Recently I was sitting around with one of my friends before our weekly D&D game. As per usual we were catching up on the events of the week and speaking about the latest installment of the D&D Acquisitions Incorporated adventure play. If you are unfamiliar with Acquisitions Incorporated I suggest looking them up. It’s a celebrity adventuring party with Gabe and Tycho from Penny Arcade, Scott from PvP Online, Wil Wheaton of… TableTop most recently I believe, and Patrick Rothfuss, a fantasy author. They are run through all manner of Dungeons and Dragons by WoTC’s own Chris Perkins, “DM to the Stars”.
My friend offhandedly commented that he wished our games had more in-character banter and more interesting encounters like Acquisitions Incorporated. As we both understand the AI team are first and foremost terrible adventurers. They’re disorganized, a tactical mess, and they make just bad decisions on a regular basis. Honestly DMing them is probably a lot more work than Chris Perkins makes it seem. Most of the characters are also larger than life, they are iconic. That is probably the crux of the issue, for our group at least. It is perhaps easier to role play a caricature first and then tone it back, find the nuances and as the paint dries into its little rivulets you’re left with a pretty definitive character. It is much harder to make something while staring at a blank canvas, or a new character sheet in this instance.
The very simple truth is that our group sucks it up on the RP end. The kernel of the issue is the group itself. Assuming one of the heavy RPers is running the game, 90% of the time or better it leaves only two of the remaining four players to carry the in-character weight and narrative. What about the other two players? Well the first is an elementary-aged boy. If you haven’t spent any time with children of this age lately they can make-believe just fine but the nuances of consistent role play, or projecting emotions, fears, and thoughts through the filter of a separate entity is somewhat beyond them. Honestly there just isn’t enough life experience under their belt to expect more than “slay baddies, acquire riches.” As for the other, she falls into D&D’s Player Motivations states as the Watcher with notes of Slayer. She is there to socialize and be part of the group. She would be just as happy meeting to play tabletop games rather than an RPG and when she does play an RPG her only drive, when it rears its head, is to roll initiative and murder things. This becomes distractedly plain in situations like the current adventure arc where the Watcher is playing the bard, but my elemental fire-touched half-orc barbarian is doing the brunt of the dialog legwork. Do I mind, no not particularly, but don’t be surprised that I fail every Charisma this side of Intimidate. Or that people don’t want to talk to the nightmarish stack of muscle with a big axe.
The solution for this issue I think is simple. The DM did lay one of the heavy plot devices on the Watcher, making her immediately one of the fundamental pieces of the plot and it did work to some extent. But I think the true success has laid in hyper focusing the plot of the campaign on the one or two highly receptive PCs. It may sound a bit rough, but with the experiences I have had with the group it does not seem like the other half of the table are at all interested in doing heavy lifting for the plot. Their characters are little more than animate weapons and skill bonuses. That’s not the ‘wrong’ way to play the game but demanding them to be more than that is unproductive for everyone involved. Latch on to your engaged players and let them help you carry the plot on their broad shoulders. Just make sure to pepper in plenty of combats so the others don’t get bored.
The second part of bringing the game to life deals with doing at the table what is not the most tactically sound option. Though I think that perception is skewed. We only consider it a less advantageous choice based on our experiences and knowledge of the rules. For example there are many players who have discovered, as have I, in 4e alchemical items are not worth the cost or the action to use them. Alchemical munitions, ‘Alchemist’s X’ are 1st level flasks that do typed damage. The general stats for them are Close Burst 1, +4 Atk vs. Ref, 1d6 of X type damage. Anyone with a working knowledge of low-level 4e knows this is a waste of money (50 gp) to do a specific type of damage someone probably already does in the party. Resistances are pretty rare in low level 4e, and even with a resist 5 many low level PCs can out damage the munitions with at-will attacks.
But try to think back to when you first back either playing RPGs or playing a new system. You likely didn’t know all the working rules or how they played at the table. Things like using alchemical fire on a pack of goblins was less useful than most controller at-wills or even perhaps your sword. In our minds, without knowledge of the system’s crunch setting things on fire will probably have better results than waving my mace at them. Our understanding of the rules and their specifics actually can limit what we do, it places our minds ‘inside the box’.
As DM/GMs we hate that right? People have their noses stuck to the character sheets; skill lists and stated attacks. Well it’s not completely their fault, part of it is experience, the system rules, and even our own adjudications. In my own experience I want PCs to be spontaneous, use their surroundings but I don’t often reward them for doing so or I call for skill checks when maybe I should just let the ‘Rule of Cool’ reign. I’m not a big fan of the Rule of Cool, some things are just ridiculous. Really I want some sort of ‘Rule of Clever’, where in you reward people for bringing smart play and clever solutions to your problems and reward them for the ideas.
