Saturday, May 14, 2016

Collaborative Campaign Building, Part I

Starting a new campaign is one of the most exciting parts of D&D.  New characters, new stories, new potential, and the promise of reaching that unreachable destination -- Best Campaign Ever.
Overshadowed, perhaps, by the thrill of the new campaign are those campaigns that failed.  The characters that didn't work, the stories that fizzled, the lost interest (either by players or DM), or the games that simply never went anywhere.  We are left to wonder what might have been, with a sort of vague awareness that something worthwhile just died.

Top-Down DMing vs. Collaborative Building

Consider how most campaigns originate.  The DM announces his intention to run a certain kind of game:  "We're playing Hoard of the Dragonqueen in Faerun."  The players say "ok, great, let me make a Forgotten Realms PC."

This is a top-down approach.  A substantial portion of the key decisions about the campaign have already been determined by the DM's decision to run a particular kind of game.  This is perfectly fine and can lead to fun and memorable campaigns, and this is how campaigns have been built for decades.  There are many games that turned out great when a DM challenged players by dragging them into a game-world in which they perhaps didn't know they wanted to play.

But think about your favorite books or movies.  What are these stories really about?  The characters.  The setting, the story -- these things exist as scenery in which the main characters operate.  The story and setting don't exist without the characters.  Hyboria exists as a place for Conan to have adventures.  The setting serves him.  Robert E. Howard may well have had some ideas about the harsh proto-Earth that his protagonist roamed, but that place was made to shape his themes and provide the excuse for our bronze-skinned Cimmerian to slay his enemies.

As DMs, then, we have an opportunity to be even more than authors -- we can enlist everyone in the creative process, to make every player a DM of sorts -- and to create settings that would not have existed but for the collaboration of all.  In this sense, a collaborative DM is more of a collector, editor, and synthesizer, particularly at the genesis of the campaign.

A Character-Driven Campaign

What if we had a character-driven campaign?  A story and setting built around the characters, instead of the other way around?

We started this precise process last December.  I sent out a blind questionnaire to the entire group asking essentially two questions -- what is the character you most want to play  in the Best Campaign Ever and describe the world in which (s)he adventures?

For many players, this can be a somewhat profound inquiry.   What do we really want to play, and why?  Most of us over the years have played characters we didn't really want to play, or tweaked our characters to fit the other players or setting, or otherwise settled for something suboptimal.  Forget that.

We decided everyone was going to play the character they really always wanted to play -- the uber-character they've fantasized about.  Maybe something they tried before but didn't get right.  Maybe something that is their own peculiar id expression.  Maybe something that they were afraid to play because of embarrassment or the feelings of the rest of the group, or something they could never do because of group dynamics.

The trick was, I didn't ask primarily about the character in game terms (class, statistics, etc.).  I was primarily interested in the character's identity and personality, and general background, but general types were fine, too.  The main thing was that we delved into each player's veritable gaming soul.  This required the players to trust this blind questionnaire process and just let go.

To make the experiment real, I did it too.  Yes -- the DM made a character.  Because it's my campaign too.
The Seven Steps to Collaborative Campaign

Step 1: Write the Character and Campaign Questions

This turned out to be critical.  I'll post our actual questionnaire.  It was designed to be aspirational and throught-provoking, generating true player preferences in a vacuum.

The Character section is vague.  Who do you want to play?  Who is this person?  Why is she an adventurer?  What makes her tick?  What is her name and family situation?  Encourage the players to build this ideal adventurer of theirs into a 'real' character.  The key concept: Why are we building a campaign around this character?  What makes him worthy of being an equal co-star of a TV or movie series?

The other section is the fleshing out of the game and campaign world.  What kind of a world does the character occupy?  What's interesting about it?  What role does the character play in the world?

Step 2: Send out the Questionnaire and Confirm Understanding

Get the questionnaire in the hands of your players and give them a deadline.  Make sure they understand it is a blind process and that they shouldn't speak of their responses until they're all submitted. 

You will likely get a few immediate, enthusiastic responses and then have to drag it out of other people.  Harass them and make them participate, but also accept that you may not get every player to respond.

Everyone can meta-game, but not everyone can take the further step back to peer into their own meta-gamer soul.  It makes us ask questions about why we game and what we want out of the gaming experience, things we intuitively know but perhaps haven't verbalized or openly communicated about.  Male gamers, in particular, are often reluctant to openly express their hopes and dreams in their fantasy expression.

