Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Lacking Adventure

Ah, Adventure.  To venture upon; to expose oneself to danger or risk; to hazard everything for the sake of excitement or gain.  The whole world laid out, filled with the unknown, the unusual, the unimaginable.  Just the sort of thing for an enterprising party member to experience to the utmost.

Believe me, the webmasters of Official D&D have you covered.  They have a whole page dedicated to "adventure tools."

Well, "whole page" might be overstating it.  Actually, to be honest, "adventure tools" is overstating it.  What the Wizards of the Coast has is, erm, monsters.  Yes, you can find four wonderful tools about monsters:  the monster list they have; the fact that the monster list is Mac & PC compatible; the ability to save monsters; and the ability to import monsters.  My, my, my.  These are adventure tools aplenty.

A month ago I took note that if I never needed something to write about, I could go dig up the senior manager for the D&D research and design team.  Well, I'm not in a very good mood, and the fuckwits at WOTC do not disappoint.

Here's the scoop, by the way, for all you players of this game.  You are not expected to create anything.  In fact, the design team specifically does not want you to lift a freaking finger.  Just sit in your DM's chair, open your fucking mouth and swallow this nice spoon of olive oil the "experts" have prepared.  It's tastes like shit, yes, but its good for you.  It will get you comfortable with moving your bowels when you associate with their products.

Humorously, it happens that yesterday some corporate grunt called Tom LaPille wrote a corporate blogpost about monsters, beginning with,

"In D&D, monster entries give DMs pre-built enemies to throw at characters."

Foolishly, I immediately presumed from that first sentence that it was going to be the usual banal diatribe about how that's a bad thing, as if there's any person left in the game who doesn't know it ... except, marvelously, LaPille doesn't know it.  The article goes on and on about just how tailor-made those monsters are, for your non-thinking convenience.  Oh, they use the "minimum number of unique mechanical effects that still gets across the fundamental nature of the monster" ... but the more "setting-specific information a creature requires, the longer we need to make the flavour text."

Thus, the fundamental nature of the monster is clearly defined by its setting specificity ... please, let's not have any thinking outside the box, people.  Let's not have any thinking.  An adventure is monsters - and monsters define the adventure.  Q.E.D.

I don't suppose anyone has considered that an adventure, or that a tool for an adventure, might include something more than a monster.  I don't suppose we'd want anything that would help players of the game design a world, or a town, or even a building in that town.  We wouldn't want to design a structured social system that enabled players to plug in NPC descriptions or motivations or what imaginable expectations a mythical association might have of its players.  We wouldn't want a systematic, downloadable plethora of 4,000 mundane or unique settings, or 4,000 sim-like graphics that could be imported, saved and applied to your own desk-top design.  No.  We wouldn't want you, the player, heading off with some tool and making your own module, would we?  No.  Still, we have modules for you, so shut up and buy them.  Here's a monster toy for you to chew on.  Good doggie.

It wouldn't be easy to create 4,000 unique character descriptions.  It would have to be more than just a list of abilities or backgrounds; it would have to include that particular character's motivations, and how that character would be likely to aid, obstruct, mislead, motivate or manipulate the party.  Ten such descriptions would have very little use.  A hundred descriptions might suffice for just the bartenders one might want to conjure.  4,000 descriptions would probably cover a magnificent array of prepared NPCs ... and if they could be selected in a kind of I-Ching manner, it might be possible to organize the descriptions to fit types of scenario-specific adventures.  Such a list might even be overlaid on top of monsters.

Nor would it be easy to conjure the necessary graphics for every kind of fortification, temple, house, hall, workshop, settlement or other construction imaginable ... but having them all set up online, so you could quickly jumble them together like letters on a scrabble board, to create an instant combat scenario, would be phenomenal.  If we had the ground plans for 70 types of ordinary houses, or 90 types of workhouses, or 250 prefabricated villages - without any need for description, or pre-determined contents ... wouldn't that be something?  Plug and play ... and stuff your building full of 4,000 sofas, palattes, cabinets, pools, plants, art, etcetera, to boot.

No, certainly not easy.  Not impossible, either.  If we could just for a few minutes recognize that monsters are not the only things that can be plugged into an adventure.


Arduin said...

I can't even begin to imagine what WOTC believes they have done to improve or even prolong the existence of tabletop gaming.

It's awful to think that these people are essentially in charge of the hobby. Yes, yes, Pathfinder outsells them (even then, not so much outselling them as repackaging their own ruleset, further evidence they had no clue what made the game work) but nobody outside of RPG circles has a damn clue there's something besides D&D.

The technology for all of this exists. Hell, what you describe does, in fact, exist. It just exists in about a thousand seperate sources, in small junks that are, by themselves, about as useful as yet another monster manual.

I lament every day that I didn't decide early on to become a programmer, so I could be making the thing it is that I want so badly to have myself instead of waiting for someone else.

Carl said...


Years ago I stumbled upon this:

I scoured eBay and bought two copies from a hobby shop going out of business for about $20.

I relied on this for a while to build my adventures. It's a good place to start, but it doesn't contain the level of detail you call for in your article. And it does trend toward cliche adventures and set-piece battles. However, it does have a methodology and a set of worksheets a struggling DM can use to construct adventures. It discusses pacing and drama, maguffins, red herrings, and it isn't 100% focused on combat. It also includes templates for role-playing (non-combat) encounters, chases, and puzzles.

The worksheets themselves are AD&D-focused, but they have enough room for notes that if someone were motivated to do so they could include their own campaign-specific data.

This is the kind of tool that would help a newbie or struggling DM (like me) to build their own modules.

What I've wanted, and what you're calling for seems to be this, only moreso. It showed me that someone at TSR was thinking about the same things that you and I have thought about -- how do you teach someone to build adventures?

It would be nice if someone digitized this -- maybe an interactive website that allowed a DM to build up an adventure using the system and then printed out the worksheets, but that would mean fewer sales of monsters and modules. Or WotC just decided that modern DMs weren't interested in this kind of thing.


Carl (in Tacoma, WA)

Alexis said...

No, WOTC looked at their business model and realized that there's nothing to sell to people who are self-motivated. Which is incredible when you consider how much money is made by selling hundreds of other hobby-type supplies to people with hobbies.

Carl said...

If that's true, that's about the most short-sited business viewpoint a game company could have.

Hell, if they provided a DM's Design Kit website and sold subscriptions to it they'd make money.

I think their problem is that they can't figure out how to take the lessons from their successful card games and apply them to D&D.

Alexis said...

It's a fucking toy company ... it doesn't understand D&D: it doesn't believe in it. Corporate mentality designed to sell to children.

Scott said...

Tom LaPille is a transplant from Magic: the Gathering development. I remember him from his days as a wannabe professional player and as a writer for one of the major MtG strategy sites. Back then he went in for "law of attraction", NLP, and so on. He parleyed his small writing gig into a WotC job on the MtG side, so bully for him, I guess.

I'm aware of no aptitude for RPG design on his part, nor of any personal traits that would lead one to believe he'll excel at it. In fact, he's shown an aptitude for completely honking off the MtG customer base. (To be fair, the MtG customer base is temperamentally similar to a throng of biting mullahs.)

I have no idea why they moved him from CCG development to D&D, but based on his prior work, I'd expect glib, breathless, breathtakingly obtuse statements at every turn.