Friday, March 6, 2009

In Search of the Unknown

In my last post, both Lizard and and Irda Ranger (sorry, but your EN World handle is how I think of you!) brought up some points I've wanted to talk about for a while now.

The 4e DMG is not a book about world building. It was never intended to be one, and it consciously avoids the topic.

The reasoning behind this move is quite simple. The DMG is meant to be the first step for a 4e DM, and in particular a *new* DM. One of the big advantages D&D has over other games, particularly computer games, is that someone gets to be the DM. A lot of games nowadays allow you to be a dwarf fighter, bashing orcs over the head and looting dungeons, but D&D (and by extension all RPGs) is the only game that lets you control the orcs, place loot in the dungeon, and draw the dungeon map.

We avoided focusing on world building because we wanted to avoid giving DMs the impression that they had to do lots and lots of work to run a game. Now, you can put a lot of effort into your game, and IME more effort means a better game, but we didn't want to daunt a beginner. A new DM can run a perfectly fine game by stringing together some encounters and focusing on the tactical, rather than strategic, end of the game.

As an aside, that's also why there's a sample starting area and a rather simple beginning scenario. Now, it's tricky, because the DMG has to serve both existing D&D fans coming in from earlier editions, and new players, but the idea is that established DMs already have info on worldbuilding from other DMGs and other resources.

Now, on to the second topic and the inspiration for this post's title: exploration. There is woefully little exploration in many of the current crop of 4e adventures. I don't think it's by a design that sees exploration, or the stuff between encounters, as bad. The seed of that design mode has good intentions - give DMs as much for their buck as possible, with bang equating with encounters (usually fights) rather than descriptions and background info.

I can see how those two trends dovetail to generate some of the criticism of 4e. The two are separate, but both do have reasons (though you can debate the legitimacy of those reasons) behind them.

17 comments:

Brock Cusick said...

No worries about the handle "mearls". I've been Irda Ranger for over ten years now on one board or another, so it's how I think of myself some days too.

As for the post, the first argument makes a heck of a lot more sense than the second one. I've gotten way more bang in my time out of open-ended modules like Keep on the Borderlands and Dwellers in the Forbidden City than I ever got out of encounter-string adventures. A good module allows for the procedural generation of many more encounters than you could include in any published adventure, are unpredictably fun and are often very replayable to boot, as there are many paths that can be taken. An adventure run twice is a hell of a value.

FWIW, they're also terrific training wheels for full-on sandbox style play, which I think a lot of the new gamers these days just don't even realize is an option (particularly as they're trained by limited "DM free" computer games that don't allow for wandering over the "wrong" hill). A commitment by Wizards to show these kids "another way this can done" would be no bad thing, and may expand some horizons.

But most importantly of all, thanks for keeping the channel of communication open. It's appreciated.

-- Irda Ranger

ninjeff said...

Since the DMG2 isn't aimed so much at new DMs (right?), can we expect it to contain more world-building advice? It'd be interesting if the topics got gradually more advanced with each successive release.

linnaeus said...

I think the exploration thing is the fallout from quarter-page stat blocks. They eat space and make keying five rooms on each page of a module impossible. They can also make rooms without a stat block look like filler. Both of these are hurdles that get in the way of adding exploration to 3.x and 4e modules.

The fact that a character level only lasts 7-8 fights is also an issue. A couple dungeons that are big enough to explore will likely carry a group through an entire tier of play! This is not a bad thing per se, but it would be a real change from established practice.

The linearity (with short side branches) of modern modules takes a key element of player agency away. They just don't have the same life or replayability of classics, and trying to match the classics in modern format would require a book the size of Martial Power. This may be a Gordian Knot.

Where's my sword :)

Mark said...

Just to throw in some feedback on this decision from actual play, my son is almost 10. He eats up exactly that element of the DMG - the notion that he can just pick it up, follow the instructions, and play. No other RPG (and he's played several with us) captured his imagination the same way, specifically because "I can't think up all that stuff by myself yet."

ON the other hand, after running Kobold Hall and a couple one-offs for us and some of his friends, he's already getting ideas that take him "off the map." So the DMG is doing exactly what it was meant to in at least one case.

ChattyDM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ChattyDM said...

I think that it could be entirely feasible and, more importantly, fun to create a site-based adventure focused on exploration with no combat in the classic sense.

If you created a Tomb-raider type of adventure where the dungeon would be filled with complex tricks and traps (some possibly beatable by sheer brawn to appeal to Butt Kicker players), you could have a whole adventure centered on Problem Solving and Exploration.

Making sure that the tricks and traps can be beaten either through either skill rolls and good old school 'thinking man's tactics' would help make the adventure appealing for most.

Definitively a project for Dungeon mag.

Rob Conley said...

Well I am trying to fix this with Point of Light.

We decided to go with 4e style basic stats for the monsters in #2. For example instead of Orc(1HD) we do Orc(1st level, minion).

Rob Conley said...

