Friday, May 3, 2013

The Player's Piece

Roger the GS has posted a set of reviews for contestants of the One Page Dungeon Contest.  I presume its Roger's contest - I don't see any other links.  I'm not a regular reader of Roger's site, so I'm not up on the rules or how that contest works.

I've looked over most of the entries listed there and I admit, there is a considerable amount of creativity there.  I should reach out and say well done; they are a fine set of puzzles.  I feel certain I could not match their inventiveness.

Thankfully, I don't have to ... because I play Dungeons and Dragons.  And D&D is not puzzle solving.  It is not maze-solving.

This isn't going to be a rant.  I have no desire to disparage the efforts of the participants on Roger's site.  But I cannot help but point out that the principles behind the 'contest' per se represent one of the saddest elements in the gaming community ... the idea that somehow, competing with one another in an activity which is primarily done solo - on your own table, by yourself, in so-called preparation for the game - is a part of the game.  It is not.  It is no more a part of the game than the fellow who is picked from the crowd to attempt a three-point shot from the corner, or all the people playing baseball pools this summer, or the guy who this fall will paint himself green for Green Bay.  These are all fun things; we do them because they are fun.  And the make the audience experience interesting.  But it must be noted that while they reflect the game, that's as far as it goes.  The game is played by the participants, not the fellow in the stands, not the people at the office, and not the audience.

Very often the audience does not know this.  But make no mistake:  the players do.

Two days ago I posted a 'module' that shatters the illusion that the DM ought to control the events of the game.  In the light of that, I would be amiss not to point out that one page dungeons created out of the game's context are useless compliments to the game.  IF the players needed to enter a particular dungeon, and IF that dungeon is tailor-made to match the ongoing game according to the events of the game that have occurred up to that time, then yes, said dungeon has a purpose.  Just as the problem is not that 3-pointers aren't part of the game, it is that 3-pointers thrown by audience members in half-time aren't part of the game.

Random dungeons are useless.  A specific dungeon designed for a specific instance, where both players and DM know why its there and how it fits in the campaign, are useful.

For some, it's almost impossible to see that distinction.  The certainty that someday will be the right day to use this dungeon is a pervasive, even addictive justification to DM solo-produced, solo-conceived dungeons until doomsday.  But such dungeons demand shoehorning the players into the DM's headspace, and do not recognize the need for the DM to apply their dungeon-making skills to the player's headspace.

Again, a difficult distinction.  Difficult primarily because it just seems wrong, somehow, not to view the dungeon - or any adventure - as a work of art to be hung on the wall of the campaign, where it can be recognized as a work of art.  In fact, it may be said, the DM's creation of the adventure is the 'point' ... the game is the applause.

I think that's terrible.  And I think contests to make puzzles are festivals to celebrate DMs while subtly discarding the value and importance of the player.  Continued aggrandizement towards DMs and not players has long been a sickness within the community, and will not end until players stop applauding and start demanding a piece of the action.


Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

I hear what you're saying, and basically I agree. I don't buy modules and don't use other peoples material in my games for exactly the reasons you talk about.

However, I might point out that there's another way to look at things like the One-page Dungeon Contest.

One could look at it not as a bunch of dungeons, but a bunch of ideas on presentation and organization - as a bunch of tools and ideas to use making your own dungeons, presented in the form of examples.

Maybe none of them will be useful, and maybe I won't use any of the ideas, but I find some utility in just being exposed to other peoples thoughts and ideas. Sometimes it gets the brain working in a new direction.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Perhaps, Charles; but someone else's dungeon is a 2nd-hand interpretation of knowledge they have about something you're not connected to; so if you REALLY want new ideas, don't read other person's interpretations, go find the hard data from scratch.

You do better to read a solid book on caving (spelunking) than you do to read through someone's cave representation. That's the problem with the "I learn things" argument. You're not really going to learn all that much.

There are far better sources than this.

Nicolas "Ungoliant" Senac said...

This is really a very popular competition in the English blogosphere. ;)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Of course it is.

