Tag Archives: Living Forgotten Realms

If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”

As I wrote last week’s post about players who gamed the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League rules, I feared misleading folks. Years before I started participating in organized play, players told me stories about the Living City and Living Greyhawk campaigns. Sometimes they boasted of their character’s unbeatable combination of magic items and the ingenious ways they won their gear; sometimes they complained about another player’s overpowered cheese and the metagame exploited to collect it. Either way, I drew the same lesson: Don’t join the campaign, because the play style won’t suit you.

I drew the wrong conclusion. If I had only played, I would have had fun.

I have played and run 100s of Dungeons & Dragons organized play sessions in third though fifth edition and even in the Alternity Living Verge campaign. Gamers seldom talk about all the game sessions where a bunch of strangers sat at a table and enjoyed a few hours playing D&D, but those sessions come almost every time we play. No, we talk about the unusual: The rare games spoiled by an annoying player. The characters that stretch the rules to the breaking point.

The new Adventurers League campaign rules aim to reward more styles of play, to give characters a better selection of magic, to level power between characters, and to free players from bookkeeping. The Adventurers League is already fun and welcoming. If successful, the changes will make the league a bit more of both.

Despite all the ways gamers play the campaign rules to win, I have never seen this metagame spoil my fun as a player or DM.

In all those organized play games I have joined, another character has only interfered with my fun two times.

As a DM for the fourth-edition Living Forgotten Realms campaign, one player brought an optimized, high-level defender. In this edition, defenders filled their role too well. This character featured maximized defenses that no level-appropriate monsters could hit on less than a natural 20. With an action, he could mark every foe on the map. His mark imposed such severe penalties that the monsters could only target him. So for hours of play, the monsters could only paddle uselessly at the defender while serving as bags of hit points for target practice.

If his play style could talk, it would say, “I won D&D for you. You’re welcome.”

For me as DM, none of those combats offered enjoyment, but I can also draw fun from players having fun. Did they enjoy being an audience for one player’s 4-hour character demonstration? I couldn’t tell. Maybe they enjoyed target practice.

Fifth edition no longer enables characters who can lock down every foe. I still see characters with armor classes or hit point totals that say, “no one can hurt me.” If a player enjoys a sense of invulnerability, they can get sell out for it. But still, every fifth-edition character suffers some weak saves. And no defender can shield every ally.

The second bad game came years later, when I played a fifth-edition convention session. One wizard brought a simulacrum, a duplicate able to act as a second wizard. The double meant that one player effectively took the turns and actions of two characters. Normally, such a character makes a minor nuisance. This time, the monsters proved badly overmatched. Meanwhile, my plodding cleric kept rolling low initiatives. Through every combat in the adventure, my character never contributed. The wizard and simulacrum blasted, and then the battle would end before I reached my first turn. Obviously, the DM could have dialed up the difficulty, but the wizard’s player drew my ire. Every fight, he played two turns for my none.

“I won D&D for you. You’re welcome.”

DM Tom Christy has run over 300 Adventurers League sessions, more than half for strangers on the Internet. “I ask that players avoid bringing extra, action-consuming creatures.” This helps grant each player equal time to act in combat. The request extends to simulacrums, golems, shield guardians, and charmed creatures, but not to class-feature-specific sidekicks like familiars, animal companions, and mounts. By league rules, the request is purely voluntary. “So far, all players have been understanding of that and happily agreed.” The new adventurers league rules bar shield guardians and slaad control gems, but such restrictions need to go further.

I wish I had more stories of other people’s characters ruining my fun, because a post filled with such tales would draw readers. After years of Adventurer’s League, I just have two accounts. Mostly in Adventurers League new and experienced players, strangers and friends, optimizers and storytellers just join at a table and have a great time playing D&D. Oh well. I suppose non-bloggers prefer it that way.

You roll for random encounters wrong (and so do I)

Original Dungeons & Dragons made rolling for wandering monsters more a core part of play than rolling a d20 to hit—d20 rolls were in the optional combat system that everyone used. Over the years, as D&D evolved, random encounters fell from favor until they neared extinction. In second edition, DMs emphasized story and saw random events as an unwelcome distraction. By fourth edition, battles consumed so much time that one random encounter could devour a session.

Random monster

Random monster

The designers of fifth edition recognized the value or random encounters: The threat of wandering monsters gives players a reason to hurry and to avoid the 5-minute adventuring day. Random encounters make distance and travel meaningful. See “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.”

Traditionally, dungeon masters roll for random encounters during a session, behind the screen.

With players accustomed to this secretive approach, a DM can ignore die rolls and script every wandering monster in advance. Their players will never know.

I have a confession. Sometimes I roll random encounters before a game session so I can grab the monster miniatures that I need. By rolling in advance, am I diminishing the game? What if I just skip the rolls entirely and choose “random” encounters that suit me?

I my last post, I considered the advantages of using random rolls to shape your game. One benefit is that die rolls separate the players’ success or failure from the game master’s fiat. This benefit only comes if you make die rolls in the open and if players have a sense of what the rolls mean.

Few rolls swing the course of the game more than those for random encounters, so making these rolls in plain sight makes sense. But unless the players know what a roll means, the DM may as well pretend to read tea leaves. The chance of an encounter qualifies as secret information for the DM, so rolling for random encounters conflicts with the benefit of open rolls.

