[D&D4E, big] "NEXT TIME, GADGET!" - Techniques for Fictionful 4E

0. Introduction

Here are some techniques I've used to create the play experience I describe in the "Game informs the fiction informs the game informs the fiction" thread.

I've been meaning to write up something like this for awhile and I got a few requests in that thread to do so, so here it is.

This is addressed to DMs. When you read "you" think "you the DM." When I talk in first person, I'm speaking as a DM. When I talk in first-person plural, like "our" or "we" I'm talking about our home campaign, which is a paragon-tier thing approaching its fiftieth session.

If the players aren't interested in making fiction with their D&D, then these techniques are probably of little use. Sorry!

There's lots of influence from the usual suspects here, but also I want to call out the big single-player modern CRPGs by BioWare and Bethesda as large and surprising influences. Edit: The make-story-out-of-silly-mechanics approach was directly inspired by Knights of the Dinner Table, most notably the Bag War series, which opened my eyes to the fictional potency of Bags of Holding.

Finally, this thread is for discussing techniques to make storyful D&D4E. Please don't respond by attacking the premise as a mismatch of game and agenda.

1. Quests (The Bethesda part)

Quests are the heart of my DMing approach.

TENT YOUR QUESTS: Hopefully, potential storylines will emerge as you explore your setting. Use D&D quests to track those storylines. Whenever a goal emerges in the fiction, make it immediately tangible by writing the goal's victory condition and XP reward on an index card and put that card where everyone can see it. These are some of the quest tents from our campaign:

image

MODEL QUEST CREATION TO THE PLAYERS: As soon as you mention a fictional goal -- like "Baroness Vanessa wants you to bring a ball invitation to the Master of Ogres" -- write that down as a quest tent.

PLAYER CREATED QUESTS ARE SUPER COOL: When a player declares a quest, that's an affirmation that some piece of the fiction is compelling to them. So you need to make sure that you don't lose any opportunities to create a player quest. Whenever any player suggests an intention, stop everything that you're doing and write that quest down immediately. Take this input seriously. Even if the game never follows up on the player's impulse, all that's been wasted is the minute to write the card. What matters is that you are demonstrating that you are listening for input on the game's direction.

CHALLENGE QUEST GOALS WITH D&D STUFF: Whenever a quest appears, your job is to put D&Dish challenges -- encounters, skill challenges, skill rolls, etc--between the party and the fulfillment of that quest.

IMPORT QUEST FICTION BACK INTO GAMEPLAY: Say a quest emerges that doesn't really feel like something the D&D4E mechanics cover. For example, say that Gronda the orc fighter PC declares that she wants to win the heart of Huckleberry, the parish priest NPC. This is awesome, but there's no check in D&D to make someone fall in love. So what kind of D&Dish opportunities can you provide for Gronda so that she can achieve her goal?
  • Maybe some toughs are bullying Huckleberry? (an encounter)
  • Maybe Huckleberry and his acolytes need an escort to a meeting with the bishop? (a whole adventure)
  • Maybe Huckleberry is already in true love with someone? (encounter to kill the other love, stealth/thievery/bluff skill challenge to intercept their correspondence and fake unflattering responses, diplomacy/intimidate skill challenge to convince Huckleberry's parents to arrange a marriage with Gronda..etc)

Comments

  • edited March 2012

    2. Plot Branching (The BioWare part)

    BRANCHING MEANS MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE CHOICES: Presenting mutually exclusive choices in the game can force the party to rank its fictional priorities. This creates story and keeps the party moving towards the parts of the game that it finds interesting.

    Here's an example that forces the party to choose between being rich and heroic: there's a dungeon with a craven dragon, a cult, a captive prince that the cult is sacrificing to the dragon, and a treasure hoard that contains some very valuable and portable items. At the moment the players enter the dungeon, the dragon is attending the sacrifice in the ritual chamber, temporary leaving its hoard unattended.

    If the party goes straight at the hoard, they can get to it without facing the dragon, but while they're looting there, they'll be unable to intervene in the sacrifice.

