The Trials and Travails of Playing Dungeons and Dragons

Most of the time, I don’t play D&D. I run it. There’s a pretty big difference. As a DM, running D&D requires an understanding of the style of game you’re playing, a hefty knowledge of the world you’re playing in, a grasp on at least the core concepts of the rules (though an encyclopedic knowledge of them is frequently very helpful), and at least several reference documents because there is no way you’ll know everything you need to know off the top of your head.

It’s a numbers game with lots of narration and storytelling that requires you to set aside your ego so you can provide opportunities for your players to explore the world, tell a story, and try things. Generally, you want to avoid a focus on “winning” as the DM and instead focus on making sure everyone is having a good time. There’s a lot of social management since it is frequently up to the DM to intercede in arguments or interpret rules that don’t necessarily have a clear answer to the question the player is asking, all of which requires a certain amount of social consciousness as the DM. You need to watch your players so you can be ready to support them as they need it and challenge them as they want it. When you DM a lot like I do, it can be easy to think of playing as something that is incredibly easy.

When you get a chance to play though, and really get into it, your perspective shifts. Suddenly, you’re not thinking about managing numbers, turn order, and a thousand tiny details but trying to manage your expectations. Instead of trying to anticipate the players, you’re trying to navigate the minefield that is a combat encounter. Especially at low levels, one wrong choice can make the difference between a simple fight and a fight that uses up all of your resources and abilities. Whenever you’re confronted with a door, there’s no way to know what is behind it and, if you’re the leader of your sorry bunch of misbegotten misbegots, it falls on your to decide if you should open that door or if you should take the safe route and find a place to hunker down until everyone’s hit points are full.

While the effort involved is vastly different, the toll isn’t. As a player, you don’t have to manage a thousand little details, but your character’s life hinges on the success or failure of your actions. As DM, you don’t need to emotionally invest in each decision because there’s no risk of failure for you in a combat encounter. Your job is to help tell a story and provide a challenge. As a player, making the decision to stand at the back of the group is fraught with danger. If, like my character was today, you’re at half hit points and facing a swarm of creatures that aren’t tough but could easily overwhelm you when there’s over ten of them to your single you, that decision isn’t an easy one.

You, the player, don’t want your character to die, but sometimes that’s what happens. Sometimes characters die because of the choices they make. And I say “they” because Chris Amann would not choose for Lyskarhir the Elven fighter to stay behind the group of villagers as they flee the church they’ve hidden inside, but Lyskarhir the Elven fighter certainly would, even if he’s a cantankerous asshole. They didn’t ask to have their town wrecked and their loved ones slaughtered in front of their eyes, and most of them aren’t up to the challenge of standing firm in the face of an oncoming hoard, but you are. So you stand and hope they get away quickly enough for you to get away instead so you don’t need to find out if you’re the kind of person who’d let someone else die instead of facing an attack you’d probably survive.

Chris Amann wouldn’t choose to keep Lyskarhir exposed to danger so that as many of the enemies focus on him instead of the fleeing villagers, but Lyskarhir sure would. He knows he can probably get away and, once the group splits, idly walk up behind them with his longbow out and kill them as they chase the defenseless townsfolk. Chris Amann knows Lyskarhir can do this and Lyskarhir’s battle strategies are only as good as Chris Amann’s strategies, so Chris Amann lets Lyskarhir decide what to do and does his best to fight the duality of his mind so that he (I) can properly roleplay.

As a DM, roleplaying is swapping masks to be whoever the players are talking to. If you’re really good at it like Matt Mercer, you can become entirely new people with every new character. If you’re just alright at it like I am, you can try to change the tone of your voice and at least make them use different words to help the players see the difference between the people they’re talking to. When you’re playing, you’re putting on a mask, a costume, and assuming an entirely new persona. You have to manage the difference between what you know (which, as a regular DM, I know EXACTLY how many hit points each monster we fought had) and what your character knows. Lyskarhir doesn’t know that kobolds have five hit points, but he does know that not a single one has survived being shot by him. Chris Amann knows that Ambush Drakes don’t deal much damage, but all Lyskarhir knows is that there is a pair of wolf-sized dragon-ish lizards running toward him at an alarming pace.

