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A Duty, Not a Calling

This is going to be one of my relatively rare gaming posts, but I think it also has some pertinence in fiction, so buckle up your Chain Mail +3 Vs Geekery and here we go:

I wanna complain for a while about Clerics in D&D.

Clerics suck.

Okay, okay – that was perhaps too harsh, allow me to rephrase: Clerics’ role in D&D parties is a terrible one and I hate them for it. I’m all for playing devoted followers of this or that god (you won’t hear me complaining about paladins, for instance) and I think a divine-oriented campaign or party or adventure is pretty cool. What I don’t like is all the healing magic.

One of my central tenets of GMing is that players have the most fun when they are the closest to destruction. The corollary to this rule is that players work the absolute hardest they can to avoid being close to destruction. This central paradox constitutes the GM’s primary obstacle to creating a fulfilling and sensational adventure. You want to press them, make them desperate, force them to come up with the most outlandish and riskiest possible solution to their problems while, at the same time, they are working feverishly to prevent that from ever happening.

It would be this, every time, all the time.

If the players of the world had their way, every dungeon crawl would be a methodical slog in which everyone left with approximately the same hit points they had when they went in. They would win every combat by a country mile. They would save the day with effortless flair and exact revenge on their enemies exactly 24 hours after being wronged. And then gaming would be (and sometimes is) terribly, terribly boring.

The cleric aids and abets this goal of the players. Work really hard to get them desperate and clawing for supplies? The cleric’s gods waves away their exhaustion and heals their injuries. Blind a guy? The cleric’s gods give him back his sight. Kill a PC in an earth-shattering climax? The players are only a brief prayer session away from getting the dead guy right back.

Players love clerics. They love them to the point where, when a D&D party is forming and everybody is making their characters, there’s always somebody who looks around the table and asks “so…which one of us is gonna be the healer?”

Now, whenever this is said, I always (always) say “you don’t need a healer to be an effective team” or “sometimes it’s more fun to not have a healer.”

They never, ever believe me. Not once in 25 years of GMing.

And the real tragedy of it all is that, frequently, nobody really wants to be a healer. They’d much rather be a wizard or a rogue or a paladin or something. They had this cool idea for a halfling barbarian and then they looked around a realized they wouldn’t have anybody throwing healing spells and shrugged and said “well, all right – I guess I’ll be some guy with a bald head and a mace.” This is so, so sad. You’ve got this group of players who “take one for the team” so they can play a character class that actively reduces the chances of things ever getting interesting. 

And then, just when things were getting interesting…

Now, I should point out that there are exceptions to this. There are players who cook up interesting cleric characters and play them in an interesting way (I just ran a campaign with a viking-esque tempest cleric who was pretty cool, it must be said), but these I’ve found to be in the minority. Instead of playing their hearts (and thereby being really, really invested), they play cautiously, making sure to heal up everybody before they get into a scrap, making sure they’re there to prevent anything dire from really happening.

As long as the cleric has spell slots, you are working with a net. As long as you are working with a net, things don’t get “real” (as the kids say). If all the damage you have sustained can be waved away, why were you scared of being gored by that minotaur in the first place? When you play a game like D&D strategically, you can very easily kill the drama. At minimum, you make it way, waaay more difficult for the DM to present you with challenges that test your ingenuity. And challenges that test your ingenuity are the things that you wind up telling stories about later – the sessions you remember forever and which you identify with the most excitement.

There is an analog here in writing, too. Beyond simply healing magic, you need to be cognizant of consequences in your fiction. You need to make sure that the danger is real and that your protagonists don’t deal with it too easily. You need to yank their safety nets away so the audience is hanging on the edge of their seats. So, if you do have world with magical healing, you need to make sure it is associated with the proper sets of complications and consequences that make things interesting. In my Saga of the Redeemed, for instance, I have Tyvian saddled with the Iron Ring, which has very, very potent powers of rejuvenation and endurance associated with it, but that power comes with strings attached (Tyvian’s behavior) and has a variety of costs. Even when he does heal people with it, it creates problems more than it solves them.

Now, such dramatic flourishes are difficult to accomplish in an RPG, but one thing is pretty easy: next time somebody asks who is going to be a healer, volunteer.

Then don’t.

Make yourself a Trickster Cleric with NO healing magic.
Make a rogue who practices quack medicine.

Make a druid who specializes in health food (more goodberries, anybody?).

Go into battle without a cleric, and trust the GM and your fellow players to come up with some seriously memorable adventures that won’t be easy, but will be a hell of a lot of fun.

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When To Be Cruel

Plot and story derive from conflict – anybody who’s tried writing anything has figured this out at some point. In order for something to happen, you need the character(s) to do something. In order to make that something they do interesting, there needs to be something at stake. Things are only at stake if there is some situation in which Option A is preferred over Option B and yet, with inaction or failure surpass some obstacle, Option B will come to pass or remain. That state of affairs is called “conflict” – I want A, but I have to overcome (whatever) to achieve it, otherwise B.

