FOUR LITTLE WORDS
Some of the advice I give here is for DMs, some is for players. Today’s column is a little bit of both.
It’s about four magic words that are the answers to a lot of the questions, problems, and dilemmas facing people who play D&D.
It won’t help you with a rule question or a disputed ruling. It’s more a matter of implementation.
Let me give you an example of some of the problems that this miracle answer can help you completely circumvent.
“I want to try this whole group variant initiative rule from the DMG, but I’m worried that if the monsters win initiative they’ll all just focus fire on one player character and kill them in round one before anyone else can do anything.”
“My character concept is a zany chaotic neutral character who is basically a living cartoon character, but I’m worried that I’ll steal focus and annoy the other characters.”
“I really want my PCs to encounter a dragon for story reasons, but they’re not powerful enough to take it on and live, and I don’t want it to be a TPK.”
“I’m playing a traditional lawful good character and it keeps causing problems because my character won’t go along with the rest of the group unless they do things my character’s way.”
These kinds of questions are among the most common non-technical questions you see being asked. A DM has concerns about a scenario or a rule variation that might lead to a less-than-fun curb stomp of doom against the players, or a player has a character concept they’re really attached to but they can’t figure out how to make it work without driving everyone else away.
However, as I said, there are four little words that can solve any one of these situations and hundreds more. Those words are:
Maybe don’t do that?
Understand, this isn’t an injunction to abandon the plans that are giving you pause. See, in each of those cases, it’s not the scenario that the person is worried about, but what they see as the inevitable outcome.
If every single monster goes before every single PC, the monsters will focus on one target to slaughter unopposed.
If the low level PCs fight a dragon, the dragon will kill them.
If you have an honor-bound or zany character, that character will annoy your teammates or derail the story or otherwise ruin everybody’s enjoyment, including yours.
But none of these things are actually inevitable consequences. They’re all choices that, in these cases, are invisible to the people who are making them.
Hence the solution: maybe don’t do that?
Stick-in-the-mud paladin, you seriously don’t have to change your alignment or personality at all. But in the moment when you the player, the person sitting there playing a fun game for fun with your friends who are also looking for fun, are making the decision whether to drag your feet or allow the game to progress, instead of uttering the dreaded “My character wouldn’t do that.” when something obviously needs to be done, figure out how your character would.
In real life, a personality isn’t an iron bound code of parameters that cannot be breached. People do things against their conscience and against their better judgment all the time. Even more to the point, people rationalize the things that seem necessary for them to do.
You might say “My character would never compromise on this.” You know who else says they’ll never compromise on the things that matter to them? Literally everybody on the planet. You know who does? Literally everybody. We’ve just got a reflex in our brain that recasts things before we even realize we’ve decided to do them. When you’re dealing with a fictional character whose adventures are completely imaginary and you can imagine their actions at your leisure, it’s easy to imagine that they’d actually manage to hold on to some kind of moral, ethical, or personal absolute, but actual people are more complex than that.
You can stay in character just fine by voicing an objection as the plot progresses anyway, I promise. If you’re actually into roleplaying, there’s actually more dramatic potential in roleplaying reluctant action than in roleplaying obstinate inaction.
This isn’t just for stick-in-the-mud paladins, either. Your greedy, take-everything-that-isn’t-nailed-down rogue type? You don’t have to steal from your teammates. Roleplay the temptation. Roleplay the frustration. Roleplay the character growth. You don’t have to forget that your character is a thief, you just don’t let this fact steal the fun from everyone else.
Your fussy, squeamish, homebody type who hates fighting monsters in dark places and would rather curl up at home with a good book? That’s a fine character concept, but if you attach it to a D&D character in a standard campaign, you’re tacitly agreeing that said character will go into dark places and fight monsters. Bilbo Baggins slept late, but he still got out the door and ran after the dwarves.
Now, you can create a character who absolutely wouldn’t go on the adventure, who wouldn’t work with the others in the party, who wouldn’t work towards the same goal or any goal at all… but, this is an ensemble game about working together to achieve goals on an adventure, so, y’know, maybe don’t do that. Don’t take it that far.
When I run a campaign, I tell my players that no character concept–and no alignment–is off-limits, but the presence of their character in the game means they’re part of a story, and they need to come up with a reason for their character to be there.
