Tag Archives: metagame

Add Tension and Interesting Choices to D&D Adventures With This Potion

In an adventure that features a race against time or against unseen ememies, players will ask if they have time to rest,  search, or prepare. If the adventure lacks a way to reveal how much time remains, such decisions become guesswork. Informed choices make roleplaying games fun, but guessing can just feel frustrating. Players wonder if their blind decisions really matter or if their choices just get ignored so the session tracks a narrative. Often, story conventions win, so choices don’t matter. How often do parties of adventurers reach a diabolical ritual seconds before its completion? Such luck! All those guesses led to the most improbable, dramatic conclusion. (I don‘t condemn it; I’ve done it.)

The movie version of the race to foil a ritual would cut speeding characters against shots revealing the cultists’ nearing success. For drama, a dungeon master could take the storytelling liberty of describing events the characters can’t see, but that gives players actionable information their characters lack. To play in character, does the group have to pretend they don’t know what they can’t know?

Potions photo by Jan Ranft

Some years ago, the multi-table epic adventure Return to White Plume Mountain suffered from such an information gap. In it, some tables worked to create a distraction to divert foes from other groups who might otherwise be overwhelmed. At the end of the adventure, groups that drew more foes faced more monsters. The best strategy balanced making some distration without drawing a lethal amount of attention. But the players lacked feedback revealing the rising threat they faced, so I wished for some divination magic that would give players a better sense of how their actions shaped their future.

I’ve considered all this as I prepare to run the adventure Necropolis of the Mailed Fist, a “punishing” tournament adventure sure to be relished by a particular group of gluttons for punishment. Author Sersa Victory favors competition over immersion by sometimes telling DMs to make metagame announcements or to issue challenges:

“Announce to players that ‘the constellation of living spheres of annihilation has been awakened!’”

“Tell characters that they have one minute to choose between supremacy for themselves or subjugation for their enemies.”

I imagine an unseen narrator’s announcements sounding across the necropolis, and the characters looking quizzically for the source, Instead, I want a way to bring these announcements out of the metagame and into the game world.

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons scenarios would play better when the players gain feedback that would lead to interesting choices and added tension. Often, the characters have no ordinary way to get that information. Fortunately, D&D characters live in a magical world where divination exists.

Potion of Omens
Potion, rare
After drinking this potion, you begin seeing visions or hearing phrases that reveal your progress toward whatever short-term goal you feel is most important. These omens may also reveal the most likely outcome of current activities meant to reach the goal. The DM chooses the frequency and the exact nature of the omens. The effects last for 10 days or until your goal changes.

By providing the capability in a potion, the DM controls access, so when a mission works better with extra information, characters can happen upon a potion that helps.

How to Use the Players’ Metagaming to Mess With Their Heads (and Improve Your Game)

In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Dungeon & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax suggested speeding overcautious players by rolling “huge handfuls of dice” to raise fears of nearby monsters. Of course, the characters in the game world never hear the die rolls or Gary saying, “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far.” He relied on the player’s metagaming to speed the dungeon crawl. When metagaming, players use knowledge of the game in the real world to make decisions based on things their characters don’t know.

Gary intended to use the power of metagaming for good.

Whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. Players routinely ignore statues drawn on the map, but if I add a miniature, their characters inevitably sidle around thing, expecting it to animate and attack. The presence of miniatures sends the metagame signal that the figures represent things to fight.

Although this never fails to amuse me, it brings another benefit. Placing miniatures for harmless things defies a metagame assumption. Maybe next time, the players won’t tie up all the statues in the dungeon just in case.

Animated Statue?

These sorts of metagame stunts carry a price. They call attention to the game and may interfere with the players’ immersion in the imaginary world. When DMs use meaningless die rolls to hurry the players or foster paranoia, they can nudge players out of the game world.

Instead, consider fostering paranoia based on things inside the game world. Describe the sound of a door slamming in the last room, a smell of wet fur, a sudden chill, cries echoing through stone halls, and so on.

Still, my trick with the statures seems  innocuous to me. After all, the players are already focusing on the map and minis when I place the figures.

