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D&D General Can we talk about best practices?

I'm also trying to express some sort of integration of player contribution with GM contribution under the premise that the basic trajectory of play is set by the GM. This is what Edwards used to call "participationism". I think that that's the closest thing we have, to date, as a "technical" label for Critical Role-ish play.

Right....yeah, I was leaning toward that with my comments about engaging with the ideas of others. For players in 5E D&D.....at least as far as the games I've been involved with.....the GM is coming up with the bulk of the fiction. Even when the GM actively takes ideas and content offered by the players and then weaves them into the game, they're still the one designing the bulk of things. The game is GM driven as designed, and even games I see that do as much as possible to shift that can really only accomplish so much.

Engage with the premise and with the ideas introduced by others.

And I think it's something for which (i) good advice is needed, and (ii) the old chestnut "You can do anything your character could do as a person in the fictional world" is unhelpful and even misleading.

I tend to think of that as pretty useless advice, in most cases. I get the idea of promoting that there aren't the typical limits such as those we'd find in a video game, but there are still limits. One being that this is a group activity, and the game will ultimately be about the group more so than any individual member.
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
But the whole "better or worse ways" inevitably does have assumptions buried in it. How could it not?
And? There are better and worse ways to plant a garden. It's not a moral judgement to acknowledge that. If your goal is to grow veg in your garden there are better and worse ways to accomplish that. If you open a packet of seeds and pour the contents out on your kitchen floor it's quite likely you won't end up with veggies growing, unless of course your kitchen floor happens to have all the dirt, water, sunlight, fertilizer, etc that you'd typically find in a garden. There are better and worse ways to play games. Take Diplomacy, for example. If your goal is to get people to trust you enough to form alliances then constantly stabbing people in the back is a poor way to accomplish that goal. Again, it's not a moral judgement to acknowledge that. Likewise, if you're trying to run a wilderness exploration hexcrawl prepping a linear dungeon adventure is not best practices. Again, that's not a moral judgement on wilderness exploration, hexcrawls, linear adventures, or dungeons. If you want to X try A, B, and C while trying to avoid G, H, and I.
 

Malmuria

Adventurer
No. I'm riffing on @hawkeyefan's list.

Ultimately I'm not the best person to give best practice advice for 5e D&D because I don't play it! I just observe it. But having observed a new campaign with new players recently - and hearing my daughters reports of how disappointing she found it compared to some baby-steps RPGing she's done with me - I'm absolutely convinced that (i) there is ample scope for best-practice advice, and (ii) 5e D&D is quite different from some other versions (eg Moldvay Basic; even 4e) in lacking even very basic statements or unavoidable presuppositions of structure or process to "make the game go" for those who are coming to it for the first time.

I don't think (ii) is helpful, let alone inevitable. Hence my opinion re (i).
How did your daughter find it disappointing?

5e is in a weird place, because the official materials arguably don't do a great job at teaching new players/dms how to play the game, but because of its popularity, there is no shortage of unofficial advice and examples of play. Whereas almost all of the basic intro box sets had extended examples of play, the basic rules/phb has one very short and not very instructive example. The "how to play" subsection is filled generalities and ambiguities ("a DM might do this," "some DMs do this"). There's a section on the supposed three pillars of play, but as is well known by now, two of them lack concrete and consistent procedures. Chapter 8 in the basic rules/phb, "Adventuring," covers both of these topics in 5 total pages. The "Social Interaction" section gets a total of 1 page of content (spread out over two pages because they don't care about layout). It's not necessarily that you need a higher page count; in fact the rules for exploration, such as they are, could be more efficient and more usefully presented on a 1 page chart. But on the whole the rules do end up communicating that the hallmarks of exploration found in earlier editions are not going to be meaningful in 5e, at least in terms of procedures. I.e, the players won't be scared of the dungeon because their light might go out and there is a d6 table of bad things that happen when the lights go out; they'll be "scared" by the theatrics of the dm and their own suspension of disbelief in getting into a 'dnd mindset.'

