Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Devolving the DM

At some point in my life I came under the misconception that I was a game designer/writer. Not an amateur one, mind you, but a professional one with an editor and style guides and such. This has been the biggest of my so-called “bad habits.”

Once this hobgoblin took up residence in my tiny mind, I was no longer satisfied with producing functional adventure notes. Instead, I had to produce laboriously written pieces that a least somewhat resembled the published modules that TSR was cranking out. With the advent of affordable PCs and writing software, this habit took a turn for the worse. The result was too much time on prep-work and production and not nearly enough time actually putting that work to use is a real game session. But talk is cheap, so let me demonstrate what I’m talking about with some choice examples from my past. Watch as the sickness grows.

click to enlarge The Early 1980s
This is an example of how I wrote out adventures in the early part of the 1980s. I would have been in my pre-teens at this time. The notes are pretty straight forward, consisting of nothing more than basic dimensions, monster stats and room notes.

Example: "This 30' room has a 30' ceiling. In the room is 8 kolbolds (AC 7 HD 1/2 Hp 6, att 1, Dmg 1-4 or weapon) armed with nets and short swords. In a store contier in the base of a chair is 200 cp gaurded by darts that do 1-4 hp damage."

Although the spelling and grammar leave something to be desired, my notes contained everything I needed to run this encounter - with the possible exception of what else was in the room besides the kolbolds and a chair, as well as an explanation on how 1/2 HD kolbolds managed to get 6 hp.

click to enlargeThe Mid 1980s
This had to be from 1985 or soon thereafter, since it was from an Oriental Adventures setting that I cooked up when that book was released. The descriptions and situations have improved a bit, although the source material might be suspect.

Example: "12 - This Observitory has a large telescope in the middle of the room. The walls are covered with star charts and drawing. A table has various other charts on it. Chained to the ground is the princess Chie-to Allo (AC 4 hp 13 At 0 Dam 0). She is in a point at which the sun will in 3 rounds be focused through the telescope frying her. The lock is intricit with a -10% to open and it takes 2 rounds to do so. The telescope crank is broken so it requires a combined strength of 30 to move."

Some improvement is evident in this example. The grammar is still atrocious, but I've provided more description of room, as well as providing the party with a challenge to overcome. I've outlined the possible hindrances to the challenge -slightly difficult lock and broken crank on the telescope - and established a time frame in which they have to act. As for the encounter itself, I can only assume that Goldfinger had been on TV that week.

clink to enlargeThe Late 1980s
With the ownership of a semi-smart typewriter, my dungeon notes improved to a more "professional" style. Although the appearance of my nemesis, "boxed text" would have to wait until I owned my first PC, I was still spending a little more time polishing text that ultimately would only be seen by myself (and now, you).

Example: "3. Storage: In this 40' x 40' room, the priest store items for the temple. Large boxes line the walls. A torch braket is in the south wall but is empty. The tops of the boxes are dusty.

The boxes hold incense, food, water in kegs, braziers, Symbols of Bane wrapped in velvet and parchment. Under on of the boxes lives four giant centipedes. They have no treasure.

4 centipedes (AC 9 hp 2, 2, 1, 1 at -1 dam poison)"

This era would end what I consider the best balance of my notes in regards to description, effort and "useability". In the coming years, my sickness would flourish as it slept...

The 1990s

I have no D&D notes from this time period, simply because the 1990s saw my gradual retreat from D&D and playing more White Wolf titles. After college, I retreated completely from table-top gaming, eventually leaving the hobby completely. But as we'll soon see, my bad habit took the opportunity to grow while I was away.

click to enlargeThe Early Aughts
Oh yea Gods! Shaded boxed text, over-the-top background details, attempts to cover every action a party might undertake while in the dungeon, these notes have it all. When I came back to gaming, I came back with my habit in full bloom.

These two pages are from a short side adventure that I'd put together for a party of three players to encounter on their way to the main dungeon setting that I had planned. From what I recall, we never even got a chance to run this adventure due to one of the three being sick. I do remember still slaving away at the computer up to two hours before I was supposed to run this thing. I was spending too much time coming up with cute random "things in the pantry" tables and creating new magical items to put in as treasure. I was working as if I was getting paid real money for this thing and the editor was breathing down my neck.
click to enlarge What should have been a simple romp turned into a nightmare of game design for me and I had no one to blame for it except myself. My players would never see this end of it. All that mattered to them was what happened when the dice hit the table and I start describing the scene. But I couldn't see past this. I was too busy stroking my own ego by attempting to produce a quality product.

