What Makes a Good Role-Playing Session (for me)?

My default mode is critical pessimism; I’m working on that. In reviewing my blog posts, I am critical of game sessions.

So I decided to flip it and reflect on what makes a good role-playing game session (for me)?

A good RPG session requires a good group of players.

Good players are:

  • Generous
  • Respectful
  • Trustworthy
  • Curious
  • Invested
  • Active

This is the foundation. With a good group of players, most game sessions are good game sessions, even Fate.

It is one of the reasons I enjoy Games on Demand at GenCon and Origins; the GMs are invested, excited, and ready to facilitate their games.

In the case of a one-shot session, this is adequate. But for extended play, I need more. I need meaningful situations.

Meaningful Situations

At its very basic, do the character’s actions impact the fictional state of the world? Flipping this around, does the fictional changes of the world impact the characters?

Is the GM presenting situations that challenge the other players? And are the players attempting to advance their character’s agenda through overcoming challenges presented by the GM?

A key ingredient for meaningful situations is that risky ventures may pay huge dividends or bring about disastrous failure. Which asks what is at risk? What is there to gained?

  • Fictional advancement
  • Laughter and enjoyment
  • Mechanical advancement
  • System mastery

Fictional advancement, laughter, and enjoyment are not dependent on the rules. Though random tables and results can add a lot to the enjoyment as they give unexpected responses.

The other two bullet points – mechanical advancement and system mastery – are game system rewards.

Game System Rewards

In older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, characters gain most of their XP (and mechanical advancement – through gaining treasure. Conflict was dangerous and yielded little XP compared to treasure.

Domain rules become a natural extension of ever-growing wealth.

In more recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the characters gain most of their XP through combat.

Meaningful Rewards

Even though the most efficient method to gain XP is via treasure, the older editions have procedures that push the characters towards conflict. In this tension I see an elegant reward system.

Players that master this concept see combat avoidance as the best path. Anything that can end a combat is superior than engaging in a war of attrition:

  • Swingy spells (save or die)
  • Negotiation and forming alliances
  • Hirelings and Henchman to absorb failed efforts
  • Stealth and subterfuge

Yet through this all, the system increases character combat efficacy. And challenges the player’s humility regarding their characters; Why not fight, we’re strong enough?

One quick method is to apply Jared Sorenson’s 3 Questions to the rules:

  • What is your game about?
  • How does it go about that?
  • What behaviors does it reward and/or encourage?

In the case of older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the answers revolve around exploration. In newer editions, it seems to revolve around combat.

Conclusion

I’m particular about my games; I want to enjoy my game sessions. They are a major time commitment. Both the group and system should cleave close to my ideal. A game of pure combat loses its luster.

My ideal answers to Jared Sorenson’s questions are:

What is your game about?

Exploration of a rich world, where characters can pursue personal agendas as well as play to find out.

How does it go about that?

Shared development of a rich world that challenges the characters.

What behaviors does it reward and/or encourage?

That which makes a good player:

  • Generous
  • Respectful
  • Trustworthy
  • Curious
  • Invested
  • Active

The Disservice of Modern Dungeons & Dragons Initiative Systems

When 3E came out, I loved the initiative system. Circular initiative, readied actions, delayed actions, and attacks of opportunity. The order of actions felt more strategic. And then they added reactions. Oh boy! So much to consider.

But I’ve noticed that combat grinds on and on in these more “modern” systems.

Individual Initiative

Below is a very course grained sequence of actions:

  1. Roll initiative
  2. Record initiative
  3. Player begins turn
    1. Player assesses the current situation, asking the GM for any information
    2. Player determines optimal action
      • Ready
      • Delay
      • Act
    3. Player performs action
    4. GM adjudicates action
    5. Player assesses results
    6. If actions remain (e.g. quickened spells, extra attacks), goto “Player determines action”
    7. Player ends turn and begins waiting for next turn While waiting assess if a reaction is appropriate
  4. Announce next player, goto “Player begins turn”

In summary, while one player takes their turn, the other players are idle. This is the nature of turn based systems.

Some players may plan their next action, butmay scuttle those plans by the time their turn arrives. After all a well-timed Entangle or Fireball can snarl most any situation.

