Articles & News >> Storytelling in D&D: Interesting Story or Player Abuse?

Storytelling in D&D: Interesting Story or Player Abuse?

An intriguing discussion popped up last week in the D&D Adventurers League world. The administrators of the large and popular Organized Play campaign released a document called State of Mulmaster. The first part of this very interesting article highlighted the city of Mulmaster, where the second season of the D&D Expeditions adventures—in the Elemental Evil storyline—is taking place. Mulmaster is a highly volatile setting for a campaign, and is thus a very interesting one.

The controversy with the article surrounds its second part, which details what happens to characters who use unauthorized arcane magic within the confines of Mulmaster. In this case, “unauthorized” means anyone not joining a sanctioned organization called “the Cloaks” cannot use arcane magic without serious consequences.

When a player can lose a character—including the character getting “publicly burned alive” if the player is not careful and particularly unlucky with some die rolls—there is naturally going to be some complaints. Having been an administrator in countless Organized Play campaigns over the years, I am no stranger to the sometimes staggering sense of entitlement that some display when they feel their needs and desires are not being meant.

This latest friction in an OP campaign between what the campaign offers and what certain players want has brought up the question again, and I think it is particularly relevant in my ongoing investigation of D&D as a game that promotes and facilitates storytelling. Is this campaign-driven hindrance to one aspect of the game (in this case, arcane casting) an unfair impediment to a certain subsection of players? Or is it an interesting twist in an ongoing story that provides an opportunity to create new and diverse stories in an otherwise “vanilla” setting?

No one can deny that there is a certain type of player who treats D&D as a mere game, where the object is to win. Anything that threatens to keep the player from reaching that win condition (even if the win condition exists only in his own mind) leads to rumbling at best, and epic tantrums at worst. At the other end of the spectrum is the player who plays the game to help create a story, and the only way to win the game is to make the story interesting and memorable. Even if the obstacles presented in the game are totally overwhelming, spelling doom for the character, a good interaction between the character and the world excuses that, because the result is a good story.

This “arcane casting in Mulmaster” conundrum seems to be fertile ground to evaluate that dichotomy. The setting being created in Mulmaster, I contend, is one rife with drama—the stuff of great stories. An oppressive government understands the threat that magic presents the status quo, so it seeks to control that threat, specifically by co-opting it. If drama equals danger intersecting with desire, then this background for a story is perfect. However, as a mechanical piece of a larger games, the restrictions on arcane casting can certainly seem to place a greater burden on certain classes.

For me, seeing the danger that arcane casters might find themselves in while adventuring in Mulmaster has ensured that I am going to be playing one in the Mulmaster adventures. I like the mechanics of D&D, and I like the storytelling as well, and I cannot wait to see kinds of stories that DMs and players can create together in such an interesting milieu.

Shawn Merwin

Shawn's professional design and editing work in the roleplaying game industry has spanned 20 years and over 4 million words of content. His Dungeons & Dragons work has ranged from 3rd to 5th edition, showing up in sourcebooks, adventures, articles, and Organized Play administration. He has been a driving force in several Organized Play programs, and has written material for Wizards of the Coast (Dungeon Delve, Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, Halls of Undermountain), Pelgrane Press (Dracula Dossier), Modiphius Entertainment (Star Trek Adventures), Baldman Games (as Content Manager), Kobold Press (Creature Codex, Book of Lairs), and countless others. Find his adventures here:


  • Madfox11May 4, 2015

    For me the biggest thing about such a ruling has nothing to do with entitlement even though in this case it could completely disable the arcane caster. I dislike them in Organized Play due to how they have a tendency to really disrubt the game through arguments, and hence more often than not are completely ignored. For example, I have *never ever* seen anybody protest or even mention the use of arcane magic in Dark Sun and there is actually a lot more devastating than in the FR where it is mostly about control by the authorities. Mind you, I am not surprised it never came up in play. You want the session to be about the adventure, not how one PC evades the guards and get executed or not at the end of the slot (or worse: at the start when that player paid $8,- to join).

