Forgive me, but things are about to get a little philosophical.
What is the job of a DM? There are a few different schools of thought. Some people believe it is the DMs job to work against the players, to defeat them. This is entirely the wrong view. Some people say it's the DMs job to make a world for the players to run loose in. This is not the worst of ideas, however it's too loose and leads to far too much work on your part. At it's core, the DMs job is to tell a story. How you go about this is your own choice.
Think of your campaign as a living, breathing story with your players as the protaginists, the main characters. Without them you don't have your story, so be nice to them. This is not to say you must molly-coddle them, by all means chalange them. Do not, however, look at it as you versus them. Both parties must work together to create a memorable story.
The essence of any great story is drama. How you create this drama is a personal choice. If you want an intrigue campaign then this drama will come from the building tension as the plot unfolds. If you create a combat heavy game, the drama comes from close faught battles and last ditch final stands. Where it comes from is irrelevant, all the matters is that it is there.
Another very important fact to keep in mind is that this is fantasy. You are fuly within your rights to go wild. Allow your players to do crazy stunts, don't dismiss it simply because the player himself is incapable of jumping 20 feet through the air onto a chandelier. This is ecapism, embrace it. The golden rule of DMing is "If it is awesome, let it happen."
By this logic, it is not awesome for a beloved character to die simply because some minion got the drop on him. Now, I need to be clear here, I do not believe you should cushion your players comepletely and have no risk, take out the risk and you lose the drama. What you need is a fine balance. A character that gives up his life protecting his teammates from the vicious jaws of a red dragon dies a memorable and appropriate death. A character that dies because he stepped on some kobold trap dies a useless, annoying death.
However, as I said, without risk there is no drama. So how do we keep a game feeling dramatic when your players feel invincable unless they fight great, dramatic battles? Well, we can have all of your battles great, big dramatic ones. This tactic works best in a roleplay heavy game. Say your players are working as bodyguards for the king when they discover a plot to assassinate him. They confront the conspirators in the grand hall of the palace, feeling safe knowing the palace guards are there. Now the conspirators draw daggers and prepair to fight the players. We can have a simple fight between the conspirators and the players with all the other NPCs simple standing by. Or, to make everything alot more awesome, we can have the palace guards draw blades and get ready to fight for the conspirators. This makes the battle far more dramatic, draws the players into the game more as they realise how deep the corruption has gone and, most importantly for the players, adds an extra chunk of XP to the encounter.
However, if you run a combat heavy game it is not only more difficult to make every battle a memorable one but it also gets tiring for you and the players. So how do we keep the battles from feeling like simple XP chunks on the way to the boss fight? This is a little more difficult than the previous method but can be much more satisfying.
Consider the environment. You can milk alot of precieved risk from the surrounding terrain if you know what to do. Traps, hazzards and dramatic environs can set up drama better than monsters in some cases. If your players are fighting in the volcanic fortress of a fire djinn have alot of rivers of molten lava, huge pillars of chared volcanic rock and thin bridges over gaping lakes of molten sludge. The players know that if they fall in the lava, they are toast. They may even throw some enemies into the lava, which is always fun. However, there is no real danger as, unless your players are idiots, they wont go for a swim in the hot stuff. A great way to showcase the danger is NPCs.
Lets say your players are guided to this volcanic fortress by a local sherpah. He guides them inside and shows them the narrow bridge across the lake of lava leading to the Djinns quarters. However, as he moves over the bridge it collapses, throwing the happless native to his firey death. This shows your players just how dangerous the environment can be and sets them on edge. Also remember, monsters are NPCs too. Add in a few little minions to an encounter and have them die through some enviromental danger. This can have the same effect on your players.
Now I'll talk about the ever popular practice of fudging the dice roll. As a personal rule I like to discount critical hits from the more mundane of soldiers and keep them for the tougher opponents. Not that I'll ever tell my players that. It makes the big guys seem more dangerous. However, I don't believe in completely making your players immune. Nothing is more dramatic than the parties rogue and wizard desperatly defending the fighter as the cleric tries to get him on his feet. Just don't allow a lucky strike to kill a player outright.
Ofcourse, if you want a campaign that feels vicious by all means keep every enemy a threat. Just don't expect the players to live very long...
