Shenanigans in and Around
A D&D series of real game experiences along with helpful tips and tricks for good play
Part 0. Expectations and Character Creation
The following will be a multi-part series taken really from Dungeons and Dragons games that really happened without embellishment. And some back-end tips and tricks to help facilitate gameplay.
With that in mind, let’s get right into it.
Caveat: There is not a best way to play D&D, this series will not pretend to offer the best way, but just simply this author’s preferences and experience as to what has been fun.
This is endearingly called part 0 as a reference to session 0. Session 0 is the name given to the time spent making characters. This generally means everyone getting together all at once and sitting down with their ideas, rolling stats, discussing what they want, and the DM writing down ideas to weave the players into the story with hooks etc. I have found a little more one on one interaction to be more thorough, since the DM’s attention is less divided. While I love my players, you may see pretty soon how there have been a few moments which--and knowing that they may read this, saying this gingerly--could be called facepalm moments.
The group to be played was with 3 guys I have known for years, but none of whom had ever played D&D. All having varying levels of exposure to such things.
The first player’s character I will talk to you about is Slade Wilson. When I worked with this player they wanted to make a ninja-like character. Easy-peasy. I helped him roll up a monk, and helped him trace out a bit of a level-up path showing him how at level 3 he could pick the Way of the Shadow subclass for the Monk class.
A variant I heard about a few years back which I really like to use when having players roll stats is this: I have them draw a 3X3 grid (like a tic-tac-toe board) and label the columns Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, and label the rows Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Then have the players roll 3d6 9 times and fill in each box with their results. Each of the boxes will have a number, and two corresponding attributes (one for row and one for column) for each box they choose for it to apply towards the row or the column or neither, until every attribute has exactly one number applied.
This variant forces players to immediately make hard choices for their character and allows them to start down a path so that the numbers can tell a story. I will take a second to demonstrate this.
The average result of 3D6 is 10.5--so it is evident that the above set of rolls is hilariously bad; but even with that you can automatically see how you want that 11 to be put to use. If you take it for Wisdom then you are looking at a 9 or a 10 remaining for Strength. If you put a 10 in Strength you are looking at a 9 or a 7 for Charisma. Even a bad set of rolls is a good example of the hard choices you have to make using this variant. Work with your players (or if you read this as a player take the advice personally) to give thematic reason for the choices you make. Maybe it spins into a backstory of how as a child you fled your tutor in philosophy to join a guild of hunters (which is why your STR would be 11 but your WIS would be lower.) That is just one example of how you could read flavour into the forced choices.
This here is a better set of rolls for a character. And if a player is really unhappy with their 9 rolls, don't force them to keep them. But if they are upset that they did not get 6 different 18s, well, read on.
With this grouping you can see how that 16 is the best result and you will want to put that to use. But what if you were trying to make a Druid, well Constitution and Charisma are equally nice to have not it is not so important that a Druid excell in either. This is where you get to make flavour choices. What's more a 4 is a cripplingly bad result, for comparison a 4 in intellegence is not considred enough to speak. A player would probably want to avoid that (almost definitely would want to.) However you could spin it into their character if you wanted to have very flavourful weakness. Maybe you used to be a thrull, and were only freed by the selfless heroism of a freind, but your mind will never be the same (thus the incredibly poor Wisdom). Maybe your character is like Hephaestus from Greek Mythology and was thrown off of an high cliff and had all their bones broken (Thus the incredibly poor Dexterity), kept alive but forever crippled they channeled their focus into spellcasting. This author really loves the grid system for springboarding players (even new players) into character creation.
But back to my table... The second player liked the idea of a Bard, and wasn’t ready to settle on a subclass; this was just fine. He wanted to know Prestidigitation, a very versatile cantrip. All well and good. These and a few other details added up to all point towards the fact that this player wanted his character to be able to do anything. While this is certainly not a problem in itself (and it is something my first real character tried to do as well.) it can be an early warning sign of something you may want to talk to your players about: the enjoyment of failure.
There is an episode of one of my favourite TV shows--The Twilight Zone--where a criminal dies and goes to the afterlife. It is a paradise for him, he gambles and always wins, he makes all the rules, he gets all of the women he could ask for and more. He then goes to talk to his guide about perhaps reducing the amount of good things since he wasn’t able to enjoy the things he thought he would. The guide goes on to tell him no way, he is not in heaven he is in hell. *Gasp!* An huge twist. Or not. Either way it communicates an important message to people entering a world of possibilities (whether D&D or the Twilight Zone.)
