by Mike Shea on 1 June 2009
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is a rules-heavy game. Only a year old, we have dozens of books with thousands of pages of new powers, items, feats, and monsters. We have a combat system refined over four decades. We have rules for just about everything. Sometimes, however, the rules get in the way of the thing most important to a good role playing game - imagination. At the D&D Game Day last week, it took sitting next to a young kid to remind me how important imagination can be in our games.
Today we're going to look at four ways a good DM can bring this imagination back to the game.
Describe with sight, sound, smell, and taste
I've seen DM's describe rooms in such vivid detail that you can feel the grit on the walls and taste the air. I've seen others describe it only in terms of what blocks line of sight and which squares contain difficult terrain.
It always depends on what your group wants or expects, but a good DM might consider avoiding anything but narrative in their descriptions of a location.
The old artists trick of closing one's eyes and imagining yourself in the place can work wonders. Before your game, sit back with some good music, close your eyes, and imagine what the PCs see through their eyes. Go there. How does it feel? What does it look like? What do you smell? Write it down, even if it's just notes on a 3x5 card.
Reward Ingenuity and Spontaneity
Do the rules cover firing a color spray into a cluster of crystals? So what if they don't? Give the player who thought it up a bonus. Let the players throw a grappling hook around that Harpy and pull her in or pick up a potted plant and toss it at the main spellcasting bad guy.
As a DM in a rules-heavy game, we might avoid or dissuade players from seeking such creative solutions, but it is within these solutions that our games become unique. Sure, everyone might fight a harpy the same way, but your group was the one to grapple it, reel it in, and beat it down.
Give players bonuses on these creative moments. Is your rogue swinging in on a chandelier? Give him the DM's friend, a +2 bonus to hit.
Break the Rules
It's easy to get too stuck on the rules in all the books and forget how dynamic a good roleplaying world can be. Sometimes it's ok to break the rules if doing so helps push your players to think outside the rules and start interacting with the world around them.
This can be dangerous, though. Those rules build the structure of the game and breaking that structure can turn a lot of players off. When you do choose to break the rules, do it so it fits the world - don't do it just to move the story or it becomes too unpredictable or worse, too predictable.
Speed Up Combat
Combat can take a significant amount of time in a 4e game. The average battle lasts around an hour, according to the DMG, leaving little room for exploration and roleplaying in a four hour game. One way to increase the time for imaginative storytelling is to increase the speed of combat. A simple house rule can help accomplish this: Reduce monster hitpoints to 75% and increase their damage output by +1/2 level. For a little excitement, give monsters high-crit (+1d10 on crits). This can help speed up combat, make battles more exciting, give you more battles a session, and give you and your players more time to imagine the world around them.
The key to bringing our imagination back into the game is to become a kid again. Use our atrophied creativity to build the shared world in which we adventure. Remember that the rules are simply the structure, the physics, of the world. Instead, seek its beauty and its horror and instill it in the imaginations of your players.