Death by Cliché

I used to be a voracious reader. In the days before I got into tabletop gaming, when I was much shorter, I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on. I preferred science fiction, but I spent a lot of time in fantasy, mysteries, and classics of the type most kids my age only read for school projects. This love of consuming stories is probably what led to my interest in producing stories, which segued nicely into creating and running campaigns, but that’s probably a long story.

I’ve fallen out of reading over the years; my time spent in books has generally been inversely proportionate to my time spend online, and I telecommute. These days the books I get are mostly nonfiction and mostly gifts. The last time I read a fiction book not written by somebody I know was long enough ago that the author has since died, so draw conclusions accordingly. I don’t go looking for books any more, which means I don’t find out about books that are ostensibly in my wheelhouse until somebody brings them to my attention.

Death by Cliché is one such book. It’s a story of the “modern person injected into fantasy world” ilk, but with the twist that the world is probably a roleplaying game run by a DM so deep in tabletop clichés he needs a diving bell. The main character, a gamer himself, snarks his way through an adventure while trying to find a way back to the real world, all the while dealing with the other players through their characters, the NPCs incapable of understanding his plight, and the DM himself who may or may not be actively aware that he’s trying to leave the game.

This is, first and foremost, a comedy. It’s not a story about a fantasy world or gaming, it’s a way to make the reader laugh within the context of fantasy and gaming. In that respect it’s certainly dedicated. The book is relentless with its jokes, focusing more on quantity than quality, but I can’t pretend it wasn’t effective. The way it approached its premise was genuinely clever, and like an actor good enough to believably act badly, it takes a sharp mind to write a book that lampshades itself but still makes you care about what happens. In the sense that it’s a narrative designed to make me laugh, it did what it set out to do.

But throughout the book I was never quite sure if the author was laughing at me or with me, and given its other reviews I don’t think I’m alone there. The main character lampoons everything he can get his hands on, from the storyline to the setting to the other characters to their players to the DM himself. By extension, he mocks just about every gamer who’s ever picked up dice, especially those still finding their footing. I get the impression that it’s all supposed to be in good fun, but I saw a lot of the same reactions and behaviors I see in the worst of us, the types who belittle and disparage anybody who doesn’t play the same way they do. Read less graciously, the entire book is a diatribe against beginning players and DMs, but one that tries to forgive itself by saying it’s all in jest. It’s basically 240 pages of “I’m not racist, but…”, attacking its target audience.

I can mostly forgive that; even if it’s not agreeable satire, at least an attempt was made. Rather, the biggest issue I have with the book is its deliberate failure to be well-written. There are times when the author forgets about a character and calls himself out on it, or overuses words under the guise of losing his thesaurus, and he’s constantly snarking at himself in his own chapter quotes. This is cute for about four seconds, and from then on it’s a constant distraction. It’s as though the author wants to to know he doesn’t think you should be reading the book, and that’s supposed to be endearing enough to make you want to read it more. It’s really not. At best it’s distracting, and at worst it’s a subtle jab at anybody who does try to write well. It’s like a professional wrestling match where the commentators can’t talk about anything but how fake it is. Or, for a more accessible example, it’s like a modern B-movie, where you can see the boom mikes in every shot and it’s clear some characters had their voices dubbed during post-production, and you know it’s all intentional and that’s part of its charm. I get that some people like that sort of thing, but I’m not interested in something that actively tries not to be worthwhile.

I have a hard time recommending this book because it’s good per se. I’m more inclined to recommend it for what it is, a send-up of bad or inexperienced DMing in the context of an adventure story. So I guess if you want more comedy about gaming, go for it. It’s kind of the book version of marshmallow breakfast cereal. It’s not haute cuisine, it’s not for everyone, in certain cases it may actively hurt you, and you won’t find it in my cart, but if you’re part of its target audience it will probably make you happy.