--Getting your way exactly is not very fun--
The character has developed, and became more fleshed out; this has not proven to be a problem. Baxter Dabster was born. (And that player is soon to DM a game himself, a usual consequence of wanting to play characters who can do anything. Mea Culpa!)
But don’t foster the idea that successful characters perfectly performing successful missions is the best way to play. Always keeping an element of “How is this going to be possible?!” to some degree will keep players excited to play, and feeling good when they overcome, or satisfied (usually) anyway when things don’t work out for them.
If you want another DM's opinion on this matter too, I point you to the incredibly well-produced youtuber Zee Bashew and his video on the subject. (I recommend his other videos too.)
Now for the first two player’s characters, they were easy to adapt ideas. “I want to be ninja-like!”, “I want to be a bard.” However when I asked the 3rd player what they wanted to play, their answer was “I want to be a frog.”
… At first I told him that there was no way to do that. (Although now with the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything there are now rules for sidekicks which pretty much make any creature playable.)
I poured over the books for a way to satisfy the insistent “I want to play a frog-man” desire which I wanted to oblige, but was up to then unable to acquiesce. As a DM your goal should be to help the characters make a good character to fit into the story. This is where I will pause for a second to talk about DM expectations.
Every game master should make it their goal to provide the best experience for the players, keeping in mind that sometimes that will mean not letting everything go their way.
If you want to be a DM so you can essentially read out-loud a story you have written, don’t be a DM, be an author.
It is not bad to have a story you want to tell, but don’t force your story at the expense of what the players want to do. You are there to help shape their choices into a story, not to make your story play out while you marionette their characters into doing exactly what you need them to. (It is worth mentioning that I regularly create story elements and decisions points tailored to the players I know, this is fun because I get to feel like a mastermind if they act exactly as I foresaw, but it is also enjoyable when they do something I did not expect and I get to improvise. As I really like improvising as a DM, this is not for everyone to be sure.)
But this time I had found a way to make it go the way the frog-man player wanted it to go, and I will suggest a way to make similar strange requests work for you and your group.
First I suggested to him he could play a Warlock and as part of his pact he would be turned into a frog man. This would be the thematic explanation. He loved the idea. So we selected for him the Archfey Patron, and I created a powerful being shrouded in mystery who whimmed this character into becoming a frog-being, and he would gradually become more and more frog-like as he leveled-up and gained abilities.
I also suggested to him he take the Mask of Many Faces Eldritch Invocation which allowed him to cast an illusory disguise over himself should he need to blend into society. This patron is only known as “The Green Man” and has served as a great way to propel the story into certain areas or to make dilemmas for the players.
Now as for the rules and stats that this character would employ, I could either have customised a stat-block for such a character (and some do this to great effect) but I took the easy way out, and it is so simple I recommend it to you all as well.
Use the Human stats with the Feat variant and have the feat correspond to what the character they are playing. For this frog-man it was the Mobile Feat. This created a very custom stat-line with like 2 seconds of work.
And it would very easily translate into making other non-standard player races.
(This way is so easy, someone recently asked me “what do I do if someone wants to play as a sasquatch?” I told them something similar along the same lines. Variant Human race can make nearly anything you want if you are creative enough with interpreting feats/proficeincies.)
After working with this player to grant him his frog-man I asked him what he would name his character. He responded with “Gorf Dapylil”. If you stare at that name for a second you will realise why he chose that name.
And so the party of three was gathered. Slade Wilson, Baxter Dabster, and Gorf Dapylil. It was a good time to remind myself “The game is primarily for the players.”
This also was a valid time to remind these first-time players that being a DM is a lot of work and I didn’t want to put all this effort into it if they didn’t want to put effort into it themselves. I was only going to take it as serious as they would, and I asked them to take it as seriously as I was. This seemed to work as they all agreed. I was assured that they would play seriously, but that they just wanted to make their characters this way. The following advice is about D&D but really applies to all of life:
--Good communication is essential to good working relationships--
Was this campaign going to work out? Was it going to systematically degrade into madness? Was it going to fizzle into obscurity?
This was only session 0, but I had plans for the game, and how it would unfold was yet to be seen. I hope you have enjoyed this session 0 report. And I hope you’ll come back to hear about the misadventures of this motley crew as the story unfolds. This campaign is still being played out, so the end is not yet written. Future session reports will follow a little more of a pattern since it will follow the story as it played out. We’ll see you next time!
*Cover image: Gorf Dapylil and Baxter Dabster as illustrated by their players. I’ll let you guess which is which. (Slade was not drawn at this time.)