On Dungeon Masters

A DM’s judgement is the final authority in the game.

But if the DM is not running the game for the enjoyment of their players, then why are they running it at all?

Saw this quote in a discussion forum talking about D&D rules. Sage advice, that.

It boggles my mind when I see people telling stories of how un-fun their DM is. Like the one where he’d put the party up against too powerful opponents, calls every one of their skill checks failures, then, when it’s obvious the party is overmatched, would bring in his favorite overpowered NPC to save the day and wipe out the baddies. And not once or twice, but regularly.

How is that fun?

Or, to be precise, how is that fun for anyone other than the power-mad Dungeon Master?

I’m the DM for my group, mostly by default. (I’m the one who works to keep the group together; without me, there would be no group.) That’s okay. To me, the most important thing is for everybody at the table to have fun.

I’ve had sessions where the party did not follow up on any of my carefully crafted clues, or ignored several (what I thought were obvious) adventure hooks. I’ve had sessions that were a TPK. I’ve had sessions with what I thought were challenging encounters leave the characters barely breathing hard.

But when everyone is laughing and having a good time, that’s a good gaming session, whether or not it advanced the plot in my grand epic storyline that only I know. And I suppose I’m doing okay, because every member of my gaming group (except my teenage daughter) is married with kids of their own. They have plenty of other things they can be doing. That they want to spend their afternoon with me is the best compliment I can receive.


Microsoft Excel as a dungeon design tool

PC Magazine has an article about how to use Microsoft Excel as an architectural design tool. While not suitable for building a bridge, it’s more than good enough for laying out your deck, landscaping, or bookshelf locations. Essentially, the instructions are to resize all of the cells to form a graph-paper-like grid. Then you can use the built-in shapes and graphics or import your own.

Well, why not a dungeon? It must be better than drawing something up on graph paper and scanning it. If you’ve already got Excel available it would be worth it to try. I imagine Excel alternatives (Open Office Spreadsheet, for instance) would work just as well.

(via Lifehacker)


Dave Arneson passes away

We lost Gary Gygax in March of last year, and now that other pillar in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons has left us as well.

Wired News: R.I.P. Dungeons & Dragons Co-Creator Dave Arneson, 1947-2009

While not as famous as Gary Gygax, who passed away in March of last year, Arneson was a driving force behind D&D’s creation and his contribution to the world of adventure gaming should not be underestimated. It was Arneson’s spark that transformed Gygax’s game Chainmail into the first edition of D&D, and begat everything that followed.

Arneson had to fight to get credit for his contributions, filing multiple lawsuits (later resolved out-of-court) against Gygax over crediting and royalties. He nonetheless did return to TSR in the mid-’80s to work with Gygax again. Following that, he began a second career as an educator, working in several schools with a particular focus on how to use gaming as an instructional tool.

Arneson suffered a stroke in 2002 and was soon after diagnosed with cancer. He finally lost his battle with cancer last night, surrounded by his family, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Gamers everywhere owe him a certain debt of gratitude for his work. He will be sorely missed.

Been gone too long – getting back into roleplaying games (part 3)

So, finally, no further complications cropped up and we were able to meet Wednesday last at a café in town.

I had three main objectives for the meeting: Make sure no one was too weird, to set up our schedule for play sessions, and discuss the kind of game we were looking for.

The first was easy. There was only one guy who I hadn’t already met, and it was quickly obvious that he fit in to the acceptable weirdness scale.

The third wasn’t too bad either. I suggested a semi-monthly schedule that everyone agreed with, although, predictably, we’ve already had to make adjustments.

The second actually took up the majority of our time but, in the end, was a bit anti-climactic. We’ve all been out of it so long (except for one of us, who has never been in it) that we didn’t have strong opinions about much of anything. I’ve been doing a lot of reading of RPG theory lately, and specifically social contracts, but I didn’t want to scare anybody away by going too crazy. We did agree on a few things (no player killing or thievery, no evil characters, limited meta-gaming at the table, lengthy rule discussions away from the table, and so on) but for the most part no one objected to anything I presented.

I did step up and offer to be the DM, even though I’m still learning the rules. Since we’re all learning the rules, it seems to fit, and I did a good bit of gamemastering when I was younger. (I’ll get my chance to play someday.) As such, I talked a bit about my DMing style and some of the things that I like to do. Not knowing this crowd, though, and not having done it in such a long time, I stuck to generalities.

So, when I left, everyone seemed enthusiastic if not exactly “gung-ho” and we had the date for our first session, where we would do our character creation.

Any doubts I may have had about anyone enthusiasm were pretty much erased the next day, when the guy who had the least experience among us offered up his choice of race and class and a backstory to go with it. Shortly thereafter came another character concept with backstory. I’ve got a good hook for the first; I’m still working on the second.

So I think we’re off to a pretty good start. Now, if we could just find a couple more players…

Been gone too long – getting back into roleplaying games (part 2)

Continued from Part 1

So, after being out of it completely for the better part of a decade, I’ve decided that I miss roleplaying games and want to get back into it.