Despite the price of instigating metagame thinking, I occasionally ask players to make meaningless checks. This discourages the assumption that every roll signals something. I prefer requesting such checks when players already seem focused on the game table rather than immersed in the game world. For instance, if a rogue scouts ahead and checks for traps, I might also ask for a superfluous stealth check.

In my games, I like to toy with players metagame expectations for two reasons:

  • It discourages metagaming. If you sometimes do things that defy the metagame, players will rely less on it.
  • It creates uncertainty and fosters surprises. In the game, we can create surprises by doing things that break the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
People bring meta-fiction expectations to stories as well as games. The movie Psycho provides my favorite example of violating these expectations to shock and surprise. The movie contains two big surprises. I will spoil one here. Psycho begins with the movie’s star embezzling $40,000 cash and taking to the road. We’ve all seen countless movies, so we all know what will happen. Obviously, the movie will follow the story of the stolen cash to the end. And we know the movie’s star will survive until the finale. The star always does. Instead, Psycho shatters our expectations by having the movie’s star suddenly murdered less then half way through. The turn shocked and electrified audiences. Hitchcock even added a personal plea to the end of the film asking viewers not to reveal the twists.

I recommend playing with these metagame assumptions.

Metagame assumption Countermeasure
The battle map signals a fight. Every DM has set a battle map on the table and seen players immediately ready weapons and announce their battle stances. I discourage such shenanigans by saying something like, “This map shows a forest clearing exactly like several others you passed on your journey, except—unknown to your characters—this clearing happens to be on a battle map.” Use a battle map for a non-combat scene like a council meeting or a visit to the tavern. From Twitter, @Styro_Vgc writes, “Watching the PCs carefully maneuver to flank the mailman delivering the summons is worth the effort of drawing a few building outlines.” I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway.
Miniatures represent combatants. If a non-player or creature has a miniature, you should expect to fight them. In addition to statues, I collect miniature figures for unarmed civilians, from royalty to beggars. During combats, they often serve as bystanders to be protected. Bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat.
The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. Vary your adventures from the expected arc to a climactic battle. For instance, in Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the players almost immediately face one of their biggest, most dangerous fights. Monte designed the battle to shock players who expected the usual, leisurely start.
Unique miniatures or tokens represent important NPCs. Players tend to focus attention on the unique figures in a battle. From Twitter, Kyle Maxwell writes, “I use and it’s fun to name the NPC tokens so my players immediately assume they are some highly significant character. (Bonus, the interaction with them sometimes turns this into a self-fulfilling prophecy!)” A variation of this trick works with unique or important looking miniatures mixed in with, say, a group of bandits.

While these tricks keep players on their toes by toying with metagame assumptions, I can think of one assumption DMs should uphold. A tricky DM can alarm players by lavishing description on a harmless, ordinary object such as a door. Don’t. None of this suggests you should avoid vivid descriptions—they make the imaginary come alive. Still, no player wants to spend a half hour investigating an ordinary door because their DM’s extra attention made it seem important. Your descriptions help guide players to the fun and interesting features in the world. Without that lead, you risk slowing the game as players poke, prod, and investigate every bit of decor.

Never split the party—except when it adds fun

Everyone who plays role-playing games learns the Dungeons & Dragons adage never split the party.

In the hobby’s early days, when dungeon masters were referees and players chose difficulty by dungeon level, never splitting the party always made good strategy. Parties found safety in numbers.

defending-the-bridgeThe danger of splitting the party

In a dungeon stocked with encounters suited for a full party, splitting the party jeopardizes everyone. But despite the adage, players sometimes find reasons to split the party. New players and kids always seem tempted.

Faced with a divided group, some dungeon masters will scale the challenges for smaller groups. Typically, I don’t. I usually only shrink the challenges for those new players and kids.

Experienced players who split up know they’re taking an extra risk. They feel a sense of jeopardy that the usual game can’t match. They use stealth and cunning in ways they might not with a full group, when they assume they can defeat any monsters set before them. I don’t want to lose that sense of peril, or to block their chance to approach the game differently. In a way, adjusting threats steals the players’ agency by nullifying the consequences of their actions.

Why split the party?

