Blog for Stephanie Bryant, a writer with too many hobbies and not enough time.

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Dead in Thay: Weeks 6-7

HomePage_DnDLogoLast week, our Dead in Thay campaign reached a new threshold: three tables and DMs! Josh, one of our players from Day 1, stepped up as DM and did a great job!

Josh’s table went into the Master’s Domain, which is an excellent place to muck around, poking at very dangerous intelligent creatures.

Mike’s table continued their pursuit of danger in the Ooze caverns, eventually finding and conning a dangerous wizardess into handing over her special black glyph key– a key that is attuned to one of the Temples of Extraction!

My table continued their exploration of the Golem Laboratories, mainly darting around in the Hall of Teleportation, where multiple golems and constructs bashed on them repeatedly before being dismantled by the heroes.

For Week 7: Spoilers ahead!

Continue reading Dead in Thay: Weeks 6-7

Trust in Gaming, Part 2: Trust as a GM

Part One of the Trust in Gaming series can be found here.

As a GM, you have to trust your system, your players, and yourself, but if you can’t do that, you at least need to trust your players– and they need to be trustworthy. If they’re not, then you rely on the system and yourself.

Trusting your System

I’m going to start with the least important part of the game: the game itself. The GM has to trust the system they’ve chosen. They have to trust that the system will support the kind of game they and the players want to play. If you like to “tell a story” and lead the players through a campaign, then your system needs to support a more linear play style. If you like things to be open-ended and you want your players to surprise you, then you need  a system that gives narrative control to the players.

For me, there are a few things that I look for when I’m evaluating a system:

  • Fair. This doesn’t mean equal, however. If all the “characters” in the game– PCs, NPCs, monsters, etc., are all built using the same mechanics, then the game is both fair and equal. However, a game can also be fair if the monsters and NPCs have different “rules” than the PCs. For example 4th edition D&D is fair, even though the monsters and NPCs are built differently than PCs. It’s fair because the PCs have more people and therefore more actions per round, and they have a much higher pool of hit points to draw from (being able to heal). Dungeon World similarly gives the monsters different stats and moves than the PCs– in fact, Dungeon World monsters never roll dice on their own.
  • Shared Narrative Control. Still under the umbrella of “fair,” I look for systems that let the players tell me what happens when they do something cool or interesting. I want my players to be able to say “I think it’s cooler if the fire elemental follows me like a puppy– can that happen?” Yes. Yes, it can. Until that fire pet over-rides the “fair” part of the game, I’m happy to let the player change the way the story unfolds. GMs and players who want to make persistent changes to the world are looking for shared narrative control, too.
  • Respect for Diversity. This is a subtle one that not every grognard in the world cares about, but I do. Having had my share of bad GMing experiences, I won’t play a system that puts me at a cultural disadvantage at the table just because of what’s between my legs. If you have a “whoring” skill in your game, I’m not going to run it. Keep in mind, if the players push for a raunchy game (see my Space Race campaign), then that’s the players taking narrative control and pushing for what they want. That’s fine, although I am also a player and might reign it in if I’m feeling uncomfortable or disrespected.
  • Support for the Genre. Whatever genre or tone my players and I agree on, we need a system that supports it well. Some systems don’t support some genres all that well. Fate is quite poor at horror, because the large amount of shared narrative control means the system is very “meta” and therefore, there are no unpleasant surprises– only surprises that players have put into play. Similarly, D&D doesn’t support investigation stories well. There are a lot of GMs who have adapted it to do so, and who use different techniques to shoehorn a mystery story out of it. But at its core, the game isn’t about finding clues and solving a mystery.

Other GMs will have other criteria. One GM might really like the d20 statistical range, so having d20’s could be important. Another GM wants to have a lot of tactical combat rules to simulate conflict resolution. Every GM and every player will have different things that are important to them. Identify those, and view games through that lens when you’re deciding whether to play them or not.

When GMs don’t trust their system, one of two things happen. Either they abandon the system and find something different (leading players to create yet another round of PCs for a campaign they got to play twice). Or they house rule things until they think it fits.

Trusting your Players

This is perhaps the most important thing you need to trust as a GM. Your players will make or break your game– usually both. If you can’t trust them to tell a good story with you, then you look for a system that helps you all do that.

I’ve GMed a group with whom I lost trust. Several weeks of what can only be described as “rape jokes” at the table had left me exhausted, emotionally, and fed up. I finally sent them all an email detailing what was wrong, why I was having a hard time, and informing them that these jokes had to stop, or I would no longer be able to GM for them. Several of the players apologized, and one retired his character, as he really couldn’t find a way to make that PC less “rapey” and still be true to the character (the party burned him alive, as an evil NPC, in a later session). The apology and retirement restored my trust in those players, and it turned that campaign into something truly epic– we still tell stories about it.

I’ve also GMed groups where I didn’t lose trust, so much as I never had it. In those cases, I just lean on the system to help guide what’s going to happen, and I hope the players build trust and start to play the game I want to play. Some aren’t interested in that, so they leave after a while, presumably for other games. Some really are, and I consistently pull several players out of the woodwork when I need or want to.

GMs who don’t trust their players often resort to many of the “weak GM” problems, like:

  • Railroading the adventure – “I can’t trust these guys to go where I want them to!” No, of course not. Give them lots of places to go, and they will go where they want to– and that’s okay!
  • DMPCs – “They need the help!” Well, either you genuinely think the conflict is too hard– in which case you aren’t trusting the players to figure out new ways to get around the problems. Or you just want to play and be the hero because you don’t trust your players to be the heroes (or you really just want to hog the spotlight).
  • Bunnying the Players – “And then you’re taken captive.” “No, Hrothgar would go down fighting!” Don’t tell the players what they do. Tell them what happens and let them react. Ask them if they surrender. If you absolutely need to push a scene to get somewhere, tell them that– “Hey, guys. I know it’s a bit railroady, but I need to get us into the jail, and I’ve got two dozen guards who just showed up. Does anyone go peacefully, or would you all fight to the last man?” In this case, you have to trust your players to participate in the story, opening the meta-game up for them to participate in.

Trusting Yourself

It is very easy to second-guess yourself as a GM. Are the players having fun? is the most important, and most damaging question you can ask in a campaign. I have run sessions that seemed on the outside to be really un-fun– lots of players looking tense, me looking like I was really enjoying playing the death squad. I ran a TPK (total party kill) just last night where one of the players mucked around on his phone for 15 minutes after his character was the first to go.

I ask the players about it later, and they universally had fun and come back week after week for more. Part of that is because I asked them their post-death coda (everyone wants a legacy), but part of it is also that tension and “my character isn’t having fun” is not the same as “the player is not having fun.

You have to trust that, as the GM, your role is to enable the players to have fun, and having fun for them usually means being the main characters in an exciting adventure story with conflict and resolution.

In a cooperative game, you provide the conflict, which enables the resolution.

Conflict doesn’t have to be combat, of course. And it’s not always cooperative gaming– some of the conflict can come from other players. But the majority of the conflict will be driven by the GM, and that means you have to trust yourself to be hard sometimes, to give them obstacles and enemies that are worthy of their time and efforts. There’s a great deal of self-confidence that goes into GMing, so if you can’t trust yourself at all, you may want to do some affirmations before you GM to get there.

GMs who don’t trust themselves rely heavily on the system, which is fine when you’re learning a system, but experienced and confident GMs usually loosen up.

Players roll dice to see what happens. DMs roll dice to hear the sound. –Gary Gygax

GMs who don’t trust themselves often also don’t trust the players a great deal, something which isn’t always true in the opposite direction. A player who doesn’t trust themselves will rely more on the GM for help. A GM who doesn’t trust themselves will rely only on the system.

Side Note: Game system designers who don’t trust their own systems will usually rely on the GM to make it better, with things like “rule zero” and chapters on why GMs should modify the system. Game books that tell GMs how to modify the system (like the Fate Toolkit or the Timewatch chapter on setting tone) are usually better, since they give more concrete suggestions for “if you want your game to be more like this, do this.” Game designers need to design for mediocre GMs, not good ones.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my Trust in Gaming blog posts. I’ll probably have more to say about this topic in the future, but for now, I hope this has been useful. Feel free to leave comments– all spam will be deleted, of course.

Trust in Gaming, Part I: Trusting as a Player

About 2 years ago, I read a post or thread on the Internet (I can’t remember where anymore) about trust in RPGs, and it really struck a chord with me, so I want to talk about that today.

Role-playing games employ a lot of trust in order to work. Like a relationship, when the trust is there, they can work beautifully. When there’s no trust, you need a lot of overhead and rules to make them work.

This is Part I of this topic, covering how a player needs to trust. I have a lot to say on it, so I’m splitting this into multiple posts.

Trust in Players
Let’s start with human-to-human trust. As a player, I need to trust my fellow players, and my GM. Trusting the other players means I believe that they will work in the best interests of the story, whatever we’ve agreed that means. It also means I trust them as people to “not be a dick.” To not treat me badly or unsafely.

In a new gaming group, or a public game, or a convention game where we might not have any consequences, I don’t usually have a lot of trust with the other players. There are some folks who I meet at conventions over and over, or who I know through Google+, who have built trust, or in some cases, who have eroded it.

There are players who I see rarely with whom I have zero trust. Why? Because they’ve shown more than once that I can only trust them to behave like barely-trained children. Does this mean I won’t play with them? Some, yes. But most, it means I won’t play with them unless there’s a lot of control over the story, format, system, and table etiquette. I limit my risk. I don’t play adult-theme games like Apocalypse World (AW) with people I don’t trust.

And then there are players who I see rarely, but who I have a high level of trust.

For example, Matt Smith is a player in Los Angeles who I’ve played with at Strategicon a couple of times– and in each game, we’ve had very good gaming chemistry, our characters played off each other well, and we had a great time. We’ve circled each other on Google+ and share conversations there, which reinforces that trust. As a result, the AW game I was in with Matt at Orccon last month was the first time since reaching adulthood that I was comfortable with rape being something that could be used to threaten my character (in fact, I handed it to Matt in the Apocalypse World game as the thing my character fears the most).

And here’s why Matt is an awesome player worthy of that trust: even though he immediately thought about how his character might do that, he also knew there were easier ways to get what he wanted. So he stored the information away and hoped to never, ever need to use it. If we’d come down to a really intense, plot-driven moment where he needed it, I have no doubt he would have used it, and I’d have felt everything awful for my character, but as a player, I would have seen it as a shining triumph of storytelling.

Trust in the GM

The players have to trust the GM as well, and we have to trust them to be a fan of our characters. Yes, sometimes the GM wants to kill a few PCs to make a point, or to drive home part of the narrative. But GMs don’t kill PCs just because they can. What would be the point? The GM is all-powerful. Even in my game last week, the PC who died did so after I’d pulled punches for 4 rounds, only to ambush him later with tactics that, frankly, would be considered clumsy in Liching 101.

I was in a game about 2 years ago that utterly ended my trust in a GM. He was someone I’ve played with for a few years, and we were very close friends, but our friendship was on the rocks by this point, and we were nearing the end of a rather back-stabby campaign. I wasn’t handling the back-stabbery well as a result, and so I own my part in the erosion of trust.

And then, he did something that finished our gaming together forever. After my character was dead and done, he continued to privately message me with the ways in which her body was desecrated by the agents of the drow.

What’s the point? I argued. Why are you even telling me this?

The trust we’d built up for years was gone. It wasn’t just that moment, but that moment highlighted to me that I didn’t trust that he was treating me fairly (after talking to the player who had been plotting against me, the actions were driven by that player, filtered through the DM… but he still didn’t handle it correctly, in my opinion). I didn’t trust that he had any good reason to be adding the insult to my injury, and to this day, I don’t really know why he was doing so in a private chat message.

The campaign was over, and I was done with gaming with him. We haven’t played together since.

Trust in the System

This is less important for players than for the GM, but as a player, you have to either trust your GM or your system. If you don’t completely trust your GM, because maybe your GM is not very fair, then you have to trust the game system to be fair and support a fun experience. This is where you get players who go by the system, not the group or the story. It’s how you have “Pathfinder players” who don’t want to play any other system. And edition wars. And people pointing out (rightly) when a system is untrustworthy often get smashed by people who love and trust their system above all things (usually because they exploit their system to give them the story they want, since for whatever reason, the other players and GM won’t do so).

To trust the system… you have to have a robust system that gives the players enough control to act as effective checks against GMs who abuse their power or throw people on the rails or whatever. If you trust the system more than the GM, you might find yourself prone to rules-lawyering, which is pretty much the best and only defense against untrustworthy GMs. “Well, technically prone is a specific condition, and there’s a mathematical reason you shouldn’t do that… but you’re the GM, so your word goes.”

I do this a lot in public gaming, especially in D&D 4th edition. The system is rigid and robust. There is a lot of room for role-playing, but if someone just wants to take their dice for a stroll, they can do that, too. There are a lot of “checks and balances” between what the monsters can do and what the heroes can do. There are things the monsters can do that heroes never can– and while frustrating, that’s okay. Heroes, for example, have a nearly endless source of healing, which monsters really don’t.

Because I trust the system, I’m not afraid of min-maxing my characters, and I’m not afraid when players do so at my table, because I know that no amount of min-maxing will unbalance the game. If I keep the encounter design within a fairly broad scale for difficulty, I know the PCs will not be overwhelmed and will have opportunities for heroics– which is pretty much the “sweet spot” for my games.

When I’m playtesting a system, I have to trust it less– it’s an untried game, after all, and distrusting the system is exactly the purpose of the playtest.

Dead in Thay: Week 5

After the party had rested and leveled up to 7th level, they hit the Predator Pools sector, first encountering a pair of sea trolls (scrags) which a well-timed fireball and a lot of punching took care of. They spent about 10 minutes, carefully disguising themselves as a Red Wizard/Dread Warrior patrol with some prisoners (the gnome and halfling).

Their next stop was the lacedon pool. Lacedons are aquatic ghouls which paralyze and drag their victims into the depths. They’re lurkers– these were all floating like corpses in the water until the party arrived. I tried to give a kind of “horror” description by describing one of the corpses as it rose out of the water to strike at an unaware PC! During the fight, the druid shaped a wall of fire to keep the ghouls back, but Robert the “completely trustworthy halfling” was on the other side! He sprinted to rejoin the party, but was caught (failed save) by one of the ghouls and scratched! A second failed save meant he was paralyzed and in peril!

I turn to the rest of the party, having pretty much dropped out of initiative at this point. “Who is going to rush out and save him?”

One of the new players (new to the group, but not to the game or even to my playing groups) raised his hand. “I will!” His half-orc bard/barbarian (?) dashed out and nimbly picked up the halfling, throwing him over his shoulder and sprinting to the rest of the party. They slipped out the door and into the next room– and even the next sector!

Indeed, the next room they ran to was a prison in the Golem Laboratories! We paused for a smoke break and to give me time to decide if we could continue in the adventure, or if I’d need a break. I decided that, if they could bluff through this room, we’d be good to go. If not, I’d need to stop at “roll for initiative” and we’d pick up at the following session.

Well, the party had disguised themselves pretty well, and the wights who challenged them aren’t overly observant, so they were let through with only a minor hissing and snarking.

The session ended as the party entered the Golem Vault, a room of “parts” for the frankenstein-monstrous flesh golem creatures the Red Wizards are constructing in this sector. The disguises are good, but I already warned the party that they probably won’t fool any Red Wizards.

I look forward to seeing what the PCs do next!

Update from Jennifer Wolff, a Player at Mike’s table:

We’ve been trudging through the Forests of Slaughter, trying to set our foes against each other where we can and outright slaying them when we can’t. My druid remained in her tiger form throughout, following the previous week’s encounter with a pack of predatory perytons (which we dispatched).

Wandering from that victory, we stumbled upon a wight with a helmed horror body guard. The wight was quickly dispatched by some very quick spell-work by our mage. The helmed horror, however, continued its assault. Amusingly, our blows could barely connect against its armored form, but the construct itself was surprisingly inept at landing a blow on any of us, switching targets from the mage to the rogue once it realized the rogue was hitting it the hardest, then back to the mage when the rogue proved too slippery. All the while my druid is tagging behind it, scratching and biting at its armored hiney.

The pragmatic dwarf cleric simply walked away from the fight and began exploring, asking everyone to just leave and outrun the damn thing. Not wanting to leave loose ends behind, the rogue finally struck it with a fatal blow, which left us a chance to loot an additional keystone from the wight’s charred remains.

Not wanting to keep slogging through aimlessly any longer, we used the portals to pass through the gatehouse and back into an entry point at the Ooze Grottos, following a hunch I had about the Augmentation Chambers.

Appearing nearby, we first encountered a bizarre column of red ooze, with a Red Wizard embedded inside. My druid approached and somehow took acid damage just by being near it (following a Charisma save?), so we all pretty much went around it with a shrug. Next we entered a white room, with another wizard who had become merged with oozes. In fact, the whole room was an ooze, and as it began to lash at us, our pragmatic (and after encounters in the Far Realm Cysts, rather insane) dwarf cleric was able to somehow understand the composite creature’s babbling. He struck an agreement with it; in exchange for leading others to become consumed and absorbed by the ooze (including the rest of the party when we’re done), the ooze-room allowed us to pass through, and produced the robes of previously consumed Red Wizards to use as a disguise.

Donning the robes to look like a cadre of Red Wizards (and their pet tiger, I guess), we stepped into the Augmentation chamber to see undead fussing over vats of roiling goo, to some hideous purpose. From a curtain along one of the walls, our most perceptive party member spotted a face peeking out briefly, which belonged to a female Red Wizard of apparently some importance.

To be continued next week….

Dead in Thay: Session 4

HomePage_DnDLogoWe had our first genuine player character death last night at Dead in Thay, and I would have been disappointed if it didn’t happen.

This week was “Room 10.” In the Dead in Thay megadungeon, Room 10 should be known as a killer. The party is 6th level, and they open a door and there’s a lich and four of its guards, waiting for them.

Continue reading Dead in Thay: Session 4

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