Tuesday, December 15, 2020

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.

Emergent Meaning

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.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Emulating Character Knowledge in D&D: Abstraction Versus Interaction

Image by Grandanvil on Deviantart - https://www.deviantart.com/grandanvil

Sometimes the players have a sense of how to do things their characters can do, so for example, a player may have ridden a horse, played cards, shot a bow, etc. However, sometimes a player will have NO IDEA WHATSOEVER how to do something their character can do. 

In a case like this you can either use an existing mechanic if it applies, assign odds that the action will be successful and roll if there is no existing mechanic, or you can walk through the situation with prompts. I do the latter. Today we had an encounter just like that. The party decided they wanted to buy a ship, but they were just short on gold. So The party thief asked if he could do some pick pocketing to cover the difference. I said, “sure”, and he said he wanted to roll for it. 

I said, “wait a second, what are you doing”?

He said, “I’ll go to the market and pickpocket someone”. I said, “OK, you are in the market, there are hundreds of people around you, moving, buying things, talking, city guards are walking around, who are you going to pickpocket?” 

PLAYER: “I don’t know”. 

So there we were. The PLAYER has no idea how to pick a pocket, what to do, what to plan, it’s entirely foreign to him. The CHARACTER however would no doubt be very familiar with what you have to do to set up a successful pickpocket. In a situation like this I ask leading questions to emulate their skill without reducing it all to a boring, single roll. 

Me: “Let’s talk this through, you are a thief, you have broken into places and you have pickpocketed before. So you would think about a few things: who to target, avoiding detection, and what to do if it goes wrong.” So how do you want to handle those?”

There was some conversation. PLAYER:”Should I stay in one place or move around?” Me:”If you stay in one place people will pass by you, so your location matters, and you can tailor your location to what you think will be the most helpful. if you move around, location isn’t fixed but you will see more potential targets and you won’t draw as much attention as you aren’t staying in one spot”.

Rather than tell them what to do, or give them an arbitrary suggestion, I detail what I think a thief would think about in this situation, and outline pluses and minuses. Players often say things like, “My thief character would know the best place to stand” and stuff like that, instead of just answering them with a “OK, you know that the best place to stand is X”, I say, “standing here is good for this but bad for that, standing there is good for one thing but bad for another”

In short, don’t tell them “THE ANSWER”, tell them some possibilities and let them weigh them out, this allows the player to have agency but somewhat emulates the idea that the character would know what they are doing.  

So he decided to stay in one place. REF: “Where do you want to set up”. We call up the map, he picks a part of the market where the tents border on a section of buildings with narrow alleyways between them. REF: “Anywhere in particular?”. 

He responds, “I should stay near a tent that sells expensive stuff, so that wealthy people will come there.” Now he’s getting into it. “OK, here are some of the tents in the area, tack and harness, knives and swords, religious symbols, rugs, custom armor and weapons, exotic mounts and animals …” 

PLAYER: “Stop”

REF: “Yes?”

PLAYER: “Isn’t fighting a big deal here, and Lords of the Houses wear custom armor and stuff?” 

REF: “Yes”. 

PLAYER: “And what sort of mounts?” 

This is a tropical setting, in a marshland, giant lizards are common mounts, horses are only found in the city with its even streets, and are prized for their speed and the status they show as they are expensive. 

REF:”Horses and jaguars” 

PLAYER: “I set up out about 5 tents away from the armor and mounts tents, near the edge where the crowd passes by. I’ll look for wealthy patrons going to either one of these tents.”

Some leading questions have got him thinking about the anatomy of the job. Now he asked one of the other players (the party assassin in this case) to walk around the area where he was standing and keep watch for the ward patrols. If one showed up, he would whistle a signal. Then they started to discuss what happens if he failed to pickpocket and was discovered. The party illusionist agreed to stand nearby in the crowd towards the buildings that bordered the market. If the pickpocket attempt went sour then the thief was to bolt in his direction. When he passed the illusionist would cast change self on the thief, and he could slip into the crowd and escape. 

IMC I have spell research rules, and this was a 2nd level version of the spell change self that the illusionist can cast on others (the 1st lv version cannot do this)

So now it was just a matter of time. The thief set up and waited. 

