Category Archives: Table Dynamics

Coming Back After A Long Time

So, you’ve done it.  You finally killed Tea-A-MATT and Waht-R-DEEP, who were both totally out to kill you, and you were ALMOST about to escape the Alpha Complex when you got taken down by The Computer.  Congratulations.

lisaBut now, after a nice foray into another genre, a different taste of a different campaign, possibly even a different system or a different GM, it’s time to return to the campaign that you’ve been working on for the last two years.  You’ve finally decided on a Paragon Path (or Prestige Class, if you have trouble moving on) for your half-elf ranger, and you’re itching to get your hands on the new PHB2 for a look at some feats.  That wizard that seemed so bland a month ago is starting to look pretty sweet again – as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder.  As a GM, you were wondering how you were going to make another adventure in another dungeon seem exciting to the players, but you picked up a copy of Open Grave, and now you’ve got some ideas on how to take the campaign in a rather dastardly direction – a dead ally is is now an undead foe.

When you and your group take some time off from your campaign to try and get a little variety, the transition back to the old and familiar campaign can be a little tough.  However, with a little thought and preparation*, you and your peers can return to your endless crusade against evil with a second wind and a dash of excitement.

  • Free Level – Few campaigns will make it from 1st level to 30th (or to whatever top-of-the-tier-ranking-system suits your fancy), so, rather than be a miser, just throw out a free level.  Let the players start off with a new spell or feat or ability.  This will make the character fresh and new.  If you can, have the players pick their advancement before you meet, so you can tailor the adventure to their new feats.  (“I’m so glad I picked up Great Cleave as a feat – we’ve fought so many goblins tonight!”)
  • Time Passed in the Campaign, Too – Not only has it been a month in the real world, but maybe it’s been a month in the campaign.  Or a year.  Or two.  Maybe you reached a good stopping place (this would require some forethought by the GM), and your characters had traded their swords for plowshares, and were masters of their estate, looking forward to a life of vinification and child-rearing.  Then BAM!, Lord Pharaxus not only rises from the dead, but sends his minions to kill your spouse.  Nothing to do but round up your old allies and go show a lich what’s what.  Maybe your characters spent some time in court, getting into the intrigue and what-not.  You gained a level (or two), and some contacts, when your liege asks you to step in and get a little more directly involved.  Like, fireballs and holy smiting involved.  Same characters, same fond memories, but a new direction, a new focus, and a little new flavor.
  • Rebuild – This one won’t work for all campaigns, but perhaps your players have become masters of a system, and when you started they were but novices.  This is especially true when you upgrade a new edition.  Take an evening and let your players rebuild their characters.  This requires a little maturity on their part, and you should ask them to stay as close to their original character as they can, but let them make some corrections.  Maybe the GM doesn’t weigh social interaction skills as much as genuine roleplaying, and your players spent a million skill points on Conversation and Bluff and Streetwise, skills that are relatively useless under your game style.  Or they thought Staggering Smite would be awesome, and yet they’ve only used it once in the last eight levels and wish they had taken Righteous Smite instead.  Let your players rebuild a character.  There might be a little retconning involved (“Remember that time you cast Bigby’s Icy Grasp?  Too bad you can’t do that now.”  “I know… Uh… If only I still had that scroll…”), but any good group can get past that.
  • Trade Players – This can be done any time (and I’ll probably make a full post about this as a tool in a group), but trade players.  Have the fighter play the mage and the cleric play the rogue.  Not forever, just for the first night.  This will allow the group to remain the same, but the players will get to try something new to transition back into the game.  Have your players be as true to their interpretations of the character as possible.  Your players will get to see new uses for old abilities (“I never though to hamstring and set him on fire at the same time… that’s awesome!“), and will get an idea of how the other players view their characters (“Boruthos isn’t anywhere near that arrogant… is she?”)  The second session back, the players will pick up their old character sheets with both excitement about their combat skills, and a deeper understand of how their characters are perceived in the group.

And there you have it – four easy (relatively) ways to make jumping back into an old campaign fun and refreshing.  Now, about what happened to Tea-A-MATT…

*Note: Why is it that every GM tip is easy and fun “with a little thought and preparation”?


On Continuity and Barney Stinson

So, I watched a TiVO’d episode of How I Met Your Mother yesterday. It’s one of my favorite television shows, and I think it’s one of the best sitcoms on television right now, if not the best. But that’s neither here nor there.