There are far more people in the stands painted green than actual players on the field.

ravencrowking said...


In this case I will have to disagree with you. There is really no difference between using a module to help fill in a region, and using a map from Google Earth or a portion of a book on spelunking to do the same.

If I accepted that "someone else's dungeon is a 2nd-hand interpretation of knowledge they have about something you're not connected to" as a strong enough reason to not "read other person's interpretations", that would apply to using Google Maps or a book on spelunking as well.

We all could "go find the hard data from scratch", but finding the hard data is what life is, and it would take a lifetime to find all of the hard data used in this game. Some of it, of course, is fantastic, and can never be found "from scratch".

You rely upon data gathered by others. Your series on how you map demonstrates as much. We all do.


Alexis Smolensk said...

Then answer me this, Raven:

When you move off, as the DM, to seize upon someone else's dungeon, do you do so to empower your players, or to entertain your players. Because after a lifetime of listening to and observing other people's campaigns, they are repeatedly about the DM imposing a structure on the players, and not the players imposing a structure on the DM.

Look at my map. the data upon which I have relied. There is more to data that where it comes from; it matters WHICH data is relied upon.

Is the a structure I am using the data for imposing order on the players? Is the map a playing surface designed to allow movement in the least number of directions, or the most? Does the map limit freedom of action as do hallways and traps, or does the map offer that freedom?

Over and over, and I'll beat this drum forever, the DUNGEON and its 2-dimensional structural element, presented to the players as a maze and a puzzle, is the principle problem of the game. The best dungeon in the world is no better a representation of good PLAY than is the worse dungeon, as neither are about play at all! Dungeons are about imposition and rule by the DM; they are well named, for they imprison players in the DM's trap.

The only thing you can learn from them is how better to take away player agency.

Lastly, Raven ... I don't care how long it takes. I don't care if it takes a lifetime. Take a lifetime. Do the damn thing right.

ravencrowking said...


Thanks for answering.

"The only thing you can learn from them is how better to take away player agency."

Not in my experience.

As you say, "There is more to data that where it comes from; it matters WHICH data is relied upon."

If I include elements from The Keep on the Borderlands in my game, for example, I need not include a talking raven that pushes the PCs back on "the path", just as I do not have to leave the Castellan nameless.

It is not simply a matter of where the information comes from; it is very much a matter of what you do with it.

Nothing in your response indicates that what you are doing is more doing "the damn thing right" on the basis of what materials you are using to craft the work. Nowhere have you demonstrated that using Google maps is superior to using modules in terms of player freedom.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, I don't think what I do with maps can quite be delineated down to "using" Google maps. I think I use more source material, from many more places, than the one you mention.

But if you feel that all the application of written history, geography, science, design, economics, etc., is of the same level as a module ... then I've utterly failed.

ravencrowking said...

Of course you use more source materials than Google maps, just as the user of a module may use many sources, including the module.

All the application of written history, geography, science, design, economics, etc., is not of the same level as a module....but the module may be of the same level as any give piece of said written history, geography, science, design, economics, etc.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But, a module is as valid a part as most others, depending upon the module, and depending upon the other source.

I don't think that using modules can quite be delineated down to attempting to trap the players in a Dark Dungeon.

Nor do I believe that the dungeon is "the principle problem of the game". YMMV, though.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Within the context of the whole article, Raven:

The module is a limiting mechanism for game play.

The module is premade, and therefore produces a predestined game play.

The module includes the creativity of ONLY the DM, and therefore discounts added creativity from all the players.

The module is a maze, with a beginning and an end.

The core idea of D&D, that the module (bought or personally made) is CENTRAL to the game is the innate flaw in the game.

We both believe the DM should create an experience for the player; but I believe that the player brings substance to the game, by making a decision about what the player wants to do, that cannot be addressed by the module mentality. You clearly disagree. Most of the gaming community, no doubt, would disagree, because the gaming community has bought into the "DM PRESENTS GAME" fundamental structure.

