Monday, March 18, 2024

General Dungeon Master Philosophy- New Young Players

I am incapable of starting at the beginning of any story without leaping, face first, into multiple preliminaries. Part of it this time is due to the sheer “magic” I feel whenever I look through my old Dungeons and Dragons books and papers. 

And holding the dice. Man! That really amps up the nostalgia.

The combination of the many fond memories, and the creative potential is inspirational. Therefore, I need to start with my overall beliefs about running D&D sessions which will make clear many of the decisions encountered during the documentation of the often goofy adventures of my group of players.
Aside- It is no coincidence when, years later, I played the Dead Alewives “Dungeons and Dragons” sketch for these kids, their first response was, “When did you tape us?”
For this bit of philosophy, I don’t mean general beliefs about the game’s goal being connected to interactive storytelling and overall fun for the group... 
Because I wrote about that shortly after we were playing almost 25 years ago.
How to Win at Any Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
What I mean is detailing some of the weird choices and "house rules" I make as a Dungeon Master, and the reasoning behind them. There isn’t a massive amount of thought that went into these. Therefore, this will have plenty of room to serve as an index to the stories.

[Later edit, even with the minimal amount of thought I run my life with, there is still my usual far too much explaining. In fact, it became the longest post in the series. I wish I could control my mental output in any way at all. On the positive side, with it all concentrated here, the gamers can read it all at once, and the non-gamers can easily skip it and get to the stories.
Hence there is a separate index. Still, the value of the index is maintained.]

This way anyone who stumbles upon these adventures has easy access to the “prequels” that will allow the tales of fantasy and adventure to make sense.
OK, to allow the tales of fantasy and adventure to make something that sort of resembles sense… if you squint a little.
Most of these choices orbit around the ideas that I often work with young, first time players. Many are connected to the notion that I view their characters as the protagonists in a Heroic Fantasy story.
Not a tale of gritty realism.
Not a tale of dire woe.
They’re the good guys, they’re the ones with above average abilities who are going to defeat evil.
They’re the ones who are going to save the peasants from marauding monsters.
It goes without saying that I don’t run evil or backstabbing campaigns. While this can be fun for some experienced players, it’s a great way to make a group of beginners hate each other and not want to play anymore really quickly. Plus, there is truth behind the idea that good deeds are their own reward. I’ve seen it several times when a gang saves the day against high odds.
Another point is the characters cannot be the heroes of the realm if they are dead.
Therefore, I will give the players the benefit of the doubt a lot of the time.
They should be mightier/ smarter/ stealthier than the average serf.
This is why I use the suggested character roll up methods from Unearthed Arcana (the first of the “new” First Edition Hardcover rule books) that inflates required stats.

I have made up characters used a straight 3D6 for each stat (three rolls of a six-sided die, which gives a bell curve in a 3 to 18 range) and let the numbers force which class had to be chosen. A great learning experience was using this method the first time I convinced my age group and some younger kids Up the Lake to try the game the year I started playing. I distinctly remember the next day overhearing one girl say, “I rolled some dice and Jeff yelled ‘You’re a Dwarf!’ in my face and scared me. I had no idea what was going on.” She must have been rolling for Constitution. That was the same time I learned, for new players, it is critical to set up time in advance either individually, or while the rest of the group can occupy themselves with something else, to allow helping everyone make a character to prevent the rest of the gang isn’t dying of boredom. 

