Category: The Story

Complex Alignments

I read a lot of 5e D&D FB post. I guess I am a snob as most of what is describe as role playing sounds horrible. In a typical post of this nature, a character takes collection of random and mean actions in game justify it by saying, “I am playing an evil character….” As if this response explains it all.

My best guess is they expecting the FB readers to respond with, “Oh that is why you decided to attack your own party members after setting them up to fail so you could steal all their stuff? Nice Roleplaying!”

Some people see playing an evil character as a means being a random stupid asshole. Doing whatever they want at any given moment without thought or reason.

Playing a real and complex evil character is much more exciting and challenging. It is one of my favorite types of Heroes to play.

Before I get to my advice, I recommend the following two videos of playing evil characters and not playing a Dickish character. Both of these were created by the video blogger Guy at his site Bacon Battalion RPG. In both cases, I think Guy is right and gives solid advice.

Keeping with what Guy said, I want to introduce the Concentric Circle Alignment system for character creation. A Concentric Circle is a chart of a circle within a Circle. Apparently, this name sucks so I will call it Complex Alignments. By using this method, you can use the D&D alignment system to create more complex characters.

First off, playing the selfish evil character just doesn’t work for an RPG.

As a collective social story, excluding others from the game just by time management alone makes you a bad player. So when playing any character, it has to be a social one. Someone that can function as a group.

The best way to approach an evil Hero is to have a very narrow number of people you care about. This would include family, friends, the party, and perhaps a patron. And that is about it! The rest of the world you could all burn if it gets in your way.

Therefore, when dealing with those you do care about, be a good Hero. And as  BaconRPG suggests, be a super good character!

As it is, the D&D alignment system is inadequate and limiting. However, with a simple modification, I think it is excellent!

The modification requires you to think of alignment as a Concentric Circle chart with 3 or more circles. The circles I use are labeled as Friends, Stranger, and Enemies. You then give each circle and alignment of its own.

By doing so, you will end up making exciting and complex Heroes. And you can play evil characters who can function within a party because they are also good characters.

Let’s put this into play with building a Human Paladin who worships Bahamut.

The first version will be a by-the-book true good Paladin. So I write down my alignment as LG, LG, & LG. So in the case of Friends, Stranger, and Enemies, I am Lawful Good. This is a Hero that is true to his convictions.

In the second version, I decide I want to play a crusading Paladin. This is someone who hates the followers of a rival god. He has been fighting them and has a harder edge. Then I give him an alignment of LG, LG, & LE.

Circles

 

With this alignment, I am kind to everyone except for my enemies. In their case, I am still Lawful, but I am ruthless. I have no mercy for them. I will not break the law, but once judged my enemy then the gloves are off.

In the eyes of my enemies, I am an LE character. I hunt them down, burn their villages, and kill them. I am ruthless and cruel. But again, to the rest of the world, I am a super nice guy.

This Paladin might have a bad reputation in his church. He is apparently a good and kind person, but something about war brings out the worst in him. Perhaps he feels terrible about it and confesses his sins. Or he feels justified saying to the Priest, “Father, you do not understand the followers of Tiamat as I do.”

Now let’s turn to a third version of the same Paladin and make him more involved. Let’s adjust his Alignment to LG, LN, & NE.

He is still Lawful Good to his church and family. He would do anything for these people. Giving his life and soul to save them.

However, this isn’t true of the random person he meets on the street. By his nature, he follows the law, but he isn’t compassionate. He would not make a personal sacrifice for them. After all, they follow pagan gods, and therefore he really doesn’t care what happens to them. Perhaps if he were paid, he would help them.

Then against his enemies, he is Neutral Evil. This means for them there are no laws. They must be destroyed at any cost, without exception or mercy. In fact, he is cruel to them and enjoys to see them suffer. Not only would he burn their villages, but he would kill the children. It makes sense in his eyes since they will only grow up to be his enemies.

