The Angry DM @TheAngryDM
The Angry DM @TheAngryDM
The Angry Dome
I'm The Angry DM. I give D&D advice with attitude. Whether you want it or not. I rant. I rage. I am not reasonable. Consider this your warning!
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Is there a type of creature (undead, abberation, etc...) that you like to use the most?  Michael
Eh. Not really. I mean, I guess I do have some patterns, but every creature type has its useful story hooks.
I admit I don't really do much with demons and other purely chaotic evil entities because, by definition, they don't really pursue goals. They are just forces of destruction for destruction's sake and there's not a whole lot you can do with that other than asking people to stand against them. I've been working a lot with aberrants lately and I also tend to use devils a lot. Humanoids are fun because they offer a lot of variety because you can easily arm them in different ways and build varied groups of them, because their motives are easiest to understand, and because they can have fun pets.
Would you allow one player to try to kill another PC because he wanted to spite the player? If he could spin it as in character? I'm having a hard time drawing the line for how much intraparty conflict is too far.
Look, you have to draw your own line. I can't draw lines for you. That said, the answer is no. No. I would not allow this. Look, there's conflict and then there is a CONFLICT. Conflict occurs when two characters want different things or want to avoid different things and between them they have to reach an agreement about how to proceed. Generally, one character or the other has to agree to give up their desires or else they have to find a compromise that gives them both something. Resolving the conflict is what makes things interesting in a story. How two people decide to work together despite having different goals and desires is interesting. That's part of drama. Notice that it isn't the conflict itself that makes things interesting, it's how the characters resolve the conflict together.
But what you're describing is not a conflict, it's a CONFLICT. Because there is no resolution. There is no "how the two characters interact and move forward and who is willing to give what up to make that happen." This is just one character robbing another of whatever they desire by force. This isn't a dramatic conflict, it's just a screwjob.
And however it ends, someone is going to be pissed off. The player who loses their character to another player over spite is still going to be pissed off. And being able to say to that player "well, it was the decision his character would make so it's fair" doesn't make the player any less pissed off. It's just a dick move.
At the end of the day, unless you have consciously decided to change the basic premise, an RPG is a team sport where everyone sitting at the table wants to enjoy the game and has a right to do so. It is one thing to overcome a challenge or fail to overcome a challenge and lose something important or valuable or be presented with a difficult choice in the game. The DM does those things to present an interesting, engaging story and game. But when the party starts being obstacles to each other, that's a completely different matter.
You use CHA rolls when the player wants to get something and has a way to get it. What do you do for things like lies or bluffs? Like you want to get a guard away from his post so you say enemies are attacking elsewhere.
There's this weird implication in the question that lies or bluffs are somehow different from (a) wanting to accomplishing something and (b) having a method whereby it can be accomplished. It's the same f$&%ing thing. In that case, the player (a) wants to get the guard away from his post and attempts to accomplish that by (b) lying about an attack such that the guard will be compelled to leave.
And just like ANY OTHER F$&%ING ACTION A PLAYER TAKES, you ask yourself "can this action succeed," "can this action fail," and "does failure change anything such that the action can't just happen again and again and again until it succeeds?" And if the answers are all yes, you roll some f%$&ing dice. That's how the game works.
You don't like INT rolls for solving puzzles/clue rolls, and I vaguely remember you don't like knowledge checks either, so I'm wondering when a non-wizard would ever actually use their INT score in your games? (Outside of the rare INT save, as of 5E.)
Honestly, I hate Intelligence. I think it is one of the two most problematic ability scores in the game and if I were making my own RPG, there would be no intelligence stat.
Do you have your players roll for their starting stats or do you use a point buy system? Relatedly, do you just give maximum health per levelup, or do your players roll for hp?
All right, here's the deal, as someone who appreciates role-playing skill, I like random characters. I'm going to say that flat out. Modern role-players have become wusses because they will only play whatever obnoxious Mar(t)y S(t)u(e) character they can envision inside their precious little snowflake imagination. Any idiot can play a character they invent. It takes actual skill to turn a random collection of numbers you didn't choose into a coherent character and play it well. For the same reason, anyone who advocates for ignoring the mechanics of their character or racial and class traits in favor of just whatever they decide to make up deserves to be slapped.
