On the Requested Map of Dreams

Is this not the map you sought?

Ckutalik, of the Cantons on Hills, this is for you.

(It is an example of each six mile hex the party will explore. Now that inking is done, colored pencils will happen in the future.)

On Cultivating the Fantastic

Why is it so difficult to just have a monster be a monster?

The answer is surprising. It's because our minds develop in response to our environments.

A little background. I.Q. test scores have been rising for decades. In lieu of deciding that our ancestors were retarded, it's "the side effect of the cultural transition from pre-scientific to post-scientific operational thinking. Over the last century the basic principles of science slowly filtered into the public consciousness, transforming the world we lived in." The Genius in All of Us, By David Shenk

Noisms pointed out a quote talking about how commercial fantasy authors attempting to literalise actual fantastical concepts removes their weight and value.

Once Orcs are not about the ancient threat of Neanderthal dominance,
Once Vampires are not about the nightmare of rape and the violation of our sanctity,
Once the immortal Lich is not about horror of structures of law and tradition which were invented by men who were dead long before we were born,
Once Werewolves are no longer about the terror of our inner animalistic impulses overwhelming us,
Once Zombies are not about our innate and unending fear of the implacable advance of gluttonous death,

then they are just housecats that we can kill from behind the safety of our +2 blade that adds two to our to hit roll, allowing us to strike at the monster if we roll an 8 or higher.

When second edition began, when third edition began, when the rationalization of Dungeons & Dragons began;  this overriding desire to explain everything and have everything make sense was about destroying this very wonder and magic.
Is it really necessary that you explain and rationalize everything interesting away?
Is it too hard to comprehend something that exists that doesn't make logical sense, but makes visceral sense?
Once you kill the threshold between the known world and the dungeon, is it any wonder that dungeons fell out of vogue?

Nearly everyone I'm gaming with is the person who was always made to be the Dungeon Master - I am often the Dungeon Master in a group of 'always the Dungeon Master'. This makes it extra hard, because they know the rulebooks front to back and some of them have been serving up these various tropes for over two decades or more. So, I'm a rational person on top of that so how do you restore that sense of wonder? How do you run a light, tough, or dark fantastic game? Here are some of the things I do to instill the sense of wonder in things. (I suggest my players avoid reading the following)

Recreate monsters - especially the humanoids. Keep them physically and statistically the same, but recreate their culture. Some of the following are cobbled together from a subconscious memory of the blog-o-sphere.

Cannites: Dog headed humanoids who are extremely religious nomads who eat and worship the dead. They are consumed by a never ending hunger that drives all their actions. Loud and brash in character they will gladly talk with men, because all men become corpses soon enough (gnolls)
Meeks: Tiny, three foot tall creatures, that are mechanically inclined. They have large eyes and heads and their whole language consists of one word 'meep'. They naturally congregate near other humanoids and gladly do their bidding. They are often found with ladders, knives, hammers and other tools, going about their own inscrutable purposes.(Kobolds)
Gigas: Some people are born with brains that produce extremes of human emotions. These energies collect and are released lashing out into natural forms. Hills, Mists, Storms, Mountains, and more fused with these energies come alive with emotion and thrash about destroying all that is around them. (Giants)
Watol: Evil seeps into the land, and the very forms of the earth and trees animate into heinous minor demons. Each different and twisted and sick they murder all who they come across. When killed they disintegrate into a pile of dirt and twigs and leaves, the material from which they came. (Goblins)
A non-standard list of dimensions
Recreate the powers of undead or dragons. Do not let the players know what to expect.

Have overland encounters be with men, or animals. Make them cross a threshold (a clear in game threshold "Are you sure you wish to travel down the secluded mountain pass") before having them fight the fantastical.

I run many monsters as 'animals', Stirges, and such. This I think as fine, as long as they only occur where one might find animals. They are always part of the known world, and not the unknown

Simple things, that I view as obvious, may not be to other people. Don't announce what the players are fighting, don't explain what's happening when a monster attacks - just what they see. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Topher - the quintessential Hackmaster GM was this. Mark down the damage they are doing with their non-magical weapons as if that Gargoyle is actually taking it.

Write your damn descriptions out ahead of time or know it well enough to be able to describe exactly what they are looking at. Zak's suggestion(s) of pictures is quite helpful.

Don't give out in game stats - especially for fantastic creatures. Ask them to roll, and tell them if they hit.

Someone will surely point out, doesn't this affect player agency? Surely, but since we're attempting to create a sense of wonder, you must realize that it relies on information that not only isn't known, but can't be knowable. So the agency is in crossing that threshold.

There's a lot of advice on this subject at Ars Ludi, (Bad trap) and the Alexandrian (Putting the Magic in Magic Items)

If you have additional comments, please add them below - I have things I struggle with myself.
  • How to make a weapon seem mystical when I can't remember to track the bonus each weapon provides? So, in the interests of fairness, I go ahead and give the bonus to the players.
  • How to reconcile the fact that in a five hour game, we have four to six combat encounters, that take about two hours of time - how to 'not reuse' monsters over and over, when in a year, I'll have to have 200 combats.
  • Remembering to engage the wonder of the players, and not getting bogged down in the minutia of being a DM

The Invaders Arrive

One day a spider wanders too close to a rift in the dimensions, and something less wholesome wanders out.

(rolling 2d6. . .1 & 2)

Metal and Chaos tear the very essence of the spider and reform it into a planetouched spider.
Giant Spider
,
influenced by Annecetere & Metallon.
Alignment: CE
AC: 4
HD: 5+3
THAC0: 15
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1-8+5
Move: 2" (Web 9")
SA: Poison (Type A); Ultravision 60'
SD: +2 to all saves; Immune to petrification/polymorph; extra eyes/surprise;
Size: L (6'-8')
Magic Resistance: 30%
Morale: 17

Description: Jagged metal spikes protrude from this beasts mouth, and eyes run the length of it's body.

Combat: The extra eyes cause it to only be surprised on a 1 in 10, and prevent anyone from gaining any bonuses to a rear attack.

On the Interdimensional Invasion

A Annecetere and Cruori touched boar
Planetouched creatures are touched from energies that originate in the interdimensions.

