Sunday, January 31, 2010

Granularity

Harlo, commenting on a post two previous, makes a fine and valuable point, saying,
“... I feel like this attitude [table posted] can open the game to a level of granularity and intimacy that can become both cumbersome and uncomfortable."
Never a truer word, given the case for probably the majority of players who might read this blog (using the Internet as a measure).  They tend to play with strangers quite often, either at conventions or where perhaps half the players or less are 'regulars'.  It would be sincerely difficult to tell a stranger that they are gay, or that they are a clinical moron, or that their character is a racist.  I admit honestly I had not considered this aspect - but then, I know everyone I play with, even the occasional new character, since I measure them before ever letting them play.  If I found myself with a player who was made uncomfortable by my style, I don't know what they'd think of my private life.  As for my online party ... well, if they can read this blog and the one with the campaign, they should know fairly well what to expect.

I say this not to excuse the tables, but to explain why I had not considered Harlo's point - that the game is played with strangers.

Football with my friends might include a fair bit of ass grabbing and similar horseplay - but I would not act like that if I met strangers playing in a park and asked to join.  I'm getting much too old for football (except against other old farts), but the principle holds.  And I would not hesitate to say, approvingly, that if you play with people who would be made uncomfortable with too great a level of detail, DON'T use these tables.

As written, that is.

I pause to mention that such things, posted on this blog, are there to be mined for detail and useful matter, and not necessarily to be accepted dogmatically.  I don't take the DMG dogmatically, so there's no reason why some fool's postings should be seen as inviolable.  Strip it, simplify it, wreck it, discard it, improve it or criticize it ... I would, if it were someone else's.

But granularity itself is a worthwhile topic, so I should seize upon it.

I am, in one of my other incarnations, a novelist.  This means that when it comes to telling a story, I feel I have so much to say that a mere one or two thousand words just won't cut it.  I have to rattle on for tens of thousands of words.  Thankfully, there's a certain taste for novels in the western world, and writers can be forgiven for slapping together a hundred thousand words in the interest of what is - sometimes laughingly - called entertainment.

So where it comes to granularity, I somewhat come at the subject from a position of very much and more please, thank you.  And yet, I shall tell you fervently, if I get too granular with my own stuff, I get too bored to go on writing.  Yes, that's right, I am sometimes bored by my own ideas.  Which explains why my computer is filled with folders of novels that died in the attempt.

D&D, for me, is an outreach of my desire to craft 'scenes' without personally designing either the plot or the characters.  However granular a series of tables might seem, giving 12 details about a character, such a character based on these details would be a sour character indeed.  I provide, if you will, the fodder, to tweak the imagination of others (who often dabble as writers) ... and who, often, have already invented several dozen characters in the D&D milieu.  They starve for ideas - else why would they buy and buy whatever garbage the industry churns out?

Having spun out these details, I get the hell out of it.  Does the character desire not to be homosexual?  No problem, I won't enforce it - it's a ghost from their past.  Are they a criminal or a moron ... well, yes, I will enforce that, but they DID choose their stats, I'm only painting the picture more clear.  I think most can agree that a five wisdom is virtually always played like a 10 wisdom.

Is it too much?

Going through the entire gamut of everyone's characters (and henchmen) in my world and updating them for the tables posted (and not posted), a process that took about an hour, I did give pause.  I had exactly Harlo's concern in my mind.  Had I gone to far?  Was this too much?

It would be, no doubt, if such rolls were constantly compared against a character's every action, as alignment is.  Thankfully, I have a three-month record of my style of play, that demonstrates clearly that I do NOT double-check a player's actions.  I would never, ever say, I'm sorry, your family loves you, your player would absolutely refuse to desert them to travel halfway around the world.  But many DMs very definitely would play it this way.  Harlo has good reason to treat anything like this like poison.  He only wants his character given the freedom he desires, to play whatever he likes, how he likes.

I can give the reassurance that I play that way, but no doubt these tables, and many others like them, offer opportunities to the contrary.

For my own interest, and by my own personality, I will continue to pursue granularity where it does not personally bore me, and where I can see it does not apparently bore others.  I recommend that others do the same.  I won't be bored, any more than I will be railroaded.

But as to the level of granularity which is decent, how can I explain it?  I loved reading War and Peace.  Many find it deadly dull.  Many love watching Full Metal Jacket, a fairly granular Vietnam movie.  I find it deadly pedantic and obvious.  Whatever floats one's boat, I say.  If they still come to play in your world, you're doing something right.  If they stop coming, you're doing something wrong.

Yes you, the DM.  It's either boring or it isn't.  And granularity is certainly a consideration where it comes to that.

Long Chances

As it happens, last night the first character I rolled up using the strength table managed to roll an 18 as one of his stats. He chose to put it on strength and be a fighter - and he rolled his percentage strength. Everyone of course joked and mocked that he should roll double-zeros, whereupon the bastard did, indeed, roll two zeros, giving himself an 18/00 strength. Following that, he rolled upon the strength table, and damned if he didn't roll a 1 on a d20, giving himself the hysterical strength result. So within a week of posting this, the 1 in 25,920 chance was managed.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Wisdom Redux

All right then, starting with Interpersonal Relationships.

The worst results are primarily about being exiled from the state; a traitor would be vigorously pursued, someone excommunicated might bear a mark of shame, a wanted criminal might have chains on their wrists (if they had just escaped) or are simply being hunted.  The principal fact would be that, in the realm where the game starts, these people are known and may even be actively hunted.

13 above is a particularly nasty result, and as a DM you might want to grant some means by which the character can be redeemed.  In this case, it is not the player's charisma that is driving others away, but the player's deeply held belief systems - prejudicial, perhaps, or simply of the sort that fails to produce any faith at all, ie., the player has been a coward so long, they can't be anything else.  Since it requires a wisdom of 7 or less to get this roll, it must be impressed on the player that such a low wisdom MUST be played in accordance with the character's ability stat ... that is, as something of an intolerant prick, a selfish asshole or an ignoramus.

The land of a character's birth is determined in my world by another system ... if it happens the character has been exiled from the same land where the player's happen to be, we are back to worst results - except that it could be argued the player is in the process of leaving ...

Sworn enemies, the action that has saved a member of the community (9 below), the action that gained the approval of the nominal lord (12 below), or the 'miracle' (17 below) are left up to the discretion of the DM.  Rather than produce a list or a table for these things, I tend to consider how these results juxtapose with the many other results of these tables.  Combinations usually suggest their own explanations.

I think most of the other results are self evident.  If the character has been made a member of the Illuminati, recognize that this allows for some interesting knowledge, but the player would NOT be an important member of the secret society ... only one of the many peons, possibly to be given instructions when the time seems appropriate.

Prudence would be those things towards which the character is inclined, or those things the character has determined that they should know.

