Monday, April 20, 2009

A Basic Goal of DMing

The best thing a DM can do (thinking specifically of D&D here), is to do his best to push the party to absolute, utter defeat*, and then watch them try to wiggle their way out, with the party's victory determined solely by their choices and abilities.

Discuss!

(Of course, given how good I am at judging response rates, this is the post that no one will comment on.)

*With defeat defined by the campaign and the group's play style. It could be death at the hands of a growling demon in the lowest level of a dungeon, or the evil archduke's successful ascension to the empire's throne.

34 comments:

Chgowiz said...

Depends on the campaign.

I think 'defeat' in a sandbox would be combat defeat at the hands of the monsters or opponents. Since I play my monsters to their utter maximum ability, I agree in that regards.

In a broader context, since a sandbox is player driven, I guess 'defeat' at a campaign level would be if the players just give up and hate the campaign.

In a sandbox with a story ticking alongside the players (which is probably the best way I can define the campaign I run for my family only) defeat is probably similar to above or only if they get caught up in the bigger events and get involved. Then yes, there has to be a sense that they can 'fail' and I am going to referee the events in a fair way. The world isn't going to make it easy on them, but I'm also not going to cheat the players of a well deserved victory. They're going to have to earn it.

Why do you posit this, though? It seems... I don't know... like saying "the sky is blue"?

Greg Sanders said...

Given DnD's use of dice, I don't think you can make it such that the result is entirely dependent on choices and abilities. If you work in the effects of dice, then there's the question of whether success assumes average dice rolls or if there's some margin of error for bad luck.

Beyond that, I like some allowance for mistakes and getting to marginal victory.

Mike Mearls said...

"I guess 'defeat' at a campaign level would be if the players just give up and hate the campaign."

I think that's the campaign where the *DM* loses.

I by no means think this is a thought original to me, but I think it's something that makes RPGs, and D&D, unique. Most games kind of suck if you keep losing, but a DM can always make defeat interesting (you wake up in the duke's dungeons; you assemble a party to avenge the fallen; defeat also doesn't have to mean death - you fail to prevent the demon lord from razing the town, or the priest of Hextor escapes.)

Mike Mearls said...

Greg - I think that the dice are what make things interesting. They're a shield between the DM and the player. If the players roll 5 crits in a row, that's life, and vice versa. They're really the neutral arbiter in the game, not the DM.

Admittedly, a good DM is as neutral as possible, but there's always a bias. The dice don't have any biases.

Chgowiz said...

That's my point though - in a sandbox campaign, defeat is going to be out of the DM's hand from a strategic perspective since there's no big huge plot/story/battle to lose. So player defeat is more about a smaller level, such as a battle or, in my case, the players facing a monster they can't defeat right now. That troll mage is a marked monster though...

Brock Cusick said...

I'm not sure it's the "best" thing a DM can do (there are many important aspects of DMing, and I'm not sure which one (if any) is the most important), but it's certainly a necessary thing for really good gaming.

LesInk said...

A friend of mine and I have talked about what he likes best in a good game. In short, he would say, "Make me feel like my character is going to die, but don't kill him." In short, "push me to the limit" but "let my ingenity pull it back out". The key is that it has to be believable and somehow the GM must not be cheating on the player's behalf -- just helping push the scenario one way or another.

Rob Conley said...

I agree, however making this happen is another trick altogether.

In 30 years of tabletop and 15 years of Fantasy LARPS (NERO) this is a tough thing to pull off. The best method I found is to feed in a horde of relatively low level creatures. This give you fine control over the difficulty of the encounter.

The problem with the approach that the chance of attacking the party with a horde is not common.

zoombaba said...

It seems like the more I push the players to the "brink" of defeat, and then they succeed, the more they love me.

I don't pull any punches and it seems to make a better game. Of course, I do say "Do you want to see?" after I say "Natural 20."

yeloson said...

For most cases of D&D: Yes.

People like a thrill, people like a challenge, and unlike a videogame, it's really wack to try to get everyone together for several hours to do mindless grinding.

