He's got the index cards out again.
September 28, 2013 8:17 PM   Subscribe

What are some creative and cinematic DM scenarios/tools I can use in my D&D 3.5 game? They do not have to be D20-compatible or even necessarily from tabletop RPGs. I just want to spice the game up a little past the rules and the setting. The examples inside should illustrate what I mean better than I am explaining it.

I like the idea of information asymmetry and having PCs know certain things others don't and choose when to reveal it (if at all.) I also like cinematic tropes which the D20 system definitely needs help with. I want the PCs to feel confident in trying out things like swinging from chandeliers. The previous DMs (who are all PCs now) either actively discouraged this or only allowed it if someone came up with it. I want to encourage it.

One example is Pathfinder's chase rules which let you conduct a chase in a much more cinematic way than just having characters run after one another on the grid.

Another I came up with was to distribute "people you know" cards to the PCs (as they are established individuals in the setting) that they can call upon when they need a resource (e.g. a tinkerer, a scout, etc.) In another situation, I gave them index cards indicating how they knew the murder victim NPC whose murder they were tasked with investigating. The cards had information they may not want others to know -- shady dealings, criminal pasts -- to discourage them from just reading the card aloud.

Also, in the next session, I am having the PCs fight a Huge creature. They're the "hit it, then hit it again" sort of battle strategists, so I am going to have a friendly NPC launch a grappling hook into the creature, climb it, attack a weak point, but then get knocked off. Hopefully the rogue will get the idea to climb it as well. This is the sort of encouragement i mean.
posted by griphus to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The things that come to mind based on your examples are Whimsy Cards and the stunt rules from Feng Shui: apply no penalties to creatively-described actions that actually yield no mechanical benefit, even if they sound harder; apply only extremely weak penalties (typically "-2") to novel and creatively-described stunts, so people are willing to try them; but apply more severe penalties to boring, repetitive stunts.

I'd also recommend Feng Shui's advice to think of each encounter like a scene in a movie, making a long list for yourself of all the props that might exist on set so you can point them out, have bad guys use them, etc.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:38 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've done 3 things to encourage PCs to think outside hack and slash:
(on preview, yes all stolen from Feng Shui)

1. Give them special Honor Points (or Luck points) to spend during a battle which dramatically increases their chances to do something spectacular.
2. Award XP at the end of every session based on Class Participation as much as success.
3. Just give them +s to succeed every time they do something really unique or well-described cinematically. If that doesnt work you may just need some new players. (hint hint)

Role playing wise, I think it helps to borrow from teaching. Break them into groups and give them traps or riddles to solve separately. Make them debate eachother in game with some contrivance. Make their characters make characters.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:42 PM on September 28, 2013

Response by poster: Award XP at the end of every session based on Class Participation as much as success.

Roughly half the XP every session (the half that isn't from combat) is granted to them for taking initiative (no pun intended) on plot points or solving problems creatively. Ie, a character got XP for commissioning a sketch of the murder victim to aid in figuring out who he was and another character convinced a guard to recall backup instead of killing him and letting the backup arrive. Is that what you mean?
posted by griphus at 8:51 PM on September 28, 2013

Can you have an in-game commission for them to do something where they explicitly have to be sneaky or creative? For example, if they are asked to solve the problem of monsters raiding nearby villages, perhaps the mayor who asks them to do it is worried about retaliation from whoever is in control of the monsters if they just go in swinging axes. So he tells them they can't kill the monsters outright, at least not if the monsters or anyone scrying on them might know that it was their doing.

Putting restrictions like that on them a few times might lead them to think more creatively and change their style of play for those scenarios.

But if they then want to go back to their "boring" hack and slash ways, maybe you should consider that they might enjoy that more than the more cerebral or cinematic style of play. I play with a bunch of people who spend all day thinking and talking, and in their off time, they really just want to hit things hard. (Well, talk about hitting things hard.) As DM you are mostly there to facilitate a fun game for the players, even if it isn't exactly your own idea of fun.
posted by lollusc at 9:10 PM on September 28, 2013

I wrote a big essay about how to run D&D in a fictionful way. Maybe some of it will be useful!

Here are some techniques from other non-D&D games that I think you could use:

1. Fail forward: on skill check failures, aim for "yes, but..." instead of "no, you fail." For example, "yes, you picked the lock but you made a lot of noise doing it" or "yes, you impressed the baron and he'll help with your plan, but only if you marry his undesirable son."

In general, before you ask for a roll, have an interesting outcome in mind for any result! Don't pick up the dice if one of the outcomes is boring.

