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Player Advice: What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

In Dungeons & Dragons, much like in the real world, there are times when you may find yourself struggling with what to do next.  You may be confounded by the plot or unsure as to what thread to follow.  You may be in a situation where you just aren’t sure how to tackle the obstacles before you.  This can be uncomfortable or frustrating, especially for new players, but it doesn’t have to be.  Here are a few tips for what to do when you don’t know what to do:

Ask Questions

Questions are the currency of a D&D session.  DMs ask questions (“What do you do?”) to elicit action and facilitate the flow of a game.  Players should ask questions–of the DM, of the other players, of themselves–to realize the nature of their character’s situation, environment, and world.  It seems like obvious advice, but asking questions is really the best way to gain insight into the game world.  Newer players may feel intimidated but shouldn’t:  Keep in mind, in most instances the DM has more information in his notes than what he initially reveals.  Most DMs don’t divulge everything up front, they parcel out information based on what the PCs say and do.

The types of questions you should ask depend on the type of information you need.  Basic questions such as “What can I see?” or “What do I hear?” are good if you are having trouble envisioning the game world, but are probably too vague to help you if you’re stuck.  Being more specific can help you focus your attention in the right areas or uncover information that may help you: “Does it look like there’s a way to stop the ritual?”, “Does the baron seem like he’s being genuine?”, “Do the statues seem significant or familiar at all?”, etc.

Think Out Loud

Thinking out loud provides a way for you to vocalize your thought process, which for some is a helpful problem-solving technique.  In addition to focusing your train of thought and allowing you to step through a solution, it also lets the other players know what you’re thinking.  They may know something that you don’t and can offer input if you express it (and vice versa).  The simple process of stepping through a situation or problem out loud can spark insights among you and your fellow players that could provide valuable.  And, of course, it’s always helpful when everyone is on the same page.

Consider the fact, too, that while players are thinking out loud or trying to work out something among them, a good DM is listening to how his players are interpreting the game world.  Based on what he hears, the DM can decide what information he needs to dole out to facilitate the game.  Just by talking out a problem or situation, the DM may decide to ask for a few skill checks and reveal additional information based on those checks.

Put Yourself In Your Character’s Boots

Although Dungeons & Dragons is a roleplaying game, it is still a game and it can be easy to get caught in the trap of looking to your character sheet whenever you want to do something.  But thinking in character, or answering the question “What would I do if I was really in this situation?” can help spark ideas and lead to lines of thinking that may be more helpful or fruitful than poring over a list of skills or powers.  Consider the following scenario:  A character finds a flask on the bones of a dead adventurer.  The DM doesn’t immediately say what it is.  The player scans her skill list, but obviously there is no “Identify Potion” skill.  She thinks about what she might do if she found herself in this situation, and decides “I uncork the bottle, take a sniff, and maybe a tiny sip.”  The DM tells her she recognizes it as a Potion of Healing (or perhaps asks for an Arcana Check and gives her more or less information based on the result).  By simply putting herself in her character’s shoes, the player found an easy solution to her problem.

Don’t let your character sheet or specific rules limit your thinking.  Your skills and powers, and the rules as written, are there to help adjudicate actions, not necessarily limit them.  You should approach challenges in game with what you want to accomplish (and/or how) first, and then let the DM interpret how that fits within the game’s framework.

Don’t Be Afraid To Admit You Don’t Know What To Do

This is something that’s probably difficult for many players to do, regardless of their experience level.  You may not be comfortable with admitting you’re confused, or don’t want to appear clueless, or maybe you’re afraid that you’ll offend the DM in some way.  You might be tempted to keep quiet and defer to other players to move the action or story, but this just diminishes your gaming experience.  Instead, tell your DM and fellow players that you’re at a loss for what to do.  If you are confused about the plot or story details, the DM can refresh your memory or clarify the important points.  If you don’t know what to do next to fulfill your quest, saying as much can get the table talking about how everyone wants to proceed (and clue the DM in on the fact that perhaps he needs to offer a little nudge in the right direction).  If it is a matter of you not knowing how to overcome the obstacle you’re facing, the DM may ask you to think about what it is you want to accomplish and then offer some suggestions as to courses of action.

