DMing with Constitution

I don’t know how many of you remember November, when I tried to line up guest posts while I focused on National Novel Writing Month. It didn’t work out, but I did get one late in the month and now feels like a good time to use it. Today’s guest DM is somebody I’ve known since before I started gaming. He’s the other half of Story Time with Blake and Highcove and the designer of almost every session in our version of D&D Delve Night. While we agree on a lot of the structure of DMing, we differ on the methods by which we go about it, and he’s the only DM I know who runs games using a physical stat:

This is a guest post, your usual DM is tired from A-Z April so I’ll be filling in. I’m the person often referred to on this blog as “my FLGS Owner.” Fun -N- Games Hobby Shoppe; there’s a link up on the navigation bar. Today I’ll be sharing with you a little encouragement on the subject of DMing. But first: a parable.

In his article on the Definition of Charisma your regular DM leverages the meaning of having a zero in each ability score. I remember reading these in the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and really understanding the essence of each ability score for the first time through the meaning of its absence. Let’s take Con. If you have 1 or more Con, you are alive. You can find a real living person with a zero in every other stat; they’re usually on life-support in a hospital. But all the con-zero folks are downstairs in the morgue. End parable.

I recently discovered that I suck an DMing. I’ve been doing it for about 16 years. Longer if you count proctoring play-pretend games as a child before I really knew what role-playing was. I just ran a game in the World Wide Wrestling system, an Apocalypse World Hack. There were ups and downs, but in the end I had to finally accept the fact that I just didn’t have The Stuff™ when it comes to DMing. Some people are suited for it and some people just simply are not.

If you found yourself thinking “Me too” to that last part, this article is for you, personally.

I’m a serial outsider. If I walk into a room and there is a person, place, or thing that everybody clearly likes, I immediately look at it critically. But if there’s a noun everybody clearly dislikes, I look at it sympathetically. Con is that odd man out of the classic ability score array, the unsung hero, the roadie to a 5-man-band. HP and Fort Saves, sometimes one Skill depending on your edition. I promise this is going somewhere. When have you ever seen a PC put their highest roll in Con? Once (that was me.) Con is never the star. But dump it and see how far you get. My point? You have constitution. If you don’t feel confident in your ability to DM with charisma, or intelligence, or wisdom, I’m going to try and convince you that you can always fall back on your old friend constitution. Your con has been there all along, patiently waiting for the moment to shine.

I actually used to think I was a pretty top-tier DM: delusion of the ego. Then after my most recent campaign finished I realized that some sessions had been great and others terrible. What was the difference? There wasn’t one. Certainly nothing I did right or wrong seemed to affect the result. One day a player had a migraine, next week he was struck by profound inspiration and took the session to olympian heights of awesome. Pure Butterfly Effect. I had no control. That was my Creek Moment.

Going back over all tabletop games I had played in and run I realized that the DM never had true control:

  • One time two players who were married IRL got divorced in the middle of a campaign. That will put a damper on things.
  • Another time I was a player in a game run by this blog’s author. I spent several rounds holding back my best attack because I saw the possibility for it to be super cool and cinematically awesome if I just got the right narrative timing with the enemies and allies in the right position. Finally got my shot and rolled a 4. I was inconsolable. Session ruined. This happened 2 months prior to this writing.
  • The worst campaign I ever ran started with very high hopes. Session 4 a conflict broke out between two players. This was a home-brewed game system that lacked mechanics for intra-party violence. Cordiality broke down. There were threats of IRL violence. Some of the players in that game still refuse to speak to each-other.

How are you supposed to run a game through any of that? You can’t. Players might be in a mood before the session starts. Dice might break poorly. The game system might suddenly unexpectedly fail you. You can’t win. No amount of skill or experience can guarantee a successful session -much less a campaign. At first this realization was depressing but then I realized it’s incredibly liberating. If you can’t force success then why should you feel bad about failing to do so?

So you’re primed now. Of course the technical definition of “constitution” is related to bone density, vascular elasticity, white blood-cell count, etc. Obviously DMing with Con does not mean liquefying your players and injecting them into your bloodstream. It’s a metaphor. The way to DM with Con is to sit there in the DM chair. There’s no trick to it, just show up. Find a table full of players that seem like they expect an RPG session to happen and sit at the head of it. Just sit there breathing with your Con score of at least 1.

If that sounds lazy, you’re right. Lazy is good. Lazy is easy. Anybody can pull off lazy. You can pull off lazy.

