Tag Archives: M.T. Black

D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter

If you want your D&D game to tell a story, why bother with the dice? Why bother with a random element capable of foiling our plans?

The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook calls Dungeons & Dragons a game about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. If D&D players only wanted to collaborate on stories, we could join a writers’ room and pitch dialog, beats, and character arcs just like in Hollywood, but without the paychecks.

Instead, we add dice.

The oldest known d20 comes from Egypt dates from somewhere between 304 and 30 B.C.. The die may have rolled in a game, but oracles may have cast it in divination rituals. Blogger James Maliszewski writes, “There’s something powerfully primal about tossing dice and waiting to see the numbers they reveal.” Like an oracle’s die, our dice lead our characters into an unknowable future. The dice make us surrender some control, because they add the risk that the story won’t go as we plan. Events beyond our control make the game unpredictable and exciting. We embrace that.

Surprise

After countless stories, we all start to see patterns repeated. We still enjoy them for many reasons, but even the best can seem like a familiar dance performed well. So when a tale breaks the pattern, the unexpected becomes riveting.

Stories from D&D games can follow patterns of their own. Two combat encounters plus a roleplaying interaction take us to the big bad, and then to dividing treasure. We dungeon masters have an extra incentive to follow the expected track that we prepared, so the dice help us let go. They nudge us off course and remind us to welcome uncertainty. Writing about dice and random encounter tables, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains, “Such tables help to remind the DM that chance can and should be a powerful element. It can be a subtle reminder that the printed page isn’t one single script and that different outcomes (whether on tables or not) are good.”

D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford likes how rolling in the open forces him to honor the outcome of a roll even when his own inertia might sway him to override it. “As often as possible, I like to stick with whatever the dice tell me, partly because as a DM I love to be surprised. I love that sense whenever I sit down at any table where I’m DMing I don’t actually know what’s going to happen because I don’t know what the dice are going to say. The dice can turn something I thought was going to be a cakewalk into a life or death struggle.”

Creativity

The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Forget dice for a moment and think of the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity.

Poet William S. Burroughs coined a cut-up method of writing where he scrambled words on scraps of paper and then assembled the jumble into new poems. If poetry seems too high-minded to connect with a game rooted in pulp fantasy, then consider this: Rock musicians like Curt Cobain, Thom York, and David Bowie used the technique. Burroughs asserted, “Cuts ups are for everyone.”

David Bowie explains his use of the process, “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”

Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black uses a program to make random lists of titles, plots, and other idea seeds. He explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.”

Creation doesn’t stop during writing and preparation. It extends into the game session when the dice inject that random element.

Fairness

Random chance separates the players’ success or failure from the dungeon master’s fiat. In a role-playing game, no one wants the DM to control the characters’ fate. When player characters succeed, the players want credit for the victory; when PCs fail, the DM wants the dice to take the blame.

Random rolls reduce the DM’s power to control the game. In a sense, these rolls unite DM and players in a shared enterprise. Everyone watches the roll of the dice together and shares the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

D&D historian Jon Peterson writes, “Die rolls impart to players a sense of fairness, they also give the referee a way to decide events impartially when they can’t trust themselves. Back when referees were adjudicating between competing parties (and in early D&D, they still were, sometimes). Referees needed a way not to show favor, even unconsciously, to one competing party over another. Dice play an important part in hedging against the risk of unintended bias.”

In modern D&D we tend to associate dice with the attacks, checks, and saves at the core of the game, but the games’ founders used dice to impartially settle questions about the game world. Many DMs still roll to direct a monster’s attack, but otherwise the technique seems faded. Now we seldom roll to learn a shopkeeper’s disposition, or the guards’ morale, or for the weather. To settle these and other questions in the game, we seldom think to just ask the dice.

D&D adventure designer Will Doyle knows the technique’s power. “I use ‘lucky rolls’ literally all the time. For example, player is sneaking down a corridor, I call for them to make a lucky roll to see what happens. On a 10 or above, it’s probably clear. Roll lower than that, and guards come whistling along.”

Preference

Ultimately, how much your rely on luck depends on your taste for a game that can feels as surprising and as messy as life. James Maliszewski associates a big dose of random chance with old-school gaming and writes, “Much like life, old-school gaming is often ‘just a bunch of stuff that happens’ and sometimes that stuff can be frustrating, boring, or even painful. The only ‘meaning’ that stuff has is what the players and their referee bring to it.”

How much of the future do you and your players want to force, and how much do you want to keep unexpected?

“What do dice represent?” D&D video creator Matt Colville asks. “They represent the future and the fact that the future is ultimately unknowable,” “You know we may know the odds of the different horses in a race and who’s likely to win and there may be a horse that is very heavily favored to win, but that doesn’t mean that they’re guaranteed to win. No. Because the future is uncertain. That’s what the dice represent.”

