CMG DMing Chat session archival thread

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Mon Dec 02 19:00:22 2002
Topic is "Plots Beyond the Hooks: How Much to Prepare?"
(#CMG) Creative Mountain Games - Visit the CMG Site at
CMG DMing Chat sessions are held every other Monday night!

(Edited somewhat for brevity and clarity)


Mark_CMG Let's get started. Tonight we're discussing "Plots Beyond the Hooks: How Much to Prepare?" (smiles) I think it is safe to say that in 3E you need less prepared, event-wise, but more prepared in detailed encounters and stats, or you wind up having to scramble.

CMG_Nichar (to Mark_CMG) Exactly.

RangerWickett I find when I overprepare, I usually do better, just because I have more ideas in my head. I still don't come up with badguy stats for grunts, but the more time I spend thinking about an encounter, the cooler it turns out. I tend to work the opposite way--I prepare a lot story-wise, and just skimp on stats and such.

alsih2o I get heavy into a locale and location and see what arises from it.

FastLearner Same here, but to my detriment.

Wulf_Ratbane I am with RangerWickett on that... so many fast ways to get statblocks, maps, everything you need in a pinch, it's plot that you need to keep on top of.

RangerWickett I just give out XP as I want too, so stats don't matter as much to me. My general rule is that the main bad guy of an encounter doesn't go down until a) the PCs stop having fun trying to fight him, or b) a PC does something really cool to finish him off.

Mark_CMG I've found that if I do not prepare stats, a lot of the combat can start to seem similar (since I can fall back on the same old feats, skills, spells, etc.)

alsih2o (to RangerWickett) "B" certainly encourages heroics... (smiles)

FastLearner Yeah, same here, Mark.

Cassander(to RangerWickett) You mean you don't dont even bother writing stats down at all and just have em in your head?

FastLearner That or I have lots of pauses while I figure out how to best use the critter/NPC.

Mark_CMG And getting them in a pinch can still mean time away from the table (focus-wise.)

RangerWickett Most of the time, yeah. A normal mook needs to take 2 hits from most characters to go down, or 1 hit from a fighter type. Bigger mooks I guestimate how many hp they have, but just wing it.

Mark_CMG Plus, there are so many little cool things that can easily be overlooked without haveing the stats handy from the start.

Wulf_Ratbane That is a good style, RangerWickett, especially for the light fantasy stuff that you have done (that I am familiar with anyways)... comic book/modern.

Cassander(to RangerWickett) Hmm.. Why bother using a system at all? That's sounding an awful lot like freeform.. why bother with any d20 stuff whatsoever if you wanna go that route?

RangerWickett I actually wrote a poem about that.

FastLearner (smiles)

Mark_CMG Is it a long poem? (winks)

RangerWickett The players like to think they're playing a game, not taking part in a story. I usually just work to tell a good story, and use the game as an aid, not a straightjacket.

Wulf_Ratbane (to Cassander) I don't want to speak for RangerWickett but I would say the trick is in hiding that fact from the players... at least, that is how I do it.

RangerWickett (to Mark_CMG) Yes. But I posted it on the boards a while back. I can find a link. (smiles)

Mark_CMG (to RangerWickett) Sure drop it in here so we'll have a link for the transcript. (smiles)

RangerWickett Also, rules let the PCs know what their characters can do, and it helps me think of cool stuff for NPCs to do. For instance, if the PC is a Drd 5, he knows what he can do, and we don't have to argue as much on. "Yes I can," "No you can't!" and so on. But actual stats and stuff . . . eh, I ain't so picky with them. Only when the players are really into the rules will I go rules lawyer-y on them. Like for a major duel with an NPC that a PC hates, then yeah, I'd play by the rules to make it fair. But in a bigger, cinematic fight, I'm more flexible.

Mark_CMG (to RangerWickett) There's a danger there in having two-dimesional NPCs.

Cassander (to Ranger Wickett) Hmm... Never thought of doing it that way in a rules-heavy system like d20. Why d20 over a rules-lite system, though?

RangerWickett D&D _is_ rules-light. (Poem attachment - it's a .doc - )

Mark_CMG Some of the most interesting encounters can be with NPCs that are "abnormal" so to speak.

