Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Teh Failures

Let us talk about failure.

Tomorrow, after I sleep.

Man, I sure slept alot.

But I digress. Back to failure. What I aim to do in this post is to take a look at how when the PCs fail in your campaign, it's something that can not only drive the game forward, but it can make for more memorable moments in your game. Knowing that they can suffer consequences for failure, but that it won't shut down what they can do, helps to establish the game world as more real for the players.

Before I go much further, however, I am reminded that we are talking about driving the game forward, which means we must avoid things that stop it. So let's take a look at some things to avoid:

The PCs encounter a mystic riddle which they must solve in order to get through to the next room where the guardian of the Staff of Doom awaits to give them their final test. Now say you've come up with a cunning riddle or puzzle and the players just don't have a clue... say you even made it a skill check (or challenge) and that the PCs just don't seem to have the proper skills. So they stare frustratingly at the wall, and get more and more agitated as you keep prompting them to try again. That's boring, agonizing, and nobody likes trying the same thing over and over again (I'll talk about how this applies to skill challenges later.) So what can you do?

It's all about the consequences. Sure, they may not be able to puzzle their way through the mystic ward, but even if they can't do that, they've got to get through to the next room. So instead of making the consequence of failure "you don't get past" why not have it be something else, like, "monsters attack" or "you take a penalty to certain skill checks with the guardian."

This makes it less about whether or not the characters succeed, but more about how much it costs them to do so. This is where the majority of the tension stems from when we're engaged in any other kind of story. We know the hero of the book (probably) won't die, and that she'll ultimately succeed, right? But what keeps us turning the page is finding out how she will use her skills and abilities to ultimately triumph and what it will cost her to do so.

Let's take another example: The PCs are negotiating a peace accord, so that they can fight a greater foe. Now, here if they fail, one consequence could be "peace isn't achieved" which means that the battle with the greater foe can still happen, it's just harder as the PCs don't have the allies they need. Another thing you could do, however, is increase the cost of peace. Perhaps the PCs must end the negotiation in favor of one of the opposing sides, when they'd really just want a balanced or even oppositely weighted decision.

Or suppose they are trying to pick the lock on a door, but fail... they can still get through the door, but they might open it just as guards are coming around the corner.

This option works in combat as well. Suppose the PCs are out to try and stop an evil horde of goblins, and in an encounter with some particularly powerful goblin casters, they end up having to retreat. You can have the goblins become a little more empowered, making for slightly harder fights in the next few encounters, or even create an "against the horde" encounter as they rally behind their mighty warcasters.

The possibilities are limitless, but remember... ultimately, what keeps us going in these things is to find out how the heroes win.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I am still talking about D&D

More specifically, dungeon-building. I'm going to be putting together one, you see, and so I've been compiling lists of encounters and how they all flow together and so on. As you know, I've been talking about how I would encourage explorers in a game, which, even if my players aren't Explorers by nature, I'd still like to do because it gives them the opportunity to be rewarded by investigating the world they live in; and rewards are something that appeal to all player types. For the power gamer or slayer it is a chance to use new and different powers to defeat their foes (through terrain powers which I'll talk about shortly), storytellers and actors might find their characters feel a little easier to inhabit when the world comes to life for them, and they can see how directly it can be affected. Thinkers and Explorers are both rewarded by the fact that there's new stuff to incorporate into their plans, and a mechanics-based incentive to not spend every action making an attack. Watchers get the opportunity to try something new, which can be exciting.

So anyway, with that in mind, I've been looking at how I would encourage players to go beyond their lists of powers in fights. My friend Frank, who is an awesome guy, suggested that I design fights where mastering the terrain becomes more important than defeating the monsters. Essentially, I'd be making the terrain as great a threat as the monsters. I think this is a fantastic idea, and I've been putting together an encounter with that in mind.

I've also been thinking about giving players more options which are revealed through exploration. This is where using the player's passive perception/insight scores comes in handy, because I can give them a subtle hint that something bears further investigation. On top of that, it makes them feel like their skill choices were worthwhile, which I'm always down with.

Now one way I'll do this is through terrain powers. These are powers, usually attacks, that are granted by taking an action of some kind to interact with a piece of terrain/dungeon dressing/room feature. Here's an example:
An evil cult has inscribed a mystic circle on the floor, at the center of which is an iron brazier filled with smoldering (smouldering if you are British or a jerk) coals. Around the brazier, the evil cultists chant, using their fell magics to empower some dark ritual with fell and dark and dark and fell energies, that are also dark, but strangely, not fell. So a hero, fed up with how many fells, but not darks strangely enough, the cult just used, shows up and rather than rushing at the cultists with his sword, rushes at the brazier and pushes it onto the cultists.

