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Let Players Manage Themselves, Part 2
Save My Game
by Stephen Radney-MacFarland

When you're the Dungeon Master, you're going to wear a lot of hats. You're going to be the creator of a world, the architect of numerous dungeons, and the strategic mastermind behind countless encounters. Those are the fun hats. Those are the creative hats. Those are game hats. Less fun, less creative, and seemingly having nothing to do with the game, you are also going to be thrust into the roll of manager for a group of people who come to your house to play each week. For better or worse, the DM also tends to be the leader of the group -- a leader who often hosts the games, organizes the schedule, and has to act is arbitrator for every problem that comes up.

It's not fair, I tell you. But there are ways that you can get your fellow players to shoulder most, if not all, of the burden, by letting them manage themselves.

Last month, I outlined what I consider the four main and tedious concerns when it comes to managing your players. They were:

  • Player attendance (and how to deal with absence)
  • Player materials
  • Player information and planning
  • Player relationships

This was followed by advice on how to let players manage themselves when it came to attendance and tracking their materials. This month, I'm picking up where I left off. I saved the last two for later, because they are more complicated, more nuanced than the first two. Attendance is all about tough love, creating contingencies against absenteeism, and letting the show go on when there are minor attendance hiccups. Player material management is as easy as creating back-ups and material repositories near the place you play. These solutions are simple, straight-forward, and somewhat intuitive, though they take a bit of backbone to implement. The two remaining concerns are not as simple.

As I sat down to write this month's column, my plan was to cover the last two points in a single column, but as I began to write, I realized that both concepts need more space than that. So before tackling the perilous topic of managing player relationships, we'll spend this month exploring the management of player information and planning.

Just the Facts, Ma'am, Just the Facts

When it comes to managing player information, brevity is the soul of wit. Players gain in-game information by two methods. The first is what you explicitly tell them. The second is what they can pry out of you after you're done telling them what you want them to know.

It's best to be tight and concise in your initial descriptions. Highlight what's most important to the scene or encounter, skipping extraneous world- or scene-building descriptions. Some of you are cringing at this. After all, it's great fun to craft eloquent prose to bring an encounter or roleplaying scene to life. But often that work is wasted on the tin ears of players who are more concerned with the havoc they're about to wreak on the scene than the fine details of the frescos or the origin of the ornate desk that sits in the corner of the room. When you are overly descriptive, your players take a passive role. Players hate being passive. Their eyes gloss over, they start reading comic books or playing their DS, or they wonder what other snacks you have in the fridge. Dungeons & Dragons is a game about active imagination. While you're the only source for information describing what a character sees, a part of every D&D player wants to color the scene himself. An active imagination wants to poke, prod, discover, and dissect on its own. Instead of fighting this tendency, accept it and use it.

By giving a brief description, you make your players hunger for more. With a brief description, you can focus that hunger on points that are important to the encounter or the plot. If you overload them with too much description, players will start to poke and prod in too many directions, and you will soon find yourself struggling to keep up with the deluge of queries.

You may find this information dissemination tactic oddly familiar. You'll find many examples of this tactic in published D&D adventures. For example, look at the first encounter, "On the Road: Kobold Brigands" from H1 Keep on the Shadowfell.

The wind in your face is cool and comfortable. The road beneath your feet is level. An occasional ancient cobblestone peeks through the dirt road, indicating decades of neglect. You notice footprints leading up and down the road, many of which were made by small, clawed feet.

In three simple sentences, the introductory read-aloud text allows you to create a scene and focus the players on some suspicious tracks on the road as well as present some foreshadowing (a fight with small, clawed-feet critters). If you take a closer look at that encounter, there's more going on around the PCs. The site of the upcoming battle has boulders, foliage, rock outcroppings, and even gravestones. The encounter itself takes place on the King's Road that winds its way through the Garlbury Downs toward the village of Winterhaven. But the flavor text, correctly, does not try to illuminate the entire scene or the entire background. It allows the players to explore by asking questions.

This is not only important because it gives players an active role in the game. It also takes a good chunk of player information management out of your hands. Except for the simple and basic facts, with maybe the slightest hint of flourish, you don't need to script much, which is great. This reduces the amount of information you give at the start of the encounter or scene and reduces your work before the game. Oh, and it also gets the action started sooner. This is always, always (did I mention always) a good thing.

Heroes Tell Better Stories

Letting players take the information lead is a good idea not only when it comes to encounters. It's also a good idea when it comes to telling the campaign story.

At the start of each of my games, I sum up what happened in the previous session with just a couple of sentences. These summations are as brief as they can be and serve a single purpose -- getting player conversation started.

