Monday, April 13, 2015

Breaking the Game: A Player's Guide to Slaying Dungeon Master's

You know what every Dungeon Master is afraid of? Killing the players. There’s a lot to that. When a player makes a character it’s often something they spend a lot of time on. It could take hours combing through the Player’s Handbook to find the right combination of feats, spells, and class abilities to not only be effective in combat but to fulfill their fantasy of “cool.” When a DM kills a player’s character, all those hours spent planning and playing are gone. The character isn’t getting played again or if there’s the opportunity for resurrection the PC takes a significant hit to his experience and abilities. You might be thinking however much time a player puts into making his character the Dungeon Master puts in ten times that amount. You wouldn’t be wrong. On the other hand the campaign can’t be killed. All that work never gets scrapped.

When a DM kills a PC, it better be for a good reason. Unlucky rolls is no excuse, because nothing the Dungeon Master throws at the players should be instant kill without ample warning. Not outright warnings mind you, but warnings with enough clues that the players shouldn't have a problem figuring out if they continue on their current path certain death is a likelihood.

The conundrum most DMs fall into is finding the sweet spot for the challenge of an encounter. If an encounter is too hard a TPK is something a Dungeon Master can’t come back from without seriously ruining his credibility. Think about it, what player is going to want that DM to run their game if they know going in there’s no chance of survival? That’s why it’s easier to make an encounter a little less challenging. If the player’s breeze through then the DM can add more monsters, traps, or complications. Next time he’ll have a better gauge of what they can handle. It’s much simpler to make an easy encounter harder than making an overkill encounter easier. See how the game goes when halfway through the battle the DM has to create a deus ex machina to save the players from his own inescapable death traps. Have you ever heard a player say, “Hey, remember how awesome it was when that NPC showed up and saved the day?”

I’m not saying killing a player is wrong. I wholeheartedly believe in killing the PCs to let them see the consequences of their own stupidity, or killing them through valiant battle. I think the secret of a great combat is when the DM takes the party to the very edge of dying yet still the players manage to achieve victory. Hard won is the best kind of win. If a player dies in the attempt, he died heroically and memorably. Being remembered is one of the pillars of being a hero. But that aside, the secret’s out. Your Dungeon Master’s natural tendency is to make things easier instead of harder. He’s afraid to kill you.

Now to all you players reading this, do not kick in every door and piss off every NPC. That falls under the stupidity clause and your DM will have no problem teaching you a lesson at that point. What I want you to take away is this: your Dungeon Master is rooting for you. He wants you to win. After all, without the heroes there’s no one to defeat the big bad. Without players, world building isn’t a game anymore but creative writing (not that I’m not knocking writing, the goal of D&D is to be a social endeavor and not a solo one).

So how do you, the player, take advantage of this? Give your DM a reason to love your character as much as you do. This often entails letting him have a hand in your character’s background. Have a back and forth with your Dungeon Master, leave holes in your background for him to fill. Most of all write a background in the first place. Nobody is expecting a book, or Shakespeare. Bang out a page covering his home, family, childhood, and adulthood. Leave some loose ends. Also, be open to any ideas your Dungeon Master pitches you. A DM is much less likely to let a player die - even if he should - when the DM himself is attached to the player’s character.

Getting the DM to like your hero isn’t all there is to it. Player’s too often refuse to make use of the tactical retreat. Kite the monster. Lead it into confined spaces, or out into the open - whichever is more advantageous in the situation. It seems like the movement used in every fight only revolves around getting toe to toe with an enemy and hacking away at it until someone’s dead. When you’re being chased by the bad guy you get to choose where to lead them.

On the other hand, your not the only ones able to make use of the tactical retreat. Smart bad guys will run away when things go south. Just because you want to duke it out doesn't mean a smart villain does. If your Dungeon Master is doing his job right, then any non-suicidal villain with half a brain will try to escape when the going gets tough. If he's smarter than the average goblin there will be a pre-planned escape route. So stock up on some spells that counter etherealness, planeshift, and the like. Keep an eye on those nearby corridors. Be aware that smart villains don't want to die.

The DM might have put many an hour into a new villain, fully expecting him to last for the course of the campaign. Just because the Dungeon Master doesn't want their favorite NPC to die doesn't mean they shouldn't let them die. If the villain puts himself in a position to be killed, take the shot. He's got a campaign's worth of bad stuff to do to you. Just take him out.

What if your Dungeon Master implausibly prevents his beloved villains death no matter what you do? Well, I'm sorry to say it but you're being railroaded. It's up to you whether you want to play in that kind of game. If you don't, send your local friendly Dungeon Master to my blog. If he's not friendly, then it may be time to reconsider why you've joined his game.

Another way to keep the DM on their toes is to NOT metagame. Yep, you didn’t read that wrong. Don’t take time to discuss with the rest of the party exactly which square you should move to and what ability to use. As a player, you’re job is easy. Keep track of one character. The Dungeon Master’s job is hard. He has to keep track of every enemy in the encounter, how this combat affects the rest of the encounters, and how the next encounter(s) affects this combat, all the while keeping track of time. The more time you as the player spend taking your turn, the more time you give your Dungeon Master to figure all of that out. It’s like when on Shark Tank the entrepreneur leaves the tank to make a phone call and get advice on his offers. While he’s out there on the phone, the sharks all discuss the best way to screw that guy over. Any extra time you take on your turn is a gift to the DM.

How about ways to break the game without mind-gaming your DM? The easy answer is min-maxing, but with a google search there are tons of ways out there to optimize your character. Take min-maxing your character to the next level and min-max the party. Think about it. You’re going to be spending many hours playing as one member in a group of players. Why should min-maxing be limited to your character? Find synergies not only on your character sheet but between everyone’s characters. Get together with your fellow players and put your heads together on how to create a well-oiled fighting machine.

The classic party is a fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric. The fighter tries to draw aggro and draw the enemy’s attention. The rogue flanks with the fighter for sneak attack. The wizard does crowd control, and the cleric heals the party. What about a party where every character has healing? While a party of clerics would be hilarious, let’s ponder a party comprised of a paladin, a cleric, a ranger, and a druid. The paladin takes the tank role, ranger is dps, cleric primary healing and druid takes over crowd control. The difference here is every character can cast healing spells. The paladin can Lay on Hands himself or any party member, and the rest of the party has cure wounds. It’s a simple strategy off the top of my head that drastically increases the party’s survivability. Imagine what kind of party a group of players can make with concerted effort.

I’d be curious to see what kinds of broken parties you can come up with. Get in touch with your inner munchkin and post a min-maxed party of heroes with kickass synergy!


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