Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Introducing a World

Hi, folks! My current Monday night game is based on a much beloved dark fantasy setting, and for years I’ve thought about how to do it justice in a D&D campaign. I finally started it, and after several quests it’s been going well, though I feel like something was missing. It could be better, but I just didn’t know how. So I started reading online D&D blogs and stumbled across some truly genius articles about how the game is written and played. The first of those articles was about player agency at Hack & Slash. It was there I realized almost all of my games were railroads with elements of illusionism. I didn’t like that, and devoted my quest designing time to learning more. Soon I had found my way to the Alexandrian, and after immersing myself in those articles realized I didn't have to reinvent the wheel. There was already a better way. If I wanted a better game all I have to do is put that theory into practice. This blog is about my journey doing just that.

The next series of posts is going to be about restructuring my current campaign from a railroad to a sandbox, where player choice is more meaningful than ever. I’ll be starting with creating a hexcrawl and following the Alexandrian’s example. Take note though, hexcrawl here will be a bit of a misnomer since the map I’m using has squares. I guess that makes this a Square-crawl.

I guess I'm trying to say that while my game is 5th edition, what makes D&D truly great no matter the edition are the underlying concepts of OSR, or the Old School Renaissance for those who haven't encountered it before. While OD&D can provide plenty of freedom, I see no reason why it needs to be anchored to 0E (the first published incarnation of D&D). The current edition was designed for balance and, in my opinion, with an eye towards players of all editions.

For today let me tell you about the road so far, and the irons already in the fire. Like I'd mentioned, there was this wonderful dark fantasy setting, called Fall from Heaven, and I had always wanted to create a memorable campaign within it. I find the world to have incredible depth. Frankly, it's the most interesting fantasy world I've ever come across, and I wanted to share it with others. With the release of 5e I set out to make this dream a reality.

From past experiences of introducing people to settings they'd never heard of I had learned something important: no one cares. Harsh, but true. I think brutal honesty is better than lying to myself. In the case of introducing my gaming group to this setting I needed to be aware that the players want to play D&D. They don't give a damn about why one god turned evil and rebelled, or how a great king in the pursuit of love made a deal with another evil god affecting all of history. They won't care about the fusion of celtic-inspired gods and Judeo-Christian influences, nor the eastern ideas of duality permeating the different spheres of magic. So if the players don't care, then how do I get them invested in the campaign? Simple, give them a reason to care.

During character creation, there was a back and forth with each player about their character concepts, and how to ground it in the Fall from Heaven setting. In the FfH forums on civfanatics there was an old Player’s Guide made by one of the mod’s team members, which I updated, edited, and added to for my campaign. It was a lengthy document, touching on the lore of each major civilization coming to over 50 pages of material. There was tons of lore at my players disposal for character creation. Did I hope they would read entries relevant to their characters? Yes. Did I expect it? Definitely not. Back to my philosophy: give them a reason to care.

There were a few tricks I used going about this. Those trinkets you see at the end of Ch. 5 in the PHB? Each and every one of those the players rolled up is tied to a major world secret. This trick I learned from Ray Winninger’s series on Dungeoncraft (I’ll post the rules of dungeoncraft at the end). He has some really great stuff on campaign building. Back to trinkets: bringing these items to the players attention during character creation was the beginning. All I had to do was present each player with the mysterious circumstances of how they acquired the item by adding a little to their own backstories (or providing one where there was none), and making sure to present the trinket as both valuable and with dramatic circumstances.

Each quest so far I have shined the spotlight on a trinket, granting the players opportunities to find out more about them. This slowly ingratiates the PCs into the details of the setting as the mysteries unravel.

Another trick I used at character creation was requiring each player to choose a nation as part of their background. That one didn’t ground all of them in the world as much as I’d hoped, but as time goes on some are taking an interest in where their characters call home.

All of this explanation of my motives has a purpose. Just as I tied elements of character creation to the setting - and later using quests as snapshots of the world’s depth - the square crawl is going to do the same. Squares aren’t going to merely be stocked with stuff. All content has to accomplish the following: 1) Does it show the uniqueness of the campaign world? 2) Does the content provide a satisfying story for the players and myself?

Yet I’ve learned that story is a slippery slope to railroading. If I were to replace the word ‘story’ with ‘satisfaction’ in that criterion, it might help lead me away from railroading. I still feel a need to provide a satisfying story, but can this be done without taking away player agency? I think it can. Let’s start with a definition of satisfaction. With what I’ve learned from Hack’n’Slash and the Alexandrian, I define player satisfaction as knowing their choices matter, and seeing the results of those choices. For myself, what provides me satisfaction is when at the end of a story the players have a “whoa” moment.

In a quest last month I revealed a villain to be a player’s son, and it didn’t come as a rehash of “Luke, I am your father.” I pulled it off in a big way and the players all had a collective “whoa.” The reveal came with a minimum of foreshadowing using only clues dropped at the beginning of that quest. The villain was introduced a month earlier as a seemingly random encounter (it was during my railroading phase). Knowing what I know now there were many ways it could have been delivered better, despite my success.

In this definition of ‘satisfaction’ the players need to establish agency, and I need to follow the second rule of dungeoncraft by providing secrets (an improved version of ‘story’) for them to discover, in addition to the rest of the rules (like the incredibly important fourth rule: Always challenge both the Players and their Characters). This means a new set of criteria is in order: 1) Does the content provide an interesting choice giving the players agency? 2) Am I following the rules of dungeoncraft? 3) Does it show the uniqueness of the campaign world? I’ll be keeping that last one, since Fall from Heaven is the primary reason for this campaign.

At this point you might be wondering what my fascination is with the Fall from Heaven setting. There’s tons of great stories and interesting lore, plus a great Civ4 mod with several modmods to boot. Check it out! I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

The mod that started it all: Fall from Heaven 2
Where you can find stories and such in this wonderful setting: FfH Lore Forum

Part of the inspiration for this blog came from a mentor of mine, Fritz, in addition to many excellent posts at Hack & Slash and The Alexandrian. Specifically these were on the differences of railroading vs. sandbox play. Seriously, if either of those terms sound foreign to you in the context of a tabletop rpg go check out those sites. They changed the way I looked at gamemastering, and they’ll do the same for you.

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First Rule of Dungeoncraft:
Never force yourself to create more than you must.

Second Rule of Dungeoncraft:
Whenever you design a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.

Third Rule of Dungeoncraft:
Whenever you have no idea what the probability of success should be for a particular situation, consider it 50%.

Fourth Rule of Dungeoncraft:
Always challenge both the players and their characters.

Fifth Rule of Dungeoncraft:
Once a roll has been made and you have moved on, don’t change the past in order to correct a mistake.


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