DM’s Dark Sun Roleplaying Guidelines
1. Read the rules.
Fourth Edition D&D is somewhat different from previous editions in that it isn’t necessary for the DM to know all the details of what player character classes can do. The upshot of this is that it’s even more important than in previous editions that players have a thorough understanding of their character’s abilities. Players are therefore expected to be familiar with with Chapters 1, 2, 5, 7 (except the lists of magic items), 8 and 9 of the Player’s Handbook (or all of the Rules Compendium); the portions relevant to your particular character of the rest of the Player’s Handbook, the Player’s Handbook 2 (in particular, the Backgrounds section) and the Player’s Handbook 3; and the relevant portions (i.e. excepting those sections only relevant to other character races, classes and themes) of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting Player’s Guide. If there’s something you don’t understand or agree with, speak to me about it. Which brings us to:
2. Rules Additions.
Ours is an ever-expanding and -changing game. If you disagree with my interpretation of the game rules (including which optional rules are used), please speak to me outside of game time (there should be time both before and after the gaming session for this sort of thing). If you take issue with some of the rules themselves, however, or wish a new rule implemented, you can certainly speak to me about it—but that won’t get the rule changed. Proposed rules additions and modifications must be submitted on the forums. Then we’ll talk back and forth about it, and see what we can work out.
All this brings us to our next topic. Although the rules addition process is somewhat formalized, it’s there to be used. D&D—and Dark Sun in particular—is not perfect. I strongly encourage you to come up with your own ideas, not only for new rules outside game time, but new ways to use the rules within game time. I may allow it, or I may not, but I’ll do my best to let you try anything. And if I see that you’re coming up with ideas that are to the benefit of the story rather than of your character, I may just let you go where you will with it, regardless of the rules. The D&D game rules are useful to whatever degree that we have gotten away from our childhood games of Let’s Pretend. Did we need rules for that? No. We went along with each other, for whatever made a good story. If we use intelligence and creativity, and focus on what is fun and good for the story, regardless of what is good for your character, we can largely throw away the books and make up the rules as we go along. That’s what roleplaying is truly about.
4. Low Ability Scores.
Which leads right in to the next item. Amazing how these are seguéing right into each other, isn’t it? Read the following from Chapter 1 of the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook.
What the Numbers Mean
Now that you have finished creating the ability scores for your character, stop and take a look at them. What does all this mean?
Suppose you decide to name your character “Rath” and you rolled the following ability scores for him:
Rath has strengths and weaknesses, but it is up to you to interpret what the numbers mean. Here are just two different ways these numbers could be interpreted.
1) Although Rath is in good health (Con 13), he’s not very strong (Str 8) because he‘s just plain lazy—he never wanted to exercise as a youth and now it’s too late. His low Wisdom and Charisma scores (7, 6) show that he lacks the common sense to apply himself properly and projects a slothful, “I’m not going to bother” attitude (which tends to irritate others). Fortunately, Rath’s natural wit (Int 13) and Dexterity (14) keep him from being a total loss.
Thus, you might play Rath as an irritating, smart-alecky twerp forever ducking just out of range of those who want to squash him.
2) Rath has several good points—he has studied hard (Int 13) and practiced his manual skills (Dex 14). Unfortunately, his Strength is low (8) from a lack of exercise (all those hours spent reading books). Despite that, Rath’s health is still good (Con 13). His low Wisdom and Charisma (7, 6) are a result of his lack of contact and involvement with people outside the realm of academics.
Looking at the scores this way, you could play Rath as a kindly, naive, and shy professorial type who’s a good tinkerer, always fiddling with new ideas and inventions.
Obviously, Rath’s ability scores (often called ”stats”) are not the greatest in the world. Yet it is possible to turn these ”disappointing” stats into a character who is both interesting and fun to play. Too often players become obsessed with “good" stats. These players immediately give up on a character if he doesn’t have a majority of above-average scores. There are even those who feel a character is hopeless if he does not have at least one ability of 17 or higher! Needless to say, these players would never consider playing a character with an ability score of 6 or 7.
