Collaborative and Emergent Play in Dungeons and Dragons
Sometimes when you are on social media you start to notice trends or patterns in the general day to day discussions. One that I have been noticing lately has come up is the tendency to put more responsibility on the shoulders of the DM/ref in D&D games.
There is a lot of discussion about D&D is a “group game”, and a “collaborative process”, and I think this is all to the good. D&D IS a collaborative game, the ref and the players are all in it together, and unless both work to make the game fun it won’t be fun.
And there is a lot of discussion of how D&D is “flawed” as it doesn’t involve more mechanics that share power with the players. So much so that people have suggested importing mechanics from other games into D&D (e.g. replacing hard pass/fail mechanics with “fail forward” mechanics). Again, I have no issue with this, fail forward mechanics can work perfectly well in D&D, and add a lot to the experience. I used them in our SWN campaign and they were great.
I have even seen people suggest that players should be able to change the fiction if they don’t like the result, e.g. if someone’s PC is killed they should be able to say, “no, they aren’t” and take a “consequence” instead, that sort of thing. I have no issue with any of this. I don’t do these things in my game as I play 1e AD&D and I find it works well without them, and produces a different (but not ‘better”) experience at the table. So all of this is fine.
But on the other side of the coin, I think people are doing what they normally do when a shiny new thing is created, they are focusing on the benefits but ignoring the costs. Saying that there are “costs” to something doesn’t invalidate the thing, there are costs to EVERYTHING. But ignoring the costs is an issue too, as they can lead to problems of their own.
Here are a few examples.
Fail forward mechanics: Yes, they are fun and add something to the game. However, they also put work on the ref. The ref has to come up with consequences for “very bad”, “bad”, “neutral”, “good” and “very good” results. Yes, they can do this collaboratively with the players (“what do you think would be a good negative consequence”), but the point is that they have to organize and execute the process, and in many systems adjudicate it (e.g.decide if the consequences are fair or make sense).
That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be used or are “bad design”, but they do add work to the ref’s plate.
I’ve seen a lot of discussions about “making combat interesting” in the game as well. And the suggestions I’ve seen also put a bigger burden on the ref. So I’ve seen people suggest switching systems entirely, fudging with dice rolls to “add to the excitement”, ensuring that every combat has a deeper meaning or value, etc.
All of these are workable solutions, but again, they put a lot of responsibility on the ref. Switching systems means the ref has to learn the system to run it, yes, so do the players, but the ref generally has to know as much or more of the system to run it than the players do to play. Fudging with dice results puts the burden on the ref to decide when to do it and when not to do it, how much to ‘fudge’, and if they don’t want the players to know, hiding it from them. The desire for “dramatic combat” means it has to be orchestrated and “directed” by the ref, and that’s a huge additional burden on top of managing the mechanics and all of the NPC/Monsters.
In combat players are responsible for their PCs, the ref is responsible for EVERYTHING ELSE. It’s not remotely balanced, no matter how much power your share and consensus you use.
Related to this experience is the idea of creating the perfect, most immersive, dramatic experience at the table. I blame “story games” for this idea. Of course, before “story games” became popular there was still a desire to create a fun game, that’s universal. But now I see additional demands that every session have a pattern to it, e.g. initial challenge and setback, mounting tension, resolution of tension, etc.
The desire is to have some sort of peak dramatic experience by ensuring you hit certain marks in every session. I see this regularly in calls to have “ a bit of RP, a bit of combat and a bit of exploration” in EVERY session, or to ensure that your combat has RP in it every time, or to make sure that one of these (or others) doesn’t dominate the game.
Another way this manifests itself is in the desire to ensure that “everyone has a chance to shine” at the table. This takes the form of ensuring that every session has a challenge that is tailored to one of the PCs, or building something from the PCs background into the game so that they can be more invested.
Another one I saw today was that players should show up at the table with a motivation for adventuring, presumably baked into their background/backstory. Not just the classic “My PC wants to adventure!” but something more specific that they can work towards in the game, a personal goal of some sort that motivates them in the game.
What’s the Problem?
All of these are good ideas, and can be implemented in a D&D game to create excitement, investment and fun play. I believe this, and I have seen it work at the table.
However, all of these suggestions put more work on the ref.
Fail forward mechanics require the ref to come up with options, in a “pass fail” system the dice roll does the work and you are done. Yes, it lacks “nuance” and yes, it leads to situations where the PC “can’t do anything” due to their bad roll, but it also makes more work for the ref.
