Dungeons & Dragons : Meetings & Retreats

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In part because my last post was about suicide, and I kind of want to push that baby down the feed a step, I’m breaking from my usual pattern of uploading posts on Fridays to post about something that has become more and more clear to me: being a good DM, or GM or ST or whatever, is an incredibly useful skill. (I’ll use GM from here, as it is the term in widest use)

My sister goes to a lot of meetings. She’s been in higher education for a long time now, and is now in higher education administration, which means meetings galore. Her complaints about these meetings make frequent appearances on her Facebook feed, and then comes the chorus of agreement from others, in academia or related white-collar fields, who have similarly bad experiences in meetings.

I’ll say it – I give good meeting. I don’t love meetings and I understand why no one else loves them either, and in part because of this knowledge, I run pretty damn good meetings. In fact, I have realized that running good meetings (or good discussion groups or similar things) is one of my few features. I am currently the President of the Phoenixville Area Clergy Association and the leader of the Phoenixville Area Refugee Initiative solely because I am good at running meetings. (I have literally no other leadership qualities anyone can detect) As a pastor, I also run a lot of meetings – our board, and multiple committees, as well as Bible studies and other classes, planning meetings for weddings and funerals, annual retreats and training events; on and on. If I was bad at running meetings, or even just average, many innocents would suffer.

Where does this skill come from? It comes from running games for the last 25 years of my life. Think about it.

Taking Turns

In a discussion, making sure that everyone has a turn is exactly like running a combat encounter. Making sure everyone has approximately equal time and spotlight, that everyone gets to try to move their agenda forward a step, etc., is part and parcel of the GM skill-set. As a bonus, you’d no more skip a POC or a woman in a meeting than you would skip the rogue or the fighter. You know everyone gets to have a turn each round, and you keep going in rounds until you are done.

Keeping Up Momentum

As a GM you have learned when to talk to move things along, and when to sit back and let people roleplay with each other. You know when things begin to lag and you need to step in and move the story forward. You know how to creatively interrupt people who are stuck in a cycle that isn’t going anywhere. This skill is immediately applicable to any meeting or event you are running – you can read when people are just spinning their wheels and when they’re getting things done.

Rules and Rulings

When GMing a game, you always have to keep the rules in mind, and not only understand them, but also know when to apply them and when not to. In theory, most meetings are run according to Robert’s Rules of Order – where we get motions, and tabling, and calling the question, and all that procedural stuff that makes C-Span so action-packed. But not only is there widely variable knowledge of Robert’s actual Rules, but there are plenty of times when it is best to just set them aside. And who knows better when to set rules aside for the greater good than a skilled GM?

Prep

As an experienced GM, prepping even for a complex or difficult meeting is made relatively easy. If there is a curriculum or an agenda already, that’s kind of like having an adventure module to run. You have to read through, plan for the possible pit-falls, sketch out a few ideas for improvising, and you’re ready to go.

I tend to create things like retreats or classes form scratch, though. It can be a bit of a challenge, but honestly it’s usually nothing compared to prepping for a four-hour game session every week, where I have to keep five adults entertained while also telling a story, keeping rules in mind, adjudicating questions and debates, and juggling the agendas of every member of the supporting cast.

Go Run Awesome Games (and Meetings)

Compared to GMing a good game, running a good meeting is easy. I’m sometimes shocked at how bad some people are at it, but then I remember that they have not spent hours a week for 25 years prepping for, or playing in, RPGs. I have a feeling my 10,000 hours is long past, actually.

So everyone in every white-collar industry that features frequent meetings should start playing RPGs, is what I’m saying. Those of you who want to run good meetings should learn to be good GMs. As a bonus, you’ll be starting in on literally the best hobby there is, period.

You’re even welcome at my games – Friday and Sunday nights. I’ll show you how it’s done.

Making “Failure” Interesting in RPGs

Image credit: https://www.fantasyflightgames.com/en/news/2012/11/19/at-the-core/

I had an idea come to me as I was listening to a review of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG. This particular review was from someone (Dan Repperger of Fear the Boot) who was enjoying the game he was playing in but was simply baffled by the game’s mechanics – specifically, the custom dice mechanic.

