Tag Archives: role playing

Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff

Before I wrote this post, I scoured the Internet for help encouraging Dungeons & Dragons players to role play.

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons players tell me of a session where no one rolled a die because everyone role played for the entire night. Imagine this: On a flight to Los Angeles, I gain a free upgrade to first class, get seated next to Deborah Ann Woll, spend the flight talking D&D, show the wood-grained first printing I scored at a garage sale on the way to the airport, and then get invited to sit in a super-secret Hollywood D&D game. Later, my story of the day still couldn’t capture the rapturous tone of the folks who tell me about their sessions of pure role-playing.

We all know that acting in character adds fun, but role playing enhances D&D for everyone at the table. Role playing heightens the drama and the humor. It raises the stakes by making goals, successes, and setbacks personal. It fosters relationships between characters.

I’ve never reached the pure rush of a session focused entirely on role playing. Perhaps I just favor a balance of combat and exploration with role playing. Perhaps I’ve never played with a group who threw themselves into character with enough zeal. Nonetheless, stories of dice-free sessions fill me with a sense of inadequacy. Could my dungeon master skills lack some essential quality that nurtures role playing?

Ready to improve my game, I turned to my stack of gamemaster guides and then to the Internet for advice. How do I encourage players to role play?

In Internet discussions, lots of gamers ask this question. Most of the replies offer weak advice. Some of the older discussions had recommendations for things now baked into fifth-edition D&D: Encourage players to develop backgrounds, ideals, and flaws for their characters. Offer benefits such as inspiration for good role playing.

Beyond this sound but conventional advice, many DMs suggested ways to pressure uncomfortable or uninterested players to role play. Don’t do that. Other DMs require written descriptions of character backgrounds. To most folks, a writing assignment will make role playing seem like a chore. The players who do enjoy the homework need no encouragement.

How else can a dungeon master encourage role playing?

Create ties between characters

Traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws provide a foundation for role playing a character, but these aspects miss an essential ingredient: a character’s relationship to rest of the party. In any book or movie featuring an ensemble, their interactions create the humor and drama. The group’s interplay reveals their personalities. By inventing relationships between their characters, players gain a way to role play among themselves.

When starting a new group of characters, ask each player to invent a reason their character feels loyalty, friendship, or trust toward another character at the table. Both players must negotiate so the connection suits their characters. Every player should invent a new bond so most characters feel tied to two others.

In the official D&D podcast, Shelly Mazzanoble remembered this exercise. “It forced us to find each other, to interact with each other. ‘I want to be connected to you. Here’s our story.’”

For even stronger interaction, have players invent a source of friction between their character and another. Unlike the strong, positive bonds of trust and loyalty, make these notes of discord relatively mild, even humorous. They should foster amusing banter, not genuine rancor.

Portray non-player characters as you want players to portray their characters

As a dungeon master, you set the style of interaction at your table. To encourage role playing, make your non-player characters come alive by portraying their tone, mannerism, and speaking patterns.

Even if you struggle with character voices, body language can make NPCs come alive. “Your physicality can completely change a character without having to do silly voices,” Matt Mercer explained on the DM’s Deep Dive. “If they’re more of a sly character, steeple your finders and drop your shoulders a bit and just sort of be that sly sneaky character. If they’re a welcoming persona, put your palms up in front of you in a very open and welcoming position and smile. These are all things that you don’t have to have any performing experience to do, but it really makes a difference in embodying an NPC and changing how your players perceive them. Even if you just shift your physicality a little bit, you’re players will know that you’ve become a different character in that scene.”

Speech patterns also make NPCs distinct. Recently I played at a table run by DM Brittany, and the way she portrayed an older, male character struck me. After a relating each fantastic or tragic event in a long tale, she deadpanned, in character, “Well, that happens.” Without a silly voice, she made the character memorable and amusing.

Ask “How would your character say that?”

Don’t pressure players into character, but when they say they persuade, intimidate, or otherwise interact, invite them to show how their character acts. “Gently try and remind them to respond in character,” Matt Mercer suggests. “Like ‘Great, how would Dermans ask that question to me, the jailer?’ Or ‘Sure, and as those angry thoughts fill her mind, how would Layla express that verbally?’”

Single out specific characters for interaction

When the entire party participates in a role-playing scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes players find themselves overshadowed by players with more forceful personalities. Singling out characters gives more players a solo. “Make direct eye contact,” Matt Mercer says. “Lean in and gesture, or point to them when asking a question of their character. Let them know that they are in the moment and that this is their moment to seize.”

Whenever you introduce NPCs, ask yourself if they would feel an affinity for a member of the party—especially one who deserves time in the spotlight. Perhaps the NPC and the character share a class, background, or allegiance. Have the NPC focus on the character who shares a kinship.

Your players develop characters with exciting qualities. Try introducing an NPC who appreciates one of these unique traits or who admires a character’s reputation. Such regard lends characters a sense of importance, keeps players engaged, and lets them bask in a little glory.

You can encourage more players to interact by making characters tackle separate role-playing scenes simultaneously. For instance, if the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute.

