Icon_swordpin Articles & Tidbits

Posted these a long while back in the group forum (which is a pretty pointless forum) and I felt they were good enough to repost for the newer players and a fun read for those who missed it the first time.

Andy Collins - Active Characters
Playing a character in a tabletop roleplaying game is about more than numbers and dice-rolling. The tactical exercise of defeating your enemies is richly rewarding, but most players find that the true joy of an RPG comes from the personal interactions between the various characters of the campaign. Many folks take this a step further, crafting a personality and an intricate backstory that provides depth to the piece of paper covered with statistics. If you’re one of those folks, congratulations! No doubt you’ve played a character who grew up on the mean streets, or who vowed to keep her home town safe from marauding monsters.

Unfortunately, you’re doing it wrong.

Yeah, I can hear the gasps out there on the interwebs. “How dare he tell me how to roleplay my character?” Ease down, pal. Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about how to create an active character.

Plenty of characters have personalities or backstories, but these don’t necessarily lend themselves to active participation in the campaign storyline. The rogue defined only by where she came from doesn’t inform her player how she should act in a given situation. The paladin whose only goal is to react forcefully to attacking monsters has no roleplaying contribution to make in other situations. These aren’t active characters, these are reactive characters, waiting for the DM to put them in the right situation so they can shine.

If you’re playing a reactive character, you’re making the DM’s job harder than it needs to be. You’re like a jack-in-the-box that never pops up, and eventually the other folks at the table will get tired of winding you up.

An active character doesn’t just have a personality or a background, she has goals and points of friction that inspire her player to actively participate in crafting the ongoing story of the campaign.

A reactive character says, “I am fiercely loyal to my homeland. If anyone attacks my home, I’ll fight them to my last breath.” Well that’s super, but how often is that going to happen? If your DM’s obliging enough to provide the right stimulus, your character gets to shine, but how do you expect to convey this element of your personality during the other 29 levels of play?

On the other hand, imagine the paladin who makes this bold claim: “I am fiercely loyal to my homeland, and I am dedicated to seeking out and destroying the orc marauders who plague our eastern border.” That’s a goal that inspires action on his (and your) part, and a good DM will grab it and use it not once but potentially multiple times throughout a campaign.

And that rogue from the mean streets? All she needed to add was, “…and I don’t trust people who never experienced poverty.” Right away, the player has created a point of friction between her character and some of the people she’ll meet. A point of friction is anything that suggests that your character won’t act in the most logical and efficient manner when dealing with a situation. These points of friction create roleplaying opportunities by suggesting a particular attitude or course of action during encounters (and, if your group can handle it, between the characters in your party). Now you’re not just “a 3rd-level female half-elf rogue,” you’re “the woman who enjoys embarrassing rich people” or “the woman who thinks she’s better than the comfortable middle-class scribe she’s interrogating.”

It’s easy to accidentally create a reactive character. Plenty of popular fictional characters seem reactive on the surface: most superheroes, in fact, are horribly reactive. (Can you think of the last time that the Avengers or the Justice League went looking for trouble?) John McClane didn’t ask to be in Nakatomi Plaza when Hans Gruber attacked, right? I can imagine crafting a McClane-style character who just wants to protect innocent folks from bad guys. Pretty reactive, right? But look more closely and you see a man who a) doesn’t think much of the snooty crowd, particularly in L.A.; b) finds great pleasure in getting the better of people who count themselves as smarter or better than him; c) holds a grudge quite effectively; and most importantly, d) can’t stop himself from putting his own life in jeopardy to get the villains. Those are some interesting points of friction that will lead him to take actions that a bland, reactive character wouldn’t imagine.

Here’s another example: For all the whining that he does early on, Luke Skywalker actually has a pretty significant goal that hugely affects the storyline: he wants to become a Jedi Knight, both to live up to his father’s example and (one imagines) to avenge his father’s death. This will, among other things, cause him to, yes, leave the party for his own “side quest” during The Empire Strikes Back, which in turn sets up his battle with Darth Vader, which allows him to learn the truth about his father, and, oh, by the way, sets up the entire first act of the next movie. How do you think this would have played out if Luke had simply done everything that a purely reactive character would do? He also believes wholeheartedly in the power of the Force, which creates a point of friction between him and Han Solo.

To craft an active character, think about what your character wants to achieve during the campaign. (It helps to know the genre or world you’ll be playing in, so spend some time with your DM to learn what you can.) Don’t wait for adventure to come to you; come up with some reasons to seek it out. This doesn’t mean that you can’t also go on adventures for other reasons—not everything has to be about you.

In addition to having goals, creating a point of friction also helps you play actively by ensuring that you don’t always take the expected course. Create a little conflict: friendly conflict, of course—you’re not looking to alienate the DM or the other players at the table with your annoying troublemaker, just to keep things from getting predictable. What makes your character angry, or happy, or uncomfortable, or jealous? Pick something and find ways to display your point of friction in a manner that’s fun for everyone.

A table with active characters is not only more entertaining, it leads to a more engaging, rewarding, and memorable campaign for players and DM alike. Give it a try.


