Monday, May 23, 2016


About twenty months ago I put together a series of posts that began with discovering a wagon on a road that had just been attacked by goblins. Here are the links for the series:

Setting the Scene
Groundwork for Dialogue
In-Party Indecisions
Setting Forth
Feeling the Threat

The six posts are a steady point-by-point breakdown of how to hook a party, how to build upon that hook, how to augment and support the party's reaction to the hook, how to handle the party setting forth, how to manage expectations when the adventure sinks in and finally an understanding of the consequences that come from a game where failure is a real option.

These posts were very popular - and I feel I made some converts to my way of thinking with them, as I really do feel that many believe that the adventure has just two elements: the hook and the process of hacking our way through.  There are a significant number of people who believe that the "adventure" is the personalities of the NPCs or the "feel" of the monsters to be killed or the "fantasy" element of the dungeon's special rooms or the castle's special appearance.

Adventures are mechanical constructs.  What the players see is a facade:

Like a hotel, when you walk into the front you're not given a view of
housekeeping or the kitchen: you're shown what you're meant to see.

The beams, the piping, the actual structure that supports the adventure, that's all covered by a veneer of beauty that doesn't actually help the DM.  That's for the players.  Those who work behind the scenes, we're used to walking through rooms where the customers have shat the bed, or where the toilet was busted or where some poor schlub committed suicide, leaving us to clean up the mess.  This is DMing.  As some point it's necessary to drop the romance and doe-eyed wonder and get down to the mechanical process of making the thing look beautiful to people who don't actually know anything about what's really going on.

There are some that won't do that.  They'll claim that they're entitled to their sense of wonder and their rose-colored glasses, while insisting that they're as enraptured as the players.

Some of these DMs will be lying, like Rock Stars who have just flown in from another city on a plane through five hours of turbulence, only to vomit in the back of the limo because they're actually suffering from the flu, who will nevertheless scream at the auditorium, "I'm so happy to be here!"  Because pretending matters, because we shove our own emotional state aside and we tell our players that the adventure is wondrous because that's part of the wonder.

But there will always be DMs who just can't see it that way.  They don't want to lose something - call it their innocence or their joie de vivre - for the sake of being a DM.  That can't be the way it works because that's just . . . just horrible.

What's interesting is that many people who work in the hotel industry or the performance industry - or any number of other similar industries - get to like the gritty, grimy reality of the back-scene, much more than they like the front house.  They'd rather walk in the back door of the hotel and talk to the cooks than greet the concierge.  They'd rather hear the concert while sitting back stage with the roadies than see the show.  True, they're more jaded.  They talked to Prince personally, they knew the guy on a level that the audience will never see . . . and they know all that the outfits, the strutting on stage and everything else that the audience worships was just an act.  They don't remember Prince "the artist" - they remember that one night when they smoked a few cigarettes together and Prince talked about his parents.  A memory they will never, ever share with anyone.

If you're a DM, that you now.  You can hang out with the players and make jokes, laugh and all that other shit, but you've got something on them because you know what's going on behind closed doors that they will never enter.

You can lament that.  You can preen yourself and promote that.  What you can't do is change that - not if you want to run a good game.  You have to embrace it; you're not like the others at the table. They thing they invest in, their characters, they're hope for a good running, their ambitions and sense of wonder - all that depends on us working hard to make sure they're not disappointed.  To do that, we have to clean the dust out of our eyes, slap ourselves a couple of times in the face and wake the hell up.

They're on holiday.  We're working.


Maxwell Joslyn said...

I was just rereading these the other day in preparation for having players again this summer. Thanks for putting them all in one place.

While reading about the goblins I remembered you also wrote one or two posts about goblins in caves, farming cave plants and generally just being, you know, actual living intelligent humanoids, and not just convenient kill-fodder. Something like that. I've done a google site-search for every combo of "goblin" and "cave" and "mushroom" and the title I thought one post had, "Wyrd" or "Weird", and can't find a damn thing. Could you link it?

Alexis Smolensk said...

The reason you can't find the darn thing is that it's not on the internet. Both the essays you refer to, "Wyrd" and "Flora in the Recesses" are included in the book, The Dungeon's Front Door.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

On the one hand, aha, I'm not crazy!

But on the other hand, I'm certainly dumb, because I think I might have forgotten my copy at my ex's house when I moved out last year ... so it goes. I'll take a look when I get home.

Thanks for the the clarification, Alexis.