Tuesday, April 23, 2013


I have been giving a great deal of thought of late to the process of preparation for a game - not so much whether it is good or bad, though that's come up in the past and I'm on the record regarding putting the party on rails and so on.  My curiousity for the present extends to how it all started.

I think we have to blame the White Box set, which - perhaps unintentionally - set the standard for game play from the very beginning.  If the founders of D&D had been grounded in the social sciences, and moreso in the arts of presentation, such as drama or musical performance, I wonder if they would have included the semi-module Blackmoor.  I wonder if they wouldn't have taken the stance, from the very beginning, that the game was entirely about improvisation, and NOT preparation.

Blackmoor set in stone a lot of features which have haunted - and limited - the game since:  the dungeon 'room' ... the typical dungeon inhabitant ... and the process of hack, slash and haul away the loot.  Having been given the template in the rules themselves, most people immediately presumed the template was the whole game, and so they rushed to duplicate that template as quickly and rapidly as they could.

Yet at the same time that the game was being developed in the 1970s, there was a very popular theatre 'sport' called improv, which more or less worked according to particular rules.  Most everyone has seen Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but I'd like to emphasize that the format there was far more rigorous ... and invented for television access ... than what was done in dramatic classes.

Basically, two people are encouraged to begin speaking on a stage about any subject.  The challenge is to say things that cause the other person to break character ... whatever character they've created at that moment.  Other participants, meanwhile, are waiting in the wings, and any of them can shout freeze! at any moment ... whereupon the two participants freeze.  One is tapped out, and the new joiner takes the exact same position and then completely changes the scene.

For example - two people are having an argument, one pretending to be the father, the other the son, about staying out past curfew, and one of them gestures at the ground; someone shouts freeze! and jumps in, removes the one gesturing at the ground and immediately begins with, "I have never seen a girl puke this much."  And the other answers, on beat, "Do you think we should have mixed vodka with Pepto-Bismol?"

It's fast paced, the lines are sharp, witty, you have to dream them up quickly and there's a very strong element of keeping a straight face ... which I have long found is the most difficult thing for would-be roleplayers to manage.  You're trying to make the other participant break; and not breaking is considered a sign of good acting.

It may surprise some people to learn that not all improvisation in these sessions was funny, as it was presented on television.  In fact, every once in awhile, something serious and intense would be tried to see if you could get the other person to break character, and thus 'lose' ... while the audiences were treated to some spontaneous, compelling drama.  It was a much larger game than pure silliness, though I admit the best times I had were with actors who were most serious about their craft.  Less inclination to be insipid.

Now suppose that, instead of Blackmoor, it was possible to present D&D from that completely different perspective.  Suppose the emphasis had been made, from the beginning, for the DM to react to play rather than to control play.  Suppose that there never had been a dungeon template forced on the consciousness of people who had never seen a roleplaying game before.  Where would be the emphasis then?

I think probably, less rats-in-a-maze and more person-to-person confrontation out in the world, where it belongs.  I think there could have been a greater respect for dialogue risk taking than for structured, stale problem solving.  Probably - and I am sad to admit this - a far greater emphasis on player-vs-player ... perhaps even larger sessions with dozens, even scores of people organizing as teams to shout down, shoot down or emotionally/materially destroy the other side.  Not in the ridiculous larping sense, but as a theatre sport, with the DM as ejudicator.

I'm truly not saying the game should be that; I like the game as it is, for me.  But I do want to argue that most, if not all, the stern, business-like emphasis on nailing down on paper and in files the moment-by-moment process of playing a night's game is based upon the earliest tactics proposed in that one document Blackmoor, which was subsequently copied to death.  Still is being copied to death.

I'm an advocate of designing the world, the same way I love a good theatre, a flexible and elaborate staging area, a good view from the seats, ambience, acoustics and a cast willing to work hard.  But while a play does include hammering down every inflection and movement the actors present, I don't believe that D&D is a play.  I believe it is improv.  And where improv is concerned, no one has the right to predestine what's going to happen next.


Arduin said...