So now I would describe the coals and flame spilling out onto the cultists, and the chaos that ensues, and to back me up, I can give the brazier a terrain power. I can say that the player makes an attack at something like, his level + 3 vs. Reflex in a close blast 3. Targets hit take 1d6 + Level Fire Damage and are knocked prone, with half damage on a miss. Then, depending on how tough the fight has been for the PCs I can give them another boost here by having the spilled coals act as difficult terrain that causes 5 points per tier of fire damage if you move through more than one square in the zone on your turn. This lets me help the party out in a tough spot without being obvious, and the opposite is true as well. By having monsters employ terrain powers, I can make a fight tougher if it looks like the players have it too easy.

Terrain powers are useful tools that help you both spice up an encounter, and allow you a greater degree of behind the scenes control. And for my style of running games, I like to keep my meddling with the plot and the way the action goes as behind the scenes as I can, so I think these are fantastic. The trick here is in revealing these to your players without coming flat out and saying, if you do this, X happens. So instead considering describing that the brazier looks unsteady, or have a PC with a high perception notice that the brazier doesn't seem to be anchored, or even something unusual about it, warranting an active perception check.

So I am going to try and put these to use as best as I can in the coming days.

Friday, January 15, 2010

I really really want to play D&D some more.

I've been toying around with the idea of implementing quests a little better in D&D. At least than I would have before. Earlier, what I've done is treat them much like quests in a video game function: give the players something to do, with maybe a sub-goal or two and then they complete it for some "Story XP."

This is fine, but my aim is to make D&D more engaging and dynamic when I'm running. My hope is that this will keep people interested in playing consistently, and getting more involved in the game. So I've been thinking about how I can make quests a little more dynamic. Here's what I've come up with, along with some advice from the DMG2.

The first thing is to make quests seem more personal for the characters. The DMG2 says this is an excellent opportunity to build and develop character personality. Give the PCs something personal to try and accomplish and it helps them decide what adventures to take and what decisions to make. This in turn shapes the character on a much subtler level than, say, charging in to attack every time they see an orc (which is another GREAT way of adding character depth by the way).

Plus if the quests hold personal interest for the characters, it, once again, engages them on a deeper level. And then of course you can play with the ideas/goals of the quest, either pushing the party to cooperation or conflict depending, which adds a wonderful dynamic to the party's roleplaying, and helps keep both group and individuals distinct.

So let's say, for example, that I've got an adventure that takes place in a forgotten citadel, where the PCs are going to try and stop some cultists of Orcus from carrying out their diabolical plan. I can use quests to give the characters in the party differing goals that they'll try to fulfill within the dungeon itself. So where the druid might want to travel to the dungeon to try and undo some dark ritual that the Orcus cultists have conducted to drain power from the land, the fighter might be motivated to retrieve the sword of a legendary warrior, said to be entombed within the walls of the imposing fortress. And while this is happening, the rogue's nemesis' trail leads to the citadel. Already this gives the party three different goals to pursue there, and it prompts further roleplaying/involvement in the adventure.

There's the dynamic of the party trying to decide which goals to pursue first, which promotes some intraparty roleplay, and then there's the added focus on each character as they near the climactic encounter of their personal quests (maybe the Fighter has to deal with the Spirit of the Warrior somehow, or while fighting off cultists, the druid has to counteract the ritual) which opens up new options for the group besides simply combat. It's even better if this happens during a fight when player energy levels are already high, or works to punch up a lower energy transitional moment within the game.

And this means that I can hand out rewards a little more personally, and be a little more forthcoming in encouraging the players to be proactive about having their characters come up with their own quests. The DMGs say that D&D is a cooperative storytelling game, and the latest one encourages players to be more involved in the narrative process. I'm inclined to agree, and I hope that this will make for a more engaging game all around.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I got schooled.

And now, I am going to be schooled again.

You see, classes started this week for me. So far I've been spending a lot of time trying to reorient myself to the schedule I'm on, which mostly consists of me trying not to stay up so late. So far sleep is losing out on the deal, but last night was pretty promising in the waking refreshed and ready to go department.

But enough about that, let's get to what's been keeping me up late as of, well, late. Viz and to wit, I am speaking of Dragon Age: Origins. It's the latest offering from Bioware (as far as I know), and while it's not the revolutionary game I'd hoped it would be, it was still pretty fun.

What's more, while playing it, I kept imagining the game I'd like to play, imagining what I'd do differently if I had designed the game. Or any game, really. This last thought is the one that drove me to see the end of it, to keep exploring and playing and trying to see the shape of the game that could have been.

You see, in doing so, I found some really nifty ideas that I could use when running my next game, that will hopefully make it a more robust experience for everyone involved.

I'll start with my biggest issue with the game; it's a problem I have with many rpgs in video game form, limited options. Now, I understand perfectly well that the resources of a programmer are limited and there are only so many things you can program in. Sure, and in a game you have the flexibility to allow players to come up with ideas you might not have thought of (which is another post in and of itself), but the ideas you plan for don't always have to be the same binary template that many games lay before you: one good option and one bad option for completing each quest.

For example: I've fought my way through an ancient temple and retrieved a sacred artifact as part of a quest. This is pretty standard but often hearty fantasy fare, the meat and potatoes if you will, of many an adventure. You can do all kinds of things with this idea. The artifact can be holy, unholy, prove the existence of a forgotten deity, exonerate someone who has been wronged, and so on. And that's not even counting getting there, the temple can be all kinds of things as well. But then when the adventure is done, and the heroes return with the artifact, a lot of times, there's only two things to be done. Either use the artifact positively (and in doing so, generally benefitting society as a whole) or negatively (either for solely personal gain, or to the direct detriment of the people invested in the artifact). Dragon Age is no different.

But what else can you do? Well, one thing I'd like to see, and would absolutely love to play around with, is the idea of competing factions, each with a valid claim to or plan for the artifact. Suppose I have found the resting place of the Lost Branch of EL TREE, Mightiest of the Ancient Trees and Lord of ALL FORESTS! Pretty awesome, no? Now getting there is a perilous endeavor (or endeavour if I'm British) which only I and my trusty companions can undertake. You with me so far?

Now for the interesting part, let's say that there are a number of people interested in our party's undertakings. So how about a group of druids who want to use the branch to breathe life into a nearby wasteland? And then we'll create a group of mages who can use the branch to weave a protective spell around something important. Then we have a group of priests who can use the branch to help grow more food for the people of the land.

And that's just on the "good" side of things. Let's assume that I like to keep my options open, and have been at least a little evil-curious, so there's a shadowy order of mages that can distill the branch down to concentrated essence of EL TREE, Mightiest of the Ancient Trees and Lord of ALL FORESTS! With this essence, they can bind a powerful demon to serve them. And let's say that there's a ritual I've found that will let me imbibe the concentrated essence, making myself even more powerful than I already am. And last but not least we'll say there's an organization who can use the branch to subjugate all living on the land connected to it, bending them to their will, and they'll let me rule in exchange for this.

Now the branch can only go to one group/person, so I've got to decide to whom to give it. Which is pretty cool already, because it means my actions have a meaningful impact on the world. We'll go beyond the personal power that the decision places in my hands, and say that it causes me, as a player, to become more invested in the quest, because now that I've decided which group to throw in with, I have a personal stake in the endeavor (unless I'm British). Beyond that, I could have members of my party who work for one of the other organizations, leading to conflict within my group, and depending on who I choose (if indeed I choose any) I could have to deal with attempts by the others to take the Lost Branch of EL TREE, Mightiest of the Ancient Trees and Lord of ALL FORESTS! for themselves.

This also adds to the depth of a game, because it reinforces the idea that my actions in the game have consequences, and that I'm not limited to being rewarded by one group and attacked by the other. It also imposes some responsibility on myself, as I must consider what the implications of my actions are. The important thing is for every option to have both positive and negative consequences. It makes them all equally appealing.

Lastly, it adds to the flexibility of the world, which helps it seem more real. Because nothing quite disrupts the suspension of disbelief like not being able to do something I've thought of, and want to do, but can't because someone else hasn't thought of it. This goes for both video games and pen-and-paper games like D&D. I think this is why both dungeon master's guides encourage you to say "yes" to nearly every player idea and action. It helps that as DM you're able to adapt on the fly, sure, but even in video games, giving me more than just the standard really good or really horrible options, especially giving me multiple good and evil options, helps me to feel more like I'm experiencing the game, rather than just doing a slightly more active version of reading a book.

Such is the power of choice.