Wherein I debrief 5e

edited October 2018 in Actual Play
I recently ran 5e for a group of people I’d never played games with before, many of whom were new to RPGs or had only played in Adventurer’s League before. (I’ve DMed 5e before, most notably right after it came out, using the published “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” adventure. That game ended in a TPK, and was kinda fun, but I don’t think anyone was particularly enthusiastic about the game. The following is not about that game, but I think the outcome of play was essentially the same I detail below).


What was I hoping to get out of D&D in this instance? I think I just wanted a sort of uncritical “fun” to emerge, how it seems to happen for people like Matt Colville — I like the widgets that D&D players get to fiddle about using their characters, and I like the fantasy milieu it presents; in particular, in Eberron, which was the setting I ran my game in. I was exhausted with “meaningful” games about serious subjects, which get a lot of play in my area. I was exhausted with trying to keep up with the “new” in game design, and having the conversation be design-focused rather than play-focused. I wanted to have fun fantasy stories, and D&D was booming, and it seemed fun to just meet an entirely new group of people (i.e., people I hadn’t played games with before, yes, but also people who sort of came to D&D through Critical Role and greater nerd culture; most of whom had never heard of even Apocalypse World or any games other than D&D).

I didn’t want to railroad my players; neither illusionism nor participationism are interesting or fun for me. I wanted to “play to find out what happens” in fifth edition, but it turns out that is extremely difficult to do in 5e, due to the nature of DM prep and the lack of player priority in the system. The players certainly never said “I want to experience your story, Hans,” and they also seemed totally fine with making whatever decision their characters “would” make, to hell with the drama of the current scene, or whatever. But at the end of the day, I had carrots (because I had monsters and story hooks prepped, because how else do you run D&D?), and, at the end of the day, they knew that for play to work, someone would have to eat the carrots.

This was fine, as far as it goes, but it never quite felt like...playing a game. It didn’t feel like they were “playing through the DM’s story,” or like we were “playing to find out what happens [to the characters]”, it simply felt like I was presenting scenarios, the players were responding to them in the expected way, and at the end not much interesting had taken place, because I wasn’t and didn’t want to create a story to present to the players, but as players of the game they didn’t have player-priority tools to move the game in any particular direction beyond the bounds of what their characters’ abilities offered them within the scenario. I could either present a story (which I didn’t want to do), or I could leave it up to play and have emergent story. Whereas OSR-style D&D allows interesting emergent play to happen because of the challenge-based nature of play (i.e., the reward system), 5e has no real space for emergent play. Consider that the base rules for XP (kill monsters), is almost entirely done away with in nearly every WotC-published 5e adventure. They love Milestone experience, which is “whenever the DM decides you level, you level.”

Anyway, I had some idea, from my previous experience running the Hoard of the Dragon Queen game, what I wanted to get out of 5e’s mechanics. I wanted to run a game that forced the players to make interesting and difficult decisions, about three different things: 1) resources, 2) tactics, 3) the situation at hand, i.e., what NPCs are doing and asking of the characters and what pressure monsters and their violence are putting on the characters.

To that end, I modified the rest system, using ideas taken from 13th Age. The way I modified it was to declare that Short Rests and Long Rests were decoupled entirely from in-fiction time or actions. Characters earned the benefits of a Short Rest after every two encounters. After every six encounters, characters earned the benefits of a Long Rest. I was hoping to solve the problem, among others, of the Five Minute Adventuring Day, and I did. However, there was never any real sense that, even with this system, the players had to make interesting and difficult decisions in combat. Perhaps this modification could be designed to better make this a reality (i.e., more playtesting and tweaking of exactly how many encounters earn exactly what kind of respite), or perhaps this sort of play will just never be able to manifest within the system of 5e. Also, after about ten sessions, we abandoned my modification at the request of the players. They had agreed to it up-front, but after playing with it a while they disliked it. They wanted the “realism” of rest to work.

So, basically, I think 5e works well in a Participationist mode, and in no other. I was hoping for interesting emergent story from the freewheeling nature of task-resolution-oriented play, but I didn’t see that happen and I don’t see how it can. This feels like lessons that were learned decades ago on the Forge, but hey, I never played much D&D till now, and I certainly never gave long-term DMing in the traditional style a shot until now.
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Comments

  • I like your proposed hack. In my mind, the biggest problem is that pacing is based on GM fiat. I think that can contribute to its viability as a show (like critical role, etc) but it makes it totally unappealing for me to GM, because I end up feeling responsible for how fun the game is.
  • Why not change the experience rules (xp for treasure or xp for goals) and run a sandbox game?
  • This is kind of funny/interesting – this summer I played in an Eberron 5e game where the DM didn’t like the RAW rest system, and replaced it with a modified version of the 13th Age non-diagetic rest system. If I’m recalling correctly, we did 1st & 2nd encounters = 1st short rest, 3rd & 4th encounters = 2nd short rest, 5th encounter = long rest. And then the whole thing reset.

    I have to be honest – I didn’t care for it! And it’s specifically because it quashed the only area where 5e really excels at facilitating emergent play, which is the in-game rest. In the groups that I run with, we use the in-world rests to play out scenes and conversations between characters. We dissect what happened previously, flesh out personalities and relationships, plan what to do next, and generally ignore all the dice in favor of straight improv RP. And then when we jump back into the action, we can react to things according to our characters’ personalities and relationships. So even when events are pre-planned, there’s this narrative connective tissue that goes beyond the specific challenge at hand.

    Obviously this isn’t what you were going for in the game you describe – getting an emergent story out of players making tactical decisions and responding to challenges, and allowing that and the game rules to build the narrative. I have to agree with you that 5e is just not a good system for emergent gameplay. You have to have either set up a massive sandbox to enable real player choice, or you have to temporarily ignore the game mechanics to create spaces for meaning between challenges. Otherwise, you’re just shuttling players from encounter to encounter where they (especially if they’re new) will never make the interesting decision when they could make the expected one.
  • I ran 30 or so two-hour sessions of a megadungeon campaign with dozens of different players coming and going, and I didn't railroad anyone, and we had a lot of fun. I used XP for monsters + XP for gold spent. I used a similar rest system to 13th Age to disincentivize the Five Minute Adventuring Day, and it worked well.

    Can you tell us more about what you actually DID in the game? What was the adventure?

    This seems telling:

    it simply felt like I was presenting scenarios, the players were responding to them in the expected way

    The question is why that wasn't satisfying.

    they also seemed totally fine with making whatever decision their characters “would” make, to hell with the drama of the current scene, or whatever

    Or this. This is Right to Dream play, no? Is it possible you just don't want or don't understand RtD play and D&D 5e does that pretty well and all of your training and experience push against it?
  • edited October 2018
    This is interesting. I haven't played a TON of new-school D&D, but I've seen many of the same dynamics at work in the games I've participated in.

    Perhaps the one counter-example is Adam's game (the same Adam_Dray, just above!):

    In that game there was a well-defined sandbox, which worked to present players with choices. However, in the micro-scale, it meant that for most players and most sessions (correct me if I'm wrong, Adam!) were all about tactical decisions. You show up to play, and there's already a certain "delve" or adventure in progress.

    Perhaps one player has decided to explore the Caves of XYZ tonight, so that's what's "on the menu". Everyone else who shows up tags along and does their best to face the challenges you all meet together. The GM is operating from a prepared dungeon, so the GM's side of the equation is basically like running a module: there's no "story" and no "balanced encounters" and it's simply disarming traps and exploring and fighting monsters and deciding where to go.

    You show up and you make tactical decisions (which door to open, when to retreat, what spell to cast), which are fun because they're meaningful.

