Friday, December 5, 2008

With New Old Eyes

With the upper levels of Ol’ Nameless finished, I’ve had some time to look back upon the design process and reflect upon the choices that I’ve made during that time. I encountered more than a few forks in the road while fleshing out those levels, and I’d like to elaborate on the lessons that I either learned or remembered while undertaking this project. Some of the decisions that I had to make were purely reflexive, brought about by rote instinct honed by almost three decades of gaming. Others were not so easily solved, requiring a bit of thought and the need to jettison some of the bad habits that I’ve acquired through exposure to more modern games and genres. As a result of both instances, I now find myself more in tune with my classic gaming roots than I was at the start of my journey. I’m again looking upon D&D with eyes free from the scales of modern rationalism, which have served as an encumbrance for so long.

There are a few lessons that I’d like to share with you as a result of this new-found freedom. For many of you, they might seem trite or old-hat, having either never allowed yourselves to be burdened by the limitations of rational dungeon constructions, or having shed your own shackles at an earlier time than my own satori. But for those of you still suffering within the confines of the rational, they may serve as a dim light to guide you back to realm of old-school fun.

#1: “Stop worrying and love the dungeon” – Take a deep breath and repeat the preceding mantra. Keep doing so until you feel your design chakras align and the clang of your sundered chains of realistic simulation resound on the dungeon flagstones. All too often, we forget that this hobby is, first and foremost, a recreational activity meant to engender fun and excitement. It’s not supposed to be a scientific exercise to create a rational and plausible world simulation, although there are those of us who seek to achieve that exact goal. If you are the type of person who gets enjoyment out of such an exercise, then, by all means, continue to do what you do. However, if you’re the type of person who finds themselves bogged down by such matters as ecology, realistic construction feats, inter-societal co-existence, and plausible economic systems, then relax, close your eyes and repeat the above. The dungeon is always going to be funky, quirky, illogical and implausible. You can control how funky, quirky, illogical and implausible, of course, but never feel the need to completely eradicate all of these charms from the dungeon. If your players truly wanted a realistic subterranean locale to explore, they’d have taken up spelunking, not fantasy role-playing.

#2: “Balance Realism and Fun, but when in doubt, Fun always trumps Realism” – Even with Lesson #1 in mind there’s something to be said about a balance between the realistic and the fantastical. Completely giving into the urge to make every room and encounter as whimsical, nonsensical event leads to frustration on the part of the players. A few of the old-school dungeons got the well-deserved reputations of being nothing more that lethal funhouses, with most of the fun going to the referee as the dungeon ate characters at an alarming rate. If you want to keep your players both interested and on their toes, a balance between the two must be achieved. Not every door should require a complex puzzle or riddle to by-pass, nor every chamber filled with traps, tricks, and special events. On the other hand, when left with the decision of including yet another 30’ x 30’ room or adding something a bit more memorable for the party to run across occurs, always lean toward the fantastic if the overall balance would not suffer from its inclusion.

#3: “The Fantastic, when cranked up to eleven, somehow equals the Realistic” – I’m not quite sure why this one works, but it does. Some players, despite the fact that they’re participating in a game where magic is common, flaming lizards rule the sky, and they regularly encounter creatures from myth and legend, absolutely maintain that certain things are “not realistic” and will refuse to cease to point out what you “got wrong” in designing the dungeon. In many cases, the only way to react to this type of closed-mindedness is to raise the ante to unbelievable levels. Somehow, if things get weird enough, they become acceptable. The player who steadfastly believes that the Tyrannosaurus Rex you’ve placed on Level Three is completely ridiculous will suddenly switch gears when informed that the thunder lizard is actually composed completely out of magical chocolate, or was grown in a giant test-tube by the Alchemist Gremlins. You know it’s a regular old Tyrannosaurus Rex with stats right out of the Monster Manual, as do I, but he thinks that it now “all makes sense” and plays along without complaint.

#4: “Never be afraid to say ‘no’ to the dice, but also never be afraid to say ‘yes’” – Many times in the design process, the referee needs to go to the dice for results. From random stocking, to generating treasure, to determining magical items, the charts and the dice tell us what might be found within. At these times, the dice may give us strange results, indicating that something is lurking down there that just doesn’t jive with our preconceived ideas about the dungeon. Never feel the need to blindly accept what the dice tell you. If something just doesn’t feel right, either reroll or choose for yourself. At the same time, don’t be so hasty to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If the dice indicate that something you hadn’t considered is present, pause for a moment and see if you can make this work to your favor. Amongst the many listed traits of a good referee, one often hears things such as “makes combat exciting”, “creates interesting NPCs”, or “presents a very immersive world”. What is seldom mentioned is “creatively interprets unforeseen results”. This is mostly because it happens behind the screen and is not readily apparent to the players. Despite the lack of inclusion of this trait, I still feel it’s easily in the top five skills a good referee needs. I pride myself in the ability to take something that’s completely out of sync with whatever master plan I might have and weave it into the canvas without the ragged edges being too obvious.

