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Posts Tagged ‘campaign management’

Alternatives

I have been thinking a lot on alternative goals in combat lately. These are not “combat outs” (which were developed to speed up 4th edition combat and reduce some of the grind that can develop) such as bad guys…”gulp”… actually surrendering instead of determinedly inviting the players to cut them down like shafts of wheat or monsters fleeing when bloody or underlings/minions dropping when the master is slain. What I am really talking about are goals that one or both sides can have in a given encounter that isn’t just curb-stomping the other into Valhalla. I don’t think this concept is particularly limited to 4th edition, or new for that matter, but given the tactical nature of the combat these kinds’ goals can really make the game shine, particularly if you feel like you have fallen into a bit of a rut with encounters playing out in a predictable pattern of powers and feats each round almost like a combat assembly line. Although this maybe more of a DM issue than a player issue because when I am a player I looove stabbing things until their dead at which point I continue to stab them like I have some kind of stabbing Tourette’s..but I digress.

The alternative goals can be almost anything from needing to protect a high value target during an attack or transport to acquiring an item before time runs out. In the later example imagine a scene where an item is guarded by powerful opponents, perhaps much more so than the players where a straight up brewhahah could go either way. The players then have the option to either throwdown, hopefully survive, and acquire said package or do they have some players defensively engage the guardians while one player grabs the item followed by a measured retreat?

Alternative goals are meant to not only make choices interesting but also failure interesting. Take the former example of protecting a high value target during transport. Say the players are tasked with protecting the king’s daughter on a diplomatic mission to a warring neighbor. During the journey they are attacked and while perhaps they defeat the enemies in the traditional fight mode but fail to protect the princess because the attackers had the alternative goal of killing/kidnapping the princess and not necessarily wiping out the players. What are the consequences of that failure? Probably pretty interesting, particularly of your a sadistic mother fucker like me 😉

I will give you an example from my Dark Sun game. I set up an encounter in the desert where the players were ambushed by the Muto Tieflings. I had several ground troops followed by some Muto’s swooping in on giant bats as I piped in Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries. The Muto’s had the goal of capturing one of the player’s (Quell) who they were calling the Muadeeb for a ritual sacrifice.  It played out rather nicely with the players adjusting strategy to try and protect Quell (I kept trying to have the bat riders grab him and fly away) and the associated tension/urgency it generated. The defenders were overjoyed as the Muto’s repeatedly violated marks to try and get at Quell.

One of the side benefits of having encounters with alternative goals is that you don’t’ need to be so neurotic with encounter balance or scaling (if that is your thing) because there is usually a win button that doesn’t involve total annihilation of the monster(s). A word of caution, like most things in life, with the exception of gaming and maybe porn, moderation is probably best with alternative encounter goals. I don’t think you want them in every encounter or your players might start rolling their eyes every time you frame a scene while fondly reminiscing about the good ol’ days when you could just kill things and take their stuff.

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So what exactly is a Location-in-Motion or LIM for short? It’s a style of adventure design derived from Dungeon World (DW) concepts and hacked for use in some 4th edition games that I am involved in, although the concepts are generally applicable to most RPG’s.  Certainly these concepts are not new or revolutionary, and I can’t take any kind of credit for their development or implementation. I first became aware of the LIM from a cat in my home game that was playing a ton of DW and had decided to create a little one-shot 4th edition adventure utilizing some DW concepts.

The way I think about LIM’s is that they are essentially mini-sandboxes. The DM picks a location that is kind of closed and then stocks it with various factions. Each faction is then given some over-arching motivations/goals that drive their actions and reactions. Following this is a list of “moves” for each faction that suggests potential actions a faction could take depending on the situation or to drive the game forward. Moves can be really general or very specific based on personal preference and whatever would be most helpful to you. For a faction consisting of Mutated Tieflings (from my Dark Sun game) a move could be very general and abstract like “sow destruction and anarchy” to more specific “attempt to kidnap Quell”.  The idea is that if there is a lull in the action or the players do something you can look at your “moves” and either react to the players or use them to spur action.

The initial session starts with the players at the LIM and preferable in the middle of some action. This can be a good place to get some collaborative story telling going by asking the players what happened on the way or how they got where they are. Grim Portents is another concept that helps frame the setting and get the action rolling, usually a threat of some kind that may potentially happen without intervention. At this point the characters are left to interact with the location and factions as they see fit, prompting reactions from the factions in a very organic free flowing way.

