Friday, July 27, 2012

3 Stages of Exploration (Part 3)

[continued from here]

Sorry, for the short digression (we’re not talking New D&D after all)…let’s recap some of the ground covered so far:

1) Game play in D&D can be divided into three stages of exploration.
2) Each stage demonstrates a deeper and more immersive role-playing experience.
3) It is these stages of exploration that make the game so intriguing and thought-provoking.
4) The three stages developed organically, not purposefully.
5) Because they were not purposefully designed the latter stages are severely flawed.

Okay, how we doing? Hmm…looks like I forgot I wanted to come back to the three "Stages of Exploration." Let’s talk about them now (and get that out of the way):

[I’m going to try to make this short]

Basic Stage (Stage 1 Exploration): Hazard Site

This is your basic single site, adventure locale, generally referred to as “a dungeon” regardless of the specific setting (a temple, cave complex, tomb, etc.). Whether relatively small (e.g. Tomb of Horrors), extensive (e.g. Hall of the Fire Giant King), or “mega-“ in size, it provides rough physical parameters for PC exploration…that is, it is finite and limited in scope. This doesn’t necessarily mean “unchanging” but in general “clearing” a dungeon means just that…it’s swept clean of hazards.

And it is these hazards – monsters, traps, fiendish puzzles, etc. – that give the “hazard site” its name. It is hazardous to enter into it. The imaginary persona (whether PC or NPC henchman) risks life and limb (and possibly more) by exploring the hazard site. To compensate for this, the DM provides straightforward objectives: rescue these prisoners, fulfill this quest, loot the place for fabulous wealth and treasure, etc.

This is easy-shmeezy to understand: secure the goal, don’t get killed doing it. This is the BASIC stage of exploration (and by exploration I’m talking “exploration of the imaginary game world”). Challenges, rewards, all within limited parameters…it gives players the chance to explore their PCs capabilities (what can my fighter do? How do thief skills work?), and explore basic concepts of the game (hit points, armor class, saving throws, attack rolls, XP, etc.). It is incredibly useful for teaching the basics of the game to the new player…the straightforwardness and limited nature of the exploration provides a nice little “cap” on the “you can do anything you can imagine” preventing the newbie from being overwhelmed.

Expert Stage (Stage 2 Exploration): Imaginary Landscape

Roughly corresponding to the “wilderness exploration” presented in the Expert rule sets (both Moldvay and Mentzer), Stage 2 occurs once players come out of the dungeon with enough loot and wherewithal to choose their own adventure. Now, as said, it’s still possible to have an adventure that takes place “outdoors” that corresponds to the limits of a hazard site…I lost my copy of N2: The Forest Oracle sometime ago, but I seem to recall it being fairly linear and limited, for example.

However, once player characters leave the initial dungeon for the “whole wide imaginary world” things tend to get a bit more dicey. Without a generous (or railroad-y) DM, players are left to find their own adventures, following up rumors and answering want ads, etc. The characters have the potential to go anywhere, not just being confined to the hazard site…if they can afford a ship they can purchase one and sail to the Isle of Dread (or elsewhere). If they can’t afford a ship they can still make plans to stowaway aboard a vessel (perhaps later killing and replacing the captain and crew). The can hire out as caravan guards, or purchase their own horses and gallop off in any direction. They have to deal with food and getting lost and hiring guides and blacksmiths and other specialists. They can research legends, or become traders in mustard seed…whatever fancy takes them. And they can certainly become embroiled in the local political scene, at least indirectly. If the Dragon Highlords are moving this way and burning every town that doesn’t capitulate, they have a choice between organizing a resistance, or hightailing it out of there…or throwing in with the Highlords, offering up the townfolk as slaves.

The difference between Stage 2 and Stage 3 is the players generally don’t have the power to do everything they desire, and are still (at least half the time) reacting to the DMs scenarios. Invaders are coming; what do you want to do? A noble is organizing an exploratory journey by sea; do you want to apply for the job? The town has a lottery for sacrificing virgins to the local dragon; what are you going to do about it? Etc. Player characters are learning a LOT about the openness of choice in a role-playing game during Stage 2 and finding their own voices. They’re also (at this point) pressing the limits of most Old School editions, exploring the boundaries of the game. Weak DMs will have a difficult time with this stage of exploration; railroad-y scenarios (to get a group of PCs back into the next Hazard Site) is a common reaction to the overwhelmed DM in Stage 2 of the game.

The last few years of the old D&D campaign of my youth was spent mostly in Stage 2 exploration.

Master Stage (Stage 3 Exploration): World Shakers

Around the forums and OS blogs, there’s been much talk about the “endgame” scenario(s) of D&D; i.e. the denouement that occurs after a player character (or group of PCs) grow to such a level of wealth and power (i.e. level) that they can easily settle down, build a castle, and collect taxes from the peasants while growing fat and lazy in retirement.

But who wants to do that?

It generally takes a lot of ambition (and a lot of playtime with the same character) to get to a lofty high level…even so high as B/X’s “name level.” When my most recent B/X group finally got all their grooves ironed out and started playing seriously we made good progress and after several months of weekly play we were just starting to hit 5th and 6th level. In my youth, we had many high level characters, but those came from years of play, often with large (i.e. “Monty”) hauls of treasure, and many starting their careers as “mid-level” characters (to catch up to existing PCs in the game)…not to mention marathon game sessions unhindered by jobs and familial obligations.

