Saturday, January 24, 2015

Railroading Pt. 1

One of the worst things you can possibly do as a DM is to railroad your PCs. On a small scale, it might not matter much, such as telling the player he turns around when he hears a noise. I find it to be a lot of work to ask players what they do every time I describe something.

Me: "You hear a banging sound behind you."

PC: "What was it?"

Me: "You're not sure, it was behind you."

PC: "Can I look?"

Me: "Yes you could, are you going to?"

That's painful. Really painful. Here is how I solve it.

Me: "You hear a banging sound behind you, a quick glance shows a loose shutter blowing in the wind. You continue down the street."

Done. It does create the problem that when there is suddenly some mechanical benefit or penalty possible, I need to change how I handle it. If there was a monster behind the player with a gaze attack, I would need to ask the player if they look. This tips them off to something more than normal.

Railroading on a large scale is bad. PCs should have options. I create a villain, a plan and a setting. The PCs choose to fight or ignore. Now the thing is, my villain will move forward with his plans regardless of the PCs' actions.

My hope for most campaigns is that the PCs act independently. I try not to force them to react to a villain or to defend themselves from a villain. Rather, I hope they will identify strategic goals, create their own power base and try to change the world.

I am planning a series of posts about this topic.

As always, take care and have fun.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

What sticks to the wall?

One of the sports radio programs I listen to is what I would call a shit talker. You know the type, the people who just throw crazy ideas and hope something sticks to the wall.

As strange as it seems, there is something to be learned from that behavior that applies to many D&D campaigns.

My campaigns tend to be hard. Yes, combat is difficult, but that's not what I mean. My villains are not static, they adapt to the PCs. If the PCs defeat a villain a certain way early in the campaign, you can bet that he will take steps to ensure it doesn't happen again.

More than that, my campaigns require thought. I will often place hints and hooks throughout lower level adventures. Those that my PCs seem to latch onto, become the next tier of adventures. I am loath to waste a good hook, however, and often will use "missed hooks" as ways for the PCs to gain advantage over difficult situations.

An example.

My group of PCs are acting on behalf of a local magistrate, undertaking missions for the crown. As time moves on they slowly uncover evidence of a coup attempt.

At the mid level, they find that this coup has the backing of several powerful military members and some factions in the government. They ignored the chance to track a messenger back to his origin, however. This could have armed them with knowledge of a draconic presence in the coup.

At high levels, they confront the leader of the coup as he moves against the king. The PCs were prepared to fight a powerful caster, not the dragon that revealed himself.

This is, by necessity, an overview and oversimplification.

My PCs could have become more prepared by tracking the messenger, or a host of other hooks during the campaign.

This was a great example of one of my other favorite tactics in DMing. The PCs will often tell you their assumptions. Let them be right on occasion, but make sure they are wrong at times too.

Overall, the PCs should have options, even when they don't.

I'll have to expand on that sometime in the future.

Take care and have fun.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Growing the World

I mentioned this at the end of my first post.

If you have a campaign world, it belongs to everyone who plays in your games.

I have had a few DMs over the years who seemed to be of the opinion that the world was theirs and only they could change it. It didn't really bother me much when I was young. As I grew up, however, it became one of the things I hated most about the campaigns I did not DM.

Worlds change. Heroes rise, defeat great evils, or fail.

In the past 15 years, Medentri has seen 7 campaigns.

Six of my players' PC live on as Gods.

At least 3 villains live on in one fashion or another.

Several organizations founded by the players live on, although time may have corrupted their purpose.

I call out failure because of one specific truth in Medentri. Most of my campaigns have ended with the PCs failing. Either simply not stopping the villain in time or, once, total party kill during the final climactic encounter.

I have a few basic rules for how the world grows and changes.

1) The PCs successes or failures matter to the world. If they stop the big baddie, the world at the start of the next campaign will be in better condition. If they fail, the world will be darker, more desperate. (This can turn your world into something of a horror setting if failure becomes common.)

