Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Trust Me....Again

Following a recent theme, and after reading some of Lord Kilgore's musings on the critical hit, I myself have some follow ups to my notion of "trust" being one of the more important DM/PC factors in a successful game.

In regards to criticals, I don't use them, but we did dabble in the past (leading to one of the most amusing tales in my D&D career when my father tried to sit down and play with us long ago, a story for another time). Criticals are fun (when they happen to the other guy, natch), giving an unexpected bonus to that 5% chance of rolling a natural 20 when attacking in D&D. Likewise when you roll a "1" and the other guy's sword breaks or he hits the guy next to him (again, not as much fun when it happens to you). Who knows where the idea of criticals first originated...people that weren't satisfied by getting a sure thing hit wanted more? Sure sounds like a generation of entitled gamers to me! But I kid, I kid...

Sidestepping entirely the idea of criticals (which is a long bit of potential subject matter in itself), is the way I approach the die rolls of "20" and "1" in my own campaigns. I tend to wait for particularly dramatic moments, and if either is rolled, it will affect game play in a way that I come with completely off the fly, apropos to the dramatic potential. While not absolutely consistent, I feel like it flows with the style of old school gaming I enjoy, and I've rarely had complaints from my players because (as in most cases) the results usually even out over the course of a campaign.

There are only two absolutes: First, if battling an opponent with only a handful of hit points left (say, 2-3), and a 20 is rolled, I don't even require a roll for damage....whatever rolled, the bad guy is brought down in a particularly explosive way (decapitation, sword through the body, arm whacked off, etc)....basically a nat 20 against someone on the ropes is an instant kill. Likewise, if firing into melee, a roll of "1" guarantees you will strike one of your buddies in the back of the head (ouch). Those are probably the only two guaranteed good/bad results of rolling a "20" or a "1" in my campaigns.

That rule in and of itself isn't particularly noteworthy or controversial. However, in particularly dramatic situations, a nat 20 can lead to interesting results. In a recent battle, a low level party was battling a foe far above their experience level (a fire lizard) who had just torched (literally) half the party and was chasing fleeing characters all over it's cavern lair. The party was making missile attacks work well against the menace, as in a stand up fight any of them would die easily under the lizard's claws, bite or breath weapon. Truthfully the party was inches away from a TPK, and when one character attempted a hit and run attack against the lizard and then turned to run for the safety of a nearby rock formation, the lizard scurried after him. Another character stated he was firing his bow at the giant lizard, trying to distract it. He rolled a natural 20, and so adding to the drama of the situation, I had the arrow miraculously strike the fire lizard in the eye! The now half-blinded, pain maddened lizard forgot about the retreating character, and was eventually brought down by the party's fired arrows (now emboldened by the fighter's lucky arrow hit, they rallyed for the win). It added to the touch and go aspect of the situation, by giving excitement and an entirely unexpected result, and the players were talking about the lucky arrow strike for hours afterwards.

That's what a crit should do, give players a bonus in a dicey situation, but even more, that's what trust can do in a game situation....there is no "rolled missile chart for crits" in my game....I made up the result on the fly to conform to the game situation, and it worked well. Now, for the opposite side, you ask what would happen if the fighter had rolled a "1" instead of a "20" in that tense situation. Well, I don't rightly know, being separated by the event by several weeks, but any number of dramatic situations....perhaps his bow would break, or the arrow would strike his fleeing friend in the back, or maybe even nothing except for a particularly bad miss....I would have decided on the spur of the moment based on what I thought was the best and most dramatic application of the bad roll.

Can every group have this dynamic? Of course not. Rules lawyers and BTB nuts would scream and howl bloody murder at such seat of the pants decision making. Where is the chart? The mechanic? The exploding dice? The rules, dammit! Such a method requires trust between a DM and his players....a willingness for players to accept the results such as this as it was...a lucky break, and likewise, a bad result as just one of those days when nothing goes right.

Now, this same character later on was battling a foe in a slippery, dark and muddy area, got to experience the other side of the coin. In battle against a minotaur (another tough foe for a low level party), they rolled a "1", which led to my ruling the character had done a total pratfall and landed on his butt. They had to spend a round gathering themselves and their weapon, but luckily nothing worse happened (the opponent randomly elected to attack a different party member that round). The player accepted it without asking to consult the rulebook to see if he really should have fallen in that situation...they had rolled a "1", the conditions were rough, and they fully expected in another dramatic situation that "something" was going to happen. I could have had the sword fly out of their hands, had it break, had them hit a nearby friend, or just make it a particularly bad swing. Once again, the decision was all with me.