I feel like I have an OK handle on it, having run the intro adventure for friends and read through the Edge of the Empire book. The dice system is complex, giving six different interacting results: Success, Triumph, Advantage, Failure, Despair, Threat). Basically, when you roll dice, the result of the roll gives you a lot of information:

  • Do you succeed or fail in your intended purpose? (Success and Triumph versus Failure and Despair)
  • Does your success or failure cost you any stress, or allow you to recover stress? (a use for Triumph and Despair when there isn’t something else to do with it)
  • Does the situation overall get better or worse? That is, you could succeed but the situation could worsen for you overall, or you could ‘fail forward’ where you don’t succeed but your situation improves through some unforeseen windfall. (Advantage and Threat)
  • Does your success or failure trigger some kind of special effect, like the equivalent of a critical success or failure perhaps, or a special ability. (Triumph and Despair)

But this post isn’t primarily about the dice mechanic in Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG. Rather, it is about failure, and how to make failure more interesting, which is a challenge in any RPG that features a success/failure mechanic.

The thought is a simple one, derived from the complexity of Fantasy Flight’s dice system – that a failed roll can either mean 1. you don’t get what you want, or 2. you succeed and get what you want, but the situation worsens for you. This is a variation on the “succeed with a cost” mechanic, but it is rooted in the narrative, in the player’s decision to accept greater overall peril in exchange for succeeding on a key roll. In the FF dice system, this is kind of like rolling Success and Triumph paired with Threat, but without all of the complexity of six different colors of dice with multiple custom symbols on them.

For example: your fighter is surrounded by a gang of goblins. She activates her special ability that lets her attack a group of lesser targets with one roll – you roll, and miss. So, instead of just whiffing on your cool ability, your ability succeeds, but just as you mow down the fourth goblin, you look up to see that the fighting has drawn the attention of the Goblin King…and he looks angry. 

What do you do in your game to make sure that failure is still an interesting part of the story?

Ability Frequency vs Payoff

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I’ve been thinking about an issue in game design, and in running games. The issue is the relationship between the frequency with which a player uses an ability and the amount of “payoff”, or impact on the fiction, that the ability provides. For this consideration, an ability might be an ability score, or proficiency, or skill, or move – whichever things a character has to influence the fiction directly. Whatever point of contact there is between the character sheet and the shared imaginary space.

I’m going to use 5th Edition D&D as one example, but I think this line of reasoning is important for any game, whether one you’re designing, or hacking, or running.

High and Low Frequency

When I talk about high frequency, what I mean is those abilities that get rolled or used often. A good example from many games is the perception skill, or whatever the equivalent is (perception, awareness, alertness, notice, listen/spot, etc.). I wrote about perception previously, and I won’t go over any of that here. The point is, simply, that some abilities get used significantly more than others in a given game. After a while, experienced players figure out what those abilities are, and often give every character at least a little bit of capability there. Perception rolls can be called for in every scene, to detect monsters or notice NPCs or find clues. These rolls can also provide a road-block to the game when the clue isn’t found.

Lower frequency abilities often include lore-related abilities. In D&D, knowledge skills are generally only used for two things: answering questions about the setting and background, which may or may not have any impact on the game, and giving the character knowledge about  monsters that the player knows from the Monster Manual. Other abilities are aimed only at rogues, or in the case of performance, only at bards. These can be low frequency abilities, because only one class will generally be rolling them – though sometimes that class will roll them a lot.

I imagine, in an average D&D 5E game, there could easily be 10 or more Wisdom (Perception) checks rolled, 2 or 3 Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Stealth) checks rolled, 1 Intelligence (Religion or Arcana) check rolled, and zero Charisma (Performance) checks. Each of these abilities, though, costs one proficiency pick at character creation. In terms of character generation, they have the same weight, but in play, they have drastically different weights.

High and Low Payoff

I’m comparing abilities by frequency and also by payoff – by what the ability gets you. Charisma (Performance) is another example of a low-payoff ability. If you use it, you might get a small amount of money or briefly entertain a crowd. Importantly, it doesn’t help you do anything central to any edition of D&D – explore set pieces and fight monsters. By contrast, Strength (Athletics) lets you do things that are central to D&D, like climbing and swimming – things that actually let you navigate a dungeon or outdoor setting. Dexterity (Stealth) lets you avoid combat when you want to, or set an ambush, or gain an advantage in combat. And we’ve already talked about Wisdom (Perception).

Some abilities are high frequency and high payoff, like perception abilities in many games, while other abilities are low frequency and low payoff, like performance or artistic abilities in most games. Other abilities lie somewhere in the middle. I don’t necessarily want to go through an inventory here, just put forward this way of understanding abilities in games and game design.

Frequency and Payoff in Running Games

When running a game, it’s good to keep in mind what abilities your players have invested in, and to make sure that all of them come up in the game at some point. You can also give insight when planning a game, which abilities will come up most often. For an urban campaign, maybe investing in Wisdom (Survival) won’t be all that useful, but Intelligence (Investigation) could come up frequently. In a game that will focus on cults and the undead, Intelligence (Religion) might come up a lot more often.

