Monday, February 7, 2011

Two Birds with One Stone

Given some of the comments to last week's Open Friday post and my recent session recap, I thought it worth discussing the way I plan and run the Dwimmermount campaign. I have previously touched on my general refereeing style, but, given the interest in how I do things, I thought it might be worth talking about this some more. I also realized that, by doing so, I might also shed some light on what others are calling my "collaborative" approach to setting design, though, in truth, I'm honestly not sure how collaborative it really is, as I'll explain.

I am, frankly, a terrible planner. I procrastinate and get easily distracted; I cannot be trusted to keep to a schedule most of the time. I'm also not very good at predicting what my players are likely to do in an upcoming session, unless they tell me in advance and, even then, there's no guarantee they'll stick to their plan. So, even if I had the time, interest, or ability to produce reams of material in advance of play, experience has taught me that my players will always go somewhere or do something that I hadn't anticipated and I'm once again thrown back on my own quick-thinking and improvisational skills -- which are skills anyone who wants to referee needs to possess regardless of the RPG they play.

If I have any virtues as a referee, they're these:
  • I Read (and Have Read) A Lot: I've always been a voracious reader and that's given me a very wide pool of ideas to use as inspiration.
  • I Have a Good Memory: I remember details very easily, which is good, because it means I can call to mind both what I've read and what's happened before in the campaign, the latter of which is particularly helpful in forging connections.
  • I Have Little Shame: As good as my memory is and as quick-witted as I can be, there are still plenty of times when I am at a loss for how to proceed in the game. Luckily, my players are an unending font of good ideas and I have almost no compunction about swiping those ideas and incorporating them into the campaign.
Perhaps some examples are in order. When I began the Dwimmermount campaign, I had no idea what any of the playable demihuman races were like, beyond what little could be found in the LBBs. This provided a large canvas for the players of Vladimir the Dwarf, Dordagdonar the Elf, and Brakk the Goblin on which to paint any details they wanted. And paint they did, particularly in the case of dwarves and elves (poor Brakk died within a few months of the campaign's start and no goblins have been played in the time since). I was very taken with the ideas Vladimir's player came up with regarding dwarven reproduction and the debt owed by son to father for their creation as a spur to their adventuring. Likewise, the portrayal of Dordagdonar as aloof and disdainful of "ephemerals" provided me with lots of fodder for thinking about elves. I should also note that the existence of Yethlyreom and its necromancers was inspired by the character of Pike, who worked as a gravedigger/robber prior to taking up adventuring. Similarly, the notion that the hierarchy of Tyche's faith was dominated by women was entirely the invention of Brother Candor's player.

The "collaborative" process in my campaign goes like this: 1) I am lazy and leave large areas of the game world undescribed, 2) My players seize on the lack of description and add some details as needed, and 3) I later embellish those details with further details of my own. Rinse and repeat. Now, if someone wants to praise me for having hit upon something uniquely wonderful in the annals of the hobby, I won't stop them, but, from my perspective, I'm just doing what I've done for many years now: turn lethargy into a virtue. When I was a younger man, I had both the time and interest to devote to churning out pages upon pages of maps and setting information -- one day I ought to share some of the stuff I created back in high school. Nowadays, I'm both too busy and, frankly, too disinterested in building a top-down setting to even attempt to do so. Plus, I've come increasingly around to the notion that top-down is not the way to create a fun and flexible setting for the kinds of adventures I like to run.

Much of the "collaboration" that occurs at my game table is small potatoes stuff. For example, if I don't immediately come up with a name for a random NPC, one of my players might make a suggestion of a name. The same goes even for personality traits and background details, but, in every case, I retain the final say. When the players where in Yethlyreom and sought out the leader of the cult of the Iron God, Phaedra, it was suggested that she might be a reformed necromancer and, cool though that idea was, it didn't fit with the vague idea I had in mind of who Phaedra was and why she led the cult, so I rejected it. Now, I like the notion of a reformed necromancer, so I've stored it away in my memory and will probably use it later on in a different context. That piece of player input isn't lost, but neither was it accepted uncritically. Instead, it'll stew a while and (maybe) resurface later, perhaps combined with other notions I shamelessly swipe from my players.

This is all I do. As I said, I don't see it as uniquely praiseworthy; I see it as the kind of stuff all referees learn to do if they're running an open-ended campaign in any RPG and aren't singleminded obsessives who know the names, stats, and personalities of every NPC within a 1000-mile radius of the PCs' current location. That said, I dearly love the way Judges Guild used to describe hexes within the Wilderlands setting -- a sentence or two at most to get the referee's creative juices flowing and make the setting his own. If I weren't so lazy, I'd probably do something similar with Dwimmermount, too, but I usually am, which is why I take the easy route of improvising and riffing off my own players' ideas.


