D&D — The Moments You Play For

In the Aleor campaign I’ve been running the past couple of months, things have been pretty slow. Not to say that stuff has been boring or uninteresting, just that the game started off small, and has been taking it’s time getting anywhere—by design.

Before Session Zero, I referred to this game as the “Commoner Campaign”, based off a .pdf I found outlining a level zero type character class. (A link for the curious.) All the players started out as being pitifully weak, in their hometown of about 200 people, you get the idea. I had to be careful with designing encounters because fighting 3 kobolds simultaneously could be very dangerous and kill them if they weren’t cautious.

It took them 6 sessions to become actual adventurers, and roughly half of that time was spent being lost in a huge forest, so things have been tough. I had a lot of trouble designing interesting encounters day after day when the party was in the same forest on a week to week basis, and anything scarier than a simple boar would make combat risky.

But I think it was worth it, because at the end of our most recent session, the party reached their first proper city. I set a very specific song to accompany my description as I outlined the view of a civilization beyond what the characters could even comprehend. The gentle slope of the city nestled in the banks of a vast lake allowed for a breathtaking view of the city of humans and elves. Rows upon rows of houses, many taller than they had ever seen before, stretching out for about a mile. Dozens of people bustled about the streets, even as the sun was starting to set, with kids running up and down and bumping into one of the players as he chased after his friend.

I can’t properly explain why, but of the 7 3-hour sessions we’ve had, that moment was the most fun I’ve had DM’ing this campaign so far. It’s silly to say, but maybe it’s because that’s the moment where I’ve felt more like Matt Mercer than ever before, or maybe I like the feeling of swinging the doors open and saying “Surprise!”, or maybe it’s the writer in me that likes describing cool scenes.

I think that as a player, the moments I live for are huge, plot changing moments that occur because of something I did—a choice I made or an action I took that had a huge impact on the world. When you’re the DM, all of your choices impact the world, so it’s not as big of a deal, which means it’s harder to pinpoint what exactly I’m trying to accomplish.

Either way, I have a city to build now, and I didn’t realize until after I described it that I’ve never made a map (or fully built) a settlement to this scale before. Craydon is a proper city of (my pre-build estimates) ~20,000 people, making it a sizable monument in a fantasy world; not enormous by any means, but a city to be sure.

It’s going to be some time before I have another one of those moments. I’m going to try my best not to wait until they get to the next big city and make the reveal be the same style of thing, and to be honest, I have no idea if my players had as much fun arriving at Craydon as I did, but hey, a dungeon master should allow themselves to have fun, too.

D&D/Improv — Knowing Your Cast

This post is going to blend a lot of territory between Dungeons & Dragons and improvisational acting, because these principles cross over quite a bit: every time you do something with a group of people, the things you can and cannot do are dictated by how well you know the other people and how much you trust each other to communicate ideas non-verbally.

In short: the better you know your people, the better you can work as a team. Sounds stupid when I lay it out that simply, I know, but there’s a lot to be said for ‘trust’ whenever you’re creating something new like in D&D or improv.

When you’re working in an improv troupe for a significant amount of time, you naturally get a sense for what people are good at. You start recognizing their strengths and noticing moments in the games you’re playing that they would really shine in. I haven’t been a member of an improv cast for well over three years, but even as I’m teaching and watching games happen before me, I could tell you what my friends would do if they were put in the positions the kids I’m teaching are finding themselves in. I know the moments one will pull out the angsty teenager, or where another friend will call the police and totally flip the scene on its head. Me and another friend could also argue endlessly over what is actually nothing without the audience knowing. That’s what chemistry in improv is, and when you’re playing specific games and you know what works and what doesn’t, knowing your cast means you can set your team up for some awesome moments.

It’s the same thing with D&D. You have to know what each player likes and how each player makes decisions at the table—and I’m not just saying this as the DM, and I’m also not just talking about working together as a team. I’m talking about the metagame: how players work and interact with other players at the table through their characters.

In D&D it’s very natural to get into the groove of waiting your turn. I mean, that’s quite literally how combat works, after all. Scenes are no different. If one person’s backstory is being explored in this three hour session, logic states that that person would be the main character of that session, so you should respect that, because there is an implicit promise that “tomorrow’s session”, you will be the main character.

I’m not advocating that the game must be played this way, but this concept is exemplified very well in Critical Role. The players know when it’s not their moment, but knowing your cast doesn’t mean recognizing that you’re not in the spotlight and stepping back, it means being supporting actors while your friend takes the lead. Just like in improv, it means setting them up and putting them on the pedestal so their moment can be the best moment it can be, whether that is casting a spell on them to augment their power or taking a fall for them so they can feel awesome when they come to save you.

With people you work with in these settings, it’s important to consider how well you know them, because you’ll get a sense for how they think and what they’re trying to do. Being the support beam for your friends and making each other shine when the spot light is on you is a critical component for both improv and D&D, and it’s something that can’t really happen if you don’t know them well enough to recognize where to support them.

(Side note: I saw this picture on Google, and while it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, I found it too hilarious not to use.)

D&D — Curating 5th Edition Pt. 2

(This is temporarily being published today. I don’t quite have this week’s prompt story ready, but I did have this. I’ll switch the two tomorrow.)

 

Last week I talked about how the basic rules, The Player’s Handbook, should not be taken as Gospel. I mentioned how all games of Dungeons & Dragons are homebrew to some extent, because it’s all about making calls in circumstances nobody could have prepared for.

