Adversaries Are Made of People!

Adversaries Are Made of People!

How to make and play adversaries with personality.

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Your title really made me chuckle, Mr. Archon.

(I'll read the article and edit in a moment, I swear.)

Interesting article. I'd already considered most of what you said, but you phrased it far better than it was in my mind.

The idea of a 'rival party' was new to me though. Most intriguing...

Apart from a few references to the previous article (which I've already responded to in that thread), this is the first of your articles that I agree 100% with. :)

I like you mention of rival parties, because they are indeed awesome adversaries. I've had some fun using them in little ways in past D&D campaigns, and in the Dark Heresy IRC campaign I'm currently running[1] I'm planning to give a pretty big role to a group of acolytes serving a different Inquisitor. I wish I could go into detail about it but I don't want to risk any of my players being an Escapist and finding out things they can't know about at this moment.

I remember one D&D campaign where the players got so fed up with their rivals that they abandoned their quest, hunted down the rivals, and challenged them to a battle where the losing party would go into exile. The rival party lost the battle, but for me as a DM it was a victory to be proud of. :P

[1] By the way, I'm still looking for 1-2 extra players for that one - anyone reading this interested in joining, feel free to send me a PM. We usually play Sundays between 10am and 6pm, central European time.

Excellent article as always. I really appreciate your view of the game as a fun challenge with the GM as a narrator (not an author). Just reading this column has made me interested in playing D&D again and is even spurning me on to try my hand as a GM (since I don't have any close friends who are up to the task).

The rival party is such an excellent idea! It certainly breaks the typical fantasy mold of an evil tyrant or cult. In fact, it's the perfect setting for a game with no end and one where there is a constant escalation of power. Try explaining the same thing for your evil tyrant without making it cheesy. It also opens the door for neutral and evil PCs, which rarely fit in well with the "do good and fight evil" motif of most adventuring parties.

With that in mind, I bet you could have a lot of fun with a Lara Croft/Indiana Jones-type storyline. The party are treasure hunters who either run into heated competition for their ill-gotten gains or angry antagonists who want to keep their prized possessions. Each adventure can be entirely separate, but an overarching story can grow around it. I like it. :)

On that token, do you have suggestions for some fun situations? Most situations I've seen always come down to "group comes together to fight back against evil menace which is ravaging the lands". The rival party is a new one that intrigues me and the outlaw one I mentioned is a bit of a different spin on that. Anything else you can think of? I wonder if TVTropes would be a reasonable place to look these up (along with remarks on how to NOT make them cliched).

Having read your brilliant column, I have realized that I have the greatest GM ever (and it's only his first time)

ReverseEngineered:
On that token, do you have suggestions for some fun situations? Most situations I've seen always come down to "group comes together to fight back against evil menace which is ravaging the lands". The rival party is a new one that intrigues me and the outlaw one I mentioned is a bit of a different spin on that. Anything else you can think of? I wonder if TVTropes would be a reasonable place to look these up (along with remarks on how to NOT make them cliched).

One of my former GMs ran a campaign where we all started by individually applying for a mercenary guild, and then all our adventures were contracts. Sadly, he had decided he wanted us to do a simple 'good vs evil' story after dragging us in with a great premise, but the idea's there. It'd be even better with rival groups, giving a background of the groups competing for contracts or even just notoriety (it'd definitely make describing attacks more vital if they want a reputation for brutality or clean kills...)

Dammit, I wanna run a pen & paper game now...

The worst possible combination is an almost sadistic paternalism: The GM, relishing the pleasure of beating the players, uses the full scope of his powers to create and run impossible challenges, only to then fudge the dice to let the players win; usually letting them know he fudged it so that they can advance through "his" storyline the way the GM wants them to.

Wow its like you know exactly how my DM plays. Its the fucking worst thing ever. You have pointed out tons of negatives that DMs do and so far my DM has done every single one of them.

It has been a LONG time since I have DMed (or even played), but, dammit, you've resown the seeds. Just be assured that, when my friend as who to thank for the reawakening of this retired DM, I will site you. Dork!

funksobeefy:
Wow its like you know exactly how my DM plays. Its the fucking worst thing ever. You have pointed out tons of negatives that DMs do and so far my DM has done every single one of them.

You should try DMing. It is the hardest job you will ever enjoy.

You blew it up, goddam you... goddamn you all to hell!!!

I really like this series. Even though it is a how-to, I like reading it for entertainment, because it all brings me right back to those happy times.

I always find it stupid when enemies are clearly outgunned by the PC and they still try to attack us (Ex: 6 guys open a door with two unarmed guys talking on the other side. The two guys jump for their weapons instead of asking us what do we want).

Thinking of them like people that may have a wife and kid will help the credibility of the game world. In from of a really powerful enemy, a city guard will most likely flee or get bribed than fight for his life. For a religious fanatic, it might be something different tough.

I really enjoy your advice, and have a bit of a DM question. I figured this is a good place to ask, because even if the author doesn't reply, there are plenty of talented Gamemasters out there who can help me with it. I'm running a 4th edition D&D campaign, with the theme that the entire party uses the arcane power source and goes adventuring on behalf of the guild that trained them. However, one of the biggest problems I've run into is that because there's an overwhelming number of ranged players in the group, they're sometimes tempted to abuse terrain advantage in ways that I can not react to in order to provide a reasonable challenge. For instance, I intended for my party to drop down into a cavern from a chamber that came out on its wall and fight a large slime. Because they spotted the slime with perception, they decided that the best thing to do would be for one person to stand in the doorway and blast it with magic until it died.

I had to make a tough decision as a DM, and I begged my players to go along with the encounter as intended. Everyone had a lot of fun fighting it, but it got me thinking: How can I engage a party that likes to stand as far back as possible without arbitrary ranged enemies that the two melee characters quickly take out anyway or having arbitrary events such as cave-ins or doors that lock behiind them? I want to find a middle-ground where the party has some lee-way (6-10 squares) without wanting to stand outside of doors and fire inside, safely out of any perceived danger.