Nonetheless, a DM can reveal enough to make open encounter rolls meaningful without spoiling secrets.

Player characters exploring a dungeon or wilderness probably have a sense of what inhabitants they could encounter. Underground, investigators notice either dust and cobwebs or signs of traffic. In the light, rangers and druids know an idyllic path from monster infested wilds. Some PCs bring backgrounds or skills that give more insights. PCs may know a place by reputation. As a DM, you can rely on all these factors—and possibly on some checks—to gauge what to reveal about potential random encounters.

In the past, I would relay such information purely in terms of the game world. “As you travel the Stranglewood, you see signs that confirm its reputation for monstrous predators.” Now, I might add some game mechanics to the flavor. “For each day of travel, you could encounter wandering monsters twice. I will roll on a D20. Higher rolls lead to encounters.” These details help players decide strategy, and players enjoy strategy over guesswork. Plus, players endangered by wandering monsters will  act with urgency.

Some dungeon masters worry that revealing the mechanics of these rolls spoil too many secrets, or that it foils the players’ sense of immersion. I used to agree, but a Living Forgotten Realms adventure changed my opinion. In Agony of Almraiven, players face the challenge of freeing a brass dragon from a net as Thri-kreen harass the beast. The encounter combines a skill challenge with a combat encounter. Before I played this encounter, I disliked it. I hated the mechanical artifice of skill challenges, and this one came with a handout that let players check off their successes. Still, I dutifully handed out the sheet and let the players tackle the skill challenge as a game within a game.

Players loved it.

I ran Agony of Almraiven six times, and every time the players relished this challenge. The experience did little to improve my opinion of skill challenges, but it reversed my opinion of occasionally letting players glimpse the nuts and bolts of an adventure. Players enjoy immersion, but they also enjoy playing the game as a game. For example, players can immerse themselves in combat encounters even though they know all the rules behind them.

The original D&D game exposed the mechanics of wandering monsters without making play less compelling.

For random encounters to benefit your game, players need a sense of the threat of wandering monsters. Don’t show your encounter tables, but do explain that an hour delay leads to another roll, and that if you roll a 20, they will probably meet something nasty. Then roll in the open.

Have I dropped my practice of pre-planning random encounters? Not entirely. I strive for some transparency, rolling in view to see if an encounter occurs. As for the specifics, I might roll and prepare a few options in advance. During the session, I let the dice choose among those I prepared.

Note: The random encounters in an upcoming Adventurers League Expedition inspired this post and the last one. Will this adventure benefit from its randomness? I don’t know. In a convention setting, time and pace pose the biggest challenge, and random encounters make pacing harder. On the other hand, I always learn something when I run something new, and I’ll be running the final version of that Expedition a few times at the Winter Fantasy convention. As always, I hope to see some friends of the blog at my table.

How knowing the difference between a setting book and an adventure helps craft better adventures

What makes an adventure different from a setting book? Both start with maps, locations, and characters, but what extra ingredients turn a source book into an adventure? You might name story or plot as that essential extra bit, but early adventures lacked anything like a story. Many players favor adventures without plots, where you can enjoy as much freedom to play as a sandbox.

Not an adventure

Not an adventure

The fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “An adventure typically hinges on the successful completion of a quest.” The word “quest” adds some gravity to what could just be a search for loot, so I say “goal.”

Adventures start with a goal that leads to obstacles. The first dungeon adventures presents characters with the simple goal of retrieving treasure from the dungeon, and obstacles like monsters and traps that stand in the way. Forty years later, characters may chase other goals—they may never enter a dungeon, but the essential ingredients of goals and obstacles remain.

Even the most primitive D&D adventures assume the game’s default goal of gaining treasure to enhance your character’s power. The early game made this goal explicit by awarding characters experience points for treasure.

Setting books can include maps to explore, non-player characters to interact with, and perhaps even a monster lair, but without goals and obstacles, they fail to qualify as adventures.

The designers of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons focused their design on supporting three pillars of play: combat, exploration, and interaction. Adventure creators rarely struggle to create goals and obstacles for the combat and exploration pillars, but they often fail to properly support the interaction pillar.

A combat encounter features a built in goal—to survive—and ready obstacles, the monsters. Great combat encounters may feature more interesting goals, hazards, and traps, but no one ever built a combat encounter by pitting characters against butterflies and rainbows.

To support exploration, adventures pair maps with number keys. Adventure designers create maps for locations that players have a reason to explore and that presents obstacles. If the players decide buy horses, you do not need a map of the stables keyed with a description of what’s on the floor of each stall. Sometimes adventures include maps and keys for ordinary buildings with mundane contents, but most authors know better.

When adventure authors try to support interaction, they often falter. They devise non-player characters who the players have no reason to interact with—NPCs who do not fit a goal. See “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” They create NPCs who present no obstacle to the PCs’ progress. (Certainly a few NPCs can simply provide flavor or exposition, but most NPCs should do more.) NPCs best fit into an adventure when players encounter them in pursuit of a goal, and when they present some obstacle. By obstacle, I do not mean that NPCs must serve as creatures to fight. NPCs can act as obstacles in countless other ways.

But many adventures see print larded with NPCs that fail to support interaction. The authors devise rosters of colorful characters, but stop short of devising ways to put them in the paths of the PCs’ goals. Authors lavish text on some shopkeeper’s aspirations and home life just so he can sell rope.

