Friday, May 19, 2017

On Player Agency, Old School vs. New School and Published Adventures

"Er, thanks, but I think I'd just rather rescue Hekaton."*
*Dungeon map by Tim Hartin at Paratime Design.

The blogger, Raging Owlbear (Marty Walser), wrote two critical comments on a post I wrote a few days ago, Why Do Players Enjoy Being Puppets? I told him I would respond to them in another post. Owlbear has a great blog that I have read with interest and enjoyment. It seems like we might disagree on a few things, which is, of course, fine. This post is simply a response to his comments and questions. It's not about having the last word, or anything like that.

The reason I will largely frame this current post around some of Owlbear's actual comments is not to be snarky or last-wordish, but because I'm too lazy to compose a structure for this post from scratch.

Keep in mind that Owlbear typed his comments (the ones I will be excerpting in this post) quickly on an iPhone, whereas I'm at a computer, sitting back with a cigar and a drink and a thesaurus and all the rest. By the way, I'm basically incapable of writing more than three sentences on an iPhone.

Owlbear ended his second comment with this question:
As I noted, this railroad adventure style has nothing to do with whether you are playing "old school" or "new school". It is an issue specific to adventure design when writing a campaign-length module, regardless of which version of D&D you are playing.
So, stated simply, do you agree or disagree with that assertion?
Let me try to answer that, as well as responding to some of the other comments.

The what-is-old-school vs. what-is-new-school debate is interesting and important to a point. Obviously, once it threatens to come down to mere arbitrary semantics, it gets silly and tedious. But I think it's obscurantist to suggest that it must always do that (I'm not alleging that Owlbear says this.)  

On old school vs. new school, one thing that OSR people often do is to draw a chronological line somewhere, say at edition 3.5 or whatever, to separate the two. But virtually everyone agrees that if the categories are meaningful, then there are "new school" elements before that line, and "old school" elements after.

Indeed, old school people such as I, often argue that the seeds, so to speak, of various new school developments were present from almost the very beginning of D&D (long before any quasi-arbitrary line) and developed gradually from there. So, for example, I would point to Greyhawk (1975) - published barely a year after the three little brown books (1974) - as the origin of such new schooly things as skills and hit point inflation. (Indeed, the thief and thief skills predate Greyhawk.) That probably makes me and those like me sound like reactionaries saying that 2017 problems really stem from the French Revolution or the Enlightenment or whatever. But there it is.

New things don't just suddenly spring up. And it's not silly or contradictory to argue that a new thing might have been present, in embryonic stage, right beside an old thing. It happens.

But note, I (and, I assume most other OSR types) are not condemning Greyhawk or, say, 1e AD&D or 2e AD&D as horrible games or horrible heresies or whatever when compared to the "pure" original edition of D&D (first printing, of course). We're just, among other things, making the, I assume, non-controversial point that historical developments in game design happen gradually and often in an unintended and unforeseen way, unnoticed at the time.

But chronology does matter to some extent, otherwise the words "old" and "new" would have no meaning.

The focus of Raging Owlbear's comments was the question of whether old school or new school adventures were railroady vs. sandboxy, etc. One of the problems with discussing this is that many of the terms seem loaded - Who wants to be railroaded or manipulated as a puppet? Let's all play in a sandbox together, yay! - so let me try to choose terms that are as neutral as possible. How about unplanned vs planned?

Here is an unplanned adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen (1976), the first published (and not by TSR) adventure in D&D history. It consisted of five dungeon levels with a room key detailing monsters and treasure. That was pretty much it. True, there was a very short introduction and back story, but I'm not sure it was that important. The idea was: here is a dungeon, go and explore it. There was no preplanned plot or path, desired or anticipated.