Thursday, February 5, 2009
A dungeon, within game terms, is simply the place the adventure takes place. It can be anything, an old burned down forest, a city through which a thief is trying to flee from the PCs or a flying castle about to crash into a mountain. The best dungeons are memorable, challenging and full of character.
The first and most important step in creating a great dungeon is planning. There's a bunch of different ways to get through this part but I'm gonna walk you through mine. First, take the monsters that will inhabit your dungeon. To keep a nice sense of cohesion I like my dungeons to be filled with mainly the same type of creature, with some pets and curveballs thrown in. Now, take this creature and awesome it up a little. Just give it a little racial quirk that you think is cool. For example, lets say our dungeon will be filled with Kobolds. What if these Kobolds ran on all fours and jumped through the air while charging? What if they stalked the PCs, waiting for a great ambush spot, the PCs only warning a high pitched squeel just before they strike? Little quirks like this will give a monster alot more character.
Once you've got the inhabitants, you need somewhere for them to inhabit. The "look" of a dungeon is very important in creating the right atmosphere and tone. If you want your Kobolds to be scary, the dungeon can be a huge cavern with high ceilings and deep ravines connected by tiny, claustrophobic tunnels. It is vital that you visualise your dungeon. You need a very clear picture of what your dungeon should look like both so you can describe it well for your players and so you can give it the right feel. If your stuck for a cool dungeon, I suggest looking at game artwork, landscape pictures from around the world or listening to some of your favourite music.
Now you need to map your dungeon. I am a firm believer in linear dungeons. Now I'm not saying your dungeons need to be all rail roads, far from it, but there should be only one main path to follow. If you have three different ways of "finishing" the dungeon it's harder to keep track off, you do three times more work and your players aren't even aware. I strongly suggest mapping out the one way through the dungeon, then adding a few extra passages and dead ends off the main way to give the illusion of depth. If you use lures to lead the PCs along the right path they will feel like they are moving through a far greater dungeon than they are.
I find it helps to think of your dungeon, at least during this stage, as a series of boxes all connected with a big line. Each box represents an encounter and the line is the exploration time between encounters. A good dungeon should have between 8-12 encounters. Depending on how many encounters you have you should have at least one mini-boss and one main boss.
The mini-boss should be a little over half way through the dungeon and the main boss should be the very last fight.
Now that you've got your dungeon and it's dwellers I will talk you through creating an encounter table. There are to ways to go about this, scripted and semi-scripted. I'll look at both.
A scripted dungeon is one where you know ahead of time what the PCs will encounter and when. The beauty of this method is it allows you to set up great set pieces such as ambushes and final stands, but it does take alot more work and imagination to do well. Personally I prefer this method as it allows you to draw your players in with custom tailored battles. Also, loot may be either random or decided before hand. I like to decide before hand as this means if the kobolds are carrying a flaming axe of death, at least they get to use it before they're killed.
A semi-scripted dungeon is one in which only some of the details are worked out before hand. This is usually the boss encounters and maybe some loot. Almost everything else is randomised with encounter and loot tables. This method is great for working in a bit of a hurry but personally I find that I roll the same encounter on an encounter table alot which can just get tedious. One other good thing about this method is it's recyclable. If your players are fighting cultists alot you simply make one Cultist encounter list and there's quite alot of your work for future dungeons done. Also, if your players go off the rails it's easy to throw something interesting at them from the encounter table.
As a final note on leading your characters; Try be subtle. If you have a passage drawn in for the illusion of depth and your PCs are all getting ready to march down it, don't panic and tell them they can't. You can do one of two things. Number one is subtly draw their attention to the room you want them to go into. Roll a dice and tell them the parties lookout spotted a creature in there getting ready to ambush them and have a light turn on. Never say a player cannot do something unless there is a very good reason, and you not being prepared is not a good reason.
Your second option is to just let them go down. They can either find a dead end, curse and turn around or you can pretend this is the way they were meant to go and continue on as if they had gone the right way. Try to avoid over using dead ends, by the way. It can get very frustrating for your players.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Creating a good NPC is not quite as hard as you might think. We'll start with creating a main NPC, the guy who doles out quests and such. These guys should have quite a bit of history behind them, making them more believable and "real". An important thing to keep in mind is that noone is perfect. A Paladin that can do no wrong is not an interesting character and he quickly gets annoying. However, a Paladin that detests orcs and will do anything in his power to kill any he comes across is not only more interesting but it can lead to great adventure hooks.
