Saturday, August 27, 2016


I've been thinking about the large scale changes that I brought about in my world that were inspired and developed from an exchange of ideas with my players.

In 1981, my players expressed a desire to play in a world that was more "traditional" and "less empty" than the one I had been running.  I had been trying to base my world on a sort of minimal sword battle technology with elements of heavy social responsibility and it just wasn't working as far as my players were concerned.  As such, I backed off and designed a world that was based on a series of lands encircling an inner sea, with predictable gradations in climate, social organization and more common themes of dungeons, greed, vengeance, dungeons . . . dungeons . . . yeah, that's about it.

In 1984, my players were losing interest in the combat system, particularly in the repetitive nature of the initiative roll, which as written was an annoying element that seemed to detract from the experience rather than adding to it.  We had dozens of discussions about it.  Seems like every time we ran we were talking or complaining about the combat system.  And then the particularly brilliant Mike that I played with proposed a solution from some article he read, maybe it was the Dragon, where the defender's ability to attack was based on how successful had been the last attack against that defender.  From this came the stunning rules, that we tweaked for a few months before settling on the best way for them to work.  I have played my combats like this ever since.

In 1985, again the players were expressing a dissatisfaction with my world, not because they had an idea that it should conform to a traditional ideal but because the traditional ideal had grown to be boring.  It just wasn't enough.  Again there were round-table discussions on it, where people proposed all kinds of ways that elements of the real world could be injected into the fantasy construction to make it more "real."  And then one day I was looking at a high detail map at the university (I hadn't started university yet but I was a regular visitor to their library) in something like 1:20 000 scale, and I realized that where it came to detail nothing could really beat the real world.  That led to my running the real world as my campaign and throwing out any further notions of running a setting that was made entirely from scratch.

In 1986, my players were talking about the difficulties of buying and selling things for the purpose of making money from trade, like they were able to do in the Traveller campaign that I would run from time to time.  Traveller had some simple but practical rules for trading, though they were easy to break if they weren't carefully managed (leading to players easily making millions of credits), and the players wanted to have something like that for D&D.  This led to me realizing that the encyclopedia my parents had owned had references to things that individual places in the world created; I found a set of those encyclopedias cheap from a used bookstore in late '86 and started working on my trade system.

In 1989, the appearance of skill systems everywhere encouraged my players to ask me to do some kind of reboot on character secondary skills.  That led to one bad table after another for years and years; I never did solve it for that campaign, that ended in '94, but eventually I did keep working at the problem until additional skills and an expressed desire for backgrounds in general resulted in my character background generator.

In 2004, after a long sabbatical from running players (while I worked on my world in abstentia), my players were quibbling about my world maps being difficult to relate to.  Like most maps, the ones I used were big sweeps of empty space, divided only by geographic borders, rivers and topographical features.  The dissatisfaction these maps produced (one couldn't call them aesthetic) led to my developing hex maps that were based on elevation, not topography.  By plotting the elevation, I reasoned, the topography would be revealed one hex at a time and I'd have a grittier world.  I came across and began to copy the data from that site, one page at a time, for the whole world, in order to have the ability to plot my present day maps.

In 2007, the players were expressing their dissatisfaction with the amount of practical explanation associated with the various spells in the spellcaster's canon.  This led to my beginning to rewrite all the spells (not my first time, but now with a lot more experience) as duotang books that my players could use, take home and study at their leisure.

In 2009, my daughter in particular expressed her desire for me to start writing down as much of my world design as I could, so that it would be available to her in the event of my death.  I had started this blog by then, but given that the blog seemed to be a poor way to organize the information, I began thinking that what was needed was some kind of wiki.  I had edited wikipedia more than a few times (of course!) and I had been working with large databases with the magazine I worked for in the 00s.  A friend in Seattle proposed creating a wiki for me and for a while I loaded information onto the "Same Universe Wiki" - until technical issues and other difficulties ended that.  It would be two years between the death of the old wiki and the creation of the new, "Tao at Wikispaces," which is now going strong with over 1,000 pages and 4 contributors besides myself.  This wiki has now become central to regular discourse between the players and I, with it being modified and adjusted in game, when a ruling is made on some circumstance.

After all this . . .

Those are the major alterations that I've made with the player's encouragements.  I don't include little adjustments here and there that have come up from time to time.  Note how every one of them began with the players expressing their satisfaction, following by my willingness to change, usually followed by a moment of clarity in which I figure out how to change.  At each stage, I tell the players about the changes I'm suggesting and ask them for their input.  Do you think this will work?  Does this sound like a good idea?  Is there some aspect I'm missing?  Do you want to include this or is that going too far?  And so on.

This is what I meant in the previous post about the DM not acting alone (I hoped for a discussion on that; all I got was crickets).  I mean listening and then corresponding with the players on ways to solve their problems, keep them interested, bring new ideas to the table and keep adjusting and changing the campaign given the resources and tools that arise from an increase in technology.

In every way, D&D is like the phone industry: we want to keep adding features, even if the phone works fine and the features are already interesting.  There can always be more.  More and more and more.


Fuzzy Skinner said...

