Thursday, March 17, 2016

The 3 Rules of a Great D&D Game

Well, there's more than one way to skin a cat, but all of my best games have followed this model.

You may feel free to skip

Some unnecessary philosophy

One thing I used to do a lot is describe the lay of the land, give the PCs some context, and than ask them what they do. This is a very videogame approach to roleplaying: dropped in a virtual landscape, the player starts to interact with stuff just because it's there, and perhaps more or less at random. It's like playing Skyrim.

When playing with a strong willed and adventurous bunch, the players will quickly go off and get themselves in trouble. But I've often seen players blank-faced and at a loss for what to do, especially if I have newbies.

Which is on me, because D&D is not just a video game. The story telling techniques that work in that medium do not inherently translate into roleplaying. Same as railroading: you don't run a game the same way you write a book.

The actual bloody rules.

So here's my magic formula. Secret bonus: run games like this and they're usually one shots. God I love one shots.

Rule 1: Present the players with a time sensitive mission.

Examples: Orcs are going to invade the village in three days. There's some dudes over there and it looks like they're setting up some kind of race with gambling. A rival adventuring party is going to raid the dungeon.

This accomplishes two things. First, it forces the players to be proactive. The problem is imminent: you must either engage now or ignore it. Second, it provides a clear and obvious goal. All the best stories have strong beginning.

Rule 2: Multiple ways can help solve the problem.

Good example: Combat. Smack a bad guy. Trip somewhere. Retreat to the room with the traps. Cast a spell. Talk your way out of it. Heal a friend. Set everything on fire.

Bad example: Vast Hitpoint Boss Monsters. They're immune to a lot of interesting spells. They're geographically limited. All you can do is deal enough damage to kill it. 

This keeps things interesting. If you're planning a heist, someone can distract the guards, someone else is making a beeline for the the diamonds, and the third group is digging the escape tunnel. Which means EVERYONE can contribute: if a character can't climb a cliff or deal a lot of damage, that's fine: they can help in other ways. It keeps everyone engaged.

It also avoids pixel bitching. The standard mandatory secret door is infuriating because there's only one way to spot the damn thing. Giving the players options means they're less likely to get stuck and sink into frustration and despair.

Rule 3: Provide resources, some with no obvious use. 

The player's character sheets can do a lot of the work for you. Inventories are full of weird items, the wizard has some funky spells, and the ranger has a pet bear. Sometimes this is more than enough: the players can stand on their own two feet. But adding environmental features only expands the range of cool shit. Maybe the dungeon has a 200 foot shaft. Maybe it has thirty feet of steel chain, and three locks to go with it. Maybe it has incredibly narrow corridors that the minotaur can't fit into. Give the players a chance to get creative and surprise you.

Anecdote time: I once ran the 'Your village will be invaded by orcs in three days' game. While drawing the map, I added a river, some standing stones, and a door in the middle of a hil. I just wanted to make the map a little more interesting: I didn't have anything special in mind. In the course of the game, the players voraciously explored EVERYTHING.

They allied with the dwarves who lived in the hill and got them to build a series of tunnels and foxholes, so they would have better mobility on the battlefield. At the standing stones they made a deal with Satan. And best of all, at the river they built a bridge, so the the orcs wouldn't have to ford it. Then they lined the bridge with dynamite.

I played the 1812 Overture when they blew it up, taking half the orcish horde with it. It was a beautiful finale to an evening of orc killing.