Wednesday, April 15, 2015

City Squares III: The Fourth Rule of Dungeoncraft

On my second attempt at making a city square I now have some experience to refer to. Got some ideas where the gameplay worked well and where things got clunky. The layers worked alright. What needs to be polished is the investigate action. For some reason my players aren't taking to the idea of investigating to explore a city like they do when moving on the battlemap to explore a dungeon. It might be because they see the city as a treasure exchange of items for gold. I’m also unclear on the specifics of where exactly skill checks should come in to play. Let's explore these thoughts and see where they go.

The old school approach puts emphasis on role playing over roll playing, yet I feel a skill check should still be a factor otherwise what’s the use in having them. Even though this edition’s skill system is simplified compared to say 3.5, player’s still make choices with their skills and expect to have opportunities to use them. Completely doing away with skill checks in this situation would be shutting down the choices those players made. Let’s explore a middle ground.

There has to be a place where we can challenge both the player’s and their characters. In fact, we have to since it’s the Fourth Rule of Dungeoncraft: Always challenge both the players and their characters. I bet Ray Winninger had some choice things to say on the matter. On the player front, Ray says, “Make the players make decisions.” My problem is the presentation of the material in such a way where the players will make decisions without giving me blank stares.

For instance, last session they spent about an hour figuring out - mostly in character thankfully - what they were going to do. One of the players was staying at the inn, but couldn’t make that session. Since he’d paid for an aristocratic lifestyle I started the adventure with everyone hanging out in the common room of his apartment. I reminded them of the different goals they’d set last quest, the results of the actions they took, and a few options they had while reminding them they could always go look for more. Two of the players started discussing what to do next while the rest of the party sat and watched. By no means were those players shy people either. It was kind of like they wanted the adventure to come to them while those who were interested set the agenda.

It may seem like I’m just complaining, but what I’m really doing is trying to diagnose the problem: players who want the adventure to come to them. In order to figure out a solution you’ve got to know the problem. In hindsight, it kind of seems like I may have come up with a solution. While the two “in charge” players were discussing plans, I looked to my notes and remembered a new development for a contact they’d made. The NPC was killed and his head spiked on a wooden post. A sign below the head read, “I stole from Count Ransid.” Yep, stole that straight from Black Sails. Stealing, inspiration, you say potato I say tuber. Anyway, I thought why not interrupt this conversation?

Pounding my fist on the table got some people’s attention. I did it again. They were all looking at me now. Then again. One of the passive players said, “Is that coming from the door?” I said, “No, the window.” Another of those players taking a nap sat up and said he was going to the window to see what it was. I described a workman hammering a stake into the ground in the plaza outside. When the workman knelt down the player saw the head, and that the workman was nailing a sign to it. He said, “Guys? I think you should see this.” He asked if he could see what the sign said and I described the workman finishing his job and getting out of the way. Then it was off to the races.

Did I hit them over the head with an adventure hook? Nope. It actually didn’t lead anywhere. I just wanted the players to know they pissed someone off. Someone who they’d worked for in the past and was very powerful. Most importantly, it got everyone into the game. I like to think I met the players halfway, and maybe the lesson here is to keep doing it. If your players aren’t making things happen, have something happen. It doesn’t have to lead to an adventure, it just has to get them off their metaphorical asses (who wants to play D&D standing up?).

Now where are skill checks in all this? They had to make a couple in their conversation with the workman. A few Insight checks were made. The players also thought, “Let’s go talk to the Count!” Luckily, in my notes was written that the count didn’t know who had pissed him off yet but he’d hired assassins to look into things. They are on the trail and the next time the players come back to town a bit of trouble will ensue. Either way, the point is they started going back to NPCs they’d met the previous quest to look for adventure. What I’m looking to do is come up with a way to get them to find new NPCs for adventure hooks, without having to rub the players’ collective noses in the abstract ideas of an investigation check.

Before doing that, though, it may be good to weigh the pros and cons of shining a light under the hood. I haven’t told the player’s much about the square crawl. They know the effects of travel pace, the rules for travel, but not that the map is divided into squares and keyed with content. Every time they travel the wilderness I say, “Does anyone want to make a map?” Nobody bit. Last quest they had a direction, a clue, and a player with Survival and Navigator’s tools that was rolling awesome. Sooner or later they’re going to get lost. That might be when maps start getting made. I’ll let you know how it goes. At the moment I’m getting a little off topic.

If I tell the players, “Here is a system for finding adventure hooks and NPC contacts. These are the rules. Read them and get back to me when you want to take advantage of this,” it will break them of their suspension of disbelief. It’ll make every NPC seem a little less present in their imaginations, and NPCs will be seen as the treasure chests with adventure hooks that they are. I don’t think its the most memorable, or enjoyable, way to play - for the players. I’m trying to put myself in their shoes. What sounds more fun to you, “Remember the red headed dwarf with a gypsy accent we delivered corpses to?” Or, “Remember the job we did for the contact from the criminal layer in square E3?” That’s a con and I’m not seeing any pros, except maybe less work on my part to make this campaign come alive. If I wanted less work though, I’d be playing a different kind of game..

