Across the Screen #5 Party Building

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Not a lot of cohesion going on in this picture.

One of the most neglected issues within the process of starting a campaign, it seems, is the formation of the group. While some groups appear to have a penchant for creating each character in a relative vacuum, this can very easily lead to problems down the line.

As I mentioned in Across the Screen #0, having a “session 0” is very important, and that session can and should include character creation for everyone. In terms of a D&D type game (settings and systems may vary), there is very little reason to be duplicitous about your character and their abilities.

I have seen numerous characters seek to hide aspects of their characters. This occurs with varying alignments, but tending towards the rogue class. Players often do this to “steal from others” with impunity, or at least with less scrutiny than if they were known to be sneaky types. This kind of approach is difficult at best, as it forces all players to maintain an anonymity about their characters and capabilities.

Here is the brass tacks: You are playing a game that hinges on creativity, cooperation, and more than a little luck to carry you through dangerous encounters. You don’t need to kneecap you or your party by trying to be greedy about loot distribution, nor should you impose an unnecessary inter-party conflict because you want to be able to dupe the other characters, and, by extension, other players.

And listen, there is a time and a place for that. Play Fiasco. Play Wraith: the Oblivion. Play a board game. Or be on board with everyone and play a fantastic campaign that relies on storytelling more than rules. Better yet, play some hack and slash computer game that will probably satisfy your need to loot and plunder. But don’t set out to cheat people in D&D. There is absolutely no reason to do that in the default game of D&D.

But I digress. There are other reasons to build your characters together, though. There is more synergy and enjoyment when you can riff off of and work alongside your fellow players, as well as the GM to create a group that isn’t just a bundle of strangers that are at a tavern at the same time. I can guarantee you that you will have a better time, work more cohesively, and better understand what your group can collectively do.

I defy anyone who approaches the game from a “I am going to hide a trick up my sleeve by creating my character in secret” to give me one good reason that it benefits anyone within the scope of the game, including yourself. Ask yourself, what do you gain by trying to keep a trick to use against your fellow adventurers, or sillier yet, the effective god of the shared reality. Really think about what you stand to gain by doing that, and consider the benefits of sharing and growing together, as the game tends to encourage.

Maybe this isn’t an issue for you, but ask yourself how cohesive your group is before coming to any conclusions.

Apathy Virus

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This cartoon is not about apathy, but it can cause apathy.

I had considered making a monster entry for today, but I thought that I would instead go for something a little more frightening. Like a zombie menace, there are some existential threats that can’t just be cut down by a sword.

Apathy Virus

The apathy virus is an insidious diseases that is spread subtly, laying low entire populations. What it does not do, however, is directly kill the infected, but instead causes them to lack the will to live or thrive. The virus may originate from many sources, up to and including sadistic death cults, apocalyptic horsemen, and aggressive biological weapons engineers.

The worst part of this virus is that it can spread quickly due to it not being immediately lethal, and having a very long incubation time. Worse yet, many of the symptoms are not readily recognized as being signs of infection. Within one week of infection, victims suffer from a mild depression and lack of energy. After approximately two weeks of being infected, victims begin having a lack of appetite, and sink deeper into depression.

In the final stages of the disease, victims merely lay about waiting to starve to death, and are not easily roused or woken. Approximately 10% of the victims simply fall into a coma, while 85% simply die of starvation. This process will destroy a given population center within a handful of months, bringing the collective society to a halt.

A mere 5% of infected are able to function in an almost zombie-like state, attempting to survive with as little exertion as possible. These “survivors” will often die due to predation, accidents, or simply not being able to feed or care for themselves, sometimes contracting other diseases due to lack of hygiene. So called survivors are also likely to continue spreading the disease, often living long enough for ill-fated rescuers to discover them and become infected.

If caught soon enough, the disease can be quarantined and controlled. The cure, interestingly enough, is overwhelming happiness. Some magics are effective at creating positive emotions, and thus remove the infection. More mundane attempts to combat the virus have sometimes relied on opiates and liquor heavy festivals.

Given time, the disease will die out with its infected victims. When properly treated, victims can recover within a day.

