Role Play, Incentivisation and Dungeons and Dragons
This post is a bit of a follow up to the last post on combat in D&D. The more time I spend on Twitter, the more I become convinced that many people haven’t really tried to play early edition D&D the way it’s written. It’s not that they don’t have any idea how it works, but there is a tendency to assume certain things, things that you would know aren’t the case if you played the game more or less by the rules.
In the case of first edition I get why, the AD&D DMG is a beast, long, meandering, dense, erudite and in need of an edit. I pushed myself through it the first time as I desperately wanted to play the game, but I can see some people walking away.
Where this gap comes up most often, in my experience, is in the understanding of role play in D&D. Now, brief terminological nuance here, everything you do with your character in D&D is “role play”, from talking to the mayor, to buying supplies, to swinging a sword, every action you direct for your character is role play. Unless you ARE a warlock, anything your warlock character does in game is role play.
So I would like to introduce a term: social role play - to designate the following sorts of things:
- Talking to the innkeeper
- Gathering information
That sort of thing.
With that in mind, I want to go through a few examples, then address the formal argument.
I’ve been running D&D games for more than three decades. About 6 years ago, when my son wanted to start playing, I revisited the rules and put together a campaign that was pretty much BTB, with a few exceptions. What is most important is that I run XP, level progression, spells, monster and treasure distribution, encounter tables and resource management BTB. My house rules, such as they are, all relate to combat or campaign flavor. So for example, we have critical hits on a natural 20, I add some weapons to the weapons table, druids in my campaign pick an animal avatar, that sort of thing.
I’ve been running a home game by standard AD&D rules for a group of 8 players for the last 6 years. I have also started up two after school AD&D groups, 6 and 8 players respectively, that have been running for two years now. So I think I have a representative sample of game play using the rules as written. What I find most fascinating about this is that what I see at the table week after week is nothing like what people say early edition D&D is like.
Particularly with respect to role play. There is a pervasive assumption floating around that older edition D&D, AD&D being a prime example, lacks significant role play elements, it’s all dungeon crawling, monster slaying and treasure hoarding. Given that the current edition and many current games stress narrative and role play, and extensive character backgrounds are popular, this is often presented as an indictment of early edition games.
So I thought I would present a few observations about social role play in my AD&D game::
1. Our games run at approximately ⅓ combat, ⅓ social role play and ⅓ exploration/resource management. Some sessions are mostly combat, some sessions are mostly social role play or exploration/resource management. Most are a mix of all. We have played entire 2-3 hour sessions with no combat at all.
2. Preferences vary by player, some of my players enjoy combat most, some social role play most, some exploration/resource management, some like a mix of all three the most.
3. When my first after school group arrived in my city setting they made a B-line for the city market. Filled with brightly colored tents and vendors, they spent 2 hours shopping. They went tent to tent, haggling for good prices, asking the vendors about things in the city. They spent 20 min at one tent asking about giant lizard racing, one of the most popular pass times in the city. They spent a similar amount of time at another tent talking about the preponderance of flightless birds in the city (there was some lore around that). They REALLY enjoyed this, and felt it was a great start to the campaign.
4. I ran a four hour one shot adventure recently where there was zero combat, it was all exploration/social role play. There were a few instances where they party almost lost members to environmental hazards (extreme cold, slippery surfaces) and traps, but there was zero combat. They had a blast, and were disappointed when we wrapped up.
5. One of the players in my Thursday game decided that the group needed to have a “hideout” in the wilderness near the city where they were based. After their first big treasure haul he took a good chunk of his share of treasure and hired workers to dig out under a section of hills so he could construct a “hobbit hole” hideout for the group. It took a month of in game time for the project to be finished, his character checked in on it regularly, and when it was finished, he was elated. Another player in that group is a druid, and he planted a garden outside of the hideout that he could use to tend various plants. He makes sure to check in on this regularly.
6. Another player in my Thursday group likes to have his PC sing stuff in the game, so when we are in a fight, or sometimes even during parley, he bursts out into nonsense songs.
7. When my Friday group arrived in a mid-sized city the two thieves in the group asked to go to a “curio shop” to find “weird stuff”. I made it VERY clear that their odds of finding magical items was slim to nil, magic items aren’t just lying around to be found. So they spent an hour going around the shop asking, “what’s this”, “what do I find”, etc. One left with a cloak made of an unknown fur, another bought a set of bone candlesticks. Neither were magical, but both were treasured by the players who bought them.
8. When my home group set out on an adventure they spent about an hour of game time finding, haggling for, trying out and naming mounts. I was willing to hand wave this bit to get things going, you know, TO GET TO THE KILLING. But nope, they all wanted to try to get a better price by befriending the seller, and they absolutely insisted on naming their mounts before they rode them.