That whole experience was a trip. Role Playing Games were relatively new at the time, meaning many of the parents wanted to watch and learn how "This D&D thing" worked. They were clearly amazed I was only reading some of what happened from my books and mostly we were all “making it up as we went along.” Still, having them there was super awkward. Also, the lack of player experience showed through a bit. When surrounded by Kobolds, Tracy said, “I’m a thief right? Can I steal their spears?” I got a lot better at both being the Dungeon Master and explaining the game mechanics after that foray. Having one of those kids (the Dwarf's sister, in fact) refer to me as “our Dungeon Master” in an online birthday message when we were both grown ups meant a great deal. At least I wasn’t a complete disaster.
Especially since I’m often working with first time players, the Unearthed Arcana method of rolling up statistics works the best, because it allows the player to select the type of character they want ahead of time AND be a heroically effective version that type. For specialty character classes that have high requirements for certain stats, I have also allowed “trading points” to reach the scores needed in the categories required to create the character they have in mind once the rolling is complete.
There is one simple reason for this. If I tell a kid, “Well, I know you wanted to be a Barbarian, but you rolled up a weak limbed genius and therefore you have to play either a Wizard, or a Barbarian who is terrible at barbarianing.”
Guess what? They’re not coming back next week.
The players can still face rough odds, dangerous traps and difficult puzzles, but I always try to give them a “run away and nurse their wounds” option over wiping them out.
Again, “OK, you’ve all been eaten by the invisible dragon you failed to detect, who’s coming back to make new characters next week?
Hey, where is everyone?”
Speaking of survival, the biggest chance for biting the dust comes at first level during the beginning of the game. Therefore. I’ve added my own modification to the die rolls. EVERYONE gets maximum hit points at first level. The book says roll a D8… you get 8 hit points, plus any Constitution of other bonuses.
Its either that or force nearly everything they meet on their first adventure to miss them repeatedly, and that can be even more boring than kicking the bucket. The maximum hit points-  aligned with liberally allowing the party ways to rest and recover health - keeps everyone battling, but also keeps everyone alive to move forward in the game.
(Unless they're determined to be really stupid. Hey, ya can't save everyone.)
Additionally, I feel a lot of other first-generation gamers like myself believed in “House Monopoly Rules” ideas about character death automatically happening at zero hit points. The original AD&D hardcovers talk about reaching -10 hit points and a few other elements before a character has moved beyond “mostly dead.” 

The house rules idea is equally true for character statistics. They are based on 3D6 ranges, but the original Dungeon Masters Guide had a half dozen methods designed to increase, optimize, and customize character stat roll ups.
Something I learned from, Jesse, my Dungeon Master, was unspoken in our game sessions. We both featured a “common sense” rule about some of the more mathematical, i
n game mechanics.
Encumbrance was a big one. Spending chunks of time calculating how much everyone can carry and how fast they can move when they carry it can be a nightmare. We let common sense be a guide and used basic movement numbers for dealing with chase situations.
In college I gamed with a much more serious group who did follow those rules and other required calculations to the letter, plotting out movement, weights, and attack speeds regularly. We still had entertaining sessions, but those calculations led to a non-narrative type of problem solving that took time away from the story-based interactivity and deduction. An example comes from the very first time playing with them. I should have been suspicious of anyone who thought Eight AM on a Saturday in college existed never mind was a good time to gather and role play. I created a Norse type fighter, Fafran. (You try to think of good names that early in the morning... possibly when hung over.) I worked with the Dungeon Master to upscale him to an appropriate level that would mesh with the others and outfitted him with equipment based on his background. The DM was thrilled I chose a personality themed weapon like a Great Axe instead of a boring sword like everyone else. Then we started playing. I learned why everyone else chose boring weapons. Boring weapons had higher in game speed ratings. Because of all those calculations, in an encounter with a bear before the quest began, the animal got multiple sets of attacks before Fafran could move and my new mighty warrior almost died in the bushes well before reaching the dungeon.
I feel Jesse and I made the right decisions, especially concerning what time to play.
My old groups and the groups I ran followed a much more high-level approach. Are the characters lugging around about what you’d expect in a sword and sorcery film? Is no one carrying anything ridiculous lake a catapult or a pony around the dungeon? Okay, we’re good.
The same was true for provisions. As long as some of the party remembered to pack food, drink, and a light source with fuel we were not going to worry about the details or consumption rate. We did however worry for specific situations. If you’re only carrying rum, you can’t say, “I pour out my canteen to douse this fire.” On the opposite side- if a Magic User casts a Continual Light spell on a stick: yes, they have a light source that can’t be blown, or otherwise snuffed out. However, it also can’t be used to burn up a spider web or a Mummy.
Arrow, other missile weapons and actual spell components were critical, though, and had to be listed and counted. I also used a liberal interpretation about spells for the low-level characters, allowing them to have more in their books than they could memorize at once, along with incorporating bonuses for memorization. The standard first Level Magic User with one spell at a time, a dagger, no armor and four or less hit points gets really bored (or killed… which is more boring as everyone continues) on early adventures otherwise. The spell bonuses are balanced out by the much higher starting hit points and equipment allowances the other classes get. Granted, if they make it to high level, Wizards can get insanely powerful, but I found keeping a group of kids focused enough to go through a series of low-level adventures was a big enough challenge on its own without worrying that far into the future.
One odd addition I’ve developed over time for low level characters is that almost everyone gets an animal of some sort. I know that is normal for Magic Users and their familiars, or some of the wilderness dwelling races and classes. Because I’ve often played with groups of kids, those “obvious” selections easily led to other players complaining, “Why does he get a pet? I want one too!” Mostly, they come in handy when the players have missed the point or gone off mission so far there’s no hope of them finding a critical clue or pathway to continue. The animal actions range from required prods (Your Raven familiar is focused on something gleaming sticking out of the obvious box in the corner you were afraid to open…it looks like a key.) to outright rescues. (“The Cleric’s faithful guardian hound bites the leg off of one of the Kobolds sneaking up on the camp that you forgot to post guards around when everyone went to tie up the horses and you left your unconscious and bleeding comrade alone in the clearing.”)
Often the animals strictly added comedic effect.

