RPG Thoughts

The Seven Deadly Sins of GMing

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When I play in a roleplaying game, sometimes I come across a bad GM. Sometimes, the GM is bad because they are inexperienced or there are circumstances out of their control. However, there are other times when GMs make mistakes that are, in essence, unforgivable. These mistakes ruin the game and make it no fun at all for a player. I’ve decided to label these “The Seven Deadly Sins of GMing.”

1. Unpreparedness

Not coming to the game ready to play. As a GM, you are the organizer, referee, storyteller, and entertainer. If you’re not prepared to do these jobs when you come to the table, then you and the group will suffer the consequences. Preparedness means something different to each GM (I for one feel like I’m completely prepared if I’ve got a detailed story in my head, while others feel that they must write everything down beforehand). This sin could encompass not bringing needed materials to a game (especially con games), as well as not reading the adventure beforehand, or even worse, not knowing the most basic rules to the system you’re running.

Personal Experience: I played in a con game, run by a member of an otherwise very well-respected gaming group, where the GM seemed to make up his own rules for Savage Worlds. Successful Fighting rolls directly deal damage? Enemies make Dodge Checks? The GM spends Bennies to make the players reroll? I’m convinced he looked at the rules for the first time just 15 minutes before the game.

2. Apathy

Not caring about the game you’re running. This is where the GM has little passion for the game and it shows. His or her excitement isn’t evident and the players have little reason to get excited either. In its most extreme form, the GM would rather do anything besides GMing. Generally this happens if they did not originally plan to GM or there was some incentive to running the game that was more important to them than the personal enjoyment of running the game.

Personal Experience: In my only game of Pathfinder ever, I walked in ready to play (I had heard that it fixed many of the issues in D&D 3.x and was eager to try it to see if it was the game for me). The game had loads of issues, but one of the worst was the GM who brought no enthusiasm to the game. He read the adventure text in a deadpan tone, didn’t bother to explain monster damage (he’d silently move figures, roll some dice, and then say “you take 9 damage”), and didn’t even try to allow for roleplaying. I found out at the end that the only reason he ran the game was to be part of Paizo’s GM rewards program. The game was so horrible for that reason (and many more) that I have never played a Pathfinder game since.

My personal experiences for Apathy and of Unpreparedness are both described further in GMs to Love, GMs to Hate.

3. Railroading

Dictating how the players should play the game. Most commonly, this is done by presenting a situation with a problem and only accepting a single solution, or otherwise failing to give them a choice on how to proceed. I should note that when I talk about it as one of the “seven deadly sins,” I’m talking about the more extreme examples. Sometimes it can be useful in a limited amount, such as in con games where you need to tell a story in a limited time period, but it’s best done if you at least give them other options (or use some techniques to give the illusion of choice). But when you’re running a whole game and dictating how the players should play every step of it, then you’ve gone too far.

Personal Experience: I haven’t experienced this one personally, but I have a friend who played in a game where the GM presented a murder mystery. There was one clue at each site with one way to find it and one interpretation of the clue and one place to go next. Interrogating subjects or trying alternate ways to catch the killer was vetoed, and there was nothing more to be done.

4. Lack of Focus

Not having the game at the center of your attention. This is when the GM is at the table, but their mind is not. They are being distracted by other things in the room, texting, or having personal issues in life that keep their mind off the game. It’s bad enough when a player is not paying attention to the game, it’s worse when the GM, the one coordinating the game, isn’t. Apathy could be the reason for this, although it doesn’t have to be.

Personal Experience: It seems that shortly before a con game of D&D 4e, the GM had some sort of relationship crisis with a girl he’d just received a phone call from. Apparently he didn’t have the willpower to force his issues out of his mind and, despite us telling him that he could cancel the game if he wasn’t up to it, he decided to go ahead and run with it. The GM’s mind clearly wasn’t on the game and there was one or two times when the game stalled because the GM didn’t keep the action moving. The game ended after one encounter of D&D 4e and the four hour game took a grand total of one and a half hours. Not the way I planned my con game to go.

