Modern D&D Play and GMing tools---how do we enter this hobby in the era of 5e?

I’ve been thinking a bit about my own development as a roleplayer recently:

I started with D&D, at an early age, started running games very early on (I think I was 9), and occasionally took inspiration from written adventures, which were often… rather railroady, to say the least. I would imagine that some subset of these things was true for many of us.

Over time, I got more and more disillusioned with the process of trying to a) run an actual game, but also b) trying to control outcomes enough to get the “desired plot” or whatever other effect I was going for.

Since then, I’ve played all kinds of games and developed all kinds of tools to break free of that, which has been quite eye-opening, and gave me a new appreciation for roleplaying as something I can enjoy long-term.

In contrast, I have some friends who gave up on roleplaying when they started to see those limitations, deciding that really the only thing that had made it fun was the power fantasy aspect: that, since, as children, they were relatively powerless in their lives, playing a powerful hero and getting to make actual choices and make a difference was really potent and engaging. As they got older, that part stopped being so appealing (not for everyone, of course; for many the “beer and pretzels game” is a good break from adult responsibility - but I’m not talking about those people).

I’ve had a fairly good track record helping people like that rediscover roleplaying as a thing which is free of some of those burdens.

Recently I’ve been thinking about it again, because in the last half decade or so the advent of popular streaming RPG play has kind of taken over the RPG subculture, and now Critical Role and similar entertainment is often peoples’ first exposure to and inspiration for trying out roleplaying games.

This means, of course, that they are also most interested in and most likely to play D&D 5e.

While 5e has lots of admirable qualities and strong design, between its expected adventure structure, design features (a sequence of balanced combat encounters which form an attempt at a “plot”), inspiration from recorded media (streaming games, the D&D movie, whatever), and published adventures… new players will be repeating my experience in many respects.

A system based on balanced combat encounters and linear storytelling and a proliferation of rather… limited… published adventures is producing new players who don’t have strong tools for open-ended play. It’s hard to play 5e in any other format - not impossible, but hard.


So I find that I’ve often been chatting with younger players who are excited about D&D. And some come to me for GMing advice. “How do I make this cool mystery, and have it turn out just right?”, perhaps.

I find that they are actually quite interested in other tools and other approaches. I ask them questions about what they expect to happen, how they hope it will happen, and what likely outcomes are. For instance, if they say that they will have a scene where “the party meets the murderer”, I can ask some gentle questions like, “So, what will you do if the murderer gets killed in scene 2?” or perhaps, “what will happen, then, if the PCs decide to get on the ship and leave the island?”

These are usually provocative questions and they often get the person thinking.

And then I can share some of my tools and approaches, focusing on ways that:

  1. The GMing can be responsive and open to various possibilities,
  2. the gameplay is focused on the fundamental aspect of giving the players meaningful choices, as the central part of the activity of playing a game in the first place, and
  3. get the GM excited about the uncertainty of how things will turn out.

It’s definitely daunting sometimes, but so far in my experience people get really excited about actually having tools for that - which the published adventures usually don’t give you, and watching streaming play (especially edited streaming play) doesn’t help us understand.

A typical example was my friend A., who came to me for help preparing his mystery/investigation scenario. He was doing a great job with NPCs and content and themes, but at one point I started asking him questions about what the players actually do. “So what is the player’s role here? What decisions are they actually making [e.g. at this particular point of the game we’re discussing right now]?”

This was fairly eye-opening for him, and he could see right away how the game was lacking in this respect. He was also very interested in working that in. “OK, so how do I do that?”

I’ve had many such discussions with various people over the last few years, and it’s almost always been in the context of playing 5e. I don’t blame them - as I said above, the design of the game, expectations of play, and published materials all really really don’t help in this regard. If they were playing The Pool or some other game (particularly games which don’t require balanced encounters and intensive rules prep), it would be a lot easier, but that’s not what’s popular at the moment.

The Point of This

So, what am I posting for?

I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately, and wanted to start an open-ended conversation here.

In the “era” of 5e in which we currently find ourselves, we have a great influx of new players. I have a feeling that there is something very natural and human about trying to “control” a game so as to create a particular ending. A natural impulse. Doing roleplaying in such a way that everyone gets some input into the conclusion isn’t always easy, and take practice and tools.

So, my questions to you all:

  • What was your entry point to the hobby, and how did you deal with this topic?
  • What are your experiences like with the “new generation” of roleplayers?
  • How do you think that we, as a community, should engage with the current state of roleplaying as it exists out there in the world? What kinds of conversations should we be having?

