Tobold's Blog
Thursday, June 21, 2012
Rules and adventures

A session of any pen & paper roleplaying game is mostly influenced by the players and the Dungeon Master. But as these aren't supplied by the company that made the pen & paper roleplaying game, this part can't be subject to reviews. What the game company provides is the rules, and in many cases also the adventure module that is being played. Online Dungeon Master has a post on D&D Next playtesting. It is balanced, and interesting in its own right. But the part I want to talk about is the map of the Caves of Chaos he also provides, because it tells us so much about the official adventure modules of D&D.

I have some regular commenters here which wax lyrically about how great previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons were with respect to roleplaying (/wave CF). I believe them. But I don't believe they played primarily these official adventure modules of which the Cave of Chaos map is such a prime example. And I don't believe their experience was in any way representative of how the average player experienced Dungeons & Dragons. They just had the luck to have a great DM and possibly a great group of players.

It is the DM who gets to decide what adventure is being played, and it is him who decides either to use a premade adventure module, or to invent his own adventure. If he invents his own, or heavily modifies the premade adventures, you can get great roleplaying, fascinating stories, fantastic worlds, and great entertainment. If you played the early D&D adventure modules as written, you get the Caves of Chaos: Pure dungeon crawl maps with short corridors connecting rooms full of monsters, traps, and treasures. That is basically the equivalent of playing Diablo, and has very little to do with great roleplaying. You need a great DM to turn these adventures into something even remotely interesting from a roleplaying point of view.

Having played D&D for over 30 years, I've met some fantastic roleplayers, and great DMs. But unsurprisingly the average DM and average player are, well, average. I've played my fair share of adventures that were just played more or less as written in the module, even if what was written didn't make much sense. I've played with lots of different players, and noticed that the average player is looking at his character sheet when looking for options on what to do. Thus if the only option printed on his character sheet is rolling a basic attack with a nice chance to hit and serious damage, the average player will do exactly that. It is *possible* to come up with great roleplaying in such a situation, aka swinging from a chandelier. But in the D&D adventure module as written, with its 60 combat encounters in a row for the Caves of Chaos, an average DM, and a group of average players, you simply won't see much of that.

This is where I think 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons was a huge step forward for the genre: It improves the game experience immensely for the average player. The kind of player who looks onto his character sheet for inspiration will find a whole lot more of that in 4th edition than in any previous edition, or in D&D Next playtest. And even the worst 4E module (which probably is Keep on Shadowfell) beats the Caves of Chaos hands down in providing an interesting story and roleplaying when played as written. As for the great DM and the great players, well, they probably can make a great game out of any rule system and any adventure.

I do think there is some survivor bias at work here: The people who played with the best DMs are those still playing 30 years later and remembering the old editions of D&D fondly. Many others gave up on D&D years ago, because they had some average DM leading them through a boring dungeon crawl like the Caves of Chaos. It wasn't the rules and the adventures that made previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons great, it was the players and DM. And as I said before, those aren't really good measures for reviewing a rule system.

Pure dungeon crawl maps with short corridors connecting rooms full of monsters, traps, and treasures. That is basically the equivalent of playing Diablo

One of the most fun tabletop 'campaigns' (and I use that term quite loosely) was a D&D3E Diablo-style dungeon crawl. We ran it right after the system's release, so the only rulebooks we had was the basic PHB-DMG-MM triad.

Story: There's a little village in the middle of nowhere. One day, a group of local youths discovered an abandoned tunnel on the outskirts of the village that led to a massive labyrinthine dungeon full of monsters, traps and epic treasure. There were two odd things about the place, however. First, while the monsters were quite aggressive and territorial, they displayed little interest in venturing to the surface world. Second, the layout of the place appeared to change every now and then, as though some powerful chaotic magic was in the works.

Wise elders of the village, upon hearing of this, hired a few traveling bards to spread the word about the dungeon. Soon, bands of adventurers flowed into the village, eager for slaughter and plunder, followed by merchants who recognized an opportunity for profit. Nowadays, the village is a thriving boom town, all thanks to this extreme tourist industry, boasting more magic item pawnshops per capita than even some planar metropolises.


