Thursday, July 2, 2009

DM'ing Philosophy

I initially submitted this to the forum, but Rob thought it might be interesting to include it here, too:

I've read some recent PP blog entries with great interest, as they (and some links) recount some of the North Texas RPG Con adventures. These, and some other recent comments in this forum have led me to some questions about DM'ing style.

What happens when you (e.g.) put Bottle City on the second level of Castle Greyhawk? Well, you might lose some incautious low level PCs, but what else happens? First and foremost, you undo their expectations that they will exist within a bubble of appropriately-scaled encounters. This might be quite a shock and maybe you'll lose those players, but this effect seems quite worth the risk. Wouldn't this lead to a much greater feeling of accomplishment when the players actually do gain levels and navigate successful adventures? After all, if they weren't actually smart AS PLAYERS, they would have touched the bottle, or charged the hill giant or tried to steal Smaug's golden cup. This must (I think) create the perception that the entire world is not only genuinely dangerous, but more "real" in the sense that it exists and changes not according to the level of the PC but according to its own internal logic. As much as the idea of putting Bottle City on the second level kind of shocked me, I really like the kind of player experience that sort of move engenders.

However, the thing I like about it most is what I'd call the "mystery and sublimity" factor. I recall two incidents in my own DM career that maybe were a bit similar (though I had no idea at the time why I did them, to be honest). The first was when the (relatively high level) party went back in time to the sack of Gondolin. Peering out of the ruined building into which they'd just transported, they saw a group of 6 balrogs run by on some errand of destruction. Wisely, the PCs kept low: "I guess that's the wrecking crew" one muttered. If they'd engaged them in combat, the PCs would have been easily slaughtered. The other incident was when I had a group going through the upper ruins of Morgoth's old stronghold of Utumno. Moving through the maze of echoing passages and vaults, they came upon a vast pit in the midst of which was suspended an enormous, elongated diamond-shaped metal artifact. They could only see the very tip of it, itself over 100 feet high -- the rest, they guessed must extend almost 1/2 a mile into the darkness below. I still don't know what that thing was or why it was there, but I did feel at the time that I wanted to symbolize to them the utterly mysterious and alien vastness of this place, of which they'd see only the tip of the iceberg.

Although I'm over analyzing things as usual, it seems to me that one further effect of meeting a Bottle City as a first or second level character is that it gives you a foreshadowing or embodiment of the vastness and mystery (and danger) of Castle Greyhawk and the kind of Greyhawk Campaign that was being run. It reminds me of an image Tolkien used in LOTR to the same effect (at least, this is what I suggested to my students). Most folks recall the well in Moria into which Pippin throws a stone? Isn't that the perfect symbol for how Moria and Tolkien's world in general works? We enter in to it, interact with it, and then hear a mysterious and distant answer (the tapping) which just enhances the feeling of mystery. As a reader, we're given the surface text, but it's full of images of a deeper, older, more mysterious reality -- think of Gimli's song in Moria, Sam's poem about Gil Galad. These hints of an ancient, independant "reality" abound in Tolkien -- and that effect of sublimity and mystery I think is really worth invoking.

Now, all that being said, I'm curious about the extent to which people pursue a similar or different gaming philosophy and, in particular, I wonder how you all might interpret EGG's words on page 2 of the "Storerooms" section of the Castle Zagyg Upper Works. To summarize, he talks about scaling encounters for PCs entering the area who are of too low (or high) a level. Is this kind of scaling a recent thing for him? Is it different somehow from (e.g.) putting Bottle City on level 2 (which seems intentionally unscaled, to me)? Did his DM'ing philosophy shift later in his career? Of course, you keep reading and he still sounds pretty hard core (suggesting it's good to put the fear of God into the adventurers and how important the "run for your life" tactic is and always has been). Gary says "Rash play will likely result in hard lessons" -- that's good, but balancing encounters? What happened to his DMG advice of "Let the dice fall where they may"? Shouldn't you just create the encounters and make sure plenty of hints are available about relative difficulty to the players?

Just some thoughts. I'd love to hear anyone's reaction to them or any other unrelated ideas about your own DM'ing philosophy.

Thanks for reading.


Wickedmurph said...

I'm a general advocate of a degree of encounter scaling. I think the whole idea of encounter scaling has a bad rap in modern RPG's.

There is nothing inherently wrong with knowing how hard an encounter is. Most GM's know from experience how tough certain things are, but it's more of a general feeling than a mechanical certainty. In most cases you aren't "letting the dice fall where they may" - you're hoping that your gut feeling won't lead to a cakewalk or a tpk.

There is nothing to say that you can't build non-balanced encounters, in say, 4e. You just now know how unbalanced it is.

That being said, I'm an advocate of general encounter balancing because I believe that going into an encounter that success or failure should be largely determined by how well you play. I don't like mechanics that rely on random chance (like save or die mechanics of any sort) for the same reason - it's not really dependent on how well you do.

I think that people who advocate against encounter balancing are advocating in favor of willful ignorance. As the DM, you determine everything that the players encounter, and the power level of those things. You might argue that you don't - that player decisions do that, but you are lying, if only to yourself. You, the DM, decided at some point which creature, what stats and at what time the party encounters every single thing. In every system.

So, I would rather have some certainly that I can control this, to some extent, at least in the context of being able to understand what I am doing. I'm betting when you had 6 balrogs run by, you knew that the party would get wasted.

But what if it was a random encounter of 6 cave trolls? Does the party have a chance of beating them? Will they get hammered? You as the DM might not know, exactly. It would probably effect how you presented the encounter if you did - right. If it's a tough but winnable fight, it might be somewhat avoidable. If it's not winnable, might you present it in a more avoidable way?

In my professional life, I'm a software trainer. My preference is always to teach people fundamentals of how things work, rather than case-by-case how-to's. That way they understand, rather than do by rote. To my mind, having scalable encounters is just a tool that allows you to understand what you are doing. You can still create unbalanced encounters that the party cannot survive, but you do it consciously, and embed them in the game in such a way as to not be unavoidable doom.

Sorry for the length of this, but this is a pet peeve of mine. I guess in summary I prefer my encounters to be challenging but rarely unwinnable, and if I make them that way on purpose, then there has to be reasonable ways to avoid them. For me, saying "let the dice fall where they may" is the same as saying "I'm too lazy to do a good job as a DM".

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

Boy, I have a lot of comments on the OP and the initial follow-up comment, but it will be longish, so hold tight for later in the day.

E.G.Palmer said...

As I see it, attack is one of the options the party has in any encounter. Attack, retreat, negotiate, avoid, evade, circumvent, etc.. The modern mind set is to always default to attack. The players assume they are supposed to engage in combat, and win, at every encounter. I see the game as an adventuring simulator, rather than just a combat simulator. All of those choices are equally valid in the game. I expect the players to be smart, and not expect to win just because they are the players. Most of the time, the adventure will be of a roughly appropriate level of difficulty for the level of the characters, but not allways. I expect the players to know when their characters are out of their depth. That feeling that they arn't the be-all,end-all of the game world is needed to buttress the immersion in the game world. At least, that's what I think.

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

Well, all good points, EG.

Styles will differ from DM to DM based upon what they want to achieve in the game. While the Original Campaign allowed for action and involvement of the players to place primary focus on events, as there were so many players then,some DMs likely want a more structured sequence of game events. Oftentimes that leads to other realms of structuring, or scaling.

The game has always been scaled in places, but within it it has abstracted a certain "realistic" stance by way of that scaling. The dungeon random encounters could indeed foretell a very challenging encounter, or near impossible one, if the dice were askew during any session; and certainly there was little scaling involved for City encounters or even placed encounters therein--one was in a city where levels mixed, you see. And indeed outdoor encounters (suspiciously absent from latter editions of D&D) were anything but a pot luck range of glee or death, depending. So, there was and there wasn't scaling. Thus everything boiled down to "what it was". An outdoor was foreboding, a city, mysterious and perhaps very dangerous depending how you interacted with it. Thus this foretold gaining in the games on other levels rather than combat, for both City and Outdoor encounters. And of course, this philosophy was also relevant to the dungeon encounters, and as Mr. Palmer states.

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

The more I think about the OP, the more Mark's comment, "This must (I think) create the perception that the entire world is not only genuinely dangerous, but more "real" in the sense that it exists and changes not according to the level of the PC but according to its own internal logic,"
hits the nail on the head regarding the whole issue.

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

As well, we need only seek the definition of "adventurer" (which is what all players play), to find other insights:

adventurer |adˈven ch ərər; əd-|
a person who enjoys or seeks adventure.
• a person willing to _take risks_ or use dishonest methods for personal gain.

As adventurers are risk-takers, their counterparts, the players, best be enabled at some point to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. Approaching a fluid, unknown setting with anything but prescriptive wariness is tantamount to suicide. Thus the best stories from the pulps of S&S are herein memorialized (c.f., Conan, Kyrik, and especially Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser) let alone life's many samples of same. As the world remains an ever shifting realm to the unwary adventurer, so too should
a player's techniques at surviving within it; this in turn simulates, to a degree, real situations and as stated, not mere Game-combat situations. How DMs go about infusing these facets, if at all, may vary widely, but IMO, there is more to be gained through their inclusion than lost.

bubbagump said...

I can second most of this. It's true that scaling must occur to some extent, otherwise it would be too easy for DM's to destroy PCs outright or else lead them on an endless stream of cakewalks. A primary goal when designing encounters is to make them reasonable in terms of what they're meant to accomplish within the adventure.

The purpose of the game, after all, is to have fun. As such, the PCs must have a reasonable possibility of success (assuming they're not just foolish). Similarly, there's no fun to be had if there's no risk of failure.