In today’s game, player characters do more than assault dungeons. Sometimes the elf and wizard must persuade the elven emissary, the thief and warlock need to infiltrate a manor house, and the bard and noble paladin need to charm guests at a ball. They could work better separately, but players insist on keeping the party together. So the dwarf insults the emissary, the paladin’s chainmail racket alerts the manor guards, and a motley band of killers sours the ball. Then midnight tolls and evil triumphs.

Game masters often avoid challenges suited to split parties, but I invite them. Sometimes I relish a chance to split a party.

Splitting the party can give soft-spoken players a chance in the spotlight. Player characters gain unique chances to reveal their character’s personality and talents.

Way back in a post on skill challenges, I suggested using time pressure to force each PC to participate. “If the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute.” Formal skill challenges are gone, but forcing a party to divide and conquer still invites everyone to contribute.

One limitation of role-playing games is that even when the entire party participates in a role-playing scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes players find themselves overshadowed by players with more forceful personalities. Splitting the party gives more players a solo. Meanwhile, the thief finally gets to sneak. The wizard finally gets to cast Sending.

If done well, splitting the party creates more spotlight time for every player at the table. More on that later.

Why keep everyone together?

Never split the party started as good strategy, but now it feels like part of the game’s social contract. Even when splitting the party seems logical, players keep the group together for three metagame reasons.

1. Players fear encounters designed for a full party.

Players expect combat encounters designed to challenge a group of 4 to 7 characters. If they split up before a fight erupts, then an undermanned party becomes overmatched.

But that happens less often that you think, because you, as a game master, see the situations that invite splitting the party and can plan challenges for smaller groups.

2. Players stay together as a courtesy to the game master.

By staying together, players avoid forcing the GM to juggle two separate narratives.

For the GM, balancing two threads can be fun—in the right situation. For a split to work, either (1) it cannot take more time than the idle players need to grab a snack, or (2) each subgroup needs to meet separate challenges. You can’t leave half of the party inactive for more than 5 minutes.

So the trick of handling a split party comes from devising situations that keep each part of the group busy. If someone goes to scout while the party rests, either the scouting should be finish by the time the idle players grab a drink, or something better stumble into the campsite.

3. Players stay together to keep everyone involved in the action.

A split party inevitably forces some players to wait until the spotlight returns to them. To minimize the problem of downtime, use two techniques.

Cut between scenes

Cut from one group to the next every 2-4 minutes. Some GMs advise setting a timer for about 4 minutes. If you tend to lose track, then a timer helps, but I prefer to use my own sense of time and pacing to switch scenes.

Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the GM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. While players debate their next move, I cut to the other half of the table. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Instead of waiting for decisions, I can give more players time in the spotlight. The tempo of the game feels faster.

If I can’t switch scenes on a decision point, I switch on a moment of tension, ideally a cliffhanger.

Delegate the monsters to the idle players

Depending on your players’ dispositions, you might recruit idle players to run monsters in a battle. This works especially well in a simple fight where you expect the PCs to win. If the foes bring complicated abilities or motives, or if their power threatens to slay characters, I would avoid giving up control. When a GM kills a character, it comes in the line of duty, but a player should not take the heat for killing a PC.

If half the party lands in a fight, then the split plays best if the other half finds a battle too. You can run two fights on two maps with the same initiative count.

If you run simultaneous fights and let the players run the monsters, then you can leave the room for a drink. Your greatest GM triumphs often come when you have nothing to do.

Game master Rich Howard goes beyond letting players run foes. He casts idle players as the non-player characters who interact with the rest of the party. I admire the approach, but I feel unready to surrender so much of the game world.

Splitting the room

Even when you split a party, players tend to remain at the same table. This lets inactive players watch the story and lets the GM switch easily from one subgroup to another.

While sharing a table, the spectators learn things that their characters don’t. Most players take it as a point of honor not to use their unearned knowledge. If not, remind them to play in character based on what their character knows.

Separating players to different rooms can add fun though. No player has access to hidden information, so decisions become more interesting. Everyone feels an added sense of peril and concern for their missing comrades.

If you do separate players, you still need to switch groups every 2-4 minutes, so the groups should be as near as the kitchen and the dining room. Make the separation temporary. Your players came to play together.

Back when phones featured dials, I would separate players to sow suspicion about what other party members could be plotting. This fit the early game, when players betrayed each other for loot. Now such mind games only fit Paranoia sessions. Now I insist that my D&D players contrive reasons to cooperate.

