Design/writing is design/writing and such things are good practice. That’s why I do it. There is also the shared “think tank” of reviews, feedback, and analysis hashed out in a “public forum” (Prince’s blog) that helps disseminate knowledge and promote certain values with regard to how one “does D&D” (hint: it’s not in the “ArtPunk” fashion, hence the contest’s name). I enjoy participating in this discourse, and lending my Old Geezer perspective to these young bucks.
Okay. Very nice. Full stop.
Here’s The Thing: using pre-written, pre-packaged adventure “modules” are a hack approach to playing Dungeons & Dragons, especially if one is playing the Advanced game.
*sigh* I’m sure I’ll take flack for this stance.
"After all, JB, don’t YOU use adventure modules all the time in your game? Haven’t you written upteen numbers of blog posts about how you’ve re-vamped such-and-such adventure to make it work in your world? Don’t you craft dungeons for your own players?
"Jesus, JB, isn’t this the very example you’ve been modeling for your readers?"
Yes, to all that (perhaps with a caveat or two). And let me be the first to say: I am NOT above reproach and reprimand.
Dungeons are EASY. Crafting them, running them…they are the low-hanging fruit of D&D gameplay. Building GOOD or BETTER adventures is not as easy, but still: easy. It is D&D at its most simplistic form. And I’ll also add: crafting and running dungeons (i.e. site-based adventures) are skills that all DMs should develop, and skills they can (and will) continue to use, throughout the whole of their gaming lives.
BUT: these modular, site-based adventures…these dungeons…they are just the first step of gameplay.
AND: if you ONLY run dungeons (or “adventure modules,” whether written by yourself or someone else), then the campaign you’re running hasn’t yet gotten out of second gear.
I apologize if I have, perhaps, led readers on about how to make “good” or “great” adventures, talking about treasure counts and encounter frequency and whatnot. As I’ve written before (more than once) my thoughts on many D&D subjects have evolved over the years. Heck, both my understanding and perception of the game has changed quite a bit.
Let's see if I can craft a distillation of my paradigm:
An ADVENTURE is: any situation presented to the players that provides some chance of reward while involving commensurate risk, but which may be refused.
That's pretty broad...and it should be. Players and characters come in all shapes and sizes of ability and effectiveness. Breaking into the Iron Fortress of some Arch-Devil to steal McGuffins of Ancient Evil is probably not a good scenario for a new batch of players or low-level characters.
When I was a kid, I started my D&D game the way anyone following the instructions in Moldvay: I drew dungeons, filled them with monsters and traps and treasure, and then ran players through them. When I got my Expert set, I incorporated the tougher monsters and better treasures into my dungeons to accommodate the higher level game play that was occurring. I also made a few (brief) forays into Wilderness (i.e. out-of-the-dungeon) adventures, mainly using the module X1: Isle of Dread as a guide.
The hex-crawling never held much appeal for me: what is hex-crawling but tracking movement (often random movement due to high chances of getting lost) while rolling for random encounters until the party stumbles blindly into some set piece encounter? That's not "adventure" in the way I define the term.
THAT being said, just traveling from one place to another IS an adventure. Forget the whole idea of "hex-crawling" for a moment (and its associated game mechanics). Unless you (DM) are dead set on basing your entire campaign within an enormous, never ending "megadungeon," at some point your players will be traveling from one place in the imaginary world to another.
This travel...this space between dungeons...this IS "adventure," and the next tier in one's DMing ability.
"Wait, wait! What? You just said hex crawls aren't adventures!" Yeah, I did. I also said forget hex crawls for a moment. Let me explain:
Players (PCs, adventurers) don't just wander without purpose. Or, rather, they shouldn't wander without purpose. They have reasons to go places. They are (imaginary) people...not migratory birds. Put yourselves in their iron-shod boots for a moment: our party has just finished scouring the entirety of the local dungeon/bandit hideout/goblin den. Is it reasonable to buy a week's worth of food and then just "set off" into the wilderness, expecting challenge and reward to find us?
As is the answer to most rhetorical questions (as my old humanities professor would say): "NO!" with a small chuckle.
People don't do that. Well, maybe suicidal imbeciles. But most rational folks (adventurous or not) wouldn't. Even in our real world...depressingly devoid of unicorns and dragons...grabbing your napsack and marching off-road into the wilderness is a bad idea. No, I don't care if you were trained as scout-sniper for the USMC. I've known such individuals (and played D&D with them) and, no, they're not that stupid.
Destination. Purpose. These are things rational individuals have. "Adventure" is what happens on the way.
When I started playing AD&D "for realz" (circa age 12-13), it was with the near total abandonment of the dungeon or "static adventure site." Instead, we explored the world in which our characters resided. It was a fantasy world, created from whole cloth by the DM, but the map (not a hex map) had quite a bit of "blank space" to it. As we travelled from destination to destination, having adventures, our characters grew in both knowledge and experience...just as we players grew in knowledge and experience. And the map ended up having fewer blank spaces.