Clearly there is a market out there for people to learn DM "best practices." Lots of people make a living in providing concrete tools, and overall do a better job than the official materiel. Actual plays model what an entire campaign of dnd looks like. But by the same token all of that advice has some people feeling that they are playing the game "wrong." So where is the disconnect?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
When I see the phrase "best practices" I read it as "things you should (try to) do" rather than "things you must do".

In other words they're guidelines, which can be ignored if one wants; rather than laws, which cannot.

That said, there seems to be a strong undercurrent arising in this thread that says "Best practice for D&D is to play a Story Now game instead". Anyone else find this annoying?
 

Malmuria

Adventurer
In terms of the best advice for a 5e playstyle, here's what we get from the starter set:


RULES TO GAME By

As the Dungeon Master, you are the final authority when it comes to rules questions or disputes during the game. Here are some guidelines to help you arbitrate issues as they come up.

When in doubt, make it up! It's better to keep the game moving than to get bogged down in the rules.

It's not a competition. The DM isn't competing against the player characters. You're there to run the monsters, referee the rules, and keep the story moving.

It's a shared story. It's the group's story, so let the players contribute to the outcome through the actions of their characters. DUNGEONS& DRAGONSis about imagination and coming together to tell a story as a group. Let the players participate in the storytelling.

Be consistent. If you decide that a rule works a certain way in one session, make sure it works that way the next time it comes into play.

Make sure everyone is involved. Ensure every character has a chance to shine. If some players are reluctant to speak up, remember to ask them what their characters are doing.

Be fair. Use your powers as Dungeon Master only for good. Treat the rules and the players in a fair and impartial manner.

Pay attention. Make sure you look around the table occasionally to see if the game is going well. If everyone seems to be having fun, relax and keep going. If the fun is waning, it might be time for a break, or you can try to liven things up.

Meanwhile the dmg presents a checklist for two types of adventures--Location-Based and Event-Based--with about a page of supplemental advice for Mysteries (like a murder mystery) and Intrigue (political intrigue...the advice here is particularly useless and boils down to 'think about who the villain(s) might be and what they want, then think about how the PCs get involved'). The two adventure types come with steps for the dm to check off in order to create the adventure and tables to randomly generate prompts for these steps:

Location-Based
1. Identify party goals
2. Identify important NPCs
3. Flesh out the location details
4. Find the ideal introduction
5. Consider the ideal climax
6. Plan encounters

Event-Based
1. Start with a villain
2. Determine the villain's actions
3. Determine the party goals
4. Identify Important NPCs
5. Anticipate villain's reactions
6. Detail key locations
7. Choose and introduction and a climax
8. Plan encounters

If any of this suggests a design intention, then it is toward a scripted trad-type game. For example, the assign the dm the task of identifying the party's goals, as if you could just tell the players, 'your motivation is x.' The book suggests that the dm anticipate how the player's will approach the situation and how the villain's with react. Finally, it even provides a random table for a scripted climax (" Looking over the Adventure Climax table, you might decide to have the adventurers bait the vampire with a chest of jewels stolen from its lair. As an added twist, you decide that the vampire's true goal is to retrieve a necklace among the jewels.").

Is any of this useful advice? Is it onetruewayism to make an argument for why it is not useful advice? What would be better advice for running a trad/neo-trad game?
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
When I see the phrase "best practices" I read it as "things you should (try to) do" rather than "things you must do".

In other words they're guidelines, which can be ignored if one wants; rather than laws, which cannot.
I'd go a step further than that: there are clear guidelines that help provide a better play experience and yes they can be ignored but if they are ignored without understanding the play experience will likely be worse.

That said, there seems to be a strong undercurrent arising in this thread that says "Best practice for D&D is to play a Story Now game instead". Anyone else find this annoying?
I think there might be a little of that, but it's more "how can we expand the D&D experience into something more..."

But there has to be an understanding that 5e does certain things well and other games (Fate, Burning Wheel etc.) do different things well.

Thinking you can somehow meet in the middle for an overall better play experience is a hopeful concept but isn't near as easy as it sounds - as what the games do well is not necessarily compatible with each other.
 

