Ask A DM

Ask A DM

Submit your tabletop gaming question to the popular video series, Ask A DM. In this nearly-weekly series, We answer questions directly from you: the viewer. All submitted questions will be answered in which order they have been received. Please fill in all fields to the right and make sure that your questions are brief and concise.

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1. How Do I Find A Group?

The best way to find a group depends on whether you are seeking to play in-person or online. If in person, investigate local gaming and hobby shops, speak with friends, family or co-workers to see if any of them would be interested in playing. You can also consult such organizations as Pathfinder Society and Adventurer’s League who have a national presence and a structure in place to introduce new players to the hobby.

To find a group online there are a wide variety of websites. The forums associated with the game system you are interested in playing, both on the product’s site as well as on social media platforms like Facebook, have many members. The forums on sites associated with digital tabletops, such as Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, also have a sizeable presence. You can also look into general connection websites, such as Meet-Up, your local library, or your school to see if there are any groups or clubs active. I’ve included a list of some of these locations in the description below, and would welcome others to share any additional locations they’ve found particularly effective at connecting gamers.

I would be remiss were I not to mention the location which I believe has the friendliest, talented and mature gaming community, where many games are formed and played with great frequency, and that is my very own site: the DawnforgedCast Patrons group. We have over 400 members in the Facebook group and all of them are committed to respectful, entertaining, group-focused, roleplay required gaming. You’ll also find the link to join us in the description below. When approaching a group it is essential that you come humbly and with a willingness to learn how the group, and specifically the game master, approaches gaming. Ask many questions and, at least initially, play characters who are very group focused, very pleasant and enjoyable to interact with. Do not come into a new group wanting to play your lone wolf psionic drow assassin. You won’t last long, in game or out.

2. My players don’t want to roleplay. How can I get them to?

It is completely normal for inexperienced players to struggle with roleplaying. Some may not be aware that it is a feature of the game, though most either are quite nervous about roleplaying, or don’t even know how they would go about it. The most important way to approach this is to not see it as an immediate problem, but rather a long-term development. Begin by introducing roleplaying in very small ways within the game. Have an NPC address the party, asking them simple questions about the quest at hand and about certain aspects of their backstory, details of which they should have written on their character sheets. Be very complimentary and encouraging when your players engage with the story. Discuss the concept of roleplaying outside the game, spend time helping players flesh out their characters, and, above all, be very patient. You were probably not all that great at roleplaying when you first began doing it and your group was patient with you. Pass on this noble gesture to your players as well.

3. Another member of my group is behaving and playing in a way I don’t like. How can I fix it?

You need to confront them. First, though, check with the other members of the group to see if they have a similar problem with the behavior. Talk together and come up with a clear and concise recounting of the problem, and possible solutions that would make the situation more agreeable to all involved. Next, approach the person in a calm and friendly manner, perhaps only with only one or two group members to avoid the perception that you are grouping up on them. Explain to them, in person and not at the game if possible, how their behavior is impacting you. Tell them how it has made your gaming experience quite negative and that if they continue this behavior you won't be able to play with them anymore. If others in the group feel the same then convey that as well.

If they are willing, then discuss together possible solutions and compromises so that all are able to walk away feeling better about the future of the game. If they are initially unwilling to adjust their playstyle to be less antagonistic, or, when given a chance to change chooses not to, then either ask them to leave the group or leave it yourself. Do not stand for a bad gaming experience. Aside from conversation there is no in-game solution, no decree you can put in place, no rule you can point to that can fix these situations. You must talk, there is nothing else that will work.

4. Can I play a character while DMing? (DMPC)

This is highly inadvisable. As a game master you already have a great many responsibilities within the game. Playing a character as well will diminish your focus, compromise the integrity of challenges as you already know the solutions, and, very important to keep in mind, you’ll have far less fun than if you just played a PC with another DM. If you’re wanting to play a fully fleshed out character then ask one of your players to take on the mantle of master or find another group to achieve this. Otherwise, feel free to develop interesting and complex NPCs, but remember that it is the players, and their characters, which are the stars of the show. You’re there as the director, focused on helping them shine.

5. How do you deal with overpowered characters?

The majority of the time an “overpowered” character can only emerge with the blessing of the game master. It is the game master who sets the parameters by which characters are created. They decide whether to roll the dice for attributes or not, and which dice rolling method. If not rolling then they decide the point buy method, and how many points are allowed. Controlling the attribute generation is the first step towards making sure no character is significantly more powerful than others in a majority of situations.