Depending on the style of game you are running this frame work allows for a lot of narrative control to be given to the players such as adding motivations or goals to factions or adding story elements they want to see happen or accomplish. The DM is then able to build this into the story, perhaps even adding to the encounters and possibilities within the LIM. For example the DM in the game I was playing in mentioned that there was a temple with a hidden treasure on the island. The Githyanki warlock stated that the treasure must be a Spelljamer helm leading to the conclusion that there must be a ship hidden somewhere on the island that he could use to blast off to the astral sea. The DM was then able to incorporate this into the story adding encounters and motivations/goals to the factions that involved a starship. The “motion” part of the LIM comes not only from the fluidity of the collaborative story telling but also from the idea that the factions continue with their goals and motivations if left to their own devices which can have consequences (good or bad)for the players. If ignored a faction cam become a “front”, essentially a major pain in the ass that can continue in future adventures. For example, not stopping the cult who was planning on opening a portal to the abyss could have major consequences that could play out for a while or become a recurring motif in the game.

In terms of DM prep, this approach is frontloaded and takes some work to set up, but after that you can get multiple sessions out of that prep. With my Dark sun game I am looking at getting 5 to 6 sessions out of the initial prep which included creating factions/motivations/moves and generating a couple of maps and stat blocks. I think the discrete nature of the LIM makes it slightly more manageable than a full open world sand box style, although it is not that different from those types of games that start in a town then progress outward. The idea is that you can then string one LIM after another to create an ongoing campaign.

I think what spawned the LIM was some of the frustrations that can arise with plot-based linear adventures; namely railroading and lack of player choice and the associated awkwardness that can occur as players stumble around trying to find the plot or when the DM is invested in the outcome of an encounter/event in order to drive the plot/story forward. I think what is cool about this approach is that it’s not set in stone, in other words you can’t be accused of doing it wrong.  I picture it like a spectrum with DM/player style dictating where on the spectrum in terms of narrative/plot control the LIM will fall in.

This post is getting a little out of hand, nothing like trying to articulate abstract concepts to make you want to jab something sharp in your eye, so I will end this one and continue next time detailing the LIM I set up in my Dark Sun game.

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I think as Dungeon Masters we are our own worst enemies at times, way worse than any twinked up paladin/warlock hybrid or some snot nosed aspergersish rules lawyer. The problem is our tendency to get all up in our heads and over analyze our games. It can be even worse when multiple DM’s get together and begin to theory craft shit, like some kind of monstrous DM sowing circle. Don’t get me wrong all of this introspection and shootin’ the breeze can be beneficial and help improve your game, it’s just there’s a potential downside to it, namely blowing crap way out of proportion.

Everyone wants to run a good fun game; nobody goes into DM’ing with the goal of sucking the joy from people’s lives or running a game so horrific that it scares people muggle. However, I think we can end up ruminating way too much over such things as whether there is too much plot or too little; too much collaborative story telling or not enough; too much railroad or not enough; are encounters too hard, too long, too short, too easy, are there enough alternative goals; do players choices have enough meaning or too much meaning; is there too little or too much role playing; do my players hate my game; am I a bad DM, am I a horrible person etc…on and on until I want to kick my own ass. I think all of these things are important to consider and when refined can create an enjoyable game experience and patch some bugs. We should probably stop short of a crippling neurotic degree of consideration because for the most part I don’t think players notice or care and are just happy to be playing.

Now for sure there are games with issues both on the DM and player side, some of which can be solved through open communication and some which cannot and seem to represent more of a clash in play styles and personality dynamics. For example, some people just struggle with any kind of perceived authority and act out in subtle or more active ways. Similarly some folks are looking to exert control and dominance for any myriad of reason from feeling an inherent lack of control in their past or present to a gratification derived through dominating others. But by and large I think most games and people fall more in the middle and just enjoy the game, giving wide allowances and tolerance for the ups and downs and limitations of playing make believe.

Take me and my dichotomy of DM and player selves. As a DM I am the ruminator who is waiting for the inevitable player revolt, complete with a bloody coup and burning of me in effigy. While as a player I am the most laid back accepting dude there is. I can find the fun in any play style and am just happy to be gaming. Honestly, the DM could bend me over, burying my face in a pillow, and proceed to railroad the shit out of me and I would still probably find a way to have fun (picture Kevin Bacon in Animal House…”thank you sir, can I have another”). I mean at the end of the day no matter what I can always find joy fighting shit while making dick and fart jokes.

I am beginning to ramble a bit now so maybe it’s a good to time end and sum up: Just relax; don’t sweat it so much, your players are probably having a great time and if all else fails crack a dick joke

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I don’t think I am the best DM. Don’t get me wrong I think I run an enjoyable game that people seem to like but there are some limitations or gaps in my toolkit if you will. I have never been that guy that can create an immersive homebrew setting filled with a rich tapestry of culture, people, and Machiavellian plots. Given my extensive nerd studies, consisting of pouring over tomes and tomes of fantasy literature, I am really better at world pilfering than world building. My games are also not super serious, although I try and get a mix of the serious and humor. I think this is, in part, a reflection of how I shuffle through this world with a sardonic glint in my eye and a fondness for dick and fart jokes.

