Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Identifying and Defusing Player Frustration

Frustration, annoyance, or anger?
Frustration in players is an important emotion that GM's need to observe and manage in order to run a fun game.  Provide a good challenge and things are fun, but go too far or hit the wrong trigger, and you can turn the game sour for your frustrated player.  It isn't always readily apparent when different people, especially strangers, become frustrated, angry, or annoyed, but it is a skill a GM should develop.  This article touches on what happens when players get frustrated, how to identify it, and how to defuse it.

The first thing to understand is that transitioning from annoyed to frustrated to angry is a non-linear process that can progress quickly with relatively little instigation.  Start off with a tired individual trying to unwind from a long day, throw in some real life stress, have them feel a little bit guilty for taking time a way to game, and you have a powder keg ready to explode under the wrong set of circumstances.  As a GM you may only have the intent of providing a reasonable challenge, but sometimes it doesn't turn out that way.

Setting off that powder keg usually first starts with hitting a pet peeve of the individual.  People often become annoyed when something happens that appears unfair, biased, or otherwise against their expectations.  This can be as simple as having a monster with a difficult to overcome immunity to damage, or something as complex as making a ruling that inadvertently breaks a player's character. I've even seen players get upset over the words a GM used to express himself in game. Your first line of defense in these cases, is try to get to know your players, their character, and their expectation well in advance.  Second, try to keep an open dialogue in place between you and your players so they will immediately speak up when they have an issue.  These two things go a long way in keeping a game running smooth.

Being open to corrections in and out of game goes a long way.  Make mistakes early in your game, let the players correct you, and show appreciation for their help.  This early demonstration of openness goes a long way to teaching your players they can trust you.  In addition, ask your players for feedback on the good and the bad in the game.  This further encourages them to vent when something is wrong.

Frustration sometimes turns into passive withdrawal
from the game.
Even if you've gotten to know your players and their characters, it is easy to miss something and hit a trigger.  When you hit the trigger, look for nonverbal queues of frustration and stress.  A stressed player will change their facial expressions, often hold their head or upper body, and may even change their position with respect to the table (either moving back or leaning forward).  Verbally, listen for words like "unfair", or words that express anger like saying a foe is "pissing them off".  They may use exclamatory phrases.  Their face may redden.  They may withdraw from actively participating in the game suddenly, perhaps crossing their arms.  They may verbally cue that they are reassessing the situation and game when they start their turn.  Whether passive or aggressive, frustration will change the players behavior.

When you identify a frustrated or angry individual in your group, try to defuse the situation slowly.  Give them some immediate verbal and nonverbal cues that you are paying attention to them, such as eye contact and asking them a question.  Offer options if they are in a difficult situation.  Often a simple gesture to let them know everyone is playing cooperatively will help them recover from their frustration.  If need be, get to a stopping point and call a break.  Talk to the player in a non-confrontational way, asking perhaps if everything is OK, and if there is anything you can help with.  Be a caring GM by showing your players that you care.

Ultimately, when you find that point of frustration, talk it over and try to be accommodating.  Rule zero is that everyone has fun, so try to be flexible to ensure each player is truly having fun.  Still, in some cases, some players might not be happy with your game.  Maybe you can help them to find a game that is better to their liking, or do something else to help them along.  Just because they are leaving your group, its no reason to be any less caring.  Helping other to enjoy the hobby is good for all us.
Violence is never OK at the table, but focus on
safety first.  Don't confront a violent person.

In closing, I offer one caution that every GM should consider.  In rare cases, people at the table can become so angry that they may become violent.  In these cases, always consider the well-being of yourself and your players first.  Violence cannot be tolerated, but also it is more important to keep people safe than to confront some one.  Should violence erupt, get people away from the violent person, let them cool off, and once the situation is calm, eliminate them from your future game.

The Next Campaign: How to Invest My Limited Gaming Time

I'm distraught, trying to whittle down what my next investment of gaming time should be.  I tried to put together a GM's Pathfinder game with rotating GMs, but that fell through due to lack of interest.  I am still considering playing in a Pathfinder game or perhaps GMing a Pathfinder game.  I've considered putting together a Ponyfinder game.  I've even looked at a Dark Sun campaign in 5e.

I am distraught that Pathfinder has blown apart with so much bloat and so many classes that it is almost unplayable in some sense.  Maybe I will host a Pathfinder game with just a couple of core books and custom races.

I've been thinking of resurrecting an old project for a new world for Pathfinder.  This world would have all custom races from the start.  It could be interesting, as it engages elements of both Dark Sun and a small world type campaign.  The custom races is becoming a challenge, because I really need visuals of the races.  Maybe I should spend some time image searching for inspiration.

Still, I really want to play in a Pathfinder campaign.  They are hard to find with the same story all over -- too many players, too few GMs.

Still other parts of my hobby could use some more time.  I still have hundreds of miniatures to paint, terrain to build, and a Pathfinder cyberpunk path to rewrite.

And I've been mulling over a new project, a tech project, drawing on some of my other skills.  I've been thinking about how to write an AI GM.

In the background, I've been mulling over what I really want to do in the bigger scheme of things.  Where do I want to live, what job do I want to have, what do I want to show for life.  Its a weird way to spend time, thinking between life and gaming.  Still, at the end of the day, I think all that any of us can do is figure out what we want to do, and do it.

Friday, April 24, 2015

D&D 5e Beastmaster Ranger

The beastmaster ranger is one of those classes in D&D 5e that has been proclaimed underpowered and that is generally avoided.  For giving up significant, attack, defense, and damage capabilities from Hunter, the ranger gets an animal companion.  The problem is that the animal companion doesn't scale very well, and the ranger has to give up his own action to command the animal companion to do anything useful.

I understand the philosophy behind the way this class was built.  The action economy doesn't easily accommodate having two character with a full set of actions without becoming overpowered.  However, having two creatures share an action economy is also a big problem, because it just isn't effective, especially with the underpowered stats of the animal companion.  Compare this against the druid wildshape, for example, where the animal and character stats effectively stack, and you can see why this combination is underwhelming.

Had the design focused on limiting either the action economy or the stats, I think this combination would be better.  Having a heavy hitter that can go into combat at your beckon call instead of you would be effective.  Having a lightly-statted animal companion that can have full actions also seems effective, although in a different way.  However, combining the two earned it the label of underpowered.

One suggested fix, which I think closely matches the intent without disrupting the balance totally is making controlling the animal companion's action a bonus action for the ranger.  This still nerfs the action economy of the ranger slightly while giving the animal companion logical action in battle like attacking each round.  Even with its understated stats this makes it effective.  Keep in mind that a bonus action is pretty powerful for a ranger, allowing for things like effective use of Hunter's Mark.

The other problem is that the base stats of a CR 1/4 animal just are ridiculous, even with the ranger stat bumps, at higher levels.  A suggested fix for this is to increase the CR per wildshape of the animal companion.  This allows the ranger to pick up more effective animal companions at higher levels. Generally, this does not impact HP in any meaningful way.  In does give slight bumps in AC, attack damage, and saves required to keep an animal companion from dying in one shot.

So let's run the numbers.  A normal bow ranger using Hunter gets Colossus Slayer for an additional 1d8 damage per turn and Hunter's Mark for an additional 1d6.  These both kick in the 3rd to 7th level range.  In exchange for this, the old ranger got to lose his turn for a CR 1/4 attack.  For the wolf, a popular choice, this is a 2d4+4 attack + possible (but unlikely) trip.  So in this case, we lose 1d8 longbow plus DEX plus 1d6 plus 1d8 for 2d4+4.  We are outmatched by the hunter, especially since encounters rarely last longer than 3 to 5 rounds, AND our wolf is easily in one shot danger (level 3 at 12 hp to level 7 at 28 hp).  If you substitute the bonus action control in these same levels, we now are giving up our Hunter's Mark 1d6 for 2d4+4.  Of course, this 2d4+4 is quite a bit less effective, since the wolf is still in one shot danger, but we are at an even trade.