5e Statistics: The apathy virus is airborn, and spread by exposure to an infected individual. Exposed individuals must make a DC 11 Constitution saving throw, becoming infected on a failure.

Once infected, symptoms develop within 4+1d4 days. Symptoms manifest as levels of exhaustion; when the symptoms have manifested, the creature must make a Charisma saving throw after each long rest. On a failure, the creature gains a level of exhaustion. This exhaustion is not physical, but has the same penalties tied to it.

These exhaustion levels can only be removed by magic, or by experiencing great joy. This joy can be reuniting with a loved one, or hearing a beautiful song. Not all joy is created equal; some joy can remove all levels of exhaustion, while some are small enough to remove only one or none at all. Once all levels of exhaustion have been removed, or if joy is felt during the incubation period, then the disease is expelled, and the creature is inoculated to the disease.

It should be noted that this disease may affect only a certain race, may or may not include animals, and can vary in its intensity or length of incubation. Some creatures may or may not have a natural immunity to this virus, perhaps as many as 10% of the population. If the creators of the virus are especially cruel, these immune may or may not function as carriers.

Adventure Seed: The adventurers come upon a city of dying city. The few functioning survivors are at a loss for what to do, and ask the players to help while also warning them to stay away. The city stands as a bulwark against a great danger (perhaps an orc tribe), and its loss would devastate the region. The players must first research the nature of the disease, keep it from spreading outside of the city, and discover a functional cure for the abundance of infected people, all while trying not to contract it themselves.

Across the Screen #3: Solid Advice for GMs

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For GMs

#1. Listen to your players. Solicit feedback. Make sure that they are enjoying things. Some people like less combat, some people want more logic puzzles, and some people don’t want to hear you prattle about the minutia of the labor dispute of your created world. That’s important information! You share your world with others, and it is important to let them shape it as they move through it. You will soon see that the players who are heard will be more engaged, more connected to the world, and more enthusiastic about the game in general. And it doesn’t mean that you have to accede to every request, but that some compromise makes the game more fun.

#2. Be firm, but fair. You can’t try to kill the players unless that is the point of the game (say, Call of Cthulhu). You aren’t there to provide a challenge, you are there to provide fun. These two goals can sometimes match up, but you shouldn’t confuse one for the other. The trick is that you can always kill your players. You are the alpha and the omega. But surely you are there to tell some kind of story, whether it be a sweeping epic or a gritty drama. The story should not end with the characters killed by five angry dragons that they foolishly insulted. It is important to…

#3. Fail forward. No consequence should stop the progress of the story. Did your players fail to solve the puzzle? Figure out a way to move the plot along. Maybe there is a consequence, but allow the players to continue moving towards their goal. Losing or failing at something should not bring the game to a screeching halt, and no consequence should ever make your players feel hopeless or highly frustrated. And don’t be afraid of letting your players find “gordian knot” and “ocams razor” style solutions. Unless your players are especially good or enjoy complicated puzzles and mysteries, you won’t get much enjoyment from sitting and watching them try to solve them.

#4. Make your encounters memorable. Don’t just make an encounter with 12 orcs because a table told you to do so. Instead, make the encounter meaningful, either by including complications (strange terrain, some narrative element, etc) that makes the encounter meaningful. I refer you to the bonus article “Creative Encounters”. It seriously makes a difference when your players can remember a session as being dynamic.

That’s all for now. This list is not exhaustive, and will be appended, but I hope you find some usefulness in it.

Next week we tackle the ever popular session zero. Until then, don’t forget to reach across the screen!

Across the Screen Bonus Article: Creative Encounters

If you are reading this soon after I post it, you will know the shock that I do (or an elation I cannot understand). But… I intend to move on.

There is always so much to do. But lets start with something simple.

Today I ask you to think about tactics and emotions. You may not think it, but your groups tactics are shaped by circumstance. Whether you are a tactical leader for your group of players, or a GM looking to predict how your players will act, you should take care to understand the role that emotions play in a fight.

