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.

Do I:

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.


  1. I haven't played D&D since the '80s, yet I have your game site on speed dial because it's so much more than JUST a game site.

    I've learned once again from watching my grandkids that some kids (people) are wired for art while others are wired for science (oversimplification, but I think it makes my point). Likewise, some people are wired to be GMs, and some aren't. I'm not, but I insisted on building my own worlds and running parties, and that may be why I've been out of the hobby for all these decades. I would build my elaborate Railroad, load my party on the train, and set off down the tracks. The only thing I felt was annoyance when someone tried to take my carefully crafted juggernaut down a dirt road, and I very shortly shoehorned the new adventure they were trying to create back onto the tracks I had built. I have never had any idea that there was anything wrong with that, but reading your last few posts I see that my brain-wiring is more akin to a novelist: "I've taken the time to build this narrative for you, now quit fucking with it, God damn it!" I read about you reformulating your whole gestalt at the whim of a player, and I can only stare in wonder.

    I'd suggest some honest self-appraisal for GMs who feel themselves struggling with their craft. Perhaps you're not cut out for the role of World Builder; perhaps you'd find more enjoyment exploring someone else's world at the controls of one carefully crafted character. I sure wish I'd realized that back during the Reagan administration; I'd probably be looking back on a lifetime of enjoyment right now...

  2. I was going to write in the comments here (got distracted) that I actually had this happen Friday with my online campaign. Character asked me about the government of the region he grew up in, that he's returning to, and I realized I did not have an answer for him. But I had time to come up with an answer, and it can be read here.

    On account of this answer, I've rebuilt in my head the entire regional response to what the player intends to do, which is to create a mission for his religion. The recreation is by far better than any idea I formerly had, which was going to be fairly cliche until something better occurred to me. But the player helped me out there, by having a better question than any of my ideas had been.

  3. So to a lesser degree we have at least one 'improv' session a night during our game sessions. We play one campaign that has a plan, then one improv game. This game usually had little or no preparation and has a heavy emphasis on player input.

    While providing less of a spectrum of emotion, we still manage to get some fear, laughter, achievement and bewilderment for all involved. However, it generally has some amusing inconsistencies and wackiness. It's more of our cool down campaign after intense game prior.

    I find it to be less thoughtful in the long term, but always fun. With it being so flexible we could end up doing anything. More often than not taking the whole adventure in an angle the GM never thought they would EVER experience and the players just felt natural doing.

    It's a strange kind of freedom. I go into a campaign feeling strangely committed to a certain kind of gameplay. But in that game, everything inconvenient is tossed out next session, and the path of the story is the only guide.

    Though I must say the GM is pretty darn good at somehow wrangling a whole story with introductions, opposition, climax and satisfying conclusion so many times in a row.

  4. I find that writing down "points" about my settings helps, if only just to remember them.

    More important though, is building the setting in your head and mentally soaking it up. The more hours one can spend "living" in a setting, the better he will be able to present it to the players.

    I believe this to be true whether your material is pre-generated or no.

  5. To be precise, I don't mean that one shouldn't 'pregenerate' some of the necessary material for the next campaign - my link, after all, pregenerates the nature of Cumana ahead of the party's return there. What I am saying is that the DM shouldn't pregenenerate in the traditional manner - the calcified, complex, intricate inflexible environment which cannot, like a series of 'points,' be upgraded easily in the face of new information.

  6. The most difficult thing, I find, is that line between necessary and unnecessary. I've only DM'd a handful of times in my short life, so this might just be chalked up to inexperience, but when I type out my campaign notes (I'm terribly forgetful) I have a difficult time deciding which constitutes which.

    It should probably be said that my ad-libbing skills are sub-par, and when (not if) I am required to improvise it usually ends in disaster. I can add flavor and character to a random NPC conversation, sure, but if my players are looking for information and I have to improv someone giving them new information, I have a terrible tendency to make up information that is inconsistent with the rest of the campaign.

    This reared its ugly head in the one kind of campaign for which pregeneration may be the most important, an investigation campaign. I can't just write my players into a corner, but at the same time I have to leave them clues that will help them solve the mystery, right? I can write down some basic clues, and I had the general structure of the mystery planned, but how do I deliver them?