One minor issue with this is that the level 7 Beastermaster class ability is useless.  My suggestion is to replace it with the ability to swap places (per teleport) with your animal companion as a bonus action once per long rest, so long as the character and animal companion are no more than 30 ft apart.

Time will tell if WoTC will fix this class or give us a better alternative.  In the meantime, though, I think we can bring it back to life with these simple changes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Mess of Pathfinder: How to Sort Out Character Creation Rules

Pathfinder has turned into a mess.  What is worse is that it is becoming harder and harder to sort through this mess and define a character creation ruleset that is reasonable.  Currently I am working through this very problem with a group of GMs and I thought it would be worth a post to address.

First let's address the history of Pathfinder and what makes up Pathfinder.  The first thing to note is that Paizo makes Pathfinder so they are the primary publisher.  Third party publishers fall into two categories -- Psionics and non-psionics.  Dreamscarred published books on the psionics extension and they are quite good and relatively balanced.  All of the other 3rd party context not dealing with psionics is of questionable balance and must be judged one piece at a time.  This includes options like Dreamscarred's Path of War that drastically re-balances martial classes.

Not even looking at Paizo stuff, there is a lot to cover.  They basically publish in one of five ways.  Hardcover books make up the bulk of Pathfinder and is usually the classes and major element.  Adventure Paths are adventures that often have associated content, such as player guides, that include adventure/setting specific content.  Setting books cover portions of Golarion and beyond in either hardcover or softcover, and they also contain setting specific character content.  The Paizo blog also sometimes publishes content.  Additional oftcover supplements are also published on specific topics and contain content.

Delving into the hardcover books, you'll find three distinct categories.  Player-focused books contain character creation and equipment content.  Bestiaries include monsters.  GM-focused books include content meant just for helping GMs.

Online content basically falls into 2 categories.  The PRD is published by Paizo and includes all GPL (i.e. rules content) from the hardcover books.  The SRD is published by a 3rd party and contains most all Paizo and non-Paizo GPL content.

Now, generally rule sets can be controlled using all of these sources roughly in the order that they were released and including older stuff but not newer stuff, but there are exceptions when in comes to including classes and such.  In addition, there are the Pathfinder Society rules which are entirely another options that cover a wide cross-section of possibilities.

The two alternative sets of rules that also can come into play are gestalt rules (using double classes at each level) or mythic rules.  These essentially change the game entirely.

So in conclusion, here is the quick and easy set of options to choose for rules possibilities for a Pathfinder game.  Numbered options are exclusive of each other, while options with bullet points can be included / excluded independently.

  1. Pathfinder Society Rules
  2. SRD with 3rd Party Content
  3. SRD with Dreamscarred Psionics Only
  4. SRD with 3rd Party a la Carte
  5. SRD Paizo Only
  6. PRD Only
  7. PRD No Technology Guide
  8. A la Carte
    • Core (Required)
    • Advanced Player's Guide
    • Advanced Race Guide
    • Advanced Class Guide
    • Ultimate Combat
    • Ultimate Magic
    • Ultimate Equipment
    • Ultimate Campaign
    • Occult Adventures
  • Gestalt (optional for options 2-8)
  • Mythic (optional for options 2-8)
*Pathfinder Unchained was not yet available at the time, so was not included.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Charm of the Forgotten Realms

I don't remember much about my first games growing up when I was introduced to D&D.  The settings were always dungeons or crypts, and as the magic user, I was probably going to die.  I still loved it.  Magic missile was the coolest thing I had ever heard of.

As I grew older, my tastes broadened, but my awareness of setting didn't.  It was always some crypt, some dungeon, some thing in someplace that we had to defeat.  I started writing my own games, my own settings, and suddenly my world of Innsbruck came alive.  I ran the memory out on my Commodore 64 trying to program in a virtual GM to lead me on adventures.

For years, it was a dark age of gaming for me.  I had never seen a D&D book in a store.  I only knew a few friends that had the books and they wouldn't let me borrow them.  I wrote my own, recruited my nieces and nephews to play, and wrote computer programs so I could play.