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Serious Stories and Emotional Taxes

It takes a lot for me to drop a story early. I’ve struggled enough with pacing and storytelling to know how important a good beginning, middle, and end are to any narrative, and I feel like I can’t effectively judge a story unless I see how it wraps up. It’s why I tend not to lose interest in something midway through; if the beginning is enough to grab me, I’ll probably stick with it until the end. Depending on the media, this can be either the sign of a dedicated fan and critic or a form of Stockholm Syndrome combined with a sunk-cost fallacy, and your opinion on that may differ by how much you like the story in question. Regardless, unless something truly heinous occurs I’m probably going to follow a work for the long haul.

Which is why I’m a bit unsettled that within a month I’ve dropped two television shows from my viewing habits while they’re still airing. For similar but different reasons, I’ve opted to stop watching a series midway through its second season and I’ve left another show during its mid-season break. There are a couple of lessons to take away from the latter, but today I want to talk about the former.

Blindspot is a show about a woman, who wakes up naked in central park with total amnesia and a body covered in tattoos, and the FBI team who tries to figure out the first part of this sentence. The tattoos are coded messages about current or future crimes, usually involving government corruption or malfeasance. Our heroes puzzle out the meanings of the tattoos off-camera so they can spend most of the episode fighting bad guys, dealing with interpersonal drama, and trying to bring down the organization who gave them all their leads and intel. Also Jaimie Alexander is the main character, which is important because I feel like “watch Sif fight people while looking vaguely panicked and confused” was a huge selling point when the show started.

I was expecting something like a crime-based mystery show, where we’d spend more time working through the tattoos and how they linked with each other. Instead it’s a lot more about action, and I’m sort of fine with that. The show linked its individual escapades with a myth arc about the main character’s ontological mystery, but they didn’t continually answer questions with more questions. It felt like we were making progress, and the characters’ goals and language changed to reflect that. I didn’t know where the story was going to end but I got the impression there was an end in mind and we would reach it one day. I wanted to see what happened.

But as the show went on, I found it wore on me. Each episode focused on the ways things are broken, but in a “we’ll never solve things” way instead of a “we can make the world a better place” way. The bad guys regularly walked several steps ahead of the heroes, except when they were tripped by even worse bad guys. Likable characters died so other characters could suffer. Allies lied to and betrayed each other constantly. Every small step toward happiness was met with two frustrating steps toward malaise. Even the set design and wardrobe enhanced the hopelessness. Nobody was happy, they were clearly never going to be happy, and I wasn’t happy watching them be unhappy. So I left.

I don’t want to give the impression that I can’t stand any form of suffering (in fact, my players would say exactly the opposite). I know what drama is, and I know there have to be failures and setbacks to make success meaningful. But I don’t understand media whose goal is to portray the suffering of characters and impart that suffering on viewers. I need a light at the end of the tunnel to keep me walking, and grimdark media either intentionally lacks that or mitigates it to the point of irrelevancy. I use my recreation time to recreate, and anything that relentlessly drains me isn’t good leisure.

This is kind of the point behind Law 0: the point of the game is to have fun. Winning a battle by the skin of your teeth through luck, clever tactics, or a good build is fun. Winning every battle by the skin of your teeth, remaining constantly on edge because you don’t know when something’s going to come along and broadside you, never taking a breath because it’s a sign of weakness, that’s just bad pacing. It’s also not fun when the players outpace you from beginning to end, or when the villains ignore your efforts to subvert them, or when you meander without direction from set piece to set piece. From a DM’s perspective, fun is actually a lot of work.

It’s a problem I’ve felt acutely in my current campaign. Every encounter seems to follow a similar formula: the players are incredibly, almost suspiciously powerful and walk all over their opponents, but if they in any way fail to ace the encounter the results will be narratively catastrophic. I expect if resent this from combat, where the stakes and power level are high, but it seems this also applies to every other conversation the players have, where any given skill check could get them killed. In between those encounters we have long stretches of planning and investigation with an unhealthy dose of “what do we do now?”. I tried to run a high-level campaign with an overarching story while giving the players freedom to make choices, and instead I find myself unable to prepare, guessing vaguely at what an appropriate challenge will be and scrambling to put something to further the plot everywhere in the universe because there is absolutely no reason for anybody to go to the Elemental Plane of Smoke ever. Each session is stressful in a way a hobby shouldn’t be, and it exerts an unsustainable emotional tax.