You may need to assist some players in completing the questionnaire, or do it in Q&A / interview format with them rather than in writing.  They may need help articulating what they really want.  Part of your role in facilitating this is to be their interrogator and counselor, odd as it sounds.  Drag it out of them in the way that works for them.  They'll thank you for it later.

Check in with any players whose responses are vague or unclear.  Confirm with each of them that you understand what they want to play and the world they want to play in.

Step 3: Compile the Responses

Once you have your responses, you need a way of organizing the information.  I used a spreadsheet to track the responses so I could view them as a whole and shared it with everyone (with the exception of information a player wanted to be hidden from the rest).

The players -- longstanding gaming friends -- were very curious about the responses of their buddies.  The questionnaire both confirmed prior observations of players and yielded new insights.  The process allowed us to dig a little deeper into what makes each of our gamer souls tick.

Step 4: Ideation / Connections

We had a group chat (over instant messaging) regarding the spreadsheet. 

Some of the connections between player responses were immediate and obvious.  Player A wants to play a heroic noble fighter; Player B wants to be a member of a noble court with magical powers and a hand in everyone else's business.  That's a pairing that happened, and Players A and B immediately began collaborating on how they might know each other.

On the setting front, you will start to see patterns too.  I had asked many character/player preference questions -- tone, magic level, power level, genre, episodic vs. "story arc" play ... everything down to the climate of the "home area" and more details about the home area itself.

Other connections will be less apparent.  There are many high- and low-tech solutions to ideation, including programs like MindJet and just using index cards to help organize your thoughts.  Spreadsheets lend themselves to sorting and data analysis.  Trends emerge.

What's even better -- at this stage it will become apparent to you that players have great ideas too, and that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  They will think of things you have not, and it will make for a better game and campaign that also happens to be geared to the exact things they want to do in it.

Step 5: Proposal

Share the data.  Share the thoughts.  Put out a deadline for campaign proposals.  Let the group come up with ideas.  You may get player concepts for a campaign and you may not.  That's ok.

Since you (ostensibly) are the organizer and in the DM chair for the moment, you need to come up with a couple of proposals that are (a) interesting (b) unique, both in terms of other content and from the other proposals and (c) keyed to the responses of each of the players in a meaningful way.  They each need to see that you have synthesized their answers.

That you have created a concept for discussion and elaboration.

In our game, I came up with two concepts, based on the responses of the group:
  • Dunlyle: A middle fantasy, city-based episodic game set in a coastal, oceanic climate, in a world recovering from a planet-altering celestial apocalypse.  The campaign would feature exploration, world-building/settlement, taming of the wilderness, and uncovering historical secrets. 
  • S.S. Coralis: A high magic, high-powered episodic game with the players as famous adventurers aboard a magic ship that sails the seas of the world solving mysteries, having adventures, and making stops in exotic ports of call. 
The players liked both concepts but elected for Dunlyle.  This was done via consensus, and at least 50% of the concept was the result of direct player input.

Step 6: Retrofitting / Fleshing Out

This next step can be short or long depending on the character concepts and the campaign concept decided upon.  Simply put, some of the characters are going to fit perfectly into the concept and others may not.

Your job is to make it work and change the campaign subtly to suit the character concept, not the other way around.  I cannot emphasize this enough.

Case in point -- I had a player that really wanted to be a psionic.  This was his dream, what he really wanted.  I had not planned on this, and really was neutral to it.  But let's say for the sake of argument that I hated it.  Bad experience with psionics in the past, it didn't jive with my concept of how magic worked in the game world, whatever.  I could have shut him down and said, "make a warlock or sorcerer instead." 

Your job is not to stifle the dream of your players. Your job is to make their heroic concept occur in your game.  So I put psionics in the game, and made a workaround in the campaign.  It's rare, interesting, mysterious, and fun -- just like the player wanted it.  He wanted to be special, and so he is.  And when he met the aberrant, grotesque and psionically-active Rat-Bitch of the Sewers, he was appropriately freaked out.

Accommodating your players not only makes them happy, but it allows them to be actual contributors.  Dunlyle has psionics now, and it's going to be cooler for it.

Lastly, remember that some players are going to require more handholding than others on this.  You may have an optimizer type of player that is all about game mechanics but is really foundering with this entire process.  Talk to her one on one and get the details from her as you can and accept that for some players, the character comes together as the game is played.  Not everything has to be defined and understood fully to start the game.