There are five interdimensions:

Annecetere - plane of constant motion and change
Metallon - plane of dense order and mechanism
Cruori - Plane of blood and growth
Mintis - plane of knowledge and lightning
Skadus - plane of darkness and suffering

These are the crux, all matter in the inter-dimensional space rests somewhere between two or more poles of the crux.

How does this work?

Roll 2d6

1. Annecetere (nexus)
2. Metallon (machine)
3. Cruori (blood)
4. Mintis (mind)
5. Skadus (shade)
6. Roll Twice

Apply these templates depending on the results. If you get doubles, the creature is only affected by 1 plane, but double the effects. If you roll six, the creature will be affected by 3 planes.  if you roll double sixes the creature has a MMMMMMMONSTER SURGE, and gets all five applied. If you roll an attribute twice, double it up. For example 25% MR becomes 50% MR. Stats in () apply to 3.x games, stats before apply to old school games. All effects stack.

Any plane-touched creature applies the following.
+ 2 Hit Die
+ 1 on all damage rolls
- 4 on reaction rolls - will never be friendly, often hostile.
+4 to morale

Annecetere:
  •  Gains Ultravision (Darkvision) out to 60'
  •  + 2 to all saving throws (gains Resistance 5 to elements)
  •  Immune to polymorph and petrification
  •  Roll on the following table 1d3 times
1. Creature gains useless feature from another animal type (scales, antlers, etc.)
2. Creature gains extra eyes. It adds + 2 to surprise rolls, only being surprised on a 1 in 10 and cannot be attacked from the rear (flanked)
3. Creature is albino or has a horrific appearance.
4. Creature is infected by an element and is partially made from fire (+ 1d6 fire damage on hits), ice (+2 AC), or plant matter (Regenerate 1 hp/round, not affected by poison, charm, sleep, paralysis and other enchantments). Creature resists element of the type it is infected by.
5. Creature has an additional (1d4) faces. If this is generated twice, creature is covered in faces
6. Creature has wings and gains a fly speed of 9" class D.

A Metallon influenced bear
Metallon:
  •  Gains Ultravision (Darkvision) out to 60'
  •  Magic resistance of 30%
  •  Movement reduced by 1/4.
  • Roll on the following table twice
 1. Creature is covered in metal plates. Improve armor class by 1-4.
 2. Creature can only be harmed by +1 or better magic weapons (DR 5/magic).
 3. Creature gains 1d4 HD.
 4. Creature does an additional +2 damage
 5. Creature gains immunity to disease, poison, sleep and charm

Cruori:
  • Creature becomes larger and has maximum hit points per hit die.
  • Creature does an additional +2 damage when it hits.
  • Roll 1d3 times on the following table
1. Increases size category (normal->large->huge). Add 1 HD and raise damage dice by 1 step (1d3->1d4->1d6->1d8->1d10->1d12->2d6)
2. Add additional arms. If creature has claw attack, double number of attacks
3. Add additional legs, increase movement by 50%
4. Creature has a additional head. It gains +2 to surprise rolls, only being surprised on a 1 in 10, and gains an additional bite attack if it has a bite attack.
5. Creatures regenerates 1/hp round
6. Creature gains a poison attack Save at +2. Each successive time this power is rolled, increase the difficulty of the save by 2. Determine randomly, 1. 15/5; 2.30/15; 3. Death/0; 4. Paralysis/0

Mintis:
  •  + 1 intelligence category
  • Creature becomes malicious and thrives on the pain and suffering of others
  • Roll 1d3 times on the following table
1. When struck the blood turns into a volatile element. Anyone in melee with the creature (within 5') takes 1d6 damage of an energy type (roll once for type), 1. Fire, 2. Cold, 3. Electricity, 4. Sonic, 5. Acid)
2. Creature can only be struck by + 1 or better weapons
3. Creature is able to fire an energy bolt that does 1/2 hit dice in d6 damage (i.e. a 4 hit die creature will do 2d6, round up). Roll randomly for energy type. (1. Fire, 2. Cold, 3. Electricity, 4. Sonic, 5. Acid). This bolt has a range of 6" (30') and is in addition to it's normal attacks. This can be used every 1d4 rounds.
4. Gain Magic Resistance 25% (SR 11+HD)
5. Creature gains the ability to speak. It uses this ability to make it's victims suffer in fear and horror.

Skadus:
  • Gains Ultravision (Darkvision) out to 60'
  • Movement increases 50%
  • Cold resistance (Cold Resistance 5+1 per hit die)
  • Creature surprises opponents 6 out of 10 times (-3 on opponents surprise roll)
  • Roll 1d4 times on the following table
1. One of it's attacks becomes charged with deadly energy. On any successful hit, make a save vs. death at +4 or die instantly, and rise as a random undead in 24 hours. Each addition time this is rolled increase the difficulty of the save by 2. (Fortitude DC 14)
2. Darkness at will.
3. Creature takes no damage on successful saves, and half on failed saves (evasion)
4. Creature becomes incorporeal taking only 1/2 damage from physical attacks
5. Creature makes all it's saves at + 2 ( + 2 Luck bonus to saves)
6. Creature's attack causes paralysis

On the Thursday Trick, Vents, Sprays, and Agency

Vents & Sprays (Vents/Sprays)

Trigger: Varies Effects: Multiple Targets, Never Misses
Save:WandsDuration: Instant
Resets: AutomaticBypass: Avoid

Description: These traps are characterized by a variety of factors that separate them from spells or ranged attack traps. First, they often involved gasses or liquids and because they are often sprayed out over a large area they have the property of never missing.

In some cases there is also an onset delay. This means these traps can be triggered and the effect happen in a certain amount of time (sprinklers in a room) or a delay before the substance affects the characters (such as a room filling with water.

Examples of the things that might be vented or sprayed included slime, shrapnel, cold, acid, boiling water, flaming oil/tar, sewage, mummy dust, poison, fire, magma, smoke, methane, sand, steam, sulphur, and water.

If a to hit roll is required it will always ignore armor, but not necessarily shield bonuses. Saving throws may apply given the circumstance. Rods, Staves and Wands is the traditional saving throw for such attacks, allowing half damage or to avoid instant death.

