What Did I Just Get Myself Into?

Hey all. I’m back. Hopefully it will stick this time. There’s still a lot going on in my world outside of gaming, and I haven’t played D&D since September, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I just hope it’s not coming from a Will O’ The Wisp.

To get my gaming life jump-started. I just submitted a last-minute RPG event for Total Con in February. If it’s accepted, I’ll be running a Leverage game on Sunday of the con. I am going to make the adventure setting a gaming convention. It’s the cool meta-con/meta-game you can only do with a modern-setting RPG.

What’s scary for me is that I’ve never written a convention game before. I got to run Dark Sun at Pax East this past Spring, but that was written by someone else, and I got to play in it the day before. But this is a new experience for me, so I thought I would crowd-source a little advice on the matter.

Any hints for writing a con game? Not just what to do at the table (that can be a second post), but how to structure the adventure and what sorts of things I should take into consideration. I don’t know the players ahead of time, so I won’t know what sorts of things they want to get out of the adventure; although since they are self-selected, I am going to assume they want an experience that captures the essences of the TV show.

The other big concern I have is about timing. Unlike with a regular group, I won’t have the ability to run the rest of the adventure next week or allow for long breaks. I signed up for a single 4-hour slot because there are other events I want to go to (in particular, board gaming) and I assume my players would be in the same boat.

So, what do you guys think? Any words of advice (or condolence) ?

Deepest, Darkest Fears

Sarah Darkmagic just got back from Gen Con with a crate of swag.  When your DM gets new material, it is an occasion of concern for any player. This event combined dangerously with a simple innocuous email she sent out my fellow players: “Can you please send me your characters worst nightmares?” Now I’m suspicious about what she has planned. My guess is our campaign is headed for some sort of abyssal/madness encounters with sanity-eating monsters. Or maybe just some heavy shadowfell and fear themes. Or maybe these questions are just about adding depth to characters. (Yeah, I don’t buy it either).

This question isn’t one I’ve previously answered for my character. There are two interpretations of “worst nightmare” that could answer her question; its usefulness depending on which direction the campaign is going. The first is a literal nightmare. I’m talking about scary dreams that might involve being chased, falling, being trapped, etc. Nightmares tend to have common themes for people, but vary in specifics. In particular it’s common for fantasy characters to have reoccurring nightmares. These can vary from being chased and captured by a blue dragon out in the Misty Mountains, or seeing your homeland ravaged by savage orcs.

Since my character is a Tiefling, I imagine his nightmare are more demonic in nature. He probably dreams of being captured and tortured by Dispater for not being evil enough and failing to terrorize the material plane.

A more colloquial interpretation of “worst nightmare” is an intellectual fear. These could be being trapped in an elevator with an annoying coworker, being asked to campaign for a political rival, or having your spouse find out you’ve been lying about your identity all this time. These aren’t nightmares per se, but this kind of very personalized anxiety can be just as powerful in a role playing situation.

My character is a Psion and his identity and source of power comes from his incredible intelligence and telepathic abilities. Being stripped of his mental faculties is a big fear of his, and he’d probably turn tail and flee from a mind flayer when he might stand up to a powerful dragon or devil. He’s also a little egotistical so a worse fate than being rendered stupid (which he might then be too dumb to realize) is being treated as if he were. A big irrational fear of his is being trapped by some kind of playground conspiracy where everyone pretends like he’s an idiot and won’t admit to it. That’d drive anyone nuts.

Fears may not be a traditional aspect of character generation, but a good one to think about when fleshing out a well-developed person to be your PC. Any good suggestions for nightmares for my Tiefling Psion or for your own characters?

They Were In Our Back Pocket the Whole Time

This week in our a game an important plot incident lead to a pretty funny conclusion. My party is tasked with stopping an shadow army from opening a gate to the shadowfell and taking over the world. To open this gate, a magic key is needed. We thought that if we found the key first, we would able to keep it away from our enemies. We thought it would be buried somewhere in town, so we enlisted the local priest of Pelor to help our search with a ritual. Tracy (our DM) turned the special-purpose ritual into a skill challenge. We used Streetwise and History to narrow down likely areas of the town to search, and Arcana and Religion to direct the magical energies.

The end result is that we successfully completed the ritual-challenge and found the magic key…. It was in the Bard’s pocket the whole time! (We got it from dwarves we saved several months ago). It retrospect, it was  funny to watch round after round as the ritual narrowed down on the section of the city where we we were. I started to get excited when I realized it was nearby to the temple, but totally surprised when we found that it was really close.

