So a friend of yours has invited you to play in a role-playing game... but you are hesitant to join because you don't really know what it is. It is a cult? Will you become addicted, losing yourself in an imaginary world? Or even worse... does it carry a geek-laden social stigma where you can kiss your chances of "making it" with the opposite sex goodbye? ;-)
Rest easy, role-playing games have hit the mainstream. Once solely the province of rebellious teenage nerds, RPGs are now played by adults and children alike. At last count, several million people in the US alone regularly play in RPGs. GenCon, the premiere gaming convention in the world, hosts tens of thousands of gamers, of which several thousand play exclusively in RPGs.
Now that we've established that neither your reputation nor your sex appeal will be negatively impacted by playing in an RPG... just what the heck is it?
That's what this page will help you discover. Here's what's on it and who would be interested in reading it:
|Section||What it is||Likely reader|
|Gentle Intro to RPGs||Basic description of (Narrative) RPGs||Someone with no prior experience with RPGs|
|Creation Essentials||Basic outline of character creation||An RPG player with no prior experience with D&D 3.5|
|Play Advice||Tips for smoother sessions and more enjoyable play||Any role-player|
|Kim D&D||Information specific to my campaigns||A player in my campaign|
A Gentle Introduction to
(Narrative) Role-Playing Games
RPGs in a Nutshell
Role-Playing Games are about acting out a story with your friends... where
you make up the script as you go along! Depending on your preferences, it
can be like a strategy game: carefully planning your moves and trying to
become more powerful than your enemies. Or, it can be like a soap opera,
with dramatic moments and a crazy cast of characters. It also has strong
improv elements, like the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" (and sometimes
is just as funny). First and foremost, RPGs are a regular social activity
where you get together and have fun. The rest is up to your imagination.
There are many different types of RPGs (Live Action, Computer, Online, etc.)
but we'll talk about Narrative ones, where collectively you build on a story.
The gaming group gathers regularly for a session which lasts
several hours, usually 2-8hrs depending on people's preferences and
schedules. During a session, everyone is seated together in the same room,
usually at a big table (narrative RPGs are also called table-top
games). Sessions have their own etiquette, just like every other social
activity. For example, whether you should eat munchies at the table or wait
for a communal food break is a common point of session etiquette.
Who is who?
The people in the group are called players; one special person in the
group is called the Game Master (GM). Every player creates a
fictitious persona called their player character (PC). As a player,
you are responsible for making all the decisions for your PC. Your PC can
become rich, famous, and powerful if played wisely... or reach an untimely
end if played recklessly. Exceptionally foolish players also receive the
ultimate punishment: namely, endless ribbing by their peers for years to
The GM plays every other creature in the world, which are collectively called non-player characters (NPCs). In addition, the GM has many other responsibilities. First, they are a window into the game world, describing what players sense and experience. Second, they typically initiate storylines, placing obstacles, puzzles, and rewards in the game world for the PCs to overcome, figure out, and earn. Third, they are a rules referee, interpreting on the fly which rules are applicable in any given situation.
The movie analogy is helpful when thinking about RPGs. The players are all
actors, and the PCs are their characters in the movie. The GM is the
producer (deciding the general direction of the film) and plays all the
supporting cast and extras (everyone who isn't a main actor). But unlike a
movie, where the plot has been decided beforehand and the actors are merely
reciting their lines from a script, in an RPG the people improvise their
lines and actions in real time. RPGs also aren't limited by their special
effects budgets, either. (Vast magical worlds populated by diverse creatures,
both wondrous and monstrous? I'll have that on the set tomorrow,
Mr. Producer. ;-)
How do you win?
RPGs are cooperative play as opposed to the competitive play that you
find in most other games. If you play a board game like Monopoly, all the
players are competing against each other to see who will win at the end of
the game. In an RPG, the players cooperate with one another to accomplish
their goals. Moreover, even though the GM will often play NPC opponents of
the PCs, the players aren't competing with the GM either. There is no final
"winning" in an RPG; RPGs are open-ended, and last as long as people are
interested (and have time).
However, there is a very strong sense of accomplishment and reward. Quite
often, completing just a single task ("rescue the princess from the ogres")
will take several sessions. Assuming you play once a week, that means that
it might take a couple months of real time to accomplish a major task. In
addition, as your PC completes tasks they gain experience points which
are then used to gain levels. This is very much like a video game,
where your character becomes more powerful the longer you play. High level
PCs are treasured by their players, earned through months (and sometimes
years!) of challenging play.
What do we do?
Every session the group extends the current plotline. The typical
story told is that of an adventure, which has a distinct beginning,
middle, and end. A sequence of related adventures form a campaign,
which has many stories woven together over a long period. Campaigns usually
take place in a distinctive setting; settings are also called game
worlds and occasionally backdrops.
The typical D&D adventure is very simple. The PCs band together and form an adventuring party to meet some threat or accomplish some goal. Usually that goal entails leaving the safety of civilization, journeying to an exotic land, or visiting a strange place. There the party faces peril from ferocious monsters, pernicious traps, mysterious magics, and ingenious puzzles. After overcoming all obstacles, the PCs gain treasure, items of power, and abilities far beyond normal people. Then they return to civilization to enjoy their hard-won spoils... and probably do the same thing next week. ;-)
During the session, the GM describes the current situation, and then the players declare what their characters do. If the action is ordinary ("I go buy a sword") then it normally occurs without incident. But if the action is extraordinary ("I want to jump the 20 foot chasm") or against an opponent ("I try to hit the evil orc with my shiny new sword!") then the outcome is decided by a die roll.
The standard die roll in a d20 game works as follows. You declare your
intent to do something and the GM decides the Difficulty Check (or DC)
of your task: this is the number "to beat". You roll a d20 (a die with
numbers 1 thru 20 on it), add any relevant modifiers (plusses that help your
chances and minuses that hurt them), and compare it to the DC. If you get
the DC or higher, then you've succeeded! If you roll lower than the DC, then
you have failed. Depending on the task, failure might be harmless or carry
its own consequences (like falling down that chasm).
Why do people play?
People play narrative RPGs for a wide variety of reasons. A well run
campaign is an enjoyable pasttime that the gamers remember for years
afterward. Some players like the escapism aspect, being able to immerse
themselves in a different world. Other players enjoy the high adventure,
battling fantastic creatures in exotic settings. Still others play for the
dramatic theatre: crafting PCs so well they become interesting to watch! On
the flipside of drama is comedy: many players enjoy the "ham factor", being
free to play their characters as a cariacature and get them into and out of
crazy situations. And every player basks in the rewards their character
earns through ingenious play. The reasons for playing are as diverse as
there are people, but for the most part people play RPGs because they are
just mighty damn fun. :-)
Perhaps the most compelling reason why people play is to achieve the
creative jam. Gaming in an RPG is very similar to the way rock bands
create new songs. Musicians get together with a small group of buddies,
where they experiment with all types of funky sounds. Eventually, they find
a groove, mesh their sounds beautifully, and create some new and stirring
song. (A musical audience never hears the jam session; they only hear the
finished song.) In an RPG, you get together with a bunch of friends and
experiment with all types of wacked out scenarios. Eventually, you find a
great plotline, mesh your parts artfully, and craft a new and stirring story.
(A theatre audience never sees this creative jam; they only see the finished
play.) And just like with a rock band that "clicks", once you've found the
right gaming group at the right time, you can crank out hit after hit, each
story more vibrant than the last. A well run campaign leaves an indelible
imprint you remember for years afterward... just like any great myth does.
This myth is special, though, because you created it with your friends.
How do I make a character?
Okay, after that "creating a myth" spiel you've decided that you are ready
to become the stuff of legends. So... how do you go about creating your
Well, first you need to know some basic rules of the game in order to make informed choices about your PC. The best place to start is to read the first six chapters of the D&D 3.5 Players Handbook (PHB). That will help you choose your class, race, ability scores, skills, feats, and equipment. Collectively, these are part of the mechanics of the game, the details that determine what die rolls you can make and how well you can make them. [Note these mechanics are specific to the D&D RPG]
Equally important to the mechanics is the art of creating a character past. This is the heart of playing an imaginary character... what do you want to do? Do you want to help your PC overcome a lifelong fear? Defeat a menace? Find fated true love? Complete a valiant quest? Seek vast treasures? Restore the kingdom to its former glory? The sky is the limit... let your imagination roar! For novice players, I recommend focusing on four key points: your character's goal, motivation, personality, and morality. [Note the character building advice applies to most RPGs]
Making a character is an involved process, even for an experienced player.
