Monday, January 6, 2014

Prepping for Success

Last week, I wrote about working with success. By leaning into the players' success, you make your campaign more engaging and exciting. When you put your game on rails, you undermine the players' choices and shut down some of the chaos and unpredictability that make RPGs fun.

When it comes to handling sudden, unexpected successes, prep is one of your best tools. By putting some thought into how your game might play out ahead of time, you're ready to respond when the players do something crazy, exciting, and plot destroying.

To start with, always keep in mind how much damage the players might do to your plans. When creating important NPCs, always consider what might happen if that NPC is killed or otherwise rendered impotent.

For NPCs that wield power, remember that nature abhors a vacuum. If a the high priest of Asmodeus meets a sudden, bloody end at the characters' hands, how does the rest of the cult respond? Who seize power? What does the cult do to those who defeat its most powerful figures?

Keeping those questions in mind early keeps you ready to respond when things go off the rails. The more important a character, location, object, or whatever, the greater the repercussions to any sudden change to its status or condition.

It's important to think of your answers more in generalities than specific terms. If you try to be too specific, you can easily end up overwhelming yourself. It's enough to know that, upon the death of the high priest of Asmodeus, the clerics immediately beneath him gather allies and fight to the death for the right to rule. The new high priest might very well send the PCs a gift - a sword forged in Hell or a wand that projects infernal flames - too thank them for paving his path to power.

By thinking in generalities, you can ensure that you can quickly adapt your ideas to suit the specific situation at hand.

Be creative in your answers, seeding them with new adventures and plot twists. In fact, since you'll need to rely on them with things go sideways it's best to make them as easy to convert to the campaign's next adventure as possible.

Think of the dramatic outcome as the starting point of an adventure hook or story, the first act in the next adventure.

With your prep done ahead of time, your campaign can never go in an unexpected direction. By acknowledging that anything can happen, you're ready when it does.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Making Success Interesting, Part III

The last two posts touched on making success interesting. The first one did the obligatory introduction and advised you to take a break and think, rather than panic, when faced with a character's sudden, dramatic success.

The second post advised you to approach the issue of the sudden, campaign-altering event on the campaign level. Don't screw up your campaign by trying to fix an event in a single session or adventure.

Now we're going to talk about a dark and treacherous path. You've decided to panic. You're going to start doing stuff right now, in the heat of the moment.

Here's what to do.

Don't just delete what happened, especially in a hamfisted way. That's terrible GMing regardless of your style.

Accept that your campaign is going off the rails.

Push it further off the rails.

If you've been GMing for more than a day or two, you probably already have more campaign ideas than you can possibly run. If what just happened is going to completely mess up all your plans, congratulations, your old campaign is dead. Long live the new campaign.

The hitch is that you're not really starting a new campaign, but your plans have been so blasted to pieces that you might as well adopt that mindset.

Wrap that story arc or campaign up, throw the players a little parade, and launch right into your next campaign. If this was the final battle or event of the campaign, well then who cares? You were going to end it anyway.

Otherwise, launch that campaign you've been thinking of right now.

Is it a different genre? Don't be concerned about that. Any story can fit into almost any genre. Kurowsawa's Seven Samurai has been retold as a western, a medieval epic, and a space opera. Seven Samurai actually relies on its time and place to make sense of its set up, and yet it's still easy to shift into almost any genre imaginable.

The point is this: The random crap that completely derails campaigns is only a problem if you insist that your campaign has to have rails. We all want to run more campaigns than we'll ever possibly cram into cram into our tabletop RPG time budget. This is an opportunity, not a tragedy.

At this stage, if the players have pushed things so far off course and into the realm of solving all the problems you threw in front of them, your old campaign is over. Start a new one inside this one.

Next time, we'll talk about prep and planning for flexibililty.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Making Success Interesting, Part II

"They've got us surrounded, the poor bastards."

Last time, I wrote about avoiding the urge to counter a player's success. If the game takes a sudden, dramatic turn in the players' favor, take a moment to collect your thoughts and think things over. It's easy to make a snap judgment that simply denies the players their victory.

So, you're taking a break, sipping your beverage of choice, and wracking your brain. What now? Take heart in the quote above. You're the GM. Any difficulties you face are only temporary.

To start with, success comes with consequences. This is a great rule to keep in mind for things like social checks and character influence, but it applies to things like dropping a balor with a single, lucky crit.

