When Old and New Collide

In a tower, in a prosperous trade city, an archmage desires a guardian and an assistant. Familiars are useful but fragile things. He knows of golems but they are unintelligent, inflexible things. He wants a finer creation. He studies, researches, and experiments. He crafts a better golem body – strong and dexterous – and armors it with finely forged steel. Finally, he begins the invocations to animate the construct – but he goes a step further and imbues it with the tiniest shred of his own soul to give it life.

“If this works I will create more,” the mage swears quietly to himself as he waits.

The construct’s eyes flicker to life, and it moves. Limbs bend and twist. Its legs fold and shift. Turning, it rises to its feet and stands over the mage, looking down at him with glowing blue fire in its eyes.

“What is your name?” the mage asks keenly, waiting to hear how this new creation responds without any other prompting.

The construct’s eyes flicker with surprise and it considers this question. Finally, it answers.

“I should like to be called Mohr, I think.”

The mage smiles, amused.

“Welcome, Mohr. I look forward to getting to know you.”

As D&D Next continues to ramp up, I’m reminded of what happens when two editions collide in the context of a home campaign. Specifically, how we as DMs deal with the change of materials and how it affects the canon of our homebrew settings. Thinking about the changes from 4th Edition to D&D Next reminded me how a new element joined my campaign while another element gracefully bowed out during the edition transition from 3rd Edition to 4th.

I began my homebrew setting, Solista, in early D&D 3rd Edition, easily transitioned into 3.5 Edition, and finally transferred happily into 4th Edition. Most new 4e races fit right into my world, or else had very easy explanations to squeeze them in with the rest. Genasi? No problem. Tieflings? No problem. Changlings? No problem. Warforged No prob- w-wait, what!?

Warforged seemed pretty cool to me as a player and as a DM. I never thought of them like robots, instead I had mythological Galatea-living-statue type inspirations. Regardless, warforged simply hadn’t existed in my setting previously. I didn’t want to ban the race, so I embraced their existence in my setting. I added them to a city the players had never visited, and established their numbers were few, but enough that my players could choose to play one.

In 3.5 Edition I had crafted, playtested, and perfected to my personal satisfaction, a custom homebrew race. They held an important place in my world’s history and lore. Unfortunately, 4th Edition had no room for them – mechanically they just didn’t work out at all. After much playtesting and pulling of my hair, I eventually accepted the fact they would not be a good fit for 4th Edition rules. While I could just change them to monster stats, it didn’t feel right. So I embraced another change and took things to their next logical conclusion: the homebrew race had to go.

Over the course of a few plot arcs, I established that the race, called gryfalkyrie, packed up and moved out without so much as an explanation or a farewell. They left behind their cities and their villages. I used this to spark controversy and war. Kingdoms that conflicted with the gryfalkyrie now surged in to claim their lands. They disputed over new borders, treasure hunters looted the empty cities, and preservationists protested potential destruction of the nearby natural wilderness. A new organized was formed to protect the forests – the Wardens – which became a basis for an entire campaign in of itself. This and so many other things evolved from my setting just from dropping a single homebrew race.

D&D Next may or may not bring new things to my campaign setting, but it may very well remove some things. I don’t need to make that a bad thing though – it can mold and shape a new age in my campaign, which is good. Nothing should stay the same way for too long.

Et tu, DM?

Betrayal is a classic trope. I think every DM uses it sooner or later. Betrayal reminds our players to question what they hear, to think about other perspectives; to anticipate betrayal means  thinking about what benefits your betrayer. Players that fail to do these things fall victim to betrayals easily.

The key to DM planning for a betrayal is flexibility. You can never truly predict a party’s cleverness and reactions. As a result, I take a sort of “Schrodinger’s” approach to NPCs – an NPC’s goal can be changed at any time until observed definitively as one particular goal by the PCs. I’m not perfect, I can’t perfectly predict every possible outcome of my group’s actions, therefore I have to take a reactive approach to planning certain twists. I find this makes them more believable. After all, this is sort of true in life as well – any person can change their mind at any given moment: including the bad guys.

