Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, December 09, 2014
 
Gutting a troll

I am not a huge fan of long dungeon crawls in tabletop roleplaying games. A sequence of "open door, kill monsters, loot" does not an interesting story make. You can have some fun moments with things like traps or interesting turns in combat, but the story-line tends to be somewhat simple. I always considered dungeon crawls to be tabletop roleplaying for beginners. In my adventures I keep them short, and intersperse them between more story-rich roleplaying encounters.

That sort of design served me well since we started our 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign. 4th edition works much better with fewer, more epic fights than with lots of small fights. And a sequence of many long fights isn't a good option either. The adventure writers of Wizards of the Coast learned that over the years, and the later 4E adventures they make have exactly that mix of short dungeons and story encounters that works well. Unfortunately that is not true of the early 4E adventures, some of which are considered to be the worst adventure modules in 40 years of D&D history, and contributed much to the bad reputation of 4E.

In two or three sessions the current adventure of my campaign will end, and the idea was to also end the campaign there and start a new one. Then real life intervened: One of my players will not be able to play in the first quarter of next year. And as the start of the next campaign is crucial for the success of that campaign, I don't want to start without him. I offered to fill the gap with the 5th edition Starter Set, but my players weren't much interested in 5E (which isn't available in French). So we decided to play one more adventure of the old campaign. Which means playing at level 11, where the game changes from "heroic" to "paragon" paths, adding some extra rules.

I have the first official paragon adventure from WotC: P1 King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, both in English and French. So I decided to do that as the next adventure, so that I didn't have to start from scratch. But then of course this is one of the early 4E adventures with a long dungeon crawl: The Trollhaunt Warrens of the title have 24 rooms. Which not only risks to be a boring sequence of troll fights, but also would take too long for a "filler" adventure.

Having said that, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens has some interesting bits. The underlying story is usable, and there are a number of handouts and maps I might want to use. So what I am going to do over the Christmas holidays is to create a much shorter adventure using only the good bits of the published module. In a way the 4E encounter-centric design helps there: It is easy enough to reduce the number of rooms in a dungeon, as the game already treats them very much as being separate. I can even have some spare encounters to do or leave out in function of our progress. The Favorites of Selune will live on until April next year or so.

Comments:
A big problem with the early 4E modules was that they were a double-edged blade: it suggested that WotC's designers at the time thought that this was how everyone wanted to play, and everyone who read the modules concluded "this is how 4E must be played." That did not end well, as we all now know.

I remember I started running the first module...Shadowfell Keep?....and after 1 session I ditched it entirely for my own creation when I realized how bad it was going to be.
 
A sequence of "open door, kill monsters, loot" does not an interesting story make.

These proclamations are alway accompanied by a 'never let the PC's die' GM mantra.

Of course there is no story to it when the PC's can't die.
 
These proclamations are alway accompanied by a 'never let the PC's die' GM mantra.

That is simply not true here. I already had two PCs die this year. And a sequence of "open door, monster kills PC, no loot" still isn't an interesting story. The *story* of a game of chess doesn't change in function of whether it is white or black who wins.
 
If that's the case, then why are they going in there? What is their motivation to go in there and risk their lives?

Or is the only motivation involved a player one at the entirely metagame level of 'Tobold expected us to play in this dungeon'.

No wonder that lacks story. The player characters have absolutely no motivation to be in that dungeon. Complete lack of character motivation does tend to shoot down story.

The *story* of a game of chess doesn't change in function of whether it is white or black who wins.

If both sides are so equal, why do you think your idea of story somehow escapes that and one side is more than equal?

Maybe your stories don't change in fucntion in whether it's A or B side that wins?
 
If that's the case, then why are they going in there? What is their motivation to go in there and risk their lives?

What does that change? The Fellowship of the Ring in the Lord of the Rings has a very good story motivation to go into Moria and risk their lives. Yet the whole "dungeon" of Moria is like 3 encounters. Lord of the Rings would be a much worse book if there was a detailed description of 30 fights in Moria. So why would that make a good adventure for D&D to have dungeon with 30 fights? It just doesn't!
 
*sigh* - you've read the lord of the rings like they were zealots.

Read it again, but reading it that at each struggle Frodo might have actually turned back or might have actually just taken the ring for himself.

Read it that the story could have branched that way instead of how it turned out.