It's so important, two big sections of this page are devoted to it. For the
moment, let's assume you've made a character and we'll describe what playing
in a session is like.
Playing in a Session
After endless hours chatting with your GM, reading sourcebooks (dang those
things are thick), gazing at chart after chart with endless numbers on them,
and writing up your character sheet, you are finally ready to start playing.
So... what is a session like?
Things to Bring
The essential things to bring to a session are
After the party leader says what the party is doing in general, then each player says what they are doing specifically. In some cases, no one adds anything: (PL: "We eat and then rest for the night" ...). In other cases, everyone acts independently (PL: "Okay, let's get supplies in this town", "I'll grab arrows and food", "I want to get some potions", "I'm going to talk to the Thieves' Guild", etc.) Note that the PL doesn't control your PC: no player controls the actions of another PC. In fact, you are always free to flat out ignore what the PL says and do your own thing. Party leaders are intended to be a convenience to speed play along when choices are obvious or arbitrary. So rather than everyone having to say "I race at breakneck speed away from the volcanic explosion" the PL can declare it for everyone. A good PL will often phrase their declarations as suggestions (PL: "How about we go right at this fork?" looking around at other players)
Once all player actions have been resolved, then usually the GM picks up the thread of conversation again and describes the next thing that happens. This keeps going on in a casual way; during this free-form part of the session, you can call out what you do pretty much at any time (of course, it is courteous to let other people resolve what they are doing first if they are in the middle of something). This all changes once the party encounters something. In an encounter, the GM asks for details from each player as to what they are doing, and there is a specific order in which people get to go.
The most common type of encounter is combat. At the beginning of
combat, you roll initiative to determine who goes in what order.
Combat is broken into rounds where every creature (PC and NPC) gets
one turn. On your turn, you get so many actions and choose
what you do with them. Combat is probably the most highly-structured
activity in an RPG, where the order of play and allowable actions are well
The Core Rolls
You're in your first combat! You've raced up to the goblin and are ready to
bash him. How do you do it?
Every creature in the game has an attack bonus (AB) and an armor class (AC). Your AB is a measure of how well you can hit things; your AC is a measure of how hard it is for others to hit you. In both cases, higher numbers are better. If you want to hit that goblin, you roll a d20 and add your AB. If that number is greater than or equal to the goblin's AC, then you've hit! Similarly, when other people want to hit you, they compare their roll against your AC.
Suppose you hit the goblin. Congratulations! The next step is to determine how much damage you did to him. Every creature also has a stat called their hit points; more hit points means you can take more punishment. Your weapon will have a damage die associated with it, say a d8 for a long sword. When you hit, you roll the d8, add any relevant modifiers, and then that is how many hit points of damage they take (i.e. subtracted from their current hit point total). When a creature gets to 0 hit points, they pass out; when they get to -10, they are dead.
Those two rolls (the attack roll and damage roll) are the most
common rolls you'll make in the game. Most other rolls are just the standard
d20 roll. For example, if you wanted to use a skill, you'd make a skill roll
and add your skill modifiers. If you needed to make a saving throw to
avoid a bad effect, you would roll the d20 and add your save modifiers. As a
new player, the most difficult part is figuring out which modifiers are
relevant on what rolls. Most well-designed character sheets will explicitly
spell this out for you, allowing you to calculate your modifiers once before
the session and then just refer to it while actually playing.
The End of the Beginning
Well, you've now got enough info to leap into a session and start playing.
The only thing left that you'll need for your long and prosperous adventuring
career... is an adventurer!
You've been inspired to play in a role-playing game! (Or maybe you've
been roped in by a good friend = same thing ;-) How do you actually make a
character? The first thing you need to do is get a Player's Handbook and
read the first few chapters. That will give you the background to understand
a lot of the jargon people will throw around.
Where possible, we'll try to link to online materials for those who don't
have a PHB handy. The best online reference is the hypertext System Reference Document
(SRD). Be forewarned, the SRD is a great reference but a poor primer for a
beginning player. It doesn't describe the "feel" of being a dwarf, only the
relevant game statistics. The sheer size of the SRD can also be daunting to
the starting player. Never fear! You only need to know a few rules to start
playing (mostly the core rolls we described previously) and the rest you can
pick up as you go along.
Deciding the Mechanics
Choosing a Combatant Type
People in RPGs fight. A lot. Rip-roaring combats will be an essential
ingredient in nearly every session. In fact, it is the most common type of
encounter, edging out ever-popular traps, puzzles, and
even role-playing interactions. So thinking about how you want to
handle combat is an important choice for your PC. There are three broad
flavors of combatants: frontline, support, and
backline. Once you've decided this preference, you'll have a much
better handle on what class, race, and ability scores to choose.
The frontline combatant wades right into the fray. Powerful fighters surprise a band of goblins and immediately charge them, without giving it a moments thought. Hard-to-kill barbarians take the brunt of the enemies' assault in order to protect the party members. Steely samurai stare-down their foes, caged violence a hair's breath away from release. Brazen hexblades seek out the most powerful opponents and then hex them into ineffectiveness. Fearless paladins sally forth to slay the dragon when everyone else has taken cover. Do you want to be in the thick of it, mixing it toe to toe with your foes? Then the frontline is the place to be.
Support classes are the most versatile kind of combatant, found equally on the frontline or protecting the backline. Dodgy rogues circle the combat, waiting for an opening to use their devastating sneak attack. Canny rangers and fast scouts pick off targets one by one at a distance. Dashing swashbucklers outwit their opponents with finesse and tactics. Speedy monks are seemingly everywhere on the battlefield at once, often behind enemy lines causing havoc. And the incredibly adaptable divine classes (cleric, druid, shaman, shugenja, and favored soul) fight and cast spells with equal proficiency. In general, support classes have the most use outside of combat as well. Does a jack of all trades that can face all situations with equal aplomb appeal to you? Then a support class is what you want.
The backline has "the glass cannons", the frail spellcasters that can alter the course of combats with their awesome magics. Mystical wizards can unleash potent damage-dealing energies one moment and then lull their foes to sleep the next. Lyrical bards magnify their allies' power by lifting their spirits and confound the enemy by demoralizing them. Limitless warlocks pound their opponents with eldritch blasts from a safe vantage. Ingenious artificers create items vital to the party's success. Backline characters typically start weaker than the other classes and then ramp up to greater and greater power. Have you always yearned to master mighty magics? Then you belong on the backline.
If you are completely new to RPGs, it is often recommended to play a frontline fighter-type your first go around. There are several reasons for this. First, they are the toughest of the classes and thus the most forgiving to a new player. Second, they deal a lot of damage, so you get to see your character do something from the first session. Third, you can play them effectively with minimal familiarity of the game mechanics (in particular, you don't need to have extensive knowledge of spells like spellcasters do). Rangers, scouts, swashbucklers, rogues, and warlocks are also good choices, because of their ease of play combined with the typical safe position in combat.
Here's a small table summarizing the Classes, Races, and Ability Scores common for different combatant types. The classes are listed in order of what might be easiest for a beginning player, and the ability scores in order of what is most valuable to the class.
Half-Orc [Any fighter type]
Half-Elf [Any caster type]
Barbarian (Con Str Dex)
Fighter (S/D Con D/S)
Samurai (Str Chr Con)
Hexblade (S/D Chr Con)
Paladin (Chr Str Con)
Ranger (Dex Wis)
Scout (Dex Int)
Swashbuckler (Int Dex)
Rogue (Dex Int Chr)
Monk (Wis Dex Str)
Ninja (Chr Dex Int)
Cleric (Wis Str Chr)
Druid (Wis Con Str)
Shaman (Chr Wis Con)
Favored Soul (Chr Con)
Shugenja (Chr Dex Con)
Warlock (Chr Dex Con)
Bard (Chr Dex Int)
Sorcerer (Chr Dex Con)
Wizard (Int Dex Con)
Artificer (Chr Int)
where S/D means "Str or Dex" and D/S means "the other one". Str is important
for melee fighters; Dex is for ranged fighters.
Detailing your Character
The next phase of character creation can be one of the most time-consuming.
