Meta-metagaming

When my group plays, we adventure about under the basic assumption that the GM has scaled all the challenges to our characters’ power level. Some encounters might be easy, some might be really challenging, but they all should be winnable. Should an encounter prove is impossible, we hope our GM would indicate that in some obvious way before a TPK. This hope is likely a dangerous assumption.

In my latest game our DM surprised us by throwing a black dragon into the encounter. Our characters took it in stride and started attacking it. Even after we loosed daily after daily on it and it wasn’t bloodied, like heroes, we persevered despite all rationality. After all, she wouldn’t have put a dragon into the encounter unless we could defeat it… right? Thankfully we were able to subdue our foe, but it came close. In hindsight there was no good in-game reason to stay and fight. But our Standard Operating Procedure is: we haven’t died yet so we must be invincible.

The only way this attitude makes sense is in the meta-game: we rely on the DM to move the plot forward and make encounters winnable. I think the role-playing purists out there would be unkind to me for this behavior, and I wouldn’t disagree. As role-players we should be playing the role of our characters and try to think as they would.  This failure of imagination isn’t the worst part! The bigger issue is that we’re relying on convention for our character’s survival, there’s nothing to prevent the DM from seriously outmatching us. The only thing stopping her is fear of whining players or slowing down the rest of the game as the survivors proceed over-cautiously through the rest of the dungeon.

So… against all my instincts and advice, I guess we’ll keep doing it until it bites us in the ass. GMs if you’re reading… if your party does this, give them one or two over-powered encounters with an easy out so I learn your serious without dire consequences. And if they still don’t listen, then go in for the kill >:-).

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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!

Where Do You Game?

A few months ago, this totally awesome D&D room made the internet rounds.  The guy has a totally crazy collection of gaming memorabilia, and a tricked out room to showcase it and play games. The description of the integrated lighting and sounds makes it seem more like a theme park attraction than a room in what might otherwise be a normal house.  Although I can’t imagine ever having enough rooms in my house to dedicate one entirely to gaming, I wouldn’t mind upping my geek cred by having a regular space for games and gaming.

We don’t game at my apartment because the space isn’t sized, shaped, or furnished for it. Instead our GM hosts the game in her dining room. As you can see here, she’s got a sweet setup with computer and recording equipment. On the table is our books, character sheets, and minis representing the heroes about to die. Although some libations did make it into the photo, missing is the awesome pulled pork we had for dinner.

Our Gaming Room

Where do you game? Growing up we gamed in kitchens, basements, and the public library. In college we generally used a study room or the floor of someone’s dorm. Now that I’m a little older, I insist on an actual table and chairs. Of course people are now gaming over the internet, which makes space less of an issue, if you’ve got a laptop and a desk or table.