A lucky check or crit can spell the end of an adventure, but it's just one part of your campaign. As a GM, you're always playing the long game. Resist the urge to try to resolve things at the table in the current session. Great campaigns are what keep gaming groups going. Your goal is to make sure that this turn of events feeds into your campaign.

Hang some long-term consequences on to a great victory and make it all the more memorable and pivotal to your campaign. Take a step back, think about what's happening, and turn the event into the flashpoint for your campaign's next act.

It's actually pretty easy to implement, and best of all you don't need to think on your feet in the current session. Just play through the PC's epic victory, and work the consequences of their success into the next session.

Use a little aikido in your campaign. Don't fight against the character's success. Lean into it, turn your thoughts in its direction, and accelerate it out of the characters' control. Fighting against the flow of the game is the surest way to bring a campaign to a halt.

The PCs kill a balor. An alchemist tracks down the body and uses it to create a virulent poison used in a series of assassinations

The good-aligned PCs charm the socks off the evil warlord. He puts them in charge of sacking and burning a halfling village.

The PCs evade every trap in the Tomb of Bror and claim the Hammer of Damnation. The high priests of Jagra dispatch 33 unholy assassins to reclaim it.

Not only have you preserved the PCs' success, but you made it even more important by tying it into your campaign's larger story. By answering a tactical twist in your campaign with a strategic shift, you keep the characters and their successes (and failures) as a central piece in shaping the campaign.

Next time, what to do and what to avoid when you absolutely must respond to a game changing event in the midst of a session.

Making Success Interesting, Part I

I had the chance to play Dungeon World over the holiday break. The game went well, even if we did mar it with our typical propensity to turn any RPG into the plot of a Marx brothers movie.

Dungeon World emphasizes making success interesting, which is a pretty nifty approach. A lot of RPGs and bloggers spill ink about making failure interesting. We've all heard the tale of the investigative adventure that went south because the players blew the Spot Hidden check they needed to advance the plot. In fact, Robin Laws designed an entire RPG system around that problem.

In my experience, making failure interesting is fairly easy once you understand why to do it. It doesn't even come into play in some campaign styles.

In a sand box campaign, a roadblock merely propels the group to some other path or location. Can't unlock a door in the Caves of Thuum? Then head over to the Burning Fortress and come back when you level up. In many ways, choke points and barriers help make a sandbox come to life. They encourage the kind of adventure browsing and strategic thinking that make sand boxes come to life. If there's no one, single path, you can't derail the campaign with a roadblock.

Even in more story oriented games, it doesn't take too much for a DM to set failure outcomes to keep the action moving forward. That blown Spot Hidden check in Call of Cthulhu gives you directions to the cultist's hideout, but you miss the clue that points to the the real, unguarded entrance to her base. Like I said above, I think most GMs learn to work around this once they see the underlying issue for what it is.

Making success interesting allows you to unclench your sphincter as a GM. It lets players feel cool about what they can do, while also driving the action forward. You don't have to worry about salting a player's success with failure, or fear for a spell or combo breaking your game.

My first, and most important piece of advice, is this: If your first reaction to player's die roll or action is to try and deny the success, stop the game. In the heat of the moment, it's easy to panic and try to derail the action. Maybe the players threaten to mess up your prepped material. Maybe they threaten to turn your carefully crafted, scary monster or NPC into a complete joke.

The first step to keeping things interesting is to never be afraid of pausing the game. Not everyone is awesome at thinking on their feet, and your first reaction is rarely the best possible one. As long as you don't pause the game too often, it's a great tool to catch your breath, think about things, and come up with a good idea.

Best of all, if your group is anything like mine pausing the action is easy. Call for a bathroom break. Stop to pour yourself a drink. If anything, the question of what will happen after that natural 20 on a Bluff check will only increase the players' anticipation and engagement with the game. The break gives you a mini clilffhanger while you sort out what to do.

So, the first rule is this: Don't panic. If you're about to panic, stop the game, get a fresh beverage, put your feet up, and take five. You're the GM. It's your right to pause the game whenever you want.

Tomorrow: Now that you've bought yourself some time, what the heck do you actually do?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Dungeon of Random Tables

As a DM, I like to improvise from a set of fairly loose notes. I like being surprised as a DM. On the other hand, improvising requires a level of energy and invention that's not always there.