We all had a good laugh at our own expense and then moved on with the adventure, with the key safely in hand. This interesting anecdote has a few gems I’d like to unpack. First and foremost, we used valuable adventure time and resources to discover something we’ve already been given. This is not anyone’s fault; it’s been a few months of intermittent game time and we didn’t make a special note of the key when we got it. It’s funny that today on Gnome Stew, John wrote some tips to help players remember details about a game… such as the importance of a special item. Unfortunately I don’t think his would have helped us in this situation. At the time, we didn’t make a connection to the item. Back then we were dealing with the aftermath of a sticky combat/skill challenge & intra-party situation, and then in the next few sessions we were focused on a new series of events and new  location… there wasn’t time for key’s importantance (or even its existence) to sink in.

What could we have done better? Well, to start off, we should probably be keeping a separate list of “quest items” or at least “miscellaneous magic items” that don’t fit on our characters. Along with each item, there should be a note of how we came across it and its context.  Just referring to that list might have jogged our memory, although we might not have thought to look there since didn’t even occur to us that we might already have that item.

What else could we have done? Has anyone else been in a similar situation?

What could a DM have done to help us remember? Tracy analyzed the situation on her blog: When The Players Forget. I think she handled it beautifully, and like I already said, we have a good game memory. But what could have happened to have prevented the situation? There are some strategies I learned back in my play-writing days that could help: the rule of three, and simplification of props and sets. The rule of three is pretty simple. If it’s important, mention it at least three times. I don’t mean reapating “here’s a magic key” three times, but to bring up the key in three different contexts. For example: (1) “for saving their lives, the dwarves hand you an ancient key”, (2) “they say that key was being smuggled out of the city by your enemy”, and (3) “later that night as you are preparing your magical studies, your attention is tuned to the key.. it radiates magical energy.” That alone would have had us spending some game time learning more about it, rather than just pocketing it and moving on. Since aDM’s audience is specific and limited, I’d say each one of those mentions might be done when a different player is in the spotlight to spread its importance around.

There’s also a simplification issue. On stage, you don’t want to distract the audience by giving them unimportant objects to focus on. We come across a lot of NPCs and items of interest and so it’s hard to remember them all or figure out which ones are most important (they’re all important). If this was the only non-gear, ancient, mystical item we had to deal with, it would have stood out in our minds more. We could have also been hit over the head with it harder, or the DM could have said “uhm, guys, you already have it” when we set out looking, but that would have been less fun for everybody.

The other useful takeaway from our misadventure is our own cleverness. It was our idea to enlist the aid of Pelor and his priests to help us narrow down our search, and our DM’s idea that it would accomplished through a ritual/challenge. PC rituals are expensive, specific, and always a few levels too high, but the game allows anything really to be a ritual. Usually NPC rituals are of evil hellmouth-opening type, but they can be “help us find a lost item” good type too. Be creative in how you seek out NPC aid!

Dealing With a Full House

I don’t envy my DM. This week she hosted six players. My preferred GM to group ratio is 1:4. Our group and the standard 4e rule book handles five players. And, in my experience, the organized play events fit 6 players to a game.  This week our group had to deal with just about every difficulty 6 players presents: physically fitting everyone around the table, getting turns in the skill challenges, long time between rounds in combat, and difficulty engaging with the GM.

Fitting Everyone Around the Table

We play on our DM’s dining room table, so we were physically limited by the size of the table and the room. This week the last person to arrive had to sit away from the table, and stood up in the corner during combats so he could roll. This situation sucked because there was a little bit of personal space issue, and I imagine that he didn’t feel entirely included in the group.  Unfortunately, I don’t know what we could have done differently. It’s nice to be able to host guest players, but if this became a regular issue, I’d probably ask for a hard limit on the number of people to be invited, even if I had to occasionally sit out.

Getting Turns in Skill Challenges

This is a general problem for my group. At first I thought it was character based, but since we played new characters last night, I’m going to go with it’s personality-based. Like any group, our has a complex dynamic, and some people are better at getting their way and making the rolls during a skill challenge.  With six players the issue is exacerbated in that there are a fewer worthwhile actions to go around and the challenge might be resolved before someone gets to act. On top of the physical layout made it harder for everyone to participate.

