Monday, September 20, 2010

The Power of IP

A friend of mine pointed me toward this interesting article by Phil Athans, formerly a fiction editor at TSR and WotC (and I remember him back in the days when he was a mere freelancer writing for Traveller). The article discusses the development of the intellectual properties of two D&D settings, The Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, using interviews with both Ed Greenwood and Tracy Hickman. Whatever your feelings about these settings, there's a lot of food for thought in the article, including quotes like this one:
It is true that the story was the foundation of Dragonlance and came out of the personal desire of both my wife [Laura Hickman] and myself to use role playing games as a medium of storytelling. You have to remember that at the time adventure games were largely of the ‘kill the monster, take its treasure, buy more weapons to kill bigger monsters’ variety. We wanted to introduce meaning into gaming through story.
Now there's something to talk about.

93 comments:

  1. Never was big on meaning, myself.

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  2. What Zak said. And you don't need story to get meaning anyway.

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  3. "We wanted the DM to introduce meaning into gaming through his story."

    Fixed that for you.

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  4. Meaning is what one gets from life in the real world. For gaming I want...well...kill the monster, take its treasure, buy more weapons to kill bigger monsters.

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  5. Or at least meaning dictated from the top down.

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  6. I liked the Dragonlance novels, but I couldn't imagine playing in a game where everything is already nailed down and defined. Isn't half the fun making stuff up as you go along?

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  7. a) i thought this blog was for whining about "old school" game mechanics

    b) id love to see the actual depth of the worlds people have here when they say these two offered worlds are "nailed down" and "defined". post up your crap anytime so we can check it out (and laugh)

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  8. Whoa, save or be charmed by this guy!

    Tell us more, anonymous internet voice!

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  9. I agree with Greg Costikyan that stories and games are opposites.

    http://www.costik.com/gamnstry.html

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  10. I agree with Greg Costikyan that stories and games are opposites.

    Greg Costikyan is awesome. That is all.

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  11. Telling a story through your RPG is not a dirty word.

    I think narrative adventures are great. You just can't FORCE the players to buy in.

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  12. Dragonlance had a really interesting world with potentially interesting characters -- and then they turned it into a railroad.

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  13. Yeah - there's a huge difference between a story that evolves naturally through the choices of the characters and the referee adjusting to that, versus a railroad. Dragonlance is the latter.

    That doesn't mean the world itself doesn't have merit as an idea mine. It means the modules actually made the sound "choo-choo."

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  14. Well, this is kind of "cool", I guess (if I can use the word "cool" on a blog dedicated to RPGs). Since James is on East Coast Time, my post above because my first official "post" on the day of my birthday. It's a "big" birthday, so people say. Oy.

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  15. Hickman has always said things that seem totally absurd to me on the face of it. For example: "Story is the universal conveyor of meaning. Properly deployed story in game settings extends the game experience beyond the rules and the setting into the realm of change, growth and life application."

    Maybe I'm just harping on the definite article, but still. I was already planning a blog post about "life application" stuff I got from games, and none of it was story-based. Good (emergent) game mechanics are enormously better, deeper teachers.

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  16. @Martin

    I've been thinking along the same lines.

    In fiction, a story is pretty much defined by the choices that characters make. If the characters do not make *meaningful* choices
    that drive the action, then there is no story. It stands to reason
    that this should apply to RPGs as well, which means that any story in D&D should be driven by the players alone, and not the DM or module author or game publisher or any other agency. The DMs role should be limited to figuring out what the consequences of player/character action are, and the others should provide little more than scenery for these "stories" to play out.

    Interestingly, from what I've read about the Dragonlance modules, the players are encouraged to not make any meaningful choices that might jeopardize the future progression of the pre-plotted action, which means that they, and any other 'railroad' games, actually produce the opposite of a story.

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  17. "I didn't spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage."

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  18. Telling a story through your RPG is not a dirty word.

    I guess it depends on what you mean by this. I have no problem with stories emerging from RPG play, but setting out to tell a particular story isn't something I have much interest in.

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  19. Hickman has always said things that seem totally absurd to me on the face of it.

    I feel much the same way. I can only say, in his vague defense, that I get the impression he's not a very precise speaker and so, when he says stuff like this, he likely doesn't mean it to be taken as definitive as it comes across.

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  20. "I didn't spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage."

    Lord Manhammer concurs.

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  21. There is a point made in the d20 Call of Cthulhu book Wizards put out, which despite my hatred of d20 is actually a pretty good book. In the section on "stories" it states that the GM is really responsible for providing the "promise of a story." In other words the GM provides situations which the characters can then interact with, creating stories. I think it's a pretty good description of sandbox play, but what do I know?

    wv: Canesse, the wife of a can.

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  22. I have no problem with stories emerging from RPG play, but setting out to tell a particular story isn't something I have much interest in.

    Sure, but it's no coincidence that RPGs got a whole lot more interesting - not just thematically but mechanically - once designers and writers started taking their narrative/thematic content more seriously. If you're going to describe yourself as a primitivist, you can't also pretend your chosen jones isn't...primitive, right?

    Story-centric gaming lets DMs, players, and designers accomplish things that were impossible under the early D&D/AD&D adventure paradigm. You might not be interested in those things, but that doesn't quite rise to the level of criticism. Hickman's comment no doubt signifies things that annoy you, but surely you see that its explicit content is unobjectionable!

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  23. @ Wally

    Don't you think it's a bit disingenuous to say that JM has self-identified as a primitivist?

    Methinks you're position is a tad biased, and overly bound by the modernist gibberish called "progress."

    wv: Handawar -- a lesser known Indian weapon.

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  24. I have no problem with stories emerging from RPG play, but setting out to tell a particular story isn't something I have much interest in.

    I think that is the vital distinction right there. A sandbox approach to RPG setting design is not always hostile to story - so long as the narrative emerges organically from the interaction of the characters with the setting, rather than being imposed by the author (or the GM for that matter).