To Nevrus02:

If they fought intelligent opponents, who likewise used cover, that would certainly make it a more interesting fight. Also, using environmental effects such as darkness, narrow, bendy tunnels, fog (steam or natural), heavy rain, etc. would all work.

Overall, though, I get the feeling the PCs are more heavily geared than they should be for the encounters they're facing. It's up to you if you want them to be high-powered, but with high power, comes high challenges.

You might also want to use some of the advice (bent and twisted, as a good DM should) from the article--have enemies appear who've heard of the PCs and their ranged prowess. Have those enemies specifically set up to fight against the PCs. This is not something you'd want to do too much of since that would be totally unfair. But it would probably be nice to make the players think outside their comfort zones once in a while for a fight.

I'm sure others will pipe in with advice as well.

As for the article (and the series)--it's good. Like others, it makes me want to take up the mantle of DMing again, if not just plain old PnP roleplaying.

I would recommend a rather unorthodox book for anyone becoming a DM: Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People"--written in 1937 or so. Much of the content is now common knowledge, but you will find some great ways in there to motivate your players. It's also just fun to see that self-help and motivational speaking are not modern constructions.

Excellent article, containing some good (if obvious) points. Your views on how to be the adversary are getting a bit clearer now, although it's not all 100% clear yet. In one article, you pushed for more and clearer rules that everyone agrees on, so as to remove dice fudging and player-centric rule interpretation that would remove agency from the PCs - all well and good, until you start roleplaying the enemies. So, you say, the orcs charge like barbarians and then flee when their morale breaks. Is there a function for morale in these games? I doubt it, which means it's up to the GMs discretion to decide when they've suffered enough casualities. Or any of the other situations you've described where it'd make more sense for the NPCs to do this or that to overcome their enemies, but they don't due to 'roleplaying' reasons: how, exactly, is this not fudging the dice, except by other means?

Yes, you can make it fairer in your mind by deciding in advance that "this group of 20 orcs will lose their will to fight when they've lost 50% of their numbers or their leader" - but then there's the situation where there's only one PC left alive and that PC kills the 10th orc: now it doesn't make any sense the orcs would flee. So you make it more complicated? "this group will flee if 50% of their numbers are dead, or their leader, and there are more than 3 PCs still alive" etc. Unfortunately you can't do that ad infinitum, so as any good GM, you improvise. And, preferably, you'll want to improvise it in favour of the PCs - what if you realize half way through this encounter was far too difficult, but they all fight like fiends nonetheless and are about to win, unless you follow through with your original plan of sending in reinforcements (which would mop them up in a few rounds)? They'd never know you had 'fudged' these particular encounter-dice; you don't get a nasty look for building too powerful encounters; and the PCs get to feel like they've made it through a hard-won fight. Everyone wins.

In short, all GMs, through the simple act of building a world and then roleplaying the enemies in that world, are fudging the dice. Not the actual dice rolls - I'd never do that myself either, although the WoD Storytelling system allows for a lot more of it than D&D - but the encounters and the way the NPCs react. And this is -fine-, it's all right, it's the way it's meant to be! As you pointed out in your The GM is Satan article, the GM (God) secretly wants the players to win. And it's here, rather than anywhere else, through roleplaying the adversaries, that the GM can fudge the dice (in a sense) to create an as enjoyable playing experience as possible, without it being transparent. Because no matter what you or anyone else says, the GM is still God, and working in mysterious ways -must- shape the world. With some input, for sure, but still.

There, big rant over. Thank you for an edifying set of articles, good reads and good ideas!

Nevrus02:
I really enjoy your advice, and have a bit of a DM question. I figured this is a good place to ask, because even if the author doesn't reply, there are plenty of talented Gamemasters out there who can help me with it. I'm running a 4th edition D&D campaign, with the theme that the entire party uses the arcane power source and goes adventuring on behalf of the guild that trained them. However, one of the biggest problems I've run into is that because there's an overwhelming number of ranged players in the group, they're sometimes tempted to abuse terrain advantage in ways that I can not react to in order to provide a reasonable challenge. For instance, I intended for my party to drop down into a cavern from a chamber that came out on its wall and fight a large slime. Because they spotted the slime with perception, they decided that the best thing to do would be for one person to stand in the doorway and blast it with magic until it died.

I had to make a tough decision as a DM, and I begged my players to go along with the encounter as intended. Everyone had a lot of fun fighting it, but it got me thinking: How can I engage a party that likes to stand as far back as possible without arbitrary ranged enemies that the two melee characters quickly take out anyway or having arbitrary events such as cave-ins or doors that lock behiind them? I want to find a middle-ground where the party has some lee-way (6-10 squares) without wanting to stand outside of doors and fire inside, safely out of any perceived danger.

I haven't DMed DnD 4th, but I've been playing it since it came out. Our games are not dungeon crawling so we don't fight monsters that much. Our enemies are more like armies of dragonborn right now, so they have powers like PCs and not monster powers.

Anyway, here are some ideas:
- Lots of minions that flank and restric their movements. Minions are pretty cool to make cool fights and make the players feel good to slay hordes of critters. They can also pose a threat in large number since they restrict and surround the players.

- "Chest-high walls" to provide cover. In a ruin, there can be lots of buildings that get in the way. In a cave, stalatites and stalagmites can do that too. It can be cool if missed attacks can weaken stalagtites and make them fall. When the scenery get collateral dmg and change accordingly, it makes pretty cool fights. Trees in a forest.

- Have more mobility on your enemies. I don't know if spiders can throw webs, but you can make them do it. Ardents have a paragon path that can immobilise. Slow can also help. Wardens can make terrain around them difficult terrain. Avengers can be bitches if they got Censure of pursuit. Warlords can move their allies to quickly close the gap. Flying enemies over difficult terrain. Fey wild habitants (Eladrins and gnomes for the PC races) seems to be able to teleport often.

- Pulling, pushing, sliding and free move powers.

