Sunday, June 5, 2016

Reflections on 18 months of Dungeons and Dragons

I can honestly say that I thought my days of this sort of diversion were decades in the past. Happily, that is not the case. We are 18 months or so into what could best be described as a leisurely D&D campaign, and it has been a lot of fun. A few random reflections follow.

When preparing to be the Dungeon Master for a campaign for the first time in oh...25 years or more...I thought it wise to do a little research. With the plethora of YouTube videos and other resources available, this was an easy enough thing to do. The results were both a positive and a negative.

I'm old school. Most of my players are. When younger folks speak of the "OSR" or the "old school revolution" in roleplaying games, this is a return to that which I/we never left. When we played back in the late '70s and early '80s, there was only old school. It was the only school, because we were on the leading edge of a whole new thing. Then we didn't play for 25 years or more. Old school to the newer generations of gamers means maps with every location detailed, "boxed text" to be read to players when they enter a certain room or a certain event takes place. It is a somewhat disparaging term in many circles. It was just D&D (or AD&D) back then. It was how it was done. Period. By Gygax himself, and all the others of the original generation. The pioneers. (Despite the fact that some of those early classic and groundbreaking modules are just awful in many ways...but that is a different post altogether).

The kinds of games we always played back in the day are now called "railroad games" where the DM decided what the group was going to do, and the group was essentially along for the ride. Now it is all about "sandbox games", where some background is laid out for the players and the players then decided what they were going to do, having a huge hand in determining the course of the campaign.

With all this buzzing in my head, we began our new campaign in October of 2014. If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things very differently. I think we have ended up OK, and we are still playing after 18 months, which is a great thing. But I can look back and see a few very basic things that I approached one way and would now approach in another.
Fighting gnolls in the Underdark

#1 - Starting Preparation. On this one, new school perhaps wins out over old school. When building a world for our new campaign, I spent too much time sketching out and detailing things that the players have never (and likely will never have) seen. In some ways, I think the extra work that I did has flavored the world despite the fact that it has no direct bearing on our gaming sessions. And I enjoyed doing it, so there is something to be said for that. But it wasn't necessary by any means. Given the ability to re-do, I would approach prep differently than I did for the first 12 months or so of our campaign.

#2 - Railroad versus Sandbox. The answer to this one will differ depending on the group, but for our particular group, and our particular approach to the game sessions, there is a lot to be said for railroads. If you had a group of die hard players totally immersed in the game and the rules, ready to involve themselves in story creation and the guiding of the direction of the campaign, then a sandbox would be great. We don't have this. It's not a criticism of the players by any means, just a simple reality. We have 4 players roughly my age, all successful businessmen in various pursuits. We have two 20-somethings, and a high school student. Knowledge of the rules varies widely. What people want out of the game varies as well. We play every 2-4 weeks on average, so there is a significant time gap between sessions. The players are all engaged and into the sessions, but if there is a categorization to be made between "I'm here to drive the story" and "I'm here to play whatever you've got for me", then we clearly have a group that is more suited to a railroad than a sandbox. Falling into the trap of "I need to be new school" and thus run a sandbox for my players, I tried to plan for that. I spent a lot of time laying out different plot lines, possible story arcs, and creating a bunch of choices for the players. The result, I think it is fair to say, was just to confuse the players. I put enough choices in front of them that they had no idea what to choose. There absolutely have been moments when I could feel the players looking at me like "ok, what do you want us to do?" So given the fact that we play every 2-4 weeks, and that providing too many choices has been perhaps just confusing, I have begun moving back toward railroading play to a certain degree. Preparation for me has been easier, and I think this will provide for better sessions - detail in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, our gang wants to show up, have some snacks and a drink or two, and spend 3 or 4 hours in the company of friends laughing and having a good time. Old school. Which is great.

#3 - World building. If I had it to do over again, I would start smaller and let the campaign itself shape the direction of how I would build the bigger picture. In the old school Gygaxian desire to know all ahead of time, I saddled myself with a world background that a little experience has shown me to be less optimal than I would want if I had it to do over again. Not a big deal; just an observation. Those of us formed in the primordial ooze of the Gygax days still carry the burden of how we were trained to think. I think a little differently now.

Lastly, a note on 5th edition D&D. For our purposes, this edition of the rules is (sort of) perfect. The subject is more fitting for a longer post by itself, but the short version is this: 5th edition is easy, and it works. There are some things about it that don't make much sense to me, some things I have changed, and some things we ignore. But in general, it works. Again, this might be a reflection of our particular group, but we play the game from my version of the character sheet, spell cards, and monster manual entries. We follow the combat rules and magic rules, and pretty much everything else is done by making d20 rolls against skills and abilities. It's easy and fluid. A different group might want more detail in certain areas, but for our group it is terrific. We are rules-lite. We play a recreational/social game, and a Pathfinder level of detail would kill us and the campaign.

But enough rambling for now. We have a game coming up next weekend, and I need to figure out what the Tombs of the Alberneth actually are...

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