My Favorite PCs: The Thorns of Veluna
It’s been a long time since I’ve waxed poetic about the various brilliant and talented players who have participated in my RPG campaigns and the downright awesome characters they’ve created, so I figured it was high time for a post.
Last year, I ran a campaign of 5th Edition D&D for high-level characters (all PCs started at 12th level). As I described in this post about the set-up for the campaign, I devoted significant time to make sure all the players felt as though their party had been adventuring together for ages and we collectively built for them an in-depth backstory. Since the basic concept behind the campaign was to simulate a “getting the old band back together” kind of thing, I wanted there to be history that the players could draw upon and that would make them look (and feel) super cool. I don’t mind saying that this campaign was a wild, wild success – one of the best I’ve ever run – and the reason why has relatively little to do with me and everything to do with the choices the players made during character creation and during the campaign itself.
They called themselves the Thorns.
Recruited by the radical Interventionist cleric of Rao (god of diplomacy, peace, and justice), Thister Amberlee, she was the Princess Leia to their Han/Chewie/Luke/Lando. The Church of Rao, you see, doesn’t really like to make trouble – they want everyone to be friends. The ruling clerical faction – called the Isolationists – took a very hands-off policy, advocating soft power over hard. The Interventionists, like Thister, felt that was short sighted – there was no negotiating with death cultists and tyrants, with rampaging giants and the restless dead. So, against the wishes of the establishment, she recruited her own group of adventurers to help her go around and right wrongs and bring justice to the unjust. Essentially, Greyhawk’s version of the A-Team.
They became legends, these heroes. Treasure and glory and titles were heaped upon their shoulders. I was going to start them about ten years after the party had a parting of the ways and that something was going to bring them back together. I gave them three character generation stipulations:
- They would start 12th level and have access to a variety of magic items, followers, and other stuff at the start.
- They could not have an evil alignment.
- Despite everything, they loved and trusted Thister Amberlee with their lives.
Now, this could have easily blown up in my face. Characters this powerful can do a LOT of damage and everyone knows how weak alignment and character backstory can be once the dice start hitting the table. One of the first plot points was that Thister had gone missing – kidnapped or possible dead – and she had left a secret message telling them they had much more important problems than finding her: they needed to save the world.
My second commandment for TTRPG players is called “buy-in.” It’s the idea that a good player will not only want to play in the world and style that the GM creates, but also that they will actively contribute and heighten those ideas to make them more fun. With this set-up, and given their power, the Thorns could have easily paid lip-service to the idea of helping Thister (or saving the world) and gone off to do their own thing. They could have put a torpedo straight through this whole campaign and become pirates or slave-traders or conquered a small country of their own or something. But instead, the bought-in hard.
First there was Miles Maywater, the assassin, known as the Hound of Veluna – slayer of tyrants, bane to the wicked. A prickly, analytical man with a monastic style, he was always the dispassionate one, arguing for the most sensible and practical course of action. Thister was a respected colleague and sister within the Rao faith, in whom he had the greatest confidence.
His foil was Faison Sharpe, the tiefling valor-bard, known to all as The Friendly Fiend, who loved Thister with all his heart (though she was never really romantically interested in him). A saloon owner and braggart (and also bastard son of none other than the Dark Prince Grazz’t himself), Sharpe wore his heart on his sleeve and thought with his passions not his brains. He preferred bold, heroic action and wild acts of daring. He and Miles fought constantly, but they also always bailed each other out of danger when the chips were down. One of the great moments of the campaign was when Miles was on the brink of death and all the other party members were gone and Miles had to figure out what to do with a terrible secret, the first thing he did was center himself, look down at his feet, and say “What would Miles do? What would Miles do?” It was beautiful, trust me.
