Winning D&D

July 24, 2010

You know who’s got it easy? Video game designers (yeah, I’m talking video games again). They can churn out worthless, frustrating garbage, dump it on the market and be done with it. If a player buys the game and doesn’t enjoy it, who cares? The game was already paid for. They don’t have to keep balancing challenge, frustration, and fun week after week, like I do, to keep the players coming back. Okay, maybe the creators of those insipid MMORPGs, but shut up; I’m trying to make a point.

On top of that, video game designers don’t have to look the players in the eye everytime the player loses. They don’t have to deal with the disgusting puppy-dog eyes or the incessant whining or the accusations of being unfair, unsympathetic, and a godless sadist. And really, guys, I wish you would stop saying that. Those things hurt.

Maybe I am oversimplifying and maybe I am a little bitter. A few weeks ago, I had to tell a group of so-called friends that their latest TPK while on a world-saving quest had resulted not just in their own demise, but in the death of several gods and the destruction of their entire homeworld. Game over. No continues. No save files. :But look on the bright side,” I said, “at least you beat the rush at the Raven Queen’s Palace.” Anyway, now we’re taking a month off for character generation and world building.

I bring this up because recently I made a few controversial statements on Twitter (follow me so you can earn my ire by disagreeing with me on a regular basis; I’m @TheAngryDM). Actually, this isn’t very surprising. I make controversial remarks on Twitter all the time, ranging from the proper way to make D&D players cry to the benefits of an all kitten-meat diet. But, in this particular instance, I didn’t realize I was being controversial. So, now its time for what I suspect will become a recurring activity for me: trying to expand 140 characters of sarcastic bile into something that sounds clear, rational, and level-headed.

The offending remarks (there were several) can be paraphrased thusly: Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition is winnable, competitive, and adversarial by design and DMs should not try to prioritize making the game fun for every player at every moment. I also mentioned that I consider D&D to be a team sport, but I plan to discuss that in a seperate article.

Okay, I can understand how those remarks might come off as treasonous in a 140 character statement with no real explanation and normally, I wouldn’t bother to get into a heated debate about ‘style’ because thats a very personal thing. But I think the discussion of D&D as an adversarial and ultimately winnable game is very valuable whether you ultimately agree or disagree. I am going to go so far as to say that every DM, experienced or not, must consider whether their game is winnable or not because it will have a lot of bearing on their DMing style and their players’ enjoyment of the game.

Two Caveats

Before I start trying to justify the terrible things I’ve said, I want to throw two warnings out to any readers who are still reading with open minds instead of simply going down to the comment section to begin disagreeing with me on the basis of my introduction. First, I am suggesting that D&D 4th Edition appears designed to be a winnable game and to set up an adversarial relationship between the DMs and the players. I am not saying that this is the only way to play it and that, by not playing D&D this way, you are not really playing D&D. I am trying to tease out the design intent. Or the experience fresh out of the box.

Second, I realize that there is no one right way to play D&D and that different players and different tables will have different tastes. I am not saying that this is the only right way to play. However, the people who often feel the need to remind me of this usually forget that there are many, many wrong ways to play D&D. For example, a player acting in such a way as to make everyone else at the table miserable? Wrong. Running the game in a way that ignores the players’ tastes and desires? Very wrong. Not running the game the way I tell you that you should? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Also, if you already disagree with me and can’t take being called a sissy, you should probably stop reading and proceed to posting your hate-filled comment. Go right ahead, I promise I won’t delete it. Of course, if you can’t take being called a sissy, it pretty much proves my point, doesn’t it?

Fun and Winning

As a result of my vocal pronouncements on Twitter, several people chose to remind that “the only way to win D&D is if everyone has fun and keeps coming back!” Because I don’t want to sound confrontational, I am going to censor myself and simply respond: “I decline the invitation to share in your delusion, but thank you.” If you find that too harsh and impolite, you shouldn’t be striking up a conversation with a guy with the word Angry in his name.

In all seriousness, I really don’t see that as a valid definition of winning a game. Of course everyone should have fun. We play games to have fun and if we don’t have fun, we don’t play the game. Fun is not the same as victory. Consider a board game like Settlers of Catan. Only one player can ultimately win the game, but presumably, everyone playing is enjoying themselves. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be playing. Alternatively, consider Monopoly. You can win at Monopoly, but no one could actually have fun with that protracted excerise in random chance, fiscal management, and unsubtle parody of the capitalist free market system.

