World Building 101: Life Long Rivals

Every story has a protagonist or protagonists. They’re the heroes, the viewpoint characters, the ones we root for—in roleplaying games, these are always the player characters. (It’s possible to have protagonists who are not player characters, but if your player characters are not protagonists there’s a good chance something’s going wrong.) A story also requires, to be interesting, that the protagonists have some sort of opposition or struggle—often in the form of antagonists. Antagonists are the villains, the “bad guys”, or at the very least, the characters who get between the protagonists and their goals. These descriptions can be much more complicated, but for the purposes of the discussion, the definitions above will suffice.

While a lot of the opposition player characters face in a D&D game is short term—monsters who last one single fight, or to the end of a given adventure—sometimes a DM will bring out long-term rivals or create a nemesis, a recurring character who time after time foils or escapes the player characters. This is not a bad thing, nor is it unique to roleplaying games. Comic books and serial stories in just about any medium have had these types of characters since well before D&D. Sherlock Holmes faced off against Professor Moriarty many a time, and the Joker from Batman is at least as iconic as Batman himself. In a roleplaying game, you can use a recurring villain or rival to create a sense of continuity as well as to give the players someone they love to hate.

There’s a complication, though. In fiction, we love to hate the recurring villain on behalf of the characters we’re reading about, but in a roleplaying game, a character who constantly foils the heroes and seemingly escapes their every effort to stop him can quickly become frustrating to the players. Constant escapes or a villain who always gets the better of the player characters regardless of their actions can make the players feel as though they are being shut down, or as though they are ineffective. Always be careful to give the players a chance to defeat the villains, and try not to cross the line between running a character they love to hate and running a character they just plain hate.

Don’t leave the characters in a position where they feel unsatisfied with their inability to overcome a recurring rival or nemesis. This doesn’t mean you need to let them kill off your favourite villains prematurely, but consider that there are other forms of defeat. Remember also that in D&D, death is not necessarily the end—a vile and murderous assassin might be slain by the players only to return a few adventures later as an undead creature. The trick to bringing a character who the PCs kill back is to give it time. Don’t have them immediately return as if nothing is wrong. Even in a case where the recurring nemesis successfully escapes the wrath of the players, take an adventure or three where they don’t show up at all before you bring them back around for another go. Using a recurring villain every adventure can feel like you’re rubbing in the players inability to stop them.

When you do give your characters a chance to finish off one of your recurring villains, though, make it grand, and make it memorable. Let the player characters relish and delight in their foes getting their long-awaited comeuppance. Don’t cheapen it by taking away their chance to avenge themselves for the slights they’ve suffered at the hands of the rival. Not every recurring character needs to be killed to be dealt with, either—some rivals who are not directly opposed or evil, but just keep getting in the way or one-upping the heroes could find themselves humiliated or imprisoned, forced to eat humble pie at the hands of the main characters.

Giving the characters someone to love to hate is great, but in the end, the satisfaction of victory over those special villains is what makes them work. A villain who can’t be defeated is one who provides nothing but frustration, and frustration is a good way to kill the enjoyment of a campaign forever. Don’t just hand over the victory, but don’t deny it forever, either. That’s the trick to handling recurring villains.

Miniature Painting for the Absolute Beginner

Roleplaying games originated from miniatures wargaming, as any historian of the genre knows, but over time many gamers moved away from using them. D&D Fourth Edition brought the use of miniatures kicking and screaming back to the table. For some players, accustomed to painting little metal men (and women, and monsters) from miniatures wargames, this was not all that daunting. Others, myself included, who never painted a mini before, found other solutions, such as the D&D Minis prepainted line, or by making tokens from washers or other appropriately sized pieces. Painting those tiny little guys is daunting, especially if you’re doing it for the first time, but as Tycho from Penny Arcade and I have both recently discovered, there’s a big difference between painting and applying paint. It’s not easy to do a paint job on a mini that others will recognize as a masterpiece, perhaps, but it’s not hard to do a paint job that looks good, and while getting enough minis to run an entire campaign can be expensive, if you start small and work your way up, you can find yourself with plenty of nice-looking pieces without a ton of effort, and they really do add a lot to the game—especially since you’ll be able to feel a sense of pride for having painted them yourself!

