Stealing the Show
“… That will be thirty-five gold.”
“I place the gold in her hand, thank her and take my items back outside to the party.”
“Got all the stuff, is everyone read— where is Brycel?”
“We thought he was with you?”
“What did you do?!”
A halfling with an arm full of goods comes rushing out of the store behind you –
“Time to go!”
“I yell an apology into the shop and then run after everyone, do we see guards anywhere?”
“There do seem to be a few sets of halberds advancing up the street.”
“God dammit Brycel!”
Dungeon Master or player I think we’ve all been here before. Rogue is an extremely popular archetype for role-playing games for reasons that are readily apparent. Regardless of whether you like the idea of playing a fantasy version of Hitman, fancy yourself the next Daniel Ocean or have always dreamed of being this guy the Rogue class can give you that chance. They’re one of the most flexible classes in all of Dungeons & Dragons even including a path called Arcane Trickster if life just isn’t interesting enough without a little spell-casting on the side.
Clearly based on the example at the top I’m here to talk about one particular class of Rogue, the Thief. Our friendly neighborhood pickpocket, confidence man and, all around angle seeker in any given situation. Negotiating for the release of hostages? They might see if they can finagle a few extras for themselves in the process. Investigating a mysterious death in the Royal Palace? What silverware? Going shopping for supplies? No, I don’t believe I have seen any Potions of Giant Strength.
The thief is often a class chosen by those who want to role-play the “fun” side of sinister, the kind of evil that pricks but doesn’t kill, the kind that still allows you to sleep at night, the lovable miscreant. I imagine many rogue players envision themselves to be something akin to Aladdin if he was deep into a goth phase. It’s all fun and games while you escape the guards in a jaunty run across town that ends with a good laugh in some dingy alley with your party while they give you shit for being an incorrigible sticky-fingered thief.
Unfortunately in my experience the reality can be a bit more complicated. I stumbled upon this thread while browsing around before bed and it touched on something that I’ve thought about off and on over the years. We often talk about how important it is for the DM of a table to have a conversation with their players about the type of game they’re expecting. Everyone should more or less be on the same page about the direction of the campaign, the style of play and the general attitude and goals of the party. A chaotic evil character running around amidst a group of lawful good is just asking for trouble outside of a very experienced group who enjoys an odd roleplaying challenge. It’s not that situations like this can’t ever work but there are conversations that need to be had prior to going live to ensure the health and longevity of the group.
To tie in another conversation I had today with another DM and some players we briefly spoke about red flags that we look for when talking to prospective players. I mentioned one of mine which was players whose backgrounds start with or include references to their characters being former gods, disgraced gods, temporarily “de-powered” or overthrown in any fashion. I like grandeur and imagination in backstories as much as anyone but every player and DM develops a sense for people that they will not mesh with for a variety of reasons. Another one of the red-flags that I keep an eye out for in character backgrounds is the word “Kleptomaniac”.
an irresistible impulse to steal, stemming from emotional disturbance rather than economic need.
This word in a backstory reads to me as an excuse for the player to steal as much as they want whenever they want with little regard for any justification beyond, “I have to because I’m a klepto.” I will offer the clarification that I have in the past had a player who while using that word to describe their character they also provided me with a specific list of items that would trigger their kleptomania and that it was limited to those. This is the kind of care and detail that in my opinion must be included with a character who suffers from any kind of manic disorder. In the example I posted above from the Reddit thread you might be able to see why this kind of thing aggravates me so much. The player who describes themselves as a kleptomaniac is not stealing because of their mania but because, as they pointed out, their need for some extra gold. This is the reasoning that your everyday pickpocket or confidence man uses to justify lifting a wallet or breaking in to steal an expensive pipe. This is simple greed or opportunistic theft, not theft driven by an irresistible compulsion to do it regardless of danger or circumstance.
Kleptomania and other quirks like it are character flaws and shouldn’t be treated as pseudo-feats that you can take as a player to excuse extreme and sometimes downright stupid behavior.
