Tuesday, March 24, 2020

DMs, Learn To Take Your Foot Off The Brake

About a year and change ago, I was grumbling that no one was running LARPs for Changeling: The Lost out in my neck of the woods anymore. All of my friends sitting around the table agreed that it would be great if someone would step up and start a new game. Since all eyes were on me, I realized that since I was the one who spoke the desire aloud, I was the one who now had to make it a reality if I wanted it to happen.

And that was when the brainstorming began.
I spent the next several months laying the ground work for the setting, digging up all the digital copies of the books that I had, and talking to my players about the sorts of things they wanted to see. I incorporated those things into the overall sandbox, and started putting out the word that I was looking for even more players to populate the game once it was ready. As more folks expressed interest, though, I kept getting the same question over and over again.

"So what are the house rules you're using?"

And my answer was, with the exception of clarifying which double-printed merit I was using, none. I wanted to run the game as the book laid it out. If folks wanted to give their characters a certain fighting style, I was all for that. If they wanted to put together a bizarre combination of seeming and kith, or if they wanted to join an entitlement that was usually kept under lock and key, I would work with them to make sure they found an in for their character.

In short, it was my job to facilitate the characters my players actually wanted to have, and I did not see how laying out dozens of pages of provisos and conditions was going to help that.

At first I didn't think anything of it when my players smiled, happy that I'd told them absolutely, they can use this ability that's clearly in the book as long as they pay the XP cost for it. But it happened so many times that I started to realize something... practically everyone who signed up to play in my game is used to a storyteller saying no. Not, "as long as you use this responsibly," or, "eventually, once you've earned it," but just a flat-out no. No to mechanics that already exist in the book, and are more often than not a core part of the game. Mechanics that, on a larger scope, are just ripples in the pond in terms of the what they can do.

I would like to take today's entry to reach out to all the storytellers whose reaction is to say no. This message is for you.

Take Your Foot Off The Brake

Let the players drive. You're here to facilitate their fun.
For all the DMs out there who like to hold tight to the reins, and who are even now leaving comments about how you had to change X, Y, and Z mechanics because of your game structure, group, setup, etc. just stop, and take a moment to listen to what I've got to say. Don't get defensive, or make justifications, just listen to what I've got to say here; one DM to another.

First of all, as I've said before, if you are running a homebrew setting that deviates from the core material of a game in certain, meaningful ways, then obviously there are going to be absences or restrictions in order to make sure the setting and rules agree with each other. If your DND game takes place in a world with no angels, devils, or demons in existence, you don't have tieflings and aasimar as character options. That's simple cause and effect, and not what I'm talking about.

What I am talking about is balancing the scales. Whenever you change a game from how it's written and presented, you need to ask yourself what you're giving your players, and what you're taking away from them. Because every change that affects what mechanics players can use, what sort of characters they can play, etc., is directly taking away their options and limiting their choices. So, to compensate for taking something away, ask what you're giving them in return.

It might be something simple, such as running a world that's a majority human, but you make a bunch of different bloodlines so that different humans all have different and unique templates. You might want to run a Pathfinder game without guns or gun-capable classes, but instead of just ignoring the lore you rewind the world's timeline and run the game before the discovery of black powder so that players can experience the last days before Aroden died and the setting of Golarion was plunged into chaos. Whatever you're taking away needs to have a specific rationale, and it needs to be compensated for in some way if it impacts your players' choices.

Also, Let Your Players Feel Special

It's what keeps them coming back for more.
I said this back in If You Don't Want Your Players To Win, Get Out of The DM Chair!, but it bears repeating here. Every villain you field, and every challenge you present, is supposed to be overcome. The goal is not for you to stymie your players, or to make them bleed for every inch of ground they cover. This isn't a game of attrition where you grudgingly give your players a victory every now and again (unless they specifically signed up for that, naturally). Generally speaking, the players are supposed to win when all is said and done.

And, in line with that, they should feel special when they're doing it... because they're the main characters of this story!

I have lost track of the number of storytellers I've met who, because they were frustrated that their players were actually accomplishing the challenges they put in front of them, decided to start eliminating options or refusing to allow certain classes and abilities out of the core books of their games. I've seen World of Darkness STs who have dialed firearms down to pea shooters so they didn't "destroy" encounters too easily, Dungeons and Dragons DMs who have out-and-out refused to let rogues get their sneak attack because it's "too overpowered," and Pathfinder GMs who ban paladins entirely because they can't deal with smite as an ability.

If the reason you restrict things as a dungeon master or storyteller is so that the players don't win too easily, may I suggest instead that you stop giving them a steady diet of nails, and then act surprised when they hit them with a hammer?

But this is literally the problem I was made to solve!
Let's go back to Changeling for a moment. The game is a modern fantasy or modern horror, depending on how you spin the flavor, but that means it exists in the modern world. If you want to build the ultimate swordsman, or the most dangerous gunslinger, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from putting together a laundry list of abilities that turn you into death on two legs for any mortal opponent, and which would make you a significant threat even to other supernatural enemies.

What would I gain, as a storyteller, from stopping a player from pursuing those abilities?

Sure, it would mean I don't have a wizened Doc Holliday or an ogre version of Inigo Montoya to deal with, but what have I given my player in exchange? Nothing. It's possible that a player who wanted to field one of these concepts might play something different, but will their heart be in it the way it would have been if I'd said yes? Even if that yes came with conditions that staggered out their badassery, ensuring they had to complete training and character arcs to become that thing they sought? Probably not, because I asked them to settle for their second choice... and why? Because I didn't want a character that could shoot too well, or buckle too much swash?

This is a secret I have for all my fellow storytellers who can't take their foot off the brake; you always have a bigger trump card up your sleeve than your players do.

If a player builds a sniper, make a Predator for them to stalk and be stalked by. If you have a Conan, give them a brute mauler to contend with. If the player builds their character to be a shadow player of wealth and influence, create a corporation to act as their nemesis and challenge them. Don't negate their strengths outright, but present them something that challenges them. You can literally make anything, and you have access to unfettered resources! This goes double for tabletop games over LARPs, because it means everyone at the table will have a need to bring out their strengths, and they'll all get a moment to shine while pushing along the plot.

Does it take more work to do this? Absolutely. Can it get frustrating? Sometimes. But when you are the storyteller, your job is to facilitate everyone else at the table playing their characters and sharing in the story, not to take away their pens because you don't like the color they wanted to write in.

Closing Note

To make sure I'm crystal clear, here, I am not saying that DMs who homebrew their games are doing it wrong. I'm not saying that restricting player options means you're a bad DM. I am not saying there is only one right way to play a game. We can all literally do whatever we want, as long as it makes our tables happy.

What I am asking is for all the dungeon masters and storytellers to take a step back, and ask what reason they're using to justify changes at their tables when those changes negatively impact their players' options and choices. Are you legitimately making those changes because they improve the game, and make the setting or story better? Or are you making those changes to eliminate things you personally don't want to deal with, or because you think someone might misuse it in the future?

Because if it's all about you, then you might want to check with your players to see how your proposed changes impact them. The game should be about them and their characters, after all, because without the main characters all the setting and plot in the world won't make a single lick of difference.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! I have a feeling it will stimulate some spirited conversations, but this is something I felt should be put out there.

For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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  2. YES! Not to the weird hacker post above me, but to the article. I've always ran with the idea for that every yes you give them, they have to have a reason for in their background. Even if it is only to help flesh out who their character is and where they came from. I've ran with a few GM's who hate one specific ability or another, It is something that you usually just have to grin and bear it, and try to find something that doesn't piss them off too much. Or run yourself.