Today I got a chance to catch up on the Stream of Many Eyes over on the D&D Twitch channel where you can find the VODs. There was a game run at the end called Jocks Machina with a cool lineup of some generally unorthodox players that I highly recommend you check out. If you’re not too worried about spoilers then head over to this video and fast forward to 9:34:20 to watch what I think is an important exchange between Mike Mearls and a man more commonly known as The Big Show.
They’re in the process of fighting some Death Knights and Big Show has gone in for the kill on one of them, unfortunately after three attacks he falls just a bit short which is understandably frustrating. For some these situations can be resolved using the “Rule of Cool” which essentially states that as long as something is sufficiently cool while at the same time bending or breaking some rules, let it slide. You can think of it like the Michael Bay School of Dungeon Mastering, it might not make much sense in hindsight but in the moment it’ll blow you away. Its a solid bit of reasoning because as we’ve discussed before your players are the heroes and we strive to make them feel like it even at the expense of some technicalities.
In this case we have a situation where the rigid structure guiding combat in the game leaves it feeling stilted and unnatural. As it stands now Mearls has told Big Show that the attacks with his maul have staggered his opponent, for flavor, but ending the turn there feels bad when this seems like an opportunity to press your opponent for the kill. The rules dictate that his actions are spent so his turn simply ends. As it was pointed out in the game he could use his Action Surge but using an additional three attacks to finish off a nearly dead enemy doesn’t feel like a particularly good use of it as a resource. Especially in an already somewhat tough fight.
As a quick aside one of the things the designers of D&D changed from 4e to 5e was the action economy because in 4th edition they realized a common complaint from players was never having a reason to use their minor actions. Some classes could make use of them but not all and it feels bad to leave something unused in a turn, you want to feel like you’re using every avenue available to you in order to be effective. So in 5e they sought out more ways for players to use their bonus action so that more often than not players felt like they were using their whole turn, every turn for something substantive.
Looking at the pending anti-climactic end to Big Show’s turn Mearls’ reaches into the DM bag of tricks and exercises his freedom to make a little deal. He offers him a gamble, a simple roll of the dice, to see if he can finish off his target with the caveat that he’ll suffer disadvantage on saving throws for the next round.
Risk vs Reward.
When we talk about protecting player agency and putting the game in their hands this is exactly the type of thing that we’re talking about albeit possibly a lesser used example. In a moment where Big Show was facing having a triumph taken away from by the mechanics and action economy of D&D Mearls put the choice back in his players hands. Protecting their agency doesn’t mean just handing them wins or ensuring things go their way but rather giving them the opportunity to decide for themselves. Big Show takes a moment to consider it and, probably wisely, decides to back off and take cover instead of pressing his advantage. Whether or not he took Mearls up on the offer is entirely beside the point, the idea is that the decision was no longer being made by the game or the DM but by the player. Like I mentioned above with the change to Minor/Bonus actions its removing the mechanical limitation and instead allowing the players to choose whether or not they use it each turn. As soon as Big Show decides for himself to withdraw you can see instantly that his attitude changes and the round continues. Such a small thing can go a long way.
Some discussion could be had over how doing something like this may open the door to players expecting or even arguing for these little extras more often, which is fair. Much like handing down decisions as a judge the DM can set unhealthy precedence at their table by simply trying to be permissive. If you institute something like this its important to use it evenly among your players and not look like you’re favoring some more than others. Even more important is to probably discuss the prospect with your players prior to implementing it and see if its even something they’d be interested in.
A while back I remember Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade talked about a rule he instituted in his D&D game when you missed a roll by one, which aside from rolling a natural one, is probably the worst way to fail. When a player missed a check or roll by one he gave them the opportunity to state a case for their success. If they could explain in some compelling fashion why or what they would do in order to overcome that one digit deficit he would give it to them. The reward for this was two-fold as the players got to succeed on a hairs breadth miss and it also encouraged more creative thinking on their part to justify it.
Maintaining the flow of combat can be tricky especially in a group of newer players who may take a little extra time for their turns. In addition to the things discussed above the other way to help maintain it without adjusting or adding mechanics is to try and ensure a narrative continuity. Like the hiccup in Big Show’s turn where an excellent series of strikes concluded with stopping awkwardly with the kill just out of reach instead try to ensure it stops at a place that makes sense. A fluid choreography of sorts that also encourages and assists the players with narrating their own actions instead of just mechanically stating what skills they would like to use from turn to turn.
It turns –
“The Bandit Captain strikes at you three times rolling a—”
“He hits you for a total of 6 slashing damage. Alright Jen, you’re up.”
“The Bandit Captain lunges point first at you with his scimitar for… 14.”
“You sidestep the lunge and pivot for the next strike as the Captain turns the edge of the blade towards you, draws back and strikes at your stomach for… 19. Jen you’re up next.”
“You try to parry the follow up but the blade sneaks under your armor, opening a gash in your side for 6 slashing damage. On the follow through he draws the scimitar back one final time and attempts to plunge it into your stomach for… 16.”
“You use your longsword to parry the desperate overextended thrust down into the dirt at your feet, leaving him open.”
I’ve also found that using this style of combat description also helps prompt players into trying different things outside of straight attacking and defending. Like I know for instance that if I presented one of my players with that scenario the first thing they would do on their next turn is try to disarm the captain by stomping on the blade and then pressing their attack. This raises the level of overall player engagement, strategy and use of the environment during combat with little more than some extra description. It gives them something to play against instead of what may as well be a straw filled training dummy for them to abuse.
As a DM don’t be afraid to wheel and deal a little with your players if they’re just short of that truly triumphant moment. Give them the chance to take the risk if they want, to push their boundaries and be the hero.
Until next time, happy rolling!