Friday, February 3, 2012

My Philosophy of Game Mastering

First, a general announcement that I'll no longer be blogging about my game sessions. The reason for this is two-fold. 1) It takes a lot of time and doesn't really encourage much of a readership, and 2) it has started to really dominate my blog posts. The game is continuing and I'll keep posting about it from time-to-time.

Now, I'd like to talk about some things I've learned and put into practice in this latest game I'm running.

Setting Immersion
I like to run immersive settings. That's why one of my all-time-favorite settings is The Forgotten Realms. Most of my players really enjoy the aspects of travel, visiting new places and locations, and seeing the sights. I've gotten positive feedback on the detail I try to inject into my games. This becomes a problem, however, when one or another player decides that he wants more focus on the narrative and the travel and interaction with the world detracts from the mission.

Currently, the PCs have just arrived in Highmoon, where they hope that they'll find clues to the location of the Giant's Craw, where Shraevyn's Tomb is located. The journey from the village of Shadowdale to Highmoon in Deepingdale has taken almost 20 days of game time and three full sessions of real time (that's three weeks). A lot has happened during those three weeks, though. Three weeks ago, the PCs had spent most of the session discussing strategy, buying provisions, planning, and commissioning weapons and armor with the loot they'd taken from the drow tunnels beneath the Twisted Tower. Two weeks ago, they'd enjoyed the festival of Greengrass in Ashabenford, Mistledale, where Drog and Baravis romanced a few locals and Drog nearly won a wrestling contest. Then, they hired an elven scout to guide them along the Dark Road through the Vale of Lost Voices to Essembra, where they were met with the ghosts of elven warriors. Lots of roleplaying ensued and Baravis learned his father was a dead evil god and his brother (whom he didn't even know about) is imprisoned beneath Zhentil Keep. Last session, Luke (Baravis' player) mentioned how he loved one of the details I'd thrown in from Volo's Guide to the Dales--the Riverman inn at Blackfeather Bridge, Featherdale, had signs posted saying "No Magic." They met a scholar in Tegel's Mark that told the PCs Shraevyn's Tomb was in some place called the Giant's Craw (but he didn't know where that was). Baravis bought a chess set and he and Sven started to play together. They fought off osquips and a cockatrice, practiced some archery in Arrowmark, Tassledale, and Baravis made everyone in town nervous with his eldritch blast.

But for some, all of those events could have been compressed. I understand that perfectly. There's a story going on--the quest for the Sword of the Dales--and I'm derailing it by focusing so much on travel and experiencing the Realms. How to handle my own (and many of my players') desire for detail and depth when it conflicts with the more narrativistic desires of other players who want to keep the story going and are getting bored with all of this wenching, shopping, camping, etc.?

Not sure exactly what to do except truncate some of these more bucolic moments. I'm working on creating balanced sessions where there's a little bit of action, a little bit of story, and a little bit of world immersion all rolled together.

Player Agency
I love it. The players create their own adventures. They tell me what they're doing, I prep the next session. Sometimes, it requires them to do a lot of planning ahead. I prep travel ahead of time because I like to know where the PCs are going and what they're going to run into ahead of time. That way, I know what random encounters they're going to have and I can prep them ahead of time. I like to know what towns they're going to visit so I can read up on them in Volo's Guide and other supplements and present it to them as real and vibrantly as possible, full of people, customs, and flavor.

The players are in control of their destinies, not me. Baravis is a great example. Luke had originally designed him to become a sort of information and influence broker--he's the guy everyone owes a favor. However, after making friends with Drog, realizing Drog trusted him, and having his prayers answered, Baravis has had a life-changing experience.

I was hoping Vlad would work out similarly but unfortunately Vlad's player felt that he couldn't roleplay Vlad effectively if things changed much, so he discontinued playing Vlad and rolled up a new character. That's fine.

But I digress. Baravis' destiny was altered by the choices Baravis made. Now Luke has plans for Baravis and is looking at The Book of Exalted Deeds and The Power of Faerun. Baravis has changed but also has the potential to change the world. As a prophet or saint of Marthammor Duin, he could spread worship of the god beyond dwarves and to other races as a god of wanderers, trails, and friendship between dwarves and all races. He's already planning to help the Iron House retake the Mines of Tethyamar--something that never happened in Realms canon.

There's some talk of Drog attempting to unite the Dales as well.

Who knows where the game will take the PCs? Who knows where the players will take the game?