You'll want to look through several large charts / lists and then select the
things you want. Making a good choice, sadly, requires knowing the full
contents of each list and tradeoffs between each option. Ug. Let's see if
we can simplify things.
You'll be most concerned about three items from the equipment list: armor, melee weapon, and range weapon. Every character has some starting gold they can use to buy equipment; the weapon lists are also broken up into categories that different classes can use. The algorithm is easy: buy the baddest armor and biggest weapons you can afford that you can use. For the moment, ignore all the other factors (encumbrance, movement, space, reach, and handedness). As you play, you can see what works for you and what doesn't and get new equipment accordingly. Btw, if you are playing in Kim D&D, you'll want to select from my item charts instead of the 3.5 SRD.
Your skills flesh out your PC's abilities. Every level (including your first) you get skill points to spend on skills; some races also get one-time extra skill points when you make your character. Even though there are many skills, each class has preferred ones. Basically put skill points into any skill you think is cool that is on your class list. In Kim D&D, skills have been collected into synergy blocks which further simplifies your choice. Usually, it's a good idea to pick one or two synergy blocks and then focus your skills in those.
The extraordinary abilities your character has are called feats. Every character begins with one feat, humans get an extra bonus one, and fighters get an extra bonus one. So if you are starting as a human fighter, you get three feats! Feats are difficult to choose in general, since they really shape the course of your character. Yaddah yaddah of course Kim D&D has made this easier by placing feats into feat trees. Basically, choose an interesting looking tree from your class feat set and take feats from it, starting with the root feat.
Here's a chart with some suggestions for skill synergy blocks and feats broken down by class:
|Class||Source||Suggested Synergy Blocks||Suggested Feat, Tree, or Set|
|Artificer||Ebr 29||Magic-Crafter, Magic-User, Builder||Item Craft Tree|
|Barbarian||PHB 24||Any||Rage Tree, Whirlwind Tree|
|Bard||PHB 26||Swayer, Any|
|Cleric||PHB 30||Any||Turn Tree, Item Craft Tree|
|Druid||PHB 33||Any||Wild Shape Tree, Wilderness Tree|
|Favored Soul||CDiv 6||Spotter, Magic-User|
|Fighter||PHB 37||Builder, Mover/Swayer||Weapon Specialization, Any Combat Set|
|Hexblade||CWar 5||Swayer, Any|
|Monk||PHB 39||Acrobat, Slinker|
|Ninja||CAdv 5||Tinker, Slinker, Acrobat|
|Paladin||PHB 42||Groom, Diplomat||Mounted Tree|
|Ranger||PHB 46||Tracker, Slinker||Shot Tree, Wilderness Tree|
|Rogue||PHB 49||Tinker, Slinker, Scrounger, Acrobat||Save Reflex Tree, Trap Tree|
|Samurai||CWar 8||Swayer, Any||Dual Tree|
|Scout||CAdv 10||Slinker, Tracker, Acrobat||Shot Tree, Speed Tree|
|Shaman||CDiv 14||Scrounger, Tracker/Groom|
|Shugenja||CDiv 10||Tracker/Builder, Any|
|Sorcerer||PHB 51||Spotter, Magic-User||Spell Casting Tree|
|Spell Thief||CAdv 13||Tinker, Slinker, Acrobat, Scrounger|
|Swashbuckler||CWar 11||Swayer, Scrounger||Finesse Tree|
|Warlock||CArc 12||Magic-Crafter, Spotter|
|Wizard||PHB 55||Magic-Crafter, Any||Fortify Tree, Item Craft Tree|
|Wujen||CArc 15||Builder, Any|
Flesh out suggested feats on above chart as WIP feat trees get finished
If you're having trouble deciding what to choose for your starting feat (or second or third), some feats you can't go wrong with as initial choices are: Toughness, Heroic Action, and Dodge. The four save feats are also solid feats: Fortunate, Great Fortitude, Iron Will, and Lightning Reflexes.
Another good reason to get the Player's Handbook is that they've got really nifty starting packages for each of the classes, and moreover they list the skills in order of typical relevance for each class. That saves a great deal of time for all players, novices and experts alike, when they want to whip up a character. (And yes, I only wish I received a commission from Wizards of the Coast for every time I recommend getting the PHB ;-)
All the game mechanic info gets recorded onto your character sheet,
which will be the ultimate reference for the statistics regarding your PC.
Making a character sheet (especially one that is useful) is a time-consuming
process. I heartily recommend using pre-made character sheets first and then
customizing to taste. In Kim D&D I've made special
sheets in Excel that fill themselves out. This not only dramatically
reduces the time it takes to fill out / change the sheets, it also
standardizes them so everyone knows where to find something.
Creating the Past
Quite often starting players (overwhelmed with all the reading they have to
do, options they have, and choices they need to make) overlook their
character past. That's okay: just mastering the mechanics can take some
time. But once you feel comfortable with the rules, it's time to invest some
creativity in creating your character. After all, most people play
RPGs to _play_, not to make die rolls and write down statistics.
There are more potential characters in the imaginary universes than there are players to play them. Some are immediately forgettable, others stay with you for years. Some you hate playing after the third session, others are always a joy to play. So how do we go about creating a memorable and enjoyable character? That will be our ticket to years of role-playing fun. Let's hone in on four specifics: goals, motivation, personality, and morality.
To make things interesting, you'll want to give your character something they want to achieve. Goals come in two broad flavors: static goals and dynamic goals. Static goals are something that, once done, are over. Slaying your parents' murderers can reasonably be finished, for example. Dynamic goals are never-ending or very difficult to fully accomplish. Championing the poor or ridding the world of the goblin scourge are examples of dynamic goals. Neither type is better than other, but the difference might have relevance to you. Some players prefer being able to actually find closure to their character pasts, so they choose static goals. Other players want an endless generator of subplots from their character pasts, so dynamic goals are used. Also note that your character can choose new goals as you play.
If goals are "what" you want to do, then motivation is the "why". Why does your character care about achieving her goal? Every goal can be spun in many different flavors depending on the motivation. For example, suppose your parents are murdered and you decide to slay the killers. Why? Well, revenge is a good motivation. But then, so is the fact that the murderers stole something from your parents that is precious to your clan, and you must retrieve it or the line will fail, crops will wither, etc. Or maybe you were raised by monks and have decided to slay the killers without emotion, becoming a personification of karmic justice. Or maybe your parents' murders were part of a larger nefarious plot and you need to figure it out before you execute the culprits. Clarifying your character motivation is perhaps the single most useful guideline for playing your character.
What type of personality does your character have? Are they happy go lucky or type A? Do they crave attention or prefer to hang in the background? Do they plan things out or make things up as they go along? There are many possible personalities, and it isn't necessary to choose every aspect initially. Begin with a few strong values, add on a default outlook, mix it with some common emotions, and then top it off with one or two quirks. A person who values their own skin, is cautious and fearful, and is constantly darting their eyes around plays a lot differently that someone who values glory, has a polyanna-ish belief that nothing bad can ever happen to them, and lovingly polishes their sword. You'll find that as you play your PC more it will flesh itself out and become more natural to play.
Lastly, you'll want to decide on your character's morality. D&D has a
built in scale of morality called alignment. It's a
simplistic moral scheme but needed for certain game mechanics (like spell
effects). By this point you should have a pretty good picture of your
character in your head, so choose whichever alignment seems closest.
If you are having trouble choosing along an alignment scale (Good - Evil,
Lawful - Chaotic), it probably means that your character is Neutral.
The Purpose Of A Character Past Is To Provide A Basis For Gameplay
Players often take excruciating pains when creating their characters. They
detail the family tree, a psychological profile, where every item is on their
bodies, etc. It's all well and good to take such interest in a character,
but usually the most important part of a character description is
ignored. Namely, the basis for gameplay. A past should develop your
character, not detail it. Every element of a character past should help
provide a guideline to role-playing. Keep the "selective creation policy" in
mind when making elements of the character past; will it affect gameplay? If
it doesn't, why bother creating it?
Of course, some players simplify the creation process; they don't want a past. (Family: dead. Village: burned.) This is fine; an explicit history is not a pre-requisite to play. But even a simple past can provide a very useful guide to role-playing. This is especially important at the lower levels, when characters are inchoate and personalities are still being formed. So for those of you who do want to create a past for the express purpose of enhancing your role-playing: how does one go about doing so? There are many ways. Here are some examples I've come across: resolve a conflict, solve a mystery, accomplish a mission, and play a personality.