Split the party

So split the party. For a GM running a divided party, the second hardest trick comes from finding situations where all the subgroups remain engaged. The hardest trick? Encouraging the players defy protocol and split up when splitting makes sense.

Secrecy, metagaming, and perception checks

When players roll their own perception checks, they learn something from the number on the die roll. Players with bad rolls know that their search may have missed something; players with great rolls may trust the game master’s report that they found nothing.

As a game master, you can make perception checks in secret, but players hate this. Some of the fun of the game comes from rolling dice. If the GM rolls for your character, you start to feel a loss of ownership. You feel like a bysander watching the game rather than participating.

Who should roll perceptions checks?

Clear box for dice rolling

Clear box for dice rolling

Many players take pride in running their character without relying on any metagame information. These players can roll, obviously blow their check, and press ahead knowing that if a trap awaits, they missed it. If you have such players at your table, let them roll their own checks. Still, even for these players, knowing the rolls can rob the adventure of some sense of peril and mystery.

Some players take the unearned information that comes from the number on the die and they use it to make choices. For them, remind them that their characters don’t know they blew a search check, so the characters lack any reason to repeat the search. If they keep searching anyway, roll the second check for them, out of their view. And if you simply ignore the second roll, no one will know.

Roll substitution

If you want a game that emphasizes a sense of challenge and risk—or you have a table of unrepentant metagamers, I suggest an occasional roll substitution.

Tell the players, “Whenever you make a perception check, I will secretly roll a d6 and a d20. If I roll a 1 on the d6, the information I tell you will be based on my d20 roll rather than on yours.”

With this approach, most of the players’ rolls still apply, so players remain connected with the game. The visible roll gives the players a fair sense of how their characters performed, just as you might have a sense of your performance on a real-world test. But players can never feel certain that a 19 on the die means they found everything to find. And when someone rolls a 1, but sees a glimmer on the horizon, it may be more than a mirage.

Misdirection

If you only ask for perception checks when something can be noticed, the checks will put players on alert. Once or twice a session, when nothing can be found, you should call on players to make a Spot or Perception check. No matter what the roll, frown, shake your head, and tell them nothing. Not only will this unnerve the players, but it trains them to avoid assuming that they must have missed something.

Next: Is it noticed? How to run alertness

Actions players always take and choices players never make, part 2

This post continues a list I started in part 1.

Players will not mix and mingle.

Adventure authors come from a secret coterie of role players who enter a tavern or a royal ball and then spend the evening mixing and mingling with the non-player characters with no particular goal or objective in mind and certainly without ever rolling a die. I know this, because I frequently run into adventures that expect the characters to uncover clues and background as they aimlessly mingle.

I feel sure these dungeon masters do more than simply describe certain NPCs in enough detail for metagaming players to realize that they are supposed to meet. Whenever players do something because the metagame makes them think they are supposed to, the game suffers.

In Scourge of the Sword Coast, during the first session, players enter a inn that includes three non-player characters with information leading to adventure. The adventure suggests no way for the dungeon master to engage the players with these non-player characters, presumably because the writer just assumed the players mingle with the occupants of the bar. 

In practice, as a DM, if I want the players to learn what these NPCs know, I must find ways for the NPCs to engage the characters. For example, Vosson Raker might learn of characters’ journey and ask if they saw signs of gnoll raids. Edic Tilveram might ask if they came from Julkoun. Ledoris eyes the characters, wondering if they meet the description of the adventurers who shorted Filarion Filvendorson. No, this isn’t a big job—less of a job than inventing those names, but its not too small a task for the adventure’s author. I paid for the adventure and I want it ready for play.

For more on this subject, see “What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing” and “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.”

Hint: In a place where news travels by word of mouth, the locals will ask visitors for news.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

Players will assume that they can defeat every monster.

Before the days of plotted adventures and balanced encounters, this bias did not exist, but decades of storytelling and careful balance has taught players to expect only encounters they can beat.

