Friday, May 31, 2013

The DM vs. the Playing Field

Trust is a serious topic in roleplaying games. If the players don't trust their DM, they could as well leave the  table and look for someone else to do the job. No matter the cause, often enough the position of the DM is just not well enough understood. Or changed to fulfill a publishers need to sell product. Or given another perspective, because some independant roleplaying game invented a new twist on the concept. This hobby of ours is only but a few decades old and the more I read about it, the more I realize how underestablished most of it's terms are. But this is not about a definition of the term "Dungeon Master" (I'm not entitled to formulate something like that), it's rather a dissection or an attempt of a structured analysis.

What some books say

It's a fun exercise to read about the role of the Dungeon Master (Gamemaster, Storyteller, Host, whatever) in published roleplaying games. It also might help to see the discrepancies between the rules and a published game, so I'll start with that.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I looked into the Rules Cyclopedia, HackMaster 4e, GURPS 3e, Runequest (german version and too lazy to check which edition they used...), Werewolf: Wild West (oWoD) and D&D 3e. Heres how they came along.

Rules Cyclopedia - Is rather uninspired in it's attempt to explain what's necessary for the job. Could be summarized with "Be fair, be prepared! Let the players do the decisions, describe the results and always remember: you just play the monsters, the players are not the enemy!". Fair enough.

HackMaster - There is an oath and a code of conduct. Being the DM is a privilege, but also a responsibility  and a duty. Well, they are funny and meta about it. No surprise there. Doesn't help the understanding, though.

GURPS - They are all "Hey, we did this awesome game and you're about to DM it. Do whatever you want with the rules, they are all yours now! But you'd better be up to the task, because if it doesn't flow right, that's totally your fault. Cheers!" I like their attitude towards the topic. A lot.

Runequest - I love Runequest for what it is, but I suppose they thought a beginner would never touch this game. No help here.

Werewolf: The Wild West - Ah, a storyteller game! And there is a surprise, too: it's the best description of the job I've read so far. They present it like a DM should: precise, but with ease and flavour. They make aware of the difficulties without discouraging the reader to do it on his own. That's, in my opinion, how it should be done in rulebooks (that reminds me: Castle Falkenstein, another fine game, had a very similar approach). Interesting to note is propably that a Storyteller's functions are very much the same as those of a classic Dungeon Master. The changes in those WoD games where all for the players and their characters (for all that is worth...).

D&D (3e) - The worst of them all. Even Runequest with it's "I don't care"-attitude was better than that. It sounds like a sales pitch. They try to sell a potential DM his duties as the power he has over the players, diminishing the same powers in the same paragraph. It 's a wonder to behold. Tells you everything you need to know about 3e and nothing about how to DM the game.

In conclusion I have to say presentation is key. Jut reading those few sentences about how different games present their DM variant, made me curious about GURPS, Runequest (now I need to know...) and Werewolf (if only for reading) again. A RPG Rulebook should be written as if a DM was presenting it. Ideally, it gives a reader all the examples he'll ever need. Castle Falkenstein is a very good example for that, Werewolf: The Wild West is another one.

One thing stays true...

All agree in one aspect of a DM's role: he is considered a referee. Here is the definition Wikipedia offers:
"A referee is the person of authority, in a variety of sports, who is responsible for presiding over the game from a neutral point of view and making on the fly decisions that enforce the rules of the sport, including sportsmanship decisions such as ejection."
Seeing it like that, we have (rules aside, of course) three important parts in every game: (1) the playing field, (2) the players and (3) the referee. In a soccer game, for example, all those parts are fixed. You know how much players are allowed, what the field looks like in size and texture, even the balls and the tricots are regulated for an official game.  Here, a referee's tasks begin and end with the definition above.

It's all that! But more?

I believe how much influence a DM has on the playing field, is the main reason for debates about what a DM is entitled to do. It's like this:

The playing field is the problem...

The players might change the playing field, but the DM decides the impact. They kill the Big Bad? The DM decides what moves in next. They rob the king? Again, the DM decides who or what will hunt the characters. Of course, publishers want players to believe that a "official" module is all it needs to leave the playing field out of the DM's hands, because it's canon and whatnot (nobody is looking at you, 3e, honestly). It's untrue noenetheless. The scope of the decisions needed is just to broad and detailed. DMs know that, players should know and accept it. Even if a rpg has rules to give players more power over it, the DM is still the person to have the last word (I don't know of any rpg where it's any different...).

