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.
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?
I’m joined by Jana Flesher, a professional nurse midwife who also happens to be both a player and DM in various RPG campaigns I’ve been involved with over the past three years. She talks about her 10+ years of experience running various RPG systems including Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeon World, and specifically offers tips for running tag-along NPCs and engaging the motivations of player characters. She explains why it’s the “GM’s job to remind players of their character’s backstory” and examines why perceived invulnerability can negatively affect a campaign.
Jana also details her professional role as a midwife and speaks to how gaming has increased her ability to cope with any situation her professional work can deal to her. Throughout the episode, we both provide examples of games we share both ends of the screen, which leads to some great conversation about principles of tabletop role-playing games. Enjoy!
Enjoy the 41st episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
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.
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”
A challenge for me while running sessions of Dungeons & Dragons is efficiently detailing important story details to the players at the table. There are standard ways to accomplish this, and the most common is the text box in a published adventure. The text box highlights the information that the players should be told when they enter a specific area. The design of adventures force the DM to notice this text with the equivalent of a neon sign that flashes, “Stop! Read this!” Another option for DMs to deliver vital plot details is to use a NPC to convey information to the players through some conversation. While I use these methods often, I’m always experimenting to do something creative at the table that gives important details about a character, a location, or a quest that doesn’t involve me reading a block of text or speaking through a NPC.
I detailed last article how I collaborated with other DMs to build NPCs for the initial session of a Tales From the Yawning Portal campaign. During the second session, I had three primary goals that I wanted to accomplish with the players. First, I wanted them to have some interactions with the rival adventuring group they agreed to partner with in Undermountain. Second, I wanted something to split the adventuring groups up so, third, the party could explore a ruined stronghold in a session or two without assistance.
I knew the first goal would happen organically at the table, and I was confident I could find a clean place during the session to have the vain leader of the rival party abandon the partnership with the party. The third goal required me to create a stronghold for the party to explore. The players had previously purchased a map from a NPC at the Yawning Portal to “an abandoned stronghold that is rumored to house great treasures.” Now I had to figure out what was on the map! Continue reading “Do You Want Some Exposition?”
The three pillars of Dungeons & Dragons are Roleplay/Interaction, Combat, and Exploration. There are multiple tools available to support Dungeon Masters in creating these pillars at a gaming table. The most common tool is a book that gives you information about each pillar. The most recent example is the Tomb of Annihilation adventure, and the upcoming Waterdeep books. The books describe locations, characters, monsters, and quests that are to be consumed by the players around a table. It’s a successful formula, and it works really well for most groups. It also leaves gaps because no matter how many pages a book like Tomb of Annihilation contains, it cannot provide all of the information required for the three pillars of D&D. Players are bound to go in an unexpected direction, and the DM may want to feature an area of the world that isn’t mentioned or fleshed out in detail in the book. Thankfully, there are other tools available for DMs to build up the pillars.
One tool to assist with brainstorming and generating ideas for the three pillars is the Dungeon Master’s Guide; the DMG has pages and pages of random tables to help build up any of the three pillars for a gaming session. I have long argued that one of the most useful strategies to simplify game preparation and session management is to create some anchor NPCs for players to meet during a session/campaign. I originally referenced my enjoyment of games like Red Dead Redemption, which advances the story through a series of interactions with important NPCs; players are even directed to these NPCs by large indicators on a map! (With Red Dead Redemption 2 coming out later this year, the game is again on my mind.) As I was planning to start a new campaign based on the material in Tales From the Yawning Portal, I realized that I needed to create additional NPCs for the characters in interact with during the first session. I cracked open my trusty DMG and set out to create another group of adventurers that the party could engage with (and perhaps be rivals with later) during their time in the Yawning Portal. Continue reading “Don’t Prepare on an Island: The Joys of Collaborative Worldbuilding”