On the flip side, though, I'd say the BEST thing a DM can do (and most games, a GM), is find stuff to make the players care.

You care to win because winning is fun, but you REALLY care because you actually don't want to see Winterkeep burn to the ground, along with all the friends you made there.

buzz said...

I would agree 100%. The DM's job is to play fair, but play hard. And, yeloson, I absolutely think that "playing hard" is inclusive of making the players care. Though, I do think the need for that can depend on the group's overall style. Some people will be happy with just being pushed tactically to the brink, even if they are not pushed there emotionally.

Chgowiz, I don't think sandbox play really makes a difference. If anything, not pulling punches (and player choice) would seem a prerequisite for good sandbox play.

Chgowiz said...

@Buzz - I agree, which was why I was addressing the concept of 'defeat' in a sandbox vs. 'defeat' from a plot-story-driven campaign. I think they are two very different concepts.

What is interesting is my experience that once players get in a 'pull no punches/lethality is very possible' game, they like it opposed to the fudging/no-death campaigns. That's my anecdotal experience, but it's encouraged me to make sure to be fair, roll the dice in front of the players and play hard/have fun with it.

Wickedmurph said...

I'm of mixed mind about this. On the one hand, some of our best gaming moments have occurred when the party was clearly outmatched, and pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. So in that regard, yes, pushing the players to the brink of defeat is good DMing.

OTOH, the very best gaming moments were, as yelosan says, when I made the players care. The death of the family that helped them when they were wounded, the capture of a major ally, being re-united with a lost relative... those didn't have anything to do with being on the "brink of defeat", but looking around at anguished faces or, in one case, tears, were better than any close fight I ever ran.

Allen G said...

I figure, I don't want to kill my players. I want them to come out of the dungeon, clutching their last hit point like it was the post precious thing on earth. If they die, that sucks. If it's too easy, that sucks too. I want it to be hard enough that they're honestly worried that one too many bad rolls will hose them. (And occasionally it does, but that makes those clutch rolls all the more memorable.)

anarkeith said...

I'd have to agree with yeloson on the caring part. If my players don't care what's going on in my game world, they're not likely to face up to the toughest challenges. That is the ones that truly threaten the world they live in.

Once they care enough to take on the ultimate evil (think Frodo agreeing to take the ring into Mordor) then you let loose the ringwraiths.

Precocious Apprentice said...

I don't pull punches. I also make my games something that my characters care about. The challenge is creating a game that allows for failure that the players feel as a failure, but makes them want to play more. Making the players care about the outcome is more important than making the characters' lives difficult.

The best GM moment I have had was watching a scoundrel rogue willingly lay down his life for some NPCs that had made him care. This was not a failure. The character had grown from a guy that didn't care about anything but himself to a guy that put it all on the line for some villagers, knowing that he wouldn't return. It was a "What does this campaign mean to you?" moment.

I think that the best thing a DM can do is get his players to have a breathless pause, followed by a "Wow.... that was cool." comment. Bringing a party to the brink of defeat is only one way to accomplish this. It is probably the most basic one, and many of the other ways depend on it, but some of the most powerful ways that this is accomplished are when a player takes a stance that is undefeatable, and defines the nature of his character. I really prefer when this is a hero defining moment, but moments when characters define themselves as rat bastards are pretty cool too. Any time a group of players can be astounded by an outcome, and think that it is great, that is a win for the game, and that is the best thing that a GM can do. Even a seeming defeat can be heroic, and those make the best games in my opinion.

Kevin Cantrell said...

I think one of the most satisfying things a player can do is something clever - whether that be piecing together the mystery in a story or the tactical use of a combat ability. In order for it to really pay off, the players need to be challenged. They will certainly have no fun in a combat where they know you are fudging the numbers. I think many of the 4E rules (balancing encounters, dying, surges, daily powers, etc.) allow for ALL dice rolls to be made in public. Letting the players watch you roll really adds to the drama.