Wulf_Ratbane "Why d20?" can be a topic for an entire evening!

alsih2o (grins)

Mark_CMG Do I sense a topic mutiny?

Wulf_Ratbane No, not at all... trying to avoid it actually.

FastLearner Not necessarily. How about we discuss different parts of preparation?

RangerWickett Well, one thing I really advocate, especially in stuff I write, is that as complex as the rules are, they should be flavor-neutral. Use the rules for the purpose of stats and stuff, but encourage players and GMs to make up their own flavor.

Mark_CMG Let's get back to where I was going, if I may... (smiles)

RangerWickett Yep, sorry.

FastLearner Of course. (smiles)

Cassander Sorry about that. (smiles) I guess it may have been my fault.

Mark_CMG There's a potential flaw in not preparing, and just "winging it." As fun as it is to simply say that every second hit will killl a N-Level bad guy, it can get very predictable. It doesn't allow for the permutations of cross-class skills (as they don't tend to spring into people's minds on the fly.) It also doesn't make for many surprises in unlikely feat combinations.

Wulf_Ratbane Do you mean as evidenced in the players, or the bad guys?

RangerWickett *nods* But even without winging it, usually every second hit _will still_ kill that bad guy. I don't want to sound like I'm starting an argument, but for most fights, you don't need accurate skill points. And outside fights, stats aren't very important.

Mark_CMG It's unfortunate, but very few people can come up with odd combinations and make they play to their full potential on the fly. (to Wulf_Ratbane) I mean for NPCs (to RangerWickett) Stats, beyond their use in combat, also account for what is in the mind of the NPC, it is the shorthand of their life experience.

FastLearner I find Spot, Listen, Hide, and Move Silently to be important outside of combat (for NPCs.)

Mark_CMG Stats are even more important outside of combat, unless all of the stats are geared strictly for combat, but that would be a boring game, indeed.

Wulf_Ratbane I think this is a difference in campaign style... if RangerWickett is telling a cinematic game, the emphasis is on the story. Joe Mook will have exactly enough Spot to spot the PC if he needs to, at the dramatically appropriate moment.

FastLearner I agree with stats as a reflection of the NPCs' backgrounds.

RangerWickett But my players don't usually care about what their stats are, and the players are the focus of the game. I _do_ make stats for important NPCs, and it definitely does add flavor to them, but when the NPC is really just there for 2 or 3 rounds of combat. . . . it's not worth the effort.

Mark_CMG (to Wulf_Ratbane) Let's call him something other than Joe Mook... (winks)

FastLearner Yes, agreed Wulf_Ratbane. Definitely differences in style.

Mark_CMG Give him an actual name and he has the potential to become more based on the players' direction.

RangerWickett But he doesn't need a name until the PCs interact with him as a person, as opposed to a target.

Mark_CMG Even in cinematic story telling, no one should be Joe Mook. (smiles) The trouble is... and I cannot emphasize this enough... If from the start you consider everyone that is not part of your "set" story "Joe Mook", the players do not have the chance to go their own direction.

Cassander (to Mark_CMG) How about kobold #5? In true cinema, there's almost always plenty of extras and minions who are just there to go down.

Mark_CMG (to Cassander) Why play if you only have the one story to tell? It is the players who need to be able to determine the route.

Wulf_Ratbane James Bond attacks your average moon base, believe me, there are a lot of Joe Mook name tags... But Mark I agree with that last point... the more freeform the DM is, the more it will actually lead to railroading the PCs, intentionally or not.

Mark_CMG (to Wulf_Ratbane) ...and the players aren't James Bond, unless they choose in the moment to be so.

RangerWickett All minor NPCs are 'minor' because the PCs aren't interacting with them. If they do start interacting with them, it is none too hard to turn that minor NPC into a more prominent one by coming up with a quick personality.

Mark_CMG And in cinematic story telling there are no "average" moon bases... (winks)

RangerWickett Semantics... Anyway, I try not to railroad, but I also don't go to more effort than is needed. I took your advice from an earlier chat to heart, and I make sure to give them different ways to go.

Mark_CMG An NPC never need only be minor. If the players make a decision that draws an NPC to the foreground, they are no longer "Joe Mook."

