I’ve been referencing Chrono Trigger a lot as I talk about Faith, my players’ latest attempt to ruin not just one of my settings but several settings throughout history. But that’s not because I’m trying to run a Chrono Trigger campaign, because I’m not. If I was, we’d be reskinning thing much harder to fit with the four allowed magic types, I would have a system for double- and triple-techs, and I definitely wouldn’t be running in Pathfinder. But I still wouldn’t limit the campaign to only three players and I would be using my own world maps. The important things about Chrono Trigger to me aren’t the three-person party or Porre Village specifically. They don’t make things feel like Chrono Trigger to me as much as Lavos and Spekkio and tag team moves, and how my players and I feel about a work is the most important part of creating an tabletop adaptation for it.
When I say “adaptation”, I don’t mean “a copy in a new medium”. We’re not turning a book into a movie, trying to hit the same story beats while improving what we can with visuals and making the fewest concessions for time and budget constraints. Adapting something to tabletop gaming isn’t about doing the same thing over again. It’s about getting the feel of the original work and duplicating that feel in a new story with new characters because we like both the original work and the agency tabletop gaming gives us. We want the room to make a campaign that’s more of an homage than a copy, where we can leave our own mark on it while enjoying something we like in a new way.
As part of planning for Faith, our time travel campaign where the characters go through history adjusting events so their respective gods can become top-tier members of their pantheon, I realized I would need world maps. That’s maps, plural. Chrono Trigger, our thematic launch point, had one world map for each era and expected the players to traverse all of them fully. A simple “yeah, this island is tropical or whatever” wouldn’t suffice for our campaign. The players need the ability to make intelligent decisions based on the current timeline and what they think they can do to change it, and that means I shouldn’t arbitrarily limit their ability to move. I mean, I’m going to limit it. It just won’t be arbitrary.
I made several world maps, one for each era, and decided to hide them from the players so they couldn’t review them until the dramatic reveal. Upon further consideration, I realized that was dumb. I should expect characters to know something about their world, at least as much as most modern people know about other countries, and letting the players see only the world map from their corner of history doesn’t actually add anything to the campaign. This way there’s some chance I’ll get players interested in things like “why is this continent bigger than before?” or “why did this island rotate?”. Questions like that tell me what the players want to know, and thus what they want to see in the game, and thus what I should put into my adventures. So here they are:
I’ve wanted to use that as a post name forever.
There are a lot of “nevers” in conventional DMing advice, and I’ve been on something of an unofficial quest to violate all of them. Consider “never give the players wishes”, but when my players got on a genie’s good side their wishes fed into the campaign plot and basically wrote another campaign for me. Or “never railroad the players,” but the Zelda campaign’s incredibly rigid story structure helped make it one of my best campaigns. Or “never give a player in-character authority over other players”, but I’ve done this for more campaigns than I haven’t, and it’s always worked because the players aren’t petty about their characters’ power structure. Even “never let a player use an unbalanced option that makes them stronger than other players”, but I let a player have a deliberately overpowered version of a spiked chain* and nobody batted an eye. For the most part “never” doesn’t actually mean “never”, it means “consider carefully your intentions and any foreseeable repercussions before you”.
It is with this in mind that I consider the advice “never use time travel” and intend to spend my next campaign willfully ignoring it.
This is DMing with Charisma’s 300th post. I was planning on an important, sweeping post describing how my last campaign affected me and how it will affect all of my campaigns going forward from the standpoint of the table experience and the game’s social contract. But instead, let’s talk about something I do like about 5E: subclasses.
Traditionally, a character’s class affects his place in the game more strongly than his other choices. His ability scores affect how good he is at things, and his feats affect specific corner cases, and race can be very relevant if you’re a terrible person, but a class lays out most of what a character does. It determines whether he’s good with certain kinds of equipment, whether he can cast magic, how easy it is to grow in other areas like skills, what things he can do that nobody else can, and often his role within the party. Obviously it’s not as simple as “all fighters have good AC and swing swords and can’t use spells”, but as players we do get a certain picture in mind when we think “fighter”. It’s exactly why I ask my players to describe their characters without using class names, because we have those mental shortcuts telling us how each class works in the game.
The essence of D&D, and arguably of tabletop roleplaying at all, is randomness. For years it was right there in the name: D&D ran on the d20 system, where players roll a 20-sided die and use rules to interpret the result. Everything about the system comes down to rolling somewhere, and even non-random choices like “you can Hide after making an attack” are actually ways to affect the randomness (here, creating a random chance to hide where normally no such chance would exist). It feels a bit silly to critique 5E for a mechanic it shares with (almost literally) every other game.
The issue at hand is the amount of randomness. Obviously there’s a sweet spot. Too much randomness and there’s no player agency, but too little and there’s no point to the system at all. Which, as I write it, it a succinct way of stating my point: the more randomness there is, the less say players have over what happens, and vice versa. Now that I’m nearly twenty sessions into 5E I think I can safely say the randomness is far more than in any system I’ve played, and that’s incredibly bad.