Too Bored, Or Not Too Bored

I assume, like me, that most D&D or TTRPG nerds follow a bare minimum of accounts on Twitter with regards to the game type, one of them being Mike Mearls. The co-creator of 5E posts a fairly constant stream of game design musings which alone are worth the price of admission or more commonly known as clicking the “follow” button. The bonus to those interesting thoughts however is how regularly he interacts with folks on Twitter answering questions or just tempting them with the recent re-ignition of his passion for 40K miniatures. Don’t even get me started on the fact that I learned this game exists through his twitter. God dammit.

Sorry, anyways.

A little over a week ago I saw a tweet from Mike that caught my attention because he was responding to another game designer I recognized, Adam Koebel over some frustration he was feeling. Adam expressed his dislike over rolling with a +4 vs the 21 AC of a player ten times a turn and how boring it was. This comment was prompted by Mearls tweeting about how in 5E they had tilted accuracy towards the players to keep up the feeling of combat moving towards a conclusion. The brief conversation which took place below I found rather fascinating.

MearlsTweet

The question of whether or not the player’s enjoyment in combat takes design priority in something like combat caught me off-guard because my immediate instinct was to go, “Duh?”

To be perfectly honest even after thinking about it over the last week and a half that is still sort of my reaction. As a DM who only recently got to start playing on a regular basis I have to say that the majority of concern for entertaining combats should be tilted in favor of the players. There are a few reasons for that and chiefly among them is, I think, the most obvious one; there are anywhere from 3-8 times as many of them on average than there are of us.

Prioritizing the entertainment of one person over the average of five people sitting on the other side of the screen seems a bit bizarre to me.

As DMs we do the follow in the context of combat–

  • Have ultimate control over the design.
  • Can modify individual creatures and their abilities to our whim. (Within reason)
  • Create new never before seen enemies.
  • Design the terrain/setting in which the combat will happen.
  • Set the number of enemies.
  • Go multiple times per turn. Every turn.
  • Revel in the success and failure of our guys.

I’m sure there’s more but just off the top of my head the DMs already have plenty of fun even before getting into the combat proper. Even then once it starts, whiffing on a bunch of dice rolls and narrating it sounds plenty entertaining because on top of that we also get to narrate the successes of our party. Our responsibilities in combat beyond just rolling dice, as Mearls points out, is largely based around keeping things fun and fast paced. Even experienced players can fall into the doldrums of move, roll, hit or miss, pass the turn and onward and while that may make for an efficient combat it’ll quickly become dull. I want to see my players eyes go wide when I describe the result of their actions or the actions of their enemies, I want to see them react viscerally to the things going on. I don’t want them woodenly taking their turns in an attempt to just get combat over with, if they are then I’ve failed in my number one job; to keep them engaged and invested.

I believe I spoke about this in an earlier post but just in case that was all in my head I’ll reiterate it here; DMs should derive most of their joy through the things they help facilitate for the party. If your focus is on entertaining yourself over your group it will show, perhaps not right away but it will and it’ll be to the detriment of everyone at your table.

One of the responses to Koebel’s question in that thread said,

To be a punching bag apparently.

which depressed me a bit because this is the sort of mentality that leads to the Me vs Them attitude that gets DMs into trouble. When you start being competitive with the party instead of a facilitator it’s going to affect the quality of your game. Not to mention it’s a silly fight to get into anyway, out of everyone sitting at that table you, the DM, have the most power and it isn’t even close. You can’t even pretend to make a fight that lopsided fun in any respect… unless you’re a sadist I suppose. The important thing is to catch yourself before you fall into that trap and step away if you need to, DM fatigue is a real concern, we all need a break now and then.

As an aside one important thing to note is Adam is not being confrontational here as indicated by the continued conversation–

MearlsTweet2

One of the reasons I really appreciate Mearls is his willingness to openly admit the failings of a product he was at least half responsible for creating.

