Posts Tagged ‘DnD’

Never split the party.

In the world of DnD that is perhaps the Golden Rule of adventuring.

Bad things happen when you split your party.

I’m sure there have been times when my gaming group has split up our characters and things went just fine. We came, we saw, we conquered, and we got some really great XP and loot to divide between far fewer than the normal group number. Ding! We level up early! Yay!

Those times are hazy in my memory. What stands out are the moments it did not work out in our favor.

I had been gaming for about a year when I saw this Murphy’s Law play itself out. Adventuring in a giant city we were schmoozing one of the head honchos and hoping to get out of it all relatively unscathed. When things were going good our Bard decided to wander off down the hall. And then things turned sour. Negotiations didn’t work out and we found ourselves in initiative. Things were bad enough being down a man… and then the Bard came back with several more giants in tow.

Miraculously, we all got out alive.

My group seems to skew lucky in that way when in combat. Our DM once sent a trap that our tank fell into, finding himself face to face with a HUGE earth elemental. Any other player would have been dead, but the dwarf’s armor class was so high the elemental needed to roll a 19 or 20 to hit him. He downed that monster all by himself. We were all totally jealous.

But splitting the party doesn’t always happen in combat. It happens out of combat, in towns when everyone gets to hang loose. These are the moments my gaming group forgets the rule, and it’s when we have the worst luck.My Bard once thought nothing could be more satisfying than setting the Paladin up with a nice wench. He was wound awfully tight and needed to chill out. Little did I know that wench was a shape-shifting monster who attacked him the moment his armor was off. Another time my Barbarian was left alone in a bar when a shifty Rogue intent on joining the party sidled my way. This set in motion a chain of events no one could have seen coming. Party members fought party members and we opened a gateway to hell that popped out demons like candy from a machine. The world imploded. The game ended, and we sat in awe at the havoc we had reaped upon the world by splitting up.

Never split the party.

In my writing life I forgot this all important rule. I know it doesn’t apply to exciting story telling. After all, who wants things to go as methodical as possible? Boring. However, there it was in the back of my mind, the idea that the whole group was going to make it out of the dungeon they were delving. I had it all planned out. One of them is chicken shit and stays behind, the other two make it to the treasure and then they come back for him.

I neglected to consider how the dungeon works. There are magical transports that one cannot come back from. You need magic of your own to get back through. They were hoping to get a special magical item at the end of all things that would make that possible…but they aren’t getting it. It isn’t there anymore. I had forgotten that there would be no magical deus ex machina to solve all their problems.

As soon as the door closed on the party member who stayed behind one of my characters remembered what I had forgotten, and it floored me. I had known this was coming, and yet I hadn’t. I went to work considering other methods of character retrieval and then remembered the all important villains whose plans do not make rescuing possible. The attack will be brutal and the two remaining party members will be forced to flee.

They may not be able to come back.

I had split the party, and casualties are inevitable. Things are not going to go as easily as I had planned, and no matter the argument that as an author I can change the flow of events to create a reality in which it all works out I realize that I don’t want to. I don’t want their lives to be easy; I want them to be real. I want my characters to deal with adversity in ways they did not expect.

So, much like the Fellowship of the Ring loses Gandalf, my group is losing a member. He may come back as Gandalf the White, but he will not be present for the next leg of the journey.

That’s what happens when you split the party.

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There’s something strangely satisfying about creating something from nothing. You sit down with a handful of dice and a short while later you have something that was not there before: a character. Not right away, of course. It takes time to decide who you are, who you are going to be.

Sometimes this process is easy. Something about the game setting speaks to you, or perhaps it is an idea that has been worming its way through your subconscious for a long time, waiting for the opportunity to put it into practice. Other times you have a concept for what a character is, but the question of who the character is is a mystery. For example: The character is a gnome barbarian. According to the dice rolls the gnome is tall for its species. It is middle aged. It is also a level one character and therefore is a novice in the world of adventuring. That is all you know. And then the DM speaks, setting the scene for yourself and the other players gathered around the table, and in a few short moments you will learn who your character is.

Playing any tabletop role playing game is an adventure not just in the literal sense of game mechanics, but also in regard to being able to be what your are not for the span of an evening. Losing yourself in a character, however,  is not always something easily achieved. Recently my gaming group has been working through Pathfinder’s Jade Regent and while the little goblin gunslinger I’ve been allowed to play is fantastic on paper pinning him down as a character has been a bit more rough. The first session we sat down was pained, every move or comment he made never seemed right. My vision of what he was conflicted with who he was.

It seems weird to say that. This character is something I created. I should know who and what he is without a second thought. And yet, I didn’t. You’ll hear authors talk about similar problems as they work their way through a story, realizing later that something doesn’t fit and needing to go back to repair or recast. Playing an RPG isn’t so different, only I find the indecision that much more painful. You are the character and the character is you and yet…there’s no connection. It takes time.

Other characters seem to jump off the page fully formed. This past Friday my group played a one-shot with pre-made characters, which means I had very little decision making to do in the way of what the character was. The papers were laid out on the table, each with a picture and all the pertinent stats and a name. This leaves a player in a precarious position. Often the “who” portion of the character is slowly formed along with the “what”. Being given the “what” means snap decisions have to be made based on the information already given. Its a lot like playing an improv game in the theatre. They give you the body and you provide the heart. Much to my surprise the character leaped out at me and made it very clear who and what he was. A pretty face, yes, but also a huge foul-up. Within two rounds I knew who he was and had the greatest fun playing an elf Indiana Jones/Han Solo type.