  1. My refereeing style is pretty much the same--when details are required, I usually forge them out of a combination of my players' ideas/experiences and my own vague sense of what I'd like a given thing/place/event to do.

    My recent series of posts on gnomes was born out of that exact process--my gnome players would do something "gnomish", and then I'd be forced to make sense of it in the game world, eventually trying to codify it a bit so we could have some concrete touchstones (virtues, legends, etc.) to work from in the future.

  2. Your style to me sounds pretty much like the classic DM style of 70's and 80's D&D. For my group we certainly started out playing this way in the 80s but after a good 15 or so years of doing it we moved into a more rigid and scripted style and fully adopted the "adventure path" method of DMing.

    Why? Simply put, after years of the DM and players collaborating and "winging it" as your style resembles we found that we were telling the same or very similar stories over and over again. As we matured in both real and gaming years we came to the group conclusion that we were tired of our own stories and wanted to hear and play those of someone else. This decision led us to our current "adventure path" based style of play.

    I am pretty sure this is a by product of having the exact same gaming group since the early 1980's. We've just exhausted each of our own story telling capabilities. I don't think this is possible when you game with many different groups over time or only for short periods of time with the same group. Since we have spent more time playing D&D with each other than most 4E gamers have been alive we emptied our well of collaborative gaming. This has certainly led us to the most interesting gaming we have ever had since some of the ideas in the pre-written stuff we would never have thought of ourselves (both good and bad ideas, but all fun).

  3. So, are there particular things that you tend to concentrate on during your prep time because they are harder for you to improvise? Do you improvise dungeon maps?

  4. Quite odd that such a lazy, lethargic man would have such a regularly updated, ongoing blog of such wide-ranging scope and thoughtfulness.

    And with embedded images, no less!

  5. Your comments on making a virtue of lethargy reminds me of Larry Wall's three great virtues of a programmer.

    When you say "it was suggested that [Phaedra] might be a reformed necromancer", I imagine that this happened as part of the in character talk between the players; so one character says to the other "it could be that this Phaedra is a reformed necromancer". That sounds rather like the improv theatre technique of making offers, where the actors are suggesting to each other directions that their play may take while still acting the play itself.

    In contrast, I've heard of some collaborative efforts that involved the players writing game canon before the fact. So first they all create a world, and then they adventure through it. Which is a form of collaboration that I imagine leads to a rather different style of game to your own. For example, in the Fear the boot podcasts, I recollect hearing about games where the players were making requests for what would happen to their characters along the lines of "I want my character to die a spectacular death" or "I want there to be a big conspiracy to untangle". It reminded me of the "christmas wish-list" style of magic-item alotment that appears to be promoted in the later editions of D&D (or perhaps Anne Wilkes from Misery)

  6. @PCB:

    While I think making a wish-list is going a bit too far, I think as a GM we're probably at our best when we solicit (ad listen to) feedback about our players' and their characters' desires, goals, etc.

    For some players and characters, for various reasons that information won't be as easy to glean in the course of play, and it can help if we ask straightforwardly what they're interested in.

    It saves a lot of trouble in putting together a big conspiracy-plot style game if several of your players will be downright bored and none of them are especially excited about it, as an obvious example.

    In a more subtle situation--maybe one of your players is really into heroics and grand feats of daring but hasn't found a good outlet for it in your game because you're trying to run it with a bit more of a "gritty" feel to it.

    Or one of your players loves history and cultures--one of my current group's players loves languages and learning about other cultures. Her character is a fighter with a high intelligence who speaks many languages and is never more engaged than when coming across a tome or inscription in a language that no one else can decipher...whether it has any magical properties or not.

    If I hadn't spoken to my players about their specific desires, I wouldn't be able to meet their definition of "fun" as well.

    That's not to say that I simply pander to my players' desires--but I do try to incorporate such things. One of my players wants "gnomity" to infuse everything his character does--and I've capitalized on that by foregrounding gnomish culture a bit, but there are also some unexpected events taking shape around this part of the story at the same time, that he is certainly not asking for.

    It's a balance, like refereeing anything. Make it impartial as much as possible, but also make it fun as much as possible.

  7. Experience has taught me that there is one problem with this style of sharing co-ownership of the campaign with the players, and that is the players (not characters) tend to be so much a part of the campaign that it just feels wrong to run the game if they can no longer be involved.

    Or is that just me.

  8. "When I was a younger man, I had both the time and interest to devote to churning out pages upon pages of maps and setting information"

    QFT :-(