The Thursday Blog: Not Yer Grampa’s D&D Edition

There are a number of Dungeons and Dragons adventures that I played in as a kid that are particularly special and memorable to me. White Plume Mountain was one, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, Temple of Elemental Evil, the Against the Giants series, the Slavelords adventures, that thing on that island where all the orcs were green… wonderful adventures all.

But going back and looking at some of these wonderful adventures made me realize something surprising. As fantastic as they were — and are — gaming has definitely moved on. An example is probably in order. A staple of the day was the room with the orc. A single 10×10 foot room (you could fit a whole party into a 10×10 foot room back in the days before miniatures) with an orc in it. There might be a chest in the room with the orc, there might be an apple. There might be a picture of the orc’s mom. What there was not, however, was a source of food, or water, or a bathroom, or most importantly, a reason for an orc to be there. Now no one really expected there to be any of those things back then. It was enough to say that the orc was guarding the chest, or the apple, or the door behind him. If further explanation was required, then likely a wizard did it.

Today it’s harder to get away with this sort of thing, which is as it should be. Todays players are likely to pounce on a lone orc and interrogate him to find out just why the hell he’s standing there by himself in a featureless room between two hallways guarding a chest containing a +1 longsword and defending himself with a pointy stick. The very thing that provided automatic adventure so many years ago would immediately arouse suspicion today.

There are two primary reasons for this that I see. The first and most obvious is that we’ve all gotten older and smarter and expect the same from our gaming. I might or might not have noticed that the Huge Ancient Red Dragon lived in a cavern he was several times too large to ever leave, and should have starved to death hundreds of years before the party ever arrived, back when I was gaming in junior high — but I would certainly think about it today, as I imagine would you.

The second reason is competition. “Buy module 2001! Just as much fun as 1001, except even more shit makes sense!” If you have two dungeons stacked with monsters, the basic motions for the players are the same. The difference, and what people will pay for, is having a good sounding reason why. The first D&D games didn’t really have a “game world” or any motivations for PCs beyond the amassing of wealth. Those innovations came later, and when they did, they really started to open things up. Gaming worlds became more immersive, motivations became more complex, realistic, and occasionally murkier.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the evil tower. I have noticed a certain nostalgia for the old days, when a party could go take out a bugbear lair, come home with pockets full of gold, and not have to be fucked with the latest court intrigues, or the Big Bad moving behind the scenes, or even recurring villains unless they really wanted to leave someone alive. Sometimes it seems as if we’ve backed ourselves into a corner, with all kinds of bells, whistles, complications and realisms we don’t always need to enjoy ourselves. Sometimes the players don’t even know what the hell is going on anyway.

The next game I run will be a hybridized version of Gamma World. My plan is to strip down the game to it’s basest elements, and just let the characters go wherever they want and create whatever goals for themselves make them happiest. The game I’ve been running is a lot of fun, but I’m craving something different myself. Something orc-in-a-room old school. Something…


51 Responses to The Thursday Blog: Not Yer Grampa’s D&D Edition

  1. The only Ancient Red Dragon in my campaign was also a vampire, so he had no problem getting into and out of his lair, no matter how small the door was (being able to assume gassious form comes in handy in that regard)

    He was also the Campaign’s primary and final villain…his very nature was something the party had to piece together from clues I left in the various dungeons…they knew they were running into a lot of unusual vampyric monsters, and some very powerful enemy was lurking behind the scenes early on, and by the time they were high enough level to try to go after him they had pretty much figured out WHAT he was, the only problem was figuring out exactly WHERE he was.

  2. Most of my roleplaying is done over several bottles of wine with my buddies on a Thursday evening. Those complicated plot twists are fun and all but let’s be honest, nobody’s capable of following. All we really want to do is break out the spit, get the fire started and starting sweating the orc to tell us where the treasure is. Oh, and hit things with a sword. And occasionally murder each other in inventive ways… did I say that out loud?

  3. There’s a time and a place for elaborate backstories, byzantine infighting and international realpolitik plotting. There’s also a time for showing up to the session with a pile of NPCs, some monster stats, a map or two and some figures. There is definitely a time for showing up with nothing but dice, blank paper and maybe a book or two as well.

    Make sure you don’t go too long without doing all three but the one that’s hardest to neglect too much tends to be the first unless your crew is really serious, committed and able gamers.

