Telling a Story in D&D
Another week, another Twitter drama.
The TTRPG Twitter space has become so unhinged that people can express opinions that have been around for decades and it’s taken as something innovative and new. There is a real blindness coming over the discourse and it’s making it increasingly challenging to have real conversations about design issues.
This week it was a variation on the fudging / DM Fiat discourse.
It started when it was revealed by Daniel Kwan that he takes a particular approach to dealing with adversaries in combat, specifically that opponents “go down” when:
It makes the player “look cool”
It’s narratively important
The “table energy” is decreasing
In short, enemies go down when the DM decides that it fits the needs of the narrative, as determined by the referee.
Now, a few things to stress before we start talking about the idea being put forth.
This is not new. The idea of messing with HP, preserving or finishing off enemies, no matter what the dice decide, is as old as the game. Nonetheless I see this being presented as some innovative, daring approach to gaming. The original Tweet I saw about this had someone saying that Kwan ‘blew our minds’ when he said he did this in his game. There is such a “cult of personality” aspect to modern gaming, because Kwan is a hot new game designer, whatever he does is taken to have gravitas. It’s nonsense. Do your homework, these issues have been discussed and debated since the game’s inception.
This is a perfectly legitimate way to play. If you enjoy this mode of play, where the DM decides when things are “narratively important” and ignores or alters dice rolls to achieve dramatic tension, it can be great. If done well the players will not know when it is being done. And I would add that most, if not all, DM’s have, at some point, fudged a dice roll because the result felt wrong. So this is more a matter of degree than kind. I’m sure that Kwan’s games are fun and exciting, and that his players enjoy themselves.
In short, this issue is NOT ABOUT DANIEL KWAN and his game. I can’t stress how important it is to make that distinction. THIS IS A PLAY STYLE CHOICE THAT HAS BEEN MADE, TO SOME DEGREE, BY EVERY DM WHO HAS EVER PLAYED THE GAME. Some have chosen never to do it, some have chosen to do it rarely, some have chosen to do it occasionally, others do it most of the time. But every DM has to decide whether or not to honor the dice, and the question of honoring the dice versus altering results has been fodder for gamer arguments since the game hit the shelves.
One of the reasons you see many people reacting so strongly to this post is precisely that Kwan is being presented like a trailblazer of some sorts for doing something that has been done at the table for decades. Really, the only difference I see here is that Kwan’s version of “when to fudge” is far stronger, or further down the path of modifying results, than many are comfortable with, but the idea is neither new nor innovative.
So, moving forward, let’s strip this of its relationship to Kwan and his game, it isn’t about how Kwan plays the game, it’s about how a particular play style impacts the game.
Narrative Playstyle and D&D
So let’s call this approach, that adversaries are taken out when:
It makes the player “look cool”
It’s narratively important
The “table energy” is decreasing
“Narrative focused” D&D. This is not commentary about games other than D&D that have narrative mechanics. Narrative focused D&D has some challenges associated with it. Again, TO BE CLEAR, you can play that way if you like, and it can be fun and engaging for the whole table. So the point of this post is NOT to suggest that the playstyle CANNOT BE FUN, but rather to highlight the challenges of the approach to see if it is for you.
Because, TO BE CLEAR, every play style has costs and benefits. Things it does well and things it does badly, aspects of the game that are amplified/enhanced by the play style and aspects that are diminished/reduced. You wouldn’t think that from the discussion I’m seeing as everyone seems lined up to either defend or attack Kwan. IT’S NOT ABOUT KWAN, IT’S ABOUT THE PLAY STYLE.
So here are some concerns associated with the play style in question.
The God Complex - First and foremost, it puts a lot of power in the hands of the DM. “But the DM already has immense power, so why does this matter?” Good question. It matters as dice results are one of the few checks on the power of the DM in the game, this approach takes them away completely. Thus it has the potential for abuse, significant abuse, as the players have no idea what has been done so they can’t object to it. It would be one thing if the DM said, “OK everyone, this fight is dragging, do we want to end it sooner?”, but what I gather from what I have seen is that this is a DM decision made behind the screen that the players are not a part of.
I find the lack of critical discussion around this point to be baffling. Modern gaming discourse is JAM PACKED with discussions of player safety, triggers and consent. I’ve seen endless posts about the problem of bad DMs playing god and how this has the potential for abuse at the table, but somehow getting to be the one person at the table to decide when something is “cool” or “narratively important” is seen as entirely unproblematic. That’s just bizarre. The only way I can explain this is the cult of personality angle, since this is being presented by a “hot” new designer, it’s seen as cool and unproblematic.
If an older designer, someone who plays old school D&D, had suggested that they run a game where the DM can change anything as they are “god” at the table, it would be cited as an example of “toxic DMing” or something similar. It’s only getting a free pass because of who is suggesting it. If you can, with a straight face, say you need safety tools to prevent a DM abusing their power then I can’t see how you would be comfortable with this.
For real. If you can’t envisage a situation where this sort of game style could lead to the DM playing favorites, either consciously or unconsciously, then you don’t get to rail on about abusive old school DMs who think they are god.
The Overworked DM - I can honestly say, as a veteran DM with decades of experience at the table, that this sort of approach is an anathema to me, in part because of the first issue, the potential for DM abuse, but almost more because of another issue, that it puts too much on the DM. Think it through for a moment. If you don’t play this way the dice are rolled and you interpret the result accordingly, the dice make the decision. If you play “narrative focused D&D” then the DM has to decide, for every dice roll, if the result has to be altered to “serve the story”.
I can’t stress enough how much I dislike the idea of yet another decision being given to the referee. DM’s in D&D are already on the hook for a significant amount of work at the table, adding yet another job is not of any interest to me.
“It’s the DM’s Fault” - One of the most disturbing aspects of this approach for me is that it implies that the DM gets to decide when a monster goes down. Most people interpret this as the DM deciding to end a monster’s life early to help the players. But there is clearly the possibility of the reverse, the DM prolonging the life of opponents to make it harder. But either way, success or failure will always be overshadowed by the possibility that the DM made it happen. Or even worse, every time a PC goes down the players will know it was because the DM decided it was “narratively appropriate” in this case but not in others. In short, the DM kills your PC, or saves them, not the monsters. I DO NOT WANT that kind of responsibility at the table. Because sooner or later a player will ask, “why did my PC die today”, or “why didn’t your PC die today”, because if the DM decides what is narratively important, then it is ALWAYS the DM’s decision when a PC dies.
And let’s be 100% crystal clear about this, I don’t care how good you are at deceiving the players, how good you are at hiding the results of your fudging, and how creative you are. At some point, particularly in a long form game, your players will start to notice that you are messing with results. Because, and here’s the rub, YOU AREN’T AS CLEVER AS YOU THINK YOU ARE. No matter how creative you are, at some point you will fall into patterns, particularly when you have to improv, and D&D has a metric ton of improv on the regular. You will fall into patterns and your players will notice. They might not tell you that they have noticed, but they will. They will notice that they always seem to pull it out of the fire at the last second, that some players succeed more than others, etc.
And once that happens, anything bad that happens to the PCs will be, “the DM’s fault”. I don’t want that kind of responsibility.
Player Agency - the flip side of this discussion is player agency. Players make decisions based on their understanding of the rule set, cost/benefit - resource management, etc. The implication of this approach is that most of that decision making is just window dressing, it’s done to keep you busy and make the fight “exciting” by giving you things to do, but the resolution of the conflict is entirely up to the DM. This removes agency from player decisions. One of the bedrock assumptions of a game like D&D is that the players get to decide what to do with their PCs, and the consequences of those actions is borne out by an impartial dice roll. This narrative focused approach breaks the chain of causality and makes the player action less relevant than the DM’s decision. If I were a player in a game like this I would question every victory, and wonder if our decisions played any role in our success.
Increasing “Table Energy” - Oddly enough this particular point was kind of lost in a lot of the discussion, and this is where I believe that something “new” is being discussed. Not that it hadn’t come up before, the idea that fights can drag and the DM should do something about that is NOT new. But the idea that each session has to be SUPER EXCITING and HIT ALL THE STORY BEATS and LEAD TO A DRAMATIC, NAIL BITING FINISH WHERE THE PC’S ALMOST LOSE BUT PULL IT OUT IN THE END AND EACH PC GETS A CHANCE TO SHINE, that’s new.
“Low table energy” is an interesting way to frame this, and it leads to what I believe is a pernicious and harmful result - the burden (on the DM, of course!) to have an exciting session every time. Forget for the moment that it narrows the definition of exciting down to one particular approach, the general idea is harmful IMO.
I see posts on Twitter about DMs being disappointed that their session hasn’t been as good as it could have been, that there wasn’t a “big moment” in the session, or that they had a “less exciting” session. My personal favorite Tweet of this kind is the, “my players said they had a blast and are looking forward to the next session… but I could have done so much better so I’m bummed.”
Ugh. I despise what this sort of mindset is doing to the game, talk about gatekeeping! I see people post about this sort of thing regularly, they feel they can never manage such a well paced, tightly controlled and “exciting” session (look at Critical Role and all of those polished, professional streams!), so they stop running games or stop playing. The bar here, “exciting session every time, high energy, fun, fun, fun” is 100% a form of gatekeeping. I fear it keeps many potential DM’s from giving it a shot.
People judge themselves by the fact that they aren’t MAXIMIZING FUN! I think this is a terrible way to think about playing a game. Game sessions can be frustrating, challenging, disappointing, and that’s JUST FINE, as part of the JOY of a session where you are successful is that it is contrasted with the sessions where you are not successful. Knowing you can fail makes success all the sweeter.
Potential Harm - The “ratio” on the original tweet is also something worth thinking about. The OP’s tweet generated a lot of “hell yeah’s”, and general agreement about the playstyle. However, when the OP was quote tweeted and the tweet went beyond their followers to a wider community you see the ratio change significantly. The “storygamers” have formed a closed circle of commentary, so they can’t see the forest for the trees. So when the suggestion is made that this style of play might bother some players, and thus be “harmful”, it will be rejected. To my mind the ratio on this issue should suggest that there might be a problem here.
Safety Tools - I’m super curious to see how the people who advocate for safety tools will approach this issue. In the past, when someone has commented that they don’t use safety tools as they instead have a relationship of trust with the players, and that players who don’t trust the DM shouldn’t play in their games, they have been told that they should “check their privilege” as not everyone can choose another game, or that this is naive, as there is always the potential for DM abuse of trust. Thus the need for safety tools.
This line of response has been remarkably consistent, I have seen DM's accused of having a “god complex” because they play old school D&D where the DM has considerable power, I have been told that DM fiat is a form of toxic masculinity where men need to center themselves above others, that it’s naive to assume that unconscious biases and conscious prejudices won’t shape results, etc, etc, etc.
So if your “defense” of this style of play is that it’s OK to allow DM fiat if you have a relationship of trust with the DM, and that you can always walk away (and I’ve seen both of these responses already), then you have just made an argument as to why safety tools are unnecessary. Because you should either pick a DM you trust (so you don’t need them) or walk away from the game (as the DM has broken trust so safety tools won’t help).
Since I’m assuming the advocates for safety tools won’t stop advocating for them, I eagerly await the critique of Kwan’s position on this.
I won’t hold my breath.
Because this isn’t really about safety tools, or narrative impacts on D&D, or fudging, or any of those issues. It’s instead about WHO is doing what, not what they are doing. I see this on Twitter daily. Something when done by one group is BAD but when done by another group is GOOD.
I pine for the days when people didn’t tell others how to play their games.