As much as I enjoy storytelling and being a Dungeon Master, I will never be as excited by a gameplay moment as I was when my Elven fighter survived four wild swings, three of which missed thanks to his excellent planning, that left him with one single hit point and the final attack he needed to take down the champion of the enemy forces. Even if the DM let me get away with 1 hp because I’d gotten lucky enough to reduce an enemy that should have wiped the floor with me to the single digits, it won’t change how great it felt to emerge victorious from a fight that went better than it had any right to.

Now, three hours after the fight concluded (which is when I’m writing this), I am still jittery and excited about that moment. I want more. I’m reminded of how much I love playing, of the highs and lows of tabletop gaming that you feel as a player who can only do their best in the given situation. I miss it. I wish I could get more of it. But it also feels pretty great to be reminded of the experiences I can provide to other people when I run games for them. I just hope I get to keep doing both as the world shifts and changes in the face of this pandemic.

Bringing Social Distancing to Your TTRPG

Planning your next Dungeons and Dragons session but unsure how the burgeoning pandemic will affect attendance? Wondering how much Purell you’ll need to clean all your dice after you roll them on the table? Unsure how to handle taking turns to bring the food when your increasing paranoia about getting sick has granted you the ability to see the germs wafting out of everyone’s mouths as they breathe?

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TAZ and The Words I Needed to Hear

“See, there’s magic in a bard song. They call it inspiration and it tells the listener what they need to hear right when they need to hear it.”

Those were the words I needed to hear right when I needed to hear them. I was sitting on my couch the night following my grandfather’s funeral, a year and twenty-seven days ago. I’d just gotten back from Chicago, unloaded the car, and then sat down on the couch to finish the podcast I’d started on my first of many drives down to Chicago in 2019 to visit my grandpa and help out my mom. I was alone–my roommates could tell I didn’t want to talk–and I put on the last two episodes of the Balance arc of The Adventure Zone.

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Tabletop Highlight: The World of Fifth Edition

In the past year, I’ve begun running a lot of fifth edition D&D. I’ve spent several hundred dollars buying books, PDFs, and a subscription to D&D Beyond (which is where I bought said PDFs). I’ve also bought myself a tablet for DMing, backed a number of kickstarters for easy terrain or pre-made graphical maps, figured out how to use Roll20, and started designing my own digital maps. Out of everything I’ve done this year, I think only my job has gotten more time and attention than Dungeons and Dragons has from me. I also think I’ve spent more money on D&D and D&D paraphernalia than I’ve spent on anything that isn’t a bill or food. I’ve probably spent more on D&D than takeout or eating out, at least. Those books are expensive and I just had to buy myself all the spell cards even though I never get to play D&D and just use D&D Beyond to look up the spells I haven’t already memorized when I’m DMing, either in the general search or through the helpful spell description windows that open when you click on or hover over a spell.

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Tabletop Highlight: Finding My Way to Pathfinder

The Monday night tabletop group I play with has two games we’re concurrently playing. One is a Fate game about a fictionalized version of the city we all live in, featuring fictional characters taking on problems we’ve heard about but never been directly impacted by. The other is a Pathfinder campaign using a set of campaign books meant to take out characters from some middling low-level to a much higher level. I joined halfway through the current campaign book, so I’m still a little fuzzy on the details of where this whole ship is headed. I’m just along for the ride because I will never turn down the chance to do something fun like play an Archaeologist Bard.

Professor Quiston, as he has introduced himself to literally everyone and everything with enough intelligence to pause at the flashily-dressed man wandering around in a jungle, is a representative of the research university from his home country. The country has a vested interest in the exploration of a lost city, which is how all the other players made their way from their normal lives to this remote corner of the world. Professor Quiston, being rather academic by nature, set out along at the behest of the university and entirely missed the memo that there was a group of adventurers looking to do the same thing. Rather than enjoy a set of thrilling adventures to get from the city to these magnificent ruins, he set out alone and promptly got lost in a jungle. To be entirely fair, he did get to the area of the ruins first. He just didn’t find them on his own for over two months. Instead, he walked through the jungle and used music to distract all the nasty beasts that wanted to eat him since he’s entirely too well-dressed to engage in that kind of rigorous physical activity. Truly, the life of an academic did not prepare him for the trials he faced on his own, but he found the other adventurers by stumbling into their camp one night after trying to calm himself by playing some soothing music on his harp and spotting the fire thanks to the bonus it gave him to his perception checks.