    If the party intervenes in the sacrifice, the dragon will flee back to its hoard and bring its anti-adventurer defenses to maximum readiness. If the adventurers go on to attack its lair and make a lot of progress against its defenses, it will pack up the most portable and desirable stuff in its hoard, fly to safety, and detonate the demolition charges seeded within its lair.

    BUT MAYBE NOT TOTALLY MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE: D&D players are clever fiends! They may prove that your branches are not as mutually exclusive as you thought by winning both goals! If they do manage to rescue the prince while seizing the hoard, then they're awesome and you should applaud them. Also, you should be more clever next time.

    REVISIT THE PATH NOT TAKEN: In the aftermath of a branch point, look for storytelling opportunities in both the chosen and unchosen branches. In the example above, a party that choses to get rich will have a new enemy in the angry dragon and may also face some heat from the royal family for not rescuing their prince. A party that chose to rescue the prince will be lauded by the royal family and will be loathed by the cult. And the detonation of the charges may expose something worse that is living in the caves underneath the dragon's lair...

    USE CARDINAL DIRECTIONS FOR SUREFIRE BRANCHING: An easy way to make branches is to assign a cardinal direction to each branch, since the party usually can't travel in two directions at once. Don't forget up, down, and the current location, either! For example:
    • Go east to fight the Baron.
    • Go west to negotiate with the Orcs.
    • Go north on a pilgrimage to Dragon Island.
    • Stay in town and take down the Assassin's Guild.
    • Go underground to loot the catacombs.
    • Ride the sky ferry up to the Sky King's cloud-fortress and stop him from blocking out Pelor's radiance so the crops can grow.
    BRANCHING WITH THE d20: If there's a branching question that's not right for the PCs to directly answer, and you don't want to answer it with DM fiat, then pick a skill and a DC and tell someone to make a roll. If you can't find a roll, use a saving throw, with success meaning the character gets the optimal result. Look for opportunities to fictionalize help, power use, etc, that may affect this roll, as per the FICTIONALIZE SKILL CHECKS topic below.

    For example: Our party was exploring a crashed starship. They negotiated with the crew for a ride to their next destination aboard an intact shuttlecraft. Unfortunately for them, renegade robots had set up a heavy plasma cannon nearby, one that was capable of shooting down the shuttle. Escape vs. shootdown was going to be a huge branching point and I wasn't sure which branch I wanted to follow and I didn't just want to steal the escape from the party, so I asked one of the players to make a saving throw.

    The initial try failed, so the player spent their action point to reroll (this is a house rule of ours to mitigate d20 whiffiness.) The reroll succeeded and the shuttle eluded the deadly ground fire. Alas, in this instance I failed as the DM to pause for a moment and establish how the initial failure and action point spend looked in the fiction.

    BRANCHES AS QUESTS. After a branch point is reached, but before the branch is decided, physicalize the branch point by putting out a quest for each branch. This demonstrates that you are supportive of all of the branches and are pushing the branch decision responsibility on the players. Also, unfulfilled branch quests are handy to keep around as reminders of paths not taken.

    PITCH YOUR BRANCHES: Don't prepare any adventure before you've pitched it to the characters. When you hit a station (see METRO PLAY below) take all the adventure ideas you have, make quests around them, and pitch them inside the fiction.

    METRO STYLE PLAY: Our game alternates between sandbox and encounter-driven play. When the party is in an encounter-rich area, like a dungeon, I mostly drive the game, pushing them from encounter to encounter as the fiction demands. This leaves me free to prepare elaborate encounters without the risk that that time will be wasted and the encounter unused. When the party leaves the encounter area, then we start discussing branches and making new quests.

    I call this metro style because it's like the players are taking a trip across a city with a metro. The train rides are railroaded and managed for them. But between train rides, when they're in the station, they have to figure out what train they want to board next.

    If you can sequence this so that the party leaves the encounter area near the end of a session, you can have a "what's next?" discussion to close out the session and be primed for the prep you have to do for the next session.

    BRANCHING WITHIN A QUEST: Sometimes the current quest of the campaign is clear but there are a bunch of different approaches to achieving the quest. This is another case where branching is appropriate.

