Some of you know that I run a weekly game of Dungeons & Dragons, and have for a few groups over the past several years. Well, this last week I ran an experimental session with my group, and I wanted to let you know what happened, for science.
First, some background. My current campaign is set in the setting world of Eberron. Eberron is known for many things, such as Warforged, Artificers, being (incorrectly) labeled as steampunk, and more. However, one of the aspects of the game that most interest me is the parallels to the 1920s. You see, the canonically suggested start for your campaign set in Eberron, is two years after the end of The Last War. The Last War, much like The Great War (what World War I used to be called), was a massive war across the continent of Khorvaire, regarding who should be the next ruling kingdom of the continent. It was the most devastating war in modern history, and it is fresh in everyone’s mind.
However, the war ended on uneasy terms, with no clear winner. Because of this, it is widely accepted by the populace that the war might resume shortly, or a new war will shortly begin, however you look at it. This was the common conception post-World War I as well. While no one wanted it to happen, many experts at the time fully believed there was going to be another Great War, and they were right. That didn’t stop the massive growth in between, the period we know as the “Roaring ’20s.”
One aspect of the Roaring ’20s you can find in Eberron, is something called the Tain Gala. Essentially, think back to the parties of The Great Gatsby, where everyone is dressed wonderfully, and food and champagne are plentiful, on the mansion grounds of an incredible rich family. This is the setting of the Tain Gala. This is where my last session was set.
Now, it is common in D&D to have a session at a Gala, Ball, Banquet, etc. where the players must sneak in and steal something from someone, or assassinate someone, or protect someone from being assassinated, or find an assassin (a lot of assassinations here). Essentially, it’s known that the players of D&D are adventurers, and thus, wherever they go, an adventure must happen. I was ready to challenge that.
You see, one of my players has the background of Noble, meaning that she is from nobility (about 5th from the throne, so far enough to want to adventure, close enough to be important). Because of this, she was invited to this Tain Gala by an ambassador of her people, and her party was (of course) allowed to come as well. The ambassador invited her in the hopes to build some loyalty between him and the party, with the idea that they will be more willing to act on his behalf if need be. The ambassador wanted mercenaries in his pocket. So, there was no goal, this was purely a gift to the party, a night of opulence, food, music, alcohol, all for free. I went the whole session without any (obvious) spies, no fights breaking out, no schemes to thwart. All I had planned, were a long list of potential NonPlayer Characters (NPCs) to meet, with a random NPC generator (set to Profession: Lesser Nobility) so that the party could meet as many people as they wanted, many of them having potential (sometimes randomized) plot hooks for the party to learn about.
This could have gone terribly. Adventurers, as much as common wisdom says to the contrary, are reactive. Player Characters (PCs) don’t (often) run off to find an adventure. They sit down at your table, and wait for you to say something interesting, or place a problem in front of them that only they can solve. Players don’t sit down and say “I want to look for an assassination attempt to stop,” because it’s hard to find something that you don’t know where it is, where to look, or who might be involved. They wait for you to say that there is an assassination attempt, then they (might) want to stop it.
Not only this, but D&D, at it’s core, is a game about getting into fights. As the game has grown, it has become more about story, and conflict in general, but half of your character sheet is how well you can fight, and 1/3 of the core rule books is about how good monsters are at fighting your party. And again, I had no fights planned.
Because of this, the party might have shown up, and after nothing happened in the first 15 minutes, gotten bored and wanted to leave. Perhaps they could have found someone and picked a fight with them, so that they could roll some dice and hit things. There could have been an awkward halfway point where one player was having fun with the heavy roleplay, and another was bored. I was nervous, and ready to leave the Gala if the party wanted to, but I also had four hours worth of content for them to explore, in the best case scenario.
The first 30 minutes of the game involved them getting the lay of the land, exploring the different rooms, and meeting with their contact, the ambassador, who invited them. However, once that was finished, I asked them what they wanted to do. They surprised me, that started going through different rooms, listening to stories being told, and interacting with random NPCs. The Noble character went into the ballroom and began dancing, and rolled Performance to see how she did. Another started doing shots with an NPC, rolling Constitution Saving Throws every few drinks, to see how they held up. One NPC was overheard telling stories that the party knew were obvious lies, meant to make themselves sound better, and the party managed to interrupt, and embarrass the liar, bringing attention to themselves as actual adventurers. There was one point where one player (and his character respectively) was getting a little tired, but decided to go and sit on the back patio, overlooking the city, for the last 30 minutes. I was worried that he would just be on his phone, but he turned out to be deep in thought *in character*, and once they met up again, mentioned a fundamental change that he wanted to implement within the group, based on other interactions that happened throughout the night. The party never had a proper name, but upon meeting other adventurers who called themselves things like the “Sovereign Sentinels,” decided that they should have a name, solidifying their relationship, and essentially committing to this party dynamic, something they hadn’t agreed to up to that point.
The whole session was about three and a half hours, and they spent the whole time at the party, and everyone had a great time. I managed to sprinkle in a few plot hooks that I’m planning on tugging on later, so that the party has an “Oh yeah, I remember that” moment, which I always love setting up. Overall, my experiment of having no goal planned, and letting the PCs take the reigns entirely, worked fantastically. I know that for some groups that run an extremely open world sandbox game, this might not seem like a revelation, but for me and my group, this was a risk, and I’d say there was a substantial reward.