Since then, Professor Quiston has helped these much more qualified adventurers by playing music, knowing things, and being absolutely fascinating to the local wildlife. And the local civillife. Fascinate, the Bardic Music ability, works on anything even remotely intelligent and Quiston gets a bonus to his diplomacy checks if he’s using music as a part of making them. He lives a bit of a charmed life, providing illusory support, healing, and the occasional magical buff while staying far away from combat. He has a magical weapon and a magical shield, but he has yet to actually use them. He used his whip once, but that was to hit something full of baby spiders from fifteen feet away. He also used his dagger once, but that was to collect samples. He is still an archaeologist, after all. He’s gotta collect samples to ship back to his university once the support crew following the other adventurers shows up. And what samples he will have! He’s met a living god, engaged in civil discourse with a tribe of intelligent and possible demonic apes, and even found a crazy lady living in a decrepit, overgrown mansion in the middle of a slightly more jungle-y part of the woods. All without needing to bleed over it! His memoirs will surely earn him a place amongst the elites of his university, should he manage to survive long enough to make it back there.

Roleplaying aside, I’ve been having a lot of fun with Pathfinder. The system is close enough to Dungeons and Dragons’ 3.5 edition to mess me up on a couple of things since there is still some variation to how the rules work, but it has a distinctly different feel to it once you start to get into the details. The power levels are completely different and while I do miss 3.5’s penchant for having an analogue of pretty much everything in some book or another, I’m enjoying the focus Pathfinder has on improving the basics so each class feels new and powerful in its own way. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I haven’t found them yet. I’m still pretty new to the game after all. I’ve been getting a little more experience thanks to Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the computer game, but that’s not exactly representative of the whole Pathfinder experience since the computer game needed to have a bunch of stuff trimmed out of it in order to make it actually a viable computer game. I mean, I get that casters are pretty under-powered in low levels because of their lack of ability to participate in a fight once their spells have been used for the day, but I feel like fact that an all martial group can just power through every encounter is just bogus. It fits the trope of the weary, injured fighter facing off against a powerful wizard who just ran out of spells to cast, while yelling the iconic “I never run out of sword,” but I feel like there should be a better way to balance things out.

Part of the problem is that Pathfinder campaigns are set up around the idea that a group of adventurers can handle a certain number of encounters in a single day before they deplete all of their resources. The number is much lower than you might think, or else the encounters are much weaker than the party, and that doesn’t translate well to a video game. I found a dungeon that, based on setup, required me to clear large swaths of it in one run, without much of a chance to safely rest, and the sheer number of encounters that were above the “no sweat” threshold was staggering. I almost gave up and made a new character because I was struggling with it so much. It would have been fine, but all of the enemies had some kind of poison or another so even my martial fighters were running out of strength and constitution. Throw in the fact that camping supplies weigh an idiotically high amount per person per day and you find yourself unable to do anything but constantly return to the world map where you aren’t required to use camping supplies but can instead spend seventeen hours hunting in order to find enough food for six people. Instead of, you know, shooting a single deer and feeding everyone off that. Tabletop Pathfinder survival checks for food don’t generally take that long or are otherwise baked into a day’s activities.

I’m still enjoying Pathfinder: Kingmaker, despite it’s flaws. I’ve adjusted to how the computer game expects me to direct combat and manage my resources, so things are a bit easier now. I’ve also passed the weak low-level point, so I finally feel effective again. I’ve also learned a lot about Pathfinder thanks to me doing research about the rules, useful feats, and how to streamline character builds so I don’t waste levels on useless feats and skills. Still, it’s making me want to run a campaign of the tabletop version of Kingmaker, and I’ve got enough friends that it would be fun to do. I’ve never run out of a campaign book before, so I think it would be fun and relaxing to be able to do it. And, now that Pathfinder is producing a new set of rules, the original stuff should be on sale! I’ll be able to buy all the books and such for cheap! Except that’s not how nerds work. We collect shit for forever and the prices of rule books like this only ever go up unless it’s a total flop. And I do mean total. They only go down if no one likes it or buys if. If anyone likes it, the prices usually stay the same.

If you know any good online tools for Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, or online games in general, let me know about them! I only know about a couple, but I’m looking to learn since I’ve got a couple of games that could benefit from being moved online. Happy gaming!

We’ve got a new Tabletop Highlight! It’s about my experiences with Pathfinder and what I’m looking to do in the future. It’s also about the computer game, Pathfinder Kingmaker, though I’ll admit that part is a tangent. Check it out!