Unfortunately, I'm still afflicted by this tendency. One of the reasons that my initial expedition back into this hobby almost failed was that I was still trying to produce dungeon notes that look like this while familiarizing myself with 3.5 D&D. An almost guaranteed recipe for self-implosion.

I'm trying to get better. I've settled on a style that more closely resembles how I did things back in the late 1980s. I'm more willing to work without a net when it comes down to it. And I've completely banished boxed text from my notes forever. That only creeped in from reading too many TSR modules. As a player, my eyes glaze over whenever box text gets read. Why would I expect anything less when I was reading it aloud?

To return to my roots, I need to devolve in some ways. Not intelligently, but stylistically. I need to learn how to stop worrying and love the dungeon in its funky, clunky way that defines classic Dungeons & Dragons. To remember that it is a game, and not a paycheck. That it is recreation I'm after and not frustration.

Let's hope I get Cro-Magnon on my notes from now on...


Restless said...

Back around '84-'85 I was afflicted with the same disease. I was a teen in a group of adult gamers and when it was my turn to take the DM's seat I felt like everything had to be perfect, else I was just "the kid." I overprepped, wrote long chunks of purple prose that were awful in retrospect and basically made a real botch of it, therefore becoming, well, "the kid." It's one of those memories that makes me grimace and feel like a real idiot, but it was a serious learning experience.

What's sad is that the gaming friends my own age that I am still in touch with often reminisce about their favorite sessions I had run back in the day. Almost always they're ones where I just had a map and a page of notes or I just did it all seat-of-the-pants at the time.

Michael Curtis said...

I'm the same way. My better stuff was always more off the cuff, but I somehow got this habit of producing more polished stuff.

Now it just looks wrong if I do it another way, even if I know it's better as a skeleton outline.

Tough habit to break, but I'm trying

Vanadorn said...

Room description "box text" is just fine - as long as it's not long.

I only got into the habit of doing it because frankly, I realized some of my descriptions were sounding the same, and heck, I like to write.

As for what's in a room/chamber/whatever - I'll be honest with you, in some cases once you carve out the one line monster stats (I use a VERY 1st edition framework), there is very little after that.

DMing off the cuff is a great thing.

I say you're on the right trail here Mike, BTJM. :)


Sham aka Dave said...

Great post, Mike. In particular I love the scans of your early notes! I wish I had some of my earliest stuff to look back upon.

I did the boxed text thing myself for a long time in the late 80's and early 90's. It was at the culmination of an epic adventure, just before the party was about to reach the pinnacle in what was sure to be a memorable encounter, that I pulled out and started reading to them...over a full page of narrative. Here I had whipped the players into a frenzy, then put the brakes on while trying to display my creative writing skills.

No more! I used to feel it was important for the players to remember the plot and players, else I felt they were missing out. I've come to realize that light plot is fine, and the players really just want to wade into the action and roll some dice more than anything.

I've also hopefully learned from my mistakes. In depth plot is really more for me and my campaign sensibilities than for the players.


Noumenon said...

I can't believe how much your spelling has improved. I didn't think that was possible.

Michael Curtis said...

One of the greater miracles in my life. Either that or an increase in the number of applications that beep, chirp, or get red squiggly underlines when spelling goes amiss...

Anonymous said...

late late late to the party comment:

I have to disagree with you about the idea that making a quasi-professional write-up wastes time.

First of all, we are not writing for an imaginary buyer: we are writing for our future selves. Perhaps the smeared and scribbled notes made for a single fun evening, but years later, it's nearly impossible to decipher them. On the other hand, our polished writing looked good then, looks good now, and can be reused with new groups. I've never been able to reuse my scribbled notes, but my polished notes I have been able to reuse a number of times with several different groups.

At the end of a campaign, I would give away to any player who wanted it my most polished write-ups (for the encounters that worked), and a number of my players went on to reuse them in their own dungeons. The hastily scribbled ones you miss? It would have been mortifying to let my players see them, and even if I did let them see them, none of them would want some old raggedy hand-off.

Second, while spontaneity is important, so is consistency; if the hidden plot twists and character subplots are written down in detail, we don't mess them up. Admittedly, this is only important in dungeons that also tie in to the PCs' subplots or tie in to a mystery.

Finally, the well-crafted dungeon write-up helps us develop valuable writing and visual composition skills while having fun, especially during teens & twenties, and those skills often turn out to be quite useful in our later professional lives.

Over the years, I have worked in visual lay-out and as a professional editor, and I have to credit a lot of my skills from all that time I spent polishing up write-ups I thought no one would ever see.

So give your past self a little credit: if you hadn't been "overwriting" your dungeons, you probably wouldn't have developed the skills to write this fine blog!