DMing Boldly

Sarah Darkmagic recently blogged about playing boldly:

For me, playing boldly means a few things. Most importantly, it means coming outside your play style comfort zone and having your character do interesting things. It’s really scary, I know. D&D doesn’t have save points and there is always an underlying risk of character death. But the truth is, I’m not some heartless computer adjudicating the rules exactly as written. And the players aren’t some sort of kill bots looking to rack up the most damage possible against the big bad guys. (Well maybe they are, but that’s a different story.) Doing the same thing week after week, using the same powers in the same way, over and over again, makes for a boring game. I can try my best to shake things up by adding different challenges, but if the players approach them the same way, then I’ve accomplished nothing.
Besides, it’s these moments of vulnerability, of epic wins and epic failures, that make for great gaming stories.

This is great advice for any player, but I think it’s also something to keep in mind as a DM.  The responsibility of running several monsters at a time, encounter after encounter, tends to make it easy to fall into a rut.  The monsters fire off their powers, and maybe take advantage of a tricky ability, but then resort to whatever their best attack is.  Repeat ad boredom.

Maybe you have really clever tactics written down for the enemies in each of your encounters, but I can honestly say that so far in the campaign I’m running I haven’t made a monster do anything remotely “bold”.  I mean, I’ve had a few notes here and there suggesting some interesting actions the monsters can take, but they usually rely on very specific circumstances and get forgotten in the heat of the moment.  It’s just so much easier to choose a power or attack, roll the dice, and move on.

But if I don’t want my players to always take that approach, then neither should I.

Sure, risky and daring actions are the purview of adventurers, but why should they have all the fun?  I’ve littered encounters with all sorts of dungeon dressing in the hopes that the PCs will do something fun with them, but if they’re not going to then the monsters deserve the chance to improvise. Of course, your average dire rat isn’t that clever, nor your average goblin brash enough, but tougher, smarter, more cunning foes just might be.  What better way to encourage bold and interesting play from the players than to have their foes show them how it is done?

Just as the players won’t be able to show off their daring heroics every encounter, neither will their foes always assault them with risky and cunning gambits.  But when they do, it may turn an average encounter into a legendary one.

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One response to “DMing Boldly”

  1. alberand says :

    I second this. As a DM, I encourage and reward players to use terrain to their advantage, improvise weapons, etc. However, it's hard to get them doing it, because it always seems like using a cool power is a better option, and one they are familiar with.

    The trick is to first let them know they can do these things, then make it an easy and appealing option to take advantage of. One way to accomplish the latter is to make triggering terrain powers or using skills in combat a minor action. SlyFlourish has some good things to say on this subject. Of course, you have to watch out for abusable things and limit them (I'm looking at you, Heal skill to force another creature to make a saving throw), but that's easily enough controlled by limiting them to once per round.

    To make it appealing, I also plan to do what I never did before, and what you are talking about there, have the monsters take advantage of it! I already had a kobold take a flying leap onto the leader in the practice game we ran to introduce new players to the 4e rules. Of course, I rolled badly and it went splat, but it was still fun and memorable in its own special way.

    Once the players see what terrain powers and skill usage can do for them, though, I am hoping they will adopt it more easily than my last group.

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