What D&D Can Learn From D&D: Honor Among Thieves
I saw Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves the other day with an old friend of mine with whom I’ve been gaming since about 1991. I found the movie delightful – not taking itself seriously, but also not allowing itself to devolve into camp. Not groundbreaking, but very solid fun and, moreover, a really good example of what is going on inside the mind of every dedicated D&D player in a really good, long-running campaign. In fact, I would argue that what was happening on screen in that film was sort of an idealized sort of D&D campaign – the thing that, at base, almost all players want to experience.
Now, of course, movies and RPGs are different. Movies are condensed for time, can play looser with POV, and remain pretty linear most of the time. RPG campaigns are often expansive, go on for months if not years, are very detailed, and are locked inside the players POV most of the time. This means making one of these things exactly like the other is impossible in many ways and perhaps not even desired, but I do think the movie does offer a lot of advice to people who are playing or running a game for ways to make your game more fun or, at least, provide new ways explain and explore what is happening at the table.
Fluid Combat is More Interesting
One of the primary problems with D&D as a game system is the rigid nature of its combat system. It is overladen with “optimal builds,” limited actions, narrow advancement paths, and battles that very frequently boil down to you rolling a d20 once ever fifteen minutes and, you know, missing.
The fights we see in the film – which are cinematic and interesting – are hard, if not impossible to replicate in D&D, just because we tend to treat it like a weird little game of chess in the midst of our theater-of-the-mind adventure world. The phrase “I’m sorry, you are 40′ away, so you can’t attack this round” comes up a lot and, well, it’s a drag.
To mimic exciting and cinematic combat requires players and DMs to be more flexible and even break the standing rules of the game in some way to allow for this flexibility. Everybody in that last fight scene in the movie had a role to play, all of their actions were consequential, and even the times the PCs missed seemed important. How many times did Holga not have her axe? How many times did Simon flub a spell? And yet, rather than each of these events leading to just dreary failure, they allowed the fight scene to flourish and expand in new and unusual ways. This is fun! Way more fun than just sitting there and rolling to attack with your axe every once in a while and rolling damage.
I have lots of ways you can potentially house rule this stuff (and I’ll remind you all that other game systems often just do this kind of thing better), but the main thing to remember is that the players and the DM are not adversaries in this kind of thing – they should work together to make things more fun. If you miss with your bow and the GM wants to say that you accidentally hit the evil artifact which is now skittering across the floor, spitting fire, that is cool. If your barbarian wants to do a flying tackle at the death cultist but is technically too far away to make the distance, just give it to them. The more you allow players to break out of the I-go-U-go formalism of D&D combat, the more fun you will have.
Let Cool, Risky Ideas Work
When Simon initially finds the
Portal Gun the scepter that makes the portal, he states the range is something like 500 yards. Then, at the end of the movie, he uses it (to great effect) at a range of what seems like way more than that.
When Doric is fleeing from Castle Neverwinter and using Beast Shape to do it, she beast shapes a LOT more often than a druid of her (apparent) level should be able to.
When Edgrin suggests using a cantrip to create an explosion in a confined, flooding space so they can all survive, it works and everybody is okay (even the paladin who has to swim in armor).
When Doric (again) changes into an owlbear, that isn’t technically an animal, so…
There are so, so many ways a rigid adherence to the rulebook can ruin cool ideas and crush creativity at the tabletop. If players are constantly worried about failing, they will never come up with or try the coolest stuff they can, and everybody will suffer for it. Even if their hare-brained plan goes badly, that is still awesome if it leads to even crazier plans, which is something this movie did very well.
Let players make crazy plans! As a player, suggest crazy plans! NEVER tell yourself “nah, that could never work,” because this is all a game and we are literally just making it up, so just go for it!
Everybody Gets to Shine
There is nothing worse than when a party (or, worse, a DM) shits on another player’s character for not being…whatever (useful, optimized, sensible, etc.). This is especially true of certain classes (BARDS!) that get the brunt of everybody’s derision (BARDS!). This is bad. You should fight this.
I really liked how Edgrin was portrayed in this film. I just loved that when he started singing, Holga smiled from ear to ear and loved the song. That’s big, man. As somebody who has a soft spot for bards and is sorta low-key irritated that they are mostly used as support-wizards these days, that was awesome. You don’t make a bard for the spells. You make a bard to be charismatic and clever and fun. You make a bard to sing and write poetry and have people be actually moved. Edgrin got to do that!
Honestly, if I ever run D&D again (not for a while, though this movie tempts me to run another campaign), I’m going to do bardic inspiration as flashback and not mid-battle serenading. I loved how Edgrin believed in everyone, encouraged them, and supported them when they were low. From now on, when a bard uses Bardic Inspiration, I’m going to ask the target player “what did [the bard] say to you back at camp this morning that drives you forward now?” Because that is some good character work stuff, and the bard can provide it in bushels.
DM Stand-in Characters Are Irritating
This is a bit of an in-joke in the movie, but the antagonism between Edgrin and Xenk reminded me of how DMs often slide in these hyper-competent, super-powerful characters to be their mouthpieces and basically show off with them and the whole time the table is often rolling their eyes and cracking jokes at their expense. Now, I’m not saying you can never do this as a DM, but I am saying that you should take pains to give your players as much agency as possible in solving their problems. The more you, the DM, step in and guide them by the hand, the more annoyed everyone will be (even if they can’t put their finger on it).
Let your players solve their own problems – that’s what they’re playing the game for!
Anyway, I could go on, but that’s enough for now. The main things here are be flexible and work together for fun. Don’t let a little thing like the rules interfere with your ability to come up with awesome stuff you’ll be talking about for years.