- Block line of sight. There can be a corner in the tunnel so the PC have to be bunched together in the corner th fire at the enemies. The wizard's spells wall of fire and poison cloud (and i'm sure there's more) block line of sight and are sustained by a minor action. Some of them can be moved so the PC have to be relatively close to the enemies to attack them or else they're in the cloud and can't see.

- A mage's guild can easily have a rival mage's guild can't they? Good reason to have a good amount of ranged characters.

- Flank them.

- To keep them on their toes, instead of a closing door behind them, a working and moving trap can work. They can back up, but if they do, they have to dodge automatic sword swings at regular intervals.

- Some WoW fights have good ideas. Loken's aura does dmg the farther away you are from him. Sapphiron has moving ice storms chasing random players. Keristraza forces players to move constantly. May not seems like much, but it makes it harder to maintainable spells since you can't attack, maintain your spell and move it at the same time since you have to move or you take some dmg. Force them to run around because of environmental hazards like the Heigan the Unclean fight. One of the enemy target the farthest PC like Skarvald in UK.

- Darkness or fog that make you see 5 square around you.

- Wizard's blur spell. You're invisible to enemies more than 5 squares away.

- Outrange them. Most spells have range 10 or range 20. Bows have range 20/40.

Wolfrug:
In one article, you pushed for more and clearer rules that everyone agrees on, so as to remove dice fudging and player-centric rule interpretation that would remove agency from the PCs - all well and good, until you start roleplaying the enemies. So, you say, the orcs charge like barbarians and then flee when their morale breaks. Is there a function for morale in these games? I doubt it, which means it's up to the GMs discretion to decide when they've suffered enough casualities.

In Exalted, we call that a valor check. Better trained troops or exalts are likely to have a high valor. There's also modifiers because of the perceived threat. If the PC at first seems like normal humans, the Dragon-Bloods will have a bonus to their valor check since they don't look that tough (DB > mortals) but when they show their anima and start mowing the DB, the DB do another roll with a heavy penalty (Solars >> DB).

In DnD, you could always do a wisdom check (or maybe insight?).

I want to try Exalted at some point, but it does look like a very, very high powered game. The mechanics look a bit complicated too. Dex + Melee + Modifier + NegModifer + MagicModifer + NegMagicModifer + SituationalMod + NegSituationalMod (have I missed anything?), and that's just to hit something. Next you have to work out the damage... I think it's something I'd rather be in than run.

On topic, I definitely like the idea of a rival group. I've just started a DnD 4e game with a group of new players, so I''ll see how it goes.

Deathlyphil:
I want to try Exalted at some point, but it does look like a very, very high powered game. The mechanics look a bit complicated too. Dex + Melee + Modifier + NegModifer + MagicModifer + NegMagicModifer + SituationalMod + NegSituationalMod (have I missed anything?), and that's just to hit something. Next you have to work out the damage... I think it's something I'd rather be in than run.

On topic, I definitely like the idea of a rival group. I've just started a DnD 4e game with a group of new players, so I''ll see how it goes.

It is high powered, and from my experience, that's what players like about Exalted. They don't feel afraid to lose their character to an unlucky roll so they do more daring stuff. In my current game, the characters' goal is to conquer the world to guide it to a prosper future and eternal peace.

Well, it's not that complicated. Players usually have their Dex+Melee+Weapon Accuracy already calculated and it's already calculated for all NPC in the books. That's the first 4 that you don't have to worry about. The magic modifier is only used if the character used a magic power (most likely the 1st Melee excellency). The negative magic modifier is only used if the enemy is an abyssal and used a defense charm. I usually mix the last 2 as a overall "is it a favorable or unfavorable situation to do that".

Also, most numbers in that are between 1 and 10.

The damage is also pretty simple. Strength + weapon dmg (usually, this is already calculated) + number of additionnal successes on the attack - soak.

Maybe I've been playing it for too long. (Almost 10 years now)

Wolfrug:
how, exactly, is this not fudging the dice, except by other means?

Wolfrug brings up an excellent point - all adversarial role-playing decisions are liable to fudging, at least within the bounds of what a DnD group will accept as realistic (e.g., always being saved by reinforcement fails the smell test; a group of orcs breaking morale a little earlier than usual? Not so much).

I agree with this article, though - indeed, failure to keep in mind the advice in the column makes certain types of game-play impossible. That is to say, I seriously doubt that subterfuge, bluffing, sneaking, etc. can play a big part of a campaign in which the DM uses all the resources at his disposal to thwart the players. Such games seem like they must always degenerate into an endless series of brute force match-ups.

lomylithruldor:

Deathlyphil:
*snip*

It is high powered, and from my experience, that's what players like about Exalted. They don't feel afraid to lose their character to an unlucky roll so they do more daring stuff. In my current game, the characters' goal is to conquer the world to guide it to a prosper future and eternal peace.

Well, it's not that complicated. Players usually have their Dex+Melee+Weapon Accuracy already calculated and it's already calculated for all NPC in the books. That's the first 4 that you don't have to worry about. The magic modifier is only used if the character used a magic power (most likely the 1st Melee excellency). The negative magic modifier is only used if the enemy is an abyssal and used a defense charm. I usually mix the last 2 as a overall "is it a favorable or unfavorable situation to do that".

Also, most numbers in that are between 1 and 10.

The damage is also pretty simple. Strength + weapon dmg (usually, this is already calculated) + number of additionnal successes on the attack - soak.

Maybe I've been playing it for too long. (Almost 10 years now)

I've played quite a bit of oWoD and nWoD, so I know the basic system. Exalted did look a little excessive though. Maybe I'll try that out after this DnD experiment.

*edited due to spelling fail

Wolfrug:
So, you say, the orcs charge like barbarians and then flee when their morale breaks. Is there a function for morale in these games? I doubt it, which means it's up to the GMs discretion to decide when they've suffered enough casualities.

