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I’m Stephen. I Solve Problems.
Save My Game
by Stephen Radney-MacFarland

The more often you play Dungeons & Dragons, the more likely it’s going to happen. You’re going to stumble upon a real problem in your game. Something will occur that brings it to a grinding halt, or at least gives you pause as you realize you’ve hit a real dilemma that you’re going to have to solve—and the sooner the better.

I am not talking about little rules quibbles. Every D&D campaign—heck, every session—suffers a few of those disagreements. And through the Sage Online, the FAQ, errata, our top-rate Customer Service team, not to mention the various advice columns you can find on the Wizards website, we have you covered on that front. What I’m talking about is the other part of D&D; the part that has no real rules, just advice. I’m talking table management, dealing with unruly or just puzzling players, or the realization that your game might have jumped the shark; in short the perils and pitfalls of D&D as a social and storytelling exercise.

Saving Games Proactively: Dungeon Master’s Guide II

Games often run into problems for three main reasons: there’s a lack of communication, there’s a lack of understanding of what the participants want to get out of their game experience, or the game’s gotten away from the DM somehow.

The first couple of chapters in the Dungeon Master’s Guide II have some fantastic advice and healthy habits for DMs of every level of experience. Reading and following that book’s advice may mean you never have to send me an email. And don’t worry, there’s enough in there that’s edition proof, so you’re not going to kick yourself for the purchase later.

I’m talking about those days that, after everyone has left the gaming table and are well on their way home, you raise a fist in the air and scream, “Someone, please, save my game!”

Okay, so maybe things have never progressed to that level of drama, but we’ve all been there in spirit.

Myself, I’ve just about seen it all. I’ve been playing D&D for well over two decades, in four editions, and before I came to R&D, I was the guy ultimately in charge of the schedule and the smooth running of D&D events at Gen Con, Origins and other conventions around the world. I’ve run D&D games where only one of the players spoke English and had to translate the game to the rest of them. I’ve run games that featured couples on the verge of breakup, and let their problems spill into the game world. I’ve run games for people I thought were bat-crap crazy, and I did it with a smile on my face and everyone had a good time. I’ve given advice to numerous players and DMs at their wit’s end after gaming for 50 hours straight and on the verge of hallucinating. And if I’ve not seen it, I’m sure one of the other folks in R&D has, and they’re just a shout over a cube wall away.

It’s now my job to help you save your game. I’m going to do this one problem at a time while focusing on advice that’s general enough to help more than just one person. Here’s how it works: you e-mail me at dndcolumn@wizards.com (and title your e-mail “Save My Game”) with your particular problem, and every month I’ll reach deep into the grab bag and give you advice… good advice, useful advice. At least, that’s the goal!

Now, I feel I have to warn you. Much like Harvey Keitel’s character, Winston Wolfe, in Pulp Fiction, my problem-solving technique tends to be both utilitarian, some might say abrupt or maybe even lacking a comfortable level of tact at times, but more often than not it gets the job done. If you need to implement it up with some flowery diplomacy, that’s up to you of course; I’ll just shoot as straight as I can, and you can do with it what you will.

With introductions out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we—and answer some questions sent in by fellow D&D fans that need their games saved.

Problem 1: How to Foil an Ability Cheater?

There’s a player in our group who always seems to have higher stat rolls than anyone else. It wouldn't be a problem if it happened a few times, but it happens almost all the time, which has begun to raise suspicions from other members of the group.

It doesn't help the fact that he has a habit of coming to the sessions with characters he has rolled up at home, but even when he does roll up stats with the group he is very secretive about his die rolling, usually doing it slightly away from, or on the edge of the group.

He is a good person and an experienced player, so I didn't think he would ever need to resort to cheating, but all the evidence points to it.

I am aware he may just be tremendously lucky, but for one person to do it so often defies all odds. So how can I find out if he is cheating and if he is how can I deal with it?
--Andy

I know it’s not nice to call someone a cheater, but I am going to break that particular social compact and tell you something I think you already know—your friend is cheating.

You may be aghast at my blatant jump to this conclusion. Or not. I have only this brief letter to go on, but if everything that Andy describes is true, it’s pretty darn obvious this player is taking steps to make sure no one else sees his rolls. And rolling dice isn’t like taking a bath—there’s nothing to be shy about!