How to Play Tithe
I’ve got a new story out! This one is on Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a market I’ve been trying to break into for a while. It’s about a desperate man planning to cheat the undead at cards – nice and dark and bleak and with just a dash of hope. Perfect for Halloween, I’d say. Buy it here!
How to Play Tithe
Now, it just so happens I was obsessive enough with this story to actually draw up the rules for the card game that Cedric plays with the dead, called Tithe. I even went so far as to play a few hands (against myself, granted) to see if the game would work and, if it worked, how would it go. Nothing like an actual test of the game, of course, and I’m hardly the best card player in the world, but I did enough for it to pass basic inspection. Curious? Well, here are the rules.
The Deck and Play Area
Tithe is played with a deck of 60 cards with five suits of 12 cards – a Tomb, numbered cards 1-10, and a Lord. The suits are Skulls, Swords, Crowns, Coins, and Hearts.
The game is played on a five-pointed star, with up to five players, each at a vertex of the star. The game can also be played with as few as two players, but the rules shift a little bit to make that possible. Generally, play with a full table is preferred.
Sequence of Play
At the start of a hand, each player puts their ante in the center of the pentagram and are dealt 5 cards by the dealer. The dealer then lays five cards at the five intersections at the center of the pentagram – this is called “the Circle.”
The first round of betting happens just after the Circle, starting with the left of the dealer and moving clockwise. Players with poor starting positions or poor hands fold, anyone else has to match the highest bet at the table or go all-in with whatever they have remaining to play out the hand.
Remaining players must then play a card by matching or beating a card on the Circle adjacent to their starting point and placing it on top. Lords are high, but are beaten by Tombs. Additionally, the suits have a pecking order: Skulls over Coins over Swords over Crowns over Hearts over Skulls.
All suits are therefore dominant over one suit and servile to another. This affects what happens when a card is played on the Circle. It goes like this:
- A card played on another card that is neither dominant or servile wins, meaning the card beneath is out of play (covered entirely by the winning card).
- A card played on a card of a dominant suit merely buries, meaning the card beneath is still in play and the card above (the one you played) can be disregarded. (the top card is placed so the buried card is still visible).
- A card played on a card of a servile suit takes, meaning the player takes the card beneath (and any other cards it has covered) and puts them in your hand.
End of the Hand
Bets are taken every two turns of the circle until everybody but the winner folds OR no remaining players can play cards. The pot is then split between the remaining players (assuming there is more than one left) and the deal moves clockwise and a new hand is begun.
Observations from Games Played against Myself
First, I’ve found it’s super unlikely that more than one person wins a hand. I played a few dozen hands of this thing (looking like a lunatic in my office, believe me), using a suit from a second deck with a different design to represent the 5th suit. The basic strategy circles around knowing or guessing what cards everybody else has based upon what has been shown already. Most hands did not go more than four turns.
Does it work as an actual, playable game? I have no goddamned idea. I am not much of a gambler or a card player (though I am an inveterate gamer), so whether this would make a good way to lose money to card sharks is sort of beyond me. However, the rules are just plausible enough to pass basic inspection. Yes, this seems like a playable game, and that’s what matters.
Also, if any of you ever want to try it out at a convention someday, I’m happy to try – you just have to figure out how to get our hands on a 5-suit, 60-card deck.
Anyway, hope you enjoyed this one! And check out my story in BCS this month!
A Twilight Imperium Battle Report
Because I am known to write battle reports from time to time – chiefly for Warhammer 40,000 or Age of Sigmar and on other websites – and I have now played The World’s Biggest Board Game, Twilight Imperium, twice now, I have elected to write a report of my last game of this huge, huge undertaking. If you aren’t a gaming fan, this may grant some insight one man’s obsession with narrative and with gaming. Or maybe it will be monumentally boring.
In any event, one of the things I like about games is the stories they create. I’m obsessed with storytelling, as you may guess, and games that tell stories are the very best kind. So, here I am taking my this 9 hour boardgame and turning it into a story. I will be eliding certain details of the game in the interest of streamlining and also because so many damned things happen in this game that I couldn’t possibly keep track of everything. But it will all make some sense in the end.
The Imperial Throne on Mechatol Rex stands empty, vacant these many, many years. Only the Winnaran Custodians sit in the Eternal City, maintaining the ancient mechanisms of rule for the day when they are utilized again. From an age of civil strife have emerged new aspirants to the throne…or, perhaps not so new.
The Kingdom of Xxcha (Played by John)
The peaceful reptilian species, learned and wise, are nestled in the galactic southwest upon the lush planets of Archon Ren and Archon Tau.
The Barony of Letnev (Played by Brandon)
Deep beneath the surface of the sunless world, Arc Prime, the ruthless Baron plots with his ministers to restore the Letnev to glory. Situated in the galactic northwest, they rest at the other side of a series of lush and fertile systems, ripe for plucking.
The Yssaril Tribes (Played by Dave)
A newcomer to the galactic stage, the once primitive arboreal species known as the Yssaril (think “Ewoks, only less fuzzy”) have emerged from their jungle homeworld in the galactic north having appropriated the technology of their would-be colonizers and with a huge network of spies and assassins bent upon ensuring they will never be subjugated again.
The Emirates of the Hacan (Played by Adam)
Their cluster of homeworlds in the galactic northeast relatively bereft of resources, the noble and leonine Hacan are a species of merchants and traders, known throughout the galaxy. They see it as natural that they should be the kingmakers in the Empire, as it is only through their efforts that civilization has persisted in these dark times.
