The Dad DM

Gaming with the Next Generation

Character vs. Character

This Sunday, at my regular D&D game, an event occurred that can be quite controversial and, at times, drag a game to a halt, if not ending it completely: a PvP social challenge. PvP, or “Player vs. Player,” is a pretty generally term, usually used to represent conflict of any type between characters in-game, so “Character vs. Character” is probably a better term for it, but the concept has been solidified through the years in video gaming, and the term PvP has stuck. Who am I to go against convention…

So, a CvC incident arose this weekend. There are many kinds of CvC, and while inter-character combat is most closely associated with the “PvP” term, I find the worst form of CvC to actually be CvC resulting from social challenges. In the case of this past Sunday, one of the characters lied to another with a really good deception check, and the other character’s insight check failed to detect the lie. The problem, of course, is that the other player knew it was a lie and it wasn’t a very convincing lie to begin with… but the dice fell where they fell.

And this is where it becomes controversial, and there are a lot of opinions on the subject. By the rule of the dice, the lie-ee should absolutely believe the lie, and a lot of gamers, especially those of my generation, would say that “that’s that.” This is very dissatisfying for the player, however, because the player thinks that his character would have to be stupid to believe such an obvious lie. If the DM forces the player to act in a manner that he (I’ll be using the masculine pronoun a lot here because, in this case, both players were actually men) feels is out of character, it can cause actual player vs. player resentment or, worse, player vs. DM resentment.

A lot of people I that know would say, “so what? This is a game. The player should put on his ‘big boy’ pants and suck it up.” At times, I agree… but there are times when I don’t. This was one of those times.

If one player had scouted ahead to the left and seen a hoard of orcs camped in the middle of the woods, then come back and said “nothing that way, let’s go right instead” to a character with no basis to believe otherwise, then I’d agree that the other player should suck it up and accept the results of the roll. In this instance, however, all of the players heard a rhythmic pounding, not a steady rhythm, but clearly not a “natural” sound. Two scouts went ahead. They discovered a giant breaking rocks with a maul and wanted to keep the paladin from rushing in “swords blazing,” so one of the scouts returned to the party while the other remained behind to parlay. The returning scout’s lie was that the pounding sound was “falling rocks, very dangerous”.

It was a pretty transparent lie, especially since I had stressed that it was a regular, almost rhythmic sound, but the dice fell and the lie was, by the numbers, convincing. It was obvious, from the lie-ee’s response, that he didn’t think his character was stupid enough to buy that story. On the spot, I had to decide how as DM to handle the challenge. Adjudicating social challenges between player characters is always a slippery slope.

I chose to trust the players and gave it a minute to let it play out through role-play, ready to step in if I felt it was needed. As it happened, the paladin proceeded to remain openly dubious of the story, but to go along with the lie because it was well-intentioned. I was okay with that… the player had rolled well enough on his insight check to at least understand that there was a good reason for the deception and that the best decision was to just play along and wait it out. If the actual lie had been more convincing, I might have stepped in, but under the circumstances, it seemed like a reasonable solution.

The line between “acting in character” and “meta-gaming” (using player knowledge in place of character knowledge) can be a thin one. It is the DM’s job to enable in-character decisions while discouraging meta-gaming. In this case, I believe that in-character prevailed. However, this is the exact reason that I feel that social CvC challenges are perhaps one of the hardest things that a DM ever has to deal with. I prefer to avoid them completely, calling for die rolls only when they are absolutely necessary to curb meta-gaming. Fortunately, most of my regular players are experienced enough that meta-gaming isn’t a serious problem.

As a DM for younger players just starting out in the RPG-journey, however, this is something of which I try to remain vigilant. My oldest daughter seems to roll with the punches pretty well when it comes to role-playing and “character knowledge” situations, but my younger is just getting the hang of it, and still doesn’t really like it when she “doesn’t know things.” I’m confident that she will get over that with time, but it is a lesson that she still needs to learn. But that’s okay… part of my job as her dad-DM is to teach those lessons and be patient while I do; discouragement doesn’t teach… it just discourages. Considering how much I love RPGs, and how much I enjoy sharing the hobby with my family, discouragement is something I do my best to avoid.