Detection: These traps can be both the best kinds of traps, and the worst kinds of traps. Because they often have extremely negative properties, they can be ran in such a way where they are just Gotcha! traps, causing death or massive damage very quickly. However, this is an extremely poor way to run such traps, for several reasons. None of the vents and sprays above will be able to remove signs of their presence. Some examples
  • Slime will leave a slick slimy coating on the walls and floor
  • Shrapnel will leave gouges and scars in the walls and floor and ceilings
  • Cold vents and sprays may show some signs of their presence due to temperature differences,  areas where the cold strikes repeated may show cracking, the growth of natural molds and fungi may be retarded. If the trap is triggered often or recently, there may be frost, ice or water on surfaces. If it has been triggered somewhat recently, the water will affect the appearance of the walls (they will be cleaner).
  • Acid will leave pits and scarring on whatever surface it is sprayed on. There may be a scent, or the players eyes may start to become irritated.
  • Boiling water may show up due to temperature differences, and will generally insure a sparkling clean area where the walls and floor are blasted with it.
  • Flaming oil and tar will generally cover the upper walls and ceiling with black soot, and the floor may appear greasy or covered in scorch marks. Tar will stick to a surface and blacken and harden under high heat. The hallway may carry a scent of burning tar.
  • Sewage will smell overpoweringly terrible, unless it is stored behind water (like in a toilet) or behind an air tight valve or door.  There will still be an odor because it will be triggered occasionally filling an area with filth. There may be an unusually high amount of mold or spores or other type things in the area due to the rich food source the filth provides.
  • Mummy Dust may leave a coating of dust on surfaces, cause a musty spell, and their may be corpses in the hallway.
  • If a poison is being used in a spray, it most likely is fairly virulent, and therefore their should be corpses, either dessicated in a forgotten dungeon like a tomb, or bones or signs of being dragged off in a more active area.
  • If fire is being vented out, then on the surface that the fire is across from there will certainly be burn or scorch marks. Their may also be burnt corpses.
  • Magma if sprayed or vented out, will melt and re-solidify, causing whatever surface the magma contacts to deform. Areas where magma is sprayed will bubble, twist, buckle, and bulge from the constant melting and re-hardening. Bones and various other mineral items (armor and such) may be embedded in seeming solid surfaces.
  • Smoke will often linger for far longer then it takes to dissipate, leaving a smell for 60' to 100' from the location of the trap for days.
  • Methane is a very dangerous trap, relying on the players flaming light to trigger an explosion. There are several things to keep in mind with methane. First, it is odorless, the natural gas smell you are familiar with is a modern additive to help detect leaks. Second, it displaces oxygen, so even if the entire party has some means of seeing in the dark, it can rapidly cause asphyxiation. Use the rules for how long characters can hold their breaths unprepared for the length of time they can stay conscious.
  • Sand will both collect on the floor (and in clothes, armor, food, despite the best intentions). The first notice the adventurers will have will likely be the sound of sand crunching under their feet. Any surfaces subject to a spray of sand will likely be scrubbed clean. Repeated sand blastings will scour a surface clean, but will also remove the top layer, exposing rougher rock or metal beneath. Sometimes this will be used to fill a sealed chamber, in which case sand coated corpses will often be discovered.
  • Steam is going to insure that whatever surfaces the steam hits are clean, except for the bits of boiled flesh that it removes from it's targets. Do not forget to continue to apply damage as heat metal for people caught in steam wearing metal armor.
  • Sulfur is an interesting compound, either acidic causing burns, or a fine dust causing explosions, or a gas, causing choking and irritation. It is also known as brimstone. The primary method of detection is it's overpowering rotten eggs smell, which is natural.
  • Water is often not sprayed on people for damage, but more often is used to fill a sealed chamber trapping and drowning whoever is within. Water traps often leave water marks, as the fluid removes dirt and grime from surfaces and deposits it on a line along the wall. It also can have a briny or salty smell.
Do not forget that the vents and sprays also must come from somewhere. Nozzles, slots, slats or shutters will be visible places where the substances are expelled.

On How an Illusion Can Rob Your Game of Fun

You think you're saving effort. You're not. You think you're making things more 'fun' for the players, but really, you're ruining their fun.

Sometimes you will see a children's cartoon, where they will take the toy and push the button that shoots the missile or fist or something, and they will be so happy this occurs that they will stop playing and give each other a high five.

YOUR PRECIOUS OGRE ENCOUNTER WILL NOT CAUSE YOUR PLAYERS TO DO THAT. If you force them into an encounter - even if they are unaware of the fact that they are being forced, eventually they will grow to resent you. And it will not be long before they become aware.

This is in response to an article by Beedo over at the excellent Dreams in the Lich House. It is round two of a discussion we had in March. His comments from march are here and here, my response on illusionism.

First - what in the hell are we talking about? Illusionism is defined as being presented with a choice that doesn't matter. Beedo's current example are three groves that the players can explore in any order. Beedo provides two examples, one in which SCRIPTO-DM assigns content before the players encounter it, and another in which IMPROV-DM creates encounters (such as a cool ogre encounter) and leaves them unassigned. Then, no matter which grove the players enter, they have his ogre encounter.

What's wrong with making the ogre encounter being the first one the PC's select?

Let's look at some of the comments, and why they do impact agency, and therefore fun.
"By deciding at game time that the MacGuffin is not in Wood C, and the Ogre is there instead, has he *actually* violated player agency?  Player will or choice has not been thwarted.  They wanted to go to the woods, and Lo! - they are in the woods.  And yet objectively he has preordained a game result." - Beedo
Player choice has been thwarted, because the players were presented with a meaningless choice. Does it matter if they know the choice was meaningless or not? If the players have no hint of where the ogre is does it rob them of agency?

