Beware the Siren Song

In the old, ancient, black-and-white days, my Dungeons & Dragons habit existed happily inside its own space, separate from the zero-bit video game options like Cloudy Mountain (Intellivision) or Temple of Apshai (Commodore 64). These could never compete with the high-definition, dual-layered, widescreen, 1080p, surround sound, 3-D settings of my imagination, where using only pencil and paper and dice and dungeons, I was petrified by the scantily-clad medusa in Keep on the Borderlands, added to the ghostly feast after drinking the brandy in Castle Amber, blown up inside the malfunctioning power armor in Expedition to Barrier Peaks, and torn apart by the 4-armed gargoyle monstrosity in Tomb of Horrors.

Of course, gaming system and computer technology evolved and improved over the years, but the video games continued to take their cues and inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons, their RPG Adam, incorporating experience points and leveling, ability scores and bonuses, coin accumulation and optimization. There was even some effort to incorporate roleplaying, starting with the binary or ternary approach of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and building to a faux sandbox environment where you could go anywhere, explore everything, and interact with everybody.

As more and more players come to Dungeons & Dragons from a video game background (and, not coincidentally, were born after I graduated high school), they bring with them a very specific sensibility. The result is that the teacher becomes the student, and D&D players begin to integrate certain aspects that had previously only lived inside video games. For example, video games tend to deal in something I’d call “sense language,” where a scene is set by describing (or displaying) what you see and what you hear. In the same way, dungeon masters don’t talk about the three kobolds, but rather the “three emaciated lizard creatures with fanged dragon heads, hissing at each other in their horrid tongue, turning jagged blades in their clawed hands.” This is immersive, and that’s unquestionably a good thing. Unfortunately, not all of the adoptions are.

Flat Interactions

This is not merely the “I don’t have a quest for you” NPC conversations, but also the supposed in-character discussions between the players themselves. Way back when, entire adventures were built on the first level assembly of the PCs, in the tavern, at the bar, exchanging probing questions and wary looks. Sitting around the table in Mom’s kitchen, we all instantly knew who were PCs and who were NPCs, but we still played it out with an adorable degree of verisimilitude. “And you are?” “I’m Rathren, dwarven myrmidon from the Icepeak Mountains.” “Uh huh. And is that blood I see on your axe?” “Of course it is. Orcish blood. And it may be yours if you keep questioning me, half-breed.”

There’s nothing in the current rules to prevent these sorts of interactions, but it just feels a little silly to drag out introductions when our meta-brains are screaming, “There’s an adventure to get to!” In my recent games, when afforded the opportunity for non-adventure roleplaying, we instead reached a nonverbal agreement, through nervous smiles and nods, just to skip it all. That’s to our detriment.

There is something wonderful about setting the scene, about taking the time to give everyone a proper introduction. Distrust is easy and evocative, especially if it’s based on prejudices. In an old-time game I played, the party’s dwarf took an instant dislike to my half-ogre, which was fairly easy, since we two players didn’t really know each other. We were able to spend most of the sessions growling and grousing at each other, right up until that desperate battle where we were the only two left standing, back-to-back, fighting for our lives. After our victory, the dwarf and half-ogre became friends, just as we players did.

Progressive Difficulty

Assuming all games can be boiled down to moving from Point A to Point ZZZ, each subsequent challenge must be more harrowing, lethal, and devastating than the last. The challenge has to ramp up, since as we all know, the fun comes from playing the bloodied staggering victim. But not really. Video game cheat codes must be a direct response to this, a desire to feel like a conquering hero instead of a punching bag. I know I’ve used them in games, after getting flayed by the seven goblins in the first room, mashed by the two ogres and 11 orcs in the second room, and annihilated by the two glabrezu, five hill giants, and 18 bugbears in the third room.

I’ve yapped about this before, and I’m not going to stop until the message gets through my own thick skull. After a tough battle, there’s nothing wrong with an easy one (or two). Let’s make with the minions, and build encounters that are levels below the party. Trust me, the players will feel great, and probably won’t even pause a moment to wonder about your masculinity (assuming you’re male).

Boss Battles

Maybe I’m alone is this, but I just don’t like boss battles. After slogging through all of that progressive difficulty while burning through your resources and consumables, the level culminates in the melee with the big boss, who is shower fresh and full of deadly. Usually the boss also happens to be wreathed in arrogance, taking every opportunity to deride and humiliate the characters. You pour every remaining power and ability over that boss, who probably avoids or resists most of it because–get this–he’s a boss, and then the battle shifts into a grim and gruesome grind.

Instead of a final toe-to-toe boss battle, I’ve found the highly mobile, multi-combatant skirmishes much more exciting. If there is all sorts of interesting terrain (bridges across rushing water, piles of rocks, gaping pits full of jagged spikes), you will have characters rushing all over the place, regrouping at a rally point, combining attacks for apocalyptic synergy. The defenders lock down the most dangerous opponents, the strikers flash across the battlefield like cobras, the controllers clear out the raging crowds, and the leaders call down support from above. Everyone is useful, active, engaged. This is cooperative gaming.