For instance, consider a fight in which there are innocent lives at stake. There is a very much different tone to a fight with an evil dragon in its cave lair than it might be in a crowded church full of children. The final action sequence in the first Avengers movie was a pretty good portrayal of this, and shows not only the difficulty of simultaneously managing a battle and a crisis, but how true heroism can be achieved by rising to the occasion.

If your players are more mercenary, you could even have the treasure (a pile of loot or some mcguffin) being dangled over a pit of lava about to be dropped in at any moment, and suddenly the stakes have changed. Or perhaps the players have the choice of sacrificing their own lives to achieve an objective that may or may not be greater than themselves.

It is actually exceedingly easy to unbalance your players, as long as they are invested enough in the story, or at the very least in their characters. Once the fight has ceased being about “who can make the other side stop moving first”, the tactical themes can shift dramatically.

And I say all of this to highlight that the point is to care. You should care that your characters are making choices that are more meaningful than “kill thing, get paid”, and game masters should really think to craft a story into something that is more memorable than a diablo-clone*. It falls on both sides of the screen to come together and make a story shine with highs and lows of dramatic tension and narrative depth.

With all honesty, this requires less buy in than you would think. The players are already there, and you as the game master should take initiative to really make encounters be as exciting as possible** so as to be a highlight of the game, and not just a statistical break between social interactions and exploration. Your combats and encounters should be as much a part of the story, not because combat is intrinsic to the game, but because it is an ever growing opportunity to blend rules and storytelling in exciting ways.

So I put to you that you should try to think of a great encounter.

  • The group find a ghost town where actual ghosts are about to hang a live captive at the town gallows. Use difficult terrain, put a fountain full of oozes between them and the prisoner. Make them work for it!
  • A throng of refugees is running from a pack of hell hounds. How does the group hold the line and keep the hounds from maiming a large number of innocents? What do they do to help afterwards?
  • An eclipse has caused the sky to open up and rain monsters on a crowded city. How do your characters react? Do they flee the city and leave the rest up to fate, or do they try to enact a plan to minimize the chaos?

There are no bad ideas, only bad implementations. Remember to be kind and let the players decide. If you punish them for any choice, that is bad game mastering. Of course they COULD want to flee with their lives. Of course they MIGHT want to try and take a valiant stand against insurmountable odds. You have to roll with those punches because you are the one that put that situation in front of them.

Just shape the campaign to reflect the choice they made, and don’t crush or judge your players. If there is a “right answer” that you have in mind for a situation, there is no way for the players to know it without some guidance, and at that point it isn’t about their agency or their story, but yours. If you present a unique challenge, always ask yourself what you might do if the players don’t do as you wish them to do, because they are VERY likely to surprise you with an ironic consistency.

That having been said, please share with me some of your ideas. Have you had some exciting encounters that have made you or your players really think or feel? Are you thinking of introducing a gut wrenching emotional choice into your next session? Tell me about it, because I’d love to hear it.

And always remember to reach across the screen.

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*Not to trash on that video game genre, but really it exists to scratch that itch so that tabletop doesn’t have to.
** And not every encounter, but really most of them. There is never an excuse for making a mundane boss fight, for instance.

Across the Screen #2: Solid Advice for Players

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Synnergy within a gaming group is important.

Although the duty of a game master is to provide enjoyment for players, each side of the screen has responsibilities, whether or not they are explicitly expressed. Players aren’t responsible for much, but they should definitely minimize any problems for other players at the least, and problems for the game master in ideal.

I can talk about a general behavioral framework at a future date, but here is some game oriented advice that can improve  your time at the table.


For Players
#1. Try to save any serious rules discussions or disagreements for after the current session, and make sure you leave time for it before people leave the table. I can’t stress how hard it is to make on the fly decisions in the middle of the game when tensions are high. There is a time and a place to debate the rules; your character is on the edge of death, an important plot point hinges on a ruling, or some other pressing matter makes it important to find a solution.

However, you can let the small things go. Don’t remember what happens when you rise from prone? Let the GM make a snap decision, resolve to look up the rule later, and move on. Rules questions can create a byzantine experience that few will appreciate.

