Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

How do you do Patron style play in D&D?

You knew it was coming and you know that it’s true:

I’ll tell you why it’s a fair comparison. Somehow, some way… no one is playing D&D the way that either Gygax or Arneson did in the bad old days. They are playing some other type of game, really. They have no idea that they are taking on assumptions about how the game is played that prevent them from playing anything remotely like what the creators of D&D understood to be normal about its gameplay.

At any rate, when we talk bout Patron play and how great it is, most people have no idea what we are talking about. Further, we are generally talking about three or four different things under the same banner. So I am going to break this down in such a way that you begin your own journey into experiencing the D&D game as it was intended to be played.

  1. If you are playing 1:1 time, then monster lairs that the players encounter will generally have a week to prepare for the players’ return when they come back to try again in their (typically) weekly game session. Now… Gygax gives advice in the DMG on pages 104 and 105 on how to do this. You can use your imagination and decide what to do based on what you know about the monsters involved… or… you can hand over this monster group to a friend that can’t join your usual sessions and then see what he can come up with. This is the easiest way to begin playing patron style D&D right here. Your friend will imagine himself as the monsters and come up with all kinds of details and tactics that you would never think of– and his input will be way more interesting than anything anyone ever put into some kind of game book. You get a hyper-specific monster tribe for the low low price of allowing a friend who wants to play join the campaign even though they can’t be present for the actual sessions!
  2. If you look at most “old school” dungeon levels or even classic adventure modules like Isle of Dread, you often get situations where there are three or four different monster groups in the same area. A big part of your adventure can end up being a group of players getting involved with one of these factions, forming and alliance, and then using them to kill off the odd man out. This can be really hard to adjudicate fairly and consistently. Sure, people do it all the time. If you would like to create a simulation of a weird fantasy situation rather than merely handwaving all this… just get one friend for each faction, tell them what they would know as that faction, and then use their advice to determine how to play each one when the player characters show up. You can chose to be either session-oriented in how you play this or campaign-oriented. In session-oriented gaming, enhancing your players’ adventure sessions is the goal, so you use your outside friends’ input to create a richer game world for your regular players to engage with. In a campaign-oriented approach, the interactions between these faction players becomes the primary focus of play as they each engage independently in a sort of weird ad hoc 4X strategy game with a tremendous fog of war element.
  3. Now, every D&D game has a town to go with their dungeon environment. Sometimes it’s a full fledged city. These places are definitely going to gain various groups and personages and factions over time that the players will either contend with or else work for as patrons. Determining the behavior of these various groups can be made up in the heat of play to serve the ultimate goal of facilitating the adventure at hand. I know I did it that way! But after a while, these groups begin to take on a life of their own. At some point you may not be able to run them intelligently when your campaign grows beyond certain point. One way to handle this is what I call the Runequest method. When there are large scale unresolved political issues in your campaign city, simply do a Braunstein session in place of your usual adventuring. Turn over a major patron or faction of the town over to each player in your campaign to run just for the session. See the original Braunstein for how to do this. (Watch the Blackmoor film if you haven’t already, it explains everything!) This will be very free form and much will depend on how the players ally with each other and betray each other behind the scenes. Once you have sorted out the major large scale issues facing your campaign (and generated a good idea of how some significant upcoming events will be colored) you can revert back to normal adventure sessions.
  4. Another way to run your fantasy city is to stat out these factions as high level characters and/or Chainmail armies and then just giving them total autonomy to do what they want in a weird play-by-Twitter “always on” campaign that runs in the background of your players’ adventures. As a guide on how to do this, look no further than the AD&D rules. The Monster Manual explains how to set up monster armies with clear descriptions of their Chainmail-scale assets and also gives details on all their leveled characters. Alternately you can use the descriptions given of the large organizations described in the players handbook– the assassins, druids, monks, and so on. Note: this type of gameplay is so fun in and of itself, I don’t really care if we have “normal” rpg-type adventures happening in the campaign world that all of this produces.

Now… this really is rather simple when you explain it like this. But there are reasons why nobody spontaneously recapitulates the style of play that Gygax and Arneson took for granted.

  1. People think classic D&D characters are too simple to be worth playing and then come up with systems where it takes hours to develop them and then want to play in campaigns where they can’t die because making characters is such an investment. Then they start campaigns with a session zero where they sort out everybody’s characters that are surely going to stay alive forever and then the DM decides what the campaign “story” will more or less be in advance.
  2. People hack the D&D combat system so that it no longer scales up. They want to have a rich tactical gameplay where every single character gets their “spotlight time” during every danged combat round. This is not D&D, sorry. D&D combat is weird and stupid and is done with initiative by side where each side will commit to a specific plan AS A TEAM before the dice are rolled.
  3. People DON’T want to run henchmen even though they really really need them in order to survive real D&D sessions where there is a strong chance that one or more of the players’ characters will die every session.
  4. People are AFRAID to run mass combat scale interactions where there are hundreds of character on each side. Note that real D&D scales up to this level EASILY because its combat rules are all ripped off from chainmail. You can run huge battles theater of the mind style if you just steal couple of tricks from Chainmail and Swords & Spells: 1:10 scaling, average hit points for mass combat figures, and average damage for mass combat figures… with individual monsters interacting with the mass ones by dividing their damage by 10 unless they are using area effect attacks.
  5. People are REFUSING to run multiple characters within the same campaign. I dunno why this is so hard for some people, but obviously… you can create a much richer fantasy world if your best players are running different PC’s who have different power levels and different alignments and which are operating in different places on the map.
  6. People ADD dumb skill systems to the classic D&D game when it really never needed them in the first place. Want to know how the high level patron reacts to your dumb plan? You don’t need a diplomacy check when you can just ask the patron player what he thinks of it. Most of the game mechanics added to D&D really are there because the game has ceased to be played in its assumed context! Real D&D can go on non-stop for weeks without needing any sort of skill or attribute check.