Cut Scenes

The drama builds and the climax nears, and when you open that final door, when you reach your goal and finally see what you must do… PAUSE. The game simply stops, spinning away from you while it plays a pretty little movie inside frozen time, which you can only watch. There is a certain helplessness here, an impotence, when you the player are transformed into a passive audience. This is a chance for the video game to show off its cinematic aspirations and to take advantage of all that processing power on the system.

In Dungeons & Dragons, it’s a chance for the DM to demonstrate writing, reading, and performance ability, as the big bad (see above) lectures the PCs on just how evil, mean, vicious, and puppy-kicking he really is. Any attempts to interrupt this presentation will be met with furious vengeance: “By Sidney Miller’s left incisor, I WILL finish reading this. Shut up your mouths, and tremble before my glorious text.”

However, the best moments are rarely planned, and are almost always the most memorable. When the DM does start speechifying for the villain, and one of the players interrupts with, “I’m going to bury an arrow in his forehead,” that’s great stuff. Especially if it’s a critical hit… or miss. On a miss, the player might clear her throat and mutter, “Um… never mind. You were saying?” Of course, unplanned, improvised moments like this are only possible when the DM allows it. So to the DMs I say this: allow it.

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with finding inspiration in the video games that you love, but I’d encourage you to remember that these are two different forums, and what works well inside one may not work at all inside the other.


  1. Alphastream says:

    Good stuff. We sat down to play the Gen Con Classic this year. One of our players had regaled us with tales of Classics of yore where the RP in the tavern would last all of the slot. Instead, we found a fairly grinding and very challenging adventure with pretty low RP. In reading this article I had to wonder if maybe we bear some responsibility for doing as you say and just mentally agreeing to go to the next encounter instead of discovering possibilities because it is what our PCs would do.

  2. Nice post. I’m surprised we didn’t hear a bit about MMO quests in there. That’s a mistake I’ve almost made myself.

  3. @Alphastream: Thanks for the read. I haven’t heard of the Gen Con Classic, mostly because I spend my day inside this little box. I’d love some more detail. As for the roleplaying part, maybe we’ve just moved past that nonsense… maybe, but not necessarily. I think there’s still fun to be found there, but we all have to be in on it.

    @Nundahl: Thanks. I feel like I mentioned MMOs obliquely, but honestly, I didn’t go into too much detail because that aspect of gaming has never really appealed to me. Write what you know, that’s what they’re always saying. Of course, the reason they don’t appeal is pretty much every complaint I identified, but mostly because there’s no face-to-face roleplaying. It’s the whole reason this poor dope plays the game.

  4. Mistrlittlejeans says:

    Good post. I’ve fallen into several of those traps before… but I too long for more roleplaying. It seems most people these days just want to rack up XP and buy stuff. I think that is why I’ve gravitated to the role of DM – at least this way I can roleplay as much as I like to. Hopefully my players will catch on and enjoy it too. As a player, I’m always frustrated by the strange looks I get when I roleplay. I thought that was why we were playing the game! Unfortunately, roleplaying just isn’t that fun if you are the only one doing it. In fact, it is pretty silly.

  5. MikeLemmer says:

    Good GM Rule of Thumb: always have a plan for the PC shooting somebody midspeech.
    Good GM Reminder: Surprise rounds only allow one action. Drawing a weapon is a minor action.

    For the villain that must speak: Divide his speech into rounds. Have him continue to monologue mid-battle.

    Although question about the tavern RP & suspicious glances: how do you avoid instant hatreds, brawls, or throat-cutting?

  6. Alphastream says:

    The Classic was Ravenloft based with some decent setting flavor. But, it was ultimately strongly about the combats. Take hook, go, kill, talk, kill. With the “kill” in bold and underlined. And they were nasty fights. The pregen PCs had very good backstory ideas (each PC may or may not have a couple of secrets but each had a different perspective on why they were here… some in direct conflict and one PC was a sort of red herring as the bad person). However, it was not the right adventure for the backstory and it seldom came out. Backstory doesn’t really shine when most of the time your PC is getting hacked to bits and can’t hit the broad side of the barn.

  7. @Mistrlittlejeans: Good for you, leading the roleplaying charge as DM. You’re going to have a considerable amount of influence there, though it may feel like battling the tide with a pushbroom. All I can say is keep at it, overact with gusto and not an iota of self-respect, and hopefully your players will jump on with you.

    @MikeLemmer: No question, you have some good crunchy advice to deal with impulsive players who love to interrupt the villain’s monologuing. Sometimes, though, the best way to avoid the pitfall is not to provoke it: as you say, run the monologue over the course of the battle.

    As for the tavern roleplaying and the potential for severe ugliness, sometimes the best treatment is to simply let the cards, blades, and blood fall where they may. It’s what we did in the old, gray, wrinkled days, and the players and DM simply dealt with it. You can lay down all sorts of rules / laws / provisions about PC melee in your game, which sometimes resulted in hurt feelings but also frequently instructed the players, “There are consequences for being total jerks.”