5. Physical Neglect

The term “gamer funk” has been coined to describe the body odor that comes from a stereotypical gamer. This tends to be someone who is so geeky that they neglect personal hygiene and fails to shower or use deodorant. I also broaden the sin of Physical Neglect to include failure to get enough sleep and not eating right because those can have a detrimental effect on how to run the game.

Personal Experience: There was a GM who seemed unable to focus on the game and was somewhat…cranky. After about an hour and a half, his buddy stopped by and gave him a sandwich, which he ate voraciously. Afterwards, he did a lot better and was focused and entertaining. From what I could tell, he hadn’t eaten much at the convention and it was adversely affecting his ability to GM an enjoyable game.

6. Playing Favorites

Favoring one character over another. As a storyteller, there is a temptation to want to make certain characters be the heroes of the story, rather than having six or so characters equally be the heroes. Unfortunately, this results in players not having as much fun, as they are no longer the stars of the adventure. This comes in two flavors: Mary Sue characters where they are an NPC favored over the player charcters, or the Dungeonmaster’s Girlfriend where a certain player is favored over others.

Personal Experience: The worst time I’ve come across this is in the Deadlands Classic adventure Fortress o’ Fear, which is a below average ending to the otherwise phenomenal Heart o’ Darkness trilogy. The adventure is based around Jackie “Mary Sue” Wells, time traveler from the future who has a gun that is powerful enough to kill even Stone. Most of the scenario revolves around her bossing around the posse, then saving the day time and again by being so awesome she can’t be killed and doesn’t need to roll dice. This was perhaps the biggest reason why the adventure failed (although the backstory to the creatures in Devil’s Tower was just as bad). Completely excising her does make the adventure playable though.

7. Absence

Simply not showing up. Obviously, there are understandable circumstances for GM absence, such as personal illness and family emergency and if these are properly communicated, are fully forgiveable. But if the GM fails to show up with no explanation, then I say that they’re committing the worst sin of these seven. I would also include in this category canceling a game on short notice for a non-emergency reason. It’s fine to cancel for non-emergency reasons with enough planning so long as it doesn’t happen too often, but telling us you’re going to be absent mere hours before the next game isn’t.

Personal Experience: One thing I occasionally encountered in college was a GM canceling a game two hours before because they “have too much homework.” This always irked me because 9 times out of 10 the problem could have been avoided with proper planning. Generally I had done my homework ahead of time knowing full well that I’d be busy that evening, and so to suddenly have something I was looking forward to canceled because the GM failed to do the same left a bad taste in my mouth.

An Eighth Sin?

Interestingly, the Orthodox Church recognizes Eight Deadly Sins rather than the Seven that the Catholic Church recognizes (they add Despair). Is there an Eighth Deadly Sin that you think should be added to this list?

“Having One Eye is Purely Cosmetic”

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Long hair, fancy clothes, one eye. All a matter of style.

Long hair, fancy clothes, one eye. All a matter of style.

I realized something: in Dungeons & Dragons and its derivatives like Pathfinder, having one eye is purely cosmetic. There are no effects, positive or negative, that come from making a character have only one eye. They can spot enemies, shoot a bow, and jump over chasms just as well as their two-eyed counterparts. If their eye gets gouged out by a monster (or heaven forbid, they plan to use the Eye of Vecna), there are no lasting side effects. At the end of the day, having one eye is just as important as having blonde hair; it’s a purely cosmetic choice.

I’ve thought a bit about the reasons for it and here’s what I’ve come to the conclusion of:

No Way to Voluntarily Lose an Eye

I imagine that part of the reason for this is that, unlike other roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons does not have a set of rules for Hindrances or Drawbacks. During character creation, players don’t choose any flaws for their character, physical or otherwise. Without a way for a player to voluntarily make their character have a physical defect, one impetus for including such rules is lost. I’d hope that D&D Next would include a system like this, but alas it doesn’t seem likely.

Granted, you can gouge out your eye voluntarily to use the Eye of Vecna, but if you actually go through with it, you’re back to full sight (plus all the fun stuff that comes with it).