I do however feel that death (or other forms of complete failure) should only happen when everyone at the table can see why it needs to happen. I really like your point about dealing with failure –

“Most games kind of suck if you keep losing, but a DM can always make defeat interesting”

With that in mind, I’d re-phrase your basic goal and say that it is to always keep things interesting. An interesting obstacle that the players DO overcome is one that is challenging; they were pushed to their limits and only by their wits survived. An interesting obstacle that the players FAIL to overcome is much harder to handle. Good DMs think of clever ways to deal with failed skilled challenges and combats – ways that make things harder for the players, but still keep them engaged.

Mike said...

I have a hard time pushing my group. In the past few modules, I've only really threatened players a couple of times. One big mistake I make is thinking that Solos can push parties into that direction when they really can't unless they're accompanied by a pile of normal guys too.

Overall, I'm just having a hard time getting a good output of damage from most monsters. Granted, my group has a ton of extra healing (both a paladin and a cleric) and they play really well together. It's hard for me to challenge them.

Advice graciously accepted.

buzz said...

Kevin Cantrell: "Good DMs think of clever ways to deal with failed skilled challenges and combats – ways that make things harder for the players, but still keep them engaged."

One of the best nuggets of advice from the excellent Spirit of the Century RPG (and found in others, too) is that you should not be calling for a roll unless both outcomes are equally interesting. Rolls then become branching mechanisms rather than roadblocks.

Granted, D&D is somewhat different from SotC in this regard, but I think that the basic sentiment still applies. E.g., if there's nothing desirable or interesting about failing a particular skill challenge, you shouldn't be doing that skill challenge.

Basically, it's kinda "Roll the dice or say yes," but not entirely.

Jeff Hubbard said...

I concur with the original post. A risk-less fight is boring, impossible situations aren't fun either. Not every single fight needs to be edge-of-death, but the balance of the campaign should feel like it's the players playing that saves the day, not their class, or stats, or items, or the DM's coddling.

I rarely, rarely pull punches, and only if the fun of playing out the encounter is being impeded, not just the danger. I roll in the open, so I typically have to lower defenses or adjust aura ranges if I'm going to fudge. I've had players nearly left behind for dead, at 2 death saves failed and rolling at -2, etc, and one PC that a good roll from Splug in KotS (they loved that little guy from there on out!) but otherwise no actual deaths.

Mike Mearls said...

Hey Mike,

A good way to push the threat level up is to:

* Rely on more monsters, rather than fewer guys of higher levels.

* Use artillery, and make it hard to get to them.

* If there's a lurker in the encounter, wait until round 2 or 3 before it makes its attack.

* Aid another is your friend. Teamwork is huge for the PCs, and it's just as big for the monsters. If a critter is about to unleash its big, bad attack, have its buddies use aid another to help ensure the hit.

* Splitting up the party is helpful, too. I managed that twice last night, simply by placing enemies just out of reach of the party. One PC dashed ahead while the rest of the group stuck around to finish off the main group of enemies.

Brock Cusick said...

Just chiming in again. I said before that I though "lethal fights" was good but not the best thing, and the posters that came after reminded me of what the best thing is: making the gamers care.

D&D isn't a competitive game like basketball or chess, or even bloodbowl or Talisman. There's the RP half of RPG, and that means there should be emotional involvement in the story and seeing to it that a certain outcome is achieved.

Quick anecdote from my most recent experience as a PC, which was an Iron Heroes campaign in The Forgotten Realms. There were a lot of tough fights, but occasionally we'd have fights were we cared about not-dying but didn't really care about winning - if we had never fought that fight it just wouldn't have mattered to the larger story. On the other hand, there were several fights that were less dangerous but "better" in the emotional sense.

Probably the best example of how far from "really lethal" you can get and still feel satisfying was when our 7th level group took on a lone 4th level Human Expert (the D&D 3.x NPC class). This guy had been hounding us for months with mercenaries, setting rival gangs on us with planted evidence, political machinations, etc. When we cornered him in his study in his underground lair it was like Superman vs. Lex Luther, but with Superman high as a kite on Red Kryptonite. I didn't even allow him to monologue; in the surprise round I ran directly across the room, one-armed his desk out of the way, and used a Destiny Point to get a second action allowing an attack. I stunted, rolled a hit with my Size-Large Bastard Sword, and got good damage. The others piled on, but I think he was dead before the last guy got to act. Damn that was satisfying - high fives all around.

