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: 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!

Tabletop Highlight: What to Do When You’re Lawful Good

At one point, you decided that you wanted to give Lawful Good a chance. Everyone said you’re basically signing up to be the most frustrating person in the Dungeons and Dragons party, but you think that it would be fun to play the game with a strong sense of morality instead of just being some murder hobo in search of a paycheck. You even decide to go to the extreme end of the spectrum so there are consequences if you fail to stick to the morals you’ve chosen. Everyone jokes about the stick insertion that comes with your first level of Paladin, but you think you’ve clever enough to play to the nuanced alignment of Good over Lawful. So you roll up your character, assign yourself the role of the party’s moral compass, and then discover that you’re the main impetus behind the party’s decisions and everything you know is at odds with how you are choosing to play your character.

You manage to discourage the rogue from poisoning the well of a village you suspect has been behind the attacks on your colony, only to be found out anyway when your bluff is called and the Yuan-Ti (snake person) you’re talking to is actually a dragon posing as a god. You also manage to stay standing in a later encounter when everyone else falls only to lose your arm as you take all your hit points in damage from a single hit because the rogue got you into an encounter you couldn’t win. Later you stay out of the rogue’s business so they can do some clandestine research in the undercity, but they wind up wasting a lot of time and money because they go about doing things the most back-asswards way possible because they forget that other people can make sense motive checks and only survived because they got lucky, all while you take down what turns out to be a lich who is directing an attack against the city you’ve stopped in. A while later, you lose your cool and your fancy Paladin powers because you lost your temper interrogating the assassin who killed your friend and then told you not to take it so personally since he’s just a contract killer. Later, once you’ve atoned and aligned yourself with a god who not only helped you out in a pinch earlier but has a more proactive view on punishing evildoers, you sacrifice your life to buy the party time because the rogue accidentally woke an ancient proto-lich and even then only two members of the party survive because the Scout decided that keeping the proto-lich in the tomb was worth more than his life.

Finally, you’ve alive again, you’ve worked things out with the party so they respect your authority a little more, and things are finally starting to go well aside from the rogue who has a bit of a penchant for questionable decisions. One of which was to reveal your party’s goal to the prisoner you were interrogating and now you can’t just let this goblin cleric walk away to report back to his superiors. If the rogue had the stones or the sense, he’d “let the cleric go” by taking him over a hill, killing him, and hiding him in portable hole or bag of holding until a more permanent means of disposal became available. But you know the rogue isn’t going to do that and you can’t exactly tell him to because you’re supposed to be playing the moral compass of the party and there’s little point to doing that if you’re telling everyone how to get around you.

In this case, it seems like your options are extremely limited because all you can do is either keep him prisoner or let him go. Fortunately for you, there are actually a larger number of options open to you than you realize. For a complete description of alignments, check out this great video by Matthew Colville, but the thing you need to know is that the best definition of “Lawful” is that you believe society benefits from having laws and that the laws should be followed. “Good” is usually defined as “not evil” or, more usefully, as being willing to grant people the benefit of the doubt when they ask for or look like they need help. You can also see this particular comic page (specifically the last panel) from Tarol Hunt’s “Goblins” for the best definition I’ve found. This means that, as a Paladin, all you really need to do is believe in the usefulness of laws, support those laws to the best of your ability, and that you’re willing to give people assistance without needing proof.

This allows you some leeway depending on the world you play in. In some particularly religious game worlds, Paladins are allowed to act as executioners or judges. There’s even a whole prestige class in the three-point-five edition of D&D specifically for this available to certain divine casters (Paladins and Clerics, mostly). In that case, the Paladin could put the prisoner on trial and either permanently lock them up or execute them, if they’re found guilty of particularly heinous evil. Depending on the which religious order of Paladins your character belongs to, the idea of a trial by combat is a fairly typical way to resolve problems like evil prisoners. Especially for Paladin orders that are a little more focused on purging evil. Hell, if you’re a really anti-evil paladin, a simple “detect evil” is enough. Dungeons and Dragons has objective Good and objective Evil for a reason. The definition Tarol Hunt supplies is actually a really great way to cut through the potential subjectivity involved in defining good and evil so it still fits into a “yes or no” system like Dungeons and Dragons.

