Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A Note on Illusionism


What’s Illusionism, and why should you care while running a game?

Illusionism is a method of setting building or adventure design that raises the question of player choice or agency. It’s the practice of Game Masters or designers of changing encounters or events in game that will follow a specific path or create a specific scenario. The term itself is sometimes used pejoratively - but like most other things in a hobby or fandom that get people angry it’s a nuanced issue with multiple perspectives. Obviously GM actions that force specific results or events can be a problem for players when the players feel that their choices will lead inevitably to the same results. This is somewhat like the tendency of players in of computer RPGs to skip through cutscenes and dialogue because they expect that decisions about plot developments or the motivations and plans of their characters are pre-scripted or will inevitably lead to the same result.

In a tabletop game roleplaying the plans and motivations of both player characters and NPCs or factions in the setting are an area that tabletop can manage extremely well with a GM there to make the setting react reasonably to unexpected plans, shifts in allegiance or changes in player goals. In a video game the next adventure or scene has already been scripted and designed and cannot be modified should the player decide they want to do something else or approach things in an unexpected way, while a tabletop Game Master can easily change things to adapt a scenario to unexpected player decisions. While such improvisational adaptations might share elements of illusionism, they generally result in players feeling more connected to the setting and events then if the GM had simply run events as initially expected.
Ogre art from the 1st Edition Monster Manual

So essentially the danger with illusionism is that players will feel their actions and desires are meaningless, advancing a plot that the GM has already designed even when they want to take the game in another direction, and the advantage of it is that it can create more dramatic or responsive reactions to player decisions and character plans, goals and personalities. In dungeon crawls the advantages of illusionism rarely outweigh the risks - because the nature of the setting already contains a great many logical, diegetic (that is resulting from the story itself) restrictions on player choice. Many classic types of Illusionism are also more dangerous for the GM to use in a dungeon crawl because the sorts of decisions, especially decisions about character movement and encounters, that it tends to effect are ones that are already a focus of player attention in a dungeon crawl. For players to accept the GM violating the assumed nature of the setting: time, physics and other constants (for example putting the same mundane creature in multiple places at the same time to force a player encounter) it's best that these interventions are secret, unknown and relatively unimportant.

An alternative way of viewing illusionism is as a sort of inverse of ‘simulationism’ - the impulse to make your game as realistic as possible - entirely controlled by realistically modeled rules and chance. In the perfect (and entirely impossible) simulationist game the GM wouldn’t make any decisions, only consult rules and tables of chance and likelihood for even the most mundane events. As much as illusionism’s bad reputation is earned when GM’s use it excessively or clumsily to negate player decisions, simulationism deserves an equally bad reputation when ‘realism’ and the inescapable tyranny of chance are used in ways that make game boring or lead to frustratingly pointless character deaths (such as a GM who claims that characters have a 1 in 100 chance of slipping on tavern stairs or choking to death on a beer).

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Exploration Play


THE DUNGEON IS FIRST A QUESTION OF SPACE

The first leg that the classic Dungeon Crawl stands on is “Exploration Play” - a description that points to (or obfuscates depending on how understandable the following is) the Locus of Play in the Dungeon Crawl. Characters in Dungeon Crawl scenarios or games are first explorers - adventurers even - not combatants, designed with abilities and ‘builds’ maximized for destroying specific potential opponents. Nor are characters in the Dungeon Crawl personalities first - they don’t require meaningful information about their pasts or goals (not to say these aren’t potentially fun elements) to play and the Dungeon Crawl isn’t designed with story growth in mind. Exploration play may include a good amount of role play, but it doesn’t focus on emotional character development in the sense of the examination and resolution of character flaws, traumas or desires. It also doesn’t ask the players to deeply inhabit their characters as representatives of a genre - a Dwarf fighter won’t succeed or fail in a dungeon crawl based on how well the player performs aspects of ‘Dwarfiness’ or ‘Fighter’. None of these other types of play are bad, but they aren’t at the core of the Dungeon Crawl experience. Instead the game is found in the characters and players direct interactions with the location itself.

From the 1st Edition Player's Handbook
A dungeon or location exists to be explored - to have it’s passages mapped, its puzzles solved, secrets revealed and inhabitants outwitted or pacified. The trick is understanding what that all implies and to make these exploratory activities both mechanically significant and meaningful for the players. Exploration is facilitated by more than a dungeon with a large number of keyed areas, or many encounters that will take multiple sessions to investigate or overcome. To make exploration meaningful the act of moving through dungeon locations needs to create a sense of ‘risk’ - tension and anticipation. In a scene or encounter based adventure tension builds as the narrative rises towards confrontation and the story advances towards climax - much like a novel or film. In a location based game the progress of the party in exploring the location creates tension without expected end point or climax: unraveling secrets, delving deeper, discovering its dangers and its potential rewards while steadily exhausting their resources.