    5th Edition seems to do OK in pure "sandbox exploration" mode, although I don't think it's ideal for that at all. (I prefer OSR-style mechanics, for a variety of reasons. A HUGE one is the length and complexity involved in making characters, which works against any kind of high-lethality playstyle, in my opinion - I wouldn't want to deal with that at my table.) I can't speak to how well that works at higher levels, however.

    However, the more story-oriented games I've seen (basically, anything outside the dungeon, taking into account characters' backstories, personalities, trying to create something that feels like a fantasy novel, good guys and bad guys, and so forth) all suffered from exactly what Hans is describing. The combination of detailed character creation, the amount of work involved in preparing "encounters", the XP system, and the parts of the system which are emphasized by D&D's rules lead to a fairly predictable style of play.

    For example, consider that the combination of "XP for monsters" and the instruction for the GM to present 'balanced encounters' means that, in most D&D games, the GM presenting any kind of monster/armed opposition ALWAYS means the PCs will choose to fight. That's why the game becomes rather repetitive: GM introduces a threat, the PCs fight it (and usually win, because of encounter-balancing). Rinse and repeat.

    The main problem becomes handling the apparent level of challenge by negotiating how often the party rests. For that, you need either a very carefully-managed fictional premise (e.g. an adventure through an area where resting is hard - e.g. wandering monsters - and/or a strict source of time pressure within which you have to complete the adventure) or to accept that it's largely in the GM's hands (as Hans found). Often this isn't even because the GM is trying to control things, but because the players have so little ability to understand the stakes in play or to affect them - eventually, all you can do as a player is say, "Ok, I guess we rest now," and the GM is then awkwardly left to decide what happens and whether this means they've failed the adventure or whether she should increase the difficulty of the next encounter, or just let them go ahead and "win" easily. Ultimately, the GM will decide these things based on some combination of what's easiest for them prep-wise and what's most dramatically interesting (which means the GM is, effectively, controlling the story, to a large extent).

    So, then, gauging how often to rest is the remaining variable (or potential stumbling point) for each group.

    Adam's solution is brilliant, in my opinion: he has resting "erase" or counter some of the benefits of gaining XP, so that choosing to rest is something you always want to balance against your HP total (or other resources lost) and your desire to level up and gain abilities. I think this is fantastic, because it makes every hit point lost matter (since rests are costly in terms of advancement), and every healing spell used matter, which is, as far as I can tell, the point of new-school D&D, and what makes it run as intended. If I ever run new-school D&D, I will definitely borrow that little bit of rules technology!
  • An alternative view to my own post above:
    Adam_Dray said:


    Or this. This is Right to Dream play, no? Is it possible you just don't want or don't understand RtD play and D&D 5e does that pretty well and all of your training and experience push against it?

    Or, maybe it wasn't functional Right to Dream play, but a group using the tools of "in-fiction causality" to move from event to event without any clear sense of why or how they were doing so?

    I went through a period of really aiming at Right to Dream (or Threefold Simulationist) play about 10-15 years ago, and we had some really fun and long-spanning campaigns. (I know this is jargon, which is discouraged here, but hopefully the following description clarifies what I mean:)

    The players would "play their characters" and I would "play the world" and adjudicate events and the actions of NPCs.

    However, I always found, in the end, that me "taking the hands off the wheel" as the GM didn't work. If I played purely as an impartial referee, the game would lose steam really fast. (Characters that are played "realistically" tend to look for stability and safety more than anyone in the adventure media or dramatic media we tend to enjoy, and a "world" which similarly operates along "simulationist" principles doesn't help us find the "fun" in play. In practice, then, the players start looking around for bits of content which allow them to find some challenge or some action, and the GM starts presenting those, just as Hans describes: you set out some carrots, and the players eat those carrots, because what else is there to do?)

    Either the game became rather stagnant, or I, as GM, had to constantly introduce some exciting action. Occasionally the players would, instead, by making their character irrational and desperate or by going into conflict against each other.

    In practice, over time I could see that our best and favourite sessions where ones where the GM pushed harder and introduced drama and action, giving the PCs something to react to. The more closely we hewed to our desired procedures for play, the less fun we had. That's why I ultimately abandoned this style - it worked against itself.

    In this view, then, it has nothing to do with D&D; it's just what playing in this style feels like. (In theory terms, this kind of Right to Dream play either a) doesn't exist at all, or b) requires all parties to be focused on a particular creative premise which reaches beyond simply accurately portraying characters and a world - for instance, recreating the tropes of a particular type of media or very intentionally exploring a specific situation, with laser-like focus.)

    I'm not sure which is or was Hans's experience!
  • edited October 2018
    These responses about Adam's game from @Adam_Dray and @Paul_T sound great. It sounds like that group found constraints that allowed for a lot more meaningful player choices in how the game is paced. I do think there are systems that better support the sandbox-within-a-dungeon, but it makes me think I shouldn't have a knee-jerk reaction if I'm invited into a 5E session.
  • D&D also takes some time to warm up. It's a campaign game. Sure, you can have miraculous and awesome one-shots, but typically you're going to need some time to figure out the characters, jive with the setting, and figure out what the story is.

    I have been disappointed with most of the canned adventures for 5e from Wizards, with the exception of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, which I've only read, but is the most brilliant adventure module ever written.

    I'm curious to hear more from Hans about the adventure he ran.
  • Adam_Dray said:

    Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, which I've only read, but is the most brilliant adventure module ever written.

    How serious are you, sir?!?

  • Super serious.
  • Very interesting!
  • I just got Dragon Heresy today and am thinking about trying to run 5e again, Hans.

    When I've thought in the past about giving 5e another go, I've thought about hacking the rest system so it was interesting to read your thoughts on this aspect. I'll need to dig out my 13th Age to recall how its resting works.

    On that note, I'll be starting a B/X campaign next year locally. It will have wandering monsters and won't be at all "balanced." You'd be welcome to join ongoing or occasionally if that would be of interest to you. :)
  • edited October 2018
    Part 1 (my response was too long)

    Man, am I happy with the engagement in this topic. I miss talking about play, and I almost always think my play comes out better for it, so doing this stuff again is great.
    Thanuir said:

    Why not change the experience rules (xp for treasure or xp for goals) and run a sandbox game?

    Because if I wanted to run a sandbox game, I’d use B/X or Lamentations or some other OSR implementation. I don’t think 5e is well-suited for (low-med-prep) sandbox. I was looking at the rules, seeing what I liked, and trying to get the most mileage out of that, with one big tweak (the Rest stuff).
    Adam_Dray said:



    Can you tell us more about what you actually DID in the game? What was the adventure?

    Sure! And thanks for asking. Talking about specifics is definitely what will help me get to the heart of the matter of my 5e play, but I don’t always know where to start or how to do that, so your direction is helpful.

    Eberron is set after a fantasy Hundred Years’ War. It’s now a Fantasy Cold War. One of the Five Nations, Karrnath, unbeknownst to the general populace of any of the Five Nations that make up the bulk of the setting, has a vampire as its king. He’s Kaius III, but actually he’s Kauis I, who disappeared some time ago. He’s impersonating his grandson. This is all setting canon, at this point.

    How I started the campaign was to say (without telling the players anything about the nature of Kaius III), that all PCs have a connection somehow to this guy named Holden, who is in Dreadhold (fantasy Alcatraz). Players created their connections to this character. Then I said that he has recently reached out to you through magical means to say that he has been imprisoned lo these (x) years, and furthermore, has recently figured out that he’s the true heir to the throne. Now he wants you to help him get free and retake the throne.