    Example: if the overall goal is "Journey to Mordor" the quests you throw out might be:
    • Journey to Mordor via the slow road around the mountains
    • Journey to Mordor via the Moria shortcut
  • edited September 2013

    3. Game/Fiction Interplay

    EXPLOIT TENSION BETWEEN FICTION AND MECHANICS:As the DM, you can try to tempt the players along a mechanically suboptimal path with fiction.

    For example, will your cleric of Pelor wield a badass unholy mace blessed by the cool hand of Orcus? The game mechanics are silent on whether this is permitted or not; only in the fiction is this a consideration. Whatever the player chooses, the fiction can flow.

    If the cleric takes up the unholy mace, then that character has become a battleground in the war between good and evil. Orcus will be pleased and may tempt the cleric with other gifts. The cleric's healing powers may begin to taint their recipients with noticable (but harmless mechanically) demonic deformities. Pelor may turn his back on the cleric's church and allow it to be sacked by bandits.

    If the cleric refuses to take up the mace, then the local bishop might take an interest in the mace and declare a quest for its destruction -- or he might seize it and vanish it into the night, revealing that he is actually an agent of Orcus himself!

    MECHANICAL BENEFIT, FICTIONAL COST: Whenever someone uses a mechanic, ask yourself if you can drive fictional consequences from that usage.

    Extended rests can really benefit from this treatment. If you want to create a sense of urgency and force the party to balance its safety against its fictional priorities, create adventures in which extended rests have fictional consequences. Resting can make quests unachievable or radically increase the difficulty of upcoming encounters. If you do this, play fair and be forthright about it. Tell the players that if they delay to rest, they are sacrificing their chance to rescue the Prince, or they are allowing the titan armies time to set their defences, or whatever.

    YOU ARE MEPHISTOPHELES: I like to give players gift powers. These are bonus powers that are thematically tailored for the player's class and race. I make them powerful and decisive and I grant them without mechanical cost -- but when a PC uses them, the story takes some damage.

    Our bard has a power called The Great Song, which was granted to her by the singing slugs of the Far Realm. The Great Song has the power to shape reality and thus when it is sung the bard can declare that an unrolled die will come up as a 20. There's no mechanical downside. She doesn't take damage or lose levels or sanity points when she uses the power. However, the goal of the singing slugs is to replace our reality with their own, and use of this power helps that project along!

    To jack up a gift power's temptation factor, put an evolution track on it that will increase its usefulness the more it is used. After the bard sings the Great Song three times, the power will be usable retroactively on an already-made die roll. After six singings, it becomes an encounter power instead of a daily. And after nine times, she gains the ability to teach it to other people...

    FICTIONALIZE YOUR SKILL CHECKS... When someone rolls a skill check, find out a) what the character hopes to accomplish by making the roll and b) exactly what's happening in the fiction as they make that roll.

    ...BUT NOT YOUR COMBAT ROLLS: D&D's worst feature is the null result of most missed combat rolls. I think it gets old quick to prompt people to describe their misses, so I usually just move on unless someone really wants to describe what just happened, or I if want to use the miss to demonstrate a cool feature of my monster (like a carapace irising shut over exposed vitals just before a spear-thrust strikes home.)

    DON'T FAIL -- COMPLICATE: Here is a list of skill check failure results:
    • You succeed, but you take damage / lose surges
    • You succeed, but your companions take damage / lose surges
    • You succeed, but you get a really gnarly scar.
    • You succeed, but you'll always limp after this.
    • You succeed, but it takes a long time
    • You succeed, but you attract unwelcome attention
    • You succeed, but you piss someone off
    • You succeed, but you can't use this skill again for awhile
    • You succeed, but you are exhausted and must take an extended rest immediately after the attempt
    • You succeed, but you lose credibility
    • You succeed, but you'll fail your next death save
    • You succeed, but you damage your environment
    • You succeed, but you anger your god
    • You succeed, but you suffer (condition) until you extended rest
    • You succeed, but you are exposed to (disease)
    • You succeed, but all your hair falls out and it will never regrow
    • You fail, but you think you succeed
    It may be a good idea to tell the table the risks they're running before the check is rolled, so the party doesn't feel ambushed if you hit them with a highly undesirable outcome.

