Saturday, January 9, 2010

Player Versus DM Expectations

Not-so-hot-on-the-heels of some other posts, I figured I better put some of these thoughts down before I forget them...

A couple days ago, I posted about un-finished dungeons...basically, regarding my poor track record of ultimately completing or "cleaning out" pre-packaged adventures. The comments generated a lot of food for thought for Yours Truly.

Later I read this post over at Father Dave's regarding the thief...a post I think is fascinating for its implication in adventure/dungeon design. Today, I was reading about Chgowiz's wife's encounter with a smoke dragon...and how it nearly led to despair and a throw-up-your-hands-and-dice moment at the table.

I kinda' wanna' tie all this stuff together.

In designing an adventure module for publishing (still sharpening that axe, folks!) I've been going over a lot of the do's and don't's I think it's important to consider. Certainly I don't want to repeat bad trends of the past or do something that doesn't result in a fun adventure romp for players. But let's look at expectations for a second.

While I am a big believer in background "creative agendas" I believe few, if any people, actually come to a game table with an initial attitude that can be described as narratavist or gamist. I think it's fairly safe to say that MOST people sit down at the gaming table wanting #1 to have fun and #2 to escape a bit from the humdrum of "everyday life." Once they've had THOSE needs met, similar to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs...only THEN do they start looking to meet these secondary creative agendas.

In other words, if they're not getting the fun and the escape, they never bother to worry about the other stuff.

Now I think that these primary goals (of which escape is probably secondary to fun except for folks with slightly skewed psyches...for whatever reason) are fairly explicit in the text of earlier versions of Dungeons and Dragons...especially B/X D&D. But they sure seem to get lost in later versions, which instead extoll slightly different objectives, perhaps based on the perceived need of their target gaming community. Game balance, in whatever form that phrase rears its ugly head, is considered to be paramount IN ORDER TO HAVE FUN, according to the rules...and this is a justification for the extensive and intricate rules of editions like the 3rd and 4th edition.

But game balance is NOT required to have fun...thinking so is an F'ing illusion, folks. Balance is only an important component of fun (and not even a necessary one!) in games focused on the GAMIST aspect of play, where players want to be on an equal and level playing field.

And again, it's not even necessary of gamist play, as some players prefer an even GREATER challenge, with the odds stacked against 'em. For example, I've ALWAYS been drawn to the idea of the doughty halfling warrior, sticking it to the big guys, ever since I saw the illustrations in the DMG in the "random dungeon section." Look at that little guy go! THAT's the character, I want to play!

[sorry, I don't have a copy of my DMG with me at the moment...I'll post an image later if I can find one]

So putting aside the whole discussion of whether later edition characters (or earlier edition for that matter) are balanced against each other, look at the advice given to DMs in adventure design as to how to balance encounters in adventure design: basically, it boils down to "make sure you have a little something of everything for all character types." There should be some undead, for example, for clerics, or some challenges that can only be overcome using a thief's skills. There should be some fighting for fighters and some places where a magic-user comes in handy, and perhaps a few instances where character racial abilities (like elves ability to find secret doors) come in handy.


To me, this feels plainly contrived. Not only THAT, it also ends up limiting players' choice as they are suddenly required to take "a little bit of everything" with them into the dungeon. If they don't, they face potential dead ends (as Father Dave found). What's more, you get that "last-person-to-arrive-takes-the-class-no-one-wants" mentality that Frothy Friar talks about, most often seen (by both him and me at least) with the cleric.

[actually, in my old campaigns the "last picked" role was probably split equal between clerics and thieves...and these weren't even D4 hit dice thieves!]

Frankly, to a player this sucks. Like it or not, one of a player's first two needs on the Gamers' Hierarchy of Needs pyramid is having fun. BEFORE "meeting the challenge." And if I get forced into a role because it's necessary based on a game design meant to cater to the possibility or expectation of a mixed group of adventurers, than you just chopped a chunk off my free will, and part of my enjoyment just went with it!

So let's talk about a DM's expectations and "hierarchy of needs." Are they different? Somewhat. I think DMs want to have fun, too, but instead of the fun of escaping into the shoes of a different person, they get the fun of "playing God;" being a creator of worlds, in other words.