Tabletop Highlight: Converting Your Game to a New System

There comes a point in most Game Masters’ lives when the game they are running has outlived the system in which it began. Sometimes that’s the result of a new set of rules coming out that make the game easier to enjoy. Other times it’s because the old system is incredibly dense and difficult to get into whereas the new system is much easier on new players, who suddenly make up a significant potion of the people in the game. Maybe everyone got a little tired of the old system and agreed the new system is going to be much more fun to play. Whatever the reason, you now face the difficulty of helping your players transition from one system to another while also trying to change your notes for future sessions, bad guys, and house rules so they all fit into the new system. A monumental task that makes creating a dungeon seem like a simple job.

I’d recommend doing this during a hiatus or at least planning on missing two weeks worth of sessions since you don’t want to go into this half-cocked, especially if you have a lot of house rules. If you’re good at Fudging It, you can skip the house rules and the overall process will be easier, but you probably shouldn’t skip if you can avoid it. Having house rules the players depend on changed to the new system is important because it helps them set expectations for how things have changed. For a lot of systems, these kind of changes are pretty simple. Converting a Dungeons and Dragons campaign from edition 3.5 to Pathfinder is a simple task since Pathfinder was heavily influenced by 3.5 and most of the numbers are the same from one game to the next. Changing 3.5 to fifth edition is not nearly so easy, even if it seems easy on the surface. House rules about critical change because there is no rolling to confirm critical hits in fifth edition, but that’s easily resolved since you would just drop house rules about confirming critical hits. House rules about treasure, though could change. Fifth edition magic items operate on a very different scale than magic items in 3.5, and the same goes for pretty much any numerical roll. Skills have lower numbers and the difficulties of checks are lower since rolling high in fifth edition is rolling a thirty. If you’ve got a bunch of custom checks mapped out for skills or actions the players regularly use, you’ll definitely need to rework those.

Additionally, there are a lot of balance changes that happen from one game to another. In edition 3.5 of Dungeons and Dragons, fighters tend to be focused on combat skills or utility. In fifth edition, what they focus on changes depending on their specialization and they can wind up as anything from excellent tanks to damage-dealing monsters. Someone with a highly specialized build will need to do a lot of changing as well, perhaps to the point of basically having an entirely new character. If you have prestige classes in 3.5, chances are good that you won’t have them or anything directly related to that specific skill set in fifth edition. And that’s from one edition of a game system to a newer edition. At their core, they’re still the same d20-based game, but what if you make a bigger change?

If you’re running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that focuses mostly on roleplaying and storytelling, your players might find themselves frustrated with combat and certain skill applications since they tend to bog down a bit once it is time for everyone to start rolling dice. If your players don’t particularly care about the system you’re playing, it can be incredibly beneficial to switch to a Fate system since the skills and combat are much more narrative-based and tend to resolve much more quickly. However, there isn’t a clear class system and the conversion from class levels in Dungeons and Dragons to skill points(the main display of a character’s power) in Fate isn’t a super clear one since even the skills don’t really represent the abilities a Fighter or Wizard might have. It can be done with enough work and the thoughtful participation of all parties, but it definitely won’t be easy. There are other d20 systems out there as well, some closer to Dungeons and Dragons and some decidedly less so, that could be used to take the game in a more Sci-Fi direction, but converting to them is going to run into a different version of the same issue.

While you’ll be missing a couple of sessions while you work out how most of the numbers, power levels, and custom rules will convert, you should include the players in the process. You can use normal session time to do it, or you can start a texting group to get their thoughts. It’s good if you find a way to convert the numbers that makes sense to you, but you also need to consider the players and how they view their characters. No one is going to want to go from feeling incredibly powerful to feeling weak or useless. You can avoid that by working with your players and offering solutions to their feelings of powerlessness, even if it makes the character seem more powerful than they should be. For the most part, it’s fine if the players wind up with powerful characters and it’s even possible that something that seems incredibly powerful will wind up not being as useful as you thought once you start playing again. The best part of any kind of conversion is the knowledge that you can always go back to tweak things as the game continues since no one in their right mind would hold it against you.

Changing systems is a lot of work and, if you’re open and clear about it with your players, they’ll help you find solutions and be more ready to forgive any mistakes that crop up while you’re still ironing out the fine details.