    The Burning games offer excellent advice on how to make test failure fictionally interesting. Look them up. Weak hits in Apocalypse World and Dungeon World are also superb inspiration for this.

    BE AN AID ANOTHER ASSHOLE: I try to be as open and accommodating a DM as possible, but when someone uses Aid Another, I push hard at good fictionalization of that action. If the Aid can't be fictionalized to my satisfaction, I say I'm not feeling it, disallow it, and move on.

    SKILL CHALLENGES DEMAND RICH ENVIRONMENTS: Skill challenges fall flat unless there's a rich setting and cast for the party to interact with/against. Before starting a skill challenge, make sure that you can establish this richness. Especially concentrate on NPCs who can impact the skill challenge -- as I say below, you want character everywhere.

    Say you're doing an overland journey skill challenge. For every skill test inside the challenge, randomly decide a new terrain type and weather. Insert settlements and NPCs and side quests into the journey, or complicate the journey with existing quests.

    Say the goal of a skill challenge is "Fix the chaos motor on the flying barge." The trouble is, no one at the table has any notion of how a chaos motor works! So before you do the skill challenge, figure out some interesting details about the flying barge. Make up some magical technobabble. Figure out what fuel it burns and its key components. Draw a diagram of those components. Figure out who built it. Figure out when and where it was built. Talk about the risks of fixing it incompletely. Talk about the last repair that was done on it. Talk about how it would be repaired until optimum circumstances. Talk about how the present circumstances aren't optimal. Any one of those details might serve to kindle fiction within your skill challenge.

    FICTIONALIZE SKILL CHALLENGE CHECK FAILURES: Skill challenges fail after three failed skill checks. Try to figure out what each failed check means in the fiction, and then import those failures into the overall skill challenge.

    For example, if you're doing an overland journey skill challenge on a tight time schedule, you can say that each failure represents delay. Succeeding with zero failures means the party arrives way ahead of schedule. One failure means the party arrived about on time, two failures means they've arrived just in the nick of time, and three failures means they arrive well after the deadline.

    For the flying barge repair, each skill challenge failure could represent a jury-rigged and incomplete repair. Zero failures means it's good as new. One or two failures means the repair is temporary and will fail at some point. Three failures means that the engine is ruined and can't be repaired.
  • edited July 2012

    4. Characters

    NPCs EVERYWHERE: Try to route all your ideas through characters. If you want to make a point about anything, put an NPC onstage whose purpose is to communicate that point.

    For example, if the party is in a location that's suffering a famine, introduce starving NPCs. If the party is in a city run by a tyrant, introduce secret police NPCs. If your adventure is about stopping a plague cult, introduce plague doctor NPCs and corpse carter NPCs and the looter NPCs who are trying to make off with the wealth abandoned by the dead.

    If you're doing a skill challenge about an overland journey, introduce NPC villagers and bandits along the way. If you're doing a skill challenge about a broken chaos motor, introduce slave djinn NPCs whose magical essence is fuel for the motor.

    DURING PLAY, ASK QUESTIONS THAT GENERATE CHARACTER AND SETTING OUT OF CHARACTER MECHANICS:

    The formula for this is: (who or where) + verb + (D&D mechanical thing). Examples:
    • Who taught your thief her Thievery skill?
    • Where has your thief ever been arrested/beaten for using his Thievery?
    • Who taught your wizard her Magic Missile spell?
    • Who are the enemies of the halfling race?
    • Who are the enemies of the Barbarians?
    • Where did your fighter make his first death save? Who was he fighting?
    • Where is your druid's sacred grove?
    • Who has seen your druid in her beast form?
    • Who else do you know who is Chaotic Evil like you?
    • Who trains you in your chosen paragon path, and where?
    • Where do you find other members of your paragon path?
    • Who are the enemies of your paragon path?
    DON'T SAY NO TO A CHARACTER CREATION CHOICE FOR SETTING REASONS "No, drow can't be sorcerors in my game. No, there are no dragonborn in my setting. No, you can't be a halfling, you must be a kender." We're using the mechanics to lead the fiction here, so if it's in the rulebooks you're using it's fair game.

