Saturday, April 6, 2024


My recent posts about writing "How to GM" help-books touched off a flurry of posts over at The Tao of D&D...which is great for a number of reasons. First off, Alexis is sharp as hell and brings a lot of good insight/knowledge to the discussion (and being a seasoned D&D ref, it's generally practical knowledge). Second off, he's a great writer and his posts are often entertaining to read. 

Third off, he also gives me ideas to riff off. This post is one of those. Alexis writes:
If you ask what "story" does for actual gameplay, you may find yourself in a conversation with someone fervently explaining that story provides "a structured overarching narrative or series of interconnected scenarios and encounters that serves to facilitate gameplay by providing the context and information necessary for players to make informed decisions and take meaningful actions within the game world." Except that it doesn't. The DM, without telling anything like a story, describes a set of circumstances that the players see in the immediate here and now, that they're free to make a decision about. No "overarching narrative" is in anyway necessary to this; in fact, it's detrimental the player's freedom to make immediate choices, as they've been primed in advance to acknowledge and prostrate themselves to a narrative that the DM invented, or the company invented, or some writer invented, but certainly not that the players themselves invented.

Game play works in a specific manner. The DM provides immediate context of what the player characters' senses tell them. The players make a MOVE. This produces a response from the DM, describing what has changed in the immediate context due to the players' move. Then the players move again. This goes on indefinitely.

The reasons why a player moves, or what motivates them, or the fact that the may collaborate first before moving, is irrelevant to the ACTION of the game. The notion that players need a "story" to captivate their interest, or draw them into the game world, because it provides context for their actions, is SALES JARGON. The argument that the story gives the players clear goals, objectives and challenges to pursue, motivating them as a driving force for game play, is SALES JARGON. These phrases sound terrific and encouraging, but since no definition is ever provided that explains how these things motivate or engage the players, it's just so much blubblesput.
Or, as he summarizes more succinctly at the end of the essay:
...the ongoing description provided by the DM serves as the immediate backdrop for gameplay, providing the players with the information they need to make their moves and decisions. This description includes details about the environment, characters and events that are directly relevant to the current situation and the players' interactions.

The essence of gameplay lies in the dynamic exchange between players making moves and the DM responding. Extraneous detail beyond the immediate circumstances is not essential to gameplay itself. 
Gameplay in D&D has nothing to do with "creating stories" (yes, yes...a point ol' JB has attempted to make many times over the last few years) is about taking action, and experiencing the fruits (and consequences) of that action. The world built by the DM is the thing that provides opportunities for of the reasons ol' JB is always harping on world building, since (duh) insufficient work by the DM is going to end up curtailing and/or stunting action.

And players want action.

It makes me wonder just how many people out there playing this modern, new-fangled D&D are really, truly satisfied with the game play. I mean, other than the actors on live-streamed shows that are getting paid to perform (that is, I assume and hope they are being paid...actors have to eat, too!). But the normal shmoes (like me), sitting around a table, playing many of them are truly satisfied with a game experience that consists of sticking to a plot, or exploring their character's "story arc," or posturing and improvising dialogue, and rolling dice only to determine how effective their posturing and dialogue was on swinging the opinion of the guardsman at the gate or whatever.  How many 5E players are simply going through the motions, jonesing for ANY opportunity to make a die roll, and (perhaps) wish they were brave enough to stand up and say "the emperor has no clothes!" or (in this case) "this game sucks!"

My wife and daughter have been in Mexico this last week, visiting family, while the boy and I have been 'batchin it.' No D&D play, but we played Space Hulk, Axis & Allies (Global), Blood Bowl Team Manager, went golfing, played pickleball, went bowling, shot pool, did a trivia night at a local pub, and (of course) did all the (his) and volleyball (ours). It's been a fine vacation for both of active vacation. Oh, we've sat around and watched some movies, too, but only at night and we both (usually) would fall asleep on the couch, tuckered after a long day.

Action. Play. This is what a kid wants. And buried under all the responsibilities and worries that come with adulthood, that's what our inner kid wants as well...certainly those geezer gamers like myself that enjoy (or want to enjoy) playing D&D. Why are dungeons so easy to run? Because they provide direct, immediate opportunities for action. Players LOVE dungeons. The bitch and moan if there isn't one on the immediate general, most players aren't self-motivated enough to execute bold schemes on their own...they'd rather go down a hole with torches and ropes and risk certain death for a bagful of treasure.

