Hacking D&D 5e for a more cinematic experience

Is the name of an impromptu talk I gave at this year’s GameCamp. If you’re at all interested in games and their creation,  you should make sure to come along to the next one.

As it seemed to go down quite well, I thought I’d write it up here in case anyone else finds it useful.

First things first; it’s really more about a dramatic experience rather than a cinematic one. It’s about some of the techniques and house rules I used to make the experience of playing D&D align more closely to the dramatic experience of watching a TV series.

The game played was a level 1-20 D&D campaign using the 5e ruleset. I’d never run a 1-20 campaign before in any version of D&D and wanted to give the rules a thorough working out. The Obsidian Portal record of the campaign can be found here, in case anyone is interested, but it isn’t in any way necessary to read that to get some use out of this post.

As well as a decent dramatic experience the other thing I wanted from the campaign was to play through some of the classic modules. I wanted my players and I to experience the Tomb of Horrors, the Village of Hommlet, and the Red Hand of Doom. These are part of the shared experience of D&D, and I wanted to give that experience to all of us round the table.

The Campaign Setting

We started in the Village of Hommlet, and I had prepped (by which I mean written two paragraphs about each) half a dozen storylines about what was going on in the world – a civil war, an invasion from the north by goblins, an undead army, the rise of a lich, the exploration of a new land, and a power struggle among the Great Powers (The One, Asmodeus, and the Kings and Queens of the Feywild).

I also had a couple of themes I wanted to explore – what is it like to live in a world where the dead can be resurrected, and how do the Great Powers interact with a world in which there is incontrovertible proof of their existence.

Because I’d set these themes and storylines up, I could then present stories to the characters, and see where their explorations led them. And because I had various set-pieces and dungeons ready to roll (the classic modules), then wherever the PCs wanted to go I knew that I could have some story and a dungeon waiting for them.

So it’s sort of branching-story with a bit of sandbox.

It turns out no-one cared about the Civil War or the Exploration stories, so we ended up playing in the other areas; but that’s OK. The whole point of having several areas of story was that the players could choose the ones they wanted.

Construction

The game was constructed like a TV series, broken into several seasons, and generally ending on a big story beat. After about 8 or so weeks of play we’d take a break and play something else as a palate-cleanser for a few weeks before returning to the main campaign.

The vocabulary of television also bled through into the way that we described the game at table. We would cut to a new scene, or montage a journey, or fade to black. If I was describing a city I might mention the aerial tracking shot, or the huge pull-back.

This soon reached a point where the players would use the vocabulary too, talking about blowing the CGI budget and occasionally casting famous actors in bit parts. In one memorably plot-heavy and character-centred episode of the story we decided that it must have been sweeps week due to the intense violence and tastefully-shot nudity.

If nothing was happening I’d say “Who wants a scene?” and one of the players would say where they wanted to be and with which character (willing PCs or NPCs). When it looked like a dramatic scene was revealing nothing new, I’d ask the players if the scene was done. Usually it was, but sometimes they’d ask for a few more moments to finish the scene.

Because we were using the tropes of TV, we even had a Christmas Special.

As I knew I wanted to hit the Tomb of Horrors – famously one of the most deadly dungeons created – I wanted the characters and players to be aware of its reputation in-game long before reaching it, so I made sure to drop many hints throughout the story via many NPCs about how deadly it was.

When it came to the Tomb itself I allowed them to take in any of their characters, so they needn’t necessarily take in their beloved main. About half did so anyway. Because both characters and players were aware in and out of game about the Tomb, they were extremely careful and only one character died – even that was at the very end.

Soundtrack

I had a laptop and some small speakers, so I played music during the session. Soundtrack albums, mostly . At the beginning of each session I would start the music by playing a particular track – The Accidental Sea, by Michael Picton, which acted as theme music and a cue for the players to settle down from the pre-game chat and know that the game was about to begin.

Towards the end of the game, it had become obvious that some tracks were played more often than others, so I gathered them together into a soundtrack album on Spotify which captures the theme of the game.

Two seasons used a slightly different soundtrack. Because I knew I wanted the Tomb of Horrors to feel different to the rest of the game, the soundtrack to that section consisted purely of the Person of Interest soundtracks, and the opening music was the Person of Interest theme tune.

The other soundtrack deviation was the Christmas Special, which used the soundtracks to Doctor Who Christmas Specials and Westworld, which fitted thematically. It was bookended with the opening theme to begin and the Carol of the Bells at the end, which I cued up when I knew we’d hit the last 10 minutes of play. That soundtrack’s on Spotify too.

Rules Hacking

Necromancy Restrictions

Because I wanted the game to explore issues of life, death, and resurrection, no spells with the Necromancy descriptor were available at the beginning of the game; later on they were allowed as Necromancy was discovered by the world.

Multiple Characters

Players were allowed to play as many characters through the campaign as they liked, with the proviso that generally they could only play one character in any particular session. All characters started at first level, but whenever a character died in action or was otherwise removed permanently from play, half of their accumulated experience could be applied to any other character either in-play or new. This rule meant that a new character would generally come into play about two levels beneath the level of the deceased. It also allowed players to remove characters from play at a dramatically appropriate moment, or where they felt that the character’s story had reached its natural end, without feeling penalised about losing all their hard-earned XP.

Hacking the Experience System

Because I wanted the game to be concentrated on storytelling rather than about killing monsters and taking their stuff, I hacked the experience system to encourage this using the experience threshold chart on page 82 of the DMG to provide a baseline. At the beginning of the session I’d work out the average party level, and that’d be my basis for story XP.

At the end of each session after giving out XP for any monsters defeated I’d first give a generic story XP. An Easy award for every character in the session if nothing of note had happened, and a Deadly award if the session had moved the overall story on hugely, with the others awarded on a scale between.

We’d then go around the table and I’d ask each player how well their characters had achieved their goals – if they’d killed their mortal enemy, that would be worth the highest amount of XP,  while just turning up gets you the lowest amount.

After that, I’d ask the table to vote on best scene – each player with a character in that scene would then receive a Hard XP award.

Collectively, these two hacks meant that player focus was usually on roleplaying great moments, both with each other and with NPCs. The individual award means that they’re encouraged to pursue their own storylines while the best scene rewards them for style.

The other XP hack was to encourage posting on the wiki, which acted as a shared repository of knowledge about the game. If you had edited the wiki at all between sessions – even something as simple as a spelling correction – you’d receive an Easy award. At the end of every session each player and I also had two Medium awards which we could grant to what we thought was the best post that a player had posted on the wiki that week. You couldn’t award both to the same person though.

This encouraged all sorts of creative writing and art on the wiki to the point where it was a joy to read each week as players would post art or stories giving depth to the world.

Occasionally a player would write something which was untrue about the world – for example they might write something creative about gnoll society. In this case, rather than removing it or asking for an edit I marked it with an Alt-U tag standing for Alternative Universe – the creativity could still stand, but anyone reading it would know that it wasn’t the truth about the world.

Wiki XP could be applied to any character the player had, so it wasn’t unusual to save it up in order to give a new character a big boost when they entered the game.

Afterword

Anyway, hopefully some of this might be useful to some other DMs.

Games I lovingly ripped these ideas from:

  • Dungeon and Apocalypse World for Fronts.
  • Hillfolk for calling a scene.
  • Dark Sun for alt characters.

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