[D&D] DM tips for Player Flags?

edited September 2006 in Play Advice
Inspired by Chris Bankuei's "Flag Framing" and Vincent Baker's "Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore: Practical Conflict Resolution Advice", I was pondering my stint as a bad DM. D&D doesn't have explicit flags: no Kickers, Descriptors, Spiritual Attributes, Beliefs, Instincts, Keys, Secrets, Drives, Passions, Traits, or Relationships. What's a DM to do?

Nothing in the D&D literature explains how to read the players' interests from their character sheets. I was a bad DM, reluctantly railroading my players because I was using published game modules with linear stories. I had to work hard to keep the players on track. Fortunately, my players didn't know any better, so I don't think I was the only frustrated person at the table.

Maybe this is old news to good DMs, but here are my rough ideas for reading D&D's flags. Some are player flags, how a player wants his character to shine. Some are group flags, communicating the group's thematic and setting interests.

* Feats are a great player flag. A player uses feats to specialize their character, differentiating (say) their cleric from every other cleric and from the other members of the party. If a player invests heavily in a particular feat tree, he knows what he likes. He is a master of a particular feat tree, so give him opportunity to show off all those feats. When a player uses his favorite feat successfully, consider giving him a +2 bonus for his next related action (like Sorcerer bonus dice).

If he starts taking random, unrelated feats, then his interests are changing or he is still searching for something cool. Give him opportunities to try out his new feats. Don't bother him with his older feats; he has new interests. Consider giving him a +2 bonus (for some "unrelated" environmental reason) when he tries out his new feats. Give him some successes as he is still shopping for his character's interests.

* Feats are not a very good group flag because characters usually specialize in different feats, so feats don't express the group's common interests very well.

* Skills are a good group flag. Skills sketch out the environment the players expect to encounter. Look at the players' character sheets. Add up all the characters' ranks per skill. (Players directly control how they spend their rank points, whereas their total skill points include racial and attribute modifiers that players have little control over.) Highly ranked skills are a common interest for the party. Lowly ranked skills are things the party probably does not want to see in the game. Create settings and situations that spotlight those high rank skills. Avoid settings and situations that poke at the characters' lowly ranked skills. They will be frustrated because their characters will look bad as they flail then fail.

* Skills are a good player flag. Have any of the characters specialized in a skill that no one else has? Like feats, create situations to spotlight each character's unique skill, giving each player a chance to "save the day" for the party in a way no onen else could. When a player uses his unique skill successfully, consider giving him a +2 bonus for his next related action to dramatically accentuate his unique contribution to the party.

* Alignment is a decent player flag. Most characters are good or neutral, not evil, so there's not much story meat there. For lawful and chaotic characters, DMs should push them to test their convictions, but also give them opportunities to demonstrate their alignment. For neutral characters, the DM should push them to see if they might lean lawful or chaotic. Consider giving players +2 bonus for honoring their alignment and a -2 penalty for acting out of alignment. And if a player wants to change their alignment? Let them because that is interesting stuff!

* Alignment is a decent group flag. If the party has mixed alignments, then consider testing the party's different reactions and cultural norms. If the party strongly leans towards a particular alignment, challenge the party's convictions.

* Class is a decent player flag. It gives the DM a rough idea of what the player wants to do with his character. A player can't change his character's class, so class is not a very dynamic flag. Multi-classing and prestige classes do give the DM notice of a player's changing interests, but classes are so broad, it doesn't seem very useful for the DM.

* Class is a weak group flag because most parties are "balanced" (i.e. a cleric, a magic-user, a fighter, and a rogue) for gamist optimization. A balanced party doesn't communicate much to the DM. However, if the party has multiple characters of the same class, then the DM could focus on shared interests and conflicts between those characters.

* Race is a minor player flag. It gives the DM some idea of the player's setting interests. A character's race doesn't (usually!) change, so it can't flag a player's changing interests. Give the character opportunities to spotlight their race's unique abilities to help the party. Create situations that test the race relations between party members and allies. Consider giving +2 bonuses or -2 penalties for inter-race interactions, though this might be too controversial for some players.

* Race is a good group flag. If the party has diverse races, then consider testing their races relations or different reactions and cultural norms. If the party has a couple members of the same race, consider using that race's home setting as a backdrop for your game. It gives characters of that race a strong tie to the game setting and it gives characters of other races opportunities to play an outsider. Just be careful to not give too much spotlight on the featured race.


  • This is all great stuff. One thing I want to point out is that D&D explicitly pushes a lot of flags to the side of the game system, including GM flags. If I, as a GM, say "this is a swashbuckling game of devilry and unscrupulous dealmaking on behalf of you, the hot scions of a wealthy trading family trying to make it big in a huge fantasy city", that means exactly zippo, nada, nothing in terms of how the game system is changed.

    Fortunately, D&D is eminently tweakable. For the above setup, I might give 1-3 free levels of aristocrat, a bunch of minions to do some of the dirty work, and higher than usual starting cash in the form of tradeable goods.
  • Hi Chris,

    The biggest problem with flagging & D&D, is that, well, honestly D&D works best as a hack & slash game, not as a thematic one, which is the only reason to really use flags. That aside, the problem is that you have to do a lot of detective work to try to seperate what the player has chosen because:

    a) It's D&D, and they needed tactical effectiveness
    b) It's a cool extra to put on the character
    c) It's actually something they consider to be worth flagging to the GM

    Players who aren't familiar with the point of that play, also, are generally unable to articulate what it is they want, either.

