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Setting the Scene

In my last post, I mentioned that some people wish to do away with boxed text. This caused a fair bit of discussion on Twitter and ended with me admitting that I often feel lost on how to set a scene in D&D, particularly for published adventures.

For me at least, I have a hard time knowing how much information to give all the PCs at the beginning, after they've entered a new room. I've read the warnings about DM monologues and reading 6 paragraphs of boxed text. I realize that coming up with and conveying lots of intricate detail is more about self-pleasure than it is about being useful to the players.

Sometimes I feel like I know a ton about what I'm not supposed to do and very little about what I should. Add to this that I’m probably learning to DM in the reverse of how you should, meaning I’m a newer DM for experienced (and smart) players, and my anxiety gets pretty high. I'm thinking through this problem in hopes that some of my ideas will help those of you in a similar position and that I can get some tips from you all.

First, I should detail a few assumptions on my part. To me, every scene should have a place in the story and should have the chance of revealing at least one detail about it. I say chance, because players should always have the choice to not care about the story the DM wants to tell. I'm not a big fan of encounters for the sake of XP alone. I also try to give my players hints about what's going on without hitting them over the head with a big clue stick but DMs, and groups, will vary on how they feel about that.

When creating or reading a scene, I like to list the goals for it. What about this scene is important enough to have us play it out? If it's to spot the item they need to retrieve, I need to provide clues that the item is in the room or, at the very least, that they might want to more thoroughly search an area or two. If it's to introduce an NPC, the descriptions I give should reinforce what they should remember about him or her. The problem I have with many published adventures is I often don’t immediately grok why this scene is there.

Once I understand the goals, I start working on the details, or as I like to call it, the “texture.” When I create encounters, these details work together to tell the story. So if I’m dealing with a scene where the PCs should guess that the tailor maybe isn’t everything he claims to be, some of the details I might write down are overly blunt shears, bolts of fabric that look old, a lack of customers, and perhaps an abnormally long wait time on orders. I would also write down hints that point to who he is, in this case perhaps someone dabbling in necromancy which he practices in the basement: an overly scented shop, dim light, an aura of the arcane, and a book left open behind the counter.

With goals and details in hand, I can start playing the scene out in my head. Which items are the PCs likely to notice first and who will notice it. All of the PCs will be able to see or otherwise sense some of this information while other bits are more specialized. For divvying up the latter, it's useful to have a list of their skills and and any modifiers or feats that apply, such as the level of light they can see in. If you can get a summary of their backstory and some of their personality quirks, all the better. You can use the passive skill scores to guide you as you decide what information they might know.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it can be, especially for a newer DM. The brain has an awesome ability to recognize and assimilate patterns, but it takes time to do so. A newer DM just hasn’t seen hundreds of encounters and maybe hasn’t seen another person DM yet, so they have to do a lot more conscious work. The nice thing about boxed text, when done correctly, is that can serve as a short-cut for creating those patterns. Running encounters is a bit easier because a lot of the hard work was done already and, with each one, they get a better idea of how much information to give at the start. In addition, the boxed text can provide the start point for their own hacking, much the same way we hack on monsters.

So while I’m all for moving to another system in modules for more advanced DMs, I hope that something like boxed text sticks around for the beginners. And I hope more products come out for beginners that are focused only on them instead of serving multiple masters. So what about you, how much information do you give out at the beginning of an encounter and create your own boxed text for a published adventure?

Running Red Box for the Crew: Part Two

I've put off writing this post, because, well, it wasn't exactly the best game ever. The weather was a bit grey, many of us were stressed and some background social anxiety was going on. Nothing too major but enough to dampen our spirits a bit as we went into a dungeon.

Ah, dungeons. My group doesn't exactly love dungeons. I've stayed away from them as much as possible in my campaign for that reason. They seem to love investigating city streets, combing through libraries, and studying found objects. Most of them have characters with pretty good social skills and they aren't afraid of using them. So, dungeons aren't their thing exactly.

However, I did learn a few things from this session. First, is that running the Red Box for veteran players can be hard. Since they already know about class builds, they ask all sorts of detailed questions. I can't remember the exact questions asked, but usually the subject was does this feature of class x apply to these builds. I don't know what the correct answer is, but I said if it wasn't in the Red Box player's guide, the answer was no. This scenario makes me wish that they had a simplified character creation guide in the box, something I as a DM could quickly reference when players ask such questions.

Another thing I learned is that it can be difficult to get players to interact with the environment. I struggle with this all the time. I've heard the advice that you shouldn't give a speech to your players at the beginning of a scene (the equivalent of multiple paragraphs of boxed text) yet I still haven't found a good way to make sure I give enough info to the players to pique their interest.

With the movement away from boxed text, I fear new DMs will be as lost as I am. Perhaps it makes sense to do some tutorials on how to present this information. For instance, have a few veteran DMs take an encounter and detail how they would present it to the players. Even one would be nice, but having multiple DMs do this for the same encounter would help newer DMs notice differences of style better.

Finally, I like the random roll tables. It took me a while to come around, but I like being just as surprised as the players about what they get. I learned that back when I created some rumor tables for a skill challenge in my game. My only complaint about the random roll tables is that I wish the items on them were more interesting. Rope and chains are great and all, but I think one of them should have had some interesting clothing to encourage creativity.

One of the upcoming changes to D&D is the move to a rarity system, where items will be common, uncommon and rare. Used well, the change can force players to get more creative with their solutions to problems. Going to an area where falling is a real risk? You can't just buy everyone a Safewing Amulet. Hopefully, rarity combined with random item tables will spark creativity at the table.

So, those are my thoughts from our second session. How about you? Have you played the Red Box yet? What are your thoughts on the character builds?

Canon is Dead! Long Live Canon!

Recent years have seen reboots of many long-lived and beloved story lines whether it's Star Trek or Dungeons & Dragons. Many fans of these series went through all the stages of grief, mourning the deaths of their friends and companions. As a lover of story, I totally understand this reaction. It's unsettling when the world rearranges itself beneath your feet and all the lore and knowledge you've gained no longer orients you in the world.

However, as a newcomer to the world of D&D, this reboot has been a godsend. I'm being a bit selfish here. While in theory I love canon, those stories weren't my stories. I didn't grow up with them; I didn't sneak a flashlight under my covers so I could read them. Instead, I viewed them as a barrier to entry. I heard their whispers, "That girl, Tracy, she's just a poseur. I mean, she doesn't even know who Orcus and Vecna are. How can she call herself a D&D player?" I've had my geek cred challenged on the account of the fact I couldn't recite lines from Star Trek from memory, so why would these D&D players be any different.

The other guys in my gaming group couldn't convince me that canon was my friend either. One of the members, Joe, kept telling me that if I set my campaign in a published setting and wanted a lake where none existed, I could just create the lake and the rest of the group would be ok with it. In my mind I wanted to believe him, I mean, a few of them really wanted to play in Eberron after all, but my fears and self-doubt cried out, "It's a trap! They want to use your newness against you. They've read the novels. They are going to recite stories from it that you have no idea about and laugh at you when you don't get the reference."

So what did I do? I "created" my own world, full of towns and details from 1st and 2nd edition modules. No "canon" there that they could use against me. I picked fairly obscure modules and I made so many changes to them. I pulled heavily on fairy tales and European mythology to give my world a framework. And, for awhile at least, things went pretty well.

And yet, as time went on, I struggled. I had to switch jobs which cost me an two hours a day that I normally would have spent on D&D. My world became less rich and I had to do more wholesale grabbing of stories from other places. Andernach, my beloved dwarven city, had to become a reskinning of Hammerfast because I just had no time to do it justice. I became more and more jealous of my new D&D friends who knew the Forgotten Realms or Eberron like the back of their hand or who had binders of stories and characters lovingly gathered over the years.

Hindsight being what it is, it's easy for me to say today that I was incredibly wrongheaded back then. I didn't realize that the canon of published campaign settings could be used like those binders. I wish I had read articles like "Fire the Canon!" I wish I had read the Planescape campaign setting books, where they explain that the planes are big but that DMs shouldn't worry about that, just start really small and circle out. Don't worry if you don't know all of Sigil, there are plenty of adventures in just one small section of it. Most of all, I wish I had the support network then that I have now.

By the way, if you haven't read the above mentioned article, go and do it right now. It's important that every DM and player understands why canon exists. And if you are in a position similar to the one I found myself in when I started, that being you just started playing but your players all have many more years experience, don't be afraid of canon. Just be honest with your players and tell them you're going to make mistakes.

And if you are afraid, like I was, of misaligned perceptions and assumptions about the world due to different levels of experience, set up a system for raising an objection. Try to be as neutral as possible, just like you would any other rules call. Hopefully everyone at the table will be adult enough to realize that a newcomer just can't have the same level of knowledge as a veteran.

Calling to Your Players

I have to admit, a bit sheepishly, that I created the image of the girl in braids, calling out for her parents that Rob Donoghue referenced in his recent article The Tableau. In my defense, I'm working through my issues of scene setting, my players sometimes feel my stories are too full of grey. Also, one problem I have with Dark Sun is that it doesn't represent a genre I normally enjoy, so I'm having a hard time placing myself in the world.

That said, I'm so happy Rob stepped in to patiently teach me how I should think about these things. (In my mind, I heard an exasperated sigh that reverberated through the internet.) The series of articles he produced on the topic are great for anyone although I will pretend he wrote them for me.

The articles:

In the first article, Rob explains what is wrong with setting a scene in this way, expanding on his comments from Twitter. He calls the scene a "tableau". Although he doesn't define the term, my understanding is that they are well-known, stark scenes created to stir a particular reaction on the part of the viewer.

In my gut, I knew it was wrong to construct a scene this way, but I've been fumbling around for a way to make something so foreign to me real. But I agree completely with him, forcing the players down a certain path by appealing to their heroic nature is a bit forced and letting their mind wander about why I'm highlighting the girl likely will cause them to become snarky. In fact, a number of the responses were that the girl should be the embodiment of something evil.

For his second post, he explains what we should do instead, create a definite call to action. On twitter he suggested that perhaps a man approaches the girl, his description hinting at a less than heroic motivation. He also suggests making the call personal to the characters instead of pulling just on the heart strings of the players themselves. Of course, this requires characters with some development to them, which is something lacking at many tables. But that is an entirely different matter altogether.

The last post mentions a bit of a GM trick, one that I try to employ where possible. Too often we craft our hooks directly around the character instead of creating the larger web of opportunities and consequences. We tie things to primary relationships instead of secondary ones. Of course, one issue with this trick is that it can explode the number of NPCs the players need to remember, but it can create a much richer story and one that feels a little less repetitive.

As for me, I think I've identified my larger problem. I'm trying to create a world that calls to my players without knowing what it is that calls to them. My natural inclination is to ask them to create the characters they want to play and then build a world around them, negotiating the details of the place setting as necessary.

However, this flies in the face of the normal advice given to DMs and players in D&D and so it's taken me some time to figure it out. Yes, I'm still a storyteller, but to me the real reward is in weaving together the threads presented to me by others rather than in coming up with all of the ideas myself. I love the challenge of such an endeavor.

The solution seems obvious to me. I should have the character creation session sooner rather than later, and create my part of the story from what the players create. This way my needs are met while some of the story remains a mystery to the players.

Letters Home

We recorded an episode of 4 geeks 4e last night. For this episode, we discussed how we approach campaigns from both the DM and player sides and I mentioned that one trick I've used as a player is having my character write letters home to her parents. These letters contain information about the story from my character's point of view and give me a way to develop my character without taking up a lot of table time or going through awkward role playing scenarios.

Since Sarah had some rather romantic notions of the adventuring life, I really worried about how much to role play. In case it helps someone with their game, here is Sarah's letter home. I wrote this on April 13th, 2009, about a month and a half after I started playing.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Hey guys! I hope all is well with you guys and that the show is doing great. I know I haven't sent anything for a while, but I didn't want to write until I could provide news about Douvan. Just so you guys don't continue to worry, we found him and he is safe and sound.

After the last letter from mom, I went straight to Winterhaven to see what I could find out about his whereabouts. The innkeeper was nice enough to tell me that Douvan had made friends with a local farmer and that there was an adventuring group in the area who had made good progress against the kobolds there and around Fallcrest. I went to find the group straight away to see if I could persuade them to help me in my cause. I met up with them outside of town outside of a cave under a waterfall. I agreed to help them with the kobolds they were fighting. It was my first battle! Of course, I made some rookie mistakes but with the help of the dwarf (more about him later), I got through it and learned a lot from the process. To top it off, I helped them defeat a goblin named Irontooth and the band of kobolds that were helping him.

After convincing the group to help me, we went to the farmer's house to find out where Douvan might be. The farmer was kind enough to draw us a map of hte location. When we got to the location, we happened upon a gnome, some humans, a halfling and two drakes. The drakes really scared me because the rest of the group kept telling me stories about a place they call 'That guy hall.' Apparently a former member of the group was killed in a horrific fashion by drakes in a place known as Kobold Hall. That was more than enough to make me extremely nervous of drakes and when I saw them at the dragon tomb site, I almost lost it. But I remembered the locket you gave me and the warmth it provided helped steady me, especially when the gnome then set his drakes loose on us. We were able to work our way through the gnome and his friends and after the battle we found Douvan tied up in a burlap sack. I quickly helped him get untied and everything and he told me his story. For my help, he gave me a magical locket he had. I felt bad taking it, but the truth is it is incredibly useful for me right now. I hope one day to no longer need it and will then return it to him and Eliza.

But enough of scary monsters and battle and stuff that's likely to make you worry. Let me tell you about the group I found. Lucan, an elf ranger, likes to refer to me as a half-human and he always seems suspicious that I'm going to steal something. I wish I could explain to him that I don't like to steal, that I only did it to help us, but words fail me. Then there is Klute, a human wizard. I'm not sure what to make of him yet, except that sometimes he concentrates a little too much on how other women look. Sometimes I don't understand guys. There is also a dragon-born warlord named Haradrin. So far he's been pretty quiet and I don't know a ton about him. And finally there is the dwarf paladin. I now know what you always meant about paladins having great hands.

Unless you guys really need me, I think I might stick with this group for a while and see where fate takes me.

Love,
Sarah

By the way, the reference to the paladin's hands was an in-joke for our group. When poor Sarah needed some healing (she got herself surrounded by enemies early in the encounter), the paladin healed her with his "Lay on Hands" power. Since someone other than my husband played that character and it was my first session, someone made the joke that he better be careful where he placed his hands and, to put a stop to that, I made the joke about paladins having such nice hands. I refuse to have such constraints placed on my characters. :)

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