To get around this issue, I designed a dungeon as a set of random tables. An entry in the dungeon looks like this:

2. Audience Chamber
Visitors to the cult's lair wait here until their audience with the high priest. There are four bedrolls, a barrel of water, a bucket, and a small cabinet stocked with food and drink (6 days worth) here.

1d6-2 visitors are here. (Allows for an empty room.)
50/50 that they are simple hunters or trappers here to trade, or dark pilgrims seeking to join
Use bandit stats for either
Hunters aren't looking for a fight. Even chance that the cultists try to trick or attack PCs

This isn't rocket science, but it had two benefits to me in play.

First, it was fun as a DM not knowing what was in he room until the PCs entered it. It made the adventure more interesting to run, as I was as much an audience for it as the players.

Second, it makes for a very dynamic environment. It made the dungeon feel like a living place with only a small amount of effort on my part.

I used randomness in a few ways:

  • Absence/presence of inhabitants, plus their numbers
  • Attitudes/general initial reaction (violence, talking, deception, flight)
  • State of traps and other features (recently trigger, broken, normal)
  • Odd events, like whether the two rival ogres in a room happen to be fighting when the PCs approach
Overall, so far in play it has worked well to make the dungeon come to life. As long as your dungeon map is reasonably non-linear, it can have interesting effects on the flow of play.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Digital Toolkit: The Evernote Dungeon

Right before GenCon, I ran a dungeon crawl adventure using my iPad, a set of dice, and monster stat blocks written down on index cards.

On my iPad, I had GoodReader loaded up with PDFs of the rulebooks I needed to reference. For the adventure, I tried something different. I wrote up the dungeon using Evernote. It worked out pretty well.

If you're not familiar with Evernote, head over to its web site to get a basic overview. I've read that it started as someone's attempt to create an app to help keep track of a D&D campaign. Whether that's true or not, it's been invaluable in organizing my own campaigns.

For dungeons, here's how I use Evernote.

  1. I create a new notebook, using the dungeon's name as the notebook's name. For multiple levels in a single dungeon, I create multiple notebooks.
  2. I grab an image of the dungeon map and pop that in as the first note in the notebook. I also insert any general notes about the dungeon in this note, like random encounter tables. I use a leading character in the note's title that ensures that it's in the notebook's top position.
  3. During the game, I keep that note open to track where the party travels and such.
  4. I create a separate note for each dungeon room, and inside that note write down all the typical stuff you normally need to run that chamber. The irritating thing is that using letters instead of numbers makes it easier, as Evernote breaks out notes in separate rows for each letter of the alphabet, by note title. Numbers work OK, but you end up with all of your notes shelved into a single row.
  5. In play, I close out the dungeon map note and open the corresponding room note when the characters enter an area.
So that's basically it. I don't bother with monster stat blocks in the notes, instead handling them the old fashioned way via hand written index cards or print outs.

So, that's my experience with mapping dungeons in Evernote. It worked out well in play.

Monday, August 19, 2013

GenCon Wrap Up Part I: Avoiding Con Crud

Or: Why I am happy to shake hands at a con.

The last con crud I picked up was in 2008, and I'm pretty sure it was from a meal. I've been to dozens of shows over that time, shook a lot of hands, and even had a roommate come down with the flu in mid-con. So what's the secret? It's super simple.

  • Hydrate. Drink plenty of water, soda, or whatever.
  • Aim for six hours of sleep each night. I try to avoid caffeine after mid-afternoon to help with this rule.
  • Eat well. I eat at least one salad per day and fruit whenever I can. You can usually find a place in the con center selling apples or bananas alongside breakfast foods.
  • Wash your hands. Hot water, soap, and recite the alphabet A to Z to time scrubbing.
  • Resist the urge to touch your face, eyes, and nose. You can't catch a cold from germs hanging out on your hands. Those little buggers need an entry vector. Don't give them one.
  • Assume no one else is washing their hands. It's kind of paranoid, but it's an easy way to remind myself to avoid touching my face and to wash up before eating. All it takes is That Guy to shake your hand before you chow down on an apple.
  • I know some people don't shake hands, but really if you do all this stuff you don't need to worry about. Even if you avoid handshaking, you're still exposed to tons of stuff that you can only counter by washing your hands and taking care of yourself.