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AI Design, or Telling a Story Without Explaining

I started running the D&D campaign that I'd mentioned in a previous post, and I think it's been going well so far. There's some mismatch of expectations between me and the players; partially because most of them are new to TTRPGs and so getting past the tendency to see the NPCs as extensions of my will is causing some hiccups, partially because it's been about 15 years since I ran D&D before and so I didn't do the best job of explaining how I like to run things; but everyone's been saying that they're having fun playing, so that's good.

In our last session, the PCs had an encounter with some pixies after unintentionally upsetting a fey creature (they were directed to it in hopes of meeting a dryad, so I'll call it as such going forward) in the forest near the village that they started in. I'm sure it was an annoying encounter from their perspective because they kept getting put to sleep or polymorphed or just stuck unable to do much because the pixies were flying over a 40' x 40' pond and taking cover behind a great tree that was growing in the middle of it. However, I think the way that it went actually served its purpose quite nicely, and if they manage to find out more out what happened and why, I'm hoping that those answers end up making it more fun overall than just doing a straight-up fight would've been. The whole thing was also a nice example of storytelling without exposition, so I wanted to make a post about it.

I've always found pixies to be a lot more powerful than their low stats and XP value suggest, so I have a habit of including them as a possible encounter early on to help players move from the general modern video game perspective (that running into a monster means they should be able to kill it) to a perspective that the world is weird and dangerous and shouldn't be taken as their personal playground. It's not that I'm trying to beat down the players or teach them a lesson (I'm open to saying to my players before doing any playing that the NPCs don't know that they're not the protagonists, so they're going to try to win their confrontations, and I respect the players' intelligence enough to expect that doesn't need to be repeated explicitly), but rather that I'm trying to give their characters a reason to respect the threat of the greater world because players rarely include a sense of that in their character backstories.

That said, I ran the pixies in a specific way because I wanted them to tell a story through their actions, and I was really pleased that enough of it got across for the players to talk about it.

In case any of my players are reading this, there will be some spoilers beyond this point. I'm not going to reveal anything that I think might give you an edge in the game, so you can read on if you want to, but you might end up depriving yourself of some of the mystery and wonder of the world if you do so.

I used the basic 5th edition Monster Manual pixies as the basis of the pixies' stats, which meant that they access to had a lot of spells 1/day; confusion, dancing lights, detect evil and good, detect thoughts, dispel magic, entangle, fly, phantasmal force, polymorph, and sleep; along with at-will druidcrap (sic).

Then I thought, "Who are these pixies? Why are they here, and how does that inform the tactical choices that they would make?" Well, the answer to the first was pretty obviously that they were friends of the dryad. That also explains why they're in the area and why they'd join in the fight after the dryad let out a shriek. What that doesn't explain, however, is how they would approach a fight with a group of strange humanoids.

To deal with that, I thought that most of their encounters with humanoids would probably be to help out the dryad when some villagers were doing something to draw her ire. Your typical D&D villager is going to have pretty pitiful health, so a sleep spell (which either succeeds or fails purely from the amount of health that the creatures in the target area have) would be rather effective at disabling them. If a few happened to make it through that, they'd then be targeted by polymorph, confusion, and phantasmal force (in that order) to disable them and encourage them to go away without escalating the violence. It's not that the pixies are necessarily nice and peaceful (though they might be), but they're certainly aware of how likely they are to suffer grievous injury if not death from an errant blow (having the alien mindset of a fey being isn't enough to justify being suicidal to me). If all of that were to fail, their entangle spells would let them slow down pursuers enough to flee (or, alternatively, casting fly on themselves would boost their flying speeds enough to serve a similar purpose). Of course, if they felt like fleeing wasn't an option or that lethal force was justified, the confusion, entangle, phantasmal force, and polymorph spells could also serve to aid themselves and the dryad in direct combat after the initial barrage of sleep.

When the encounter itself happened, it played out wonderfully. Baz, a human rogue, got the first move and used it to sneak towards the dryad. The first pixie went then, using a sleep spell to take down two of the PCs (from a group of five), and after one (Belcrath, a dragonborn paladin) used his action to wake an ally, a second sleep spell took down another two. This robbed the PCs of any more actions that round, so the dryad took the opportunity to back off by moving through trees. The next round, Baz took an arrow shot at a pixie which missed, and then I did a coin flip to see if that pixie (who got the next action) would go after Baz or Belcrath. Fate chose Baz, who then failed his saving throw and got polymorphed into a frog. Belcrath, the last PC who wasn't either asleep or transmogrified, was coincidentally also the one who'd been outspoken against going on this quest in the first place, so I joked to the player about how his companions were a bunch of assholes and this was his chance to leave them behind. He'd done some bonding with Ulmia (a halfling cleric), though, so he pulled her away from the fray and tried to take cover while saying they'd basically barged into the fey's home and were fortunate enough that they were just being disabled harmlessly up to that point. Aside from some positioning (and one other pixie revealing itself for "reasons"), the PCs were able to rouse each other and pull back without much hassle (there was one last spell that they had to resist because the pixie who'd been shot at was in a little more of a combat high than its allies, but it was a WIS save spell against the two most likely to resist it [which they did], so no harm done).

Seeing the PCs figure out that the pixies were just trying to get them to run away rather than trying to kill them was great. It might seem obvious from an outside perspective, but in the moment itself, it's something that's very easy to overlook, especially if the players are mostly coming from video games where every fight is expected to be a battle to the death by both sides, and it was enough for me to award them with full XP for the encounter. There was even one PC (Ta'el, a teifling warlock) who took the extra step of sending a telepathic message saying that they'd meant no harm before retreating, for which I decided to reward him with a feat that lets him do a teleport instead of a regular move once per short rest, and it's certainly something that I'll have to keep in mind in case they ever run across the pixies or the dryad again.

The point of sharing all this is to show an example of trusting people to be able to reason through what's going on and figure things out for themselves. This being a D&D game, it wasn't required of them, because a DM should never expect the players to do a single specific thing. If the PCs had just run away because they weren't doing anything effective and left it at that, it would've been a fine result. If the PCs had kept up the fight, that would've been a fine result, too (though they might've disagreed with that sentiment if some of them died). However, the fact that they retreated at least in part because they realized something about the nature of the confrontation beyond just numbers and dice rolls was a really rewarding moment for me as a storyteller. I take a similar approach with my writing, though I have to give a little more exposition there since the reader doesn't have the chance to try finding out more on their own like a player in a D&D game does. People have a natural tendency to pick up on patterns and try to see logic in them, and I believe leaning on that leads to much more enjoyable storytelling (for both sides of the situation) than for me to just drop a brick of text in front of you to show how awesome my worldbuilding is.

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