It matters for these reasons.
  • If you always pre-ordain 'your precious encounter' then the players never have the experience of choosing correctly and skipping right to the end (which is fun for them).
  • The flaw of the Quantum Ogre is that, if you have a party who plays smart, he won't be quantum long before you enter the woods, and then you've wasted time by not assigning him to a location already or you become the jerk DM where ESP doesn't work, the ground doesn't hold tracks, and if you try and teleport - suddenly anti-magic fields everywhere.
Palette Shifting

Let's take just one moment and talk about palette shifting. There is some misunderstanding of what is meant by this term.
A palette shift is when the players become aware of an encounter, and when making a choice to avoid that encounter, the DM re-skins (changes the 'color palette') the encounter and has them encounter it anyway.
 This can be as simple as the bandit encounter (Bandits to the east - we go west! ack, bandits here too!), or as complex as totally different monsters who lead you to exactly the same place. This can be used to either negate the players choice (You're going to fight my special bandits anyway!) or to negate player freedom (It doesn't matter what you do, you will meet the cultists of Bane!).

Pre-scripting 12 encounter lairs, and randomly generating which is in a hex that was unknown is *not* palette shifting. Having undefined "white space" in a campaign, and dynamically filling it with pre-generated content later is not palette shifting.

Sandbox Triangle


Fast, good, and cheap, pick 2 in the design and management of a sandbox doesn't apply. 

It's based on a fallacy, one of wasted effort. There is no 'effort/detail/freedom' sandbox triangle in the OSR, and the postulation of one is a lie! Though it's an easily believable one. The idea is that work is 'wasted', that somehow if you put a lot of detail into areas that the players don't visit you will be having time you've spent preparing wasted.

Being creative does not, in fact, make you less creative. The more you create, the more your output increases! Let's ignore that there's enough free material on the web to stock 1 millarn over 9000 hexes and dungeons with no more effort than hitting print, not to mention random tables, and point out that if you can't get enough detail to give the players freedom because it takes too much effort then you are expanding the wrong kind of effort.

How long is a gaming session? 4-8 hours? I bet most of us are lucky to push 4 hours in a session. How much can be done in that time at the table? What will you need? 1 million areas? 5 areas? It just isn't enough time to go through that many options. Let's assume you don't know where your players will go. How many options do they need? 3? 5? Let's assume 6 (one for each hex face). So what do you need to come up with?
  • six general encounters for hexes, 
  • a random encounter table, and 
  • a table of random stuff if they reject all six of your hooks. 
Can you not create the basics of that (using web resources, pdf's, blogs, geomorphs, random name generators hell, Zak's site alone!) in under an hour? All that work you 'wasted' in your last campaign - well it's a new campaign, can't you find a place to stick it in?
"The idea being, the DM built a forest village down the east road; when the group goes down the west road instead, and visits a new forest village, go ahead and use the (never visited) east village instead. Because no information has been spoiled, the players don't know the difference, and the DM doesn't waste any work. It's compelling if pulled off well, but changes many of my ideas about prepping for the sandbox." -Beedo
What the heck are you doing building a random forest village somewhere!? How is that a useful use of your time?  I have 10 pages in my DM folder (Buildings based off city size, NPC name/characteristics, random names) that will allow me to wing any random city for the hour or two of a session I need - fleshing it out can happen once I know they are going to stay there.

Agency Theft

What's really terrible about the destruction of player agency in the above examples is the implicit thought that 'your encounter that's sooo cool' is what makes Dungeons and Dragons fun. It's not. It's getting in that Dispel Evil on Strahd that slays him outright. It's getting that critical on that dragon while it's talking shit. It's taking down that frost giant at first level - not your fsking precious encounter.

It's when through luck, chance, or skill, something amazing and heroic happens; Removing you from the real world and giving a rare glimpse with a few close friends into a realm where something truly unique and heroic has happened that the rest of the world will never see. 

How can your little pre-planned scripted encounter compare to that?

Edit: The publication date has been changed for proper tag display. The original publication date was 9/11/11

On Slaying the Quantum Ogre

All this rhodmontade over agency has a purpose!

Let's learn how to slay the Quantum Ogre.

How do we give players agency - how do we let their choices have the effects that relate to the intents of that choice? The primary rule is 'don't be a dick'. Which is easy to say, but what are our guidelines in play?

Items in bold are given specific examples in a future post!

Information

This is the key to player agency, since it informs their choice. Without information, they cannot make a choice with intent. This is important in many ways, in many situations. You must study this.

Some examples
  • When dropping hints, drop them three times.
  • When the players are discussing things, and they have misunderstood something or your intent, correct them.
  • When the players tell you what they are doing, also ask them what they want (why they are doing it) and make sure that their choice matches their goal. Pacing is difficult enough to maintain - if the players want to find treasure, let them know before they search an abandoned building for six hours of game time that there's not much treasure there. Tell them where to go to get treasure. (Yes, but. . .)
  • Let them know the stakes. Tell them if the NPC's are telling the truth or lying to them or not!* (What's in it for me. . .)
  • If you told them, and 30 seconds have passed, you may tell them again. (Remember. . . )
  • If the players ask a question, try to answer what they want to know. (No, but. . .)
  • When dealing with authentic hidden information (how a trick or trap works), give them some sign of all irrevocable effects (Trick/Trap agency)
  • Don't give the players blind choices. Always give some sort of information with the choice. A choice with no information to distinguish between the options isn't any sort of choice at all.
* Lots of confusion over this. This level of explicitness applies to letting them know the stakes - what does each option we may engage in tonight involve? What activities as people will these options allow us to engage in? When your friends are making that decision, you should not allow them to end up doing something for six hours they do not want to do, because of authentic uncertainty in the game world.
    Freedom
    This is a sword to player agency, since it empowers their choice. Without freedom, they are unable to make a choice with effects relating to their intent. This is critical since without choice, there is no game. (i.e. games are collections of interesting choices).
    • The outcome of a situation can never be predetermined - you cannot decide ahead of time how the choice a player makes will play out, otherwise the player has no input and is therefore not engaged.
    • Allow things to happen that have no bearing on the players or their interests. If everything in the world revolves around the players, how can they be free? More to the point, how can they ever see the effects (or lack thereof) without a living breathing world?
    • You cannot dictate the actions of the player characters! Their control over their PC's is sacrosanct territory, with only rare exceptions (magical control etc.)
    • The freedom to ignore your plot hooks adventure thread / situation is critical. Next time you play, look around you - those are actual human beings, not fleshy shells destined to act out what happens next in your fantasy. If they enter your rioting city, and decide to leave, let them get the hell out of there if they wish. . . just remember to let them experience the consequences of their agency.
    • The invisible wall is anathema. Say Yes. . . or Say Yes, But. . . If you tell the players they can do anything and then continue to tell them no and no and no, well, they can't really do anything, can they?[1]
    • This is ironic, but in order to encourage freedom, you have to limit options. You have to say, here are five tasks, so they can make a meaningful choice between the five - or reject them and forge their own. If you were to tell them "do anything you want" the excessive freedom limits their agency by making their choices meaningless.
    Tomorrow we're going to talk about myths and misinterpretations of player agency, along with examples of the options above.

