“How Were We Supposed To Know That?” – Introducing Fair Gameplay Twists in D&D

I’ve written previously about borrowing narrative techniques and implementing them into Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is a shared narrative experience, and narrative techniques can definitely enhance the game. However, Dungeons & Dragons is also a game – so why not borrow techniques from that other type of game, video games?

Combat in Dungeons & Dragons can feel a bit “samey” after a while. How does one make encounters not feel like a random “tank and spank”? Enter the “gimmick”, the gameplay twist: Obstacles that require a new way of thinking to succesfully navigate. We do it with puzzles, so why not introduce this into your combat?

Introducing: Gimmicks

This pretty cool paper I found on Google analyzes risk, reward and gameplay. To quote:

That said, there are indeed factors that players focus on when judging whether a mechanics is “good” or not. (…) As for game mechanics, challenge and reward come from three mechanics-related activities: learning the mechanics; using the mechanics as a tool for gameplay in ordinary situations; using the mechanics as a tool for gameplay in extra-ordinary situations, in presence of external factors that may alter the ordinary working of the mechanics.

Carlo Fabricatore, GAMEPLAY AND GAME MECHANICS DESIGN: A KEY TO QUALITY IN VIDEOGAMES

We want to fairly introduce new mechanics: We want the players to know the risks of what they’re doing, so that it feels proportional (challenge), and we want the positive outcome to feel earned (reward).

The party enters the Lost Crypt of Marguxal the Mad. The first room is large, square and cavernous. Dulgron the dwarf steps forward and triggers a pressure plate. 20 poisonous darts fly from the ceiling, straight down, striking the dwarf and dealing 20 poison damage.

Could Dulgron have prevented this grim fate with an Investigation check, looking for traps? Sure, but he did not have any particular incentive, besides meta knowledge that there might be traps. Let’s workshop the above example as we work through this article.

The Invisible Tutorial

A lot of analysis has been done on Half-Life 2, and for good reason: it’s still an amazing example of game design.

Mark Brown from Game Maker’s Toolkit on Half-Life 2’s way of introducing enemies.

Half-Life 2 is a genuine masterclass in game design. It is definitely a useful parallel to D&D because, as Mark Brown states in his video:

Throughout the whole game, Valve expertly directs the action and the player, and – without ever taking control of the camera – manages to make you see something, feel something, make you jump, or make you laugh.

Mark Brown, Game Maker’s Toolkit

I’d argue that this is exactly what a Dungeon Master should strive towards: Show, don’t tell, and find ways to let gameplay clarify the game.

As the video highlights, the barnacle is introduced in such a way:

  • We first see what the new element does in a safe environment.
  • We then interact with the new element in familiar, normal circumstances.
  • We then build upon that, interacting with the element in unusual circumstances.

Introducing An Element In A Safe Environment

Let’s take our Lost Crypt example again, and introduce the new element (poisonous darts) in a safe environment:

The party enters the Lost Crypt of Marguxal the Mad. A long hallway stretches before them. Halfway through, they find a skeleton, the decaying remnants of adventurer’s gear hanging from its bones. A DC 13 Medicine Check would reveal that the skull was pierced from the top by multiple projectiles, and that the body appears to have fallen backwards as it was struck. A DC 13 Investigation Check looking for possible traps reveals that the tile this adventurer stepped on is indeed slightly different from the rest, being from a slightly darker stone. This trap seems disabled.

Okay, good! No harm done so far! We are rewarding inquisitive players with information that they’ll be able to use later, and if they decide not to use it, hey, not our fault.

Interacting With The Element in Normal Circumstances

We gave the party fair warning, so now we can add some challenges to the mix:

The hallway opens into a wider area, with a large bronze door at the end of it. A DC 12 Perception Check reveals a pattern of trapped tiles on the floor, but a safe path is available. Near the door is a larger strip of trapped tiles, and the door itself is surrounded by trapped tiles.

What we have here is:

  • A simple puzzle, navigating the pattern on the floor.
  • A challenge to be solved: will they try to trigger the tiles by throwing items on top, or try to jump the larger band of trapped tiles?
  • A more abstract puzzle: Will they try to use the same solution as with the large strip of tiles, or be creative through Mage Hand or other applications?

Interacting With The Element In Unusual Circumstances

Now we get to the fun part! The players inevitably know about the tiles and how they work. We can play with it now!

The third chamber is large and square, 11 by 11 tiles. A DC 12 Perception Check makes it clearly visible that every other tile here is trapped, with the ‘safe’ tiles forming a sort of grid. As the party navigates through the room, the doors shut behind them, and 6 tribal warriors leap from the shadows above. Roll initiative.

This is the final test of this gimmick, where the challenge and reward reach their climax.

  • The warriors will try to shove the players onto trapped tiles. The players can, of course, try the same.
  • The room has no other obstacles, providing clear line of sight for ranged attackers, but hindering combatants that need to get close. Perhaps the tribal warriors attack from range, and perhaps the pattern on the floor is more complicated than just a grid, requiring the melee combatants to move in more complicated ways.

To Summarize

  • Introduce new gameplay twists and gimmicks in a relatively safe environment, and reward the players with knowledge about its functionality should they be so thorough as to investigate it.
  • Introduce challenges by playing around with different ways this gimmick can work, now that the players have a basic understanding of its internal logic and rules.
  • Combine the challenges and rewards by introducing unusual elements. Add more challenges such as enemies, but reward the player by letting them use this mechanic against these enemies, as well.

I hope this gave you some new ideas. Let me know how you introduce these new elements to your table!