Often in Sharpe’s corner was Snell, the Infernal-pact Warlock, sworn to serve Dispater, Lord of the Infernal City of Dis. Known as the Keeper of Secrets and also given the moniker the Cursed, it was Thister that saved him from slavery and always treated him as an equal which earned her is vicious, undying loyalty (he was Lawful Neutral). Snell was full of doubts where the others were confident, but he was integral to everything going on. It was, after all, Dispater, who kidnapped Thister leading him to eventually decide to betray his own patron (and lose his powers) to tell his friends how to save her. Then we got to watch him manipulate a series of imps and hellish denizens to legally box Dispater into having to transfer his contract to one of his fiendish rivals – Mephistopheles.
Rounding out the cast was the grim and taciturn Severus, Ranger and Knight of the High Forest, known as the Manhunter. Famed tracker, tactician, and paranoid loner, Severus was always the first into the fray but was also the one who most often gloomy about their chances for survival.
Without their grade-A roleplaying and true devotion to the campaign’s story, the campaign could have easily devolved into rote encounters. But, by playing up their flaws and tensions between one another, by voluntarily splitting the party at critical junctures, and by acting out a role rather than acting as a piece on a gameboard, we had truly, truly ridiculous fun. The stories of their adventures could fill a book quite easily, so I won’t relate them all here, but these characters did it all and did it with flair. I felt like I was along for the ride, trying to keep up with them, but they were running with a ball that I gave them and were making it into something special I could not have made on my own. For that reason, all four of these rate among my favorite PCs of all time. Thanks, guys.
The One True D&D
Dungeons and Dragons has been around a long time. I’ve been playing it pretty close to 30 years myself, and in that time the game has changed a lot. So have I, as it happens.
Recently I got into something of a Twitter argument with a few people who started throwing around comments that implied that they believed that there was one, “true” Dungeons and Dragons – the D&D of their youth, unsurprisingly enough – and that more (ahem) modern adherents to the game were some kind of fallen, degenerate subspecies. The word “pretentious” was bandied about, I was accused of being a genius (presumably as an insult somehow) and my players accused of being “method actors.” One of my favorite comments was that anyone who engages in a “Session 0” (i.e. a session wherein everyone makes characters and discusses how the game is going to run) doesn’t actually want to play D&D.
Now, I didn’t really “argue” with these people, as very few of them were engaging in good faith discussion anyway. I did exchange comments with those that seemed interested in sharing their experiences, and most of these centered around a “session 0” as a concept. The precise nature of their specific critiques is not really the point of this post, though. What I mostly took away from the “conversation” at large is that these people have a vested interest in defining and controlling who gets to play D&D and how. Bereft of this control (and, indeed, feeling abandoned by the designers of the game itself), they play gatekeeper with all the toxic enthusiasm of a dude at ComicCon challenging every woman they see on the minutiae of their cosplay. Not a good look.
But okay, let’s play the game they set out. Let’s define what Dungeons and Dragons ought to be – in other words, what a game like this really does best and what uses the rules and design of the game to its fullest potential. Now, before we begin, I hasten to point out that one of the things this game does better than almost any other is the fact that it can be just about anything you want it to – play it your way, and hang the critics – but if you insist on sneering at people who do it differently than you do, well…
The game, as it was originally designed by Gygax, was intended to be a kind of tactical, resource management exercise. This it has in common with a lot of hyper-complicated wargames of the era (the 1970s) and, as this, it is pretty close to unplayably dense and non-user friendly. There wasn’t a lot of player agency in a lot of areas of the game, the gameplay was wildly (almost improbably) unbalanced, and the whole thing was an organizational mess.
There was something there, though. Not the tactics or the gameplay – those were generally pretty awful, palatable only to those willing to hack and slash their way through Gygax’s dense rulebooks – but the idea of players inhabiting characters set loose in a fanciful world. That idea, more than anything else, had legs. It is, I would argue, the entire reason D&D didn’t vanish in a puff of obscurity, but found a small audience (ones willing to sweat the ceaseless fiddly details of the game system) that kept it alive.
It wasn’t the dice (lots of games used dice), it wasn’t the tactics (lots of games did that, too, and often better). It was character.