And in the above system, there are many points in which a single player asks the GM to rebuild and describe the current state of the conflict. A battle map can alleviate some of this, as can condition tokens, but it is the nature of the beast.

Players do not pay full attention during other player’s turn. So the GM restates the “current state” multiple times. And in those restatements, not all players are listening. So the table ends up with a fractured understanding.

Declared Intention then Roll Initiative

I look back with fondness at 2nd Editions declare then roll initiative system. Or Burning Wheel’s scripted conflict. There is both a chaos to the system, but also a greater degree of shared engagement.

Below is a rewording of the above Individual Initiative, but from the perspective of players declaring actions before rolling initiative.

  1. Players assess the current situation, asking the GM for any information
  2. Players declare actions
  3. Roll initiative
  4. Record initiative
  5. Player begins turn
    1. Player makes a go/no go assessment concerning declared action
      1. Perform declared action if it was a go
      2. GM adjudicates action
      3. Player assesses results
      4. If actions remain, goto “Player assesses if their declared action is viable”
    2. Player ends turn and begins waiting for next turn While waiting assess if a reaction is appropriate
  6. Announce next player, goto “Player begins turn”

First, all characters are engaging in assessing the current situation. They do this at the same time. From there, they commit to their actions; Also at the same time. In those moments “all eyes are glued to the GM.”

On a player’s turn, their assessment is most often constrained to their declared action. The assessment is now a simplified “Do I do it or not?” question.

From a systems stand point, portions of the table play move from serial processing to partial parallelization. The players all assess and declare at roughly the same time. Then they act in order. But their action involves smaller assessment, minimal declaration, and instead focuses onadjudication.

Further Dissection

When players must select multiple actions for a given round, the declaration can become burdensome. But I suspect the reason for giving multiple actions is to help satiate the player as they wait longer between their turns.

Below are two tables that highlight the active players for a given step in the encounter. The question marks (?) indicate an uncertainy of what the player is doing. It doesn’t matter all that much.

Individual Initiative

State Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GM
GM Describes Assess Assess Assess Declare
Roll initiative Roll Roll Roll Roll
Player 1 Begins Turn Assess ? ? Declare
Player 1 Declare Declare ? ? Assess
Player 1 Rolls Roll ? ? Record
GM Responds Assess ? ? Declare
Player 2 Begins Turn ? Assess ? Declare
Player 2 Declare ? Declare ? Assess
Player 2 Rolls ? Roll ? Record
GM Responds ? Assess ? Declare
Player 3 Begins Turn ? ? Assess Declare
Player 3 Declare ? ? Declare Assess
Player 3 Rolls ? ? Roll Record
GM Responds ? ? Assess Declare

Declared Intention then Roll Initiative

State Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GM
GM Describes Assess Assess Assess Declare
Player 1 Declare Declare Declare Declare Assess
Roll initiative Roll Roll Roll Roll
Player 1 Begins Turn Assess ? ? Declare
Player 1 Rolls Roll ? ? Record
GM Responds Assess ? ? Declare
Player 2 Begins Turn ? Assess ? Declare
Player 2 Rolls ? Roll ? Record
GM Responds ? Assess ? Declare
Player 3 Begins Turn ? ? Assess Declare
Player 3 Rolls ? ? Roll Record
GM Responds ? ? Assess Declare

Proposal

Consider mechanisms in which you can get players to do the same kinds of things at the same time (e.g. declare actions then roll initiative). This is complicated by the more strategic options for each player’s turn.

I find the cost of those strategic options to be slower-paced, less engaging conflicts. And as D&D has moved from majority XP awards for treasure to majority of XP from defeating monsters, this has resulted in a system disconnect.

Take some time to read the initiative section in Philotomy’s Musings. Consider what conflict means in your game. Consider how you want to incentivize the strategies and actions of your players.

Playing at the Game Store

For the past few months, I’ve joined a weekly 5E Dungeons & Dragons game at my local game store – Better World Books. This campaign has irregular attendance; we fluctuate between 5 and 10 players (including the GM). A few weeks ago, we had 10 players and 4 others interested in playing for the first time.

