Reviews and Ramblings
MIDDENARDE - PART 7 by PurpleXVI - 12/12/16
MIDDENARDE - PART 6 by PurpleXVI - 12/12/16
MIDDENARDE - PART 5 by PurpleXVI - 12/12/16
MIDDENARDE - PART 4 by PurpleXVI - 12/12/16
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GM Startup Guide by PurpleXVI - 06/10/09
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DORF FORT ELLPEE by CAPSLOCKGUY - 10/19/08
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DM'ing Blunders to Avoid and Miscellaneous Advice
05:07am EDT - 10/21/2008
Now, the way I see it, DM'ing advice is not a review of anything, nor is it exactly a ramble. But it does somewhat fit under game design, since you're designing a campaign world, a story and an experience. If LL disagrees, he can whomp this over. With that disclaimer aside, time to actually get started...
The focus of this article will basically be me, a pretty regular DM(and rare player), pointing out what gets on my tits and ruins my enjoyment of a game when OTHER DM's do it.
Now, almost everyone who wants to be a DM and haven't just been forced into the position because no one else in their group wanted to do it, tends to have a hyperactive imagination. You can easily conjure up immensely detailed vistas, amazing scenes and epic adventure in your head, and now you've decided to inflict that on other, unfortunate people.
But it's incredibly easy to get that wrong.
Firstly, do not ever assume that your players can read your mind. Describe things properly, make sure that your players know where they are, what they can see and what they can do with those surroundings. You could just say: "You're standing on a street." But is that street lined with shops? Houses? Maybe it's between two factories. Is it dark and dirty? Well-lit and speckless? Crowded or empty? Make sure your players know where they are. It helps them get immersed in the place, but it also helps them know what they can do, and what they can't do.
As examples, I have a game that I was in, oh, about a year ago now, if not a bit longer. A game of Fading Suns where we were running around as scoundrels(okay, so half the party was a pack of braindead nobles, but that's a story for another time.) and causing havoc on a space station. But right up until the end, I had practically no damn idea what the place looked like, so I never really knew what we could do. Was it a network of warrens dug into an asteroid? Some sort of domed facility on the surface of a small moon? Wide and open streets? Little tunnels full of nooks and crannies to hide in? I never bloody knew. It only got more confusing when suddenly some parts of the city were "overlooking" the rest. It left it hard to decide what was an appropriate plan, excessive uses of force would be much less crazy in an open city, as would vehicles, while in narrow tunnel warrens, bringing a car or using a rocket launcher would be suicide.
For my other example, there's a game that I DM'ed up until a few days ago, where I screwed up(or maybe my player was just sleepy, but it works as an example). My description of a scene made one player think that a group of enemies were just ARRIVING, rather than already present and had their guns out, and so he initiated what seemed, to me, like an immensely stupid charge, but to him like a perfectly reasonable course of action. In the end the result was an unfortunate TPK.
It can be argued that players need to ask for details, like: "TORGAL THE GREAT EXAMINES THE STREETS FOR WHORES AND BOOZE" or "Do we see any bitches around? Torgal needs his bitches or he enters a berserker rage, it's on his sheet." But you still need to give them a base to work off of. Like I mentioned two articles ago, online and offline games have a few different requirements, this is very apparent here. Offline it's far easier for the players to ping some questions at their DM, the DM can easily sketch a little map of the area, the location of their enemies and so forth. Online, the DM pretty much has to have any maps he or she wants to share pre-made(or be bloody fast with MSPaint and TinyPic uploads), and while it's possible to pre-make SOME stuff, you never know when the players suddenly decide it's reasonable to go kicking around in the sewers for wererats or scouring the countryside for crumbling ruins to desecrate.
Now, it may sound like I'm advocating that you become OBSESSIVE with your descriptions, but that's not quite it. You don't need to go, "You are on a street that is five feet wide and exactly two-hundred feet long, the sky above is azure, shading towards blue, the men advancing towards you are between six and seven feet tall, each of them looking to weigh roughly 200 to 250 pounds, one of them appears to have an ill-fitting shoe..." That's just going to A) make your players fall asleep and B) overburden them with so much detail that it's going to completely disconnect them from the overall image.
Instead, attempt to give a general image and let your players' minds fill in the details. A better description of the former would be... "You emerge into the long, but narrow, street, in fact it's more like an alley. You can barely see the darkening blue sky between the buildings that tower on both sides of it. A pack of six gruff, thuggish-looking men with questionable hygiene are advancing on you..." You're a bit less precise, but you get the point across. There's probably not going to be room for Torgal's custom-made, 20-foot pike with spinning chainsaw attachments and explosive weapons are likely to hit EVERYONE. You don't exactly describe how the men look, but they're extras, people's own minds are going to fill in exactly how they look nasty and their yellow, broken-toothed grins.
Another cliché to avoid is the Adventure Game Graphics-cliché. In some old adventure games, the entire background was often pre-drawn in relatively dull and a bit washed-out colours, while anything useable was more visible, clearly delineated and occasionally slightly cartoonish in appearance, this made it extremely easy to see what you could interact with and what you could ignore. This is relevant because of the way some DM's describe things... "You're standing in a street. There are a bunch of people around. Some of them are wearing hats. Oh, and then there's this guy over in the corner who's seven feet tall, looks highly menacing and is wielding a DOOMREAVER with the engraving: "BITCHCUTTER" along the hilt. He looks like a pretty cool guy." Unless the players are an international hat-plundering gang, it's pretty obvious who they should be focusing their attention on.
It's not always a BAD thing to do, especially if you need the players to notice something, it helps when they know what they can accomplish anything with, but at the same time it does sort of tend to make them ignore everything else. If you're a cruel DM you can, of course, pervert this cliché by describing a plantholder in extreme detail and then laughing while the players waste an hour of their lives examining a vase of lilies for the next Big Clue. All in all, though, this needs to be suited to the group. Some groups, if you describe an empty, crumbling plaza, will instantly go searching the buildings for anything of interest, they'll examine the cobblestones under their feet and check the fountains for details. Others, on the other hand, will stand around kicking at the cobbles, having a smoke and generally looking kind of lost while waiting for you to drop something brightly coloured in their laps.
So, with that point completely failing to be made... On to the next poorly thought-out bullet point!
#2: "Okay, we enter the cave and..." "Torgal the Mighty emerges from the shadows and strikes the dragon dead!" "Goddammit, not this guy again."
Or, in other words: Fucking DMPC's.
A lot of DM's, myself included, tend to run the sort of campaigns that we wish we could play in(or try to, anyway.). We know what we'd enjoy, so unless someone complains about it, that's the sort of thing we tend to give our players a chance to muck around with. Unfortunately this sometimes degenerates into the DM literally joining his own damn game.
Now, NPC's? They're a requirement. Where would the game be without fat innkeepers, scheming merchants, evil viziers and hilarious gnomes? Probably a lot less clichéd, but clichés can be FUN. Henchmen, hirelings and NPC's that aid the party? Hell, they're part of many good stories. Heroes can lead armies, have servants, pay for a variety of services and recruit grand companions that enrich their adventure. However, DMPC's... None of the aforementioned characters should ever take over the party. The players are the main characters of the story. The henchmen may be better than the PC's in some specialized areas(like the alchemist that brews them potions or the old sage who advises them on ancient goblin cider recipes), but they should not steal the spotlight. They should not lead the party or accomplish things that are COMPLETELY insurmountable to the PC's just to show how bad-ass they are(though, of course, it's reasonable than Torgal's shield-carrier would pipe up and suggest an alternate course of action when Torgal wants him to be bait for their dragon-hunting expedition: "Hey, chief, here's MY plan: How about you go fuck yourself?").
It's possible to do a good DMPC, but rare. However, I offer the following guidelines to determine whether a DMPC, NPC or hireling is verging into the ABORT ABORT ABORT territory:
Does he lead the party? (He should not)
Is he more powerful than any member of the party? (He should not be)
Is he in some way vital to the story? (It's acceptable to be dragging the Lost Prince of the Darkguy Dynasty home after rescuing him from imprisonment at the hands of Tenbeard the Treefucker, but he should not be a permanent fixture in the party whom they HAVE to obey because he's a Vital Character(or worse yet, if he's MORE important to the story than they are))
Does he speak more than most members of the party? (He should not)
Does he have abilities that they don't even have the OPTION of having? (He should not)
There are probably more qualifiers for Terrible DMPC than this, but they apply to the worst ones I've seen(like that creepy DMPC who was basically a teenage girl demigod who regularly spanked all the members of the party when they were "being naughty," oh, and did I mention the DM was a greasy, katana-wielding neckbeard? Yeah, the male characters got their spankings, too. Gah.).
#3: "Torgal strikes the evil warlock dead! How many XP is he worth?" "...Dude, he was in your goddamn party."
Or, in other words: Party Conflict & You
Party conflict is, like so many other things, not per definition bad. Clashes in opinion and morality between party members, or just between personalities that don't get along well(like the super-serious Paladin and the constantly joking and upbeat Bard) can be the stuff of legends for both entertainment and drama. In short, it can be fun and memorable. However, it's not always fun and games.
In less malign incarnations, it can just slow everything to a crawl because they're CONSTANTLY bickering. In more malign incarnations, you're suddenly down a bard or the paladin has keeled over because someone spiked his tea with cyanide. Now, some players will not mind this, they'll consider it fair game, even have a laugh, but in a lot of cases someone's going to be annoyed(or even downright hysterical), it may have disrupted your game permanently(the rest of the party were willing to ignore the bitching, but now that the paladin just fucking KILLED one of their friends...) and the very players themselves may be getting pissy, not just their characters.
So what are the sources of inter-character conflict that goes too far? And how do you avoid it? Or defuse it once it happens?