And? There are better and worse ways to plant a garden.

What kind of garden? Tomatos? Cacti?

That's the whole point; that's only true, just like this, when some specifics of expectation are laid out. Otherwise you're just taking it as a given that the specific results you want are what other people do--and no, I'd think the Railroad thread would tell you that "fun" doesn't define it enough to be useful.

Without at least halfway attempts to be specific about the output you're trying for, a set of best practices can look like complete idiocy to someone trying for something else.


Likewise, if you're trying to run a wilderness exploration hexcrawl prepping a linear dungeon adventure is not best practices. Again, that's not a moral judgement on wilderness exploration, hexcrawls, linear adventures, or dungeons. If you want to X try A, B, and C while trying to avoid G, H, and I.

That's the point though; that "X" is critically important. You can't just assume it.
 

That said, there seems to be a strong undercurrent arising in this thread that says "Best practice for D&D is to play a Story Now game instead". Anyone else find this annoying?

I think you're conflating a couple of posters' side discussions of things 5e does poorly (in response to people suggesting its a gaming Swiss army knife) with the more specific thrust of the thread
 

That said, there seems to be a strong undercurrent arising in this thread that says "Best practice for D&D is to play a Story Now game instead". Anyone else find this annoying?
I think that's just a tangent: someone said 5e supports multiple playstyles, someone else pointed out that 5e doesn't support Story Now, and this resulted in an argument.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
What kind of garden? Tomatos? Cacti?

That's the whole point; that's only true, just like this, when some specifics of expectation are laid out. Otherwise you're just taking it as a given that the specific results you want are what other people do--and no, I'd think the Railroad thread would tell you that "fun" doesn't define it enough to be useful.

Without at least halfway attempts to be specific about the output you're trying for, a set of best practices can look like complete idiocy to someone trying for something else.

That's the point though; that "X" is critically important. You can't just assume it.
I'm not assuming it. I'm explicitly saying there are different goals that people can try for. Like the goal of running a sandbox game. That is a different goal than running a linear module. Which is different than running a dungeon crawl. Which is different than running a character-driven game. Which is different than running a plot-based game. All of these are valid goals and all of these have different better and worse practices. Some of them will be overlapping; others will be contradictory. But that fact doesn't preclude talking about what the best practices of any one of them are.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Who said anything about supporting? It's flexible enough to allow you to play a broad set of playstyles. Optional rules and 3P products do offer support to varying degrees (and I suppose the new Ravenloft book offers support for horror games) but the core game doesn't support the broad range of play styles that the game is used for.

But it gets used nonetheless, and it handles those playstyles. Otherwise, you wouldn't hear so many people complaining about it. When was the last time you heard someone complaining that Fate doesn't support their OS dungeon crawl? I've literally never seen that complaint, because I doubt anyone is crazy enough to try, and certainly no one is crazy enough to expect it to work.

Also, you utterly fail to take into account anyone who isn't complaining (like myself) because they're happily satisfied with how 5e performs.

Yes, D&D is a game that expects to be house ruled, and kitbashed, and flavored to taste. It's not a bespoke game. If you're evaluating it using the same criteria as a bespoke game, you're missing the point. As for people "long internalizing the idea", 5e has brought in a ton of new blood. How are players who've only played a few years (or even less than a year) long internalizing this concept? The simple answer is, they aren't. And the people you think have long internalized the idea haven't, they just recognize and accept D&D for the game it is, rather than what they think it ought to be.
No. If the 5e engine isn't doing the supporting, then it's not flexible -- you are. And this is the secret sauce, you're told to make it your own. And that's great. Please understand I enjoy 5e and am actively playing it -- I don't have an axe to grind here. The thing I don't get, and what you do here, again, is after you've added your own stuff and fixed the problems that arise from the changes and have your game how you want it, you credit 5e for this. I just don't get why you'd take your creative efforts and just give them away to 5e. I don't. I've made 5e work for a lot of styles -- big plot, hexcrawls, and essentially monster of the week. But I made changes for this stuff to work -- 5e didn't help.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
No. If the 5e engine isn't doing the supporting, then it's not flexible -- you are. And this is the secret sauce, you're told to make it your own. And that's great. Please understand I enjoy 5e and am actively playing it -- I don't have an axe to grind here. The thing I don't get, and what you do here, again, is after you've added your own stuff and fixed the problems that arise from the changes and have your game how you want it, you credit 5e for this. I just don't get why you'd take your creative efforts and just give them away to 5e. I don't. I've made 5e work for a lot of styles -- big plot, hexcrawls, and essentially monster of the week. But I made changes for this stuff to work -- 5e didn't help.
One would assume that you used 5e as the base for some reason (not simply just because it was there).

