Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Important Tips For Running Good Convention Games

Convention games are a different experience from a home game. First the players probably don’t know you. Second the players probably don’t know each other. Finally and most importantly there is a finite amount of time the game has to fit in. These aren’t the only differences but by being aware of these differences you can set yourself up to ensure the game runs smoothly and your players have fun. 

What does it mean if the players don’t know you? It largely means that the trust in you, the DM, isn’t as strong as it would be with a group of friends. One way to mitigate this is to tell your players a little about you and what you like most about DMing. Don’t spend more than a few minutes on this, but it can help break the ice when setting things up at the table. To take it a step further, discuss what options are available in case a player is uncomfortable.  One of the easiest and most common choices is the X-card.  Now, there is no need to dwell on it,  just explain “if there is a problem with the game or anything that bothers you, tap this and I’ll do my best to change the subject.” On the other hand, if things are going well and they’d like more of that style of play then they can raise the O-card. If you are playing online, a player could privately message you an X or an O and provide additional details to help keep things moving and keep everyone happy.

The second hurdle that a convention DM has that most home games don’t have, or don’t have for long, is the players don’t know each other. To go along with the players not knowing each other in many organized play events the players may not have the characters available to make a balanced party. An unbalanced party or a balanced party that doesn’t know how to synergize and work together means that you, the DM, need to balance encounters as you learn the player’s skill. You will also need to ensure that an encounter doesn’t stall and take up the entire adventure, preventing the players from seeing the whole story. It is also important to not take combat too far and actively try to kill the PCs, instead give them the illusion of potential failure.   The resources and GM course correction available in a home game are not readily available in organized play and joining a random game should be fun not life threatening to a PC that has taken many hours to level and may still have adventures to play at the convention that are level specific. The best advice for avoiding these pitfalls is to have experience. But to get experience you have to try and learn what works for you.  Lacking experience it is critically important you read the adventure and think about what a group of players might have trouble with if they don’t have the right kinds of spell casters, don’t have enough high damage output, or charismatic or sneaky characters. These are just a few examples to keep in mind but when you read an encounter ask yourself what is the story here and what can be done to make experiencing that story flexible? Especially since going back to town regrouping and hiring some locals might not be available for the party or something the players have been taught to consider.

The third and most pressing problem that a convention DM has to deal with is that there is a time limit the adventure has to fit in. In a home game if the adventure runs long you can pick up again in the same place next week. Or have the party return to town heal up, gather new supplies, and try to conquer the dungeon again. At a convention this is the players’ only chance to experience this chapter in what may be a larger story; don’t rob them of that and make them confused for the next DM to have to fix. Staying within your time limit is also important because the convention has scheduled durations for events and often players will have another game starting just after yours is set to finish or the space you are using is booked for another game after yours.  Be respectful and end on time. Just remember to tell a complete adventure during that time. The players are at your event to play D&D which means they expect a story of daring adventure that is “complete” and fulfilling. Keep the game moving and decide what encounters may need to be cut short or omitted to to help the players get through the adventure in the allotted time. The best advice I can offer is read the adventure and understand what is important. Make sure you understand the structure of the story and where important details are so if there is fat to trim or combats to abbreviate you’ve given them the clues and experience to understand how things advance and reach fruition at the end.  That may mean narrating the resolution of a scene that is running too long, allowing alternative methods of advancing the plot with creative descriptions of skill use, or even just asking the players what they plan is and allowing it to work as far as the next part of the adventure. The idea with this is to ensure the players see and understand the plot beats and know the story they are playing in and helping to create. This allows everyone to experience the adventure and get the rewards they deserve. 

With these differences in mind the game should warm up faster and help everyone enjoy themselves. Remember the golden rule that as the Dungeon Master it is your job to provide a safe environment and help everyone have fun. These players are at your table to experience an adventure. There is no reason to hide that adventure or story nor make it so difficult, complex, or deadly that they can’t experience the story in the allotted time. Everyone should have fun and be able to tell a great story at the end. Which is a good rule of thumb for every game session at a convention and at home.  Pax Ludos!

If you have your own experience, additional advice, or questions leave a comment below.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Campaign Pitch or How to see what your players are interested in

Red background with an Imperial eagle surrounded by a laurel wreath with SPQR written bellow it.
The Stellaran nation is ripping itself to shreds. “The Dictatrix is dead! Long live the Republic.” cry the traditionalists after the assassination. “Burn the Senate and restore Imperial glory” is the rallying cry of the Imperialists. The vassal states see this as a chance for freedom while everyone else sees the opportunity for conquest and riches. The dogs of war have been set loose. You can choose a side or strike out to build a new power in the world.

Catchy, right? Well I think it is and it will be one of my campaign pitches for a game in a world that will lean heavily on classic tropes with the added menace of a Rome parallel Stella. If my players choose to play this campaign. I hope to offer them a few choices once my current campaign ends.

While thinking about what interests me for my next campaign. I wanted to write out what a starting pitch for a fantasy RPG campaign should look like. A campaign has to catch your players and GMs fancy. If people don’t like the theme, ideals, or style of play then you are going to have players constantly butting up against what you want to run and what they want to do which can be frustrating.

