9 Things Dragon Age Taught Me About Running a Better Game — RPT#472
From: Hannah Lipsky
I received a review copy of Dragon Age: Origins, and it has devoured my entire household. At any given time, at least one of us is playing it, either on the 360 or the PC, and the others are probably watching. Considering only two of the four of us are all that much into video games, that should tell you something.
I’ve been playing the game through with an eye towards what it can teach me about running a better D&D game. As it turns out, the answer to that question is, “a lot.”
1. Darkness Is in The Details
Dragon Age is a dark game. That’s what I was told. And yeah, the art is beautiful and the setting is grim and people die in huge bloody battles in cut scenes.
But what brought the tone of the setting home was the small things. Side quests that involved finding missing relatives, and just how upset the NPCs were that their younger brother or sister couldn’t be found.
Orphans everywhere, dealing with their lot in a variety of ways. Grieving widows, and men who’d run away from their military obligations because they were scared to leave their family.
None of these things were any more than side quests, and a lot of them weren’t even that – just NPCs that had something to say if you cared to listen. But they did a lot more to impress upon me the dark tone of Dragon Age than a hundred bloody cut scenes could have.
This is a lesson that’s easy to apply to your campaign.
Whatever tone you want to set, hammer it home with the details. Small things add up.
2. Not All Choices Are Equal
You get to make a lot of choices in Dragon Age. Some are small, like whether to be polite or impolite to a merchant, and some are large, like who lives and who dies.
The interesting thing is, some of the small choices matter, and some of the large one don’t. And that’s a concept I think can be applied to your campaign.
Some dialog trees have a place where all the options lead to the same response. It’s the illusion of choice, and we all know and love it – it’s a good way to keep things on track without it feeling like a railroad.
Present your players situations without choice. The duke isn’t always going to take their advice about what to do with the prisoner, but it doesn’t mean he won’t ask or they won’t offer, just that he’s unlikely to be swayed. It doesn’t matter how important the prisoner is to the PCs – he’s under the control of the duke.
Likewise, perhaps it doesn’t matter how polite or rude the PCs are to the king -he’s still sentencing them to labor in the mines.
But let even small choices matter sometimes. Insult that drunk in the tavern instead of making nice, and tomorrow you find out he’s the son of the guard captain. Be a little kinder than necessary to that widow, and it turns out her sister-in-law is a powerful enchantress who needs someone to fetch her supplies.
Having choices that matter is what roleplaying is all about, but having some that don’t save you work and makes the game realistic.
3. Modular Planning
There are a few interesting instances in Dragon Age where you can tell how the dialog was constructed. There’s a part that would have happened no matter what, a part that applies to what you did yesterday, a part that applies to a choice you made long ago, and then another part that would have happened no matter what. The NPC somehow moves seamlessly between these parts, so if you weren’t paying close attention, you’d think the entire script had been made just for you.
We all know the pain of writing dialog in advance, only to have it never happen, or clumsily stumbling through the lines of an NPC who should be a sophisticated bargainer, but comes off as an incompetent fool because we did all the negotiating on the fly.
I like this idea of modular planning – plan out a couple of things that will happen no matter what the party does, and then a set of things that will happen if they pick option A, B, C, D or the ever popular not-listed option E.
It lets you do a bit less winging it, but at the same time, you know exactly how much of your planning is going to go out the window – the bits for the four options the PCs didn’t choose.
Sure, there’s still waste, but not as much, and now you have something planned no matter what. Your PCs’ actions are still influencing what happens, but unless they go totally crazy, you have some structure set up in advance.
4. Not Dead for Plot Reasons
This is a small thing, but I’ve come to enjoy how you can all-out attack an enemy, watch their HP bar drop to zero – and then have them say, “Wait, wait, let’s talk.” It only happens sometimes – only for plot reasons.
We’ve all been there – the players get into combat with an important NPC, and next thing you know, the last heir of the bloodline or the one guy who can find the island is gone.
