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.

Discuss.

19 comments

  1. I found that Robin Laws’s Guide to Good Gamemastering to be spectacular – it would make for a good basis of the generator you are speaking of.
    Unfortunatly, it’s oop and like all SJG products is overpriced for it’s production values. (The content however, overcomes this issue).

  2. OK, first, you’re really talking about RPGs, or at least higher crunch games (such as D&D). But the “faults” you’re assigning to D&D aren’t unique to D&D. Being “trapped in the DM’s game” is hardly unique to D&D by any stretch. I understand you’re speculating, so no major item… but I did want to lead with it.

    Second, the idea of some type of Campaign Creator is a intriguing one (any assistant that helps reduce the prep and run time on a high crunch game is a step in the right direction … at least for the style of games I run and play). However, it’s not a unique idea, or a new one … have you looked at DM’s Familiar, or any of the other electronic DM tools? Wikis and spreadsheets to help track scenes and action? Paper version of this (at least some aspect) would be Game Mechanics Initiative Cards, or the various pre-filled Spell Cards. I’ve used many of these and to great effect.

    I’m not sure about a dedicated electronic device in this roll … maybe I’m still suffering from the decades old “Dragonbone” electronic dice roller … 😉

    As for the type of book you’re describing … I really have no idea of what you’re pitching. The first half is more DM advice – always good (more Robin Laws advice is always welcome). But the choose your own campaign / adventure? I’m not sure if this is a solution to a real problem, or a solution in search of one. Does the advice in the DMG or DMG2 fall that short? Seems to address at least some of these concerns.

    The line of your solution does make me ask the question (non-insulting, and non-insinuating) – what’s your experience level with the game you’re speculating fixes on, Mike? How often have you played and / or DM’d D&D 3/3.5?

  3. Ditto on “Robin Laws’s Guide to Good Gamemastering”. I’ve sent copies as gifts in prior years. 😉

  4. I completely agree that D&D is far from the only game that relies overmuch, or allows players to rely overmuch, on GM fiat. I also agree that there are a lot of great software tools out there; I really only bring up other options because so many gamers seem resistant to bringing a computer to their gaming table, and because younger players are unlikely even to have the option of doing so.

    The book I’m describing is indeed hard to describe. Basically what I’m envisioning is a set of “improv training wheels” to go along with improv advice. I haven’t read the DMG2 yet, so I don’t know how much it goes beyond the advice in Robin’s Laws, which as I remember it was basically “if you have this type of player, make sure s/he gets to do this type of thing.” I think a lot of beginning DMs would read that and think, “okay, but how?” So a Campaign Creator book would consist of a lot of quasi-scripts that give you the structure of a game but not the content. It might say, “this scene is a narrow hallway, so there should be a somewhat less-challenging monster [insert list of good options for monsters] due to the tactical situation. Oh, and if you have Storytellers in your play group, throw something like this in, and if you have…” and so on.

    Some gamers might take to improvised campaigns like ducks to water, as soon as they grasp that they aren’t expected to cook up a premeditated masterpiece all on their own. But I think a lot of others would benefit from an attempt at taking Robin Laws’ general advice and systematizing it a little, so you can put player preferences in and get a campaign framework out.

    Finally: my specific experience with D&D 3 is pretty low, but as you pointed out, this is really about traditional-style roleplaying in general. D&D is simply the traditional-style RPG that leads the way, so that’s why I pick on it.

  5. DitV sort of takes the half-measure. It greatly reduces advance prep, and gives you a great series of guidelines for it, but once that’s done it pretty much lets you loose. It says “play the characters to the hilt, but don’t be afraid to let them die,” but again, it doesn’t tell you how, the way a book that was about improv would tell you.

    And in DitV, there is really only one character type you need to deal with, and (to a lesser degree) one story. So, yes, DitV handles the imrovisation thing very well, for DitV. I think D&D requires different solutions.

  6. Hi.

    Something like a meta-PlotPoint book á la Savage Worlds to handle campaign structure?

    Plus a Paranoia-esque Mission Blender for some improvisation?

    Bye.

  7. Torq: two excellent pointers for things to check out. Thanks!

    me (whoever you are): I suspect that solution will continue to increase in popularity. 🙁

  8. First off, we’re buying products made from Commie China? (No offense to Chinese, it’s your government I have problems with. Remember Tian Nan Men Square!)

    Now, a campaign creator based on PC’s stats? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply ask what kind of adventures they want?

    Seriously, such a program — not necessarily a high-tech cheap doodad from Commie China — would be helpful in offering options to DM that are appropriate for the current PC party’s level. Helpful for any adventure types, mainly hack-n-slash/dungeon crawl.

    But there’s got to be more than emulating the latest CRPG, even though only a handful of those electronic games does more than hack-n-slash.

