When you’re GMing a game, what really makes you smile? What is it that your players do which makes you feel like as though the game is going perfectly? For myself, I love it when my players approach a problem from a direction I never considered. Or, even better, when they decide to tackle a problem I haven’t considered at all. I’m of the opinion that if they’re thinking that creatively, then it is because I was able to foster an environment where they felt like thinking creatively was beneficial. They recognize that the world around them has a certain kind of logic to it, and that logic is consistent enough that they’re able to think about problems diegetically.
I’d like to share three stories which I think encapsulate this idea really well.
Skeleton Feet: Different areas of my game world are keyed to different encounter tables. Everything which can be rolled on those tables has been carefully selected for that area. For unintelligent creatures, my reason for putting them there might be as simple as ‘this is where they live.’ For more intelligent beings, there will often be a small backstory, perhaps a couple sentences in length. If the players encounter 1d4 orcs, it might be because there’s a hidden orc village in the area, which was founded when a group of orcs was driven from the northern mountains by humans. Simple as it may be, it already solves a lot of problems. The orcs will react violently to humans, there is a village nearby for the players to find if they want to find out where the orcs came from, and I’ve added to the history of my world by saying orcs used to live in the mountains to the North, even if my players don’t find that out.
In my game world, 3 or 4 adjacent ‘zones’ all share a small possibility that the players will encounter a handful of goblin skeletons. The backstory on these skeletons is that many many decades ago, a necromancer passed through the area. He was still relatively inexperienced, and he experimented with his necromatic powers by raising a lot of dead goblins from a mass grave he found. The necromancer has since moved on, and is now a powerful lich in a tower in the far south. Given that you can’t really interrogate skeletons, I figured that if my players encountered them, they’d wonder why they were there, but not pursue the idea too far. To be honest, when I wrote that, I was really just looking for a way to make the encounter table more varied in those areas.
It took my players a few sessions of adventuring before they encountered the skeletons. They managed to defeat them handily. Here’s what happened, (roughly transcribed from a recording I made of the game):
Phoenix The Sorceress: Do any of our characters know about undead? What can we learn about these?
Me: Knowledge(Religion) is used for undead. Gibbous?
Gibbous The Cleric: Sweet, I’m useful! *roll* I got a 17.
Me: Alright! You’re able to notice two things about these goblin skeletons. First, they seem to have been animated for a very long time, and second, it doesn’t seem like they were being guided by any set of instructions.
Gibbous: [Sarcastic] That is super helpful.
At this point, the party very nearly moved on, figuring that there was nothing interesting about the encounter. But after a bit of chatter, some of the other players started to get curious.
Rosco the Ranger: Maybe they came from a nearby crypt?
Poker the Rogue: How old are the swords they were using? Can we tell?
Pumofe the Barbarian: I just woke up from a 200 year sleep. Do their swords look like something I would recognize from when I was around.
Me: Interesting! No, they don’t conform to any style you would have been familiar with 200 years ago. They are probably of more recent stock.
Pumofe: Can we see on the bottom of their feet how much bone is worn away?
Poker: [Joking] Check how worn their teeth are, check them for parasites…
Me: Wow. Um…well, you’re not CSI, but the feet seem to be worn down pretty thin. They’ve been walking around for maybe twenty to fifty years.
Pumofe: Do they have anything stuck to them which might tell us where they’ve been?
Me: Lots of little tree branches, leaves. A few tiny scraps of cloth, but its so deteriorated that it’s impossible to identify.
Gibbous: Is there someone we could ask about this maybe? Someone who would know the history of the area? I have Knowledge(History).
Me: Well, knowing anything about this would probably be too specific for your character to know about, since you’re not from around here. But make the check, and we’ll see if you know of anyone more familiar with the area’s history than you are.
Gibbous: I rolled a 16, so that comes up to 20!
Me: That’s plenty. Do you remember the town down South between the two rivers? The high priest of Obad-Hai is elderly and learned. He would know a great deal of the area’s history.
Pumofe: Is that on the way?
Poker: Yeah, we need to follow the rivers to get back to the Wizard’s tower anyway.
Gibbous: And we can still kill orcs along the way!
From there the players continued on to the town of Overton, spoke with the high priest, and learned of the necromancer who had passed through the area some 30 years prior on his way south. They added the Lich to their “list of things to take care of,” about 10 levels before I had planned on them doing so.
I love this story in particular because it demonstrates that my players don’t view the world as random anymore. I honestly don’t think I would have considered how worn down the skeletons feet were if I was a player.
