Saturday, July 28, 2012

3 Stages of Exploration (Part 4)

[continued from here]

The types, the varieties of exploration offered by the D&D game are wonderful, but their design is terrible and terribly flawed, and this is because of the “organic” way in which those latter stages were “designed.” Basically they weren't…a dungeon delving game was designed, and when players wanted to do something more, extra rules got “tacked on.”

And I’m beginning to think this may be the ONLY way for Dungeons & Dragons to work “as intended,” i.e. to allow the campaign to organically evolve. When I was a kid, we played B/X (which is just OD&D with rule clarifications and better organization), and it worked great for us. The AD&D books were gradually added over time and that worked great, expanding our options. We took the game out of the dungeon, built up high level characters and meandered into Stage 3 play…all “organically” ourselves.

But since that time I’ve tried to start and run D&D campaigns that resembled that earlier “evolutionary” game and failed, failed, failed. You can’t do Stage 2 or Stage 3 in a new campaign without serious DM cream puffery and/or railroading and even doing that ends in a failure more often than not because players AREN’T INVESTED IN THEIR CHARACTERS...and not just because the characters are new and "history-less." It’s hard to get excited and enthused about a 1st level flunky that could get killed by an orc arrow on any unlucky roll, and I (and my adult players) just don’t have the time to devote to working characters “up the ladder” of development to get to these other stages of exploration.

D&D sucks this way. You’re forced to follow the parameters of the Basic stage (start off on the 1st level of a dungeon fighting ducks for chump change) and go through a long “dues paying” period before you can “get to the good stuff.” At least, if you’re playing the game as written. And tinkering with it too much just makes it…well, not D&D.

Case in point…when writing my own D&D (“D&D Mine”), long before I got around to thinking about these ideas (which has only been a couple days folks), I had already figured out the only way to make my game “work” like D&D was to create a setting for the game with a sprawling mega-dungeon built in. At the time, I wasn’t really grokking the WHY, I just knew that the WHAT (or rather the “HOW” as in “how the game is supposed to look and work”), only functioned properly with that. Or I should say, “functioned best.” And I was kind of surprised by that…surprised because I could see I was doing the same thing that had already been done long before me by Arneson (Blackmoor) and Gygax (Greyhawk) as well as plenty of others (for example, Maliszewski’s Dwimmermount).

Creating a city with built-in mega-dungeon and a local history, however, just doesn’t sit right with me. It doesn’t! And the REASON it doesn’t is because I want to play a fantasy adventure game, something that models the literary characters and heroic stories that D&D is supposed to be based on. How many times in Howard’s stories do you find Conan in some subterranean complex or mega-dungeon? Not very many, pal…he’s got more important things to do than crawl around a cobwebby dungeon with a torch. It certainly doesn't occupy the majority of his professional attention.

Recently, I’ve been playing in an on-line B/X game. My character, a cleric, is the closest of the party members to leveling up, but he’s still only 1st level and we’ve been playing since April. Actually, a couple of us (including me) have been playing since before then, as it was a table-top game that got converted to on-line in order to pick up additional players (and make it easier on our schedules).

There’s a large mega-dungeon we’ve been exploring, and a hometown, and a world history. However, at this point I’m choosing to make the mega-dungeon a secondary priority and spend most of my focus on proactively exploring the local politics; specifically, my intention to stir up a hornet’s nest by using treasure found in the ruins to fund a revolution to over-throw the invading Imperials that conquered my homeland a decade or so ago. Right now, my character is decked out in expensive (250gp) plate armor, riding a stout courser, and wielding a shiny dwarfsteel warhammer (when I’m not swinging my two-handed maul). I’ve acquired a normal human henchman from the local underground cult to which I belong and he’s outfitted on a draft horse with chainmail…he’s mainly for show, guarding the horses, and being my step-n-fetch. My character looks the part of a war leader and I’m trying to act the part in order to become the part…a kind of pseudo-medieval Pancho Villa. When last we left off, we were getting ready to jump a band of Imperial mercs encountered on the road, possibly risking being branded as outlaws by the local constabulary, but definitely striking a blow against “our oppressors.”

Did I mention my character’s 1st level? He’ll probably get hit by a lucky arrow shot and killed instantly. That’s what happened to the 1st level illusionist I started the campaign with.

The rules of D&D are not really conducive to this kind of play…and by that I mean, this type of play at 1st level (i.e. right out of the gate). And dammit, it should be. Why not? Personally, I plan on playing this game as if it were conducive until my character gets himself killed. And then…I don’t know, it will depend on the next character I roll up. But I’m not going to stunt my role-playing (head-thumping as the experience might be) just because the rules don’t cooperate.

