Havok DMs
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Essay partially derived from an audio log entitled "Setting up the site, Log 23, 'What We Do.'" By: Reverend Fox (TL-AD). Dated 18 July 2016.
Written by Reverend Fox and ExistentialGrey89

What it's like…

Picture this:

You're at Disneyland with a Five-Day Parkhopper pass. You have a plan for the third day. That plan? To hit California Screamin' on the Boardwalk, do the Rapids twice, take the Log Flume1, ride both sides of the Matterhorn, get pictures with at least four of the princesses, and try to ride all three paths on the Indiana Jones ride all while spending only forty bucks on churros and trying to collect the Hidden Mickey pins that have been missing from your collection for the past decade.

On ANY given day, there would be absolutely no fucking way to do ALL of this, but you're determined.

As soon as you get in line for the EarlyBird Pass that you paid an extra hundred for, you realize that you can get the first things done pretty easily! But then, people start pouring in and creating distractions. Lines get longer. Churro stands are running out of supply. You realize that the battery in your camera wasn't fully charged. People begin cutting in lines. Someone had a nosebleed on the Matterhorn, so they had to shut it down for cleaning. Some lady dropped her purse on the Indiana Jones ride, so that is shut down for "maintenance." Some little brat with an asshole parent just got the last Hidden Mickey pin from the only Pin Trader you haven't visited and harassed yet.

You realize the defeat. There is no way you are going to complete this day's plan…

There's always tomorrow.

It's a lot like that, but with more Goblins.

What I'm trying to get across is that being a DM in general is a tough business. Not only because it's, at its core, an unpaid job but also because it takes hours upon hours of planning. In my case, I spend at least three months planning the full campaign out and drawing the world/area maps, two weeks determining how the world will react to the PCs' power level2 and populating the world to fit that scheme, and at least twenty-five hours a week setting up the individual sessions themselves and making sure everything fits into the canon.

The big problem with the whole process is that once the distractions come in, things start going out the window. Pretty soon, half of the shit you wrote will never be seen by the PCs because they decided to toss a questgiver through a window.

But it's not all dedicated time and epic-level planning. It's also the satisfaction of bringing your party through a dungeon victoriously. The feeling of dread you get when you realize a PC was down to his last bit of health right before you crit him with a glaive-wielding Gnoll Fang. The joyous panic the party shows when being chased by two dozen or so angry Kobolds. The sheer wonder on the players' faces when you reveal to them a cavern lined with sparkling emeralds and rubies.

Yeah, it's like that. And that's what drives me.

What it takes…

Being a Havok DM is all about a few things:

  • Consistency
  • Canon
  • Exploration
  • Fun
  • Flexibility
  • Flow
  • Loyalty
  • Story

If you're in the middle of a heated battle between the party and a pack of seafaring Gnolls, and the Cleric announces on his turn that he's gonna bring down a Sacred Flame slotted three up — you as the DM know precisely what's going to happen when the flames start licking at the deck of the wooden ship. However, you don't tell them that! You roll the saves, calculate the damages, and at the moment you're finished mitigating the total effect? THEN you say, 'The flames begin to spread rapidly across the wooden deck of the ship, lighting the ropes on fire and setting one of the sails ablaze.' Then you give that player a smile, thank him or her, award a point of inspiration for doing something inherently dangerous, and explain that a number of these foul-smelling creatures are now flailing balls of Green Flame!

Now, is this safe for the party? Not at all. Does it deal with the overall problem? Well, ya can't play firefighter if a rat is nibblin' your ass, now can ya?

If you, as the DM, were to have hesitated at any moment, the Cleric would have realized the danger and tried to talk his way out of casting his three-up Sacred Flame, but a Havok DM operates under a rather strict rule of 'Said Goes.' It's a tough rule, believe me, because the players3 will think you're being overly hostile. In no way, however, is this a hostile action because it's realistic! If this was life, and you were a Cleric who was on a ship which is now being boarded by smelly hyena-people, you'd probably panic and go with the first instinct of KILL IT WITH FIRE!

Now, consider worldbuilding. Creating a landmass and putting locations on it is one thing. Populating it with a living world is a whole different beast. Giving this world life and completely rendering it down to a fully realized place with three moons, a complete calendar, four native races, lore, and a prophecy about a chosen few who are to slay the Kaiju under the full realization that the players are only going to see less than a tenth of it? THAT is what being a Havok DM is all about. Creating for the sake of creation. Allowing for life when you're the only one who's gonna know about it4. Letting the players have the freedom to fully explore the lands because, hey… if they're interested enough5, they'll keep going beyond their little quest line.

