The tyranny of prep

Why is D&D so focused on combat? This is a question that haunts a recent article by Evan Torner about D&D combat (itself an abridged excerpt of a book about the game). Torner says that D&D focuses on combat but does not provide a choice not to engage in combat, or any tools for de-escalating combat. What he doesn’t do is explore why D&D doesn’t provide those tools. I’m going to discuss why I think D&D is that way – which, to cut a long story short, is because of prep.

Before I dive into the topic, let me acknowledge that yes, many D&D DMs do permit you to avoid combat, and indeed there’s an entire play culture that lauds the idea of intelligently avoiding combat wherever possible. Torner himself quotes Gary Gygax advocating exactly this, while admitting that combat will nevertheless be common. Clever solutions that avoid fighting do of course happen: but this is usually because the DM decides to allow it, rather than because the game’s texts do anything much to support it.

So why wouldn’t a combat-focused roleplaying game, that has invested a huge amount of page count in providing detailed mechanics for fighting, and stats and interesting combat abilities for monsters, want to allow the players to avoid fighting? Or to put it another (equally loaded) way, why wouldn’t a DM who has spent hours lovingly preparing an exciting combat encounter, carefully balanced to provide maximum excitement, rich with tactical opportunities, want to permit the players to just skip that fight? When you put it that way, it seems obvious.

The designers have invested a lot in combat. The DM, who probably bought the book, has invested a lot of money in having the output of the designers’ work, a book focused on combat. The DM has invested a lot of time in preparing for combat. It would suck if all that investment turned out to be a waste. More than that, the entire session plan rests on this prep. Cut out one big combat and the DM might not actually be ready for whatever comes after this planned fight.

And so the designers don’t provide easy mechanical routes to avoid combat, and the DM probably doesn’t want to encourage it either. Maybe the DM will nevertheless let the players avoid that combat – but more likely they will make that difficult, if not impossible.

If the players try to sneak past the encounter, the DM can have the monsters roll to detect them until they do – perhaps fudging the roll to make sure it happens. If the players try to negotiate, the DM can refuse to play ball. If the players try to set up a trap, the DM can allow it, but limit its effectiveness. Or, if they really want, they could just say “while you are discussing what to do, the monster attacks”. Or better yet, make sure the monster has the advantage of surprise and attacks on sight, avoiding these complexities entirely.

Again, not all DMs do this, and those who do may not do it all the time, but there’s a clear incentive there to try and nudge things back to the combat you prepped.

All this is true of our D&D game, but it isn’t limited to D&D. Any combat-focused game is likely to present a similar pattern of behaviour. We also see a similar phenomenon in investigation games, where the GM has to put a lot of work into preparing clues that are carefully balanced to permit the mystery to be solved one step at a time. Anything which would allow the players to leapfrog that prep is anathema. So investigative games don’t provide, for example, mind-reading powers, because that might permit an instant solve by anyone who happens to be in the same room as the villain.

The more a game demands a lot of prep, and the more heavily a GM has prepped a particular situation, the more it is the case that a player’s clever plan potentially serves to make that prep redundant. A fair-minded GM might allow it to happen anyway, but it is galling to have all that work wasted. Anyone with a lot of experience playing games that involve this kind of prep has probably noticed their GM throwing in obstacles to your clever plan, or just arbitrarily blocking it outright. Just as likely, the GM may sneakily make it seem like they allow the plan to work, then shift the goalposts, making the same planned encounter come up anyway but at a different time and place.

So what, you might think. What is the problem here? As long as the game is awesome, who cares if we don’t have full choice? Sure. That is fine. If you enjoy it, then it’s fine. But if you like to be able to solve in-game problems through cleverness and lateral thinking, then it’s less good. You begin to feel like you’re on rails – and not in a good way.

So what is the answer? My suggestion is: cull the prep.

This is partly a message to GMs. You can avoid prep altogether by strengthening your improv muscles. It’s never a big problem if the players cleverly skip an encounter that you improvised five minutes ago. Or, you can prep lightly and flexibly, drawing up charged situations and letting the players decide how to tackle them. It’s never a big problem if the players decide not to fight a monster if it only took you a few minutes to sketch out a map and grab some pre-written stats from a monster manual – or better yet if you just wrote down the words “party of orcs butchering a freshly-killed otyugh” and nothing more.

This is partly a message to designers. Write your game to permit scenarios to be assembled with very little prep. This is something the OSR does through easily available, easily digestible pre-written resources, with simple statted monsters. Indie games often do it through removing complex statting altogether, and simply presenting tense situations without envisaging any particular way of solving them; or better yet by focusing on the kind of human quandaries that don’t really have “solutions” per se, just choices to make and consequences that might flow from those decisions.

Similarly, designers can write their rules systems to be flexible and permit multiple approaches to problems. By providing the GM with mechanical tools to handle a range of player choices and actions, this makes it easier for the GM to feel confident that they don’t need reams of prep.

I’m not saying that every game needs to be system light with zero prep. Games like that can be fun, but there’s a lot to be said for adding some interesting mechanical complexity, and situations that have been created ahead of time. The point isn’t not to ever prep, but to prep lightly, in such a way that you never feel so committed to a set of outcomes that you feel tempted to resist player choice.

When you prep lightly, you create space for the player group to come up with their own solutions to problems. You permit them to surprise you – and in turn, for your story to react organically to their actions and surprise them. In short, you’ll feel less like you’re having to plan a story for your group to enjoy, and more like you’re bringing together a smorgasbord of ideas to excite and inspire your group.