Friday, December 18, 2015

Comparing DMGs (P. 3a)

As we continue our comparison of the original (AD&D) Dungeon Masters Guide and the 5th edition version, we leap into the nitty gritty of "what it's all about," i.e. adventure creation. Without adventures, there's really no game play, and creation of adventures is the main responsibility of all Dungeon Masters. Well, unless you just want to run pre-packaged adventures all the time (but then, what are you getting out of being a DM? Free beer?).

Starting with the DMG5, we come to the largest section of the book: Masters of Adventure (Part 2), consisting of five chapters (Creating Adventures, Creating NPCs, Adventure Environments, Between Adventures, and Treasure). After reading the first three posts of this series, folks are probably expecting me to rant even more about how much 5E sucks (in and of itself, or in comparison to older editions). Au contraire, mon frere! There's actually a lot of good stuff in this section of the DMG5, and some of it that I quite like. 

That being said, it's still something of a mixed bag, and (for me, anyway) gets off to a rocky start. I'm an old school D&D player from way back (by which I just mean "I'm old" and have been playing the game since before the TSR overhaul of '83), so I take some umbrage with the idea that D&D adventures are "stories," at least in the same way as a TV show, novel, or film. For me, D&D adventures are stories in the sense of a horrific weekend camping trip: something you can talk about, complain about, laugh about, and have fun embellishing once you're back, safe and sound in your "normal" environment (home, office, etc.). Some camping stories are so memorable that they'll be brought up and discussed years later...some are only have enough pizazz for the Monday morning water cooler talk. They are "war stories" for people who don't actually go to war...that's kind of how I look at them. The "story" that's told is simply of the experience that was exciting and/or traumatic at the time, but really just an excursion, an escape from the usual "daily life."

No, no: D&D adventures (for me) are not formulaic stories. They don't involve heavy use of theme, they don't have rising action, twists, climax, and denouement except and unless such is provided by the characters' actions and the random fall of the dice. Certainly such things shouldn't be scripted like a film or TV show, nor should there be written dialogue or narration to perform. Fantasy gaming is fiction, but we are not creating a work of fiction in the literary sense.

[by the way, I'm only talking about D&D here; there ARE role-playing games designed for creating stories, addressing premise, etc. and I appreciate and enjoy those on occasion. They are a different type of RPG from D&D and have different elements of design that facilitate their objectives and style of play. Those DO create something like a work of fiction through the shared experience of role-playing...that is their purpose. But I'm talking about D&D gaming in this series, okay?]

So the introduction to this section of the DMG5 isn't great when it states that adventures are fundamentally stories and compares them to works of fiction. However, it follows with Elements of a Great Adventure, all of which are good (except for the Something For All Players portion...I disagree strongly with their "three pillars" bullshit), and seems to fly in the face of their "adventures are stories" statement (see the Heroes Who Matter paragraph). There's good, actual guidance here. But then it gets back to this "story" concept (after a rather large section justifying why you should buy published adventures...Gygax might write a sentence or two in passing suggesting you check out a published TSR module, but 5E will fill a third of a page to sell you on the idea), and how to structure your adventure like a story, with a beginning, middle, and end that just smacks of leading down the road to railroad style play, even if the authors are fairly explicit in advising DMs against railroading.

After that is 9-10 pages of tripe (random tables of "ideas" to create your adventure "story") before we get to what is arguably the most important part of the DMG5: Creating Encounters. Here's the section that finally tells us how we DMs are going to bestow rewards that lead to that improvement of character every player salivates for. First there's the obligatory braindead section entitled Character Objectives that seems completely out-of-place with everything that follows (especially as there are no guidelines presented as to how to reward non-combat character objectives like those suggested. Yes, players will want their characters to do things other than fight...why do you need to list "some of those things here" when they're not pertinent to the rules being presented? Just let them do stuff...STOP FILLING YOUR PAGE COUNT). Then we get to the nitty-gritty of Creating Combat Encounters. And even though I dislike and disagree with the method of earning XP in these later editions of D&D, this isn't a bad section and seems fairly good at estimating challenge level based on the few numbers I ran.

