Don’t be Anakin: dealing with bickering PCs, continued

Last week I discussed the problem of PC bickering in RPGs, and suggested two models for players to follow. The bad model is Anakin and Obi-Wan from the Star Wars prequels. The good model is Frank Castle and Microchip from Netflix’s The Punisher.

So how can we push bickering PCs away from the Anakin/Obi-Wan model? There are a few options, for both GMs and PCs.


  1. Tie characters’ backgrounds together. I often have at least two of them know each other, maybe working together on a mission. This gives them a reason to try and cooperate.
  2. Give the group a reason to be together. Chance encounters make work for the first adventure; e.g. characters all hear about a dungeon that needs clearing, and decide to work together. But why wouldn’t the LG paladin leave the bickering CN party to find better friends after they clear the dungeon? They need to be forced to stay together; options include a divine command, a threat that strikes them before they can disband, etc.
  3. Be willing to mess with difficult players. I have a post planned for how to deal with chaotic neutral players, and this is part of it. When players act out of character to try and be funny, have NPCs respond as they would in real life; if a belligerent and irritating man tried to buy a beer from my bar, I–at the least–wouldn’t tell him any of my town’s secrets. And if a player’s teasing is harming another player’s experience, make that player fall into a pit or get splashed by mud; something harmless that lets them know they need to stop.


  1. Put some effort into your characters’ backgrounds. Just like the GM should tie characters together, players can think about how their characters know each other. Are they childhood friends, business partners, etc? Beyond that, fleshing out your character’s background and personality is important. “I’m a loner,” lends itself to disruptive behavior. “I pretend to be a loner because I’m hurting over my family’s death,” gives us a character who may seem unpleasant, but does care about something.
  2. Be a team player. It might seem more fun to try and pick-pocket your party’s wizard than keep watch for monsters. But the point of this game is cooperation. A lot of bickering comes down to players trying to create a fun situation for themselves without thinking of what the party needs to accomplish its goals. If your character isn’t interested in working with the others, and finds their planning and rules irritating, maybe they should leave the party… 
  3. Be sensitive to other players. This is more on the meta-game side. Some players may enjoy “giving crap” as we used to say where I grew up. Others find it annoying, or may think they’re being picked on. Try and be aware of how the target of your bickering or teasing is reacting. If they aren’t laughing, then stop. Again, the point of this is to work together and have fun.

D&D and other RPGs are supposed to be fun. You don’t have to take them seriously as you would your job. You’re not an actor in a play; there’s no script. But sometimes “having fun” can make the game less fun. When in doubt, just think: am I being Anakin, or Frank Castle? Don’t be Anakin.

So there are my ideas. Any thoughts? Is this not as big of a deal as I think? Other suggestions to deal with this issue?


Thoughts on dealing with multiple PC ability checks

This is a post on some guidelines I’ve developed in my sessions (for 5th edition D&D) on ability checks. This may be blindingly obvious, and something everyone else does, but I thought I’d write it down in case it’s helpful.

These guidelines are inspired by my experience as a PC. I often like to invest in intelligence skills (in D&D) or knowledge skills in other games. It’s interesting to have a player who’s an expert in something besides fighting and talking, but it can come in handy. It doesn’t always work out though.

In one D&D campaign, I had a wizard who had proficiency in all the intelligence skills (arcana, religion, etc.). But I never used any of them, because my DM never called on them, and didn’t see the need to when I suggested it. This was frustrating.

When I was playing Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, though, I had a different experience. My character was Arkdo (who I wrote about here), a Duros archeologist. He had a lot of knowledge of the Outer Rim and interesting lore. So the GM would occasionally suggest I roll when encountering new situations. This helped out the group immensely.

Out of sympathy with characters who invest in utility skills, I’ve adopted that approach. If a character is proficient in survival, I suggest they roll to see if they can figure out which direction they’ve been heading underground. If a character is proficient in religion, I have them roll to see if they recognize the half-ruined altar they’ve discovered. It increases immersion, and includes all players in the game.

But a problem often arises. When I suggest a player rolls and they fail, the rest of the group asks if they can roll as well. More often than not, someone will roll a success. This kind of defeats the purpose of my suggestion, which was based on certain character’s background knowledge or hunches.

The solution I came up with was pretty simple, and role-play appropriate. I’ve started telling players that they have a choice with these sort of checks, and they must declare it ahead of time. Either the PC I suggested roll is the only one who can attempt the check, or all PCs attempt it as a group check. This fits with role-play; one character has a hunch something is off, and either looks into it themselves or tells the group, and the whole group checks it out.

This has been working well so far. Players still get some control over their ability checks, but I also get to include all players in exploration without making the game too easy.

Any thoughts? Does this seem useful? Is there a better way to handle this?

Is the DMs’ Guild bad for game stores?

