Help me be a great DM!
September 17, 2012 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Help a somewhat disorganized dude be the best D&D 3.5 GM he can (hella long inside.)

Just to head things off at the pass: those of us who know what Pathfinder is both agree that we should switch, and agree that no one has the time to learn how. So we're sticking with 3.5.

So after, like, a decade of playing 3.5 on a regular basis, I'm confident I can run a fun campaign. I started making some world-building notes yesterday just on a lark, and the world just poured out of me. I ran it by the group before our game last night and everyone seemed fairly excited by the setting and that I was finally giving DMing a go. So, the group has confidence in me, I have confidence in me, and now I want to make running the campaign as smooth as I can for myself so that when my players decide to get back at me for using broken supplementary classes and barely-disguised minmaxing, I'm ready for it.

Outside of the standard stuff (battlemat, minifigs, etc.) I have the following equipment at my disposal and would like to make the best use of it:
  • iPad
  • iPhone
  • 2-3 laptops
  • Access to any 3.5 supplement
  • HeroForge, MonsterForge and SpellForge
So, a bunch of questions:
  1. What are some good resources for a long-time player and first- time DM with regard to keeping track of game mechanics? I'm not the most attentive of players. I still forget where attacks of opportunity are incurred, and had to have someone explain Spell DC to me last night. Fortunately, one of the players (the current DM) is very, very well-versed in the rules and (fairly and willingly) serves as Assistant DM when anyone else takes their turn. So, anything I should look into? We have a standard 3.5 DM screen and all the stuff I listed above. Forum threads, apps, programs, spreadsheets, anything at all to make the mechanics part (which is what I have the most trouble with)
  2. Resources on how to make a "realistic" isolated city. This is a heavily urban campaign, taking place mostly in a very isolated city on a cliffside. The culture is xenophobic and there are no horses or nearby waterways. I want to try to make it as inherent as possible that the players are't going to be leaving city limits often and not get stuck with "I want to go in the forest" "well you can't" railroading. At the end of the day, everyone knows that what the DM says goes, and there aren't any problem players (I'm the closest, honestly) so I'm not expecting problems, but I also don't want to make the players feel like they're on rails.
  3. Speaking of heavily-urban, how should I account for that in-game? I've banned druids, rangers have to cross-class (I'm removing any sort of penalties for cross-classing ranger with rogue) and there's going to be an equal emphasis on social situations than field combat. There's going to be conspiracies to uncover and murder mysteries to solve (I've got a great idea for a recurring locked-room mystery) and I've read more than enough books to make the plot work, but should I just depend on the players to get by without much prodding? In his campaigns, a friend of mine generally sends an NPC along with the party on every distinct chunk of the campaign, to make sure there's someone saying "okay, we should probably X" if players get confused. I'm thinking of doing that but other ideas would be great.
  4. Mapping. God, I hate mapping. I have a really, really hard time with spacial orientation (I have to physically rotate a map to follow it.) I was planning to just use dungeon layouts from old Final Fantasy games, but are there collections of good dungeons out there? I'm sure I'll make a few of my own, but I don't want to lay out every castle, abbey and sewer we go into. That would just be tedious for me. Also a random dungeon generator would be great.
  5. Horrors from beyond the stars! Because of the isolated and urban nature of the campaign, most of the non-city creatures are going to be sins against nature let loose into the world by the Mage Academy, who basically develop and sell arms. Any good 3.5 supplements for weird creatures? Lovecraftian works, but so does stuff from non-Western mythologies. Basically I don't want the party fighting man-scorpions and owlbears and goblins and wargs all day. I'd also like to integrate stuff like the Oozemaster and Cancer Mage from 3.0; how heavily would I have to modify them to make them fit 3.5?
  6. Is there a list of Completely Broken expansion classes somewhere? I'm letting players use any expansion they want (with my approval, obviously) so I want to know if there's something as broken as, say, the monk-druid combination.
Okay, I think that covers everything I wanted to ask. Any other general tips and tricks appreciated! Feel free to ask for followups, I'll be watching the question.
posted by griphus to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
1. I made my own DM screen out of a basic HTML document, focused on those issues I have trouble remembering (and they are many in 3.5). It even has built-in javascript dicerolling links (PM me if you want the code).

