Tuesday, February 5, 2013
The Pregeneration Myth
Query: Given the long held assumption that the greater design of a campaign gives a better experience for the players, what is it precisely that is designed that produces the superior result?
I know that is certainly saves time if I create monster hitpoints prior to the night of the campaign, or if I draw out tunnels or rooms so that I'm not doing this on the fly while the party sits around and waits (though I can sketch out a room on a computer in about three minutes). It is certainly a better campaign if I relax before the campaign and reason out why the frost giants might be living in a particular mountain gap, or what they might say if subdued and interrogated - there's no question of that.
Still, I'm unclear of why this information is improved by my writing it down ahead of time, rather than simply keeping it in my head. True, I might forget - though that isn't likely, after all this time of playing. So, yes, there's no question that, for the convenience of the DM, there's reason to write out a campaign ahead of time. That does not, in itself, define the writing out as superior.
Before I sit down to write anything, I think about it quite a lot. I roll the various concepts over in my head, I sketch out the structure of the work before settling down to write, and in this process I attempt to improve mentally upon my first ideas. I do this far less for a blog post than I do for a novel. Typically, I will give an hour or two to a blog post (such as this one). I give about six months of thought to a novel - and during those six months, I piece out each character, their motivations, the structure of the plot, the set design of any important buildings, etc., etc. Then, as I settle down to write, I struggle with the language - over and over again, as I tend to write a novel out three times before settling into the hard matter of actually editing the thing. In effect, this is not one process, nor is it consistent. I eliminate intended characters; I add them; I add to the main character's motivation, I devise additional scenes in the second and third drafts. Nothing, until the final edit, is final ... and then it is only final because I've decided I can no longer stand the thing I'm writing. I always know I could make it better - it is only that I have happened to stop at this particular point in time that it is as good as it happens to be. If I gave it another year, another two hundred hours of effort, it would be better still. I know this because I know the kind of writer I am.
To me, the moment anything is set in stone, it is weakened. Anything I write is always better, more fluid, in my head than it is in text. Text is a poor medium for thought, which is esoteric and visual in addition to being narrative. The benefits to putting something into text are outside myself. First, that others can read it, and second, I can put it down and go think about something else for six months.
IF I were constructing a campaign that I expected someone else to DM, there would be excellent reason for me to write it down. Another person would have the benefit of my creative imagination with which to run their campaign. I see this as valuable only in that I have experience and ideas which this other person may not have. However ... where it comes to my campaign, where I plan to apply my ideas to my players, I am unconvinced that my ideas are made better by writing them down in advance. In fact, I'm quite certain that if anything, the process of writing my ideas down ahead of time increases the likelihood that those cemented ideas will be stale when it comes time to use them.
This is less a problem with something like a novel. The novel is not part of an ongoing constructed narrative which is manifested in real time by both my players and I. I am alone when I write a novel. I am NOT alone when I run my world. There are a considerable number of variables which are tripped and created by the process of characters asking questions, investigating ideas, producing ideas, debating among themselves and so on that have not one thing to do with me.
For example. Let us say that I have created a fortification in a foreign land, rich with detail and pregenerated monsters, along with its reason for being there and its lengthy history intact. In short, a typical D&D adventure module, complete with clues and hooks to get the party there and motivate them to plunder the place.
Then, from out of the blue, one of the party asks a question about the small tribe dwelling near the fortification that I never conceived could be asked. I am a human being. I can't conceive of everything. And in the moment of that question, recognizing the player was quite astute to go to the root of the matter in a way I had never considered, I'm hooped. In fact, there are things about the local tribe that connect to other parts of my world, in which I have already produced other precedents and commonalities ... which, matter of fact, don't quite juxtapose with this idea of a fortification. Thus, I am faced with a decision.
A) Hammer the answer about the tribe into the round hole I've created in sketching out every detail of the fortification, so that the adventure I had planned prior to the player's question is completely unchanged? In effect, this would be glossing over the question, neutralizing it ... and would in turn require that in no way did I express any surprise or reaction to the player's question when it was asked. I could not, for instance, have expressed, "Wow, good question!" (this would mean as a DM, I have to be careful never to react too strongly to a player's inquiry, in case I then had to quash its worth).
B) Or do I recognize that in fact, not having taken into account the nuance produced by this very fine question, the very nature of the fortification's design, purpose, what have you, must be quickly redesigned in order to make it 'fit' with the greater nature of my world?
Obviously, if the fortification exists physically at that point - in an electronic sense or on paper - the pressure to choose option A is more the powerful. I'm forced to scramble around, adding an extra tower, removing these persons or subsidizing them with others and so on ... and there isn't time to do this during the campaign. Plus, I'm going to be prejudiced against doing so because I've already done the work. I'm going to naturally resent doing the work, then having to do it again.
But let me emphasize: I do this sort of thing ALL THE TIME when writing a novel. It isn't that it shouldn't be done, or can't be done ... but there is resistance against doing it. One sighs and feels lethargic, and thinks, "For fuck's sake, I have to make the antagonist someone who works for the government to make this work. Jeez, I can't have him talking like that, not if he's used to dealing with civil servants all day ..."
A lot of writers, yes, don't find themselves in this situation. Which is why you find doctors talking like truck drivers and lawyers who don't appear to have ever gone to law school on television. Me, personally, I get really pissed when I see shit like that ... and so I drive myself into this horrific little corners trying to fix a character's speech so it fits right to their character.
Now, let me assert the following - if I have not created the fortification prior to the player's asking that very annoying, very astute question, there is NO resentment regarding the changes I need make to what happens next. In fact, the change is instant. I have begun thinking a different way, I am suffused suddenly with new, vital ideas about the whole thing! In fact, in that instant of the player's asking a question and realizing the answer I have to give, I'm more excited about the fortification now than I was before. The PLAYER has improved and expanded my world ... and we are all better for it!
Where you hear or read a DM professing upon how pregenerated design of adventures 'improves' their campaign, I want the gentle reader to remember that all this 'design' has gone on in a very solitary manner, by a solitary person, who is living in their solitary state of mind at the point of creation. This is all very well for a book - which, as I say, requires hundreds and hundreds of hours to create. I sincerely question the number of hours this pregenerator has put towards his or her 'slashing brilliant campaign.'
Then I want the gentle reader to question the very idea of quality where it comes to this pregeneration. Is this particular DM comparable to the measure of creative thought we generally think of as the writer of a very good book or the director of a very good movie? Are they an artist in the highest extreme? Or are they - far more likely - just another hack writing a rather ordinary pulpy short story in their basement, which they are not pushing on you to read?
There is some truly profound disconnect in that where we would strongly hesitate to read something that someone wrote for as much as an hour, we're prepared to sit down and RUN in some campaign that this someone wrote that is going to take us four times as long. Why? Because we're not 'reading' that adventure by ourselves. If we were, I'm sure we'd find it hackneyed and cliche-ridden, and that our eyes would quickly rush to the bottom of every page, as we thought about anything other that what we were meant to read.
It isn't the 'adventure,' in all its pregenerated glory, that makes the campaign go well. It's the camaraderie of the participants, who will find things to be interested in DESPITE the bad writing and second rate reality of the pregeneration. DM's love to take the credit for this - but the fact is, they get off very light where it comes to criticism of their work. No one who is there for a good time wants to pipe up at the table and say, "A fucking old man at the side of the road? Are you fucking kidding me?"
Believe me ... that's what they're saying to each other on the way home.