Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Randomization and Role Play

There are many different ways to drive your TTRPG, as DM, or as a group, there needs to be some way to generate the ideas and events that populate your game world. Pure imagination can do the trick, if you are a particularly creative person and a decent improvisor you can sit at the table and make it up as you go along. I’ve done this myself, pure improvisation at the table can be invigorating and unpredictable.


Even the best referees get stuck, and sometimes it is nice for the game mechanics themselves to produce results for you. Also, and this is a less popular argument, it is HARD to continually come up with refreshing and new ideas for your game. This is particularly the case when you are playing for an extended period of time. Drop in games and one-shot’s aside, extended campaigns can suffer from a few problems in this area:

1. The DM gets stuck, for whatever reason they hit a wall and can’t figure out where to go
2. The DM has plenty of ideas, but they tend to be the same or similar after a while, so the players can predict what’s going to happen and find it boring

I find that both of these have been issues for me in the past. I’m a storyteller by nature, I like to tell stories and use stories to drive conversation and share ideas, I’m naturally curious too, it’s hardwired. However, storytellers don’t always make the best DM’s, as we have a tendency to bulldoze the game. It isn’t always conscious, and it isn’t generally malicious, it’s just the way we are wired. I suspect my arc in the game was similar to that of many others. 

When I started playing we were all about “BTB”, doing it by the book, and my level of interference in the game was minimal. I didn’t ever mess with dice rolls, I didn’t alter anything on the fly, it was “play it as it lands” and that was that.

Then, over time, that changed. We would be in a fight that was dragging out and I would reduce HP or fudge rolls to end things faster. One player had a bad run of luck and I would tweak the rolls so they would survive or thrive. I wanted “optimized” NPCs to present the greatest challenge to the players so I would pick the spells and items for all my NPCs. The party was having a bad run of luck so I would monkey with the treasure hoard to give them items that were tailored to them, etc.

I see discussions of this on Twitter all the time now. One thread will sing the praises of averaging HP for monsters to “speed things up”, another will bemoan that monster fights are too predictable and boring. Another will discuss adjusting things on the fly to “serve the story”, but others will complain about the fact that the PCs seem invincible.

The root problem is that monkeying around with things puts a lot of pressure on the DM, they have to become the master storyteller, the burden is on THEM to determine when to intervene, when to fudge the dice, when to save the PC, when to let them die. I find it surprising how often collaborative “story” oriented DM’s advocate for messing with the game results to help improve the game experience for individual players. There is nothing less collaborative than a DM arbitrarily and without consultation changing things to “help out” a player.

Even more strangely, I see people advocating for fudging dice rolls and changing results in such a way as to mimic the randomization of dice rolls, essentially: DON’T RESOLVE THIS WITH DICE, BUT MAKE IT LOOK LIKE YOU HAVE!


There are different ways to deal with these issues, no one wants a repetitive game, no one wants a game where the DM is constantly getting stuck for ideas. 

Fortunately, 1e has a solution for this that works and works well. 

Bounded randomness, dice + tables can help solve these issues. 1e is lousy with tables for almost everything you can imagine. These tables are not COMPLETELY random, they are structured to deliver a certain range of possible results, thus the “bounded” randomness. 

However, they do randomize results within those bounds, and that’s the key to solving these problems.

Randomization takes the decision out of your hands, there are a number of game relevant reasons why this is important. One, you already have a metric ton of influence on the game, other than the PCs you run EVERYTHING, so it is important to introduce a few points in the game that are not within your purview. 

Two, dice can add some fairness to a process that can be somewhat arbitrary, when you roll a die it decides for you with a random process, that’s about as fair as a decision can be.

However, in addition to helping you build your game world, and inserting fairness into the adjudication process, dice also provide inspiration and variety.

Which leads us to the topic of this post, RRTEI, or Roll Randomly and Then Explain It.

RRTEI is a simple principle, roll randomly to determine results, and then explain those results in the context of your game. 

There are a few important elements to this. First, unless you have a compelling reason not to, the idea is to use the result you roll. In short, if you are willing to roll on the tables you are putting your faith in how they were constructed, you don’t change the result of a roll like that.

Second, this will lead, very deliberately, to unbalanced play, monsters won’t always be “defeatable”, magic items won’t always be level appropriate. Sometimes things will be easier than you expect as well, if you roll for monster HP sometimes you get a monster with very few HP, and the fight is easier than you expect. 

