Dungeon Mastering

Neo-Gygaxian Dungeon Building…I love it!

This weekend I finished an adventure I was designing for my upcoming Dark Sun campaign.  Aside from my usual difficulties with generating compelling adventure hooks, I struggled with dungeon design and encounter building.  Last night, after a full 12 hour day of writing, re-writing and a 6-pack of beer, I completed the basics.  This is not the first time I’ve struggled with 4E encounter building.  As such, I decided that I was going to discuss my problems with the 4E encounter building process.  To my surprise, The Chatty DM has already discussed this and quoted Robert Schwalb’s blog in the process.  Truly the stars must be in alignment today.  Perhaps The Chatty DM and Mr. Schwalb have stumbled upon a higher order concerning the aesthetics of DMing?  I think so.

So, what is the problem? As others have pointed out, it is the carbon copy template of encounter building that is the problem.  The template looks something like this: You have an 8 x 8 room with a warband that is going to fight another warband, the PCs.  This suggests (in fact encourages) a “fight-loot-fight-rest” structure to an adventure.  The PCs enter the dungeon and move from one room to the next, killing, expending resources, resting and then move on to the next room.  I describe this as the World of Warcraft design.  Now, to be fair this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  For the new player who is familiar with World of Warcraft, it is an easy transition to D&D.  And, subsequently, Wizards of the Coast’s income stream increases so we old-timers can continue playing with new content.

But the problem with the World of Warcraft designing philosophy is that it is so damned hard to write an adventure the way I used to write adventures back in the day.  Role-playing gets downplayed, or as Mr. Schwalb as suggested “occurs between encounters”.  Compounding this issue is that I am forced to make many alterations to the creatures I am using to make sure that all of the creatures in the encounter fit my adventure theme.  Otherwise, if I pick any creature to fill out the missing “warband role”, the encounter seems like a hodgepodge of creatures generated by a random die roll.  That’s no fun for the role-player because it makes no sense.

I have always designed my adventures and dungeons using the Gary Gygax dungeon ecology model.  This model focuses on the ecology of the dungeon and how the different creature factions within the dungeon balance the power between themselves.  This opens the door to a whole host of role-playing options within the dungeon for the players to choose.  This approach facilitates story generation and advancement of the campaign.  The Chatty DM does a wonderful job using the pre-existing 4E rules structure to compliment the ecological approach that The Chatty DM is calling “Neo-Gygaxian.”  (I love this label, by the way.)

The Neo-Gygaxian model, to sum it up, is basically dividing the dungeon into a number of sections with a number of rooms.  You then pool the experience points for each room/encounter in a section and divide that total in any way you wish.  If the section of the dungeon is part of a quest, leave some of the pool left over for quest rewards.  You then do it again for the next section.  You should read these blogs yourself.  They are fantastic guides to dungeon creation.

So…after hours and hours of trying to make a dungeon/adventure for my future gaming group, I ended up doing something very similar described by Mr. Schwalb and The Chatty DM.  I am happy with the outcome.  I can’t reveal any specifics because my players read this blog, but future adventures and dungeons should be easier (and quicker) to build with this Neo-Gygaxian model.

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Alignment: The Moral Order, The Dungeon Master and the Unaligned Character

Last week I started bloviating on alignment and its importance.  Admittedly, the original post was a little off the beaten path.  But in my defense, I wanted to start there to put into context my perspective when approaching alignment in role-playing games.  In this second post I want to address the issue of precisely “to what” a character is aligning themselves.  I said in the last post, when a character acts it is affirming a set of beliefs but they are also properly positioning themselves in alignment with a higher moral order.  What is that moral order?  What is the object to which the characters align themselves?  Is it a set of principles that an individual character accepts? Or, is this moral order in existence outside the realm of the character’s own mind? 

The “object” to which a character aligns, could be the actions of other characters.  This is certainly an easy way to distinguish a character of good alignment and a character of evil alignment.  But if the moral order is defined in this way, it is merely saying what your character is not.  This provides no guidance to defining the actions of the character and provides no real or meaningful distinctions between characters.

