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!

  • Non-Washable

Whats In A Name?

Whether it’s in fiction, marketing, D&D or those less important things like children the name you give something can be very important. A name is one of the first impressions that people get in many circumstances and whether you chalk it up to amazing coincidences or not there could be some important consequences to those names.

Who knew that the real problem with your kids was that you didn’t name them “Musician”, “First Baseman” or, “Responsible”? Ah well, Dave and Jennifer will have to make do with what they got.

I’ve thought often about one of my weird creative quirks which is that I can take anywhere from five minutes to several weeks in order to name anything ranging from streets all the way up to entire worlds. Its imperative to me that a name fit and feel right which is fantastic when you’re trying to explain your process to someone who was nice enough to ask. Waiting until something feels right in a creative sense is like telling someone to complete a puzzle while wearing a blindfold.

“I dunno, it’ll just feel right when you get it.”

I’d tell me to go fuck myself at that point or at least glare pointedly. Unfortunately a lot of the time its kind of the truth at least, I think, for the majority of us. I have heard people who can name things creatively and uniquely straight off the dome and its fascinating every single time. I want nothing more than to take a peek inside their brain so I can witness the process that formed their answer, not because it would reveal any secrets but because like watching an episode of “How It’s Made” I just want to see the machinery in motion. I remember vividly an episode of the Penny Arcade Podcast where Mike asked Jerry to come up with a cool alien insect name on the spot and without hesitation he spouted the name “Broodax” (Skip to ~28:30) which ended up spawning one of their all time funniest comics.

So how is it done?

I’ll tell you this much straight up, I don’t actually know. 

I can already hear the disgusted scoffs wondering why I even bothered to write this, which is fair, but that answer was not to say that I don’t at least have a couple basic ideas which I would love to share. The other thing I wanted to briefly say is why I think its important to write about things that I may not have definitive answers for, to let others who may struggle know that its not unusual to get stuck. Whats more is that its not bad to get hung up on things you think are important because you want them to be good, memorable or evoke a certain feel. The fact that we care enough to get stuck trying to really nail some particular aspect should not be a reason for frustration but rather an opportunity for some introspection. If for no other reason than because we’re passionate about it. We may not be able to adequately enunciate why that is but it might be worth exploring.

Not too long ago I was faced with something like this myself when my friend Nate, who plays in my D&D campaign, offhandedly told me following a description of a centaur’s hair-do, “You’re like the George R.R. Martin of hair.”. I didn’t dwell on the comment much in the moment but ever since then whenever I’m writing up a description I have to laugh because that seems to be the one characteristic I expound on the most.

Why? Even if I wanted to spend time in this article explaining it I honestly couldn’t if I tried. It’s not something I do on purpose but of all a characters mundane physical details I apparently like describing their hair. I don’t put in any particular effort or extra time to do it, it just sort of… happens. If you find something like that by accident or someone points it out to you, explore it. Embrace it and have fun with it, whatever it might be.

At any rate, back to the subject at hand… which was—Ah, right,

It may be because you’re a perfectionist or simply so that you can avoid situations like this one that Matt Mercer found himself in on Ep 44 of their Tal’Dorei campaign. Or Wil Wheaton’s somewhat legendary meltdown (~00:45) and ensuing running joke over Mike instantly ruining all of the work he put in to naming his character. Effort he hope would save him from a stupid nickname but only resulted in being called “Al” fifty seconds into his first session.

Either way what this is all meant to say is the time spent on finding the right name for whatever it is you’re doing is a worthwhile endeavor and something that I think most creators struggle with from time to time. I cant even imagine the stress you’d have to go through naming a newly discovered species of something, I mean that thing is real and that name will exist forever, at least for me the things I name generally stay confined to my Google Drive, a notebook or my kitchen table and a group of inebriated players.

So if we’re going to put in the effort to make good names then what are some tips about how to do that?

Read. I don’t mean that to sound like the whole “It’ll feel right” thing we discussed earlier but it really is true, read and read a lot. Part of creating regardless of your field is understanding what else already exists in the space within which you work. If you’re lucky enough to have such a unique idea that you pioneer an entirely new area then this shouldn’t really apply to you, you get to set all the rules going forward. For the rest of us it helps to see examples, patterns and discover naming conventions that we like. For instance I went through a period of my creative life where I really, really like having apostrophes in the middle of all my names. No joke, first name, last name, both, single or multiple apostrophes, it didn’t matter, I liked the way it looked but I wasn’t actually concerned with how it would sound. A lot of this came from reading and not really saying the words out loud to myself, it was a visual exercise that didn’t extend much beyond that.

Now, its important to note that you’re not looking to simply take the things you like and use those or imitate them as closely as possible with the stuff you create but it can provide helpful starting boundaries for you to push beyond. The easiest way to explore into new territory is by taking a look at what has been discovered already. By no means do you have to to go looking for new territory to play around in as the styles, tropes and, conventions that have already been discovered are perfectly valid frameworks to use.

History. Read some history, especially cultural history and the important figures therein as well as geographical information to see how they named their cities and landmarks. Were they named for people, events, landscape or some myth born from the area? These can help you build your own lore and identify when a name or style feels right for what you’re designing. If you want to really get into it you can look into how naming conventions changed as populations began moving and mixing more, as well as how it lead to the consolidation and shortening of surnames.

Random Generators. I know it can feel a little like cheating to use these and I’m not saying you should use them as your own original ideas but they can certainly be a good resource when you’re stuck and need something to get the wheels turning again. Sometimes you get stuck on the rails of an idea and before you know it you finally disengage in the middle of nowhere with zero idea how to get back. Use these to get the idea train back on track. The same goes for rolling on dice tables for name generation. I rarely if ever use the actual result from it but it can sometimes spur an idea for a name I really do like. As much as we all love Bob the NPC there are only so many times you can get away with it and once you introduce Bobbina with a straight face its time to up your game.

Most importantly beyond all the reference materials and tools to help inspire you the biggest thing to remember is that you connect with it. That it feels right for your intention and evokes the feeling that you had in mind. It may sound funny to others or may not have the intended effect but like in every other endeavor a 100% success rate is little more than wishful thinking. It’s not an argument to keep you from aiming high but don’t be discouraged if you fall a bit short, everyone does now and then, it’s part of how we learn to improve.

Have fun with both your successes and failures, take inspiration from the discussion the names prompt and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself when something you come up with is unintentionally funny. Mark my words, it will happen.

If all else fails, the group doesn’t really have to survive their next encounter, do they?

As I said at the beginning for me this is a difficult process to put into words but what about you? What tips and tricks do you use to fill up your maps and lists of characters with interesting names?

Until next time, happy rolling!

  • Non-Washable