Yes, there are rules for morale in Classic D&D. All monsters and NPCs(although some, like skeletons, are simply morale 12) have a moral score based on 2d6 and the rules recommend checking morale at critical combat situations, like being reduced to 1/2 numbers. Monsters that make their morale save twice will fight to the death.

funksobeefy:

Wow its like you know exactly how my DM plays. Its the fucking worst thing ever. You have pointed out tons of negatives that DMs do and so far my DM has done every single one of them.

So point him towards the column and make him read it :D He'll never learn different GM methods if he doesn't ever experience anyone else's viewpoint.

Great article! Particularly loved the emphasis on "RP the enemy" and "adversary, but not enemy"...politics can be awesome for that, as can high maintenance pets or transportation.

I haven't DM'd in a looooong time, but the campaigns I (and my former players, when we talk about them) remember most fondly are the ones in which I learned to talk to my players, give them things they wanted but in a way that required at least some maintenance...I'm not talking about corrupting a Wish, as corrupting a reward gets the fish-eye from your players, fast.

I'm talking about talking about character concepts and toys that exert light-handed controls on players just by existing.

One player half-joking wanted to play a princess...so I made her ranger a princess. Her parents were alive, and want her stop adventuring, come home, and marry the wealthy merchants son. She could resupply, within reason, at home, but would have to endure the trials of family...and there were a lot of them. As a result, she never wanted to spend very much time in her home country, so their was little material impact on the campaign, but lots of RP impact.

One of the handiest mechanics I found was giving a mobile base to players...a ship is home, but home can be stolen. It can break down. It needs repairs. Suddenly there are a whole mess of mini-adventures who's rewards don't add directly to the player's power level.

And on and on. Players like to own things, but, if done properly, the things they own end up owning them...and they have fun at the same time.

Slycne:

Wolfrug:
So, you say, the orcs charge like barbarians and then flee when their morale breaks. Is there a function for morale in these games? I doubt it, which means it's up to the GMs discretion to decide when they've suffered enough casualities.

Yes, there are rules for morale in Classic D&D. All monsters and NPCs(although some, like skeletons, are simply morale 12) have a moral score based on 2d6 and the rules recommend checking morale at critical combat situations, like being reduced to 1/2 numbers. Monsters that make their morale save twice will fight to the death.

Thanks, Justin - you beat me to it! Justin can testify that I adhere to this scrupulously with regard to when the enemy *must* surrender. Morale checks are like fear checks or other involuntary reactions. That is to say, morale tests represent those circumstances when emotion gives way to reason. That means sometimes the enemy fights to the last man in a fit of unexpected heroism, and sometimes they surrender at the first blood.

Where I do role-play is with regard to the intelligent decisions about whether to stay or fight, use one weapon or another. For instance, recently there was a case where a 1,000 year old Red Dragon had to decide whether to stay and fight, or flee. If the Dragon had stayed, it might have killed the entire party, and certainly at least half of it; but it risked at least 1 finger of death spell, with a 30% chance of killing it. So the Dragon retreated.

Now, one could make the argument that I "fudged": The Dragon retreated and the party survived as a result. But from the point of view of a thousand-year old dragon, adventuring parties have risen and fallen not just once, or a dozen times, but literally fifty times in the course of a millenium. A thousand year old creature has perspective, and patience. A dragon doesn't get to be a thousand years old by taking 70/30 odds. So I felt if I had the dragon stick around to slaughter the party or die trying, I'd have been acting in bad faith.

So was it fudging, or fairness? I think it was fairness. But my players are the best judge.

All I can really say is that those sorts of decisions are why GMing is an art, and not a science. Years of play have, I think, shaped my instincts as to what's right or what's not right in snap judgment situations. While learning to GM, I definitely have made every mistake I'm mentioning in these columns, and many more I haven't gotten to yet!

Far fewer comments on this one. Clearly I need to go back to bashing DMG2 and story-telling!

/troll

Archon:

Thanks, Justin - you beat me to it! Justin can testify that I adhere to this scrupulously with regard to when the enemy *must* surrender. Morale checks are like fear checks or other involuntary reactions. That is to say, morale tests represent those circumstances when emotion gives way to reason. That means sometimes the enemy fights to the last man in a fit of unexpected heroism, and sometimes they surrender at the first blood.

Where I do role-play is with regard to the intelligent decisions about whether to stay or fight, use one weapon or another. For instance, recently there was a case where a 1,000 year old Red Dragon had to decide whether to stay and fight, or flee. If the Dragon had stayed, it might have killed the entire party, and certainly at least half of it; but it risked at least 1 finger of death spell, with a 30% chance of killing it. So the Dragon retreated.

Now, one could make the argument that I "fudged": The Dragon retreated and the party survived as a result. But from the point of view of a thousand-year old dragon, adventuring parties have risen and fallen not just once, or a dozen times, but literally fifty times in the course of a millenium. A thousand year old creature has perspective, and patience. A dragon doesn't get to be a thousand years old by taking 70/30 odds. So I felt if I had the dragon stick around to slaughter the party or die trying, I'd have been acting in bad faith.

So was it fudging, or fairness? I think it was fairness. But my players are the best judge.

All I can really say is that those sorts of decisions are why GMing is an art, and not a science. Years of play have, I think, shaped my instincts as to what's right or what's not right in snap judgment situations. While learning to GM, I definitely have made every mistake I'm mentioning in these columns, and many more I haven't gotten to yet!