Also: Don't leave home without it. I actually sprang for the download (he wants like $10 iirc) and keep it in my Dropbox.

2. I'd consider a magical water/food source. And of course otyugh warrens for the waste (I assume you want the city to be large). Something that maybe contributes to the community's xenophobia/high tyrant quotient? Also: research the Anasazi if you haven't already.

3. I absolutely use the NPC-idea-man-companion tactic. The other approach, though, is liberal use of attribute checks to represent "inspiration" that a PC gets but her player doesn't. By "attribute check" I just mean "Make a Wis (or Int or Cha) check" and then I make a judgment about the degree of success. E.g. "Ah, so on an 18 it would occur to you that the magistrate's office was in the basement, which is weird." Failing all that, a patron who can hand down objectives, Charlie-of-Charlie's-Angels style, could do it. (That said... I've never done an urban-mystery-type campaign of the sort you describe. In fact I'm getting ready to start one and I know how you feel.)

4. Personally I hate random dungeon generators. I find that "every castle, abbey, and sewer" is best mapped with no map at all, but a general description of where the key locations are (e.g. "There's an antechamber, and two doors facing away from the altar on the north and south walls" or whatever); unless I'm intending to do an elaborate chase or search sequence I don't bother with more detail, and I use a hex mat.

Recently I experimented with leaving it to the PCs to draw the dungeon. I decided, generally and in text notes to myself, where I wanted what. Then I described each room and it's up to them to keep track of where they're going. It gave me the freedom to improvise traps, collapsed corridors, etc. in response to the outcome of other encounters. (This method also suits a wonderful GURPS trick of telling them "Stop mapping!" as soon as they start running madly or wandering in they can get lost.)

Program-wise, I like AutoREALM though it's got some quirks and a minor learning curve. I use it for overland and, zoomed way-the-hell-in, street-level mapping. ...but then I like this sort of mapping, unlike structures :)

5. Fiend Folio. Lords of Madness. \m/ Also possibly the two Fiendish Codices.

6. My understanding is that Truenamer is completely broken (from Tome of Magic) and that the Tome of Battle classes are overpowered compared to almost everything else. Certainly, a DM wants to consider carefully before allowing either of those books. My campaigns treat them as "prohibited for now."
posted by AugieAugustus at 9:26 AM on September 17, 2012

City building stuff:

Medieval demographics made easy

Fief and Town

Grain into Gold (economics)

GURPS Low-Tech and its companions, especially Low-Tech Companion 3

Greg Stolze's Reign and supplements

Threads with other advice:

Is there such a thing as a detailed city building supplement?

City Design - best supplements? rpg cities? advice?

I'm having some trouble imagining where the food is coming from for an isolated city on a cliffside with no horses. As AugieAugustis says, you'd probably need some magical hand-waving.

But I don't think you have to isolate it so much physically... just make it what's viewed as the only civilized place for hundreds of miles, and make its residents like stereotypical modern New Yorkers, puzzled about why anyone would go anywhere else -- there isn't even a market in decent travel gear. (The poor wretches who come and go to the city make do with crap -- if they could afford better, they'd stay in the city.) Or come up with some sort of court intrigue or something by which anyone absent from the city suffers in status. Or anyone leaving is suspected of plotting treason.
posted by Zed at 11:05 AM on September 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sorry! There is a large, underground/extradimensional (bigger on "inside") farm system complete with "sun lichen." It is run by drow and figures in the plot considerably.
posted by griphus at 11:09 AM on September 17, 2012

Just to touch on one tiny aspect to start.. the ipad, pen and paper gaming was the whole reason I got the thing, let me tell you why! Even if you have the physical books, a pdf reader and the pdfs of the books are incredibly handy (bookmarks! searchable!). I also love being able to game without a backpack full of books. Other tools you can set up for yourself on the ipad are NPC trackers/bad guy hp and rolls. Of course you can use a scratch sheet for that, but this way saves on paper and lets you turn off the screen when you need to wander about. Unlike a laptop, the ipad doesn't create an additional barrier and is easier to work behind the gm screen. Since you have it I'd definitely recommend giving it a go.