This means it needs a catalyst that drives conflict and shakes up the status quo so the players can step in and set things right or shape the world in a new way. A threat of war, or an actual one, are classic examples. These events make heroes and give them places where their actions ripple across the world amplifying their effects and grandeur.

It should give the players options. In my example above the players could be trying to set the Republic back on track, they could be involved in establishing the empire as an even greater nation, they could be vassal state citizens fighting for the freedom of their people, or they could be barbarians seeking fortune, glory, and a place to burn or conquer.

To be clear, different PCs could have different agendas. But I would try to look for ways to keep the party from having bother Republicans and Imperialists so I can cast the other side as a decadent self serving power hungry faction that must be stopped.

It should also leave enough room that you can shift the focus a bit if the party loses interest. An example would be if the campaign started with lots of political intrigue but after a while they decide they want dungeon crawling or other fights. The campaign can shift towards protecting Stella from outside attacks or finding artefacts to bolster a right to leadership or even to stop the treacherous acts of another faction.

The political cartoon that gave rise to the name Gerrymandering
It may sound democratic bu I'm not above gerrymandering.
I could run this in many different systems. I will probably run it in 13th Age’s Archmage system or 5E using rules and monsters from the new Theros book and Odyssey of the Dragon Lords. By hooking my players on the plot I could potentially run this in a system that my players are less comfortable with because the premise excites them.

My goal here is to find out what excites my players and me. It also gives me the chance to think about all the cool things I’d love to run or play. The goal is to make this a short elevator pitch that everyone will read. Once the players have picked a campaign I’ll work to flesh the campaign premise out into a couple of pages. This will let me add some details to inspire the players when they are creating their characters. Give them a bit more grounding in the campaign and hopefully inspire them to flesh out parts of the game as well to help keep them involved.

For anyone interested my other ideas, which still need to be refined, are:

“Behold a new god is born!” proclaim the oracles around the world. Some claim she will bring a new age of enlightenment to the world. Others cry she will destroy it while making something deserving of her. Atop of the Spire of the World the babe waits to be shown the world she has inherited and will grow up to make her decision over. The best and worst of are amassing armies to claim the land around the spire and take the god child so they can mold her into a weapon or salvation. Will you sign up with a cause or strike out on your own to shape destiny?

The dead rise. It is spoken about behind churches and among gravediggers. Even miners claim they can hear the shuffling tramp and ghoulish armies. Some even claim small villages and farmsteads have been overtaken and destroyed by this curse, or worse they’ve been dragged below to feed something worse.

The swamps are dark and cold. Hidden creatures stalk the darkness. It was slow at first but more and more have gone missing….are you ready to save Saltmarsh?

Monday, March 2, 2020

What's in a campaign?

What is a campaign? In D&D that question can have many answers and I think I'm going to change my approach the next time I start something new.

Treasure Map1) a campaign is a series of adventures that a party undertakes. It starts at low level and proceeds as the players level up. Eventually the PCs become leaders and the party decides if they want to continue or start something over.  If they continue then new adventurers the followers do a lot of the grunt work and the leaders do more nation building and help flesh our parts of the campaign world.  This goes on and on until interest is lost. Then new players are brought in along side some long term players or it is revived with new players but the world is the same the campaign continues.

2) There is a mega adventure that the party will undertake they will start at low level and proceed until the evil is stopped. WotC is making these campaign adventures as books. Almost every one of these is a self contained campaign. Sometimes one campaign book bleeds into another. But that seems to be the exception more than the rule.

3) A campaign is a goal the PCs set out to do. There might be several small adventures or just a large dungeon crawl that takes several attempts to complete. Think of this like a season in a television show. The season is a campaign and the series is a collection of campaigns.

I usually run something closer to option 1 that hybrids into 2 a little bit. I have an end goal the PCs can attain and once the PCs are sufficiently established as leaders they retire. Then I start up a new campaign at low level. The high level PCs are generally NPCs but they can be brought back in.

But I'm really leaning towards making Option 3 my new default even in a sandbox campaign. Give the PCs many options of things to do but once they start dealing with a village or large dungeon that is a campaign. After the campaign is over the PCs have a long period of "down time" as described in 5E and maybe as described by Matt Coleville. I'll take a month off work with the players off line and then start the process over again based on what the PCs want to do.

Also the formatting on my last post was went weird after I published it and made an edit. I've fixed that post if you want to try and read it.

Pax ludi and have fun.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

To Fudge or Not to Fudge Dice Rolls

So over the past week a lot of digital ink has been spilled on twitter about fudgin dice. There I tried to voice
my opinions but it felt disjointed. So I thought I’d share a bit more detail here and be able to point people
towards it when this conversation rears up again. 

I try not to fudge dice. I don’t like it when DMs do it to me and I don’t like doing it to my players.  Dice are
there to determine things I want taken out of my or my players control. When we roll dice in an RPG it is
done  to add dramatic tension of not knowing the result, to be an “arbiter of fairness” in combat, and
prevent the GM or players from just winning. 

