Do the SAV E M Y GA M E
that a DM is smarter than a computer. Sure, DMs
II have a confession to make.BY STEPHEN RADNEY-MACFARLAND will make more computing errors, and they won’t
I don’t always follow the rules. rule everything consistently every time you play,
Worse still, I’m not talking about the occasional rules flub, or being swayed by a dubious but but as we say around the office, that’s a feature, not a
well-intentioned player’s argument. I’m not even talking about my handful of campaign’s house rules. bug. When you’re a DM, you want to strive to be fair
I’m talking an intentional and blatant disregard for the rules of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game. and constant, but you want to adapt, improvise,
Heck, I don’t even always follow the rules when I run RPGA LIVING FORGOTTEN REALMS games. and overcome.
I’m a bad man.
That seems terrible doesn’t it? After all, I am one of search for perfection in design toward those You’re not a computer and you shouldn’t try to
the developers of the game. I should view the rules as goals. We look for ways to make play more intuitive, be. You’re more like a director. You have stage cues
sacrosanct, right? exciting, and have a good cooperative balance. We (the rules). You have a script (the adventure). All you
make adventures that we think are challenging and lack is dialog and action. The actors (players) provide
No. And neither should you. fun, with subtle points of design that we hope DMs that for the protagonists (PCs), and then you ad lib
And why do I think this? Well it’s complicated. I will pick up through reading or play, and emulate with the reactions for the antagonists (villains and NPCs).
think I am going to have to wax philosophical for a their own adventures. But at the end of the day, that is Because of the game’s improvisational nature, you’re
while to get there. If you hate it when folks wax probably less than half (or maybe even a quarter of ) always on the lookout to make the cues work better,
philosophical, skip the next three paragraphs. the equation. and adjust the script to complement what the heck
Roleplaying games are special things. Okay, I’m is going on stage at any give time. It’s your job to be
biased, but so are you, so hear me out. Roleplaying There is an illusion in RPG design, perpetuated by always look for the right thing to do—not necessarily
games are a real revolution in gaming. In an RPG, its somewhat legalistic language, the desires of part the correct thing the rules might state you should do.
the rules are not there to ensure that two or more of the fan base (including designers and developers, Let me elaborate…
opposing forces meet on a fair and even ground. That at times), the games’ propensity for tables, and the
doesn’t even really happen during a combat encounter. existence of the occasional math formula, that the Untying the Knots
The rules are there to create a narrative reality were rules of RPGs are somehow a logical language that
players, game master, and game designers work to works best when adhered to strictly and completely. Being a Dungeon Master involves a number of sexy
determine the shape of the story each in their own Truth be told, that’s all horse hockey. activities (okay, I’m using the term “sexy” loosely
way. The rules are there, in principle, to help create here): building dungeons, building stories, and
a perfect storm of story and chance. It’s assumptions See, RPGs are only words on the page and abstract building worlds. Then you have the serious work.
of balance are different than a competitive game, and points of theory until a DM breathes life into them. D&D can be a complicated game, and it’s up to you
that’s a challenge. As designers and developers, we all And how you go about this process is important. One to unwind the darned thing when it gets jumbled.
of the great things about tabletop roleplaying games is
Miniatures help. The various forms of initiative
tracking help. DM screens help. But the greatest
tool that any Dungeon Master can have is common
sense. While common sense comes in many forms
within everyday life, for the DM it typically comes in
the realization that a quick but satisfying abstraction
will go farther in preserving your sanity and creating
a sense of satisfaction for the players than a slavish
dedication to the Rules As Written (or RAW, in the
current Internet jargon).
November 2008 | DUNGEON 160 101
SAV E M Y GA M E
Of course, you can do this in good ways or bad usefulness, in terms of encounter design. At that in my opinion, not on a low-level monster that can
ways. As a rule of thumb, always favor your players point, there’s absolutely no reason to keep the combat cause the loss with a melee basic attack (yes, wights,
when you break the rules to untie knots. I know that going just because the rules say you should. It’s better I’m looking at you). The flavor is fine—in fact I like it
sometimes it is hard to watch all of your creatures fall to move on to the next encounter—and more fun. a lot—but I think the effect doesn’t make sense to me
to sword and spell, and watch as your plans come to
naught. But that’s what happens in D&D. Will your Look for a way to improve the design. Make it fun.
players know that you are bending the rules? Some-
times. Will they care? No. After all, most players ask Letting Things Make Sense at lower levels. It’s just too much of a beating. Instead
their DM to bend or break the rules in their favor at of running the monsters as written, I instead decided
least once each session. You don’t believe me? Keep It’s going to happen. Every once in a while, you will that their touch would create a sort of “healing surge
that in mind and listen carefully to everything they come across a rule—a power, a monster, a trap, or denial.” Until the end of the creature’s next turn,
ask you next game. They’re practically begging you to just some section in the adventure—that just doesn’t the target can’t spend healing surges. This puts an
make exceptions to the rules. It’s your job to figure out make sense to you or your players. Maybe you just affected PC in danger, but gives them options and
when the time is right to stretch (or break) the system didn’t read it right; maybe it just doesn’t fit the tone confines their tactics. Most importantly, it doesn’t
in favor of fun. There are also times when you should of your campaign; maybe it just didn’t grab you like shorten the adventuring day. That lets me keep my
create abstractions to aid your monsters and chal- other things did; maybe it’s just dumb. Whatever the game going at the pace I want.
