Play D&D. Not Street Fighter.

Septimus 31
Dear Uncle Pernicious,
So last week me mates and me were in this dungeon shaped like a big dragon head–don’t ask, it’s a long story–and the boss monster at the end was this huge dragon construct in this pillared altar room. The thing had like a thousand hit points and an AC what was way too high for us Level Twos. It was even acting multiple times in a round and had interrupts and react attacks and close bursts that hit the whole room. Plus, it blocked the only exit. So unfair.
We were gettin’ knocked all to hell until the DM felt sorry for us and hinted that we could maybe trash the fiery pillars and break the altar to help weaken the dragon, and or try talk to the construct to confuse it or stand there and analyze its fighting to find a weak spot, all instead of taking a swing! How were we supposed to figure that out? I mean, I’m as game as the next guy, but I leave mind-reading to the psions!
Your favorite fightin’ nephew,
Regdar

Octavus 7

My dear Regdar,

What a frightful dilemma! Did the naughty little DM forget to announce: “We’re in a skill challenge!” nor list all the relevant skills and their DCs? Whatever were you to do?

I have a suggestion: stop playing video games, and start playing D&D.

I started running games when Elf was a class and Clerics didn’t get spells until 2nd level, should they live so long. There were about 4 rules and the Magic-User who had that many hit points was damn lucky. A primitive system, to be sure, but you should have seen the games, Regdar! Crazy, over-the-top, seat-of-the-pants cooperative stories that deserved the title  of adventure.

Back then, players were free to try anything and everything because the rules covered almost nothing. So here’s my theory: the amount of perceived character freedom is inversely proportional to the thoroughness of the rules. Notice I said perceived character freedom. That’s important, because as much as the naysayers will flame me for it, nothing in the 4th Edition D&D ruleset limits character choice or roleplaying. But I see players like you restricting themselves all the time, Regdar.

The problem with your dragon construct episode wasn’t that the DM “hid” the skill challenge; I would have done the same thing myself. Instead, what happened was that you restricted your own actions to “move, at-will, encounter, or daily” the minute the initiative die was dropped. Play Street Fighter if you want to toggle between punch, kick, and down-down-kick-left-punch Tornado Strike. D&D isn’t a video game; it’s a roleplaying game, which is why it’s so much better.

Before you sharpen your quill to fire back an angry retort, know that I’ve heard the classic player comeback to whether skill challenges should be announced. They say “When an initiative die is rolled, we know we’re in combat and we have very clear rules and guidelines for what we can do and what will be effective against our opponent. The PHB says nothing about skill challenges, and unless we know we’re in one, how can we know what we can do or what may succeed?” First of all, unless you understand the design thoughts behind skill challenges, you’ll have the wrong perception of them anyway. Go here and read my irascible cousin DM’s great article on the subject.

Back, my dear nephew? Learn something? Good for you. Well here’s my addition to his words of wisdom: This goes beyond skill challenges.

That’s right, I’m talking to my fellow DMs. Ever notice page 42 in your DMG? It’s the one that gives some guidelines about how to handle spontaneous players actions that aren’t covered in the rules…it’s like a one-page Cliff’s Notes of the entire Red Box edition! And as a DM, if you don’t use this page every session, you’re holding your module notes too tightly.

That’s right. If a gaming group isn’t trying all kinds of crazy shit to solve problems every session, it’s because the DM has trained them, passively or actively, to nod and follow along with the campaign story and press down-down-kick-left-punch when appropriate.

D&D should be cooperative storytelling. One of my players is fond of pointing out that a good campaign is a mutable universe. That means if you, Regdar, were to think of some clever way around a problem that I hadn’t thought of, you should be rewarded for that. And if you do something off-the-wall cinematic to achieve a goal, I should encourage your success, not make you feel foolish.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Suppose an evil high priest is finishing up some dark ritual you need to stop, but he’s across a big moat in the floor and you can’t reach him. Imagine you say,  “Can I rip that lamp sconce off the wall and try to nail him with it?” A DM should never say, “No, it’s attached too tightly” or even “Make a Strength check to see if you pull off the sconce. A 14? No, that’s not high enough: you struggle but can’t get the sconce off the wall.” For God’s sake, it’s a sconce. Unless it happens to be the only remaining artifact of the DM’s long-dead mother, those kind of statements are just a smokescreen for “I don’t know how to handle this, so I’m going to shut it down,” or, “In Halo, some things are just background texture, and this is like that.”

The DM’s job in that example is to say, “Hell yes, you can. With a loud groan, you twist the old ironwork off its bolts and heave it at the shaman. Roll to see if you hit him.” Obviously if the players rolls high and hits, then roll some damage and move on. But in this situation even a miss should have positive effects, like distracting him or something. Why? Imagine the scene…the burly fighter rips ironwork off the wall, throws it forty feet across a moat…and the shot goes wide and the priest ignores it. Wow. That was exciting, huh? Not. The priest might reflexively duck, stop chanting the ritual, and level a magic staff at the fighter…so in effect, the stunt achieved its goal.

Why? Because it’s more cooperative, more exciting, and more damn fun.

The powers and the skills the player has on the character sheet should be a jumping-off point, or at worst some fallback actions while you think of the next cool thing. They should rarely be a starting point, and never be a boundary. Use your ability scores, skill mods, feats and powers like a detailed description of a particular character, and then react–in any situation–like that person might. Don’t worry if what you want to do is covered in the rules–that’s the DM’s job. That’s the job the Street Fighter code can’t do, which is why it’s not as good as D&D.

You have to play by the rules, but don’t let the rules play you. An initiative die roll doesn’t mean combat. It only sets up an action order, just like those little numbers at the deli counter. You get those manticore-and-cheese sandwiches all the time, Regdar, and so far you’ve resisted the urge to footwork lure that old lady away from the counter and bash her with your maul. Combat doesn’t start with a die roll. It starts when some guy draws a three-foot blade and moves in with the intent to shank you. Just remember that the old yank-on-the-carpet trick is a way for anyone to have a spinning sweep.

So stop worrying whether you’re in a skill challenge, or a combat, or neither. Just play your character, play creatively, play D&D, and let the DM sweat the details.

Your faithful DM,

Uncle Per

One Response to “Play D&D. Not Street Fighter.”

  1. I definitely agree with this advice, though I would take a slightly different tack with the wall-sconce example. The player wants to rip the sconce out of the wall, so let them roll a Strength check (or Athletics or whatever they propose as appropriate) and then describe the success no matter what happens. If it’s a particularly low roll, there’s a moment of struggle, if they roll a 30, they don’t even take their eyes off the evil shaman. Why the rolling? Because players *like* to roll, especially when the totals wind up being really high. It’s a nice sense of validation, if not outright accomplishment, for the choices that they made when constructing their character.

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