    Regardless, in the end people work around the issues, but that always comes at the expense of the rule in the first place and more often than not it turns into nothing but a backdrop, always leaving me wondering why it had been added in the first place 😉

    • AlphastreamMay 5, 2015

      Dark Sun should have these restrictions. However, during Ashes of Athas we specifically ran a Veiled Alliance campaign and specifically focused on different threats (an elemental cult, primordials, etc.) that took us in a slightly different direction. It made sense for us not to focus overly on spellcasting in a city-state. Very few of the encounters were anywhere that really required addressing the topic, just because that was the story we were telling. Had it been different, then we certainly would have emphasized that aspect and dealt with it.

      The other consideration is how players can exploit rules to stand out. We had one person at a convention defiling at every table (as a member of the Veiled Alliance!). We considered various options, but they all seemed to reward that player through notoriety. I think we chose well, as the issue never came up again.

      I don’t know that I would have chosen the path the Mulmaster rules take, but I don’t think they will cause much trouble in the campaign. It is generally good for admins, DMs, and players to experiment from time to time, so this seems fine.

  • DaringDirk1May 4, 2015

    Spot on, Shawn! The role-playing possibilities of Mulmaster ensured that I’ll play an arcane caster this season.

  • RabbitballMay 4, 2015

    As long as the DM is up front about the possibilities beforehand, I don’t see a problem with this.

    • CharlesMay 4, 2015

      Rabbitball; I think that is part of why people are complaining, the State of Mulmaster Document came out a few weeks into playing in Mulmaster. I just remind players if this is not a Role Playing Challenge that they want to have, then use the free character redesign that AL has.

  • ImaginaryfriendMay 4, 2015

    I think Mulmaster, rules and all, provides an awesome setting for story creation. I see so many options for interesting developments that the actual AL adventures may turn out to be a hindrance :). With a party that is up for it I can easily see 4 hours turn into 6 or 8.

    However, I also think that the maturity level required to enjoy it, is high. I applaud the risk, but I think madfox is likely correct in that quite a few tables will choose to ignore the entire thing because to them its messy/risky. I also fear there will be some DMs that will use the rules as a club to beat players with. Something we never want.
    Either way it will likely ask something extra from a DM. Either to be a participant in crafting the story, or a guard and guide to keep things from getting out of hand or in the way of fun.

    I am sure some parties will have awesome memorable stories in Mulmaster. To me, that is well worth the risk of some people ignoring the options or being disgruntled. No matter how loud the vocal minority may be 🙂

  • XynthorosMay 5, 2015

    The rules are provided as to how to avoid such harsh punishments, granted it places an extra burden on arcane casters, but the only way you are really going to get burned at the stake is if you are being intentionally defiant of the law of the land. There was another case similar in one of last seasons adventures where if you killed someone or pulled a weapon on them or used magic to defend yourself, you earned the ire of the guards, only being saved from severe punishment by the good that you did during the rest of the adventure. The world you are playing in is not an anarchic society whose laws conform to accommodate murder and thievery as long as they are adventurers, although it is often played as such. Now you are merely presented with another set of laws that you can choose to follow or choose to break. If you choose the latter, you face the consequences.

  • John du BoisMay 5, 2015

    Having not read the document in question, there’s a big difference between the kind of storytelling-based restriction that makes gaming fun and the type that makes it unfun, even for a storytelling-focused gamer. Examples from Living Greyhawk to follow:

    1. In Furyondy, there was a law specifically detailing who was and was not a “person”. In particular, half-orcs (and later centaurs and kobolds) were “not people”. This usually led to penalties in social interactions, but also frequently led to guards picking on non-persons during a fight, differences in who NPCs chose to deal lethal damage to, and even access to certain optional encounters. Usually the worst thing that happened in you were caught being naughty while a non-person is that you lost a couple more TUs than the person who was also caught being naughty. Most of the players had fun with this – I didn’t hear any complaints during the two years I was on the Triad.

