Tag Archives: Marty Walser

How Much Talk at Your Game Table Reaches Into the Game World?

Suppose your players aim to stop raiders somehow able to slip past the town’s defenses. They meet the woman who leads the city guard. Mid conversation, the rogue’s player says, “I’m sure she’s behind the raids. We should just kill her.” In your game, did the rogue really say that out loud? If not out loud, did he whisper to the other characters? What does the guard captain make of the troubling whispers?

Or suppose the players offer to give a dragon a magic item in exchange for safe passage, but the negotiation scene pauses as the players debate which item to trade. Does the dragon hear their talk of a cursed sword?

In a battle, when the players discuss the best way to maneuver their foes into a fireball’s area, do their foes overhear the strategy?

How much discussion at your game table carries into the game world?

At many tables, none of the discussion at the table reaches the game world unless it suits the players—sometimes after a dispute over what happened and what was just a joke.

Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm settles the disputes and answers such questions with a convention he calls the murky mirror. “The players and the characters are reflections of each other in a murky mirror. They aren’t perfect reflections. But they are synchronous. If the players are sitting around and talking, then so are the characters. They are saying basically the same things, though they might be using different words.

“For example, when the player says, ‘My character refuses to help because he thinks the orcs are all savages because he saw them murder his parents,’ his character is probably saying something like, ‘Scum like you butchered my parents and I’d rather have every one of my fingers broken then lift one of them to help a monster like you.’” By the convention, whether players talk about their character or in character, they communicate a similar message in the game world. When players at the table exchange jokes and banter, characters in the game joke and banter. So when a non-player character named Elmo causes the players at my Ghosts of Saltmarsh table to erupt into a round of joking, the heroes in the game find the name just as funny, but for different reasons.

The murky mirror usually applies to scenes, the parts of the game where characters with a goal face obstacles to overcome. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

In D&D, a 6-second combat round may take 20 minutes to play out, so the synchronization must allow plenty of latitude. In practice, the party can’t limit discussion to six seconds or less. Still, players can’t pause a round for a 10-minute strategy discussion.

This murky mirror convention can benefit the game in a few ways:

  • Raised stakes. The players’ actions in the real world trace to consequences in the game world. When someone says the wrong thing, they can’t backpedal and claim they intended an out-of-game joke.

  • Immediacy. The game world and the game table both live in the moment.

  • Immersion. Players stay closer to their characters.

  • Faster pacing. Even loose synchronization between the real world and the game world adds urgency to fights. “If I see my group stopping every turn in combat to discuss every action, I will stop them and force whoever’s turn it is to make a decision,” Angry writes. “You only have a few seconds to act. What do you do?”

The murky mirror suits games where players dive into character and strive to prevail through skillful game play.

Most game tables settle for an informal convenience where players drop in and out of character, often only affecting the game world when it suits them. The banter and joking stay out of game.

This represents a looser, beer-and-pretzels style where players aim to spin a yarn for some laughs. Or possibly a style where storytelling takes the focus. Some players who favor narrative compare the forgiving style with a writers’ room. Most TV shows come from a team of writers who gather in a room and imagine story arcs and character beats.

A game like D&D differs from a room-written script because the screenwriters look for ways to thwart and test their characters—an essential part of storytelling. In most roleplaying games, only the GM intentionally complicates the characters’ lives. (The players unintentionally complicate their lives when they suggest murdering the guard captain while in her presence.) Games focused on storytelling may include mechanics that encourage players to add trouble to their characters’ lives.

In the loose style of most game tables, when players stop a scene to decide whether to accuse the guard captain or what magic item to trade, we assume that the actual discussion happened earlier. Or we assume that the characters’ time together leaves them with unspoken signals or a mutual understanding. After all, heroes in the game share experience in the imaginary world that players cannot match.

Introduce the murky mirror at a campaign’s launch or just before key scenes. Marty “Raging Owlbear” Walser says, “Occasionally for a very important scene, I tell the players, ‘You are now live.’ No out-of-character talk.’ It can really ramp up tension.”