There are a lot of different sources of advice and tips for all levels of skill out there, and I’m still far too new at painting minis myself to provide any real pointers on technique that you won’t find with a quick google search. I can, however, share some of what I’ve learned since I started.

  • Get the right tools for the job, but don’t overpay. Minis don’t require some specific type or brand of paint to look good, and a lot of the hobby-store paints sold specifically targeted at miniatures painting are priced higher than the exact same stuff would be at a regular craft store, and for less paint. Shop around, pay attention to the specific types of paints you’re using, and the amount you’re getting. You can get a very wide range of colors with only a few paints, with a bit of mixing, too, so don’t feel the need to purchase paint in every conceivable hue to get started. On the other hand, if you want to ensure consistent shading over a large number of minis—say you’ve got an army of kobolds that are attacking the town in your campaign—you might consider getting a color you could otherwise mix, just to ensure it matches for every one of them. For brushes, you can get by with a starter pack, rather than buying the individual brushes—once you get the hang of things you may want to invest in more specific shapes and styles, but at first it won’t be as vital.
  • Shop around to find minis you like. While you shouldn’t discount cost in your consideration of what minis to purchase, painting a mini or set of minis you don’t particularly like the look of is pretty unrewarding. There are a wide variety of styles out there, by a wide range of companies—look around at galleries and find some you really like. Don’t go wild with buying a huge number of them, though—remember that it takes time to paint everything, and spread out your purchases.
  • Take your time. This is probably the most important thing I’ve found. If you try to do a rush job, it will show, and it won’t look good. Be patient, and be careful, and you’ll have much better results. When you get tired of working on a mini (or set of minis), stop. Set it aside and come back to it later. Working on something when you’d rather be doing something else isn’t fun, and you may find yourself rushing to finish, and making mistakes. You may feel like you’re wasting paint if you stop halfway and the paint on your palette dries out, but you’ll be wasting paint and time if you have to go back after and correct the careless errors made in a hurry. While you do paint, it helps to have on some music or a movie in the background to listen to—I personally like to throw on a podcast or audiobook and tune out the world.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You can always paint over a little slipup, and in the worst case scenario it’s not that hard to remove a “ruined” paint job entirely and start it over from scratch. Every mistake is a learning experience, and every mini you paint is an opportunity to improve. Don’t sweat it, just take your time and go over it until you’re satisfied.
  • Read up on what others have to say about painting. There is a LOT of guidance available out there for the beginning painter, from a lot of sources. If you have friends who do it, ask them for tips. Google for guides online for starting painters or advanced techniques. Read through as much as you can to learn the techniques others have used, but remember not to get discouraged if your early attempts don’t look quite as nice as the beautiful paint jobs done by the experts who’ve been at it for a while.

It’s not that difficult at all to make a mini look attractive with basic techniques, and it can be quite relaxing to do and rewarding to look at your finished work. It’s not for everyone, sure, but it’s worth trying out before you decide one way or another.

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Keeping a DM Log

The astute reader will have noticed that over the past few weeks, the World Building 101 series of articles has trailed off. I really enjoy writing WB101 pieces, and do hope to continue the series, but I’d prefer to avoid writing about bizarre minutiae simply to keep it going. (I’m pretty sure some of the articles already got close to that point as it stands, in fact!) That said, I do intend to continue WB101, but at a slower pace. In the interim I’ll be continuing to write DM advice, though with a slightly different focus than worldbuilding. Today’s piece will focus on DM logs.

I have previously written about writing and maintaining a campaign bible—a document containing details of the setting and events of your game. A campaign bible may also contain notes for the Dungeon Master’s eyes only, but this is not a DM log. The purpose of a DM log is quite different—rather than tracking the story or NPC notes, a DM log tracks notes on the actual act of DMing.

Every session you run can be a learning experience, and it can be very helpful to keep notes on what worked and what didn’t work, to improve your game sessions in the future. Keeping a DM log will help you do just that. After each session you run, take a few moments to jot notes on things that your players seemed to enjoy, or things that fell flat. Doing this can help you marshal your thoughts and give you something to reflect on before your next session, and can also be used to track your progress or remind you a few weeks or months down the line of problems you encountered in game and how to avoid them.

Make a point of talking to your players regularly about the campaign, as well, and note the results in your log. You don’t need to do this every session, but you should do it once every three to five sessions at least. Ask what they like and didn’t like about the session you’ve just completed, as well as what they want to see more of (and less of) in the campaign as a whole. Look over these notes when you’re planning future adventures, and you’ll find your players stay very happy and keep their enthusiasm for the game high.

Another technique you might consider—though this is not something that may be possible for everyone, for a variety of reasons—is to record a session and listen to it after. You can often hear in the players’ body language and tone of voice what they enjoyed or disliked during the session, and get more specific details about it than you would with asking them after—they may not remember everything as clearly at the end of a session, but by observing their reactions during play you can pinpoint it. You can also monitor your own performance, checking for bad habits when providing descriptions (lots of “ums”, pacing problems, repetitive word choice, or just droning), and take notes on what you can be improving that way. If you do want to record a session, though, make sure your players are all okay with the idea before you do so, and if any of them are uncomfortable with it, don’t press the issue.

Keeping a DM log is something that can help you improve your technique and reduce your bad habits or mistakes. It gives you a written record of the lessons you learn after each session and helps you remember things you want to do more (or less) of in the next session. It’s a tool I’ve found invaluable when I run games, and I can safely say that my dungeon mastering has improved a great deal as a result. Even a few short moments of taking notes and reflection can be enough, so give it a shot!

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How Well Do You Know Your Rules?

For a large segment of the roleplaying gamer population, familiarity with the rules of their game of choice is something that is almost taken for granted. After more than a few months of playing with any game, to suggest that a player or DM should refamiliarize themselves with the system is a breach of etiquette and often met with dismissal or outright derision. After all, we’ve play once (or more) a week every week over the course of a year, obviously we know what the rules are, right? To suggest otherwise is insulting the intelligence and the integrity of the gamer, especially if it’s directed to a DM, who must adjudicate fairly for his or her players on top of merely knowing the relevant rules for one particular set of actions.

The problem with the knee-jerk defensiveness that can arise so readily from such a suggestion is that in many cases it’s a valid suggestion. As a DM I make a habit of actively reading the rules every three to five months—and not just skimming, either. Each time I do so, I discover some nuance of the rules I’ve missed, or that I’d misremembered during a session and had to make a quick call on to keep the game running. Each time I make a point of noting down what the correct rule is and make certain to adhere to it more closely in the future.

Something that can exacerbate the issue is that many (or most) groups play with house rules in place, and over time it’s relatively easy to lose sight of which rules are the “official” rules and which rules are in place only at your particular table. This is less important if you only ever play within the same circle, but when you bring in a new player (or play at someone else’s, or in a public game at a convention, game day, or Encounters night) it’s crucial to be able to distinguish between the two. Even something relatively minor can throw people for a loop.

Refamiliarizing yourself with the rules isn’t hard, and it’s not a particularly onerous task. The most difficult part is simply forcing yourself not to assume that you’re familiar with a given rule and skim past it—read it again as though for the first time, so as not to miss anything. Your understanding of the game will improve, and you’ll always be able to speak confidently and with assurance when you need to make a rules call, even if it’s a relatively obscure bit of mechanics that doesn’t come up very often. Don’t sweat too much if you’re not always spot on, though—nobody’s perfect.

