Below is a photo from our last D&D session. Yes, that's a giant frog on the table. The hair elastic around its neck is a lasso, and the miniature on its back represents one of the PC's riding her newly tamed gargantuan monster.
On a related note, now I'm questioning all of my life choices as a DM...
Joking aside, that picture represents something any DM who wants to keep his or her players engaged needs to consider: what type of fantasy stories have your players been consuming prior to sitting down at your table?
Case in point: I'm a big fan of the pulpy, Weird Tales type fantasy that makes up most of Gary Gygax's famous Appendix N. As such, my campaign's cosmology is ripped straight from Michael Moorcock. My game's elves owe more to his doomed Melnibonéans than to Tolkien's ethereal forest dwellers. I like Vancian Magic. One of my players is currently under a curse inspired by an unfinished Robert E. Howard fragment.
In other words, I sit down to the DMs chair with some pre-loaded assumptions and preferences about the flavor of fantasy I want to imitate in-game.
What most newbie DMs forget is that the players sit down with a similar set of assumptions and preferences. They're looking to experience a certain flavor of fantasy, too. And the success of the game depends heavily on whether or not those flavors are compatible.
For example, one of my campaigns was loosely based around the Crusades, set in a world where most of the Arthurian Myth cycle was historically verified fact. It was a great fit, because I had players that had been reading Ivanhoe and Le Mort de Arthur playing alongside devoted fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon series.
Another group I ran enjoyed Dante's Inferno, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Steven Brust's brilliant novel To Reign in Hell. I crafted a game where the PCs had all died on the Prime Material Plane and had to adventure through the Nine Hells, which I populated with snarky, sarcastic demons and modern pop-culture references.
So, what about my current game? How closely do my assumptions match up with theirs?
Short answer: not at all. I'm not just the only one who's been reading Howard, Moorcock, and Vance recently. I'm the only one who's read them at all.
So, what have my players been consuming that I haven't? And more importantly, how did I work that into the game to keep them satisfied and engaged?
First up is my wife, Vanessa. While not much of a fiction reader, she absolutely loves visual works of fantasy. She's an avid fan of artists like Brian Froud and Daniel Merriam. Two of her all-time favorite movies are The Princess Bride and Labyrinth. In short, she prefers a light, whimsical take on the fantasy genre, and when our friends proposed a D&D group, her first question was "Can I play a fairy?"
I did some research, looking for a homebrew race that would be somewhat B/X compatible. I ended up using a variation of the half-pixie Phaerim, detailed in R. Kevin Smoot's New Races: A Basic Fantasy Supplement. Since B/X uses race-as-class, I decided to run her as a winged Halfling, for purposes of level advancement and saving throws.
The other two players in the group are another married couple, Leah and Aaron. While they've both read the standard genre classics like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, a huge part of their recent fantasy intake has been in anime and manga form. In particular, they're both fans of isekai shows like That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime and Overlord.
That anime influence was obvious less than halfway through the first session, with the sheer number of called shots and crazy maneuvers both of them attempted in each combat encounter. The problem is that B/X D&D doesn't really support that style of combat, at least not when using Rules as Written. On one hand, the players' options tend to be more open, since not much is spelled out in the rules. The flip side is that the players' power level is pretty low.
The likeliest result? Lots of dead PCs, and a table full of players who take fewer risks with their newly-rolled replacement characters. And while that gels perfectly with my gritty, Appendix N-flavored sword and sorcery style, it's not really what the players sat down wanting to experience.
In other words, I had to do some adjusting.
One of the first things I did was bump the characters' power level. I introduced the optional Cantrips list from The Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, so Leah's Elf could cast more than one spell per day. I also introduced some optional combat maneuvers for Aaron's fighter, like a once per combat Shield Bash that does no damage, but knocks a human sized opponent prone on a successful strike.
I also entirely re-vamped the game's combat mechanic, which I'll detail in an upcoming post.
The last thing I did was more of a situational call:
When the PCs were crossing a marshland via an ancient causeway, I had them encounter a pair of giant frogs. But instead of my little plastic pogs marking the monsters' position, someone grabbed that stuffed frog off the shelf and dropped it on the mat.
I quickly changed the encounter to one gargantuan frog, which (based on the stuffed animal's cuteness) my wife's character immediately decided that the party needed to tame. Everyone else was instantly on board with the idea.
I could do one of two things at that point: run it as a standard combat encounter, forcing the players into a fight they didn't really want. Or find a way for them to try it their way.
Looking over Leah's spell list, I quietly scribbled out the word "person" next to her first level Charm spell.
"This is now an all-purpose Charm," I said. "It still doesn't work on undead or magical creatures. But anything in nature is susceptible. Including giant animals."
If you could only have seen the smiles around that table, folks.
What followed was a zany, over-the-top combat encounter, in which the PC's weakened the frog enough to lasso it, rode along as it dove into the water and tried to swim away, and then climbed up onto its head in order to look it in the eye and cast Charm.
In other words, it was pretty much the polar opposite of the gritty, sword and sorcery-inspired combat encounter I'd had in mind. My players couldn't have been happier.
As their DM, neither could I.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.