BUT... there needs to be a place between randomly generating every stat across a broad range and perfect determinism. Because that random generation of stats thing is problematic in itself. Because of the game's focus on action resolution through ability checks and because the ability modifier is equally as powerful as the level of training on average over the course of a PC career (at least in 5E) and because the stats are all tied to various other factors as well which can't be mitigated via equipment or training, a bad run of luck is pretty disastrous. Sure, it is rare, but it is a possibility. Meanwhile, because you either succeed or fail at most things and the game assumes you will succeed most of the time, the benefit of having very high stats isn't nearly as great as the cost for having bad stats. So, for that reason, I don't like purely random rolling for stats. And, as soon as you start to hedge your bets and try to bring things closer to the average or remove the possibility of disastrous rolls, say, by allowing rerolls of unplayable characters or rolling 4d6 instead of 3d6 and dropping the lowest or anything like that, what is the point of rolling anymore? Rolling is obviously broken if you need ways to avoid the negatives of rolling. So... meh. I end up grudgingly accepting point buy.
Ideally, it'd be neat to have, say, one to six arrays of viable stat numbers, ranging from generalist (all moderately good numbers) to specialist (one very high number and a couple of very low numbers) or something. You roll to determine which array you use and then roll to place each number to a stat. That'd be a neat way to handle it.
As for HP, personally, I prefer "you get the average." Rolling for HP is just kind of stupid. Too many low rolls for HP mean the character is just extremely fragile and it is eventually going to get unlucky and die. So, ultimately, you just create this natural selection process where, eventually, the only surviving characters are the ones who have reasonably lucky rolls for HP. I don't see any reason to give the max for every level. I prefer the system of starting with the max at first level and then giving out a fixed average number of hit points at every subsequent level.
Here's a hard one for you. When do you use charisma checks? You don't want it to be a dump stat, but it's hard to pinpoint when the point to demand one is, when you're just roleplaying out a conversation.
Maybe that's a hard one FOR YOU, but I'm really good at this s$&%. That's an easy question. Hell, I wrote a whole article in which I answered that exact question: http://angrydm.com/2013/08/help-my-players-are-talking-to-things/ .
Here's the rundown: you use a check to resolve an action that (a) has a clear goal, (b) presents a clear method of achieving that goal, (c) can succeed, (d) can fail, and (e) has a risk or cost associated with it such that the PC just can't keep trying the action over and over until it succeeds. Nothing changes just because you're using Charisma to resolve the action and the action involves talking.
Basically, you listen to what the player is saying until you can identify what the PC is trying to accomplish and how the PC is trying to accomplish it. Then, ask if it can succeed, can fail, and if the action changes the situation.
Example:
PC: Hi there. (No action yet)
NPC: Hi.
PC: Let me in. (No action yet)
NPC: No.
PC: But I want to come in. (No action yet)
NPC: You're not allowed.
PC: Let me in or I will punch you! (NOW there is an action, the PC has a goal (getting in) and a method (threatening)).
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When you start a new campaign (let's say D&D/Pathfinder or similar), do you prefer to have the PCs begin at 1st level and grow from there or is there some other sweet spot you like them to start at?
There's a reason it is called 1st level. Because it comes FIRST! I shouldn't even have to explain that.
Look, if you want to start at higher levels, fine. But I only do that for one-shot adventures. If I'm running a campaign, I start at first level. Always have. Always will. And I don't give a s$&% what AD&D 2E Dark Sun advised, I did it there too. It was kind a hilarious bloodbath.
Thing is, no player comes out of the gate playing their character - narratively and mechanically - right. No player ever ends up playing the character they've planned. As soon as they have contact with the game and the party, the good players' characters adapt and change and the lousy players' character break like dry twigs. The more planning - narratively and mechanically - that has gone into the character, the less it can adapt to the game. The less organically the character can fit into the dynamics of the party and the story and everything else that goes on. And I don't give a s$&% how experienced you (any random player) thinks you are and how much you say "no, my characters play exactly the way I planned them," because you're wrong.
Start at first level. Let people grow into their characters. It's like new shoes. You have to wear them in.
What are your thoughts on random encounters. I used to think I don't use them enough and so I built some out. However, after reading your recent articles I feel like maybe I should dispose of them entirely and go with only planned combat encounters.