    I wonder if we see things more clearly nowadays with the benefit of hindsight. Although I remember being slightly alarmed at the amount of railroading in the Dragonlance modules when they first appeared, it didn't trigger the alarm bells that it would now. I suppose that we've had twenty years of metaplot-heavy campaign settings since then to demonstrate the problems with the approach adopted in those modules. But I'm not sure that it was quite so obvious at the time. There were few people who articulated an alternative view with much clarity - Gary Gygax was pretty much the lone voice in the wilderness for a while, and some of the hip kids were already starting to consider him to be a bit of a dinosaur...

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  25. Eh, Wally's back. I cast resist flame.

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  26. Here's how I look at it: Last year I wrapped up a game (as a player) that went on for about 10 years. One of the main cool things in that game was something the referee had mentioned at our first session which he called the "Numbers of the Latter Days." It was a poem that basically talked about all of these prophecies involving numbers, such as "Three Wizards and Three Lizards", "Five Sides and Five Allies", etc.

    I remember at one point asking him, out of game, "Who exactly are the five allies? How come we haven't been able to figure it out yet?" and his answer totally took me off guard. He said, "I have no idea. You guys tell me."

    We'd been playing for about three years at this point, all the time thinking that he'd planted this poem with us as a clue so that we could figure out how to "solve his game." After he said that we were supposed to figure out who the five allies were, and that was going to propel the story forward, I had a bit of a revelation.

    Having a story arise naturally from the course of game-play, based on the actions of the characters, is totally cool. In fact, it's just going to happen anyway. Any kind of RPG, old-school, new-school, or whatever can have this.

    What I hate is a pre-determined story. I believe it was James who said it best a few years ago when he blogged something along the lines of, as a referee, he should not be able to say to someone "here's how my campaign is going to end."

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  27. How sad that they probably meant well but simply couldn't understand that "meaning" in gaming can only be collaboratively constructed from the bottom (individual players and GMs) up, never simply decreed from the top down.

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  28. And JMal doesn't strike me as particularly primitivist.

    I like to think that I'm a pretty good judge of such things, since my own comprehensive anarcho-primitivist philosophy extends far beyond RPG gaming. :)

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  29. My question is, if rpgs are supposed to be a storytelling medium, what do they do better than novels or movies? They make it crudely explicit what character you're supposed to identify with. THAT I would find childish.

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  30. The free flowing interaction of the GM & players are what make any campaign worthwhile, force feeding the players and walking them through the required die rolls to get to point X is boring. Sooner or later they wake up to the determinism that runs their universe and either opt out and start rebelling.
    GMing is not unlike preaching. There is the homily I give and the homily they hear. There is the adventure I plan and the one they play. I am almost always more satisfied with the latter. The stories that emerge end up being some of the most memorable events in playing and recalling the game many years later.

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  31. I actually played dragonlance modules (up to DL10)as a PC.
    Although it was years ago I have fond and confused memories of it, however railroady they were.
    I still prefer sandbox gaming.

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  32. Wally said: "Sure, but it's no coincidence that RPGs got a whole lot more interesting - not just thematically but mechanically - once designers and writers started taking their narrative/thematic content more seriously."

    Did they? I thought they became boring trudges through 3rd rate wannabe writers' mental masturbation sessions. Is that what you meant?

    "If you're going to describe yourself as a primitivist, you can't also pretend your chosen jones isn't...primitive, right?"

    Sure, but I think you misunderstand the word "primitive". Old School is literally primitive in that it is trying to be like the original form. You're making the classic Victorian mistake of assuming that all change is progress and that primitive forms are therefore by definition worse than modern forms.

    That view of the world is as dead as Queen Vic herself.

    "Story-centric gaming lets DMs, players, and designers accomplish things that were impossible under the early D&D/AD&D adventure paradigm."

    Simply not true. Utterly wrong and dunder-headed comment. Go to the back of the class.

    Story-telling games are very nearly the opposite of role-playing games. Once the players are focused on the story and how to develop it they are, by definition no longer focused on their individual role within the developing story. They have gone from taking characters out of myth/legend/Buffy and developing them freely to creating characters and then trying to put them back into a story.

    Story-games can be fun, but they are more limited than RPGs because they have a more restricted view of what is acceptable or desirable play. Any RPG can generate great stories (or stupid ones) just like a story-game, but a story-game is unlikely to ever produce the same level of surprise or novelty, to say nothing of immersion, that any RPG (including AD&D) can because the one-to-one connection between player and character has been broken.

    That might be modern and non-primitive, but for me it's a lot less interesting for long-term play, mostly because it's a lot less challenging on an intellectual level.

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  33. Some people want/take more from gaming than just the game. Obviously, some people don't. I don't see why one has to be right and the other wrong. Maybe I just don't get it.

    When I was young, reading Dragonlance novels opened up the idea that I could put more into my characters, more into the setting we were playing in.

    While not everyone cares about that, I for one used games to write stories inspired by what happened, create drawings and mini-comics about things that grew from games. The games became a springboard for other creative pursuits, and I enjoyed them all the more for that.

    While I was initiated on AD&D (only 33 here), and love the game, I feel sometimes like pointing at how some folks enjoy the game and calling "badwrongfun" seems unnecessary.

    You can have story without railroading. You can have meaning without ironclad structure. I think what Hickman was talking about was tapping into some folks who actually were looking for more story, not flipping the bird to folks who weren't.

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  34. JMal addressed the charge of Old School "primitivism" here.

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  35. I just find it amusing that a community of gamers who champion adventuring through megadungeons (which are entirely pre-mapped and pre-stocked and the only meaningful choice players have is "Left," "right," or "through the trap door") are complaining about how story removes meaningful choice from players and creates the dreaded "railroad" scenario. To my mind, the dungeon crawl is the most railroaded adventure there is.

    Just saying...I can't agree with this attitude that the DM's only job is to sit there passively and react to whatever the players want to do, simply interpreting rules as they come up.

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  36. Other choices in a dungeon: Do we push on ahead for another room or do we leave now? How do we deal with this group of ratmen- do we fight them or negotiate? Do we want to see how far this pit goes down, or do we leave it until later? etc.