I think there are many interesting and valuable conversations to be had, and I’d like to hear about your own experiences with this. Maybe you were invited to join a game, asked for GM or character playing advice, or even asked to run something like a stereotypical 5e game. How did you approach it, and how did it go?

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Great post, Paul. I have some thoughts but I’ll keep them for after my workday is over. It also ties very well into thoughts I’ve been having on the direction this forum should take as a platform.

I think @Bille.Boo should have lots to say on this topic—he runs a blog where he’s been trying to a while to promote what I describe as “emergent play” with mainstream Italian players, using a Frankenstein version of various D&D editions.

I’ll narrow down the topic a little bit. This is a tool I use on La Locanda sometimes, which I’ll translate as “Let’s talk about”. Essentially, the thread opener or a moderator[1] can narrow down what the thread is about, both with positive “Let’s talk about” and negative “Let’s not talk about” statements—usually both.

  • Let’s talk about approaching hobby culture as practitioners, teaching players, finding like-minded folk, getting the most out of it.
  • Let’s not talk about affecting or influencing hobby culture at large.

Let me know if this is acceptable to you.

  1. I hate this word, I think the idea for this forum would be to have “conversation guides” more than moderators. ↩︎

2 Appreciations

My father bought the Italian translation of Mentzer’s Basic sometime in the 80s, run a single dungeon (not an official module, I think he wrote it but he’s not sure) and stopped playing because he didn’t like it. About twenty years later, when I was somewhere between 11 and 12, I found it abandoned in his study and started playing.

I didn’t have any exposition to published modules for a while, having as the only point of reference for my play that single dungeon. I also didn’t fully understand the rules and played D&D GM-less for months on end, before one of my friends found out that D&D 3.5 had been published and we gained access to those manuals (we originally borrowed then, then pooled money to buy them - that’s why I don’t own D&D 3.5’s Monster Manual up to today). Still, it took some time before I started reading - and playing - pre-made modules and, even then, they weren’t neither official nor third party modules, but fan-mades we could find on the Internet, because they were free and we were kids with little money.

I think the first one I ever played is still available (in Italian) here (it’s the first link on the page). I remember it pretty railroady, but, since I disliked the style, I heavily edited the whole thing before playing it. Since that adventure was supposedly part of a campaign and the new adventure was supposed to come out in a couple of months (it’s still listed as 95% done as of today), I started writing some fillers to keep playing while we waited. In the end, we played that campaign for about another year only on my own stuff, which was more open-ended because I never finished writing an adventure before bringing it out to the table, so we just railroaded the first part and then I started making up stuff as stuff happened because I was at the end of the tracks. I had more fun on the second part, but wasn’t able to update my preparation in way which helped getting there, so I just started dropping cliffhangers every now and then and stopping there.

As you can see, my introduction to roleplaying has been pretty bumpy and I missed a lot of stuff which is considered, at least by the people who wrote the game I was using, part of the learning process. This happened also when I approached other games in the following couple of years, because my English was pretty bad and I didn’t have much money (and Google Translate was a non-option).

By the time I started interacting with the larger RPG community (I spent lots of time in a very small - and now closed - Italian RPG forum which also shaped my expectations for online spaces) my relationship with the kind of linear storytelling which was (and still is) the most expected way to play was pretty troubled. I had read lots of stuff about how important it was supposed to be, but I had also knew that I wasn’t really good at that and I had more fun playing in a different way anyway. I still had (and still have, I think) lots of stuff both to unlearn and to learn (e.g. I’ve started being satisfied by how I prepare my stuff for the table last year, at 31, and I still haven’t find a way I like to write adventures down for publishing on my blog), but I at least had the advantage of having a somewhat defined idea of what I liked.

As for teaching new players, I’m sorry to say that the way I learned to play isn’t exactly teachable, but whenever somebody asks me for tips or suggestions, the message I try to pass on is to first learn what you like and then learn how to do it better. I encourage people to try different games and different play styles, keep experimenting and mixing things up until they find out what it works for them. After that, they can start working on how to get that in a somewhat consistent manner (not in the sense of having the same experience, but the same type of experience).

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Thanks @Froggy for notifying me - I didn’t have time yet to follow Wynwerod with the attention it would deserve, and I’m sorry for that.

Great topic, @Paul_T. My experience matches a lot with yours!

There’s a single point where I’ve a different view. I don’t think it’s hard to play D&D 5e (or other “modern” editions of D&D) in an open-ended and emergent format. On the contrary, I think it’s fairly easy, actually easier than attempting to do it with linear storytelling and plot.

