DM Notes: When Players Attack

The Gloriana campaign started this weekend, and it was a lot of fun. Depending on how the party feels I might share their adventures here/on Obsidian Portal–stay tuned on that. There’s at least one story I feel the need to share, and it’s something any DM will be familiar with: That moment when the players assume something that, while untrue, is cooler than what you came up with, and therefore needs to become true.

Our heroes traveled to the burial ground of an ancient Druid in search of answers to a personal mystery. I gave them a brief description of the mound–covered in green grass, trailing with mist, and dotted with silver whorl flowers. Before long they’d found their way in (not before picking one of the flowers) and studied a plaque depicting the story of the druid. I read off a description of beautiful paintings in berry ink, with scene after scene of emotional drama–here’s the king of the forest passing judgement, here’s the druid turning into a bear and battling a knight, here’s the druid’s mother weeping silver tears over the grave–and immediately a player interjects. “The flowers must be her tears!”

This wasn’t true before someone said it. I was making up the pictographs on the fly (from some basic notes) and hadn’t planned on using the word silver. In fact, I had a completely different idea in mind for what the flowers signified (they were always supposed to be important). However, I recognized how much better this assumption was than my original plan, so now, that’s the case. It hasn’t taken too much adjustment to the lore or plotline and it opens up some interesting new opportunities.

Traditionally Dungeons and Dragons is the archetypical game of power dichotomy–the Dungeon Master has control over the plot and everything that isn’t the player characters, and the players have control of their characters (within the agreement of the DM). But the trend in roleplaying games is towards more story/narrative focused systems. Just look at the success of FATE for an example. I’m a big fan of a system called PDQ put out by Atomic Sock Monkey press. It has built in mechanics that allow the players to add characters and details to the world (much like the Declarations system in FATE). That said, the power bestowed on the DM by the writers of D&D has always included power over the rules and stipulations of the game itself, and 5th edition has done a fantastic job of making this clear. When my players have good ideas, I want to incorporate them. Anything that encourages participation and investment in the lore is a good thing.

Let’s (Not) make a deal

In the world of speculative fiction (and occasionally crime drama as well), one of the time honored plots is “Someone makes a deal with a/the devil and it goes poorly.” We just started watching Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and in the very first episode a character makes a deal with a supernatural entity for power beyond his own means. In the second episode, the consequences of that deal begin to manifest. Half of plots could be avoided with a little genre savvy (the other half by anything resembling decent attempts at communication), and RPG players tend to be extremely so.

If you’re running a horror game, the odds that the party will separate voluntarily are pretty damn slim (unless the mechanics of the game encourage deliberately poor decision making). Similarly, there have only been a few times in my campaigns where a player has agreed to a pact with supernatural powers, and only when they did it for the sake of the story. A player trying to play optimally assumes that all such deals inevitably end with getting screwed, and will reject them every time.

So how can you include the fairy/demon/lovecraftian horror/genie/eldritch chaos demon triangle plying the characters with power in exchange for unspecified favors without letting it become completely discredited? First off, I think that there needs to justification for said entity to screw the players. Do all supernatural patrons enter into pacts purely to mess with mortal heads and teach subjugated peasants not to take shortcuts to circumvent the social order? No, they have to have their own agendas. Sure in the case of a fiend they want that sweet sweet tasty soul, but a fairy should want something bizarre and specific. Hell, even a fiend might be looking to advance some other agenda, of which the player is merely part, not the focus.

The two occasions on which a player took the deal are noteworthy for a few reasons. First off, it was the same guy both times, and he talked things out with me out of character. Second, both times it was to advance the plot, not simply to get more plusses or sabotage things. In both cases he had a justification for why his character would do what he did, and he made arrangements for it to complicate the story without harming the other players’ fun. If you’re lucky enough to have this sort of player in your game, go to town. Otherwise, beating the genre savvy takes a lot of careful specificity and a track record of not-always-hosing-your-players-to-teach-them-a-lesson.

Update: 2016

2016 begins! I’ve been posting the occasional update to Facebook and Twitter, but just to make sure everything’s on the same page, here’s whats up with the what:


  • Second recording session for Steampunk campaign is tentatively scheduled for the 24th. Hopefully this will get some better audio!
  • Tormented By Gnomes now has a Twitch channel and Steam group!
    • The plan is to schedule and stream Dark Souls, Project Zomboid, and Dragon’s Dogma when that comes out. I’ll also be impromptu streaming HELLDIVERS gameplay with some of the TBG team.
  • I’ve started recording some footage from an ongoing 5th Edition D&D campaign called Refuge. I don’t think I’ll post full clips, but outtakes and highlights. It’s a good group.


While the whole TBG project has been slow to launch and has changed directions a few times, I’m happy to be exploring options and finding what works best for me, for the site, and for you. Thanks for your patience!

Passive Aggression for Fun and Profit

It is the function of the Game Master to give players as much rope as they ask for–above and beyond the 50′ each member of the party is obligated to carry–that they might hang themselves. Running a game is very much like writing a horror story–the more you leave up to their imaginations, the worse the situation gets.

Most of the players in my ongoing D&D 5E campaign are relative neophytes. For many of them, I’m the only GM they’ve ever known. They are pushing 5th and 6th level for the first time. With the exception of my longtime friend and resident optimizer, they have yet to fight their first dragon, cast their first Teleport, etc etc. But I think I’ve done a good job so far–when we had a couple of guest players, both veterans, they asked me after the session: “They’re so afraid–What did you do to them?”

To get to this delicious level of Player PTSD, I’ve relied on one of the classic DM tricks–tell them what they sense. It’s amazing what adding a couple of so-called weasel words can do. For example, tell the players that “There seems to be a large pile of gold in the center of the room” or “The bridge appears to be solid.” If you’ve done your job, they will approach it with fear and trepidation.

Eventually, this trains your players to ask smart questions, actively telling where they look and what they do. I really like how 5th edition goes back to the old Search mechanic–while you do have the Investigate skill to get you started, the players are really supposed to tell you how they’re searching the wall. “I roll to investigate” and “You find a hidden door” pales in comparison to “I check the bookshelf, nudging the books out of line to see if any of them are attached to a hidden lever.”

It can also have some unproductive results, however. Some of my players are complaining that they spend a great deal of time cautiously poking around empty rooms and normal hallways. It’s also led them on some wrong turns–over the last several months they’ve been exploring the same megadungeon, in search of a mystical Forge, and each time they try to locate it they pick up on a clue that may or may not be real and end up hilt-deep in another fight against damage resistant Helm Horrors.

Finding the balance between letting the players truly explore on their own vs guiding them towards the best content is tricky. It’s easier when you make sure that everything the PCs can do in your gaming environment is interesting, but that involves a great deal of prepwork (or some truly excellent improvisation).

The Alchemy of Parties

This post will contain no information about kegs, proper music, venues, or how to get girls to come to your party (though you SHOULD have some girls in your adventuring party, and we can talk about that later).

The Steampunk group is shaping up. We’ve got a lot of players (somewhere in the 6-9 range) and that can be a challenge. Keeping players engaged, keeping a modicuum of sanity to myself, and making sure that the spotlight shines on everyone is difficult. I’ve got a head start with the PDQ# system–it always takes a little while to explain, but once players grasp the core concepts they intuitively get it and can move quickly.

The trick is to be friendly but assertive. I’ve had the most success when I move from person to person, making sure they feel important when it is their turn–that their actions matter and drive the story. But if they start to bog things down with details, or just take more time than works for the group as a whole, give them a clear sign that you need to wrap up their action. Encourage players across the table to think about what they’re going to do and remind them when their turn is imminent. Make sure that most encounters have something for every player to do, a challenge to which their strengths are particularly suited.

That’s how I plan to address the actual table time issues, but there are a few other elements at play–an unfamiliar system with a lot of flexibility, for starters. I really like narrative, free-form systems–while I haven’t played too many tabletop games myself, I spent way too much time on free-form roleplay sites like Legend of the Green Dragon. There weren’t too many rules there, aside from 1) Everyone gets to decide what happens to their character and 2) You can only get away with what your peers will let you get away with. That was an excellent experience for figuring out how to portray a character as talented but not Mary-Sue esque (you will hear the crap out of this stuff later on), and it also helped me get good at trying to include diverse characters in a single plot.

A lot of folk are uncomfortable with the amount of choice–there’s no list of feats or skills to pick from! I’ve decided to start by asking people to come up with a concept and throwing a bunch of inspiration sources at them. As long as they have a cool idea, we can bring it to life.

Which brings me to the last challenge–experience. In most of the games I’ve run over the years, 50% of the players have little to no experience. I firmly hold that it is the GM’s job to know the rules and prevent them from getting in the way of fun. Not by ignoring them (though Rule 0 holds true) but by managing them behind the scenes until the players are comfortable and interested enough to learn them themselves. It can get old waiting for someone to figure out how to calculate their attack bonus for the twentieth time, but patience and compassion here can be the difference between introducing a great new player to the craft and driving yet another person away from the clubhouse.

Phase 1: Everything is Better with Phases

For the record, we’ve only divided our plan into phases because I really want to say THATS MAH FAVORITE PHAAAASE when we get to Phase Two. Plus, if it’s good enough for Marvel, it’s good enough for me.

The starship combat game has been moved to Phase 2. As my last post, the ideas we’ve got for the system will take a while to get right. Moving to a card game is exciting and, I think, will be a BLAST to play–but it means a lot of playtesting and logistics and art my god the art that we’ll need. So, in order to prevent Mission Creep from bringing the project into the doldrums, we humbly introduce Phase 1.

