It’s time for something a little different this week! I have SO MANY Ask Angry questions piled up and I’ve fallen behind on weekly Ask Angry articles. So, I’ve decided that I’m going to sprinkle a couple of big Ask Angry Blitzes into my content schedule. I’ll pick out some of the older questions I can answer in a few hundred words, pile ’em all up, and answer as many as I can in one go. Once I’ve caught up with these occasional superblitzes, I’ll be able to make it a more regular weekly thing. That’s it. That’s all the intro you get!
Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.
In your Credo you wrote: “I am always a Dungeon Master, no matter what the game.” What does that mean?
Dindomir is referring to my article about writing your GMing Credo from WAAAAAAAYYYYYY back in the mysterious year 2014. In that article, I listed the first rule of my GMing credo and then I added a weird parenthetical remark that was basically baiting everyone into asking what it’s really about. Here it is:
I Am a Dungeon Master: I am not a Game Master, Storyteller, Watcher, Keeper, Galaxy Master, or any other title. I am a Dungeon Master. That is what I will always be, whatever game I am running.
(This is an example of a rule that really only means something to me personally. Like I said, some of these rules are very personal. It is not just about my title, and it is not just about the fact that I was raised on D&D and love D&D, it is also about how I structure and run my games. It is also one of those rules only I need to understand. So I will leave it at that. Suffice to say I could probably write a page on what this rule really means to me.)
Well, you’ve waited two goddamned years, so it’s time for me to explain.
Every RPG has a particular feel to it. As much as people want to argue that the system doesn’t matter, game systems DO matter. The mechanics, the systems, the subsystems, all of the little bits of an RPG combine together to create a particular flavor of experience. You can fight it – and a lot of people do – but, to me, that’s kind of bullheaded. Figure out the game you want to run, find the system that supports that, and play it.
I am a Dungeon Master in every game I run in that there are certain aspects of D&D that always infuse the way I run games. Teamwork, for example. In D&D, the basic assumption is that everyone is on the same side. It doesn’t HAVE TO be that way, but it usually is and D&D works best when it is. That’s why the game has gradually shifted to things like group roles and group experience. And that’s why encounter balance always assumes 3 to 5 people trying to win. And that’s another thing. In D&D, the players and their characters are assumed to be trying to win. Sure, you are supposed to make the decisions your characters WOULD make. But the characters are professionals. And like any professional, they are supposed to do their best to turn off their personal baggage and bulls$&% when a life-or-death situation breaks out and form their circle with their horns pointed out and do their absolute best to win. Player motivations and character motivations in life-or-death struggles align. And, in the end, D&D is about heroes overcoming obstacles and making choices to accomplish a goal. That’s why the experience system exists and why the game day is the basic assumption for resource management. All of these things are PART of D&D. They are part of other games too, but they are in the DNA of D&D.
Except for the occasional one-shot, I have no interest in running games for groups that aren’t into teamwork and who aren’t looking for BOTH a good story AND a good challenging game. If people want to come and dick around and wander aimlessly and fill the world with irreverent silliness or explore just how tragic a group of characters can be when they make every wrong decision, they go play some other game at some other table. I’m old school.
But there’s more to that statement than just the feel of the game. There’s also a bit about always knowing where I came from. I cut my teeth on Tunnels and Trolls and D&D. Tunnels and Trolls solo games whet my appetite, but D&D taught me everything I know about running games. And all of my BEST games have been D&D games. Basic D&D. AD&D 2E. D&D 3.5. D&D 4E. D&D Essentials. D&D 5E. And technically Pathfinder too. We’re calling that D&D. I’ve played a f$&%ton of different games. And I’ve liked a lot of games. I’ll run GURPS and 13th Age and Dungeon World and Hackmaster and Savage Worlds and The Strange and… well, I’ll never run any Burning Wheel bulls$&% again and Fate can f$&% right off, but I have run them. And you can probably see why. But I’ll D&D made me the gamer I am. And it’s always going to be my comfort zone. My wheelhouse. No matter what, if there is a current edition of D&D out there, I will know it. I may not like all that it does (4E), but I will give it way more of a chance than I’ll give any other game. Because it’s D&D. And it’s earned that.
Pedro (@oblznr on Twitter) asks:
I’m GMing the Star Wars – Edge of the Empire and sometimes things get too abstract for me and my players. I noticed that most combats happen in a vacuum and the only ambiance effects are the mechanical ones, like taking cover (adds a penalty to the adversary). How do I make terrain and locations matter without using tactical maps and minis?
