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.
My blog crossed the 10-year mark earlier this year to no fanfare. I knew about the milestone (and even tweeted about it) though the moment lacks any sort of significance other than a reminder of how much time has passed since I was eager to share my thoughts with the world about combat speed in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. At that time, my motivation for writing was to fill a perceived gap in the flourishing online discourse about D&D; I felt my background as a mental health provider and researcher could be unique, and that first article was enjoyable to write!
The community enjoyed the article, which provided me with reinforcement to write about other topics. A pleasant feedback loop started as I was playing D&D regularly, which would spark ideas for articles, which would get me to write for the blog, which would result in others in the community discussing or sharing those articles, which would result in me being more interested in playing D&D and other games.
My enjoyment of tabletop roleplaying games such as D&D took on a bigger role in my life. I went from not playing at all to playing with a consistent group 3-4 times each month. And not only was I devoting time to LONG sessions each weekend (4e combat speed, am I right?!), I spent a good portion of other free time writing, editing, and promoting my blog on social media – primarily Twitter. Looking back, that time was such a luxury!
I am proud of the blog, which has accumulated the following stats in the past 10 years (and two months):
And while I am far from the only person to get interested in podcasting, I figured again that I had a unique perspective as my clinical skill set helps me interview and move discussions in specific directions. I created Ego Check with The Id DM in 2016 without really knowing what I was doing (I probably still don’t).
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!
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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.
Tale From the Loop is a tabletop roleplaying game that’s been on my list of things I desperately want to try for some time now. A friend got the book and has threatened to run a campaign, which we finally started this week. My interest in the system was fueled by listening to a campaign run by the fine folks at the Very Random Encounters podcast and it hits on my sensibilities as a child of the 80s.
Your character in the game world is a child living in a version of the 1980s. A twist is the government has created the world’s largest particle accelerator underground, known as The Loop, in your town. The children in the game deal with typical issues that were commonplace in the era such as bullies, absent or nagging parents and homework though they also get to explore mysteries related to The Loop. Weird events start to happen in town and it’s up to the children to figure it all out because adults prove to be inaccessible and otherwise ineffective. Tales From the Loop exists with six main principles:
Your Hometown is Full of Strange and Fantastic Things
Everyday Life is Dull and Unforgiving
Adults are Out of Reach and Out of Touch
The Land of the Loop is Dangerous but The Kids Will Not Die
The Game is Played Scene by Scene
The World is Described Collaboratively
I was born in 1976 so the late-80s and early-90s are my wheelhouse in terms of pop culture touchstones. I have created plenty of characters in fantasy settings for games like Dungeons & Dragons though creating a kid living in the 80s brings another level of enthusiasm and connection to character creation. I started to think about the different character Types in the game:
I quickly honed in on Rocker and Troublemaker. I grew up with kids that fell into those categories and thought it would be fun to inhabit that role in the game. Plus, I’ve been gushing about Billy from Stranger Things for years. I also took inspiration from John Bender (The Breakfast Club), Duncan (Some Kind of Wonderful) and Griffin (Prayer of the Rollerboys). My other initial thought was, “This kid listens to Skid Row.” However, our GM running the game said the adventure was set in 1988, which was a year before their first album was released. I had plenty of other heavy metal and hard rock options to choose from as our GM wanted each character’s playlist. I dove HEAD FIRST into this activity and came up with the following 10 songs:
Tomo Moriwaki talks about his career in videogame design and how his experiences led him to the latest endeavor, Epic Tavern. In Epic Tavern, players are tasked with building up a tavern to cater to adventure needs AND with sending those adventurers on quests. Tomo talks about his goals to design an engaging gameplay loop that encourages players to spend more time with Epic Tavern; it was fascinating to learn about the decisions that are made to create a successful gameplay loop that cultivates that “one more turn” feeling for players!
He discusses obstacles to creating a game “like fantasy football for fantasty fantasy” and how the small team has overcome those challenges. Tomo educates me about the logic behind Epic Tavern gameplay, including the encounter system involved in questing.
And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
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!