Have you ever tried to avoid an encounter in D&D, but it didn’t quite go how you wanted it to? The roleplay started to feel awkward, and you ended up fighting anyway, making the whole interaction seem pointless?
We had one of those this weekend.
Beware! Spoilers for chapter 3 of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist ahead!
This past Saturday, the party entered Gralhund Villa, a luxurious mansion belonging to a pair of ambitious nobles, Yalah and Orund Gralhund. The session was going smoothly until the party reached the Great Hall, where a trio of Zhentarim thugs stood over the fresh corpses of several Gralhund guards.
Two of the characters have chosen to align themselves with the Zhentarim in this campaign. Seeing the Black Network garb on the thugs, the pair understandably attempted to avoid an encounter by reasoning with their fellow faction members. Unfortunately, these two characters work for Istrid Horn, but Istrid didn’t send the Zhentarim thugs in the Great Hall.
For simplicity, here’s our D&D party.
- Sear. Fire genasi divination wizard. New member of the Zhentarim.
- R’yzzlan. Drow kensei monk.
- Nika. Human gloomstalker ranger.
- Henzio. Aasimar celestial warlock. Long-time member of Zhentarim.
Urstul Floxin, Loose Cannon
If you’re not familiar with the module, there’s a bit of a divide within the Zhentarim. After all, it’s a company of mercenaries, and members are entitled to their own alliances – especially if those alliances could lead to a buttload of gold.
One particular Zhent baddie, Urstul Floxin, is a bit of a loose cannon. He’s been hired by the Gralhunds to retrieve the stone of Golorr, but they didn’t trust him entirely to do his job. Long story short, his employers cost Urstul half his face, so he’s come to Gralhund Villa to beat the snot out of them and take the stone.
While Urstul’s more of hands-on, I’ll-do-it-my-way type, Istrid Horn likes to sit back and keep track of her ledgers. As Master of Trade and Coin, Istrid is keen to follow the chain of command. The characters currently owe Istrid a lot of money. She’s warned the characters in the past about Urstul and his way of doing things. As long as they make payments and don’t draw attention from the city watch, Istrid stays happy.
So, What Happened?
Sear and Henzio, the two Zhents, attempted to calm the guards down. They tried to blend in, mentioning their affiliation to the Black Network. Nika mentions that they are a clean-up crew, and all is going well until the lead thug asks, “Who do you all work for?”
It’s not a bad question. They don’t exactly blend in, and the drow monk refuses to remove his mask due to his monastic order. Suspicious, the guard asks again. “Who do you work for?” he presses.
D&D brain begins to set in. Nika essentially no u‘s the guards by replying, “Who do you work for?” The players – not the characters – begin to panic. Henzio tries to cover by stating the party works for Istrid, which makes the guards exchange a look and tighten their grip on their maces. A bead of sweat runs down the lead thug’s brow. A fight is imminent.
The players, however, don’t realize this. They don’t know the guards have been ordered to hold the room. They could ask, but it’s probably too late. In their minds, they’ve entered roleplay with the DM, and it’s time to improvise. Not surprisingly, improv is hard, and they begin to forget what they’re doing here.
Insults start rolling of the monk’s tongue – he’s been a bard for the last three years. The characters stop communicating with each other. One by one, they say the first thing that comes to mind. I, as the DM, have failed to keep the excitement flowing and to clearly demonstrate the results of the characters’ actions.
Roll initiative, I guess?
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
There are times when you can avoid fights in D&D, but some are easier than others. It can get tricky as a player to gauge this information. If you’re not careful, social interactions can become a habitual game of replying off the top of your head without considering where you are, your character’s identity, or what you want from the exchange. In my six years of DMing, I’ve found that when players lose sight of their goal during roleplay, they default to insulting the NPC, which rarely works. Eventually, these scenarios simply escalate, making all previous roleplay feel like wasted effort! It’s especially frustrating if some are trying to diffuse using one method while others are not.
I often take time after sessions to write down what I thought went well or fell flat. How can I learn from my mistakes to avoid them in the future? I think that a mark of a great DM is setting the pace; that includes identifying or anticipating lulls and getting everything back on track. However, DMs are already monitoring dozens of small things behind the screen. Until something becomes second nature, it’s going to be a constant effort that divides your attention.
So, what would I have changed about this social interaction? Well, for starters I would have encouraged the players to take a beat and assess the situation.
Taking a Beat
When you notice a troubling roleplay scenario like this, it’s a great time to take a pause as a group. No one has to think on their feet unless a timer has been placed on the table. And, in my opinion, the players should not be held to the same standard of knowledge as their characters. Otherwise, we get into a typical D&D brained back-and-forth where tension escalates, but we aren’t really doing anything helpful to calm it down.
When you take a beat as a party, here are some good questions to ask:
- What do we want here?
- What stands in our way?
- Who is the best person to represent us, i.e., who should take the lead?
- Do any of us have useful information?
Let’s take a look at the situation again from the party’s perspective.
What Do We Want?
We are trying to avoid a fight. We need to convince the Zhentarim thugs that we belong.
What Stands in Our Way?
Well, we look pretty weird. We’re arriving late, just after they’ve murdered a bunch of people. On top of that, we’re not really dressed like these Zhents, nor are we in disguise.
Who Should Take the Lead?
Probably one of the two Zhentarim characters. They’ll be the most convincing, and one of them is a warlock with a nice Charisma score.
Any Useful Info?
Henzio knows that there’s a split within the Zhentarim. Perhaps he could whisper this in character, or convey that he would have told Sear this info, since she’s new to the Black Network. It also doesn’t hurt for the DM to remind players of useful info they may have forgotten.
It’s no wonder so many players have trouble finding a steady group. It’s hard to specify exactly what makes a “good” Dungeon Master, but I think we all agree that a lot falls on the DM’s shoulders. Heck, the amount of time I’ve spent trying to actively improve my DMing – practicing accents, prepping for sessions, reading books, and watching videos – easily dwarfs the time I spent studying for classes during my undergrad or MBA (maybe even both). However, improving in-game communication is one skill that can only really be strengthened at the table during session.
Here are a few ways you improve communication at your table.
Ask your DM questions. This may remind them of something they forgot to mention or assist other players in understanding a situation. It also may prompt the DM to have you roll checks and keep the game moving forward.
- “Does it look like the thug believes us?” Make a Charisma (Deception) check.
- “How likely is a fight here?” Make a Wisdom (Insight) check.
- “Why are these guards here?” Make an Intelligence (Investigation) check.
Convey Your Intent
You don’t always have to come up with the mechanical solution to a problem. Try not to think of what’s on your character sheet, but what your character wants to do. Your DM can then help you make your plan a reality.
- “I want to avoid a fight by deceiving them, but I’m having trouble thinking of a useful lie.”
- “I’m wearing Zhent colors. I want to use that to my advantage.”
Be Clear to Each Other
Both in and out of character, make your desires known! If you don’t want to fight, don’t let the party barbarian push you into one. On the flip side, throw them a bone every once and a while and share the spotlight.
- (Out of character) “I don’t want to get into a fight here because I think we can avoid it. These guys are Zhents and so are we. Let us handle this one.”
- (In character) “R’yzzlan, Nika, I told you we’d find the rest of the squad in here! I’m Henzio and this is Sear. You look surprised. Didn’t you get our flying snake?”
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