After a week of real life, players need a few minutes to sweep the cobwebs out of the D&D wing of their memory mansion. That work is best done as a group. When you allow the summary to be a conversation rather than a narrative, the players will start riffing off of each other's perspectives of the last session as they strive to gain focus on previous events. It's no secret that different players have different motivations while playing, and those motivations also inform what that player will remember in vivid detail from past games. This sharing of storytelling and bringing the past game into focus might seem disjointed and jumbled, but it serves a greater purpose. It gets your players participating early. Think of it as a warm-up stretch to the forthcoming session.

The truth is, when a DM talks about his game, it tends to sound like a dry history book. When a player talks about the game she's playing in, it sounds like a heroic adventure (at least to her ears). Now, I love to snuggle up next to history books on rainy weekends, but my players are there to revel in their own adventure epic. They might think it's neat that the actions of ancient empires have moved them in some way toward the Ruins of the Oehinn to fight the mysterious goals of the Hidden Warlord, but that is secondary to the fact they need to defeat the undead that haunt the place in order to find Lysander's father and the lost spells of Rassillian hidden in its vaults. Those goals are immediate. They're personal. And they involve kicking ass and taking names in the here and now!

This form of collaborative storytelling doesn't just work with the opening crawl. Right now, I run games for two players who are crafting character journal entries for the campaign blog site. Each journal tells roughly the same story but seen from very different points of view. I'm finding that it's great fun to read the story we're crafting (or at least carefully manipulating) through new and refreshing voices. The players' individual embellishments add new detail and depth to the game. For example, one player, while writing his family history, created a mercenary company that his parents used to run. I picked that up, and that company and its current members have become a force in the campaign.

Be a Lurker, But Not a Jerk

I think it is the goal of every DM to create the plausible illusion that their D&D world is real. Now, real is a loaded term. For our purposes, I mean real in a literary sense -- plausible, believable, and both big in scope and immediate in presentation. In short, not fake. It's an impossible task to create an entire world and drop players into it. Eventually, you will react to what the players want to do rather than what you have planned. If you've been reading this column for a while, you know I'm a proponent of doing that early and often, but here's the rub -- you need to keep constant tabs on what your players want.

Part of doing this involves knowing what kinds of players you have around the table (see Dungeon Master's Guide page 8 for some simple tricks to categorize and engage your players). Another way to figure out what your players want is to get them to make and communicate decisions about in-game choices.

A campaign blog or an email list is extremely helpful in this regard. Players who are engaged in the game will spend whatever free time they can scrounge talking about it to one another. They will work out puzzles, have arguments, and ultimately make decisions. A blog or something similar allows you to listen in on those conversations and pick up key hints on what the players want to do and explore in your world. The trick here is to make sure you never use that information to screw over the players. If the PCs come up with a clever way to get into the castle that you didn't anticipate, fight the tendency to shore up that loophole to get your players to do "what you planned." Never squash good and fun ideas just because they weren't yours.

Lurking in this way, allowing player conversation in a desire to help craft your game, also decreases your adventure prep time, because you're not spending your time trying to close loopholes. You also avoid an adversarial relationship between you and your players, which might motivate them to not want to share their plans with you. If you close enough doors on them based on eavesdropping on their blog or email conversations, they will figure it out and either shut you out of future conversations or, worse, cease having them altogether. Create challenging fun rather than frustrating challenges with the information you glean, and your players will trust you with all their desires and plans.

The Mail Bag

Save My Game really isn't a column about rules questions, it's a column about solving problems that happen at and around the game table. At the same time, in D&D, there is often a thin line between rules issues and game issues. This month, I answer some rules-like (or rules-lite) questions, but don't confuse these answers with updates or errata. They are suggestions to help you 'handle' rules issues rather than any official rule of the game.

Before we get on to those, I want to share an email I received in the last month about the column "Saying Yes Is a Skill."

Hello. This is my first time writing a letter to your magazine, but after running my D&D session this evening and reading the article "Saying Yes Is a Skill," I had to relate my experience. During a combat encounter with some kobolds, the ranger in the party noticed a hidden trap in the middle of the room (she has a passive Perception of 20). I had modified this trap from the DMG to only trigger if Medium or larger creatures stepped on it, so that the kobolds could stand on it and then run away, tricking the PCs into falling into the pit. Obviously, knowing it was there, the party just avoided it. Anyway, late in the combat, a situation arose where a kobold was standing on the trap floor and the party wizard asked if he could target the trap with a spell so as to destroy it and thereby send the hapless kobold to an unexpected end. While I knew that the rules allowed for certain traps to be destroyed with attacks, I also knew that the rules did not explicitly cover the situation for pit traps. That being the case, there was a time when I would have ruled against the player's idea simply because I tended to let my decisions fall on the side of what was written in the rulebooks.