Tabletop Highlight: Breaks, Hiatuses, and How to Fill the Time Between

Like any Dungeons and Dragons group, or any tabletop gaming group for that matter, mine occasionally has a few weeks where we aren’t able to get enough people together for a gaming session. It happens more frequently with my group than with most given that my group is only three players so even one missing player breaks my “more than two-thirds of the players must be present to run a session” rule. At the same time, when I’m incredibly stressed like I have been for the past few weeks, I am not up to running the game even though I usually still want to. I learned not to push it on those days long ago, because they’re inevitably the days when the players get some idea stuck in their head and I’ve gotta re-do half the plot and story I had planned on the spot, even if we’re well past the point when I thought I’d have to change anything like that around. They always find a way.

It’s always a struggle to figure out how to handle gaps like this. If you’re at a plot-critical moment, it gets really difficult to keep the tension and anticipation going when you don’t meet for a month. If you’re between big moments or the players are at a point where they must decide what to do next, then it is relatively simple to skip time since all they’ll need is a refresher. If it is at all possible to time your gaps so they fall at moments like those, I recommend doing it. That being said, most gaps aren’t planned ones but one-week skips that wind up incidentally getting longer, so here are some ways to help fill time between sessions.

The easiest way is to find a way to have smaller one-off sessions so each of the players gets a chance to do something integral to the story that’s unfolding. This won’t work if they’re in the middle of a dungeon or if you didn’t end the session at a point where the various characters can temporarily go their separate ways. This is a great time for rogues to do stealth missions or for the diplomatically inclined to take the time to get to know the local gentry. Even the more mercenary characters can make connections, even if they’re just with the various mercantile forces in the area. If you’ve got a role-play heavy campaign, there’s no such thing as too many connections. If your players tend to be more interested in being murder-hobos than role-players, you can easily make up a small encounter or two that will give them a chance to cut loose while waiting for the plot to resume.

Another thing you can do is more or less assign them homework. Maybe they have some connections they should contact that will help them in this situation. Have them write out a dialogue that represents this interaction and make sure to give them something for it, maybe a bonus on a future skill check, a minor item that will come in handy, or just a smidgen of role-playing XP. This is especially useful if you’re doing a role-play heavy campaign because it lets the players get more into their character and also provides you with more information about their characters that you can then figure out how to work into the game later on.

If you’re looking for something that’s less work for the dungeon master, I suggest assigning them a text-based interaction. There’s probably a decision or two they need to role-play and they can do it via text instead of taking up time at the next session. If it’s a big decision or something that’s going to spark a lot of debate, then it’s even better to get it out of the way before the session so you all can get down to figuring out what happens next. This is useful to you because you don’t need to monitor the text conversation and can just check in on it from time-to-time or read it all whenever you feel up to it. Alternatively, and you should never reveal this to your players (so stop reading this London, David, and Daniel, and just start at the top of the next paragraph), you give them a text discussion to role-play and then you never read it. If it isn’t a super important discussion, you can just skim it for any important bits or let your players bring up the highlights in conversation. That last bit is particularly easy if you live with one or more of your players and they love talking about the game (I told you to stop reading this, David).

Another thing you can do if you’re willing to surrender a little control and need something that takes the burden off of you is have one of the players propose a little side-mission or adventure they can run. It keeps things in your world and will likely be at least tangential to the plot you’re running, but you should definitely work through what that player wants to run if you’re going to let them do it in your game world since you want to make sure they aren’t going to cut off something you’ve been saving. I don’t really recommend this option much because I’ve seen it go wrong more often than right, but it’s definitely an option. If you’re co-running a game with someone or if one of your players is a good DM, then it gets much less risky, but you definitely still need to sit down and talk to them about it before you give them the go-ahead.

As I said, it’s always better if you don’t need to find a way to fill a bunch of time without game sessions, but I guarantee that there will come a time when you will need to get through a gap at an inconvenient time. If you do something else to bridge gaps like this one, I’d love to hear what that is. Please share it in the comments or shoot me an email!

Tabletop Highlight: Subverting Expectations to Comedic Effect

One of my favorite things to do in more limber storytelling formats is to find a way to set and then subvert expectations. If you read my flash fiction, you’ve seen me do it tons of times. What you don’t know is that subverting expectations is my favorite way to create comedic situations in my Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. It is difficult to create humor without some about of subverted expectation because most humor is derived from an unexpected outcome to a pose situation. For example, the joke “Three men are walking down the street. Two of them walk into a bar but the third one ducks.” takes the format of a “walks into a bar” joke and spins it on its head, subverting the expectation that the punchline was going to involve a situation inside a drinking establishment. Of course, explaining a joke removes the humor, so the above joke is no longer the bit of supreme wit it was before I started this post, but it illustrates the quick payoff most jokes depend on. If you wait too long for the punchline, it is a lot more difficult to make the joke stick the landing.

