A Message to 5E DMs: You Only Have One Ass.

Earlier this week, there was a stupid argument happening on Twitter.

Yes. I know. Inconsequential arguments between people who couldn’t find an open pit trap with a torch bearer and a ten foot pole is what Twitter is for. While there were some reasonable people and some valid points, many of the tweets amounted to insane screeching that would shame a gibbering mouther.

Such is #TTRPG Twitter.

This particular argument came about when a mutual of mine commented on a Reddit post. Here is the relevant Tweet.

This got a lot of engagement.

Did the Dungeon Master Make Bad Call?

My main thought having read the original post was that the game master might have messed up but not on the basic call. Spitting on a violent criminal is something any reasonable person would assume to provoke a violent response. Find a gangster slinging drugs on a street corner in any city and spit on him. Tell me how it goes in the comments.

Should the DM have killed the PC. Eh. Maybe? I dunno. Wasn’t there. Not enough context.

If one of my players did that, it might have ended much the same way. I might have had the minions give the character a severe beating that put them within a few hit points of death.

I’d make a reaction roll with a significant negative to decide if the boss just beat the PC or killed them outright. It would also depend on the NPC. A psychopath NPC or a hardcore thug with a reputation to maintain isn’t going to tolerate that sort of disrespect. He can’t allow that sort of thing and keep face.

Regardless, It would not have been good for the character. Depending on the NPC, death would have been a possibility.

I wouldn’t have rolled to hit or damage. I would have narrated that the mob boss sticks a blade in the character’s throat like Top Dollar kills Gideon in The Crow. Auto-success. No save.

Are you sure you want to spit on this guy?

The place where I think the DM clearly messed up was the information exchange. I feel very confident that my players are fully aware that if their characters were completely in the power of a high powered NPC and then insulted them, the outcome would be…unpleasant.

A new player at my table would get a rundown of the situation they are in, the neighborhood reputation of the boss and the possible outcomes before they got the old, “Are you sure you want to do that?” If they persisted with the spitting… Roll a new character.

Reading the post, it seems like the player was not aware their character was in mortal danger. The DM may not have informed the player that characters could die as a consequence of their choices. It wasn’t necessarily a bad call to kill the character but the original post indicates there was a disconnect between the player and the Dungeon Master.

You Can’t Ride Two Horses

Reading the post, the Tweet about the post and the responses to the Tweet about the post… causes me to reflect that a lot of Dungeon Masters only have one ass but are trying to ride two horses.

The sense I get from the original post on Reddit is the Dungeon Master put the characters into a pre-plotted encounter where no matter what they did, they were going to be captured. The PCs were brought to the boss who was going to give them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

I don’t know for sure but I’m willing to bet that this was a plot point for the DM’s story.

The player did something that felt like the kind of thing a brave protagonist hero would do in a movie.

The player believed they were in a story. Whoever sold them on playing had probably told them that D&D was collaborative storytelling.

The player assumed that this was a story wherein their character was one of the protagonists (who wouldn’t be killed unless it served the story). The player assumed the story was being played out as an interactive narrative and they acted accordingly.

The error comes when the DM tried to ride the Storytelling horse and the Playing a Game horse at the same time. She decided the correct game response was to kill the character which confused the player. The player thought they were in a story when suddenly, they were in a game with constraints and rules.

You tell a story or you play a game. When you try to do both, it creates problems.

Horse Number 1: I’m Telling My Story.

You can’t swing a dead Tabaxi sorcerer without hearing the word “story” in discussions of 5E D&D.

This approach suggests the DM or designer will produce predetermined plot points, cut scenes, and scripted boss fights, very much like the design of a computer RPG. The players get to fill in the details of how they get to the final boss fight but it is assumed that the players will follow the breadcrumbs and fight the boss.

It is assumed that even if the players deviate from the primary storyline, they will return to the plot at some point and complete the adventure as intended by the DM or designer.

When you ride the “story horse”, the plot points, story beats, and ultimate climactic battle of the campaign (which has been predetermined) is the criteria by which the DM makes all decisions. Anything that doesn’t conform to the story or can be shoehorned into the story cannot be allowed.

