When the Real World Intrudes…

We, as DMs, have limitless control over the worlds we create with our players, but the real world is a completely different story. Sometimes it can be hard to get a group of people with different schedules together to play, but every now and then the really world will really hit someone in your group hard. Hard enough that it’s going to change how your group has to play. As DMs, not only do we have to be great storytellers and gamers, we also have to have skill with people management. When a players issue changes your game, here are some things you can do.

Talk to them. Make sure they understand these changes aren’t their fault. Let them know they aren’t a pariah or anything stupid like that. These changes are for the betterment of the group, not to make someone feel alienated.

Get their input. Get them to talk about the solution they’d come up with. Letting them help will make them feel less like it’s their fault. Their solution will both make the group see their helping and make them feel like their helping, and at this time, it’s all about helping.

Don’t stop your game. Maybe you need to take a quick break or something, but DO NOT stop playing. This is probably the worst thing you can do. Do what it takes to keep your game going. The game might be just as important to your player who’s having the problem as it is to you. Who knows, you game might even help them feel better.

The DtK Method for Collaborative Worldbuilding

Our map in progress.

Our map in progress.

Last week I talked about how I was doing some collaborative worldbuilding with my new group. I spoke about how involving your players in the worldbuilding process is a rich and rewarding experience and how I had come up with a method to do it that was working great. Well, here it is. I’m calling it the Dragon’s Kingdom. It’s based on the entanglements system for building a game. You need a poster map and a marker. It consists of 3 steps:

Step 1 – Dictates

For the first step your players (and you, if you choose) each write an overarching rule for your setting. They can be anything like ‘magic is dangerous and feared’, ‘dragons are extinct’ or ‘the spirits have abandoned the world, primal power does not exist’. The idea is to not make them to specific. Aim for between 8-12. Make sure your group knows these aren’t set in stone. More on that later.

The finished product.

The finished product.

Step 2 – World

For this step, the players (and you if you choose) will place people, places, and groups on the map. People are represented by circles. Places are squares. Groups are triangles. Each item placed should be named. The first part is everyone puts a circle in front of themselves for their character. You can also place one for the antagonist if you so choose. Then, on the first round of step one, each person will place two items on the map. Every round after, each person will place one item. Aim for 4 or 5 rounds, depending on the size of your group.

Step 3 – Relationships

This is the fun step. Your players (and again, you if you choose) will map how the people, places, and things in your setting relate to each other. To do this, those participating draw lines from the items on the map to other items on the map. Then, the relationship between those items is defined by who drew the line. During the first round, each person draws 2 relationships. The next round is what I call a ‘meta-round’. In a meta-round, the person whose turn it is has the choice of drawing a new relationship or altering something. They can draw a line through a relationship and define how that relationship ended or they can alter a dictate by adding to it. Yes, a person can redraw the altered relationship, representing a further change to it. Also, a dictate cannot be removed and it can only be altered once. For example, with the ‘dragons are extinct’ example I changed it by writing ‘assumed, because they haven’t been seen in a long time.’ After this each person draws a relationship.  Then you do another meta-round. Go on like this until you feel there are enough relationships on your map.

So there you have it, the Dragon’s Kingdom. You have my full permission to use it. Let me know if it works for you too!

Three Ways to Worldbuild with Your Group

So I’m on the cusp of starting a new campaign with a new group and I’ve decided to try something different. Instead of simply making a new world on my own or running a published setting, I thought it would be fun for my new group (it’s the first campaign for all of them) to make a world with me. I’ll go deeper into the process, which has been working splendidly, after we’ve finished, but first some other ideas for worldbuilding as a group:

The first idea is pretty simple. You start with an essentially blank slate. Then, each player adds one element to the world that ties to their characters backstory. For example, the dwarf is from a mountain stronghold that was once lost to his people (yeah, I recently saw the Hobbit…) or the druid is a member of a powerful secret order. The major idea here is that each player will give you something juicy to work with and then you, as the DM, incorporate that element deeply into your campaign.

The next idea is for a group that wants to return a former campaign world years later. Worlds change and evolve over time, not just in the ways your old characters affected it, but in completely organic, natural, and sometimes surprising ways. Instead of coming up with all this on your own, write a bunch of generic world changes on sheets of paper like “This group has come to power because of…” or “This city is now under a different rule.” Then have the players pick these sheets of paper out of a hat and describe the changes they pick. This will give them an active say in how the world grows while they’re away from it.

