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A Past Life’s Dream Job

Per Wired:

Woods, a 30-year-old with neatly floppy hair, is dressed tonight in a black button-down shirt and jeans. His DM performances—and being a dungeon master is a kind of performance—are often marked by excitable narration and winkingly melodramatic theatrics; at one point during tonight’s game, he gleefully pounds a hand into a fist, mimicking an arrow’s impact on an opponent.

He’s spent nearly three months preparing for this showdown, even hand-building a few model towers out of scrap wood and dowels. It’s one of the most elaborate adventures he’s crafted in his four-year career as a professional DM at schools and homes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Sometimes, like tonight, the games are run in his apartment, where the bookshelves reach high with graphic novels and board games, and where the walls are decorated with full-color maps from D&D classics like Greyhawk and Isle of Dread.

But while Woods is one of several DMs-for-hire out there, this isn’t his hobby or a side gig; it’s a living, and a pretty good one at that, with Woods charging anywhere from $250 to $350 for a one-off three-hour session (though he works on a sliding scale). For that price, Woods will not only research and plan out your game but also, if you become a regular, answer your occasional random text queries about wizard spells. “He’s worth the money,” says Kevin Papa, a New York City educator (and occasional DM) who’s been part of this Friday-night game for more than a year. “Being a DM requires a lot of brainshare. I don’t know how Timm absorbs it all.”

When I was in high-school or my undergrad, I can see this as the type of job that I’d have loved. Though I think that the idea of a campaign’s length and narrative being based on sessions clients are willing to pay would create some challenging conditions for planning long-term stories; it’d definitely lend itself to a serialized type of play, where each session was like a mini-TV episode, as opposed to early sessions functioning as the opening scenes of a feature film.

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Surviving First Level

It’s a routine concern amongst both dungeon masters (DMs) and players alike: how can a first level group of adventurers possibly survive a ‘real’ combat encounter that doesn’t amount to fighting off largely insignificant creatures (e.g. rats) or a DM playing a set of humanoids as incredibly stupid (e.g. goblins)? The former approach — killing weeny things — tends not to ‘feel’ heroic to many players. And, in the latter case, portraying humanoids as particularly stupid sets a bad tone for the rest of the campaign when the creatures ‘get smarter’ as the player characters (PCs) rise in level and ability.

So what can be done to make first level exciting, without dumbing down encounters or presenting particularly boring adventures?

Roleplaying for Experience

If you happen to be running a longer game (say at least 15-20 sessions) the PCs should be given opportunities to solve problems without the use of their blades or combat magics. In fact, the first series of ‘challenges’ might be entirely roleplaying: How do the PCs manage to sneak a map away from a well guarded noble? What machinations are required to hide away several tons of fish, so that a criminal contact ‘owes’ them a favour to proceed with the quest? What steps must be undertaken to ensure that they win at a dwarven drinking contest, such that the dwarves will (begrudgingly) bring them to the site where their kin were felled by unknown forces?

The structure of these kinds of challenges can widely vary. DMs that prefer large amounts of structure before running sessions may go so far as to establish the kinds of checks that PCs can make, success rates, and so forth. In my case, I tend to establish a challenge and then set the challenge rating (CR) proximate to how hard I think that the process should be; in effect, I fudge things. If I want to make it hard to get the aforementioned map, then maybe I set a CR 2 or 3 and identify the various role playing hurdles that the PCs must overcome: they could convince servants to help them (and, in doing so, have to determine what those servants want or must happen to them prior to rendering assistance), they might try to bluff their way through (and if so, I need to think through what kinds of persons the noble comports with, and who might be a believable person calling on the noble), or they might try to join the noble’s guard or impersonate one already in the noble’s employ.

The work behind roleplaying challenges, ultimately, is to sketch out the various things that could cause problems for the PCs and, moreover, be willing to develop things on the fly as the PCs come up with plans. Maybe the PCs decide that they’re going to take a guard drinking but, unbeknownst to the guard, they’ve struck a deal with some dwarves: if the PCs outdrink the dwarves, they’ll ‘tend’ to the drunken guard while vouching that the PCs are there to meet the noble of the dwarves’ behalves, with one of the PCs reporting as the guard’s cousin to temporarily replace him on guard duty. And that’s just what happens before they get through the front doors!