Again, great ignorance, great foolishness or craven behavior can only strike those with pathetically low wisdom scores.  Wisdom from the Player's Handbook gives modifiers for certain spells - a character who was determined to be greatly ignorant would have as much as a -8 modifier against charm spells and the like.  Very poor business, that.

The results for 10 through 13 above, where characters or races are lacking parts of their abilities which they would normally be expected to have, is meant to reflect the habit of ignoring their masters and tutors, due to their low wisdom.

"Falling in love" is something rarely done in D&D ... but believing that people really don't have a choice of whom they become enfatuated with, I sometimes have characters roll a saving throw against their wisdom, to determine if they have been bit hard by the bug (or Cupid's arrow, if you prefer).  The homoerotic inclination is similar ... but then, who ever heard of homosexuality and D&D?

I treat starting addictive habits, and kicking addictive habits, as saving throws, like any other poison or paralyzing effect.  I often add modifiers, when they seem appropriate ... usually an additional -1 modifier for every saving throw failed.

The result for 6 & 7 below represents the first time I've ever considered giving starting players more than zero experience; but here, and in this case, I think 10% is warranted.  It's only a moderate head start.

The results for 9 through 12 below represent simple crosstraining with other disciplines, or secrets gained from other races.

An 'opportunity purchase' goes like this.  The player is in a dungeon, and realizes they've forgotten to buy a lamp ... but what do you know, by the benefit of their wisdom, THEY DID remember to buy a lamp (retroactively).  Assumes the character has the money to pay for the purchase, else it isn't possible.

Of course, the result for 14 & 15 below requires my combat system.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Intelligence Redux


Quite a lot to explain here.

'Choices' are meant to comprise those things a character does to his or herself ... things they might do to others are covered under Wisdom.  It is a fairly ad hoc logic, I know, but willy nilly these things had to arranged somewhere, and I see in wisdom the sense of prudence, whereas intelligence I see a sense of, well, 'sense.'

So the result is the consequence of what a character might have done with their life prior to the point of becoming a player character ... a bad thing they must now live with, or a good thing they've been rewarded by.  I'm not happy with the result of rolling equal to one's intelligence, but I'm stymied.  I don't know what I can put there that's neutral (advice welcome).

Most of the positives involve money, since most other things I might give would overbalance a campaign ... besides, having lots of money is nice.

'Talent' describes things within the limits of the players potential for thinking or things the individual has been able to teach himself (outside source suggests wisdom): how to better lead men (subtract one from morale means to raise it, as morale is the minimum number that must be rolled to succeeed ... thus the morale is a higher number and harder to successful roll); to play and instrument and so on.

Starting from the top, it isn't possible to get the 'idiot feeblemind' result without having a 3 intelligence; the 'imbecile feeblemind' without having a 4 or less intelligence, or the 'imbecile moron' without having a 5 or less intelligence.  Even then, any of these three results are unlikely, as are the high results for characters with a 15 or better intelligence.  The descriptive names, incidentally, are those popular in the 1950s ... political correctness be damned.  Those names have a longer history than any used today, and the game is about history.  If you are offended because you know of someone fighting uphill against such designations, you have my support in your struggle, but the names stand.  Very low intelligence characters should have a chance of being utterly incapable of taking care of themselves.  It is sort of the point.

It is possible to start the game without any proficiencies at all, from this chart ... so that all attacks in the lower levels would be done with the non-proficiency penalty to hit.  Sucks, huh?  Note that the fighter would have at least two proficiencies, unless getting the idiot feeblemind result ... but a cleric or other class could roll 14 above their intelligence on a d20 (if they had a six intelligence) and lose both their proficiencies.  A mage could roll 6 or 7 above their intelligence (if they started with one low enough) and lose their only proficiency, until they got one at 6th level (see the Player's Handbook, p. 37).

There is one possible positive result from a low intelligence ... shown at 11 above, the character is too dumb to be charmed.  To balance this off, and after extensive investigation, I have one negative result from rolling below intelligence.  Hypersensitivity, at 12 below, is sort of the Sheldon-complex from the Big Bang Theory.  "Friendly fire" as played in my world where a character, throwing or firing a weapon and rolling a 2 'to hit', will do damage to a friendly character in the general path of the missile.  If not friendly character in that path, no friendly fire occurs.  The way I see the rule playing out would be, the hypersensitive Elliott rolls a 2 and hits Jake in the back with his dagger, then screams for 2-8 rounds about how very very sorry he is.  Basically, incapable of confidentally accepting the mistake.

Specialties and fields derive from my sage rules.  The 'father's table' refers to a list of secondary skills that the character might have, depending on their father's profession ... the higher the result on that table, the wealthier and more clever the profession.  The results here suggest that the lower the character's intelligence, the less likely it is the father will have had a middle class or upper class education, and the reverse also.

I particularly love the photographic memory result, especially for a mage - but it really isn't that useful, as it won't allow a player to navigate automatically from actually walking through a dungeon ... so unless there's a posted map outside, the character is still limited.  It will, however, help with treasure maps.

Empathy is not the Deanna Troi nonsense.  But powerful emotions implies hidden ones, not just those that are evident to anyone.  The ability is not a radio (the character doesn't 'tune in' at will), but the DM is responsible for adding information when it matters.

Clairaudience, clairvoyance and ESP are limited in that a round lasts a mere 6 seconds.  At best, they can give terrific clues, without making the character all powerful.  Their best application would be in instances involving their own party ... as in knowing where a missing member might be, or understanding a message someone in line of sight might wish to send.

Monday, January 25, 2010

They Don't Comment Here, But ...

Thank you Oddysey.

And speaking of posts that begin, "I don't always agree with Alexis ..."  Thank you Jeff, also.

Strength Redux

Apart from the occasional person telling me I'm too anal for D&D, or those who just don't get why I care about niggling details, I get some terrific feedback and thought out criticism for the rules adaptations, changes and conceptions I produce on this blog.  More so, I think, in the last six months, which suggests to me that I'm reaching that segment that DOES get why I care.

I will state once again my philosophy that an RPG is an art form.  And that a world designed to compliment an RPG is an art form.   Art forms, to have any real value, must be produced with care, with deliberate purpose, and with commensurate effort.  Art is a worthy pursuit for a human to follow, to dedicate thousands of hours of their life towards ... IF that art is painstakingly accomplished. 

In the spirit outlined above, I am posting the following table, which is an upgrade of the table that can be found here.  It incorporates, in half, a slightly modified version of the original table (family), in addition to a second chart (feats).  A d20 roll is made on each table, and the roll compared with the character's strength score, equal to or less than.


There are those who might say that particular feats above are better included under the dexterity or constitution tables, but things necessarily bleed into various stats - and an argument can always be made that a thing belongs on one side or the other.  The two constitution tables reflect 'health' and 'composition', while dexterity is divided into 'agility' and 'reflex & coordination'.  What is left over, which might vaguely suggest either dexterity or composition, but certainly involved strength, is included here.

