Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Roots of the Revolution

Over at the Mule Abides, Tavis reminded me of something I'd seen once before: the introduction to the pre-TSR, Daystar West edition of Tracy and Laura Hickman's Pharaoh. In that introduction, the Hickmans put forward four "requirements" for the adventures they were presenting:
  1. A player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing. 
  2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into play itself. 
  3. Dungeons with an architectural sense. 
  4. An attainable and honorable end within one to two sessions playing time. 
Tavis somewhat hyperbolically calls these four requirements the "manifesto of the Hickman Revolution," since, as originally presented, they're descriptive rather than prescriptive -- a statement of intent on behalf of the authors. In hindsight, though, it's very easy to look at these and see the seeds of what would eventually bear fruit at the end of the Golden Age. And of course it's important to remember that the Daystar West version of Pharaoh appeared in 1978, four years before the TSR version.

This is vital information, because it's all too easy, in retrospect, to see the Hickman Revolution as something imposed from the outside on D&D, when in fact it was an organic outgrowth of it and one with deep roots. That doesn't make it any more palatable to me, but we mustn't forget that, from fairly on, there were those dissatisfied with the way RPGs were presented and marketed in the early days and they offered up alternatives to those who felt the same way -- just like the old school renaissance is doing today.

28 comments:

  1. Just off the top of my head, I'm actually ok with requirements 1, 3 and 4. It's #2 that I can see problems with - the "intriguing story" is usually foisted onto the players by the writer (or sometimes the DM) and ends up as railroading. This is something that I found quite annoying in Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance adventures.
    #4 seems more a matter of taste and practicality for each gaming group than any great principle - short adventures can be great, either as one-shots or as side-treks or stages in bigger campaigns.

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  2. #s 1 and 3 are items I can agree with easily. But, while I'm a "squishy centrist" when it comes to GM-created plots, #2 leaves open the door to major railroading -- which we see in Pharaoh, in fact. The fourth strikes me as odd; the first thing I'd ask is "how long were their play sessions?"

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  3. While a noble ideal, these four goals feel to me a bit restrictive, and seem to tell people 'this is the fun way to play.' I appreciate a good story, but assuming there is going to be a 'story woven into play' with 'an honorable end' feels a bit like the adventure writer is forcing a preset outcome on the players. The groups I played with valued freedom, some like to run the numbers and grab loot, while others got into the story.

    One thing they all disliked was a preset outcome, players have to feel like they are in charge of their own destiny, and also have a 'say' in how things come out, even if they fail. The worst thing that ever happened at a table was when I took away someone's choice, either by GM fiat, or by adventure directive.

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  4. Yeah, the problem isn't having something like an end boss at the bottom of a dungeon. The problem is where the DM forces the players to attack the dungeon the way she/he thinks they should by thwarting every attempt at parlay, blocking entrances and exits with impossible enemies, making choice to go left or right meaningless by having all roads lead to the same place, etc.

    The Hickmans took the DM as the facilitator idea and threw it out in favor of the DM as the dictator of the story. I think for some groups that worked. That's why a lot of the Hickman stuff sold well. They enjoyed playing in the DM's stories, but for a many people, it was an anathema. And that's why we ended up with two opposite but equally powerful conter-revolutions: the Forge and the OSR.

    Peace,

    -Troy

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  5. Exactly. Having grown up in the 80s playing Dungeons and Dragons, there was a sentiment that the newer Hickman modules were an evolution. Among my gaming group, trying to remove a curse for a ghost wandering around the desert was epic. Fighting a magic using vampire named Strahd was epic. (keep in mind we were teenagers). Having a quest oriented goal to complete just felt more heroic than delving into a dungeon and seeing what happens. I can't think of a single person that played in the 80s that I met that lamented the change of direction the adventures were taking. It almost seemed welcome. It wasn't even noticed as a defining point. It was just taken for granted. As in, "These are the new adventures and they are improved in style and substance without even questioning it" (I'm just putting forth the mentality of the people I knew during that time).

    Now that it is 30 years later, my personal preference is still to have those kind of adventures but I have to thank the old school community for honing and shaping the style of the original adventures. There is something fun about that style of play as well for me. I don't begrudge anyone from preferring that style.