It’s good to remember you can insert mental breakpoints, places where the fight will stop no matter whether the players are trying to keep him alive or not.
He drops to below half his HP, or below a quarter? Even if the last hit was enough to take him down to zero, pretend he’s just disabled, but still conscious enough to say, “Wait, wait, let’s talk.”
5. Injuries from Unconsciousness
When you get knocked out in Dragon Age you get an injury. These can do any number of things, from reducing stats to imposing a penalty to max HP, and come they with a graphic descriptor like “cracked skull” or “gaping wound.” You can have up to four such injuries at once.
One common complaint about D&D 4e is that heroes get knocked down and get back up again – there’s no real fear of being KOed since it takes three failed death saves or a whole lot of damage to take you down for good. And even if you aren’t playing 4e, nothing adds suspense to a fight like hearing the DM roll some dice while your unconscious.
Healing injuries is relatively easy in Dragon Age. How you handle it in your game depends – maybe a common healing spell can be modified to also heal injuries, or an extra spell or item could be introduced to solve the problem.
Maybe injuries go away at the end of the day or after a couple of encounters. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get rid of them, but it should cost something.
Here’s a quick dice table I created for adding Dragon Age- style injuries to your game.
Roll a d10 whenever an injury is received:
- 1 Concussion; -1 Intelligence
- 2 Bloody nose; -1 Charisma
- 3 Sore skulls; -1 Wisdom
- 4 Coughing blood; -1 Constitution
- 5 Hacked-up arms; -1 Strength
- 6 Hacked-up legs; -1 Dexterity
- 7 Gaping wound; subtract the greater of five or half your level from your max HP
- 8 Massive gaping wound: subtract the greater of ten or your level from your max HP
- 9 Sprained ankles; reduce movement speed by 1 0 Stomach wound; halve the effectiveness of all other healing until injury is treated
The severity of injuries depends on the style of your game. In Dragon Age, they’re relatively minor, but if you’re going for a really dark and gritty tone, double the penalties.
6. Inspired Skills
The NPCs you travel with in the game each have a small skill tree that is unlocked by interaction. If they like you enough, if you talk to them enough and learn their story and do nice things for them, they’ll become smarter or stronger or better at magic. Only a little, but enough to matter.
I like this idea of giving small mechanical rewards for roleplaying, beyond just items and experience points.
In games that give out a lot of skill points when you level, what would it harm to give out an extra one here and there for roleplaying? Or maybe a small bonus to a certain skill, or the opportunity to consider something a class skill that isn’t normally.
This might not be so balanced for PCs, but it’s great if you have NPCs who regularly interact with the party. Let the players see the results of their actions – if they take the time to show those friendly guards their sword technique, maybe the guards will be a little more helpful in the next fight.
7. Recaps and Reminders
During loading screens, you get a snippet of where you are in the plot, followed by summaries of various skills and spells.
Recapping the plot before each session is a great thing to do in a campaign, but it’s hardly a new idea. What interests me is accompanying it with small reminders about the game.
Use these to offset each player’s weaknesses. If your group is about to level up and one player isn’t very good at choosing upgrades, right before or after your recap is a great time to remind him that a certain feat would be great with his current weapon, or that there’s a class power he can choose that he might like.
If one player loves mechanics but tends to let roleplaying fall by the wayside, remind her that this town has a couple of NPCs she interacted a few sessions ago or are from her backstory. Does she want to check up on them?
Small reminders like that at the start of each session could go a long way towards keeping all your players involved.
8. Team Tactics
Most of this list has been for DMs, but here’s one thing I learned that applies to players.
In Dragon Age, you can set tactics for each member of your group, based on different situations. If you’re surrounded, use this ability. If an ally is at below half HP, use this ability. If someone is attacking the mage, you should attack them. If the rogue is targeting someone, you should target them too. It’s an interesting way of looking at things, and the constraints make you realize options that you otherwise would have overlooked.