Simply admitting that you don’t know what to do is the most direct way to deal with the problem.  It lets the DM know that you’re stuck and helps avoid awkward silence and blank stares at the table.  It often benefits the entire group, especially if others feel the way you do, and can help ensure that every player is on the same page

Go Forth And Meet Your Challenges Head On

Ask questions, think out loud, put yourself in your character’s boots, and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know what to do.  Armed with these tips you should be better equipped to handle those situations when you aren’t quite sure what to do next.

DMs:  Check out my follow up article on what to do when your players don’t know what to do.

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Dragonborn Expressions

Alas, poor Yolk...

One of my players, who happens to be new to D&D, is really getting into his character.  He is playing as a Dragonborn, a race of dragon-like humanoids that first appeared in the D&D 3.5 supplement Races of the Dragon and became a core race in 4th Edition.  When Wizards of the Coast released the 4E supplement Player’s Handbook Races: Dragonborn, my player and I were both intrigued by the short sidebar included within entitled “Speaking Like A Dragonborn”.  I thought the use of such phrases was a great way to flesh out a character so I created a few of my own for my player to use as he saw fit.  I present them here for anyone else who might want to use them.

“Sometimes snakes walk upright.” – An expression of contempt, originally used to belittle a fellow dragonborn (comparing them to little more than a snake with legs). Implies that the person in question is deceitful, untrustworthy, or lowly.  “What do I think of him? You know what they say, ‘Sometimes snakes walk upright’.”“By/with tooth, claw, and scale.” – A proclamation that one will overcome a difficult obstacle with whatever means available.  “We shall defeat them by tooth, claw, and scale.”

“Grow wings to fool a dragon” – Response to an idea deemed ridiculous or foolish, or a request to do the impossible.  “What a brilliant plan.  Why don’t I just grown wings to fool a dragon while we’re at it?”

“Had I wings, I would still not be a dragon.” – Both a statement of identity (distinguishing the proud dragonborn people from the dragons they once served), as well an observation that superficial changes do not change who a person or thing is.

“A beautiful blade does not make it keen.” – The dragonborn version of “beauty is only skin deep”, also a philosophical warning against putting form over substance.

“A blunt sword is the weapon of a fool.”/”Only a fool wields a blunt sword.” –  Wisdom prevails over ignorance.

“An axe will break down a door, but that’s not what axes are for.” – Whimsical expression along the lines of “use the right tool for the job”.

“Greet with an open mouth”/”Be greeted by open mouths”– References the dragonborn ability to breathe fire, acid, etc., which tends to be an act of violence and, naturally, requires one to open its mouth.  It means: to receive something or someone with hostility, to vehemently oppose something. By contrast “be greeted with mouths closed” is the equivalent of “welcome with open arms”.

“To act with open mouth(s)”/”Act with their mouths wide” –  To do something foolish without thinking it through first.

“You can’t unbreak an egg.”– There’s no turning back, what’s done is done.“By Io’s blood” – Exclamation of conviction or amazement. “By Io’s blood, I’ve never seen such courage!”, “By Io’s blood, I will prevail!”

“A Tiefling with scales” – Similar to “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”

“I have but my blood to give, as Io did before me.” –  A solemn oath of service or loyalty.

“You may take my life but not my honor.” – A rebuke to one’s enemies.

“A scale may deflect an arrow. Then again, sometimes it may not.” – Somewhat equivalent to “you win some, you lose some”, also used sometimes to mean “who knows why things happen the way they do.”

“Some days it’s as if every head of Tiamat is looking your way.” – Roughly equivalent to “shit happens”.

“Allies before Self. Family before Allies. Clan before Family. Ancestors before Clan.  Honor before all.” A Dragonborn oath.

“If I had wings and a tail, I’d be a dragon.” – A statement expressing incredulity, and expression of disbelief at another’s claims.  -“I slew the Umberhulk with nothing but a knife!” -“Right, and if I had wings and a tail, I’d be a dragon.”