A Round of Villainous Applause!

I was reading an article the other day about the emotional investment of Dungeon Masters when it comes to their villains and ultimately being more important to be a fan of the characters, it’s great and you should check it out.

What I want to talk about is the fine balance to be struck here for DMs and how it is imperative for the quality of the overall experience. The advice that we should ultimately be fans of the player characters is very important because as much as we like to joke the people sitting at our tables are not our enemies.

They’re the heroes of the story.

Our goal is not to wring every inch of life out of them until they quit, as much fun as that seems sometimes, but rather we are there to facilitate the telling of great stories and the performance of amazing feats. In the pursuit of this I think it is important to remember that your villains and the challenges they present are the springboards off of which all of that happens.

One of the best overall criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the lackluster quality of their villains versus the overwhelmingly fantastic depiction of their heroes. Villains I think are often forgotten as the other half of a great story, they are the catalysts that drive our heroes on the journey to… anywhere, really. Whether it is a single BBEG, a shadow cabal of malevolent figures or just a roaming band of orc marauders the villains help shape the core identities of our heroes. When it comes to the MCU the best movies over the past ten years have undoubtedly been the ones with the best villains because they are the other half the necessary equation. Exposition is nice to tie the mechanics of a world together but conflict and tension is what drives our interest in continuing the story.

To pair it with an unnecessary analogy, any number multiplied by zero, is still zero thus any hero without a villain is not really a hero or more accurately is just an above average person. Naturally heroes are not defined only by felling demons, slaying dragons or massacring orcs but it is certainly one of their central pillars, and a damn bit of fun to boot.

So what does this have to do regarding the downsides of too much emotional investment in our villains? Well, I think that a certain level of investment is required to design and field villains who feel dynamic, important and become true obstacles for our parties to overcome in their travels. If our villains, especially minor ones, are only paper tigers for the party to shred like the occasional pinata then the victories themselves will wear thin. These moments are supposed to be meaningful, tense and whether or not they go the way you intended for them to is not the point, it’s that our investment equals investment by the player.

I believe the name of the real enemy here is: Attachment.

The time and emotion we invest in the design of our game from the world map, dungeons, towns, individual NPCs and villains directly correlates to the investment of our players. The key to all of this is that as DMs its hard to not become attached to things that we have placed that much effort into because their ultimate destiny is to fail and die in the face of our players. Many of us, including me, know from personal experience how hard it can be to see your players overcome a villain you put a lot of effort into characterizing and building up through a game. These moments can be more painful still if the fight ends up going much easier than you planned because you missed a small detail or the party just managed to see an angle you didn’t. In those moments it’s hard to remember that this was always the intended outcome albeit by a different path and that the exhilaration they feel is actually validation of a job well done by you.

Just remember to take a deep breath if you hear, “That was easier than we thought.” and know that sometimes our players don’t understand that words can hurt. But never forget that you can always remind of those words later on in the campaign.

Evil only thrives if good DMs do nothing.

Anyways, back on topic–

Something I was taught by my father many years ago I think would help additionally illustrate my point, while the concept wasn’t invented by him it was certainly helpful to hear.

You only get out what you put in.

This is the idea behind the need for our investment in every aspect of the games we run, in addition to being what we get out of our game our investment also equals what the players get out of it. While we may never see this elaborate battle mat, puzzle or enemy again after this one session the importance is that our investment in that single experience pays dividends for our players.

It is important for us to revel in their victories while understanding that it wasn’t at the expense of our investment but rather because of it. A lot of the ins and outs of DMing come from knowing yourself, your strengths and failings so you can design around them. For me even after all these years I still get attached to the NPCs I create and I really hate to see them go so it can be a struggle but I can’t say that I will ever stop investing the time to make them memorable because I see the value of it in my players reactions.

At the end of the day there are very few if any right or wrong ways to run your game except the one that works best for you. Hopefully this helped open up another possible avenue to take, until next time thank you for reading.

Happy rolling!

  • Non-Washable

Skill Monkey Like Cheatos

I won’t defend the reference in the title, but it exists and I used it. So there.

A friend posted this tweet with what I thought was an interesting topic for discussion and it’s one we did cover in part on Fox’s Squaretable. Even still there is always a lot of debate about player behavior with regards to meta-gaming, min-maxing, power-gaming or any number of other table disrupting approaches.

The question we were asked on the Squaretable was how we felt about players multi-classing into abilities that “stepped on the toes” of other players at the table. Part of the way that characters feel unique and useful in the game is determined by their skills, of which there are 18 on the character sheet as well as their class abilities and archetype.

  • Acrobatics
  • Animal Handling
  • Arcana
  • Athletics
  • Deception
  • History
  • Insight
  • Intimidation
  • Investigation
  • Medicine
  • Nature
  • Perception
  • Performance
  • Persuasion
  • Religion
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Stealth
  • Survival

While there can, and has, been some debate over how useful or important any of these particular skills can be it is the job of the DM to allow players the opportunity to explore them within the game. Not every skill needs to be useful in every situation but ideally they should come into play at some appropriate juncture. Its also important to remember that as DMs we should be open to players attempting to use these skills in unorthodox ways in order to solve problems. That doesn’t mean that we need to completely ignore reasonable limitations on what the skills cover but players can often make compelling arguments for their out of the box thinking, which should be rewarded if it has merit.

At any rate!

Touching briefly on what we talked about during the Squaretable, the argument I made is that I have no problem with characters multi-classing even if it steps into a domain already covered by another character. The caveat however is that I prefer there to be a solid character reason for doing so other than just the player thinking, “I want to do that too.”. The reason can be as simple as your character emulating or learning from a party member that they look up to, something that is born out of an experience buried in their backstory or even brought about from a recent experience.  As with nearly everything that comes with giving advice on running and playing in TTRPGs this is very table and group dependent. If you’re running a group with five flavors of Barbarian then there probably wont be a great deal of ability diversity, which is more than fine if it works for that group and their DM. The same really goes for skills as oftentimes it is probably a boon to have more than one person in the group who is proficient in a skill. This also leads us into a brief detour when talking about these checks.

Who gets to do them and how often?

Like nearly everything else there are multiple schools of thought about how to handle skill and ability checks in games like D&D. There is technically no rule that places a time or chance limit on attempting skill or ability checks as it is up to the DM to impose those limits on a case by case basis.

For instance-someone you are trying to convince into a specific course of action will only listen to your arguments for a limited amount of time before becoming angry, walking away or outright hostile to the people badgering them.

Repeated attempts to pick a lock will eventually result in a broken lock, broken picks or simply being discovered by someone patrolling the area.

You can sit and puzzle over a piece of historical, religious or arcane knowledge until your pry it from your brain but a reasonable argument can be made that you simply don’t know the answer no matter how much you think about it. A lot of times the reason I hear given by DMs, including myself, is, “You simply can’t recall the answer.” when I think what they should say on a failed roll is, “You simply don’t know the answer.” Unless of course the bit of lore somehow intersects with a piece of their backstory or life that would make sense for them to know it then it could be a matter of forgetfulness.

I’ve heard, and honestly have to agree with, DMs which have stated that the only people they allow to make rolls for skill checks are characters who have proficiency in that skill in an effort to maintain a bit of unique utility for each player character. The reason that I don’t necessarily implement this at my table is that oftentimes it can lead to a group being stalled because of failed rolls so I tend to be a little more permissive about characters making checks they aren’t proficient in. Granted this should be solved largely by making sure there are always alternate solutions to a given barrier but even with that it still feels bad to fail as an individual or a group. A sort of middle ground I’ve toyed with implementing is the requirement that your character have some bonus in a given skill to be able to roll for the check, while a zero bonus disqualifies you completely. If that feels too permissive to DMs you can always set a disadvantage or a -5 penalty to the roll due to not being proficient in the skill. As always you should experiment or talk with your group to find something everyone can agree on.

So, back to the question that brought us here, how do I feel about players who try to do everything? Like I pointed out with the question we were asked on the Squaretable for me it boils down to a difference between player motivation for their character build vs the characters motivation for living their life that way. A player who builds specifically around the concept that their character should be the best at everything, all the time to me speaks to a player who will not deal with inevitable failure very well. It’s not to say this guarantees future problems but I feel the odds go up significantly in situations like this. Effectively it’s putting the mechanics before the narrative to an extreme level especially as this is something the game already does regardless of the character. The mechanics of the game are already built to nearly ensure that every character by default is good at a small variety of things. This “skill monkey” build to me is one that I would like to see a thoughtful explanation or backstory so as a DM I know what drove them to be this kind of person and that the player is doing it for, lacking a better phrase, the right reasons.

Why?

These sorts of atypical characters will draw a higher than average amount of roleplaying and story interactions, or the spotlight, just by virtue of their wider range of utility and exposure by simply being able to do more than everyone else.  For other people at the table who are limited to their specialties this can quickly diminish their feel of uniqueness in the group. I can see a lot of avenues for how a character like this could be roleplayed in a way that doesn’t overshadow other players but it is a tough needle to thread even for the experienced. Unfortunately for these types of characters hanging back and allowing for others to excel in their specialties has the reverse effect by diminishing their effective role in the group, so in the end, who is going to volunteer to lose out? The best answer is that no one should and the most likely answer is that in the end it will fall to the DM to try and fix this problem through narrative and combat design on top of already having to run the rest of the game. One way or another in this situation the burden of re-balancing the game falls somewhere instead of on the rules where it, for the most part, should stay.

It can’t be stated enough that nothing in these games should be ruled out unilaterally as not belonging, bad form or otherwise undesirable at a given table without some thorough discussion. That being said I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with stating that there are things in these games that are more or less difficult to pull off as a player or DM. In a co-operative environment like D&D what you bring to the table is almost as important for other peoples enjoyment as it is for yours so be cognizant of those you’re embarking on a journey with.

Then get down to business and roll some dice!

  • Non-Washable

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?”

THIEF!

“Shit.”

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”.

nounPsychology.

  1. 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!

– Non-Washable