For most situations I’ll follow the rules for the Toon Cartoon role playing game. For that game if it was funny it was allowed. When I run a D&D game if it works in the context of the story it’s allowed. Honestly, I follow the “if it’s funny” rule in almost any game I run, as well. 
This happened with a later group of Up the Lake kids I took through I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City. One “pet” accompanying “Truk” my younger cousin’s massively strong, armored… and slow on the update… fighter was Frank, his chicken. Frank was dead and had been for quite a long time. Truk would toss him at foes and yell, “Get ‘em Frank!”
Then he’d inevitably need to rush in to Frank’s rescue, knocking dungeon denizens about like bowling pins. This added a great deal of entertainment for everyone in that later group of Up the Lake D&D players. 
Aside- I know I have Eric's (Truk) Richie's (John the Ranger with Shadow the dog) Kim's (Aurorin the Elven Fighter/ Magic User) and Tracy's (Betty the Gnome Thief/ Illusionist with Shubert the squirrel) character sheets. If anyone remembers who played "Nosehair the Druid" (Danny? Betsy?) that summer please let me know.
A final note on miniatures. When we played, we all had miniatures, and some of us had “Dungeon Floors” or other table mapping tools. (My lead figures are still in the box they were delivered in. The protective egg cartons feel like a "Mom Idea." Since they're almost all intact, thanks Mom!)  Aside from rare times we remembered to use their positioning to establish “marching order” or locations relative to each other and things if it could be confusing when it was important.  (doors, chests, statues ... pretty much any object could be dangerous in Jesse's games) In general, we barely ever used them. I feel like Stranger Things made the miniatures look like too important a part of the experience. The best Dungeons and Dragons games I’ve been a part of in my life were all in our heads.
That’s my general style- Before I can start the stories of our bold, if often confused adventurers, we need an introduction to some of my characters who populated and created backgrounds for the world this party explored and battled in.
Click here to meet my first character and see some early Dungeon Mastering lessons I learned.

This party’s characters were introduced a while ago, click here to meet them.
Dungeons and Dragons quick character reference and index

No comments: