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D&D General High Event Play vs. Low Event Play


Victoria Rules
A number of recent discussions both here and at home have led me to thinking: what is it that makes a game-session-adventure-campaign exciting and memorable? Is it story? Sometimes, sure. Is it the particular confluence of players and-or characters in that particular group? Again, sometimes yes.

But the biggest thing that leads to excitement now and memorability later is what I call 'events' - things that happen in the game that either change the game, change something within the game, or keep people talking long after they're done. Under the spoiler block are my thoughts on this.

Long essay warning.

High Event Play vs Low Event Play

What is it makes a game exciting and interesting to play in, and – in cases of a spectator sport – exciting and interesting to watch? The answer is what I call "events", or highlights.

Consider watching two football matches. In one match the two teams harmlessly kick the ball around to a 0-0 draw with neither goalie called upon to even make a difficult save: a low-event game. The other match, an end-to-end affair throughout, finishes 4-3 and includes several stunning saves, some excellent individual plays, a sending-off, and some controversy: a high-event game.

Which of these would you rather watch, or play in?

The same principles hold true for D&D play – it can be high-event or low-event. But in D&D, what constitutes an 'event'?


Let's first dispense with some game elements that, while they might at first appear to be 'events' as defined below, are in fact mandated by the game and thus are almost certain to happen regardless of what anyone does:

  • - - Character level-ups
  • - - Rules-required stat increments
  • - - Party mission completion and-or story success. This one's not so cut-and-dried, but the set-up of the game and of most modules or adventures strongly tilts things in the PCs' favour in this regard; and while on rare occasions completion of a major mission can itself be an event, far more often any noteworthy events that occur are in fact embedded within the completion process.

Events Defined

So, what is an event? Here, an event is defined as something that either changes the game, changes the party makeup, changes something major about an individual character, or that is likely to be remembered and talked about well after the fact. Some examples:

1. Events that change the game:

  • - - A new player joins [DM], or an existing player leaves [PL; rarely DM]
  • - - Major elements of the game's underlying rules system – or the entire system in use – is/are changed on the fly [DM]
  • - - TPK or party wipe-out

2. Events that change the party makeup:

  • - - A new PC joins the party, either newly rolled up or returning/cycling in from retirement [PL]
  • - - An existing PC leaves the party, either to retirement/cycling [PL] or due to something forced by the run of play e.g. a permanent death
  • - - A new adventuring NPC joins the party, this can include henches
  • - - A PC is captured or rescued, where said captivity lasts longer than a few played sessions
  • - - Scattering of the party into three or more discrete and independent parts

3. Events that change something major about an individual character:

  • - - Death, whether revived later or not
  • - - Failure to be revived (in games where this is an option)
  • - - Sudden level loss or gain, outside what the normal run of play would provide
  • - - Sudden change of alignment, race, class, or gender
  • - - Sudden change (up or down) to one or more base stats, outside of those mandated by the rules
  • - - A PC gains or loses a title, keep, castle, or similar [DM]
  • - - Acquisition or loss of a major personally-owned magic item
  • - - Pregnancy and-or childbirth
  • - - Sudden significant aging

4. Events that are likely to be remembered and talked about:

  • - - A major in-game act of heroism or swashbuckling by an individual PC; can include
  • - - - - - Saving the party as the last character standing
  • - - - - - Pulling off an incredible escape, maneuver, or act of derring-do
  • - - - - - Saving another PC's life at cost of your own [PL]
  • - - A major in-game act of humour by one or more PCs, or the whole party
  • - - A major in-game act of foolishness or recklessness by one or more PCs, or the whole party
  • - - PC-PC romance, fling, coupling, or marriage [PL]
  • - - A PC vs PC fight or conflict that progresses beyond simple verbal argument [PL]
  • - - PC vs PC pranks or practical jokes [PL]

The occurrence of some events listed above is completely under the control of the [DM]. Others are completely under the control of the players [PL]; while many require a bit of both and some also require co-operative dice.

It is worth noting that most events, particularly in the latter two sections above, involve instability, unpredictability, and a certain degree of chaos. This requires some buy-in from all involved, to accept that things can and occasionally will change suddenly and in a big way and that those changes won't always be for the better. That said, even the most Lawful characters can certainly still be high-event.

It is also worth noting that in general high-event characters tend to have more long-term memorability than do low-event characters. A character can be remembered for either or both of two things: who it is (in combination of race-class-mechanics and personality) and what it does (its significant events), and a character who stands out in neither of these aspects will soon be forgotten.

How To Achieve Higher-Event Play

First, let's be clear that it is quite possible for a game's event level to be or become unsustainably high, to the point where everything's an event and thus nothing is. (though for beer-soaked gonzo one-offs this is standard procedure!) This isn't the end goal here.

That said, ask yourself – be it as player or DM – if your campaign could benefit from a higher event level, and if yes then ask yourself what you can do to promote and-or incent such.

