This is the second in a series of open letters to try and answer some concerns raised by one of my players. The original letter was pretty long, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to answer it all at once. Plus there was a lot of stuff I think ought to be discussed by the group as a whole.

I know, there’s this “take it up with the guy in charge” but many of these concerns are shared by the entire group… only they don’t know it because they’re all coming to me individually. I keep trying to tell everyone to talk to each other so they can act as a support group.

I would love to share the whole letter and quote it endlessly, but I also don’t want to do that to someone. So I’m only going to quote a small portion of it, and the rest will be all vague references.

This is in part because I have a blog, and the player doesn’t. I’m not going to call him out on facebook or anything, because this is hardly anything bad. We’re playing the same game, I just want to make as much of this conversation open as possible. So everyone can learn from it.

Goodness knows, if this conversation were happening at the table, it wouldn’t have to happen here.

“…There’s this whole list of things to do, we’re making zero headway, and when we finally try to get somewhere we end up just wandering around the dungeon accomplishing nothing except killing random monsters, and every attempt at doing something ends up just adding more things to the impossible to do list.”

As before, I want to thank you for writing to me. I hope you will consider bringing up these concerns with the other players, just to restate my point. You aren’t. Alone. Several players feel this way. To my knowledge… five out of six. Maybe all of you.

And I think you’re selling yourselves short for a number of reasons.

Reason the first. The group keeps almost no records.

As a group, you keep really sparse notes. Actually, of the six of you, you might keep the most notes. And yet, week after week, no one is really sure what’s going on or why the group is doing what they’re doing.

As Dungeon Master, I’m the “central” storyteller so to speak, but each of you is also telling your own story… and most of them are more interesting than the one I’m telling.

This is where something like character journals would come into play. Each one of the ‘main’ characters–the Cleric, the Ranger, the Druid, and the Fighter–has a unique, intersecting story with the others. Each one of those characters has seen and done enough to constitute an entire “Marvel hero origin story” -length film.

But how often does one of you sit down and say, write about what’s going on with your character?

I’m not going to tell you to write, I mean, I write for pleasure, but if you are concerned about everything that’s going on, you could stand to keep some notes! And you can refer back to anything I’ve put on my blog, because I keep… uh, some notes. Which are all open for you. If you all kept your own blogs (or wanted to write here), I’d happily link and cross-reference them. Archive stuff on the wiki, even. Answer questions, everything!

I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what I do.

I write about my characters. All the. Time.

Venger and Silhouette, for instance. I have pages of handwritten notes and a dozen different GoogleDocs and Spreadsheets covering different information I need to reference for running and playing just those… TWO, characters.

If the only information you’re keeping is your character sheet, then you’re going to have a really narrow view of the game.

So, take more notes! Use the shared drive. Send emails! Blog! Write!

Reason the second. No one is maintaining a group narrative.

You might recall, from the first adventure we shared… upon our completion of the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure… my Wizard character, Allandra… told the story of our group’s adventures. To a crowd in a stadium.

But I didn’t roll the dice like I was making a Charisma check. (Toby made me do that anyway, to my eternal chagrin.) But the point is that *I* as a *player* told everyone my character’s interpretation of events.

Beyond that, my character told the story and EMBELLISHED it on purpose. For the purpose of creating a narrative for our group. I added a cohesive narrative for who our party was, and what they did.

Remember later on, when the party was in the White Cliff Magical School, and there were NPCs fawning over Dave and Gunter? Because they had heard of their exploits, and wanted to work with them? Help them?

That was because of an internal narrative we had created for our party.

So, what has your group done? What events will be told about in songs and stories?

At this stage, you’ve left everything up to me, as the Dungeon Master, to interpret. None of the players has tried to “own” the story of what’s happened–any of it!

Akordia recovered the sun blade!
Darnek smashed a slave ring!
Anat rescued a prince of the Feywild!
Lorik witnessed a terrible ritual and beheaded a rakshasa!
Morgran escaped the destruction of Covalence!
The party has traveled the planes! Hestavar! The Shadowfell!
Everyone has seen interesting monsters and killed most of them!
Tombstone golems! Gangs of ghouls! Vampires! Ghosts!
So what about that time with the purple worm?
Or that kerfuffle in the Silent Library?
How about the thirty troglodytes and the fomorian?
Or even that gang of fomorians a ways from the crossroads inn?

I’m sure there’s plenty more that your group could tell stories about but you don’t… won’t? Instead, you all act like you’re caught up in these events that are larger than you are. That might be literally true, but it’s true of your characters. As players, you aren’t just participating in them, you’re RESPONDING to them. Sometimes SHAPING them. Sometimes CAUSING them.

Reason the third. There is absolutely nothing wrong with exploring dungeons and killing random monsters.

I don’t know if you intended this as your point, but you are NOT fighting random encounters in the dungeon. These are often encounters that I have planned days or weeks (though sometimes I design them on the fly), which are intended to fit the situation or the overall narrative.