D&D needs to be redesigned so that all the stages can be addressed at any time at any level. At least, I think it does. YOU may not. Hell, you may be reading this and saying, “I’m just trying to fight goblins and pick up gold, yo.” For how long? Until you get bored and decide you’ll stick it back up on the shelf for another 10-20 years? I guess if that’s your thought, than you’re probably not my target demographic.

There’s already a game-type game that gives you a chance to have tactical encounters in a dungeon (Basic Exploration) and roll dice: it’s called 4th Edition. There’s already a game that tries a hybrid between tactical encounters and rules-supported character development (still Basic exploration): it’s called D20 or Pathfinder. If that’s what you want, you’ve got it already folks. Heck, if you want an even simpler version with the same objective that doesn’t address character much at all, then you can play one of the various iterations of the board game Dungeon! which is plenty fun.

But for me, I don’t want those things. I want a nice, living, breathing game that uses a simple, abstract game system (sorry, Alexis) and yet addresses all three stages properly, allowing multiple forms of game play and exploration from all players, regardless of preference, right out of the gate.

Because you CAN be a low-level courtier, or wilderness scout…you shouldn’t have to wait till you're high level to try that type of game play. If I want to play a 16 year old Joan of Arc leading the French army to victory against the English, then dammit, there should be rules that allow that! What happened to “anything you can imagine?” What happened to fantastic fantasy adventure.

I keep coming back to this quote I recently (re-)read in Ron Edward’s second article on fantasy heartbreakers. I’ll reprint it here so you can see why it’s haunting me:

“I think it’s central to D&D fantasy that a character must start with a very high risk of dying and very little ability to change the world around him or her, and then increase in effectiveness, scope, and ability to sustain damage…the concept seems to be that the player must serve his or her time as a schlub, greatly risking the character’s existence, in order to enjoy the increased array and benefits of the powers, ability, and effectiveness that can only be accumulated through the reward-system. An enormous amount of the draw to play a particular game seems to be based on explicitly laying out what the character might be able to do, later, if he or she lives. I want to distinguish this paradigm very sharply from the baseline “character improves through time” found in most role-playing games. This is something much, much more specific.”
The thing that haunts me about this analysis (which seems accurate to me as well) is this:

Is this the real basis for D&D’s popularity?

This “draw,” this carrot that’s dangled in front of the players…is that what makes them come back for more? Because if it is, then ALL this discussion might very well be a waste of fucking precious time (and I’ve written this up as a 12 page, 7000 word essay). There is great potential within the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game (pre-1989, i.e. “old school” editions)…I know because I’ve observed it, I’ve played it. The same potential doesn’t exist within New D&D…the rules are designed to expand and improve the Stage 1 (basic) exploration and those same rules become extraneous or too complex for later Stage play (even if such was supported in the text of the rules…which it f’ing well is NOT). But there’s little way to GET to this potential style of play, even using “old school” rule sets, because they are accidents of design, not purposeful, and not well supported.

And maybe I’m retarded for even thinking about it. I’m not talking about piddling simulationist play…I’m talking about facing challenge on a variety of levels (i.e. “stages”): discovering the world outside the dungeon and becoming a ‘mover & shaker’ within that world. NOT limiting game-play to the challenge of exploring a Hazard Site. NOT simply figuring out how to defeat a particularly tricky puzzle (whether that “puzzle” is a tactical challenge against a superior opponent or a trick/trap not easily negotiated). Simply exploring a Hazard Site doesn’t allow you the depth of role-playing involved with Stage 2 and Stage 3 exploration when what you explore is Your Imaginary World and Your Characters’ Place In The World.

As I said, I know there are folks who don’t agree with me. Fortunately for you, the game as written is good enough for that Basic Exploration stage of play. Personally, I’d prefer to take the game up to the Expert and Master stages. However, I’m still mulling over exactly how to do that. I'll let you know if/when I figure it out.

; )


  1. fuck this! i hoped that you would present your remedy in a fifth post.

    you tease! :)

    ps: i agree about 90%ish and i fear there is no solution. unless you count "play another system". i've got mine and it doesn't suffer from these problems. it's got skills though! :O

  2. Hmm, a low level (and scalable) solution for all three stages... well, stage 1 is covered quite well. I believe it would be doable.

    Not sure about what this does to the game, either.