Have non-player characters ask personal questions

Rather than limiting interaction to persuasion and intimidation, let your NPCs indulge in a little small talk. Personal questions feel especially natural from a character who admires or feels kinship toward someone in the party. On the official D&D podcast, Matt Colville suggests, “Have an NPC ask a player an introspective question like, ‘Why are you a adventurer?’ or, ‘Why did you become a paladin?’ There’s nowhere on your character sheet where you can find the answer. You’ve got to come up with the answer in your head. It’s often the first time the player has ever wondered those things.”

I’m still working to improve my game. How do you encourage players to role play?

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

How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures For Good

When Dungeon issue 116 ranked the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God landed at number 19. Ed Greenwood summed the 1982 adventure as, “Detective work, hunting for villains, some monster-bashing, and a settlement detailed enough to use beyond the scripted adventure; a quiet little gem that has it all!”

The adventure’s creation began when Kevin Hendrix wrote an encounter with a reptile cult to serve as an episode in Len Lakofka’s adventure L1 The Secrets of Bone Hill (1981). Lakofka chose not to include the cult, so Hendrix began expanding the idea into a full adventure. In 1981, TSR layoffs claimed Hendrix’s job. The core concept and title reached Douglas Niles for completion. When the module saw print, TSR management felt wary of helping designers gain the clout of name recognition, so Hendrix, now an employee of Metagaming Concepts, received no author byline.

Tracy Hickman and his Dragonlance adventures get credit (and sometimes blame) for moving D&D from aimless dungeon crawls to a story focus. But N1 came first, and it includes a stronger narrative than any of TSRs’ earlier adventures. Niles explained, “I liked settings that allowed the characters to play out a story.” N1 features a story with rising tension and a climactic showdown, but the plot still turns on the players’ choices.

A 1983 review in Imagine issue 3 praised Against the Cult of the Reptile God and touted its “innovative touches.” What made N1 innovative?

Early town adventures tended to stumble

The original Dungeons & Dragons rules say that if a referee makes a map of a town close to the dungeons, “players can have adventures roaming around the bazaars, inns, taverns, shops, temples, and so on.” Because imaginary revelry offers scant fun, roaming town typically focused on shopping and gathering “rumors, information, and legends,” which “lead players into some form of activity or warn them of a coming event.”

Actual town adventures tended to stumble. Typically, the party visits the market and someone tries to haggle: Best case, one player saves a few coppers while everyone gets bored—even the shopper. Later, the players gripe about the tiresome D&D session when the dungeon master stubbornly limited players to shopping.

That’s the best case. Usually, a restless thief picks someone’s pockets, leading to party strife or to a confrontation with the city guard. Such trouble drove D&D designers to rename thieves to rogues. See Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.

In the worst case, the players realize the townsfolk have no chance against a band of experienced killers, leading to murder and looting. See Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.

The gulf between towns and the sites of adventure

When Gary Gygax wrote T1 Village of Hommlet (1979), he prepared for the worst case. Gygax lists the treasure found in shops and homes, and then discourages looting by inventing a social network able to punish murder hobos.

Gary populated Hommlet with colorful characters who might foster role playing, but I suspect most groups paid them little notice. The real action lay in the Moathouse, because for most players, the heart of D&D lies in crushing evil and winning treasure, not necessarily in that order. In town, evil keeps hidden and gold belongs to a rightful owner.

Unless some goal drives players to talk to villagers, most players have nothing to discuss. In D&D, as in fiction, the really interesting action happens when the characters have both an objective and an obstacle that stands in their way. See A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.

After Gygax, other D&D authors tried to connect towns to adventure. L1 The Secrets of Bone Hill provided another home base. U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh suggests that some villagers might be involved with the sinister events at a haunted house, but leaves creating the town as homework for the DM. When I played U1, the DM dropped us at the door to the haunted house and Saltmarsh remained unseen.

N1 entwined a town into the adventure

In Against the Cult of the Reptile God, the characters investigate disappearances in the village of Orlane. Fear and suspicion grips much of the town, while other folk behave oddly. Players need to interact with townsfolk to solve the mystery. A wrong move in town could bring peril.

To modern players, the setup may seem conventional, but N1 became the first D&D scenario to feature an investigation and to bring adventure into town. Before Against the Cult of the Reptile God, a gulf separated towns from the wilderness and dungeons that offered adventure. Until N1 bridged that gap, players found little reason to interact with townsfolk.

Lesson: To capture players interest in role-playing, pair colorful NPCs with a goal that invites interaction.

N1 introduced the event-based adventure

Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or of adjacent hexes. See Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon.

N1 introduced an event-based scenario where active NPCs affect the course of adventure. The 1983 review spotted the change. “A noteworthy feature is that the unknown adversaries do not tamely wait for the players to come and get them. They are active.” In Orlane, the kidnappings continue as time passes. Party members can even be abducted and compelled to spy for the cult.

This advance marked another milestone. Before Against the Cult of the Reptile God, when players weren’t watching, non-player characters only did one thing: They refilled dungeon rooms emptied by adventurers. In N1, even if the players do nothing, things still happen.

As in one of pulp fantasies that inspired D&D, the sinister events in Orlane lead to a rising sense of peril. Tension increased toward a climax.

Lesson: To make the villains come alive, let them act offstage, and then show their actions in the game world.

Making the most of N1 today

Early D&D adventures like Against the Cult of the Reptile God can still work with today’s rules. Just replace the printed monster stats with numbers from the fifth-edition Monster Manual.

