The Yarning Portal mazzmatazz's blog

DM Tutorials - DCs And How To Make Them More Interesting

I will return to the homebrew world building post next week - I'm getting my internet upgraded so that I can stream at a better rate, and I'd like to stream the next part as well as write about it! So this week I'm going to look at another part of the game; difficulty checks.

A Difficulty Check (DC) is one of the basic components of any D&D session. The rogue wants to pick that lock? Dexterity check with Thieves’ Tools. The ranger is trying to forage for some food? Survival check. The DM determines how difficult that task is going to be, some dice are rolled, and then the players succeed or fail. That’s the most straightforward way of looking at it. There’s a lot more you can do with DCs however.

One of the most common things you may hear is ‘failing forward’. I didn’t even know what this meant in a D&D context when I first heard it said, so I had to go and read up on it, and then I learned I was doing this already without even realising!

The simplest way of using a DC is as already mentioned. You set a difficulty as per the rules, the player rolls, you say yay or nay depending on the outcome. Failing forward however, means that regardless of the outcome, the story still moves forwards. For example, that rogue picking a lock rolled a fail? Perhaps it just takes longer to pick the lock and they have less time to carry out their task, or a patrol gets closer and they have to be more quiet? Perhaps they didn’t check the door was already unlocked and so the door swings open as they push their lockpick in?

If you want a good example of failing forward in movies, I once heard Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie used to demonstrate it. He failed on a lot of stuff (got Greedo to pull his gun on him, failed to persuade stormtroopers on the death star) but still moved the plot along and succeeded when he needed to (shooting Greedo and coming to Luke's aid).
-Frank

I recently published an adventure for the first time, and something that has been commented on was my table for perception checks, which could be considered failing forward. Depending on the roll result, more things are noticed, but something is noticed regardless of the roll.

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I don't do critical success, it's not RAW, and there are situations where it's not really feasible that automatic success happens. I also don’t really do critical failure unless I can think of something amusing that doesn’t cause detriment to the PCs. Going back to the rogue lockpicking example, a rogue in my home game recently rolled a nat 1 on that check. So, I told him he broke his favourite lockpick. It didn’t adversely affect the movement of the story (he could have tried again, but in the end the barbarian smashed the door open in frustration) and it didn’t adversely affect the PC directly (he had other lockpicks, also he found the parts and got another PC to cast mending to repair it) but it gave everyone a chuckle at the table, and it made it feel more real, as everyone who uses a set of tools for a job has their favourite ones (I’m looking at my crochet hook collection and feeling this right now)

Another thing I do, is to use unexpected skills, because to me it gets dull asking people to roll perception or investigation all the time, and it allows the lesser used skills to get some love. It also prevents minmaxing (something I don’t personally enjoy at my table, as I feel the best stories come from characters with flaws) as my players aren’t building their characters around a great passive perception score. One of my pet peeves as a DM is people making an assumption about what I am going to ask them to roll and rolling it, without waiting to hear what I am going to ask. I don't always ask for what a player expects! So, for example, the aforementioned rogue that I play with wanted to check a door for traps. I had him roll performance, and as he checked, he hummed a song he remembered the bard singing… and something behind the door started humming along...

Sometimes I ask my players to choose the skill they would like to use and justify it. That’s how I ended up with a wizard using an acrobatics check to find a mushroom once. He stood on his head and contemplated what it was like to be a mushroom. He failed, but it made everyone laugh and as you can see, it was memorable (for me at least). I like doing this in skill challenges. Skill challenges are 4th edition mechanics, but haven’t really found their way into 5th edition. Basically it is where you have a task that needs undertaking, and you have to succeed a certain amount of times before you build up too many failures, and failing has consequences. Here are some examples of skill challenges to give you an idea of how they work - perhaps you could modify them for your games.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to use DCs more creatively to bring life to your sessions. I hope this has sparked your imagination to find ways to use DCs more creatively!

-Mazz

DM Tutorials - Creating a Homebrew World, Part 1 - Starting Small

Premade adventures are great, but the large campaign books can be daunting. However, making up your own world can also be a pretty daunting prospect. Where do you start? I mean, you need at least one culture, religions, a magic system, cities, continents, world maps…

Guess what. You don’t. You really don’t. The DMG even says “start small” on page 25. When your PCs are levels 1-5, they are local heroes, only really known in the area they are from. Think about MMORPG starter areas - they are designed with similar principles in mind, they are self contained areas to get characters to a certain level without too much difficulty and with a small storyline. So you only really need that starter town to get stuck into your campaign and get the ball rolling.