Death Has Historically Been Cheap

I imagine that the lack of such rules is largely because Dungeons & Dragons began as Chainmail, a wargame. In that game, you’re dealing with armies of soldiers who are all fighting fit because they would be discharged from service if they had only one eye or another hindrance that prevented them from effectively fighting. Furthermore, in the early days of D&D when death was cheap (and many low-level characters died from a single unnoticed trap), there wasn’t really any point to noting when they suffered a grave injury; you’re concerned largely about if they’re alive or dead, not about if they’ve lost an eye.

I think that this legacy has still continued to the day, even though the initial reasoning has largely gone. Even in Dungeons & Dragons 4e where characters are pretty hard to kill, a character can’t get their eye gouged out as an injury or lose a limb.

Hit Points Make it Tough

Back in the wargaming days, units were either alive or dead, and one hit took them down. When Gygax and Arneson created Dungeons & Dragons based on Chainmail, they decided that characters needed to be a bit more hardy to survive. Instead of taking one hit to go down, some unitswould take two or three hits to go down. They called the system “hit points.” Since then, the hit point mechanic has evolved into the system it is today (and pretty much every game and video game that uses hit points is indebted to this mechanic).

Over time, hit points became greater and characters became even hardier with changes to the rules on death. But the basic concept has stayed to the same. One side effect of this development is that your character can get all the way down to 1 HP and still fight just as well as they were at full health, and make a full recovery without even a scar.

HP. I still have one left.

Interestingly, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons did try rules like this with their Unearthed Arcana book, which added optional rules for severe injuries, such as a broken arm. The implementation though was…poor. Basically your arm is a “bag of hit points” and if your arm gets to 0, it’s broken or worse. Most people found it too complicated and not really worth the called shot penalties it incurred, so those rules didn’t make an appearance in later versions.

A Possible Solution: Injury on Incapacitation

Yup, it’s totally ripped off from Savage Worlds, but it works. Why not just have this: whenever a character becomes incapacitated, they roll on a table for random injuries, indicating the damage they got from their last few attacks. The severity can be modified by the results of a Constitution roll (or Fortitude Saving Throw for 3.x systems). Then they’re stuck with the injury until they get fully healed, or permanently if it’s severe.

Injuries by default would add a penalty to some characteristic. A limp penalizes Pace and Agility, a gouged out eye penalizes Perception and Ranged attacks. And this solution works even with the current hit point system.

Ultimately though, I guess it all comes down to a matter of preference. Some people are totally fine with the fact that one eye is cosmetic. I on the other hand want things to be a bit more realistic in my games. Or at least let characters have flaws (which is a much bigger topic).

Savage Worlds Deluxe

Interesting Rules I’ve Learned About Savage Worlds

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Savage Worlds DeluxeWhile working on Wild Card Creator, I’ve gotten to know the Savage Worlds rules much better than I ever had before. Having looked at the text for Edges, Hindrance, Races, and Powers, as well as the rules themselves in great detail has resulted in me getting a very detailed understanding of how the system works.

In fact, there have been a few times that looking at the rules in such detail has resulted in me asking some pretty interesting questions about the rules. Sometimes I can figure it out myself by reading the text more carefully, but sometimes the book just doesn’t say. One of the great things about Pinnacle is that Clint, one of their staffers, has a section on the Pinnacle forums where you can ask him a rules question about Savage Worlds and get an answer back from him, usually in about a day. Between all that, I’ve made some pretty interesting discoveries:

When Edges and Hindrances Collide

  • There is nothing preventing you from taking the Rich Edge and Poverty Hindrance at the same time. Although it seems contradictory at first, it actually works out. The Rich Edge triples your starting funds and the Poverty Edge halves your starting funds, so you start with 1.5x the starting funds. The Rich Edge gives you a yearly salary and the Poverty Hindrance makes you lose half your total funds every week. So you’ve got a spoiled brat who blows his money every time his parents give him some, which may be an interesting character.
  • The Fleet-Footed Edge says the character’s normal d6 running die becomes a d10. The Lame Hindrance says the character’s normal d6 running die becomes a d4. What happens if you have both? The official answer is that you turn them into die steps (i.e. Fleet-Footed gives you +2 die steps, Lame gives you –1 die step). My group already played this way anyway, but at least it’s official (and the way Wild Card Creator handles it).