There must be a level of trust between DM and player to have this happen, and it seems to be a particularly old school sensibility in that regard. I've noticed "newer" players (aka post-2000) tend to not enjoy my spur of the moment statements as to the result of a "20" or "1" in critical situations. Often they will ask for a saving throw, or a roll against their ability (DEX seems to be the most stated ability, aka "My DEX is 18, how did I fall down on the ice when my DEX is that high?"), or just grumble under their breath. Interestingly, this happens EVEN IF they have benefited in the past from a rolled crit, or the bad guy rolling an unexpected "1" and having their asses handed to them as a result. It's not about "fairness" or "balance" as much as it is about "What do the rules say?". Now I must say I rarely play with newer gamers so my experience in this regard is limited. One hard core 3E player I had for awhile hated my application of crits and misses; she kept bugging me to create a "chart" so that "some players" (aka herself) wouldn't think I was just picking on them. I told her the entire point of my method was that it was unpredictable and based on dramatic potential in the situation, something a chart or list could never quantify. I (and my regulars) explained I was very fair and would never DIRECTLY kill a character because of a bad roll (although the result could make their life difficult). She was still unconvinced and I think the idea there wasn't a official system in place made her nervous.

I do know that this method would not work with most groups, including a lot of old school players. Even back in the "good old days" a huge segment of RPG gaming was "Us vs Them", or "DM vs Player", I know because I experienced some of these games (and hated them). A competitive DM would look to the dice to screw you six ways to Sunday, and a savvy player would NEVER surrender such a spot decision to DM whim (based on the fact that this sort of DM would use a bad dice roll to nail you to the floor while conveniently "forgetting" to reward you for a crit). So perhaps this isn't necessary a old school or new school attitude; instead it seems to be situational based on the maturity of players and DM, experience, and how comfortable a group is with everyone else in the group. I've been very lucky the last few decades or so to play with mostly old schoolers, and except for my brother (who deep in his heart STILL feels after 30 years of gaming with me I'm out to get him!) they accept my decisions with a shrug of the shoulders and "hand me the dice, let's roll again" attitude. I wonder how many DMs out there are at this sort of comfort level with players, and if it's more palatable to old schoolers than the post-2000 crowd?

However lucky I am now I've had two groups the last two decades that I had to drop the practice with; one was a large group consisting of a LOT of schemers and a few players did not trust the other characters enough to wonder if I was somehow unconsciously influencing the application of crits and misses (one guy was so paranoid he was actually keeping his own scratch sheet detailing how often a rolled crit or "1" went for or against him or his rival in the party); another was the aforementioned 3E player who was so rattled by the entire thing we dropped it rather than completely freak her out (she ended up leaving after a few months anyway).

Next I'll talk about the most gigantic application of DM/Player trust I ever had to administer in game and the result...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

D&D and Dopamine

I just finished Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book on memory and the decision making process, “How We Decide”. The book is highly recommended if you want a little inner peek at how and why we make the decisions we do in our day to day lives.

One thing that Lehrer focuses on is the presence of dopamine neurons and their effect on our decision making processes. The nucleus accubens (NAcc), the part of the brain that makes you feel happy and generates pleasurable feelings, is what produces dopamine. Dopamine regulates not only the pleasure centers but all our emotions, the molecule in ourselves that literally controls us. Dopamine neurons are working all the time, constantly generating emotions, feelings and “patterns” that lead to pleasurable impulses (they can lead to negative emotions also if something not-as-expected turns up, such as expecting a desert of chocolate cake and getting lima beans instead might induce)

To make a long story short (and I heartily advise reading the book to learn more about how dopamine controls our lives), our decision making is often controlled by the pleasure we will receive when we get a dopamine “hit” to the brain after making a “good” choice. Now, I’ve known for years (ever since reading about how junkies, gamblers and sex addicts are afflicted with excess dopamine surges) that the pleasurable “high” I experience when, say, walking into a game store or opening a new D&D module is dopamine related. However, after reading this book, it amazed me how many activities related to D&D (and sometimes not even directly related) trigger the pleasure neurons and leave me with a happy feeling akin to a drug high. I made a list of D&D related activities that I am absolutely convinced cause dopamine surges in my brain and wash away any negative or bad feelings I might have at the time:

Looking at any classic “blue-white” map;