    [1] I blame America and its obsession with freedom on this dishonesty. The fact is, you can't do anything you want, and not only is it so important for us to believe we can that we constantly tell ourselves and our children that, but it causes massive social dysfunction (a lack of concern about behavior on community) and personal distress when faced with this reality.

    Edit: The publication date was changed for appropriate tag display. The original publication date was 9/12/11

    On Resurrecting the Quantum Ogre and Having Him Over for Tea

    Image by
    Yes but. . .

    Tell the player the consequence of what will happen if he takes the action, before he takes the action. Do not play 'Gotcha!' 'You didn't say!' or 'Guess what I'm thinking!' games with the players.

    "If you do that, you will be visible down the corridor. Do you still want to do that?"
    "If you do that he will get to attack you, do you still wish to do that?"
    "You can explore that entire building if you wish - there is stuff there - but if you're looking for treasure, there probably won't be much in that building"

    What's in it for me. . .

    If your players cannot make a decision because they lack information, give it to them!


    "Maybe we shouldn't go there, he could just be saying he has a magic sword."
    "He actually has a magic sword - if you do the quest he will get it and give it to you."

    Remember. . .

    It's not that they are stupid or retarded - it's that they have stressful jobs, kids, families, and lots of responsibilities other then gaming and can't spend as long as you making sure they remember ever last detail. That's your job.

    1:"Are we going west or south."
    2:"South has bugbears, maybe we should go west."
    DM:"Well, south also has the temple, which has a lot of treasure in it, and also the cult leader you have been getting clues about lives there - and if you go west, you can't forget that griffon's haunt the pass, as well as the inevitable mountain giants and their pet red dragons."
    1:"Red Dragons?!"
    DM:"Yes, but due to the curse from the yis-gothka, they-"
    2:"Who"
    DM:"The temple guys."
    1:"Oh, I remember now - let's go get those giants."
    DM:"Ok, so giants over treasure in the temple and the cult leader, correct?"

    No, but. . .

    Listen to your players. If they are asking questions they are telling you what they want to know. Don't ever tell them no - always say the reason why you are telling them no, and provide them a path to accomplish what they want. Be realistic about what is possible and not, and allow them to deviate from what you envision for them.

    "Can I get my horse raised?"
    Restricted agency response: "No, you don't know how."
    Pro-agency response: "Well, you don't know how, but you could pay a sage or ask at the temple and I'm sure they could tell you more if that's something you'd like to do. There are likely to be some drawbacks, and it will probably cost some gold."

    Trick/Trap agency

    There is an appropriate way to run a crushing ceiling. This is the one area of the game where you can have a Gotcha moment - but there are rules if you wish to do it this way.

    First, you must make it very very clear that they are in an area where something like this can happen. The game makes it easy, because usually this is the entrance or threshold into the underworld. It must be explicit that this can occur. They should be on your guard for this type of thing.

    "This structure has stood for innumerable years, who knows what devious and arcane protections it may possess?"
    "You see the sign of the devious kobolds, the hammers and gears of their deadly trapwork lay scattered about assuring a risky venture into the depths"

    The second thing that must occur is that you must make the trap obvious. A good way to do this is to describe one or two unimportant things, with one important thing. Often the naturalistic effects of the trap will dictate this conversation.

    "Ahead in the chamber is a cool breeze, dust swirls around on the floor and an earthen smell assaults your nose."
    "I examine the dust and chamber."
    "The dust appears to be finely ground stone, there are several dark stains within the room. On the walls scrapes and gouges run vertically up and down the walls. Do you wish to enter the room?"
    "No. what do the stains look like?"
    "They could be rust. . . or blood."
    Party together "Collapsing ceiling."

    Yes

    When the players ask for something say yes!

    AND THEN GIVE THEM 3 PROBLEMS TO GO WITH IT. There! Now they are having the adventure they want!

    Yes, but. . .

    When the players ask for something you can't give them, tell them what they need to do - both in and out of game turns.

    "I'd like to learn that reduced facing skill that's so cool"
    "Well, you'll have to ask a sage how to do that"
    Player pays information tax
    "Well, you have to go through the valley of the slow centipede, traverse the central forgehammer mountains, and seek out the Loydan monastery where there are monks who teach it. If everyone stays focused, it will take one session of hex travel, and one session of doing a quest for the monks - unless you have a better way to convince them to help to complete."

    On misinterpretations of the nature of Agency

    Examples:

    "I should keep things secret from my players for realism! Because sometimes people lie! They shouldn't know if the guy has an actual magic sword or not before they do the quest!"

    Clearly you're interested in doing something other than playing a game for fun. What's the result here - you being their only source of knowledge have tricked them into doing something just so you can laugh at them taking your word? Because you're trying to teach them people are shitty? Do you think that's why they came to your house to play Dungeons and Dragons?

    "They should have listened when I told them about the duke, and then know he was lying to them!"

    They are other human beings who are busy and in a room with 2-8 of their peers that they like and haven't seen in a week or longer. It is not conducive to catching every last detail. They are there to play a game, not hang on your every offhand word.

    "You said you should tell your PC's when the NPC's are lying to them! You are a terrible DM and must have no skills if you can't communicate this information in game! If you can't drop clues so they can figure it out, you are a terrible person and a worse GM!"

    Ok, several things.