#5: “Plant many seeds, but only tend the ones that grow”Ol’ Nameless is set up to be a classic megadungeon complex. As a result, the reasons for the adventurers to enter are simple: fortune and glory. They are not entering its dim halls in search of the kidnapped princess of Klemph or in search of the Knick-knack of the Grand Wazoo, so they have no set goal to achieve from the start. Instead, I hope that they might latch onto one or more of the adventure seeds that I’ve carefully scattered amongst the rooms and encounters. With this in mind, I’m completely aware of the fact that they might not show interest in any or all of the “suggested adventures” made available to them. As such, I’m not painstakingly placing all the needed clues and MacGuffins associated with those quests just yet. To spend too much time developing a quest string that they might never as much as nibble at is to waste time and effort. The introduction to those quests have been planned and fleshed out, as well as the first clue or item required to complete them, but that is all. If the adventurers start to take the bait, then I’ll start adding more details. With eight more levels and at least sixteen more sub-levels to go, I’ve got more than enough time and space to fill in the blanks.

As I’ve said above, these five lessons may seem obvious to some, but for me they were a mix of things long forgotten and newly acquired wisdom, mostly thanks to putting a lot of my fellow blognards’ suggestions and observations into practice. As with every experience, I had my share of missteps and false starts, but in the end I’m very pleased with the results I’ve achieved. The mistakes that I made were each an education in itself, allowing me to learn what not to do in the future. I’ll be taking a look at those mistakes in the near future. Hopefully, by outlining where I went wrong, someone else might avoid the same loss of time and effort that I suffered through. Until then, stop worrying, love your dungeon and have a great weekend.


The Grand Wazoo said...

Nice notes. I had learned the hard way about old #5. I now run rather fluid campains that only have enough planning for a night or two at a time and a few traveling encounters to fill in the night for a party that just doesnt want to play the planned stuff.

Michael Curtis said...

I don't think there exists a party that does "the planned stuff."

I'm used to running things loose, but somewhere along the line I got it into my thick head that I must be prepared for anything - with written backup. I'm returning more to the style I used to run things, but with slightly more planning than I had in, say my college days. Cuts down on the fact the players know I'm stumped when I have to take a quick bathroom break to figure out what comes next. ;-)

Vanadorn said...

Just wait till you see the T-Rex! Oh, just you all wait! HAHAHHAHAHA

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

Nice stuff! This one is definitely a keeper.

I've had to unlearn one that you didn't exactly mention, but it's a definite holdover from playing/programming too many CRPGs... "OD&D is NOT a railroad system!"

Kevin Mac said...

This is awesome, Mike. I just left a post at Grognardia about art in the old books having magic swords with big bulgy eyes...and you're using one of those pics! Sweet.

I'm old school 1st edition fo' sure. Right now I have some folk in my campaign who are more used to editions and attitudes that came out after the days of the classic dungeon crawl. In the first few games I'm doing some easy overland/town and village stuff (well, gotta get them up a few levels) leading up to a classic dungeon crawl in a couple of games. I'm getting scared - I'm worried they might think the dungeon is silly or too cheesy. They just haven't played in those types of games. I've returned to gaming after many years off, and I'm so glad to see so many old school dudes out there to keep me inspired, and proud of being "Grognard" ( a term I only recently learned of). Keep it up.

Michael Curtis said...

@Chgowiz: Luckily, I managed to avoid falling under the need to railroad the players when it comes to D&D. I'm guilty of doing it in more modern games, but those were mostly story driven game systems to begin with. D&D (as well as Gamma World) will always remain "track free" for me. I'll always try to roll with the players' punches. Keeps me on my toes, which is something that I enjoy about D&D.

Michael Curtis said...

@Brunomac: I think you can go a long way towards getting your players to accept whatever old-school fun you might have in store for them if you give them a little warning before dropping it into their laps. You could do it either "in game" by having them learn something about the bizaare nature of the dungeon that they're about to crawl into through legends, sages, rumors, etc. Or you could just do it out of game and say, "Listen. This one might seem a little out there, but just go with it. If you don't have fun with it, I won't ever through something like this at you again." That way they might be more willing to take the ride, knowing that it might be a one time deal. If you're lucky, they'll really love it and you get to do it again.

On an unrelated note, I see your broadcasting from Venice Beach. I used to live on San Juan Ave. down in the "Ghost Town" section of Venice back in the early 90s. Good times. Broke off my ass, but good times.