Some payoff can be in the fiction itself. For the example of performance or artistic abilities, which tend to be low frequency and low payoff, you can have a higher payoff in the fiction. The crowd can go wild, and the character can gain new fans. Maybe they get to stay in the inn for free whenever they’re in town. Later, when they want a hireling to come with them, they get one that is extra competent, or cheaper, or at least really loyal and enthusiastic. For a more concrete payoff, maybe there is a noblewoman in the audience who decides to become the character’s patron, paying her will to perform when not adventuring.

In the example of a knowledge skill, instead of giving basic Monster Manual information on a creature, perhaps each creature could have a particular weakness, or condition that the characters can exploit in conflict. Something like T-Rex in Jurassic Park supposedly not being able to see things that aren’t moving.

Frequency and Payoff in Game Design

Ideally, the frequency and payoff of abilities in game design should balance out. Low frequency should correspond to high payoff, and high frequency with low payoff. I think that this option is more interesting than having abilities be low frequency and low payoff (why have them all). High frequency and high payoff  would work well, though it might at some point become monotonous to have every ability have a huge impact every time.

The key to figuring out both frequency and payoff is playtesting. You’ll see how players use various abilities, and how much the enjoy the payoff you’ve designed in to them. You can not how often the abilities are used, and then when revising, tune the payoff up or down, or perhaps redesign the abilities so that they come up more or less frequently.

What are your thoughts about frequency and payoff in the games you design, play and run? 

Don’t Roll Perception

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I’m really enjoying the One Shot podcast, which, if you don’t know, is an actual play RPG podcast that records one-off scenarios with a wide variety of games. If nothing else, it’s really helpful to have entertaining people play through a game session using a system I’m curious about. Their one-shot of Tenra Bansho Zero was so good it convinced me to buy the PDF, actually.

I’m listening to their backlog, and recently was listening to their Rogue Trader one-shot, as I’m curious about the setting and the system. I was also kind of interested in how this group would approach a setting like Warhammer 40k, since I hadn’t seen any other grim-dark games on their feed and thought it would be out of character for them, so to speak.

It wasn’t very far into the game until, for the first of many times, the players started getting frustrated with perception checks they were called upon to roll. The frustration got to be enough that some of the responses were even a little passive-aggressive, and it’s the kind of thing I’ve seen before in games: players frustrated that they have to roll to see things their characters are looking at. At one point, the GM sort of told them that because it is a tabletop RPG, they just have to make perception rolls. That’s how games are, after all. And most of the time, that’s true.

This is easy to avoid, though, even in games that are designed to call for ongoing perception rolls. Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about times when you are rolling to find a hidden trap, or rolling to target an invisible enemy in combat. Rather, these are just the knee-jerk perception checks that GMs and DMs so often call for. Roll to see whether you see anything.

Don’t do that. Instead, what I’d recommend, and what I try to do in my own games, is to just tell the players the interesting things they see. If they take time looking, they automatically find the clue, or the stowaway, or whatever, because that is the interesting result. These are, presumably, highly competent and skilled adventurers. Even a level 1 D&D character is tougher and more competent than a level 1 NPC.

Rather, call for a perception-style check when there is something secret but non-necessary to the story – some extra treasure, or a clue that would let the PCs skip the next dangerous trap, etc. In brief, passing the perception check should give the PC an advantage or a bonus, and not just let them continue in the story or notice something that’s readily apparent. And when you do call for a perception check, I’d make it clear what’s going on. “There’s a secret here – roll to see if your character finds it.”

(I know I am far from the first person to propose this, but it’s a house rule that I think makes sense in every game, including ones that are not written to include it.)

I think that the passive perception/insight score in D&D 4E and 5E is a great thing for this reason. Instead of calling for constant perception rolls, your perception is like a passive defense that protects you from being ambushed or lied to.

Same With Knowledge Rolls

Yeah, don’t do these either. Tell the player the interesting thing about your setting, or the snippet of ancient lore that adds color to the world. Only call for knowledge rolls when a success would give the PC a distinct advantage: reveal a weakness in a foe, for example, or recommend a solution to a puzzle. If a character is trained, or the equivalent, in a given knowledge skill, just tell them things pertinent to that knowledge when they come up. It’s never interesting not to know something. Then, whenever you do call for a knowledge roll, the player knows that this is a chance for their knowledgeable character to shine, granting themselves and possibly the party some real advantage that might save their lives.