(apparently the forum doesn't send notifications if one is quoted inside a quote). An art, not a science: that sounds quite appropriate. First of all, I figured even when writing that the morale check was a poor example, since if there wasn't a mechanism for it it'd be easy enough to make one. That was just an example however. I do appreciate the difference between fudging a dice roll, as in your example in your second article on agency with Carrie, and roleplaying the retreat of an ancient red dragon in the face of a 30% chance of death. But your examples are a bit extreme - the personality of what was, I must suppose, a central and important personage in your game is probably considerably different from all the gazillions of other small interactions that take place all the time. Let's take a more mundane one:

The heroes have arrived at a farmstead in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm. They ask for a place to rest away from the rain. You hadn't planned this farmstead - heck, you might not even have planned the storm - so you have to invent on the spot what the people there are like. This is where the 'art' comes in: maybe they're hostile to the players because of something they did in the past, and are turned aside. Maybe they've secretly got the chopped-up corpses of all the unwary travellers they've killed hidden in their barn. Maybe they're afraid the players are bandits or highwaymen, or maybe they just haven't got a policy of letting strangers in. Or, on the flip side, they're warm-hearted and good people who make the players feel welcome and happy, offering their meagre hospitality freely. Or maybe you went the boring way and just made them unassuming and unimaginative Standard Peasants who were easily persuaded to let them come in from the rain in exchange for a few copper, and the encounter was over within a few sentences.

The above is an art, and influenced by a million things - where they are, what they've been doing, how they approach the peasants, etc etc. But ultimately you, the GM, God, is the one deciding how things turn out: you're the one who decided if the peasants are snarky or nice, unassuming or extraordinary, hospitable or inhospitable (if they hate elves and love dwarves, abhor paladins and worship wizards). And there you are, Satan, setting them up. Or there you are, God, giving them a helping hand on the road. It's not random chance, it's not gameplay mechanics or something a rulebook told you - it's you, inventing shit as you go along, and probably having a whale of a time doing it. Once combat's initated, once we get into that whole thing, there's no fudging of course. But before combat, before confrontation, it's the one controlling the NPCs who decides what they get offended by, what they like, what they fear, how they react. You know, the actual roleplaying of roleplaying games.

In the above example, how the GM treated the players might very well colour their perception of their mission, the country, the whole people. And you just decided it in the spur of the moment. This is the very essence of roleplaying and at the same time a sort of GM Fiat (how can they know what kinds of people are in the house, or what kind of dragon they're up against). Agency theory of fun is all good and well, but even when the players make decisions you are reacting to them - not the world in some objective sense, but you, a person. Your web framework is a good idea, and probably works fine (my objection to it, noted in the comments, was that it took far too much time to build up) - but a web is still just a set of (sticky) paths, limited in number and no different in essence than a single railroad. In computer games we are given a number of options, dialogue choices, upgrade paths - they change stuff, but ultimately it all functions within a controlled world (the good, the bad, the neutral ending). This is, I suppose, my main opposition to everything you've been putting forward so far: you speak volubly of freedom of choice, agency, the mediating (not creative) role of the GM, yet when push comes to shove the game master is there pulling the strings, deciding when a fight happens, when a rout happens, who hates who and who adores who.

And this is exactly the way it should be, and must be. Because it is -only- in combat that chance rules (unless, once again, you use social rolls, such as in the White Wolf storytelling games - but these situations can be combative in their own right), in all other situations God steers the ship (the ship being every single other creature in the world).

I suppose that's, um, really all I wanted to say: player agency is ultimately illusory, and the GM's only task is to suspend the sense of disbelief while - yes indeed - spinning a story that people enjoy. So we're back to the beginning, where you think the judge role is the most important, and I think the storyteller role is the most important. But it's still fun to debate it!

Wolfrug:

Archon:

Thanks, Justin - you beat me to it! Justin can testify that I adhere to this scrupulously with regard to when the enemy *must* surrender. Morale checks are like fear checks or other involuntary reactions. That is to say, morale tests represent those circumstances when emotion gives way to reason. That means sometimes the enemy fights to the last man in a fit of unexpected heroism, and sometimes they surrender at the first blood.

Where I do role-play is with regard to the intelligent decisions about whether to stay or fight, use one weapon or another. For instance, recently there was a case where a 1,000 year old Red Dragon had to decide whether to stay and fight, or flee. If the Dragon had stayed, it might have killed the entire party, and certainly at least half of it; but it risked at least 1 finger of death spell, with a 30% chance of killing it. So the Dragon retreated.

Now, one could make the argument that I "fudged": The Dragon retreated and the party survived as a result. But from the point of view of a thousand-year old dragon, adventuring parties have risen and fallen not just once, or a dozen times, but literally fifty times in the course of a millenium. A thousand year old creature has perspective, and patience. A dragon doesn't get to be a thousand years old by taking 70/30 odds. So I felt if I had the dragon stick around to slaughter the party or die trying, I'd have been acting in bad faith.

So was it fudging, or fairness? I think it was fairness. But my players are the best judge.

All I can really say is that those sorts of decisions are why GMing is an art, and not a science. Years of play have, I think, shaped my instincts as to what's right or what's not right in snap judgment situations. While learning to GM, I definitely have made every mistake I'm mentioning in these columns, and many more I haven't gotten to yet!

(apparently the forum doesn't send notifications if one is quoted inside a quote). An art, not a science: that sounds quite appropriate. First of all, I figured even when writing that the morale check was a poor example, since if there wasn't a mechanism for it it'd be easy enough to make one. That was just an example however. I do appreciate the difference between fudging a dice roll, as in your example in your second article on agency with Carrie, and roleplaying the retreat of an ancient red dragon in the face of a 30% chance of death. But your examples are a bit extreme - the personality of what was, I must suppose, a central and important personage in your game is probably considerably different from all the gazillions of other small interactions that take place all the time. Let's take a more mundane one:

The heroes have arrived at a farmstead in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm. They ask for a place to rest away from the rain. You hadn't planned this farmstead - heck, you might not even have planned the storm - so you have to invent on the spot what the people there are like. This is where the 'art' comes in: maybe they're hostile to the players because of something they did in the past, and are turned aside. Maybe they've secretly got the chopped-up corpses of all the unwary travellers they've killed hidden in their barn. Maybe they're afraid the players are bandits or highwaymen, or maybe they just haven't got a policy of letting strangers in. Or, on the flip side, they're warm-hearted and good people who make the players feel welcome and happy, offering their meagre hospitality freely. Or maybe you went the boring way and just made them unassuming and unimaginative Standard Peasants who were easily persuaded to let them come in from the rain in exchange for a few copper, and the encounter was over within a few sentences.