For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen describes 22 NPCs who join the PCs on a two-month journey, but few of these NPCs entice the players to interact, and none act as obstacles. If I want to use any to “spice up the journey, or bring the trip to life,” I need to find ways to put them in scenes with the players. When I ran Hoard, I did this work. But designers Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur claimed a bit of my money while working as RPG designers—a dream job. I paid them to do the work for me. Instead they dumped a load of parts, and then left the work to me. Ironically, the dragon cultists on the same journey, who may serve as obstacles, get no description at all.

Not enough for interaction

Not enough for interaction

Adventure designers fail when they suppose that character descriptions alone provide enough basis for interaction. Like maps and monster stats, NPC descriptions cannot stand alone in an adventure. Scenes provide the true basis for interaction.

Scenes require at least one of these three elements: a goal, an obstacle, and a lead. The best have all three elements.

The goal for a scene stems from what the players think they can accomplish by meeting a non-player character. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Strike a deal with the troll to let you pass. Discover why the beggar keeps staring at the party. Whenever the players must persuade an NPC to provide help or information, they have a goal.

Scenes without goals begin when NPCs approach the PCs. These scenes can provide flavor or exposition. For example, the players may help a merchant who speaks of the ghost ship raiding the coast, or a beggar who explains how the wizard looks just like a legendary tyrant. Most scenes without a goal establish one when an NPC explains what they offer, and then what obstacles the PCs must overcome to gain cooperation.

If an NPC only provides flavor without advancing the PCs’ goals, the players may enjoy a brief interaction, but soon they will wonder why you judged the NPC worth bringing on stage. “Who is this guy? Did we miss something that should make us care?”

A scene’s simplest obstacle comes when players must devise the right questions to get information they need from a willing source. Greater obstacles appear whenever an NPC in a scene proves unwilling or unable to help. For more, see “22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.” Scenes without obstacles tend to play short. Once players get the bit of information or assistance they need, they tend to grow impatient, ready for the next challenge.

Even if an NPC helps the players, when a scene presents no obstacles, players will lose interest. If you devote too much time to colorful shopkeepers when the players just want gear, they will gripe. Perhaps not to you, but to me. I’ve heard them. A lack of obstacles means that an adventure’s denouement, where the PC’s patron grants treasure and ties up loose ends, never seems very compelling.

Most scenes end with at least one lead, some clue or item that directs the players to their next step. For example, a lead could be the identity of the burglar who stole the Casket of Wrath, or the key to the vault. The best scenes end with a choice of leads to follow.

Fourth edition Living Forgotten Realms adventures often supported interaction with scenes rather than just characters. The fifth-edition adventures I’ve seen lapse back to just listing NPCs. Why? I suspect the 5E designers associate scenes with railroading. They wish to break from the tight-plotting of 4E adventures, where players moved between encounter numbers 1-2-3, in order. Instead, they list characters, and so force me to give players a reason to meet them in scenes.

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

Scenes in the Living Forgotten Realms Adventure ELTU3-1 Good Intentions

The plots and NPCs in recent adventures like Hoard of the Dragon Queen and especially Murder in Baldur’s Gate show true ambition. I suspect the designers aimed for the role-playing equivalent of the n-body problem with the players and NPCs scheming, acting, and reacting in ways too dynamic for the constraints of scenes and encounters. So the authors delegate keeping track of all the threads to the dungeon master. We must become George R. R. Martin, except instead of getting years to hash out the details, we must improvise. To add to the challenge, these adventures still expect dungeon masters to adhere to an overall story, so I find myself choosing whether to use DM mind tricks to nudge the players back on course or to allow them to stray completely off text.  For me, the ambition of these adventures works better in scenarios I create, when I have a complete understanding of moving parts that I created. Published adventures work best when the DM can operate without mastery of entire storyline and its many, moving parts. They work best when they hold to encounters, locations, and scenes—with ample, meaningful choices for the players to choose a course from scene to scene.

Scenes do not contribute to railroading any more than dungeon walls. Railroading comes when adventures fail to offer players choices. If every scene ends with exactly one lead, then you have a railroad. If each scene ends with a few leads that offer interesting, meaningful choices, then you have adventure.

Related: For an example of my struggle to injecting more interaction into an adventure, see “What Murder In Baldur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing.”

Organized play versus random ability scores

Legacy of the Green RegentWhen fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons arrived, many players saw an attempt to bring the play style of computer role-playing to the tabletop. That may be true, but I saw an effort to create a game that delivered a consistent public-play experience. By the end of third edition, Living Greyhawk, Legacy of the Green Regent, and similar organized-play campaigns dominated the game to the extent that third-party books of character options no longer sold because their options were not legal in organized play.

Unlike, say, a Magic the Gathering tournament, the players’ enjoyment of a public D&D game hinges on the quality of the DM.

Perhaps aiming to deliver a consistent, fun organized play experience, the fourth-edition designers created a game that minimized a dungeon master’s influence on the game. When you sat at a Living Forgotten Realms table, players could count on the same experience no matter who took the dungeon master’s chair, at least in theory. Potentially, a 4E DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For actions outside of combat, 4E presents the skill challenge, where the DM only has to decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance. For more, see “D&D Next empowers DMs; players stay empowered.”