To put it into a more tangible manner, consider a specific franchise of cRPG — The Elder Scrolls. In the Elder Scrolls series, the land mass scales down! In the first game, Arena, the developers gave you ALL of Tamriel to explore! Jump ahead a few games to Oblivion, and you get a single province, Cyrodiil, but in a massively truncated form! We, the Havok DMs, give you Nirn, set you loose in Valenwood with an open-ended main quest, and give you quest chapters that take you all the way from Hnes Rax to Big Head's shack on the Isles of Sheogorad in the north of Vvardenfell. Hell, we'll even give you the Fork of Horripilation just so long as you poke a Bull Netch to death with it!

However, the scale is not always absolutely necessary! Keeping to the Elder Scrolls idea, you could have an entire campaign set solely on the northern island of Solstheim! What matters is that the story, setting, characters, and quest are interesting enough to keep your players and yourself satisfied!

What this takes is preparation, determination, and a keen sense of just what the fuck is going on. When drawing out the adventure, make sure there's a sufficient variety of situations for the players to go through. It can't be combat all the time, and it can't be social all the time. Know your players well enough to know what'll keep their interests.

Yep. That is what it takes to be a Havok DM. And it's worth it!

The challenges…

Look at it this way, this is a challenge. Becoming a Havok DM is one of the biggest challenges a player or DM can face because it is a constant uphill trudge. Dedicating time and effort to making everything work for the players, making sure the canon doesn't go sideways, and keeping everyone engaged in the story. There are, of course, times when the players want to joke around and quote Monty Python, but these times should be kept to a decent minimum because the Havok Group is a team of serious RPers. We strive to keep the atmosphere and mood apropos to the situation. This isn't to say that there aren't non-serious sessions or games overall, though. It's a challenge to keep the mood appropriate to the game itself.

It's actually a rather easy thing to deal with. All you have to do is remind the players that the group should maintain the mood of the game in order to maintain the realism of the emotional state that the characters would have. Many things work in keeping to this on the DM's end as well, such as lowering your tone and voice, keeping the lights dim, having a sound machine, and so on. It's all about setting the scene and maintaining it.

An even bigger challenge is keeping your players on track. In games where open world exploration is important and the players are given free license to explore, it becomes difficult to keep them to their questlines. More so than that is keeping them from straying so far out of their questlines that the quest itself becomes moot. Unfortunately, the only way to keep them on track is to attempt to entice them back to it, but if they become curious kittens? Just let 'em run. This is why you don't create a plot railroad, you create a living world. If they want to see it, keep the clock ticking on the quest while they do so. If the quest expires for whatever reason, don't let them know. When they return to the questline and see it has expired, they'll learn. And they'll learn quick when this keeps happening! Of course, there should never be absolute restrictions on the players and their curious nature!

You'll come across all types of players in your time as a Havok DM. Bend somewhat to their particular needs, and they'll be more accepting of the changes from their usual mode of play. When I say this, I of course mean that most new gamers will come from one of three camps:

  • Videogamers
  • Casual RPers
  • 'Encounter' RPers

"Encounter RPers are the easiest to get into a serious mode, because they've played games under time crunches in their comic book shops, game shops, and conventions. Just let them know that they're coming into a long-term, story-driven game, and they'll usually fall right into this particular style.

Casual RPers can be a little more challenging due to the fact that they've most likely played some silly sessions or campaigns with their friends who don't know how to build a serious campaign tone. They need some work, but usually they come up swinging. Some of the time, however, you will get those who are too resistant to the table rules and leave because they 'just want to have fun without having to deal with so many rules.' It's best to work with these types for a bit, but if they persistently resist, let 'em go.

Videogamers, however, come from the world of Skyrim, Dragon Age, Final Fantasy, and the like. These gamers are the toughest ones to break because (bluntness warning) they are used to having shit constantly given to them as reward.

DM: You have slain the foul-smelling zombie. The tattered cloth covering him turns red with his blood. His rotting fle-

PLAYER: Fine, did it drop any loot?

DM resists the urge to flip the fucking table because:

  1. Fucking interruption.
  2. Where in the fuck would a rotting zombie, covered in a BED SHEET keep a fucking coinpurse? In his keister?!