    The first adventure was pretty handholdy, but if the characters had not wanted to go on it I wouldn’t have blanched. Essentially Holden wanted them to find concrete proof of his claims by doing a B&E on one of the Spy Gnome info bunkers that are hidden all across the landscape.

    This brought them into a town embroiled in conflict, left to fend for itself while the crown of Karrnath marshaled its resources elsewhere. The PCs saw the local militia as the Bad Guys, since they were shaking anyone who passed through for loot, but I had a backstory that was revealed through play that ensured the PCs could understand the conflict at hand in the town and decide either to side with the local militia, go against them, find out the internal conflicts (one of the militia knew Holden, one was the toady of Kaius III, etc), and do anything they wanted with any of that info.

    There were also cultists trying to summon a demon from the realm of dreams under the town, fucking shit up and stealing children away to sacrifice to the summoning. I don’t remember now why I added this, but I think I felt like there needed to be more “conflict” and things for the characters to fight.

    This was just the first three sessions or so. The game went a good while beyond that, but I won’t write everything up right now.

    The thing that happened, or failed to happen, was any real engagement with any of the above conflicts at all. The PCs found Holden’s info for him, didn’t really care one way or the other about who ruled the town and what their agenda was, killed the cultists (This was probably some of the most fun play we had, as they explored the caves and could draw on extra damage dice for free whenever they caused bloodshed, due to some “power” in the caves. Of course, at the end of the caves they realized this was all helping summon the dream demon, which of course happened when they got to the end of the cave. The demon then talked about his designs on the town and countryside and sealed himself off from the PCs so he could “get to work”.), and moved on to the capital city, so they could meet some of Holden’s other friends who were a part of an illegal terrorist organization plotting to usurp the throne.

    Adam_Dray said:




    it simply felt like I was presenting scenarios, the players were responding to them in the expected way

    The question is why that wasn't satisfying.

    I was hoping, I guess, that they would decide to do stuff about the larger situation: are we okay being terrorists? Do we think this kid would be a better king than the king? Should we find out more about the current king, etc? But it seemed basically, because of the nature of the game’s reward system and structure, that all I could do was dangle a carrot to some (cool, fun) set piece that had little to do with the interesting situation I wanted to explore. It’s also totally possible that I am just not a skilled 5e DM, or skilled GM of any game. I think I always have trouble making contributions to the game (5e or no) that other players care about.

    Adam_Dray said:





    they also seemed totally fine with making whatever decision their characters “would” make, to hell with the drama of the current scene, or whatever

    Or this. This is Right to Dream play, no? Is it possible you just don't want or don't understand RtD play and D&D 5e does that pretty well and all of your training and experience push against it?
    To be clear, I wasn’t criticizing the players’ choices to make the decision their character “would” make. I was using that to illustrate that I wasn’t trying to make play about “my story”, and the players didn’t seem to think that was the point of our play, either.

    Was this RtD play? I don’t know. I’ve always been interested in RtD play conceptually, but I don’t know that I’ve ever done it. If it’s what 5e does well, I don’t think the game orients me as the DM toward that agenda very well.


  • Part 2
    Paul_T said:

    An alternative view to my own post above:

    Adam_Dray said:


    Or this. This is Right to Dream play, no? Is it possible you just don't want or don't understand RtD play and D&D 5e does that pretty well and all of your training and experience push against it?

    Or, maybe it wasn't functional Right to Dream play, but a group using the tools of "in-fiction causality" to move from event to event without any clear sense of why or how they were doing so?

    I went through a period of really aiming at Right to Dream (or Threefold Simulationist) play about 10-15 years ago, and we had some really fun and long-spanning campaigns. (I know this is jargon, which is discouraged here, but hopefully the following description clarifies what I mean:)

    The players would "play their characters" and I would "play the world" and adjudicate events and the actions of NPCs.

    However, I always found, in the end, that me "taking the hands off the wheel" as the GM didn't work. If I played purely as an impartial referee, the game would lose steam really fast. (Characters that are played "realistically" tend to look for stability and safety more than anyone in the adventure media or dramatic media we tend to enjoy, and a "world" which similarly operates along "simulationist" principles doesn't help us find the "fun" in play. In practice, then, the players start looking around for bits of content which allow them to find some challenge or some action, and the GM starts presenting those, just as Hans describes: you set out some carrots, and the players eat those carrots, because what else is there to do?)
    I think this is pretty true to my experience, Paul!

    I mean, really, I think I just created a good Situation for a Burning Wheel game, but not for a 5e game. I’m not sure what a good situation for a 5e game would be. I’ve given the game a fair amount of trial over the last four years, and it’s rarely given me ongoing satisfaction, so I’m not sure why I keep trying to go back to it. I think I feel that at some point non-old-school D&D will “click” with me and I’ll finally “get it,” just by continuing to try to play. I dunno.
    DBB said:

    This is kind of funny/interesting – this summer I played in an Eberron 5e game where the DM didn’t like the RAW rest system, and replaced it with a modified version of the 13th Age non-diagetic rest system. If I’m recalling correctly, we did 1st & 2nd encounters = 1st short rest, 3rd & 4th encounters = 2nd short rest, 5th encounter = long rest. And then the whole thing reset.

    ...

    Obviously this isn’t what you were going for in the game you describe – getting an emergent story out of players making tactical decisions and responding to challenges, and allowing that and the game rules to build the narrative. I have to agree with you that 5e is just not a good system for emergent gameplay. You have to have either set up a massive sandbox to enable real player choice, or you have to temporarily ignore the game mechanics to create spaces for meaning between challenges. Otherwise, you’re just shuttling players from encounter to encounter where they (especially if they’re new) will never make the interesting decision when they could make the expected one.

    That is funny! Maybe something was in the air summer of 2018. I'm starting to agree with you that non-old-school D&D just doesn't seem very good for emergent gameplay. I'm starting to question why I keep trying to have that experience with it. I think part of it is a kind of amnesia: I stay away from D&D for a while, then I come back to look at its slick books and marketing materials and I think, "This sounds fun! This looks easy to get cool emergent roleplay and characterful decisions and interesting situations out of this game!"

    But I can never make it work.

    @nemomeme: That sounds heavenly. BTW, the 13th Age mechanic is that you get a full heal after 4 encounters. You can choose to take a full heal before you’ve made it through 4 encounters, but if you do so, you take a “campaign loss,” wherein the villain’s plans have moved forward, or your goals are now harder to reach, etc. In Apocalypse World terms, the GM moves up the clocks on his fronts. To be clear, I had the “campaign loss” rule in effect in my 5e game as well, but it never came to that.
  • Hans_c-o said:

    Was this RtD play? I don’t know. I’ve always been interested in RtD play conceptually, but I don’t know that I’ve ever done it. If it’s what 5e does well, I don’t think the game orients me as the DM toward that agenda very well.

    Doesn't look like RtD (Forgite simulationism) to me, for what it's worth. It could be, but to me that looks more like a narrativist game - I could see that whole set-up in a e.g. Shadow of Yesterday scenario easily enough.

    The bit that jumps at me is that there doesn't seem to really be much concrete fictional content that excites any of the individual players just for its own sake. I get that you like Eberron in the abstract, but the actual process of play perhaps doesn't moment to moment let you delve into the interesting bits and entertain yourself by giving the players zealous speeches about its finer points, which is something that I would expect from simmy D&D.