That's what it changes. If you feel Frodo could choose nothing else but to put the ring in mount doom...then you never understood the true peril the story entails.

I can't stress it enough - read the story not as if Frodo's choices are set in stone, but as if Frodo could have turned away from the quest or taken the ring for himself at any point - particularly during the arduous ordeals. Yes, the story is more frightening then, because there weren't just threats from outside him to contend with, but threats from within as well. Which is pretty obviously the case given he actually chooses to keep it in the end.

The way you've read it is that of course he's going to do it (ignoring how actually in the end he DOESN'T) and it's just a matter of getting through a big obstacle course to do so. And so you question the thirty room obstacle course as if that's the only significant factor.

In a way Tolkien actually shoots himself in the foot with his breathtaking world - it allows readers to think the book is just a fantasy travelogue because of all the cool stuff and to leave the reader who is inclined to, to simply believe that Frodo's choices are set in stone and he can never turn back during the whole ordeal.

If you don't play characters who's choices are set in stone, it makes a big change, okay? If a PC can suddenly decide to just leave the dungeon (for whatever character reasons they have), it makes a big change!

And generally I find set in stone characters are set in stone for purely metagame reasons - it'd be breaking social contract for a PC to suddenly say "This dungeon isn't worth fighting for and risking my life for! I'm leaving". This means it's not a character choice at all and so it's not story, just adhering to social contract. And no wonder you focus on the 30 rooms at that point, because there is no uncertainty of whether they'd continue with it.

The thing is, perhaps people just want lord of the rings to be safe - they want the comfort of Frodo always being robotically commited to putting the ring in mount doom, so they can feel safe with that.

Or you can read it in an unsafe way - he wasn't 100% reliable. As shown by the ending.

And you could play unsafe as well - the story is whether the characters just give up on the dungeon, regardless of the consequences for anyone else.

THAT is what it changes.

Unless you want to only ever think characters motivations are set in stone!
 
If you feel Frodo could choose nothing else but to put the ring in mount doom...then you never understood the true peril the story entails.

A) I never said anything about Frodo's choices.

B) This is a complete strawman and has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of this post.

The subject of this post is that 30-room dungeons are boring, story-wise. Even a Frodo isn't likely to make an interesting choice if his environment is one orc-filled room after another. Characters make interesting choices if they are put into interesting environments.

it allows readers to think the book is just a fantasy travelogue

Frodo's travel corresponds rather well to the monomyth, the idea that the heroe's journey *is* the one essential story. But what makes the voyage interesting is meeting NPCs like Gollum or Galadriel, not him fighting orcs.

To make a good tabletop roleplaying adventure you need to create something similar: A voyage filled with interesting characters that lead the players to make interesting choices. If you only offer them a generic dungeon with lots of rooms full of monsters, then their choices get reduced to "left door or right door?". The meta-choice of "let's leave" corresponds to a choice of not playing, and is rarely taken.
 
Even a Frodo isn't likely to make an interesting choice if his environment is one orc-filled room after another.

And your assumption is right there in the quote, showing my post isn't a strawman.

Because you assume if he is put to a thirty room dungeon, he WILL go through every single one of the rooms.

That's what my post was about - how you just think he will definately go through every single room. And so only the qualities of the room matter to you (referenced this twice in my post).

The subject of this post is that 30-room dungeons are boring, story-wise

A big part of the boredom is your conviction that if 30 rooms are set in front of the PC, they have to go through 30 rooms.

You can't hear me saying it because you assume the solution is just in the area you think it is - ie, you think the solution lies in sufficiently fancy rooms.

Maybe the solution doesn't lie in the area you thought it did.
 
Have you ever actually played a printed adventure module? Are you even playing any tabletop RPG at all?

I don't assume players will go through every room of a dungeon just because those rooms are there. I assume they will go through at least as many rooms of the dungeon as necessary to find whatever they are looking for. And I assume the dungeon is designed in a way that forces the players to go through most of the rooms to do so.

As I already said, yes, the players have the choice of not continuing their adventure. "Hey, let's not close that portal to the Shadowfell, but rather get out of here before the demon invasion from that portal begins." But your assumption that people would do that is what makes me wonder if you ever actually play. The decision to not play breaks the social contract of tabletop RPGs, and is a rather theoretical, if not terminal one.
 
Taking us right back to what I'd already said

"Or is the only motivation involved a player one at the entirely metagame level of 'Tobold expected us to play in this dungeon'."