Now I get to play a more believable evil Paladin. Someone who is kind, generous and just to the party and fellow church members, but has less compassion for people as a whole. They must follow the law. Otherwise, he isn’t interested. What he is interested in is destroying his enemies in any conceivable means. The law be damned! Rules are for good people, not for those with evil hearts!

Each of these three Paladin I created would play very different, but not so different to party members. To his friends, he would take the shirt off his back to help them. Lay on track if need be. He is a Lawful Good hero.

Let’s make a second character using Complex Alignments.

I want to play an Elf that hates Dragonborn. I decided to create another circle: Friends, Stranger, Enemies, & Dragonborn. I give this Elf the following alignments: CG, NG, LE, & CE.

At first glance, she seems like a mess. But let’s dig into it.

For the people close to her, she believes that good people are worthy of trust and kindness. That there is no need for rules. Their kind hearts will guide them. For people as a whole, she sees it on a case-by-case basis.

When it comes to the bad people that are where rules are needed. These people don’t have the good in their heart to guide them. They need laws and order enforced upon them. A society needs guards and prisons. Rules are for bad people.

Lastly, there is the worst of the worst, Dragonkind. These are inherently evil. They are beyond laws. Having laws for them is pointless, they don’t have it within them. They should all be destroyed. And while she cannot kill dragons, yet. She can focus her rage on the Dragonborn.

Over time, the center circles must trump the lower Diagrams! Friends > Enemies.

This is important. Imagine a new Hero joins the party and plays a Dragonborn. Here is the trick! After a short hazing period, the Elf must shift the PC from enemy to the friend circle. In doing so, she can claim to have found one of the few good ones. And then she now uses the PC Dragonborn to further justify her hatred. “If only they were all like you, but they are not!”

Using Complex Alignment creates complex Hero that are constant in their view. It allows a Hero to be both good and evil. Lawful and chaotic.

 
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RPG: Expanding on Last Minute Rolls in 5e D&D.

More on Last Minute Rolls!

A while ago, I wrote a post on my style of waiting till the Last Minute on skill rolls. It was one of my more popular posts, so I thought I would give more examples of how I use it in game play.

Last week, I GMed two different groups in 5e D&D. Both were 1-shots with the hope of starting a new campaign. Both of the stories were in the same area, using the same themes, and involved a lot of Gnolls.

During play, they would often need to make SURVIVAL rolls. While on occasion, I would have a roll made by the Ranger just to see how well they were navigating the wilderness, most of the rolls I waited until something was going to happen. One failed roll told them they were lost and had traveled a day on the wrong trail.

Another roll was to avoid an encounter while they were taking a long rest. I didn’t have them roll to find a good camping spot, that was a given. But in the middle of the long rest, they rolled to dodge a Gnoll patrol.

The best example of the Last Minute roll that jumps out to me was a STEALTH check one of the players needed to make. They were at the base of some ruins where a Gnoll Shaman had made her hideout. The Paladin wanted to climb up from the dry moat and do some scouting.

Since they had debated in Real Time for a while on this plan, I wanted the Paladin to succeed in getting the information. Seriously, sometimes PCs are so timid it gets tiring. Anyhow, he wanted to see what was in the ruin’s courtyard before traveling up the road.

So I just allowed it. It was a win-win as player and GM. Since I view the PCs as Heroes and not Clowns, I let a lot of actions happen. He climbed up some stones and peeked around the fallen tower to get a look into the courtyard. There he saw the Shaman and some Kolbolts. He got the information he needed and then wanted to return to the party.

Now for the rolls!

See before, if I had him roll to climb and sneak about failure would have stopped the story. And there would have been no good consequences. If he had failed either the ATHLETICISM or STEALTH rolls it would have been a lose-lose. They still would have been stuck on what to do, and nothing interesting would have happened from a failed roll. Sure I could always go for some cheap laugh and have him fall or split his pants like some GM, but that is not my style. That is the PCs are Clowns style.