    Later choices include: Do we go back to the dungeon at all? Should we follow up on that rumor about the abandoned fort? Do we want to do something about those bandits we keep hearing about? Can our new ratman allies help us get rid of the evil village headman? Should we try to stop the horde of zombies we accidentally unleashed, or should we just run to another country?

    There's plenty of opportunity for choice, in other words. The DM's job is to set the stage for those choices, and then to determine their consequences, either through imaginative interpretation, or application of the rules.

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  37. Here's the thing--all those choices you listed apply to a story-based campaign as well.

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  38. Not necessarily- For instance, the Dragonlance modules, which many people consider story-based, took away the ability for players to have a meaningful impact on the plot, even to the point that a "dead" character could reappear later if the plot demanded it.

    But I agree that you don't need to have a megadungeon and old school mechanics to make a good game. I DO think that a story needs to be player driven with the DM taking a more reactive role than many people naturally assume. For some reason, it seems like the RPG world has assigned the DM the role of "author", and thus the story's driving force, when it really should be more like the "referee" of the old days.

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  39. Perhaps story-adherents can understand the issue better as "story written before gameplay (instead of after-play interptetation)". It's something that does seem like a big waste of time in my experience.

    Hickman's true aspiration was to be a novelist, and he used D&D to claw his way to a story-writing career, regardless of what worked best for the RPG form itself.

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  40. "To my mind, the dungeon crawl is the most railroaded adventure there is."

    And if the player don't want to explore that particular dungeon? It would sure be sad if that caused your whole lazy half-ass stab at criticism to fall apart, eh?

    "JMal addressed the charge of Old School 'primitivism' here."

    Except you seem to have completely missed the joke contrasting "real" primitivism with RPG preferences, which puts infamous idiot Wally in the same boat as somebody calling his opponent a fascist for preferring vanilla over chocolate ice cream. :)

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  41. It's disingenuous (at best) to say choosing which direction to go are the only meaningful decisions that exist in a dungeon crawl and that a dungeon crawl is a railroad simply because it's pre-mapped. It's only a railroad if the path and outcome of the adventure are predetermined by the story rather than chosen by the players. "You WILL come to this room, and THIS is what WILL happen there."

    "Here's the thing--all those choices you listed apply to a story-based campaign as well."

    Hmmm...

    >Do we go back to the dungeon at all?

    Ummm...if you don't, the story won't progess. (Or maybe the story has finished with the dungeon and there's no reason to go back...)

    >Should we follow up on that rumor about the abandoned fort?

    Whether or not they should or not would be pre-decided by the story, wouldn't it?

    >Do we want to do something about those bandits we keep hearing about?

    The story decides this, not the players.

    >Can our new ratman allies help us get rid of the evil village headman?

    Ditto.

    Should we try to stop the horde of zombies we accidentally unleashed, or should we just run to another country?

    Ditto.

    Of course, a story game *could* include things not related to the story that the characters could pursue.

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  42. Will, I know Wally has made a habit of playing devil's advocate and has picked some fights, but he's being reasonably polite here, and not insulting James but referencing a title James did at least half-embrace.

    I think Wally has a valid point that thinking more explicitly about story opened up greater possibilities in terms of what RPGs can do. Mechanically and otherwise. That's not to say that classic D&D-style play is in any way bad or inferior; and I don't think it's actually Primitive, though I think the way a lot of DMs EXECUTED it was primitive, in part because really good DM advice and training was not consistently available back in the day. "Training" as such isn't really consistently available now, either, but there's a crapload of good advice and resources on the web, so I think modern newbie DMs are a bit less likely to run a bad game.

    I think one of the great things about the OSR is how smart DMs have discussed and explored and described hown to make back-to-the-basics play actually be complex and rich and take maximize important things like Player Agency and Emergent Story.

    That isn't to say that more narrative-focused games are bad or inferior either, though some Forge or Indy game fans may prefer them.

    Getting back to the original point, I think Tracey Hickman was groping at creating a game with more epic scope and dramatic story potential. I think his efforts to do it were understandably clumsy and primitive; he was one of the first people doing it! In doing this, he tapped into some amazing ideas that really resonated with a lot of gamers. A lot of people really loved Dragonlance, with its heroic scope and characters written to have dramatic relationships, not just be picareque rogues. On the other hand the series of modules really IS a pretty serious railroad, which is a problem, and set a bad example to a lot of DMs interested in drama and epic heroism that they should railroad their PCs and make their story happen at the cost of Player Agency. So there are both good ideas and bad ideas inherent in Dragonlance, as should be expected given that it was one of the first publications of its kind.

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  43. Is this issue really worth all these bad attitudes? Let people play how they want to play. It's just a game. And its supposed to be fun. Some of you guys have almost a religious fervor about this, and it's ridiculous. It's just a game. Enjoy it, and be glad that others enjoy it in their own way. Let's not have "D&D Fundamentalists."

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  44. I'm not sure anyone here is really adverse to story; the debate is really about who gets to make important decisions about the story. As I recall, the Dragonlance modules don't let the players make any important decisions, because that would louse up the progress toward the grand pre-determined outcome. That's one kind of "story-based" roleplaying, but it's not the kind I find enjoyable. What I (and lots of other old-school RPG fans) like is a setting where the GM has placed some seeds that a story could grow from: some history, maybe, or groups of people/creatures with conflicting desires, or legends that may or may not be true. Then the players can act on some of those seeds, the GM can react to what the players do, and a story can grow out of that. The GM still has the main responsibility for guiding the story, but the players get to make real decisions with real consequences. That's what I want from roleplaying, and it's something I can't get from a novel. If I want to identify with a character who has interesting experiences that I can't alter, I will read a novel. Indeed, I read the first three Dragonlance novels and enjoyed them.

    I don't understand why some people seem to want an RPG to work like a novel, where only the author/GM gets to make real choices. If anyone who reads this comment can explain this to me, I'd be grateful.