That said, I don't credit 5e for my mods when I mod it, except with being flexible enough to mod (not every system is).
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
One would assume that you used 5e as the base for some reason (not simply just because it was there).
Yes, it's the current edition of D&D, I like D&D, and my friends wanted to play it. I certainly am not using 5e because it's a good base for anything other than, well, 5e flavored D&D.
That said, I don't credit 5e for my mods when I mod it, except with being flexible enough to mod (not every system is).
It's not that flexible, though, as shown by how badly it meets expectations with some rather minor changes to it's core assumptions (which are largely hidden). It does itself pretty okay, though, so as long as you're sticking close to what 5e is, it works okay.

I mean, the difference in playstyles you're actually talking about isn't a big change in how the game plays, or what a character can do, but rather almost entirely how the GM structures their setting, secret backstories, plot points, and allowable action sequences. It's all GM side. Have you noticed this? The game plays pretty much the same from the player perspective.
 

pemerton

Legend
When was the last time you heard someone complaining that Fate doesn't support their OS dungeon crawl? I've literally never seen that complaint, because I doubt anyone is crazy enough to try, and certainly no one is crazy enough to expect it to work.

<snip>

D&D is a game that expects to be house ruled, and kitbashed, and flavored to taste. It's not a bespoke game.
If the 5e engine isn't doing the supporting, then it's not flexible -- you are. And this is the secret sauce, you're told to make it your own.

<snip>

I've made 5e work for a lot of styles -- big plot, hexcrawls, and essentially monster of the week. But I made changes for this stuff to work -- 5e didn't help.
One would assume that you used 5e as the base for some reason (not simply just because it was there).

That said, I don't credit 5e for my mods when I mod it, except with being flexible enough to mod (not every system is).
I can't speak for Ovinomancer, but I think in many if not most cases the reason 5e is being used as the base absolutely is because it is there. 5e D&D (like many other versions of D&D) has a degree of penetration and ubiquity that no other RPG compares to.

I guess there are some RPGers out there who know of Fate but don't know of Moldvay Basic or one of its retroclone variants, but their number must be in the double or triple digits at most. Is there anyone who plays (say) Dogs in the Vineyard that isn't aware of, and probably experienced with, a variety of other RPGs?

As far as not every system being flexible enough to mod is concerned, I'm curious which these systems are that lack this flexibility. The only thing that 5e D&D brings to the table that is generic is a system for building PC effectiveness (in terms of stats and skills) and resilience (in terms of hp and saving throws). Most other RPGs bring something pretty comparable.

EDIT: Cross-posting reveals that perhaps I can speak for @Ovinomancer, at least on this particular topic!
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Yes, it's the current edition of D&D, I like D&D, and my friends wanted to play it. I certainly am not using 5e because it's a good base for anything other than, well, 5e flavored D&D.

It's not that flexible, though, as shown by how badly it meets expectations with some rather minor changes to it's core assumptions (which are largely hidden). It does itself pretty okay, though, so as long as you're sticking close to what 5e is, it works okay.

I mean, the difference in playstyles you're actually talking about isn't a big change in how the game plays, or what a character can do, but rather almost entirely how the GM structures their setting, secret backstories, plot points, and allowable action sequences. It's all GM side. Have you noticed this? The game plays pretty much the same from the player perspective.

Yes and no. The previous two editions really tried to lock things down into a specific style of play. There were rules for how to stealth, what DC it was to climb specific types of walls, rules for ... well they tried to make a rule for just about everything. So as a player you could always say "here on page XX is says that YY so you have to play that way". While the intent may have been admirable, it never really seemed to work very well.

Maybe there could be some kind of compromise, maybe not. That, and maybe I'm understanding what you're trying to say and maybe it's just been a long day and just ignore what I said. :)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'd go a step further than that: there are clear guidelines that help provide a better play experience and yes they can be ignored but if they are ignored without understanding the play experience will likely be worse.
True; there's a difference between a) knowingly ignoring them for what seem like good reasons and b) never knowing them in the first place.

Ideally a thread like this will fill in b) for some people. We can't, however, deny anyone their right to do a) should they so desire; nor castigate them for it if their reasons are sound.
I think there might be a little of that, but it's more "how can we expand the D&D experience into something more..."

But there has to be an understanding that 5e does certain things well and other games (Fate, Burning Wheel etc.) do different things well.
The question is whether people want a system flexible enough to do a lot of things in the 5-to-8 out of 10 range, or a more rigid or bespoke system that does one specific thing in the 9-10 range and most other things in the 1-3 range.

Give me the flexible system every single time. That way I only have to learn one system, once.
 

pemerton

Legend
In terms of the best advice for a 5e playstyle, here's what we get from the starter set

<snip>

Meanwhile the dmg presents a checklist for two types of adventures--Location-Based and Event-Based--with about a page of supplemental advice for Mysteries (like a murder mystery) and Intrigue (political intrigue...the advice here is particularly useless and boils down to 'think about who the villain(s) might be and what they want, then think about how the PCs get involved').

<snip>

If any of this suggests a design intention, then it is toward a scripted trad-type game.

<snip>

Is any of this useful advice?
Yes, given the goal of play as you identify it. But it's incomplete. It doesn't actually describe processes of play. The first list is some tips to help decide what to say as GM, but doesn't say anything about when to say stuff, or how this relates to the shared fiction or what anyone else has said. The second bundle of lists are checklists for prep. Apocalypse World has those, but it also talks about how to actually play the game when sitting around the table with your friends.

How did your daughter find it disappointing?
It was directionless. Nothing happened.

My daughter is a teenager. She's seen RPG play going on (ie mine) since she was a baby. She's seen people play Rolemaster, 4e D&D, Classic Traveller, Prince Valiant, Burning Wheel, MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, and a few other one-shots on top of that. She knows that RPGing involves talking about what is going on in the fiction, and getting excited about dice rolls.

She's also done a little bit of playing as opposed to observing - eg a solo Classic Traveller session last year. She was really looking forward to playing in her own game with her friends. And as I said, she's been disappointed.

The game has all the typical pathologies of schoolkid play - a goblin fighter who gets drunk; silly PvP about nothing that matters; a tendency to think that a 1 on a check must mean some sort of comical disaster; and a general inability to actually get on with things. But what has struck me is how little structure D&D 5e has to avoid this sort of nonsense. For instance:

* There is no structure for bringing the PCs together into a party (and I think in my daughter's game this took two sessions = 3+ hours to achieve);​
* There is no structure for telling the players what they should be doing, leading to "hunting for the plot";​
* There is no structure to tell that GM what to do if the PCs say "we spend the night in the woods" and then don't declare watches (as happened in this game) - eg there's no articulated framework for saying "time passes" nor one for saying "make a sleeping-in-peril check".​

I hope that conveys the gist of it.

My daughter and I had a spare 40 or so minutes last Friday and I pulled out Moldvay Basic. She rolled up 2 PCs. I helped her choose classes (a Halfling and a Fighter) and equipment. Then we did about three rooms of The Haunted Keep (the example dungeon at the back of the book): she drew a map, made checks to open doors, put out her lantern to save oil while resting; I rolled wandering monster checks and got some fire beetles but the reaction roll showed they were friendly (which I took to mean inquisitive and harmless).