The above is an art, and influenced by a million things - where they are, what they've been doing, how they approach the peasants, etc etc. But ultimately you, the GM, God, is the one deciding how things turn out: you're the one who decided if the peasants are snarky or nice, unassuming or extraordinary, hospitable or inhospitable (if they hate elves and love dwarves, abhor paladins and worship wizards). And there you are, Satan, setting them up. Or there you are, God, giving them a helping hand on the road. It's not random chance, it's not gameplay mechanics or something a rulebook told you - it's you, inventing shit as you go along, and probably having a whale of a time doing it. Once combat's initated, once we get into that whole thing, there's no fudging of course. But before combat, before confrontation, it's the one controlling the NPCs who decides what they get offended by, what they like, what they fear, how they react. You know, the actual roleplaying of roleplaying games.

In the above example, how the GM treated the players might very well colour their perception of their mission, the country, the whole people. And you just decided it in the spur of the moment. This is the very essence of roleplaying and at the same time a sort of GM Fiat (how can they know what kinds of people are in the house, or what kind of dragon they're up against). Agency theory of fun is all good and well, but even when the players make decisions you are reacting to them - not the world in some objective sense, but you, a person. Your web framework is a good idea, and probably works fine (my objection to it, noted in the comments, was that it took far too much time to build up) - but a web is still just a set of (sticky) paths, limited in number and no different in essence than a single railroad. In computer games we are given a number of options, dialogue choices, upgrade paths - they change stuff, but ultimately it all functions within a controlled world (the good, the bad, the neutral ending). This is, I suppose, my main opposition to everything you've been putting forward so far: you speak volubly of freedom of choice, agency, the mediating (not creative) role of the GM, yet when push comes to shove the game master is there pulling the strings, deciding when a fight happens, when a rout happens, who hates who and who adores who.

And this is exactly the way it should be, and must be. Because it is -only- in combat that chance rules (unless, once again, you use social rolls, such as in the White Wolf storytelling games - but these situations can be combative in their own right), in all other situations God steers the ship (the ship being every single other creature in the world).

I suppose that's, um, really all I wanted to say: player agency is ultimately illusory, and the GM's only task is to suspend the sense of disbelief while - yes indeed - spinning a story that people enjoy. So we're back to the beginning, where you think the judge role is the most important, and I think the storyteller role is the most important. But it's still fun to debate it!

Stories and characters evolve during play and i don't think that if the GM decides one thing, as long as it stays in sync with the story or character, I don't think we can call that GM fiat. In your example, if the characters are trying to stop an evil empire, you can use the peasants as a way to show the players what the population thinks of their government's ways and if it reflects the population. If you're in an evil empire and the population are bloodthirsty bastards, I don't think it's GM fiat if the peasants are rude and inhospitable.

I think that players spin the story as much (if not more) than the ST (or GM, whatever). In my games, I throw many different things at my players. They started the game wanting to change the world and make it a meritocracy (with them on top of course). But then, being pretty capable individuals, they got the attention of many people. Opposing factions try to recruit them, some see them as a threat and they continue their job as an Anti-Supernatural Squad. They decide if they join other solars, the gold faction, help ancient lunar mates, help some gods that took interest in them or side with their Dragon-Blooded boss. Or they can do a couple of them and act as double agents.

I just throw a lot of things at them and let them choose what they want to do and how to deal with it.

There's no big bad evil to destroy yet, but even if they find one, the game is more than that because there's a lot to do if you want a worldwide social revolution.

If you're wondering, that's an exalted game in a cyber-punk setting influenced by the Exalted setting and Shadowrun.

Nevrus02:
I really enjoy your advice, and have a bit of a DM question. I figured this is a good place to ask, because even if the author doesn't reply, there are plenty of talented Gamemasters out there who can help me with it. I'm running a 4th edition D&D campaign, with the theme that the entire party uses the arcane power source and goes adventuring on behalf of the guild that trained them. However, one of the biggest problems I've run into is that because there's an overwhelming number of ranged players in the group, they're sometimes tempted to abuse terrain advantage in ways that I can not react to in order to provide a reasonable challenge. For instance, I intended for my party to drop down into a cavern from a chamber that came out on its wall and fight a large slime. Because they spotted the slime with perception, they decided that the best thing to do would be for one person to stand in the doorway and blast it with magic until it died.

I had to make a tough decision as a DM, and I begged my players to go along with the encounter as intended. Everyone had a lot of fun fighting it, but it got me thinking: How can I engage a party that likes to stand as far back as possible without arbitrary ranged enemies that the two melee characters quickly take out anyway or having arbitrary events such as cave-ins or doors that lock behiind them? I want to find a middle-ground where the party has some lee-way (6-10 squares) without wanting to stand outside of doors and fire inside, safely out of any perceived danger.

I fear that you (and several others who have responded to this string of articles) are missing the very point of the articles themselves.

The short version:

It's not your job to penalize the players for being specialized in range, nor to tailor the encounters for your characters in particular.

The long version:

Look at the areas of your post I bolded above; Do they say anything to you? If I may speak on behalf of the author, who is speaking on behalf of good DMs everywhere: It is not your intention as a DM that matters in a given situation, but how that situation fits in the world and how your players have the freedom to interact with it. I'll address both these points, and though they're entwined I'll try to parse them out a bit.

1) How the situation fits into the world.

So, your party dropped down into a cavern from a chamber that came out on its wall, and in the cavern was a large slime. This, like most situations from an 'internal consistency' perspective, can be dealt with by repeatedly asking "Why?"

Why was the cavern there? Why was the cavern connected to a chamber? Why is the slime in the cavern (Was the slime put there, or did it find its own way there?)? It's one thing to think to yourself, "You know what would be awesome? If the party fought a SLIME this week!", but it's another thing entirely to build a living, breathing world where the slime's presence, as well as the configuration of the slime's surroundings, is rational and internally consistent.