These gamers are coddled. They expect their questlines to always be tied up with a nice little bow. The best way to break this habit is to force them into situations where things aren't so black and white. Quests involving deep moral dilemmas seem to do the trick most of the time. Give them something that will make their stomach actually turn and remind them at the same time that there are no fucking save points! Things are permanent here!

These are a small portion of the challenges a DM might face. I think I'll do a series of videos revolving around dealing with more complex issues moving forward.

The Grey

Metaphor

You're standing in a field. It's a nice day, and there's a warm breeze blowing in from the south. Looking around you, the field is mostly empty except for a farmhouse. From inside the farmhouse, you can clearly hear the sound of someone screaming in pain. Rushing toward this house and up the steps, you see some blood splattered on the doorframe, and the door hangs ajar. It is now apparent to you that there are multiple people inside, but there is only one voice screaming in pain. The other voices are yelling and laughing. Walking into the house and toward the sound, you hear the voices more clearly. The man has been accused of the crime of necromancy, and the three other voices seem to be inquisitors or crusaders. In the very least, they're asshole Paladins.

Now, you're sneaking down the stone stairs into the basement of this farmhouse and can clearly see that there are mutilated corpses hanging on the walls, blood and viscera everywhere, and three men dressed in grey robes taking turns going to town on this one man. You're still unseen, so you listen to what everyone's saying.

For a moment, you can't clearly make out what's being said, but after a bit, you hear the tortured man yell out, "But this isn't even my fucking home! I wandered in, thinking it was abandoned!"

The active torturer lifts the blood-covered man's head, spits in his face, and says, "A likely story. You were here, therefore you are the necromancer in question." Without another word, the robed figure pulls his scimitar from a hidden sheath and beheads the man in one clean swipe.

You, of course, know that the man was telling the truth, because this is your home. Why didn't you say anything to stop the man's torture and unnecessary murder? Because it's not in your nature to interfere with justice. It's also not in your nature to take fault in your own actions when there is already such an easy scapegoat.

The Paladins, by the way. The three men were Paladins of Heimdall6, the god of Watchfulness and Loyalty, following the Law and upholding the forces of Good in its constant struggle against Chaos and Evil. Their alignment? Lawful Good, obviously. If you sneak out, they'll never know that they killed the wrong man. They'll never know that he was innocent. Also, it would fall perfectly within your nature to stealth away because your alignment is Neutral Evil.

Ethical Ambiguity

Most DMs need to fall within the mold of True Neutral for everything to be played out fair. If the DM is too Good, the Paladins would have noticed the necromancer without a Stealth Check against their Passive Perception7. If the DM is too Evil, the Paladins would have been instantly corrupted and go fucking insane with the Berserker Rage8, kill the necromancer, and become necromancers. The above was played out in a tone of true Neutral.

A Havok DM, on the other hand, can never stay in one singular alignment. It has to fluctuate so the players don't get too comfortable or so the DM doesn't become too predictable. It maintains a certain level of interest and realism. Realize, not every situation is going to be neutrally moderated. There are some evil-as-fuck things that go on in the world around your PCs.

This is not to say that you must always remain outside of True Neutral. Far from it. The takeaway lesson here is simple.

In all things, balance must be achieved.

Meaning, essentially, that when the fecal matter comes in contact with the spinning turbine, the area of distribution must be consistent.

Internal Chaos

As mentioned above, there is a certain amount of balance that one must maintain in order to remain fair. This means making some heavy choices. This also means putting your players through situations which even you, as the DM, may find objectionable as a balance against putting them into a situation where everything was literally Magical Kittens and Unicorn Farts or something.

They save a child? As they walk away, they witness that child burn down his own orphanage.
They restore a King to his rightful throne? A Dragon is pissed because he wanted that throne.
They rescue a kitten from a tree? The tree comes alive and captures ten more kittens.

It's not always about the concept of antithetical responses. Sometimes, in the midst of paranoia, the best thing that could happen to them is their paranoia! They know the DM has everything ethically figured out to such a degree that there is a natural response from the world around them for every action they commit.

It's one of the most beautiful things, really, because by this concept, you are shaping the players' ideologies toward their characters. They, then, will begin to truly consider the balance of all things and, thus, will begin to think about where their characters' alignments would truly put them along the biaxial scale of Good v Evil and Law v Chaos.

Break.

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