The key to making a great character lies in his flaws. A good flaw is not something like "He doesn't like garlic", it's something that has a detrimental effect on his judgement or character. Not every lead NPC need be a racist, but it helps.
This is not to say all your quest givers have to be laden with flaws, he needs something to mark him out as one of the good guys. Remember, one of the stables of fantasy is dramatisation so by all means make your NPCs great, just don't make them ineffable.
As a side note, try to avoid using your NPCs as an avatar for yourself in the game. It is never a good idea to have an NPC join the party for an extended period.
On the flip side, a good villan is what makes a great campaign. A great villan is one your players both hate and empathise with. If your players can look at your villans big evil plan and think "That makes a sick kind of sense" then you know you've done your job right. The easiest way to do this is give the players something to identify with, be this a world view, a prop or both.
Personally I find a good way to make a basis for a villan is to get two characters from fantasy culture and mash them together to give you a framework to build from. For instance your big bad guy can have the brains and wealth of Lex Luthor combined with the psychosis of the Joker.
Knowing your players makes this step a LOT easier as each person has different views on what makes a good villan. Some people like the faceless menace, some people prefer to know exactly who it is they're fighting so hard against. A great way to accomidate everyone is use a technique that has been used for years in literature, the trio. The brains, the brawn and the beauty.
The brains will be the one who does all the scheming. This is the guy your players should identify with most, so keep him out of direct confrontation as it's kinda hard to care about someone when they're melting your face off. Often the brains will have a warped mental outlook that makes him believe what he is doing is absolutely right.
The brawn will be the guy the PCs focus all their hatred towards. This is the guy they'll fight against most. A great way to get your players to hate him is have him escape from a few combats. A good thing to do is have him fight the PCs three times. The first time he fights them, he soundly thrashes them and then leaves, deciding they're not worth the hassle or believing he has whipped them so hard they won't get up. During the second fight, the PCs should be able to soundly beat him, however he manages to escape through some tricksy deed. During the final fight, it should be a case of mutual hatred with both sides going all out to kill the other. Your players will get immense satisfaction from finally killing him and it sets things up nicely for the final showdown with the brains.
The beauty is usually a woman and is always manipulative. It's ofte a good idea to have her in the game from the start as an apparent good guy only to have her betray the players later on. This evokes alot of rage in your players, making them feel betrayed. A fight against the beauty can be used as a great turning point in a campaign.
The less important NPCs are what give a campaign it's tone and feel. It's not vital to make every character memorable, but it is important to make every character at least as awesome as the last. Players, and people in general, have a habbit of focusing on the weakest link.
So when designing your NPCs it's important to establish a character. Write a short paragraph about each of your NPCs and keep these on hand. Nothing fancy, just a short fact about him, any manerisms or distinguishing features he might have.
A note on accents; While it's often a good idea to give your characters accents it can be tiresome for both you and your players. Try not to give an accent to a character that does alot of talking. I like to save accents for eccentric characters and go completely over the top.
As a final note, stereotypes. There are a certain set of fantasy stereotypes such as elves are all haughty bastards, dwarves are all surly bastards and halflings are all mischevious bastards. A good rule of thumb is play up this sterotype in the minor NPCs and subvert it completely in the main ones. It makes the more important characters stand out from the crowd as well as establishing a fixed fantasy mindset for your players. Feel free to create your own sterotypes too, why not have all halflings as alcoholic hooligans and have your elves be naturally limpwristed and speak with a pronounced lisp? This is fantasy, go wild.
Monday, February 2, 2009
Most religions would have you believe this is done by a big beardy man in the sky. Sources differ on how exactly this great big beardy man goes about creating this world, but most agree that he "Just does."
Science would have you believe it involves explosions. This sounds far more awesome than the big beardy man theory, but is equally impossible for the average DM.
I am here to tell you now that it's far simpler than this. All it takes is a little imagination. Ok, well, alot of imagination but my point stands. World building may seem like a daunting task, but it's not all that bad. Many DMs have different methods. Over the years I've heard many different and varied views, from starting small and building out to starting big and building in. I'm gonna look at the various methods, their pros and cons and then reveal to you my own method. Feel privilaged.