Notes, for better clarification.

The lowest score a character can have is a 3, and the highest roll on a d20 can only be 17 above this.  There is only a 1 in 20 chance that a character with a 3 strength (a 1 in 1296 chance overall), would not be able to run.  That's only 1 chance in 25,920 (or less, if you consider there's only a 1 in 6 chance of the character putting the stat under strength).

The highest score a character can have (the background is rolled before any modifiers are applied for race or age) is an 18.  A 1 on a d20 is 17 below.  The chance of a character possessing inherent hysterical strength is 1 in 20 x 21 in 1296 (the chance of getting an 18 on 4d6 less one die).  That's approximately 1 chance in 1234).

I use rules for running where in the second round, characters can move twice normal movement, and in the third round, three times normal movement.  Thus it is possible for a character to be reduced to a maximum speed of normal, or at best one and a half, or twice speed.  Or to simply have overall speed reduced by 1.  The running skill described at '11 below' is meant to reflect a talent for jogging throughout the day.

Most of the results assume that the majority of the body is normal, while one characteristic is extraordinarily inferior or superior - the various results are not intended to be cumulative.

Athletic experience for or against generally assumes the character's chance of success or failure at that particular support is +50% or -50%.  I assign a 40% chance for most people to be successful at a physical effort they are not trained at accomplishing.  Thus, a character choosing to pinpoint dive (anyone can fall off a drop, but can they miss the rocks?) would be normally 40% (subject to other considerations - for some things a thief would be higher, for others a ranger would be higher).  With athletic experience this is increased to 60%.  Levels are not an issue.  I would suggest a +1% ability for every time the effort was made successfully.

I consider rock climbing to be easier than climbing sheer walls.

"1 or less hit points" ... characters in my world survive until -9 hit points.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Weapons

Thirty years I've been asked about the bo stick.

And the jo stick.

And the lochaber axe.

You tube needs more weapons.

Forgotten Negative

As I work on a series of tables regarding unaccounted for character abilities, I find myself stumped by a peculiar condition of role-playing games - the 'negative result' ... this being any circumstance where the character suffers a penalty towards any circumstance.  This might be a modifier to attack or damage, or a penalty on their saving throw, high subsceptibility to cold, an intolerance to alcohol ... anything a DM might care to instigate as part of a player's character.

One thing you can be sure of, if a character has a bonus modifier in a saving throw, they will not hesitate to point it out at every opportunity.  The DM need not 'keep track' of such a modifier.  But if the player has had an accident, or some genetic trait long ago determined that the character is subsceptible to, say, something uncommon like fish poison (-1 save against), you can bet the character will 'forget' that modifier six months later when stepping on a stone fish.  It may be that the character has actually forgotten - DMs regularly construct tables which get infrequent or profoundly infrequent use ... and players don't concentrate on remembering things that could someday hurt their character.  Chances are when the day comes that the character does step on a stone fish, the modifier will never be applied.

That is because responsibility for the negative aspects of a player's character invariably fall upon the DM ... no player wants to advance information that might potentially kill their character.  And like I say, it is in the player's interest to shove that information right out of their mind - that's human nature.  You might have a player digging through their character sheets and shouting, "I have a +1 attack against left-handed goat-headed transvestites who worship Lloth!" ... but you will NEVER have a character rummaging through their sheets to admit they suffer twice normal damage from falls due to the liver disease they contracted last year.

Problem is, obviously, DMs can't rationally keep track of this information either ... there's just too much of it.  Even if the DM has written a note, "Carack, -1 save vs. fish poison," the chances are this note will not see the light of day the evening the saving throw occurs.  The DM might run across the note in advance, and intentionally place the stone fish into the encounter so as to say at the appropriate moment, "AHA!  -1 save!" ... but if the fish happens to be a random encounter, forget it.

What usually happens is that three months after the DM is stuck saying, "You remember when you made that save vs. the stone fish?  Well, it was supposed to be at -1.  C'est la vie."  Although I have known DMs to argue that a minute amount of the poison has been working its way through the character's system all this time, and another save is required, this time at -10.  "C'est le morte."

And that is one possible solution - ten times the effects of any negative modifier a character forgets, but is later remembered or identified by the DM.  More likely, however, is that the modifier will never be remembered.

The default position then in most campaigns is to never supply the character with a negative modifier for anything.  For those DMs out there who consistently slag and spit upon any attempt at simulation, this makes sense.  For me personally it's a wallbanger, since without conflict to overcome, what we have is a game comprising of boring, predictable sludge, suitable for children but no one for whom sophistication is the meat of gaming.

Yes, it is a major bitch that my character's constitution is so low that eight hours of marching leaves him so weak that he can no longer lift his quarterstaff, much less gather together the magical forces necessary to sweep his enemies aside - but I want my weakness, I want to have it to bitch about, to torture the other party members with, to insist again that we have got to stop and rest because my feet hurt!  I'm not interested in running a perfect being.  Powers are not the whole game - flaws must count at equal value!

At this point I feel myself drifting into a rant about non-simulationist gaming, so I'll resist and desist.  It's time for me to go download some porn (where flaws truly don't belong).  I confess, I have no solution to force players to remember their negatives.  I only hope they do.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Getting Started

I’m writing this post just to keep it all straight for myself, because now and then I’m explaining to someone how it’s done, and now and then I have someone asking me to run in the online campaign. So I’m going to outline it here, as a template for people to follow if, and when, they want to roll up characters.

I prefer the method where 4d6 are rolled, the lowest die being discarded. I still use the same six original stats, having never been convinced of the versatility of any new stat, and I allow the player to arrange their six rolls among the stats however they like. Stats must meet the minimum requirements for characters, even after modifications for age and race, although neither modification is made at this time.

At this point, I usually point out that multi-classed are accepted, adding that the stats must meet all criteria for all classes.  Standard practice, I'm sure.

At this point the character makes their class or classes known, chooses race and chooses gender.
A player unfamiliar with my world generally asks at this point, or offers, a character background.  I am under the philosophical notion that persons are not in control of their lives up to a certain point - that point being up until the time that the character starts being a character.  Everything prior to them appearing in my world is, therefore, not under their control - except that they are the class they are, the race they are, and the gender they are.  That's it.  They can sort themselves out after they start, but until that time they have made decisions which are chosen randomly by the die.

This is done by a system I have whereby six d20 rolls are made, and compared with the original stats.  Where the d20 roll is lower, a generally positive aspect of that trait results.  Where the d20 roll is higher, a generally lower aspect results.  I posted about this here, here, here, here and here.  The tables have been upgraded bit by bit, and are due for a complete overhaul, something I plan to do in the next month or so (I want to make them more complicated).

