Showing posts with label DMing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label DMing. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

"Passion is inversely proportional to information had."

The above quote is from Gregory Benford. And it's a truism for RPGs. While I build beautiful worlds in my notes, very little of that makes it through to the players. I might know precisely why a gang of whatevers are doing whatever they are doing, but the players are satisfied with the idea that they are merely jerks. 

It works. Players like to have that room to grow, and they can't grow if smothered with too much B.S. 

There is nothing better than the party discovering some sort of detail that just works for them, but there are many cases where they have no opportunity to gain such information without a data dump. Some things just go to the grave with the player's antagonists. It's fine. 

But sometimes, I like to give information. For example, I hope that every player knows how to use the to-hit tables and can calculate their own bonuses or minuses. It makes my game easier. In fact, I often have the players throw dice for even the monsters. It cuts down on paperwork, but sometimes it is an opportunity to give them a hint about something outside of combat. 

For example, if two equal-level fighters are side by side, shooting arrows at a target and both roll the same number, both should hit or miss the target. However, this is a good place to drop a hint about other stuff. Obviously, two great fighting men should know how good they are. For example, someone might have a cursed weapon or a magic weapon. The target may have some magical device that only applies under certain circumstances like once per round. Once the party is aware of some weirdness, they can start ruling stuff out by logic, just like the real world. 

It's probably magic. 
It saves on the "+1 magic sword" crap. 

There are times to hide some rolls, such as surprise or hiding in shadows. But even those rolls can give information. 

One of my favorite tricks is when the party is surprised, I'll drop a die out of sight and say, "You hear a noise." Surprise is a surprise, there is very little you can do to mitigate it due to the mechanics. However, it isn't very fun to be surprised. By making that announcement and letting the party act accordingly, I am cranking up the pressure AND pushing agency to the party. It creates an environment of anxiety while allowing for possible (slight) mitigation PLUS it allows the players to set a standard of expectation that can easily be read. 

For example, if a party thinks they are in an ambush situation, they may try to arrange themselves in such a way as to defend high-value players like Clerics and Magic-Users with meatshield Fighters and Rangers. On the other hand, if they never do this, you can set a different dynamic where those players are captured or incapacitated and the party is looking at a hostage situation rather than a TPK. It's up to the DM to receive the party's intentions or style and react accordingly. 

One of my favorite experiences was a Thief who decided to sneak up to the walls of a fortification for a little recon. The whole party seemed to support the idea. I rolled for his hide in the shadows and move silently attempts. Each time, I rolled amazingly well. No one saw or heard anything. They were such good rolls that I showed the player her the results. Obviously, these should have been secret, but they were so perfect so I decided to show her. 

Then, disaster. The player of the Barbarian was having a little sidebar with another player when he suddenly realized stuff was happening and asked, "What's happening?" 

Once the party explained the plan, the Barbarian nodded sagely and bellowed, "Look out! I can see you!" 

Well of course you can see him. He isn't hiding from you, you twit. 

The sneaking Thief got this "Oh, shit" look on her face. I leaned over and showed her that the dice indicated she was still not visible to the people on the castle wall. 

To add to the merriment, I decided that the Barbarian's actions would be taken literally. The lookout on the wall answered: "Oh geez," and stepped back out of sight. 

"How about now?" asked the lookout. 

The party was gobsmacked. I gave them a few minutes to work out a plan. The Barbarian was drooling dumb and for once, his actual ability score matched the player's actions. The party adapted to the situation and everyone climbed the wall while the Barbarian offered unhelpful tips to the lookouts. No one intended this possibility, but damn it was fun. 

You can't hide everything all of the time, but you also can't data dump on the players too much. Even if it is mechanical in nature. Also, you shouldn't try too hard to hide certain bits of data. 

As a DM, you build a scenario, a story if you will, but you can't know how it will be received and interpreted. Information from the DM to the players is a fluid thing. You are effectively trying to merge the player's fictional actions with the player's visceral need for information. The DM needs to decide from the get-go what information is worth hiding and what is not. 

Friday, February 18, 2022

The Dread 'n Mechanics

In my post about our hexcrawl sessions, I was trying to show my son the difference between visceral and existential threats by using ghouls as the monster. 

Ghouls are ghoulish. They are the wolves of the undead world. On either of two attacks, they can paralyze a target. And then they eat you. There is also the concept of being turned into a ghoul, which is out of scope mechanically but may hang out in your player's head. Dang, that's all so scary. It's also existential as it begs the question, do you want to engage this threat or flee? 

Unless you are an elf who is immune. Or if you don't know what a ghoul is or does, then it's less scary. The existential threat changes from fear of being eaten alive (existential) to the likelihood of loss of life or limb (visceral). 

In these events, a paladin slammed into a pack of 5 ghouls not realizing what they were. No one did. Once the paladin was paralyzed, everyone realized what these things could do. The party had a choice: try to regroup and come up with a plan or press the attack. 

They decided to press the attack for a couple of reasons. First, I was trying to explain to my son that a pack of ghouls against 4th level characters isn't much of a threat. 

Ghouls have 9 hp, which makes them 2 or 3 hit monsters. I come from a wargaming background where hits count. With a d6, the average roll is 3.5. That's your damage against the 9 they have. Chances are you will kill them in 2 to 3 rounds and in that last round, they won't have time to do anything important.

Second, in pressing the attack, the party was preventing the downed Paladin from being eaten. The party had the ghouls outnumbered. The rank closing in on the ghouls was made up of a Fighter, an Elf, a Cleric, and a Ranger. On the wings, a Bard and Theif had bows ready. I used green to display characters that were not threatened by the ghoul's special attack: the Elf by her nature, and the Bard and thief were at a safe distance. 