Third, RRTEI is an explicitly NARRATIVE tool, it is the process of interpreting the result of a game mechanical dice roll in a way that “fits” the story of your campaign. You are forced to, as a referee, determine HOW that +5 holy avenger ended up in the treasure hoard of the bridge troll, rather than ensure that only “level appropriate” magic items are there.

At the heart of 1st edition and most old school games is this crucial narrative tool, one that generates new ideas for your game that you have to contextualize for your players. Remember this when people suggest that old school D&D is not a good fit for a “story focused” group. 

An example is worthwhile.

The party in my home game was on their way to an abandoned temple in the desert. Now, the tendency is often to “hand wave” the trip to get there, after all, the abandoned temple IS the adventure, so why bother with random encounter rolls at all, just start at the temple.

I rolled for wandering monsters on the way through the desert to the temple, on the last roll, as they were approaching the temple, they pinged for a random encounter. I rolled on the table and obtained a blue dragon. 

Right away I”m “derailing” the story here, as the story was them going to the temple, not getting tangled up in an encounter in the desert that has no immediate benefit to them. But RRTEI suggests that the encounter was to be used, so away we went.

I rolled for surprise and determined that no one had surprise, that too had to be interpreted, in this case I decided that the party, who had tethered their camels to trees and were looking for an entrance to the temple, were a short distance away when the dragon arrived, and it landed near the camels and started to dine. 

The party was trying to determine what to do, 1e dragons can destroy a mid level party with one breath weapon shot, they knew they were likely to lose a member or two if they engaged, but they were afraid to flee as they might get picked off from a distance.

Since there was no suprise, I was ready to roll initiative, but the party Paladin, with high charisma, decided to parley. He walked out from behind the sand dunes and spoke to the dragon. 

When two parties engage in parley in 1e you roll an encounter reaction roll. I rolled “enthusiastically friendly” and it stopped me in my tracks.

Why would a random, evil blue dragon be “enthusiastically friendly” with a group of tomb robbing adventurers that she could easily destroy and devour? 

Notice the chain here, random roll for encounters produces the blue dragon, something “above their pay grade”, random roll determines surprise for the party so they have the choice of how to start the encounter. Random roll determines that the dragon reacts well to the party.

Now I have to make it all make sense. Fortunately for me I’m decent at improvisation, so I decided that the dragon had wanted to enter the deserted tomb, but was concerned that a preponderance of undead would be too much of a risk. This party of adventurers thus presented her with the perfect opportunity.

There was some excellent RP for the next while, the dragon made it clear she could kill any member of the party pretty much instantly, but that it was interested in an alliance with the party as it “couldn’t fit” in the temple, it could get them in though. 

So it proposed a bargain, enter the temple, keep all the magic items, but give the dragon all the gold. The party decided to go along with it, rather than risking a direct fight, and hoped they could find something in the temple to give them an advantage against the dragon.

The campaign journal for this encounter is here if you want to see how this spun out:

The dragon used its breath weapon to blast open the doors to the temple and the party went in, things got crazy from there. 

Now I want to stress one thing, NONE of this would have happened without RRTEI. I have routinely hand waived random encounters before, and I didn’t always use parley and encounter reaction rules. I do now though, as they can produce this sort of thing. At the end of the adventure the dragon left the party after they honored their end of the bargain, and became a recurring character in the game, who showed up a few more times. 

I find that using randomization where it is built into 1e (random encounters, morale, encounter reactions, treasure tables, spell tables, etc.) is generative in this way, it produces results that are not always balanced or level appropriate, but interpreting these results for the game is a huge source of inspiration and exciting play. 

I think there is a place for game play driven by DM fiat or by negotiated group consensus, but similarly I would say there is a place for game play driven by bounded randomness. It challenges your expectations, gives you ideas would would not normally have, and can give the game a feeling of greater immersion as it will push you out of your comfort zone and break your patterns. Patterns of DM decision making can kill immersion, as players “see” the game they are playing rather than losing themselves in it.

I use randomization with tables for pretty much everything, magic item generation for treasure tables, randomized spell lists for NPCs and PCs, randomization of attacks for monsters against PCs and randomization of targets when firing into melee, rolled HP for monsters and NPCs, encounter reaction rolls and morale, etc, etc, etc. 

You can also mimic existing tables and create new ones of your own. Once you have a sense of how these things work you will find that adding tables to your game is fairly easy, you can even pinch them from other games. There are websites like the Dungeon Dozen that produce endless charts of d12 results for anything you can imagine. 

