Thursday, August 12, 2010


In the comments to yesterday's post about beating monsters your sword can't hurt BigFella of Saturday Night Sandbox made a really great point:
I think the trick is not having a certain "magic bullet" that's the only way to kill the monster, but rather being open to unorthodox wacko crap that desperate players come up with when their pointy sticks aren't working.

It's the players' job to be clever, the GM's job is to give them something to be clever about and to inflict the ramifications of that cleverness in an even handed manner.
That second line should be on a bronze plaque somewhere.  Magic bullet monsters are okay in small quantities, but in general I think D&D is at its most fun when the DM doesn't have a specific endgame in mind.  Set up a situation, drop in the PCs and react to the PCs.  That's the most important part of being a DM.  Someone else could be the rules guru at the table and advise you whenever something technical came up.  Your main job behind the screen is to remain open to the infinite possibilities ahead of the party, collapsing the waveform only when necessary and with as little personal bias as possible.

Back in the nineties I used to play Champions with a really cool bunch of people here in central Illinois.  Whenever a GM's carefully constructed plotline went pearshaped they would break out this bit of wisdom: if a referee plans for X responses to the situation, the players will come up with at least X+1 approaches to the problem.

Nowadays I like to set X equal to zero and see what happens.


  1. The way I usually do it is I go:

    Ok, this looks impossible. Good. Then I it for a second and see if I can think up a way around it. Then I do.

    Then I figure, if I could think of one, then they could think of one.

    (And I KNOW whatever they think up won't be what I thought up.)

    Then I stop thinking, because if I start thinking of more ways I'll get the urge to plug the holes.

  2. Nick (the Agreeable)5:49 AM

    Yes, I find that to be true. I didn't always think that way though.

    My DMing style has changed over the years. I used to plan elaborate campaigns/sessions and tried to plan for any possibility. It was maddening to me how the players seemed to always veer the plot into directions I hadn't intended. I was always racing to build bridges back to the "correct" plotline.

    Then one day it just dawned on me. Wherever the characters chose to go WAS the correct plotline. I was the one who was being difficult, trying to force the story to be this or that rather than just letting the story unfold of it's own accord.

    I think everyone at the table had a lot more fun once I learned how to be flexible enough to roll with the punches. After that the sessions rarely went just the way I had planned... often they were better.

  3. Settembrini6:06 AM

    In Continental-Prussian adventure gaming theory, we developed this concept to quite a degree, reflection-wise, "weighting of plausibilities". It has been found that it is objectively indistinguishable from malicious intent-techniques aka arbitrariness/railroading etc.
    As the technique is the same form from the outside, we came to the conclusion that it is the spirit of the DM, his ethics, that alone decide. The basic ethical stances that have been found are: hubris of modelling/controlling the/a world vs. hubris of controlling the emotions of the players(not their characters). Personally, setting X to zero is pretty much the default since I started DMing, published modules do have X>0, though. It is by them that i have found that leaving (rathern then setting) X at zero does induce longer planning discussions at playtime. This might be at odds with some pragmatic dimensions of the game.

  4. There is one key to making this work, though, that is often overlooked. The DM needs to create a rich environment with props that can be put to a variety of uses. Sterile 10x10 rooms with nothing but an orc and a pie don't give a lot of fodder for creative solutions.

    Or, if the DM isn't so good with rich environments, deliberately encourage your players to create the environment with you. "We need something to slow down those gargoyles! Are there tapestries on the wall we can drop on them?" "Well, there are now!"

  5. Hey, thanks for the shout out.

    You could also paraphrase by saying:

    If you want a specific outcome, write a damn novel.

    Which kind of sounds like something from your famous post about awesoming up your players.

    The discovery of how much more rewarding the game can be when you let it happen rather than make it happen is one of the pillars of Old School, sandbox style thought to my mind.

  6. I really like this post.

    And I really like Settembrini's comment about X being greater than 0 in modules. It now makes sense to me why I've never really used modules. Well, I do suppose it was considered uncool and uncreative to use another persons game. But still, it seemed like if we were to run a game that was already planned out, it was technically finished before it was started. Not sure why, but we just didn't like it.

    It may take the PC's a while to come up with a plan to get out of the situation they're in. But they always seem to keep coming back for more abuse if you completely rack their brains of all possibilities. Set X to 0 and see what they can come up with. I've never read of such an easy way to put it. Totally made my day.

  7. Jeff,

    Not sure how else to contact you, but for a while now it seems that random backlinks to your blog have been appearing on my blog.

    I don't mind backlinks that are related, but these seem very random and unrelated and so I thought I'd mention it in case there might be some tampering with our blogs somewhere.


  8. I totally agree with the ideas presented here and over at BigFella's blog. I've been thinking a lot about this actually. It occurs to me that a lot more big-bads should be "impossible" to hurt in the traditional ways. It's really not that much fun to hit the dragon 100 times to make it go down. Much more fun to be creative.

    Recently, in CotMA, there was a ghost or poltergeist or something on Lvl 2. TPK at the time because no one had a magical weapon. Well, the characters started attacking it's mouldering body with holy water -- BAM -- that hurt it a little. On character grabbed its skull and started threatening the ghost -- "You don't want me to crush this..." -- BAM -- that hurt a little more. Eventually the heroes were able to open a chest with a magical sword in it and it was used to defeat the ghost. The battle was much more entertaining and creative with all the other things going on, rather than a "run away" or TPK. Sorry for the ramble. Great thread!

