Game Mastery

So that’s why hardcore roleplayers don’t think D&D is serious business.

by on Apr.23, 2009, under dnd, writing

I’ve always defended D&D as a platform for roleplaying.  Sure it focuses on combat by providing an abundance of interesting combat rules, but that doesn’t prevent you from roleplaying in it.  I’ve run entire d20 sessions without even looking at dice.  A character is a character and as long as a system supports a setting appropriate for your character, you can roleplay in that system, right?

Well, I’m not going to talk about that right now.  I’ve been playing 4th edition lately and will be running a pre-written 4th ed module this weekend.  I wasn’t able to get through a full reading of the mod without finally understanding why people take exception to using D&D for role play.  This post is an airing of grievances (in full Festivus spirit) I had while reading through a single D&D adventure.  I’ll bitch and moan and maybe, if we’re lucky, figure out a thing or two about writing good RP by examining the bad.

Okay, so the module is actually part of Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) which is an ongoing nationwide campaign.  By using standardized adventure modules and registered GMs you end up with transportable characters who can be interchanged between groups and GMs.  Supposedly some really interesting things go down when you have hundreds of these characters playing at conventions, but I haven’t seen any of that.  I mostly just play with some guys who take turns running these mods because they want to play 4th ed but are too busy GMing other games.

Also, a little backstory.  I’d briefly played Living Greyhawk back in 3rd edition.  Never really got into it because the adventures were sterile and immutable.  They were designed to withstand any set of adventurers in a consistent manner.  At the time it pissed me off.  Now I’ve come to accept that for what is essentially a pen and paper MMO, it has to work that way.  For LFR I rolled up a simplistic character who won’t be disatisfied if the mark he leaves on the world is that of a generic defender with minor leader capabilities.  It’s hack and slash, but I can have fun with that.  Moving on.

As I may have mentioned here I’ve been wanting to try to run a published adventure as an experiment.  I like writing plot and focus all my energy on that, often at the expense of my NPCs.  I figure that if the plot is set in stone I’ll get bored and entertain myself by hamming up the NPCs.  Not sure if it’ll work, but it’s worth a try.  I’ve also been curious about how other people write adventures.  Maybe there are some game prep techniques I could pick up to improve my game.

I gave up on prep techniques as soon as I printed the mod.  It weighed in at 37 pages.  For a 3-4 hour game.  Damn.  I average a page an hour in my games.  Half that if there’s a lot of prewritten text.  But 10 pages an hour?  Inefficient.  I guess there’s some value in having nice looking maps and player handouts, but still.

Alright so the adventure is called The Black Knight of Arabel, or something to that effect (don’t worry I won’t post any useful spoilers).  I played in it once before, but didn’t really get what was going on because we rushed through it (I was the only one at the table who hadn’t played the mod already with another character).  Reading through the mod, I’m still totally unsure about what happened.   Nowhere does it summarize the story.  There’s a paragraph about what events you assume happened in other mods in order for this one to take place, but that’s all.  The story has to be inferred from the mod itself.  While I’m tempted to be okay with that (after all the players have to infer the story from the mod) I can’t justify it.  The GM has to know what story he’s conveying in order to convey it.  I was pleased to see that the mod leaves some gaps to fill in, but it doesn’t provide any background to use as filler when gluing those gaps together.  It’s binary.  You’re either reading a scripted sequence or pulling fluff out of thin air.  No middle ground.  I’d like to see something with a background story and little snippets of game play which can be layered around the story as needed.

I was actually pleased with how the encounters were laid out.  They were very well organized and consistent with the 4e books.  I could probably run one of these encounters cold without pre-reading the mod and without consulting rule books.  This is a job well done, but still a strike against D&D in the eyes of those who say it’s just hack and slash.

By far the worst part of the mod is the social skill challenge.  I like skill challenges in general and the social ones have been really fun to play, but reading through this one is terrible.  Thankfully it’s optional (the story branches a little and the authors felt it necessary to enumerate everything in every branch, which epxlains why it’s 37 pages long) and the other possible skill challenge (a chase scene through the woods) is halfway decent.  The social challenge is overly wordy without being the least bit informative.  It defines a good number of locations without giving a reason for the players to go there.  It names NPCs and even gives them text to read, but their job description is the extent of character you get out of them.  Worst of all, when the social challenge does threaten to do something interesting, it bails out before it gets there, leaving players and GM dangling.  My favorite example of this is on an intimidate check.  If you roll high enough an NPC “confesses to everything and tells you his real name is Morton.”  And then it ends.  WTF is that?  What did he confess?  I looked ahead in the mod and found some pretty special stuff he could confess to, but letting him do that will pretty much just end the adventure.  Do I tell them he confesses to everything and then move on to another part of the skill challenge?  It’s just dumb.

I decided to go for a little comedy to mock this part of the mod and take the “confession to everything” way too literally.  He’ll confess blindly to anything the PCs can think of.  Consultation with a certain ranger indicates that he’ll even confess to murdering some white chick so he could frame OJ Simpson.

The final scene in the mod works the same way.   Big social confrontation with no context or reason.  But I’ve hit the OJ joke so I’m done complaining.  Now it’s time to try and fix things.

As I already mentioned, the big problem is a lack of story context.  A summary for the GM would be great.  I’m not suggesting making the mod longer (paper is expensive) but reorganizing it.  Bits and pieces of story are sprinkled throughout the mod.  Just put those together at the beginning.  Gamers are smart people, we can hold a story in headspace.  If we forget a bit of story, we should have it all in one place for reference – it’ll be much easier to find that way than scattered throughout the adventure.  And if we have that story in our heads, the rest of the mod will make a bit more sense too.

I’d also streamline the social challenge.  This also needed a lot of work.  NPCs don’t need to be full blown characters, but they need some roleplaying suggestions.  A picture would be wonderful.  So would personality keywords.  What I’d really like to see though would be hints.

As it is skill challenges list a DC, two possible skills, and what you gain/lose on success/failure.  The mod would be a lot tighter with just a little bit of glue here, so I propose social hints.  These are pieces of information that can be gained through roleplaying and will lead to another NPC with a skill challenge.  No rolls are made for these, just talking (hey look, something to encourage speaking in a D&D game!).  Basically they’d read “Hint (booze/drink): recommends his buddy Gorak’s bar for the best beer in town.”  This sort of thing will keep the social challenge moving (especially when the players are running out of ideas) AND it will make the world appear more realistic as NPCs have relationships to each other.  You can even include minor social challenge NPCs who only have hints but no official skill challenge.   Did I mention it would encourage PCs to chat with NPCs more?

Alright, that’s enough for now.  I’ll probably post again when the mod has been run.  It’s a little unfair to rant against it when I haven’t even seen how it works yet.  I still reserve the right to rewrite the social section myself though.

– addendum –

Yes, I think hints are a little heavy handed and probably not necessary in your own home written games.   But for a premade game that should be able to run for any group of PCs I think they’ll be helpful without adding too much to the page count.

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