2) The PCs grew up in the world, the players did not. If the character should know something about history it is my responsibility to make sure the player does. (This becomes easier over time with a consistent group. You only have to teach the "recent" history between the end of the last campaign and the start of the next one.)

3) When in doubt, involve your players. If the character succeed, ask the players what their characters do in their retirement. Even in failure, consider using your players as a resource to determine how others react. (I'll post about the fallout of the Zassom campaign soon.)

4) Be consistent. It is tempting to escalate everything. This success is greater than the last success or that failure is worse than the one before. To quote Admiral Ackbar: "IT'S A TRAP." This is not an argument to have everything be the same, rather, each result should matter.

5) Let time pass. I try to place at least 500 years between campaigns. This means that the new generation of heroes can tell their own story. It also means that even if the previous heroes failed, the next campaign is not going to be "Quest to Defeat Zassom, take 2"

That's it. A campaign ends or fizzles out, and the world moves on.

So am I still in control of my campaign world? Yes, I still have the final say about how the world changes. But my players give me the impetus. Their actions define the direction those changes take. Players recognize this. The ones that care appreciate it, the ones that don't, well, they won't care any less.

Take care and have fun.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Long History

When I first started my campaign world, I was convinced a rich history was needed. NPCs galore, gods, religions, cultures, even popular books and songs. I worked for months before I migrated my players from the Forgotten Realms into the world of Medentri.

It failed spectacularly.

Let me give you all some background before I continue. I have been playing D&D and a few other table top RPGs since I was about 6. Yes, 6. I learned the rules from a friend that was a few years older who learned from an older sibling. We thought it was amazing and dove head first into creating not only characters, but an entire world.

We all grew up and grew apart. It happens and for years, I played only with a small group of friends. The thing is, we were poor. I couldn't buy the books, so we made our own rules. It was horribly unbalanced and clumsy. It was a lot of fun.

We played a Star Wars campaign that I designed based on a single D100 that I had. Everything required a D100. My players took over the galaxy. Maybe I'll post about that later though.

We played a D&D campaign that revolved around a cult that worshiped snakes. Maybe a little too many Conan movies. Again, maybe another post for that one.

I was in my early teens when I rediscovered the notes from that first campaign world. I read them and remembered all the fun adventures I had. Then, as teens are apt to do, I started to criticize it. Looking back now, for being 6, 9 and 12, I think we did good work. I guess teens have no respect for tradition.

I have a list I recently found that I made during those years. Things that I thought would make a good campaign world. This post is only examining one of those items.


It is the first item on my list. "History enough to explain it all."

I suppose that this seems like good advice at first glance. If you have ever been given a quest to clear a dungeon that wasn't present in your world until you were given a quest to clear it, you probably have the same feelings about this as I do.

The problem with the advice is that it is two words to long.

If my experience can teach anything to any DM, take this, History enough to explain.

I wrote 16000 years of detailed history. Textbook style. Tracked the rise and fall of kingdoms, noble families and dynasties. An additional 20 pages of "prehistory" that read like it was out of some religious text.

Once we started playing in the realm of Medentri, I referenced it maybe 5 times. My campaigns still take place in Medentri. Its been 15 years and I have referenced those 80 pages 5 times.

When I place ruins into my world during the original genesis, I tracked what kingdom or organization built it, who had occupied it at various points, who had ruined it.

Again, it was probably useful a dozen times in 15 years.

So, what is my point?

There is a significant difference between knowing the history of your world and creating the history of your world.

As a DM, whether you are creating your own world or using a published one, knowing who the major forces in the history of the world is enough. If your PCs ask a question, answer. Make it up, they won't know.

Here's the secret. Write it down. File it away and use it again.

If you maintain consistency, your PCs will never know. They will think that you planed it all along.

This also gives you the chance to grow your world organically and give your PCs input into how you do so.

And that topic is the subject of my next post.

Take care and have fun.