Tag Archives: objectives

Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens

A few recurring types of adventure scenes make me want to fast forward the game. For instance, I dislike when an scenario starts a party in a tavern, masquerade, or other social gathering, and then expects them to spend an hour or more mingling before the adventure finds them. Such scenes appear too regularly in Adventurer’s League scenarios. Even the adventure that introduced fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons to the public, Murder in Baldur’s Gate, started by letting characters mingle in a marketplace while they waited for the adventure to start.

This setup comes from good motives. Many role-playing gamers enjoy role playing, so a gathering of lovingly-crafted and colorful non-player characters seems like a playground. But I’ve never seen such setups offer more than a struggle for dungeon masters or players. I wrote a post about my trouble making Murder in Baldur’s Gate work during the convention slots I ran it.

Instead of living up to an author’s ambition, these mix-and-mingle scenes follow a different pattern:

  1. While the dungeon master describes the colorful occupants of an inn, players update their character sheets, snack, and check their phones. The most attentive players will remember one—perhaps two—of the NPCs crowding in the scene.
  2. Players enjoy a moment of vicarious wealth as their characters, who carry thousands of gold in loose change, pay a gold piece for a 1 copper piece cup of ale because keeping track of coppers is too much bother.
  3. Players of dwarves act out their character’s exaggerated appetite for ale. (To players of dwarves, ale provides as much material as air travel and 7-Eleven provide to stand-up comics.)
  4. The characters look for the mysterious hooded figure beckoning from a corner.
  5. If no figure beckons, characters wait for the bar fight. Sometimes an impatient player starts one.
  6. If no bar fight erupts, players start metagaming as they try to determine how to start the scheduled adventure. “Innkeeper, have we entered the wrong establishment? I was told there would be adventure here.”

The mix-and-mingle scenes fizzle because players lack an objective other than discover how to make the adventure start. When characters lack a goal and a DM launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering what they are supposed to do.

Instead, players should enter a scene with a goal they think their characters can accomplish. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Pass the sphinx that bars the way. Get the name of an alchemist who can supply reagents.

To succeed, a scene needs more than a goal. If the dwarf enters the bar with a purse full of gold and a goal of drinking ale, then a good bartender ends the scene in a hurry.

In Dungeons & Dragons, as in fiction, the really interesting action happens when the characters have both a goal and an obstacle that stands in their way. In the early days, the objective (treasure) was as simple as the obstacles (dungeons and dragons). Now we enjoy more variety, buy we still need the core ingredients of objectives and obstacles to keep the game moving and fun.

Sometimes players face the obstacle of not knowing which NPC in the crowd has the clue they need. This works. The players now have a reason to interact with several characters. Still, stronger obstacles make better scenes.

Typically, role-playing encounters combine an objective of gaining information or help, with the obstacle of an uncooperative non-player character.

Often the players simply try to persuade the NPC, succeed at a diplomacy check, and move on, but if every interaction amounts to a skill roll, the game loses interest. At times the bard’s honeyed words may overcome any objections; at times an NPC faces conflicts or repercussions that require action.

For more challenging and interesting encounters—and more memorable NPCs—treat some NPCs as puzzles. Just as the puzzles in a Dungeons & Dragons game have solutions, and locked doors have keys, NPCs can have keys of a sort too. Every NPC who stands unwilling to cooperate must have a reason for it. To unlock the NPC’s help, players must find ways to defuse or overcome their objections. Perhaps the NPCs feel certain they’re being watched, or they love someone working for the villain, or they plan to buy the reagents. For more ideas, see 22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate. If an NPC enters an interaction with a reason not to help the players, give the players enough clues to find a way past the objection.

A lack of goals or obstacles explains some of the game’s less-interesting stretches.

You can pace your game by looking at the players’ objectives and the obstacles they face. If no obstacles challenge the party, then consider summarizing events until something new blocks the players’ progress. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

If the players lack objectives, then unveil some new development that suggests their next step. Characters should start each scene with an objective that can be achieved in the scene, and they should end with a new objective or, better still, a choice of objectives. A steady supply of objectives keeps the game moving forward and the players eager for more. A choice of objectives prevents the players from feeling railroaded.

22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate

In “a priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens,” I wrote about how most players only find role-playing encounters compelling when they have a objective to achieve and an obstacle to overcome. Even encounters with the most vivid and fascinating non-player characters fall flat without these two essential elements.

Typically, role-playing encounters combine an objective of gaining information or help, with the obstacle of an uncooperative NPC.

Sometimes the players simply try to persuade the NPC, succeed at a diplomacy check, and move on, but if every interaction amounts to a skill roll, the game loses interest.  At times the bard’s honeyed words may overcome any objections; at times an NPC faces conflicts or repercussions that require action.

I suggest an approach to role-playing encounters that yields more challenging and interesting encounters, along with more memorable NPCs.

Just as the puzzles in a Dungeons & Dragons game have solutions, and locked doors have keys, NPCs can have keys of a sort too. Every NPC who stands unwilling to cooperate must have a reason for it. To unlock the NPC’s help, players must find ways to defuse or overcome their objectives.

If an NPC enters an interaction with a reason not to help the players, you should ultimately give the players enough clues to find a way past the objection.