And while I will never equate fun with winning (as in: if you had fun, you won), I will say that the ability to win at something is a part of the fun of playing. Humans are competitive by nature and we like to test ourselves against other people or external challenges. And we will accept a lot of frustration providing there is some progress toward a victory. Of course, when there is too much frustration or not enough progress, we get annoyed (too hard) and when there is too much progress and not enough frustration, we get bored (too easy). With the right mix of challenge and progress, people will keep coming back and trying to win.

Defining Fun: Enjoyment and Satisfaction

As I said above, I think there is a very important consideration that must be made by every DM running a game and it is one that rarely gets explictly spoken about. It is just something that gets blundered into eventually. But before I discuss that, I want to define two terms just to avoid any confusion, two different types of fun that are worth looking at.

I am going to use the word ‘enjoyment’ to refer to momentary, instanteous fun. In D&D, rolling a critical hit, downing a monster, succeeding at a skill check, or discovering a magical item are all ‘enjoyable’ activities. They are fun when they happen, but the fun is done with by the time the next action or scene starts. Likewise, missing on an attack, failing a skill check, or missing a round due to being below 0 HP or because you are stunned are all ‘not enjoyable.’ While they are happening, they aren’t fun for the player they are happening to. But they only briefly detract from the fun and are, once again, forgotten as soon as the next enjoyable moment comes along.

I am going to use the word ‘satisfaction’ to refer to big-picture sort of fun. This is the fun of the entire game experience, taken as a whole. Do I want to keep coming back for more? Am I invested in the story and the events of the game? Do I care about the outcome? If so, I am satisfied.

Have you ever asked someone whether a movie was good and had them say “well, it had its moments?” They are usually saying that there were enjoyable parts but the movie, as a whole, was unsatisfying. Maybe some of the jokes were worth a chuckle or some of the action sequences were good, but they wouldn’t pay to see the whole movie again. That is how I am going to be using enjoyable and satisfying.

So, Is D&D Winnable?

Interestingly, many role-playing game rule books take the time to discuss the question of winning the game. There is usually a little sidebar early in the first chapter (“How the Heck Does This Role-Playing Game Thing Work?”)  about how one might win the game. It will usually offer such gems as “there is no one way to win” or “its a game everyone wins just by playing” or “this isn’t the kind of game you can win” or “you decide.” Its almost as if the books (and the designers) are embarassed to talk about winning or aren’t sure whether its appropriate. Strangely, those books that say “you decide” are the closest to the truth.

There is a reason for this. You see, people often forget that D&D (and other RPGs) is not actually a games by itself. It is a gaming kit or gaming system. You can’t just open the book and start playing. Someone has to learn all of the rules and get browbeaten into being the DM. Then, that person has to design an adventure (or buy one or download one) while everyone else gets to have fun making characters. The adventure (or campaign) is the actual game. D&D is just the operating system.

But D&D also seems to assume that the DM will run a winnable game and, from my experience, many DMs do just that. When the DM opens the DMG, he is advised to come up with a goal or quest to start off with and then to design a hook, a scene at the beginning that presents the quest to the players. For example, a new DM might come up with this:

The party is asked by the chancellor to rescue a beautiful dragon from the evil princess. The evil princess intends to sacrifice the virgin dragon to her dark gods under the dark of the new moon. The party must assemble clues to locate the evil princess’ dream castle, travel there, defeat her unicorn guards, and disrupt the ritual before it is completed.

Of course, that scenario is a well-designed seed for an adventure. It has a good mix of encounters (investigation, travel, combat, stealth perhaps), a sense of urgency (a time limit), and a solid climax (that might mix combat with a skill challenge). This is the sort of thing that DMG describes as a good adventure.

It is also a winnable game. If the party manages to defeat the princess before she sacrifices the dragon, they win. If the party fails, they lose. If the party dies, they fail and therefore also lose. Now, you can argue the semantics of whether it is the characters that win or the players, but if you feel you need to do that, I’d first encourage you to ask some players whether they would call it a win after beating this scenario.

But there is a way in which a DM can throw a monkey wrench into this whole shebang and take the winning out of D&D. I’m going to illustrate by comparing two hypothetical DMs and their approaches to writing and running the above described scenario. I shall name them Angry DM and Sissy DM.