And, perhaps, this was the original impetus for giving characters "backstories" and personalities prior to provide some motivation or impetus for action OUTSIDE of jus throwing down a new dungeon. That is, admittedly, how my group used them in the days of our youth...even though we played 1E. When we rolled up our multitudes of characters...generally away from the table...we'd assign them personalities and backgrounds, crafted mainly from a combo of race, class, secondary skill, and social class (that's from the Unearthed Arcana, folks...). I mean, if the character was going to be an NPC anyway, the DMG had random tables for generating personalities, too.  But we used these motivating backgrounds as an impetus to action in a developed setting (our own) that provided little in the way of traditional "dungeons." Our fantasy world, developed over years of play, was a more interesting environment for exploration than another hole in the ground. 

[examples: here's a character whose ex-spouse lives in this town...we want to go the opposite way. Here's a character whose father was a mean, abusive a-hole...but also the general of the army...let's avoid that territory. This guy was trained as an assassin...his guild is in town X, and whether or not we're showing up depends on his standing with the guild, etc.]

But for the most part, even then we didn't make much use of them...that is to say, "exploration of character" was not really on the agenda. The agenda was ACTION...whether in a town, or a lonely road, or in the occasional (few and far between) dungeon sites we were able to discover. Fighting, stealing, wheeling, dealing...and then (more often than not) running from the consequences of our trouble-making. When the DM(s) HAS an established, developed world but LACKS a story arc or plot that they're following, THEN players are free to do what they want in the game world. Assuming CONSEQUENCES EXIST; otherwise their actions are...literally...inconsequential, and the players lose interest (and respect!) for the game being played.

Players want action and...AT FIRST...they will want (and need) directed action. They will want a dungeon to explore, to give their characters...and the world!...a "test-drive." And after their first dungeon adventure, they'll (probably) want another, and a juicy hook or treasure map will lead them out into the (game) world. And then, perhaps, a third dungeon...a bit harder or trickier to find then either of the first two, but also Very Dangerous & Rewarding. And the fourth is even harder to discover than the third...

And the whole time, you (the DM) will be crafting a world around the players (because dungeons are simple enough to run, especially if you simply adapt premade adventures). You'll be establishing local politics and economies and situations for the players to get embroiled in. You'll be sketching out NPCs that become established personalities in your campaign: the patriarch that's always getting tasked with raising characters from the dead, the wizard/sage who can identify their magical items, the tax collector whose always showing up at inopportune times to skim the cut for the local lord, the various inns (and innkeepers) along the road where PCs stay when out on safari, the locals in the town where they buy houses and set up their base of operations, the thief or jewel merchant (or both) who they use as a fence for their loot, the wandering ranger or paladin who they run into time and again who provides them with news of "the realm" and occasional aid (as necessary), the crazy druid who knows the local wilderness like the back of his hand and is a useful font of advice on the region, etc., etc. 

And as you build your world and the (imaginary) people in it, the players will come to care more and more about IT and less and less about being directed in their action. As the actions they take begin to have consequential impact on the world, they will be motivated to make MORE impact, to take their own actions: establishing domains, crafting artifacts, establishing cults and guilds, raising armies, seeking immortality, whatever. Heck, you want to know how romance gets introduced into your campaign? First allow the PCs to obtain some lands and a title, and then suggest that they have no heir(s) to whom they can leave their legacy...just watch them then start seeking out eligible suitors/brides in the region!

[not every player is interested in seeking out lichdom, you know?]

I am not...and never have been...a big proponent of the "tent-pole, mega-dungeon" concept of D&D play. That is certainly ONE way to ensure that the players get plenty of visceral action, but the action presented is fairly narrow in scope and cannot take advantage of ALL that D&D has to least, not without the cost of verisimilitude (which leads to lack of respect / lack of engagement of the players and, eventually, sabotage of your campaign). But there is no doubt in my mind that dungeons ARE the best ways to introduce players to the concepts of being active and taking action in the game world...something they desperately want and need for the game to be successful. 