In Dungeons and Dragons, though, the Dungeon Master has a little more leeway. For instance, in a comedic game I read a couple of weeks ago, the players were selected to participate in some kind of game by forces beyond their ken. As a result, they were pushed through a portal into a different world where they were given a problem to solve. In this case, they stepped out of a preparation room and into a Dr. Seuss world and were immediately approached by the Lorax who requested their aid in defending a grove of trees. Since all of the players knew the Dr. Seuss story, they immediately leapt to the yellow-mustachioed creature’s aid. They charged right up to the giant machine ripping up trees and woodland creatures as it belched smoke into the sky and accosted the man operating it.

As it turns out, he was just some guy doing his job. When the found out that the manager was in his operations booth off at the edge of what turned out to be a surprisingly rectangular forest, they went to discuss the problem with him, all the while animals continued to run into the now-idling machine. There, they found out that the company the manager represented owned the land and had specifically grown these trees to be harvested along with helping environmental groups restore the natural forests they had previously destroyed following the Lorax’s successful campaign to raise public awareness of the environmental impact of the loss of all those natural habitats. Unfortunately, this was the point when the party decided that the smoke was still a probably and started attacking the machine and its poor operator. If they’d continued seeking a peaceful solution, they’d have discovered that the smoke was actually beneficial to the environment given that the atmosphere of this strange planet in an alternate universe had a different chemical makeup than the atmosphere of earth. Instead, they attacked the poor operator, nearly killing him, and then actually killed the Earth Elemental cop who came to arrest them. After stealing a stun baton from one of the security officers and grabbing the badge the Earth Elemental dropped, they declared victory and then assisted the Lorax and his guerrilla army chase the rest of the company off the property before stepping through a door to their next waiting room.

Not only was this story itself a subversion of expectation (you should have seen their faces when I described the Lorax and his guerrilla fighters appearing from amongst the trees right after the Earth Elemental crumbled into rubble and a copper badge), but it’s part of a broader effort on my part to set the stage for future encounters in this “shiggles” campaign. I take something fairly simple and clear-cut, flip it on its head, and let them find out how far astray their assumptions have led them. After this, they’re generally a little more on-guard and I can actually break out the big guns. In a previous shiggles campaign, I had their characters wind up in a room that looked strikingly like the one they were in and, after the first remarks about how dumb it was that I was going that meta subsided, revealed that they’d actually stepped onto the elemental plane of Generic Suburban Houses that all contractors of pre-developed neighborhoods summon their houses fun. After that, they visited Carpenter’s Hell, and wound up accidentally stepping into a Harry Potter book before visiting a Faerie’s Demesne which was actually from a book none of them had read so no one got the reference.

The whole point of subverting their expectations constantly was to get them to abandon them completely so they would live entirely in the moment. If you can get your players to exist in that mental space, it is easier to keep them involved in the story you’re telling and the jokes you’re setting up. They stop worrying about what they should do or how they should behave and simply act, littering the campaign with easy places for you to insert humor or for it to arise naturally out of the group dynamic as they go about whatever little tasks you’ve given them. You need to keep subverting their expectations in order to maintain that mood, constantly flipping the script on them so they never feel like they’ve figured you out. If you stop or let things go too long, or maintain a joke for too long, then you step away from the comedy and back toward the drama of Dungeons and Dragons. For instance, my last “shiggles” campaign had a character all of the players loved, called Blornth the Tuba Player. Because they literally abandoned everything they were doing to follow him around, my ability to subvert expectations was pretty much limited to having Blornth do ridiculous stuff and that started to get stale quickly. I’m certain that, if the campaign had continued for much longer, they’d have all gotten sick of him and we wouldn’t be sharing memes about tuba players and musician gods while lamenting the end of the last campaign.

Comedy, like wisdom, needs to change and grow in order to stay fresh. If you stick with one thing for too long, it grows stale. So throw a curveball at them and, as soon as they think they’ve got you figured out, throw in a fastball just to watch them doubt themselves while trying to figure out were the trick is. It’ll be funny for everyone, especially you.