The Mentak Coalition (Played by Fisher)
A loose confederation of pirates, privateers, and renegades based on the rugged Moll Primus in the galactic southeast, they are surrounded by asteroid fields and vast areas of empty space and uninhabitable, worthless rocks. They are free, though, and unwilling to bend the knee to anyone.
The L1Z1X Mind-net (Played by Myself)
Little do these newcomers know that the descendants of the last Imperial Dynasty – the Lazax – have re-emerged. But not as they were – no – as something far worse. Cybernetic beings of cold logic and long-burning hatred, they see the galaxy as theirs by right. Hailing from their secret planet in the galactic south, known only as 0.0.0, their arrival is a surprise to the other species, and one the L1Z1X plan on capitalizing upon.
The early objectives in the game were to conquer four planets of the same type and develop a variety of technologies, both ship-upgrades and pure tech. I, as the L1Z1X Mindnet, was fortunate enough to be in proximity to a LOT of cultural planets. The trouble was a lot of them were in the sphere of the peaceful, contemplative Xxcha. A deal was struck early on–we exchanged promissory notes for future ceasefires, to ensure a demilitarized border, and split the planets equally between us. My cyborg minions expanded quickly, conquering five planets in short order.
The other civilizations in the galaxy followed suit, to varying degrees of success, expanding their borders. The Hacan and the Yssaril, while trying to make a similar accord as the one between myself and the Xxcha, tried to split two planets in the Arrian/Meer system, which was a diplomatic arrangement that would cause both powers no end of logistical problems as they tried to keep their navies from shooting at each other (better, I think, to start shooting and have done).
In the West, the Letnev stumbled on early objectives, starting a failed border skirmish with the Xxcha and having planets annexed out from under its heel by careful peace treaties pursued by the patient, reptillian Xxcha. It played a variety of action cards dispatching emissaries to the Custodians of Mechatol Rex, feeling out the idea of the Baron of Letnev one day occupying the Imperial Throne.
Up until this turn, the galaxy was fairly peaceful, despite the L1Z1X developing improvements to its Super-Dreadnought technology (the much-feared Super Super Dreadnought!). That changed, however, when the Yssaril made the bold move to land troops on Mechatol Rex and claim the planet for their own!
The diminutive forest dwellers were welcomed as heroes for a new era as they marched through the grand Imperial square and the ambassador, clad in loincloth, climbed the podium and uttered the first words the people of the Imperial planet would hear from their new rulers: “YUB YUB!” It echoed from the stately facades of the buildings, and the revelry went long into the night (reports of cannibalism and playing makeshift xylophones out of their enemy’s helmets is unconfirmed).
In response to this insult (a slave species? Claiming the Senate? Outrageous!), the Baron of Letnev sent a punitive fleet to the Tar’Mann system, wiping out the Yssaril garrison there and claiming the planet. This was followed by the grand armada of the L1Z1X, led by its flagship, the 0.0.1, blockading the space around Mechatol Rex by destroying that Yssaril fleet. Alas, their moment in the sun was fleeting, at best, and never again did the Yssaril reach such heights.
What was strange was that the L1Z1X did not invade Mechatol Rex. In their (my) arrogance, I considered all other civilizations a minor threat, at best, and claiming their toy – the Imperial Planet my people had abandoned so long ago – held little interest for them. This was short sighted. Nevertheless, the Grand Armada invaded planets belonging to the Hacan next, crushing their fleets and claiming a series of planets good for mining rare minerals needed to sustain the L1Z1X war machine.
This new war was accompanied by a new and strange alliance. The Mentak Alliance, long a thorn in the side of Hacan trading interests (and stealing trade goods from them multiple times every single turn), made common cause with the sinister L1Z1X Mind-net, striking at Hacan outer systems in exchange for access to specific world needed to improve their technology. The L1Z1X, seeing the space pirates as a useful nuisance, used the distraction they caused to extort their home system with a ceasefire promissory note. This was again unwise – better I had negotiated for the Support the Throne note for a free victory point, but oh well.
The Hacan made an attempt at a counter-attack before this happened, trying to invade the Lodor system, only to have it smashed (at great cost to the L1Z1X fleet), exiling a lone dreadnought to the asteroid-strewn badlands around hostile Mentak space.
Meanwhile, in the galactic west, the Letnev and Xxcha, reaching an uneasy truce, made steady gains in material, technology, and political power.
The Mindnet Wars served to exhaust the Hacan, the Mentak Alliance, and even the mighty L1Z1X itself. The war essentially ended with the Hacan conquering the Mentak homeworld of Moll Primus and the L1Z1X, no longer interested in the Hacan or the pirates, now that the minerals had been extracted, abandoning the two minor powers to their fates.
In that time, however, the Letnev had grown steadily more powerful. With a huge industrial base to draw from, a steady truce with the Xxcha, and the Yssaril too weak to interfere directly (despite their many legislative riders and political ploys on Mechatol Rex earning them resources), the Barony seized control of the Imperial Planet and essentially controlled the Senate for some time, with no other power trying to dislodge them.
The L1Z1X took action against them in the Tar’Mann system, destroying a Letnev Fleet and claiming the planet. In their arrogance, however, the cyborgs had not fully reckoned on the Letnev’s strength – all the move did was anger the mighty Baron. Now, the formerly floundering barony was the most powerful civilization in the galaxy, amassing accolades and prophesies from the halls of Mechatol Rex, which they had established as their own capital.
