Tag Archives: obstacles

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.

Running Scenes and Summaries that Invite Choices and Reveal Characters

My last post explained how scenes and summaries allow game masters to speed past uneventful time in the game world and focus on the action. This post offers more advice on running scenes and doing summaries.

Running a scene

Before starting a scene, you need two essential ingredients: (1) characters with a goal and (2) an obstacle that stands in their way.

To start a scene, set the scene. Describe the time and place. Make the description vivid. Finish your description with the thing that will spur the players to action. In a classic Dungeons & Dragons game, the call to action comes from the monster in the room. Mention the monster last, because otherwise your players will plan their attack and ignore your description of the bas-relief, the incense, and the patter of dipping liquid.

A monster will launch some scenes into motion, but other triggers could be the duchess asking why the characters intruded on her battle council, birds crowding the rooftops to silently watch the players, or anything that invites players to act. A good call to action hardly needs the usual follow up question: “What do you want to do?” Nonetheless, characters might ignore the call. The party might see the gathering flocks as a threat, or the druid might want to have words, or perhaps they count the birds as an omen and move on.

The rules of most role-playing games dwell on the scenes, leaving little need for more explanation.

How to do a summary

A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time. It begins when the scene ends—when players look at the scene’s outcome and decide what to do next. Often, they choose a goal that carries them to their next scene.

During a scene, the players’ choices tend to focus on overcoming an immediate obstacle. But during a summary, the players’ choices tend to drive the adventure. If players pass too many summaries without a choice to make, your game may start feeling like a railroad.

In a summary, damage is healed, resources replenished, and so on. Players can describe as much of the activity as the game master.

“We go to the docks and find the captain of the Salt Mist, and then hire her to sail north to the City of Sails. Does anything happen along the way?”

“No. After 3 days at sea, you dock in Luskan on the Open Shore.”

If the passage of time presents new developments that might change the players’ plans, then mention the events and give players a chance to interrupt the tale and make new choices. Perhaps something happens on route. “On your second day at sea, you spot a thick column of smoke rising from inland, just beyond a hill.”

You might remind the players what makes their new options interesting. “As you talk about investigating, the captain seems too willing to put you ashore, and you suspect she may be eager to leave you behind.”

When a summary takes players someplace new, add enough description to give the flavor of the experience, and a sense of the passing time.

A summary can include colorful moments that inspire players to act in character. For example, if the party spots a live stag with an arrow in its flank, does the druid heal the beast, or does the ranger finish it and host a feast? Such moments usually lack the ingredients of a scene, but they offer hooks that let players reveal their characters.

Accelerating the pace

When a summary covers familiar ground, shorten the narrative. That first journey to the City of Splendors deserves some color. The third can pass in a sentence.

As players approach their ultimate goal and the climax of the adventure, they will lose patience for long summaries. When adventurers first reach Barovia, players may enjoy stately trips from town to town. But when the party stands ready to confront Strahd, cut directly to the gates of Ravenloft.

A cut eliminates all the narrative between scenes. The players might say, “We want to question the longshoreman to see if anyone saw the Salt Mist.”

“Okay, now you’re in the Siren’s Call as the place fills with thirsty roughnecks.”

Cuts rush past the flavor of the game world, and short circuit the players’ chances to make choices. Early in a campaign, avoid cutting between scenes.

Near the end of a long campaign, cuts grow more welcome. When few choices remain and when players feel eager for the story to reach a climax, cuts accelerate the pace.

Letting players take the narrative

In How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke, I talked about how the GM bears responsibility for the game’s challenge. Often, a GM must control the narrative so players face meaningful obstacles. But in a summary, no obstacles block the characters’ progress. This makes a summary the ideal time to let players tell their characters’ tales. For example, if the players spend 10 days waiting on town, ask each player for their character’s story of the downtime.

At the end of the adventure, when the characters return to the town they saved, let them tell of their hero’s welcome. Who celebrated with the fetching Sheriff? Or maybe keep that to yourself. This is a family table.

During a summary, when players take the narrative, characters gain chances to reveal their personalities. Plus, you get a break while they do the talking. That’s how you win at Dungeons & Dragons.

How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure

This started as a post on pacing until I checked other game masters’ advice on pacing and discovered that nobody discussed the same topic. Some “pacing” advice helps GMs run at a brisk tempo. For that, see my posts on initiative, delegation, and how to end a battle. Some explained story beats, dramatic tension, and the three act structure. I’m not clever enough to finesse such narratives without my players noticing a loss of freedom.

So this post covers scenes and summaries.

Have you seen the image that explains Dungeons & Dragons as the game where a 3-hour walk takes 5 minutes, but a 5-minute battle takes 3 hours? That sentence tells the difference between scene and summary.

Game mastering advice rarely talks about scene and summary because game masters tend to manage the two by feel. Mostly, feel works okay, but often not. Although scenes feature the game’s excitement, dull role-playing sessions start when a GM tries to make a scene from time that should pass in summary. On the other hand, a bad summary makes player feel rushed and railroaded.

Scene

In a role-playing game, scenes focus attention on the times when players fight a battle, talk to an non-player character, or search a chest for secret compartments. In a role-playing game session, scenes show all the action. During scenes, players make every decision for their characters. In combat scenes, game time expands so players can focus on small decisions and use the game rules to determine outcomes.

Summary

A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time. Summary speeds past the times when players travel a safe road, search a library, or collect a reward from a patron.

A good summary leaves players with a sense of passing events and with chances to pause and make decisions. During a summary, characters heal damage, tally and replenish resources, weigh their options, and make the choices that lead to the next scene.

When to run a scene

To start, a scene needs two ingredients: characters with a goal and an obstacle that stands in their way.

Goals

The classic D&D scene starts with the goal of treasure and the obstacle of a dragon. Sometimes, monsters attack and the party goal becomes to survive. (In those cases, especially, think about the monsters’ goal. See Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want.) The most interesting encounters often feature a goal different from kill all the monsters.

A goal needs enough stakes to merit a scene. If the party goes to the fletcher for arrows, the chance to save a few silver hardly calls for a negotiation scene.

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

When characters lack a goal and a GM launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering they are supposed to do. See A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.

Obstacles

The obstacle in a role playing scene comes from any NPC reluctant to help anyone who asks. For help creating the obstacles needed for compelling role-playing scenes, see 22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.

A true obstacle must bring a chance of failure. If players face a locked wooden door, but they have unlimited time and an axe, the door fails as an obstacle. On the other hand, if the crash of an axe into boards could bring monsters, players face a dilemma and the scene has an obstacle.

Exploration

When players explore, they have a goal—perhaps only find the treasure—but they may face unknown obstacles. The unseen hazards make the players’ choices important and make the exploration work as a scene. If a scene continues for too long with unknown obstacles, players may lose interest. Add a reminder of nearby peril. Perhaps strange sounds echo through the stones, or a chill passes the corridor.

In exploration, when no obstacles lurk nearby, the game master can rely on summary. “You look through all the rooms in the cellar and find a polished, black ring among the rubbish.”

Exposition

Sometimes game masters start a role-playing scene without a goal or obstacle because they want exposition. At the start of an adventure, players tolerate such scenes. The implied goal becomes, learn our goal. Scenarios often add a minor obstacle by introducing a patron who needs the right questions to provide extra help and information. However, such weak scenes typically work better in summary.

I used to make the mistake of trying to conclude adventures with a scene where characters meet their patron to collect payment and tie any loose ends. I learned that as a scene, denouements never hold attention. While players tally their loot, just summarize the medal ceremony.

Exception: Scenes that work as a reward

When a game master announces treasure, players tend to pay careful attention to their reward. Likewise, role-playing scenes that reward players with information can hold attention even when the scene lacks an obstacle. These scenes feature players with questions and a colorful NPC ready with answers. Crucially, these scenes still feature a goal. Players must want the information enough to have fought for it and won. Don’t dump unwanted backstory and call it a scene. See How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session.

When to do a summary

Whenever an game session lacks the ingredients for a scene, a goal and an obstacle, you can rely on summary. If you feel unsure about switching to a summary, ask the players. “Do you want to do anything special, or should we move forward?”

During a summary, as game time speeds along, players can feel like they lose some control over their character. Among other things, my next post will explain how to do a summary without making players feel like passengers on a railroad.

Next: Running Scenes and Summaries that Invite Choices and Reveal Characters

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.

How knowing the difference between a setting book and an adventure helps craft better adventures

What makes an adventure different from a setting book? Both start with maps, locations, and characters, but what extra ingredients turn a source book into an adventure? You might name story or plot as that essential extra bit, but early adventures lacked anything like a story. Many players favor adventures without plots, where you can enjoy as much freedom to play as a sandbox.

Not an adventure

Not an adventure

The fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “An adventure typically hinges on the successful completion of a quest.” The word “quest” adds some gravity to what could just be a search for loot, so I say “goal.”

Adventures start with a goal that leads to obstacles. The first dungeon adventures presents characters with the simple goal of retrieving treasure from the dungeon, and obstacles like monsters and traps that stand in the way. Forty years later, characters may chase other goals—they may never enter a dungeon, but the essential ingredients of goals and obstacles remain.

Even the most primitive D&D adventures assume the game’s default goal of gaining treasure to enhance your character’s power. The early game made this goal explicit by awarding characters experience points for treasure.

Setting books can include maps to explore, non-player characters to interact with, and perhaps even a monster lair, but without goals and obstacles, they fail to qualify as adventures.

The designers of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons focused their design on supporting three pillars of play: combat, exploration, and interaction. Adventure creators rarely struggle to create goals and obstacles for the combat and exploration pillars, but they often fail to properly support the interaction pillar.

A combat encounter features a built in goal—to survive—and ready obstacles, the monsters. Great combat encounters may feature more interesting goals, hazards, and traps, but no one ever built a combat encounter by pitting characters against butterflies and rainbows.

To support exploration, adventures pair maps with number keys. Adventure designers create maps for locations that players have a reason to explore and that presents obstacles. If the players decide buy horses, you do not need a map of the stables keyed with a description of what’s on the floor of each stall. Sometimes adventures include maps and keys for ordinary buildings with mundane contents, but most authors know better.

When adventure authors try to support interaction, they often falter. They devise non-player characters who the players have no reason to interact with—NPCs who do not fit a goal. See “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” They create NPCs who present no obstacle to the PCs’ progress. (Certainly a few NPCs can simply provide flavor or exposition, but most NPCs should do more.) NPCs best fit into an adventure when players encounter them in pursuit of a goal, and when they present some obstacle. By obstacle, I do not mean that NPCs must serve as creatures to fight. NPCs can act as obstacles in countless other ways.

But many adventures see print larded with NPCs that fail to support interaction. The authors devise rosters of colorful characters, but stop short of devising ways to put them in the paths of the PCs’ goals. Authors lavish text on some shopkeeper’s aspirations and home life just so he can sell rope.

For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen describes 22 NPCs who join the PCs on a two-month journey, but few of these NPCs entice the players to interact, and none act as obstacles. If I want to use any to “spice up the journey, or bring the trip to life,” I need to find ways to put them in scenes with the players. When I ran Hoard, I did this work. But designers Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur claimed a bit of my money while working as RPG designers—a dream job. I paid them to do the work for me. Instead they dumped a load of parts, and then left the work to me. Ironically, the dragon cultists on the same journey, who may serve as obstacles, get no description at all.

Not enough for interaction

Not enough for interaction

Adventure designers fail when they suppose that character descriptions alone provide enough basis for interaction. Like maps and monster stats, NPC descriptions cannot stand alone in an adventure. Scenes provide the true basis for interaction.

Scenes require at least one of these three elements: a goal, an obstacle, and a lead. The best have all three elements.

The goal for a scene stems from what the players think they can accomplish by meeting a non-player character. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Strike a deal with the troll to let you pass. Discover why the beggar keeps staring at the party. Whenever the players must persuade an NPC to provide help or information, they have a goal.

Scenes without goals begin when NPCs approach the PCs. These scenes can provide flavor or exposition. For example, the players may help a merchant who speaks of the ghost ship raiding the coast, or a beggar who explains how the wizard looks just like a legendary tyrant. Most scenes without a goal establish one when an NPC explains what they offer, and then what obstacles the PCs must overcome to gain cooperation.

If an NPC only provides flavor without advancing the PCs’ goals, the players may enjoy a brief interaction, but soon they will wonder why you judged the NPC worth bringing on stage. “Who is this guy? Did we miss something that should make us care?”

A scene’s simplest obstacle comes when players must devise the right questions to get information they need from a willing source. Greater obstacles appear whenever an NPC in a scene proves unwilling or unable to help. For more, see “22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.” Scenes without obstacles tend to play short. Once players get the bit of information or assistance they need, they tend to grow impatient, ready for the next challenge.

Even if an NPC helps the players, when a scene presents no obstacles, players will lose interest. If you devote too much time to colorful shopkeepers when the players just want gear, they will gripe. Perhaps not to you, but to me. I’ve heard them. A lack of obstacles means that an adventure’s denouement, where the PC’s patron grants treasure and ties up loose ends, never seems very compelling.

Most scenes end with at least one lead, some clue or item that directs the players to their next step. For example, a lead could be the identity of the burglar who stole the Casket of Wrath, or the key to the vault. The best scenes end with a choice of leads to follow.

Fourth edition Living Forgotten Realms adventures often supported interaction with scenes rather than just characters. The fifth-edition adventures I’ve seen lapse back to just listing NPCs. Why? I suspect the 5E designers associate scenes with railroading. They wish to break from the tight-plotting of 4E adventures, where players moved between encounter numbers 1-2-3, in order. Instead, they list characters, and so force me to give players a reason to meet them in scenes.

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

Scenes in the Living Forgotten Realms Adventure ELTU3-1 Good Intentions

The plots and NPCs in recent adventures like Hoard of the Dragon Queen and especially Murder in Baldur’s Gate show true ambition. I suspect the designers aimed for the role-playing equivalent of the n-body problem with the players and NPCs scheming, acting, and reacting in ways too dynamic for the constraints of scenes and encounters. So the authors delegate keeping track of all the threads to the dungeon master. We must become George R. R. Martin, except instead of getting years to hash out the details, we must improvise. To add to the challenge, these adventures still expect dungeon masters to adhere to an overall story, so I find myself choosing whether to use DM mind tricks to nudge the players back on course or to allow them to stray completely off text.  For me, the ambition of these adventures works better in scenarios I create, when I have a complete understanding of moving parts that I created. Published adventures work best when the DM can operate without mastery of entire storyline and its many, moving parts. They work best when they hold to encounters, locations, and scenes—with ample, meaningful choices for the players to choose a course from scene to scene.

Scenes do not contribute to railroading any more than dungeon walls. Railroading comes when adventures fail to offer players choices. If every scene ends with exactly one lead, then you have a railroad. If each scene ends with a few leads that offer interesting, meaningful choices, then you have adventure.

Related: For an example of my struggle to injecting more interaction into an adventure, see “What Murder In Baldur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing.”

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.