December 21, 2011

Running the Gauntlet

Hello fellow dungeoneers and dungeon masters! Guest blogger Sean O'Connor reporting for nerdery. Your host blogger, Casey Steven Ross, asked me to do a write-up of my insights and experience designing the latest session of my home game. Mr. Ross has the pleasure (misfortune?) of being one of my players, he's seen me fumble a few times and experienced some gems of times in my home game. He specifically asked me to write about the last game because of the fun that I was able to squeeze out of it, and the major departure it took from our normal campaign. I'll give you a small amount of background before I get into the nitty gritty. Half of my group consists of a few "hardcore" players. I use the term with the utmost respect. These are a steady stable of guys I know I can rely on to let me try crazy stuff and will tackle what I throw at them head on with reckless abandon. The other half of my group are slightly less into it. I don't mean to say they are bad players, they just don't put as much focus on it and stand further on the outskirts of full immersion in the system. The group is a good mix, we all get along very well, and generally have a good time. The dichotomy of the group often has me in the mindset of trying to super balance my encounters and make sure I've got something for everyone. This leads me into the meat of this post, what became of our last session, and how I've now completely uprooted my DMing style and philosophy for, hopefully, the better.

**I would like to preface the rest of this article with one disclaimer. I in no way claim that anything I'm doing is by any means the best way to handle dice chucking for every person. This is simply what worked for me and allowed me to push through a DMing barrier with which I was faced. If this process and insights help you, HOORAY!**

In order to fully explain my new way of thinking about / planning a session, I should probably explain my old way and how it led me to frustrations and the desire to switch. My old habits were to try and be the most prepared DM. I would often script out well in advance of where my heroes currently lived, and had my encounters branching off into an often head-spinning number of offshoots. I wanted each avenue to have a list of things I could put in front of the players so that the world felt real. I wanted it live and breathe. This seemed like a great goal, surely my players would appreciate the depth of the world? Whether they appreciated it or not was irrelevant, sadly, because my meticulous planning and charting only narrowed my focus. I was more concerned with the next 5 steps, rather than the current step, the one that the players should currently be playing and enjoying! I was so focused on them seeing ALL THESE COOL THINGS I made for them, that I would often unconsciously railroad them right toward it. If I wasn't doing that, I was laying down multiple scripted paths the players could take and would often find myself explaining the benefits of each path. Who was playing the game? Their experience was probably more akin to a choose your own adventure book. Yes, they got to choose, but they had little to no control over the outcome. This wasn't working, and it took one of my players pulling me aside and casually asking if I wouldn't mind turning up the difficulty. Really? guys don't feel challenged?! Well then what the hell am I doing all this work for?! I wasn't mad, I felt like... well, like I FAILED! Time to pull out the fourthcore. You want hard? You may not be ready for what I'm about to throw down! (I'm not sure I am!)

STEP ONE! Fixing the Flow.
What was I doing wrong? I had to take a step back and figure out what elements of the game were causing friction. What was holding the game back? The first conclusion I came to was flow. 4e is great for a lot of reasons, but I was finding the system of encounters to be sort of jarring. A lot of that was my own fault, though, I was planning each encounter as it's own individual bubble of events. Sure, things happened outside of it to connect them together, but most of that was fluff and descriptive text given by me. Be honest now, who listens to that? I know I don't half the time when I'm a player, why do I expect my players to be hyper attentive? no compartmentalizing. How do I fix that? Two words. FUCK. DOORS. Simple right? But seriously, fuck doors. I found that each door approached in my games was a signal. "We made it to the door, encounter is over, lets rest and recharge." The flow was broken up, things didn't feel exciting. As long as they made it to the door, they could relax. If I remove the doors...where do they stop? The answer is, THEY DON'T. Why should the action stop because you reached an arbitrary object or point in the map? Those exploding skeletons aren't going to go " made it to the door, ok we lose." I wanted to treat it like real life. You guys are in danger, you need to get out of there NOW. My dungeon had ONE door, and it required the solving of a puzzle to open. This way the action wasn't flat out STOPPED, it was either redirected, or layered on top of something that was already happening. (This actually played out extremely well in the game, with the players trying to fight off a creature, evade a trap, and solve the door puzzle all simultaneously, making for a very tense and energetic moment). So okay, maybe not "Fuck Doors", maybe something more like "fuck doors that don't have a point." If the door is only there simply to divide one room from another room, then you don't need that door.

STEP TWO! *sigh* Who caaaaaaaaaares.
As I said before, I always felt I needed meticulous explanations for things that were relevant to the world I was building. This time, I wanted to handle things differently. Why does this room have bookcases? Why is there a glowing orb in a box? Why do these skeletons explode? Who. Fucking. Cares. They just do. I wanted to focus on the mechanics of the encounter FIRST, establish the scary fast-paced action. The other details will fill themselves in as I go along. (And I won't lie, more than a handful of the "story" elements were made up on the fly during the session). The dungeoneers had a loose idea why they were there, and what needed to get done. Why not let them drive it? They can fill in the story details by interacting with the world. And you know what? The world felt more alive than ever because they were interested in what was HAPPENING, not the set dressing. Why does that skeleton explode? I dunno! Why don't you try and figure it out? But he's not gonna stop barreling toward you so you can get a good look, that's for sure! I was mixing excitement WITH the story elements. I felt like I was finally reaching a balance that I liked. My takeaway from that brainstorm was to leave small bits of the story scattered about the dungeon in the form of interactive bits and elements. Either they were going to find them or they weren't. If they found them, they would decide how to use them and what they meant, if they ignored them...well, sometimes a little mystery is good.

