Monday, December 10, 2018

If You Don't Want The Players To Win, Get Out of The DM Chair!

There is something satisfying about victory when it comes after the end of a lot of hard effort. When your last spell tips the balance, your final sword stroke lays low the villain, or that saved-for-a-rainy-day enchanted arrow finds its mark, that swelling feeling of satisfaction can cement that campaign forever into the stories you tell when you reminisce against games of yesteryear.

He thought he had me, but he didn't know I had one more shocking grasp left for the day...
As a dungeon master, your job is to set a challenge for your players. You pick the monsters, the arenas, the villains' spell sets, the traps, and all the other aspects so that your characters can hack, slash, dodge, tuck, roll, steal, fast talk, and blast their way from where they are, to the end of the story. However, there is something a lot of dungeon masters out there seem to forget... namely that if your players don't succeed, then the story doesn't move forward! Therefore, in order to actually finish the campaign, part of you has to actually want them to come out on top!

But I Don't Want To Just GIVE It To Them!

As I acknowledged in the beginning, your job as the DM is to set your players a challenge. They need to fight the minotaur, rescue the baron's son, find the spy, what have you. However, whatever task you set your party to achieving, you need to make sure you give them the tools to actually succeed. Otherwise you're watching them bring a knife to a gun fight, and folding your arms, claiming no responsibility for what's going on here.

Even when you're the one who gave the other side guns in the first place.
That's the thing that a lot of dungeon masters forget; they are largely responsible for what's going on, here. Yes the dice and chance play into it, and the players' actions can take you down strange and unexpected paths, but when something skews wrong, it's you who chose to include that element.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about.

You're running your campaign (either pre-written, or one that you made yourself), and the only way into your villain's stronghold is through a subterranean warren that's festooned with traps. There are guillotines, drop-away floors, crushing walls, spiked pits, poison darts, explosive runes... everything you can think of, it's in there. That sounds cool... but what do you do if your party has no one with the ability to disable those traps? Especially if a lot of them out-and-out require a special ability to turn them off?

Give you another scenario. Say that your villain has taken the time to properly prepare themselves, laying protective magics over themselves. These protections make them practically immune to weapon attacks, and even most spells, but those protections could be peeled away by a spellcaster with the ability to cast dispel magic... the problem is the party is light on casters, and the ones it does have do not have that spell.

So what do you do in these scenarios?

This is not a rhetorical question, either. Because if your reaction is to shrug and say something along the lines of, "They should have played different characters/spent their skills differently/bought the right magic items," then you are ducking your responsibility in this mess. You are the one who chose to present these scenarios, knowing full well that the group you are all telling the stories about cannot make it through this setup as it's presented. And if you're okay with them hammering themselves to paste against an obstacle they are unlikely (or even unable) to overcome, then you have missed the point of the game.

You're all on the same side. And if all the PCs die here, then the story might very well die with them.

Match The Party To A Challenge They Can Beat

There are, essentially, two ways to go about this. The first is to alter the challenges in the game to fit the capabilities of your party. The second is to alter the capabilities of your party in order to overcome the challenge.

The second one, in case you're wondering, is a whole lot easier nine times out of ten.

But you may need calculators for either approach.
Let's take these approaches, and apply it to the death battle with the wizard. You initially have set it up in such a way that this bad guy is layered in protections, and can now blast away at the PCs without any real worry about their abilities. That is clearly a fight tilted in favor of the bad guy, if the PCs don't have some way to strip away those protections, or reach past them.

If you're changing up the encounter to fit your party's capabilities, then you should do away with the, "Impossible to hit the bad guy unless you dispel 4 or more of his 12 protection spells," scenario. Instead, ask what your party is really good at, and throw them a bone while still making stuff challenging.

For instance, if you have a lot of combat brutes, then have the villain summon legions of undead monsters, or outsiders from beyond the veil, and turn it into a big arena battle. The goal is still the same (stop the wizard), but now instead of contending with a single impossible-to-hit enemy, the party now has to try to avoid getting overwhelmed by the bad guy's minions, while still closing the gap to come to grips with him in a meaningful way. This would allow your melee brutes to go toe-to-toe with real threats, it would give your archer the pick of targets (and allow them to try to spoil spells by firing perfectly-timed arrows at the villain), and if you have buffers like a bard or a cleric in the party, they could really let their powers roar.

By doing this you maintain the challenge of the encounter, but you've turned it into something where everyone can participate and have fun, rather than something that feels they're being punished because no one played a wizard.

Not everyone loves them, after all.
But what about the second method? Okay, so you're sticking with the magically-warded wizard who's blasting away at the party. The problem is that the one method of success that works in this scenario is not something the party can do. So you need to give them the capacity to do it, at least in this one fight.

There are all kinds of ways you can do this. The easiest way is to provide your party with powerful magic items that can mimic the necessary spells a handful of times, which will work the same way as if they had an arcane caster trying to crack open the villain's Russian doll of magical protections. It could be a handful of scrolls inked by potent wizards of years past, it could be a magic staff taken from the villain's own lair (which is a fun bit of irony), or it could just be something they were given by a helpful NPC. You could even include an NPC who acts as the monkey wrench on the players' behalfs. Maybe it's the baron's son, being held in a cage, and he's saved up every ounce of magic he has to cast this one spell to help his rescuers. Maybe it's the sage the party had to escort through the tunnels, acting as a kind of payload to make the final fight that much easier, even if previous fights were made harder because they had to protect him.

The point is that you recognize early on that your party lacks something they will fundamentally need, so you give them something that will allow them to continue the story, and move forward instead of running face first into a wall, and then battering at it until they are slain by a rock slide.

