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 — 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.

Review — Critical Role

I’m actually a little surprised that I have yet to actually talk about Critical Role as a thing. I know I’ve mentioned the fact that I’m watching/listening to it on a few monthly updates, but I never even explained what it is. So let me pose it to you this way. Imagine a Dungeons & Dragons group that professionally filmed all their sessions, and the entire cast, dungeon master and all, are famous celebrity voice actors who all happen to be great friends.

Now imagine that that’s a real thing, because it is.

There are a ton of reasons why this show is amazing. Even people that don’t like D&D would like it by virtue of the fact that it has some amazing storytelling, vivid description, and hilarious role-play moments. The adventures of Vox Machina are everything I want but have never quite achieved in a Dungeons & Dragons group, and I admit it makes me a little jealous.

Here’s the list of players and the characters they play, as well as one of their most notable roles (in that order). Keep in mind that while I know a lot of these people from video games, cartoons, or anime I’ve seen in the past, many of them are very prevalent actors in general.

Matt Mercer, Dungeon Master: McCree from Overwatch

Liam O’Brien as Vax’ildan (half-elf rogue): Illidan from World of Warcraft

Laura Bailey as Vex’ahlia (half-elf ranger): Jaina from World of Warcraft

Taliesin Jaffe as Percy de Rolo III (human gunslinger): Darion Morgraine from World of Warcraft

Marisha Ray as Keyleth (half-elf druid): Diamond Dog Soldier from Metal Gear Solid V

Travis Willingham as Grog Strongjaw (goliath barbarian): Roy Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Sam Riegel as Scanlan Shorthalt (gnome bard): Spider-man from The Amazing Spider-man 2 (video game)

Ashley Johnson as Pike Trickfoot (gnome cleric): Ellie from The Last of Us

Orion Acaba as Tiberius Stormwind (dragonborn sorcerer): Crazy Dave from Plants vs. Zombies

For starters, Matt Mercer, the Dungeon Master, is the most amazing DM I have ever seen. Not only does he spin awesome tales so well it looks like the entire game was made for this setting rather than an open-world thing he made up, but he is also an amazing voice actor. Never have I seen somebody be able to so accurately mimic what I would imagine monsters like giant spiders or goblins to sound like. And he does it all on the fly, too!

The party of this campaign is also pretty great. I could tell you what I like about each and every person in the cast, but since there are eight of them, it would take too long. Suffice to say that they’re all great in their own right. They’ve each had amazing moments, and while some characters are more enjoyable than others, you can tell they really love not only their own character but the characters of the rest of the party as well. This is a group of people that have grown to love each other and the game. You can really see what Dungeons & Dragons is all about by watching them play.

My favorite part about this game is that I can learn more about it as both a player and dungeon master just from watching it, and I get to experience this amazing story at the same time!

This is an ongoing campaign, as well. They stream it live every week, and they’ve been going for about four years, I believe, and they’ve filmed the last two. This means that there are well over a hundred hours of their campaign that you can go and watch right now, so just a fair warning there.

So, as a parting gift, here is a link to one of everybody’s favorite characters that Matt Mercer cooked up on the spot. It just goes to show that you don’t have to develop a huge boss monster or an important king to make a non-player character memorable.

Review — Dragon Age: Inquisition

This is the only Dragon Age game I have ever played, first off. I’ve also never played any of the Mass Effect, and have relatively little experience with games that are heavily impacted based on the choices you make. I have no idea what even compelled me to try this game, and admittedly it was quite some time ago when I did play it, but man this game is amazing.

First off, whenever I play a large role-playing game like this, the character I create is always one based on one in my own universe, Nacre Then. I like going through the character creator and making my imagination fit the screen, and when I do play I like deciding options based on what that character would do. So in that sense, there’s no real choice involved, but to me it makes it even more compelling.

The functionality of this game is pretty much flawless. I love the UI, the combat, and especially the aesthetics of the landscapes and world. It isn’t every day you find a game where all of the armor looks awesome, and there are almost too many options once you get into the game. Crafting your own gear and deciding what the color and texture of everything is is a little daunting, since the possibilities are almost endless.

Whenever I play these sorts of games, I always try to set myself up for a challenge and play on the harder difficulties. I can’t remember what the difficulty scale of this game is, or if there was a “Legendary” mode, but I played on Hard and man, it starts getting really unforgiving. I would actually put this as a point in its favor, though, because I love saving before a battle and trying to plan out what is going to happen as if I’m solving a puzzle.