So if I am going to fudge the dice I am violating one of these three statements for why roll the dice. If I am
going to fudge the dice I should ask myself “Why are you fudging the dice and was it the right reason or
should I have avoided a dice roll entirely?” In the heat of a gaming session it can be hard to be this
introspective. So note it down or ask a player to make a note1 for you and keep the game running. 

Three main reasons I want to fudge dice and usually there are better work arounds that I should have used.
1) The PCs should have succeeded at this roll or needed to succeed at the roll for the adventure to
2) The monster is really tough and the players should be hitting more or the monster should be hitting
less or vice versa.
3) I backed myself into a corner and ratcheted things up to far and now I’m going to see a PC killed over
something stupid like a series of jumps across buildings that just got too hard and now she’s going
to fail and fall.

In the first case. The right answer is to not do that. If the players should succeed let them do it without the
roll. Or better yet use the roll to see if there are complications that will happen later on. This is referred to
in some games as “Failing Forward”2. A good example is the players toss a crime scene looking for clues.
They ultimately need to find a clue here to keep the adventure moving and it will break things if they don’t
get the clue and frustrate me and the players. So give them the clue. But use the dice rolls to see if there
are other complications that arise. Maybe poor rolls mean they find the clue but it can’t be used as
evidence. Or they know contact poison was used because they managed to also come in contact with it.
Or the players take so long to complete the search another crime has been committed or the criminals
have shown up to clean up the scene and now there is a fight. These are some examples. But all ideas I
might jot down in adventures notes as ways to “fail forward”. The worse the players roll the more difficult
the complication is to overcome or the more time lost. But at least the adventure can move forward.
When running a published adventure this can be harder to remember to do or determine ways to
incorporate the concept but it is worth taking the prep time to think about.

The second instance of wanting to fudge dice is when a monster proves too difficult. This is also a harder
case for me to fudge my dice. This is because I always try to roll my dice in front of the players. They
can see what my dice are doing so if the dice are hot the players can see I’m not being a jerk chance
just isn’t on their side and my dice are cold (which seems to happen more frequently than I would like)
they can see that I’m not pulling punches to protect them. However, there are times when I’m testing a
new monster or trying something different that the creatures AC or attack is just too high. Rather than
fudge the dice and let the players hit a little more often or have my monster miss more frequently. I
would rather take the time to reduce the monster’s AC or attack roll. Maybe I’d even tie it to something
creative a player did to describe an attack or just in response to the monster getting hit.  “When your
warhammer slams the orc chieftain you know its helm off. It seems stunned for a moment.” If my players
have pegged the creatures AC at this point I might tell them the new AC of the monster at this point. If t
hey haven’t figured it out yet I would keep it secret so they can keep guessing. The same would be true
if I had lowered the attack. Another option I use less frequently would be to have imposed a condition like
dazed on the monster for a round or two. But that is something I would certainly save for clever actions or
descriptions from the players.

The final instance is the hardest to identify and fix. It usually happens because I’m running the game and
my players have left any semblance of why I had planned for. We are not in uncharted territory and the
dice are helping to tell the story but also based on what the PCs are doing and how the dice are going
they also give me time to think about what might be next. So I don’t always realize when there are critical
rolls about to happen that really shouldn’t be left entirely to chance and by the time I do a PC is
plummeting to their death or I or the PCs are backed into a corner and people are starting to get
frustrated. During this time I often have to call a break on the game grab something to drink and sit back
down after 5 minutes. We recap what has happened, what is going on, and what the PC are trying to do.
During this step back from the immediate action I can get my bearing. Then I can figure out what the
forward looks like and understand what failure might be as well. Now I’m back on track with determining
ways to have the party fail forward. At times like this I might even lean on my players and ask them to
provide me with ideas for what failure looks like and determine how they move forward from here.  It isn’t
my favorite style of running the game but sometimes you take a messy solution and keep things moving
over ruining a whole session because I couldn’t plan it all out perfectly.

In summary (tldnr) there are more options for GMs to use beyond fudging dice. They might have the
same effect but feel less capricious and are applied evenly across all players and actions. So think
about why you fudge your dice and try to use other methods in the future. At the very least it will help
stretch your thoughts about the game’s rules and how to apply them to odd situations. I hope it helps.

Pax ludi and have fun.

1 I try to get my players to keep track of things I may want to revisit later rather than stopping the game
to take the note myself.  It usually consists of me saying something like “X, please send me an email
about the ruling I just made. To check if there is a rule we should have used.”

2 Thanks Robin D. Laws I believe my first contact with this idea was reading about Gumshoe. I started to
get it while running 13th Age by Rob Heinsoo.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

My RPG goals for 2020

I have not posted much here.  But I think I should. Or at least I should more often then twice a year. So in preparation for 2020 I am writing this post. It will be my "pledge" to write more.  Some of it will be about mini painting. Some of it will be about games I am in. Some of it will be my ideas and reviews of RPG material. With luck all this extra writing will prompt me into even writing a few more details about a game and setting I'd like to elaborate on.

I know this blog isn't frequent enough to have regular readers but for those of you following it be ready to hear more from me.