Saturday 18 June 2016

Romantic Fantasy Revisited 3: How do I use this in a game of D&D?

Man, I need to get this series finished. I promised Derek Holland a review of his magic item book!

OK: part three. In my last two posts, I discussed what I mean by 'romantic fantasy' (although Yora has now started calling it 'Hope and Heroism' instead), and why someone might potentially want to emulate it - or at least parts of it - in a game of D&D. In this post, I'll address the next obvious question: how?

Let's say that you and your group are totally up for a romantic-fantasy-themed D&D game, full of redeemable villains and non-violent solutions. How do you make that happen? What do the rules need to do? And why aren't you all just playing Monsterhearts instead?

The biggest burden, as usual, falls on the GM. The GM is the person who establishes what kind of world the game takes place in, after all; and if the world that they present to their players is one that doesn't seem like it's going to be amenable to romantic-fantasy-style problem-solving, then the PCs will probably just turtle up and start murderhoboing instead. So what sort of things might one expect such a romantic fantasy game or setting to contain?

1: Injustice may be severe and commonplace, but it is neither inevitable nor invincible

As I've been emphasising throughout, romantic fantasy narratives don't have to be all sweetness and light; in fact, they're very often full of cruelty and darkness. But if you want PCs who are willing to go the extra mile to resolve situations without just killing everyone and taking their stuff, you need to make clear that the campaign world is the kind of place where things might be bad, but they can get better. If the tone is one of bleak, cynical amorality, where every petty tyrant you overthrow is immediately replaced by another one who's twice as nasty, then the players will very rapidly stop bothering to strive for a better world.

Let me repeat: this doesn't mean the setting has to be nice, but it does mean that it has to be improvable. Specific injustices can be ended. Cycles of violence can be broken. So let your PCs have the victories they work for, demonstrating to them that, with enough determination, they really can build a better world around themselves, even if it's only within the confines of their own community or home.

2: Very few people are irredeemably awful

Some are. Some people are just plain horrible. But mostly people do evil either because they're badly damaged individuals lashing out at the world that has hurt them (in which case the PCs will potentially be able to heal them), or because they've been socially conditioned to believe it's necessary (in which case the PCs will potentially be able to persuade them of the error of their ways). NPC villains may be hated, but they should often also be pitied; and PCs who really, seriously want to redeem someone, and who are willing to devote sufficient energy and attention to the task, should usually have a decent chance of success.

'Oh, my tormented soul! If only someone would come along and redeem me already!'

3: Motivations are personal

Characters in traditional fantasy RPGs often have very abstract motivations, like 'wealth', 'power', 'knowledge', or 'justice', or else by commitments which relate to abstract entities, like 'serve the Faith' or 'protect the Kingdom' or 'take over the world'. In romantic fantasy narratives, motivations tend to be much more personal: 'impress my elder sister', 'marry that guy I've got a crush on', 'get back at that woman who insulted and humiliated me all that time ago', and so on. By giving NPCs motivations like this (and by giving PCs ample opportunities to discover them), you'll make it much easier for PCs to steer, influence, and generally manipulate them via social interactions. Someone who just 'wants power' can't really be influenced except with straightforward bribes ('help me and I will give you this power') or threats ('help me or I will take your power away'), which reduces social interactions with them to a simple matter of logistics: if you don't have sufficient resources to credibly bribe or threaten them them, then you're out of luck. But someone who wants their big sister's approval is a proper character-based storyline waiting to happen: a storyline in which anyone can potentially play an important role.