    First, that advice is about clearing up adventure hooks for the party - so they can make an informed decision as people about what they want to do tonight in your game. Clearly based on the other advice in the article I am not advocating that the players be informed of everything by out of character talking. I am expecting a certain baseline intelligence in the audience who understands that these are situational pieces of advice to use to restore the players ability to make informed decisions.

    Second, what the above is describing is a particular form of douchebaggery. Leaving 'really good clues' around everywhere and expecting players to guess your intent is not 'skillful' play. In fact, forcing the players to play mind reading games and 'guess what I'm thinking' are exactly what this type of article is aimed at addressing. There is no way for a group of random human beings to know what your baseline expectations are for a situation - how often have we been surprised by how another person deals with something? If you don't give them information, and you're not explicit about it, then you are destroying their agency. If you think what I just said means you have to tell them something out of character, then you have failed the minimum requirements necessary for reading the article and should start over, or better yet, start playing other games.

    Third, it probably could have been a better worded example. Here is a blog example of players following an adventure thread when they wanted to do one thing, but didn't figure out from in game clues that they couldn't do what they wanted there.

    "There's nothing fun about blind luck! And if you don't fudge the dice and alter the story that's what it comes down to!"

    If you never let anything bad happen to the characters, I understand why it seems that way. The reson it doesn't all come down to blind luck is player skill. The skill comes in creating a situation where the fate of the whole party doesn't rely on a single dice roll. If your players are often in a situation where it all comes down to blind luck it's because anytime something bad has happened, you've protected them from the consequence, so why would they try anything different? As long as you are there to pull their fat from the fire, they will engage in every combat knowing they can't lose. In the long run this is less satisfying then winning a victory against the authentic chance of a loss.


    "But I can't let them destroy the epic encounter at the climax of the adventure by a lucky roll!"

    Think about it. The example of Beedo's players causing Strahd's death wasn't the result of a lucky roll - it was the result of planning, thought and skill of the players. Making them fight some long battle is taking away from the very epicness of the situation! Beedo's players will be talking about how they killed Strahd for much longer than any of his other 'boss fights'. Because it was their plan, it was real, it mattered, and it stuck.

    The real key to this is, it swings both ways.

    "But if they don't have this encounter - they won't experience my precious plot."

    So?

    "They have to have this encounter or the game just won't work."

    Is this because you're not creative enough to work it in around what the players choose to do? Or is it because you don't respect them enough to ask them what they might want to get out of the game? Or is it because you're not bright enough to pick up on what they want to do? The thing is, if you have a key encounter, and you give it to them, and they refuse it - forcing them to have it doesn't improve the situation. Also, if you're giving them half a dozen options - are you telling me there isn't a way to tie many of them into your precious plot one way or another?

    "There's no right way to run a game. My players have control over the world and we do improv storytelling, and everything is tied into their story!"

    Yes, believe it or not, I've run games like that before - where players know their plot arc, and have script immunity, and it's about drama and acting. That is not D&D. It's not structured that way - it's a game, and one with fairly clear expectations and rules. You can certainly change up and add to D&D - it's designed that way. But this is a blog about the game of old-school D&D, the type where you don't name your fighter till level 3, and it's structured around exploring dungeons and clearing hexes. I'm glad you are having fun, but be clear about your house rules being house rules - if you say that characters can just say anything and have it be true in improv style, I promise you won't find the rule about characters making up story elements as a part of play in any of the rulebooks.

    Also: Don't be surprised if you call it D&D and when I see it isn't I get up and walk away from your table.

    "Newer games give you lots of agency, because there are lots of rules. And you don't just use those rules to make your character, in the game you have lots of different options during combat, meaning your making lots of decisions and choices, and those choices matching your intent! That's player agency also"

    Of course. Chess has a ton of player agency, in the realm of tactical and strategic options of a board game. I play lots of boardgames and tactical strategy games and they are lots of fun. Again, not Dungeons & Dragons though (no matter what people call it) and that's what I'm focused on providing agency in.

    "If I have a wandering monster table with 1 encounter and a 100% chance of that encounter - how is that different then the quantum ogre?"

    Cute. :-) Well, the original article postulated 3 options (groves of trees), and a DM that no matter what the party did, found the ogre in the first one, and the mcguffin in the last one the party entered. And there was nothing they could do to change or avoid the outcome. (It's technically a Schrodinger's ogre, but that's overused, no?)

    This strawman assumes that all improvisation on the part of the Dungeon Master is negative. Clearly there are appropriate times to do all of the things that I recommend against doing. Older editions even contained rules to bypass the need to do them! A classic example is morale. In Pathfinder, if the party has clearly won the fight, and there are just a few orcs left, having a player kill one instead of leaving it with one hit point is a perfectly acceptable time to fudge the dice, because the outcome doesn't matter. All you are doing is facilitating interesting choices, instead of uninteresting ones. In earlier editions they would have already fled due to morale failure.

    You will spring an encounter on the PC's You will roll sometimes and ignore it. You will dictate player actions. Just always be sure to do so in a way that maintains agency. ("Well, unless you two are interested in playing homosexual characters - we're going to re-roll on the how did you meet table", "You set up camp and turn in for the night")

    "I don't want a bunch of random things happening! I want a story!"

    Two things. First, is that all the randomness in a sandbox is supposed to simulate realistic things - don't put ice worms on your volcano encounter table.

    Secondly, the idea is that the events and choices of the players are the things that we look back on and tell stories about (as per blogs - I can link to a few hundred posts if you like) and these posts that are about what happened aren't about the DM's 'precious' plot, but about the thing that's greater that's shared between a group of people. The sandbox is a living breathing world. No prescripted outcomes, no predetermined plots. Whatever you have in mind, can only be improved by the shared creativity and experience of other people.

    "The players don't know the difference! I can lie to them all I want! There's no difference between a quantum ogre and a wandering encounter."

    Have you ever seen the film where they underestimate the audience? Notice how all the best films don't do that?


    "Everything in my game has to have a purpose!"

    The unspoken part is - of your design. How about you let the player purpose themselves into your game?

    Edit: The date was changed for appropriate tag display. The original Publication date was 9/13/2011.