    COME UP WITH YOUR OWN SPECIAL TERMS FOR FAMILIAR D&D STUFF AND MAKE THE NPCs USE THEM: Dragonborn in our game are known as blackmouths, redmouths, bluemouths, etc, depending on their breath weapon. Our druid is called Wild Lord by those who revere him. Our fighter is recognizably a mountain man and so all call him a highlander. In polite situations, our warlord is known by his fictional rank of Commander. Our dwarven Raven Queen cleric unsettles people, especially other dwarves. People will call him a corpse herder or a crow bitch, but never to his face. Devas were astral travelers or blessed souls. The name of Bahamut in ritual and prayer was Patro Metallum. Tiamat's thralls called her the Empress of Five Colors, and their army was the Army of Five Colors.

    CHARACTER BACKGROUNDS ARE NOT MANDATORY: If someone does write one, that's cool and you should honor it and reincorporate the hell out of it, but it's not a requirement for this style of play. We're designing during play, not before play.

    PARAGON PATHS=ADVENTURER COLLEGE: Paragon paths can be a mighty font of fiction, and just like real life post-secondary education, it's never too early to start thinking about them. What kind of quest does a character have to complete in order to win entrance into their paragon path? Does the paragon path have an organization, a fortress, a university, a planar domain? Is it a secret society that operates in the shadows, a public institution that is trusted (or loathed) by many, or a long-dead tradition that needs rekindling by an ambitious PC? Does it have a patron god? Does it try to recruit promising PCs? What happens when two paragon paths fight over a prized recruit?
  • edited September 2013

    5. Managing The Canon

    THE TABLE IS WHERE CANON IS MADE: The only way to enter something into the canon of the game is to expose it at the table. There is no setting bible. If you have elaborate offscreen maneuvers in your head and something happens at the table that contradicts those maneuvers, you must discard them.

    SCHRODINGER'S MINOTAURS / THE UNEXPOSED IS UNDECIDED If you have no minotaur PCs and no minotaur NPCs and the table has never heard any other mention of minotaurs, then maybe minotaurs don't exist in your setting. Or maybe they do. It's undecided. Play and find out.

    THE MOUNTAIN WITCH TECHNIQUE: It's awesome, use it. If a fictional question arises and you blank on the answer for more than five seconds, then crowdsource the answer!

    THE PLAYER IS THE MASTER OF THEIR DOMAINS: If you have an elf PC and a question arises about elves, then Mountain Witch the elf's player without delay.

    INVESTIGATION ADVENTURES ARE FOR SUCKA DMs: Investigation adventures are inherently anti-collaborative. They are all about teasing the DM's beautifully pre-constructed story out from their fascinating NPCs. The PCs should be living lives that inspire investigation from NPCs -- not the other way around!

    6. At The Table

    TABLE TALK / KIBITZING IS TOTALLY OK: "You're not there, you can't contribute" isn't useful for this style of play. Players shouldn't have to squeeze all their contributions through the narrow aperture of their PC.

    Last session, our fighter was off on his own, negotiating with his infernal NPC ex-girlfriend. Another player suggested the perfect outcome to the negotiations. Everyone liked it, so we took that player's suggestion and moved on with the optimum fiction.

    Relax, it's a game, have fun, collaborate on tactics, entertain each other.

    READ DUNGEON WORLD: There's lots of gold in it, but in particular look at the GM's Principles and Agenda.

    SURE YOU'RE MEPHISTOPHELES. YOU'RE ALSO DOCTOR KLAW: You will direct your cast of tyrants, abominations, carnivores, and bandits against the party with maximum prejudice. You will usually not win. Your job is to make them work hard for their success, to make them look good doing so. Let this be your motto:

    image

    EXCEPT SOMETIMES YOU DO WIN: At all times, know how you're going to cope with a total party kill. Is that the end of the game, or is it a transformation of the game? A TPK might mean that the campaign so far has just been a prelude for a Raven Queen Commandos game....

    7. DDI Is Your Best Friend

    I would never ever in a million years try to DM 4E without DDI. If you want to be a DM, do not overlook this vital resource.