I realized these issues at the time, so I feel like I could have been more assertive about encouraging others to participate. We also could have spent more time discussing each challenge with the DM instead of immediately taking actions; in particular, I think I should have asked for a list of available actions, at least as a starting off point to make sure all the bases were covered.

Combat Takes Awhile

No matter what tricks are done to make a combat last fewer rounds, there’s just a minimum amount of time each person needs to analyze his situation, come up with the character’s actions and execute them. It seems harder with a larger group to do some of the usual tricks, like buddying up with someone to discuss strategy or plan one’s turn farther ahead. In fact by the time my turn came around, my plans and next two backup plans were already invalid!

With a large group it might be fun to have two judges run the monsters and split the party (in the same encounter) so each round has two simultaneous parts. That might get tricky, if the two groups are right on top of each other, but if the groups are in two connected rooms or floors, that might work. But as for our particular situation, patience and understanding were the keys for getting through it. The tough part is that long downtime makes it easier to drift off into side conversations or cyberspace.

Engagement With the GM

This is hard for any GM, and I can’t fault ours for how she handled things. It is just a fact of life that people have limited attention span and so we all have to compete for some of it. I think that with four players, getting a 25% share of the GM lets you accomplish a lot in character, in either role playing, skill challenges, or combat. With 6 players, you only get 17%, and it makes a big difference. It’s also stressful to the GM who has to make sure everyone gets his fair share at the spotlight. Once again, I don’t have any useful advice here, other than to be concious of it, be ready to give up the spotlight, and help the GM out where you can.

How do you deal with large groups? Anyone game with more than 6 players? I once DM’d for 10… that was a mess.

How To Cheat in D&D

One of the great things about tabletop roleplaying is that for most groups winning and cheating are irrelevant concepts. D&D is about group storytelling; by negating the game mechanic through cheating  you loose the ability to build memorable scenes out of failure and you won’t allow room for characters to grow. Why should experience (and therefore experience points) matter if you’re just going to blow through all the encounters risk-free. In fact, one of the challenges of 4e is that since all the encounters are scalable to the PCs level, the DM has to work harder to make the encounters interesting yet winnable. Thankfully there’s a lot of knobs in the DM toolkit to adjust encounter difficulty.

With that in mind, I found it interesting that the Roleplaying Tips blog highlighted ways for GMs to handle cheaters. The article covers two types of cheaters: ones who lie about their dice roles (and stats), and ones who read ahead in the module. Flipping this around into advice for cheaters: “lie about your dice” and “read the module.”

Lie About Your Dice

This has been the go-to for GMs who roll behind a screen, but there’s no reason why you can’t either. For starters, you can roll on the table and blatantly lie about it. Odds are your GM will be too far away or too short to read the small digits on the die; your fellow players may grumble but will probably look to avoid conflict, so you’re golden there. To be a little more subtle about it, you can get loaded die (let me know if you have a link where to get some), roll on the sly (at the edge of the table, behind some books or your hand, etc), or just nudge the die after it lands.

There’s not just dice that you can lie about. When taking damage, you skim a few hp off the top to last longer, or add a few “bonus points” to skill checks and other rolls. It’s harder to lie about your ability scores and defenses, since most GMs tend to keep the basic stats on hand.

You’ll need to be wary when your fellow players start getting suspicious. Be sure to get good at lying…put a few ranks into Bluff.

Read The Module

This one is far tougher. Lying is an opportunistic event, to get a hold of the GM’s module and read it requires planning, and quite possibly money. Many GMs don’t use published modules or when they do, they modify it, so this has limited value unless you know which module and that your GM is going to use it relatively unchanged. The Kobold Hall in the back of DMG and Keep on the Shadowfell, which is free on the Internet, are easy to access. Also now that Dungeon comes with a DDI subscription, you can get your hands on the adventures in that magazine pretty easy. Other printed or 3rd party modules require that you spend some money, which seems a little ridiculous just to cheat at something where you’d only be cheating yourself.

The upside to reading the module your GM is running is that if you don’t mind knowing the spoilers, you can help the GM out by moving the plot along by making choices that move through a well-paced set of encounters. Also some modules are  balanced towards the PCs finding hiding items or solving puzzles that you wouldn’t be likely to find unaided.

In case your GM is reading this blog… don’t actually cheat, you’re only cheating yourself and your friends. If she’s not… cheat to win! After all, it’s only a game!

