Inspired by my recent playthrough of Star Wars: Fallen Order, I have been pondering how the term exploration gets used in videogames and tabletop roleplaying games. Exploration is one of the Three Pillars of Dungeons & Dragons along with Combat and Roleplaying/Social Interactions, and I find it is the most challenging to define. Exploration implies that there is uncharted territory that the players can either uncover or even create new information to fill in the blanks. The DM and the players sit down at a table and must create…. something.
Exploration (in theory) gives the players an infinite canvas – you can go anywhere and do anything. Exploration (in reality) fills the canvas through one – and usually a combination – of these three things:
A published setting
The DM’s homebrew plans
Collaborative worldbuilding between DM and players
I imagine most games are run on the settings that are published by Wizards of the Coast with DM homebrew plans coming in second place with collaborative worldbuilding sprinkled in.
This has been on my mind after reading a review of Fallen Order that said the game is less of an action game and more of an exploration game. I recoiled at this description. It’s not exploration, it’s pathfinding!
Teos Abadia joins me once again to present his thoughts on visual aids in D&D adventures and how they may not accomplish their intended goals. He offers examples of graphics and flowcharts that do not seem to add helpful information to the DM as they attempt to run an adventure. We discuss player choice and the *illusion of player choice and how to incorporate both in a campaign. Teos address some common pitfalls in published D&D content and how that might be remedied in the future.
It was a great conversation, and I’m really pleased that he agreed to spend some time answering questions about a topic that has weighed on my mind recently!
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….the fantastical setting of Strixhaven University, drawn from the multiverse of Magic: The Gathering, and provides rules for creating characters who are students in one of its five colleges. Characters can explore the setting over the course of four adventures, which can be played together or on their own. Each adventure describes an academic year filled with scholarly pursuits, campus shenanigans, exciting friendships, hidden dangers, and perhaps even romance.
SIGN ME UP!
One element of running adventures or campaigns that feels intimidating to me is the expectation of scale – the notion that the adventuring party will bounce around to various towns, far-flung locations or even planes of existence. A good part of me wants to keep the players in a smaller area for a long period of time so they can get to know it and feel like they have some agency in what is happening around them. Instead sessions seem to advance into a series of “Go here, and do that” quests that take them all over a map or seven.
Another element that can be challenging is absorbing all the lore and information in recent D&D hardcover adventures. The adventures are a few hundred pages that the DM needs to be familiar with; and I’m aware you can pick and choose what you like from any one of these hardcover books – it remains heavy lifting to get started on settings that you might not know a lot about. I have not been able to juggle various factions, pivotal non-playable characters, and important locations when the setting feels otherworldly.
Stixhaven seems to provide a solution to these concerns in my mind because the setting is incredibly tangible – school!
I was a student for approximately half my life including graduate school. Rather than the party being a collective of adventurers off to seek fortune and fame (or some form of revenge/redemption), the party becomes a bunch of students on a campus. That makes sense to me.
What a glorious shift in the stakes!
The setting allows a DM and players to focus on goals that might link to experiences they have had as a person. How many D&D players have traveled the world battling monsters, explored ancient ruins or navigated trap-filled dungeons? Rather, how many of those same players have dealt with a teacher they adored or despised, faced a rivalry with another student or school, or stayed out late one night and got into a situation that became very complicated? Strixhaven gives gaming groups a greenlight to explore those situations while still being able to say, “Hey, let’s schedule a time to play D&D.”
I’m finding that to be a delightful idea, and I encourage folks to learn more about the Strixhaven setting through this free primer written by Anthony Joyce.
And Strixhaven will allow DMs to include aspects of Session 0 in the game world. For those unaware, Session 0 is a term used by tabletop roleplaying enthusiasts to describe the initial meeting of the gaming group where ground rules can be discussed and agreed upon before the game is played. Key elements of a Session 0 include expectations for the style of game that will be played (“Do we want all combat, all the time? A lot of story and roleplaying? A combination of both?”), house/table rules (“Are all rolls in the open? What’s the policy on attendance if we have to miss a game?”), and consent and safety tools (“What are topics you want to avoid at all costs during the game – such as graphic horror or abuse, suicide, racism, sexism?”). The discussion of expectations and agreeing upon ground rules by the players is a wonderful way to ensure that everyone at the table is aware of the game they – and everyone else – is playing.
Session 0 is incredibly useful, and it typically takes place outside of the gaming world. For example, a group of friends getting together to start a Ravenloft campaign might share some emails ahead or time and use the first session to work out expectations and boundaries mentioned above. After the flavor of the campaign, house rules, and consent/safety is agreed upon by the players, the DM might then transition to running a quick adventure in the gaming world before the end of the session. In my mind, Session 0 is about working with the players to set the stage so the adventure or campaign can begin with the greatest chance of success.