Chances are if you’re playing a high level character that you’ve worked to advance, you’re not going to want to “go quietly into the night.” You’re DRIVEN to do more: to build that thieves guild or lead that Jihad or forge that kingdom or craft your magical magnum opus. Sure, high level characters like to go on “adventures” too: Tomb of Horrors is just a Hazard Site for high level characters, and what are “other planar adventures” but Stage 2 exploration only available to characters with the means to gate or astral travel?

But honestly, once you’ve spent a bunch of time in Stage 1 and 2 exploration (and amassed a serious amount of XP and treasure in the process) you tend to become a bit jaded to O Just Another Dungeon. Sure you can fight Orcus in his palace (H4: Throne of Bloodstone), but is that the most interesting thing you want to do with your time? Reacting to the scenario the DM gives you?

Certainly there is a degree of reaction in Stage 3, but most Stage 3 exploration is exploration of one’s OWN power, and the effects of one’s own choices on the game world. If you take down Greyhawk with your personal army of gnolls and polar bears, how does that affect the surrounding nations? If you decide to force the infidels to convert to the worship of Odin or be burned at the stake, who will rise up to stop you? What types of shady deals do you need to make to allow your illicit guild (thief or assassin) to flourish and function with impunity in the Empire’s capitol?

I watched the first season of Game of Thrones (and read the book on which it’s based) and I’d certainly call it a “fantasy adventure” but the adventure is not one of exploring a strange landscape or an ancient ruins. The adventure is found in navigating the cutthroat politics of a nation ready to tear itself apart…and that’s a fantastic maelstrom of action to take part in. Assuming the player characters still have the stomach for the game after ten years of nothing but killing monsters of ascending size.

That’s the thing that hit me like a (small) ton of bricks the other day when reading Noism’s post was this: his idea is great but ONLY when one is looking at D&D from the Big Picture Fantasy Adventure World concept. That is to say, it’s only great when you forget the little dungeon-delving game from which the whole thing developed.

See, Noism is talking like an intelligent human crafting a fantasy world. The medieval (or even pseudo-medieval) mindset is not conducive to treasure-seeking adventurers, while other historical periods and cultures are. However, D&D is not founded on any intelligent principle of design: Arneson created a limited scope of adventure to run a particular GAME and then that game evolved into the “World of Fantasy Adventure.” And no the latter doesn’t make a whole helluva’ lot of sense…but then neither does most of the pulp serials that probably served as a basis of inspiration for said world.

For example, I recently read Tarnsman of Gor. I remarked that it would make a fine D&D setting, because it has this Deus Ex Machina in it called the priest-kings that can automatically incinerate at any time (with blue fire!) anything they don’t like. Like people wearing armor better than chainmail or the building of automotive vehicles or the use of gunpowder. Why do people fight with swords when they’re from a more advanced civilization and living among several (specific) examples of high technology? Because the priest-kings incinerate you if you don’t. The world of Gor is a big game, with rules only its masters understand.

While reading it I found myself thinking, you know, this reminds me a bit of the flavor of Blackmoor. Low and behold that when I managed to get my hands on a copy of The First Fantasy Campaign about a week ago, what do I find but Tarns and Tarnsmen and slaves of various types. Yeah, Blackmoor (and Arneson) definitely had some Gorean influence mashed in.

Gor is an artificial, nonsensical, game-type world…just like the world of D&D. Why are there Norwegian monsters side-by-side with Indian spirits (rakshasa) and Greek mythology…not to mention Tolkien humanoids? Because it’s a game and a goddamn hodge-podge, that’s why! If you take it seriously you end up gnashing your teeth or looking utterly ridiculous or both.

And yet, as I said at the beginning of this series, D&D is a whole helluva’ lot more than your “average game.” It provides players with an opportunity to escape into a fantasy world and pretend (for the duration of a session) to be a heroic warrior or wizard or whatever. To experience and to EXPLORE a waaay different way of life from that to which we’re accustomed. To deal with issues and challenges of a different (and often drastic or deadly) nature than the normal ones we find ourselves facing…and, of course, like a weekly sitcom, we can turn it off for the night when the session is done and be none the worse for wear (depending on our snack preference) while having packed in some damn decent entertainment.

This entertainment, this experience, is richer when coupled with deeper and better role-playing and with a layered and textured world. But that means getting rid of the artificial restraints imposed by the game itself, and that’s a tall order.

Noism’s suggested exploring the New World or Africa or Asia…doing the Marco Polo or Hernan Cortez thing…as a reasonable way to build a world looking for adventure. But the type of exploration he’s talking about is Stage 2…and that’s pretty rough for starting adventurers with the rules as written.

Just like life’s pretty rough in a dungeon when you're playing a 1st level druid or assassin, you know?

[to be continued]


  1. Well, Hernando Cortes became finally marques (and, to his embitterment, not viceroy), and if that's not Stage 3...

    Not quite sure if I agree with everything, but great posts. Let them come.

  2. Yes, there are too many people who forget that this is just a game. It's supposed to be fun.

    That said there are a couple of games that start out with the idea of Stage III from the get go. Pendragon, Ars Magica, Game of Thrones. Of course, they have mechanisms in place to keep the players alive. And they're not B/X or BECMI which is really the topic of discussion.

  3. Good point about Ars Magica, Anthony. I'll have to take a look at those rules again with an eye to D&D domain play.

  4. "Assuming the player characters still have the stomach for the game after ten years of nothing but killing monsters of ascending size"

    Remind me not to play in your game sessions... they come across as lacking in meaningful experiences. Levels 1-9 SHOULD be filled with events that the players will remember forever in a campaign that forged them from unworked ore into shining hard metal. Right about that time the local lords (and ladies) become interested in these famous heroes and their stories take unexpected twists, just like in the legends of Beowolf and Sigfried...