  3. For outdoor exploration, I divide all territory into Civilized, Borderlands, and Wilderness (following the rules in the RC) and made separate encounter tables for each with civilized areas for levels 1-3 (basic), Borderlands for 4-6 (expert), and wilderness for 7+. This way low level characters can explore without encountering TPK monsters.

    Also, Bushido has two things that might help. One is a Status system, where you track a characters membership in an organization as well as that organization's overall status within the world. That way you can have political gameplay even if just trying to determine the leader of the Bakers Guild. Plus, by adventuring for an organization, whether it's an adventuring company, cult or noble family, you can improve that organization's reputation which, in turn, improves your character's standing in the world. Bushido also has a random encounter chart for participants in a battle. That way, characters can take part is larger wars without actually being required to own/command the army in question.

    Finally, the main obstacle to Stage 3 is the fact that there are multiple players participating. What are the other players doing while you're out being Joan of Arc? Stage 1 and 2 provide clearly defined roles for all the different people in the party. Something you don't get if one player builds a castle in the wilderness while the thief is trying to form a guild in a city.

    1. Hedgehobbit wrote:

      Finally, the main obstacle to Stage 3 is the fact that there are multiple players participating. What are the other players doing while you're out being Joan of Arc?

      This is a critical problem with domain level play. My understanding is that Gary and Dave started to run more one on one games for high level characters.

      I think there are probably ways to approach this that don't involve reunion dungeon crawls, but they probably require more structured domain turns.

  4. You made very good points to where B/X can fail in the eyes of a gamer. Long ago, I had the same frustrations until I made a few major changes to the game mechanics. The two biggest being more hp's at 1st level as well as opportunity of casting more spells. But even more important to those changes is the GM having his campaign world fleshed out enough to where the players can explore the landscape if they feel like doing more then delving into the same old dungeon.

  5. hmmm....this was a pretty long post and i have to admit to skimming over the last half. it sounds to me like your wrestling with plot development in your game. basically, we get more invested in the game the more the story unfolds. no matter how you approach it, this takes time. but, there's no reason your 1st level cleric can't enter epic expeditions if the GM is willing to tailor the story in that direction. it might involve paring you up with high level NPC's and going to it. maybe your a shield bearer or baggage carrier who ends up mixed in the forray? you may still die though-part of the game :).

  6. oh, i forgot to add. you said,"The thing that haunts me about this analysis (which seems accurate to me as well) is this:

    Is this the real basis for D&D’s popularity?"

    i would say, partly yes. look at the growing popularity of DCC.

    1. A first level DCC character is a lot more resilient than an dead at zero HP B/X character. There is more death in the funnel, but that is a very small part of the game (and generally only occupies one session). It's not like the multiple sessions required to reach second level in B/X. So I don't think this comparison is valid.

  7. But Joan of Arc didn't survive because she was important to the plot. She survived because she was smart or lucky. You can try to be a prince as a first level D&D character (if you have a good referee), but you had better have a good plan.

    I think a lot of these points are just about lethality, which I think is an orthogonal issue. Even Napoleon should be afraid of death, in my opinion.

    The real thing here is, as you have noted, that possibilities open up in the wilderness and then explode with domain level play. The game very naturally funnels people from low power and few options to higher power and many options. Starting with higher power and many options leads to the problems of character optimization and system mastery. So if you want to change the game so you start out at domain level, I think you need some simplifications to make it more tractable (I'm not sure exactly where those might come in).

  8. Also, if you haven't read it already, this post is on topic and required reading:

    Zak wrote:

    The really successful games promise or suggest (though do not mandate) a specific kind of change will occur over the long haul.

    So I think there may be value in having the different types of play at different stages. They keep the game fresh. Just something to consider. Your tweaking might end up resulting in a game with too many moving parts at once.

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  10. Brendan wrote:

    "So I don't think this comparison is valid."

    thats interesting, because I find a game that encourages you to roll up a dozen starting characters smacks of lethality and rather dismal prospects of much personal investment into any of their background history.

    all things told, i've only played the quick death, i mean quick start rules of DCC, myself.

  11. Dark Sun (2e) solved the fragility problem by starting PCs at 3rd level. It's what I do when I want to run a Conanesque game, and IME that is all you need to do if you want to bypass the early dungeon-grubbing game; start PCs with 5,000 XP or at 3rd level. It's 'still D&D', just as Dark Sun was still 2e.

  12. Maybe something from these might help with the brainstorming.

  13. When I want to run a Stage-2 game straight off, I start PCs at 3rd level, a la Dark Sun, or for a low-power feel I might give 1st level PCs a hp kicker = CON, or +10 hp.