In their anger, they marshaled the forces of the senate and their power as Speaker to have the L1Z1X ambassador publicly executed (and I lost all my action cards). The, as the Mind-net plotted its revenge, the Xxcha violated the ceasefire at Resculon – war, now on two fronts! And no mere merchants or pirates these, either – the hardened, sophisticated fleets of Letnev and Xxcha, bolstered by years of prosperity and steady growth.
At this point, lagging on victory points and spread too thin, the mind-net (i.e. myself) realized that it had left itself far, far too vulnerable. The Letnev struck, driving my forces out of Thibah, and my counter attack destroyed their fleet there, but could not re-take the planet. I needed to weaken the Letnev and keep my ships in range to support my home systems when the Xxcha attacked. So, I gambled everything on one last, big battle – a full invasion of the key Letnev system of Mornar Xuul.
It was my flagship, two super-super dreadnoughts, a carrier full of infantry, and four fighters against a Letnev dreadnought, two destroyers, and three fighters. My fighters were wiped out by the destroyers in the initial volley, while I had to work through his own to get at his capital ships. Despite being outnumbered, I destroyed the Letnev fleet, but not before a lucky shot from a Letnev Dreadnought destroyed my flagship and, thereby, wiped out my own bid for hegemony.
The Xxcha marshaled themselves for a last-turn invasion of my homeworld while the Mentak Alliance won a stunning victory over the Hacan to reclaim their own homeworld. By this time, however, the Letnev were unstoppable. They scored a last 3 victory points in one turn and won the game. The Baron of Letnev was crowned Imperial Emperor, the threat of the L1Z1X was ended, and the Xxcha, seeing the wisdom of peace over warfare, joined the Letnev in Mechatol Rex as advisors.
This is a huge, huge game and so I can’t possibly comment on every little decision made. I can, however, theorize what I did right and what I did wrong. Now, I’ve only played the game twice and this is the first time I tried to play aggressively (last time I took the slow-build strategy that the Letnev and Xxcha employed in this game and won as a result). Aggressive play is really difficult, since you have to keep moving around and it is really easy to get spread too thin and to find yourself working too hard for VPs. I think threats and extortion was the way to go, but in the future I’ll be sure to extort Support the Throne cards instead of Ceasefires.
Not landing on Mechatol Rex was a mistake. It represents a potential 1VP per turn, is way easier to defend than other distant systems, and I should have taken it when I had the chance. I also should have tried harder to become Speaker and, therefore, possibly grab the Leadership Strategy card. I was working with a dearth of command tokens for most of the game, hence why my forces were so bare by the end.
Anyway, despite 8.5 hours of gameplay, we all had a great time and we look forward to doing it again soon. Except I probably won’t be writing too many reports. This is way harder to keep straight in your head when compared to a mere game of Warhammer 40K.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone who came out to play! I now return you to your regularly scheduled musings on fantasy, scifi, and writing.
Twilight Imperium and the 21st Century View of Warfare
Just this past weekend I had the privilege of playing one of the world’s biggest, best boardgames, the monstrous Twilight Imperium (4th Edition). For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is a massive game involving the founding of a new Galactic Empire and the political, military, and economic machinations of the numerous aliens species vying for hegemony. It costs $150 to buy, weighs as much as one of my kids, and takes about 8 hours to play.
But OH MY GOD is it good. So, so engrossing. Just the exact right amount of complexity – at no point was the game tedious or pointlessly fiddly – and even after playing for about 9 hours straight, we all looked around the table at each other and realized we were not actually tired of the game itself. We were tired because it was late, but I, for one, could have sat down happily the next game and played it all over again. I think a lot of my friends felt the same way.
I will decline to summarize the blow-by-blow of the game (though I probably could), but what struck me most about playing it was how the game treated warfare. Now, it just so happens that we drew objectives that weren’t *explicitly* martial – they were mostly technological and political type things – but even with all the more militaristic objectives being drawn, fighting wars in Twilight Imperium (while tons of fun) doesn’t seem to be a great way to win the game. Fleets are expensive to build, both in resources and opportunity cost, and can get destroyed rather quickly. Going to war often doesn’t secure the strategic goals it seems to and, in any case, there are often ways to secure those goals without blowing up your neighbors. This struck me as an immensely curious thing for an ostensible wargame (all those little plastic ships? Yeah, those are for waging interstellar wars.) to include.
But, is it? Twilight Imperium was first published in 1997, but three of its four incarnations have their roots firmly in the 21st century. This is interesting because, well, the history of warfare in the 21st century (and even the late 20th) has not been one of glorious conquest or territorial expansion or even real victory, exactly. War in our era is long, almost interminable. It never seems to achieve what it was meant to (and we wonder whether it actually can or even ever did). When wars happen, we don’t expect a clean resolution. There will be no surrender and not even any declaration – one minute we’re bombing somebody for (reasons) and the next…we aren’t. Did anything change? Not that we can tell.
This is distinct from the military victories of the early 20th century – World Wars that came to thunderous (and bloody and exhausting) conclusions in which the USA was victorious and filled with the optimism and self-righteousness that such victories can cause. From this comes an ocean of games where battle is the inevitable consequence and victory at war the goal. Axis and Allies, Risk, even Diplomacy ask the player to marshal their forces, outwit the enemy, and secure power by naked force and deadly cunning alone. Scorched earth tactics and untrammeled war-mongering are the hallmark of so many games, and I might suggest the appeal of such games is firmly rooted in that 20th century outlook – if we have the brains, the will, and the technology, our armies will secure out goals and benefit our civlization (at the expense of others).
