Archive for the ‘GM Advice’ Category

There’s a post up at the Transitive Property of Gaming blog about how the author had a really great idea for a homebrew zombie apocalypse game, and how it didn’t go at all how he planned.  I want to reiterate how awesome this homebrew idea sounds: he has a whole apartment complex and neighborhood that he was personally familiar with, he made up maps of the floor plans, rules for improvised barricades, a flowchart for zombie behaviors, a timeline for how bad the infestation is from one block to the next, systems to encourage foraging outside the fortress — some really cool ideas.

The problem is that from session one the players decided that staying put was a bad idea, and so made it their goal to escape the city.  They knew, as we all do, that most “successful” zombie movies are the ones where the characters escape the populated areas, and movies where characters whole up end with the social unit collapsing and people turning on each other.  But that situation, the one where the characters have to deal with the break down of social bonds, is obviously the game the author wanted to play.  Instead, he had to toss out a bunch of his prep and resorted to believable roadblocks like a military quarantine and making the easiest path be the one that lead back to the fortress — but the players just interpreted this as the requisite obstacles that needed to be overcome.  They thought *that* was the game, rather than the GM’s attempt to get them back to the game.

I wasn’t at this particular game, so I can’t say how well things were communicated or not, but I can say that I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again, in games I’ve played in and games I’ve run.  There seems to be this unspoken rule that GMs aren’t allowed to tell their players what kind of game they (the GM) want to play, which is kind of silly when you consider the amount of effort those same GMs end up putting in to guide/railroad the players back to where they “should” be, back to The Plot.  Back to the Game.

It should be a pretty simple fix: just tell your players before you start before Character creation or anything) what kind of game you want to play.  The GM is as much a player as anyone else at the table, and you deserve to have your fun as much as the next guy.  For most of us, this is a hobby and we shouldn’t treat it like a job.  You aren’t their to entertain an audience, you’re there to play a game with your friends.

“I want to play a game where your characters barricade their apartment building against the zombie hordes and have to deal with each other in the resulting stressful environment.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are professional adventurers who delve into ruins and make a living selling ancient treasures they find.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are small-town folk who are thrust into adventuring when your town is destroyed.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are non-combatants who travel cross-country to reclaim their fallen kingdom from an ancient dragon.”

I’d say that adding “and if you fail you will likely die” to any of those is probably healthy, too, but your mileage may vary.

My only observation is that as GMs we feel like we need to cajole our players into the game, that what they want is more important than what we want, because without players there is no game.  Or because we want to play a game with *those* friends, specifically.  Or some other situation where compromising our fun seems to be the best or only way.  Maybe this post says more about my experiences than any wider phenomenon in the hobby, I don’t know. And while I don’t think the GM should give away all his secrets and twists, I think we’d all be better off if we stopped playing “guess the plot.”

Shorty Monster has a post over on his blog about religion in role playing games.   His complaints are essentially three points: all fantasy games have the “same” gods, where “same” means that they follow similar “sphere of influence” styles; devotees of fantasy religions don’t behave the way devotees of real-world religions do, in that they are all “a homogenous lump” of identical personalities; and that fantasy religions are more-monolithic and less-fractured than real-world religions.

I think the the first point may be a valid observation, but I think it’s because each fantasy setting is trying to work off the same trope, ie, the Greek or Norse pantheons.  I don’t think that’s really a problem, the same way I don’t think ripping inspiration from other sources is a problem.  If it unnecessarily limits your choices then it’s a bad thing, but that’s true for any source of inspiration and can easily be fixed (by adding a new god, a new religion, or changing the way current gods and religions behave).

The other two points are really more about how devotees and religious organizations are played, rather than a problem with their foundation.  Shorty notes that not a lot of details are given about dogma or observances (though, looking up Greyhawk gods on Wikipedia gives you quite a bit of information) and complains that there isn’t enough to go on to portray a devout character.  That may be a fair point, but 1) I think a lot of it is left for the GM to fill out, because GMs tend to want to customize and build the setting to their own tastes (your mileage may vary as to whether that’s a sufficient excuse for leaving out material), and 2) I don’t think most fantasy gods or religions are based on strictly-ordered religions like modern real-world religions.  A character prays to Pelor because he wants a strong crop yield, not because Pelor imposes a certain moral paradigm.  A cleric devotes himself to Kord in order to embody strength and victory, not because Kord is the one true god.  And a cult leaves offerings for Nerull because they fear him, or wish to direct him towards their enemies, not because of… well, OK, I’m at a loss for what else might motivate them.

