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Trying My Hand at Fate

I’ve been playing with a bunch of guys regularly now for about a year and a half.  We found each other through Adventurers League, the recently created Organized Play organization for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

It worked out pretty well, even though we opted to drop out of AL eventually and move on to playing on our own.  I DM for them every week, and we have a blast, but even so I’ve learned that Dungeons and Dragons has its limitations…  This latest published adventure, Curse of Strahd, is what we’re working out way through right now, and we’re enjoying it even though it’s horribly unbalanced and ill-written as you get into the thick of things…  It requires a LOT of prep on the part of the DM, from both the campaign-level and the encounter-level as it is terribly unbalanced.  The plot is interesting, but it’s already feeling like it’s going on and on and on, so I’m going to be figuring out how to make it a bit more engaging soon before I lose my players.

dresden11But as an aside, I’m finally getting to play instead of DM–we’re going to explore the Dresden Files RPG using Fate rules…   And I am SO excited.  Not only am I a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s books, but I have been wanting to explore Fate as a system for a long long time.

I am really looking forward to a more narrative approach to gaming rather than a statistical one.

I don’t have to be the GM on this one.  I get to be a player.

I popped out and bought all the books on Amazon the other day, and gleefully sat down with them to try to wrap my head around their contents.  I dutifully bought my first sets of Fate Dice at my local gaming store since they didn’t have the rule books.

Wow.

Okay, I’ve never played anything other than D&D.  I’ve got D20 systems ingrained in my blood after all these years.  And to try to wrap my head around Fate rules is…  daunting.  It really is like trying to learn another language.  The game is pretty different, but in a good way.  My learning curve is gonna be slow, but I’ve got good friends in the same boat and we’re gonna figure it out together.

I’m wondering if maybe the DFRPG could have used a bit of editing…  The approach to communicating the rules seems to be a bit verbose which results in a lot of confusion on my part.  I’m really glad they have tons of examples peppered throughout, though.  That’s fantastically helpful.

And knowing that there were modifications to the rules made after the Fate Core rules were published is a bit of a challenge…  I get the impression that magic in DFRPG is incredibly complicated, and they tried to make it simpler as things went on…  DFRPG uses a version of the Fate rules that was a step or two before the latest revision of Fate Core in 2013 (I think?), so since the game manuals were published the gaming mechanism has been streamlined a bit.  I hope so.  I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

But I can already tell I’m going to like it.  Who doesn’t love Jim Butcher’s Dresden-verse?!?  The GM has set up an Obsidian Portal website for our group, and we’re diving in with a passion.  I’m hoping it takes off!!  Wish me luck!!

 

“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Encounters?”

I sometimes feel like one of those nuns from the Sound of Music lamenting an unchangeable fact.  Like Maria, the Encounters program for Adventurers League has “issues” that are simply not within the scope of the OP’s Administrators to address or change.  So it’s left to us, as participants, to provide our own solutions.

One of the first steps to solving a problem is to articulate what that problem is.  Once again, this third season’s offerings, Out of the Abyss, was written intentionally for a homeplay campaign, yet WotC requires that it be incorporated into its Organized Play structure.  They provide a free portion of the adventure so it can be used within their OP’s context.  None of the content is pre-screened by the volunteer Adventurers League Administrators, so they themselves don’t know what’s coming up.

None of this is a surprise.  That’s the way it has been for the previous two seasons.  What is a surprise is that despite copious feedback to address the specifics of how to incorporate the material into the Encounters paradigm, it has once again been glossed over by WotC.

What’s the Problem?

In a nutshell:  Encounters is a weekly recurring experience intended to introduce new players to the game.  All the material given to Adventurers League to provide that weekly experience is serialized, which contradicts the drop-in/drop-out feature of Encounters.  The material encourages repeating attendance to make it work, and doesn’t acknowledge that at many many venues the players are not the same from week to week.  How does one have a continuing story line when half the players weren’t there the week before?

