fates worse than death

One frustration I have with Dungeons & Dragons is that, past a certain point, all play is basically the same.  You find a “dungeon” of some kind, you seek the treasure, you maybe slay a “dragon” of one kind or another.  This is awesome.  But is it inexhaustibly awesome?

It bugs me a little when grognards complain about how D&D 3e and 4e is nothing more than a video game, as if D&D was somehow more substantive in the past.  That certainly isn’t true of OD&D or the B/X stuff, which are unabashedly mixtures of wargaming and board games (not to mention the video games of the day), with only the very lightest of “role-playing” grafted on.  While 4e defines your “role” as Poorly differentiated guy with Kung-Fu style #5, 0e defines your role as Poorly differentiated Schmuck #3 lost in a subterranean death-trap.  At most, your character is a collection of a dozen integers, a lust for gold, and (if you’re one of those namby-pamby actor types) an outrageous accent.  It’s always been this way.

In addition, the game really doesn’t handle stakes much higher than loss of Hit Points very well: in fact, not at all.  So, maybe the Princess falls in love with your Savage Barbarian Bandit, maybe not; but the question is either to be resolved by GM Fiat or a simple dice roll, and in any event the real story is about how many wandering monsters you’ll encounter while stumped by a puzzle in the catacombs.  The story’s not about you: there’s no story at all.  Like life, Dungeons & Dragons is what happens while you’re making other plans.

All of this taken together, it strikes me as absurd that “campaign play” is the idealized mode of Dungeons & Dragons.  When every session is, broadly speaking, like every other session; when every character is, broadly speaking, like every other character; when the only tension is whether you’ll have to create a new and almost interchangeable character at a lower “experience level,” that is, to see whether the time you’ve invested thus far has been wasted or not . . . It’s almost like some kind of Dadaist prank: a story with no plot and no characters, only a setting that appears to change.  It’s the exact opposite of fantasy literature.

Don’t get me wrong: the game is very fun, and I enjoy playing.  But I’m not sure I enjoy it an infinite amount, and I think the idea of prolonged campaigning – more than about 5-10 sessions or so – is some weird parasite that grafted itself onto the wonderfully designed board game elements of D&D and eventually devoured the entire thing.

What would a D&D “campaign” look like that was designed to play itself out in 5 sessions instead of 30?  Instead of a mega-dungeon, which everyone on the Internet has been obsessing over as the sine qua non of a successful D&D game: a micro-dungeon.  And cram all the crazy action you’d expect to see in a 30-session build-up into a very cleverly designed world?

10 Responses to “fates worse than death”

  1. 1 Player's wanted in NB
    December 14, 2009 at 7:25 am

    “cram all the crazy action you’d expect to see in a 30-session build-up into a very cleverly designed world?”

    Am not trying to be snarky, but….meh…it’s been done. They called it Dragonlance. The problem is in order to see the fully, developed campaign world at the end the character’s have to…well, LIVE long enough to see it. TSR accomplished it with a railroad plot, deus ex machina, and super-buff characters (stats and magic-goodies outta site and boatloads of hanger-on NPC’s when looking at those mod’s).

    If ya can do what you’re philosophizing about without those elements (which are disdainful to many), good on ya! DO IT, then please show us how and the gaming community (regardless of edition) will have a new and compelling campaign building technique. If you try but fail, well share THAT too and maybe it’ll spark off someone else’s noggin and he can try something different.

    Me, I’m happy nuff crushing bashing monster skulls and taking their gold.


  2. December 14, 2009 at 9:20 am

    > What would a D&D “campaign” look like that was designed to play itself out in 5 sessions instead of 30?

    Isn’t that what the Pathfinder series are? or G123, A1234, U123 or any of another dozen module series.

    Re rest of post. Your numerous assumptions and false claims are so disingenuous that I must assume this was a “troll post” designed to cause controversy and traffic.

  3. 3 Player's wanted in NB
    December 14, 2009 at 10:01 am

    None of those show a complete campaign when finished and I don’t count pathfinder as it is using one of the ‘tools’ I mentioned, namely railroad.

    But ya don’t discuss the points I made, just fling it. It’s much easier on the brain that way.

  4. December 14, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Norman: where am I being disingenuous? I’m describing my own reaction to probably 20 sessions of low-level D&D play, and asking myself: “I enjoyed these sessions very much, but there’s a sense of diminishing returns. What makes me feel that way?” I’m sorry for looking askance at your sacred cattle, but thanks for commenting on my link-bait :)

    Players-Wanted, I guess what I’m suggesting is that I don’t mind sandbox gaming at all: I’ve loved playing in, and running, but I think the sandbox style of play ages badly (for me as a player). The natural lifecycle for a sandbox game seems to be about an order of magnitude less than what the rest of the OSR assumes.

    Maybe an analogy here would be super hero comic books. For much of the 1960’s through 1980’s, super hero comics were published monthly for an audience that loathed lasting changes to the status quo. So if you sample comics at intervals of 3 years or so, basically nothing ever changes. But stories are *about* change, so at a month-to-month level there are zillions of emergencies and crazy adventures–they just don’t have much lasting result. It’s not that these stories are bad: they’re just superfluous. Once you’ve read Amazing Spider-Man 1-40, you don’t *really* need to read 41-600 or whatever they’re up to now, let alone Spectacular Spider-Man 1-200 and so forth and so on. Personally I’d rather see brief runs, telling a complete story over a few dozen issues, with a distinctive take on the character — rather than worrying about whether certain events are “in continuity” with the last 50 years.

    One of the nice things about the OSR is that it’s doing its damnedest to deconstruct D&D and its attendant assumptions: I think the campaign assumption is due for some questioning.

