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Author Topic: [D&D] I quit DMing.  (Read 14940 times)
Will Grzanich
Member

Posts: 34


WWW
« on: June 20, 2007, 09:56:42 AM »

Hi, guys.  A little over a week ago, I sent out an e-mail to my group telling them I wouldn't continue running my very short-lived pseudo-weekly D&D campaign.  Basically, the pressure was driving me mad.  I literally stayed up nights worrying about the game.  I really, really want to provide the players with a fun time, and I don't tend to feel confident that whatever I have prepared is going to do that.  Now, a lot of the problem might have been due to stress in other parts of my life -- work, relationships, etc. -- seeping into my feelings regarding the game.  But, at the end of the day, I wasn't having fun, and I was dreading game day...so I quit.

I'm still in the group, mind you.  We haven't had time to meet since then, and probably won't for another couple of weeks.  At that point we'll talk and figure out what we're doing.  Probably someone else will GM a game, probably D&D or a close variant, maybe even the same campaign I was GMing.

In the meantime, I'm doing a lot of thinking and introspection to try to figure out what's going on with me, here.  I'm writing this post just in case any of you fine folks have any suggestions or insights of your own concerning this stuff.  This is a super-long post.  Consider yourself warned.  Wink

Actual Play time.

The Set-Up
A good while ago, I had a D&D game set in the default world of Greyhawk.  The PCs were all members of an elite team of adventurers working for a king -- sort of a royal SWAT team.  The campaign was centered around the war between this kingdom and the neighboring one, which was ruled by an evil demigod, Iuz.

That campaign fell by the wayside as someone else in the group wanted to GM something.  The guy who was then GM needed a break, so I stepped up and offered to GM.  As a group, we got together to talk about what we would do.  One of the newer players we picked up since I stopped running my previous campaign expressed interest in the War With Iuz campaign idea, and everyone else was on board, so away we went.  New characters for everybody, since people wanted a fresh start.

We had a full session to work on character creation.  I asked everyone to talk about their character concepts, and try to tie their characters together before play, so they'd have a reason to adventure together besides their mutual desire to kill Iuz.  I also asked for, essentially, flags: character traits, relationships, etc. the players would want to see the game focus on.  The response to this varied.  A few of the players did a great job and were enthusiastic about it; one player seemed to misunderstand me, thinking I meant "color" rather than "flags," even after I tried to explain things more clearly; and another provided virtually nothing.  (This last player's schedule only allows him to attend about every other session, so I get the feeling he's not as invested in things as the others are.  In other words, this didn't really surprise me.)  Oh, and they're all playing elves, which is kind of fun.

Anyway, I'm not interested in forcing the guys to do anything they don't want to, and people are rarin' to get going, so I leave it be.  I got some good material to work with, so I'm happy.  I give the players a quick run-down of the war situation, and ask what they want to do first.  Two of the players are playing monks, whose monastery was captured by Iuz's forces a few years ago.  The group decides that the first order of business is taking back the monastery.  Cool.

The Monastery
My goal here was to run a game like so many people have talked about on the Forge and similar forums.  I wanted to set up the initial situation, maybe drop a couple of bangs, and otherwise just see what happened.  I even did it once myself, as a one-on-one one-shot game.  That worked well, I thought, but this time I had five players, instead of one, and I think that made things into a whole different ball of wax.  And, I was still really new at this style of game.

It felt like it took me forever to come up with a good situation for the adventure.  I ran through at least two set-ups before finally settling on the one that I did, mere days before the game.  The idea was that the leader of the Iuzite force that took the monastery, Kault, stumbled upon the writings of the monastery's master, after taking over.  He read them and was enlightened, and instead of destroying the monastery or simply inhabiting it, he turned it into his own monastery.  I decided that Iuz lost interest in the monastery as a strategic stronghold once he took over the larger part of the surrounding area, and thus had no objections to Kault's desires.  Eventually, Kault's men -- now monks themselves -- were, for all intents and purposes, independent from Iuz, and neither cared much about the other.

Anyway.  I detailed Kault a bit, added a few supporting characters (including a very protective woman, whose love for him bordered on obsession), and away we went.

In-game, it was fun, but most of what I'd come up with went unused.  I enjoyed the surprise the players showed at realizing what had happened to the monastery.  The players decided that the inhabitation of the monastery by Iuz's men was an outrage, so they tried to sneak into the monastery, with the intent of killing everyone as they slept.  (Not nice people, these characters.)  A few botched stealth rolls later, they were taking the whole army of monks head-on.  It ended up being a hack-fest, which is fine with me; I only wish I'd known it would be, so I could've focused my prep on making the encounters more interesting!

The session came to a close with a showdown with Kault and his lady-friend.  I again stymied the players by having Kault kneel and mutter under his breath, as though drunk or traumatized.  He didn't lift a finger against the PCs.  His guardian, however, packed a mean punch and didn't hesitate to demonstrate just that.  It was a fun combat, and the players eventually won.  It turned out that Kault was muttering prayers to the elven gods of the monastery; he'd taken them as his own.  He was repentant and accepting of his fate, whatever it might be.  The monks in the party were pretty infuriated by this, interestingly, and decided to torture and kill him.  Okay.

I asked the players what they were interested in doing next.  I showed them a quick relationship-map I'd drawn up of the major bad guys in Iuz's army, who the big thorns in their sides were, and so on.  My idea here was to give them as much info as possible, so they could make informed decisions regarding what to do and where to go.  Unfortunately, this didn't work perfectly, since I hadn't fleshed a lot of it out yet.  I didn't even have all the info.  Smiley  Anyway, they decided next to try to reclaim the capital city of the area, driving Iuz's forces from the region once and for all.  Cool.

They would travel south through the forest they were in to reach Highfolk, a largely-elven city, where they would resupply and plan out a way to reconnoiter the capital.  Over the next couple of weeks, I prepared some forest encounters.  I had to fight the very strong urge to plot things out.  I also tried to set up a situation in the capital city, R-map and everything, and was met with mild success.  I wasn't super-happy with it all, and it still felt like not enough, but it was what I had time for.

Traveling South
The next session, the players first threw me for a loop by discussing whether they should travel through the forest after all, or whether they should go north and around the mountains, traveling to Highfolk by boat.  Uh oh.  One of the players showed concern that I hadn't prepped anything for that area, which I hadn't, but I, not wanting to constrain their freedom, encouraged them not to worry about it.  In the end they decided to stick to the forest anyway.

Their first encounter was with a group of orcs huddled together in a circle.  The corpses of elves hung from the trees around them.  The players soon learned that the orcs were feasting on the body of a fallen elf!  There was, of course, a big fight, which was cool.  Then I had to improv a bunch of stuff as the players interrogated one of the orcs.  I had intended the encounter to be more or less flavor, as well as foreshadowing a twist I had planned for the future (in which a sought-after potential ally turns out to be a friendly orc -- how will the players react to this?).  My players often push to learn everything they can, and I always forget this; there's no such thing as a random encounter for them.  Smiley  Oh well.  It went fine.  No worries.

The players then decide to seek out the village the dead elves were from, so they might return the elves' personal affects and tell their families of what happened.  I, of course, had prepared no such village, but I liked the sentiment and the idea, so what the hell?  To name the village, I grabbed my trusty Hero Builder's Guidebook and consulted its list of example elf names.  Great!  The players were fully aware, by the way, that I was making all this shit up as I went along.  They seemed okay with it.

After that, they asked if the village could spare any warriors to help them take the capital down.  I had the village elder explain to them that the village was essentially fighting for its very existence every day, and so they really couldn't spare anyone.  One player asks if there's anything they can do to help the village out, any problems they're having, so that the village can muster the resources to help the PCs out.