I recently played, as GM, a 3-session game of D&D 5e (in a third-party setting called Brancalonia). I prepared a very open situation. It took me a really low effort, and the play was smooth and satisfying overall. I posted about that on La Locanda dei GDR. I’ll translate it in English for this forum too, when I have time.

I don’t think that sequential scenes, pre-defined plots and balanced combat encounters are embedded in the D&D 5e system (the game, the tool) as it is.
(Here we could discuss what ‘balance’ means, but I think it would be long… maybe a matter for another topic.)
But I agree that they’re deeply embedded in most of the D&D 5e published modules. The strong inconsistency between them and the core of the gaming system is one of the major issues of modern D&D, in my opinion. It’s a problem affecting not only WotC modules, but also (as far as I know) the majority of third-party modules.
A person I know use to say that “most D&D adventures seem to be written by people who didn’t read D&D manuals”.

About my story

I started playing and GMing with AD&D 2e, but only for a short time.
Then, with my stable group of friends, we decided to switch to D&D 3.5, and I was “elected” GM: the others knew me well and knew that I would be eager to spend days and nights devouring the manuals, to learn the new system and explain it to them (at that time we took it as a given that the facilitator role and the GM role were the same - this could be relevant for another topic of yours, I believe).
We played D&D 3.5 for more than 8 years, I think, gradually introducing home rules and hacks.

A possible peculiarity of my case is that I never used, or even read, any published adventures at that time: I always preferred to design my own. This might have “protected” me somehow from being exposed to certain models.

However, my first campaign sucked. I definitely planned an overarching story with a final “plot twist”. I invited players to write detailed backstories for their PCs and I worked to intertwine them into the campaign.
The “railroady”/“plot driven” conception was already present in the game culture and it reached me somehow. Also, there surely are some ambiguous or utterly dysfunctional paragraphs in the D&D 3.5 manuals.
But I think that the fundamental root cause is somewhere else: I think that there’s some natural tendency of people towards that kind of approach, due to the fact that we are creating fiction, and we are used to it being created that way in all other media (TV, movies, books, comics…).

There were positive notes too. My first campaign had a lot of dungeons. And, about dungeons, the material contained in the Dungeon Master’s Guide was excellent and helpful for me.
I quickly noticed that dungeons were a lot easier to prepare, and generally more fun to play (both for me and for the other players), than the “plot-driven” parts.
Treasure, monsters, traps: all these things worked very well and had some intrinsic, built-in room for agency.

I like experimenting. So, I tried several approaches and styles. I invested in those that were working better, and discarded those that weren’t working. For example: I fudged die rolls a few times, I didn’t like it, I stopped; I realized than long backstories for PCs weren’t necessary and were actually a burden both for me and the player, so I stopped requiring them. And so on, by trial and error.

By the time D&D 4 and then D&D 5 were published, I already drifted towards a personal homebrew system (I like experimenting with rules too). But it happened to me to play with D&D 5, as well as “old school” games like OSE and Cairn. I found out that my current playstyle is more or less equally effective with all of them.
Then, opening up to a wider community on the Internet helped me a lot to learn new things and grow further.

About teaching new players and GMs

I introduced new players multiple times in my original group. It was easy and effective, but they were introduced one at a time and they basically learnt by example.

Several times I tried to introduce a person of my group to GMing, by having the person co-GM with me an adventure or a short campaign. The results were mixed.
For me it was an educational experience: explaining things to others is probably the best way to realize if you have a full understanding. I wasn’t good at explaining my way of GMing: there were many things that I did just out of routine or intuition.
All these people ended up quitting GMing and returning to be “simple” players. They told me they enjoyed the experience, but I still see this as a partial failure on my side.

When my long-running group ended, I started GMing for new groups, including a whole group of newbies, completely new to role playing. That was interesting too, and it was very successful.

In my opinion, D&D manuals are not very good for introducing new people, especially to the GM role. They are written in a vague way, trying to accommodate different playstyles without taking a strong side (there’s a clear commercial reason to do so, obviously). They also leave a lot of blanks, assuming that many things are already known and don’t need to be specified (this, I believe, is part of the D&D play culture).

But I don’t think this is the main issue, because most people, in my experience, don’t really read the D&D manuals: so, even if they were perfect books, cultural tendencies and oral tradition would still prevail.

I agree that a lot of people, nowadays, are getting in touch with D&D through live play online and shows. This creates a lot of starting bias and confusion. People are deeply affected by this.
But many of them are also eager to learn new tools and techniques to do better. Because they feel that the “plot driven” approach is ineffective. Maybe they don’t realize it consciously, but they feel the weight on their shoulders, they spend a lot of time prepping, they are tired of players getting “off the rails” or “derailing their plans”, and so on. So, there is room for good advice to be received and accepted. Authors like Sly Flourish or The Angry GM have success because of that.