Ultimately, it is the DM’s job to maintain the balance of “in-character knowledge” and “meta-gaming.” When it’s just the DM exchanging information or NPC social interaction, I think it’s pretty cut-and-dry. I’ll gladly say, “but your character wouldn’t know that,” and move on. When more than one player is involved, however, things get sticky. You don’t want to “play favorites” (or give the appearance of it), but you also have to be fair, even when a situation seems to favor the less likely outcome. To me, that’s when the real test of a DM begins.

Let’s Get Motivated

I ran a game for my kids and wife last night. I started running Dungeons & Dragons for them about two years ago. I started them a couple of years earlier on a great game, specifically for gaming parents to share with their kids, called RPGKids (available at drivethrurpg). But when the eldest hit 11 and the youngest 10, I decided that it was time to transition them to the game that I cut my teeth on: D&D.

I never got into 4th edition. I’m not here to judge one edition over another, but I wasn’t a fan and I already invested a LOT into earlier editions, so I’ll leave it at that. I was running a 3.5 game at the time, and felt that it was a little too complex for “just starting out,” so I decided the run good old red-box Basic. Between the first and second sessions, however, the 5th Edition Starter Set came out, the basic rules were posted to the Wizards of the Coast website, and the game was switched over to 5th… which really is a great edition for younger players.

Of course, none of that is really important to the subject of this post, it’s mainly background, but it does demonstrate that I felt like I was moving the girls to a new “tier” or role-playing… stepping away from the A-B-C quests of their infancy and opening up a new world of infinite choices and adventure opportunities. They were both in double digits now, and a magical switch had been flipped inside of them. They would be self-motivated and their new characters would have goals and desires of their own. In other words… I was naïve and (for me) strangely-optimistic.

Here’s the thing though, and my advice to gaming parents trying to get their kids into the hobby: you evolved as a role-player; you’re just too old to remember it. When I started the campaign for the girls, I had five separate plot threads interwoven into a tapestry of adventures just waiting to draw the players in, and my plan was to grow the plots of the threads that grabbed their interest. But here’s the burn: they weren’t ready for the sandbox method. They needed the adventure hook to be fed to them.

For the first few adventures, I tried to drops hints. The main adventure was always right in front of them, but there were always threads hinting at where they could go next. But those threads weren’t followed… at the beginning of the next adventure, the druid, ranger, and elf fighter would be sitting at their stone circle waiting for the next cry for help. Admittedly, my wife could have helped lead them down those threads, but we had sort of agreed that we’d let the kids make the choices, because the game was for them.

So a couple of months ago, I stole some NPCs and the core storyline from “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” and introduced them to an NPC that would pull them into the plot. It worked wonders… the long-form adventure is keeping them on track and interested. I ran the game for them last night and got the first hint that their evolution as players had begun. My oldest daughter asked for more non-combat encounters… more opportunities to role play and “talk.” That’s a good sign, but I also have to maintain the balance with my younger daughter, who is still in the “see monster, kill monster” phase. I’m sure I’ll talk about that balance in a later post.

So, in a nutshell, I recommend keeping things simple and straightforward for your kids… or even for adult gamers that are just getting into the game. Remember that you probably started the same way, it’s just been a while. I learned this lesson the hard way, but I’ve also seen my kids begin to grow as gamers, and that’s easily worth the mistakes that I made starting out. Of course, my kids don’t realize that I feel like I made any mistakes… so I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad about it.

Surprise and Consent

This past weekend, I decided to show my players that I still had a few surprises in me. I love it when my players, many of whom I’ve gamed with for years, can’t predict my next move and are shocked by the results. The lesson I learned, however, is that sometimes unpredictability comes with a cost. Fortunately, this time, that cost turned out to be more perceived than real.

Several months ago, I ran a scenario involving the defense and siege of a keep guarding the only keep across a raging river. While the heroes were preparing to defend against a human army, a small force of demons attacked the keep and the surrounding encampment instead. One of the heroes, a sorcerer using the Wizards of the Coast Unearthed Arcana “Favored Soul” rules, cast the ice storm spell to take out a large cluster of Manes demons. What the player didn’t realize, and the character definitely didn’t realize, is that the radius of the spell included a single “square” of one of the tents in the encampment… a space containing a normal human conscript.

The Manes were annihilated, but so, unfortunately, was the soldier… who was hit with over double his hit point maximum with a single hit. The favored soul is an elven subrace unique to my game world, essentially a halfling-elf. This race is among the most innocent in the world, and even the elders of the race never truly “grow up.” Needless to say, the collateral damage weighed heavily on the character’s heart, and her guilt hung with her throughout that session and the one that followed.

Fast forward several months, when I decided it would be fun for the soldier (who had been Soldier #7 on my list, so the Players decided his name was “Septimus”) to rise again as a revenant with a mad-on for the death of the favored soul. You see, the PCs had recently angered the goddess of vengeance, and I loved the poetic irony of a revenant hunting the most innocent character in the party… the one person who would never even consider the death of an innocent person.

The surprise attack in the middle of a separate, unrelated combat went off without a hitch. The players were caught completely off guard, and the chaos that ensued was majestic. After the game, the players commented on how memorable the surprise was. It was a comment made during the fight, though, that didn’t really hit me until after the session, on the drive home. The player of the favored soul had off-handedly said “so much anxiety!” during the battle as she role-played her character struggling with renewed guilt and unable to take any actual action in combat (the player’s role-playing decision).

The thing is, I know the player, and she and I share a common characteristic: anxiety attacks. We both suffer from elevated anxiety and struggle with it. On the drive home, I remembered her comment and I began to worry… had I pushed the PLAYER too far. I certainly didn’t want to be the cause of player anxiety. I contacted her after I got home, and she told me not to worry… she was talking about the player’s anxiety, and she loved the role-playing opportunity.

But it got me thinking: the players put a lot of trust in the DM. In return, the DM has the responsibility to be the steward of that trust. As a DM, you need to understand your players’ expectations, and not just what they want out of the game, but also what they don’t want. If a DM wants to run darker storylines, especially hard issues like racism, murder, rape, and torture, the DM has a responsibility to make sure that the players are comfortable with exploring those issues. If they’re not, the DM should either adjust for that or suggest they find another game. Characters are fictional. Players are not.

I probably should have talked to that one player before the game, since her character was at the center of the plot, to make sure that burying her character in guilt was something she’d be comfortable playing… because that kind of thing can go to dark places. Fortunately, it worked out this time. But I will certainly be talking to my players about this in the future and asking them to (PRIVATELY) let me know if there are any subjects that they would prefer not to explore in my game. My enjoyment of the game is based on their enjoyment of it. Their enjoyment is paramount.

As a father, when I run for my 13 and 11 year-old daughters, I avoid these kinds of dark story lines on principal. These are my children… I try to keep things light and “high adventure.” With adults, it’s safer to go to darker places… but never without the consent of the players. I’ve always felt that way, but it took a “close call” to really drive the point home. As always, these posts are my opinion — just how I feel — but I’ve got to say, this just makes sense to me. Sometimes it’s worth giving up a little of the surprise to ensure that you have the consent.

From Whence We’ve Come…

So what is this all about…

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in 1977, and I’ve been running Role Playing Games, including D&D and branching out, since ’79. I currently run two bi-weekly D&D games, one with my wife and children, and a weekly non-D&D game (currently West End Games’ “Ghostbusters RPG”) on Thursday nights. After each game, I spend some time thinking about the most recent game, what I learned from that session, and where to go next. 37 years of DMing and GMing, and I’m still learning.

I was thinking that if I was still learning, so then must most DMs be… so it might be of some benefit to share information. Since I don’t live stream my games or post them on YouTube (for reasons), I thought that it might be time to start a blog and actually try to keep up with it… if for no other reason than to give myself an outlet for free-writing my thoughts. I watch a lot of DMing videos and live-streamed games — which I will address in a blog post at a later date — but for the most part there is only so much interaction to be gained from them.

This is not my first blog. The first was more or less a catalog of my game world (replaced with a wiki) and the second a blog for 5th edition enhancements and house rules (which quickly fell to the wayside when the DM’s Guild appeared). In order to make a blog worthwhile (and one to hold my interest), it had to be something that had some intangible benefit to me as well as anyone who visits it. So… the Dad DM was born. If you’re reading this, please take a moment to say “hey”… I’d love to hear from you.

-Ed Robinson, DM Dad

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