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  45. I've never looked at the Dragonlance modules, but I can hardly believe that players can't do anything meaningful. If this were true they wouldn't even get to roll dice to see if they killed the monster. I'm sure there's a lot of railroading in the DL adventures, but is it possible we're overstating it?

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  46. Not really, Thomas. The DL modules have a big, clear, story arc, and no matter what the PCs do, the next module only works if certain things have happened (like freeing the slaves at Pax Tharkis, IIRC).

    The tough thing with the DL modules is that I'm not sure there's any good way to do what they were trying for in a series of modules like that. What might work better is one larger uber-module single book supplement, which breaks down a heroic campaign/plotline, offering multiple directions for the "story" to go, based on what the PCs choose to do. But the DL series sadly doesn't do that.

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  47. Here's the thing, though...most of these criticisms of the DL modules work for ANY pre-written adventure module. If you don't go with the flow, the module breaks down. It's the nature of a pre-written module.

    And to Will, my "half-assed" criticism doesn't break down at all. If your players decide not to explore that particular megadungeon, guess what? It's the EXACT SAME RESULT as if they decide to go along a different path than a story might dictate: whatever events were going to happen in that megadungeon won't happen to the PCs and the DM is left to design another dungeon or adventure.

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  48. @ John Harper Brinegar--this is where I differentiate story from railroading. What I take issue with is the growing prevelance of an attitude that having a story in mind = railroad. That's just not the case.

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  49. I wonder if we see things more clearly nowadays with the benefit of hindsight. Although I remember being slightly alarmed at the amount of railroading in the Dragonlance modules when they first appeared, it didn't trigger the alarm bells that it would now.

    I'm pretty sure my alarm bells started ringing way before Dragonlance. Actually, I remember realizing pretty early that the stories that emerge from role play are nothing like books, not sure when that realization came to me, but I'm pretty sure it was between 1978 and 1981.

    I know the Slavers modules were a much earlier thing that I saw as not the type of module I wanted to run for my game. I think I even balked a bit at the continuation of the "story" in the Giant series modules.

    Somewhere along the line, I started to notice "single path" modules. My favorite modules are ones where there are multiple paths through the dungeon. I do understand that many modules were developed for tournament play, and that required restriction on paths, but there were a reasonable number of modules that weren't so single path, and others that played quick enough that it didn't matter so much that they were a single path. I know we had fun with White Plume Mountain despite that being three single paths wrapped into one module, but each path was a small adventure.

    Frank

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  50. Sure, but I think you misunderstand the word "primitive". Old School is literally primitive in that it is trying to be like the original form. You're making the classic Victorian mistake of assuming that all change is progress and that primitive forms are therefore by definition worse than modern forms.

    If I've ever used the term "primitive" to refer to early gaming in an unironic fashion, this is exactly what I mean by it. And I'm definitely on board with the notion that not all change is progress.

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  51. I don't see why one has to be right and the other wrong. Maybe I just don't get it.

    My position has never been that the shift in RPGs' self-conception was "wrong" so much as uncongenial to the way I prefer to play and -- here's the important thing -- that the shift brought with it a denigration of what had come before. If Dragonlance-style modules had been presented as simply one way to play D&D, I could simply have ignored them and picked up stuff that I preferred. Unfortunately, Dragonlance and its imitators quickly became the way to play D&D and the original styles were no longer supported. Therein lies the source of my beef.

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  52. Hickman's true aspiration was to be a novelist, and he used D&D to claw his way to a story-writing career, regardless of what worked best for the RPG form itself.

    That's my interpretation too, but perhaps I am being unfair. My issue is not "story" in any absolutely sense. Indeed, I think RPG campaigns, to have any longevity, need some kind of linking narrative. What I object to is a prefabricated narrative that reduces characters to fulfilling dramatic roles by authorial fiat rather than emerging through the unpredictable alchemy of referee planning, player choice, and random chance.

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  53. Is this issue really worth all these bad attitudes?

    Honestly, I don't see too many bad attitudes here at all. This is a surprisingly civil conversation.

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  54. Here's the thing, though...most of these criticisms of the DL modules work for ANY pre-written adventure module. If you don't go with the flow, the module breaks down. It's the nature of a pre-written module.

    The difference is that some modules, especially the older ones, offer what James Mal calls "location based" adventure. Basically, this is something like the original Tomb of Horrors (or something newer like Death Frost Doom) where the DM can plug a "freestanding" dungeon or scenario into his pre-existing world and players can decide whether or not to pursue it without either choice "ruining the story". It serves to enrich the world and give the players more options, not less.

    Something like Dragonlance, on the other hand, comes with an entire plot-line prepackaged and presupposes that the campaign will revolve around it more-or-less exclusively. If the PCs decide against following the clues or making the "right" choices, then you may as well start a new campaign because the "story" breaks down completely (as opposed to simply going in another direction).

    And to Will, my "half-assed" criticism doesn't break down at all. If your players decide not to explore that particular megadungeon, guess what? It's the EXACT SAME RESULT as if they decide to go along a different path than a story might dictate: whatever events were going to happen in that megadungeon won't happen to the PCs and the DM is left to design another dungeon or adventure.

    I guess the difference is that the DM is prepared for that to happen and ready to respond to that choice, as opposed to considering the "story" to be ruined and being unable to cope. Again, I think it comes down to the DM understanding that his role is to mediate between the players and the world, not to railroad the players into making the "right" choices.

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  55. I don't understand why some people seem to want an RPG to work like a novel, where only the author/GM gets to make real choices.

    I think it's tied up in the word Hickman uses in the quote above: "meaning." Lots of gamers -- heck, lots of people generally -- want their entertainment to be more than "just a bunch of stuff that happened." I'm sympathetic to this; truly, I am. The problem is that games are terrible vehicles for conveying meaning and attempts to make them better at it invariably warps the form into something unrecognizable, at least unrecognizable to a lot of us.

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  56. What I take issue with is the growing prevelance of an attitude that having a story in mind = railroad. That's just not the case.

    If that's your only issue, then it's purely terminological and easily fixed.