Conflict is the lifeblood of the adventurer; you might as well build it directly into the character. Perhaps you are being hunted by someone, and all your efforts go into survival. You run, you hide, you join a group to improve your chances. Or maybe your character is the aggressor. Someone killed your parents and you are seeking vengeance. The murderer is powerful, and your character needs to build up strength and resources before taking them on.
Consider the plight of the Andrefus Darranoush, an extremely strong silver-haired elf nicknamed Anton. Anton was born into a hard life, his parents belonging to a roving band of lycanthrope hunters. These ‘gypsies' were led by Boris Lyctopitof, a powerful fighter who had been cured of werewolfism but still retained the ability to smell lycanthropes on the wind. Anton didn't believe in the cause initially, but after his father Waysel was brutally slain by a weretiger he became a staunch advocate. So strong was his dedication that he murdered the wererat Filius Caveat, who as a human was an ambassador of the powerful Empire of Dawn. Anton is now a fugitive, running from authorities, concealing his identity, and quietly continuing his war against lycanthropes.
A good mystery spices up the sessions, especially when the player leaves it open ended for the DM to fill in. The unknown parentage schtick is always a good standby; perhaps you were left on the temple steps with a note. Too drab? The note said, "Protect her purity" and you attract dirt in unnatural quantities. Or maybe you stumbled upon a secret ritual being performed by the Abbott, and he placed a Ward Of Pain on you to prevent you from speaking of it. Now you have to discover not only how to lift the Ward but also what the Abbott was up to, and the other players have to figure out your odd behavior.
The nameless fisherman awoke as he had for many years, to the soft rain pattering on the roof of his hut. But today would be different. While preparing himself for the day's trawling he sees lightning streak across the sky, and in a flash he remembers: I am Gideon PureHeart. Dazed, he wanders the village and suddenly recognizes another nameless villager as a member of the party he led, and after some time he shocks his companion to recognition. The two slowly collect the rest of their party and battle the "Town Protectors" in the process. They soon discover that every villager is a medium level adventurer, forming thirty full parties total. Alas, no one has their memories, only their name and vague hints of their former past. Who are they? Who put them here? For what purpose? And will they ever get their memories back?
Personal missions also provide a solid foundation for roleplay. The mission can be earth-shaking: you need to assemble the Twelve Keys in order to close the Celestial Doorway, thereby preventing the Zodiac Horde from entering this Material Plane and destroying all life. Or the goal can be down to earth: since your character was an orphan himself, he champions children's causes. He donates money to youth charities, acts as big brother to several NPCs, and protects innocent children.
The noble paladin Luthor StrongHeart had a mission in life. He was a direct descendant of the House of WhiteCastle, the ruling royalty in the Kingdom of Blairmont. Unfortunately, Blairmont was destroyed a few centuries ago by the Creeping Plague, a large grey cloud which crept across the land, causing all who inhaled its fumes to go insane. Worse, the Plague only affects good and neutral aligned creatures, so the once bright lands are now a festering den for evil creatures. So all he has to do is find a cure for the Plague, lift its pall from the lands, rid the territory of monsters, re-establish the monarchy, and repopulate the kingdom.
The whole past can be a backdrop just to explain a personality trait you've always wanted to play. Maybe after playing Paranoia you decide you want a paranoid PC. (Sorry, no clones. :-) This paranoia could be fully justified, in which case you would need to create the hunters and why they are harrying your character; or it could be delusional, and then you would need a reason for the insanity. Or you might want a character with an inhibiting fear to be overcome. Maybe after nearly drowning your character is afraid of water or large bodies of liquid, which would become interesting during that sea quest!
John Smith was a loyal man, simple in his ways. He was dutiful fighter and followed orders. He was a classic brute: high strength, constitution, and dexterity with low intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. In fact, he was a gullible fool who followed anyone who told him what to do, and lapdoggishly latched onto people and looked to them for guidance. His dependency stemmed from the treatment of his uncaring single father, who constantly ordered him around and told him how worthless he was when he bungled the simplest of tasks. John felt cast adrift when his father died, and joined the army soon after, habituating himself to taking orders. But one day things would change...
Of course, these categories are by no means comprehensive. But they all
share a similar trait: they provide a ready-made guideline on how to play the
character. When thoughtfully refined over many sessions, the past becomes the
basis for a full-fledged persona, which is a cinematic force unto
If you create a character past, I will make every effort to incorporate it
into gameplay. However, some pasts are more quickly employed than others.
Consider the difference between Luthor StrongHeart and John Smith. While I
can give Luthor leads to follow and opportunities to gain allies, the bare
fact is that storming a nation is at least a Name level adventure. The player
was aware that he would never get to resolve his past in an adventure; he was
more interested in the implications for role-playing.
John Smith, on the other hand, got to play his past from the first session. For two levels the other players took ruthless advantage of his nature, with everyone (especially John's player) having a blast. Then in the 3rd level adventure I arranged for Smith to be used and discarded by someone he really trusted, and his character flowered. His hands shook with rage as he vowed to never be betrayed again. After several distinctive periods of change, all of which were well played, Smith went on to become a great leader. Furthermore, the player employed henchmen better than any other player I've seen, before or since; I ended up raising the character's Charisma score to see more of it!
Anyway, be aware that your past has a level implicitly associated with it.
If you really want to see things resolved during play, it has to be something
a low level adventurer could reasonably expect to do. The more grandiose the
past, the less likely it is that it will immediately affect gameplay.
We've all played in sessions that went smooth as glass, combat was a breeze,
and the right lines seemed to drop into everyone's lap. And sadly, we've
probably all played in sessions that seemed to drag on, characters seemed
confused and players were distracted, and everyone was just waiting patiently
for it to end. What makes a "good" session, and can we do it consistently?
Here are several suggestions: proactively pursuing goals, playing something
different, retaining a sense of wonder, refining your techniques, and
harmonizing your party.
Proactively Pursue Goals
Campaigns Exist Solely For Players To Play In
The primary obligation of a Dungeon Master is to provide an environment
where the players can have fun. This very simple idea has numerous
far-reaching implications. Consider that different people enjoy different
things, and even the same group might want to emphasize different aspects of
gameplay over time. So optimally a campaign should adapt in real time to
players' desires. How can a DM do this, without becoming over-burdened?
The campaign structure itself should be fundamentally malleable. I achieve this flexibility through my selective creation policy: unless it interacts with the players, I don't create it. Many DMs (especially new ones) will meticulously detail every aspect of the game world and then use the sessions as a forum to display their handiwork. This has some advantages to it, not the least of which is coherence among the game elements. But it also has the major disadvantages of being static and rigid. Of course, there must be a certain level of global planning. There are also things which must be created in anticipation of indirectly affecting play. However, the campaign should be "loose" enough to develop the world in real time, according to player interest.
This brings us to another major implication for the campaign, namely dynamic adaptability. I try to tailor fit my campaigns to player interest, at every level that I can. That means I encourage and solicit player input, even in such matters as world creation! If you create a character past, I will incorporate it into the storyline, perhaps even as the primary adventure. If you want to do something, then I will create an opportunity for you, though you may have to wait several sessions before I can work it in. In fact, if you desperately want something, then I am even willing to cut a deal with you to secure guarantees for your character. (My deals are always limited to aspects of the game.) This dynamic approach has a twofold benefit: it meets player desires, and it's less work for a me!
For example, one player who had a Magic-User character wanted a tower in the middle of a lake, guarded by dragon turtle which ferried you across the waters on its back. Whew! A very specific request. But lo and behold, two adventures later the party defeated a mage with a tower in the middle of a valley. They made the tower their base of operations for awhile, and then as part of the adventure they had to break a dam a few miles away. Flooding the valley, of course. We never got to the dragon turtle, since the campaign ended, but I had a good scenario for that, too... all fueled by the player's initial ideas.
Do not underestimate the effect that you, as a player, can have on the game. On the most fundamental level, PCs can do anything they want, subject to the limitations of the characters. Many DMs, for practical reasons, will guide / force players onto the pre-made plotline. I do not wish to do this. Instead, I want to create plots which anticipate player interest. If you can describe to me what type of play you would like, even in a vague fashion, then I have a better chance of providing it. And the more specific you can be, the more likely I can change things to meet your desires.