Against the Cult of the Reptile God plays best when the its tension builds over days of game time. To get a sense of passing days, characters need to keep busy. If they focus on rooting out the cult, they tend to solve the mystery before pressure rises. To work best, develop the events of N1 alongside a second adventure that can dominate the characters’ attention. For example, while the PCs make a few forays to the Caves of Chaos, let the disappearances and weirdness in Orlane reach a boiling point. The Encounters-program adventure Against the Cult of Chaos (2013) took exactly this approach by combining elements of N1 with T1 Village of Hommlet and B2 Keep on the Borderlands (1981).

Some critics fault N1 for requiring a 1st-through-3rd-level party to ally with a 7th-level wizard for the final showdown with the cult’s “reptile god.” The wizard overshadows the PCs, but without the ally, the party may die to a single fireball. The adventure itself suggests a solution: Have the wizard give the party a scroll of Globe of Invulnerability for protection during the showdown. Make the elderly wizard too frail to venture into the swamp, but let his familiar guide the party. For more on the risks and benefits of allies, see The Surprising Benefits of Giving and Adventuring Party a Guide.

Among the greatest adventures

Based on quality, N1 merits the standing, but based on achievements, I might rate it higher. N1 set two milestones for published D&D adventures. Thirty-five years later, it still offers lessons to dungeon masters.

The surprising benefits of giving an adventuring party a guide

When I started gaming, people tended to play Dungeons & Dragons with larger parties than now. When game session fell short of 8 or more players, dungeon masters often added their own character to fill the group. To me, the practice seemed dodgy. The spotlight belongs on the player characters. The players’ choices steer the adventure; their characters’ actions create the story.

Now, DMs never add their player characters to the party, but sometimes they get the same kicks by adding a pet NPC. These game-world Mary Sues let game masters indulge in wish fulfillment. They turn other NPCs into admirers and turn PCs into sidekicks. (Aaron at RPG Musings tells how to spot at pet NPC.)

Over my career as a DM, I’ve read countless how-to-DM guides. They all warn against letting non-player characters overshadow the PCs. I read this advice and probably shared a typical reaction: No duh. I never felt tempted to create a pet NPC, but I never even created an NPC who traveled with the players.

Lately, I have run some adventures that added NPCs to the party. To my surprise, the additions worked. They enhanced the game.

Out of the Abyss begins with the new PCs held captive. They meet other several other prisoners, and everyone joins in an escape. The PCs and NPCs find themselves deep in the Underdark, traveling together for as long as their paths overlap.

As the adventure progressed, NPCs left the group, leaving a pair traveling companions: Jim Jar, the gambling deep gnome, and Sprout, the young Myconid. I started to see them enrich the game. The ongoing characters became more vivid than the usual walk-on NPCs. The players enjoyed interacting with them. Players never care about the NPCs they meet in passing, but now they became emotionally attached to a silent mushroom boy.

Plus, the traveling NPCs served as guides. Most D&D players feel at home in a fantasy setting, but the Underdark should seem alien. The party’s Underdark natives helped me reveal the strange environment. They could give background information and show the way.

Walk-on NPCs could have met the party and dispensed information, but having a guide creates a certain economy. The players don’t need to keep meeting characters they never see again. Instead, the guides save time while they build bonds.

The adventure Cloud Giant’s Bargain also adds an NPC who guides the players. This adventure takes place in a typical (for D&D), flying castle, so its guide doesn’t help introduce the background. But this adventure aims to introduce D&D to new players, so instructor Tulahk guides novices through the adventure. He reminds players to do the sneaking, investigating, and diplomacy that will lead to success. Plus, Tulahk is crabby, talking skull, so when I ran the adventure, I had fun channeling J. Jonah Jameson while calling the PCs empty-headed boneheads and numskulls.

Despite the advantages of giving a party an NPC guide, only add them when they serve a role. And then keep the guide out of the spotlight.

To prevent a NPC from stealing the spotlight, follow two principles:

A guide can’t make decisions for the party. Either create a guide with little interest in the party’s goal, or make the guide too young, too foolish, or too weird to direct the party. Ed Greenwood prevented his NPC wizard Elminster from overshadowing players by making him eccentric. “I never wanted Elminster to be anything more than the ‘old storyteller’ figure,” Greenwood said. “He was the mind-wandering, irritatingly whimsical old man who could OCCASIONALLY be of help to PCs.”

The players must prove more capable than their guide. Tolkien understood the risks of letting a powerful figure upstage his main characters. He kept contriving to have Gandalf leave for important business elsewhere. If a guide reveals more power than than the PCs, the players will wonder why they showed up. On the other hand, if you mix in NPCs who the players can upstage, and who admire the PC’s exploits, the PCs shine even brighter.

What game masters (and their monsters) should say during a combat encounter

defending_against_frost_giantsDuring a combat encounters, I focus on keeping play moving. A faster tempo means players spend less time waiting between turns. Waiting never adds fun.

Despite my focus on tempo, I do more than count initiative and tell players when they hit. I try to describe enough of the action to make the scene vivid. I speak for the villains. Still, I worry that some player will think, Quit blabbing so I can take my turn, so I aim to add color without slowing the game.