So concludes your really, really basic lesson in plotting stories.

The idea of conflict is simple enough, but how to go about creating it is infinitely complex. You need things to be at stake, yes, but what constitutes that? Furthermore, how large should the obstacle be preventing the character from achieving their goal?

To present an example:

  1. Bill needs to go to the store to get some milk.
  2. Bill cannot leave his house, or else his neighbor will see and then he’ll be stuck discussing lawn care for half an hour.

With #1, we have our stakes: Bill wants milk. With #2, we have our conflict: in order to get milk, Bill needs to figure out how to avoid his neighbor. In this particular story, the stakes are not very high and the obstacle not too dire (if Bill doesn’t get milk, what’s the worst that can happen to him? If Bill is caught by his neighbor, how bad are the consequences, really?). The conflict, in other words, fits the situation. It seems realistic. But what happens when you mess with that formula?

  1. Bill needs to get to the doctor or he will die.
  2. Bill cannot leave his house, or else his neighbor will see and then he’ll be stuck discussing lawn care for half an hour.

So, obviously, Bill leaves his house. The obstacle (talking lawn care for fear of being rude) no longer seems significant. Bill just points to the giant gushing wound in his side (or what have you) and blows past the neighbor. Here, the obstacle isn’t sufficient to match the stakes, and the conflict doesn’t really work. Let’s try this again:

  1. Bill needs to go to the store to get some milk.
  2. Bill cannot leave his house, because if he goes outside he will be eaten by Great Cthulhu.

Here, the obstacle is far, far too great to make it reasonable for Bill to leave. He can go without milk for a little while if the alternative is certain death and madness in the tentacled maw of a Great Old One. The stakes just aren’t high enough to justify the risk.

In order to have a good conflict, you need to know how to balance the stakes and the obstacles appropriately, or the plot begins to break down and become nonsensical or absurd. Things can’t be easy for the characters nor can they be impossible to the point where nothing would happen. As a writer, it is your job to ride that line between the easy and the impossible. You need to be what I think of as cruel.

Your characters must suffer for their goals, yes? Well, it’s your job to make them suffer exactly the right amount to make their victory seem worthwhile. Make it too easy, and there is no payoff. Make it too hard, and everything becomes dismal and sad. You, the writer, are in a certain sense a torturer – you need to rake your main character over the coals just enough that he talks, but not so much that he dies. As any torturer will tell you (well, I presume – I don’t actually know any torturers), that’s a fine line to tread.

I got much of my practice doing this by running role-playing games for my friends and playing in RPGs run by others. The best GMs, I’ve found, are the ones cruel enough to make victory seem impossible but also kind enough to make it possible for you to succeed. I played in one campaign once where our victory was clearly, obviously assured – the GM would not kill us or even maim us terribly, and everything always worked out in the end. It was boring. On the flip side, everybody’s played those Call of Cthulhu games where everybody dies inside of two hours and the monsters win – also a bit boring after you’ve done it once or twice.

Oh...crap...

Oh…crap…

The best games? The ones where you’re counting every hit point and scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as ammunition and special abilities go and yet still, somehow, you’ve got to save your PC’s father from the clutches of the Liche King or he’ll be lost to you forever. You’re sitting there on your buddy’s couch, heart pounding, because you know your character could die and everything could go south and, whaddya know, you actually care what happens (stakes!) but the obstacles seem so impossible (conflict!). What you don’t know (or maybe don’t always realize) is this: your GM is scared, too. He’s sitting on the edge of his seat, because yeah, he’s made it crazy impossible and, no, he won’t back down. If he backs down, he loses everything – you lose everything. So he throws you a line here and there, he encourages you, and he prays that the dice go your way just enough so you can win. And what a win that is!

Conflict – writing – isn’t too far off from that. At least, that’s what I think.


Publicity News

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Going It Alone: The Die Hard Effect and RPGs

Let’s face it: anybody old enough to remember and love classic action movies admires John McClane. The flatfoot New York cop who, with his wits, grit, and wise-cracking mouth manages to foil professional mercenaries, terrorists, and renegade special forces operatives.

Face it: You’ve all imagined yourself in this situation

All by himself.

That’s the key, right there–himself. John McClane needs nobody, because everybody else is an idiot or a screw-up or actually working for the bad guys. Granted, the other cops in Die Hard: With A Vengeance had his back, but they were always a couple steps behind McClane. He was the real show. He made it all happen. And it was awesome. When I was a kid and, admittedly, even today, I often sit there and think to myself: if there were terrorists with machine guns storming this building right now, how would I get out of it? How could I get myself a machine gun (ho ho ho?)?

