Transitions in Table Top RPGs

Note: This post has content disclaimers.

Consider a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Your group is conversing with the evil Duke in the Duke’s throne room. It is a role-playing scene, between two groups, and things begin escalating towards a conflict. And someone, usually the thief, says “I’m shooting him in the face.”

The game would then often times abruptly switch into the combat subsystem – maybe from another subsystem, but more likely from free-form role-playing that had occurred. There may even be a need to place characters exactly, precisely, and correctly on the detailed map. A map that didn’t so much matter until the game rules required precision. And don’t get me started about starting a role-playing scene by drawing on a map the Duke’s throne room, and having the players declare where they are standing. Then you are just asking for the players to attack the Duke.

Now, how would you adjudicate the above in Dungeons and Dragons: Third Edition (3E 🔍)? Would you have everyone roll initiative? Would you give surprise to the aggressor? His team? Would you have them use their initiative modifier? Or perhaps either their Bluff or Sense Motive bonus for initiative? Would you give the aggressor a bonus? What about allowing them to use their Bluff skill opposed by their targets Sense Motive to see if they get the surprise.

Most of my campaigns have a notable number of scenes that start out with swords sheathed only to escalate into either a stand-off or an all out conflict. I would like to think that I’m trying to tease out that moment in a story where things either escalate or cool down. And shame on me for not codifying these transitions, though to not be so hard on myself, I’ve been a player in plenty of these, and I love playing thieves.

I’ve witnessed numerous moments where the character declaring the “I stab him in the face” then rolls a terrible initiative and ends up staring as bloodshed erupts around them.

In reading Eon Fontes-May and Sean Dunstan’s Dungeon World Guide, I had a “Yes that! I should blog about that!” moment. Consider the following text and its paired commentary:

Text: You dig around in the metal eyesocket [of the seemingly inert automaton] and the ruby comes loose, rolling into your hand. As soon as it does, though, the clockwork springs to life with startling speed, it’s hand is shooting for your neck like it’s going to grab you. What do you do?

Commentary: Here it is, this is the beginning of combat, here. But there’s no initiative, we just slide into it. I describe the beginning of the monster’s attack and wait for the response.

It is that simple moment where things are in motion, and the character must decide.

Any Game Master (GM 🔍), in any system, could follow the above script, but I would wager many GMs would not ask the question and instead look to the various subsystems to attempt to adjudicate this event: saving throw, an attack roll, or initiative.

After all, a GM in most other systems has a pool of dice, just like the players. And I know that when I have dice as a player or GM, I want to roll them.

And why is this different in Dungeon World than in most other games? Because of the structure of moves. To resolve something unknown, a character must trigger a move via the in-game fiction. Once the character triggers a move, the player rolls the dice then adjudicate the results. The adjudication is part mechanical and part narrative, and thus transitions back to the in-game fiction.

In other words, as a GM, I can easily push a character to a decision point, knowing that there will be a move that the character can use to respond – but I don’t necessarily know what move they will choose.

In that move, there is a chance that I, as a GM, will have permission to hit them hard. And more importantly, there is a chance that the character’s player to avoid my trap. But more importantly, the player character responds as they see fit.

Post Script

I still love the as I feel interesting narratives emerge – it is impossible to predict what will happen after a handful of scripted actions are all adjudicated into a singular narrative.

However, I don’t want to see scripted actions with every interaction. Which is why I feel as though Dungeon World does things very right. Let the characters declare actions, and have most of the GMs moves be “shit is about to happen, what do you do?”