Wulf_Ratbane Agreed.

FastLearner But I can see RangerWickett's point that until that point, they are.

RangerWickett 9 different things are always good. 3 by 3. And the more options there are, the less time I feel I should devote to people who, 95% of the time, will just be window dressing.

Cassander If you put too much stuff for every little minor character, then the play will get bogged down and confused.. the PCs need to be able to tell which guy in the army is the villain.

Mark_CMG I have a little trick I use.

FastLearner (...or can be...)

Mark_CMG I try to always have a fact or two about each NPC.

CMG_Nichar Sound idea there...

Mark_CMG A daughter's name, a favorite color, a broken shoe lace...

Wulf_Ratbane Many a broken shoelace has been the downfall of Joe Mook. (smiles)

FastLearner I can see that in the material you write. Someone's son just joined the watch, etc.

Mark_CMG (to Cassander) It only gets bogged down if the players do not have options.

Cassander Keep a list of them like a list of names and use it when the PCs need to know it on the fly?

alsih2o Everyone needs one of 2 things...

Mark_CMG (to Cassander) That can help. (smiles)

alsih2o A hard luck story or a secret to their success...

RangerWickett That's fine when you have only a few NPCs. But it's unreasonable when there are 40 guards at a dark Elf base. Come up with, say, 3 personality traits, and if the players ask about a particular character, then that character acquires one of those traits.

FastLearner That certainly makes sense to me.

Mark_CMG That broken shoe lace is the difference between Joe Mook "getting hit and dying" or "stumbling foward onto your blade as you have it poised for the kill."

FastLearner (But take good notes, since if you don't the players will remember later and you won't!)

RangerWickett If you're in a bar, though, and the PCs aren't likely to fight, and are more likely to talk, then yes, make up a personality, but then stats are really not important.

Cassander Options are always good.. and probably one of the key things that separates pen and paper rpgs from crpgs, but why create info the PCs will never use? I can see creating a list of ideas for characteristics and such if the PCs start interacting with a stock PC, but why flesh out stock characters if theyre never gonna get to shine?

Mark_CMG (to Cassander) Anything you do not use right away, can always be used later. I do not believe in "stock" NPCs...

Cassander Which is why I think having a list of possible ideas would be good, rather than just sticking it to a specific character.

RangerWickett You walk into a bar, you see a small crowd of tavern-goers. The bartender is serving a slender halfling woman on a stool behind the bar, while a few tables over, you notice a pair of skinny, weasely looking guys playing cards while exchanging shots of liquor. The rest of the room is mostly farmers relaxing from a hard day's work.

Mark_CMG Once you build up a list, applying the list makes things much more interesting and DM-directed.

Wulf_Ratbane That is little consolation to the stock NPC who dies unfulfilled on the PC's backswing...

Mark_CMG (to Wulf_Ratbane) Never allow for remorse when losing an NPC. (winks)

FastLearner "If only I'd had a limp!"

Wulf_Ratbane (laughs)

FastLearner "Or some other identifying mark!"

Mark_CMG Besides, that limp can be used later...

Wulf_Ratbane (laughs)

RangerWickett If the PCs are there to find out about a kidnapping, I know that one of the card players has some info, and I have an idea of who is for when I roleplay him. He sings to himself and ignores their questions. But if they decide to talk to a lot of farmers, and ignore the card players, then one of the farmers ends up singing to himself and avoiding their questions.

alsih2o So you decide ahead of time what info your PCs will get? All the time?

Mark_CMG (to RangerWickett) Adjusting the plot can be tricky, but it is one way to do it.

RangerWickett Vaguely. I know what's up, and what they'll be able to get, but of course I dont' just spoonfeed them. They have to work for the info.

alsih2o Does that leave any room for, say, "Gather information" as a skill?

Wulf_Ratbane But there is a certain amount of predestination there...

RangerWickett I loathe Gather Information as a skill. It's only good when the information is not very pivotal to the plot.

Mark_CMG They shouldn't "have" to work for the info. If they come up with a clever plan, or even if serendipity takes them down the right road, sometimes things should come easily

alsih2o Well, to carry out the course... Do you also determine what will be spotted? Or heard?