You can streamline your notes and map texts on that as well, but that may be too much in one place. Make sure you have the info you are going to want easy to find if not in sight. So, if you want the MM entry open on the ipad you probably want to track the HP somewhere else, but if you opt for inputting the monster info into a tracking program then just go for that, etc.

Urban rangers can work just fine without cross classing unless you have some additional restriction than just being in a city all the time. Tracking and awareness aren't out of style in the bustling city, and they can find animal companions of different sorts (birds would be all over a cliffside city.. plenty of vermin as well I imagine, any creatures in that underground farm dimension?). Other bonuses that would lend themselves to just applying to outside the city can be modified. Woodland Stride could be swapped with something that lets the player more easily move through the city, back alleys or what have you, maybe call it Urban Parkour and negate movement hits for moving through narrow, crowded, or busy roads. Just some ideas if you have someone interested in ranger.
posted by Feantari at 11:49 AM on September 17, 2012

Have you considered taking inspiration for your city from Sigil? I mean that (while you can certainly get anywhere from Sigil, that's kind of it's thing) the city is kind of an entire world.

Is there any trade with other cities? Why? How? Do people have to lead small lines of pack burros up an enormous, mile-high cliff face to trade with your city, or was it founded a million years ago and due to some kind of localized catastrophy it's the only "real" civilization for 1,000 miles? Where do new people come from, and why? Is nearly all travel to and from the city by magical means?

Zed's got some good ideas. If anyone who spends much time outside the city is suspected of being in league with "those beyond the walls", or being contaminated or whatever, you could put problems into your game where the easy answer involves leaving the city, but the social/physical implications are too dire to make that decision an easy one.

What if you have to buy a (obscenely expensive) permit, or voluntarily become a hereditary slave to an aristocratic house, to be allowed into the surrounding wilderness? I'd be working really hard to make sure I never had to leave town, I'll tell you what.
posted by Poppa Bear at 11:55 AM on September 17, 2012

I'm having some trouble imagining where the food is coming from for an isolated city on a cliffside with no horses. As AugieAugustis says, you'd probably need some magical hand-waving.

There's a couple of relatively cheap items in the Magic Item Compendium that give unlimited food and water for one person, so it's not much of a stretch that an isolated city might have a city-wide magical food and water source. If you wanted to put a spin on it you could make the unlimited food and water be pretty terrible so that non-magical food and drink is much more valuable there as a luxury items.

I want to try to make it as inherent as possible that the players are't going to be leaving city limits often and not get stuck with "I want to go in the forest" "well you can't" railroading. At the end of the day, everyone knows that what the DM says goes, and there aren't any problem players (I'm the closest, honestly) so I'm not expecting problems, but I also don't want to make the players feel like they're on rails.

Whenever there's stuff like that I usually just make it an explicit part of the game world. So have an actual reason why characters would think twice about leaving the city. As some have suggested social reasons might make sense, but you could also do things like have some actual high level monsters out there that would kill any foolish player who would try to leave, or have malevolent magical force that acts upon anyone outside of the city but doesn't affect those inside. Basically you want to have a significant penalty for leaving that can't be easily avoided (such as a anti-social character sleeping outside the city limits because they don't care what people think) but that the players could still possibly risk for something important.

Is there a list of Completely Broken expansion classes somewhere? I'm letting players use any expansion they want (with my approval, obviously) so I want to know if there's something as broken as, say, the monk-druid combination.