The communication in this case is better focused after the game, when the atmosphere is more relaxed, people aren’t concentrating on player turns, and a genuine discussion can be had about what seems fair or fun. I promise you that you will yield better results this way.

#2. Don’t let your character’s personality/coolness/concept be detrimental to the fun. This is a shared world, and your character’s amoral sensibilities might just make the game not fun. Guess what, you have a solid idea for an interesting personality that you want to express? Write about that! But unless you are being run solo by a very patient GM, you are in a group setting and have to be a team player. Honestly, if you have to justify something by saying “that’s what my character would do”, ask yourself if that will advance the story or not. The answer might surprise you.

Here, communication is important in that you should not only express your character concept, but hear out the GM and other players. Maybe you really want to play a magic hating barbarian, but picking fights with the group wizard might just end up with bad feelings. When you have acclimated to a group, you will know when your innovative character concept will be appropriate. Bonus points if you collaborate with another player on complementary character concepts (which, by the way, can still include good natured bickering).

#3. Make sure you make your voice heard. If you can save it for later (after the session, between sessions), that’s great, but if something in the game is heavily bugging you, it’s ok to bring it up. Everyone else is there to have fun, but if you are not having fun because of a touchy subject (suicide, killing captives, etc), then you should speak up.

Generally, you will be heard and understood. If speaking up causes tempers to flare, then you probably need to find a new group. That doesn’t reflect poorly on you, but it is a solid signal that you probably won’t mesh with that group. Believe me, you’ll be better off not subjecting yourself to the stress.

But more importantly, most groups won’t know that a thing is bugging you unless you bring it up. Maybe you felt like you didn’t get an equal share of the treasure, or that you didn’t get a chance to talk at the last social encounter. Be heard, and make sure that others know. A good GM will internalize these issues and make the game better for you. Trust me when I say that most accomplished GMs are dying to get feedback on what you want to see more or less of in a game.


 

That’s it for this week.  Next week we discuss game master advice. In the meanwhile, feel free to comment with any of your recent game table issues, and I’ll resolve to write a post with personalized advice on your specific matter. Just don’t expect me to pick a side.

Happy Halloween: The Formless Horror

I thought I’d do something a little different for the season. There are a lot of themes that might scare your players, but few are so thorough as simulated body horror.

The Formless Horror is a creature from the nightmare of the imagination. It takes any shape, but it is not entirely subtle; the creature plays at an orderly form, but prefers a coagulation of shapes and consistencies that drive the mind mad with primal fear. It is at once a devilish impostor and a polymorphic mass of flesh and terror.

Clearly, this is an homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing, but it could apply to so many awful creatures…

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Formless Horror
Medium aberration, chaotic evil
Armor Class 16
Hit Points 153 (18d8 + 54)
Speed 35 ft.
STR: 18 (+4) DEX: 15 (+1) CON: 17 (+3) INT: 12 (+1) WIS: 11 (+0) CHA: 2 (-4)
Skills Deception -2, Stealth +7, Perception +6
Damage Resistances bludgeoning
Condition Immunities charmed, frightened, paralyzed, petrified, prone, restrained
Senses darkvision 120 ft., passive perception 16
Languages can speak any language with rudimentary ability after 1 minute of exposure
Challenge 7 (2,900 XP)
Amorphous. The formless horror can move through a space as narrow as 1 inch without squeezing.
 Boundless Predator. The formless horror can spend its bonus action to subtly change its form to gain a swim, fly, climb or burrow speed. This movement type lasts until dismissed. The formless horror can only have one additional movement type at a time.
Inspire Terror. The formless horror can use its action to transmute itself superficially. It can retain its shape or take a new shape as normal, but it augments that shape with disgusting appendages, teeth, and other putrid features that inspire terror in all those that witness it. Any creature within 100 feet that can see the formless horror must make a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for 1d8 rounds and take 14 (3d8) psychic damage. Creatures that success on this saving throw take half as much psychic damage and are not frightened. Creatures frightened by this ability must make a saving throw at the end of each turn, ending the frightened condition on a successful save.
Mimicry. The formless horror can take the shape of anyone and anything by using an action to take that form. When taking the form of an object, it is indistinguishable from an ordinary object as long as it does not move.When taking the form of a living creature, its disguise is less thorough, but it is still difficult to pierce. The formless horror is always considered to have rolled a natural 20 on its Charisma (Deception) check against active or passive attempts to see through its disguise.