The second step is to limit the books your players will be drawing character details and abilities from to only those that you own and understand. If you don’t have the book to look up the abilities, or if you don’t understand what is in the book, or if you simply don’t like a certain book or aspect of it, you are perfectly within your rights to say that such a book will not be used for your campaign. A good gamemaster will consider reasonable arguments for the inclusion of this book or that content, but ultimately it is their decision, and their decision alone, that determines what is and isn’t allowed into the game. If players don’t agree with that decision then they can find another game to play in.

With these two factors in place you will be able to thwart a majority of unbalanced characters, and create a more even playing field for the players. If you’ve already made the mistake of allowing in attribute scores or books you now see are not a good fit for your table, or, through the course of the campaign you’ve given out items or abilities that turned out to be too powerful, there are two simple solutions.

First, admit you made a mistake when you allowed the elements to be included in your game, and tell your players that they now need to change their characters to better fit the campaign guidelines. Or, second, you increase the power of all those in the party who are not “overpowered” and bring them on par with the other, adjusting the challenge of the campaign to match. This is often the more ideal solution as giving rewards to your players is nearly always better received than taking things away. Having amended the problem and learned from your mistake, you are now better equipped not to make it again in the future.

6. Railroading vs. Sandbox. How do I avoid railroading?

It is a common misconception that an adventure’s design must fall into one or the other. This is not at all the case. Both “Sandbox”, a non-linear structure, and “Railroad”, a linear structure, are tools to be utilized by a Dungeon Master. At different times it is appropriate to lean towards the former, at other times the latter, all within the same campaign, or even in the same session. As an example if you are creating a pirate, high seas themed game you may follow a linear path initially, giving the party a single quest and objective, to claim a ship of their own. This could be considered Railroad but it is important to realize that how the party goes about doing this is entirely up to them. It is not a bad thing to have a clear and distinct goal, very often it is highly preferable, especially for newer players.

Returning to the high seas example, once the ship is obtained you may open up into a more sandbox style, where the party is able to choose from nearby islands to have an adventure on. Even here it is not advisable to have unlimited options, as that would be incredibly difficult to plan for and leave many players with decision paralysis. Instead, it would be far better to set up 2-4 viable choices, ones that the DM can plan for, and let the players choose amongst them. Once again, it is important to keep in mind that no matter the path set before them the players still get to choose how they walk it. Railroad is not bad, Sandbox is not better, they are both tools to be utilized when designing and running an adventure.

7. How do I introduce new players to tabletop rpgs?

The best way to introduce new players is with enthusiasm and patience. You want to avoid assaulting them with a textbook of rules and instead focus on the experience of being at the table, of playing a role, of rolling dice and having a great time. Ideally you’ll make use of a rules light system, such as Dungeon World or Maze Rats, or a rules-light alteration of an already existing system. (See link to where we did just that with 5E D&D.) Using this simpler system, create their characters before-hand or with them, guiding them not through the mechanics but mostly through their vision of a fun, exciting, interesting character. Be sure to draw on their prior experiences with fantasy settings and characters to help them make stronger connections to what they are playing.

“You can definitely play an archer like Legolas.”
“Harry Potter’s type of wizards have a lot in common with the wizards in this game.”
“It’s a world a lot like Narnia, with fantastic races, magic and great adventures!”

When the time of the session begins make sure everything is as comfortable as you can make it, because the new players are very likely to be nervous. For the adventure’s objective itself it is very important that it be straightforward and not complicated. Ensure that all goals are clear to the players. Give them opportunities to learn the dice and when to roll in a stress free situation, a tutorial style. (We have an adventure, The Cave of Trials, designed specifically to introduce new players to the game. You can find it here.) Be very positive and encouraging each time they do something well or engage in roleplaying. If you focus primarily on fun and the engagement of the players, and very little on the rules and mechanics, you will more likely succeed at attracting, and keeping, new players into tabletop rpgs.

8. What are Alignments and how do they work?

A simple definition is that alignments are your character’s world view, a set of beliefs, naturally inherited or decided upon, that influence the choices they make as they go through life. However, your alignment will only be one tool, among many, that will help you decide what actions your character will take when presented with different moral challenges.

Alignments are a very difficult feature to get a clear consensus on as it seems everyone has a different viewpoint as to what the individual alignments mean and how they should impact your character’s actions. Some see them as extremely narrow and restrictive, whereas others see them as a helpful set of guidelines, and still others insist upon roleplaying the alignment accurately or risk punishment. To know where your group falls on this subject it is essential that you discuss it prior to utilizing alignments within your campaigns.