    I eventually ran into a point where the players were in ungenerated territory (the little explorers they are), but were still following a certain clue. I ended up improvising an important conversation, and dropped a couple of clues that I only later realized were unhelpful and contradictory. The game pretty much ground to a halt as my players struggled to figure the puzzle out. The only way I could have avoided it would have been either to railroad them or come up with a huge list of possible clues. I'll admit the second is tempting but only just occurred to me now.

    I also like to give my players descriptions of the places they're in. Helps with immersion some, I think. Again though, my ad-libbing skills are poor, and no matter the vividness of my mental image of a place, I cannot communicate it effectively (and perhaps more importantly, concisely) unless I spend some time working on it.

    Wat do?

  7. It's funny because on the WOTC boards I'm involved in a discussion regarding how much "better" pre-planned material "must" be because it is "polished" and "well-balanced" and "inane bullshit that attempts to excuse me from developing the skills or desire necessary to work with my players, improvise and create spontaneously". Actually that last quote might have just been something I was thinking while reading.

    I've also been working with one of my players that has been interested in DMing so I have had the opportunity to put into words what it is I do, why and how. It has been immensely helpful.

    In general I feel like I follow a 1/5th rule. When I create something in the world be it a person, place or thing, I create about 1/5th of it. This is usually a "high concept" view of whatever it is I am working on. This lets me fill in the details as the item is "zoomed in" on during the course of the game. It also leaves its open enough that I don't ever really need to change anything that I've already done because no details have really been hard-coded.

    Now, of course, I have an image in my mind that conveys far more to me than just that high-concept blurb. Mentally I am able to focus on various aspects of the item and extrapolate from them more details. It is less "knowing" however and more like "feeling"...I can feel the item out in my mind. It is something that does not translate to words well at all...it is not something I could write down. It is more like experiencing the texture of something than reciting details about it.

    As new information is added or required by the needs of the game (usually via the players) that "feeling" changes and, because I never really codified any of those feelings, nothing even seems different...the item still "feels" right. It still all makes sense. Perhaps that's all a bit vague but it is as best as I can express it in words.

  8. Bryan:

    I have struggled with those things as well. As DMs we all have, I'd imagine.

    Investigations can be tough because your players will often think of different investigative approaches than you could ever account for. An important part of this is to remember to ask your players "What is it exactly you're looking for?" that way you have an immediate awareness of where they're going with their line of thinking. Even those few moments can be immensely valuable because it can keep you from jumping to conclusions. It also keeps you from showing your hand.

    I've also noticed that many DMs are FAR too quick to give answers to PCs and I don't mean that as giving out answers to solutions...they simply speak too quickly. They respond too fast. They want to have an answer on hand RIGHT NOW. Oddly enough it tends to make NPC/PC interactions unnatural because people do not generally talk that way. Take your time, slow down...let the NPC actually consider what has been said to them. Let them turn it over in their mind as you do so in yours. As a side benefit, you'll find that the momentary silence will draw the players in because, if you make the silence in-character, they will be trying to read you. They will be trying to decide whether or not you are going to speak truthfully or not...or if you might be considering some sort of physical action.

    In some cases, you can even salvage COMPLETE unintentional botches by having it be intentional on the part of the NPC. Just figure out a reason for them to have been mistaken...maybe they are lying, maybe they experienced something all-together different, etc. This is not ideal of course but it is better than having a completely contradictory situation.

    As for descriptions...I also find those to be very important. Give yourself a list...not a list of what each place has for descriptions but a simple list that goes "See/Hear/Smell/Feel/Taste"...and then glance to it as you are describing. It will mentally arrange your thoughts and engaging the senses is the best way to get a description of somewhere across.

    Do not say something "is" a certain way...give the player sensory input that would relate that feeling instead. Use their PCs body as a method of communication. Do not say "It is cold" instead say that they can "See their breath in the air" or they can "Feel goosebumps rise on their exposed skin".

    For example, the classic trope of a musty crypt can be described as the players "having trouble seeing through the fine film of dust in the air" while they can "hear the echoes of their own footfalls, the sound louder because of the silence of the place". The dust might have "a faint scent of musty, staleness" or have a "slight taste of salt to it that you can already feel slightly drying your exposed skin".

    Essentially put yourself in the place then describe to the players how YOU feel there...not how the place is. It is like a reporter being on the scene...they don't say "The storm is really bad!" they say things like "The wind is almost deafening where I am!" "I'm having trouble even trying to stand!" etc etc. They convey to the audience the sensation of being there...how they are experiencing something not what they are experiencing. You want to do the same.