Generally, this gives the player experience, social and familial connections, greater or less wealth, notes on appearance (we don't decide this when we're born, either), and so on.  Occasionally, normally expected abilities are restricted (a character might roll an inability to use two handed weapons, for instance), or unexpected abilities are added (characters having no penalty modifiers for using two weapons).  I try to incorporate everything I can think of, to make characters unique.  There's no rule that says the background rolls must be 'balanced' - players are either lucky or unlucky.

Fairly often, players are given 'disorders' ... which can be quite annoying to play with.  The table is part of the last link I posted above, the one about constitution.  It is possible to roll on the table more than once, thereby increasing the nature of the disorder.  For example, one roll indicating an audial disorder might indicate tinnitis; two rolls would almost certainly indicated the character was stone deaf.  I am very definite on two rolls indicating a severe condition, since the chance is so markedly low.  I came very close to rolling a character as blind a few months ago.  This table, as posted, has also undergone some changes, and will be reposted when it, too, is expanded (with the help of wikipedia, of course).

Once the rolls against stats are modified and described, the character is given his age and his birthday.  The latter simply requires a d12 and a d30 ... the latter die being useless for almost everything.  Players are thus not often born on the 31st of any month (so what if it isn't an equal chance?)  If 2-29 or 2-30 is indicated, I roll a d8 to determine if the player was born on the 31st of Jan, Mar, May, Jul, Aug, Oct, Dec or the 29th of Feb.  I have yet to have that happen once.

I've added a feature on my market tables that allows me to calculate the chance of a particular nationality being in a particular place, and use this to determine the place of birth for characters.  It is often quite far away, though the highest chance is that the character will be from a nearby province ... the randomness of it allows a fair collection of types.  Players generally seem to like being told their characters are Egyptian, Scandinavian, German, Russian or what have you - I haven't had anyone complain yet about their place of birth.  So far, I haven't added the Orient or the majority of Africa to the system, and so there are no African blacks, Chinese or Southeast Asians.  I look forward to when those are incorporated.  Players, in my experience, are not remotely biased or bigoted about such things.

Elves, dwarves and so on also come from specific areas, most times from where the population is highest, but sometimes from regions dominated by other races.  I try to produce an explanation for this - father travelled, child was raised by others, etc. ... this is helped by the background rolls against the stats, by the character's class or by the profession of the character's parent.  Often other players will offer their own suggestions, most often being quite brilliant.

For example, a character will be found to have accidentally caused the death of a parent, to be wanted for a crime in the area, and to have had a father who was a mason - and finally, to be despised by their family.  Each of these results are rolled independently.  The story writes itself; the character failed to check the ropes on a construction site, father was crushed, character is blamed (right or wrong) by owner of the building, family believes the character guilty of murder.  Add to this that the character was a dwarf living in the Crimea, and it becomes obvious why he wasn't believed by the owner; though why the family didn't believe him might be due to his intelligence (he was always a half-wit), his wisdom (he was always a crooked-minded little brat) or his charisma (makes me sick just to look at him).  Or, he might just be unlucky.

By combining the results, a character study develops.

At this point I generally roll height and weight, on a table loosely similar to the one in the DM's Guide (though I've never really liked it, I can't think of one that's better and allows the occasion wild result).  Characters are short, fat, very tall, massive ... I often get a nice mix, though now and then someone is made excessively tall.  I have a 7'5 character, and one that weighs 313 lbs.  Of course, it makes for interesting problems.

The next step is to determine the profession of the father (and sometimes the mother also, if two professions are indicated by the character's wisdom), which identifies the character's worth.  You can find my online post about that here.  This is another set of tables due for expansion, and will be worked on at the same time as the others.  I've never been happier with a secondary skills table.  Let me assure you, this one works brilliantly.

Giving the player his wealth, and access to the daunting equipment table, most of the normal things must now be done.  The player chooses spells, weapon proficiencies (I don't allow doubling of proficiencies, improvement is a question of level, not skill-choosing) and knowledge fields & specialties (clerics, druids, mages and illusionists each have different tables, found here) .  Thieves and monks get thieving skills (the same as always - for years I tried to incorporate those from the Unearthed Arcana, but players didn't find them useful and I quit trying; dex checks proved more practical).

At last, I calculate hit points.  All players start with maximum, adding constitution bonus, then one more die according to their mass.  Generally, players begin with 12 hit points or more.

And all they need is a name.

Literature

The subject is near and dear to my heart – I spend much of my time adding to the store of it, working on my ability to add to the store of it, or thinking about how to better work on my ability.


So naturally I’ve been fighting for weeks on how to write this post.

I still don’t know.

It is impossible to be certain at what point humans began to compose, from their imagination, the stuff of legend – tales not about gods, or about the deification of substance or phenomena, but stories about beasts, heroes, peoples, great battles and great catastrophes – in substance, the heart and soul of D&D. We continue today to craft and form the very same themes and conflicts that were alive in Gilgamesh, and carried down through the ages into Shang-ti, Homer, Aeneas, Amaterasu Omikami and so on.

Early versions of these stories – told around camps in forms we will never know – would exist for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before any soul would write them down. In the case of many such legends, it is uncertain whether there was a single author; most classicists would insist that there could not have been. Writing was an enormously difficult undertaking in an age without modern ink, pens or paper – a group effort seems necessary. Gilgamesh has no identified author, nor do the Eddas nor Beowulf; so too are hundreds of tales whose scribers are lost to history. Homer’s existence is hotly debated, as is his actual contribution ... once again, the same can be said for a variety of authors, right up to Shakespeare. It is evidence that literature is a sort of ‘group think’ ... an identifying cultural template with which an entire society identifies.

We often see a D&D settlement as being rather cosmopolitan, similar to our own experience with settlements, from fifty persons to fifty thousand. Truth is, most settlements prior to the Renaissance were set in cultural concrete – every person within a given culture would see every event from a similar point of view, from the template of the stories and legends they were rased into.

And thus, if one member of the village was inclined to help the party, likelihood is, every member would be – and they would associate that helping with stories from the past, the similarity of the character’s pleas, their situation or even their appearance. Discord would be a rare thing (as the Greeks understood, for moments of discord were viewed as notable and otherworldly, and not common).

Now, obviously most worlds of the imagination are going to pay very little attention to literature and its importance. To begin with, building up an entire literary motif for even one cultural entity is an impossible task for one person. At best, most people might manage the sort of lame effort accomplished by The Next Generation: “Darmok at Tanagra ... when the walls fell.” It is not as though an entire culture could speak meaningfully using three or four phrases, as represented in the episode – but it just wasn’t in it for the writers to produce more ‘deeply meaningful’ phrases ... or the producers felt there wasn’t time.