This is a false dilemma. Random is not the same as unplanned. Personally, I enjoy using "random" encounters. That is, I like, when the PCs are traveling or exploring, that there is a chance of stumbling upon things and if they are loud or careless, they will encounter more things whereas if they are careful and subtle, they have more opportunities to avoid encounters. I like the unpredictable element.
Now, I am an advocate for putting together GOOD encounters (be they combats, investigations, obstacles, interactions, whatever). And that means an encounter with a good reason to exist, a clear goal, that presents decision points. For a combat, that means creatures with a reason to resort to violence, solid strategy, and a battlefield and ambiance that contribute to the battle. And it SEEMS like that implies all encounters and battles MUST be preplanned. But that just isn't true. As you get better at putting together encounters and combats, as you get good at figuring out the elements, you also get good at doing it on the fly. Improvisation is just planning while you execute, it doesn't mean you don't plan.
That said, it is also possible to have everything you need for an encounter in a few lines and maybe a hastily scribbled map. So, if you like to construct encounters and combats before hand, you can still prepare a good list of "random encounters" to drop into an area or site as the PCs stumble over them.
Also, just as a side note, don't assume all random encounters are combat. Remember, an encounter is a goal and a source of conflict, but they don't all need to be resolved with violence. Random encounters present a great opportunity to fill out the story of the world, reward exploration with discovery, and so on.
How do you resolve encounters when one side wants to withdraw/escape, and the other wants to keep fighting?
If one side wants to withdraw or escape, that have to find a way to prevent the other side from chasing or continuing to fight. And that's their problem. For example, if the PCs decide they want to retreat and the foe is faster and unwilling to let them escape, the PCs are going to have to come up with a plan. Maybe one of the PCs slows the enemies down (possibly a sacrifice) or the PCs escape somewhere the enemies can't pursue. Once the PCs have some sort of plan like that, I resolve it like I would any other action. If the roles are reversed and the enemies want to escape from the PCs, they are going to have to pull off something to make it happen.
I've never played or run a D&D game, but I've wanted to for my friends. I have run other systems though. Which edition would you say is most fun and best to run for a group of beginners (including the GM)?
My normal answer would be "whichever one you are most familiar with because they all do pretty much the same thing," but since you are not familiar with any of them... any of them is fine. Seriously. You can enter D&D from any edition. Though I think going 2nd or 1st is making life difficulty for yourself for no good reason. The evolution from 3E to Pathfinder to 4E to 5E is mostly a story about streamlining and improving usability, though 4E wanders in some weird directions.
Look, first, last, and in between, 3rd (and Pathfinder) and 5th aren't as different as people think they are. If you know how to run an RPG and you're familiar with the tropes of RPGs and fantasy games, you can work out how to run any of them. The core action resolution system is basically the same. People complain about the amount of crunch in 3rd, but most of it doesn't get used at all and almost all of it comes down to resolving specific actions using specific skills. It's just loaded up with corner cases. 5E just glosses over the details.
4E does some different things in terms of how characters are managed and it fiddles with some of the basic mechanics, but the core action resolution is the same. I don't find it as versatile, I find it very constraining, but that's just me. Some people enjoy it and some people swear by it as a great entry point. I won't deny it is a great way to teach new players at low levels, but the complexity balloons out of control pretty quickly in 4E and it's kind of a mess with so many options and so many revisions to so many options.
In the end, though, the path HAS been an evolution. So there's really no reason to go backwards in my mind. If you're starting off and you have no attachment to any edition, you might as well enter with the most recent edition. Its current, new stuff will be coming out for it, and lots of people are talking about it. Right now, the number of options are constrained to a nice, manageable number which makes it easy to get in. 5E is easy enough to work out. There's really no reason to step backwards unless you have an attachment to something old. Just play what's current and you'll have a good time. That's my personal advice. Play 5E.
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Last weekend, I ran a combat that went terribly, terribly wrong. The combination of monsters was going to lead to a party wipe, and I think it might have been due to my poor combat design... my "balanced" combat turned out to be a buzzsaw. What experience and advice do you have for such situations?