9. The party priest in our home campaign actively tries to recruit converts. He goes to public places and preaches about his god, he tries to convert henchmen and hirelings, and he pontificates about his god to NPCs all the time. He gets no direct XP rewards for this.
10. The ranger and the druid in my Friday game argue in character about animals on an almost every session basis. The druid believes that only he should have animal followers, as he’s a druid and animals follow him “naturally”, where the ranger believes that Druid’s shouldn’t make animals do things, as they are supposed to respect nature. They have been arguing this in character off and on for a year or so.
I could easily do a hundred of these, all of them are examples of what I have called social role play. D&D is famously light on rules for social role play. Much of this stuff goes on without any dice hitting the table, or any formal guidelines.
So I want to state this decisively as I have a solid chunk of empirical data here, between my three regular games we have logged approximately 700 hours of at the table game play over the last 6 years, and the breakdown of ⅓ for each pillar of game play has been consistent. I would add that this breakdown or something close to it describes many more or less BTB games I have played in, learned about or seen over the years. I’ve surveyed about this issue on AD&D messageboards multiple times and obtained similar breakdowns.
So it is a myth that BTB AD&D and other old edition games default to murderhobo monster slaying and forgo social role play. No matter what the rules of AD&D say, social role play is a significant component of what happens at the table.
It’s also a myth that D&D has NO rules for social role play. It has minimal rules for social role play: AD&D has alignment, class, race antipathies/sympathies, loyalty and encounter reaction rolls that shape social play. Some of these have teeth. Encounter reaction rolls have immediate impacts on play, class restrictions do as well (e.g. a paladin can lose their powers if they behave in an evil fashion), alignment can shift due to player actions which can produce effects in game as magic can interact with alignment.
But for the most part D&D doesn’t have many rules for social role play and they are pretty loose.
So that suggests a question, if there are minimal rules for social role play in D&D, and it is not directly incentivised in the XP rules (e.g. no XP for chatting up the barmaid) how does it end up taking up so much time at the table?
Why do people spend time in game doing something that isn’t directly incentivised by the rules?
I think there are two main reasons.
First, people like to socialize, it is natural and normal to strike up conversations in character, to discuss your character’s motivations and beliefs, to investigate the minutiae of the game world (e.g. go shopping), all of these things come naturally to most people IRL, so they come naturally in the game as well.
Second, in AD&D XP is rewarded in such a way to give the most reward for gold, then magic, then monster slaying. The random encounter tables are designed such that at any level of experience you can encounter things that you are very unlikely to be able to defeat in combat. The magic tables are designed in such a way as to give out more “temporary magic” than permanent magic. Randomized spell allocation and “to know” percentages mean that magic-users aren’t “optimized” in their spell selections. It is also designed such that you will often get no treasure whatsoever from monsters that you slay, and if you use the “number appearing” rules in the monster listings, the party will often be in trouble.
In short, its an extremely deadly and challenging game, and if your party doesn’t gather information, marshal resources, form alliances (either with powerful NPCs/organizations or by hiring henchmen and such) they will often find themselves overwhelmed. All of these things involve social role play.
Groups that use combat for everything and don’t work to create alliances with individuals and factions in the game will not survive long in a BTB game of AD&D, or indeed in any early edition D&D game. Any DM who has run AD&D BTB for any length of time can confirm this. Yes, combat is fun, yes, it is effective in certain cases, but if that’s the default choice of action the game will slap you down hard.
As a result, groups that engage in social RP will do better at the game, they will gather more information they will form more alliances, they will avoid more combat.
So why not just design the game with a system for assigning XP for using stealth, social role play, combat avoidance, that sort of thing? Why not directly incentivise this behavior in the
game, wouldn’t that be superior to creating a system where those who engage in a wider range of actions succeed but there is no direct XP reward for it? Wouldn’t it be superior to have formal rules for social role play?
Just to be clear, I have NO PROBLEM with a game that incentivises alternatives to combat, there is NOTHING WRONG with a game that says, for example, that you get XP every time your character does something that is “in character” for them. Or a system that gives you points for forming alliances, gathering information, etc, etc.
And I also can see how this could very directly change the tone of your game. If you incentivise social role play you will likely see more of it in the game. And that’s just terrific, as social role play is a lot of fun! So to be 100% crystal clear, I think it’s a good design feature to directly incentivise social role play in your game, whatever system you use.
AD&D does this differently, and I think that the way it handles social role play has advantages as well. So I’m not arguing that AD&D’s method is objectively superior, but that AD&D’s system is one that produces fun games that involve a significant amount of social role play.
What are the advantages of doing things the way AD&D does them?
There are two primary advantages.
First, there are things in TTRPGs that are foreign to most people’s experiences. Most people have not fought in sword and armor. Most people have not cast spells. Most people have not fought lions or disarmed a trap, etc. TTRPG’s have mechanics and rules for these sorts of things as guidelines for the DM so they can manage them in a systematic way at the table given that they are either entirely fictional or very unusual activities.
