Thursday, April 22, 2021

How to Choose a Temporary Commander in D&D (first draft)

PART I: What is this and why should I care?

This is a method for the game’s participants to temporarily entrust a single player with full authority to plan and conduct a specific undertaking (e.g. getting past the troll on the bridge). (It’s inspired by the office of dictator in the Roman Republic.) Participants and the dice will choose differently for different undertakings (see PART II below).

Having a single player be in charge of an undertaking has two major advantages:

a)    1. It limits discussion, leading to more time playing out actual operations.

b)     2.It ensures a coherent plan. (Not necessarily a good one, mind you, but often too many cooks spoil the broth.)


PART II: What is special about the proposed method?

The game’s participants choose a temporary commander via a combination of voting and rolling dice. Interested players pitch their plans to the group and everyone casts a secret vote. Each volunteer then rolls a d20 and adds his or her character’s Charisma modifier and a +2 bonus per vote. The highest result determines the temporary commander (and plan). Crucially, this result is treated as a consensus reached by the characters.

This method has two major advantages:

a)    1. Partially randomizing the process ensures that everyone can have a chance to be in the driver’s seat. (Frankly, we owe this to each other among friends and in the context of a game. You may not agree with Bob’s proposal but you should respect his desire and right to contribute.)

b)     2. Pretending all characters believe in the plan provides both emotional distance and roleplaying opportunities. (It’ll be easier to go along with Bob’s plan if you treat the situation as your character having been convinced by Bob’s.)


PART III: Step-by-step instructions

Step 1: Invoking the process

Any player may invoke the process if he or she feels a discussion is beginning to drag.

Step 2: Free-for-all discussion

For a limited time, the participants voice opinions, ask for clarifications from the DM etc.

Step 3: Stepping up

Interested players declare that they have a plan.

Step 4: Sales pitch

Volunteers pitch their plans to the group in a random order and briefly answer questions. (Think of politicians addressing the press.)

Step 5: Voting

All participants (i.e. the players and the DM) cast a secret vote each. The votes are tallied.

Step 6: Rolling the dice

Each volunteer rolls a d20, adds his or her character’s Charisma modifier and a +2 bonus for every vote. The character with the highest result is treating as having won over the party.

Votes can be cast for any number of reasons, e.g.

-          tactical reasons (Bob’s plan sounds most likely to succeed.)

-          social reasons (Bob’s had a rough day at work.)

-          artistic reasons (Bob’s plan promises lots of combat, is off the beaten path etc.)

Step 6: Roleplay

The players provide some description of the process at the character level. (“My magic-user is awed by the barbarian’s na├»ve courage and agrees to the crazy plan, surprising himself most of all.”)

Step 7: Execution

The player of the commanding character now plans and conducts the operation.


The proposal assumes a neutrally refereed D&D group with about six players and Charisma modifiers ranging from -3 to +3.

Also, this has not been tested yet, so I might be talking out of my ass. What do you think about this?

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Muster: a friendly primer to old school D&D

I'm momentarily reviving this blog to promote a project near and dear to my heart:

Eero Tuovinen is setting set out to write Muster: a friendly primer to old school D&D at IndieGoGo. This is a project very much in the vein of Matthew Finch's seminal Quick Primer for Old School Gaming and Jason Cone’s unforgettable Philotomy’s Musings.

Eero’s been blogging and writing about the philosophical underpinnings of wargamey D&D and how to run and play in a sandbox campaign for many years. He’s been a major influence on my gaming, along with Ben Robbins’ West Marches campaign. But enough with all the OSR links – go check out Eero’s crowdfunding pitch for yourself!

Best wishes,


(I’m not affiliated with Eero in any way, but an obviously enthusiastic backer. Eight years and 80+ PC casualties and counting…)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Eero Tuovinen Is My Hero (Part III)

Eero Tuovinen has this to say on "optimizing at the expense of a robust and compelling fiction", e.g. by "swinging some sort of a pole-marmoset-flint knife combo platter in a customized effort to keep my character safe":

[T]o me the ideal of beautiful and powerful play in an organically developing Gamist game with heavy focus on positioning, such as this style of D&D, is to grasp with determination at a subject matter and challenge proposition that you find compelling; the question is not whether you could win at a GM's obstacle course by stacking rules and positioning to your favour, the question is whether you can triumph against a challenge chosen and internalized by yourself within the fictional constraints, partially unspoken, that determine whether your play is petty or compelling. Not whether you can build a knight that can slay a dragon, but whether a knight as per your understanding of knighthood can slay a dragon.

From this perspective we find that the actual tactical and strategic choices the players make and feel most strongly come about as a combination of two elements that reinforce each other: is what you're doing compelling as a fictional proposition, and is it smart (or effective, equivalently) as a move? In this context the oft-cited D&D attitude of maximizing your effectiveness for the sake of party success is irrelevant, and it is much more relevant to make room for an individual player's character image, the personal constraints they choose for their challenge: this guy [...] wants to triumph without resorting to underhanded tricks, this one wants to play a naive greenhorn, this one's playing a fatalist who is seeking his own death... All of these can be played in effective ways that are also compelling rather than flimsy in terms of fictive credibility.
I find the knighthood example particularly apt because my group has had discussions about the viability of playing an honor-bound, never-back-down-in-the-face-of-evil paladin in our old school campaign.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Becoming a Killer DM: Owning Up

Yesterday, I fucked up and ruined the integrity of our campaign. Now I'm trying to restore it.