Here is a planned adventure, Storm King's Thunder (2016), and here is an excerpt from A Guide to Storm King's Thunder:
8. Iymrith: The group gets the artifacts and returns to the oracle. They learn that they need a conch. On the way out, Iymrith attacks and Harshnag makes a heroic sacrifice.
9. Find the Conch: In the book, every giant lord has a conch. The heroes will need to go steal a conch from a giant lord. I liked a lot of these areas, so in my version I changed things a little so I can use Svardborg, Ironslag and the Cloud Giant castle in my campaign.
10. Use the Conch: It takes the group to Maelstrom (page 201). There, the heroes hopefully expose Iymrith and get a clue to Hekaton's whereabouts.
11. King Hekaton: The group tracks down Hekaton and saves him!
12. Final Battle: The adventurers team up with Hekaton to take down Iymrith.
If Owlbear wants to argue that one could run Storm King's Thunder in a more open or unplanned way, perhaps by changing some things around, I'm not going to try to refute that. I'm just going by how it is usually presented, and how it seems to have been originally designed and written.

Okay, now let's get into the argument. Here's Owlbear:
You are cherry picking your examples to somehow show that "old school" D&D is better, but it's a false premise.
I assume what Owlbear is partly reacting to is this:
But I think contemporary D&D would be more fun, or at least more fun for many people, if it went back to its original, yes, Gygaxian conception, where player agency was emphasized more - less Storm King's Thunder and more Keep on the Boderlands or In Search of the Unknown.
Well, sure I was cherry-picking. I was contrasting planned vs. unplanned adventures. But Keep and Search (unplanned) happen to be the first Dungeons & Dragons - as opposed to the chronologically later Advanced Dungeons & Dragons many of whose first published adventures were designed as tournament modules - adventures ever separately published by TSR, and Thunder (planned) is one of the most recent. I could have emphasized the chronological point even better by going back further and citing the first non-published, non-separately published or non-TSR adventures: Dave Arneson's Blackmoor, Gary Gygax's Greyhawk , Arneson's "Temple of the Frog" in the Blackmoor supplement (1975) and of course the first Judges Guild published adventures (which all predate the TSR efforts) - City State of the Invincible Overlord (1976), Tegel Manor, Wilderlands of High Fantasy and "Night of the Walking Wet" (1977), among others. All of these were unplanned.

One could also look at the sample dungeons in, say, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures (1974), the "Holmes" version of D&D (1977) or even the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (1979). All of these were unplanned.