The best/worst thing about this game, though, is that it made me want to do everything. There are three classes: warrior, rogue, and mage, and each class has the more subclasses. When I played, my character was a mage (of course), and when I unlocked the choice of which subclass I wanted to pick, I wanted all of them. Now, if I play again, I’ll be compelled not to play a mage again, because I’ll be experiencing the same content, but I still want to play those two subclasses I never got to see! (It’s worth noting that you can play every character in the party beyond your character, “The Inquisitor”, and that those characters unlock subclasses as well, but its just not the same when it’s not you.)

These are my two major criticisms for the game, even if they’re small. The first is that the crafting system gets tedious. You find common materials you don’t need everywhere, but if you don’t pick them up you’ll run out. On top of that, the rare stuff can only be found in specific places. They’re not “rare”, really, because it’s not randomly generated. If you can’t find them, you’re simply in the wrong place.

My second critique is that while unique, “Epic” armor is in the game, it doesn’t compare to crafting your own gear later on. When you make your own armor, you can choose all the stats you want, so it’s always far better than even good uniques that you literally had to kill a specific dragon for. It’s a little disheartening when you complete a daunting challenge only to find the reward is useless.

As a side note, this is one of very few games that gave me chills during a cutscene. Even without knowing these characters from past games, there was one specific moment that really immersed me into the world, and it was awesome. (I won’t say what it was, though, because it’s sort of a spoiler, but it does happen relatively early on in the game.)

Me –Being a Dungeon Master

(This week’s audio recording: “Fortune’s Fool“, is one I wrote back in April. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and I hope to revisit the story someday.)

 

I haven’t talked about Dungeons and Dragons in some time. I’ve learned quite a bit about the game since I’ve brought it up last, but admittedly, the most important things I’ve learned about running a proper campaign is about myself and what I’ve been doing wrong! I’m not upset, though. Progress has to come from somewhere, after all, and knowing where to improve is the best place to start.

When I planned out this campaign, I started with the big stuff. Who’s the overarching bad guy, what is the party going to have to do to stop him, that sort of thing. I set up this huge story, and when the first session began, all I had was big reveals. This meant I had to force both of my parties (they’re running the same campaign) onto a quest with no information. No motivation, just “I need your help, thanks bye!” Obviously this wasn’t ideal, so while big reveals are cool, you need a solid foundation with which to base them on.

For me, this means preparing the sessions more thoroughly. I thought “Hey, I have a lot of experience with improv, I don’t need to prepare dungeons or characters off the bat!” so I didn’t. It was here that I’ve learned something about improv: since it’s all about justification (and not about trying to be funny), often one will take the easiest route. I can make up new characters and buildings all day, but just because I can bring things up on the fly and have it make sense doesn’t mean it’s interesting. That’s where the preparation needs to come in.

Specifically, I need to prepare two things. Primarily, I need to develop the characters I introduce more. I need them to have motivations and personalities that are distinct from each other rather than have them all be furniture for this grander story I’m trying to tell. Now, if you’re anything like me, you hate outlining characters. I’ve tried doing that for novels, and man it just ruins what enjoyment I can get from writing. So for this instance I’m going to try to establish “what this character wants” as a solid goal for virtually everyone I introduce. Goals are important. Everyone has them. Furthermore, having several dozen character names to pull from a hat whenever somebody is introduced isn’t enough. I’ll also need a slew of personality traits and distinct characteristics to help make each person different.

The second thing I need to prepare is the locales. When I set my players off to the grand quest of magical vagueness, they were tasked with getting information with no leads. With large locations, there needs to be large landmarks. Interesting or large buildings and structures that stand out that make a place more memorable and provide a convenient place to start (or return, as the case may be).

Those are the big things I need to work on. The part that I’ve done right from the beginning (and simply need to improve upon) is the theme of the campaign. For the entirety of the issues the party has come across, I’ve tried to force them to operate in moral gray areas. When forcing people to choose between two bad decisions, a dungeon master can have a lot of fun toying with the consequences of what occurs. It forces your party to think when it isn’t simply “go to the cave and kill the evil dragon”. The whole fun of Dungeons and Dragons is the choice and openness in every action you take. When you give your party a clear goal, it gets boring. So don’t make it boring!