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What D&D Can Learn From D&D: Honor Among Thieves

What can we, as players and DMs, learn from this gang?

I saw Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves the other day with an old friend of mine with whom I’ve been gaming since about 1991. I found the movie delightful – not taking itself seriously, but also not allowing itself to devolve into camp. Not groundbreaking, but very solid fun and, moreover, a really good example of what is going on inside the mind of every dedicated D&D player in a really good, long-running campaign. In fact, I would argue that what was happening on screen in that film was sort of an idealized sort of D&D campaign – the thing that, at base, almost all players want to experience.

Now, of course, movies and RPGs are different. Movies are condensed for time, can play looser with POV, and remain pretty linear most of the time. RPG campaigns are often expansive, go on for months if not years, are very detailed, and are locked inside the players POV most of the time. This means making one of these things exactly like the other is impossible in many ways and perhaps not even desired,  but I do think the movie does offer a lot of advice to people who are playing or running a game for ways to make your game more fun or, at least, provide new ways explain and explore what is happening at the table.

Fluid Combat is More Interesting

Let players have cool ideas! Let your DM heighten the stakes!

One of the primary problems with D&D as a game system is the rigid nature of its combat system. It is overladen with “optimal builds,” limited actions, narrow advancement paths, and battles that very frequently boil down to you rolling a d20 once ever fifteen minutes and, you know, missing.

The fights we see in the film –  which are cinematic and interesting – are hard, if not impossible to replicate in D&D, just because we tend to treat it like a weird little game of chess in the midst of our theater-of-the-mind adventure world. The phrase “I’m sorry, you are 40′ away, so you can’t attack this round” comes up a lot and, well, it’s a drag.

To mimic exciting and cinematic combat requires players and DMs to be more flexible and even break the standing rules of the game in some way to allow for this flexibility. Everybody in that last fight scene in the movie had a role to play, all of their actions were consequential, and even the times the PCs missed seemed important. How many times did Holga not have her axe? How many times did Simon flub a spell? And yet, rather than each of these events leading to just dreary failure, they allowed the fight scene to flourish and expand in new and unusual ways. This is fun! Way more fun than just sitting there and rolling to attack with your axe every once in a while and rolling damage.

I have lots of ways you can potentially house rule this stuff (and I’ll remind you all that other game systems often just do this kind of thing better), but the main thing to remember is that the players and the DM are not adversaries in this kind of thing – they should work together to make things more fun. If you miss with your bow and the GM wants to say that you accidentally hit the evil artifact which is now skittering across the floor, spitting fire, that is cool. If your barbarian wants to do a flying tackle at the death cultist but is technically too far away to make the distance, just give it to them. The more you allow players to break out of the I-go-U-go formalism of D&D combat, the more fun you will have.

Let Cool, Risky Ideas Work

When Simon initially finds the Portal Gun the scepter that makes the portal, he states the range is something like 500 yards. Then, at the end of the movie, he uses it (to great effect) at a range of what seems like way more than that.

When Doric is fleeing from Castle Neverwinter and using Beast Shape to do it, she beast shapes a LOT more often than a druid of her (apparent) level should be able to.

When Edgrin suggests using a cantrip to create an explosion in a confined, flooding space so they can all survive, it works and everybody is okay (even the paladin who has to swim in armor).

When Doric (again) changes into an owlbear, that isn’t technically an animal, so…

There are so, so many ways a rigid adherence to the rulebook can ruin cool ideas and crush creativity at the tabletop. If players are constantly worried about failing, they will never come up with or try the coolest stuff they can, and everybody will suffer for it. Even if their hare-brained plan goes badly, that is still awesome if it leads to even crazier plans, which is something this movie did very well.

Let players make crazy plans! As a player, suggest crazy plans! NEVER tell yourself “nah, that could never work,” because this is all a game and we are literally just making it up, so just go for it!

Everybody Gets to Shine

Yay, bards!

There is nothing worse than when a party (or, worse, a DM) shits on another player’s character for not being…whatever (useful, optimized, sensible, etc.). This is especially true of certain classes (BARDS!) that get the brunt of everybody’s derision (BARDS!). This is bad. You should fight this.

