Monday, June 2, 2008

Seizing the Day

When I have someone run in my world for the first time, in the usual way I would describe what they see: it might, for instance, go like this:

“You’re standing in Paris, at the head of the Rue de Pontoise, where you can gaze along the Quai de Montebello, towards Notre Dame; it has been raining heavily and the streets are flooded an inch deep in water; but movement has taken hold of the city again and artists are setting their canvases up along the Seine. A few teamsters nearby are struggling with a mule. You have been in the city for only a few hours, and here is where you’ve wound up. What do you wish to do?”

Now, from someone unfamiliar with my world, and quite familiar with D&D, I will get some very definite replies. If they are a thief, they will ask, “Do I see anyone with a fat pouch hanging from their belt?”

What is it with this nonsensical Lieberesque perception that rich people carry all their money where it can be clearly seen by thieves? That it wouldn’t occur to them, perhaps, to keep their money a little closer to their persons? Is it Dickens, perhaps, that makes player thieves think that every rich passerby is so much of a fool as to be unaware that there are thieves? And that it is clearly the easiest thing to do to steal money pouches as they pass by, like peaches in an orchard?

No, I will answer. No pouches. “All you see is poor people. You will have to go elsewhere to see them; and you would be hassled by guardsmen to be dressed as you are (the thief is a country lout, far too provincial, and dirty from the road).”

But, the more common reply to the description of origin, regardless of where I start a character off, will be, “I go to a tavern.”

“All right, it takes you a bit to find one, but you ask directions. And here you are at the Sour Bottle.”

So the player will buy a drink, and ask, “where can someone find a little adventure around here?”

And I will have the wine steward (this is France, after all) raise an eyebrow and walk away.

It’s a dumb question, after all.

Usually, what comes next is the player will wait for something to happen. That is, he or she will wait until I give them something to do. Which I won’t. It’s not my responsibility to make sure they have an adventure.

Yes, I know, people think it is. But I talked about that already, remember? I make the world. Running in it is the character’s problem.

I’m not going to have a fight erupt just so the player can jump in; or have someone start randomly giving information about the local thieves’ guild (who would?); or have someone come in and ask if there are any tough adventurers who would like to make a few sous. Seriously, fuck that.

Look, GOD doesn’t run my life, does he? I run my life…and I like it that way. When the arguments start about how to play D&D, the advice is always directed at the DM. Who needs to invent better adventures, create better magic items, devise more complicated intrigue. Does anyone ever suggest that maybe what we need are better players?

No, they don’t. And that is because the players have no power.

Well, in my world, they do.

Oh, I don’t mean they can walk up to just anybody and start a fight. That will probably end up with them facing odds of five to one (guardsmen have a tendency to multiply with rabbit-like efficiency). Any idiot can start a fight at random and idiots like that will end up in a dungeon and summarily executed. I won’t hesitate to do that as a DM.

But if the character—let’s call him Jack—is clever enough to ask around to find out what the city of Paris taxes heavily, he might discover that the local shop-owners (and the citizens) pay quite dearly for mustard. And he might discover that there’s much mustard that comes in along the east roads from the direction of Dijon. With a little diligence, he might have a lookout for one of these shipments…and after a few crates have been unloaded at a local shop, Jack might approach the poor lackey responsible for the loading and ask how often the deliveries are made—and who makes them.

Whereupon Jack could learn the name of the shipper…probably a very minor merchant who makes little coin for his trouble, with no one but his son for help. Perhaps Jack traces them to their origin (a warehouse outside the city walls, and outside the city’s tax gatherers), has his friends lie in wait along a cramped place in the road in ambush and…

There you go. Jack is now in possession of twenty or thirty kegs of mustard.

Now, he could just take them. Or he could surprise the merchant by buying the mustard…on account, of course. If the merchant is willing to keep silent, until Jack has his money for him in a few days. Oh, and of course the merchant’s son can stay with Jack until then.

So having sent the merchant home to keep quiet, Jack can now re-enter Paris, where he can meet with every one on the mustard merchant’s route. “Of course there will still be deliveries…at a slightly lower cost even…the first will be tomorrow, a day late, and on time thereafter.”

Why wouldn’t all the shopkeepers agree to go on purchasing at Jack’s lower prices? With that settled, there’s just two things left to do. Jack’s pals have to steal themselves a rowboat; Jack, in turn, needs to hire, beg, borrow or steal a horse and cart (the one outside the city gates won’t do). Then its just a matter of slipping down the Seine at night in the boat, with the mustard on board…using the illusionist’s fog spell for cover, or whatever other means—perhaps cutting their way through the underwater cable pulled across the river; and meeting Jack at the appointed time and place.