There are advantages and disadvantages to creating a small starter area vs mapping out a whole world. Making a whole world upfront is a lot of work but it means you have a concrete vision of how cultures interact, how the map works, how religion and magic work. Making small chunks as you go can make your world vaguer and more nebulous, but it also means you can shape your world to match your campaign as you go along. Another advantage of starting small is that that if your campaign fizzles out, you haven’t wasted a lot of time building a big, complex world for it to be wasted.

This doesn’t mean to say that if you have a great idea for a pantheon of gods, a whole culture of dog-headed Anubisath Egyptian-like peoples, or a magic system drawn from nature, then you should forget about that - don’t. Incorporate that in, but you don’t necessarily need to overwhelm players with these levels of detail at the outset. It could flavour other areas, perhaps their starter town has trade links to the Anubisath types so there are strange trinkets around, or there are temples to various gods from your big pantheon. Little touches like that help you to make your world seem bigger even if you haven’t gotten most of the details nailed down.

Bearing these points in mind, I started my homebrew with two towns (one for each group) and a vague idea of what the long term plot was. I drew a small map of each town. I created a bunch of NPCs. I didn’t know where they were within the world, but as we went on, I placed them near a city which both groups visited. I didn’t even have a name for the world to start with, and 6 months in, I still don’t really have much of a world map outside of that small area. It grows as our need for areas to explore grows.

So, what are the most basic things you need for a starter area in a sandbox style homebrew? I usually begin with the amenities and a bulletin board with tasks on. A simple, basic village will usually have an inn, probably a blacksmith and general store (with limited supplies), housing, surrounding farms, and probably some sort of worship space for the religion in the area. This informs the NPCs I’ll make, so to run these amenities there will be the innkeeper, perhaps an assistant like a barmaid, a blacksmith, store clerk, a few farmers, villagers and clerics or other religious persons. There may also be some sort of town elder, marshal, or representative of the noble who owns the wider area, (depending on your hierarchy). I then think about how these people look and act, but I’ll talk more about creating NPCs in another article.

The bulletin board will provide tasks for your adventurers, and is my favourite part to create, and it gives a really free feel to questing as the players can choose which quest they want to pursue first. I have a PSD file which is a wooden board with nails in, and a folder of parchment textures. I think of quests, or use online generators to come up with ideas, then type them up so they become notes pinned on the board. I add in notices such as fees for posting, upcoming festivals or events, or things for sale, to make it feel more like a noticeboard and to add interest. It then becomes a handout for my players to browse.

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In the next part, we'll look at how to fill the board up with some simple quests, and how you can fill out other features of your town!

Happy gaming!

-Mazz

Happy New Year!

I'm notoriously late to the party on trends, fads and popular culture. Prime example: I've only recently discovered Twin Peaks. I binge watched the first two seasons, devoured the movie, and have been working my way through Twin Peaks: The Return. I have only one episode left to watch now. And watching The Return made me realise something. I LOVE it when a story moves on. I am probably one of only about four people that actually liked WoW's Cataclysm expansion, because I enjoyed how everyone's story had developed. It made me feel like there actually was a life happening when I wasn't around to see it. The state of Southshore, the name change on Lucy Moran's deskplate, little things that belie so much more happening.

And so, as the year turns, our stories change too. (Nice segue, eh?) At the start of 2017, there was no way for me to imagine the year ending how it has. I'd just gotten out of a job, where I was bullied just for turning up, because the supervising nurse decided she didn't like me. It was a sad and tough Christmas, for other, personal reasons, and the first few months of 2017 weren't much better. I hadn't ever touched a d20, let alone considered becoming a dungeonmaster. I got talking though, to one of my relatives who had experience with 3.5, and the stories she told me about her paladin and the fun she had made me curious to try this game, and so in May, I ordered the Starter Set with the intention of roping in my family to play. I bought them each a set of dice, and we sat down for our usual board games one day and I pulled it out and handed round the character sheets. Me being me, I hadn't really read the books properly, I thought I'd just work it out as I went along. I didn't have a clue what I was doing, but we muddled through a goblin ambush, and they made their way to a mysterious cave, and before I knew it, we were all hooked. We're still playing that game, perhaps one session a month, and having a lot of fun with it.