  9. Ah yes, the good ole days when the players were actively trying to find x+1 for certain gm's. Miss gaming with you Jeff. :)

  10. @Jim
    Heck, look at how they killed the dragon in the classic fantasy flick "Dragonslayer".

    (I'd say how, but I don't want to do spoilers. Just check it out if you haven't seen it.)

  11. @BigFella -- that's the way it's done. Dragonslayer was great. Vermithrax Pejorative. Great dragon. I have one in my campaign that I've named in his honor -- Scytherax Frime. :)

  12. This may be stating the obvious but I think it's worth sounding like a gomer to make the following point - It was a hard lesson for me to learn and sometimes I still wrestle with it.

    You need to be willing to let the plan the party comes up with work.

    Of course, not every plan has to work I understand that a GM needs to offer the players a challenge, but remember that when faced with a choice, they are going to go with what seems to work. And most people I have played with need to be TAUGHT that an idea that comes out of nowhere is worth trying.

    Really, it only takes ONE failed scheme for players to decide otherwise, as long as it's the first one. I feel the first out-of-nowhere solution proposed in a game should always be at least a qualified success, no matter how dumb it may sound.

    Many GMs are perhaps too smart for their own good. Ignore this voice of reason.

    Example scenario, completely off the top of my head. There is a werewolf plaguing the good-hearted gnomish miners hanging out on dungeon level 2. They blunder into his lair, but unable to harm him, they flee. Not having any access silver or magic weapon, one player, half-jokingly says "Fuck that guy! Shortstack the Dwarf is going to take off his boots and sneak in there while he's asleep, and chop up this wolfsbane in his pipe tobacco." The temptation may be strong to say "his keen wolf senses will smell the wolfsbane. He's going to start being extra careful!"

    RESIST THIS TEMPTATION because that is how you teach one PC to assume they must have missed the NPC who gives them the quest item, another PC that there is a 10 step sequence of actions that you have meticulously set that is the only route to success, and the third PC that the gnomes will survive until we've got a couple thousand more XP and the level-appropriate gear, and if not, them's breaks.

    I think the minimum success rate here is "the werewolf gets really high and, noticing Shortstack hiding behind the arras, asks him if he thinks it's a man in the moon, really, or maybe more of an androgynous being," or maybe "he breaks out in hives and, running toward you on all fours, stops in shock, seemingly unable to change out of his puny human form." For brand new players, character optimization types, longtime video gamers, etc. it may be better just having him light up, gasp, and keel over dead.

    Once the campaign starts finding its feet, you're going to need to make things more unpredictable and keep them on their toes. Convince the giant that you're the wizard who built his cloud castle and he might give you the key to the billiards lounge, but of course he'll assume you full well know about the horrible curse upon those who sink the immense 8-ball and so spare you the warning he was sworn to convey to those who defeated him in a fair fight.

    But remember that all things being equal players prefer to succeed rather than fail, and that it's more fun to stick to "failure = 'different'," and save "failure = 'man do I regret doing that'" for only the dumbest schemes or most perfect instances of poetic justice.

    The worst may actually be where the plain fails but nothing much happens. If they spike the Minotaur's carrot juice hoping he'll pass out, don't let him just hold his liqour because he has 8 hit dice - maybe he starts bellowing drinking songs loud enough to wake the (un)dead or decides he's going to go ask the hag on level 3 out on a date, and his path takes him dangerously near the PC's hiding place.

    Basically, try to keep the players from getting the idea that they might be wasting their time by treating the game like an adventure, rather than a series of stern and arbitrary tactical challenges. Otherwise, you really shouldn't be surprised when the players take more of a Warcraft raid approach to what you hoped might be your rowdy old-school game, or just stop taking initiative altogether.

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  14. Speaking just as a GM, if the game goes the way I envisioned it during prep, I feel the players have let me down, because I already saw that session once in my head and didn't need to see it again.

    Fortunately, players almost never let me down.

    My word verification is "penize." I'm going to read it as a verb meaning "to make more like a penis." For example: "This cake would be even funnier if we were to penize it a bit."

  15. Awesome post! Totally agree. I think one reason I stopped roleplaying years ago (I've since started up again with vigor) was because the games were getting more and more predictable and 'hack and slash' as opposed to a collaborative, creative story-making session.
    To me it's critical that the DM be willing to totally roll with the punches and have an absolute poker face when the PC's do something he never would have imagined them doing.
    It's so much fun as a player when you feel like you could do absolutely anything and there were simply be consequences, not right or wrong decisions. If myself as a player can't tell what was planned by the DM and what he's coming up with by the seat of his/her pants and it all feels like it's building a story of which we (the players) are valid co-authors... then I'm one happy PC.
    As a DM, I find I've got to design like mad the game world and make the environment as rich as possible... then I just kind of like to let the players lose in the 'sand box' and run my own plots in the background (as if the NPC's were PC's doing their own thing at the same time). A favorite GM of mine reminded us that his campaign was a 'living world', meaning that just because we forgot about something we did two sessions ago didn't mean the consequences still weren't being played out behind the scenes and might come up again later.
    And I totally agree with letting players make gains just by being willing to be creative. This is a game after all, and it is meant to be fun.