Sometimes I write adventures that include monsters more powerful than the player characters. Either the monsters act as obstacles to be avoided, NPCs to be met, dangers to add time pressure, or distractions that can be lured to fight other threats. In short, some monsters can serve interesting roles other than trading attacks for 4 rounds. But setting up these non-combat parts always poses a problem because characters assume they can beat every monster, and should probably fight.

Overcoming the players’ assumption that they will never be outclassed requires careful effort. I make descriptions that weigh heavily on the characters’ knowledge that a particular threat is overwhelming. The characters live in the game world and should have some sense of what menaces they could defeat—certainly more sense than their players do. Sometimes I drop a colossal miniature on the table to emphasize the point. And still, when I want to avoid the risk of a total party kill, I must plan a way for foolish characters to escape the deaths they richly deserve. Too frequently, the party includes a reckless instigator or someone convinced that it has to be an illusion. “That thing can’t be as bad as it looks! Charge!”

Hint: Players justifiably hate being railroaded into an encounter they cannot win. They hate being taken captive. And they hate hate hate when their captors take their stuff. But if you present them with an easily avoided menace, tell them that their characters know in their heart that this battle will overwhelm them, and if they still rush in, then you can take them captive. Just give them a chance to win back their stuff quickly. Not because they deserve it, but because otherwise it will take them too long to update their tear-dampened character sheets.

Players never settle for a partial victory.

Few players join a Dungeons & Dragons game expecting to make compromises or to settle for less than total victory. Who can blame them? One of the joys of D&D is the chance to play the hero: To escape the compromises and lesser evils of the real world and solve every problem with an cunning plan and a quick sword. Still the fun of a game comes from the choices. Some of the best moments of recent battle interactive events comes when the collected room debates a shared, ethical dilemma. Should we free the enslaved elementals, or become their slavers to advance our cause? Should we surrender our city to the advancing forces of darkness, or should we destroy it, denying it to the enemy? While your game table may not decide on the future of the Realms, these sorts of questions enable players to explore their characters and make the game come to life.

In CORE5-3 Lost Refuge, the characters find themselves trapped with some villagers in the heart of a camp teeming with cyclops. They face the choice of whether to make an easy escape, leaving the captives to their fate, or assuming the greater risks of taking the captives along. The adventure assumes players will wrestle with the choice, but I ran this adventure five times and no party gave the safer option a moment of consideration.

As long as a chance of total victory exists, players will always seize the chance. Only when the choices become mutually exclusive will players begin weigh their options.

Two totally fair ways to foil metagaming that I lack the nerve to try

At last week’s game, the characters searched a room. After the first searcher rolled low, another decided to redo the search. The searching and the low rolls continued until someone rolled high enough to prove that there was nothing to find. Meanwhile, I rolled my eyes at the obvious metagaming. If the scene had mattered, I might have told them that the characters lacked any reason to repeat the search. When players make perception, insight, and knowledge checks, players routinely glean information from the number on the die. This bothers me.

The obvious solution to this problem is for the dungeon master to roll informational checks for the players. Players hate this. Some of the fun of the game comes from rolling dice. If the DM rolls for your character, you start to feel a loss of ownership. You feel like a bystander watching the game rather than participating. Also, players enjoy having the unearned information from the number on the die.

So I tolerate the metagaming and I let the players roll. Besides, it may not be entirely unfair for the number on the die to give the players hints, because when you attempt something, you often have a feel for how well you did. Of course, in life, your sense may be wrong, while if you see the die roll, you know. (In life, the worse you are at something, the more likely you are to overrate your efforts.)

In the early days of the hobby, I learned a technique that I like better than rolling for the players.

When players make stealth, perception, insight, and knowledge checks, let them roll as usual, but also roll a d6 and keep the result secret. If you roll anything but a 6, treat the player’s die roll normally. If you roll a 6, flip their die roll so 1 becomes 20, 20 becomes a 1, and so on. Tell them the outcome of their action based on the inverted result. Now the player who rolled a 19 can feel fairly confident that there is nothing to find, but not certain. Now the player who rolled a 2, but feels a hunch that the informant is deceptive just might be right.

I’ve never used the method in play, because I know players will object to losing the unearned certainty that comes from knowing the die roll. Perhaps I’m not a mean enough DM.