That presents a unique problem for DMs that are running Encounters tables every week.  The nature of Adventurers League’s Organized Play system encourages players to seek and find games at various locales, and provides a mechanism so each player’s PCs can be used in different venues with different DMs in different adventures.

All of which runs contrary to the actual material used within Encounters.

Adventurer’s League offers other play opportunities they call “Expeditions”, which are discreet 1-, 2-, 4-, or 8-hour adventures that have a beginning, middle, and end.  While they are loosely connected in both plot and chronological order, it is not necessary to play them in sequence, nor play the entirety of the series offered each season.

But Encounters doesn’t have that feature.  DMs are left with what seems one of two choices–either sacrifice verisimilitude and plunk visiting or newer PCs down into the middle of the adventure mid-story (ignoring logic for play-ability and hoping enough of the story line can be “compartmentalized” for each session so the play experience makes sense to those new players) or try to encourage a recurring weekly attendance of the same players at a single table (running counter to the very Encounters paradigm and nature of the OP).  Alternatively, at larger stores with more astute organizers, DMs somehow manage to coordinate the content their tables are experiencing which decreases the probability of players missing content or the impact an absent DM may cause.  Still other stores don’t allow their participants to stay with one continual DM throughout the Encounters experience, and require players to shift from DM to DM each week.

While effective, this again runs contrary to the nature of the material itself.  The fact is, none of the Encounters material was actually written for Organized Play, nor thoroughly takes into account how it operates.  While the adventures are “parsed” into sections with a number of suggested “sessions” allocated to its playing, no mention is made of how to incorporate new or visiting players (even entirely new tables) from week to week.  If the events of the session are to make sense, it’s up to the DM to make it so for their individual tables and players.

So we’ve Articulated the Problem.  Now What?

How does one make a serialized adventure fit into a non-serialized event?

One is to not actually run Encounters.  It is perfectly legal within the Adventurers League OP to run a “Casual Play” game that is run from the book version from which the Encounters PDF material is culled.  The question is whether it is legal to run a “closed table” within that context or not.  A “closed table” means that the players remain consistent from week to week, without inviting new players or visiting players to join.  This is completely legal for Homeplay (another sanctioned AL play variety) but unclear whether it is legal in a store running a “Casual Play” game under the auspices of Adventurers League.

Another option is to coordinate with all the other DMs at one’s venue and run the same material from week to week, rendering individual tables irrelevant and the player experience consistent no matter what table at which they play.  While this is an approach some stores and coordinators have adopted, this season’s Out of the Abyss material in particular seems much more fluid and flexible and contingent on PC actions that dictate the progression of the story–making it problematic to coordinate from table to table and less cohesive for irregular attendees.

A third option is for individual DMs to contemplate mechanisms within the story that provide opportunities to incorporate new PCs within the story arc.  This is probably the most daunting of the three choices–especially for DMs.  It requires the DM be able to succinctly “catch up” new PCs (and their players) by providing context and a summary of events that led to the current session’s scenario.  It could alternatively mean that DMs would need to artificially “segment” the adventure so each week’s content has less connection to the overall arch of the story and replace it with much clearer short-term goals for the PCs to accomplish each week, decreasing the necessity to  experience multiple weeks of participation in order to comprehend what is going on.

The Third Option

Verisimilitude (i.e. the “appearance of reality”) in D&D games is subjective at best.  Rule mechanisms often contort the logic of how a story or combat is played out by virtue of having a common rules set that provides a similar structure to each game.  What one DM desires for consistency from the story they are helping to tell and what another DM desires may not be the same.  That goes for players as well–some simply don’t care how their PCs got there, nor what elements of the story they missed, nor how that missing knowledge may impact their player experience.  For some, the capacity to willing suspend one’s disbelief for the sake of the play experience in the moment overrides any gaps of logic–“How did my PC get there?  Who cares?  It’s a game. Let’s play!”  For other players and DMs, part of the play experience is the experience of the campaign’s story arch.  And it’s important to them.

