Where I reference Charlie Sheen, the NCAA tournament, and D&D all in one blog post…
I’ve been DMing D&D for 30 years; from nearly the first moment I was introduced to the game and picked up a twenty-sided die, I’ve spent the preponderance of my gaming time on the DM’s side of the screen. This wasn’t always my first choice, but rather necessity borne of two realities. First, in order to keep playing the game I loved, I often had to shoulder the DM duties: it was always easier to entice my friends to play if I did most of the work! And second, the few other DMs I gamed with generally sucked; so much so, it was simply more fun to run the game myself than endure those miserable sessions. It’s not to say I couldn’t find an occasional one-off game that was okay, but it was - and although 4E is easier to DM than any edition, I think it still remains - exceedingly hard to find someone with the energy, enthusiasm, and ability to run an engrossing weekly, campaign-based game (my preference).
Make no mistake, maintaining a campaign is hard work. D&D is a game, and the DM’s “side” is pretty thankless. Those who choose to play the “DM” are often frustrated novelists, control freaks, or simply the guy who actually bought the books and has the most miniatures. In older style games the DM position tended to be more “adversarial” – where the DM hoped to outwit, out think, or out survive the Players - although I think that type of play is no longer en vogue. Instead, the DM now is expected to get his game enjoyment predominantly from the narrative he weaves with and for the Players, and from the tools he uses to stitch that narrative together: hanging plot hooks, drawing maps, creating new monsters, making up new artifacts, etc. The “game” is not about the DM besting the Players or vice versa, but rather about the DM and Players cooperatively creating a compelling and interesting narrative; after all, how many times have you heard someone say that you can’t really win or lose an RPG, it’s simply about telling a great adventure story?
So, in this vein, although it’s difficult to say whether I have been a “great DM”, I have been a dedicated one. I diligently put in the work with all the tools I mentioned above, and I considered myself “old school” tough but fair. Yet, I was absolutely a modern “Michael Bay” DM as well; if something could explode, it did. Everything “erupted” and “oozed” and it’s as if every creature was strung on wires and every object was filled with gas and napalm. I thought of each adventure as a movie without a budget, and schemed accordingly. Every scene was filmed from a helicopter and every set piece had a huge tracking shot. Adverbs and adjectives dangled from my plot hooks, and I sought both to challenge and entertain the Players. I hoped that every time Players walked away from one of my campaign sessions, they had been amazed by the sights and sounds. My enjoyment from being a DM was often derived from the fact that my Monsters were formidable, that my Encounters were devious and creative, and that my Players knew (without a doubt) that they were in the presence of a DM who really cared about his game and put in a lot of energy and effort.
In effect, I wanted to “wow” them with my creativity and cleverness, and as long as my story was interesting, and my Encounters ruthless and exciting, complex and devious, then regardless of the outcome, we were all having fun. I mean, after all, it’s wasn’t about the winning and losing, it was about the story…
And then for the first time in an extremely long time, I had the chance to simply sit back and be a Player. A full-fledged Player, running not one, but two PCs!
I’ve been managing my most recent ongoing Campaign for a couple of years, and one of my old friends, who I’ve gamed with for 20 years, had the opportunity to join up, and offered to run a huge adventure for a few months so I could actually take a break and just play. I knew my friend was a good DM, and I was excited beyond measure. I drew up a Paragon Essentials Slayer (“Bloody Bad” Dray) and an Essentials Mage (Dayereth Dust) and, excited by all of their abilities and features, settled back to enjoy the “other side of the screen”.
And, my friend was every bit as good a DM as I knew he would be. The Adventure was interesting and clever, the monsters were extremely hard and fought with superior, realistic, tactics, and the Encounters were full of detail, color, and “cool things”. And yet, as each battle got harder and each Monster more difficult, as they Story grew more involved and the set pieces got more elaborate…as I struggled to wring out every bit of effectiveness I could out of Dray and Dust, something happened…I didn’t just want to experience this amazing Story we were all creating, I actually wanted to win the damn thing. So, as an example, it suddenly mattered to me whether Dray was Dazed or not, because I really wanted to use one of his opportunity action abilities (which he couldn’t while Dazed). Thus, while it was awesome that the monster that had Dazed him was incredibly described, had “hand-crafted” powers, and was generally “cool” beyond all measure – as I sat there fumbling with dice I couldn’t use, I grew desperate to show how “cool” my character was as well, and to feel like I was effecting the battle and helping my Party. And as we had more and more Encounters with admittedly awesome and diabolic creatures that also could Daze pretty much at will, I began to feel more and more frustrated as a whole suite of Dray’s abilities were turned off and useless.
Each fight was spectacularly well-planned. The monsters were clever; they were thematically appropriate, and they used realistic and brutal tactics. They were truly monstrous…and as a Player I began to hate them every time they appeared, because I knew that my character would be next to useless.
Similarly, I loved Dust’s ability to control and manipulate the battlefield. Yet, most of his big Dailies had Save Ends effects. And in our most desperate of fights, when we needed those powers the most, the creatures always saved against those effects…always (more on this below). While it made those fights into nail-biters (and well, into some outright defeats also), from my perspective as a Player, they were also disheartening. Dust was not cool, or awesome, or amazing…he was simply failing and losing…albeit, losing spectacularly.
Slowly (and brutally), it dawned on me. It didn’t matter whether the battle was “exciting and dramatic” – that it was occurring on a huge precipice with flaming arcs of lava and sentient chains that whipped from the ceiling. As a Player, rolling a miss on a critical Encounter power, flatlining a Daily, constantly being Dazed or Stunned – these things simply sucked, and would have sucked just as much as if the Encounter had occurred in a 20’ x 20’ room with blank walls. Thus, while the Narrative itself could be “exciting”, the Game part – you know, the part where you actually have to roll dice and succeed at something, well, that part could be underwhelming. I would wait for my turn, it would finally come around, I would creatively describe and then launch into my best attack, only to roll a…2! What the hell? I would then inevitably mutter “uhhmm, I guess I missed”, and then flip my Attack Power card over. I found it hard to enjoy the DM’s cleverness, during those times I was frustrated by my PC’s failures.
Look at this way - the run of VCU through the NCAA tournament was exciting; it was a great narrative that the media was eager to seize on (commentators love to find a “story”, a human element that the viewer can relate to). And as VCU “killed” more Giants, that narrative was even more compelling. Yet, none of those teams that lost to VCU reveled in the fact that they were part of one of the tourney’s true “feel good stories”…they’re never going to look back fondly at the tournament and the VCU Final-Four run. So while they were part of the VCU narrative – a great collegiate sports story if there ever was one – in the end, it wasn’t their story. For those teams, it was and always will be, just a brutal loss.
Let me stop just a second and address the obvious protest – I am not suggesting that a DM never test PCs, or that Players never experience frustration or defeat, or that every fight or Encounter is an automatic “win”. But as a DM it’s important to remember the “game” part of an RPG; the part that does involve chance and the (often) binary result of success/failure, and it's this part that gives an RPG its tension and makes it more than just a collective exercise in ad-libbed story telling. As a DM I never cared when my Monsters missed or fell or failed – I had hundreds more and none of them individually mattered; they were only there to challenge the PCs. But as a Player, failing often over the course of a game night or over several critical Encounters did matter - and I was reminded just how little one could enjoy the story, when a big part of that story involved the PCs falling flat on their faces. Just as much as a any good DM should occasionally challenge PCs weaknesses, they can and should also play to their strengths as well. It’s not just that Monsters and Encounters are designed to be a challenge, they are also designed to be overcome…
Here’s the thing, people rankle at comparing RPGs to a videogames, but there is a common denominator: people don’t fire up a videogame hoping to lose, planning to fail, or never expecting to get to the end of the story or the final boss battle. They want to win, and I think Players in RPGs want to “win” as well. Sure, they hope the story is engrossing, but at the end of day, what they really want to do is have their PCs succeed in using their unique and cool abilities, defeating the monsters and obstacles, freeing the princess, finding the gold, and simply being, well, awesome. As Charlie Sheen has said, they all want to have that Adonis DNA; the warlock brain, the tiger blood, and the titanium spine!
Having DM’d for so long, I think I had lost sight of that. I thought we were all having fun if my Adventure and Encounters were amazing and my Monsters incredibly challenging, but it was less about my efforts to “wow” the Players from my side of the screen, and more about the ability of the Players to “wow” themselves on their side. I think it’s also important to not view the DM and Player divide so starkly; after all, I guess I have a PC as well: his Class is DM, and his Role is Creator. And his Feats and Powers are all designed to help, in some nicely subtle ways, the other PCs be awesome.
None of this is to detract from my friend’s DMing – this really isn’t about his particular Adventure or some of the difficult Encounters we faced. It was an exceptional Adventure that I would jump back into in a heartbeat. It’s just that I had forgotten how it feels to roll the dice from the Player’s side, and how unforgiving and brutal those dice rolls could be. How it's easy for a a good DM to challenge (or hamstring) a Party, but how hard it can be to simultaneously stop congratulating yourself on such cleverness, and support the Party as well. It takes an extremely deft touch to both challenge the Players and simultaneously root for their success, definitely easier said than done. But during my stint as Bloody Bad Dray and Dust, I was reminded that I want my Players to enjoy our Game because their PCs are ultimately winners, not because I am a creative or clever DM.
I returned to the DM’s chair a few weeks ago, and this past Sunday the Players were engaged in a knock-down, drag-out, DEFCON 4 battle. Things were exploding, blood was flowing – my creatures were fast and smart, my terrain interesting, my tactics clever. If I could have reasonably tossed in a helicopter (in Arvandor, no less), I would have. The best moment came, however, not when my monsters pulled off a fiendishly clever tactic, or I described in amazing technicolor detail the give and take of the battle, but rather when the PCs circled together and took out one of the main creatures with some great tactics, better die rolls, and a Critical Hit. The Players all high-fived and clapped each other on the back, chortling with glee at their success - and in the spirit of Dray and Dust, I found myself cheering right along with them Although they may never remember my descriptions, my tactics, or the specifics of what I did as a DM for that Encounter, my Players will remember what their own PCs did, and that for me means we were all winning.
As already noted, it’s not hard to challenge a PC’s weakness. Yet, it can be just as fun to play to their strengths. Here are some practical suggestions for a night of “winning”:
- Make sure Monsters occasionally trigger Marks, Opportunity Attacks, etc. It’s not good tactics, but its good gaming.
- If a PC has particular Keyword or Damage Type attacks (Necrotic, Radiant, etc.), make sure there are monsters now and then that are Vulnerable to them.
- If a PC has a particular Keyword or Damage Type resistance, throw in some beasts that specialize in that attack. I have PC in my group who, for a variety of reasons, is resistant to Thunder attacks. I tossed in a monster with just such an attack, and for that battle, and against that particular creature, the Player felt invulnerable.
- Have a Monster occasionally “fail” a Save Ends effect. If you’re not the sort of DM who likes to nudge a die roll one way or the other, at least let the Player roll those Saves. A Player who has just tossed out a Daily doesn’t feel as let down when he rolls the Monster’s successful save then if the DM makes the roll and just calls out over the screen “oh yeah, he made that Save”.
- Similarly, whenever a Controller in one of my Games forces a Monster to make a MBA against another creature, I let the Controller make that “To Hit” roll and the Damage roll as well.
- And if you do have a Controller in your Party, be sure to throw out some Minions now and then. That’s what Minions are for, and that’s what Controllers do.
- In the Heroic and Paragon tiers, each adventure I give the Party one or two “Plot Points”, depending on the length and scope of said adventure. They are used to give the Players the opportunity (as a group), to overcome some difficulties. For example, in one game one of the PCs was knocked off a bridge into a deep chasm – he survived, and it was the “right” tactics by the adversary he was facing, but by any measure, he was going to take far too many rounds with the items he had available to scale out of that chasm and rejoin the fight. The rest of the Party voted to activate a Plot Point, “retconning” the chasm to include a forgotten dwarven stair, carved into its face. This allowed the PC to re-enter the fray faster than he otherwise would have been able to, and didn’t leave the Player sipping a soda for an hour or so of actual game time.
Just my thoughts. And oh year, here’s a few others;
- I’ve heard it repeated or questioned on Internet forums “why on Earth would anyone dumb-down and play an Essentials class such as the Slayer, with such limited options, etc.”, I can guarantee you that a Slayer (with its Stances, Utilities etc,) has far more tactical richness than any Fighter I ever played in the earlier editions of D&D. Also I am neither dumb, nor slow-witted, nor incapable of managing the AEDU power scheme. I simply wanted to play something fun and flexible, and the Slayer proved to be both in spades…and that Essentials Mage was pretty damn good also.
- As to the whole “you can’t really role-play with 4th Edition”, I refer you to our Bannerlands game blog and the more 100+ game session entries which seem to indicate otherwise…
- And if you’re interested in game design and DM/GMing in general, and D&D in particular, be sure to check out Robert J. Schwalb’s blog (robertjschwalb.com). He’s got some great insights and posts…