After I started interacting online (groups, forums…) on this matter, I encountered many people seeking GMing advice: an experience totally similar to yours, @Paul_T.

So I started my blog, realizing that it could be useful to explain my approach and “lessons learnt” to other people, so that I could spare them my long and clumsy learning curve.

Your examples on mystery / investigation scenarios are particularly on point, @Froggy knows that: it was the very topic that arranged our meeting :wink:.

My typical approach, when giving advice to D&D GMs, is to point them towards something that we could call a “goal-oriented style”.

When a young GM asks me for advice about its adventure:

  • I usually start by asking which is the PC’s goal. Meaning: the thing that PCs are expected to achieve (or prevent) at the end of the adventure. There’s usually one, especially if it’s “plot-driven”.
  • I ask if players are aware of the goal or not. I recommend to make them aware as soon as possible (before play is the best), in a very explicit way. And to leave to them the responsibility to explain why their PC is invested in that goal.
    This works way better than the very common approach where players write backstories and the GM tries to leverage them to “pull” PCs inside the plot. Actually, with this approach you could get rid of backstories completely.
  • I also point out that, if that thing is the goal of the game, it should be uncertain: otherwise, what are we playing for? Many GMs agree that the goal is uncertain, but, when we come to this, they realize that there isn’t any real ending in their scenario if the players don’t achieve it; they tend to assume that PCs will always win. So my question is: what happens if they don’t?
    It’s possible that the only way to “fail” the quest is a TPK: they all die. This isn’t a problem for old megadungeons, but for many “plot-driven” adventures it is. I put a lot of emphasis in encouraging GMs to design adventure goals in such a way that it is possible to fail even without being exterminated.
    This also leaves the GM free to make the goal far more difficult: many GMs nowadays are really scared by TPK perspective, and can get more creative when the challenge isn’t just surviving.

My observations show that with this simple starting point (= learning to build adventures around a goal that is really uncertain, and focus on the design of the goal itself, not on PC backstories and other unnecessary stuff) people usually improve their play very much, without having to rethink / rediscuss their entire conception of the game.
So, they are happier.

Afterwards, they tend to be more and more curious about other novelties, like “open world” / “sandbox” scenarios, faction play and so on.

(I apologize for the wall of text.)

3 Appreciations

No need to apologise. This is one of the best posts I’ve read recently.

1 Appreciation

My entry point to the hobby was very common for American youth in the late 80s who didn’t Live In One Of The Biggest Cities - we had access to a haphazard collection of D&D books, hidden at the house of the one friend whose family didn’t think it was Satanic. We didn’t “get” that there were different editions of D&D, that they might have different purposes or work at cross purposes. And the full set of books were simply unavailable to us. We couldn’t buy them due to cost or parental disapproval, and the local hobby shops didn’t stock full sets for browsing anyway.

So we had BECI (no M!), Unearthed Arcana, a Judge’s Guild thing with the cover torn off, and a Monster Manual (unknown edition.) There really wasn’t a sense that we could look to the books for any kind of assistance with structuring play, so we ended up pretty experimental with that pretty early on. (Our other touchstone for this was interactive fiction, specifically Infocom games. If you want to know why this particular tangle of friends and acquaintances didn’t have any issue with playing out “mysteries”, as described above, you could do a lot worse than to play through Deadline a few times.)

I’ve also written quite a long blog post about my observations on players who are arriving, newly minted, so to speak, from the streaming world. See what you think.

One thing that’s interesting about D&D versus streaming-D&D is that 5e is perfectly capable of running a decent dungeon crawl (or overland equivalent), yet a combat-forward treasure hunt is almost never what’s on offer in a stream because streamers, correctly, believe that hanging onto the system to that level is boring to watch. It’s very exciting to play out, though, and the resource management of a dungeon delve is a level of strategy that isn’t presently being streamed. points out, however, that adventures of this kind - quite popular throughout the rest of D&D’s history, and even quite popular in near-D&D spaces right now (Pathfinder still does plenty of dungeons!) - aren’t really on offer in WOTC’s 5e space.

The nice thing about going from a plot to a dungeon is you can stay firmly within the boundaries of D&D5 (the DMG has plenty of good advice for making and playing out dungeons), yet it has a concreteness to its limitations that “story play” doesn’t necessarily have. The real treasure was not the friends you made along the way, the real treasure is the huge pile of gold being guarded by Tricky Steve, the Mad Necromancer! Concreteness helps both novice GMs and novice players make decisions and grasp consequences. (I would add that the prevalence of D&D adaptations to video games also makes this an easy lift even for unpracticed tabletop-RPG players.)