Oh, man.  I want to enthusiastically say "Yes!" to this, but, of course, I have no idea what I would do next.  I'm pretty open about this stuff at the table.  So, the player that did the asking says, "Isn't there a random adventure generator in the DMG?"  There is, but it's just an idea generator.  What the heck.  I open it up and roll, and the player (with a little help from the others) starts chiming in with ideas on how to integrate what I rolled into the next session.  To be honest, I was happier than a pig in shit with this development.  I love that they were helping out like that.  I wouldn't mind a lot more of that in these games, whichever side of the DM's screen I'm on.

Anyway, that was that.  Over the next couple of weeks I once again wracked my brain to figure out how I wanted to do things.  I had good ideas that the players provided, but I needed to really flesh it out.  Again, I came up with idea after idea, none of which I really felt happy with.  That's about when the "staying up nights" thing started happening.  A couple days later, I quit.

There's been a little e-mail conversation since then.  A couple of players saying they understood, and letting me know that they had a great time during the game.  Stuff like that.  Which is nice.  Anyway...

So what the heck is wrong with me?
I dunno, man.  Maybe I just don't like prepping D&D, and a different game (I'm looking forward to reading Burning Wheel, Sorcerer, and The Shadow of Yesterday) would work better for me as a GM.  Maybe I'm not cut out for GMing at all.  Maybe everything's fine, and I'll be happier when the rest of my life settles down a little.  But I think there's more going on.  Something I'm missing.

Thoughts I have had:

  • During play, I tend to feel fine.  A bit nervous, but okay.  I don't even mind a small amount of improvising ("What clan does the orc belong to?" is fine; "Are there any missions we can take on for them?" isn't), as long as I don't have to keep it a secret, and maybe get some help from the players.  But between sessions, I absolutely freak out about preparing for the game.  Is it enough?  It never seems to be enough.
  • The style of prep I was engaging in seems not to be what I was aiming for.  I'm not entirely sure what I was aiming for, though.  Basically, I feel like I was doing typical "railroading" prep -- I was just making sure the rails were going where the players wanted them to ahead of time.  Which is better, but it leaves me fully unequipped to deal with changes of plan.
  • One explanation I can think of regarding the stress I was feeling is that I'm not sure I really know what's expected of me as GM.  What do the players want out of a game?  Without really knowing that, I'm left trying to prepare for every possible expectation, which I just can't do.  It's silly.  I need to talk to them about this.

Anyway, that's what I've got so far.  Sorry this post was so long -- I'm never sure when I'm giving too much information and when I'm not giving enough.  Please ask questions if anything needs clarification.  And thank you for reading!  I'd love to know what you guys think about all this.

-Will


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Filip Luszczyk
Member

Posts: 746

roll-player


WWW
« Reply #1 on: June 20, 2007, 12:55:40 PM »

Will,

The post wasn't all that long Wink

I can relate to your problem, as it reminds me of my past play experiences. Prep was always killing me (in D&D, even more so), and the pressure resulted in more sweat than it was worth. So, at some point, I simply ceased doing the prep - and from then on, I started having fun as a GM. Later, I've switched to Forge-ish games completely, as they usually offer better tools for the sit & play model than "traditional" systems, and spread the responsibility for fun more evenly among the whole group.

Judging from the AP, especially the Travelling South part, you're on the right track when it comes to making things work on the fly - once you started improvising, using random results for inspiration and sharing control with your players, the session went on well. My impression is that you were enjoying the session, and it seems like your players did enjoy it as well. The part where it got wrong, it seems, is the post-session prep, which left you paralyzed.

So, I suppose the easiest solution would be not to worry about the next session at all, and not think about it too much. Definitely, it's better not to force yourself to think up the details. If something just jumps to your head, it's fine, but otherwise, you could just as well come to the game with no more than very general ideas and let the session develop in a natural way, making things up on the spot as needed. In D&D it's not easy unless you have a very good grasp of the system, but other games you mention at the end, especially TSoY, should lend themselves well to such approach.

Also, you might find this thread interesting, I think.
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Valvorik
Member

Posts: 114


« Reply #2 on: June 20, 2007, 03:06:40 PM »

I've been DM'ing for 21 years now, a fairly stable group of players, with only a couple (literally) of breaks.  I can feel your pain, though I'm not in your headspace.

Per AP guidelines - me 44, economist/civil servant/open-minded (I amuse myself by ensuring campaign background notes the primary economic system and sexual preferences of every major race etc.), attached but living couple of blocks from sweety, 'baby of group" 39 getting married shortly, other players a lawyer, two tech/IT guys, one marketing/business type, all university graduates etc.  We started in AD&D and have stuck with it through 3.5.  Most focused only on D&D playing, in mists of time Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, Rolemaster.  Met up through university game club with a couple joining since based on friend-of-friend connections.

Ironically, I'm the one pitching indie games, with more distributed power/authority etc. and finding not much interest (a victory to just get one player to read Burning Wheel, a real one, he wants his own copy).  Happy with what we know seems to be the verdict.  Effects of indie game movement so far: (A) Revising the dying/death rules in D&D based on Forge "death deprotagonizing" threads and homebrewing a version of variant WOTC rules; (B) Using a Universalis-derived coin system to outline the "tenets" of the next cycle of the D&D campaign.

I like running the game, like the players, we spend perhaps 20% of our game time joking and funning play styles and tropes etc. at our weekly sessions.

Coming to what you're experiencing, the biggest drain I find is the prep time at higher levels (group is 16th now) when permitting players latitude to choose their own path in world etc.  I'm committed to see campaign through to 20th level for the sake of those who want to "feel what it's like", but stopping there, to regret of some who want to try playing beyond that level.  The feel of characters at that level too far from the kind of fantasy drama that interests me and the game not balanced at that level in my view.  If I had children, there's simply no way I would have the time to run the game for them.

In meantime, I've hooked up with the local indie game scene to see what some of those games feel like.

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Calithena
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 336

aka Sean


« Reply #3 on: June 21, 2007, 06:09:51 AM »

Hi Will,

It seems to me that what you're struggling with is the tension between _wanting to provide an environment where the players' decisions are driving play_ and _wanting to have a cool adventure built up before play_. These interact uneasily and often lead to really tough pressure situations for GMs. Ron has described an experience like this with his Champions game many years ago that led him to seek new ways of roleplaying and game design, and I had an experience like this with D&D 3.0 about 3 years ago which was one of the things that led me to the Forge in the first place.

I've seen three ways to solve this problem, with different strengths and weaknesses.

1) The mainstream way: buy into a pre-existing line of products, maybe a whole developed setting, maybe just a series of modules and encounter books that you plug in when you need them. The advantage is that someone else is doing the prep, and you have to just juggle locations, etc., plug things in where appropriate. The disadvantage is: costs more money, you become increasingly bound to the continuity of someone else's ideas or metaplot, etc. This can inhibit creativity, especially if you have 'canon nuts' in your game. On the other hand, this seems to work pretty well for some folks too.

2) The old-school way: make it all up yourself. This is how I've always done it with traditional games. This takes a lot of work, and still has the problem you describe above in potential, but the work is much easier. In Champions or D&D 3.5, for instance, statting up a good monster or supervillain can take an hour or more even for an experienced and competent system master. In OD&D or Tunnels and Trolls or Risus or some d6 system games, etc., the mechanical part of the effort takes all of a minute, or ten. Psychologically, this makes a big difference for me. If I can say 'they might go here or here or here' and get a rough idea of what the here's are that, plus the knowledge that if they do something that's not on my list I can make it up in play on the fly or maybe with a five minute break from the action, makes the traditional kind of prep described in (1) and that you seem to be doing more manageable for some people. You're still caught in the dilemma (wanting to get things cool up front vs. wanting to give your players what they want in play), but the dilemma becomes resolvable in real time in a way it's often not (at least without massive supplement help) in modern mainstream games (D&D 3, Exalted, WoD, M&M, GURPS, HERO, etc.)