First of all, remember, DMs don't make mistakes. DMs create situations. Players make mistakes. Seriously, if the PCs were in danger of being completely wiped out, why the hell were they still fighting?! I assume you didn't lock them in a room with the baddies, right? They had avenues of escape, right? And they weren't fighting for the fate of the world or something so high stakes that their dying would have been worth it, right?
You may think I'm kidding, but that is actually my philosophy. It takes a hell of a lot for me to adjust an encounter I'm running at the table because the players have free will. If they choose to stay, they are choosing to live with (or die by) the consequences of that choice. And I'm not going to pull any punches just because they make the wrong choice. The combat may not be what I planned, but ultimately, it is no different from a fight in which the PCs are just getting wrecked due to the wrong combination of lucky and unlucky die rolls. I won't pull them out of that fight if they're not making the choice to leave, after all.
The thing is, if you put a combat into your game, you are accepting the possibility that you MIGHT kill the entire the party. That's what's at stake when a combat breaks out. If you can't stomach that, you can't run a combat. And if you start adjusting things to keep the PCs alive, whatever the reason, you're removing their agency. They don't control the outcome through their choices. You do. In essence, by ensuring they will win, you're railroading your players.
But, hey, if you're one of those DMs who feels that it is your duty to only present fights that are an even match and that the PCs should never be expected to run away and you misbalance a combat, well, you've taught your players not to run so you'd better fix it at the table. And frankly, how you fix it really doesn't matter. Some DMs believe you should do it in secret so the party doesn't know what you're doing. Fudge hit points, use hidden die rolls, and so on. But that's fraught with uncertainty and some players are very quick to notice it and they tend to get upset. You can just outright admit you unbalanced the encounter badly and offer the PCs the chance to flee (and you will let them escape) or offer whatever other way out seems appropriate (like ruling that the PCs have a nasty fight and ultimately win and handwaving the details away). Some DMs will balk at these approaches, but ultimately, the most important thing is avoiding the party wipe without risking the trust your players have in you. Admitting your error and wrapping up the fight off camera is the quickest, safest, most honest way.
What is in the center of the world?
Iron. You can look it up.
What techniques can you use to get players interested in the backstory of your setting? I am planning a dungeon that is an abandoned ruin of an ancient empire (Bael Turath), and I would like to get my players invested in the history of this empire (one of my antagonists' goal is to rebuild it).
I keep getting questions like this and I keep avoiding them. How do get people to be interested in this backstory or that plot or whatever. And the truth is, there's no really good answer. Sometimes people claim there is, but those people are not to be trusted. There is no one magic button you can press to make people get engaged in something.
But when it comes to backstory, let me tell you this: backstory ISN'T interesting. If the backstory were interesting, that's the campaign you'd be running. The reason you're not running it is because it is boring. That's why it's backstory. All backstory does is setup why things are happening the way they are. And very few people (though there are some) are interested in backstory for backstory's sake.
If you want people interested in the backstory, it's got to do something for them. Either it's got to make interesting promises. Or it has to offer a useful payoff. For example, if I talk about how an ancient civilization sealed away a terrible evil underneath a cathedral, I'm making a promise. I'm promising that that cathedral and that evil are going to be important in the future. There's a reason I'm telling you this s$&%. I'm creating anticipation. Players don't care about the evil itself, they care about how that is going to come up. And if it isn't going to come up, they aren't going to care. Thousand year old, dead noble houses aren't interesting because they're dead. No one cares.
On the other hand, if the backstory contains the explanation for how the great evil was defeated and suddenly the great evil looks like it's back, people are going to care because there's a payoff for knowing. It feels good to know. Now, the payoff doesn't have to be direct and obvious. Sometimes, just understanding why things are happening the way they are now and what created that situation feels good. If the campaign takes place in a mysterious haunted city and the PCs discover that a thousand years ago everyone in the city was slaughtered and starts to understand why the city is haunted the way it is, that's interesting.
The key is that most people aren't interested in backstory until it affects them in some direct way, either connecting to a current event or setting up a future event. And if your backstory is just fifty pages of narrative masturbatory world-building, no one can tell the promises and payoffs from the useless crap.
What is the Universe made of?