The final one here might be cheating. You have the players design their own vessel. It could be an airship, traditional ship, submersible, or even a spelljammer (magic spaceship for those who don’t know) and the campaign centers on their travels in that vessel. While you are still designing the various exotic locales they’ll visit, they’ve decided with their vessel the types of adventures they want to have. The places they’ll visit in a spelljammer are very different from where they’ll go in a sailing ship.  They still have a say in the kinds of places being visited. And you can always have them make up the places too.

Letting your players in on the world building process doesn’t only take some of the work out of your hands, it also makes a world your players are much more invested in. As someone who is currently on both sides of this (playing and running), I would suggest group worldbuilding to every group. At least once.

Happy Holidays!

Hey everyone, sorry I missed last week’s post. Between starting a new D&D group, rehearsing for my new improv group, and getting ready for Christmas, it sort of fell by the wayside. From now on, when I’m going to miss a week, I’ll make it known here. Speaking of, I will not be posting next week or the week after. I want to wish everyone the best possible holiday, no matter what holiday you celebrate.

Making characters with my new group recently, I realized that new players don’t always have the easiest time with their first character. I guess I hadn’t before because I’d always either been on the same level as them or had another person who knew the game as well as I did to help. It got me wondering: how could I make this easier?

I think the way to make creation easier for any system is to segment it. What I mean is break it up into parts for your players. Using D&D as an example, that would mean you do stats, skills, gear, everything separately. I also mean that you should keep the extraneous or unneeded choices away. So if one of your players is a Rogue, show them only the best feats for a rogue. This process takes more work on your part, but it pays off during the creation process.

So, with the proper prep, you can make the process of creation much easier on your first time players. It’s all about asking the right questions, knowing your stuff, and making decisive choices (believe me, they will waffle a lot). Also, never hurts to have multiple copies of your core book.

So, when next I write, it’ll be 2013 (unless the Mayans are right) and I’m going to start with a story about my new group and a brand new campaign building system made by yours truly. Hope to see you all next year!

What a Twist!

While running the first adventure for a group of new players, I noticed something questionable about the ending. The adventure was a published adventure that Wizards gave out two years ago at Free RPG Day to promote the Dark Sun setting. The adventure is really well put together; the players fight in the gladiatorial pit and investigate a murder that happens shortly after. They’re trying to impress a group known as the Veiled Alliance, who the governor that tasks them with solving the murder is a known member, and the end comes and they find and capture the murderer. And then, the adventure breaks down because the man responsible for the murder is a member of the Veiled Alliance. Yeah…

What. A. Twist.

This made me wonder: what is the proper use of the twist in Dungeons and Dragons?

I think it only really works when this sort of thing is at least plausible. When you have a twist come out of left field it kind of ruins the effect.  A proper twist is a surprise, but the kind of thing where when you look back it makes sense. Think about the end of the Sixth Sense. Throughout that film, the viewer is given countless hints that Bruce Willis is dead. Now, compare that to the end of Saw, where you have to justify pretty much everything about that situation. Which do you find more satisfying? The hinted at turn in the story or the sudden jarring change? The reason, in my opinion, that the Sixth Sense is better is because you given all the information, but lead to believe it’s not about Bruce Willis.

My favorite twist is to have a trusted (or sometimes not so trusted) NPC turn on the party. But I never just have this happen. I always give them subtle hints, but keep them on their main task. It’s not about the weird problems they’re having with this NPC, it’s about stopping their antagonist. This works because I use a red herring.

A red herring, for those who don’t know, is a false lead. In the Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment is the red herring. You’re lead to believe this movie is about the psychologist trying to help the boy. But, the movie is really about the boy helping the dead man. A good twist can’t exist without some misdirection. When planning a big shake up for your players, don’t be afraid to lead them astray. If you have them thinking one thing and blindside (with proper set up of course) with another thing they may have not been expecting, their minds will be blown.

But, be careful. Two things to keep in mind here. One: too many twists will frustrate and confuse your players. Two: players love being rewarded for being smart. If one of your red herrings is well set up and your players are really buying into, change your plans. Your players will eat it up.

