Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Better Wheel

There are a number of different posts that I've been wanting to write lately, but lack of time and distraction has made it a real challenge to do anything besides scribing in my own brain. Because of this, I might be hitting a bunch of semi-random subjects in this post.

I'll start with this:

I've been considering re-writing Dungeons & Dragons for my own purposes. This is stupid on a lot of levels. First off, it's not a very original idea. Second, it's not a profitable use of my time (no one's going to buy such a thing). Third, I've already done this before (see Five Ancient Kingdoms). Fourth, it's just a stupid, stupid idea.

I might still do it, however, because there are some things that really bug me about the game as it exists. Ability score modifiers. A lot of stuff about combat. Lack of specificity with regard to classes. Too much specificity with regard to classes. "Subjective time" in a game. Some spells. A bunch of random things.

Here's a thought that keeps going through my head: should a fight with a band of orcs be run the same as a fight with Demogorgon? How about a fight with an ogre? If the answer to either of these questions is "no," then you may (like me) have a problem with the combat rules, regardless of the edition you're using. I know I do, in part because it's caused me to avoid certain types of play in the past (depending on the edition I'm running)...and I shouldn't have to do that.

More on that (perhaps) later. Next:

I've been re-reading Alexis Smolensk's How to Run, specifically Part 4: Worldbuilding. When I wrote about this section in my review of his book (a few years back), I may have given it shorter shrift than it deserved...and if so, I would chalk that up to being intimidated, overwhelmed, and (frankly) not really understanding everything in that section. Well, I'm a couple years older and wiser and I'm seeing the thing with new eyes. Maybe it's just more extensive reading of Alexis's blog, but I'm comprehending the concepts he's communicating and I'm drinking the Kool-Ade. It's still intimidating, but it's not overwhelming.

The last couple years or so I've been considering what kind of setting I'd prefer to run as a D&D campaign...always assuming I will (eventually) get the chance to run a D&D game at some time in the future (as my children continue to get older, it seems the possibility is more likely). It's been tough nailing down concepts...what I want the setting to look like, what I want the game to look like. Sometimes I want something one way, sometimes another. But up till now, I've never bothered to sit down and actually outline it, actually write it up. I haven't bothered considering the functions and structures I'd need to get the game that I want. Re-reading How to Run, four years later with a lot of water under ye old bridge, I find Alexis has a great roadmap for creating such a thing...if I bother to use it.

Back in September, I wrote a post that I intended to follow with a discussion of strategies for enhancing play and increasing gaming "longevity." Obviously, I never got to that. But the gist would have been (mainly) about attending to the immersive least, with regard to fantasy adventure games like D&D. Much of that particular discussion could have involved cribbing from strategies outlined in How to Run, manipulating players feelings/stress level both through one's presentation/style (as Dungeon Master), and use of the rules (structure) in play. I've started coming around to the idea that what has made me a successful Dungeon Master in the past (i.e. one that could attract and retain players), has far less to do with any amazing creativity on my part, and much more about how I handle my players at the I run my games.

Which may seem like a no-brainer to folks (duh, JB)...but I'm talking about the extent of the importance. Let me put it this way: Sure, I've always felt I was fairly competent (hell, competent enough to expound on "the Art of Being a DM" here on Ye Old Blog) and that this contributed to my players' enjoyment. After all, I've been at the table with other GMs whose style or ability wasn't to my liking, to the detriment of the game being played. But I figured this accounted for only a small percentage of a game's overall "enjoyment factor;" say, something in the realm of 30-50%.

What I'm starting to believe (now) is that the manner in which we run a game accounts for more like 80-90% of whether or not a game is going to be successful. Assuming everyone's on board with the game being played (system, genre) originality and creativity of design, while important, is only a small part of what makes for a successful gaming experience. We've all killed orcs before, re-skinned or not. Can the DM immerse you in a game world that sucks your breath away, not with its unique design, but with the manner in which it's presented? Pacing and panache; competence and confidence.

While the game remains a game, can the DM make you forget that fact? If he or she can, even for a moment, then you can enjoy a short period of transcendence which makes RPGs like D&D so much more enjoyable than most pastimes.