But TI isn’t like that. Indeed, there are lots of games running around these days that reject that principle. Warfare is a regrettable end in Twilight Imperium that may seem like a good plan at first, but then later on, when nothing has improved and nobody has really “won,” you realize how foolish you were. That is, in the end, how I won the game. I didn’t go to war very much at all (only once, when the opportunity was there and my opponent was building Death Stars with abandon) and, while my forces were not the most powerful by far, they were more than sufficient to defend myself and enable me to win a diplomatic and economic victory. Second place came very close using scientific research alone.
If only the real world used such means over and above violence. Then maybe we’d all be better off, yes?
Anyway, this is the stuff I was thinking about while my collectively intelligent tree-aliens slowly gained control of the galaxy.
The Ten Commandments of Playing D&D (or any TTRPG)
A while back I posted a list of ten commandments I think all DMs/GMs should follow to run a great game. It occurs to me, though, that while I focus a lot on the GM side of the table when writing about gaming here on this blog, I haven’t really spent much time talking about how to be a good player. I think it’s important that I do so, since the players are responsible for most of what actually happens in a game. The GM, while essential, is the referee and guide, but they absolutely cannot play the game without players and they absolutely cannot run a successful game without the players doing most of the work. If you look at my commandments for GMs, almost all of them are oriented around getting players to trust you and giving players the opportunity to make the game great. It is time, then, that we talk about the other side of the equation.
As mentoned in the other post, I have been playing or running tabletop RPGs for (now) 27 years. I have played or run almost every system you could name, played with scores of different people over the ages, and played in almost every conceivable setting. The rules I set out here are how I try to play a game when I play, and I don’t always live up to them. However, I do think that the better everybody lives up to these statutes, the more fun everyone will have. So, here we go:
#1: Thou Shalt Show Up
The first, the most basic thing you need to do is to be present. Now, when you’re a teenager or even in your twenties and you haven’t got shit else to do, this is a low, low bar – the game is set, you go. As life gets more complicated, though, this gets tougher and tougher. You have a more demanding job. You have kids. You’re married or in a committed relationship that takes up a lot of time. Things get crazy and the game can easily slide by the wayside.
Now, I am not saying the game should be more important than your kids, your spouse, or your job – no, not at all. But what I am saying is that a game can’t work if you’re not there. If you blow off a session because you’re too tired or whatever, then everybody’s fun suffers. Sure, sometimes this has to happen, but you owe it to everybody you play with to make sure this happens as little as possible. If it happens all the time? You should bow out of the campaign and just play in the next one, when you’ve got a little more time and things are under control.
A good GM should give you a very solid idea of when they’re planning to run the game, how often, and for how long. After that, you need to wrestle with your own schedule and carve out time if you want to play. If you can’t, don’t play. An empty chair at the table disrupts everything, and you should avoid doing so.
Oh, and show up on time, too. And prepared.
#2: Thou Shalt Buy In
Be enthusiastic about the game. Play because you really want to play, not because you feel obligated or can’t think of anything better to do. When the GM tells you the concept for the campaign,
you should be hyped to be part of it. You should want to contribute to that vision and make it work. If the GM says “okay, the game is set in 1930s Germany and you’re monster hunters fighting Nazis,” your response should not be to make a character, play the game, and then the first time you slay a Nazi werewolf you say “monsters are lame – I want it to be more historical.”
Buy-in is essential because it makes the game vastly more fun for everyone if everybody is playing the same game. It’s not like one of you is constantly on their phone and only half paying attention. No – you guys are totally into it. You are planning what to do in your free time! You are deeply invested in your character and the world the GM has described. You contribute to that world by offering cool details and fleshing out subplots that tie into the main plot (a good GM will let you do this, BTW). TTRPGs only work if everybody works together. Buy-in is how that happens.
#3: Thou Shalt Play Thy Character
Characters in a roleplaying game should be played as a role. As I’ve said numerous times before, I dislike D&D (or really any TTRPG) as a purely tactical enterprise. I mean, sure, if that’s what you and your friends want to play, then have at it and disregard this. However, assuming you want to play an RPG and not a strategy or resource-management game, playing your character as a character is extremely important to the game as a whole. Your character sets up a series of expectations for the DM (your choices on your character sheet are saying “this is what I want my character to be and what I want to struggle with”). The DM builds the campaign around those choices and tries to give you opportunities to struggle and shine at the role you’ve chosen. If you blow off your own character concept because you’d rather not make things complicated, the whole narrative structure of what you’re doing can fall apart very quickly.
Consider this: if you are playing a game where you are merchant explorers in a Age of Sail setting and you decide that your straight-laced lawyer character wants to commit an act of piracy because it would be convenient, you have to understand that what you’ve done is totally violated your own character concept and that either the character must now change fundamentally (and change the entire trajectory of the campaign, possibly) OR nothing in the game makes sense anymore. That’s on you, not the GM – the GM was presenting you with a legal bind because they knew you’d made a lawyer and is giving you the opportunity to lawyer your way out of it. Now you’ve blown it out of the water, and what follows is chaos. This doesn’t mean you can’t come up with innovative solutions to problems, but those solutions ought to be made through the lens of your character, not the lens of “this will cost me the fewest HPs”
#4: Thou Shalt Get In Trouble
A close tie-in with #3 is this: get your character in trouble. Trouble, contrary to popular belief, is good. Trouble breeds conflict, conflict breeds adventure. The harder your work to prevent any kind of trouble occurring, the less fun things are likely to get. I tell you truly that the most fun anybody ever had is when things do not go to plan and everyone needs to scramble to overcome unexpected obstacles.
