D&D Ideas — Tragedy
Welcome once again to the weekly newsletter. This week’s topic is tragedy, which we discussed in our weekly live chat. We hangout every Monday evening at 8 p.m. EST on Nerdarchy Live to talk about D&D, RPGs, gaming, life and whatever nerdy stuff comes up. Speaking of tragedy in Mirror, Mirror adventurers encounter a forlorn spirit with a tragic tale they can help resolve. A Hearth Hope reflects on their former life and seeks to carry out one last task along with 54 other dynamic scenarios in Out of the Box. Find out more about it here. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy plus snag a FREE GIFT by signing up here.
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Delving Dave’s Dungeon
Tragedy gets a bit over used in a specific aspect of Dungeons & Dragons. This area is the character backstory. So many players come up with tragic backstories. Part of this is modeling other cool stories a player has enjoyed. The other reason players do it as a defense mechanism.
What are these players defending against? The simple answer is they don’t want their agency usurped by the Dungeon Master. They don’t want the DM to insert tragic story elements into the game based on their backstory. Instead the player tries to control the narrative by inserting all the bad stuff into it first. If the player blows up everything in their backstory there won’t be anything left for the DM to muck with. What it leaves is opportunities for the player to right wrongs against them instead of having new wrongs committed against them.
This is problematic for two reasons. I want to speak to both DMs and players on this.
First things first. Stop destroying the things players love from their backstories, for the love of god. Second, get permission from players. Next find out a couple of things.
- Ask players how much they want their character backstories to show up in the game
- Are there any things from a character backstory that are set in stone?
- What about elements that are up for grabs as the DM?
The point of a tabletop roleplaying game like fifth edition D&D for the most part is to tell a collaborative story together. A DM and the rest of the players in the group should be feeding off of each other. Instead of thinking of a character backstory as something to be exploited to motivate your players through tragedy, consider it more like a dungeon in the game.
Backstory as a dungeon
Rather than trying to motivate players into an adventure via attacking things in their character backstory a DM can explore it instead. A character backstory can provide opportunities to have more social interaction and exploration encounters in the game. This doesn’t mean threats can’t affect the characters’ backstories but thinking about how to do this in a meaningful way is a powerful tool.
Instead of the adventuring party arriving at the hometown of one of the characters to find a massacre it can be very impactful to discover circumstances they can affect. The party might arrive as the town is encircled by a horde of monsters. Now characters have a way to affect the outcome and not just show up to the aftermath of a tragedy. For a second example the characters might get into the town and have some time to interact with the townsfolk to become more invested in the defense of the town and its people.
Let’s look at ways players can help their DM. I love it when a player gives me permission to use their character backstory. Through gameplay a backstory can become a place full of exploration as opposed to the only thing to interact with is a villain who took everything from the character.
A character with a big family that has a farm could be a great place to have social interactions not just for the character whose family owned the farm but the whole adventuring party. During the visit you could have traditional D&D adventures like the livestock going missing. Now the incentive for the characters to help the farmer isn’t financial reward but helping the family of one of the party.
To me both as a player and DM this is going to create far more interesting opportunities in the game than, “I must avenge my parents.”
To be clear I’m not saying there can’t be negative outcomes based around a backstory. But they can be more meaningful when these moments happen during play and are directly impacted by the decisions players make during the game instead of just having tragedy narrated to them.
From Ted’s Head
In order for heroes to truly succeed mustn’t they actually experience tragedy? The tragedy can come from so many different areas. We already see tragedy as commonplace in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons character backstories. Tragedy can come from numerous sources from the loss of anyone the character cares about like a trusted NPC they have interacted with quite a bit to a family member or even the loss of a treasured possession.
Often when people think of tragedy they don’t think something positive can come of it but there are always lessons to be learned from these tragedies. Tragedy does not always mean failure. I know we frequently talk about 5E D&D but the Star Wars Roleplaying Game published by Fantasy Flight Games offer a unique set of dice to bring to this conversation. The new dice are d12s called a Proficiency Die and Challenge Die. I am not going to try and explain a very intricate and complex dice mechanic here but I will say is on the Proficiency Die there is a symbol called a Triumph while on the Challenge Die one side is called a Despair.
Regardless of whatever else is rolled in a dice pool, when you roll a Triumph you succeed and when you roll a Despair something bad happens. It does not happen often but it is possible to roll a Despair and a Triumph at the same time (because it happened to me). Your character succeeds but something bad happens anyway. This concept could be extrapolated to 5E D&D in a variety of ways.
As with anything a DM or player can plan for tragedy to happen. Several years ago Dave ran a one shot D&D adventure and when we killed the final enemy it blew up like a fireball and literally killed two of the characters outright with damage. Since it was a one shot this was not so bad but some players want a heroic death. I have even had players come to me wanting their character to go out in a blaze of glory. I have had players ask for TPK because they have never seen what it is like.
In regards to the Star Wars dice some love the super criticals and the severe Nat 1s. Others feel they are too harsh. But what if you rolled the Triumph and Despair dice when these Nat 1s or Nat 20s are rolled? You could roll the appropriate dice and see if you get the better result and if you do something fantastic or horrible can happen to spice up the games.
From the Nerditor’s desk
I led off the live chat by mentioning this was a tricky topic for me even though I proposed it but to be fair it was only to create a counterpoint for the previous week. Nevertheless when it comes to tragedy in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons there’s fertile ground to cover.
In a classical sense tragedy invokes catharsis and more broadly describes an event causing great suffering, destruction and distress. Examples include serious accidents, crimes or natural catastrophes so it’s a very, very short walk to 5E D&D from here. Those sorts of events take place all the time during games and often serve as inciting incidents for adventures.
The key to elevating dangerous circumstances to tragedy in a 5E D&D game is immersion. Events become tragic or triumphant through their meaning to the characters involved on a deeper level than merely being witness to such things. Character death illustrates this wonderfully.
A game with finely tuned but disconnected characters and players facing deadly dangers wherein an adventurer falls during an climactic battle is a bummer but hardly tragic. Meanwhile a campaign with characters and players sharing complex bonds and questing for deeply personal motivations during which a character stumbles and falls down a shaft to their death can absolutely be a tragic event for the still living party members.
Tragedy need not remain exclusive to a Dungeon Master either. Certainly the events transpiring in a campaign inject tragic elements into the emerging story. The Chroma Conclave arc during Critical Role campaign one comes to mind. But players can embrace tragedy individually and as a group too.
Connecting the characters in a campaign together through a shared tragedy creates a very powerful bond between them. (Any kind of shared bond achieves this too!) Consider discussing the possibility during session zero for a fresh campaign. I can’t tell you how many times groups create amazing aspects to a game through these important discussions. Along the same lines a party could be brought together by a group patron through tragic circumstances too.
I know it can probably sound kind of dreary to bring up tragedy before, during or after a 5E D&D game but it’s these sorts of powerful and relatable concepts players can use to foster immersion and really take advantage of a tabletop RPGs unique position as a way to explore stories, worlds and human nature.