More light, please...

Well, that's that. But is there any definition what a DM is and needs to do that is not biased (I still won't do it...)? So because it's what we do in the 21st century, I google it and check Wikipedia. I never cared to look what the wiki had to say about it and it turns out, it's a solid description (the referee is also in there, of course). Here is an excerpt:
"The DM is responsible for narrative flow, creating the scenario and setting in which the game takes place, maintaining the pace and providing dynamic feedback. In storyteller role, the DM is responsible for describing the events of the D&D game session and making rulings about game situations and effects based on the decisions made by the players. The DM can develop the adventure plot and setting in which these PCs participate or use a preexisting module. This is typically designed as a type of decision tree that is followed by the players, and a customized version can require several hours of preparation for each hour spent playing the game. 
The DM serves as the arbiter of the rules, both in teaching the rules to the players and in enforcing them. The rules provide game mechanics for resolving the outcome of events, including how the player's characters interact with the game world. Although the rules exist to provide a balanced game environment, the DM is free to ignore the rules as needed. The DM can modify, remove, or create entirely new rules in order to fit the rules to the current campaign. This includes situations where the rules do not readily apply, making it necessary to improvise. An example would be if the PCs are attacked by a living statue. To destroy the enemy, one PC soaks the statue in water, while the second uses his cone of cold breath to freeze the water. At this point, he appeals to the DM, saying the water expands as it freezes and shatters the statue. The DM might allow it, or roll dice to decide. In the above example the probability roll might come up in favor of the players, and the enemy would be shattered. Conversely, rules do not fit all eventualities and may have unintended consequences. The DM must ultimately draw the line between creative utilization of resources (e.g. firing wooden arrows into a dragon, then using a spell that warps wood at a distance) and exploit (e.g. "horse bombing" - using a non-combat spell that creates a temporary mount, several dozen feet above an enemy; hiring several thousand commoners to form a line and use a rule that allows characters pass items to each other immediately to propel objects at railgun speeds.)." 
(source: Wikipedia)
There is a lot more interesting stuff, where this came from (one article referenced there asks the question if D&D even is a game, for instance) and this post is not as extensive an analysis as I'd like. There is a lot more to talk about (certain DM styles and techniques, what kind of person all those definitions describe, how this is not about controll, etc.). But that's for future posts, I guess.

Questions for the kind readers!

What game explained the term best and what are those definitions lacking the most in your experience? How did you (if you're a DM) come to terms with the "job"? Was it something you read about it, experience, both or nothing of those? I'd really like to hear some other perspectives on those, so please feel free to comment (first time I do something like that and I do hope this won't get embarrassing...)!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Monster Territories (Proof of Concept)

How much space does a monster need to live from it's surroundings? What use is in knowing? I guess that depends on a DM's approach to the game. You might have a number of hexes with some features and a Random Encounter Table and that's all you need to know. And that's totally fine. What I need for an encounter to make it work, though, is enough subtext to avoid arbitrary decisions. Ideally, encountering something produces a believable background to explain it in the context. Or, to put it less abstract, if you encounter a dire bear, it's behaviour depends strongly on it's individual situation at that moment. The season, is it hungry or in it's territory, does it struggle with other predators in the area, etc.. If the encounter happens because of a Random Encounter roll, I'd be bound to forget taking those things into account. So in order to make it a deeper experience for my players, I need a different way of establishing encounters, without slowing down the process.

Something's in the area...

It still starts with the chance to encounter something. But as soon, as an encounter occurs, it does not mean the players stumble upon it. It just means the players get the chance to realize something is around. This kicks of a scenario and every additional roll should specify it further. An example:
  • The group travels in a forest. The dice indicate a dire bear near them.
  • Next I'd roll on the Random Encounter Status Table (download is here) to see what the bear is up to and if he is aware of the group.
  • For the players I'd describe the area now, giving some hints what might be around. If the bear is in his territory, they might find some markings on a tree or something like that. If not, it could be some distant noises or a flock of surprised birds.
  • If the bear is aware of them, he might engage them or avoid them depending on the result of the Status Table. 
  • If he's not aware of them, Id go and use this idea to get some indications how possible it is to get noticed from that point on.
  • If the goup travels cautious, they might be able to avoid the encounter entirely.
  • If they gather informations, they might find out that the bear is around. A ranger (or someone with some knowledge about animals) might even find out what the bear is up to.
  • And finally, if the groups meets the bear, I'd use this concept to describe the scene and go from there.