In truth, Rath’s survivability has a lot less to do with his ability scores than with your desire to role-play him. If you give up on him, of course he won’t survive! But if you take an interest in the character and roleplay him well, then even a character with the lowest possible scores can present a fun, challenging, and all-around exciting time. Does he have a Charisma of 5? Why? Maybe he’s got an ugly scar. His table manners could be atrocious. He might mean well but always manage to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. He could be bluntly honest to the point of rudeness, something not likely to endear him to most people. His Dexterity is a 3? Why? Is he naturally clumsy or blind as a bat?
Don’t give up on a character just because he has a low score. Instead, view it as an opportunity to role-play, to create a unique and entertaining personality in the game. Not only will you have fun creating that personality, but other players and the DM will have fun reacting to him.
Even in Dark Sun, low ability scores are not necessarily deadly to a character. In fact, the DM smiles on characters with low ability scores. If he’s roleplayed well, he should get adequate compensation for his low scores. Here’s an excerpt from the 2nd Edition DMG that illustrates what I mean:
A character with one or more very low scores may seem like a loser, like it would be no fun to play. Quite simply, this isn’t true! Just as exceptionally high scores make a character unique, so do very low scores. In the hands of good role-players, such characters are tremendous fun. Encourage the player to be daring and creative. Some of the most memorable characters from history and literature rose to greatness despite their flaws.
In many ways, the completely average character is the worst of all. Exceptionally good or exceptionally bad ability scores give a player something to base his roleplaying on—whether nimble as a cat or dumb as a box of rocks, at least the character provides something exciting to roleplay.
Average characters don’t have these simple focal points. The unique, special something that makes a character stand out in a crowd must be provided by the player, and this is not always easy. Too many players fall into the “he’s just your basic fighter” syndrome.
In truth, however, even an average character is okay. The only really hopeless character is the rare one that cannot qualify for any character class. The playability of all other characters is up to you.
5. Histories, portraits, and other ways you can help the DM.
The Amber roleplaying system has a couple of very interesting ideas about how players can contribute to the adventure that I would like to implement. Players can do things like draw or find character portraits (for themselves and others), keep an adventure journal, make maps or histories of their hometowns or homelands (highly encouraged!), or, most interesting of all, do research on things that impact the gameworld, for additional XP. Depending on how much effort went into it, I may give an XP bonus equal to one or more minor quests for any of the above tasks, or other useful things I haven’t thought of. Talk to me about this—we can do some really fun stuff.
On the flip side of this, however, are the mandatory items. Every player must provide the DM a copy of his character sheet—or loan it to him long enough for him to enter it into the Character Builder. A character history is required by the time your character reaches second level. The history doesn’t have to be that much work—a half page or so detailing where they came from, who their parents are (names aren’t necessary), how they learned their abilities—including their skills—why they became an adventurer, and what their goals are is plenty. Anything more is more than welcome, but not vital.
We gamers have a terrible tendency to speak of the gameworld in game mechanics terms. The D&D system does a lot to encourage this. We speak—sometimes even in character—of things like “alignment,” “level,” “armor class,” etc. Of course, your character has never heard of the concept of “alignment.” He only knows what type of person he is, good or evil, strong or weak, organized or disorderly. He may speak of someone as being “evil,” or perhaps “chaotic,” but “chaotic evil”? Never. Similarly, he has no idea that he is a “fourth level fighter.” He knows roughly what his skill level is compared to others, but there’s no way he could quantify it like that.
What I’m getting at is that the terms we use to describe the game world for the purpose of the rules sometimes overwhelm the world itself. Try to remember that these terms, these rules we use are only because we must quantify the world in order to figure out what happens there. To the characters there, the world is just as real and as fluid—and as confusing—as our own. The game mechanic terms we use are only our sorry approximation of what actually goes on there. Try to imagine and keep in mind what and how your character thinks about the world, and try to speak that way as much as you can. Here’s a (rather long) passage from the 2nd Edition Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide that describes what I’m talking about:
There exists a tendency in adventure gaming for both the DM and the players to sacrifice the color and richness of roleplaying for the expedience of advancing the game. The DM forgets that he is a storyteller and he becomes a rules judge. The players forget that they are characters in a drama and behave like board gamers calling out combat results. Instead of talking descriptively about actions and their outcomes, the participants refer to dice rolls and game statistics. An exchange might go:
DM: “The orcs see you and advance 20 feet to attack. Somebody give me an initiative roll.”