AD&D, 2nd Edition
I entered the gaming scene at the tail-end of 1st edition’s tenure. I owned a copy of 2nd Ed’s first printing (still do, in fact – it’s on a shelf behind me as I write this) and was running games as early as 7th grade (1990, for those of you keeping score). I loved 2nd Ed with all my heart back then. I owned every rulebook, every expansion. I could quote those pages to you by heart and can still calculate THAC0 in my head to this day.
But guys, this game – as a game – sucked.
The rules, while more streamlined, were still impenetrable and pointlessly detailed. For example, the Strength attribute, for no reason whatsoever other than the terrible balance of the game as a whole, did not just have the regular range of 3-18 for PCs, but a whole other sub-range of 18s, based on a percentile system, accessible only to fighting classes. So, you didn’t just have an 18 Strength, no, you had an 18/63! Yes, this is exactly as stupid as this sounds.
Crap like that was everywhere in the game; d100 tables were a dime a dozen in that book, the classes were wildly unbalanced still, 1st level characters were impotent dweebs, whereas a 7th level mage (thanks to a little spell called Stoneskin) became virtually unkillable by anything that couldn’t hit them a hundred times before they ran out of spell slots.
So, yeah, the game part of this RPG was still a garbage dump. However, this edition of the game was much, much more successful than its predecessor. What made it so?
This was the edition where we got all the glorious settings that still fire the imagination today. We had Greyhawk’s From the Ashes setting, which is one of the best ever. There was Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, Spelljammer (medieval combat in SPACE!), Planescape, and on and on. Every one of them was jam-packed full of story leads, adventure plots, characters, and wild setting concepts (the Sea of Silt, anyone? Wildspace?). There were tie-in novels that fleshed out the universe and made kids want to live in them. There was some seriously, seriously badass art from guys like Jeff Easley and Larry Elmore that sucked you right in.
And again, like the editions before, kids like me put up with the bad rules to play in the places with the cool storylines, where we could embody the characters of our dreams and do cool, cool stuff. And yeah, it often fell short of our imagination, but so what? We kept trying – we (a lot of us anyway) saw something beyond what the game was offering and we tried to make it real.
D&D, 3rd Edition
3rd Ed represented a massive leap forward in gameplay. The rules, for once, made a kind of unified sense. A lot of the silly tables and sub-tables and sub-sub-tables went away. The classes remained pretty terribly unbalanced, but a conscientious effort was made to take out the silly stuff and replace it with normal, usable rules.
The game was also terrifically boring.
See, the other thing they lost by stripping out the loose wiring in 2nd Ed was all the quirkiness that made it interesting. Chief among those things was a lot of the story. All those cool settings I mentioned? They almost entirely disappeared. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk kept cooking, but the novel tie-ins vanished even from those (not that there ever were too many Greyhawk novels). They made the game generic for the sake of streamlining which, by itself, wasn’t really enough to keep D&D solvent.
This is so much the case that TSR actually went belly-up in this edition. They weren’t the only RPG on the shelves these days, and competition from games with more evocative settings and more story-friendly rule-sets gradually killed them in a shrinking market. See, if all you wanted out of a game was a tactical resource management enterprise, video games could do that for you by the 1990s and often way better than D&D could. Most hack-and-slashers drifted away from the game, drawn by the shiny vistas of Everquest of a romp through Neverwinter Nights.
What kept D&D going through these years was that it remained (and indeed was) incredibly flexible and could be molded to work with almost any setting or story. Then, as before, the real magic wasn’t in how the dice were rolled or the stats on the sheet, but how those tools could be leveraged to telling cool stories and imagining fantastic adventures.
D&D, 4th Edition
Wizards of the Coast, riding a wave made by the success of their collectible card game Magic: The Gathering (itself a superior tactical experience to anything D&D has ever done), bought the rights to D&D in 1997 and spent some time designing their own take on the game. They released a kind of “patch” to 3rd (3.5) designed to inject some vibrancy and renewed balance to the game which, to some extent, worked. Spellcasters, long at the bottom of the heap, got better. Things worked pretty well. It was still dull, though.