But unlike a television show, I can fix the direction of a campaign. I’ve already started by giving my players a slightly more insistent direction so we spend less time wondering where to go and more time going there. They get to make decisions with consequences beyond which type of random encounter they might get, and I get to spend less time coming up with filler, so everybody wins. I’m also trying to put some more light-hearted segments into the story so we’re not always in dour emergency situations. There’s a reason we’re calling the next dungeon “the Untasty Place”, and why nobody tried to accost the players during their last shopping trip on Abyss. I’m still working on how I want to deal with combat balance, but it’s a start.

I’m starting to figure out that the more light-hearted and tightly-paced my campaigns are, the more fun I have with them, which is a bit bothersome. I do want to run serious stories where the players can dictate the action, but it’s not working as well as I’d hoped. It might just be that I need to control their length. I’m able to handle a short weighty campaign better than a long weighty one, the same way a movie doesn’t wear me down as much as Blindspot has, and I’ve found players are more tolerant of directed play in smaller stories. It does mean campaign scope will be smaller, but I think we might appreciate a campaign that determines the fate of only a few thousand people instead of a few countries.

My main goal is to not burn out and end the campaign before we’re done with it. I’ve had the good fortune to only prematurely end two campaigns in my career, both due to extenuating circumstances, and I want to keep that record going. But my secondary goal is to recognize when the ship is sinking and know whether to correct course or man the lifeboats. I don’t want to get into a state where I or the players are coasting along, suffering but resigned to the state of things. Like a TV show, I need to be able to recognize when something deserves my attention to the end and when it doesn’t.

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An Attempt at Truly Improvisational DMing

Over the course of my DMing career, I’ve slowly moved from a rigid style to something looser. When I started off, I was one of those DMs who had to have every beat of the story planned, every NPC statted out with motivations, every monster unique and meaningful, and every map complete and detailed down to each five-foot square. The more I dealt with actual play, the more I realized I couldn’t work that way, and I adopted a looser policy, where I’m comfortable enough making things up on the fly but I do have some idea of where we’ve going. Lately I’ve been thinking I could handle full-on improvisational play, so this past week I put it to the test.

I like food and I like television, so unsurprisingly I’m a fan of the Food Network. It has a long-running game show, Chopped, where contestants are asked to make dishes with a limited time frame so judges can determine whose dishes were best. The quirk is that at the beginning of each round the contestants are given four ingredients, which they have not seen until immediately before the round begins, and they must use those ingredients in their dish in some way. A typical round might begin with the host asking “Can you make a delicious appetizer using ground lamb, napa cabbage, pomegranate jam, and boxed macaroni and cheese? You have twenty minutes, time starts now.” It’s basically improvisational cooking, and it’s a concept I’ve been mulling over applying to D&D for a while.

On Saturday my opportunity arose, as we’re in a lull for our normal campaign and I had three players who were up for shenanigans (one specifically requested something, and I quote, “crazypants”). I told them to create characters in Pathfinder, the system we know the best. That was literally all the advice I gave them. In fact, I told them specifically not to tell me their character concept or even level until we got to the session, and I deliberately planned absolutely nothing. When game started, I had them provide me with some Mad Libs-style adventure seeds. Here’s what I asked them for and their responses:

  • Place: A giant ship traveling between continents
  • Thing: Map
  • Creature: Hill giants named Fred

They all sent their answers over chat at once so none of them knew what the others had chosen, for maximum chaos. Since building an adventure off that seemed too easy, I asked for another round:

While they built macros for their characters in MapTool, I started building an adventure that involved all six of those seeds, appropriate for their level and party composition, complete with monster tokens and adventure maps. I ended up with a cult of Pazuzu who wanted to summon their lord to the Material Plane. Two of his initiates, hill giant monks with a combat style based around jumping around the battlefield, gained passage on the same giant ship as the party. When the ship passed by their island, they stole the ship’s maps and gave it to a belker acting as their accomplice. The party followed the belker to the island, where another initiate tried to talk them into joining the cult of slavering devotion to and domination by an evil extraplanar overlord friendship with a helpful, powerful god. In true D&D fashion they instead killed everybody.