A focus on organized play extends to character creation too. Fourth edition became the first D&D edition that presented a point-buy system as the standard method of rolling—make that creating—a character’s ability scores. For the first time, the standard characters worked for public play.

So nothing about the fifth edition surprises me as much as the return to rolling ability scores as the standard method. This reversal shows the designers aiming to bring the game back to its roots, to create a game for the kitchen table first, and then offering public play as an alternative.

Too bad the game does random abilities scores wrong.

In fifth edition D&D, players generate abilities scores by rolling 4d6 and add the three highest dice to generate each of 6 scores, and then they assign these 6 scores to the 6 abilities in any order.

Plenty of history backs this method. It first appeared as the first recommended method in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. The method carries through second and third editions.

The best quality of random character generation comes from the interesting but not quite optimal characters created. Random ability scores can create characters that feel organic—that break the optimal recipes of good ability scores and dump stats. For example, your randomly-generated fighter might have a high intelligence and a weaker constitution. These unusual combinations can fuel both role-playing and play strategy.

Allowing players to assign scores to any ability keeps the worst part of rolling characters—uneven character power. Then the method throws out the best part of rolling—interesting and organic characters.

I get the method’s purpose: Players can assign rolls to suit their chosen class. While some old-schoolers may find this decadent, the game should allow enough latitude to choose a class. Even in original D&D, where the referee rolled the characters, players could choose from a pool of candidates.

Rather than allowing players to shuffle rolled ability scores into any order, I suggest players roll scores in order, and then swap two scores. This system keeps characters organic and interesting, while giving players flexibility to choose a class. Plus, new players only have one decision to make. If you want to compensate for the less-flexible scores, allow players to reroll one bad score. That’s decadent enough.

Five ways to create more usable game books

In my last post, I accused Wizards of the Coast of showing increasing indifference to making game books usable at the game table. Now I have five suggestions for creating more usable documents.

Break the content into short, labeled chunks

When readers try to find something in a game book, they often flip pages and scan for the nugget they need. This works best when the book breaks the information into concise, labeled chunks. The chunks must be stick to a single idea, so nothing important gets stranded without a label. The labels must stand out for easy scanning. Color headings jump out. Mixed case reads quicker, even though misguided designers seem to favor all upper-case titles. Hanging titles serve particularly well, but as much as game publishers love tiny, 8-point text, I’m certain the prospect of adding white space would send them in a paroxysm of weeping.

When I read an adventure to run, I will write my own labels in the margins of any copy I can mark. This way, when I must find some fact at the table, I can easily scan the pages.

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

What goes wrong? Some authors and editors eschew frequent sub-headings because they dislike “wasting” space that could be devoted to burying more words in unbroken columns. I get it. Everyone passionate about writing, myself included, loves every precious word from their keyboard. Also, the discipline of labeling chunks of can introduce a uncomfortable rigor to the creative process. It can be a pain.

Nonetheless, your readers benefit. Plus, the process helps you organize. Adding a label atop a description of the villain’s plan could help you notice that the tidbit belongs somewhere else. Game authors, repeat after me: I do not create worlds. I write technical documentation.

DragonQuest appeared in 1980 with now-obsolete numbered headings, but remains more usable than new books

DragonQuest appeared in 1980, but remains more usable than most new books. The obsolete numbered headings existed to enable cross references in an era when publishers literally pasted strips of type into a page layout. Note the use of red to highlight titles.

Use lists, tables, and graphics to communicate

When you page through a text book, what seems more approachable: (a) column after column of gray text, or (b) lists, tables, and graphics? Lists help readers see organization. Tables establish patterns and communicate them visually. You can see me use the power of tables in “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads” and “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?” And we all  know that a graphic may be worth a thousand words.

With the Ptolus source book, Monte Cook took inspiration from travel guides. Note the cross references and use of color to highlight.

With the Ptolus source book, Monte Cook took inspiration from travel guides. Note the cross references, white space, and the use of color to highlight. You can find what you need to know.

What goes wrong? Many authors of game books come from writing fiction, or from journalism, or just from writing reports. None of these backgrounds emphasize using tables and other visual tools to communicate.  For example, when USA Today first appeared, critics disparaged it for dumbing down journalism with bullets and graphics. Most authors seldom consider alternatives to paragraph text.

Also, tables can trigger problems with publishing. Your typical game author submits manuscripts as Microsoft Word documents, the poor bastard. (What’s wrong with Word? I could spell out the application’s shortcomings, but author Charlie Stross, creator of the Githyanki, brings a delicious savagery to the job.) After editing, someone converts Word to an application like InDesign, a process that may make hash of tables, and then someone jams the tables into a new page layout. Everything goes much smoother if everyone sticks to plain text.

Meanwhile, the graphic people work in another department. Better to just muddle through with words.

Add cross references linking content to related information

Ambitious adventures like those offered for this year’s Dungeons & Dragons Encounters seasons feature an intertwined cast of characters, locations, and events. As I prepared for a week’s session of Scourge of the Sword Coast, I found myself endlessly flipping pages, chasing related information. I spent nearly as much time searching as reading. A generous number of cross-references would have made the book immensely more usable. To be fair, Scourge includes a few cross references, as rare a four-leaf clovers. The book needed 10 times as many.