    The one time I did make thematic D&D, I basically stole a mechanic from another game, "Riddle of Steel" and stuck it onto the basic D&D engine. Players had "Ties", people, groups, or places they cared about, and they got xp only when they acted towards helping/hurting (as appropriate), those ties. Players could change Ties, but had to pay xp to do so. Basically, this was a flagging mechanism, and replaced the normal reward system as well.

    My recommendation? Add a flagging mechanism to your D&D, if you want to take it that way, and either have it result in xp or die modifiers, or both.
  • You could look at using Clinton's Sweet 20 experience system. It's basically a port of Keys (from the Shadow of Yesterday to D20), and I think they would work as good player flags.
  • IMO, flags don't replace communication between the GM and the players, they just supplement it. There is nothing stopping a D&D group from asking each other what they want to see in game, and designing characters accordingly. If you're having to guess what they want form what's on their sheet, you've lost half the battle.

    I think the problem with traditional D&D isn't the lack of a formalised system of flags; it's that the GM writes (or buys) the module, and the players need to have a party that is capable of completing the module, without knowing what's coming. This is exacerbated by the difficulty of creating a character with broad competencies (D&D very much encourages specialists). Hence the need for a 'balanced' party (2 warriors, a cleric, a wizard and a thief being a core example) which gives little clues for the GM to read off of.

    (Note: I know that not every group plays like this, but I think it's a common style of play.)

    In my own (very infrequent) group that plays homebrew D&D variant, I often end up picking a character class and speciality because it rounds out the party. Part of my Step On Up is to get the most out of the limited choices this gives me.
  • Posted By: bankueiThe biggest problem with flagging & D&D, is that, well, honestly D&D works best as a hack & slash game, not as a thematic one, which is the only reason to really use flags.
    Chris: I see your point, but even with a hack-n-slash game like D&D, DMs could use some help creating settings and situations their players will enjoy. If a DM can read the "tea leaves" on the character sheets, then the players don't even have to know about flags. Players want screen time to make their characters look like bad asses.
  • Two more D&D player flags occurred to me last night:

    * A cleric's Domains and a magic-user's School give the DM ideas for friends, foes, and challenges that might interest that player of the cleric or magic-user.
  • Hi Chris,

    If you mean to use the character sheets to provide better and more fun challenges, sure, that's worthwhile. The big problem is that you have to balance between letting the players' shine, vs. giving them "gimme" challenges by always pandering directly to their strengths.

    For good D&D gamist play, the two hardest things are balancing the challenges and giving variety.

    The balancing is hard, because even with CR etc., the fact is a group of players who are unfamiliar with the tactics and strategies of D20, and/or do not know how to coordinate their actions is going to be much, much less effective than a group who is able to do so. I'd say it can make up to 3 EL's worth of difference in actual play.

    Variety, on the other hand, is not too hard, though there's very little support or advice given. Basically, I watch action movies, play videogames, and steal, steal, steal locations. I've put encounters on moving rafts, construction scaffolding, rickety rope bridges, etc. The key to a good location is that it should provide tactical options and "fit" with the encounter. For example, take giant constrictor snake, and put it in a grand hall with lots of pillars so it can constrict multiple targets at once- at the same time, the pillars provide visual cover. Guess what? It's the D&D version of the videogame "Snake".

    Pretty much though, I figure on providing 1 out of 3 or 4 encounters that make it hard for players to apply one of their strengths in play. The snake example, hit people hard because their uberarmor didn't protect against grappling attacks. D&D is less specifically about individual flags, and mostly going back and forth between letting PC's shine, and putting them in hard places.
  • FWIW, I find that it can be easier to tailor the PCs to the campaign rather than the other way around, as bad as that sounds. Especially if you're using a published campaign pack/adventure path.

    When I ran City of the Spider Queen, I specifically did a "casting call". I let them know about the starting point (the Dalelands in FR), and that the mega-madule was a big dungeon-crawl spent almost entirely in the Underdark (i.e., don't bother with item creation feats). Then I gave them a list of "roles" I knew needed to be covered in order to have a coherent party. We had seven players, so they were: "fighter," "wizard," "thief," "cleric," "support," "support," "support."

    The result was the most fun, most coherent, and most effective party that group has ever had. The primary "casual gamer" in our group still talks about the Thayan wizard he played. The group dynamic was great, as, independent of anything I did, the PCs aligned themselves into two groups: the "Thayan enclave" (the aformetioned wizard, his spellthief henchman, and his dervish bodyguard) and the "god squad" (dwarf cleric, dwarrf paladin, dwarf "underdruid," and an aasimar warmage).

    It may seem limiting to craft the PCs for the scenario, but if you know you're using published material, and everyone at the table knows it, too, and everyone has a vested interest in playing gool ol' D&D, I think it works fine. Given access to all the splats out there, there's almost unlimited ways you can meet the Gamist needs of the system while still crafting a PC that feels personal.

    Were I to roll my own adventures, I'd still sit down for a chargne/brainstorming session to get everyone on the same page.
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