One concept they reach, that I don't think unreasonable, is that while there clearly seems to be a number of responsibilities (hats worn) by a DM, many DMs (including themselves) have particular responsibilities they prefer more than others. To me, this is not unlike a player saying that the thrill of combat, or the solving of puzzles, or the interaction with NPCs is their preferred portion of exploring the imaginary environment of a campaign. Clearly, the majority of us play D&D because we enjoy what it offers, but some aspects of it offer more "juice" than others.
For me, MY particular preference is for designing and running adventures. Campaign or world building is actually a bit of a slog for me...it's a means to an end, that end being the parameters for a particular adventure. And yet, I would guess I am far away from the current norm of adventure design: I have little concern for plot or story arc or the design and writing of "interesting characters" (NPCs). I enjoy creating situations and scenarios for exploration and I do so in a formulaic fashion designed around the D&D system...based on whichever edition I happen to be using at the time.
I outlined my basic design formula waaaay back in 2015 (about four years ago). It's the method I continue to use, more or less, and the method I am currently using to repurpose the 5E adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak. It's a system based mainly on treasure allocation compared to the expected level of player characters participating in the adventure, mixed in the proper proportions of monster-obstacle-rest that I have found fully functional for pacing in actual play.
Has anyone here ever taken a screenwriting class? For those who haven't (but who are interested in the process), I'd recommend Syd Field's Screenplay as the non-nonsense instructional work on how to write a solid film script. Films we watch may have more (or less) interesting stories than others, they may have more (or less) developed characters, they may have better (or worse) dialogue, but nearly all of them follow the exact same formula when it comes to writing them. Good, bad, or meh. There are reasons films tend to be the same length (120 minutes, or 90 for those aimed at younger audiences with shorter attention spans). The plot points, their pacing, are all based on standards established over the many decades of the film industry.
For me, the fun and enjoyment of adventure design is found working within the formula that I choose to use (as outlined, in the main, by Tom Moldvay). The adventure in D&D is, after all, only a means to an end itself:
- It delivers the experience of D&D to the players.
- It provides the method (through reward) by which players advance, opening additional opportunities (i.e. content) for play.
Dragon of Icespire Peak, despite some interesting and creative ideas, is an extremely simplistic and (for my money) poor design hindered by the 5E's variant system of advancement...in this case, the "milestone" system of simply awarding a level of advancement upon successful quest completion.
[fun side note: I developed an alternate system of level advancement also using the term "milestones" long before 5E was published. This was back in 2010 and was inspired in part by Saga Star Wars's "destiny points" to represent a more streamlined bonus. Since my "B/X Star Wars" game (later re-named "Kloane War Knights") has yet to be published, its original format has not yet seen the light of day (other than this blog), but you can see the same application in my Five Ancient Kingdoms, copyright 2013...a year before 5E was published. Pay me, WotC!]
[yes, 4E had a "milestone" rule procedure; it was not related to the awarding of experience/levels]
ANYway...Dragon of Icespire Peak divides its various adventure scenarios (called "quests") into the following types: starting quests, follow-up quests (divided into two tiers), and the main dragon quest/fight. Characters are awarded one level for each starter quest up until 3rd level, one level for every two follow-up quests (presumably up to 6th), and then one more level for defeating the dragon. The adventure states that characters "should be 6th level" by the end of the adventure (and indeed, the box says it is designed to take characters from levels one to six), but a group of completist players are going to end up being 7th level by the letter of the milestone rules...and I'm not sure I'd buy that.
Here's the treasure yields I'm considering, using the B/X fighter level chart as a baseline (yes, AD&D fighters need more XP starting at level 5, but if you subtract the 10% experience bonus most such PCs would expect to have, it amounts to the same numbers or less):
Starter Quests: 10,000 g.p. each
Follow-Up Quests (tier 1): 10,000 g.p. each
Follow-Up Quests (tier 2): 20,000 g.p. each
Dragon (main) Quest: 80,000 g.p.
Considering that even a white dragon has treasure type H (average yield: 50,000 g.p.) this should be pretty doable. Icespire Hold has 24 encounter areas total (counting the two H22 areas as "A" and "B"), which works nicely with my formulaic approach:
8 monsters areas (4 have treasure)
4 trap/hazard areas (1 has treasure)
4 "special" areas (1 has treasure)
9 empty areas (1 has treasure)
With perhaps 1 "extra" treasure area.
Rough treasure yields for the main quest will thus be:
1,250 g.p. (or 625 g.p. x2)
These are parameters I'm happy to work with; more, I'm excited to work with them. Even using a formulaic system, I find it a cool challenge to see what I can come up with, working within self-imposed design limitations. I'm not concerned with the XP yield of monsters, as combat/killing monsters isn't a requirement of the D&D editions I run. That XP is incidental, and will (hopefully) make up the difference for treasure the party misses; I never expect PCs to find every last scrap of loot in an adventure site. As I'll be taking the same approach with every "quest" in the book, there will be more than enough potential XP (found treasure) to advance the PCs...assuming they play well enough to survive and find said treasure.
I can understand if this seems like a "soulless" approach to adventure design, but I find it to be the opposite. In practice, I've discovered that taking care of the mechanical aspect of the award system up front provides me the freedom to run adventures to the best of my ability, managing the minutia, playing the NPC adversaries (and allies), creating the experience (through pacing and narration) in the players' minds that allows them to enjoy playing D&D. Involved story arcs and fancy plot devices are paltry in comparison.