For my part there are two things that I’m concerned about in my fantasy religions: the problem of divine accessibility, and the problem of definitive orthodoxy.  They’re really both related to each other, but it’s the difference in how you approach the issue.

Why do Good Gods let Bad Things happen?

Putting other things aside, a common theme in fantasy setting (whether it’s RPGs or books or movies) is that the heroes have to go out and fight evil because they’re the only ones who can.  But if the gods actually exist, especially if they have great powers to act upon the world, then why don’t they just fix the problem?  If Pelor hates the undead so much, why doesn’t he just wipe them out with a miracle, instead of sending frail mortals to hunt them down and destroy them one-by-one?  If Moradin protects the dwarves, why doesn’t he smite the hobgoblin army that’s laying siege?

This can be handled in a number of ways.  Perhaps the god’s attention is elsewhere, addressing a greater threat like an Evil god working at cross purposes, and an unseen enemy who would overtake our heroes if not for the god’s interference.  Or maybe the god is hesitant to interact with the world directly because doing so would make him vulnerable to his enemies (sapping his energy, or forcing him into an assailable state), and so directing mortal agents is the safer (if less sure) method of influencing the world.  Perhaps Pelor can’t root out the undead because he has no power in dark places (though, if that’s the case, questions about the nature of clerics and divine magic come up), or perhaps in directing his power against the undead there would be innocents caught up in the destruction.  Superman doesn’t have to be the only one who lives in a world of cardboard.

How can we argue about the will of Zeus if we can just ask him directly?

Here’s the problem: if we can speak to the gods directly, and they can answer us directly, it is essentially impossible to have a difference of opinion on what that god wants us to do.  Two reasonable people can’t argue over whether killing cows offends Zeus or not if they can just ask him directly and get a clear yes or no.  And because of this, you can’t have different sects that worship the same god coming into conflict or working at cross purposes.  Any question or conflict internal to the church can be resolved by asking The Big Guy what takes priority. The Abrahamic/Judeo-Christians among us might point to the earliest days of their faith and note that just being able to talk to your god doesn’t prevent misunderstandings, but given time and opportunity those things can be cleared up: someone’s right and someone’s wrong, and it’s just a matter of asking the question.

This one is harder to fix, I think.  On the one hand, you could allow your gods to make inconsistent or conflicting statements, and you could even hand wave it by saying that he knows more than mortals and just has a hard time expressing all the nuance that occupies a god’s mind.  It strikes me that that would be a pretty difficult god to follow or put much faith in, because it essentially boils down to “we do not and can not know what he wants,” which is a sure path to agnosticism if nothing else.  Followers of such a god will probably find other gods to cling to.

Alternatively, you could restrict talking to the gods to just their clergy, and so lay people could have arguments among themselves just fine.  The trouble is that then “just ask Zeus” simple becomes “just ask Zeus’s priest,” and the best you can hope for is a wicked priest intentionally acting against his professed god.  And when 9 out of 10 clerics agree, the 10th one must be a filthy liar.  I really think that for fantasy religions to “work” in the sense of reasonable and committed devotees disagreeing with each other (especially to the point of conflict) the gods must be remote enough or vague enough that getting clear and simple answers is not clear or simple.

Good, Bad, I’m the one with the Holy Symbol

My preference is to have remote and disinterested (or preoccupied) gods. Maybe they live on Mount Olympus and even getting an audience with them is an epic quest.  Maybe they exist outside creation and can not directly interact with it for fear of annihilating it (or themselves).  Maybe they don’t even actually exist, and at best the gods are magical creatures like Elementals or Dragons and clerics are essentially sorcerers and witches.  It doesn’t really matter (unless I’m directly addressing the question with my campaign) because the gods don’t really matter to me.  They aren’t what I’m interested in.

The things that interest me in role-playing games are the characters (PCs and NPCs) and the societies and organizations they interact with.  In most cases what a character or group believes is is far more important (and interesting) than what is true.  So I tend to have the nature of the gods be an open question, because it’s not high on my list of priorities, and leaving it unanswered allows for a lot more variation in the religions and interactions available in my world.

So I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to prepare for a quick little hex-crawl game to run with my wife.  A big problem for me is, apparently, “information architecture” or “how do I know what I know?”  I thought I’d use some space here to talk about what my plans are, structurally.