Of course, you don't have to tell me what you want, and this is not a
requirement for play. Some players want to be continually surprised; others
would rather leave the work to the DM. Whatever you choose is fine with me.
But be aware that gameplay becomes much better when players are
actively exerting influence. It is the difference between a DM tossing
obstacles at players and them haphazardly responding, and the party setting
its own goals and initiatives and the DM scurrying to find obstacles!
Assassins Guild Story
Let me illustrate with an anecdote from my longest running campaign: The Saga Of Solomon SwordCraft. Solomon was a selfishly motivated elven fighter / thief, who began his career angry at the world and viscious in the extreme. He led a group of power hungry characters which, after much death (both their own and others'), forged themselves into a well-oiled combat machine. Eventually SwordCraft transformed into a loyal party leader, who not only took care of his group but also learned compassion for others.
Anyway, in the course of adventuring they annoy a powerful bad guy (PBG), who hires the Assassins Guild to kill them. So three times over the next couple adventures the party is attacked by a pack of assassins, who of course wait for the most inconvenient moment to strike. The party is in the middle of a time critical adventure during the third strike, and it seriously disrupts their agenda.
Predictably, they become pissed. They talk and decide something needs to be done about the assassins. Four party members were thieves and they had used the Thieves Guild to good effect in the past. I'm thinking, "Okay, they'll finish this adventure and then ask around at the Thieves Guild about who hired the assassins. They'll learn about the PBG, locate and storm his fortress, and then discover the previous connection along the way." In anticipation, I had already created the PBG's castle, chock full with all types of goodies.
But what does the party do? They're talking about exactly that, what to do, when SwordCraft takes control. "Screw our current mission; these assassins are more important. No one attacks my party and gets away with it." The party nods in agreement. "There is only one thing to be done. We'll have to wipe out the Assassins Guild in <city where they came from> as an object lesson."
WHAT!?! It had never occurred to me that they would attack the Assassins Guild directly, not in my wildest drug-induced hallucinations. Yet as I'm sitting there, dumbfounded, they enthusiastically formulate a battle plan. In this case I get lucky, since we were near the end of a session, and I spend the next week frantically creating a death-packed guild-creche. But the players had been thinking that week too, anticipating things which I hadn't even thought of, and for the next two sessions I'm yanking stuff from my butt in massive profusion just to keep up with them. It was great.
What happened? They blew through the Assassins Guild like a scirocco. They had an objective, they had a plan, and they had prepared exceptionally well. I threw everything I could against them, pulled every nasty assassin trick there was, and they just walked right through it. The final scene, when they force the GuildMaster Assassin to flee from his own inner sanctum, was golden. "Remember," Solomon shouted with sword upraised, "We can always find you. If you cross us again, my sword drinks your blood." In fact, this scenario formed the perfect entry into the greatest adventure I ever ran: The Misty Desert Routine. I'll tell you about it sometime...
The difference in play when players take an active part in shaping the
adventure is phenomenal. Many DMs see parties that strike off on their own as
an annoyance; it is especially heart-breaking when a well-constructed module
goes unseen. I have a different opinion. I would prefer players to generate
their own initiative, and for them to determine the direction of play. In the
absence of such input, I will create adventures which I think they will
enjoy. But the truth is that it is both easier for me and more exciting for
everyone when players start creating and pursuing their own goals.
I always recommend to players to choose a character with a personality
significantly different from their own. This policy has numerous benefits.
First, as mentioned previously, much of the fun of gaming comes when you
allow yourself to play things you would never do personally. Second, it
clearly separates you from your character, reducing the probability players
will confuse you with your imaginary counterpart. Third, it forces you to
consciously consider how the character would respond to a given situation, as
opposed to unconsciously reacting, which leads to novel and interesting
play. Fourth, people are often much better at playing cariacatures than they
are at representing themselves, since they notice things about other people
they rarely observe in themselves.
Let me tell yet another SwordCraft parable. The player who ran Solomon is named Mark Terilli. Mark is a genuine nice guy: considerate, good-natured, calm voice. He had never role-played before, so I decided to run a miniature 1st level adventure just for him to give him a feel for the game. I gave him the advice above and he created the bloodthirsty bastard Solomon SwordCraft. He went through his mini-adventure hacking and slashing, getting himself into trouble one minute and scraping his hash out the next, and basically having a grand old time.
Anyway, I get the campaign started soon after, and since the other people have played before I let Mark keep his now 2nd level character. When the other players find this out, they tell him he should be party leader. He says whoa, he doesn't have the experience, someone else could do it better. The other players say no, it's okay, and encourage him some more. After awhile he defers to their experience and takes command.
"All Right!" Solomon barked, "Fall In Line!" The players looked back and forth at each other: Was this Mark talking? "This is the way things are going to be. I tell you what to do, and you do it. Does anyone have any problems with that?" One of the players was smiling at Mark's assumed persona. "Ya," he said belligerently, "I have a problem with that." So SwordCraft drew his sword, got initiative, attacked and hit, skewered the guy for 8hp of damage, and killed him instantly. "Right," Solomon said as his sword slithered back into his scabbard. "Anyone else have any problems which need taking care of?" The effect was electric. "No, Mr. SwordCraft! Sir!"
In two minutes Mark had so well defined Solomon SwordCraft that everyone
knew the essence of the character. Furthermore, it was so far removed from
his own personality that no one ever mistook when Mark was talking and when
Solomon was giving commands. In those early adventures more players were
killed by Solomon's own hand than by the enemy monsters! However, rather than
becoming angry at the carnage the other players enjoyed it: Mark was quite
inventive in coming up with new ways to kill his own party. ;-)
Limitations Enhance Role-Playing
Players are often fixated with "building the perfect beast", making their
character the most powerful it can be. That means scrounging the rules for
loop-holes, increasing killing potential by maximizing damage flux, and
making the character impervious
to harm. While this is a fine algorithm, it ignores a wide region of play,
namely dealing with limitations. Whenever I tell players this, most of them
look at me like I'm speaking heresy. "Why the hell would you want to
voluntarily limit your character?". Because it provides a tremendous
opportunity for enjoyable role-playing.
Consider the fighter Donavin BriteStar. The player decided that he didn't like how people automatically assumed their characters knew everything about monsters just because they had read the Monster Manual. So Donavin was a country bumpkin who didn't know anything about adventuring. He wasn't stupid; just the opposite, he was quite bright. But he was ignorant of even the most basic tenets of party life, and had to be taught by the other characters as they went along. Of course, the player slickly used this as a platform to make some uproarious observations about adventuring.
2nd level rolls around and the party is spelunking in a crypt. They stumble upon some zombies (the first time they've encountered undead) and Donavin looses it. "The dead are walking! They're f***ing attacking us! How can we kill something that's already dead!?!" The party cleric repeatedly reassures him that they can be slain. The player asks for some type of penalty due to fear, so I give him a [-1, -1]. He plays it great; eyes wide with fear and a little wild, white-knuckled shaking hands gripping his sword, quavering voice, etc.
What happened? Well, the party slays all the zombies, but there was a Coffer Corpse among them. After the zombies were downed, Donavin says in a wheeze, "I guess you were right, they could die." At which point the Coffer Corpse jumps up and grabs the cleric by the throat. The players are surprised to say the least, having never encountered this monster before. Everyone in the party except BriteStar and the thief fails the fear save and books from the room (the cleric is trapped). Meanwhile, Donavin has become hysterical and starts lashing out at the Corpse in order to get to the cleric. "You bastard! You lied! You said they could be killed!"
I decide that his mania now gives him a [+1, +1]. After a few rounds the thief figures out that it can only be harmed by magic weapons, since Donavin dished out 13hp of damage with no apparent effect, but he pokes it once with his +1 dagger and it is staggered. He gives the fighter his magic dagger and Britestar quickly dispatches the monster. The cleric, of course, died for the folly of his presumption. The players, on the other hand, laughed their butts off at the role-playing.
This is just one of many examples of how limitations lead to good
role-playing. I've DMed characters who were afraid of the dark, had
distinctive identifying marks, wouldn't accept magical cures, etc. and each
one brought a unique dimension of play to the game. In fact, to emphasize
this point I once ran a campaign filled with severe limitations; all
characters were deaf, dumb, one-armed, etc. and the players discovered they
had more fun than usual! After that they experimented on their own with all
types of limitations: being lame, refusing to lie, pathological kleptomania,
etc. and discovered that it does, indeed, enhance role-playing.
