Consequentialism and Narrative in Dungeons and Dragons
One thing I have seen discussed a lot on social media is the question of the lethality of 5th edition. The consensus (as far as one can have one) appears to be that in 5th the DM has to mod the game quite a bit to make it deadly. As written, it is a game of superheroes, a game where the PCs are very likely to survive encounters. Indeed, there is a CR (challenge rating) system to help the DM calibrate the game so that PCs have a very good chance of surviving encounters.
So you CAN run it deadly, but it isn’t written that way. That seems to be the most popular take.
First caveat, I’m not going to debate this particular point as I don’t play 5e and I have no idea if it is true or not, all I know is a lot of people say it’s true. So for the sake of this argument, let’s ASSUME it’s true, and go from there. If it ends up it isn’t true, well, we can ignore a lot of what I have to say.
Second caveat, what I am about to argue is DESCRIPTIVE, not NORMATIVE. I’m NOT saying you SHOULD play D&D the way I do, I’m NOT saying that playing D&D the way I do is BETTER, I’m NOT saying that other ways are WRONG. I’m of the opinion that a good group and a good DM playing a robust, well designed system can create a satisfying, fun experience at the table in lots of different ways.
So just to be clear, I am arguing for ONE WAY you can play D&D, I believe that AD&D, the system I choose to run, is exceptionally good at playing this way, and I’m sure you could “mod” 5e to do this as well. I’m also sure that there are other ways of playing that could create a similar experience, there are many ways to play.
Collaborative Storytelling at the Table
OK, here’s the tough part.
In my preferred style of play, D&D is NOT collaborative storytelling.
You can, of course, tell a story about your last session, in that sense it is a form of storytelling, but in terms of playing the game at the table, D&D for me is not storytelling. If you are familiar with collaborative storytelling as a practice, this is actually pretty clear. When people tell a story together they don’t generally stop and roll dice to see what happens, or consult character sheets. One person starts the story, and others add to it, reacting to and building on what came before.
For me, D&D is a GAME first and foremost. And in a game, you are challenged in some way as part of the play process. Of course, some games aren’t built that way, but many are. You don’t “win” at D&D like you “win” at chess, but you can survive and achieve your goals at D&D, as opposed to dying, or failing to achieve your goals.
You can see this difference in perspective if you look at the language that is used to describe 5e games. People refer to PCs as “protagonists”, they describe “story beats” that you should hit as you play. They suggest that “everyone should get a chance to shine” in the game, which is really just another way to say that “everyone gets to be a protagonist in the story”.
For my preferred style of play, the PCs are not the “protagonists”, I don’t hit “story beats”, and the only way people get to “shine” is through their in game actions, I don’t make that happen for them.
Now, just to be clear, D&D was designed with narrative mechanics baked into the game. So to some degree, it is meant to emulate story structures. So for example, D&D has hit points and saving throws. Both of these mechanics are there to ensure that your PC has some survivability in the game. Gygax describes them in exactly this way, he points to pulp/mythological/fantasy stories and says that the hero should always have a chance, even a remote one, of survival.
But there is an important difference, in many games that chance for survival is built into the game through active mechanics the players can apply, luck points, karma, moves, whatever. The players can CHOOSE to survive something that otherwise would have taken them out, as they have shared control of the story. And in games that don’t have explicit mechanics for the player to control outcomes, the DM can do this by fudging dice, allowing “redos”, that sort of thing.
In D&D, narrative mechanics are passive, if the PCs are going to survive a deadly situation it is through in game actions or luck, not through a metagame mechanic of the player getting to reverse a result or shift it from bad to good. The main reason for this is that D&D at its heart is a game, not a storytelling engine, so there is a degree of independence to the game world that can work against storytelling conventions and expectations.
This, to me, is the biggest difference between the way the game is played today and the way I play it. Not ‘easy’ versus ‘hard”, though that sometimes maps on to what I am interested in. I constantly see DM advice on social media that tells the DM to shape the story for the players by fudging to save them so they don’t die “needlessly”, to ensure that every player gets a chance to shine in the session, to ensure that the session has a structure to it of building tension and a payoff encounter of some kind near the end.
“Do whatever serves the story” is a very common piece of advice.
These are story based ideas for play. Stories have conceits. It is rare to read a long form narrative where the main character (and you can usually identify the main character) dies early on and the story follows other characters that were not focused on in the early stages. There is sort of an unwritten rule about narratives that stories are ABOUT the protagonists. They can have a rough run or an easy one, they can die in the end, but the story is ABOUT them. So the author MAKES exciting things happen to them, the author ensures they are around until the end of the story. There can of course be exceptions to this, but they are exceptions, when you pick up a book about a plucky soldier and her faithful dog spot, you get a book that follows that soldier and her dog around, not a story where she dies on page 5 and the rest of the story is about the world she lived in and doesn’t mention her anymore.