 

Dragonblade!

Image credit: http://www.annett-bank.co.uk/feng-shui-intro (currently unavailable)

A couple years ago I got the crazy idea to rewrite the Dragonlance War of the Lance saga. I loved the stories, but returning to them as an adult, some things in them stand out as…better than others. But the stories remained stuck in my mind, and I chewed over this idea for a few months, off and on.

What I came to was a complete re-imagining of the saga, and the things I thought were cool about it. The return of the true gods; dragons; love triangles. (Spoiler alert.) But looking into Krynn as a setting, it also has its weak points. Ansalon is a continent smaller than Texas, with ice in the south and jungles in the north. There are no fewer than three comic-relief races: the kender, tinker gnomes and gully dwarves. Those were just things I didn’t want to rework.

I ended up creating a mish-mash medieval Asian fantasy setting, in the way that Krynn is a mish-mash medieval European setting. I wanted to get away from the Japan-fetishism that is totally not part of a lot of “…of the East” books for various games. What I came up with was Dragonblade!. And yes, the exclamation is part of it.

Right now I’m working on a 5th Edition D&D campaign based in the Dragonblade! setting. The story will arise out of choices the players make, but it will involve the return of some gods, dragons, and there is already one love triangle. I got rid of the comic-relief races, and the world will be appropriately big.

This is the Obsidian Portal page for the campaign. I hope that running this campaign will force me to flesh out the world more.

Running Evil NPCs

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I am currently running a local group through Pathfinder’s Reign of Winter adventure path. In the most recent session, the PCs (who are mostly good-aligned) ended up taking two prisoners at the end of a big combat, as they do when their opponents surrender. Both of these NPCs who surrendered were listed as Neutral Evil in alignment, but neither one had a reason to fight to the death when the battle was already lost.

One of the NPCs was a human female soldier, a commanding officer, but not philosophically committed to evil. Just naturally selfish and maybe more violent than most. The other was a supernatural fey creature who was evil by nature, corrupted by dark witchcraft. In both cases, the PCs entered into negotiations with them, and were very reasonable. They even let the sergeant leave with her “loot” from her bedroom, rather than taking it.

As a result, the PCs got some quality information, especially from the supernaturally evil fey, because she wasn’t bought in to any particular cause, and was thankful for not being killed with cold iron. In both cases, though, they were kind of moved by the mercy shown, and in the case of the sergeant, I imagine her heading home with her possessions and life intact and really thinking about her life, maybe even making another decision. (In fact, she’s likely to come back later as a character working toward reformation).

The point I’m getting at with this little gaming story is that, given how alignment leads to so much misunderstanding and internet flame-wars (and memes, as above) it’s good to be flexible and responsive. It’s even good to reward “good” behavior in reasonable ways. Just because it says “NE” or even “LE” or “CE” on a character sheet doesn’t mean the person in question is always doing evil things, or will die in order to do evil, or will refuse to surrender, or is always lying and selfish.

Not only that, but these little moments of mercy are the kinds of moments that actually do change people for the better, sometimes, in the same way that one horribly cruel and painful event can change someone for the worse (again, arguably, see above).  If nothing else, it gives “good” PCs in a D&D-style game to be something other than cookie-cutter moralists or, more often, just people who ignore alignment almost all of the time. Even if their mercy is not returned, or if they are taken advantage of, it just pushes them to another important choice – how do they respond?

We Are Old

So, the plan was to have a nice long marathon game session, 8 hours or so, to finish out the GURPS Midnight campaign that we’ve been playing for well over a year now.

We made it for two and a half hours before everyone was in my living room, draped over the couch on on the recliner.  We mumbled about maybe making some coffee or going for a walk,and then gave up and called it a day. Luckily we will play tomorrow as well, and hopefully actually finish.  As the person running the game, I’ll be really disappointed if we don’t.

One of my friends made the point, and it’s true – we’re old now.  (All of us are in our 30s).  We can’t even game for a whole day anymore (honestly, I could have, but my love for gaming is well over into obsessive territory sometimes).

It’s true, though.  Ten years ago we were doing things like gaming for an entire weekend in the attic of our dorm, breaking only for maybe one sleep and a few meals consisting of pizza and Mountain Dew.  We were tired by Sunday afternoon, but dammit, we did it.  Orcs were slain. Elders were diablerized.  Quests were quested and hope was restored to the world.

Not anymore.

This makes me sad.  I know I’m supposed to be a grownup.  I have a baby now and everything.  But screw that – I want to game.  Except that I, and all of my friends, are aging.