Tobold's Blog
Sunday, July 20, 2014
 
Core-shell model of Dungeons & Dragons

I have a very simple model of games in general: They usually have one core activity that is frequently repeated, and then some shell around it that gives structure to the sequence of core activities. In role-playing games, both on paper and on the computer, the core activity is usually combat. The shell is then the virtual world with its lore and quests turning an otherwise dreary sequence of combats into something more. But the same model also applies to very different games, like World of Tanks, where there is also a combat core activity, and a shell around it about researching, buying, and equipping tanks.

Now how much emphasis is on the core part and how much emphasis is on the shell part varies from game to game. Some pen & paper role-players will happily play only the shell part of the game for several sessions, doing mostly role-playing with very little combat. The game I like to call D&D Tactics, but which WotC calls D&D 4th edition is more towards the other extreme, being very focused on the core combat tactical game and not all that helpful with the shell part. That is very evident in the official adventures, where you usually get a booklet with a series of encounters, and need to put in quite some work yourself to fill the part between encounters.

For example my current 4E campaign is near the end of the Madness at Gardmore Abbey boxed adventure. A great adventure with a great story, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. You get two booklets full of encounters, but the encounters aren't all that memorable. The fun is in exploring the sandbox that is the abbey freely and piecing together the puzzle of what happened to the abbey, and make decisions about what to do about it. But that requires the DM to piece together that puzzle himself first, and the story is distributed over the other two booklets, plus told in sidebars or descriptive text of the various encounters. And because the story isn't linear, you also need to piece together the various quests and story parts with the map locations. I think I did a good job of that for my campaign, but that involved many hours of preparation, even making lists of quests, secrets, and locations, and flow-charts of the quests and the locations. While I would recommend Madness at Gardmore Abbey for experienced DMs, I can also easily see how an inexperienced DM could make a complete mess out of this. Just by themselves the series of encounters makes no sense, and the adventure would suffer a lot if one only plays the core game of combat without the shell game of slowly revealing what is going on.

Having said that, this isn't a unique flaw of 4th edition. I have played through all editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and I have encountered my fair share of bad DMs. Early editions had lots of adventures that consisted only of dungeons with room after room full of monsters and traps, with little more in the way of a story than there being an evil villain at the end. Even the 5th edition starter set begins with a story that reads "You are hired as caravan guards. The caravan gets ambushed.", which must be one of the most generic stories in the history of role-playing games. 5th edition makes a better job than previous editions in encouraging role-playing by having things like flaws and bonds in the character generation system. But in the end none of the D&D rule books ever did a good job of teaching people how to role-play. Rule books are more concentrated on the core game, the story shell remains to the players and the DM to create.

I am currently preparing the next adventure in my campaign, and the challenge I have set for myself there is to make an adventure in which the shell of the story carries itself even with less of the core combat elements at time. If all goes well there should be sessions with no combat at all. And some fights are optional and can be replaced by role-playing if the players so choose. The difficulty in that is to keep the game interesting to all the players, because many players quite like combat, rolling dice, and using their combat powers. Combat is turn-based, and everybody gets his turn to shine. Role-playing is less structured, which can lead to the most eager players to dominate, while others aren't so engaged. But this will be the last adventure of this campaign, and the next campaign is far more story-centric. So I'd better start demonstrating that ultimately the shell part of the game is in the hands of the DM, and can work regardless what edition is being played.

Comments:
Wow! Good luck with it, Tobold - that sounds very ambitious.

Is this in response to player request? or is it to sustain your interest? or a blend of both?

My son & I are really getting into the Pathfinder adventure path we're currently on. He's about to turn 14 so, naturally he's totally bloodthirsty! Perfect for a backstabbing rogue.
 
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