Running a Story-Driven 4e D&D Game
I was doing my normal weekend reading of blogs and noticed that @theweem had posted a response to the 2nd episode of the 4 Geeks 4e podcast (on which I am a host, plug, plug). In the podcast, the hosts answer the question, “Why do we play 4th edition D&D?” Weem responded to the question on his blog, theWeem, and I responded to him. My response was centered on how I run a story-driven D&D game and, well, I would like to expand on my response without taking up more space on his blog, so I decided to post it here.
THE FOCUS ON COMBAT
One of the early (and continuous) complaints about 4th edition D&D is the combat focus. People cite one of the reason they don’t like 4e as being the rules focus on combat and the inability to role-play to which that focus apparently must lead. Let me be clear here and say that I don’t actually believe that a combat focused rule-set leads to a role-playing-less game. I do agree that the rules are combat focused, but not that it makes the game incompatible with role-playing. The combat focus was an intentional design decision.
They designed 4e so that combat was rules heavy and you can run the role-playing in any way that you like. It’s the “we’ll give you combat rules, it’s your responsibility to put the players in situation where they MUST role-play” school of RPG design. And I like it that way – it gives me a lot of freedom to run the game the way I want to. The idea of Skill Challenges largely failed in the beginning (and still do for many groups) because it is an attempt at putting a strict rule-set on role-playing and it just doesn’t work that well in many groups. I feel, in many cases, that it puts too many constraints on how I want my players role-play a situation. [side note: I am slowly learning how to integrate skill challenges into my game, but that is really another topic so I won't address it further in this post]
Based on my statement above, it is up to the DM to encourage the sort of play they want to see from their players. Any DM can run a combat light, role-playing heavy game in any RPG system. A DM that chooses can even get role-playing out of their players during combat. How? Well, encourage your players to use their powers in new ways… e.g. tweak the powers and then narrate the action. Encourage them to ask to use skills during combat as a minor action in conjunction with a standard action power (and then have them narrate the action). Teach them to play how you want them to play – don’t let the powers run the game, let the powers facilitate but not be overbearing.
STORY DRIVEN GAME
I do agree that it seems that 4e can push combat focused games on people, but ultimately it IS the DM’s choice how to run the game. I try to run story driven games. Many people say that and we may mean different things, so I will tell you what I mean by telling you a little bit about how I do it:
1) The first session of any 4e game I run is almost always a party building session. I don’t mean making PCs, that gets done beforehand and everyone can talk about what classes/races they are considering away from the table. What I mean is that we spend 2 or 3 hours cooperatively building the histories of the PCs, the party, and sometimes the world. Cooperatively means that everyone gets to have a say and everyone agrees to the final “product.” I posted about cooperatively building the party on this very blog in May (you can read that post here). Note that this is not a static activity – all of the players are involved and the DM bounces ideas and questions off of the players just as much as they do the DM.
2) I try to run a game with many choices. The party gets to decide what we do next and in what direction they take the story. That means lots of prep for me, because I have to be able to have something ready based on what they choose. I usually have 3-4 encounters set up, based on different possible directions so that I can accommodate their choices. We don’t run 3-4 encounters in a session, I just have them ready “just in case.” Typically I will run 1 (or maybe 2) combat encounters in a single 4 hour session. Most of the time is spent role-playing. There is an over-arching storyline with a main villain, but that is usually developed after the first 2 or 3 session, after the players have gotten comfortable as a party and explored the world a little bit. Usually, the main villain falls out of a smaller quest and becomes a focus because the players pick up on something and pursue it, turning it into a bigger deal that even I had planned (and that is a good thing!).
3) I let the backgrounds of the PCs heavily influence what happens in the world. I try to offer ample options for each PC to be able to explore some unfinished business in their past, whether it is earning redemption, getting revenge, winning back the respect of their tribe, finding a long lost family member, or whatever else may be applicable to the PC. These things often drive the story – after all, the story is ABOUT the PCs, not the other way around. In other words, the PCs aren’t IN a story, they ARE the story.
4) The world continues to exist when the PCs aren’t there. What I mean is, if the party visits a town in one session, they might meet a bunch of people, do a quest for someone, piss off someone, or get in trouble with the law (or any of the 1 million other things that can happen with a group of creative players). Then they leave the area and adventure elsewhere. When they go back into the original area (be it weeks, months, or years later in game time) there have been changes. There consequences for the actions they took the first time they were there. The town wasn’t frozen in time as soon as they left, the NPC inhabitants went on living (assuming the survived the first visit by the PCs, LOL). The party will see a place that is different from what they experienced the first time. This makes the world around them dynamic and exciting. The reactions of the NPCs to the players will be varied and the PCs will get to react to those reactions and once again change the game world. The direction taken is based on what the PCs want to do at that time.
5) Each combat that I run has to meet 4 strict criteria of they are cut from the game:
- a) it must be necessary in terms of the story
- b) it must be obviously meaningful to the players (though this meaning may be revealed later)
- c) if it can be avoided, there must be that option available, and if it can’t be avoided there better be a very good reason why
- d) if it can’t be completed quickly, then it better be a very important “boss fight.” Quickly, in 4e terms is no more than 45 minutes with a party of 4-5 players.
These 5 things make for a very story driven game. The story is driven by player choice right from the outset of the game. Players that really enjoy only combat usually don’t stay in my games very long – they get bored. That doesn’t mean my players don’t get to kick some ass, because a lot of the time they truly own the battlefield, it just means that it isn’t the focus of my game, even if it seems to be the focus of the rules.
I hope that gives you a little insight as to how I run my games, and maybe some advice on how to make your games more story driven (assuming that’s what you want). But remember, the point is to have fun, so make your game however you want as long as everyone is having fun.
Until next time, I wish you good gaming!
Top picture from Dungeon Magazine #155, Bottom picture from Dragon Magazine #372