Describing your actions in Role Playing Games.

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In any Role Playing game, certain mechanical aspects typically take care of weather or not an action is successful. Rolling a dice to determine if you “hit” your opponent, and then again too see how much damage you inflict is a very common thing. Making a dice roll to determine if your character spots a hidden object, or if he can sneak up on an enemy are also common rolled for elements. This being said, just simply saying, “Ok yes you hit and you did eleven hit points of damage, or yep, you successfully sneak up on the Orc guard“, are pretty shallow and quiet frankly boring ways to describe the outcomes of those actions. I briefly touched on this subject in another post, but in this article I want to go into more depth about how and why you should learn to become proficient at describing your characters actions, both in and out of combat.

Ever wonder why sometimes in a movie or television adaptation of a book, the characters seem to speak way more than they did in the novel? the reason for this is primarily due to a difference in the type of media. In a book, an author can describe what a character is thinking, on screen, the characters actions must be visual or spoken. Otherwise the audience would not be aware of the inward thoughts of a particular character. it is much the same in a Role Playing Game. You have to describe your characters thoughts and actions if they are to be perceived by others at the table, or in some cases (such as it is on my show Howreroll) the audience.

I consider it a skill for both player and DM to be able to describe actions during a game, and one that can be improved and developed over time. I am going to break this down into two sections. First I will discuss describing actions in combat and in physical situations, and then I will talk about describing more subtle actions.

In Combat, the first thing to remember is that despite things being done in an orderly turn based fashion in most games, real combat is far from orderly. In Dungeons and Dragons a combat round is six seconds. So what occurs in a round is what a particular character does during that six second exposure of time. In reality everything is happening at once, with fractions of a second separating the individual movements between the combatants. In combat you should put effort in to describing the entire action of your character or NPC, and offer the ability for others to play off of those descriptions. Instead of simply saying “I attack the ogre with my sword” be more descriptive. “I charge forward with my weapon raised, and swing my sword at the Ogres left leg. As I do so I let out a loud war cry, to distract the Ogres attention away from the cleric!” This is a far more entertaining and visual description of the action, and allows the DM to play of off that description. He may say something like “Hearing your War Cry the Ogre spins around to face you and prepares to meet your assault, his focus is now on you and not the cleric”. Then you would roll to hit, and if successful you would roll for damage. Based on the amount of damage done the DM can now describe the outcome. As a DM do not just say “you hit for eight hit points of damage“. Instead it should be something more along the lines of “Your sword finds its mark, and opens up a deep gash in the Ogres left thigh, blood begins to flow from the wound as the Ogre winces in pain“. If it was a particularly high amount of damage (in relation to the Ogres hit points) the DM can go on further and say something like “The Ogre staggers backwards a few steps and glances down at the blood pouring down his leg, you notice a look of panic begin to form on his brutish face“. In a situation like this I may also imply some kind of disadvantage to the Ogre for his next action which help to reward the player for their descriptive efforts. Some DM’s like to allow the player to describe the outcome and damage of the hit itself, I tend to lean away from that for reasons I describe in this post here, although I am sometimes happy for them to describe their killing blow. This being said I do want them to be descriptive in the attempt. In short, you describe to me what you character is attempting to do, and after the dice are rolled, I will describe to you the outcome.

It can be helpful to wrote down a list of descriptive combat words. Slash, chop, hack, cleave, thrust, lunge, swing wildly etc are good flavor adding words to a description. Also think about visualizing the attack itself, and describe it as you see it in your minds eye. Being mindful of the type of weapon you use will also help determine the description. A mace will often find its attack description including words like bash, smash or crack instead of lunge, thrust or stab. Try to describe the body location your character is trying to hit. In some cases you may be attempting to make a “called shot” in others it may just be what body part you are swinging for. The DM can then work with that when he describes the outcome of the blow, based on how much actual damage is done. If a player says something like “I sidestep and swing my axe overhead, trying to bring it down and bury it in the goblins skull“, I can look at the damage and then describe the outcome. If the damage is very low, I may say “Your axe blow hurtles down towards the Goblins skull. At the last second, he leans back and instead of cleaving his head in two, your axe blade puts a cut in his cheek and continues down to open up a small wound in his chest“. On the other hand if the damage was high, I may say “The blow strikes the Goblins skull cutting a deep gash in his head, the blade glances down from his round head and digs deep into his shoulder, as he cries out in agony!” Finally if the blow was a killing blow, I may tell the player “your blow kills the goblin, describe how it happens“, or say something “your axe reigns down on the Goblin, its heavy blade hits the dead center of his skull, and his head spits open as easily as if you were splitting a log. The weight of the axe continues to drive the blade deep into the goblins chest, as a shower of blood covers you and the floor! As you remove your axe, the Goblins corpse falls lifeless to the ground.” Of course you do not have to be as graphic as I was in the above examples, but you get the idea. Another point it to try to string your attacks together if you have multiple attacks. Instead of saying “I attack the Troll three times with my sword“, it would be far better to say “I lunge forward, and thrust my sword at the trolls belly, then real back and slash at his right side, and finally make a mighty overhead swing aiming to smash his collar bone!” A monk for example has a great deal open to him from a descriptive stand point. “I throw a left jab at the Orcs face, and follow it up with a strong right cross aimed at his jaw. I then spin around and try to land a back kick to the Orcs exposed stomach“! As I mentioned above, its a good idea to write down some key phrases and words that apply like, Jab, cross, uppercut, left and right hook, front kick, round kick, side kick, back kick, knee strike, elbow strike spinning kick etc etc. In the spur of the moment it will help you put your descriptions together, especially if you visualize it.

Bringing descriptive use of terrain or geographical features into play is also something I encourage. A good DM should take care to create a a living battlefield for each encounter, be it a tavern or a cavern. Allowing for the possibility of improvised weapons or elevation changes. Also providing obstacles or cover. These can not only help bring a battle to life and make it more fun and interesting, but allow for more description. “I leap up on the table, and attempt to kick the brute in the face!” “When I see the Hobgoblin raise up his crossbow, I take of running and dive behind the large pile of rocks to the left to get behind cover“. These are examples of how terrain can be useful in bringing the combat to life and providing assets for description. In general your goal in Combat is to use description to bring the encounter to life, allowing everyone concerned to imagine what is happening and as such adding to the gaming experience.

Now lets take a look at being descriptive with things other than combat. You can describe your characters actions to help imply, emotional state, intent, reaction, interaction etc. For example instead of just saying “I walk into the bar and find a seat“, you could elaborate a little and say something like “I walk into the tavern, I sniff the air to see if there is a chance of a good hot meal and then glance around looking for an open table or a seat at the bar“. Now at this point, (and before I go any further) I want to mention a style of play called Narrative play. This is where players are encouraged to go into GREAT detail about everything they do. In this form of play the above example would have been more like the following. “I cautiously swing open the old and heavy wooden tavern door, as I do so I inhale the welcome smells of roasted chicken, pipe weed and strong ale. I allow my eyes to wander around the tavern tap room, as I take stock of all the patrons that are currently enjoying the delights that the tavern has to offer. Spying an empty table, I cautiously move towards it, taking great care not to bump into any of the existing patrons. I pull out a chair and slump down into it wearily. My arms rest heavy on the table as I spend a few moments to relish the much needed rest. my mind wanders to recall the hardships of the three day journey I have just endured“. Some people enjoy this type of play, I personally like description, but prefer it be limited to some degree so that it does not overly slow down game play. If you do not want your character to speak, you can also use a description to provide his emotional state or response. An example of this would be “I frown and glare at the nobleman disapprovingly, but I bite my tongue and say nothing“. Alternatively you could say something like “You see me lean against the wall and frown and glare at the Nobleman“! These are both ways to let the rest of the people involved in the game know that while your character has not spoken, he is clearly not happy. There are many instances where being a little descriptive can add to the flavor and immersion of the game. here are a few more non specific examples. “I crouch low and quietly try to sneak over to the window. I carefully try to peep inside, while keeping as much of myself  hidden as possible“. “I climb up on my horse as quickly as possible, and with a swift kick I spur my horse onward to chase the bandits“. “I snatch the coins from the counter with a scowl, and thrust them into my belt pouch, a silver piece hits the floor, but I don’t bother to pick it up and instead I storm out the store”! Just adding a few key words into the description of an action can really help bring the scene to life, and just as importantly it can allow a player to participate even when his character has nothing to say, or does not want to speak.

Casting a spell is another good moment when description can add something to the game. “I cast feather fall” could be replaced with something way more fun and descriptive like “I circle my arms once and emulate the flapping of a birds wings as I say Avarian Tarda Cadere, and you see small spectral feathers surround me as I fall from the cliff and my decent slows down considerably allowing me to land safe and unharmed on the ground“. The fun that can be had with spell description is never ending, and I enjoy listening to the variety of ways different players may describe the casting of the same spell.