    We have a shared DDI account at our table. Everyone keeps their character in it. Leveling a character is very easy. Having an up-to-date character reference is invaluable for my encounter and skill challenge planning. The DDI monster creator makes tailoring monsters trivial. I had to tailor a couple monsters last night and it took all of four minutes to adjust their level, rename them, and print them. The compendium means any rule from any book can be looked up in seconds.

    Seriously. This is you trying to play 4E without DDI:
    image

    This is you playing 4E with DDI:
    image

    8. The Most Important Technique (For Me)

    SHUT UP AND LISTEN: When someone says something that surprises you, something you don't anticipate, something that contradicts your understanding of the game's canon, then you should
    • stop talking
    • stop thinking
    • light a match so you're ready to burn your expectations
    • start listening
    And only after you've engaged those four steps should you begin playing the game again.
  • This is golden stuff! Thanks for sharing it with us, John! And thanks for being so thorough! A lot of good techniques here!
  • As Tomas, brilliant stuff. While I don't do 4e (b/c combat speed), a huge amount of this can probably also be applied to 3e, so if we end up doing another round of that I'll be bouncing back here a lot. Might end up doing that for when Next is around, actually.

    Oh, and "Raven Queen Commandos game" is awesomely cool sounding.
  • This is going to take me forever to read and absorb, but thanks! I'll be studying this thread for a long time.

    Peace,

    -Troy
  • edited March 2012
    Johnzo is the master of this form. Drink deeply from this well, travelers.
  • Awesome.

    And I agree about DDI. It's a sweet resource.
  • Best Of'd
  • Pure gold.

    I see a lot of familiarity with how I run my current Pathfinder game, which doesn't surprise be because PF and 4E are like secret lovers. I do have a question however, about something I'm struggling with, a bit.

    How do you present the Quest and Branching Plot info to the players? To make a decision about taking quest A or B, about going East or North, the players need that info. Do you just tell them, as the DM? Do you put it in your NPCs mouths (this can easily feel contrived)? Something else?
  • This is everything I needed to know about effective GM'ing in this type of game. Everything.

    You know how bodybuilders will work out, tear their muscles apart, and then rest to heal them back up, stronger than they were before? You just broke my brain. And I can't wait to see how it's developed at my next game.
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: TeataineHow do you present the Quest and Branching Plot info to the players? To make a decision about taking quest A or B, about going East or North, the players need that info. Do you just tell them, as the DM? Do you put it in your NPCs mouths (this can easily feel contrived)? Something else?
    Gregor, it depends.

    We had a recent branch point after the party had flown to an island at the utmost north of the world. They didn't know very many people there and there was a consensus that the next step was to journey back to Greyhawk. As the DM I presented a couple of options for how they might get back home (through the megadungeon under the Barrier Peaks, or through the Elemental Chaos) and as players they chose the megadungeon. I don't think the Elemental Chaos choice was ever considered in the fiction.

    Another branch point came after the party had spent a full winter in Greyhawk. They were snowed in for a few months, so there were tons of NPCs on the stage and some pretty close PC/NPC relationships. In the spring, my NPCs presented four branches. The players wound up following a fifth quest that they swore out in response to some provocation from me -- I kidnapped their favorite kobold prophet of Bahamut to the south and they were not going to stand for that.

    To make an NPC quest proclamation feel less contrived and more natural, think about how to scene-ify the NPC's quest delivery:
    • A prince who wants to shame the characters into cooperation would proclaim the charge loudly in a Great Hall where everyone can hear.
    • A prince needing more discreet help might meet the characters in disguise in a bordello or aboard a cargo ship operated by a loyal captain.
    • A syndicate merchant will negotiate to discover the price for the party's services.
    • A peasant or a monk might present a ratty bag filled with their entire community's savings, like in The Magnificent Seven.
    • Someone who has leverage on the party will demonstrate that leverage or mention the consequences of non-compliance when they issue the quest, like in Burn Notice.
    • The Guildmaster of Thieves might sneak up on you and ambush you and wake you up deep in their temple.
  • Everyone, thanks very much for the kind words.

    It's very gratifying to hear that the methods I've accumulated might help other DMs.
  • I haven't read it all, but I agree with the Game/Fiction Interplay section. If 4E had given more advice along those lines, I think people might have liked it more. I do a lot of that, but I had to figure it out on my own.