What to Prep and What Not To
Does this require lots of prepping? Yes, but that's because I'm meticulous and thorough. I prep encounters, NPCs, and places but I never prep the plot. I try to map out the routes PCs will take overland, yes. That's because otherwise, travel would be a lot less descriptive and require a lot more time rolling on random encounter tables. If I know where the PCs are going (or will likely go) I can, like designing a dungeon, roll for encounter chances at specific locations, so when the PCs hit that location, they hit the encounter. I also roll for weather ahead of time and keep the effects on hand so we don't get bogged down looking it up. If you consider the campaign map one big dungeon, you can work out what the chances are of running into an encounter in a given hex. Then, similarly to designing a room in a dungeon, you can design the wilderness encounter (or even town encounter!). Don't use it this week? Recycle it! You planned it, you may as well use it elsewhere. Scaling it isn't so hard, either.

Also, create lists of ready-made stock NPCs. This is really good for baddies. I have lots of stock Zhentarim agents, Zhentilar soldiers, Zhentarim wizards, and priests of Cyric, that I can simply scale or plug into a location. I used to use index cards for stock NPCs. Now, with Maptool, I just have a bunch of templates.

So Who Makes the Story?
We all do. I gave the PCs a potential conflict in which to involve themselves in Session 1. After they chose to follow up on it, I stepped back and just worked on the NPCs and places. Like I said, I do that with meticulous care. But the PCs don't just pass through a town once, honestly. And a lot of the details already exist in printed supplements that I own, so the most challenging thing is pulling off roleplaying the NPCs they encounter and effectively describing what they see, hear, taste, and smell. (Yeah, those last two get neglected a LOT, but I try to remember to get some description in those two as well.)

I'm the referee? Alright. It's my job to adjudicate fairly. Yes, I have metaplot going on, but I have no control over how the PCs may react. Luke may decide to go free his brother or he may not. Heck, the PCs could have gone to Thay with Vlad to find out more about his deity, Jergal. Certain things can and will happen in the world. The PCs can derail those events, change them, help them, accelerate them, whatever.

Powergaming Much?
No, not really. The PCs are actually behind in how much gear they should have considering their character levels (mostly 5th). Besides, at their level, they're exceptional people and DESERVE to be able to wade through a few extras with nary a scratch or two. Most people in any game I run are 1st-3rd level. If you hit 5th level, you're noteworthy. If you hit 10th, you're a legend. If you go beyond 15th, you become viewed with awe--you're going down in history and myth whether you survive or not.

Its the old medieval knight vs. T-Rex thing I like to joke about. A medieval knight on his valiant steed charges A TYRANNOSAURUS REX. What happens? Most likely, the T-Rex crushes him in its jaws and spits him out (he's wearing not-so-tasty metal) and eats his horse (assuming it doesn't bolt out of sheer terror). How much bigger is a dragon than a T-Rex? And dragons can fly and breathe fire/lightning/acid/whatever you want?

If a knight can kill a T-Rex, we're going to think that knight is absolutely amazing. Superhuman. Or possessed of an incredible luck that is unfathomable. The stuff of legends is in there.

Adventure Paths
I like these, but I don't really run them. Rather, I use them as a basis for running a campaign. The problem with adventure paths is that they require a bit of railroading to pull off.

Knowing the players and the PCs helps a DM plan future events, though. For example, if the PCs are of good alignment and the players generally want to be heroes, when they find the Chalice of the Rising Sun, they're going to bring it back to King Everlund so that the Kingdom of Varia can be rejuvenated. They COULD take it to the Desert of Desolation and turn it into a garden instead and just say King Everlund is out-of-luck. But if you doubt they'll actually do that, it is fair to plan for their eventual return to Varia.

The thing is, taking the Chalice to the Varia as they were tasked has to be THEIR choice. And if they chose not to do it, there have to be consequences. And the consequences have to be realistic. Perhaps the god of morning gets angry at their misuse of his artifact (or perhaps he doesn't care). Perhaps King Everlund sends his best knights after the party to get the Chalice back. Perhaps the Kingdom of Varia succumbs to famine, collapses into civil war, King Everlund is slain and Lord Darkmoor takes over, beginning a new dynasty that rules through terror and oppression. Perhaps all three. Shit happens.