In combat encounters, my monsters and I talk about three sorts of things:

1. Villainous monologues

Speaking dialog for your villains transforms them from bags of hit points into enemies. In comics, villains mock the fools that oppose them, and we hate them for their contempt, arrogance, and cruelty. Some of the fun Dungeons & Dragons comes from crushing evil. Good dialog makes your villains seem more real, more detestable, and more satisfying to crush.

Also, I reveal the monsters’ tactics through dialog. The ogre might say, “You hurt Grug, so I smash you.” The necromancer might say, “Barbarian, I have just the enchantment for weak-willed cretins like you.” This reframes the battle from the us verses the game master into us verses the monsters. I want players invested in their characters, but when I single out their character for attack, sometime it feels personal. If the monsters explain themselves, the GM starts to disappear.

2. Summary

At the end of a turn, if a PC does something noteworthy, give a short, vivid description of the event—or invite the player to describe it. Some GMs ask players to describe their kills. D&D includes a lot of kills, so for my taste, describing them all becomes tiresome and too gruesome. Especially with kids at the table. Especially when those kids loose their imaginations. Instead, focus on describing the big spells, stunts, transformations, setbacks, and feats of valor. The summary should only take a few seconds.

3. Urgency and exigency

After the summary, call the next player to act, and then tell them the biggest crisis on the battlefield. This advice comes from the Angry GM. “A player’s turn in combat needs to have both urgency (there’s an emergency that needs to be dealt with) and exigency (if you don’t take action right now, you will lose your opportunity). That’s what makes combat scary and that’s what keeps it running forward.” For example, say “Agnes, the wolves have knocked Kedric to the ground and look ready to gut him. What do you do?” Such transitions call the player to attention, focus them on the game, and increase their sense of urgency.

4. Exposition

Screenwriters cannot pad a movie fight scene with dialog without strangling the pace. But in a role-playing game, you can fit dialog into a fight. If you want to compare RPG fight scenes to another medium, compare them to comics. In comic-book fights, battles stretch time. I’ve seen Captain America deliver 50 words on freedom in the span of a single punch.

Similarly, I’ve seen D&D players squeeze a 5-minute strategy conference into a 6-second round. (If the players enjoy tactics and they’re not just telling the new player what to do, I just assume that yesterday, at the campfire, the PCs planned tactics for situations like this.)

Most adventures need some exposition: essential information needed to make sense of events, or clues the that lead to the next scene. Sometimes all GMs find themselves relaying some essential bit of background while the players grow impatient. Their expressions say, “Blah, blah, blah. Just tell us what to kill.”

Why not add exposition while the players know what to kill? You never have a better hold on their attention. Unlike in a movie, your villains can monologue during a fight, revealing their history, exposing their plans, and so on. “My father defeated the demon Chirix to win that staff, you shall not have it.” Just don’t recite more than a few lines at a time, stalling play. The players might allow themselves a 5-minute strategy conference, but your villain cannot unfold a page and say, “As a free action, I would like to read a statement.”

Do as a I say and try to do

I have a confession to make. I aim to enhance all my fights with colorful dialog and descriptions, but sometimes I lose myself in the business of keeping the turns moving and planning my monsters’ next move. If you ever happen to find a seat at my game table, you’ll see how well I’m doing.

When you serve as game master during a combat encounter, what do you say?

Never split the party—except when it adds fun

Everyone who plays role-playing games learns the Dungeons & Dragons adage never split the party.

In the hobby’s early days, when dungeon masters were referees and players chose difficulty by dungeon level, never splitting the party always made good strategy. Parties found safety in numbers.

defending-the-bridgeThe danger of splitting the party

In a dungeon stocked with encounters suited for a full party, splitting the party jeopardizes everyone. But despite the adage, players sometimes find reasons to split the party. New players and kids always seem tempted.

Faced with a divided group, some dungeon masters will scale the challenges for smaller groups. Typically, I don’t. I usually only shrink the challenges for those new players and kids.

Experienced players who split up know they’re taking an extra risk. They feel a sense of jeopardy that the usual game can’t match. They use stealth and cunning in ways they might not with a full group, when they assume they can defeat any monsters set before them. I don’t want to lose that sense of peril, or to block their chance to approach the game differently. In a way, adjusting threats steals the players’ agency by nullifying the consequences of their actions.

Why split the party?

In today’s game, player characters do more than assault dungeons. Sometimes the elf and wizard must persuade the elven emissary, the thief and warlock need to infiltrate a manor house, and the bard and noble paladin need to charm guests at a ball. They could work better separately, but players insist on keeping the party together. So the dwarf insults the emissary, the paladin’s chainmail racket alerts the manor guards, and a motley band of killers sours the ball. Then midnight tolls and evil triumphs.

Game masters often avoid challenges suited to split parties, but I invite them. Sometimes I relish a chance to split a party.

Splitting the party can give soft-spoken players a chance in the spotlight. Player characters gain unique chances to reveal their character’s personality and talents.

Way back in a post on skill challenges, I suggested using time pressure to force each PC to participate. “If the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute.” Formal skill challenges are gone, but forcing a party to divide and conquer still invites everyone to contribute.

One limitation of role-playing games is that even when the entire party participates in a role-playing scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes players find themselves overshadowed by players with more forceful personalities. Splitting the party gives more players a solo. Meanwhile, the thief finally gets to sneak. The wizard finally gets to cast Sending.

If done well, splitting the party creates more spotlight time for every player at the table. More on that later.

