Thursday, September 28, 2006

How to Awesome-Up Your Players

In the previous post I wrote that "[w]ith a cooperative GM you can buckle swashes without the mechanics holding your hand." It occurred to me that I could explain what I meant by that statement and in the process throw out a sort of DM's advice/personal DMing philosophy. Now, what I'm about to lay on you won't work for every campaign. Really, my comments are only applicable to the kind of game where kicking asses and taking names isn't a job, it's a calling. What I'm here trying to do is to outline how you as the DM can empower the players to make the game a non-stop high-octane freak-out. (Now, with extra hyphenation!) Activating caffeine-fueled stream-of-consciousness testifyin' mode...

Always Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing - Is that an old Bob Newhart line? My wife likes to bust out this phrase once in a while. Anyway, the Main Thing in an awesome-focused campaign is this: Your players are rock stars and they're here to rock your house. In this paradigm your job is to be the roady and the manager and all the other people who make the concert possible. This isn't one of those analogies that can be stretched forever, instead just mediate on the simple fact that your job is to help your players rock out without getting in their way. Everything below builds from this foundation.

Give the players the sun and make them fight for the moon - What I mean is that you give the players almost everything they want and them put them through a thousand chinese hells to get everything else. Put the PCs on the throne of Aquilonia, if that's what they want, then have ten-thousand angry Cimmerians invade, intent on burning their capital to the ground. Not because you're a sadistic asshole, but because fighting off an army of Conans is one of the cool things kings get to do.

One good place to put this principle in play is at character generation. Even a guy like me, who like robots and lasers in his D&D, occasionally gets on this funk where I consider trimming down the character build options to achieve some sort of artsy-fartsy effect. You know the drill. "I want to do something Arthurian, so no Asian-flavored classes in this campaign." or "This is going to be all Conan-y with the swords & the sorcery, so no demi-humans in this campaign." Although I truly, deeply understand the profound artistic reasons for such an approach, let me simply say: fuck that shit. We're talking about D&D here. If you can't fold themes and motifs into a game starring an elf ninja, a halfling bard, and two ill-tempered gnome wizards then you should be writing bad fan fiction, not running actual games for real players. Just please don't post your stories anywhere on the net where I might see them.

Your NPCs suck and they are all going to die - Very few players show up to the table in order to soak in the glory of experiencing your skills as a thespian. Even fewer will ever show the awe and respect you want for your own personal Drizzt. Leave that stuff at home. Instead show up to the table with stats for people they can beat up. Similarly, you and your players will be a lot happier if you get into the zone of thinking about your campaign world as "that place the PCs are going to destroy and then remake in their own image".

On a tangentially related note, I've never seen any good come from uber-powerful people sending the PCs on pissant missions. "If we don't pick-up Elminister's laundry from the Dry Cleaners of Doom then he might turn us into a toad" is never a sound way to structure an adventure. You'll do better just frankly stating to the players "I wrote this dungeon. That's tonight's adventure." and leaving it at that.

The game is neither the mechanics nor the rules - Don't let the mechanics dictate anything they don't have to. For example, Doug wanted a spiffy new magic sword. He had 120,000gp burning a hole in his pocket. (That's a big pocket.) The 120,000gp disappears from his char sheet and the ubersword takes its place. The rules say Doug's PC Angus has just purchased that sword. But Doug knows better. He knows the rules are there as a tool to support the game. So right in the middle of my hack-n-slash gamist pawn-stanced D&D game, Doug seizes directorial control and gets all narrative on our asses. "Angus is given an ancient ultimate sword by his homies in the church of Thor. He blows the 120K on the biggest motherfucking party the City of Greyhawk has ever seen." Doug rocks. And I rock too, because I run a game where Doug feels comfortable wailing on his mind-guitar like that. This example goes right back to Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing, as Doug was very actively rocking when he did this, but my rocking right then was more of the wei wu wei method of rocking. Sometimes the DM paints a picture, but sometimes he just sets up the canvas.

Here's an example that doesn't involve me high-fiving myself for doing nothing but sitting on my ass while my player does all the work. Last night Gruul the Half-orc had a bead drawn on one of the bad guys and loosed two feathered shafts into him. This dude only had 2 hitpoints left and Gruul hit him with two critical strikes. In some games those crit rolls would have been wasted. Any two arrows hitting would have iced that mofo. But Jon (the DM) freaked my shit out when he then called for Jason (Gruul's player) to roll two to-hits against another foe standing directly behind the first. The shots hit and damage is tallied. Jon: "The first guy totally explodes and the arrows pass through him, into the second guy, who drops dead." Do you see what Jon did there? He went over and above the call of the mere rules to allow Jason's guy to totally kick ass. In-character this did much to cement Gruul's reputation in the party as a badass mofo with the bow. Out-of-character my appreciation of Jon's DMing went up a big ol' notch.

When in doubt, let a player roll some dice - If your Inner Magic 8-Ball isn't giving you anything to work with, sometimes you should pitch things back to the players in the form of requesting a die roll. If you can't make up your mind how to answer a question just break it down to a simple roll, clearly outline the stakes, and have a player roll it. This technique gets at least one player engaged in the game (making it a good thing to drop on an otherwise disengaged player), gets them rolling dice (which all decent right-thinking non-communist players love to do), and gives them ownership over a part of the game that isn't their character (thus empowering the player). And if the die roll yield a result unsatisfying to them, the blow is softened because they had a fair chance to get another result. It's not like you faked some roll behind a screen. Not that I'm against faking rolls behind a screen.

By the way, I break out a real Magic 8-Ball once in a while. Because I can.

Okay, folks. The buzz I got from that Mello Yellow I drank is finally wearing off. If anybody digs this rampaging, vaguely coherent look into how and why I run my games the way I do then maybe I'll touch upon this topic more over the weekend.