This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Players Flip-Flop on Their Alignments
What do you do with an idiot that keeps changing his alignment to act crazy when he roll plays, but changes it back every other time we do something?
-- fefnir, Wizards message boards
That's an easy one. Alignment should be a determining factor in how you play your character; it's a cipher for the approach to life and the world you say you have adopted. If, like with this joker, it doesn't, then you have to remember the other part of alignment: It is how life and the universe approach you. If you act evil, speak evil, and do evil, then when someone casts detect evil on you it's going to come up showing that you are evil, regardless of what you have written on your character sheet. Your holy weapon will start giving you a negative level, your good NPC allies will abandon or turn on you, and all the crying that "I'm good, I'm good, see it's right here!" doesn't mean a darn thing.
The 1st Edition AD&DDragonlance Adventures and Greyhawk Adventures actually had a system for the DM to track alignment. The player would choose initial alignment, but after that the DM kept track of where the PC's alignment might drift based on their actions. I used this system for a campaign many years ago, and it's not that much work -- just a tally sheet on your DMing notepad. You should have a good understanding of what alignments mean in your game, and make sure that is communicated to players, so when someone's alignment changes they won't have any reason to fuss about you unfairly interfering with their character.
Even if you don't use a strict accounting method like this to keep track of alignment, you are the arbiter of what alignment means. Some people say alignments are unrealistic because they constrain role-playing. Others say that if you don't have alignments, everyone's alignment ends up being chaotic neutral (or maybe 'selfish bastard'). In the end, it's a description of what the character is and does, and if it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck then it's probably a duck.
Problem: Short Game Sessions
My game is taking place during recess and lunch at school, a period of 15 and 30 minutes, respectively. My biggest dilemma is leveling up, as my play group is composed of relatively new players (Two of moderate experience, one who won't shut up and has almost no experience, and one who has a problem thinking for himself.) and I often spend entire play sessions getting everyone's levels situated. I guess what I'm asking is how can I put as much play as I can into as little time as I can.
-- Ralvuimego, Wizards message boards
Welcome to the club. Even gamers who have been at it for ages can chew up most of a game session leveling up, going on shopping trips, and doing all sorts of other non-adventuring stuff. The simplest solution is to have people level up their characters outside of game time, but that may not work if you don't have multiple books or for the inexperienced players. You could try to meet with them separately before or after school to do the level-up. I would also advise you to not award xp in the middle of the session. I've never been a fan of the instantaneous, video-game-style level-up. While I don't use training rules like I did back in AD&D, I do require characters to 'sleep on it' -- to overnight rest and reflect on their experiences -- before they actually collect their xp and level up. This makes it more convenient to schedule the real-world book work of leveling up at a time when you're not in the middle of things.
Also, have players plan ahead, at least for their next level. You have a number of sessions between each level increase, so they have plenty of time to think about what they want to add, rather than not thinking about it until the moment is upon them. This way, once you actually get the xp, it's a simple matter of adding your new bonuses and such and getting right back into the game. For that matter, players could make up a new character sheet with the character's leveled-up stats and just switch to the new sheet when the xp are earned. (transferring any current damage, spells already cast, money spent, etc.).
Your other problem is transit time. If you have only 15 minutes, and it takes several minutes to get to the game and set up, and then to get from there to class afterward, you really have only a few minutes in the middle to play. There's not a lot you can fit into that short a time. Lunch is longer but has its own distractions (i.e., eating!). When I ran games in school, we tried to play before or after school, but that depends on who needs to take the bus or has other extracurricular activities.
The best advice is for everyone to stay focused on the game, minimize the distractions and side conversations (especially from Mr. Won't-Shut-Up), and avoid rule arguments. Make sure that you are organized and prepared so you don't have to spend time during the game looking things up. Be prepared with a quick summary (just a few sentences should do) of what happened last time in case someone asks. In combat, make sure people are paying attention and planning what they are going to do so that when their turn comes they don't have to waste time pondering. Realize also that you may only be able to fit in one significant combat or role-playing encounter, and accept that as part of how your game is going to be. Don't try to do too much in the time you have or everyone will get frustrated. It may take several weeks of bits and pieces to get through an adventure. It's not the ideal situation, but you fit in what you can fit in and keep the dice rolling.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.