Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What Made Original D&D Great

This is the title of a superb essay by Daniel R. Collins that sings the praises of Gygaxian design principles. I'll almost certainly have more to say about the essay later, because it's got a lot of wisdom in it, but, for now, I'll simply recommend that you read and enjoy it.


  1. Nice little essay, but perhaps a bit overly-optimistic. For example, I quibble with this:

    Actions (scenes, adventures) may very well be entirely disconnected and unrelated: however, excitement and interest are always maintainable, because at any moment the roll of the dice might mean the demise of a player character, and there is no guarantee that player desires (usually money and power = experience) will be fulfilled....

    I would down-right disagree if he had said, "interest is always maintained; I merely quibble with "interest is always maintainable". In the best hands, games run in this fashion work as described. But, I have frequently found that they can become a seemingly endless series of "events" that are not interesting precisely because there is no narrative connection.

    I think the issues of player vs. DM empowerment (what he calls "pro-active") are a bit more complex than that.

  2. Oh my... This guy saw it in 94, wow.

  3. He wrote this in 1994? It's a pity that few listened to him. Mainstream D&D has certainly evolved into the direction pre-destined adventure path railroads.

    It's interesting that he applies the term "postmodern" to the works of EGG.

    The comment about detailed NPCs is particularly poignant with me. 3.5e was awful in this regard and bogged down preparation time. However, it's worth noting that in 4e the detailed NPC is a thing of the past.

    His observation about computer RPGs supplanting pencil-and-paper RPGs is correct. However, I think he failed to mention that computer RPGs are the embodiment of the literary polar opposite that he described as EGG's postmodern writing style.

    Thanks for the link. I want to comment on this further on my own blog.

  4. Interesting observations. This guy is basically talking about what is now commonly referred to as a "sandbox" game. And as counterpoint to Mathew's statement, I might say that if you go and take a look at Ars Ludi's West Marches campaign, you'd notice that Ben tied "location" based encounters together via a shrouded / mysterious yet discoverable history. He also included small physical links such as maps, artifacts, random scrawl on the wall, etc.

    The point is that there wasn't necessarily a "plot" driven by current events that connected adventures for the PCs, but rather a discoverable past that PC's could put together like a jigsaw puzzle in order to lead them to either the next cache, or whatever their personal motivation dictated.

    Sure, it "could" get stale, but personally IMHO I think that it's far easier for a DM to miff a story-driven adventure than it is to grow bored of an series of mysterious locations that might or might not be tied together via the mists of history...and to that next great discovery that might divulge that oft sought for mega-score. Sorta that old Indiana Jones theme.

  5. This obviously an excellent essay.

    I have a thought on the sandbox versus story contrast. It's a very helpful way of framing the argument, and definitely good sloganeering--but isn't the contrast really too stark? After all, story is part of what makes D&D exciting. (The game would be diminished if people just wandered around aimlessly in pre-fabricated environments.) So the question in my mind is really how to do story properly, in a way that leaves the players with the sense of agency and the feeling that their choices are making the story.

    Take the Village of Hommlet. There's all the great sandbox stuff done perfectly. But there's plenty of story there too: the history of the destruction of the temple, the look forward to the temple's revival, and so on. How the story moves forward depends on the players, and that's great, but there is a story there.

    But the bit that really sticks out in my mind is the chilling fact, briefly mentioned, that if the players come back to Hommlet bragging or flashing goods after killing Lareth, a 10th level assassin (!) will arrive in town intent on killing them. Now this could obviously play out in a million ways. But is it so bad for DM to imagine various scenes in advance, modifying them accordingly as circumstances play out, and nixing the ones that don't fit? (I mean, would it really be so bad to have a showdown with the assassin whether or not the players have flashed their goods? After all, couldn't he come to investigate Lareth's death, even if he didn't know yet who did it?)

  6. Well said belst8, I agree with your statement and if permitted, would like to expand upon it just a tad.

    The trick here is to not over-present the "story" so that the background overshadows the foreground. I'm suggesting that the "story" is introduced via player discovered / activated elements. Where initially there appeared to be absolutely no connection between disparate pieces, something is found or discovered that begins to shed light on the "why".

    Example: A strange, haphazardly leaning tower on a hill with the requisite "dungeon" environment beneath it... A hidey-hole high in a cliff face with obviously ancient worked stone walls within, currently utilized as a base of operations by a marauding ogre.

    Later on the PCs stumble upon some ancient text in a completely unrelated locale that mentions a cult of demonologist astrologers that had frequented the local area long ago, and about their observatory / laboratories set up in geographically advantageous spots. The text speaks to some of these "advantages"...and shines some light on a link not seen before. And furthermore it also mentions something about the "lenses" that these cultists used to peer into the depths of the void.

    So yes, I agree the story can play a part...absolutely. I also think that it's much more interesting allowing the players to piece this together than force feeding them. This also ties back into the initial essay and its point regarding how EGG had constructed his "world"...with pieces that held secrets that were only divulged through much effort, great luck or a little of both.