This leads me to the wider problem that is also evident in the post. Players who use traits like kleptomania have a tendency to warp the play at the table to disproportionately revolve around their actions. This isn’t always intentional but it can easily come about naturally from just embracing their characters core flaw. In a game that strongly promotes the idea of co-operative storytelling these types of characters can disrupt that fundamental pillar. The argument can certainly be made that in a game like D&D where freedom of choice and the accompanying consequences are “part of the fun”, which I certainly agree with. The caveat which must be stressed however is that at the end of the day it is still at its core, a game, where the ultimate goal is a good time for everyone involved. If we accept the presence of a kleptomaniac then lets expand our view for a moment to potential other manias or neuroses we could see crop up.
A pyromaniac wizard? How rapidly frustrating would a game become with a player who is obsessed with fire and has such easy access to it that they are constantly in danger of burning anywhere they go to the ground?
Severe obsessive compulsive disorder? How long would a party wait around while their Cleric counts each and every stone tile as they traverse a dungeon?
Ablutomania, where the druid in the party obsessively washes themselves, constantly using up any available water supply even their drinking water. As a result the party must resupply frequently and stop at any water supply along the way so they can wash.
If you find any of the above examples ridiculous or believe that they would be disruptive to a game remember that kleptomania falls into this list as well. We tolerate it because when used appropriately it can be an almost endearing quality in a party member or even a form of comic relief. As the thread I posted will show however it can very quickly morph into a problem when the DM feels the player is out of line or the player feels they are being punished for playing their character. This also doesn’t mean that the above examples can’t or shouldn’t ever be used but that these types of characteristics are hard to role-play in an appropriate manner.
I do want to take just a moment to address the fact that in spite of what I have written here I also do think that the DM was not wholly in the right with enforcing an alignment change on the lawful neutral character. The debate over alignments and how they should affect the game is still hotly debated in the community but I do have to side with the players on this. It seemed a bit punitive and an attempt to discourage other people at the table from engaging in the thief’s shenanigans. Unfortunately without knowing the entire history of the group its tough to make a definitive judgement because alignment changes often should happen when a pattern of behavior is established, not on a singular incident. Furthermore I would state that I do have a small issue with the fact that a lawful neutral cleric was the abetting character as to me that seems to be two layers of plausible reasoning for them to not take part. Either way, a discussion for another time.
So not to bore you for much longer let just conclude with a point that the player made at the bottom of the post –
…But once the DM knew that we were trying to steal the pipe, he then said that magically(without good reason, no spell was casted) a glass case and bodyguard appeared in the store, the glass case over the pipe and the bodyguard which is in the store (so because we wanted to steal something, the DM tries to make it harder for us than it should have been just so he can fuck us over)…
I want to clarify something here that as a DM I do not describe rooms and environments with 100% of the available detail. I try to judge what the myriad characters at my table may or may not notice when they are just going about their day. To describe everything in excruciating detail means that getting anywhere with any speed would be nearly impossible. Its another reason why DMs don’t, or shouldn’t, allow constant Perception checks by players because it slows the game until its nearly unplayable. Players must communicate their intentions and make intelligent decisions from moment to moment based on their suspicions or goals. If you think there might be a trap then by all means check for it but I will not allow you to stand there and roll checks until you get one that makes you confident it is safe to proceed. I can explain any number of reasonable mechanical reasons as to why this is but let me just simply the issue: It isn’t fun. Not for me as the DM and not for anyone else at the table.
Again, it’s hard to make concrete judgments as I don’t know the history of the table, it’s players or the DM but it’s fairly clear that the relationship between the klepto and the DM has shifted to be somewhat adversarial. There are good reasons why players shouldn’t withhold information from their DMs because it can lead to situations like this. If a thief at my table walks into a building I don’t describe things like security or potential theft targets unless they specifically ask. If the thief tells me that they want to enter a shop because they want to case it then I know what information that character is looking to glean from their visit. If all they tell me is that they’re going into the shop with no further context then I won’t bother to expand on a description I already gave. Once they’ve revealed their plans to steal an item, like the pipe, then it’s time to discuss relevant details for that particular goal.
