Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Straight Dope

JB left a comment on the last post that I'd like to address ... but it is too damn long to post the whole thing here. So I'm going to do a hatchet job on it. I recommend reading the entire comment on the previous post.

"... 'What if I’m the single individual interested in the smuggling operation and the rest of the table is only interested in knocking over dungeons and houses?' What if I’m the lone individual who thinks piracy might be a decent occupation but you’re sitting at a table full of 'Dirk'-types, who only want to plunder the dungeon because it seems like a lot easier target than worrying about getting a ship and crew together and doing the groundwork to figure out shipping lanes and the routes of fat merchant vessels? ... I’m talking about wanting to do 'group adventures' that are completely lost on the group ... it’s no good saying, yeah let’s loot this dungeon for a while to finance our pirate ship because ... they simply want to move onto the next ancient tomb or sunken city.

It’s all well-and-good to say, okay, I’m walking away ... But it’s not every DM you come across who’s created a rich-sand-boxy-environment-world where piracy or smuggling or whatnot[sic] would be a real active possibility. They ... instead say “well, we’ve got this particular adventure planned for the next few sessions and then we’ll look at the pirating possibility.” Except that after This Particular Adventure is exhausted, there’s another ‘particular adventure’ to be played. And another. And another.

We ARE talking Dungeons & Dragons ... why (as a DM) bother creating All the Rest of the World ...? As an intellectual exercise? That’s your bag, perhaps ... I’ve done similar and found it completely wasted on a table full of 'Dirks' ... so then what do I end up doing? Catering to my players.

... I guess what I’m struggling with is A) if I don’t give them what they want ... they’ll stop playing; yet B) if I give them only what they want, the game will get stale ..."

To answer your questions JB,

That's much less than what you said ... but you do tend to waffle, buddy. Still, I think the above gets to the crux of it.

Regarding the first half - how do I play if the world is a railroad, or the other players like it that way, or no one is interested in exploring new story ideas - I haven't played in a solid campaign since, I think, 1985. Why? Largely because of all that you describe. Not because of Dirks so much, though I've met my share of those ... just a general malaise in campaign design. There is a willingness to embrace the most banal of templates - the dungeon, the module, the ruin-near-the-town. Gather in the dungeon, dump off in town; gather in the dungeon, dump off in town. Everybody happy? Good. Gather in the dungeon, dump off in the town. Lather, rinse, repeat.

JB, I don't know what honest advice I can give you. I'd like it if some other sort of world existed ... where I did not happen to be the DM. I encouraged my daughter to run for awhile, but while she has the imagination she hasn't got the time. Like all 24-year-old women, life moves way too fast for game design.

The greatest part of why I run a campaign like I do is because of how pissed off I was trying to run in other people's campaigns. I have NEVER run in a campaign that wasn't built exactly like either the 'BAD' or 'AWFUL' games depicted by Winston Rowntree. Those are the only campaigns I've ever encountered. Conventions, the club at the university, the gamespace at the local RPG shop (the Sentry Box), my friend's campaigns, virtually everything I've seen described online, including all the let's-film-our-session-with-a-really-crappy-camera. It's easy to think that no one, ever, anywhere, runs a campaign where a party can decide to do virtually anything they want and the DM just gets the fuck out of the way.

But you know, having run my world now for 34 years, I have had a lot of people come through with a view to doing something, a particular thing, only to find themselves very disappointed. The phenomenon does not only happen with gaming. I have seen it again and again with respect to the real world.

New employee comes into a company. New employee is excited to work. New employee has a lot of great ideas. New employee has trouble reconciling the fact that those great ideas are of interest to no one. Company has a set agenda. Company has a plan. Company isn't going to change that plan for a noob. New employee gets upset. New employee has trouble adapting to new environment. New employee quits.

I have watched a parade of players start in my campaign with exactly that attitude.

I have started a campaign from scratch four times online. Once in Dachau; once in Fiume; once in Golos; and once in Cuxhaven. Each time I started with a complement of players who together had the opportunity to set an agenda where there was no agenda.

The Fiume campaign started with three players who all decided to play a mage. The fourth character was an assassin. The actual level of interaction was piss-poor. The end result was a group of very disgruntled players, one disgruntled DM, a lot of long term bad feelings and a disastrous campaign that never had any continuity. I leave it up where it can be read as proof to anyone that not everything I run works. Yes, that's right, I have no desire to hide it. There is more to be learned there about how not to play, and why a DM does get autocratic, than there is in the 10,000 word post. To compare it with the present ongoing campaign, a typical post gets between 60 and 100 comments, from people who are questioning and expressing their intent. I was lucky to get 10 comments with the Fiume campaign.

The Golos campaign was short-lived. There were peculiar circumstances involved with it that ended the campaign, but it was struggling because it was quickly reduced to one player.

The Dachau campaign seemed to start well, but there were problems with players who did not seem to understand that a game played on a blog was actually going to require a willingness to write and post. One player lost interest in his character fairly quickly; another stated that he could only post in the evening, and then failed to post most evenings. The remainder limped on a bit, but I think the strangeness of the venue was a challenge. Players did not have a template on how to play in the format. Still, eventually we got some new blood - a cleric, who is still playing in the ongoing campaign - and we ran through an entire adventure that proved to be satisfying for all. Then things soon after went kablooie, and I took a break for awhile.

The Cuxhaven campaign, now in Greece, has been the success. The players had the necessary template. They were chosen for their willingness and ability to write. They jumped straight into it with the understanding that nothing was certain, but that there were things to do. Unfortunately, one disappeared (Silvius), and the other had a change of life (Nine-toes) and adjustments had to be made.

So we brought you on, JB ... but that didn't go so well. Then we brought on a paladin, Melchior, and a mage, Lukas. Melchior didn't seem to understand that I had a complex and precise combat system, despite having posted about it continuously on this blog, and also seemed to have some assumptions about how the strength of residents in the world should be telegraphed to the players. Melchior was replaced with a ranger, who seemed to do well with the party for awhile ... but then he just disappeared. The ranger was replaced with a druid, Maximillian.

Lukas and Maximillian are still with the party, for one particular reason. They went along at the beginning of their experience. They stepped into an ongoing campaign and the rode with it. The opportunity to set the agenda from scratch was past; they had to accept the present agenda, and then, with time, reap the reward of their investment. Like an employee who has to be with the company for a few years before their opinion matters. A player doesn't have to be with a party anywhere near that long - but usually, two or three significant encounters is enough.

But this is my world. This is a world where I'm willing to get the hell out of the player's way. This isn't the typical world of the typical DM, as you yourself point out, JB. There isn't any room in those worlds for the players setting the agenda, because the DM feels that he or she is just as entitled as the players to do so. This is the greatest anathema of the game ... the DM insists that because they have done all the work, and they have all the knowledge, and they are a person too, they have just as much right to set the style of play as any player.

It doesn't matter how much you scream at these people. It doesn't matter how blue in the face you get. This is their stance. You can argue that they're not a player, you can argue that they're the fucking umpire, but they just won't accept that. It's not a glamorous enough role for them. They do the work. They want the right to decide how the work is applied.

If you haven't watched an artist try to explain to a viewer how the art piece SHOULD be viewed, you're only understanding half of what I'm saying.

You can't win with these guys. It's their way or the highway ... and for myself, I've taken the highway for the last 28 years. I don't expect to ever 'play' this game again. That's the long and the short of it.

Now, as to the other half of it. Why create a world if the player's don't appreciate it. Let me see, I want to be sure I get the right line of your comment here: "... why (as a DM) bother creating All the Rest of the World outside the dungeon (or isolated adventure site)? As an intellectual exercise? That’s your bag, perhaps ... I’ve done similar and found it completely wasted ..."

JB ... with all due respect, right there you are full of shit.

Let me make myself clear. I recognize the work you put into your blog. I recognize the effort with the new product. And I respect your character; you and I have gone head to head on a number of occasions and it's never gotten abusively personal. I don't mean this personally. The fact is, you have a great deal to learn, and I have long observed a very strong resistance on your part towards changing your mind - even when you're slapped in the face.

You've done similar?

Really now.

Have you any idea how much respect and value my 'bag' produces for my campaign? Do you recognize how much people have paid me in money for my 'bag'? Or the number of people who have written to say they've applied my 'bag' to their campaigns and gotten terrific and amazing results? This blog is the blog my 'bag' built.

Where the hell is your bag, so similar to mine? Where are the links? Point them out to me. Mind you, I only want to see the links that show a 'similar' level of design and effort.

I think what you mean to say is that you've TRIED to produce something similar, and that it FAILED to get the attention of the people you've DMed. That might be for a number of reasons. It might be that you just didn't impress anyone. It might be that your players are a bunch of louts and morons. I don't know your players. I've certainly had players who tried to play in my world who were louts and morons. I presume, if you've played as long as me, so have you.

So what is the issue here, exactly? That you suffer louts and morons to play? That the louts and morons don't appreciate your efforts? Perhaps you should try NOT playing with louts and morons. Or perhaps you should try producing a 'bag' that draws respect. Either one would seem to me a fairly obvious solution.

Most of what I do on this blog is throw my pearls before swine. There are a great many who scoff at the maps, who scoff at the generators and the design, at the problem solving, at the alternative way of looking at gaming, etcetera etcetera. I don't write for them, however. The fact that there happen to be swine in the room is of no consequence.

All this game design is not an intellectual exercise. The maps and so on are applications. They're the game board. They're the rule book. They make it possible for the players to make up their minds about what they want to do. If you can't see that, if you can't judge my work as anything but a waste of time because it wouldn't work on 'Dirks,' then you have A LOT TO LEARN.

I was going to write something about having principles and standing on principles where it comes to making your world for players to run in it, but I think what you really need to do, JB, is change your mind about something. You're frustrated because your precepts are faulty. You're judging yourself, methinks, too generously. Where it comes to how you will run your world, it is your decision to be used by Dirks. It's your decision to fail with your design. It's your decision to throw your hands in the air and claim there is no point.

But that decision isn't based on any evidence that I can see. It seems derived from some other place.

Your frustration will sort itself out when you realize the thing you're frustrated with is you.


  1. Thanks for addressing my comment directly. I’d like to first respond to the How-Full-Of-Shit-Am-I part of your post.

    When I say I’ve done “similar” I’m using an unfortunately chosen word for the sake of brevity because of the limit of words allowed in comments (and I didn’t intend to sidetrack your post, nor did I hope you’d write a post specifically addressed to me). I did not mean to imply that I am making a blog, or a career, or a “life’s work” off my world creation…as you do. That’s not a comparison I’m trying to draw; my comment was specifically as a DM, not as a designer or artist or anything else.

    What I HAVE done, many times, is created sandbox worlds. I’ve drawn maps, drawn up sites for adventure, towns and cities, notes about political climate (and potential areas of conflict), all without attachment to how or why what the players choose to engage. THAT’s the only “similarity,” though I’d say I have a similar philosophy of not creating any over-arching plot or story that the players must become embroiled in as “destined heroes” of the campaign world. While I might not detail all this in my own blog (that’s not what my blog is about), please trust that I have on more than one occasion created a world and then simply given the PCs the green light to “do as you will.”

    I apologize if I gave offense by comparing your work, which includes rules design/redesign, to simple world design. I really wasn’t addressing the paradigm you’re constructing or the philosophy you promote.

    Moving on (I hope): I started to write in THIS comment that my players (mostly) are neither louts nor morons, but rather they don’t CARE enough to fully engage with the setting…but that’s not really true. After reconsideration I realize you’re right: the failings have been mine. I have pandered to players, not only to appease the vocal minority of “Dirks,” but in an effort to jump-start players who I judged to be “lackadaisical;” and sometimes these were one and the same.

    Ugh. It could also be that I simply haven’t displayed the fortitude you have. Four tries to get a solid campaign going? And YOU build each one on the same basic foundation (your world, your rule set). Every failure I’ve had I’ve restarted (more or less) from scratch, rather than simply becoming an expert in a single world that I enjoy running, tuning the rules as the game evolves over time.

    Okay…I guess I DO need a paradigm shift.

    Thanks for the straight dope, Alexis. It has been helpful, and I appreciate you taking the time to hammer my hard-headedness.

  2. It is sometimes good to keep swine around... for from swine we get bacon!


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