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.


  1. Dude,
    All I can say is that if I ever win the lottery I am flying you and your family out here for a week. And we will do some serious gaming (and the we're all going to Disneyland)! I love your attitude towards the game.

  2. Anonymous10:27 PM

    Dear Jeff --

    Every once in a while, I run a seminar for people who want to be better gamemasters. I change it and streamline it with every iteration, improving it as I learn more good stuff.

    If you won't allow me to use this advice in my next version of the seminar, I swear I'm going to totally cry like a little girl.

  3. Anonymous10:51 PM

    You've really outdone yourself here - long story short: unless everyone is having a good time, what's the point of playing the game?

    Keep rockin' on that mind-guitar Rients.

  4. Thanks for all the kind comments folks!

    Doc R!: knock yourself out, my man.

  5. Dude...

    This is a ROCKIN' entry! Reading it makes me think about the way at times that I approach the games I run. Every now and then, I get all caught up in the "I have a kick-ass story to tell you"-aspect of GMing and forget that the players are there to not only support the story I want to tell, but forge tales of their own from their own perspective.

    Just shows that after 25+ years of GMing, an old fart can learn something new.

    peace... RHM

  6. Absolutely beautiful.

    I was in the middle of writing something vaguely similar up for RPGTips, but this says it so very much better. Finally someone who understands that the phrase "power gamer" needn't be said with scorn.

    I love you, and I want to have your babies. :)

  7. Huh. If you were the GM, I might actually play D&D...

    As long as you let us use gestalt classes.

  8. RG, it's great to hear from you! For my next campaign the group consensus has been to not play the gestalt rules. Gestalt walk a very fine line between uberpowerful munckin-osity and utterly rules-breaking train wreckage.

  9. Well done! I am cross-linking this post to my own anemic gaming blog because you have said so many things I believe so much better than I could say them.

    And consider yourself bookmarked.


  10. Anonymous9:06 AM

    Excellent post. This is how I like to run my games too..."Rock Star" is exactly how I want my players to feel.
    Character potency is a central item.


  11. My friend, this is some awesome stuff.

    I cannot begin to say how exactly you've hit the nail on the head. When people want to play heroic games, they want to F*** SOME S*** UP. These ideas let them do it.

    Plus, the alternative destinations for magic-item buying are pretty sweet as well.

    In conclusion: any article where the majority of commenters end up sounding like grunge rock fans after a mindblowing concert has GOT to be good.

    Rock on.


  12. Anonymous6:16 PM

    Great article, but you lost me at the "elf-ninja" thing. Honestly, cramming fantasy motifs together in an effort to cook up "hero pie" stopped being fun for me around the time I turned thirteen (a LONG time ago.)

    Having characters kick ass in a believable setting with plausible premises makes for much more fun. In my opinion, games with healthy doses of realism make the magical, "high fantasy" stuff much more compelling (through contrast.)

    Call it artsy-fartsy if you want, but you can keep your bard halflings and 120k gold piece swords. Just because the name of the game is D&D doesnt mean it has to be silly.

  13. Thanks for the comment! Just to be clear, I'm not trying to point to the one true way here. This is just my way for my games.

  14. Anonymous3:42 PM

    Some of this was definitely good advice, specifically the piece where you mention that the pc's, not the npc's, are the center of action. Everything else should pretty much be placed in the circular file.
    I realize that since the publication of third edition the place of the DM has been relegated to that of a, primarily, random encounter generator... which is why I no longer run D&D because a computer can do that just as well and it has pretty pictures and takes care of all the mechanics.
    As GM I prefer to see myself as co-creator and setter of the stage, and I never give players carte blanche to make whatever character pops into their demented little heads. If I'm running a Samurai campaign set before the Tokugawa era, everybody must make a character that will fit into that setting (generally I offer a variety of campaign ideas and put it up to a vote). And, if a character does something that the surrounding society would frown on in a rather lethal way, I've never held back. Which does mean that I've executed a few characters from time to time. Had it happen to one of my characters when I was playing to. Still had a blast.
    The point is that what your suggesting here is that the GM shouldn't have much in the way of say over the campaign they are running, despite the fact that they're the ones that put out 90% of the effort, and I'm afraid that is just not something that I can agree with at all.