Rob Schwalb - Character Investment
It dawned on me the other day that the players have been getting the short shrift. Let me make it up to you.

Just what exactly a character is depends on the player controlling it. For one player, the character might be a collection of numbers, bound loosely to an identity, probably one created in a haphazard fashion and for the benefit of the other players. Another player might see the PC as a fully realized identity, an alter ego with personality, history, ambitions, and, maybe, even a different voice. Most, in my experience, fall somewhere between the two.

The degree of investment a player makes into the PC often depends on what brings the player to the table in the first place. As Robin Laws so masterfully pointed out, there are slayers, actors, storytellers, and watchers: Each shapes his or her character’s identity in accordance with what they hope to get out of the experience. As a DM, identifying the player types and playing to them can make a marked improvement on game play and enjoyment for everyone involved. If you have a party of slayers, for example, there’s little point weaving a complex intrigue. Likewise, the game may fall to pieces should you throw a party of actors and storytellers in a dungeon week in and week out.

Sometimes, though, it’s difficult for a DM to recognize the cues. The inability may stem from sheer ignorance, especially if the the DM skipped that part in the DMG. It could also arise from players who don’t quite fit into a player archetype. I find most players are composites, some being actors and storytellers, slayers and instigators, and so on. While I do think it’s possible to run a good game without recognizing player motivations, I’m not sure its possible to run a great game.

The task of identifying the players’ interests is not the DM’s alone. Players have a part in this as well. There’s a lot you can do to share your interests, aside from just telling the DM straight to his or her face. (You might not know what type of player you are or what you’re really after in the game.) I find the best way is to simply invest in your character.

What I mean by character investment is to examine your adventurer with a fresh set of eyes. Look beyond the feat, power, feature combinations and consider just who exactly this hero is. For some, this is easy and much of the groundwork may be done ahead of time through painstaking notes and background information the player has already worked out. Others might find this a bit daunting, especially if you’re not at the table to wax about your character’s feelings. How does one invest? You do so by grounding your character in the game, through what I like to call anchors. There’s no right number of anchors. You can have one or a dozen. Each anchor, however, reveals something about your PC and his or her place in the world. An anchor is a story element that describes something about your character and past experiences. I’ll include a few examples so you can see what I’m talking about.

Hometown: Your character had to come from somewhere. Even if wolves raised your barbarian, they did so in a place and at a specific time. Come up with a hometown. This could be a place in the campaign setting or it could be a smaller, less significant location such as a hamlet or village. Consider what life was like there, who you knew, and who you didn’t. What kind of upbringing did your character have? What was your quality of life? Did you know your parents? What did they do to put food on the table? Similarly, did you have any siblings? What do they do and who are they? Finally, why did you leave your hometown? What was the event or circumstance that led you to leave all that you knew and venture out into the unknown.

Foil: As much as I think we would all like to believe that we get along famously with everyone we’ve ever met, each one of probably has someone out there that doesn’t like us. I can think of a couple. If this is true for us, it’s also true for your character. Who is this person? What is the source of your animosity? Are you to blame? What did you do? Or, what didn’t you do? A foil doesn’t have to be a enemy seeking your death, though it might be. A foil can simply be someone you disappointed, offended, frustrated, or harmed. This character might resurface in your life, perhaps to exact revenge or maybe to give you the chance for redemption.

Goal: Most folks work toward something. Yes, there are some people who are content to wile away their time doing nothing, but I believe even these folks are striving for something even if they don’t realize it. What does your character hope to achieve in life? I’m not talking about mechanics here. Saying you want to be a demigod may be your goal, but it’s unlikely to be something your starting character would even dream of accomplishing. Better choices could be finding your father’s ancestral sword, rescuing a sibling from the Shadowfell, visiting the Shrine of Okal-Ma, where the great mystic and healer is believed to have died. Or something like this.

Other possibilities include Traumas, Loves, Fears, Failures, Accomplishments, and so on.

You don’t have to write a 1,000 words to set up this information. It might be enough to scribble down something like “Lothar of the Hill People went on long walks with the women in his village. One woman he prized was Pooklah of the Twin Peaks. A bear mauled her. Now Lothar is sad.” You just need enough to give your DM a few hooks to play with down the road.

Once you assemble your anchors, share them with your DM. Send it in an email or hand him or her a note. A DM may note use everything you create, but offering this information demonstrates you commitment to the game’s development and also reveals the sorts of stories that interest you. When the game turns involves your anchor, it gives you a chance to gain the spotlight, to immerse in the world, and to give your efforts meaning. Such experiences help develop your character into an interesting and memorable figure with the all-around result of enriching the play experience.


Rob Schwalb - The 60 Second Turn
There’s always that guy (girl). Always. It’s your turn. You know what you’re going to do. Move, attack, do something funky and you’re done. Forty-five seconds tops. And then it’s his/her turn. Shuffling papers. Questions. Scrutiny of the battlefield. More questions. One minute becomes two. Two become four. The turn finally ends. Two turns later, the player remembers something. The game stops. The DM inserts the shotgun into his mouth and pulls the trigger.