Most attempts within an RPG to create the sentiments that motivate a culture are going to find themselves up against a wall – that being that as people they themselves are already steeped in a particular literary culture: Earth’s. When we consider alternate cultures, we are trapped in our own. Discordant cultures naturally fit into patterns, such as the Polynesians vs. the Tibetans, or the Bantu vs. the Norse. Try inventing a new culture, and you will slip helplessly into the rehashing of an existing Earth culture. This, of course, being the bane of every science fiction/fantasy writer.

Worse, we’re not even familiar with the literary past of those cultures we know. I know Greek, and Roman, and English naturally, but what do I know of Hungarian folk tales? I may land a party into a West African habitat, but I’m not West African, I don’t know how they think, I can only guess. I’m stuck in my own western monoculture, and as such the ‘world’ I create is the monocultural world of my experience.

The best I can do is to read and try to absorb as much non-white culture as I can get my hands on, and hope that expands my strengths as a DM. I must argue that the improvement of a DM depends on the same thing that improves anyone: travel more, read more, learn more – break from your culture and think in another way than your own. If you want your characters to feel as though they are in an ‘adventure,’ it is your only hope.

I want just to make one more, largely unconnected point, about the struggle of the bard. I think I have created a decent character class – I’ve been testing it for more than a year, I am running three different bards in different campaigns and everyone seems happy. The characters are influential and not overly so ... they’re balanced.

What I cannot help noticing is that the characters seem disconnected where it comes to purpose. Since this ties into the point I’ve just made, I thought I’d address that here.

The tendency is for bards to see their ‘contribution’ to the world of art in terms of the very overused, very limited conception of ‘hero worship.’ How often has it been said in pulp fiction, “I shall tell the tale of your greatness” ... or words to that effect? Yet this is only half the effort.

It is hard to grasp, apparently, but the greater purpose in story-telling is not to have a nice tale to tell at a fireside. It really is to change the world. The fighter may perform an heroic deed by means such as Horatius at the Bridge, but the bard performs his or her heroic accomplishment by the production of a work like L’Morte de Arthur. Yes, it is a tale of hero worship. It is also a tale of ethical conduct, sacrifice, mortality, decay, moral triumph ... in short, themes which far surpass the crummy outlines of a man who won a combat.

But I don’t fault the players of bards. It is an illusion, so that they might pretend to be creative, as a fighter allows a player to pretend to be combative. Still, I should wish to suggest that bards occasionally consider the wider variety of what constitutes art in the world. I’ve never heard of a bard in D&D who desired to create a work of love poetry – such as Omar Khayyam or the Song of Songs; no bard ever thinks of a history along the lines of Herodotus; what player considers sarcasm or humor, like Juvenal or humor and tragedy, like Shakespeare?

There are more tales in the world than heroic tales, Horatio. Not every cultural reference we make comes from great deeds – some, quite often, come from immortal failures. We shorten ourselves at the knees when we have take so small a view.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

You Have To Love Combat

Last night, the mass combat continued.  I think it must be understood that there is a considerable amount of player angst riding on the success of this combat.  The lead character's fiefdom, and therefore the established lairs of each party member (and the money they have invested) depend on the outcome of this combat.  Since the Lord from the neighboring fiefdom has thrown in his lot, they must not only win to keep his friendship, but they must do so in a manner that does not make them appear like cretinous swine.

The same can be said for their hirelings and their followers.  As the ranger and the druid have animal friends, there is a strong interest in giving those animals more combat experience, without getting them killed.  They themselves obviously don't want to die.

I think the majority of combats, without it being intended that way, tend to be foregone conclusions - either the party will lose, or the party will win.  The interesting thing about a mass combat is that with so many variables, and so many die rolls, freakishly weird stuff will happen, resulting in unusual decisions that might never occur in a battle between four or five characters and two or three opponents.  Those decisions lead to moments of crisis, panic, triumph and immense relief - depending on how they are allowed to run out their course by the DM.

The principal problem with the mass combat "rules" strategy is the simplification of this sort of chaos.  Chaos, truly unrelieved chaos, can be one of the strongest opportunities for a player to role-play 'on the edge.'  I do not speak of mere combat, rolling dice in a round and round the table format, but a spontaneous moment in the middle of a maelstrom of arrows, pounding hooves, exploding spells and what have you, making charisma checks to convince the neighboring Lord's third henchman to take three men and GO GET HELP ... while the Lord's henchmen is arguing in the midst of it all that it's fine, no problem, take it easy.

I know that many DMs that are out there hate combat.  I know they resist it because of its repetitive nature, the manner in which it can get bogged down, the inconvenience of multiple modifiers and endless details, bantered about while half the players spin their dice or chat about the last movie they saw.  The shouting to keep it down, to get it straight, to concentrate on what the hell is happening, to make a goddamn decision about whether their player is going right and left ... and for the most part not giving a shit.

But when a combat is run well, when the stakes are greater than just treasure or experience ... when the stakes are actual living and dying, the success or failure of months of campaign creativity, the tower one spent a week designing, the hippogriff the player learned to ride (while nearly dying), and all that ... a character gets invested.  A combat, properly inserted into the campaign, not in terms of the party just riding by and thinking, "Let's take a castle," but instead, "We must take that castle or we lose everything" ... that combat is the crux and be all of the game itself.  It is the combat people remember ten years later, that they can never fully convey to a player who wasn't there: "You can't know what we went through."

We ran through two rounds of this combat last night.  We got a late start, and so we weren't able to invest the seven hours the combat needed to really make some headway.  No one was bored.  All hell, at one point, did truly break out.

Here is the combat at the end of Round Two.

The principal event was that the mastodon, featured left of center and called "Pony" (player's name for it), smashed through the wooden wall of the fort and rampaged its way through a number of goblins and hobgoblins.  The remainder formed a ring around the mastodon and are now throwing masses of spears at it.  The incidental damage rules worked great - the mastodon wounded or killed ten opponents in its first round.

At the top of the map, goblins and cavewights (the latter more or less the equivalent of ogres in the Monster Manual - my ogres are tougher still), rushed out through the gate and over the top of the wall (the cavewights can simply rush up the stairs and drop beyond the wall). They were met by glaives set vs. charge, which made quite the mess of them.  A single glaiver was able to roll triple damage, doubled for the set glaive, with a bonus of +1 from a bard's martial strains, for a total of 42 damage (maximum possible).  Much celebration followed.

At the very bottom, the group of men approaching the wall with ladders were stymied by the appearance of a wall of fire (the red line), which fried the front rank and left the whole unit in confusion.  If the unit routs, it could be a disastrous delay in opening up that front. 

To their left, the weakest group facing the castle, comprising of elven archers and peasant elves (few hit points), are faced with a group of hobgoblin's armed with polearms, coming out the gate.  My elves are not 'super humans' ... they are mere creatures with 1+1 hit dice, not much in this battle with so many high leveled persons, and more or less equivalent to hobgoblins.  The only leader among the elves is a second-level mage, a member of the party.  I don't know why they left this group so weak, but they've now sent out for help.

