Thursday, January 19, 2012

What works in D&D - part 4

So we've looked, separately, at some interesting elements I think make D&D "work": a solid baseline, an experience point system that rewards play beyond the realm of combat, and an achievable "end game". As most of folks reading this particular blog will already know, the gradual erosion of these elements over the later editions of the game led some to keep playing, or return to, the older editions, or produce retroclones or variant d20-based games like BasicFantasy RPG and C&C.

An interesting alternative to that mindset was proposed, back in 2007, called E6. What this did, in a nutshell, was to take the existing 3x rules and pull them in nice and close to the baseline - characters topped out at 6th level and gained only feats from then on. This had a neat effect on the assumed universe of an E6 campaign; everything was at a power level much closer to what we would think of as "normal" in a sword & sorcery setting - the scary monsters like dragons and giants stayed scary rather than becoming mere stepping stones to get at challenges of an ever increasing power level ("Epic!"). This approach holds a lot of appeal to me - it acknowledges the strengths of a later ruleset (which I think we in the old-school community are often too reticent to do) while finding a clever and effective way to reign in the obvious problems with that ruleset. It neatly recreates a more traditional rpg experience by having a period of dungeon crawling followed by a period in which more high-concept campaigning will come into play.

But, I would be remiss if I concentrated solely on rules when it comes to "what works in D&D". As the revolving door of editions spins increasingly faster, something extremely important tends to get forgotten. If you've been following the whirlwind of 5E newsbites, you've probably noticed some familiar names keep getting mentioned: "Keep on the Borderlands", "Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth", "Tomb of Horrors", and so on.

Yes, I'm talking about Adventures!

One of the biggest things that is simply missing, from late 2E on up, is memorable adventures - the kind that everyone you know who plays D&D has played, the kind that becomes a part of the whole gaming vernacular and a measuring stick to gauge other adventures by. Since WotC's acquisition of the brand, only three titles come to mind as having any lasting impact on the collective mind of the gaming community (Sunless Citadel, Red Hand of Doom, and Keep on the Shadowfells), which over a course of 10 years is a stunning failure. The best adventures have a way of making players not care a whit what ruleset they are using. Companies like Necromancer Games, Goodman Games, and Paizo were able to step into this gigantic hole left by the game's official publisher, and build a nice business around giving folks what they needed - great adventures. While many like to blame 4E's perceived failure on its rules, I tend to lay the blame equally on the fact that WotC didn't pursue an aggressive publishing schedule of consistently engaging adventures, and at the same time refused to add their new ruleset to the open license that enabled third parties to produce adventures to go along with it.

As 5E begins its open playtest (you can sign up for this here, btw) in a couple of months, I am hoping that the discussion of rules does not completely crowd out a discussion on what players will get to do with these rules - will there be a renewed emphasis on adventures?


  1. I think the requirement that adventures be level balanced, sanitized, appropriate to all kinds of party, etc. really drains the fun away. If you analyze the legendary old adventures most of the cachet is about how scary or random or deadly or unfair are the situations players get into.

  2. You are right about there being a lack of memorable adventures in later editions of the game. Back when i was regularly playing 3rd ed, I found myself ordering many of the old D&D and AD&D modules from and transferring them to the later ruleset.

    One of my biggest pet peeves with the later editions of the game were the boring maps. It seemed as though no one could draw an engaging map any more. I remember viewing maps from Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread or Master of the Desert Nomads or the "G" series and being intrigued by what I saw. They were engaging in an aesthetic way yet there was a practicality to them (even though most of the older maps were completely unrealistic). I used to page through the free maps they offered on the Wizard's site and I never liked any of them.

  3. Part of this has been the shift from site-based modules to plotted adventures. Having a location to explore is just inherently more interesting.

    FrDave writes about something related HERE.

  4. A very interesting point I hadn't thought of before. But now that you mention it, it seems so true.

  5. In principle I agree with you. There had been a dearth of memorable modules since 2e. But you cite Necromancer, Paizo, and Goodman as publishers that were able to fill that niche. And here I wonder.

    Which adventures of said publishers do you think are up to Borderlands/Ravenloft/Tsojcanth level?

  6. @Greyhawk Knight - Off the top of my head, Necro's Rappan Athuk, Crucible of Freya, and Tomb of Abysthor; Goodman's Aerie of the Crow God, Crypt of the Devil Lich, and Castle Whiterock, and Paizo's Shackled City and Rise of the Runelords. All these seem to have captured imaginations, generated lots of discussion, and are played enough to have a "shared experience" kind of vibe.

  7. Adventures should die, as Brendan points out. :-) Adventures tend towards linear stories. There have been a few exceptions, sure, but the vast majority of adventures are linear. And that breaks down at the table.

    My take:

  8. I've been a D&D player for a couple of decades, and I've never played a published adventure, and don't particularly intend to in the future.

  9. @One Geek

    I see where you are coming from, and I used to feel the same way. I wanted to design the setting and adventures myself; anything else felt somewhat like cheating.

    However, I no longer feel that way. I now greatly enjoy running modules, though I'm still learning how to prep them effectively (it's always easier to run something you have written yourself because you are less likely to miss or forget important details; the trade-off, of course, is that it can take a long time to write a good module from the ground up).

    I think James Raggi said it well in the intro to Hammers of the God, which I will quote from:

    When I run someone else’s adventure, it’s because I want the challenge of running something different, to present my group with something different. Changed names to integrate a work into my setting aside, I don’t want to make an adventure “my own.” The whole point is to escape that for a bit and to charge my own creative batteries by basking in someone else’s creative light. Becoming a good musician starts with having a good record collection. Being a top athlete means competing against the very best. I think a Referee can only benefit from taking another’s adventure and adapting their style to the author’s presentation, instead of doing the commonly-vaunted reverse method of always adapting published material to the Referee’s own campaign.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...