Jesse Heinig (trekhead) wrote,
Jesse Heinig

Running D&D 5e: Choices, not Outcomes

A chat with wickedthought had me thinking about Personal Characteristics in D&D 5e—Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. As written, you use these to explain about your character and reveal their motivations. In the basic rules, when you play up a character's Personal Characteristic, you might be awarded Inspiration by the DM, because you've engaged in role-playing and maybe taken actions (possibly ones that hurt your chances of success on your mission!) in keeping with your character's beliefs.

John and I were talking about one of his discussions of a GM who was running an adventure where there was a magic door that would only open if you stated your True Name, and one of the players was playing a half-elf who had rejected her elvish heritage. When her turn came up she said "First Name" "Name of Adventuring Company," because to her, her elvish heritage wasn't who she was; the party was her family. THAT was who she was. The DM said "nope" and the party wound up stuck there because the DM was just trying to force her to speak/acknowledge her repudiated former name. (Shades of deadnaming...)

Anyway, this prompted me to note "The GM's role is not to force an outcome, but to force a choice," which is a rather flip off-the-cuff way of saying that the goal is not really to put the player into a corner and dictate what their character does, but to create a dilemma that causes the player to think about a choice between two things (maybe two good things, maybe two bad things) and finally decide on one or the other.

In D&D 5e, your Personal Characteristics describe things that are important to your character: Things that your character believes, or values, or hates. So if you want to
force a choice, you pit two of the characteristics against each other.

As a simple example, you might have a character who has a Bond like "I always protect the members of my team" and a Flaw like "I will stop at nothing to have my revenge against those who have wronged me." In this simple formulation, as a GM you know that now you can pit these interests against each other: You can put the character in a situation in which they have to choose between saving another party member, or chasing down and defeating an enemy who's caused them some personal grief. If this sounds familiar, it's because this kind of choice pops up in movies, books, and television all of the time. You expose who the protagonist is by forcing them to make choices about what's most important to them. (This is, after all, the dilemma in philosophy and drama, the two-horned monster of a decision, in which you must choose one or the other and both of them have consequences.)

The great part about doing this in D&D 5e is that once the player has made a choice, they've upheld one of their Personal Characteristics. This means that you can give them Inspiration. You reward the behavior that you want to see: In this case, making a difficult choice to show everyone what your character values. And you give the character something to agonize over later, as they try to decide whether they made the right choice and deal with the consequences.

For this to work, of course, you have to do a little work as a GM. You have to read all of your PC's Personal Characteristics, and then you have to arrange your story to create these choices. Of course if you're a GM you already signed up for this work, right?

Ciao for now!
Tags: game design

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