The party confronted a major monster. The monster's description said it would probably talk to the characters even though that meant giving away all but certain surprise.

Stepping on a slippery slope that would prove my downfall, I gave the monster an insanely high initiative so it could maintain its advantage while still talking to the characters.

When hostilities erupted, one player actually beat the monster's initiative anyway, then rolled well on a spell casting roll, and then rolled spectacularly well on damage.

Behind the screen, I silently added +20 hp to the monster's hit points to prevent it from dying on the spot. OUCH!


I have some excuses, all of them bad, and some thoughts on how to foster the kind of mental hygiene espoused by Eero Tuovinen. Dunno if I'll get around to posting them next week.

In any case, my first fix is to own up to cheating.

For next week – the party is still in the middle of the fight --, I'd like to proceed as follows:

The monster's new and improved stats and abilities remain unchanged.

The permanent damage the monster has done up to this point is revoked (i.e. one player character regains two points of Luck and a valued henchman is not teleported away after all).

I hope to get things back on track.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 12)

Session 12: Early Retreat

The characters carefully examine a room with mysterious holes in the floor. They are disturbed by giant beetles and unknown cultists and return to the village early. The characters sell some loot and some of them later examine the enchanted forest nearby, moving into it for a few yards.

  • The session was quite slow and few things happened: The characters spent a lot of time searching for traps, fighting minor random encounters, selling loot and debating whether to explore the enchanted forest or not.
  • A potential problem rears its head: The players are responsible for pacing and risk management and cannot rely on the DM to provide either.
  • That said, I should have asked them to either examine the forest together - or not at all. There are too many random factors for me to foresee how long various endeavours might take, so solo quests are not really an option. 
  • Grognardia has a nice article on the The Rhythm of the Old School that has a more positive view on some of these issues.
In a nutshell
A session that was too slow for my tastes.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 11)

Session 11: The Power of Magic

The characters begin to plunder the area where they were ambushed the other week and retreat with some gold. Back in the village, the dwarf attempts to teach other tomb raiders but is foulmouthed by unlucky adventurers. He sets things straight with a duel to the death. Later, the party's witch casts detect magic with critical success. She sees and identifies everything magic in the entire village. Among other things, she finds out that all the children are under a spell. When the witch casts detect magic again some time later, she fumbles and transforms a tavern wench into some kind of earth elemental. Fortutnately, the dwarf is able to repair some damage done to her before the effect wears off after a few days.

  • After 10 sessions with almost no magical incidents, the unpredictable DCC rules struck twice! The fallout occupied most of the session.
  • Switching gears wasn't easy -- I started rolling for various NPCs' magic items, for instance, but detailing an entire village's worth of adventurers on the fly was too much.
  • DCC's curveball means there's a lot of work to be done (such as detailing the magic merchant's treasures) but I think it's a great opportunity.
  • The players used the unusual opportunities to portray their characters in various ways (CD's fatherly dwarf, HM's opportunistic rogue etc.).
  • CD risked a valuable character in a deadly duel. His character was brand new, true, but also sported above average rolls. The Luck stat provided some measure of safety I assume, but it can't protect against critical hits so it took real courage to enter the duel.
In a nutshell
An unsual but fascinating session.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 10)

Session 10: Ambushed!

The witch uses charm on a captured cultist and the party learns something about the Necromancers of Set and the Acolytes of Orcus. The captive also provides a partial map before being dispatched by the party afraid of the spell wearing off. The party then moves into a sector held by the followers of Set and are ambushed on the way out. The enemy's main ploy (skeletons attacking under cover of darkness) fails but it's a brutal fight nonetheless. A veteran fighter (level 3) goes down to a series of lucky attacks and the party's dwarf dies, too.

  • Prep was a lot more work than usual because I had to decide what the captives knew exactly. I copied a part of the map and edited out traps and room numbers -- always aware of the fact that none of that information might be needed (if, for instance, the party failed to take anyone alive). 
  • The characters act as a true team: HM burned Luck several times to save a comrade and CD and CW continued to willingly hold the frontline.
  • KT jumped through a secret door sliding close to pursue an enemy. He immediately became afraid of his own courage and regretted his act, at least until things had turned out well. I love it how such acts are at once really dangerous and really heroic!
  • KT was contrite about the death of CW's fighter because he had planned much of the party's tactics in the ambush.
  • I wonder if this would have been a total party kill if not for the party's unusual extra light source (a glowing rune). I had forgotten about that item and was unsure if it actually cancelled darkness. I gave the item a 1-in-6 chance of doing just that and rolled it without any consideration for the possible ramifications. Just like I want to handle things!
  • The party has reached a deeper, more dangerous part of the Barrowmaze. I described a change in architecture but I'm not sure the players realized the significance.
In a nutshell
An informative session with a terrific fight and brutal losses.