What goes wrong? So many things. If the authors compose in Word, any cross references they create will probably die in translation to InDesign. If more than one author contributes to a work, they cannot cross reference each other’s material. By the time the editing and layout folks have an opportunity to add cross references, they face a closer deadline, and probably have as hard a time finding content as I did.

Include an exhaustive index

Allow me to make an outrageous proposal: Adventures should have indexes. This may seem outrageous because adventures have never featured indexes. But the early adventures never exceeded 32 pages, and a list of keyed locations hardly merited one. Modern adventures that mix locations, characters, and a plot all in a 100-page sandbox must do better.

Meanwhile, everyone agrees that a core game book deserves an index, but their indexes have shriveled. As a general guideline, a typical game book should feature a index equal to 7% to 10% of the length of its content. Instead, core rule book indexes wither to a shameful 0.3%.

Book Percent of pages for index
Player’s Handbook, second edition 2%
Player’s Handbook, 3.5 edition 1%
Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook 1%
Player’s Handbook, fourth edition 0.3%

The 4E Player’s Handbook includes such a disgraceful index that someone who calls himself the Propagandroid created a custom index to supplement the book. The index remains tucked in my PH, another symbol of Wizards of the Coast’s disdain for their customers in 2008.

We have yet to see the fifth-edition players handbook, but the over-under stands at an embarrassing 0.5% of pages devoted to the index.

What goes wrong? Start with the same technical road blocks and deadline crunch that dooms cross references, and then add a big dose of misplaced priorities. In an interview promoting Ed Greenwood Presents Elminster’s Forgotten Realms, Ed spoke about the book’s lack of an index.

“My original outline that was approved for the book had a four page index at the end, and [the editors] said, ‘Four pages on an index? Come on! That’s four pages of stuff!’” Ed is not so misguided as Wizards staff. He goes on to say, “I would have rather had the index.”

By trading index pages for content, editors may have their readers’ interests at heart, but they only serve readers who never use their products in play. Should game books be intended for play, or just to be browsed and forgotten?

Create play aids

A play aid can include anything ranging from a timeline and a list of characters for the dungeon master, to player’s handouts and maps. Scourge of the Sword Coast seemed so desperate for a player’s handout that I created one. Why should I have to? In a PDF-only product, the editors cannot blame a limited page count. In the early days of the hobby, virtually every game included reference sheets, but they rarely do now. Living Forgotten Realms adventures, authored by volunteers, typically do better job of including player handouts. Could this be because the volunteer authors spend more time running their own adventures than the pros?

What goes wrong? Authors get no glory for creating play aids, unless they write for organized play and join the game masters who bring their adventures to the public game table.

Actions players always take and choices players never make, part 1

At conventions and in organized play, I’ve served as dungeon master for a lot of adventures from other authors. Every adventure author makes certain guesses about what the players will do. Typically the authors guess pretty well, but sometimes they make guesses that are utterly wrong. Sometimes authors waste pages accounting for actions that no player will ever take, or fail to account for obvious choices, forcing the dungeon master to scramble to bridge gaps. Of course, many dungeon masters create their own adventures, so the author who guesses wrong is also the DM who wastes time prepping, or who winds up scrambling.

Even though no author or DM wants to run a railroad, even though seeing players make surprising choices ranks as one of the best parts of being a DM, we can all benefit by anticipating our players actions a bit better. Over time, I have learned some things players will always do, or never do, in a particular situation.

dungeon adventure

My list includes examples drawn from Living Forgotten Realms adventures. I selected these examples because I ran each of the adventures at least five times. Through several plays, missed assumptions about how players would act stood out. The adventures still worked. I can attest that I enjoyed running all these adventures and that my players seemed to like them too. I also pick on Scourge of the Sword Coast, simply because I just finished reading the adventure in preparation for Dungeons & Dragons Encounters.

Players never report back to authorities.

In CORE5-8 The Dantalien Maneuver, players take the job of scouting to discover if Thay forces have crossed the Umbar River to invade Aglarond. Once the characters learn the answer, they are to report back on their findings. The adventure puts that instruction in bold. When players report back, they get their next mission. I suspect report back appears in bold because as soon as playtest groups spotted the Thay forces, most started freelancing. Once players get a whiff of a problem to solve—those Thay forces invading—the DM will be hard-pressed to swing them back on course. When I ran this adventure, I had the patron repeat the crucial importance of reporting back without delay, yet all of my groups struggled mightily against the urge to act, and many went freelancing.

Players will follow every lead to the end.

ELTU3-6 True Blue also sends characters on a mission with instructions to report back on its completion. The players seek some notes and materials for Lord Krieger of the Iriaebor Council and Andrielle, a priestess of Chauntea. After gaining the materials, players learn that Andrielle might be doing something unsavory in her tower. With their mission accomplished, they face the choice of either bringing the notes and materials to Krieger or going straight to Andrielle’s tower. The adventure wastes several pages exploring what happens if the characters report back to Krieger first. I say wastes because no players ever report to Krieger first. Never.

As soon as players gain a lead—word of suspicious events at the tower—players follow the lead to the end.

The latest encounters season, Scourge of the Sword Coast, flirts with a similar problem. As the players complete various missions for the people of Daggerford, they discover clues pointing to trouble in a particular location. While the adventure assumes that players will wait to the climax before investigating the location, I suspect that most groups will investigate the moment they identify the location.

Next: Part 2.

