Friday, August 21, 2015

Serving Players and Game Scale

There are a couple different ways to play Dungeons & Dragons...

Boy. How many times over the years have I started a post like that. More than a few, most of which (if not all) I've erased without publishing to Ye Old Blog. Fact o the matter is, there is a shit-ton number of ways to play D&D, some of which (in my Not So Humble opinion) are better than others.

Which is not to say that there aren't many ways to play that are good (there ARE)...but some ways of playing aren't as effective as others. And by "effective" I mean in a way that allows all participants to experience a greater degree of enjoyment or "fun."

In my opinion, as said.

However, for purposes of this post there are only a couple (broad) ways that I want to discuss (or, rather, opine about). Since time is limited (as usual) and I've been drinking a little wine (also as usual), we won't be too fancy in coming up with new verbiage. Let's just call these two methods Serial Adventurism and Virtual World Living. Just for giggles.

"Serial adventurism" is what I call on-going campaigns in which exploration is limited to site-based adventures that don't give much of a shit about what happens in between each new excursion. Players create characters and are started outside the mouth of a dark cave, or an abandoned ruin, or a short range from a forbidden temple and told, "go there, accomplish objective;" said objective being anything from acquiring treasure to killing a Big Bad Guy to liberating prisoners or some sacred artifact needed to save the Greater Good or whatever. Any consideration of a greater campaign world (outside and away from the adventure site) is a secondary consideration at best. The closest town is simply figured to have all the items on your Standard Equipment List available, as well as a place to pawn items or cash in treasure (gems, jewelry) for easily divided coinage, and probably a place to hire various specialists, whether we're talking torch bearers and mercenaries or sages and alchemists.

This is the world of the random table, though the degree of randomization certainly varies by taste. On the high end of randomization (what might be considered the lowest end of consideration for anything outside "the dungeon," i.e. the adventure site), we find "carousing tables" as well as the town wandering monster of the 1E DMG, featuring everything from street walkers to vampires lurking in the crooked alleys of our semi-historic burg. But even on the low-end of randomization, you're still dicing to see which specialists are available and what percentage of value the character is going to get in exchange for that giant ruby. Gate guards and taverns and liege lords are little more than generic cut-outs, despite often having fanciful names and the occasional hidden secret to be discerned (the guard that's easily bribed, the tavern with the secret cellar, the lord that's practicing necromancy). These things matter only insomuch as they offer another potential adventure...they are otherwise left un-dealt with. 'Who cares?' asks the players 'What's the next mission?'

The main concern for the Serial Adventurist campaign is getting to the next site, accomplishing the mission, and "leveling up" in power and ability...whether through the acquisition of XP and level or new spells and equipment. For those who say, "we explore dungeons not character," this is your game. It's almost (almost) the oldest of Old School play. The adventures need only the slimmest of justification, if any...if there is exploration of character, it's often limited to exploring the limits of what the character can do/accomplish based on class-race-level and (permissiveness of) the DM. For the Serial Adventurist, mechanical character options and interesting sites (and site challenges) are the most important facets of the campaign.

It's sport D&D, pure and simple.

"Virtual World Living" is on the opposite side of the campaign spectrum. In this game, the main consideration is escapism in exploration of a fictional fantasy world, whether created by the DM or purchased as a boxed campaign setting. The characters are a part of the setting, and the extent of their impact on that setting is a secondary consideration to the setting itself, which should be a living, breathing world with a sensical history and geography.

"Sensical" is a relative term, of course. The Virtual World campaign can still be subject to random whimsy, whether created by dice rolled tables, arbitrary DM decree, or both. The point is the extent of the world available for exploration and habitation by the characters. There may be dungeons available to plunder, but locating one and getting to it can be its own adventure; whole game sessions can be taken with journeys and environmental interaction, including the exploration of urban developments not considered traditional sites for adventure. Yes, most of the campaigns referred to as "sandbox" fall under this heading.

What's interesting to note is that the main distinguishing factor between these two types of play are the scope and scale of the structure being explored by the players' characters. Both the adventure site and the fantasy world are imaginary constructs through which the characters travel. In the first, we find the party traveling from room to room (or encounter to encounter) via 10' wide corridors; in the second they travel from site to site via roads or paths, whether already existent or blazed by the characters...and yet the latter game contains within it the former, as scale is "zoomed" upon arrival by the party at a site that offers conflict/reward/interest. A hostile encounter in the wilderness is handled exactly the same as an encounter in the dungeon environment...despite the scale of wilderness travel being in days and miles, not ten minute turns and five foot squares.

