Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On Being a "Good" DM

There has been a proliferation of DM advice columns across the digital universe in the past decade or so, and some of them are quite good. There has been a deeper and more thorough description offered in all of the major D&D rulebooks of how to address the many issues facing the DM in the game. Also, a very good thing in my opinion. We have seen the rise, as well, of the streaming game casts such as Critical Role, and live game sessions such as the PAX Acquisitions Incorporated sessions. These, even more than the columns and rulebook advice, have given DMs and players alike the chance to see good DMs in action. These live & streaming events have done something even better for hard working DMS--they have helped us realize that even the great Chris Perkins and Chris Mercer stumble at times, stall, wing it, are caught unawares or with their plans down. Let's face it DMing isn't a science and rarely goes perfectly.

In point of fact much of the advice online and elsewhere for DMs is about what I call "good enough" DMing. They bottom line identifiers of how to know when you are doing just fine and when you need a course correction. These tips often refer to "everyone having a good time" and "giving your players what they want" or "it's not about you it's about the players". These are fine pieces of advice and should be somewhat of a baseline for play regardless of what else you might be focusing on. However, these are often the results of good DMing, not the way to be a good DM. However, the technicalities of tips range the gamut and often depend on playstyle and personal preference. The fact is being a good DM is alot more about charisma and wisdom than they are intelligence or creativity. Don't get me wrong intelligence and creativity are certainly important and these two factors tend to be present in abundance in most DMs. But the ability to DM in a way that everyone is having fun and that entertains as well as challenges the players (i.e. gives them what they want) is about how you apply that intelligence & creativity (wisdom) and about your delivery (charisma). It is interesting to note here that the famous nature of Critical Role has alot to do with the fact that the players are all famous voice actors.

In that vein I would like to recommend two unusual sorts I have come across recently that I feel do a good job of communicating these elements of DM character in rather unconventional but clearly stated ways. The first I mentioned before: Matt Colville.

Matt is a game designer and author and other cool things too, as well as what appears to be a great DM. I love his channel and especially his Running the Game series of videos. Not only does Matt give great advice, he also talks through his failures and successes in such a way as to model what works and what doesn't and why.

The second I just came across recently, and I'll admit at first I was uncertain. Runehammer admittedly first struck me as an out of place viking looking for a tavern, not a game table. But after watching his first couple of videos, I was hooked. I'm not sure if it was the mead flowing or inspiration, but he has a take on DMing that is original while being right at the heart of the artform at the same time.

I mention these two, there are certainly others because they do something the pdocasts, live streams, rulebooks, and columns don't do. They break down what's going on in the game and talk about why it works. We can read about it in columns and rulebooks, we can watch it in action on livecasts, but then we can watch someone explain it all with passion, drama and expertise after the fact. I think all three are helpful, but these types of game commentators (Colville and RuneHammer) have made me excited about DMing. And they make it seem accessible to even the most thick headed of us Grognards.

Being a good DM is a journey not a destination and like most performance arts every session is different. But one of the best things about it is that you get to come back to the next session and try it all over again, and if we're lucky we have good partners with us at the table helping it all come together.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Weak DMing Last Night

So, last night's game. No one complained. I guess there's that. But I came away just like that last picture, of the statue, face palm, on myself. Meaning I wasn't mad at my players, they did a pretty good job, I just came away feeling like I biffed it. Admittedly we were transitioning. We had been grinding away at a hexcrawl to get the players through to the next phase of the campaign. I decided to speed things up through the last day of that crawl and we got onto the town they were headed to.

Now several things were supposed to happen for the PCs to make their decisions on where they wanted to take the next phase. They were generally following the trail of the slavers and their two main villains, but didn't know how their current invitation tied into that. There was going to be a fire at the location of their invitation, which if they investigated would lead to the discovery of the slavers most recent raid. This could have led to a meeting with the watch commander, and or the mayor. If things developed they would uncover the watch commander's connection with their old contact from the Lord's Alliance and new information about the slaver's plot. They also needed to decide if they were going to pursue the slavers overseas or investigate things in town with the now compromised Lord's Alliance. They could put together that their old enemy Halia of the Zhentarim was actually acting as a slaver and was in the company of a suspicious drow. Finally if they decided to chase the slavers they would have to do so in disguise and have to book passage start the two day voyage through rather dangerous waters.