That seems like an unfair question. Only 5% of the universe has actually been identified by physicists and cosmologists and s$&%. And that's matter. Which is made of atoms. Which, by mass, are mostly protons and neutrons. And those are made of quarks. Except most of the mass of the protons and neutrons is all bound up in the forces that hold the quarks together. So basically, everything we see is actually just made out of this vague, hazy rule about how quarks always have to team up and the harder you try to pull them apart, the stronger they stick together. I mean, it isn't even "stuff" at that point. 5% of the universe is literally made out of the mathematical equivalent of Velcro.
The reason the question is unfair is because the other 95% of the universe hasn't been identified by all the smartest people ever to work on the question. About 25% of the universe is made of some sort of stuff that is invisible and doesn't interact with anything and is completely unidentifiable. The other 70% of the universe is made out of a vague sort of energy that is even stranger than the unidentified invisible stuff.
So, I don't know why I would be expected to know the answer to that question. Or are you actually asking on behalf of cosmologists and astrophysicists because they are hoping some random ask.fm user will happen to know what Dark Matter and Dark Energy actually are? Because that's highly unlikely. You guys are really grasping at cosmological straws now.
Two of the characters in my group have developed a releationnship (a halfling rogue and a watcher ninja), its interesting to watch develop. Have you ever had a situation like this?  Michael
Ugh.
Relationships are merely a drain on your emotions and your wallet. PC relationships are the same, only fake. Why would I give a s$&%?
In DgnWrld we find the wizard underpowered at 1st lvls and with an exp grow in power. I've read the goal is for it to be reminiscent of D&D, but as we haven't played much D&D I ask: What would be your take in a wizard class if you had no D&D "nostalgia/baggage"? I guess it's the hardest class to do
Much as I enjoy Dungeon World, it is a one-shot game for me. I'll break it out now and then for a quick fun time, but I've never run it over the long-term and I've never run it for characters higher than about third level.
Now, I can say this: the wizard being limited in power at first level and growing in power and versatility as time goes on is very much reminiscent of D&D. There's no two ways about it. That is practically the D&D definition of wizard.
The thing is, I've thought long and hard about the wizard. And I'll say this much: I like the idea of growing in versatility, in having more options, as you become more powerful. It keeps things fresh and it feels like real growth. Some classes in some editions of D&D grow purely by numbers. And that isn't nearly as exciting or rewarding. I talked about this in my playthrough of Super Metroid ( https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLGpNSlrWxNaaHM2CHtpMzMEtwI9a2UWRx ) and on my blog. But there's a fine balance to be struck. Versatility is nice until you have so many options that cover so many different situations that you can't keep track of them all and it's difficult to short-list them. A powerful wizard is very unfocussed. They can do a lot of different types of things in many different situations. They overshadow other characters AND it also isn't good for the wizard who has no sort of through-line or theme or defining characteristics.
And the versatility that wizards have is a weirdly false versatility, especially in later editions. Sure, they have a lot of spells that do a lot of different things, but those spells are each very specific and situational. It is hard to be creative with a magic missile spell. It is just "point at the thing you want to hurt and it is hurt." Breaking down magic into spells, into chunks of carefully defined rules ruins the versatility of magic to some extent. Honestly, if I were building my own wizard, I would dump spells and model them more as skills. For example, a skill for "producing fire" with some appropriate limitations of course. The game doesn't need burning hands and fireball and pyrotechnics and scorching ray. We just need a solid, versatile way of dealing with a wizard who can create fire. A way of adjudicating that.
It's very likely been asked but I scrolled a bit and couldn't find it. What's the reason you still DM D&D, and how often do you play the other side of the game (as a player).
I am very rarely a player. I'm too creative and clever and witty and talented and handsome to be a player.
And I DM because with great power comes great responsibility. I'm the best DM there is, so I owe it to the world to run games.
What are some tips to create interesting, engaging dungeons? Most of mine feel kind of empty or simple.
This is a hugely loaded question and I doubt I can do it justice here. I'll try. But understand this is one of those things I'll eventually write about at my blog.
First, stop using the word "dungeon." A dungeon is an enclosed series of interconnected encounters. And there is nothing remotely interesting about an enclosed series of interconnected encounters. An adventure site has to have a story. A reason for being. It was built by someone. For a reason. http://dmwordoftheweek.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/dungeon/ What is the story of the dungeon? What did it exist? Who built it? Who lives there now? And so on.