lenges, but I’ll cover those later in the column. reason, if you’re like many other DMs, your first
tendency might be to discard the rule or worse still, Creating Instances of Fun
Here’s an example from one of my games. A quick run it as written and complain to your players how
perusal of artillery monsters will reveal that they dumb it is. Instead, try to push that first instinct to the As the DM, you are the gatekeeper of fun. You follow
have baseline defenses, below average hit points, and side and think of a small change or tweak that would the rules not only because they are the rules, but
usually something that makes it a tad difficult for help it make sense to you and your group. Look for a because they create fun. If and when you decide to
melee attack characters to approach or stay adjacent way to improve the design. Make it fun. disregard the rules, you should do it for the same
to them. Often, just their location on the battlefield reason. You aren’t making arbitrary changes, or just
and the mix of other monsters in the encounter aids This is especially true if you have limited time trying to increase or decrease the difficulty of the
them in achieving that last design goal. These defin- to prepare a game, or you are running a session for game. You’re making an alteration to create suspense,
ing traits often create a situation where the artillery LIVING FORGOTTEN REALMS. If you’re not “feeling” the action, excitement, and interesting story—all the
monsters are the last critters on the grid. While artil- adventure, or a segment of the adventure, it’s going to things that make the D&D game great!
lery make great team players, when they’re the only show when you run it. Your lack of enthusiasm will
ones left on the battlefield, play starts to drag, as these seep out and affect your players, and the game will And since you’re a human being, with at least a
monsters have an increasingly difficult time doing suffer as a result. Don’t friggin’ do that! If you don’t smidgeon of empathy and insight (unlike your
the things that define their role. Two or more skeletal think something is fun and exciting, complaining average computer terminal), you can tell when your
archers, with nearly full hit points, cornered and about it might make you look smart for a couple of players are having fun, what they’re reacting well
being hacked to pieces at the end of an encounter can seconds, but at the expense of a crappy time for every- to, and—more importantly—what they don’t care for.
be as exiting as watching someone cut wood—espe- one at the table with you. Often you won’t know these things until they happen,
cially when the players’ dice go cold. To make things and then you’ve got to roll with it. Don’t be afraid; just
a little more fun—and speed up play—I minionized For instance, I really don’t like low-level monsters do it.
these monsters, letting one or two hits do the trick that make you lose a healing surge. To me, losing a
once the other monsters in the encounter were out healing surge is a pretty big deal. It has its place, but
of the picture. After all, they’ve outlived their
November 2008 | DUNGEON 160 102
SAV E M Y GA M E
A while ago, I was able to run some demo games He hit, moved the zone, and everyone cheered. Huh, you have me a little scared, John. I think the
for fans and geek celebs at the exhibit hall of the Thanks to the wizard’s cunning plan, the PCs were Dungeon Master’s Guide has a lot of advice on how to
Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) here in Seattle. One of able to rally and beat the hexer and his brutes. make your encounters challenging without making
the encounters featured a gaggle of goblins led by a them overwhelming. If you know your players
goblin hexer. The goblin hexer’s vexing cloud power can And everyone had fun. strengths and weaknesses, this should only contribute
be a real kick in the shorts for inexperienced groups.
Even experienced groups can be strained by warriors ...one of the great things about the RPG is
and skullcleavers putting up a good defensive spread. that the end is never certain.
One group in particular was really taking the brunt
of the hexer’s power and just couldn’t seem to position The Mail Bag toward refining your encounter building tactics. I don’t
themselves out of it. Some of it was due to their tactics, think the game is balanced toward an eventuality of
but a lot of the problem involved lousy rolls. During Now let’s see what interesting goodies are in the mail a total party kill (TPK) and I don’t think you need to
the game, I was using a counter to denote where the bag this month. resign yourself to that eventuality.
