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D&D General Saving Players From Themselves


"Optimising the fun out of the game" was the initial insight from Sid Meier and I've seen that in various editions of D&D. A lot of optimisation builds are made out building towards one particularly effective way to do something and then spamming it. This actually reduces people's ability to tactically respond to situations.

This is a common mistake that I see 'optimizers' make in RPGs, and esp. in 5e.

They hyper-specialize but the game actually rewards being able to be decent at a broad range of things and to approach problems in different ways and with teamwork.

As a result I see complaining about DMs to be a common complaint on 'optimizer' forums when the DM doesn't make all changes match the thing the character is good at.

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This is a common mistake that I see 'optimizers' make in RPGs, and esp. in 5e.

They hyper-specialize but the game actually rewards being able to be decent at a broad range of things and to approach problems in different ways and with teamwork.

As a result I see complaining about DMs to be a common complaint on 'optimizer' forums when the DM doesn't make all changes match the thing the character is good at.
There's a few different things going on there I think.

One is that optimising is really it's own seperate game about finding something to exploit and then building strategically to get the most out of it. The fun here is is actually in the discovery and the strategic organisation and for most people isn't much fun to play beyond a few sessions.

Second is that the above form of optimising is often not in reality the most effective - ie the optimised character is not really all that optimised. The spiked chain build in 3e is useless against giants, the supertough 5e barbarian tanks with all the resistance and all the HP runs away from the Dragon and can't contribute because they have no Wisdom save.

But there are also times when optimising is effective and also actually reduces the opportunity for fun engagement. What's more fun Great Weapon Master when combat to combat you have to judge whether it's worth taking the gamble for the extra damage, or Great Weapon Master when you've found an almost permanent way to get advantage so just tend to take the -5 every time?

And some of these things are actually built into 5e. The much maligned Leonmunds tiny hut spell, for example, is a strategic resource that it makes a lot of sense to use if you have access to the game, but it bypasses the difficulty resting (which presumably is supposed to part of the fun of playing the game or else why is resource management part of the game at all?) The Ranger classes features are somewhat similar. In the process of being the best character you can be at wilderness survival you actually render most of the wilderness survival aspects of the game moot so that they're only glimpsed momentarily in passing. (It was possibile to do this to yourself in 4e, I should know I did when playing Dark Sun, but 5e actually does it for you out of the box).
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Victoria Rules
In discussing how challenging the game is or should be and player behavior, @Mordhau shared a couple of links.

Players optimize the fun out of games.

Reading the article and watching the video brought several things together in a weird kind of "aha!" and "well duh!" moment.

The TL;DR version of both is: players will always default to taking the easiest route possible to yield the best possible results, even if that destroys the intent or fun of the game. If the designers want to encourage certain types of play, it's far better to use a carrot rather than a stick.

Now, one problem is the article and video are talking about video game designers and the obvious corollary would be D&D's designers, the folks at WotC. But this is an RPG run by a DM with a lot of control over what is encouraged and discouraged in play at the table. DMs basically are designers of the games they run so I think this applies as much to the DM if not more so.

A perennial problem with this kind of explicit system of encouragement is someone will inevitably come along and complain that rewarding certain behavior is a not-so-subtle punishment for players who choose not to play in certain ways. I think that complaint is ridiculous enough on its face to be easily dismissed out of hand.

But I also think there's room for some stick. Mostly in the form of banned things like subclasses, feats, races, etc. Some things are just going to break the kind of game the DM wants to run and should be excluded rather than rewarding players who don't pick those things. Like if the DM wants to run an all-human game. Giving human characters an XP boost isn't really sufficient to maintain the cohesion of the game the DM wants to run.

So the point of this thread is to get some more D&D eyes on these articles and to talk about ways DMs can carrot their players into the kinds of behaviors they want to see. The idea is to emphasize rewards over punishments.

One such reward is the old saw of "give XP for gold instead of killing monsters" as a means to encourage exploration and discourage murderhobos is an obvious example. Other types of rewards could be better loot, easier kills, more "intangible rewards" such as boons, titles, land, or anything really.

So some examples of XP rewards would be:

XP for not charging in if you want to promote slower, more cautious play.

XP for charging in if you want to promote faster, more aggressive play.

XP for at least trying to parley with monsters to promote not treating every encounter like a fight.

XP for gold spent instead of gold acquired can encourage a more sword & sorcery feel and/or encourage players to not hoard their wealth.

In my West Marches game, characters get XP for exploring but none for killing monsters.

So what about other DMs? What are your favorite carrots to offer players to encourage the type of play you want to see?

ETA: No, this isn't just about using XP as a reward and giving extra XP to encourage certain behaviors. Any rewards. Any carrots.
Interesting idea but I wonder if you're tilting at a windmill, in that the original discussion in the thread you referenced was about making the game more challenging (i.e. going against a default player desire), and I'm not sure you can get there by the carrot method in that almost any carrot is by the same default going to make the game less challenging - otherwise it wouldn't be a carrot. :)

For example: while your suggestions of giving more xp for certain things are all good, if it results in you giving out more xp overall than you otherwise would have then the game will become less challenging in that they'll level up faster.