This is a tough one to adhere to because players are inherently risk-averse. You don’t want your character to die, so you aren’t going to walk down that dark corridor by yourself in the middle of the night because you know this is a horror game and there is almost certainly a monster down there. But consider this: if you don’t walk down that corridor, then no monster is discovered. This is a bad thing for a horror game! You want dangerous monsters! If you didn’t want that, then why are you playing a horror game (see Commandment #2)? So yeah – play your character! If your character is curious or arrogant, they’re going to walk down that corridor, monsters be damned. And then when the monster grabs your ankle, well, that’s when the fun begins!
#5: Thou Shalt Not Be An Attention Hog
I know, I know – there you are, on time, having bought totally into the game concept, excited about your character, and more than willing to cause trouble and you just can’t wait to express your million ideas to the table…
But wait. There are four other people there. They also want to have fun. They also have ideas. They also are part of the group.
Remember that RPGs are a collaborative exercise. You are there to work together to make the best game possible, and sometimes the best way to do that is to shut up and listen to what the other people at the table have to say and weigh their ideas with the same consideration you’d give your own. I would even go so far as to say it is part of your responsibility to make sure everybody has a chance to contribute – if somebody at the table is shy, ask them their opinion, see if they want to contribute. The GM should be doing this, too, but the GM is just one person and needs your help to make this work. This isn’t a solo affair, it’s an ensemble piece.
#6: Thou Shalt Know Your Own Rules
We all know that the GM is the ultimate rules arbiter in any given game, but you can’t reasonably sit at a table and expect the GM to keep straight every stat on everybody’s sheets. It’s unreasonable of you to expect so. So, as a courtesy, learn how your character works and remember the basic mechanics that apply to them. When the GM asks you “what’s your Armor Class” you should know where to find that info on your character sheet and also know what they mean when they ask it. Failure to do this slows down the game and interferes with play and can knock everybody out of the scene while the GM needs to flip through a rulebook.
#7: Thou Shalt Respect the DM/GM
This commandment does not mean kissing the GM’s ass or thinking everything they do is pure gold. What it does mean is that you need to respect the work the GM has put into the game and allow them the opportunity to show off their work and be appreciated for it. This means not laughing at them when they read a piece of fluff text you happen to think is lame. This means not shouting over them when having a rules discussion. This means not holding a grudge against the GM for something that happened to your character or accusing them of cheating just because you don’t like how something went. They are the GM because they wanted their friends to have fun so much they spent nights and weekends preparing this cool adventure for you to go on. They like you. They are not your enemy (hear that GMs? You are not their enemy!) and if you treat them as such, the game can go sour very quickly.
#8: Thou Shalt Go Along With It
This is both related to #2 and #7, and what it basically means is that you will allow the game to move on rather than stall it just to satisfy one esoteric desire of your own. Okay, so maybe you want to open up a shop to sell dry goods to miners, but everybody knows that the point of this game is to go slay a dragon, so maybe you let your little dry goods idea ride for a bit in favor of everybody else’s primary concern about going along with the adventure.
This also applies to those tedious “we all meet in an inn” scenarios. Yes, we all know they’re cliche, but can you just play along so the party can meet and things can move forward? Nothing is worse than having the whole party paralyzed in the first 10% of the adventure because one player just won’t stop hitting on the barmaid and you have to roleplay out their whole stupid date and all of this is before they’ve even met any of the other players in-game yet.
Just move it along. Please.
#9: Thou Shalt Work As a Team
This is closely related to #3, #4, and #5. Unless specifically told otherwise, no campaign is about screwing over the other players or torpedoing their plans. Sure, you need to play your character, but you also need to not be an asshole. Would it be funny if your character, while drunk, stole the Paladin’s holy avenger sword and tossed it in a lake? Yes, yes it would. But it also needlessly delays the storyline, creates pointless tension both in game and out of it, and we all know you did that just to be a dick, not because you were just “playing your character.”
You need to understand and support the fact that your fun is equally important to everyone else’s. Not better, not worse – equal. If you do something you think is hilarious but everybody at the table is glaring at you, you done screwed up. That doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities for you to cause mischief for other players or that everyone won’t sometimes find that sort of thing funny, but it needs to be set up in a way that everyone sees it coming and is okay with it. If you’ve been playing a cowardly wizard for the whole campaign, nobody is going to be surprised if you spend the big fight against the Hydra hiding in a corner and not casting fireball at it – fine – but they will be rightfully pissed if you don’t do anything to help the party at all. Play your character, but still contribute in some way.
#10: Thou Shalt Talk With the GM and Fellow Players
Ultimately, fun is the goal here. If you aren’t having fun, you need to let the GM know. If a player is irritating you, you need to tell them (politely) to knock it off. Fun cannot be guaranteed, but it certainly can’t happen if you keep it all bottled up inside. Talk with your GM and players and work out your differences. Be open to having such discussions yourself when confronted by other players or the GM. As mentioned, this is a collaborative effort, so collaborate.
In conclusion, it is my fairly well-considered opinion that these rules will lead to long, healthy, and greatly enjoyable adventures for all. Go forth and happy gaming!
I’m at PAX East Tomorrow!
Hey, any of you nerds going to PAX East this year? If so, I think you should know that I and a select group of alpha nerds (Bobby Smithney, John Perich, John Serpico, and Samantha LeVangie) – authors, improvisors, directors, and teachers – will be heading up a panel on Roleplaying in the Now – how to use Improv skills in tabletop RPGs.