REF: “So who do you target?” The player thinks for a time and says, “Someone who looks wealthy”. 

REF:”What do you mean, ‘looks wealthy’”

PLAYER: “Wearing nice jewelry and clothing, large money purse, walks like they own the place, that sort of thing.”

So I assume that about one person per turn will be “wealthy looking” enough to merit attention, and I describe the first person to qualify, “Tall saturnine lizard man with a large red ruby ring, an elaborate surcoat and shiny leather boots, you can just see his money purse on his belt under his left arm. He is well built, muscular, carries a dagger.” 

In the city, open carry with anything other than a dagger or staff will get the city watch on your tail or get you challenged by a Lord of one of the Houses. 

PLAYER: “He only has one ring, how big is the money purse?”  

REF: “There is a med sized belt pouch with the tell tale jangle of coins on the inside, it looks to hold about 50 coins and is maybe half full.” 

Here I'm giving the PC information that I figure a thief would know, they would be able to guess at the amount of coins a pouch could hold based on a look and how much they were holding based on sound.

PLAYER: “Not interested” 

REF: “OK, another turn goes by and you see a woman with an elaborate gold trimmed and embossed and engraved steel breastplate with the symbol of an orange flower on a field of green. She wears a sword openly, a cloak, several rings, and as she walks you see a large money bag on her hip that seems full of coin as well, this one perhaps 100 coins. She has two armored men following behind her that have a similar crest, they are dressed in chainmail and carry heavy maces.” 

PLAYER:”She carries the sword openly?”

REF: “Yes”. 

PLAYER: “She must be a Lord or maybe the city watch, hard pass.” 

The player was tapping into his knowledge of the setting, weapons restrictions, martial practices, the encounter was drawing out this knowledge to manage the situation. This is so much more fun than, “I pick someone rich looking roll my pick pockets percentage.” 

So another turn passes. I roll and an actual ward patrol comes by.

REF:” A group of soldiers come towards your spot, it is a ward patrol, 5 guards in Lorica Hamata with broadsword and axe, 3 crossbowmen, 3 soldiers on giant frogs with short swords and javelins, a sergeant with trident and crossbow and a white robed druid, his left arm wrapped in thorny vines, and his gorilla mask hiding his face. All guards wear the crest of House Ain, a red tent with a red sword suspended above, on a field of black. They ride towards your position. Are you going to do anything?” 

This was just me keeping him on his toes. They weren’t after him, but he wouldn’t know that. He didn’t take the bait though. 

PLAYER: “I do nothing.” 

REF:”They pass by, and in another turn and you spot a potential target, this one is an old rakasta, a bit less physically intimidating, he appears out of shape and languid. He is dressed in fine silks of dark orange with a wide brimmed yellow hat crested with green and gold feathers. He rides a giant lizard on a large leather saddle. Walking in front of him are two burly lizard men, wearing only kilts, each of which has no apparent weapons. They are clearing the crowd ahead of the man and his giant lizard. You notice that the man has a large money bag slung across his chest that bulges with coins, and he carries an ornate jeweled silver dagger on his belt. His fingers have several large rings, he has a jeweled bracer on one arm, and his saddle is embossed with brass trim.”

I find that the more information I give, the more they ask for.

PLAYER: “I look at his mount, are there any bags on the saddle or elsewhere within easy reach?” 

REF: “On the back of the saddle there is a metal cylinder of some kind that looks out of place and added on, other than that there is an obvious waterskin on the left back of the saddle and a bag hanging off the right side.”

The player fixated on the metal cylinder. Smart lad. I decided that this was a wealthy merchant, the lizard men were his guards, and he carried gems on his person (he was there to pick up mounts) and the cylinder kept them safe.

So the player decided that this was his mark. He moved in and made a close pass walking behind them, he checked out the cylinder and asked if it looked like it could be pried off. At this point I suggested a find traps roll to see if he could tell if it could be removed.

He made that roll, so I told him that the cylinder itself was likely made of iron, but it was held on to a regular saddle with two iron staples, and the thief had a short crowbar he carried with him as part of his thieves tools. He could slip it between the saddle and the cylinder, give it a good wrench, and it should come off. He said he wanted to try. I told him that it would require two rolls, first, a remove traps roll to wrench it off, and a pick pockets roll to do so without being noticed. 