Second, once you've got the story figured out, you want to focus on certain things. You don't want it to be scatter shot and feel like a random collection of crap. So, make a list of game elements: monsters, terrain features, hazards, traps, etc. that fit into the dungeon. You only need three to five to start off with. Also, make a list of three to five things that do nothing but hint at the story of the place. If the place was a shrine to an ancient god of warfare, you might decide that in one room, there are faded, tattered, and ruined warbanners that were deposited there by champions commemorating their victories. There might be discarded weapons and armor. There might be scrolls detailing historical battles. And those are things you can scatter around the dungeon to tie it together. And give little discoveries to the players to disentangle the story of the place. They are just decorations but they tie the place together. For the same reason, make a short list of specific locations or types of rooms that the party can stumble across to understand the dungeon's story. Maybe barracks, an armor, a forge where blessed weapons were forged, an altar or shrine, and so on. You don't have to spell out any of that crap, just put them all there and the players will either make the connections or they won't. But it'll make the place feel unified and whole.
Third, empty and simple are okay, as long as they are evocative. A site doesn't need to be big and sprawling to be interesting. Nor does every room need to be filled to the brim with encounters. As long as you scatter the story elements around and you add enough encounters, empty rooms and a simple layout will go unnoticed. Because really, what people want, is a sense that the place has a history that they are intruding on. That it's alive. Don't get bogged down in complexity or in over thinking it. People will tell you to think about the ecology of the dungeon and where the inhabitants find food and where they poop and all that crap. Those aren't terrible questions to ask, but they aren't the most important either, and if you skimp and shrug a little bit on some of them, it'll go unnoticed if it feels like there is a history to the place.
What is the point of a map? The ones where you spend hours drawing in the little hills and houses. I ask as it would help me to focus on what to draw and the quality to do it. It cannot be just for information or they would be just lines and circles with maybe some distances.
I get this question a lot. People look at the maps I draw and they ask this question and I always have the sense that what they really want to ask is "why are you wasting so much time on so much useless detail?" I'm a bit defensive. But then a lot of people are jerks, so defensive is only natural.
First, let me answer the actual question. Then I'll hit the implied question.
Maps have a lot of points. Obviously, a map is a visual representation of the relative or absolute locations of things. Duh. That's textbook definition. Right? It shows where s$&% is in relation to other s$&%. And there's lots of levels of detail that you might or might not include. For example, most of my maps lately don't bother with a grid or absolutely distances, though I usually have some sense in my head of the size of things and you can infer them from context. But if that level of precision is important, you include it. Otherwise you don't.
But maps can do more than just show positions. Maps can evoke flavor. Maps can tell stories. Maps can impart information. I did this little map of a village and the biggest, most prominent structure was a saw mill. And that alone tells you a lot about that village. It tells you what the people do there and how they make their money and that they are at home in the forest, that they rely on the forest. It tells you, even though I couldn't show it in any detail, that their houses are probably wooden. Maybe log houses. The workshops probably carpenters. And so on. But that assumes the person drawing the map is thinking it out along those lines. Maps are also art. They serve the same purpose as pictures in the book. They draw you into the world. They bring it to life in a way words just can't.
Now, everyone who draws or uses maps has to decide what they want to get out of them and put that level of work into them. Maybe you just need to know where the goblins are in the room relative to the PCs. Some lines and initials are all you need. But maybe you want something you can hand to your players that tells them about the world they're in. You gotta work harder at that.
As for the implied question that I always hear, "why do you waste so much time mapping" And I'm not implying you asked THAT question. Just going a step beyond in my answer, like I always do. It's because I enjoy it. It's relaxing to me. Some people paint miniatures. Some people build model terrain. I map. I do it to unwind and because it is fun.
How often do you have PC deaths? How do you handle it in general? When someone's about to die, do you press on as much as you can, or ease up on the gas?
Often! I'm really good at D&D and win a lot!
All right, seriously. I do not pull punches. I let the dice fall where they may and my players learn to live with the consequences of their choices, up to and including death. So, no, I don't ease up when a character is close to death. If characters are close to death, I rely on the players to figure out ways to turn that around.