Very rarely do DMs do anything specifically to screw over their players as most of the time what you do is a total surprise to us. We may inadvertently gloss over details you wanted to know but we also can’t always know what specific information you want unless you ask. There are few if any reasons players should feel a need to keep information from their DM and just about all of them are bad news for the table as a whole. If you as a player find yourself in that position or know of another player who does then its time to have a discussion before it leads to bigger problems. It’s hard to stress enough just how important communication is.
Like most topics when it comes to D&D nothing is universal and your mileage will vary with any given advice but it is important to be cognizant of the people you are playing with. I am by no means saying that you must create characters devoid of quirks or challenging flaws but reasonably those things can be something to work up to while you gain experience as a player.
Now, grab your dice and go have some fun! I’ll be back soon.
Happy gaming, folks!
A Busy Week But No Excuse
Hi, I’m Non-Washable and it has been 6 days since my last post on this blog.
You may fairly raise your brow at me and think, “A confession doesn’t really count, man.” and you would be absolutely correct. Regardless of how much time it takes me to write this out and start feeling better about my aggravating lack of posts this week it doesn’t make up for it. So while I’m busy confessing that I have been absent I will take a moment to at least try and justify why I was pulled away if you’ll humor me for a paragraph or several.
The first up is the reason which is least absolving for me which is that I spent some time playing video games. For the last few weeks I have played the absolute bar minimum by which I mean almost none save for trying to knock out my daily quests in MTG:Arena. Fortunately you can have up to a maximum of three quests build up, one per day, so I only really need to play twice a week to keep up. Unfortunately this also means a lack of time to brew decks or play just for fun but, nature of the beast, right? What did happen was that I picked up Frostpunk and allowed that to eat up nearly a day and a half of time I should have been working on things for this blog. Whats worse was that I didn’t take the time to use any of that gameplay to prepare for a review on the game. Feeling utterly stupid about that I did start writing up my feelings on the game and should be posting it shortly to rectify that mistake.
Short answer: If you like city-builders that pull no punches and punish you for sloppy play by piling up the corpses of your citizens like cords of firewood then you should be all over this game. Not to mention it is beautifully realized, sleek and feature packed all for the very reasonable price of $29.99USD. 11 Bit Studios is also offering 10% off that on Steam if you own This War of Mine, until May 1st. Hard to say enough good things about it but more on that later.
Ultimately I forgot my own rule which I set at the beginning of this that whatever I do I should make sure I can extract something from it for this blog to continue the feedback loop so I am always producing something. A lesson learned and I will be better going forward.
The second thing has been regarding my other decision to branch out and try to do things outside of my previous limited comfort zone and be a larger part of the D&D community. I really do love the game and for all my failures as a player and DM I do hope to use those experiences to help inspire others to join in or avoid the pitfalls I myself have fallen into. The last post I wrote was D&D related and got a good response which I felt really happy about! A conversation I had with some folks on Twitter this week reminded me, while I was telling them, that even the most basic of information re-iterated can help. A subject that has been expounded on thousands of times can still escape newcomers to our hobbie so it helps to have it done again, tweaked and put in different terms. You never know who you might reach that others have missed. Smaller creators and commentators communicate regularly with those who the larger personalities may miss. Not through any fault of their own but they have simply grown to play in new arenas, they have new concerns and demands on their time. So it is up to us to take up the banners in their place and be new conduits for advice and help in their stead. Ultimately we too may eventually find ourselves too busy to answer all the questions we may get but hopefully by that time we have helped to inspire new people to offer their unique perspectives and experiences on the game.
Aside from this I have found myself with a couple of other opportunities to become more involved and while at the moment I can’t really talk about them (I don’t think? Better safe than sorry.) I am incredibly excited/nervous for them. If for no other reason than I expect to embarrass myself in new and unexpected ways. Forcing yourself outside of your comfort zone is often stressful and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel it but I’m determined to get past that and embrace the experience. In response to that I buried myself in some prep work to the exclusion of keeping to my posting schedule which was certainly unwise but for my own sanity I think I needed it. Balancing this stuff is certainly going to be tough but that is just one more thing in a sea of them that I need to put in some work on improving.