I have some ideas of my own on what can be done by both DMs and players to encourage higher-event play but I'd like to hear others' thoughts first, including whether this is even a useful train of thought at all. :)

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I run some relatively high-event games. Here are some tricks that I use.

1. Don't "save" your good ideas. I used to come up with really great ideas, like a vampire medusa or a Tharzdu'un-worshiping shadow dragon or giving all the PCs hippogriffs, and think, "Oh I'll save this for a special occasion!" Don't do that. Instead, find ways to work them into your game. Because the more you use your cool ideas, the better the game is, and the easier it will be to come up with more cool ideas in the future. It's a lot easier to have aerial combat against a vengeful blue dragon during a thunderstorm if you've given all the PCs hippogriffs.

2. Exaggerate NPCs. Your players don't need to be Chaotic Neutral; you can have NPCs for that! When I say "exaggerate," I mean, whatever the NPC's thing is, dial it up to 11. Mysterious wizard? Always sneaking around; gives the PCs really weird quests with not much explanation. Dumb local thug? Does NOT know when to back down; might not even know how. Cowardly kobold? Obsequious to the point of absurdity. My favorite NPC of this type is the villain who wants to interfere with the PCs but for some reason can't just kill them (maybe because murder just isn't their thing). That dude can do all kinds of wacky stuff. The point of this is to present NPCs who do things that are crazy -- but NOT unpredictable. When the beholder cleric betrays his invited guests (including the PCs) by putting them into an elaborate deathtrap, the players are simultaneously thinking, "Yup, saw that one coming," and "Holy crap, how do we get out of the force-cube before it fills with intellect devourers and water and quippers and electrically-charged harpoons and toxic flammable gas?" (Another one of my good ideas that I did not save.)

3. Lay pipe. I learned this term from Robin D. Laws's blog; apparently it comes from screenwriting. But it means: Add details that might come into play later. Have the PCs cross paths with a sailing ship crewed by friendly monster-hunters; later they may rescue the PCs from a giant monster, conflict with the party over rights to the monster, or just never show up ever again. Include an ugly clay statue of a frog-god in some treasure; much later, it turns out to have a magic item hidden inside of it. Let it be known that the black market is controlled by a fomorian wizard who loves watching blood sports; that'll surely come in handy later in the campaign. Laying pipe is very similar to "don't save your good ideas;" it's more like, "toss out a bunch of mediocre ideas in the background, and then if you think of a way to make them interesting later, it will be more memorable." Here's a great article with more info and some other good ideas: 5 Screenwriting Terms That Will Make You A Better Game Master | Geek and Sundry

4. Give the PCs enough rope to hang themselves with. Offer the players a difficult choice or situation, and then encourage shenanigans as third option. I once had a group of PCs collect money for the sale of a boat to two different buyers at the same time; to solve the dilemma, they turned over the boat to one of the buyers, then stole it back to turn it over to the second buyer. My current group was given a quest to retrieve a magically sealed safe -- but they were given this quest by three different people! They've come up with a solution based on a literal interpretation of the quest instructions (one patron will get the safe, a second will get the contents of the safe, and a third will get the gold-piece value of the safe). This is going to "work" but will piss off two of the three patrons, who, of course, are exaggerated NPCs. Another time, a PC was searching for a robe of the archmagi, and discovered it was being worn by his most hated enemy! This was followed by four sessions of increasingly elaborate scheming as the characters took out the enemy's henchmen and lieutenants one-by-one, replacing them with duplicates and/or framing them for treachery. Eventually they took out the big bad and earned the robe. No part of the plan went quite as expected but it still mostly worked and the players had a great time going on the offensive for once.

The purpose of "give the PCs enough rope to hang themselves with" is not to screw over the players -- it's actually secretly getting the players to help you come up with the next challenge. Often they'll come up with plans that are way crazier than anything you could have planned.

5. Put a twist on EVERYTHING. The game 13th Age gives each player character "one unique thing" about them. Do this with every single thing in your game. It's not just a dungeon full of ghouls; it's ghouls who think they are still soldiers doing their duty, and they just need to requisition some of your spare limbs for provisions, for the good of the kingdom. The paladin who protects the small community of good-aligned creatures in the area... is a young red dragon. (It can happen.) The brainwashed cultist you are supposed to rescue is actually the cult leader. The pirate queen is a devious liar, but she absolutely keeps her promises, no matter what. A kingdom that is a chaotic evil plutocracy has strict rules against slavery, but murder and assassination are totally allowed.

Exotic encounter locales are a special type of twist that are one of the easiest to use to create a memorable event. Don't schedule a fight for a 50x50 ft. room when you could have it on a series of stone columns, 50 ft. tall and 20 ft. wide and 5-10 ft. apart, above a raging river. A derelict ship that's being slowly crushed by a colossal octopus is fairly memorable. Have you ever used a literally bottomless pit in a game? I have, and it's awesome.