The simplest route of avoidance is to avoid characters that are fundamentally and basically opposed. Don't let players make characters whose single purpose is to slay characters of the type that the other player creates(or if it's a Paladin and a Vampire, banning the Vampire may also be pretty reasonable.). Alignments, while cursed by many, tend to be a good guide as well: "No, Billy, you can't be a Chaotic Evil Torturemancer." "Why not?" "TORGAL SMITE AND CLEAVE... FOR JUSTICE." "Because Danny is Lawful Good and took a level in Paladin last session."
It can often be hard to tell what aspects of a personality will clash with what aspects of another personality before they're both in a game together, but if they really have trouble getting along, don't feel bad about telling them to Solve It. Work with them, there. If Zoldark the Dark has no respect for Torgal of the Light, then maybe you can set up a situation where, with the players' help, he can earn that respect(rather than just Zoldark suddenly deciding that Torgal is a perfectly fine guy). Alternately, if it just isn't going to work, don't hestitate to tell one of them to create a new character(or both of them). Don't just kick someone out without trying to solve things, however.
What's probably the worst kind of inter-party conflict, though, is the kind that's not caused by anything in the game. It's when someone just plain HATES someone else for OOC(out-of-character) stuff or takes something in-game too personally("Torgal called my character a bitch! A VENDETTA UPON TORGAL!"). In these cases, do not feel duty-bound to resolve this shit. If one of them is clearly the instigator and the one who keeps doing it(or the guy who got his feelings hurt by IC stuff), do not feel bad AT ALL about knocking them out of the game if they refuse to stop the shit.
Now, this might all seem like more of the players' problem than the DM's, but the DM assembles and invites his crew, as well as decides what's allowed to play in his game, so he can nip a lot of this shit in the bud. I've seen some games take a ride on the Failboat because the DM did not police his players or what they were allowed to play.
But, to reiterate: Not all conflict is bad. Just as long as it doesn't get in the way of the game.
Yeah, this is a classic point. Railroading, there is nothing that players have voiced their hatred of more often... But is it really that bad?
Have you ever tried to run a game where the players are NOT driven along ruthlessly or the slaves of a merciless destiny? Where you just pleasantly drop hooks for them to follow at their leisure? If you haven't: Give it a try. 90% of all players will sit around picking at their earwax until you whip them along with something.
Railroading, like descriptions, is actually a vital part of a game. But again, like descriptions, you need to show a bit of moderation. Do not feel bad about giving them an objective of some sort: They're in prison, they need to get out. The king charges them with finding the Lost Beard of the Dwarven Realms. They have assassins after their asses, kill them/dodge them and find out what's going on! But, and this is the important part: You should let them decide how to solve the problem themselves. If they want to be snitches for the guards to get their favour, get out that way? Fine. If they want to find the lost beard by setting dwarves on fire? Let them. If they want to defeat the assassins with a Rube Goldbergian device rather than straight up battle? Hell yeah, let them try it.
Railroading, as in giving them goals? Not bad. Railroading as in completely banning certain means of accomplishing something? Very bad. In general, you should never outright BAN anything. But let it have consequences, if they decide to be snitches for the guards or torture dwarves, let their reputation take a hit. While the Ranger leads the assassins on a wild goose chase and the others build the device, time will pass. Whatever villain is out to get them will have plans that advance.
If they decide to go stumbling through fields and meadows rather than hunting down Tenbeard, when they get to the next town, Tenbeard might have burned it down. Once they bother to finally give the damn quest a try, some other noble hero may have resolved it and everyone regards them with disgust for not even having bothered trying to save the kingdom. Realistic consequences, rather than arbitrary punishments for not doing EXACTLY what fits best into your plans.
And at the same time, if you want the players to do something, airdropping T-Rex's on them when they deviate from the path is less effective than dangling a carrot when they stay on the road. Maybe they hear a rumour that Tenbeard has a Mithril Dildo +5 or a powerful Nipple Ring of Fireballs in his hoard.
Finally: Make sure this is something the players' characters would DO. A Chaotic Evil party isn't going to care about rescuing the princess(unless THEY can collect the ransom instead), a Lawful Good party may be less motivated by riches than doing what's right(so seeing some injustice on the road to their goal, they may well take a trip to right that before proceeding to Get Rich) and more Neutral and less stereotypical parties are often harder to motivate with moral stuff. Generally, though, a good way to keep them on the road is to get them emotionally invested in things.
Have Zoldark steal their Epic Sword of Dudeslaying, maybe Tenbeard blows up the Paladin's favourite horse, some NPC they've somehow ended up caring about begs them with his dying breath to hunt down the power-mad Torgal and avenge him.
Revenge and survival are pretty much always the ultimate motivators unless the player characters are utter cowards who'd rather get bullied by the villain and surrender their lunch loot than fight back. Of course, that then begs the question of why the hell they're adventurers or EPIC DUDES in the first place. Sometimes some players really just end up making characters with no motivations at all except for going along with the rest of the party Just Because.
TL;DR: Use moderation, don't try to play in your own game, talk to your damn players and motivate the little fuckers.