Player one: (rolls dice) “Drat, only a three.”
DM: “Still beats my one. What’s going on now?”
Player one: “My fighter Bruno attacks with his +1 sword.”
DM: “OK, he needs a 13 or better to hit, and the magic user needs a 16 if she uses her weapons.”
Player two: "No way! Wanda zaps with her magic missiles. Aw, only six points of damage from both missiles."
Player one: “Bruno rolls a 16 and does seven points of damage, plus one for the sword and another one for Strength, for a total of nine. Since orcs only take eight points of damage max, one of them is aced!”
DM: “OK one orc is down from Wanda’s missiles, but the one Bruno hit takes his points and keeps on coming and does 11 points to Bruno.”
Player one: “Let’s get outta here! Bruno’s only got one hit point left.”
Player Two: "Tough break, Bruno. Wanda whips out her wand of fear while Bruno makes for the door."
The action comes across, but without any particular emphasis on the setting, the characters, or their foes. Wanda and Bruno are played as generic characters who encounter a band of equally generic monsters. One set of numerical statistics has met another and exchanged a round of randomly generated numbers. Now try the same encounter with a little color and role-play.
DM: “A pair of heavily armored, low-browed humanoids round the corner. They see Wanda and Bruno and don’t look happy to see them here. The big one growls out something that sounds like orcish to Wanda.”
Player two: “What did it say? Wanda knows the orc language enough to make out basic words.”
Player one: “Yeah, what?”
DM: “‘Surrender or there’ll be trouble’ is all you can make out.”
Player two: “Wanda drops to her knees and starts to plead for mercy, wringing her hands together. She tries to get Bruno to do the same.”
Player one: “Bruno will never surrender to orc scum! He charges the largest orc, swinging the mighty Calabash over his head in a deadly arc!”
Player two: (sighing) "Wanda was also trying to disguise the somatic part of her Sleep spell like she did with the gnolls."
DM: “The big fellow charges Bruno while the little one warily approaches Wanda. He seems to be indicating that any attempt to aid her companion will end badly. Bruno’s attack roll must be at least 13 to affect his foe. If Wanda wants to attack her opponent, she must roll a 16 or better.”
Player one: “The glowing blade of Calabash slices through the air and connects solidly with the orc for a mighty blow. Bruno’s opponent loses nine hit points!”
Player two: "Wanda stays on her knees and continues to wring her hands and cry, but she has changed over to her magic missile spell. When she releases it, the missiles inflict six points of damage on her foe."
DM: “Wanda’s missiles strike the smaller humanoid, flinging him backwards like a rag doll until he strikes the passage wall and collapses. Meanwhile the larger creature seems to shrug off the damage done by Bruno. Its own hideous weapon crushes the fighter, reducing Bruno’s hit points by 11 and forcing him to his knees.”
Player one: “Even though Bruno is nearly done in, he drags himself towards the exit. He knows that Brother Albert can heal his wounds.”
Player Two: "While the monster’s attention is still focused on Bruno, Wanda readies her wand of fear and prepares to speak the words that will unleash its powers."
Again, the second passage emphasizes the descriptive, or storytelling, nature of the game. Die results, statements of intent and turn instructions are woven into the story that the DM and his two players are mutually creating, but the story takes preeminence.
Although both the DM and the players share the responsibility of telling the story and avoiding the crutch of gamespeak, the DM must shoulder an unequal portion of the burden. As the DM he must encourage his players to speak in character and take part in the tale’s telling. The more the DM makes use of descriptive phrases the more the players will also. The words he chooses sets the tone for the game. If the DM speaks in technical jargon, the players will also.
