Dungeons & Dragons brings fun from many sources: from acting the roles of characters, from creating stories with friends, and from making choices and seeing their consequences in the game world. This post focuses on that last source of fun: Seeing choices play out, and sometimes surprise us, thanks to D&D’s volatile mix of rules, dice, and the hidden information behind the DM screen.
The choices players make during character creation lead to consequences throughout a character’s career. Every saving throw plays out the consequences of a choice made days or even years ago. But when choices quickly lead to consequences, D&D proves most engrossing. When my choice to play an agile rogue lets me dodge an explosive rune, I feel satisfied, but when I figure a way to trigger the trap from a distance, I feel pleased and engaged.
I once complained how casting the foresight made D&D less fun for me. Foresight erases the effect of a lot of the games choices. I thought gaining advantage on everything would prove fun, but it made the game less entertaining. Rather than making numerous small choices during a session to gain an edge, the wizard makes one choice to cast foresight and the rest matter less.
Originally, players rolling a D&D character faced no choices except for class. Now, players typically control every aspect of character building and most players talk about rolling a character in the same way we talk about dialing a phone. Most players like control over character creation, but that control also tempts designers to create situations that engage numbers on character sheets more than the choices players make in the moment.
Years ago, I played an adventure where the party floated on a raft down river with canyon walls on each side. As we floated, unreachable monsters atop the walls hurled down rocks and we made checks to avoid damage. The situation blocked any choices, so we could only ride along and take our licks.
The adventure’s designer surely hoped for a tense scene with plenty of action as characters race down a river dodging perils. On a movie screen, the sequence might have worked, but at the table it played as string of random punishments—an unwelcome chore.
To be fair, character-building choices factored into the outcome of the scene, but those choices came long ago when we chose how dexterous to make our characters. In a game, the most entertaining choices come in the moment. Character design choices come in second, often a distant second.
Surely some readers see the river raft scene as obviously flawed, but adventures by well-meaning authors include similar roll versus random damage sequences, especially when the party must cross from point A to B. That includes many adventures that I’ve played at conventions. Again, I understand the authors aims. After all, on the cinema screens in their imaginations, the sequences work, and besides authors learn by imitating adventure written by other pros who set similar patterns. Fourth-edition skill challenges often fit that pattern. “I learned it from you.” Sure, skill challenges offered choices, but typically with the obviously correct options of picking the skills with the highest options. Only small children find such decisions compelling.
The roll-versus-random-punishment dynamic often makes travel sequences fall flat. Suppose the party in Aglarond uncovers a lead that prompts a trip to Battledale. The DM decides to make the trip interesting and give a sense of distance by rolling for random encounters along the way. That approach creates a roll-versus-punishment sequence with only one choice: Quit (y/N)? So the party trudges on hoping to resume their story in Battledale soon.
Some might argue my point by recommending better ways to handle the travel sequence. Perfect! None of those better ways include the roll-versus-damage dynamic. They bring choices and the story to the journey, or they cut past the journey.
The problem is, in My view, that the random encounters originated in a time where travel and the random encounters forced players into making new (hard) choices, because your resources were limited, so random events might force you to seek shelter or you fled and got lost, or ran out of supplies/hit points/ammunition. These problems don’t exits for 5e characters, because their cool abilities solve them.
Free Leagues’ Forbidden Lands and especially Twilight: 2000 4e embrace the random obstacles/situations, and because resources are limited, create dramatic choices: eg a character is critically wounded or contracts typhoid and then the mission changes to finding a doctor.
Alternatively, The One Ring and AiME has a narrative approach and if you do poorly on the random events which are resolved by a couple of rolls, the characters are “taxed” with fatigue, wounds, lost equipment when they arrive at the adventuring site.
I agree with Rasmus that old style resource management is key adding risk. Risk is what makes the tension. Tension is what drives engagement and makes the game compelling. Dave would (inaccurately) call it “fun”. This is among the many reasons why codgers like me despise the newer editions.
Re: the river problem, Short of dumping 5e for an older version – something I highly recommend everyone do immediately – you could give them information on the dangers each path might bring. That lets them make informed choices. If they pick the river and they all die from boulders, well, they knew it was a possibility and accepted the risk.
Even then you can give them choices within the encounter, or allow clever ways to avoid damage. Perhaps the far side of the river is out of boulder range, but you risk running aground in shallow water. Or you get in the water beside the raft, and use the raft as cover. Or the danger is telegraphed and the party thinks to add a roof to the raft, or to camouflage themselves and the raft to look like debris.
The thought of adding choice is a good one. While I like my normal random encounter system, the only real control the players have is that shorter trips are less taxing. It would be great if I could put more of the risk/reward vs safety choice into their hands.
So you’ve presented the problem. Do you have a solution, or a better way to capture that same sort of obstacle in a way with more player choices?
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