The NPC may reveal the reason, but sometimes the players may need to figure it out for themselves. The key might not even be apparent on first meeting. If players learn something about a character that helps in a later meeting, then the world feels richer, the NPCs more vibrant, and the players cleverer.

To spark ideas and aid with improvisation, I created a list of potential reasons an NPC might have for refusing to cooperate with the player characters.  Low-numbered items work best for ad-libbed objections from walk-on characters; they require less planning and fewer details about the NPC. Higher-numbered items work better when you have time to plan for your adventure’s most important NPCs.

Reasons a non-player character refuses to cooperate.

  1. She doesn’t want to get involved.
  2. He doesn’t like your kind, for example, strangers, elves, adventurers, or meddling kids.
  3. She doesn’t believe she can help.
  4. He thinks the players will only make things worse. They should leave well enough alone.
  5. She wants something: a bribe, an errand done, or to be convinced that she stands to gain if the players succeed.
  6. He has been paid to keep silent or to stay out.
  7. The players have insulted or offended her.
  8. He thinks the players efforts are dangerous because they don’t understand what’s really going on. He might know something the players don’t or he may simply know less than he thinks.
  9. The players have unwittingly  caused her to suffer a loss.
  10. She feels that helping the players will betray her duties or obligations.
  11. He needs more information to support the players case before he can act.
  12. She knows or suspects that she or the players are watched.
  13. Someone he loves or respects told him not to help.
  14. She is secretly involved with the other side.
  15. The situation benefits her, for example, by raising the value of her trade goods, or by hurting competitors or rivals.
  16. She fears the players might claim a treasure or reward that she expects to get.
  17. He is allied with rivals or competitors to the party.
  18. She’s been threatened.
  19. Someone she loves safety is threatened.
  20. Someone he loves is involved with the other side.
  21. He’s not involved but might be implicated, perhaps for doing things that once seemed innocent.
  22. He’s being blackmailed for a misdeed unrelated to the players’ concerns.

When you play an uncooperative NPC, remember that the NPC may seem helpful. An uncooperative NPC can say all the right things while they lie or let the players down.

Still, I suggest feeding the players lies only when the deception leads to a new development. Lies that lead to false leads and dead ends will prove frustrating and unfun. For example, the countess can lie and say than her hated rival stole the broach, but then the rival must reveal a new piece to a puzzle, perhaps a secret that the countess fought to hide.

A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens

Some rare number of groups can stroll into a tavern populated with lovingly crafted and colorful characters, and then spontaneously mingle for a night of role playing. I personally have never seen this happen, but I know it’s possible, because these players constantly boast that they gamed for entire night without rolling a single die. (Sometimes I feel the same vibe of subtle snobbery that comes from the guy who never stops mentioning that he doesn’t even own a TV.)

In my experience, all players enter the inn and follow this procedure:

  1. While the dungeon master describes the lovingly crafted and colorful occupants of the inn, update your character sheet or sample the snacks.

  2. Enjoy a moment of vicarious wealth as your character, who carries thousands of gold in loose change, pays a gold piece for a 1cp cup of ale because keeping track of coppers is too much bother.

  3. If you play a dwarf, act out your character’s exaggerated appetite for ale. (To players of dwarves, ale provides as much material as airline food and 7-Eleven provides to stand-up comics.)

  4. Look for the mysterious hooded figure beckoning from a corner.

  5. If no figure beckons, wait for the bar fight.

  6. If no bar fight erupts, look in puzzlement at the dungeon master while you wait for the adventure to begin. “Innkeeper, have we entered the wrong establishment? I was told there would be adventure here.”

In Dungeons & Dragons, as in fiction, the really interesting action happens when the characters have both an objective and an obstacle that stands in their way. The bar scene fizzles because the players lack both of these essential ingredients.

In the early days, the objective (treasure) was as simple as the obstacles (dungeons and dragons). Now we enjoy more variety, buy we still need the core ingredients of objectives and obstacles to keep the game moving and fun.

By objectives, I’m not thinking of the players’ long term goals for things like ending the Prince of Murder’s reign of blood or restoring your family’s honor. If your players boast great role-playing chops, then each character may hold a different long-term goal. I’m interested in the sort of immediate objectives the players can accomplish in the next encounter. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Pass the troll that bars your way. Save the orphans from the creatures in the cellar.

The lack of one of these essential ingredients explains some of the game’s less-interesting stretches:

  • After the outcome of a battle becomes obvious and the monsters cease to be a threatening obstacle.

  • Any scene where the players’ patron fills them in on backstory or congratulates them on their success.

  • When characters walk into a bar populated with lovingly crafted and colorful NPCs, but when the characters lack any objective that they can reach during their visit. (The goal of indulging your dwarf’s appetite for ale does not count, because no obstacle stands in her way—unless she is broke; that could be interesting.)

You can pace your game by looking at the players’ objectives and the obstacles they face. If no obstacles challenge the party, then consider summarizing events until something new blocks the players’ progress.

If the players lack objectives, then unveil some new development that suggests their next step. Characters should start each scene with an objective that can be achieved in the scene, and they should end with a new objective or, better still, a choice of objectives. A steady supply of objectives keeps the game moving forward and the players eager for more. A choice of objectives prevents the players from feeling railroaded.