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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.