FastLearner For me it depends on the particular plot point. If it's just finding info, I'll be very flexible. If it's rooting out the priest gone bad, for example, the priest has motivation and plans, and his personality won't hop to another NPC.

RangerWickett Like if they want to find out what a bad guy's favorite food is, then Gather Information works for that. But if they want to find out where the hostages are, they have to actively roleplay that.

alsih2o Do you also determine what will be spotted, or what locks will be picked?

Mark_CMG (to RangerWickett) Let me ask...

RangerWickett (to alsih2o) I'll admit that I'm pretty flexible with spot and listen checks and such. I prefer to have PCs roleplay their searchs, but if they're having a hard time, I'll call for a spot check, and then drop them a clue regardless of the result.

Cassander You can always have the PC make a Gather Information check and if the results good, then you can let that character get the info easier.. by having the NPCs be more likely to give it out, based on the characters' skill at talking and such.

alsih2o Do your players know you do this when creating their characters?

Mark_CMG Wouldn't it serve the plot and game just as well to have the farmer happen to have info that the PCs should talk to the card player, rather than have the farmer become the person that the card player was?

Wulf_Ratbane (to alsih2o) In my experience, although I use much the same system as RangerWickett, I would not. I love the roll of the dice. So I know what the info is and where it is, but sometimes it never works its way to the players. I have had entire plotlines delayed for weeks that way. C'est la guerre.

alsih2o I love the roll for the outcome too. I like how it helps to determine highlights and hazards.

RangerWickett (to Mark_CMG) That works too, yes. But again, it's having to balance mild railroading with letting the players do what they want. I don't want to say, "Oh, no, you HAVE to talk to the card player," though usually they would.

Wulf_Ratbane Where I would deviate from RangerWickett is that, although I might decide that the farmer has the info, once the die is cast, I won't change on the fly.

Mark_CMG Why would the farmer say thay "have" to talk to the card player? Maybe the farmer need only mention that the card player is acting oddly?

RangerWickett The way I usually run a game, in the broad sense, is to come up with a couple scenes that I think would be cool for the players. I usually have the primary scenes I want the most, and secondary ones that work if the PCs don't go that way.

FastLearner I prefer to leave the clues (shifty card players) and let the players do the work, but I do give it away if they're stuck.

RangerWickett Then, I let them roleplay through scenes one by one, and depending on how they act, I decide how best to get them to the next scene.

Wulf_Ratbane Too much railroading there for me. I would much rather you said, depending on how they act, you decide what scene plays next.

RangerWickett That's what I mean.

Mark_CMG Makes sense... (smiles)

alsih2o So, what about deaths? PC deaths I mean?

Wulf_Ratbane (I am guessing he is lenient)

RangerWickett They know that someone has kidnapped a friend, and they know something is up with a strange storm out to sea. They heard some rumors about a thieves' guild, so they go to this bar that the guild frequents, and I roleplay from there. However, if they'd taken some of the other clues and went to a library for research, I had ideas for what happens there too. (As for) PC deaths? I've had, perhaps, 2 of those in the past 3 years. One was because it fit the character's hubris (he wanted to play a frenzied berserker, so it's his bad that he charged solo into the guard post of the badguys). The other was because the player decided that the best way to save the rest of the group was to sacrifice himself. I usually don't kill off characters for bad rolls.

CMG_Nichar OK.

Mark_CMG See that is why I have found that little preparation usually equals linear plots.

RangerWickett You think that PC death is required for plot flexibility? (winks)

Wulf_Ratbane Well, yeah.

RangerWickett (grins) You would, Wulf_Ratbane.

Mark_CMG It requires the DM to bring the players back to the ideas that have been fleshed out, rather than keeping the DM free to improvise.

Wulf_Ratbane Ranks right up at the top of "The Unexpected" list.

RangerWickett No, I come up with nodular adventures. The nodes that I expect them to go to get the most detail. But if they decide to go another way, I can do that too. I don't have raise dead spells in my games, so PC deaths are a much more serious thing. Like killing off major bad guys, I try to only do that when there's a good narrative reason for doing so.

CMG_Nichar Cool.

Mark_CMG Bottom line is that you do wind up needing to prepare stuff, either at the table or in advance, on the fly or ahead of time.