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  57. Something like Dragonlance, on the other hand, comes with an entire plot-line prepackaged and presupposes that the campaign will revolve around it more-or-less exclusively. If the PCs decide against following the clues or making the "right" choices, then you may as well start a new campaign because the "story" breaks down completely (as opposed to simply going in another direction).

    The situation is made worse by the fact that the DL modules follow, more or less, the outline of the Dragonlance novels, so there's a strong temptation on the part of both players and referees to push the tabletop adventures along precisely the same path. That's not (always) required by the modules as written, but I know from experience that the number of gaming groups who'd have allowed, say, Raistlin to die early on the series or Sturm to live is comparatively few.

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  58. I think a lot of these arguments seem to be from people who haven't actually read or played the Dragonlance modules. As James says, a linking narrative that arises from the choices of the characters during game play is fine and desirable.

    The Dragonlance modules aren't like that. There is a whole page telling the referee how to bring back villains from the dead because they are "important to the story." Um... see, in my game, if the players kill the villain, then I am the only one who gets to decide whether he "comes back" (and chances are, he's not going to, because that takes the power away from the players).

    There are also pre-generated characters in the modules, which is fine, except when you get to module #6 (I think - I don't remember the exact number) where SPOILER ALERT one of the Pre-Generated characters is "supposed" to die. If you're the player who chose that character at the beginning - well, sucks for you. You get to pick a new character when you play the next module. You don't have a choice.

    While is was "novel" (pun intended) at the time, it just seems to take away too much power from the players, so that you feel like you're just acting out a pre-written story.

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  59. Below is a link to an article by Dave Morris (author of the British "old school" RPG Dragon Warriors) about improvisation, storytelling and the authorial role of a referee.

    http://fabledlands.blogspot.com/2010/09/shape-inside-bone.html

    This quote sums it up nicely.

    "When I'm refereeing, I like to be surprised too—and I like the players to know that this isn't just a story I'm telling them."

    It's a good read --the whole blog is actually -- and might add to this discussion.

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  60. "Unfortunately, Dragonlance and its imitators quickly became the way to play D&D and the original styles were no longer supported. Therein lies the source of my beef."

    I can see where you’re coming from here, and honestly, I hadn’t thought of it that way.

    Makes me wonder about the popularity of it at the time, and how the novels probably helped create a possibly false sense of the modules’ success?

    When modules started being written for books and books for games…does it become harder to determine if the actual nuts and bolts of the module are popular, or if folks are just buying it because they read the books and scooped up something with Dragonlance on the cover?

    I admit, I love Dragonlance. But then, I never played any of the modules. We always made up our own games, that just took place in the world.
    Perhaps I’m seeing things from both “sides” since that’s sort of how my experience unfolded. Yes, we played Dragonlance (using the old 'Dragonlance Adventures' book), but we rarely played modules.

    I suppose in a way, we were injecting more story into our games, but maintaining a “sandbox” nature. Dragonlance opened up some ideas for us, and maybe for some struggling DM's, it provided a new look at how to inject flavor into their games.

    That being said, it's too bad that the effect of its popularity was to choke growth of more traditional D&D products.

    As always, an interesting topic!

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  61. @Zak "Whoa, save or be charmed by this guy!"

    LOL. That's one of the funniest things I've ever read here.

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  62. I don't understand why some people seem to want an RPG to work like a novel, where only the author/GM gets to make real choices. If anyone who reads this comment can explain this to me, I'd be grateful.

    Because it's like you're in in the novel, in a way that you aren't with a regular novel. That totally heightens the meaning.

    It's like,
    In a village of La Mancha, there lived not long ago a gentleman...

    No! No! Say me! Say like I am in the story! Me!

    Fine...In a village of La Mancha, there lives you...

    Yah! Yah!

    Uh...roll some dice.

    Yah! Yah!

    *clatter*

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  63. I guess it depends on what you mean by this. I have no problem with stories emerging from RPG play, but setting out to tell a particular story isn't something I have much interest in.

    I mean something like, "The PCs discover the crown prince, thought dead since the assassination of the king."

    That's a story. It's not a *whole* story, but it is a story.

    Here I am differentiating story from location based adventures. Yes, "explore the hidden temple" is a story, but my example above is plot independent of location.

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  64. Makes me wonder about the popularity of it at the time, and how the novels probably helped create a possibly false sense of the modules’ success?

    I'd be amazed if the DL modules weren't genuinely popular in their own right. TSR was nothing if not ruthlessly concerned with the bottom line. As I recall, one of the principals involved in the development of Dragonlance indicated that there was a backup plan to end the module series prematurely if the sales figures suggesting it was tanking. That they never pulled the trigger on this suggests the series was a success.

    As I've said many times before, Dragonlance was a success because it gave gamers something many at the time wanted -- or at least thought they did. It spoke to a very real desire on their part and I can't blame TSR for trying to take advantage of that. I just wish that it hadn't come to be seen as the template for all subsequent development of the game.

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  65. Here I am differentiating story from location based adventures. Yes, "explore the hidden temple" is a story, but my example above is plot independent of location.

    Maybe this is splitting hairs, but I don't think a plot is a story either. I have no problem with adventures based around the notion of trying to resolve some problem, so long as there's no assumption that the problem will be solved in a particular way. Once writers start structuring adventures around "scenes" and so forth, then I balk. But a murder mystery? A rescue mission? An embassy to a foreign land? I have no problems with adventures of this sort, except to the extent that they're structured badly.

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  66. I remember the Dragonlance modules, but I never had any success running them. I was pretty young, and a "primitive" dm, but we always seemed to go off the reservation pretty fast, and with those modules, I had no idea what the fuck to do when we did.

    Still, it did introduce me to the idea of getting the players involved, sometimes critically, in world-altering events. Which frankly, I still have no problem with doing.

    But now as then, having a pre-determined outcome is the issue. As long as the DM is flexible on outcomes, then we're not dealing with a railroad.

    Regarding dungeons, though. Will - the dungeon you describe and the "choices" it represents... are World of Warcraft. Exactly and without the slightest difference. Static, but expansive, and with lots of choices as to how you approach the absolutely unchanging "location". So, is it really a choice?

