04 Nov 2010

Twenty Ways to Improve Your Game

Blog 21 Comments

Sunday ended my three-year campaign. It was a British ending. Just about everyone died. Yay. In preparing for the next campaign starting in a week and a half, I’ve cobbled together a list of things I’d like to implement. Some of these might not work. Some might. Undoubtedly, there will be things here you will hate and that’s okay too. So, let’s get started, shall we?

1. Ignore the Published Adventure’s Conclusion

A published adventure’s conclusion does three big things. One, it tells you how it ends. Two, it might lay out the consequences. And three, it offers ways to continue the adventure. Scratch this out. You don’t need it. Players drive the campaign, so they decide when the  adventure ends. Consequences arise from the players’ decisions. And whether or not the PCs want to follow up on elements discovered during game play or not is up to them.

2. Ignore a Published Adventure’s Readaloud Text

Readaloud text has its apologists and detractors. I often use readaloud text, although I undermine the mood when I lead with “and now it’s time for the obligatory readaloud text.” Readaloud text communicates the information the players need when they enter a new environment. Most often, it’s just bad, forced, and is a disincentive to explore an area.

When you prepare a published adventure, extract all the meaningful elements from the readaloud text and assemble them as a bullet point list. Write it on a sticky note and put it over the italics so you won’t be tempted to use the text. When the PCs enter a room, tell them what they plainly.

Example:

“This is a room. A brazier fills it with dim light. There’s a door on the far wall and a chest-of-drawers next to it. A fur rug sits on the floor. And there’s a crude bed in the corner on your right.”

Don’t worry about passive Perception until the PCs start exploring. If a character walks up to the brazier and it has a hidden feature the character might identify, then check the passive Perception or let the player make a Perception check.

3. Make Monsters Meaningful

In D&D speak, a monster is any creature you fight. It could be a bear, a human bandit, or a beholder. For this discussion, a monster is just what it sounds like, a horrible, strange, and terrifying thing. When you use a monster, it should be horrible, strange, and terrifying. And once defeated, the PCs probably shouldn’t encounter another one like it. Why? A particular monster should never be “old hat.” Defeating a beholder is an achievement. It’s okay to use most humanoid monsters again and again, but it’s not okay to use the same big threat critters since it diminishes their weirdness and kills the wonder.

I would assign creatures a rarity scheme. Since a full catalog here would be ridiculous, I’ll instead give you some examples. A human bandit would be a common enemy. A dire rat would be uncommon. And a lesser water elemental would be rare.

4. Use Skills

This is a 180-degree turn from how I used to see the game, but I’ve since revised my assessment. Originally, I felt skills could be represented as powers and so I discouraged folks from relying on them too much. What I’ve found is that without skill use, players feel they can’t do anything when they lack a power to deal with the situation. Encouraging skill use should result in players finding unconventional solutions to their problems and that’s what is fun about this game after all. This said, you set the DCs and it’s well within your rights to set it beyond a character’s reach when they would do something you feel is ridiculous (using Intimidate to get a blue dragon to surrender for example).

Let the player try. Assign a DC from easy, moderate, hard, or impossible (hard +5). Create a consequence for failure.

Example: Rook tries to Intimidate a bloodied enemy into surrendering. The enemy has plenty of allies left, so I make the DC hard. Rook’s player rolls and fails. The enemy gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls vs. Rook until the end of its next turn.

5. Let the PCs Fail

Without a meaningful risk of failure, there’s really no point in playing the game. Don’t sabotage the players’ efforts but don’t stop them from making a bad decision either. Don’t fudge the die rolls in their favor and don’t alter circumstances to help them along. The players are playing the game. Your role is to facilitate that play.

6. Let the Game End

You must be willing to let the game end. If the players stumble into a TPK, then so be it. If the villain’s plans work because the PCs failed to piece together the clues, that’s great. Letting the game unfold as it’s supposed to makes the world more believable and also creates tension. Maybe the princess is killed. Maybe the goblins burn down the town. Maybe the cultist opens the rift to the Shadowfell.

While the PCs determine their own success and failure, don’t create unwinnable situations. The heroes should have a good shot at securing a victory from the outset.

