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Making characters with the DM

Something that one player and I always do is make his characters for my campaigns together. It's something that works really well, for both of us, and I think it's a practice that really helps flesh out a character and plant some solid story hooks.

He usually comes up with an idea or concept on his own, thinks about it a bit, and then comes over and we hammer out the details. As a DM, I can offer suggestions that he may not have thought of, or outright tell him if a power/feat choice is a bad idea (like focusing on an undead-hunting theme in an undead-light campaign).

One of the first things we discuss is if his character works in the campaign. For instance, he had an idea for our upcoming Dark Sun campaign to be a Raven-based warlock. Problem was, not only is this an arcane class (meaning that since it's Dark Sun, there should probably be a bit more history/backstory established as to how he is able to use arcane magic) but he also wanted to use a Spellscar, something from Forgotten Realms with FURTHER arcane magic connections.

If he had showed up on game night with this character, I would have been put in a tough situation. Without some time to think about it (such as even looking up what a Spellscar IS) I probably would have said his PC wasn't eligible for Dark Sun play since I had no idea how his powers worked and if they were even possible in Athas. He would have had to make a new one, and delayed the game...something which would have satisfied no one. Instead, however, we were able to look up Spellscars and toss some ideas back and forth how exactly it worked in the Dark Sun universe. (Long story short, it was because a Sorcerer-King cursed him years ago.)

Another way this shared character-building is helpful is when it comes to planning his backstory! Initially when I asked him what his character did, he had some vague idea of being an old (really old) wandering nomad, with magic powers because of "a curse". And he had a giant (medium-sized) pet Raven that also served as a mount.

This was alright, but other than the raven, it's pretty bland and lacking in specificity and hooks. And the raven...WTF. How the hell would this fit into the story? But don't get me wrong - this is a great time for a DM, as you can take what your player has in mind and not only enhance it, but also enhance it in a way that it will flawlessly fit into your campaign. And by doing it together, cooperatively, it's still HIS just helped steer him to the final version.

I proposed some different ideas, and after discussing them a bit, throwing some out, modifying some others, his character became a nomad who wandered between city-states as a special courier, riding his Raven mount (keeping his close connection to the Raven.) We also decided that the reason his arcane abilities have not gotten him locked up, enslaved or killed by a Sorcerer-King (SK) is because he is actually doing the SK's bidding, by serving as a guardian to the SK's favorite, exotic, last-of-its-kind pet...a Dire Raven. The Raven was suffering/dying in captivity, unable to be free and run/fly unhindered, so the SK had to free it. And to ensure that it would be protected, he charged the player's character with the responsibility of guarding it, and "blessed" him with powerful magic abilities.

Thus is this character able to use arcane magic & not be killed by the SK, and it the Dire Raven's need to be free and restless nature also connects nicely to why they are always on the move, living a nomadic life.

From there, we moved on to the sometimes tricky question of why the character is adventuring. Fortunately, we quickly came up with a great reason - to find some way to restore lost youth. The character, and the Raven, are now both quite old and nearing the ends of their lives (this also explains why the Raven is only able to serve as a ground mount initially...since a flying mount would be too powerful for low-level characters). The character wishes to find a way to restore himself and the Raven's youth, partially because they are best friends/partners, but also because years ago the SK warned him that if the Raven ever died, he would shortly, undoubtedly follow.

Finally, one other thing that always happens during these brainstorm sessions is that I will bombard him with various questions about what his character would do. From his answers we are always able to really flesh out just who the character is, what he believes in, how he acts/reacts to things, etc. A nice thing about establishing a character's personality like this rather than in the game, is you can take the extra time to consider different options.

During a game session, I would be reluctant to prompt a player with "what if your character did this? or what if he wanted to do this?" because it's almost like I'm wresting creative control away from them. Plus, it is selfish, as the other players are forced to just sit around and wait. But while brainstorming? It's great! Sometimes you will suggest things the player never considered that they immediately latch onto. And the rejection of your suggestions (ie, what the character doesn't do) helps just as much to flavor the blank character as what they do do.

So after about an hour of talking and coming up with cool ideas, we had taken his "cool concept but very unfinished" character to a very interesting, definitely creative person with a great backstory, strong personality quirks AND some great potential story hooks for me to use. He's super excited to play his character, and I have all sorts of evil ideas spinning around in my head as to how I can weave his story into the plot. It's win-win.

Dark Sun Music time!

Lately my D&D music hobby has been to start building a Dark Sun soundtrack for when the campaign setting comes out in August! It's been pretty exciting for our group, as no one except me really knows anything about Dark Sun other than a) it's a desert setting, and b) there are thri-kreen!! I am really looking forward to bringing the harsh brutality of Athas to life for them and shocking them at how strange and foreign a land it really is.