This is why "world creation" is such an important step for the guy (or gal) running the game. In developing one's world, you have the opportunity to know it intimately...and that allows you to speak with authority to your players. It's why you need to have real investment in your world (and sound the time creating the world you want): so that you, the DM, wants to spend time there. If you can't be excited about your own setting, how can you communicate that to your players?

In the past, I've rarely considered the world past the adventures I've designed...I've tended to run my D&D games as "episodic," dungeon-of-the-week affairs (at least, since my adulthood). I've achieved some success (i.e. created enjoyment) for players because of the way I run my game sessions, but I've had little success running long-term campaigns. I've no established world that makes folks want to come back for more. I've no established setting that makes me want to come back for more. I have no Middle Earth, no Urutsk, no Tekumel, no Greyhawk. I have nothing invested, and there's nothing in which to invest.

Running the game (that 80-90% of determining player enjoyment) includes running a campaign/setting. Long-term play is one of the bennies an RPG lie D&D enjoys over other's one of the "perks" of its design. And I've always known that (duh)...I just haven't paid that fact the attention it needs and deserves.

Anyway. Remaking the wheel. That's what I'm thinking about lately, with regard to D&D. World building and rule writing. Function and structure. I'm beginning to think that it's no coincidence that many original campaign settings, developed by individual creators over decades, have rules that deviate substantially from the published game system (see Alexis, Kyrinn Eis, M.A.R. Barker, Dave Arneson...even Gygax). Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm wasting my brain power. But it's a thought that keeps carousing around my skull. Just thought I'd share.


  1. I don't know if it will be of much help, but I offer these two pieces of advice:

    1) Once I finally finished re-writing D&D to my own specifications, I was exceedingly happy that I went to the trouble. I remain happy with my efforts. Profit didn't enter into the equation; just the desire to run games at my table my own way. YMMV.

    2) I've become fairly well convinced that mechanics and setting aren't all that intricately intertwined. I don't think that re-writing D&D will lead you to the creation of an enduring setting; if that's your goal, delving into the mechanics would be a waste of time. But I do thing that setting is vastly more important than mechanics when it comes to producing a long-lived campaign. If that's what you're really after, that should be your focus.

  2. @ John:

    Hmm, it's really two separate thoughts/issues I'm working on. The setting conceptualization (is that a word?) IS separate from the system considerations. I just want to make sure I keep an eye on both moving forward (for example, if I want to include rules for different race-class combos, I want to make sure it works within the framework of the setting).

    But the world creation...yeah, that's the important part.

  3. @JB:

    It can be a really sticky wicket at times, deciding how to work out a tangle like this. Just speaking from my own experience, I'd say that you have to start from two basic considerations: (1) what do you want the setting to be like? and (2) how are you going to make a fun game out of that (or, put another way, does the setting you have in mind support something that players would recognize as "play")?

    Question (1) is, when you get right down to it, a question of art. You have a vision, you want to evoke a feel. But you can always kitbash together some mechanics to support your vision after you've decided what it is.

    Question (2) is more fundamental, because it gets to the very heart of what your game is like and about. D&D has the mechanics it does to emulate its genre (swords & sorcery fiction), sure, but they take the shape that they do to make a game first. Conan doesn't live in a world of megadungeons. Fred the First-level Fighter does, because it's fun.

    So, yeah, in some sense you do have to answer both questions simultaneously - what's the setting like, and more importantly, why is it a game? - but the fine details of the mechanics can always come after. (After all, isn't that how D&D acquired all of its mechanical cruft - organically, adding rules as they were needed?)

  4. Thank you for the call outs here and on the new post, JB. I'm glad that it is possible to change minds; even yours, you stubborn genius, you.

    I would counsel you not to build anything on the basis that "such-and-such" lives anywhere or does anything, and certainly not because anything is "fun." But you've read my post from Ian Bogost, where no doubt John Higgins has not.

    Make the setting that suits you, that does what you said in the post: becomes one that you want to come back to. Neither Conan nor the non-defined Fred will ever be playing in your world; so don't design a world for them.

  5. My own homebrew D&D and world building have intersected in the opposite direction.

    I started redesigning the wheel when I wanted to explore the relationship of hit dice, hit points and ability scores. Only once I started so many other aspects were affected and options became viable it essentially became a total redesign.

    Later, while designing my setting of Fon Choille, I went looking for a system to run it in. Naturally my incomplete homebrew presented itself for consideration. Now I find the two projects tied tightly together.