For example, I applied their number schemes to the old tournament portion of I1:Dwellers of the Forbidden City (after converting monsters to those of the 5E MM), and found the challenges appropriate for the 6-person, tournament party with a good mix of all four difficulty levels. I don't know how well their math holds up for their "Adventuring Day" chart, but at least I could follow their, where there are actual rules, the DMG5 does a good job explaining a complex concept. Likewise, much of the "advice" section here is good (even in the Random Encounters section...though I dislike scaling random world encounters based on PC level). One thing seems clear: after making D&D all about the combat the last 15 years, they've gotten pretty good about the balancing act of challenging player characters.

Mmm...looks like I'm going to have to break this post up like the last one. Chapter 4: Creating Non-Player Characters is on par with the random tables provided in the original DMG; however, the latter book does more with less (managing to include detailed examples of NPC organizations/reactions, how interactions vary based on type of NPC, costs for spell-casters' services, hiring of non-human troops and how they get along). This section really needs to be used in conjunction with the spot NPC write-ups in the MM5 and the hireling section of the PHB5. While I like the villain options, I dislike them being here...if they are player options, put them in the PHB. Make a decision, take a stand: are evil player characters an option? Or are you going to go the "heroic" way of 2nd Edition? In the latter case, throw death clerics and anti-paladins in the MM and be done with it. Oh, and find a rogue archetype to replace the assassin while you're at it (how about a mountebank?). Why is there an assassin option in the PHB5, but the Death domain and Oath-Breakers are in the DMG? Because assassins are Sooo Heroic, right Assassins Creed lovers? Jesus H.

Okay, the last three chapters of this section are all good, mostly good, or excellent. I'll deal with Treasure first (even though it is the last chapter of the section). I'm not going to comment on the actual treasures or the new way of distribution: they're the same old-same old for a different edition that has its own system of parceling 'em out. What's great here is the Other Rewards section, which nicely consolidates a lot of different prizes adventurers might achieve: land grants and titles, blessings and charms, strongholds and medals and special training. A lot of good ideas here (many new) for carrots to dangle in front of the noses of players. And since 5E doesn't award XP for gold, this is a good way to make rewards mean something, as well as provide incentives for adventure.

Backing up, Chapter 5: Adventure Environments is the true "Creating Adventures" chapter, not that earlier, rollin-random-table-to-find-arch-villain-motivation thing. There's still a bunch of filler random tables that are high on my dumb-dumb scale (ah, yes...this dungeon, found beneath a farmhouse, was created by a lawful good beholder (without hands) to serve as his tomb until it was conquered by invaders...). After THAT, however, you get good sections on dungeon inhabitants and factions, dungeon ecology, MAPPING the dungeon, standard features (doors, secret doors, etc.), lighting, air quality, and hazards (molds, slimes, webs...what, no bottomless crevasse?). These are real rules and guidance, not random tables of ideas. This is followed by the WILDERNESS section, which is also good, detailing travel, mapping (finally those different scales from Chapter 1 become important!), movement, weather, environmental hazards (including high altitude and slippery ice...nice!), foraging, and random settlements...the latter of which is actually pretty cool and the most useful set of random tables in the whole book. This is followed by information on how to map a settlement, urban encounters, and law and order...a short, pointed, and useful section. After this is Underwater and Sky environments (both good and more streamlined than their AD&D counterparts), before (strangely) ending the chapter with Traps which, despite its strange placement, is good section, short with specific rules, and a tidy selection of sample traps (and no random table in sight? Was this part written by a different author?). This chapter (minus the beginning) plus the Elements of a Great Adventure and Creating Challenges (minus the "character objectives") sections from Chapter 3 could have been combined to create a real, useful tutorial in D&D adventure creation for 5th Edition.

Finally, we have Chapter 6: Between Adventures, which has a great compilation of downtime activities with real rules and no random "filler" tables. I'd skip the part about story arcs and such, but adventure seeding isn't bad and the campaign tracking section is much more in line with Gygax's notions of time...again, was this written by a different person than the one who gave us the sample calendar in Chapter 1? A list of maintenance/upkeep costs (including hirelings), simple stronghold construction and magic item crafting, plus rules for running businesses and finding buyers of magic items (not as easy as prior editions) are all great, simple systems, nicely compiled. The carousing table is a good one, though I'm not sure why higher level characters are more likely to be better gamblers...I'd probably make the last entry the "Makes an Enemy" option, instead. From my point of view, this was the most interesting and useful chapter through the first two sections.

Okay...I'll write my comparison with the original DMG's take on adventure creation in my next post.

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