Friday, May 30, 2008

Rats in a Maze

The first DM I played with, the one that tossed a basilisk at me on my first night, was probably the worst I ever played with. Let’s call him John, as I want to talk about why I say that and why it had influence on me as a DM.

John was very diligent with his world. He carefully crafted multi-level dungeons, he wrote out speeches for use in the quests he prepared for us, he drafted up towns and castles and pre-rolled all his NPCs. He developed quite elaborate personalities for said NPCs, which he took delight in role-playing when the time came for them to take their part in a given adventure.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Sounds just like the sort of effort a DM ought to make.


As a player, you could expect to move through every single room of every single level of John’s dungeon, without exception…there were no shortcuts for smart thinking. John designed that room, and he was damn well going to make sure that the room got used.

So, if you were in John’s dungeon, and you came to a place where three hallways branched off, you could be sure that at some point you were going to have to march your way up every hallway eventually. No exceptions.

If John wrote the speech for the Dragon on level six, you were by-god going to hear it.

And as far as accepting the quest in the first place? No choice. When the furtive little civil servant came to speak to you at your tavern of choice on behalf of Meycroft the Munificent, Viscount of Yuer and its Environs, you better get ready to spend the next twelve runnings in diligent service.

Finally, can I just add that ALL the NPCs were as annoying as hell? Especially the doors.

“Doors,” you say?

Yes. As you moved down through John’s dungeon, you would occasionally encounter doors that defined the difference between this level and the next, more difficult level. And these doors were always sentient.

And indestructible. And annoying. To get through these doors, you needed diplomacy.

A typical conversation might go like this.

“Who goes there?”

“A brave party, in the service of Meycroft the Munificent.”

“Who’s he?”

“He rules this land.”


“So, we want to pass.”


“Meycroft has sent us to retrieve the Emerald of Rill, the center jewel of his family crest, which was stolen a mere two weeks ago.”

“I never heard of it.” (This from a door, two hundred feet underground)

“We have reason to believe it’s on the other side of you.”

“Reason to believe? I scoff at your reason to believe.”

“Look, we just want to get past and look around.”

“I don’t think so.”

“But you’re a door. You’re supposed to open for people so they can pass from one place to another.”

“I’m also designed to keep people out. I have my defensive side, you know.”

“Wouldn’t it feel better to be useful? To have a purpose beyond protecting people who don’t care about you?”

“Who’s that?”

“The people inside. I bet they don’t even think of you.”

“No, no, you’re wrong! They love me!”

And so on.

This sounds interesting, but believe me, when you’ve talked your way through about thirty of these doors over the course of a year of playing (sometimes twice in one session), you’re ready to leap across the table and kill the fucking DM.

John’s failing as a DM was that, fundamentally, he designed his world to highlight his own importance. We players could have been anybody; we were mere rats in his maze, meant to take pleasure at being able to gather in the elements of John’s genius, revealed one running at a time until the story was given to us whole. Whatever semblance of interaction there might have appeared to be, in fact we could never accomplish anything until we hit on how to do it John’s way. Each door was like an episode of You Bet Your Life, where you were just trying to say the secret combination of words or phrases that would open the door.

There was no sense that the “world” offered a variety of choices…the opportunity to seek out a given group of people, or decide to adventure in a dungeon or in a wilderness. This was predestination…the forerunner to video games like Final Fantasy.

For many players, this is the only way they want to play. It comforts them to be part of a milieu that will deliver a structured setting in which they can participate.

I found it annoying, at best.

I have always felt that D&D, in its best form, provides the opportunity for people to live a life vicariously that they could not do in the real world. That is, if I wish to be Jenghis Khan, or Francis of Assisi, I should be able to make that happen—without being constantly annoyed by the Meycrofts of the world who are living out their ambitions. Fuck Meycroft and his family crest…I’m busy building the world’s largest library or founding a cult of STD-carrying women assassins. If Meycroft needs someone to follow his quest, let him pick an NPC to do it.

The problem this creates for most DMs is that it becomes difficult to plan anything; Free Will means there’s no guarantee the party will enter the Temple of Buwana, even if they’re standing in front of it. I’m of the opinion that the party ought to be able to look at each other and say—after having just killed the couatl defending the place: “What do you think people…show of hands. Who says fuck it?”

But if they don’t enter, that’s ten hours of painstaking work that will never get used. So the DM feels he must have some fairy princess show up and quest everyone (no saving throw permitted).

And there are those out there who would argue a party wouldn’t say that…that the treasure and the promise of adventure would guarantee they would enter the Temple.

Surprise, surprise. I have found that parties, if given the choice, are perfectly capable of walking away from a thing if they’d rather get their treasure and kicks in another venue. Some parties don’t like combating clerics, or mages, or paladins, and would rather choose to fight fighters. All power to them.

To make Free Will possible, a DM must eschew the “pre-created” dungeon. Really, the party doesn’t give a shit anyway…it’s just a big masturbatory fun-time for the DM, who usually gets perturbed when the party shits all over their creative skills anyway. This, more than any other reason, is why modules suck; they have no flexibility.

It does mean that most long time players, the first time they step into my world, find themselves confused. They’re so used to being told what to do, it takes time to realize I’m not going to tell them.

Which is what I’ll discuss next.

1 comment:

  1. Azathoth Says:

    First time I've come across this blog. Glad to see I'm not the only one who wants the players to take the initiative. I've found the best way to get the players involved in going to certain places without Questing them is to make it personal. To have a family member or friend in danger. Once that's dealt with you can follow it up with either the main villain escaping and wanting revenge, or maybe the person they saved had something taken. Most players are there to play, and if they take the time to flesh out their characters you can find ways to hook them using their characters natural personality.


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