7. Throw Away All Wish Lists

Magic items have become a character-building tool. Players regard their magic weapon as integral to their character design. This is a problem since it adds yet another exploitative element that can create difficulties at the table. Magic items should be strange, wondrous, and exciting. Yes, you will need to hand out amulets/cloaks, magic weapons/implements, armor and so on, and these can be incidental treasures picked up along the way. You, however, should decide what cool items you want to introduce and if it doesn’t fit with the character concept, the player can always retrain a feat or power to accommodate the item.

8. Create Environments, Not Adventures

An adventure has a script, but roleplaying games are not books or plays. The players decide the narrative through the choices they make in the game. When you build an environment, you might populate it with encounters, creatures, traps, and so on, but the environment has no beginning, middle, or end. It just is.

Villains present in the environment may have their own goals and objectives. Let these unfold according to their timetable. If the PCs thwart the plan, great. If not, well, they’ll have to deal with the consequences.

9. Encourage Discovery

Stop spoon-feeding the players information about the world. Let them know their environment through their questions and choices. They should record notes about the people they meet, their environments, and objectives. It’s not your job to remind them about the things they should know.

10. Be Willing to Abandon Your Work

Your players have no obligation to explore the environments you create. They might enter the dungeon only to find it’s too tough, too scary, and then withdraw. This is okay. You can chop up missed opportunities and use them later if you like. Or not.

11. Let the Players Drive the Car

Your players are in charge of their characters’ story. They decide the quests they choose, the monsters they fight, and the tactics they use. Your job is to provide opportunities for adventure, places to explore, villains to fight. Your job is not to hook the players and compel them to complete the mission. Circumstances and player choice should be enough to encourage them to undertake adventures.

12. Drop Obligatory Combats

Don’t run unnecessary fights. They take up too much time and they don’t add to anything to the game. Every combat encounter you use should create opportunities for the players to advance their stories. A fight with 5 orcs serves no purpose other than to grind out XP. Killing 5 orcs who are sentries and might alert the dungeon dwellers is another matter entirely.

13. Grant XP Awards for Story Goals

Don’t limit XP awards to killing monsters and completing quests. Grant XP awards for roleplaying, clever game play, and furthering the story in meaningful ways. Everyone in the group should get these awards too, not just the player responsible for the great idea. If giving these “free” XP removes an unnecessary fight, all the better.

14. Don’t Break Immersion

Don’t undermine the game’s mood by contributing to the tangents that often arise. Be silent. Answer questions, describe environments, be descriptive, but otherwise be patient and wait for the players to engage the game.

15. Victory by Other Means

Not every fight needs to end with one side wiped out. Be willing to have monsters run away or surrender.

16. Prepare

Spend time preparing for your game. If you can’t squeeze out a few hours in the week, then run a dungeon delve instead.

17. Break the Encounter Mold

Rules for building encounters are tools. Use them or not as you like. You don’t have to have interesting terrain features in every fight. You don’t have to build a tactical encounter for every fight.

18. Give Meaningful Rewards

Reward the players for their successes. Magic items should be interesting, exciting, and wondrous. Don’t be afraid to give other rewards too. A castle, followers, contacts, badges, information, boons, and other elements are the things that help make playing the game so exciting. While you shouldn’t use wish lists, you shouldn’t deny a player an item he or she really wants. If a player wants that +5 holy avenger, create ways to gain the item, environments the player must explore and quests the player must complete to secure the item.

19. Adjust Monsters

Two things when using monsters. One, drop hit points for non-minions by 10 to 20%. Two, make sure the monsters have damage expressions like those used in Monster Manual 3 and Monster Vault.

20. Don’t be a Dick

Rule Zero. This game isn’t between you and the players. You’re not there to tell them how to play, what to do, to fill in their motivations, or anything else. Your job is not to punish the players, to make them work for their goals or to lead them by the nose. Your only job is to create situations that challenge the players and their characters and to make sure everyone has a good time.