So what positive things happened this week?
We recorded another episode of the Ourcast which was a lot of fun! It wont be up for a couple weeks as we still have a one week buffer between releases but I think it’s one of our best so far. I’ve become a little more proficient with editing which is shortening the time it takes to produce episodes. The downside to that is that now that its going quicker I’m experimenting more with different techniques and musical additions so really its taking me more time to do them now. Insert sad-face here. It’s good though, shows me I’m improving and its hard to feel bad about that. Prior to this last episode I also adjusted my desk and audio setup a little as I work on improving the audio quality on my side. Since I’m using a broadcast mic to record instead of my gaming headset there are a lot of factors I was previously unaware of that are messing with the quality of my output. For instance I was unaware of the part the vibration of my case fans would play in the audio quality though a 3.5mm jack. Hopefully the adjustments will show in upcoming episodes. Also because I have listened to way too much of myself speaking on the podcast I have realized that in an effort to hold a more conversational tone as though my co-host and I are sitting across from each other at a table I have inadvertently caused myself to sound somewhat boring and mono-tone. This past episode I was particularly annoyed at myself during the editing as it oftentimes felt like I was utterly lifeless while talking. I have a few more criticisms of my performance but suffice it to say going into our recording session this past Thursday I made a concerted effort to adjust my approach and be a bit livelier. Hopefully it’s a welcome change and going forward I’m going to try and embrace my “radio voice” and bring the enthusiasm out a little more.
On the D&D front my group finally was able to get together again after a couple week hiatus. The “Band of Others”, as they have chosen to call themselves, got their first taste of the Dungeon Trials beneath the beautiful city of Orskr. In a competition with adventurers from all over for wealth and rewards beyond imagining they’re going to face the toughest challenges of their lives over the next few sessions. First room of whirling blades caused a few cuts and dings but they got through it largely unscathed.
Tougher challenges to come however and I’m excited to see how they deal with them.
We’re also just a couple weeks shy of restarting our Dark Heresy Warhammer 40k campaign which I get to be a player in and we were all assigned a little homework prior to getting back in. Working on that has been really fun as a way to get reacquainted with my character and the setting.
Basically there a lot of things that are “coming soon” that I of course wish could get here maybe just a little faster. Until then though there are plenty of things to keep me busy so It’s time to refocus on those and first up I think is going to be starting on the project I set for myself with my Games on the Silver Screen post from when I was on vacation. Mortal Kombat is currently on Netflix and I can’t think of a better way to to start things off.
For now thanks for reading! Hopefully this offered a little insight to where I am right now and as an adequate apology for not keeping up through this week. Just know that no one will ever feel more irritation or disappointment from these failures than I do. The important thing is finding motivation in them instead of defeat.
In the interim thank you if you read this far and I’ll be back soon.
Happy gaming, folks!
The Oblique Dungeon Master
Because I couldn’t go five minutes without a dose of irony I couldn’t think of another word for “lateral” so I ended up just opening a thesaurus and grabbing the one I wanted. In an article ostensibly about the value of lateral thinking that is probably as good a start as any. If you want to know what was going through my head while writing this just click here.
Why lateral thinking? I was reading a thread on Reddit the other day where a player was experiencing some friction with their DM over their use of Shield Master and a relatively high AC in the early game. I know the challenge as I currently have a Shield Master War Cleric in my game and sometimes the high AC can be a bit of an annoyance when they’re not usually fighting things worse than orcs, goblins or other fodder. The discussion surrounding it contained the usual helpful refrain of “Quit” or “Your DM is bad” and variations thereof. The extreme suggestions aside they’re all pretty fair assessments of what is going on but it prompted me to think about the importance of creative solutions to combat especially from the side of the DM.