When you are riding the story horse; the players will not decide to join forces with the bad guy because he’s right; The Harpers are a bunch of stuck up douche bags. At no point will the players decide, “Fuck this. I’m a first level adventurer and those are dragons up there. We’re going where there aren’t any dragons.” Players will never say, “Fuck Ten Towns. It’s too damn cold up here. Lets go back to Waterdeep and steal some shit.”

We we are going engage with the DM’s story because that is what we are supposed to do.

There was another recent Twitter fight where many DMs said they let combat go on as long as it felt dramatic. When the feeling of the table started to turn and the players started getting bored, the villain/monster would die and on to the next scene. The players might have felt like they were playing a game but in reality, they were enacting a story beat with a predetermined ending.

The combat wasn’t actually a fight, it was like a roller coaster. It was intended to give you the experience of danger without your character actually being in danger. The DM rolling dice was to give the illusion that it was a fight. This is an extreme example of riding the story horse, that kind of makes sense. If you are going to ride that horse, you might as well go all the way.

Many (perhaps most?) players of the current edition like these sorts of campaigns.

Horse Number 2: We’re Playing a Game.

The other horse you can ride is the “game horse.” Dungeons and Dragons is a game. It’s a particular type of game that but it is a game.

One feature of games is uncertain outcomes. In board games or card games, the possible outcomes are limited. In chess, we know that white wins, black wins or there will be a draw. We don’t know which it will be. That’s why we play the game; to find out. The choices the players make determine the outcome.

When you ride the “game horse” you allow the game rules, procedures, and mechanisms to determine what happens. The players may think and sometimes will say, “Well the DM dropped this clue here so he must want us to go to the bandit’s lair to release the prisoners.” The DM riding the Game Horse doesn’t care where you go or what you do as long as you do something that is interesting.

They didn’t write a story. They designed a situation. Engage with it how you like. Be a hero. Be a scoundrel. Be a murder hobo. It’s all fine.

You Can’t Ride Both Horses At The Same Time

My hypothesis is that the DM in the Reddit post that found its way to Twitter was trying to ride two horses despite having one ass.

She had a story to tell: A mob boss captures the party, makes them an offer they can’t refuse so that they are motivated to go to the next plot point of the adventure.

She was also trying to play a game: The PC insulted the mob boss and the NPC’s reaction was to kill the character.

When you try to do both of those things at the same time. You get confused and angry players. They think they are the protagonist in your story but then they find out they are pawns on the chess board and can be sacrificed.

No wonder the player was confused.

D&D IS ALL ABOUT COLLABORATIVE STORYTELLING!!!

Many of the comments in the ensuing Twitter battle resulting from the screen capture are built this rarely explored underlying premise. It is unassailable doctrine in the minds of many DMs of the “new school.”

On nearly every social media site, blog posts, nerdy websites and news media sites; we get the rejoinder, “D&D is all about collaborative storytelling.”

I can’t say that I have ever agreed. The longer I play, the more I come to dislike it.

Judging from my observations of the most popular 5E blogs, YouTube channels and threads on social media; the interactive narrative style is dominant.

Most people call this “collaborative storytelling.” Almost no one defines what collaborative storytelling actually is or describes how to do this effectively using the D&D mechanisms as the engine. I searched on Google for “collaborative storytelling dungeons and dragons.” What I found was interesting.

I assumed that there would a definitative, concise, authoritative definition of “collaborative storytelling” on at least one of the popular sites dedicated to D&D and I didn’t find one. What I found was a lot of references to it but no one describing what they meant by that term or how they achieved it other than to go into a tautology. D&D is collaborative storytelling. Collaborative storytelling is D&D.

There were many iterations of “Collaborative storytelling is the core of Dungeons and Dragons,” but nothing describing what they actually mean by that. I love tearing into an assumption to find out what makes it work and imagine my surprise when one of the most common assumptions of 5E fandom is an empty box.

What I find incredibly bizarre is the degree to which “new school” players and DMs focus on the game mechanics and how to “build” a character. I see frequent posts on various site about how this character isn’t optimal for combat and if you combine this race with this class and these backgrounds you have this ability to do whatever. Players want to roll persuasion/intimidation/exsanguination to get a better deal on ale in the tavern and then declare they prefer role-playing over roll-playing.

If your DM is fudging the dice and making sure the combat is dramatic; if your DM isn’t going to kill the characters unless it serves the story; if you aren’t going to go off the bread crumb trail because that is where the adventure is then why roll dice at all? Why bother with the build?