The nice thing about starting a campaign or long series of sessions with ‘thinking and roleplaying’ challenges is that they can set the tone for the rest of the game. I don’t mean that it means the whole adventure will be about conniving against nobles (though that’s actually a lot of fun!) but that the players learn that playing ‘smart’ and talking their way through things is not only a reasonable way of defeating challenges, but it’s a way to overcome challenges and receive experience points.

Injured High Challenge Rating Creatures

What if the DM simply knows the players are going to hate a series of roleplaying intensive sessions; the play style is to enter areas, fight and hopefully win, and walk out with loot? How can we avoid the ‘rats swarm you’ kinds of challenges?

Personally, I’m a big fan of sending PCs into places where prior adventurers have ventured (and, oftentimes, perished). There’s nothing quite like entering rooms filled with the relatively-recent alive and now filled with not-yet disposed of corpses, and the PCs then realizing that those to be disposed of are the results of combat between prior adventuring groups and the inhabitants of the area in question. Since many of the creatures’ resources will have been previously expended (e.g. potions, magics, weapons, ammunition, etc) in the previous combats they may not be ‘as strong’ as expected. Moreover, if the DM has a set of rules where healing isn’t always as fast as a long-rest, it’s entirely possible that the remaining creatures are not just spread thin in the area that the PCs are exploring, but they are also injured and thus easier to slay. Consequently, you can throw monsters at the PCs that are more powerful yet, because of their depleted resources, are a suitable CR for the party of first level adventurers.

The other advantage of PCs venturing into recently-almost-cleared areas is that the creatures within may be more hesitant to pursue and slay, insofar as the PCs’ incursion might be regarded as a trap, or a trick, to lead the creatures from their comparatively ‘safe’ domain and into the open against more powerful adventurers. The consequence is that the PCs might be able to retreat, long rest, and return won’t being pursued by the dungeon’s inhabitants without undermining the game’s realism.

Of course, this kind of adventure also means that the PCs and players alike might be left with very real questions: why are they being sent/guided/etc into an area, where the bodies of fallen adventurers already littered the floor? What was so important? And who were those prior adventurers, and did they have the same patron?

Rising the the Challenge

Of course, another way of dealing with the concerns around surviving first level can simply entail the PCs dealing with the realities of bad and good choices alike. So, if they venture into a goblin cave and are not cautious then perhaps they are chased away, and are unable to actually complete that particular adventure or quest. Running away isn’t exciting, and likely won’t result in the full experience linked with overcoming a challenge, but rewarding even partial experience points can ‘teach’ players that sometimes retreat really is the better part of valour.

In a game that I recently ran, the PCs ran away or brokered appeasement deals with powerful foes on a regular basis. The foes recognized the PCs as useful, and certainly as more useful alive then dead. Moreover, given that the foes had often beaten the PCs once there was a perception (right or wrong) that the same outcome would follow from another combative encounter. And the PCs, uniformly, avoided provoking foes who had soundly bested them.

The result was the the PCs gained a much better understanding of their foes. They learned a lot more about the world and the politics and the conflicts between difference adversary groups. And they even gained some mentorship and protection: the PCs were so useful that their former-sorta-still-current enemies provided baseline assistance so that the PCs could accomplish the tasks set out by their former foes.

Conclusion

There are lots of actually neat ways of pushing first level PCs into terribly interesting combat encounters, even when using ‘classic’ enemies. But getting past first level shouldn’t exclusively depend on combat with ‘appropriate’ CR creatures and traps. There are other paths that can focus on roleplaying, on PCs dealing with weakened higher-CR creatures, as well as simply getting experience when only partially successful in completing adventures.