Most of the time, the murky mirror just requires in-game reminders that, say, players in the tavern overhear the players’ argument. For dangerous lapses, the GM should remind players and allow a do over. If a player blurts, “I’ll bet she’s behind the raids. We should kill her,” then ask, “Do you really want to say that?”

“After all, the point of the murky mirror is to make things easier and more fun and less bitter and fighty for everyone. You shouldn’t be using it to gleefully pounce on a player who makes a stupid mistake,” Angry writes. That seems forgiving for a GM who makes a brand of raging. As players learn the convention, such lapses will become rare.

I see one potential downside to the murky mirror. Players who know they cannot freeze time to make plans may weigh the game with too much advance planning. As a dungeon master, I love when the players pause to plan—it shows an appreciation of the game world’s stakes and obstacles. But advance planning for every possibility delays diving in and playing. That’s the heart of the game.

To adopt the murky mirror while still allowing some flexibility to stop time and strategize, consider allowing flashbacks. The flashback mechanic borrows from roleplaying games like Blades in the Dark and Leverage. Players can announce flashbacks to recall planning they did in the past. It gives players a formal way to stop time and spin strategy. Players can only flashback from a situation they could have planned for.

An informal flashback can come from the GM. If the players stop a scene for the planning they could have done earlier, you can jump in and frame the planning as a flashback.

I still want to know. How much talk at your game table reaches the game world?

Unfrozen DMs, Annoying Spells, Dynamic Battles, and More Insights from the Comment Section

Time for another trip to the comment section.

The unfrozen dungeon master

In The Plight of the Unfrozen Dungeon Master, I wrote about DMs returning to Dungeons & Dragons and adapting the changes in the way folks play the game.

Edgewise wrote “One thing everyone needs to learn is that there are many different legit styles of GMing. There is no single new and current approach, and if there was, it wouldn’t be ‘better.’

My post highlighted a shift in play style from cooperating to overcome deadly challenges to a style aimed at developing characters and their stories.

Even in the same campaign, D&D can accommodate both styles. To span styles, DMs need to separate their roles in the game. Unfrozen DMs like me first learned to act as impartial referees who bring challenges and control monsters. Even in a story-focused game, that role remains important because compelling tales put characters through a wringer. We unfrozen DMs know when to tell players no(sometimes). The collaborative storyteller learns to say yes and become the character’s biggest fans. We can all learn to welcome the players ideas and weave them into the game.

This post also prompted some discussion of Matthew Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, a pamphlet I mentioned in A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. The pamphlet merits a read. Just as unfrozen DMs can learn from the game’s innovations, newer DMs can learn from D&D’s original style of play.

I failed to explain why a Lair Assault game made such a bad match for an unfrozen DM’s style. Thanks go to Marty from Raging Owlbear for making up for the lapse.

Lair Assault was an organized play event where players were challenged to optimize a party build in order to defeat a specifically designed difficult scenario.

It was not a home game. It was not Adventurers League. It was more akin to a cooperative board game where it was the players vs. the game with the DM acting as the ‘AI’ of the scenario.

This means that the DM changing the Lair Assault scenario is breaking the whole concept of the Lair Assault. The whole point of Lair Assault was to stick to the rules as written to “win” the scenario. If the DM changes the scenario as written, it’s not fair to the players who signed up for that specific game mode. The DM is breaking the agreed upon play style.

Preparing situations

Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead advised DMs to build games around situations rather encounters.

Grimcleaver offered an alternative approach that mixes specific encounters with some improvisation.

Take your normal map with encounters scattered around, cut out all the same encounters and put them in a bullet point list. Then just sit back. When the time seems set for one of the encounters–run it. They need be in no preordained place on the map so long as the circumstances are right. They collapse the mine entrance with an avalanche? Fine, but a ways out they discover tracks–a warband of the creatures must have been out when the cave was sealed. If they do the expected thing and follow them into the woods then your first encounter can be whatever you’d planned, but in a clearing in the woods. If they come up with another crazy out of the box solution and subvert that situation? Well that’s fine, you have the encounter prepped and in your notes whenever you need it–and the PCs get to do something else clever.

