In which we look at a few moments and decisions in the game, considering the techniques at hand.
Let’s look over a few moments in the game and think about choices made. I’ve marinated on these for a while and want to think about them a bit more.
The moment below is from Session 2 of this arc, The Zombie Mob.
While Helewynn, Kuru and Failed Soldier took flight to scout out the mob, Trundle, Bugwump and Brinne forded a river. I asked for a DC 10 Survival check and Trundle failed the roll. I decided that meant Trundle didn’t see zombies under the river’s mud lying in ambush. It was less of a failure and more of a complication due to a failed roll. Trundle and Bugwump made quick work of the zombies before they could ever attack. Bugwump’s spell seemed to create some kind of localized black hole (what was that spell?).
Trundle is nearly 10th level at this point. Maybe having him roll to ford the river was a mistake. I didn’t want him to fail to ford the river. In this case, I was using the skill roll to tell me if the greater power controlling the zombie mob (Orcus) had set up a trap beneath the river. If Trundle’s skill roll was good enough, he’d get the carriages ove the river without a problem. The roll becomes less, is Trundle a skilled enough Ranger to get carriages across a river and more of a, Hey, I’m not sure how thoroughly the villain has riddled this area with undead in the Shadowfell. Let’s let this roll tell me what I don’t know.
Even without 7-9 results from pbta, rolls don’t have to be telling you simply, “Is this character skilled enough to pull this off? YES OR NO?” The rolls can unveil things in the setting that you didn’t know were there. Now the table knows that Orcus is an ancient and fell power who leaves cache’s of undead to use centuries later. Cool, cool, cool, cool. Good to know.
As the DM, I don’t have to know everything. Sometimes the dice surprise me and tell me something cool and Trundle’s mystique is untarnished. Yeah, crossing a river is easy but crossing a river in the Shadowfell while the Demon-Prince of the Undead’s gaze is upon you after you and your friends killed Strahd and then announced it to the worlds is not.
Context, Cool Shit and Consequences at all times.
A meme to hammer the point into our brains and then on to the next!
This moment is from Session 8, The Bounty Hunters.
Trundle, Dwarf Ranger and Kuru, Halfling Arcane Trickster, made their rolls. Trundle came from a dwarven holdfast that was under siege from Devils. I asked him how one could tell when Devils were about to attack – he said that you could always smell the sulfur coming from the stones. Kuru said that he often has a sixth sense before an ambush; I said that for some reason it reminded him of the law coming down on his crew after a heist.
Perception rolls are failed by everyone at the table but 2 characters. Cool! I ask them why they know a Devil attack is about to occur. Even better because Trundle’s character’s back-story is that he came from a dwarven holdfast, Underhome, that was under constant siege from Devils. I’ve been wanting to use that for ages and ask Trundle’s player to flesh it out for me.
Kuru’s criminal background seems perfect for sniffing out an ambush, especially when he is usually the Ambusher and not the Ambushee.
It took two minutes and got added background I can use later if I want to tell those characters something, even without a roll if a failed result isn’t interesting to me or if the would-be-ambushers flub their roll or aren’t good at their trade. Or if I just want to put them in a spot.
“Kuru, you are getting that pre-ambush feeling; it is like a dagger in your skull.”
“Trundle, you know this prince is a Devil under a guise. You can smell it. What do you do?”
Back-story isn’t a process that ends after Session 0. It continues as the players learn about their characters. The stress-testing of adventuring will teach them things about these creations that they didn’t know and asking them questions will help everyone learn more about the cool shit they’ve made up (including the player, who might not have considered the question).
For me, good gaming has blank spaces, filling those spaces in with our friends is what it is about – whether those blanks are filled through the rolling of the dice or asking questions, as happened in the above examples.
If you have any moments where the dice told you something interesting that you did not know or where asking the players questions was rewarding, please share them in the comments if you’d like.