    2. In Ket, there was a law that you couldn’t deal lethal damage. The fighters got pretty mad about this, because -4 to your attack rolls is nothing to sneeze at. It made most kinds of arcane casters simply unplayable, because for much of the campaign, the only way to do nonlethal damage as a caster was to spend a feat slot on it, which most locals happily took, but led to visitors having problems. Worse, even if you looked both ways and made sure guards weren’t around, they always seemed to find a way to show up – I remember one adventure where you were in an area so overwhelmed with bandits that the legal authority in Ket never went there. The players cheered. If your restriction is so tight that entire tables of players cheer when it’s removed, you’ve probably done something unfun…

    • ImaginaryfriendMay 5, 2015

      Aah memories.

      Yeah I would agree that Ket was a little much.. But even then it also produced some great out of the box thinking. However if you read the document (and you should 🙂 )you will find that when compared to some of the more..ehm..interesting LG complications this is a molehill. And I remember Onwall fondly even if the Szek and his cronies were an ungrateful lot of racists 🙂

      • ChadMay 6, 2015

        Racists? In Ket? I find that accusation hard to believe!

        Unless, of course, you happen to be an elf; then you’re clearly not really a person.

  • Theo JuddMay 5, 2015

    I have some perspective as an administrator from a previous campaign who saw some thing similar. During Living Greyhawk (2000-2008), the Bandit Kingdoms region (Texas/Oklahoma) existed within the Empire of Iuz. According to canon, in this part of the world, the ONLY people allowed to use any magic at all (including magic items!) were priests and mages who followed Iuz. As player characters were not allowed to worship evil deities in LG, it was therefore against the law for ANY player to cast spells or use magic. (There was one exception which applied to a very tiny segment of players who belonged to a particular sect of the Church of Pholtus, but it was rare players wanted to join such an organization.)

    So we didn’t even have an organization like the Cloaks to join. Enforcement was heavy-handed, and all players were reminded at the beginning of EVERY adventure “Things are different in the Bandit Kingdoms…” If you got caught, your character was given 30 lashes (the scars of which were certed) and sent to the Silver Mines for at-minimum 6 weeks of heavy labor (or 6 of your character’s yearly allotment of 52 Time Units which limited the number of adventures you could play in a year). At higher levels a character who was caught was executed and turned into an undead servant of Iuz. So, terrible, awful, onerously restrictive campaign that no one wanted to play in right? Wrong.

    While there were certainly a small number of folks who were turned off by the very idea, the Bandit Kingdoms was immensely successful and popular. We were soon holding at least half a dozen LG-only style conventions a year and many more where LG was the predominant portion of attendance. We had frequent Gamedays to play the latest regional adventures and very enthusiastic players.

    Turns out our players loved playing outlaw Robin Hood (some more “Hood” than Robin if you get my drift) types who had to carefully watch their step almost anywhere they went. The oppressive setting made it perhaps the most unique region in all of LG. Our players learned to be exceptionally crafty and find creative solutions to problems that in other regions could easily be circumvented by magic. And they really loved the feeling of victory when they managed to occasionally free one of the many towns or “kingdoms” in the region from the oppressive rule of Iuz during one of our many interactive events.

    The setting was especially rough on Paladins, as many of the easiest solutions involved allying with the lesser of two evils (such as the equally-oppressed Church of Nerull which often fought alongside the PCs). A great many Paladins found themselves branded with scars, but they wore them as a badge of honor (if they survived). In any event it didn’t seem to dissuade players from creating a great many Paladins, a few of which reached retirement level (18 and later 16).

    So yes, you can have an oppressive setting and make it a great deal of fun. Personally, I find Mulmaster quite tame after eight years in the Bandit Kingdoms under the rule of Old Wicked. As our BK players who used to return from conventions in other regions often said, it seems like playing “Unicorns & Lollipops” in comparison. I think Mulmaster has great potential, and there are only about 14 scenarios set there, so if it isn’t your cup of tea, play Princes of the Apocalypse in the meantime and join Expeditions again in season 3. But I heartily encourage you to give Mulmaster a try. I know firsthand that a seemingly oppressive setting is rife with opportunities for a good story.

