Dungeons & Dragons becomes divisive for a game master after a while. I've had many people in recent years wanting to get in on the tabletop gaming revival and D&D is their first point of reference, so it's usually their game of choice for their first game. Which is not bad: why not try the game that started it all, right?

I think I get tired of its weaknesses. The game does many things very well and players always enjoy the strong structure. They know what to do before they play and if they're ever stuck they just go back to those basics: kill monsters, find treasure, explore the world. And when the game goes well we experience great role-playing moments that stick with us for a while.

However, the list of gripes about D&D grows over time, especially when you're reading other games that do things that are very difficult to make happen in D&D.

I recently played a game of Dungeon World. The flow between combat and exploration was very smooth and there was no initiative system to decide turn order, play just flowed naturally. In comparison, my last two games of D&D were filled with long tedious combat and players doing the same thing over and over. I knew I was doing something wrong.

So here's my problem: combat becomes slow and lengthy and players are bored by it.

Here's how I'm going to solve it (and there's nothing here that someone else hasn't said before):

  • Know when to end a combat.
  • Give monsters life.
  • Play to win.

I don't like to try and do more than three things a game. There's other stuff I want to work on too, like making my NPCs more lifelike or staging scenes better but I don't like overwhelming my brain while I'm at the table.

Knowing when combat ends is easy, but so often no one thinks about defining it. Ending combat is a little tougher for me. The characters have all these cool powers and weapons and the players want to behead thirty kobolds or whatever. But before you know it you're slogging through the last three rounds watching them make attack rolls again and again. So you have to know when combat should end and have the will to end it at that time, no exceptions.

There are a couple ways to accomplish this. One is having combat outs, which are multiple ways a combat can end early before every monster or character is dead. Maybe it's when they grab the orb, or close the gate, or free the prisoners. You write down a bunch of options and if one of them happens, initiative order ends and its back to the explorative scene structure or another encounter. I don't mind this, but it's not what I want to try.

What I'm thinking about is a concept The Angry GM has gone on about quite a bit: dramatic questions. It reminds me a lot of a principle from Apocalypse World called "play to find out what happens". Apocalypse World (D. Vincent Baker, Lumpley Games) works this into its structure by making dramatic questions for each major threat in the game, but Angry talks about using it for every encounter scene you run. You write down a question that the encounter will answer, and you play until you know the answer, and not a second further. "Will the characters get the orb before the orc chieftain?" "Will they rescue the shopkeeper before the bandits kill him?" "Will they reach the heart of the lich's lair?" These are all examples that imply a couple ways an encounter or series of encounters can end. (He explains it 1000 times better than I can.)

I'm a fan of ending scenes and games before you feel them drag on and these give you signals for when that's about to happen. It's tempting to let things keep going because it feels like what you're supposed to do: monsters have hit points, so if they are not at 0 how do you know they are dead? If monsters are all designed to die, doesn't that imply that combat ends when they do? These are all parts of the design of D&D that I have a bit of trouble supporting. Every time I choose to end things early, the result is positive and the players enjoy the game so much more.

Giving monsters some realism means about making decisions based on those monsters' goals and talents. Dungeon World (Sage LaTorra & Adam Koebel, Sage Kobold Productions) refers to them as needs and knacks, and I've always liked the simplicity of their lists for non player character creation. Every monster should have something they want and something special about them that helps them get it.

This design means you'll always know how your monsters react and what their next move is. Some monsters are hungry, some are driven by evil, but some just want treasure or have more complicated goals like extortion or kidnapping. Monsters that just fight until death are boring. Knowing them well means every fight is different.

Playing to win is something I struggle with, but the more I run games the more I realize that players appreciate challenge. Characters can go down in battle and even die, but if it was by the player's hand it's actually pretty exciting for them. Having things the characters can't handle pop out of nowhere or narrating a giant avalanche killing them all is not fun (or respectful), but a challenging combat is.

And the players should have the ability to call it quits or find another solution to their problems. That agency means if they lose a character because they chose to keep fighting against bad odds they won't feel it's unfair. I like to go easy on my players because I feel bad when they struggle, but I have to remind myself that the struggle is important.

I could go on about these topics in more detail, and maybe in a future post I will. For now, I'm going to go into my next game writing down the dramatic questions for each encounter, giving everything a need and a knack, and remembering that I should fight with everything I've got, just like the monsters and villains would. I'll write another post with the results.