1. Party enters the dungeon.
2. The DM rolls a random dungeon room and its contents (features, traps, monsters, doors, hidden treasure) using level-appropriate tables from DMG.
3. The party and the DM play through the encounter.
4. Repeat step 2.
4a. If the party has attained enough XP to gain a level, they find a staircase leading to the next part of the dungeon in the very next room.
4b. For a small fee (that scales with level), the party can return to the surface to offload their loot, purchase new stuff, sleep and memorize new spells. Resting in the dungeon is not recommended, as it causes frequent attacks by wandering monsters who carry no loot whatsoever.
5. Item crafting feats are banned. The cartel of town merchants guards its monopoly jealously, so it's impossible for the characters to find anyone who'll teach them these feats.
6. If the party manages to reach level 20 without being completely wiped out in process, they win the game.

Since every dungeon room was completely randomized, this occasionally lead to some truly bizarre combinations (Iron Maidens with spikes made of precious gemstones, levitating ogre mages hiding in a chimney, that sort of thing).
The Caves of Chaos came with The Keep on the Borderlands, and that was a module made for the D&D Basic Set - thus it was designed for people brand new to the idea of roleplaying.

The idea would have been for players to be introduced to the Keep, find out about monsters nearby, equip themselves and trek out to the Caves. The DM could supplement the adventure by rifling through the room descriptions and inserting their own reasons for adventuring there.

But yes, inevitably with players and DMs new to roleplaying, the game would degenerate into a hack and slash, loot garnering game.

That being said, I don't think even a hack n slash session involving the Caves of Chaos would have been a bad thing, if it educated the group at that time.
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I do agree that a lot of the old grognards are not only not fans of making the game accessible, they actively detest any attempt at such.

Which seems weird. If anyone is better able to change the rules to suit them, its the grognards. They have DECADES of experience with things like that. New players simply don't have the ability to adjust the game to better suit themselves.

So why are people against things that make it more accessible again?
The people who played with the best DMs are those still playing 30 years later and remembering the old editions of D&D fondly.

You may find this shocking, but I first got into table-top RPGs in 2006, and it wasn't even old-school RPGs, but the 3.5 rules. I lived through the 80s and watched D&D from the sidelines because my parents wouldn't let me get near them.

Only in the last few years, through a lot of searching, have I become a massive fan of the classic game. I want to make this very clear: nostalgia doesn't play a part in why I love old-school gaming. I can say that with an honest face because I never grew up with the game. Everything I've learned about the game, I got from reading blogs, listening to podcasts, reading the novels from Appendix N, studying Gary Gygax, and watching other grognards play it.

I initially came to the old style of gaming because I felt that the modern system seriously lacked something. It wasn't because somebody told me this, nor was it because I "missed" the good old days. It was a serious, negative, gut reaction to the game I was playing.

At first I thought that simply replacing the peripherals would fix it, so I got into Pathfinder. When that didn't make a difference, I went to Castles and Crusades. But that game was really just a stripped down 3rd edition. From there, I went from several other indie systems that, while keeping the core resolution system intact, changed or cut-out other aspects. None of these games satisfied me. I finally realized a few years ago that the main problem with the modern game was the D20 mechanic. Once I unshackled myself from that, I realized how liberating the game could be.

At first it felt unwieldy - and it was. Basic and first edition rules are very hard to "get" without some guidance by those who are experienced in them. Unlike the modern game, where just about anyone can pick up a book and understand what to do, the old game had a certain "doctrine" that needed to be understood to figure it out. It's like picking up a Bible and trying to understand what the "Gospel" is by yourself vs taking your Bible to Sunday School and hearing it from someone with experience in it.

So I started to read tutorials, follow blogs and read stories of play experiences from those who understood it best. After some time I started to realize there was a common doctrinal thread between these different sources and it all started to make sense. It was a "wow!" moment for me, where I finally felt a conduit had opened into GGs mind.

At this point, I don't know how I could ever go back to modern gaming. Once the light-bulb has turned on, I can't see myself turning it back off again. I feel like the modern mechanics have their place - but I don't think they belong in a formal RPG setting. They work well in board game form like the D&D board game series, Fantasy Flight's, Arkham Horror, Runebound or Descent (all of which I enjoy). I can certainly appreciate them there far more, in a structured, by-the-book environment. But in a table-top world (yes, "world", not "game"), I want the shackles to be off.
I think it has something to do with immersion. The more you are 'in game', the easier it is to do stuff not listed on your character sheet. The character sheet kind of disappears. Play with kids and you see what I mean.

Would it be better to try to steer players away from 'average' playing instead? Not by supplying a nice character sheet 'for inspiration' but by 'making the character sheet disappear'.
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