Killing a Player Character

The Paladin charged heroically into battle against the menacing Fire Troll. He rolls a natural 20 and unleashed a divine smite, dealing north of 50 points of damage in a single swing. This, combined with the next attack, almost halved the hit points of the troll in one turn alone.

It’s the troll’s turn. As it regenerates his wounds, it looks the Paladin in the eye. He looks right at the character that dealt massive damage to it just a few seconds ago. It lunges forward to bite but it’s teeth unable to penetrate the Paladin’s plate armor. Then it sees an opening and attacks with it’s long sharp, fiery claws, It rolls a natural 20, slashing a deep wound under his armpit, cutting deep into the bone and inflicting fire damage to immediately cauterize the wound.

The Paladin fell. That single attack took him down to -3 hit points but the troll had another attack left in him. I rolled a die to determine if the troll would hit the Paladin when he’s down and the d20 said yes. The troll stood over the fallen Paladin and took another attack, stabbing it’s claws deep into the neck of the unconscious body. That is immediately considered as 2 failed death saves.

When the Paladin’s turn came next, everyone at the table hushed and held their breath. The player had one chance to stay alive. He rolls and as the d20 bounced across the battle mat, hitting over a few minis, he knew it was over. It was a 9.

“The searing pain subsided and the sounds of battle faded to nothing. Your consciousness drifts off and in the void of death, you see a bright, radiant light in the distance. You feel yourself slowly floating towards the light.”

And to the rest of the party, “you see the Paladin’s body on the ground, lifeless in a pool of blood. The troll stands over him, grimacing as it pulls it’s blood-soaked claws out of his neck. You see the look of glee on it’s face, knowing that it had not only killed one, but it had a chance to take another.”

The party erupted in language that I would not repeat here, but they were pumped and ready to finish the troll off. The player who just lost his Paladin said, “guys, finish this asshole.” I granted advantage to all the players’ next attack, attributed to the adrenaline rush after seeing their friend fall in battle. The Fire Troll had no chance and was quickly dispatched by an angry mob of adventurers who didn’t hold back.

After combat, the party panicked – “can we just heal him?”, “can we resurrect him?”, “what can we do???”. There was nothing. They took his body and slipped it into a nearby lake, where they drank from before the battle to gain temporary hit points. As a party, they beseeched the spirit of the lake to revive the Paladin. Even the joker in the group, who never roleplayed, spoke in character. I had everyone roll a group persuasion check, recorded the results and called it a night right there.

The group of adventurers faded and the group of friends returned.

We sat around the rest of the night, decompressing and discussing the death. I witnessed different stages of grieving, from denial (“I can’t believe what just happened!”) to bargaining (“Can someone from the tribe nearby just resurrect him?”) to reconstruction (“Maybe if we did something else instead of muck around, we could have prevented it!”).

It’s just a game, and the characters don’t exist but the emotions felt by the people playing feels very real. Everyone was shocked and affected by the imaginary events of what happened after rolling some dice on Friday night. Everyone went home but they were still processing grief in the group chat, over the whole weekend.

What happens next? I don’t know. I’m still discussing options with the player lost his character but I guess the learning here is this: when the moment comes, don’t be afraid to kill the character. As DM, we have to adjudicate how the game world plays out and holding back a killing blow might damage the verisimilitude we’re trying to create. You should be fair, and let the dice be the bad guys when it doesn’t land in the players’ favor. But when it happens, be there when the players need to process and be very open to discussing any future options. Remember, the game is imaginary but the emotions of loss and grief feels very real.

Optimize the Game

I drove home after the last session, exhausted but feeling like we had a good game.

We fought two Ropers in the Underdark, in a cavern with a ceiling filled with Piercers that attacked twice every round. The wizard got nearly bitten in half, dropping to -3 after a critical hit by a Roper’s bite. But the party eventually triumphed after a critical hit from the Paladin, smiting the Roper into a puddle of goo. But we lost the guide that was hired to take the party through the winding paths of the Underdark. The game ended when they walked into a settlement, and quickly found themselves numbered and surrounded by a group of duergar barbarians.

I got home and read “Excellent game” and “great game! I’m weirdly happy our guide died”, and what followed were an endless stream of what-ifs: “I could have casted Sanctuary on him”, “The smite was awesome and it saved the wizard!” and “if only he (the guide) knew this path was dangerous, he might still be alive!”