While a lot of this post (pretty much everything up to this point, honestly) is geared toward the Paladin in the party of my campaign, it’s honestly a problem I see a lot of Lawful Good characters run into. Sometimes it feels either like you need to resign yourself to having a stick up your character’s ass or wind up basically murdering everything evil just because it’s Evil. Really, though, you have more options than this basic dichotomy. A lot of it depends on the laws of the land and what has happened in the campaign you’re playing in (for instance, some particularly lawful characters might be granted the power to enforce the laws of the land as a part of acting on behalf of a ruler), but you always have options. If you’re not a Paladin but some other class and still Lawful Good, perhaps a Knight or a bounty-hunting Ranger, you still have essentially the same options. Lock them up while you drag them back home, find a way to control them using magic, invest in a jail wagon of some kind, hire people to hold onto the criminals you capture, win them over to your side by giving them Stockholm Syndrome, cutting off their legs and them giving them first aid so they can’t run away but also don’t die, killing them outright, a trial by combat, or just letting them go.

All that being said, it is so much easier when you’ve got some chaotic or neutral characters who are a little more willing to DISCREETLY dispose of an inconvenient prisoner without tipping off your character. That requires a certain type of player, though, and unfortunately for you, you chose to be a Paladin who can’t even suggest such a thing without running the risk of losing their divine powers. At least Knights (one of the only other classes with a Lawful alignment requirement) can act unlawfully without permanently losing everything unless they do it enough to change their alignment.

Like all things in Dungeons and Dragons, the sky is the limit. Ask questions, try to puzzle it out, spend some time considering how your character defines “Good” and “Lawful.” There are more options than you realize and Lawful Good doesn’t mean your hands are shackled when it comes to dealing with moral inconveniences.

Tabletop Highlight: Creating Fun and Interesting Characters

Having played and run tabletop games for over 8 years, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to create a fun, interesting, and engaging character in almost any tabletop RPG. While the strict definition of those first two descriptors means there’s a lot of subjectivity involved in the process, there are a few things you can keep in mind while you figure out what you think would be fun and interesting that would help keep the game an enjoyable experience for you and those playing with you. For the most part, they fall into two categories I’d summarize as “the ability to be engaged in or by the story and other characters” and “a series of imperfections that expose them to risk.” These are two fundamental parts of creating a character that are generally built into tabletop games with a basis in hard numbers but they can often be overlooked in other games. Additionally, the later can be avoided in hard number games like Dungeons and Dragons if the player optimizes their character in such a way that obviates all risk.

For the most part, exposing your character to risk is part and parcel with playing a tabletop game. There are some characters who avoid most risks as a result of their playing making them cowardly or extremely self-centered, but those often include the risk of negative social consequences or a loss of advancement opportunities (advancing via level or ability progression, specifically). Risk is a pretty broadly defined word and the only real way to avoid it entirely is to find a way to make your character so powerful that nothing bad can happen to him or to play with a group of people who are going to enable your (the player’s) machinations and rule-lawyering (a term that means you rely on your knowledge of the rules, their exploits, and the various gaps between them in order to manipulate an interaction in the game, either as the player or as the character, so that it resolves to your advantage). Typically, the only players who do this are the ones who actually enjoy having a character who never fails, so most of the failure here is the fact that it often frustrates other players, by either wasting their time as you argue through some obscure rule with the GM (who is always the final arbiter of rules but often lets things slide just to get the game going again) or by making their characters essentially useless.

Risk is essential because it the main vehicle for growth and change in the story your character is telling. Even if they aren’t a central part of whatever plot is currently unfolding, being unable to make them strive or risk something means they’re going to remain unaffected by whatever happens. They might learn new information or they might gain interesting new abilities, but there’s no way for them to actually change their course unless they fail something. Failure is the best teacher there is and sometimes the price of the lessons we learn are steeper than we’d like. If there was no risk of failure or loss, then what is the point in playing out the scenario? We all roll dice because we’re not certain of the outcomes and removing the chance of failure removes the need to roll dice. At that point, you might as well be reading a book or listening to someone tell a story. Sometimes, you lose it all and your character dies. Sometimes they lose something important to them. That’s just part of the game and the sooner you accept that you might need to let go of a character you loved, the sooner you’ll be able to really enjoy the character you’ve created and their experiences in the world of the game.