The instinct on how to rectify a problem like this almost always tends to be linear in so much as if you’re trying to break down a brick wall then simply hit it harder, right? Sure and much like the brick wall in the metaphor you’ll succeed in completely destroying it, much like the player who is presenting you with a challenge. They can be eaten by a dragon, have their brain melon-balled by a Mind Flayer or dissolved by a Gelatinous Cube but then what are you left with? A mess, both literally and figuratively.
In these situations its sometimes hard to remember that the players are working with a limited toolbox, especially in the early levels, so sometimes solutions that seem eerily similar to button mashing will present themselves. A DMs job is to, much like a river, find ways to flow around these simple tactics and find new ways to challenge them if for no other reason than to keep the game interesting for themselves. Its also helpful to remember that combat encounters are not the only encounters available in D&D and a character who excels in them may do so because they struggle elsewhere, for example in social encounters. Players and their characters will tend to not shine in every situation so stifling them in their moment can discourage them from playing or actively participating at all.
Another common move for some more inexperienced DMs maybe to try and excise the rule, skill or interaction that allows the situation to occur at all, like being able to use your bonus action to shove a creature prone before attacking so you can do it with advantage. In spite of RAW/RAI the DM may decide that their interpretation is that you can only shove after the attack which if done in the moment can lead to the ruling feeling petty or punitive. House-rules are nothing new to D&D but they shouldn’t just crop up whenever you run into something you aren’t willing to deal with properly. Contrary to what some may believe the DMs discretionary power is not without reasonable boundaries, at least it isn’t if you want the game to continue.
The only real solution lies in finding new and creative ways around these hurdles instead of just through, fortunately for us we have the whole of D&Ds collective history to draw from for inspiration.
Lets see if we can come up with a few good options –
The first way I can see to mix up the combat is to start introducing either new enemies or to adjust the ones you are currently throwing at them. Since they are level 3 and running Lost Mine of the Phandelver their enemies should look something like –
Red Brands (Bandits)
For simplicity sake we’re just going to throw out the wolves because short of straight stat buffs or upgrading them, a few at least, to dire wolves the fixes are fairly linear. The solution may be as simple as beefing up their stats to make them more of a challenge but you should always consider re-evaluating your tactics as a DM. We can sometimes get a bit bland in our usage of enemies by just having them move in and swing, bite or claw. It’s important to make sure the flaw isn’t in your tactics before deciding how to proceed. Assuming the wolves are just being outclassed lets look at the others in your stable.
Goblins are nimble and fairly versatile creatures in addition to being quite at home in something resembling a horde. Your party may carve through them face to face but there is no reason for that when they have ranged options. Even at a base Wis of 8 there is no rule that says they have to charge in so they can be conveniently ground into the dirt. Many creatures have traits that go completely unused during combat, for a variety of reasons, but a bit of forethought and prep can make them quite the adversary in spite of their obvious weaknesses.
Nimble Escape: The goblin can take the Disengage or Hide action as a Bonus Action on each of its turns.
A +6 to their stealth and a shortbow at their disposal with a +4 to hit can be a dangerous or even lethal combination with the advantage they gain from hiding successfully. Even if the heavily armored and hard to hit front-line fighters don’t lose their view of their ranged attackers, others might. Enough hits on other party members might encourage those front-line tank types to make desperate or ill-advised moves making them vulnerable to flanking or traps in an effort end the threat.
Goblin Bosses while much more robust than the smaller rank and file they still come equipped with Nimble Escape, a much improved AC at 17 and, a shield they can use to further increase their survivability.
Redirect Attack: When a creature the goblin can see targets it with an attack, the goblin chooses another goblin within 5ft of it. The two goblins swap places, and the chosen goblin becomes the target of the attack.
This additional feature gives you even more reason to surround them with plenty of fodder that can be used to make the Goblin Boss elusive and tough to kill, giving your archers more time to wear down the tank.
