Tag Archives: Call of Cthulhu

How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke

In my last post, I explained how challenging myself to say yes to players made me a better dungeon master, even though I sometimes said no.

Sometime in the 90s, I returned gaming conventions after more than a decade away. Some folks played Dungeons & Dragons differently than I remembered. I played with a DM who said yes to more gifts than Santa Claus. Any time a player wanted to try some lame scheme, the DM would permit it—and grant a big bonus for creative thinking. His game held no challenges. It only existed for his players to show off.

My DM’s habit of saying yes should have created a collaborative story that enchanted me, but instead I felt bored.

Some folks equate saying yes with good storytelling. From this perspective, characters are the foundation of story. Players control the characters. Only bad DMs keep the storytelling to themselves. Saying yes to the players lets them contribute to a shared story.

Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique abilities. In one convention game, a water genasi monk’s fast swim speed let her breeze through this encounter.

Except good storytelling rests on characters who face obstacles. If you make obstacles that just enable characters to demonstrate how great they are, then you create a certain, notoriously dull sort of story. Your story features a Mary Sue who can only impress everyone by being wonderful.

In D&D, players never ask a DM to say yes to something that adds obstacles. Players ask for advantages. Players see a high Performance skill on their character sheet, and then ask to sing a cave-in away because maybe the right note starts a landslide. Saying yes isn’t the route to compelling stories.

But D&D isn’t really a storytelling game. Nobody wants to hear a story about your D&D character. The fun of D&D comes from playing the game. For most of us a big part of that fun comes from a chance to feel wonderful and impressive in our character’s shoes.

I often meet players who want to win D&D when they devise a superior character. The play at the table, for them, just offers a victory lap.

So does my desire for a game that challenges me and my characters make me an oddity?

For most players, credible obstacles help make role-playing games compelling. Call of Cthulhu typically ends in insanity or death, but you still get to thwart a dark god against overwhelming odds. Your characters’ losses make them more heroic than the D&D characters who always come out of scrapes better than before.

Nobody sits at a D&D table for vicarious insanity or death. In D&D, characters improve by gaining experience and magical gear. That steady improvement makes the game addictive. D&D players relish chances to show off.

I suspect most players crave a mix of challenges, chances to show off, and chances to feel powerful by overcoming real challenges.

Case in point: My friend Tom is a by-the-book DM with stronger mastery of the rules than anyone I know. Some have called him a dick DM, and he wears that label with a note of pride. He doesn’t try to win against players, but he won’t say yes to a brazen attempt to use Performance. Tom is an expert at running monsters so they make tough, canny foes. Sometimes Tom kills characters. He killed one of mine. If D&D players favored DMs who simply let characters show off, then Tom would rate as a bad DM. Not Tom. As a DM, he reached an elite, level-4 ranking in the Heralds Guild of DMs. This means Tom served a DM at conventions for table after table of strangers, and earned nearly perfect scores on their feedback forms. In his games, when characters show off, they earned it.

D&D works best when DMs find a balance between credible challenges and letting each player feel like a bad ass.

NFL star Cam Newton dominates pee-wee football

Sometimes finding the right mix just requires the players and DM to focus on their roles: Players work to make their characters awesome, while their DM takes charge of posing challenges. In this role, the DM acts as the characters’ biggest fan. As a fan, I want the characters to triumph against real tests. I want a 6’5” 250 pound NFL quarterback to face elite athletes rather than pee-wee football players. Let the Fantastic Four beat Doctor Doom rather than Paste-Pot Pete.

So as a DM, when the players ask you to say yes to something that ruins a challenge, you can say no without feeling like a bad DM who refuses to share the game with players. They have their part, you have yours.

Sometimes, your role as fan of the characters might call for a yes. I can think of three perfect occasions:

1. Say yes to inventive solutions.

When I started as a DM, I followed Gary Gygax’s model. I pitted my players against the most devious deathtraps I could invent. I would build in ways for the players to surmount the obstacles, but the players’ solutions rarely matched mine. The 6 or more brains across the table always proved more clever than me. Soon I stopped including solutions to the predicaments. The players across the table still escaped every impossible pinch. Their invention surprised me and I relished it.

I don’t recommend pitting players against impossible situations, but I do recommend learning to love an ingenious solution. Some DMs grow so attached to a “correct” solution to a predicament, that they reject their players’ ingenuity.

For more, see Player Skill Without Player Frustration.

2. Say yes to stunts and exploits that go outside the rules.

A few years ago I ran the Confrontation in Candlekeep delve at Gen Con. At the end, a dragon flies from Candlekeep tower to tower, table to table, exchanging attacks. At one stop, a character jumped atop the dragon and rode it table to table. After the event, the player giddily recounted the tale to anyone who would listen. He wasn’t alone. Players loved riding the dragon so much that DMs made it part of the adventure. Designer Teos Abadia remembers, “The result was great fun, a nice mechanic for players ending up at other tables, and some really spectacular falls!”

In Mike Shea’s post, A Collection of Awesome Events, he asks players to recount an awesome D&D moment, and then reaches a surprising conclusion: Players love it when they get to break the game. Riding the dragon steps outside the usual exchange of blows in a D&D battle. The Player’s Handbook offer no rules for it. But for players of Candlekeep, it created unforgettable moments.