Sure, we’re not computers. But a lot of players don’t play their characters to their full potential in fights because – especially in 4e – there are so many options. Players also sometimes spend too long trying to figure out the optimum choice, slowing down the fight for everyone. Having a set of basic tactics in place would help both these problems.
If your group has the general agreement, “The rogue and fighter will flank whatever enemy seems to be strongest, the warlord will buff whoever has the least HP and otherwise will keep enemies away from the mage, and the wizard will debuff the fighter’s target,” it can speed things up a lot.
9. Small Problems Aren’t Deal Breakers
The controls take a little while to figure out, the dialog sometimes glitches, and every once in a while there will be an error on a map. But Dragon Age is still an amazing game.
What does this teach me? That even a multi-million-dollar game from a huge company can have errors. And even if it does, it can still be a wonderful game.
If this huge entity creating this beautiful game can screw up sometimes, then I, as an individual DM without much free time, certainly have the right to screw up. And if the rare noticeable glitch doesn’t ruin my gaming experience, my screw ups won’t ruin my players’ experiences, either.
A Brief Word from Johnn
GatorGames.com Giveaway Winner
Congratulations to Bruce Anderson for winning the Pathfinder Beastiary.
Thanks to everyone who entered, thanks to gatorgames.com for supplying the book, and stay tuned for another giveaway starting soon.
A Couple New Reviews Posted
Get the scoop on a pair of D&D 4E products:
Forgotten Heroes, reviewed by Grant Howitt
Blackdirge’s Dungeon Denizens, reviewed by Isaac Calon
1.75 Million Words and Counting
Interesting stat: add up all your tips and mine from issue #1 to present, subtract the estimated 500 words of template “chrome” and ads for each issue, and the count is 1,759,141 words of everyone’s tips combined!
Great job, everyone. That’s awesome. I wonder how long it’ll take us to get to 2 million?
Reader Tip Request
Good evening, Johnn.
I was wondering if you could help me with something. I am a player in a super hero campaign, and my GM is not very familiar with comics or the super hero genre. I have exercised my Google Fu to no avail; I can’t find any significant advice that pertains to running a super hero campaign that discusses maintaining the style of the genre, or even developing adventures and scenarios in the style of a super hero campaign.
Do you or any of your readers have any suggestions in regards to running a super hero campaign, or at least developing adventures that are in keeping with the style of the genre?
Thank you in advance for your time.
RPT readers, if you have any tips for Jason, shoot me an email: [email protected] – thanks!
How Can Players Create Their Own Item Cards?
This was a recent reader request, and here is what your fellow tipsters have to say:
From: Sarah Williams
I think my favorite toy so far – for item cards as well as power cards in 4th edition D&D – is the Universal Card Set, an expansion for the Magic Set Editor software.
There was something of a learning curve for me at first, but I’ve got the hang of it now. The best part is you can enter in as many cards as you want into one file and then only print the ones you need.
The second nice thing I’ve found is the Power and Item Cards by JFJohnny5. I found them about 2/3 down on this page: http://www.dragonavenue.com/dnd/resources/
These are a little more structured than the USC idea above, but very good for writing things down on the fly.
For extra durability, I print my cards out on cardstock and then “laminate” them with clear contact paper or craft laminating paper. I don’t have to worry about someone spilling a drink and ruining the card, and I can write on it with wet erase marker: no illegible eraser area, and the information is still there from week to week!
From: Joel Fox
A few months back, I found myself needing a way to make power cards for D&D 4e without the hassle of using desktop publishing programs, and what I found was a program called Magic Set Editor. The purpose of this program is to make proxies for CCGs and what-not; however, the program itself is almost perfectly suited towards the creation of magic item cards for players.
It’s simple to use, versatile (with many templates for different CCGs and the ability to add templates), allows users to upload art, and best of all, it’s free.
The size of the cards is an added bonus, as you can purchase deck protectors (plastic sleeves that fit over the card) or put the cards in 8″x11″ hobby sleeves that hold multiple cards, making sure that the cards stay safe from cheeto dust and the like. Printing on cardstock would be best, but regular copy paper works just fine.