The Die Hard Effect

In RPGs, when a PC winds up having to go it alone against the bad guys with limited resources, I call it (and have heard it referred to as) ‘the Die Hard Effect’ or ‘Die Harding’. It can frequently be a lot of fun–it lets the player who is Die Harding feel both stressed out and really cool at the same time, and the other players who are playing second banana get to, essentially, watch a really suspenseful couple minutes where they hope their buddy has the chops to rescue them/find them/win the day, etc.. It has to be used responsibly, however and with caution, since there are a lot of problems with doing this without forethought.

Problem One: There is More Than One Player

It is pretty rare that you’ll be running a game with only one player present. If you’ve got a room full of people, spending a couple hours with only one of them playing is a bit rude at the worst or potentially boring at the least. Even the player getting all the attention can feel bad about it, sometimes.

The solutions for this problem are two-fold: First, limit the period of time the Die Harding would take. Less than an hour and you can probably get away with doing it in one shot and not overly ruffling anyone’s feathers. Second, have things for the other players to do, even if they’re less essential. Break up the Die Harding with other stuff (and there was other stuff going on in those movies, you know).

Problem Two: It’s a Big Challenge

Sometimes, even though you did your best to keep things fair, the PC who is Die Harding is hopelessly over their head. This sucks for them, and has the opposite effect intended. This becomes a prime opportunity to use the Idiot Ball or, conversely, give the player time to think out of their situation by switching to what the other players are doing (heck, the other PCs may even be able to help somehow). Whatever you do, don’t have the player feel embarrassed or stupid or like a failure–bad plan. If they fail, at least try to make that failure dramatic, cathartic, or spectacular in some way so that they will be talking about it for weeks to come.

Problem Three: “How Can The Same Shit Happen to the Same Guy Twice?”

Don’t Die Hard all the time. Just don’t. It’s a once-in-a-while thing to change the dynamic of the game for a session and make things exciting. If everybody is off doing their own Die Hard thing all the time, the end result of the Die Hard effect (feeling awesome) is diluted. It winds up being like at the end of the third movie, when McClane says ‘Yipee Ki-ay Motherf—cker’againand we all roll our eyes and think ‘get a new line, dude.’ Die Hard sparingly, and only in extreme moments where the stakes are high enough to justify the departure. I’ve found getting the rest of the party captured is a good excuse, or having one player get captured and have to escape alone. There are lots of other ways, too, but make sure whenever you do it, it is a departure from the norm rather than the norm.

I’ve had players Die Hard in my games frequently over the years, both in good ways and bad ways, both successes and failures. When it works, it’s some of the best moments of the campaign. When it doesn’t, you look around the room when you’re done running the session and see a lot of bored people and disappointed faces. I do recommend trying it, but do it right. Think ahead. Get everybody on the edge of their seats, and you’re doing fine.

My Favorite PCs: Lord Edward du Charouse

Everybody likes to laugh in an RPG, but so few players are willing to make their characters comic relief. Everybody is usually in some kind of contest to be the coolest, toughest, scariest, or most impressive. Not so my friend, Joe. In the very same 7th Sea Campaign that featured the stalwart and inexorable Helmut Dauben Kohb, Joe played Avalonian (i.e. English) expatriate ‘Lord’ Edward du Charouse, who was actually a Marquis, and that only by marriage to the lovely Michelle du Charouse, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Montaigne (i.e. France). This character was, hands down, the most ridiculous, hilarious, and wonderfully fun character I’ve probably ever had in a game. Let me tell you why:

Edward’s Problems

Say, is that wench showing some ankle? Grrrr…

Joe built his entire character around three things: (1) A Romance background with Michelle, the stereotypically fickle and spoiled Montaigne noblewoman, (2) the Lecherous flaw, meaning Lord Edward was pretty much constantly trying to score with any attractive woman he saw, and (3) the Dangerous Beauty advantage, meaning women were drawn to him like flies. Throw in the fact that he was an arrogant fop, a blissfully ignorant dilettante, and a pretty talented duelist, and this resulted in an absolutely enormous amount of trouble that followed Edward around, everywhere he went.  

You see, Edward cheated on Michelle constantly. With anything. All the time. He’d have relationships or attempted relationships going with every single young female NPC in the game at the same time. He wasn’t clever about it, either. He once, for instance, invited two women for a romantic evening walk in the gardens of a Vodacce prince at the same time and spent the whole scene finding excuses to leave one alone, scale a wall, and return to the other one. One of these women was a deadly swordswoman and bodyguard to the archvillain Villanova. The whole affair did not end well.

Furthermore, anytime Edward was caught cheating or even paying attention to another woman, Michelle would throw him out of their château. Michelle was the one with all the money, all the prestige, and all the influence; without her, Edward couldn’t possibly live to his standards. So, regularly, we would embark upon epic plots to regain Michelle’s love, punctuated by ridiculous side-adventures, such as vows made in court that he could ‘fence a bear’ (didn’t go well), that he was on ‘a secret mission from the Musketeers’ (he never was), or other similar egocentric activities. I don’t think we ever laughed harder in a game, my friends and I.