    • Which of course they are not. Some are happy to follow plot twists and turns and stay on top of the story, others need to be reminded of events that took place the sentence before last. The hardest thing to deal with is a player who doesn’t pay attention, and then becomes frustrated because he doesn’t know what is going on. I don’t really know if running the simplified game will fix this, but I feel like it’s worth a try.

      • It’s hard to tailor your game to your group when your group is comprised of players with such wide and varied expectations and levels of commitment. One solution which you’re already using is to let the players who are more actively involved in the campaign’s subtleties hash things out in between sessions via email or message board.

        My Sunday game is comprised of players who all seem perfectly content to be lead by the nose from one encounter to the next, which I suppose I should be thankful for by comparison. But there *is* a plot that I remind them of every few sessions, they just have not seen fit to involve themselves in it yet.

        I don’t fight it any more – players will settle into your game at the immersion level they’re most comfortable with.

        • You are of course correct. Overall I think I’m glad that 100% of my group is neither type, even though it does make running more… challenging.

      • Mixed player interest and ability is a situation I preferentially sorted out by running away from it and individually inviting the ones that seemed to work best with the next batch to join. When I actually did knuckle under and do it I fudged to lower denominator by basically becoming a storyteller trying to tell a tale using the characters the players created and as much input as I could rely on from the other GM-able players that could read my cues. Can do… but making up the whole story for everyone takes desirable opportunities to participate away from the players and empties out my imagination of shit I wanted to spring as surprises later so I don’t like that.
        Sorry, no good answer for you here that I’m confident in.

        • I love my peeps and they all bring something I want to the table. But the truth is, it is also me who wants to run something simpler. I just hope everyone else digs it too.

  4. Ya, I totally miss the good old days. Completely random rooms full of death traps, rare monsters just “hanging out” waiting for the party, and finding batches of “mysterious blue potions” (healing of course) after a knock down drag out fight. Hell, I was calculating ThacO in my head, taking into account character class and level, armor, weapon used, distance, visibilty, stat and magic modifiers, and so on. And THAT was our idea of fun and relaxation. Of course there was the food, the eventual booze, the unexpected interruptions, the friends, the hilarious conversations. Those games were more memorable that nearly anything else that went on.

    • Basically, I want both kinds. I’ve played incredeibly fun campaigns where the backstories led to the spontaneous development of a story arc which we managed to resolve while kicking butt along the way. I’ve also played equally fun campaigns of “find the wizard lich and kick his ass.” I’m just saying.

  5. I was always the “Why is my elf just sitting in a tavern, and why the hell would have anything to do with these jack-asses?” guy in the group. I had a backstory for my first character before I had his secondary stats half done. The main reason I ended up being the primary DM in my group was that no one else could make a story compelling for me, but mine kept everyone riveted. Even my “simple” dungeon crawls had subtext.

    I can’t watch porno movies without a decent plot, either.

    I think I may have a problem with simplicity.

    • It’s funny, because for the same reason I can’t watch porn WITH a “plot”. Because they never have a good(or even one good enough for an action film, being the lowest kind of plot possible) or believable plot. Just throw in some people in the room and leave the pretensions to the fashion industry, I say.
      I did, however, come across some with such bizarre or plain crazy “plots” played out for laughs that made me just laugh more than care for the “action”. Also, some girl once had a D20 tattoo with the “20” on top, which was entertaining all by itself.
      And I tend to over-analyze the sets, costumes, lightning and photography.

      In my latest attempt at D&D, starting late last year and ending a few months after, I(and the two other more “serious” players, who both were our part-time DM’s too) also had the problem of just coming up with a reason for my characters to hang out with the others, complicated by the fact that we started several campaigns and new char’s again and again, so we needed to come up with new ideas.

      • For my wife and I, porn has sort of become a Mystery Science Theather 3000 type of event. We still watch it, but a lot of times, we’re laughing at it more than we are getting turned on by it. (And yes, she watches and yes she enjoys it…..she actually took me to my first adult store.) Part of it is my fault, I prefer the “plot” ones because I’m more cerebral and she’s more physical and the actual sex scenes get boring to me. So I’ll pick up a mix of the two….the “down and dirty” type are laughable at the lack of quality. The “plot” type are laughable for their attempt at story.

        But, back to the topic at hand. I think that as D&D evolved it was when the role play became a bigger piece of the game that the details became more important. I think the hack and slash dungeon has a place (side quest) in a larger campaign. Find a way to give it an end goal, make it semi-realistic as to why the monsters are there, and have at them.