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  67. I want my players to evolve the story by their choices while in play. Its part of the implied social contract for the type of gaming I like.

    YMMV.

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  68. Makes sense, James. I was merely ruminating on the concept that perhaps some folks bought the module and did absolutely nothing with it other than read it. Simply to have more DL material to devour.

    From TSR's perspective, sales of the module would still be great, but the impression that it was because of the structure of the adventure itself, rather than the popularity of the novels, might have driven the impetus to mass-produce "story-driven" modules.

    *shrug* No real way to know. But, I appreciate your responses, as they've got me thinking about a favorite subject in a way that I hadn't considered.

    (Also, I've been reading your blog for a while, and your Dwimmermount journals bring back my early memories of D&D with striking impact. Thanks for taking the time to share.)

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  69. Jason said: "If your players decide not to explore that particular megadungeon, guess what?... the DM is left to design another dungeon or adventure."

    You're probably one of those guys who ignore all the random tables that are the core backbone of D&D.

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  70. I am so sick of reading about how my game was nothing but hack & slash until they came along and showed us all the light.

    Not to mention the fact that they need to go talk to Dave Wesely and a few other people.

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  71. Regarding dungeons, though. Will - the dungeon you describe and the "choices" it represents... are World of Warcraft.

    Did I miss something? Where did Will describe a dungeon?

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  72. Maybe this is splitting hairs, but I don't think a plot is a story either. I have no problem with adventures based around the notion of trying to resolve some problem, so long as there's no assumption that the problem will be solved in a particular way.

    No, this is what I was referring to, and it most definitely is a story.

    The Lady or the Tiger, which ends with a cliffhanger, is a story.

    It's a story without an ending but it most definitely is a story.

    This is the type of plot which works best for RPGs- one which allows for multiple endings, or even NO ending, in the case of an ongoing campaign.

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  73. I'd be amazed if the DL modules weren't genuinely popular in their own right.

    Of course the modules were successful. And how couldn't they be?

    They had the highest production values of all TSR modules that were available back then, much higher than even single modules that were published in parallel.
    * slick artwork and covers (Elmore/Caldwell/Parkinson)
    * slick branding (logo, celtic style borders, iconic characters)
    * huge maps (High Clerist Tower, the hexcrawly(!) plain between Pax Tharkas and Thorbardin)
    * visually interesting 3D dungeon maps (Xak Tsaroth, the flying tomb) that marked a departure from the iconic, yet sterile, blue maps

    Content-wise,
    * they had stunning vistas: a ruined, sunken city, a "Mount Dragonmore" at Foghaven Vale, a floating mountain keep that looked like a fantasy version of the Death Star (an image that was reduced to a floating dwarven tomb in the actual product)
    * involved innovative set pieces: ice schooners, the inside of an elven king's nightmare
    * provided the DM with surprises to spring on his players: the truths about Fizban, Fistandantilus, the Blue Lady, and the draconians - D&D's own "who shot J.R." and "who killed Laura Palmer" style events

    With mind and eye candy like that - what was not to love?

    Everything else on the market (even inside TSR) paled against that. Monospace type on cheapest paper like in Judges Guild modules?

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  74. As I've said many times before, Dragonlance was a success because it gave gamers something many at the time wanted -- or at least thought they did. It spoke to a very real desire on their part and I can't blame TSR for trying to take advantage of that. I just wish that it hadn't come to be seen as the template for all subsequent development of the game.

    "thought they did"?

    There clearly was a demand for that kind of product and style of writing (and gaming). I remember that the fact that adventure contents could be tailored to specific PCs backstories (Raistlin, Tanis, Caramon) were eye openers for some gamers, and they never looked back.

    Also, the success of the greater Dragonlance franchise (the novels, the calendars) created a feedback loop of sorts. The novels were hugely successful. In my store we cycled through almost the entire back catalog (of German translations) on a bi-weekly rate. We had to constantly back-order the novels.
    Newbies that were lured into gaming by the novels brought their own (story) expectations to the table.

    But I also agree with Frank that the seed was planted earlier (the Slave Lords). Even older school gamers toyed with narrative play (as could be seen in letters and forum columns in Dragon magazine).

    It seemed that almost everyone on the design and publishing side of things embraced the story paradigm. Where was the competing product, the Dragonlance of hexcrawl or location-based gaming?
    (Would Necromancer's Wilderlands box have had the power to "wow!" the community?)

    And I am more surprised that DL didn't become a true template. Even TSR didn't repeat the concept in the years that followed. Two editions later Paizo did, with the adventure paths.

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  75. Robert McKee's book Story does an excellent job of moving the discussion of plot versus story and other such issues to a new level of clarity.

    Among other things, he argues that a plot is absolutely not a story. A plot is just a sequence of events. A story is created by a sequence of emotionally charged gaps between what the protagonist thinks will happen when he acts to get what he wants and what actually happens.

    Pre-scripted adventures of the kind James and others are concerned about pretend to be stories, but in truth they're at most often stories for the characters but not the players, because the players aren't free to do what they think best in the situation, not free to become truly engaged in trying to solve the problems, because the outcomes are overly predetermined. That is, they pretend to be stories but really they're just plots.

    Unscripted stories of the kind James and others admire in gaming are quite the opposite. They are described as unscripted and set up as the opposite of stories, but as James has mentioned both in this post and elsewhere they do actually have stories that emerge dynamically from play. Indeed, based on McKee's definition of stories - which is a much more compelling and informed definition than most - there's a cogent argument to be made that ONLY a story that arises dynamically from the players' choices really counts as a story and not just a plot, because only if the players are free to make their own choices will they fully get emotionally invested in the outcome, and only if they are fully emotionally invested can their be a truly emotionally charged gap between expectations and what really happens.

    So if the characters are to be scripted into a story, then the players are scripted out of it. They can pretend to be engaged, but since they aren't actually making the decisions they make less emotional investment, which drains all the energy out of the gaps.

