Tag Archives: Wolfgang Baur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What awful moral dilemma appears 8 times in this classic?

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

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

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

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

That’s the sort of choice that makes heroes.

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.

How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices

As a game master, my favorite moments during session come when I sit idle as the players’ debate the tough choices open to their characters. Each option balances hope with a price. All the options lead to consequences that will spin the game in a different direction. Watching these discussions, I know the game world has come alive. No one tries to metagame what they’re supposed to do. Later, when those same players wonder what might have happened if they had chosen the other path, I bask in that moment.

If players just wanted to follow a story, they could have read a book. In role-playing games, much of the players’ fun comes from making choices and then experiencing the consequences as the game spins into a new direction. A hard choice lets players reveal their characters, reminds players that they control their characters’ fates, and turns the game world into a vibrant place that reacts and changes.

Occasionally tough choices spring naturally from the twists of your game, but you can plan your game to pose more dilemmas for players.

What makes a good dilemma?

Dilemmas have consequences

Much of the fun of making game choices comes from seeing the effects. If the adventurers get a call for help from a fishing town threatened by raiders, the hard choice comes when they learn of a far more lucrative job: The cunning Lady Redblade wants a magical curiosity retrieved before her rivals can snatch it. When the curiosity proves to be a dangerous artifact, the hard choice comes when the players must decide whether to hand it over. Every GM can tell such choices matter, but the consequences must ripple into the game. If the players spurn the town, it burns (even if you prepared for a rescue session). If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies (even if your plot assumed she would remain an ally). If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Still, consequences don’t make a good game. If you put a dracolich behind door number 1 and a pile of +5 swords behind door 2, you just offered a choice with consequences. But your players will still drop out of your crummy game.

Dilemmas require information

Let's Make a DealIf you play Dungeons & Dragons long enough, you hear of a Monty Haul dungeon master who loads treasure on players. The name comes from the Monty Hall, host of a game show called Let’s Make a Deal. He handed out so much treasure that every bumblebee and Raggedy Ann left his studio with a vorpal sword. Sometimes, Monty offered contestants a choice of whatever lay behind three doors that concealed prizes ranging from a toilet plunger to a Chrysler Cordoba. Guess a door makes a dull decision, but Monty’s game entertained by creating dilemmas.

After a contestant picked door 1, but before revealing its prize, Monty might open door 2 to reveal the plunger. “Now,” he would ask, “Do you want to stay with door 1, or do you want to switch to door 3?” Monty added information to the choice and it grew interesting. (The reason you should always switch is fascinating.) Once the player picked door 3, Monty would offer a wad of cash in exchange for the unseen prize. Now players faced a dilemma.

Interesting choices start with information.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, the choice only merits a coin flip. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the thief a favor. Now the choice becomes interesting. Players can expect their choice to take the adventure on a different spin.

Menus of choices like these let players reveal their characters or steer the game toward their own preferences. I like offering such options near the end of each game session so I can prepare for the road ahead.

Dilemmas defy correct answers

Sorry Monty, but choices with one right answer don’t count as dilemmas.

Such choices might serve as puzzles. Suppose the PCs want to pursue the Dread Baron, but wonder whether to follow the low road or the high road. If they see he left his fur boots in his tower or if they find an invitation from Auntie Boil tied to a bird in the rookery, then they know which road to take.

Puzzles like this enhance your game, especially if you occasionally allow the players to miss the clues. Virtually every adventure spins clues and other leads into the threads that draw players along. But such clear answers only offer a choice between continuing the adventure or dropping out. If players know which road to take, they gain no sense of freedom.

In a dilemma, every option brings a price

In the choice between the high road and the low road, each option brings a price: The high road means calling a giant’s dept and hoping a he will honor it; the low road requires some wicked deed.

“To craft a good dilemma,” Wolfgang Baur advises, “Don’t give the players any good options.” (See “Dungeoncraft – Temptations and Dilemmas” in Dungeon issue 148.)

Clever players may still find good options—players relish the chance to crack an unsolvable problem, but you don’t need to hand them a solution. And definitely don’t hand them a fight. Usually, a good dilemma puts PCs between forces too strong for an assault. If you make Auntie Boil or those giants look like a problem that just needs a few smacks with a warhammer, you created skirmish rather than a dilemma.

Creating dilemmas

The limits of loyalty and time can easily create dilemmas for players.

As player characters gain in renown, powerful non-player characters will begin to request or demand their loyalty. If Lady Redblade and the Master of Eyes both want the players to retrieve the same magical curiosity, then the players choose more than an ally—they choose an enemy.

The limit of time can create many torturous dilemmas. The players must understand that accepting Lady Redblade’s job means risking that besieged town.

We DMs tend to offer quests with no particular urgency. This spares us from having to rework a mission because the game world moved on. The fishing town perpetually waits on the verge of doom until the players arrive to save it.

Sometimes though, time must force the players to choose which fires to fight. This does more than test the players. Such dilemmas make the game world seem like a dynamic place that moves and changes even when the PCs turn away.

Let’s Make a Deal

Suppose you know that the paladin in the party would never spurn the townsfolk for Lady Redblade’s bounty. Now you can play Let’s Make a Deal. The heart of Monty’s game came when he started counting off the hundred-dollar bills that he would exchange for whatever prize lay behind door number 3.

For the paladin’s help, the Lady can offer that magic sword he covets. “So armed, imagine the good you could do.” If she offers to send her own men to aid the town, will the party take her job? After closing a deal, what happens when the party learns that the man assigned to rescue the town is corrupt and possibly incompetent? Do you betray the Lady and your word, or do your leave the townsfolk to their uncertain fate?

Let players feel powerful sometimes

Don’t turn every decision into test of the characters’ limits. A few tough choices add to the game, but people also play to feel powerful enough to sweep away trouble with an stroke of the blade and a fireball. Read the mood of your players.

Still, even if you work to put players in dilemmas, hard choices can be hard to create. That’s what makes them so delicious.