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Making Your Stick a Carrot

posted Thursday, October 28th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Most people are familiar with the notion of the stick and carrot, the idea of using a combination of rewards and punishments to induce desired behavior. In the context of a roleplaying game, this can be applied as a dungeon mastering technique. Player characters are given rewards for going along with the plot of an adventure, and often forced into adventures by some kind of threat or other external impetus.

The thing about choosing between whether to apply the stick or the carrot to your player characters when designing an adventure is that it is in fact a false dichotomy. The truth is that there doesn’t have to be a difference between the stick and the carrot.

The key is to remember that the “stick” should involve making the players’ experiences with the game more interesting and exciting, while the carrot is there primarily to reward the characters. When things happen to make the characters’ lives unpleasant, the players are (hopefully) getting to have fun—thus turning the stick into a carrot for the player.

Of course, this is not true of every stick that can be applied. A stick that removes or alters something vital about the character, without having discussed it with the player ahead of time, can be a deal-breaker. Finding a way to put pressure on the character without it also upsetting the player can be tricky, but it’s ultimately the most rewarding way of applying “the stick”.

World Building 101 – War (What is it good for?)

posted Thursday, October 21st 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

War is a staple of fantasy film and literature. It creates conflict and turmoil and an environment in which heroic figures can thrive and prosper. Roleplaying games came about originally as an offshoot of war games, so it’s no surprise that they show signs of their heritage. However, most RPGs don’t include in-depth systems for adjudicating full-scale wars, since the focus is on a small group of individual heroes, not large armies. This can lead to difficulties in portraying a war in your game, but with certain techniques the task is not impossible, even without a dedicated system.

The Battle of Epping Forest, by feuilllu from Flickr

The most important thing to remember when you decide to run a war is that the player characters are the focus of the campaign, and their involvement and enjoyment of the game is of primary importance. If everyone enjoys working out large-scale battles and logistics of supply train raids and siege tactics, then by all means your campaign should include such things. If the group signed on expecting an action-filled heroic romp and gets a gritty, trench-eye view of the horrors of war as low-ranking grunts, though, the experience may not be as satisfying or rewarding as you might hope, no matter how much work you put into the details.

Keeping the focus on the characters should be the primary concern, then. You might do this by abstracting the majority of a given battle in which the player characters participate, but allowing them to play out a particularly key bit of the battle. Perhaps the keep’s wall is breached and the player characters must repel the invaders for long enough that other defenders can reach the gap and hold the line. Alternately, your players might execute a daring strike on the enemy’s command, hoping to demoralize the enemies and turn the tide of battle. A climactic duel between champions is a common theme in both fantasy and legend—Eowyn’s battle against the Witch-King of Angmar, for example, or Hector versus Achilles, among other examples.

Of course, no battle is won without preparation. Allowing the player characters to play a role in formulating the battle plans and setting up the defenses keeps them at the center of the action throughout. Perhaps they prepare cunning traps or ambushes for the foe, or improve morale with stirring speeches. Maybe—time permitting—they can bring allies from nearby cities or nations through diplomacy, or hire mercenaries. They might conduct raids on the enemy supply lines to deprive them of shipments of ammunition, or stealthily sabotage the siege engines before they can be brought to bear on the city walls. Any and all of these can contribute to victory, and in combination with the above techniques, can be used to do so without needing to worry about mechanical representations of the large scale battle itself.

One method you might consider if you’re going to run a large battle is to think up as many ways for the player characters to contribute along the lines of the above suggestions, and give each option a point value from 1-3, depending on how vital or effective it is in the overall scheme. Then, imagine several outcomes, ranging from worst-case to best-case, that might emerge from the battle, and using the total points available as a guideline determine the number of “victory points” required for each outcome. This way the tide of the battle hinges exclusively on the player characters’ deeds and not on arbitrary dice rolls where they have minimal involvement, or worse, a wargame simulation that not everyone at the table is interested or involved in playing out.

Of course, if everyone present does enjoy wargames and a mechanical system for the large scale battle can be agreed on, then that may be the ideal solution for your group. As with everything else, the important thing to remember is that everyone should have fun, and everything else is just window dressing.

Weekend Links Roundup: 17th October 2010

posted Sunday, October 17th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

This week, I’ve scoured the blogosphere for the best Dungeons & Dragons posts. It’s been a while since I last made one of these, so a few of these actually go back as far as September, some further.

Clerics versus Undead Monsters, via Grognardia. James Maliszewski provides his usual insights into the film and literary origins of the cleric class.

Your Whispering Homunculus: When You’re Alone, You’re Alone, via Kobold Quarterly. Dungeon mastering advice on how to create mood in D&D.

Sage Advice Compilation, via Grognardia. James Maliszewski gives his opinion on this archive of D&D Sage Advice questions dating back to Dragon Magazine #31. Really interesting to see how the game’s focus has changed since the 1970s, from world simulation to character development and tactical combat.

“Not as Bad as it Looks” is Still Bad, via RPGpundit’s Xanga. Outspoken critic RPGPundit reports that Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG is tied for sales with D&D 4th edition in hobby stores.

Fatigue: An optional rule for characters without healing surges, via Square Fireballs. A 4E variant rule that allows characters to spend a healing surge after their surges have been depleted, at the cost of being fatigued until they take an extended rest. If they are already fatigued, they are instead weakened and grant combat advantage for one round.

Devil’s Advocate, via Grognardia. James Maliszewski notes an odd coincidence.

Teaching RPGs, a Quick Retrospective, via Critical Hits. The Chatty DM links to a collection of articles on introducing new players to tabletop roleplaying games.