The year is 1868. Ever since Isaac Newton, The Last Alchemist, discovered the process for refining and harvesting Aether, nations and city-states have raced to exploit this bizarre power source and gain the advantage, leading to an earth with which you and I may not be familiar. Airships cross the Atlantic in record time. African Kings build mighty centers of culture and learning. Three divided nations emerge from the aether-poisoned ashes of a terrible Civil War. And in the midst of this world of floating cities and madcap inventions, a curious crew of troubleshooters and ne’er-do-wells takes a job from a shady–but wealthy–proprietor.

The new campaign will be powered by the PDQ# system, the product of Chad Underkoffler’s mind. I’ve run a game or two on this system including his Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies and it was a lot of fun. We’ve got a good crew picked out and we’re doing character creation right now. First recording session is in a couple of weeks. Look forward to actual play podcasts shortly thereafter!

First Playtest Results

On Tuesday, the regular D&D crowd came over for some slightly different fare. Used to the elegance of D&D Next, I subjected them to a system that has more in common with Star Fleet Battles than good old d20. They had a ton of great feedback from the get go, before the first die hit the table. For example, allocating power is really difficult when you use the same color tokens for newly generated power and reserve power. I had an elaborate vision in mind for yellow and green tiles placed strategically across the sheet, but using coins made it clear that this could be complex. Also, combining Tactical Advantage (no relation to 4th edition’s rule of the same name) with Initiative was too much–our heroes blasted the modified freighter pirate ship with impunity, having gained both.

Ultimately, there were a lot of features that they didn’t like when they heard about it at first, but liked in practice. I came away from the session with ideas for refining the system. Since this is meant to support a spacefaring RPG, not constitute the bulk of it, starship fights need to be exciting. I want the players to think “Ok, how are we going to handle this assault” or “Oh, if we do this side mission we can upgrade our plasma cannons!” What I don’t want is “Ugh, that’s going to take forever. Let’s just board them immediately/jump away/do whatever it takes to NOT shoot at each other in space.”

Working now with one of my long time co-conspirators to overhaul this, and we’re looking to take it in a Dominion-ish deckbuilding game. I’m realizing that if this looks good, it’s going to take a ton of time to prep. Makes me want to start on some other project that can get off the ground sooner, because my huge freaking I-swear-I’m-not-a-sex-toy-but-kinda-look-like-a-sex-toy Yeti Microphone just arrived, it sounds amazing, and I wanna DO something with it!

Game Plan: What’s Going On?

The point of making a blog post at this stage in a project is to give future archive trawlers something to do at 3am on a shame-fueled bout of insomnia. Hello, frazzled procrastinators of the future! I envy you your world of unfathomable progress, technology and cultural revolution. Is Trump president-for-life yet? What destroyed America first, global warming or moral decay? I wish I knew. For now, give our new reptilian overlords my regards and ask them not to build a breeding pit on my property. The land here is full of rocks and clay and digging out a spawning pool would be an absolute BITCH.

All that aside, let’s get down to business (To defeat…THE huns). What’s going on here? TormentedByGnomes is destined to be a tabletop role playing blog/social media presence, because a quick googling showed me that this is an underrepresented market. The only thing the internet needs more than another RPG blog is another two-gamers-on-a-couch webcomic.

The main course will be an Actual Play podcast. The game in question is a d20 future campaign I’ve run a few times, and slowly improved on each playthrough. This time around I want to really flesh out the game, fixing weird plot glitches, balancing gameplay, and implementing a few mods & homebrew bits that, when executed, should shine. Right now, that means working on a starship battle system that will add all the cool stuff that space opera should incorporate (Reroute power to the whatever! All weapons fire on my mark! Reverse thrust! Etc) while staying playable. It’s going to involve props, lots of props. I think my starship battle sheet prototype is ready for primetime.

My prototype is basically a piece of paper covered in sticky notes.
With sticky-note battle damage action!

Outside of that, I’m armed with 17 years of game mastering experience that I intend to milk for all its worth. Stay tuned for War Story Wednesdays, Tales from the Text-Based RPGs, guests, one-shots, drunken gaming (it always ends up happening), and more.

What else are we working on? Well, for starters, some website design. I have flat out never done this (any horrors of HTML you may find on the interwebs that contradict this are malevolent propaganda) so getting some good presentation set up is new territory. Fortunately, I’m not alone in this endeavor. My horrific co-conspirator knows a lot more about them there dee zines than me.

So, future midnight owls, the heart-breaking beauty of craftsmanship you gaze upon now was once a drafty skeleton of a default wordpress. Remember that when you’re googling all the Best Internet of the Whole Internets awards we’ve won.

How do I log in?

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