Step 7: Bringing it All Together

As things coalesce, it's probably time to put together a primer or mini-gazetteer for the game world to give the players a sense of the game world they've help build. 

Starting with a single region or city is probably easiest.  But before you panic -- I have to come up with an entire city? -- let me let you in on a little secret: you only have to create the parts that are necessary based on the players' responses and character concepts, and to engender a coherent plan for their coming together for adventuring.

The nice part here is that the players (who should largely be VERY engaged by this point) will likely have already had their own back-channel discussions with each other and made their own connections.  As a general rule, you need to connect every PC with at least one other PC, even if it's through a common NPC connection.  Chances are through this process seeds have already been planted to allow that to occur.

Now there's only one thing left -- to come up with an actual launch of the campaign that is conceptually appropriate.

In Dunlyle (a land with a Scots-Irish vibe) I determined to start with a festival, something that would both bring the characters physically together while also immersing them fully in the campaign world culture.  I wanted them to be a part of something.  We played three sessions in the festival and its various intrigues and side adventures.  I planned nothing further.  I wanted the players to have a sandbox flavor, for them to be the masters of their own destiny.

After the first adventure, Player A's noble character entered the drinking contest and ended up married the next morning, changing the course of the campaign.

Now that's player agency.  For better or worse.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

5e Champion Fighters -- Bring forth the Crit!

The Champion is probably one of the least-sexy archetypes in the Player's Handbook.  With a scant few paragraphs, it is easily eclipsed content-wise by the Battle Master, Eldritch Knight, heck even the base fighter class itself.

But underneath the bland exterior is a veritable rock star.  Let us explore the Champion.

Archetype Features:

Critical Hit Frequency: at 3rd level, you crit on a 19.  At 15th level, you crit on an 18.  This can be a substantial benefit -- remember that critical hits double all dice (but not modifiers) rolled.

Discussion: Well this is the main offensive benefit of being a Champion.  More crits = more damage output.  The Champion build discussion below will focus on how to best maximize this by getting even more crits per attack, more attacks (and thereby more crits), or more damage per crit.  Getting advantage is therefore paramount -- because advantage doesn't just double your chances to hit, it doubles your chances to crit.

Athletics: at 7th level, you get a 50% proficiency bonus on any Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution check that doesn't already use your proficiency bonus, and your running long jump is (STR Mod x feet) longer.

Discussion: This seems like a lukewarm poor man's jack of all trades ability until you consider that this covers every physical skill check out there.  Thirsty in the desert?  Check.  Walking along a narrow cliff?  Covered.  Taking a physical-stat character and making him even better at physical skills is a great example of maximization.

Additional Fighting Style: at 10th level, you get another fighting style.  Boom.

Discussion:  Everyone can benefit from another fighting style.  This ability can be used either for more versatility or to enhance your core party role.

Survivor: at 18th level, while under 50% hit points but over 0 hit points, you gain (5+ CON Mod) in hit points back at the start of your turn.

Discussion: This keeps you going, makes you more self-sufficient (and the envy of every other frontline damage sponge), and with a big pool of hit points, you extend the usefulness of this ability by having a bigger range of hit points for it to activate.

Overview & Analysis

The Champion gets enhanced offense from critical hits (and certain fighting styles) and enhanced defense via certain fighting styles and the capstone ability.

Getting critical hits is therefore key, and engineering critical hit opportunities (either yourself or via allies' abilities) is paramount to take advantage of your offensive opportunities.  Having the fighter multiattack base ability -- ending up with an obscene 3 attacks at 11th level and 4 attacks at 20th -- only makes the critical attacks even more frequent.

The archetype overall suggests a highly physical character, and given the base fighter class' extra ability score improvement feature (getting two more stat bumps / feats than every other class), the Champion is in a position to have very high physical stats by late game.

This in turn suggests that Champions should pair their racial selections with their intended build, so as to maximize their physical stats.  Dwarves, elves, stout halflings (yes!), humans, dragonborn, and half-orcs can all make good Champions subject to wise build selections.

Champion Types

Two-Hander:  The theme of the 2H Champion is Big Crits -- maximizing the damage done on a critical hit by using a big weapon like a greataxe, maul, or greatsword.  Because critical hits double dice, crits mean an extra 1d12 - 2d6 damage when using a two-hander.  The Great Weapon Fighting style is a must-have, increasing your base and critical damage significantly.  This character occupies an off-tank or melee damage role.