Looking at an unpainted lead miniature;

Looking at or drawing on graph or hex paper;

Rolling 3 or 4 six sided dice six times;

Flipping through a book of D&D monsters (any, but the 1E Monster Manual seems to have the best effect);

Seeing the cover of a classic pre-#100 Dragon magazine;

Opening D&D PDFs on my computer;

Seeing the names “Gygax, “Kuntz”, “Mentzer” or “Kask” almost anywhere;

Seeing, holding or rolling polyhedral dice;

Booting up the Core Rules Expansion CD on my computer;

Looking at any Trampier, Otus or Sutherland artwork;

Hearing certain albums like Led Zepplin IV, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, or The Who’s Who’s Next (all albums we were listening to intently while running our first campaign back in 1978-79 with G1-3; to this day hearing Zepplin’s Misty Mountain Hop makes me instantly remember G2 Glacier of the Frost Giant Jarl);

By extension, the word “Giant”, especially preceded by "Hill", "Frost", "Fire", "Stone" or "Cloud";

Looking at the underground hex map of the classic D "Descent" series;

Seeing the word “Greyhawk” almost anywhere;

Seeing the large first level poster map of Undermountain;

Sharpening a fistful of pencils with the same electric pencil sharpener I’ve had since high school;

Touching the smoothness of a Chessex battlemat;

Seeing any sort of “random generation” chart, whether it be for names, weapons, skills, locations, etc as long as you have to use a d12, d20 or d100;

What D&D related activities/word associations trigger dopamine surges of pleasure in your brain?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Trust Me, I Know What I'm Doing

Michael on the Old Guy RPG Blog had a really insightful post about DM failure. I thought the entire post was quite illuminating and this is one of my favorite blogs simply because Chgowiz allows us very intimate looks at his thought processes, as well as both his successes and failures while running a sandbox type campaign in his unique setting.

I had a lot to say about this, but didn't want to entirely monopolize the comments section (although my two long posts probably did just that). After thinking about it some more last night, I think there are a lot of reasons this sort of thing happens. It happened back in 1979 when I started playing, and it happens to this day, which says as gamers (and humans) we haven't advanced much in the past three decades when it comes to trust issues. Because, when it all boils down to it, the DM/Player relationship, and really the entire gaming experience, comes down to trust.

Michael has a quote that really summed up (to me at least) the entire DM experience:

"I was hurt... hurt that after a year of playing together, after a tough game my players would think I would permanently fuck someone over with a no-win scenario."

I have been there, and I feel for him. Since we first started playing, being a DM to me seemed like a natural calling. I get my kicks out of creating the NPCs, the plots, the bad guys, the monsters, the settings, the worlds, that others adventure in....the lure of actually playing paled next to actually being the guy who pulled all the strings. So, my DM to Player ratio is surely something like 9 to 1, as I rarely enjoy sitting on the other side of the screen saving the princess...I want to be the one who locked her up to begin with! I think a lot of DMs are authors (frustrated or not) and DMing is a very cheap "fix" for us.

As a DM, I pride myself as being an impartial arbiter, although not always perfect (I think it's foolish to assume a DM can divorce all emotion from his game), I have trained myself over the years to be someone who REACTS to his players instead of GUIDES his players. Instead of deriving pleasure out of a by the book dungeon crawl, I've learned to find enjoyment at the differing ways players can confound expectations and sometimes accomplish a goal by a non-linear or unexpected route.

Now at this point I have to mention my middle brother, Rob. I've been DMing since 1979 or so, and my middle brother has been with me that entire time. And to this day, he STILL doesn't completely trust me as a DM not to screw him (or by extension the group) over!!!! Even when he KNOWS I've NEVER screwed him around "In play", EVER! I think a lot of it still comes down to the old "player vs DM" mentality that a lot of old-timers have fostered over the years, and the general nature of competitiveness the game brings out in us....especially since gaming so long with my brother, some battle scenarios literally come down to each of us trying to out-strategize the other (knowing each other's quirks quite well by now) and we sometimes accusing the other of using "out of game" knowledge to give the other an edge. If two people (related to each other!) who have gamed together over 30 years still have trust issues, it's no wonder they have cropped up in your game. Needless to say, we've grudgingly reached an impasse to where we trust the other, but are always ready to yell "Bullshit!" if something unkosher comes up on either side.