If that sounds factually inaccurate, you’re also right. There is more to it than just sitting there. You have to prepare, make up stories and/or settings, probably roll some dice or something. There is definitely work involved. It takes strength and dex to roll dice. But we’re not talking about DMing with Strength or Dexterity, we’re talking about DMing with Constitution.

Constitution gives you HP and Fort saves. Sometimes the Endurance skill. Since this is a metaphor, let’s think of these things as social rather than physical. DMing with Con means you have the social HP to withstand expected social damage from embarrassing yourself. Fortitude saves happen when something bad is happening to you, but you don’t have to let it affect you. Endurance means you can perform strenuous activity repeatedly and continuously for long periods. Basically just let whatever happens at the table wash over you like a wave and when the session is over, leave it all on the table. Bad sessions are not your fault. Try to remind yourself that you don’t create the fun, you create the game. Fun can’t happen without the game. Creating fun is hard, creating the game is actually easy.

The core value of DMing with Constitution is to just get out there and do it. Stop wringing your hands or being afraid to embarrass yourself. Embarrassment really just means people seeing who you are when you’d prefer they see a superior illusory version: a delusion of the ego.

Lots of motivational speakers like to tell you stuff like “just get out there and do it.” And I find this logic neither compelling nor logical. If you want to try running an RPG but haven’t yet, you certainly have one or more reasons holding you back. I’m not saying those reasons are bad or wrong. If you intend to DM with Charisma, embarrassing yourself is a terrific thing to be afraid of. DM with Constitution, no problem. Let’s say you’re not confident you can design monsters well or plan a challenge that is both difficult and beatable. If you hope to DM with Intelligence, you’re boned. DM with Con, you’re golden. You can do this. Not because you are special, but because you don’t have to be.

So let’s break it down simply:

DMing with Con is about a realistic grasp of responsibility.

  • Run the game, take responsibility only for making the game itself happen.
  • If the game sucks, it’s at most like 10% your fault. The metaphorical and literal dice just didn’t break your way, no reason to feel bad. Try again next week.
  • You don’t create fun, you create a game wherein fun can happen.

DMing with Con means being tough.

  • Success or Failure is not a choice. It’s just something that happens to you when you try.
  • Failure and embarrassment only hurts as much as you let it.
  • Don’t be a coward.

DMing with Con is easy.

Despite earlier self-deprecation on the subject of my DMing skill, I intend to continue doing so, I actually have a bunch of successes already under my belt.

  • First D&D Campaign I ran was precipitated on breaking the magic item economy by giving the player’s access to every item in the game via random table. Total trash at every turn, not one good DMing decision made throughout. However, the players had a great time and to this day (16 years later) more than one of them occasionally asks if I’ll restart it.
  • First game I ran in 4th edition was a disaster, I tried to run in like it was 3rd edition because I just didn’t understand yet how 4th worked. I should have read the books better but I was just too lazy. But for all its flaws, that campaign ran for several months and ended successfully. It had a narratively satisfying conclusion and gave us some of our favorite D&D stories of all time.
  • The game I just finished had some real stinker sessions where everybody was miserable and I went home and cried myself to sleep in my wife’s arms. That is not an exaggeration. And yet still, plenty of fun had as well. Two of the players were close friends I’d always wanted to DM for and they got to play out their long imagined fantasy wrestling tag team: Bucket & Krump. That could not have happened if I did not run that game.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide, game mastery forums, and advice blogs like this can easily induce the illusion of a huge range of DM quality, as though the leagues of difference between a total noob and a master DM translates directly to player enjoyment. But think about it, does it make sense that a level 20 DM’s game is 10 times as a fun as one run by a level 2? In my experience tabletop fun comes mostly from interpersonal chemistry. Do the players get along well? Want the same things out of the game? Complement each other creatively? If so, all they need is somebody in that chair. If not -and yet they still want to game together- then sit in that chair anyway. You may not give them the game they wanted, but you’ll give them the game they deserve.

After the World Wide Wrestling campaign finished I shared my revelation (about sucking) with the author of this blog, who was one of the players. He told me (angrily) that if he didn’t think the game was worth troubling to play in every week, he would not have done it. Remember that lesson: If you say, “Hey I’m running a D&D game, wanna play in it?” then everybody who says yes is giving you permission (which remember is harder to get than forgiveness) to run the game your way, even if that way is fraught with incompetence. Just let nature take it’s course. If the game sucks, they’ll quit, and all will be right with the world. But if it’s awesome, you’ll be the hero who everyone says how great they were.