  15. Thanks for the comment, even if you do think my advice is mostly rubbish. Do you really use D&D to play "a Samurai campaign set before the Tokugawa era"? That's pretty awesome, but also light years away from the kind of kitchen sink stuff that I find D&D most suited for.

  16. Anonymous6:48 PM

    This is my gaming philosophy to a T. I am glad I am not the only DM out there who plays like this. Operatic Rock-Star D&D forever.

    Its one of the reasons the “Elminsters” of my campaign world are old PCs from previous campaigns. Even if it’s a character someone played 5 years or more ago the player always takes pride that their old character lives on in the mythos of the world. The players not the characters are the most important factor in any D&D game.


  17. Anonymous10:36 PM

    OMG, I can't beleive I wasted 10 minutes reading this. I'm not going to sit here and bash anyone opinion. I'd like to just state mine.

    I'd like to start by saying I totally disagree with your whole approach. I acually laughed out load when I read the line "Give the players almost everything they want". What happened to making the players earn what they get and reward for great playing and extroidinary achivements? If you give them what they want, they have nothing work towards. It doesn't allow them to actually roleplay, think, come up with new and interesting ways to overcome a situation.

    In your example about Doug buying an a spiffy new magic sword....first of all, my DM would laugh at me if I asked to buy ANY kind of magic item. Magic and magic items in our game world are not something are easily baught or found. And good luck finding something specific. Anyway, back to the example...So now Doug spends all that money on a cool magic sword. Now he thinks he has the answer to all his problems that are thrown his way, "I've got this sword to use now". Having everything you want and relying on those things (magic or not), leaves you totally one dimentional, not allowing for imagination and skill to shine through. I personally would get bored playing something like that.

    Please don't flame me on this post...I'm not trying to bash or say what you or anyone else is wrong. I'm just throwing my 2 cents in.

    I'm glad to hear that all of you are having fun with what ever game you plan and how ever you choose to play it.

    GL all, and "Game On"

  18. There are two types of GMs: Those who believe their players really know what they want and those who run a good game.

    One of my favorite examples is the television show Cheers. The show started off great until the producers listened to the fans and hooked up Sam and Diane. At that point the show began to seriously suck. Once they solved the problem by breaking them up, the show got good again.

    Too many GMs are afraid to say no to their players. I strongly recommend asking your players what they want before starting a campaign, but after that, stick to the program. If the players want a Norse campaign in which they make an epic journey, don't let someone bring an "elf ninja" into the game. To borrow your "rock star" analogy: You've set a particular stage--don't let Anthrax perform at Carnegie Hall.

    Challenging your players with powerful, recurring NPCs is a great way to build excitement. "The last time we saw Reginald the Red, he kicked our asses! Time for a little payback, Reggie!" Eventually most NPCs should die--but if they "suck" there's no satisfaction in killing them. Killing a worthy opponent is far more rewarding than killing a cookie-cutter schmuck.

    D&D is a game. Games have winners and losers. If there's no chance for a PC to die, then it stops being a game and becomes a Barbie Dream House instead. If there's no risk, the reward isn't sweet. If you really want a "non-stop high-octane freak-out," keep them on the edge between living and dying, make them pay for their mistakes, but reward them when they accomplish something noteworthy. Starting them off as The Beatles gives them the world--starting them off as The Quarrymen gives them something to pursue.

  19. Anonymous1:52 PM


    I'm stunned. That...was...

    I'm so glad my DM isn't like this. My game is fun because everything I get I've earned. I would find this game boring as hell.

    When you have nothing to fear from your surroundings, whats to stop me from trashing it?

    and this line:

    Doug rocks. And I rock too, because I run a game where Doug feels comfortable wailing on his mind-guitar like that.

    What is this, Brokeback Dungeon? Stop massaging you PCs sack and grow a set yourself!

    Also that sword would cost 250k now if Doug tried this crap at my table. Also, I would have some NPCs totally raid his "Celebration PArty" and steal all his loot so he couldn't pay for it and be thrown in jail.

    Not trying to rain on your parade, I was just tired of being called out on another message board claiming I didn't have the guts to say it here.

    Good luck to you and your game. I'm sure you and your guys have fun. Keep playing and keep having fun.