In the most popular system there are nine alignments, arranged along one axis of good and evil, and another on law and chaos. Good typically represents a desire to help others and the preservation of life, whereas evil represents a desire to help oneself above all and the devaluation of life. Lawful represents an adherence to a set of laws or a handed down tradition, while chaos represents freedom from such structures and a following of one’s moment to moment desires. Neutrality represents either a balance between the two sides, or an unwillingness to pick a side at all.

By combining these different factors you are able to create a broad world view for your character. Some examples include a Lawful Good perspective, which values both life and tradition, a Chaotic Neutral perspective, which values personal freedom above all, and Neutral Evil, which represents a willingness to do whatever it takes to advance one’s own agenda. Once again, due to the subtleties and wide range of opinions on alignments it is best that you discuss them as a group before using them in your games.

9. How important is a session zero? How do you run one?

A session zero is an extremely helpful activity that can greatly improve the quality and enjoyment of your game. While it is advised that this take place before the campaign begins, it can also be done at any time, and should be done if it hasn’t yet taken place. The main goal of a session zero is to get all the players in the group on the same page when it comes to how the campaign they are about to participate in should be played. Rather than assuming everyone wants the same thing out of the gaming experience, or hoping that the inevitable conflicts will either be avoided or managed somehow, a session zero puts all those unspoken expectations on the table. Humans cannot read minds or know your particular preference before they’ve had any interaction with you. It must all be shared.

During the session zero you’ll discuss broad, gaming-style related topics such as your preference between roleplaying and tactical combat. You’ll talk about which aspects of the game you enjoy the most, be it story, adventure, combat or something else. You’ll discuss very practical topics like when and where your group will meet, what to do if someone isn’t able to make the game, how long the game will run, and how the group will manage outside distractions and even snacks. Your goal is to come to better understand these people you are playing with, and thereby create a more enjoyable gaming experience for all.

More specifically a session zero will also discuss the upcoming campaign. The game master will lay out their ideas for the theme and the setting, what sort of feel the campaign will have, how long it might go, and even to the finer details of their world such as which races are present and how magic works there. They will lay out their expectations for player and character behavior, such as minimizing of metagaming or off-topic conversations, setting a requirement for characters to follow a certain set of alignments, avoiding player vs. player combat and many other facets. The players, with the game master, will then discuss their character ideas and will strive, together, to create a set of characters that are both interesting and enjoyable, as well as compatible with each other, knowing that this is a group game and the characters will be traveling with one another.

By the end of a session zero the groundwork will have been laid for a very engaging and exciting campaign, where all involved understand what they are getting involved in, have made a commitment to the campaign, and know what will be expected of them when they attend. Without a session zero for campaigns all a group will have to go on is blind faith and hope that everything will just happen to work out. Don’t be blind, run a session zero.

10. What is metagaming?

Metagaming is, by definition, the act of utilizing out of game knowledge, meta-knowledge, to influence the choices you make within the game. Metagaming is a very natural action coming from other games, and is quite often the default of new players joining the tabletop roleplaying hobby. However, in an effort to increase enjoyment, challenge, and realism many players will try to avoid metagaming and only operate on knowledge they believe their character to have. You should discuss this topic with your group before playing, and come to some conclusions as to whether you will avoid metagaming or not, the consequences for doing it, and what should be viewed as metagaming in the first place.

Some examples of metagaming include preparing yourself for a fight because the DM asked for an initiative roll but no sign of the fight is present within the game, knowing the substance of a conversation that you as a player heard but your character did not, and looking for traps a second time because you rolled low on your check.

Another example I often utilize deals with trolls. As a player you may be aware, through reading the entry in the book or talking with other players, that trolls regenerate unless you deal acid or fire damage to them. Your character, however, may not know this. An act of metagaming would be to, upon seeing a troll, declare that you and your group should attack them with fire, and then proceed to do so. Without an in-character justification for knowing this such actions would be frowned upon.

Some ways that you could justify such a choice could be that the character has ranks or proficiency in a particular knowledge related skill, such as Arcana or Nature. You may make a roll to see if your character has learned this particular fact, or simply decide that they do know it. Another way could be that within your character’s backstory they had encountered trolls and learned their weaknesses that way, or that such knowledge is commonplace within your gaming world. Lastly, you might have your character ask NPCs beforehand about trolls, and thereby equip your character with the knowledge they need to defeat them.

Metagaming is a choice each player needs to decide for themselves. Whether they will challenge themselves to act only on character knowledge or use their player knowledge is a matter to discuss as a group.