What I try to go for is to have a list of encounters that are both dramatic and balanced that I can drop in anywhere to use as filler or twists or kickoff points to further the action. If what the PCs are doing is proactive and interesting on its own, that’s better. I’ll stick with that. But when things slow down and the players need an external stimulus, bam I can throw down an encounter that works.

This technique resembles the way I sometimes manage wandering monsters, so it makes a good addition to a preparation toolbox. But DMs who lean too heavily on the technique risk robbing players of meaningful choices. If options lead to the same encounters, do the players’ choices matter? See Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?.

Character introductions

Replying to How to Get D&D Players to Make Unforgettable Character Introductions That Take a Minute or Less, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia reminded us that you don’t need a DM’s invitation to make an unforgettable introduction. “It may be worth mentioning that as players, we can also plan for a generic ‘fit anywhere’ scene. When a DM asks for a character introduction, you can drop it in. ‘My introduction isn’t about me standing here before you, but what led to my arrival. It started with a few shouts down the street, as I battled a pair of ruffians…’”

Spell templates

Regarding How to Create Wire Spell Templates for Dungeons & Dragons, skwyd42 asked a question: “I agree that wire templates are quite nice. However, these cones (and also circles) will have the issue of ‘partial squares’ when using a grid. I’ve yet to find a satisfactory solution for this issue. Any ideas?

The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives this answer: “Choose an intersection of squares or hexes as the point of origin of an area of effect, then follow its rules as normal. If an area of effect is circular and covers at least half a square, it affects that square.” Likewise, if a cone fills half a square, it affects the square.

Alphastream offers a method suited to making square templates. “Should it be of help, during the 4E days I used a technique one of my friends had, using window screen tubing and wire. That same technique can be used for 5E.”

Gary Gygax’s plans for AD&D

In reply to Gary Gygax’s Thwarted Plans for Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a couple of posters mentioned Joseph Bloch’s game Adventures Dark and Deep. This AD&D game attempts to capture the second edition Gary Gygax would have created, based on exhaustive research into Gary’s stated plans.

Joern Moller writes, “Isn’t Castles and Crusades (which Gary consulted on and supported) the game closest to his ideal version of D&D?

Correct. In Gary’s later years, he favored his own Lejendary Adventure Game. But when an occasion called for a modern take on D&D, he ran Castles & Crusades.

Annoying spells

In a response to How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, Andy Walker succeeded at diplomacy, by the standards of Internet comments.

I will try to be diplomatic here, and probably fail. I like some of the spells you hate in this post. Banishment? Sure it upsets the table temporarily, but the target gets a save, and IT WORKS BOTH WAYS. Try letting the villain banish the Barbarian or the Wizard as his opener, and suddenly the PCs are the ones on the defensive, pinata side. When a villain is banished, have him return invisible, or in Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere. Just because the baddie is gone, doesn’t mean he/she suddenly becomes stupid or helpless.

Counterspell? One of the best spells in the game. If you want an interesting duel between mages, this thing rocks. Nothing is more dramatic than causing the evil necromancer’s Disintegrate Spell to fail, or a PC’s high level spell, carefully selected for just this foe, to fizzle. And counterspell against a counterspell (yup, totally legal)? Mage Battle Royale!!!

This whole column seems like ‘things that annoy me as a DM because I didn’t prepare contingencies, and I’m too nice to use them against the PCs.’

If I ran a regular game with players who enjoyed such reprisals, I would relish banishment. However, most players find seeing their characters sidelined by banishment or counterspell more frustrating than fun. Fortunately for most players, unless DMs opt to drop spellcasters into most encounters, and then routinely switch up the stock non-player character spell lists, the annoying spells rarely work both ways.

Tracking initiative

I discovered my numbered technique for tracking initiative from Alphastream.

To use numbers, create a set of tents numbered from 1 up. When initiative starts, the players compare numbers and take the card the matches their place in the order. The highest takes 1, second highest 2, and so on. The DM takes cards for the monsters’ place in the order. Everyone sets the numbers at their spot at the table so everyone can see their place.