    Very much of this can be used for other games, and I intend to.
  • Thank you so much John! This has 'prepped my mind' for running my impending game with friends and family, I feel so much better about 4e now. I've stuck little post-its all over my DM screen with written prompts that you have suggested. So awesomely helpful. It IS a story game under that tactical swat-suit shell. YAY!

    Just a couple more questions, if I may be so bold. :) What did you do for the initial situation? (at the start of the campaign) Did you build the party during chargen with hooks related to this situation? Did you let it organically develop via the player flags on their sheet, like the way Dungeon World does? Was it a conscious group decision the way it is in Burning Wheel? I get that starting the game (any game really) with a tense situation is likely to encourage buy in, rather than 'you all gather at the bordello'. But what exactly? and what method would you suggest?

    Also, do you do anything (fictionally) when the characters 'level'? Your formula of(who or where) + verb + (D&D mechanical thing) is subtle for asking questions during play, but levelling is a big thing - that after 10ish encounters carrot. How do you justify new powers / stat increases? Do you encourage side-quests for new feats / skill training and magic items? If so, what would you advise to integrate this into the story?

    Thanks once again, your advice is brilliantly encapsulated, I love the Bethesda / computer game analogy, that will really help with some of my new players!

    I second that John is a D&D 4e Storygame minor deity.
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: johnzoDON'T SAY NO TO A CHARACTER CREATION CHOICE FOR SETTING REASONS"No, drow can't be sorcerors in my game. No, there are no dragonborn in my setting. No, you can't be a halfling, you must be a kender."
    I actually think that "There are no drow sorcerors in my setting" should always be followed with "So being a drow sorceror is totally awesome. It means your guy is unique in the setting. Why are you the only drow to master sorcery? How does the rest of drow society react to your mastery of sorcery?" Let the PCs violate all those setting rules and use it to make them important. Being the only guy in the setting that does X is inherently compelling and a natural plot draw: some people might want to kill the last dragonborn off. Others may want to dissect her, or ask her question about old Arkhosia, or clone a new army of dragonborn from her blood or imbue her with the soul of Bahamut or whatever. And as DM, you can use it to probe into the PC and find out more about them. Why did the drow study sorcery instead of Lolth's favored dark pact warlockry? Well, ask the player and get some insight into the character. Then use that to build more cool stuff into the game.

    All of a sudden a standard race/class combo straight out of the PHB becomes a unique character simply because you've said that there aren't any others of that race/class combo.

    4e Eberron acknowledged this by pointing out that dragonmarks (magical inherited tatoos found in noble houses, restricted to certain races in 3.5) were restricted to specific races... on NPCs. For PCs, it meant all sorts of interesting plot complications if you had a dragonmark but were the wrong race to have that mark.
  • edited March 2012
    What did you do for the initial situation? (at the start of the campaign) Did you build the party during chargen with hooks related to this situation? Did you let it organically develop via the player flags on their sheet, like the way Dungeon World does?
    As a player in Johnzo's campaign since the beginning, I can report that the initial situation was "Let's try this new D&D4 thing, you guys make characters and I'll run Keep on the Shadowfell." However, about a session and a half in, some serious editing started happening behind the GMs screen, and the adventure we finally played was only loosely inspired by the module. And infinitely more awesome. Yeah, it was a lot of tags on the character sheet (I had written down "Kord" as my deity, and hey, sooner than later I'm on a stone table on a mountain top getting a visitation by an angel of Kord) and Johnzo just paying attention to the fiction we were creating, and doing all the stuff he mentioned above.
  • edited March 2012
    Yeah, like Wil said, we lifted the starting situation straight out of the Keep on the Shadowfell module. I read out all the adventure hooks and each player opted into whichever one they liked best. All three hooks were claimed. I can't remember why, but we did modify one of the hooks slightly, bringing the academic sponsor of the expedition directly onscreen as an NPC who needed to be escorted. From there, we handwaved the first meeting of the party, saying that they'd just met on the Winterhaven road and since they all appeared to be trustworthy folk heading in a common direction, they decided to travel together.