In January 2016, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) announced the Dungeon Master’s Guild. The DMs’ Guild is an online platform that would allow WOTC to release material for the fifth edition of D&D, while also allowing players to upload their own material. It’s a great idea, and has made it a lot easier to keep the momentum going for 5e. But it seems like it cuts out an important part of the gaming community; friendly local game stores (FLGS).

First, the DMs’ Guild is a great idea. It enabled the D&D community to develop and grow as the fifth edition took off.

Starting with the Basic Rules in 2014, and followed soon after by the core rulebooks, D&D’s 5th edition revitalized the game. Streamlined and dynamic, both accessible for newcomers and nuanced enough for veterans, the newest edition of D&D was a hit. But demand outpaced supply. In my FLGS at the time–Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC–they couldn’t keep the D&D books on the shelf; unless you pre-ordered, you were out of luck.

WOTC focused on releasing the core rulebooks, important supplements like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Tales of the Sword Coast, and massive campaign books. They also facilitated games around the country through the Adventurers’ League. But this didn’t leave a lot of time for minor products, like one-shot adventures or small rule variants.

This is where the DMs’ Guild came in. The game designers can release minor updates through this. More importantly, the legion of players and DMs creating adventures, character options, and home brew rules can make them available for others to use.

So what’s the downside?

It has to do with my memories of D&D back in the early 1990s. I started playing D&D after I found my dad’s Basic Set as a kid, and soon moved on to the then current second edition of AD&D. I bought the Players Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but wanted more. So whenever we visited game stores (which were more common back then) and I had some money,  I’d grab another adventure to play with my brother. Now, I can still find those adventures, but it involves going to a website.

Some of my old D&D collection, being guarded by my daughter’s Puppy

The DMs’ Guild basically takes away this product line from FLGS’, which can be a problem. FLGS’ are under an immense amount of pressure, as Barnes and Noble and Amazon both offer easily-accessible alternatives for customers. But FLGS’ serve an important role in their towns, bringing gamers together and sustaining a welcoming community. My FLGS–Killer Rabbit Comics and Games–runs numerous events for local gamers, and has helped connect me with many others interested in playing D&D. If gamers can/have to go to their FLGS for the latest D&D content, this will do a lot to sustain these businesses. If new products are often not available in stores, customers will just shop online. Barnes and Noble will survive (maybe) just through customers occasionally buying the $50 rule books, but FLGS’ will suffer.

Like I said, DMs’ Guild is a great idea, which should be encouraged. So what can WOTC do to help FLGS’? There are a few options.

First, they could print some of these products. It could be the official D&D products, or best-sellers from users. But print versions would probably sell well. There are lots of D&D fans–like me–who want more content. WOTC could even mark them up, and they’d do well. This would bring business to FLGS’, but it would also ensure a steady stream of product releases to keep players from wandering away from D&D.

Second, they could leverage the excellent Adventurers’ League. This initiative has helped gamers to get together, often via FLGS, to play D&D. It’s actually how I got back into D&D after 5e came out. And it really helps FLGS’, as many of the players end up buying their D&D and other gaming materials from the store hosting their sessions.

So why not extend this, and make some DMs’ Guild content available for Adventurers’ League organizers? The printed versions of popular DMs’ Guild products could be sold through Adventurers’ League organizers–making distribution easier. Or WOTC could even offer some printed versions for free as an incentive for exceptionally successful hosts.

I know that WOTC cares about FLGS’, and don’t think DMs’ Guild was an attempt to hurt them. I think DMs’ Guild is a great idea. I just think there are a few ways to tweak it to make sure this great resource doesn’t hurt the local game stores that sustain D&D.


How to reward character drawbacks in 5th edition Dungeons&Dragons, part 2

In my last post, I discussed the idea of flawed characters and what they might bring to D&D before ending on a cliffhanger–what can  we do to actually incorporate flawed characters into 5th edition D&D?

In this post, I’ll resolve that cliffhanger with a simple game mechanic that is already part of the 5th edition rules:


In 5e, players gain an inspiration point for superior role-playing. They can then use this to gain advantage on a roll. I think it’s meant to get players into their characters. But it’s a little vague, and hasn’t been utilized much in sessions I’ve been part of. It also doesn’t necessarily promote three-dimensional characters, as one could create a perfect min-maxed tank and be given inspiration for good tanking.

But a few parameters could allow it to encourage three-dimensional characters with flaws.

First, give inspiration when characters act according to their backstory and personality, and when doing so complicates gameplay. A noble who refuses to try and persuade a servant to help the group due to his snobbery, causing them to be blocked from sneaking into a castle—inspiration. A sage wizard who stays behind in an evildoer’s library to search for rare books as the rest of the group flees a pursuing monster—inspiration.