I've come a long way in a short time since then. I never thought of myself as a writer, or someone that could improvise, or even someone who is creative in an original way. I felt like all I would amount to was someone who just copied what other people could do, whilst working a mundane job, but I now know I'm so much more. I have DM'd 63 sessions (I count them) and I've played a couple of sessions. In August I started my Monster Manual project, which got me noticed by the community and led to me being interviewed for Dragon+. I made my first Twitch streams, including a live game, with some amazing people, just a few of the friends I've been lucky to find through this incredible community, some of whom are absolute giants and legends in the world of Dungeons and Dragons. I've written my own homebrew campaign, which 11 people currently play in, and I also wrote my first adventure and published it, and some people have paid for it. Me, writing?! Most importantly though, I have not only been able to manage my anxiety and other mental health problems in a way I never dreamed of before, but also I have brought D&D to people other than myself, through running sessions and teaching players at my local tabletop gaming club.

So I look forward to 2018, feeling proud of what I have achieved in the past 8 months, and making big plans for the future. I want to make my local live games Adventurer's League official. I want to stream more online live games with my new friends. I want to keep running that homebrew campaign and give my players an amazing gaming experience, and write more oneshot adventures and publish them. I want to keep being creative with yarn, and get some items in my Etsy shop so I can make a little coin. I want to continue to be a strong, positive rolemodel and a voice speaking up for diversity and representation in the community - It's already an amazing community indeed, but there is always room to do better. And I want to save up enough money to get myself out to the US, attend a PAX convention, and meet some of these amazing people that have changed my life in so many positive ways. Mostly though, regardless of what I do, I want people to think of me as kind, and I shall continue to strive every day to achieve that goal by living it. As Mahatma Gandhi said, 'Be the change that you wish to see in the world.'

I hope that 2018 brings you many good things to enjoy, and that you have the strength to cope with anything difficult life throws at you.

-Mazz

DM Tutorials - What do your players need from you?

I rarely play as a PC. Like, honestly. I’ve played in 2 games, but DMed over 60 at time of writing. It’s not because I haven’t been asked, it’s just my personal preference. I love running the story, bouncing between NPCs, and watching what my players come up with to react to the situation. Because of that, I often forget what they need to know when I set up a game. I therefore made a list of questions that players tend to ask me because I’ve forgotten to make this information clear.

Things to consider when asking players to create characters

  • What level are the characters going to be starting at?
  • How are stats going to be chosen? Standard array; Point Buy, Dice rolls?
  • If using dice rolls, how do you want that to be evidenced?
  • Are there any class or race restrictions? Are homebrew races or classes allowed? How about multiclassing?
  • Where is the campaign going to be set? Forgotten Realms? A homebrew world? If in a homebrew world, give a brief summary of the world, to aid in backstory creation. Are there any backstory elements you’re going to allow or disallow for your PCs?
  • For classes such as Paladin or Cleric, is there a specific pantheon of Gods that the player should be drawing from? What patrons are Warlocks allowed?
  • How serious do you want the PCs to be? Will it be proper RP characters only, or would you allow Randy the Savage, Barbarian Wrestler Extraordinaire?
  • What level of min-maxing are you going to allow your players to undertake, if at all? Would you prefer them to make flawed characters to add depth to the story, or are you happy for them to make killing machines?
  • Which variant rules are you going to allow? Are you going to let your players take feats?

If you are recruiting for a game, it might be worth trying to incorporate as many answers to these questions as possible in your recruitment post, to make it simpler for people to submit applications. If you already have players, perhaps a handout with these answers will help players to get on with character creation, without too much back and forth waiting for responses to questions on either side.

If you don’t feel comfortable and confident with things such as a homebrew class, or letting people roll for stats, tell them. If you are running the game, you get to make this decision, because you are going to be controlling the world they are playing in. Yes, players may argue, complain, or try to persuade you, but if they really want to play, then they will accept your decisions. In my games, I flat out refused to let any homebrew classes to start with, and I am not letting my players multiclass until they hit level 6, because I felt this was too complicated for me starting out, and I was still learning how to balance the game. To be honest, I still am. I throw combat at them that is meant to be deadly on the CR, and they breeze through it, and content that is supposed to be simple sometimes knocks party members out. You can never gauge how the dice will fall or the tactics your players will take - but how to work those situations is a topic for another day.

I hope this article was useful in helping you consider a few aspects of your world that you need to establish as well as for helping your players to create a character for your world.

Once again, thank you to Frank for reading over the article before posting, and also for contributing several points to the list.

Happy Gaming!

-Mazz

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