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21 Responses to “Twenty Ways to Improve Your Game”

  1. Tweets that mention Twenty Ways to Improve Your Game -- Topsy.com says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gato, CH News Robot, newbiedm, C. M. Yates, Maurice Tousignant , Matt James and others. Matt James said: RT @rjschwalb: 20 ways to improve your (4E) game: http://bit.ly/bhdFqD [...]

  2. Rev. Lazaro says:

    This has to be one of the best lists I’ve seen for those who want to love 4E but can’t seem to shake how formulaic it is. You’ve condensed a LOT of good (and sometimes great) approaches into a good post. I’m gonna bookmark and repost this sucker for any old-timer or experienced DMs who come into 4E. A lot of it sounds “no duh” but, man, sometimes you get caught up in the stat blocks and forget “Why are they crawling here again?”

  3. Rook says:

    >>Example: Rook tries to Intimidate a bloodied enemy into surrendering. The enemy has plenty of allies left, so I make the DC hard. Rook’s player rolls and fails. The enemy gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls vs. Rook until the end of its next turn.<<

    Why not an example of where Rook's player rolls and SUCCEEDS!?

    …just saying…

    *Cloud of Darkness*

  4. Trevor says:

    I think the Number A.) way to improve your game is to be clear with the players on the ‘type’ of game.

    A game where the party thinks they are the Luke Skywalkers of the land and can’t fail because the force is with them; but the GM thinks the party is no better than the rest of the goat-herding population and could fail at any moment because they are so squishy, is going to be a dissapointing game.

  5. robertjschwalb says:

    I absolutely agree Trevor.

  6. Dan says:

    Wonderful list Robert, as usual. I only will hit you up on #5… see below.

    “5. Without a meaningful risk of failure, there’s really no point in playing the game. Don’t sabotage the players’ efforts but don’t stop them from making a bad decision either. Don’t fudge the die rolls in their favor and don’t alter circumstances to help them along. The players are playing the game. Your role is to facilitate that play.”

    I agree with points 1 and 2. I disagree whole heartedly with point 3. In my not so humble opinion, the DM must fudge die rolls and alter circumstances during a game or an encounter, you must take horrible bad luck or a singular bad decision out of the chances for death and failure.

    There are nights where you must fudge numbers in order to facilitate play of the game… not to minimize risk but to balance out luck.

    There are nights when you as a DM cant miss… in that instance you need to make yourself miss… you need to save your players from your good luck.

    There are well laid out plans, perfect plans that the party devises all on their own… a plan that requires a skill check of some kind… you might want to not set a DC… you might want it to succeed on anything except a 1… still show shock that they got over the hurdle… but let it happen so that they can be heroic.

    There are players that just need to be hit in the face… hit them in the face with your monster. Make sure you don’t miss. Yes I said it. Disruptive/Cheating/Crying players are the worst and they need to be smacked in the head.

    These are all rights that belong to the DM and although he should use them sparingly, he should use them none the less, and to take that tool out of your tool kit is to cripple your ability to do your job.

  7. Dan says:

    @ Rook – you never succeed so I don’t think Rob had an example to use

  8. pdunwin says:

    1 – 6. Yes.
    7. No, but don’t be a pushover. Set a minimum number of choices for each type of item.
    8. No, but a mix of living environment and plot-box is good.
    9. No. Too much emphasis on exploration risks turning it into a guessing game, in which the characters wind up not knowing things that would be apparent to them.
    10 – 12. Yes.
    13. Yes, but no XP for roleplaying and “cleverness.” Too arbitrary and favoritist.
    14. No to title, yes to text. I don’t like “immersion” when it means restrictions on my ability to convey information the players and characters need.
    15. Yes, but also consider victory conditions that have nothing to do with which side dies or flees. For example the party must reach a certain point in a certain time, or hold a certain line for a certain amount of time. Skill challenges in combat are great for this.
    16. Yes, but learn to improvise as soon as possible.
    17. Yes.
    18. Yes, but I think too much is made of character possessions.
    19. No. Adjust the way you run combat. Provoke more attacks in order to go for the squishier characters. This increases the PC damage output in real terms, highlights class roles, makes the battlefield more dynamic, and makes monster damage worth more.
    20. Yes.