    Everything else we discovered in play. I think this was a good strategy at that point because we weren't strongly committed to D&D as an ongoing thing and just wanted to check out the new hotness. This let us get started without spending time engineering a big situation right at the start. We could just show up and play and discover everything as it became important.

    To answer your other question, Nathan, we don't really fictionalize leveling up / new feats / powers / etc. We did a little bit of that for the paragon tier but mostly people just level up between sessions and they show up more awesome the next day. I'm hesitant to fictionally justify the actual leveling-up process too much, because what if the fiction demands that the characters delay or cancel their leveling up? That'd be super pervy but I don't know how much traction I'd get with such a storyline at our table.

    I think the way I'd extract fiction from leveling up is to go mechanics first, fiction second -- take leveling up as a given and look for fictional opportunities that are provoked by it. This would work especially well for PCs who belong to organizations that have a formal rank structure, like monks' temples or thieves' guilds. Here are some leveling-up questions that I'd use for that:
    • Who will be threatened by your leveling up?
    • Whose respect do you hope to earn with this leveling up?
    • Who is the best fighter/thief/druid in your family, now that you've leveled up?
    • Where were you when you attained first level?
    • Where are fighters/thieves/druids/etc of your level buried?
  • edited March 2012
    Nick, yeah, that's a great approach if the DM has setting constraints in mind for the game.

    Per the Masters of Their Domains technique we discovered a few of those kinds of details during play, notably that there were only seven endlessly reincarnating devas in the entire universe. Colloquially known as the Seven Blessed Souls, they are all avengers in the service of Bahamut. Very bad news to anyone who opposes Patro Metallum!

    In the final days of the doomed Church of Bahamut, the Council of Judges considered summoning the Seven Blessed Souls, but agents of the Army of Five Colors had infiltrated the Council and they clogged the debate with naysaying and formalities. And so the devas remained in the Astral plane, watching the Platinum Temple burn from afar.
  • Posted By: Mr. TeapotPosted By: johnzoDON'T SAY NO TO A CHARACTER CREATION CHOICE FOR SETTING REASONS"No, drow can't be sorcerors in my game. No, there are no dragonborn in my setting. No, you can't be a halfling, you must be a kender."
    I actually think that "There are no drow sorcerors in my setting" should always be followed with "So being a drow sorceror istotally awesome. It means your guy is unique in the setting. Why are you the only drow to master sorcery? How does the rest of drow society react to your mastery of sorcery?" Let the PCs violate all those setting rules and use it to make them important.

    Exactly. And also, there's no better way to illustrate that there are no drow sorcerers than to have a PC who is the ONLY drow sorcerer. Imagine Star Wars with the background that the Empire killed all the Jedi without Luke (or Obi-Wan or Yoda). Imagine Game of Thrones subplot about how the dragons are gone without the "dragon eggs" being shown, surrounded by lit candles, in every episode of the first season.

    In a 4E game I ran, I employed a lot of this advice (and whats more I told the players that they were the only people like themselves - there are no Warlords, just the PC; there were no Warlocks, just the PC). The Warforged player, playing a Paladin gave us two things. Warforged are normally mindless automatons without consciousness. But he is self-aware, and as Paladin, his quest became to find the god that is calling to him and uplift his race into consciousness.
  • Posted By: Pulp PoetWarforged are normally mindless automatons without consciousness. But he is self-aware, and as Paladin, his quest became to find the god that is calling to him and uplift his race into consciousness.
    SUPER HOT. Did he finish his quest?
  • No. And unfortunately for that storyline in particular, we stopped just as the party arrived on the doorstep of an ancient ruins that seemed to be partially made of clockwork (it was, we knew, going to reveal some big piece of the puzzle - but not even I knew what was inside for certain).

    We stuck with all the 4E rules, but still story gamed it way up. I was really pleased to a lot of the techniques I pieced together from various discussions, because 4E can be a bad-ass story-game when you want it to be, without needing to house rule the game, really.
  • Great list! I'm a big fan of #1 and #2. I do something similar when I play D&D.

    FantasyCraft actually has some mechanics that make this explicit. Although, I think it's under-utilized there.
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