Angry DM decides that the ritual will occur in 48 hours. He first designs the investigation skill challenge such that it can’t really fail, but every check requires one hour of time. In that way, failures add up simply by running out the clock. He then designs the traveling skill challenge. Each failure drops the party into a combat or hazard that eats up resources, possibly forcing them to take an extended rest and eating up more time. Infiltrating the dream castle is a combination of stealth skill challenge and combat. Each failure results in a combat and also increases the difficulty of the skill challenge as the place goes on higher and higher alert. If the party loses a combat encounter in the castle, they are imprisoned and can attempt to break out. That puts them back into sneaking through the castle, but may then eat up more time. If the party reaches the princess before she starts the ritual, they can defeat her. If they reach her after the ritual has started, but before it has concluded two hours later, they can try to disrupt the ritual while fighting off her unicorn guards. If they are too late, the dragon is slain and the princess, having gained terrible power, has left the castle to put the next phase of her beautifully evil plan into operation.

Angry DM has a good adventure by DMG standards. There is a variety of encounters and events. Failures make the adventure harder or present difficult choices. There are meaningful choices to be made, such as how to investigate during the investigation skill challenge or whether the party can risk resting after taking too much damage in the forest or whether to sneak into the castle or kick in the doors and start killing. There is also, however, a point of no return. After the ritual is over, the adventure has failed. Nothing the party does at that point will change it. They’ve lost. Of course, they might decide to pursue the princess (starting a new adventure), but they’ve lost this adventure.

Now, consider Sissy DM. He does everything almost the exact same way except that he knows that the beautiful dragon is an important ally that will figure in future adventures and he wants the party to burst in during the ritual to get the best possible climax – disrupting the ritual while fighting. He is also afraid to kill PCs. So, during the early skill challenges, he is very vague about the passage of time and he is also vague about the calendar. The party never knows how much time they have and Sissy DM can manipulate events to ensure they arrive during the climax of the ritual. Sissy DM also fudges some dice rolls when things start to go bad during one of the traveling combats and again during the final confrontation because it looks like the party is about to lose. In short, Sissy DM has removed any chance that the party might fail.

The problem is that if you can’t lose, you can’t win. Sissy DM has decided that his game is not the sort you can win or lose. It is all about the story and the manipulation of events to keep the drama high without any actual risk. And honestly, that style of play is just fine if it is what you want to do and if it is what your players want.

Now, Sissy DM is an extreme example, but many DMs bring some of this philosophy to the table, often consciously but sometimes subconsciously. And, again, it is perfectly reasonable to play the game this way, as long as the entire group is on board with the idea. However, the moment Sissy DM starts running his game this way without considering what his players want, he becomes wrong.

And yet, few DMs discuss the idea of being able to win or lose with their players, instead choosing to assume that players don’t like the idea of losing. Meanwhile, players who have read the rule books usually operate under the assumption that they can lose encounters, adventures, and even campaigns. And they might prefer this.

But Sissy DM often operates in secret, working behind the screen to fudge die rolls, adjust encounters, and manipulate the game so that the party can’t really lose. This, to me, is highly suspect. It means that Sissy DM realizes that the players would probably object if the DM rolled a crit right in front of them and then announced “it looked like a crit, but the monster fumbled at the last possible moment and didn’t kill your character.” So cleary, Sissy DM understand the value of risk, challenge, and tension and want to maintain the illusion. He creates a smoke-and-mirrors game in which everything is safety padded and all of the monsters are armed with safety scissors and Nerf crossbows.

Now, I am not condemning the style choice that Sissy DM has made. Its a completely valid way to play provided that it is (a) a conscious choice and (b) the players agree to play that way. If the DM is doing it in secret and suspects that the party would object if he did openly, then I’m condemning him. Call it the social contract, if you absolutely must use that phrase, buut I think it is more about honesty and trust. Those are important. If a DM starts throwing up illusions and misdirections and the players see through them, there will be a problem. They might feel cheated of all of their past victories, they might demand an adjustment of play style, or they might simply start to take advantage of it knowing that nothing carries any real risk. The game will degenerate in any case and possibly just fall apart.

The point is that each DM should take some time to decide whether to be an Angry DM or a Sissy DM (I should sell buttons) and to discuss the choice with their players. They certainly shouldn’t just assume that all players want Sissy DMs, especially because the rules seem to tell the players to expect an Angry DM.

And if you don’t believe me that the game system implies an Angry DM, consider the rules for rolling dice to determine outcomes, the rules for tracking hit points and death, the explicit rules for ressurection, and the cost for ressurection as compared to the ready cash available through treasure parcels. Challenge, tension, death, and loss are part of the game as written.