I really liked how Edgrin was portrayed in this film. I just loved that when he started singing, Holga smiled from ear to ear and loved the song. That’s big, man. As somebody who has a soft spot for bards and is sorta low-key irritated that they are mostly used as support-wizards these days, that was awesome. You don’t make a bard for the spells. You make a bard to be charismatic and clever and fun. You make a bard to sing and write poetry and have people be actually moved. Edgrin got to do that!

Honestly, if I ever run D&D again (not for a while, though this movie tempts me to run another campaign), I’m going to do bardic inspiration as flashback and not mid-battle serenading. I loved how Edgrin believed in everyone, encouraged them, and supported them when they were low. From now on, when a bard uses Bardic Inspiration, I’m going to ask the target player “what did [the bard] say to you back at camp this morning that drives you forward now?” Because that is some good character work stuff, and the bard can provide it in bushels.

DM Stand-in Characters Are Irritating

Try not to have NPCs fight other NPCs while the players watch. It’s fun for the DM, but not usually for them.

This is a bit of an in-joke in the movie, but the antagonism between Edgrin and Xenk reminded me of how DMs often slide in these hyper-competent, super-powerful characters to be their mouthpieces and basically show off with them and the whole time the table is often rolling their eyes and cracking jokes at their expense. Now, I’m not saying you can never do this as a DM, but I am saying that you should take pains to give your players as much agency as possible in solving their problems. The more you, the DM, step in and guide them by the hand, the more annoyed everyone will be (even if they can’t put their finger on it).

Let your players solve their own problems – that’s what they’re playing the game for!

Anyway, I could go on, but that’s enough for now. The main things here are be flexible and work together for fun. Don’t let a little thing like the rules interfere with your ability to come up with awesome stuff you’ll be talking about for years.

Happy gaming!


The Ten Commandments of Playing D&D (or any TTRPG)

No matter who you play, play like this.

A while back I posted a list of ten commandments I think all DMs/GMs should follow to run a great game. It occurs to me, though, that while I focus a lot on the GM side of the table when writing about gaming here on this blog, I haven’t really spent much time talking about how to be a good player. I think it’s important that I do so, since the players are responsible for most of what actually happens in a game. The GM, while essential, is the referee and guide, but they absolutely cannot play the game without players and they absolutely cannot run a successful game without the players doing most of the work. If you look at my commandments for GMs, almost all of them are oriented around getting players to trust you and giving players the opportunity to make the game great. It is time, then, that we talk about the other side of the equation.

As mentoned in the other post, I have been playing or running tabletop RPGs for (now) 27 years. I have played or run almost every system you could name, played with scores of different people over the ages, and played in almost every conceivable setting. The rules I set out here are how I try to play a game when I play, and I don’t always live up to them. However, I do think that the better everybody lives up to these statutes, the more fun everyone will have. So, here we go:

#1: Thou Shalt Show Up

Don’t be the person they’re staring at.

The first, the most basic thing you need to do is to be present. Now, when you’re a teenager or even in your twenties and you haven’t got shit else to do, this is a low, low bar – the game is set, you go. As life gets more complicated, though, this gets tougher and tougher. You have a more demanding job. You have kids. You’re married or in a committed relationship that takes up a lot of time. Things get crazy and the game can easily slide by the wayside.

Now, I am not saying the game should be more important than your kids, your spouse, or your job – no, not at all. But what I am saying is that a game can’t work if you’re not there. If you blow off a session because you’re too tired or whatever, then everybody’s fun suffers. Sure, sometimes this has to happen, but you owe it to everybody you play with to make sure this happens as little as possible. If it happens all the time? You should bow out of the campaign and just play in the next one, when you’ve got a little more time and things are under control.

A good GM should give you a very solid idea of when they’re planning to run the game, how often, and for how long. After that, you need to wrestle with your own schedule and carve out time if you want to play. If you can’t, don’t play. An empty chair at the table disrupts everything, and you should avoid doing so.