Types of Betrayals

The Inevitable

Most of us are familiar with the quote “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” (shaking your fist when you say this is usually required.) We tend to think of betrayals as a surprise, but some are not so unexpected. The Inevitable is the betrayal you see coming from a mile off.  Sometimes we can’t help it. Evil Bart the local trail guide is obviously going to betray the party at the first possible chance, but sometimes a party just has to take that risk to gain other benefits.  Like the stabby equivalent of a surprise birthday party, the party knows the NPC is going to throw one, it’s just a matter of when and where. The best way to make an Inevitable betrayal more interesting is to challenge the party’s assumptions. Listen carefully to your party’s opinions about your NPCs for ideas – consider if you can twist those perceptions even a little. It wouldn’t hurt to encourage some wild speculation while you’re at it. Whatever the players are expecting, try to take a different angle.

Well-placed Inevitable betrayals will build a gritty atmosphere in a setting where you want to portray a lot of corruption and strife. Lightly handled Inevitable betrayals can bring an air of humor to an otherwise serious transaction. Out of all betrayals, Inevitable betrayals are the easiest on the trust between a DM and the players. By continuing to interact with the NPC, they acknowledge they’re accepting that possibility. Personally, I feel Inevitable betrayals should never be huge story-changing betrayals. They work better with smaller consequences that the party can recover from quickly.

The WTF

Blind-siding my players is sometimes immensely satisfying. This betrayal is all about it. Give no clues, reassure the players frequently about trust, raise no alarms and when no one in the party questions their loyalty that is the prime moment to strike. Treasure the look on everyone’s faces when they realize their fervent ally just jabbed a poison dagger in the party’s collective back.

As the DM, you control all the information your party receives. Therefore the WTF is the easiest betrayal to pull off by simply denying your players knowledge of the impending betrayal. The easiest to prepare and use – you don’t necessarily have to do any long-term planning. You can simply decide on the spot to suddenly have a trusted NPC suddenly sell out the party – for no particular reason if you need it that badly (although gold, lots of gold, is usually a solid stand-by). Be warned though! The WTF betrayal is an easy crutch. Used poorly it comes across as petty: a cheap shot at the players for daring to trust their DM. It’s a sudden and shocking experience and it burns bridges fast. Use it too much and your players will soon trust no NPC, regardless of undeniable proof or sincere gestures of loyalty, because they will no longer trust YOU.

The Hindsight

The best betrayals are the ones the group should have seen coming, but didn’t. This is the villain’s betrayal. The masterpiece. I call it the Hindsight because all the clues were right there all along: seen but never suspected. Only when they look back do they see how they were played all along. Unlike the WTF and the Inevitable, the players will only blame themselves after a beautifully executed betrayal.

The Hindsight betrayal is the opposite of the WTF in that, as the DM, you must shower your players with hints about their impending betrayal without ever revealing their doom. Too much info and it tips over into the Inevitable territory. Not enough and the players will be oblivious and WTF’d by the outcome. It’s a narrow and delicate line to tread.  It can involve providing clues that seem unimportant, by distracting the characters with a scapegoat, or an over-abundance of information that mixes truth and falsehood.

The downside of any betrayal is sometimes you’re not as clever as you think you are – or your players are far more clever than you gave them credit for. Always stay prepared for a premature epiphany. If someone does figure out betrayal is inevitable (heh), you have a few options depending on your situation. If the evidence is still in the early stages you can back out of your plans and perhaps play up a sense of unfounded paranoia. This can be great for some games – a sort of “reverse betrayal” in which you can “betray” the party’s sense of distrust and paranoia by surprising the group with intense acts of loyalty or piety from the suspected NPC.

In late stages it may be best to let your plans unravel. Perhaps the villain realizes the gig is up and has to change their tactics to their own disadvantage, or the villain could carry on as usual and your players end up with the upper-hand, surprising the villain with their preparedness. Either way reward, don’t punish, the players for their insight. Allow them to enjoy having the jump on your villain’s plans for a change – you’ll surprise them again soon enough.

Save vs. Player vs. Player

    “I’ll let the thri-kreen know we’re back so we don’t startle them,” the dragonborn female explained as she slipped past the wardens. The tunnels were cool and dark and Kiveya, the daughter of a dragonborn merchant, was eager to finish this trek and return home. The Wardens thus far had tolerated her presence, but the hostility was palpable from certain individuals. It was because of her father. They didn’t trust him – for reasons she didn’t know – they wouldn’t discuss it with her. It didn’t matter though, she got the goods she came for and she’d be out of their hair as soon as they got back to the city. Striding ahead, Kiveya began clicking and trilling in the thri-kreen language, calling out her customary greeting into the silent tunnels ahead.

    “That’s a good idea. Billy, why don’t you join her? You speak ‘kreen too don’t you?” piped up someone in the back of the group – it sounded like Melwyn. Kiveya snorted derisively and looked back over her shoulder, “You guys, he doesn’t actually speak ‘kreen! He lied about that.” Rolling her eyes, she turned her attention forward again, frowning at the significant lack of response to the groups’ presence. The hive tunnels were eerily silent.

    She heard his booted feet behind her, but she never expected what happened next. She started to turn, opening her mouth to speak – to remark that something was wrong up ahead – when cold steel bit into her scales and explosive pain blossomed somewhere in her lower back. The scream that ripped from her throat was shockingly loud – overwhelming the cries of confusion and surprise from the rest of the Wardens. Billy slashed across her unprotected back again and Kiveya staggered away from him. She stumbled. Knees and palms barked sharply against the rough stone floor, she barely realised she had fallen. The noise of scuffling feet and shouting voices came from behind her, strangely muffle and distorted. Kiveya collapsed, spasming weakly in a slowly growing pool of dark blood.

    “BILLY! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” Morwen’s shout echoed down corridors.

-=-=-=-

What followed was chaos. Billy was turned into a rat and then yelled at by his superior officer. Kiveya (my character) was healed but not happy. She was eventually put in a headlock by the goliath fighter to keep her from ripping out and wearing Billy’s entrails as jewelry. There was a lot of angry name-calling and accusations of betrayal by various parties. Feelings were hurt and even one member of the group quit in utter disgust of the unfolding events.

… and we all had a TON of fun!

You see, while the exact circumstances weren’t planned, Billy’s player and I had come to an agreement that our characters were at odds and if the roleplaying opportunity presented itself, then one of our characters would spontaneously take advantage of it to escalate the hostilities between our characters. After “joking” all evening about a secret signal for the entire group to turn against my character, Billy finally struck first and was rewarded with a critical hit on his surprise attack – the result was magnificent. The conversation at the table went something like this:

Myself: Oh, I know Billy doesn’t speak thri-kreen!
Billy: Oh that is it! I attack her! [rolls] Natural 20!
Everyone: [laughing, they all clearly think Billy’s Player is joking]
Myself: Holy crap, seriously?
Billy: Oh yeah, Billy’s serious, he’s sneak attacking.
Everyone: [laughing dies] Wait… what?
Myself: You are serious… [enormous grin] Okay, what’s your damage?
Billy: [math] and extra damage from my encounter power [more math]
Myself: Awesome, I’m bloodied!

We rolled initiative after that, the DM treated the first attack as a surprise round for Billy. Billy won initiative so he got to attack again, used an action point, and reduced me to negative hitpoints. After healing me, the rest of the fight consisted of the party trying to keep us from attacking each other by various means. Enjoying ourselves immensely, Billy’s player and I shouted insults and accusations across the table, roleplaying our characters to the hilt. Having concealed my class from the group the entire time, it’s finally revealed my character was a (reflavored) vampire, thus heaping more suspicion on my character as I needed to steal healing surges from the others to keep Kiveya alive and fighting.

Eventually the leader of the party negotiated a cease-fire and Kiveya compromised down from tearing Billy’s heart out personally to settling on him being arrested and taken back to her home city be charged with attempted murder. She is, after all, the daughter of a wealthy and influential noble who loves his daughter more than anything (seriously, I took “Well Loved” as my background!) so Kiveya is confident she’ll have no problem having Billy strung up for his crimes.

Player vs. Player rarely works as well as it did that night. The reason this session turned into an epic win was because the key people involved were already in the know. We had a mutual understanding and an agreement on how far we could take things – he actually had permission to kill my character if things went that far. I agreed not to kill his character if it came down to it. The DM was aware of our plans and approved. The rest was luck and good roleplay.

Usually when I see PvP at a D&D table it fails enormously because someone wanted to surprise someone else: the player thought the other player would pick up on the hints, or they thought just surprising them would be more fun. A DM orchestrating PvP without telling the group ended up with a table full of awkward hostility, not sure why everyone was taking things so personally! It’s hard to resist the urge to have everything be a surprise – it always seems like such a good idea! Unfortunately, I’ve never seen it work well that way.

PvP is often upheld as the Unholy Grail of Never Attempt This Or You Will Regret It. I disagree by merit of last Monday’s D&D game. PvP can be done and it can be great. It should not be over-used, and it should be pre-planned to some extent by all individuals – not spontaneous. You don’t necessarily need to tell every person in the group – but you do need to inform the targeted individuals in advance. Approach the actual roleplay carefully, gauge reactions. If half the group is surprised, they’ll look to their teammates for their reactions. While Billy and I were relaxed, smiling, and sitting back in our chairs calmly watching instead of being tense, frowning, and sitting forward then everyone at the table knew things were okay. From there, everyone can realise its all part of the plan and have a good time.

So has anyone else been in a PvP situation? How did it turn out?

Exploding Criticals!

I’ve always liked exploding critical rules. Additionally, in 3.5 D&D I often played with a triple d20 dice by Las Vegas Decker, on Flickrcritical rule where three natural 20s meant you automatically killed the target. Admittedly when I was a player I loved this rule but as a DM it often threw wrenches into my gears (one of my players was nicknamed “Dice Jesus” for a reason)!

Thinking about those rules recently made me realize I wanted to write a houserule to bring the fun of exploding criticals to 4e. I couldn’t simply copy the same mechanic though, I had to make something better suited for 4e.  I came up with two possible rules I might try (although not at the same time!):

Exploding Critical – On a critical hit, roll again. If that roll is a critical hit add one bonus die of damage to your total number of bonus dice. If your weapon or implement doesn’t have bonus crit dice, add 1d6. Repeat until you do not role a critical hit.

Who doesn’t love to roll more dice? Who doesn’t love the thrill of crazy good luck? Really this rule will most often only add a dice or two to the bonus critical dice they’re already rolling for their magic weapon/implement without heavily swaying the game. It just gives that satisfying extra “umph”.
Note that it requires a critical hit, so if they have crit enhancements – like critcal hits on a 19 – then this still triggers. If you have a player that crits low,  then next houserule might be a better choice for your table.

Maximized Critical – On a natural 20, roll again. If that roll is also a natural 20, in addition to your regularly maximized damge, do not roll your bonus dice. Instead they are also calculated as if you had rolled max damage.

This is a more controlled, if slightly hefty approach. It requires a natural 20, not merely a critical hit. It maximizes the bonus dice, but doesn’t add more dice. Easy for the DM to anticipate because the DM doesn’t actually need to raise their damage expectations. A player could roll max damage on their bonus dice by pure chance – so getting to maximize occasionally it should not shake your numbers too badly. I would use this for games that tend to have deadlier enemies for combats with more punch.

Game Masters: What Makes Us Evolve?

Trevor Kidd posted a great question on his G+ where he asked the following:

What was the first game (video game, board game, RPG, whatever) that resonated with you? Has it shaped the way you think about games or other aspects of your life?

I was immediately inspired by the question and posted a reply about Myst, Riven, and games with puzzles. You can read it here.

Answering Trevor’s question made me realise why I personally have never enjoyed any module or idea of a dungeon that employed puzzles. Thanks to my early limited experience with D&D, I was convinced at first that all dungeons were supposed to have traps and puzzles: that was the “right” way to make a dungeons. Frustration grew when I experienced puzzles in dungeons that were not fun, both as a player and as a DM. As a player, I could see other players argue and languish in frustration but it never occurred to me. As a DM, it didn’t feel fun, so I must have been doing something wrong, right? Over time my mind worked out a subconcious formula of dungeon=puzzles and puzzles=not fun therefore dungeons=not fun.  If I couldn’t do it right, I had no choice but to avoid it. My DMing style changed, I rarely ran encounters in a classic dungeon style setting.

I think that being unconciously driven away from dungeon environments pushed me to think about games that went beyond “go here, kill anything that moves, get loot”. Not that any DM doesn’t think of these things, but at the time there was a wealth of material for things with Tombs and Keeps and Lairs. A lot of maps and modules I bought were always full of walls and tunnels and rooms and secret doors. The maps I drew were full of open areas: a farmer’s barn, an open field, the rooftops of a crowded city district, etc.

Later, when I gained confidence as a DM, I returned to the occasional puzzle, but they were easy to solve, or I made sure they were heavily woven into the story. If my solution was never figured out then I would co-op the players’ proposed solution as if that was the correct answer the entire time, knowing it was wiser to reward the creative thinking than punishment for not thinking of my exact solution. Despite some successful uses, I still don’t feel comfortable including puzzles in my game. I no longer feel the need to expressly avoid dungeon settings, but neither do I feel an urge to use a dungeon setting very frequently either.

Trevor asked what video game resonated with people, so I’ll end this by asking a question too. To you Game Masters out there, what was something that profoundly affected the way you GM? Was it positive or negative? How did your style evolve as a result?