How Loseable is the Game

Assuming I’ve convinced you, the DM, to think about the question and to discuss it with your players instead of trying to work in secret, the next step is to decide (as a group) how much the party can lose. If the party is sent to rescue the dragon from the evil princess, will you allow them to be too late? If a character is reduced to 0 HP, will you allow them to die? If the party can’t afford (or doesn’t want to pay for) ressurection, will you find a way to make it happen anyway? If the whole party is reduced to 0 HP, will you allow a TPK? If the party is a group of chosen ones on a quest to save the world, will you allow them to fail and blow up the world?

Unlike above, though, where I obviously prefer an Angry approach because most of the players I’ve run for prefer it, here I am going to remain silent. It is up to every group to decide how much is at stake and ultimately, to trust the DM to wing it based on their preferences when it isn’t clear. Of course, winging it isn’t the same as doing it in secret. It assumes that the DM has taken the time to understand how the players feel on the general issue and considered that in deciding how to handle a specific situation that crops up.

Unleashing Your Anger: The Adversarial DM

If I’ve gotten you, the DM, to think about and discuss this issue with your players, then I feel I have done my job and you can stop reading now and have the conversation. But some of you may have some startling revelations coming and others might simply be curious about the next step. In that case, I am going to offer some insight into my own style of Angry DMing. I fully admit that there are some who consider me a bit hardcore, so I encourage you to try and find your own style before you try to emulate mine.

Basically, as an Angry DM, I feel duty bound to challenge my players without pulling any punches, and I am willing to let them lose when they lose. I refer to this approach as Adversarial DMing because, at certain points during the game (particularly during combat), I have accept the fact that I am playing against the players. As an adversarial DM, I keep just two rules in mind:

  1. Never Aim At Something You Aren’t Prepared to Kill (The Gun Safety Rule)
  2. Build Fair, Play to Win (The Two Hats Rule)

The first rule reminds me that if my story or adventure endangers a person, place, or thing, I have to prepared to actually destroy that person, place, or thing. If I ask the party to protect an important NPC, I had better be prepared to deal with a world without that NPC. If I threaten the Town of Villageburg, I had better have a map ready with a clearly labeled Crater of Villageburg. As I mentioned above, I recently pointed my DMing gun at the entire world I had created and was forced to pull the trigger by a series of unrecoverable errors. I did it in the heroic tier, too. A lot of planning went down the drain. I realize that might sound harsh, but eventually, you will be forced to pull the trigger because the party might not make it in time or might not survive the adventure. If you don’t want your campaign to end, you need to be ready to move on after the smoke clears. The reason I lost a campaign world was that I forgot my first rule in a big, big way.

The second rule is a bit more complicated, despite the fact that it seems so simple on the surface. When I am building a world or writing an adventure or constructing an encounter or skill challenge, my job is to make it fair: challenging but winnable without being overwhelming. Fortunately, all of the rules in the DMG and the DMG2 are there to allow DMs to do just that. It is not fair, for example, to ask a 5th level party to take on five 9th level encounters in a row; but it is fair to ask them to handle one. It is not fair to set the DCs for a skill challenge ridiculously high.

When I am wearing my game building hat, this is when I adjust difficulties and ensure that the party is evenly matched to the challenges. Perhaps my tactical party is very skilled and doesn’t blink at encounters equal to their level. At that point, I decide to set the encounters a little higher. Perhaps my party has very low skills or is overspecialized. So I decide to adjust the skill DCs for my skill challenge a little lower.

However, when I am running the game, I take off the world-building hat. Whatever I have written or designed is set in stone and it is up to me to run it. When a combat starts, it is my job to do everything in my power to win the encounter. If I’ve done my job correctly, its very unlikely that I will win the encounter and, if I find myself winning too many encounters, I stick a note in my game-building hat to look at that. But during the fight, I run what I’ve written, try to win, and obey all of the rules.

This does not mean that I am always gunning for TPKs. The subtle added benefit of the wording of the second rule is that I am trying to win, not to kill. And each group of monsters will have its own definition of winning. If the party storms a goblin lair and attacks, the goblins aren’t fighting to kill. They are trying to defend themselves and drive the PCs out. They won’t stop to slit the throats of the fallen until after the PCs have been routed. If the PCs retreat, the goblins probably won’t follow.