I feel juiced just writing about it. The fights with the cornered Dire Crocodile or the Aboleth were crazy, but they just didn't feel as good.

Bart said...

I only started DM-ing again a few months ago, a four of my friends and I finally managed to make some time to play and we started on KoTS. They don't have a defender, which makes it easier to make it hard on them, even without the defender though I still run encounters for for 5 instead of 4. It's a nice way to keep it gritty, they even started a discussion on wether the ranger should reroll to a defender. Luckily the ranger didn't feel like doing that, I had already plans for an intermezzo keyed on his background.

Controlling the pace has proven to be a lot easier for me in this edition than in 3rd. Personally I don't think pushing the party has anything to do with the dices or fudging them. If one encounter ends up being easier because of the roll of the dice, just have reinforcements come in halfway during the fight. If an encounter is turning out tougher than expected find roleplaying reasons for bad tactics or even retreating enemies. Beyond that I sometimes give enemies bonuses or penalties on their tohit to adjust a fight, recharge powers are perfect for this as well, defenses not so much since my players tend to remember which numbers have hit before.

I do think though that pushing only goes so far, they need to have reprieve and plenty of easier encounters for those really tough fights to stand out.

As for a party with an abundance of healing; deny them an extended rest once in a while or give them good reason to push on themselves, eventually they run out of healing surges.I think reinforcements are especially useful here since it doesn't overwhelm the party (and the DM) with too many enemies at once.

Sunday we play again, they're 4 encounters away from Karalel, 2 from reaching lvl 4. They're fresh now after a really hard time with the hobgoblins and I still don't know if i want to let them have an extended rest before facing Karalel.

Wally said...

The idea of lethality having anything to do with the success/goals of a campaign is of course stupid - it confuses (dramatic) means and ends.

Well.

What's the goal of the referee in a football game? To make sure both teams play fair and to the best of their abilities.

What's the goal of a novelist? To establish an interesting situation and show her characters making interesting choices over time - and to follow through the consequences of those choices. To excite and engage the reader, via whatever means.

So...what's the goal of the DM? To offer the players interesting choices, enforce fair play in the eyes of the players, and match the complexity and intensity of player situations/actions to the ongoing story. (e.g. The Coconut of Quendor isn't guarded by three dozen kobold minions.) Not just complication but intensity - a crucial distinction.

In other words, Mearls's definition is a good one, but 'watch' is certainly the wrong word. One hopes the DM feels she's wiggling out of trouble along with the PCs - putting obstacles in their way for the same reason a writer inflicts punishment upon her characters.

Wally said...

Probably the best example of how far from "really lethal" you can get and still feel satisfying was when our 7th level group took on a lone 4th level Human Expert (the D&D 3.x NPC class). This guy had been hounding us for months with mercenaries, setting rival gangs on us with planted evidence, political machinations, etc. When we cornered him in his study in his underground lair it was like Superman vs. Lex Luther, but with Superman high as a kite on Red Kryptonite. I didn't even allow him to monologue; in the surprise round I ran directly across the room, one-armed his desk out of the way, and used a Destiny Point to get a second action allowing an attack. I stunted, rolled a hit with my Size-Large Bastard Sword, and got good damage. The others piled on, but I think he was dead before the last guy got to act. Damn that was satisfying - high fives all around.Quoted for TRUTH and AWESOME. :)

Chgowiz said...

The idea of lethality having anything to do with the success/goals of a campaign is of course stupid - it confuses (dramatic) means and ends.I didn't know I was with stupid - what was *I* thinking?

Sarah said...

Well, a female gamer needs to have a say here. I agree as well. As stated so well by "Buzz": "The DM's job is to play fair, but play hard... making the players care." Trying to be against the players is totally counterproductive, but if you set them up in a situation where there is extreme emotional value to the characters AND players, a little "defeat" goes a long way. I recently had a DM set my group up in a no-win situation, which ended up being extremely emotionally gripping, and made us, as players, look at the "bad guys" in a new light, as it was our group that had to make those same hard, and damning, choices. Rockin' fun!