My son objected to this as the ghouls swing twice. But they are facing armored opponents and have much less of a chance of hitting than the player characters do. Additionally, they strike with much less power, 1d3 hp. If they hit, then the paralysis comes into play. That is a whole other die roll where the player characters stand a good chance to resist.  

I explained to him that the threat is the most important part of the fight. With the odds loaded in the players' favor, the ghouls don't have much of a chance of winning. The players should know that, but maybe they don't. 

That's great. The Cleric is in the front rank and has a chance of pulling a Big Damn Hero moment by attempting to turn. Potentially, the Cleric could take out some or all of them. If a ghoul paralyzed someone, the Bard and the Theif have a moment to save the day with a timely arrow. Even an unaware party has some great counter moves for a paralyzed character. 

Thanks to some really awesome die rolls (from the DM's perspective), the last round of combat occurred simultaneously. In the exchange Rolf, the Fighter was hit and paralyzed as he took out his ghoul. I could not have planned that outcome, thanks to random dice. 

"So, what happens next? How long are the paralyzed?" my son asked. 

My answer was simple. The rules don't say, so I guess I, the DM can keep this sense of dread up as long as I want to. In a hexcrawl, that really doesn't come up as much as it does in a dungeon. A hexcrawl is ruled by long-term mechanics, usually days over minutes. Hurrying in a hexcrawl is done in hourly increments. By any reasonable measure, the paralyzed characters will be up before the DM has to call another event. 

A party in a dungeon doesn't have the luxury of waiting it out. They will if they have to, but that cranks up the threat level. Stuff happens fast. When in a dungeon setting I will tell every player that they feel the effects of paralyzation kicking in regardless of their saving throw: 

"Your arm feels like putty and lead..." 

"Pins and needles race up your leg..." 

"You are so cold..." 

Unless I feel it's too much stress, that is. Sometimes, the players don't need more stress. It's a judgment call that needs to be made in the moment.  

So what happens next? In this case, the party took action that resolves everything. They dropped the tent and walked the Paladin and the Fighter to the hex with trees and shrubs. Then some return to pick up the tent and settle in for the night. Presumably, the Fighter and Paladin will stand up on their own before morning. 

The great thing about ghouls against a well-trained and armed party is you can adjust the feeling of threat without tinkering with mechanics or dice rolls. 

Since I mention dice rolls so much, The Red Dice Diaries has a nice pair of episodes on fudging die rolls. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Drinking from Pods - Red Dice Diaries

Lately, I have listening to a bunch of different podcasts, new and old stuff. One 'cast that stands out to me is The Red Dice Diaries. John Alan Large has been hosting the show for a while now, and he has many interesting titles. This week I picked four: Potions (new), Magic Items (also new), DMing Rough Spot and Setting Agnostic vs Setting Specific. The first 3 I listened to really made me think of all the games I've played, to extent of not listening (yet) to the last.

Back when AD&D was the big boy game for TSR, we had about 12 regular players but only 3 of us would GM. Mark had an excellent style that was deeply planned out, but he rarely branched out into improvising anything. If it wasn't in the book, it didn't happen. Doug had an excellent game plan, but improv'd his way through everything. The rule book was something for the dice to fall on. My style was someplace between the two, very well planned out but using almost improvisational style comedy to make a point.

Doug was my best friend, so we argued. But it was a strange sort of arguing. If I didn't like something he did, I'd say so, but didn't expect this to change anything at the table. Usually, it didn't matter much. But for one campaign, Doug switched up his style and went entirely by the book. I couldn't get a sense of what he was doing and tried to play characters as smash mouth, in your face sort of people.

It didn't work out at all. My characters would level up the fastest and get the best equipment, but I died six times. My last character was "Reg". That wasn't his name. Doug asked me what kind of character I had rolled up and I answered, "Aw, just one of the regulars." Man, did that make him laugh. And the tag stuck. Reg the Magic User.

As a player, I understood the REASON for the change in style. The issue was Doug wanted to tell a complete story, therefore he needed to drop the goofy, light-hearted improv. My characters kept dying because I didn't know what story they were in.

Reg the Magic User broke out of that by being dangerously wrong genre savvy. He was also help by some incredible luck. I am not much of a magic user type, so I advanced by wit and cunning rather than magic. Usually by the end of the session, I had expended most of my 1st level spells, but nothing higher.

One bit of luck I had was a couple of magical items meant for the party cleric who expired before they could claim them. I could heal. An old man gave all of the characters magic weapons, except me, who received a black rock and a bag of holding. We battle a witch, killed a massive pack of wild animals and generally hunted for loot. We chased a unicorn and bought a ship.

One player found a green ring of regeneration, which I identified for them. At the time, I asked if there were any other magic rings in the treasure.

Doug said, "Yes."
I asked, "What kind is it?"
"What kind do you think it is?" Doug answered.
"Flying!"
Doug rolls some dice and says, "It is a yellow ring of flying!"

You totally know where this is going right? For the next year or so, my ring of delusion provided endless humorous to horrifying scenarios.

Doug decided that if my character had time, then he would cast fly on himself while attributing the magic to the ring. Unsurprisingly, my character would discover they forgot to study that third level spell. However, if my character ever tried to fly spontaneously or with no prep time, the ring would fail.

This went on for over a year, the player tagging off the DM to create interesting stories. Suddenly, the campaign ended, as we had completed the story, whatever that was. I had though the whole thing was lost on me due to my style of play. I couldn't figure out what the point was, or what the ending meant, but I did have a lot of fun. That seemed to be the message sent.

Fast forward 25+ years. I was watching a movie with my kids. There was a scene that left me dumbfounded. I picked up the phone and called Doug. "Reg was in Narnia!"

"Yes!"

I got it. Being a good DM goes beyond storytelling and being a good player doesn't have to follow expectations.