Have you ever wanted to break out of the monotony of killing things and taking their stuff? Have you ever wished there was a way to give your players more autonomy in a game without it driving you up the wall? Well, Improvisation in Roleplaying: How to Run a Game in the Now is the panel for you! A panel of experts (including me) who collectively have over 90 YEARS of tabletop gaming experience are going to tell you all about it. Oh, and here’s the kicker: PAX East (as of this posting) isn’t sold out for Thursday yet, so you can still go! There’s time!
So be there, or be a rhombus!
Motive and Obstacle: the Building Blocks of Story, Gaming
A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on how to run a Dungeons and Dragons game, as he had never done it before. He had put together a pretty straightforward and workable adventure to get everybody started – everybody winds up in this town to join some mercenary company, has to figure out how to get over the walls of said town, then they meet in an inn, and then there’s a bar fight.
Now, while this is perfectly serviceable, I feel that it sort of misses a really important aspect of storytelling that is directly relevant and essential to a really great tabletop gaming experience, as well, which is motivation.
Basically, all storytelling involves two basic building blocks: Motive and Obstacle. The character wants or is seeking something (Motive) and there is something that prevents them from immediately achieving that aim (Obstacle). Without the motive, there is nothing driving the character to overcome any obstacles (whether they are internal or external). Without obstacles, the character just immediately fulfills their motive and no real story occurs. What makes a story interesting is how motive and obstacle feed into one another and basically drive the story forward.
I would argue, also, that these elements transcend genre or even historical and cultural concerns. Even in so-called “conflictless” stories (such as the Japanese Kishotenketsu structure), this still exists. There is always something lacking/missing from the character, even if extremely subtle (a man is making dinner, preparing for his relatives – this is a motive for making dinner). There is always something that is going to stand in the way of the immediate realization of that goal (the man has to go to the store to buy more fish). All that changes is the nature of these two elements and their relationships to one another. In the stereotypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey (gestures vaguely at the whole MCU), the main character has an irresistible call to adventure of some kind and then must overcome a series of escalating obstacles culminating in a grand ordeal and, once victorious, returns to the world they once knew with gained wisdom and power. Even outside of that structure, though, Motive and Obstacle have to be present.
In a gaming setting, assuming your game is narrative focused, these two elements still need to be there for it to all work. What is most commonly forgotten is motive – a player makes an Elven Wizard, her identity is…Elven Wizard…and her character’s goals are to cast spells and be an elf. Naturally, this isn’t enough and this is also why the whole “we all meet in a tavern” thing is so cliche – the characters meet in a tavern because they have literally no other reason to meet or interact. The obstacles, meanwhile, are assumed – the players are going to band together, go to that dungeon, kill what they find, and collect the loot. This is fine, I guess, if all you’re involved in is a basic resource-management exercise. But assuming you’re not, it is clearly lacking…well, story.
It doesn’t take much, though, to give the game a story. All you need to do as a GM (or as a player) is to ask the players a few questions. Suggestions might include:
- What happened to you the last time you were in that dungeon?
- What have the goblins of that dungeon stolen from you and why it is important?
- What do you need the money from this quest for? Why is it important?
By establishing some basic motivations, the players suddenly have a vested interest in overcoming the obstacle before them. The story is no longer contrived. Furthermore, if your players buy into the motivations they’ve established for themselves (and hopefully they have!), the obstacles suddenly become more engaging. Saying “you can’t jump across this pit” is fine, but saying “you can’t jump across this pit, but you hear your baby girl crying your name from the other side” is a million times better!
All of this goes for writing, too, of course. If a character doesn’t have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, the audience isn’t going to buy in on their struggle. This is a common problem with in medias res beginnings – we don’t know why the character is in this car chase, so it’s hard to care. But if it’s managed well, we are instantly engaged and love every second of it. Then, as the motivations solidify or change into larger and more complex ones and the obstacles likewise follow suit, you’ve got the audience/players on a wild ride they don’t want to end.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rhythm: The Enemy of Story
This is going to be partly a writing post, partly a gaming post, and partly a literary post. I don’t outline these things, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen next. Let’ start with… (throws dart) literature. Okay, so the past few years I’ve themed my Lit Survey class around the Hero’s Journey (mostly Campbell’s Monomyth, etc.). Inevitably, we start talking about superhero movies in the class, as superhero tales are the ones most recognizably Campbellian in form. While I do like these movies (overall), after reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of student work on Calls to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, the Normal World Vs the Special World and so on and so forth, I tend to get bored with the whole thing.
Now, as it happens, it’s rather difficult to escape the basic rhythms of this story form, particularly if you intend to tell a story involving a protagonist intended to be even vaguely heroic – this stuff is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious and our ideas of story. Inevitably we wind up following some variation of this path – both in our reading, our own writing, and even at the RPG table.
The challenge, though, is to resist the urge to paint by the numbers – follow the journey, step by step, like a kind of roadmap. While you can tell some very competent tales that way, you also fall into being predictable. Spend enough time with this structure, and things cease to amaze you, which is, frankly, a terrible loss.
Of course, totally diverging from this format has its own problems – the story becomes unsatisfying or strange to the point where you no longer connect with it. Kafka, for all his brilliance, isn’t telling stories that delight and engage so much as confuse and confound. This has its place and its own appeal, naturally, and I’m not suggesting the avant garde, post-modern, or abstract tale is a worthless endeavor. It’s that if you want to tell a heroic story but you also want to make it new, you need to find variations of the monomyth that are poorly traveled. There are many ways to do this, of course – shake up who your hero is, shake up the setting, shake up the stakes, and resist hitting the steps of the story “cleanly.” If you want a master class in how this is done, watch any given Cohen Brothers film – they are regularly, consistently unusual and amazing, even though, in broad terms, they are (usually) telling the story of a central character who is yanked from their normal world, sent through an ordeal, who then returns to the normal world somehow changed and enlightened. They just do it in the messiest, most bizarre way possible.