      • Standard reasons for total strangers to work together:
        -Common goal
        -Common ideology
        -Common background
        -Common loyalties
        -Common compulsion (same addiction, etc)
        -Mercenary motivation
        -Thrown together by circumstances for survival (see common goal)
        -Common enemy
        -Common boss (you’re in the army now, you’ve been drafted!)

        You probably know all these but I find that sometimes stating it in a point form list like that helps with working out specific ideas. Hope this works for you.

        • Nope, sorry, we never got to make anything “common” between us apart from the Mercenary, Survival and Boss entries, and those were always so…cheap. “We’ve”(that is, the DM) tried “you were army buddies!” together with “you’re being offered a job!”, which seemed so very contrived.
          We’ve tried starting out separately in an inn when suddenly the town gets attacked for some obscure reason(I never got to find out why *edited* because we changed campaigns to the other DM, and I was out of the group before they resumed it), but that never worked out well, since there was a distinct lack of “common loyalties”, unless by “common” you mean everyone but me seemed loyal to himself(well, the dating couple were loyal to each other, as usual, not that I could ever tell where one of their flat, 2-dimensional char’s ended and the other started…I now officially hate newbie couples) and trying to backstab the others. And we were all either good or neutral at worst.
          It doesn’t really matter what we would’ve tried, if there’s no basic loyalty between the players that makes them not try to cheat and get the others killed(when they’re not playing, say, a thei…lovable rogue) there’s not much point to playing together. Or having a dick of a DM. With a stinky cat. I hate that guy. 👿 *grumble grumble*

          • I’ve got little helpful advice here, I stopped gaming because my good crews of gamers moved too far away and I wasn’t willing to fish through random gamers in hopes of finding good ones: Good ones usually already have groups just like good women usually already have boyfriends or husbands past the age of twenty.
            Your best bet is probably to look for nerd-conventions with gaming events and hope it’s not too bad. This wouldn’t work for me because I hate crowds far too much to do it (I tried once and I’d have to have an excessively good reason to do it again).

            • I hate crowds even, and one off gaming “quicky” is exactly what I’m NOT looking for, either in RPGs or in relationships. There are about 2-3 big “nerd-conventions” here, but they’re of course in another city(Tel Aviv, the true capitol of Israel…Oh, I’ll skip the sociopolitical curse-marathon this time), so if I could bother going there on a regular basis I’d just look for a steady gaming group. The problem is that there’s Tel Aviv and it’s surroundings(comprising central Israel) and it seems like everywhere else is “the woods” for some reason, gaming-wise and otherwise. But even there I bet it’s not an easy life for a gamer like it’s abroad. It just gonna take more time for it to settle culturally.

              • I meant going to conventions to try and find gamers who may be willing to invite you to their already-established gaming groups but this does not seem to be a high-percentage plan if there’s nothing local. Only places I know to pick up gamers for games are gaming shops, schools (especially universities), conventions and local gaming institutions like gaming clubs in libraries and social/recreational facilities. Other than that it’s trying to find people young enough you can teach them gaming (and ruining their lives by turning them into gamers).

          • One thing I often try to get players to do is to come up with a connection to at least one other character before the first session begins. It has the benefit of at least allowing the characters to work out the details for themselves of how they know these other lunatics, rather than try to force “artificial” commonality upon them as DM. The groups usually end up being more cooperative. Works well when you’re working with a newly formed group.

  6. Meanwhile, in MMO’s, they have no problem stacking 100 wolves in a 20 acre lot, with no method to feed them, as well as allowing you to aggro humanoid mobs within mere yards of their “friends” without drawing their attention. I would think the first ‘guard’ to see you would alert the whole fortress….

    I wonder when reality will try to catch up with MMO’s, but hey, no one wants to have to hunt for hours to find a wolf-pack, yet alone take them all at once.

    Also, the leveling has always bothered me. Nice way to keep short attention span Players (SAPS, Order of letters wrong on purpose…) coming back for more, but MMO’s took that idea to an extreme. You play your character and you can not go over ‘there’ because they are all demi-gods there, and you do not go over to other areas, because you do not get xp there… so the effective world ends up being shruken AND compartmentalized… and even better (sarcasm) you end up with level 30 bears shoulder to shoulder while if they just walked over the hill, they would find fields of wild boars, just waiting to be eaten… but they can not cross that line… Really?

    Yeah, I know, MMO is not pen and paper… but hey, kinda related rant, I think :p

    • Daddy, how and why did the bear carry a +3 purple/green/gold/orange Sword of The Ass-Kicking, 500 GP and a medium healing potion?