Dungeons were still run. I ran Tsojcanth, Forbidden City, an assassins guild of my own creation, and (towards the end) the Demonwebs. My co-DM ran Ravenloft (I wasn't present for that), one or two homemades, maybe a couple from Dragon, maybe some stuff ripped out of Castle Greyhawk. But those were few and far between. Our adventures were mainly composed the things that happened on the road, interactions we had and relationships we built with various NPCs, scrapes and shenanigans we might get into in larger towns.
Granted, our world was the work of amateurs. It had all the trappings of vanilla fantasy of the pseudo-medieval European variety (i.e. "D&D-esque"). But it had no history (that we ever wrote) or imbedded politics. The "factions" and "powers" that came into being all developed in play: Machiavellian nobles, benevolent kings, shady assassins, friendly archdruids. Ours was a developed world and rather densely populated (mostly with humans)...you had to travel long distances (often via flying mount) to get to anything like "true wilderness." Such travel was exceptionally dangerous...far away from civilized lands, communities where you might find food/shelter were sparse (if present at all), and you were more likely to wander into a pack of trolls than anything resembling "friendly NPCs." You didn't just wander into that shit without purpose...and even if you did, you better make damn sure you have a means of provisioning yourselves and (hopefully) a ranger or barbarian type to keep you from getting hopelessly lost.
Roads. Roads were important. Stepping off the road was as perilous as in Tolkien's Mirkwood.
Back in civilization, things were far easier. Business folks (shopkeepers, innkeepers) weren't apt to stab one in the back or slip you sleeping potions because they were doing business. PCs had to look for work because the money found would (eventually) run out. But there were always local issues that needed dealing with...the average NPC was busy with their daily lives. I don't recollect a single time that PCs were hired by a wizard at a tavern, or offered a treasure map by some shady, cloaked figure; those things just didn't happen! What was MORE usual was getting into a bar fight...perhaps over a lady...someone getting beaten and/or killed and then getting in trouble with Johnny Law. More than a couple jail breaks.
Often time, destinations were suggested by rumors heard in one community. "Such-and-such king is holding a contest/tournament," or "Baron So-and-So has a Problem." Smelling opportunity, the PCs would pack their bags and set off to the next place, picking up other PCs along the way. As they grew in level, they also grew in reputation, and many of the characters became their own "factions" with their own agendas. A patriarch built his castle and started attracting zealots. A wizard built his tower and pursued his own magical research. A bard wooed the most beautiful woman in the land...and incited the vengeful jealousy of multiple powerful figures.
And because of those agendas, new destinations were chosen, and new adventures were had.
See, here's the thing...the real deal, the dirty secret...about D&D: the game doesn't really start until you've come out of the dungeon. People talk about "endgames" and "dominion play," but they are speaking of superficialities with only a partial understanding of the game's potential.
When properly engaged with the game, the participants are taking part in an act of creation...of world creation. They are crafting their own Silmarillion, penning their own stories, writing their own histories, building and enriching the fantasy environment. That is what "campaign play" is, at its highest form. And it is a near equal partnership between the players and the DM(s). The DMs may be setting the starting geography, but it is the players' interaction with that geography that gives the world "life."
[of course, little prevents D&D players from doing their own landscape work: founding towns, building castles, digging dungeons (and populating them with summoned monsters, traps, and treasure), felling forests...even raising mountains is possible with the right magic spells! Literal world building exists as a distinct possibility for the enterprising player, even when NOT acting as DM]
SO...site-based adventure design, i.e. dungeon writing, is a piece of the DM's work, a tool every DM should have in his/her toolbox. But that's just the elementary level of game play. The next, higher, level is world building, a much taller order. But it's only with a properly built world (or the beginnings of a properly built world) that one can start to build true adventures based on meaningful context. That is to say:
situations that provide some chance of reward involving commensurate risk
...any of which can be refused by the players.
[the refusal part is important. Might need to write a separate post about that]
These days, I'm building my own campaign world in a less amateurish fashion, though it's tough without the creative partnership I had in the past (my old co-DM doesn't game anymore, so far as I know. Her business these days is coaching struggling writers to finish their novels). On the other hand, I have a lovely crutch in the form of a real world map (the Pacific Northwest) with real world climate, resources, population centers, etc. and an existing history that I can twist and turn to my own ends. Makes the running of the world rather easy which, in turn, frees up an enormous amount of time that I can use to develop profitable, dangerous scenarios. Me shoe-horning in various adventure modules (Ravenloft, The Sentinel, Hommlet, etc.) is admittedly lazy on my part...but players like dungeons and they remain an integral part of the game.
They're just not the entirety of the game.
All right. That's probably enough for now. Not sure how this one is going to land with folks, but at least I got something down for a Thursday morning post. I have a couple follow-ups planned that piggyback on the subject, but comments, questions, and feedback would be appreciated...especially disputes or calls for clarification. Thanks!