Thanks to the structure of games like Dungeons and Dragons, your character is automatically a participant in the story that’s about to unfold. If your character wouldn’t actually leave their humble origins and go on an adventure, you don’t actually make them. There’s always some part of them that has a goal to accomplish or some reason to want to explore the world beyond their village. In other games, it isn’t always that simple. Some games, like any that use the Fate system, require a little more intervention on the player or GM’s part. A lot of the Fate system games are based a little more in real-world sensibilities. For instance, the Fate game I’m currently playing in is based in a fictionalized version of the city we all live in because we’re familiar with it and the game requires a certain amount of city knowledge in order to navigate the game and tell a story together (the Fate system is much more role-play intensive and gives more story-telling power directly to the players). As a result of this more real-world feel for our game, are people need to be functional adults in this game. We all have lives and jobs and responsibilities that existed before the game began and most of which still exist after the game has begun. If you weren’t careful, it would be possible to create a character who has little connection to the plot and the other characters, which makes it even more difficult to keep them involved in the story. The GM can only do so much. The rest is on the player to write their character in such a way that it is easy to involve them in the story or else they’ll spend more time sitting out than anyone else.

The easiest way to get your character involved in the story is build in some flaw that allows the GM or other characters to pull them along. Maybe they have really bad luck and a history of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as my character in the Fate game does. Maybe they’re an insatiable thrill-seeker with little regard for their personal safety or the lives of others, like my first fifth-edition character was. Maybe they feel it is their duty to protect the overlooked members of society and are banished from their home for speaking out against their lord when the lord raised taxes too high for the peasants to afford. Maybe they’re easily swayed or they have debts they need to pay. Maybe they’re morbidly fascinated by crime scenes and bought a police scanner so they can go gawk every day. Maybe they are so meticulous that they can’t rest until they’ve reviewed every little detail that seems out of place. All of these things have one thing in common: there’s something that allows them to be easily put in danger, manipulated, or otherwise involved in whatever is going on at the time. If you’re having trouble thinking of something that would be applicable to your current game, just ask the GM for suggestions that would make it easier for them to set a plot hook or get the players involved in some story they’ve cooked up.

How you specifically apply these ideas is really up to your own interpretation. Like I said earlier, your definition of “fun” and “interesting” is probably different from my own and you should make sure your character fits into them. Including the two things I mentioned here, risk and engage-ability, should easily fit into your definitions, though. And don’t be afraid to give them more flaws or take more risks than necessary. Most of the fun in tabletop RPGs comes from success against all odds or when everything hilariously blows up in your character’s face.

Tabletop Highlight: When You get a Little Minmax in Your Roleplaying

As a player of Dungeons and Dragons, I prefer to roleplay. I like the idea of coming up with a novel character concept and sticking to a personality I’ve devised to fit that concept, no matter what. What can make me frustrating for other GMs, though, is my propensity for focusing on excelling at one or two particular things. Given my understanding of the game, I’ve found it relatively easy to maximize my potential for a couple specific things that fit my character concept, such as the 3.5 edition Scout who could move 210 feet as a move action (that’s 120 miles an hour in 3.5 rules) or the fifth edition rogue who couldn’t fail a search, perception, or trap disabling check thanks to high modifiers and the skill that lets you get no lower than a ten on your check for a certain set of skills.

While this falls short of outright min-maxing–the act of using the game’s rules in such a way to sacrificing things of minimal importance in order to maximize your character’s more important abilities, also known as “optimization”–it can still be a little jarring for people to deal with. Sure, I don’t do something crazy like sacrifice my character’s ability to spell their name right or make friends on purpose in order to increase their total skill, but I’ve clearly found some loophole or another I can exploit in order to game a rather ridiculous benefit. Fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons did a good job of cutting down the potential for loopholes, but 3.5 is the best edition for it since there are so many wonderful ways to break the game if you really want to.

