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!
A combination of newfound free time and fresh blood has resulted in realistic plans to get a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign running amongst my friends. Of all the new D&D adventure settings, I selected Curse of Strahd. I remember the old Raveloft module, although I never got to play it. I did win a sealed copy – that was handed to me by DM-to-the-Stars, Chris Perkins – at GenCon 2012, and it remains sealed in a box of D&D 4th Edition materials in the “Harry Potter” room under the stairs of our house. My excitement to start a campaign and get back into the DM chair is fun to embrace, and I am eagerly cooking up methods to hit the ground running with our new group.
One aspect of running a campaign that I thoroughly appreciate is weaving in the backstory elements of each player into the game sessions. Whenever a player takes the time to create a backstory, I want to reward that in a meaningful way. The nice thing about 5th Edition D&D is the Player’s Handbook gives players reference tables to craft a backstory through Backgrounds, which provide ideas for Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. My hope for the new campaign is to add another layer to the character creation process to increase the interconnectedness of the party.
And to accomplish this I borrowed from my recent experiences playing the terrific boardgame, Pandemic Legacy.
We started a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EotE) campaign last year, and one of the more interesting components of character creation is the Obligation system. Obligation is introduced during character creation and remains an ongoing device throughout the life of the campaign that can be used by both player and game master (GM) to facilitate storytelling, increase tension, and introduce surprise action. I believe the Obligation system is an example of how mechanics can affect the amount of roleplaying and immersion at the table.
When building a character in Edge of the Empire, one of the steps is selecting the character’s Obligation. Quite simply, no one in the Edge of the Empire is a self-starter; every character owes somebody something. While some players may enjoy forming a backstory – complete with layers of drama and intrigue – creating a detailed backstory is not something all players (or GMs) enjoy. For example, a player does not have to create any meaningful backstory for a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons character; the character is built by selecting desired attributes, powers, and gear. The player is asked to select Alignment to designate his or her moral compass, but after that initial selection is complete, alignment rarely comes into play for most groups. In other words, creating a backstory with any detail for a 4e D&D character is up to the discretion of the player and GM; Edge of the Empire’s Obligation system forces players to create a bit of backstory for their character.
I believe the Obligation system is something that could be used by other roleplaying game systems to enhance character creation and increase immersion. It forces the player to not answer answer the question, “What do I want my character to do?” But to also answer, “How did my character get here?” I will discuss the benefits of consequences of the Obligation system below.
I did not realize what was missing in my life until I received a press release for One Hit Die, a new webseries that combines “the journey and adventure of a Dungeons & Dragons game with the intimate aside interviews of The Office.” I quickly followed the link, watched the first four episodes of the series, and fell in love with the concept. Considering how much of my blog is dedicated to navel gazing the various levels of communication involved in roleplaying games, One Hit Die is a critical hit on my sensibilities.
I reached out to the creator of One Hit Die, Spencer Estabrooks. He has directed numerous short films in the past and was able to fund One Hit Die by earning a grant through the Alberta Foundation of the Arts. He is in the process of raising funds to advance the show, and was kind enough to share some of his time to discuss the genesis of the series – and some of the wonderful moments in the first four episodes currently available online. Before reading the interview, I suggest you first watch the first four episodes, which will be time well spent!
When previously asked about your inspiration for the series, you responded, “It came out of a desire to relive my early Dungeons & Dragons gaming experiences . . . we always had a lot of inter-party treachery, and I thought it was fun, and wanted to do a show based on that.” How would you describe the world of One Hit Die, and how does it relate to your early gaming experiences?
I grew up in a small town, and we played D&D and other games with very eclectic people. Everyone played with different ambitions, but it started to get fun when characters passed secret messages to the DM. It went like this:
Player A passes message to the DM
Player B asks, “What was that?”
Player A responds, “Your character wouldn’t know.”
Player B grumbles
Which is why I like focusing on the characters in One Hit Die, not just on their class and race. I started with the four standard classes, because what’s interesting is how people play them, and how that effects interactions with others.