Putting the Arcane in Arcane Background

  • The Power Surge Edge requires the character to have “arcane skill d10+”. Even though Arcane Background (Super Powers) and Deadlands‘ Arcane Background (Chi Mastery) don’t have a typical Arcane Skill, having any of their “power skills” at d10 qualifies for this.
  • You can have an Arcane Skill without having the corresponding Arcane Background. This is most obvious in Hell on Earth Reloaded and Deadlands Noir where they actually require you to have a d6 in your Arcane Skill before you can take the Arcane Background. This is actually specifically noted in the Deadlands Noir adventure “The Old Absinthe Blues” where they encourage them to make use of a character that has the Arcane Skill, but not the Arcane Background by having them use Cooperative Rolls to help out other spellcasters. And if you have the Weird Science skill, you can use it to operate a gadget that was made by someone with Arcane Background (Weird Science).

Game Rules You Didn’t Know About

  • There are actually rules for covering yourself over a grenade. Basically, the person takes double damage, but everybody else in the blast template takes damage minus the Toughness of the person who covered the grenade.
  • You can Crouch to make ranged attacks against you suffer a –1 penalty, in exchange for only moving half your Pace each round. It’s the only system I know of that makes use of this, despite the fact that any good soldier knows to do this.
  • You can dive for cover to avoid an Area of Effect weapon (like a grenade or the Blast power), which moves you to the edge of the blast template.

I’ve also discovered a bunch of inconsistencies that I’m having to deal with. For instance, some gear tables have Weight before Cost and others have Cost before Weight. Overall though, I’ve come to appreciate the Savage Worlds rules a bit more because of my work on it with Wild Card Creator.

Dice That Ace More Do NOT Roll Higher

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Every few months, I come across someone online or in real life who holds an opinion like this for Savage Worlds (although it could also apply to Cortex):

Lower dice are better because they ace more! I mean, a d4 has a 1 in 4 chance of rolling a 4, meaning that you get to roll it again and add 4. But a d6 only has a 1 in 6 chance of rolling it again and adding 6. In fact, you get diminishing returns the higher you go up.

I’d like to dispel once and for all that this belief is wrong! While the probabilities of acing (also called “exploding”) more are indeed higher on lower dice, the truth of the fact is that, if you calculate the odds, you still have a better chance of rolling higher on higher dice, despite the fact that they ace less. And although there are certain TNs that are easier to reach on lower dice in some instance, when you consider that you get the same result when you consider the “Raise Bracket” (that is, the TN and the 3 TNs above it, all of which result in the same thing), there is no difference.

Average Die Rolls for Normal Dice

First, let’s start off by calculating the average die rolls for normal, non-acing dice. We can do this by simply adding up all the numbers on each of the sides, then dividing by the number of sides. The average die roll for normal dice is as follows:

  • d4 – 2.5
  • d6 – 3.5
  • d8 – 4.5
  • d10 – 5.5
  • d12 – 6.5

Some people, when seeing these numbers, are surprised to find that the averages are actually .5 higher than they expect. Many people take the mental shortcut of taking the number of sides and dividing by 2, thus “averaging” the high and low values and hopefully arriving at the middle. It’s close, but it’s not the right answer. I say all of this because I think it’s a simple instance of how our minds take mental shortcuts to figure out complex odds, such as what a die will roll.

Average Die Rolls for Normal Dice

Calculating the average die roll of an acing die is a bit more difficult because, as the definition says, it is open ended. But there are lesser and lesser odds of getting higher and higher numbers, to the point where the chances of getting an extraordinarily high number are so miniscule that it doesn’t have any meaningful bearing on the average die rolls.

This article provides all the math to show how to get the value of an exploding die. With that in mind, we discover that the odds of exploding dice are as follows:

  • d4 – 4.17
  • d6 – 4.9 (.73 higher)
  • d8 – 5.78 (.88 higher)
  • d10 – 6.11 (.97 higher)
  • d12 – 7.09 (.98 higher)

Note that even though higher dice ace less, the average value of each die is still higher than the value of the die below it and the rate of change increases the higher you go. So rather than having diminishing returns the higher you go because you ace less, you have increased returns because the number of sides increases despite acing less.