Are you mean enough? If you plan to use this method, tell your players. They should know that the hunches they base on their rolls may be inaccurate. If you’re quick with arithmetic, you can flip a d20 roll by subtracting 21 and throwing out the negative. Otherwise, just create a table by writing the numbers from 1 to 20 alongside the numbers from 20 to 1 at the edge of your DM screen.

How do you feel about rolling for the players or otherwise adding uncertainty to perception, insight, and knowledge checks?

Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads

Way back in “The 11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I confessed that whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. The characters inevitably sidle around the statue, expecting it to animate and attack. This trick never fails to amuse me. Does this make me a mean dungeon master?

When players metagame, they use information from outside the game world to make choices for their characters in the game, even though the characters would lack this information.

In my games, I like to toy with players metagame expectations for three reasons:

  • It discourages metagaming. If players know that every figure on the battlemap will have a role in the fight, no statue is safe a preemptive strike. But if you sometimes do things that defy the metagame, players will rely less on it.
  • It creates uncertainty and fosters surprises. In the game, we can create surprises by doing things that defy the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
  • I’m a mean dungeon master.
People bring meta-fiction expectations to stories as well as games. The movie Psycho provides my favorite example of violating these expectations to shock and surprise. The movie contains two big surprises. I will spoil one here. Psycho begins with the movie’s star embezzling $40,000 cash and taking to the road. We’ve all seen countless movies, so we all know what will happen. Obviously, the movie will follow the story of the stolen cash to the end. And we know the movie’s star will survive until the finale. The star always does. Instead, Psycho shatters our expectations by having the movie’s star suddenly murdered less then half way through. The turn shocked and electrified audiences. Hitchcock even added a personal plea to the end of the film asking viewers not to reveal the twists.

Most commonly, I toy with three metagame assumptions.

Metagame assumption  Countermeasure 
The battle map signals a fight. Every DM has set a battle map on the table and seen players immediately ready weapons and announce their battle stances. I discourage such shenanigans by saying something like, “This map shows a forest clearing exactly like several others you passed on your journey, except—unknown to your characters—this clearing happens to be on a battle map.” Use a battle map for a non-combat scene like a council meeting or a visit to the tavern. This helps set the scene, and the players become jumpy, expecting a fight. I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway.
Miniatures represent combatants. If an NPC or creature has a miniature, you should expect to fight them. In addition to statues, I collect miniature figures for unarmed civilians, from royalty to beggars. During combats, they often serve as bystanders to be protected. The recent Murder in Balur’s Gate launch adventure called for a ton of bystanders. More to the point, bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s bones lines.
The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. The fourth-edition design turns this into a bigger problem than with earlier editions, because players have more resources to save for the final showdown. Metagaming and fourth-edition design leads to the sort of trouble I described in “As a player, I enjoy action points, so why do I dislike them as a dungeon master? Vary your adventures from the expected route to a climactic battle. For instance, in Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the players almost immediately face one of their biggest, most dangerous fights. Monte designed the battle to shock players who expected the usual, leisurely start. Dan Anderson stands out as an author of Living Forgotten Realms adventures that defy expectations. For instance, in CALI3-3 Agony of Almraiven, the tough fight comes as an ambush in the middle of the adventure.
Everyone has access to the same information. In most sessions, the whole game proceeds with every player at the same table hearing everything the DM has to say. In the game world, not every character knows what the others know. When a character becomes privy to sensitive information, you can take the player aside to share it. If your players cooperate and everyone always reports back, private asides take more time that they merit. On the other hand, if someone enjoys playing the furtive, scheming type, keeping some things secret adds intrigue. If you only take the assassin’s player aside to ask, “Seen any good movies lately?” everyone else will think the assassin hides something. I think inter-party strife poisons too many of the games that allow it, so be careful with this suggestion.

Next: Two totally fair ways to foil metagaming that I lack the nerve to try.

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.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge

(Part 4 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

Just a year after fourth edition’s debut, the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 upended the original skill challenge. The new material makes just one specific revision to the original rules:  It provides new numbers for challenge complexity and difficulty class to address serious problems with skill challenge math.

