Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Breather Before Town

It should be clear how I've been addressing this subject for these last weeks.   I started by exploring the DM's agenda with regards to role-playing, then discussing character generation and how the game deliberately limits the player.  There followed a discussion of the DM stepping aside to let the players set the game's agenda.  With that sorted, I talked about using the game's progress to set up the players for future events, while on their way.  A proposed dungeon was used as a simple pretext for game play, but nonetheless the next post addressed entering the dungeon and how that could be handled.

Having crossed the threshold into the dungeon, I discussed what inside might immediately confront the players; this progressed to a discussion of social monsters and the dungeon's layout, giving greater depth and rationality to that.  Without further ado, I brought forward a post on setting up combats; then plunder; then establishing clues that would take the party further into the dungeon's grip.  Finally, last Friday, I examined the subject of the players not having enough oomph to go on.  That brings us to here.

All this hasn't produced a lot of discussion, but I recognise the reader has been keenly interested and following along, appreciating the point-by-point elaboration on these subjects.  If nothing else, I should hope I've communicated that there's quite a lot going on with every facet of the game.  It matters that we're able to go on from here — and so we shall.  The players must bring out there gear and plunder from the dungeon, address their health, divide up healing, then choose whether it's practical to go all the way back to town or find a nearer place to hole up.  It depends much on how badly the party is hurt.

Before going into that, however, I wanted to pause briefly and talk about the method being employed with this series.  With each, there are three facets being examined: (a) what's gone before, that's brought the players to this place; (b) what specifically needs to be addressed in the present surroundings; and (c) how do these things press the party forward in some manner that keeps the game moving, without allowing a conclusion.

Winning the fight ends nothing; climbing out from the dungeon is not the end of the adventure.  There's obviously more dungeon that hasn't been addressed, there are the problems of getting back to town, and there's the power we have as DM to initiate some other ongoing situation or crisis that beckons the party's involvement in yet some other thing.

Recently, I stumbled into an ancient book by the name of Leucippe and Clitophon, written by Achilles Tatius in the mid-2nd century AD.  Take a moment and read the plot summary on wikipedia.  By the standards of a modern novel, it's ludicrous and melodramatic in scope, with new characters popping up to suddenly become villains, deaths that turn out not to be deaths, shipwrecks, kidnappings, betrayals and other such madness.  But as a narrative for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, it makes perfect sense.  Troubles beget troubles, with the players jumping from frying pan to frying pan, while still choosing which way to jump when the set up's been made plain and open.

We know that when the players enter the dungeon that there's going to be fighting; no one's surprised when it takes place.  We know that eventually the characters will run low on hit points even if they don't die.  We know they'll have to retreat.  None of these things are mysteries.  Yet the players can choose how they address these incidents that arise.  They choose when to keep going, when to retreat, and most important of all, how to retreat.  Later, it's up to them if they ever come back; no one's holding a gun to their head.  If it makes better sense, in this moment, to rescue the fellow with the children from the hangman's noose, leading to the adventure of what brought the noose about in the first place, and where that goes, then the players can follow up, or not, according to their whim.  Our role as DM is to go on making things happen; to go on finding things the players have to overcome; to create new situations the players have never met before.  To catch them off guard.  To thrill them ... over and over, no matter how many sessions we play with these same characters as they progress from weaklings to overlords.

I'm hoping the value I can add by deconstructing each part can provide insight into DMing skills that haven't been discussed, even with a blog this size.  By putting myself in the place of DM as I imagine the players moving onto the next thing — hauling their gear back to town — I can put the reader in both my place and that of the players also.  How would you address the players' return to safety and security: "You leave the dungeon ... and you're back in town" — would you do it like that?

I hope not.  I trust that we can see the players situation is tenuous at the moment, something we want to exploit with the setting.  They're hurt.  They're overloaded.  They may even be carrying an unconscious party member.  What might happen along the way.  Whom might they meet?  What's been going on in town since their leaving?  The setting is rightly in a state of flux ... and it in our interest to play up the melodrama somewhat, since the players aren't here to hoe crops.  They want drama, especially the kind that makes them think, that offers problems they can solve, that gives them something to exploit — if they're bright enough for that.