If you asked me for a map with a key explaining all the encounters, I couldn’t give you one. Because I don’t keep notes that thorough. But there’s a difference between what you’ll find if you go down passage A, B, or Dennis.

A lot of the dungeon exists in this sort of quantum state, which becomes a known quantity as soon as the characters observe it. Once a place has been observed, it begins to react to the characters’ presence and actions.

So you could claim a degree of randomness, … but it’s more a degree of vagueness. You don’t know what’s in the dungeon until you explore it. You might not have noticed, but when you’re in the dungeon… I don’t roll random encounters. I *do* roll for wandering monsters, but that’s different.

Wandering monsters are a part of the dungeon environment.

Wandering monsters are defined in a way, too. Those Umber Hulks you fought last week? They weren’t a random encounter, they were a wandering monster encounter. Specific to that area. Why? You don’t know yet.

Ironically, for the most part… the primary way that player characters affect the world is through dungeon crawling. I know in the current plot in Order of the Stick involves the villains exploring a dungeon, but… no. The bad guys don’t do that. Dungeon-crawling is for chumps like the player characters.

You lamented missing the opportunity to kill rats and collect quests… but you’re completely ignoring the lessons to be learned from DUNGEON CRAWLING. Dungeons are a microcosm of the world. What you learn in the dungeon can be applied to the larger world. Sometimes literally in the case of money or magic items.

Think about it. The group keeps finding money.

What. Are you. Going to do. With that money.

All YOU’VE done is advise the group to stop carrying it on their person so they don’t lose it if they die. Sure, YOU’VE suggested creating a bank, but you haven’t done it now, have you?

So? DO IT.

If you want me to tell you what to do… sit down with the group. Say the words, “First order of business. We need a safe place to store our characters’ money. Second order of business. Who wants to be the banker, and who do we TRUST to be banker?” Then do it.

Do you know what the Wizard Quinn is doing right now? He’s using his money to build a tower. Why aren’t YOU doing that?

Here’s another question: when the library group was considering the possibility of investing in the expansion of Gormley Keep… why didn’t YOU do it?

I’m sure you have your reasons. I don’t know what they are, though. Because you haven’t shared them with the group. Maybe you don’t want to be responsible for it. That’s fine. But stop expecting someone else to do it.

You have a hard enough time remembering to use your paladin’s “Pep Talk” power, just… find another player who’s willing to play banker. Or invest in a town wall, for goodness’ sake.

You don’t have to do everything but you keep ACTING like you have to do everything. And that’s why the other players keep EXPECTING you to do everything.

I started bombarding the group with information for a lot of reasons.

Among those reasons, I want you to feel like there are bigger things going on around you. I want you to feel like you’re caught up in this uncontrollable tide. I want you to feel lost, confused, and hopeless.

And I also want you–one, some, or all of you–to rise above it.

Your characters are the main characters in each of your own stories. No matter what happens, your character is at the center of your story.

Think of Beni, the Rogue.

He has some children in Gloomwrought, … and now maybe some children in the Dreamlands. All bastards, the lot of them. He’s cowardly, and he’s cheated death a few times. He’s generally in situations over his head.

Beni has a completely unique story to say, Akordia.

Akordia by contrast, is messed up in a COMPLETELY different way. She’s paranoid in the extreme, having learned that the people she trusts (even family) will inevitably abandon and betray her. Where’s her brother even?

For a paladin, her oaths (and even her god, to an extent) are totally secondary to this pervasive existential terror she’s experiencing. She lost her sister, her order, her city, … and her god.

If we were to write a story about Akordia, I’d suggest the title: “The Biggest Loser.” You should get a copy of that speech from Guardians of the Galaxy where Star-Lord calls the group a bunch of losers and just… use that whenever you need to give one of your temporary hit-point speeches.

Players have this bizarre tendency to absorb information and neither share it nor act upon it. The amount of information the players do act on (or share) is so small, the only way I could see to increase the number of player actions based on information was to increase the amount of information you receive.

My thinking was: “if you have more information, then more of your actions will have to take that information into account.” All this information seems overwhelming in part, because nobody’s talking about it.

Now, it is a perfectly viable strategy to say, “we can’t do this yet, so we’re going to ignore it.” And that’s what you’ve been doing, as a group.

And you know what happens when you ignore problems?

Well, it varies. Some problems go away. They just take care of themselves. Some problems get worse. And you’ve seen some of both of these kinds of problems.

But you know, since no one is talking about them… it just seems like a big mess.

You aren’t keeping track of them, so you probably don’t know when a problem has been resolved. I mean, the party didn’t exactly celebrate Zrixyss’s death. And no one seems particularly concerned that his head talks to the Ranger. Who is the only person who can hear him.

Doesn’t anyone have… questions about that?

Concerns? Problems?

Oh! But your question about the liches. I’ve been working on that one. They will probably not be CR 21 monsters, because that flies in the face of every prior edition. Each lich will be totally unique.

So, there’s that to consider.