Whew! Yeah, well so much was going on, and I was in such a hurry to get things sped up that it began to feel a little "railroady" to me. I suppose that I didn't really railroad it, as give so much information to them so easily that it was pretty clear what the best course of action would be. Unfortunately things went sour on the voyage and they were hit by a storm and then the giant kraken-like beast that lurks in those waters. To make matters worse, only one had been on a seagoing vessel before and the majority of the party was suffering from seasickness.

There was little combat thus far--we ended just as the tentacled kraken rose up and attacked the ship--and the roleplaying was a bit rushed and thus less than satisfactory to me at least. Like I said, no one complained; even when they only earned 450 XP for this session, kind of modest for 6th level. But I came away feeling like I just hadn't performed up to par. I had prepped of course, but the session really required more prep than I had put in, as it required a lot more NPCs and roleplay than I had thought through. I could have taken my time and stretched the session out over two or three more sessions, but the hex crawl had already begun to drag on a bit. I also could have just compressed time and sped up to the sea voyage, or skipped the crawl altogether even though it was through a region known to be dangerous and monster infested.

Lesson learned? I'm really not sure. I mean I am not sure what I would have done differently. Stretching things out and taking out time could have been fun, but it also could have dragged on. Compressing things might have sped things up but strained verisimilitude and player choice. And many of the threads they were pursuing could have led in different directions based on which path over the web they took--I didn't want to take that away from them.

Any advice out there?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

National Campaign Creation Month

Greyhawk Grognard
Have I ever told you how much I love Greyhawk Grognard? Well, yes I have. From his incredible and expansive Greyhawk knowledge, to his creation of the amazing Adventures Dark & Deep, probably the closest AD&D could have been variant ever written. I just really like his work. I also admire his endurance in the blogosphere, the quality of his posts, and his ability to finish the projects he starts. 

Recently in my email in box the most recent post of GG popped up. He had posted the first back of the envelope scribblings of a campaign he was designing. Not really knowing what he was doing exactly--GG is a long time Greyhawk DM, as in it's the primary campaign he runs--I read through the entry. I was immediately smitten. The very old school way of doing what he was doing, and the clear window into the design process was not only revealing it struck a chord in my heart. Since I design almost exactly like he does in this early stage I felt an immediate affinity for what he was doing. So often in today's gaming world one can feel incapable of tackling the job of such work as campaign design, adventure design, world building and heck even character creation when so much of the industry represents only its finished products.

We have become so sensitive to "inferior" production values that few designers ever get out of the gate. And here we have a GM who is a recognized, published game designer and writer of products with high production values, showing us inside what we essentially have been doing in this hobby since before 1975. I was enchanted.

Not to mention the campaign shows enough cool seed ideas to peak even the most jaded players' "that would be cool" spots. The thing is, I have notebooks jammed with ideas just like this, but most if not all are "unfinished" in one form or another. I, unlike GG, do not have the same finisher ethic. Which is why, when I finished reading through the email and stopped by his blog I was excited even further.

I'm slow at getting news, but evidently there was a website that had sought to copy NaNoWriMo's success but in game design. Nation Game Design Month aka NaGaDeMon (is that a cool name or what?) appears to be defunct this year sadly. However, GG had participated back in 2011 and been successful at producing a rather neat wargame. That alone was enough to excite me, since I've been secretly working on a game concept in my underground lab for months now. Unfortuantely, I can't say any more about that--don;t worry, I won't finish it ... But what GG has done is take that same spirit and created NaCaCrMo! Yeah, not as cool of a name, but wth. Nation Campaign Creation Month is what GG is informally calling his efforts this November and yesterday's post was his first efforts in that vein. Is that cool or what?!

Now, I have already started my seed idea for NaNoWriMo, I'm growing out my moustache for Movember, I'm trying to finish my game for NaGaDeMon, I'm celebrating National Native American Heritage at my largely tribal school and now I'm designing a new campaign for NaCaCrMo! Let the festivities begin! I think I'm going to ask for my two week vacation this month ...

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Why Stranger Things Hits All the Right Notes

It's not just the Dungeons & Dragons. Though certainly it is a part of that, a huge part of that. The cultural reference of the game that has made such a huge impact in my life is a sure fire way to get my attention. But it took season 2 of this Netflix smash hit to really make it clear to me: it isn't just D&D. It has also helped me realize why I am so loyal to the early editions in the games' development.