I don't believe that's right. It is perfectly fair to create a setting. But one should not pre-create "Events" in that setting ... which is the form, purpose, methodology and habit of the dungeon principle.

It has had its run. Let's move on from that principle.

James Young said...

Long time reader, first time commenter. Hee.

I agree with your main point, in that modules tend to be a way for the DM to impose restrictions on their players.

but I don't use modules like that. They're just a stopgap measure, things to put in places that I haven't thought about in detail yet. My new campaign is a mere half year old, so it has very little flesh.

It depends on the quality and style of module, of course. Pathfinder modules are shitty for this because they're intended to be rigid predetermined plots that the players play through in order.

But the one page dungeons are the perfect size to slot into such a place. Simply a dungeon, populated with stuff.
The old TSR modules are good too since they're simply places that exist. The players aren't forced to interact with them unless they want to.

The concept of a module being the only thing to do in the game though, that can safely be left by the wayside.

Keith S said...

A module, taken on its own, might be considered limiting. But it is not unreasonable to say that some modules may be the foundations of excellent games. Modules come to life when players explore the environments and experience the events within. A good module, in my opinion, is written with room for player agency.

Arguing that modules form the basis for a flawed game is like arguing against maps, or pre-written descriptions. Events occur outside the circle of player influence, yet may still be experienced by players who explore in that direction.

Its easy to find flawed modules and campaigns. But it is not impossible to find good ones.

ravencrowking said...

I am going to examine three concepts:

"The module is premade, and therefore produces a predestined game play."

A good module does not produce predestined game play. I have used Keep on the Borderlands, for example, with many gaming groups, and game play was markedly different depending upon how the group approached the material.

"The module includes the creativity of ONLY the DM, and therefore discounts added creativity from all the players."

Again, game play was markedly different not because of the GM, but because of how the group approached the material. A module, like any prep, is limited in how it introduces creativity during prep, but that does not mean that it uses ONLY the GM's creativity during play.

And the play's the thing.

"The module is a maze, with a beginning and an end."

Not necessarily. Again, Keep on the Borderlands can be used as a consistent part of a campaign setting during its entire run. So can any module, really. Like all parts of the campaign world, the elements of any prep - your own or that of a module - progress and change as time goes on.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Nice try.

The Keep on the Borderlands is NOT consistent with the vast majority of modules. Moreover, while it is "looser" in structure, granted, each part is a combat formula for entering, hacking and hauling away the loot. "Reaction" to this is not "Creation." Look up the word.

I am quite confident that the gentle readers here know perfectly well what a module actually does, and aren't fooled either.

JDJarvis said...

The game isn't Avarice and Agency. The 2 dimensional dungeon as the only plaace something "happens" within the game is distinctly limited however.
Yet the game is (in part) about exploring dark mazes of barriers put in place by DMs, why else would avoiding traps, opening and finding doors be part of the game?

ravencrowking said...


I am pretty confident that the readers know perfectly well what modules do, as well.

I am even reasonably confident that, if you were as secure in your position as you are trying to appear, you would not have suggested that KotB "is NOT consistent with the vast majority of modules." The minute you have to say, in effect, "Well, of course we cannot use THAT module as an example" your argument begins to break down.

Nor is it true that in KotB "each part is a combat formula for entering, hacking and hauling away the loot". I have, as I said, run this module many, many times, and with different results each time. Sometimes that meant negotiation. Once that meant a PC becoming the leader of an orc tribe.

Creation does not occur in a vacuum. You are creative when you react to your players' desires. Your players are creative when they react to the milieu you present them with.

As far as I know, only the Alpha and Omega claims to have been creative from nothing, and, frankly, I don't believe in that.

You are a smart guy, and I agree with a lot of what you say, but I think you have the blinders on here.

JB said...