3) The new-school way as exemplified by some Forge designs: you run a system that focuses on the kind of story-making choices that you think are cool, using mechanics that tend to minimize other aspects of play. In the best incarnations this tends to have all the advantages of (2) (Sorcerer, DitV, MLwM, Hero's Banner, etc. all require relatively little to almost no GM work on making things up as you go) with the additional asset of mechanics that actually help drive play towards interesting thematic decisions. The disadvantage of these systems, if I may speak so broadly about a family whose members have many distinguishing features of their own, is the same as their advantage: they're tailored towards minicampaigns around a single theme. If you're expecting that you're going to play a long game with the same players where characters do a lot of different things over time, or if you're expecting that you're going to run a whole bunch of games in the same world for different groups over time, these games don't always help with that. The fun and successful play that a lot of people around here are getting with these games revolves around a series of focused short to medium length 'campaigns' that do different things at different times.

So in terms of advice, I guess I'd suggest one of the following. If you really are wedded to the open-ended fantasy campaign of yore, you should either resign yourself to buying into someone else's setting (1), find a system that allows the GM to improvise a lot without too much prep that gives you broad scope to imaginatively detail the world during and around play without the immense backwork that aggravates this tension (2 - my current fave along these lines is Revised Mazes & Minotaurs), or give up on the whole long-term play idea (for a while, if you're hesitant - you can always go back later!) and just experiment with a lot of new designs to see what you like (and if that's your choice, this website can point you to dozens of good ones).

YMMV.
« Last Edit: June 21, 2007, 06:11:36 AM by Calithena » Logged
contracycle
Member

Posts: 2807


« Reply #4 on: June 21, 2007, 06:31:30 AM »

I can relate to your problem, as it reminds me of my past play experiences. Prep was always killing me (in D&D, even more so), and the pressure resulted in more sweat than it was worth. So, at some point, I simply ceased doing the prep - and from then on, I started having fun as a GM. Later, I've switched to Forge-ish games completely, as they usually offer better tools for the sit & play model than "traditional" systems, and spread the responsibility for fun more evenly among the whole group.

Thats nice and all, the problem is my experience is the reverse; doing lessprep led to less fun, it ended up with an environment that was detail-less, unexpressive, and in a very real sense, pointless.  The "Forge-ish" games, which designation I dislike, only enshrine what is for me a failed strategy.

Calithena sums up the nub of the dilemma - these are situation focussed, and can't really handle continuing play.  As such they are not a SOLUTION to the problem, they are an evasion of it.
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Rob Alexander
Member

Posts: 76


« Reply #5 on: June 21, 2007, 08:42:43 AM »

Will,

In the light of what Sean says here:

In Champions or D&D 3.5, for instance, statting up a good monster or supervillain can take an hour or more even for an experienced and competent system master. In OD&D or Tunnels and Trolls or Risus or some d6 system games, etc., the mechanical part of the effort takes all of a minute, or ten.

...could you give us an idea of how much time you spent preparing for each session, and how long the sessions were?

If you could tell us what you seemed to spend the most time doing (e.g. thinking, scribbling notes, looking up stats, etc) then that would be great too.


rob
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Will Grzanich
Member

Posts: 34


WWW
« Reply #6 on: June 21, 2007, 09:04:55 AM »

Hi everyone,

Thanks for all the replies!  I only hope I can organize my brain well enough to respond properly.  Smiley

Filip:

So, I suppose the easiest solution would be not to worry about the next session at all, and not think about it too much. Definitely, it's better not to force yourself to think up the details. If something just jumps to your head, it's fine, but otherwise, you could just as well come to the game with no more than very general ideas and let the session develop in a natural way, making things up on the spot as needed.

I think D&D doesn't lend itself very well to this kind of play, to be honest.  Contracycle's experiences match my own: less prep seems to lead to a bland, empty world.  I can improv some things, but often I end up going for the dead-end choice: okay, the orc tells you what clan he's from, but the rest of the clan is all dead, so move right along, please.  If we hadn't been near the end of the session when I was asked about a mission the PCs could go on to help the village, I wouldn't have been able to improv an entire "side-quest," as it were.

Hmm.  I think D&D really shines in areas that require a lot of prep, unfortunately.  Encounters -- statting enemies, yes, but also creating balanced combats in interesting terrain.  Dungeons, too -- I couldn't really improv those without significantly changing what the "dungeon" is in the game.  Things like this are what suggest to me that maybe D&D prep and I just don't mix well.  Smiley

Sean:

First off, you are dead-spot-on with pretty much everything.  More comments:

1) The mainstream way: buy into a pre-existing line of products, maybe a whole developed setting, maybe just a series of modules and encounter books that you plug in when you need them. The advantage is that someone else is doing the prep, and you have to just juggle locations, etc., plug things in where appropriate. The disadvantage is: costs more money, you become increasingly bound to the continuity of someone else's ideas or metaplot, etc. This can inhibit creativity, especially if you have 'canon nuts' in your game. On the other hand, this seems to work pretty well for some folks too.

Yeah, that's what I used to do the previous time I was GM: I'd just use whatever WotC modules, Dungeon Magazine adventures, or whatever struck my fancy.  I'd change them a little so they fit in with the overall theme of the campaign.  Unfortunately, this doesn't work well if I'm trying to follow the players' lead.  Maybe I'll get lucky and one of the players will happen to walk right into a pre-written adventure set-up, but it's unlikely.

[Snipped #2: still seems like too much work to me.  Smiley]

3) The new-school way as exemplified by some Forge designs: you run a system that focuses on the kind of story-making choices that you think are cool, using mechanics that tend to minimize other aspects of play.

Yeah, that's kind of the way I'm leaning right now.  What I like about many of those games is that the prep-work not only looks like fun, but it seems all but guaranteed to not be a waste of time.  One thing that sucks about D&D prep is that I never know for sure if it's going to be used or not when game time rolls around.

So in terms of advice, I guess I'd suggest one of the following. If you really are wedded to the open-ended fantasy campaign of yore, you should either resign yourself to buying into someone else's setting (1), find a system that allows the GM to improvise a lot without too much prep that gives you broad scope to imaginatively detail the world during and around play without the immense backwork that aggravates this tension (2 - my current fave along these lines is Revised Mazes & Minotaurs), or give up on the whole long-term play idea (for a while, if you're hesitant - you can always go back later!) and just experiment with a lot of new designs to see what you like (and if that's your choice, this website can point you to dozens of good ones).

Cool.  I'll take a look at Revised Mazes & Minotaurs, but #3 is my current plan.  I think I just need more experimentation before I'm ready to commit to a long-term campaign, whether it's with indie games or just trying new D&D techniques.

Thanks for your help!

Contracycle:  AOL.  Thanks for expressing this so clearly.  I feel kind of damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don't wrt D&D prep. 

Valvorik:  Thanks for sharing your experiences.  I've never played high-level, but even low-level is painful for me.  The funny thing is that I don't mind statting characters -- I even kind of like it.  It's all the other prep that kills me, along with the worry that, as prepared as I am, I'll be caught with my pants down anyway.

Rob:

...could you give us an idea of how much time you spent preparing for each session, and how long the sessions were?

If you could tell us what you seemed to spend the most time doing (e.g. thinking, scribbling notes, looking up stats, etc) then that would be great too.

I didn't keep track, but, not counting daydreaming on the train and what not, I'd say I spent about 10-15 hours a week prepping.  Extra time didn't seem to help -- it just gave me more time to change my mind about what I wanted to do.  Smiley  Most of the prep was spent thinking.  Statting didn't take too long, although sometimes it was wasted time and effort when I changed my mind about things later.  Hmm...I did spend a fair amount of time looking up stats, with the intent of seeing if ideas I had were "book-legal."  Somehow, even though I know that there's nothing wrong with creating new monsters and such, I feel compelled to stick with what's canon if at all possible.