From the player’s perspective one never really knows what portion of the Encounters material is being played at any particular venue (because WotC hasn’t taken an overt interest in providing a mechanism to help facilitate the nature of communicating it).  On their end, their PCs experience can be disjointed and irregular, and their own comprehension of the arch of the material can be confusing.  This can ultimately create a play experience that is entirely about “rules mechanics” of their PC simply because there isn’t anything else for the game to be about, and (in the extreme) can encourage min-maxing simply as a natural outgrowth of the nature of playing in the OP.  Take away any relative story, and the emphasis becomes about something else.

My advice is thus:  don’t run Encounters.  Run Out of the Abyss as a Homeplay campaign, using AL rules for the benefit of your players.  Don’t use the PDF provided by WotC with it’s experience point caps and restrictions but instead wait to use the printed book material.  Talk to your store about whether they are interested in hosting your particular table, on a night that is not the regular Encounters Wednesday to avoid visiting and drop-in player confusion and angst at not being able to join your table.  In lieu of that, play at a private residence using AL rules so your players can use their PCs in different AL offerings.

In Conclusion

It is terribly unfortunate that AL doesn’t have the capacity to participate in the development of the very material they are required to include.  But it should be made clear that is not the fault of the campaign Administrators, who work tirelessly to make the Adventurers League experience a good one for everyone involved.  It should also be noted that the opinions expressed above are those of one particular DM that has decided to decline from participating in Encounters for this third season for the above reasons.

While I am a strong proponent of AL and believe strongly in the majority of their play programs, I’m simply not willing to run a serialized campaign for a rotating cast of players anymore.  Bottom line.  I will stick to DMing Expeditions material and Out of the Abyss as a Homeplay campaign.  It feels evident that the nature of Encounters is not going to change, due to WotC’s requirements, and that apparently none of the developers actually play in their own OP in order to understand that unique play experience…  To get the most out of Out of the Abyss, it seems wise to play it outside of the context of AL’s Encounters program.  The quality of your play experience is your choice, of course, but the quality of my personal DM experience (and the 12-20 week commitment that running Out of the Abyss for AL would require) would seem to be better outside of that AL’s Encounters context.

I will miss introducing new players to the experience of D&D through Encounters, but I feel there are better adventures with which to do that–DEX1-1, DEX2-1, and DEX3-1 for example.  I don’t need to do it using Out of the Abyss, which should have an overarching driving adventure story line as that is one of its distinct features that sets it apart from AL’s Expeditions offerings. If introducing new players is indeed the purpose of Encounters, then I think there are better ways to do that.  As a DM, I choose to use those instead of Out of the Abyss.

Creating More DMs

Every once in a while, an article comes to my attention about the nature of being a Dungeonmaster (“DM”), and why there aren’t as many as there could be or need to be.  Recently, this has come to light with the development and success of 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons and the advent of their Organized Play organization: Adventurers League.  There’s a very evident dearth of DMs to run the tables at most locations, compounded by deeper systemic problems that put DMs between a rock and a hard spot.

Articulating the Problem

Figuring out how to solve the problem requires a careful examination of the question.  And figuring out the question requires a person to examine just what the problem is.  How you come up with the answer depends on how you approach the issue.  In a nutshell, this is my specific problem, and thus my specific question:

Problem:  There are too few DMs in Adventurers League.

Question: How can we encourage people to want to DM?

Answer:  There is no specific answer, but a lot of the possibilities depend on the development of a sense of community.

Look, everyone can articulate what’s wrong.  The role of Adventurers League, the ruleset, the nature of players, the time investment…  All of these things add up to a whole lotta “NO” from potential DMs.  It takes a special person to want to DM anyway.  And according to this particular blog post, that seems to be part of the problem:  Why do DMs get pushed into it instead of aspiring to it?

I know it’s a symptom of a larger issue.  They get pushed into it for any number of reasons, and sometimes they start to feel good about further development of their DMing skills, and sometimes they run screaming from the experience never to return.  So what is it that we can provide to help them make that leap from being scared of it to enjoying it and wanting to do it even more?

