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!
Please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
….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.
I’m joined by Stacy King and Andrew Wheeler, two of the minds responsible for the wonderful Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guide series. They talk about the latest entry, Wizards & Spells, and detail how they took the vast magical information in D&D and organized that into a clean framework for young readers (and us creaky adults!) to absorb. They talk about the joys of creating new Legendary Characters for the D&D universe and how choices were made to highlight specific spells and magical items.
Stacy and Andrew speak about their contributions to all books in the series and explain how the books fit together to form a coherent and warm invitation to all readers to play D&D. They respond to the glowing reception the books have received by an audience ranging in age, and briefly mention plans for the next two books in the series. These books are a treasure for any fan of D&D!
Keith Ammann joins me to discuss his book, The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, which provides highly-detailed tactical guidance for monsters in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. He speaks about the his interest in strategy games and how that influenced his approach to running gaming sessions.
He discusses how to run monsters realistically to further engage players and make their achievements at the table more meaningful. He provides examples from his book on creatures such as goblins and highly-intelligent monsters such as the mage. We explore multiple aspects of combat including complexity, difficulty, and morality.
The Monsters Know What They’re Doing reminds me of the write-ups for early 4th Edition D&D monsters, and that information is sorely missed in 5th Edition. I recommend the book strongly for anyone running 5th Edition sessions.
Enjoy the 58th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM!
Dr. Connell comes back to Ego Check to (first appearance was in 2017) talk about the developments in the therapeutic use of Dungeons & Dragons in therapy. She talks about how the game allows players to achieve personal growth through exposure.
She offers insights into how to manage an improv-heavy campaign and discusses the use of several resources that she have found useful to handle the stress of running multiple campaigns. We talk about balancing a professional life with hobby goals and values, and explore how to navigate the fatigue and burnout that can arise from generating content.
Enjoy the 57th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM!
I’m joined by Elizabeth Kilmer (soon-to-be PhD) and Jared Kilmer, PhD this week as they discuss their use of Dungeons & Dragons in clinical settings with military veterans. They present how the therapy gaming groups are structured and the themes that come up during gameplay. They present examples from past sessions including stories of how veterans have processed through challenging emotional content with the help of in-game situations. They talk about their ambitions and plans to gather more data about their therapeutic D&D approach with veterans, and how they might expand this in the future with other populations.
Enjoy the 55th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM!
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?
Elisabeth de Kleer is an award-winning documentary producer and director that has experience working in the true crime genre. She has been working for the past two years on the subject of Dungeons & Dragons in prisons, and is attempting to Kickstart a documentary on this subject. She joins me to talk about the inspiration for this project and shares some of the stories from the 100s of inmates and prison personnel that she has interviewed thus far. We also discuss the purpose of prison, and the challenges that exist for reintegrating back into society.
I share with her my background as a survivor of a violent crime as my father was shot and killed in the line of duty when I was eight-years-old, and we discuss the murky waters of how society deals with individuals that commit violent crimes after they have served their time in prison. We explore the potential rehabilitative powers of D&D for inmates, and the extraordinary lengths they have gone to play the game while incarcerated.
Enjoy the 52nd episode of Ego Check with The Id DM!
And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
Teos Abadia joins Ego Check once again to talk about how wonderfully diverse the tabletop roleplaying game hobby has become in recent years. He details how he got involved in the Acquisitions Incorporated book for Dungeons & Dragons, and speaks to the philosophy behind the unique approach to D&D content. He discusses his hand in refining the final segments of the AI adventure within the book, and how delightful it was to work with the other members of the team on the project.
Enjoy the 51st episode of Ego Check with The Id DM!
And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below: