The Tidequeller

Busy busy. Work Work. GMing GMing. Blog Post!

I like Dark Souls. One of my favorite things the game does is give every item in it a story, or a small portion of a large story. It’s colored my view of how I include magical items in my fantasy games. In my most recent campaign I have handed out a handful of magical items, either from.

 

Magic items shouldn’t just be +1 swords of stabbening. They should have history and more importantly magic items should have purpose. There’s a reason it has the properties it does, they are tools that perform very specific functions. They could be equivalent to Weapons of Mass Destruction or Defenses of a Particular Kind or more simply a Maguffin that moves the Story Along.  I’ve made a habit of typing up Souls-like descriptions for these items, as a way to keep their place in the world in mind and to help them tell small stories as the players begin to use them. Helping tell the story of the world bit by bit without having to frontload exposition onto the players (this will be my next topic, probably.)

Surprisingly, the DnD 5e Dungeons Masters guide has some fun ways to generate a magic items backstory. Here’s some random ones I’ve created.

 

The Tidequeller – turquoise tinted dagger with a hilt of fish scales.

The Tidequeller was a weapon used in the war between the Pantheon and Yylir, when Yylir corrupted Findui’s creations to use against them.  This weapon was forged by the Smiths of Gadyran, and though it carries her blessing, it’s carrier cannot help but occasionally feel a bottomless sorrow.”

Sesquipedalian – giant’s dagger.

“A large greatsword whose proportions look slightly off, looking more like a gigantic dagger rather than a sword. It appears to be made out of pure obsidian, and flint-knapped into its current shape with small grooves and serrated edges. It’s previous owner used it to cut the tongues out of talkative giants, and when he was slain the blade was cursed through some means. At the blade’s insistence, it’s wielder is prone to speaking the tongue of giants.”

Diplomat’s Band – dull iron jewelry.

“The Bands of Passage are either rings, or bands that would go around ones wrist, very rarely a necklace. They were created and gifted to the Emissaries of the Pantheon, to provide safe travel amidst the various dangers the Pantheon had put in place. No matter the shape, they are made of plain dulled bronze.”

Potion of Invisibility – clear-syrupy flask.

 “This potion was gifted to Daham the Jackal by his patrons. On the top of the flask around its neck is a small piece of parchment glued onto it which reads ‘For dire straits’ only. The liquid drains out of the flask like water, but its texture is similar to molasses. Upon imbibing the flask all sentient beings within eyesight of the imbiber disappear, but leaves their actual presence very much visible. Apparently the Jackal did not curry lasting favor. 

 

The Tidequeller

We continue to chase the Sun

Last week for my DnD group I ran a marathon of a session, lasting about 6 hours. It was great fun and at the end of it I was extremely happy with the quality of the roleplay from my players, and while I fludged up the combat a little bit (I’m not the best at running 5e combat, especially on Roll20.) it still went really well. It’s inspired me to write about something I’ve seen in the bunch of games I’ve played in and ran myself, the Hammer and Nail Problem.

If you don’t know what I mean, here is an explanation from Wikipedia:

 The concept known as the law of the instrument, Maslow’s hammer, Gavel or a golden hammer[a] is an over-reliance on a familiar tool; as Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”[1].”

To see where this crops up, let’s look at the character sheet for DnD 5th Edition.

5E D&D Basic – Character Sheet (Form)

Notice anything? Most of the sheet is dedicated to things that are used in combat, with a section dedicated to skills and a space on the top-right for your Personality/Ideals/Bonds/Flaws. It is nice those things are there to keep players referencing character traits to help roleplay, but in my experience it rarely comes up. Stats come into play in combat, as do saves, HP, AC, the space to put your attacks. In fact most spells in the game are tailored towards a combat use.

“So what? Isn’t that what Dungeons and Dragons is about, hitting monsters with swords and spells?” you might say, and to that I say…you’re right. DnD is absolutely about those things. It works best when the game is mostly about dungeon crawling and using the pointy-end on monsters. But unless all your players are strict wargamers then the game shouldn’t JUST be about those things, and if you aren’t careful the game can drift in that direction. When it looks like all you have is hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Compounding that is the fact that human beings are creatures that crave variety. Unless you are on the spectrum you probably don’t enjoy literally doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over again, it gets stale. Spice up your game and invite your players to think about what they can do besides clubbing things on the head each time. Here’s some tricks to doing so.

Let a player get away with a stupid plan that (probably) should not work

 

In my last session, a character wanted to use their animal handling skill to defuse some aggressive tigers. Now, combat had already started, but this person was driven by the fact that she didn’t want to harm cute kitties (I empathize.) So she rolled her animal handling skill, got a 23! In my version of the fiction this totally should not work, given that the tigers were raised and taught to be man-eaters. However in the spirit this post I met her in the middle. I allowed it to work but only for a certain amount of rounds, and the other tigers were still oncoming. On the other players turns they took cues from the first and decided to try their hand at it. Some of them failed, but now this combat has turned from using their swords to stab tigers, to surviving an onslaught of beasts in order to calm them down and avoid killing them if possible. It says something about the characters that they’d be willing to sustain major injury in order to solve the situation this way, it’d be much easier to Use Sword on Kitten. Alternatively if the players come up with an articulate a well thought out plan..let it work with minimal rolling. This concept is basically the tried and true GM-advice of saying “Yes, and..” but I prefer it phrased the other way if a player’s idea is a little too stupid. The “No…but.”. Then again if I feel like it will shake up the experience a little bit I might even let a hyper-stupid plan work.

Present situations that cannot be solved by using swords.

 

This one simply involves baking in some variety in your campaign and/or dungeon. The Five Room Dungeon method is a quick and easy way of doing this. Once you’ve done it a few times you will see that you can really do any combination of the item’s listed here and even expand on them. Avoid a Door Kickers scenario, where every room has bad guys sitting in it waiting for the party to open the door. That particular scenario can be fun, but not when it’s all you’re doing for 3+ hours.

One thing I particularly hate though is outright puzzles. Often times it plays out in the same way as it does in adventure games, “Guess exactly what the designer was thinking or you can’t progress”. So heed the advice in the Five Room Dungeon method, “puzzles” don’t mean to solve a riddle necessarily, or a block puzzle. It means any challenge that cannot be overcome with combat. Along the same lines as using encounters that can’t be overcome with combat necessarily the other thing is to have the goal of the party in a combat to not simply slay the opponent. Grab the MacGuffin and run out of the room before the overpowering threat kills you. Defend an NPC/PC as they try to complete a ritual against a horde of weaklings. Run through a gauntlet of bad guys to escape a crumbling tower. If you are playing with players who are slow to adapt to this kind of stuff then it’s best if you make liberal use of foreshadowing or telegraph what is going to happen. If they don’t…well I guess the rocks fall on their head.

Give the antagonists a sense of self-preservation.

 

Unless the antagonists the PC’s are struggling against are actually mindless (gelatinous cubes, golems, robots, most undead.) they probably will not fight to the absolute bitter end and will try to plead with the party, run away,  pay them off, beg forgiveness or opt for being taken prisoner as opposed to an immediate death sentence. This might not work if the party has already killed multiple people who have tried this tactic on them. Then it’s reasonable to say that their bloody reputation has caused almost every enemy they come across to fight to the death because they know they won’t be spared. Hopefully it never gets to that point.

Not only does this make the conclusions of combat more exciting due to unpredictability, it also adds some dimensions to the bad guys. He might be the leader of the cultists who has gone around kidnapping people and sacrificing them..but he’s still rational. He would prefer imprisonment and the chance of escape rather than the surefire death should he fight til the bitter end.

The TL;DR version

 

  • If the plan is stupid but might have some remote chance of success, let them try it.
  • If the plan is sound and well articulated, let them try it with minimal rolling.
  • Present scenarios and threats that can’t be solved with swords
  • Puzzles suck.
  • Help the party establish goals that might include not simply killing stuff. Short or long term.
  • Give combat itself alternative “win” conditions other than dropping Baddies to 0 HP.
  • Make Antagonists somewhat intelligent or at least self-preserving, unless fictionally it makes sense for them not to be.

Til next time..

 

We continue to chase the Sun

I believe the signs of the reptile master.

Metal of the day. Sleep. Listen to it right god damn now.

 

 

Let’s get Meta.

 

I’ve discussed a little bit here about how big well known settings can make it tougher to hook your players narratively into the game, given that different players are bound to have different levels of knowledge. The same is true when in regards to meta-gaming. For instance players whom have intimate knowledge about aspects of the game world are able to and typically do include that knowledge into what their characters know, even if narratively it would make more sense for them to not have that knowledge. The problem with this is that it makes the players have unequal footing when it comes to their ability to perform tasks within the game world. Bobicus the wizard  knows that Salamanders are vulnerable to cold, but only because the player who plays Bobicus knows that. Jillius’s character doesn’t know that because Jillius’s player doesn’t know that.

Now this type of issue usually isn’t too bad considering the moment Bobicus does extra damage with cold, he passes that knowledge onto the other players and most likely the characters too. A Good GM will see this coming, especially if he knows his players and sometimes I will prompt knowledge-skill  rolls to assist ignorant players to those things assuming that their characters knowledge of something makes fictional sense. It seems like pretty obvious stuff (and maybe it is.) but I see a lot of GM’s missing the opportunity to do this and help bridge the gap a little bit.

The bigger problem with meta-gaming and player knowledge is that breaks the immersion of almost everyone involved. The second Bobicus the Wizard proclaims that Salamanders are vulnerable to cold and attacks it with Cone of Cold without establishing prior why or how he knows that suddenly pulls player’s perspective from inside the minds of their character to the game’s mechanics. As a player and a GM of Dungeons and Dragons I have certain levels of meta-game knowledge. But when I am a player I’m very careful about using it because it ruins my own immersion and more importantly the immersion of others.

Of course most types of meta-game knowledge are not limited to the settings themselves but to the actual systems those settings use. Let’s not beat around the bush here, due to it’s popularity Dungeons and Dragons is the game that lends itself most to the meta-gaming mentality with Pathfinder coming in second. Meta-gaming DnD and Pathfinder is most likely a common trap that players have unwittingly fell into rather than a conscious decision on the part of the player to engage in it.

So what do I do?

 

So let’s talk solutions. Firstly I’ll discuss the most obvious and preemptive solution then I’ll address what to do if you are playing Forgotten Realms in Dungeons and Dragons.

The Preemptive solution: Homebrew it. Create your own monsters, your own world with its own rules. Or combine it with the players ideas on the fly, or some mixture of both. It also has the added effect of placing a greater importance on non-combat skills, especially knowledge skills. A meta-gamer in Forgotten Realms might as well never bother using Arcana or Nature when it comes to identifying what a monster is, but if you are playing a homebrew he literally has no outside game knowledge to draw upon. That goes double if you aren’t even playing DnD.

 

The Goddammit I’m Running DnD in the Forgotten Realms setting solution: Here the solutions are a bit more specific. Firstly allow for meta-game knowledge to work in certain situations, but give the setting details an unknown twist to subvert the extent of the players knowledge. It’s probably not a good idea to simply re-write well-known monsters or aspects of the setting wholesale as it’s kind of shitty, and it defeats the purpose of running an established setting in the first place. The Salamander releases an agonized screech as your magical cone of cold rushes over him, but slowly the color of his scales begins to turn blue (The Salamander is now resist cold and vuln fire instead, its resist changes based on the element it was last hit with.)

Secondly, you can just invent your own monsters entirely. This takes a bit more work and in doing this you have to be very detailed about describing the monster and liberal with allowing knowledge checks to give clues on how to defeat the monster. Additionally when the characters pass these knowledge checks it’s an invitation to ask them how they know that, and fill in additional details about the character and their place in the world.