  9. Cam Rawls says:

    This is pretty much my philosophy when I DM, but It’s great to be reminded every once in a while. It’s easy to get caught up in your “creation”. But the truth is, the world does not belong to the DM, but to the players.

    I am building my first 4e Eberron campaign (tranferred from 3.5) after playing a PC for the last 2+ years and I am excited at the possibilities. I plan to let the Players try anything that they can think of (related to the current dilemma) and assign DCs as fits the action. I’ve already changed the way I structure sessions, and with your reminder, I will put even more options in the players hands.

    As for monsters, we usually 1/2 HP, increase main 2 defenses +2 and the others +1, and add about 5 damage per tier. it’s worked out so far. Combat time has decreased but brutality has increased.

    Great post.

  10. Rook says:

    @ Dan—- True. …and the Drow is dead to prove it. *sadface*

    …and I agree with your points, Dan. *reflects on last night’s game*

    It is important to the health of a game that your PC’s feel heroic. To this end, it is important to remember that you as a DM know everything on your side of the screen, and pretty much everything on the PC’s side as well. Tactics and choices that are insanely obvious to the DM might escape the players.

    I play this game because I want to find a wee bit of escapism by taking on the role of someone who is smarter, faster, stronger, and to be certain better looking than I am. Sometimes players need help acheiving that (some would say masturbatory) elevated state.

    I will refrain from using my own Rook as an example and instead give you the scenario in The Princess Bride where Wesley explains what “to the pain” means, and has Humperdink drop his sword and take a seat. Classic intimidation skill check IMHO. What if Wesley’s player had rolled a 1 after that classic, infinitely quoted performance? Players need to be able to fail. And should. Bad ideas should reap bad consequences. Good ideas should be rewarded, and not just with power bonuses to die rolls, or player handouts. Sometimes the best reward a player can receive is to feel HEROIC. To own his moment, when everything that he envisions that PC to be comes to fruition for one shining instance. To have your cape flap in the breeze behind you, hands on your hips, sun rising behind you over the hilltop, eagle perched on your shoulder.

    Players want to feel like their characters are being taken seriously by thier enemies. If I have an 18 modifier in Intimidate and I try to interrogate a captured enemy using at least a modicum of role-playing, should I really have to make a roll if the target is not a named villain or some special ccusrcumstance applies?

    I think that the DC and success/failure of some things in the game should live or die in the interaction of DM and player, wiht the die roll truly being a modifier. A Diplomacy roll of a 20 plus modifier should still just be a modifier, with the ultimate success/failure of an exchange still lying in the verbage.

    “I’m gonna try to convince the King not to throw us in the dungeon.”

    “Ok, go ahead”

    *rattle rattle roll roll*

    “I got a 29 Diplomacy roll. Does he let us go?”

    “No.”

    This should not be rewarded.

    “I am gonna try to convince the King not to exile us”

    “Ok, go ahead.”

    *very well spoken plea for a full pardon of the group that actually causes other players to lay down their smart phones and pay attention, coupled with a Diplomacy roll of an 8*

    “Your words sway the King, and he agrees to allow you safe pqassage in his kingdom, though you must perform a service to prove your sincerity”

    This should be rewarded despite a crappy die roll. I am reminded of an old Dragon Magazine advertisement (back when it was published using archaic stuff like paper) that had a picture of a d20 with a result of 1. the caption merely read “Good idea. Bad roll.”

    Yes, Rook rarely succeeded (past tense) at anything. It’s on his tombstone.

  11. pdunwin says:

    Roll first and then describe the results. But no, not everything requires a roll.

  12. Draco says:

    Some good stuff here. A lot of these (ie. 15, 16, 10, 4, 3, 1) I use all the time already. The rest will go into my GM’s bag of tricks to play with. I’ve been contemplating putting 7 into practice for a while now.

  13. Dan says:

    @pdunwin – “19. No. Adjust the way you run combat. Provoke more attacks in order to go for the squishier characters. This increases the PC damage output in real terms, highlights class roles, makes the battlefield more dynamic, and makes monster damage worth more.”