Adam’s comment there is something I wanted to end with because some of the responses in the thread pointed out that a +4 to hit indicates a pretty weak enemy which seems to be a fault in the encounter design; not the overall mechanics of 5E. Koebel is approaching this from the perspective of someone running a module, specifically Tomb of Annihilation, which means encounters and enemies are already laid out for him. In my experience running modules the enemies tend to err on the side of weaker in an attempt to ensure a minimal amount of variance for people running it. Higher powered enemies can introduce large unwieldy swings in the state of a combat which might be hard to handle for new DMs running a pre-made adventure. After all the idea behind them is to reduce the amount of on the spot improv a DM needs to do by providing them most if not everything they’ll need in a given scene. In most homebrewed games DMs would simply adjust monsters on the fly to modulate the difficulty in a combat to keep things interesting whereas doing that in a module can unintentionally affect pacing and overall balance going forward. Changes you make on the fly you want to remain consistent with otherwise it will become noticeable to your players. While we all know it happens its never fun to actively realize the DM is shifting numbers one way or another.

Overall it was an interesting tweet thread to follow with a good explanation on why the system functions how it does, where it fails and some ideas on how to improve it. If you don’t follow Mike Mearls or Adam Koebel I highly recommend you do, especially if you’re interested in table-top RPGs, even casually.

For now remember this, if the choice is between we the DMs being bored and our players the preferred answer will be… no one! But really, if it has to be someone it’ll be us.

I know, I know, but we do it for the players.

Until next time, happy rolling!

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My Memory Is Your Memory

Mi casa, su casa. My house is your house.

A phrase meant to make someone feel welcome, to tell them that they’re free to treat your home as their own because you’re their guest and they are, based on this phrase, an amazing host. One who is there to accommodate your every need.

So what does this phrase enshrining that ever so important kindergarten lesson about sharing have to do with rolling dice with your friends a few times a month? Well, like the title states it has to do with memory and more specifically a memory aide we all came to love in school; notes. Notes are important for a number of reasons but chiefly among them is because the ability to remember everything that we experience is an exceedingly rare thing. Even if we don’t forget an event entirely it’s easy to mis-remember small details which even minimal notes can help avoid. A name, location or short description can help spark a complete recollection of an incident where just trusting your raw memory can leave you scratching your head.

Anyone who has spent time playing D&D, who doesn’t have a photographic memory, can attest to just how important notes can be to maintaining an adequate recollection of game continuity. D&D and especially long running games that may span months, years or decades even have the additional wrinkle of forcing you to remember what is effectively a second life. All the little details of your ordinary day communicated through little other than verbal roleplay and the occasional use of handouts or miniatures. Overall it’s very little to help us recall what can often be hugely expansive worlds with multi-layered and tangled stories that cover large periods of time.

A game journal of notes has been for a long time the accepted remedy. Now you might be asking why I bothered writing this up since that seems to be all there is it to it, right? Yes and no, a couple months back I came across this post on Matt Colville’s subreddit from a DM who was having trouble with a couple players who refused to keep notes of any kind. This results in them constantly asking to be re-filled in on details from previous sessions either by asking the DM, other players or in game NPCs. I want to stop for a second and make absolutely clear that I have no problem with players needing to be reminded of certain details, as a DM I also need to be reminded occasionally so I can’t very well hold that against my players. I don’t think anyone else should either, when I get to my opinions on this coming up it’s important to remember that it is a game that we play for fun so being too strident on any particular rule is a quick way to kill the vibe, man.