    For comparison's sake, we played another session of our Prydain D&D campaign this Sunday. I as the GM was rather entertained by the adventure's premise: the nephew of the High King had been nefariously murdered while in the care of the Bard College of Prydain, which was a political problem, because the College is internally independent and there was a serious clash of jurisdiction when it came to actually investigating the murder. Explaining the history and sociology of how all this came to be, and the potential consequences of a permanent rift between the institutions of kingship and the bards, kept me well entertained. The players, meanwhile, were entertained by setting immersion (in the form of my doing storytelling) and princess play stuff, as their heroic high fantasy characters scrabbled to do a murder investigation while making genre jokes about Hercule Poirot.

    If you were to characterize your campaign in those kinds of terms, would you say that you had Sim heat at all? Did the player characters have interesting Eberron-specific identity that would inform the way they receive the setting and adventure lore? In our campaign much of the entertainment comes from the fact that all of the PCs tend to be from these different setting-specific subcultures, which means that anything that they encounter on adventures will be explored and explained from different in-character viewpoints. That's the sort of thing I expect from a Sim D&D campaign.

    Fundamentally: if the GM isn't being entertained by getting to be the head storyteller who talks about fictional stuff that they like for hours on end each session, then there might be a creative disjunction in there, and it's not a wonder that the game feels boring. You might need to delve deeper into why you find Eberron interesting, and what precisely the game's campaign content would need to be so that you could get to share that excitement with the players directly and consistently.

    (For me in our Prydain campaign the excitement comes from getting to repurpose the material of the Chronicles of Prydain, moment to moment, into a rpg adventure. It's always fun to introduce a new NPC, for example, because I get to concern myself with interpreting what they're like in the original novels, and what I get from that, and how I should portray that in play. The different plot points always bring up setting lore questions, too, which means I get to talk a lot about mythical Celtic worldview and stuff like that. The campaign involves all sorts of pet thought exercises of mine that get aired, like for instance we just spent major time last session debating the relative theological merits of Christianity and Pridonite death worship from the in-character viewpoint of Pridonite bards.)
  • edited October 2018
    Eero, no, I don't think that, in the way you formulate it, there was any "Sim heat".


    Fundamentally: if the GM isn't being entertained by getting to be the head storyteller who talks about fictional stuff that they like for hours on end each session, then there might be a creative disjunction in there, and it's not a wonder that the game feels boring. You might need to delve deeper into why you find Eberron interesting, and what precisely the game's campaign content would need to be so that you could get to share that excitement with the players directly and consistently.

    This is like...wow. Like wow. I can't imagine GMing a game like that, because why would the players be interested in me, essentially, geeking out about setting? I'm not saying that doesn't sound like fun -- it sounds like loads of fun, if everyone's on board (when I imagine DMing the D&D settings I love, I imagine us all geeking out together about the settings and the cool bits of it and me transmitting that love to the players and getting them excited as well), but I shudder when I consider it, because it seems like all the worst stereotypes I've heard about D&D in my lifetime. Like, you can do this and it's okay? How do you even get on the same page about this kind of play? I don't think I have the necessary confidence/charisma to head this kind of play.

    You have totally shunted my thought process off into an unexpected direction. Lots of thinking to do.
  • Part of the trick to that sort of play that Eero is describing is loading up your play group with people who are already into the source material.

    I mean, you can have like, I dunno, 1 in 5 of the non-GM players not as actively interested in the source material, provided they're flexible and can go along/get along, but they definitely need to be a small minority of the play group.
  • edited October 2018
    It sounds like three very different styles are be floated here as possible ways to play 5E.

    1) Railroad focused on detailed setting simulation/ exposition. That's what @Eero_Tuovinen's description sounds like to me. Interesting example, but not something I would want to play in or run. Not because it doesn't sound interesting, but because of the pressure on the GM (rather than the game) to hold the players' attention.

    2) Character/ narrative sandbox on the political/setting level. That's my read on the carrots @Hans_c-o is describing. Making this style of play feel both consequential and plausible in the fiction is really hard. I like Burning Wheel for it and maybe more-so All Men Must Die (though AMMD favors the consequential over the plausible). I can't imagine making it work in any version of D&D without the GM having full control of the stakes and pacing and having the players respond to loaded prompts.

    3) Tactical sandbox-limited-to-dungeon. I think @Paul_T expressed some of the limitations of this, especially around lethality. And several people have mentioned how structured rests can keep the pressure on (and allow high enough stakes for memorable emergent narrative).

    #3 is where I'm spending most of my gaming time right now, primarily in a long-term Torchbearer campaign. I think John Harper's Breakers has a great mechanic for keeping pressure on in this kind of game (where caution is usually the optimal strategy): a dungeon timer. The Torchbearer adventure I'm drafting right now has a hard timer. The dungeon is under sea level and full of ancient pumps keeping the chambers dry. Every time the party camps, removes a pump (they are very valuable), or a pump breaks as a consequence of a twist: the water level goes up. The lower chambers quickly become hard to navigate, and eventually the dungeon floods completely. I think a timer like this (broadcasted to players early, but with some uncertainty) could make the tactical choices feel like part of an overall strategic operation.
  • edited October 2018
    I don't have much to add, except that my experiences with D&D5 have been very much what Paul describes -- it "sandboxes" okay (though involves rather too much prep and chargen is too involved) but does a poor job of setting players up to actually drive. Attempts by the GM to "not guide things" always ended in the situation feeling vaguely unsatisfying.

    I think the problem is less than you CAN'T do good things with D&D5, or even that that the game doesn't facilitate doing certain things, but rather that the system is clearly trying to be all things to all people, and as a result, there are always things in the game that are pulling you AWAY from whatever playstyle you are trying to use it for.
  • edited October 2018
    @komradebob I think you're right about the larger part of the group needing to be excited about exploring the source material. It can't just be the GM who wants to do it; s/he needs some amount of players who want the same thing. (also, hi! I remember your minis+ posts fondly).

    @moconnor I think I was making #2 with a hope that the detailed setting exploration/simulation from #1 would somehow emerge from the #2 situation.
    Airk said:

    Attempts by the GM to "not guide things" always ended in the situation feeling vaguely unsatisfying.

    Amen.
  • Here is a good bit about the Torchbearer adventure, from above:
    moconnor said:

    The dungeon is under sea level and full of ancient pumps keeping the chambers dry. Every time the party camps, removes a pump (they are very valuable), or a pump breaks as a consequence of a twist: the water level goes up. The lower chambers quickly become hard to navigate, and eventually the dungeon floods completely. I think a timer like this (broadcasted to players early, but with some uncertainty) could make the tactical choices feel like part of an overall strategic operation.

    That sounds like good adventure design, and my sense is that new-school D&D play depends quite a bit on this kind of planning and setup.

    I spoke about this a bit earlier:
    Paul_T said:


    The main problem becomes handling the apparent level of challenge by negotiating how often the party rests. For that, you need either a very carefully-managed fictional premise (e.g. an adventure through an area where resting is hard - e.g. wandering monsters - and/or a strict source of time pressure within which you have to complete the adventure) or to accept that it's largely in the GM's hands (as Hans found).



  • Another challenge or consideration I've heard about recently from a friend running D&D5 is the issue of character focus/direction and orientation. If you have the aim for a "story-oriented" game, which depends on each character's interests and goals, this can conflict with the concept of the "D&D party". (There is a good reason that character-focused "story games" rarely feature the "party" conceit; it can be a challenge for a variety of reasons, not to mention that it doesn't represent most of the fiction we tend to enjoy.)

    My friend encountered some frustration with characters who have detailed backgrounds. I've seen games where those backgrounds never came into play (also frustrating), but in this case he is an enlightened GM who is using the backstory information to build a sandbox setting which is relevant to the PCs. Unfortunately, the combination of character backgrounds, a sandbox based on those backgrounds, and the realities of the "D&D party" are causing problems in the campaign, since much of it devolves to the characters arguing amongst themselves about which particular interest to pursue (presumably, with each character arguing for their own interests!).