What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing

As a dungeon master, I’m still learning. When I ran the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure at Gen Con, I had an ah-ha moment (more of a well-duh moment) and a lesson.

At the convention, Wizards of the Coast showed the Dungeons & Dragons Next rules and teased the Murder in Baldur’s Gate Encounters season with a launch adventure. This adventure does not come to an ending, but rather stops at the beginning. According Wizard’s plan, players finish the launch clamoring to participate in Encounters or ready to purchase Murder in Baldur’s Gate for home play. By my account, players enjoyed the launch.

But I had a problem. The slim Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure barely requires more time to run than a typical Encounters session, just two hours with the fast-playing D&D next rules. But Wizards scheduled the adventure for four-hour slots. Now Gen Con offers plenty of fun diversions, so no players will feel unhappy about finishing an bit early, but could I wrap a four-hour slot in just two hours and leave paying customers feeling satisfied? I wasn’t alone in my concern. At the judge kick-off meeting, all the dungeon masters seemed to be sharing ideas for stretching maximum play out of the adventure.

One Murder in Baldur’s Gate judge built this stunning 3D map for the encounter

One Murder in Baldur’s Gate judge built this stunning 3D map for the encounter

To be fair, the adventure packs information about the sights and personalities of Baldur’s Gate. Obviously, the authors supposed dungeon masters would take players on a leisurely tour of the city, filled with role playing as characters browse the marketplace and chat up prominent non-player characters for the pure joy of it.

As a frequent convention judge, I have never encountered an adventure that runs short. At best, a well-timed Living Forgotten Realms adventure finishes just shy of four-hours, with time for the last scene with a grateful patron, a division of treasure, and paperwork. But lots of LFR adventures tend to run long, with no extra time for tangents, slow play, or, heaven forbid, parties that lack strikers. I have ample experience hurrying play without making players feel hurried. I have zero experience stretching a two-hour adventure to three without making players feel idle.

The first time I ran the launch adventure, I lingered as long as I dared on the flavor of the city, trotting out the whole cast of NPCs, and hoping the players would bite on some of the opportunities for interaction. I hardly got any nibbles, but still I thought I did a pretty good job of drawing things out—until I looked at my watch. Damn. Done in two short hours.

The adventure suffers from the problem I griped about in “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” While it presented plenty of opportunities for role playing, it fails to give players any objectives that encouraged it. “Innkeeper, have we entered the wrong establishment? I was told there would be adventure here.”

For my second run, I dangled more diversions such as a fortune teller, a chance to profit from a buy-low-sell-high transaction in the marketplace, some suspicious activity, and plenty of villains monologing. The adventure includes pages of background that would be unnoticed by anyone who never player the Baldur’s Gate computer games, so the extra business allowed me to expose some of it. The players seemed to have fun and the adventure seemed to run longer, but again it wrapped in two hours. Adding to my sense of failure, one of my player’s complained about the short adventure. “The ticket promises a four hour adventure!” He carefully shielded his feedback form as he no doubt wrote harsh words about the overly-brief session IN ALL CAPS.

Later I spoke to some friends who had played at a nearby table, and whose DM resorted to halving damage to draw out the adventure. They envied my table’s quicker pace, but I felt no consolation.

That night, a light went on in my thick skull. My problem had less to do with players uninterested in role playing than with the social contract of convention play. When my players opted not to speak with the wine seller, they simply wished to avoid side-tracking or delaying the adventure. Well, duh. “We can’t talk now, an adventure is about to begin!” I could not simply tempt the players with opportunities to role play, I had to accost them. The players must feel free to respond to the fish-monger, realizing that he is part of the adventure. If the players show a lack of interest, fine. At the next stall, an old lady will plead for help finding a cat, and did anyone notice the sharp-eyed guy posing as drunk?

For my next run, I loosed every diversion in my bag of tricks, singling out and accosting players with NPCs and events that might interest them. For example, because one pregen’s sailor background inspired a player to role play a crusty sea salt, the exotic bird vendor (already in the adventure!) invited her to try a parrot on for size. Soon, I had the whole table engaged in the local color of Baldur’s Gate. No one ever seemed impatient for the real action to start. When the adventure wrapped, I checked the time and found that more than three hours had passed. Success!

I still feel that best way to engage players in role playing is still to give objectives that require it. However, I have learned that sometimes players just need to realize that role playing will not side-track or delay the main event. Just give the role-playing opportunities the same weight as the other parts of the adventure.

Two reasons D&D Next’s inspiration mechanic fails to inspire me (and why the designers don’t mind)

From what we have seem so far, the Dungeons & Dragons Next design sticks close the game’s tradition. This makes the inspiration mechanic the design’s biggest surprise so far. D&D’s top dog, Mike Mearls, revealed the mechanic in “Roleplaying in D&D Next.”

“When you have your character do something that reflects your character’s personality, goals, or beliefs, the DM can reward you with inspiration.” You can spend inspiration to gain advantage, bank it for later, or pass it to another player.

In the universe of role-playing games, inspiration seems conventional. Plenty of RPGs offer in-game rewards for role playing, but D&D has never goaded players to role play. Fourth edition even encouraged substituting skill checks for role playing so that no one who feels uncomfortable with funny voices must speak in character. While I have seen suggestions that a DM might want to reward good role playing with additional experience points, such options stand outside of D&D’s mainstream.