    What does irk me though, is how people take their preference and declare it superior and/or belittle the opposing view. It seems as though people can not take a step back for a moment and realize their own thoughts are subjective instead of some immutable law of the universe.

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    1. I don't think anyone's belittling the "quest-oriented" goal or suggesting that it's mutually exclusive with OSR-style play, necessarily. It's the lack of player freedom that's the only real problem in all of this. If the DM sets up a quest and the players blow it off to do something else, or screw around with it in an unexpected way, them's the breaks. Yet, a lot of adventures are/were written in a way that seems to take railroading as implicit.

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    2. @Random Wizard
      +1
      What's most irking, is that most of the people who piss on the Dragonlance series, only show a very passing knowledge of it; much like they are repeating an argument heard elsewhere, and not opinions they have gained by actually PLAYING the modules. When they say "In the Dragonlance series the players HAVE to do X, then Y, then Z" they clearly show they don't know what they are talking about.

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  6. it's all too easy, in retrospect, to see the Hickman Revolution as something imposed from the outside on D&D, when in fact it was an organic outgrowth of it and one with deep roots

    This hasn't been established. Hickman's programme was taken up by a large number of players at a time when the hobby was expanding out of its wargaming roots. Did "Hickmanism" appeal to the old guard (as an organic outgrowth of the conventions of their game), or was it mainly the style of the new players coming into the game? I don't know if that can be answered, but my recent experiences with fresh players make me sympathetic to the "new layer of players, new style of play" explanation.

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    1. You raise a valid point. My only thought is that Hickman was an early adopter of D&D and his thoughts on adventure design were written within three years of the release of the LBBs, so he himself was not an outsider.

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  7. I think the bottom line is that all those goals are fine, but they should not straitjacket one's imagination.

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    1. Agreed. "Requirements" sounds a little too strict. Call them "suggestions" or "ideas" and they become a lot more palatable.

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    2. I don't think Hickman suffered from a lack of imagination, and I'm sure that many players of his modules were able to envision the scenarios quite vividly.

      What the Nightventures programme attacks is player agency. "Here is your objective. It is honorable and attainable. Go do it." Call it what you will, but the implications are clear.

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  8. Given that most DMs presumably know very little about ancient and medieval architecture, does #3 mean that the layout of castles should be based on historical castles, cave complexes on real cave complexes and so on?

    If so, that might explain the detailed floor plans 'of a typical castle' and so on that you often get in older products.

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  9. Point 3 is eminently reasonable, provided you are willing to accept some caveats (such as why are thy building dungeons in the first case

    Points 1, 2, and 4 are simply frustrated authors* wanting to tell their stories and not hear the stories that develop out of play.

    [* Oh ... hang on. <grin>]

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  10. I think a lot of people are conflating 'story' with 'the dm's story'. For me story is about strong character motivations (both PC and NPC), and big ideas. Neither of those things inhibit player agency or are inherently 'rail-roady'. My favorite story moments from D&D were generated purely organically between myself and the players in what amounts to a shared world.

    Do I think that Hickman always got the difference? Some of his modules are better than others. I think that Ravenloft was a success, while the Dragonlance adventures were a failure. In fact, I would argue that in the Dragonlance adventures there is no room for 'story' at all, since the tale is predominantly lain out already and very difficult for any of the players to shape.

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  11. If left as dungeoncrawls, D&D would've been like any other game for me in the early to mid 80s, relegated to the closet after several uses, then tossed away a few years later. It's only because of the depth of later modules, showing the potential the game had, that I still played after high school. The appeal of adventuring for the sake of looting dungeons left me in short order, like midway thru The Keep on the Borderlands. #1-4 should be viewed as modern day module writers' guidelines.

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  12. I posted here yesterday and it seems my post has been deleted. Weird.

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    1. Did the comment appear here? I haven't deleted any comments from this post and I don't see any other posts by your name in the spam filter on Blogger, so I'm just as baffled as you.