How Edward Dealt With His Problems

The best part about Lord Edward was Joe’s unflinching willingness to get him into massive amounts of trouble all the time, for any reason. You know how most players spend all their time trying to avoid complications, planning their assaults on the enemy castle with painstaking detail and with buckets of backup plans? Not Edward. He just waltzed right in, assuming his pretty smile and his money and, failing that, his skill with a blade would make it all work out. It regularly blew up in his face, got him and the rest of the party in huge amounts of trouble, and the adventures that followed with them trying to get out of that trouble were simply priceless.

There was this one time that the players got their hands on a small ship that had its ballast replaced with gold bars. There was so much gold there, they could have bought entire kingdoms with it. This, everyone knew, was the tip of the iceberg of some sinister plot that the PCs would spend the rest of the campaign unravelling. They knew whoever’s gold this was wouldn’t hesitate to kill them all if they were discovered with it. So, when they sailed into port, everyone agreed that they were going to keep the gold secret.

So, when most of the party left and put Edward in charge of the gold, what did he do? He grabbed a whole gold brick, walked to the nearest brothel, threw the gold down on the floor and said ‘there’s more where that came from, ladies!’ When the players got back, their ‘secret’ ship had become a party boat, with Lord Edward engaged in an orgy with half the whores in port, throwing gold around like it was water. Absolutely hilarious and it got them in incredible amounts of trouble. The Vesten rune mage with them also blew Edward out the back of the boat with a lightning bolt. Good times.

I won’t even get into the time that he, during the game’s version of the French Revolution, founded ‘Lord Edward’s Home for Wayward Women (No Ugly Chicks).’ That didn’t end well, either.

Nevertheless, Edward remained charming and likeable, even if he was creepy and arrogant and chauvinistic. He managed this by always realizing how wrong he had been and making it up to those he cared about, often at great physical risk to himself. Still, for all his attempts to go the straight and narrow, everybody knew he would fall again, do something foolish, and the ridiculous swashbuckling fun would begin again. All this, by the way, as a result of a player, Joe, who knew that fun in an RPG isn’t about avoiding trouble, it’s about going out there and finding it, even if you need to make it up yourself.

Play like Lord Edward everybody. Your games will be better for it.

A Tale for Every Dungeon

If you’ve played a role playing game, be it tabletop, video, or pen-and-paper, odds are you’ve adventured in a dungeon. We all know, essentially, what those things entail: various rooms, random monsters, the odd trap, and heaps of treasure. You and your intrepid buddies tramp around these places methodically, as though shopping at the mall, hoovering up whatever gold and silver and so on you can lay your grubby mitts upon, and then leave satisfied. It’s like an Easter Egg Hunt, except with more magical swords and many fewer dyed, hard-boiled eggs.

In general, I find the average dungeon experience lacking. I’ve discussed this before when describing one of my personal favorite dungeons of my design. To quote myself:

Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.

As mentioned in that article, I like dungeons to have some drama to them. In order to have that drama, they need a story.

Who built this? Why is it here? These questions need answering.

When putting together a dungeon, I try to make everything fit within a certain set of themes or motifs, sort of like a wedding planner, but with knives and poison gas traps rather than doilies and name cards. The worst thing to do in a dungeon is to just slap something in there for the hell of it. You aren’t making a video game level when designing a dungeon (and one of the reasons I generally dislike video game RPGs is because of the following); you are placing a ‘real’ structure inside the fabric of a ‘real’ world and it needs to mesh with and fit into that reality. If the dungeon is infested with hordes and hordes of giant rats, you need to ask yourself the question “why are there so many rats hanging around here, anyway?” This should be followed up by “what do the rats eat?” and “how did they get here in the first place?”

These questions may seem immaterial to you, but they really aren’t. In the first place, your players are probably going to ask such questions at some point, and having an answer is infinitely better than saying ‘they just *are*, okay?’ Furthermore, exploring the answers to these questions adds to the depth of the dungeon itself (and I mean depth in the dramatic sense, rather than the physical one) and can give you much more compelling and interesting things to have your players encounter and do when within them.

To state more directly what I’m getting at, we can probably agree generally that dungeons are made up of four elements: rooms, traps, monsters, and treasure. Let’s take a look at each one and discuss the storytelling potential inherent within them.

Rooms

By ‘rooms’, I mean ‘the physical layout of the dungeon’. Is it underground? Underwater? At the top of a mountain? In the sewers of a major city? Is it an old castle? A new castle? A not-yet-finished castle? Whichever of these things you pick has a profound impact on what can reasonably be found within its confines. It is extremely unlikely, for instance, that you’ll find a dragon living in a city sewer or a tribe of cannibals living in a sky-castle. Why? Well, how did they get there? What will they eat while there? Can the dragon even manage to leave?