For my part, I don’t really mind it when my players do a little bit of minmaxing so long as they can justify their reasons for doing it or how their character got it. The paladin wants to take a special feat that lets him add his Charisma bonus to his damage in exchange for his ability to use Turn Undead? Sure, we’ve already established he’s got a close relationship with his god since he’s one of a select group of Paladins who serve that minor deity directly so it makes sense that the god would direct him toward being able to better slay evil. The rogue wants a sword made of a material I’ve never heard of, that can only be found and forged on one of the deep layers of the lower plains which technically doesn’t exist in my world thanks to the customization of the planes. Sorry, no can do since the very material itself would be counted as evil and the current laws of Heaven and Hell prohibit the export of materials to the mortal plane. If he wanted to make a trip to one of the layers of Hell in order to get that material, then we could talk. But there’s no way some random shopkeeper in the capital city of a federation pretty much run by a lawful good religion is going to stock a material literally made out of compressed evil. The black market might have it, but then how can you trust it is what you want? And it’s likely they’re not just carrying it around, so you’d need to go on a minor quest to get it and then you have to deal with the Paladin who is already one his last straw thanks to the Hellhound you bought on the black market and trained to be your hunting dog.

Hell, my party’s Scout has the highest Armor Class in the party because his main attribute is Dexterity, the rules allow scale mail to be made into light armor if you’re a particular prestige class (some dragon champion thing that I’m forgetting the name of because I tweaked it to fit my world), and he got reincarnated as a Bugbear the last time he died. He got really lucky and a bunch of stuff came together to put his AC through the roof. If he’d down it on purpose, I’d have taken him aside and told him no since no ninth level character should have an AC of thirty-one (or thirty-five if he’s moving), but it was just the culmination of chance and some custom stuff he and I’d put in the game.

In this case, role-playing and minmaxing work out since the whole theme of this game is to make the players feel like they’re ridiculously over-powered. They’re supposed to be able to reshape the world by tenth level because I want them to eventually fight gods or demons and Ancient Dragons. They’ve encountered plenty of powerful NPCs as well, which helps them feel like their extreme power is more in line with the rest of the world. My big rule is we can work out pretty much whatever they want so long as they can justify it in-game. Which means the Paladin is basically an honor guard of a god, the Scout is the chosen champion of an Ancient Dragon, and the Rogue/Assassin has a dagger that can cut through anything and potentially drain souls, in addition to becoming a business magnate between dungeons. To be entirely fair to the rogue, he’s probably stuck the most to role-playing since he’s not sure how he can make his character as powerful as the Paladin and the Scout, but they all do it really well. The Paladin has been on his current course of serving this god since before first level and the Scout has setting himself up to be a slayer of evil dragons since his conception. The Rogue has had the most change in his character’s journey throughout the two and a half years we’ve been playing, so it makes sense that he isn’t as hyper-focused as the other two are.

As long as your intentions are good and you’re not doing it to break the game or mess with the GM, I don’t really have a problem with character optimization or minmaxing. There’s a fine line between breaking the game and minmaxing, but it’s there and I’ve known plenty of people who have managed to walk right up to it without crossing it. The best ones have always been people who were in it for the roleplaying. I wonder if that’s a coincidence or a startling insight. Let me know if you’ve had cases of good roleplaying going hand-in-hand with character optimization or if your experiences have differed! I’ve love to hear your stories!

Tabletop Highlight: How Many Players is too Many?

The first campaign I ever ran started with six players, made its way down to four, and eventually settled at five with one more who’d play once every couple months. The second one had eight. The third one had almost a dozen, but only about six-to-eight ever made it to a session at any given time (it was specifically built for this). My main Dungeons and Dragons group in Madison was six players for a while, but then it shot up to eight and now sits nine after a couple years of jumping around. The campaign I currently run the most frequently, “Broken Worlds,” has three players. I’ve run a campaign for two people, and even ran a one-day campaign for a single player while introducing them to D&D. While a specific idea of a “basic party” exists for D&D, which is what the D&D rules expect when it comes to assessing difficult or setting up appropriate encounters, I have rarely had four players in my group and the party has almost never been “balanced.”

As I’ve said before, a good GM can find a way for any party composition to work, but what could bear saying is that even a good GM can’t always make any size party work. I know a lot of GMs who thrive in that four-to-ten player range, but who absolutely struggle to make the game work for fewer than four. I know a couple GMs who can’t handle more than four or five, but almost prefer the super small groups of one-to-three players. Personally, I struggle with anything over seven players, but can easily handle anything up to that point. What usually gets me is trying to manage combat and player engagement for eight of more people. There’s just so much to keep track of that I often can’t keep the turns going so my players can stay focused or I keep needing to pull people aside so they do their little solo mission because they feel like they’re getting lost in the crowd and thus start doing things alone to force their character to stand out. The latter is a slippery slope if people start doing it for unnecessary stuff, since it usually means more people start to feel like they’re not getting enough of a chance to act so they start doing solo stuff as well and then you might as well be running several small D&D sessions instead of one larger one.