So WoTC released 4th Edition in 2008. It had the distinction of being the most balanced and most tactically interesting version of D&D ever. It involved a grid-map and miniatures and clear and easy-to-understand rules that were also tactically complex. The game had depth as a sort of small-party wargame.
It was also a complete flop.
It just wasn’t that popular. It didn’t catch on. And why?
The game was completely linear in design. It was almost impossible to make it work in the same loose framework of “theater of mind meets dice” that it had used since its inception. You just couldn’t tell the kind of stories you wanted to and, what’s more, the rigid nature of the combat system made encounters difficult to improvise – if not impossibly so! Players, simply put, didn’t want that.
WoTC, cognizant of this, didn’t support 4th very much and very quickly got to developing the latest edition:
D&D 5th Edition
5th Edition takes what 2nd Ed did right (intense setting details, story-focused gameplay) and replaced a better, even more accessible version of 3rd Edition’s mechanics. It has better balance than any other edition since 4th, but it has none of that editions board-game sensibilities. The game is the first one actively designed to encourage storytelling and emotional engagement with characters. It does so in simple, basic ways that are easy to grasp and play with. 5th, while not perfect of course, is the closest the game has ever gotten to the game we all thought it could be when we were teenagers. How do I know this?
Well, it is now explosively popular. Barriers to entry are lower than ever before. The rules are vastly easier to grasp and the general de-emphasis on unforgiving tactical play has made the game much more accessible to people who don’t really want to study a rule manual all the time, but very much would like to pretend to be a dwarf and slay goblins for a few hours every week or so. It’s fun!
Even for those who sneer at it, 5th also makes it fairly easy to modify (the DMG is pretty much a book full of nothing but that) and it certainly can simulate the soulless 10-hour dungeoneering sessions of your youth where a half dozen of you die and everyone goes home happy having never engaged in anything resembling a plot.
For the majority of the rest of us, though, we are having so much damned fun talking about our character relationships and casting Prestidigitation just for giggles that we honestly don’t miss the days where the rules were awkward and our characters prepared to die at any fickle swing of chance. If we wanted that, we’d be playing Gloomhaven, which for my money is vastly, vastly superior to D&D for that kind of gameplay and it doesn’t even require a GM and zero (zero) time required to make characters.
What I’m ultimately saying here is this: D&D is for anyone who wants to play, however they want to play it. If you want to run around saying there’s one true D&D, though, it’s the storytellers who win that contest. I would contend that those who insist the dungeon crawls of 1st Edition were the “true” D&D basically missed the room for the wallpaper – it could and was always supposed to be so much more than that. The success and failure of every edition since then has shown that to be true.
To crow and bleat about how much you hate “pretentious” “storygamers” is like being the guy who goes into a steakhouse and complains his chicken is dry. “This used to be a chicken place!” he yells, banging his fists on the table. Meanwhile the rest of us are eating ribeyes and wondering what the hell that guy’s problem is.
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.
Running a High-Level D&D Campaign
I’m usually running at least one RPG campaign at any given time. The precise game varies widely, I write up my own settings and rules sometimes, and I even mock up my own game systems. The last few years, however, have been devoted to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, which I think is the best version of the game to date. I originally had plans to run three campaigns, all set in the world of Greyhawk immediately following the end of the Greyhawk Wars. The first two are over and now I’m on the third. This campaign follows not new heroes, not young up-and-comers, not ambitious rookies – this game is about old, war-scarred veterans getting together to save the world one last time.
In other words, it’s a high level campaign. Players begin play at 12th level and I expect them to go as high as 18th, maybe even 19th level.
I wanted to do this simply because this so rarely happens. Most of us start play at 1st (maaybe 2nd or 3rd level) scrabble our way to 10th, maybe 12th, and by that time (after years of gameplay has gone by), everybody gets tired and all the PCs get retired and you either start over or play a whole new game in some other system/setting. This time, though, I wanted to focus exclusively on the craziness that can be a high-level campaign. To get it to work, however, required some planning.
These People Are Not New
The first thing I decided was important was to make sure the characters’ in-game history was in place. These are not people coming from nowhere and encountering a totally new world – these are mighty heroes who once walked these very lands, probably shaping them into what they are now. That needed to be represented. Accordingly, character creation was a 4 session process (yes – 4 sessions) wherein I had the players go around and describe to one another their early adventures, how they met up, what kinds of successes and failures they had, and how they ultimately broke up as a group before the game began.
The purpose of this was to build-in history for the players to riff off of. There is rarely a village they’re going to go to that they haven’t been before, there is no king who doesn’t know their names – all of that needs to be ingrained in the players’ minds. It takes a lot of work to get players in a place where they feel comfortable in the world they’re inhabiting, and all that backstory helped us build it.
This leads to how I handled Character Traits/Flaws/Ideals and so on: titles. For each stage of life, the PC’s actions earned them a title which has followed them for the rest of their lives. So, we have Severus Manhunter, whom the elves call “the Mortal Fool” for his decades-long romance with a forbidden elf maid and also Miles Maywater the Ungrateful, the Hound of Veluna – the world’s most famous “noble” assassin/monk. This kind of texture, I think, has gone a long way to making this game cool.
The PCs Can Take It
There really isn’t that much I can’t sic on my players that they can’t handle, and that’s fun. The amount of damage they can dish out (and take) is really impressive. Their first encounter? 50 orcs, 10 orogs, an ork shaman, a merrow, and a succubus all catching them in an ambush on a river boat. There were four players – a ranger, an assassin, a warlock, and a bard. They should be screwed, right?
Wrong! They slaughtered just about every single one of those jokers and only one of their own was hurt enough to require significant healing magic.
Hell, I had them take on an adult Black Dragon in her lair and they won (if barely)! This campaign has been worth the time if only for that one encounter!
Indeed, suddenly the entire Monster Manual is open to me (well…not the Tarrasque) – this party can drop dice with the best of them, freeing up what happens on a grand scale. In fact, part of the premise of the whole campaign is that they need to kill a demigod.
The Conflict Is Not From the Monsters
The fact that these PCs are all such powerhouses, however, means that the conflict isn’t just “can we survive the Fire Giant’s Castle,” because it’s very clear that they can. Conflicts suddenly involve not killing things as often as killing things. As major regional players, they have influence and reputations to safeguard, they have decades of history (and old feuds) to make them squabble, and they have old enemies that know them as well as they know themselves. While this campaign is certainly not going to become Game of Thrones, it is really fun that survival isn’t the primary driving force – it is success, and the argument over what constitutes success is the central conflict. One of their old friends – their dearest confidant – has gone missing and they have been left a note by her to not seek to save her, but instead complete her last mission. Will they do it? Can they? Predictably, two of the party want to complete the mission, the other two want to find their friend. When will the conflict come to a head?
A Seat At the Table
As mighty heroes, the PCs are also now peers with most of the people in campaigns that spend their time bossing lesser PCs around. That king wants you to do something? Tell him no. Is he seriously going to come for a dragonslayer? Nope. No he isn’t.
And that, in and of itself, is freeing for the PCs! They don’t need to be second banana. They don’t need to go find Gandalf to save their asses – they are Gandalf! They’re the big fish and they get to chart their own destiny, whatever that is. So, when it comes time to save the world, they don’t need to have the cavalry swoop in and defeat the grand evil at the last minute (as so many campaigns have done in the past) – they strike the deathblow, they create the ritual to close the hellmouth, they are the ones holding all the cards and distributing all the secrets.
Pretty cool, right?
Of course, doing this requires me to be very flexible and willing to allow the players to break things. It means putting them in a position of power and really letting them exercise that power. Not all DMs are comfortable with that, but I think it can be a really exciting experience for both players and DMs to try out.
Spring the Trap
This is going to be one of those partially writing/partially gaming posts, so get ready for some odd leaps in logic on my part. I want to start with a meme I saw on Dungeons and Dragons Memes the other day regarding dungeon crawls in D&D:
I hate this list. Hate it. Hate it hate it. It represents what I consider to be everything wrong with how Dungeons and Dragons is frequently played and it also happens to be a blueprint on how not to write a suspenseful story or novel. Let me explain:
People avoid conflict and tension as much as they can in their daily lives. If something looks dangerous, we are unlikely to attempt it without ample preparation with the (accurate) understanding that doing so increases our odds of survival. This is a sensible and reasonable way to live one’s life.
It also makes for bad storytelling.
Of course, not every moment of our days are devoted to having an awesome story to tell. If it were, we’d take more risks and do more dangerous things because, well, it would make a great story. Yes, we would punch that guy on the train playing his music without headphones. Yes, we would give the sketchy homeless person a ride on the handlebars of our moped. Yes, we would go on solo vacations to distant lands without a hotel reservation on a whim. We’d hitchhike more.
We don’t do all this, for the most part, because we recognize the odds of unpleasant things happening to us in the real world. In a story (or an RPG), however, unpleasant things happening is the express point of the exercise. Nobody reads a story about how a guy wakes up, goes to his job, does his work, comes home, and goes to bed. That isn’t a story (or at least not an interesting one). We need conflict, of course, but conflict is also not enough. A story where a guy goes to work, discovers he has a hugely important meeting in five minutes and he left his materials at home, but then realizes he can just use the backup materials on his work computer, prints them out, and all is well is also a super boring story. Nothing came of the conflict.
Now, to that stupid list up there. When I read that advice, this is what I see:
- Research Your Destination: There must be no surprises, unpleasant or otherwise. We must know everything before beginning.
- Explore Thoroughly and Cautiously: Everything must be done slowly and methodically so that no surprises crop up and no mistakes are made.
- Stay Together: IF something goes wrong, the problem can be immediately solved with little difficulty and at minimal risk to others.
- Prepare Accordingly: We must have access to all the appropriate tools at the appropriate times so that obstacles can be smoothly overcome.
- Exercise Teamwork: Interpersonal conflicts are forbidden and independent goals must not be pursued.
- Check for Secret Traps and Doors: Again, no surprises! Slow down!
- Take Everything That Isn’t Nailed Down: Approach this dramatic event with all the drama of a moving company packing up a house.
Everything on that list is devoted to making certain the dungeon crawl is as boring as possible, which is to say they are designed to guarantee nobody gets in trouble and everything goes to plan. This list exists for two reasons: (1) there are people who see D&D as a resource management enterprise and nothing else and (2) there are a variety of bad GMs out there who see it as their job to have an adversarial relationship with the party, forcing the players to adopt these behaviors so they don’t die. In the first case, I would insist everybody is entitled to their own kind of fun and more power to them (though I don’t care for it myself). In the second case, read this list, GMs, and adjust your ways.
What most players refuse to acknowledge, but is nevertheless true, is that the best gaming experiences are when things go wrong. This is because when the players make mistakes, tension, excitement, and conflict abound. When the players sit down and concoct an elaborate plan designed to avoid any kind of trouble, it is the GMs duty – their sacred obligation – to mess those plans up as soon as possible and in the worst of all ways. Players often think the GM is being “mean” or “unfair” when, in actuality, the GM is giving the players the greatest possible opportunity for fun. Because (and this is the other thing players are not aware of) they are going to win! They are! By the skin of their teeth and suffering consequences galore and maybe not in the way they intended, but they totally are and they are going to love it.
This is directly analogous to storytelling. If your characters make an elaborate plot that is almost sure to succeed, then you, as the writer, can’t have that plot go off exactly as planned. You just can’t. Once you do, then you have abandoned all dramatic tension and eliminated all suspense. We all just shrug and go “oh, well, that was a lot of buildup about nothing.” You need things to go sideways! Polonius needs to get his ass stabbed through the curtain! The hyperdrive on the Falcon has to be broken! Indiana Jones needs to spring the trap!
So, here are my competing pieces of dungeon crawling advice:
- Do Minimal Research: If the old geezer in the village says the temple is inhabited by vengeful spirits, believe him. He probably knows what he’s talking about, right? No way it’s a death cult disguised as ghosts. That’d just be silly.
- Go Directly for the Goal: There is almost certainly nothing of interest in those little side passages. The main thing is to get in, get out, and get on with your lives. Move quickly! The time of the Planetary Alignment is nigh!
- Split Up!: You can cover more ground that way. Also, some of you can get in trouble and need rescuing, which gives everybody a chance to look awesome.
- Travel light!: Nobody wants to traipse around a dungeon with a donkey in tow or have to pay henchmen to guard your campsite or any of that garbage. Potion of Animal Friendship? Pfft – that probably won’t come in handy anyway. Extra sword? Why? Your favorite sword should do just fine. And leave the rope behind – rope is heavy.
- Those Morons Need to Listen to You!: Look, you’re the wizard, right? You are the smartest. Who cares what the paladin thinks is a good plan – you’ve got a better plan and, when it works (it won’t!), then everybody will recognize you as the leader of this stupid little band. Excelsior!
- Spring the Trap!: If you don’t spring the trap, nobody will fall into a hole and maybe die. And seriously, what fun is that, anyway?
- Gold is Heavy: You know what’s more fun that haggling over objet d’art and divvying up silver pieces? Moving the story forward, that’s what. You’re playing a game, not saving for your retirement. Take the cool magical junk and leave the rest behind. Nobody cares how much money you have.
Yes and Dragons: Gaming/Improv Podcast!
I was recently interviewed for the podcast Yes and Dragons, which discusses how improv/improvisational theater and RPGs intersect. In the interview, I discuss how improv, gaming, and writing intersect quite a bit, and it was a really fun interview. Go and check it out and, if you liked it, check out the other episodes of the podcast, which will be releasing once a week going forward.
Oh, and there was something amiss with my microphone during the interview, so it sounds as though I’m talking inside an airplane hangar. Sorry.
Anyway, give it a listen! If you’re interested in any one of those three topics, I hope you will find it enlightening or otherwise useful.
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.
Danger Patrol: To Protect and Serve – Roles
So, I’ve been posting a bit less than usual these past few months. This is thanks largely to some steep writing deadlines I’m struggling to meet, limiting me to about 1 post a week or so. My apologies for whatever regular readers I have, but it’s for a good cause, trust me. Hopefully I’ll pick up the pace again soon. In the meantime, I recently watched the pilot episode of the new Lethal Weapon television show, and I’ve been bitten by the bug to run another session of Danger Patrol: To Protect and Serve – a home-brewed hack of the Danger Patrol game. I’ve included more of the play materials here below. First, though, you might want to read the Game Introduction and you might be interested in a recap of our first session.
Let’s talk your role on this miserable squad. The roles are as follows:
You’re a fresh-faced kid straight out of the academy, all adorable and eager. It would be cute if you weren’t so goddamned talented. You spend most of your time embarrassing us older guys and we hate your guts. It’s not personal…well, maybe it is personal, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’re in your prime, kid, and that counts for something. Just don’t attempt to grow a brain, okay? Stick with the older heads and you’ll go far.
Suggested d12 Trait: Athletics
I don’t know who you pissed off, but somebody upstairs doesn’t like you very much. When you were in the academy, dinosaurs walked the earth. You are literally older than dirt and pretty close to retirement, yet here you are, in a room full of heroes and lunatics. I pity you, I really, truly do.
All that said, the rest of these kids are the lucky ones. You’ve served in every division in the department, from traffic to narcotics to the gang unit. You know everybody, you got tricks they don’t teach anymore, and then there’s the fact that you draw a big enough salary to own a house or maybe even a boat. That is, of course, if you live to enjoy it…
Suggested d12 trait: Knowledge or Driving
You are the guy we call when we need something resolved without bloodshed. Sometimes it even works. Succeed or fail, though, you know how to negotiate with scumbags, you know when people are lying, and you can get a confession out of anybody (assuming they’re still alive).