    The functional version of this, it seems to me, relies on the GM to decide on the order of events or interests pursued, so that a continuous story dealing with each character's background details or information can be engaged one at a time. (I see this in something like Critical Role, as well - the adventures occasionally draw on material from this or that character's background, but usually just one at a time. Eero's recent Prydain threads do some of this as well - the challenges are basically dealt with by having the GM resolve them in the structure of the campaign, not by the players themselves.)

    In theory, you could draw background details from multiple characters into coherent adventures, but then you run the risk of a) seeming extremely contrived (e.g. the Big Bad is not only PC A's arch-nemesis in disguise, but also turns out to be PC B's father!), and, more importantly, b) creating divisions in the party and setting the characters at odds with each other.

    Were I to do this (and I'm not planning to), I'd probably involve a very overt cyclical structure, where a given character's interests are pursued, one at a time, in turn. ("In Season One, Gorm leads the party to his childhood village, to deliver it from the Orc invasion. In Season Two, the party pursues Victorinox's arcane interests in the Tombs of Gutarnak.") That character would generally take the lead, with the other characters assisting them, allowing everyone to have their turn but for the party to remain unified and to act on interests which are aligned with each other.
  • Paul_T said:


    The main problem becomes handling the apparent level of challenge by negotiating how often the party rests. For that, you need either a very carefully-managed fictional premise (e.g. an adventure through an area where resting is hard - e.g. wandering monsters - and/or a strict source of time pressure within which you have to complete the adventure) or to accept that it's largely in the GM's hands (as Hans found).

    Ah, yes. I saw this and agree. I actually worry that I'm overdoing it in my adventure, because Torchbearer has non-diagetic limitations on camping:
    - Each action in camp requires a check, which players earn by using their traits against themselves (making a test harder for themselves or breaking ties in their opponents favor) when they think their character traits would get in their way.
    - When you enter camp, the GM rolls on a random table that might disrupt the camp phase with a wandering monster or make recovery more challenging.
    - Recovering from conditions at camp is still an uncertain prospect, as you might fail your recovery rolls.
  • Paul_T said:

    Were I to do this (and I'm not planning to), I'd probably involve a very overt cyclical structure, where a given character's interests are pursued, one at a time, in turn.

    I've tried this spotlighting with party systems and it worked really well, as long as it's a system where the GM is controlling scene-framing and pacing. In my Masks campaign, each session (or issue) was about a particular character, dealing with their personal arc and tying it to the main plot. However, this requires a system where the GM is the source of plot prompts to which the players respond.

    In a sandbox game, I think this character spotlighting is out-of-place, since it requires leading prompts from the GM. However, there are systems are conducive to functional background exploration without the GM taking the reins.

    In Torchbearer, players can spend some of their hard-earned coin in town digging for leads to new adventures. You can listen to rumors in the tavern (a random table that connects your friends, mentors, and enemies to an adventure location). Then you can ask around or do research to get more intel on the site. When the party is headed to a location, they choose a leader for that adventure. By default its the character who found the lead in town. During the adventure, the leader "settles disputes among the characters about direction or method of approach".

    While this might seem similar to the GM taking turns spotlighting characters, I think the fact that it comes from the players makes a big difference. Out of character, the players can (and do) notice that someone hasn't been adventure leader for a while, so they can hand that player some treasure and encourage them to listen to rumors and ask around about their hometown. There's no need for leading or contrivance from the GM, except that if they roll 'mentor' on the rumors table, you have to figure out why that NPC is trapped within the nearby dungeon.
  • (I agree with that in full. I wouldn't want to "mix" the "sandbox" approach with a character-centric approach, either. Your overview covers it quite well, I'd say!)
  • edited October 2018
    Paul_T said:



    Were I to do this (and I'm not planning to), I'd probably involve a very overt cyclical structure, where a given character's interests are pursued, one at a time, in turn. ("In Season One, Gorm leads the party to his childhood village, to deliver it from the Orc invasion. In Season Two, the party pursues Victorinox's arcane interests in the Tombs of Gutarnak.") That character would generally take the lead, with the other characters assisting them, allowing everyone to have their turn but for the party to remain unified and to act on interests which are aligned with each other.

    This makes good sense to me as a coherent structuring of this style of D&D. I'd probably make the players write a pseudo-kicker about the adventure they want to go on to resolve some aspect of their backstory. And of course they'd have to write why they're going to help these other people do the same. I think that could be really fun. The leveling system of D&D makes it a bit hard to fit this kind of structure in the illusion (funny that my quest lines up exactly with the level we're at right now), but in practice I think most non-old-school D&D is like that anyway, and we just Particpationism it away (if I can very awkwardly make that into a verb).
    Paul_T said:

    If you have the aim for a "story-oriented" game, which depends on each character's interests and goals, this can conflict with the concept of the "D&D party". (There is a good reason that character-focused "story games" rarely feature the "party" conceit; it can be a challenge for a variety of reasons, not to mention that it doesn't represent most of the fiction we tend to enjoy.)

    I've been reading some old threads on (and my old review of) Freemarket recently, and in doing so I recalled how in FM the players create their individual characters and only then do they make the party with its larger structure and goals. This makes for an interesting tension between self and group that Freemarket exploits. 5e isn't really set up to exploit that tension well, but Freemarket might have some lessions for us here. I'll try to look at the rules soon and see if there's anything to tease out re: party play.
  • That's a good idea. (Although I think that the idea in Freemarket is that the individual building blocks of the characters are intended to inspire/constrain you to come up with the idea for your group/enterprise - "given these characters X, Y, and Z, how could they combine their skills to make something unique?" D&D doesn't require each party to be unique or have unique interests: if anything, it might be the opposite.)
  • edited November 2018
    Paul_T said:

    D&D doesn't require each party to be unique or have unique interests: if anything, it might be the opposite.

    For sure. and maybe that's a piece that's missing in non-old-school D&D! The Mercenary Company makes sense across all editions of D&D, but non-old-school D&D (do we have a term for this? Post-1e?), at least in official publications, from 3e on has drifted more and more toward worlds full of "adventuring companies", which to me have always been 1) bland; being a part of an "adventuring company" has never inspired me to play, and 2) illusion-breaking. In no world that makes sense to me, even fantastically, does a class of people called "adventurers" exist. It strikes me as an easy way to classify Player Characters into a fictional group (and they probably chose this over the more readily apparent Mercenary Company as the default because the latter implies a certain cynicism toward morality that non-old-school D&D tries to steer you away from, with weak reasoning (inasmuch as rules can be said to be a reasoned argument to the players about best practices for play)), but it makes the world less plausible, less fantastic, and it makes the PC's roles seem sort of rote. The Forgotten Realms is the most egregious example of this, with "Adventurer" practically being an occupation like any other, but many if not all of D&D's official settings (all of which I love, for one reason or another) have drifted toward this over time.
  • edited November 2018
    (double post. is there a way to delete posts? i can't see it)
  • Hans_c-o said:


    For sure. and maybe that's a piece that's missing in non-old-school D&D! The Mercenary Company makes sense across all editions of D&D, but non-old-school D&D (do we have a term for this? Post-1e?), at least in official publications, from 3e on has drifted more and more toward worlds full of "adventuring companies", which to me have always been 1) bland; being a part of an "adventuring company" has never inspired me to play, and 2) illusion-breaking.