Champions role-playing game from 1981

Champions role-playing game from 1981

I enjoy role playing and funny voices. I love when players work to tie their characters to the setting, especially when their ideas make the players collaborators in the world building. I favor mechanics such as the one introduced by the Champions role-playing game in 1981, where you could create a more powerful character by adding “disadvantages” like a recurring archenemy or a loved-one sometimes in need of rescue.

Despite this, the inspiration mechanic fails to interest me for two reasons:

  • I’m a dungeon master, not a critic or evaluator. As a DM, I have enough to do without adopting the role of some sort of competition judge who scores players’ performances. To players uncomfortable acting in character, I offer encouragement and a safe table, but I will not act as a trainer, handing out boons for role-playing stunts that amuse me. Save that for Shamu.
  • When I play, I dislike metagamey resources. As I explained in “Immersive vs. Gamey in D&D Next, the score is 1-1,” when I play a character, I prefer to immerse myself in character. I want to make decisions in character, based on what my character knows about the game world. Inspiration forces an intrusive chunk of the metagame into the fantasy world. With inspiration, I can no longer fully immerse myself in the the character of Jarrek the Hammer, and make decisions by asking, “What would Jarrek do?” Now I must consider whether I should use my inspiration, bank it, or pass it on to another player. Jarrek knows nothing about banking inspiration! Ironically, a mechanic intended to reward role playing discourages character immersion.

At Gen Con, I shared my misgivings with Mike Mearls. He understands my objections, but they don’t bother him. Even though D&D Next won’t brand inspiration as an optional rule, the rules will explain that different DMs may choose to award inspiration in different ways. Some DMs may choose not to award inspiration at all. In other words, inspiration provides a tool that you can use to encourage a chosen style of play, or that you can ignore. This fits D&D Next’s philosophy of creating a game that can support a range of play styles as opposed to the 4E philosophy of creating a game optimized for a single play style.

I have one reservation about Mike’s stance, and that stems from organized play. Players in a program such as Living Forgotten Realms bring expectations about how the game is played. I do most of my dungeon mastering in LFR and other public-play programs. If inspiration exists in the core game, and if players grow to expect it, then I will feel duty-bound to use it in public play. My players will never hear me gripe. Inspiration hardly ranks as the most distasteful game element I’ve welcomed. If inspiration grows into an accepted part of public play, then I will award it by reading the table and granting inspiration for whatever performances inspire the players.

Gen Con 2013 recap and the D&D Championship visits the Lost City

I’m back from Gen Con and four days of terrific gaming.

For this year, Wizards of the Coast elected to focus its attention on exposing as many as possible to Dungeons & Dragons Next, and so they dropped all Living Forgotten Realms events from the convention. Pushing D&D Next seemed to work. Players new to D&D Next filled my tables and I met a lot of Pathfinder devotees willing to sample the new D&D system.

The lack of LFR disappointed some players and judges, but I appreciated the chance to run D&D Next for the first time. The absence of LFR at this convention doesn’t signal the end of fourth edition or of Living Forgotten Realms. New LFR adventures are coming. The Winter Fantasy convention will feature a slate of LFR events, including a new, paragon-level battle interactive.

2013 D&D Championship - battling Zargon in the lost city

2013 D&D Championship – battling Zargon in the lost city

Although I dungeon mastered the Crisis in Candlekeep delve twice, my DM highlights came from running the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure three times. Murder in Baldur’s Gate forced me to develop an aspect of my DM skills that I’ve rarely exercised in the past. I’ll write about that in an upcoming post.

As usual, playing the 2013 Dungeons & Dragons Championship delivered as much fun as I ever have playing D&D. The Championship features a lethal adventure intended to test even the best teams of players. The unforgiving challenge brings a sense of peril that you never see in typical adventures, because in typical adventures the odds always favor the players. The event’s time pressure amps up the urgency and demands fast play.

The Lost City (1982) by Tom Moldvay

The Lost City (1982) by Tom Moldvay

This year the author of the championship adventure, M. Sean Molley, created a tribute to the 1982 Lost City adventure by Tom Moldvay. The first round dared teams to recover three staffs from locations in the lost city. Earlier fourth edition championships played solely as tactical miniature battles, but this year’s adventure added puzzles to the mix—a welcome nod to the old tournament classics. The final round required characters to use the staffs in a fight to destroy past and present versions of Zargon, the evil demigod of the lost city. I marvel at how skillfully a battle with so many variables was balanced on the narrow line between difficult and impossible.

As a dungeon master, I admire the DMs in the championship, who must play fast, fair, and show total command of the rules. They do enjoy some perks: Where else can a DM coupe de grace a fallen character without straining D&D’s social contract? Even among this elite crew, our DMs Brian and Sean stood out as exceptional. Plus, our DM for the finals happened to be the adventure’s author.

I played on the team that claimed second place—for the third year in a row. We’re like the 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills of the D&D Championship. Still, I’m thrilled to do well.

Will next year’s Championship be the first to feature the next iteration of the D&D rules?

Everything I know about tracking initiative

Many years ago, my little brother received a copy of Electronic Battleship for his birthday.  The gift probably excited me as much as him. Finally, we could play Battleship with all the action sounds (flatulent static!) and explosive effects (blinking LEDs!) shown in the commercial. As it turned out, the painstaking process of entering the location of each ship into the game’s calculator-class brain proved so burdensome that I don’t think we ever reached play. As much as I love gadgetry, sometimes it just hampers you. The original game with its plastic ships and peg boards—or just two sheets of graph paper—makes for a better game of Battleship that the electronic version.