Another way to say this is that there is no overarching plot to provide tension, and no predetermined, expected or rules generated climax that will become the moment of greatest risk and reward. I don’t want to suggest that you can’t have plot or set piece encounters in your game and still incorporate dungeon crawls - but if one is running plotted large-scale narratives it may be best to think as the crawl itself as a single scene or plot point. Nor is this to suggest that characters’ motivations can’t be tied to a location - a character may want to explore a location for personal reasons, and the GM can, even should, still accommodate that. A character’s backstory can be worked into a dungeon - a missing brother may have joined a faction within the dungeon or a lost heirloom might have been stolen away to the dungeon’s fastness - but this is an afterthought. Characters’ individual stories can advanced while exploring the dungeon, character background might even be a useful hook to initially encourage exploration, but personal character stories shouldn’t be the focus - both because this fails to offer incentives for other characters and because the Dungeon Crawl’s Design Principles make scene based revelations and narrative structure difficult to include without forcing the spatial complexity of the dungeon into a linear mold, scattering clues and scenes haphazardly or engaging in sleight of hand that degrades player trust. I don’t want to suggest that a good GM can’t pack a lot of story into a location or that a good location based adventure doesn’t lend itself to creating stories, and I’ll get try to address some ideas about how this works when I discuss the importance of factions in a a Dungeon Crawl, but the Design Principles behind exploration aren’t related to any kind of extrinsic story or narrative.

Monday, December 17, 2018

What is a Dungeon Crawl?

The blinding blackness of the underworld is held back only by the sputtering light of your candles, lanterns and torches - dim points in a vast ocean of darkness. Dank stone walls close in the and the weight of earth and stone above grinds down on a maze of corridors, galleries, vaults, tombs, caverns and ancient fortresses, the domain of long extinct subterranean peoples - the reasons for the underworlds existence are unclear and unknown. Yet the darkness draws fools and fortune hunters in with promises of wealth and adventure, only to devour them - the dead's only monuments melted candle stubs and mummified corpses in rusted mail scattered along dusty endless halls.

The Rakshasa - 1977, Dave Trampier
AD&D Monster Manual
This is the stereotypical setting for fantasy table-top games, the titular ‘dungeon’. The ‘dungeon’ is an utterly bizarre conceit though, a setting that has few if any corollaries in the real world, an expansive multi-level maze of tunnels and rooms beneath the earth, filled with treasures and home to monsters. Despite the absurdity, there are plenty of ways to justify and visualize this classic setting in the context of fantasy world building. Planning and running the exploration of such dungeon, or at least running it well, is a bit more than a few evocative descriptions of stone corridors and caverns teeming with bats. It’s understanding of a play style that’s fallen out of favor or been set aside in recent years and editions, and using mechanics and adventure design principles to carry it through. The earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons were designed with a vast underground maze drawn out on graph paper as the playing field, and the largest part of the setting - this is not true of more modern editions and adventures, including 5th Edition, are written with the idea of the adventure as a series of encounters which together create a story.

This difference in design is the first important element in running a dungeoncrawl. A dungeon is spatial environment, not a narrative one. There is little or no predetermined, expected or designed story. The characters are less complex at the beginning then contemporary players may be used to and their motivations and personal backgrounds aren’t intended to be the source of future narrative. There are ways of talking about this and how to play older editions that depend on phrases like: “Rulings not Rules” and “Heroic, not Superheroic” (both from Matt Finch’s excellent Quick Primer for Old School Games) but here I don’t want to talk about how to understand an older system, I want to talk about how to use a contemporary system to create the play style and game feel of an older style of adventure. Old School primers such as Finch’s may offer some ideas on ‘design principles’ and ‘game ethos’ (Ben Milton & Steve Lumpkin’s Principa Apocrypha is similarly interesting source available online), but without the ruleset to support them, cultural notes and a set of aspirational maxims will only go so far. This blog will try to note the distinctions between more contemporary play styles as well as suggesting a set of rule changes to 5th edition that may better support “Classic Dungeon Crawl”.

WHAT IS A DUNGEON CRAWL?

Of course, it’s a setting, adventure or part of an adventure where the characters spend the majority of the time exploring some kind of underground maze of rooms: a cave system, a buried city and hidden tomb or whatever else doesn’t stretch suspension of disbelief too far. Yet the dungeon need not be underground and it might not be a maze, and abandoned city is another traditional location. Others have written about the nature of the dungeon more eloquently than me, but a definition of the dungeon that focuses on its mechanical elements and design principles should be more useful to the GM then one that looks to its metaphysical purpose.