    I think there are ways that more specific companies could give parties more of a sense of purpose and cohesion. I'm thinking mostly of how Crew sheets work in Blades in the Dark. Say that when you started a new campaign, you created a company with existing debts, obligations, and connections. Players would choose a company type: maybe a mercenary company, or a monster hunting guild, or a holy order. Their company type would let them pursue leads for certain types of jobs in a sandbox, and when new players or characters joined, they would be the company's new recruits. Then characters can have personality clashes or different agendas, but the understanding is that they need to stick to the company's goals.
  • edited November 2018
    Hans_c-o said:

    The Mercenary Company makes sense across all editions of D&D, but non-old-school D&D (do we have a term for this? Post-1e?), at least in official publications, from 3e on has drifted more and more toward worlds full of "adventuring companies",

    I like this terminological outline:

    Old School D&D: From '74 to AD&D 1st edition and the Basic line (until its end, pretty much). Typified by "rulings, not rules", DIY attitudes, emergent setting, pulp fantasy genre stylings, wargaming.

    Middle School D&D: From Dragonlance through AD&D 2nd edition until the fall of TSR. Typified by story arcs, GM autocracy, elaborate settings, high fantasy genre stylings. Basically "trad rpg as executed in D&D"

    New School D&D: 3rd to 5th edition D&D. Typified by miniatures skirmish combat, charop, RAW, gaming fantasy genre stylings.

    I particularly like how distinguishing between a "middle school" and "new school" helps me acknowledge that D&D didn't historically just suddenly jump from old school to modern type of game - what many people think of as "old school D&D" from their youth in the '80s or '90s is often better understood as its own thing when compared to the truly primordial '70s style. It's not uncommon for people to sort of talk at cross-purposes when one's thinking of '70s style D&D and the other's thinking of '80s style D&D.

    The problem I've observed in a binary terminology ("old school" vs. "modern D&D") is that it generally requires a person to accept Dragonlance and the whole playstyle it implies later on as either old school or modern. Whichever way they choose, the chosen term expands so much that I find it difficult to say anything definitive about it any more; something like say Birthright simply doesn't have very much in common with either Keep on the Borderlands (old school) or Book of Nine Swords (new school)
  • edited November 2018
    Thanks for that outline, Eero. As someone who never engaged in Middle School D&D (in both senses of the term, actually), I've never been quite sure where to place it or how to think about it in relation to clear old-school play and clear new-school play. You clear that up very nicely.

    Also, "gaming fantasy genre stylings" is exactly it for the New School. "D&D fantasy" as a codified thing, rather than D&D doing other genre emulation or play in some sort of literary fantasy sandbox. This is the World Full of Adventurers aesthetic.
  • Yes, an excellent outline, and I agree with it. Most of my "early roleplaying" experience were solidly "Middle School D&D" (and, oddly enough, took place when I was in middle school!), and I stopped playing D&D when it turned into the "new school". (In particular, the implied genre of modern D&D has so much video game influence that it turns me off.) These days, I'm pretty much only interested in "old-school" D&D, since we have better games to do the other stuff (for my tastes).

    For the discussion on D&D parties:

    In the fantasy genre (outside gaming), the "group of adventurers" is always united by a common quest or goal. (With occasional examples of people united by accident, like a group shipwrecked on an island or trapped in an interdimensional pocket universe, who become close friends and eventually support each other in a common quest or goal.)

    Therefore, to replicate that in roleplaying, someone has to bring forth that quest or goal, and all the GM's prep has to relate to it, as well. In practice, I find that this means you either need one central character for everyone else to hang on to (as we see in the literature), or for the GM to take the lead. Traditionally, it seems to fall quite naturally on the GM, since she's often the one organizing the game, developing the "campaign world", and prepping for sessions. It would be interesting to do it the other way around - character first, in other words - but putting one player, in a sense, above the others is somewhat difficult socially.

    However, I've seen this happen naturally in ongoing campaigns where people drop in and out. Whoever has been there longest naturally becomes "the quest-bearer", and new players are basically conscripted to join their "quest", since it's the only thing to do when they join the group and start playing. ("Oh, welcome to our game! We're heading out to stop the Dark Lord from opening the Gates of Hell, and for that we need to capture the Stone of Benghazi. We lost our wizard, and we could really use a new one. Can you make some kind of character like that?")

    As discussed earlier, without strong tools to push towards an agenda of interest for the character, the players and the GM both end up being slaves to the GM's prep (since it's so weighty). If you show up to a game and the GM starts rolling out a battlemap, figurines, and so forth, for a carefully-prepped session (keep in mind that the encounter itself could occupy most of the session, sometimes all of it!), how much of a jerk would you be to say, "Nah, I don't want to fight these guys; let's go somewhere else..."? It's what you all came to do, so you do it. Over the long term, maintaining any kind of player agency becomes difficult without adding procedures to the game which dramatically change that dynamic.
  • Fascinating discussion, guys, I am really enjoying the different perspectives here.

    From my own observations, speaking as someone who did not grow up playing D&D and has primarily played non-D&D RPGs during his gaming history, I don't see any iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, whether "old school", "new school" or anywhere in between as emulating anything other than Dungeons & Dragons. They're pretty much all awful at capturing the genre tropes of fantasy adventure writ large, with the possible exception of 4E (probably a substantial reason why many gamers considered it Not D&D in play).

    ~ Trent
  • As someone who DID grow up with D&D, and who follows the OSR, I think you're right Trent. While D&D had all kinds of elements borrowed from other stuff (Particularly Tolkien, even though Gary apparently wasn't much of a fan?), and inspired by other stuff, the output it produced never seems to resemble any other media.

    It's still important to note that the output is still different across the spectrum that Eero defined (it's a good one), but none of those outputs bear much resemblance to anything other than "D&D from that era" in my experience.
  • edited November 2018
    One big difference I see is, in fact, in terms of emulating different media. Old-school D&D tended to either represent itself (phantasmagoric dungeon weirdness!) or some Sword & Sorcery tropes. All that stuff from the spells named after obscure wizards ("Melf's Magic Meteor!") to the bizarre "monsters" (like Slimes, Oozes, and Jellies, Mimics, and so forth).

    By the "middle school", however, there were a lot of rules, classes, and supplements that were very interested in recreating particular types of media - the Al-Qadim setting, or the Oriental Adventures (is that what they were called? It doesn't sound so good in 2018...), aimed at historical accuracy, referenced real-world traditions and weapons, and so forth. The 2nd Edition Combat & Tactics book actually had a very thorough history of how weapons and armour developed throughout the last 2 or 3 thousands years (enough that, as a student in grade school, I cited it in a history paper about the history of warfare!). There were weapons, classes, and spells which sought to create "authentic" samurai or ninjas or Teutonic knights. (I remember those "Complete Handbooks" would have various sub-classes to represent knights/paladins from different cultures and eras of history, for instance!)

    There was a period towards the end of 2nd Edition and the beginning of 3rd Edition where there were classes which represented merchants, sages, or other "non-adventuring" professions, and that could be modeled in feats, spells, and other abilities. (I don't know if this actually existed, but I wouldn't be surprised if at some point there was a "Catholic priest" class which only allowed men of limited alignments and granted the ability to lead a Mass at a certain level, as well as a spell which turned the eucharist from a cracker into the Body of Christ, and would obviously only be cast during a Mass - i.e. it didn't have any purpose for dungeon-delving or combat.)