To be entirely fair, that can be a way to manage a large group. If you know there’s a stealth section coming up that the Ranger, Rogue, and Bard want to do without the noisy Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, and Paladin following then around, call a separate session just for the sneaky people. Even if the non-sneaky people are waiting outside to start busting down the gate in the case of an alarm, you can always run the sneaky-people along until they either set off the alarm or finish with whatever mission they’re on. If they set off the alarm, mark down where they are and say you’ll pick it up when everyone is around.

Another thing you can do for player engagement is handle down-time adventures via some text format. There are plenty of forums that are set up for this kind of thing or you can just do it all via email. Heck, you could even do it via text message between sessions. Or set up a session day as half-hour increments of time people can come to you to do whatever they want when they’re in town. That way, they can include other members of the party in decisions or little role-playing moments just by going into the next room and asking for an answer or whatever. Anything works, so long as it’s happening outside of the actual session. This way, the time you’re all together to play is when your party is all together and everything that’d slow your group down is handle at another time.

For combat, managing large groups is trickier. You can tell everyone to have their actions figured out and establish a turn timer, but the longest turns are usually the GM’s turns (well, the turns taken by whatever it is the players are fighting). Because everything in D&D is set up for an optimal four-person group, doubling that number of players can mean that some encounters that should be challenging just aren’t. With a large group, few GMs have their players fight against a single tough monster. Instead, they’ll have them fight more, but slightly smaller, things. Or, as is more common, a huge number of much smaller things instead of the large number of medium things. Here, it gets tricky. If your players are all fighting the same thing, that makes it a little bit easier, but that’s rarely the case. Usually they’re fighting a variety of smaller hings so it’s not all spear-chuckers or sword-swingers or spellcasters. Sure, you can save time by making everything that’s the same move or act at the same time, but that’s still a lot of moving, acting, and rolling you need to do.  All of which needs to happen in addition to managing the players are they react to what is going on and need questions answered. The only real solution I’ve come up to this–aside from having super patient and understand players–is to have a second GM step in.

While that might seem difficult, it usually isn’t. All you really need is a knowledgeable player or someone who you can trust to avoid meta-gaming. If they’re knowledgeable, instruct them to handle player questions about the situation and you likely won’t even need to show them your notes. If you can trust them to avoid meta-gaming, have them play the parts of some (or all) of the enemies. If you get another GM to sit in on your session, then you don’t even need to worry about everything else. Just give them the enemies for the party to fight and make sure you set a reasonable expectation for the other GM on how you’d like the fight handled. If you trust them to mesh well with your game, you might even be able to get them to not only run the enemies, but also create them in the first place. They’ll probably want a little more autonomy then, but that’s not a problem if you trust them to carry your intentions into their monster/enemy creation.

After that, the only real problem you have for large groups is how to keep everyone playing in a friendly manner and where you can get enough seating. I suggest folding chairs and regular potlucks. Can’t hate someone if they feed you regularly. Though, to be fair, this is less likely to be a problem than anything else since GMs should be good at monitoring groups and understanding which people will play together. You’re unlikely to need to deal with inter-player conflict for long, though, since people tend to just leave. Good luck with your big groups and let me know if you’ve encounter similar problems before!

Tabletop Highlight: Player Fatalism and How to Salvage the Game

I honestly don’t know if I can speak for everyone, but it often feels like every tabletop gamer I know has a story about a game where someone was constantly pessimistic and fatalistic. Someone, perhaps even them, spent an entire session, or even several sessions, throwing their hands up in the air every time something bad happened and complaining that they knew this was going to happen or that there’s no point to them trying any more if they’re just going to die.

This happened recently in one of my games. There’s a player, the one I often bring up as the person who does some dumb stuff or makes questionable decisions (he featured heavily in the “Up for Interpretation” post from three weeks ago) who has been engaging in this kind of behavior lately. To be entirely fair, his character has died as many times as the rest of the party put together and he seems to always come up short when I roll to determine who gets to be the target of whatever is about to happen. Even his rolls tend toward failure when he tries something. He missed a sneak attack that would have insta-killed the enemy spell caster because he rolled in the single digits on his attack. He failed a skill check to make it back to safety afterwards and would have been knocked unconscious if not for an ability of his special weapon that gave him temporary hit points. The poor guy has had it rough.

