Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The "No Time to Prep" Fallacy

One of the refrains one often hears in reference to why D&D has changed in the way it has is that older editions demanded too much of the referee and thus took more time than was reasonable to prepare. And, as we're constantly told, gamers today just don't have as much time to spend prepping for a game as they used in the halcyon days of their youths. Leaving aside the question of whether this is in fact true -- hint: I don't believe it is -- I think it highly questionable to "solve" this problem by making adventures more exhaustive in their details. One of the big problems I have with many modern adventures, and this includes Pathfinder, is that they're simply bursting with details and backstories and so forth, so much so that I find that, whatever benefit I gain from using a prepackaged module is lost -- and then some -- in the amount of time spent studying and taking notes in order to run the adventure "properly."

I'm honestly not sure why adventures nowadays need to be so long or detailed. Actually, that's not true at all -- I have a pretty good idea why they are. However, from the standpoints of utility and efficiency, I'm far from sure that we have gained much by making modules so long and jam-packed with information. Give me some maps, some basic descriptions, and an overview of how all these elements might fit together and I'm ready to go. What I want out of an adventure is a spur to my imagination, nothing more.

24 comments:

  1. I agree that adventures are over fluffed James. In Pathfinder's defense, it is a pre-made Campaing so the extra fluff is warranted.

    The "Extra-Work" really happened because of 3e. Rules stickler (Like I used to be) wasted a lot of time making 1/2 Dragon Fiendish Sea Trolls.

    In Retrospect I could have just taken a Troll, give it flying and a breath weapon and make it immune to fire and I'd be good. The game just didn't seem friendly to such hacking as older editions were.

    4e returns to the dead simple monster concept. Regardless of the other gimmicks the crunch of monsters and traps are simple enough to allow on the fly playing...

    my 2 cents.

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  2. In Pathfinder's defense, it is a pre-made Campaing so the extra fluff is warranted.

    Oh, I realize that, but I also think that modern campaign settings are over-fluffed as well, Golarion -- which I love -- being one of them.

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  3. I also think there may be an overlooked reason, beyond nefarious IP building purposes. ;)

    I think that there is a market for "fluff". I think that a lot of adventures are written to be read as much as they are to be played.

    The same with campaign settings. In fact, while I rarely GM anymore, I still love to buy and read campaign materials and even rulebooks (thank darwin for half price books). So maybe I'm an extra fluff enabler.

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  4. I tried advocating lite stats blocks for much of Badabaskor but I kept running into everyone on the design team saying "It what everyone does". I was annoyed to the point where I said "Yeah but doesn't anybody make up stuff anymore?"

    I probably could have reduced the page count considerably if I was allowed to use lighter stat blocks.

    I also remember one discussion over a new monster that was included in either Citadel of Fire or Dark Tower. I said look "Why do you have nearly two dozen spell like abilities for this creature? It going to die in 5 round tops, give it a smaller amount and make the abilities cooler." Then a couple of days later in Dragon or on the wizard site an article appear stated they designed the latest Monster Manual (IV or V) with that very concept in mind.

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  5. "In Retrospect I could have just taken a Troll, give it flying and a breath weapon and make it immune to fire and I'd be good. The game just didn't seem friendly to such hacking as older editions were."

    A lot depends on your players. Good players won't really care how the GM arrived at the monster. I will admit that 3.x D&D did encourage players to nitpick the monsters because the rules for monster building and character building are the same. But 3.x is hardly the first system to do that. (Hero system was probably first).

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  6. I agree that its player specific... but Monster rules nitpickers are killjoys of the 'stop having fun guys' type IMHO.

    Here's the lesson I learned at Gen Con this year when I had to advance a Roper to 30 HD and make it Fiendish in 5 minutes...surrounded by 17 players (sharing a 126 players game with 30 GMs.

    I tripled HP and attack bonus (+4 for STR increase b/c of size), made it fire resistant and I added the combat reflexe Feat.

    No one cared about missing skills and feats because they were so busy being badasses fighting this monster and making it explode in a torrent of Infernal fire (all made up on the spot) when it died.

    It's all rule of cool and rule of fun stuff... Had I learned that lesson earlier, I might not have switched to 4e.

