On Confidence and Trust

In Death to Dungeons, I tried to give a more specific example of how a lack of confidence and trust affects me as a player, and particularly as one newer to the game. I think the conversation that resulted is wonderful in large part because it made people talk about what they love about dungeons and the game itself.

However, parts of it bothered me deeply and point to a behavior that kept me away from the game for over a decade and a half. I'm a very live and let live person. When someone says they have a problem with something I really enjoy, my response isn't that there is something wrong with that person or even with the thing that I enjoy. Not everyone is going to like everything.

Yet, when I express my likes and dislikes and how those preferences affect my ability to enjoy the game, I often get a variety of responses that feel like there must be some fault with me. Personally, I really don't enjoy underground environments, it's not my thing. I'm not a fan of them in movies, in books or even in video games. It's not from a lack of imagination. It's not from a lack of a good DM. It's personal preference, pure and simple, and is not meant as an affront to anyone who enjoys them.

My issue with responses that "it's a game of fantasy, just use your imagination", is that playing a game like D&D often takes some level of confidence and trust. I need to weave the narrative of my character with those of my fellow players and DM. Her actions need to make sense in the context of the greater whole. When most of the players have the same cultural literacy and background, that's a lot easier. But the truth is much of my background feels vastly different from those of people I've played with. When I play, I'm putting myself out there, faults, story preferences, and all, for someone else to see and possibly judge.

When I started playing, I was faced with a dilemma. On one hand, I wanted to have that experience of learning as I went. I wanted to learn that trolls regenerate by having one I thought was dead attack me from behind. Those are some awesome stories to tell later. On the other hand, I was so afraid of disappointing my group by not knowing something. This lead me to take a back seat in the game, for the most part letting them make the decisions and just reacting to them. I felt I just didn't know enough about the game or its world to be useful beyond my dagger. Add on top of that the fact we were in a dungeon crawl environment with no appeal to me, and I almost gave up playing right then. In fact, one of the main reasons I didn't give up was that when I first started one of the guys in the group said it might happen and I didn't want to prove him right.

And that's why I suggested that sometimes it's good to leave the "dungeon" and introduce new players like me to a wider world of D&D, one that is closer to their own experiences or story preferences. If we had been playing a game that involved tracking down a pack of wolves who were terrorizing the town, I would have had more confidence in my ideas leading to a more active role in the game. As my confidence and trust in the group grew, we could have moved to other locales, ones I wasn't as familiar with, and I would have been more engaged and less stressed about learning so many new things at once. A lot of worry and anxiety might have never existed.

Anyways, those are my 2 cents on the matter.

NPCs of Newham Shire

What I love most about D&D are the stories I get to tell. In the course of my simple little campaign in Newham Shire, we explored quite a few plot lines, although not always to completion. In addition, my group collected a merry little band of NPCs who I absolutely love. I'd love to beg your indulgence as I share a few of them with you.

Hallomak Stromm
Ok, I didn't come up with the name. He is mentioned in the level 11 Dungeon Delve. For some god forsaken reason I decided to run that one for my brother as my second attempt at DMing. Hey when I go for something, I go for it. But the guys in my game wanted to learn more about poor Hallomak and so I made him a focal point of the start of my campaign.

Hallomak is a paladin of Melora. His family was named the guardians of Arcadia during the age of legend, before it was covered in ice by the gods. For 1500 years, they and their scribes painstakingly copied and recopied the lore books of the old world so that when they returned they would still have the knowledge of the ages of song and legend.

However, before they could return and take their rightful place as leaders of the land, one of the Darkmagics pieced together the location of Arcadia and returned early, founding Newham Shire and naming himself the rightful human ruler.

Hallomak is fine with this order of things. The truth is, not having to rule Newham gives him time to be its protector. He runs a school of agriculture, teaching sustainable agriculture to those who will listen. In addition, he has a side project creating a replacement for Ironwood in ship building. The importance of this project is heightened because the elves in the northern woods are getting upset at the humans who are logging those trees.

His wife though, did not see things this way, and she filled their son's mind with visions of grandeur. Because of this, Reginald joined up with the Free Arcadia Now (FAN) group and is the leader of the organization in Barmouth.