Furthermore, you won’t find a lot of secret passages made of stone inside a wooden tree fort, just like you probably won’t find a lot of death traps in places where lots of creatures actually live (seriously, why would you make a home in a place where poison darts are likely to shoot you at any time). The type of place and when it was built indicates the kind of technology that will go into the building. Ancient ruins won’t have the latest elevator systems (unless they’re one of those super-sophisticated lost civilizations), while it would seem odd for the evil vampire’s state-of-the-art floating fortress to not use any kind of waterwheels to run its internal systems.

Figuring out the physical design of the dungeon is the starting point for your story surrounding that same dungeon. Why was it built? How did it get here? Is it still fulfilling its original purpose? If not, why not? How has it been altered? Why? What effect has that had on its layout?

Traps

Traps should be based upon the nature of the layout and rooms, as described above. They also should be used sparingly (there are only so many traps players want to spend time evading, and they never really want to solve the same trap more than once) and should be bound by some reasonable laws of physics. If you’ve got dart guns, can they reload themselves? How? Can that be interfered with? How is a trap set off? Why was it put here? Remember: traps are dangerous things for more than just the players themselves and, in most cases, the people or things that designed this dungeon didn’t expect the players to infiltrate specifically (well, it’s possible, but unlikely). That means the builders had reason and rationales for putting in the traps they did. If this is a vault, they obviously would want a way to bypass the traps so they can access said vault. If this is a tomb, they aren’t going to build in a self-destruct device (the tomb is a holy place, after all). Nobody’s going to put a firebomb trap in their fancy wooden villa. Nobody’s going to shell out the money to put a shark pit in the middle of a desert pyramid without a very good reason.

Traps, also, should be used as dramatic elements in some way. They should complicate the plot by introducing tension or conflict either among the players themselves or between them and some enemy. If you don’t plan on using a trap this way and rather merely intend to make it a simple physical obstacle to roll dice at, then why include it at all? If you set up a land mine, the intention of that land mine is to injure or kill a member of the party (likely injure) so that the rest of the party will need to make a decision on how to deal with their injured friend (this kind of trap, incidentally, works best in systems where there are penalties to action for being injured).

Monsters

To my mind, dungeons should usually either involve traps OR monsters, and seldom both. If it does involve both, the monsters should have some kind of reliable way of avoiding the traps because, as mentioned above, few creatures want to live in a place where they might die in a deadfall trap if they roll over while asleep and, furthermore, if they aren’t intelligent enough to care, most of them will probably be destroyed by traps before the PCs ever need to stick swords into them.

With the possible exception of the undead, golem, and other non-living constructs, keep in mind that monsters are alive. As such, they need food, water (probably), a place to sleep, and mostly won’t be content to remain trapped within this secret dungeon forever and ever. This means that either the design of the dungeon needs to be altered to accommodate the creature living there (dragons need a big door, for instance), or the creatures need to be designed to fit with the dungeon. Also, monsters should behave in keeping with their intelligence. The aforementioned giant rats, for instance, will likely be disinclined to fight with armored humans for long, if at all, and particularly not if they start waving around scary magicks. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide dramatic complications (a squealing rat stampede, for instance, could start a fire or wake up an actually nasty monster), but nobody is going to have their legs gnawed off by twenty pound rats.

Intelligent creatures, conversely, won’t be content to stay in their ‘room’ to wait for the enemy to come to them, necessarily. It’s their dungeon–they know their way around, probably. They’ll move. They’ll set ambushes. They’ll avoid trouble. The frost giant in his ice castle probably has a pen full of hungry polar bears he can release at intruders and he’s likely to go and release them, if he can, as soon as he hears humans trashing his foyer.

Treasure

Finally, treasure should be comprised of those things that would actually be kept in the dungeon in question. In some cases (sewers, for instance) there will be precious little of value. Nobody foraging through a sewer should expect to find the crown jewels; if they do, there’s a story there. The GM should pursue it somehow.

Treasure is valuable, and most valuable things belong or belonged to someone. Someone fashioned it for a purpose, put it here for a reason, and so on. This is partially the reason why cursed items make no damned sense (why would you keep the sword that stabs *you* instead of the bad guys?) unless set up for a reason, often as a kind of trap (think the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

There’s a lot of dramatic potential in treasure, and it shouldn’t be squandered.

Conclusion

Overall, there is enormous dramatic potential in dungeons, but it is too often not exploited because we GMs are too lazy to bother making something cool out of it. Give the place a story, set up plots related to the dungeon itself, create conflicts that reveal character rather than render it irrelevant. Mix the procedural with the dramatic.