Retain a Sense of Wonder
Avoid Assumptions About The Game World
Over the years of gaming, I have noticed a player tendency to make
assumptions about the game world. It is especially prevalent among veteran
gamers. "After all, we've all fought goblins before, right? We know what
they're like and <yawn> they get boring after awhile. Let's move onto
something more interesting!" or, "Everyone knows how that magic item works!
It's like this..."
Another interesting phenomenon appears among mixed players groups, i.e. veteran and neophyte. At the start of the campaign the inexperienced players seek direction from the experienced. The beginners question everything, and ask the "stupidest" questions. The seasoned players sometimes "tolerate" this, sometimes not, and try to "move play along". The beginners get in the habit of experimenting to find things out, to question the why of things, and most importantly to never assume.
After a few levels a curious inversion occurs, when the neophytes figure things out that the veterans are stumped by, and focus shifts onto the newer players. Another level or two and they are the ones leading the party, usually because they are the only ones left alive! Making assumptions directly limits the capability of your character to directly experience the game world, and it should be avoided.
I deliberately tweak properties of the game universe in small but
fundamental ways. The main reason is to preserve a sense of newness and
fantasy, to provide players an opportunity to discover new wonders. But
another reason is to put them off balance, to shake them up, and to force
them to start looking at the world with new eyes. Get in the habit of
experimenting. My favorite response to players when they ask whether
something is possible is: "Try it and find out!"
Refine your Techniques
There is often no connection between the game time (how much time
elapses in the fantasy world) and real time (how long things take by
your watch). Sometimes, swathes of game time happen in a few seconds (PL:
"We'll keep following the map toward the lost city", GM: "Okay, nothing
happens for three days, and then on the morning of the fourth...") Most
often, though, combats that take mere minutes in the game take over an hour
of real time to complete. Consequently, most of the ways that you can
improve your game play is by finding small techniques to speed things along.
Improving Game Play
For example, an experienced player will roll their attack roll and damage
roll simultaneously. It's a small thing that saves maybe 5 seconds, but
multiplied by the hundred rolls during a typical combat it can shave 10
minutes off an hour. The expert player makes all her decisions on the
preceding player's turn, so that when her turn comes she can immediately
declare her actions and roll. This can also easily save another 10 minutes
per hour of combat.
Another time saving trick is to have any reference material handy when you take a complex action. This is particularly relevant to spellcasters. When you cast a spell, look up all the appropriate info for the spell before your turn comes around. If you are going to grapple, refresh your memory on how it works while you are waiting for your turn. In most cases, just making sure your character sheet is always on top of your pile of papers makes a big difference in speed. A veteran gaming group can often play twice as fast as a novice one, without being rushed; when they hustle, they can sometimes play four times as fast.
Of course, don't feel pressured to hurry if you face a difficult situation or
complex decision, and definitely take your time when you are first learning
how to play. As you become more comfortable with the rules, be aware that
there are many things you can do to move things along. From a social
standpoint, it's more polite: you don't make everyone wait a minute while you
do something you could have done two minutes ago. From a gaming standpoint,
it gives everyone more time for other shenanigans!
Improving Role Play
Along these same lines, there are techniques to speed up role-playing, that
luckily also happen to lead to better play. The biggest one is to speak
in character. Many beginning players will say something like: "Okay, my
PC tells the merchant blah". That is the player describing what their
character is saying. A seasoned player will simply say "blah" and save a few
seconds. In general, if you find yourself using the passive voice in your
declarations, you can probably change them to the
active voice and shorten them at the same time. Active players in
character are very cinematic, while players passively describing their
characters are less so.
Note that the goal here is to save time, not necessarily to stay in character. So, for example, using short summaries are preferable to repeating information. Suppose a rogue learns some information (which the players all hear in the session but their characters don't know yet in the game), the rogue player might simply declare: "I tell the party what I heard" instead of repeating everything. Of course, if the rogue wanted to hold some information back, then actually saying what their character says would be appropriate.
A common technique used between players is called the recap and invite. Here's an example: "Well, we know that we can't destroy the mill while the crystal is intact. But how do we get past the magical rays guarding the crystal?" That ends with an invitation to discuss possible plans. Or, "You've struggled with your fear of the color pink for so long... how can you live like that?" That's an invitation to role-play. As the gaming group gets familiar with one another's style, very frequently the questions on recap and invite are implied. One player will say "We must destroy the mill" and another will make suggestions, or "I've always been fond of pink" and the other will launch into their unreasoning fear.
The holy grail of role-playing is to learn to sense the cues that other people in the group give you, and especially when the GM is dropping an adventure hook. Good players will try to give everyone their time in the spotlight, and will often "pass the mike" to another player. This only works if the second player senses the first player's cue. Following another player's lead is often very useful in combat as well. A group that has gamed together for a long time develops standard strategies that become second nature in the split-second life-and-death pace of combat.
The final tip for improving role play is: embrace extremity. A
character with an over-the-top eccentricity is far more memorable than a
normal, reasonable fellow. Ham it up! Feel free to give your PC all types
of strange idiosyncracies, odd opinions, absurd limitations, and peculiar
mannerisms. More often that not, you'll find they develop into the perfect
lead-in to a grand adventure...
Harmonize your Party
Of course, your character does not exist in a vacuum but will adventure in
a group most of the time. That means that players should arrange to have a
reasonably harmonious party composition. This encompasses factors such as
alignment and backgrounds, but most importantly, class distribution. For my
standard campaign, every class is critical to the survival and eventual
success of the party.
For example, the Core Four are a primary Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, and Rogue. No other group of four characters can survive in the long-term, nor can a party with less than four characters. The optimal five character group is the Core Four plus another fighter-type. The optimal seven character party is the Core Four + 2 Fighter-Types + 1 Spell-Caster + 1 Skilled, distributed among the three (probably multi-classed) characters. Past nine characters the Core Four is no longer essential, and parties can be fully sub-classed / multi-classed. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have them around if the party <ahem> suddenly shrinks.
Note that this is my suggested recommendation only; I never force players into classes. However, the party will die eventually if it doesn't contain a reasonable mixture, and it is disappointing to everyone when the group croaks it at 3rd level because it didn't have a Wizard. Furthermore, I do not arrange party composition. Thus, if one player wants a paladin and the other wants an assassin, they'll have to resolve the situation themselves in the session.
For example, one player decided he wanted to make an assassin character and kill off the rest of the party. Since the party had recently crossed a PBG, there was a perfect ready made past: I hired the PC and set him loose on the group. He wiped out half the characters before going down, and that was due to the party's own idiocy. It was very good play by the assassin. 8^)
Expand on sense of wonder section Add section on developing your character Add giving others opportunity to play in harmony section
I play a variant of D&D 3.5 which is being continually modified, and which has been changed so much as to be a different system. Back in the day when I was playing 1st edition one of my players whimsically called it Kim D&D, and I've decided I like the name. 8^) My main goal with most of these changes has been to eliminate inequities and to improve gameplay. For example, Elves and Dwarves were the typical choices for PCs because the other races were wimpy. Gnomes are now powerful clerics and Half-orcs fearsome mounted fighters.
The current alterations include, but are not limited to:
|House Rules||New Base Progressions, Class Matrix, Linear Simplified, and a whole slew of stuff|
|Feats||Classifying feats into Feat Sets and better quantifying their power|
|Skills||More structure to skills by placing them into discrete Synergy Blocks|
|BMB and Spells||Base Magic Bonus analogous to BAB, better Spontaneity rules, and Principal Spells|
|Magic Item Crafting||Rebalancing the Item Creation rules|
|Item Encumbrance||The best encumbrance system ever designed ™ :-)|
|Game Design||Concepts, stackable Condition Scales, and associated Spell Design|
Of course, your character choices will depend on these new rules. I'll
give you your own copy of these documents before you create your character.
Currently, all the changes have been written down, but not all have been well
documented. I will also explain the charts when I give them to you, and
eventually I'll get around to writing clarifying documents like this one.
Realism Vs. Playability
There are many different dimensions along which we can measure game play.
