Tuesday, June 3, 2008

So What If They Win?

There was a disconnect with a comment about the subject of “good players” that I ought to address. When yesterday I said that a player ought to be able to take opportunities when they came, I was not actually making a qualification about good vs. bad players. I was saying a world ought to give opportunities…and if those opportunities exist, players take them. Not just the good players. All the players.

If I have a player who sees the world in terms of taverns and pick pocketing and quests, I recognize at once that it is learned behavior. It’s not the player’s fault for being bad at the game…the player’s experience has taught them to believe this is how the game should be played.

All of my present participants were like that; it took time, but they have all slowly developed into self-propelling beings, working jointly towards their own goals. It took a fair bit of coddling; I actually had one player leave my world because he felt I was coddling too much (occasionally warning them so they wouldn’t kill themselves). I wanted the game to be fun for my players—why wouldn’t it take a little time for them to see how?

So no, I’m not saying be a better player (and let’s put that subject on the shelf). I’m saying, be a better DM and let the players be better players.

To do that, a DM has got to let go of their world. They can’t love it TOO much…or else that love is going to get in the way.

For example: Arkayn, Abner and Aggro stumble across a group of three hill giants and about two dozen gnolls who are serving as underlings. Fortunately, our trio are seventh level; unfortunately, they’ve just had a bad run in with the nearby river rapids and they’ve just emerged wet, shivering and a little worse for wear from some of the rocks they bounced against. So, the DM thinks, this ought to be a combat to really challenge them. Possibly, one of the three might die.

What’s more, the DM has planned this as the last obstacle to keep them from finding Princess Heliose and successfully marrying into the Duke’s family (the Princess is in love with Abner—go figure).

In desperation, Arkayn whips out a wand. A wand that he was given 18 months ago, actual time. That he earned, I might add…its just he’s never used it and he hasn’t a clue what it does. In fact, the DM has no clue either; he wrote a note about it in his diary files and now he has to actually go look that up when Arkayn gives the wand a try.

And what do you know, it’s a wand of paralyzation. With 26 charges.

Well, the hill giants blow their saving throws and it takes no time at all to mop up the gnolls; altogether, the party suffers something like 30 hp damage total. It’s a cake walk.

At this point, MOST of the DMs I’ve known will cry foul: Arkayn doesn’t know the wand’s special secret word (oh please); the wand was wet and doesn’t work properly; there’s a chance that the wand will accidentally paralyze Arkayn; and so on. Anything, in fact, except the recognition that the player reserved that wand until the time came for it to save their ass.

I’ve never been a special word/invoke magic item type of DM. I found long ago it added nothing to the game except for a bit of glee on the part of DMs who really don’t want to give out magic…oh, and it fills up game time with pestering regularity. Fuck it; Arkayn’s a seventh level mage with a genius I.Q. and he’s had the wand in his possession all this time. I think he’s figured out how to make it work when he wants to.

As for other arguments—obviously the DM just doesn’t want his giants and gnolls adventure to fizzle. The party does! They’re glad they don’t have to fight the damn things and probably die. Too bad for the DM who didn’t remember the wand in advance…not every final encounter has to fit the mold. Sometimes its nice to bypass type.

Indiana Jones, big scimitars, etc. But most of the DMs I’ve known would argue that somehow the guy with big scimitar successfully blocked the bullets.

As a DM, you can’t grip your adventure and your plans so tightly that the real point is lost—that the players are, basically, intended to win. “Losing” would have been fighting the giants without the wand, dying and then thinking, “oh shit I should have used that wand.”

Losing shouldn’t be, “The wand doesn’t work cause it’s wet, so you have to fight them.”

That just brings us back to the rat in the maze thing.

To dungeon master this way, I find that what I have to do is get myself out of the picture as much as possible. I make every effort to have no stake at all in what is going on. I’m the referee. I’m not here to decide which side wins.

Let’s face it; I can make the monster side win any time I want. Can’t I?


  1. In one of my very first LARPing events, I managed to derail an entire adventure without even trying, or realizing what I had done.

    I was the first and only character in my LARP at that time who opted for deception/illusion/mind control skills instead of fighting skills. I set off with five other players to find our way through a door and retrieve a stone. Of course, along the way a "band of brigands" had taken over the road and were demanding an enormous sum for the right to pass through.

    As my fellow players geared up and started mutter tactics, I, bright and bushy-tailed as only a utterly new player could be, picked up a rock from the ground, cast an illusion spell over it, and handed it to the chief of the brigands with a cheery smile.

    They were flabbergasted - not only the NPCs, but the other playing characters as well. The chief (a nice guy named Kevin) looked at me and said, "Oh. Um, right, yes. Okay then! You guys can...go ahead?"
    We took off down the path and as soon as we were out of earshot the other players turned to me. "Why didn't you just let us fight them?" one said. "Yea, that was really unexpected, could you warn us next time?" another asked. I shrugged and felt a little embarrassed. Of course these five hulking fighters had come out on this adventure to, yknow, fight.

    In the end they did get their fight. The illusion "wore off" even though it wasn't supposed to, the brigands doubled back, and we got a good fight out of the whole thing. After that the NPCs started either coming up with harder demands or just fighting first and asking later. The playing characters eventually (after a lot of hammering) agreed that we didn't have to fight every time. And I got myself some attack spells and saved most of the illusion for other kinds of campaigns.


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