Monday, September 7, 2015

The Best Session Ever

I was watching a lot of live-stream D&D games lately.

I don't get to play as much as I want, certainly not as a player (been a very long time since I had my own character in a D&D game), and so I take advantage of the recent increase of live-stream gaming channels to troll other groups as they play.

From the quality production of the Acquisitions Incorporated games hosted at PAX (see the link above) to the casual, anonymous group playing and streaming using Twitch, I manage to see a lot of different playing styles and skill levels on both ends of the DM screen.

(There is even a group composed of actual voice actors running on Geek and Sundry Twitch channel - and it is simply a joy to watch them go about it. Check it out here.)

One thing that pops out immediately is the totally different vibe between the high-end D&D "shows" and the other, neighborhood-friendly D&D gaming groups.

The average gaming group (among those who stream their session) is not different than the groups I had along the years: just a bunch of friends who meet to play a game they love. Some sessions are good, some fail to make an impression, a few fall flat, and fewer still are outstanding. Some players are tired, some lose interest during the session and drift off to play with their laptop or mobile, and some try to be the living spirit of the game, with the DM usually doing whatever possible to keep the game going.

The high-end D&D "shows" are something totally different. No yawning, unfocused players here. If a scene falls short, someone will step in to make it shine - even if its just about the characters interacting with a guard. Jokes are cracked, each player role-plays with mimicry, intonation and character background in mind. Characters talk between themselves, and the DM is ever-full of ideas, NPCs, interesting locations and great plot twists.

It's like the difference between a Burger King advertisement, and the real dish that lands on the table.


Sad, isn't it?

You want your session to be the best 4 hours of the day, right? I mean - we invest in it so much, even if its "just" time and nothing else, why not make sure this investment pays off big time? A lot of players come to the table expecting a good time - and a lot of DMs are laboring between sessions to make sure it happens - so why our sessions fall flat sometimes? Why don't they all look like those D&D shows, with everything going smoothly under the spotlight?

Some might say "that's life". We don't live in a movie, and so things around us don't arrange themselves to make every thing we do perfect. But I think we can at least try to arrange some thing that will probably improve our experience around the table:

  1. Don't come to a session if you're dead tired. Simply don't. If you're wasted, and all you can do is sit, stare at the wall and yawn, you'll bring everyone down with you. It's a death spiral. We all have busy lives, and we all come to the table after our day's work. If one is wasted and two are "just" tired, it means 3/5 of the group is simply out. Sessions don't take off this way. They stall, and only luck prevents them from crashing down.
  2. Your characters are the heroes of the campaign, act accordingly. Sessions take off when players are in-character, moving the story forward. It doesn't matter if the campaign is humanistic, goofy, or laden with dark fantasy and grim action. Stay in-character, look at your background and character sheet, decide how you want to play your turn, think: "is this going to make for an interesting scene that will move the story forward?" and if the answer is YES, go for it. If the answer is "I don't know", "No", "Just let me roll the dice" or "C'mon...", then you might not be helping the session take off. If you need, communicate with your DM before hand. Some DMs don't take cues. or hints When a player asks a DM "is there a chandelier on the ceiling?", he means that he wants to pull of some cool stunt. Some DMs aren't aware of this, and answer "No" instead of helping you create a cool scene. Talk to your DM, tell him you want to help making the game better, and if he's trustworthy (see below), things will improve fast. 
  3. Describe, Describe, Describe, Describe. Even if its a simple one liner. Even if its a regular scene you've played a hundred times, even if no one around you does it. It doesn't have to be first person. Say something like "My fighter enters the inn and looks at each of the patrons before choosing a private corner far from the fireplace", enough to get those imaginative juices flowing. I was once part of a group of 5 players, with 3 of them avoiding any descriptions of their characters whatsoever. "I attack" and "I'm down to 12 HP, I need healing" was all you heard from them. On the other end, I have players who role-play their character being wounded. ("The giant swats you for 23hp", "Damn! my fighter reels, shaking his head, wiping blood from his nose and shouting the name of the cleric!"). D&D is a game based on imagination. With out avid descriptions, we're not getting that feel of the scene that will make it memorable and vivid. The DM is describing as part of his job description, but help from the players will be most welcome.
  4. Trust your DM (unless you can't trust him). No one is perfect, and DMs are as diverse as players with regards to gaming styles, preferences and tendencies. But if your DM is trying his best to make everybody happy around the table, then support him, and trust him. Such a DM won't kill your character to punish you for something. If you blunder horribly, that DM might severely hit the party, but he won't make it a point to kill your characters for good (but if you press it, a TPK is a real consequence). If you say "My fighter challenge the merchant to a crossbow shooting contest, with 20 gold on the table" in order to get a discount in a cool way, such a DM won't make the merchant a retired level 18 ranger all of a sudden (he might make it a retired low level adventurer to make things fun, but that's it). A DM you can trust works with you, not for you, or against you. If you feel "cheated out of fun" then talk with your DM. A trustworthy DM will discuss it with you, and something will change (either on his side or on yours). If you don't think your DM is trustworthy (namely, it's his way or the highway), take the highway. Truest me (pun intended) - you're better off that way.   
  5. Positive Feedback goes a long way. And I mean it in a PvP way. I was once an unexperienced player in a very experienced group, and I chose to play a "Raistlin" like wizard. One of the players was nasty about it, but the other two players hushed him, and at the first roleplaying scene I did (speaking in a low voice, saying enigmatic things, you know, Raistlin) - they had big, appreciative smiles on their faces. I sucked - but they realized I was in the right mindset, and it was more important than my selection of character theme. They gave me a mental "thumbs up", and the game just got better (and I got better) from session to session. Saying "good one" or "nicely done" to a player after a good swing, or role-playing scene can go a long way. For the same reasons, saying a nasty thing to a player and excusing it with "it's what my character would say" is bullshit and should be avoided. Help the other players shine by providing positive feedback to enhance good behaviors. Just like with kids. And like with kids, the only time you need to step in and stop what's happening is when they're about to get hurt, or hurt someone else. 
So here you go. My 2-cents about how to make your next session memorable and exciting, as all D&D sessions ought to be!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Starting a New D&D Campaign - Part Two

In the last post, I wrote about the process I have for drafting a campaign. I usually start with notes about the following:
  1. The campaign setting.
  2. The general plot, from a bird's eye view.
  3. How the player characters meet, why are they adventuring together, and why do they care about the plot.
  4. Any good idea I had about a special location, encounter, or NPC.
I also come up with one sentence that sums up the campaign, to serve as a lighthouse to guide me when fleshing out the events that make the campaign tick.

But the single most important element of the campaign isn't the setting, the plot or even your skill as a DM - it's the players that matter the most.

This is the reason I don't develop my drafts until I know who will be joining the group. In my experience, it's best if the campaign is tailored to the players' expectations and skill level - otherwise the first session might be the last.

Think about it this way - your role-playing heavy plot will evaporate soon enough if three-quarters of the group enjoys combat and tactical play the most and aren't worrying too much about character death. It works the other way too. To mitigate, I usually ask the players what interests them in a game (usually via e-mail), and try to incorporate these interests into the draft I'm fleshing out.

I plan to discuss fleshing out a campaign in a later post, but once the campaign is fleshed out to a point I feel confident enough to start running it, most of its success is on the players shoulders. I found out that campaigns that are driven by engaged players enjoy a lot more success that campaigns driven by an engaged DM...

The way to engage players differ from group to group and from a player to player, but I found out that most players respond to the following:

  1. A Coherent plot that involves the characters
  2. Meaningful choices
  3. NPCs


I try to make the characters a big part of the plot. It's easier when the players provide you with a background to work with, and it's a lot easier when players realize they are the main focus of the campaign, and act accordingly. The characters can be the heroes a prophecy revolves around, or natural born leaders who can 'show the path' for others, or powerful individuals destined to do great things. The plot revolves around them - they are like the main protagonists of a book. As such, they can accomplish great things, or fail miserably - but if their actions make a great story, it doesn't matter how it ended. A good player recognizes this, and act accordingly. I had players portraying their character's death scene in such a gripping way that it made me forget I was the DM - I was simply enjoying a great scene from a story, even if that scene was all about a hero losing his life.

It's important to make sure your players will connect with the plot. If they don't, engagement will fly through the window. Before the campaign starts, I ask them and make sure the plot I have in mind is something they will enjoy playing. During the campaign, simple checkpoints can help you make sure everybody is interested in the story (more on that in the next post).

Meaningful Choices

I hate railroading. I really do. As a player, I feel like being cheated out of my D&D experience, which is all about my character and the dent it leaves in the universe. When the group's choices mean nothing, players will do one of two: trot along gritting their teeth (and eventually leave the group), or try to wreck havoc (before leaving the group).

The only way to make sure the players feel like their choices have meaning, is to actually plan for it to happen. The heroes defeated a major villain? his forces will disperse. The heroes stole a relic from a temple? the cultists will seek them out. The heroes persuaded two merchants in different towns to cooperate? A new trade route will be opened, with new wealth flowing through the realms.

Same goes for poor choices and failed attempts. The heroes did nothing when a vampire asserted control over the town's council? The town will evolve into a bastion of evil. The heroes failed to protect an high-ranking diplomat they were assigned to protect? War might erupt between two kingdoms. The heroes fail to avert an evil god from entering the world? Well, bye bye world...(not really - our job as DMs is to make sure the story goes on...again, more on that in the next post).

The important thing to remember here is that we (as DMs) need to challenge the players, give their characters the right tools to succeed, but never look the other way if things go bad for them. The game is much more rewarding this way - even if somewhat difficult. Players choices should matter - and they should be very well aware of that.


NPCs are the best tool a DM have in his toolbox to engage and entertain players. A lot of DMs don't use them enough. I know I don't use them enough.

NPCs can serve as the DM's secret weapon. When you want to know what interests the players? Here comes the talkative barkeep that simply asks them that. When your players a in dire-straits and need directions? Here comes a hunched man with a glass eye to whisper words of wisdom. When the group is debating about how to approach the upcoming attendance with the king, going into circular logic discussion? That old dwarf coughs politely and with a heavy accent says: "Heard ye be talking on the king's court? Been there myself, lately..."

The problem with NPCs is that a) the heroes need to be in a place were other people are present and b) running then can be a real challenge.

Sometimes the group is adventuring with no one close in sight. While monsters can be good NPCs, more often than not it's the "tell us what we need to know or die" scenario (can be uttered by the adventurers or by the monster, BTW). But even if the heroes are in a city, with NPC interaction opportunities abundant, most DMs (myself included) have issues with coming up with a score of NPCs unless we prepared for it (I "love" that fraction of a second delay when a player asks the NPC "so what's your name", revealing the fact that the DM just came up with the NPC a minute ago).

But all that said - NPCs are hands down the best tool the DM have to make the world real, evoke some response from the players, and move the story forward. I guess practice makes perfect, and the new 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide is packed with advice on creating and running NPCs.

So here it is - with a campaign draft, and some information about what makes your players tick, you are ready for the next level: fleshing the campaign out, and preparing for the first session. All will be discussed in my next post.