Dionysus Spriggan
Still one of my favorite encounters, we had the classic trolls under the bridge scene. Only they were spriggans. The PCs killed all of them but one, who they then interrogated. At one point the bard says he will let the spriggan live if he promises to live a good life. At that point, Dionysus was born. He readily replied that he would love to live the good life. Of course, his definition was a bit different from theirs. With that promise, they gave him a few gold from the treasure they collected and sent him off on his way.

A few weeks later, they found out what the merry little spriggan was up to. Turns out he always wanted to run his own bar, but his older brothers forced him into a life of banditry. He took the coins, scrounged up some building supplies and finally fulfilled his life's passion. He opened a bar, in the middle of the woods. Everyone is welcome so long as they respect the neutrality of the place.

An early encounter involved a small number of burglars with guard dogs trying to break into Hallomak's house. The PCs woke up in the middle of the night and uncovered the attempt. They defeated the robbers and one of the two guard dogs, but the second one got away. The next morning they tracked down the dog and defeated its owner. At that point, the player of the halfling rogue, Finnan, asked if he could make the dog his, which I allowed with the caveat that he couldn't really attack. Hence, Chompers was born and he's been a great companion of the group ever since.

Well those are a few NPCs from our game. What are some of the favorites from yours?

Freshly Stocked for Your Enjoyment

The title of my last post, Death to the Dungeon, was meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek. I think dungeons should be in every dungeon master's toolbox, but I find it just as important to note that they should be one of many. The reason I have this on my mind is the excellent article by Robert Schwalb, "Reexamining the Dungeon." I don't intend this to be a reaction to his article. Rather, this is just where my mind wandered after reading his post.

My problem with most dungeons is that the way we create them often reinforces a disconnect between player and game. For some D&D players, dungeons are meant to be self-contained, isolated little bundles of XP and loot, playgrounds for the adventurers so they will stay out of town and stop annoying the locals. Heck, sometimes I wonder if the townspeople purposefully stock them with monsters just for that reason, but that's another post.

Likewise, I've found many people design dungeons by first laying out the rooms and passageways and then determining what should go into them. People tend to like their dungeons a bit on the large size, at least large enough to span 3 sessions or so. Too often, this means we either run into the problem of too much sameness, how many different orc groups can we have, or too much diversity and artificial separation, the zombies never go upstairs for a snack nor do they go down the hall to the goblin lair for one either. When the story is built around the dungeon, rather than the other way around, it can feel inorganic and forced. Leading to interplays like the following, Player: "Wait, how did 20 goblins survive down here with no food and water and traps too powerful for them to get out." DM: "There used to be 50."

I also worry that dungeons reinforce the feeling that players have very few options available to them, and, because of that, every choice counts. While a bit of this is important, when I play in a dungeon environment, my mind fills with this meta-game thinking. I become too scared to do anything lest it cause harm to the rest of my party. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that in many of the dungeons I've played in or read, the interactive points have just one right answer and a series of wrong ones. They often rely on my cleverness as a player rather than what my character would think or feel and not being clever enough means that my group loses out on something. Instead of exploring, I shut down and let the rest of the group take the lead, except they are just as nervous as I am and don't do it either.

I'm not saying that any of this is wrong for everyone or is inherent in everything that might be called a "dungeon." A lot of people like traditional dungeon design and people should play what they love. But, I do worry that sometimes we don't realize that dungeons, particularly to veteran gamers, have an implied method of play that is different from other environments. One that, at times, is counterproductive to the type of game experience we seek unless we've been trained to view them a certain way.

Death to the Dungeon

Dungeon from from & Dragons creates its own culture and language through the extensive use of fantasy tropes such as Vancian Magic. To at least some of the uninitiated, these bits of shorthand form a wall between them and the game. For instance, a spellcaster forgetting a spell after casting makes no sense to me and still breaks my suspension of disbelief.

However, in my mind, that break is nothing compared to dungeon design. I'll admit up front that I'm no fan of dungeons. I realize it's part of the game's name and that many D&D veterans love them, but big dungeons full of monsters around the party's level and of untouched treasure lead me to, well, call shenanigans.

I realize I'm not the first, and will by no means be the last, to say this. But I think as we try to bring new people into the hobby and try to encourage them to do some role-playing in addition to roll-playing, we need to consider that sometimes the disconnect might not have anything to do with whether or not fighter has a daily "power." For some new players, it's near impossible to connect with a place they've never visited[1]. For instance, I've never been to the desert so I have a hard time placing my character in a world where the sand stings her eyes as she feels the intense heat radiating off the ground. I know those things happen, but I have a harder time feeling them.

On the other hand, throw me into the middle of the woods and I know what to do. Tracking something? I'd like to look for footprints in the ground, animal droppings and broken twigs please. Want to trap a wild boar instead of chasing it around? Great, let's get some rope, a young tree and set up a snare, or dig a pit, weave together some thin branches and throw a bunch of leaves on top. I'll have it for you in a jiffy.

The difference is I've seen and interacted with the forest before so I have a much better idea of what is and isn't possible in that world and, thus, feel more confident that my ideas have a chance of working. As I gain that confidence, I'll be more willing to role-play in a foreign world, such as a dungeon. At this point, some may say, well you've read and seen the Lord of the Rings and other fantasy novels. While that's true, I think a big gap exists between consuming these stories and feeling engaged enough with the typical fantasy world to create your own.

So, while I agree with Rob Donoghue that dungeons might be a good tool for newer DMs, I would like to suggest to more experienced DMs that they look outside of the dungeon for adventures for newer players. The key is to still limit or make clear the options the new players have, lest they fall to analysis paralysis. Give them some clear call to action but let them explore areas that have echoes to their real world. Find out their backgrounds, are they city or country folks and what are their favorite books? What games did they play as a child and what stories did they like to act out? Create a world out of the elements they know the best, give them adventure hooks that easily feel real to them, sprinkle in elements they know how to play with such as fruit carts, and create a safe environment for role-playing.

1. This issue is brought up a fair bit in education policy. Many critics state that some reading comprehension tests are unfair to disadvantaged groups because they often cover topics foreign to those students. For instance, an essay on a person's first fishing trip may be unintentionally more difficult for many inner-city youth since not only do they have to complete the normal reading comprehension questions but they also need to figure out what fishing is if they've never done it.

Putting the Wonder Back in Wondrous

Unfortunately, many of my discussions on twitter of late have focused on one little gripe I have with the Essentials line. What I would like to do for a moment is to shift focus away from that and talk about what I do love about the new books, starting with magic item rarity.

As a new DM, magic items gave me a lot of grief. I feared my players would not be as content with a standard +1 sword when they could, at least in their mind, have a flaming +1 sword of doom complete with a magic item daily power. Also I really hadn't had the time to learn how the various items affect their character builds, at least not enough to dole out magic items on a consistent basis. So I asked for wish lists, which often were filled with the most magical of magic items and the magic items themselves lost a bit of their wonder.

To address this problem, and to bring back a bit of the magic of older editions, WotC introduced magic item rarity. Now I know some of my friends roll their eyes at this, but I happen to really like it. Many items are still common, you can buy your amulet of protection and boots of stealth anywhere fine magic items are sold, although finding those shops or craftsmen might take a little time. The more uncommon items, however, are now something to be found.

So what does this do? First, it guides DMs to making magic items part of the story instead of cheap fashion accessories (a low shot, I know). Really want that feyleather armor? You may want to check out the elven enclaves in the city. Who knows what else you might find there.

Second, it makes the choice of magic items more important and which ones you choose help define your character. According to the new Rules Compendium, players should gain one rare item per tier of play. Since these rare items will often have multiple powers and be a bit more complex, they will be the defining items your character carries. For me, I'm going to work very closely with players when picking these out or creating our own. Uncommon items will comprise about half the magic items characters find in treasure. These items tend to have one power associated with them, again giving flavor to the character who possesses them.

Lastly, this rarity system allows us to bring back truly wondrous magic items. Sure, we had the artifacts system before this and my guess is that the rare items will look pretty similar to them. But since the PCs can't pick them up at their corner store, these items won't overpower the game.

So, I'm really looking forward to this part of the game. My stories will make more sense, the treasure won't feel quite as bolted on and overall I think it will lead to a better experience at the table. How about you? Are you going to use the rarity system?

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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