The Crunchy Bits: External Conflict and RPGs

It seems to me like much of the role-playing universe these days is gravitating between two poles. On the one hand, you have things like D&D and its relatives which follow the standard ‘kill things and take their stuff’ dynamic on one level or another, emphasizing the ‘G’ part of RPG far over the ‘RP’ part. I’ve complained about these games already at length. There are, however, the games on this spectrum that occupy the other extreme, emphasizing the ‘RP’ far and above over the ‘G’. In this we can probably include games like Fate, Hillfolk(which I had the fortune to help playtest recently with John Perich), and some others.

Now, by and large I prefer ‘RPgs’ over ‘rpGs’ (if you see what I did there). Story is of tantamount importance to me, and RPgs produce great stories. They deemphasize external things, like stats and equipment, and emphasize character and roleplaying. This is good, and I’ve explained my reasons why in various places on this blog (here, for instance). I also feel, however, that these games can become too extreme. 

Call me old fashioned, but I feel like this rocket launcher is important.

Pointless Gear

For instance, in Fate, there is no significant advantage granted someone with a weapon over someone without. Their reasoning is that it ultimately doesn’t matter–what should matter is the emotional content of the fight, the ‘riddle of steel’, essentially. While there is much to be said for emotional content and character building, to say ‘guns don’t matter’  is ridiculous. Of course being armed matters! What kind of crazy idea is it to have unarmed idiots charging battle tanks and punching them apart? Many are the RPG gurus running about who might say ‘but if your players think this is cool, what do you care?’

Well (and how can I put this delicately?), I care because the activity is objectively stupid.No, you may not punch that tank to death. You can maybe find an access panel in the back, pry it off, and pull out some key wires or tubes or something, but kung fu Vs tank is a losing prospect. In a game I run, I want rules to make it clear that such behavior doesn’t fly. Does this restrict player choice? Yes, it does. It forces players to come up with alternate solutions to their problems beyond saying ‘I defeat them with my (insert idiom here)!’

The Player is Always Right

This brings me to another problem that I have that I keep running into: there is a sentiment that is permeating role-playing from Vincent Baker called ‘Say Yes or Roll Dice’. The upshot of it is this: if nothing is at stake, the GM should say ‘yes’ to whatever it is the players want. If something isat stake, the GM should never say ‘no’, but rather ask them to roll the dice to see if they can do what they want.  

What do you mean I can't invent the hydrogen bomb? You suck!

First off, there is a lot of wisdom in this philosophy–more wisdom that foolishness by a mile. GMs are in the business of giving players what they want, on some level, and they should definitely say yes far, far more often than they say ‘no.’ There are, however, limits to this idea that are important and should be recognized. Coming back to the ‘punching tanks’ example I provide above, there are instances where ‘no’ is an appropriate response.

For instance, say I’m playing some kind of barbarian and I decide, suddenly, that I want to build a jetpack. Out of sticks. For no reason. The Baker philosophy would require that I set some absurdly high target number for their die roll, reducing their chances of success down to .01% or something, and then let them roll. This, I feel, is a charade. It is obvious to everyone, or should be, that Thag the Barbarian can’t build a jetpack; the player is being a jackass for even suggesting it. Rather than waste time parsing dice modifiers, the GM should just say ‘that’s ridiculous–no’ and move on.  

This can come up more often the more ‘realistic’ the game setting is. In Frontier: 2280, for instance, I’m running a fairly ‘hard sci-fi’ game, in which actual scientific concepts exist, matter, and are important to plot and gameplay. Characters can’t violate physics, because physics is a real thing and you don’t get to selectively interpret it. If someone asks me if they can dodge a bullet fired at close range, I can say ‘no, you can’t’. Do you know why? It’s because it’s physically impossible. Yes, I could set an absurdly high target number for them to roll, but why are we spending the time? I don’t want it to happen because it violates the environment of the game. I don’t want that environment violated just because you don’t want your character to be shot. Get shot; deal with this new obstacle and resolve it. That’s what the game’s about.

I feel that overindulging the Baker philosophy is going to allow players to have great choice, yes, but also fails to challenge them to work with what they are given. If you are an unarmed, normal human and being approached by tanks, there are a wide variety of innovative and interesting solutions to the problem I am totally willing to entertain–a huge number, really. There are, however, a narrow sliver of options I reserve the right to deny. This doesn’t hurt anybody; it safeguards the functional reality of the game. It also pushes you past the first idea to pop into your head; that first idea isn’t really your friend, anyway. Push past it to ideas 2, 3, or 4. You’ll come up with something more interesting, anyway.

Internal Vs External Conflict

Nah, you're right--I'd much rather see this guy chatting with his former squire over his daughter's hand in marriage...

