Monday, 11 September 2017

Good DMing Advice; or, God Loves a Trier

One of my favourite bits of DMing advice comes, in all places, in the 2nd edition DMG. Zeb Cook (I am paraphrasing because I don't have it to hand) basically foreshadows some OSR thinking in one place only, which comes in his discussion of stat requirements for character classes. Don't let players access any class they want, he recommends; keep the stat requirements for rangers, paladins and so forth strictly. Encourage players to play the stats they are given, so to speak. Let the dice fall where they lay; so your PC didn't end up getting the 17 CHA required to be a paladin. Stop being titty-lipped about it - you can play a fighter who always wanted to be paladin but failed (or hasn't yet succeeded).

In other words, a fighter who wants to be paladin is already way more interesting than a paladin. That's a PC with a ready-made goal and pretty much ready-made personality too. He may not have special paladin powers but being "awesome" isn't what the game is really about. It is more about trying hard and applying yourself and getting involved.

You can tell 2nd edition was very much focused at a younger audience - this is the kind of advice that's important for kids, whereas adults should in theory at least have already learned those lessons. But the wider point holds for all ages: it's good for starting PCs to have goals. It makes the PC part of the world and gives the player an impetus to drive things along, which helps the DM tremendously.


  1. I will amplify this point. It is good. Make sure your PC has a goal that he can pursue outside of the dungeon, and then put the work in to pursue it. For instance, starting a family, opening an inn, or overthrowing the Invincible Overlord. Becoming a paladin is a good goal, too.

    I have never reffed a paladin over an extended period but I think it should be possible to ascend to paladinhood, to fall from grace, and to be redeemed. Those events would make for a good fun story.

  2. Good points. I've never liked the idea of paladin as a character class. In a D&D-style game, it seems more appropriate as a level title (somewhere above myrmidon, perhaps ...).

    Runequest had (I'm thinking 2nd edition) lots of good stuff for a "let the dice fall where they may" approach to character generation. Because you could improve attributes by training, an ostensibly humdrum character had a route out of mediocrity. But that cost money - thus providing a rationale for adventuring. It makes a lot of sense, I think: RQ2 characters often seemed to be the Gloranthan equivalent of the weedy kid taking up weight training or a martial art.

  3. One of the things that arose in later editions of the game, that I particularly encountered in 3rd edition play, was players being so focused on optimization that they began talking about "builds" for characters, which always really rubbed me the wrong way both in terms of game play but also narrative. I've always preferred letting the dice tell you how your character starts out, and then build on that organically.

  4. I don't really get it. What is the benefit of telling people not to play the character they want to play?

    This seems an odd recommendation for a game that rewards you for being an efficient killing machine, and gives you very little mechanically for being 'interesting'.

    Also, a Paladin with a low strength, but great personal determination to be a Paladin seems just as interesting.

    I am not sure I get it. Can you elaborate a bit?

    1. I thought I described the benefit - it gives the PC a goal.

      I don't think D&D does reward you for being an efficient killing machine (an efficient thief maybe) but I think that's beside the point - since the game gives you little to distinguish between different characters of the same class mechanically, it's more important to make them interesting in other ways.

    2. It's a fundamental change to the assumptions of the game between AD&D and 3rd Ed (I'm only talking about versions I'm familiar with so I can't actually speak to 2nd Ed.) 3rd came up with something called "wealth by level guidelines" which basically put the onus on the DM to give PCs X value in gear or lucre by level X; thus, while getting treasure no longer levels you up, leveling up (by killing things) "should" (according to the edition's assumptions) get you treasure. Thus the phenomenon in 3rd Edition of characters kitted out for heavy combat but unable to defeat a nine foot high brick wall because they're too loaded down to climb, kicking over rocks and shaking trees looking for things to fight.