For a long time I resisted the temptation to change or add to the existing rules (of whatever system I was using), since I felt that a game should be run "as written" for as long as possible. Obviously, there are some limits on what might need to be changed - as you pointed out, player dissatisfaction with a given method tends to be the main reason to change that method - but I've increasingly been tweaking the rules for my campaign. My own document of "house rules" isn't even quite two pages yet, but as more players make more suggestions, it'll probably grow to wiki proportions.

Dennis Laffey said...

Sorry, this is very personal, but it is all in response to this post. If you'd rather I post this on my blog and link back, I'll be happy to do that, but my gaming history may serve as a good contrast to yours, and serve as an example of why a lot of games don't end up like yours has.

When I think back to my original campaign, which I ran with my best friends, my brother, and occasional others, it was sorta like that. The players had a lot of impact on the setting (the Known World from the Expert Set/Isle of Dread). So much so, that when we got a hold of later Mystara products, I rejected them because they contradicted a lot of the established developments we'd made over the years.

And we were able to do that because my two best friends and I co-DMed the same world, and we played that campaign for around a decade.

Since then, in college and then as an expat, I've never had a long running campaign like that. I'd tinkered with a few worlds created on my own in college and in the early years. A few saw a bit of play, a few didn't.

The problem was, by the time 3E came out, there were so many rules systems we had access to, and everyone wanted to try to play or run a different set of rules, which required a new campaign to suit those rules.

And that ties into the second problem, too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Everyone wanted to run something, so after a few months or a year, a player would propose taking a break to let them run their game, or alternating the old game with the new. And then it didn't take long for the next would-be-DM to step in with another idea.

The third factor is also tied to this one, in that as a college kid and later living and gaming with a very high turnover expat community, members of the game group come and go all the time. And every new person has their own preferred style, their own preferred system, their own desire to run their ideal campaign...

Now, this was great in some ways. I got to try out lots of different RPGs. I got to sample lots of imaginative campaign worlds. I got to try out lots of my own ideas.

The downside, though, is that the game never lasts long enough to evolve through player input in that way. Instead of making a change to the existing campaign, the old one gets scrapped (or sidelined) and a new one starts. It makes it hard to get to that good game space.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't mind having it posted here, Dennis. It is honest, forthright and it is on topic. Thank you for presenting the point of view, because it's relevant.

I had some of those experiences myself - and I can't be sure that what I did would work for other people. Maybe there is something about me that makes it work, but I'd rather not think so.

When I found myself in that sort of gaming culture, my first step was to rarely, very rarely, run in the environment controlled by the gaming club. I say in my book that being in control of your game space is key to making your campaign last. I would pick a night and run every week, without fail, building up the understanding that no matter who might be playing that night, Alexis DEFINITELY was. I never paid any attention to the rules fads that arose, I encouraged people to accept my house rules or to seek games elsewhere.

The result was, because I was consistent and up front, and because the rules that had been developed were basically player-oriented in form, I would be sure of getting two consistent players, the sort who wanted to play in a long-frame campaign. As those new people with their preferred styles and their preferred systems punked out, I would invariably get one or two more. Steadily, I would win over people who came to try the system and thus build up the sort of campaign that they wanted.

Novelty is always there but it doesn't last. Players, I have always found, want a campaign that will play week-in, week-out, bad weather, good weather, with a solid, honest, serious eye towards a player's personal agenda.

Not everyone treasures content over a rule-system, true. But there are always a few people who do - and the secret to snagging them is to be up front and direct: "I have played this game for 12 years and I am able to give you a good campaign; come try my rule-system and see."

Do consider: if we are playing the personalized rule system, then the novelty is working in our favor, too. But we have to be brave enough to stick by the fruits of our experience.

Perhaps that doesn't work for everyone. Perhaps it doesn't work in every part of the world or among every group of people. But I am still playing D&D and as far as I know, all the kids playing whatever in college lost interest. And although my system is weird and strange way past what it was when I was in college, I haven't noticed that people aren't interested.

That is not to downplay your argument. It is a legitimate one and it needs to be taken into account. Going our own way has its price.

Dennis Laffey said...

That's another point - regularity. I agree, it's so important! These days, just about every game session with my group takes two weeks to a month of advance warning and planning just to get enough people to play. And often people flake out at the last minute.

There are two of us that seem to put gaming as a priority (and considering the mountain of stuff in my personal life, it's hard for me to do that, but I do). Everyone else games when they don't have anything else going on. And they usually do.

I'm actually envious of adult gamers who can run/play in weekly games. Some day, after my dissertation is finished, after my 2 year old is a bit older, after my wife and I are in better shape financially, after I find a few more gamers who are long-term expats...

Excuses? Justifications? Maybe. But unfortunately, there are some things that I need to put before gaming, even if I consider it one of my priorities. Once I get to a place where I can game regularly and consistently again, I'm hoping I can find a couple of dedicated players and run another long campaign. But for now, it seems like just a hope.

Ozymandias said...

In my past games, I usually acted in the suggestions of the players. But it was always in the vein of covering my tracks. I liked to present "mysteries," of a sort, to the players and I would change the actual behind-the-scenes events to match the players' speculation. It was fun, to be sure, but it wasn't a transparent collaboration. It wasn't world-building. And it was destined to pass along as our lives changed because there was nothing of substance to carry forward into the next game.