Tales from the tabletop, the DM life

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Lets kick off a month-long series in table top gaming!

Compared to most who dabble in the dark arts of pen and paper RPGs, my experience is actually rather small. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time in the world these games—mostly because I spend a lot of time watching TheSpoonyOne’s brilliant Counter Monkey web series—but I’ve actually only been able to play in three successful games. However, as any RPG player knows, three games are more than enough to form some great stories. Today, I’m going to share some of my favorite personal Tales from the Tabletop, and I hope you find them as humorous as I do.

When role playing plays you

One of the hardest things to get used to when playing an RPG for the first time is the notion that it is the character, not you, that should be making decisions. Sure, there might be a logical, objectively correct decision to make in certain situations, but depending on your character’s backstory, personality traits, or aspects of their race and class, making the best objective decision may not be the decision your character would make. It’s tough to adjust to this mind-set, as the idea of “winning” will always be in any player’s head, but doing so tends to be far more rewarding in the long run, and can lead to some rather interesting stories.

For example, one time, I played the Fallout RPG using the GURPS system with a few of my friends back at William and Mary.  In that system, you can pick certain traits that will greatly improve your character, but you must take a weakness of equal value (or multiple weaknesses that add up to that value). My character was built to be a con man, capable of a bunch of sleight of hand tricks and able to break in to just about anything, but, as can be expected of a man of that disposition, he was a degenerate gambler who was blinded by his desire for wealth.

 Tales from the tabletop, the DM life

Fallout RPG: Where Degenerate Gamblers Thrive

As such, when we first entered the game, it only seemed fitting to go to the nearest bar and find the first Poker player I could. Now, in a standard game in real life, I would have bet only a few of my gold coins (I only started with 50 since I was a new character), seen what his tendencies were, and eventually wore him down. However, with my personality deficiencies, I ended up being forced to gamble most of my money on the first hand, even attempting to cheat despite my common sense telling me it was a bad idea. Fun fact: there is nothing more terrifying than being forced to attempt an action the GM explicitly tells you is a bad idea.

Needless to say, I get caught cheating and end up having to give him all of my money. Not good. Luckily for me, my friend Skyler built a character that served as an incredible warrior, but was overwhelmingly dumb and naïve. From that point forward, I was able to convince his character to buy me all the food, water, and shelter I needed until my con schemes were able to work me back up. And any time I failed, I knew his character would be too dumb to not let me mooch off of him. Sometimes, you play the role, and sometimes, the role plays you. Also I take all of your money. It happens.

There’s something about cats

Most of my RPG experience fits squarely in the realm of D&D 3.5, a system that, while flawed, will always be near and dear to my heart, as it was my first experience both as a player and as a DM. In both games, there was a surprising trend: people really like to play cats.

Now, I’m not talking about catfolk, which are a perfectly legitimate race and can be used to create some really awesome clerics. No, these players each built characters that were actually cats and used them to varying effects. When I was the player (a dwarf cleric with a flaming greatsword, for those curious), one of my fellow teammates was a cat bard, which essentially meant that he would do various dances to buff the party. That mix was actually quite perfect, as it allowed him to play a cat without actually needing to talk to the rest of the party. As far as our characters were concerned, we had just found a cat from one of those travelling circuses and experienced good luck whenever it was around. Quite a lot of fun.

 Tales from the tabletop, the DM life

D&D: Now with Cats!

Much less fun was when I had to help my friend Georgina, a first time player, build a cat sorcerer. See, cats lend themselves to being a bard just fine because they are naturally charismatic and dexterous. Being a sorcerer, however, is a whole other skill set. This is especially bad in D&D, as many spells require both a spoken and material component. Do you know how good cats are at mixing ingredients needed for spells, let alone acquiring them? Not good, is the answer to that question.

That said, watching her character flail in action more than made up for it. Now, this is not by any fault of her own, before you think I’m picking on a new player. She figured out quite quickly what spells worked really well for her and actually built a quite fun character. Between her magic lights and colour spray, she was able to essentially serve as a one-cat Ke$ha music video (and this did occur at least once at every session she attended).

