Monthly Archives: September 2013

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.

Two reasons D&D Next’s inspiration mechanic fails to inspire me (and why the designers don’t mind)

From what we have seem so far, the Dungeons & Dragons Next design sticks close the game’s tradition. This makes the inspiration mechanic the design’s biggest surprise so far. D&D’s top dog, Mike Mearls, revealed the mechanic in “Roleplaying in D&D Next.”

“When you have your character do something that reflects your character’s personality, goals, or beliefs, the DM can reward you with inspiration.” You can spend inspiration to gain advantage, bank it for later, or pass it to another player.

In the universe of role-playing games, inspiration seems conventional. Plenty of RPGs offer in-game rewards for role playing, but D&D has never goaded players to role play. Fourth edition even encouraged substituting skill checks for role playing so that no one who feels uncomfortable with funny voices must speak in character. While I have seen suggestions that a DM might want to reward good role playing with additional experience points, such options stand outside of D&D’s mainstream.

Champions role-playing game from 1981

Champions role-playing game from 1981

I enjoy role playing and funny voices. I love when players work to tie their characters to the setting, especially when their ideas make the players collaborators in the world building. I favor mechanics such as the one introduced by the Champions role-playing game in 1981, where you could create a more powerful character by adding “disadvantages” like a recurring archenemy or a loved-one sometimes in need of rescue.

Despite this, the inspiration mechanic fails to interest me for two reasons:

  • I’m a dungeon master, not a critic or evaluator. As a DM, I have enough to do without adopting the role of some sort of competition judge who scores players’ performances. To players uncomfortable acting in character, I offer encouragement and a safe table, but I will not act as a trainer, handing out boons for role-playing stunts that amuse me. Save that for Shamu.
  • When I play, I dislike metagamey resources. As I explained in “Immersive vs. Gamey in D&D Next, the score is 1-1,” when I play a character, I prefer to immerse myself in character. I want to make decisions in character, based on what my character knows about the game world. Inspiration forces an intrusive chunk of the metagame into the fantasy world. With inspiration, I can no longer fully immerse myself in the the character of Jarrek the Hammer, and make decisions by asking, “What would Jarrek do?” Now I must consider whether I should use my inspiration, bank it, or pass it on to another player. Jarrek knows nothing about banking inspiration! Ironically, a mechanic intended to reward role playing discourages character immersion.

At Gen Con, I shared my misgivings with Mike Mearls. He understands my objections, but they don’t bother him. Even though D&D Next won’t brand inspiration as an optional rule, the rules will explain that different DMs may choose to award inspiration in different ways. Some DMs may choose not to award inspiration at all. In other words, inspiration provides a tool that you can use to encourage a chosen style of play, or that you can ignore. This fits D&D Next’s philosophy of creating a game that can support a range of play styles as opposed to the 4E philosophy of creating a game optimized for a single play style.

I have one reservation about Mike’s stance, and that stems from organized play. Players in a program such as Living Forgotten Realms bring expectations about how the game is played. I do most of my dungeon mastering in LFR and other public-play programs. If inspiration exists in the core game, and if players grow to expect it, then I will feel duty-bound to use it in public play. My players will never hear me gripe. Inspiration hardly ranks as the most distasteful game element I’ve welcomed. If inspiration grows into an accepted part of public play, then I will award it by reading the table and granting inspiration for whatever performances inspire the players.

One year of DMDavid

One year ago, I made my first post to the DMDavid blog. I itched to sound off about a few Dungeons & Dragons topics, such as metagamey mechanics, skill challenges, and a design error that still lurks at the core of D&D Next. Writing the posts proved such a kick, that I’ve kept at it for a year now.

Mini dungeon master's screen on table

When I started writing I speculated on where the blog might lead. I hoped that a post might garner some attention in the D&D community, but that has never happened. I blame my discomfort with self promotion. No other blog has ever linked to my site, but a tweet called out “Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – I made a Drowslayer,” earning that page some looks. I wondered if someone at a convention game might sometime recognize me for this blog. That never happened, but a couple of real-world friends stumbled across the blog and recognized me as the author. I worried that I might stir up some of the sort of nasty criticism that comes with the GIFT, but the site’s occasional comments have always added welcome insights.

Most popular post. Every time I searched the web for a gallery of the various dungeon tiles sets, I failed to find even a comprehensive list of tile sets, much less a gallery. Seeing a need, I spent an afternoon snapping shots of my collection, and reassembling some punched sets like jigsaw puzzles. This resulted in my most popular post ever, “A complete list and gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets.” I’m pleased that others find the resource helpful, and hope a few visitors find other items of interest.

Biggest surprise. The early role-playing games that followed D&D always reacted to the “failings” of D&D. The games came with big helpings of the designer’s comments on how their game addressed D&D’s problems—either in magazine-published designer’s notes, or often in the game itself. When I set down to research a retrospective of Chivalry & Sorcery, I uncovered an unexpected treasure of early RPG-play philosophy, which I lovingly ridiculed in “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?” I did never intended to write anything so long, but the more I read the rules, the more wonders I uncovered. Still, as the post grew longer, I figured that I was wasting my time exploring overlong, ancient history that would interest no one but me. I’m happy to have been wrong.

Least popular post. In “But how do you win,” I reminisced about the questions people asked about D&D way back when I started playing. No readers cared. Nonetheless, the question “but how do you win” reveals how differently most people understood games in the days before D&D.

Snappy title award.D&D Next trades to-hit bonuses for enhanced damage” stands as one post buried in a series exploring the evolving D&D combat system. The post goes off in a tangent, and the title summarizes a point made earlier in the series, yet somehow this post garners all the hits. Even though the title doesn’t seem that compelling to me, I started trying to do a better job writing titles that draw interest.

Best of DMDavid. I’m most proud of my three series of articles on D&D design.

  • What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?” began an exploration how the math behind to-hit and damage rolls changed from original D&D through D&D next.
  • Evolution of the skill challenge” showed how the skill challenge changed quickly after the introduction of fourth edition, and how the original conception of the skill challenge left some baggage which made them harder to use.
  • Spells that can ruin adventures” talked about spells that worked fine with D&D’s original dungeon-bashing play style, but which started ruining adventures as the game matured.

The research and thought that went into each of these series led me to new and unexpected insights into the game.

Thanks for reading!