What I have done since I got back into RPG’s and running games has been to exercise some of these weaker DM muscles, sort of like nerd pumping iron. In my 4th edition games I am trying to be more flexible and encouraging of the players to narrate actions and do interesting things irregardless of the rule system. Often I don’t’ even ask for a skill check or roll and just try and get them to describe what happens. This also expands into story aspects as well, with more sand boxy elements and brief forays into collaborative story telling. With the latter it’s kind of funny how jarring it can be to the players if they are not used to it and can make for some unpredictable and hilarious moments like what led to the title of this post.

It’s the second session of the Dark Sun game and I needed to introduce a character that was absent from the first session. He is playing a Tarek (aka a Half-Orc) hiring himself out for jobs that target the Sorcerer Kings infrastructure. We decided to have him apprehended and sold into slavery after torturing and gutting a Templar for secret information desired by his veiled alliance employers.  So the party was able to spring Targ-Ugu and squire him back to Iman Fasile (ex-gladiator, tapas joint operator, and veiled alliance contact) with only minor bumps and bruises  🙂 then the moment of truth came, Iman, in his gravelly voice asks “so what was the message?”. At which point there was dead silence, followed by some humming and hawing, and then a voice chirped up over skype “Pork Swords”. I was like Pork Swords, really like WTF, but good old Iman didn’t miss a beat, he was all “holy shit that sounds terrible…this is bad news bears….this sounds petty bad, what do you think it means?…It sounds terrible, that’s gotta be some kind of code right?

Did I mention my fondness for dick and fart jokes? Well I guess you do reap what you sow sometimes. So now I gotta figure out how to work “Pork Swords” into some kind of grand Templar scheme…any ideas?

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Well the summer of Dark Sun has begun. The players have managed to free themselves from the Gladiatorial pits after a failed assassination attempt on the sorcerer king Andropenis..er I mean Andropinis. They are currently skulking their way around the under-belly of Balic while being hunted by their former slave master and trying to decide how to get the fuck out of dodge.

I started the game with a battle in the arena where the players were fighting as a team against a Black Dragon posing as a Silt Wyrm. I just wanted to give some props to the Black Dragon from the Monster Vault. At level+1 it was supremely efficient at eviscerating my gang. I managed to drop 3 of the 5 characters without breaking a sweat and needed to take my foot of the accelerator a little to not TPK in the first combat of the first session of the campaign.

The group, through the vagaries of online play, has found themselves without a leader. The current roster is filled with a defender, 2 strikers, and 2 controllers. Is it me or with that make-up are they not just asking for me to pound on them? I mean 2 controllers come on man. This puts me in an interesting spot as no one seems interested in playing a leader and I am not interesting on insisting someone play a leader and the players (at least one) want the game to be brutal in that prototypical Dark Sunny way. I was thinking of adding a 6th person but there is no guarantee they would want to play a leader either. So what are you going to do? It sort of makes encounter planning a little challenging as the game is balanced around the assumption of a leader.  

So we are going to do some experimenting and see if we can make this work without compromising the feel of the setting too much. What I mean by feeling is that in my view things in Dark Sun need to be extremely nasty, scary, and hit like a sac of doorknobs to the junk.  In the next session one of the NPC’s will dole out some magical fruit (Dark Sun equivalent of a healing potion) which the players can use with a minor action to spend a surge.  So it’s a little better than a regular healing potion but a little worse than healing power. If this turns out to be a viable option then they will just have to use a lot of their resources acquiring the healing fruit. I am still setting the encounter difficulty at level +2 and above and have reminded them that fleeing is also an option in combat….what was Khalid’s catch phrase “better part of valor”

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Well the MCAT is in the bag and I am ready to rise from the ashes of my rpg semi-sabbatical like a nerd phoenix. Hopefully I hit my targets and need not revisit the test but we’ll see. Whatever happens I feel a great sense of accomplishment in just “rolling the dice” and whatever happens happens, que sera sera and all. There was a young cat at the testing centre that I had taken the MCAT prep course with and we sort of sweated it out together. He was a little tense and I told him that there were greater disappointments to be had in this world than not getting into medical school. Life, death, love, family these are the big deals I said.

I know it is easy for me to say since I already have a doctorate and a career but it’s the truth none the less. I have seen a lot of people over the years that have “made it” so to speak and still weren’t happy and kind of hated what they were doing, me included. I came to realize how important having passion for what you do is. I understand that not everyone can chase their dreams or flights of fancy as sometimes you gotta put food on the table, but to those people I would encourage them to find something they are passionate about and do it balls deep. Freud wrote that the love and work are the two pillars of mental health; I would add hobbies as a third.