  9. Just another devil’s advocate moment here. It seems like there are two types of D&D players:

    1) Those who have the time/inclination to prepare custom adventures/campaigns
    2) Those who do not

    For the sake of argument, it feels like you’re just talking about people of the second group here. Why wouldn’t these people just be happy with something like the “Shackled City” campaign? Everything is laid out and prepped for them to use with a minimum of fuss and set up…

    I don’t see how trying to develop a book for people in Group 2, who theoretically don’t have the time/interest in designing a customized campaign is a real option, when they could just buy a fully-written campaign (again, say Shackled City) and make minimal tweaks for their group, or just run it as-is.

    Misuba – with your admittedly limited experience with D&D, how have you surmounted this problem when running the game?

    Or is this all just theory?

  10. I’d have to guess that it’s all theory.

    But – this project doesn’t sound like something that is limited to DnD games only.

    It sounds like you are looking for specific details to help with something that is ultimately a matter of craft/art. And that is going to be tough. I can think of at least four indices for input in for meaningful _detailed_ output to be generated.

    1) Players: player styles/adventure preferences
    2) Characters: Abilities/capabilities of the PCs
    3) GM: play stlye/preference of the adventure runner (This may be subsumed into the next two)
    4) Genre/Setting: high/low fanstasy with x/y/z amount of magic, or science fiction, etc.
    5) Scene type: political, combat, city, horror, etc.

    Each of these would then have to be defined and then for each possible combination a range of acceptable outputs created.

    That’s a lot of tabling.

  11. It seems to be the new geek chic to discuss gaming theory, and gaming design. I wouldn’t disagree at all that in essence, the discussions themselves are bordering on a new type of collaborative art-form. At the same time, I don’t think that it’s everyone’s bag either. In the end, some people just wanna roll some dice…

  12. Ok, how about this. When I say new…I personally havent seen this much “game theory” being published in such detail or qty. ever. Blogs, forums, communites…all with the sole purpose of these ends. No, it does beg the question: How much gaming do you do, compared to talking about game theory/design? 😉

  13. Chris: that’s why the Forge puts Actual Play at the top of the list of forums, and recently took the additional step of closing other venues for theory. It’s easy to theorize your way into outer space (or the inner space of your own colon); play keeps theory grounded enough in reality to remain useful. This makes me wonder if the design process for D&D 4 shouldn’t just begin with heavy playtesting of 3.5… playtesting among people who’ve never played D&D, that is. (And I wonder how much of that they did with 3rd Ed. I suspect not a huge amount, but I could certainly be wrong. I’ll have to research.)

    AllanS: that is, indeed, a lot of tabling. I’m trying to avoid the conclusion that this imaginary tool would have to be software, but it probably would. That makes the task of marketing the thing more difficult, but hey.

    “me”: moving the prep workload from the players to the publishing industry only gets you another set of problems (one which we also currently have, in the form of the d20 market). As for how I’ve dealt with these issues, I did it the same way everyone does (and the only way currently available): the hard way. Work hard, strive to get better at improvising a game, and finally switch to a game that’s easier to improvise. I imagine WotC doesn’t like that answer much.

  14. “For the sake of argument, it feels like you’re just talking about people of the second group here. Why wouldn’t these people just be happy with something like the “Shackled City” campaign? Everything is laid out and prepped for them to use with a minimum of fuss and set up…”
    — me

    Usually because of some superficial, fussy reasons like “Nah, that’s not what I’m looking for.” It’s like offering a car as a gift to a recipient and instead of gratitude, the first thing coming out of their mouth is something like, “So, you couldn’t find one in my favorite color, huh?”

    IOW, these are the veteran gamers who doesn’t have the time in their busy schedule. (Trust me, I’m not one of them. I make the gorram time to prep.)

  15. Well, if we’re talking improv, I know one of the liberating things about it is to have material available at the snap of the fingers.

    A MySQL database with the ability to pull up monsters goes a long way. 😉 Likewise an SRD wiki for reference.

    The DMG already offers advice for balancing encounters. Granted, it uses the sometimes wonky EL and CR system, but from my experience, that system is pretty much an industry leader in game balancing. One chart specifically breaks down the recommended scaling by intended challenge (i.e., difficult, cake-walk, etc.).

    DMGII has information on improvisational aids, and planning adventures. Several pages talk about player types, styles, and knowing your players. I believe that chapted, and one other, were written by Robin Laws …

    Granted they’re not the entire book, but … maybe you should take a look next time you drop by EG or another store, Mike.

    I like the Savage Worlds plot point books – but bear in mind, those are buying into a specific campaign.

    And the Shackled City campaign rocketh. I’m going to be kicking it off for some folks in two week. 🙂

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