Procedure of the Game Store Game

The following procedure has emerged:

  1. Kick in the door
  2. Defeat the monsters
  3. Loot the bodies
  4. Interstitial role-playing
  5. Goto line step 1

Splitting the Party

I talked with the GM to see if we might want to split the table. It looks like we could support two different tables most weeks.

I’m considering running that second game. The primary consideration is to run the Dwimmermount campaign using the Labyrinth Lord rules.

With unpredictable attendance, the following artificial constraint may be helpful:

By the end of the session the characters must be back in the city

This was mentioned in Dreams in the Lich House.

Exhuming My Dungeons & Dragons

Building on my previous post for “Adding More Mortar to the Three Pillars”, I’m in the process of compiling my preferred house rules for my “Dungeons and Dragons” game. I’ve spent years playing 2E, 3E, 4E, and 5E.

The Current Incarnation

I’ve played a few games of D&D 5E, and find it an improvement over 4E and 3.x. However it does not sit well with me. My concerns are:

  • Stat bonuses are too large
  • Massive per round combat efficacy
  • Saving throw system that leaves you very vulnerable at higher levels
  • Good combat procedures, but lacking in other procedures
  • Resource management in relation to time is arbitrary
  • Lack of non-combat procedures

These concerns are evident in 3E and 4E as well.

Rudimentary System Checklist

I’m taking these “grievances” and attempting to find and compose my preferred system.

  • Random ability scores
  • Smaller distribution of attribute bonuses (-2 to +2 or even -1 to +1)
  • Procedures for exploration, encounters, and combat
  • Improving saving throws
  • Acknowledging that balance is a questing beast; The game is a group effort
  • Combat is dangerous and lethal
  • Hirelings and retainers are a natural part of the game ecosystem
  • Reward risk taking
  • Not everything is a fight to the death
  • Scripted combat would be nice to have
  • Resource management is a downplayed element
  • Randomization is an important tool for a referee
  • Shift XP to a more “Treasure for XP” model in which monster XP is about 20% or less of the expected experience
  • Skill systems are not required; Focus on player skills and engagement

The Archaeological Map

I’ve been digging through various OSR clones, simulacra, adaptations, and hacks. Reading for differences, of which there are many. They are themselves a reflection of the differences in the original materials.

Beyond the Rules

I’m also looking at how to best setup a regular game; Accept that people will come and go from session to session. Also acknowledge that character death should not end the player’s participation for that session (e.g. just grab one of the hirelings and take over).

So I’m thinking of leveraging a mega-dungeon as the primary focus of the first sessions. Provide a location for the characters to explore and plunder. And with their plunder, they engage and shape the larger world.

The megadungeon is a shift for me. Most of my games have been political and social games with human adversaries with little use of modules and random content.

I ran Out of the Abyss and found the procedures of the evading pursuit, travel, and random encounters to be my favorite aspect. But those procedures were leveraged in a prison escape scenario with minimal player character guidance. They were adrift in an opaque setting, not exploring the world, but traveling blind to various set pieces.

Proposal

The current front runner is Labyrinth Lord; Though Sword & Wizardry’s unified saving throw is appealing. In part because there are free options for both.

Ability Scores

Ability Score Modifier
3 -2
4-8 -1
9-12 0
13-17 +1
18 +2

Initiative System

I’m also considering a scripted initiative system:

  1. Declare Actions
    1. Players may declare actions; Gain +1 bonus to initiative
    2. Referee declares actions
    3. Remaining players declare actions, Take -1 penalty to initiative
  2. Each Player Rolls Initiative (1d6)

Or leverage a modified version of Philotomy’s Musings for initiative; Group initiative one side acts then another.

Additional House Rules

Lift a few ideas from Bill Webb’s “Book of Dirty Tricks”. In particular consider using:

  • Static to hit bonus (e.g. Fighters & Monsters need 17+ to hit AC 0; All others need 18+)
  • Simplified weapon damage
  • Critical hits do +1 damage

Adding More Mortar to the Three Pillars

The Three Pillars of Adventure

Adventurers can try to do anything their players can imagine, but it can be helpful to talk about their activities in three broad categories: exploration, social interaction, and combat.