Furthermore, if the moral order is defined by the character’s perspective and it’s relation to the actions and motives of other characters, the moral order becomes relative and there is no order.  A character can claim that what he is doing is really the lawful good action because he likes acting that way.  If everyone becomes lawful good, then there is no lawful good.  Every character has adopted a set of “principles” because these characters think that these principles are the right ones to choose.  Just because these characters “think” or “believe” it is the right choice, doesn’t make it so.  How many have made the mistake of believing the chaotic evil character happily telling you that he’s the lawful good one (as he slides the knife into your back)?  Defining the moral order this way provides no guidance and undermines the alignment system completely.  No, the “object” to which the character aligns is a singular moral order that binds every other character.  And it is the character’s choice to properly position themselves to this order that determines their over-all alignment.

Think of it as a continuum where Lawful Good is at the top and Chaotic Evil is at the bottom.  A lawful good character is fully committed to the moral order and as the characters slide down the continuum, they are less aligned to the moral order than the lawful good character.  And it follows that the chaotic evil character is the least aligned to the moral order.  From a character’s perspective the lack of alignment may be justifiable.  In fact, justifying why the character is not aligned with the order can generate motivations and backgrounds that create very compelling characters and stories.  However, perspective is still important

Perspective is still important on a meta-game level.  It is the Dungeon Master’s responsibility to enforce this moral order.  Otherwise, the alignment system will devolve to a relativistic system where the player characters can define what is moral.  If this happens, alignment means nothing.  I don’t know about you, but I have had serious conversations with former paladin players who think that slaughtering goblin children is ok because goblins are evil.  Perhaps you, as the Dungeon Master, think that is ok.  Then that is how you, the Dungeon Master, define Lawful Good.   As I will explain in a later post on the Lawful Good alignment, I do not believe so.  (And yes, I threatened to take away his powers if he did what he said he was going to do.)

So what does this mean?  The moral order (in game) is a strict system that defines a character’s actions based the character’s conscious choice to properly position themselves with the moral order.  On a meta-game level, the moral order resides in the Dungeon Master and must be defined and enforced.  I would caution the Dungeon Master from being too free and loose in defining the alignments, but the alignment system is meaningless if it is not enforced with consistency.  But, as always, it depends on what you are doing at the gaming table every night.

Of course, my philosophical outline will be leaving you gamers with an obvious question: “So…what about the ‘unaligned’ character?”   My answer is simple.  The “unaligned” character is not “unaligned” in the sense that they do not have a commitment.  They are unaligned in the sense that they are not in alignment to the higher moral order.

By being the one who “chooses not to choose,” the character is taking a position on law and on good.   This character has chosen not to be aligned to a set of moral beliefs.  To be clear, this character isn’t necessarily “neutral”.  The description of this character is one that will do what it thinks is right or do that which benefits their own interests.  Isn’t this what a lawful good or a chaotic evil character already does when they act?  Going back to the discussion on perspective, all characters already function this way.  What determines their alignment is whether or not they have chosen to align themselves to the higher moral order.  Clearly, the unaligned character has chosen something.

In effect, the unaligned character is trying to be described as one that is “beyond good and evil.”  (Who knew Friedrich Nietzsche would influence the game-designers at Wizards of the Coast?)  Is this character truly the over-man come down from the mountaintop to enlighten the misguided moralists in the <insert church of a deity here>?  No.  The unaligned alignment captures a variety of non-committal and selfish alignments.  The unaligned character could be as random as a chaotic neutral character or as dogmatic as a lawful neutral character.  It could be as conflicted as a neutral good character or as selfish as neutral evil character. They are not “unaligned” they are just in the middle of the continuum.

To be fair, the unaligned character is useful as a game-design choice to provide “an out” for those who aren’t interested in role-playing as much as they are interested in just playing the game.  This is fine.  I am not denigrating such an attitude.  But, if you prefer to role-play, using the original alignment system designed by Gary Gygax may be preferable.  It is more complete and explains, rather nicely, the moral order.  In my future posts, I am going to explore this moral order and the character types that have consciously chosen to properly position themselves with this moral order.


