Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Editions & Expectations

The point of this series is to provide an easy-to-follow blueprint for the prospective Dungeon Master to run a game of Dungeons & Dragons that will satisfy them in the long-term. Because D&D is a game that, honestly, requires very little financial investment (meaning you can play it on very meager means) AND can be played even after age and disability limits you from most other activities, long-term is the best way to think about and approach the game. 

But we'll get to that. First we need to temper expectations.

If you are interested in being a DM because you are hoping to be the next Tolkien or something, man you are barking up the wrong tree. If you want to direct film (or plays) or write for television...go do that. If you want to write a gigantic fantasy novel series like Sam Donaldson or George Martin or (God help you) Robert Jordan...then go do that.  Write your books. Write your screenplays. Film them...whatever it takes to scratch your artistic itch...DO IT. Draw your magnum opus comic book with Frazetta-like characters or Aspirin-like situations or WHATEVER. Go do that! Hopefully, you'll make some money on it, but REGARDLESS, you will find satisfaction pursuing your creative endeavor of choice.

D&D doesn't look like that. Oh, I know...there are folks on the internet that play D&D that seem to be creating some sort of entertaining "story." That's fine...that's another form of scripted entertainment, created to entertain the subscribers. That is NOT what D&D play is, nor what it looks like in practice, nor (I daresay) what makes it an incredibly enjoyable pastime.

D&D, in its best form, is a fantasy adventure game, allowing players to experience fantasy adventure. But what does that really mean

It means that it is a game. A game that creates high emotion in its players...fear, joy, excitement, exhilaration, despair, anger, sadness, triumph, etc...emotions that are EXPERIENCED in play, much like a competitive sport or game of high stakes poker. That's what it's like to PLAY the game...that is the "fun" of the game...for the players.

For the Dungeon Master, the satisfaction comes from creating a world and running a game that creates these emotions in players. 

But if you expect players to "perform" in the manner of a trained actor or "behave" in a manner that "befits the story;" no, in most cases that's NOT what you're going to get at the table, even with trained actors for participants. That's just not what the game is built to do...not in ANY edition of the game. You might have a group of very creative individuals sitting at the game table with you...screenwriters and novelists with a modicum (or more) of acting talent, and your game will still fall far, far short of the satisfaction of writing your own novel (in which you can control the content and dialogue) or directing your own show (same).

Trying to administrate these things is missing the point of play. And, over time, you will end up very, VERY disappointed if this is your expectation of play.

In running the game of D&D, the DM presents a world, with various things for players to do. And by "do" I mean Choices that players can make about Actions their characters take in hopes of having an Impact on the imaginary (DM created) World. THAT, my dear friends is the game of Dungeons & Dragons. That is the essence of what the Dungeon Master does...at least, as far as the players are concerned. What happens behind the scenes (and mostly away from the table) is the world building done by the DM to create the dynamic campaign with which the players interact. 

Done right, this creates a campaign the players want to return to and engage with on a regular basis...it is the well-run campaign that creates the drive in players to play.  Which, in turn, provides feedback to the DM that is used for additional dynamic world construction, giving the DM (as Bath wrote) "full reign to his creative genius."

It is this interplay between players and DM, facilitated and moderated by the rules, that govern and express the play of the Dungeons & Dragons game.

So what rule set to use?

Despite all the internet "ink" spilled on the subject, the edition/version of D&D used is of secondary importance (at best) to the play of the game as just described. Every DM will, with time, make adjustments to the ruleset to better suit their needs in play, and EVERY edition requires additional work by the DM to ensure that long-term, satisfying campaign play is achieved.

The various Basic editions (Moldvay, Mentzer, Holmes) provide an adequate introduction to the rules, and are the most accessible way to learn the game system. Coupled with addition of an "Expert" set (Cook/Marsh, Mentzer) they provide instructions for the basic procedures of the D&D game: character creation, combat, advancement, exploration, etc. They are all well written for their purpose and excellent in obtaining their objective: even players as young as nine and ten can grasp the basic systems and processes of the game after a reading of (one of) these Basic books.

The Advanced game (Gygax) in its first iteration provides a more robust system for play that anticipates and addresses many of the issues that might hamper long-term campaign play. This includes a more robust selection of player choices (no less than 35 combinations of race and class, more spells and equipment, and some inherent/integrated world building considerations), expanded rosters of monsters and treasure, and a variety of options and decent advice sections for the Dungeon Master. Gygax's AD&D (sometimes called 1E or "first edition") codifies many of the "best practices" developed over years of actual play and experimentation. The core volumes of play include the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and various Monster Manuals. Later volumes in the 1E series provide additional rules and ideas, but most are fairly superfluous to running the game.

The original D&D game (Gygax & Arneson) provides the basis for both the 1E and Basic editions of the game and for the historic-minded or unapologetic game tinkers, it provides the foundational bones on which the game was built. "OD&D" (as it is sometimes called) along with its supplementary volumes can provide a better understanding of the game's evolution and rules development, but to make the game function requires many choices and additions from the DM/referee. While this holds a great appeal for DMs who enjoy performing their own customization, it is a distraction from the actual creative imperative of the DM (world building and campaign creation). Also, many DMs find that the additions and modification they end up using are already anticipated by the AD&D (1E) version of the game.