So to sum it up, One Hit Die is not about games as much as it is about how people play them.
Outside a smattering of voyages into a few modules from earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons when I was still a teenager, my tabletop roleplaying game experience has been shaped by 4th Edition D&D. It was not until this past weekend I realized how much 4th Edition has influenced my view of how games should play and run.
Readers of the blog will note that I have spent some time playtesting a new roleplaying game called Blade Raiders. The game is very different from 4th Edition D&D and it still feels great to play. During the start of a new campaign with the system, I found myself slipping into a “4e” mindset – for better and for worse. Below, I process a few observations about habits learned while playing (almost exclusively) 4th Edition over the past two-plus years and discuss our first session of a Blade Raiders campaign.
Building a Badass
When I created a character for our playtest earlier in the year, I experimented with the Blade Raiders system and chose a combination of non-magical and magical talents. I certainly wanted to create an effective character but I was more interested in learning the system and trying new approaches to character design. But for the campaign, the “4e switch” flipped in my head and I was dissecting the various talent options in a surgical fashion.
How can I get the greatest bonus to hit?
How can I max out my damage per turn?
What talents will be most useful to me in the most circumstances?
Character optimization is not unique to 4th Edition D&D, but it is where I learned that craft! The Character Builder was (and remains to be) a wonderful tool to experiment with character creation; with a few clicks, one can see just how effective his or her character will be in combat and non-combat situations. It teaches the player the importance of statistical bonuses from a combination of skills, feats, traits and powers. And perhaps more importantly, it encourages and rewards that type of optimizing behavior. After all, why wouldn’t a player choose the options that produce the most damaging effects in combat?
So I examined he options in Blade Raiders and based my choices on the questions above. I chose talents that gave me bonuses to attack and damage rolls. I basically created a 4th Edition Striker in the Blade Raiders system. And my character, Bryce Brevard, was absolutely death on wheels. While I racked up kills and rejoiced in my ability to slay foes quickly, I experienced a creeping doubt that I was being “that guy.” You know, that guy on a basketball team that takes all the shots and celebrates the win by himself while his teammates look on in annoyance. It dawned on me that other people around the table were playing Blade Raiders – but in many ways, I was still playing 4th Edition D&D.
Between the time I graduated high school in 1994 and completed graduate school in 2005, the concept of ownership drastically transformed into something else. Now in 2012, I not only cling to fond stories of obsolete technologies from my youth, but also a seemingly ancient sense of what it means to truly own something. It reminds me of the first lines in the film version of The Fellowship of The Ring:
The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.
When my generation has aged and expired, it seems the concept of ownership will come to pass. No one will recall a time when an individual sought out real-world products, purchased them and physically took those products home to display them on shelves, desks and other storage centers. Media cabinets full of books, music albums and movies have already been replaced by such things and services as Kindle, Nook, iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, Netflix and Hulu.
Consider how many encyclopedias you’ve purchased in the past 20 years. Will you ever buy one again? Of course not. Wikipedia and Google have combined to make ownership of an encyclopedia irrelevant. The same thing is happening to atlases (Google Maps and GPS), and will soon start happening to cookbooks (Epicurious, anyone?) . . .
Ownership isn’t a panacea, especially in an age of information abundance. Will I be concerned if the Kindle dies and books I’ve read on it become inaccessible on that platform? Not really. If I want to read them again, there will be plenty of alternative ways in the future. And my bookshelves long ago stopped being my collection of known facts and resources . . .
Two of my favorite old Sherlock Holmes collections are on my Kindle — for free. A copy of “Moby Dick” typeset especially for the Kindle also held sway for a while. From classics to current bestsellers, I can wirelessly get books for free and for less.
And I don’t have to own them.
It is a common theme offered in support of the new concept of ownership – whether it be books, albums, movies or even video games. People are perfectly agreeable to not owning a product and are willing to enjoy the product for free or for less cost at their convenience. And how the new process of non-ownership will play out with tabletop roleplaying games is both unknown . . . and completely predictable.