Beyond the numbers, I suspect the designers sought to remake the skill challenge as much as possible without scrapping the existing rules. The big changes come from original rules that are now ignored, and from advice and examples that completely remake how challenges run at the table.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 strips away the formal game-within-a-game implied by the original skill challenge: The structure of rolling for initiative and taking turns is gone; the new summary contains no mention of it. In the example skill challenge, the players jump in to act as they wish.

I disliked the original, story-game style implied by the original skill challenge rules, and welcomed the new advice. But the core of the original skill challenge rules remained, and some friction existed between those original rules and the recast skill challenge. In this post, I will explore some points of friction, and discuss some ways to overcome them.

Scoring with failed checks discourages broad participation

The 4E designers tried the match the formulas for constructing a combat encounter with similar formulas for a skill challenge. So a skill challenge’s complexity stems from the number and difficulty of successes required─an odd choice in a way. You don’t grant experience in a combat encounter by counting how many attacks score hits.

This scorekeeping works fine when you run a skill challenge as a collaborative storytelling game within a game

In the original skill challenge, every character had a turn, and no one could pass. This forced every player to participate. The new challenge drops the formal structure, leaving the DM with the job of getting everyone involved. The DMG2 helps with advice for involving every character. However, the players know three failed skill checks add up to a failed challenge, so now some players will fight against making any checks for fear of adding to an arbitrary count of failures and contributing to a failed challenge. This stands in total opposition to the original ideal where everyone contributes.

Obviously, some failed skill checks will bring the players closer to a disaster, by alerting the guards, collapsing the tunnel, or whatever. On the other hand, the foreseeable, game-world consequences of some failures do not lead to disaster, yet players worry about attempting, say, an innocuous knowledge check because they metagame the skill challenge.

Hint: You can encourage more players to participate in a skill challenge by forcing the characters to tackle separate tasks simultaneously. For instance, if the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute. Just give the players enough information to know which methods of persuasion will work best on which members of the council.

Scorekeeping may not match game world

In the story-game style of the original skill challenge, the players’ score can exist as a naked artifice of the game, just like the turns the rules forced them to take. I suspect that the original vision of the skill challenge assumed the DM would tell players their score of successes and failures. After all, the players could even keep accurate score themselves. This avoided the need to provide game-world signs of success or failure as the players advanced through the challenge. After the skill challenge finished, you could always concoct a game-world explanation for the challenge’s outcome.

Now on page 83, the DMG2 tells you to “grant the players a tangible congruence for the check’s success or failure (as appropriate), one that influences their subsequent decisions.” (In word choices like “tangible congruence,” Gary’s spirit lives!)

This works best if the challenge’s cause of failure is different from the players’ success. For example, if the players must infiltrate the center of the enemy camp without raising an alarm, then their successes can bring them closer to their goal even as their failures raise suspicion and take them closer to failure. These sorts of challenges create a nice tension as the players draw closer to both victory and defeat.

If moving toward success necessarily moves the players away from failure, then running the challenge poses a problem.

The first Dungeon Masters Guide introduced the skill challenge mechanic with an example where the players attempt to persuade the duke before the duke grows too annoyed to listen.  Good luck role playing the duke’s demeanor as he is poised one success away from helping while also one failure away from banishing the players.

Even worse, if a skill challenge lacks any clear marker of failure, running the challenge presents a problem. The first D&D Encounters season, Halaster’s Last Apprentice, included a challenge where the players seek to find hidden chambers in the Undermountain before they amass the three failures allowed by the rules. Why do three failures end this challenge? Is it because the players grow restless and are now all on their smart phones? The adventure suggests that rival groups might be seeking the lost chambers, but it fails to capitalize on this. The adventure follows the conventional advice by taxing each player a healing surge, and then saying that they found the crypt anyway.

“Why do we lose a healing surge?”

“Well, you know, dungeon stuff.”

Why is the game turning the dungeon stuff into a die-rolling abstraction? I thought some of us liked dungeon stuff.

Hint: You can fix a lot of bad skill challenges by adding time pressure. Every failed attempt wastes time. Too many failures and time runs out. Convince the duke before he is called to the wedding that will cement his alliance with the enemy. Find the hidden crypt before the sun sets and the dead rise.