To be entirely, fair, though, he makes a lot of assumptions and does a lot of stuff without thinking it through. He died during that same fight because he hopped over a barricade to attack an enemy he could have just stabbed from where he was. I let him live because he apparently didn’t realize he could do that and it’s pretty clear he wouldn’t have done it if he could have avoided it seeing as he was so low on hit points. Though, to continue being fair, he also didn’t retreat from the battle or take a back seat once he was down to nothing but his last few hit points either. He’d already seen how much damage his enemies could do with one hit and yet he continued to try to front-line them.

A lot of that behavior and those unneccessary risk-taking could have been a result of his expectation that his current character won’t be much longer for this world. He’s already created a new character to replace him, prompted by my jokes about a TPK, which I’ve managed to avoid so far since the players know when to run. There was a close moment, though, because they messed up some earlier stuff and had to deal with the consequences. That was probably the first time they were pushed to their limits from a marathon of battles rather than a single tough monster. It was winnable, though. I was never going to put them in a situation where they feel powerless or like they are being punished. If they screw up enough to get themselves killed, it will mostly be swift and decisive. Otherwise, they’ll always have options and only poor decision-making or bad luck will get them all killed.

It can be hard to keep again running, especially a story-drive one, when one of the players just lets go as soon as there’s any tension. I can’t make the game feel dramatic if someone is just giving up as soon as things look bad. They start to get angry if it keeps happening and a lot of drama and tension in story-telling is uncertainty or challenge, so I wind up trying to keep them invested without sacrificing too much story. I don’t think this player’s attitude is affecting the other players very much, but I’m hoping it’s just the recent string of bad luck he’s had (which is really just his perception of events, he’s also had some really good luck since he’s only come close to dying or getting captured).

I’m going to talk to him (and will have, before this post goes up) about what’s been going on and workshop some ideas on how to get through it. This isn’t a problem unless it’s making the game less fun for the other players and the person displaying the fatalistic behavior refuses to change. Usually when this happens, as is happening with my player, there’s something causing it. Before you try to address the problem, you need to figure out what this underlying cause is. Once you know that, you need to verbally (and privately) address it with the player so they have the opportunity to change. Not everyone realizes they’re doing it. I’m not even sure if my player recognizes that he’s doing it.

For him, the source lies in some of his first exposure to D&D and a long string of bad decisions compounded by bad luck. His first DM was very adversarial. He tried to manipulate the players constantly, forced them to act a certain way, did his level best to kill them constantly, and gave all of the good magic items and experiences to his closest friends so that other players wound up with under-leveled and under-geared characters who just died all that much more frequently. He’s had a few more experiences between now and then (most of which I’ve seen), but one characteristic of his gaming has always been making decisions without considering the consequences and bad luck on rolls. From the silly little campaign I ran to test out a book world I’d developed to a “Shits and Giggles” campaign I ran to fill my weekends, to my current serious campaign where he seems to constantly get the short end of the stick. Sometimes, it’s because he accidentally stepped on the large stick he had and wound up breaking it, but I’m sure that doesn’t feel very fun to him.

Problems with characters and DMing I can fix. I have no problem helping my players create the best possible version of their character (though I usually insist they stick to a personality rather than just minmaxing) and I generally try to avoid getting adversarial in any context. Bad luck and poor decision-making… There’s not much more I can do beyond being forgiving when he’s legitimately making a mistake as a player versus when he’s doing something reckless or risky. It’s a fine line, but I wrote an entire blog post about how to tell the difference so I’m confident I can manage it.

I hope we can figure something out. I’d hate to think he’s not having fun. That’s all I really want, as a DM.

Tabletop Highlight: What to do When You TPK

It finally happened. Because of some mistakes, poor decisions, or just a run of bad luck, you’ve encountered your first TPK. Don’t worry! A Total Party Kill isn’t the end of the world! You have options! But first, as you should do any time you have a serious, potentially irreversible character death or one that felt like a particularly stinky pile of bullshit, take some time away from the table to breath. Thankfully, only characters have died. The players can still play, the DM can still run, and the game can go on. However, it will likely be different. That’s okay, though. Every time anything major happens, the game changes. This will be just one more of those changes.