Barney StinsonWhat’s here is that there was a continuity error on the episode “The Bracket“. While that doesn’t seem like much of a deal, it is for a show that makes inordinate use of flash-backs and flash forwards and different retellings of events. (In fact, for those not in the know, the entire show is one giant flashback.)

See, in The Bracket, Barney Stinson mentions that he may have sold a woman for a Mercedes, which he then drove off. He also flashes back to where he stole a date’s truck while camping, and then drives off in it. There’s only one problem with these two scenarios…

Barney can’t drive.

Alas, in the episode “Moving Day,” it is established that Barney is terrified of driving and can’t really do it. (It’s all he can do to get a moving truck around the corner behind a bar.)

Bit of a continuity error. Ah well.

I’m not really going to review the episode, but I do want to talk a bit about continuity in your campaign. I like to think that the succession of all campaigns (when one campaign in a group ends, and another begins with the same players), falls into a few broad and vague categories, summarized by, appropriately enough, television shows.

  1. The Office / Battlestar Galactica – The two campaigns have nothing in common except the basement where they take place. Setting, genre, feel… All are completely different.
  2. House / Grey’s Anatomy – Same feel, same genre, different settings. Crossovers aren’t really possible.
  3. Cheers / Frasier – Same setting, but cameos and crossovers are rare.
  4. Star Trek – It’s the same show. Different characters, but you know what you’re doing and references abound.

Now, in the first two, continuity doesn’t exist and is a non-issue. (In today’s post, I’m dealing with really long term continuity. I’ll address shorter term, between adventure continuity in another post another time.)

In the third one, continuity is present, but is relatively easy. One is in Boston, the other is in Seattle. The only time you really have to think about continuity is when you have an NPC cameo, when there’s a little crossover. It won’t happen often, but it can happen. Otherwise, continuity can safely be ignored, or easily dealt with by any DM worth his salt. Occasionally, you might make a small error, but it can either be explained away as the slip of the tongue. (“Did I say the Eye of Thorgonia? I meant the Hand of Thorgonia. Sorry about that.”)  Others can simply be retconned in. (“I know Lord Salazzar would have been three years old at the Second Battle of Chanapoly, but he was propelled backward through time by a rogue Time Elemental.”)

Of course, these kind of gaffes should be avoided.

The longer a campaign runs, though, these gaffes become harder and harder to avoid.  My Countless World setting has been home to between seventeen and thirty campaigns, depending on how you slice it.  Errors are going to show up.

I’ve got three tips for avoiding these kind of errors.  Each of them work well in the context of role playing, though they might be more difficult to maintain in a more constrained narrative (such as a book or movie).

  • Long Dates – The best way, in my opinion, to handle temporal continuity, is to make everything take forever.  No two hour battles – battles take a minimum of two days, if not weeks or possibly even months.  No month long wars – wars take years and years and years and generations.  This solves the problem that any time you reference two things happening concurrently, it could be the end of one and the beginning of another, giving you a wide window to work with before you commit an NPC to having been in two places at once.
  • Short Dates – On the flip side of the coin, short dates can help, too.  If you refer to an NPC being at the Battle of Tunigia, “from the moment the ships came down from the sky” to the moment “we stormed the walls and raised our flags in victory,” and you’ve stated the battle took eleven weeks, you’re kind of committing your NPC to being their for all eleven weeks, which can preclude him from being involved in other battles of the war.  It would take some awkward backtracking for you to say they were there on the first day, and there on the last, and absent in the middle.
  • No Dates – The final, and easiest, way to address temporal continuity is to simply ignore dates.  Don’t reference when things happened.  Sometimes you have to, either vaguely or specifically, but whenever possible, ignore dates.  (“He fought in the Chriminian War with your father in the year before you were born” should be cut to “He fought in the Chriminian War.”)  Often, this is not possible – Players need to know when things happened, and you never want to cut out the flavor if you can avoid it.

Admittedly, this is somewhat contradictory advice.  That being said, each piece of advice is appropriate at different times.

I also recognize that this advice is all about temporal continuity, which really has nothing to do with the aforementioned Barney Stinson continuity error.  However, it’s the first piece of continuity I want to address, and I started thinking about if after watching “The Bracket.”  Bear with me – I’ll come back to both short term continuity and non-temporal continuity another time.

Until then, there you go.