A lot of people seem to really dislike the psionics mechanics in 3.5 although I'm not too familiar with them. I think Wizard is probably the most broken class in 3.5 though and it's a core class. Personally I'm of the opinion that you should let players build whatever characters they want, and if their character is ruining the game then you as the DM should nerf the problematic aspects of what they are doing to restore the game balance. The system you're using to run the game should be in service to everyone having fun so if you need to home-rule some stuff to fix things that don't work then you should rather than being a slave to the rules as written.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:37 PM on September 17, 2012

Thank you everyone! Great stuff in here so far.

Any specific apps to recommend, Feantari?
posted by griphus at 4:35 PM on September 17, 2012

My understanding around 3.5 game balance is that it's fairly easy to turn a mid-level cleric or druid into a game destroying god with buff and summon spells. Google 'CODzilla' for examples. The best way to handle this is probably a conversation with your players rather than forbidding things at the system level.

As far as not going insane - maybe give yourself permission to fudge the monsters a little? A classic cause of 3.5 burnout is statting up a high level monster with class levels over half an hour then getting it destroyed in a round. This sort of thing is fun for players but can be dispiriting for DMs. What I did when I was DMing 3.5 was to make monsters in a sort of 4e-inflected way - give them 4 or 5 appropriately powered cool things they could do, without worrying too much about how the system side of it worked.

I actually did a 4e campaign based around a single city, my incomplete writeup is here. The spoiler notes in the first post have a bunch of 'rumours and lies' that I brainstormed up with one of the players over email, and I can't overemphasise how helpful they were to me. I ended up using every single one as a story seed or piece of background. The key to single city campaigns is a sense of cultural richness, and a feeling that the city is changing as a result of the players actions.

And finally, there's an amazing thread on a city built around the Tarrasque - you're probably too far into your worldbuildling for it to be usable whole cloth, but there may be things you can steal :)
posted by Sebmojo at 6:38 PM on September 17, 2012

Oh - one more thing. NAMES. Have a huge list of random names ready to read out when they meet someone, and write that name down in your notes.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:40 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've read more than enough books to make the plot work, but should I just depend on the players to get by without much prodding? In his campaigns, a friend of mine generally sends an NPC along with the party on every distinct chunk of the campaign, to make sure there's someone saying "okay, we should probably X" if players get confused. I'm thinking of doing that but other ideas would be great.

The best way to make an RPG plot is to have good fleshed-out villains who make plans that will happen unless they are stopped, then have those plans threaten things the players care for.

Be prepared for the plot in your head to go bye-bye almost instantly, the key is to make it so it doesn't matter.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:49 PM on September 17, 2012

You could make it a Dark City. People who want to leave suddenly...don't. They make plans. They get sidetracked. They forget about leaving. Why becomes a campaign sub-plot.

Some sort of plague?

Gigantic bio-exorcist-eating sand worms?

An endless rocky desert?

A reason to be back by dark, and everything interesting is more than a day's fast march away?

An approaching census requiring all citizens to remain in their cities of birth for a year?

Random dimensional rifts outside the walls that occasionally encroach on the city, a la Fringe?

Enormous taxes on emigration?

Life debts that can only be paid by labouring within the city limits?

Members of powerful families, a la the Montagues and Capulets, with important family business in the city that is ever their priority?

City is actually a necropolis full of dead people who don't know they're dead?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:18 AM on September 18, 2012

I want to try to make it as inherent as possible that the players are't going to be leaving city limits often and not get stuck with "I want to go in the forest" "well you can't" railroading.

This is best done via a conversation with your players. Talk to them about the sort of game you want to run and that they want to play. Be upfront with "I'd really like this game to stay in the city" so that everyone is on the same page. If a player says, "Well, I'd really like to ___insert out of town activity___," talk to them about what they want out of such an encounter and promise to try to work it in.