I’m planning on using a six mile hex as the basis of my map, and I’ll plot geography based on Welsh Piper’s guidelines (though it’s a bit of a kludge since I’m not using their Atlas Hex, template for now).  The bulk of my hexcrawl system I’m going to be taking from The Alexandrian (though it seems to have stalled after the 7th entry); I’m planning on keeping the hex structure invisible to my players, and Justin has a good system for tracking progress over the grid, getting lost and getting found, sight lines, encounters and encounter distance, and so on.  I’ll be keying each hex to a ‘default location,’ and then building up encounter tables. (Of course, on a 180mi by 180mi map, that’s 800 to 900 unique locations to key…)    Justin hasn’t given us an example of his tables yet, and I may use some combination of the one-page encounters, multi-table encounters, and hand-keyed encounters I’ve mentioned before.

I’m using the time structure I mentioned before (with simple actions taking a minute and longer actions taking a turn, when it matters to track them). I’m going to have 4-week month (aligned with the cycle of the moon), 13 months in a year (for 364 days total).

I’m putting together a year of weather per Gnome Stew’s suggestion, and may be incorporating other systems from Dragon 137 and the Wilderness Survival Guide (both of which I’ve recently purchased).  I’ll probably use a tracking sheet not unlike the one that inspired Gnome Stew.

I feel like I’m still missing some structures that I need to account for, and this doesn’t get into the real meat of the setting (ie, the city-states and societies that will be the focus of the crawl).

There’s a couple of posts on here right now discussing Race in D&D.  On the one hand we have a discussion of Race As Class, and more recently I tried to address the issue of races that are Always Chaotic Evil. Both of these issues are hold-overs from the origins of D&D, probably inherited from Chainmail and now warped to some extent or another due to lack of context and the evolution of the game. So right off, I’d have to concede that both are probably a matter of taste to some extent, and your mileage may vary.  That being said, I think both issues stem from a common source, and I intend to demonstrate why it’s not a patently absurd notion.

In that latter post a commenter suggested that my argument is only a partial answer to the question of racial stereotypes in D&D, and that there are plenty of things to consider — like, what about an industrious tribe of Goblins?  What about a group of Orcs who built a sprawling metropolis and discuss philosophy in amphitheaters?  For that matter, what about hyper-industrialist elves carving a swath of devastation across the land in their all-consuming drive to produce and consume?

When it comes down to it, I think this is all a question of whether all fantasy races are just humans in funny hats or not. That is, are we all just the same at a fundamental level, or are there actual differences that are simply inherent in the races.  Why are goblins erratic and lazy?  Because that’s part of what being a goblin is.  You might as well ask why fire burns.  Maybe they fatigue easily, maybe they have some other biological quirk that makes focus and productivity difficult or impossible.  Maybe their neural chemistry produces a different kind of perception, in the end it doesn’t matter how deep you go or what kind of explanation you give, the final question you have to ask is: are goblins (or orcs or elves) just the same as humans, or not?  If the answer is “no, they’re just the same as humans” that might be a valid setting to play in, but I feel like you lose a lot of the potential that Fantasy brings us as a genre.  And if the answer is “no, they’re different from humans somehow” then at some level that’s your answer — goblins are like goblins because they’re different from humans.  You can go on to discuss the hows and whys behind that answer, and I could see a whole campaign built around an adventuresome researcher trying to understand the various Races, but in the end the question is already answered.

So, my goblins are lazy, my orcs are brutal, my elves are arrogant.  Some goblins may be clever, some orcs may be honorable, and some elves may be benevolent — there may be whole tribes of each of these — but there is something fundamental that makes them goblins, orcs, and elves and asking why they don’t behave like humans is partly missing the point.

I feel like I’ve been talking about alignment a lot lately. Maybe it’s just me.

There’s a post today at Wizards of the Coast’s D&D Website about how every group needs a moral compass “to remind his or her adventuring companions that they’re heroes.”  I would tend to disagree — there are some play styles and some campaigns where having a moral compass might be useful or encouraged, but I think it’s a stretch to say that every group needs a moral compass.  After all, who ever said that the PCs have to be “heroes”?

There was a time when I would have agreed with the WotC article, when I would have shaken my fist and said “yes, that’s what my group needs.”  In those days, I developed campaigns not unlike movie screenplays or novel outlines, and a lot of the time my players messed it up.  They wouldn’t go where I wanted them to go, they wouldn’t act the way I wanted them to act.  I found myself building barriers to discourage the “wrong” choices and trying to suss out what kind of sticks or carrots I could use to get my players to go the “right” direction.  Did they want money, or glory, or fame?  Could I kidnap a family member, or threaten them with the King’s Justice if they didn’t obey?  Those were very stressful times for me, and I’ve been moving slowly but steadily away from them.