The two approaches are contradictory.

Why not play a “story” game? Why not write a character background, hand it to the “storyteller” and have them tell you what happens in the story? You could sit at the table and improv how you get there. That’s what is happening when a DM rides the Story Horse. It looks like and feels like a game, but really its interactive narrative with a predetermined outcome that you have solve like a puzzle.

One area where I agree with the designers who come out of the Forge and “story game” scenes is that D&D is shit for telling stories.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game that creates stories. You aren’t telling the story. You are creating the story. This is a subtle but important difference.

Is your life so safe that you have never been close to death? Did you plan that near death experience happening when you left your apartment that morning? Did you think, “I need to make a story about saving someone’s life. I think I’ll live a story where I save someone from killing themselves this morning?”

You weren’t telling a story when that person nearly stepped into traffic because they were too busy looking at their phone. When you grabbed them from behind, just as a garbage truck came roaring by, you weren’t telling a story. You were experiencing an event.

You were in a situation. You made a decision. You took an action. That action had an outcome and then when you got home you told your roommate the story. You didn’t plot the story out before you left. You experienced an event which created a story.

In my videos I deliberately shy away from storytelling. I have an entire video saying “Do not try and tell a story. Build an adventure. Let the story take care of itself.” Because in my experience, those who put story first are going to be very frustrated with D&D and the fact that it cooperates not at all with your goals. But those who put adventure first, have a ton of fun rolling dice and killing stuff. They’ll spend an hour in the parking lot after talking about stuff like “Man what if we never opened that door? What would have happened? Should we have tried to negotiate with this dude?”

These are not people talking about a story they just created. They’re talking about a scenario they just played.

Matt Colville

Emergent Narrative or “I have no fucking idea how we got here.”

In tabletop role-playing games played in the style I prefer, the outcome is unpredictable. I’m only riding Horse #2. The Game Horse. I do create and tell stories but they are the stories of the setting, the monsters and the NPCs that occured BEFORE the campaign began or are things that happen in parallel to what the players are doing so that I can create the sense of sekaikan for the players.

That isn’t me telling the player characters story. That’s different. The PC’s story is created, it emerges, through play.

I started my Hogwater campaign in the summer of 2018. I had no idea that the players would form a mercenary company, sack two cities, kill the Grand Druid, become potent servants of Chaos, build their own city, travel to the plane of Limbo, and kill a demi-god.

I had no idea that any of that would happen, but it did. All I knew was that the first level adventuring party had washed up in a shitty little town on the borderlands; the lord was a drunk and incompetent, there were some bandits, a couple of dungeons, some monsters laired up in some nearby ruins, the local druids were assholes, the inn keeper had an interesting secret, and the lord of the neighboring demesne intended to invade and take the joint over. Seriously. I didn’t know much more than that.

This was the first map I made for my Hogwater campaign. This was it. All of it. We played off this map for a couple of months before I had to expand it.

Why? We were playing a game. It had an uncertain outcome. The players made choices and those choices had consequences for good and for ill. I did not have a plot. I did not have a story to tell. I had some ideas. I had situations. I had some dungeons that I bought, things I stole from blogs and a crappy map that took about 15 minutes to draw. That’s it.

30 months and all kinds of mayhem later, we had a complete campaign. Dozens of stories that we are still telling friends and new players at the table.

Just the other day, my 80 year old mother in law, who has never played D&D in her life, was laughing about some ridiculous story I told about something my players had got up to in that campaign.

I didn’t intend for it to go that way. I had no idea it would happen that way but it did.

Ride the Game Horse or Ride the Story Horse

If you want to run an interactive narrative for your players and they like that sort of thing, go for it. A lot of people are into it. If you are one of those people, Awesome. You do you. Not my preference, at all.

You might want to communicate to your game group that you are telling your story and that will be the basis upon which you will be making your rulings. You should also keep it foremost in your own mind that you are telling a story so that you can make decisions according to the imperative of the story.

If you try to ride both horses and make a decision that doesn’t fit the story but does match up with the game rules, the players are going to get angry and confused. The outcome will be incoherent.

Personally, I’m going to ride the Game Horse and you can too.

There is nothing in the game mechanisms that prevents you from running 5E the way I run Swords and Wizardry. You will almost certainly have better stories to tell after the game is over than you will if you try to create a story before the game starts.