The reason I play in the style that I do, and the reason I play 1e AD&D, is that I DON’T want to tell a story, collaboratively or otherwise. If my players want a story they should go read a book. Books are great, they tell stories well. If they want a collaborative storytelling experience they can find that at someone else’s table, not mine.
What they get at my table is a GAME. And in the context of my preferred style of play, here is what that means:
1. Any PC can die, at any time.
2. Any PC or party can fail to meet their goals.
3. There are no ‘story beats’ to the sessions, sometimes they are all high tension, sometimes they are picaresque, sometimes they are exploration/sense of wonder, sometimes they are all social role play, and most times they are a mixture of many things.
4. The only way to “shine” at my table is to play well, make good decisions or at least respond well to bad decisions.
5. If your players want to be the “heroes”, they have to act like heroes. There is no guarantee that things will work out.
6. You can meet things that are far more powerful than you in regular play, there are no challenge ratings and the game is fundamentally imbalanced.
7. There are no “do overs”, no active mechanics for players to change results they don’t like, and all rolls are done in the open for all to see, there is no fudging of any kind by me or the players.
My job as a referee is to be, as much as possible, a neutral arbiter. That doesn’t mean there is no collaboration in the game between myself and the players, but it is collaboration of a certain kind.
So for example, I do the following things collaboratively in my game:
When the rules don’t cover something and I create a mechanic on the spot, I ask the players if they think it is fair, if they don’t, we keep at it until there is consensus
I often get the players to make decisions about aspects of the game I am improvising, so for example, if I haven’t named the Inn, I ask them for names, or if I haven’t decided on whether or not the guard has flint and steel on him, I sometimes ask the players if they think he does.
When I don’t know what to do I will listen to the player chatter, what THEY THINK is happening, and if I like it I will use it. Sometimes I will change what I had planned as the player's suggestion is cooler.
When a PC is “down” (e.g. paralysis, off from the main group, dead) I will have the player roll for the monsters/NPCs to give them something to do
I run a full sandbox game, where the players go and what they do is entirely up to them, they set the pace and the goals for the game, not me
But I don’t collaborate with them on the outcomes of dice rolls, or whether or not to accept a result that came out of play. Those things are resolved by dice and mechanics, even if they don’t “serve the story”.
So what is the point of all this. Why not run D&D like a storytelling engine, one where the DM and the players are telling a story together? I don’t run my games this way for two primary reasons, consequentialism and skill.
D&D is a game where your actions can have consequences. If you attack someone, they will respond, if you are challenged by something much more powerful than you and you don’t back down, you might die. If you break the rules, someone will seek you out to challenge you for it.
I don’t run the game like a story as this can blunt the consequences of the game. One great example of this is violence. I have been hearing for decades the claim that “D&D is violent”, and of course, it can be. But one of the reasons for this is that DMs have a tendency to blunt the consequences of violence. So for example, I have seen all of the following over the years:
Give out HP kickers to the party, e.g. give them full HP at levelling
Start PCs at higher levels, e.g. start at 3rd or 5th
Had the monsters/NPCs fight even when they were clearly outclassed
Saved the PCs from certain death with extra saves or DM fiat
Made exceptions for PCs that don’t apply to NPC/Monsters
Brought back PCs to life cheaply
In short, DMs quite often blunt the violence of the game when it is directed at the PCs so they can survive, to “serve the story”, or to allow PCs to live as killing them “ends their story”. Obviously this doesn’t happen all the time, PCs die in “story focused” games as well, but much less frequently.
A lot of D&D games are run such that the PCs survive when the rules or the dice would have indicated otherwise, and this blunts the consequences of violence. This encourages the PCs to use violence as a tool to achieve their goals, and thus, voila, D&D is a violent game.
Now, step over to my table for a moment. I have been running 4 campaigns over the last 2 years, a total of 80 hours per campaign per year at the table, and 28 players between the groups. All of them have used violence to achieve their ends. But they do not use it often, and they have suffered consequences for it when they have. We have had multiple fatalities, and entire sessions free of any sort of combat whatsoever.
My players are cautious, they only take out their swords when they know they have an advantage, or they have no other choice.
Consequentialism is about letting the consequences of actions stand in the game, so the PCs choices and actions matter. Another example of bringing back PCs from the dead. It is allowed in my game as it is allowed in the rules. But it is very expensive and difficult to secure. Most of the time, unless the party is high enough level to be able to do it themselves, they have to find a powerful priest at a temple and pay for it. But they rarely have that kind of wealth, so they will have to perform a service instead.
The last time one of my groups wanted to bring someone back, they ended up on a quest that lasted a year of game time and about 60 hours of table time. It BECAME the game for a while. So it can be done, but it ain’t easy.