My job is not to tell a story. My job is to collaborate with the players to tell the story. In the above example, all three options (and the "all-of-the-above" option) result in a story... just not the happiest ending. Actually, they may be a springboard for further stories and adventures. What if the PCs realize they made a mistake and now try to rectify it? What if they DIDN'T make a mistake (in their opinion), their new kingdom becomes totally awesome, but the people of Varia become angry, hateful, and under Lord Darkmoor seek to invade it? What if the campaign eventually comes to a close, the PCs retire, and the players roll up new PCs that want to free Varia from Darkmoor and give the Chalice back to Varia?

Adventure paths are restrictive and constrictive. They're "paths" after all, not adventure flowcharts with nigh-infinite options. They're linear by their very nature. What to do with an adventure path, then?

Mine them. Ruthlessly. Mercilessly. Rip them into their constituent components. Break them down into:


Once that is done, step back. Heck, maybe you can do this with index cards and get a nice visual. How does it all fit together? Do the PCs really HAVE to go to Location 12 after Location 11? Can Encounter 5 happen anywhere or JUST at Location 5? What are the bad guys' plans and what choices can the PCs make to thwart those plans?

So far, in my game, the PCs have thwarted the plans of Colderan Morn and Eragyn the Dark. But Colderan and Eragyn are still busy doing stuff. They're going to pop up again. Indeed, I could have them pop up anywhere the PCs go. Or, I could have them staying home and building power and influence, getting ready to strike again. Yes, I ran a module or two. But frankly, it was the PCs who decided to follow those adventure opportunities, not me. Indeed, this quest for the Sword of the Dales that the PCs have undertaken is completely their own decision. Depending on what happens, there may be deviation from the established canon timeline for the Realms. That's cool! That's the impact they're having on the setting.

If I was railroading them, yes, we'd have probably done a lot more adventures. But it would have been far more linear. Using a more node-based campaign design, the GM/DM avoids writing a railroad and the game is more rewarding for the players. Indeed, it takes less work this way. If the setting already exists in published format, that's half the work already done for you! You can focus on bringing it to life for the players.

Softie DM/GM?
All this talk of player agency may make me sound like a softie, especially since I don't mind the PCs having an easy time of it fighting NPCs 2 or 3 levels beneath them at this juncture.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There were several points in the previous sessions where they all could have died but they pulled themselves out of those situations, alive and kicking, on their own. That's incredibly rewarding and memorable. They triumphed in the face of adversity several times. They're 5th-level now. They've earned it. They took big risks, learned lessons, fought smart. They deserve everything they've achieved, including their strength and prowess.

They've also learned that actions have consequences. They know that the four of them could probably take eight 2nd-level drow fighters. But they also know that they couldn't take twenty. They are keenly aware that the dice could go against them. Even though they fought off the osquip nest successfully only losing about 25% of party total hp (including horses), they still got nervous and more than once a player remarked "we may just have to try and run away."

And run they have. They certainly fled the drider with a quickness, even though they were all 4th level and may have been able to take it. Still, in doing so, at least one of them would have certainly died, possibly all of them.

I'm not a softie. But I don't see any point in going out of my way to try and kill them just for the sake of challenging them. When they escape with their skins intact, that's cause to celebrate for them. At the climax of the adventure module Doom of Daggerdale, the PCs took a risk and rode down a swift underground stream in order to escape the Zhentilar. When it deposited them in the River Tesh not far from the Eagle's Eyrie, they stood up and cheered in triumph. Moments like that are why I run and play in role-playing games.

I'd rather be the GM for Darths & Droids as opposed to the DM of the Rings. In the former, the players have absolute freedom of agency and their actions have consequences. In the latter, the DM railroads the players and frustrates them a great deal. Their frustration in turn frustrates him and nobody really has any fun, nobody really learns from their mistakes.

My cousin DJ (Drog's player) reminded me of something:
Not to mention your reactions. The priceless jaw-dropping of our last action hero stunts. The Dice love us when we do a John Woo escape or fight. Minus the doves of course.
The dropping jaw was mine, of course. In desperate situations, DJ and Shaun threw their dice at the wall and prayed. However the dice landed was the result. Both times the results were highly successful (at least one natural 20). They've been pretty darn lucky.

That's why the game is so much fun. The players. Desperate times call for desperate measures and I'm the DM that will let you pick up a chair and throw it at an opponent or overturn a table. And these players will do such. Which I love. They're not afraid to pull stunts and I'm not afraid to let them try.

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