Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dwimmermount and Plot

A number of people have commented on how much things seem to have "changed" in the Dwimmermount campaign as a result of the events in Death Frost Doom. Indeed, some have raised the specter of a "story" being introduced into the campaign. How to explain this?

There are several things at work here. Firstly, my own personal disdain for "story" is not a disdain for a coherent series of events that, in telling, follow logically from one another. Rather, it's for planning out that series of events beforehand without regard for player decisions or the vicissitudes of random dice rolls. The events of Death Frost Doom were not inevitable. For one, the players could have -- and indeed nearly did on a couple of occasions -- simply abandoned the crypts and moved on without precipitating the release of the undead horde upon the world. Had they done so, the campaign would have continued as it had. The Thulian "doomsday device" is but one of a great many "story seeds" I've placed throughout the campaign and it's by no means a privileged one.

"Story seeds?" I'm not sure what else to call them. Hooks perhaps? Basically, I litter the campaign world with the places, items, and characters, each of which has the potential for altering the campaign in various ways. Some might do so in big ways and others might do so in small ones, but all have the potential to lead to what, in retrospect, will be called "stories." But I cannot, until the players interact with those seeds and until dice are rolled give an accounting of "what's going to happen." There are no scenes planned out, no turning points designed, no climactic battles prepared, and certainly no expectations that this or that must happen in order for things to turn out "right."

The undead horde released from the crypts is the culmination of several story seeds I placed earlier in the campaign. It most definitely is part of a story now, but it didn't have to be. The story seeds relating to the fall of the Thulian empire, the cult of Turms Termax, azoth, the quest for immortality, and others all intersected in the way the players chose to explore Death Frost Doom, but there was no necessity that that had to happen. Even now, there are literally a dozen or more story seeds the players have either chosen to ignore or haven't yet interacted with in any significant way and any one of them could lead to yet more "stories." Similarly, just what the consequences of the undead horde will be is unknown, even to me. I have several possibilities in my mind -- that's the job of a good referee, after all -- but I don't favor one over the others and, even if I did, the X factors of player choice and the randomness of dice militate against my being able to ensure that any one possibility happens "as it should."

All of this is a long-winded way of agreeing with Rich Marshall's comment that "The advocates of pre-scripted storylines believe that without predetermined ends, overarching stories are impossible. They believe that if you allow the players' actions to create the story, chaos will ensue instead and no story will be possible." I am not in the slightest opposed to the idea that even old school RPGs include "story." Rather, I believe old school gaming generates stories -- many stories -- through play rather than through explicit referee planning beforehand. I can pretty much guarantee that, if I had a different group of players, the campaign would currently be quite different, if only because their dice rolls would have led to different outcomes and thus different decisions in response to them. That imaginary alternate campaign would likely have different stories and, to my mind, that's as it should be.

12 comments:

  1. James,
    Thanks for writing these, it certainly answers some questions I've had while reading your posts. My current group is just finishing up a Call of Cthulhu campaign refereed by myself, and we are going to try a little OD&D next year (mostly inspired by your blog). Right now I am still wrestling with how interesting to make the campaign world, but I will certainly be leaving the story up to my players, with a nudge in one direction or another if they need it. It's amazing how many resources there are online for recreating the Old School feel. Your contributions in this area are much appreciated.

    Inating - adding more entrances to the map of your megadungeon.

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  2. I call them "triggerable events".

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  3. Very well-reasoned. Reading this, I can see my GMing style never was and likely never will be wholly "old school," but some sort of a "squishy centrist who leans old-school." I have too strong an urge to create a story to resist completely, so I constantly have to remind myself let the players tell 75% of the tale.

    When I do have a story in mind, what I do is make a timeline of how events will proceed if the players do not intervene, intentionally or unintentionally. If they do nothing that affects that timeline, then events proceed in the background while the players attend to whatever they're focused on. When they do interfere, then my knowledge of NPC motivations and goals, the randomness introduced by the dice, and the players' choices guide the future of the campaign. (If anyone remembers the old Islandia campaign products from The Companions, that's where I learned this style. They were some great adventures.)