As a final note, I’d like to react to a tendency among indie RPG enthusiasts to emphasize internal (or, as Robin Laws puts it, ‘dramatic’) conflict over external (or ‘procedural’) conflict. As a general rule, internal conflict is immensely important, often de-emphasized, and leads to fantastic storytelling. That does not, however, mean external conflict is somehow boring or uninteresting. Some of these games tend to sideline external conflicts, getting them over as quickly as possible, so we can get back to hashing out our relationships with the other characters.

Sorry, but when did RPGs become soap-operas? Has George RR Martin had such a monumental effect on the gaming Zeitgeist? Guys, fights, chases, traps, and puzzles are cool. They’re fun. They’re why we liked Fantasy and Science Fiction to begin with! There is a certain delight I get in a game at having a well-oiled, realistic, dramatic combat system. Almost every coolest RPG moment I’ve ever had as been in reference to an external conflict, rather than an internal one. I by no means wish to belittle the importance of internal struggle and character development–they are necessary for action to even work, as I’ve said before–but they don’t replace external conflict as a means to generate conflict, fun, and excitement. The two ought to work in tandem and, as it happens, the external stuff is the stuff that needs more rules associated with it, hence why most games have most of their rules in that vein.

Granted, there are fine games that do the soap opera thing (Hillfolk seems to be one of them, and I’d gladly play it again), but let’s all fess up and say we all love a good car chase or rooftop swordfight. We do, don’t we?

Conclusion

Anyway, this has already gotten longer than I intended for it to be. Suffice to say that I like my game with a good balance of crunchy bits (external conflicts, gear, game limitations) and fluffy flavoring (internal conflict, strong relationships, player freedom). Too much of one or the other and we’re playing less than what I’d consider to be a ‘perfect game’.

My Favorite Dungeon

In all my years of playing RPGs (about twenty, at this point), I’ve had a lot of memorable moments. I won’t list them here–it would take a long time (it’s been two decades, after all)–but I will say this: very few of those moments took place in dungeons.

Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.

BOOOOORING.

Yeah, we all like getting treasure. Treasure is neat, it makes your character ‘better’ (a silly concept in an RPG, but I’ll touch on that later), but does it really make the game more fun? I personally don’t think so. Imaginary stuff isn’t ‘fun’, and I don’t think an intelligently designed pen-and-paper RPG should hinge upon the acquisition of imaginary stuff with few exceptions. That’s for video games, which need those things and can do them better, since it is adjudicated by a computer and not a person (the GM) and doesn’t have the benefit of being played while sitting in a room with your buddies. In short, video games are not a social endeavor (not even MMORPGs), and must rely on other things to provide entertainment value. You want your character to look cool, make cool noises when she/he swooshes a sword, and kill the larger baddies that hitherto have banished your character to the last save point (something lacking in pen/paper RPGs, and rightly so).

The thing that separates pen-and-paper RPGs from video games is the potential for real, actual conflict. Conflict is only had between people or thinking beings. You can’t be in conflict with a Gelatinous Cube–it’s an obstacle, not a conflict. It only does one thing, it doesn’t think, and you beating it is more of a logic problem than a conflict. Good GMs try to make the NPC monsters or baddies in dungeons into sources of conflict–they have needs, wants, assumptions, and goals that are subject to change and enable them to react flexibly to the assault by the PCs. They can be outwitted just as they can outwit the opposition, they can be bargained with, intimidated, charmed, or even simply avoided by the clever and the resourceful just as easily (or perhaps more easily) as they can be attacked and smashed by the belligerent. Well realized monsters in a dungeon make things much more fun, more interesting, and more challenging. They only go so far, however.

For my money, the absolute best kind of conflict to be had in a dungeon is between the players themselves. I want players to doubt their abilities, I want them to debate the proper plan of action, and I want them to be worried that one or the other of their party aren’t going to hold up their end of the bargain. You need a special group of players to do this well–you need players who like the ‘Role-playing’ part as much or more than the ‘game’ part. These players are able to separate their own emotions from the emotions their characters are feeling. They are in it for the story, not the reward at the end. When I introduce a conflict that forces their character to make a horrible decision (e.g. “You can hold on to your sword and be possessed by the daemon, but kill your enemy OR you can release the sword and watch your enemy escape with your lady love”), I want them to smile and say ‘that’s awesome’. Obviously it sucks for the character, but it makes for some fabulous fun for the player. These kinds of players don’t care so much about their character getting ‘better,’ though it is nice; they much prefer having fun with the character, even if they wind up begging for food in some alley somewhere, with only the memory of glory in their past (which is, of course, when the desperate young princess seeks them out and asks them to swing into the saddle one last time…but at a price). 

If you can find a group of players like this, you can build a dungeon like the following. It is, for my money, my favorite dungeon of all the dungeons I’ve ever designed:

Background

This campaign was set in the world of Talislanta (http://talislanta.com/). I titled it The Amazing Race: Talislanta and the  premise was two competing parties (Team Love and Team Money) racing across the continent to some unknown land to find a fabulous artifact which, if transported back to the city of Cymril, would earn them a stupendous amount of wealth. 