It's all the cultural references. I watch this series and am literally transported back in time. The music, the clothes, the tech references, the movie call outs, the setting generally, it just all serves to transport me back to a time in my life that is filled with enchantment. The show is a veritable smorgasbord of nostalgia. More than that, though, it takes this nostalgia and makes it relevant to today, it makes it timeless.

I loved how in season 2 (slight spoiler alert) the new character Bob uses his knowledge of BASIC programming to save the day when they are trapped in the lab. Somehow managing to make it seem new and relevant to the time as well. Despite the fact that such a hi tech lab might have used a more updated program, the fact is it just rang with truth. The computer classes I took in high school were all BASIC programming classes. And the only two other programs I knew about at the time were COBOL and FORTRAN. Either way, it was a brilliantly executed scene and exactly the kind of nerd time transport I'm talking about.

In today's world it is increasingly difficult for 70's and 80's nerds to be nerds. Nerddom is so much wrapped up in the popular media and fandom that it is not even considered sufficiently nerdly anymore--it is just popular culture. The fact that a show like Stranger Things can even exist is proof enough of that. Which brings me to my second point.

Why do I like AD&D so much? The same reason I love BASIC, and ATARI, and the original Star Wars trilogy (so much better than all the others) and 12" GI Joes, the original yellow and black suited X-Men, and lead minis. Nostalgia. Okay, maybe not exactly the same reasons, but damn close.

I currently play 5e (slightly modded for old school) with my kids, two family friends each Sunday night and we all love it and have a good time. Yes, I would rather be playing AD&D. Truthfully I would also like to be playing with my old high school gaming buddies too, but am I missing something? My kids love comic books, Harry Potter, all the Star Wars movies, the new Star Trek movies and TOS, and they love playing Dungeons & Dragons, my eleven year old daughter just told me game night is her favorite night of the week along with her gymnastics practice night.

Do I dare let my grognardly nostalgia interfere with their Stranger Things days right now? Wouldn't I have loved it if my dad played D&D with me? The one time we sat and had an extended conversation about how to start my own campaign world is one of the most memorable conversations we have ever had, for me at least. He took the most recent copy of the Austin American Statesman newspaper and drawing from the headlines helped me plan out a land of nations divided by a huge chasm, where one side of the chasm were really poor hard working folk and the the other side were richer families who used the poor to work for them with the idea that their increasing prosperity would serve the poor as well. But the poor weren't prospering and what's worse the middle class where being forced across the divide. This led several factions of the poor to ally with various monsters in their bid to defeat the rich, and over throw the nobility. It was much deeper than that with all sorts of side plots, but basically it was my first campaign and the only one I have ever heard of built on Ronald Reagan's idea of trickle down economics.

What memories will my kids have with me and our games? And what will they think if I crap all over the new Star Trek movies, or how Marvel and DC are crapping all over canon with their new film releases? Or how I cant stand digital comic books? No, I need to relax, and be the supportive one in their days of geekdom. I'm sure when they grow old they will begin to feel like me. They will curl up at night reading their old 5e players handbooks pining for the good old days and they too will have sweet memories that can be conjured up by shows like Stranger Things.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Did You Change That Rule?

Dungeons & Dragons has always existed amidst dichotomies. One of the most frequently experienced at the table is the injunction within the rulebooks of the game that the rules are not the most important thing. Gary Gygax points this out early on in the evolution of the game, and explicitly in the AD&D rulebooks appointing the Dungeon Master as the ultimate arbiter. At the same time, some very specific rules were laid out in the books, quite a few in the case of AD&D, which seem to be begging to be followed.

In point of fact the very openness and flexibility of Original Dungeons & Dragons seemed to be answered by the specificity of rules outlined in AD&D. It was quite common that players of the game would even write, call or speak up at conventions to ask pointed questions about rulings and game rules, or the absence thereof. Often these questions involved very specific situations that had arisen in the game on which a rule was needed or clarification of interpretation was required. The exactness and multiplication of rules in AD&D did not fix this situation entirely, and some might say compounded it. However, it could be argued that the multiplication of rules in the Advanced edition of the game was a direct response to the lack of rules previously.