The 2nd Edition (Cook) version of AD&D is similar to 1E in most ways, simply streamlining and restructuring many of the disjointed and scattered rules of the system. However, 2E's restructuring of the advancement system (the method in which players earn "experience points" or x.p.) is problematic in that it A) removes an easily understood, objective measure of success, and B) removes an incentive for cooperative and creative play. This has consequences in both the short-term AND long-term campaign play, but can be rectified by reinstating the "gold for x.p." standard (and several published adventure modules for 2E strongly advocate taking this specific action).

Both the 3rd Edition of D&D (sometimes called D20 and currently published as the Pathfinder game system) and the 4th Edition of D&D have multiple issues that make them rather unsuitable for long-term campaign play of the type I aim to describe in this blueprint; they represent their own, very different...and divergent...types of game play. They fall outside the purview of this series. 

The 5th edition is the current and most widely played version of D&D at this moment in time. Its publishing longevity surpasses any edition except 1E and 2E. It has had no less than three introductory box sets published for it, helping to make the rule system accessible for the new player, and is well-supported on-line by both the publishing company (WotC/Hasbro) and a large community. It is largely streamlined and simplified compared to prior "Advanced" editions (1E through 4E) yet enjoys robust player options far surpassing "Basic" editions of the game. And because of its variant rulebooks options, 5E provides a wide-spectrum of ways for the game to be played: it is customizable (like OD&D) and provides the DM with vast means of rewarding players (via fiat or "story awards"). It models a very different game play experience from earlier editions of the game...an experience based on expectations set by standards of video game design...which may have a broader appeal to a younger demographic of participant. Unfortunately, as such it also falls outside the purview of this series; while it's certainly possible the 5E mechanics could be adjusted to make it conducive to satisfying, long-term campaign play, the effort and analysis in doing so is more than I care to perform, given that there are already alternative systems available that provide a more-than-adequate head start on the task at hand.

Aficionados of Dungeons & Dragons generally have a favorite edition, based on the point at which they entered the hobby and/or the point at which they "mastered" game play. Preferences of style and design vary from player to player and (as stated above) almost all Dungeon Masters, with time, will modify the rules somewhat to meet their own preferences of play. As such, I think it's important not to become too distracted from the subject at hand by quibbling over which edition of the game is "better." Each edition can be made to work, and even amongst the older (pre-2000) versions, each will give a slightly different experience or "flavor" of play. 

In the end, we are unconcerned about flavor. We are concerned about long-term play. Choose a rule system and stick with it. As this blueprint continues, adjustments to system will be inevitable. 


  1. I look forward to reading your blueprint as you share it. I agree with most of what you have written. I feel strongly that long-term campaigns are where the game shines, and certainly what I enjoy most as both player and DM. I find myself frustrated with “one-shots” and so forth, to the point where I’d rather not play those at all. (With the exception of learning a new game to see if we like it.)

    I have two contentions to comment on, with no intention of criticism. Just sharing my outlook, which appears to diverge from yours in those areas (although I may be mistaken). Both outlooks equally valid, of course, your table is your table.

    1. I think you can ‘be an author’ and run D&D.

    I have no patience with the term ‘railroad.’ It didn’t even exist during my heyday (late 70’s / early 80’s). IMO a DM presents a setting and a cast of NPCs for the party to interact with. There will be things happening regardless of whether the players get involved or not. I imagine actions and goals that the PCs will be interested in performing, usually as the result of pre-game dialogue I have with them to learn their preferences and styles. Then I prepare material accordingly. It’s an ongoing process and I may choose to tailor things as we go along. Only rarely would I consider bold moves such as “you awake in a cell after a long night of carousing, you have no idea how you got here. Lord Heavyhand appears and makes you an offer you can’t refuse.” (Maybe once in almost fifty years of gaming? Twice?) But that’s up to me. My campaign will be dark, or light, quick-paced or languorous, slice of life or thrill a minute, it’s my call because I am the DM, and I put in the prep time. And I’ve recruited and vetted the players! I’m open to player feedback and we’re all free to bow out, but I don’t game with folks who I think are incompatible with me. Perhaps it would be easier to see my point if you think of it more as a ‘reality show’ than a script or novel. I’ll leave the specifics to your imagination, as I’ve signed way too many NDAs, but the producer has a concept and the story producers make a story. Not the on-camera talent. Or think of it as similar to a CRPG. Baldur’s Gate or Skyrim let you create a character to some extent and then dump you in media res. You may have a ‘sandbox’ game like Skyrim but there’s an overall story built in. You may choose not to participate in it, but your side quests won’t approach the gravitas of the main story and eventually lose their appeal. Certainly a living DM gives you the potential for more options, but it is the DM who represents the world from his side of the table.