Thank you all for your replies and advice!  I appreciate it.  Smiley

-Will
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Adam Dray
Member

Posts: 676


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« Reply #7 on: June 21, 2007, 09:46:42 AM »


Thoughts I have had:

  • During play, I tend to feel fine.  A bit nervous, but okay.  I don't even mind a small amount of improvising ("What clan does the orc belong to?" is fine; "Are there any missions we can take on for them?" isn't), as long as I don't have to keep it a secret, and maybe get some help from the players.  But between sessions, I absolutely freak out about preparing for the game.  Is it enough?  It never seems to be enough.
  • The style of prep I was engaging in seems not to be what I was aiming for.  I'm not entirely sure what I was aiming for, though.  Basically, I feel like I was doing typical "railroading" prep -- I was just making sure the rails were going where the players wanted them to ahead of time.  Which is better, but it leaves me fully unequipped to deal with changes of plan.
  • One explanation I can think of regarding the stress I was feeling is that I'm not sure I really know what's expected of me as GM.  What do the players want out of a game?  Without really knowing that, I'm left trying to prepare for every possible expectation, which I just can't do.  It's silly.  I need to talk to them about this.

Hey, Will!

Are the players having fun? You seem to have some GM jitters and they seem to be insecurity-driven. That is, I think if you knew the players were having fun most of the time, you'd be fine.

You say you're fine during games. That means you're probably prepping enough. It also makes me wonder if you're frustrated because you aren't getting enough feedback from your players to feel like you can adequately prep. You're stumbling around in the dark without any help from them during prep and that's no fun. Then you get to the game and -- whew! -- the prep worked. But you don't know that till the game is in session. One day, you're afraid, the prep won't work and your game will crash and burn.

From the techniques you're discussing and the way you're talking about them, I get the impression you're trying to drift your D&D game from its usual mode to something different. I'm hesitant to guess at what that "different" is (and I'm super hesitant to say you're shooting for a Narrativist game based only on what you've said) so help me out. Is the play experience what you hoped it would be? Are the players doing what you hoped they would?

What is missing from the report, in my opinion, is what the players are doing -- what they're deciding -- and how that affects what you do. Low-prep games run very well with this kind of give and take.

Quote
My goal here was to run a game like so many people have talked about on the Forge and similar forums.  I wanted to set up the initial situation, maybe drop a couple of bangs, and otherwise just see what happened.  I even did it once myself, as a one-on-one one-shot game.  That worked well, I thought, but this time I had five players, instead of one, and I think that made things into a whole different ball of wax.  And, I was still really new at this style of game.

Those are techniques associated with the Sorcerer RPG and, lately, with Narrativist play in general. Yet, the actual play report is all about what you did as the DM -- the stuff you threw at them to kill, essentially. It's mission-based ("SWAT team") play, and I don't think your "bangs" are Bangs in the Sorcerer sense. That is, I don't see you putting the characters in a situation that makes the players make any kind of real decision. ("Fight the people trying to kill us!" is not a real decision, especially in D&D.) I'm not saying you have to implement real Bangs to have fun. They're a great technique for play, especially Narrativist play, but I just wanted to point out that you're not doing Bangs in the sense that we understand them.

Asking "What do you do next?" isn't the same as saying, "There's a paladin in your way. He worships the same Sun God that you do! He's most likely a good man but he's bent on stopping you from accomplishing your goal. What do you do?" That's a Bang. No matter what the players do (even nothing), they've made a decision.

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After that, they asked if the village could spare any warriors to help them take the capital down.  I had the village elder explain to them that the village was essentially fighting for its very existence every day, and so they really couldn't spare anyone.  One player asks if there's anything they can do to help the village out, any problems they're having, so that the village can muster the resources to help the PCs out.

Oh, man.  I want to enthusiastically say "Yes!" to this, but, of course, I have no idea what I would do next.  I'm pretty open about this stuff at the table.  So, the player that did the asking says, "Isn't there a random adventure generator in the DMG?"  There is, but it's just an idea generator.  What the heck.  I open it up and roll, and the player (with a little help from the others) starts chiming in with ideas on how to integrate what I rolled into the next session.  To be honest, I was happier than a pig in shit with this development.  I love that they were helping out like that.  I wouldn't mind a lot more of that in these games, whichever side of the DM's screen I'm on.

Anyway, that was that.  Over the next couple of weeks I once again wracked my brain to figure out how I wanted to do things.  I had good ideas that the players provided, but I needed to really flesh it out.  Again, I came up with idea after idea, none of which I really felt happy with.  That's about when the "staying up nights" thing started happening.  A couple days later, I quit.

It looks to me as if the players are really jazzing off your world and the potential to be heroes in it. They want to help this village. They want to prove their mettle. Are you saying that, when the players said, "Okay, tell us about this village's problems so we can fix them," you are coming up blank? Is that the root of this problem?

One technique I've seen people use (and I've used it myself because it's awesome) is, right when things are getting tricky, ask the player, "What is it?" Like, I was running Primitive for some friends and they were following some guy's tracks. Dice hit the table, they succeed, and I say, "You follow the tracks for a couple hours. They lead up a dirty path over the edge of a ravine. On the other side... Mike? What do you find?" Mike was, like, "Uh... a cave!" So they found a cave and they explored it and I put people in it. You can take that as far as you and the group are comfortable. "What is in the cave?" "What is the secret purpose of the people in the cave?" Your players sound like they have lots of ideas that could make your game fun, and generating ideas during play would alleviate the need for so much prep (though D&D prep tends to be on the statting-up side of things).
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Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #8 on: June 21, 2007, 10:54:00 AM »

Will, I'm going to totally ignore the whole prep question and answer the question you didn't ask, because the issue -- the "something I'm missing" -- is much larger than prep.


I. What didn't work

[Kault] was enlightened, and instead of destroying the monastery or simply inhabiting it, he turned it into his own monastery.  I decided that Iuz lost interest in the monastery as a strategic stronghold once he took over the larger part of the surrounding area, and thus had no objections to Kault's desires.  Eventually, Kault's men -- now monks themselves -- were, for all intents and purposes, independent from Iuz, and neither cared much about the other....The players decided that the inhabitation of the monastery by Iuz's men was an outrage, so they tried to sneak into the monastery, with the intent of killing everyone as they slept.  (Not nice people, these characters.)...I again stymied the players by having Kault kneel and mutter under his breath, as though drunk or traumatized.  He didn't lift a finger against the PCs.... Kault was muttering prayers to the elven gods of the monastery; he'd taken them as his own.  He was repentant and accepting of his fate, whatever it might be.  The monks in the party were pretty infuriated by this, interestingly, and decided to torture and kill him.  Okay....

You're clearly trying to set up Bangs here around some big philosophical issues: Can an evil man redeem himself? Can we forgive those who have done evil to us in the past, or is it only just to seek revenge? What is "our side" anyway -- is it defined by sharing a common loyalty to our country, or a common religion, or something else?

It's also pretty clear that your players aren't interested in these questions, at least not in this context. They know who the good guys and the bad guys are, and bad guys claiming that they've changed and are good guys now just disgusts them.

And given the basic premises of D&D, you can't blame your players for wanting this kind of clear, bright line over which characters do not step. What's more, it sounds like you hardwired this outlook into your premise for the campaign:

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The PCs were all members of an elite team of adventurers working for a king -- sort of a royal SWAT team.  The campaign was centered around the war between this kingdom and the neighboring one, which was ruled by an evil demigod, Iuz

"Royal SWAT team in a land torn between a good and an evil kingdom" says "take out the bad guys by all means necessary" to me, not "wrestle with hard moral dilemmas."