In other words my first suggestion is to help them do something that doesn’t push D&D’s boundaries very much.**

5 Appreciations

My entry point to the hobby was Baldur’s Gate, the videogame. The son of my father’s boss is like ten or fifteen years older than I am, so back then (I’m talking about twenty and odds years ago) he was not interested in it anymore and sent it over to me as a gift. The videogame itself was based on AD&D 2, hence I came to know about tabletop roleplaying games this way. I started to be fascinated by the idea of “a videogame where you can literally do whatever you want”, so I searched the Internet for free of charge TTRPGs in Italian and found Tiers Age (or actually the Italian translation Terza Era). This was quite fortunate, because by that time the Lord of the Rings was a big thing in movie theaters in Italy, so I could actually arrange a couple of sessions with two different groups. In both cases I was the game master, in both cases it ended quite quickly after one or two sittings. Well, one ended with a real life beating :sweat_smile:, but I’m here to write about it, so all in all I can’t complain too much!

I’ve never played anymore to TTRPGs until the last year of my PhD studies, so we’re talking 2017/2018. Here one of the post docs is a long time D&D player since his time back in his village, where he used to play with his brother and friends. He arranged a campaign that started with fifteen or twenty people and (quite obviously!) petered out to around five. His style is heavily reliant on published modules and dice, with no plot whatsoever. After my last summer in academia the campaign was over, due to people leaving for new jobs or different universities.

To make a long story short, in my case plot-driven play has only been a minor occurrence, with a couple of campaigns when I started playing online and hit face first against the current D&D culture at large and some one shots here and there that ended up being quite railroad-y. I actually watched three or four whole seasons of Luxastra, an Italian edited RPG show, but in my case it was mainly a way to keep me occupied with something RPG-related while I was looking around to find new venues for playing. Quite luckily a bar opened fifty meters away from my place more or less in that period and started proposing D&D one shots nights and also, once a month, one shots of various RPGs.

What I mostly suffered, back then, was the common misconception that game mastering is hard stuff for élite players. It took me years to muster the courage and try my hand at it, which takes me to your second question.

Mostly positive.

A couple of years ago, as I mentioned above, I had finally overcome the silly fears induced by the common idea that game masters are somewhat a superior number. I published an LFG for a D&D 5e campaign, where I quite directly stated that world building would be a shared endeavor in a session 0 and that the overall goal was to create a sandbox and engage it. Objectives that I again explicitly repeated during the mentioned session 0. The campaign lasted for nine months and I can say that we enjoyed ourselves quite a lot, yet it finished pretty badly. I had started feeling some passivity from the other players, so after our last session I raised the point, trying to discuss it and to understand whether anything could be done to restore the enthusiasm. Well… the discussion went awry early on, when they blamed me for not planning a plot and leading them by the nose. We peacefully parted our ways, since that kind of play was not of my interest and, anyhow, I wouldn’t be willing to put the needed effort on the task. I guess in this case the strong expectations coming from the RPG streaming world were too hard to subvert. (And it should be noted that everything happened on the InnTale Discord server, where InnTale is the studio behind the Luxastra show I mentioned.)

Quick digression on D&D 5e and open play

I think my experience I shared here above is a point in favor of @Bille.Boo’s position, which I share. Plus, I played with him in the Brancalonia campaign he mentions: it was a lot of fun and none of what happened was preplanned.

Still I occupy a middle ground. Even if D&D 5e the ruleset can be easily applied to open ended play, D&D 5e the mindset is a tougher guest. Quoting @Froggy, it makes it hard

On the other hand, in the last year I started collaborating with a local association that organizes several monthly TTRPG events around Milan. Most of the times we have recurring players signing up, but it also happens quite frequently that new faces come and play with us. I’ve never had issues with people expecting a plot to be shoved down their throats. It’s still anecdotical evidence and I might just be lucky. Or it could be a collateral effect of proposing obscure games that are in and of themselves strong statements, at least sometimes. Now that I think of it, I’ve recently played with two boys ten or eleven years old, which could be material for another thread.

I don’t want to leave your last question hanging, but I will also be short to honor the Let’s not talk about. I, as a person, engage with other people that may or may not take a seat at the same table. We spend some time together playing TTRPGs and the only conversations I tend to have, aside the main one we have while playing, are about what did and did not work in the session or about when and where they can join us again in future events.

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