    I have to disagree with you on this one, making creatures focus on squishy targets does not make sense. If they have a brain they will not take the damage they will get trying to get to the squishy, not to mention that an actual fighter with decent stats will stop them from moving (wasting their actions) more often than not. If the bad guys dont have brains then they would not see the difference in the PCs and should not be played as if they can.

    Dont get me wrong, with smart monsters they should indeed attack non-defenders 1st when the chance is available to them, but for them to just run past defenders provoking attacks left and right is just not ‘natural” and could lead to the players thinking you are picking on a player, or that they are being targeted when really they are not…. a bad thing to have happen.

  14. Rook says:

    I have seen mindless slimes and jellies perform tactical manuevers that would make Deep Blue short circuit with envy.

  15. pdunwin says:

    That’s the response I usually get to that suggestion. One day I might get around to blogging this and then I can just point to that. For now:

    Having a brain doesn’t mean that a monster won’t take damage to get at an easier target. A monster can be expected to have at least a relative sense of its defenses and HP, so if it knows it stands a good chance of avoiding the extra attacks, or of coping with the damage from them, then it might decide that trying to hit a softer target is worth the risk, especially if the monster’s damage isn’t doing much to its current target.

    I don’t think it takes that much brains to make an assessment like this, but one could argue that a very dim creature simple didn’t know it was going to be attacked for going after what it instinctively thought might be easier prey. There are plenty of plausible reasons for a creature to go after another target, rather than stick with the defender. That’s exactly /why/ defenders are sticky, so that they can do their jobs even if the creature goes after someone else. There are also non-plausible ways of doing this, but there’s a broad range in there.

    It’s not necessary to do it all the time, just whenever a fight looks like it’s in danger of getting boring. Because it’s a matter of tactics, you can change it mid-encounter if someone feels picked on. I suppose you can always undo changes to defenses, HP, and damage mid-fight, but that seems wrong to me.

  16. Dan says:

    I see what you are getting at here, I just dont think that changing the way monsters attack and who they attack is a ‘better’ was of going about speeding up combat when compared to giving monsters a bit lower hp total and having them do more damage per hit.

    I have seen both in action from both sides of the screen and for my 2 cents monsters that hit hard but die sooner are more entertaining to work with instead of having the monsters purposefully provoke AoO’s just so the players can dish a bit more damage out.

    In either case, it is plain to me that speeding up of combat is needed… its just the how do to it.

  17. pdunwin says:

    I’m not changing anything, because there’s no set way monsters are supposed to engage PCs. Just calcified assumptions.

    And it’s not just so the PCs can do more damage. It’s so the monsters can do more meaningful damage, and so that the PCs have to work a bit harder and use more of their tricks and strategy to stay alive. I’ve found it to be a lot more engaging for everyone. Our combat encounters are still pretty long, but they’re not boring. And I don’t have to take a pen to my Monster Manuals.

  18. Links Roundup: 23rd November 2010 « Jonathan Drain’s D20 Source: Dungeons & Dragons Blog says:

    [...] Twenty Ways to Improve Your Game, via Robert J. Schwalb. Robert recommends reducing the hit points on all monsters in D&D 4E, and give how prolific a writer he’s been for 4E, I agree with him. Surprisingly, he recommmends against the use of item wish lists: Magic items have become a character-building tool. Players regard their magic weapon as integral to their character design. This is a problem since it adds yet another exploitative element that can create difficulties at the table. Magic items should be strange, wondrous, and exciting [...] If a player wants that +5 holy avenger, create ways to gain the item, environments the player must explore and quests the player must complete to secure the item. [...]

  19. Decius says:

    When running a combat encounter, I first look at it as a competitive game, with full knowledge. Then I adjust my tactics, considering what the NPCs and monsters would know and be able to figure out, and then consider what my guys would do given their motivation. Undead and demons tend to focus on the cleric or paladin, for example, because of their natural enmity. Smarter, more tactical opponents will tell their minions what to do.

    I find it useful to first construct the area, then consider the tactical implications of such an area. A rich manor in a noble district is not going to be designed primarily for military defense, but might get a very quick makeover in a few days after the lord within learns that he has a bounty on his head.

  20. diablo says:

    Much much respect for putting up all this information in such an great way.

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