This especially applies to things like magic and psionics. It’s much more interesting to “see” what actually happens when casting a spell than to hear “I cast magic missile.” Or for psionics: “I turn quiet for a moment, focusing the psychic energies inside me and shaping them into a fist with which I smite my opponent for 12 hit points.” And if you really want to see the DM giddy with glee, let us actually hear the verbal component of your spells, whether it be nonsense language (zquinant melflops!), rhyming verse, or powerful phrases. Let’s see how interesting we can all make this.
7. Other bits of wisdom from the Campaign Sourcebook.
Hosting a Game
It is not the DM’s responsibility to provide a place to play. Nor should he be held responsible for bringing the food and drinks or even scheduling the time for the game and calling the players. That responsibility should be shared among the players, the DM included. Often, it should be enough that the DM provides the adventure.
However, the DM is responsible for setting up before the game, even though the game may take place in someone else’s home or in a public place such as a lounge in a college dormitory. If possible, he should be the first to arrive and should have his game materials in order before the players arrive. If the game will take place in a public area, the DM (or another player) should take it upon himself to secure a play area in advance, one that will accommodate the players and, just as importantly, not disturb others who may wish to use the facility.
The game session host should ensure that a clean play area and enough seating is available for all anticipated players. If at all possible, arrange for the DM to be seated at a separate table in the gaming area. It’s very important that the DM keep his game notes and maps out of the players’ sight.
Courtesy to the Host
At the end of each game session, clean up the play area, regardless of whether the game is played in a student lounge or at a player’s home. Toss out food and drink containers. Sweep up any mess. Offer to help put away excess chairs, books, tables, miniatures, etc. Failure to do so may result in your having to find another place to play next time.
Courtesy to Others
Every time a roleplaying game occurs in a public or semi-public place (such as in a school cafeteria, a dormitory lounge, or a student union), the players and DM involved become ambassadors for roleplaying games at large. People will judge the players, the AD&D game, and all roleplaying games in general based on what they see. If an adventure is exciting or disappointing, players often get loud, possibly even downright rowdy. To say that loud noise or uncouth language can disturb others is an understatement.
A wise DM will encourage his players to keep verbal expression of excitement or dismay (“What do you mean he’s dead! He’s 16th level! He can’t be dead!”) to conversational decibel levels.
Whenever possible, create new player characters ahead of time. Prerolling new player characters before the day or scheduled time of a game session is a small but greatly appreciated courtesy. Character creation, especially when any type of background development is involved, takes time. If the DM waits until the game session to roll up new player characters, valuable game time is wasted. Instead of playing the game, the other players must find ways to entertain themselves until the DM is ready to play. In this regard, the DM runs the risk of losing his players to whatever has distracted them.
Allow the players to get comfortable. This is a social time, friendly conversation relaxes players and gets them ready to play. Don’t rush the start of the game. Give the players a chance to discuss the previous game session, go over mistakes, plan strategies, and decide on spells. If possible, have this activity take place at someplace other than the gaming table. Announce when the game is to start and request that non-essential conversation end.
Refreshments are something that everyone should provide for themselves, or better yet, bring to share. As stated before, this is not the DM’s responsibility. Commonly, refreshments are acknowledged “junk foods:” soda pop, peanuts, pretzels, cookies, and chips of all kinds, including the four basic gamer food groups: caffeine, sugar, salt, and carbohydrates. In deference to good eating habits and in an attempt to avoid pear-shaped bodies, try to balance the type of snacks provided. For long game sessions, suggest ahead of time that the players come prepared to participate in some form of deliverable food (like pizza).
Allow breaks for eating and, if possible, keep food and drink away from the gaming table. Don’t let food disrupt the game or become a distraction.
Anything that doesn’t add to the playing of the game will detract from it. Where possible, eliminate all outside distractions. It is difficult to concentrate on roleplaying while a ball game or loud music is going on in the background. If a player can’t concentrate on the game because he is more interested in a distraction, suggest that he leave and let other players enjoy the game.
