The characters prep the game

January 3rd, 2006: Mike Sugarbaker says...
The characters prep the game

(Second in an ill-advised series of speculative posts about the future of D&D)

The second thing people say to defend D&D against online gaming, after “there are people there with you,” is “I can create my character.” And, to D&D’s credit, you can. But all too often, players’ fun gets ruined because their character is trapped in someone else’s game: the DM’s. By the same token, DMs complain about how much time it takes to prep the game, for players who may or may not even thank them.

Both of these problems have the same solution. Let’s call it the Campaign Creator.

Any hobby gamer is likely to agree that Hasbro is not good at a huge array of things. Something they are good at, however, is making cheap plastic electronic crap in China and selling it at a high margin. I’ve been beating my head for a week against the problem of how to actually help DMs improvise their games, when that task requires a good forty pages or so of guidance and the DMG is already so jam-packed with game mechanics that the type is about 4 point (doing more to ruin kids’ eyesight than PlayStations do).

The solution: make a little plastic doodad with an LCD screen and add just enough buttons to it to let you input the PCs’ stats and specify what kind of campaign you want to run (in terms of length and general mood). The Campaign Creator then feeds you the bones of the next scene whenever you press a button: the monsters, how many there are, and their stats.

Here’s the important bit, though: the character stats you plug in determine what’s in the scenes the Campaign Creator feeds you. If the party is six magic-users, all of whom choose feats and spells in different areas of specialty, the device has to be smart enough to notice and choose appropriate challenges.

Making a device this smart would be a challenge; at minimum, you’d need a “roll again” button for the DM to push when the thing comes up with something dumb. But more likely, you simply couldn’t make it cost-effective at all.

Fortunately we have another option that’s almost as good: a fourth core book. Bring it out after the DMG but before the Monster Manual. Make it good. Fill the first half with real advice on building a campaign by the seat of your pants, drawn from the improv tradition as well as Robin’s Laws. Ideally, get Laws to help write it. Fill the second half with a nicely tabbed, usably designed choose-your-own-adventurish labyrinth of campaign structure. Characters having trouble remembering to look for secret doors? Start following the green numbers instead of the red ones. Got lots of Storytellers in your party? Go to page B28 instead of A28. Just really want a big monster around the next corner? Consult the list of Big Monster Scenes in back, but don’t forget what color of numbers you’re following. Et cetera.

It still wouldn’t be easy to design, but it’d be possible, and I think even old-school players would eat it up with a spoon. It gets even better if you design the next MM to go with it, using the same indexing conventions and such. But the best thing about it is, it lets D&D stay D&D. It doesn’t turn it into some collaborative, narrativist Creature from the Depths of the Forge; it just gives DMs the help they have needed for twenty years.

The question I’m dodging here is, what about DMs who want to do the prep, and players who want to experience those DMs’ stories the way they always have? It’s a valid question, and I don’t yet have a completely satisfying answer. But I wonder if it isn’t appropriate just to say, those folks are playing a different game, and it’s called D&D 3.5.



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