March of Madness: Orcus

Orcus is lord of the undead. He’s a curious sort of demon who resents chaos, preferring a universe in which only dead things thrive. Unlike deities of death who see it as part of the natural order, Orcus bucks the order itself. Hurting living things only somewhat pleases him, a shallow joy that pales against ending life entirely.

I couldn’t find any demon lord connected to more creatures than Orcus, and all of them are undead. In some iterations he tolerates necromancy, but in 5E it’s just a means to an end. He wants his followers to reject existence itself and the merciless gods who imposed life upon it. Unlike most demon lords he doesn’t appear only to the insane or thoroughly evil. Anybody who wants to end their suffering can find their way to him, and he doesn’t hide his solution. Continue reading

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March of Madness: Introduction

Demons lords are, to be blunt, gods you can punch. They’re top-tier monsters whose tendrils work their way into every part of a campaign. They’re impossibly strong, able to pervert the environment around them for miles just by existing. They’re nearly immortal, with lives long enough to have influenced centuries of history and texts, prompting myriad cultists to huddle in darkened caves and basements appealing to them for power. They’re capstones, the perfect way to end long-running campaigns with a satisfying villain whose shadow has loomed large over the story since the first minute. All stories are about conflict, and conflict with a demon lord guarantees an epic story.

Or, at least, that’s how they’re advertised. It’s a shame they rarely have the impact the designers clearly intended. Continue reading

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Railroading with Charisma: Grey’s Law

I think a lot of the fear of railroading goes to the stereotype of the antagonistic DM. There’s this archetype in which the DM is the enemy of the players, a vengeful entity who creates fiendish challenges and nail-biting encounters just to watch them suffer. I’m not saying this type of DM doesn’t exist—I’ve been in such a campaign at least once—but I think its prevalence is overblown. Most DMs just want to create a situation in which everybody is having fun. They aren’t villains, even if they do control villains, and they don’t enjoy player suffering, even if they design challenges that cause suffering. The DM-versus-player dynamic is an outlier that shouldn’t really enter into the conversation.

As such, railroading isn’t usually the hallmark of a DM who wants to rip power away from the players and hurt them despite their best attempts. It’s more often used by an inexperienced, underprepared, or focused DM who feels she needs to nudge (or shove) the game in a specific direction to achieve a specific goal. Railroading isn’t actually a problem. Railroading is one solution to several problems DMs face all the time. Continue reading

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Railroading with Charisma: Easing the Quantum Ogre

Players can’t have perfect agency. The rules of the game don’t allow it—technically, anything that requires a roll prevents the players from having full knowledge of the results of their actions. But players generally believe that when they make a decision, that decision will have some consequence on the game, whether the consequence is “we have ascended to godhood” or “my turn accomplished nothing but verifying that the monster is, in fact, immune to slashing damage.” They accept some unpredictability for the power to make meaningful decisions.

This is what makes the quantum ogre such a sneaky DM tool. While it’s a useful trick for a DM who wants to give players freedom but limit the effort he needs to put into providing it, it is still, in the end, a type of trick. It removes some of the meaning from their decisions by predetermining some of their consequences. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By easing the impact the quantum ogre has on the players’ choices, it becomes less of a heavy-handed railroading tool and more an agent of convenience for the DM. Continue reading

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Railroading with Charisma: Macro vs. Micro

As we discussed last time, all campaigns have some sort of railroading and all DMs use it. There’s always some sort of “this is the game we’re playing” restriction. It’s so commonplace, it’s hard to see it as railroading until you think about it, but it is a form of denying agency to the players, specifically the agency to play something other than the game on which they agreed. The difference between that and scene-by-scene or action-by-action railroading isn’t a difference in terms. It’s a difference in scale.

When we talk about scale, we usually differentiate between the macro-level and the micro-level. Macro scale is top-down, looking at the broad picture, and micro scale is bottom-up, looking at specific actors. For example, macroeconomics considers the economy at large, like how the government affects the market or how inflation grows, and microeconomics considers how a specific person or company within the economy manages money, including making purchases as a result of changes in price. A complete picture of anything with scale has to include macro-level, micro-level, and everything in between, and railroading is no exception. Continue reading

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