    @Alphastream: I can remember old-school games where the DM worked with a player (or two or three or all) to develop in-party conflict. This guy’s playing an assassin, that guy’s playing a doppelganger, etc. In my humblest of opinions, the only venue where this sort of thing works is at a party where the players all know each other and can possibly forgive the odd betrayal. I just don’t see how this would be fun with a table full of strangers.

  8. Alphastream says:

    It was a convention one-shot, so it made more sense there.

  9. I love throwing an easy or easy-moderate encounter at the group once in a while. The players love to smash through some enemies that aren’t minions, but could still be a threat. Even a couple of solos of lower level, that’s always fun for everyone.

  10. I can’t imagine why someone who wants to play a tabletop game like a video game would bother with playing a tabletop game at all. Video games are great at being video games. Tabletop games are a pretty pale reflection when you run them like video games.

    When you play tabletop games as they were meant to be played (I.E. tailored to the players), they provide a unique experience that video games can’t touch in terms of immersion and freedom.

  11. I definitely agree with most of your points, particularly about the Progressive Difficulty trap – I often will look at an adventure I write and run through the scenarios to make sure I don’t do that one any more. It’s an easy one to break if you create “living” dungeons like orc tribe lairs, evil wizard’s castles, etc. Those places are going to tend to be “front loaded” where the first encounter (getting into to place) is likely to be way harder than an encounter you have inside – if you want to keep pesky adventurers out, you don’t put a couple drunk orcs at the main doors and hope for the best.

    The one point I have to disagree with is the “boss fight”. I love boss fights, and while they tend to be the staple of computer games and MMOs, they only got that way because of popular media. Television shows, movies of all kinds, and tons of novels (fantasy, horror, and otherwise) more often than not have that confrontation with the Big Bad Boss. It’s almost expected by Players, and I think it is one of those things that makes them feel like Heroes when they drop that nasty Nemesis. I’d find it hard to give up, and really don’t see it as much of a pitfall at all.

  12. @Alphastream: Oh sure, I understand it was a convention one-shot, and you take what you get there. I don’t even mean to suggest that it CAN’T work at convention / one-shot / stranger games. I’m only saying that it’s been my experience that it works been in home games where you’ve got friends and trust.

    @Tourq: It definitely sounds like you’ve got the difficulty thing figured out. As I wrote, the message is mostly for me, sort of a newspaper to the nose until I finally get it.

    @Unwinder: I think it’s more an issue of the new players’ experience rather than what the players want. Everyone brings certain prejudices and expectations to the game table, and someone who’s only ever known video games MIGHT think that’s the only way these sorts of games can be played. When I busted out the Blue Book in 81? 82? I had no preconceptions about what it should be. It was about the newest and most alien thing I’d ever seen. But players who come to the game these days might come expecting Diablo II, World of Warcraft, Monster Treasure Killer Fight (I may have made this last one up), only with dice and pencils and paper.

    @Neuroglyph: I say this with complete honesty: thank you for disagreeing 🙂 I was wondering if the boss battle item might ruffle some feathers, which is funny since it was one that got me started on the article. You are absolutely right that Big Bads are synonymous with climaxes, but I wonder if they are being deployed in the best possible way.

    I’m not going to suggest that thrilling, cinematic, crazy-go-nuts encounters are impossible with true solos (1 monster, 5+ characters), but it just seems to have all the makings of the blahs. With a vast rollcall of monsters in a fascinating setting, you have all the makings of a highly mobile encounter, rather than a single blob of deadly hit points dealing and receiving pain.

  13. Boss fights – probably best done with Elites. If you look at movie boss fights, the BBEG is typically a match for one PC, not the entire party.

    Example: Conan the Barbarian – Battle of the Mounds. The big dramatic Boss Fight is Conan (PC) vs Rexxor (Elite NPC). In this the three surviving PCs (Fighter (Slayer), Rogue, quasi-Sorcerer) are up against Rexxor, Thorgrim (Standard NPC, killed by booby trap) and a bunch of high-level Minions, while the true BBEG Thulsa Doom (probably a high level Standard NPC, he ultimately goes down later to a Daily from the Fighter) watches from the rear.

    I think this is a much better model than the MMORPG ‘boss’ that takes 16 PCs to bring down. Although Minions often don’t work so great when you have Controller PCs; half-hp Standard monsters may make a reasonable substitution.

  14. @S’mon: Conan the Barbarian is a good example, and also exactly what I’m talking about. I didn’t mean to suggest that all enemies on the battlefield have to be identical in power level, but a good mix, including one BBEG (not solo) and several skirmishers makes for all sorts of fun-stuff. In fact, it seems like it would work really well with the character roles, as the defender or striker goes one-on-one with the BBEG, and everyone else covers his/her back from the teeth-gnashing armies.