Oh, Jack might have to backstab a guardsman if he comes along at the right moment—but there are always risks. If everything goes off well, the next day Jack carries his mustard around the shops for a clear profit…well over what he’d get if he tried to carry them through the city gates.

So what, you say? Mustard? What kind of adventure is that?

One that first levels could manage, I think. And which would have all the necessary angst in overcoming the obstacles. Moreover, once Jack was able to bribe the necessary guardsmen along the river (with the profit from his first caper), return the merchant’s son and keep him intimidated (and paid off), there are places the set up could go. Creating a union of merchants outside the walls who could provide the mustard; faster and quicker ways to get the mustard into the city; more shopkeepers ready to climb on board to get a chance at Jack’s prices; competitors ruined and bargain basement acquisitions made; contests with other smugglers trying the same game; further undermining of city officials; expanding into other operations; improving one’s reputation through a combination of income, extortion and reward.

As a DM, the only part I take in all of this is to make a judgment call on whether the scheme should work or not. NOT—as some DMs would—to make it impossible. Sure, it should be difficult…but it’s in my interest to see Jack’s plan succeed. The adventure drives itself, and I just have to keep a hand on the rudder. Until Jack fucks up something along the way, and things can break apart logically and force him to take desperate action or flee.

You see, I really don’t CARE what the party does. As long as it does what IT wants…whatever that is. It’s a big wide wonderful world out there, with plenty of opportunities. Which players should be able to take for themselves.

Running a world like this, as a DM, requires tremendous flexibility and a quick mind. Most of all, it requires a certain philosophy—that being the strong understanding that the DM does not “compete” against the players. If the players behave foolishly, the world—being the nasty place that it is—should respond with deadly force. But if the player’s circumvent the DM’s thinking…the DM should pause, and then admit, “I didn’t think of that—good on you!”—and finally, letting the cherished NPC die before moving on.

The sacred status of the adventure as planned is the bane of the game. I’ll take a stab at that next.


  1. You kind of started on a, 'what makes a good player is...' line of thought. I'm wondering if you can expand a little on other kinds of 'good players'. I've run across one theory on what makes a good player a number of times. How well does the player understand the rules of D&D and how well can they apply them to the situation they find themselves in - rules lawyers. I wonder what your thoughts might be on rules lawyers in one of your games?


  2. I'm not really making the "better player = better game" argument. I'm saying that the DM must make a freer world for a player to participate in--and thus get killed or succeed according to their own abilities, not according to the DM's whim.

    That said, knowing the rules better, or playing the rules lawyer, DOESN'T make a better player, exactly the same way as chess. It just creates the sort of nastiness as the opponent who insists that once you've touched your piece you HAVE to move it...just spoils the game. The rules fanatic wants D&D to be perpetually a tournament, where they compete with the DM and the other players to "win" some perceived victory that only they can understand. Self-promoting and self-directed players spoil a egoism always spoils a group activity.

    Perhaps I'm the DM because it keeps my egoism in check, hm?

  3. I was curious how a rules lawyer fits into your style of running a game because it is such an easily identifiable behavior.

    If I follow you correctly, there would be many other behaviors that can either be a benefit to the game session or a distraction. This depends on the style of game being run. A rules lawyer would be a wonderful asset in a tournament game, but not so much in a more casual game with friends and family on a weekend. There are plenty of other identifiable behaviors around a D&D table.

    (I like your approach of looking at it from a behavioral perspective.)

  4. "A rules lawyer would be a wonderful asset in a tournament game..."

    Exactly. You'd want that, to keep the DM from drifting too far from the text and compromising the competitive template.

    As far as other identifiable behaviors, the ones I think work best in the game are A) a team attitude, with less carping or pompous breast beating about the greatness of "my" character; B) organization...reducing therefore the annoying sheet flipping when a simple question is asked; C) a serious attitude to the game (chess, for example, is annoying when whomever you're playing picks up the bishops and uses them for walrus teeth); and finally, D) consistency in character development and purpose, far more important that vocalized role-play. Give me a player who is willing to play just one personality type per character and I'm a happy DM. That gives the world around the character something to reflect.

  5. I learn something every time I visit this blog.

  6. This is probably the main reason I have such a problem actually being a player in D&D - I want to play in this type of game, but nobody ever runs one (including me as I lack the confidence). So I chaff at the rails the dm has laid and generally cause trouble. Unfortunately, this type of sandbox campaign play is very intimidating as it seems to require a huge amount of upfront work. It's just easier to run a module, so that's what most dm's do. :(

  7. I thought you should I know that I *still* refer to this post, in fact having linked to it today from my online Google Wave game that will be played in my AD&D setting that I blog about.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.