Dungeons and Design part 2: I am everything wrong with gaming

Recently some friends and I decided to try Dungeons and Dragons (fourth edition, Planescape setting) for the first time. As usual, no-one wanted to be the DM, so I volunteered, and I’m glad I did. Running these adventures has given me a lot of insight into game design and how to deal with players, including pointing out some things I really should have known already. So I’ve decided to write a little about each session, and the stark contrast between what I planned and what actually happened.

NB: We’re using Roll20, an awesome online tabletop website, to run our games.

The Cast

Tom Senior – Fox Hengeyukai Ranger – Loves eating chickens
Chris – Warforged Fighter – Crap at jokes
Chimp – Earth Genasi Warlord – Budding communist
Simon – Tiefling Wizard – Probably evil
Miles – Gnomish Bard – Master of the filthy limerick

How I planned it

The great thing about using a prison escape as a first session is it gives your players a reason to band together. The bad thing about it is that they don’t have a reason to stick together afterwards. For this reason I decided to run the players through at least one more self contained adventure before letting them loose in Sigil. Following on from the last session, I also decided to open with a fight to get everyone nice and warmed up.

The solution? Pirates! Back when I decided to set the game in Planescape, I’d also considered Spelljammer, the alternative D&D dimension jumper, where ships sailed between worlds in the void. Why not include both? My players had been captured by slavers, so they’d come out in the cargo hold and have to fight for their freedom.

But what then? Well murdering the crew and taking over the ship was only going to result in the same problem I was trying to avoid, a lack of direction and bickering over what to do. I resolved to include another vessel under attack by the slavers, one my crew could rescue and escape with. I rapidly become enamoured with this idea, so I came up with a few naval battle mechanics. The slaver ship would constantly spawn enemies, which would keep coming until the players destroyed the boarding planks connecting the two vessels, or used the friendly ship’s cannons to shoot down the enemy. Once aboard they could help crew the ship, hitching a ride to Sigil, and have time for a brief scuffle on the docks before ending the session.

What could go wrong?

How it actually happened

Immediately everything went wrong. In my haste to keep things simple I had constructed a highly linear adventure. Unsurprisingly, my players didn’t follow it.

The boarding planks and cannons were completely ignored and the enemy crew swiftly slaughtered. Realising that giving them two ships would cause them to split up, and continually spawning enemies until they got the point would be annoying, I quickly decided to instead sink the friendly vessel, and have its Captain scramble across to join them.

This didn’t solve all my problems though. The players were happy to defer to the Captain’s expertise to steer them back to port, but once they’d arrived, it transpired they now considered the ship theirs, and some of them were even happy to kill the Captain so they didn’t have to share it. As conflict between the lawful Chris and the evil Simon started to escalate, so I did the only thing I could think of, I threw an encounter at them while I figured it out.

It’s all fairly embarrassing in retrospect. How did I, someone who often criticises linearity in games, manage to hand my players such a limitedr set of choices? Well there’s a few reasons.

  • Time – I wrote the campaign in a quick scramble a few hours before people played. I didn’t leave myself time to try and check all the angles.
  • Resources – I only had on hand what I’d put together before the session. I couldn’t let the players start a random fight, because I didn’t have the monster stats for them to do it.
  • No external viewpoint – The point of playtesting is to get an opinion from someone who isn’t absorbed or invested in what you’ve made. You can’t exactly playtest a D&D session.
  • Underestimating players – The first session was a little awkward as everyone got to grips with the system, so I toned things down. I failed to consider that they others might also learnt something from the experience.
  • Fear – In D&D you can actually react pretty swiftly to developing situations, but I hadn’t realised this beforehand, and was too afraid to leave myself room to simply react to players, rather than guide them.
  • Lack of pressure – When players are under pressure, they react to the choices presented, when they aren’t they explore and bump up against the edges. If the encounter was harder, the lack of choices might have been less glaring.

I certainly have a lot more sympathy for developers who don’t anticipate player responses now. It’s an easier trap to fall into than people realise. Still I’ve learnt my lesson, and I’ve realised that leaving myself room to improvise actually works pretty well. Next time I plan to have a generic ‘random encounter’ in my pocket in case my players start a fight out of nowhere.

Thankfully the strength of D&D is its capacity for improvisation. I was able to quickly recover from both instances and respond to what the players were doing, but the result was less impressive than if I’d been properly prepared. Thankfully I managed a strong finish, offering I the players a choice. They could take the ship as their own personal adventure transport, or fix it up and let the Captain run cargo for them, starting their own business. However to achieve either they’ll need to clear their names in the city by taking down Lord Killick, the man running the slaver ring.

Best moments:

  • Uncertain what to do with his minor actions. Simon starts randomly dropping prone.
  • Critically failing a history check, Chimp now believes that the villainous slaver Lord Killick owns a chain of burger restaurants.
  • Tom S leaps gracefully atop the crows nest, then point the ship in exactly the wrong direction.

Lessons Learnt:

  • Don’t ever assume the players will do what you want, no matter how sensible it seems.
  • Don’t ever give players something you don’t want them to keep.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave room for improvisation on your part.

Questions raised:

  • How do I deal with players disagreeing beyond distracting them with combat?
  • How do I deal with attempts to murder innocent NPCs?

Next Time – How can the players clear their names? With burglary!