Ugh. I don't really want to step into this but...*sigh*


I understand your point of view, both with regard to this and your own "module" you posted earlier. But while there aren't limits to the scope of one's imagination (and I agree with empowering players in this regard), there ARE limits to the least if you want to set it up as a "cooperative-party"-style. An "adventure site" (i.e. "dungeon") ham-fisted as it is at least provides a central objective for a group of players to have a cooperative venture. Yes, it is a silly and ridiculous premise in many ways...but I also find it silly and ridiculous to tell players "here's this huge, wide world to find NOT ONLY your personal goals of exploration BUT ALSO a reason for you all to journey together as a joint venture." Dungeons at least give them a ready motive to cooperate...and rather than shoe-horning players into a pre-made adventure, DMs can shoe-horn the adventure into the campaign, by A) tailoring it, and B) giving up an attachment to any possible outcome that is "supposed to" occur in exploring it.

You (Alexis) create a world that lives and breathes for PCs to operate within, one that has areas with signs that say "here be dragons" (or towns ripe for economic exploitation) and then you let the PCs choose their own approach to adventure. What is wrong with using a pre-made dungeon in the same way if it fits with the character and history of a region of your world? If you file off the name of said Tomb or Crypt or Ruin or whatever? Plant the sign (or legend or rumor) that "here there be [dungeon site X]" and let players decide whether or not they want to plumb it. Is it simply an issue that doing so...with players pre-conceived notion of "what D&D is"...will throw a monkey-wrench in the player empowerment goal? Because then it will foster expectation in players and cripple your efforts to make them proactive in seeking/making adventure for themselves?

While I applaud the creativity and artistry in dungeon design (as I believe you do), I think it can provide DMs with on-going campaigns with useful fodder (as I believe you don't). It doesn't have to be the be-all-end-all of D&D...and maybe shouldn't be (even for beginning players) if it's going to hamstring players' creativity down the line by teaching them "bad" expectations. But for mature players that already know how to "seek adventure," I think it's nice to have the odd temple or tomb to ransack.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I knew from the beginning, posting this, that I was stepping on toes. People LOVE dungeons.

But I can't tell you how ... sick ... it makes me to hear you say you've run KOTB "many, many times."

The reason you think my argument breaks down is because I'm not arguing what you think I'm arguing. I'm not arguing that players would never enter a dungeon. I'm not arguing that players shouldn't do anything of the things you suggest. I'm not even arguing the DM shouldn't - if necessary - insert a dungeon into an adventure. For the love of dead pigeons, I just finished running a long party-chosen quest that involved six dungeons, all in a string.

I wrote this post to say, jeez, look at these people who aren't playing the game, they're masturbating by inventing "dungeons" for a freaking contest. How sad and pathetic is that?

Twice now, you've said, reaction is creativity. That is such unmitigated bullshit. I don't care how many ways they've reacted to your freaking clever KOTB runnings. YOU, the DM, are trotting out your maze to try out another party so that YOU, the DM, can see what this party does with it. And you have parties that do it because, I don't know, they're ...

I have to pull back. We're not remotely on the same wavelength. I actually get your position. You're position is not hard to get. It's spectacularly easy to get - especially as it is the same position I've heard argued year after year since the 1970s, by everyone.

I'm personally pretty sick of that position. It's a sort of "I don't know what the fuck else to do with my parties, so I think I'll justify me doing this." The universal problem with all you people shouting "Dungeon! Dungeon! Ra! Ra! Ra!" is that you don't have any other fucking ideas. You just have this one. Which you really love. Really, really.

JDJarvis said...

I've entered the contest in the past and played the "dungeon" I contributed. The one pager dungeon for me was an exploration in presentation not a limiting definti on of the game. Appreciating variantions within a limited format and paradigm isn't chaining the game down to only one subset of it's possibilities.

I have used other folks one pagers in my campaigns as they can be fit in better then an entire continent when I want to present some5hing to keep players on theirtoes because it didn't come in whole from my mind.

JD said...

Nice discussion! The value of a contest like this is, as I understand it, an exercise to formulate an adventure local with a limited amount of space to present it. Dungeons, traps and puzzles are an easy solution for something like that, but that's not what I'm aiming for as an argument. As a concept it may give DMs ideas how to prepare the data they want to present to the players. It is a good idea and usefull. I don't care about the amount of masturbation as much as you do. But I do care about the variety of creative approaches to this format. Becoming a good DM is a process, as you're fully aware, and a contest like this is one way to help a DM getting there. Not by reading it, but by seeing how it could be done and doing it yourself afterwards.