First of all, if things are too abstract for you and your players, get out a big ole piece of paper and draw some s$&%. That’s why visual aids exist. You don’t need to go whole go with a grid in Star Wars, but you can just draw a quick sketch and say “okay, here’s where the reactor is and here’s the noxious fumes and here’s the rancor or whatever bulls$%& terrain features are on the bridge of the Enterprise.” I don’t know. I’m not a Trekker.
But beyond that, here’s the deal: ambiance doesn’t matter for s$&% once lives are on the line. No one is admiring the f$&%ing scenery during a life-or-death shootout. If you want people to care about terrain, it has to an effect on the game. Otherwise, it’s just flavor text. In which case, it should be short and punchy.
Now, if you’re running without a map, that’s cool, but terrain is going to be less of a factor because people can only hold so much in their heads. It becomes your job to remind people about the terrain EVERY F$&%ING ROUND. And to use the terrain to create opportunities and choices.
Remember, terrain and position only matter because they determine what things can interact with what things. You don’t need a grid for that. You just need to know who is where. I’ll give you some examples. First, let’s work with a pit of reactor coolant in the middle of the combat space. There’s a bunch of s$&% you can do with that. For example, when the PC fires his phaser and rolls a despair action, the blast ricochets off the controls and opens the pit up. Now there’s a big pit of reactor coolant in the middle of the space. And it’s open. And it’s giving off noxious fumes.
Now, in the next round, the other PC – a Cylon or whatever – starts his turn and you remind her she’s backed up against the now open pit of reactor coolant. Warn her that she’s on dangerous ground and that a bad die roll will totally f$&% her up. She’ll start thinking about the danger the terrain poses. Or, maybe one of the NPC Stormtroopers is near the pit of reactor coolant and he’s off balance. Give a player the opportunity to work with that.
The key though is to work with a small number of terrain elements, one or two at most, and treat them just like foes when you are narrating your combat. Remind the players where they are, what they are doing, and why they are an opportunity or problem.
In narrative combat, there’s no distinction between terrain and characters. They take up just as much space in the brain. And you have to narrate that way. “Two storm troopers are moving to flank you, the massive pit of reactor coolant is bubbling a few steps behind you, and that electrical power relay behind Alice is arcing and sending dangerous sparks caroming everywhere. What do you do?”
Think about the terrain AS a character or foe. What can it do? What dangers does it pose? What opportunities does it create? Where is it in relation to everyone else?
Valien the Elf asks:
Greetings, He Who Knows and Rants! I’d like to ask you about your opinion on the social skill checks – specifically, why the hell is Bluff so different from all his cousins? I mean, most skills systems have skills for convincing through logical persuasion, intimidation, seduction… and then lying. But… Why? After all, when you lie, you are still using one of the other ways of convincing someone. I mean: You can tell someone that you are more powerful than them (socially, physically, whatever) and convince them of doing what you want… That’s a typical Intimidation check, but, if it isn’t true, then it is suddenly another skill? Should Bluff really be a check by itself, or some sort of “modifier” applied to other, more conventional checks (Diplomacy, Seduction, Intimidation, etc.)? Or am I overthinking it? Enlighten me with your angry wisdom!
First of all, let’s just establish that the D&D social skill system is f$&%ing stupid. In D&D, you have three options: be polite, be scary, or be dishonest. And, frankly, they are all governed by the same ability score. That said…
Yes, lying is very different from telling the truth and it is actually a skill in itself. And this is a scientific thing. If you’re really curious, you should check out the of American psychologist Paul Ekman who has been called the greatest human lie detector in the world. He’s written many books and he also inspired a really awesome American television crime drama that people were too stupid to recognize as awesome and so it went off the air. It was called Lie to Me. And it was based on Paul Ekman’s actual life and work.
The thing is, your body is a pile of hormones and chemicals that all do all sorts of different things that you can’t consciously, directly control. And when you lie, you’re basically saying or doing things consciously that the rest of your brain knows are not true. And your body can betray you. One of the things Ekman discovered is that there are seven basic human emotions and that the expressions of those emotions are biological, they don’t differ from culture to culture, and they are extremely difficult to hide. That said, with practice or natural talent, you can become good at hiding them. You can also become good at detecting them.
Bluffing and deception – concealing information or presenting incorrect information without raising suspicion in others – is a skill. It is a social skill. The biggest problem is not that it shouldn’t be a skill, but that the skill should be called “lying” and it should concern only attempts to tell falsehoods or conceal information. And, at best, an unsuccessful check should only mean that the target is suspicious of you. If you want to physically bluff someone with how dangerous you are, that really does fit more into the Intimidation wheelhouse. Because Intimidation is not necessarily about scaring people into thinking you will hurt them, it is about demonstrating that you are a dangerous individual. I have no doubt that I can stomp one of those tiny little obnoxious dogs into paste, you know, the ones the size of rats. But if one comes at me snarling and growling and foaming at the mouth, I’m still going to be scared of it. It LOOKS dangerous. And that’s triggering a primitive response.
