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Dungeon Master Class: A Game Deciding Test

Here's a test I run on every single one of my first encounters with a new group of players, both in DnD and the various 40K RPGs you can get. It never fails to dictate the flow of an adventure, and is a really accurate measure of how people want to play.

Ambushed by goblins, the party scrape through by slaying every single one of the little monsters. They've taken some damage, but their blood is pumping, they've found a good rhythm, and despite having only been a team for ten minutes, are working like a well oiled machine!

Victory is in sight, as the rogue deftly swings around the last goblin, an arrow knocked by the back row fighter and the axe-ma at the front charging his way. It's the goblin's turn, and he...

Now let's stop there, and go right back to the beginning.

Yesterday I had a student come up to me asking about the Dungeons and Dragons posters I had put up around the school. It's not unusual, and in fact rather common. Everyone's seen Big Bang Theory, and with Stranger Things being popular now a lot of students are interested in trying it out.

Since I'm on duty in the boarding house this weekend, and with the prospect of sitting in the day room for 5 hours straight with nothing but work to do looming, I suggest that maybe we get a session going in the afternoon. I have never seen a group of teenagers so early for an appointment as those boys were yesterday!

The cast

I have the Dungeons and Dragons Starter set ready to go for just this occasion, and each of the players takes an off-the-peg character:

Bilbona: A female Halfling, that is tired of being racially identified as a hobbit (played by a boy). She was part of a thieves gang before being betrayed, and is on the path of revenge. (Lvl.1 Rogue)

Tyrell: A human male from the countryside, out to save his village which has fallen on hard times. A practical warrior (Lvl. 1 Fighter), he carries a long bow and a great sword.

Lord Wyffle: Another human male, from fallen Neverwinter aristocracy. His family lands were all destroyed by a volcano, but he's heard of a town close to Neverwinter that could do with some sterling leadership. Obviously, he's the man with the bloody great big axe for the job! (Lvl. 1 Fighter)

From this point on there will be spoilers for the Mines of Phandelvin starter campaign, but the odds are good that you will not experience it this way... unless I'm your DM. In which case you should expect to be surprised anyway.

The boys are actually fairly good at role playing, despite some fairly unfortunate short names coming from one character. Bona's player is the typical nervous newbie, who compensates for being out of their comfort zone by not really taking things seriously. They get over it quick, and you can tell when that happens by the question "Can I just change my back story a bit?"

They sit on a wagon, travelling from Neverwinter to a town called Phandalin. Their patron, Gundren Rockseeker, has offered them10 gold pieces to escort a shipment of goods to Barthen's provisions, one of the few shops in the frontier town. The adventurers did not know each other up to that point, and conversation was scarce.

Well, except for Tyrell, who was happily gabbing on about his hme village, and how terrible it was there now with all the taxes and poor harvests, entirely down to the bad weather, and how the villagers were working just so hard to make ends meet, but the local lord wasn't having any of it, and how he was essentially run out of town for standing up to a tax collector, but it was alright since he was able to find some good jobs here and there to send money home and...

Suffice to say, Lord Wyffle had pretty much stopped listening, and was instead simply nodding courteously as he drove the oxen. Bona was sulking for unknown reasons in the back of the wagon, clearly upset by some perceived slight or injustice.

They rounded a corner, and came to see two horses blocking the road, covered in black evil looking arrows. They were clearly dead, and the bushes on either side of the road travelling straight through an escarpment screamed ambush.

Bona, ever the pragmatist, suggested they turn around, flog the wagon off to someone at Neverwinter and come back another day. Wyffle and Tyrell disagreed, with Wyffle stalking off to investigate the bushes. Tired of arguing her case with Ty, Bona jumped off the wagon so see if there was anything worth looting.

Finding nothing but an empty map case and saddlebags, Bona shouted out to Wyffle, who had also found nothing unusual, "Oi, stop messing around in the bushes and help me move these horses!"

At which point the goblins struck.

Leaping out from the opposite side of the road, they viciously struck out at Bona, scoring a wounding hit on her. The fight was very short after that, with Ty putting an arrow in the shoulder of one goblin, and Wyffle crashing out of the bushes to neatly cut the other in half, in a great display of coordination.

The goblin with an arrow in his shoulder immediately drops his weapon and says, "Me give up!"

The Test

In any adventure you run, you will always need to find out what kind of game the players want to play. Do you go mystery and intrigue, straight up hack and slash, discussions or puzzles to solve? What balance do you strike?

Talking to players at the beginning is useful for this, but I always find the answers a little artificial. People tend to say what they think is either the most mature or veteran answer, rather than what they really want. So I always treat player requests as a game they want to be able to play into, instead of the game they need right now.

The goblin giving up in front of them is like a personality test for the players.

Some will want a straight hack and slash experience, in which case they'll probably just chop the gobby in half. I haven't had this response yet from someone, but few people approach a role playing game with that mentality. Video games suit that far better.

Some will take this as an opportunity to talk, and express a lot about their character. They will often use phrases like, "My character threatens the goblin," or describe their actions. These players are there for a bit of escapism, and the fun of being someone else for a bit. They may be intellectually investigating what it's like to be a certain character, but the intent is still all about crafting a personality.

Some will really go to town on dragging information out of the goblin. I find these the most taxing to deal with, as you have to be creative about the goblin's responses. Frankly, all I have about what the gobby knows is written in the campaign book, and when a player starts asking about the metal the goblins use for weapons, I have to work hard to keep information coming. These players are either there for plot or map completion.

Map completion players want to explore every bit of content in the campaign. Nothing is worse to them than missing some interesting encounter because they made a bad roll or because they asked the wrong question. You can tell this by their reactions to bad conversation rolls (either intimidate, persuade or bluff). If you think they're getting overly frustrated, you may need to tweak the campaign to make everything as accessible as possible.

If you get the player working with the bad roll instead, then you have a plot driven player. They're there to craft a story, not to simply explore their character or beat the game. They'll roll with the punches (and the punch rolls), and help you as DM to create a really fulfilling campaign. That's not to say they are the perfect player, as sometimes you'll butt heads over which way the plot develops, but they are the ones that will give you the best anecdotes!

Most players fall in between these camps, and the vast majority tend towards the story or character driven goals. This is DnD, and other games scratch the hack and slash or completionist itch more easily, and with better graphics.

The story continues...

Players always surprise me.

Rather than falling into any camp, the three boys proceeded to argue with each other about what to do. The thing is though, that they were arguing about the same thing. All three of them were looking to extract information from the Goblin, but were arguing about how to do it, and the way in which their character would do it.

There were threat of violence, there were actual acts of violence. There were bribes, and offers. They bickered about this for a good quarter of an hour, before the goblin just shouted at them, screaming "I can't take it anymore, I'll take you to the cave!!"

These boys, my students, had gone for comedy. They set off down the goblin path still bickering and making fun of each other, in a good natured way that reminded me of a bunch of improv artists doing a sketch.

I've never been so proud!

But because they had gone for a less serious campaign, and in their bickering hadn't noticed me rolling dice, I didn't feel the slightest bit guilty about having the other half of the ambushing goblins follow them down the trail.

This was going to be hilarious.

Until next time!

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