Then one day my friend introduced me to Baldur's Gate.  The 2 CD set was incomplete, just and introduction, but still amazing.  Soon I found the follow-ons and Baldur's Gate 2 and Neverwinter Nights and II.  It was a decade long adventures in the Forgotten Realms.  By the end, I knew every city, every magistrate, every nook and cranny of those digital realms.  I had met Elminster, I had been put under a gaes by Halaster and I had saved the world a half a dozen times.  I learned the Realms.

The beauty of the Realms was that it was a place full of stories, in every setting, in every way imaginable, all intertwined the way the real world is.  You could walk down any given street and know that wonder and amazement was just there, waiting for you to take a peek.

I tried other things in college and thereafter -- Shadowrun, GURPS, RIFTs.  It felt like cheating.  It never grew again like that world before it.

In my second age of gaming, when my daughters became old enough, I taught them 3.5 and we explored the Realms once more.  Elminster made his appearance, Waterdeep was under attack, things were afoot in Chult.  It's been more than a decade since I rekindled that second spark into a full fledge addiction, having place dozens of Forgotten Realms resources on my shelves.  I still admire the Realms more than any other setting.  It's depth is unmatched, but at the center of it, still beats the heart of a storyteller and his bands of characters.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Channeling the Terror that is the Easter Bunny

With each of my daughters, I made the yearly pilgrimage to the mall to get the oh-so-desired picture of them in their cute little Easter dresses with the Easter Bunny.  Well, in advance, they were told of the wonders of the Easter Bunny, of how he would bring candies and gifts and hide eggs for them to find.  None of this ever caused a stir.  But, at the moment they were brought over in their tiny little shiny black shoes or handed over from mother or father's arms, there was a tremendous terror growing in them.  Screaming, crying, pleading, and begging erupted, with their poor mother or me left trying to coax an acceptable picture out of them with whatever bribery I could muster.

The bottom line is that words and deeds alone cannot prepare children for the horror that is a five and a half foot tall Easter Bunny with white or cyan fur, large glassy eyes, and teeth that seem better fitted to chomping at arms and legs than at the carrots left by children.  This creature is the epitome of nightmares for a child, somethings that is ultimately terrifying, but something that their parents will not protect them from.

This kind of fear is what I want to capture in my horror games; however, it is very difficult to catch an adult off-guard with a life size version of the monsters which we use in our games.  Perhaps if I had my own warehouse somewhere and all the time and money I could desire, I could build full size prop monsters for my games.  The gelatin for the gelatinous cube alone would be a fortune.  It doesn't seem likely.

So instead of scaring my players with the reality of the sight of these monsters, I need to play the same old tricks capture by Chris Carter in The X Files, basically, not showing them the monster.  Instead we have to hint at it,  smell it, hear it, taste the caustic air around it, feel the squish of the slime, and hear the crack of the bones as it bites.  Instead of sight, we substitute all of the other senses that let the fear bellow from within the imagination of the party.  Then finally, at the last possible moment, we place the gruesome miniature on the table, with the words "Roll for initiative".

Building true horror is about pushing the right buttons so there is a tinge of bleed from the character's emotions into the player.  Before a horror game, I find out from the players both what their characters are afraid of and what they are afraid of.  I hone in on which sense they avoid with horror.  Some players can't stand the smell of things; other players can't stand the feel of gore; others twinge at the breaking of bones.  All these little buttons allow the GM to take on a new role as the orchestrator of fear and disgust.

Before delving into this, though, there is another important question that I as a GM must put out there.  Where is the line?  For each player it is different, but at some point for each, the game might go too far.  Knowing where that line is, and staying away from it is very important.  The game of horror might purposefully delve outside the room of the comfortable, but it cannot delve into the realm of no longer fun.  Fright is that this corridor between the two.

In the end, I have never made a player cry out screaming with the pure terror of my children in the hands of that rabbit, but I do hope that I have been able to frighten them just enough to have a fun horror game.