And here's where there can be a bit of a disconnect.

While certainly the DM seat attracts an egomaniacal variety of individual [note: Me as Exhibit A, blogging my little blog thoughts] that's not the point of the Role of DM. It really ain't. World creation, or reality creation, or story creation...whatever you want to call a collaborative effort between DM and players.

It's got to be, otherwise you aren't playing an RPG. Instead you're doing a play with improvised lines and some dice rolls.

And while I LOVE the theater (actor, remember?) it's not anything theatrical that attracts me to RPGs. REALLY. Like many, I am drawn to the escapism part (which is also something that draws me to acting) which to me is fun...but there is no urge to talk in funny voices or dress up in costume, at least when I am acting as a player (as a DM I will use different voices to distinguish between different NPCs in conversation). I do like imagining myself as an "adventurer" (whether heroic, roguish, or an outright villain makes no nevermind to me) and exploring a fantasy setting. I don't think I'm alone in this, either.

The DM's role, sometimes forgotten, is one of facilitator. What the DM does is facilitate this world/story/reality creation. Adventures are designed, settings are written, NPCs and obstacles placed...and then there is acting as adjudicator and referee for the players as they explore the game world. This exploration, in collaboration with everyone at the table, is what CREATES the shared environment. NOT the DM alone.

When a DM "puts on airs" and thinks he or she is wholly responsible for world creation they are deluding themselves. Pure and simple. If you want to author a world, write a book, don't play an RPG. If your players abandon your game, all the background and backstory in the world means nothing.

AND (this is the important part) if you DO allow players free reign in your carefully designed game (in other words, if you're a good and competent DM that doesn't force your players down your own linear story arcs, etc.), they are going to muck it all up. They will go "off book." They will want to push the game and exploration into areas you haven't detailed or thought of. They will not "do what you want them to."

It's like the talk of these huge ass adventure modules. The DM may make some giant, ambitious adventure...that frankly bores the hell out of the players. At least if the players intend their characters to do more than explore that single adventure over the life of the campaign.

Now I already said in the earlier post that some modules, like B2 and X1, are excluded from my bile on the subject as they are intended to be something of introductory campaigns. They provide an extensive setting for characters of the requisite levels to explore in order to learn the Basic and Expert rules.

Other module sets, like the Slaver series (A1-4) and the GDQ series ARE, in fact, actual campaign settings. They are designed to take place over many, many game sessions as adventurers plumb the depths of their multi-dungeon scenarios. When running through one of these, your players are pretty much committed to the long haul. The same is true for the Desert of Desolation (I3-I5) series and even I1:Dwellers of the Forbidden City (if played as simply its original, tournament "rescue the prisoners scenario" the adventure is short-and-sweet, otherwise it provides an extensive sandbox for campaign game play).

But other "one-off" modules are simply ridiculous.

Let's look at I6: Ravenloft. Garbage. This is billed as a single adventure...and one from which there is no escape for the players until it's completed (killer fog!). How many encounters are there in this module?

103. Of 45 modules I reviewed for "# of numbered encounters" only one other module had more: X3: Curse of Xanathon with 107 by the somewhat inconsistent Douglas Niles.

As a DM prepping a game or a player slogging through one, that's a nightmare. By contrast, B2 only has 64 encounters (outside the Keep) and X1 has 51...both of these can provide multiple sessions of gameplay and multiple levels of advancement. What if someone is holding to a strict "no more than one level gained per adventure completed" rule? After weeks of exploring Ravenloft you get one level? That's a shit-load of work for little pay-off, in my opinion.

[the idea of a high-level magic-user vampire isn't even very original...Q1 had the moody gothic vampire world with the 15th level magic-user vampire in 1980, folks]

Compare that to adventures like S1 and S2. The Tomb of Horrors has 33 numbered encounter areas, White Plume Mountain has 28. Those are nice little adventures that can be finished in one or two sessions. These are good examples of single adventures, as opposed to a campaign setting.

