D&D and the Fabula: Roleplaying as an Exercise in Narrative

Yesterday I had the privilege of filling in for a dungeon master (DM)  in a D&D Encounters module.  For the uninitiated, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a game where you play the role of one of the protagonists in a story.  The DM is the story teller, and controls all of the allies (NPCs), enemies, terrain, etc. that the players encounter.*  D&D Encounters is a form of organized play whereby all enrolled game shops play the same pre-written story (called a “module”) at the same time.  The games are limited to a one and a half to two hour window, and the module is broken into bite sized chunks accordingly.  Each chunk (an “encounter”) generally contains dialog with NPCs (roleplaying) and a combat scenario.  Note that this is all generalities, and I will accept no criticism for painting with a broad brush. 🙂

Roleplaying games are a fantastic exercise in narrative.  In a novel, a reader may reach an “opening” in the text (for more on open texts, see Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader).  These invite the reader to interpret wrongly.  The reader is then jarred back to the fabula (the story) by later textual elements.  In a roleplaying game, the misled player acts wrongly and makes mistakes–in essence, the open text creates a malleable fabula.  As with all forms of narratives, roleplaying games follow certain rules.  For example, in the Encounters setting, players can safely expect to get into a fight every game.  Dungeon masters typically indicate important things by describing them in superfluous detail, or looking at a sheet of paper and rolling dice–“if he’s telling me the staff is made of rich, dark ebony, with an emerald carefully set in the top, scintilating in the sunlight, then it’s probably important and/ or magical.”  Literature is rich with open textual possibilities.  Roleplaying is downright rife with it.

The players:

I won’t give their names (largely because I don’t recall them), but I will describe who took place in the ritualistic creation of open text with me:

  • Player 1: A man in his 30s who seemed to be a veteran of D&D.  He was comfortable with both combat mechanics and seemed to enjoy roleplaying with the NPCs and the other players.  He played a cleric.
  • Player 2: A teenager who seemed new-ish at the game.  He knew the combat mechanics quite well, but didn’t seem terribly interested in the roleplaying aspect of the game.  I liken these players to the guy who skips through all the dialog in a video game–yeah, yeah, story, when can I shoot stuff?  He played a rouge.
  • Player 3: A young man, maybe in his early 20s.  He seemed to know the game well, but he seemed even less interested in roleplaying and more in blowing stuff up.  Appropriately, he was a wizard.
  • Player 4: An interesting woman, maybe in her late 30s, who showed up late.  She seemed to tolerate combat at best, and seemed to really enjoy roleplaying the quirkiest characters her imagination could summon.  Sadly, she did not arrive until the middle of the fight.  She was a sorceress.

The scenario:

In the encounter I ran, the players had just saved a town from raiders.  The mayor of the town, no doubt tired of his town being plundered, hired the players at a princely sum to perform five specific tasks:

  1. Where is the raider camp?
  2. How many raiders are there?
  3. Where are they striking next?
  4. Who are their leaders?
  5. Why are they attacking?

An additional, less important task of returning stolen valuables was also given to the players.  On their way out of town, the players encountered an elderly monk who was a throw-away character–his sole purpose was to introduce a hero who had been trying to infiltrate the raiders and who had gone missing.  No doubt this hero will come up in later encounters.

The players traveled 15 or so miles and saw a camp fire in the distance.  At the fire, eight kobolds (small, barely sapient humanoids) and four unarmed human cultists from the raiding party were eating, separated by 50 yards or so.  After defeating the foes, the players were to discover the existence of a rearguard camp nearby.  End of encounter.

The game:

The mayor summoned the players to his war room.  There, the players saw the mayor dress down his top general for failing to stop the recurring raids.  They mayor turned to the players, and peered intently.

And, nothing.  Great!  I’m going to have to push these guys every step of the way . . .  Undaunted, I had the mayor make up a speech about his gratitude to the players.  Since no one offered further assistance, I just blurted out his reward and the tasks.  The players seemed eager, but I noticed that no one bothered writing any of his tasks down.  Mental note: over the course of the next month, will they, in fact, complete their charge?  What will the dialogue look like if they’ve only completed three of their tasks?

The players left and stocked up.  On their way out of the town, they ran into the wizened monk.  The module made a critical mistake: it described him in far too much detail.  Remember, in the trope of roleplaying, you don’t describe unimportant things.  Accordingly, the players fell into an opening in the text.  They cast spells of discernment on his garments, they grilled him for information, they even tried identifying his monastic order (another error in the module: the monk’s order was never given).  I enjoyed the opening that had mistakenly been created, and so I played my part dutifully: with each examination of the monk I furtively glanced in the book, rolled dice, made the players roll dice, and gave mundane information–his staff is broken, his choker is out of style, he’s not wearing any discernible religious tokens, etc.  When rolling their checks, players are rolling against a difficulty (DC).  In this case, of course, there was no difficulty, because there was nothing to learn.  But the die rolling makes for an interesting cognitive game: is it really just a broken staff, or did I not roll high enough?  The flaw with this system is that eventually someone rolls very well, and he has a high degree of certitude in his results.  This is what caused the players to realize that they were off-path and return to the task at hand.

Enter the camp fire.  The player group is three players so far, and there are 12 enemies–a formidable force.  After a nearly lethal encounter (and the lucky entry of player 4!), the players felled all of the humans, four of the kobolds, and put four of the kobolds into a magic sleep.  At this point, the players made a critical error: rather than perform coup de gras’ on the sleeping kobolds and resuscitate a cultist for interrogation, they killed three kobolds and interrogated the fourth, healthy one.

Experienced players should know that kobolds, as a rule, are stupid, greedy, and cowardly.  The module reiterated this point by stating that if interrogated, a kobold will say whatever it takes not to be killed.  And so a new opening in the text emerged.

The players were supposed to discover from a captured cultist that there was a rearguard, and some tactical information that would prove handy.  Instead, they “learned” that the raiders work for an evil king in a huge castle, filled with hundreds of human guards and countless kobolds (the misinformation was nearly stream of consciousness at this point).  But I had a dilemma on my hands: an open text is either open ended, or open for a time before returning to the fabula.  If I gave the players no accurate information, they would march in the wrong direction and the next encounter (which I am not running) would be confusing, to say the least.  As a concession, I had the kobold mutter, “stupid humans, rearguard kill you anyhow.”  This pulled them back out of the open text and back into the fabula.  They decided to keep the kobold on a leash until they find the rearguard, but the module did not indicate whether the kobolds even know where it is.  I suppose the next DM will have to decide how open his fabula will be.

Oh!  And the players took the loot from the town and plan to sell it.  Didn’t the mayor indicate that he wants this back? 


*Note that while such linear narrative function is common in roleplaying games, some systems provide the players more of an active role in the creation of the story (Fate, Dungeon World).

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