The DM’s Role, Part 2 – Is Not

And now for the second part of my three part series on the Role of the Dungeon Master. This post will be on things that the Dungeon Master is not. These are things that are separate from the role of Dungeon Master, and while they are sometimes overlapped, are not in anyway integral to the responsibilities of the DM.

I have two roles, and they come down to the beginning, and the end.

  • Inspirer – At the beginning end of the spectrum, the Dungeon Master is not the Inspirer. It is not the DM’s job to make sure the player’s are inspired. The DM, in his role as the Creator, is responsible for making sure the campaign setting is inspiring. But the DM needs to be inspired by his Players as much as they need to be inspired by the DM.Granted, the DM is frequently the Most Experienced Player, and it is the responsibility of the Most Responsible Player to make sure other Player’s feel creative, to help them get their sea legs. But if the Player is having trouble thinking of a cool concept, or creating a wild character, or finding a niche they want to fill, it is as much their responsibility, and the responsibility of the other Players, as it is the DM’s, to make sure that those concepts and ideas are brought to fruition.
  • Decider – At the other end of the spectrum, in the end, it is not the Dungeon Master’s job to be the Decider. Some may argue this point, but I’m a firm believer that this is a holdover from the Most Experienced Player overlap. The DM should not necessarily have the final call.If there is a conflict in regards to the rules, I strongly feel that unless the DM knows oodles more about the system than the Players do, the DM shouldn’t rule by fiat. The Players should reach a consensus. Sure, if one Player is abusing the system, it’s the DM’s role to squelch that abuse, but otherwise, the DM should engage the Players about how they feel the system should be run. The DM shouldn’t just decide what they think is best without the input of the Players. The DM may be somewhat “in charge,” but they run the table at the pleasure of the other Players.

Now, some players may not agree with me, but I think these two are pretty clear. There are other roles that I will be presenting in my third part that I think are more subjective, but I think these two roles are clearly not intrinsically linked to the DM’s role.

The DM’s Role, Part 1 – Is

This will be my first post in a three part series: the Role of a Dungeon Master. In this post, I will be tackling what a DM is, and in the following posts I will tackle what a DM is not, and finally, what a DM frequently is, but should not be.

  • Player – First and foremost, a Dungeon Master is a player. I think this is something people forget: that at the end of the day, a DM is looking to get the same enjoyment out of a play session as a player. They’re not getting paid, they’re there to imagine. Their imagination may encompass a slightly broader scope, they may be imagining kingdoms instead of heroes, but they’re players all the same.
  • Storyteller – The DM, in the greatest abstraction of his role, is a storyteller. A bard, preferably one level higher than his players. The DM is responsible for maintaining the narrative of the game. The DM must be a master, an artisan, of all the things that make good writing – plot, character, dialogue, pacing. They must be able to make jokes, and references to high and pop culture, and use their campaign as a commentary on a greater theme, all while making it relevant to the other players. And the DM must do all of this, all while keeping the players engaged in the story they are collectively constructing.
  • Creator – In order to support his role as a Storyteller, the DM must also be a creator. Sure, it’s possible to just buy a campaign setting, and buy an adventure, and run said adventure, but without a little authorship, he’s not really a DM. I’m not saying don’t use published campaign settings, and I’m not saying don’t buy adventures. I’m just saying that if a DM adds nothing of his own invention to a campaign, then he’s more of a Dungeon Facilitator than Dungeon Master.A DM needs to take his campaign, published or original, and make it his own. There has to be something in the campaign that speaks to the players, be it a villain or a village, a monster or a magic item. More importantly, there has to be something that the DM brings to the table every night that speaks to him directly. A good DM takes ownership of his campaign. Even if you’re just adapting the Marvel Ultimate Universe to a Champions Game, you need to bring something new and fresh to the table to surprise your players.
  • Arbitrator – Last, but not least, unfortunately, is a Dungeon Master’s role as the arbitrator. The DM facilitates questions in regards to both the rules, and to the players. While there may be better at the table better suited to the role of a diplomat and a mediator, the ultimate responsibility falls to the DM. Why? Because any serious disruption of play can lead to a disruption of the story, and it maintenance of pace falls under the DM’s responsibilities as a Storyteller. It may not be ideal, but never forget that this is part of your role as a DM.

I doubt I have many readers to comment on this post, but the role of the DM is something I feel strongly about, and expect me to come back to this subject again in the future.