In tabletop RPGs, there are dangers in rhythm, as well. The standard form is this: Players receive a call to adventure, they delve into the dungeon and slay monsters, and they are rewarded with treasure. In D&D in particular, this is what we sign up for, right? But there is only so long this can happen before the game gets old. Too many gaming sessions can be described as “role-play, role-play, kill little thing, argue, big battle, treasure.” I fall into this routine myself. There are plenty of games out there that don’t lend themselves to this, sure, but plenty more that do, I’d argue. Even in those games that don’t do this, the danger of routine still looms large, it’s just that the routine changes.
I say routine and rhythm is “dangerous” because it risks, to my mind, what is ultimately fatal to a book or game alike: becoming boring and predictable. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants things to go smoothly and perfectly all the time (even when they say they do) because it kills the excitement of the unknown. For gaming, as with storytelling, this requires you to consciously seek variations on a theme. Break the mold. Have the dungeon be empty, but have it lead players on some different, deeper quest. Have the monster be absent – it’s back at the village, killing and eating all those people your players are sworn to protect. Never forget the narrative fun that can be had with a cursed item (note: not for making players look stupid, but for giving them benefits that have extreme costs. Yes, that’s a +5 sword. No, you can’t ever sheathe it or wipe off the blood. Enjoy visiting the orphanage.). Have the players be wildly overmatched to the point where they need to flee the dungeon (and make it back through all the deathtraps backwards). Have the adventure involve no dungeon AT ALL. Have the players save the town from a flash flood. Drop them in a desert with no food or water and watch them scrabble to survive. Make one of them king for a day.
The point here is that, as important as the forms and rituals of our storytelling world are to making our stories satisfy, we also need to remember that variety is the spice of life. Break the mold. Change the dance. Improvise.
That Edge Between Doom and Boredom
This is a gaming post; I know, it’s been awhile. Recently I’ve been running a D&D 5th Edition campaign (set in the Greyhawk world – my personal favorite) and, while it has been going relatively smoothly, I’ve run into a minor problem: the PCs are just too dang good at things. The lot of them are floating around 7th level at this point and every time I try to send them a challenging encounter, I have two options:
- The Encounter can end in 35 minutes or less, or will be way too easy (snore).
- The Encounter will be challenging and threaten them, but will involve tons of creatures and take more than an hour (snore).
Sometimes I don’t even get that.
Now, this isn’t a post bemoaning game balance, but it is a post about game systems and campaign theory. A lot of players like having encounters that don’t seriously threaten their character’s survival. You waltz through the dungeon, take a few hit points damage here and there (quickly replaced by the healer), go outside, take a nap, and BAM – back to 100%. If that’s the game you want to play, then fine. Personally, I think that kind of play is dreadfully boring for everybody. Without risk, there is no drama.
So, what do you do, as the GM, to create a sense of peril? When I have a Fire Giant loom on the horizon, I want my players to be actively concerned. I want them to feel like they could very well be pounded flat. Thing is, by 7th Level, a party of 4-5 PCs don’t have to feel that way about a 20-foot giant anymore, and I consider that an issue. The answer seems to be “more giants,” but soon the plausibility of the encounter begins to create problems. The image of five giants swinging giant swords at targets that stand about knee-high seems…stupid. For that reason, my current experience of 5th Ed D&D (while fun) has been mixed.
Of course, you can go the other way entirely. Consider the game Riddle of Steel. It boasts of the “most realistic combat system in all of RPGs” and, honestly, I have to think they’re right. The problem, though, is because it is so realistic, people die all the goddamned time. Like, seriously – one goon whacks you in the temple with a two-by-four and your character is down for the count and likely permanently disabled. While this certainly ups a sense of risk (one guy pulls a knife and shit gets real really fast), it also forces players (who are inherently conservative folks, anyway) to start acting like real people. Everybody becomes more polite, they don’t do stupid things like “storm the castle,” and, hell, if I gave them the option, about half of them would settle down with a good woman in a town somewhere and sell dry goods. Adventure wouldn’t happen.
There is that sweet spot, though – right in-between “too easy” and “too deadly” – that spot where really, really cool stuff happens. Old school Shadowrun was like this: get shot, and you felt it, but otherwise you were awesome and it was really hard for mooks to shoot you (though, it should be noted that recent editions of the game have really made it safer to run the shadows, even with bullet wounds). Of course, this isn’t just dependent on game system – I firmly believe you can make a game ride this edge with enough forethought and planning, though it is harder in some games than others. In every game I run, that’s the goal: keep things dangerous enough that the players feel the risk, but keep them safe enough that everybody doesn’t die of dysentery or are knifed in an alley by a pickpocket and bleed out. Of course there are variations, too – some games, depending upon concept, are more or less fatal and that’s fine – but the edge between the two is the golden sweet spot, for me.
I can expand this idea, by the way, to include fiction, too. Good adventure stories need to find this zone, as well. Stories where everybody is worthless and dies are usually just dismal whereas stories where the proverbial “Mary Sues/Stus” just gaily tramp to victory with no cost to themselves or others are pretty dull. If you want players or readers on the edge of their seats, you need to work them up to it. It takes some doing, but I’ve found both in writing and gaming that anytime this is done well it makes for a memorable experience.
It ain’t easy, though.