However, I told him that if he just walked over and tried to pry it off it would definitely alert the rider. He needed to do something to distract him to get the chance to even try to remove it without being noticed. There was some conversation, and he decided to follow the man for a time until something came up to distract him and his guards.

I told him that there was a 1 in 6 chance of a distraction significant enough to keep their attention for every turn they were in the market, and I would roll to see how many turns they were there. 

I rolled 4 turns. Then I rolled every turn, a 2, a 4 then a 1 on turn 3. So I described it this way:

“You see a giant boar with a druid mounted on top, surrounded by baskets of mistletoe in a ring around him. The boar is heading in the same direction as the lizard.” 

PLAYER: “I get closer”

REF: “The boar is just slightly ahead of the giant lizard and neither the lizard men guards nor your target seems to notice”. 

PLAYER: “I get right up beside the rear of the lizard, near the cylinder.” 

REF: “The giant boar crosses in front of the giant lizard, and it has to stop suddenly, with your target pulling on the reins.” 

PLAYER: “I make a move for the cylinder with my crowbar”

REF: “OK, first make a remove traps roll to slip in the crowbar and pry it off, then make a pick pockets roll to see if you did this in a way that wasn’t noticed because the giant lizard was lurching back and the rider and guards were distracted.” 

I could have just given it to him because of the situation, but I figured there is an art to doing this in such a way as it harmonizes with the movement of the giant lizard and doesn’t stand out. So he rolled to pry off the cylinder (the remove traps roll), and was successful. 

REF: “You slide the crowbar between the cylinder and the saddle and pry it, with a single firm wrench the cylinder comes free into your hand. Now let’s see if anyone noticed, roll your Pick Pockets attempt.” He rolled, he failed, and failed by enough that he was noticed. 

REF:”One of the lizard men turns and sees you stuffing the cylinder under your arm. He shouts at you”. 

PLAYER: “I bolt towards the illusionist”. 

Now, I had them roll initiative, the thief rolled a 2, the lizard man that noticed him rolled a 4. So the thief got 2 segments of movement. He’s a rakasta, so his movement rate is 15”, so he covers 30’, now the lizard man and his fellow guard start running, they have a movement rate of 12”. So in segment 3 the thief ran 15’ putting him at 45’ away from the lizard, the lizard men ran 12’ from the front of the giant lizard, so they are now approximately 45’ away from the thief. The next segment the thief runs 15’, they run 12’, so they are now 48’ away from him, and next round they will be 51’ away as he is faster. He reaches the illusionist and he casts change self on the thief, making him look like a farmer.

The last roll I have to make is to see if the guards noticed the illusionist doing the whamma jamma casting the spell, 1 in 6 chance of that, they fail, the thief is now in the clear, looking like someone else. He waits until the lizard men and the target on the giant lizard pass, then he slips off through the crowd to rendezvous with the illusionist and assassin later. 


I know refs that would take a player in this situation and just say, “OK, you go to the market, roll your PP percentage to see if you grab some cash from someone”, and only if they failed and were detected would anything come of it. I’m fine with that, and it can work well enough, but I find this method to be FAR more interesting and far more challenging to the player. 

What is interesting here is that the player had to do a lot of groundwork before making his rolls, and to get that groundwork done I had to ask a lot of leading questions. This is the imperfect solution to the fact that the player doesn’t know what the character knows, but the character is supposed to be skilled. To mimic that without just making a single resolution roll, I ask the leading questions, presenting multiple options to the players rather than just saying, “your PLAYER would know that”. This gives the player input, and makes it a tense, uncertain situation.

But it also mimics how the CHARACTER would be knowledgeable about doing this sort of thing, even if the player is not. This balance point, between metagaming and just fully abstracting an action with a dice roll, is the goal for me when adjudicating this sort of thing. 

The haul? 5 gems, a scroll and a potion. It should be enough when added to their funds to get them their merchant galley, it will be interesting if the thief remembers to give the guild a cut, and if he doesn’t, I will have to roll to see if they find out about the job… 

Urban adventures are where it is at.

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