Being descriptive IS work, and for some it can take time before it becomes second nature. The work is definitely worth while though, and you can write down words to help you as I suggested earlier. Adding description to your game play is something both players and DM’s should take the time to work on. It may not happen over night, but over time it will elevate your game sessions.

Good Luck and happy Gaming!

“Gorebad takes a deep breath and sits back in his chair. He really wishes he was a better writer, but he feels like he managed to make his point. He stretches his arms above his head and stretches his lower back, as it has become somewhat stiff from his poor posture while typing. He then hits the save and Publish button as another blog post is made public”.

The Loner/outsider character. Why and why not.

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As a DM of over 35 years, the one character personality type I see more often than any other is the moody loner or outsider. On face value, it is easy to see the appeal of playing a character like this. We have all seen those mysterious loner characters on Television and Film, (like The man with no name in the spaghetti westerns or Wolverine in X men) and they always seem so alluring. This being said they are also probably the character types that I see more commonly fail than any other. I am going to delve into this type of character personality, and explain why it is not necessarily the fun character people think it will be, and how to play it well IF you do decide to go down the road of the introverted loner.

So what do I mean by Loner or outsider character? well I refer to the character that while being in a group, tends to still try to keep themselves to themselves to some degree. They often choose to sit alone, or keep secrets from their other party members. They choose not to trust the rest of the party, and do not open up about their past or back story. Their are several potential issues with playing characters with this kind of personality.

  • You are playing an anti social character in a social game.

This can cause issues in a variety of ways. As a player you will often be excluding yourself from good Role Playing opportunities. For example, if you decide that instead of talking to the NPC you sit alone in the corner and let the rest of the group handle the conversation, you will be creating dead game time for yourself. You may be fine with this initially, hell it may even be fun. However time and time again I have seen these characters get retired early when the initial novelty wares off. It causes difficulties for the rest of the group too. The other players will want to try to include you, but if you keep shrugging of their attempts, sooner or later the other players will stop trying, and then the player of the loner character ends up feeling left out or literally an outsider in the group. The whole point of Role Playing Games is to be involved in a social activity, and have fun. If you create a character that is adverse to this idea, then do not be surprised when you spend much of the time at the gaming table sitting in silence.

  • Your characters secrets and backstory won’t mean much if they are never revealed.

It may seem fun to have deep secrets about your character. Things that you alone know and the other characters are unaware of. Well the problem with that is that if no one is aware of it, it doesn’t mean much. Unless you either choose to clue in the rest of the characters (so they can enjoy it), or at the very least work with the DM to bring your back story into the forefront and allow it to be explored during the campaign its worthless. The day you get killed by a Storm Giant and then say ” Oh man, my character was actually a prince from a foreign land, trying to hide and flee from his uncle who wanted him dead, so he could take the throne, and one day he would return and slay his evil uncle and become king”. You can expect little more than a few shoulder shrugs from the rest of the players.

  • Being an outsider often leads to distention.

The more time your character is alone and the more secretive it is, the less the other characters have a reason to trust you. Keeping yourself to yourself and keeping secrets will eventually lead to distrust. At this point you and the rest of the characters may find yourselves at awkward impasses at best or conflict at worst. Often this happens regardless of the actual honesty or trustworthiness of the character in question. The bottom line is that all that secretiveness leads to distrust. Maybe you want to play a character that is distrusted by the rest of the group. If so that is fine, but as always you reap the consequences of your choices as a player. What amazes me the most is when the loner player then wants to blame the rest of the group for not including them. Remember, if you choose this path it is your responsibility to find ways to be included. You can only expect the rest of the gaming table to try so hard before losing the desire to bother.

  • You can be making your Dungeon Masters life difficult.

If you decide to play a character like this, it is imperative that your DM is aware of your intent. It may be far more difficult for him to provide you motivations, and hooks if he is not aware of your characters personality. Remember the players and the DM should be working together to create a story, not be adversarial to each other.

 

OK so I have given you some reasons why you may not want to play a character like this. I also said above that I was also going to tell you how to play it well IF you still decided you wanted to play a character with this personality type, so here goes.

 

The first thing is to COMMUNICATE as a player to the DM and the rest of the group. While your character may be a loner, it does not mean you should be. Make sure the other players know that your character is acting this way for a reason, even if you do not want to tell them that reason yet. Yes I said YET because as we said above, its useless to have secrets if they are not ever revealed at some point during the game. Talk with the DM and discuss your backstory, and work with him to give it some relevancy in the campaign. make no mistake it is YOUR responsibility to work with the DM with your character, not his responsibility to drag it out of you. Be proactive in talking to the DM, he is not a mind reader and as you are the one who wants some special concessions or situations injected into the campaign, so it is on you to take the lead to help him make it happen.

Even if your character says nothing, you can still Role Play his actions. For example. A group of adventurers are standing outside of a castle, talking to the captain of the guards about a recent increase in theft of local cattle. One of the characters is hanging back, standing several feet away from the conversation and for whatever reason, is avoiding the Captain of the guards. Instead of just saying, “I am not going over to the guard captain and staying back”, and then allowing ten of fifteen minutes of Role Play to happen without them being involved, you can Role Play your actions. “I seem noticeably anxious and a little nervous when I see the guard captain, so I loiter back. You see me lean against the wall with one foot pressed against it, and I begin to fidget awkwardly with a piece or string that I pull from my pocket. DM I would like to try to eavesdrop the conversation if possible from here”. As the Role Play continues have your character seemingly react to pieces of information that he over hears, “Hearing the mention of a local thief, My head lifts up and for a second I turn in the groups direction, before quickly averting my gaze once more”, or have him kick a rock with his foot. In short stay involved with the Role Play. One thing that is typically NOT conducive is to try to go off and do things on your own. More often and not you will just be bogging down the game and forcing the DM to divide valuable game time between you and the rest of the party. While you are being the loner, CHOOSE not to do things that will hamper of slow down game play, especially unnecessarily.

Another piece of advise is to take the openings given to you to expand your story. If you bother to Role Play out your actions, when a fellow player bounces of your description allow it to go somewhere. Do not just shut them down. In the above example, if a fellow character asks you “Hey you seemed really nervous to be near the Captain of the Guards, whats the deal”? Do not just say, “oh I wasn’t you were mistaken”. Let it go somewhere. That is one of the ways that great Role Play moments happen. Instead you could tell a brief story about how you have had a run in with him in the past, or how you and he grew up together and he bullied you. you could even use that moment to open up a little to another character, and let a piece of your back story come to the forefront. maybe you are wanted in another city and just want to keep a low profile. Whatever the reason, allow it to be part of the game, and not just some unspoken thing.

This brings me to make a point and one I will address in depth in another blog topic. Always describe your actions. As a long time DM I see this as a mark of a good Role Playing Gamer. Describing your characters physical actions adds so much to the game. From your intent and description of each attack, to how you plan on intimidating the door guard. As a loner you are often not going to speak up or volunteer information. However in real life, many a word goes unspoken, and your actions can tell the tale that your words do not. Describe your characters actions, and moods etc, if your character is not saying anything, instead describe his facial expressions, mannerisms and actions. “I snatch the chair out from under the table and sit down with a slump, exhaling loudly and folding my arms across my chest”, is a great way to let the other players know your character is upset about something without saying a word. Such actions will probably prompt a reaction from the other players and lead to great Role Playing opportunities. You can also use these type of descriptive actions to help hint at back story elements, or prompt other players to ask questions however, be realistic in your expectations of other characters. If you have spent much of the time not communicating, or have not given the party a reason to trust you, do not expect them to suddenly begin to do so when it suits you. Understand the other characters personalities and motivations and use that knowledge to better develop your character with reasonable actions. Here is an example. If your character once was a rich nobles daughter, who was disowned for falling in love with a stable boy, you may think that by saying “As I pass by the stables, you see me pause and look inside longingly. You see a single tear run down my cheek”. Is a great way to invite the other characters to stop and say something like “Oh whatever is the matter Esmeralda”? Well if the other characters are a grumpy Dwarf, a self serving rogue and a brutish barbarian, that is not a realistic expectation. Why WOULD they care, or even notice? However a compassionate bard, or a fellow female character, may be more likely to pick up on it and react. Be sure that the other characters can be realistically expected to pick up what you put down. Otherwise you may just get met with disappointment or discouraged when they do not react when you want them too.