During the past five weeks , I have moved out of a house, sold said house, closed down at one job, driven 1,200 miles and started a new job. And that’s the condensed version! One of the more challenging aspects of leaving my former hometown was saying goodbye to cherished friends and acquaintances. Since learning that I would be moving across the country, I have been terminating relationships left and right.
Termination is the somewhat unfortunate psychological term for the final phase of treatment with a client. For example, when a counselor is preparing to end therapy with a client he or she might say, “I’m about to terminate with Mrs. Jones” or “Mr. Jones and I only have three more sessions before termination.” Applied to my situation, I terminated with approximately 100 clients during the past two to three months. Ending a relationship with a client is a crucial portion of therapy, and it presents unique challenges.
I certainly gained a great deal of practice in termination. I have been a terminating machine!
As I prepared to leave town, I also had to terminate an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign, which had been running for over two years. I relied on many of the principles underlying appropriate clinical termination in a therapeutic relationship. Below, I describe how the process of termination can be best utilized to ensure a gaming group can end on the best possible terms.
With a great deal of dismay, I learned last week that our local Smoothie King is discontinuing their customer loyalty program and replacing it with something to be determined at a later date. It was a simple and standard program – buy a certain number of smoothies and you get one free. But this comes on the heels of them eliminating their $1.00-off coupon attached to each receipt from a purchased smoothie. Suddenly our friendly, local, neighborhood Smoothie King seemed to give in to corporate pressures. As I reluctantly enjoyed my Mangosteen Madness (Make It Skinny) smoothie, I pondered what their next customer loyalty program would entail. Giving myself periodic brain freeze, I wondered why more businesses did not try an achievement-based customer loyalty program.
For those of you who do not play video games on a regular basis, Achievements are a predefined goal a player must reach. A game such as Mass Effect 3 will come with a list of achievements a player can earn throughout the course of one or multiple playthroughs of the game. Some of the achievements are earned during the normal course of playing the game; a player will earn multiple achievements simply by playing through the standard single-player campaign mode. But many achievements are meant to entice players to continue playing the game to earn more rewards – even if those rewards are primarily a means for self-gratification and impressing other gamers. I fell into the “I need to increase my Gamer Score trap” for a time and played games that no longer interested me for the sake of earning achievements; thankfully, those days are behind me.
Below, I present thoughts on how achievements can be constructed to be more enticing, meaningful and tangibly rewarding for customers of a business – even if that business is a D&D campaign and the customers are players attending gaming sessions. I conclude with how achievements could possibly be used with players in a D&D campaign to increase loyalty and overall participation in the campaign.
I have been hesitant to give out Artifacts and Cursed Items to players in my Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Artifacts have intimidated me to a certain degree since it is one more facet of the game the players and I would need to track. I did not want to add another complication to the plot of the adventure, which has admittedly gotten away from me at times during the campaign. I could also never figure out how to adequately roleplay an Artifact, although experiencing the Narrator from Bastion gave me a fantastic template to bring an Artifact to life. I did give the party an Artifact in recent months, but they have ignored it for the most part (another article for another day).
Below I detail the circumstances that led to me giving out a cursed item to the players. I discuss how I provided clues to the players that the item was not all it appeared to be and emphasis how the item fit into the story of the campaign. I discuss how the players have handled the discovery of the cursed item and conclude with alternatives to the specific Removing An Item Curse rules listed in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium (p. 111), which seem quite anticlimactic.
Below, he talks about how the roleplaying game industry has changed but how the players have remained mostly the same. He describes his personal evolution as a game designer over the years, and details his thoughts on what makes a rule good in addition to the challenges of presenting appropriate rewards and punishments to players within a game. We discuss the costs and benefits of incorporating system mastery as a built-in reward for players, and conclude with a conversation about his current game design project.
I thank Monte for his time and thought-provoking responses, which provided me with quite an education in game design. I wish him the best of luck with his current project, and look forward to seeing a final product of his “old-school, weird-science fantasy” game system!