You can also further mix-up your goblins by adding in a Worg for one of them to ride. The Worg’s bite attack comes with the added tangle of knocking the target prone if it doesn’t succeed on a DC13 strength check to stay upright. If one of your players is constantly knocking your creatures prone then don’t be afraid to return the favor. The Worgs are not all upside for the Goblins either as they are not entirely domesticated mounts and they will turn on their riders if they feel they are being mistreated. The players may not have to kill the best to remove it from the fight. In addition to the mount if you like to keep your world consistent and need to justify the Goblins using more intelligent tactics look up your basic Hobgoblin, no better way to whip that disorganized tribe into a pack of organized warriors.
Bugbears are somewhat simpler as these generally fall into the berserker/barbarian categories with what they lack in finesse they make up for in sheer brutality, with one notable twist.
Surprise Attack: If the bugbear surprises a creature and hits it with an attack during the first round of combat, the target takes an extra 7 (2d6) damage from the attack.
Clearly this necessitates a particular sort of encounter setup where the bugbears have the chance to surprise the party or at the very least close the distance as quickly as possible. Even better if they’re working in pairs for the potential to flank to earn advantage on that opening round.
Brute: A melee weapon deals one extra die of its damage when the bugbear hits with it (included in the attack).
In addition to making their normal hits even more deadly this also has the potential to really ratchet up the damage potential of the opening round making your encounter design essential. Since the bugbears are so straight forward in their use and tactics there isn’t a lot you can do outside of buffing their stats to make them heartier but it emphasizes how important the setup for an encounter can be. If you don’t give them the opportunity to ambush your party or at least get in close early then you may as well have swapped them out for any creature of equivalent stats as they will be about as effective. Playing into the advantages of their racial traits will make them stand out in your players minds, the next time they see evidence of bugbears they’ll know to watch for ambushes or choke points. Your players will effectively learn along with their characters about how your world and its denizens operate, a win for immersion if ever I heard one.
Alright, lastly lets take a look at the Red Brands or otherwise known as your fairly generic human bandits. I’m going to go a little differently here and forgo talking about the specific bandit stat blocks or how they are geared and instead talk about customization. A lot of the various races in D&D make it difficult to give them additional abilities without breaking a bit of the immersion or at least without a lot of explanation to not make the whole table start questioning things. Its not that they don’t trust in you as the DM to have some sort of explanation but generally when moving along a narrative you want to minimize the things that make your audience stop and go, “Wait, what?”. Humans are unique generally because you reskin them to be basically anything you want or need them to be. If your bandits aren’t giving your players much trouble then perhaps they managed to recruit a wizard or sorcerer into their service, perhaps a rogue or ranger of some kind. Little if any explanation will be needed to justify a human that wears any of these professions whereas its a little harder to convince people that the goblin really is a druid, like, for real. It can take a bit of finagling to get the difficulty just right but you can start on p342 of the Monster Manual under the Non-player Character stat-blocks to get a rough starting point. Its a lot easier to tweak existing stat blocks like those into something resembling the challenge you want them to be rather than building one from the ground up.
While they can certainly be seen as the most generic of generic bad guys in games like these which give you creatures such as Beholders and Gibbering Mouthers to play with their blandness also allows them ultimate flexibility. That flexibility provides you with an incredibly versatile enemy type which can be adjusted to serve literally any purpose you can imagine with almost no need for detailed explanations as to why. Whats more is anything your PCs can do so can a human NPC in theory, of course you want to be careful designing them to be too close to the players but within reason is fine.
I know it’s easy to read a post like the one at the beginning of this article and dismiss that DM as little more than a lost cause because he can’t adapt but even with two years experience under your belt there are still things to learn. If you’ve been around the hobby for any length of time you’ve probably heard ten or twenty year veterans who will tell you they’ve never stopped learning. Its important for DMs to know themselves and their tendencies before taking the reigns of a campaign but you’ll also learn as you go which makes flexibility key.
Your ability to think laterally, creatively about how to answer the challenges presented by your players will dictate by and large the enjoyment of everyone so give it the consideration it deserves.
Happy Dungeon Mastering!
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