In the bottom right, the dire wolves, intentionally starved, are hitting the front line of glaive-setting humans.  A party cleric is marching in six zombies, and the party's 10th level mage (Garalzapan) is invisible at the top right of this mass.  That same mage is the Manor Lord of the fief being defended, and readying to cast pass wall to open up the fort.

There's a lot of detail I'm not covering - but this should give you a sense of what's going on.

Last point.  Note the line of cavalry riding up the hill (steep slopes indicated by grey areas), turning left as they reach the wall.  It becomes important.  At the front is a 5th level paladin, mounted on her warhorse.

And here is the end of Round Three

The most interesting part here came where the front four horsemen, wheeling a little bit faster than their train (one 60 degree turn per round), were able to smash into the side of the goblins at the top gate, overrun their way through the mass and cause unbelievable turmoil.  It took a good forty minutes to sort out this mess as it really got going, but damn!  Was it a lot of fun!  It is the sort of thing that no mass combat rule simulation can invent, but which ordinary combat rules (plus some refinements about overrun) manages with magnificent excitement.  No telling yet if this group will break its way in easily, or flounder in the morass that's forming.  It's supported by a 9th level druid (who just transformed from a mouse into a human) - found right against the wall and named 'Pikel' ... and much hinges on his ability to get off a few significant spells.

The Pony continues to maraud, and is now supported by the 7th level ranger upon her hippogriff ... I think they're foolish to get inside, but if the mastodon runs, it will probably be unstoppable, and the ranger can take to the wind in a crisis - in the meantime, together, they look to slaughter heartily.  This is good, because there's clearly a lot of bodies to slaughter.  The air promises to be thick with spears.

And now the polearms are moving at the elven bowmen - who fire as the party starts the next round.

The ladder force did not rout, and the 7th level cleric among them is casting dispel magic.

The glaivers supported by Garalzapan and the 6th level player monk (Shalar) are doing good work with the dire wolves ... looks like those won't be much trouble after all, despite their averaging 22-30 hp.  But then, they haven't gotten close to the walls yet, and the slingers inside haven't deployed.

Seriously.  Does it sound dull?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Many, Many Short Posts

I would like to thank both of those people who made donations to this blog in the past week.  You are marvelous, generous souls, who have raised the value of this grouchy old grognard from two cents to twenty-two dollars ... and two cents.  Gratitude is mine, saith the blogger.  May your dice be made grubby by many convivial fingers.

Many Short Posts

For those people in Gaia online promoting this blog, thank you.  But I want you to know that the user who said she was my daughter, was my daughter.  She was NOT lying.

She told me you said she was.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hey, I Don't Know Everything

Who would like to try to explain the following (found on TV Tropes and Idioms)?
"For a long while (it looks as if it's been relaxed slightly), discussing Dungeons and Dragons novels on the official Dungeons and Dragons website's forums was a banning offense, due to what appears, by reading between what few lines remain, to have been legally actionable statements and an apocalyptic, immense flame war. To this day, the moderators are explicitly forbidden from even hinting at what caused the fracas on pain of firing, and even the posts in question do not exist anymore."
It occurs prior to my experience with D&D on the web.  Before blogs, I used to avoid it like the plague.

No Anchors

Having read some comments on other blogs, I seem to have developed a reputation that my world is a complicated, overworked miasma of unending house rules – nothing, I think, could be farther from the truth.

It is a fact that I have done much work on my world. It is a fact, without question, that the trade system is extensive and by no means simple minded. But most of that is entirely invisible to the ordinary party member. The main trouble to the party member presented by my trade system is that the ‘equipment table’ includes more than 1400 items – not the sort of thing one flips through in a few minutes. Now I’ve played a character of my own, having to buy from the table, and I admit, it is daunting. But any town composed of a great many shops will take considerable time to poke through, so I don’t mind that the equipment list is extensive.

I would like to point out that overall, the disposal of a great many rules, or the refusal to play them, greatly simplifies my world. Reading anything about later editions convinces me that combat alone must be a head-banging procedure for the poor noobs introduced into it. Spot checks and other foolishness make my trade system appear simple-minded by comparison.

I think if there is an argument to be made between ‘old school’ and ‘other’; it’s that the original system, or systems, did not need a mass of rules to micromanage the effects of combat or anything else. In the 80’s there were many experimenters who attempted to incorporate Rolemaster hit locations and Ice Law weapon rules into ordinary D&D campaigns – without any success, I might add. The game simply slowed down to a dead crawl, making it impossible to experience any pleasure.

It baffles me that some experimenters were so convinced it must work that they did not stop until such rules were standardized into the game; until the game itself was standardized along such rules. At no time do I remember thinking that more modifiers and more required rolls were successful in making the game more real.

It may be, from outside the box, that my world appears to be swimming in additional die rolls and long lists of modifiers; the blog might reasonably have left that impression. But I so rarely use things such as siege engines or structural damage, whatever time I’ve spent talking about those things on line. The numbers might be higher for monsters, there might be additional ways for monsters to cause damage, but each rule is carefully weighed against how quickly it can be expedited.

Recently, I wrote two posts about potential rules. In the first case, regarding wisdom checks before combat, I did not explain the principal reason why I wouldn’t implement it. It’s a pain in the ass! It is too much bloody trouble. No matter what the die roll is based on, the overall effect will be mostly to drag the game.

In the second rule, I described how I would make incidental damage occur with a 50% likelihood. I got some very good answers about how to manage it otherwise – but I probably won’t use them, for one simple rule. A 50% chance means I can use a d6 to determine the likelihood. And I can roll eight or twelve d6 very quickly, and identify the numbers rolled very quickly, with a bare minimum of thought. Thus reducing the drag.

No doubt, I could have come at the subject more directly, but I want to just say that a HUGE detriment in many campaigns I’ve been in did not stem from the DM’s lack of resolve, or skill, or patience ... but from the DM being unable to act quickly. To not have the details at his or her fingertips. To have plenty of tables for plenty of possible results, but the tables stacked haphazardly in binders and folders, not to be found without three minutes of paper shuffling. I must argue for the use of a computer again. I find tables in, on average, seven seconds. Any key word will drag the table up.

Shave time however you can. I cannot tell how often I’ve sat in a party, watching a DM painstakingly copy a dungeon hallway from the blueprints we’re not allowed to see, onto the hex map we are given. I recognize that what’s on the table has to be reduced to what we’ve explored ... but there is a sickening slowness to a DM erasing a hallway because it’s been made five feet too long, or three feet too narrow. No one cares. Get on with it.