One fundamental spectrum is realism, i.e. how well the properties of
the game world corresponds to our physical reality, and how closely the game
rules simulate realistic outcomes. For example, a game system which
incorporates rules for exhaustion is more realistic than one which doesn't,
since creatures in the real world get fatigued.
Another basic measure is playability, i.e. how easy it is to use the mechanics of the game system (like event resolution by die rolling) and how enjoyable it is to play the game (provides an opportunity for memorable player interaction). To illustrate, DC Heroes © is a very playable game system, with well thought out inter-related exponential scales. There are only a few types of die rolls and the system encourages imaginative play.
One would like to incorporate elements of both realism and playability into a game system. Unfortunately, the two are often in direct opposition. In order for realistic elements to have an enforceable consequence on play, they usually entail carrying around extra statistics or making more die rolls, thereby complicating the game system. In order to keep pace with a highly playable plotline realistic considerations must usually be swept under the carpet. What to do? Which to choose?
Whenever forced to decide between realism and playablity I almost always choose the latter. This preference began the first time I tried to DM the AD&D weapon speed factors and armor modifications. These rules basically said that it should be faster to use a dagger than a 2-handed sword, and that different weapons were more or less effective against different types of armor. Both ideas seemed eminently reasonable. However, the implementation was cumbersome and seriously slowed the pace of combat. I ended up ditching the rules after the second session.
I now believe that playability should be the primary aim of an RPG, and that realism should be introduced only when it adds a clearly desirable dimension to gameplay. (Of course, I mean outside of games which are predicated on realism, like WWII re-enactment games, etc.) After all, most players prefer engaging, dramatic, fantastic plots to prosaic, accurate, realistic events. In fact, I strive to create memories during the session, highly charged cinematic scenes which the players will remember for the rest of their lives. (In their dreams or in their nightmares; I'm not picky. >;^)
Of course, we shouldn't toss realism out entirely. There are at least two
aspects which are desirable to preserve: consistency and
coherency. Consistency means that the rules should apply to everyone
impartially. If oil exists in the game and the PCs can use it in combat,
then so should NPCs and monsters. Coherency means that game elements should
fit together in a reasonable fashion (but this relationship need not be
realistic). Thus, if restless spirits inhabit fish and fish migrate, then
poltergeists should be seasonal. I enforce consistency and seek coherency on
all my game worlds.
Continuity And Longevity Imply Attendance
There are two other qualities of realism which warrant consideration: continuity and longevity. Not all games have these attributes; in fact, some specifically leave them out. For example, tournament play is predicated on the short-term and often lasts just a few sessions. Modular play cobbles together several discrete adventures, usually having little interconnection. Campaign play attempts to join adventures into larger units which have a unifying theme.
My campaigns are the next step in this progression, namely a continuous unified flow of play which begins when we start and stops when we end. Adventures are convenient and memorable milestones, but do not dictate the course of play. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the other types of play, and I employ them myself on occasion. Tournament play can lead to some spectacular and imaginative deaths; modular play has numerous conveniences, especially if you use store-bought modules; and campaign play fosters the creation of heroic legends. 'Flow-play' offers other benefits, which can only be realized in the long-term. Ask me about Ganis and The Kodak Moment sometime.
Anyway, what does this philosophy mean for the game? The first implication is consequence. In my campaigns the players affect the environment, and their actions have long-term consequences. This doesn't mean the party must always be the ones to save the world (though it may appear that way from their perspective) nor are they always the central focus of the global plotlines. But they always make a difference. The paradigm I aim for is a continuing soap opera with an ever enlarging cast of characters and constantly deepening plot. Your character will hopefully change over the course of many sessions, both in reaction to experiences and through proactive development. Just like real people.
All this enforces a tight constraint on attendance. With a soap opera, if you miss a day you are usually lost. With a campaign, if you miss a session you are usually dead. :-) The target is 4-8 hours of play per week. This is usually held in one 6 hour session per week, scheduled on the least offensive weekend day; a 10AM-4PM timeslot with a brief break for lunch works well. Furthermore, a campaign runs for more than a year. Thus, playing in one of my campaigns requires a significant player commitment.
It is not necessary that you commit to this schedule beforehand; after all, a lot can happen in a year and no one can fortell their future obligations. However, I must insist that you intend to. That means that you can realistically afford the time, and that you make every attempt to prevent other activities from encroaching on the well-defined session times. Of course, some players (especially beginning ones) are only interested in "trying things out". This is fine, as long as you realize that "trying" includes trying to make sessions.
Though I am stressing attendance as a major obligation, don't stress over
it. Either you'll find the campaign enjoyable and want to come of your own
accord, or you won't and you won't. In fact, what usually happens after
awhile is that players request more play time, during school vacations and
other free periods. I'd like to think it's because they find the campaign
interesting and exciting...
Why Start At 1st Level?
All players in my campaign start with 1st level characters. (Of course, I'm talking about long-term campaigns and not the occasional "one-shot" adventure.) The only people I allow to start at a higher level are those who have played in my campaigns before and have repeatedly achieved that level. For example, players which I had DMed for six years were allowed to start at 5th level in The Memory Of Gideon PureHeart campaign, as they had consistently reached 7th in the past.
I often get complaints about this policy, especially from veteran players. After all, why should they be forced to "endure" the boring lower levels when things don't really get interesting until Name? There are several reasons. First, the early levels are an important time in which players can familiarize themselves: with me and my extensive rule modifications, with each other, with their characters, and with the game world, developing the habit of constant exploration. Equally significant, it gives me time to acquaint myself with the players and their gaming tastes.
Second, even though you may have played a 20th level character before, you haven't done so in my campaign. As a rough rule of thumb my adventures are exponentially difficult, i.e. a 6th level adventure is twice as hard as a 5th level one. Most DMs create 2nd-4th level adventures on my scale, and I've seen only a few rare store-bought modules worthy of 6th level play. Groups gaming with me for the first time invariably croak at 5th, irrespective of how much previous experience the players have had. The highest level character that I've DMed (after adopting this philosophy) was 10th level, which the player had earned after four years of play.
Third, low level adventures are only boring if you allow them to be. Much of the excitement of the game comes from what I have dubbed the Edge of Death. The Edge is that regime where the PCs are right on the verge of total destruction but narrowly avoid it by rising to the challenge and exceeding their previous limits. This is the target zone in which I try to keep the party at all times. Too hard an obstacle discourages players; too easy and their attention wanders. Lower levels get players used to constantly being on The Edge, which is a lot of fun if you allow it to be.
Fourth, starting at 1st simplifies continuity issues. It's hard enough to provide a decent background to a 1st level character; what about the history of a 5th level character who has been adventuring for three years? Starting from 1st level allows players to formulate their personas over a span of time, providing an important basis for later play.
If you are a seasoned player starting from 1st in my campaign,
I hope that you can see that there are decent reasons for doing so. It is not
to make players suffer. I honestly believe that a 5th level
adventure is much more fun when you've played the four levels before it. And I
also hope that I will make my campaign interesting enough that you will enjoy
playing it at any level.
Don't Mess With Gods And Dragons
In all my campaigns there is a definite power structure, among adventurers, among monsters, and in the world in general. Parties often ask themselves the question: "Can we take these monsters?" They reap the benefit or pay the price by the accuracy of their guess. Since I give players full autonomy to direct their characters, I make little attempt to limit their exposure to creatures / situations that they can handle. I do, however, try to give them hints within the game that they might be biting off more than they can chew, like the drunkard survivor from the high level party who warns them how everyone in his party died horribly when they fought creature X.
I also try to remain impartial. The major function of a DM is a window into a fantasy setting, with secondary functions like keeping track of rules, directing gameplay, etc. The play looses its appeal when the DM is clearly trying to kill characters, or perhaps worse, is helping them out too much. I try to kill the characters no more than a monster would want to, and to help them no more than an NPC would be inclined. However, in those gray areas of impartiality I have decided that if I must err, I will do so in the players' favor.