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  7. I think that there is a market for "fluff". I think that a lot of adventures are written to be read as much as they are to be played.

    That's quite likely in my opinion. The bulking up of RPG material in the 90s was, I would wager, a consequence of the fact that the hobby became increasingly one where people read the stuff rather than used it to run their own games.

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  8. "Why do you have nearly two dozen spell like abilities for this creature? It going to die in 5 round tops, give it a smaller amount and make the abilities cooler." Then a couple of days later in Dragon or on the wizard site an article appear stated they designed the latest Monster Manual (IV or V) with that very concept in mind.

    This is a place where our opinions will differ. I don't think monsters should be designed on the presumption they'll die in combat after only x number of rounds, because that's offends my "naturalist" sensibilities (about which I should write a post, come to think of it). One of my biggest beefs with the 4e MM (and its ancestors, the MMIV and MMV for 3e) is that it reduces monsters to two-trick pony combat opponents with little to no regard for their usage outside of combat encounters. That may be the way most people use monsters, but I think it detracts from the flexibility of the game overall and, as I noted in my comments elsewhere, points to the fact that 4e is mostly agnostic on a narrow range of play styles rather than being truly catholic in its approach.

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  9. Actually, I don't think prep time is a complaint often leveled against old style games. It's been leveled (justly) against 3e. From what I've heard about 4e, they reduced the level of complexity a DM faces (as mentioned above).

    Long stat blocks are a distraction from the fantasy no matter what system you're playing.

    Long descriptions (as opposed to stat blocks) can sometimes be good if they fire up the DM, but if they bore the DM due to poor writing (very common) or lead to a game in which the DM has to constantly refer to this material, then they cripple the experience. My experience with long fluff descriptions is that they almost always fall short of the mark. It's just too difficult for a game author to step in for the DM - except in matters of a great idea, evocative details and basic game-implementation. Try to provide more than that and you begin to hedge in the DMs creativity rather than ignite it.

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  10. Had I learned that lesson earlier, I might not have switched to 4e.

    Sadly, it's not a lesson anyone bothered to make clear in the rules of 3e, which were written to make players increasingly dependent on published products in order to be able to play the game "properly." Had 3e been more explicit in this and a few others areas, there might never have been a "need" for 4e at all.

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  11. Try to provide more than that and you begin to hedge in the DMs creativity rather than ignite it.

    Very well said.

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  12. With 3.5e, I felt overwhelmed by the intricate game mechanics involved with preparing monster encounters. One of the things I appreciate about 4e is the simplification of the rules governing monsters. And if one doesn't already exist in the 4e MM, it's a snap to create one from scratch using the tables provided in the 4e DMG.

    However, it is distressing that the 4e MM focuses almost exclusively on combat mechanics. With few exceptions, there aren't many guidelines for how to implement them beyond attack, attack, attack. If it wasn't for my collection of MMs from previous editions and my own past experiences, I think I would be rather lost.

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  13. The 4e design philosophy (not judging if it was wrong or right) was: Monsters not meant to be fought don't need stats or an entry in the book.

    DMs (and campaign setting books) can provide the rest as it's fluff.

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  14. The 4e design philosophy (not judging if it was wrong or right) was: Monsters not meant to be fought don't need stats or an entry in the book.

    I agree that that was the design philosophy and it's a flat-out rejection of Gygaxian naturalist "tree," of which 3e is the final rotten fruit.

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  15. I can attest to the fact that modern D&D (at least 3e) takes much longer to prep for than old D&D. Not just in the way of modules, however. All the character and monster builds DM's have to go through, for one, as well as making sure that they get all of the monster's abilities down, making sure they set the proper DC for traps and other possible skill challenges, etc.

    When I tried running 3e, I found that I not only needed but was expected to have an answer for everything the players might look at, but unlike old D&D, you cannot simply throw answers out; they have to fit in with the game system.