If your character is so fussy, so evil, so wacky, so honorbound, so possessed by demons, so a plural entity in one body, or so whatever that you honestly can’t see your character doing the adventure thing with the others, then that character might be perfectly valid in every other way, but you are playing as Ser Not Appearing In This Story.
And Ser Not Appearing In This Story does not appear in this story, which means you need to make another character. This other character might be exactly like Ser Not Appearing in every other regard, but the new character has a reason to be there, and knows how to rope it in.
Remember: there’s no audience watching you at home. Rather, you and the friends with whom you play are the audience. The other players are your audience. If they’re not amused by your antics, then why are you doing them? If your character’s drama and pathos do not help create a richer experience for them, then why is it there?
THE FERENGI PRINCIPLE
On the subject of pleasing audiences, when I talk to individual players about not going overboard with their character concepts, I like to talk about Ferengi. When the Ferengi first appeared in the Star Trek universe, early on in The Next Generation, they were these comically exaggerated villains.
Seriously, everything about them was overblown. Their reputation (initially they sounded a bit like the Reavers in Firefly, if the Reavers were trying to sell you something) was overblown. Their mannerism were overblown. Their speech was overblown. Their greed and above all the criminal credulousness caused by their cupidity were overblown.
A thing happened, though. The more that Ferengi appeared on screen, though, the less ridiculous they became. Their first on-screen appearance was the worst, and then it was uphill from there. We could think that maybe it just took the creators a while to get a handle on them, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.
See, the biggest leap forward that the Ferengi got in terms of characterization happened when Deep Space Nine started. Armin Shimmerman, who had helped originate the portrayal of the Ferengi on The Next Generation, was cast as a series regular named Quark, the first major Ferengi character and one that viewers would have in their living room week after week.
If Quark had been one of the shrieking, hissing Ferengi of the “HOOO-MAHNS GIVE GOLD”-style (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but only very slight), viewers would have been turned off by Quark’s presence, and either he would have gone, or the show would have. Even if the show had survived, it would have been very different without the character we got, and his relationships with the rest of the cast of characters.
Actually, let’s talk about Quark and the show’s lawman, Odo. Quark is chaotic neutral with some evil tendencies, Odo is lawful neutral with some good tendencies. But their obvious mutual antagonism is consistently played in a way that is conducive both to the running of the space station and the running of the show. Neither character runs wild in a way that derails the whole thing, and yet if you watch it, it doesn’t feel like they’re holding anything back.
In the first season, Odo drops by about once an episode to say “I’m watching you, Quark”… but by the very virtue of that, they have more scenes together and lines with each other than either of them do with many other characters.
So there’s your more complete answer for how to play a stick-in-the-mud paladin or a career criminal in an adventuring party: just look to the stars.
It might sound a bit glib, but really, most TV shows give you examples of this principle. All of the characters in an ensemble will have flaws and quirks and codes of honor that would ruin the show nigh-unwatchable if they were treated as simple ironbound rules or always played to the hilt, to say nothing of how it would sabotage whatever the characters are trying to do.
But what happens instead is that the characters all work together anyway. They have to, or else it would all fall apart. This isn’t to say that it’s not “realistic” to have people who just don’t get along or to have a situation go completely pear-shaped because of the foibles of the people involved. Sure it is. But those situations are by definition short-lived compared to ones where people work things out, or just click.
DON’T SIGN AWAY YOUR AGENCY
There’s a thing I tell DMs as a general rule of DMing, and that is player agency is all-important. That is, DMs should never blithely narrate that a player’s character does a thing the player did not choose to do.
But this is advice some players need to remember, too. Your character doesn’t decide what happens. You do. Even if it seems so obvious to you that they must do this or they can’t do that, it’s a decision you’re making.
And listen, I’m not saying there’s nothing wrong with making a bold stand for what your character believes in, or for letting your character live and breathe as a living, breathing, flawed individual.
But this post is premised on the existence of players who see “their characters” doing things they don’t want them to do, who feel trapped by their character concept into doing things that they’re sure will alienate the rest of the group and ruin the game.
The solution for that really is as simple as four little words:
Maybe don’t do that?
