What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing

As a dungeon master, I’m still learning. When I ran the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure at Gen Con, I had an ah-ha moment (more of a well-duh moment) and a lesson.

At the convention, Wizards of the Coast showed the Dungeons & Dragons Next rules and teased the Murder in Baldur’s Gate Encounters season with a launch adventure. This adventure does not come to an ending, but rather stops at the beginning. According Wizard’s plan, players finish the launch clamoring to participate in Encounters or ready to purchase Murder in Baldur’s Gate for home play. By my account, players enjoyed the launch.

But I had a problem. The slim Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure barely requires more time to run than a typical Encounters session, just two hours with the fast-playing D&D next rules. But Wizards scheduled the adventure for four-hour slots. Now Gen Con offers plenty of fun diversions, so no players will feel unhappy about finishing an bit early, but could I wrap a four-hour slot in just two hours and leave paying customers feeling satisfied? I wasn’t alone in my concern. At the judge kick-off meeting, all the dungeon masters seemed to be sharing ideas for stretching maximum play out of the adventure.

One Murder in Baldur’s Gate judge built this stunning 3D map for the encounter

One Murder in Baldur’s Gate judge built this stunning 3D map for the encounter

To be fair, the adventure packs information about the sights and personalities of Baldur’s Gate. Obviously, the authors supposed dungeon masters would take players on a leisurely tour of the city, filled with role playing as characters browse the marketplace and chat up prominent non-player characters for the pure joy of it.

As a frequent convention judge, I have never encountered an adventure that runs short. At best, a well-timed Living Forgotten Realms adventure finishes just shy of four-hours, with time for the last scene with a grateful patron, a division of treasure, and paperwork. But lots of LFR adventures tend to run long, with no extra time for tangents, slow play, or, heaven forbid, parties that lack strikers. I have ample experience hurrying play without making players feel hurried. I have zero experience stretching a two-hour adventure to three without making players feel idle.

The first time I ran the launch adventure, I lingered as long as I dared on the flavor of the city, trotting out the whole cast of NPCs, and hoping the players would bite on some of the opportunities for interaction. I hardly got any nibbles, but still I thought I did a pretty good job of drawing things out—until I looked at my watch. Damn. Done in two short hours.

The adventure suffers from the problem I griped about in “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” While it presented plenty of opportunities for role playing, it fails to give players any objectives that encouraged it. “Innkeeper, have we entered the wrong establishment? I was told there would be adventure here.”

For my second run, I dangled more diversions such as a fortune teller, a chance to profit from a buy-low-sell-high transaction in the marketplace, some suspicious activity, and plenty of villains monologing. The adventure includes pages of background that would be unnoticed by anyone who never player the Baldur’s Gate computer games, so the extra business allowed me to expose some of it. The players seemed to have fun and the adventure seemed to run longer, but again it wrapped in two hours. Adding to my sense of failure, one of my player’s complained about the short adventure. “The ticket promises a four hour adventure!” He carefully shielded his feedback form as he no doubt wrote harsh words about the overly-brief session IN ALL CAPS.

Later I spoke to some friends who had played at a nearby table, and whose DM resorted to halving damage to draw out the adventure. They envied my table’s quicker pace, but I felt no consolation.

That night, a light went on in my thick skull. My problem had less to do with players uninterested in role playing than with the social contract of convention play. When my players opted not to speak with the wine seller, they simply wished to avoid side-tracking or delaying the adventure. Well, duh. “We can’t talk now, an adventure is about to begin!” I could not simply tempt the players with opportunities to role play, I had to accost them. The players must feel free to respond to the fish-monger, realizing that he is part of the adventure. If the players show a lack of interest, fine. At the next stall, an old lady will plead for help finding a cat, and did anyone notice the sharp-eyed guy posing as drunk?

For my next run, I loosed every diversion in my bag of tricks, singling out and accosting players with NPCs and events that might interest them. For example, because one pregen’s sailor background inspired a player to role play a crusty sea salt, the exotic bird vendor (already in the adventure!) invited her to try a parrot on for size. Soon, I had the whole table engaged in the local color of Baldur’s Gate. No one ever seemed impatient for the real action to start. When the adventure wrapped, I checked the time and found that more than three hours had passed. Success!

I still feel that best way to engage players in role playing is still to give objectives that require it. However, I have learned that sometimes players just need to realize that role playing will not side-track or delay the main event. Just give the role-playing opportunities the same weight as the other parts of the adventure.

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4 Responses to What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing

  1. SonWorshiper says:

    That sounds like quite a challenge.
    I got the playtest materials maybe a month ago. A friend wants to build an online group and create podcasts for how we experience D&D Next. Murder in Baldur’s Gate is in there, but I haven’t checked it out.
    The word “accost” sounds about right, especially in a setting where so much is unknown or at best unfamiliar. In a regular group, my players are used to spotting hooks, going along with the adventure, and providing input to embellish the story. In a setting like that, I think I’d be tentative, waiting for the DM to suck me into the story somehow. Or as you said, maybe I’d be scared of getting side-tracked when “we only have four hours for this adventure!”
    I’m sure that’s not the most helpful attitude for a player, but there you have it.
    Glad you were able to make it work in the end.

  2. Don Holt says:

    Bravo for getting your players to role play!

    I had mentioned before that I run a world not scenarios. Most of the time I only have several vague ideas about what the players/characters what might encounter. I deliberately keep myself from absolute knowledge of a given situation. For instance, I don’t know if the room that the characters are in are empty or not, nor what the reaction of a NPC will be to given player’s question. I have the players roll 1D100 and a low number (starting at 00) means that something favorable will happen and high numbers (up to 99) mean that the event will be unfavorable. I then have the players make a wisdom save in order to determine if the character is aware of the outcome (if needed). So if player rolls an 09 when asking if there is anything else in the room, then there probably is something else of monetary or story value there. If he fails his wisdom save, he doesn’t notice or recognize it. In another case, I had a player that was interested in the genealogy of an NPC family, and asked to see the birth records of the family from the Lady of the keep. On rolling a 97, the player was refused permission to view the documents. Now the player did not have to make a wisdom save, but I had to come up with a reason why the NPC refused the request.

    So unless my players talk to the NPC’s, then nothing happens. And I’m as much in the dark about what will happen, when they do. I realize that this description of an RPG bears little resemblance to the RPG games that are currently being played, save perhaps the Dresden Files. But it’s fun not knowing where your players will lead the story, and it is their questions that start the ball rolling. If just have to fast on your feet to keep up and provide them with interesting challenges along the way.

    And I promise, this will be my last response for a while. Thanks for sharing your blog.

  3. Plamen says:

    Sure, this is a really old post, but a word must be said for convention play vs. roleplaying with your friends at home. Obviously, it’s easier to let loose and really get into your character when you’re among friends than among strangers. That’s why convention scenarios are traditionally straightforward dungeon-crawls: boring formats work well when you’re in a strange place and playing with strangers. What’s worse: it looks like this module had you roleplaying with shopkeepers and drunks rather than, you know, actual villains and heroes that people would care about.

    All in all, it looks like you struggled manfully with an adventure written in an ill-chosen format.

    • DM David says:

      Plamen,
      Thanks for your comment. Home games do offer a higher comfort level.

      The biggest constraint on convention games is time, and that affected 4E far more. When I paced 4E convention games, I sometimes factored the number of strikers in the party. Fifth-edition plays faster, so organized play adventures can offer players more options.

      I think serving as a convention DM improves my skills, because I run games for hundreds of different players. When I do play, I get to see how some elite DMs operate.

      Dave

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