I’ll add the disclaimer that if you are trying to reach certain target numbers, there are very rare instances where a die one step lower has about a 1% greater chance of reaching that target than the higher die (I tried to disprove that, but ultimately wound up finding that such rare instances did exist). Still, it’s a 1% chance in rare instances, and overall, higher dice are still better because, on average, they roll higher.

Using Time in Games

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Happy New Year! I hope that the holidays went over well for you and that you’re all looking forward to 2013.

This change in the new year has made me think about the passage of time in roleplaying games. In most games I’ve played, it’s generally not come up. In Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, quests may take many days to complete, but we generally don’t keep track of how many they are and don’t conceptualize larger units of time, like weeks, months, or years. Part of this of course is that in most fantasy settings, they aren’t going to be using the same names for days of the week or months and it doesn’t matter whether the year is 349 or 5192. So in order for time to be used in a roleplaying game, it must be meaninfully measured.

The simplest way to do this is to just use the Gregorian Calendar, since that’s what we use today. Some settings have used the Gregorian Calendar, but gave different names to the days of the weeks and the months. The Elder Scrolls calendar did this, as does the calendar in Low Life (although the latter changes the names out of parody). Part of the reason for this is that a different calendar with different numbers of days to the months doesn’t really add much to the game. (However, there have been a lot of efforts of calendar reform in real life to make it simpler and more logical. But aside from changing the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, none have been successful. I think the world should switch to the International Fixed Calendar, by the way).

Virtually all civilizations have, at the very least, measured the progression of time by seasons. The progression of time has to result in something changing, such as the weather. How many games have you played where your adventuring party started out in hot summer and ended in frigid winter? If you’re like most groups, not. This is partly a result of the trope that It’s Always Spring because it’s simpler to not factor in weather. But I think it’s a lot of fun to include it. Having the weather be rainy or snowy when it’s not because of Chekov’s Gun makes the world seem more alive, and the likelihood of such weather changing over time in long campaigns can add a lot of depth to the game.

Seasons of course are periodic, as are many other units of time. Historically Ancient Rome had 8 day weeks with the eighth day being a market day where everything is closed, while our modern calendar has 7 day weeks because Jews and Christians worship every seventh day. I could see a setting changing the number of days in a week for reasons such as that. And of course, we mark one year as the number of days that pass before Earth is at the same position in relation to the sun. This of course adds the possibility of annual holidays. When was the last time you celebrated a birthday or holiday in your games? You’re missing out!

In many of my games lately I’ve tried to incorporate time and it’s either been a lot of fun! For starters, I mandate that all players must have birthdays. This is done by randomly rolling a d12 for the month and a d30 for the day (if the month has 31 days and they roll a 30, then they roll odds or evens). The only time I had a birthday come up was when I ran Daring Entertainment‘s War of the Dead campaign. In the middle of the zombie outbreak, the six year old girl they rescued realized that it was her birthday and she just turned seven! There was a lot of celebration by all, even with a couple they met using up the last of their flour and eggs to bake a cake, and it really helped raise morale for the characters after all the horror they had been through with the zombies. It was a fun diversion and the players loved it.

Over the summer, I ran a roleplaying game version of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, which unlike the later games had special things happen on certain holidays. For instance during our campaign, the Warrior’s Festival came up, and as a result the player characters could purchase weaponry and training for half price for that day only. One of the players agonized over whether or not to borrow money and buy a weapon at half price or pay for it later at a greater price. I think that the feeling of having the world be more alive was fun as well.

Finally in my current The Last Sons campaign, I’m going full tilt and keeping track of each day that passes. Certain developments in the plot point campaign happen on a certain day (e.g. the national elections) as well as certain holidays. How will the posse be spending Christmas? And the weather is going to change significantly as we get closer to winter. They don’t know about it yet, but there’s also going to be a time limit to the best result of the campaign. Sure you can dawdle around on the Weird West as much as they want, but if they’re not ready on that last day, they’ll miss their shot at making things a whole lot better.

Adding time to your roleplaying games adds a lot of little moments that make the game more enjoyable. It requires a bit more tracking on the GM’s side to pull it off, but I think that it’s worth it in the end.

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