It could also be argued that the Advanced game had more rules simply because it was "advanced" and hence lent itself to more complex gameplay. Whichever argument might win out, the dichotomy was here to stay. Now, whether the original intention of the statement that the rules are a guide came about because it is simply impossible to cover every conceivable rule to cover every possible situation that might arise in a D&D game; or if it arose out of a desire to place imagination and flexibility in the hands of the master and players of the game, is hard to know. Likely, it was a combination of the two, the first pragmatically, the second idealistically.

The question then is which playstyle should win out? Of course such a question could be seen but as aught but a variation of the endless argument of which game is better. Both styles of play, hew to the RAW or wild and free, are perfectly viable ways to play as long as the social contract has reached consensus. However, is there a way that seems to make more sense in relation to the game itself?

I've struggled with this for some time now, and it recently came to mind again when I received the latest issue of my favorite gaming magazine in the mail this week: Knights of the Dinner Table. The Knights, and the Hackmaster game as represented in the Knights, like to play with this dichotomy. Most recently in a grudge match between Gary Jackson and the Hard Eight staff and the Knights themselves in DAWG the RPG. The much renowned GM Jake Berlin decides to house rule a few things in addition to his scenario and is lambasted by Gary Jackson the creator of the game. This is one of the beautiful ironies of KODT that it can play satirically with these things we all experience at the table, and dream about in our mind. Every regular reader of the comic knows that GJ would bend or break a rule as long as it suited him, all the while using the same logic that he created the rules, he knows what he meant, or intended, or hell, he can do whatever he wants--they're his rules after all. And his own book "Hackmaster" also makes clear as does the DMG after which it is modeled, that the GM's the thing, not the rules. In fact the GM very literally "rules"!

I mention this because, as the comic always does, the argument playing out in the panels drew me in and I found myself siding with one of the characters. In this case, I was with Berlin. I mean, he hadn't really changed any rules, he had just added rules. And I really want to see the Untouchable Trio +1 hand Hard Eight and GJ their asses. Oh, there'll be hell to play in some way, but the sip of sweet justice is fine. Anyway, by siding with Berlin I really surprised myself. I usually side with those arguing with the rules, instead of against. In an early such debate at B.A Felton's table his players are about to mutiny because B.A. has "tweaked" a Spiny Blue Dragon to be much harder than the Knights are expecting. He has clearly gone against the rules, in fact even the explicitly written rule which Brian, the resident Rules Lawyer, brings up from the Hacklopedia of Beasts, Dragon stats should never be altered! Of course, what he is trying to do is make the Dragon a challenge for the players, but I found myself, though sympathizing with B.A., siding with the players on this one. That's where I usually come down. Don't change or rewrite or erase a rule without being _really_ clear about it.

The reason such situations are so successfully funny and compelling to us is that we have all been in that situation. We all know there is an insoluble dichotomy at work which naturally breeds humor. We all know it is true. And we laugh or at least grin, because we know the Trio +1 would just as easily support B.A. if he tweaked something that made it easier on their characters and brought them more wealth, power or experience. It is a self interested struggle on behalf of the players. And we sympathize with B.A. because his is not as self interested, but done in the interest of providing an adequate challenge to his unruly and perhaps overpowered bunch.

Classic humor aside, however, the struggle between these to poles is very real. Gary Gygax's weight on the matter seems clear:
Used as a standard by which to weight this argument for decades now, and to bequeath to DMs the ultimate power over their game. The loosely defined words, like Spirit, Obvious Intent, Major Systems, Uniformity of Play, and Broad Parameters make the statement almost legally useless however--which might have been the intent after all.

Most of us are quite comfortable with the balance that arises between DM fiat and flow, pacing and direction of play to roll with less exact applications of the rules in order to facilitate engaging and sustained play. In other words we want the story to move on at a nice pace and not have rules get in the way too much. The rules are less like train tracks and more like guardrails on a wide, unmarked two-lane country road on a broad flat field. Even if you broke through the rails, the truck is most likely going to keep on running.

However, what official tension should exist? Well, I offer the following. It is sort of an approach that is honed over time but seems to interpret the intent as well as the spirit in which D&D was created.

1. Rules should be followed if they are written in the official rules of the game, unless specifically represented as optional. And when the need arises and there are optional rules offered in the rulebooks, these optional rules should be preferred over houserulings.

2. When gameplay is ongoing it is quite common for situations to arise upon which a judgment is made that might be found to contradict a rule later. This can be shelved and remedied later so as not to interrupt the flow too much, unless some critical decision would affect a player negatively or positively to the point that a clear decision should be backed up by rules.