Now, I'm aware that you played this campaign a while ago and are now restarting it, so your interests may have changed. You may well want gut-wrenching moral dilemmas about who's good and who's evil. But from all indications, your players don't, and it's not clear you gave them fair warning that you wanted to try something different this time. There's a certain extreme form of "the GM is God" ideology that considers it the GM's right and responsibility to confront the players with surprises that question their assumptions, as real people sitting around the table, about what the game should be about, but I've never heard of it actually working in practice. Everyone needs to be on-board with what they want out of the game or you'll constantly be at cross-purposes.

So I'd strongly recommend that you ask your players point-blank, "Hey, that thing about Kault converting to the Religion of Good -- was that interesting at all, or a total waste of time? Do you want your bad guys to be bad guys and for the choices to be about the best ways to kill them, or do you want it to be unclear who's bad and who's good and for the choices to be about whether to kill with them or ally with them?"

Don't prejudge their answer. They might like the general idea of shades-of-gray but just have found something lacking with Kault as a character -- after all, it took George Lucas three Star Wars movies to turn Darth Vader from a villain to a sympathetic character, and it's a hard trick to present a character and say "you thought he was a villain, but he's not!" without any backstory or build-up.

Depending on their answer, you will know whether

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a twist I had planned for the future (in which a sought-after potential ally turns out to be a friendly orc -- how will the players react to this?).

gets junked, kept, or modified. The absolute wrong way to respond is to get disappointed and judgmental and try to force the players to do what you're interested in them doing -- which usually leads to the GM punishing the player-characters for being Bad. "Not nice people, these characters" is fine as a thought, even as an aside to your players, but you shouldn't let the campaign get taken over by a desire to prove them to be bad guys because they won't engage with your moral dilemmas.



II. What really worked


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I had to improv a bunch of stuff as the players interrogated one of the orcs.  I had intended the encounter to be more or less flavor... [but] My players often push to learn everything they can, and I always forget this; there's no such thing as a random encounter for them....The players then decide to seek out the village the dead elves were from, so they might return the elves' personal affects and tell their families of what happened.  I, of course, had prepared no such village, but I liked the sentiment and the idea, so what the hell? ... The players were fully aware, by the way, that I was making all this shit up as I went along.  They seemed okay with it.
After that, they asked if the village could spare any warriors to help them take the capital down.  I had the village elder explain to them that the village was essentially fighting for its very existence every day, and so they really couldn't spare anyone.  One player asks if there's anything they can do to help the village out, any problems they're having, so that the village can muster the resources to help the PCs out.
Oh, man.  I want to enthusiastically say "Yes!" to this, but, of course, I have no idea what I would do next.  I'm pretty open about this stuff at the table.  So, the player that did the asking says, "Isn't there a random adventure generator in the DMG?"  There is, but it's just an idea generator.  What the heck.  I open it up and roll, and the player (with a little help from the others) starts chiming in with ideas on how to integrate what I rolled into the next session.  To be honest, I was happier than a pig in shit with this development.  I love that they were helping out like that.  I wouldn't mind a lot more of that in these games...

This is great stuff -- and I mean not just "great things to happen in play" but "highly useful description in your Actual Play post." A lot of GM-seeking-advice posts in this forum are all about the problems and what people don't want with nothing about the good parts and what people do want; you've given us well-described examples of both, which is a huge help.

What your players clearly enjoy is exploring and ramifying the fictional world. "Okay, they're saying, we have a wartorn zone between the Kingdom of Good and the Evil Empire; we don't really want to explore whether Good is really Good and Evil really Evil or the war really a war, let's take those as givens because we're happy with them, let's figure out what it would be like to live in such a situation. All our characters are elves; elves are clearly the good guys; here is a murdered elf -- well, he's dead, we can't talk to him, but we can learn more about his village and interact with them: Can they help us? Can we help them?" They took a literal dead end -- the elven corpse which you as GM had no real story-plans for -- and followed it with such energy and imagination that it become a road worth travelling.

What's lucky is that you really enjoy doing this too. Yes, you'd like some more moral dilemmas, clearly, but you can enjoy this style of play too, which is all to the good (since your players don't seem to be into moral dilemmas) and which speaks to your credit (the more different things you can enjoy, the better).

What's even luckier is that they enjoy doing it with you, back and forth, improvizationally, with everyone around the table being part of the same creative process. If you had hardcore "GM is God" types, they'd sit there blankly expecting you to deliver all the details yourself, and then prep work really would be a problem.

What's luckiest of all is that you're totally open with them that you're winging it. If you were a hardcore believer in "GM is God," your pride wouldn't allow this, and you'd have a lot less fun. I suspect your anxieties about being a good GM and doing enough prep-work are the result of that lingering bit of training you have that whispers in your ear, "but you're the GM! You're supposed to know everything! You're supposed to have everything prepped! You shouldn't have to get ideas from mere players! Collaboration is bad! You must be a solitary genuis!" Tell that voice to go sit on a pitchfork.

My suggestion would be to toss a lot of neat ideas at your players and spend some time bantering back and forth with them about what you and they are both interested in. (Yes, including the GM: You're as much in your rights to say, "Nah, I'd rather not do
  • " as they are). Given how useful the Big Book o' Elven Names and the random adventure generator were to you, you might even want to make up name lists, adventure generators, and so on customized for your group's interests -- start simple and then keep expanding it after every session. (Which is probably how much of these things get written in the first place, anyway). Then you can confine your detailed prep work, which D&D as a system definitely needs, to stuff you know they'll be interested in rather than making up a lot of stuff you won't use.

From my own experience, the cycle should go something like this:

1) Prep! Detail a specific adventure or situation, with any maps, mooks, and boss monsters you need statted up for that situation and that situation only. Assume your players are going to engage with that situation and not run off and do something random, just don't assume what they'll do in the situation: They're definitely going to Orc Town, for example, so prep the major factions in Orc Town in case they want to ally with one to fight another, but don't bother with Goblinville or Elfburg.

2) Play! Present them the situation, respond to what they do, improvize like crazy.

3) Talk! Get everyone to talk about what they really liked in that session and what they want to do next. If they found a magic weapon in Orc Town, for example, they might want to take it to Elfburg to get it analyzed in case it has mysterious evil secrets -- in which case it should definitely have some, no matter what your original idea was! -- or they want want to take it to Goblinville to kill goblins with -- in which case it might have dark secrets, but they shouldn't make it impossible to defeat the goblins, just more complicated -- or they might want want to take it to the King so he can use it before the bad guys take it back -- in which case there should definitely be somebody trying to take it back, and lots of dangers along the road.

And then go back to step (1).

Note that you always stay just one step ahead of your players in prep work. This isn't railroading -- quite the opposite: If you were really railroading, you'd know where they'd be going several steps ahead; but this way, you let them decide whatever next step they want based on the actual play experience they've just had.
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Rob Alexander
Member

Posts: 76


« Reply #9 on: June 22, 2007, 12:26:25 AM »

Will,

I didn't keep track, but, not counting daydreaming on the train and what not, I'd say I spent about 10-15 hours a week prepping.

Well, I've never run more than one-offs in 3E, but this seems extremely high. How much playing time, on average, did you do per week spent on prep?

Regarding Sean's comments, another game I often see pushed as a lower-prep, faster-play alternative to 3E is Savage Worlds. I've got the SW book, and it looks good, but I've not played it yet. It's structurally similar to 3E (including, for example, the strong encouragement to use minis for combat) but there are far fewer rules (the combat rules in the 3.5E PHB are, what, 60 pages of small type?).


rob
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Rob Alexander
Member

Posts: 76


« Reply #10 on: June 22, 2007, 12:41:24 AM »

Sydney,

1) Prep! Detail a specific adventure or situation, with any maps, mooks, and boss monsters you need statted up for that situation and that situation only. Assume your players are going to engage with that situation and not run off and do something random

This is something I'm actively pursuing. For example, in last night's TSOY game I told the players ahead of time that the session would be confined to the city they were in last time and its immediate environs. For any future sessions, I'm going to get this negotiated ahead of time - they can be in Ammeni, or the depths of the Khalean jungles, but there needs to be an agreed scope.