When I run the combat in my game I don’t try to hit any “beats”, I don’t try and ensure that it’s “dramatic”, I don’t shift up the HP of monsters as the fight is “too easy”, nor do I depower or nerf monsters mid-fight to ensure that it isn’t “too hard”. I just run the fight and what happens, happens. I don’t feel the need to make every fight “meaningful”, the players bring the meaning to the fight, not me. I don’t secretly reveal that the big bad is actually the party paladin’s FATHER in order to ramp up the significance of the fight.
I don’t manage my game so there is RP in every session, or so every session has a bit of everything, or that every session connects to some aspect of the PCs backstory, or that every session has a challenge tailored to each one of the PCs.
I also don’t require that PCs have a “backstory” to inform the sessions I create, the only backstory they need is the desire to adventure. That’s it.
I do none of these things, yet I still manage to run exciting, fun, engaging games. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t do these things if they work for you at your D&D table. If you find them easy to do or that they are manageable then have at it. But if they are not working for you, if you find yourself burnt out, overwhelmed or challenged, you might want to consider a different approach.
Rather than place these things into my game artificially to “make it happen” at the table, I run a game where the PC’s actions in the game creates the meaning emergently, organically, as they play. It’s easiest to show this with an example.
My latest campaign started in September, and I had a player ask me about backstories/motivations. She was overwhelmed at the idea of creating a backstory and motivations for her character. For whatever reason (and at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter why) she was not feeling it.
So I told her this, “You are a warrior, that’s your backstory”. So she started with that. Then we adventured. In the first adventure they were purchasing mounts and the seller (during price negotiations) revealed that he had been recently robbed. That was the result of an encounter reaction roll to see if he would lower the price. The result was positive, so he did lower the price, and I had to interpret it, so that is what I went with.
Well, for whatever reason that resonated with the player, she became immediately invested in figuring out who had robbed this guy and helping him out. That became her motivation, she then directed things for a while, got in touch with the local thieves guild to help track down the miscreant, and convinced the party to go after him. I had none of it planned of course, but it took up about 4 sessions to work it all out.
That became a defining aspect of her character. From then on her fighter looked for instances where she could help out others, and had an issue with thieves. There was no backstory needed for this, it didn’t require the player to cook one up, and I didn’t have to do anything to make it happen, I didn’t have to create a specific encounter that would play to her character’s motivations, or add an element from her backstory to the game, it emerged from play.
I saw a thread today on Twitter where a DM was lamenting that players didn’t have motivations for their characters, and that players at minimum should show up with some specific motivation for their PC to help them take part in the adventure.
I didn’t respond, but what I wanted to say was, “Don’t worry about it, let them adventure in the world and motivations will emerge from play”. I’ve been doing this for a quite a while and it works. All you really need is one encounter, one session, and by the end the PCs will have interacted with the game world in such a way as to create motivations and goals. I run four concurrent AD&D campaigns, and I have introduced hundreds of players to the game over the last 35 years, not ONE of them had a backstory beyond their class, and I haven’t done any of the things I mentioned above to create a “dramatic” game.
You CAN do these things if they work for you, but you don’t HAVE TO DO THEM to have an exciting, engaging role-playing experience. Better still (for me at least) is that I don’t feel the need to fine tune the game to “maximize player fun”. Sometimes we have a session where the players get their asses kicked, sometimes they walk all over their opponents. Some of their opponents are “meaningful” to them, some are not. Some players “shine” more than others, some sessions are all RP, some are all combat, some all exploration, some all resource management, etc.
NONE OF THIS is managed by me. It is ALL the result of me creating an environment and the players making choices through their characters. The benefit is that this is a lot less work for me as the ref, as to be blunt, I HAVE ENOUGH TO DO AS IT IS. Just having the game world react to my player’s crazy antics is a full time job. I don’t need to ensure all these other things happen to, instead I let them emerge from game play.
It can be a bit difficult to get into this mindset. When a session goes badly, or doesn’t end up being as fun as a previous session, or things go badly for the PCs and the players get frustrated, you are tempted to “manage” things to ensure that EVERY session is “fun”. I get that, and I get that using the tools I have discussed above can get you there. It is nice when everyone has something to contribute, it is nice when sessions are dramatic.
But putting the weight on the ref’s shoulders to make sure these things happen in a D&D game is a lot to ask. An alternative is to forget all of those things, abandon the role of “director” or “author” and settle on the role of “referee”, a neutral adjudicator whose job it is to populate the game world and have it react to what the players choose to do through their PCs. This essentially shares the burden for these things with the PCs. They are the ones whose actions create meaning in the game world. I find this takes off a lot of the load from me and let’s me focus on the myriad other things needed to run a game.