    In brief: D&D largely means sandbox, and sandbox (ought to) largely mean brief runs, maybe a dozen sessions or less. I could certainly be wrong, but that’s how I feel this weekend.

  5. December 14, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    P.w.i.NB: I haven’t played the Dragonlance series, but my understanding is that doing all the modules is still a 30+ session undertaking. And, while any one Dragonlance adventure might achieve the princess falling in love stuff within five sessions by railroading, I don’t think that’s the kind of crazy action James is talking about. That said, I also would like to see James’s sketch of a micro-campaign! First because I love movie previews, Phil Farmer’s book on Doc Savage, and other examples of taking a long form and boiling it down to its crack-like essence; and second because it’d be illuminating to talk about what that essence is.

    Norman: I did play the Age of Worms campaign, similar to Paizo’s later Pathfinder adventure paths, and it took 3 years of often-weekly sessions. I spent six or seven sessions apiece playing through parts of A1 and A2, so I think the module series you mention are also going to take 30 sessions.

    Re: “troll post,” everyone comes to a subject with assumptions. James’ are different than mine; that diversity is a virtue of the Mule because it gives us a chance to test our assumptions and see how they shape our understandings of things. The assumption that James’ post is anything but an honest attempt to express his thinking and feelings doesn’t test well against the rest of my experience, and it actively works against understanding where he’s coming from.

    James: Check out [this OD&D boards discussion] where howandwhy99 is arguing that the old-school game of is a guessing game rather than a wargame, to which a completely different definition of “roleplaying” than the contemporary one applies. I’m not sure I understand what he’s talking about – as with your post, some of the assumptions are opaque to me – but it does seem to synch with some things I believe are true:

    1) one of the parts of the White Sandbox campaign that seems to be most compelling to players is figuring out what’s behind the screen; the accumulation of information that we’ve talked about

    2) Arneson was notoriously secretive about every aspect of the game, from rules to backstory (the latter I experienced firsthand when asking him about who built the pipe organs in Temple of the Frog at a seminar he gave in ’08); I often see this as a personal peculiarity of his, while in fact it (and other weirdnesses like tricky mapping) may have been an essential aspect of the original approach

    3) all of us as players, and especially those of us who also DM, know about a thousand times more about D&D and fantasy in general than any of Arneson and Gygax’s original audience did; arguably it takes us five sessions to figure out “how does this DM’s world vary from the standard parameters” while it’d take campaign-length play if we had to figure out basic assumptions like “monsters will attack us if we make noise while moving through the dungeon”.

  6. December 14, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    It takes me 5 or more sessions to get into a character when I’m playing a PC, if the whole campaign was only 5 sessions I don’t know If I could look at it as more then a long board game. “The Weird Parasite” of long campaigns didn’t graft itself onto the game, the game was written to be played that way (if it wasn’t charters would get the cool powers quicker).

    D&D supports long campaigns just fine in my experience;My last campaign I Dm’d was about 2 years long (technically on hiatus currently) playing every week, the one before that 5 years long playing weekly, the longest I ran was 7 or 8 years long playing 2 or more times a month . To keep a campaign alive you have to let the players set their own goals, sure you can nudge them but if the players want to be dungeon marauders then the story most certainly is about dungeon marauding and the story is about that.

  7. December 14, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    JD: I agree that the campaign model is written into D&D, and is in fact older than D&D itself. Although I don’t know exactly how many sessions Arneson et. al. did of their Napoleonic campaigns, they were definitely long-form and I believe Blackmoor was always intended to be open-ended – in fact Arneson did keep that campaign running throughout his entire life. So regarding campaign play as a Weird Parasite requires a different understanding of what D&D is about than the folks who invented it had at the time. (BTW, JD, I deleted a double post of yours; content was identical so I kept the older one).

    James: Your comics analogy is a good one (you posted it while I was composing my comment). I think it’s highly significant that one of my favorite comics is Alan Moore’s run of Supreme, which wasn’t conceived as a limited series and riffed on 40 previous issues of that comic plus 600+ of Superman/woman/boy/girl/dog, and my favorite limited series is Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier, tilling soil in which you cannot dig without every spadeful containing an artifact of the past. For me, the meaningless-but-fascinating rococo cruft that you fractally generate by constantly working changes within a fixed set of parameters *is* the crazy action that I want. I’m not necessarily going to achieve the persistence and rigor of guys like Alexis over at Tao of D&D, whose current post describes an attitude to campaign longevity that’s all about the Weird Parasite. But even if I just do a brief-lived Alan Moore mashup romp, it’s important to me to be working in the same tradition as all the campaign play of the past so that I can steal tracks from the kind of record crates that take generations of devoted, fanatical effort to accrue.

  8. December 15, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    One part that is under-mentioned in this analysis is the exploration element of D&D. The room has a stuffed elephant head mounted on a wall, a fishing pole and a piece of cheese. Doing the paranoid explore-y stuff, where you try all the different ways to get through the deathtraps is a good part of the suspense of the dungeon experience, no? That’s where I’m playing from. Trying to outsmart the dungeon.

    That, and the lure of loot-loot-loot-loot-loot-loot-loot-loot-loot-loot-loot-loot-loot.

    I might like playing the same kind of puzzle, like a crossword, everyday as well, and it might not offer diminishing returns.

  9. December 18, 2009 at 1:36 am

    > What would a D&D “campaign” look like that was designed to play itself out in 5 sessions instead of 30? Instead of a mega-dungeon, which everyone on the Internet has been obsessing over as the sine qua non of a successful D&D game: a micro-dungeon. And cram all the crazy action you’d expect to see in a 30-session build-up into a very cleverly designed world?

    Arguably board games like Dungeon and Talisman.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2009

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