That is not to say that there's no place for including massively overpowering encounters and adventures. For example, my players "live" in a long-established Greyhawk campaign. They know the setting well enough to realize that there are powerful beings and dangerous places out there. Including such makes the world more realistic. However, the players also know that they'd best not try to explore the Tomb of Horrors when they're only 2nd level. Sure, it's out there, but from their perspective it's best left for a time when they've climbed into the "big leagues."

All that said, an unspoken key to this whole discussion is the idea of "perceived danger". Regardless of the setting or the adventure, the level of risk to the PCs is entirely dependent on the DM. Of course you can always argue that placing a massive red dragon in front of your 1st level players is "realistic" in that such things would naturally occur in your world from time to time. But you'd be wrong. It's not the "real" world; it's "your" world. Therefore, you define reality. When all's said and done the player's have no way to know what's dangerous unless you tell them in some way. They have no meaningful way of perceiving danger accurately without the DM.

Therefore, it behooves us as DMs to make sure that what we say to the players is reasonably descriptive. To place something like the Bottle City where 1st level players can get at it - without supplying adequate warnings - isn't realistic, it's just cruel. And it's not fun. On the other hand, doing so with reasonable signs of what's to come provides the players with something to look forward to and inspires them to perform well so they can come back to it later.

As an example of this, my players once encountered Tenser while visiting the city of Greyhawk. One foolishly tried to pick his pocket. I could have had Tenser blast them to powder on the spot, but they didn't realize what they were doing. I didn't want to ruin the game by killing everyone over a random encounter. So, I had a couple of Tenser's henchmen step in and inform the party of whom they were attempting to rob. Most backed down immediately with sincere apologies. Several levels later they were rewarded when Tenser remembered their audacity and hired them for a "little expedition." One of them, though, took offense and tried to take down the henchmen (believing I'd never throw anything at him that he couldn't handle - he was a new player and a bit of a jerk). As far as I know, he's still lying there. Unless the crows got him.

bubbagump said...

There are, of course, exceptions (of sorts) to my earlier comments. The gaming world has grown large and now encompasses a whole variety of gaming styles and circumstances. Some of these may absolutely require careful scaling of encounters, and preclude the inclusion of adventure sites (etc.) that the PCs cannot currently handle. Others may require little or no scaling at all.

For example: A couple of years ago I agreed to run the infamous Age of Worms adventure path for a group of players who had no DM. I had little time to prepare, and the players had little time to play. It was going to be a "one-shot" campaign for that adventure path only, and it had to be done by November when some of the players were moving away. Under those circumstances I opted to run the AP as written, with no side treks or extraneous encounters. Each encounter had a purpose within the grand scheme, and including non-plot-related adventuring sites would have only been an unwelcome distraction. Simply put, we didn't have time to do things the way I (and the players) might have preferred.

Another example: Inspired by one of Erik Mona's comments made some time ago, I once undertook to run a short-duration campaign centered on - of all things! - romance. It was to be, in essence, a medieval fantasy live-action soap opera. Combat was rarely an element of that campaign, and dungeon delving was left for another time. We focused instead on courtly intrigues and roleplaying as the PCs maneuvered to marry above their stations. I did take the time to stat out various NPCs, and some of them could have easily overwhelmed the PCs. But, since the emphasis was not on combat their stats rarely came into play. I could wildly overbalance any given encounter without fear, since I had many means at my disposal beyond just combat. (As an aside, this campaign included one of the few times I've ever seen a low level - 4th at the time, I think - PC singlehandedly take out an archmage. It was a brilliant assassination that involved seducing said archmage and convincing him to let his guard down. I still applaud that player.)

I know we old-schoolers are sometimes criticized for insisting there is a "right" and "wrong" way to play, and I have to admit that sometimes that criticism is justified. There are now LOTS of ways to play. I do believe that the standard as described in the comments above (and elsewhere) is probably best for most players, but we must not be dogmatic about it.

In other words, I approach the whole subject of what is right and wrong for my gaming table from the standpoint of my profession as a businessman. I have a product to sell (the fun of playing), and I must find a way to sell that product to my market (the players). In order to do that I have to find out what they want, what they're willing to pay for it, and how they want it delivered. What is true in business is also true in gaming: every market segment (group of players) is different, and so the product and the means of marketing it must be varied accordingly.

Benoist said...

Excellent entry. I am totally there when Endymion talks about the way encounters not fitting the groups specifics, levels etc makes the world outside seem to live without their presence, and in the end, hightens the believability of the whole make-believe.

It's spot-on, in my opinion.

In a sense, it really comes down to what one wants out of the game itself.

If you function under the basic premise that indeed this is a game of make-believe, the believability or verisimilitude of the world matters, and the adventurers (cf. definition above) are not strictly separated from the players, but really the same compound entity within the make-believe (i.e. the player really is the character, and the character is the player, which means the problems and obstacles of the game world challenge the player directly rather than a set of numbers on a character sheet).

If you function under the premise that this is a game to "have fun" without any further precision as to "how", exactly, the fun is supposed to be provided at the game table, you might end up with a very different experience than the one I just described.