D&D — Dialogues 1: Turning the Tides

I’m going to start a little mini-series in the D&D section of this blog called “Dialogues”, where I tell stories of the adventures I’ve been a part of, either as a DM or a player. Some will be funny, some, like this one, won’t, but overall they will be centered around the idea of “interesting things that happened”.

 

This particular story happened in the most recent session of my campaign, of which there are only three party members (and one DMPC, who is mostly a sidekick). The party consists of a ranger, a sorcerer, and sort of a homebrew fighter-based tank. (The DMPC is a Strength-based ranger.)

They find themselves on the slopes of a mountain, walking a path often referred to as “The Trials”. They’ve heard from the village below that each person faces different tribulations, so it’s impossible to know what to expect. These trials can be faced together, but in order to reach the summit, each person in the group must have faced their own Trial.

So as they walk past an old gate into a wide clearing of snow, they find the air growing warmer and the ground getting coarser. The blizzard around them turns into a sandstorm, and they realize they are now in a desert. The ranger, who used to be a court bard for a desert people, immediately grows suspicious. They see a large structure in the distance, and he smirks.

Ranger: Can I roll to see if I recognize this place?
DM: Make a history check. *The ranger rolls a 19*. Yup, this looks an awful lot like the palace and the desert you spent a lot of time in, hundreds of years ago, in much the same state it was in when you departed.
Ranger: I knew it.

They approach cautiously. Ascending the steps of the palace, they see row upon row of guards. Over two dozen. They all stand firm, but as the party passes them as they walk down the main aisle, each row nods to the ranger and bows.

They walk into the throne room, the doors of which are wide open. At the throne the ranger sees his old king, who greets the party as if the ranger has returned from a long journey. There’s no hostility whatsoever, but while the king is talking, he notices the staff the sorcerer is carrying.

They found this staff a few sessions prior hidden inside an underground temple, behind a locked room that nobody was allowed to enter. They’ve yet to decipher what the staff is or what it can do, but this is the first time anyone has seemed to take particular notice of it.

As soon as the king sees it, he pauses. He points to the sorcerer. “That staff,” he notes.

“What do you know of it?” the sorcerer asks.

“It’s mine,” he replies. And at that, he stands and passes a hand over his face. His visage falls away like scraps of paper being shed. In it’s place, a masked and robbed figure stands before them. He whispers something to a guard, who starts walking towards the door, past the party.

The fighter tackles him, and the fight begins. The guards turn on them, and they are already surrounded.

The masked figure targets the sorcerer, teleporting closer to him and casting spells.

The party falls back, taking out a few guards as they back up towards the door.

But soon, more guards start flooding in from the way they had come. The figure flies past them, blocking their escape, and casts Lightning Bolt down a line, hitting three of them. The sorcerer and the DMPC fall unconscious, and the ranger is hurting bad.

The ranger casts Ensnaring Strike on the figure, who fails his save, and, not having any Strength, spends his next three turns trying (and failing) to break free.

The fighter uses his next turn feeding healing potions to both of their downed party members, and he uses an Action Surge to do so. All the while, more guards keep flooding in.

Despite the restrained figure, they are very clearly losing this fight. All around the palace, however, there were doors that implied a means of escape.

The sorcerer casts Fog Cloud in the doorway, and a huge part of the room becomes enshrouded in fog.

Soon, the ranger, the sorcerer, and the DMPC are out of the fog cloud, waiting for the fighter to join them so they can make their escape. But he’s inside the cloud fighting five or more guards at once. With obscured vision giving them disadvantage on their attacks, and their target having 18 AC, he’s a veritable wall, and their feeble attacks just glance off his armor.

Soon, the Ensnaring Strike effect ends, and the masked man flies through the fog cloud in search of his staff.

As soon as he leaves the fog cover, the DMPC lands a Critical and deals insane amount of damage. He’s seeing stars, and the rest of the party let loose as well.

With no support from the guards, and him being outnumbered 3-1 with few spell slots left, he casts Greater Invisibility and vanishes.

As soon as the masked figure disappears, no additional guards join the fray. They dispatch the rest and, while now severely lacking in potions, they managed to win, and thus passed the first part of the Trial.