    Likewise, if the characters are not pre-scripted into a "story" (plot), then the players are invited in. They have the chance to make any decisions they like in order to achieve their ends because the future appears open to them, free, so they can make their own best, most highly motivated decisions and become emotionally invested in the outcome, which charges up the gaps with energy.

    In other words, pre-scripted adventures may be stories for the characters on paper in advance of play but they aren't for the players either before or after play, and unscripted adventures may not be stories for either one on paper before the adventure, but they become stories for the players during play. Ironically, in gaming, which is a very different medium from novels or films, pre-scripted adventures can't be stories at all, just plots.

    This difference isn't academic, and it isn't hair-splitting. It's the crucial difference between plot and story that most people experience in their gut as when they engage with great storytelling.

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  76. Also worth noting is that it's easier to sell a heavily scripted module, because it reads well - and it's much, much easier to sell sequels to that module because you know where it left off by predetermining its outcome.

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  77. "Newbies that were lured into gaming by the novels brought their own (story) expectations to the table."

    Actually, my recollection was that fewer newbies were drawn in by the sterile offerings of the DL franchise than the number of "oldies" that were deserting the hobby in the face of increasingly predictable, corporate-designed sanitized pap. Games shops that tried to "stay pure" and not chase the customers into new games that they wanted to play (computer games, GW minis) were going to the wall daily by the time DL12 came out.

    In the end, there was no need for a player to play out the sessions. They could buy the books and find out what happened a lot quicker that way.

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  78. It would be interesting if someone with a background in statistics could analyze the data over at the Acaeum. The resale value of modules adjusted by rarity could give an interesting slice on the “popularity” question.

    Anecdotally, although I and many of my friends read the DL novels, I was the only one who bought any of the modules, and I only bought DL1. we enjoyed DL and D&D, but they were only tangentially related for us. It was also easy and cheap to pick up the others I have second-hand. (And I’m not talking years later.)

    Also, despite their sins, DL1—at least—I don’t think was so bad. It did have hexploration. Within the module, I think players did have as many choices as with most modules. (I think modules in general haven’t had the most positive influence on the hobby anyway.)

    Dang it. I said I’d never say anything good about the DL modules again. u_u

    I like what Rick Marshall wrote above. I tend to avoid the words “plot” and “story” when it comes to RPGs. What’s important to me is the players’ decisions. They need to have real choices. The less restricted their options, the better. Outcomes should be appropriately affected by those choices. That there are (back-) stories that inform those decisions and stories or meaning to be found as a result of them is secondary.

    And if my only choice had been to kill the monsters and take their stuff, I probably wouldn’t have hung around in this hobby long enough to see Mr. Hickman’s attempt to bring “meaning” to it.

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  79. Jason wrote: “Just saying...I can't agree with this attitude that the DM's only job is to sit there passively and react to whatever the players want to do, simply interpreting rules as they come up.”

    Hmm. To me one of the defining characteristics of a megadungeon is that it is living. The DM is constantly adding and changing things. The PCs’ actions shape many of those changes. Wasn’t that even mentioned in the books on occasion?

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  80. Also, despite their sins, DL1—at least—I don’t think was so bad. It did have hexploration. Within the module, I think players did have as many choices as with most modules.

    That's my take on the early DL modules as well. Up to DL3 they were relatively typical AD&D modules, with pre gens, exposition, locations (keyed dungeon and wilderness maps), and events/timed encounters (and the goofy gold-is-worthless/no-clerics/obscure-death intro).

    The "sin" was on the side of the novels. They provided an official, "right" sequence of events that was hardly mandatory from the text of the modules. In some places it was even radically different from the modules (Lord Verminaard's defeat), and the modules offered additional possibilities that were to be decided either by a random roll or by DM choice (the true nature of Fizban, the importance of the Green Gemstone Man).

    But the novels presented an official path, and some DMs were reluctant to stray from that path. That led to the strange effect that players of different campaigns could still discuss about DL in the same way co-workers speculated who shot J.R.
    But Dragonlance had all the trappings for many similar, yet different campaigns.

    And DMs playing one of the early DL modules as a stand alone adventure could do so without paying attention even noticing the metaplot restrictions or (imagined) requirements. They needed to adapt the expositions to their campaign settings anyway.

    With the later modules that changed. They were weaker (less detailed descriptions/maps, broader strokes) and relied heavily on the good impressions/experiences with the first batch.

    When the saga was rewritten for the Silver Anniversary omnibus edition (dual-statted for AD&D2 and 5th Age) all ambiguities were left out and the story/rails kept close to the one of the novel trilogy.

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  81. "thought they did"?

    I was speaking for myself. I was very excited by what Dragonlance seemed to portend. When the first module was released, I was very keen on the idea injecting more "story" into D&D and trying to give the whole thing a coherent, "epic" feel suffused with "meaning." I figured such thing were what the game needed in order to "grow" and hold the attention of gamers.

    In the end, I got what I wanted and came to realize I didn't want it anymore. That's more or less remained my position since then. I look back on Dragonlance as the harbinger of a movement within gaming I greeted with enthusiasm before I saw what its actually effects would be.

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  82. Among other things, he argues that a plot is absolutely not a story. A plot is just a sequence of events. A story is created by a sequence of emotionally charged gaps between what the protagonist thinks will happen when he acts to get what he wants and what actually happens.

    That's a nice way of putting it.

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  83. Also worth noting is that it's easier to sell a heavily scripted module, because it reads well - and it's much, much easier to sell sequels to that module because you know where it left off by predetermining its outcome.

    I think there's more than a little truth to this.

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  84. Actually, my recollection was that fewer newbies were drawn in by the sterile offerings of the DL franchise than the number of "oldies" that were deserting the hobby in the face of increasingly predictable, corporate-designed sanitized pap.

    I think you're on to something with this. I myself remember that the gamers I knew who were most excited by Dragonlance were those who were becoming "bored" with D&D as it was in 1984. I have often wondered if TSR didn't recognize the difficulty in retaining some of their customer base and saw things like DL as a way to accomplish that goal.