That said, this player is your friend, you obviously think highly of him, and I am guessing that the last thing you want to do is call him out on the carpet over his ability rolls. But you do have options.

The best solution is to start the point-buy method described on page 169 of the v3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide. Now some D&D grognards may frown on this—after all it’s not any of the four methods described by Gary Gygax in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide. But the fact is, most folks who like random rolls like them because they have a chance to roll higher than everyone else. Yes, there are the dye-in-the-wool roleplayers who enjoy playing the less-than-optimal characters every so often, but point-buy lets them do that… all they have to do is put their good stats in crappy places (and don’t worry, they won’t). Point buy makes sure everyone can play the character they want and sidesteps the whole cheating thing. It really is the best of both worlds.

Just can’t shake the traditionalist need to roll for stats? (That’s a pity.) Then put down a strict set of table rules—including one that states that all rolls take place on the table. I’m a big fan of this rule in general, and tend to follow it even when I am the DM. Sure there are times when as a DM you should make rolls behind the screen (hide, move silent, bluff… sure I get it), but creating a sense of transparency for all rolls builds trust between players and the DM, and really creates an environment were folks feel uncomfortable flubbing rolls.

Problem 2: How Do I Keep My Campaign Going?

One of the things that my players really enjoy about our games is character development and intricate plots. I love telling stories with layers of bad guys where it only becomes clear over time what the ultimate threat is. I love laying plot threads that don't get resolved till much later in the campaign.

Here is the problem: Often before I can pull all the threads together and resolve the story, some life circumstance pulls a number of the players away from the campaign (marriage, job move, graduation, etc.) Two of my campaigns went unfinished because of this, which left everyone unsatisfied. I don't want that to happen again, but now two of my core members may have to move away, and I am only 2/3 through the campaign story. I am rushing to finish this campaign with some satisfaction, but how can I change things for next time so I am not in this place?
--Brian

While real life intrudes on gaming in the worse ways sometimes, I wonder if you may be extending your plots a little too long.

Traditionally, DMs tend to look at their campaign as one long story, but I wonder if that may be the wrong way to go. It may be better to look at your campaign like a television series, and split up your story with something akin to seasons. Design a story that’s intricate with all the twists and turns your players have enjoyed, but write it for 6 to 10 sessions. Don’t worry too much about what the story’s going to be after that—that’s a different “season.” Sure, you could have some ideas, some brainstorming of potential second season goodness as the first one matures, but keep the focus on the story at the moment. When that story is done, write your next one. Depending on the characters that are still around, and maybe the enemies who survived, you can build of the last season or go off in a new direction if many of the primary actors have changed. Look at the show Heroes for inspiration on this type of campaign structure. If characters drop out, you can quickly adapt the campaign to the new cast of interesting characters who take their place.

Also, distance is becoming less of an obstacle for keeping groups together. I currently run a game with member of my old college gaming group online, and I lose next to nothing from my game experience. Plus, D&D Insider will be offering an online gaming table, as well as other tools, that you might well look into. So if some of your principle players move away and you still want to keep the story going, you may want look at going digital.

Problem 3: My Players are too Detail-Oriented

My games have been bogging down recently due to what I believe is my players’ uncanny ability to focus on the mundane. For example, when I established a base of operations for the group, two hours later they were still arguing over whether to hire skilled or unskilled labor to fix the place up. Another time I designed a goblin mook for an encounter, and made the mistake of naming it. My players kept on slowing down the game to discuss the fate of this obviously important NPC. How do I get them to stop going off into these annoying tangents?
--Donovan

The first thing you have to do is realize that your players are letting you know what they find fun, and that’s as good as gold. They are obviously into the immersion of the setting (or they are just screwing with you… and if that’s the case, get some new players!), and what you have to do is find a way to tell your story with hooks that play right into their love of immersion. Their concern for the goblin can be a great plot mover, and you never know just who laborers (both skilled or unskilled) really work for. Wasn’t Tony Soprano a waste management consultant?

The easiest way to get your players to focus on the game is to get the game to focus on them and what they want. And you can do that without compromising your plans for the game or story. But more on that topic next month….


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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