Dungeon Mastery-Romps

Several months ago at a conference, Robert Defendi, maker of Echoes of Heaven, introduced me to the idea of “romps” in table top RPG modules and games. I’m not sure if this is a new idea, but it was new to me and a recent experience made me decide it was definitely worth sharing.

The concept of a romp is to give the players a scenario, usually an encounter, where they can win pretty easily and feel awesome doing it. This has a number of positive effects when used properly and is really important to the pacing of the game or module.

Let me give an example of how a romp recently worked its magic on me, but in a video game. I finally got around to playing the original Bioshock, a game that’s done a good job with the pacing and forcing good resource management. The romp I experienced in Bioshock came when you get the shotgun. After a couple hours of carefully preserving bullets, health, and energy, you grab this weapon and you already have a ton of ammo for it. It is automatically equipped and suddenly your being swarmed by enemies with melee weapons, the ideal target for a shotgun, all in close quarters. Despite being the most enemies you’ve met at once to that point, the fight is pretty easy and I walked away thinking, “I love the shotgun.”

Now, in fights later the shotgun isn’t nearly as useful fighting ranged enemies in open spaces, but in that moment, you feel more powerful than you’ve felt the whole game. Looking back, there was another moment like this when you get the Incinerate plasmid and get swarmed by enemies on top of an oil spill. For a moment you feel overwhelmed, but then you win, and it feels powerful.

So on to the meat of the issue: why use romps?

First, they help the player fall in love with their character and invest more of himself in it. After a romp where his character looks like a real hero, the player cares more about the character’s success and survival, so when more challenging fights come later, the tension is very real.

Second, they teach players how to use new skills. Just like Bioshock threw romps at me to show me how to use new weapons, a romp after a level gain or after finding a magical artifact or a new ally can give them a chance to appreciate the new stuff.

Third, they help manage the interest curve. By throwing in a romp between really rigorous challenges, you bring the tension back down and avoid having to perpetually escalate things in order to keep player interest.

Romps are so important that Robert Defendi said that if an intended romp turns into more of a challenge due to either DM or player error, it is vital to put another romp in soon, to make sure they get the romp. These benefits of a romp are not achieved if it goes south and becomes a challenge. In that case the only benefit was a scenario forgiving of mistakes.

So, try putting a romp in your next session and pay close attention. How does it affect players’ attitudes and interest? Let us know how it works out.

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