Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Game Master Player Character, or Why I Broke My Own Rule

I don't like Game Master Player Characters. They make me uncomfortable as a player and as a GM. I don't mean Non-Player Characters, but party-members controlled by the GM that get a share of treasure/experience and act as protagonists in the game.

The dangers of a GM PC are huge! The moment they do too much it stops being a game. Once the GM is controlling both sides of the action in the game it's just a story. That means the other people in the group go from players to spectators and that isn't fun for anyone. As a GM, a lot of the excitement for me comes from not knowing what the players will come up with in any scenario. I do my best to anticipate them so they are challenged and enjoy the game, but the surprises are where the magic happens. A GM PC threatens that.

An evocative image from the late Dave Trampier

There are some terrible reasons to add a GM PC to the party. Some of the worst are things like, "guiding the story," or, "protecting the plot." If you want alpha readers for your novel it will go better if you are honest about it. Don't trick your players into doing that for you. "So the GM can play too," leads to some terrible wankery as well. Even if you have the best of intentions as the GM, you know what is coming, the deck is always stacked in your favour. It's not a challenge and it's definitely not much of a role playing game if the only variable is the dice.

Sometimes people will want a GM PC if a "critical" character class is missing from the party. This sort of thing often happens in D&D when no one wants to play a cleric. GM controlled clerics that are essentially just walking heal-bots ("OK, Kolbar casts Sanctuary and prepares to heal you guys") can always be replaced with a cache of healing potions. Solid play can solve a lot of these problems too. Hit points are a resource that are spent during the course of an adventure. Clerics are one way to extend that resource but solid strategy and magic items can do the same.

Fifth Edition D&D doesn't have the same niche problems. Between the backgrounds and the feats it's not hard to cover off all the skills and abilities that are useful during an adventure. For example, I play a Warlock in one game with the Healer feat who does an excellent job as the party healer even though we have a cleric, because the cleric player would rather cast battle spells and fight.

GM PCs are a good way to mess up a game. I don't like them and I don't use them. You can imagine my horror when I realized I needed one for a game I'm running.

I'm running a game for a couple of new players who didn't want to play with experienced players even though there are a tonne of amazing, supportive players who are great to new people in the hobby. It's only them and a party of two people is a problem. It's too small to challenge without risking a Total Party Kill in every encounter. One bad round is the end of them. Creative play can allow a party of two to dish out plenty of damage in an encounter but they still only have so many hit points. The players chose to make stealthy characters which helps but there are times where even the most clever players end up with their characters in a pitched battle. They need at least one more character there to divide the attention of the opposing forces.

I didn't want this added character to overshadow the PCs but I wanted a character that could draw fire and have the hit points to stay in the fight. My players also didn't create characters that could cast magic, which is pretty common for new players. That's why I also wanted the character to have some casting ability to help show the players the possibilities and get them comfortable with the magic rules.

I thought at first a fighter or paladin who went with a protector martial role would be good. Add in the Sage background, the Magic Initiate feat and we have a wizard's apprentice who took up arms after his/her master was killed in the field.

As cool as that sounded, I decided to go with a straight up wizard. I knew I wasn't introducing her until they got closer to their destination so I could start her at 2nd level with a School of Wizardry already established. I made her an Abjurer. The defensive magic and extra hit points make her extremely hard to kill. I decided that a Rock Gnome with their extra knowledge of magical devices would be handy because she could not only identify the function of magic items, but also their names and history which makes them more interesting. Even a +1 sword is special if it has a history. The Rock Gnomes also have a bonus to constitution which adds some more hit points.

I decided the only fair way to make the character is with the standard statistics (15, 14, 13, 12, 10 and 8) and standard hit points. I'm fairly lucky when it comes to rolling so this keeps the character in balance with the party, stat wise. I used the standard HP per level instead of rolling as well. It's high enough to hit my objective without giving them the wrong expectation for what a Wizard can be. Either of them could have made this character. Also, if one of the PCs dies the player might want to take over this character rather than roll up a new one so I need to keep it all fair and balanced.

In our second session it worked out well. The players had a forbidden book, the Malleus Deus from the Tales of the Scarecrow adventure they did in the first session. This forbidden item allows a wizard to cast a selection of cleric spells. After their new party member explained how dangerous it was to even know the location of this dreaded item they wrapped it up and locked it away at the Keep's vault. After some play they decided they trusted the wizard enough to let her transcribe a couple of spells into her book before locking it up again so she could cast Cure Light Wounds.

Another one of Dave Trampier's images

After railing against NPCs covering traditional party roles I have a little wizard who can take some serious damage, cast some useful wizard magic and healing spells. Still, she has no serious offensive spells, with only Sleep and Hold Person she is strictly support. No chance of overshadowing the rest of the party or becoming some kind of mobile weapon. So far, when in melee she casts Blade Ward or Shield to keep herself in the fight since she doesn't actually have an offensive cantrip.