    • ButtonsMay 5, 2015

      I was one of the aforementioned BK players. Those were some really good times.

      If you’re going to put restrictions on players its important to keep a few things in mind:
      1 – Players and GMs need to be prepared to deal with a certain amount of griping. Put on your big boy or girl pants and deal with it.
      2 – The GMs running games in such settings need to make it clear when players new to the setting are about to do something blatantly stupid that will have serious consequences for them.
      3 – Having an organization or organizations with reasons of their own to aid people who fight the oppressive system is a great way to incentivise more active participation in the storytelling and encourage the PCs to take a few more risks than they otherwise might. This kind of aid doesn’t have to be immense or immediate, but having somebody at your back to help spring you from jail after you did something foolishly heroic can give a player some sense of freedom to have their characters act heroically, even when the odds are against them.
      4 – Don’t be a dick. This goes for players and GMs.
      Players – “its what my character would do!” is not something your table wants to hear when you do something that is going to get all of their characters irrevocably killed. There were a few players and PCs I simply didn’t ever want to play with in the BK because they were liable to do some utterly stupid stuff for no or very little good reason.
      GMs – Having an oppressive, powerful organization on hand to smack the players when they’re being naughty can tempt one into doing some really dickish stuff. If a particular PC has earned the ire of the evil organization in question from previous actions (I’m looking at you, Mama Potts), then by all means let that PC and any other PCs who spring to that one’s defense have it. If a player new to the region commits a minor infraction against the oppressive order, don’t start stringing up the gallows just yet.
      5 – Mod writers need to understand that dealing with such obstacles will take play time one way or another. I don’t have as much time to play as I used to, so I have become much more conscious of how long a session takes and a lot less patient with dithering and bullcrap on the part of players and GMs. Dealing with the evil oppressive organization can turn into a huge time sink that very few people enjoy. If the mod involves dealing with the Church of Iuz, plan your module in such a way that going through that particular interaction is either a) meaningful and fleshed out, or b) quick and easily resolved.

    • AlphastreamMay 5, 2015

      I was going to mention the Bandit Kingdoms as well. It was a fantastic region, and one I enjoyed visiting with all my characters (including goodie-two-shoes and spellcasters). Some of my characters have a “Whip Scars” cert to prove it.

      When I read the rules for Mulmaster, I thought to myself, “I think someone read up on the Bandit Kingdoms.” And, I’m all for that. It isn’t as if the chances of punishment are that high, and it isn’t a place the campaign will likely stay in for more than a year.

      • Madfox11May 8, 2015

        It should be noted that in the Bandit Kingdoms the players were all on the same side. No PC could legally cast a spell, or even join the law enforcement side (I feel dirty calling Iuz law-enforcing, but still…). It is a tad different here in that the enforcers are not evil demon summoning bastards and as a player you can actually get a permit. There is hence the possiblity of PC vs. PC here, especially since the PC members get punished if they don’t apprehend non member casters casting spells…

        Furthermore, whip scar certs and 6 TU costs are not death 😉 Punishment that is quickly dealt with and that does not permanently remove a PC from the game is a lot easier to deal with 😉

  • Matthew MarandaMay 6, 2015

    The difference between harsh and flavorful “laws” in Living Greyhawk regions over something like Adventurers League OP is that LG’s regional of rules and laws were upheld by the presence of leaders at events like conventions where all games were premiered and there was a strong impetus to play them at the convention. This helped condition players and DMs to grow into those rules and the culture of the lands. After a year of playing with the rules and having documents and groups helping to inform players of their decisions these became local bits of flavor and regional pride.

    Mulmaster will be explored for a year then AL will be on to something new. There isn’t a regional pride there is no community forming around the defense and preservation of Mulmaster.

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