The players, of course, had their own agenda. They conferred with each other on their characters, and they selected a theme they opted to keep secret. I was to induce what they theme was based on their character descriptions and actions. I only figured out shortly before the final battle that they were all playing Jedi as a bloodrager, a bard, and a swashbuckler/paladin, though I contend I would have figured it out earlier if I hadn’t spent so much time trying to figure out how the bard worked into things. They had a good time bantering about their secret theme, and I got my revenge by telling them their Jedi expies were now canon in a campaign setting based on Edwardian Europe, so we all had a laugh.

My goal was to test myself, to see whether I could pull a session out of thin air with zero prep time, and I think I succeeded. I’m certain I could have done it even faster than I did if I hadn’t had to deal with finding enemy portraits, writing their attack macros, and creating combat maps out of our tile resources. If I’d done it at a table, with my miniatures handy and a battlemat, I probably could have built the session in half the time. I will deduct points because I legitimately thought the Rock of Gibraltar was an island instead of peninsula, but the players were gracious enough not to call me on it. All told it worked out fairly well. I haven’t asked the players for a detailed grade but I’m giving myself a tentative B+.

Designing and running this session was a ton of fun, enough that I’m trying to again next week with the bonus seventh adventure seed “A sort of Pathfinder version of pre-Empire Star Wars”. I do think this concept for session design requires a really light mood. Everything was already a bit wacky, so nobody batted an eye when the cultists started talking about becoming one of Pazuzu’s friends by welcoming him into your life and mind. It also helped that I had resources available to me, like the NPC information on the Pathfinder SRD or the tokens and macros from previous campaigns where I’d already solved a lot of my output formatting problems. But that’s largely what I’ve said all along, where improvisational DMing works best when you have some way to fall back on numbers when you need them. As I’d thought, I wouldn’t be able to do it all the time, but as a one-shot or a breather session it’s a great break from normalcy.

Posted in Campaign Writeups, DMing, Pathfinder | 1 Comment

Wish

Some years ago, when I frequented the Wizards D&D message boards, there was a user whose signature said something to the effect of “the spiked chain exists to find the DMs brave enough to ban Core material”. That is, the spiked chain is intentionally broken, and it should be stripped from the system even though it’s in the very first rulebook, and this is a secret test of character to find which DMs are truly good. I’ve never been sure whether was a self-satisfied delusion from a lone DM who thought they spoke for everybody, or a cry for help from a player who’d seen too many games go bad because of rules abuse. The very concept that a single item could damage the game that badly seemed alien to me, and it still does.

I generally argue that there’s nothing in the rules guaranteed to be a game-breaker. Some things are incredibly powerful in specific situations or combinations, like the blaster sorcerer with access to every cure spell or the monk who can jump so far all witnesses become their slavering sycophants. But in a cooperative game, you can usually solve these by telling the player “hey, that’s not fun, can you power it down some?”. A lot of these builds are complicated structures, where if the player removes a single feat or spell they remain powerful but no longer disgustingly so. And even if they don’t, there’s usually a way around these builds if you’re willing to exploit them. Nothing can turn a game upside-down on its own. Only specific, borderline malicious actions you take with those items can.

Still, I’ll admit it’s easier to cause a problem with some things than others. It’s easier to do insane damage with a hulking hurler than with a samurai, with haste than with a two-weapon fighting tree, and with a vampire than with a gnome. Some things require a more delicate hand to keep things fun for everybody.

Chief among these things, of course, is the spell wish. Wish is less a spell in the rulebook and more a creature of legend, a dusty passage in the back of the Player’s Handbook included for completeness but not to be taken seriously, in the same way the edge of a map might say “here there be tigers”. DMs treat it as a nuclear option, so enemy wizards and demons can fiat their way out of a bad situation, and as a campaign capstone reward, so players can satisfy their desire for ludicrous requests but the DM absolves themselves of adjudicating the consequences. In the eyes of D&D players, it’s not there to be realistically used.