If your goal was simply to throw a slime at the party (see the article in this series where Mr. Macris refers to kicking in a wooden door to fight orcs, then kicking in a metal door to fight ogres), then fill your boots, but at the end of the day it's arbitrary gladiatorial combat and you shouldn't fault the players for making use of the skills that you, and the system, enabled them to have.

2) How the players have the freedom to interact?

At the end of the day, your players have these powerful ranged abilities. In your post, you ask a very specific question: "How can I engage a party that likes to stand as far back as possible...etc?" Now, try to look at that problem in the context of the game world. Has combat, as an art/science, evolved beyond a basic need for melee in most cases? How does this affect the demand/supply of melee equipment? How does this affect how even base races and monsters prepare for possible combat?

Even a combat-heavy game can be engaging, and you don't need to try to build your encounters around the idea that the particular party that you're DMing is the bane of everything, so suddenly all the walls in your areas get closer together, the doors get wider and the rooms get smaller.

If it helps, think about the situation like this:

Imagine a world where everyone fights with long swords and heavy armor. This has been the case for hundreds of years, and consequently EVERYONE knows that if you want to go to battle, you MUST have a long sword and some armor. Let's also say that in this world, the armor makes the wearer functionally immune to arrows, so suddenly archery is devalued. We'll call these long sword wielding, heavy armor wearing units 'Heavy Knights'.

Now, after countless years of the world being like this, archery has no place on the battlefield and has since become an art form rather than a practical science. Let's also say you have a Duke, who's tasked with building a defensive keep on the Empire's outlands. The Duke thinks to himself, "Hmm. Everyone who's attacking me is going to be using armies of Heavy Knights. How can I build my keep to defend against Heavy Knights?" So the Duke builds a keep with this in mind, and in practice, the keep defends very well against all sorts of heavily armed armies.

Soon enough, everyone is building anti-Heavy Knight fortifications, and the Heavy Knights themselves become less effective, as far as assaulting keeps goes. This leads to the invention of a device to knock down keep walls, in order to allow the Heavy Knights access. This leads to the invention of thicker walls, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc.

What I'm getting at is that, in the above example, the WORLD evolved to deal with a situation. The Duke had to devise a way to deal with these Heavy Knight armies; It's not like as soon as Heavy Knights were a problem every single location in the world was better situated to defend against Heavy Knights.

Let's look back at your slime now, and combat in your game in general.

All of a sudden, ranged combat is the new fad, as the plucky adventurers have quickly dispatched an entire dungeon of monsters without so much as a scratch. Word gets around that ranged combat is super-effective, and melee arms and armor start being more of a rarity; Shops start selling less, smiths stop making less, etc.

Now the expectation is that when a party of adventurers raids the evil wizard's lair, the evil wizard is going to be under the impression that the party is going to be primarily ranged. He's going to build any traps, or set up monster patrols, or whatever he does, WITH THIS KNOWLEDGE IN MIND. Suddenly, even the orcs are all kitted out with longbows and wands, the tunnels and passageways funnel to minimize the effectiveness of ranged attacks, there's arrow slits in all the walls, etc, etc, etc.

The world - your world - should live and breathe. You shouldn't be concerned with the players success or failure with a given encounter, and you certainly shouldn't be concerned with the players not going along with an encounter as intended. Give them their successes, and mold the future as appropriate. The world will compensate, much like a real world would.

Wolfrug:
I suppose that's, um, really all I wanted to say: player agency is ultimately illusory, and the GM's only task is to suspend the sense of disbelief while - yes indeed - spinning a story that people enjoy. So we're back to the beginning, where you think the judge role is the most important, and I think the storyteller role is the most important. But it's still fun to debate it!

I agree with most of what you wrote, yet still ultimately disagree with your conclusion that player agency is illusionary. To say that there's no agency because the GM is God is to ignore the fact that even God can behave in different ways, ie restricting himself to the rules of his own universe or actively intervening as part of "God's plan". I suppose if we want to get theological, I'm arguing that as God you should create a fair, benovelent world, give your mortals with free will, challenge them with a vigorous Satan, and then be a Deist Deity on a day to day basis. And I suppose you would say that this free will is just as illusory as the free will we think we have in real life.

Given that two thousand years of philosophers have yet to agree whether humans truly can have agency in the real world, or just an illusion of it, I think we are unlikely to reach agreement here as to whether humans can have agency in an illusionary world... But as you say, fun to debate. :)

Wolfrug:
[quote="Archon" post="6.200517.6621879"]
Agency theory of fun is all good and well, but even when the players make decisions you are reacting to them - not the world in some objective sense, but you, a person. Your web framework is a good idea, and probably works fine (my objection to it, noted in the comments, was that it took far too much time to build up) - but a web is still just a set of (sticky) paths, limited in number and no different in essence than a single railroad. In computer games we are given a number of options, dialogue choices, upgrade paths - they change stuff, but ultimately it all functions within a controlled world (the good, the bad, the neutral ending). This is, I suppose, my main opposition to everything you've been putting forward so far: you speak volubly of freedom of choice, agency, the mediating (not creative) role of the GM, yet when push comes to shove the game master is there pulling the strings, deciding when a fight happens, when a rout happens, who hates who and who adores who.

And this is exactly the way it should be, and must be. Because it is -only- in combat that chance rules (unless, once again, you use social rolls, such as in the White Wolf storytelling games - but these situations can be combative in their own right), in all other situations God steers the ship (the ship being every single other creature in the world).

I suppose that's, um, really all I wanted to say: player agency is ultimately illusory, and the GM's only task is to suspend the sense of disbelief while - yes indeed - spinning a story that people enjoy. So we're back to the beginning, where you think the judge role is the most important, and I think the storyteller role is the most important. But it's still fun to debate it!

If I may again speak on behalf of the author: I think you're making an error in your supposition that player agency is ultimately illusory. Consider the following:

Fiction is impermanent.