    2. I don’t think that players need to ‘have an impact’ on the world.

    I’m a fan of dynamic equilibrium. If I spend time working on a setting, I expect to use it in that long-term campaign style which I prefer. I get to decide if an actual war breaks out. I get to decide if someone important gets assassinated. Even if players got to the level of baron or duke, I’d still make it awfully tough for someone to make me change my maps. And remember, I’ve recruited and vetted players, you can be sure that anyone who wants to tear up my setting won’t be participating. ‘Having an impact’ sounds suspiciously likely to end up as a campaign with a definitive ‘end’ to it, something that I never understood. No, a player gets to decide if they’re law-abiding or covetous, ambitious or lackadaisical, religious or secular, bachelor or dreaming of marriage. They get to decide whether they’re going to save the village by taking on the goblin lair, or instead knocking over a jeweler’s shop. I’ve had patriotic players who support the ruler and end up members of court. I’ve had outlaws. But they don’t get to take over my world, they only get to play their characters. I present the scenes, they react. That’s an RPG, at least how I understand it and what I took away from Gygax. It’s not a cooperative narrative story game, because I’m not interested in playing those.

    1. RE “Authors”

      When an author sets out to tell a story…in ANY medium (film, book, etc.)…they have a destination in mind for the journey, an outcome that they hope to reach. A DM should NOT have any particular destination or outcome in mind. We play the game to see how things will unfold. DMs are not authoring a story…they are not storytellers in the authorial sense of the term.

      RE “Impact”

      The actions of the players must matter. Degree of impact may be great or small depending on the stakes, depending on the challenges chosen by the players (“choice” being the most important part of the concept). Reward should be commensurate with risk taken; impact is likewise measured, as are consequences. But if there is no impact…if the actions taken by players fail to matter in any meaningful way…players will, eventually, cease to engage with the campaign. There can be no investment without engagement. And lack of investment will result in the death of your campaign.

    2. I don't see why you wouldn't want your players to have an impact. I love when my players do something that forces the world to react. I've had players assassinate rulers, establish religious or trade organizations, take leadership of a lost city to become political players in the world. These things didn't end my campaigns but they did change the sorts of adventures the players were interested in.

      And they created new elements for later campaigns. A deal struck with a minor villain of a past campaign is the inciting incident for the main villain of the current one. Players love it when they see the continuing consequences of stuff they did as previous characters.

  2. 2nd Edition was my first, and the one I played the most. 3rd edition was the first one that I bought and read cover to cover. 4th edition was the first I played with really experienced DMs. Then I got hooked discovering B/X, OD&D and AD&D1e (none of those were published here in Brazil), and realizing that adventures are not stories. Nowadays I really enjoy to play or DM any edition thrown at me.

    1. I have decided to no longer berate people for, say, choosing 2E over 1E (or any edition over any other) simply because that was the one they were brought in with and thus have "special feelings" for. It's like complaining that someone was born into the "wrong" culture or religion or something.

      However, UNlike our culture or religion, D&D is a game, and as such we can make informed choices about how we want to approach it going forward without offending our foundational sensibilities.

      [not sure if "foundational sensibilities" is a real term, but hopefully folks grok my meaning]

  3. "Despite all the internet "ink" spilled on the subject, the edition/version of D&D used is of secondary importance (at best) to the play of the game as just described. Every DM will, with time, make adjustments to the ruleset to better suit their needs in play, and EVERY edition requires additional work by the DM to ensure that long-term, satisfying campaign play is achieved."

    Wasn't expecting that. Though I'm not sure the statement is supported by the rest of the article as you then basicaly say 3e to 5e doesn't work.

    To be clear I agree with the statement. I have ran good sandbox world centric campaigns in all eddtions. Rules are less important than the philosophy and practice of a good DM. Great start. Especially as it basically says with one small change 2e is the best eddtion. 😃

    1. Ha! Wouldn't go THAT far (with regard to 2E). However, with one small change it is NEARLY as functional as 1E (not to get too far into the weeds, but 2E incorporates some latter day UA-isms that can hamper the kind of play I promote).

      RE "Contradictions" (wrt 3E, 5E, etc.)

      The main thing to understand here is that it isn't the rule set that is important. Appropriate expectations and priorities of play should be the focus. With time and proper approach, some versions will be found to be more facilitating than others (i.e. "less work") but IN THEORY you can shoehorn any square peg into a round hole with enough effort. You want tieflings and dragonborn in your game? Fine. Dwarven bards and half-orc paladins? Whatever floats your boat. Just understand:

      1) The more fantastical elements you add, the more challenging the verisimilitude, and
      2) The more rules "crunch" added (skill points, character feats, combat maneuvers, etc.) the more detraction from what is truly important IN PLAY.

      But we'll get to all that. I promise!

  4. "You want tieflings and dragonborn in your game?"

    Nope, but I also don't want Psionics or Monks. I feel whatever I play I am houserulling something.

    I agree the hardest part about post 2e is it is too magical or as you put it "fantastical'. When everyone has magic it's hard to ground the game in realism.

    Using 5e for an example a level 1 wizard can destroy any semblance of a medieval economy with his cantrips.

    1. This is a good point, seven. We could easily imagine how a 5e party's combat with an AD&D party would go.

  5. Railroading is still "D&D," just a lamer version. Same as Family Guy is still TV, even though it should seem like an entirely different medium from a show like The Twilight Zone.