From the “D&D Basic Rules: Player’s Basic Rules”

I want to look at a few subsystems of previous versions that are not part of the core rules of 5E. Rules and guidance for these subsystems can be found in the current Dungeon Master’s Guide. But they are not a first class citizen in the rules.

These systems are:

  • Hirelings, retainers, and specialists – additional hired support that can bolster the parties ranks or provide specialized services
  • Random encounters – a procedure to determine if the party encounters random creatures/events outside of the set pieces of the adventure
  • Reaction checks – a procedure to determine non-player characters initial reaction (friendly, indifferent, hostile, etc.) to the party
  • Morale checks – a procedure for seeing if non-player characters and creatures surrender, flee, or fight on

Exploration

Hirelings provide additional options for exploration: a translator, a torchbearer, a rear guard, a camp guard, etc.

Random encounters breath life into a location; Instead of a series of disparate locations the random encounters highlight that the location is dangerous and dynamic.

In editions prior to 3E, random encounters put pressure on the characters to not delay. The majority of experience was from treasure and not combat and a random encounter was a high risk, low reward ordeal.

Reaction checks codify that not every encounter will escalate into combat. It provides a chance for factions and agendas to be discovered and exploited.

Morale checks primary purpose is to ensure that not everything is a fight to the death. In exploration, this means that players may be aware that any opposition is falling back to bolster defenses.

Combat

In older editions, one role of hirelings was to diffuse the lethality of combat. They are both support and built in back-up player characters. They also provide a logical means to for a guest player to join for a single session or so.

Random encounters provide a steady source of potential combat. In older editions, its ill-advised to escalate every encounter (i.e. high risk, low reward). However, for players seeking combat, random encounters are sure to please.

Reaction checks are there to make sure that not everything needs to be combat. It can steer an encounter into a social interaction instead. It adds a bit of unpredictability.

Morale provides a clear mechanism so that not every combat is fought to the bloody end. This is something that a GM could adjudicate on their own, but having procedures in place allows the GM to fall back on the beauty of randomization. No one knows when a combat starts if it will be to the death; But the rules can be leveraged to provide an unbiased decision.

Since morale checks also apply to all non-player characters, it raises the stakes of combat; Will your still loyal torchbearer turn tail at the sight of skeletons? Will your seasoned veteran continue to fight even if their employer has fallen? A story emerges from the dice rolls.

Social Interaction

And this is where the four subsystems shine.

Hirelings may have their own agenda. They may leave on good terms and help the party in the future. Or a mistreated hireling might betray or openly oppose the future endeavors of the party. They provide another known social interaction point in the campaign; No need to create something new, reuse a hireling.

By leveraging reaction checks, it is not immediately obvious if each encounter is meant for combat or social interaction. This ambiguity provides a crease in the game that allows players to flex their ambitions.

And then there is morale; Does the hireling turns tail and runs at a critical moment? Or do they double down with steely resolve? How do the players respond? Do they dismiss them outright? Do they seek to rally, comfort, or console? At a minimum, there is now an in game moment with one of the hirelings that changed the state of the fiction.

And morale for possible opposition enforces that not everything is a fight to the death. Will the players spare the creature? Will they gain an ally? Or will they be betrayed? Can they hire their opponent? It keeps the questions open.

And in all of this, the random encounter is yet another source of fuel for social interactions and combat.

Conclusion

In my survey of numerous OSR games and D&D editions, I have found several implementations of these subsystems.

For Hirelings I’m fond of:

For Morale my preference is:

For Reaction checks:

For Random Encounters:

There are differences between each, but the key components that I look for are as follows:

  • Randomize the hiring process; Some should slander would be employers
  • Codify when morale checks should be made
  • Codify what random encounters are possible and how often
  • Reaction checks should happen at the beginning of the encounter (I prefer that Charisma not come into play unless the characters interact with the creatures)

Campaign Random Encounter: Library of Ancients and Surrounding Village

After wrapping up the 5E 0th level character funnel adventure, I did a bit of preparation. The characters were going to travel to the Library of Ancients to research about the Shadow Wars, the shadow creature, and the failing wards that kept it bound.