  7. Quick addition to my comment above: I believe that the Assassin in Hommlet is an excellent example of what I'm referring to, he's a player activated piece that leads to a deeper level of the "story".

  8. But what if the players don't take the bait? What if they are not interested in following up on the assassin? What if they don't follow the map to the next dungeon? What if they decide not to play the game of court intrigue and decide to slay everyone in the castle and take over? What if the DM has already purchased the next module in the ongoing story and the players' actions render the content of that subsequent module impossible? What if the DM has planned out a clever story arc that is derailed by the PCs taking the story in irretrievable direction?

    This fellow, way back in 1994, came to the conclusion that I recently came to. But I would more forcefully point out that story-driven adventures are anathema to the fundamental idea of "game." If the DM wants the PCs to become main characters in a story with a preconceived beginning, middle, and end, then it naturally encourages the DM to look the other way after certain dice rolls and avoid total party kills. That temptation is too great. It stops being a game and instead becomes a different form of entertainment.

  9. Again, I agree. Now before I sound like some kind of doormat here I'd like to state for the record ;-) that I am wholeheartedly on the side of player-driven games.

    IF a player has somehow lost motivation...i.e. "Why would my character go back to that dangerous dungeon? I'd make more coin, and face less danger by picking pockets of the local town's folk."

    This is, in my experience, not a problem with the game...but rather a problem with the players, in that they're PLAYING the WRONG game.

    So what if the player doesn't "take the bait" for historical piece that ties a bunch of disparate locales together and points to further adventure? They're "adventurers" and that's what drives their feet through the dust of ages that lies thick upon the floors of undiscovered crypts. As long as we, as DMs, provide the palette upon which players can paint their ever changing story then we're doing our jobs correctly. (simply put of course.)

    It's all about the players.

  10. M. Gunnerquist

    I guess I don't see what you're driving at. The idea is to have story all right, but WITHOUT a rigidly preconceived beginning middle and end. (Don't think Dragonlance. Think T1.) As a DM you have various hooks and the setup in place for future developments (like the temple in T1), and a rough idea of a way, or some different ways, things might go. Granted the players may take things in a different direction than anticipated, but that doesn't mean that you throw the idea of a story out altogether. That would take a lot of the fun out of the game, at least as I've experienced it.

    About the opposition of game and story, my suggestion would be to think of it as a game with some elements of story in it, which are created jointly by players and DM. (This doesn't require you to think of the PC's as characters in a novel!)

    I think the assassin is a case in point. If the players took the bait in going to the moathouse, then when they come back to town the assassin will come and find them. If they leave town, he may catch up with them still, depending. It's dramatic in an appealing sense, revealing the (echt creepy) fact that the forces of evil are lurking all around. And I don't think it compromises the player's autonomy, or turns things into a rigid and impersonal story, or makes it like a novel. After all, they brought it on themselves by choosing to go to the moathouse, and they will deal with it in their own way too.

    What's the big deal with having set that up in advance? Isn't that just what Gygax did in writing the module? And if we denied ourselves the right to do things like that wouldn't the game be less interesting?

  11. I'm not really very familiar with the various D&D modules, but the important thing I take away from the essay (which I agree, it's a great essay) is that the DM must be willing to let some things "go to waste".

    I think I might handle the issue of the assassin like this: what you all are saying is, he is "triggered" by a specific event in the scenario. That's sufficient for a self-contained scenario, but it doesn't preclude use of the assassin in a wider campaign. The key would be to step back a bit, look at the assassin as a motivated NPC, and then ask where character's motivations would take him in response to events triggered by the player-characters.

    It's a slightly different perspective from asking how the assassin can be worked into subsequent play, but I think it's crucial. You need to be willing to let threads fray and trail off into irrelevance, because the whole world doesn't revolve around the PCs.

    I have an essay part-written and part in my head about's what I call the allusive quality of a good setting. Tolkien did a good job of not tying everything together. The antithesis of this is "incestuous" settings: like "Annakin built C3P0" and "The Joker killed Bruce Wayne's Parents".

  12. Oh my... This guy saw it in 94, wow.

    That makes it all the more impressive. Some of his specific points are quite on target in my opinion, but he certainly saw things quite clearly and years before anyone was even dreaming of the WotC editions of the game.

  13. I have an essay part-written and part in my head about this

    Please write it!

  14. "Challenging the presumption that the characters have a defined narrative pathway" is most definitely on my (personal) "Old School Building Blocks" list.
    Not at all "postmodern" in my book, but I guess that's a matter of perspective and personal experience.

    "Here's the world, it's up to your characters to tell their story upon this ever-shifting canvas" has worked well in general here; not just on a campaign level.

    (With apologies to those companies whom I didn't exactly help through lack of module purchases back in the day)


  15. I hope you'll forgive this minor quibble as I read the back-posts of your excellent blog, but the author's name is in fact Daniel R. Collins, not David R. Collins.

  16. What? What is good in secret locations that will never be discovered by players? That's stupid. I think that existence of these locations should be hinted, so even when players don't find them, they know they missed something.