A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens

Some rare number of groups can stroll into a tavern populated with lovingly crafted and colorful characters, and then spontaneously mingle for a night of role playing. I personally have never seen this happen, but I know it’s possible, because these players constantly boast that they gamed for entire night without rolling a single die. (Sometimes I feel the same vibe of subtle snobbery that comes from the guy who never stops mentioning that he doesn’t even own a TV.)

In my experience, all players enter the inn and follow this procedure:

  1. While the dungeon master describes the lovingly crafted and colorful occupants of the inn, update your character sheet or sample the snacks.

  2. Enjoy a moment of vicarious wealth as your character, who carries thousands of gold in loose change, pays a gold piece for a 1cp cup of ale because keeping track of coppers is too much bother.

  3. If you play a dwarf, act out your character’s exaggerated appetite for ale. (To players of dwarves, ale provides as much material as airline food and 7-Eleven provides to stand-up comics.)

  4. Look for the mysterious hooded figure beckoning from a corner.

  5. If no figure beckons, wait for the bar fight.

  6. If no bar fight erupts, look in puzzlement at the dungeon master while you wait for the adventure to begin. “Innkeeper, have we entered the wrong establishment? I was told there would be adventure here.”

In Dungeons & Dragons, as in fiction, the really interesting action happens when the characters have both an objective and an obstacle that stands in their way. The bar scene fizzles because the players lack both of these essential ingredients.

In the early days, the objective (treasure) was as simple as the obstacles (dungeons and dragons). Now we enjoy more variety, buy we still need the core ingredients of objectives and obstacles to keep the game moving and fun.

By objectives, I’m not thinking of the players’ long term goals for things like ending the Prince of Murder’s reign of blood or restoring your family’s honor. If your players boast great role-playing chops, then each character may hold a different long-term goal. I’m interested in the sort of immediate objectives the players can accomplish in the next encounter. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Pass the troll that bars your way. Save the orphans from the creatures in the cellar.

The lack of one of these essential ingredients explains some of the game’s less-interesting stretches:

  • After the outcome of a battle becomes obvious and the monsters cease to be a threatening obstacle.

  • Any scene where the players’ patron fills them in on backstory or congratulates them on their success.

  • When characters walk into a bar populated with lovingly crafted and colorful NPCs, but when the characters lack any objective that they can reach during their visit. (The goal of indulging your dwarf’s appetite for ale does not count, because no obstacle stands in her way—unless she is broke; that could be interesting.)

You can pace your game by looking at the players’ objectives and the obstacles they face. If no obstacles challenge the party, then consider summarizing events until something new blocks the players’ progress.

If the players lack objectives, then unveil some new development that suggests their next step. Characters should start each scene with an objective that can be achieved in the scene, and they should end with a new objective or, better still, a choice of objectives. A steady supply of objectives keeps the game moving forward and the players eager for more. A choice of objectives prevents the players from feeling railroaded.

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6 Responses to A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens

  1. Sausagebastard says:

    Great points well made, but I’d love some more examples of how this is possible, I find it difficult to come up with my own ways of actually engaging my players in anything outside of “A hooded mysterious figure approaches you and gives you the required exposition to start the adventure”

    • Duncan says:

      One thing I thought of having read the post and comment is that the exposition could be delivered by two separate NPCs who are arguing… both hold different points of view on the same event, or possibly one claims that one things happened, the second that a completely different thing happened. Then the PCs would get a choice of who to believe, and possibly who to back up if a fight breaks out.

      Normally a party enters a tavern looking for information, so obstacles could be the person who is supposed to give it to them is not there, the message has been stolen, teh person is so drunk they can’t remember the message, some kills the person in the act of them giving the information, someone spills a beer on the written message, making it illegible. The message is there but doesn’t make sense (it’s coded). There is no message. A powerful bard is hitting on the person who is supposed to be giving you the message and doesn’t take kindly to you interrupting. An ogre employed as a bouncer won’t let them in.

  2. simontmn says:

    I like to *start* each session in the local tavern, so eg new PCs can meet up with old PCs and get together for a day of dungeon delving! NPCs are ancillary.

  3. Pingback: Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff | DMDavid

  4. New Mars says:

    I can’t help but be reminded of how my most recent campaign began. Things started in a drinking tent (as the town was nothing more than a massive camp set up by an expedition). The players were an orc fighter, a human fighter with some rogue aspects, a dwarf cleric and an elf magic-user. The very first thing that happened was the orc challenging the entire tent to a drinking contest, roping in all the other PC’s. The elf wizard won, the orc came second, beating all the NPC’s but failing to best the elf, the dwarf collapsed hilariously partway through their first drink and the human ended up ruinously in debt to the orc.

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