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Z’s Also for Zodar, Just Look at This Trash

One of the takeaways from April should be that you can make just about any creature interesting by putting your own spin on it, either by playing up its role in the story, subverting the players’ expectations for it, or using its stats to make something that does what you need. Now that it’s May, I’m going to throw that right out the window. Not every creature is interesting. Heck, not every creature is even salvageable. Consider the zodar.

Zodars are mysterious to a fault. Their origins are unknown. Their goal is unknown. Their methods are unknown. Their reason for being in the 3E Fiend Folio is unknown, because they don’t seem to serve any sort of purpose. They’re a haphazard arrangement of numbers and words assembled as though by manatees pushing balls with monster powers on them. I can’t rightly understand why they exist or why they would be published, and I can’t see any way to use them without scrapping so much of their stats and background that I might as well have made something up on my own. They’re a master class in how not to design monsters.

Don’t take my word for it. Look at their stats. A zodiac is a CR 16 monster, which in 3E meant it was an appropriate challenge for L14-L17 characters, and they are always met alone, so we can consider it without the benefit of allies. Let’s compare it to the sample NPCs in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which we know are underpowered compared to actual characters. Using these NPC as an example, the zodiac’s AC is laughably low and a front-line character will hit it with his or her first attack about 75% of the time. Its attack bonus is decent but its damage is on par with a CR 4 monster; for three rounds per day it can be much scarier, but it’s still almost impossible for it to kill a L16 tank with any sort of healer support. Its hit points are objectively terrible, but it only takes damage from bludgeoning weapons, so if the party only has mundane clubs the fight becomes a meaningless slog. Besides that, it has no combat abilities and nothing that makes fights dynamic. It’s a boring monster with a boring combat strategy.

A bad monster can be saved by a good story; the zodar is not. As I said above, they exist, and that is most of what we (characters, players, and DMs) know about them. They can talk but only do do once every fifty or sixty years, and the one sentence they say is guaranteed to be important and is understood by everybody who can hear it. Sometimes they stumble upon an adventuring party and follow them around for no discernible reason, and that’s the only way they seem to interact with PCs. They don’t guard anything, they don’t hold ancient secrets, and they don’t offer any assistance.

It’s possible they’re the emissaries of some forgotten god, slowly observing and nudging history to a point where their master can return or take over. That would be a great background for them, and it would explain their once-per-year wish ability, which they tend to use only once per century in such a way that nobody even knows the zodiac did anything. But unfortunately, it’s impossible. See, despite being able to shadow PCs, speak on matters of great importance, and cast wish with intentional subtlety, zodars have no Intelligence score. They cannot think. But they’re also chaotic neutral, which means they want to advance entropy, but quietly, which they accomplish by not acting at all and not thinking about it in any way. I get the impression they needed another paragraph of backstory to explain everything, but they don’t have it, and without it they’re a mess.

When I discussed this with other DMs, one offered that zodars are a heavy-handed DM adjudication tool. They don’t help the party, they resist attempts to kill them out of spite, and they can push the players by word or deed into a specific course of action. I like them better as extensions of some godlike being, ceramic shells will no will but that imparted by a sleeping or imprisoned deity. They’re chaotic neutral because this creature is, they’re tough because they only sort of exist, and they’re standoffish because they’re being controlled via a slow, spotty mental link that gives them a lot of downtime with no commands. Whether they’re an intentional metagame bludgeon for the DM or Lovecraftian sock puppets, none of this is even alluded to within the monster entry. We have to look at the creature and invent some story for it, connecting unnumbered dots over and over until we get a shape that vaguely resembles something useful. We shouldn’t have to solve an ancient riddle before we can use a monster.

The zodar is, above all, boring, and that’s the worst thing a monster can be. No matter what backstory or purpose we invent for it, we’ve invented that. It’s because of our action, not the monster’s. The zodar itself resists all attempts to use it because of the hurdles we need to jump to give it a place, punishes characters for interacting with it through its unexplained defensive powers, demands deep investment from the DM and players, and relies solely on us to provide its payoff. It’s a thoroughly, almost aggressively bad monster.

At the beginning of the month, I asked why we don’t treat monsters more like characters, and I spent twenty-six posts giving examples of how to do it right. Luckily the zodar still fits this framework: whether it’s a monster or a character, if you see something this shoddy, throw it out and start over.

…in fact, I just might do that.

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Z is for Zombie, Who’ll Do in a Flash

And nobody was surprised.

Zombies come in a startling number of forms in D&D. Off the top of my head you have normal stock zombies, fast zombies, diseased zombies, fire zombies, hulking zombies, zombie lords, and any combination of them, all before you consider that “zombie” is a template you can apply to just about anything with a pulse. I would describe them further, but I can’t. That’s the point.