No, her problem was that the dice absolutely hated her for some reason. Whenever she wanted to colour spray one of her allies for making fun of the cat or not getting it food/milk when it was hungry, she’d succeed every time. When it came to fighting enemies, however, she had no luck. In back-to-back fights, she knocked herself out by a critical fail on her touch of fatigue spell, one time failing so badly that she actually knocked herself into a coma (back-to-back one’s will do that to you). I’m not saying that cats are inherently bad sorcerers (though I wouldn’t recommend it), but Georgina’s cat was so unintentionally hilarious that it became a meme in our group of friends that lasted long after the botch was done.

Unintended outcomes

As a DM, I learned right away that most players, either by intention or lack of attention, are out to derail your campaign as soon as they can, especially if they’re good friends of yours and find your constant attempts to snap them back into action hilarious. Ok, maybe that lesson only applies to my group of friends, but there is something to be said about knowing how to introduce and explain elements of the campaign such that players have some idea of what they should do and where to go without giving away the whole mystery. This became quite apparent to me when a throwaway NPC suddenly became the focus of the entire day’s session.

See, in the town of Cyrodil (there were going to be references to the Elder Scrolls in there, but they never explored the city enough to find them), there was a stableman so important that I never even gave him a name. He essentially served two purposes: to enforce the mysterious nature of the campaign (an elvish archdruid had summoned them to complete a task, then knocked them out with a sleep spell so they wouldn’t know how to find his hideout) and to flirt with the female character to accentuate the notion that the town had degraded from a proper, religious town to one run by the brothels and filled with morally questionable people. He was supposed to give them their horses, explain they’d already been paid for, hit on the female character, and then get out of the way. In fact, when goblins attacked, the outskirts of the city, he did just that, leaving the city to go stay with his brother in another town (which was supposed to ramp up the intensity of the situation for the players).

Now, I don’t know what the party saw in that simple stableman, but instead of following the thirty other clues I had laid forth in front of them, they decided the best plan of action was…to follow the stableman. Why? I honestly have no idea. Maybe it was because he was one of only four characters they’d met in the town by that point, but despite my massive hints for them to go to the tavern to meet someone who would have helped them or go to the library to research the task I’d presented, they decided to follow the stableman.

So, thinking quickly, I decided the stableman’s brother lived in a nearby town that also happened to be where the team would meet a cleric that was destined to join the game the following week. They’d find the stableman, ask him for lodging, and inadvertently run into their newest ally, who I’d make sure led them on the right track (he was a far more experienced player than the others in the group). Made sense, totally fit the story, perfectly salvageable.

 Tales from the tabletop, the DM life

This is what I THOUGHT the campaign would look like. Little did I know…

But the gods of fate were not smiling on me that day. Due to some great rolls by the rangers tracking the stableman’s footprints, they actually caught up to him on the outskirts of town. Instead of asking him for a place to stay, they took out swords and started threatening him. Despite having said nothing that would indicate the stableman knew any information (and I rolled for that; he didn’t), they forced him to the ground and interrogated him brutally. He was able to get off a scream for help before Skyler (yes, the Skyler from earlier) decided the best plan of action was to cut off the man’s head.

The look on their faces when I explained to them that he was just some random guy that they’d murdered for no reason was priceless.

Of course, the scream for help drew the attention of the city guards, which forced the party to flee into the forest and hide there for the night. In the end, nearly half of the session was wasted following a non-essential character that could not help them in any way, only to kill that character, drawing the worst kind of attention to themselves and forcing them far from any of their current goals. Oh, and now they had no logical way of meeting up with that cleric I’d mentioned early. Let’s just say that planning for the rest of that campaign took twice as long, as I had to take every possible diversion into account from that point forward. Such is the life of a dungeon master. *sigh*

And that’s just the beginning…we’ll be featuring table top tales all March in celebration of International Tabletop Day on March 30th. Don’t know about Tabletop Day? Learn all about it and join in the fun!

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About Author

Chase Wassenar, aka MaristPlayBoy, is the newest writer at Toy-TMA and the lead editor of the Red Shirt Crew (http://www.redshirtcrew.com). You can follow him on Twitter at @RedShirtCrew or reach him at theredshirtcrew@gmail.com

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