Last week for my DnD group I ran a marathon of a session, lasting about 6 hours. It was great fun and at the end of it I was extremely happy with the quality of the roleplay from my players, and while I fludged up the combat a little bit (I’m not the best at running 5e combat, especially on Roll20.) it still went really well. It’s inspired me to write about something I’ve seen in the bunch of games I’ve played in and ran myself, the Hammer and Nail Problem.
If you don’t know what I mean, here is an explanation from Wikipedia:
“The concept known as the law of the instrument, Maslow’s hammer, Gavel or a golden hammer[a] is an over-reliance on a familiar tool; as Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”.”
To see where this crops up, let’s look at the character sheet for DnD 5th Edition.
Notice anything? Most of the sheet is dedicated to things that are used in combat, with a section dedicated to skills and a space on the top-right for your Personality/Ideals/Bonds/Flaws. It is nice those things are there to keep players referencing character traits to help roleplay, but in my experience it rarely comes up. Stats come into play in combat, as do saves, HP, AC, the space to put your attacks. In fact most spells in the game are tailored towards a combat use.
“So what? Isn’t that what Dungeons and Dragons is about, hitting monsters with swords and spells?” you might say, and to that I say…you’re right. DnD is absolutely about those things. It works best when the game is mostly about dungeon crawling and using the pointy-end on monsters. But unless all your players are strict wargamers then the game shouldn’t JUST be about those things, and if you aren’t careful the game can drift in that direction. When it looks like all you have is hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Compounding that is the fact that human beings are creatures that crave variety. Unless you are on the spectrum you probably don’t enjoy literally doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over again, it gets stale. Spice up your game and invite your players to think about what they can do besides clubbing things on the head each time. Here’s some tricks to doing so.
Let a player get away with a stupid plan that (probably) should not work
In my last session, a character wanted to use their animal handling skill to defuse some aggressive tigers. Now, combat had already started, but this person was driven by the fact that she didn’t want to harm cute kitties (I empathize.) So she rolled her animal handling skill, got a 23! In my version of the fiction this totally should not work, given that the tigers were raised and taught to be man-eaters. However in the spirit this post I met her in the middle. I allowed it to work but only for a certain amount of rounds, and the other tigers were still oncoming. On the other players turns they took cues from the first and decided to try their hand at it. Some of them failed, but now this combat has turned from using their swords to stab tigers, to surviving an onslaught of beasts in order to calm them down and avoid killing them if possible. It says something about the characters that they’d be willing to sustain major injury in order to solve the situation this way, it’d be much easier to Use Sword on Kitten. Alternatively if the players come up with an articulate a well thought out plan..let it work with minimal rolling. This concept is basically the tried and true GM-advice of saying “Yes, and..” but I prefer it phrased the other way if a player’s idea is a little too stupid. The “No…but.”. Then again if I feel like it will shake up the experience a little bit I might even let a hyper-stupid plan work.
Present situations that cannot be solved by using swords.
This one simply involves baking in some variety in your campaign and/or dungeon. The Five Room Dungeon method is a quick and easy way of doing this. Once you’ve done it a few times you will see that you can really do any combination of the item’s listed here and even expand on them. Avoid a Door Kickers scenario, where every room has bad guys sitting in it waiting for the party to open the door. That particular scenario can be fun, but not when it’s all you’re doing for 3+ hours.
One thing I particularly hate though is outright puzzles. Often times it plays out in the same way as it does in adventure games, “Guess exactly what the designer was thinking or you can’t progress”. So heed the advice in the Five Room Dungeon method, “puzzles” don’t mean to solve a riddle necessarily, or a block puzzle. It means any challenge that cannot be overcome with combat. Along the same lines as using encounters that can’t be overcome with combat necessarily the other thing is to have the goal of the party in a combat to not simply slay the opponent. Grab the MacGuffin and run out of the room before the overpowering threat kills you. Defend an NPC/PC as they try to complete a ritual against a horde of weaklings. Run through a gauntlet of bad guys to escape a crumbling tower. If you are playing with players who are slow to adapt to this kind of stuff then it’s best if you make liberal use of foreshadowing or telegraph what is going to happen. If they don’t…well I guess the rocks fall on their head.
Give the antagonists a sense of self-preservation.
Unless the antagonists the PC’s are struggling against are actually mindless (gelatinous cubes, golems, robots, most undead.) they probably will not fight to the absolute bitter end and will try to plead with the party, run away, pay them off, beg forgiveness or opt for being taken prisoner as opposed to an immediate death sentence. This might not work if the party has already killed multiple people who have tried this tactic on them. Then it’s reasonable to say that their bloody reputation has caused almost every enemy they come across to fight to the death because they know they won’t be spared. Hopefully it never gets to that point.
Not only does this make the conclusions of combat more exciting due to unpredictability, it also adds some dimensions to the bad guys. He might be the leader of the cultists who has gone around kidnapping people and sacrificing them..but he’s still rational. He would prefer imprisonment and the chance of escape rather than the surefire death should he fight til the bitter end.
The TL;DR version
- If the plan is stupid but might have some remote chance of success, let them try it.
- If the plan is sound and well articulated, let them try it with minimal rolling.
- Present scenarios and threats that can’t be solved with swords
- Puzzles suck.
- Help the party establish goals that might include not simply killing stuff. Short or long term.
- Give combat itself alternative “win” conditions other than dropping Baddies to 0 HP.
- Make Antagonists somewhat intelligent or at least self-preserving, unless fictionally it makes sense for them not to be.
Til next time..