Everything else is just color.

Okay, more later. Have a good weekend, folks.
: )


  1. I agree with both what you and the passages you quote from Alexis Smolensk say. I get the impression that the modern game places a much heavier burden on the DM and that the players are more passive. This contrasts with the examples of play in Moldvay Basic (B56) and 1e DMG (p97) which are largely player led, with the Caller and other players asking a lot of questions about the environment and telling the DM what they are planning to do. In both the Moldvay and DMG examples there's no obvious story or big narrative but it's clear that the players are having fun exploring these two dungeons.

    I'd say that the key to having fun is for the PC to ask questions, the DM to provide answers which provides sufficient information for the PC to make assessments of risk & reward and for the PC to make decisions and live with the consequences. The turn sequence is key here as that provides structure to both the DM and PC.

    So perhaps to go back to your own post of the other day, a guide on playing D&D should really be about those interactions that take place during the turn sequence and how each participant (DM, PC) can make the experience better. In the DM's case making those interactions better means planning things out in advance and being ready to make ad-hoc judgements.

    1. Mmm. Maybe.

      I'm still considering what I'd like to write (in such a book) and what would be "useful." Something keeps nagging at my mind: many years back, before I had kids of my own, I introduced my two teenage "nephews" to (B/X) D&D. They loved it, and when they moved to Virginia, I provided them with a copy of Labyrinth Lord and (maybe?) an old Monster Manual so that they could get started on making and running their own games.

      A couple years later, when I saw them again I was told that they'd never been able to get their game off the ground...that the older brother had tried his hand at DMing, but he "could never do it right." Years later I ran into the younger brother (now a grown and strapping young lad in his early 20s) who said he had tried to get into D&D gaming, but 5E was the only thing being played out on the east coast, and he disliked the games that were being run. He said he himself had no idea how to be a Dungeon Master...though perhaps he had more desire to be a player than a DM. He remarked he'd still love to play in any game I ran.

      What is it that's so hard? Is it really so tough?

      Once upon a time, I found it very challenging/awkward to talk to members of the opposite sex. Then, one day, I got the "knack" of it and had no problems, even as I would watch many of my friends struggle in this regard. Perhaps there is a "knack" to being a Dungeon Master? Maybe. But I am still coalescing ideas in my mind.

  2. As usual, JB, every time you link me (thank you for the praise), the comments field dies. You may be on the wrong track with writing said book, as the attention you get when you take this path declines precipitously.

    1. The comments field may have died, but the post has had nearly 500 views (which is pretty good for a week). I'm not terribly worried.
      ; )

  3. I think that there's two parts to it and to be a good DM you need to be good at both of them. The first is the practicalities of adventure design and organisation while the second is how you convey the information to the players and which words you choose for your descriptions. I'm a lot better at the former than the latter, so I was very pleased to see what Alexis Smolensk has written about yesterday. I really enjoyed that he co-opted Hitchcock.

    Reading what you have written about your nephews suggests that there really are a lot of people who would benefit from the sort of guidance that Laeixs Smolensk and yourself have been blogging about. Rather than a book, a pamphlet perhaps? Maybe the length of the old school primer? That could easily be released through DTRPG.

    1. Yeah, I really don't want to be writing a text book. Something akin to Strunk & White (or Alexis's "The Dungeon's Front Door") seems about right, but I'm still mulling over the delivery well as exactly what I hope to deliver!

      I am very busy at the moment, so I probably won't get a start on it till May.

  4. "Actual play" streams and shows need "story" because it draws in the audience, who can't take action and needs something to believe in while passively watching. Bereft of the freedom to move, the audience has time to concern themselves with matters like, "what will happen next by virtue of the story so far," because they have nothing else to identify with. The "actors," paid or not, are hyperconscious of this audience and act in accordance with the standards of the broadcast, the platform being streamed upon ... and the expectations of the audience. As player characters, they're not really free to act as they might in a game set in a basement without observers. Thus the "game" presented is necessarily devoid of any aspect that might be present in a real campaign.

    1. Yeah, I grok that...and I think the "hyperconscious" bit applies even to livestreams that aren't meant to be "shows" per se, just video capture of folks' on-line games.