And note, this is not about good vs. bad. Most people, even sympathetic OSR people, seem to think that Temple of the Frog is virtually unplayable. And, for better or worse, I'm sure most current players would regard Palace of the Vampire Queen as a sort of crude and childish joke compared to the long and detailed Storm King's Thunder. 
Any long running adventure module is going to have rails because one can't anticipate the actions of the players completely. This was just as true in AD&D as it is today.
I honestly have no idea what this means. Why must you have rails just because you can't anticipate the actions of players (and if you can anticipate them, who needs rails)? Why not just not have rails? Or, in other words, why not just create places for them to explore and then react to that as needed? Why can't you simply have, say, a dungeon with stuff in it?
Designers must write several pre-plotted scenarios for the players to run through because it is impossible to write an open world pre-published adventure.
Well, actually, Wilderlands and many current OSR efforts, such as Rob Conley's The Majestic Wilderlands (2009), are exactly that - "open world" pre-published campaigns, if by "open world" Owlbear means wilderness settings. But, more to the point, there's no reason why "open" (in the sense of unplanned) has any necessary connection to the outdoors. What about just a big dungeon with no preplanned plot?
Look at "Night Below" written for AD&D. It takes characters from 1st to 14th level culminating in a boss fight with aboleths. Are you claiming it somehow gave more control to players than Storm King's Thunder does?
No (or, I assume, no - I haven't actually read Night Below) But, among other things, Night Below was a 2e AD&D module written in 1995, twenty-one years after year zero. It's hardly evidence for the presence of, say, a planning element in chronologically early old school adventures.
Q: If you claim old school D&D gives more player agency, how are series modules like A1 - A4 (Slaver series) or Night Below, or any other longer campaign path written for AD&D any different from something like Storm King's Thunder or Hoard of the Dragon Queen?
In the Slave Lord series in particular, A3 "forces" the DM to capture the PCs because the A4 module starts out with the PCs as captives of the Slave Lords.
In a previous post that Owlbear commented on (and, thus, presumably read), I myself admitted that some of the earliest published adventures had railroady elements:
And some early TSR adventures or sets of adventures, did have their "railroad" elements. After all, you were sort of expected to go from G1 to G2 to G3 of those Giant Modules (though, I would argue that you still had much more freedom within the modules, and that "railroading" in general was not present to anywhere near the extent that it is now).
The last clause covers an important point. I would also say there's a difference between railroading the party into an adventure - going from  Scourge of the Slave Lords A3 to A4, where you must contrive to have the player-characters captured so that they can be thrown into a cave complex - and railroading them once they're there. But there's no question that the adventure path thing, or whatever you want to call it, started early. And, no, I'm not claiming that that, in and of itself is wrong or evil. I greatly enjoyed the Slavelords series.
It's more about a comparison between *any* pre-published scenario versus one that is home brewed... or an adventure module that is short in scope/length versus one that covers a broad swath of class levels (B2 versus Night Below, for example).
No. It's not about published versus home brew. That has nothing to do with it. Published adventures can be, and often are, unplanned. Consider the first D&D adventures previously mentioned, or the contemporary Stonehell Dungeon (2009) by Michael Curtis, Barrowmaze by Greg Gillespie (2012) or Dwimmermount (2014) by James Maliszewki, Alexander Macris, and Tavis Allison. And home brew adventures can be planned (though, they are perhaps less likely to be so because many people don't like dreaming up and writing up all that complicated plot stuff). In terms of adventures that are short/long in scope, the unplanned Stonehell can potentially "take you through" 10th level (the "you" refers to you, the player, as it's likely that many player characters will die). The unplanned vs. planned thing is not about length or scope.
Even aside from all that... Some DMs don't have time to build a large over-arching campaign arc because we have jobs, kids, and precious less free time than we did in high school or college...
Well, I would argue that if a DM has time to wade through 900 pages of 5th edition core book rules (!!!), he probably has time to draw a map and put some monsters and treasure in it. But more importantly and to the point, I'm not against buying pre-made adventures. Indeed, personally, I'm in favor it. I bought Stonehell for the equivalent of a few hours of work at minimum wage, and now I can play it for, literally, years. I think that's a great deal.
So a wide ranging adventure with some sandbox elements to customize like SKT [Storm King's Thunder] is a relatively treat. To criticize these kinds of modules as treating the players like puppets is entirely misdirected.
Fair enough, but I think my analysis was more nuanced than that. I said that a) I sometimes like such adventures, b) they have their place, and c) they still allow a fair amount of room for player agency. I used "puppets" to bluntly frame the general issue. See my original post, especially the discussion of "points" 3 & 4. And I suppose it is true that detailed planned adventures can be a "treat" in that I can't imagine anyone coming up with that sort of thing, in such detail, on their own. That's not a criticism.
No published adventure can give a player 100% agency, no matter how short. Even B2 goes with the assumption that the players will get to the "boss fight" with the cultists.
See above. But also, having a "big boss" at, say, the bottom or end of the dungeon and, thus, anticipating that the players will probably eventually fight him, is completely different from choreographing how they are going to get there. See the excerpt from the Guidebook above.
Your premise is entirely flawed because you seem to connect this to mechanics (specifically when you call out 4th edition) when it has absolutely nothing to do with mechanics or edition and everything to do with the limits of adventure design when trying to provide a long running campaign to DMs in published form.
This brings up a more complex issue that I don't want to spend a lot of time on here. But briefly, when I speak of an edition, I mean at least three things - a) the mechanics, b) the explanations, guidance or philosophy expressed in the text of the rule books and c) the associated products, such as adventures, marketed with it. Among other things, looking at b), 5th edition, which is supposedly a partial return to D&D's roots, the current Dungeon Master's Guide contains many pages of advice on how to create drama and suspense through careful plotting of your adventure etc., etc. (so here's the core book telling you how to home brew a planned scenario). There is nothing like this in the three little brown books, Holmes. Moldvay/Cook (I don't think) or AD&D.
The whole argument just falls flat when you turn it into some kind of OSR vs new school rant, when it has absolutely nothing to do with that.
Well, to summarize, at some point this arguably just becomes silly semantics. But if the terms have any meaning (which I assume Owlbear believes or else he wouldn't be using them), I think it's a commonplace in the OSR blogosphere that one of the things that "old school" means is putting a emphasis on unplanned sandbox or dungeon/megadungeon settings, as opposed to preplanned plots or stories. I just don't think one can deny that - that most OSR blogger people believe it, and partly understand the term in that manner, regardless of whether they "should." And I think if most people use a label, even if arbitrary (which most labels in a sense are), it sort of ceases to be arbitrary, if that makes sense.