Your job with this crowd is going to be keeping these animals from eating every two-bit crook from here to Cincinnati alive. You need to get prisoners, talk to them, and learn their secrets. Good luck on this one, buddy. Try not to get dead.
Suggested d12 Trait: Interaction
I guess you’re some kind a braniac. If it were up to me, we’d still be using pencil and paper and walking the beat on our own two feet, but you’re a cop for the new millennium, I guess. You know computers, gadgets, and bombs like the rest of us know the contents of our underwear drawer. Christ, you’ve forgotten more about gizmos and high-tech widgets than the rest of us will ever learn. We need you, as annoying as you are. The only thing I ask is that, when you start to explain something, use plain fucking English, okay?
Suggested d12 Trait: Tech or Driving
The Weapon Specialist
I’m gonna level with you: assholes like you are my worst fucking nightmare. For some reason, you seem to think your job isn’t filling the jails with scumbags. Instead, you fill the fucking morgue with bodybags. I got no idea what they taught you in Nam or Iraq or SWAT or whatever hell-hole vomited you into my office, but I swear if you keep putting bullet holes in my city, I will be personally shitting on your head every fucking day. Could you leave the goddamned machine guns at home for once? You know what, forget it—why do I bother? You just better hope what goes around doesn’t come around, because Karma for a violent asshole like you is bound to be a bitch.
Suggested d12 Trait: Shooting
Oh, great—we’ve got help. Look, I don’t care if you’re from the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the DEA, the WWF, or whatever the fuck. I don’t care if you flew in from Hong Kong or if the guy you’ve been tracking all the way from Moscow owns a B&B in my own neighborhood—we here in Danger Patrol don’t need help. You know what I hate the most about you lousy Feds? I never really know what you’re up to. You’ve got secrets and special training and all kinds of covert directives and I don’t have the fucking time to keep my eyes on you. So, you want in? Fine—your funeral. I got news for you, Miss Quantico: this town will eat you alive. Stick close to my guys and don’t fuck things up, and you may just live long enough for us to trust you.
Suggested d12: Knowledge and Stealth (you get two)
The Beat Cop
You are from the school of hard knocks, so you have that going for you. Police work is a personal thing—you understand community policing (drinking at the local bars) and local outreach (gambling at the local bars). You understand that you can’t be a good cop behind a desk or a microscope. You’re also a stubborn, filthy, stupid moron who thinks your shit don’t stink. I’m here to tell you, flatfoot, that it stinks to high fucking heaven. This ain’t 1932, got it? Today’s criminals will run circles around you unless you learn how to use a fucking smartphone. Knowing the name of all the local bouncers only gets you so far. Still, street smarts and the basic skills you’ve got in spades are still essential to our business. There ain’t no app that makes perps cuff themselves.
Suggested d12 Trait: Fighting
You’re smart, I’ll give you that. You’re the guy who puts the clues together, figures out who did what to who and with what. You probably fancy yourself a pretty good judge of the human soul, too, huh? Well, fine, but don’t let it go to your head. Fact is I’ve buried more of you idiots than I care to mention, and you wanna know why? You tend to stick your nose where it don’t belong and never call for fucking backup. I had a dog like you once—used to chase every goddamned rabbit he saw. I put up a fence, tied him with a chain, bought one of them fancy electric gizmos, and the poor stupid mutt still wound up flattened by a car. You wanna know why? Because he didn’t know when to quit! Maybe that’s admirable—I dunno. Anyway, just keep your partner close and maybe, just once in a while, come up with a theory that will stick in court.
Suggested d12 Trait: Knowledge
Character Creation in a Danger Patrol-type game is super, super simple. You pick a role (above) and then select a style (below) – bingo, you’ve got a character.
So, there you have it – my own home-brew action-cop game. Can’t wait to run it again; can’t wait to let you folks know how it goes.
That’s it for me at the moment – back to writing!