We're several sessions in and the players like her, considering her a part of the team. They say she is useful without being in the way of anyone's fun. Jeff is more reckless than Megan so he tries to get the NPC to break standoffs with a third vote. The first time it happened I was surprised but should have realized that they would get the third member of the team to cast a vote. I'm not comfortable with that because I don't want to guide the party, but I do my best to keep my GM ideas out of it and rely of the character's back story and experience to make those calls.

Now that they are closing in on fourth level and have a third player starting next session I'm looking forward to transitioning the wizard out of the party and into a friendly NPC living at the Keep.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Session Report: The NewBs become Players!

I'm running a small, 5e D&D campaign for a group of first-time players. Last game something amazing happened. They became Players.

It wasn't until after the session that I understood what had happened and I only thought it through because I was wondering what was making me grin so long my face hurt.

The transition from new person to RPGs to Player is a a subtle change. It has nothing to do with knowing what die to roll, the rules, or where to look for stuff in the Player's Handbook. It happens the first time a player figures out how to transcend the rules and make their characters more effective than they have any right to be on paper. That first wacky plan or strategy that bends what you have on the character sheet into something incredible. That's the moment when they stop imagining the board game structure in their heads and realize they can try nearly anything.

My gang is running through the Caves of Chaos in old Gazetteer-era Mystara. The party is small, with only three of them so they explore with great stealth and care. A common tactic is to send the party wizard's spider familiar ahead to recce the hallways and rooms before entering. The spider can get under most (but certainly not all) doors in the rough hewn caves and that makes the difference between a stealthy retreat and a TPK.

They encountered the hobgoblin guardroom at the top of the stairs from the goblin lair (room 23) from the goblin side. From there, they couldn't get any information other than the sound of a lot of voices. When they encountered it from the other side they found out there was around a dozen well-equipped hobgoblins (actually 13, it's hard to count from a spider's perspective). They slipped away, snuck up on some torturers, saved some prisoners and fought their way out of the ravine. The success of saving the prisoners increased their renown at The Keep on the Borderlands, but they kept thinking about that room.

They knew they couldn't take it in a straight up fight. The party has had close calls with goblins and it's obvious the hobgoblins are far tougher than the goblins. They started looking at their sheets and asking questions. The teifling could cast Thaumaturgy which, among other harmless effects, makes tremors in the floor. "That's pretty scary in a cave, right?"

The wizard had cast illusions in the past to improve their chances to hide from patrols in the valley so they asked some questions about how the tremors mixed with illusions of rocks falling out of the ceiling might work and the bold gambit was hatched: They would fake a cave-in and strike in the chaos. An elven thief, a tiefling monk and a gnomish abjurer against 13 hobgoblins.

I live in a mining town. Work occasionally takes me into the mines and I've been down as far 7,400 feet underground. While I have never experienced a cave-in (and I hope I never do), you can't go down to any depth without being aware of how dangerous it is. While sounds of tremors coming from the walls would not create panic in hardened warriors, it would induce immediate action. Adding falling rocks would create some panic and a lot of action.

With the hobgoblins spread throughout the room I decided their actions would be based on where they were. The two closest to the door the party was coming from would exit and run down the hall, away from the cave-in. The two closest to the barred door would get the door open and get out and down the stairs. The rest would try to get under the table or press themselves against the walls and between crates for safety.

Despite the monk never hitting once with his spear the entire session (he even dropped it once), the surprise round went well. Two hobgoblins went down to a sleep spell (and looked like they were crushed by rock!), another one dropped to the thief's sneak attack with an arrow and a fourth reeled from a nasty kick by the monk. I ruled that the hobgoblins couldn't use their martial prowess ability that gets them extra damage on each hit when fighting in groups because they were too distracted by the falling rocks to work together effectively. The removal of that advantage was key to the party survival as they took some lumps but didn't lose anyone. With the hobgoblins engaged in escaping the room the party was also able to attack them in smaller, more manageable groups.

The party won, quickly grabbed some loot and then ran for it through the goblin caves (and four goblins) to get away from the hobgoblin reinforcements coming to help after the cave in.

Certainly some critical rolls went in their favour, but the conception and execution of a plan that basically tripled the effectiveness of their plucky little band marks their graduation to seasoned RPG players. Now they'll be searching their environment for advantages and trying all kinds of crazy stuff to turn the tables on their more powerful foes. That is where player skill changes the game.

I know they've made the switch because once they got back to the Keep they started reviewing everything they know about the different factions they've encountered and how they relate to each other. They are discussing how they can make use of that.

From a DM's point of view the campaign levelled up. I need to be ready for all kinds of crazy stuff from here on out.

I couldn't be happier.