Razorgrass: This incident occurred in my most recent game, actually. The players traveled to the Abyss to hunt for demon’s blood. Given their low level, I decided to send them to a rather innocuous corner of the Abyss. Instead of facing hordes of demons, I designed an area where the environment itself was hostile. One where divine (i.e. healing) magic would summon demons to attack them.
The players had only been there a short time when they encountered a large field of grass, which they quickly determined was razor sharp. Fortunately, most of the group is heavily armored, and those who aren’t only took a small amount of damage. None the less, the players didn’t want to squander their hit points in a place this dangerous. So Phoenix used her Gem of Fire Ray to burn a 60ft path through the field.
Shortly before this, the players had hast healing magics, and I had been tracking a band of demons as they approached the party’s location. They had only just begun walking down the path when the demons burst from the trees behind them. I described the demons as “About 5ft tall, corpulent, and naked. With a jaundiced-yellow color to them, and wicked claws on each hand.”
The barbarian wasted no time in shouting to the others: “Run into the grass!” The demons were some of the least intelligent of the Abyss, and were excited by the prospect of devouring mortal flesh on their home plane. They charged into the grass after the players, and promptly had their HP reduced by almost half as each step through the razorgrass dealt 1d4 damage to their naked bodies. The players were easily able to wipe the floor with the weakened demons.
Though they did pay a price: there was much less blood in each demon after the battle for them to harvest.
Zalekios and the Buildings: In this story, I actually wasn’t GMing. I was playing my chaotic evil Warlock/Rogue, Zalekios Gromar. None the less, this story marked a turning point for me as a GM. I felt such a sense of accomplishment and freedom after this encounter, that I decided this was the kind of feeling I wanted to enable my own players to experience.
Zalekios Gromar is, in a word, overpowered. And the GM who kindly runs games for me has often been frustrated by the difficulty of crafting encounters to challenge me. Zalekios himself is supposed to be an intelligent, but extremely overconfident character. He once leaped from the 4th floor of a tower simply because he was bored by attacking his enemy from range. And after being overpowered for so long, I the player had become pretty overconfident myself. Nothing seemed to be able to stop me. So when a Paladin appeared in a town I was resting in, and demanded I surrender myself, I charged him with eldritch blasts blazing. We battled for several rounds, each dealing a lot of damage to the other. But I quickly noticed that my HP was getting dangerously low. Zalekios was in very real danger of dying.
I was kicking myself for being so foolish as to charge a paladin head on, and frantically tried to come up with something I could do to get out of this alive. The paladin had already told me he’d tracked me for weeks, so running would only be a temporary reprieve. And since he could magically heal himself and I could not, that seemed like a bad plan. Desperate for some tactical advantage, I asked the GM what buildings were nearby. We were, after all, in a town. He said that the encounter was taking place in a largely undeveloped area of the town, but drew three houses on the map none the less. They were small, just one story high, made of cheap wood and clay.
That was all Zalekios needed.
He cast a special type of Dimensional Door which left a silent image behind, and ported up to the roof of the nearest house–just barely within his range. I attacked from range while the Paladin was distracted, and then again while he charged the house. Instead of climbing it as I suspected he would, the Paladin simply bowled himself into the supporting frames for the house, causing it to collapse just as I ported away. I tried to point out that the paladin should lose his powers for destroying someone’s home, but my GM replied that all three houses were abandoned, and that this part of town was sparse because all the buildings here were being taken down so nicer ones could be built. The pally did, however, take damage from a building falling on him.
I bounced between the remaining two houses that were within range of my Dimensional Door, trying to keep the paladin at range. He inexorably began to limit my escape options until he had me completely cornered. I was at 3 hit points, and had to make a choice. Either I could attack and be killed immediately afterwords, or I could run and be killed immediately afterwords. I decided that if this was Zalekios’ time, I’d rather see him go out with some fight left in him. I charged up an Eldritch Blast–
–and never, in all my years of gaming, have I been so ecstatic to see a natural twenty. The paladin was blasted, and Zalekios strapped the body to his horse just so he could resurrect and torture it.
The GM later admitted to me that the paladin had been specifically designed to beat me. He was a gestalt Paladin/Barbarian (which I pointed out should have been impossible) who was a good four levels higher than Zalekios himself was. The GMs plan had been to capture me and take me to trial or something. But my tactics had defied his expectations, and allowed a little bit of luck to make the difference between life and death.
That’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had while playing a tabletop game. I was supposed to lose, the game was stacked against me. But because I made superior use of my environment and the choices available to me, I won the game.
I want my players to feel like that as often as possible.