With that said, how would you design such a template? We've seen your take on the classic dungeon, via the Alchemists, but if you were to time machine your way back, bitchslap Blackmoor and the Keep on the Borderlands out of the hands of the creators, what would you give them instead?

Pardon if it sounds a bit "put up or shut up"; I am genuinely curious as to how one might teach a new audience a new artform.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Actually, the alchemists is nothing like a dungeon I would usually run. I don't make dungeons ahead of time; I usually roll dice and let the next randomly determined monster define the entranceway, the shape and size of the chambers and/or lair. I threw that Alchemists thing together as an experiment, and felt so bored of it I never did finish the thing.

Classic dungeon creation is just too stale. It's more about the DM playing with his or her self than actually playing at the table.

The "dungeon" is the problem. I would have dearly preferred a wilderness proposition - but the Blackmoor creators were so lazy about the wilderness they couldn't even create their own freaking map ... they had to steal one from another game (Outdoor Survival). How bad is that?

I've been pounding a drum for weeks now about the outdoors and building it up ... so I think I've already "put up" plenty. You can't riff and react to the party's moods in a pre-made dungeon; the party needs elbow room.

How do you teach people to improv? Who taught you to play with your first G.I. Joe? Or how to play doctor? Or how to pretend that you weren't picking up girls when that's what you were totally doing? Everyone KNOWS already how to improv; what you have to do is guarantee them that putting themselves at risk will produce a result that belongs to them. Most DMs are only interested in letting players produce the DM's result.

Porky said...

"Suppose the emphasis had been made, from the beginning, for the DM to react to play rather than to control play."

"I believe it is improv."

I've just played a session in which I did react to play, as I much prefer to do. For me, I'm a player too, and we're all engaged in finding the limits, forming a shared space. Treating the standard game as improv works even now of course - and it's done to some degree by many people by the looks of it - but a problem does then come when the players don't realise it's improv and they're waiting for play to be more fully controlled, as you suggest in your reply.

"How do you teach people to improv? ... Everyone KNOWS already how to improv; what you have to do is guarantee them that putting themselves at risk will produce a result that belongs to them."

GMs seem to get more help with the improv approach than the other players, which may also be a result of that early path taken. I think there's a real lack of priming for players to play like their lives depend on it. Here the issue goes far wider than gaming I think.

Dave Cesarano said...

Justin Alexander has a whole slew of essays on D&D, game design, and the role of the dungeon here: http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/15126/roleplaying-games/game-structures

I thought you'd be interested and I'd like to see your thoughts.

Anyway, I find that your philosophy seems to have been for what White Wolf's STORYTELLER SYSTEM was originally designed. However, they were never clear with their design philosophy and there always seemed to be a strong sense of railroad operating in their session planning.

Dungeons a la the labyrinthine maze seem somewhat pointless. I know tons of guys who love dungeon-delving, megadungeons, and OSR-style play focused on dungeon exploration. But for me, the location must exist for a purpose. I can't run a dungeon as a bunch of self-enclosed rooms--sound travels, alarm bells ring, enemies run to go get help. Raiding the castle can result in the bad guys assembling and trying to corner and wipe you out like in WHERE EAGLES DARE.

I like to run PLACES and LOCATIONS, not dungeons. I love floor-plans for buildings, artistic reconstructions, etc. I once ran a midnight combat scene in a copy of Emperor Trajan's Basilica Ulpia, using floor plans and Peter Connolly's illustrations in THE ANCIENT CITY. Sometimes locations can be dungeon-ish, like prisons, castles, tombs, ruins, catacombs, labyrinths, sewers, etc. More often, though, I feel the dungeon is constrained, unrealistic in its design, impractical, kills suspension of disbelief, and so on.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Where Eagles Dare ... excellent movie.

The Storyteller System was an alternate method of control. There has been more effort and thought directed towards CONTROLLING the player than towards augmenting play and enablement. That's fully and completely the universal problem with the game ... and those players who have been enabled cannot begin to understand why so many still yearn to be sheep.