Above all else you need to find ways to INCLUDE the rest of your party in your story, even while being a loner. That way everyone gets to be part of the fun, and I can promise you it will be a far more rewarding feeling. Remember that while you may have chosen to play a character that is a loner, you do not have to be a loner as a player, and you can still be very involved in the game. Everything you do as a player is a choice. If you choose to create scenarios for yourself that exclude you from the action or Role Play, that is on you. The more you are included, the more fun you will have. It can be a challenge to play a loner or outsider and it is not easy to do it well. more often than not, most fail. However I have seen a rare handful of amazing loner characters grace my table, and when done well they can be rewarding. More often however, this is not the case.

Happy gaming…….

 

Lazy Players (how not to be one).

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So in this post I want to talk about being a player, and your responsibility to the group and the game. So If you are playing or want to play in a Role Playing Game this is aimed at YOU, and not the DM of Game Master!

Being a DM takes work. Lots and lots of work. Countless hours are spent creating worlds, NPCs, adventures and encounters etc, or at the very least pouring over pre-exisiting content or modules so that you can deliver a great game to your players. Where as the players just get to show up and have fun right? WRONG!

A player has plenty of responsibility and work too do, and in order to fully contribute to the overall experience of the group, should be expected to ensure that his or her work is done. A players work does not stop once his character and backstory are written, yet a surprising amount of players seem to think that it does. These are “Lazy Players” and we are going to go into detail about what your responsibilities are as a player, so that you do not become one of these parasites who just show up, play and go home, without giving their best to the gaming group and hard working DM.

Character Creation.

We shall begin with the obvious responsibility to the player which is creating his or her character. Weather your DM encourages you to work with the other players and himself during this step or not, you have the task of creating a well thought out, balanced and fun character. It is this reason why I advise a session zero, where the group can bounce ideas around and make sure they are coming up with a party of characters that works. Not just together, but in the gaming world provided by the DM. The player should read the information regarding the character class and race they intend to play thoroughly, and ask questions of the DM where pertinent.

Character Backstory.

Unless you are starting your character as an infant, then he has had some life prior to beginning his life as an adventurer. Creating a backstory is an important aspect of creating a well developed character. Some people like brief paragraphs, others like ten page essays. how much in depth you go is up to you, but I would check with your DM too see how much of it he cares too see before you do a ten page master piece that he is just not going to read. Of course you can still do as much work as you want, but if its a novella, you may want an abridged version for your DM. When creating the backstory, it is a good idea to speak with the DM prior to or during writing, to help ensure the backstory and world work together. The DM can also provide details on locations, NPCs land marks etc, so that their is some continuity and help make your character feel local to the world or region. Remember, a good back story can help the DM involve your character more in the campaign ahead. You can find more info on character Backstory creation here.

 

OK and we are done. lets just show up and play now….. WAIT! there is more.

 

Basic Rules Knowledge.

As a player you should do your best to have an understanding of the basic core rules of the game, and if you are new you need to make sure the DM and other players know this. A good read of the key elements of the players handbook is strongly advised, so that you can grasp what is happening and participate without asking a thousand questions like “So how do I roll to hit?” or ” Whats a saving throw?” You are not expected to know everything but know enough to show up and play. You will learn more over time.

Rules that apply to your character.

As well as the basic rules you will be expected to know the rules that apply to your character. You need to know what your feats and skills do. What damage your weapons do. What your characters spells and or special abilities do. It is frustrating for everyone around the table when a player says something like ” I have this spell called Burning Hands what does it do?” Sorry but if you are going to play a Role Playing Game get used to reading and doing some research. Its part of the game, and expected. It is not the DMs job to tell you how to do every little thing (although no good DM minds being asked questions to some degree), it is yours. If you do not know your stuff, it slows the game down for everyone at the table, not just you, and that is poor player etiquette. Now if you are about to be a brand new player, do not panic as you read this. True new players will typically be cut some slack, but do not take advantage of other players or your DM when they help you out. At the earliest opportunity, do your homework!

Developing your character as you go.

If you went to the trouble of creating a good back story, it should also include some basic personality traits. At the start of play you should know how your character sees the world, and others. However as the game progresses, and your character becomes part of different events and witnesses different occurrences, it should shape and change your character. Not just on the character sheet in regards to going up levels and getting more hit points or abilities etc, but as an individual. If your character witnesses a vile and grotesque act for the first time, how would that make them feel? If they see an entire town butchered by ogres, how has this event altered their opinion in regards to these creatures? This is something that a player should do EVERY session and continue throughout the campaign. When you leave the gaming table, you should do some work before the next session and bother to THINK about this stuff. If you feel it could be character changing, then talk to your DM so that he is aware of a fundamental change that may be coming in future sessions. Make sure that you can maintain continuity of a change. for example if your character is almost eaten by ghouls, and you decide that he now has a rational fear of such creatures, it needs to continue throughout play until an even occurs that may change it. Do not have a fear of undead one session and then completely dismiss it the next.

Do your home work between sessions.

As mentioned in the section above, you are expected to do some work between each session. It is not just limited to thinking about the session before and what it meant to your character, it is also continuing to learn your abilities (as they change) and new spells etc, trying to improve your skills as a player, and generally thinking how to contribute more to each game session. For example. If you felt you meta gamed a little to much, then think how to lessen doing it. If you feel you are weak in describing your characters actions, read some novels or google some info to help you become better at describing them. If you really do not understand what other players characters do, then do some research and remember to have your character ask them about themselves next session. Your DM is working hard between sessions to continue to bring you fun content, support him and the rest of your fellow players by doing your part.

In Closing.

It is ultimately every players responsibility to TRY to improve and be a better player. Role Playing Games are a group activity. As such each person at the table contributes. Its not fair on the rest of the group to just show up and give a minimal effort. You owe it to the other players and your DM to be as good as you can be. Improving takes time and is a gradual thing, but you should always be striving for betterment.

In the end it all comes down to BOTHERING! Can you be bothered to do the work? well honestly if you can not, then you have no right to expect anyone else (including the DM) to do their part either. And if you are OK with that, this probably is not the hobby for you……

Understanding First level.

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So this may seem like an odd topic to cover. I mean we all know what a Level one character is right? well time and time again I see many players do not truly grasp the concept. It is mostly apparent in their backstory or attitude during role play. Now do not get me wrong, every player is new at some point or another, so these kinds of things can be expected (to some degree) in the fledgling role player, but I see it in more seasoned players too, and who quiet frankly should understand this better. And thus the reason for my article.

Character Creation and Back Story.

Lets begin at character creation. Now regardless of which order you choose to do things, be it pick race first, class first, roll stats first etc. You inevitably come up with a basic level one character. Too me however the character backstory should be interwoven during character creation, and thought out as you create the character. If you are playing a version that uses skill points for example, where you spend these points should be indicative of what your character has learned growing up so far. His attributes should influence the backstory as well, and if he has a high strength or intelligence, the back story should in part explain its former development. Now I know I am going on about backstory here, and you are right, this is not an article about creating back stories for your character, that being said it does require some brief attention.

A level one character is untested. He has no real experience at his chosen craft or career, and he has only his former life to draw from. A back story for a level one character should be thought out carefully. aspects like “He spent a year working for the local militia”, indicate some experience with combat and weapons training. It can justify his weapon and armor proficiency. However if it were to read “He spent many years as a sergeant in the militia,” it would suggest some real experience. He spent several years in service and rose to a higher rank, so it is not likely he did so without surviving some scuffles, being involved in some battles and arresting some criminals. “I toiled over my masters spell books when he was not looking” indicates some basic interest and understanding of magic, where as “I studied and practiced my magical arts for years, and accompanied several adventurers on their quests,” would suggest much more experience. The point here is to think about the basics. Your character has only a basic entry level understanding or apprentice level of aptitude. Also do not forget that experience is not directly tied to skills and talents and proficiency but to life in general. If your character has a vast array of life experiences in the back story, it is not likely he learned nothing from it and again it seems unlikely he would be a level one character. If you are creating a higher level character then naturally your back story should reflect his experiences in getting to the level he is currently at, but as a level one character his experiences should be limited.

Attitude and outlook.

The biggest area that I see players fall down on with their shiny new level one character is in the way they role play his attitude and outlook on life. Again he is untested in many ways so it is not likely that he will valiantly and fearlessly dive in to battle with the first Orc marauder he sees. He would probably be wary, scared and apprehensive. Only after several encounters and victories is he likely to become more sure of himself and less afraid. The first time he descends into a dark crypt, and hears the creaking of a coffin lid as it is raised by some undead creature should send shivers up his spine and make his skin crawl with fear. Yet time and time again I see people playing their level one characters as brave and sure as a level ten battle tested knight. At level one, you need to allow your character to feel. Feel scared, feel apprehensive, feel anxious. The exploration of these feelings will go along way to shaping your character and making him become a believable entity with depth as apposed to a shallow shell of numbers and statistics, (which I am sorry to say is the category where the majority or characters fall). Not only is is more believable to role play out these feelings but its fun. Another thing to consider is how naive and limited their outlook on life should be. Now of course you have to consider different racial aspects here, (as even a young barely mature elf may have lived one hundred and thirty years) but in general their lack of worldly exposure should be considered and taken into account during play. On a side note, I strongly suggest new players either do not play non human races or at least do their research first. I am not fond of players who chose to play a Demi-human race, get the racial benefits, and then proceed to play it like a human. You have a diverse cultural background at your disposal so EXPLORE IT!