Their Victory is Your Victory, Too

When you sit down to run a game, your goal is to tell a story using the main characters the players provide. There will be hardship, there will be bad luck, and sometimes things you thought were going to be a challenge will be breezed right past due to clever thinking, smart tactics, or just having the right die roll for the right occasion.

If you're ever setting out an encounter, though, and your thoughts are, "This will show them," or, "I'd like to see them beat this one," take a moment, and ask what happens if your encounter kills them. You've just slain your protagonists in mid-story. How does that help you?

Seriously, think it through.
A campaign can survive an occasional death. It can even survive cast changes as players bring in new characters when the old ones finish their arcs. But if everyone dies (or worse, just gets tired of the slog your game becomes when they don't bring the one solution to the problem), then you have no more story to tell.

And you shouldn't be okay with that. The players want to see the end of your campaign, and you should want them to get there. Work with them to make that happen!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment! If you'd like to see more of my work, then head over to Vocal, or check out my Gamers archive to see all my tabletop content. Alternatively, you can pop over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I get together with other gamers to make videos for players and dungeon masters alike!

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  1. Eh. You shouldn’t be in the chair if you play favorites either way. If the players get their paper men killed, then roll up new ones. Don’t let them win and don’t make them lose.

    1. The point here is that the game should be designed around the players. OR as we put it in Amber, if the players invest in Warfare, don't base your campaign on Psyche.

  2. “if your players don't succeed, then the story doesn't move forward!”

    This is absolutely not the case. Failure is a major component of storytelling.

    You seem to conflate being a fan of the players to always letting them win, which is the wrong philosophy. The job is to provide a path forward in either a winning or losing scenario. If there are no stakes, the victory is meaningless.

    Provide multiple pathways to solving problems.

    1. But yes, you are correct in that if you are designing unavoidable death traps, that is also the wrong path.

  3. If wanting you and your friends to enjoy the game "playing favourites" then I will proudly play favourites every time.

    1. Sure, you and your friends should enjoy the game - but there's a difference between having them enjoy the game, and building it so that it is probably a given they can make it to the end. If you're a fan of the group, that's good. If you set it up so they *can't* fail, that they will make it to the end, then there's something wrong.

  4. I absolutely agree with every word of this article. Thats just good GMing :)

  5. Well sir, honestly, methinks the DM should be fair. The DM should let their players choose their fights. Or, at least, have the probability to avoid them. There should be fights the PCs cannot (probably) win, but they shouldn't be railroaded into them. Yet, failure should always be a possibility, so they would really be the masters of their fate.

    And if they die, though, well - you should also be ready for that. The story should continue with new protagonists. You should not seek this - but you should be okay with that.

    That's my two cents, that is.

  6. As a DM for quite a few years, I tend to take a much more neutral approach on the topic of player success/failure. Like the blindfolded Lady Justice who is wholly impartial, I think a DM should likewise step away from tipping the scales either for or against the Players. He/she should, ideally, be a Storyteller who creates the setting, but it is the Players who drive the story.

    I disagree with the article. The DM should not want the players to win or lose — who am I to make such decisions? Honestly, for me, a great DM plays a diminished role... the stars of a game are the Players, but it's not a DM's job to make them stars. That's up to them. There is much talk lately of extremes... with TPK on one side and Monty Haul campaigns on the other. The greatest DMs are those who walk the middle path and provide the Players with a world where they can determine their own fate.

    1. Depends on the genre, and the options. D&D tends to be kill-or-be-killed: who wants to deal with boring issues of "What do I do with the prisoners for the rest of their natural lives?", or "I could leave that captor alive after I rescue the baron's son, but then the captor will come after us seeking revenge." Players will kill the opponent rather than deal with all of that. And the NPCs tend to think the same. Plus, kill-or-be-killed is how the genre of high fantasy tends to roll: I don't recall Conan trying to imprison Thulsa Doom, or Colwyn trying to subdue Krull. :) I don't think most DMs "like" killing PCs, but at the end of the day that's what the genre demands: death and the threat of death. And threats aren't very threatening if they're never followed through.

      Part of it is also how "disposable" the PCs are. I can roll up a D&D character in 5-10-15 minutes. Working out a superhero, or a Time Lord, or a Trek character, might take an hour. A lot of folks don't care so much about the former, but a lot more about the latter because they put more "work" into it.

      And part of it is how many non-death options are available and how easy they are to use. You can set a Trek phaser to Stun: setting a sword or a lightning bolt to Stun, not so much. :)

  7. Essentially, "death" is the way you succeed in D&D. It's certainly the simplest and most final way narratively. Doctor Who has science fiction ways to succeed: "I redirect the invading Ice Warrior fleet." Superheroes, death traps & imprisonment (and the inevitable escape) are part of the genre. Trek, you've got s.f. as above and opponents who are just misundestood and/or different, rather than evil. And D&D alignment is part of it, too: "Good" and "Evil" don't allow for a lot of compromise. "Good" PCs aren't going to be that interested in letting "Evil" NPCs live... and vice versa.

  8. "If you're ever setting out an encounter, though, and your thoughts are, "This will show them," or, "I'd like to see them beat this one,"

    If that's the DM's mentality, IMO they're not going to have too many players for too long. I think that's a mentality thing, and good luck talking someone out of their mentality. :(

  9. I generally agree with the article, with one quibble: There are ways players can fail that make for a more interesting story in the long run, often about fixing the problems caused by the failure. There is also room for a planned tragic ending, but that's not about "beating" the players, and more about making failure interesting.