Finding Dark Sun music has been quite the thematic change for me. Instead of the usual courageous and heroic stuff, I've been selecting dark, ominous and unsettling music, with a large dose of tribal drums, chanting and eerie melodies rounding out the mood.

I've avoided anything with triumphant horns, regal trumpets, anything like that. No fanfare here...except for the sorcerer-kings. I've been quietly putting aside some evilly majestic tunes for when they make appearances.

There is a great thread for this exact purpose on the Wizards forums:
Let's Rock this Desert - Musical Background for a DS campaign.

So far I've gone through the soundtracks for Dune, Conan, Borderlands, Quake, Prince of Persia and Gladiator, and picked out some great songs. I've also come across some unusual choices I would never have heard of if not for that forum thread, such as E.S. Posthumus and Dead Can Dance. I also found a terrific song by Sepultura called Ratamahatta which is incredibly awesome, wild and dark. It's going to be my campaign "theme song" that I plan on playing at the start of every night to tell everyone it's time to get down to business.

Besides the great but typical desert background songs, I've also decided to go with a heavy metal theme for anything related to the gladiatorial arenas (which the party will undoubtedly find themselves in, eventually.) I think it properly captures the grim and violent nature of such a place, with the crowds cheering, the brutal fights for survival, etc.

Dark Sun Theme Song

Source: Ratamahatta - Sepultura

The Arena

Source: Gravity Well - Sonic Mayhem

How to help when on the other side of the screen

Recently I got to actually play a PC in a campaign rather than my usual DM role. And it was a blast! As much as I love crafting devious storylines, it's great to take part in the adventure too. During the game I realized that even while not acting as DM, there are ways you can help it run smoothly.

Think of Yourself as the DM's Assistant
This is the mindset I take when playing a PC, mainly because the person who DM's when I step down is fairly inexperienced and new to running games. Use your experience and knowledge to help their game flow and progress - the entire table will benefit from the results. Ask yourself often - if I were running this game, what would I want and/or really appreciate right now? This mindset is the basis for rest of this post.

Keep the Party Focused
One of a DM's biggest enemies is inattention. Maybe the players are talking about the latest movie, or about some recent news, or even something in-game that's completely unrelated to what is actually happening. Most DM's have seen this enough on the other side of the screen; if you see this happening while playing try to steer the party gently back on course before it reaches the point of "DM intervention." One of the more subtle ways you can help get everyone's attention back onto the game is by...

Asking Leading Questions
Most experienced DM's will be able to spot a plot hook a mile away. However, not all players have this same sensory ability (no joke!). You can really help your DM by spotting these hooks or realizing when the party could really benefit from additional information, and asking the questions they want to answer. We all know how frustrating it is when you present the party with a seemingly obvious hook and they completely miss it - you don't want to break the immersion and point it out, yet it's essential to the plot development.

Keep in mind that you don't want to go too far - don't ask questions about everything in a paranoid obsession for detail. In fact, asking too much can be terrible for a new DM, since they likely aren't ready for a lot of improvisation and on-the-fly specifics. At best, you might frustrate them; at worst you'll completely frazzle them and throw them off their game for the rest of the night.

Volunteer to Be the "Rules Guy"
This isn't as bad as it sounds, because let's face it - in most groups, whoever normally DM's is ALREADY the "Rules Guy," simply because they require to know the rules inside and out already (for the most part). But help your DM out. Chances are they've never had to look up how much horse barding costs, what the differences are between cover and concealment, or what a tiefling's racial ability is. Even if you don't know either and have to dig through some books, this leaves the DM free to continue telling the story and focusing on the important details.

Other examples would include keeping track of status effects, putting bloodied/marked indicators on figures, and clearing the figures while the DM is readying the next encounter. Anything to lessen the DM's workload.

Don't Make DM Decisions
This can be difficult, but try to remember that you are not the DM. If there is a tough decision to make (such as a fuzzy rules situation), do not step on the DM's toes. Let them make their decision and don't upstage them by arguing it. Instead, try to imagine yourself as a detached, neutral party and offer suggestions or alternatives to both sides so that a conclusion can be reached that satisfies both sides. If it's turning into a heated argument, do your best to diffuse the situation, maybe by coming up with a compromise or volunteering to research the rule in question.

Finally, above all else, DO NOT SAY "Well in MY game this is how we'd do it" or "I would do it this way if I were DM'ing". It's insulting to your DM and disrespectful, and you're essentially cutting his legs out from under him and telling the other players that you're better at DM'ing.