Whenever I find myself enchanted by an initiative-tracking app for a tablet, I think about Electronic Battleship. Initiative tracking just goes better with a few scraps of paper than with technology. I feel a bit ashamed to admit it.

If the notion of using technology to track initiative still appeals to you, I refer you to the Radiating Gnome’s Gamehackery column for a round-up of the available options. However, you should know that even though the Radiating Gnome writes a gaming technology blog, he tracks initiative using folded bits of paper.

Gamemastery Combat PadI like material gaming accessories as much as electronic ones, so the Pathfinder Combat Pad always seemed appealing. “It is a wet- and dry-erasable board with a steel core, so the included magnets stick right to it!” You use wet- or dry-erase markers to write all the combatants’ names on the magnets, and then stick them to the board in initiative order.

Unless you stock up on extra monster magnets, the Combat Pad prevents you, as the dungeon master, from preparing initiative ahead of time, so it works best if you delegate initiative tracking to the players. When combat begins, just reveal which monsters to add to the order. “Give me a bandersnatch at +6 and a vermicious knid at +3.” While players handle the details, you can move on.  Not only does this free you, but it increases the players’ involvement in the game. Players start reminding distracted players of their upcoming turns. Play moves faster on both sides of the table.

If you allow players to manage initiative, then the Combat Pad only suffers one limitation: The pad is only visible from one side, making it hard to position so everyone can see.

DMs point of view

I track initiative using folded, card-stock tents with names written on both sides. I drape the tents across the top of my DM’s screen in initiative order. If you work without a DM screen, or prefer to delegate initiative to the players, you can stand the tents on the table, lined up in order. Either way, to adjust initiative order, just rearrange the tents. If someone wishes to delay, hand over their tent and ask for it back when they wish to act. You can mark the active combatant with something like a Post-it flag, or just separate their tent from the others.

Use index cards to make simple tents. Cutting a card lengthwise yields two tents suitable for draping across a DM’s screen.  Or cut top to bottom for three, smaller tents suitable for standing on the table. I like using colored index cards and giving each player a unique color, so they can identify the color across the table. All my monsters get white stock.

For a minimal initiative tent, just write a name on each side, and an initiative bonus and score on one side.

You can hand blank initiative tents to the players and let them manage everything. But if you choose, you can prepare the monsters’ tents in advance. This lets you write the monster names and even pre-roll their initiative.

As a DM, managing initiative yourself gains one advantage:  You can add reference information to the tents.  Especially when I have big variety monsters to run, I like seeing their defenses. For the player characters, I like seeing perception and insight scores.

If you reference the characters’ non-combat information, I recommend having them pre-roll initiative to avoid having to pass the tents back and forth.  At the beginning of a session, have each player roll 3 or 4 initiative numbers and list the results on their tent.  If pre-rolling seems uncomfortably predictable, begin combat by randomly choosing which set of scores to use.

Hit on Crit makes a nice set of pre-formatted DM-screen initiative cards available for download. These cards inspired me, but they packed more information than I would ever use. If I ask my players to fill out something that looks like a tiny tax form, I feel honor bound to need all the information.

I created my own pre-printed tents. Download my fourth-edition initiative tents or my fifth-edition initiative tents.

My set includes tents for players and for monsters, but also includes variants suited for home play and for public play at conventions.

initiative tent without AC for playersThe basic player character tent limits the information to the essentials. The tent includes blanks for 8 pre-rolled initiative scores—enough for a marathon gaming session or a Battle Interactive. I’ve seen enough illegible names on these tents that I considered adding little boxes for each letter, but I elected to leave that sort of thing to the DMV.

initiative tent with AC for playersThis alternate player’s tent adds a place for the character’s defenses. This reduces the blanks for initiative to 4, but still allows for most gaming sessions.

initiative tent for monstersThe base monster tent includes blanks for defenses and a single initiative roll. On the player side, the tent includes places to enter the creature’s highest and lowest defenses. Sometimes in a time-sensitive environment, I speed play by entering these values so players only need to ask whether a few to-hit rolls succeed. Most times, I leave these blank and keep the players guessing.

Living Forgotten Realms initiative tent for monstersThis alternate monster tent works best for Living Forgotten Realms games at conventions. When I judge at a big convention, I often run the same adventures 3 to 5 times. Rolling the monsters’ initiative in advance cuts delays at the table, but I cannot know any party’s level in advance, so I do not know the monsters’ initiative bonuses. Most LFR adventures include versions of the same monster scaled for five different levels.

To enter pre-rolled initiative scores using this tent, perform the following steps:

  1. Subtract half the monster’s level from the creature’s initiative bonus and enter this number as Init at lvl 0.
  2. Roll a d20 and enter the result as the Base roll.
  3. In the Initiative at level blanks, sum half the party’s level, plus the monster’s initiative at level 0, plus the base roll.

You can easily do step 3 at the table, as needed.

Obviously, the defenses will change for each level. At the table, add the values you need, as needed, in pencil. Or just leave the defenses blank.

Download my initiative tents in PDF.

Also, check out the inserts for my mini DM screen.