With all that I'm able to simulate the players surroundings almost without arbitrary decisions, giving the travel experience some depth in the process. But there is still something missing. Not necessarily for the players, but as a DM I'd like to have some consistency in an area. Like, for example, what happens to the areas power structure if the players decide the hide of that bear would make a nice trophy or is worth enough money to attack the bear. For that, the informations at hand could use some further exploration.

The bear is not alone, is he?

Every Random Encounter Table shows what lives in an area. But I'd go beyond that and assume that a Random Encounter Table states what coexists or even struggles for dominance in an area. This is mainly interesting, because it leaves more traces for the players to discover or informations to gather before they travel somewhere. Even if they are out to search a specific location, those territorial struggles/specifics might give indications if they are on the right track (so they could find out that some ruins are near a dire bears hunting grounds, for example).

A DM could invent those connections on the fly, but I'd like to see if it is possible to generate this kind of consistent content as random as possible without producing to many subsystems and just by interpreting the available data (that is: monster stats and area description).

It would help to have some numbers for the size of a monsters territory, I guess. Let's see:

HD indicate size of territory (this is a test...)

An easy solution (propably) to achieve this would be to correlate the size of the territory to a creatures HD, modifying it by size, speed, season and area. I'd propose something like this:

Maybe too much?
Again, those are just pregame assumptions to estimate the influence a creature or a group of creatures might have on an area. Let's take the Dire Bear in the example. It's a 12 HD large quadruped, so he'd consider a 9.000 m radius around his home base as his territory. This means his territory is round about 254.5 square kilometers, which equals the size of Honolulu* and that sounds about right for such a big creature.

I'd go and say the numbers indicate a maximum (if you'd want to go the extra mile, the actual size of a territory in a given season is 1d80+20 %). Just check out this study about tracked movement and territories of grizzly bears to see what I'm aiming for.

I need to give this a test drive. It sure got a bit more complex than I was aiming for. But it should be interesting to see what a (more or less) realistic approach like this would mean for a setting. But that's for another post.

Feedback would be very welcome, of course!

*The Measure of Things is an awesome site I discovered doing research for this post. It's "a search engine for finding comparative or relative measurements of physical quantities". Very usefull for a DM preparing a setting (or people with strange minds like mine...).

Saturday, May 18, 2013

D&D, Wolowitz and Nicolas Cage

I was on the fence about The Big Bang Theory, but season 6 has been a blast! Anyway, in episode 23 they play D&D with Howard Wolowitz as a DM. His impressions of famous actors are a sight to behold. If you didn't see this already, check it out:

His Nicolas Cage is just awesome! This would be a DM for my imaginary celebrity D&D table.

(Another light post, I know. More serious stuff will follow in the next 2 days...)

Monday, May 13, 2013

About a serious issue...

Honestly, think about it:


If you dig this kind of humour, give Movie 43 a shot. Funniest movie I've seen in a while, but I have a weird sense of humour (so don't hold me accountable...).

(Only light posting this month, I suppose. Maybe I get something done this week.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Wizard with a Shotgun (Guns in OD&D)

Every now and then I read a post somewhere and it sparks. It's as if just the right words were dipped into the subconcious and come back, but changed. Reading this laudation for D&D over at Dungeon of Signs reminded me of an, for me at least,  unsolved problem (how to handle gun damage in D&D) and inspired this post (so, thanks for that!).

Here is what happened (an example)

A wizard finds a strange artifact. Basically it's a handle with two short barrels and two triggers. His superior intellect tells him something will happen if he pulls the triggers (the dwarf agrees). He aims at the fighter  and (using both triggers) rolls an 18. His normal damage roll (as we play it) would be 1d4 per barrel (any other system maybe 1d6 by default for every gun?) and rolls a 3 and a 1. He rolls a 2 on the d8, hitting the right leg. The leg goes splat and disappears in a red mist! Everybody is surprised...

Damage by class, but...

Found at memecenter.
In our game we use a damage by class system* and it works very well as an abstract damage system for all weapons you might expect in a fantasy setting. Not so much for guns, though. Guns are far more deadly and need less mastery than a sword or an axe. I always wanted to have a fast and easy approach for this, ideally something that isn't too much effort to memorize. Now, here is what I came up with (it should work with all damage systems).