There are two situations in which none of this applies: when the players encounter gods and dragons. Forget the statistics you've read in Legends and Lore. Gods are GODS. They are divine powers which span planes and shape the face of planets. I know a lot of players with proud characters, who will stand up for themselves no matter what. When these characters meet a god they invariably gaff them off somehow. What happens? The god waves his hand, and the character ceases to exist, erased from memory. No To Hit, No Save. So on the off chance that you do meet a god, remember who you are dealing with, and pay them the respect they are due. Kneeling and praying probably can't hurt, either. ;-)
A similar proviso applies with dragons. I've seen many a campaign in which
"dragon" was synonymous with "treasure hoard". You sally out, slay the beast
after a struggle, and then raid the hoard. I believe that the game was named
Dungeons & Dragons for a reason. Therefore, on every world I
create dragons are the most fearsome mortal creature in existence. People
don't fight when a dragon moves into the area; they relocate. Nations pause
when dragons tell them to do something, to figure out the fastest way to do
it. Even gods give them leeway. If the players confront a dragon, I will try
to kill them, and I will side with the dragon. Given this predisposition, I
issue a warning to every new player to be fair.
Lunar Dragon Story
Let me tell some anecdotes. The players in the SwordCraft campaign relished combat, and was one of the best coordinated killing machines that I have DMed. During a 5th level adventure they were chasing the powerful Umeraedelickaciaciawammawammado, and his sidekick, Ug. Umer (for short) was a 9th level magic-user and Ug was a 7th level cleric. They also had a small entourage with them, namely 30 Orcs and 10 Hobgoblins directed by 5 Ogres, 10 skeletons and 5 Zombies, and 2 charmed Minotaur bodyguards.
The party had to defeat them immediately, because in another few hours they would receive reinforcements. Did I forget to mention the party caught up with them after Umer et al had set up a well-patrolled fortified camp? Or that the group had become separated in the chase, and only five of the ten PCs were there? Or that they had been worn down in the chase, and were all at half hit points? You can guess what happened: the party blew the bad guys away, without a single casualty.
This same group is looking for the MoonSign during a 6th level adventure (on the moon, of course :-) They discover that the relic is in the hoard of the Lunar Dragon. This gives them pause, because they, like you, had received a warning not to mess with gods and dragons. But they are feeling their oats, and decide that they can take it on. After all, they know where the dragon is, have reliable intelligence on its abilities, and have the element of tactical surprise on their side.
The party was seven 6th level PCs strong at the time. Did I mention that I gave the players an additional seven 6th level NPCs to control during the combat, and that a nearby town lent them 40 2nd level fighters, bringing the attack force to 54 people? Or that the breath weapon of lunar dragons is lightning, and that the previous level I had given them a Ring of Electrical Grounding (an area effect electrical resistance)? Or that this particular dragon was young and inexperienced (4hp / HD), and that "lunar dragons" were a custom species of the weakest lesser dragon which I could devise? You can guess what happened: through exceptional play the party prevailed with only 52 casualties.
Consider yourself warned. :-|
20th Century Morality Does Not Apply In The Game...
Some players have difficulty when trying to reconcile elements of gameplay with their personal beliefs. For example, if Good aligned people are supposed to value life, why do they spend most of their time killing things? Or a player sincerely believes in the American ideals of racial, gender, and individual equality, and finds they can't stand a bigoted, sexist, or caste-conscious character, PC or NPC. Monotheistic players occasionally have problems with polytheistic characters, and polytheistic players sometimes find the rendition of polytheistic characters simplistic.
It might help to clarify the moral basis which does exist in the game. Players often have a significant misconception about alignment play, usually because they associate too many qualities with a single alignment. Being Lawful Good does not mean you have a 20th century Judeo-Christian turn-the-other-cheek philosophy. Nor does it mean you are kind, brave, charitable, courteous, altruistic, or help little old ladies cross the street. Alignments are specific pre-dispositions only and have little else to do with a character's personality.
Good and Evil in the game is measured along the value of life spectrum. Good creatures place a positive value on life, and have the inclination to help, nurture, and protect it. Evil creatures place a negative value on life, and have the inclination to hamper, harm, and destroy it. Neutral creatures do not place any particular stress on the value of life. Does that mean that Good characters never kill? That Evil characters never save others? No. Morever, since all Good people know that Evil people are irredeemably harmful to life, it is their express obligation and reluctant duty to slay them. On the other hand, Evil kills Good just for the fun of it.
Similarly, Law and Chaos is measuring the value of rules. Lawful creatures place a positive value on rules, having the inclination to foster laws, order, and organizations. Chaotic creatures place a negative value on rules, having the inclination to foster independence, anarchy, and free associations. Neutral creatures do not place any particular stress on the value of rules. Does that mean Lawful characters cannot break the law? That Chaotic characters cannot form effective groups? No. Moreover, while there is a high correlation to individuality on the Law / Chaos scale, there is none to selfishness; there are self-seeking lawful characters and altruistic chaotic ones. There are also great chaotic leaders with disruptive lawful followers.
Let me stress once again that this is all alignment means, and that all other aspects of personality are limited only by the player's imagination. Special fighters, like Paladins, have the most restrictive alignment constraints. But I have DMed Paladins who were lecherous womanizers, arrogant manipulators, and unruly doomsayers, all of whom were meticulous in their alignment play. Alignment shifts occur over long periods through persistent play, not because there are "outlawed acts" for a given alignment. In all cases I will warn players of a drifting alignment well in advance of an actual alignment shift, and I never use the threat of an alignment change to coerce players. Shifting alignments should be rare enough to be the basis of whole adventures which culminate in dramatic action, like Darth Vader finally turning from the Dark Side of the Force when he saved his son Luke Skywalker from the evil Emperor.
Remember that characters don't automatically endorse 20th
century concepts like democracy and/or monotheism, assuming they knew what
they were to begin with! Even in our real world there are very compelling
advantages to communism, monarchy, and plutocracies; representative
democracies are not intrinsically the best form of government. There are
effective benevolent dictatorships and ineffective malicious democracies.
Similarly, organized religion has had its share of difficulties over the
divine identity and multiplicity issues. It is probably better if all such
beliefs were left outside the session, and your character was played
according to the established game framework. Your PC should not be
prosetylizing the other characters, teaching them the benefits of democracy
or enlightening the savage heathens (unless your character is an ambassador
or a missionary, of course!).
... But It Does In The Session
D&D is intended to be a game where people have fun. RPGs in general provide a fantasy environment in which people can do things they would never do in real life, with only imaginary consequences. That is why so many RPGs have combat as a central game element; after all, real life conflict is (thankfully) becoming rarer, and most people find it unpleasant when actually experienced. I believe that this temporary release of inhibition in a safe forum is the main attraction of roleplaying, and is worthy of preservation. Of course, this doesn't mean that players should pander to their darkest desires, becoming bloodthirsty rapacious pillaging brutes. But it does mean that you shouldn't take to heart the things which happen in the game.
Always keep in mind that players are not their characters; a player is a real person and a character is an imaginary construct. This means that as a player you are not responsible for your character's actions, even when done deliberately. I've known a few players who felt serious depression when their characters mistakenly killed the good guy or were forced into bad situations. It also means that things other characters do to your PC are not done to you personally. Players occasionally get their dander up when their characters argue (usually when they are playing their PCs well!) Also, be aware that I do not tolerate players pursuing vendettas against other people, because of game actions or real personal problems. There are other, better ways to resolve real relational difficulties. But if their PC deliberately screwed your PC, hey, a little game revenge is probably in order. ;-)
If you find yourself becoming genuinely uncomfortable with aspects of
play, please let me know, and I will rectify the situation if I am able. It
is not my intent to offend players, though in some cases it is the
intent of an NPC to offend the PCs. Further rest assured that I carefully
consider everything I include in the session. For example, in one adventure I
continually harped about this NPC woman, describing her voluptuous breasts,
captivating grace, spell-binding voice, etc. A female player told me that I
was going overboard, uncomfortably raising the testoserone level in the
session. This was one of the few cases in which I couldn't stop the action or
adequately explain it; I could only tell the player it was a key plot point,
and that it shouldn't last too much longer. The party discovered that the
woman was using a magical mask to bewitch men, and that many other things
they had encountered in those sessions were illusions.
Where To From Here?
I hope these stories have whet your appetite for play! If you've made it this far, there are just a few more steps from here. First, I have to give you copies of my rule modifications. We can go over them together or you can read them on your own (after I've explained some 'undocumented features'). Next, we have to get together for awhile to create your character. The process usually takes 30-90 minutes depending, and can be done in one sitting. Lastly, I will create your initial character sheet and get it to you by the next session. Then you are ready to rumble!