But now, while he is trying to stealth away, a roll is all sorts of win. In this case, he failed his stealth roll. I had several of the Kolbolts run at him.

He now had to hurry down the rocks, making for a more interesting ATHLETICISM roll. He did well on this roll, so escaped. I let the Kolbolts throw rocks. In the end, he took 2 damage from a stone. But now there was some tension. Dice were rolling. He was concern. There could have been dire consequences for him.

Now that they knew what was going on, they decided to go for a frontal attack. This strategy meant they would have to go up the raised road. Halfway up, the Kolbolts had their battleground picked.

The Paladin asked to check for traps. I told him it was all clear. I later told him that “checking for traps” was a meaningless statement in my game.

He then charged forward to attack. Guess what, it was a trap! I had him make an INVESTIGATION roll as he closed the distance. He made the roll, so I gave him Advantage to dodge the boulders the Kolbolts push down on him.

At one point in the story, they found some fishing traps left by some Barbarian Elves. The elves had decided to attack them. Instead of making rolls to see if they saw them sneaking up, I waited until the last moment. Then I gave PERCEPTION roll to prevent surprise. This type of Last Minute roll is normal by GM everywhere. But often they will add an earlier roll to spot them sneaking up in the first place. I often remove this rollout because it will often create meta.

As I plan out the next session, I look at how I am going to handle expected rolls.

Obviously, nothing goes as planned. But even so, I all the time am looking at the framing to get the roll at the Last Minute.

They will need to make a sacrifice to an angry god. I will just assume they will have an idea of how to do it without a Religion roll. But once they make the sacrifice, then have a RELIGION roll to see if it was correct. The first roll a lot of GMs give, prevents the roll with consequences. Allow the characters to make assumptions!

They are going to find some mirrors that give some knowledge. Instead of having rolls to understand it, I am going to tell them they do so. But then while using it, then comes the ARCANE roll. But on a bad roll, it will go directly to Death Saves. I will give Advantage to the Death Saves so the chance of dying will be slim to none. Sounds harsh, right! Story tension. Three Death Saves with Advantage is less than 2% of death.

They will come upon a puzzle trap. Once of the Hero has already found some clues in an old scrolls to disarm it. I will tell him that once he read the scrolls, disarming is easy. But after disarming it, and then opening the seal, I will have him roll to succeed on the Disarm roll (with Advantage). Not a roll before he opens to see if he succeeds, but after opening. See the different?

I plan for them to take a raft across a short waterway, only to have it become a dangerous trip in the middle. I will skip all rolls until it becomes dangerous. On a bad roll, they will have to jump to some stones. I plan to have these jumps not need a roll. But later they will have to jump off the stones to safety. These will require rolls.

Lastly, they will get into a fight with a living and dangerous statue. I plan for only then will they make the PERSUASION roll. I think I will wait until the creature is at half damage. So they will say, I try to Persuade it. I will get how, some role-playing, then it attacks. Once they do 25 damage to it, I will then have the Persuasion roll made. If successful, it will stop fighting. I do not do this with all NPCs, but in this case, I already know how it will go down.

I guess, one thing I do different that many GMs is I assume competence and the belief of competence in the Heroes.

Power Gamers in 5e and Pathfinder! What to Do about them?

The Power Gamer: I read about them all the time. For most of my life, I have been lucky to avoid them. The last two store games I have joined, I have encountered them. Now, it feels like they are everywhere.

In both encounters, they had these insane builds making their characters powerful beyond their level. They both had unique custom magic items that were broken. More importantly, both these two young men had the same air about them.

They played the same way. They wanted to kill everything, never take damage, and argue DM rulings. Their idea of role-playing was to boast how powerful they were. Every role-playing moment was short lived as they started combat almost immediately.

And in both cases, I had the same response.

I turned my characters into a coward. I refused to help in battle. My time was spent trying to make every encounter into a role-playing one.