    Likewise for starting at Stage-3 where the PCs are already movers and shakers, I have occasionally started games at 6th level, which seems right for eg AD&D, BX or 3e; for Mentzer BECMI/RC D&D you might want to start a Stage 3 campaign at 9th level, for 4e it would be 11th.

    BTW I find that for an old-school feel where power is earned, it is not necessary to start at 1st level, but it is necessary that new PCs come in at a fixed level, not at 'party level'. For a wandering badass game every PC can start at 3rd, for a movers & shakers game everyone can start at 6th or even 9th.

  14. "Recently, I’ve been playing in an on-line B/X game. My character, a cleric, is the closest of the party members to leveling up, but he’s still only 1st level and we’ve been playing since April."

    A lot of online GMs are way too stingy with XP. The B/X (etc) XP systems works fine for a dungeon-centric treasure-centric game, but you see a lot of online GMs run heavy-roleplay diplomacy & intrigue centric games, but completely fail to award XP appropriately. They won't even use OD&D monster XP (1 hd = 100 XP), instead sticking to the stingy 'Greyhawk' model.

    In my own online games, I use OD&D-based monster kill XP and similar levels of XP awards for other achievements such as diplomatic and even romantic, I typically award three-figure XP awards in a 2-3 hour game session and might see the leading, most active PCs reaching 4th level in around 18-20 2-3 hour chatroom sessions. Eg at average 400 XP per session a Fighter with no attribute bonus might reach 2nd level in 5 sessions, 3rd level in 10 and 4th level in 20 - usually XP award per session ramps up gradually as the PCs reach higher level of course, but I'm happy to see fairly rapid initial advancement to 3rd or 4th level, then slower later.

    1. Eg in my Yggsburgh 1e AD&D chatroom game on Dragonsfoot, after 23 sessions of play, each 2-3 hours, the PCs were Fighter-4, Fighter 3/M-U 2, Ranger 3, Cleric-4, and Fighter-2/Thief-3. The Fighter-4, who was the most active PC and rarely if ever missed a session, had the highest XP tally at 9857, with others ranging 5802-9301.

  15. I have to insert the obligatory "have you tried.." comment.

    Your first post in this series mentions you dislike skill based systems but The Fantasy Trip may give you what you are after.

    Adjustment of a bit of starting points, but more importantly focusing your initial skill buy into areas that let you effectively (through the mechanics) influence the world is very possible... Stage 2 from the start.

    You may be weak at fighting personally, but those skills can help you buy muscle and overcome obstacles with more than force of arms.

    I like your insights by the way, hits the nail on the head for me why the focus of 3rd and subsequnet editions never did it for me.

  16. Sometimes I think people's obsession with monsters is what limits people to dungeon crawling at low levels, not the game itself.

    Inspired by some Conan stories, I started experimenting with urban adventuring at low levels, and found that it favored role playing, assassins, and thieves. "Dungeons" weren't necessarily cobwebby forgotten places or systems of caves, but could also be luxurious palaces, castles, and towers.

    The PCs are still little fish in a big pond, but they're interacting with big fish whose motivations aren't always roasting them alive on a spit. Even as pawns in a larger game, the PCs had the ability to affect the world around them by the choices they made.

    The thing is, when you play it this way, they're mostly interacting with people, not monsters. The enemy usually isn't the goblin king, but the local merchant-prince's magic user/cleric daughter and her guards, and maybe a few "pets" for flavor, but mostly it's humans and humanoids. There's more ways to deal with them. It's not always about "clearing" the dungeon. That might not even be possible or smart. More often it's about getting in, stealing something of enormous value, and getting out.

    Wilderness might even become a place of relative sanctuary, or at least a place to hide due to it's opened spaces. Is the duke after you? Flee to the forest while things blow over inside the city walls. Need a hideout? Then clear the giant spiders out a small system of caves you heard about from a farmer in the country tavern you took sanctuary in under a false name after narrowly avoiding the pursuing soldiers.

  17. The author rants about the premise of the game, the mechanics, his own campaigns, and self promotes his own 'solutions' to the perceived problems. Which is all fine. Just not much to learn here.

    There's no reason why you cannot have a 1st level character ruling the world; many campaigns that people have run over the years feature roleplaying instead of combat and that's the style that makes that work. D&D is super flexible; it supports all modes of play.

    Just stop making your games all about combat and you'll be fine, because you've become very, very tired of it.