Why keep everyone together?

Never split the party started as good strategy, but now it feels like part of the game’s social contract. Even when splitting the party seems logical, players keep the group together for three metagame reasons.

1. Players fear encounters designed for a full party.

Players expect combat encounters designed to challenge a group of 4 to 7 characters. If they split up before a fight erupts, then an undermanned party becomes overmatched.

But that happens less often that you think, because you, as a game master, see the situations that invite splitting the party and can plan challenges for smaller groups.

2. Players stay together as a courtesy to the game master.

By staying together, players avoid forcing the GM to juggle two separate narratives.

For the GM, balancing two threads can be fun—in the right situation. For a split to work, either (1) it cannot take more time than the idle players need to grab a snack, or (2) each subgroup needs to meet separate challenges. You can’t leave half of the party inactive for more than 5 minutes.

So the trick of handling a split party comes from devising situations that keep each part of the group busy. If someone goes to scout while the party rests, either the scouting should be finish by the time the idle players grab a drink, or something better stumble into the campsite.

3. Players stay together to keep everyone involved in the action.

A split party inevitably forces some players to wait until the spotlight returns to them. To minimize the problem of downtime, use two techniques.

Cut between scenes

Cut from one group to the next every 2-4 minutes. Some GMs advise setting a timer for about 4 minutes. If you tend to lose track, then a timer helps, but I prefer to use my own sense of time and pacing to switch scenes.

Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the GM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. While players debate their next move, I cut to the other half of the table. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Instead of waiting for decisions, I can give more players time in the spotlight. The tempo of the game feels faster.

If I can’t switch scenes on a decision point, I switch on a moment of tension, ideally a cliffhanger.

Delegate the monsters to the idle players

Depending on your players’ dispositions, you might recruit idle players to run monsters in a battle. This works especially well in a simple fight where you expect the PCs to win. If the foes bring complicated abilities or motives, or if their power threatens to slay characters, I would avoid giving up control. When a GM kills a character, it comes in the line of duty, but a player should not take the heat for killing a PC.

If half the party lands in a fight, then the split plays best if the other half finds a battle too. You can run two fights on two maps with the same initiative count.

If you run simultaneous fights and let the players run the monsters, then you can leave the room for a drink. Your greatest GM triumphs often come when you have nothing to do.

Game master Rich Howard goes beyond letting players run foes. He casts idle players as the non-player characters who interact with the rest of the party. I admire the approach, but I feel unready to surrender so much of the game world.

Splitting the room

Even when you split a party, players tend to remain at the same table. This lets inactive players watch the story and lets the GM switch easily from one subgroup to another.

While sharing a table, the spectators learn things that their characters don’t. Most players take it as a point of honor not to use their unearned knowledge. If not, remind them to play in character based on what their character knows.

Separating players to different rooms can add fun though. No player has access to hidden information, so decisions become more interesting. Everyone feels an added sense of peril and concern for their missing comrades.

If you do separate players, you still need to switch groups every 2-4 minutes, so the groups should be as near as the kitchen and the dining room. Make the separation temporary. Your players came to play together.

Back when phones featured dials, I would separate players to sow suspicion about what other party members could be plotting. This fit the early game, when players betrayed each other for loot. Now such mind games only fit Paranoia sessions. Now I insist that my D&D players contrive reasons to cooperate.

Split the party

So split the party. For a GM running a divided party, the second hardest trick comes from finding situations where all the subgroups remain engaged. The hardest trick? Encouraging the players defy protocol and split up when splitting makes sense.

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.

Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons worlds seem split in two. In the towns and hamlets, players exercise charm and guile. In dungeons and lairs, every creature attacks on sight and battles continue to the death.

When TSR printed Dungeon magazine, the most common room description must have included a passage like this: “The room has five orcs. They attack immediately!”

I remember when every dungeon denizen attacked because they were monsters in a dungeon. Over time, adventure writers came to assume the they-attack part. Even modern adventures often assume, because what else? Since when do creatures or adventurers in dungeons want to talk?baba lysagas hut

Sometimes, players in role-playing games choose to role play in the oddest situations. I know. They surprise us all.

Sometimes the author of an adventure adds a routine fight, complete with an implied “they attack immediately.” But at the table, the players decide to talk. So I say “yes” instead of “roll initiative.” I scramble to improvise an interesting scene that challenges the players without handing them the keys to the dungeon. And I think unkind shots about an author who failed to account for role playing. Yes, some of the fun of being a dungeon master comes from making stuff up. Nonetheless, am I wrong to think that perhaps the adventure’s author could come up with something better? Am I wrong to ask the author to inspire me?

In your home game, if you assume a monster exists to attack immediately, you can’t annoy me, but you might miss a chance to create a more interesting encounter.

If heroes and monsters decide to stake their lives on a fight over a 10-foot room, both sides need a reason. The players decide for their heroes, but you choose for the monsters.

Spend a moment thinking about what your monsters want. Often they just hate all that live, or they thirst for blood, or they want to fatten children for dinner. That’s okay. If you have a combat-focused game, players seldom look for more.