But really, one of the greatest assets of the 5th edition of D&D is how malleable it is. I would hesitate to call the system simple, because I don’t think any table-top RPG could be called such. But what 5th edition does is it sets out a layer of rules that are easy to follow, and once you understand what all the layers are, you can do what you want with them.

The key thing about that is that you need to know what the layers are. If somebody were to ask me if they could make their own class rather than use one of the ones in the book, I would discourage them from that idea. Not because I don’t want them to be creative, but because I think that’s simply the wrong way to tackle it. The classes in 5e are each designed to have half a dozen (or more) subclasses once you hit level 3. Paladins choose their “Sacred Oath”, bards choose their “Bard College”, rangers choose their archetype, etc. (This is also why a campaign of everybody running the same class is totally viable, but that’s a tangent.) I think making a new class is the wrong mindset, because the existing classes are already made like templates with different skill trees. If you’ve got a cool idea, I bet there’s a way to purpose it as a homebrew subclass of a pre-existing cleric, or sorcerer for example. This will also save you a lot of trouble down the line, believe me.

If your player wants to invent a new race, it’s a little different. It’s not as complicated stat-wise, but it can be a little annoying for a dungeon master. If you’re the only Mantis-person in the world, that’s a strange thing to put into the narrative, and it will always be prevalent. It doesn’t matter if the stats of a Mantis race are just copied over from Elf, because the DM would have to implant Mantis-people into his world just to make it so your character isn’t out of place. (Making them exclusive to this one island nobody has ever heard of does not solve the problem, because you’re still the only one.) This particular point will be specific to the dungeon master, though. Matt Colville doesn’t really allow any exotic race like Tiefling in his campaign, even though it’s an official, valid race. (He’s not wrong. It’s his game to run, after all!) So while making a race for one specific player is annoying, it’s doable as long as the DM is okay with it.

But there are things that are totally reasonable to invent on your own, especially as a DM. Magic items, for example, are things I almost never take straight from the book. Typically, I think about it’s origin and what it’s purpose was, and then I make something based on that. Let’s say a traveling merchant did a favor for a wizard as he passed through town. As thanks, the wizard made him a ring that allows him to haggle for better prices when he sells this goods. If the party gets their hands on it, I would say they are better at persuasion checks when selling. Buying stuff is a whole different story. (But as compensation I’d give a more hefty chunk because it’s a specific circumstance, like +2 or +3 to those checks, rather than a simple +1 when haggling.) Presenting very specific tools to the players will often adapt their play-style accordingly, as something like this will naturally make the party (even more) prone to looting everything they can find from bodies and dungeons.

Literally anything in the book is subject to change as you see fit. Like the idea of throwing a vampire into your story, but your players are far too weak to handle it? Just change the stats to make him less threatening. Instead of getting into how you’d do that, I’ll just direct you to Matt Colville’s awesome, albeit lengthy, video about it.

I said this last week, and I’ll stress it again. You’re all coming to this table to have fun. Don’t let the rules stop that from happening. The rules are for optimization. You can pick and choose what rules you like because you want to maximize the enjoyment for the players. In fact, once you play this game enough and you know all the ins and outs, you can easily bend the rules to have more fun!

 

D&D — Who Tells the Story?

There’s something that a lot of beginning players don’t understand about D&D, and it can cause lots of problems based on the experience of the group, especially if your dungeon master is new to the role. In fact, this was perhaps my biggest problem when I first tried my hand as a DM, and since I wouldn’t consider myself to have been fun to play with until I had learned this lesson.

In a typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign, who tells the story? For the purposes of this, it is completely irrelevant what the story is. It doesn’t matter if the dungeon master is using a campaign they bought, or downloaded online, or if they are making something up themselves. Who tells the story? I’ll give you a hint. It isn’t the DM.

This is the problem many aspiring dungeon masters have. They write out their characters, they make a map, they set up a conflict. They might as well be the author to the story, and they certainly would be if they put all of their preparation into words on a page. But there’s a variable they often misidentify: the players. New DMs consider players the audience to the epic tale of elves and wizards. Of trolls and orcs. Of dungeons, and… well, dragons.

In most D&D campaigns, there is no audience. An audience implies observation with no interaction, which certainly isn’t what the players are. The player characters aren’t, or at least they shouldn’t be, obvservers of events and occurrences they can’t influence. Influencing an open and full world is pretty much the reason to be playing D&D in the first place.

Many novice dungeon masters consider the players to be crew members of the ship, while they themselves are the captain. The DM/captain steers the ship (well, more accurately the helmsman, but you get the idea), and the players/deckhands follow orders as the DM guides them to interesting lands.

That’s not what D&D should be. Instead, the players are the entire ship. Self governed, in fact. They may declare somebody captain of the ship, or they may otherwise take turns steering it. Point is, the DM doesn’t tell the boat where to go, the players do. So, what is the dungeon master in this metaphor? Simple: they’re the entire ocean. They’re the monsters that halt their progress. They’re the ports they stop at when they reach shore. They are the storms they brave when the skies aren’t clear. The DM isn’t the narrator. They are the driving force for the characters, who are narrating their own story.

If they’re anything like me, a new DM might feel a little attacked at this idea. Dungeon masters spend time out of the game preparing ahead of time, isn’t it more their story than the rest? My answer to that is, sure, it is your story. (That’s why, when I talk about the two campaigns I’m involved in, I refer to one of them as my campaign.) But it’s also their story. The dungeon master and the players are not against one another. It’s not (necessarily) an adversarial relationship.

The DM isn’t the captain of the ship ordering the players around. The DM is the ocean a ship of players must interact with and handle in order to survive.