How to Bring Suggestions to Your GM

I almost didn’t post this today because I’m in the middle of reading Difficult Conversations book. So far seems to advocate treating other people like they’re human beings in their own right, deserving of respect and understanding. If the advice in it turns out to be good, I’ll try to distill some of it down into a follow-up post, but what has me fired up right now are some comments on Chatty DM’s post about cramming too much awesomeness into a single encounter. Commenters Denubis and Charisma both mentioned that were going to share that article with their respective GMs. I wonder how they’ll bring that subject up at their game table.  I know if I printed out some article on the web and gave it my DM, she’d probably kill my character out of spite and resurrect him has a halfling.

In all seriousness, how do you bring new ideas to your GM? This really hasn’t been an issue for me since mine is friendly with the gamerati on the webosphere, but I imagine not GM is open to adjusting his or her play style. This more of an open question than an advice article. I’m a programmer by trade and am not a professional mediator or councilor.  I imagine if you print out a post and give it to your friend: “Here you need to read this” is the not friendliest way to share information. Does your GM ask for feedback, or is he open to discuss how is the game going?

One nice thing about Chatty’s post is the way that he phrases it. He does not say “my encounters have too much stuff going on that it’s hard for me to manage and distracts the players to the point where it takes away from the game”, but instead says “I’m cramming in too much awesome.” When bringing up a sensitive subject, be sure to phrase things positively and give lots of feedback about what aspects are working and that you enjoy. Remember too that that your fellow players may not see the same areas of improvement as you do. What I do in these situation is share the conversation with everybody, usually like “did you see latest post from Sly Flourish? Isn’t that beholder wicked awesome? We should go find one of those to fight…” That might get the hint across that you want to fight a beholder and then if other people get jazzed by it, your DM can find a way to work one in.

Enough of that ramble… so, how do people bring continuous improvement to your gaming group?

PS @SarahDarkmagic, at no time does Skamos want to encounter a Beholder or any of its ilk.

How to Tell When You’re Being Escalated

As part of my preparations for DMing a one-shot, I’m re-reading the DMG and DMG 2. There’s a section in DMG2 describing three different types of adventure pacing: Balanced, Spike, and Escalation. Balanced means the DM has decided to balance action and roleplaying, and balance easy encounters with complex/difficult encounters. Spike pacing concentrates the session/adventure on one major battle, forcing the players to go all-out. Escalation pacing puts the characters through increasingly difficult encounters, forcing them to use up valuable resources before the big final battle.

The DMG2 gives advice to the DM on how to grab the player’s attention so they want to keep moving to battle after battle, instead of stopping to rest. In my group, we’re very conscious of our resources, consumables, and daily powers and we’re hesitant to use them up, perhaps overly cautious. There’s some sneaky things DMs can do to “trick” you in to not stopping or at least not taking extended rests, and it’s important to recognize when you’re in one of those situation. Not in order to fight it, but so you can stop resisting and go along with her plans. The idea here is to trust in the DM and follow where the adventure is going. Fights when you’re low on healing and other resources are scary, but they can also be memorable and rewarding and it’s not fair to short-change yourself from the opportunity just to make sure you easily win each encounter.

So, what are the Escalation warning signs? These are most apparent at the end of an encounter (“what’s that unlocked door marked treasure for?”) or at the start of the next one (“why are all the goblins wearing name tags that say ‘minion’?”). If you run across some monsters that you’ve easily defeated before, or the set-up seems like you could just walk all over an encounter, the DM is probably throwing you a softball to keep things moving. It’s okay to use up some consumables and healing surges here, but save the dailies for the big encounter that sure to come. Keep going on for the big reward.

Another escalation sign is that you’re being baited. Whether there’s treasure around the next corner, a deity offering answers, or a side passage full healing potions: if it feels like you want to push on ahead and not wait, odds are you’re being baited to keep going. Just like I keep watching Lost week after week, after long since forgetting why, it’s important to run the adventure to its conclusion. The upside to being baited is that your characters will be rewarded for their efforts. Railroading is not being given a choice. Baiting is being given a choice, it’s just too attractive to ignore.

The more obvious escalation sign is an external pressure to keep going such a time limit (the dungeon is collapsing around you or your quarry is getting away), or the inability to take an extended rest (the area is too dangerous or too loud to sleep). These can be really frustrating to players, but these limitations also create a sense of drama and tension. While it might feel insane at the time, once you are able to catch your breath and look back on it you’ll have a great D&D memory.

Remember that even if your characters don’t have time to take a deep breath, as player be sure to take that time and call a break to keep things comfortable.