But…how? I’ve made a few acquaintances here in Maryland, maybe even a friend or two, but I’m reasonably sure that not a single one is into RPGs. Heck, I don’t even know where there’s a game store around here. I’m pretty sure that my local Barnes & Noble has rulebooks for a few modern games, but that’s a terrible place to try to network with gamers. What am I going to do, stake out the bookshelves and accost every thirteen-year-old who picks up the Dungeon Master’s Guide? No, I needed more reasonable methods and I’d need to cast a wide net.

Thank goodness for the World Wide Web. It didn’t exist when I was a kid; I’m glad it’s here now. First I tried looking for sites that were made to help roleplayers find each other and found a few. Some look like they never really took off, others like they were abandoned a couple years ago. I picked a few likely candidates, registered, and put my profile out there. It was hard trying to write something that sounded enthusiastic without sounding desperate and “noobish”. Since it seems like D&D is still the biggest and most famous, I figured that would be the easiest to find people for, so I went to Wizards of the Coast’s website and looked through their player classifieds. I found a couple of possibilities and sent out a couple of e-mail messages. The local gaming club was no help, though, as they’re almost exclusively board and war games.

One thing that is making this more difficult is that I’m trying to find people who are like me. That is, people in or near their forties with kids/spouse/home/job/etc. Teenagers and college kids aren’t going to appreciate where gaming needs to fit into my list of priorities and I just don’t see a sixteen-year-old having compatible “roleplaying goals” with me. I remember some of the stuff that I thought was great in the D&D games of my youth and that’s not what I want now. I also know that when I was that age I never would have wanted to dungeon delve with some “old dude.”

Another is that I’m essentially a newbie. Unless I found someone who is playing with a ten-year-old (or older) system, I’m not going to be hip to the lingo. Reading some of the blogs and forum messages out there, I was surprised as to how many terms I didn’t recognize. And this was mostly generic roleplaying stuff, not specific systems.

While I continued to look online for not-too-scary people, I decided to check into my friendly local game stores. I little digging revealed that there was basically one nearby: Brainstorm Comics and Games in Frederick. So, on a recent Monday when I had off from work I stopped in. The guy working the counter was friendly and told me about their 10% discount on RPG books and the bulletin board in the back for people looking for players. Cool! Another avenue. Their selection of RPG books is pretty good, but not extensive. I see my old friend HERO System there, specifically the 5th Edition rulebook. Tempting…but no. I opt to take a chance and get the D&D Fourth Edition Players Handbook.

By now I’m getting some responses to my queries, but not many, and there weren’t that many messages sent out in the first place. One group I heard back from had an opening, but their schedule just wasn’t going to mesh with mine. I heard from another guy who is looking for a game for himself and his brother-in-law and we pledged to keep in touch as we looked. But that was pretty much it. Ugh.

A guy I know in town does a lot of photography and had done portraits of my girls a couple of times now. He also happens to be a ColdFusion developer like me. He’s suitably geeky enough that he probably knows who plays, or at least won’t look at me funny when I ask. Well, it turns out that he hasn’t played since he was 13 years old and would love to start it up again. Cool!

Then there’s a guy I work with, also suitably geeky, and we share a lot of the same taste in our reading material. I told him about what I was doing and he also expressed an interest. Meanwhile, the photographer asked his fellow photography club members if anyone was interested and got a bite.

Wow! Sounds like we have a good core to start with. We should all get together face-to-face and discuss what we want to do. Some people like more combat, some people like really delving into their character, some people think die-rolls are sacrosanct, some people don’t mind a little fudging if it advances the story, some people think character death should be avoided at all costs. There are lots of ways gamers may be incompatible. Besides, before any of us starts inviting people to his house, we really want to ensure we don’t get too weird a “vibe” from them.

Needless to say, we’ve spent several weeks trying to find a time to sit down for an hour or so to sit down and talk about what we want to get out of the game that fits on all our schedules. It’s been nigh impossible. We think, though, we have a date settled. Unfortunately, it’s still over a week away and I have to bring my kids along. I’m not surprised, though I thought I’d be playing by now.

Part 3 will be the outcome of that meeting.

Been gone too long – getting back into roleplaying games (part 1)

After being away from roleplaying games for quite a long time, I recently decided that I missed it and wanted to get back into it. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I have, after all, moved a couple of states away from where I grew up and most of the people I know. I’m significantly older now, with a job (and a commute) and a family and all the responsibilities and commitments that go with those. Heck, I don’t even know where to go to get rulebooks. I just didn’t think it would be as hard as it has been.

First, a little background:

My first encounter with roleplaying games was during my one and only summer camp when I was around thirteen or fourteen. (This would have been 1979 or 1980.) I was at a Boy Scout camp in Pennsylvania with members of my troop. A bunch of kids were gathered around a table after dinner and I was naturally curious. I think I’d heard of Dungeons & Dragons by then, but didn’t know anyone who played. In any event, the basics of the game were explained to me and, after observing for a while, I asked if I could get in on it. The guy running the show told me to wait until he could work me in. (I guess it would seem a little weird for some guy to show up while you’re exploring a monster-infested catacomb and ask to join your group.) So, I waited.

And waited. It was fun to watch, which is what kept me around, but being in it was obviously more fun. Then one of the guys who was playing had to leave to go do some merit badge work. “Astronomy” or somesuch. If he didn’t mind, I asked, could I run his character until he came back.

“Melkor” was the name written across the top. This was just a “pickup game”, really, so everyone just had characters the Dungeon Master handed out. At the time, I had no idea that the name was related to the history of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth; I just thought it was pretty cool. When it came time to describe actions, like in combat or when divvying up treasure, I started speaking in the third-person. I mean, this wasn’t my character. My character was waiting to meet these guys when they got back to town. No, this was someone else’s character and I was just a caretaker.

Somehow, my expressions of “Melkor wants the potion” and “Melkor will kill the kobold with his sword” fell into this kinda sing-songy, high-pitched accent. Kinda like a combination of Peter Lorre and Gollum. As the other players and observers laughed at this, I just kept it up.

All too soon, though, Melkor’s original player returned. I tried to convince him to let me keep playing him, but he would have none of it. By the time we played the next night, I had a character of my own. “Mellchor” or some other unimaginative variation was his name, but don’t worry, I said, it’s not the same as “Melkor”. It wasn’t the same at all.

Still, I was hooked. When I got home from camp I roped my older younger brother into playing something based on my sketchy knowledge of the rules. With no rules, no dice, but plenty of graph paper, it didn’t last long, but it did convince me that it was really something I wanted to do. For the rest of my teen years I played as often as I could. Along the way I got both of my brothers into it and several of my friends, and discovered several more that were into it that I didn’t know about.

Then, in my late teens, I was introduced to Champions. I was never really into comic books, but the idea of playing at being a super-powered hero was really appealing. The mechanics were completely different from AD&D, and it just lent itself to comedy without devolving into farce. I suppose at the time I was also burned out on the whole Swords & Sorcery genre. Champions, and the HERO system that evolved from it could, with a bit of tweaking, be used in just about any genre. (Yes, I’d heard of GURPS by this time. But no one I knew played it, and no matter how many times I looked through the core rulebook, I just couldn’t grok it.)

So, a good bunch of my twenties was spent with my buddies, drinking beer and beating up four-color bad guys. (Alcohol-Induced Roleplaying–or AIRP–we called it.) My friends and I still tell stories of some of our memorable gaming moments, and I had some pretty memorable characters: Broadsword (an updated Melkor), Densitron, Dr. Byte, Major Justice. But that is also the decade when people went off to school, and then graduate school, and met and married their wives, and bought houses, and started families. Our gaming sessions became few and far between, until we just dropped them altogether. I tried gaming with a group down at Princeton University a couple of times, but if you think Champions combat takes a long time to resolve, try it with a group of a dozen people.

Somewhere in there I got into Magic: The Gathering. It didn’t fill the same niche as D&D, but I had a lot of fun with the people I was playing with. I still have a picture in my head of an enraged, flying, woolly mammoth tromping on a whole mob of imps and it still gives me a chuckle. Then it just turned into an arms race and lost its appeal. I cashed in.

But, these same folks were also into roleplaying. White Wolf’s World of Darkness was their preferred system. They were starting up a new Changeling: The Dreaming campaign and would I like to join them. Not my first choice, but I’d be willing to give it a try.

It was nice to be in a system without all the mechanics for interacting with the world. Oh, there was some to be sure, and our share of dice-rolling, but nothing like the math degree you needed for Champions. I learned quite a bit about roleplaying from these folks and had a good time in spite of the source material. Sadly, there was a falling out and my Nocker, Danzo, never did realize his potential.

After that, there was the occasional one-off adventure in Champions on those few occasions when I got together with my friends. Then I pretty much hung it up altogether. By this time I was married myself, with a kid on the way. My wife, bless her heart, is so completely not interested in roleplaying games she’s like my antithesis. I filled my leisure time with other pursuits: computer gaming, primarily first-person shooters; fantasy football; homebrewing; blogging.

But it never went away completely. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of my old RP stuff, no matter that it sat in storage untouched for years, except when we moved. Every once in a while I’d read something online about roleplaying games that would make me chuckle, even though I hadn’t played in ages.

That brings us to the present day. I was reading something online(I forget what) and it lead me to something else, then to something else, then to yet something else. I’m sure you know how that goes. It also resulted in multiple muttings of  “man, I miss playing”.

Well, why couldn’t I? My kids, though still young, were old enough to not need constant monitoring. Although my wife is in school one night a week and on weekends, her schedule is regular enough for me to work around. I decided to go for it.

But how? I’ll get into that in Part 2.