Wish does have game-breaking potential. Its powers are intentionally loosely defined, though they include “pluck anybody from anywhere in existence and deposit them anywhere else in existence”, “heal maladies at the level of a deity walking the earth”, and “be an 8th-level spell, because why not”. It’s this ambiguity that causes the problem. DMs are worried players will use the wish too well, either getting themselves some distressingly powerful gear, granting themselves a disruptive power, or sabotaging the game’s intended direction. Players are worried they won’t use the wish well enough, and the DM will interpret their request in whatever way hurts the player the most. It’s a cold war where neither side wants to use wish because they’re worried the other side will twist it out of control.

Well, we’re in a campaign with genies, so I figured wish was going to come up at some point. In our last session the players befriended a malik, and here are their wishes:

  1. As many diamonds as wish can create, teleported to the party’s home base.
  2. Eternal youth for the party’s middle-aged leader. Specifically, “I wish to enjoy the physical benefits of youth forever.”
  3. The exact location of their missing party member, since the point of the campaign was to find her.

An astute reader may notice that these are the exact concerns I gave above about how players can damage the game with wish: inordinate wealth, a disruptive power, and a near-instant solution to the campaign’s driving conflict. They also all gave me ways to hurt the players with them: they didn’t specify the source of the diamonds, they left “eternal youth” open-ended, and they asked for a location open to misinterpretation. We were set up to demonstrate everything wrong with wish.

And here’s where we get back to my original argument: there’s nothing wrong with wish, just with how you use it. My players and I do not have an antagonistic relationship, no matter how much we I pretend we do. All of us knew the pitfalls of wish, and not only did we avoid some, we deliberately invoked others. When the players asked for wealth, they explicitly noted that they did not specify from where the diamonds came, expecting it to be a plot point later (their origin is, of course, a spoiler). When they asked for youth, they deliberately chose an open-ended wording and left the rest to me. I puzzled over it for a few days trying to find an option that gave the player what they wanted but didn’t punish them inordinately for it, because I didn’t want to ruin the character any more than they did.

Most importantly, they didn’t actually ask for their ally’s location. First they tried to annul the contract that caused their ally to leave in the first place, and I told them that wasn’t possible, as that actually would end the campaign. They then asked if they could find out where she was, so I looked through rulebooks until I found a spell they could duplicate that did exactly that, and I adjusted my plans to compensate for cutting out a few sessions of trying to find her. We worked together to find a solution that met both the characters’ criteria and the players’, and chief among the players’ was “this is a good game and I want to play it next week too.” There was no battle of wits, no attempt to damage each other’s play experience, and as a result this overtly powerful spell not only didn’t break the game, it improved it.

Wish isn’t the problem. Neither are the spiked chain or the hulking hurler or firearms that target touch AC. The problem is an antagonistic relationship between players and DMs. Somewhere along the line, we as a hobby decided this was how the game should be run, with the DM trying to prove his or her mastery over the game while the players try to outsmart them at every turn, and that’s rubbish. You don’t solve a problem like that by pruning every part of the rules with the potential for abuse. You solve a problem like that by not abusing them.

Posted in Campaigns, D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, DMing, Laws, Pathfinder | 3 Comments

The Art of Art

Our campaigns tend to have three names: an real one, a colloquial one, and a snarky one. I’ve talked about how The Eight Arms and the Memento Mori quickly became The Mosnter-Hunting Campaign and soon after became The Monster-Friending Campaign. Less frequently used are the transition from The Eight Arms and the Shadow Invasion to The First Eight Arms campaign to Victorian Greyhawk (especially interesting because the campaign is set in neither the Victorian era nor Greyhawk), or from Fortune and Glory, Kid to The Mystara Campaign to The Terrible, Terrible Mystara Campaign. Our current campaign is no exception. Ostensibly its name is The Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl, but before it even started it became The Plane-Hopping Campaign. It doesn’t have an official snark name yet, but I’d like to propose The Art Campaign.