The first option is generally the easiest. Instead of being killed, the party has been captured and now must escape the clutches of some dreaded foe. Finally, the rogue can put that escape artist skill to use! The paranoid ranger who has a chime of opening hidden on his person is finally vindicated! The barbarian… well, they just hulk out like usual, but it’s still fun! They’re short on gear, don’t have many hit points, and are on a time limit! They need to escape quickly or quietly. If they’re spotted, they need to move fast. If they get stuck, they might need to make some tough choices about who lives and who dies. If they can remain hidden, they might need to find the hole in the guard rotation so they can escape undetected. Maybe they need to talk their way out and suddenly the paladin’s high charisma is good for more than never failing a save. Or maybe the wizard finally gets a chance to show just how capable he can be in a pinch, even without an hour to prepare his spells. No matter what choice you make, it’s sure to make a memorable adventure.

The next easiest option is to have a conversation with your players. There are three options most players take, sometimes individually but usually as a group. First, they might elect to create all new characters who are going to pick up from where their previous characters left off. Sometimes they’re intentionally recovering the remains, sent on a mission to find the now-dead characters by whoever sent the characters in the first place. Sometimes they’re doing their own thing and stumble over the remains of the dead characters and choose to pick up from where they left off. If they don’t do that, another option might be to just create new characters in the same world, doing their own thing, in a space far from where their characters died. Maybe they’ll eventually have to defeat the villain their previous characters fell to at some point, but maybe not. This is a new adventure and that doesn’t mean they need to even inhabit the same world, much less inhabit the same area of said world. The third option is to decide to stop playing. Some players might decide they want to move on to something else, now that the journey their character was on came to a conclusion. That’s totally fine, as long as they’re not departing angrily. If they are, or if all of your players are choosing to abandon ship now that their characters are dead, it might not be a bad idea to look back and assess if you were running a game they wanted to keep playing.

Another option, which would require a lot of work to keep the players from feeling like you just saved them for expediency, would be to have them wake up in a stronghold of an ally. Maybe they were brought back to life or maybe they were rescued, but it must have been for an important reason, whatever the method. Maybe this ally wants to use them for something and figured having a group of adventurers in their debt due to being returned from death would be sufficient motivation to get them to do whatever this ally wants. Maybe it isn’t an ally but a previously neutral NPC who wants the characters to work for them. Perhaps there’s even some kind of curse or geas placed on the characters that forces them to work for this NPC and now they need to not only pursue their given goals but figure out how to escape from the NPC controlling them. This would be a lot of fun because it’d require a lot of clever thinking on the part of the players, though I can understand that it wouldn’t work for every group.

There’s always an undead campaign. It’d work really well if they died fighting a necromancer or failed to disrupt some horrid ritual that would give the souls of everyone mortal on the material plane to some evil god. Maybe something didn’t go entirely wrong and some aspect of who the characters was before their transformation lingers. With the right kind of build-up, you could create an adventure where they either embrace their new undead forms or find a way to undo their transformations. Maybe they find the last divine caster in the area who was saved from the ritual because they were praying within a consecrated area and they can be returned to life. Or maybe they figure out how to save their souls and then take on the new undead overlords before (or maybe after) using a miracle spell to return the world to the way it was before the ritual went off.

There’s always retconjuration, the magic of changing how things happened, but that almost always feels cheap unless they died because they all rolled a bunch of fails in a row while their enemies rolled nothing but natural twenties. I’d recommend against it if you have literally any other option. You could also effectively un-do their death by stripping them of their gear and saying they managed to just barely survive, but they were looted and left for the vultures. Whoever beat them did to them what they’ve likely done to countless other humanoids and monstrous races. That would be a fun spin on things and I’d love to see how a group of players recovers from being stripped of everything that wasn’t hidden. I love creating moments for improvisation and outside-the-box thinking, so I’d really enjoy seeing what my players did in that case. I might do it as a one-off, sometime, just to see.

All of your options pretty much fit into three categories. Figure out how to get the current characters back into play (capture, not-quite-dead, or undead), create new characters (who may or may not encounter the corpses of their former selves), or just stop playing. If you have any ideas of other options, besides what I’ve listed here, I’d love to hear about them! I’m really curious about what other people do in TPK scenarios when they come up.