Strixhaven offers a unique setting that allows DMs to cover essential Session 0 content in the gaming world, which has spectacular possibilities! I discuss two options below.
Welcome to 2021! This week I’m joined by Mark Meredith and we start out 2021 by going in the “sorta-way-back machine” to discuss 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons with Mark Meredith. He has been writing for Dice Monkey for over 10 years and recently started to rediscover 4e with his family. He talks about surprising aspects of the edition after years away from it. He speaks to the forward-facing design and energy from the tactile nature of combat. We highlight some of our memories of the edition and focus on positive elements of the 4e experience. It was great fun to talk about the edition and it makes me want to play it again!
And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
Teos Abadia joins me to present his thoughts on visual aids in D&D adventures and how they may not accomplish their intended goals. He offers examples of graphics and flowcharts that do not seem to add helpful information to the DM as they attempt to run an adventure. We discuss player choice and the utility of the *illusion of player choice and how to incorporate both in a campaign. Teos address some common pitfalls in published D&D content and how that might be remedied in the future.
I threw a question out on Twitter <checks notes> a few months ago and the amount of responses I received was impressive. It seemed I hit a nerve, and the following article is the result. The question was:
Players and DMs, do you keep track of ammunition and spell components? #dnd
My question was inspired by looking through Bard spells for The Stone and noticing that I had been ignoring the required spell components throughout a Tomb of Annihilation campaign run by the wonderful Dungeon Master (and Professional Nurse Midwife), Jana Flescher. For example, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter requires “a small feather that needs to be waved in the air and tiny tarts that need to be thrown in the target’s direction.” Needless to say, The Stone has (sadly) not been throwing tiny tarts at hags and other targets of Tasha’s Hideous Laughter throughout the campaign.
What a missed opportunity!!
It appears that I am not the only one that ignores spell components; two-out-of-three respondents in my poll indicated that they ignore keeping track of ammunition and spell components as well.
Spell components in 5th Edition have resulted in frustration for some and it would seem ambivalence in most others. Like anything in D&D, if there is something you don’t enjoy – change it or ignore it. It seems that most players simply ignore spell components because they add an artificial barrier to an already-limited ability for a character. It introduces inventory management, which can be insufferable. Even the rules provide a work-around as a character’s spell focus can be considered a substitute for most spell components. So most players ignore it, though maybe that’s a lost opportunity for further world building.
How could spell component add to the enjoyment of the game?
It’s been a while since I read something that inspired me to respond with an article of my own, though that is just what happened after reading Susan J. Morris’ musings on internal tension in characters. I previously interviewed Susan on the Ego Check podcast back in January 2017 where she spoke about her work as a fantasy author and editor for companies such as Wizards of the Coast and Monte Cook Games. Her article this month on character tensions uses wonderful imagery to demonstrate how characters are affected by internal tensions and external forces:
Imagine for a moment everything your character cares about—Love, Friendship, Family, Country, Ideals, Religion, Tradition, Self, and Things More Specific—as a string, wrapped around your character.
The more your character cares about that thing, the tighter that string is pulled—the more tension on the line.
The more strings? The more interesting it gets.
She provides numerous examples of how characters can be tied up, and then offers this clear advice, “I think [the] most useful application is troubleshooting spots in your story where the tension drops or feels off.” By diagramming the tensions pulling a character in a story, a writer could identify when the tension sags and adjust accordingly.
Susan’s article provides useful suggestions for writers, though it struck me so strongly because it relates to an exercise I often complete with patients in my clinical work as a psychologist. And it is an exercise that can cut quickly to the heart of problems in one’s life.
Gaming Informs Work and Work Informs Gaming
A task I take on early when working with a patient in therapy is to clarify his or her values – in other words, why does that person want to live? What is important? It is a question I typically preface, “This may sound like an odd question…. why do you want to stay alive?”
In addition to listing the 10 values, it asks for the individual to first rate how important each value is in their life at that moment. The second step is to rate how satisfied they are with each value in their life at that moment. The third and final step is to answer some open-ended questions about each value.
The Valued Directions Worksheet gives a patient and I a great deal of information to discuss in therapy. For example, Parenting could be identified as very important while the satisfaction level with Parenting is low; this would be a good place to 1) explore and clarify why Parenting matters to the patient and 2) determine strategies for raising the satisfaction level of Parenting. One key thing we know from decades of research and clinical practice is that our mood typically improves when we engage in activities that are connected to our values. The first step for us is identifying what values are important, and the next step is taking actions that are connected to those values.