Here is a sample:
D&D 4e power card template: http://www.enworld.org/forum/4274554-post568.html
Hopefully this should help fill the magic item card needs of you and your players.
From: Loz Newman
In Amber Diceless RPG campaigns players can get extra build- points if they contribute one Trump per game as a Campaign Contribution.
My players can bring their own images (browsed from travel magazine adverts or wherever) and make up their own. I supply standard-sized playing cards as backing, glue, scissors and those transparent pages that hold Magic the Gathering cards (nine cards per page, eighteen if you use the reverse side as well) for a Trumps gallery that can be consulted.
Also, Trumps can have been printed up from electronic images. I use PowerPoint as it makes caption creation easy. You can also save the combined images as one single jpg. Six images per page.
Have you seen Craft Robo?
From: Steve B.
Apparently some people are starting to use it for paper models. http://www.worldworksgames.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=7302
Game Master Tips & Tricks
Have a game mastering tip to share? E-mail tips to [email protected] – thanks!
1. How to Get New Ideas for Adventures
From: Johnn Four
I received the following email from Alexander Storm:
I love being a GM, but for the last year or so I have been kind of stuck and am coming up with the same kinds of ideas and plots all the time. It drives me crazy. I would like to come up with something new, but I am just constantly falling back into old my old ways of making a campaign.
Can you point me in the right direction somehow?
Here are a couple of tips on staying fresh:
New experiences bring new ideas. Try reading books you would not normally try. Or watch old movies that are rated well but you do not watch because, well, they’re old.
Something I do is keep a swipe file of cool ideas whenever I cross them. Then I go back when the dreaded writer’s block hits. Here are a few links from my file regarding adventure ideas:
Finally, here are some tips on twisting plots. Why not take something you have in mind and twist it?
2. More Hex Mapping Software
From: Brandon Blackmoor
I strongly discourage anyone from using Hexographer, even the free version.
Based on this conversation:
The article at blackgate.net lists several alternative mappers as well.
3. Naming A Campaign
From: John Gallagher
Here’s another way to hook players with a campaign name. Has it alluded to something they’re familiar with, or at least *might* be familiar with?
An example: My last 7th Sea campaign was named “On Her Majesty’s Service.” For everyone who caught the reference (to the first James Bond movie, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) it gave hints of the type of campaign it was going to be.
The campaign did indeed turn out to be Bond-like. The PCs were frequently undercover, and (all too frequently) blew their cover and then blew things up.
They were frequently in trouble with their superiors for their high-handed tactics, but they got results. They were captured more than once, always escaped facing overwhelming odds, and uncovered plots by a few very large organizations against the Queen (the Inquisition and Queen Maab’s Unseelie Court, to name just two). They even adopted the Bond smart- ass attitude (although that *might* have been just their natural style of play).
I’ve also used that same tactic in naming places and people inside campaigns, sometimes to give hints of what to expect, sometimes as a red herring, and sometimes as a little of both.
In a Ravenloft campaign, for instance, I once named a character Henry Usher. A few of the players instantly caught the reference to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and thought they knew what was going on. But they were only partly right. The character’s first name was a reference to Henry Baskerville. They were pretty surprised when the Hound of the Baskervilles showed up in the middle of their (supposed) story about Usher Manor’s fall.
4. Name Your Adventures and Sessions Too
I really liked your article, and agree completely. In fact, not only do I name my campaign, I also name each adventure and each sub-section of each adventure. Specifically, I call them Books (the campaigns) Adventures (the chapters) and sessions. Although a “session” is often longer than a single gets together.
Doing this helps to bring specific moments to life. The players can refer back to the “No Stone Unturned” adventure, and we all know what they are talking about.
New GM Advice @ CampaignMastery
What’s new at the blog of Johnn Four and Mike Bourke:
Johnn Four’s GM Guide Books
In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your games and to make GMing easier and fun:
Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants
How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG’s most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well, plus several generators and tables:
Adventure Essentials: Holidays
Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.
GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.