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Experience and Advancement in D&D 4th Edition

Experience points are one of the most widespread concepts in roleplaying games. Many RPGs use point-buy experience systems or provide variable scale rates of advancement. D&D 4th Edition’s experience system functions by characters accruing points and gaining levels at specific point totals. The system, as presented in the PHB and other resources, uses a single scale of experience point values required to level up, and the stated assumption is that characters will gain a level around every ten encounters, give or take.

This assumption can be used to calculate roughly how much playtime it will take to go from level 1 to level 30. In practice, the experience required to go up a level can be gained in fewer than ten encounters, thanks to a combination of quest rewards, experienced gained from skill challenges and other noncombat encounters, and higher-level combat encounters. One can generally assume around seven combat encounters will provide sufficient experience to gain a level.

According to the assumptions of RPGA organized play events, a four hour session should be sufficient to make it through about three encounters and a bit of roleplaying. In my own experience as an RPGA DM, this assumption is not too far off the mark. Thus, for every two to three sessions of play (at four hours per session), one can expect to gain a level.

If the above assumptions hold true, then gaining 29 levels should take roughly sixty to ninety sessions, likely leaning towards the higher end. A campaign running from level 1 to level 30, then, can be expected to take over a year of play, even if a group plays once a week without fail. In practice, it is likely to be somewhere between a year and a half to two years of play, with one session of four hours a week.

Once you understand the expected duration of a 1-30 campaign, based on the assumed rate of advancement, it becomes much easier to play with it. Some DMs don’t bother tracking experience totals numerically, advancing their players in level whenever it feels appropriate to do so. This works well, but can lead to some levels being “longer” than others if it is not tracked—going by the numbers at least ensures a consistent rate of advancement. Numbers can be adjusted easily, as well.

For example, if you wanted to slow advancement slightly, you might shift the total experience required to level up to reflect twelve encounters rather than ten—three to four sessions, rather than 2-3. This would mean that second level is reached at 1200 experience, third at 2500, fourth at 4300, and so on. You could also speed things up, aiming for 8 encounters, ensuring a level increase every second session—second level would then be 800 experience, third at 1800, fourth at 3000, etcetera.

Adjusting experience requirements isn’t difficult, especially once one understands the play time the numbers represent. There are two things one must bear in mind, however, before deciding to go forward with such an alteration. First, the treasure parcel system will need to be adjusted to reflect any changes. If you reduce the number of encounters between leveling up, you should either hand out treasure faster or use the inherent bonuses system presented in the DMG2—simply because the defenses and attacks of monsters assume that at certain levels, a certain minimum enhancement bonus will have been applied to players. The other consideration is that you must let your players know before you begin about any adjustments you have made.

Experience and advancement are an important part of any roleplaying game, and by understanding the assumptions the game designers have made in creating these systems it becomes much easier to adapt them to suit your group’s particular requirements, be they for a speedier game or a lengthier campaign duration.

Making Your Stick a Carrot

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?)

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.

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World Building 101: Om Nom Nom

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?”

En Garde! It’s Shadow, Sword and Spell

Shadow Sword & Spell is, as you might guess by the name, a swashbuckling sword and sorcery game. It uses a system called 12° and offers a suitably light and fast-paced gameplay experience extremely well matched to the genre it strives to portray. It provides a toolkit to tell human-oriented sword and sorcery stories in the mold of the classics of the genre, but leaves it up to you to decide which elements to emphasize.

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Welcome to the Dresden Files RPG

I was only marginally familiar with the Dresden Files prior to being approached to review the RPG—I’d read one of the novels to pass the time on a flight a few years ago, and found it enjoyable, but hadn’t sought out more. I’d been aware that there was a TV show, which I didn’t watch, and other tie-ins, but on the whole I’d been pretty content to let it be. It’s not that I didn’t like it, of course, just that there were other things I liked more, and given the other demands on my time and budget it never seemed all that high a priority to me.

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