I have to give all praise to Paul Lauper Ellison, an amazing gamer and friend I first met during the days of Living Greyhawk 3.5 organized play,” Alphastream commented. “Paul came up with the idea of numbered tents (and made his first ones) for special Living Greyhawk events like Battle Interactives, where time was a big factor for success. We could shave off many minutes of the DM pausing to figure out who went when by using his tents.

During the first round, Paul would simply start placing numbers as the DM called out someone’s turn. I do the same as a player. I must say that by the end of the adventure/event, 99% of DMs have stopped tracking initiative on their end and are letting us do it, because it is so much better. Every player knows when their turn comes up, no one gets skipped, and we know when monsters go (typically, we place a number in front of the DM for each group of monsters, so a DM might go on both 4 and 9). It really is a brilliant system. These days, you see the system used all around Adventurers League, and it is all thanks to Paul!

As for handling monster initiatives, Alphastream writes, “I still assign them a number. Because most encounters have a few types of creatures (a bugbear, three orcs), and cards are used for each group of monsters, the players are used to seeing the DM have several numbers at the start of combat. They don’t know if a number belongs to one of the orcs (maybe one of them is a spellcaster) or something else, until the initiative passes (and even then, they may not notice).

It can also be fun to announce it. ‘And on number 5… nothing happens!’ It creates mystery and excitement at the table, as they wonder what will happen. If you use initiative numbers for things like traps and events (on every number 4, the volcano causes the ground to shake and all creatures make a Dex save to avoid falling), the players won’t always assume it’s a hidden monster. It really works well overall.

Dynamic combat scenes

In response to D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes Alphastream offered more suggestions. (As you see, Alphastream’s comments make half this post. Thanks, buddy!)

One thing I would add is to give the characters obvious goals inside the room, to draw them in and give them things to do. Some examples: A monster is heading towards a lever, so it probably should be stopped. The treasure is in a clearly visible alcove, but a huge stone wall is dropping down to seal it off. A clockwork device begins to slowly count down.

When it comes to foes, making them interesting really helps. Four goblins and a wizard… everyone will target the wizard. But when you have goblins throwing strange alchemical or mechanical devices at the party, or if the goblins control levers that activate traps, suddenly players won’t know where to focus fire, and the battle gets interesting and dynamic. Even vivid descriptions can be effective. A common outcome in my home campaign is that they don’t focus fire (despite being very tactical) because the monsters all demand attention.

Terrain is also worth underscoring. Cover is important, but the design of the room itself will drive how players react. A ramp up the middle, elevated places, stacks of crates that can topple over, a chasm, a pit, a rope bridge with ropes you can clearly use to swing across, and other such terrain will all change the behavior of players and encourage at least a few of them to engage the battle in fun ways.

My terrain post also drew suggestions for dynamic encounters from Timothy Park. He adds too much good advice to quote here, so go back to the post and read the comment.

In the same post, I faulted the adventure Hecatomb for a lack of terrain, which set up monsters for execution by sharpshooters and other ranged attackers.

Stevey writes, “I helped with Hecatomb last spring also here in Montreal. I was to be DMing Tier 3. Upon reading it, I immediately noticed the open battle field effect you mentioned. I proceeded to create a dozen ‘Claws’ and a huge box of scatter terrain to hand out to the 10+ DM’s to help with this. I really think it helped. We even used it to help raise money (the Epic was for a charity) and gave away the terrain to those that donated.

Check out Steve’s stunning terrain props.

The terrain post led Duncan Rhodes from Hipsters & Dragons to create a list of terrain features that would improve a combat scene. See 101+ Terrain Features for Better Combats. I plan to draw from the list for inspiration.

From the authors of a 40-year-old adventure

Finally, during this site’s first year, I praised one of my favorite adventures, Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a 1980 tournament adventure Judges Guild sold for a mere $2. Authors’ Allen Pruehs and Ree Moorhead Pruehs, found my review and wrote, “Wow. Thank you for the compliments. We are blown away!” Their notice delighted me. Incidentally, I also listed Astigar’s Lair, among the 5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1978-2000.

The Grand Campaign, Dungeon Master Gear, Fourth Edition D&D, and Other Reactions From the Comment Section

I’m ready for another trip into the comment section.