Tabletop Highlight: What to Do With New Players

You’ve been running your campaign for a while and your collection of players has dwindled from the desired six to a barely tenable three. You’ve made a few semi-permanent NPCs to help lighten the load on your remaining players and you’ve changed all the encounters so that your primarily martial characters can still fight on an even playing field. Still, you and your players feel the lack of other voices around the table, other solutions to the problems you face that could be offered by one or more other players. Maybe you have some interested people who’d be willing to play the kind of game you’re running, but how do you know if they’ll fit into the group dynamic? How do you know if they’ll really enjoy the story you’re all telling when they’re not as invested as your current players. Assuming you get past the first two, how do you work them into the campaign without it feeling like you’ve put everything on pause so a new character can show up in order to bail out the party?

Adding new players into an existing campaign is always a risky proposition. There is no telling what a new face will do to the group’s chemistry or how the leadership or problem-solving dynamics will shift as you add new personalities. A lot of the potential problems can be avoided if you bring in a prospective new player on a temporary basis, for some kind of special event cooked up for the sole purpose of vetting new players. Keep in mind, no matter how well you know the prospective player, it is really important to give the other players a chance to try them out first before you bring them in officially. There is always the chance that a quirk of someone’s personality will be incredibly frustrating to someone else, even if they usually get along or you don’t see it. Since your existing players have been with you all this time, they should ultimately have a say in new players as well and group chemistry is just as important to them as it is to you, even if it is ultimately your job alone to monitor and/or police it.

While you may want to bring in a new player right away, to help the players out of a problem they’re approaching, it is usually best to save inserting the new player until there’s room in the story for it. Thankfully, stories are quire versatile and the reasons behind why a stranger might join up with the existing characters are manifold. Maybe the new character is a prisoner or a turncoat. Maybe they have goals similar to those of the party and found their way to the same place. Maybe the new character has some important information the party needs so they seem them out in town. Maybe the person giving the party their job wants to send someone they trust along to report back and ensure their goods are properly retrieve or delivered. There are a thousand ways to add someone to the game, but it’s just as important to know that every moment isn’t the right time. If you characters have been chasing a bad guy for months, one who has wronged them and only them, it would not make sense for a stranger to show up at the bad guy’s base with the thought of helping to take down someone who hasn’t done anything to them. Similarly, if your players are carrying out a top-secret mission, it is unlikely that they will willingly share information with a new person unless they explicitly know they can trust this stranger.

Usually, to get around those difficult moments and to help both get the character involve and make sure they’re a good fit with the group, find a little side adventure you can use that will involve the new player. You can watch the group chemistry to make sure everyone gets along and help the characters build a rapport so that your existing players will readily welcome the inclusion of any new players. If you’ve got the time, it never hurts to vet a bunch of players ahead of time, to see how they perform, in case you ever need to add some more people. I like to invite people I know to small parts of campaigns I run so I can get an idea of how they play and who they play well with so I can make sure to invite the right people to the right Dungeons and Dragons groups when I’m looking to start a new campaign. This means I usually have a good idea of who will fit well in a group if they initially declined or weren’t available and I wind up needing more players.

From there, if I realize I’m running short on players and will probably start wanting new ones soon, I go through my mental list of players and invite potential new players to join the campaign for a short little story, usually something heavily related to the main plot of the game with an individual twist focused around the player’s character. If they enjoy the piece of the story they got to experience, then it’s usually a safe bet that they will enjoy playing in the campaign as a whole. It isn’t a sure-fire method, of course. There are no sure-fire ways to predict the future or make certain that everyone will get along in the future, but it makes it a lot easier to confidently suggest people to your existing players and, if there are no red flags, then most game masters can handle it from there since any issues will fall within the normal range of personality conflicts most GMs handle on a monthly basis.

As always, you should consider things thoroughly before acting. There’s no rush to add players, so take the time to make sure you’re adding people who are going to have fun and actually contribute to a positive play environment. It might take a lot of work sometimes, but it’s always worth it.

Tabletop Highlight: What “Hit Points” Mean For You and Your Players

Hit Points. Life. Soul. HPs. Damage. Shields. Power. Lots of different ways to express the same concept. Every game with combat needs them in some manner or another, and they often serve different purposes even if they’re usually the same at the core. Ultimately, whatever they’re called, they’re the numerical or mechanical (as-in “gameplay mechanic”) representation of a character’s ability to survive damage from an enemy before they suffer a lethal blow. This works great in stuff like video games where your character never really speaks about the numbers representing their bodily health unless they’re scripted to break the fourth wall. However, when it comes to tabletop role playing games, you actually need a way for your characters to discuss a numerical representation of their bodily health without breaking the fourth wall. There have been a lot of attempts, but most fall short or simply break the fourth wall rather than entirely shatter it.

