Sunday, October 30, 2011, 9:14 AM
A curious occurrence has been made far too apparent during past and recent sessions: a character begins and ends with the combination of his or her race and class. While such an identity may help the player create an outward appearance, voice, and scant mannerism, it leaves a great deal unsaid and unfulfilled.
In looking at the characters, I've come to understand that there's a missing piece to each puzzle. Race, Class, Alignment, Background, and Theme are great for fleshing out a character, and learned Skills further focus a character's efforts, but something must come before even these choices.
The concept of a character is a great opportunity to tie the various choices together while providing a key motivation throughout the character's adventuring career. This idea must precede the actual creation of a character because it is the central agency from which such decisions will be born.
Concepts go beyond the mechanical benefits of a class or race, and they do not provide the bonuses sometimes inherent to backgrounds or themes. Rather, concepts offer intangible rewards by way of a key idea that resonates through the character's actions, words, and choices.
As an example, a player might say, "I want to play a character that is an aspiring actor that wants to see more of the world by way of adventuring." So, the concept is decided, and the ensuing choices might include a Changeling Rogue with skills in Bluff, Diplomacy, Streetwise, Intimidate, Stealth, and Thievery. Rather than being an acrobatic Rogue that borders on becoming a duelist, this character would use words and deception to overcome challenges; rather than confront enemies with swords, this character would attempt to deceive the enemy into accepting a new course of action.
Themes and backgrounds are great assets during character creation and throughout a character's life, and the line between a concept and a theme or background is very thin, but from a certain point of view, a character concept can define which theme or background is most suitable, which ability scores are worth bolstering, which skills best compliment an idea, and which race and class, as a combination, can best reflect the player's underlying idea for how he or she wants to interact with a given fantasy setting.
Please bear in mind that this is merely a reflection and observation of what I've seen with a small group of characters that have been mostly aimless in their pursuits, goals, and core personalities. By employing a character concept, I hope characters can abandon the whims of an adventure by clinging to the underlying ideas that define each adventurer.
Sunday, September 4, 2011, 10:26 AM
To be a Dungeon Master, you must first be a storyteller. Each adventure you orchestrate is a chapter in your unfolding work of action, suspense, mystery, and heroism.
At times, adventures are momentous stories that propel characters into situations that are dynamic, intriguing, and fun to experience; these are the adventures that bring the players back to the table.
Now, what happens when the adventure is ten hours into the story and the player characters have yet to discover who their foe is or where they are supposed to go. The players’ ignorance is not born of inept questions or lazy attitudes, but rather their situation is grounded in the lack of a theme for the adventure. Without a theme, details do not reinforce one another, NPCs do not draw from the same source or motif, and explored areas do not lead toward the greater story.
Everything in such an adventure exploits one trait: awe. The enemies are shocking--and, at times, delightful in their inclusion, discourse, or action--and the settings epitomize fantasy. Unfortunately, nothing shares a common factor; it appears as though various components of awe-inspiring movies and novels have been brought together, welded to each other, and arranged in such a manner that the individual components are interesting while the overall production is confusing.
The answer to all of these issues is theme. The DM could remove all of the detractions from the adventure by choosing a persistent and prevalent message, employing traps, dungeons, settings, and monsters that reinforce the message, and moving the story forward with the introduction of each new element. Theme brings coherence and focused creativity to an adventure, and it allows the DM to tell a compelling story that truly draws the player characters into the action.
Themes could be as simple as reinforcing the adventure’s villain—a dragon, for instance, or undead—and it could be as subtle as political unrest. Imagine that an adventure seeks to stop a treacherous plot against an arcane library, and a cult of anti-magic, religious beings assault (by proxy) the tenets of a city and its expansive library of magical lore. The villains would be obscured and unknown from the adventure’s onset, but the adventure’s themes of religion, closed-mindedness zealotry, and empowering magic would lead the player characters toward a defined goal, and the adventure’s various elements would continually reinforce one another.
Awe is fine and well, but it's best when it's used in small doses. If everything is awesome, nothing is awesome; the once-fantastic world has merely become a lesson in tedium, and the adventure's resolution will be met with sighs of relief rather than cheers of victory.
*This is inspired by a recent adventure in which I partook, and these views address the difficulties of a labored story that I hope is the exception rather than the standard*
Wednesday, June 8, 2011, 11:52 AM
A campaign is a shared story. The premise of the fiction is determined by the DM, and the page-to-page action is determined by the player characters. Like all good fiction, a good D&D campaign should strive, at every turn, to move the story forward in much the same manner as a short story or novel.
Novels usually begin one of two ways: a prologue introduces a primary character at a dramatic point, or the story begins in the middle of an event. Unless a gaming group is keen to role-play their characters' backgrounds--which should already be in place when the game starts--the campaign should start in the middle of things.
I know I am taking a divergent tone here, but the staple campaign begins in an inn or tavern. While such an introduction eases players into the story, it is grounded in the facade of choice. The town's mayor will invariably ask the players for assistance, or the hooded-and-cloaked wizard will offer a substantial reward for the players' time and effort. Rather than open a campaign with a vague sense of direction, I choose to start a campaign with an event already in motion. The players return from a month-long journey to find their home town under attack, or perhaps the players awake in the middle of the night to the sound of steel clashing with steel as city guards try to find off a dastardly kidnapping perpetrated by cavalier bandits. The event occurs, and the players have a choice: do they involve themselves in the situation, or do they sit back and watch? Either choice can lead to a furtherance of the story.
Generally speaking, I usually have two to four linked stories in one campaign. As the players resolve one issue, they discover a hidden depth to the story that leads them toward a new problem. I provide the overarching story--the end-goal of each segment of the campaign--and I leave the players to their creative approaches when they try to resolve the problem. NPCs might provide assistance in the form of advice or maps, but such assistance must be sought; it is never freely offered. Also, the interim points of an adventure--the time spent traveling, the nightly rests, and the passage through a city or town--don't always need to be fully explored; if nothing important happens, a brief explanation of the setting and background activity should suffice. When something important occurs, time can slow down to its normal crawl, and the players can immerse themselves in a given situation.
What does this storytelling approach accomplish? It tells a clear story that always provides a sense of direction. It gives players the ability to measure their progress. And it allows for a measure of freedom and choice that never feels like a random choice made by an unprepared DM.
The start of a campaign--the first hour, the first encounter, or the first session--can determine the players' general outlook for the rest of the campaign. If a DM can set a strong plot hook early in the campaign, the entire group has a much better chance to fully enjoy the story that will unfold week by week.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011, 5:06 PM
I often tell my fellow gamers--especially when I am the Dungeon Master--that a character needs to exist beyond the character sheet. Making a character is more than selecting options in the DDI Character Creator or rolling dice and choosing options that sound fun; a character should have a history, a background, and a purpose.
I bring this up as a topic because 4th Edition D&D seems to be disasterously lacking in the character background department. With 4E rules, it's too easy for a player to simply create a shallow character, throw on some heavy armor, grab a heavy sword, and wander into the wilderness to attack a random monster. The story should count for some of that fun--it should count for *most* of that fun--and a character background is a fantastic addition to the information that's contained on a character sheet.
By knowing the motivations of a fighter, the origin for a rogue's deft-handed skills, or the basis of faith for a cleric, the individual characters become round characters; they have traits and concerns that are not listed on the character sheet.
I tend to run my sessions with a story-first approach. My fellow players give me detailed backgrounds of their characters--who the character's parents were, where the character grew up, if the character can read and write, what the character did when it was an adolescent, and the history of education that gave the character class-related abilities--and I craft a story that pulls at the very essence of each character while telling a fun, involved, and detailed story.
I also apply a measure of reason to the characters' interactions with the fantastic world in which they travel. I've found 4th Edition skills to be too broad and too available to all classes, so I let my players know if their character has a chance of understanding an in-game element when he or she uses an given skill check. For instance, a Fighter wouldn't know much about the intricate nature of magic, so the Fighter's Arcana check probably won't succeed. Likewise, a non-rogue character is going to have a difficult time succeeding on a Thievery check. Just because a character is heroic, the character is not able to succeed at everything. Heroes have limitations, and those limitations serve to define the hero; overcoming a seemingly mundane obstacle is part of a character's growth, and those same obstacles can strengthen the bonds between various characters in a given party. If the players rely upon one another, they can achieve a greater sense of cohesion and teamwork than the basic 4th Edition rules would call for.
Why do I go to such lengths to introduce character to the characters? I enjoyed the adventures I had when I played 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and I firmly believe that the 4th Edition ruleset has deviated from the core experience that D&D should provide. By taking some of the emphasis away from the hack-and-slash, video-game-inspired combat of the current ruleset, I think I am providing my players with an immersive experience that is at once enjoyable and memorable.
Some people may not agree with the direction in which I take the current iteration of the game, but, as the DM, it's my job to ensure everyone has a good time. To me, a good time means a story worth the players' time and effort. If someone wants a quick, easy, and shallow experience, there are plenty of other options available for DMs and players alike.