Over at The Alexandrian, Justin posted a nifty article a few weeks back about Prepping Bangs. As usual it was insightful. My take away is if players start getting that glazed look on their eyes, have something happen. What I’d like to add is bangs don’t have to be revelations that change the way players look at their situation. Bangs like, “A death knight kicks down the door” are always shocking, but that level of shocking isn’t always needed. The instance I gave earlier about shaking up my back seat players is an example of a little bang. Big explosions are cool in movies and TV, but unless you’re watching a Michael Bay movie they’re the spice not the meal. If you can make it through my clumsy metaphors, I think you’ll agree that bangs can be great on a small scale, too. You don’t need dynamite when a firecracker will do. “A death knight kicks down the door” can be awesome and will definitely get things going. Something like a handyman nailing a head to a stake can do the job, too.

So the first part of this formula is have something interesting happen to engage the players. Next let’s engage their characters. My philosophy has been when a player wants to do something with consequences for failure, pick an appropriate skill. If they pick a skill that doesn't make sense to me I ask them what their reasoning is. Sounds fine, right? The problem is it's a subtle form of expecting the players to read my mind. Even when I say, "Pick a skill," still as the DM I have a preset notion of what should happen instead of allowing the players to figure it out. Self reflection ain't pretty but like I said in my first post I'd rather be brutally honest than convince myself something is working which isn't.

My solution: allow the players to find leads without stats, and allow them to find it through their characters. We just need a system to cover both. I'm thinking for this situation there are two kinds of NPCs, those who want to share information and those who don't. When a player engages one who wants to share info, they don’t need to do anything but role play decently. The only chance of failure which could keep players from learning what an NPC knows is if those players act like jackasses. This means only the NPCs who don’t want to share their knowledge need attention.

If there’s a check to be made, I hate if the only outcomes are pass to continue or fail and go home. You should too. This means degrees of success & failure are in order. Say hello to this friendly chart:






Very easy






Very Hard




Nearly impossible

If a task is Very Easy it shouldn’t require a check. Nearly Impossible means I’m dealing with epic tier players, which I’m not so it’s off the table. For each of the other Task levels, NPCs will be assigned information that can be accessed through either skill checks or smart roleplaying. It’s important that what I end up defining as smart roleplaying is logical so any player can come to the same conclusion. Note that I said ‘can’ and not ‘will.’ Players will be players. Who knows what they’re going to do? The point is expectations of what smart role playing is should be reasonable.

So an NPC can have up to four levels of information a player can work to unlock. If skill checks don’t get the job done, smart role playing can. How do we make this not end up as an exercise in mind reading? The Sixth Rule of Dungeoncraft: For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues. For easy tasks, increase the clues and make them more obvious. The harder the task the less obvious the clue is to understand. We don’t want the PCs to miss the clue, but work to find its place in the larger picture.

I’m going to dig up a hook from the first adventure in Haven. After setting the scene, I alerted the players to the following: an acolyte preaching to annoyed passersby about the end of days, a long line of miners selling their mining tools to a dwarf at a merchant stall, sailors unloading barrels of goods obviously stained with blood, and a merchant arguing with a captain complaining about the state of the barrels, and a few crowds of beggar children. Each of these led to an adventure hook. Two players went over and messed with the acolyte - acting like jackasses and shutting down one lead. The druid went to talk with the arguing captain and things escalated until he turned into a bear and mauled the man to death. The Oath of Vengeance Paladin went to give some coins to the beggar children and after they left discovered he’d been pickpocketed. It was easy for the Paladin to discover the location of an orphanage in town, but because it was in another district he didn’t feel like going. Nobody cared about the miners.

The problem here was that I expected the players to investigate without giving them a mystery to solve. I was going off of the find something interesting mindset without defining something interesting as a mystery. My expectations - which is the problem - was for the players to chat up each of these NPCs. It was linear thinking. What needed to be done was to treat each of those scenes like a hallway in a dungeon. The hallway leading north has dark stains along the floor and the ceiling. The hallway leading west is covered in dust, except for the trail of oversized footprints. The smell of mildew is coming from the east hall, and slopes downwards. These examples each hint at something undiscovered and unresolved. Some more obvious, some less. The point here is the right direction is south. No wait, I mean mysteries need to be obviously recognized as such. Descriptions ought to indicate there’s something worth investigating without hanging a neon sign saying, “INFO HERE.”

Another example: the acolyte isn’t just handing out flyers and annoying passersby with his proclamations of doom, he looks genuinely scared of the things he’s saying. The miners are miserable. They’re down on their luck in working clothes which have been patched up too many times, and they look like selling their tools is the last thing they want to do. Their desperation for coin is evident. Creating such descriptions won’t be simple tasks, but labors of love. Or course, isn’t that what DMing is anyway? This calls for another post, where I’ll be starting from the top with Kalocly, a barbarian city.


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