The lesson this week is important: know who you’re optimizing the game for. The lore, the encounters and the monsters doesn’t exist but the players and their emotions are real. Your best laid plans might fail and the encounter you planned might not even happen, but as long as your friends at the table are having a great time, you’ve done your job as a DM. Optimize for that and everything will fall into place.

The House is on Fire

In the last game, the characters were attacked by two pyromaniacal shapeshifters in a farmhouse. This was a great opportunity to try some homemade fire mechanics 🔥

First, determine how many grids are on fire and how intense the fire is. For my game, one of the shapeshifters threw a bottle of alchemist fire. I made the attack roll (which missed), then rolled the 1d4 and got a 3. So I took three d6s and placed them around point of impact, with each side showing a 3.

Secondly, add “Fire” to the bottom of your initiative tracker so something happens before the next round.

Lastly, grab another d6 because this is what happens when it’s the fire’s turn:

1. Every fire dice increases it’s value by 1. This symbolizes the fire growing in intensity.

2. Roll a d6. Any fire die that has a matching number to your roll replicates itself in an adjacent square. So if you rolled a 4, any die faces that are 4 spread itself as another 4 to an adjacent square. This is the fire spreading.

3. Any dice that is a 6 automatically spreads. Add another die, with 1 face up, to an adjacent square.

This gets deadly because if you rolled a 6 in step 2, all dices with 6 spread then each 6 adds a new 1 to an adjacent square.

To make things more complicated, you may a few optional rules like having players make Dexterity saving throws as they move through the fire, taking the full damage equal to the die value if they fail. You could also add a mechanic to put out the fire, making each pail of water a d6 which is rolled and subtracted from the value on the fire die. The possibilities are endless and it’s a lot of fun to add to a combat encounter, in a farm house that is burning down.

Oh, in the end, the farm house burnt to the ground but they defeated bad guys then had a fundraiser in town to raise money for the poor homeless farmer.

The Three-Clue Rule

In the last episode titled, The Tillage People, the party arrived at a little farming town called Felderwin. When they arrived, they found out that there’s been a recent spate of arsons in the tillage surrounding the town. The party picked up the cue and dived straight into investigation mode.

I was careful to make sure that for every conclusion they need to make, there would be three clues pointing them towards that. I learnt this from The Alexandrian (highly recommended blog for any aspiring game master, btw), so here’s how I set up the clues that led them to conclude that there’s a shapeshifter in town:

1. One of the halflings told them that he thought he saw someone twice a few nights ago when he was out drinking. He wasn’t sure if it’s just his imagination, but he was a little spooked when that happened.

2. While shopping in an apothecary and interacting with the shop owner, the door opens behind them and the shop owner walks in, causing the former to run out the back door.

3. They spoke with the starosta (kinda like the mayor of the town), only to find him gagged and tied up in a barn elsewhere in the tillage.

The three-clues rule works because most players don’t pick up clues like you would imagine them to. There is always information asymmetry at the table and this rule ensures that they won’t miss out anything you absolutely need them to figure out. This is an essential to running any mystery scenario.

Campaign Diaries

I started running a campaign about 3 months ago and we’ve been playing regularly almost every Friday evenings since. I thought it would be fun to post campaign, not just as a recap for myself but also to maybe reflect on some of the things I learnt in each session.

TL;DR: We are a party of five (called “The Outlanders”) playing in the Wildemount setting and we are about 9 sessions in. The characters are (already) level 5 and they’re making their way from the Dwendalian Empire towards Xhorhas. The current party is a Dwarf Barbarian (Ancestral Guardian), Drow Wizard (Chronurgy), Kenku Rogue (Soulknife), Aasimar Paladin (Devotion) and a Firbolg Druid (Circle of the Moon).

With that out of the way, let’s start unpacking some of campaign and see if we can learn some things along the way.

72 Microseasons

The Japanese subdivided the calendar into 72 parts, each describing a specific, fleeting seasonal moment. I love how poetically specific and transient each of these divisions are:

March 16 to 20: 菜虫化蝶 Namushi chō to naru; Caterpillars become butterflies.

July 17 to 22: 鷹乃学習 Taka sunawachi waza o narau; Hawks learn to fly.

and my favorite:

November 27 to December 1: 朔風払葉 Kitakaze konoha o harau; North wind blows the leaves from the trees

I miss Japan so much and I can’t wait to return again. Read more about Japan’s 72 microseasons here.