Many (if not most) of us struggle with this, and that is okay!
Susan’s article made me realize that the homework exercise above that I often give to my patients is something that my players or I could also use to create characters in role-playing games with more depth! What would it be like to complete a Valued Directions Worksheet as my Bard, The Stone? How could that exercise potentially add to my ability to “know” The Stone and role-play him effectively?
How important are these values to the character, and how satisfied are they with those values? Discrepancies between importance and satisfaction naturally lead to potential plot hooks – and as Susan detailed in her article, tension.
For example, if the NPC strongly values Education/learning and is not satisfied in that area, then how could the players interact with that NPC to increase his or her satisfaction level? Regardless if the NPC is a queen, guard, innkeeper or monster – the exercise could give the NPC additional depth for the GM and PCs to play around with as the game unfolds.
Finally, consider taking a moment (ideally, after several long, slow, deep breaths) and complete the Valued Directions Worksheet for yourself. Self-monitoring and externalization can be wonderful tools to enhance our awareness and improve our mood. If this exercise highlights an area of your life that is important while the satisfaction is low, then consider methods to increase the satisfaction.
More exercises like this can be found in The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, which is a solid resource if you’re looking for a self-help option. In addition, considering speaking with a friend, family member and a professional clinician to work on areas of your life that might be a concern.
In recent months, I’ve been slowly working my way through Red Dead Redemption 2. I started before the holidays, and the slow pace of the early game tripped me up. It took some cognitive adjustment (and a few tutorial articles) to get my bearings in this new version of the Old West. The game is beautiful, and gives players a vast canvas to devote countless hours to do – well, just about anything.
From hunting wildlife to donating to beggars to playing poker to bonding with a horse to furthering women’s rights to shooting up a “the whole damn town” with a frenemy, Red Dead Redemption 2 gives players a trainload of options for how to spend their time while controlling Arthur Morgan. In addition to tens of hours of primary plot lines to follow, which I’m still nowhere near completing yet, the game has various tiers of what I’ll label Random Encounters. It is these encounters – and how they could relate to a tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons – that have been on my mind in recent days.
In games such as Red Dead Redemption, the NPCs drive the story forward. I mentioned above that a player can travel to specific locations on the world map to trigger the next story mission; the icons on the map are the names of important NPCs in the world. The player knows at any time during the game the NPCs that are available to trigger a story mission. I used this design to build my campaign.
Back then, I channeled my preparation time into creating prominent NPCs that players could interact with during sessions, knowing the general areas and missions those NPCs would trigger. It was a formula that worked well with my group, and helped me prepare for each session. Clearly, adventure books and modules accomplish this same goal; those texts provide details on important NPCs, and the DM steers the players in the direction of those NPCs to advance the plot.
Where Red Dead Redemption 2 is intriguing is that some tiers of the Random Encounters do not serve a purpose in the classic sense of game design. Completing the encounters does not increase skills, earn your character money, or unlock new items. The encounters are simply there; they exist to be experienced by the player. It’s rather strange because many other areas of the game drive you to complete specific actions to craft an item, earn more money, or improve your character or equipment in some way.
I was happy to contribute to Andy’s article series, though I struggled to get started on the quest ideas – the kind of struggle when an open document is starring you in the face and the blinking cursor is simply taunting you with every repetitive blink. I considered using some of the random tables from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which I’ve put to great use when designing a delve for my players. The “been there, done that” vibe got in the way, so the cursor continued to blink with nary a word written.
I was scrolling through earlier articles in Andy’s Quest Ideas series, and noted that the Ranger quests started with a brief title. I considered the option of using song titles as a starting place for each Cleric Quest Idea, and from that point – I was cooking with gas! I briefly considered Pearl Jam songs (as they remain my favorite band), though I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to reach new eyeballs to persuade readers to listen to a band they may not have heard of, Dead Sara.
I listed each Dead Sara song in my blank document and vanquished the blinking cursor! I deleted some songs to get down to 20 tracks, which now functioned as quest ideas for a Cleric. From there, it was a matter of writing a few sentences for each song title to create a quest that would relate to a Cleric in D&D. It was enjoyable to write once I unlocked a way to get the article started.
Check out the 20 Cleric Quest Ideas at Boccob’s Blessed Blog, and be sure to read through to the end of the article as I linked to a Spotify playlist of Dead Sara songs arranged in the same order as the quests; this wrinkle may delight only me, though I’m sharing that delight with everyone!
Also, experiment with this device when preparing sessions. Start with song titles – or even movies titles – and use those as a jumping-off point for ideas for characters and quests in the campaign. For example, what would the NPCs in the next important location be like if the starting point for each NPC’s backstory were a title from the last five films that won the Academy Award for Best Picture?
The Shape of Water
12 Years a Slave
Fun little puzzle to sort out, right?!
Quick note, I’ll be appearing on and episode of Dragon Talk next Friday, February 8th at 1PM PST. The show is hosted by staff with Wizards of the Coast, and you can watch live on Twitch or the show will appear as a podcast later in the month.
Finally, it has been quite some time since I openly plugged my Patreon site. If you enjoy the content including the articles and podcasts I’ve been posting and would like to support my creative efforts, then please visit my Patreon to consider getting involved for as little as $1/month. Every little bit helps with improving the articles and podcasts that I put out into the world for free, and there are some fun ways to get involved with the content.
I’m joined this week by Jase Nolan, also known as CinderAscendant on Twitter and Twitch. Jase talks about his style of preparing and running Dungeons & Dragons sessions. He shares how he got started casting Hearthstone matches, and how the skills learned in “Talkstone” help him narrate elements of a D&D session. He speaks to sources of potential burnout as a DM and highlights the need for DMs to know the adventure and setting they are running. He offers some of his tips and tricks for running effective sessions, and then we conclude the talk by discussing the Hearthstone community including how Jase has felt welcome as an openly queer individual.
Enjoy the 37th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
One of the nifty things about social media is it allows you to live vicariously through other like-minded people engaged in fun activities like playing Dungeons & Dragons. While it can be enjoyable to see tweets with descriptions and pictures from the gaming sessions of others, a constant response in my brain is, “Where do they find the time to play this often?” Quite frankly, it has been a challenge to maintain a tabletop campaign in recent years for a number of reasons. There seems to be a dwindling window of time available for hobbies as we get older and more responsibilities are tossed our way.
So this article offers a few helpful tips to keep a campaign moving. How can you go from playing once every few months to gaming more consistently? And how can you keep the players interested in plot points that were introduced many weeks (or maybe even months – or years) ago?
Adventuring in the Middle Ages
Has anyone ever ran a campaign where characters in the game world had to juggle their personal call to adventure with the realities of raising a family or holding down gainful employment? Probably not, because it would lead to the following conversation:
King Yavin IV: Our kingdom is plagued by the undead. The source of this foul curse seems to be coming from the east. I sent my most-talented warriors and sages to solve the problem, and they have not returned. No word from them in weeks…. I fear the worst! Would you follow their path, and end our suffering? I will see to it that you are all handsomely rewarded.
So’lana Arquist (Bard): Most honorable King Yavin IV, your need is great, and we can certainly take on this most-important quest. Tough, perhaps we could delay the start of this quest as I’m booked to perform each night at The Dove’s Inn until the new moon arrives.
Farcha Oxblood (Fighter): Yes, nothing is as satisfying as ridding undead vermin from this world! However, my partner is away on business and our children need someone to stay home with them. You have my swords, of course, when she returns.
Rinzin (Rogue): Yes, yes…. Later would work better for me as well, your majesty. I’m scheduled to see a surgeon for a medical procedure. Since our last run-in with a group of mages and a flame imp – long story, I won’t trouble you with details – my back has been killing me and it needs some work. I should be in tip-top shape in a few weeks!
Sister Maven (Cleric): I’m ready to cleanse your land of these abominations, though I would need the assistance of the others here today. I will remain focused until the time comes when So’lana, Farcha, and Rinzin are ready to venture east!
King Yavin IV: Oh dear….
Coordinating the schedules for four or more adults is a challenge, and it seems to get increasingly complex as we age. Ideally, everyone in a gaming group would have the same level of commitment to the game and make attendance a priority.
Life happens though. Children need attention, work requirements escalate, emergencies come up, illness strikes, and hobbies such as playing a tabletop roleplaying game for a few hours must be pushed aside for other pressing demands.
In recent months, I’ve found that three strategies are most effective in dealing with the realities of running a game composed of people in theirs 30s and 40s who are invariably juggling multiple real-world responsibilities.
First, accept that each player is not going to attend every gaming session. The struggle to find a time that works for everyone can limit how often the game is played, and that delay can sap the enthusiasm of every player involved. When all the players involved understand that sessions will take place without one or more players at times, the group can collectively move forward more efficiently with scheduling.
Second, attempt to find a consistent time that works for the majority of players. I recently tried to schedule a game that would run on the same night of the same week each month. For example, “Let’s all agree to meet from 6-9PM on the second Tuesday of each month.” That type of scheduling makes the game predictable for everyone, and can be added to calendars and digital planners as a recurring appointment. The problem with this is it may not work for everyone in the group, which leads us to the final option. Continue reading “Scheduling & Summaries: Pillars of Campaign Momentum”