So let this be a lesson to you. When you altered the D&D game to suit your idea of how it could “obviously” be more fun… you unknowingly cut yourself off from the kind of legendary gaming experiences that Gygax was actually setting you up to experience. It didn’t have to be that way, though.

Begin your path to gaming greatness today! Allow TOTAL PLAYER AUTONOMY in your game. Use 1:1 time. Encourage multiple characters per player, both henchmen and multiple independent “backup” characters. Embrace the mass combat possibilities inherent to the AD&D rule system. Add in patron players to your existing campaign when you get to the point where they can enhance your game.

It’s gonna be awesome!

14 responses to “How do you do Patron style play in D&D?

  1. rawlenyanzi July 17, 2021 at 3:38 pm

    Great advice. All this is a real eye-opener; it sounds like RPGs have been played wrong for far too long. Even better, this is something a computer game (even an MMORPG) cannot do.

    • jeffro July 17, 2021 at 3:44 pm

      Right, a real referee can manage 6+ people giving verbal descriptions of what they want to do– each without knowing what the rest will do. He can then ask questions to each and determine what will happen. There are no rules that can handle large swaths of this sort of thing. It is a type of play that depends entirely on player creativity and referee judgement. There for no book or product or game design can do this for you. (Of course, if something like a big combat emerges in the course of these interactions, you would just adjudicate that as you would normally.)

      • rawlenyanzi July 17, 2021 at 3:49 pm

        I can see why you say this would decimate the tabletop RPG industry if it were widespread.

  2. Brian Renninger July 17, 2021 at 4:02 pm

    Another option is multiple DM. If one area becomes too much work, then set up the nearby countries as separate campaigns. DMs can then hand off players and patrons (and NPCs/monsters) who cross into the others territories.

  3. Robert James Eaglestone July 17, 2021 at 4:03 pm

    Text blatantly ripped off, adapted for Traveller, and posted to the Traveller RPG Facebook group.

    Thank you Jeff!

  4. Robert James Eaglestone July 17, 2021 at 4:06 pm

    You just made me remember something… my first gaming experience was D&D, and we each ran three characters… because it was expected that we’d lose them. And sure enough, each of us lost one or two.

    • Robert James Eaglestone July 17, 2021 at 4:15 pm

      Ahhh, I just remembered something else… when I was running a Traveller campaign some years ago, the players were wandering around on a world (the Shrieker homeworld, with no name, just the catalog number “567-908”), and an animal encounter was called for… So, I handed the encounter over to one of the players to “play” the animals. And I’ll tell you, he did a better (and meaner!) job of it than I could have. It was a success.

  5. Tyler Hanson July 20, 2021 at 5:33 pm

    I love all of this, and I’m researching other blogs mentioned that touch on this topic too…

    I’m trying to *do* this, and I’m working on write-ups for the patrons to give to prospective patron-players, and I’m honestly a bit lost. What information do they need? Are there actual examples online of a document given to a patron-player? I just can’t nail down which stuff is ‘too much info’ and which stuff is ‘helpful for play’.

    • jeffro July 21, 2021 at 6:05 am

      A properly conceived campaign is the most antifragile form of gaming out there. You will learn how to do it as you go. AD&D and OD&D support “real” D&D because it is rules light where it needs to be and crunchy right where it pays off. The AD&D Monster Manual and the original class descriptions in the PHB are the basis of my “overworld” concept. Throwing this on top of a campaign that players were already invested in (and which they helped create) really seems to be a key factor to the success of the approach. Good luck!

  6. nope July 23, 2021 at 4:44 pm

    Whenever someone tries to tell players “You’re having fun wrong”, that someone is on a quick trip to Nowheresville in the backwoods of Futility County.

  7. Pingback: Truly a Great Game – Mentlegen & Wagons

  8. Wanderer Bill January 10, 2022 at 2:57 am

    Hey Jeffro, so I’ve been devouring your posts after I was pointed to your “Fifty years of fantasy gaming …”. Even made me re-watch Secrets of Blackmoor. Awesome stuff!

    I’ve run OD&D with multiple groups before and my current Traveller5-Campaign has two groups going as of now. And both run 1:1 time, for sure!

    However I’ve not had “patron style” play in my campaigns, yet. So that’s why I’m asking:

    Do “patron players” actually get to play fully statted high level characters in your games? Like, say a level 12 Cleric leading some 300 dervishes? I know the MM and DMG give all the details on how to stat out high level characters and their entourages. Or do you do those high level characters more on an abstract level without any D&D stats (à la Braunstein)? Would you mind sharing stats / character info for one of your high level charachters?

    Another question: do you think AD&D (which you seem to prefer) as a rules set is more suited to this kind of play than OD&D (which I do prefer)? If so, why?

    Cheers, Wanderer Bill

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