Borrowing from the digital: Save Points and Accessibility in D&D

For those that do not know, I am currently spending my time during this pandemic playing in seven weekly DnD/Pathfinder games, three of which I am DMing.. and because my research interests reside in games, community, and play, I cannot help but mix work and pleasure in these cases, especially when it comes to how we can make gaming spaces more accessible.

My Dungeons and Dragons campaigns tend to be on the roleplay-heavy side, although there is still a fair amount of combat. However, both of these situations require collaboration, problem-solving, and the stochastic contingency of rolling dice. D&D rarely offers the opportunity to “redo” a scenario or undo a dice roll. Although all arbitration ultimately falls to the dungeon master, it is a slight taboo to allow characters to change a course of action in the face of a poor roll of the dice, rather than having the player move on with the situation even if they came up with a cleverer idea in the moment that the dice rolled.

Problem-solving becomes even more complicated when a table of 5-6 players have to come to a conclusion on how to approach a singular scenario. Yes, each player’s character has their own skill set and piece to the puzzle, but in the end, it is one plan that they are following. This can lead to frustration when a player’s plan is ignored, or when an otherwise-good plan goes awry due to poor dice rolls or another player forgetting a crucial part of the plan, which makes 90 minutes of extensive planning fall to the wayside.

The solution? Groundhog’s Day.

Of course, this is not the only solution but I do have to note the beauty of watching my players announce “RESET!” every few minutes, several hours into the session, after they became comfortable with trying different solutions and immediately going back to the beginning of the puzzle when they realized their previous iteration of the plan wasn’t going as well as they hoped. What was especially important is that the Groundhog’s Day loop was not that the loop would end once the players “solved” the problem. It would end when the players came to the consensus that they were happy with the ways they explored the problem, and then they could play out the final loop based on the conclusions drawn from the previous attempts. Additionally, the players interacted with the environment more than they would have withoutthe option to redo attempts, since they had unlimited tries to search different curiosities and aspects of their surroundings.

As much as I reference Groundhog’s Day with this decision, I primarily drew influence from digital games, where a player can save at a specific point and replay a scenario to get the intended outcome. This scneario of borring from the digital adds the following to tabletop gameplay:

1. Allows players with anxiety to take risks in a low-stakes way, since if it does not go as well as one hopes, the party can reset and try something new.
2. Players who are quieter will have a turn in discussing their ideas, since there is no official limit to how many times they can try a scenario
3. Who doesn’t love the sandbox mode? Sometimes, players and DMs can get caught up in the lore of the world and the thrill of the adventure, but being able to play and ‘mess around’ with a situation allows for exploration into other aspects of D&D
4. It allows for interesting storytelling between players and NPCs. Because the NPCs were not involved in the loop, the players looked like they took down an enemy in less than 12 seconds with utmost expertise…when, in reality, it took about 100 loops and a full session’s worth of gameplay to come to the solution that the party was happy with.
5. It allows for a strategic style of gameplay versus tactical play a la De Certeau.

Tabletop has to be accessible not just in attitudes above table, but also in the way that the game is played mechanically. Although it is important to welcome different narratives to be told through story, the way that a game’s mechanics operates plays a great part in accessibility and inviting players to the table… and what I love most about D&D is that no rule is set – not even the official content – because, in the end, the DM is the arbitrator.

Casey James

One Comment

  1. Hey Kelly, your post strikes a cord with me. A few friends of mine took a TTRPG they had developed to magfest two years ago called Rewind. The premise of Rewind was, as you put it, “Groundhog Day”. You have seven turns to get the loop right with increasingly less time but increasingly more skill. The game results in some truly wacky one-off play sessions, and of course more iterative thinking.

    The looping concept seems to promote meta-cognition in a way more standard temporal structures don’t. I suppose that’s the point of “Groundhog-day”; learn the lesson. But Beyond thinking about how your character thinks about their decision, looping TTRPGs seem to (in my experience) force me to consider how I make choices in the space of play. Either way, I think this post is a good tool for Dms looking for a way to change the flow of the average session.

    Maybe I’m totally off base, maybe I’m not. Either way, seven sessions is insane, and you’ve convinced me you have time dilation powers.

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