That's because D&D itself is small scale by default. Combat is man-to-man (or man-to-monster) with traded blows and momentary decisions (do I open a chest? do I cast a spell? do I search for secret doors?) having immediate dramatic impact on the players (do I lose hit points/resources? does my character die ending my participation?). This small scale immediacy allows players to escape into the excitement of the moment, to become (via shifting perception) their imaginary characters in that moment. Do I want to pull this level? Do I want to draw my sword and attack?

The purpose to creating, running, and/or playing in a Virtual World game would seem to be providing the players with a more immersive experience...that the escapism of fantasy gaming is aided by making players think about and account for the world in which they travel (Do I need a guide? How do I locate food in the wilderness? What are the politics of this kingdom? Which region offers the best source of adventure/income for a character of my experience level?). Dealing with these large scale concepts...WHY is this dungeon here?...tends to get a game labeled as "more real" (i.e. "more readily escapable into") than the Serial Adventure game with its freestanding "funhouses." Despite the fact that in both types of play, the escapism is most easily found in the momentary, small scale decisions of the player characters. The Serial Adventurists just don't find as much enjoyment in momentarily haggling with an armorer over the price of chain mail or deciding which drink to order at the tavern.

And yet, without these non-adventure moments, the game loses some of its fantasy luster. If the game is only about the best marshaling of resources and wit to "beat" the dungeon, how does that make the game much different from an overly complex game of Hearts? The soul of the Dungeons & Dragons game doesn't rest in the overcoming of challenges through the best tactical (i.e. small scale) decision making. It's in those all-too-human instances that occasionally arise during game play eliciting real emotional reactions: humor, fear, anger, greed, joy, etc. Instances not based on the mechanics or external objectives of gameplay (for example, not the "joy" of leveling up or defeating a Big Baddie), but instances where we momentarily forget we're playing a game, and have a real human reaction to the imaginary circumstances occurring at the table.

Those instances generally come only in the small scale (individual character interaction), with the possible exception of events that shake (or shatter) an entire campaign setting. And yet, I'd hazard that these latter events only elicit real emotional response when players are deeply invested in the setting itself. Otherwise, who cares if the "world" is overrun by Old Ones or a gigantic horde of frenzied undead (for example)...we can always just start a new world, right? And deep investment in a setting doesn't come easily for players except over long-term play when they've become part of the know, high level, endgame style play? With landowners and political shaker characters?

Which is NOT the usual style of play these days. Many times have I heard from people that play beyond a certain mid-level number isn't "as fun" or satisfying. Or that their games usually end by or around level 8. And hasn't the most recent editions of D&D aimed their design (in part) at making even high level play viable in a "small scale" arena? With powerful individual character abilities designed to be used at the man-to-man, tactical scale?

If you're only going to do small scale (even small scale at high levels), is a Big Ol' Wide World really necessary? Can you not get sufficient "buy-in" from players without a detailed world setting? I'd think the answer is "no" given the degree to which players can suspend their disbelief (with tiefling fighters and dracoform warlocks fighting side-by-side...or Old School parties that contain characters of diametrically opposed alignments). The fantasy excesses of D&D are already ridiculous...does it really serve the players to craft up such a "big picture" setting?

Unless you're going to provide a way for PCs to invest in that setting, I don't think it does. At least, not enough to justify attention such world building commands. That doesn't mean there aren't good reasons for world building. I'm just saying that there's a lot less pay-off in your average D&D game than focusing on other areas of campaign/game making the small scale pay more emotional dividends with your players.

Anyway, them's my thoughts of the day.
: )


  1. "Both" seems like the obvious choice. I think a majority of D&D players and DMs would agree. If I'm wrong, let me know about it!

    1. @ VS:

      Um, not sure you're wrong, but not clear what question you're answering with the "both" answer. I don't think I was really offering an either-or choice.

  2. There's always the possibility that the DM creating the vast game setting enjoys the process of simply making something. Of having something to show & tell, no different from the writer of books or the artist building Stonehenge in the back yard. It is impressive, aesthetic, triumphant in its own existence.

    Running players in it may be an afterthought.

    1. @ Alexis:

      As I said, "that doesn't mean there aren't good reasons for world building." Even for folks incapable of creating an aesthetic triumph, the work involved can have practical (and satisfying) value, in and of itself.