I didn’t write up much about the Library of Ancients, and its adjoining village Codex, except for the following random table. In making the table, I became aware of what could be in motion at Library of Ancients and Codex.

In these 12 rumors and events, I found far more than enough to run a satisfying delve in the Library of Ancients. I now forget how I resolved the research aspect of the Library, but I was generous in the information I gave.

Rumors and Events

1d12 Event or Happenstance
1 A contingent of viziers arrived 1d4 days ago. They will soon broker a treaty (1 – 3) or launch a treasonous initiative (4-6).
2 Yesterday, one of the towers collapsed killing Tanja, a visiting researcher, and Raiko, a librarian. Workers are clearing the rubble and assessing the damage. Soon the library and Codex will know that the Raiko stabbed and killed Tanja.
3 Dalia, a visiting scholar, is waiting at the entrance to the library. She has found what could be a capstone to her life’s work. She’s looking to hire some muscle to go get it. Soon her insanity will be revealed as she drives ever onward towards her goal.
4 The Library and Codex, the neighboring village, fended off an attack 1d6 days ago. Hanging from the fortified walls are the tarred corpses of 1d10 assailants. From the mouth of one of the corpses an orchid will grow.
5 The staff and faculty are excited about the recent acquisition of the collection of Lapernum, a planar scholar. One will soon bear witness to an apocalyptic vision.
6 Codex elected Orithia a new mayor 2d6 days ago. She replaces the previous mayor, Bale; He went insane. She will soon face a challenge to her authority.
7 Grigor a wealthy merchant left not more than a few hours ago; He hired several guards for what is normally a safe trip. He will be betrayed soon.
8 Jelenneth, a young woman from Codex, has been missing since a raid on the library. Her parents are distraught and seek help. She will soon enter the realm of fairy to be with her lover.
9 Reeve Vander has just found that the winter stores of Codex spoiled over the last three days. A diabolist will soon reveal a nefarious scheme.
10 In the next month the Duchess of Ariana will be visiting. The librarians are busy preparing for a visit. Head librarian Gidian is seeking a ducal endowment.
11 Salindra and her acting troupe (6 others) arrived yesterday; They are here to perform a play and write and research their next play. The play will be outlawed in the months to come as it foments open.
12 Filip has been dragged back in chains; He has stolen from the library. He will be abused a lose a hand at the end of the week.

Early Experience running Out of the Abyss

House Rules for Out of the Abyss

I’ve decided to take the framework for Out of the Abyss and mold it to my liking. First, if you intend to run “Out of the Abyss” straight out of the “box”, good luck.
It is a toolkit, some set pieces, and a lot of narrative prose.

There are plenty of random tables to help move things along, but the book had disorganized core information. My guess is that not a single play tester ran this game from the published book; The information is too spread out for easy access.

What follows are the pieces that I’ve adopted to help me adjudicate the game.

From the Dungeon Master’s Guide

I’ve opted for a more brutal game. Characters are a bit more fragile. I had mulled over a long rest being 7 days and a short rest being 8 hours, but opted not to use that given the nature of the adventure. These are my personal preferences.

  • Slow Natural Healing (DMG p267): Character’s do not recover hit points after a long rest. They must use hit dice.
  • Massive Damage (DMG p273): Too much damage and you might be out of the fight.
  • Injuries (DMG p272-273): If you get knocked out of the fight, bad things can happen.
  • Morale (DMG p273): Because combat is more lethal, I want morale to help adjudicate monster’s. I’m not satisfied with 5E’s morale ratings, but they are an acceptable approximation.

Building on “Out of the Abyss”

The following rules build from my observations of the missing specificity in “Out of the Abyss”.

Illumination

From “Out of the Abyss” p20:

Roll a d6 to determine how an encounter area is illuminated. On a roll of 1-3, the area is dimly lit by the phosphorescent moss and lichen common in the Underdark, or by faerzress (see “Faerzress”). On a roll of 4-6, the area is dark except for whatever light sources the characters might have.