3. It is also common, especially when just learning a game or as a new DM, to not play with all rules initially given that as time goes on and situations arise play is more and more aligned to the rules as outlined in #2 above.

4. Additions to rules should be preferred over changes or exclusions to rules whenever possible, and it is quite common to need to add a houserule to handle situations not covered in the rule. In such cases the rule should be noted and referred to in the future when such situations arise in order to foster uniformity of play at least within the group.

5. Interpretations of rules should likewise be recorded and kept as a houserule with the same guidelines as expressed in #4 above.

6. Excisions or alterations in rules should be avoided if at all possible, but when they are done should be explained before hand to players and common consensus achieved. These should be presented as a houserules addendum which are kept in written format and then recorded so as to provide uniformity of play within the group. Note that not all the specifics of rules changed by the DM need be outlined to the players, if keeping specifics hidden to maintain exciting and engaging play.

Example 1: DM Johnny decides he wants critical hits and fumbles in his game. Such combat specifics are not a part of the main game, but optional rules for crits and fumbles are provided in the GMG. Johnny should adopt these optional rules before adopting or creating his own.

Example 2: In play at Johnny's table that night Swaray the Bard rolls a 1 on his check to play his lute to charm a crowd. Not sure if the Fumble tables handle non combat situations Johnny rules it as a simply, if awful, fail but no actual fumble with more deleterious effects. He didn't want to take the time to look the rule up then, since the thief was about to backstab a guard and the crowd might react, so he just made a ruling and kept the game flowing. However, he notes this to look up after the game to see if he ruled correctly. Note here that if the results of properly determining if a fumble applied in this case could have meant the difference between life and death, or perhaps the thief's success or failure or some other critical action that could permanently affect gameplay the actual rule should be sought and consulted.

Example 3: Evalynn, Johnny's spouse and long time player at his table decides she would like to GM a one shot for a Halloween game. Evalynn has never GMed before, but Johnny is confident she'll do fine. Evalynn decides to not use the extended combat rules, critical or fumbles, because she is still learning to GM. Everyone understands and is fine with this for now. If she continues GMing she'll add those rules in later.

Example 4: Johnny has a player that wants his mage to have an herbalist background and be able to pick herbs that could perhaps substitute for certain material components. There are no rules for backgrounds, so Johnny includes a brief list of proffesions in which players can choose to be trained in before training in their class by adding 1d6 additional years to their age. Also, there are no special rules to handling spellcasting with inferior material components in Johnny's game, so he comes up with a rule on the fly that the spell is less effective, thus either making the save with +1 or damage reduced by one die if a caster tries to cast a spell with less than adequate components. Later that week Johnny comes up with a table that outlines such modifications when the situation arises again.

Example 5: Evlaynn is running her Halloween one shot and comes up against a situation where infravision is used to detect undead. She is not sure if infravision could see the undead since it is a type of heat vision, so she rules that it sees them as an absence of heat, or cold spot, ruling that necromantic magic is maybe cooler than the surrounding area. This is recorded as an official ruling of an interpretation of infravision at her table.

Example 6: Johnny decided that he would share his table for casting spells with inferior material components with his players so they would be able to make informed decisions about their spellcasting (note he could have decided not to share his table, and only told them it was possible to cast spells thusly, but that they would be altered or inferior in most cases, to preserve the element of the unknown, a bit of mystery if you will, about magic in the game). This brings up a discussion among the spellcasters at his table if it would be possible to cast spells without verbal or somatic components at a similar deduction. In fact the discussion moves into casting spells without any components at all. Johnny is not comfortable with this as it would amount to cutting out the component rules altogether and won't go this far. Even before Johnny can get this out, his fighter asks if he can add rules about fighters being able to throw swords with his circus training background ... Note that Johnny's admission of an additional rule in #4 which amounts to a change to a rule opened the can of worms that led to the present discussion. Once rules start changing things can quickly spiral out of control.

So, is this the way the game is supposed to be played? Heck, I don't know. But I will say that we can assume most games are designed with rules that designers have at least given some thought to, and that few know the game quite as well as they. If we are going to play that game we should owe some allegiance to the rules. And in my book we shift more towards the RAW rather than the alternative. If you desire a game of D&D with less rules I would encourage the rules light play of Original or Basic D&D rather than the more explicitly written and designed AD&D and it's offspring.