Visual art is a double-edged sword in deliberately non-visual media like tabletop gaming. When done well, it can put everybody on the same page about something or provide seeds for exploration and investigation or give the players that sense of wonder they can’t get from a simple description of “a big city on an island”. I’ve had whole adventures happen because I found a piece of art for an area, saw something in it, and adopted it into the session, or because I found a picture of a character and decide he or she was too awesome to not use. When done poorly, it disrupts the players’ mental picture or changes the style of the game to something you don’t want or provides a source of endless frustration as you search and search for the perfect piece of art that you know exists but can’t find. Nothing throws me out of whack like seeing five characters in five different art styles and being told they all exist next to each other in the same space.

Contract of Barl, weirdly is doing both. I knew it was going to be an art-heavy campaign from the start because of the plane-hopping. Places like Bytopia are inherently weird and we need a visual frame of reference to understand why it’s different from what we expect and how it works. I also decided it was high time to populate the campaign wiki with pictures, after I spent something like days getting the wiki to accept file uploads in the first place. Everything kind of came together here and now to make this the campaign about visuals.

The good news is that we’re in the process of getting character portraits for key Eight Arms personnel and it’s going absolutely swimmingly. Before too long we should have all the characters in this campaign, and then it’s on to the founders from the original campaign. They seem to keep popping up in stories even if their players don’t, so it strikes me as a good investment, and a bit of a present to the players for putting up with me. It you’re as thrilled with the portraits as I am, that picture is a link.

The bad news is just about everything else. Art of the planes is a great idea, but a lot of the planes and the sites on them are really specific. Bytopia is a plane of communities and civilization, except the sky is another parallel continent of untamed wilderness, and you will be hard-pressed to find a picture of that without very definitely finding a picture specifically intended as Bytopia. The more generic the plane, the easier it is to find art of it, but the more boring the plane itself is. A true plane-hopping campaign needs to go to the weird places, and I’m finding myself making do with whatever I can cobble together with all the Photoshop skills of a sleepy koala.

The monsters are no better. Past campaigns have had enemies like orcs (incredibly common as long as you like the World of Warcraft style, and I do), weird nightmare creatures (also easy, especially if you look for art and build the monster around it), animals (DeviantArt loves weird animals so much I’m not even kidding) or simple, actual human beings. The most relevant creatures in this campaign are efreet, which are not illustrated all that commonly. I can’t really do a search for “like a genie, except with red skin and horns and legs instead of trailing off into wispiness.” The closest I can find are devils, but even that’s a generic term and I end up searching through hundreds of pictures to find one or two I can use. Then consider the most common PC race in the campaign, ifrits, who are normal people but their skin is orange and their hair is on fire. They’re pretty much Pathfinder-exclusive, and finding art of them that isn’t from a Paizo book is rough. Then come fire giants, which you’d think would be fairly common, but no. I managed to come away from my search with maybe two good fire giant pictures, which is significantly lower than the number I need.

Sometimes when I hit walls like this I can take a step back, reconsider what I’m doing, and come up with an alternative that fits my resources. Here that’s not as possible. This is a planar campaign, and we need pictures of planes. It’s a campaign about an ifrit, and we need pictures of ifrits. The Zelda campaign had exacting standards for what worked and didn’t work for enemy portraits because the players already had an expectation for every monster, and I still spent less time for better results than I am on this campaign. I’m mostly finding whatever art I can, then building NPCs and locations around it, which means the art is defining the campaign even more than normal. It’s working out okay so far, but it’s not great and I worry it’s unsustainable.

So for better or worse, this campaign is as much about art as it is anything else. I’m not happy about it, but I’m happier struggling through pictures than I am changing the campaign concept. It does make me long a bit for the days before DMing software, where I described things to players instead. There were misconceptions and misinterpretations, and we regularly forgot ongoing status effects or hit point changes, and I had to print or write monster stats to bring them to a session, and the more I reminisce about them the worse those dark ages actually sounds. But at least I spent less time on Google Image Search.

Posted in DMing, Pathfinder | 2 Comments