Even in combat, I would role play. My turns were used by running around trying to talk the monsters into surrendering or retreating. In some cases, I would be apologizing for the attack on the other party members. I would be responding to the horrors that I saw. I never made an attack.

Perhaps my position is the immature one. After all, I am the outsider joining “their” games. In both occasions, the DM found my activities refreshing. The other players started to get involved with my role-playing. And in both cases, the Power Gamer tried hard to turn it back into a wargame.

And I want to point out, with the Power Gamer entirely in charge of the party my lack of participation changed nothing. Every fight was easy for them. My involvement would have meant nothing. Perhaps they would have taken 5 less damage. To me, whatever. But to them, it pissed them off. It feels like 5 HP loss is losing to them.

As an experienced GM, I feel I just put a stop to them right away.

One way is I remove multi-classing and feats from the game. Both of these are the primary source of their power increase. They are looking for micro-imbalances in the game to exploit. In combination, these imbalances can become monstrous. One of them was making the two hand-crossbow attacks. While most of the other characters were +6 to hit with 1 attack, he was +8 with 2 strikes. I am not sure how, but he was rolling 4 dice for damage.

Another way I limited them is to make everyone use a point buy. Both of these Power Gamers had 1 in a million stats. It’s amazing how half of all characters out there are a 1 in a million shot on stats. I have made a few of these characters in my youth. Now it is all point buys.

Lastly, I don’t argue the rules during play. I make my rulings, I will hear a moment of a case against it, and them tell them to talk to me afterward. In one of the games, I played there was at least a 10-minute argument over a ruling. The GM changed his verdict even after more than half the table said he was right (me including). It was clear the Power Gamer wasn’t going to stop until he got his ruling.

One thing I have always done when I GM is to put in the occasional suicidal encounter. I try to make it evident. The purpose is that it forces them to run away or find another way out. In this way, in the back of their minds, they are always looking and judging if they can take a fight.

I had players complain about this idea.

He asked, “Why would you ever have a fight we couldn’t win?”

To which I asked, “Why did you think that was a fight?”

One time, I described basically Godzilla attacking and everyone running away. A 3rd level character ran up and struck it. Godzilla stomped on him, and he was dead. The player was shocked.

This might be a bit off topic, but I notice that in RPG there is little role-playing the epic escape. Almost all action movies, there are times the Hero is trying to flee from overwhelming odds. There is this mentality that every encounter should be a fight, and the Adventurers should win it.

I think removing the Heroic escape from the game is denying another exciting way to interact with the world as a player and GM. And it is a perfect trap for the Power Gamer placed in the story.

As a Player, my goal with Power Gamers is to show the other players at the table that there is another way to play. I doubt anything I do or will change the Power Gamer’s minds. To me, the battle is to reach the rest of the table. If the other players become more interested in playing the full game, and not just combat, then I think the Power Gamer will leave.

What I am not interested in is trying to compete with them. I have no interest in playing the Power Gamer’s game. In my years, I have played some powerful characters. But I never got there by power gaming.

I know I am not alone in how much I find the Power Gamer destructive to playing an RPG. I would really like more input and advice on how to deal with them as both a GM and player. Anyone with some ideas, please commit or email.
I plan to update this in the future!

Planning out a Campaign

A reader asked me how I organize for a campaign. Here are some thoughts on the subject.

When I start a new campaign, I ask myself if there is a story I want to tell. Often times, there is a theme or a part of my world I want to explore. I feel this is the place to start because finding something that interests me helps to stop GM burnout. After all, I am the person who will be putting the most work into the campaign. The quality of what I produce will be improved if I am interested in the subject matter. That is just a fact of life.

Once I have my grand vision, I try to figure out how to do it in a way that is most inclusive to players and the characters they might want to play. I do not want the scope of the story to be too narrow, as this can lead to railroading.

For example, my next campaign will be about a revolutionary war. My vision is to have the adventurers be local heroes who rise to overthrow the king. While not every session needs to progress this story forward, the theme of revolution will start from session one.