The "twist" might involve a dramatic reveal (like with the cultist, above) but often it's something you can just tell to the players up-front. Some of these twists will fall flat and not lead to any memorable game play, but a few will lead to memorable situations. In a sense, the twists are a handy way to combine these other suggestions.

6. DESTROY EVERYTHING YOU'VE CREATED. Basically, the maintaining the status quo is boring, and giving the players a ton of agency is interesting. That cool NPC who you thought would be a recurring enemy? Let the PCs kill them in the first encounter. Let your players kill the king. Let them foment civil war. Let them take over the dungeon and use it as a base of operations. That cool magic item that you gave to that cool NPC that the party unceremoniously ganked? Let the PCs have that item, run roughshod with it, abuse the heck out of it, and dig their own graves with it. The reason to destroy the setting is really just to prevent yourself from trying too hard to preserve your creations. That can often stymie the players and become boring. Instead, let them tear it all down.

(I learned this from playing Apocalypse World which has a principle of "view your NPCs through cross-hairs." If you like high-event games, the best way to level-up your DMing is to play a campaign of AW. Follow the rules with enthusiasm and an open mind. AW is designed for maximum events, and most of the concepts translate very well into D&D.)

7. DON'T make the game fun; make it INTERESTING. Sid Meier famously said that "a game is a series of interesting decisions." A few years ago I had a breakthrough when I realized that trying to make the game "fun" is a fool's errand. "Fun" means so many different things and is so hard to predict or pin down; many of the most popular ways to have "fun" really don't work at all in an RPG. Instead, I always try to make the game interesting. I'm always trying to put the most interesting scenario before the players, which for me is waaayyyyyyyyy easier than trying to figure out what might be "fun." If a scenario truly is interesting, then the players will not be bored (by definition), and they'll bring the fun. The'll fun the shit out of that scenario. They want to fun it all up; that's what they're here for; and my players are really, really good at it.


Victoria Rules
One thing that changed our games was that we had to have one person in-charge of all PC sheets.

This was because during our high school days, we had rotating DMs (5-6), 6-8 regular players with 2-6 occasional players.

So to have consistent player creation we had to have one doing it for all. And it was all saved in an excel spreedsheet for ease of updating/printing.

Also, to update PC sheets, having one person doing it all was a must as well. This was because we had found a part of the Rod of seven parts, but within two weeks (3 gaming session), we had three players all claiming they purchased/traded for it.

Now having one person over seeing the PC sheets solved such non- in-game drama.

This also solved the problem that we had players realizing an item they had "At Home" and was needed for an encounter claiming they had it on their person, when in fact it was not. So having one person keeping track of all that . Or that they had purchased/traded/sold an item, etc.

So for us, we had "events" on what a PC had on them/left at home.

We called this person the "HIGH-OVERSEER".

This helped save the DM(s) time, so that they can concentrate on the story/module/campaign and not with those details.

This also lets the players/DM spend their time on the game/role playing, and not the mechanics behind the game.

It sure did open up our games to more "events".
Our long-standing way of handling this is that, with rare exceptions, all character sheets stay with the DM between sessions.

The only time this might become a headache is where the same character is being played in multiple campaigns simultaneously, which your post implies is what caused the requirement for the High Overseer.

I don't think excel spreadsheets existed during my high school days. :)


I think a mark of a good game is when adventure completion is an event. Where victory is not guaranteed. The easiest way to do this is to have different levels of success.

So the party might rescue the hostages. They might find the treasure. They might lose out on the treasure and let the hostages die but still find the clues to the deeper base.

If the players know that getting the treasure and/or rescuing the hostages is not a guarantee then doing so becomes an event. This is especially true for tasks that are considered a higher difficulty than what the party is assumed able to handle.

I agree with your post in general, though I think I would find many of your example events unfun to play.

Not TPKs, or PC deaths though. I think those are important. They're memorable events as you say but also create events out of success when the players know they are a real threat.

Something I noticed with my games over the past few years. Was that the events players found memorable, were the random events. And since I noticed this I have tried to use more random elements.

I agree. The adventures I like best are ones with many random elements. It means the writers must write an adventure to be played, not just a story to be told.

The unknown is so very important in a game of adventure. When I DM I don't want to know what's going to happen next either.

My group is motivated by the four pillars of spite, petty-mindedness, greed, and irrational attachments to inconsequential NPCs.

I find that the orderly progression of events, scenarios, and the like are the meat of the game, but the things they retell are based upon the roleplaying prompted by circumstance and their four guiding pillars.

Often these are terrible events which could reflect badly upon all involved, but which are nevertheless much beloved.


Be just and fear not...
My group is motivated by the four pillars of spite, petty-mindedness, greed, and irrational attachments to inconsequential NPCs.

I find that the orderly progression of events, scenarios, and the like are the meat of the game, but the things they retell are based upon the roleplaying prompted by circumstance and their four guiding pillars.

Often these are terrible events which could reflect badly upon all involved, but which are nevertheless much beloved.
Fear, revenge and greed: these are the reliable motivators of player characters.