You can give players extra incentive to stay in the city by giving them some "neighborhood racial bonuses." Oh, you're from The Undertow? Then you have +2 for direction sense, spot checks, and so on when in the sewers. Plus, you get a +1 to combat rolls when fighting in a space that's 5 feet wide or less. The player from Hawker's Remorse would have increased haggling/negotiation abilities and always gets the best prices at that market. Family contacts from the Blanchstool Farm area means you can get 1-4 mushroom chunks that act like minor healing potions once per month. Basically, give them a bonus tied to a certain area that requires proximity, then a minor bonus that works away (combat bonuses, negotiation, checks, whatevs). These bonuses will fade if away from the area for a long time, so players may peer pressure each other into skipping the wilderness rambles ("I don't care if you want to fight an owlbear - if we're out in the woods for three months, I'll lose all my market contacts and we'll have to pay full price for lamp oil!")
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:38 AM on September 18, 2012

I do apologize for the lateness of this reply. Exams left and right the last couple of weeks… Oy. Anyway, I’ve finally finished typing this up, and will be moving onto your follow-up question next. :)

1. Download some searchable .pdfs of books you know you’ll need, then download the ones the players are using for their characters and bookmark their specialized feats/prestige classes/whatever so you can refer to them in seconds while you’re planning your campaign. My strategy is just to keep everything in four Word documents that I keep open on my screen; large font, but each page at only about 70% so you can see it easily. In one document, I have the general plot progression and read-aloud story pieces and bits of dialogue (I have trouble coming up with dialogue but my writing skills are excellent, so I tend to have NPCs give information in chunks). When the players come to a decision point, I’ll have a note like, “If the players attack the viceroy, search ADSF; if they parley, search DFCQ.” Those letters, when Ctrl+F’d, will lead me directly to the next point of the plot dependant on what they chose, all without fiddling with multiple windows. The second window has a list of names, organized variously depending on the campaign. Sometimes it’s just male and female names, sometimes I go by theme/nationality, etc. The third window lists the combat statistics (simplified; I fudge a lot) of NPCs, enemies, etc. At the top of the combat file, I also list a few generic statistics. “Bruiser humanoid,” “large carnivore,” “booster mage,” “pack monster,” etc. That way, if the players go looking for a fight I can pick one that seems likely, add a specific weapon type and a made-up ability or two, and run a combat at a minute’s notice. Finally, the fourth file has notes that come up during the game. “Kyrin (Steve) romanced wealthy lady at the theatre,” or “Players liked Norgun the Stinky; make recurring.” At the end of each night, I go over my notes and look for things to add or remove from future games. This is also helpful when noting down things that don’t go well. “Party disliked anagram puzzle” can remind me not to include anagram puzzles the next time I put a puzzle room or lock together. Using electronics for gaming can be great – but be very careful not to DM to your computer and not the players.

2. There are a few things to address here. Why does no one leave the city if it’s isolated enough that no one else lives around there anyway? Or is it not isolated, but merely isolationist? If it is isolationist (whether or not it is isolated), how does that manifest in the attitudes of the people? Do they have their own inter-societal groups that they separate into as well, and where do the PCs fit into that? Assuming the city does not draw supplies from anywhere but belowground: How is the intentional ignorance of nearby aboveground resources justified? Money overcomes almost all societal mores, and if there’s a forest nearby you can bet someone is going to log it – and if they don’t, there’s a reason that’s more compelling than money. What is that reason? Making this a “feelable” reason rather than a social one is better for the players. “No one leaves the city because the nearby resources have been consumed, and anything further away would take more than a day to bring back – and the nighttime is when they come out” is much more compelling than “Everyone including you just hates leaving the city.”