It’s worth noting that I had set up this combat as a “flee or die” scenario. With endless guards and a powerful magic user well beyond their level, there was no way they should have been able to win. But with a well-timed Ensnaring Strike and a well-placed Fog Cloud with armor-man inside, they took a hold of their assets and pulled victory out of the jaws of death.

D&D — Different Kinds of Players

So, just as there are many different settings for campaigns to be set in, there are also extremely diverse styles that players (and dungeon masters) adopt, often based on their own personalities. This is the number one reason why having a conversation about what the campaign will be about and what everybody wants to get out of it before you start playing is very important. If the dungeon master expects their players to be very serious and in character the entire time without stating those expectations, the campaign isn’t going to go very well.

So, I think something that is more easily perceptible to people is that everybody plays the game differently. Keep in mind that while I am about to present to you a list of all the different types of players, there actually is no real “list”. I separate people into three categories, and the way I do it is very broad. It’s my own list based on personal experience of player personality and interest, which is often a very complex thing. I could diversify it into a list of six or seven types of players, but I’m going to err on the side of simplicity here and make it easy to understand.

The most common sort of player in my experience is the “Casual Fun” player. They are there just to have fun, and a lot of the time they come from a video game background. Many of these players don’t have much experience roleplaying and are therefore uncomfortable with the idea. They just want to get the quest and complete it. (This isn’t to say that everything has to be combat. These players can certainly be interested in fantasy politics and the world itself. They just aren’t interested in becoming a character and probably don’t care about having an engaging backstory.)

Another common archetype is often referred to as the “Murder-hobo”, but I equate this sort of player in the same vein as a “mid-maxer”. Often, these sorts of people actually are averse to in-game politics. They just want to kill monsters so they can level up, find loot, and kill stronger monsters. They play intelligently, usually using the best tactics they can to handle the situation. This also makes them notoriously bad meta-gamers, meaning they will often operate with information their character would not have, or telling other players to make their characters do things based on what they cannot know. For example, they might remind players of abilities or items they have when their character isn’t there to tell them. This isn’t usually a big deal, but it is a pet peeve of mine as a DM. Characters and players are two different things! The players are allowed to know (almost) everything, but they should also be trusted to do things that align with the information their character would realistically have.

My archetype, and somebody that makes the DM’s job easy, is the “actor”. This person plays Dungeon & Dragons as a means of becoming somebody other than themselves. They may use a different voice when they are roleplaying, and they love making a backstory for their character. They interact with the NPCs, often engaging in conversations for drama’s sake. No combat, very few dice rolls. They love talking and negotiating with the characters in the world. Most notably, these players make a conscious effort to do the things based on their character’s personality and the information they have. Now, I realize the way that I’m saying this sort of sounds like “This is the kind of player you should be, because it’s the best”, but that’s not what I’m saying.

Every sort of player has their pros and cons. I prefer players that are Actors because as both a DM and a player, I love character interactions the most, but that’s far from the only enjoyment D&D can provide. Like everyone else, Actors can be annoying to play with. They make terrible plays (Grog from Critical Role once haggled backwards because his character is an idiot. The player knew what he was doing, and it was a memorable moment because of it!) They can make other people uncomfortable by roleplaying when the rest of the party doesn’t want to. Their characters can just be jerks. It might make for an engaging story, where the Actor in the party is evil and works against everyone else’s goals, but it’s also pretty likely that the other players won’t enjoy it because they may feel like he’s an actual enemy rather than an obstacle. Actors can also be unpredictable and do things the DM doesn’t expect, veering the campaign off in a sudden detour.

Every player is different. But no type of player is inherently better than another. If everyone at a DM’s table is a Murder Hobo type of player, then making a combat-focused campaign is easy. Usually, though, you’ll get a mix of interests. What’s important to remember is that different types of players don’t necessarily conflict with one another. It’s the dungeon master’s job to fulfill everyone’s desires in the campaign, but everybody needs to know what they’re in for in order to accomplish this. If you only have on Actor in the group, great. Make them the voice of the party because they like being in character. Give the Murder Hobo a crazy cool weapon because they will love you. Casual Fun players might have certain interests, but one thing that new DM’s often get confused about is that they can be very comfortable sitting in the background as something of a spectator, never engaging in roleplay or being super active in fights. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t enjoying it. Talk to your players (or your DM) about the way they like to play, and accommodations can be made to fit any combination of player archetypes!