Coalition for App Fairness

Epic games, Spotify, Basecamp, Match Group, Deezer, Tile, Blix and others have formed a Coalition for App Fairness with a goal to “create a level playing field for app businesses and give people freedom of choice on their devices.”

According to them, Apple makes $15,000,000,000+ in revenue annually from the ‘App Store tax’ (source: CNBC).

These complaints aren’t new though. And honestly, I can’t imagine Apple giving much of a shit about this; a small fine out of that annual revenue is merely a drop in the ocean.

Creating Hero Moments

I played with a Dungeon Master (DM) who imposed a “critical failure” whenever anyone rolled a one on any d20 rolls. Some of these fails would be harmful to another player (“you slip on the grass and stab your friend next to you.”) or plain dumb (“you swing so hard, you tear the seams of your pants and your ass is exposed”). He would often be the only one laughing at the table, at the expense of his players’ frustrations.

I hated that game because it not only took away player agency, it made the players’ heroic characters look pretty stupid and incompetent.

While the idea of fun might vary at every table, and would even differ with individual players at the same table, I think one universal strategy for DMs to consider for their table is to make your heroes feel like heroes. Here are a three tips I use at my table:

Maintain player agency. Players should feel like whatever happens to their characters is a direct result of their actions and decisions. As DM, you set the scene and adjudicate any choices that makes sense to you. However, be careful of letting the dice impose undue punishment especially since rolling a one on a d20 could happen with 5% of the time.

At my table, any 1’s rolled in combat automatically misses with no additional penalties. This is not only in the official rules, but missing an attack is enough of a bummer already – they don’t need any extra suck on top of that.

Attack strengths, not weaknesses. Many DMs think that creating a challenge for the player means exploiting a characters’ weaknesses. It’s easy to fall into the trap of designing encounters that a player could only solve with something they don’t have. Wizard with low constitution? Here, have a bandit party that targets the mage. Barbarian with low charisma? Here, have a town guard captain who wants to negotiate a favor. These encounters work, but most of the time, they’re overcome by sheer luck or shared party success – no one feels like a hero.

Instead, consider designing encounters that bring each character’s strength to the foreground. How about an encounter in a lair with an endless flow of baddies, and the only way out is a door with a lock that only the rogue can successfully pick while the party defends him? How about a trapped room that could only be stopped by a wizard interpreting arcane sigils engraved on the walls? When these encounters succeed, the player feels like a hero because their character’s skills and strengths were pivotal to the success.

Reward (potential) heroic moments. Every once in a while, a player might get a crazy idea in the middle of combat – “Is there a chandelier I can grab onto, and swing across the room towards the baddie and kick his face?” It’s quite acceptable for a DM to ask for a dexterity check to grab and hold onto the chandelier, a strength check to gather enough momentum to swing across the room and then, roll for an attack. There are many potential points of failure with these checks, and any of them would ruin what could potentially be a heroic moment for a character.

Instead, consider awarding advantage on the attack roll and skip the two prior skill checks altogether. “Fueled by a rush of adrenaline, you jump towards the chandelier and grab it with both hands. Your momentum swings you right across the room so fast the baddie didn’t see you coming. Roll for attack with advantage!” I do this at my table a lot because I like to keep the flow going in combat, and it really encourages the players to think creatively in every encounter.

The next time you run your game, think about how you want your player to feel. It’s important to remember that at the end of the day, everyone at the table wants to have fun and there’s no better way to do that than creating a hero moment for each of your characters.

“Regulating Technology”

This is another great essay by Benedict Evans on what most people (lawmakers included) don’t think about when they talk about regulating tech. It’s an insightful piece coming from a true expert in this space.

That’s a lot of the appeal of a phrase like ‘break them up!’ – it has a comforting simplicity, but doesn’t really give us a route to solutions. Indeed, ‘break them up’ reminds me a lot of ‘Brexit’ – it sounds simple until you ask questions. Break them up into what, and what problems would that solve? The idea that you can solve the social issues connected to the internet with anti-trust intervention is rather like thinking that you can solve the social issues that come from cars by breaking up GM and Ford.

I just can’t agree more.

Read the essay, then read it again, then thank Benedict for enlightening us.

Dark Patterns

I discovered Dark Patterns only today. It shines a light on tricks used by websites and apps to make you do things you didn’t mean to, like buying stuff or uploading your address book so they can market to your contacts.

There’s even a fantastic reading list if you want to delve deeper, and there’s a lot of design and UX implications to this.

Kudos to Alexander Darlington for this excellent work.