.  And if I had dropped that knight?  "'Awroooo!' the gnoll howls, 'We feast on dwarf tonight!'"  (Of course I do cheesy voices.  Don't you?)  That really gets 'em going!

So far, they've never had to retreat from a fight, but I keep them on their toes.  I've given them fights where they started talking about running away -- fights where the majority of the party is bleeding out on the dungeon floor and it's up to the cowardly warlock to pull their asses out of the fire.  It's only a matter of time.  They're only level 7.  I don't want to defeat them more than 1.5% of the time.  That's not the story I'm telling.

Takeaway:  A mix that includes easier fights make heroes who feel powerful.  Players who feel powerful are bold.  

Takeaway:  When things get tough, ham it up.  Build the excitement.  Make it fun to win or lose.

DM Fun

The DM is just one more player at the table, and, when it all comes down to brass tacks, the DM's fun is just as important as the other players'.  But don't fool yourself into thinking like a player.  A player is disappointed if his cool thing whiffs.  But he's invested months into the character, whose best thing just whiffed.  He only gets to try the cool thing once each fight, or even once a "day."  He only gets one turn per combat round.  What a downer.

You're the DM.  You've got, like, five monsters.  That's a lot of cool things.  You get five times as many turns as any one of the players.  You can miss 4 of the 5 cool things and still be about on par with any one of them.  Nobody would play D&D if the DM had 50% of the fun and the other five players only got 10% each.

Sometimes, though, there's one cool thing I really want to see happen.  If my monster doesn't pull it off, it's disappointing.  But I use this trick:  If a monster can pull off something cool, I telegraph it long beforehand.  I give the PCs monster knowledge checks and warn them of the horrible danger (vampires can control your mind!), or describe the monster getting ready for it.  "The drow assassin glowers at the wizard, pulls out a two-foot-long dart dripping venom, and says 'This one's for you, Tiefling.'"

That way, when the PCs kill that assassin before she can murder the wizard, they say "Oh thank Corellon we killed her before she could throw that poison dart."  It's a win-win:  If I pull off the poison dart, it's a scary-cool calamity.  "Wizard down!  Cleric!!!"  If they work their asses off to stop her first, it's badass-cool victory.

Even if the PCs prevented your cool thing, it still captured their imagination and gave them a thrill.

Compare this to a movie with a tense action scene where a villain draws a gun on the hero, and they spend five minutes wrestling for control of the gun before the hero kicks it away and roundhouse kicks him into unconsciousness.  The gun never went off, but its presence dominated the scene in a far more exciting way than if it had because of the threat it posed.

If something is going to be awesome for them, it's going to be a defeat for you.  You're going to be defeated 65 times for every time you defeat them.  I guarantee you won't feel good about it when it happens, too.  I've killed PCs in other games, and I can tell you:  You get self conscious.  (Did I use that power right?  Is this because of my house rules?  Did I miss something?)

They're going to stop your drow assassins from using their cool poison dart about twice as often as they're going to get poison-darted.  That's the point, after all.  They built their characters to do that.  You're going to stop them from doing their cool thing just as often, though.  It just won't feel the same because they have you outnumbered.

Takeaway:  Think of all your monsters as one character.  If most of them fail to be interesting, but one does something cool, then you're at least on par with any individual PC.  

Takeaway:  Forewarn the PCs about monster special abilities so that when PCs foil them, it's fun.  The threat of a cool ability could be more fun than the ability itself.  

So instead of thinking like a player, think like a toy maker.  Think like Hideo Kojima watching a speedrun of Metal Gear Solid.

Here's a youtube talk by a guy making the same point as me.