Oh, and show up on time, too. And prepared.

#2: Thou Shalt Buy In

Be enthusiastic about the game. Play because you really want to play, not because you feel obligated or can’t think of anything better to do. When the GM tells you the concept for the campaign,

These moments only happen with buy-in.

you should be hyped to be part of it. You should want to contribute to that vision and make it work. If the GM says “okay, the game is set in 1930s Germany and you’re monster hunters fighting Nazis,” your response should not be to make a character, play the game, and then the first time you slay a Nazi werewolf you say “monsters are lame – I want it to be more historical.”

Buy-in is essential because it makes the game vastly more fun for everyone if everybody is playing the same game. It’s not like one of you is constantly on their phone and only half paying attention. No – you guys are totally into it. You are planning what to do in your free time! You are deeply invested in your character and the world the GM has described. You contribute to that world by offering cool details and fleshing out subplots that tie into the main plot (a good GM will let you do this, BTW). TTRPGs only work if everybody works together. Buy-in is how that happens.

#3: Thou Shalt Play Thy Character

Characters in a roleplaying game should be played as a role. As I’ve said numerous times before, I dislike D&D (or really any TTRPG) as a purely tactical enterprise. I mean, sure, if that’s what you and your friends want to play, then have at it and disregard this. However, assuming you want to play an RPG and not a strategy or resource-management game, playing your character as a character is extremely important to the game as a whole. Your character sets up a series of expectations for the DM (your choices on your character sheet are saying “this is what I want my character to be and what I want to struggle with”). The DM builds the campaign around those choices and tries to give you opportunities to struggle and shine at the role you’ve chosen. If you blow off your own character concept because you’d rather not make things complicated, the whole narrative structure of what you’re doing can fall apart very quickly.

Consider this: if you are playing a game where you are merchant explorers in a Age of Sail setting and you decide that your straight-laced lawyer character wants to commit an act of piracy because it would be convenient, you have to understand that what you’ve done is totally violated your own character concept and that either the character must now change fundamentally (and change the entire trajectory of the campaign, possibly) OR nothing in the game makes sense anymore. That’s on you, not the GM – the GM was presenting you with a legal bind because they knew you’d made a lawyer and is giving you the opportunity to lawyer your way out of it. Now you’ve blown it out of the water, and what follows is chaos. This doesn’t mean you can’t come up with innovative solutions to problems, but those solutions ought to be made through the lens of your character, not the lens of “this will cost me the fewest HPs”

#4: Thou Shalt Get In Trouble

A close tie-in with #3 is this: get your character in trouble. Trouble, contrary to popular belief, is good. Trouble breeds conflict, conflict breeds adventure. The harder your work to prevent any kind of trouble occurring, the less fun things are likely to get. I tell you truly that the most fun anybody ever had is when things do not go to plan and everyone needs to scramble to overcome unexpected obstacles.

This is a tough one to adhere to because players are inherently risk-averse. You don’t want your character to die, so you aren’t going to walk down that dark corridor by yourself in the middle of the night because you know this is a horror game and there is almost certainly a monster down there. But consider this: if you don’t walk down that corridor, then no monster is discovered. This is a bad thing for a horror game! You want dangerous monsters! If you didn’t want that, then why are you playing a horror game (see Commandment #2)? So yeah – play your character! If your character is curious or arrogant, they’re going to walk down that corridor, monsters be damned. And then when the monster grabs your ankle, well, that’s when the fun begins!

#5: Thou Shalt Not Be An Attention Hog

This player needs to remember they aren’t the only one on the battlefield!

I know, I know – there you are, on time, having bought totally into the game concept, excited about your character, and more than willing to cause trouble and you just can’t wait to express your million ideas to the table…

But wait. There are four other people there. They also want to have fun. They also have ideas. They also are part of the group.