    As far as I can tell, in the "new school", most of that is gone. When I join a D&D5 game, I see a Tiefling Warlock and a Dragonborn Paladin who can breathe fire alongside a Halfling who has amazing tumbling abilities (only useful in combat). That doesn't seem to represent or recreate any kind of historical reality or fictional universe - it's very much its own thing. It doesn't bring me back to 14th-century Europe, nor does it have anything to do with Tolkien or Robert E. Howard.

    However, I could be wrong; I've never pursued an actual study of these developments through D&D history. It's just the impression I have, and I'd be glad to be corrected by someone more knowledgeable.
  • edited November 2018
    Trent_W said:

    They're pretty much all awful at capturing the genre tropes of fantasy adventure writ large with the possible exception of 4E (probably a substantial reason why many gamers considered it Not D&D in play)

    Oh! When I look at Eero's categories with their attendant fiction genre stylings, I don't see that as a claim that the school of D&D tried to make the game a story set in that particular fiction genre, but rather that D&D used those genre tropes as elements of or the backdrop of play.

    D&D play has, by and large, mostly generated the same kinds of stories. It's just that New School D&D uses the "D&D story" as the genre referent for the elements of play. Your point about 4e is a good one; I recall listening to an interview or possibly reading one with Mike Mearls in the heady days of early 4e where he said that they designed 4e around answering the question "What is the core story of D&D?". And, naturally, the answer was "go into a dungeon, fight monsters, and come back with your hard-earned reward."
  • Hans,

    In your response to my questions, I didn't get the impression that you were just "presenting scenarios, the players were responding to them in the expected way."

    It sounds like the problem was that they were not responding to them in the expect way. As you said, "The thing that happened, or failed to happen, was any real engagement with any of the above conflicts at all."

    What did the players actually want to do, then?

    And yeah, it sounds like you set up a great set of hooks and adventure, which the players bought into in some small way, but then they didn't follow up and really latch on.

    Also, when I read your list of questions:
    Hans_c-o said:

    are we okay being terrorists? Do we think this kid would be a better king than the king? Should we find out more about the current king, etc?

    That feels like a thematic push, right? Did you not get answers to those questions in play? Am I right that, because you felt like the players failed to really address the premises you put on the table, that's why play was unsatisfying to you?

    As an aside, you made a comment about maybe you're not a good 5e DM. Banish those thoughts immediately. Your setup sounds amazing and fun. I think what's happening here is just a disconnect between what you want out of play and what the rest of the players wanted.
  • Adam_Dray said:


    As an aside, you made a comment about maybe you're not a good 5e DM. Banish those thoughts immediately. Your setup sounds amazing and fun. I think what's happening here is just a disconnect between what you want out of play and what the rest of the players wanted.

    Just wanted to second this. I couldn't agree more; that sounds like a really exciting and memorable campaign frame to play in.

    (However, having said that, all of my D&D experience in this style has always resulted in the same kind of disconnect: the GM is excited about their thematic and diegetic material, whereas the players are focused on gaining feats and playing through combats. Both end up frustrated - the GM, because the players aren't really engaging with her material, and the players because, usually, the game is too slow or they start to realize their lack of agency. I guess that's what this thread is about: whether this is just the nature of play in such games, or some kind of technical point that can be addressed with intelligent procedures and/or attitudes.)

  • If you don't want players to focus on combat as the #1 thing, stop giving XP for combat. <=)

    The DMG offers other another option, namely Milestone Advancement, but I'm playing with replacing advancement in my Towerlands game with a checkbox system where they have to hit their four BIFT personality traits, a mentor scene, and one "impress a spirit" scene per current level -- because that's what's important to this campaign.
  • Hans_c-o said:

    Oh! When I look at Eero's categories with their attendant fiction genre stylings, I don't see that as a claim that the school of D&D tried to make the game a story set in that particular fiction genre, but rather that D&D used those genre tropes as elements of or the backdrop of play.

    Sure, the "gaming fantasy genre stylings" just seems self-referential to me. Almost all gaming fantasy tropes come from Dungeons and Dragons anyway. To me, D&D has always just tried to be D&D (with the notable exception of 4E) and its attempts to fit other fictional stylings (such as Ravenloft or Oriental Adventure) have always been awkward and hackneyed at best.

    I'd also dispute the entire notion of "New School" D&D as being an actual thing, anyway. Eero's description of it pretty much only fits 3E. Both 4E and 5E dramatically shift away from about half the things on that list in different ways. Unless by New School D&D one basically just means Pathfinder.
    Hans_c-o said:

    D&D play has, by and large, mostly generated the same kinds of stories. It's just that New School D&D uses the "D&D story" as the genre referent for the elements of play. Your point about 4e is a good one; I recall listening to an interview or possibly reading one with Mike Mearls in the heady days of early 4e where he said that they designed 4e around answering the question "What is the core story of D&D?". And, naturally, the answer was "go into a dungeon, fight monsters, and come back with your hard-earned reward."

    Yeah, I've learned to take pretty much anything Mearls says about 4E with a huge grain of salt. He wasn't one of its lead designers, the stuff he actually designed for it was almost completely mediocre, and comments he's made about it up to the build-up for 5E (like the idea that 4E Warlords don't make sense because they "shout back" dismembered arms) strongly evince he didn't remotely grok 4E's design ethos or aesthetic. He is the guy that brought us Keep on the Shadowfell, after all.

    4E is perhaps the singularly most terrible version of D&D to do dungeon crawls and there was clearly a strong commitment during its inception to focus toward story-oriented cinematic fantasy adventure (and not self-referential "D&D genre fantasy" either). This seemed to start to falter right around the time the PHB3 came out and there was a shift in direction (which would eventually culminate in 5E's design).

    ~ Trent
  • edited November 2018
    Adam_Dray said:

    If you don't want players to focus on combat as the #1 thing, stop giving XP for combat. <=)

    The DMG offers other another option, namely Milestone Advancement, but I'm playing with replacing advancement in my Towerlands game with a checkbox system where they have to hit their four BIFT personality traits, a mentor scene, and one "impress a spirit" scene per current level -- because that's what's important to this campaign.</p>

    In my 4E home game, almost all of the XP gain has come from Skill Challenges and player-authored Quests (all of which are tied either to the campaign's Situation or to other player characters and/or NPCs). I've tried milestone leveling in the past but I disliked how it felt like "you get a level when the DM wants you to" instead of specifically reinforcing the game's reward cycles and thematic content.

    I think part of the problem in standard D&D play is that violence is rather consequence-free (and yet you're rewarded for engaging in it) and so players are more likely to have a casual attitude toward it. The stereotypical example is the "four orcs in a room" --- you get xp and/or treasure for killing them and there are rarely any social consequences for doing so, so why not kill them? It creates a rather cavalier outlook toward violence in my experience. Old-school games circumvent this problem somewhat by giving little to no XP for killing monsters and the fact that combat is intrinsically more dangerous to the PCs, but this then creates attendant issues with a DM more interested in character-driven story content.

    ~ Trent
  • Yep. Agreed.
  • edited November 2018
    Adam_Dray said:


    That feels like a thematic push, right? Did you not get answers to those questions in play? Am I right that, because you felt like the players failed to really address the premises you put on the table, that's why play was unsatisfying to you?

    Yes, that's pretty much it! Paul expresses it clearly for me:
    Paul_T said:


    the GM is excited about their thematic and diegetic material, whereas the players are focused on gaining feats and playing through combats. Both end up frustrated - the GM, because the players aren't really engaging with her material, and the players because, usually, the game is too slow or they start to realize their lack of agency. I guess that's what this thread is about: whether this is just the nature of play in such games, or some kind of technical point that can be addressed with intelligent procedures and/or attitudes.