I recently read Kevin Smiths latest book “tough Shit: Life advice from a fat, lazy slob who did good” and I had to chuckle at the thematic similarities between our lives as he reflects on being a filmmaker and his decision to transition out of it and chase passion again. I have become a big fan of his over the years and I encourage anyone to check out not only his movies but his books, Q&A’s, and Podcasting Empire.

In the meantime the gaming world is my oyster so to speak and I am ready to jack things up or off or whatever.  Although I have to admit with such limitless options I am a little paralyzed with indecision. I think I am going to start up an online game again but what game/system or what setting? Should it be more 4E or pathfinder or Castle and Crusades or Star Wars or a supers game, see I just don’t know. Part of me is thinking about a game in Dark Sun as I just started reading Rob Schwalb’s new novel in that setting.

I am going to jack things back up in my home game as well. Just this evening I finished detailing some NPC’s and potential plot hooks in the wake of the last adventure arc. I also had this idea to sort of spice things up not only for the players benefit but for mine as well since we have been going at it with the same cast for the better part of 2 years. The players have some henchmen mostly consisting of gladiators they freed from slavery. So for a change of pace I am going to roll up some of these cats and have them play through side adventures as their henchmen doing stuff that the pc’s are far too important to waste time doing. This will give my players a chance to try different classes out. I was even toying with the idea of playing the henchmen with the Castles and Crusades rule set and running them through some of the classic 1st edition adventures like Hommlet or the slavers series. Alternatively I might put them through the 4th edition Village of Hommlet and have the henchmen uncover the rise of the cult of elemental evil which then the players main characters might need to go and curb stomp out.

So decisions, decisions, decisions…any thoughts?

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Saying no can be such an easy thing for me given that I am prone to being a lazy, self-absorbed misanthrope. I can say no to almost anything, from lunch with the in-laws, dinner with other couples, cuddling with the wife, lap dances from strippers, household chores, to shopping for anything that isn’t nerd related. So why do I find it so hard to say no as DM? I am not talking about something interesting or creative in game, but more along the lines of player options such as races, classes, items, feats etc…. I think part of the problem, aside from my unconscious need to be liked and avoid rejection, is that there is a really heavy emphasis in a lot of gaming literature to say yes to the players wants or desires or risk

"NO FUN FOR YOU"

being called a massive douchey, control freak, hater of fun, dick DM that runs a lame game. I mean I don’t want to be lame, douchey I can handle, but not lame.

I think that this has made it difficult to set appropriate limits and boundaries. Perhaps you want to implement the new magic item rarity classification system in 4th edition D&D because you see it as step towards re-balancing the game…nope sorry you’re a dick that wants to kill fun. This has become more of an issue in modern gaming after companies began to figure out that they could make a fuck ton more money selling to the players rather than the DM’s, thereby saturating the market with character options and crunch with the inevitable power creep and unforeseen interactions that ensue, at which point the bean counters tell them that sales have stagnated and it’s time for a new edition and the processes starts over again…rinse and repeat.

I will give you an example from my online game of an instance where I felt I needed to say no. We are looking to add a new player or two. One of the new players wanted to play a Leader. Usually this not an issue and I am thrilled someone wants to play a Leader in these Striker dominated times, but there is already a Leader in the party, a friggin pacifist War Priest (don’t even get me started) no less. There was no way I even want to deal with two Leaders in the same party (particularly with 2 defenders and a striker filling the other slots), as the combats will grind out forever with no threat and it will just make encounter design miserable for me. I can also see this making the game suck overall for everyone. So I nut up and say no, which I think pissed off the potential new player and made me feel like a massive douchey, control freak, hater of fun, dick DM that runs a lame game.

One thing that gets left out in the “yes man” philosophy is that the game may need limits and boundaries to be fun for everyone, including the DM. I think the players bear some burden in this regard, as just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, like just because we can clone a sheep’s nuts doesn’t mean that’s what we need to do. It is admirable that you can build a character that can pown the multiverse and one shot Orcus, but maybe reign that in a little bit tuff guy and think of everyone else at the table, including the DM and don’t force him to be a dick.

I think if I was to ever start another 4th edition campaign I would limit options from the start in terms of what sources to draw from, utilize inherent bonuses, and make use of the magic item rarity system. It would not be unlike my current home campaign as the players have never really read any of the materials let alone a forum thread, but a world away from my online game. Although in fairness to them there was kind of a mutual agreement from the get go, before I was thrust into the role of DM, that the game would be a smorgasbord de jour of power gaming.

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