A 5E DM can create a setting. Populate it with monsters, gods, and NPCs. The Dungeon Master can give those beings their own intents, resources, obstacles, and enemies. The players interact with that stuff, make choices and throw the ball back to the DM. The DM decides how the monsters, gods, and NPC’s react and inform the players.

Back and forth it goes. The paradox is that this approach usually ends up with much better stories that emerge from these interactions than the pre-scripted nonsense WotC sells and DMs are constanstly urged to create.


Hat tip to Paths Peculiar and Aaron the Pedantic for inspiring this post.

5 thoughts on “A Message to 5E DMs: You Only Have One Ass.

  1. I don’t view it as a game horse. The phrase doesn’t capture the alternative to riding the story horse. There are referee and players who treat D&D as a sophiscated wargame and adventures as scenarios with all that entails.

    What I do instead is create an experience. I create a setting that the players look at. Then they find something interesting they want to try, and make characters. The campaign starts and they have adventures. The difference from story, and game is that it is not the rules are that final arbiter but how the setting and characters are described. The rules are an aide to keep things consistent and to make the campaign run smoother.

    The implication is that players can do anything that make sense for your character. Given how the character is described both in text and mechanics, and how the setting is described. If there isn’t a specific rule that covers the situation or a rule produces a nonsense result in light of the setting then a new ruling is made that is more consistent with how thing work.

    Because the focus on the players playing out their character life in a setting, that means things will play as if they were there as the character. Including that bad things will happen if they happen to have spit on a gangster.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi there Rob. Your comment languished in my spam folder and I just noticed it. Sorry about that.

      My metaphor definitely has its limitations. What you describe is my approach as well.

      A concept I’ve been wrestling with for a while is that in D&D, at least the style of old school D&D that I prefer I think of the setting and the rules (mechanisms/procedures) as part of one thing that can’t be separated. I struggle with how to describe this. The only way I’ve managed to conceptualize it so far is say that Gary didn’t play D&D he played Greyhawk. He used the D&D mechanisms but what made Gary’s game his game was Greyhawk. Which means, I think, there are a whole package of underlying premises and assumptions that players at that table had which weren’t written down.

      My major issue with the kind of approach that is broadly recommended by many online advice givers is that the DM’s plot points, genre conventions, and story can and should be put ahead of mechanisms or what makes sense within the constraints and assumptions of the setting. This confuses players I think. They are told they are doing “collaborative storytelling” so then they take an action that would be coherent with a story beat or a genre convention (trope) but their character fails or dies when the DM applies a rule/mechanism. Conversely, a player makes a choice assuming a rule/mechanism will be applied but then the DM subverts that action (often without the player knowing through fudged die rolls) because the choice the player made doesn’t fit the story the DM has created.

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  2. To me, collaborative storytelling and story games are antithetic to railroading (with some obvious exceptions like Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne, which is basically semi-scripted improv theatre). The “collaborative” part and the “yes, and…” ethos ensure that nobody really knows where the story will go.*

    Other than that, yeah, good points.

    * For example, I ran a one-shot of Swords without Master, which is about as “storygame-y” as you can get: we ended with the PCs owning an illegal casino in the catacombs, with a crow familiar as the manager. At the start of the session I didn’t even know there were catacombs…

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    1. I agree. Collaborative storytelling and most story games are antithetic to railroading.

      The railroad, by its nature requires the game master to know what the plot points and ending of the story will be so that there is something to railroad the players toward. A game like Sword Without Master or Wolf Spell sets up a premise or situation at the beginning of the game and then let the participants decide where it’s going to go from there. In a lot of ways, this is how I run classic adventure games but with different sets of constraints. At least, that is my experience. Having played Swords without Master with Epi a few times, I feel like I have a fairly good grasp on what he was attempting to do with the game.

      In my experience a lot of online advice givers and commentators call D&D collaborative storytelling while at the same time recommending a style of game play that amounts to a video game like interactive narrative. Players in those adventures and campaigns have no more agency over where the story will go than a player has in a computer game. If the DM knows how the game ends and what the outcome looks like, IMO, that’s not a game its a story pretending to be a game.

      They want to railroad to some degree or another. It may be a gentle form of railroading but railroading nonetheless. Lots of people seem to like it so who am I to tell them they are doing it wrong. It isn’t for me though.

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