That’s all for now folks..til next time.

I believe the signs of the reptile master.

Insert Pun Here.

Before I begin my rant let me say that like Shadowrun I have lots of fun playing Dungeons and Dragons, but unlike Shadowrun I think DnD is actually a pretty good game. I have fun GMing it, and I have fun playing it. It’s just their source materials are poorly edited and one of the books should be about half the size it really is. Now let’s get to ranting.

PHB, Player’s Habitual Backtracking

First 7 pages are fine, typical RPG book introduction stuff.

Chargen is actually pretty quick and decent, except classes should be before races, shouldn’t they be species technically? I prefer the burning wheel name of stock. The long lists of class features/feats is gated behind leveling so Chargen doesn’t feel like a slog and avoids analysis paralysis. For new players (new to RPGs even) this is a good thing Generally no trap builds either from what the community says. Except for Beastmaster Rangers, universally regarded as dumpster-tier.

Alignment is still as stupid as ever. No need to elaborate on this, there’s plenty of critique out there and I agree with almost all of them. Save for looking at this from the perspective of a new player, if it’s written down in the book it must be important right..right?..RIGGHTTT? No.

Backgrounds are pretty useful, but this is one area where they should probably added a few more options. Also I like the random tables of bonds and flaws to help people add small details to their character, contrasted with the large paragraphs of stuff they showed as examples. My only gripe here is that the backgrounds are located at the back of the book for some reason when they are a part of character creation.

Inspiration is one of the main mechanics of the game, and it isn’t laid out until you get to the Backgrounds section about 120 pages in. For touting it as one of the new features of your game you sure buried it in there, and not much time is dedicated to it. I like the idea of Inspiration as a sort of reward for players adhering to the fiction of the world and their character. However it doesn’t seem they put too much effort beyond “The DM gives this out when he thinks you RP’d good and that’s it.” The players are limited to just one currency so there isn’t even a real metagame drive to try to acquire more of it in the same way a lot of (almost all) narrative-style games have a sort of meta-currency to help drive play. The failure to develop this mechanic doesn’t affect the game in any negative way but it does serve to highlight the fact that DnD is primarily about two things, hitting things with your sword and talking to people to get rewarded for hitting things with your sword. It’s about combat and everything on the character sheet points you to that.

The spell list is goddamn awful. They repeat the same mistake in the monster manual in that they order things in the most useless way possible, alphabetically. This is a players handbook, not a dictionary. Gives separate summary spell lists for each class which is fine, but then does not specify on what pages those spells can be found, and if you are a new player you’ve probably little idea what these spells can actually do so you must look at them first.. Then it goes to go on to list all the spells in detail ALPHABETICALLY, what the fuck. They should have had them listed by level of the spell (you know, as would be useful, especially to new characters who can only cast level 1 spells.) Additionally they should mark next to those spells which classes can cast them, like this. Bolded is my addition

Acid Splash
Conjuration cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous
You hurl a bubble o f acid. Choose one creature within
range, or choose two creatures within range that are
within 5 feet o f each other. A target must succeed on a
Dexterity saving throw or take 1d6 acid damage.
This spell’s damage increases by 1d6 when you reach
5th level (2d6), 11th level (3d6), and 17th level (4d6).
Classes: War-Wiz-Sor-Cle-Bar-Pal-Ran

You can argue that they did it this way to converse on ink, but I think they could have shaved text elsewhere (like in the oh-so-useful Multiverse section.) to make their book more usable. Other than all this the PHB is basically fine, it’s fine.

Dungeon Master Self-Help

Again I will be looking at this from the perspective of a new or newish GM looking to run his first game of Dungeons and Dragons, or his first campaign. The source of the problem partially is that the PHB came out way before the DMG did, most of which contains all of the core rules for being able to run the game, so the DMG must be filled with some fucking amazing sage advice with how to make this game run great right? Well let’s see.

It starts off in the worst way possible by presenting to the reader what they should be doing first, making up details of the entire world, no the entire MULTIVERSE as a starting point. Now I wouldn’t claim to be an expert GM but I do have enough experience to know that this is the absolute wrong way to have a novice GM, let alone the potential of a novice GM playing RPGs for the first time to start.

As far as the actual content of the Worldbuilding Chapter..it’s okay I guess. The ideas it gives you are just that, ideas. You can literally do anything and so much of this chapter is either a) overwhelming and useless to novice players right out of the gate or  b) A waste of time to experienced GM’s cause they already know what they are doing or are going to do as far as worldbuilding. It has no original or creative ideas and more painfully contains no systems or mechanics to help generate or reinforce the concepts of the worldbuilding. It’s just a bunch of hot air that is unneeded because people are already familiar enough with fantasy tropes as it is. To illustrate my point here’s an overview of all the topics in the first chapter of the DMG.

The Big Picture
The Gods of Your World
Mapping Your Campaign
Settlements
Languages and Dialects
Factions and Organizations
Magic in your World
Creating a Campaign
Campaign Events
Play Style
Tiers of Play
Flavors of Fantasy

Flavors of Fantasy I found particularly amusing because it suggests you can use DnD to simulate other sub-genres of fantasy, such as mystery, intrigue, wuxia, dark fantasy, mythic and etc. Of course it gives no details here as to actually -do- those things. No rules are suggested nor are there mechanics to reinforce those themes the DMG says it supports. Then after deciding on this the reader or implementer of the advice of the DMG gets to the next chapter.Surely now we’re going to get some meat and potatoes advice on how to make this game sing. Chapter 2: Creating the Multiverse. I’m sure someone new will find all this information very useful.

The problem with all this is that this information is placed at the front of the DMG, which suggests to the reader that they potentially should be creating all this content first before even starting to play which is absolutely wrong. A new GM should not waste their precious time coming up with bullshit the players of a new campaign will have zero chance of interfacing with. In my Shadowrun post I alluded to <this post> detailing why giving your players your dissertation on your setting is probably the most god awful way to begin a campaign. GM’s should focus on developing things the players can directly engage with right away for their first session. If that does overlap with the grand details or ideas you had for your setting, great! But more likely you’ll spend hours deliberating over minutia your players will not give a flying fuck about, at least not right away.

Creating Adventures is the next section and I find it’s actually somewhat decent advice. It runs through some familiar styles of adventuring but more importantly it gives you random tables as seeds to generate the overall structure of an adventure. I need not expound my love for random tables again, it’s just another case of them being useful to remove some of the creative load off of the GM.

Next up is the actual rules of the game, with suggested difficulty checks and examples on how to use stats/skills in certain situations. Surprisingly it contains some useful information to the potential DM, but I’m not giving it points for doing something it’s supposed to do. Following that is the Dungeon Master’s Workshop, a section devoted to potential rule variants. In my mind these variants don’t really seem to offer much in terms of variety, the honor and insanity systems seem like something any amateur designer could come up with. I haven’t tested out the steps to Creating a Monster yet but from what I hear they actually work well even if they are explained poorly.

Book of Beasts

Not a whole lot to say about the Monster Manual but remember my bitching about how the organization/layout of the Spell lists makes it so actually using it involves a lot of flipping back and forth and cross-referencing? Same problem here. Monsters aren’t organized by CR (Challenge Rating.), nor are they organized by environments they are commonly found it. Instead they are in alphabetical order and sometimes but not always by type. What the fucking fuck. If you go to look up Gelatinous Cube, you’d look under the G’s right? Nope that’s in O for Oozes. But there’s no section for Undead, you have to look in V for vampire and Z for zombies and B for banshees. Wight Tarrasque Fomorian. Thank goodness for resources like Kobold Fight Club

Additionally, metal of the day is Panopticon’s new album Autumn Eternal.

Insert Pun Here.