This time, however, was different. Perhaps because I was riding high on the new edition, and because I have made my new philosophy, "When in Doubt, Make it Fun" I decided to allow this action. (If, of course, his attack could beat the trap's defense of 15 -- no point in just giving it away.) Needless to say, the trick worked, and the kobold fell to an untimely demise. Most importantly, though, was the look that quickly spread around my gaming table. It was a look that conveyed the wonder of playing a game that finally delivers on the promise of "your imagination is the only limit." Although I'm sure that they attributed this new direction of the game to the new edition and not my change of approach, the two are pretty much the same thing. Fourth edition has finally taught me that rules exist to give the players the freedom to live as heroes, not to hold them back with knee-jerk "realism."

-- No-More-Knee-Jerk-Realism Rob

Rob's testimony here is one that I've been hearing over and over again since the release of 4th Edition. And I'm glad to hear it. If you take anything away from Save My Game, it should be this: When you run a D&D game, your chief job is to help create heroic fantasy fun for your players and yourself. Yes, you are creating interesting and deadly challenges. Yes, you are world building. Yes, you are adjudicating rules. But all of those activities serve that main end. Good job, Rob! That look of delight is the greatest gift players can give you (though chipping in for your share of the pizza comes in a close second).

Resolution?

I have a rules question. When I have a number of effects that occur at the start of the turn, which order do they resolve. For instance, if I have a monster that has regeneration 5, and is taking ongoing fire 5, which goes first?

-- Looking-for-the-Right-Way Chris

I'm going to be a little cheeky here. Which one do you want to go first?

I'm only half kidding. The rules are quiet on an order of operations mainly because it's not a good idea to force one where it doesn't belong. The best way to deal with issues like these is to allow the person controlling the creature to decide the order of the effects, much as they do for saving throws at the end of their turn. This lets the player make choices for his or her own character and allows you, as the DM, to make choices that serve the narrative and fun, rather than following techie and unnecessary rules.

Magic Item Misfits

My group has been playing 4th Edition and having a blast with it, but my players have brought up a concern regarding magic items, and I was wondering how we could deal with it. Right now we are in low-epic levels and my players are distressed that they cannot hit anything without their magic items. Any level-appropriate challenge becomes extremely difficult if they are not using their best stuff. This is a problem for my players, who like to carry different assortments of weaponry (and sometimes armors) for different situations, especially for the fighter who likes to use different weapons for different effects with his powers. My players argue that at such high levels they should be able to stay relevant with ordinary equipment and that magic items should be a nice bonus. One player expressed that magic items don't feel special because they are a requirement for the character just to be viable.

Do you guys have any optional rules or anything of that sort that could resolve this before I have a full-scale mutiny on my hands? I have considered using the magic item threshold rules for NPCs from the Dungeon Master's Guide (page 187) to give the players a flat bonus as they level up that wouldn't stack with the enhancement bonus of magic items. Would this be a reasonable optional rule in your opinion?

-- Spill-All-You-Know Crow

Well, we wouldn't want a mutiny, would we? While we have some optional rules lying here and there on desks (we are all game designers, developers, and editors, after all), your basic solution of using the magic item thresholds for NPCs should work reasonably well. If you want a system that is low magic or where the majority of the magic of an item resides in its powers and properties, you can also just assume that all items have the baseline bonus for magic for that level. This would make those super-generalist characters more powerful than the baseline D&D characters, but it sounds like that's what your players want out of their epic play.

Be careful, though. If this issue is enough to really cause a mutiny, I have a sneaking suspicion that you have a power gamer (or many power gamers) on your hands. You'll want to make sure that they don't push to add magic bonuses on top of the assumed enhancements or try to get you to relax the restrictions on magic item daily powers. Make sure your game is fun, but that it's fun for everyone, not just the person with the loudest or most persistent arguments.

About the Author

Born on a stormy Christmas day, in our nation’s capital, during the Nixon administration, the stars were definitely wrong when Stephen Radney-MacFarland came screaming into the world. Spending most of his impressionable years as a vagabond and ne’re-do-well, Stephen eventually settled in the Northwest to waste his life on roleplaying games.

Once that RPGA guy, Stephen is now a developer in RPG R&D where he doesn’t create the traps… he just makes them deadlier. He also teaches a class on roleplaying design for the Art Institute of Seattle, molding the minds of young and upcoming designers. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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