It doesn’t ‘get on,’ however, as DMs are notorious perfectionists (me included). But the time for perfection is not during the campaign. Long paragraphs of description might sound good when written out in advance, but during play they can be death. So it goes for every decision, every argument, every long standing debate about what can and can’t be done, every tedious collection of die rolls, every lengthy perusing by the DM of a particular spell or magic item, and so on ad nauseum.

Be considerate, be kind, be autocratic and be a bastard, but be it QUICKLY. Don’t throw an anchor into your own campaign.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Whatever Makes A Dragon Indestructible

In reference to the previous post, I have a different combat proposal which I do plan to implement - something which I will be testing in the next few weeks.  In the first instance, I expect it to be of enormous benefit to the players, as they are involved in a combat where they possess a mastodon.  In future, I expect the players to like it less and less.

In my neverending quest to increase the power and threat of big monsters, I have thrown out hit point upper limitations supported by the books, thus allowing massive hit points total for creatures weighing thousands of pounds or more (several posts have covered this, I suggest the gentle reader does a search).  This makes the monster more defensible, but not specifically more combative.

Given the opportunity to witness six or seven persons attempting to control a wild bull puts into perspective the danger presented in getting too close to the bull.  In D&D, as the rules apply, characters may simply make a ring around the animal and beat it mercilessly into the ground.  This seems ridiculous to me, in light of things I've witnessed.  So I have thought long on how the animal might give reason for players to hesitate approaching such a beast - the proposal in the previous post was one considered strategy.  This is another.

I intend to incorporate something I am calling 'incidental damage'.  This would be hit point damage that a large beast had the potential of delivering simply by virtue of its body mass.  As the aforementioned bull spins around, attempting to engage opponents with its horns, very often its body will smash into an individual who might be in the way.  This is combat damage not included in the 'number of attacks' of the beast - but I think it is important and ought not to be dismissed.

Therefore, the rule would function thus:

For each thousand pounds of the creature's weight, the creature would have a 50% chance of causing a maximum of 1 hp of damage to any attacker who approached within 5', or melee range, of the creature.  A large horse, for example, weighing 1,500 lbs., would cause 1 damage; a mastodon, weighing 5 tons (10,000 lbs.), would potentially cause 1-10 damage ... and so on.

It could be argued that as the potential damage went up, so too would the percentage chance of causing such damage.  It could also be argued that the larger the creature, the wider the area in which the creature could cause incidental damage.  I've considered both options, and have decided that for the sake of simplicity (or playability), not to play it that way.

However, as the creature can be expected to move, if the creature moves within 5' of an opponent in passing, incidental damage still has an opportunity to occur.  And so, for the party in their mass combat, if their mastodon blunders straight into the mess of defending goblins and hobgoblins, not only will the mastodon get its usual five attacks, but every individual within 5' of the mastodon at any time during a round has a 50% chance of suffering 1-10 damage.

I fully expect the rampaging potential of the mastodon to be something quite spectacular.

Moreover, while my stunning rules (again, search 'stun' through the blog) might stop the mastodon's attacks, incidental damage would occur regardless - so that even as it wallowed about in pain, it continued to smash its opponents.

It has always bothered me that dragons were not the deadliest creatures in the game.  Over the years, starting with suggestions from the Dragon Magazine, I have incorporated buffeting, tail attacks and allowing the dragon to use its claw to snatch and constrict opponents.  Using my hit point rules virtually quadruples the dragon's hit points (though I use the old method of computing to determine a dragon's breath weapon).  Now this.  A fast moving dragon, six or seven thousand pounds in weight, could really raise havoc if the old saw of attempting to kill it with many, many bodies was attempted.  I see the remarkable potential for mass slaughters.  Which is how, I feel, it ought to be.

To Hesitate, To Die

Since it's late at night and I can't seem to sleep, I might just as well tell about a house rule I have no intention of implementing.  I think it could truly warp the nature of combat, while the ramifications would be truly interesting ... but it would also be an enormous hassle.

Surely the gentle reader has noticed that, in cases where combat is about to occur in real life, the combatants do not rush into violence in the manner of D&D characters.  Rather, they tend to hesitate and make feints, closing to combat not immediately, but after several failed attempts.

Remembering that a round in my world is 6 seconds, equivalent to the normally designated segment, I think the following rule could be incorporated.  Suppose that in addition to ability, we interject a quality of 'bravery' into the proceedings - that being, the resolve on the part of the character that combat is necessary and must be entered into, in spite of the potential threat.  I call it a thinking process, and therefore I suggest that the ability stat of wisdom be the crucial element here - to wit, that before a player can enter combat, a wisdom check must be accomplished and succeeded at.

Not merely an ordinary wisdom check, I think, but a wisdom check done at -4, or even -6, depending on how hard you want to make it for combat to actually occur.  What a positive boon it would be to clerics!  What a mess it would make of a party closing to combat, with one or two persons actually succeeding while the rest tried helplessly, round after round, to overcome their animal terror and successfully enter the fray!  For fighters and thieves who ordinarily throw their worst stat into wisdom, what cowards they would be.  If it wasn't for the sheer pain in the assedness of it, I would try this.

After all, if we measure most of their opponents by their intelligences (and not imposing the subtracting modifier - expect no fairness!), orcs remain fair combatants, goblins and kobalds turn to fearful entrants, and elves fearless killers.  What a remarkable difference it would make to a great many creatures, since genius and extraordinary intelligence creatures could potentially butcher a whole party while they stubbornly blew their roles, standing in stock fear as their comrades were leisurely cut down.

I'm beginning to convince myself to try this.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Stress

This weekend was my session off for D&D, the one where I play in my daughter’s world rather than running my own ... so the mass combat is slated for two weeks hence. I don’t look forward to it – there’s a little more prep that needs to be done (I failed to add any features inside the fort, as I knew the party wouldn’t get there the first night) – but that’s the lot of the DM.


Which is the core of this post. It felt queer Saturday as I found myself playing D&D and having nothing to do ... nothing except for the DM to investigate and finishing developing the illusionist NPC that we’d encountered, and other things, all through the session. Understand, after fifteen years as a DM and never as a player, being part of the game and having time to myself made for an unfamiliar experience.

And meanwhile, I had plenty of opportunity to watch the DM fragment as the evening progress.

I don’t think anyone who’s done plenty of game play will be unfamiliar with violently angry DMs who shout or make accusations at players for intentionally disrupting games, or who feel personally persecuted for doing nothing more than creating a world for ungrateful, miserable, disgruntled and unforgiving role-players. “HEY, I’m DOING MY BEST” are fairly common protests expected from the poor soul trapped behind the screen.