However, most people have haggled, most people have discussed their favorite X or Y, most people have engaged others in conversation to extract information. The genius (IMO) of the game design in early edition D&D is that the designers understood this difference and used minimal rules for social role play, as we don’t really need them.
Most people socialize naturally, and they will socialize with their characters naturally as well. Role play tends to bring out the social aspect of players. When you are playing Raskar the Ravager, 3rd level thief, you are likely to trash talk the party fighter, challenge a local in the pub to a fight, or taunt the city guards when you leave the city, even though you wouldn’t do this in real life. Not because you get an XP reward for it, but because its FUN!
We have forgotten that role playing itself is fun; whether it is framed in terms of formal rules or not. When we were kids we played cops and robbers, superheroes and supervillans, we play at many different pretend roles for fun as it is something that comes naturally, without any elaborate quantitative system for organizing the process.
I think that Arneson, Gygax, et al were good game designers, and had a good grasp of gaming social dynamics at the table. They understood that people role played naturally, and were likely to do this sort of thing without formal prodding or structure. So one reason you don’t NEED extensive rules for social role play is that social role play comes naturally to most people. Why provide extensive formal rules for something we do naturally when you can have light rules for this sort of thing?
The second advantage to designing the game this way is that it challenges the player more than the character. This is a core element of early edition D&D, and a core element of Gygax’s approach to AD&D.
Providing direct incentives and extensive rules for social role play removes the need for the player to prioritize these things themselves, instead it becomes a response to the mechanisms of the game. In essence, the game’s structure shows you how to play effectively, you just have to understand the incentive structure and make sure to engage in the appropriate behavior.
It also makes players very pragmatic about the game. If you engage in information gathering as the rules reward you for it, when it doesn’t work it can produce frustration. “But I did what the rules suggested, why didn’t it work?”
If, however, you use AD&D’s XP system, the players have to figure out how best to get to the gold, so you are challenging the player, not the character. There is a real and fascinating learning curve to AD&D. When the players start they often want to bull their way through everything. Something gets in your way, hit it with a sword! What happens rather quickly is that they learn that combat is brutal and produces many challenges with intermittent rewards.
The lethality of BTB AD&D leads creative players to marshall resources and avoid conflict as much as possible, and social role play is a great way to do this. So players learn to speak to locals and gather information. They learn that all is not as it seems, so asking questions and interacting with NPCs/monsters can be useful to avoid deadly mistakes. They learn that a conversation with an NPC can avoid conflict and sometimes (if the encounter reaction roll is good) produce an ally that makes the next step in the adventure easier.
Let me give a quick example.
In a recent game the party was headed across an arctic wasteland, the snow reduced visibility, and the area was experiencing “polar night”, e.g. it was dark all day. They had a two day journey and were stopped for an overnight (within a Leomund’s Tiny Hut!). While camped down, a local tribesman appeared riding a giant snake and flanked by two ice toads, crossing the wasteland in their general direction.
They hadn’t encountered anyone while in the wastes at this point, the sorcerer’s keep they were looking for was located in this remote area for a reason, to discourage anyone disturbing the sorcerer. Now, if AD&D was the hack and slash game everyone thinks it is my players would have headed out and attacked that tribesman before he attacked them to get his “stuff” or get the XP for slaying the monsters.
Instead, my players decided to approach and talk to the tribesman as they hadn’t seen any sort of settlements in the waste, so they figured he was probably a nomadic hunter type and that he would know the area pretty well. Indeed, the party magic-user suggested, he would probably know where the sorcerer’s keep was as he lives here and not that many people do.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. If the game directly incentivised social role play one of the players might have decided to go talk to the tribesman to gain XP. And they might have learned what my players learned by doing so. However, in the case of AD&D, the player went to talk to the tribesman because they have had success in the past using social role play to gather information, and it seemed wise to do so in this case as well.
In short, my players make their decisions based on in-game experience, hard won lessons based on past successes and failures, not because the behavior is incentivised by the game.
I think there are huge payoffs to running a game this way. First and foremost there is a sense of achievement when the players do things without being directed to. There is little in the world as satisfying as doing something, failing, learning from it and doing it better the next time.
And the open nature of XP in AD&D means that they can experiment, if they want to hack and slash sometimes they can. It may be challenging, but as long as they get the gold that’s just fine. If they want to play a primarily social game they can as well. It gives them a lot of freedom.
One last objection before I finish. Even if AD&D and older edition games end up having a lot of social role play in them, if that social role play isn’t directly incentivized or governed by a large number of explicit rules, does it still impact the game, or is it “outside” the game in some meaningful way?
Even without a large number of explicit rules governing social role play it still influences the game in a significant way. It does so as social role play leads to information gathering and alliance formation, it leads to different choices than would have been made without it. There may be minimal mechanics for it, but it has direct impacts on what happens in the game.