    Hope any of that helps!

  9. YagamiFire: Once your players encounter something that exists only as a mental concept, and they experience it, presumably "setting it in stone," do you then make a written note so that it won't change if they encounter it again down the road, on the way out, for example? How much in-game bookkeeping does this generate for you, and does it slow the game down? Or do you just do it all mentally, and if that's the case, does anyone care that the crypt is damp on the way in and dry on the way out, for instance?

  10. This week I had my party find a village that had been taken over by goblins. They fought them. One goblin had magic armour. They had a chest full of money. The chest had a gas trap.

    I made this drivel up on the bus on the way there. I have no notes. There is no story, though I will admit to some context from the previous session.

    I've been shovelling out this trash for 28 years now.

    We had a fucking awesome time. Again. One PC died (for good). The survivors high-fived each other and looked at me with triumphant contempt.

    We all know it's shit but it's shit buried far beneath six hours of camaraderie between five really good friends trying to kill a few too many of my goblins in one go.

    It's crap but it's our crap.

  11. Doesn't sound like 'crap' to me. Sounds like my world.

  12. Our worlds are certainly similar in spirit, though I'm certain yours has higher production values.

    I'm really enjoying your blog; it has been a jolt to my complacency for which I thank you. Not railroading them is not enough.

    As for this problem I'm on the other side of it as I never write anything down. What do I need to be write down?

    The only thing I never have in my head and never come up with fast enough at the table is the name of the tavern. Consequently my players always ask this as soon as they hit town, and constantly change taverns just to annoy me.

    A list of tavern names has value.

    Having said that maybe leaving my players with this easy shot at 'catching the GM unprepared' is why they never ask me what the blacksmith's name is.

    If I start down this path where will it end?

  13. Weird white space on the end of your comment, Electrolux.

    Tavern names:

    Adjective + Noun.

    Preferred adjectives: colors, descriptions, related terms to human behavior (drunk, sleepy, dead, clever) and innuendos (heaving, frigid, hard, etc), the last saved for really special places.

    Preferred nouns: animals, synonyms for house or parts of a building (gate, door, trellis, hall, roof, etc)

    Need not make sense - The 'Blue' Roof does not have to have a blue roof (and blue could also be an innuendo). The Killing Duck, the Happy Trellis, The Kicked Door, etc. The more odd the association, the better the story you have to have the bartender tell, so something like The Black Trout or The Greasy Spoon are obvious and easier if you're not in a creative mood.

  14. Jack: Yes I take notes the entire time we are playing. I use a laptop and can type quite fast without looking at what I'm doing so it doesn't distract too much. I also try to put in the notes at times when other stuff is going on, like when the players are discussing something amongst themselves, etc.

    It creates some book-keeping but usually only several lines of notes per session that is then expanded into a bit more between sessions. The pay off vs effort is immense because it keeps you from hitting common stumbling blocks while also letting you pull together details or potential circumstances you wouldn't be able to envision otherwise.

  15. My perspective: I could never remember everything I've ever thought up, and must thus write things down. My memory is terrible, and I'd probably benefit from reviewing some of my notes pre-session, so I could integrate it as I DM, but that feels like work, not a game.

    I ran many campaigns in my youth with virtually zero prep - maybe 1-3 sentences of an idea, and the rest made up on the fly, and we had a great time 95% of the time (I had a bad day now and then).

    In my current campaign, I'm trying to prep a lot more, and I find that:
    1) sometimes it really helps to create a cohesive world and the appearance of a really prepared DM;
    2) sometimes I only remember/find that great thing I prepared only after I needed it, and now have to change it based on what actually happened in the campaign, resulting in more work (much the reason why you don't like to write things down)

    I think the real trick of DM'ing isn't what is presented, but how the DM reacts to how his work is received. Meaning: adjusting content for maximum fun value in a dynamic way. This is something that cannot be prepared, and thus "success" at DM'ing is not really related to preparation.

    Just my thoughts.

  16. I should also add that what may be "maximum fun" in the short term can also mean "horrible lack of cohesion and borked, unbalanced campaign" in the long term. The fine line is hard to walk, which is probably why we all read/write blogs, hoping to find the answers.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact alexiss1@telus.net 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.