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Accepting the Flow

It’s Friday night. Everyone’s gathered around the table. Tonight is my group’s first delve into Dungeons and Dragons in years. We’re playing fifth edition and I’m the dungeon master. I have a few notes, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and my dice pushed behind my third edition DM screen - I’m ready to go. We begin outside a small farming village, and the group roleplays for the first time in a while. People laugh, roll some dice, and awkwardly move their way toward the village. Eventually, they arrive and see that the village is under siege by kobolds, robed humans, and an enormous blue dragon - oh my! Being the righteous adventurers that they are, the group bumbles into the fray, slaying kobolds and fighting their way toward the village’s keep. They make it, meet with the mayor, and decide to stake out on the battlements. As darts and rocks from the kobolds on the ground below fly past the group, and the great blue dragon breathes lightning from his guzzle, one of the characters, a human ranger, tries to take a pot shot at the draconic beast. The guy who plays him, Ian Clink, rolls a natural 20 - and we use a critical hit chart (something I outlawed after this adventure, an old remnant of 3.5E). He rolls a percentile die - and rolls a 93 - pierce heart, instant death. A level one ranger, using the rules I instated, just killed an enormous blue dragon. The table erupts. My mind races, “Do I let this happen?”

Moments such as the one described above happen all the time in the wonderful game of Dungeons and Dragons. That’s the benefit of playing an RPG in which the simulation plays out in your mind; there’s no true limitations on the graphics or outcomes, thus everything is possible. It’s why we love the D&D.

However, that doesn’t mean we as dungeon masters do not question the validity of the above situation actually playing out. When Ian rolled the percentile die, I realized the onus was on me to create a somewhat believable but epic outcome to the roll. That’s hard to do, right? How does puny archer take out an infuriated dragon? I’d be lying if I said the thought of letting the dragon live did not run through my head. Yet, I didn’t let the thought consume me. Who cares if it’s not entirely plausible? Who cares if it makes absolutely zero sense!? Make it sensible. Go with the flow. I hastily decided that the ranger hit the single weak spot in the dragon’s scales, ran through the creature’s heart, and caused the dragon to crash into the keep below. Amidst the cries of the cultists fleeing, the party roared with amazement and laughter.

In this week’s Legendary Lesson, we’ll be talking about accepting the flow of a Dungeons and Dragons game by listening to the players’ dice and running with the players’ ideas.

Let’s roll!

Listen to the Dice, Sometimes

My group often spouts the ancient gamer proverb, “The dice never lie.” If Ian’s ranger was never meant to kill the raging blue dragon, the percentile dice wouldn’t have landed on nine and three. If the poor kobold warlock was meant to avoid the crushing boulder trap, the player's d20 roll would have been above a two. If the firbolg warlock was not supposed to rally from the dead and turn the tides of the battle against a forbidden evil, his player wouldn’t have rolled a natural twenty on his death saving throw. Dice and the element of chance that accompanies them are fundamental to D&D.

We should listen to the dice and accept whatever fate they bring upon us. Sometimes. When the player rolls, we should ALWAYS respect those rolls. Don’t alter DCs or completely discount their roll, ever. However, I’m of the opinion that DMs can alter their own rolls if they deem it necessary. This act is often called ‘fudging the dice’ and is frowned upon in many circles, but it can be used a variety of beneficial ways. For example, if you sense that the end of the campaign is upon you because of incredible dice rolls on your part (the monsters are ANNIHILATING the PCs), don’t be afraid to have the hot dice go cold.

Over time, I’ve moved far, far away from the advice I just prescribed above, but I will still use it if necessary. If the party were on the edge of death after a two year, fantastic campaign in a combat that was supposed to be inconsequential or simple, then I might fudge the dice. It all depends on the moment, the mood in the room. You need to be able to read it and realize that listening to the dice is not always necessary.

Accept Player Ideas

As I discussed last week in Creating Collaboratively, players and DMs should be building the story together. If you’re the dungeon master, and I’m assuming you are, the onus is on you to construct the story, but your players are always throwing ideas your way, even if you’re not aware of it.
  1. “Does the ragged half orc ruffian have a weapon other than a longsword?”
  2. “Is there a cubby or cliff somewhere in this decrepit cavern?”
  3. “Are there any inscriptions on the tombs of these long-forgotten paladins?”
All of these questions can be used to build on to the campaign, all you have to do is respond positively to them. Doing so is easy if you simply follow this rule: Always respond to your players with either: “Yes, and…” or “Yes, but…” or “No, but…” or some other variation. Don’t outright reject your players ideas; instead, build on them!
  1. "Yes, but the weapon is kept in a sheathe glittering with gems. It looks strange, small, and curved. Whatever arm he's keeping, it's exotic and foreign to you."
  2. "No, but the stalactites on the cavern's ceiling form a sort of barrier where something or someone could be hidden. The foul stench wafting around the room could be hidden there...Maybe the green dragon waits above."
  3. "Yes, and they're written in celestial, a script you've studied for many years. The inscription reads, 'To those who guard the unfaithful against the night below, we are with you, always.' The word 'unfaithful' is partially scratched over, as if someone tried to remove it from the sentence."

In Summary

Generally, dungeon masters and players should accept the flow of the game. D&D inherently is a storytelling, hack n’ slash game that uses dice as the main mechanic. The dice and the sheer ingenuity of the players can make for epic and unforgettable moments. Don’t stifle them. Remember:
  1. Listen to the dice, sometimes. Never change your players' rolls. Change yours if the fate of the campaign/players' fun is at stake.
  2. Accept player ideas. Use, “Yes, and…” or “Yes, but…” or “No, but…”
Until next time, fare thee well!

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