First, starting small. This is a pretty good way to start for new DMs as it involves the least work right of the bat. You start with a town or village that is, invariably, being raided by orcs/goblins/kobolds or other low level creatures. It's psuedo-european medival with some magic thrown in. It also has a keep and an inn. Maybe a mill, if you're a big Tolkein fan. This is a cliche, but it's cliche for a reason. It's simple, familiar and people instantly equate it to fantasy. I recommend this method if it's your first time playing D&D, it's a fantastic way to learn.
On the bad side, it's also been done to death and any experienced player will immediately lose interest. Why would your little hamlet be any different to the thousand others he's saved from goblin raiders?
The starting big method. This is for the more ambitious DM. You create a world, fill in little details like continents, city states, where the elves go and where be dragons. All that jazz. Personally, I prefer this method. It gives you a bigger picture to work with. It's not for the faint hearted though because it means alot more work before the game actually begins.
The worst part of this method is the fact that should your players lose interest or the game falls apart you've done alot of work for nothing.
Now, I shall tell you my method. It's a bit of a mix, leaning alot towards starting big. The first thing you need, and this is very important, is an idea. This may seem like a no brainer, but it's very important if you want to make a believable world.
Now, what do I mean by idea? I mean a simple phrase that can descirbe your world. It can be as simple as High Fantasy or as complex as Post Appocolyptic Steam Punk Earth With Magic And Dinosaurs And Robots. No matter what you come up with, remember it. Keep it in the foremost of your mind and don't stray from it. This is a problem many young DMs face, getting distracted from the main idea. Many DMs, for example, make the different races feel very different from the core idea. Thanks mainly to WoW, I have seen many dwarf lands that have clockwork and gunpowder when the humans still live in Middle Earth-esque monarchies. Don't fall for this.
Secondly, you need a map. A mental map will not work for a campaign, so complete this step first. Trust me, it helps. A basic knowledge of geography is useful for this, but not essential. Remember, this is fantasy. If you wanna have a volcano floating 50 feet above ground, more power to you. My advice here is keep it simple and realistic. Compare your map to a map of the world and try match the terrain up at least a little. It makes your world click right.
Thirdly, we create a history. Now I'm not saying you've got to write an essay about your world, but you do need a solid backbone. Focus on one area first, pick a race as the indigenous population and run with it from there. Keep asking yourself questions, things like;
- Why settle here?
- Who runs this place?
- How do the natives feel about outsiders?
And, if you're as big a freak as me, whats the main export of this place?
Now go to your map, mark in the area, the main cities and maybe some large towns.
Repeat for the areas immediately bordering your new little kingdom. If you're feeling adventurous repeat for the entire map.
Now we select a starting location. This can be anywhere within your fleshed out areas.
When we have our location fixed we make it awesome.
Making it awesome is not as hard as you might believe, all it takes is some thinking. You need to start with a hook. Lets go with the cliche of goblins raiding the town. This is a fairly simple adventure hook and easy to get the PCs into. Now, to awesome it up all we do is add some detail.
Lets say these goblins are the Blood Tooth goblins, renowned for their ferocity and fact that they eat their slain enemies. They take hands from their worthy foes as a trophy. This immediately adds a nice little visual for the players and makes the goblins more awesome.
Now, you need a dungeon. This may be a side effect of playing too many MMOs, but I find the best dungeons tend to be kinda linear. I'll go into this in more detail at a later date, but your goblins need a place to raid from. Lets say the Blood Tooth goblins raid from an old human fort, crudely vandalised by the goblins. They hang handless bodies from the walls and carion birds circle above. It's important to keep things consistent, if the Blood Teeth had a nice little treehouse village it wouldn't quite be as fitting.
Finally, you need the NPCs. This is very important. I cannot stress enough how vital it is that your NPCs are memorable. So important is it that I shall devote an entire article to it. However, now is not the time to go into any depth on this matter, so let me just say that detail and consistency are vital to any good NPC.
What do I mean by NPC? Anyone your players interact with, be it the Mayor of the town being raided, the barkeep or the Goblin warchief, each one needs at least a short paragraph describing them and anchoring them in your head.
Now, once you have all that finished your world is ready for your PCs to saunter into and mess up your carefully laid plans. Just remember the golden rule of DMing. Pretend you had it planned to work out exactly as it did...