Creating the back story and personality for your level one character is fun. We often like to make them exciting and interesting, but hold up a little. The biggest part of their life and the most exciting part is yet to come. This is the part that you are going to explore through play. Its OK for your character to be average or unexciting at the start. Its alright if he has no deep dark secrets. All this will come as you play through campaigns and adventures. Think of a novel that has a single main protagonist. The author does not spent chapters developing the past of the character (although many will give you a glimpse into their past). Instead the character develops throughout the story. Now, do not misunderstand me. It is OK to have some meaningful or even powerful events in your characters past prior to beginning his adventuring life, but its so easy to become cliche. Also think about the event you wish to have your character part of. How much should he have learned from these events, and should it have been significant enough that its no longer believable that he is only level one because of it?

When I do one shot adventures I am always wary of what bizarre and unbelievable back stories players are going to present for their characters. For a one shot (while often I cringe) I can live with it. For an ongoing campaign, I can not. I always get involved as my players create their characters, and make sure that some basic guide lines are observed. When it comes to our live show Howreroll, I have to be involved more so. Much as a director or producer has to be for a play or movie. Because we are creating stories for people to watch and enjoy (rather than just for our own amusement), We must maintain some elements of control, and we need to be sure the characters FIT.

In closing it is important to remind yourself about your characters range of experiences leading up to becoming a level one character. Focus as much on what he has NOT done, as you do on what he has done. Remember he is not just defined by his lack of skills, talents or proficiency but by his general lack of life experience and explored opportunities. Enjoy role playing the level one personality, not just the level one statistics………

 

Reactions to other player actions in D&D

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This seems to be a topic of controversy among the Role Playing community. That moment when a player declares their Character performs an action, and another member of the party does not like it, so says something like “I stop her doing that!” How exactly does that work? Can another character react fast enough to prevent an others action? How does the Dungeon Master handle it? We are going to look at this in depth in this article.

Well firstly lets look at what a reaction is. A reaction is an action performed or a feeling experienced in response to a situation or event. We are specifically looking at issues arising from dealing with a physical action. To do this we are going to break this down into two categories. We have primary and secondary reactions. A primary reaction is when you react to something directly happening to you. A secondary reaction is when you react to something happening to someone else.

Lets look at a scenario that arose during a recent gaming session on Howreroll. Marlowe ( a Monk), had been tricked into fighting in a Gladiatorial Arena. She was contracted to fight three combats in the stead of another person who would most certainly not survive. In her third fight, her opponent (The champion of the Arena), informed her that he did not wish to fight her, but had been told that if he did not, they would kill his wife and child. Marlowe defeated him and then went to see the Judiciary over the Arena to have her freedom granted. Radovan, ( a cleric of St. Cuthbert) was with her. Believing the Judiciary responsible for the threat against her opponents family, Marlowe struck the man with her fist. Radovan cringed at this as striking a Noble was a serious offense in this area. So in this situation what could anyone have done?

Well lets look at both the Primary and Secondary aspects of this situation.

In the Primary reaction we are looking at the Judiciary. He is reacting directly to a quick action that is being performed upon him. In this situation several things come into play. Firstly lets look at WHO is performing the action. In this case it is a tenth level Monk, a skilled unarmed combatant with lightning fast reflexes. She knows how to throw a punch. She can strike swiftly, accurately and without telegraphing it. The person who is to react to this is Judiciary, a nobleman who has lead a soft and privileged life. So in this instance their is little likelihood that he has much chance of reacting at all. Now if he had been a skilled combatant he could have read the intent (possibly with a successful Sense Motive skill check) and been able to dodge, parry or slip the punch. he may have even been able to counter. Also there was no real emotional situation as Marlowe offered no threats, performed no posturing and threw the punch extremely unexpectedly. Again, If she had been verbally threatening him, and had been acting aggressively, he would have had some indication that a possible attack was coming.

To give some point of validity to this, I have been involved in the combat world on a professional level for most of my life, and in my twenties worked in close personal protection and worked the door of a few night clubs in England. If you are trained and aware you can read an attack and react to it! Even the untrained will have defense reflexes that will at least allow them to cover up or shy away from a strike. The term “sucker punch” is often used to describe an unprovoked or blind sided attack. Typically these connect because the intended target is unaware of the attackers intent.

The process on a physical level for reacting to a strike is as follows. Your eyes must acknowledge that their is a strike coming towards you. they then relay that message to your brain, which intern triggers your muscles to react and allow you to attempt to block or evade the strike. This all happens in a fraction of a second. Trained combatants have faster reaction times in these situations and therefore react quicker and are more able to respond in time. Untrained people are much less likely to react in time.

In the case of the Primary reaction, whether or not someone can react is based on many factors. In Dungeons and Dragons players verbalize what their intended actions are. For example, the player controlling the Monk (Marlowe), could have said to the other players and the Dungeon Master, “I am gonna slug this guy.” This informs everyone else at the game that her Monk is intent on performing an attack. She could have also said, “Marlowe says I am gonna slug this guy!” which would have indicated that her character vocalized her intent before performing the action. Again this offers different degrees of ability and chance to react. In any case the Primary reaction lies with the person she intends to strike. And as we just examined if he is skilled and aware, or even has reason to anticipate the possible action, their is every chance he can react in some way other than getting hit and laid out by the punch.

Now lets look at the Secondary reaction. In this case that action lies with Radovan. Our Cleric found himself in a situation where I feel sure he would have like to have prevented the actions of Marlowe if he had the opportunity. Did he have an opportunity to stop Marlowe? or was their realistically nothing he could do in this instance?

A secondary reaction is very different than a Primary reaction. Firstly it offers a much longer processing time before the reaction can take place. In the example we are using, assuming Radovan was close enough to Marlowe to intercept her (which he was), his mental processing would have gone as follows. He sees Marlowe begin to throw the punch. His eyes send that information to his brain. His brain then has to acknowledge that it wants to interact. The brain then sends the message to the muscles to move and Radovan can then react. The big issue here is the processing time for deciding that he wants to react. This is not an personal instinctual defensive reaction. It is a desired responsive reaction. It takes longer for these actions to be processed by the brain. In this case his only real chance of successfully reacting is if he has prior awareness that the attack is intended.

In this situation Radovan was also behind Marlowe, which means he had no chance to read her facial expression, and limited chance to read body language. If he had been looking at her face, a successful sense motive skill check could have lead him to realize she was becoming aggressive, and as such he could have rushed in to restrain or intercept Marlowe. In this case Marlowe gave no indication of her intent, she did not act or appear aggressive (until she actually struck), and being a skilled unarmed combatant, moved with lightning speed. It is clear that without the use of some kind of previously applied divination magic, there was no way for Radovan to react.

This is of course only one example, and it shows how the ability to perform a successful Primary or Secondary reaction is based on many factors.

In other situations a player may say something like “I stop him before he says that!” Again we are looking at a Secondary reaction and your chance to cut in, distract or even muffle the words before spoken require that you have adequate warning that they are about to say what they are going to say. A more correct method would be to acknowledge that in this situation a particular character is prone to acting in a certain way, and taking steps to prevent the character from being in a position to say the kind of things you would want to prevent. I often hear things like “Before he says that, or before he does that I….” In these cases a player often has no time in which to have even been aware of what the intended action was, so in many ways it can be meta gaming. That being said there are many situations where a player may have reason to expect an action and be justified in their attempt to intercept.

As you can see it is clearly not a cut and dry, can or can not subject.

The situation of Primary and Secondary reactions must apply to Non Player Characters too! As the Dungeon Master you also have to consider these things when deciding how your minions can react to the players actions. This can not be a one way street.

To conclude I will draw on a few situations from my past that I feel exemplify what we are discussing in a real world setting.

One evening I was picking up a friend from work, it was very late and I parked my vehicle and went to the front door of where he worked to wait on him. The front door was glass, and was set inside a small covered alcove with two steps leading up to it. I was standing on the first step and was leaning in to peer through the glass. my right leg was stretched out behind me as a counter balance as I leaned. Suddenly I felt my rear leg kicked and as I turned around two clearly drunk men were standing behind me, and one was about to lunge at me. Being drunk their actions were slow and easily interpreted. I wont go into the details of what followed, but lets just say I was able to anticipate and react to the situation and came to no ill harm.

