Tobold's Blog
Thursday, February 06, 2014
Leveling up my game

Gnome Stew recently had two articles on the different levels of play in a pen & paper roleplaying game. And I must say that I am not completely happy with on what level we play in my D&D campaign. To some extent I blame video games: Computer role-playing games teach us that it is important to min/max your character, to create a dwarven warrior with optimal strength instead of trying a halfling warrior with cunning. If you tried to make a more interesting but sub-optimal character, people would tell you to learn2play. So now I have a pen & paper campaign in which cookie-cutter characters are using video-game tactics like trying to kite monsters. And if I run a session without combat, some of my players are getting antsy, because their characters aren't built for actual role-playing.

Now our previous DM, who is now a player, tried having adventures that were light on combat and heavy on role-playing interaction. That doesn't really work if the players aren't all that interested. Murder mystery city adventures are hard to run even under the best of conditions, and if the players would rather do dungeon crawling they get downright impossible. So my idea is to keep a necessary degree of combat action up to keep the players interested, but to intersperse that with enough role-playing interaction and story to somewhat raise the level of my campaign.

That might require techniques like those used in the recently published D&D Sundering adventures, where the story doesn't stop if the players don't advance it. Basically the players are repeatedly brought into contact with possible role-playing and story interactions, but if they refuse to bite some default story happens and drives the overall adventure forward. In a pen & paper game, the world can be a lot more dynamic than in a video game. As a DM I have to use that advantage.

While not knowing the specifics of your campaign, one possibility I would suggest is setting up some relationships/bonds between various party members.

Shamelessly stealing from the example of the show, offer some bonus XP for anything that gets developed and resolved to a satisfactory extent.

The relationship mechanic seems to prompt some in-character thought and narrative between party members, create a little tension and conflict beyond "you all met in a bar and are now happy companions-in-arms," and can take place at the same time as the adventure proper.
To be fair, you are also using an iteration of D&D which, out of the box, focuses almost entirely on the combat angle and encourages players to optimize their characters for that. You might look at themes or whatever they are called from one of the non-core books. Those might give your players some narrative hooks on which you as the GM can hang some RP opportunities.
@Gary: You got that the wrong way around. We used to play other systems, like Warhammer FRPG which are designed with a focus on role-playing and those didn't work well with the people around the table. We switched to 4E *because* it supported the preferred game style of the players better.
This reminds me of an experiment we did in my group, many moons ago when it was still active.

We were a 2nd Edition group and we had just finished a campaign and were starting another with one player and the DM swapping roles.

The former DM made a character named Mediocris and with the permission of the new DM put 8s across the board in all his stats. The other players scoffed at this thinking that Medi would be a boat anchor on the party.

The former DM was a fantastic role player and exceled in those situations. He became the leader of the party and a powerful political figure in the realm by the end of the campaign.

I’d say we ran about 30% RP / 70% combat – okay 20% RP / 60% combat / 20% drink beer. In those combat situations, Medi (who class was Bard) held his own just fine. The other players saw all the min/maxing wasn’t really necessary. Much like MMOs, it was the guy in the chair that made all the difference.

@Ted Atchley wouldn't having very low attributes gimp the character even in a role playing sense? How does someone with such low intelligence become a powerful political figure for example.

I think the game system chosen has a great deal of influence on what players want from a game. One key point is that players almost always want their characters to be "capable." Which means, even though every tabletop game can be adjudicated with nothing but imagination and discussion, player expectation of how what they can do by the mechanics will impact what actions they are willing to undertake.

I've been running a D&D 4th game for several years now, off and on, about one session a month. As we have now hit Paragon tier, it seemed like a good time for a break. My group has been highly tactical, and like yours, gets "antsy" when the battle map has been rolled up in the corner and skill rolls have been happening. Despite 4th's rather nice set of skills, the focus of the players has been combat and using powers.

We just ran our first session of a new game, set in an odd timeline but more or less in the Star Wars universe, but using Lumpley Games' outstanding Dogs in the Vineyard system, which is very free form and very roleplay intensive. An lo and behold, the very same players that were uninterested in non-combat encounters suddenly are talking to NPCs and investigating mysteries.

I suspect the change from having "Twin Strike" to an ability of "Of course I'm current on my payments!" has more than a little to do with it. The "bang and flash" of D&D 4th is all the nifty powers. The meat of Dogs is the free form abilities and escalating conflict resolution systems.

My players are there to play the game they made characters for. D&D 4th encourages you to make combat-ready characters, and build encounters that are there to challenge you tactically. Is it any wonder that players that have tactical characters enjoy tactical challenges in a rich, tactical game?

If you want to play a murder mystery (and I just did, in my Star Wars game) then it makes sense to use a game system that has roleplaying as its strong suit. This is not a knock on D&D 4th, which I love! But it plays at its best when minis are on the table, and people are thinking about their next turn, and if they can pull off a terrific combo.
What are the life goals of the PC's? Even if it's just to get rich?

What do they want to do?

They might just be playing motivationless characters and playing them just to get to the combats because the game isn't about characters goals - and so they don't much care about story, since that'd be caring about NPC goals.
What are the life goals of the PC's?

What is the life goal of a chess pawn? What is the life goal of your World of Warcraft character?

While a PC in a role-playing game *can* have a life goal, that depends on whether the player behind the character wants to give him one. Some players simply don't do that and don't want to do that. They are just playing a game, not a role.
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