The Four Vital Parts of a One-off Adventure

Whether it’s a quick diversion for your regular group or a dungeon to excite your friends, the one-off adventure is an integral part of the role playing experience.  What is a one-off?  A one-off adventure is an adventure that doesn’t affect the ongoing story that usually isn’t longer than a single session.  The best one-offs have four vital parts: A great hook, an interesting locale, proper length, and an exciting set piece encounter.  Let’s take a look at each of these and I’ll give some examples to help your brainstorms.

A Great Hook: You need to entice your players properly.  A lame hook will lead to a lame game.  Just because the characters and locations in this adventure won’t be seen again doesn’t mean you can be lazy.  Trust me; they don’t want to face the nameless wizard in his tower in ‘the mountains’.  They’d rather try to stop Immeral Imenethil, eladrin artificer, from making his deadliest creation or seek the temple of the Sun Dragon deep in the southern swamps to find the a legendary blade or to stop the Lizard King, dragonborn warlord, from raising an army of lizardfolk to wipe the nearby village from the map.  Give them a good reason to do it and they’ll buy into the adventure and have a blast.

An Interesting Locale: Just as important as a great hook is the setting for your one-off.  Again, don’t send them to another wizard’s tower.  Tombs, abandoned fortresses, ancient temples to forgotten gods, these are all steps in the right direction.  Add some history to liven those places up and you’ve got yourself a great locale.  Immeral Imenethil’s workshop is set up in a repurposed dwarven tomb.  The Temple of the Sun Dragon is full of reptilian skeletons.  The little details make the memories.

Proper Length: There is nothing worse than setting up a game with your friends and having to stop three rooms before the grand finale.  It’s important to know just how long you’re going to have and plan for it.  More importantly, plan your beginning, middle, and ending (I’ll go more into this later).  If you know there’s going to a break in the adventure plan for that too.  One last tip, people like to eat every four to five hours.

A Set Piece Encounter: I like to talk a lot about what I call ‘set piece encounters’.  Set piece encounters are those big fights, the fights you hint at, the grand finales, the ones your players talk about for years.  Every one-off needs one of these, preferably at the end.  A well thought, challenging battle will tie the entire adventure together.  Unique traps, epic terrain, power elites with deadly bodyguards, and one of a kind solos can all lead to unforgettable battles.  When the players finally encounter Immeral, they battle him in his trap laden laboratory, when they meet the Lizard King he battles them with his honor guard by his side.

When you give your players a great adventure, you give them lifetime memories.  So, even when it’s just for one night, don’t skimp on your adventures.

The Greatest Evils: More Memorable Villains

Heroes are great, protagonists are fantastic, but what would they be without their antagonists?  What would the Fifth Element be without Zorg?  Where would Lord of the Rings be without Sauron?  A great villain can increase how memorable your campaign is.  The best villains will drive your campaign and set your players on a truly personal quest.  Here are some ways to make your antagonist the main event:

  • Make them a constant force in the campaign.  This one might seem a bit obvious, but it can be easy to lose sight of where you’re villain fits when the players aren’t interacting with him, his henchmen, or even in his sphere of influence.  Make sure you’re players don’t lose sight of their chosen foe!  When your players spend too much time away from their antagonist, he becomes just another ‘enemy of the week’ and that’s the worst thing that can happen to your antagonist.
  • Use a special miniature for them.  When you have a figure that represents ONLY one character and that character just happens to be the man or woman who wants all of their heads, the players perk up whenever they see it.  It makes every time you pull it out of your box or case that much more special.
  • Make him irredeemable and utterly evil.   Literature is full of stories of villains who are redeemed by the end of the story, or relatable villains who you just feel really bad for.  They make for interesting stories, they make for great entertainment, and they show you how easy it is to give in to that darker impulse.  Players don’t want any of that.  Players want to kill their enemy and feel good about it after.  They want to know his death was for the good of the world and justified.  Anything that murks that up will lessen their eventual victory.
  • Make the players encounter him more than once.  When they have that final encounter with your villain, the players should have a slight idea of what they’re dealing with.  Why? Because they’ve fought before.  A defeat where the villain spares the players, a fight where they win but he escapes, a fight they can never finish, these encounters will build tension that will help drive the players animosity into the final showdown.  And when that last great battle comes, don’t go easy on them; nothing makes players enjoy a fight like coming back from the brink of death.

Remember, the villain can be just as important as the player characters.  Don’t be afraid to put the work into making one that you’re players find to be truly memorable.