That’s a bit extreme, but there’s nothing more frustrating in a game than an unprepared player.

Combat is a big chunk of Dungeons & Dragons. One might even go so far as to say the default mode of play is combat (across all editions thank you) and thus it should come to no surprise that most sessions involve several battles featuring a wide range of interesting and challenging opponents. A combat should take about an hour to play, less if you cut a few corners, yet I often find it takes much longer when certain players are present. I don’t want to pick on anyone in particular, but I should point out that if I have 6 players and each player takes a minute-long turn, then everyone has to wait about six minutes (including my turn) before they get to go again. This is fine. Only the most anxious people can’t pay attention for five or so minutes. Yet if a player takes 5 minutes or more to resolve his or her turn and you have two or even three players who require this kind of time, then not even the most attentive player will be able to keep his or her attention focused. The result is longer turns for everyone else.

In the interest of speeding up combat, here are some tips players can use to keep their turns short and combat exciting.

1. Print your Character Sheet

Character Builder makes it tempting to play the game from a laptop (or some other magical device). If you level up mid-game (which I no longer let happen), you can make the adjustments on the fly. If there’s a rules question, you can bring up the Compendium in an instant. The drawbacks, however, far outweigh the benefits. For starts, you have to scroll up and down to find the mechanical nugget you’re looking for. As well, I’m not quite sure that CB lets you mark which powers you’ve used, so you have to keep a running list of what you’ve used and what you haven’t. (The old CB did, I know.) Even if you have the page containing your power showing, what happens when you want to use a utility power on page 4? Well, you have to scroll down to that page, review the power and then announce what it does.

This may seem nitpicky, but if this process adds a minute to your turn and everyone does this, it takes twice as long for your turn to come around.

I copied the article wholesale, but I disagree with this one. A better statement is KNOW YOUR CHARACTER SHEET. Whether it's printed or a digital, know where your powers are and how they work. Review for errata and corrections before the game, etc.. ~ Dustin

2. Crowd the Table

We play on a very large table. Very large. People spread out all around and once situated, they tend not to move, asking other players to move their miniatures. This requires another player (or me) to interpret where you want to go, adding more time to the turn.

Rather than hang back and let inertia keep you planted in your seat, get up, move over to the battlemat and take your turn. This is even easier when you have a paper character sheet since you can bring it with you.

3. Don’t Help

This is a big one. Unsolicited advice is a giant pain in the ass. It never fails. Player X takes his/her turn. Players Y, Z, and A chime in with suggestions about what X should do. X might have had an idea but now X has to consider the other options presented by the other players. So, my advice? Shut the hell up. The time to talk over tactics with a player is not when that player is in the middle if his or her turn. The time to talk is between turns, quietly so you don’t end up being a distraction. If, however, X asks for help, then offer advice. And keep it short and to the point. It’s not your turn and it’s not your character. The decision rests with the player. Offer your opinion and then be quiet.

4. Know What You’re Going to Do/Pay Attention

When you start your turn, you should already have an idea about what you’re going to do. This is not the time for you to sort through your powers, figure out where you want to move, or solicit advice from other players. If you don’t know what you’re going to do, delay. This way no one else has to wait on you.

Instead of talking about football, Avatar, or something else when it’s not your turn, watch the battlefield. Choose your powers. Plot your next move. Devise a tactic with a nearby player. Do whatever you need to be ready when it’s time to take your turn. You might even go a step further and construct a few attack combos ahead of time so you know what powers to use and in what order based on the situation.

5. Review Your Character Sheet

Before the game starts, take a few minutes to review your character sheet. Check your math. Review your feats. Take notes. If something changed such as you gained a new power or feat, take that information to the DM and show him or her the tech so there aren’t questions in the game. Also, if you have a question about a power or feat, the time to ask is before the game starts. You’ll know you have a question because you’ve taken the five minutes to examine your character sheet.

6. Make Reasonable Choices

Immediate and free action powers extend your turn into other creatures’ turns. Every time you use one of the powers, the game stops while you resolve your clever power and add more time to your turn. One or two of these powers is fine. Filling every utility and attack power with these is not. It’s inconsiderate and annoying. So stop it.

7. Dice

When it’s not your turn, don’t roll your dice on the table to get out the bad luck. Don’t stack your dice into towers. Don’t put your dice in your mouth. Leave them alone. Also, when rolling your dice, roll them on the table where everyone can see them. Don’t use a dice roller app on your phone. Don’t roll the dice behind your books. Don’t roll your dice and sweep them up. This has nothing to do with time. It’s just courtesy. Guilty, guilty, guilty ~ Dustin

This is a good advice column from one of 4e's most prolific designers. I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but there is wisdom even in those I have contention with.
I often have conversations about DM'ing, or get asked for suggestions on how to game, or what have you. Never have I said or come across anything more valuable than everything said in the below link. If you want to be a great DM, read, re-read, and apply.

The Tao of D&D - How to Dungeon Master
And here is the article covering, in depth, what I was talking about skills in the critique forum:

5 simple rules for dating my teenaged skill system
And, finally, here's the article about the Plot Deck:

Plot Deck - Adam Dray