That said, death is actually kind of a pain in the ass. It's really disruptive to the game and I kind of hate it. There's a few ways I deal with it. Let me suggest listening to NPC Cast Episode 41: Deaded, where NPC Chris and NPC Del invited me to discuss how to handle PC death with them.
http://npccast.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/episode-41-deaded/
What are your feelings on having the PCs take control of a group of NPCs for a session to introduce a villain?  Michael
It's a good f$&%ing idea and a great way to let the players to see the world from a perspective that isn't their characters' for once. In my current Pathfinder campaign, my players are (sort of) reincarnations of heroes from past ages of the world. Every so often, we'll step away from our main adventure (mostly urban intrigue, guild politics, and dungeon crawler in the under city) and they will play a flash back of those past (pregen) heroes in historical events that influenced the current state of the campaign world. It helps break things up and it reveals the world's backstory in an interactive way.
Make sure you don't drag those things out. Fit your adventure into a single session (or two at most, depending on how often you play); don't drag it out. People don't want to be dragged away from their main characters for too long (and you lose the thread of whatever is going on). Make sure whatever happens in the one-off has some impact or gets called back in the main game somehow (so it's relevant). And keep the pregens simple and easy to grasp so people can just jump into the fun without having to learn too much s$&%.
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I've been a devoted reader of your little Q & A here for some time. It seems to me that a lot of the questions you answer all amount to "What's the least amount of work I can do and still pretend we're having fun?" So, what's the least amount of work I can do and still pretend we're having fun?
First of all, if you're happy "pretending" to have fun, enjoy your delusion. But, I'd suggest if you don't actually find your gaming fun, you take up another hobby. Why would you want to waste your valuable time on pretend fun? There are lots of other hobbies out there.
As for the "least amount of work," thing? Yep. That's a perfectly natural question to ask. Once again, we're talking about a hobby. Something done for pleasure. Now, gaming - especially for a DM, but also for players - involves a certain amount of time invested just to make it fun. I mean, compare it to being on a baseball team. Right? The games are fun. Hanging out with your team is fun. But spending a few hours on a Sunday afternoon alone working on your pitching? Or going to practice even when you don't feel up to it? That's work. It facilitates fun, it's the price of fun, but it may not always be fun in and of itself.
That's just how it works. Some types of fun have a price. And if the fun is worth the price, you keep doing it. If not, if you're smart (see paragraph 1), you quit. Do something else.
That said, if you can find a way to minimize the cost without sacrificing the fun, you can change the equation. The benefit outweighs the cost that much more. Right?
There are parts of game prep that every DM hates. We all have something we hate doing. It's naturally to want to avoid that s$&% and focus only on the good stuff. But everything a DM does to prepare for a game is a tradeoff. They choose to spend free time preparing stats or building terrain or coming up with a list of twenty NPC names so they can populate a noble's ball on the fly next session or whatever. In return, the game runs more smoothly, the DM can run it more effectively, and everyone has more fun.
"What's the least amount of work I can do to have fun" isn't a bad question. Because its really "how can I get the most fun for the least amount of cost." In other words, "how can I be a more efficient DM?"
How often should enemies run optimal tactics? It's tempting/realistic to have Big Bads unleash everything on Round 1 and down 1-2 PCs (especially targeting the healer) before the PCs can react, then keep focusing on the weak PCs until they -stay- down, but that's not much fun for the players.
I hate this question. I just want to be clear on that. Because there's so much baggage and some f$&%wit always has to bring intelligence scores into it.
Look, here's the thing: a pitched battle against something that is going to kill you is pretty much the highest stakes situation a living being can face. Every creature in danger for its life is going to use the absolute best tactics available to it. That's it. From a fiction standpoint, anything less than that is horses$&%.
From a mechanics standpoint, the game assumes any creature in a fight is going to use the best tactics available to it. No game designer puts a power or a tactic in a monster stat block thinking it won't be used, or puts a fighting option in the combat chapter hoping it will never get used. So if you're leaving good tactics on the table, from a mechanics standpoint, you're f$&%ing up the difficulty curve.
Now, if you find your tactics are strong enough that your enemies routinely destroy your PCs (I've had this problem myself), you need to scale back the difficulty level of the encounters you build. Make your baddies less powerful. Don't try to adjust on the tactics side. Just set your game from Normal to Easy. That's what the Challenge Rating/Encounter Budget/Hit Die/Whatever system is meant for. It's meant to be a difficulty slider, not an absolute.