If inspiration finds you, the monsters motives may surprise you. If goblins stand watch for the tribe, why would they fight to the death? They might run as the players spot them. Now the players face a dilemma. Give chase and risk blundering into a trap, continue carefully and risk a prepared foe, or find another route? What if the monsters try to negotiate to save their skin? Do the players trust them? Perhaps the orcs are only raiding because they want to retrieve a lost totem. Do the characters help the orcs, perhaps stopping the raids? Or do the PCs just destroy one war band of many? You can create an extra dimension by imagining monsters that want something unexpected, perhaps even noble.

When you understand what your monsters want, fewer encounters end with one side dead. Encounters may end—or start—with monsters fleeing or bargaining. If the players all drop, and you know the monsters intentions, you may see a way to fail forward. (I recommend Sly Flourish’s post Failing Forward on a Banshee TPK.) Fewer encounters turn into grinds. More develop into interesting choices.

4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s

The media keeps telling us how we, the geeks, have won popular culture. Golfers chat about Game of Thrones at the country club. A minister I know boasted that she was a member of her high school Dungeons & Dragons club. The Return of the King won best picture. Fan culture is everywhere. So we forget that in the early days, when D&D burgeoned by word-of-mouth, no one had seen anything like it.

Of course, little in D&D stands as completely new. The book Playing at the World devotes hundreds pages exploring threads of influence. But in the 70s, unless you joined a tiny cult of miniature gamers interested in fantasy, you would have never seen the game coming. Unless you followed a few, obscure genre authors, you would never have seen anything like it. You shared popular assumptions that D&D would explode.

1. Fantasy is for children and a few oddballs.

Forget the The Lord of the Rings, and then name a work of fantasy that was widely known before D&D. Anything you name is a fairytale or fable—something for children. Conan? He’s a comic book character. Every grown up knows comics are for children. Now consider The Lord of the Rings. It enjoyed enough popularity to get cited by Led Zeppelin and some other long hairs, but when Hollywood tried to trade on its popularity, they added musical numbers. Hollywood did not think they could reach a big enough audience of oddballs, so they adapted for children.

In making the 1978 movie Superman, the producers needed adults to see a movie about what they saw as a children’s character. Imagine marketing a Thomas the Tank Engine film to adults. To free grown ups from the embarrassment of buying tickets, they gave a fortune to Important Actor Marlon Brando. For 15 minutes of screen time, Brando received $3.7 million up front, plus 11.75% of the film’s take, right off the top. The film’s marketing rested heavily on the actor’s performance. All so grown ups could gain an excuse to see the movie on date night.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N. A game where trolls lived in dungeons and refused to die. The original Monster Manual revealed beholders, mind flayers, chromatic dragons and countless other dreadful wonders that filled me with excitement.

The public’s unfamiliarity with fantasy contributed to the panic that surrounded D&D in the 80s. God fearing adults saw their teenagers obsessed with spells and children’s fairy tale nonsense, but darker and more violent. They settled on the only logical explanation, demon worship, because the culprit could not possibly be a really fun game.

Meanwhile, I worked to find the books named in The Dragon’s Giants in the Earth column and later in Appendix N. I found none. Admittedly, I suffered the disadvantage of shopping from a mall bookstore. I knew nothing of used book stores or inter-library loan. Nonetheless, few of Gary’s inspirations remained in print. Today, fantasy books of all stripes crowd the shelves. Then, I took years to collect the books that inspired the game.

2. Games are terrible.

In the 70s, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. The winner becomes obvious long before the end, yet they took forever to finish. Games covered prosaic subjects like Life and Payday, or financial wish-fulfillment like Monopoly or, well, Payday. Still, I liked games enough that I even played terrible ones endlessly. (Except, of course, for Monopoly, which I suspect Hasbro makes to convince millions that games are tedious. I cannot fathom their plot’s endgame.) My standards were so low that I liked the 1974 game Prize Property where you launched legal actions against your opponents to stall their building developments. Legal actions. The box claimed fun for ages 9 and up.

People suffered from narrow ideas about what a game could be. Someone wins, someone loses, the game never extends past the board and never continues after you close the box.

Before I saw D&D, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. Working from a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch, I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetSo in a mere 48 pages, the Holmes Basic D&D rule book shattered my notion of what a game could be.

Later, when I described the new game, everyone asked the same questions: “How do you win?” and then, “if you can’t win, what’s the point?” Everyone struggled to grasp the notion that you played to have fun without any chance of winning. For more, see “But how do you win?

3. Adults cannot play act a role.

People sometimes say that D&D did not invent the role-playing game. Kids have always role played; we just called it make believe. Saying that D&D just brought make believe to adults misses the true innovations. The revolution came from playing a character with stats that carried to the next session, and from the idea that characters gained experience and improved. In Playing at the World, while describing D&D’s reception, Jon Peterson shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players. The combination proved so compelling that just about every computer role-playing game borrows it.

For more, see “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”

Meanwhile, parents feared that playing a role in D&D would lead their children to confuse fantasy with reality. After all, wasn’t anyone old enough for such a complicated game too old for make believe? Kids talked about being a wizard or a thief and responsible citizens worried that kids believed it. The D&D panic stemmed as much from this unfamiliar blurring of reality as from spells and demons.

4. Dungeons are just medieval jails.

Zombies and vampires appear everywhere in popular culture. Both archetypes seem medieval, but the popular conception of zombies only dates back to George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.

The concept of a dungeon as an underground sprawl with monsters and treasures, is even newer.