Half-Orcs, with their Savage Attacks ability, make excellent 2H Champions -- particularly with a Greataxe, creating a 3d12 + mods critical hit.  The extra critical chance afforded by Champions is arguably stronger than even half-orc barbarian's rage, and can create excellent burst damage opportunities.  Dwarves, Humans, and Dragonborn also make good two-handed champions, focusing on damage output with big weapons.

This is a great style choice for players that really want to pump up their stats.  Only a few feats are truly "necessary" for this style -- so boost that physical potential!

Fighting Style Options -- GWF, Defense, Archery (for variety)

Multiclass options: Rogue (more crit damage via sneak attack!), Barbarian -- reckless attack for instant Advantage and brutal critical can yield even more critical damage.

Feats: Great Weapon Master, Charger, Mobile, Resilient, Tough.  Great Weapon master will make even non-critical hits feel special.  Oh yes.  Pound them with your greataxe until they beg you not to stop.

One-Hander & Shield:  This character (offensively, anyway) is all about getting more crits -- via self-generated advantage created with the Shield Master feat and the shove action it affords.  Grab a shield, use your Athletics to knock down some enemies, and enjoy the extra crits that advantage garners you.

This style also favors a tanking role, based on a high AC with heavy armor and a shield.  Being a more feat-heavy role, and with less benefit from DEX than other types, you may want to focus strictly on STR and CON and spend the rest of your Ability Score Increases on feats.

Humans are obvious fits for this Champion type, with access to a feat at first level. Dwarves and Dragonborn are also naturals here with their STR and CON bonuses and other resilience-based racial abilities.  Thrown weapons (with their STR focus) are a natural for One-Hander Champions.

Fighting Style Options -- Protection, Dueling, Defense

Multiclass options: Not recommended.  You really benefit from the Survivor capstone ability.  If you must multiclass, consider the Devotion Paladin (more defensive / healing / smite abilities)

Feats: Shield Master, Sentinel, Tough, Heavy Armor Master, Resilience, Mounted Combat

Two-Weapon:  The TWF Champion is built around more crits via more attacks.  Because critical hits double damage dice (not mods), you want to use the biggest off-hand weapon you can.

This style is superficially similar to the 2H Champion -- offensive warriors focused on damage output.  But the TWF Champion is about getting more attacks in -- having a higher damage output via more hits but less burst damage.  Also known as death by a thousand cuts.  Because (at present) the style's primary benefit is the extra attack, this Champion is somewhat front-loaded to lower level play and is eventually outclassed in damage output by the 2H Champion, who is doing consistently bigger blows.

Because this style often (but not always) uses finesse weapons, high DEX characters (like Elves and Stout Halflings) in medium armor can make good TWF Champions, but with the Dual Wielder feat a high DEX is not required.

Fighting Style Options: Two Weapon Fighting, Defense, Archery (for variety)

Feats: Dual Wielder, Medium Armor Mastery, Mobile, Mage Slayer, Defensive Duelist

Multiclass Options: Rogue, Ranger.

Mounted: Often overlooked, the Mounted Champion "cavalier" (much like the One-Hander & Shield Champion) with the Mounted Combatant feat can generate his own critical hits simply by being mounted and attacking an unmounted opponent.  While this is dependent on (a) having a mount and (b) being in a combat where the mount can be brought to bear, it is potentially very powerful, particularly when you consider that Lances do 1d12 damage.  With advantage, a 15th level Champion gets a crit 30% of the time, and with three attacks per round, that's almost a guaranteed critical hit every round.  And a half-orc Champion cavalier does 3d12 + mods on a crit ... with a shield in the other hand ...

Most Mounted Champions are built like One Hander Champions, but with Animal Handling skills and a feat focus on Mounted Combat early.  The biggest challenge is finding (and keeping alive!) a worthy mount with this character, and being useful when the combats move indoors or underground.

Mounted champions benefit from using lances, which are heavy weapons and exclude small characters.  Humans, dwarves, elves, half-orcs, and dragonborn make good cavaliers.

Fighting Style Options: as per 2H Champions or One-Hander Champions.

Multiclass options: Paladin is an obvious fit for Find Steed, though staying with Fighter allows you to have the full benefits of both Mounted and 2H or 1H fighting.

Other Styles: The Champion Archer is probably outshone on a regular basis by a Hunter Ranger due to Colossus Slayer and the Hunter's Mark spell. 


Don't write off the Champion.  Nobody benefits more from critical hits and (with the possible exception of barbarians) raw physicality as the Champion.