DMing and the Dao

This is a repost of an article I wrote a while ago on the forums. I never wrote the follow-up, but it was well-recieved and I like it. As such, it’s included here.

Besides, I may write the followup some day.


I was looking at one of my favorite sites, and I realized that it has some good DMing advice contained within.

And if any of you doubt it, well…

Ordinary people think the “Great Tao” is actually useless. That everyone thinks it is useless, is proof of how great it is. If it was the kind of thing ordinary people thought was useful, it would have disappeared long ago.

So, our first quote:

Heaven and Earth last and last. Why do they last so long? Because they are not self-serving!

Now, what may we take home from this?

Lesson #1: A Campaign is NOT All About You!

This is a pretty basic lesson, and most DMs here know about it already. It’s worth repeating endlessly, though: if you’re in it for your enjoyment alone, you should’t be DMing. A DM who makes a storyline for his own enjoyment and forces the characters through it exactly the way he wants isn’t a DM, he’s an auther — and a cruel one at that.

Which brings us to quote #2:

Living plants are flexible; in death, they become dry and brittle.

Therefore, stubborn people are disciples of death, but flexible people are disciples of life.

Lesson #2: Be Flexible

This is related to lesson number one, but is important enough to be its own. A game without flexibility is a game without fun. This is true of everything from plots to houserules: if you force a player to play with rules that they don’t like, they won’t have much fun at all. Likewise, if no one’s having fun with the current story, it may be time to think about a change of pace.

However, I’m not saying let the players walk all over you. Indeed…

The more regulations there are, the poorer the people; the more weapons there are, the greater the chaos.

Lesson #3: Be Flexible, But Don’t Be TOO Flexible

Now, I’m all for allowing things in a campaign. Even if it doesn’t fit, work with your player to find a way to adapt it. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should allow every mechanic into a game — some just shouldn’t be in there. I’m not going to list what I think they are, because nothing is more a matter of opinion over what’s broken and what isn’t, but I think everybody reading this thread has at least one thing in mind by now. I give you permission not to allow that in your games. 😛

Finally, the simplest and most important:

If you don’t trust people, people will not trust you.

Lesson #4: Trust Your Players

Normally this maxim is thrown around in Op vs. RP arguments, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Trust your players not to do things inappropriate to the game, and they’ll trust you not to ban things they bring or do outright. This goes back to lesson two, but again, it deserves its own. A game that lacks trust quickly becomes DM versus players — the players don’t trust the DM to play fairly and the DM doesn’t trust the players not to wreck his campaign.

And there you have it. I’m considering making a list for players, too — Lao Tzu had some good advice to those who say “I must have this in the game or I shall PERISH!” If this gets a good reception, look for it over on the “What’s a Player to Do?” boards soon!

Published in: on October 15, 2006 at 12:04 am  Comments (2)  

Bell Curve Rolling and Threat Ranges

“Consider – One: Probability is a factor which operates within natural forces. Two: Probability is not operating as a factor. Three: We are now held within un-, sub-, or supernatural forces.”
–Guildenstern, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead

So I was reading the bell-curve rolling rules here, and I had a thought:

How good would range multipliers be under them?

For instance, let’s take everyone’s favorite, the Disciple of Dispater with attached Improved Critical. The table in the SRD seems to imply that you multiply the old threat range and then calculate the new one. All right, let’s try the quadrupled threat range of a scimitar: 9-20/x2, a 60% probability.

We then run the handy Harlequin Jones Dice Probability Calculator for 3d6. Then, we start adding results until we hit .6 or more.

The exact chance of hitting a 14-18 is .16204, which means that 18-20 weapons got a boost and 17-20 weapons got a hit, as they say. 20 by itself takes the hit they indicate as well… but what they DON’T say is that 19-20 is only .0925, or 9.25% — a hit of .75%, which in bell curve rolling is a heck of a lot. Shafting 19-20 even further is the fact that taking Improved Critical only adds less than 7% to your threat range, as opposed to the previous 10%. Weapons with a range of 20 (Greataxe, for example) are actually .0463, meaning that they too take a hit to IC strength — down from +5% to +.0462, or 4.6%. This is a better increase than 19-20 gets.

The percentage increase for 18-20 goes down as well, by a little over 5%. (.05279, to be exact.) But here’s the thing: even with this drop, you’re still at a net advantage over normal rolling. This isn’t true of any other range… and, as we get closer and closer to the top of the bell curve, this is more and more and more of an advantage.

Now, let’s get back to the DoD. He has a threat percentile of 60. His cap is either going to be 11-18 (.5) or 10-18 (.625). Which one do we choose?

Well, the obvious analouges here are 18-20 and 17-20. 18-20 has a threat percentile of 15%, whereas 17-20 has a threat percentile of 20%. A 14-20 has a .16204 chance of occuring, while a 13-20 has a .25926. A 15-18 occurs .0925. So, we find the deviation from each to find how WotC rounded.

.0925 – .15 = -.0575
.16204 – .15 = .01204

.16204 – .20 = -.03796
.25926 – .20 = .05926

So in both cases the plan was to go with the least deviation from the norm. This means that a converted 9-20 threat range is .625, or 10-18.

Now, stop a minute. Think about that.

In terms of probability, that’s a bit of an upgrade — 2.5%. But in practical terms, as mentioned, rolls will cluster around 10 and 11. This means that you’re going to be threatening a good deal more than under the other system — meaning that a Disciple with a large STR score, a greatpick and someone willing to give him lots of burst enhancements is going to cause a great deal of trouble. It also means that he’ll be critting more than “equivalent builds” under the old system.

For example, a Dervish with a threat range of 15-20 will critical for about the same amount as a DoD, since his Dervish Dance gives him twice as many attacks. (Usually more due to TWF and all, but let’s say twice as many for the sake of comparison.) However, in bell urve rolling the DoD takes a jump in power, as you’ll probably roll a lot closer 10 and 11 — inside the DoD’s threat range, but not the Dervish’s. (This is reflected in terms of their probability; in bell curve, a Dervish has about a 25% chance of critting, but the Disciple has 62.5% — a diference of 37.% as compared to the original difference of 30%.)

What does all this mean, though?

Well, in the bigger picture, it makes bell curve rolling a much better choice for crit range specialists. That’s nice, because it also decreases CL checks and increases general sucess rates on saving throws — meaning that the environment is more melee-friendly. The end result for me is that I think I’m going to be trying it sometime soon — if for no other reason than my local Walgreens sells lighters with 3d6 in ’em. 😀

Published in: on October 14, 2006 at 11:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Actor’s Advice to the GM

There are two things I do with myself outside ofRPGs: acting and tae kwon do. When I figure out how to apply tae kwon do to RPGs, I’ll write about that. Until then, you’ll just have to be satisfied with this.


What could an actor possibly have to say to a GM?

The answer is, a lot. As someone who does a lot of both, there are several things in common — or at least, enough similarities that you could apply a lot of acting advice to GMing.

Let’s start with a basic one here: always write in pencil. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound like acting or GMing, but there’s a good reason for doing it. In acting, when you “mark up” a script to figure out how to play a character, you always do it in pencil. Why? If you change your mind later, you can go back and change it! It’s easier with campaign notes to just scritch it out and continue — you’re not limited in terms of space like with a script — but it’s a good habit to get into anyway, and will help you remember that your world is dynamic.

Got that? All right then, let’s move on.

When you’re playing a character in a scene, it’s really important that you have something called arc. If you’re playing Othello, and all you do through the whole scene is be angry, I can guarentee you that no one in the audience will be paying attention. You need to have development — your character needs to go somewhere. This is also true of GMing, buti n terms of your story: like a good character, make sure your story goes somewhere. A great example of how NOT to do this is a lot of modern horror movies: it’s just people being killed over and over and over. The Silence of the Lambs, on the other hand, had a progressive story that just gradually got more freaky. If you’ll notice, most people will point to it as having the better story.

This next tidbit is actually similar to an article that was posted on Treasure Tables, and was actually a good deal of inspiration for this article. Over there, Martin defines all adventures as having a Want, a Challenge and a Cool Factor. Us actors, on the other hand, know that characters have to have a Want, an Obstacle, and an Action — if you’re missing any of those things, not only will you not be believable, you’ll be boring. Sound familiar? Your characters need to want something, they need to overcome something to get it, and they need a way of doing it — preferably, a cool way. Keep this in mind when designing adventures, and everything will go much more smoothly.

Speaking of running smoothly: you know what really sucks? Stopping the whole game because of an argument over how somehting should work. This is a game! You’re supposed to have fun! And, as any actor will tell you, suspension of disbelief is your friend! If, in a show, the actor oes something to make the audience realize that he’s just an actor in the show, everyone gets really unsettled, then mad, then bored. This is something you do not want. The moral of the story is: sometimes, you should just overlook unrealistic things in favor of story flow.

Now, a lot of my training has been in improvisation. The next two tips are going to be grounded mostly in that.

I’ve got a secret to tell you: even if you think you can’t improvise, you can. Need to improvise? Rationalize! The first step is to say the most random thing you can think of. In D&D terms, there’s a random adventure idea table on pages 44-45 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Now: rationalize it! For instance, let’s say you rolled a 55: “Adventurers exploring a dungeon haven’t returned in a week.” Well, why haven’t they come back? The easiest explanation is that they died. Well… how? Uhm… a lich? Okay, bucko, what was a lich doing in that dungeon? Recovering an ancient artifact, maybe? Hey, maybe that’s why the adventurers went there in the first place: to stop the lich from getting the artifact!

There you have it, folks: an adventure. The PCs need to stop the evil lich from getting his hands on a powerful magical artifact. Their first clue comes when a random townsperson tells the party that they haven’t seen Group X in a while. That’s a lot more than you knew five minutes ago, huh?

Finally, here’s a tip about DM-PC relationships: give and take. There is nothing more annoying as an actor (and usually as an audience member) than having whoever you’re working just refuse to acknowledge what you’re saying. Exempli gratia: Your parner says something to establish that the two of you are are a bus stop. You remark as to how no bus appears to be in sight. Your partner then boards a bus. (Not the best example, but you get the idea.) This is something that should not be happening in your group. Players (and GMs!) should listen to each other and accept the input — in terms of setting, character, and action — of the game. There’s a rule in acting, taught ot me by one of the best actors I’ve ever known: “Acting is listening and responding appropriately.” You can just replace acting in that sentence and it still reads true: roleplaying is listening and responding appropriately. Trust me, after last night I can tell you: OOC jokes get old really fast.

There you have it. Now, don’t you wish you had payed attention in drama class?

Published in: on October 8, 2006 at 10:29 pm  Comments (2)