 

D&D — Different Campaign Settings

One thing that a lot of people fail to realize about Dungeons & Dragons is how malleable it really is. It goes far beyond “pick your race and class”. Lots of dungeon masters not only have a story for their group to experience, but they also have a veritable ‘genre’ that can be attributed to that game.

Now, the common term for what I’m referring to is the “campaign setting”, but it’s misleading. (That or I misunderstand what that term actually means, which is a possibility.) What I’m talking about is the gameplay focus for the game. What is the party doing session to session?

The type of D&D I grew up with is heavily focused on combat. In this setting, your character doesn’t matter. Every three hour session will probably have a combat, and the game is all about getting better loot, gaining experience, and fighting bigger monsters. This sort of campaign is, I dare say, the easiest to run.

But the thing is, everybody has a different ‘style’ of D&D they enjoy most. I know lots of people that only care about optimizing their combat and sitting down at a table to fight the monster of the day. While that’s all well and good, I care a lot more about story-telling.

The campaign that I run is far more story driven. After nearly a year, the party is almost Level 4. (For comparison, in the recent campaign I do not DM for, we hit Level 2 after the first real session.) I try to make it as realistic as possible, with ‘side quests’ sprouting every where. The party has a main objective, but its hundreds of miles away and will take a long time to get there. Do we rush there with as much haste as possible, or do we help these people that need it? As a side note, my particular campaign has a lot of mystery thrown in. Often, more questions are asked than answered, and there are several story threads that never reach their conclusion, because that’s not really how life works. There are certainly pros and cons to that, but I’ll get into that another time.

Another campaign setting I’m excited to run in the future is what I call the “Guild Home”. In this setting, the players set up a guild very early on, and the entire campaign is focused on raising the guild’s renown, building a reputation, and ‘upgrading’ the guild hall. It’s therefore very centralized and while it will naturally have story tied into it, there won’t be a main antagonist trying to end the world.

There are countless ways to run D&D campaigns. The most common is possible the “one-shot”, which starts and ends after one session. But many others are short-lived. In my experience, campaigns that last longer than a few months are in the minority.

The key thing is that D&D can be whatever you want it to be. You can have a campaign set in a dystopian sci-fi future full of the common fantasy races of elves, dwarves, and orcs. (I’ve done that!) You can have a campaign where the party is a bunch of wizards trying to take over the world. Maybe the setting is a zombie apocalypse set in Middle-earth, and the party has to kill literally everything in their path.

Dungeons & Dragons can be anything. It’s my firm belief that if somebody plays it and doesn’t enjoy themselves, it was a problem with expectations not meeting up to reality, which can almost always be fixed. I honestly believe that basically everyone can have fun with this game if the circumstances are right. It just requires the dungeon master being vocal to the players about what kind of campaign they plan on having. A good DM can accommodate any player, but everybody needs to make their expectations and needs known in order to let that happen.

 

D&D — Dispelling More Misconceptions

Just like there are many things people don’t understand about playing Dungeons & Dragons, there are even more things to get wrong in regards to the dungeon master, even for avid players (especially for the players, in fact). Being a dungeon master is both more and less work than people realize. So let’s talk a bit about the things I’ve learned over my years of playing D&D, and what I’ve learned from being a DM.

People have the idea that being a DM is all about inventing a world, monsters, and even politics that the players can interact with. Apparently, if you don’t do everything from scratch, you’re not hardcore or dedicated enough. All the pros invent everything off the cuff, right?

Not even close. I guarantee that any official module you buy online will be more creative and detailed than anything you could come up with yourself. Most of the dungeon masters I know of have started their campaigns off with a preset city and quest. There’s no shame in it. It does a ton of the work for you, and the only cost is the literal one your wallet will have to face. Besides, it’s a great way to learn about what being a DM is all about before you venture off into the hard stuff. Nothing is stopping you from building a world around the module once your players get through it, either! (That’s what they’re there for.)

The consideration of whether or not a DM is morally obligated to worldbuild their adventures from scratch completely sidesteps what it really means to be a dungeon master. This is something that a lot of people don’t understand. You are not (necessarily) an evil overlord trying to kill your friends. You are not an author dragging your friends through an adventure.