  20. "Not trying to rain on your parade, I was just tired of being called out on another message board claiming I didn't have the guts to say it here. "

    Ummm, what? Knowing that people are slagging me on a message board feeds my ego, so thanks for that. I'm mean, seriously. I was just telling my friend Laurie that having critics meant that I had arrived as a blogger. But then to hear there's chitchat about me on some board somewhere? I'm totally off to google to find that board!

    Still, I can't shake this weird vibe I'm getting off of your post. Admitting you're only here to establish your own testicular fortitude to your board buddies makes it a wee bit harder to take your comments seriously. Add in the fantasy homoeroticism and it makes seeing your legit points a little more difficult to notice.

  21. Anonymous8:45 PM

    Howdy Jeff,
    Just out of curiosity, how often do you use a variation of "I'm awesome" in a day? Cause I counted at least 2. In one paragraph. :)
    Weird mix of tone: "It's not for everyone" and "This is the greatest way to play."

    2 bits of advice: A) watch Doug. I had a guy who started with minor things like that, then moverd to "the Enemy Queen loves me. Entire adventure neutralized." Note I said I HAD one. B) bit sappy, but never stop trying to improve, be it Gming, playing, or life.

    Anyway, best of luck,Good gaming, etc.


  22. "Just out of curiosity, how often do you use a variation of "I'm awesome" in a day?"

    About a gazillion.

  23. Anonymous5:23 PM

    I think people who say that if you give the players everything the want easily they derive no reward, are missing the point.

    Slowly scrounging together copper pieces one by one to afford a magic sword may be rewarding for you. However, Jeff's players seem to derive their reward from just simply playing.

    Jeff's style is not for control freaks, which is definitely a vibe I'm getting from the comments.

    Great post. Continue to rock out with your cock out. Fuck yeah!

  24. Great entry. This is spot on.

  25. Anonymous10:30 AM

    awesome post. I definitely agree about not being afraid to give the players power and then tossing them a challenge for that level of power.

    Some parts aren't to my taste as a DM (we all do have our own style), but I'd play in that game any time.

  26. Anonymous12:54 AM

    reading the post I kept thinking 'this sounds like a game that would be load of fun ' :D

    reading the comments I started thinking 'well, maybe is a wee bit OTT'

    sitting & typing I'm thinking.... both actually.

    Every DM has a forte - a style that they are best at, enjoy the most, and that their players enjoy the most. And more power to them for using it because there isn't much worse than a DM who isn't invested in or enjoying their own game.

    Ultimately if the DM & the players are all enjoying it - that's a good game :D

  27. Reading the comments I'm puzzled by the people who seem to have skipped reading the whole paragraph about giving players almost everything they want and them putting them through a thousand Chinese hells to get everything else. If putting them through a thousand Chinese hells to even get a magic sword in the first place is what floats their boat, fine, but I don't see anything you wrote that implies you skip putting them through hell altogether.

  28. Anonymous4:35 AM

    Great article. This is exactly what has happened in every ultra-fun RPG I have ever been a player in.

    As far as the "no elf ninjas allowed, it ruins 'the mood'" crap, I say rubbish. If you really don't want to ruin the illusion, just say that elf ninja isn't really a ninja. No, he's a member of a secret elf society that likes to spy and assassinate people and wear all black. Simple enough, eh?

    When a player wants to play a certain type, they usually don't want to play THAT EXACT THING, but instead they want to do what what that type of character does. There's so much room for creativity here.

    Anyway, keep on rockin'.

  29. Jeff, you're a mad man.

    I am WAY late to this party... But I just had to leave a comment. This post is probably one of the best that I've ever read. Why? Well it left me saying "Hell Yeah!" and "WTF?" all in one sitting. Talk about a dichotomy.

    I'm not sure that this type of game is right for everyone. Mostly due to the fact that you have to have a freight-train imagination that's capable of going from 0 to 1k mph in 6 seconds flat. Me? I'm more like a 1967 VW van.

    Would I have fun as a player in a game like that run by a DM like you? Hell Yeah! Would you have fun in a game like that run by a DM like me? I very seriously doubt it.

    I'm not trying to be self deprecating here, I'm just being realistic.