Interestingly, the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons has nothing to say about the existence or nature of the dungeon - though Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (booklet 3 of the 1974 edition) immediately launches into its peculiarities and specific rules regarding exploration, lighting and design. The 'why' of the dungeon is assumed, even in the first edition of the Dungeon Master's Guide, where Gygax is far more interested in how one might play the game in non-dungeon environments: the wilderness, under the sea, on alternate planes of existence and spends pages describing these environments, their fictional relationship and underpinnings, as well as the rules that make them mechanically different from the default environment of the dungeon.

This assumption of the dungeon as default setting is still such an inevitability by the time of the publication of the Dungeon Master's Guide, four years later, that the beginning of it's section on "THE ADVENTURE", only after an admonishment to draw a map, is:


"Naturally, the initial adventuring in the campaign will be those in the small community and nearby underground maze."

- Dungeon Master's Guide (First Edition - 1979) Gary Gygax, pg. 47.

The 'Dungeon' is such a central concept to classic Dungeons & Dragons, yet there is very little about how to run a game in one. Even the sections that seek to aid new GMs in running dungeon adventures are, much like those in the 1974 edition, expositions of specific mechanics such as underground movement and searching speed. Rather then offer a theory of dungeons or how adventures in them work (something that the Guide does with wilderness and other types of adventure) Gygax provides the partially keyed map of a dungeon level beneath an old abbey along with examples of play. There are some other hints in the Appendices, including a large section on random dungeon generation, but the assumption of underground mazes as the chief location for adventure is absolute.

Little has improved, and perhaps the knowledge that underpinned Gygax’s implacable assurance has withered. The 5th Edition Dungeon Masters Guide, while it's discussion of how to place Location Based adventures within the game is limited, does a better job of encouraging their construction, and notes a key conceit of the Dungeon Crawl that make it distinct.

"Within a dungeon, adventurers are constrained by walls and doors around them, but in the wilderness,adventurers can travel in almost any direction they please. Therein lies the key difference between dungeon and wilderness: it's much easier to predict where the adventuring party might go in the dungeon because the options are limited- less so in the wilderness."

Where the 5th edition fails is that it doesn’t seem to understand what this limitation means. It doesn’t point out how the spatial limits of the dungeon encourage emergent narrative and exploration play. 5e’s advice on designing locations is limited to using them as backdrops for challenges, encounters and external narrative that predict player choice. The Guide seems reluctant to embrace the dungeon crawl, despite a note that "Many of the greatest D&D adventures of all time are location-based. Creating a location-based adventure can be broken down into a number of steps."

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia driven Netflix series Stranger Things. I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in the 80’s - in basements on rainy days, or around kitchen tables when someone’s parents were out of town. I started playing it again in 2011 around my own kitchen table with fellow 30ish professional types out of a sense of nostalgia and then online with other fans, many of whom were also rediscovering the game after years of absence. We never really thought to play the new editions, just pulled a book (or in my case the 1979 white box set) from parents’ basements or the back of closets and started up again where we left off as teenagers.

Larry Elmore's cover from the 1983 Basic D&D Set
Only after exposure to the online classic gaming community and younger players who were more familiar with the 3rd and 4th editions of the game, World of Darkness, Pathfinder or other more modern games did I really realize how much Dungeons & Dragons had changed with its newer editions, and how much after the release of the 5th edition there was a resurgence of interest in tabletop roleplaying games. Still, I’ve been a bit shocked looking at the new adventures produced by Wizards of the Coast, the differences from the way that I learned to play and like to play are jarring. I’m don’t want to claim that all modern adventure design is bad, ineffective or leads to games that aren’t fun, but it’s often not where my personal interests lie, and there’s plenty of other people who are happy to offer advice on how to design, run and play modern style adventures. For me it’s enough to talk about how and why classic style games are designed and work the way they do and how to design, run and play them - both with older systems or mechanics, but also ideally with more current editions of the game.

To understand old games and the way they were played the first odd thing to grasp is a bit of information about the 1980’s - there was no meaningful internet. The Dungeons & Dragons community was limited to the players in one’s immediate community with a little input from the rules and modules, perusal of hobby magazines like Dragon and perhaps attendance at local conventions. For most players and GM’s running early editions of the game there was no one to teach them how to play or how the rules worked except for someone else who’d learned by word of mouth - maybe someone at a hobby shop, or an older more experienced player. Every old Dungeon’s & Dragon’s game is therefore using a set of house rules. The concept of Rules as Written wasn’t especially important and debates over rule inconsistencies were argued out a 1,000 times by 1,000’s of different groups of players with almost no chance of definitive clarification and no authority to appeal to. This atomization combined with the smaller amount of gaming material, lower amount of fantasy cultural references, and less refined rule sets made for a community whose first principle is creativity.

In that spirit, it’s important to understand that it’s your game, players and Game Master together. Any changes you make at your table will be better than what a distant author provides. Better for your game, because you are the people most intimately involved with it and will play for your own enjoyment. Be bold, change things and remember: whatever you do it will be an improvement on what’s provided here or in your rule books.


Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...