Be Kind to the DM
Accept that the DM is the final authority in the game. Don’t cheat, even if it means a character buys the farm (dies). Don’t play favoritism games. Accept a character’s death calmly, don’t belabor it. The DM is human (really, it’s true!) and will make mistakes. If a mistake is fatal, ask the DM to change his decision in good grace, without recriminations. Be sure to compliment the DM on a good game!
Make the players responsible for some of the game preparations. If one or more new players will be joining the group, ask one of the “vets” to walk the new folk through basic character creation and a brief explanation of the rules. Let someone other than the DM be in charge of arranging a time and place for each game and contacting all the players. Encourage the players to bring their own snacks. Have the players keep a journal of their adventures and reestablish the mood and setting for each adventure by prefacing each play session with readings from the journal.
For the DM to enforce his judgments during difficult game play sessions, he must set a few ground rules for later disputes with the players. Call these the rules for arguments:
First, the DM must declare that his word is the final authority in things pertaining to the game. He will listen to arguments to the contrary, but the players must accept that his word is law and if he declares a thing to be so in his world, then it is so!
Second, let the players know that if the DM makes a decision which everyone agrees is bad, he is more than willing to discuss it and possibly even call back the decision. The guideline for calling back such a decision is not whether or not the result is bad for a character, or even the entire group, but whether or not it was fair. The same holds true for interpretations of rules. Everyone, including the DM, must agree on an interpretation that differs from the one held by the DM.
Third, make sure the players are aware of any major rules variants being used. The best way to do this is in writing, so that everyone has a copy of the rules on hand.
Fourth, any major deviations from the group’s accepted rules (including any variants currently in use) must be approved by the group and must take effect after the situation that brought about their creation.
Creating the Campaign
Asking the DM to even attempt to handle every aspect of game world creation is similar to asking the architect of a major construction project to do the plumbing and wiring himself. Chances are he can do it sooner or later, but meanwhile, the building goes unfinished. In a like manner, the DM can take forever and try to cover every detail of his world himself, but why do it? Why not involve the players? Let them do some of the work of creating cultures, religions, and area maps for parts of the world. Great idea, but how?
Let the players come from parts of the world other than where the campaign will initially take place. If a player wants to play a seafaring barbarian, give him a coastal or island area form which his people originate. Give him a peek at what has been roughed out for that area. Encourage the player to make notes about what goes on in his corner of the world. Much of this can come from his character background. Who are his people’s gods? Do they have any peculiar customs? What are the major cities? Encourage the player to draw the regional maps for his homeland. The more the player details his character’s culture and homeland, the more he designs that portion of the DM’s world.
In a similar manner, the players of priests and paladins can expand upon the nature of gods and religions in the DM’s world. Thief characters may be both the basis for the thieves’ guild and an overview of the laws of the land (particularly as they relate to larceny).
Now this doesn’t mean that everything that the player says has to be law. In fact, the creative DM will take what the player gives him, and modify it ever so slightly to reflect what the DM knows to be true of his world (things the player’s character wouldn’t or couldn’t know). Does it matter that the player knows what part of the world map looks like? Not particularly. It is his character’s homeland.
Listen to the players. Although much of the core design and development falls on the DM’s shoulders, don’t design the world without listening to the players. What do they want to do? What kind of adventures do they seek? What interests them? Design the core area and the first adventure to meet these desires. It would be folly to design a campaign around political intrigue or a grand mystery when what the players really want are monster hunts and dungeon crawls. As the players become involved in the DM’s world, the DM can rely upon them for inspiration.
8. A bit of wisdom from Lunar: The Silver Star Story.
“The same spell, cast by two magicians, will have a slightly different appearance and effect. Magic is as unique to each person as his face or his fingerprints.” This is something to keep in mind, mages—differentiate yourself from the ordinary spellcaster. When you cast a spell, describe what we see, and make your magic your own.
9. Nitpickers welcome.
If you have any suggestions, comments, or criticisms of this or anything that I put out, let me know! I’m always open to ideas or corrections.