Unlike a vampire, which is the specific name for a creature with specific powers and specific weaknesses, “zombie” is an everyday metaphor (“I’m a zombie in the mornings before I have my coffee.”) that bring to mind actions and mood, not stats. A zombie can be a creature that shambles, or one that grunts half-heartedly, or one that comes in swarms, or one that spreads like a disease. They’re usually undead, but if you say the orcs are approaching like zombies, everybody knows what you mean. Anything can be a zombie, and a zombie can be anything (finish your drink). Heck, Cracked had an article that mentioned this just last week:

Zombies are popular because they fit everywhere. Vampires are zombies that you want to make out with. Frankenstein’s monster is a zombie that just took a little elbow grease to get going. We can apply any metaphor that we want to them, and we can use them as quick cannon fodder or as the plodding thing that we have to painstakingly evade once we find ourselves trapped in a room with one.

Zombies aren’t my favorite creatures because they’re usually too simple and straightforward, but that’s also their beauty. Looking back I think I’ve used them in almost every campaign I’ve run, either as zombies themselves or as something else through the magic of reskinning. Consider my last six:

  • The Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl: The first session had the players fighting a necromancer and her zombies as a random mission before the campaign proper started.
  • …and the Unforgiving Blade: Undead ambushed the party and attacked en masse as a delaying tactic.
  • …and the Memento Mori: A disease changed NPCs into monsters.
  • …and the Empire of Sin: The party defended a barn from nearly-mindless, swarming creatures.
  • Battles of the Saber Knights: Addled, mind-controlled farmers lumbered toward the party to eat their brains.
  • The Umbrageous Sodality and the Ghost Opera: This is the Halloween campaign, of course I used zombies.

This is not counting the non-d20 campaign we’ve running now. I guess that’s a spoiler, but not much of one. You can insert zombies into just about any campaign at just about any point, either as literal lurching undead or as anything that hits enough of a zombie’s checkboxes for you to describe the combat as a “zombie swarm scenario”. You can even use them with various moods, from the grim horror zombie whose bite slowly drives you so mad you kill your allies to the light-hearted cartoon zombies who comedically chase their heads around the battlefield. As long as a battle makes sense with the story, zombies can probably be a part of it.

This is a rare time when the reskinning can be completely transparent because nobody cares about it. Knowing that the orcs secretly use zombie statistics doesn’t break any immersion or narrative, and there are so many types of zombies you can use them for just about anything. When I’m using them, most of the manipulation I do is to the stats themselves, drastically slashing the zombie’s hit points so they fall in one or two hits. The feel is important, not the numbers, and zombies have a broad feel, perhaps the broadest of anything I’ve discussed this month.

I’d like to say something about angels to bring this full circle, but you may have noticed that we have an unmatched rhyme in the post names. There’s one more creature I want to discuss tomorrow before we leave monsters alone for a bit.

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Y is for Yuan-Ti: Bad, but They Care

When I started playing D&D, it never occurred to me that certain creatures would be proprietary to it. I got into it because of the public-domain monsters I recognized, not because it was the only place I could find mind flayers and beholders. When I moved from my physical books to a linked HTML SRD I didn’t even notice most of the monsters that disappeared and didn’t much care about the flavor that went with it, except for the Greyhawk deities. But this creature I absolutely missed, quickly and deeply.

Yuan-ti are somewhere between humans and snakes,, and exactly where they fall on that gradient indicates their power. Generally, the more human a yuan-ti is, the weaker it is, and the most snakelike members of the race have leadership roles. This caste structure withstands even their normally chaotic nature, and lesser yuan-ti go far out of their way for the few methods by which they can advance to a new form and new power. They’re impressively religious, either following snake deities or evil for evil’s sake, and their leaders tend toward leading worship or being worshipped themselves.

There are more varieties of yuan-ti than one might expect, from the low-level, almost-PC-ready purebloods through the monstrous malisons and ignans to the nightmarish anathemas. They’re appropriate threats at almost every level of play, and I really like how they escalate so they can be the focus of an entire campaign or a side arc in a greater story. All of them have a few tricks to keep combat fresh, but not so many tricks that they get lost in the shuffle, and almost every yuan-ti is smarter than a human, too smart to rush into melee and get beaten to death. They have a strong visual aesthetic, they’ve been around long enough in most settings to have culture and cities, and they can even integrate themselves into other societies through guile and magic to pop up whenever it inconveniences the party the most. They’re just fun.