Now from my point of view the main take away was a reminder of my lack of interest in classic D&D play. And the only real "action" was one PC falling down a pit - the Halfling, and I'd forgotten to put rope on her gear lists (crack Sam Gamgee jokes here - we did). I asked my daughter how she gets out. It took a while. I had thought the Fighter's scabbarded two-handed sword would be the solution, but she didn't think of that; instead she asked how big a large sack is - and I allowed it to be long enough for a Halfling to grab hold of and be pulled up with (maybe I called for DEX checks, with a failed one adding a turn to the clock). From my daughter's point of view working out how to get through the pool of water in one of the rooms probably also counted as action - the Fighter waded through carrying the Halfling on his shoulders (as per the room description, the water itself is harmless).

But my other take away was that my daughter noticed the effects of structure, in the sense that she knew what to do (make her way through the dungeon, looking for treasure), things were happening (opening doors, finding pits and pools of water, encountering fire beetles on the other side of a door) and she had tangible indicators of progress (checking out rooms, making her map, having the inquisitive fire beetles leave her PCs alone as they walked among them). It wasn't exactly exciting but it wasn't directionless and silly either.

And all that structure is provided by the published rulebook, some of it express (the turn structure, the rules for doors, the principles around mapping, etc) and some of it implicit in what the GM and players are told to do - the GM is told to draw up a dungeon (or pick one off the shelf, as I did) and the players are told (i) that their adventure will begin with their PCs at the dungeon entrance, and (ii) that their goal is to explore the dungeon for treasure. (The sample dungeon also has a backstory about finding and rescuing prisoners, but that's a veneer whose thinness no one tries to conceal!)

I'm not arguing that 5e D&D should be a dungeon crawl game. I'm arguing that, however exactly it is meant to be played, it should be possible to state processes and principles that - if followed - will bring it about that the participants will have that sort of experience. Which I think can probably be more rewarding than the dragonborn bard putting the drunk goblin fighter into a sack.
 

@pemerton that’s an interesting example regarding your daughter’s play with her friends.

It sounds like they would likely be best served if the GM was running a published adventure like the one found in the Starter Set, List Mines of Phandelver. That might help give them some kind of structure. It sounds like the GM is just not familiar enough with gaming to handle things. Which is understandable, of course, given their age and so on.

That sense of structure either comes from a written adventure or from the GM.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Yes and no. The previous two editions really tried to lock things down into a specific style of play. There were rules for how to stealth, what DC it was to climb specific types of walls, rules for ... well they tried to make a rule for just about everything. So as a player you could always say "here on page XX is says that YY so you have to play that way". While the intent may have been admirable, it never really seemed to work very well.

Maybe there could be some kind of compromise, maybe not. That, and maybe I'm understanding what you're trying to say and maybe it's just been a long day and just ignore what I said. :)
Yeah, I don't really know how this applies. Cheers.
 

pemerton

Legend
It sounds like they would likely be best served if the GM was running a published adventure like the one found in the Starter Set, List Mines of Phandelver. That might help give them some kind of structure.
Agreed. I assumed this is what they would be playing, but as far as I can tell it's not. Does Phandelver have gricks? I think in one of her latest sessions something happened with gricks.

It sounds like the GM is just not familiar enough with gaming to handle things. Which is understandable, of course, given their age and so on.

That sense of structure either comes from a written adventure or from the GM.
Or from the rules text! When friends and I started playing Moldvay Basic our dungeons were pretty bad, and our play pretty unskilled, but we were at least doing what we were meant to be doing! Because Moldvay sets it out, in simple steps.

Conversely, one reason I found Classic Traveller so hard to grasp when I first read it (c 1979) is that it doesn't set out the structure for play. It assumes the reader already knows what to do. Coming back to it now with decades of experience I can see the structure in there, and how to use the random patron table, and the soft move/hard move structure of manoeuvring-in-vacc-suit resolution, and the function of Streetwise checks to generate not just in-fiction outcomes but backstory as well. But it doesn't spell all this out with the sort of clarity that Moldvay does.

I can't remember how long ago I last posted this - maybe as much as a decade ago - but I still find it bizarre that D&D rulebook writing peaked about 40 years ago!
 

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