Friday, August 28, 2015

How To Keep A Positive Attitude At The Table (Even When You're Rolling 1's)

There is no experience like being at the table when the group is rolling hot. Swords are swinging, spells are flying, and the heroes are experiencing some of their finest moments. When that happens the excitement is fully-tapped, and even if you're not at center stage it's impossible not to feel the thrill as the story unfolds in front of you. Then there are those other times. The times when the fighter just can't get through the damage reduction, or the sorcerer's spells keep fizzling against the demon lord's resistance. The rogue's usually nimble tongue makes a diplomatic mis-step, or the ranger ends up getting hopelessly lost.

Artist's Rendition
These things happen. The key is that when they happen to you, you need to rise above them in order to keep the game going strong, even if the story isn't going the way you'd like it to go.

Moods Are Infectious

Have you ever been at work, and one guy on your team is just being shitty? He drags his feet, complains about everything he's being asked to do, and as soon as attention is no longer on him he goes back to messing with his phone? Even if you were having a good day, and positive things were happening, that attitude will eat through your defenses like acid until you start losing your energy as well.

People with shitty attitudes are vampires, is what I'm saying.
The same thing happens at the table. Dave's been swinging heavy with his fighter's mace, but when the party comes up against a lieutenant bad guy with DR 10/piercing, suddenly Dave loses his enthusiasm. He keeps going for a few rounds, but instead of switching to a dagger or a spear, he just keeps hammering away with his blunt weapon trying to do enough damage to make a dent. After a couple of rounds he tunes out of the game, talking about something out of character to another player, sending a text to his girlfriend, and only looks up once you've called his name three times. He rolls a d20, and maybe he hits, or maybe he doesn't. Either way his enthusiasm for the game is clearly gone, and that doldrums can infect the rest of the table. Even if the druid is owning the minions, keeping them off of the party, and the cleric is rolling maximum numbers on all of her healing, Dave's attitude is an anchor that can drown everyone.

So, the key is to make sure that, even when you're feeling discouraged, that you keep pushing forward.

How Do I Do That?

Well, the first key is to make sure that you come to the table with a plethora of options to hand. While every character is going to have something they're best at, players need to look for the gaps in their characters' skill sets, and fill them. That way even if your character's main trick is ineffective in a given situation (say, trying to fight ghosts with a non-magical sword), you can still do something to contribute (like pouring holy water over the specter).

Glad I invested in that goblet of endless holy water!
Even if you plan for every possible contingency, though, you're going to have those nights where luck just prevents you from doing what you want to. And if you fail often enough, it's going to take its toll on your mood. That's why instead of viewing the game as a simple pass/fail, you need to create a third option; the dramatic telling.

The Dramatic Telling: For DMs AND Players

I mentioned some of this in my post How To Roleplay During Combat, but I'd like to add some clarification via example.

Let's go back to Dave. He learned his lesson about carrying different weapons, but the party finds itself going up against a werewolf. Dave isn't carrying silver, but he gives it his best shot. He smashes his mace into the monster's jaws, cracking bone and knocking out two teeth. Even as he watches, though, the beast's flesh knits itself closed, re-aligning what was destroyed as it focuses its eyes on the man who struck it.

Now it's my turn.
Now, mechanically speaking, Dave did 12 damage in that blow. After the damage reduction, it only took 2. But how much less discouraged would a player feel knowing that he did something significantly cooler-looking than 2 damage, even if that's what gets marked down on the damage counter after his turn?

But what about when you miss? After all, even when you hit, you're still doing something.

All right, let's wind it back a bit. Let's say Dave swung, but his numbers just didn't add up. The DM should compare the attack against the enemy, and craft an appropriate response. For example, did Dave get close enough that it was only the monster's natural armor that saved it? Then the DM should tell the fighter that his blow struck home, but it glanced off the monster's thick fur and heavy, bony skull. What if Dave rolled lower, say, not even high enough to hit the werewolf's touch AC? In that case the description should be about how the monster jerked aside with animal quickness, or how it dropped down to all fours as the weapon whistled just above its back.

Neither of these descriptions actually changes the result of what's happening, which is that the fighter missed. However, by acknowledging that the player is doing something, and by crafting an appropriate response you are more likely to keep that player tuned in to what's happening. The reason is because you aren't just saying, "all right, Dave failed, who's next?" Instead, you're incorporating both successes and failures into the game's narrative.

And before you get the idea that this is all on the DM, players are not off the hook for this.

So, across the table is Steve. Steve is playing a grenadier alchemist, and his big schtick is his bombs. But it's one of those nights where Steve's dice just will not cooperate. He throws a bomb, and not only does he miss, but he misses badly. Natural 1 kind of badly. Instead of slumping back in his chair and gesturing for the next person to go, though, Steve adds details to his action. Maybe his alchemist grunts, saying something like "Goddamn wind shear!" to explain his lack of accuracy. Maybe the alchemist, jazzed on adrenaline and mutagen, is having a nasty reaction, and his hand is shaking. He is creating an explanation for why a mid-level, battle-hardened veteran didn't get the job done this round.

Once Steve contributes his bit, the DM should feel free to add onto it. Perhaps the bomb explodes behind the werewolf instead of striking it, dealing it minor splash damage. The wolf howls, backlit by the gout of fire, and murder shines in its eyes as it glances toward the alchemist. Action resolved, they move on to the next player's turn.

Keep The Story Going

The easiest way to avoid dropping out of the game is to contribute to the story in some, important way. How you do it is up to you, but finding that niche can be what keeps your enthusiasm up.

Impress me.
Let's go to the third member of the table: Debbie. Debbie decided to play a swashbuckler, and though her attacks are swift and deadly, she's just not hitting the big boss's AC tonight. On the other hand, he's having the same problem hitting her. So, while her flashing blade isn't drawing any blood, she could turn this stalemate into a vibrant battle scene, as she deflects the werewolf's teeth with the rim of her buckler, using the hulking creature's own momentum against him by guiding his claws away with her slender sword.

You can even add good story if you're on the wrong end of a beating. Tammy decided to try out the warpriest, but despite her high defensive stats, the DM is just laying into her. Tammy could describe how her devout priest of Gorum reacts to being hurt. Does she bellow in defiance? Spit blood on the floor and keep fighting? Do her eyes go dead as she keeps coming after the werewolf, showing no fear, or pain, or emotion as blood leaks from the rents in her armor?

If you've kept your RP focused only on one area, you might want to mine these others as well. If nothing else, it will help members of a TPK feel like they died nobly, and heroically, instead of just being backhanded by a plastic die and some unfortunate math.

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1 comment:

  1. My first roleplayer character (in Pathfinder) was a Magus trained from a young age by a guild of knights and skilled with either a longsword for spell combat or a cold iron greatsword for when the spells dried up. In her first dungeon, she a) twice failed will saves and ended up fleeing enemies in fear, leaving the rest of the party to deal with them, b) took (on average) damage equal to or slightly greater than her full health every session, at one point breaking a grapple with 2 HP remaining, c) cornered an AC 15 enemy while in greatsword mode and, despite needing only a roll of 9 or higher, missed FOUR TIMES IN A ROW (getting a 1, a 4, another 1 and a 6). It took 5 sessions before she successfully scored a melee attack on something, and that was against a fellow party member (long story). What did I do? I roleplayed self-doubt like you wouldn't believe. All of her training, everything she'd ever worked for in life, all of it seemed to be meaningless. Then she started rolling decently and things picked up. She finally got to shine and show the rest of the party what she was made of. All of which was much more satisfying with her big heap of failures at the start.