But I have also tried to show that this is not simply arbitrary or a misunderstanding or whatever, but well grounded in the actual early history of D&D. Now, obviously, one can be a new school person who likes some old school elements, or an old school person who likes some new school elements, or a mix of both, or just one or the other, or whatever. And/or, if one simply doesn't like any of the labels - perhaps because of annoying associations, etc. - one can just dump them entirely. There's no law against that. But I don't think one can as easily ignore the history. Or rather, one can ignore it, but what's the point of that?.

14 comments:

  1. My comment was so long, I broke the comment form, so I have to split it in two. I should have just written my own post. :)

    As you say, I think the "planned vs. unplanned" (or perhaps "plotted vs. unplotted") is much better language, because it emphasizes the style of adventure design, rather than make some arbitrary distinction between older rule sets and newer rules sets. I think this was one of my biggest issues with the original article. It was attributing a certain adventure design as belonging to one school or the other, but one can certainly run a hex crawl under new rules/mechanics, just as one finds many examples of "planned" adventures under the old rule sets.

    Now, as to whether a particular rule set emphasizes one adventure design style (planned vs. unplanned) over the other is a larger conversation. I don't think OD&D necessarily emphasized the "unplanned" play style, so much as historically, it was one of the first of its kind, and the books were small and limited in scope, so there was little "adventure design" discussion in them. The early DMs were pioneers in new territory, so there wasn't an emphasis on any play style in the rules. The rules were just the rules and didn't go that deeply into the meta of adventure design. People just put dungeons in the wilderness and expected players to go there because that was the premise of the game.

    It was only later that plot was overlaid. If you look at B1 or B2, there is no real plot. PCs go to the dungeon "because it is there". (I don't recall off the top of my head if the B2 cultists have any specific goal other than being cultists and getting some of the monsters to cult along with them).

    PCs don't really have any motivation to explore other than "hey, there might be gold in there!" T1 introduced the idea that there were bandits threatening the roads into Hommlet, but again there is no real threat to the village itself. PCs go to the moat house "because it is there" not because they are made aware of the plot to re-establish the ToEE.

    It was only later modules like N1 Cult of the Reptile God where there is an actual plot to the action. The PCs now actually have a mystery to unwrap and a "save the village!" motivation to risk their lives rather than just "Hey, those caves over there have monsters to kill!"

    I think that may be the more important aspect to the evolution of adventure design. Hex crawls and dungeon crawls don't have a story (although parts of them may have "vignettes" -- mini-plots that only are related to a single encounter area). In general, hex/dungeon crawls are just places to go have encounters. The DM may overlay his own story arc as part of his home brewing, but the publication itself is devoid of a larger plot. Whereas "planned" campaign adventures have a defined story arc.

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  2. This was probably a natural evolution of RPGs as a story telling media because fantasy fans were reading Tolkien, Moorcock, Howard, Leiber... Players wanted to play in grand adventures that culminated in the heroes saving the day against a big bad guy, rather than just explore caves and kill what appear to be somewhat randomly placed monsters.

    Now, I'm not saying that one play style is better than the other. I'm just saying that there are players that wanted a larger plot or a motivation to play the Hero with a capital "H"... Where others just liked the dungeon exploration element and want to beat up orcs for no other reason than "They're orcs!" And the RPG market responded to those that desired a stronger plot by creating the idea of plotted and linked adventures.

    I think that sums up my other main gripe with the prior article is that it is unfair to call those players "puppets" just because they desire some mystery or plot to uncover, as opposed to wandering aimlessly around an encounter area that has no over-arching story. Their motivations as a gamer differ from the gamer that just wants to explore a dungeon and kill the orcs.


    MAJOR TANGENT:
    I like the "Er, thanks, but I think I'd just rather rescue Hekaton." joke. It summarizes a large part of my issue with mega-dungeon design. They are huge, sprawling encounter areas that often have little rhyme or reason. To me, they also feel static because, as a DM, it is nearly impossible to make such a large complex feel like a living, breathing community.

    I mean, there are creatures all over the place, but they almost never interact with one another in any natural way. In a massive underground complex, there would be limited resources, so any one group of apex predators would need to push the others out of the territory (or prey upon the lesser predators). Wilderness hex crawls make a lot more sense because they cover a much more vast area and can have a more realistic ecology.

    I don't know why I was focused on the minutia, but the unrealistic ecology of mega-dungeons broke my suspension of disbelief even as a kid in the 80's.

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    1. Yeah, I thought you'd like that joke. :) Ah, the ecology thing. That brings up a whole other issue . . .

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    2. Ecology... I've written about that:

      http://basicfantasy.org/blog/?p=127

      I think you might like my conclusion...

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  3. Another minor tangent, for those who haven't read Storm King's Thunder, it does have a kind of hex crawl section in Chapter 3. Even though it has a pre-plotted adventure goal, there is a large part of the adventure that is just wandering around the Sword Coast. I wrote a short piece about last month in the event anyone is curious.

    http://ragingowlbear.blogspot.com/2017/04/dnd-5e-hex-crawling-through-storm-kings.html

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  4. Here is what you are missing: The Player Characters are not the only sentient beings in a game world.

    Even a sandbox cannot truly be a sandbox, because in a sandbox the sand sits motionless unless you are actively playing with it.

    And really, it is just a feature of wargame scenario design. Are you clearing space or working against a clock? what are the 'victory conditions'.

    Yes, it is arbitrary. And yes, it has nothing to do with 'old school' versus 'new school' which is a moronic distinction people make to inject meaning into the meaningless.

    Even B2 Keep on the Borderlands, the epitome of the sandbox adventure, as pre-plotted NPC actions and reactions (rudimentary as they are). Yes, there are always 'railings' to keep the players on track no matter how broad the track.

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    1. You brought up good points with sentient NPCs and railings as opposed to railroad tracks, but old versus new school is not a moronic distinction. It's crucial, actually.

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    2. This is not rails. NPCs having motivations, personalities, and plans is not rails.

      Rails is when the adventure lists a sequence of events, and the only way to complete it is to do the events in sequence.

      TV Tropes actually has an excellent discussion of railroading here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Railroading

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  5. I think both Oakes and Marty have great points that are fairly accurate. I also agree that there has nearly always been some form of story element to D&D.
    Either way, great post by both authors!

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  6. Rails are there because the DM wants to tell a story. If the DM doesn't have a story, then he doesn't need rails.

    When the DM is running a homebrew they have the easy option of adjusting their story to character actions, either changing the story, or reacting to the character actions to preserve it.

    A module writer is trying to make a story for the DM to follow. If the DM has to change it, then the module isn't doing them much good. The best the module writer can do is try to anticipate wrinkles and provide guidance to the DM on them.

    Yes, you can have adventures that essentially have no story, or where the story evolves form the action happening in an entirely unplanned way. But at this point you could well be simply running a random dungeon generator and not need a DM. We have video games for that and they do a better job running a game like that than a DM does. Heck, same goes for a truly railroaded game. Computer games have that covered.

    So interaction is pretty essential here for the DM to have a calling and purpose at the table. The art of the DM (one of them) is to be flexible and fluid in their story telling. Ideally there is part planning, and part improvisation happening. I've always found it pretty easy to nudge characters in the directions I want them nudged. And I often plan encounters such that I can just re-arrange elements behind the scenes to make the events happen that I want to see happen and still have them feel natural.

    But I always take some inspiration from what the players are doing and how they interact with the story. If they aren't shaping the story somewhat, then I'm not giving them enough creative space or they are really boring players.

    In some respects, a storyless dungeon, actually doesn't offer all that much player agency. Players choose where to wander and how much to kill and that's it. The only thing they really change is what stuff is dead and how much loot they have. Their actions don't really have any meaning. They have one choice, kill stuff or stop playing. Only with a story and a sense of action and consequence can their choices take on hefty meaning.

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    1. I think that if the only options are wandering and killing, then I think that's a feature of a bad "storyless" dungeon, not a storyless dungeon per se. And, of course, we're talking about "mature" or long-term play - Tim Kask had an interesting time just getting cut up into 1-inch cubes in his first D&D game! A good megadungeon features problem solving of all kinds - not just figuring out weird traps and the like, but also sussing out whether to fight, run or try to make friends, etc. And those options themselves may be based on varying goals that the player-characters can determine for themselves. What I remember most about the first time I ran Stonehell was my wife's insistence on treating the kobolds honorably (she played a good priestess). This added a new and interesting story layer to things. But it's also part of the design of the dungeon. The kobolds sort of run parts of it and are not necessarily hostile. Figuring out what their motivations and goals are - and reacting appropriately - might be one ingredient for success. And of course, there may be different factions among the kobolds...

      Sure, after a while, many players might get bored of a megadungeon, even a good one, and may want to explore the larger world. But it isn't clear why the philosophy of letting them create their own story, if that's what you want, cannot also be applied outside, as well, at least in theory. City State of the Invincible Overlord is in a sense an outdoor plotless megadungeon, but it contains the seeds of a million stories that can organically emerge from the players' actions, or the combination of their actions and random encounters or whatever.

      Vornheim, by Zak S, does the same thing, though in a different way - the city is sort of created as needed, rather than being completely mapped out and keyed from the beginning.

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    2. My adventure "Fortress of the Iron Duke" presents a mystery... the eponymous fortress is surrounded by a green glow that traps those who enter (a one-way force field). At the beginning of the adventure I explain the situation, and give a general rundown of what the big bad will do in various circumstances. The only "railroad" aspect is the one-way force field; once inside, the player characters are free to proceed however they like. It is possible to complete the adventure successfully without learning all the secrets of the adventure; in fact, in playtesting, that's exactly what happened.

      I've always preferred the sort of campaign that does not involve me telling a story. Rather, story is what happens when the players pick up their dice and walk into my world.

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  7. Canned adventures are fast teachers, but they only teach one way. If finding game materials are hard, and all you were able to find is Core Handbooks and that is it, your game is going to be your game. It was slow to progress as you've got to develop your own play-style with no help from anyone, but that play-style is more meaningful.

    Playing under a DM who lives in L.A. is going to be way different than playing a game with someone who lives in Italy or Mexico, where the books are rarer. I think that the steady stream of modules and supplements did more harm to the game than good. It created a standard, a formula that once you learn it, it is a bitch to unlearn it. Sure it is efficient, and practical, but it is also predictable and lazy.

    As a hobbyist, I would love to play "John Smith's" game that he developed himself, over some BTB D&D game. WotC would claim that John's game is generic, however I say that the opposite is true.

    That, I believe, is what sets us apart. It isn't Old or New School, not really, it is about somebody who is doing their own thing vs. somebody who is dong what everybody else is.

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