It’s the reason most players who take a shot at DMing quit after their first, or second try. The effort is high, there’s a lot of details to keep track of, the questions – both stupid and relevant – are constant and the players themselves can’t help growing bored as the play grounds down upon some technical point to be satisfied before things can continue. I have plenty of experience with it and I sometimes lose it. Once, I could be sure of losing it at least one time per game – the alternative is to throw one’s hands in the air, fuck the game and get a beer. A tactic which, in my experience, usually leads to apologies and grovelling on the part of the players, who realize they’ve pushed the DM past the point and that with no DM, there is no game.

I’ve been free from either tactic for a good long time now. Yes, I sometimes shout at people, mostly just to be louder than they are. I play with six persons, so my speaking voice only rates one sixth the total decibel level. I only feel really pressed by the emotional quality of running when there’s too much other shit going on in my life, and my stress tolerance is low.

Not so for a new DM, however. Like anything else, the sheer effort of acting as adjudicator is itself a practiced skill. Beyond prepping for the game, beyond having a working knowledge of the books or a talent for improv, the biggest failing for many would-be DMs or inexperienced wannabes has to be a lack of management skills.

This explains why many of the DMs I have played with or met turn out to be enormous pricks (Please keep in mind that while I haven’t played for some time, I have met people who did play – and stayed far away from them). Just like most low-level business managers, a great many DMs adopt a passive aggressive power methodology like the one I’ve suggested. They learn early on that refusing to play produces prostration – and most players who continue to play with such pompous bastards do so because, well, they have no one else.

Thus, if you are willing to put up with the questions and other player babble, and are able to keep going with whatever campaign you’ve created semi-consistently, you too can have your pathetic pawns who will suffer your abuse if it means they can play. (“I can have a +2 sword if I just eat this pile of shit here – this pile, the one that’s a foot high? Okay.”)

It is precisely the same state of mind that many workers adopt in order to keep their jobs. They don’t really like the boss, but it goes with the paycheque.

As it happens, most DMs manage to be almost human when they are not actually DMing ... which helps a lot of players forgive the DM a lot of sins. In my case, the one player I have who fails to forgive me these sins is my daughter – who figures, as I am her father, nothing really justifies my behavior. Sigh. Twas ever thus.

I may not have made it clear. I do have my failings, and many of them fit along the lines described above. I have been a manager of both a business and many an RPG ... and I have in both cases had underlings who were unsatisfied with my behavior and players who were likewise. In both it is necessary to make decisions that make people unhappy. Both, I feel, demand that I perform at a higher level that those around me – that I work as hard as I possibly can, in order to facilitate the process.

I hope most DMs feel that way. Thus the stress – however positive one might be that a good job needs to be done, there is the incessant feeling that we are perpetually failing. Players cannot help acting angry at their own failure, and this acts upon the DM’s headspace as negatively as can be imagined. The DM lives and dies on how appreciated he or she feels ... any lack of appreciation, for anything that happens to be going on, translates immediately as, “Fuck, your world sucks.”

Mind you, this is in the DM’s head. None of this dissatisfaction needs to actually exist. The players might actually be really enjoying themselves, swearing and shouting at each other. These are emotional states that produce consciousness raising drugs rarely to be experienced unless our lives are actually crashing. But violent emotional release and legitimate emotional discontent sounds disconcertingly similar – thus DMs get stressed, get angry, throw books and so on.

How not to lose it? Beyond practice and more practice, a few basic strategies:

Limit the number of your players. If you are in your first year of DMing, resist running more than three persons at a time. If there are four persons or more, give a long and sincere speech about your feelings that you’re not comfortable handling so many people, you’d like to not do it every week and you’re going to need lots of support. DON’T hesitate to ask for support from your players, ever. You do a lot more to stop, and say to people, “I’m feeling awfully pressed right now, please drop your voices or better yet, take a break and wander a few minutes,” than to scream that they’re all a bunch of orc cow-fuckers who need to DIE right NOW!

Take many breaks. Every five minutes might be a bit excessive, but don’t hesitate to call things in the middle of a combat if you need to catch your breath. Combat is the worst – it is the greatest pressure of the game, the point where the greatest number of details come into importance, and the point where players reach their greatest stress. It is also the point where people who are not attacking or being attacked reach their highest level of volume, and where they have the greatest opportunity to mock/support other players who ARE fighting. Add to this a feeling DMs have that they should finish the combat all as one block of activity to keep the tension going, and you have a recipe for disaster. Honest. Combat can be suspended long enough for tempers to subside, for tension to relax, and for everyone to refocus. Give yourself a break.

Run for shorter periods. You may have eight hours to play, but if you aren’t a hard-core experienced DM, you are going to run out of steam after four ... no matter how committed you are. The players will notice, and things will degrade to the point where people are unsatisfied, or you perceive them to be unsatisfied. From my experience, if you have large blocks of time in order to play, you will do better to have two campaigns played by different inexperienced DMs, one following the other, each occupying four hours. This will give the DMs a chance to rest and be a player, and will increase the amount of experience both DMs gain.

Don’t be the only DM at the table. Having someone else playing in your world who has at least tried to run a campaign will give you an opinion of your efforts that you can respect. As well, if they have DMed, chances are they will help ‘police’ the table, calming tempers, calling for less shouting and unnecessary chatter, and giving words of encouragement as the campaign is ongoing. The absolute worst campaigns I have ever participated in occurred where the one DM had never played, and where none of the players had ever DMed. I mean ever – not now, not in the past, not ever. Conversely, the best campaigns I’ve participated in happened where everyone was a DM, and everyone ran ongoing campaigns that regularly rotated from week to week. I once ran for more than a year jointly with three other DMs, where we all ran in each other’s worlds and we each ran twice a month. Ah, university.

Know thyself. If you sit down at the table on the night scheduled and if you don’t really feel like playing, DON’T PLAY. Apologize to everyone, break out a deck of cards and play poker. The hardest thing to do is to acknowledge that you are not equal to the task, and that if you try to be equal, you will dig a deeper depression for yourself than you are already in. From time to time I’ve just had to admit that running is over my head, and that I would really rather not. At the very least, let everyone know that you need to be in better spirits, and that maybe an hour of aimless chatter will raise your mood enough to break out the books and get started. Eat some food, drink and be merry, encourage your players that given time you’ll be ready and if they respect you as a person, they will WAIT.

Generally speaking, you will want to get some practice. You can add more players as you get that practice, you can take shorter breaks or less breaks or develop strategies for what’s best to do when on a break that will improve your focus. You’ll learn how to spend your time more wisely in preparation and how to spend your time more wisely during the session – particularly in picking out what is important right now as compared to something that can be discussed during a general break. You’ll learn when to say, “I’ll manage that later,” sparing you the effort of looking through four books while the party sits around doing nothing (idleness creating its own problems). You’ll have a chance to encourage one of your players to also make an effort to DM, giving you someone to commiserate with – and someone to run a session when you’re down in the dumps. Don’t try to take it all on your shoulders, even if your players push you into it – if they want to play, they should be prepared to take some of the responsibility themselves.