The Grand Campaign

My post on the grand campaign prompted a couple of commenters to tell of their long-running grand campaigns. Michael “Chgowiz” Shorten’s game has run more than 10 years. Rick Stump’s Seaward campaign has run 38 years and currently hosts 24 player characters and many more henchmen and hirelings. “With every player running multiple PCs and multiple adventures going on concurrently yes—strict time keeping is essential!” Rick has blogged about Seaward since 2013. Michael and Rick’s message: Passionate game masters still run grand campaigns. You can too.

Gary Gygax made the days characters needed to naturally heal seem like a key reason for a campaign calendar. Characters would spend days between adventures slowly recuperating. But Dan makes an good point, “Every game I’ve played in or run, there has been at least one PC with access to healing magic, so in between adventures he or she would just memorize as many healing spells as possible and rapidly bring the whole party to full or nearly-full hit points.

I’ve never seen a character sidelined for days of natural healing either. I suspect natural healing played a bigger part in Greyhawk for three reasons:

  • Few players chose to play clerics.
  • With no extra spells for high wisdom, and no spells until second level, the original clerics gained less healing magic.
  • Characters who adventured together also competed as rivals for the best treasure. In early D&D, characters raided dungeons for loot and players kept score in gold pieces. Outside of the dungeon, clerics might not heal rivals, and they certainly would not heal anyone who didn’t first make a generous donation to the church.

To gain the pace of a grand campaign where real time passes in pace with campaign time and an adventurer’s career can span years, Simon N. runs fifth edition with a house rule where a long rest takes a week.

Dungeon Master Tools

Chris asks, “Have you looked at ArcKnight for their spell effects? My only complaint there is they don’t have a way to pop them out so you have to cut them.

ArcKnight sells flat-plastic, spell effect templates. When I first saw these templates, the cones didn’t match the proportions set by fifth-edition rules. Now the templates fit the spell descriptions. I especially like the templates for ongoing effects like Cloudkill and Ice Storm, because their art adds scenery to the battle map. The templates come in exhaustive—but pricey—sets for clerics, wizards, and druids. I feel no need for line templates, or separate templates for, say, every 20-foot-radius effect. I would buy a less-expensive generic set with the common circles, cones, and squares.

ArcKnight sells 1-inch grids marked on transparent sheets. (Sorry, Sly Flourish.) This product overlays a grid on an unmarked map.

In Some New Favorite Dungeon Masters’ Tools, I wrote about my attempt to shape conical spell templates from wire. My templates proved usable, but too flexible. Matthew Lynn offered some advice for shaping templates that I’m ready to try. From a hobby shop, he purchased a brass rod about as thick as a coat hanger. Then he shaped it with bending plyers and connected the ends with heat shrink tubing.

The Joy of Figuring Things Out

In a post on figuring things out, I suggested that fourth edition’s designers emphasized character skill over player skill. Tom challenged my statement. “I’m confused about what, exactly, in the core 4E books (a mechanic or piece of advice) emphasizes character skill over player skill that isn’t already present in third edition or earlier.

To be fair, nothing in 4E blocks a style focused on player skill. As Tom noted, the section on puzzles in the fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide explained how to challenge players. Still, the edition’s emphasis on skill challenges and set-piece combats leans on character skill. We know the designers wanted this emphasis because their author guidelines for Dungeon told authors to favor tests of character skill and to avoid challenges aimed toward players.

In response to the same post, The Grymlorde™ offered a good perspective on puzzles. “I like to think of puzzles more like doorways to secret levels, side-quests, and Easter eggs. You can get through the adventure without having to solve the puzzles but you miss out on the best treasure, the best experience, the “truth” and so on. The worst puzzles are the ones where the adventure fails if you fail to solve the puzzle. Which means that the mandatory puzzle must be fairly easy to solve so that everyone has a good chance of finishing the adventure because some people are really good at solving puzzles (e.g. my wife) and others are terrible at it (me).” One question: If you’re married to The Grymlorde™, what do you call him at breakfast?