Improve the Start of Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus With These 2 Add-On Adventures

Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus suffers from a slow start. The adventure begins when the material plane around the city of Elturel splits open. Massive, flaming chains reach from the gash, seize the city, and drag it to hell. But instead of witnessing the cataclysm, the characters start nearly 200 miles away, where they learn of the trouble from fleeing refugees. Instead of calling the party members to adventure, the opening box text drafts them. The group’s first assignment has them serve as bodyguards until a bar fight lifts them to 2nd level. Imagine 20 minutes into the campaign, halting the action so everyone can level up.

Baldur’s Gate: The Fall of Elturel

For the DMs Guild adventure Baldur’s Gate: The Fall of Elturel, authors Anthony Joyce and Justice Arman replace that awkward launch with something stronger. This 2-hour adventure begins in Elturel with the players meeting authorities who need help investigating cult activity outside the city. Two of these three patrons play a part later in the hardcover, so the opening lays a foundation for later. The adventure tackles so many introductions that I made picture cards to introduce key non-player characters. One picture needed a bit of redeye correction for what’s definitely the flash and not a devilish taint. Have Duke Ulder Ravengard give at least one character a copper badge that bears the Flaming Fist’s coat of arms.

The adventure assumes that characters begin in one of three factions. Instead of assuming membership, I asked each player whether glory, wealth, or justice motivated their character. A representative of the Hellriders contacted the characters interested in glory, one from the Flaming Fist contacted those craving wealth, and one from the Order of the Gauntlet reached out to seekers of justice.

The party’s meetings with the folk of Elturel bring the best parts of the adventure. The authors dreamed up touches to make these citizens likeable, creating affection that will add weight to the city’s fall. At a wedding scene, my players kept bracing for something terrible to happen. Nothing happens yet, but the anxiety amused me. I’m awful.

In gratitude for witnessing the wedding, have the priest cast Aid on the party. The extra hit points enabled me to increase the number of cultists the party battles later, while still limiting the chance that a character might die. Without more foes, some of the fights could end too quickly for everyone to get a turn.

When the scenario serves up four different evil cults, it risks confusing players. My newer players asked questions and would have benefited from a scorecard. To be fair, the authors just play a hand dealt by the hardcover’s first chapter where all four cults appear again.

After facing the cults, on the way back to Elturel, the party witness the city’s fall. Baldur’s Gate: The Fall of Elturel provides a superior start to Descent Into Avernus that I strongly recommend.

Bridging to the hardcover and the next add-on

The group reaches Baldur’s Gate (and the hardcover’s content) with a badge that proves a connection to the Flaming Fist and a clue pointing to Dead Three cultists in the city. The young Hellrider Reya Mantlemorn will probably be with the party. Perhaps Reya sees fellow Hellriders arrested by the Flaming Fist outside the Basilisk Gate.

Captain Zodge will wish to speak and invites the party’s help dealing with the cults. Before the party enters the dungeon of the Dead Three, let Reya leave to investigate the fate of Elturel. The next time the players meet, she will bring new leads to follow.

The dungeon of the Dead Three can lay a path to the next add-on adventure. I suggest planting clues that show the cultists working with the Vanthampur family to steal a magical shield from the Hhune family. For this, I relied on Vendetta Kress in room D23. She distributes wine and spirits for the Oathoon patriar family of Baldur’s Gate. The Oathoon mansion neighbors the Hhune’s and city legend suggest that the catacombs under those old estates connect. The Vanthampurs hope Vendetta can show a path from the Oathoon wine cellar into the tunnels under the Hhune’s compound.

Mortlock Vanthampur knows his mother seeks the shield. The prospect of someone else taking it amuses him.

Shield of the Hidden Lord

Shield of the Hidden Lord by M.T. Black enables the players to gain the shield during a dungeon crawl under Baldur’s Gate. The adventure targets level 3 characters, but like an Adventures League scenario, the text lists adjustments for stronger or weaker groups.

This adventure proved especially easy to run. Black keeps his descriptions short and evocative, while including plenty of headings to make information easy to find at the table. I never felt slowed by the long columns of unbroken text that so often appear in other adventures.

Every room features things that invite interaction. For example, the first room includes the usual monsters, but it also includes a ghostly chorus trapped in a choir stall, an enclosure that resembles an ornate jury box. The characters can raise a baton and lead the choir to sing to the hidden lord. Opening the stall releases the specters, with the result you probably expect. To add temptation, the gold bolt that closes the stall appears valuable.

Elsewhere, an incubus seeking the shield makes an entertaining foil for the party. “Trait. I enjoy shapeshifting often while talking to mortals, as it annoys them.” The adventure suggests some amusing shapes to take.

Sometimes, I rate adventures based on whether I could improvise something similar. Most adventures combine a few standout features with many familiar details. Shield of the Hidden Lord goes well past that benchmark. Almost every room shows invention and a flair for evocative details.

The amount of content prompts my one reservation: Shield of the Hidden Lord will take most groups 6-8 hours to finish, so it makes a long detour from the hardcover. Still, no players will mind the trip.

Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing

The best tales climax when the heroes must choose between what they’ve learned is right and an easy route to what they thought they wanted. In fiction, such moral dilemmas reveal character. When a woman who only ever wanted to be queen realizes that someone else is better suited to the throne, will she still take the crown?