4: Encounters usually won't go straight to violence, and diplomatic solutions are possible

In most romantic fantasy narratives, violence isn't exciting or fun; it's horrible. As a result, very few people are likely to do the whole 'attack on sight and fight to the death' routine so common in modern D&D games, because they know that wounds hurt and fights are terrifying and death is forever. Stumble across a bunch of dudes in a dungeon and they might well leap to their feet and point weapons at you - but then they'll hesitate, hoping that the whole situation can be resolved without them actually having to risk their lives, and that hesitation opens up a space for people to talk to one another; bribe, threaten, bluff, negotiate, whatever. This doesn't mean that the PCs can simply deal with situations by walking from one group of monsters to the next and saying 'Hey, let's be friends!', because - as mentioned - the world is a cruel place, and its inhabitants have been forced to adapt to its cruelty, which includes learning not to let their guard down; they'll have been hurt before, and will have every reason to expect that this latest bunch of strangers just want to trick or exploit them, too. But PCs who are prepared to make an actual diplomatic effort - to listen to what each group wants, to understand why they're doing whatever it is they do, and to try to find a non-violent solution to the situation in which they all find themselves - should have a decent chance of success, and may even be able to convert potential enemies into friends or allies, instead.

5: Everyone is important

It's easy for fantasy RPGs to default to a paradigm in which only the movers and shakers really count. The PCs are important because they're good at killing people; the king is important because he has an army; the evil wizard is important because he can cast cloudkill; but the swarms of 0-level characters who circle around them are just unimportant extras. In a romantic fantasy game, though, this doesn't have to - and indeed shouldn't - be the case; there should be plenty of important characters, playing pivotal roles in whatever is currently going on, who are just ordinary people whose significance comes not from their ability to blow stuff up but from their emotional connections to those around them. The fact that the queen relies on her handmaiden for advice on her love life makes that handmaiden at least as important as the champion the queen relies upon to kill her enemies. Of course not every passing groom or maidservant can be a major character; but ensuring that a good number of the significant characters in any given situation are relatively ordinary should help to emphasise that this is a world in which emotional and social bonds are at least as important as sheer firepower.

Also important: pet dogs!

I think that applying these five principles to any RPG should go a long way towards making them amenable to the style of play that I've been discussing, here - always assuming, of course, that you've talked to your players and checked that they're onboard with the whole idea first. (If they're not onboard with it, they'll sink it faster than you can say: 'Gosh, shooting the princess in the back and then stealing her tiara wasn't very romantic, was it?') The exact same set-up - a keep on an unsettled borderland region, for example, adjacent to a cave system inhabited by feuding humanoid tribes - will play out very, very differently if all the groups involved are presented as relatively sympathetic, willing to listen to reason, and bound together by personal connections and motivations, rather than simply as murderous savages who attack anyone trespassing on their turf. But these principles could be applied to almost any game, in almost any system, which brings me onto my last point: how does any of this fit in with OSR D&D?

These days, there are plenty of newfangled games around which build systems for social interactions right into the rules. Apocalypse World and its derivatives, especially Monsterhearts, place inter-character relationships at the heart of the rules, and indeed make them much more mechanically 'solid' than the kind of things that most traditional RPG rulesets generally try to model, while Fate would be an example of a more traditional game which tries to give social interactions the same mechanical 'weight' as physical ones (and, indeed, models them in pretty much exactly the same way). Social mechanics like these are very, very divisive among RPG players; some people love them, while others feel that such matters should simply be roleplayed out rather than reduced to a matter of dice-rolling, and/or deeply resent the idea that the dice can tell them what their character now thinks or feels, even if they think that she would actually be thinking or feeling something completely different. If you want a game which will mechanically model a conversation in the same way that an older game would model a sword-fight, then OSR D&D is obviously a terrible choice. If you prefer more traditional games, though, in which talking to people is modelled by, um, talking to people, then I think it has a lot to recommend it: it's quick, it's simple, most people are already familiar with it, the fragility of its characters serves to heavily dis-incentivise combat, and - as I've written about before - it actually has a surprisingly robust social interaction system in the form of the reactions, morale, and henchmen rules.

The Knights of the Round Table, failing yet another morale check.

If you're playing in an explicitly romantic fantasy idiom, the only rules changes I'd suggest making are these:

  1. Except in extreme situations, no reaction roll should lead to immediate and automatic violence. A roll of 2 might indicate such extreme hostility that violence will very likely ensue unless the PCs either leave rapidly or take immediate steps to calm the situation down, but 'You walk into the room and the guy inside it shoots you in the face' should be something that basically never happens unless one character has powerful pre-existing reasons for wanting another dead.
  2. Be generous in permitting bonuses to reaction checks based on PC actions. PCs who make good-faith efforts to interact diplomatically with people should be rewarded for it!
  3. Morale rolls should probably be called for more often than they are in the standard rules. Unless they're already under attack, most intelligent beings should probably require a morale roll to enter combat against any kind of credible opposition: even if they'd really like their enemies to be dead now, it takes guts (and/or reckless stupidity) to translate that desire into actually running up and attacking and maybe getting hacked to death. Similarly, once combat starts, a morale check is probably called for every time the situation takes a dramatic change for the worse. The more morale checks are used, the less likely it is that any given bunch of people will insist on grimly fighting to the last man.
  4. As Yora's suggested, you might want to award XP for something other than stealing people's gold. (Exactly how such an XP system would function is beyond the scope of this post, but I'm sure you can think of lots of possibilities!)
These house rules, in addition to the general morale and reaction rules, should ensure that there is very often a chance for situations to be resolved socially rather than violently. Whether the PCs take advantage of that chance is up to them, but at least it'll be there.

So. That's the what, the why, and the how dealt with. In my next post - which should be the last one in this series - I'll try to explain why I'd describe ATWC as a romantic fantasy setting, and to give some concrete examples of what a traditional D&D adventure might look like if translated into a romantic fantasy mode...


  1. I rarely comment on blogs, even ones I enjoy as much as yours, but I really enjoyed this post and found it to be an articulate description of games as I like to play them.

    I also found it to cut to the center of my frustration with the Pathfinder Adventure Paths. I've dabbled with them before, despite hating 3e, and your recent post led me to pick up the first couple of the Rise of the Runelords adventures. The first one is so frustrating because almost the only way things can be solved is with violence.

    The NPC antagonists have fully fleshed -ut backgrounds and are placed into a complex situation, but virtually all of them attack on sight. There are a few who will attempt to negotiate when grievously wounded, but in the case of the goblin druid the module specifically points out that he actually won't keep any promises he makes to the PCs. The module is actively training the players to treat every situation as a sweep and clear and the entire fantasy world as one big dungeon.

    Which is fine if that's your thing, but here it seems an astonishing waste of creativity; why would you go and make a half dozen complex villains only to conclude their entries with "fights to the death?"

    1. I strongly agree about the PF APs, and I think that all of them could be strongly improved by dialling down the hostility of almost all the antagonists by at least a couple of notches. Fortunately, I think that in most cases that's actually pretty easy to do. As you note, they've done the work for you: they've written all these characters and situations, so all you need to do is ignore is the text which insists they all attack on sight and fight to the death. 'Burnt Offerings', in particular, seems to me to be crying out for a rewrite in which the PCs make peace with the goblins instead of exterminating them, and then help poor Nualia - who is a perfect example of a villain who's just lashing out at the world because she's been so badly hurt in the past - to cope with her various traumas in a less destructive fashion...

    2. I think the big problem with the Pathfinder model is that the Adventure Paths are too long. Now they are six adventures, but back in the Dungeon magazine they were even twelve. The problem with that is that only the last adventure can be open ended. At thestart of each adventure the author must know what the players have been doing so far. This means the first five adventures need to be pretty straight railroads (a term I don't use lightly), and the best way to ensure that is that any antagonists the players encounter will attack them and fight to the death.
      And sadly, Paizo has a virtual monopoly on commercially produced and destributed adventures (with maybe Lamentations of the Flame Princess coming as a distant second, which also has it's own issues) and so this is still regularly reinforced as the standard way to run an RPG.

    3. I agree that they're much too long, and usually horribly padded - thus my condensation of 'Kingmaker' from 600 pages to 3. Weirdly enough, though, I think that they sometimes pretend to be a lot more railroaded than they actually are. The AP format, and the awfulness of the PF system (which has no way of coping with PCs who don't dutifully march from CR 1 encounters to CR 15 encounters, never once deviating from the path) means that they pretend that everything has to be done in an absolutely fixed order, and some of them - Jade Regent, for example - really do disintegrate the moment the PCs step off the rails. But if you just took the contents of the average AP, scattered it around the hexes of a small sandbox, and then let your PCs loose in the middle of it all, I think a fair few of them would actually still work pretty well. Or no worse than they otherwise would, at any rate...

      ('Rise of the Runelords', for example, is *totally* a sandbox pretending to be a railroad. It's one of the things I rather like about it!)

  2. Yeah, reading the Adventure Paths, one is struck with an almost constant dissonance between the story the module means to tell (or more charitably, the style of play it wants to foster) and the vehicle it uses to make that happen. I get the impression that many APs could work either as a deconstructed sandbox with factions, or a railroad-type adventure based largely around characters and set pieces (not my preferred style, but certainly a valid one).

    Instead you get this weird Frankenstein system where every problem that comes up is solved by fighting through a complex of CR-appropriate hostiles. Granted, the game is derived from DUNGEONS and Dragons, so maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree, but it just feels so overly constructed.

    To bring it back to your post, I feel like the APs really WANT to be romantic fantasy (many of them, including Burnt Offerings, include romance-ready NPCs and encourage PCs to develop ties with the community) but are shackled to Pathfinder's format. And I do feel bad for Nualia, for the record. Too bad she fights to the death.

    1. I think they're prisoners of their system, honestly. Every AP has to carry the party from level 1 to level 15, which means it has to dole out X amount of XP; the vast majority of that XP has to come from killing monsters, so it has to feature at least Y combat scenes; and the simplest way to do that is to ensure that every single piece of story content is gated behind a mandatory filler dungeon full of meaningless (but unavoidable) trash fights. If they were content to just be 'an adventure in which some interesting things happen', rather than 'a pre-written campaign that frog-marches you all the way from level 1 to level 15 with no deviations allowed', they could probably make much better use of their material.

      (Compare the level of PC freedom in B10 Night's Dark Terror to that of the average adventure path, for example...)

  3. >>I discussed what I mean by 'romantic fantasy' (although Yora has now started calling it 'Hope and Heroism' instead)

    I've seen it called "Paladins & Princesses" on as far back as 2012. It might be subtly different, but the thread defining the term even throws around the words "romantic fantasy".

    1. Related, certainly. But the thread seems to be using 'Paladins and Princesses' to refer both to a specific *aesthetic* ('clean' fantasy, with happy peasants and friendly innkeepers and a world where nothing all that bad ever really seems to happen) as well a specific value system ('striving to overcome challenges of the spirit'). My point in these posts has been that it is possible, and indeed common, to have the latter without the former!

  4. Very interesting. I've kept your earlier romance-related posts, and will do so with these. With this one, it seems to resonate with some things I've read or thought recently. This will be a bit of a tangent from OSR D&D. This past weekend, I was running Twilight:2000 at Origins game fair-- a game that is rather OSR, in that there is even less mechanical support for talking it out (not even a Charisma stat in 1st edition).

    Some time ago, someone blogged on T2k, and one of its pillars also needed to be that "everyone matters", or at least that PC actions can turn around the world's slide into chaos, and that struck me while reading this here.

    Also, my favorite of the original modules printed for that game were very sandbox-y: "Here's a map, here's the factions and their leaders and what they want, and here's a McGuffin that the PCs cannot use, but any of the factions can; go."

    I'm going to take some time and think about this batch of posts, and Yora's link, and see what comes to me for next year's convention games. While most of the players are there for the shoot-out, it's certainly a world in which PCs and NPCs don't always want to blast away, life is quite fragile when everyone is heavily armed, and maybe more can be accomplished by dealing.

  5. I'm not sure I'm up to a game of D&D involving romance, but a more non-violent alternative with more talking and negotiating? All for it.

  6. Definitely have to agree with you on the use of the morale check. NPC cannon fodder should likely be making a whole lot of them if treated poorly by the PCs or help win the day by hearty boisterous support that doesn't' even have to include a single swing of an axe. I wrote up a mass battle system a ways back that was really heavy on morale that required the PC to spend time motivating their minions and fellow warriors to stand ground or advance a foe instead of just complicated chessboard combat and making morale essential even central to combat resolution changes a lot about how fights evolve and a campaign develops.