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  16. For what it's worth, it seems to me that terms like "fluff" and "crunch" are misnomers at best, and genuinely obstructive at worst. What is someone's "fluff" is another person's "crunch" and vice versa, so the terms are not immediately definable. If you take the next step and say that "fluff" is "descriptive material without game mechanics," and "crunch" is "material related to game mechanics that help with game play" you end up with an implied dichotomy that "fluff" may be discarded, and "crunch" is substantive. This elevates the value of game mechanics in a way that seems oddly off to me.

    Relating this back to the topic at hand - much of what seems like "old school" writing would look like "fluff" in modern usage, with a puzzling lack of "crunch" - I think this is part of what drives the perceived need for lots of background material, as well as complete stat blocks for monsters - gotta have that "crunch"!

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  17. I think this is part of what drives the perceived need for lots of background material, as well as complete stat blocks for monsters - gotta have that "crunch"!

    It's possible. I suspect, though, that the push toward a surfeit of fluff is more a consequence of the fact that many RPG products are simply read rather than used in play.

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  18. Well, the amount of prep-time required for the DM is a claim I’ve seen leveled against 3e—by its fans themselves—more than against earlier editions. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that complaint against earlier editions.

    I think this really has more to do with different people than different design schools. Or rather, it should.

    Some people really enjoy reading lots of detailed background and then customizing it to taste. For good or ill, I call them “detail oriented”, which is probably something of a misnomer. Give them just a sketch, and they feel overwhelmed by the gaps.

    I, however, find that stuff a muddy mass that I don’t have the wherewithal to slog through searching for the gems. I can’t hold all that stuff in my head well enough to either customize it or run it as is. I’d rather have some brief sketches and improvise the details. I call us “big picture oriented”, again for good or ill.

    I think we need to recognize that different referees need different things from modules. (And the above is only one possible axis.) Rather than designing for a system or following the style of the day, we should be trying to identify these differences, design different modules to different needs, and clearly label which modules are designed for which needs.

    Which I’ve been saying for a while now, but I guess I’m crazy because few people seem to have agreed with me.

    That said, I think some people do simply make the (false) logical connection: more text → less prep. Add the, “I want to feel like I’m getting more value for my $” undercurrent, and I suspect people aren’t really getting as much benefit (i.e. decreased prep time and more fun at the table) out of modules as they think. They just don’t have the confidence to wing it. And a fear that what they come up with will be seen as too cliché or derivative.

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  19. This elevates the value of game mechanics in a way that seems oddly off to me.

    Victor, your comment is pretty hard for me to absorb--it'd help if you had an example or two of how one person's fluff is another's crunch.

    But about the part I quoted above--I think the point isn't that mechanics are more important, but that they're harder to develop on the fly. Meanwhile fluff is quite hard to assimilate on the fly.

    At least this is consistent with what I think of as the "old school" philosophy, which assumes that roleplaying is a pretty intuitive behavior. Nowadays we might see that as less "natural" than a result of acculturation and shared tropes...but only reinforces the point. In 1978, you didn't need 10 pages of text to know what the lizard-men would do if they captured you.

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  20. Which I’ve been saying for a while now, but I guess I’m crazy because few people seem to have agreed with me.

    I don't see any incompatibility between the two approaches. I think it's likely that what I call "old school" was created by and appealed to what you call the "big picture oriented." Dissatisfaction with that approach led to the "new school," which appealed to the "detail oriented."

    If there's a difference, it's that your approach is less useful for polemical purposes and much of what I do here is an extended polemic. Nevertheless, I do appreciate your attempts to speak on these same subjects in a more even-tempered fashion; I probably rein in my worst excesses because of folks like you, Victor Raymond, and Calithena, all of whom have a more "pacific" temperament than my own.

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  21. Elliot - what I meant by "one person's fluff is another's crunch" is simply that it's hard to draw a clear line between them - say you have a description of a lizardmen village, and it includes a short chart for where the guards might be. Is that "crunch" or "fluff"? Depends on who you ask.

    I agree with you about some of this being a result of acculturation and shared tropes, though. When I started role-playing in '75, I had already read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. These days I scour used bookstores for old fantasy novels and anthologies to pass onto friends, to continue that acculturation process. ;)

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  22. Ah, I would call that crunch since it's mechanized in some degree. But if the terms really are problematic, I'd just go with mechanics vs. background/description.

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