Obviously speed was very important in this campaign, as was choice of route, as were maps (they didn’t really know where the place they were going was, and the only maps I let the players look at were incomplete ones I fashioned myself). I furthermore made a rule that stated if a team wanted to find some treasure, they could let me know and I’d find a way to work in a dungeon of some kind for the next session. Team Money, feeling as though they were falling behind, decided to do so. They wanted to find some kind of treasure that would speed up their overland route, and I obliged them.

The Puzzle Vault of Sharahad

In the mountains of Arim is built a vault near the headwaters of a great river. It was fashioned upon the orders of the ancient Arimite Exarch, Sharahad the Miser, who wished that his riches never fall into the hands of another. He commissioned a master Kasmiran Trapsmith to construct the vault, and it is designed so that, even if someone is exceptionally skilled, they could never manage to steal more than a few coins of the Miser’s wealth, as the danger was far too high and it would require the thieves to have unerring trust in one another to do so. Accordingly, the vault has remained relatively unplundered for all these years.

The basic trap is fiendishly simple. The vault is built beneath a waterfall, and all of its workings are powered by the running water above. The top chamber is the main trap: In order to release the stone over the stairway that leads to the vaults below, someone must put their arm inside a stone lion’s mouth and pull the release switch (a complex device that requires a five-fingered human-sized hand to operate). When this is done, the lion’s mouth locks around the unfortunate’s hand and the switch locks around his fingers, pinning him in place. Then, a massive blade begins to slowly drop towards the pinned individual.

It is then that I, the GM, start the stopwatch. I tell them they have ten real-world minutes to get through one of the vaults, pull the release switch, and get back with the treasure. Beneath were four vaults, each built similarly. There would be a long hallway from which water had been drained, followed by a room with a complex trap (checkerboard floor with drop-away segments, a complicated blade trap, a series of mirrored doors in a maze, etc.), followed by a room filled with treasure in which would be hidden the release switch. Once the switch was pulled (provided it could be found), the players had 1 minute (again with the stopwatch) to grab what they wanted and get out before the hallway they used to get here filled with water and they’d be trapped and soon suffocate.

If the 10 minutes elapsed before they could solve the puzzle, the PC who put his arm in the activator would die (as severing a brachial artery is likely to do without modern medicine) or, at the very least, be one-armed for the rest of the campaign (provided a healer was present, where there wasn’t). Furthermore, the PCs who solved the puzzle couldn’t sit around and do the boring, slow, safe way to solve all dungeon traps–they had to move, and they didn’t have time to be careful. Finally, they couldn’t sit there and assess and weigh each piece of treasure before heading back up–they had to run.

Also (and my players never knew this, since it never came up) the deactivator switch would reset to a different location each time the vault was activated, meaning doing the same vault over and over again was just as dangerous as the first time. The whole thing was fiendishly evil and ridiculous fun.

The Result

Team Money was made up of characters who were, essentially, mercenaries brought together by the promise of gold. They didn’t trust each other or even really like each other, and this dungeon was designed to put them at each other’s throats. It worked beautifully, too. When I started the stopwatch the first time, all of my players went white with terror. “Seriously?” They asked.

“Seriously. Better get moving.”

The guy who put his arm in the trap first (Blake), started freaking out immediately. “Go! Go! Go!” he started yelling.

What followed was the most intense run through a trap I’ve ever witnessed in a game. Everybody, including me, was on the edge of their seat. The guy who volunteered to brave the blade trap and find the first activation switch (RJ) only pulled it off by 5 seconds. He had to pocket the first couple things he saw and ran up for all he was worth before his character was drowned or suffocated. Everybody let loose a sigh of relief, examined the treasure, and saw that it was all very very valuable.

I then popped the question: “Want to do it again?”

The debate exploded as to who was going to stick their hand in the trap next. Nobody wanted to, but the lure of the treasure and the possibility of something that might get them ahead of Team Love was too great, and they finally strongarmed another character into it. This time they solved the task by only 2 seconds, and they guy who did it almost died from the series of traps he had to face. They escaped with just a few more items of interest. They risked a third time, but only after making deals and arguing for about half an hour. The third time, two of the three who went down were knocked unconsious by poison darts, and the last one had to drag them out, barely alive, after finding the switch. They escaped with almost nothing that time.

They didn’t want to do it again after that.

The Puzzle Vault was tense, exciting, conflict inducing, and I gave them a flying carpet and a magic, teleporting tent out of the deal (which wound up being major McGuffins for the rest of the campaign). There were no monsters, no slow dungeon crawl nonsense, and no remote-control obstacles that mattered. The real challenge was getting somebody to put themselves in harm’s way so another PC could find treasure. It worked fabulously, and has become my gold standard for all dungeons I design from now on.