My first instinctual answer is to develop a class for DMs, complete with a syllabus and assignments and collaborative projects.  I come from a theatre background.  I also teach.  I teach Theatre, frankly, at the university level.  But that’s foisting a square peg into a round hole–often times DMs simply don’t have the luxury of time to “learn” like that.

I think that’s part of the problem.  One has to take a step back first.

Nature and Nurture

Aside from my theatre background, I also dabbled in the leather/BDSM community.  (Yeah, yeah, I think kink is cool–let’s move on.  If you’re gonna get hung up on that, there’s no point in you finishing this blog post.)  Anyway, in the leather community there is a strong “apprenticeship” aspect to participation.  Frankly, one doesn’t do things like that with another person without first knowing what you’re doing, how to be safe, how to be consensual, etc etc etc.  There are stakes.  And that tends to create a community where skills are passed down from one person to another, sometimes in a formalized manner and sometimes in simple workshops and seminars.

Theatre works that way, too.  Sure, one can learn how to sew or run a light board or build a set on one’s own but usually there are mentors and teachers who have a structured way of teaching those things to beginners.

And one of the common elements in the way both of these things are taught is the development of community.  Theatre skills are taught for the good of the show, and there are other practitioners working right there with you.  You are never alone.  Theatre is a collaborative art.  BDSM is almost impossible to learn safely and correctly on one’s own.  YouTube and porn don’t cut it.  Eventually, one seeks out a community with like-minded interests for validation and support.  The key is community.

So.  How might one invest in the development of DMs? Create community.  Make the learning of those skills and desire to run a table something that is fueled by both personal interest and external validation.

Thus, it seems the approach for Adventurers League could be twofold–appeal to an individual’s motivation to explore DMing (whatever that may be), and then follow it up with social rewards that develop a sense of pride and validation for indulging one’s interests.

First Steps

How does one do this?  Right off the top, it seems evident that structurally the Adventurers League OP has no mechanism for validation.  The system isn’t set up to even address that.  Unlike other games that WotC manages (like Magic the Gathering tournament play), there is nothing offered by the company itself that speaks to any form of an organized support structure for DMs.  DMs instead overwhelmingly learn by either getting thrown into the fire (stepping up because no one else would) or they are mentored by a friend who undertakes their development selflessly out of the kindness of their heart (to varying degrees of altruism and effectiveness).  The simple in-game rewards offered for a DMs personal PC (experience and gold) are sometimes interpreted as token gestures to simply enable a DM to play outside of the context of the table they’re managing.  In other words, they’re ineffective if there isn’t another table where they don’t have to DM.  Nor do they work if a DM simply doesn’t have the copious spare time to play and judge, too.  And that’s the case for most DMs I know–they most rarely get the opportunity to play at all.

Secondly, Adventurers League relies entirely upon a person’s own capabilities to educate themselves–there is no formalized mentoring process.  Any DMing skills that are developed are usually self-taught or imparted outside of the context of the League itself by kindly individuals who enjoy doing that sort of thing for their own personal reasons.  Whether their reward fr those individuals is that they might be able to play sometimes when the new person is DMing or whether they’re truly simply altruistic, the fact remains that the person helping the newly developing DM is doing it of their own accord.  Adventurers League isn’t providing assistance.  I wonder if that might not be something to think about…

In Lieu of It Coming From the Top Downward

I don’t think Adventurers League is going to do anything about these issues any time soon.  So that leaves the locals to fend for themselves.  So what does one do?