ChattyDM said...

I know I'm 2 days late to the party and I 'commented' on this post by writing one myself... However, comments on my post have brough me to ask a question and I'm posting it back here:

Should a DM correct for player skill and team-work in designing encounters? D&D 4e is truly a team game and once your players “get” that, they are hard to challenge in a balanced way.

And if you do correct, are you just sliding the scale up to bring the PCs to the same level than they’d have if they didn’t cooperate in a normal encounter or are you just adjusting the scale to maintain the level of tension at the same point?

I don’t know how many other DMs out there have such Synergistic players, but mine is truly a ‘performing’ team and I’m asking myself how to keep the challenge without punishing the ‘phantom’ advantage granted by great teamwork.

richgreen01 said...

I agree that some of the best sessions are when the battles are hard fought. On my Monday night game we play in a pub and there is no room for a screen so all my rolls are in the open - I think this makes things more exciting too in some way.
Really like the "aid another" tip!

buzz said...

ChattyDM: "Should a DM correct for player skill and team-work in designing encounters?"

I think if there's a really obvious trend in your group (they are tactical geniuses, or they are rules-inept), you certainly need to keep it in mind. I'd think odds are often good that you're playing with people roughly on the same page as you in that regard, so it can often be a non-issue.

Not to mention, getting smacked down a few times is how you learn, right?

I think it's somewhat a separate issue from what Mearls was posting about, though. I.e., it presumes a functional group that's basically on the same page with regards to how they play D&D. I don't think you can really address the "play hard" issue if that's not in place.

Squirrely said...

I don't know about defeat, but I never hesitate to throw something at my PCs because I think it's too hard. PCs have a way of coming up with ingenious solutions I never thought of. I may not always strive for defeat, but I don't pull my punches.

AzaLiN said...

Wally, that's amazing; that's the single best thing I've read in 2 days of reading blogs!

It's totally right that you need to hit the players hard to make them care. If a player is falling asleep at the table, the easiest and often best thing to do is to throw a hard encounter or series of encounters at them, make them really think, and plan, and become engaged. That said, good pacing demands easy patches, or else it'll feel like a grind.

Actually, right now I'm having a tricky time maintaining the difficulty curve in my campaign right now too: I'd like to wear the party down and use attrition against them, except that every extended rest they're good as new. Without that attrition playing a role, there's not much point to a lot of the standard and easier encounters because they take longer to set up than to conclude on a grid, and the characters are usually full or near full hp afterwards anyway. That being the case, being neither challenging nor dangerous, I'm having a hard time making them worthwhile in gameplay-enjoyment/worthiness terms!

Any thoughts? My tentative plan is to use a small number of mostly hard encounters in a session, with some easier ones for contrast and the power-high for the power-gamers.

ps, feel free to look around my new blog!
http://scrollean.blogspot.com/

buzz said...

I was listening to a great podcast and heard what was basically the following:

A DM's job is to discover what the players are going to do with all the cool stuff she's created. That is the basic goal. The DM has no ending in mind, does not guide the game towards any predetermined outcome, and acts as an impartial, but excited, arbiter.

So, the DM plays around with all the nifty rules for designing adventures and encounters that are in the 4e DMG, and puts into the game world the resulting constructs. Then, they help the players engage with all that stuff in hopes of seeing all the cool and unexpected outcomes that arise from the interaction.

That said, the DM certainly can't *plan* on bringing the characters to the edge of defeat, as that implies some sort of predetermination. But, obviously, the game is going to be more fun when the players are challenged (and, ideally intrigued) by what the DM has prepared.

brokenmarrow said...

"I guess 'defeat' at a campaign level would be if the players just give up and hate the campaign."

How come if its a good session, it's said the game system is good. But if it's bad, it's said the GM lost or failed?

Can't that sort of 'defeat' be partly to do with the game system?