But where we run into problems and where I start to get pissed off is in the phrase "best tactics available to it." See, people make a lot of (pointless) noise about intelligence scores and wisdom scores and how tactically clever something is. They'll point to an orc fighter with an intelligence score of 6 and assume he has to be a moron in combat. They point to an animal and say "well, it is not smart enough to use tactics." But that's a load of bulls$&%. Animals in the real world are extremely tactically clever. Mainly because they aren't relying on reasoning ability, they are relying on millions of years of getting good at being predators or avoiding predators. And the orc fighter may be lacking in the logic department, but he's a goddamned elite fighter from a warrior society. He's going to be tactically very strong. Me, I find those arguments exhausting and useless. Because, honestly, they don't do the game any good and they don't really strain credulity if you actually think about what you're doing for even a moment.
But then, sometimes, some weirdness does come up. For example, does a wolf even know where a healing spell is coming from? Wolves are tactically very smart, very dangerous creatures, but can they figure out where a spell is coming from? I mean, I know they can figure out where an arrow is coming from because a dog will follow a thrown ball and can figure out where the source is. And that's where it all gets sort of hairy. Where do good tactics end?
My advice is this: play the creature. Make the decisions you think the creature would make. Just keep it rational. Don't be stupid.
What do you recommend for determining how much to tell players with monster lore? How do you determine it, and how much do you share?
I don't think I've made a secret of the fact that I prefer my players to make informed decisions insofar as it is possible, but I also like them to figure things out. I don't want them to know EVERYTHING but I want them to have the opportunity to learn EVERYTHING.
All in all, I tend to do things thusly. When I put a monster into the game, I have a sense of what a person in the world might "know" about that monster. I just kind of decide what things are knowable and what things are to be worked out in the fight or to be surprised by. My criteria is somewhat haphazard, but its all based around building good challenges and rewarding smart play and clever analysis.
When the players encounter a monster, as part of the flavor text, I tell them what they know about the monster. I just announce it. Up front. Because that's how recognition works anyway. You see a thing, you recognize it. And I don't bother with that crap about just telling the one person who has the knowledge and asking everyone else to pretend they don't know or asking the player to summarize everything in one six second sentence. I assume the PC, in the world, is yelling advice and information as it becomes relevant through the whole fight. "Whoa, don't get too close, it has a fire aura" whatever. I just sweep all that stuff aside and say "here's what it is, here is what is known."
And I'll tell you the honest truth, I hate Knowledge skill rolls. I hate them for a couple of reasons, but I've pretty much dispensed with the actual roll. If someone has the skill, I just give them the info. Done and done. That's your reward for Knowledge (Arcana), you (and your party) get to hear the lore entry for the elemental. And you hear it as part of the flavor text that sets up the scene or monster. That's how recognition works anyway. You see a thing, the information pops into your brain.
I never, EVER require a player to ask "do I know anything about what these are and can I make a Knowledge (Monster Lore) check?" That is s$&% DMing. If a PC might know a thing about a thing, you tell them. Immediately. Requiring players to access their knowledge skills actively shows a complete lack of understanding of how the human brain functions and is also anathema to role-playing. It is a speed-bump to role-playing. It f$&%s up the role-playing process in a fundamental way.
Geez man, it's getting kinda quiet around here. How was Gen Con?
It was great. And yes, I have been very busy. But I'm trying to stick to a regular update schedule now, which you can read about here on http://angrydm.com/2014/08/whats-up-with-angry . For example, tomorrow, you'll see part one of my look at combat encounters which I promised some time ago. And yesterday, the latest in my weekly Angry Rants went up at the Mad Adventurers Society http://www.madadventurers.com/angry-rants-the-raw/ . Also, relatedly, check out the NPC Cast's GenCon debrief http://npccast.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/episode-86-post-gencon/ because I got to hang out with Chris and Aaron and there may be a Live Play podcast going live shortly with yours truly behind the screen. And in October, my gaming group and I are doing a 24-hour gaming Live Stream to raise money for the Children's Miracle Network through http://extra-life.org/team/streptococcus . I also have some bigger surprises coming in the next few months so things will be decidedly less quiet.