      Of course older editions do NOT reward you for being a killing machine. The goal is explicitly to get treasure, with fights (especially fights with no direct treasure reward vis. the wandering monster table) being a necessary expense at best, frequently a total distraction. Even powerful characters like a Fighter with 18 Str or a Magic User loaded with scrolls who bit off more then they could chew would swiftly get ground up with little to show for it.

      It's a gulf which really perhaps more than anything else completely changes the way the game is played, even what the game is "about."

  5. As the guy who has always liked playing average joe characters, I have a YUGE problem with that advice as it applies to 2nd edition AD&D. Gather round, I have the war wounds to show.

    It is fine and dandy when you have a band of random nobodies trying to survive and make it in D&D World. It is actually my favourite playstyle, much more than the implied heroic quest fantasy that 2nd edition was pushing. You can do it with the rules. However, there are two caveats you need to follow to make it work, and 2nd edition never does (actually, it immediately does the polar opposite after giving you that piece of advice).

    First, you have to make those hard-working joes and their adventures interesting. 2nd edition didn't deliver on that promise. Its example character, Rath (he of the sucky stats) is deadly dull, and his adventuring life is also deadly dull. He isn't a compelling argument in the way someone like Cugel would be a good argument. The same goes for the rest of the bland set in the rulebooks... Cwell the Fine, Delseonora the Mage, and there were others I am forgetting. It didn't show these characters as cool underdogs... just plain, weak and sucky.

    It could be done better. In the editor to Dragon Magazine #198 (An Extraordinarily Ordinary Hero), Roger Moore tells the story of Thora, a completely average fighting woman who got the deed to Tegel Manor and took it over with her merry band of friends, accomplices and hangers-on. But 2nd edition AD&D didn't do that. Which brings us to the second point.

    To make this work, you must not overshadow the characters. Yet 2nd edition was pretty much the Special Snowflake Edition: it was enamoured with characters with special destinies, elaborate class options (kits), and all the advanced classes. The rules that accumulated around the core system and the supplements (world guides and adventure modules) were invariably about this "other AD&D", the game of Big Special Heroes with powerful extra abilities and magic items.

    It told you your average joe character would be cool, then paired him up with Drizzt and Elminster and some guy from Planescape who considered your game world a tepid backwater, the Flyover Yokel Dimension (yes, that happened, and I am still kinda bitter about it). It told you a 18/00 Strength didn't matter, then gave you NPCs and sample characters with monstrously high stats until you said screw it and begged the DM for your gauntlets of ogre power. It told you not to get decked out as a magical Christmas tree, then put you up against other characters who were overloaded with expensive magical bling. It told you the little stories mattered, then laughed and talked about how cool those big, world-shattering stories with elaborate BBEGs were.

    Yes, you could play your average joe home AD&D, but in practice, Official AD&D always ended up bleeding over as you met other people who read their Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance novels, or you put your characters in an official module. In our game, things worked as long as we were reasonably isolated from the flow of official stories and supplements, and then it just ended up corrupting our own game.

    What I'm saying is that the advice is fine on its own (and today I live by it), but in context, it was a big damn lie.

    1. Yes, those are all fair points, but in Zeb's defense he was writing that advice before 2nd edition had transformed into the monster it became.

  6. "a fighter who wants to be paladin is already way more interesting than a paladin. "

    Well then there should be higher stat requirements for the fighter-who-wants-to-be-paladin.

  7. " being "awesome" isn't what the game is really about. It is more about trying hard and applying yourself and getting involved."

    I disagree with this. You can't at the very beginning, with char stats, deny the power of the dice to dictate fortune. These are among the most important rolls the players will make because they have a permanent influence.

    My attitude is that good stats are a curse to a poor player because he won't be capable of living up to or presenting his character in a fitting light, particularly mental stats like cha 17. Poor players should shift high stat rolls to physical stats to get the bonuses which might keep them alive and good players tend towards the mental stats to put pressure on good live character portrayal.

    A Paladin is perhaps the most interesting and difficult character to roleplay well.