Remember that RPGs are a collaborative exercise. You are there to work together to make the best game possible, and sometimes the best way to do that is to shut up and listen to what the other people at the table have to say and weigh their ideas with the same consideration you’d give your own. I would even go so far as to say it is part of your responsibility to make sure everybody has a chance to contribute – if somebody at the table is shy, ask them their opinion, see if they want to contribute. The GM should be doing this, too, but the GM is just one person and needs your help to make this work. This isn’t a solo affair, it’s an ensemble piece.

#6: Thou Shalt Know Your Own Rules

We all know that the GM is the ultimate rules arbiter in any given game, but you can’t reasonably sit at a table and expect the GM to keep straight every stat on everybody’s sheets. It’s unreasonable of you to expect so. So, as a courtesy, learn how your character works and remember the basic mechanics that apply to them. When the GM asks you “what’s your Armor Class” you should know where to find that info on your character sheet and also know what they mean when they ask it. Failure to do this slows down the game and interferes with play and can knock everybody out of the scene while the GM needs to flip through a rulebook.

#7: Thou Shalt Respect the DM/GM

This commandment does not mean kissing the GM’s ass or thinking everything they do is pure gold. What it does mean is that you need to respect the work the GM has put into the game and allow them the opportunity to show off their work and be appreciated for it. This means not laughing at them when they read a piece of fluff text you happen to think is lame. This means not shouting over them when having a rules discussion. This means not holding a grudge against the GM for something that happened to your character or accusing them of cheating just because you don’t like how something went. They are the GM because they wanted their friends to have fun so much they spent nights and weekends preparing this cool adventure for you to go on. They like you. They are not your enemy (hear that GMs? You are not their enemy!) and if you treat them as such, the game can go sour very quickly.

#8: Thou Shalt Go Along With It

This is both related to #2 and #7, and what it basically means is that you will allow the game to move on rather than stall it just to satisfy one esoteric desire of your own. Okay, so maybe you want to open up a shop to sell dry goods to miners, but everybody knows that the point of this game is to go slay a dragon, so maybe you let your little dry goods idea ride for a bit in favor of everybody else’s primary concern about going along with the adventure.

This also applies to those tedious “we all meet in an inn” scenarios. Yes, we all know they’re cliche, but can you just play along so the party can meet and things can move forward? Nothing is worse than having the whole party paralyzed in the first 10% of the adventure because one player just won’t stop hitting on the barmaid and you have to roleplay out their whole stupid date and all of this is before they’ve even met any of the other players in-game yet.

Just move it along. Please.

#9: Thou Shalt Work As a Team

This is closely related to #3, #4, and #5. Unless specifically told otherwise, no campaign is about screwing over the other players or torpedoing their plans. Sure, you need to play your character, but you also need to not be an asshole. Would it be funny if your character, while drunk, stole the Paladin’s holy avenger sword and tossed it in a lake? Yes, yes it would. But it also needlessly delays the storyline, creates pointless tension both in game and out of it, and we all know you did that just to be a dick, not because you were just “playing your character.”

You need to understand and support the fact that your fun is equally important to everyone else’s. Not better, not worse – equal. If you do something you think is hilarious but everybody at the table is glaring at you, you done screwed up. That doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities for you to cause mischief for other players or that everyone won’t sometimes find that sort of thing funny, but it needs to be set up in a way that everyone sees it coming and is okay with it. If you’ve been playing a cowardly wizard for the whole campaign, nobody is going to be surprised if you spend the big fight against the Hydra hiding in a corner and not casting fireball at it – fine – but they will be rightfully pissed if you don’t do anything to help the party at all. Play your character, but still contribute in some way.

#10: Thou Shalt Talk With the GM and Fellow Players

Ultimately, fun is the goal here. If you aren’t having fun, you need to let the GM know. If a player is irritating you, you need to tell them (politely) to knock it off. Fun cannot be guaranteed, but it certainly can’t happen if you keep it all bottled up inside. Talk with your GM and players and work out your differences. Be open to having such discussions yourself when confronted by other players or the GM. As mentioned, this is a collaborative effort, so collaborate.

In conclusion, it is my fairly well-considered opinion that these rules will lead to long, healthy, and greatly enjoyable adventures for all. Go forth and happy gaming!