The way I see it, the dungeon master is the true force of neutrality. They set the board up, and the players move their pieces around however they want. They shouldn’t be punished for making what you might consider the wrong move. Dungeons & Dragons is all about choice and freedom. You give them the world, and then you supply the means to make it interesting. A campaign is not the dungeon master’s game, or his/her story. It is everybody’s story. The players set the tone of the narrative just as much, if not more, than the dungeon master does. In the words of Matthew Colville, who has a series about DM’ing adventures on YouTube (go watch it), “Giving the players one choice is the same as them having no choice at all.”

Now, there’s a lot to learn about being a DM. I won’t pretend to be somebody seasoned enough to go through all the do’s and don’ts, but the key thing is that it is the DM’s job to ensure that the party is having fun. They give interesting things for the players to do and explore. They challenge their wits and their rolls. A realistic campaign is all well and good, but sometimes realism has to fall by the wayside in order to make sure the experience is enjoyable for everyone.

A DM is somebody that knows (or makes) the rules. But they are also the person that breaks them in favor of memorable and fun adventures.

D&D — Dispelling Misconceptions of Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons is a strange thing that exists in our world. Arguably, probably the nerdiest. It’s basically a group of friends sitting around a table pretending to be a bunch of people way cooler than they are, slaughtering monsters and going on adventures. It used to have a huge stigma (and probably still does in a lot of places that aren’t southern California), but really, it offers a unique experience, and I would say that pretty much anyone could benefit from playing the game. So today I’m going to talk about why it’s a lot less scary than it sounds, and why it’s better than alternatives (referring to video games, books, and movies, not alternate table-top role-playing games).

Most people I talk to about D&D that have no experience seem to have this idea that you have to know how to play the game in order to enjoy it. They see a lot of confusing numbers and different kinds of dice and think “that’s too complicated for me”. If that isn’t enough to dissuade them, the idea of pretending to be somebody else usually does. And I don’t blame them. Those ideas are scary. But that isn’t what D&D is about. If you think about role-playing or number crunching when you think about Dungeons and Dragons, you’re wrong.

To me, D&D is fundamentally about having an outlet for one’s own creativity. And it’s an outlet that nothing else can fill. There is nothing that can let you be somebody else in a dynamic world. One that changes because of the choices that you have made. D&D (and other table top games) is the only thing that can hit all of those targets. The closest thing is playing a video game where you kill monsters and level up, but the character you play isn’t uniquely yours, and neither is the environment you’re in. Every session of D&D is unique because even if the dungeon master is using a module they printed out online or bought from a store, the way they present the characters and the world will still be one-of-a-kind, not to mention the interactions your characters will have in that world.

Now, I won’t beat around the bush. Dungeons and Dragons is undoubtedly an extremely complex game. If you’re playing the fifth edition of the game, any serious dungeon master will have at least the core three books: The Player’s HandbookThe Dungeonmaster’s Guide, and The Monster Manual. It’s a lot. But here’s the thing, you don’t have to have those to play. Heck, the DM doesn’t even have to have those! They are nothing more than a tool to enhance the experience, and they are pretty much meant to be instructional so that you can access information quickly, rather than them being supplementary on “this is how to roleplay your character” (though there is that, too, if you’re so inclined).

For somebody unfamiliar with D&D, there is precious little they need to understand before they can have fun. Basically, the only thing I tell people is what choices they have for class and race. I look for the type of fantasy that would suit them best, and then I help them create a character from that. They don’t need to know what all the abilities are, how to calculate their hitpoints, or even what anything means. Any experienced player can do that for them, no teaching necessary. (I would, however, make an attempt to get them vaguely familiar with how to access all the information on the character sheet in front of them.)

But let’s say you’re still not interested. It may be simple for a newcomer because other people can do the numbers for you, but what about the roleplay? “I don’t want to sound ridiculous pretending to be a half-orc barbarian!” you protest. That’s fine. Don’t roleplay, if it doesn’t suit you. This is something a lot of people (even a lot of DM’s) don’t realize. It is perfectly acceptable for people not to be interested in roleplay. Does it diminish the creativity and the immersion of the game? Maybe a bit, but there are so many types of D&D players it’s kind of ridiculous. Not everyone likes to really become their character, and that’s fine. But you can be a part of the world and make important decisions without speaking in your character’s voice.