In the fantasies that inspired the game, no character explores a dungeon. At best, you can find elements of the dungeon crawl, such as treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, traps in a Conan yarn, and so on.

Now, the dungeon adventure qualifies as a trope that appears in virtually every computer fantasy game.

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

In my world before D&D, games gave the fun of launching legal action against fellow real estate developers. When I opened the basic rules, I could brave the peril and mystery of the dungeon shown in the Stone Mountain cross section. Still today, no image inspires my enthusiasm to play as much. I jumped from property law to Greyhawk.

For more, see “From Blackmoor to Dungeons & Dragons: The invention of the dungeon crawl.”

By the end of the 70s, fandom had yet to dominate popular culture, but Star Wars and Superman and Dungeons & Dragons had established a beachhead. The gains would only continue.

For me, the 48 pages of the 1977 Basic Set did more than introduce the best game in the world, those pages turned some of what I understood upside down.

My first impression of inspiration proved wrong

In an earlier post, I leveled criticism toward the inspiration mechanic based on Mike Mearls’s preview in “Roleplaying in D&D Next.” I listed two gripes:

  • Awarding inspiration seemed to put the dungeon master in an uncomfortable role. Mearls wrote about awarding inspiration for “describing your action in an interesting way, acting out your character’s dialogue, or otherwise helping to bring the game to life by adding some panache to your play.” All this made inspiration seem like an award for showmanship. As a DM, I have enough to do without adopting the role of some sort of competition judge who rates players’ panache.
  • Inspiration seemed like a distracting, metagame intrusion. The preview suggested  inspiration would be awarded frequently, and said it faded quickly (no longer true). This painted inspiration as a common distraction. You could spend inspiration, bank for later, or pass on to another player (still true). This painted inspiration as a gamey resource that represented nothing in the game world. Such dissociated mechanics force attention away from the characters’ world and prevent players from making choices while immersed in character.

When I read the actual rules, I realized that the inspiration mechanic revives action points, a mechanic I have enjoyed. My harsh judgements were wrong. The preview mislead me, and the sun got in my eyes.

Inspiration is exactly like action points, except (1) with a different name, (2) with a different purpose, and (3) without points. Perhaps I should explain.

The action point entered the D&D game in the Eberron Campaign Setting as a bit of genre emulation. According to the campaign guide, “The setting combines traditional medieval D&D fantasy with swashbuckling action and dark adventure.

“To help capture the cinematic nature of the swordplay and spellcasting, we’re added action points to the rules mix. This spendable, limited resource allows players to alter the outcome of dramatic situations and have their characters accomplish the seemingly impossible.” (p.9)

Characters in Eberron started with a bank of 5 action point that they could spend to kick d20 rolls with an extra d6. In theory, this meager bonus enables characters to accomplish the impossible. In practice, it adds a resource that forces players out of character.

The fourth-edition designers chose to keep action points, but they no longer needed to emulate Indiana Jones in D&D. In 4E, action points became an incentive aimed at discouraging the 15-minute adventuring day. Presumably, players would look ahead to a fresh action points and decide to press on to their next encounter, rather than resting to regain powers, hit points, and, well, action points. To sweeten the incentive, and to keep “action” in the name, action points now granted an extra action.

While action points failed to quash the 15-minute day, they proved fun for players. The additional action provides a more precious benefit than a mere d6 boost. They remain a gamey resource that you cannot manage while immersed in character. But with a mechanic as innocuous as action points, the drawback seems light enough. You need not step out of character for long.

Many aspects of the fourth edition design brought unintended consequences. For example, the fourth-edition design suffered from the unintended consequence of costing most of its designers and planners their jobs at Wizards of the Coast. (Too soon?)

Fourth-edition action points often turned climactic encounters into one turn of nova attacks followed by slow grinds against crippled enemies. This came because action points allowed characters to double their opening salvos of daily and encounter powers, multiplying the potency of their first turns. By the time a guy like Juiblex, demon lord of slimes and oozes, gets a chance to act, he’s prone, immobilized, dazed, suffering -4 to all attacks, and has his pants around his ankles. (In fourth edition, even oozes are subject to the pants-round-ankles condition.) See “As a player, I enjoy action points, so why do I dislike them as a dungeon master?

So fifth edition scrapped action points.

Meanwhile, the 5E designers worked to improve the role-playing pillar of D&D. They started by inviting players to flesh out characters with a bond and a flaw. “Your bonds are your character’s ties to the world, people, places, or things that are meaningful to your character in some way,” Mearls previewed. “Your flaws are your character’s weaknesses.”

Neither bonds nor flaws count as new to role playing. In games like Champions (1981) and GURPS (1986), you can give your characters flaws and bonds too. Adopting such disadvantages buys points that you can use to strengthen your character in other ways.

The 5E designers may have considered character-creation rewards for bonds and flaws, but once you reap any character-creation benefits, nothing in play encourages you to hold to your liabilities. So instead of adding incentives to character creation, they added an incentive to bring bonds and flaws into play.

In a Ready, Set, Play seminar, Designer Rodney Thompson explained, “Whenever you allow your flaw or your bond to impact your character negatively, maybe by making a decision that isn’t so great for the party but totally is in keeping with your characters flaw, the dungeon master can award you inspiration. And basically this is a reward that the DM can give you to say, hey, you have roleplayed out your character’s flaw even though it may not have been the best and most optimal decision. Here’s your reward in the form of inspiration.”

Although Mike Mearls may award inspiration for panache, I feel more comfortable for Rodney Thompson’s more objective standard. If following your character’s weaknesses drives you into a worse situation, then you gain inspiration. I can spot those situations and feel good about rewarding them.

Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

Inspiration shares a lot with action points. Like the Eberron points, players trade inspiration to boost a die roll. Like the 4E points, inspiration bribes players to do things that improve play. Since inspiration neither supports “swashbuckling action” nor grants additional actions, the “action” had to go.

The term “points” goes too. Unlike action points, inspiration doesn’t come in points. Inspiration works more like a status; your character can have the inspired status or not. Once you spend your inspiration, you have to earn it again. The terminology helps show that your character cannot have more than one inspiration to spend.

As a status, inspiration even gains a gloss of game-world association. Mearls wrote, “By demonstrating that the events in the game are critical to your character’s goals and beliefs, you can allow your character to tap into reserves of energy and determination to carry the day.” By acting true to themselves, characters become inspired without a word from the bard. Mearls even explained how a transfer of inspiration could work in the game world. “In this case, your character’s determination serves as an inspiration for the other party members.”

Only one problem remains. When a character’s flaws drive a player to make suboptimal decisions, the player gains inspiration. But D&D works as a game of teamwork. Often the rest of the party suffers for one character’s bad choice. Sometimes, only the rest of the party suffers. See “Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.”

I’ve seen no end to problems created by players who make choices that cause grief for the other players. “Because that’s what my character would do,” they explain. I hate hearing “that’s what my character would do” as a form of apology. No one explains what their character would do when they don’t screw the party. As a game master, I feel no urge to reward grief with an incentive.

The D&D designers thought of this aspect too. Rodney Thompson explains, “Maybe you did something that the other players at the table weren’t super thrilled about, but you can give them that inspiration as a way of saying sorry.”

The next time I reward inspiration for a choice that caused trouble for the party, I will ask the player to pass the inspiration to another player for a key roll.

As a player, how can you gain the most from inspiration? I suggest saving inspiration for critical saving throws against things like the dragon’s breath or the lich’s disintegrate spell. Also, remember that a single advantage from inspiration can cancel any number of disadvantages, so use inspiration when the odds are stacked against you.

The D&D fifth edition Basic Rules Introduction

The toughest part of writing the core rules for a role-playing game comes on page one, when duty and tradition force the author to describe how to play a role-playing game. When you sit at a table and see a RPG played, it makes sense, but try describing the activity to someone who has only seen chess and Monopoly.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Quest The Introduction to Role-Playing Games

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Quest – The Introduction to Role-Playing Games

Although most new players enter the RPG hobby through Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D books tended to do the worst job on explaining role playing. In the brown books, Gary Gygax did not even bother. In the first basic game, J. Eric Holmes devotes two paragraphs to convincing you to play and to shop for more TSR products. The original game had to spread gamer to gamer, like the best con crud ever. Since then, the how-to-play section in D&D has gone something like this: “Players, you create a character. Dungeon masters, you create a dungeon. Now read this long glossary.” Other games work a bit harder, typically by making some comparisons to children’s make believe and then replacing the glossary with an explanation of funny dice. Among D&D releases, the second edition First Quest box does the best of explaining the game. Third edition consciously delegated the chore to the starter set, which offered a offered a programmed adventure rather than an explanation.

The Introduction in the D&D’s fifth edition Basic Rules does a far better job of describing how to play a tabletop role-playing game than any other introduction I’ve seen. This is the Mona Lisa, Beethoven’s ninth, and Die Hard of the seldom appreciated-genre of “How to play an RPG.” Instead of dumping a two-thousand word example of play, this introduction explains the game with a couple of concise examples. Instead of “create a character and then tell the DM what you want to do,” the “How to Play” section explains play in three numbered steps. At last, a D&D writer thinks like technical writer to help players.

The introduction explains, “There’s no winning and losing in Dungeons & Dragons.” To gamers who grew up immersed in World of Warcraft and Minecraft, this may seem like an odd point to make. In the late 70s, when I started playing, the the first question folks asked me about D&D was, “How do you win?” Back then, a game had to be a competition. If a game failed to produce a winner and a loser, what was the point? Such questions, more than anything else, reveal the gulf between now and how people thought of games in 1974. Such questions show just how revolutionary D&D was. For more, see “But how do you win?

Now, almost everyone has seen a video game where you play a character and finish rather than win. Virtually every computer game owes a debt to D&D. Almost everyone has seen D&D played on The Big Bang Theory or Community or in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. We hardly need an introduction this good. But they could really use it in 1974.

Three more observations:

  • The “Worlds of Adventure” section seems like a nod toward the strategy that elevates D&D from a mere tabletop role-playing game to a multi-platform brand for stories and worlds. You may grumble, but we can credit this effort to sell D&D as a brand for the resources and patience Hasbro has granted to developing the fifth edition.
  • The “Game Dice” section explains how to roll a d100. Fourth edition eliminated percentile dice, but apparently they make a return in fifth.
  • Even pages of the basic rules are labeled V0.1, while odd pages are 1.0. This means that if you want to play the official game, you can only use rules on odd pages.