If you are “stuck”, if you find that you have trouble improvising, if your game is getting too “predictable”, you might want to embrace RRTEI to move things along.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Dungeons and Dragons and Narrative Gaming

The last few weeks have seen a spike in Twitter threads dealing with narrative or “story based” gaming. In some ways this isn’t really a surprise, with the preponderance of newer games that focus on narrative at the table.

For purposes of discussion, let’s define “narrative” or “story” gaming as gaming where the needs of the “narrative” or the “story” are put above the other aspects of the game. So in a story game it is often possible for the GM or the players to change a result or waive a rule in order to serve the story better. 

So, for example, a player might spend “story points” to change a dice roll, or a game that has variable results from a dice roll (e.g. strong success, barely successful, mild failure, catastrophic failure) might allow the player to shift the result up or down, e.g. from a catastrophic failure to a mild failure. Another game might allow a player to activate an ability or obtain an important item if it fits into their backstory or goals. 

Indeed, story based games often prioritize in-depth background creation and use that background to determine how the game unfolds, so the DM might place encounters or NPCs that connect to a character’s backgrounds, and allow that background to influence the unfolding of the session. 

This leaves us with a few important aspects of story gaming:

1. The game is oriented towards ensuring that the needs of the story are paramount.
2. In most cases this is achieved by some sort of consensus process that involves everyone at the table, story tools are active, not passive.

Dungeons and Dragons, for the most part, is not characterized as a “story game”, primarily as it lacks tools for players to actively manipulate the game in the name of the narrative. Dungeons and Dragons is viewed as a crunchy, rules based game, a “hack and slash” game, a “beer and pretzels” game, one where the focus isn’t on individual characters and keeping them around to maintain the narrative, but instead on playing out the scenarios and letting the, “dice fall where they may.'' 

In short, Dungeons and Dragons is not a “story game” as it’s primary focus is enacting the mechanics, not telling a story. Yes, you can “tell a story” about your Dungeons and Dragons game, but this is an after the fact sort of thing, it isn’t the focus of the game.

Story-Focused Gaming, Active and Passive Mechanics
I think the first source of the tension between Dungeons and Dragons and more “story focused” games is precisely this contrast, the idea that Dungeons and Dragons isn’t a story focused game as it lacks the ability for the players to actively manipulate the outcomes in service of the story.

I want to dispel this idea. Dungeons and Dragons is a story game, as a matter of fact all RPG’s are story games, however the way they go about using narrative varies. You can usefully think of this along a spectrum, from consensus games where everyone has a say in shaping the outcome in an active way to “serve the narrative” to “the DM is final arbiter” games where narrative tools are often passive, not active.

There are no ‘take backs’ in Dungeons and Dragons as it is written, if you take enough damage you die. Yes, you can seek out a spell to bring back your character, but that takes actions in game, in-game resources, etc. You don’t just get to say, “My character comes back to life!”, or roll a miss and declare “My character actually hit”.

However, Dungeons and Dragons has ample passive narrative tools, a passive narrative or story tool is one that functions to mimic narrative structures without direct action on the part of the player. So rather than the player saying, “I don’t want my PC to die here, I’ll change this result by spending my story points”, the player has a baked in safety valve in the mechanics of the game. Dungeons and Dragons also has some active story tools, though fewer in number. I’ll discuss both.

There are a number of different passive narrative tools in Dungeons and Dragons:

1. Saving Throws - Gygax states plainly that a PC should always have a chance, even a remote one, of surviving a deadly attack. A PC chained to a rock then breathed upon by a dragon should still have a chance to survive. Many spells in Dungeons and Dragons have an option for a saving throw, in many cases this saving throw negates the spell effects entirely, much like an active narrative tool could change the deadly result of a spell. Dungeons and Dragons also includes “save for half” mechanics, where you can get more granular results than “full damage/no damage”. 

2. Hit Points - Hit points in Dungeons and Dragons are NOT strictly physical, they are physical + luck + agility + favor of the gods. Hit points are quite literally “story points”, passive narrative tools that give your PC a better chance at survival. So rather than actively changing a result, your PC has a buffer against early death. In game what this means is that higher level characters can survive things that would quickly and easily slay a lower level PC. This is meant to emulate the ability of important characters to survive the challenging events in a story. 

3. Levels - The “zero to hero” progression of Dungeons and Dragons is a perfect example of a passive story mechanic. To reflect the nature of heroes in literature, a Dungeons and Dragons character starts weak and becomes more powerful over time. This is a story tool as it mimics the nature of heroes in stories, they often start off a nobody but over time become more powerful and more important. Levelling “serves the narrative” in that it influences outcomes to make the game more like it’s narrative sources, as increasing in level leads to more powerful opponents and greater power and ability on the part of players. The fact that HP and saves improve with levelling underscores this point, levelling is clearly meant to emulate the progression of the hero in fantasy literature. 

4. The “Mook Rule”, 0-Level NPCs, Morale and Encounter Reactions - In order to emulate the ability of the hero to easily overcome minor threats, Dungeons and Dragons has the “mook rule” for fighters, where they get one attack per experience level against 0-Level monsters (e.g. kobolds, goblins and non-levelled soldiers, mercenaries, etc, etc.) Also, the default for the majority of NPCs in the game world is that they are 0-level, 1-6 HP and easily dispatched by even a low level fighter. So rather than the player saying, “My fighter is a hero, he shouldn’t have this much trouble fighting a kobold, I’m spending a story point to increase my number of attacks this round”, the fighter gets multiple attacks to reflect their prowess. 

Morale and encounter reaction rules are similar, rather than the player having to say, “I’m using my story points to intimidate those orcs as they should be terrified of my character” there are passive tools in the game to reflect the narrative tendency of foes to flee a superior opponent. Encounter reaction rules with charisma modifiers emulate the tendency for a smooth talking protagonist to be able to influence others. 

There are also a number of active narrative tools in Dungeons and Dragons:

1. “The Rule of Cool” and “Rulings over Rules” - One of the core aspects of “Old school” or OSR play is the idea of the rule of cool, or “rulings over rules”, if the PC suggests doing something “cool” then the DM can overrule the rules to make it happen, or create a new rule to allow it to be tried. EVERY table I have ever played at has invoked this rule at some point, and what is this other than a “narrative tool” to allow the players to do something that exceeds the rules but would make for a better story? This is an active story tool as it takes precedence over the written rules and involves active choices on the part of the players and DM.

2. In-Play Adjustments: Peruse Twitter and gaming forums and you will see endless threads talking about how the DM can mess with the rules in-game in order to avoid undesirable results. The examples are numerous: DM’s listening to players ideas about what is happening and changing the course of events to match those ideas, DM’s adjusting the number of monsters, monster HP or abilities on the fly to make the encounter “more interesting” or “more challenging”, adjustments with clear narrative implications.

“Fudging” dice is another example of this, and when you slog through the almost endless threads on this one thing becomes clear, pretty much everyone thinks fudging a lot is bad, but fudging occasionally isn’t a bad idea, as the game is complex and sometimes it kills the fun to follow the rules exactly 

3. Hand-Waving: There are a lot of rules in Dungeons and Dragons, and many of them are “hand-waved” in order to make the game flow more smoothly or to make it more enjoyable. At its root this is a narrative process, for example: many groups don’t bother with tracking ammunition or spell components as they find this too tedious, which is really another way of saying it “doesn’t serve the narrative”, e.g. Conan stories don’t go into great detail about Conan managing his supply of arrows. That’s not an exciting story to tell, so why have it in your Dungeons and Dragons game?

4. Role-Play: this may seem obvious, but Dungeons and Dragons gives players extreme latitude with respect to directing their characters, alignment is tolerant of a wide range of behavior, class restrictions are as well. Freedom of role-play is an active narrative tool, it allows a player to direct the actions of their character in any way they want to serve what they believe to be the story they want to tell about them, the role they are playing, even if it isn’t the best course of action according to the rules. The fact that a rules based concept like alignment can change in game based on the character’s actions, directed by the players, suggests that role-play is an active story tool in the game. If the rules dominated the story then your alignment would determine your actions, instead, Dungeons and Dragons explicitly states that a character’s actions are determined by the player, and if they don’t match the character’s alignment then the alignment will change. 

The active tools for narrative control of the game are mostly in the hands of the DM in Dungeons and Dragons, not the players, but that doesn’t change the fact they are there and they are active. Also, many of these tools involve some sort of consensus. So for example, the “rule of cool” is often invoked by a player who feels their idea is “cool” and worth bending the rules for, and in most cases everyone has to agree to it for the exception to be made. At my table, a player can say, “I should be able to do X, rule of cool!” and we put it to a table vote to see if an exception is made. 

Hand waving various rules mechanics is also generally a collaborative thing, and it can certainly be initiated by a player, e.g. a player mentions that tracking spell components is tedious, and the group collectively decides to stop tracking them.

Narrative Gaming and Dungeons and Dragons

The point of the above argument has been to reframe the understanding of Dungeons and Dragons so it is regarded as a “story game”, by changing the understanding of what constitutes a story-game. Dungeons and Dragons has few active story tools for players, but it has ample passive story tools, and a small handful of active story tools that are usually shared by the DM and players.

Why does this matter?

Primarily as there has been a false dichotomy foisted on the gaming community with respect to Dungeons and Dragons, namely that for a game to be a “story game” it needs active story tools in the hands of the players, rather than passive story tools and active story tools in the hands of the group. 

As a result, camps are being formed and reinforced, differences are being exaggerated, and animosities are being created over nothing. Artificial distinctions like these tend to create division and resentment, and lead people to assume things about others, e.g. “story gamers are crybabies that just want everything without consequences”, or “beer and pretzel’s gamers just want to kill stuff.”

The pervasiveness of these assumptions is wild. For example, it has been noted many times that a lot of Dungeons and Dragons happens “outside the rules”, e.g. role playing in Dungeons and Dragons has very few rules, but many groups report spending more than half their table time role playing. Nonetheless Dungeons and Dragons players will be derided as “murder hobos” with no interest in anything but “killing monsters and taking their stuff”. On the other hand, story gamers will be accused of not caring about the rules and engaging in “dinner theatre gaming”.

In actuality, everyone is playing games with a focus on story/narrative, the difference is the degree and the execution.

Advantages of the Dungeons and Dragons Approach
There has been much written about the advantages of the active story tools used in many modern games, but much less about the passive story tools that define Dungeons and Dragons. I think this is largely as the passive story tools are hidden to most people, so their advantages are missed.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that active story tools are bad, or shouldn’t be used, I’m suggesting that passive story tools have unacknowledged advantages. I’ll discuss a few of those advantages.

One of the most rewarding aspects of role playing is the ability to immerse yourself in your character and in the gaming environment. When the game is working well, you forget about the outside world for a time, and while at the table you become your character in a way. Active story tools remove you from that process and break immersion so you can adjust the result of a game mechanic in some way. Passive tools do not do this, instead they bake the story tool into the game mechanics so it becomes invisible. The most obvious proof of this is that most people don’t even think of HP as story tools, even though they are all aware that HP are not entirely physical.

Oddly enough active story tools are not the only way to give players agency. If a PC survives an attack or encounter because they spend “story points” to alter results that can give them a sense of agency in the game. However, surviving the encounter because of the choices you make is also empowering. Because players don’t see HP and levels as story tools they take them to be aspects of their character, so when they survive the encounter it's because of their actions and choices, not because they got to change a dice roll. This creates a sense of agency.

The sense of achievement associated with RPGs is palpable. Surviving and thriving in a dangerous environment is rewarding, facing the threat of death creates excitement and visceral reactions on the part of players. This is one of the side effects of role-playing, immersion in the character that leads to similar responses on the part of the player when their character has particular experiences. It is also sometimes called “bleed”.

For better or for worse, the ability of a game to put up barriers and experiences that *cannot* be overruled adds to the gaming experience. It is one thing to beat the dragon when you can reverse results or appeal to the DM to change things. It is quite another when you don’t do either of these things, but instead the results are a consequence of your actions and choices only. Passive story tools create the illusion that the consequences are solely the result of your choices. Of course this isn’t strictly true, but for the purposes of enjoying the game it certainly applies. 

One of the biggest complaints about gaming is time, e.g. such and such a mechanic or rule slows down the game too much. Passive narrative tools do not require players to make choices, they are baked into the game instead. This saves time at the table, as players don’t have to actively choose to alter a result to “serve the narrative”, it happens automatically. Over time this saving accumulates and becomes significant.


I’m not against games with active story tools, nor am I against the use of active story tools in Dungeons and Dragons. I have some concerns about “double dipping”, e.g. if you use leveling and HP AND you add active story tools to your game you have to be cognizant of the fact you are putting a lot of control over the narrative into the hands of the group. That isn’t in and of itself a problem, but it is worth noting.

Still, I don’t see any reason why Dungeons and Dragons couldn’t incorporate more active narrative tools into its regular operating procedure. 

However, it’s time to drop this idea that somehow Dungeons and Dragons is not a game with narrative tools, that it isn’t designed with story in mind, or that it is somehow impossible to allow for narrative concerns to influence the rules in Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeons and Dragons is up to its hips in narrative tools, but many of them are baked in or a matter of group consensus rather than being available as active tools for the individual player to use. 

RPG’s vary in the degree and kind of narrative tools, not in their presence or importance to the game. Once we all realize this, it will become easier to discuss the real issues at hand, e.g. how game play impacts player agency, how does authority work in the game, how can we structure play to be inclusive, fun and fair, etc, etc.

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