    Your 1000 Chinese Hells would taste like copper on the tongue in the middle of a fly-infested desert when you were dreaming of water. But that's the absolute joy of the situation man! And that kind of shit just makes me want more... I'd thrive in that scenario baby. But you totally have to know how to set that scene, most DMs just aint got the mojo.

    This is the most wicked cool advice that I've EVER read pertaining to the "old school" mindset of running a game of Dungeons and Dragons. You do ol EGG proud.

    Spot on Rients!

  30. Anonymous2:42 PM

    You aren't alone in your opinions.

    You basically just summed up my games and my gaming group.

    Great article thanks for writing.


  31. Fun comments. Remind me to mix less story into my summer blockbuster of a campaign.

  32. Anonymous6:40 PM

    ^ Um wtf? Three posts of spam links in Arabic? Wonder if they do that to get past spam filters.

    Anyway, awesome post. If anybody has misgivings about busting out a magic 8-ball at the gaming table, they need to relax and just have fun.

  33. Anonymous3:20 AM

    Having players risk loss in their adventures and having to earn their rewards does not in any way require being controlling, or mean stifling creativity.

    Pacing, risk and reward, escalation, and resolution are all basic parts of a good story.

    The post does tend to gloss over the risk and earn aspect in favour of the gushing about rock-star levels of awesomeness, but to break out a little Ator... if you look deep into his eyes, you can see it. It is definitely there.

  34. I was just told about this blog post, and love it so much I have to comment, even though it's been years since the original post.

    I ran a campaign once in a style very much like what you describe. No characters died in the campaign, but then, there weren't a lot of combat encounters. No big surprise that one of the players decided to drop out after the first year. He was accustomed to a different style of play.

    The remaining players stayed with it for another three years, because there was an actual storyline to the campaign and mysteries for the characters (and players) to solve. I was continually modifying the campaign based on the decisions and actions of the PCs, and the players loved that what their characters did had an actual and obvious impact on the campaign world.

    So I lost one player. Later I gained another one, and his PC had to start at level 1, while everyone else was at level 9 or so. I put it out of my mind what level he was, and challenged him as though he were the same level as everyone else. He still survived the campaign, and went on to become as powerful as any other PC in the campaign. He later told me that he had been a bit upset with me at first that I had made him start at level 1, but that by the end of the campaign it had been one of the greatest role-playing experiences he'd ever had. Now, if I'd used another style of GM'ing, do you think his PC would have survived? I think not. And he would have been robbed of having that great role-playing experience.

    This style of GM'ing is obviously not for everyone. But for those who embrace it, it is a hell of a lot of fun. PCs begin to attempt heroic actions that very easily might get them killed if the GM always puts game mechanics before having fun. And you know, there were a few times when PCs were very close to dying, so there was still that element of suspense. In fact, because it was not something that was constantly happening to them, to be in peril for their lives, it was all the more suspenseful when those situations did occur. Think about it; if you're constantly in peril for your life, what's the suspense? The suspense is not whether you will die, but when. Some players like a game where they believe their PCs have a decent shot of surviving to the end of the campaign. And if they do survive all the way through those thousand Chinese hells, then they will have earned some fond memories of your campaign.

  35. Definitely need more GMs with your attitude

  36. Anonymous7:28 PM

    This is a great post, but it's mostly wrong. In weaker moments I've run games with your philosophy, and the players have gotten bored- they could sense there was no tension.

    One of the most exciting games I've ever run had an long, extended encounter that was a rip-off of the Temple Of Doom mine car chase. I'm not exaggerating, here- the gamers were on their feet, screaming, white-knuckled, adrenaline pumped- it was wild, especially considering we were reacting so intensely to an event that we were all just imagining was happening:

    Adventure fiction thrives on the feeling of danger, and the excitement comes when the heroes survive that danger seemingly against all odds, ideally by the skin of their teeth. Any screenwriting book will tell you that an overwhelmingly powerful enemy is the first rule to creating an exciting story.

    Now, kick-ass heroic actions at the right time, when the players have their backs against the wall, that's when they count in spades.

  37. Dudes who have a problem with this post, reread this: "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."


    Second, take a look back at the recent Wessex game posts from Mr. Rients' recent Wessex D&D game. The characters are not overpowered, not by a long shot.