Wulf_Ratbane But they are serious only IN THEORY; the players know that they won't be felled by a random shot from our hero, Joe Mook.

Mark_CMG The depth of what is prepared can be much richer if it is done in advance.

RangerWickett For me, overpreparing leads to railroading. I spend so much time thinking of a particular plot line, and so I'd end up subconsciously directing them toward it.

alsih2o Preparation is much more than just plotline.

Mark_CMG (to RangerWickett) Not now that you are conscious of it... (grins)

CMG_Nichar (chuckles)

Wulf_Ratbane I think at both ends of the spectrum, there is railroading. Too much or too little is gong to lead you down the same path.

Mark_CMG Railroading is a separate issue from being prepared or not, in my opinion.

Wulf_Ratbane The trick is to be prepared just enough to be flexible.

Mark_CMG I'd say further...

RangerWickett (to Wulf_Ratbane) A 'mook' can take down a PC if he puts himself in the right situation. Like running into a swarm of them. But even if the PC is low on hit points, I'd rather have a more major villain come in and deal a killing blow, than letting him fall to a mook.

Wulf_Ratbane I don't agree, I think a lot of DMs... A LOT... will railroad the PCs specifically because they have invested so much prep time along one course.

Mark_CMG The trick is not requiring yourself to use all that you have prepared material, just for the sake of using it.

Wulf_Ratbane Exactly, yes.

RangerWickett Yeah, that is a good point. It's just so sad, though. *sniff* My PCs never investigated the tomb I made. (smiles) But like people always say, you can use it elsewhere later.

Mark_CMG That tomb will always be there. (smiles) So one of my own rules is "Be prepared to improvise."

RangerWickett That almost goes without saying. Except you said it.

Mark_CMG Ah, but you don't.

RangerWickett Eh?

FastLearner Yeah, I have a whole huge haunted ancient university the players never finished exploring.

Mark_CMG When I say that, I mean to have tons of info (or as much as you can) fleshed out so that you can improvise without having to create stuff on the fly unless a "severe" left turn is taken.

RangerWickett Anyway, yes, coming up with lots of stuff in advance is good. It helps to come up with personalities in advance. I prefer the big important person, and lots of mooks. Makes the big guys seem more cool.

Buttercup That's what I try to do. I"ve got about 200 NPCs in a notebook, sorted by class and level, each w/ a plot hook or some interesting tidbit. But I need to do more prep of other sorts.

Mark_CMG (to Buttercup) That's a good way to keep things going during a game.

Wulf_Ratbane I have an early flight tomorrow. Take care all! And, err, my parting advice is, if you HAVE to railroad the PCs, at least make sure you're railroading them into an early grave.

FastLearner I'll add mine. I like to prepare what I call 3 x 3. That's 3 different directions (plot lines), and for each I prepare one good fight, one good roleplaying opportunity, and one good puzzle/mystery. It's a TON of work, unfortunately, but I always have something for everyone, whichever way they end up going. Of course, I reuse the unused ones whenever I can.

Buttercup That's a great idea.

Mark_CMG I like that

CMG_Nichar Same here.

Buttercup I reuse unused locations, like shops n such.

FastLearner I think it leaves too much prep work on the table, though.

alsih2o Consider it practice. (smiles)

FastLearner Aye. (smiles)

alsih2o (smiles)

Mark_CMG (chuckles) True...

Buttercup So have you guys found that you can run with less prep as you become more experienced?

alsih2o I find as I get more experienced the more in depth my prep gets.

FastLearner Absolutely. (Though I stopped running games for about 7 years and it took a while to come up to speed.)

Mark_CMG I run with more and more as each year goes by. In my opinion, the more you've done in advance, the better the game ultimately is. And, of course, you build up a nice stockpile of material.

Buttercup I sometimes wish I were independently wealthy so I would have enough time to prep to my satisfaction.

Mark_CMG You and me both. (grins)

alsih2o Me, three. (smiles) I have no boss, and that helps.

Mark_CMG Let's talk about easy ways to prep, eh?

Buttercup So how many plots do you have stored up, on average?

Mark_CMG Can everyone here grab a link or two from their bookmarks for online sources that help you to prepare, please?

