Monday, March 28, 2016

Standing out

What sets D&D apart from any other game is that you, as a player, can do anything, bounded only by the parameters of the campaign world and the limits of your own imagination. RPGs have always been distinct from other games, whether board, card, video, or pen-and-paper in this way; it's the primary reason we choose to play them.

Every D&D game I've ever run or played in has been a learning experience for me as a DM, and often, it's the latter that tends to be the most eye-opening. DMing is a fantastic way to gain comfort with the mechanics and managing the logistics of a complex, fantasy RPG. But it's the rare occasions where I get to step in and be a player that I'm truly enlightened to what elements I like and dislike in a game, whether it's the style, the setting, the edition, or anything in between. Those experiences are taken back and folded into everything I do as a DM going forward.

Most recently, it was the chance to play in Jason's play-by-post that showed me the real potential of a sandbox style game. I've always liked the prospect of a player-driven campaign, but have never been great at stopping myself from weaving elaborate narrative plots with pre-staged and scripted climaxes. And once you make the effort to come up with and start running through the scenes in your head, you develop a bias toward ensuring that they materialize at the table. While some players really like being a pawn in the DM's story, what Jason's game taught me was how much I, as a player, didn't.

In the play-by-post, my character Raith's future wasn't going to get pulled out from under me or dangled along by a string. The other players and I were in control, and this was of paramount importance to my emotional investment in the setting, which soared from the moment we started and for the duration of the time we played. This is the fundamental experience I want to deliver to my players.

To this point, I've done a good amount of stringing along, and have done so openly, to give the players a chance to meld and familiarize themselves with the game world. Now that this has been accomplished, however, and the PCs have found a measure of local notoriety defending a small fiefdom, I'm dropping the tethers and allowing the campaign to unfold as the PCs see fit. The options before them are endless.

More importantly, the choices are theirs.

At the risk of tainting the notion described in the opening paragraph of this post that the players can do anything, I'm going to enumerate a handful of the possible paths before them now. This is most definitely not to persuade or to suggest that these are the only courses they might follow, but rather to give the group a taste of its freedom. The characters could...
  • delve into the Witherwood to battle gnolls and see what else they might find;
  • stay hither and fortify Brithem and its surroundings;
  • research the curious map given to Wren by an ex-shipmate;
  • go after the bandits that robbed them along the road;
  • travel to the city of Longsaddle and seek out the renowned wizard family that resides there;
  • return to Luskan and become pirates;
  • venture further north to Mirabar or Icewind Dale;
  • set out for some faraway, famous location like the great library of Candlekeep
How do I prepare for such an array of possibilities? That's better a subject left for another post - after I figure out how to do it. It's a natural thing as DM, I think, to strive to control the direction of the party. To railroad; to set short- and long-term campaign goals, rather than let the characters define these for themselves. Relinquishing that control makes the DM's job both easier and more difficult at the same time. Easier in that plots need not be preconceived nor interwoven; harder in that there's much more pressure to exhaustively detail the landscape of the campaign world and how its regions, settlements, and populations subsist and interact.


Ravenloft is the sadomasochism of D&D. In Ravenloft, the DM teases, torments, and defiles the party not only to cause anguish but ultimately for the players' enjoyment. Ravenloft is a ticket that grants the DM free reign to wrest control from the characters at all times; to tear them away to new domains at the crack of a whip; to lead them along by a carrot that remains ever out of reach. Ravenloft is a diabolical, deceitful, and magnificent campaign setting. But it's also an excuse, and a crutch.

They didn't even need to tie him up...
That's the main reason in the end that I elected to stay away from Ravenloft, as much as its allure still calls to me at times. I wanted to give the players something they could truly make their own, without the mists always encroaching and threatening to intervene. There's a far greater challenge and much more to experience this time around.

Let's have at it.

Friday, March 18, 2016

XP: The ends justify what makes you stronger

I’ve always taken an “ends justify the means” approach to awarding experience in D&D. It doesn’t matter if the frost giant whittled the PCs to within an inch of their lives, or if the mage sneezed and a boulder fell and crushed its head before combat ever began. The result arrived at was the same; who am I to judge the party’s methods?

It can get a little silly, when you think about it. In the case where the mage sneezed, the fighter might literally have been standing around doing nothing and reaped a sizable XP award for it. Or maybe he was about to do something stupid, like leave his weapons and armor behind and try to tickle the giant’s ear with a feather. It doesn’t matter. The ends justify the means. The party defeated the giant, so the characters gain and split evenly the XP for doing so.

I don’t think it’s fair, as DM, to cast judgment on these situations. They’re too subjective. The party’s tactics might have put them in position to beat the giant with nary a sword drawn to begin with. In this case, the party could be considered more successful than that which beat the giant while suffering grievous wounds over the course of many rounds - does the battered party deserve more XP, or less? (I guess it depends what you think experience should represent, in your game. More on this later.)

It’s important, when issuing XP for a defeated enemy, to consider whether the party members were actually at risk (or at least, whether they believed themselves to be at risk). But that also can extend beyond the actual confrontation to the events leading up to it. If the PCs slew a band of orcs by firing arrows from atop a cliff that made them nearly impossible to hit, I’d still award the party full XP so long as the situation could have reasonably unfolded differently. For example, if the party had chosen to take the mountain pass instead of the low road, that decision led to the advantage of higher ground, and consequently the ease of their victory. The same course might have made an encounter with a wyvern that much more treacherous.

That is to say, even though the party in this example was not at immediate risk while firing upon the orcs, they were still at general risk in their surroundings, and gained experience from decision-making that led to a successful end result. This is definitely not a combat-centric way of looking at XP.

A key aspect of this approach is that it suggests XP not be awarded for unsuccessful endeavors by the PCs, regardless of good tactics or how much bad luck might have contributed to their failure. Should the party that battled the giant ferociously for many rounds before fleeing really be awarded nothing? It’s a hard question to answer, but my game allows for just that, since the party, despite its efforts, wasn’t able to figure out a way to best its foe.

For better or for worse, the ends justify the means.

“Story” Awards

This is where my subjectivity does come into play. I commonly issue “story awards” when in-game milestones are achieved, though this is a bit of a misnomer. It implies that the party is running through a narrative, and that the group has ventured far enough down a specific path to complete some premeditated story arc that I’d conceived. That’s not really what I mean to represent.

“Story awards” in my campaign would be better named “adventuring awards” or “execution awards”; they serve to reward the party for impacting the game world in a meaningful (and intentional) way. The two recent sessions involving black dragons from the Witherwood are a good example. In session #4, when the first dragon was slain, I issued a massive bonus award of 4,000 XP. I called this a “story award,” but what it represents is the impact the PCs had on the fiefdom of Brithem. The party, through its actions during the session, turned a situation in which the entire castle and its farms could potentially have been lost, into one where only a single Brithem soldier was killed before the dragons were turned away. The 4,000 XP story award was a measure of the characters’ impact on Brithem and its inhabitants.

Conversely, in session #5, the party struggled to find an answer when the second dragon returned and began assaulting the outlying farms. Though the PCs ultimately prevailed and saved the bulk of the fiefdom, their presence was less impactful overall, since many lives and resources were lost. I subjectively decided that this session warranted a much smaller group award of 1,000 XP. (Another reason for this is that I didn’t feel the characters would have “learned” as much from this second encounter as they would have from the first. The actual planning and combat was more of a known territory to them at this point.)

It’s also noteworthy that the reason these awards exist in my game at all is that the campaign is generally not combat-and-treasure-focused enough to give out XP strictly “by the book” and expect the party to advance at a reasonable rate. Given the infrequency with which we play, it still requires many months of real time for low-level PCs to gain a level. The “story awards” help supplement both the nature and real-life pacing of the campaign. For me, this system works well, even though it leaves a large amount of the party’s advancement up to my discretion.

What Doesn’t Kill You...

The reason for writing all the above, is that I recently read Alexis Smolensk’s alternate XP system, which rewards party members for dealing, taking, and witnessing damage when involved in combat, regardless of the encounter outcome. The justification for this is that all of these represent learning experiences for the characters. I personally find this a fascinating approach to XP, and think it makes a great deal of logical sense.

For my campaign, I’m not sure our sessions are combat-heavy enough on a consistent basis to effectively apply Alexis’ system (although the multiplier could always be raised to help compensate). It also comes saddled with additional in-game bookkeeping (on my part) and questions where it pertains to certain types of spells. But I love that it incentivizes players to take risks and work together, and provides a good framework for accelerating the advancement of lower-level characters that enter the party due to a new player or the death of a previous character. I somewhat dislike that it fails to award tactics that lead to a greater degree of success by the party, though that could be supplemented by the story awards described above. It’s something to think about trying as the game goes on.

Learning vs. Success

The fundamental difference between these two systems is that the traditional views experience as a measure of achievement, while Alexis’ views it as a measure of learning. Alexis’ system also encourages the players to take more risks, where the traditional rewards tactics that avoid excessive risk. I worry that Alexis’ system creates a dynamic where the players are faced with conflicting goals: take the bloodier path and gain more XP, or employ superior tactics and ensure everyone comes out alive. It definitely isn’t a system I’d move to without significant buy-in from the group.

A final and important point of note is that neither Alexis’ nor traditional systems award XP to characters that get put to sleep and robbed in the middle of the night...