Let's assume I'm writing three books. In fact, let's assume I'm Tolkien, writing Lord of the Rings. Over the three books, I've got this character named Frodo, and this ring, and I basically want to write an epic journey about Frodo throwing this ring in a volcano. My goal is to write this story out, and at the end of the third book, Frodo throws the ring in a volcano and everything's good again.

Now, after the first book, my publisher approaches me:

"Bad news, Bryson. Frodo's not really meshing well with the mid-teen female demographic. We need you to give the rest of the quest to someone who the fans will better identify with."

"But...but I've already mapped out the whole story. How can I just change it so that the lead is someone else?"

"Don't be stupid. Just kill Frodo off, and bring in Frodina, Frodo's sister or something. I don't know, I'm a publisher, not a writer."

So I write out the remaining two books using Frodina, since Frodo died in battle trying to save his friends.

Now, consider this from our two perspectives. From YOUR perspective, as a reader, you have no idea that Frodo was ever /meant/ to throw the ring in the volcano. From your perspective, Frodo died, as he was supposed to die, and Frodina finished the quest.

From my perspective, the story changed, but you will never know the difference. Fiction is impermanent.

If you'd like a better example, and have seen Battlestar Galactica: Everyone had theories about who the DEADLY CYLON AGENTS were, but at the end of the day, it could literally have been anyone, and the writers could have tied the story together in any number of plausible ways, making it seem like /any random combination of characters/ were most obviously the DEADLY CYLON AGENTS from the very beginning.

In fiction, there's no impartial arbiter to make sure the events are internally consistent.

RPGs do not have to be impermanent.

You, as a world-builder, an RPG author, a DM, have the option of ACTUALLY making an internally consistent, permanent world. You present that world to the players, who interact with it, but part of that presentation needs to carry with it the feeling that you're impartial and will never sway things for, or against the players. More importantly, it needs to carry with it the feeling of internal consistency.

A better example than my previous examples!

Let's say you were DMing Battlestar Galactica. In the interests of actually creating an interesting world for your players to interact with, you determine ahead of time which of the characters are actually DEADLY CYLON AGENTS.

Two sessions in, your group, in a show of unexpected cleverness, believe with 100% certainty that one of the NPCs is a DEADLY CYLON AGENT. Subsequently, they decide to execute the NPC to be rid of them. And wouldn't you know it, they're right, the NPC they believe is a DEADLY CYLON AGENT is actually one of the ones you wrote as such.

You, as a DM, can do one of two fundamental things at this point. You can let it ride, act as the impartial arbiter, and let the players cleverness reward itself. Or you can take the dark path, and change the fiction so that the character they executed was actually a human all along.

Player agency.

This is where the notion of player agency comes in. The players ultimately had a choice to, say, execute this person. Though you contrived the circumstances in which the players encountered this person, their interactions, etc. etc., they ultimately had to make a choice.

The only way in which that choice would be illusory is if you fail to remain consistent in its results. If you keep the person as a DEADLY CYLON AGENT, then in reality, they've made a choice which has impacted the world. They've exercised their player agency, even if you have to come up with an internally consistent way to portray that, and their choice RESULTED IN AN EFFECT WHICH WAS RELATIVE AND CONSISTENT WITH THE CHOICE ITSELF.

If you change it so that the person was human, then their agency really was illusory, as there is no cause-effect relationship between their action and the results.

A quote from your post to end the argument.

"This is, I suppose, my main opposition to everything you've been putting forward so far: you speak volubly of freedom of choice, agency, the mediating (not creative) role of the GM, yet when push comes to shove the game master is there pulling the strings, deciding when a fight happens, when a rout happens, who hates who and who adores who."

No. The GM lays the FRAMEWORK for all of these things, but it's ultimately the players who determine how they interact with that framework. Maybe the players run away from the fight, or surrender. The rout happens as a result of the players' success in combat, or their fearsomeness. Those characters who hate and adore each other can have their feelings influenced by the players.

The only way in which the players don't have agency is if you take that agency from them; In a consistent, permanent world, there's only one way an NPC could react to any specific stimulus, and the DM needs pull no strings at all.

Bryson:

The only way in which the players don't have agency is if you take that agency from them; In a consistent, permanent world, there's only one way an NPC could react to any specific stimulus, and the DM needs pull no strings at all.

That reminds me of an article I saw somewhere about GMing for really intelligent characters. Lets say one of your character is a "Sherlock Holmes" in a story to find a killer. You have 4 choices:
1- Do nothing special. If he plays a smart character, he better be smart too.
2- Give plenty of advice to the player to help him find who is the killer. Can be considered railroading since you almost give the answer to the player.
3- Make him roll an investigation roll to see if the character finds the killer. I think this is not that good since there's little to no input from the player on his chance of success on a thing that can be cool to roleplay.
4- Adjust the clues the character didn't find yet to match his conclusions. That's not the same thing as having no challenge. It also doesn't mean that the player will always be right on the first time.

Of course, the 4th one is most interresting if you add misleading or contradictory clues and later find a way to explain them to the player as he does his research. I don't think it's railroading since the character has to have a good explanation for why he says it's Guy A instead of Guy B.

Also, mental challenges like this can pretty much stall a game if the players don't find the anwser on the first few tries and everybody is unhappy with the result.

I generally try to role play my adversaries to the best of my ability. I can see where this can be a challenge, but I kind of feel it comes natural to me because I favor the role playing aspect of pen and paper gaming over everything else.

You know I read the first column and for some reason totally forgot about it. I'll have to go back through and read them because you're offering some really valuable advice. Keep it up!

I love the way that the pitfalls have been set out here - it proves that GMs are mortal and it does pay to provide a good game for your players. After all, with my Monday night group, we rotate the GM amongst three campaigns, with a half dozen players - this gives us more incentive not to be over the top nice, but also not to make impossible challenges that will result in PC death.

Having introduced the group to Exalted, their group of Dragon Bloods have been ambushed, but exalts can always make short work of their mortal counterparts. I'm just getting them used to the campaign setting and combat situations. Now comes the fun part, when we try to introduce the adversary character tonight and I shall see how they deal with him... or her.

 

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