If players learn the multitude of ways of gaining experience, from the earliest points of the game, then there is a much better chance that largely-inexperienced groups can be ‘taught’ valuable lessons which may serve them well in later sessions and campaigns. It’s up the DM, however, to ensure that such learning opportunities exist and that players get positively rewarded (using experience or items) when they accomplish tasks that might otherwise result in minimal or no experience rewards.

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The Friendly Monster

One of Ed Greenwood’s “Forging the Realms” articles talked about how monsters could be ‘friendly’ towards PCs. Such friendly monsters can include dragons, goblins, or other beings that feed information and quests to PCs, that provide warnings, or that even give up quests after the monster is slain and the PCs are asked to avenge the monster’s death.

The conclusion of the article contains particularly good advice. Greenwood writes:

In my home campaign, many more Friendly Monsters are still active or waiting in the wings, their adventure hooks yet unsnagged, but my players have learned one lesson very well down the years: Attacking a “monster” on sight without talking to it first is all too often a bad career decision.

And that is the essential takeaway from Friendly Monsterdom: that monsters are so much more than foes to be slaughtered in combat. They are powerful local inhabitants who can spur adventures, serve as the colorful supporting cast of NPCs, and even become allies.

If, that is, the DM manages, by deft use of Friendly Monsters, to make players regard monsters as much more than enemies to be slain for their treasure. First, the idea of having various ‘hooks’ waiting until activated resonates with me, in part because I spend a few minutes most days thinking up new ‘things’ that could someday appear in the world. They tend to be linked to campaign settings in some specific way. If the day’s ‘thing’ is a magic item, then who has it? What are they doing with it? And what’s the item’s history? Such background means that I know where it is, why, and how the PCs could hear about it or cross paths with it. More often than not they simply hear about the ‘thing’ in question but never pursue it because other adventures or interests call. But sometimes it changes the course of the adventure but that’s fine, because I have enough preparation done for the ‘thing’ in question that I can wing it for the session and do more robust prep for the following game.

Second, I think that figuring out the motivations of monsters means that they behave in much more interesting ways. There are often complaints that PCs operate as ‘roving murder hobos’ but don’t many monsters behave as collective murderous hordes without clearly defined rationales, expectations, dreams, or desires as well? In effect, I’m saying that DMs are well advised to move beyond  one dimensional “kill and get stuff” motives and, instead, determine why the monsters want stuff, and from whom they want to take things, and what drives them to act they way they are, at the time they are. And, with motives scoped out, it’s possible that a ‘friendly’ enemy can transform from a pure antagonist to a more complicated NPC and bring out interesting role-play opportunities.

But what if your PCs are the ‘stab first, second, and last, and only ask questions (through arcane or divine magics) of the departed’s spirit to find the loot’ kinds of parties? Well, Greenwood offers a nice way of ‘teaching’ the PCs that there are other ways to behave. Specifically, he writes:

The Knights burst into the bedchamber of a beautiful drow priestess. Caught unarmed and alone, she strolled to a decanter surrounded by wine glasses, looked around at all the glittering blades menacing her, started to pour glass after glass, and asked, “Aren’t we at least going to talk, before you slay me?”

Into the silence that followed, she held out a filled glass to the nearest Knight, and added, “After all, there are so many things I could warn you about.”

Now, four game years later, she and the Knights are friendly enemies who visit or send word to each other often. She warns them of threats to Shadowdale because it’s in her interest to do so. They correctly suspect that she often overstates a situation to get them to attack a particular threat at a particular time, when removal of that threat will benefit her, but say nothing, seeing it as the price of enjoying her “early warning system.”

The Knights have become veterans, but even a novice band of adventurers should begin to see that the Realms holds far more such “Scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” relationships than it does wars.

It’s possible that, even after repeatedly trying to get the PCs to talk more, and stab less, that they continue to just stab and magic their way through things. That’s ok. Just make sure that the friendly monsters learn of the dangerous murder hobos that are roving the world…and plan to remove such threats accordingly. It can turn into an interesting game of orcs killing for the greater good of all! And who knows who those orcs might partner with if they are suitably motivated to stop the murder hobos threatening the region!

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So You Are All Sitting In A Bar…

One of the perennial challenges of any role playing game comes up in the first few minutes or hours of a game: how do the PCs know one another? What binds them together? A strong link between the characters can do wonders to give a ‘reason’ for the PCs to work with one another in the face of great adversity. Absent a strong link the party risks fracturing when thrust into dire situations. While such fragmenting might be ‘realistic’ it can significantly take away from the fun of all the people playing.

Tropes like ‘you all meet in a bar’ or that begin with the party already formed are entirely appropriate for some game types such as organized play or one shot adventures. But longer campaigns can definitely benefit from a much stronger set of bonds at the adventure’s inception. So what can be done to establish such bonds from the get go?

Session 0

If the game is going to last more than two or three session, I think there is real value in having a common character creation session. In addition to being a time where the players work to create a viable adventuring party (they create a balanced party or, at least, intentionally create a party missing certain skills instead of showing up and being surprised at the lack of those skills) it can be a time to work with one another in developing back stories. So when one player mentions they’d like to be linked to a past great hero, the other players can note that their PCs are familiar with the past heroics. They can also develop stronger or weaker bonds between one another; perhaps they are already drinking buddies, or have similar scholarly interests, or worship at the same temples, and so forth.

But what if the players need some suggestions on why they know one another or are willing to collaborate to complete adventures and shared heroics? In such situations it helps to have a running list of possibilities for players to pick up on and work with the DM to flesh out.

Shared Combat

On the one hand, PCs might be united by a common or shared experience. They might have all been involved in a major battle that sets the stage for the campaign or, alternately, be used as a trope to underscore a major mood, emphasize a point of campaign politics, or otherwise familiarize the players with an undertone for the campaign. The combat could either be described in the course of character creation – that is, have the players craft the ‘what happened and why’ with DM participation – or even narrated in a series of moments. There isn’t any need to run the combat using the game rules. Instead you could just have a group-based narrated combat to describe the actions and events associated with the battle. As an added benefit, such narration can help warm players to a more immersive way of describing combat scenarios.

Shared Members of a Secret Society or Cult

There’s nothing that brings people together like a shared secret, and secret societies and cults are a great way to ensure that the characters have this kind of common bond. Moreover, you can work with the players to figure out some of the motives of their organization; depending on the role the organization might play, and the levels or backgrounds of the characters, they might be low level members or leaders of the society or cult and be attempting to save the world or convert ‘non-believers’.

Linked by Friends and Family

One of the most successful games that I ran involved all of the PCs being related through marriage, birth, or other family bonds. Done well, you can get some terrific role playing during character generation and the campaign more generally. Since all players have experiences with their own families they have lots of personal stories that they can mine, as well as those from fiction and non-fiction, when developing interesting and shared back stories.

Common Enemy

PCs will typically find a common enemy over the course of the adventure. This might be the main antagonist of a specific quest or the party responsible for many of the difficulties experienced over the full course of a campaign. While the common enemy might be one of these types of antagonists, I actually prefer more local or personal enemies for whom ‘death’ is an inappropriate resolution strategy when it comes to creating common bonds at the character generation stage. The ‘enemy’ needn’t be a physical threat: it could include a tax authority that routinely investigates the PCs’ finances because of a suspicion that the PCs are holding monies from their local lord. It could be a knight who intentionally makes their lives challenging by talking down the PCs’ exploits to the peasantry and lords alike. Or it could be someone the PCs generally gave a hard time to and now, as a roaming bard or storyteller, spreads malicious rumours or false truths about the PCs. In all of these cases a roleplaying solution, as opposed to a fireball and sword solution, is likely the best way to ‘defeat’ the enemy over as many sessions as you expect the campaign to last. Who knows: maybe the campaign concludes with a moderately endearing ballad about the party’s exploits from the tongue of that aforementioned bard!

Common Mentors

Who trained the PCs? And, if the characters are from the same or neighbouring locales, how do their masters/trainers/mentors know one another? Have they served with one another? Do they revel and study and adventure with one another? Do the PCs know one another because they did the scut jobs their master-mentors required of them, and have a long history of joining one another for dinner or drinks or wilderness outings to complain about their teachers? This kind of hook has the advantage of ensuring that you have lots of roleplaying grist to work with, and the players can invent all sorts of amusing back stories that flesh out the character histories without serious game-affecting consequences. So long as what they’re describing is used to explain current skills, or explain relationships with people in the region that match with their character professions, then it only makes your job easier and deepens the players’ immersion.

Four Adventurers and a Funeral

Another way of bringing together otherwise unconnected characters is for them all to be motivated to avenge someone’s death. For some, the dead person might be a family member, in others a fellow cultist, in yet others a mentor or even an enemy (“I wanted to kill him!”). The adventure could even begin at the funeral itself so that all the characters are playing through their reactions to the the death and then deciding to work together to the death-dealer’s end.

Conclusion

Each of the aforementioned party-formation back stories can give your players a deeper sense of immersion because they will understand why, exactly, they’re continuing to work and cooperate with one another. And all of the aforementioned bonds are helpful when you are dealing with a regularly changing cast of players and PCs: just have the new players, and their characters, ‘in’ on the common bond from the get go. In effect, these common bonds don’t just help at the campaign’s inception but on an ongoing basis as new people join the table.

The PCs will, of course, develop bonds through gameplay over the months and years of a campaign. But all of the aforementioned rationales for working together might make the initial five or ten sessions more enjoyable to role play while simultaneously providing the glue that initially holds the party together in the face of adversity until they develop even more substantial, adventure-based, bonds with one another.

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“How can you be so calm about it?“ his younger companion protested. “We’re going to die!”

Level brown eyes stared into his. “Aye, so? We all have to, lad, but there’s nothing as says we have to behave like craven cattle first.” The old man deftly disentangled the thread and held it out. “An’ another thing,” he continued, “I’ve been in about forty o’ these little affrays before, an’ them as came to kill me haven’t quite managed the job yet. It might well take ‘em as many tries afore they get ye, too! I’ve seen it all before, lad… take heart, and be easy, I say.”

  • Ed Greenwood. “All Shadows Fled.”

A nice account of calming green soldiers about to head into their first – and perhaps last – battle.

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Rulfo’s Chapbook of Survival

Wonderous, rare

Description

This small, nondescript, and unlabeled chapbook has thin copper-sheet pages that are painted white, and can be written on. Each sheet has a word stamped at the top of the page. When the holder of the book smears a bit of their blood onto the stamp and speaks the word aloud the page transforms into a small metal instrument described by the world.

The book has an inscription on the inside cover that reads, “To Rulfo: May this journal keep you safe and let you record your adventures! Love, Mom.”

History

Shaerla of the Twisted Light created this chapbook for her son, Rulfo, in 1247DR when it became apparent that Rulfo was likely to prefer a life of adventuring in the wilderness to the family’s normal scholarly leanings. He travelled with it extensively during his explorations of the Sword Coast but lost it after he was attacked by the Twisty Eyeball tribe of goblins in the depths of Nightfall in 1259DR. Ever since the chapbook has reappeared periodically, passed along by adventurers, merchants, and folk of the outdoors. It was last seen in the hands of Brant of Yartar in the Year of the Lightning Strikes (1457DR) before he ventured into Sword Mountains.

Powers

The chapbook’s magics have faded over time with its use, to the point where its ability to transform sheets into useful small items can only be activated once per month. While the DM can decide what words are stamped into the pages, some words may include: dagger, grappling hook, bread knife, lock pick, bowl, helm, drinking flask, beer mug, manacles, crowbar, and hand axe. To activate a page the holder must smear a small bit of their blood onto the stamped word and simultaneously say the word on the page. After one hour the item transforms back into the copper page; it must then be reinserted into the book and can be reactivated again one month later.

(This magical item builds off an idea introduced by Ed Greenwood in his column, The Teleporting Oddity.)