For a campaign that makes the traditional "continuous time" assumption (as I think Will's did), the scope might not be so wide, but the principle is the same. The main difficulty I see here is getting the time of the prep-necessitated break (scope change) to adequately match the real-world break (a satisfying time to end the session). I don't have any great suggestions for resolving this.

Note that you always stay just one step ahead of your players in prep work. This isn't railroading -- quite the opposite: If you were really railroading, you'd know where they'd be going several steps ahead; but this way, you let them decide whatever next step they want based on the actual play experience they've just had.

That's an excellent distinction, thanks for that.
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contracycle
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Posts: 2807


« Reply #11 on: June 22, 2007, 04:55:06 AM »

Quote
1) Prep! Detail a specific adventure or situation, with any maps, mooks, and boss monsters you need statted up for that situation and that situation only. Assume your players are going to engage with that situation and not run off and do something random, just don't assume what they'll do in the situation: They're definitely going to Orc Town, for example, so prep the major factions in Orc Town in case they want to ally with one to fight another, but don't bother with Goblinville or Elfburg.

That is merely a restatement of the original problem; if I COULD safely assume that the players will in fact be interested in the situations I create, prep for them would not be that big a deal, but I can't.  And prepping for every possible thing they might do is prohibitive or impossible.  And if the scenario I prep has no significant decisions in it, it can't be very interesting; and if it does have significant decisions, then I need to anticipate player responses in order to prep.

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2) Play! Present them the situation, respond to what they do, improvize like crazy.

If I'm improvising, then my plan has failed.  That is not a desirable outcome, that is the outcome I am trying desperately to avoid.

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3) Talk! Get everyone to talk about what they really liked in that session and what they want to do next. If they found a magic weapon in Orc Town, for example, they might want to take it to Elfburg to get it analyzed in case it has mysterious evil secrets -- in which case it should definitely have some, no matter what your original idea was!

Ok, but then this has a number of consequences.  Firstly, I simply won't be able to do any plot larger than one session, which rules out escalating tension over more than one session.  In effect this means that the plots have to be simplistic and very limited in scope.

Secondly, attempting to plot a game the executes in exactly one session is a huge logistical problem.  We can't write lines of dialogue and measure how long they take because we do not know what people are going to say.  It often happens that scenes you thought would be quick drag on, and vice versa.  I have had to stop sessions early because we reached a point we had not anticipated too soon (related to the lack of detail issue).

And, I'm committing to do all of this in, lets say, the 6 days till next weeks game, while holding down a job and doing all the other things I have to do as part of my real life.  And never mind the work, even if it were safely assumed that I were willing to do it, I simply couldn't offer any guarantee that I will be able to think of anything sufficiently interesting to be worth playing in the time between sessions - and think of it soon enough to complete the prep, which probably means what, by day 4 or 5.

I have previously posted an AP account of a game which arose precisely from this process; and in it I successfully controlled time and the session length such that everything was neatly wrapped up at the end.  But it was a great deal of work and took a lot more than a week to figure out and write.  I simply cannot in honesty suggest to the players that we should play a game if I can't GUARANTEE that I can deliver my side of the bargain.  Every time you see someone who is having problems of starting new games that play for one session and break down, it is IMO because they assumed, wrongly, that if only they started playing then inspiration would strike and all would be well.

This is also a pretty open ended commitment, running games like this.  What would be much more useful to me is to be able to say, I have this game-ina-box, and it takes X hours, which I reckon is so many sessions, and I can guarantee that we can play through it without making myself a hostage to fortune or praying to the Muse.
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Will Grzanich
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« Reply #12 on: June 22, 2007, 05:57:46 AM »

Hi, guys.  Wow, look at all the replies!  Wink 

Are the players having fun? You seem to have some GM jitters and they seem to be insecurity-driven. That is, I think if you knew the players were having fun most of the time, you'd be fine.

Hi, Adam!  Yeah, they seemed to be having fun, and they told me they were.  What can I say?  Insecurity is a crazy thing.  Smiley

You say you're fine during games. That means you're probably prepping enough. It also makes me wonder if you're frustrated because you aren't getting enough feedback from your players to feel like you can adequately prep. You're stumbling around in the dark without any help from them during prep and that's no fun. Then you get to the game and -- whew! -- the prep worked. But you don't know that till the game is in session. One day, you're afraid, the prep won't work and your game will crash and burn.

Well...usually the prep works.  That last session I described, though -- if it had lasted any longer, I'd have found myself trying to improvise an entire adventure, basically.  The beginning of it, anyway.

And, while I'm fine during the game, I am nervous (I'll chalk that one up to social anxiety), and rarely having super amounts of fun.  Combats I dig.  Hamming it up with certain NPCs -- usually the ones that are being dicks -- I dig.  Scoring a rare hit in the "interesting dilemma for the players" department, I dig.  The rest of it?  Eh. 

From the techniques you're discussing and the way you're talking about them, I get the impression you're trying to drift your D&D game from its usual mode to something different. I'm hesitant to guess at what that "different" is (and I'm super hesitant to say you're shooting for a Narrativist game based only on what you've said) so help me out. Is the play experience what you hoped it would be? Are the players doing what you hoped they would?

Yeah, I suppose I am drifting toward Narr a bit.  I wasn't intending to take it past Vanilla Narr, if I'm getting the terminology right.  Mostly just D&D with bangs and flags and a distinct lack of railroading. 

Some of the play is great.  One player in particular, Mike -- not surprisingly, the only other one in the group who's read the Forge and shows a distinct interest in indie games -- really took the reins and came up with some wonderful stuff.  The others?  Like I said, I think some of them just aren't getting it (likely a failure on my part to communicate clearly), and at least one of them doesn't seem into it.  The hippie indie drift stuff, that is.  From his behavior in other games, I suspect he's hardcore Sim, which would explain it.  I'd like to try playing a game with these guys that explicitly, in its rules, requires this kind of input, such that you can't play a character without flags any more than you could play a D&D character without a race.  I wonder what affect, if any, that would have -- what weight such rules would have if they couldn't be perceived as "Will's hippie indie house-rule bullshit?"  Wink

What is missing from the report, in my opinion, is what the players are doing -- what they're deciding -- and how that affects what you do. Low-prep games run very well with this kind of give and take.

Hmm.  Could you please elaborate a bit on this?  I'm not sure what you're asking. 

Those are techniques associated with the Sorcerer RPG and, lately, with Narrativist play in general. Yet, the actual play report is all about what you did as the DM -- the stuff you threw at them to kill, essentially. It's mission-based ("SWAT team") play, and I don't think your "bangs" are Bangs in the Sorcerer sense. That is, I don't see you putting the characters in a situation that makes the players make any kind of real decision. ("Fight the people trying to kill us!" is not a real decision, especially in D&D.) I'm not saying you have to implement real Bangs to have fun. They're a great technique for play, especially Narrativist play, but I just wanted to point out that you're not doing Bangs in the sense that we understand them.

Yeah, I know.  I do think there were a couple of "bangy" things, at least in that first couple of sessions:  the revelation that the monastery was still being used as a monastery, rather than an Evil Warlord Headquarters; and the knowledge that Kault was a repentant pacifist monk who had converted to the elves' own religion.

But that was about it.

It looks to me as if the players are really jazzing off your world and the potential to be heroes in it. They want to help this village. They want to prove their mettle. Are you saying that, when the players said, "Okay, tell us about this village's problems so we can fix them," you are coming up blank? Is that the root of this problem?

I don't know if it is or not.  I mean, it's a problem, and it's a concern of mine.  Whether or not it's the root isn't clear to me just yet.

One technique I've seen people use (and I've used it myself because it's awesome) is, right when things are getting tricky, ask the player, "What is it?"