Next: Spinning a narrative around a skill challenge

The 11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures

Top miniatures gallery

When the Harbinger set of pre-painted miniatures arrived in 2003, I mainly used tokens, cardboard heroes, and similar items to stand in for miniatures. Unpainted miniature barely tempted me. I lacked enough time for the pastimes I already had, so I could hardly add miniature painting to the slate. But the new pre-painted miniatures seemed affordable and appealing. I figured I would augment my cardboard with a few common monsters, orcs and skeletons and the lot.

And so I began sliding down a slippery slope.  Wizards of the Coast closed the local Gamekeeper store and marked down the Harbinger boxes, so I snapped them up. New sets came, and I decided I might as well get enough boosters to collect a nice set of commons.  When 3.5 arrived, I looked at my shelf of 3.0 edition books that I had not read yet, and decided to budget more money toward edition-proof miniatures and less on books. Soon, I had a big collection. Now I feel compelled to gather the best possible figures for an encounter.

If you’re cheaper or more sensible than I am, you can still follow my original plan and collect a small group of broadly useful miniatures. I use some figures so often that I never bother to file them away. Based on my experience running organized play events, I present the 10 most useful types of miniatures.

Type

Figure

Notes

Drakes

Bloodseeker Drake, Crested Felldrake, Guard Drake

For some reason, adventure authors love adding spiders and small drakes as critters and pets to round out encounters. With few low-level options, who can blame the authors? Nobody wants to fight lovable beasts like wolves.

Spiders

Deathjump Spider, Spider of Lolth

Elementals

Medium Earth Elemental, Loyal Earth Elemental, Medium Fire Elemental

Medium sized elementals appear frequently in adventures of all levels. Earth elementals nose ahead of fire as the most common. You can skip the water elemental figures.

Sadly, Wizards never produced a translucent, medium-sized air elemental. The dirty Shardstorm Vortex stands as the best alternative. The solid-plastic air elemental in Harbinger may rank as the worst figure ever to appear in a D&D miniature set.

Thugs

Human Thug

Thugs, especially armed with clubs, appear frequently in heroic-tier adventures.

Guards with pole arms

Human Town Guard, Royal Guard, Phalanx Soldier

For some reason, town and palace guards always carry spears or halberds.

Bowmen

Free League Ranger, Graycloak Ranger, Militia Archer

Most encounters call for an enemy capable of ranged attacks. In urban encounters, bowmen appear all the time.

Overall, too few humanoid miniatures sport ranged weapons.

Elf Warmage

Elf Warmage

I always carry a few miniatures suitable for player characters that I can loan out. Players borrow this elf warmage more than any other figure. Plus, she often finds work as a patron, bystander, or fey villain.

Statues

Animated Statue, Earth Element Gargoyle

I love to toy with players’ metagame expectations. Every D&D player knows that statues invariable come to life and attack─at least when they have a miniature on the map. So whenever a statue appears on a map, I drop a statue or gargoyle figure on top of it. Inevitably, the players edge nervously around the potential hazard. It never ceases to amuse me. Does that make me a mean DM?

Of course, sometimes, the statues really do attack.

Skeletons and zombies

Boneshard Skeleton, Skeleton, Warrior Skeleton, Zombie, Zombie

In the early days of the hobby, dungeon designers could put living creatures in a remote and unexplored dungeon without a source of food, and no one would care. Now days, that sort of design will get your DM card suspended. This surrender to logic makes undead more useful than ever.  (This also holds true for the elementals, above.) In my opinion, the unarmored, boneshard skeleton ranks as the best. The need for ranged undead means blazing skeletons and skeletal archers also see tons of use

Spirits

Lurking Wraith

I think the Lurking Wraith ranks as the single best D&D miniature figure ever produced. Not only does the translucent figure look great, but it works in numerous encounters at every level. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who loves this figure. Miniature vendors charge about $9 each, much more than the typical price of a medium-sized, uncommon figure. You can get unpainted, blue versions in the Castle Ravenloft board game. I hope a painted version reappears in the upcoming, undead-themed, Dungeon Command set.

Goblins

Goblin Sharpshooter, Goblin Cutter, Goblin Skullcleaver

The ubiquitous opponent for beginning characters. Many different goblins appeared in the D&D miniatures run, but the best came in the last few sets. Get a bunch with melee weapons and bunch with ranged weapons. They’re cheap.