Consider: density, travel, supplies, food, water, and waste. Density: Building shanty towns and tenements in a conventional city is all well and good, but building high-density carved homes in a cliff face weakens the structure; imagine what would happen in the event of a storm or earthquake. How does the city enable density without compromising structure? Magic? What powers it?
Travel: If the solution to the above is to spread things out, how does travel work? Bridges and ladders are all well and good, but only so many people can travel on them at a time. How do the rich and privileged separate themselves from the poor and destitute?
Supplies: How does the city manufacture supplies? Without a massive overhaul of everything available to PCs, they need cloth, leather, metal, and wood at a bare minimum. Where does this come from? Where are smithies located? What about tanners? How are the fumes from these places prevented from being trapped in caves and becoming toxic?
Food, water, and waste: These can be looked at as “in” and “out” categories. Where does food and water come from, and where does waste go? Consider both liquid and solid waste; biological waste and garbage. Where does it all go? If it is dumped into the ocean, why is the area at the base of the cliff not contaminated? Or is it contaminated, and that’s why the poor live near the cliff base? Here again magic can come to the rescue. Water can be filtered magically, a portal can remain open to the elemental plane of water, allowing people to just dip a bucket in whenever they please. Waste can be portaled away or eaten by the ever-popular otyugh – but then one must of course dispose of an otyugh’s waste, and bear in mind the sheer amount of waste large numbers of people make.

3. I’m always hesitant to ban classes – I would argue that cities and urban wildlife are just as wild as, well, the wild. Urban druids are fun (I’ve played one), as are urban rangers. But, that’s of course up to you. As for how to account for that – just think of the city as a busier wilderness. Crowds and mud both slow you down; what’s the mechanical difference? Different city districts, and even individual blocks, have different character. So, too, with geographical sites. You’re right to emphasize social events though. To account for less combat, consider giving out roleplaying experience. The belligerent drunk on the corner may not be much of a threat after 2nd or 3rd level, but the PCs can still get XP for dealing with him well – without maiming/killing him. Reward players for behaving in a civilized manner, and take care not to punish them too much with law enforcement. Their “punishment” for being wild or belligerent themselves will come when shopkeepers refuse to deal with them, taverns close their doors, etc. Finally, regarding the NPC… As a player, I hate it when the DM sends along a babysitter to see that the group doesn’t go the wrong way. Make it so that no matter what they do (within reason), the story comes to them. Oh, they went to the docks instead of the merchant district? Fine. Jeor the informant is now a foreman instead of a salesman. Easy as that.

4. Googling “D&D dungeon generator” will get you maps – but they won’t make much sense for things like buildings that people actually want to get around in. I suggest looking for city maps drawn around the 10th to 15th centuries. I had a bunch of resources for these on my old computer, but it’s being repaired at present and they’re not easily Googled. I can send them along when it comes back if you’re interested. Otherwise, I wouldn’t worry too much. Just describe things, and if combat goes down throw down a basic image of the room: outer lines for walls, a few inner features/furniture/whatever is appropriate, and exits after which the PCs get more description. Players will generally go along with what you need – if they know you have issues with spatial awareness, they will generally be accepting of your descriptions and only ask for maps if absolutely necessary.

5. There are articles you can search on how to convert from 3.0 to 3.5, and how to check to see if your monsters/NPCs are at the right power level compared to the party. What I’d like to add is a little info on how to vary encounters in an urban setting. Most DMs do a few things in cities when it comes to encounters. Assassins, thieves, the odd mage, and would-be muggers. There is so much more. Take a look through Cityscape for an overview; it lays out many great options and ideas. Also, since your city is attached to an underground area of some size, I suggest Dungeonscape. In addition, remember the PCs can’t always just kill someone who is their enemy. A high-ranking politician being surrounded by bodyguards isn’t the problem – it’s that if they do manage to outright murder the guy, they’ll probably be hanged. I say this because it sounds like you’re taking the game in a more roleplay-ey direction, and in games like that societal rules come into play much more often than they do in the dungeon. “Just murder him” doesn’t always cut it.

6. I really can’t help with this one, honestly. I allow just about anything in my games, and adjust the description of what goes on on the fly to make it work. I’m very mechanics-lax, with the single exception of level-appropriate (but also plot-appropriate) rewards.
posted by Urban Winter at 10:47 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

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