Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
D&D from the players’ perspective

As I mentioned yesterday, I had a lot of opportunities to play Dungeons & Dragons as a player over the last 6 months. That reminded me of something I already knew, but one tends to forget as a DM: The world you create for your players looks very different from their perspective than it does from yours. There are two main obstacles that prevent the players’ world to be the same as the DM’s world: Exposition and relevance. So let’s talk about these for a bit.

Exposition in story-telling is all the background information of the world, the stuff behind the action. That tends to be a perennial problem in pen & paper role-playing games. The caricature is of the DM with the thick binder full of background information on the world he created, most of which the players never get to see. Imagine the whole series of Game of Thrones seen only through the eyes of Samwell Tarly; he gets to see some major parts of the action, but is still completely unaware of 90% of what the TV viewer sees.

Relevance is what keeps the DM from doing more exposition. Stuff that happens in the game only by DM narrative, without the players having any chance to influence what is going on, is not relevant to them. The DM telling stuff about the world for an hour without the players getting a word or a dice roll in is boring. That the evil necromancer terrorizing the village is just doing that to ultimately raise his loved one from the dead is only relevant to the players if it ends up being part of the action, e.g. them coming upon the necromancer just as he raises his love as a flesh golem, or if they can somehow use the knowledge of the necromancer’s motivation to negotiate with him.

To be completely honest, story in role-playing game is often overrated. Most of the “main stories” we play through, whether from published modules or player-created, don’t even rise to the quality of pulp fiction novels. There are a lot of generic characters in a generic fantasy setting. The stories we remember are not the ones carefully prepared by the DM, but the ones about the time our buddy Joe wanted to sneak past the dragon and rolled a critical failure, getting half of the party roasted. It is the interactive part of the story-telling that makes the game interesting. The background story just needs to be good enough to get us started trying to do something.

With that in mind, it follows that the role of the DM is mostly to set the scene with enough elements in it that the players can interact with. Preferably not all the interaction is in the form of combat, even if that obviously is one frequent option. But personally I’d rather have fewer, but tactically more challenging fights than long series of standard battles. This is a bit my current problem with Princes of the Apocalypse, which has a lot of dungeon rooms filled with nothing more interesting than five ogres. While the keeps guarding the entrances of the Temple of Elemental Evil still had some variety and interesting decisions to them, the underground dungeon is a bit of a slog as written. I think that when our current DM has finished running his dungeon and we get back to the Temple, I’ll condense it into a “reader’s digest” version of just the best bits.


We seem to roughly share interests (even if opinions differ). I used to follow your blog for WoW updates, now I am after D&D-themed posts.

But back to the topic, right now I am doing extreme version of what you are planning to do. Using PoA elemental cults and some locations, I made whole plot for elemental evil campaign not planning to touch any of the dungeons. Backstory is good, fluff is good, but compared to Strahd it doesn't look that good (especially because neither I nor my players are fond of dungeon crawling).

Now, story. I read and listened to many arguments about story vs osr games and whatnot. And both sides have good points. But in the end, its all in the group chemistry and avoiding extremes. Throwing players in eight dungeons made of largely random encounters sounds plausible for computer game, I don't really see need for human interaction in that. Equally, horrible railroad with player agency reduced to near-0 is ok for something like Uncharted, but won't lure me to attend x number of game sessions. I won't be original at all, but as far as D&D goes, Curse of Strahd probably hits sweet spot, having sandboxy feel and opportunities to drive players through the story (or allow players to make parts of the story). And, getting back to beginning of your post, offering insight into ongoing story is pretty doable for DM, its much harder to convey the world through game means - thats why official settings have upper hand over homebrews.
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