In fact, your friends can even be a little cheeky and explain that your character is mute. It’s a simple explanation that eliminates all the possibility of making you uncomfortable. Can it create obstacles for your character and the party? Absolutely, especially if the DM wants that to happen. But now you’re one step closer to having a unique and memorable experience, and that’s what the game is all about.

Learning! — Fantasy Name Generators

So this post is sort of a cross between my typical ‘Learning!’ posts and a ‘Review’ post, but I thought it worked better here because it will serve it’s purpose better as a tool for learning rather than a subject of scrutiny.

Today I’m going to talk about a website: fantasynamegenerators.com. It is a resource for a lot of things. First and foremost is that it gives you random names for various purposes. If you can’t think of a name for a character in your book, this works well. It isn’t simple “generate thirty common fantasy names” situation, either. It has very specific generators for every situation.

Let me clarify a little bit. Let’s say you can’t think of a name for an elf character. Does the site have an elf name generator? Of course. It also has a name generator for dark elves and half elves, too. Three different generators for elves is nothing to sneeze at, but this site goes deeper. Blood Elf and Night Elf name generators from World of Warcraft, Elf and Half-elf for Dungeons & Dragons, Elf and Half-elf for Pathfinder, all the Warhammer elf races, generators for Lord of the Rings AND Lord of the Rings Online, as well as Magic: The Gathering, The Witcher, The Inheritance Cycle, Dragon Age, as well as a name generator for Harry Potter house elves. You want an elf name? Well, you’ll need to be more specific because there are nineteen different elf name generators on this site. Are some of them duplicate generators? It’s entirely possible, but even if there are lots of duplicates there is still more than enough variety to keep a creative person flowing with inspiration.

This site works for everything. All of the naming conventions for whatever fanfiction you want to write are all given to you, because a good chunk of the name generators on the site are from pop culture. But even if you’re working on a unique world of your own design, this site helps a good deal.

Whenever I’m trying to develop names for cities in my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, or in any of my fantasy worlds in my fiction writing, I use this site. Not every generator works for my purposes, but at least one works every time. If anything, I just need to do some digging to find it.

Do I always use names from this generator? No, of course not. In fact, I wouldn’t even say I often grab names from it even when I am actively using it. Instead, I use the generators for inspiration, or insight into the naming conventions of whatever it is I’m looking for. Remember, it’s all about the creative spark. This sort of site isn’t meant to tie you down into any sort of rules. Quite the opposite. If it gives you a name you like, if it only started with a ‘P’ instead of an ‘F’, then it’s a success, because guess what: it is entirely in your power to change it. It would be silly to keep looking until the site gave you the perfect name. Instead, use the generators as foundations that you can throw your own color onto. That way the site is still pulling the brunt of the effort and allowing you to add the flair and the finesse. When I use this site, I often splice the names it gives me together, or sometimes the names I see spark an idea for an original one, in which case I have only the website to thank for pushing my own creativity along.

But maybe I haven’t convinced you of how useful this is as both a worldbuilder’s tool and a writer’s resource. This website also gives instructions in its spare time. It can give you description generators. It has society descriptions, armor descriptions, backstory descriptions, planet descriptions, you name it. If your town is too boring to interest a reader or your D&D party, pull up the town description to help add some flavor!

But wait, there’s even more. Recently, Emily, the website’s creator, recently launched a second site, called rollforfantasy.com. This site is geared more towards worldbuilding and roleplay than it is towards writing, but I still find it very versatile. Not only does it have guides for how to handle certain situations or how to build a stronger campaign for you and your friends, but it also has specific tools to augment the experience for you. It has puzzles you can implement into your game and free music you can use to set the tone of each session.

And you know what my favorite thing about all this is? It’s not the ingenuity or the vast amount of knowledge there is to gain with these sites. It’s the fact that they are constantly updated on a weekly basis. Not only that, but she responds to e-mails within days. She’s so active on these sites, and really, it’s a resource I couldn’t do without these days.

Any person working in any creative field (even as a hobby) could gain a lot using these sites. I highly recommend checking them out, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll exhaust yourself clicking all the links well before you think you’ve learned enough to solve all of your creative problems.