I think the exploration thing is the fallout from quarter-page stat blocks.

If I fully statted one of my Points of Light realms I would put all the stats into a card format and put them in the back.

After playing a few 4e games in my 20 year fantasy sandbox I have a stack of monster cards that I use. So when the player decide to go east instead of north it is easy for me to pull out what I need and use that for the encounter.

Also I have largely ditched tables for random encounters. When I want to see some random happen I shuffle a selection of cards (along with some blank ones) and randomly pull out one or two.

kaeosdad said...

I've been slowly building up a collection of location, monster, npc, trap and treasure cards for my 4e game. I got the idea from warhammer quest. It's easier to use during an encounter than flipping through pages, or even using my laptop(but my laptop is a good alternative.

I tried regular playing card size but it's too small, index card size works better.

Greg Gillespie said...

Sorry, I just don't buy into that. Putting off world-building material on the whim that senior players already have it makes no sense. How are newer players supposed to come to that information if not in the DMG? After all, that's how we took the notion to start thinking big, to imagine, to create. Now THAT'S D&D.

linnaeus said...

You've got the argument the wrong way round, Greg. It's not omitted because oldtimers don't need it. It's omitted because new DMs don't need it yet. They're better off getting the fundamentals down, since a nifty (if simplistic) world can grow organically from A good starting point (Nentir Vale) and an accumulation of details over a series of good adventures. The reverse don't hold true quite so automatically.

Ultimately, though, I think it's dair to say worldbuilding technique just fell victim to the same space crunch the trap-building guidelines (among other things) did. World build was seen as less fundamental than the material that's there now.

Greg Gillespie said...

I understand the point all too well, that's why I commented.

It prompts the publication of yet another book, when the material could be dealt with neatly in the DMG. It would also help balance out the quantification in the core books.

I also think it doesn't give the new DM enough credit.

Wickedmurph said...

@Greg - are you really trying to tell us that you think that many experienced players require world building rules to get into that part of the game? Is that your assertion here?

I find world-building stuff to be the most useless thing in most sourcebooks. I'll do my world-building based on the theme and focus of my campaign, thanks. If I'm running a dark-themed, low-magic wilderness exploration based game (just as an example) I'm hardly going to find the rules for rolling up a town useful.

Besides, there is so much material available on the blogosphere and other places that I hardly think it warrents inclusion in a book like DMGI, which was very specifically targeted towards the basics of DMing - which is something I think is waaaay overdue, btw.

Good on ya, Mike, for giving new players a great tool - I learned by trial and error, and it wasn't always as much fun as it could have been.

buzz said...

Wickedmurph: I find world-building stuff to be the most useless thing in most sourcebooks.

I agree 100%. I also think that the idea of "points of light", and the basic concept of starting no bigger than the town where the PCs are right now, and then building the rest though play is a far better methodology than the traditional DM-as-Tolkien. I.e., the DM sits by themselves and writes 80 years of elvish history before the players have even rolled up characters yet.

IME, no good ever comes of this. Either it's wasted work when a campaign never gets off the ground, or it encourages DMs to railroad players all over their pretty map so they can show off what they've built.

That said, I'm confident that the 4e team can write great world-building advice. The existing content in the 4e DMG is pure gold.

Wickedmurph said...

I'm with you on that, Buzz. Points of light is really just a formalization of the learning experience that a lot of GM's go through in the early stages of long-term campaign building.

By starting small, and showing rather than telling (common fiction writing advice, btw), I think you come up with a final product that both feels more responsive to the characters, and keeps the DM's work to a more manageable level. Not that us DM's ever bite off too much... nooo...

Greg Gillespie said...

I'm not thinking of the experienced DM whatsoever.

Sorry folks, we can agree to disagree then.

Justin Alexander said...

Brock wrote: FWIW, they're also terrific training wheels for full-on sandbox style play, which I think a lot of the new gamers these days just don't even realize is an option (particularly as they're trained by limited "DM free" computer games that don't allow for wandering over the "wrong" hill).

I think 4th Edition made the unfortunate decision to try competing head-to-head with the gameplay of CRPGs: Detailed combat simulation. Pre-packaged adventure design.

I don't think that's a battle you can win. CRPGs are really good at delivering hack 'n slash gameplay and quest lines broken down into pre-designed components. They give you pretty much everything D&D can give you in that regard, but they can also do the math for you, show your gorgeous graphics, pump in a situationally-appropriate soundtrack, and be playable completely on-demand.

Which isn't to say that tactical combat should have been shown the door. But it is to say that I would have preferred 4th Edition to focus more on the unique strengths of tabletop roleplaying.

Greg Gillespie wrote: Sorry, I just don't buy into that. Putting off world-building material on the whim that senior players already have it makes no sense. How are newer players supposed to come to that information if not in the DMG?

Conceptually, it's not that dissimilar from the approach taken in BECMI, however. The Basic Set was focused exclusively on the dungeon. The Expert Set added support for the wider world.