Once I have the general story idea, I then make a quick broad stokes outline of it.

The following are notes for this running. I plan to set it in the city of Avalon. When I designed Wild World, the Five Crown empire had a few cities not given a ruling crown. This means they are rules by distant kings. I always imagined this would cause injustice. Avalon is a central city in the empire that does not have their own representation. In fact, their king’s castle is 600 miles to the north and is culturally and religiously different.

In this outline, all the NPC names are placeholders.

  1. The PC are recruited to stop local gnome bandits.
  2. While fighing the bandits, they discover the local sheriff is corrupt and causing the hardship.
  3. They eventually fight against the sheriff becoming local heroes.
  4. A lord (JFK) in Avalon take interest in them. Hires them to fight against corruption in the city.
  5. As they fight the corruption, they find it goes back to the lords of the city.
  6. JFK’s advisor (Sam Adams) teaches the Adventures about the evils the King’s second (Wormtongue).
  7. Wormtongue becomes the main villain and source of all the city’s problems.
  8. JFK is arrested. Adams gives the Adventures several adventures to help in his release and to fight Wormtongue’s minions.
  9. They defeat Wormtongue.
  10. Expecting change, the King promotes another terrible person to rule over the city. Nothing has changed.
  11. They get to do some other missions but when they return, discover Avalon is worst off than when it was controlled by Wormtongue.
  12. In this transition period is when they come to suspect that it is the King is really evil.
  13. JFK is freed. He gives the Adventures a blueprint for revolution against the king.
  14. On an adventure, they learn of a true heir to the throne. The King’s claim is illegitimate.
  15. JFK is killed.
  16. Sam Adams give the characters a mission to bring proof of the kings illegitimate claim to the throne.
  17. Sam Adams dies around the time the Party is introduced to the idea of a Republic.
  18. Lots of adventuring of getting the heir.
  19. The heir doesn’t want the crown.
  20. Perhaps some building up of allies against the king.
  21. At some point, there needs to be war in Avalon. Rebels in the hills.
  22. End Game: What happens? A revolution. Will they force the heir to be king?
  23. Party does their plans until they win. Lots of fights against the King.
  24. In the end either they die as martyrs, win with a new king, or are the founding fathers of a Republic.

The beats here can last for weeks, months, or even years of gaming. It starts with the adventures forced into a role, but as they level they have more latitude on their approach. Notice all the big NPCs die midway through the story, another trick I’m often using.

My next step would be to place limitations on the players during startup. Again, I am thinking as broad and inclusive as possible. But to make this work, I would ask for characters that are from Avalon, have family and friends there, and are basically good.

In my world, Avalon is home to humans, gnomes, and dwarves so that would be the majority of the party. If the group is large enough, would allow for one non-core race. If I allowed too many different races, the party could lose connection with Avalon. I think I would exclude elves and orcs, as I plan on using them as villains.

Planning out the night

I have learned that it is hard to get through 5 story beats in an evening. I try to have it in what I call the Hourglass style. So I plan out some key moments and I outline some Sandbox ideas. I have places I hope to get the characters to go, but I do not rush to get them there. If I need them to discover something and they fail to do so, I don’t panic. I let them explore where they want to go, and I try to find carrots to bring them back to the story. I rarely use sticks.

In this running, my first session would start with a small town. There was a robbery and the Adventures are apart of the posse out to bring justice. They discover a nearby gnome town are the source of the bandits and fight them. While doing so, they discover that the gnomes are suffering because of a corrupt tax collector. Perhaps they end up helping the gnomes, which brings them to the JFK or Adam NPC (is Adam a gnome? sure sounds good).

I try to work in outlines. In this way, I can be flexible.

Here is my outline for the first night.

