Monday, March 8, 2010

The Next Thing

This past week I have recognized a distinct backlash against the amount of work that I put into my campaign. Not to disparage those people who praise me for it, there are also those who see it as a sign of my lunacy or perhaps of my lacking perspective (the “it’s only a game” argument).

I believe there is a lack of understanding here. I have ‘begun’ three campaigns in the last twenty-five years. My present offline campaign, my recent online campaign, and the regular campaign I ran between 1985 and 1996. All three of these campaigns took place in the same world, a world I began using because it required considerably less work in order to make believable. It has to be understood that I have not created this environment in an explosive effort of work over six to eighteen months. The overall picture has been the result of steady thinking, from beginning to end – and believe me, there were many, many times when I went down roads that were positive failures. All this complexity is the result of many errors, many redesigns, many fixes ... over an immense period of time.

How was that possible? I just liked this one game. When people got all excited about other RPGs, I kept playing this one. When the 2nd edition came out, I ignored it and just kept at my campaign. When the 3rd edition came out, I ignored it. And so it was with every new feature, every new design, every new concept. I liked my concept. I stayed working at my concept.

In the beginning, I played the game entirely from the hip. At best, I had a few very general maps, and very little understanding of the places in Europe I ran players through. I remember I started the very first party on the outskirts of Vienna ... with little more than a few pictures, a few encyclopaedia descriptions and no more awareness of how the country looked than what I’d gotten from Sound of Music (which isn’t Vienna anyway, it’s Austria). The campaign, as regards detail, royally sucked. I mean, I’ve never been to Europe ... so my running Austria was about as realistic as my running Middle Earth. It had to come out of my imagination.

But I had a plan, and I doggedly searched for better, more detailed maps; I read extensively through the local university library, on anything and everything I could find ... about medieval Europe, about clothes, about places and history and economics and so on and so forth. When I took a degree, I took it in Ancient History, with as many additional History Department courses as I could take focusing on my D&D world. I amassed knowledge, people, and I did it with a conscious, all-consuming effort. I didn’t quit when the world sucked (which it did) or when I took the players into stupid, impractical adventures (which I did) ... I apologized for those adventures and kept at it.

Sorry, but I wince a little with the development of new worlds I see online. More often than not, the DM is biting off more than can be reasonably chewed by a fresh party. If the world has been ongoing for years, it isn’t so much trouble to take any party and walk them through an extensive environment – because you, as DM, know that environment very well. But if the campaign is as new to the DM as it is to the player, there you have a recipe for disaster. If the DM is too far-reaching in their plans, it is somewhat like a new director being given tens of millions of dollars for their first picture – it will flop, no question.

But I don’t say this from the point of view of someone who created a vast world and who now runs a vast world. I say this from someone who started with a small village and a few valleys (in Austria), who kept his party in that closed place until all got their bearings. It is the very advice to be found in the DMG.

Thinking on that first campaign in my present world, I didn’t add economics, wide ranging rule changes and so on until years after the campaign started. This was after weekly runnings, 4-5 hours a week. Calculating it out, we had run 400 hours together, at least, before I incorporated my new combat system. We had been 800 hours together before I first tried my early economic designs. We ran more than 2000 hours together before the campaign came to an end.

The present offline campaign is run every other week, typically for 6-7 hours a session ... this since 2002. Thus, my present offline party and I have run together, again, more than 2000 hours. When I introduce something, we all have a vast collective memory of things that haven’t worked, and how to trouble-shoot those problems. I also have their trust, as they know if I introduce something that isn’t working, I will get rid of it – since I have done that before.

It is well to keep in mind that I have been posting on this blog for less than two years. I have 25 years of failure and success to pick and choose from where it comes to “the persistence and rigor” within those rules I pick out to write about here. The whole system hinges together, for me alone, because I am enormously familiar with all of it ... and it works for my players because THEY are enormously familiar with it.

Naturally, it is going to be a total bomb with most people online, because they aren’t playing in it and they can’t see the whole system. What’s more, they can’t see that I don’t beat my party to death will all the detail that I write about here. This detail is for MY use ... I’ve said it before, repeatedly, but it clearly needs to be emphasized ad nauseum: my players are not inflicted with the dedicated intrinsicality of my world design. They know where this road goes. They know how to keep themselves alive. They muddle through with how to make themselves happier. That is all they need to know.

Feel free to fault the system, if you must. Add into your perspective the time. From my point of view, all I was doing was the next thing. All things get complex if they are given enough time.


Zak S said...

-Yeah. I get a little annoyed when I'm thinking up rules so my game will start "running itself" and people go "Hey man! Just rrrrolllll with it, daddy-o, don't worry about..."

"No," I think "this is fun for me, I'm doing it this way"

-I would like to hear about-excuse me if you[ve already written about this & I missed it--the times that "didn't work" not necessarily just the rules themselves but how you could tell. I got it with the puzzles--but for the larger systems i'd like to hear about it.

Ka-Blog! said...

I understand where you're coming from. For me, the world building is part relaxation (it's fun) and part DM-ing philosophy.

I don't know where it came from, but always had this feeling that I had to at least know vaguely where everything came from and why everything was happening. It helps me run with some of the ideas my players come up with. Plus I like it when they figure out that there's something beneath the surface of the adventures they're playing.

Carl said...

I appreciate your advice about biting off more than you can chew. I've had a couple of false starts because of that, and I'm guessing I may have some more, but I have high hopes.

Thanks for writing, Alexis.

Carl said...

Thanks for posting this, Alexis. I totally had the wrong idea about your campaign world because I didn't know the history. It has been my experience with my own games that complexity in a campaign world is best grown organically, starting simple and letting the interaction between players, DM and environment shape the direction of that growth. I had the impression that you had somehow created this incredibly detailed world whole cloth and THEN started gaming in it. That is something I always wanted to do when I was a kid, build the world first, then start gaming. And it never worked. I thought maybe you were one of those crazy savants who could pull it off. Good to hear you are human after all!

Alexis said...

Two different Carls. One of you is going to have to describe which Carl you are when you post here.

Thank you all for the praise. I swear, I just like to work on this game.

Andrew said...

I read your column with interest as my GMing experience is very similar. Same campaign world since 1987 or so and basically the same ruleset (Rolemaster in my case). The world has grown organically from a sketchy map and the village of Hommlet to where it is today.

My favorite part - the creation of the parts that cause the players to go ooh and aah. Sometimes it is a map, sometimee an NPC and sometimes an event.

Indiana said...

It's your world, it can be as detailed or as sparce as you like...that's what is great about this game.

And as for the History degree being driven by D&D interests...that's not really so crazy, I did the same thing.

Kevin said...

(old post but I can't resist)

I also have a degree in history for much the same reason.