More on Alternative Campaigns

In my last post I mentioned “Alternative Campaigns” without clearly defining what I refer to as an alternative campaign.  Basically, it is one where the Dungeon Master purposefully limits the standard options available to players during character generation.  This is done, not to make things tough on the players, but to facilitate the creation of a unique gaming world created by the Dungeon Master.  These campaigns do not involve your standard adventuring party and they require players willing to constrain themselves in some ways, and challenge themselves in other ways.  Of course, making an attempt at playing in an alternative campaign will require you to say “no” to some of your players.  But first, let’s explore some ideas to fully flesh out what I mean.

I had spoken of “an all rogue campaign” that my friend has been trying to get off the ground for some time.  It has great potential to challenge his players, as they would have to overcome encounters using only the tools available to rogues.  An all rogue campaign in 4E would not have a defender to soak up damage, the absence of a controller could prove problematic and certainly, the lack of a leader character would make combat very deadly.  But, think of the new combat strategies players would have to conceive to succeed!

Of course there are other ways of limiting players in their character choices. Perhaps the story you are interested in telling takes place deep within a primordial forest where the human nations have yet to explore or invade?  Disallowing humans would make sense, especially if they are going to be used as enemies in encounters.  In fact, limiting players to only Eladrin, Elves, Gnomes, Halflings, Wilden and Shifters would not be outside the realm of the rational.

Alternative campaigns not only add new challenges to the players, but they add a unique flavor and a variety to the numerous campaigns your gaming group will be playing.  In one of my earlier campaigns, (a 2nd Edition game) one of the main themes was faith and religion.  Many of the players willingly continued to make characters that would be defined in 4E terms as “Divine Power” classes.  The stories told during that campaign had a particular flavor that a standard retinue of characters could not duplicate.  And, if I you will permit me to indulge myself, it is a campaign that is still talked about when we old timers get together for a few mugs of honey-mead and swap lies with each other.

But, there are so many options available to players and, if they are like my gaming group, they can only play a few hours a week.  Limiting a gaming group like this could aggravate the players, especially if their Dungeon Master is constantly coming up with unique worlds and stories to tell, with very few standard campaign story lines.  On the other hand, younger players aren’t going to care about the nuances of your unique game world and will be focused on exploring their creative potential (and “get mad loot”).  Indeed, a standard dungeon crawl or game module can incorporate any kind of character which is perfect for these players.  If a player wants to play a spell-scarred minotaur psion, there are rules available to make this desire a reality.  If you are attempting an alternative campaign and wish to limit your players, make sure you know their sensibilities. 

Chapter 10 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide One, as I have stated earlier, is so important, it should be memorized by Dungeon Masters.  Specifically, the use of “House Rules” can be used to justify the limitations a DM may impose on players during character generation.  Put it simply, the House Rule does not need to be narrowed or limited to “fixing gaps” in 4E mechanics.  However, all House Rules must be supported by a clear rationale as to why they are being used in this way.  In other words, the Dungeon Master must ask the question: why am I imposing such a limitation on the players?  If such a limitation can be supported by a creative explanation that goes toward the world you are creating and the story you are trying to tell, then the players are more apt to accept it. In fact, they may embrace it.  If you are excluding the psionic power source just because you don’t like psionics, then it will simply feel arbitrary and players will lose faith in the Dungeon Master’s ability to be judicious.

Judiciousness is what every DM must strive for when making gaming decisions.  If you can prove your judiciousness, the players will be apt to trust you when the time comes to tell them “no”.


Dungeon Master: Enter the Rules Legislator

DM’s Discretion has always been my favorite rule. It was the source of all power in the multiverse and it was taken from the Dungeon Master in the 3rd Edition, but after many battles with the rules lawyers, 4th Edition has returned control back to the Dungeon Master, albeit in a somewhat reversed, behind the scenes sort of way.  When DM’s discretion was exercised prior to 4E, it was exercised to settle in-game disputes. Now, the discretion occurs prior to the game. In effect, the Dungeon Master becomes a rules legislator.  A general survey as to how the rules of the game have changed can explain what I mean.