Fast and easy gun damage for every D&D game

Treat every hit as if it was an attempt to hit a random location of the body (1d8: 1 left leg 2 right leg 3 left arm 4 right arm 5,6,7 torso 8 head) and add every result over the number needed to hit the target (under normal circumstances) to the damage. Use this house rule for aimed hits and dismemberment to determine the result:

3 x hd (or level) + ac-value (take it all, magic, dex, protection, whatever)
= damage needed to dismember or cripple

Wizard with a shotgun (resolution)

A wizard (Level 5) finds a strange artifact. Basically it's a handle with two short barrels and two triggers (sawed off shotgun, +6 due to scattering). His superior intellect tells him something will happen if he pulls the triggers (the dwarf agrees). He aims at the fighter (level 4, AC 3 and 34 hp) and (using both triggers) rolls an 18 (+6 for scattering, +1 for DEX, 25 all in all). The wizard needs at least a 14 to hit AC 3, so he has 11 points more. His normal damage roll (as we play it) would be 1d4 (any other system maybe 1d6 by default for every gun?) and rolls a 3 and a 1, resulting in a total damage of 26. He rolls a 2 on the d8, hitting the right leg (the fighter's leg withstands 18 (3 x 4 hd + 6) points of damage. The leg goes splat and disappears in a red mist (the fighter looses the leg, but gets only 18 points of damage, he will bleed for 8 points of damage in as many rounds if nobody helps him, resulting in the full 26 points of damage)! Everybody is surprised...

A game of numbers

So defining weapons is just giving them a base damage (something like 1d6 for all of them) and the rest is easy regulated by giving them bonuses (like the shotgun) or penalties (a derringer, for instance). It's more damage on higher level without depending on weapon mastery or skill and could impress a dragon.

*Basically the hit die and you get more dice of the same when you would get another level in weapon mastery meaning more attacks or better aiming, etc.).

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Feline Humanoids (New Class)

The Khajiit where the inspiration for this class. I looted the Mystic, as presented in the Rules Cyclopedia, for the special abilities. To build the class I used this pdf over at Breeyark.

Feline Humanoids: A Beast Race for D&D

Picture found here.
Prime Requisites: Strength and Dexterity
Experience Bonus: 5% for DEX or STR higher than 12, 10% for DEX and STR higher than 12
Hit Dice: 1d8 per level up to 10th level.

Maximum Level: 10
Armour: None, no shilds permitted
Weapon: Any (they love edged weapons, though)
Combat Progression: like Elf
Weapon Mastery: Demi-humans
Saving Throws: like Elf

Special Ablities:
  • AC bonus
  • Increased Movement
  • Hide (indoors, as Halfling (33% for being unseen))
  • Hide (outdoors, as Halfling (90% for being unseen))
  • Move Silently (as Thief or use this)
  • Mystic Class Abilities
  • Infravision

Feline Humanoids Experience Table

Level       XP   AC  Movement   Special Abilities
  1          0    9     120'      
  2      1.900    8     130'    Awareness (is only surprised on a 1 in 6)
  3      3.800    7     140'    
  4      7.600    6     150'    Heal Self (once per day 1 point per level)
  5     15.200    5     160'    
  6     30.000    4     170'    Speak with Animals (also giant animals)
  7     60.000    3     180'    
  8    120.000    2     190'    Resistance*
  9    240.000    1     200'    
 10    360.000    0     210'    Speak with Anyone (any living creature)

*"Takes only half damage (round down) from all spells and breath weapons that inflict damage, or one-quarter damage (round down) if the saving throw is successful. Any attack that does him damage will do a minimum of 1 point of damage, even if rounding indicates 0 points of damage." (RC, page 31)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Pitchfork, D&D and the Justice of the Mob

Some angry mob eye candy found on Wikipedia.
The word lynching has an interesting history, but that's not what this post is about. Lynch mobs are a strong trope in (old) horror movies and literature. Be it Frankenstein or Dracula, depending on the version you're reading or seeing, both were overpowered by angry townsfolk at some point. Why not have something like that in D&D? Something fast and simple, maybe?

Easy Lynch Mob Recipe

You'll need more than 13 really angry townspeople, but not more than 100. Add torches and pitchforks. Mix with other agrarian tools as desired. Use with a breeze veterans, if available. It's not necessary, but good for the flavour. The number of agitated people is the percentage to resist any magical or spell-like attempts to influence the crowd. Reduce percentage by spell level multiplied with 3 (multiplied with 4 against spell-like abilities).

Serve at night and near the next local vampire or evil wizard. Enjoy!