CMG_Nichar (chuckles)




Buttercup That's a link to '36 dramatic situations'. I use it for plotting when I'm stuck.

Mark_CMG (to Buttercup) Unless I am running a one shot adventure, I try not to think of things in regard to plots. Campaign-wise, I try to allow the players to create their own plot from the decisions. (Not that plots are a bad thing. But for one-shots, I have a couple of hundred individual plots/situations built up for use.

alsih2o Yessir, stacks o' many...

FastLearner The Big List of RPG Plots:

Mark_CMG And perhaps each of you could give a little story of a time you used the particular bookmark you've added here, for good or ill? (winks)

FastLearner I've yet to use the Big List of RPG Plots. It just looks useful.

alsih2o I get a lot of ideas from maps, they describe patterns of movement which somehow always get me stirring.

Buttercup I've got that site bookmarked too, Clay. I love those old maps.

alsih2o The one about basboos, well culturally based short stories always set me off too.

Mark_CMG I think that next DMing chat session we should probably have the first in our series of sessions on "Mapping"

FastLearner Sounds like fun.

Mark_CMG But that may have to be the one after next. We might have another topic depending on what a certain someone says when I talk to them in the next week... (winks)

alsih2o (grins)

FastLearner The rumored special guest for the last month or so?

Mark_CMG Nope, a different individual that had a new way of starting a campaign that they might be able to share with us. (smiles)

FastLearner Ah, sounds good.

Mark_CMG Can't say more until I chat with them again. (winks)

alsih2o I, personally, am all atwitter... (smiles)

Mark_CMG (chuckles)

Buttercup I have soooo many issues about mapping. Time, ability, ideas, tools, being the most urgent.

Mark_CMG I'll be adding "gasps" from each of you to the transcript... (winks)

FastLearner For preparing NPCs, I highly recommend John Four's "NPC Essentials". Great stuff.

alsih2o (to Buttercup) Buy pen nibs, they inspire great lines. (smiles)

Mark_CMG (to Buttercup) I think a lot of people wish they could make better maps. Does anyone have anything to add about the link they they have dropped on us?

alsih2o (calligraphy type tips) The variance in line does a lot for mood.

CMG_Nichar My link was my page

Buttercup I know I just got here, but it's time to walk the dog and then go to bed. So nighty-night. I'll try to show up on time next time!

Mark_CMG Well, I am thinking that this will just be a shorter chat session, tonight.

alsih2o Peace!

CMG_Nichar Night!

Mark_CMG Thanks all! Next time will be Dec 16th Monday. We'll get the topic straightened out for the session by next week'

(End of chat)

Another good chat with lots of ideas from all of the participants. I'll post the transcript in the coming week... :)
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First Post
Unfortunately You do this at, for me, unholy hours. So Ill have to do with reading the transcriptions.


First Post
maldur, when the next topic is decided you can leave any questions you might have here, or email mark or myself and we will make sure they get asked :)

The topic we will explore Mon, Dec 30th 7pm central US will be Magic Item Creation: Striking a Balance

If you do not think that you will be able to attend, please feel free to post questions here. We will try to address them in the round table discussion during the session. Attendance is always best, since you may have follow up questions that spring from the answers. :)

If you have suggestions for future topics that you would like to see addressed, please also post those in this thread. Some of the future topics will include DM Tools: Making Effective Maps, DM Tools: Using Counters and Miniatures and Running an Online Game via Chat Channels

I hope to see you there! :)
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First Post
do something productive before the year ends, spend a night chatting with us!

magic item goodness in store....



First Post
Ill see if I can show up, but I doubt it (as I have to work tuesday)

Cant think of any questions though?

With any luck will have a nice little announcement to include, and perhaps some prizes to give away. If things work out, be sure to be ready to crunch some numbers, by way of setting market values for magic items. I think that'll be a good way to have some fun, eh? Perhaps for some PDF copies, maybe some "Davis Originals"... ;)


First Post
I would love to show up, but my alarm clock is set on 5:30 if I need to go to work, so I cant really sit through a chat at 2:30.

And I cant sleep before that as my brother Bday is monday (party:))

Its a shame Im getting more curious as to what the announcement is :(

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