Playing the Game Properly
This is very simple, but it's important. It's so, so easy to metagame or abuse unspoken game rules (like not robbing merchants, even though it's clearly obvious you would be able to), but this sort of behavior just makes a DM's job even we all likely know, from experience. For instance, in the game I played we found ourselves in the laboratory of someone named "Acererak." I knew instantly who this was and what it meant, and while inwardly I was screaming "Oh shit!!" I saw that no one else recognized the name, so I simply asked the DM for a History check to see if I knew who it was. I rolled badly, so I shrugged and we moved on.

Anyone else have any tips on what a DM can do to help out when they are a PC?

Don't let min-maxing consume you

I received a rare opportunity on the weekend - to play D&D as a player instead of a DM! I excitedly loaded up my Protector Shaman, who was moderately out-of-date (hadn't been updated since before Primal Power came out), and began checking out the new feats, power & options that were now available.

The game, ironically, fell through. However, this was not before I spent a good hour toiling over options and possibilities. One of the things that always paralyzes me when building a character too many options, and the desire to maximize my potential. For example, do I take a Mace of Healing +2 to enhance my healing on allies? Or do I take the less-powerful Healer's Broach +1, for less healing to allies but extra healing to myself? And if I take the Broach, that means I can't take the Cloak of the Walking Wounded, which I wanted to ensure that if I got low I could power back up quickly, etc.

I realized I was spending way too much time on calculations and math when I looked down at my notes and saw no less than EIGHT different gear and feat builds, with their strengths, weaknesses, and additional powers listed individually for each one. The real irony is the main cause of my paranoia was maximizing my healing capabilities; capabilities that so far in the campaign have proven more than sufficient.

So I took a step back and distanced myself, knowing that my shaman's healing would be good enough, and just chose one build and hit Save Character. And it was great! It was like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I had a lot of fun finishing my character's power selection and feat choices. Of course, I didn't get to actually *play* my shaman...but oh well.

I guess the moral of the story is that while D&D is undoubtedly a game of stats, bonuses and numbers, and it's fun to make your character awesome and's important not to take it *too* seriously. If you're stressing out or fretting about feat/power/gear choices - don't! It's just a game.

"Oops, I forgot to..." moments

4E is a complicated game when it comes to remembering things. There are many, many things to remember - rolling saving throws at the end of your turn, taking ongoing damage, when an effect/buff/debuff ends, who's marked, a few extra damage here or adds up. And this always results in the somewhat-grey area debate of what happens when you forget.

For our group, it's simple. We break it down into categories:

Automatic events
If something was supposed to happen automatically and wasn't a matter of choice, we apply the forgotten effect no matter how long it's been (within reason). These are straightforward and rarely disputed, since we view these as things players (or monsters) are entitled to. Examples of automatic effects that we commonly allow after the fact:
  • forgetten saving throw(s)
  • forgotten ongoing damage or healing from regeneration
  • a battlerager fighter forgetting to gain the temporary hit points from making an attack and/or using an invigorating power
  • a fighter attacking someone and forgetting to mark it. Exception: if the target was already marked by someone else, then it is assumed the fighter chose not to overwrite the existing mark.
  • not realizing at the time that someone should have gotten an opportunity attack
  • forgetting to add a bonus to a damage or healing roll
  • forgetting to add a bonus to hit rolls. If this turns a miss into a hit, it can screw things up, so someone has only until the end of the next combatant's turn to remember a forgotten +hit bonus. That way, if the miss-turned-hit changes events (by killing the next combatant's target, or even the next combatant) we only have to redo one turn to fix things.
  • forgetting a bonus to defense that would have turned a hit into a miss. As above, someone only has until the end of the next combatant's turn to remember the mistake.
  • forgetting because there was multiple things happening at once. For instance, if a power lets a player shift, spend a healing surge, and make a saving throw, they are allowed pretty generously to do any of those things after the fact if they forgot because they were preoccupied doing the other actions.

"I would have done this" actions
The next step up are no-brainer actions, where the player would almost always have done something, but just forgot to actually say it. This is sometimes tricky, and we've had to firmly put our foot down a few times on things and deny players sometimes. Quite often these are the result of unused minor actions, but generally if it's something that a player has to consider and actually make a decision about, they CAN'T take it back. Examples would be:
  • a ranger hitting a target without declaring as his quarry, even though logically he should have (it qualified to be his quarry, he hadn't marked anyone else as his quarry previously, and he still had his minor action available)
  • someone forgetting to sustain an effect. If they ended their turn with the required action type still available, we assume they just sustained it. If it's still their turn when they realize their mistake, and they no longer have the required action available to sustain the effect, they can either end the effect or take back the action required to sustain the effect. If it's after their turn, and they ended their turn with the required action type not available, then they didn't sustain it and the effect ends.