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  85. And if my only choice had been to kill the monsters and take their stuff, I probably wouldn’t have hung around in this hobby long enough to see Mr. Hickman’s attempt to bring “meaning” to it.

    Indeed!

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  86. Up to DL3 they were relatively typical AD&D modules, with pre gens, exposition, locations (keyed dungeon and wilderness maps), and events/timed encounters (and the goofy gold-is-worthless/no-clerics/obscure-death intro).

    This matches my feeling too, which is why I was able to kick off a "Dragonlance" campaign long ago that ditched the pregenerated PCs and deviated from the plot of the first novel. I assumed all the modules would be similarly open-ended and flexible -- how wrong I was!

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  87. This matches my feeling too, which is why I was able to kick off a "Dragonlance" campaign long ago that ditched the pregenerated PCs and deviated from the plot of the first novel. I assumed all the modules would be similarly open-ended and flexible -- how wrong I was!

    I think the modules went the direction they did because fans were clamoring for more of what made them different, which is all the stuff about them so many despise.

    In fact, I think that's what makes the modules enjoyable to this day. It's still something no one else has pulled off, turning a novel series into a series of modules.

    It's also an entire campaign in game form.

    I've run them, and it certainly is possible to do so without them leading the players.

    It's an interesting trip of an adventure series. Not really to my taste anymore, but I've ran the entire series several times and players always love it.

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  88. the dungeon you describe and the "choices" it represents... are World of Warcraft. Exactly and without the slightest difference. Static, but expansive, and with lots of choices as to how you approach the absolutely unchanging "location".

    Fitzerman's descriptions were just sketchy examples of ways in which a dungeon is not necessarily a "railroad." But reading those examples, I can't see where anyone would get the notion of a "static absolutely unchanging location." He talks about negotiating, forming alliances, following up on rumors, fleeing to a new locale. In most of these situations, an Old School DM would not necessarily have a pre-planned result for any of the player choices. The fort may exist as no more than a rumor until the party actually decides to go investigate, in which case the DM will begin to flesh it out (perhaps using some random tables to pump his creativity, as well as dynamically incorporating elements that have emerged from previous gameplay). Read James' Dwimmermount campaign for a marvelous, detailed account of an Old School megadungeon-centered campaign that is absolutely not static but rather improvised in response to player actions in a way that a computer game like World of Warcraft never could be.

    P.S. Good to see some dissenting voices reappear on this blog. As the Chinese say, "Knives are sharpened on a stone; men are sharpened on each other."

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  89. What is your take on the behind the scenes maneuvering at TSR to codify Greyhawk. Where it suddenly moved from Gary's personal world to a default world. Do not think this centralization of IP was happening even then? As I remember the clamor was to have interlocking modules as it was hard to plan out a Campaign with the Old School modules which were bunches of stats (both their beauty and bane)

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  90. It is indeed something to talk about. I mostly agree with comments from Fitzerman, JEFF, Martin, and Rick Marshall.

    Regarding the novels, I found them quite entertaining. Although there are some things that drove me nuts (the Gods and magic coming and going, dragons used as flying horses, Tasslehoff appearing almost everywhere...), some characters are very compelling and the story is really inspiring (IMHO).

    Regarding the modules, we played DL1 to DL3 some years ago. Three of my players had already read the novels, so they knew what to expect regarding the setting.

    DL1 was a huge success for my group. They absolutely enojed portraying the novel's characters and adding their own twists to them. For me, it was my first experience with a hex crawl, and I really enjoyed it.

    DL2 had a few problems. For example, the PCs are supposed to be captured by page 5. The alternative is death: the encounter pits them against two old red dragons. I guess we all went along for the sake of the ride, but it was a pretty obvious use of rails. After their escape (again, it was obvious they would escape), they freed the prisoners of Pax Tharkas using the same trick as the characters use in the novels. The alternative: fight a red dragon, this time an ancient one!

    Anyway, we decided to give DL3 a try because it featured Skullcap. It was interesting because they got to lead a big group of people with internal factions through another hex crawl while the dragon army followed them.

    The biggest departure from the novels was the death of Raistlin and Caramon in the beginning of DL2 to a random encounter. Poor tactics combined with poor luck dictated their deaths; their players just rolled new characters and we moved on. I guess Mr. Hickman forgot to "prohibit" the main characters' deaths during random encounters ;)

    We never followed through with DL4 since we moved on to tackle Hommlet and the Temple of Elemental Evil. After my experience DMing Dragonlance, I learned a lot about how _not_ to railroad my players. Thank you, Mr. Hickman.

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  91. DL1 was a huge success for my group. They absolutely enojed portraying the novel's characters and adding their own twists to them.

    That was my observation as an onlooker.

    The biggest departure from the novels was to let the players roll their own characters. Only one of them chose one of the pre gens (Tanis) because he wanted to play a ranger and feared to roll stats that would not allow him to.
    The human illusionst became fascinated with Fistandantilus (so he "volunteered" to take some of Raistlin's metaplot functions). But that was all. Other characters were modeled after Elric, Gulnar (Richard O'Brian's shady shaman/wizard in Robin of Sherwood) and Feirefis (Parsival's brother).
    We left the plot (and order of modules) with DL4 - there was no breaking of the fellowship in Tarsis.

    But neatly all other Dragonlance players and DMs I met followed the novel plot, and used the Innfellows as characters. I was fascinated when participants from those groups met in my game store and traded stories, from one Raistlin to another. One particular player even replayed the whole saga a few years later, using a different role.

    This is a different hobby, almost like a semi-impro radio play, with preset roles, and each player knowing what was expected from them.
    Like different interpretations of Robin Hood in movies and TV.

    After my experience DMing Dragonlance, I learned a lot about how _not_ to railroad my players. Thank you, Mr. Hickman.

    Same here.

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  92. This is a different hobby, almost like a semi-impro radio play, with preset roles, and each player knowing what was expected from them.
    Like different interpretations of Robin Hood in movies and TV.


    That's a good observation.

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