    And, about the "stop giving XP for combat" suggestion: It's a fair point. But as I kind of said in the beginning, I wanted to Play New-School D&D, in some essential sense, and to me that meant --
    hans_c-o said:


    I wanted to run a game that forced the players to make interesting and difficult decisions, about three different things: 1) resources, 2) tactics, 3) the situation at hand, i.e., what NPCs are doing and asking of the characters and what pressure monsters and their violence are putting on the characters.

    The 5e books seem to me to promise that we can get this sort of play, with the fights and resource management, along with true engagement with the thematic material that then pushes play into new and unexpected directions.

    Trent, I've never thought of Mearls as anything but the core creator of 4e's approach to D&D. But looking back, yes, he was Lead Developer, whereas on 5e he was Lead Designer. Perhaps I should find out more about Rob Heinsoo's perspective on 4e to get to the truth of its approach. Although that may just be 13th Age (which I've read and played, a little bit).

    And I still think Eero's "New School" category make sense. 5e has dialed back on the miniatures gaming and charop aspects of this (I'd argue mostly for marketing purposes - and to great success), but they are still in there.


    And thank you Adam and Paul for the kind chastisement about calling myself a "bad" DM. I wasn't down on myself, just trying to honestly assess the situation to come to the truth of it, so I can play better next time. That said, your honest kindness is appreciated.
  • I like to think of the kind of play you're describing as "Vanilla Narr" in the Forge sense. Basically, addressing theme and premise from-the-side in a game that doesn't really support it very well.

    The best way to get at that in D&D is to force them to decide what is worth fighting for, since the game is so combat-oriented, but even that falls down a lot, because they want to fight to earn XP to level up.

    Take away XP for killing and replace it with milestone advancement, and they will STILL want to fight and level up, because 5e makes fighting super fun. They have new gadgets to play with and they want to try them out.

    A lot of Vanilla Narr games get along by dividing play into "the times when we fight" and "the times when we don't fight" with a huge line between them.
  • Adam,

    Doesn't it sounds like *unsuccessful* vanilla Narr play, though? If not, why not?


    As a further topic (not specific to Adam):

    There was also Tony Dowler's "Bringing Down the Dungeon" concept (inspired by, and originally in/for, The Shadow of Yesterday).

    David_Berg and I chat about it a bit here (the link will take you to the precise post, and then read me reply):

    http://story-games.com/forums/discussion/comment/467669/#Comment_467669
  • Hans_c-o said:

    The 5e books seem to me to promise that we can get this sort of play, with the fights and resource management, along with true engagement with the thematic material that then pushes play into new and unexpected directions.

    Yeah, my experience with 5E has been that its supposed to be "everything to everyone" but in actual practice it lacks a lot of procedures and advice to really shine in any one direction. The designers seem to assume the DM will fill in the gaps themselves (what has in other places been criticized as "lazy design"), probably with techniques and procedures they've acquired from other games.

    As an example, the advice about using Inspiration is rather anemic and seems to assume someone interested in this sort of thing has a lot of experience with FATE or other games that use player-descriptor bennies.

    In my opinion, 5E as a whole is pretty much designed like this.
    Hans_c-o said:

    Trent, I've never thought of Mearls as anything but the core creator of 4e's approach to D&D. But looking back, yes, he was Lead Developer, whereas on 5e he was Lead Designer. Perhaps I should find out more about Rob Heinsoo's perspective on 4e to get to the truth of its approach. Although that may just be 13th Age (which I've read and played, a little bit).

    There is a huge gap in 4E between the advice and content in the DMG1 and DMG2 --- which strongly suggests a No Myth, Player-Driven, Hard Scene-Framing, Always Say Yes, Story Now, Cinematic Adventure game --- and, say, the content of Keep on the Shadowfell and most other WotC-produced adventure paths, which seems to frame 4E as The Same As 3E But With Powers! The former is more representative of people like Heinsoo, Baker, and Collins whereas the latter is more representative of people like Mearls and the current 5E team.

    Once Mearls took over, 4E almost immediately took a huge nosedive and produced some of its most mediocre player-facing content. There was simply nobody around in the company (with the possible exception of Chris Perkins) that really grokked what 4E was trying to do.
    Hans_c-o said:

    And I still think Eero's "New School" category make sense. 5e has dialed back on the miniatures gaming and charop aspects of this (I'd argue mostly for marketing purposes - and to great success), but they are still in there.

    Well, a lot of the more charop stuff in 5E is wholly optional and contingent on the DM's say-so ---- feats, magic items, and multiclassing --- but I agree a lot of it is just marketing. To me, 5E has always felt like 3E Lite more than anything else.

    4E has charop stuff in it, but also a ton of stuff that invalidated charop too (Inherent Bonuses in the DMG2 and the constant slew of errata to hammer options that proved too strong) and it certainly saw a dramatic shift away from the self-referential D&D Fantasy Genre that the game usually clings to. As an example, 4E makes it trivially easy to run a political intrigue style campaign or even a low-magic setting without implementing a bunch of houserules or hacking the game open, specifically because of assumptions for how prevalent magic is as well as the incredible diversity of fictional triggers for 4E's XP reward cycles.

    ~ Trent
  • These two blog posts might also be somewhat related to subject at hand:

    http://revolution21days.blogspot.com/2009/09/dungeon-soap-operas-are-best-kind-of.html is an example of how D&D changed style of play from dungeon crawling to immersive character drama. I find this type of transition, where dungeon crawling is the initial default mode of play, and then later characters gain depth and connections to the setting and players learn to know the campaign world and the style of game changes. The example is quite an extreme case, but shift after an initial period is not so rare, in my experience.

    https://udan-adan.blogspot.com/2016/06/romantic-fantasy-revisited-1-what-it-is.html is about romantic fantasy in general, which might be relevant to the goals expressed in the original post. It has three follow-up posts.

    ...

    I asked about sandbox play, because sandbox with explicit dungeons into which one might delve is a fine way to establish the characters and get the players to know each other. It will create a shared history for the characters that survive. It will create some ties to non-player characters (rescued, helped, quest-givers, villains that survive).

    This will start the process towards play that can easily hit these goals:

    I wanted to run a game that forced the players to make interesting and difficult decisions, about three different things: 1) resources, 2) tactics, 3) the situation at hand, i.e., what NPCs are doing and asking of the characters and what pressure monsters and their violence are putting on the characters.
    Any other fairly structured activity, like railroading, might also work. I do not have experience, there.
  • I agree with Trent's "everything to everyone, so not very good at anything" analysis on 5e.

    I'm not sure that just saying "No more XP for combat!" solves the problem though, because again, as Trent says, the whole game is "sloped" towards combat in a way that means that even if it doesn't directly give XP, that players are probably going to choose as the obvious path to get to their XP anyway --- whether that XP comes from treasure, or 'milestones' or whatever. Sure, you may prevent them from deliberately hunting down stuff to kill, but in my experience, most of the time that doesn't happen anyway, partly due to a lack of player ability to create those situations and partly due to a player feeling that they "shouldn't" do that, for RP reasons or the like.

    Modern D&D very much encourages the characters to roll up their sleeves and get in there and fight stuff, and it will take more than removing one of the carrots to seriously influence that. I think without changing the rules sufficiently to provide a mechanical disincentive (i.e. "Combat is deadly") that you're unlikely to see serious changes in behavior.
  • Not giving experience for combat and being explicit about the game not consisting of encounters, and in particular "encounters" not being balanced at all, worked in Pathfinder (after some character deaths) and seems to working with D&D 5.

    The characters tend to be pretty good at fighting, so combat is an option more often than it would be in a game with weaker characters, of course.
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