So why would I feel the need to make them more interesting? Because they’re unambiguous top-to-bottom villains. They’re evil humans mixed with evil animals who do evil things because evil gods told them to advance evil. They use poison, lies, intimidation, oppression, classism, and mind control to get what they want, and they’ll sacrifice anyone or anything, including each other, to gain power. This isn’t simple Saturday morning cartoon villainy because they’re too intelligent for that, and they won’t throw themselves into combat just because it’s time for a random encounter or because a book said they should. But there’s nothing redeeming about them. They’re an acceptable target for parties, and there’s intentionally no remorse or complication in breaking into their temples, killing everybody there, and stealing their belongings to sell. They’re a more advanced bad guy, but they’re still objectively a bad guy.

The monster campaign is where we did the best job turning this on its ear. One player ran a yuan-ti pureblood, one of the few characters who could pass for human if nobody looked too closely. Every PC in the campaign had some sort of character-specific enemy, and hers was her father, who wanted her to stop playing hero and instead come back home to continue on her rise to the top of yuan-ti society. He chased the party on and off for a while and finally appeared in the flesh at the end of Act 2, where he had gotten himself trapped somewhere and needed their help. The party had been going on the assumption that he wanted to menace them somehow and steal his daughter away, but he was actually following them out of genuine concern.

Even the most rampantly malevolent race isn’t beyond having connections or hobbies or opinions. Because the books only describe yuan-ti as religious jungle snake monsters we think that’s everything there is to know about them, but they can have families and traditions and favorite sports teams. Sometimes those loyalties can overrule their predilection toward evil, or at least suppress it. After all, religiously evil humans probably exist in every city and only the most militant paladin run by the most short-sighted player would assume they’re constantly up to no good. An evil monster isn’t any different from an evil PC. It’s all in how you handle it in service of the game.

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X is for Xorn, Who Are Just Kind of There

This is the first monster I thought of when I decided to write about them for April. Other letters were hard, even ones I thought wouldn’t be, but there was always one and only one creature who could fill the spot for X.

Xorns are three-armed, three-legged, roughly spherical creatures from the Elemental Plane of Earth. Their main character trait is their appetite; they can only eat rare metals, gems, and minerals, and given that those are harder to come by on the Material Plane they spend much of their time scavenging and searching for veins underground. They get bigger as they get older but low-level xorns are surprisingly hardy for their CR, and they have a few gotcha abilities and defenses that reward players who know a thing or two about outsiders.

Xorns seem designed to be random encounters, either bargaining with the party for sustenance or attacking when somebody gets between it and its next meal. As such it’s weird that in 3E they carried no treasure and in Pathfinder the older ones often come with class levels, respectively lowering players’ and DMs’ interest in them. You might think of them as smarter earth elementals, and they carry many of the same problems and benefits. Players aren’t likely to remember a xorn from session to session, and few DMs can get excited about a society or cabal of xorns whose goal is…eating more exciting food, I guess. You also can’t use their stats for much else as it’s hard to think of a creature with three arms and earth glide that isn’t a xorn itself. No, to make a xorn a memorable encounter, you have to give it some character yourself.

In The Eight Arms and the Empire of Sin, the party went underground to search for a monster acting as an avatar of pride. Their guide was an ioun stone that ramped up the emotions of the character using it, so while the party was tracking a sin of pride, it was only because their peacock-themed paladin was falling prey to it. She felt the creatures of the caverns were beneath her, and she was pointedly not considering the possibility of an ambush, especially not one that literally popped out of the wall. A surprisingly crafty xorn approached them, perhaps a minor scuffle occurred, but in short order it had plucked the stone from around her head and swallowed it.

Thus entered the Xorn of Pride, who demanded to be addressed in title case but preferred more ostentatious epithets like King of the Earth or Super Kami Xorn. It was not the fastest, or the smartest, or the hungriest xorn, but if you tried to tell it that, it wouldn’t listen. Running it let me be as bombastic as I wanted, a high bar, and put the party in that wonderful state where they dislike an NPC as players but know they have to appease it as characters. They immediately created their own side quest to remove the stone from the xorn, more because he was annoying than because they needed it to progress, and it gave me a warm feeling when they decided killing it was neither productive nor necessary and instead took the moral high ground.

They never did get that stone back, which means there’s still a xorn running around convinced it’s the greatest thing on three legs. Every once in a while I bring it up, and the players remember they’re still going to have to deal with it one day. I don’t know if it’s anticipation or dread, but I think it’s more than anybody has cared about a xorn in decades.

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