Linear Adventures

Even as I defended linear adventures, I praised The Howling Void by Teos Abadia for fitting many choices into the constraints of a convention time slot. In a comment, Teos gave more insight into his design. “The theme of my adventure was elemental air, and that element is all about chaos. I set to capture that swirling chaos through a multitude of options combined with foes that moved.

The downside is that there are some really fun encounters the party will never see. And, when they are having a great time, the players know they missed out on some fun. DMs certainly commented that they had to prep more rooms than they will actually run. One upside is that the DM can run this several times and still feel like every run is fresh and different.

Was it worth it? I think so. I won’t use this approach every time, but I think some adventures should work this way to keep players on their toes, to have a strong feeling of player action and choice mattering, and to break away from a linear style. Programs like AL are stronger when they include different approaches from time to time.

Lately, all the Adventurers League scenarios that I’ve played have flaunted an obvious lack of choices. Most still ranked as good-to-excellent adventures, but I have missed Teos’s flair for succeeding with different approaches.

Encouraging Role Playing

My post on encouraging players to role play, led several readers to contribute advice, so I suggest visiting that post’s comment section.

A few posters wanted to emphasize that role playing doesn’t require voice acting. A silly voice can distract from a serious character. Sometimes a character’s actions, decisions, and even silence can reveal role playing. That said, subtle depictions of character tend to get lost at the game table.

Someone with the handle 1958fury, who may also answer to Christine, commented on my tips for encouraging role playing. “I especially like this bit:

“‘Beyond this sound but conventional advice, many DMs suggested ways to pressure uncomfortable or uninterested players to role play. Don’t do that.’

“Thank you for that. I see that suggestion given a lot, and it drives me nuts. I’m shy, and I usually have to play with the same group for a while before I break out of my shell. Being put on the spot too much early on is a sure way to keep me from returning to your table.

Fourth Edition

When I wrote the story behind fourth edition, commenters like Marty from Raging Owlbear challenged my take on the business conditions at Hasbro leading to the edition. These comments made a fair request for more information.

Ryan Dancey led the D&D team through the third-edition boom and Wizards of the Coast’s first years as a Hasbro subsidiary. He wrote about Hasbro brand strategy and how it could apply to D&D. “Sometime around 2005ish, Hasbro made an internal decision to divide its businesses into two categories. Core brands, which had more than $50 million in annual sales, and had a growth path towards $100 million annual sales, and Non-Core brands, which didn’t.

Core brands would have included Magic the Gathering, while D&D ranked as non-core.

Core Brands would get the financing they requested for development of their businesses (within reason). Non-Core brands would not. They would be allowed to rise and fall with the overall toy market on their own merits without a lot of marketing or development support. In fact, many Non-Core brands would simply be mothballed—allowed to go dormant for some number of years until the company was ready to take them down off the shelf and try to revive them for a new generation of kids.

It would have been very easy for [Hasbro head of boy’s toys Brian] Goldner et al to tell Wizards, ‘You’re done with D&D, put it on a shelf and we’ll bring it back 10 years from now as a multi-media property managed from Rhode Island.’ There’s no way that the D&D business circa 2006 could have supported the kind of staff and overhead that it was used to. Best case would have been a very small staff dedicated to just managing the brand and maybe handling some freelance pool doing minimal adventure content. So this was an existential issue (like ‘do we exist or not’) for the part of Wizards that was connected to D&D.

To players who love and understand D&D, the perspective of a corporate, D&D-outsider can seem out of touch. Such executives might only know D&D as the game that lost players in the steam tunnels under Michigan State. Perhaps some wondered if players needed to dress up to play.

Dancey‘s best-case strategy parallels the one that kicked off fifth edition, with freelancers supplementing a tiny team of staff designers, and with as many staff working on branding and licensing as on the tabletop game.

Michael Benensky wrote, “You are not coming off as a 4E hater. Generally it irks me when people tear down 4E since I think it was the best edition.

I wrote a series about the business decisions that fed fourth edition’s design and why the design failed to pay off. Then I posted it on the Internet—a place not known for measured reactions. Folks who loved 4E and those who rejected it both liked the posts’ evenhanded stance. I count that as a win.