And that is all you get for using Faerzress in encounters. Here is a table to help determine light. This table assumes that on a roll of 1 for illumination, using the original mechanics, there is a 50% chance that the illumination is from faerzress.

d12 Illumination
1 faezress (Out of the Abyss p21)
2-6 Dim
7-12 Dark

Foraging

From “Out of the Abyss” p20:

A foraging character makes a Wisdom (Survival) check.
The DC is typically 15, but might be as high as 20 in some parts of the Underdark.

Again, that is all of the guidance you get. So I made a table to help determine the base DC for each day of travel.

d6 Food Scarcity
1-4 Limited: DC 15 Wisdom (Survival) for foraging
5-6 Scarce: DC 20 Wisdom (Survival) for foraging

I made the following resource to help keep track of the day-to-day movements of the party. I also made sure to make a small character sheet for the “friendly NPCs”; There are four NPCs per side.

I spent a few hours this afternoon, rolling the random encounters for the next 30 travel days. Some of the random encounters are straight forward and require one page in the monster manual, but others require referencing numerous pages.

Here are the first 7 days (in which my players have already engaged) and how I wrote the information in Google Sheets. As we’ve proceeded, I need to refine when the encounter happens. I take rest to mean after the characters have stopped moving.

So, when the characters force march for a total of 12 hours, its easy. Encounters happen on the 1d12 hours into that timeframe. If the characters choose to not force march then travel encounters happen 1d8 hours into traveling and rest encounters happen 1d18 hours into the rest (roll a D20 and re-roll 19 or 20).

Day Time Location Creature Space Light XP
2 Travel Webs Escaped Slave (1 shield dwarf) 5′ dark 25
3 Rest Lave Swell 10′ dark 100
5 Rest Sinkhole Blurg the Orog open dark 450
7 Rest Green Slime Giant Rocktopus 5′ dark 200

Bitching and Moaning

The campaign kicks off with 10 likely NPC allies. Yippie! They aren’t retainers or henchmen, but independent characters with their own agendas and foibles. Then the random encounters have a few cases where more NPCs can join the party.

At this point, 3 of the initial enslaved NPCs have died (Prince Derendil, Stool, and Eldeth Feldrun). And two have parted ways (Topsy and Turvey). But they have picked up two new NPCs; Blurg the Orog and Tarrant a shield dwarf. They also started with 2 extra enslaved NPCs; The drow captured the party and extra NPCs at the same time.

This has meant an extreme number of NPCs to manage; It also means that the large group moving through the underdark can rely on the law of large numbers to make sure that everyone has enough food and water. After all, anyone can forage, with each foraging opportunity means 1d6 pounds of food. From a mechanical standpoint, the extra NPCs have been a blessing. From the narrative stand point, the extra NPCs have been needless complications.

And then there is the map. Each hex is 24 miles; Huge by hex crawl standards. The map is unclear about terrain and features. It’s an abstraction that shows distance, but does not convey important information; I’m looking at you Darklake and your ambiguous boundaries. Upon my examination of the map, I assumed one idea about the boundaries of Darklake. But when I read more of the adventure, the boundaries were very different from my assumption.

All told, if you are going to write a mega-adventure, have at least one person run the thing without any guidance from the author. There is a lot of ambiguity and misplacement of information in Out of the Abyss. I understand that proper organization is a tremendous challenge, but I believe if the authors focused on codifying the procedures, then it would be a much stronger presentation.

Advice

If you are going to run this, grab your highlighter and notebook. Scattered throughout the book is vital information; Make notes with page numbers. Make worksheets to help you consolidate information as you see fit. Scan monster entries so you can consolidate an encounter’s information.

Make more random tables. The size of the Underdark means that I’ve seen a heavy repetition of random encounters. The current random encounters imply a population and risk density of the Underdark. Consider other options.

“Out of the Abyss” is the first by the book adventure I’ve run since “The Red Hand of Doom”. I think Out of the Abyss has more interesting set pieces and ideas but its organization is rather confounding compared to The Red Hand of Doom.

It is very difficult to scan “Out of the Abyss” for pertinent information. Granted, “Out of the Abyss” leverages some of the more gritty components of D&D (i.e. starvation, exhaustion, wilderness travel), but I believe the book fails to account for the adventure being a direct reference for game play.