    On the Corpse of the Quantum Ogre

    I'm a Quantum Ogre
    In the two years since I've written the Quantum Ogre articles, I've gotten a lot of response, most of it positive. This is a coda to the series, addressing many of these comments. As discussed here, last week, the responses are not disconnected statements, but cohesive responses.

    What is a Quantum Ogre?


    It is a situation in which the Dungeon Master removes agency* from the players because of his desire for an outcome.

    WOAH! Did our eyes glaze over? What that means is that the player tries to do a thing (cast a spell, use a skill, attack a creature, make a choice) and the Dungeon Master does something actively to neutralize that thing!

    "Oh, there's an anti-magic field here!" or "Nope, your skill fails." or "You miss." or maybe he adjust the hit points of a creature so that it doesn't die yet, or suddenly decides his big bad evil guy is wearing a ring of free action.

    Does this mean you can't have anti-magic fields or opponents that wear rings of free action? Of course not. It's only agency denying if you do those things to stop the players from ruining your encounter.

    Of course the secret is, they can't ruin the encounter, because in a game free of quantum ogres, the outcome is never pre-decided, so can never be ruined.

    I read your article and don't understand how this doesn't ruin the game! If you tell your players what's in every cave and what they are going to get for every reward how is their any sense of freedom or mystery? Don't they have the freedom to not get that information?


    The Quantum Ogre series isn't advice on how to Dungeon Master.

    It is a list of tools to solve specific problems that traditionally are areas where agency can be impacted.

    So when you look at the advice for "What's in it for me?" It specifically address the part of the game where the player has to make a choice about what they are going to do in the game that night.

    You know, the situation where they want to know what's in it for them!

    The advice isn't "Tell them the specific consequences of any action they might take in the game ever the whole entire time." The advice is, "When the game starts, and the players are trying to decide what activity they are going to engage in for the evening, they should have a good idea about how to get access to the activity they want to do." That means, if they want to do some talking in character and political maneuvering, you should tell them that going into the crypt isn't going to cause that to happen, that instead, they should visit the haunted forest where the fay ball is happening this evening.

    Each of the original pieces of advice are not pieces of general advice. They are all designed to solve specific problems.

    Yes but. . . is designed to assist with communication errors between players and the Dungeon Master. They can't know what's in your head, so this tool is used when actions are taken to keep everyone on the same page.

    Remember. . . is designed to avoid real world frustration. You are sitting in a room with real people who are friends. It is not your job to make those people jump through hoops. Player skill is about making informed choices, not recalling something they may not have even noted in the first place. What this tool does is skip past the bewilderment of a player to quickly get back to the interesting parts of the game.

    No, but. . . is designed to address the problem of the player not understanding the world to the degree that the Dungeon Master was. If you've ever wondered why a player just doesn't do this simple solution to the problem, it's because they aren't aware of it! This allows players to do things in the game that let them accomplish your goals. The fact that doing this makes your job easier is just a side benefit.

    Trick/Trap Agency is designed to avoid the gotcha. It doesn't mean you have to dumb anything down - the Green Devil Face has plenty of agency. There's a poem. No one is forced into it. The general idea is that the players must make the choice to engage with the trap and there must be some way for them to become aware of it.

    Yes is designed to make the game fun for the players! Who likes to be shut down? It's also a subtle admonition to avoid the word no when running a game. If the answer isn't Yes, but . . . or No, but . . ., why not yes?

    Isn't a Random table essentially a Quantum Ogre? How can you have the players run into a village with a festival? Is it fair to do so? Can the Dungeon Master ever decide anything?


    Sigh

    Of course you can decide things. Of course you can just invent things you think would be cool during play.

    The Quantum Ogre isn't about putting an ogre in the woods. It's about invalidating the players decisions. Any time you are deciding something or making a choice that does that, you are at risk of invalidating agency.

    But what about a random encounter table with only one entry? What about these random situations that I've concocted? Aren't there lots of places where player choices are invalidated, like death? Where is the line where agency is impacted?

    Dungeon Mastering is hard.

    It's a chaotic, magical, talent that is easy to learn, but maybe only really old dudes with wizard eyebrows master. I like to call when I make mistakes "fucking up". I make mistakes to this day when I run games.

    The fact is, is that this isn't about absolutes. It is about knowledge the participants possess, expectations, and intent of the Dungeon Master.

    Many of the examples I've been given, can't even be addressed in terms of agency, because they depend on context. I ran a pathfinder game and told the players, there would be 'decision points' during cutscenes and that the game was about the tactical environment. Their choices would affect the forthcoming battle and at certain points they would have options about which map they were going to take on next. Even though the adventure was linear, they were able to act with agency. There were no quantum ogres or railroading because the agency they expected to have at the start of the game was never infringed.

    What if they wanted to something else? They didn't. That's a railroad! No agency was actively removed during play - it was traded by choice for a more complex planned battle!

    It is a question of intent and degrees, dependent on context. Isn't a dungeon a railroad because it has walls and the players can't visit any room at the start? Isn't a town filled with Quantum Ogres because guards will attack the players if they steal? What about people who might be bothered by a hypothetical situation?

    Dungeon Mastering is hard son.

    Are you running games? Do your players feel empowered?

    Are their misunderstandings about game expectations? That happens. Are those misunderstandings deliberate efforts on your part to force an outcome? That's called lying.

    Are the players able to acquire information about the world? Is that information meaningful?

    The Quantum Ogre isn't a thought experiment. It is an example of certain type of gaming problem, with a list of concrete solutions designed to resolve those problems and make role playing more fun for both the players.

    *Player Agency (n.): “the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the [virtual] world whose effects relate to the player’s intention” -Mateas, 2001

    Edit: The date was changed for appropriate display by tag. The original publication date was 7/15/13

    On Permadeath in Modern Gaming

    Hey all. Hope everyone enjoys the weekend. Some more agency discussion continues next Monday, but for now, I'll leave you with this. . .

    "Headlock Games CEO Nobuyuki Okada stepped up to the podium to expound on the game's systems and philosophy, starting with the team's embrace of one of the most controversial topics in MMOs. Permadeath -- the permanent loss of your character upon death -- is so fringe, so polarizing, that it's simply been avoided by a vast majority of MMOs to date. Will this be too foreign of a concept for players to embrace in Wizardry Online, or will it be a major selling point?"