So, why is this a problem? Unless your players are running a character that suffers from Anterograde Amnesia there is little precedent for them constantly bothering NPCs to remind them about things that have happened. This isn’t 50 First Dates: Faerun. From a meta perspective this is effectively just interrogating your DM by proxy which means you’re just annoying me with an extra step involved. Outside of the game this is just wasteful because unless you’re teenagers with a lot of free time then the hours you squirrel away to be able to play these games with your friends are valuable. Scheduling and starting on time is already a challenge without wasting thirty minutes at the top of every session revisiting what you’ve already done. This is over and above the normal session recap because inevitably these questions will continue to crop up all through the game. In any productivity analysis one of the biggest killers is the phrase, “It’ll just take a minute…” which may be true but by the time you finish doing all the things that only take a minute three hours have passed and your day is wasted. A four hour session can very quickly become little more than two to two and a half hours of actual play if you’re not careful.

If a player can’t be bothered to take notes because they themselves don’t care then it can help to remind them that they are not the only ones affected by the lack of note taking. D&D is often referred to as a game of Co-Operative Storytelling which is absolutely is but that also means that at some point or another everyone present must participate. Hard to do that effectively if you can’t remember what has happened previously.

Personally in my view of it, like some people in that thread, is that your notes are your memory in the game with some leeway because of the reality that things will be missed and not because of malice or laziness. In my home game we’ve recorded every session of it for our own amusement and I have stated in the past that I’d prefer that my players not use the recordings in order to take notes after the fact. My main reason for this is that using them effectively grants the characters a photographic memory which while convenient for them it sort of removes the ability to forget naturally. Much like missing a hint about a trap, failing a perception check the act of honestly forgetting something can lead to good storytelling opportunities. As a DM I don’t do this out of malice or to punish my players but because it serves as a natural possibility in this world that I have designed for them to play around in. I want them to have the chance to be surprised by something that happened long ago and then resurfaces. If it doesn’t happen that’s fine too but there should always be the possibility which is hard when your players can never forget. It’s also important to remember that the outcome of this is not always bad, that person you did something nice for so long ago? They might show up in your time of need to repay that debt. It can also provide players with the incredible feeling of a “Lightbulb” moment when they happen to remember something no one else did in a moment when they’re stuck for a plan.

One possible solution to this problem I saw suggested was making players roll for the requested information to see if they could recall the details. Sadly while this mechanizes the out of game problem it leaves the overall issue alive and well. Whether you are having this discussion in or out of character it’s still eating up time and bogging down the game, even worse you’re adding time to it by including a series of dice rolls. I understand why some DMs would choose this route as it saves them from having to tell a player “No” and instead shifts the blame for their lack of memory to the dice. It’s a nice way to avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation but the other players at the table are still stuck sitting there waiting to move on.

The most consistent piece of advice I, or anyone else, can give to DMs and players is that communication is paramount above all else if you want to maintain a healthy, long term game. In the spirit of that if you ever have this problem at your table be sure to sit down and discuss solutions, I’ll be damned if there has ever been an issue that some fix couldn’t be devised, this is no exception.

If you’re a player who hates taking notes then its time to see if there is someone else at your table who doesn’t. For instance while it may not perfectly represent the characters memory I wouldn’t have a problem with one player using another player’s general notes for a session. In any group you can probably find one person who loves or is at least ambivalent about note taking so let the group use those if they want. Optimally the group will always be together anyways and will generally share most information they get between everyone. It may require a little editing to remove personal details, observations or otherwise before being passed out but if they’re being taken digitally that should be a minimal amount of work. I’m sure there are also players out there who have trouble taking notes while simultaneously assimilating what else is happening at the table and it can be frustrating to feel like you’re missing things while trying to ensure that you don’t forget an important detail. Nothing wrong with being sensitive to players who want to be attentive in the moment instead of focusing on keeping notes.

I’ll keep saying it because it will always be relevant but no solution will work 100% of the time for every table so be open to new ideas even if they run contrary to your original feelings on the matter. Even writing this I find myself reconsidering my stance on my players not using our recordings to supplement their notes. I don’t think I’ll change my stance on it, yet, but it certainly reinforces the fact that opinions and rulings can always change in the face of new evidence.

The pop quiz will be on Friday, I hope your notes are complete.

Until then, happy gaming!

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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!

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