Do the Evolution, via Critical Hits. RPG writer Chris Sims discusses how tabletop RPGs have changed since the original release of Dungeons & Dragons.

Real Steel: The Mystery of Steel—Myth and Fact of Forge Folding, via Kobold Quarterly. Todd Gdula gives a real-world insight into the art of modern and historical weaponsmithing.

Healing Surges revisited, via Square Fireballs. Discussion of D&D 4E’s healing surge mechanic, how it changed the game, and its flaws.

Review: “Gamma World” RPG, via Critical Hits. Dave Chalker reviews Wizards of the Coast’s new wacky mutant future RPG.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Rhialto the Marvellous, via Grognardia. A look at the the literary works that originally inspired Dungeons & Dragons’ magic system and implied setting.

Reexamining the Dungeon, by Robert J. Schwalb. A writer for Wizards of the Coast, Schwalb gives insights into the “tactical encounter” format introduced late in D&D 3rd edition and used heavily by 4th edition. He looks at where the format succeeds, where it fails, and how those issues might be solved.

Re-examining the Dungeon: Section, Factions and Fronts, via Critical Hits. The Chatty DM posts in agreement with Robert J. Schwalb’s deconstruction of the tactical encounter format, and suggests a solution inspired by old Gygax-style dungeon modules.

D&D Trivia Archive May 2010 via Critical Hits. Former Wizards of the Coast game designer Chris Sims shares interesting D&D factoids, including some secrets of 4E’s development. For example, 4E began early playtesting in 2006, the original 4E Monster Manual draft had more fluff, and minions had more hit points but were reduced to 1HP for easier tracking.

World Building 101: Om Nom Nom

posted Thursday, October 14th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Food and drink are an oft-abstracted subject in roleplaying games. In many cases the need to eat is represented purely by purchasing trail rations or survival days, and taking in-character breaks for breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, lunch, tea, afternoon snack, or whatever other meals one wants can bog down the game. Players will also chafe at the bit if the DM spends more than a moment describing a given meal—taking the time to lovingly describe the savory banquet of rich and delicious food laid out by the local lord as he requests the PC’s help may seem like an important part of setting the scene, but you may find players yawning or surreptitiously checking their watches if you take it on too long. Worse, if you do it while the players have empty stomachs, they might call a hold on the game to go eat!

Food and drink can, however, reveal a lot about your setting. Wealthy nobles will certainly set a richer table than common inns, and oppressed villages under the thumb of a cruel lord might have even less to share. In a town with a shortage of food due to poor harvest or heavy taxation, one might encounter poachers or half-starved beggars, or pass by fields, fallow from rotten crops, their farmers sitting idle and hopeless. As a tool for description, the effects of having (or not having) enough food can be more valuable than the description of the food itself.

When applied directly to PCs, it can be used—albeit sparingly—as a way of leading them into new adventure. You can have them stumble into an ancient ruin or bandit camp while hunting to supplement their store of rations, or be arrested for poaching and sent off on some mission in lieu of prison time. In some settings, the search for food may become an adventure in and of itself, though the core assumption of the game seems to be that food is fairly readily available, and you should make sure your players are on the same page as you with regard to changes to that basic assumption.

For the real world-builders among us, thinking about the types of food and drink available can be an interesting exercise as well. What crops and livestock are common to what regions? Are most foods Earth-equivalent, or are there a large number of fantastic crops unlike anything found in reality? What other uses can the crops be put to—dyes, perhaps, or cloths? How common is meat? Is fish the staple food? What kinds of spices are known, and how much money is there in the spice trade? These kinds of questions can help in defining a wide variety of elements beyond the obvious question of “what’s for dinner?”

Got an Question? Ask RPG Stack Exchange

posted Monday, October 11th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Tech support website Stack Exchange has opened a Role-playing Games Stack Exchange board to answer your tabletop gaming questions. RPG Stack Exchange has already provided over 2,648 answers to 570 questions posed by 744 users, and 99% of questions have received answers.

Stack Exchange has some useful features you don’t see on a normal forum. Users receive reputation points for answering a question particularly well, with good answers voted on by other users. Rambling discussion is kept to a minimum, with the focus on finding answers to questions.

The site works equally well for popular and obscure role-playing games, as well as both rules questions (How do I reduce the two-weapon fighting penalties in D&D 3.5?) and requests for advice (How can a GM create interesting characters?). You can use tag filtering to highlight questions on games or topics you like, or filter out the Wrong Edition of D&D.

Link: Role-playing Games Stack Exchange

World Building 101: The Problem with Diseases

posted Thursday, October 7th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Diseases are a fact of life. Everyone gets sick from time to time, but with modern medicine and sanitation, epidemic diseases are thankfully fewer and less devastating than they were in ancient times. Still, disease is such a universal part of existence that its inclusion in a D&D campaign should go without saying, right? Maybe not so much as you might assume. The span of history that most D&D campaigns draw most heavily from may be full of plague and pestilence, but frankly, getting sick just isn’t much fun, and in a world with curative magics, it can be hard to make it stick on a player character.

Continue reading this article »

Planescape: Torment is Back!

posted Saturday, October 2nd 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Planescape: Torment, regarded by many as the greatest video game RPG ever, is now back on sale thanks to GOG.com.

Torment was originally released in 1999, and is based on the AD&D rule set like Baldur’s Gate. It’s set in the Dungeons & Dragons Planescape setting, famous for its wacky planes-travelling. The game is known for containing hundreds of thousands of words of dialogue (as much as several novels) and is widely regarded as a western RPG classic.

The hard-to-find game is back on sale in digital download format at the reasonable price of US$9.99.

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