If the same goblins attack a caravan to steal something, they probably won’t fight to the death. If the fight goes against them, they will flee. They might grab a few things from the caravan or grab the artifact they are after, but winning has nothing to do with killing PCs.

An owlbear or lurker might be trying to drop one PC and drag him away to eat. It will try to escape with its food, but it will give up the food rather than risk being too injured.

A mind flayer will think nothing of sacrificing his mind-controlled thralls to kill the PCs, but he will flee when his own life is in danger and the thralls will probably scramble the moment the mind flayer is out of the picture.

So, while the second rule tells me that I have to play to win, it also tells me that I have to consider what winning means when I design the encounter.

These two rules only work, of course, because my players know I follow them. They know, for instance, that I am not going to save their bacon or adjust an encounter (even a too-hard encounter) at the table. They are responsible for recognizing that they are in trouble and getting out of dodge.

Enjoyable vs. Satisfying and the Adversarial DM

There remains little to be said at this point. At the very least, I hope I’ve convinced you to consider whether your D&D game is winnable and talked it over with your party. I just want to briefly return to the idea of the different types of fun and recognize the hardships of being an Adversarial DM.

You see, I realize that it can be very hard to sit across the table from your friends and announce their beloved character is dead and that they failed to rescue another beloved character’s mother from a terrible princess. It is also hard to watch a scene in which a player must, in character, explain that it was the party’s fault that the princess gained her powerful magic because they had a chance to stop her and failed. Its hard to tell someone they have to sit out this round because their character is stunned. I mean, it isn’t hard for me, specifically. But I have seen pain and frustration on the faces of my players and I know that people with actual human emotions might feel guilty.

The fact is that in order to create a challenging (ultimately satisfying) winnable game, a DM has to be willing to occasionally trample on the toes of enjoyment because many of the things that create satisfaction ruin enjoyment. The best combats, the ones that end with the party cheering and high-fiving, are the ones in which all seemed lost until someone spent just the right daily or got the right lucky roll. The best skill challenges are the ones that succeeded after two failures. These are the things that people remember. A single crit, a bad combat in which your character spent the entire fight stuck in a pit unable to make an Athletics check, these things are things of enjoyment and quickly get forgotten.

I can’t sugarcoat this: sometimes, being a DM is emotionally hard and not everyone can handle that. And I think that is part of the reason why some DMs secretly fudge and adjust and decide to take some of the risk away. But, ultimately, being willing to hurt your players’ enjoyment once in a while contributes to a game that is immersive and satisfying, one which the players really care about and feel challenged by.

It is interesting that the discussion that lead to me claiming that D&D was winnable and adversarial began with two fellow Twitter folks (@AlioTheFool and @DMSamuel) discussing the removal of some of the worst conditions in D&D, 4E: stunned and dominated. @AlioTheFool had come from one of his recent D&D games feeling badly because he had stunned a player’s character for several rounds and the guy was basically out of the game for forty minutes. I am glad, now, that I seem to have returned to the topic of momentary enjoyment vs. long-term satisfaction and the importance of prioritizing satisfaction before enjoyment.

@AlioTheFool, I know how you feel. Hypothetically, I mean. Because I really don’t. I hate players.

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53 Responses to Winning D&D

  1. RocketGruntD20 on November 27, 2014 at 1:39 am

    I have discovered this website far too late.

    I completely agree,I personal play D&D fit one reason: To be the personification of a fantastical citizen in a fantastical world.

    That’s it. Controlling a person who isn’t myself, pitting my wits against a world that is not my own.

    I don’t want to be an actor in a play…a proof reader for a story…I want to be dropped in a setting and left to my own devises. (A bit off topic..but these things go hand in hand)

    I personally want to lose, to win, to see keeping my character alive as a challenge. I have been a player in far too many groups with the sissy DM, and I feel like playing is 100% pointless;I might as well be telling a story around a camp fire as the old “game” goes.

    Worst then that,I have had new groups of players utterly baffled and confused at my description of D&D as I know it, asking questions such as “Is it ok when my character is high level that he regains his lost kingdom?” Or “Did you read my characters life story? Can you fit that in the campaign?”

    My thought is “what fucking game have you’ve been playing?!” Don’t you want to see where the wind takes you? Don’t you want the unknown? Don’t you want realism, the one and only universal truth of “life ain’t fair”?

    Then I’m seen as wrong by just about everyone..although I’m pretty sure that’s how the game was meant to be played…D&D is not a personal fantasy simulator, it’s a simulation fantasy generator.

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