For me, D&D is first-and-foremost a game. That means there are game elements at work: Puzzles, mysteries, tactical combats, hidden timelines, all that. It’s a fair game. Your enemies play by the same rules as you do. Yes, there may be some unpredictable stuff, things that occasionally blind-side you, or epic level NPCs who can do things that aren’t specifically spelled out in the rules. With time and effort and a little luck, you can learn to do all those epic and wonderful things too.
D&D is an odd game in that its win condition is a little nebulous – When I’m playing a Character, a win occurs whenever I accomplish a goal with style. It’s more about accumulating a mass of small wins than one really big one, but with a bit of time and cleverness and luck, a big win can definitely happen. When I’m GMing, a win is any truly memorable session. If you’re laughing about the time the ranger knocked the high priestess out cold by hiding around a corner and smacking her in the face with a shovel, two years after the session wrapped, that’s a win.
You can definitely lose at D&D, though. These, to me, are all-too-common losses—
•The table isn’t communicating effectively
•One player repeatedly alienates the group, usually by stubbornly clinging to their narrow interpretation of something (a rule, an alignment, a tactic, etc)
•Players forget that the GM is a player, too, and take for granted all the extra time, creativity, and prep work that GMing requires.
•Players are still mentally playing the last game, and aren’t paying attention to the one they’re in right now. This can be as innocent as the Rogue taking a bunch of trap damage because he forgot to search (which isn’t really a loss, just sloppy play), or as insidious as sabotaging the party’s best efforts because you’d rather be playing another system (and if this campaign wrapped early because of a TPK…)
These losses don’t have to be fatal, but they do need to be addressed when they happen. D&D is a hugely social game, and pretending like the only important game elements are the ones written down on your character sheet is silly. Role-playing isn’t just about creating a character, it’s about learning how to communicate effectively. No matter how good we think we are at that, each and every one of us can find new ways to improve.
|Teamwork makes the dream work.|
When appropriate, I use Morale tests and Reaction rolls to determine NPC motivations behind-the-scenes. It’s a hold-over from Basic D&D, but I keep using it because it keeps working.
Essentially, every NPC has a morale score (usually determined by rolling 2d6, or sometimes just assigning a common number—wild animals are 4-6, most people are 7-8, trained soldiers are 10, etc). When something morale-breaking happens (loss of 50% hit points, asked to drink acid, etc), they test morale by rolling 2d6. If they roll over, they break, and quit the task in-character. Otherwise, they keep at it.
Reaction rolls are used to determine how an NPC (usually a minor one) reacts to you when the social script takes a turn. You’re talking to the bartender and you casually mention that you’ve just killed seven people. This bartender is a random commoner who might not even have a stat-line, and now he’s got a hard choice. The GM rolls 3d6 and adds your character’s Charisma modifier, either positive or negative. If the roll is 10+, the NPC reacts favorably to you (“Only seven, eh? Guy in yesterday said he killed nine.”) If it’s 6+, the NPC reacts neutrally (“Oh? Well, um, sounds like thirsty work. Can I get you a beer?” And thinks, “This guy’s probably lying, but I need to call the city guard just to be safe.”) Less than 6, and it won’t be great (“You bastard! My aunt was stabbed this morning by a man in a tan coat! Draw steel!”).
Lastly, I tend to interpret things in the PCs favor. My rationale is that, as the GM, I have access to everything. I can always make the game harder. PCs only get so much to work with, so why not let them have their fun? This sometimes leads to people getting shocked by difficult traps / puzzles / monsters / social encounters down the road, because I’ve been pretty lenient early on. So we’re clear: Giving you the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean, “I’ll take it easy on you.” So, there you go. You’ve been warned.
How to be an awesome PC in one of my games:
• Know the rules well enough to play your character. It’s fine to ask clarifying questions, and to ask for rulings, and all of that, but you should at least know what dice to roll and what numbers to add to them in order to make an attack.
• Try to strike a balance between roleplaying your character and doing things that are useful for your team. Don’t insist on rolling a Halfling ranger who only uses a longbow (attacking with disadvantage all the time because it’s some ancestral blah blah blah); don’t be an alpha-gamer who micro-manages everyone else’s movement phase or wastes time looting EVERY GODDAMN THING like he’s playing modded Skyrim without encumbrance rules. Make good, interesting decisions while in-character. It sounds simple, but that simple tenet is the Coca-Cola secret flavor formula for playing D&D.
• Help other players when they have rules questions. Or lore questions. Or any question at all that doesn’t need to be answered by the GM. There’s only one of me but there are several of you.
• Pay attention to the lore of the setting, and make a character who interacts with it. My settings are always filled with weird in-jokes and hidden references and if you actually pick up on them, damn, I love you for it. Plus, there are always hidden clues on how to beat bad guys and solve puzzles, so there’s something in it for you, too.