The point is, an adventuring group only needs a moral compass if there are wrong choices for them to make.  And more and more, I feel that framing things so that any choice can be wrong kind of misses the point of Role Playing.  Sure, if you have a certain style of game you want to play — say a heroic quest where the PCs fight against the Big Bad Evil Guy — then there are guidelines you need to set down so that everyone (including the DM) has fun with the game.  But the heart of Role Playing is making choices based on who your character is, and for me the best role playing is when your character has to make a tough choice — and that usually requires the character to choose between Good and Evil in some way.  If the going-in assumption is that Evil is always the “wrong” choice, then there’s no choice at all.

In my games, all choices have consequences.  All choices change the world in some way, and that change will come back to affect the characters in some way.  Good acts will sometimes have negative consequences, sometimes doing bad things makes achieving your goals easier.  Players are free to choose to be the Heroes, and that can be awesome and fulfilling, but if my players want to fracture the party and raise armies against each other, I think that should be just as valid.  If players choose to be villains we should let them, and they should reap the benefits and consequences of their actions regardless of what those actions are.

I had a conversation about alignments yesterday, and in particular the problem of “monster” races, and how such-and-such race is “always chaotic evil.”  I agreed that this was a problem, that things would be different in my games, that it shouldn’t be reasonable that a Lawful Good Paladin slaughters an entire village of sentient (if ugly) creatures without a twinge of guilt.

Now, in my system of alignment, “evil” isn’t evil, per se.  It could be argued that none of the traditional labels are particularly good fitsBut then we actually started talking about specific races, what the differences are between goblins, hobgoblins, and orc; what their cultures were like.  I started saying things like, “goblins are scavengers; they’re frenetic and lazy and they take things rather than build them.”  “Hobgoblins are militaristic and expansionist, more like an army than a society; they constantly seek to expand and subjugate other nations.” “Orcs are a brutal, tribal people who function on a ‘might makes right’ basis.”  So even if “evil” just means “willing to actively hurt others to achieve your goals,” aren’t all of these — goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs — simply evil creatures?  What would a good goblin look like?

As with my concept of alignment generally, I think the answer is a complicated one full of nuance.  I think that these societies that I’ve outlined are evil, and I think that being in that environment will tend individual members towards a matching alignment — after all, my notion of alignment is essentially short hand for characters’ values, and people derive at least some of their values from their society.  But just like I can envision a Lawful Good villain doing terrible things because “it’s for the best,” I can see a Good goblin who’s no less inclined to go raid a neighboring settlement.  In a way, both come down to rationalization, and if either one thinks too hard on it they might find themselves conflicted, wracked with guilt, or even choosing to change their alignment.  An Evil goblin raids a neighbor because he can, because he wants what they have, and he doesn’t care if (or possibly looks forward to) others get hurt in the process.  A Good goblin raids a neighbor because he has too, because they have things that his community needs, and he would rather (or possibly acts to ensure) nobody gets hurt in the process.  Both of them are raiding their neighbors and potentially having violent confrontations, but they have different reasons and different attitudes.

In the end, the point is that societies have an identity and alignment that is composed of but also more than the identity and alignment of their individual members.  Could there be a whole tribe of Lawful Good goblins who respect tradition and honor and don’t like hurting others?  Sure, but they’ll probably still raid their neighbors, because they’re frenetic and lazy.

A long time ago, Classes in D&D were a lot different than we know them today.  My understanding, gleaned from no source more reliable than Wikipedia, is that the original D&D just had Fighter, Cleric, and Magic-User. The races were humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings, and the non-human races had restrictions on what classes they could choose (ie, there was no such thing as a Dwarf Magic-User or an Elf Cleric).  Then, the ‘Basic’ set of D&D added a few classes and shunted non-human races off into their own individual classes — there was no longer even “Elf Magic-User” there was just “Elf.”  the game gradually moved away from that to the duality of Race and Class as we know them today — race determines certain attribute bonuses and penalties, maybe some special abilities, but the bulk of the character is his Class, and the difference between a Human Fighter and an Elf Fighter is little more than “one has pointy ears, and on average will be more agile and frail.”

The argument has been made that the way we have things today is dumb because elves and dwarves and gnomes and so on are not just humans in funny hats.  They are, the argument goes, utterly alien beings that do not approach the world the way humans do, and anyone who says Race-as-Class is dumb is being unimaginative and a little racist.

The argument has also been made that Race-as-Class is dumb because it assumes that all individuals of a given race are formed from the same unbending mold, that each one that adventures does it in the same way without variation.  Anyone who says Race shouldn’t be separate from Class, the argument goes, is at best being obtuse, and probably a little racist.