Yeah, I'm into that.  That's pretty much how things felt when the players started chiming in with ideas about the village's problems.  And I've asked them to come up with their own details in the past, but never for anything particularly plot-relevant.  I know at least one of my players, Nik, isn't into that sort of thing, though I've struggled to understand why.  I remember a conversation in which he basically said that he feels that such things should come from the GM, so he can be surprised by the events as they unfold.  I don't understand why the two are related -- isn't it just as surprising if a fellow player comes up with the idea?  Hmm.

Thanks, Adam.  Lots of food for thought, there.  Smiley

You're clearly trying to set up Bangs here around some big philosophical issues: Can an evil man redeem himself? Can we forgive those who have done evil to us in the past, or is it only just to seek revenge? What is "our side" anyway -- is it defined by sharing a common loyalty to our country, or a common religion, or something else?

It's also pretty clear that your players aren't interested in these questions, at least not in this context. They know who the good guys and the bad guys are, and bad guys claiming that they've changed and are good guys now just disgusts them.

Hi, Sydney!  Hmm.  Okay.  A couple of things I should make clear:  first, although you're right about the philosophical issues, I didn't really create the situation with that in mind, as such; I was more sort of thinking that it would just be interesting to see what happens.  I figured black and white wouldn't tell me as much about the characters as grey would.  I'm not sure if that's at all relevant. 

Second, the bit about being disgusted about bad guys claiming to have changed -- that's really just one player in particular, Nik, who played one of the two monks who belonged to the monastery.  Two interesting things here are:  that this player's characters have, in other games, shown a similar disdain for the idea of villains redeeming themselves; and that he told me after the game that he really liked that his character cut down Kault, as he thought it mirrored his own desire for his character's redemption.  He himself was playing a character who was once good, and slipped onto the path of evil, and he had plans for his character to atone.  (As a side note, I suspect D&D isn't super-awesome for this kind of play.  I'd love to play something that is, though.)

And given the basic premises of D&D, you can't blame your players for wanting this kind of clear, bright line over which characters do not step.

I'm not certain that they do want that, but you're right, I totally wouldn't blame them.

What's more, it sounds like you hardwired this outlook into your premise for the campaign:

Quote
The PCs were all members of an elite team of adventurers working for a king -- sort of a royal SWAT team.  The campaign was centered around the war between this kingdom and the neighboring one, which was ruled by an evil demigod, Iuz

"Royal SWAT team in a land torn between a good and an evil kingdom" says "take out the bad guys by all means necessary" to me, not "wrestle with hard moral dilemmas."

Now, I'm aware that you played this campaign a while ago and are now restarting it, so your interests may have changed. You may well want gut-wrenching moral dilemmas about who's good and who's evil. But from all indications, your players don't, and it's not clear you gave them fair warning that you wanted to try something different this time.

Hmm.  Again, I'm not really sure that they don't.  At least one player -- Mike again -- created his character with dilemmas practically in mind.  I remember him telling me it would really get to him if I put his character in the position of having to choose between the life of a fellow elf, and his own vengeance against Iuz.  (Cha-ching! Wink)  However, my players are not a homogeneous hive-mind; they're individuals, each with their own preferences, so what you say definitely has merit.

There's a certain extreme form of "the GM is God" ideology that considers it the GM's right and responsibility to confront the players with surprises that question their assumptions, as real people sitting around the table, about what the game should be about, but I've never heard of it actually working in practice. Everyone needs to be on-board with what they want out of the game or you'll constantly be at cross-purposes.

Yeah.  I'm definitely feeling that ideology-derived pressure you mention, but I don't know how much of it is self-imposed.  Like I said in my original message, this is all very silly.  I need to just ask the others about this shit instead of guessing.

So I'd strongly recommend that you ask your players point-blank, "Hey, that thing about Kault converting to the Religion of Good -- was that interesting at all, or a total waste of time? Do you want your bad guys to be bad guys and for the choices to be about the best ways to kill them, or do you want it to be unclear who's bad and who's good and for the choices to be about whether to kill with them or ally with them?"

Don't prejudge their answer. They might like the general idea of shades-of-gray but just have found something lacking with Kault as a character -- after all, it took George Lucas three Star Wars movies to turn Darth Vader from a villain to a sympathetic character, and it's a hard trick to present a character and say "you thought he was a villain, but he's not!" without any backstory or build-up.

An excellent point.  And Kault was barely a character.  The players never took the time to get to know the poor guy, and why should they have?  He murdered their brothers and took over their monastery.  Smiley

This reminds me of another potential source of trouble -- D&D's focus on combat vs. the desire for interesting situation-driven play.  I'm sure it can be done, but I think I was on the wrong track with the whole monastery adventure.  I mean, there was the barest hint of situation, and then the players understandably rushed in with guns blazing.  Part of that was due to clever use of spells and abilities that I hadn't accounted for, which gave them more information than normal people would've been able to get without talking to NPCs, or at least getting close to them.  Hmm.

I'm snipping the rest of this section, since I basically just agree and don't have much to add.  Smiley

This is great stuff -- and I mean not just "great things to happen in play" but "highly useful description in your Actual Play post." A lot of GM-seeking-advice posts in this forum are all about the problems and what people don't want with nothing about the good parts and what people do want; you've given us well-described examples of both, which is a huge help.

Cool.  Smiley

What's lucky is that you really enjoy doing this too. Yes, you'd like some more moral dilemmas, clearly, but you can enjoy this style of play too, which is all to the good (since your players don't seem to be into moral dilemmas) and which speaks to your credit (the more different things you can enjoy, the better).

What's even luckier is that they enjoy doing it with you, back and forth, improvizationally, with everyone around the table being part of the same creative process. If you had hardcore "GM is God" types, they'd sit there blankly expecting you to deliver all the details yourself, and then prep work really would be a problem.

What's luckiest of all is that you're totally open with them that you're winging it. If you were a hardcore believer in "GM is God," your pride wouldn't allow this, and you'd have a lot less fun. I suspect your anxieties about being a good GM and doing enough prep-work are the result of that lingering bit of training you have that whispers in your ear, "but you're the GM! You're supposed to know everything! You're supposed to have everything prepped! You shouldn't have to get ideas from mere players! Collaboration is bad! You must be a solitary genuis!" Tell that voice to go sit on a pitchfork.

Sigh.  Yeah.  Again, I need to talk to them about this stuff.  Thing is, I get very strong vibes some of the time that at least some of the players do believe that.  Huh.  But what's a vibe worth?  Talk talk talk talk talk.

My suggestion would be to toss a lot of neat ideas at your players and spend some time bantering back and forth with them about what you and they are both interested in.

Yes.

From my own experience, the cycle should go something like this:

1) Prep! Detail a specific adventure or situation, with any maps, mooks, and boss monsters you need statted up for that situation and that situation only. Assume your players are going to engage with that situation and not run off and do something random, just don't assume what they'll do in the situation: They're definitely going to Orc Town, for example, so prep the major factions in Orc Town in case they want to ally with one to fight another, but don't bother with Goblinville or Elfburg.

Yep, pretty much doing that, although obviously worrying about "what if they...?" too much.

2) Play! Present them the situation, respond to what they do, improvize like crazy.

3) Talk! Get everyone to talk about what they really liked in that session and what they want to do next. If they found a magic weapon in Orc Town, for example, they might want to take it to Elfburg to get it analyzed in case it has mysterious evil secrets -- in which case it should definitely have some, no matter what your original idea was! -- or they want want to take it to Goblinville to kill goblins with -- in which case it might have dark secrets, but they shouldn't make it impossible to defeat the goblins, just more complicated -- or they might want want to take it to the King so he can use it before the bad guys take it back -- in which case there should definitely be somebody trying to take it back, and lots of dangers along the road.

And then go back to step (1).