Xp isn't the only carrot available. IME treasure and magic items are serious carrots provided the game provides ways to spend/use such things...but it's not always easy to give out treasure based on actions, other than sometimes-hamfisted rewards from benefactors or patrons. Also, the knock-on effect here is that you can quickly end up with overly-wealthy PCs or parties, if such is a concern (it generally isn't, to me).

If the baseline game were much harder the carrot method would hold more water as you can make the game a bit easier without losing much, but if the baseline game is already relatively easy then - unless you want to make it easier yet - the answer is to be a bit more hard-ass: discourage what you don't want rather than encourage what you do want, and in so doing make the game a little harder.


The problem is not that players want the game to be easy. I don't think that's true.

The issue is when goals are conflicting. The goal to have fun through overcoming difficult challenges conflicts with the satisfaction of succeeding tactically and strategically.

If there's something that I can do that is more effective then I will want to do that. Even, if it means the game is less fun. Partly, because it undermines the fun I would have had using the less optimal tactics if I know I'm deliberately handicapping myself in order to use do it.

Not always. There's was plenty of times in 3e when players who knew how to optimise would deliberately make a weaker character then they could and choose to play within those bounds, but that takes a certain level of experience with the game and the rules, it's not something you fall into by default.

I find that "stick" is almost never all that useful, even in the listed examples.

Banning options because people might take them is not "well this will let the campaign actually run." It's admitting the players aren't actually on board for your premise, so you must coerce them. If the players were 100% on board for a humans-only game, you wouldn't need to ban anything; they'd all play humans of their own accord. Address the real problem--getting everyone enthusiastic about the premise--and the need for a stick vanishes. Not only that, but you get the secondary benefit of higher player enthusiasm, which is never a bad thing.

I have only once had to "ban" an option in the games I've run. That one time was because a player wanted to do necromancy things, in a setting where necromancy is such a hugely enormous no-no that it would essentially guarantee that either (a) the party could never form in the first place, or (b) the party would eventually become fugitives from society at large. Since those are both undesirable, I "banned" the option--but instead of just saying, "No you can't do that," I dug deeper. Why did this player want necromancy? Turned out, they would've chosen some other thing, but they were worried that that thing would backfire on them in a bad way. I promised to them that I would not allow that kind of backfiring to happen, and we worked out a different solution to the problem. They got to have a minion, without needing the necromancy aspect that was such a problem.

This is why reskinning is such an essential tool right alongside house-ruling. House rules allow you to build mechanics you need. Reskinning allows you to take cool mechanics and still use them, without baggage induced by their current narrative trappings. With those two tools in hand, you can almost always address what the player wants--and that's why I've almost never needed to "ban" anything.


what if XP was more in the single digits rather than being in the thousands? I feel like that would make it a lot more manageable for players to track.
This is how the Cypher System works (sorta). XP is handed out in single digits: i.e., 1 XP or 2 XP. Players get 1 XP from making discoveries or doing whatever. Players can also receive 2 XP from GM Intrusions, but the expectation is that the player who receives the 2 XP gives 1 XP from that to another player. To level up, players have to buy four advancements for their character, and each advancement costs 4 XP. But it's all single-digit.

There are some problem issues with XP in the Cypher System, but that has more to do with other ways that XP can be used (e.g., re-rolling, short-term benefits, medium-term benefits, etc.) which is at odds with XP for character advancement.

So, besides XP, what are your favorite carrots to offer players to encourage the type of play you want to see?
1. Inspiration. I am much looser with inspiration that the rules, in that characters can have more than 1 inspiration and they can use it for a reroll rather than just advantage.
2. In-game rewards. There is less pressure to loot everything in sight if most equipment can be purchased cheaply in town. People will freely explore if doing so nets more benefits than penalties.
3. Make room for other skills. Remember they are supposed to be BROAD. Performance works like bardic lore: if it is possible that the information is mentioned in a sing, a good Performance roll will identify it. Mummy rot can’t be healed by non-magical means? HA! Maybe in a world where characters aren’t trained in Merdicine or Herbalism kits. This incentivizes players to invest in skills, particularly skills that would be otherwise avoided.

More generally, the tools you would use to incentivize behaviour depends on the behaviour you wish to incentivize.

Practical example: Warlocks. I want to incentivize players who want to play bladelocks to diversify from Hexblades, so I use a mix of the carrot and the stick.

The stick: I remove Hex warrior from Hexblades. In my games, MAD is not a dirty word, and there is no good reason to use Cha on weapon attacks.

The carrot: The rest of Hex Warrior gets moved to Pact of the Blade. If you are a Hexblade, this is later than normal. For other patrons, this is a boost to their survivability. I am also more flexible about allowing machetes and balanced scimitars as 1d8 finesse weapons that do slashing damage so not everyone wields a rapier.

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