But I do agree with you that most RPG social skill systems lack nuance. However, LYING is a skill. The big problem is all the other skills that are missing. Like Negotiation, Seduction, Debate, etc. The REAL big problem is that Persuasion is a catch-all for so many different things.
My current party doesn’t have any kind of home base at the moment. How important is it to have a headquarters for the players? Not necessarily a hometown or city, but a small base of operations. What amenities should it have? How easy should it be to acquire? How easy to get to should it be? Should the DM threaten it?
There’s no SHOULD or SHOULDN’T here. A base of operations is not required and players don’t strictly NEED one, but certain types of games benefit from one more than others. In my current game, for example, my players are wandering the world following mysterious cults and an evil empire and all sorts of s$&%. They travel dozens or hundreds of miles between adventures. A home base just doesn’t make sense. And it would limit the feel of exploration in my game as well as the sense of scope. In my campaign, the whole world is at stake because the players are running around the whole world. A base of operations limits that somewhat.
But other groups love having a home base. And what is available at that home base isn’t tremendously important. Obviously, the group needs to be able to rest and recover and resupply. But once you get past that, every resource that isn’t available at the home base is a potential adventure. If they can’t cure disease, they have to leave the base when someone gets sick. If the base doesn’t provide an artificer who can make magical items, they have to venture out into the world to get magic items made. And so on.
In point of fact, if you want a campaign that has a base-building feature, you can allow the PCs to take on adventures that allow them to add resources to their home base. They can have recruiting and rescue missions, they can finance the construction of a temple to attract clerics, they can hire an artificer and pay him in rare resources, and so on. So, as time goes on, this becomes a sort of advancement system. It allows the players to “level up” outside of the normal XP system. And that can be cool.
Of course, your home base MIGHT not be any of that. It might just be a place where the PCs can retreat to safely and securely. It might just offer them a sense of stability and a place where they can let their guard gown. In very dangerous, very high stakes games, that can be very valuable.
All of that having been said, you need to be VERY careful about threatening a home base. If it IS a source of safety and security, threatening or destroying it tells the PCs they aren’t safe ANYWHERE EVER. And, that’s fine. If you want to dramatically shift the tone of your campaign to one where EVERYTHING is on the line, you can do that. ONCE. And only once.
If the PCs spend resources building up their base, then you can threaten it, but you owe it to the players to give them ways to protect their investment by expending resources OR by defending it themselves. That is to say, you have to give them the opportunity to make choices about how to protect it and you have to make it possible to protect it. You can’t just drop rocks on it now just like you can’t just take away spells, abilities, or levels from a PC.
And, just to be clear, “ninjas are attacking your home, fight them off” is NOT a choice. That’s just giving them a chance to veto your screwjob with enough good attack rolls. They need to have the opportunity to learn about the attack, build up their defenses, and decide how to confront them.
I’m running a Star Wars Saga Edition RPG Campaign, and I keep having a problem. In the Star Wars universe, there are literally thousands of planets my players could go to, and on those planets they can land pretty much anywhere they want. Which means that I have to improvise everything from city layout to characters. This also means it is impossible to know where combat will break out. For me, it is difficult to generate so much content on the fly, especially when trying to make the areas diverse and interesting. How would you handle this situation?
Dear Seth, you are running a “dicking around” game. Stop it! Hugs and kisses, Angry.
Seriously. That’s my term for a particular kind of sandbox where the players can just go anywhere and do anything and expect to find adventure. The players are just dicking around the universe. And it is almost impossible for a GM to keep up with that campaign.
The only way to stop this is to have goals in your game. First of all, what do the players and the characters want to accomplish? Why are they adventuring? Are they fighting the Empire? Are they exploring the Gamma Quadrant? Are they in service to Chancelor Velorum? WHAT is the actual premise of your game. Without an actual premise, it is impossible to set goals from session to session. Once you have that premise, whatever it is, you need to focus on individual goals for adventures. The players learn there is an Imperial Base on Praxis and they need to go there and disable Scorpius’ wormhole research project. The players pick up an interesting distress call from the moon of Vega. Whatever.
Obviously, you need to involve the players in building the premise and choosing the goals for the game. But you can’t just hand players a universe and say “okay, go make up your own fun” unless you want to make up every goddamned thing in the universe on the fly.