Note that you always stay just one step ahead of your players in prep work. This isn't railroading -- quite the opposite: If you were really railroading, you'd know where they'd be going several steps ahead; but this way, you let them decide whatever next step they want based on the actual play experience they've just had.

Honestly, I was pretty much doing all that anyway.  Smiley  It is kind of railroading, only I'm asking them where they want each very short section of track to lead before I lay them down, a little bit at a time.  Hmm.  Thanks for detailing the process for me, though -- that may be really helpful, just seeing it spelled out like that.  Kind of like something to help anchor me when the worrying hits.  Smiley

This is a super-long post.  I'll split it up.  Someone let me know if I'm screwing etiquette left and right here.  Continued in next post.

-Will
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Will Grzanich
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« Reply #13 on: June 22, 2007, 05:58:17 AM »

Well, I've never run more than one-offs in 3E, but this seems extremely high. How much playing time, on average, did you do per week spent on prep?

Hey Rob,

It is totally high, IMO.  Crazy high.  Higher than I would ever want it to be, ever.  Smiley  On average...it's kind of hard to say -- averages don't mean much over such a short time span.  We met on average every couple of weeks, for four hours at a time.  I was probably prepping at least two hours for every one played.  Insane.

Regarding Sean's comments, another game I often see pushed as a lower-prep, faster-play alternative to 3E is Savage Worlds. I've got the SW book, and it looks good, but I've not played it yet. It's structurally similar to 3E (including, for example, the strong encouragement to use minis for combat) but there are far fewer rules (the combat rules in the 3.5E PHB are, what, 60 pages of small type?).

Cool, thanks...I'll check it out.  Again, though, it's not the statting and the rules that take up most of the prep time.  It's the endless brain-wracking about what situation to set up for the next session, and how much detail to go into.  Honestly, it's everything but the statting, which is totally counter to most peoples' experience with D&D.  Smiley

Oh, yeah.  From your PM:

So, my question is... if you don't "provide the players with a fun time", what will be the consequence? What, specifically, are you worried will happen?

Honestly, it's typical insecurity, I'm sure.  I guess my worst fear is that they'll decide I'm just a rotten GM, and never let me GM a game for them again.  Smiley  Actually, that's interesting.  Two things that just occurred to me about that:

1.  One of the things I liked most about GMing back when I started that first campaign was that I felt it was my opportunity to run D&D the way I felt it should be run.  I didn't have to put up with someone else's crazy house-rules or bad (IMO) rulings.  I'll note that this was before I'd played in this group (which has changed over the years anyway) with someone else as GM, so...huh.

2.  At this point, I think I'd be fine with never DMing D&D ever again, ever.  But I definitely want to try some other games (like the ones I mentioned in the original post), and I'd pretty much have to GM them, if I play them with this group.  I'd hate to miss out on the chance to do that because everyone's horrified at the idea of letting me GM again.  Smiley

Thanks for asking that.  I'll have to think some about it all.

This is something I'm actively pursuing. For example, in last night's TSOY game I told the players ahead of time that the session would be confined to the city they were in last time and its immediate environs. For any future sessions, I'm going to get this negotiated ahead of time - they can be in Ammeni, or the depths of the Khalean jungles, but there needs to be an agreed scope.

For a campaign that makes the traditional "continuous time" assumption (as I think Will's did), the scope might not be so wide, but the principle is the same. The main difficulty I see here is getting the time of the prep-necessitated break (scope change) to adequately match the real-world break (a satisfying time to end the session). I don't have any great suggestions for resolving this.

Nevertheless, that's another thing I hadn't considered.  I mean, I've though about the whole scope-restriction thing, but for some ungodly reason, despite my firm and conscious belief that communication is key in RPGs, it never occurred to me to just talk to the others up-front about doing it.

Contracycle:  Geez, man.  I am totally with you.  100%.  So much it's creepySmiley  I'm in particular agreement with the idea that one-shots and "miniseries" would be way easier than open-ended (or, as in my case, closed-ended, but very long-term) campaigns.  By the way -- could I ask you post a link to the AP you mentioned?  I'd love to read it.

Thanks again, everyone!

-Will
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Sydney Freedberg
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Posts: 1293


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« Reply #14 on: June 22, 2007, 06:28:51 AM »

Will, happy to be helpful. Let me restate and reemphasize: It's only "railroading" if the GM assumes in advance what the players' decisions have to be. If all the players say at the end of a session, "Now we want to go to Orc Town and kill the chief!," and then you go home and prep up Orc Town with a special emphasis on the chief's combat abilities, you're not railroading, because you're responding to a decision that they already made.

Which brings us to

If I'm improvising, then my plan has failed.  That is not a desirable outcome, that is the outcome I am trying desperately to avoid.

I disagree with Gareth (contracycle) 100% -- as I usually do: It's kind of creepy.

First of all, you're always going to have to improvise something: No GM knows their players so well, and has so much time to prep, that they have a preset reaction to every sword-stroke or line of dialogue the players offer. The question isn't whether or not to improvise; it's how much to improvise.

Second, and more fundamental: People improvise in RPGs all the time. They're called players. Why is this good for one type of participant and bad for another? The GM is just a special kind of player.

Now, how do players balance improvisation and prep work? Good prep for a player consists of having a solid character concept with whatever mechanical details worked out that the game's character generation system requires: You know who your character is, what he or she wants in general, and what things he or she can do. Then, when the GM presents you an unexpected situation -- or, for that matter, another player does something unexpected -- you have a solid foundation from which to improvise.

The GM should do the same thing as the players. Sure, you have more characters to be responsible for, but each of them should be simpler than any of the player-characters, because they don't need to be heroes and protagonists in their own right; the GM's characters' exist only as foils for the player-characters. In Orc Town, you need to know what the Orc Chief wants -- let's say, keep the tribe strong, which means picking his fights and if necessary buying off or running away from tough adventurers -- and what he can do to get what he wants -- his combat and leadership abilities, primarily -- and likewise for a few other characters, say the crazy Orc Shaman who wants to destroy all Elves regardless of the cost to his fellow Orcs, or the young Orc Warrior who wishes to kill the Chief and usurp his position and is willing to betray him to the adventurers. Then, whenever the players do something unexpected, you have a solid base from which to improvise.

This is the technique I used for the best game I've ever run, hands-down -- I need to write up a detailed actual play sometime -- and it worked really well. I came up with a general situation: the player-characters were part of a band of refugees from a fallen fantasy kingdom, fleeing the invading hordes by hiding in a haunted, ruined city. The first session we did character creation, with everyone sharing ideas rather than bringing sheets they'd already worked up, and we ran the flight from the hordes over the long bridge into the ruined city. Once they got to the ruined gates, I ended the session.

All I'd prepped was the map of the bridge area and the hordes; I literally had no idea what the players would find inside the city. Then, based on what the players had shown they were interested in, in both character generation and in that short bit of actual play, I came up with about half-a-dozen major NPCs, each associated with a different location in the city, and each with their own agenda (I tended not to prep stats until I knew the players were headed to that specific location). Every time the players chose a path to follow, knew what NPC's sphere of influence they'd be entering, and I knew what that NPC wanted and what the NPC's initial approach would be (ambush, negotiation, seduction, sorcery...), but I didn't know what the players' reaction would be (fight back, run away, reject, accept), and I didn't have to, because I knew the NPCs well enough to improvise their reactions just as if I were a regular player running my own PC.

Note that Gareth was right in saying my 1-2-3 process outlined above begs the question of how you know what the players will want to do first. That's because I put the "1" in the wrong place. It should really go

1. Talk about what people want to do next
2. Prep
3. Play

Thus every campaign should begin with a clear discussion of what everyone wants from the game before you even create characters -- not just "here's my pitch, read it and make a character who's X level and has a plot tie to Y," but everyone sitting around the table brainstorming as equals.
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