Friday, February 6, 2015

DM Tips from a Lousy DM

I can be a great source for seed ideas, but my lack of commitment, planning, and follow-through tend to make me bad at most tasks. I can write a decent short story, though it is seldom more than a begining with a cliffhanger, or a middle... with a cliffhanger. Since most Role Playing Games are stories, I am a better Player than Dungeon Master. I do have some examples of things that have proven successful with DMs I have played with. Maybe an idea or two will interest you.


First, and this was for a fairly specific case, In 4e Dungeons & Dragons, I played a Cleric, who upon 11th level became a Divine Oracle, paragon path. I thought it would be fun to get some tarot cards. I did not really know much about tarot cards, but found a simple three-card reading (as opposed to a full-on redeading) which showed past in the first card, present in the middle, and future in the final. Without any reference, I would try to determine what the meaning of the cards was, and which character it applied to. Sometimes it was easy to say, "last session this happened to the rogue, and this session we are doing this, so maybe this is the rogue's future?" Obviously, it did not matter, but the DM we played with would try to fit the prediction in. If the prediction was good, sometimes the subject got some weird bonus, or was avoided in combat. Sometimes, as with all oracles, the prediction did not quite mean what we thought. If the prediction was bad, his response would be similar. Maybe the monsters really wanted to get the rogue, or again perhaps the prophecy was inaccurate.

Obviously, you don't have to have a Divine Oracle player for this to work. Really, any spell casting class would have divination training, and in a world where devine power manifests itself daily, non-magic characters will have superstitions and/or be non-magical spiritualists. Tarot cards, throwing bones... anything like that works. It is best to leave any hard-fast rules out of the equation though, in my opinion.

Players are Indeed Heroes

This, in my experience, can be a hard one for DMs. There is a fine line between creating challenges, and treating the party as though they are worthless. This is sort of the 1st Level Party dilemma. We tend to think of the standard 1st Level character as a nobody, but if you think about it, in classic D&D, a "normal man" does not even have hit points. A 1st Level cleric or magic-user has training, a fighter has in fact seen action, and a thief at least knows the fundamentals of her trade. Point being, compared to the rank and file population of your D&D world, a 1st Level Party is pretty bad ass.

Here is an example from play, of the bad side. I was playing a 1st Level paladin in 3e. Our mission was to help evacuate a town. There was no militia or guard of any signifigance. Our party was there to save the day. So, my paladin starts giving orders to help save the towns people. The DM decided that everyone needed to argue with my decisions based on the fact that I was 1st Level. Thing is, I was a 1st Level paladin. That means I can detect evil, I can lay on hands. I can do things that no one else in town is capable of. Also, the mission is to get people out of town. If the DM does not allow the town to take any suggestions seriously, I have failed the mission. If I say, "fuck you guys, then," and leave, I have failed the mission.

In the game I have most recently played, we tend to share the DM duties. We use the framework of an established world, and embellish it. There are always people more dangerous than the PCs, but primarily the party is treated as heroes. Challenges come in the form of enemies. We are not there to be the shit heels of this gaming world. I get enough of that at work, why would I want it in my D&D?

So, don't make every peasant in town talk shit to the party. Instead, have an NPC (or NPC party) that is a rival. Maybe they don't like the party, maybe they are in competition, maybe they are evil. It makes sense that you'd have someone in town who doesn't like the party, but to have the entire populace spit in their faces is no fun.

Dangerous Items of Power

Just as my gaming group moved to the then new 3e D&D, I started a brand new character, Darius Whiteplume. He was a tranfigurationist wizard in the Forgotten Realms, from the Bloodstone Lands. Due to some ravaging in his homeland, he and a 1st Level moon-elf fighter, were fleeing through the mountains, where they conveniently met the other players. Those whose characters had not been killed recently (like mine and my wife's (she played the moon-elf)). The party found themselves in a cave, found some monsters, and eventually found an Ogre Mage who had human slaves copying a book for him. A book made primarily of human skin. A book we all know about. It was the Book of Vile Darkness.

So, we beat the ogre mage, and saved who we could of the slaves, but what do we do with the book? I was lawful good, and a wizard, so it was easy enough to think that I might know what the book was, or at least be smart enough not to touch it. So, I devised a way to get it into a heavy sack and take it with us. I was a 1sy Level wizard who was carrying around a relic; an item of near indescribable power. Why would my DM give me such a thing?

Well, in the end it is a classic trope. King Arthur was not yet a knight when he received Excalibur. Prince Adam was probably 1st Level when he received the Sword of Greyskull. Hal Jordan was a mid-level jet pilot when he got his Green Lantern ring. In each case, the item of power became a responsibility to the receipient. The difference in my case was that the item of power gave me no greatness, it was merely a burden. However, it gave the young wizard purpose. Sure, he was rather lackluster at the time, but like King Arthur and Prince Adam he was surrounded by more competent characters who took on the responsibility with him. It was not a constant plot point, but protecting the book was alway part of our party's consideration. Left unguarded in any way and the DM was free to release Red Wizards or other undesireables on its trail. Had we continued playing (the group broke up, sadly), the defense of destruction of the book could have been a great, final campaign.

Giving a low level character such a burden can be a great counter-point to giving them something fantastic. Give the party's fighter a Vorpal Weapon, and everyone wants something similar. It unbalances the game. I will tell you though, no one was lining up for a Book of Vile Darkness, yet the end game is the same. The party has a purpose, without becoming instant super-heroes.

In Conclusion

Obviously, not all these ideas work for every game. If your game is primarily dungeon crawling, many of the story aspects may not apply, but if you are playing a campaign which involves the party being the last front between some evil and the world, then they can be useful. Players and DMs do not have to be in competition. Some of the best DMs I have played with relish the enjoyment of what they created over seeing the party foiled at every turn. Making things difficult is part of the fun, but making them impossible, or just unenjoyable is an antithesis to why we play.

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