DMing 101 – The Impossible
In DMing 101 I’ll be giving generalized advice on how to run a tabletop role-playing game. The articles will not presume any knowledge, except being able to read. And maybe knowing what dice are. And paper. And a computer. Maybe some other stuff. I’ll also presume that you can remember that DM means Dungeon Master. Some people call it a Game Master or GM, but I don’t. Suck it up.
There are a few quick start guides on how to DM out there, but DMing 101 will offer a fairly easy set of tips that a novice can follow to make his/her games something truly memorable.
Level-appropriate challenges are the backbone of a combat-driven RPG, but it might start to seem a little convenient if everything your group stumble upon just happens to fall within a bracket of what they are capable of as a team. Sometimes you just have to put them in a situation that they just can’t handle by conventional methods.
Throwing A Curve-ball
At “level 1” most players will expect a humble beginning; kill some rats/skeletons/those guys over there, get paid and maybe soon you’ll start to see a storyline unfolding. It’s a way of making them feel a sense of scale, as the more powerful the group becomes the more grand their adventures should be.
That kind of difficulty curve is a bit of a trap though. Nowhere is it written that adventures should start small and “snowball” into something greater, and in fact most heroes are created in moments of great adversity. A great campaign should begin with the group being faced with an impossible situation. For example:
The campaign begins with a group of people in a coastal city. Amidst sudden emergency weather-warnings being broadcast on television and sirens sounding, the players observe a swell in the ocean as a large polypus entity rises from the depths, and begins trudging to the shore.
In this Cthulhu-horror style beginning, the players are already faced with an overwhelming challenge, and one that they cannot hope to defeat. It can be utterly hilarious to finish the opening scene by asking players to roll for initiative order (as if to start combat) and watching them panic as the prospect of fighting an elder-god sinks in. They have no hope of destroying Cthulhu, but they will immediately search for any actions they can take, and any means of surviving to see the next game.
Impossible situations force players to reach for other answers. There is something of a stereotype that portrays player-characters as sociopathic murderers who will attempt to kill their way out of any situation, but what do you do when you simply can’t kill the problem?
When we think of an impossible situation we usually think of things that are simply too big for us to handle, rather than smaller challenges. There is very little tactical or narrative value to licking your own elbow after all.
Think big! Immense monsters, insurmountable obstacles, huge armies, all of these things are likely to have a massive effect, on the players and on the people and environment around them, and this is worth considering when describing your scene. What get’s destroyed? How many people are endangered? What happens to the weather? In the introduction to Skyrim for example, the dragon threat is realized very quickly, and the player is confronted by an insurmountable foe in the first five minutes of play.
Creating scenes of this size makes your players feel a part of something larger than themselves and lets them feel able to influence it positively, and nothing conjures a sense of heroism better. Or perhaps your adventuring party are not supposed to be heroes? A few changes in presentation and you can make impossible tasks make the players feel small, alone, and terrified.
Making The Impossible Possible
Impossible does not necessarily mean unbeatable. Your group should not attempt to face the task head on, but finding ways around the situation, or finding other essential tasks that are within their capabilities.
In the Lovecraftian example above, keeping your head is a tough enough task, but if the party can remain sane for long enough they then have options such as helping people get away from the beach (if they’re feeling particularly brave) or simply finding a way to get away themselves. The campaign ultimately becomes about driving Cthulhu back beneath the ocean, but from such a shocking introduction, a theme is set.
To take another example, after the tutorial stage of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, the first part of the story “proper” features a siege on a city. An undead cyclops batters its’ way through the city gate and a horde of ghouls spills through. Your character is recruited to reach a ballista to stun the cyclops, leaving it vulnerable to a lethal strike. Simply finding the route to the ballista is hard enough as the route is blocked by flaming stones thrown from across the wall, and assaulted by ghouls. It’s an excellent example of a scene that presents a massive problem, and turns it into a series of much simpler challenges.
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