During the good old days of 2nd Edition the simplified rule set was focused primarily on combat. The Dungeon Master’s task was to use what was available to make determinations for player actions not covered by the rules.  How many remember this tired old phrase from their Dungeon Master:  “Hmm…ok, make a Dex check.”  This, of course, could infuriate the rules lawyers in the group who, being the good lawyers that they were (and I am serious about that) would point out the inconsistencies between the call for “dexterity checks” and advocate for a strength check or for some kind of bonus to an ordinary attack roll.  And we all remember how those discussions went: the Dungeon Master would have to assert his authority or the rules lawyer would take control of the game.

Now, that is not to say that such use of discretion was a bad thing, but clearly, gamers wanted something more concrete and less arbitrary.  They wanted a rule that they can rely upon when thinking about how to kill the ogre charging down the corridor, or unlocking the trapped chest full of goodies.  Enter Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 and 3.5. 

These games fully democratized the game and turned the Dungeon Master into just another player, or a merely a referee of a game.  The d20 system simplified the general formula for determining success and failures with the game (which was genius), and with that, there was no room for the Dungeon Master’s discretion without sounding completely arbitrary.  With the multi-class and feat system a player could design his or her character in any way that he or she saw fit.   Aside from some general campaign prohibitions, the Dungeon Master was powerless to stop the PCs from doing just about anything.  If the Dungeon Master attempted to alter a rule, a competent and well-read rules lawyer could make a very compelling argument as to why the rule should remain the same.  Any work a Dungeon Master wanted to put into an adventure or villain had to be supported by a concrete rule to justify the action. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing, but it does create a lot of work for the Dungeon Master.  I once spent 8 hours researching the Dungeon Master’s Guide, The Player’s Handbook, both Forgotten Realms books and the Book of Vile Darkness to create a red wizard of Thay that could, in the very first round of combat, cast a twin-quickened-maximized fireball (free action) followed by a maximized meteor swarm (Standard action).  Another villain I made could kill a PC instantly with a critical hit if the PC failed a fortitude saving throw vs. 38. He had a critical range of 15+ and with his chaotic evil vicious two-handed sword he could inflict 10d6 + 25 damage on a critical hit against my lawful good player characters (and there were a lot of them in the party).  Both villains were totally legit.  Unfortunately, I never saw these villains in action…but I was ready for any complaints!

Of course, the 3rd Edition of the game brought a whole host of rules. Some players, Dungeon Masters included, found this to be too unwieldy and the game became more about rules and less about story-telling, a valid criticism to be sure.

Fourth Edition of course has provided a streamlined version of the game.  (I am not exactly sure if you can say it is all THAT streamlined…)  But, the game has certainly changed: it has simplified combat (sort of) and simplified the role that skills play in the game (sort of).  This is, of course, from the player’s perspective (read: “Rules Lawyer’s perspective”), makes it easy for rule adjudication, character design and developing combat strategies.  From the Dungeon Master’s perspective, the Dungeon Master has been given chapter after chapter of rules that are really just “the rules about the rules”.  These “rules about the rules” provide the Dungeon Master with limitless possibilities to mold and shape anything and everything in the game.  From skill challenges to monsters, the Dungeon Master can do just about anything and it is entirely legit.  The Dungeon Master, when countered by a rules lawyer hell-bent on challenging something (usually anything) the Dungeon Master has in mind, can point to chapter 10 of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and explain why the goblin that just killed the PC is a 6th level ranger with fire powers.

This is what I like most about 4th Edition.  The rules provided in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are the nuts and bolts to the very game itself.  The rules provided in the DMGs are at the heart of the gaming reality to be molded by the Dungeon Master.  Dungeon Master’s Guide One and Two are truly tomes of magic and wisdom that equip the Dungeon Master with the necessary tools to legislate effectively and, as Gary Gygax once stated, “to give shape and meaning to the cosmos.”  The game designers at Wizards have produced a set of rules that places the Dungeon Master back where they belong, at the head of the gaming table.