All these issues came together in one of my face to face campaign sessions (with my brother running a character). In a recent game, what I thought was going to be a really tough battle for a McGuffin that had a chance of falling into evil hands instead turned into a really tough battle....with the baddies having no chance of getting the McGuffin. For, you see, my intelligent players thought of a way to get the McGuffin (which in this case was an extremely powerful and evil sword) out of the dungeon and to a safehouse using teleportation, giving the ambushing baddies absolutely no chance to "win" even if they defeated the player characters. You see, I had been quite sure the players wouldn't give up their magical advantage by having the party mage leave the field of battle permanently (the teleport was one way with no method for return) just to make sure the baddies didn't have a chance to score the weapon. They did, surprising me, and in the battle that followed the party could rest assured that win or lose the baddies had NO CHANCE to come away with total victory (the PCs did win without the mage, btw, so the gamble paid off).

Anyway, this brings us back to trust. The players had to trust me as a DM (was I going to let their scheme to get the weapon out of evil's hands succeed, or would I screw them over by saying "Your teleport spell doesn't function here" or any number of ways to confound them?) and I had to trust them as players (down a powerful mage, were they going to accept the results of the battle if I stomped them dead, secure in the knowledge they had at least died to keep the weapon out of evil's hands, or would they cry and moan and accuse me of taking it out on them in revenge for them outthinking me?). Both sides had to have trust, and to our credit, it worked out quite dramatically, even if it was totally off the rails concerning every eventuality I had planned for (even down a mage, the characters triumphed over a white dragon and frost giant sorceress and her minions, with only one PC death).

It all came down to trust. I trusted they would take the results like men, since they had made the choice to be down a mage in the combat that followed; they trusted me not to dick them by either preventing their scheme from happening through some extraordinary DM bullshit, or take it out on them by proving "who was boss" in the combat that came after (oh, it would have been so easy to add another two white dragons to the combat....!). It worked out in their favor, but I have no doubt that had things turned nasty for them, they would have accepted the results and rolled up new characters.

The advantage our group had was that all the players are old school, experienced gamers. In Chgowiz's West Marches style campaign, there are no guarantees of that as anyone can show up for any session (I don't presume to know the experience of Michael's players, but the entire sandbox style is predicated on a hodgepodge of different player levels adventuring together). Part of the sandbox charm is the "anything can happen" vibe; however, this can also lead to lots of frustration, as the DM is not creating a railroad as much as he is just the conductor letting players get on their own train. If DM and Players are not on the same page in these sorts of situations, a lot of bad feelings can result.

The #1 thing to remember is communication. We've gone way past the days of "I'm the DM, you're the players, if I hit you with a 50 ton rock and kill you with no warning you just accept it and shut the hell up". That style was big back when you had a lot of really, really crap-ass DMs running around who were using this brand new game to feed their power mad egos; such DMs (at least BITD) ended up with bad reps and soon were only DMing groups of 13 year olds at the Rec Center once word got out. I love the ability to use the internet to post blogs and message boards about campaign history and doings; it is a great mechanism for addressing out of game concerns, and perhaps gently nudging players in the right direction, or giving them choices about what aspect of your campaign world interests them, and about what kind of game they are looking for (for example, if you are a fanatic about puzzle dungeons and your players are hack and slash fiends, someone isn't going to be having a very good time, it's nice to know that beforehand and plan around it).

Particularly in the case of a sandbox, which can contain numerous players with different levels of experience and attitudes about what constitutes a "fun" or "successful" adventure, communication is key. I thought Michael asked some really good questions about how he could improve his game, and gave some really good advice to his players in the aftermath of his game. Sometimes just unfamiliarity with a DM's style can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings...if you are used to a real DM vs PC type game, you might feel you have to constantly argue and pull out all the stops instead of trusting that certain DMs won't screw you over without giving you a fighting chance. If you are used to DMs who are a bit more lenient, it might be a total shock to be told "roll or die!" by a DM after being bitten by a poisonous snake (but, like, my last DM's snakes only had poison that made us dizzy!!!).

When I start a new campaign, using the power of blogspot, I try to set up a page dedicated to that campaign and lay out some of the ground it deadlier than most? More light hearted and heroic? Grim and gritty? If you choose to play a certain class or race will it impede your ability to succeed? I think this is one way to head off a lot of DM failure problems to begin with. If you are thinking "Dark Sun with even more attitude" and the player is thinking "D&D cartoon I wanna have a pet like Uni" before they even roll up a character, something's gotta give....

To be Continued....