Everyone who enjoys games such as Dungeons & Dragons likes making choices and seeing the outcomes. Many of those players also enjoy exploring and revealing their characters. So in roleplaying, moral problems may rank as the most interesting and most revealing. In the Dungeon magazine article, “Temptations and Dilemmas,” printed in issue 148, Wolfgang Baur writes about the joy of posing dilemmas. “They make the player really engage with their characters and the game world. Sweet sweet perfection: all you have to do is let the PCs wrangle about it for a while.”

Creating moral choices in D&D proves harder than creating similar dilemmas in stories. In fiction, moral choices often force characters to pick between what’s right and what’s easy. But D&D characters rarely make decisions alone. They face choices as a party, and these groups inevitably mix rogues and paladins.

More than popular classes, rogues and paladins represent two ways players often imagine their characters’ moral outlooks. These make popular character perspectives because they bring escapes from either the restrictions or the unfairness of modern life.

In our world, we often feel bound by rules and obligations. Playing a rogue who’s free from ethical burdens and who boasts the power to ignore rules feels exhilarating.

In our world, we see misdeeds rewarded, good people suffer, and too often we feel helpless to act. Playing a paladin with the strength to punish wrongdoers, help the deserving, and right wrongs feels rejuvenating.

Choices between right and easy inevitably split a party’s rogues and paladins.

“Assassins, poisoners, sneak thieves, death priests, drug smugglers, necromancers, diabolists, and warlocks make it tough for more heroic, lawful, or good characters to look away or condone their smuggling, sneaking, theft, magical abuses, and so on,” Wolfgang writes. “There’s a dilemma for the party every time a character crosses the line and does something that another, more moral character might find unforgivable.”

In D&D, rogues and paladins must find ways to work together or the game falls apart. “If you wind up with that one paladin singled out and forced to choose to compromise his character just to keep playing, you have a problem.” See A Roleplaying Game Player’s Obligation.

So in D&D, moral dilemmas must avoid posing an unsavory-but-easy solution as an option. Instead these problems must force players to weigh which of two, imperfect choices brings the most benefit—or the least corruption. In “5 Tips on How to Design Diabolical Dilemmas,” Johnn Four imagines starting the party with a simple job to capture a war criminal, and then adds moral complications. What if the players discover that the elderly criminal now repents by running an orphanage? If the players decide to take him to justice, what if they learn that the alleged crimes may have saved a village? Do the players still bring the man to execution? None of these choices make the adventure easier for players, but they all land the players in thorny dilemmas that reveal characters.

Johnn suggests developing moral dilemmas by starting with a simple choice and asking questions that help you imagine complications.

  • Who gets hurt?
  • Who escapes justice?
  • Who undeservedly benefits?

While moral dilemmas benefit the game, you can press too hard to create them. Players enjoy difficult choices in balance with uncomplicated situations where their power lets the good guys win. Often players use their ingenuity to solve a moral dilemma without any tough choices. Players savor those victories.

Even when DMs work to foster moral dilemmas, most D&D games only occasionally feature such situations. But one sort of quandary appears frequently, and it’s awful.

Blame co-creator Gary Gygax and his adventure The Keep on the Borderlands (1979). D&D’s first Basic Set included this adventure, so through the 80s, the keep easily ranked as the game’s most played scenario. In a reprint, D&D creative director Mike Mearls writes, “In its 32 pages, Keep on the Borderlands provides the clearest, most concise definition of D&D that you can find.” The keep showed countless dungeon masters how to create a D&D adventure, and mostly it set a good example.

What awful moral dilemma appears 8 times in this classic?

When Gary wrote the keep, he aimed to create an infestation of D&D’s various evil humanoids: kobolds, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls, and lizard men. Gary favored applying some natural order to his imaginary world, which included various young monsters incapable of fighting.

After slaughtering the orcs’ parents, do you put their infants to the sword? As a player who favored the paladin type, I wanted to right wrongs, not debate whether to murder young. The rogue-types in the party would open the 1977 Monster Manual and point to the word “evil” beside a pig-faced monster, but I had no taste for the baby-orc dilemma. I want to smite evildoers, not kill helpless foes. I’m far from alone in that sentiment. Worse, young non-combatants appear in 8 of the keep’s locations, and then in the countless adventures that follow the keep’s example.

I recommend contriving situations that leave helpless foes out of reach. Instead of populating the Caves of Chaos with generations of humanoids, why not imagine war parties locked in a standoff?

Even though the baby-orc problem rates as something to avoid, other dilemmas can enrich the game. M.T. Black’s adventure The Lich Queen’s Begotten ends with an interesting variant on the question of whether to kill an innocent destined for evil. Both times I ran this adventure, a party of mixed paladin and rogue types chose to protect the innocent—not necessarily the easier choice. Both groups wanted a follow up adventure where they worked to thwart the innocent creature’s evil destiny.

That’s the sort of choice that makes heroes.