center of the burst 3 zone was. I described the spot as
a jumbling, cloud-like mass that constantly exuded Save My Game … Literally That said, one of the great things about the RPG
dark arcane motes that flew around like angry insects, is that the end is never certain. Dice go cold, a player
disrupting the PCs’ attacks and their ability to see I have a really important question, especially with 4th will come up with a cunning plan with an applica-
the goblins. Finally, one poor, frustrated guy playing Edition more so than before. The question is “Should I tion that is pure, inspired lunacy, or you’ll find a rare
the wizard, frustrated with his inability to make his ‘Save My Game’? Here is the problem: Fourth Edition is monster mix that ends up being truly overwhelming
magic missiles or even his force orb hit the hexer where now more tactical (and arguably more fun) than ever. I’m (or you’ll just use a host of needledrake swarms at 1st
it counts, looked up from his character sheet, his eyes noticing among my players the disparity in their tactical level). When TPKs do happen, the DM has to decide
bright with a full-on eureka moment. and strategic capabilities more than I did before. I have how to move the game forward. The best answer is,
always made the attempt in the past to cater the situation of course, the one that fits your story. I’ve had a few
“I’ll use mage hand to move the mote cloud,” and challenge of encounters to the dynamic of the group TPKs in my day, and I have done everything to keep
he said. and, truth be told, in all my years DMing I have never, ever the game moving, whether having a powerful patron
killed a party. Not intentionally, or from holding back dice— bring the characters back, to having bad guys raise
Now, I seem to be cursed to always get the guy who and there have been close calls—but never all the way. I am and dominate them to spy on the forces of good, to
wants to do something crazy with mage hand. With a TPK virgin, as it were. I don’t expect this to last through just having folks roll up new characters and trying the
the release of 4th Edition here at the office, I got to 4th Edition because the encounter deign seems so well adventure again (sometimes having PCs play siblings
run a game for the guy from archiving who wanted balanced, that the game really does challenge the players or acquaintances of some of the old characters, driven
to mage hand someone to death in some weird sort of to their limits when you run them fairly. What I am going to find out what happened to the old group). When
way every round. But archive boy was being absurd to do when they all die? any character death occurs, it’s always a good idea to
and somewhat disruptive, so I had an easy time try and find a way to use the experience to enhance
telling him no, and then pointing him toward his – Be Gentle, John the game and the story. This is even truer of a TPK.
attack powers. The player at PAX had a good idea—
one that was interesting, even if it didn’t follow the
rules. I let him do it. I let him use mage hand as an
Intelligence modifier attack power against the hexer’s
Will to move the zone up to 3 squares, but he could
only try it once a round.
November 2008 | DUNGEON 160 103
SAV E M Y GA M E
Mixed Bag Don’t like the chatty bad guy thing? Have some of CLOG OUR MAILBOX!
the lesser bad guys surrender and treat for their lives
I am a DM with major issues with my players’ interests. with information and roleplaying. They can always Your game needs saving, or you have some game saving
I’ve been DMing for a few years and usually it’s with double-cross the PCs later if you like. advice of your own? Drop us a line at [email protected]
inexperienced players. Unfortunately, now I have a mix wizards.com with the worlds Save My Game as your
of inexperienced players who love to hack-and-slash and In short, find ways to mix roleplaying, and combat. subject line. Maybe next month we’ll talk about your
power game, and experienced players who love to delve A lot of DMs tend to think you need to separate these problem or feature some bit of advice that comes from
into the story. When I run a lot of combat in a session, two things, but you don’t. Look at action movies and the mailbag.
the experienced players seem to get bored, but when the pulp fiction for way to mix exposition, drama, and
experienced players delve into important conversations and action. And then steal, borrow, and expound upon You can also join the game saving conversation on
into the storyline, the inexperienced players seem to doze off those concepts to your heart’s content. G our message boards, but piping in on the discussion of
and not care, and sometimes even leave to wait it out! I’ve DM tips and tricks. Stephen makes it a point to visit and
tried to run it down the middle, but each side doesn’t seem About the Author chat with those who agree and disagree with him.
to be satisfied, and I can’t afford to lose players since it’s a
small group to begin with. How should I deal with this? Born on a stormy Christmas day, in our nation’s capital,
during the Nixon administration, the stars were definitely
– Tale-of-Two-Play-Styles Regis wrong when Stephen Radney-MacFarland came screaming
into the world. Spending most of his impressionable years as a
Try mixing the two styles. It’s a bit like the middle of vagabond and ne’re-do-well, Stephen eventually settled in the
the road approach that it sounds like you’ve tried, but Northwest to waste his life on roleplaying games.
there are some key differences. Take a look at your
story. See if there are story revelations that you can Once that RPGA guy, Stephen is now a developer in RPG
unveil during combat rather than through exposition. R&D where he doesn’t create the traps… he just makes them
Heck, you can even have important NPC conversation deadlier. He also teaches a class on roleplaying design for
during a battle. Introduce bad guys who love to chat the Art Institute of Seattle, molding the minds of young and
while they fight. While it is cliché for the bad guy to upcoming designers. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
talk about his plans during a fight, it can also be a
fun and useful story device. Characters often need
critical pieces of information to move the story along.
Characters also tend to be a bunch of unyielding
types who rarely leave bad people alive at the end
of a battle. Worse still, bad guys tend to be rather
craven and want to run when the going gets rough.
Discarded notes and chatty bad guys do yeoman’s
service in making sure the PCs get the information
November 2008 | DUNGEON 160 104