A burgeoning DM might spend hours and hours on the inter-webs reading up on “How to DM”.  There’s lots of advice out there.  But not so much specifically for DMing in an organized play structure, and even less specifically for Adventurers League.  So a new DM is left to figure out what’s relevant advice and what isn’t all on their own.  This is compounded by the fact that DMing is like painting or dancing or writing–everyone has their own style, their own mannerisms, their own strengths and weaknesses.  Truly, DMing is sorta like learning how to write or draw or play music…  It’s not a cut-n-dry simple thing.  We might like to think that there is a “workmanship of certainty” in DMing–all the rules are right there, you’re simply an arbiter.  There is a sense of automation to it.  But there is also a “workmanship of risk” to DMing that relies upon judgment, dexterity and care with which one works, and takes time to develop. (David Pye’s idea, not mine…)

All that makes learning how to DM on one’s own only so effective.  You can’t learn people skills and table dynamics by yourself.

The alternative?  Learn with others.  Practice with support.

And Adventurers League has a built-in way they can help with just that.

The Expeditions Program

Expeditions is set up to offer 4-hour adventures that can be distinct componenet parts of a larger storeyline.  Unlike Encounters, which is a repackaged and condensed version of printed materials published by Wizards of the Coast, these adventurers can be more easily offered as distinct units, without the serialization necessitated by Encounters.

It would seem logical to advise a new DM by having them either run a non-official practice game, a session with a mentor DM as an Assistant-DM, or to load the table with DMs (or just one) that can help the new DM learn about what they’re doing as they progress forward.  It seems that the Expeditions experience is laden with opportunities to help the new DM, especially if the adventure is one that a mentor DM has already DM’d themselves.

What this means is that more established DMs need to be able to meta-game their PCs in the interest of the new DM’s development.  It also means that older DMs should be able to know the content in a way that enables them to watch for signs of a struggling DM.  This kind of mentoring may require more than one opportunity to really enable the new DM to have practice.

Mentoring Outside the Game

Knowing that a DM needs to prep is very different than knowing how to actually do the prep.  And what “prep” means is different to every DM.  Teaching how to do it is less important than helping a new DM discover what the best methods are for their own developing style.  Exposing them to new possibilities and letting them adopt what they want on their own is probably more valuable than saying, “Do it this way.”  Sharing with them one’s own preferred methods, and debating the pros and cons of others is a useful form of mentoring.  I have invited DMs to a private Google Drive where I share with them the maps and initiative cards I develop, and they can post their own tools to share with me.  It ends up being a mutually beneficial arrangement.

It’s also important to allow time to actually have discussions in person, outside of the context of gaming events.  Discussions take time, and it is difficult to address specific situations and questions if there is no opportunity to do so.  Arrange to meet for coffee or spend time post-gaming discussing the experience. There is no better way to develop a sense of community and validatioin than with simple one-on-one discussions.  Sponsors in AA, teachers at universities, preachers in churches, masters and their apprentices of yesteryear–all of them had and have discussion time that is essential to growth and development.  If a mentor DM makes the time to meet, it can encourage the mentee to invest their own time, which makes for a better playing experience for players.

That means it takes time to mold a new DM.  Time from the community.  On many levels–both individually and organizationally on the Adventurers Leagues’ part.

What About Adventurers League?

How can they help make this work?  By developing tools for DMs to mentor other DMs.  The sad fact is that you can’t have an effective Organized Play program that essentially runs on the backs of volunteer DMs for it to work.  Some re-examination of that paradigm needs to happen.  WotC is getting a lot of branding cred from Adventurers League.  But there’s also an incredible turnover and burnout rate.  The program is almost a year old, and it has had an inordinate amount of adjusting.  This should fit right in.  It has to be a priority for WotC (not just the Adventurers League admins and organizers), or their DMs will start to simply. not. care.

In Conclusion

There are things we can do to address the shortage of DMs.  Since there doesn’t seem to be a system for doing it institutionally through the Adventurers League itself, it falls to us as fellow DMs to ease our own burden at gamedays and other events by helping to develop DMs on our own.  it might be possible to “kill two birds with one stone” in AL by using the adventures themselves to facilitate that.

Next time, I’ll address some specific aspects of mentoring DMs and what we, as established DMs, can do when we think someone is worth mentoring.