    In short, I like a world that still moves when the players aren't looking. Call it a three-quarter sandbox, I guess. :)

    Security word: "flenees." Multiple victims of the dreaded Flen.

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  4. Classic sandbox play where the players embrace or dump plots (but not consequences!) at will. Old school at it's finest!

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  5. Story happens. It's not something (IMO) that you can even create on purpose in an RPG (that's something else you've got hold of there, Mr. Conductor), but rather something that sneaks in from the back porch while you're not looking, and then hovers in the tenuous and ever-shifting mindspace created by player-GM interactions. If you try and manipulate it directly, it pops like a soap bubble and then you've ruint it. Just play the game, and it flourishes. Kinda Zen that way.

    -DYA

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  6. I agree with most of what James said. But is there a mad epidemic of pre-ordained stories among newer school gamers? In my experience, there isn't. For example, even the White Wolf groupies criticize many of the adventures for being too scripted. So is James arguing against a straw man?

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  7. So is James arguing against a straw man?

    I think it depends on what I'm arguing against. :) Most of my ire is directed toward contemporary published adventures rather than a particular style of play, although I think many gamers learn the "right" way to run adventures by modeling what they see in published ones. I think adventure built on the presumption that there will be certain "scenes" or even "encounters" run the risk of being too heavy-handed and imposing a "story" rather than facilitating one to arise naturally.

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  8. James wrote: "Most of my ire is directed toward contemporary published adventures rather than a particular style of play."

    This makes sense. However, I think it may point to a distinction that you are drawing that isn't necessarily real. You've just said that new school modules aren't necessarily indicative of the way that people actually play the games. In other posts, you've made the same point about old D&D modules (because they're tournament modules, they don't reflect the sandbox-y character of some early games).

    So maybe the play style of the new schoolers and the old schoolers isn't that different. If that's so, then what *is* the difference?

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  9. If that's so, then what *is* the difference?

    Well, I don't know for sure that that is so. I've played in enough new school campaigns -- some run by myself -- to know that there's a much greater emphasis placed on "satisfying" dramatic conclusions to adventures, character arcs, etc. than is the case in old school games. I think there's definitely a great deal more emphasis on emulating literary/cinematic techniques, often with rules to support such things than anyone ever dreamed of in the old days. There's a much greater sense that, if a player takes the time to flesh out his character's personality, background, and goals, the referee ought to make use of them, because the character is the primary locus of attention, while I think old school gaming placed more attention on the campaign itself, if that makes sense.

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  10. "(If anyone remembers the old Islandia campaign products from The Companions, that's where I learned this style. They were some great adventures.)"

    Yes, good call Anthony. The Companions series presented a deatiled plot line, where events progressed (sometimes in the background) because of, or in spite of the characters actions, although characters actions could influence the final events (and even derail them completely). If the characters did nothing, events would proceed as written and it might have profound effects on the campaign. This is the style I use myself, and I have to admit I need this sort of "structure" in my campaigns to present a good game.

    In my campaign, I sketch out a short, 2-3 year "preview" of what the forces that be will do in the game world should no obstacles be placed in their path....it is up to the players, of course, whether on not they become these "obstacles" and put their mark upon history by altering these events.

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  11. I call them story seeds too - I try to create little one line events that when encountered can trigger "things", with the actual event deciding what sort of thing happens. I also try to use what I call "waves", things that will happen in the setting - things like a famine occurring in the fall - events that will occur unless the players do something that will affect it.

    Now Ive found that some care in seeding can let you nudge what will happen in the campaign a little, for example in the Barbarians of Lemuria Dark Sun game I'll be running the party is organized around a trader, so more of the seeds will involve trading/trade houses over more generic stuff. That way the story will involve the trader and the trade house that employs the party, but Im not scripting what, Im just tweaking the odds to accommodate that kind of story.

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