Breaking the Stonewall with Vincent’s Admonition

One of my most frustrating gaming sessions ever was when our group of D&D characters were attempting to get information from a venerable old dragon.  The dragon was placed under an extremely powerful spell that by all accounts was unbreakable.  Ultimately the spell prevented the dragon from talking about the major plot elements.  The typical response when asked a question was “I can’t talk about that.”  We jumped through hoops asking questions, and were stonewalled.  We had spent a session or two merely traveling to talk to the dragon only to get there and encounter a might stonewall blocking access to more information.  Granted, in not getting information, we were able to glean that there were most definitely extremely powerful agents at work. But we were unable to advance the plot.

Presently we are playing the Scales of War adventure path and have been doing so since January of 2009; As of now we are 19th level and it is likely we will wrap up sometime in late 2012. Sadly my interest in the events contained in the adventure path is only minimal; Hell I honestly can’t remember two of the player characters’ names in the game.  We continue to play, and enjoy each others company, but slogging out three combats per week at 1.5+ hours for each is leaving my interest rather flat.  And, as we gain levels, combats are likely going to take longer (On paper stunning effects may be interesting, but loosing 20% of your actions for a single 1.5 hour combat sucks mighty hard.)

So with the arrival of D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard I am left with his admonition:

Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes.

If nothing’s at stake, say yes to the players, whatever they’re doing. Just plain go along with them. If they ask for information, give it to them. If they have their characters go somewhere, they’re there. If they want it, it’s theirs.

Sooner or latter — sooner, because your town’s pregnant with crisis — they’ll have their characters do something that someone else won’t like. Bang! Somethings at stake. Launch conflict and roll the dice.

Roll dice or say yes. Roll dice or say yes. Roll dice or say yes.

For me the question becomes, is there anything at stake in these games?  For all intents and purposes, both plots are opaque.  In one case, we had creative freedom to explore the world, but weren’t able to punch through the stonewall.  In the other case, the focus is so much on the tactical elements, that the plot is non-existent.

What I am ultimately after is to have my weekly role-playing session focus on the story that can be told by all of the players.  Can this be done in a tactical game?  Yes.  Is it something that is easy in a tactical game? No.  After all, combats take a long time, thus leaving less time for the non-combat elements (i.e. the story).  I don’t want to see a movie that with three fight scenes that consume 90% of the screen time.  Likewise, I don’t want my role-playing games to be that either.  If I wanted to grind out XP advancement, I’d play a CRPG.

So where does that leave me?  Confused.  I want to spend time with my friends, but I’m struggling, because I’m eager for something different that what I’m getting.

7 thoughts on “Breaking the Stonewall with Vincent’s Admonition

  1. Technically, the group did recieve information from the dragon; it just wasn’t the information everyone wanted the most. There were also some very subtle, possibly too subtle, hints at other things in the works; as well as a possible ally. A few characters gained personal information that others didn’t pick up on. So there was still plot advancement; but it’s definitely frustrating in trying to figure things out from the type of grass growing outside the wall when what you want to see is clearly just beyond.

    It also might have been more interesting if I’d not been outright about the prevention spell and had some mechanic to steer around it which would then cause the players to figure out about the spell. Maybe the dragon would have taken you back to town for a while and then had servants there leave hints around.

    As far as Scales is concerned, the only thing at stake is death. And we certainly feel pretty invincible at the moment (with ressurection just waiting for someone to mess up). Our goals on a pre-determined adventure seems pretty inevitable–we’ll get there just by slogging through–as compared to the free-form adventures where enemies/armies/world can change based on what the group does.

    If there was someone to protect in a fight, or an object to extract from an overwhelming foe, or a time limit, or use no weapons/divine/magical; that might give tactical fights more tension (such as low level fights and the risk of death).

    • Joe, you are correct, we did receive information from the dragon, though it wasn’t what we were looking for. I’ve been spending some time thinking about how to handle investigative mysteries, and I believe personally, as a game master, I’m prone to not leaving enough clues lying around. The Gumshoe system attempts to address these issues, but ultimately the rule of thumb is to leave three times as many clues as you think they will need. I know I’m working at trying to become a better GameMaster.

      I’d argue that in Scales of War the only thing at stake for the characters is a total party kill OR irrelevant turns.

  2. Two of the game types that I would absolutely love to run are the murder mystery and the gothic horror. Unfortunately, I just don’t have a good plan of attack to make either happen. I had some horror literature from D&D 3.0E I believe it was, but it didn’t provide enough structure on how to plan a plot for a campaign for me. And for mystery, I have no idea how to have enough clues and be able to give them to players at intervals.

  3. I understand you very well. I had the same feelings. Then I bought Burning Wheel and Fate Core and my playing experience has improved a lot since then. I cannot recommend highly enough reading them.

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