Now we get to the fourthcore. (finally!). Before, I was trying very hard to balance the encounters. I didn't want to scare off the non-hardcore players, but still somewhat challenge the others. Often this amounted to a tough encounter that basically had a built in way to break it. Well guess what? My hardcore players ALWAYS found it. That's great for them, exciting even! But now the encounter either breezes by, or grinds to a slow back and forth of hits. No fun. So I took a lot of the 4e principles to heart. I CRANKED up the damage dealt. Had tons of debilitating effects (even a few insta-death effects!) and danger around every corner. Almost every part of the dungeon could hurt them in some way. I also rarely HID the danger from them. The room layouts were as such that it was often pretty apparent what part of the room you had to avoid. They KNEW they didn't want to go near the giant spinning ball of light, but also knew I wasn't going to let them just skirt around it. They dove into it with the feeling of "we are going to beat this!" and I came to it with the feeling of "I am going to do everything I can to stop you". I was a DM reborn. I wanted them to suffer! Feel the pain I was bringing down! And you know what? I was super fun. And because I was having fun, so were they. We were trading blows and it felt right. I had faith in them, first and foremost. I stopped worrying and thinking "is this too hard for them? can they handle this?" and just decided to throw it at them. They most definitely rose to the occasion.

STEP FOUR! Pacing.
This is just a minor thing I did right at the end of the planning session. I realized that if I truly wanted this to feel dangerous and exciting, there need to be something driving that feeling. The answer I found was a break-neck pace. This might not be great for EVERY session, but it fit perfectly for this one. They were pitted against the idea that they way they came in was NOT the way they wanted to come out. Mechanically this worked out as them being essentially chased through the dungeon. They NEEDED to find that exit. This was the final piece that brought it all together, for me. It forced my "no doors" policy to really become a problem for them as they couldn't "hole up" and regroup and strategize, they had to keep moving or face death. There was a bomb on this bus, and they had to keep it above 60mph. At one point, even deciding to NOT waste the time trying to cure someone of a disease and instead worry about that later. This was accomplished by no real restrictions placed on them by me. They didn't have a time limit, or an established punishment for going too slow, they just felt the NEED to push forward. The dungeon itself felt dangerous, and they wanted to get OUT.

That's all I've got for you. Hopefully this was helpful or made any sort of sense for even a few of you. For me, looking at the game this way has re-energized me as a DM. I want ALL my games to be this fun, and I strive to try and make that happen. The most important thing I took away from this whole process was to remove myself from my habits. Try something super new, something I might not be comfortable with. The worst that can happen is it doesn't work. Oh well, scrap it and move on.


  1. Very cool! Thank you to both Sean and Casey for this, this was definitely the post/talk I needed to get an idea of how to ramp stuff up to 11.

  2. Great advice; it can be so hard to get out of our established habits. I had been pretty jaded with 4e, taking my cues from the kind of crap adventures published by Wotc. It was only when I read Revenge of the Iron Lich that I took a step back and thought to myself "Why the fuck am I playing this way?"

    Running games since 2e, I had never constrained myself in the same ways I had with 4e. Picking up the hobby in a relative vacuum, I had always just winged everything and DMed from the gut. For some reason, with the inception of 4e I got away from this. It wasn't until I got the slap in the face from the ball-busting fury of fourthcore, that I realized it.

    Have fun and game on!

  3. This feels like a really good synthesis of some things I've been working on lately myself. Showing what the traps are in a more obvious light (there's a skeleton with an arrow in his head and there's some holes in the walls, get to solving!) rather than shrouding them behind a perception check makes it feel both more dangerous and more tangible.

    Removing encounters being divided up by doors, like Robert J. Schwalb mentioned in his (by now kind of old) article: Reexamining the Dungeon (Sept. 2010). By creating more organic areas that are more like level +2 but spread over many rooms (with no friggin doors in between!) it creates a more realistic feeling dungeon than the prescheduled tactical encounter as we've come to know it.

    Winging stuff a lot more heavily rather than planning it all out, this is something that was held to be among the most important parts of the original D&D. It's hard for me to do because my play format right now is online via map tool, but I've had great results when I've done it in the past.

    Another thing that the old schoolers thought lost was a sense of challenge, that the PCs had become "comic book superheroes". Restoring the challenge, obviously, helps a lot. Even people who love their narratives (and some might say, hand holding) clamored for better monsters than what Monster Manual 1 was giving them, FourthCore just takes it a step further.

    Finally, pacing and feeling. If the DM is having fun, everybody else is probably having fun. That's something that I've definitely learned, and the pacing is part of that. If you can keep things moving, whether it's the players or the DM having the biggest hand in that, the game feels like it's going somewhere. Gotta avoid "wait a minute, can Dazed people take out of turn actions? Hm, let's go look that up..." like the PLAGUE.

    All in all I found myself agreeing, and I've been coming to similar conclusions myself. Surprisingly, a lot of these things are reflected in Chris Perkins' column online on the WotC website. Maybe he isn't FourthCore hard, but he claims to have a huge bodycount in Epic Tier? How does he DO that? His players run off the rails all the time? Sure! His sessions have good pacing and get things done? I think that we're all in the same boat here and learning the important things that needed to be learned with 4th edition, and this article is great for pointing out, in plain text, exactly what some of those things are.