Actions that required consideration and decision
These actions CANNOT be taken back, for various reasons. Often it is because the "forgotten" ability was one that has the potential to be wasted. A perfect example of such an ability is a paladin's Divine Strength, which adds a damage bonus to the paladin's next attack. A paladin can't make an attack roll, hit, and then "remember" to use Divine Strength since he already knows the result of his attack (a hit). The only way we would allow this (sometimes it is crucial) is if he re-rolls his attack roll as well. Some examples of things that cannot be "taken back":
  • forgetting to use a "bonus on next attack" ability until after the attack roll has already been made (though allowed if the attack is re-rolled)
  • forgetting to declare the attack until after the attack roll has already been made (though allowed if the attack is re-rolled). Not declaring the attack means the attack was an at-will attack.
  • essentially anything else that doesn't fit into the first two categories; anything that isn't automatic or near-automatic.

Rewarding "treasure" instead of gold

At the start of a new campaign, I always ask the party if they want to find random treasure (art, relics, heirlooms etc.) or just basic gold. It's funny - even though we're usually a pretty min/maxing group, we tend to prefer the varied treasure items, even though it's disadvantageous in every way:
• More bookkeeping for the players
• More pre-emptive work for the DM
• Actually results in less wealth for the party, since sometimes we keep sentimental or strange treasure instead of selling it

But it's just so much more interesting and fun to find ruby-eyed dragon chalices or ancient paintings of floating castles, not to mention they spark countless roleplaying opportunities. Players tend to remember treasure items they become emotionally attached to, and usually try to use them or bring them up later in the campaign. It's quite fun to see treasure you gave out many levels ago resurface, sometimes at critical moments.

Also, if the players have any sort of "home base" to actually display these treasures, they'll probably keep most of the random junk they find as mementos of their adventures. And even if they don't have a base of operations, I've seen players willingly give up the monetary value of treasure just for fun, such as keeping (and wearing) a fancy platinum belt buckle instead of selling it.

As a DM, this is one of the planning steps I enjoy most. I love coming up with weird, unexpected treasure items that the players would never expect, but still "fit" in the fantasy world. One of the stranger things they found lately was a shag rug carpet in a dragon's den, woven of lustrous "lunar silk" (whatever that is) and aurumvorax fur. One of the players IMMEDIATELY claimed it for his house. They've also kept a set of inscribed ceremonial swords which they later gave to a standoffish noble to win him over to their side.

I haven't purchased this book, but I've heard great things about the mundane treasure found in The Mother of All Treasure Tables.

Here's some quick tips for fast treasure items:
• Take a regular item and make it plated/lined with a valuable metal, or made out of exotic material. A bowl becomes gold-plated, or made out of ironwood, felwood, the remains of an ancient treant, etc.
• Flavor treasure for where the players found it. A kuo-toa temple my party recently infiltrated had decorative wall frescos and murals, so the party found a large set of glowing, luminous paints which were quite valuable due to their unusual nature & rarity.
• Idols, statues, and paintings depicting plot hooks are a great way to give treasure AND hints at the same time. Finding a small idol of Bane in a bandit's pack? Nothing noteworthy. But when they find a duplicate idol weeks later in an old merchant's bedroom? Suddenly relevant!
• Add minor magical properties. A mug that cleans itself, a tablecloth that never wrinkles, a bottle that cools its contents. Nothing that would count as a magic item, but would make a mundane item worth much more expensive/valuable. Plus, it's more creative opportunities for the players! Chances are, they'll find some fiendishly clever (or just weird) uses for such items.
• Magical/rare parts, metals or ingredients make nice treasure finds too. A block of pure mithril can be sold to the blacksmith, or maybe the party's fighter will run with it and see what can be made from it.

Healbot: what to do when the healer can't make it

In my campaign we have seven players, only one of which is a class with any sort of healing whatsoever, a warforged cleric. No paladin, shaman, bard, etc. This makes things tough when that player can't make it. So what we do instead is have his character go into "automatic mode" and become Healbot.

Our rules for Healbot are as follows:
• Acts in initiative round 0.
• Never deals damage or attacks, and cannot be targeted/damaged by an attack. Essentially invisible to enemies.
• Moves around the battlefield to stay in range of as many allies as possible.
• Cast Healing Word (with his normal modifiers) on bloodied allies.
• Will make Heal checks to grant allies saving throws or to let them use their second wind.

Granted, this only works flavor-wise because he's a warforged, and even then only by embracing the warforged = robots theme, works! Without a healer, we find that EL+0 or even EL-1 encounters are almost impossibly hard. With Healbot, they are tolerable, while still being quite challenging.