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.
Matt Henderson is the designer for Loke Battle Mats, which has been releasing tabletop battle mats for roleplaying games in recent years. Matt talks about the origins for the product line and his inspirations while designing the maps. We discuss how Dungeons & Dragons and other systems have shaped Loke Battle Mats and how terrain has shifted in importance over the years for players. Matt shares his approach to preparing for games including routine use of a Dual-Dungeon Master technique. He shares excellent tips on getting the most out of battle mats and other terrain options!
Enjoy the 54th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM!
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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?”
I recently received two related questions from a long-time reader. I responded to him quickly, though I also wanted to expand on the answers as the topic seems universal to gaming groups. The questions focus on how to alter the routine of a gaming group when it feels like the sessions are no longer quite as fun and the thrill is gone. You can find the questions and my answers below, and please contact me if you have other questions!
I’ve been running a game for about 14 months now, and my group took about half a year to complete Phandelver. We hadn’t played before, but I believe we’re doing well. Upon finishing, we decided to start anew with Out of the Abyss. Because of the unusual setting, I find it rather hard to DM that campaign, and the group is a bit frustrated with the limited resources and equipment. We recently played a one-shot with the Phandelver characters and everyone was very nostalgic. Now there’s Storm King’s Thunder, and I believe the Phandelver characters could just transition into that setting. I feel the temptation to rest the Out of the Abyss campaign and start Storm King’s Thunder instead. Is that a legitimate idea? Or can I be confident that Out of the Abyss will become more “likeable” over time?
I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the question, and the obvious care you have about the gaming experience for all of the players involved in the sessions. To provide a clear answer immediately, yes, your idea is legitimate! I believe it is the DM’s job to monitor the enjoyment level of the players (and him- or herself) and adjust accordingly. There are several options available to you, and I believe any of them are legitimate to pursue.
First, you mentioned you are finding the Out of the Abyss setting “rather hard to DM” because of the “unusual setting.” There are resources available to aid your efforts if you wish to continue running Out of the Abyss, such as Sly Flourish’s aptly-named series, Running Out of the Abyss. He has written seven detailed articles about individual chapters in the Out of the Abyss campaign, and his first article in the series addresses how a DM can adjust to make the adventure more forgiving to players.
Personally, I am also most comfortable when the campaign is tethered to a typical fantasy environment. I have taken campaigns into the Feywild, Shadowfell, and Elemental Chaos in the past, and those sessions tend to be a bit more challenging for me to run effectively. When the environments, creatures, and obstacles become more fantastical, I find I’m less confident in my descriptions of events and how the world “works.” When in doubt, simplify the elements from the campaign book or reduce the number of bizarre elements in any given session to something that feels more suitable and familiar to your style.
Earlier this summer, I was contacted by Andy Hand, the creator of Boccob’s Blessed Blog and co-owner of Limitless Adventures, which is a new endeavor by him and Michael Johnson. He contacted me to ask if I would be interested in reviewing the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons products that are now available for purchase through Limitless Adventures and other outlets. Rather than a product review, I thought it would be more fun to interview him about the challenges and opportunities involved in self-publishing D&D content. Below, he speaks about he long history with roleplaying games and how the Open Game License has evolved over the years including the recent introduction of the DM Guild through Wizards of the Coast. We also delved into design philosophy between editions and entered a bit of a debate around issue of Dungeon Masters “fudging” die results for reasons. Enjoy the interview leave a question below if you have any thoughts or reactions.
You started Boccob’s Blessed Blog over six years ago, which was during the upswing in attention to all things Dungeons & Dragons based on the release of 4th Edition in 2008. What were some of the key motivations to start writing about gaming back then?
I started Boccob’s in response to 4th Edition. I started playing D&D with Basic in 1990; I still think the Rule Cyclopedia is the greatest D&D product ever written. Our group quickly evolved to 2nd Edition, and then moved to 3rd in 2000, so suffice it say, we’ve played a lot of D&D. We loved the changes that came along with 3rd edition and played it zealously for years. When 4th came out we didn’t care for it and started to archive as much 3.5 material from the Wizards of the Coast website as we could, knowing that they’d clear out the old to make way for the new – which they did, and a lot of great content was lost. I wanted a place to post new 3.5 material and continue the conversation started by the Open Game License.
Your experience is quite different from my own; I started writing in 2011 after falling in love with 4th Edition. I took a long break after playing some 2nd Edition as a teenager and still have yet to play any form of 3rd Edition D&D. The Open Game License first came about in 2000, and it has gone through a variety of forms over the years. How has producing D&D content through the OGL changed over the years and editions?
I recently had the good fortune to play a session of Game of Thrones using Dungeon World rules. The experience was quite differently from playing or running sessions of Dungeons & Dragons because the Game of Thrones’ setting brings a different atmosphere to the game. In addition to traditional fantasy elements, the Game of Thrones’ world features a high level of political intrigue, tangled relationships, and short lifespans. It is entirely possible to run a Game of Thrones-style campaign in the Forgotten Realms. However, sitting down and inhabiting characters in Westeros a few years before the events of Game of Thrones take place forces the players into a different mindset than the average D&D session. Our game featured numerous social interactions, a brief flirtation with a combat moment, and a bevy of characters being introduced into the story.
Cooperative storytelling is a part of every roleplaying game session, and it requires those around the table to be willing to jump in with ideas to shape the events. Many articles have been written about improvisation in roleplaying games, and Mike Shea’s interview with designer Steve Townshend really speaks to some of the points I discuss below. There are two approaches to shaping events in any given session. The first is to plan ahead of time what a character will do in a certain set of circumstance. The person running the session could prepare a specific quest to move the players in that direction while players can build characters that always respond to situations in a prescribed manner. For example, a Cleric in D&D may always take action to help those in need; it’s not so much a choice at the table as it is a personality trait that is created before the session begins.
The second approach is to improvise as a session goes along to take the story in an infinite number of directions. The person running the game gives an outline of the setting and situation, and the players can respond how they like. It requires all players (including the GM) to be creative, spontaneous, and accepting of the contributions and ideas of each player. Every session I’ve experienced of a tabletop roleplaying game has featured elements of preparation and improvisation. I learned through my Game of Thrones experience that I need to bolster my improvisation skills, and I imagine others out their struggle with this aspect of RPGs as well. The following article offers some ideas to increase the entire group’s willingness to accept and engage in improvisation, and how to improve individual improv skills.