  1. Town’s hardware store was robbed.
  2. Party joins the posse and is offered a reward.
  3. Battle with Gnomes.
  4. They learn the Gnomes are hard up because of a corrupt tax collector.
  5. Does party fight the tax collector? Tries to get the local lord to help?
  6. Meets Sam Adams, (Mr. Billhook) local Gnome who tells them about the corruption.
  7. Discovers how corrupt lord. Fights him, tax collector.
  8. The lord sends men to arrest the party. Fight? Flee? Outlaws?

That seems like a good starting point. The Heroes are trying to be Heroes and do the right thing. They discover the local’s tax collector is the bad guy. A Robin Hood starting point. I like the idea of them end the night as outlaws.

I would see where the players take the adventure before outlining too much of the next session. Perhaps they only get to a few of the beats of the above outline. Before the next game night, I would work on the next half dozen beats.

Meanwhile, I write content for the campaign. I write “random” encounters. I work out missions, areas they could explore, and history. I want to explore Avalon, the kingdom, and what a revolution looks like. This gets to be apart of my fun. I get to write about a subject I am interested in developing.

Player Revolt

This used to be a problem. Players are not used to being confined to an area or topic. As a GM, I am saying do what you want as long as it is on this subject matter and in this area. To some, that seems oppressive. It isn’t.

One way to help with this is not to have everything progress the main story. Have some sub-plots happen. Best if these come from the characters and not you.

However, if the players suddenly decide they want to travel to the other side of the world to become sea pirates, well I might just say “OK, they do that.” But I might not be on board to GM that story. I have learned that ends up making DM burnout. Hey, some GMs are cool with 100% sandbox. I am not.

The End of Session

Lastly as wrapping, I ask the players where they think they are going next. In this way, I can plan out the next 5-7 beats on that direction. This brings up the overall quality of my content while still allowing them to direct the story.

So this is a quick and dirty write-up of how I prepare for my game.

Teleportation No More.

A decade ago, I decided to remove teleportation and gates from my world.

Plane shifting still exists but is rare and is fixed to locations. For example, under a mountain range known as the Echo, some of the caverns there lead to Hell. These caves are one of the few means of traveling to the realm of Hell.

By making this adjustment to what the Heroes can do, I have made my homebrew world feel remarkably larger. By forcing Heroes to travel, often by ship, it has made the subject matters of my stories more local.

I know this style of local story based campaigns is not what all GMs want. I have played in good D&D games where Heroes feels like jet-setters “flying” all over the world. We would have sessions where the party teleport from city-to-city solving global problems. There is no doubt this can be fun.

However, I feel something gets lost in those types of global stories. Counties become abstract ideas. Often, the party never steps foot outside of the palaces. Whole countries get reduced to a few buildings and NPCs who the Heroes repeatedly visit.

My taste is the local stories. When the Heroes are helping a village, a city, or a nation. Often they begin the campaign in a region and never end up stray too far from it. My stories are designed so that the Heroes never have to travel the world to take part in them.

Even when I am running a Sandbox style game, because they need to travel by sea to get anywhere far, they often explore where that start. It isn’t always guaranteed. But even when the Heroes do travel, they often find someplace to build their roots.

One day, I decided to create a new world. While doing so, I thought I would try something different. My new world would be base on naval power. But then I was thinking about teleportation. After all, at some point, all travel becomes pointless in standard campaigns. The party teleports everywhere. Then I had a thought, remove teleportation. So I gave it a try.

Removing Teleportation and Gates have been the best world design decision I have ever made.

When I look at many of my favorite novels: LOTR and the Belgariad, they did not have teleportation in them. In fact, numerous books I love there is no teleportation. I enjoyed books that also have teleportation in them, just as I have liked some D&D campaigns with it.

But after playing my world for nearly a decade, I have concluded that removing teleportation is the way to go. If you are making your world, I would suggest you remove it. You will find your world will suddenly become so much larger.

Note: One minor adjustment I have made is to add a few additional powerful Blink type spells. At the highest levels, these can travel a few miles. So the Villain and Heroes can still Blink away if need be. I recognize that is something I still want to have in the game.