      • It ate it. When I killed it, I cut it open and that stuff just spilled out. If they had given the bear a source of food, it wouldn’t have to eat treasure and I wouldn’t be able to find it.

        • So it was a mercy-killing then? If it ate such things its bowels would’ve gotten shredded to pieces and it would’ve died a slow and painful death.
          One has to wonder though how it managed to swallow it all without chewing, not that it could have chewed through a sword anyway.

          They really should make a better excuse for getting stuff. Animals drop ingredients, humanoids drop all kinds of stuff and powerful or intelligent monsters(say, dragons) like to hoard bling to pimp-out their lairs.

          • Video game developers who put that level of effort into their work get out-competed by folks who put a tenth the effort into putting ridiculous anime-jello breasts and battle-lingerie everywhere and shipping on time. But what can we really expect when the market these people chase is people who make entire sentences out of stupid meme-words like LOL, WIN, EPIC, FAIL, WTF, and such.

  7. Back in the day you could fill a decent sized dungeon with as many orcs as you could shake a stick at. But now there’s so much red tape you have to comply with – equality regulations, working time directives, health and safety requirements, training certification, pension provisions, paternity leave (those orcs breed like rabbits), plus regular assessments on all equipment provided (swords, maces, daggers etc) to ensure they are safe for use.

    I just can’t compete with all these other warlocks who have outsourced their dungeons to India and China. I had to close my dungeon down when an adventurer sued me under the Occupier’s Liability Act because one of my traps took off one of his legs. I’ve sold all my treasure and invested the capital in dungeon regeneration programmes.

    • You obviously did not kill the adventurers either at all or enough. If there is no adventurer to complain… than there is no problem.

      • Well, there’s the next of kin even if you do get the adventurer but there’s always cheap assassins for that.

          • Do your research first, it’d be embarrassing if you killed yourself with your own epic spell.
            Or, y’know, just hire some five-copper thugs damnit. They’re fucking NPCs, how hard could it be?

            • At least you won’t be around to pay the compensations. And why hire underlings when killing the grieving relatives yourself is so much more fulfilling?

              Also, Fulfilling is a funny word when you think about it. It’s got both Full and Fill. It’s like an overkill. Or maybe it’s 4 AM and I’m in need of sleep.

  8. Kevin this trend can be seen in any game genre really. A prime example would be packman. The original is still fun to play, but each generation stepped it up a notch, from multiplayer, to 3d! to finally they even made a cartoon out of it ‘shudder’…

    Even checkers and chess follow this trend, in becoming computer driven with advanced AI opponents and 3d versions that have animated characters that do battle when you make a move.

    What I find most interesting is that the more complicated we make our games the more realistic we strive for them to be.. to a point. Once we have a satisfied rendition that we can ‘believe’ in – maybe our imaginations are weaker so we need more visuals – we then want to move away from simple direction and have a sand-box world. Today even shooters are taking this approach. Look at Borderlands and the newest game Brink.

    The problem that I believe you are facing is that there is simply too much now. No longer is it necessarily entertainment from real life, but rather another real life exercise that we do. Because we strive for that first thrilling moment that we let our imaginations cary us into whatever world or realm and play as some Hero character we are constantly adding to the original yet demanding more of face value. So we need the complex world and atmosphere but with the freedom to interact with how we want.

    In short we need enough rules to give us freedom within those rules. It is easier sometimes just to play real life.

    I still play a free edition of Ultima Online because this original game before all the expansions allowed you to do anything you wanted to, had a lot of freedoms, and it was simple.

  9. Personnaly I just love things that make sense. I hate it when the plot or setting has unlogical bits and especially, first and foremost, when the unlogical bits are used by the tyranical GM to screw with my characters and his elaborate plans ; )

    When I am GM, I craft lovingly my plots, settings and interractions so that my players feel really in a working, credible universe and not in some half formed playground…

    … Of course 80% of it get ignored by my players who are used to non-sensical, railroaded plots… It is like giving pearls to swines !

    … No I am not bitter, why do you ask ? ; )

    • What country are you in? If you are a fellow resident of Soviet Canuckistan in or near the igloo-cluster of Toronto I might be persuaded to drive my dog-sled over to your group and participate, or potentially even run something.

  10. “thing on that island where all the orcs were green”

    Kevin, are you talking about Module X8 “Drums of Fire Mountain”? My favourite sandbox Expert module. Can’t wait to insert it into my Pathfinder campaign.