Probably my favorite is to take it humorously. Instead of saying “HP” or “Hit Points” in D&D, my players jokingly have their characters ask each other a question: “If you were to compare your health to a number of tomatoes, how many tomatoes would have left?” It was my own joke, initially, that I made during on session when one of the players struggled to convey his character’s hit point total during a bit of a drawn-out fight.  I don’t remember where I got it. I’m not sure if I read it somewhere or just extrapolated it from the popular “D&D Stats Explained with Tomatoes” Reddit post, but it’s something that hung around my head for a while before I stuck it into my players’ heads.

I’m not that much of a role playing stickler that I won’t let my players talk about their skills, abilities, or hit points in concrete terms, but I generally encourage them to get as absorbed into the game as they’re willing to go. It can make it a bit difficult to openly discuss who needs healing the most if no one is allowed to quantify their level of damage, though. Typically, so long as the characters aren’t talking about hit points, I’m fine. The players can talk about them as a concrete concept as much as they’re like since their characters would be able to more easily visually assess the relative health of the other characters around them. It’s really just a way to help the people outside the game bridge the gap between what they know of the game they’re playing and what their characters would just know as a result of being a part of the game.

When it comes to describe hit points and how they work as the Dungeon Master, it can be a little tricky. If your fighter has one hundred hit points and your wizard has forty and your rogue has sixty, then it makes it pretty clear that they can all survive different amounts of punishment. The fight can probably stand to be impaled a few times since being impaled on a spear does around twenty damage. Something much larger, with a horn of some kind, would do much more damage, but the fighter could easily survive one or two hits from even the hardest hitting impaler. Further complicating things is how Armor Class affects the way damage is applied. If your fighter is wearing full-plate and wielding a tower shield but still gets hit, how does that work? Did his opponent find a gap? Did they break through the fighter’s armor? Chop through their shield? Is the fighter’s armor filling up with blood now, or was it just a scratch?

The way I like to think of it, I consider hit points to be a reflection of an individual character’s ability to turn an otherwise lethal or debilitating blow into something minor. Think about a sword-fighting anime. You have two master swordsmen rushing at each other and they swing. These two people were chopping arms off of mooks just five minutes earlier, have both sliced through rocks, and can effortlessly slash down a heavy wooden door. How is it that they only took minor cuts on their arms or cheeks or whatever? They used their skill, gained over the length of their time training and leveling up, to move in such a way that an arm-removing chop just made them bleed a little. The same is true of your fighter and your wizard. They might be the same level, but a fighter is going to be much better at negating the lethality of a hit than a wizard. When they finally run out of hit points, that means they’re cut up and tired enough that they can no longer negate the blows and something that had, seconds before, caused only the smallest red line to appear now removes their hand or arm.

Critical hits are a little more complicated. Generally just walk it up as being a non-lethal hit still, but one that would be severe enough to cause a big scar. Maybe the cut was long but shallow or maybe it was actually a puncture. You can be run-through without damaging anything that’d get you killed. It’s not easy and it’s more likely than not that you’ll get extremely hurt, but a fighter could probably do it a bunch of times in a day.

The one major except to my practices is when a player takes massive damage. In the three point five edition of Dungeons and Dragons, there’s a suggested rule to require a saving throw to avoid death if a player takes massive damage and they define massive damage as something exceeding fifty points in a single attack. Now, there will be characters who go from level one to twenty and never once have fifty hit points. There are characters who, at twentieth level, will be able to laugh off fifty points of damage. Better, in my mind, to make it based on their total hit points. In my campaigns, players can face debilitating injuries if they take half their hit points or more of damage from a single attack. Lost limbs, evisceration, unconsciousness, broken bones, and of those are fair game if they get absolutely wrecked by something. This means that the one hundred hit point fight is much less likely to get a massive damage hit than the wizard, but it makes sense that it’d work that way.

How do you treat hit points in your games? I’d love to hear how you handle the description of losing hit points and accruing damage. Please feel free to comment!

Check out today’s Tabletop Highlight about Hit Points! I cover the roles they play in games and how you can describe your players losing HP in fights! Check it out here!