That’s all it takes. People often hype up the roleplaying hobby by saying that you have the power to do whatever you want, the endless power of your imagination. That’s maybe a bit overstating the case, as you don’t need rules or dice for that. What the roleplaying game brings to the table is some kind of limits, definitions, and delineations to give structure and meaning to an imaginary adventure.
But there’s a basic core of truth to the idea that you can do whatever you want in a roleplaying game. The problem some players have is they forget or don’t realize this means they don’t have to do what they don’t want.
MEANWHILE, ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SCREEN
The situations I’m talking about for DMs are completely different from the ones that afflict players, even though the answer is the same.
This is because beneath the surface, they all share a common cause: the denial of that agency, the abdication of that responsibility. I spoke about this in a previous Spherical Goblins post, regarding the idea that you just have to form the so-called Conga Line of Death in editions where there’s an advantage to flanking.
I’ve seen DMs say they can’t adjust the difficulty of an encounter if, say, the players encounter the Big Bad a few levels earlier than they planned, “Because my players will know I’m pulling punches.” But this is a roleplaying game. You the DM aren’t the one facing the too-weak opponents, the character is. And would your villains really be pulling punches if they just don’t fight like cornered rabbits?
That’s really what it represents, in-game, when you play every combat out to maximum tactical advantage, [matching the players metagame for metagame], or worse, making them match you. The conventional wisdom that says that tactical metagaming is expected or required for DMs is that someone in a life or death fight would do anything that increases their chance of winning, and thus surviving… but does this logic really apply equally to every conflict?
If you’ve got a situation where you know the creature or creatures facing the PCs could wipe them out in one round if you played them to maximum ruthless efficiency, then how is it the same life-or-death fight you’d expect if both sides were evenly matched?
And if it’s not a life-or-death fight for one side because that side is overpowered, then there’s nothing wrong with playing it as something else, is there? Nothing wrong with the villain being a little cocky, a little complacent.
A dragon that would be an intense challenge for a group of 5 or 6 high level adventurers doesn’t have to go all-out to kill a group of 3 level 1 adventurers.
Listen, I get a lot of pushback when I talk about this in open forums. People say I’m suggesting they “go easy” on their players or “let them win”, but the thing is, I only make these suggestions in contexts where people are talking about how a situation would definitely kill all the player characters and how this is bad.
Letting the players win is not part of the game, even though honestly, 5E is very much built around the idea that they’ll win most of the time, with the challenge coming in how small fights wear them down before the big ones. (People who’ve followed my own game design efforts will understand immediately why I’m such a fan of it.)
But neither is stacking fights to kill them. Unless you’re playing seriously old school with truly random encounters, you don’t give them an inappropriate level of challenge in either direction. You give them a fight they could lose, but one they can win, too.
And no one thinks this is “going easy” on anyone. No one derides it.
Even more so than the players staring at the front of the DM screen, the DM really does have the power to do anything. Yet even more so than among players, there’s a severe tendency among DMs to completely overlook all the choices that go into what they do, until the game in general and combat in particular basically plays out like a script being rigidly executed.
If you’ve fallen into this trap, it’s time to free yourself from it with the magical, life-affirming power of maybe don’t do that.
If you feel like you have to focus fire on a single player character because it’s the tactic that “makes sense” to you as a wargame but you don’t really want to do that because it makes the game less sense, maybe don’t do that.
If you want to have a fight with a small army of some ridiculous number of goblins but you know it will be a crushing TPK if they all attack at once and they all use their Nimble Escape every turn to dance away, maybe don’t do that.
If you want to have (or circumstances create) an encounter with a powerful dragon or other giant creature before the party is ready to actually fight it, it doesn’t have to be a fight. Even if the encounter leads to violence, the monster doesn’t have to “fight” the way it would against credible threats. If there’s something you know the PCs absolutely could not survive, maybe don’t do that.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The bottom line is that whether you’re a player or a DM, if there’s ever a point where it seems inevitable that you’re going to do a thing and this thing will ruin the game, stop and think: is it really inevitable? What or what is the active agent that would make it happen?
Chances are the answer is you. Chances are you’ve already realized this, on some level. Chances are that once you’ve admitted it, it’s just a short walk from there to embracing the power of don’t.
Alexandra Erin is a 26-year veteran player of Dungeons & Dragons. You can find her original gaming content on the DMs Guild.