The DM mentioned, “Wow, you have that likeable a-hole down pat.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “And it’s so much fun.”

It truly was a fantastic experience. When something is right, it’s right.

For those curious about DnD and how it works or if you’re nerdy like me and enjoy listening/watching other people play might I suggest The Nerdgasm Podcast Episode 41. The crew over there actually invited my own DM to run them through a beginning game. If you’ve never played before this will give you a general feel for what goes on, or bring a smile to the face of anyone who likes to see new players enjoying themselves for the first time.

I would also suggest the star-studded Author D&D that happened at Legendary ConFusion this year. Run by Peter V. Brett and Howard Taylor the whole session was probably one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen. (Acquisitions Inc with Pat Rothfuss from PAX Prime was pretty good as well.) Author Players include: Kelley Armstrong, Myke Cole, Wesley Chu, Brian McClellan, Rich Morris, Cherie Priest, Michael Sullivan, and Sam Sykes

I’ll admit. I have been gone for many days. About a month to be precise. No posts. No contact. At the beginning of November I set out on a quest knowing failure was quite possible. The goal: To write more than I have ever written before. To put writing first in my life (at least for the month of November) and get some actual words put down on paper. Starting out on my journey I knew I would face many monsters such as the dreaded Professional Conference Hydra, whom with its many heads would require hour upon hour of my time emptying their heads of knowledge to fill my own. Not only that, but a few weekends later I would face the Turkey Beast. What choice did I have but to band together with people I love and vanquish it pound by delicious pound? These challenges I dared to overcome in addition to the normal reoccurring random encounters at my place of employ.

Long story a bit longer: I did not succeed in my main quest. Words were placed upon the page but more often than not I returned to camp exhausted from the day’s toils and battles and wrote nothing.

I did, however, succeed in a side quest…at least as far as I can go on a solo adventure.

As you may have rationed from previous posts I enjoy getting together with my friends and playing Dungeons and Dragons. This has been going on for at least 7 years and it’s been a lot of fun. Group storytelling created in the moment. The Dungeon Master writes the bare bones outline of the challenges players will face, setting the scene, and making supporting characters and villains.  With that done, the players bring the characters that they’ve crafted with skills, desires, and a budding personality to run around in the world the DM has created. Together the group weaves a story, adding details and incidents that were unplanned for but not unwanted. There’s often an overarching story that requires several sessions of playing before reaching the end, but within that story we have side quests (sub plots for those who are new to DnD but are familiar with storytelling).

In my quest to write a novel I took a side quest to write my own DnD adventure.

I have been batting around ideas for role playing campaigns for a while now. After seven years of playing I would think it odd if I didn’t want to try running a game. Early in November I was hit with an idea that took root. Realizing the core rulebook didn’t have exactly what I was looking for as far as enemy creation I ordered the Guide to the Hunted and started building the story. When I had time to write, this story is what I worked on. I was too excited not to get it out of my system.

Writing a story that will not actually be complete until it’s played is not an easy task.

I knew the basic plot points that had to happen but part of the fun of DnD is that the players decide how they’re going to accomplish the task. This means a lot of planning can go into a story and then SURPRISE they aren’t doing it that way. In my writing I find I’m very character and event driven. I start with characters and a goal and I run with it, the events typically intrinsically motivated. It doesn’t work that way when planning an adventure for DnD. Sure, major plot points can be planned for, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat. My brain took off trying to think of possible alternatives, things that I wanted to happen that might not, how to get the same result even if they went a different direction. It’s planning for the unplanable. Two heads are better than one, and it’s likely that the five heads of the players will think of something I have not.

This forces a person writing an adventure to focus on other things than how the characters are getting from point A to point B. In this situation the players aren’t in the writer’s control. There can be gentle hints and points in the right direction but you can’t flat out say a character is going to do something. For myself, I had to focus on setting and moments of discovery. For a game centered around a haunted house the setting is really important. The players have to know where they are. It also requires a solid grasp on what’s happened before: the motivations of the ghosts themselves. If you have a pissed off ghost you have to know why he’s pissed off and what he’s doing about it in the present. The next step is to drop clues to lead the characters to the right information to send them in relatively the right direction.

The whole process was a stretch of the imagination. I had to do something I never do: External Motivation.

As a writer you typically have control of your main characters. You can have them think and do whatever you require of them and can always find an interior motivation for things if you think hard enough. Sure, there’s an external force creating the problem, but at least for myself the reason a character acts is because of their own wants and desires in relation to that one big problem. For once, I don’t know those internal motivations. I can’t bend them to my will. External motivation is something I often ignore but is a great motivator that creates natural results. And it’s something I need a lot of practice in.

This writing side quest isn’t over. The plot points are written but not played through. In a few weeks it could be. My friends and I are gathering to create their characters next week, and fingers crossed we’ll play through it before the New Year is in full swing. It will be a learning experience in quick story telling and flexibility. I’m sure there will be a steep learning curve as well. First time with this particular game system and first time running a game. I’ll have to share how well plot points were dropped and picked up by the characters.

I’ll also have to continue on to my main quest of novel writing, because it’s a story that’s begging to be written.