Ie, their only motivation is a social contract one. I'd pegged this as the issue back then.

It's only 'a decision to not play' if you have either prepped no material outside the dungeon or lack improvisational methods for making material on the fly outside the dungeon.

But you've played for enough years to know this. Outside prep and improv isn't some baffling revelation to you - you're perfectly aware of it. So why are you hitting 'have you ever even played!?' territory when it's clear that that's what is outside the dungeon?

It's because it's not just that it'd (in a no outside prep/no improv prep game) break the social contract - it's that you don't want them to leave the dungeon.

And I'm telling you that's what kills story. It's not "open door, kill monsters, loot". It's when someone else other than the player controls where the PC goes.

Side note: "As I already said, yes, the players have the choice of not continuing their adventure.". Please don't say they have that choice when you then say it'd be social contract breaking to make that choice. If it'd break social contract, then they don't have that choice. I have no idea why gamers both say something is allowed, but then they'd get really upset if you do it - I presume it's because as early teens roleplayers we had not much idea how to enforce a social contract.
 
Ie, their only motivation is a social contract one. I'd pegged this as the issue back then.

Why do people who sat down to play Monopoly not more often throw the board in the air in mid game and start playing something improvised with the little houses and hotels?

Yes, part of the answer is the social contract. But that isn't the "only motivation". The players came to play Monopoly, and they consider Monopoly to be more fun than the improvised game. While an improvised game of D&D resembles prepared D&D a bit more than the Monopoly case, the same answer is fundamentally true: The players have some interest in the story, they don't WANT to just abandon it, and they consider a purely improvised game to be less fun.

And you make it appear as if that was some strange Tobold house rule. I would challenge you on that. The internet is full of actual play podcasts and YouTube video of people playing D&D. Show me *one* where the players abandon the dungeon and the story in the middle, and go to play something improvised instead! As you still haven't answered my question of whether you are actually playing, I must still assume that the game you describe only exists in your head and nobody actually plays like that.
 
I don't know how you'd know they are there for 'the' story, when to leave it would be breaking social contract? Maybe they only follow the story because the social contract requires them to follow the story?

I'm really baffled at your apparently genuine notion I don't play, let alone the way I say I do. I didn't plan for them to awaken the slumbering demon by tempting the robot unicorn into firing it's nanite beams into the demons mountain, turning it into a cyber demon. Granted it was Rifts and not D&D, but yeah, it transfers across readily enough I assure you there was no module - written by me or anyone else. And that was just one incident - for gods sake, why did they have to smash the dimensional teleporter rather than shut it down? They went through essentially two dimensions before they got home (recently) because of that. Back to iron cave, the giant robot town I made up mid play way back which now they had to hunt down because it was on the run from the awakened cyber demon and an earth warlock had helped hide it, underground and...I could go on and on.

My experience is the players are there for the story - the story being a result of their choices rather than some pre-written, set in stone dead thing. Sans having to do a module because of social contract, the players will soon enough choose actions which are outside a module.

Because they are playing in a world, not inside a boardgame.

I totally agree that the vast majority of gamers seem to do fixed, follow the pre-written story. I did it at the start of my gaming carerr. Heck, even Ron Edwards did so - now look up some of his play online for unscripted play (you might find more written accounts - but those are as valid as a video). Granted it wont be an example of scripted play then going to improvised - it'll all be unscripted/improvised.

It's when the players choices change the world (not in the way you decided they would change it, but just how they change it) that their choices become rather exciting to watch.

Granted when their choice to leave is blocked by social contract, it obviously lacks that excitement.
 
I don't know why you are so obsessed with the social contract, and why you believe that your group doesn't have one. Social contracts aren't written down, and the very fact that you sit down around a table and play a game following certain rules means that you have one. Why should my social contract be more limiting than yours? Even Improv Theater has a social contract, and it would be considered extremely rude to completely ignore the elements provided by the other actors.

I do not believe for a second that your campaign started with "You are in an endless void, please go and create something". You did prepare something too. Just because you choose to call it differently doesn't actually make your approach any different from mine. You start out with a world/adventure/module/story/NPCs which you present to the players, and then the story develops as a function of what the players decide *AND* also as a function of what the NPCs in the world do.

And I don't see how any of this has anything to do with my post, which is about 30-room dungeons being not a good story.
 
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