Second, inspiration can be a static feature of character creation, kind of like obligation in EOTE. A character that is designed to intentionally have flaws—either the race/background/class combinations I mentioned above or some extra personality trait, like insanity—gets a point of inspiration at creation or even once a session (this would need to be tested for balance). So that Halfling paladin may end up being incredibly useful. And one can come up with in-game justifications for this, so it doesn’t feel like an arbitrary mechanic—maybe the tiefling cleric of Lathander has to try harder to be accepted, giving occasional bursts of brilliance.

The only downside I can think of is the potential to break the game by overdoing it with advantage or promoting annoying behavior from characters (like the pacifist monk who refuses to fight). This could easily be solved by DM rulings (“pacifists wouldn’t be adventuring in the first place”) or a limit per game. But it would require a good amount of extra effort for players to abuse this mechanic, so it is more likely it’ll end up being used sparingly for those who like three-dimensional characters.

The beauty of this is that it doesn’t require any home-brew rules–just broadly interpreting the existing inspiration rules–and adds very little complication to the game.

What do you think? Would this actually work?

How to reward character drawbacks in fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons, part 1

Hello all-this is my first post on this blog. I thought about writing a long introduction, but I kind of already did that in the About page. So I’ll dive right in with some thoughts I had on alternate rules for D&D 5th edition. Hope you like it.


One thing about D&D that I hadn’t noticed until I began playing other game systems is the lack of incentive to have flawed characters. Not useless or ineffective characters, but characters with a built-in drawback that makes them more interesting. Most characters in movies or novels have some limitation, which makes them more compelling to follow. I’ve always felt the same to be true of characters in role-playing games.

First, why is a flawed character more interesting than a perfect one? We’ve all heard complaints about min-maxing—creating characters that optimize their strong points (strength for fighters, dexterity for rogues) and ignore attributes that are not essential to their operation. People suggest using well-rounded characters, even if it’s not optimal, as these are better for role-playing. But when I mean flawed, I mean something more than that.

By flawed, I mean a character with a background, race and class combination that does not lead to the best results, and can make things difficult for the character. A gnome—with intelligence bonuses in 5e—isn’t primed to be a fighter. A half-orc makes a bad paladin. Flaws can also come from your choice of 5e backgrounds. The skills you gain with an acolyte background add little to your abilities if you play a front-line fighter. And flawed characters may have extra limitations, like a wizard who refuses to cast offensive spells.

But don’t these characters sound interesting? A gnome who swore to protect his village from invaders. A half-orc striving to rise above her nature. A cleric school reject who picks up the sword. Indeed, many of my characters are like this. Randulf, a warlock (about whom I will blog later), gains little from his noble background (charlatan would be more useful), or the madness I’ve added to his social interactions. Badger, a forest gnome rogue (who will also be featured here) makes little use of his intelligence bonus. But they’re both fun to play.

We play D&D and other PnP RPGs to create and live through a character. If we just wanted to spam attacks on grinding quests, we’d play WoW or a console-based FPS. Indeed, it’s the non-combat interactions that often make D&D so much fun, and these are made more interesting with a three-dimensional character. Even combat is more fun with a flawed character, as failures and near-misses can be as enjoyable as overwhelming success.

Unfortunately, they’re fun in an immersive sense—you can really get into the character—but not in a gameplay sense. I don’t help out myself or my group by making these characters, in fact I kind of complicate things for them. For example, an earlier character—a chaotic good half-elf cleric of Lathander always trying to struggle to be more noble—refused to destroy some dragon eggs in an adventure, making the party’s task harder.

Thankfully, my game group at the time was like-minded enough on characters to appreciate these drawbacks. They had their characters sigh and wait when Randulf rants about talking crows. They just asked my cleric character to turn around while they destroyed the eggs. And another character—Dorn, a headstrong Oath of the Ancients Paladin—would rush into combat without thinking. One time this led him to be overtaken by a swarm of giant centipedes. Instead of being annoyed, my fellow players used this as an opportunity for comedic relief, lighting the centipedes (and Dorn) on fire to clear the room.

But not all game groups will be this forgiving, and indeed I sometimes just want to play an ideal character, setting aside considerations of backstory and personality. What can we do?

Other systems have dealt with this in interesting ways. In both Shadowrun and the Firefly/Serenity RPGs, character creation involves the option of taking on negative qualities, like addiction or a criminal past that results in the authorities being on the watch for the character. But these negative qualities help the character out, as they provide more points for purchasing beneficial qualities or skills. And the Star Wars Edge of the Empire game uses obligation, in which character take different amounts of a negative quality (having to take care of family members, running from bounty hunters) in exchange for more funds or skill points.

I don’t think a mechanic like this is needed in D&D. I kind of appreciate how different D&D is from these other systems. But then how does one incorporate flaws into gameplay?

I have a few thoughts on this, making use of an already-existing D&D rule, which I’ll discuss in my next post.