    On A List of Ways You're Ruining Your Game

    Otherwise known as why a Fourth Edition Game Can't Be Good.

    Today we're going to talk about agency, and why it's more difficult to get that from a modern game.

    How do more modern versions rob players of agency? Let's talk a bit about what agency is, and what issues remove it from our games.

    The term "Player Agency" comes from the study of interactive activities (Drama, Games, etc.) and specifically relates to feelings of empowerment that the participants have when their actions have effects that relate to their intention. One of the virtues of Agency in role playing games is the fact that it often (but not always) refers to "Unrestricted Self-Agency" because the interpreter of the players agency is a human being. Unrestricted Self-Agency referring to a limitless freedom to act. The two main factors in agency are freedom to make choices, and the results of choices being meaningful.

    Freedom of Choice through Game Design and Mechanics

    Encounter design In a recent Hackmaster game, a trio of 1st level characters managed (barely) to take down a frost giant. In my second example, during a recent run of Keep on the Borderlands, our party of first level players took out the ogre with no casualties.

    To provide freedom of choice, it is important that players be able to deal with encounters of all different types. This is important, because it makes the choice of whether to engage in the encounter meaningful. It is possible for a low level party to beat drastically more powerful opponents, though unlikely.

    Vast hit point inflation, the sea shift after the Roper Encounter fiasco in the Sunless Citadel leading to the thought that parties should only have 'level appropriate' encounters, and the general tendency to make damage scale by level, as well as the enormous focus on tactical combat all remove agency, because it isn't about where the players want to go, it's where the appropriate encounters are that dictate where they can go.

    Is it possible for a party of 3 first level characters in 4e (or 3e?) to beat a frost giant? Is it possible for a party of 4 first level characters in 4e to win against an ogre and half a dozen goblins? The point is in those systems, the encounters are designed to be appropriate, causing serious problems for characters if they attempt to tackle a more powerful monster.

    Other issues of game design that limit agency:

    Wealth by level Having a guide for approximate wealth is fine, but when you tell the players - no, you can't do that because it will give you more money/treasure/magic then you are arbitrarily "supposed" to have. This limits agency in the worst way.

    Having an artifact or a gold mine or a priceless diamond at first level should be a gateway to adventure. The benifits of having that money (wands, a nice sword/armor, a keep) should both be necessary to deal with the situation, as well as provide further impitus for adventure themselves. Being out of range on these things shouldn't break the game. To be clear, I am not talking about a game where rewards are constantly out of porportion to the risk - that also removes player agency because it makes the choices the player is making mean less.

    Scaling past the human norm Continuing to gain hit points and infinitely ascending armor class are some examples of what put 'high level' encounters out of reach of lower level players.

    Disassociated Mechanics My favorite example of this is from the Paladin I ran in a 4e game for six months. He had a lazer bomb. It was a beam of radiant energy that shot out at a target and when striking the target, exploded and damaged all the targets around it. Cool.

    Then I wanted to use this power on a door. "You can't" "Why?" "Because the door isn't an enemy in combat, and the power only works in combat." "How's that" ". . ."

    It's not an example of a thing that actually exists - it's an abstract rule for an abstract game. Some abstraction is necessary, but to literally have an action to take that's just arbitrary move in a game (such as a chess move, like a knight) damages Unrestricted Self-Agency because the capabilities of my character aren't really the things I can do - they are just moves I can make in a (very specific, very rigid, very rules-heavy) game. There are several other examples here at the Alexandrian about the issues with disassociated mechanics.

    Beware addressing these with the Rule 0 fallacy. Just because you can fix a rule, doesn't mean it isn't broken

    Freedom of Choice Through Sandboxing

    I'm going to defer to wiser men then me, and start this off with Raggi's quote.

    "My adventures and campaigns will have no pre-set endings. Characters are not required to act as I wish them to act during the course of the game. It is natural player behavior to trash scenarios and take the game to places unforeseen."

    This idea of agency and freedom began to decay as early as second edition. This issue of the DM deciding the outcome of an event by definition destroys player agency. I've discussed these before, but I'm going to cover them again, because I've often received questions about their meaning.

    Fudging Dice: When the GM or Player ignores the result of the roll, and declares that the dice say something else. This destroys agency because at this point, the player can no longer determine whether the results of his choices are due to the previously stipulated rules of the game or the momentary whim of another person. In the players mind this makes the choice meaningless, because they know that the consequence for the choice will be removed.

    A common counter to this is the person who says "I'm only fudging to make the game better!", better in this case being defined as "fitting your per-conception of the outcome". My response is, how does removing the player's feeling of satisfaction from the meaningfulness of their choices improve the game?

    How to use this as a DM? Don't fudge dice.

    Palette Shifting: This is a specific technique where the GM invalidates the player choice by having the result be the same, no matter what choice the player makes. E.g. There are bandits in the west, so the players head east to avoid the bandits and end up getting attacked by 'goblins' who have the same stats as the bandits, with the same motivations.

    It's clear that the reason this removes agency is that it negates the choice. The reason it's a big issue is that the  player went the other direction was because they wanted to do something different.

    This is effectively the same thing as a magician's switch. Which is simply a choice that isn't - no matter what choice is made, the choice is an illusion, because it becomes the excuse for whatever happens. There is a lever and a trap. If you pull the lever, the trap is armed. If you don't then the lever would have disarmed the trap.


    How to use this as a DM? Make the world consistent - a place that moves and changes independent of player action.

    Railroading The word for when you've decided what's going to happen next, and the players are going to go there regardless of their wishes. Don't feel that this word is too specific either, if you give them a map to play around in, and they go off the map - if they hit an invisible wall, then you're railroading. This is when you dictate player actions either by literally taking control of the character ("You get too close to the hole in the wall and fall in") or by making them play mind reading games until they stumble upon the right answer.

    I think this is a pretty through introduction to agency - anyone think of anything I'm forgetting? Tomorrow we're going to look at how the DM can provide agency in play.
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