2. For generating NPCs: Burning Wheel has an awesome "circles test" rule that allows players to ask "Do I know a (butcher, baker, candlestick maker, whatever) in this place?" and then roll to find out the result. This puts NPC creation and setting creation on the players, which is awesome.

3. For having a rich and multivaried setting that moves and evolves independently of the PCs, check out the Front rules in Dungeon World. Fronts are super excellent technology, they very efficiently describe a living setting and structure the DM's lonely fun between sessions.

4. Put illustrations on those "people you know" cards. Engage them visually! Google Images is your god here.

5. Player created quests / XP awards are awesome. Whenever a player suggests a fictional agenda, put an XP award on it right away and encourage them to pursue it. Demonstrate you're listening! (it sounds like you do this already)

6. Listen as much as you talk.

For what it's worth, I'm not big a fan of information asymmetry. D&D games typically bottleneck on the DM's attention. Information asymmetry means that play needs to shift to one-on-one in order to act on the secrets, leaving all but two of the players sitting around doing nothing. In general when I run games I want as many people to be engaged at once as is possible.

DMing is one of my passions and I am happy to talk about it more if any of this sounds remotely useful to you!
posted by Sauce Trough at 9:50 PM on September 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

This is good advice so far. But I feel it is important to add:

There is a place in roleplaying for hack and slash. It is a time-honored attitude for players, D&D players especially, to think of their characters as basically a playing piece they're moving around the game world. It is just as valid to play D&D as an exploration and combat game as it is to take more purposefully group narrative approaches -- in fact, arguably more valid, because so many other games do it better, giving the GM better tools for constructing adventures, and with better aids for both GMs and players in improvising evolving situations.

This stuff started changing, I think, around 1E, where Gygax put in an infamous little rule, I think often ignored, that scaled PC experience based upon the quality of player roleplaying; the DM privately assigned each player a score from 1 to 4 for his participation in the session, with 1 being only nominally involved, and 4 being playing his character to the hilt. Players would only actually earn 25% x his roleplaying rating of the experience points he got that session. I don't remember if that survived into 2E, but it might have. I know it was completely gone in 3E.
posted by JHarris at 9:59 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

My Hubbie ran a game where we were a paramilitary force charged with handling monster problems.

He'd say, "You hear about zombies in the countryside around Hampton," and hand us an index card that says "Zombies at Hampton" with a bunch of checkboxes under it, and say "There are also reports of a people disappearing in the Iron Mountains," and give us a card that says "Iron Mountains Disappearances" with checkboxes. We got several at the beginning of the campaign, and every once in a while, he'd add a new one.

At the end of each session, he'd tell us to check off one more box on each card.

It was a great concrete / visual reminder that plot was advancing, whether or not we are present, and that the choices we made had real consequences. This was a nice difference from usual D&D world peppered with dungeons well-stocked with enemies and treasure, sitting around waiting patiently for the PCs.

(As an aside, we ignored the zombies until everyone in Hampton was a zombie, but strangely, it turned into this weird zombie utopia, and we decided to leave them alone because they seemed pretty happy and weren't bothering anyone. IIRC the disappearances were actually because someone was raising a rebel army, and of course we got embroiled in this huge political situation...)
posted by BrashTech at 9:52 AM on September 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Whimsy Cards"

Great idea, though they're out of print. No, you can't have my set. However, you can buy RPG Inspiration Cards, which do much the same thing -- far more, actually -- and are available.

It's a good idea to include some kind of hero/fate/luck point mechanic to encourage wild and amazing stunts. Make sure the luck points give some kind of mechanical advantage, like +10 to one skill attempt or something. Then be careful to manage your luck point economy. Don't let luck points turn into another mechanistic thing that players need to hoard.

You could always play a game of Microscope (link to my first actual play report with it) to flesh out the background of some part of your setting. Could easily give the players a lot more buy-in and feeling of integration.

Maybe play a session of Danger Patrol (holy cow, there's a new edition out!), Old School Hack or Fiasco to give the players a sense of what's possible and expand their horizons a bit.

For just-plain-fun factor, pull out some Lego minis (yep, another self-link) to use for combat. Then set a strict limit on time for accessorization, because players will use all the time you give.

Try the "1, 2, 3, Point!" method of awarding luck points or XP. (Yep, another self-link.) Good way to get players engaged in creating a better game for everyone.

And heck, just go read my gaming blog. I have a bunch of different ideas there.
posted by jiawen at 5:02 PM on September 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I'd give best answers to everyone, but that makes the thread borderline unreadable, so you may all just considered yourself best-answered!
posted by griphus at 12:03 PM on October 1, 2013

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