Thankfully, I can go on with this series indefinitely, even if the players do return to town safely.  Even if they arrive at the same dungeon again; because there are always different things to address.  I've not nearly said all there is to say about combat, treasure or laying further adventure hooks.  We could talk about returning to town in fifty different ways, because the game is that thick and deep.  There's never any "done" here.  There's always more.


  1. Please take this comment as a 'thank you' for each of your posts in this series - a great read. There is lots I'd like to comment on and a lot I'd like to hear you elaborate on (maybe I should have just been dropping a paragraph or two per post), but if I was to pick what I was most interested in, it was a paragraph where you said (going from memory because struggling to find it now) that you expect players to build a retinue, hire laborers etc - essentially turn part of the dungeoneering into an expedition. I'd like to hear you write more on this, but it might just end up being 'players should be decent to villagers, follow up their concerns and comments and pay them to haul or pull down blockages' and that would be it.

    I'm intending to dm a solo adventure for a single person - by necessity to be able to do much impact in the world they'll need to be able to leverage and use npc's to a greater degree than an average party might, which is why your paragraph made my eyes light up there.

  2. This is interesting: the space between the town and dungeon is so often wasted. Players just want to "get to the treasure," its easy for a DM to acquiesce and fail to take advantage of the opportunity.

  3. Prof, have a look the post First Steps and then the post Hold Our Ground. That should be the content you're looking for.

  4. ALL of these interstitial spaces are usable. Most DMs just aren't aware of them or chose to ignore them (to their parties detriment.) I recently had a TPK because the party kept "ignoring" these opportunities. On the one hand it's up to us to make sure they are THERE and recognized as such, but on the other it's up to players to see what's in front of them and utilize it. After the TPK I had a discussion with a fellow DM who observed "players don't sit down at the table to retreat. They come to roll dice and be heroes." I throttled back my "yes, but" response, tweaked my "What would Alexis Do?" bracelet, and realized that perhaps if that's all they want they aren't worthy of the game. That I need to continue offering the same (improving, growing) game and giving them opportunities.

    They took the TPK in stride. Realized they coulda/shoulda made other choices. So perhaps this next campaign will play out differently.

    And I'll keep reading here and learning from all of you and improving what's on offer.

  5. Clearly, I've got to get those bracelets on the market.

  6. Still reading and appreciating. It's a nice break during the week from all the blood and screaming. It gives me things to think about.

    NB: For everyone else, I work in a hospital. That's about 95%, but not 100%, hyperbole.

  7. This reader has certainly been following with keen interest.

  8. I have made great use of those posts in the current stretch of my campaign, and each new installment bring more interesting bits.

    I love this.

    Thanks, as always, for your time and work.

  9. Alexis - Thanks, exactly what I was hoping to read.

  10. I'll cop to having essentially done "you leave the wilderness aaaaand you're back in the city" last session*. I'm finding myself really hard pressed to come up with descriptions and possible hooks on the fly. You'd gnash your teeth if you saw how often I've shamefully zipped the players from A to B, with minimal mention of the people, buildings, roads, signposts, smells, sounds, sights along the way...

    My current prescription: practice writing brief descriptions and hooks during the week, then recite them out loud like an actor's lines to install in my head some choices I can fall back on. We'll see if a month or two of that ups my game.

    * They were disturbed from finding a lemure at the bottom of their first dungeon ... an encounter I dragged out over the course of multiple other fights as it teleported in and out, nabbing the unconscious.

    Could have easily TPK'd them after it landed Suggestion on the strongest member [level 3 fighter] and the only one armed with a magic weapon. But the others intelligently defended themselves, grappled the victim, etc. so I softballed a bit. Laid down big damage on allied NPCs, then had the lemure cancel Suggestion and disappear "for good."

    I judged what might really get their goat is having a tough and inscrutable enemy who could show up anywhere. Seems it worked -- they're obsessed with finding more magic weapons and settling the score.


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