To illustrate the point I would like to give some personal examples of recent play. First the bad. In our Pathfinder Campaign the big climax battle took a turn for the worse. The evil sorceress used her final spell to slap the entire party with color spray, which thankfully my cleric saved out of this time. The bad news being he was the only one not stunned for a number of rounds and fighting a sorceress and a giant wasp, like horse-sized large giant wasp. Enter solo cleric awesome, long story short he gets the wasp to attack the sorceress and then stuns and the pair. Again my knowledge of Pathfinder rules is fledgling at best. My cleric walks up to the sorceress and I ask if I can hold her by the shoulder and coup de grace her. Well she’s not technically helpless even though stunned causes you to drop whatever you’re holding and are unable to take actions plus a number of other really bad penalties. The GM tells me she has to be prone and stunned to be helpless. Sure whatever, can I spend a swift action to kick out her knee? No. Why, is someone going to stop me? Now I know it was plot reasons why she needed to survive just a few more rounds. Which returns to one of my prior tips on building encounters, anyone you stat and put in a fight has a chance of dying. The party will beat your BBEG into the consistency of paste. But the bottom line of the example is I feel jipped for good play and getting the advantage of a 2-on-1 solo fight situation. Only to have the fight end by the introduction of a way overpowered 3rd party who subdued us in one surprise round. It’s almost insulting to play out when the baddies are so OP. I hate it when they do that crap in JRPG, fight this guy who’s going to mop you up in 1-3 moves. That’s not interactive or fun, it’s just me taking part of a predetermined outcome because ???
Second poor example, prior fight, wandering monster battle, same PF campaign. While investigating a possible ambush site we get into a split party fight. The setting is a road cut through a hill so land rises with cliffs on either side of the road. Goblins & goblin dogs. The cavalier is being a trooper. Goblin dog runs up the slope while the goblin archers below are hugging the cliff and taking pot shots. The cavalier decides to kills the goblin dog handily, picks up the carcass and throws it down on the goblin archers. Great play right? Things are going well, one archer dodges out of the way but the other gets crushed by a heavy carcass from a 20 ft drop. This where things go awry in my opinion. A better decision would just be to say the goblin is squashed, you get hit with the dead weight of a creature one size category larger than you seems pretty obvious it would kill you. Well the damage is rolled and the goblin isn’t dead. He’s pinned but extricates himself the next turn and continues the fight none the worse for wear. Unlike the previous example this is a random encounter, no importance to the overall plot why this goblin could not be squashed. It might have been a more interesting RP opportunity to have the goblin live until the end of the fight and have the PCs deal with a crushed goblin slowly wasting away to death and whether they deal it a mercy blow. The end result unfortunately tells the players even doing something cool and clever like trying to crush someone below the cliff you’re on with situational context is no more rewarding than charging them and hitting them with a full blade.
Now an example of rewarding some clever play. In the weekly D&D game the party fought some random encounter, bandits or some such. My half-orc berserker hit an enemy and dealt a fair bit of damage. The DM stated he’s barely alive and the enemy dropped to his knees. Trying to play that berserker bit to the hilt I asked if I can push him over with a boot as my remaining minor action. He agreed and I did. The push did no damage, proned the guy I suppose. But keeping with the theme, when the baddie’s turn came up he simply expired, sprawled out on the ground. Sure he could have gotten up and given it his all with his last HP but he certainly wasn’t going to turn the tide of battle at that point. Instead he got a dramatic death and my berserker looked like a badass.
So if you want PCs to take more risks and unorthodox tactics in your game reward them for doing so. This means you have to make the reward, if it’s say damage, noticeably more advantageous than an average attack. How do you do that? There’s actually a handy dandy section for that in D&D. It’s called ‘Actions The Rules Don’t Cover’, comes with a few paragraphs and a nice table with DC values and damage amounts. Many DMs consider this the most important page in the DMG, for 4e it’s DMG 1, pg 42. I suggest printing it out and keeping it with your stuff or even adding it to the interior of your DM screen (assuming you use one).
A last tactic, if you really want to hit home with your players to go off-script with ideas and tactics is to have your monsters and villains do the same. Have a fight in a marketplace? Have a baddie grab a random, or not so random NPC as a hostage. Litter usable terrain and props around. Maybe the orc grunt flips the wooden table over on the fighter and knocks him to the ground. Make two points obvious, one you’re going to reward the use of context and clever play; two, if they don’t the baddies will. Guaranteed the first the baddies push over a heavy statue pinning someone to the ground they are going to be looking to use the same to their advantage later.