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  13. I agree with an earlier post about Hickman requirement #2. If the words 'intriguing story' were replaced with 'intriguing setting' I'd be much happier. I would rather let the players create the story through their actions rather than have the expectation of a story that meets the designer's requirements or needs. The attainable and honorable end should be born of the players actions, not predetermined by the narrative. My $0.02

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    1. I agree, but I read the requirements slightly differently. To me, it is like they are putting forward guidelines on making the right kind of adventure, where the right kind is one that the players can learn something from. I haven't played around with this too much in my own adventures but sometimes I do try to weave in an element of good vs evil and of course the idea of honour is wrapped around the idea of good. An example might be how the villain betrays (an evil, dishonourable act) but the players, by virtue of fulfilling a pact or bargain (an honourable act) in the process dispose of the villian, leading to a happy ending and a clear distinction between the heroes and the villian (ideal!).

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    2. That's an interesting way of looking at it. I will say that just like you can lead a horse to water, you can give the players the opportunity to fulfill that pact or bargain, though they may not do it. Regardless, it is still their choice to do (or not).

      Gamers will never cease to amaze me, even ones I've played and GM'd with for years, when it comes to choices made in the midst of an adventure. That makes it fun too.

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  14. the poster above: the players arent the egotistical center of the game - and neither is the DM/story. its a shared experience. the players should have to react to situations in the "world" as much as the DM has to react to their decisions. everyone is an ACTOR in role playing games, as everything is in reality.

    there are times the players should have to be overwhelmed by narrative for dramatic weight. if its just a free for all with no opposing dialectical force (in the Marx sense) - why bother playing at all? players arent the only terraformers in a game.

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  15. Savagist: I tend to agree with this perspective--an important thing for players to have in order to really understand the scope of any of their accomplishments is a reasonably solid sense of their place in the world.

    That means, an understanding of the limits of what they can and can't do/affect, or what they can do/affect with some dedicated effort. It's easy when you don't have a larger picture of the world and the actors moving in it for the players/characters to get a sense of power they don't really possess, and get themselves in trouble with it (at least in my experience).

    Better to contextualize their adventures in order to provide inspiration for "bigger and better" accomplishments down the road.

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  16. I liked the idea of replacing "story" with "setting" in #2, however, even in The Keep on the Borderlands, which someone held up as "looting for looting's sake" has plot hooks in it. There's the merchant and his family held prisoner, there's the duplicitous priest, etc. As far as #3, you could read that as a recipe for railroading, or you could read that as a time requirement. I've recently come to appreciate the importance of being able to make shorter "one shot" adventures you can play at the game store in addition to deep dungeons you can play with your friends over multiple sessions. A shorter adventure need not be "railroady" just less expansive. I think a lot of old adventures from Dungeon magazine would qualify for that role.

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    1. I also read number 3 as a time requirement, so that quests do not go on forever. It's a different approach to the mega dungeon or usual sandboxy campaign, although sandboxes are fine with the quick quests approach because you can string the quick quests together however you want (or more accurately, however the players want to, and / or discover them).

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  17. @Fey E. That was my thought on B2-- although I was thinking in particular of the (rumored) fair maiden who will reward her rescuers.

    My big problem with the Hickman approach is that it overlooks the fact that the best stories are not plot-driven, but character-driven.

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    1. That's why I argue for "plot hooks" but not "plot." A good adventure has at least one thing to motivate the PCs being there in the first place, and the PCs may choose to run with some, none or all of them. The thing I like about the Keep, is if you have a party of all thieves, for example, they don't even really have to leave the The Keep, they could run around stealing from it's inhabitants. The DMs job is throw out some bait, but the players shouldn't have to bite for people to have a good time.

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    2. I think it's a mix, veer too far one way at your peril. Just like how the rules provide a framework to riff off of, so does the plot, but it must be loose enough to allow some room to play. An example would be an adventure I ran a couple of weeks ago, based upon a couple of one page dungeons I had. This adventure had a loose plot of finding the barman's daughter who had hone down into the cellar and never returned and despite his best attempts he couldn't find her. There was a haunted room down there which the players were given some clues about, the plot was that she'd gone down there and become trapped at the top of a pyramid in another dimension. The players had a blast investigating, fighting some giant spiders behind a collapsed passageway and finally, figuring out how to scale the pyramid once they reached the other dimension. They knew they had to find her to win the quest and that was enough of a framework for everyone to riff off.

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