Actions
Multiattack. The formless horror makes two appendage attacks.
Appendage. Melee Weapon Attack:+7 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 22 (4d8 + 4)  damage. The creature can choose from the following damage types; acid, bludgeoning, slashing, piercing, and poison damage.

Reactions
Shock Attack. The formless horror can use its reaction to attack a creature that is within 10 feet while the creature in the form of an object or a perceived ally. This attack deals an additional 14 (3d8) damage as chosen by the formless horror (see appendage attack), and deals 14 (3d8) psychic damage to any ally of the target within 30 feet of target.

Alternate Formless Horror
As an alternative to the formless horror above, you can remove its amorphous and mimicry abilities, as well as its ability to deal poison or acid damage, and instead give it the following feature.

Head Parasite. The formless horror’s natural form is that of a worm that crawls into the bodies of humanoids, seeking to take the place of the victim’s head. Victims must make a DC 14 Constitution saving throw, becoming killed and becoming a new host for the creature’s second life cycle stage.

The formless horror can then shape the head into various deadly forms to kill and consume flesh. When not actively hunting prey, the creature is indistinguishable from the humanoid that it infected. If the creature’s hose body is killed, but the host body is intact, it can attempt to usurp another body by decapitating a new host and simply inserting its body into the stump. The parasite can eventually evolve by transmuting the entire host body into a deadly mass of flesh, then budding off new parasites to infect new hosts.

Across the Screen #0: Premise and Session Zero

 

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Arguments at the table are seldom fun. Less so with alcohol.

Welcome to the first installment of Across the Screen. Here we will discuss the best practices of being a GM, being a player, and how to understand that sometimes iron barrier of the screen. This advice is geared towards maximizing harmony and minimizing issues that can bring conflict to your game table.

For the “first” entry, I will discuss “session zero”. To avoid confusion, let me explain. A session zero is something that happens before the first actual session of play, and is meant to be a discussion of characters, the campaign setting, and also of expectations of storytelling methods and game table behavior.

This may not be new advice to anyone who follows the hobby as I do, but a session zero is probably the number one way to avoid conflict at the gaming table. Rather than to create characters in a vacuum, the group can discuss the campaign, characters made for it, and the ramifications of choices that could impact gaming sessions for years ahead.

For example:

  • Will the game delve into risky issues like suicide and moral relativism? You probably want to ask if that will be alright with everyone.
  • Will you allow electronics at the table? That’s a very new and pressing issue. Sometimes it can work out if the electronics are a part of the game (character sheets, initiative tracking, real time virtual mapping, etc), but other times it can be an avenue for distracted players.
  • Are there expectations from the people at the table regarding the play area? Who pays for food? Are there any diet restrictions. If you spend as much time together as most campaigns demand, this will be important.
  • Character creation is especially important. Sometimes it is a good idea to talk not only about character concepts, but character behavior and interaction as well. Are you, as a player, making a lone wolf that would sell out his family for a modest sum? That may not be the thrust of a campaign of mostly heroic characters trying to save the world.

I can and will speak at great lengths about any of these expectations and topics of discussion, and I may even have missed some other equally important topics, but I want to briefly highlight them to show that it is vital that these things be explored. You are going to share a relatively small space with a group of people who are all pretending to be one or more people/creatures.

It’s natural that expectations may not mesh, because we are all people with idiosyncrasies. But you can at least predict future issues if you talk about them. It may be doubly important to express expectations if there are new members in the group, or if most of the group are meeting for the first time. In this case, session zero is very critical to the understanding of the group dynamic that will eventually form over what will hopefully be dozens of sessions.

And the session zero isn’t even the last word on open communication. Even with this handy method, there will be issues that will arise further into a campaign.

Next entry we will discuss solid player rules that can help you understand your role in the group dynamics.