Another time I witnessed two individuals get into a verbal altercation. One of the men had a friend standing next to him. As the situation became more heated, the man who was accompanied by a comrade suddenly attempted to throw a punch at his verbal sparring partner. His friend anticipated this move and grabbed him before he was able to truly let fly. he was able to do because the situation had slowly escalated and it was becoming probable that the action was about to happen. He was already prepared to react.

In the third and final anecdote I will share I witnessed a man walk into a bar, smile and say hi to a few friends, slowly walk over to a table and then promptly smack a gentleman in the mouth. I was a good twenty feet away so clearly their was nothing I could do but say What the FU*K! The man who was struck was sitting with three friends all of whom were in range to react but did not. Why? well because their was absolutely no warning that the fellow in question was about to attack. I am sure it was over some past indiscretion by the foul language and words that were exchanged as the other three men dove into action to separate the two involved in the altercation. While they did react, they were reacting AFTER the punch had been thrown and had connected. They were aware the situation was even going to arise prior too.

As a player, try to utilize circumstance and ask yourself if your character realistically can react based on what the CHARACTER is aware of and not you, the player are aware of. As A Dungeon Master evaluate the circumstances to determine if your players reaction is a valid and justifiable course of action, as well as remembering to consider all these factors where it applies to your minions. Happy Gaming.

 

 

How to handle the non physical stats.

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So in almost every Role Playing Game you have statistics or ability scores. Those numbers that are used to measure how strong, smart, quick, good looking, wise, lucky, educated and so on your Character is. These statistics typically relate to influencing the chance of performing certain actions or skills during a game session. Now the physical stats like (in Dungeons and Dragons) Strength, Dexterity and Constitution, are easy to Role Play. Its not hard to describe how your character with a seventeen Constitution runs at a good pace for twenty miles, or how your character with a high Strength, busts open a door with his shoulder. The challenge comes when we deal with the mental stats like Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma (yes Charisma is partly a mental stat). This article is going to examine and address an age old problem in Role Playing games, and that is how does a person Role Play a character that is gifted or blessed in the mental department when the player himself is lacking.

Lets start by breaking down exactly what each of the three mental stats are and what they encompass.

Intelligence.

Intelligence in Dungeons and Dragons determines how well your character learns and reasons. It represents your characters ability to analyze information and the depth of complexity in which the character thinks.

Wisdom.

Wisdom determines your characters common sense, perception and intuition. It also relates to how much willpower your character has.

Charisma.

Charisma is a measure of your personality, personal magnetism, persuasiveness, leadership ability and physical attractiveness.

I will point out here that I personally believe that physical attractiveness should be a separate stat, but for this article that is neither here nor there.

In Dungeons and Dragons the typical range (before modifiers) of these Ability scores is between three and eighteen (the result of rolling three six sided dice). A three Intelligence for example is on par with an IQ of about 57, while an eighteen is about 143. A character with a three wisdom is largely oblivious to the world around him and just drifts through life, where as a character with an eighteen is extremely intuitive. In the case of Charisma, a three represents the social skills of a sponge and looks of that guy from the hills have eyes, while an eighteen represents someone with real personal magnetism, great personality and incredible good looks.

This is where my earlier point comes into play, I know some very good looking people with limited social skills, and some that look like they got hit with the ugly stick who have great personalities.

So where is the issue with this. The issue arises when a player is not particularly smart and he is playing a character that is highly Intelligent, what happens when the player can not see the answer to a solution, but believes his genius Wizard should be able too. Or someone who has limited tact and social skills is playing a Sorceress with very high Charisma, yet just does not have the skill set personally to bring that out in the Character. As the Dungeon Master do you test the Character or the Player? Do you allow the player to fall back on his Ability Scores and simply roll dice, and if so what happens to the Role Playing aspect?

Firstly in some cases the game mechanics do take care of this. For example, if you want to make a knowledge skill check, it pulls a modifier from your Intelligence ability score. Or in the case of Intimidate it will take the modifier from your Charisma ability score. Other times however the mechanics do not have a solution, and this is where the dice stop getting rolled and the Characters start getting Role Played.

Now you can (if you really want a mechanical and personality lacking game) roll for everything. Example. DUNGEON MASTER: “You see a strange looking mosaic on the floor. It appears that many of the tiles are not in the correct place. The door on the other side is firmly shut and has no handle!” PLAYER ONE:”I bet we have to solve the puzzle to open the door. OK Tom, your Wizard has a seventeen Intelligence, you solve the puzzle.” PLAYER TWO: “What Do I need to roll to solve the puzzle?” “The difficulty is a sixteen for this one.”

Of course the fun for all concerned is in the players actually solving the puzzle themselves, but what if they just can not solve it. What if they do not have the IQ that their characters have and make tough work of something that in theory their characters should have been able to solve easily. As a Dungeon Master where do you go at this point? Should you have created a puzzle or a situation on par with what the characters should be able to deal with, or should you have created it on par with what you believe your players could deal with?

Firstly I want to say that peoples opinions on this are going to vary, and there is no finite correct answer to this one. However there are several different options that you can use to deal with these situations, and the goal is to detail some of them and hopefully help you find the solution you feel happiest with.

My personal opinion (and that is all it is, so don’t get your Dungeon Master panties in a wad if you disagree) is we are playing a game, first and foremost. That implies that the PLAYERS are playing the game and not the characters. With this in mind my goal is always to “test” the players. I test their Role Playing skills as well as their mental talents with various situations, encounters and problems. I hate it when a player asks to use an ability roll to solve something that should be resolved through Role Playing and story telling. Sometimes however I over estimate my players and they get stumped. Now there is nothing worse than a game session where players just sit around and struggle to solve a problem. They get frustrated and bored, and often forget that while they detest the idea of toiling over a puzzle for thirty minutes, the situation their characters are in, feels very different to the character and they would be more motivated. Sooner or later this will happen to you and you will be faced with a dilemma. My usual approach to these situations is as follows.

Firstly when I create a puzzle or problem, I always make sure there is an out. It may not be an attractive one, but there always is one. For Example. I created a scenario during the Children of Drakhar campaign I ran on Howreroll. My party had a wealth of magical items at their finger tips, but had to solve a puzzle to get their greedy little hands on them. There was a one way portal out of the chamber, so they could leave at anytime. Now of course they did not want to leave, but they were able too. The key point here is they had an out. If I had made it to where they could not leave without solving the puzzle, I basically presented them with a solve it or die problem. You may be OK with that, but I never like to present players with no win situations. Alternatively you can present those kind of problems as a side room or encounter. Offer a reward if they solve it, but no detriment if they do not. Another option is to set an amount of experience points for the problem, and allow them to burn some of that EXP for hints. The hints get progressively stronger as the EXP goes down. Finally you CAN always allow them to roll against a Statistic, but inform them that there is no Experience point reward for solving it that way.Whichever method you use, you can still test the player first, and allow them to fall back on the characters ability scores as a last resort.

When it comes to social situations and the Role Playing of Charisma, it can be a bit more tricky. Some situations can be resolved by a dice roll such as a Diplomacy or Intimidation skill check, but even then its a ROLE PLAYING GAME PEOPLE so Role Play the situation! In the situations I like to let the Role Play happen first and then based on how well that went I apply my own modifiers. In 3.5 I may give a plus or minus to the skill roll based on how well they Role Played the interaction. In 5e I may give advantage or disadvantage. You still run into the issue of a player with poor social skills failing where his character with high Charisma should not have, but it is still a game so you have to allow the players to play and their performance in the game yields the consequences for their character. Another option, is to consider the characters Charisma ability score during the interaction, and be more lenient to a player who has a character with high Charisma. In other words, if they are talking to a Non Player Character, and what they said could be taken in more than one way, always let him take it the right way instead of the wrong way. Or visa versa if they have a low Charisma Score. This way the player still controls the interaction, but his characters ability scores still come into play.

I will wrap this up by repeating that I know this is a topic for contention, and is it right to test the player or the character? Well I think it is a choice of personal preference. I prefer to test the Player, for the reasons I stated above. This being said, I will not condemn  anyone that prefers the other route. What I do know from my decades running games, is that testing the players ALWAYS yields a much better Role Playing experience and a better story……………….

 

 

 

 

 

Character creation & development. Thinking outside the box.

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So we all know that in most editions of Dungeons and Dragons there are just some skills, talents, feats or abilities that seem to rise to the top. For example a fighter in 3.5 just about has to take the desired weapon focus and specializations for his weapon of choice, and feats like power attack and cleave are almost impossible to ignore. So more often than not we start too see the same old fighter, rogue and wizard rising to the surface, with only the alignment, race and the way they are role played to offer diversity. Well of course if you are going to play in a min max environment, then you are going to take whatever feats you can to make you as bad ass as possible right? Most people immediately gravitate towards making their character powerful. However in this topic I am going to challenge you to think outside the box and remember that the best part of any role playing game, is the role playing itself!

Now when you create your character you have a wealth of options available to you, but yet most people only concentrate on getting big stats, and feats or talents etc that make their character Mr awesome. I have had many epic characters (stat and ability wise) in the past three plus decades and many gimp ones. The most boring character I ever played was a Knight who was seriously over powered. At the time I fell foul to the same trap as many and continued to take him down a development path to ultimate power. The luster of slaughtering every foe wore of quick and what was left was the fun of role playing his personality. In contrast the most fun I ever had was with a one armed thief with poor stats. He was so much fun to role play, and the failures he had were down right entertaining, while his successes were more epic due to his minimal chance of victory.

When you create your character, other than selecting a race and maybe the base class, you should begin by write his or her back story. I know many people write the back story after the character has been created, but doing it first will change the outcome of your decisions. A point about race selection. If you are going to be demi-human then for the love of Gygax make sure your character feels demi-human! Do not play it like its a human with special abilities. Explore the culture of the race in your character creation process, and let that be a part of who they are. Go back to your characters childhood and decide on things that happened to him that shaped his personality and desires. Put thought into his past life before becoming an adventurer, and then take this well developed story and decide where he would have gone next. At this point you can begin building the character, but instead of picking the “go too” talents for your class, pick ones that make sense for him to have acquired. Spend skill points based on experiences and not just on what skills make you the most effective.  It can be challenging to do this, as often you will be picking situational abilities that may be great at times but not as commonly used as something like Dodge, and the desire to be a powerful combatant will need to be repressed.

In regards to stats. Just because a clerics prime stat is wisdom, should he always put his highest stat in that ability? what if his wisdom was just adequate, but he decided to be smart and use his head as much if not more than his divinity? What if a fighter decided to make dexterity his highest stat, and use light weapons and go for feats like weapon finesse instead? Would a swashbuckler or duelist emerge instead?

As your character develops and levels, try to think about the tasks he performed, and the situations he went through, and spend skill points and pick feats that reflect them. Do this instead of picking the next logical feat that improves his bad assness. Try selecting non common feats for your character. Feats like improve trip or improved sunder are often ignored, but they can bring a lot of diversity and fun to the game and make your character something different from the norm.

In our current Howreroll campaign “The Children of Drakhar” , we have a female monk with some interesting ability choices. I am very interested in seeing how this character develops, and already her choice of improved trip has proven far more useful than something like cleave.

With a non standard character design your options for role playing this character will change. When this happens you will find you are able to embrace a different personality for the character, and as such break from the cliche. The fun to be had role playing a weak or less than perfect character, or just being different is far greater than that when your warrior kills an ogre in one attack round.

Giving your character a few quirks, even if they offer some type of disadvantage (like only having one eye) can give depth and open new doors when it comes to role playing the character. Choosing to be hard of hearing may mean you take a penalty to your listen checks, but it could be fun in certain social situations.

The characters I remember most from my years of gaming are the ones that were different and stood out. Not because they had max stats and were seemingly invincible, but because they were memorable due to being different and the unique quality they brought to the gaming session. For example. The Green Flash was a ranger who acted like a super hero. Bruce Custard was a Halfling chef and barber who fought primarily with a sling. Thaal was a barbarian that used to rip enemies apart bare handed. Tom “Nubby” Denton was a one armed human thief. Lindsafel was an overly compassionate and gullible female Druid. Fritzgig the bull headed dwarf, that played chicken with a charging Rhino and liked to headbutt his enemies. All these characters stick with me due to their interesting quirks and not their effectiveness in a situation. In fact many times Nubby Denton failed as a thief, and his failings out numbered his successes by far. Thaal could have done more damage with a two handed axe, yet when he lost his temper and just waded in fist firsts, it was far more memorable. And the Green flash was so full of himself and loud in both personality and appearance that he stood out like a sore thumb in any wilderness setting.

In time the joys of playing a powerful character fade, and you look back and do not even remember the names of the characters you played, or met along the way. That being said some will stick with you for ever. For me it has always been the ones that broke the mold or challenged the norm. Seeing the joy those characters bring to a gaming session can not be quantified for me as a Dungeon Master, and I am always willing to work with any player that wants to bring something “unusual” to the table, as long as it is going to improve the story and enrich every ones experience at the gaming table.

My challenge to any player is “make me believe in your reality”. I want to know without asking why you performed a certain action. I want to understand who you are and why you do what you do. I lose interest in cliche characters that act based on what is “best” for themselves all the time.

Learning how to create a good character is more than just knowing what stats to put where and what feats or skills make you optimal. I cringe at the growing movement for optimal character builds, and the way people are encouraged in making their characters like its something from a video game. A pen and paper role playing game character needs to have many more levels to it than just its stats, skills, feats and abilities.

Try building your next character outside the box, and really “going for it” in a role playing sense. You wont be sorry…………………

About the Mechanics. Initiative.

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About the Mechanics is a new series of topics where we will discus and examine a particular aspect of the game mechanics and how and when to use them. Now this may seem redundant and you may be thinking “well I already know how to use the game mechanics, what is there to discuss? Well hear me out and keep reading….

In this post we are going to look at Initiative. Initiative is what determines the order in which players and Non Player Characters act in an encounter. Depending on what edition of Dungeons and Dragons you are playing, typically you will be rolling a D20 and adding or subtracting a modifier from the roll. For example in 3.5 Edition you may have Plus two from your dexterity bonus, and the improved initiative feat, giving you total plus six to your Twenty sided dice roll. Usually you roll initiative at the start of combat, and then that order stands for its duration. The Dungeon Master will roll for the adversaries in the encounter and then the order of action for all involved will be determined. Some Dungeon Masters may choose to roll initiative for every single Non Player Character or monster in the encounter, others may roll once for them all, or once for all types. I personally roll for each type and separately for leaders or key Non Player Characters such as leaders. For example if my players face four orcs, four goblins and an Ogre, I would roll once for the orcs, once for the goblins and once for the ogre. Combat can be hectic enough to keep track of without having a ton of different initiative numbers to keep track off.

OK so why do I feel a blog post needs to be dedicated to this mechanic? well it is not the mechanic itself that I want to discuss, but WHEN to say that well known phrase “Roll for initiative!” You see when the Dungeon Master utters those words, everything changes. The players mood changes, their attitude changes and the tension level changes. The rolling of initiative typically marks the beginning of combat. No matter where your players heads were at, unless they were already hell bent on a fight, telling them to Roll for initiative is almost like ringing the bell in a boxing match and is going to start a fight. If they were thinking of trying a diplomatic solution, or evading the encounter, being told to roll initiative kind of implies the fight is on, and will most likely stop the characters from continuing with other courses of action, and just wade in to battle. On the other hand if you do not ask your players to roll for initiative your players may perceive that the encounter may not be intended for combat, or that the Non Player Characters they are facing are not hostile. This of course may be totally wrong and then, when the Bad guys suddenly jump the players they may be upset that you did not give them a chance to roll for initiative to begin with.

Rolling or requesting a roll for initiative also drastically changes the mood and mindset of the game and the players at that point. If I (as the Dungeon Master) ask them to roll for initiative during a heated discussion, it snaps the tension bar and says to the players “OK FIGHT”! This may rob them of any continued diplomatic efforts or role playing options. In my story I never want to alter the natural flow, feel or atmosphere of the game at an inappropriate time. If I am going to ask them to roll for initiative, I want it to be the epic start of the conflict and battle and not disrupt a flow of negotiation or exploration of non combat options.

I know some Dungeon Masters that like to PRE roll initiative. They get each player to roll a number of times prior to the game session and then use them in order for each encounter (applying modifiers as needed at that time). This is not a bad idea, but I feel it also offers to take away some of the epic tension moments that arise as combat is about to kick off.

My solution is to never prompt a roll for initiative without a combative or aggressive declaration first. Either I will say something like “The ogre rushes towards you, with his club raised high, intent on crushing your skull”, or a player will declare that they are engaging in some way. At that time, I will often say “EVERYONE roll for initiative to determine the order should it be needed”, or just ask the specific individual who chooses to enter combat to roll, depending on the current situation. I use descriptive language and I roll play demeanor and intent to let my players know how an encounter is going. They can tell by my voice and actions if a negotiation is going sour and a fight may be imminent.They can then choose to act first if they wish or wait and see what happens. Either way I am not going to request an initiative roll until a blow or spell or other timed action is about to take place. It can be hard enough to get the correct feel for an encounter, without ruining the immersion by bringing game mechanics to the fore front. This is why I do not mention the initiative roll, until it is one hundred percent clear that it is now required.

Initiative can also be used in non combat situations of course to determine the speed of almost simultaneous actions. I remember one time I was running an encounter where everyone tried to rush through a door first. The situation leading up to that lead everyone to the same conclusion and each player (in turn around the tabletop) declared the same action. So I had them roll initiative to see who has the faster reflexes in that situation and got their foot in the door first. If I had said prior to the declaration of intent “OK I want each of you to roll for initiative” I guarantee they would have all stopped and hesitated, as they as players would have expected a possible combat, even though there had been nothing to suggest that to their characters. Even those that try hard not to meta game, still fall foul to a change in emotion and may act differently when lead to expect something is going to happen.

In closing, treat initiative as the mechanical resolution to an in game declaration. It should not be requested before it is needed, and the Dungeon master should do his job properly and allow the scene to imply weather or not it may be imminently required. It should be the last thing to happen before a sword be swung, a fireball be cast or a dagger thrown. If you do not care about the feel and immersion of your game, then I guess it matters less to you when to request a roll. I live to tell a story, and not play a game. I believe in immersion over mechanics and Role Playing over ROLL playing. If a dice is going to be rolled it better be for a good reason, and as it is almost always going to determine the outcome of an action, I want the appropriate tension level to be present when it is rolled.

happy Gaming……

Gorebad.

The one when the Paladin died twice!

paladin-died-twice

I have mentioned this tale a couple of times live on Howreroll, so I figured it was time to tell the entire story with all the juicy details.

Many years ago I was running a game of second Edition Dungeons and Dragons for a group every Tuesday evening. The group of players consisted of a Dwarven Fighter, an Elven Ranger a Human Paladin, a Human Barbarian, and a Human Druidess. The alignments spattered from Lawful Good (in the case of the Paladin) to Chaotic Neutral (the Barbarian). We had been playing a couple of years and had run through many adventures and campaigns including the most excellent “Curse of the Azure Bonds”. During the parties adventures, several times the Barbarians choice of actions would be borderline questionable when it came to the morality of his decisions, and typically the Paladin was there to keep him on the right track and prevent or dissuade him from carrying out his desired plan. Of course, this lead to several arguments between characters, and often the Druidess (being true Neutral) would find herself stuck in the middle playing devils advocate and trying to find the compromise. One such situation arose when they were rescuing a prince from an evil mage, and had to break into a stronghold to free him. On the way in they had a scuffle with a patrol or guards, and after defeating them, took one alive to question for information. Well firstly the Barbarian wanted to “slap him around a bit” to get him to talk, and the Paladin protested this course of action and instead wanted to make a deal with the guard. The paladin (like always) got his way and approached the tied and bonded guardsman. “Now my big brutish friend here would see harm done to you, where I would seek to avoid such unpleasantness” began the Paladin. “I am sure you are guarding this citadel for payment, so I shall offer you fifty gold pieces and your freedom if you tell us how many others are inside, and show us a way to get inside undetected“. Well as the Paladin had correctly deduced, the guard was indeed only here for financial reward, and had no real loyalty to his employer. He agreed to the terms and after informing the party that the citadel had a Garrison of forty men at arms and the wizard that employed them he showed them to a secret way in through the water drainage tunnel of the citadel. At this point the Paladin intended to just let the man go, but the rest of the party did not like this course of action. “I don’t trust him to sod off quietly!” said the Dwarf. “I agree” said the Elven Ranger, “what if he alerts them to our presence“. “I gave him my word!” said the Paladin, “and I shall not go back on it!” As was often the case the Druidess stepped in with some sense of compromise. “Why don’t we tie him up and gag him, and leave him just inside the tunnel for now“, she began. “We can free him on the way out, that way he can not raise the alarm and you sir knight will not be breaking your word.” After a little more discussion they agreed to this plan. All except the Barbarian. “I say we kill him to be safe“, he protested. “It’s the only way to be sure, besides what if we don’t come back this way?” “well then his fate is tied to ours,” said the Druidess. The party decided to tie him up and leave him in the tunnel despite the Barbarians protest, and made their way down the tunnel. The Ranger scouted a little ahead, with the Paladin not far behind and the Barbarian brought up the vanguard. However the Barbarian decided to lag behind a little and once he was sure the Paladin was out of ear shot, he promptly broke the guards neck, and caught up with the rest. Our heroes saved the prince and left the citadel by way of the same tunnel they entered through, as the Paladin was insistent that they go back to free the guard. Well upon finding the guard with his neck snapped, the Paladin immediately suspected the barbarian and set to questioning the rest of the party as to how the guard came to be killed. He stated that only the Barbarian and perhaps the Dwarf were strong enough to literally snap the guards neck like a chicken and  stated that he did not believe the Dwarf would do such a thing. The Barbarian denied the accusations, and eventually the party let it go and moved on, but the Paladin stated that he would be keeping a very close eye on the barbarian from here on out, and that he did not trust him in the least. These kind of things happened often through out their adventures and a deep seeded resentment began to take hold of the barbarian.

This brings us to where this tale really begins. During the Curse of the Azure bonds, our heroes had made some very powerful enemies. One of which was an Ancient White Dragon named Shiverlended. The Evil Dragon had sworn revenge on the party, and a couple of years later had found them and was ready to enact his revenge. He setup a trap in which one of his sons, an adult white Dragon named Ebenblight would attack some local farms and villages, and make sure he was seen retreating to some nearby mountains. Our heroes (as per the dragons plan) would seek him out to destroy him, and when they came to do so Shiverlended would also be waiting and together he and his son would destroy the heroes once and for all.

The party did indeed take the bate and set out into the mountains to find the white dragon and slay him. Eventually they found evidence of a lair upon a large ledge on the mountains east side, and prepared to enter and slay the beast. They made their way into the large cave and in doing so found not one white dragon but two! “Remember me you filthy human scum?” bellowed Shiverlended. “Now DIE!” Both dragons unleashed their breath weapons in unison, and the heroes were terribly injured. Although none died (partly due to good saving throws) the Druidess was down to only eleven hit points and it was clear to the party that this was not a fight they could win right here and now. There only option was to retreat, but they had no time to discuss an exit strategy.

Now I will take this moment to mention these were some decent players. They did not meta game, or abuse player interactions around the table to discuss things at length that should happen in mere seconds in the game world. There was none of the common reactive actions that you often see from players. for example, when a player says something like “I rush forward and attack the wizard,” and another player says “No don’t do that we need to take him alive.” The players character did not SAY he was about to do it out loud before he acted, he just did it, therefore by the time the rest of the party was aware of his intended action it was happening. Their was no time to discuss it, so they could only react to it after it happens. This is a pet peeve of mine, and while I will be a little tolerant of it from new players, I have zero tolerance for it in players that should know better.

Anyway getting back to the story. With this in mind, the players did not discuss any plans, but just reacted in turn. The Paladin at this point declared in a bold voice, “There is no way we can outrun these beasts, I will hold them off as long as I can, you all save yourselves!” and before the rest had time to protest he charged head long at both the Dragons with a valiant war cry. This of course was suicide but as a Paladin he was willing to lay down his life so that his friends may live.

The rest of the party did indeed retreat as they realized if they did not they would also perish and his great sacrifice would be for nothing. The paladin of course was killed but it was a memorable death, and one worthy of a fifteenth level Paladin of Tyr. The rest of the players commended the player of the Paladin for his selfless act (one that I know many players would not have done, as they would not have voluntarily gave up a fifteenth level Paladin that they loved). At this point the Barbarian surprised everyone by simply saying “NO!” “We can not allow such a sacrifice to be made for us without trying to save our friend”. “I say we wait, and go back up there and reclaim his body, then find away to have him resurrected. Such a valiant act deserves no less“. The party agreed and I wrote a new side adventure in which the party would quest to have the Paladin resurrected.

The side quest took several weeks and during this time the player who owned the dead paladin was playing a twelfth level rogue in the short term. The quest was not easy, and the Druidess almost lost her life in the process, but eventually they were able to have the Paladin resurrected.

It was a joyous time around the table top. The Paladin was back! His heroic sacrifice to save the rest of the party was going to be talked about for years to come. And of course the Paladin himself was glad to be back among the living once more, ready to face the forces of evil in Tyrs name once again. And then it happened.