The point of all this is to make it such that the players know there are consequences to their actions. Why is this important? I find that games with consequences that stick are more immersive than games where you can alter the results to “fit the story”. This may not be the case for everyone, but in my groups I have witnessed a significant level of immersion when the game has meaningful consequences of this kind. Players know I won’t save them, that their actions will produce reactions that may not be to their liking.
Personally I think that this contributes to immersion as it gives the game world some verisimilitude, in real life you can suffer the consequences of your actions without being able to change them. This makes the game feel independent of the players, and when this happens it is easier to become immersed in the game.
Another benefit of consequentialism is that it teaches a good lesson for my players. I run games for kids ages 10-17, and learning that your choices have consequences isn’t such a bad lesson to get from a game.
Finally, and this is a big one, consequentialism means that victories are EARNED. The players know I don’t make it easy for them. Recently in my Thursday after school game a player finally became a 1st edition AD&D bard. For those of you who aren’t familiar, you have to be a thief, advance to mid-level, then switch classes to a fighter, then advance to mid-level, then switch to a bard. It took him about 2 years of gaming to achieve this goal.
I could have hand waived the requirements, I could have used a bard variant that starts at 1st level, I could have spiked his XP, or given him tons of treasure to get him there faster.
But I didn’t do any of this, he just played it out and EARNED IT. And when he got there, he was ecstatic, his fellow players were impressed, and it was an achievement. He didn’t write it into his backstory, he made it happen at the table. Consequentialism is about achieving things not because it “serves the story”, but because you went out and got those things by playing the game.
The other piece of this puzzle is skill. Some games require skill, some luck, most some combination of both. D&D, when run as written, requires both. Playing D&D as a game, not a storytelling engine, means that the only way to do well other than luck is to develop skill. To learn from your mistakes and do better the next time.
So for example, AD&D has CRUEL surprise rules. Depending on the roll, you can be surprised for multiple segments and your opponents can get multiple attacks against you. Surprise is remarkably deadly in 1e. Now, you could blunt the deadliness of surprise by eliminating it entirely as it is too deadly, by restricting it to one attack only, or by any other method that allows you to serve the story. Because having the party, or a member of the party, die by surprise is something that doesn’t fit everyone’s idea of what a story is like. I’ve seen many people say they don’t oppose death, just ignoble death, and dying because you were surprised and shanked isn’t noble death for many, it DOESN’T SERVE THE STORY.
But I run AD&D surprise as written. My players have learned how deadly surprise is, so now they take precautions and play smart. They have learned through consequentialism and developed skills in game.
Another example I’ve seen in many of my groups is distance. Distance is the best armor in D&D, it’s much better to keep your distance and avoid melee if possible, as many close up attacks are deadly. So my group often uses ranged spells and missile weapons in combat. But they have learned that AD&D has unforgiving friendly fire rules, and AOE spells can catch everyone, so now they coordinate their attacks to minimize the chances of friendly fire.
That’s a skill they learned at the table because the game is so deadly. Again, I could blunt the consequences of this for the purposes of the story, does it serve the story for a PC to die because of another PCs badly shot arrow? My guess is that many DMs would hand wave this, or just not use friendly fire rules, as they would feel this is a cheap way to die.
In my game, the players learned the consequences and improved their skill at the game in response.
Why is this important? Because I’m running a game, not a storytelling experience, and in games, it’s satisfying to improve your skills. It’s fun to play, but it’s also fun to play WELL, and if you play a consequentialist game, your players will develop that skill. In a metagaming sense, your PCs are your learning engines, through their misfortune the players learn to play a better game.
There is something particularly rewarding about building skills at something, getting visibly and noticeably better at a game can build confidence, and give players the willingness to try new things. Again, I run games for kids, and watching them grow in skill and get better and surviving the game and achieving their goals is very rewarding.
Of course, if you see D&D as primarily a storytelling game, you might not care about building skills and having consequences. And that’s fine. The game doesn’t have to be played this way. And you can have a ton of fun playing D&D as a story focused game. Stories, even when they aren’t deadly and they bend the consequences a bit, can still be challenging and rewarding.
But that isn’t the only way to play D&D. And I would submit that the people who are finding 5e to be unsatisfying might be disliking it for precisely this reason. They are playing it like they are telling a story. If this isn’t chiming your bell, I would recommend trying to play the game with a more consequentialist focus. It will mean making some tough calls, and watching as the dice do horrible things to your players. There will be times when you will be SORELY TEMPTED to fudge dice, reverse results, hand wave things, because that will make for a “better story”.
My advice is to try and resist these impulses and see how the game plays. Rather than asking, “how can I alter this result to fit the story we want to tell” try asking, “how is the game world going to react to the players actions”. Don’t change results to serve the story, play the game as it lays and tell stories about it afterwards.
Trust me, it will be epic.