When players suggest a bold or clever idea that ends a big encounter or that wrecks a major villain, I feel tempted to reject it. I worked to set the stage and a sudden end feels like a waste of effort. But for players, an ordinary battle can’t match the excitement of that one time when they broke the game.

3. Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique qualities.

At a convention, I ran an adventure where a pack of wolves confronted the characters. One player tried to make friends with the beasts and I asked for an Animal Handling check.

The player showed his character sheet. “My background happens to be Raised by Wolves.”

“Turns out, you know these wolves.”

Obviously, if some unique quality grants an advantage that threatens to regularly upstage the other characters, you can still say yes, once. After that, the wolves the player meets might be rivals.

If you want to write games for everyone, game with everyone

In the 80s into the 90s, I would see convention panels or magazine interviews where game professionals said that their game writing left them no time for game playing. Those writers might admit to an occasional session of Call of Cthulhu—that was the role-playing game the pros played once they felt too mature for bashing monsters in dungeons. But writers of the era’s countless setting books rarely seemed to play their own games much anymore.

fameFor many of the game products of the time, play experience mattered less. People bought game books to read. RPG writers could succeed by satisfying game readers more than players. See “How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books.”

After D&D’s headquarters moved West from Lake Geneva, more designers played, but with a small cadre of friends and co-workers.

Speaking in an episode of the Misdirected Mark podcast, veteran RPG freelancer Shawn Merwin said, “One of the criticisms I’ve had in the past of [D&D] staff, especially through 3rd and 4th edition, was that they would sit in Renton, Washington and create this game, but they never really got out and saw how the game was played by the different kinds of fans, or the fans that may play a little bit differently than their own home games or their games within their company.”

At the 2016 Dungeons & Dragons Open, D&D designers served as celebrity dungeon masters. The star power added excitement for players, but it also should benefit the designers. Speaking in the podcast, prolific adventure author Teos “Alphastream” Abadia said, “This is a really important thing for Wizards to do. To meet with players and see how players play [the designer’s] game in this kind of environment.”

If you want to write games and adventures for strangers to play, then you benefit from playing with strangers.

In a convention game, you will join players who may play differently. “You’re just randomly dipping into the pond to see who ends up at your table and to see how they play the game that you create. And I think that’s very important,” Teos said. “For me as a fan, I want to see Wizards involved with fans in this kind of way as much as possible.”

How does a private game among RPG professionals and their friends differ from the convention games I frequent? I can think of two likely differences: The players in the designers’ private groups act more predictably and they favor more role playing.

Play style and predictability

Every regular group settles into a play style. Do they play recklessly or cautiously? Heroically or ruthlessly? How do they settle conflict between PCs that pull in opposite directions? Regular groups seek activities they all enjoy. A group’s style makes them predictable. When we play long enough in one style, we tend to forget other ways.

DMs who operate in public eventually see groups that defy even the most common customs of D&D. New players love to split the party.

Organized play adventures tend to come from veteran convention dungeon masters who branched into writing. I think these authors do better at anticipating what random players might do, and do better at accounting for players who veer off the path.

The foibles of full-time designers

In general, full-time professionals do worse at predicting how players will act, and they seem less interested in helping DMs account for unexpected actions.

The pros play their own material. They enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than anyone can gain from the text. This mastery makes improvising changes and additions easy. If their players go off book, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot printed in the adventure’s next 5 chapters. So pros underestimate the difficulty other DMs face when ad-libbing changes to a published adventure.

Organized play authors understand the challenges of running an adventure from a text. Their adventures sometimes even include troubleshooting sidebars that help DMs account for actions that threaten to break an adventure.

What do the pros do better? In general, their adventures feature more polish and a greater mastery of the game’s rules, history, and lore. When the designers add new monsters and magic, the additions work without upsetting game balance.

The joy of role playing

Remember the first time you sat down and played? How you had such a blast rolling dice and killing monsters? Remember the time you stayed up all night doing it? Every day, new players discover D&D and find just as much fun in monster slaying. On the other hand, many new players find speaking in funny voices odd and potentially embarrassing.

Meanwhile the pros have faced every monster countless times. Routine combat scenes lack their former excitement. Between those past battles, the pros learned to love playing make-believe in the guise of a fairie-tale creature. They relish a chance to role play. They play with folks who share this passion.

In my post on preparing to run adventures, I grumbled about how the authors of Hoard of the Dragon Queen assume that PCs will spend weeks traveling with cultists and wagons loaded with treasure instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold like every D&D player ever.

But obviously not like every D&D player. The authors’ groups saw a chance to travel with the cultists, uncover their secrets, and savor a session full of role playing and intrigue. Authors Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur read their groups’ tastes and catered to them. I rarely get to play with groups with the same patience for intrigue, so a strategy that seemed inevitable to Steve and Wolfgang struck me as far-fetched.

Every group is different. You can’t play with everyone, but if you want to write for everyone, you benefit from reaching out to game with random strangers.