Freshly resurrected, the Paladin was low on hit points. A simple matter of a few healing spells from the Druidess would solve this minor issue however, that is it would have if she had been given the chance. Suddenly the barbarian launches a full attack on the Paladin and hacked him to pieces making him dead for the second time. The Paladin had barley been alive enough to thank the rest of the party for bringing him back and now he was dead once more. The rest of the players looked on in horror as this even unfolded, and as the Barbarian stood looming over the twice dead Paladins body he utters the words that to this day get repeated by the players. “I hated that guy, but no one kills the Paladin but me!“……

The art of war. Combat in Role Playing Games.

art-of-war

Combat is a thrilling  aspect of any Role Playing Game. Many players live for the thrill of the fight and enjoy it more than the actual Role Play itself. Rolling dice and seeing those desired numbers show face up, or landing those critical hits is exciting. Combat is however more than just rolling dice and having the numbers dictate the outcome. In this topic, we will look at how to make combat really come to life, and how to get the most out of those battle encounters.

We will begin by looking at designing a good combat encounter. Firstly we need to ask ourselves why will this encounter result in a combat? If it is a simple ambush, well then you already know the answer, but many encounters can result in combat where they perhaps did not need too. When I have an overzealous party that tends to hit first and ask questions later, or who has problems keeping their ego in check, I often deploy an encounter I like to refer to as a “swing encounter”. The Gorebad swing encounter is basically one that can go either way depending on the attitudes of the characters. For example I recently used a rather grumpy and agitated Weretiger to do just this. The characters had begun to bully their way through encounters, and had started developing egos that were eventually going to result in them biting of more than they could chew. I saw this eventuality looming so I decided to drop in this Lycanthrope. Now Weretigers are typically true neutral in alignment, so their actions are largely situational and are dictated by other outside social triggers. The characters met him in human form, and he was (for reasons that would become clear later) viewing the characters with suspicion and was a little stand offish. I had decided that he would either help or hinder them depending on how they interacted with him. A positive interaction would win them a potential ally, while a negative one would land them in a tough combat situation. I did this to illustrate to the players how sometimes you just have to know when to not push back and hold your tongue. The players chose wisely and avoided combat. If this had become a combat encounter however, I would have had a clear understanding of how and why the fight took place, and as such would have known how my Non Player Character or monster (in this case the Weretiger) should act. The combat would have taken place in a wooded area, one that my Weretiger would have been very familiar with and one that my players would not. This being said I would have used the monsters knowledge of the terrain to his advantage. Also depending on how the combat was going he may well have retreated and possibly came back at a more advantageous time. Determining the motivations behind the combat is important in being able to run it with substance. Are the players the aggressors or the victims? Is it on either sides home turf? Do the Non Player Characters have strong motivations to stand their ground, or may they break and flee? Are reinforcements close by? etc.

It is important to set the scene for the combat encounter also. Terrain and surroundings play an integral part in how a combat plays out. History tells us that three hundred Spartans held the narrow pass of Thermopylae for three days against tens of thousands. This was only achievable due to the location that the battle occurred. If they had met on an open battlefield it would have been a short and bloody massacre. Chapter ten of Sun Tzu’s the art of war discussed terrain and its effects on a battle. Indeed it enlightens us to how a battle can be won or lost based on where the battle takes place. This can and should be a factor in the combats in which your players find themselves in. Aspects such as height of terrain, difficulty of movement, items of cover, visibility and temperature all play a factor. Too many Dungeon Masters ignore this aspect of combat and allow combat to become a toe to toe turn based dice fest.

Not every combat has to start and end in one encounter. Indeed many good battles play out over several encounters. Recently on Howreroll the players took three separate encounters to take down one particular Necromancer. Making what could have been a simple end boss encounter, a chase that lasted a couple of weeks in game time. It also made for a much more climactic showdown when they finally did corner and ultimately defeat him. After the first battle both the characters and the Necromancer knew a little of the others tactics, so the dynamic changed the second and third time they fought. And again this change in dynamic altered the combat substantially. A good reoccurring villain can be a great source for great combat encounters in this way. Either he manages to evade capture time and time again or the players may keep slipping through his fingers if he is the pursuer, but each encounter has epic potential, especially if used with correct timing, and not over done.

The next thing we will look at is how to describe combat. Simply saying “you hit, you miss” is boring! I like to describe the combat step by step and blow by blow. Players love to hear the details of how the final blow dispatched their foe, or what the effect of a particular successful sword strike was. On our live Dungeons and Dragons show, I try to describe each and every hit, miss, crit and fumble. I keep the descriptions short, but I make sure they are imagined. My descriptions are dependent on the players actions and the outcome of the dice rolled. So for a narrow miss I may say something like, “you lunge with your long sword at the Orcs unprotected belly, but at the last minute he is able to bring his cleaver around and manages to narrowly deflect your blow to the side”. Or for a high damage hit that does over twenty five percent of the enemies hit points I may say, “your powerful overhead swing strikes the ogre and opens up a deep gash in his thigh. He glances at the open wound as the blood flows down his leg, and he takes a step back to reassess the situation. He no longer seems so eager to rush in”.

I recently had a private message from one self proclaimed “veteran Dungeon Master” (of ten years) who told me that I should not describe the players blows and I should let them do it themselves. I totally disagree and here is why. Hit points are relative to the creature. Hitting a goblin for six damage may be an almost fatal blow, where as to a hill giant it is little more than a scratch. The players do not know how many hit points a particular enemy has, especially in relation to enemies with a class, so they are not effectively able to accurately describe the outcome of any given hit. That being said I am all for and encourage a player to tell me and describe what he is TRYING to do, but the outcome of his action is mine to explain. I also like to improvise advantages and disadvantages that may occur to one side or another during combat. If the players make a particularly high damaging hit on a monster, I may have it back of, and hold its attack that round, as it rethinks its strategy. Or I may have a high damaging blow drop the target to one knee, robbing him of part of his move action the next round. While these things may not be part of the combat mechanic, they add something to the combat that makes it feel more real.

We just mentioned that we should encourage players to tell us what they are trying to do. I do not mean in them saying I attack the Troll, or I cast Magic Missile, no I mean describe how it is to happen. “I swing my broadsword with all my might at the Dire Boar” can be a descriptive way for a player to let you know he is using his power attack feat. Or a player who’s character is a bard may start singing an eighties power ballad and in doing so lets you know he is using his inspire courage ability. I like to encourage descriptive combat in my players also so I will often give bonuses or allow successful skill checks to infer combat bonuses. Here is an example of what I mean by that. A group of players are battling some pirates aboard a ship. One of them just finished of his adversary on the raised bridge of the ship and looks down and sees one of his comrades pressed by two cutlass wielding sea dogs. He knows if he runs down the stairs it will be two rounds before he can aid his friend so he asks “are there any ropes or anything I can use to swing down to the lower deck”. I like where this is going with this, so I tell him “YES, there is a rope within reach that is tied off on the rail behind you”. “OK” he replies, “I try to swing down on the rope and I want to try to slash at one of the pirates as I swing by”. In this situation I would have him make a skill check to swing down on the rope and a bad roll may land him in a compromising situation (or give him disadvantage in fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons rules) where as a good roll may have a bonus effect (or give advantage). Never be afraid to reward creativity in your players when it comes to combat. They will be more inclined to be descriptive and really get into the fight if their actions can change the outcome and make it more exciting.

A prime example of some of this coming together can be seen here at minute 42.30. During this episode of the Marks of intrigue, a bar fight breaks out and all manner of improvised attacks and terrain come into play.

Finally lets look at mortality in combat. When two groups of people engage each other with weapons and magic, people have a tendency to die. While it is common for the monsters and some Non Player Characters to bite the dust, it is a much bigger deal and less common when it happens to a Player Character. With this in mind what is a Dungeon Master to do when he confronts the players with a fair challenge and due to their poor dice rolls and his good rolls the players are loosing to a band of goblins that they should easily be able to defeat. Well this really comes down to your individual style of Dungeon Mastering. many Dungeon Masters will tell you that they will modify a few of their own dice rolls (behind the Dungeon Masters screen), to balance this. Others will tell you that they do not baby their players, and the dice can be a cruel mistress to all equally at times and it is down to the players to retreat from a fight that is going badly for them (assuming they have the option). I have my own views on this and they alter a little depending on who I am playing with. With a die hard experienced group of players, sometimes I roll openly and let the dice fall as they may regardless. Other times I may fudge a roll here or their to be lenient to a newer group of players. Regardless I always allow dice to fall where they may during epic encounters or if the players put themselves in harms way through stupidity, despite fair warning. To me it comes down to trust. The players must trust you as their Dungeon Master to be fair and treat them with consistency and equality. As long as you achieve this I am not going to berate you for your choices. My goal is always to strive for open rolls but I also realize from time to time this can add to much of a random element to something that should be less so.

Combat is not the be all and end all of Role Playing, but it is a fun and integral part of any system. Taking steps to bring it to life and make it believable, is just as important as the work you put in to develop a viable world for your players to explore. There is so much more I could say about combat, but rather than lengthen this topic any farther I will just leave you with this.

“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead”. ~Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried