Friday, June 17, 2011

Dealing with Character Death: The Stages of Grief

So here you are, your PC's have returned session after session battling and puzzling through your labyrinth; you have put them through trial after trial and they have made it to the final battle. The evil mindflayer they have been pursuing stands before them, and they stand exhausted, yet summon their courage once again to save the innocent peasants who have fallen to the flayers tentacle-y appendages. A fierce battle ensues! One of the PC's is grappled, he is one die roll away from having his brain eaten! You prepare to roll the d20, your PC stares with wide hopeful eyes, the die falls, you look down and....the mindflayer rolled a natural 20.

If you've DM'ed before you've probably been in this situation before. Approaching PC death is a largely personal process. Some DM's have no qualms about killing of their players, some even enjoy the process of trying to mow them down. I've played with several different types and I have had to deal with this situation myself many times.
I find their is a very fine line that must be walked between mercy and severity to make death feel like a very real possibility, yet keep the players desire for fun in mind.
Here are a couple things I consider when deciding whether or not the PC kicks the bucket, or if they live to fight another day:
1. Will the character death serve the story?
2. Did the death occur because of some direct choice or just plain bad luck?
3. Is there a way to save the character without suspending PC belief?
Some PC deaths occur because of boldly made role-playing choices, others are just strokes of plain bad luck. If a PC intentionally put themselves in danger to save a loved one/the party/the world and fate happens to roll against them I usually let the character die in a heroic blaze of glory. This type of consideration underlines the importance of character's values, it shows the PCs that character motivations matter, they have very real rewards and thus very real consequences.
The most important tool a DM has in this field is the deux ex machina. If artfully used, saving characters from the brink of death can make your game more believable, more incredible, and make the PC all the more connected to the character they portray. It honestly all comes down to story though. And as a good rule of thumb when dealing with character death, is to remember that story always trumps rules.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Looking for Group: Collegiate Misadventures

August last year, I was lovingly packing my dice and tomes into the back of my Corolla, excited with a little trepidation as I prepared to move my entire life to the strange and magical land of San Francisco. I had said farewell to the friends and groups I had seen every Sunday for the past year, taking comfort in the fact that a place as 'colorful' as San Francisco must have gamers galore. Somewhere in the city there would be strange esoteric game stores and crowded dorm rooms full of people just waiting to roll those dice!
I arrived in my new local and began to ask around officially 'LFG'. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and still I had not found anyone who knew/admitted to playing in a consistent game. By this point I had coerced all my new friends into learning the ways of the dice, was running some games here and there, but the gamers seemed to be hiding in some place I could not find.
Growing desperate, I frantically searched the college's online list of clubs and was met with success: a board gaming group that met every friday night from 5-midnight! This was the best lead I had found in months. My delicatele explanation to my friends that I would be unable to engage in the usual friday revelry, to instead play board games with strangers was met with laughter and puzzlement. But really I was desperate for people who dreamed of dragons as often as I did.
Bearing my bag of dice (just in case) and my box of 'Dominion' cards to use as a peace offering I strode boldly into the gaming club meeting room.
There were about twenty people all standing around in cluster, my eyes immediately went to the row of glowing laptop screens which displayed running World of Warcraft avatars. It took a couple seconds for the room to realize there was an intruder. Heads turned my way and I was met with the stunned stares of nineteen or so guys. The room was quiet for a small eternity before the talk of MMRPG's resumed. Feeling like an outsider I made my one to the only other girl in the entire room. Slightly awkward getting to know you conversation was made, as I was pointedly ignored by most people in the room.
I honestly couldn't believe how prevalent the 'oh my god there's girl in the gaming store' stereotype was being enforced.
She granted me access to a couple board games, where my questions about the rules were met with heavy sighs and eye rolls.
After about an hour of this the majority of the group left for a pizza run; frustrated and disappointed by this point, I hung around pretending to text as the people left stood around talking to each other. Suddenly clear as a bell I heard the words 'yeah 4thE clerics are so rigged'. I POUNCED.
Sweeping in suddenly with my knowledge of daily spell allotments and healing surge capacity: they were stunned. When I told them I was a DM they officially accepted me as one of there own. Talk of DC's and B.A.B's flew, the conversation turned to WOrld of Warcraft where my three years of dedication and name dropping of my level 80 hunter won me further respect.
I was relieved, I still had a place in this culture. Now that I could speak the native language, I quickly learned that a group of them had a game that they ran weekly, on top of that I learned that several of them were DM's as well.
My excitement diminished however as I began to speak more to these DM's. All of them were supporters of 4th Edition and relatively new to the scene. I dropped questions about 2nd edition, AD&D, and even 3.5, but I was met with blank stares.
The final blow came when one of the DM's was talking about the combat he was planning for next session, "They're totally not going to survive this time," he said with unbridled glee.
Call me picky, but I knew in my heart that I would not be happy with a place at this table. I love the story, the interactions, the politics, and fighting the good fight alright. But a killjoy DM? Players who were in love with finding the best ways to exploit the combat system? I was in a room of next generation gamers, and though I was probably the youngest person in the room, I suddenly felt very old.
The night drew to a close, I thanked everyone for the games, and walked out. Not sure if I would ever return.
Needless to say I gained a few insights that night, some pleasant, some not so. But I'm still on the quest for that rare and wonderful perfect group of gamers. Or if not, someone who gets excited when they see my tattered 2nd edition DM screen.


Sunday, June 12, 2011


I haven't posted on here in a year, college life and rebuilding my own world had temporarily taken me off the path of my tabletop life, but this fine summer day something kicked me back into high gear.
Reddit is an internet site where users can post funny/interesting/controversial internet pictures and other users can comment. Much to my surprise I find this on the second most popular page:

Reading the comments about strangers reaction to this all girl group I ran last summer has made me realize young female gamers, DM's in particular are still very much in need of a voice.
Get out you dice and let the diplomacy rolls commence :D

Friday, July 9, 2010

Celebrating our 15th Session Mark

I'm pleased to say that my all-girl campaign has now reached it's 15th straight session. Meaning we have been consistently at it for about four months now, playing once a week. For those of you who know teenagers or know the way teenagers play Dnd, this is a rare feat indeed.
This has been the longest running game I've ever DM'ed, and for many of my PC's it has been the longest continuous adventure.
I'm very grateful to have had the dedication of my PC's for running a long-term game has so many benefits that 2 or 3 session campaigns just cannot provide. My improvisational game style coupled with the amount of time I've had as a DM has allowed a beautiful world ecology to spring up. An adventure that just started as a run-of-the mill slay the werewolves scenario has yielded many different countries, races, and cultures. My map grows every session much to my delight, and I keep liking what I find there. The long term game has also allowed a more complex religious system to the world, and a great train of mythology that players discover almost as rapidly as I do.
I never expected to get this far. My player's have loyally progressed almost to the end of a huge overhanging story arc. Our game has actually survived one of the PC's moving across the country. We've had dragons, dungeons, fights, marriages, political intrigue, and even a little time travel.
If you haven't had a long-term game yet, I highly recommend trying to start one. And if you have, then you know the brave new world I'm walking into.
So here's to my PCs! Birdie, Fawkes, Kavin, Isis, Momo, Saelana, and Pel, you are the best friends a Dungeon Mistress could ask for :)

Monday, July 5, 2010


One of the most interesting (and most challenging) aspects of being a DM deals with the creation of dungeons. Dungeons as a title trademark have to be exciting mixes of combat and traps (and a couple great treasures as well) to confuddle both the brawny and the intelligent characters in a party. And consequently one of the best things about designing dungeons, are designing the puzzles.
There is nothing better than creating a puzzle that sets your players wondering, a puzzle that hearkens back to the dungeons in Legend of Zelda video games is just so satisfying!
And yet creating such encounters are not easy, typically I draw my inspiration from games or obscure fantastical literature.
I once created an entire puzzle dungeon, for several PC's who were willing to do away with combat for a while. Creating that dungeon really challenged my DM skills and forced me to question just what line DM's should draw when puzzling their players.
There are three main types of puzzles that I have observed:
1. Word puzzles- I think every DM out there has thrown a riddle at their PC's now and then. Usually these are employed to get past doors, or nasty creature guards
2. Physical- This is when you shoot your characters out onto a giant grid and they have to figure out that to move safely they must follow a certain pattern. Or they must touch the statues in the correct way to open a door
3. Situational- These puzzles are the most complex, for they usually role-play based. Often you have an entity who wants something and the players must determine what exactly that thing is
I'm always looking for new puzzles and traps to use in my campaigns, if you all have any suggestions of where to look, or want to share your all-time favorites, the floor is open :)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Overcoming Stereotypes...Trying to Get those Folks to Play

Let's face it...I love Dnd. And it's a big part of my weekly regime (two nights of my week). And consequently I wish to share this love amongst my friends and comrades. Because one, I'd love to have them understand how cool it is to be able to cast a level 5 teleportation spell or why it isn't crazy to turn them down for a hang out because I'll be busy being a Dungeon Master.
One such individual I would love to expose to the game is my charming younger sister. She has participated in a brief 4.0 session (not a true indicator to what Dnd is), she has actually asked to play once upon a time but I already had 7 people in the group...and now when I remind her of that, she claims to not remember -_-
This phenomenon seems to occur very frequently. I have a couple of friends who straight up refuse to play. My other DM has been trying to get his wife to play for what is so scary about Dungeons and Dragons?
The most common reason I hear is that "it is too complicated", most people look at the character sheet and turn pasty white looking as if they are about to run. Then a careful explanation on my part ensues in which I have to promise only a little addition is required. And true enough it does take a couple hours for a newbie to make their sheet...and by then you may have lost them.
This is why I have come up with my sucker-punch strategy. I'll have a new player just roll up ability scores, health, and I'll give them a weapon. Then you play a gentle (yet sufficiently cool) encounter to let them catch their footing and slowly introduce extra rules. I find a rat-infested cellar is usually a good setting, though for my brother I made a fight-club located through a secret panel in a bar.
For now, I've given my sister a copy of "Confessions of a Part-Time Sorcerer," a personal narrative about how a girly 30-something woman gets involved in Dnd and totally loves it. I'm hoping the comical approach and easy to understand explanation of rules and look at gamer myths will do some good...otherwise I'll have to sucker-punch her

Friday, June 18, 2010

Combat Expertise

One of the most well-known and integral parts of Dnd games are the combat encounters. Be it a hearty orc slashing or an epic wizard duel, almost every game eventually turns to a physical encounter.
This fact is probably the topic most brought up when describing different game styles, particularly when discussing the differences between male and female Dnd players. It is a common stereotype that male players live for the hack and slash moments of the game and consider everything else just a distraction. And it is true that many PC's use the game to focus on boosting their own power, rather then role-play mushy moments.
But in all honesty, building a good combat can be just as hard as crafting an intriguing plot line. Combat can quickly turn to a boring roster of waiting to make repetitive actions. Therefore it is a DM's task to throw something new into the mix other then the stereo-typical encounter.
My main strategy for spicing up combat involves crafting strange settings that force PC's to think of creative fighting solutions. Instead of a flat battle-field, I'll have the PC's do battle on a descending spiral staircase; or I'll replace the traditional road scene with a slippery ice tunnel. Adding extra elements that make combat harder (such as having to make balance checks or skid across the icy ground), makes a victory far more rewarding then in the traditional scenario.
It's also important to vary the types of encounters. PC's tend to get angry if you continually have combats where a group of monsters sneak up on them...mix those situations in with others:
-Single vs. Many- The whole party gets pitted against a giant
-Large Scale Warfare- Each PC gets a battalion of units to command in a large scale war scenario
-One vs. One- One member of the party challenges a single NPC, a wizard duel, or honorable duel to the death
-Group vs. Horde- The party must combat a huge swarm of rats or entire encampment of kobolds

When designing combats, the really important thing to remember is to play to your characters. Nothing is more frustrating when a wizard chooses tons of area of effect spells, and the DM keeps throwing single opponent fights at the party. Likewise, rogues need combats to use their backstab abilities, so sending them up against battalions of incorporeals isn't going to make you popular.
Taking session turns to appeal to all the different fighting styles of your PC's can be a very rewarding experience for them. If you choose not to do that however, just make sure that every character manages to find a useful niche in the group dynamic that makes them eager for the next round of combat

Happy fighting!