The interpretation of data is where creativity gets important. It might be a movie, a sunrise or just the traffic lights around the corner. Finding new connections and associations in relation to the game and being able to translate them into a game is another aspect of this. The source material may influence the output, but the quality of the source material does not necessarily ensure the quality of said output. How to collect that data and make it accessible for a specific DM is a totally different matter and, as far as I'm aware, not very well explored. By the way: are techniques for a DM how to filter, translate and archive data part of your book? I'd be very interested in something like that...

Ha! Word verification is "principle onedndw".

Alexis Smolensk said...

And still, once again, you're all missing the point.

"Presentation" is the limitation. The DM should be reacting to the players, not the players reacting to the DM. To present is to make the player's passive.

Worse, the wise player to which you present your presentation can see it all coming, like a telegraphed boxing punch. But none of you see how the game has become a series of expected roles the players must play to keep the DM happy.

All I hear is how the DM is happy with the dungeon, and what the dungeon does for the DM. But the post is titled, "the player's piece." You're all so cocksure - but I'm hearing nothing about the player who is sick to death of having to run in your maze, because you present nothing but mazes. And I STILL haven't heard any other idea advanced.

I'm sitting at your table. What do you have for me that ISN'T a dungeon?

ravencrowking said...

You still aren't listening. You are still hearing something other than what is being said, and answering something other than the positions that are being presented.

You aren't stepping on toes for writing against the use of modules, or the use of dungeons. You are stepping on toes because you are parading a straw man to burn. And you are burning him without presenting even a smidgeon of reasoning that demonstrates why the straw man - let alone the actual positions of people actually using dungeons and/or modules - needs burning.

When you do that, you take yourself (in any meaningful way) out of the conversation. You are coming across exactly like those people you speak about, who don't want to hear anything that takes effort to understand.

It should be obvious at least that, if you believe that the DM is supposed to react to the players, you should also believe that he should react creatively. And, as an example, when you use the dice to discover that there is literally a potential gold mine on land the PCs are holding, they are reacting to information you are presenting.

Hopefully, they are also reacting creatively to the information you are presenting.

Because I am almost certain that over 99% of your readers know that presenting and destroying creativity are not the same thing.

Likewise, the game is a volley of actions and reactions, from all sides, with both players and GM introducing ideas and reacting to the ideas of others - even if those ideas are no more than "wandering monsters....people needing brave souls to defend their villages" or strangers to make "either friends or piles of meat". All of which are, please note, presented by the GM by necessity for them to be introduced into play.

Your readers all know this. I cannot understand why you do not.

When I get some time to do so, I will expand in a blog post.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Oh, I'm listening.

JD said...

Okay, I'll bite. You're sittng at my table, so what happens next?

Rules, links and preparation. I'll send you all the stuff I think usefull to understand the game I'm DMing. How much effort a player puts into that, is totally up to the player (and usually less than I think necessary).

Introduction. What world and what kind of fantasy is part of the game. What characters are possible. What do you want to play? If it doesn't already exist, a new class may be build.

Character creation. 18d6, reroll sixes, but keep them and exchange the result of the reroll with a previously rolled lower number. Distribute 3 results per ability score to build class. The player is free to play what he wants, with what is there as an inspiration.

The game. I ask the players for reasons to be in this particular group of adventurers. It's a dialogue and another process to help the player into the mind frame of the game and the setting.

Even where the game starts, is, if a player is there from the beginning, result of a group decision. Last time I presented them 7 settings that are all part of the world and they voted where the wanted to be.

Additionaly I inform the players on a regular basis about ideas I have or found interesting, keeping an open dialogue "behind the curtains" with the hope to evolve the game in the process.

As far as the game goes, I try to give players and setting enough room, to do what they want. If they get involved in something, it will develop further, if they stay with it or not. They are free to do what they want, though.

Ideally, the presented setting is as deep, as I care to dig, giving players the freedom to find out anything they want in a way that is not derived from arbitrary DM decisions, but part of a settings history or at least random. The setting has it's own development and produces it's own events, constantly producing rumors in the process.

So really, the players have the power to decide at any point in the game what they want to do and how they want to do it, while I as a DM try to only interpret the results of their actions, giving the game some narrative structure while doing so.

I don't know if that's your cup of tea, but that's the way I handle it. All informations and parts of the game are for the players to shape and regulate in relation to the effort they are willing to put into it. They have to do what they want. Or to put it another way, they have to make their "headspace" available for this to work the way they want.

JD said...

Addendum: So every data I choose to use for the game will be altered by players and setting to the degree they get involved and the setting requires. They don't like puzzles or riddles? Well, that should be reflected in the decisions they made (in this case the rules that apply to solving riddles and puzzles). They want to know what is ahead? Indifferent to the data used, the setting should provide hints and rumors (like an architect that is famous for his difficult traps or a culture that likes to poison tomb robbers, etc.). It's not that they decide specifics, but they have a great deal of influence on how all that is handled during the game...

Alexis Smolensk said...

The addendum helped considerably. Sorry for the vague crack; I had only responded to the first half.

Except for the fact that the character creation was completely off topic and irrelevant, in general that's how I run also JD (the proof is on the other blog). It worries me that I'm expected to provide, for you, a reason for my being with a particular party, but I can let that slide. In general, what your addendum describes is the way I run.

BUT ...

What I am seeing are tools for adventures with a clear beginning and a clear end, linear in structure, where item A fits into slot B, with limited choices, etc.

The argument seems to be that although these are pre-made, predestined structures for play, they can be useful for the open gaming DM to insert into a campaign at the DM's convenience.

But as a player, I don't want to play them. I'm not interested in the hook. I'm not interested in doing this dungeon for one session because the DM hasn't got something else. I have something else. I have a plan. And it doesn't include going underground to get the mcguffin.

You say, JD, that you don't force puzzles on a party. Good for you. That makes me happy. But these dungeons are puzzles. And in a game, they would bore me silly.

In the wider sense, I think they bore parties. I think this is why DMs are always dealing with players who are loud and abusive, who skip games, who disappear without a trace and who find other ways to disrupt the game. Because they're bored. And DM's think the solution is harder puzzles, more complicated dungeons, a better presentation, a better performance, etc.

Whereas I think a party just needs to be let off the chain. This is what Raven doesn't understand. Every third sentence in every one of his comments drips with his patronizing his players; his "father-knows-best" conception, which is evident in the words he chooses and the way he presents his ideal for the game. And that attitude is so common ... this last weekend I've been made somewhat furious by the very obvious paternalism of DMs and the complete discounting of the player.

If that doesn't include you, great. But it includes many. And they don't have a clue who they are.

JD said...

I'm glad we could agree on that. And the addendum was necessary, your comment was justified. I think I understand your position now a great deal better and I mostly agree (I always believed most DMs structure their games more or less like I described it, though).

The infamous "3d6 in row" for character creation was my reason to go a bit off topic in what I described. A random character generation like that might be fun (I'd play in a game using that rule), but for campaigns I deem it more important to give a player more freedom in creating a character.

The reason for a character to be part of a group is a relic of yore. A tradition, kind of, to initiate a character into the game, giving the player some narrative weight. It's how they place them "on the board", more or less. A technique for immersion, to get them thinking and talking, maybe.

Nothing more to it. Maybe I got carried away a bit.

Dungeons are a difficult topic. They are part of a fantasy world and, of course, of D&D. I agree in as far as a new approach to the idea of how dungons are structured and what they are in a setting might be a very good idea. But if it's the sole reason for players behaving the way you describe it, I don't know. At least it's not in accord with my experience.

But it is food for thought, so thanks for making it an issue.