Just as with "world creation" DMs and designers can go over-board with adventure/module design. Except for campaign settings (like the Stonehell Dungeon mega-dungeon, for example) it's generally unnecessary to have too much wedged into an adventure. Usually, the players are not looking for anything beyond their basic objectives (unless understanding a dungeon's "history" is required for resolving a particular "puzzle" or challenge). The rest of that shit is superfluous. It's design masturbation.

So with a little time and energy, I could probably boil all these thoughts down into some Great Commandment of Adventure Design. However, I'm not going to do that right now. Instead I'd like to let this post stew a bit while I work on an actual writing project (the aforementioned adventure module I'm doing) and give readers a chance to weigh in and comment on the thoughts expressed here. These I will later distill into some Commandments (don't even know how many yet!) so feel free to try your hand at your own...or blow me out of the water if you disagree with anything written! Ha! I'm feeling a little rambunctious this morning, I guess.

Probably the smell of the NFL play-offs in the air.
: )


  1. they get the fun of "playing God;" being a creator of worlds, in other words

    As a GM I actually find campaign design tedious. I have fun if the players have fun, and that's it.

    re: your earlier post - I've been running B2 for almost 30 years and there are still rooms in it that no party has discovered.

    That really makes me happy, actually :)

  2. Thanks for a provocative post! I totally agree with the sentiments you express here. Maybe one commandment, the crucial "Thou Shalt Not Commit Design Masturbation" commandment, could go something like:

    "A DM shall not over-plan or over-detail a campaign setting or adventure module. Remember, the players are not looking for anything beyond their basic objectives."

    That idea is one of the most helpful reminders I will carry away from this thoughtful post.

  3. While I wholeheartedly agree with most of what you say here, I paused when I came to your comments about Ravenloft. I'm not a Ravenloft fanboy, and I don't have a vested interest in defending it, but I gotta say, when I ran this one for my players back when, they ate it up - big time. I mean, they absolutely loved it.

    Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that what you're saying about the DM's role isn't true - but maybe it's more, like, guidelines. There are times, I think, when players really DO appreciate an intricately detailed, fully-fleshed out scenario for them to explore. But I agree it gets old fast. For the DM as well as the players. But I wouldn't go as far as to call it garbage.

  4. I agree completely with the idea that the extent of world-building, adventure design, etc. should only be to the degree that it enhances the enjoyment of the game...And the exact amount that that will be varies from group to group.

    I have also found, as an aside, that player expectation is not always a good gauge to what they might enjoy. I've gamed with players who came from games with zero world-building and were happy with that (they never knew any different, really), but when encountering the idea that there could be more to it--that they could get a little lagniappe, if you will--they took to it wholeheartedly.

  5. Man JB, you were rambunctious. This is quite the post. I'm not a fan of 'balanced' gaming. I prefer to have things develop naturally. If a 3rd level group is not smart enough to run away from a 15HD lich with his army of wights then I say let the dice roll as they may and within five mintures tell them to start rolling up their next characters.

    As far as Ravenloft goes I'm not sure if I've ever adventured in it. I just remember loving the new style of maps.

    The expectation of players and GMs is regular theme in my blogs and it is a critical part of gaming. I may have to link off of yours for another blog idea you've given me. Thanks for such a great blog JB.

  6. Regarding game balance: Can I get an amen?!

    Regarding "the leftover class": I actually have gamed with people who refuse to choose a race or class until everyone else has done so, that they might fill in the gaps. I find that I am perfectly willing to do this as a player if I am the last one to join a group. I can see it totally sucking for a new player, though, or for osmeone who has their heart set on a particular class or character type. (Although I find that if you can get someone to deviate from the class they always play, thy often have a great time)

    Rock on.

  7. Great post. made me sit up and think of what i'm doing.

  8. Mega post

    Re Short & Sweet Adventures: Five Room Dungeons

    Re DM as Facilitator: Exactly! Although the title "facilitator" reminds me of self-help seminars or corporate mandated sensitivity training. I wonder how much different direction games and the hobby would be if they had used Dungeon Facilitator, Dungeon Designer, Dungeon Maker rather than the all controlling, top-down Dungeon MASTER.

  9. Righteous post! Gonna keep chewing on this one. ;)