Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On the Horizon: D&D Next Adventure Design

I recently had an opportunity to participate in a playtest of the upcoming iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. It took me this long to get it to it because I had previously participated in a "Friends & Family" playtest back in March that left me very disillusioned with the future of Dungeons & Dragons. I thought I should organize my thoughts and impressions and put them up on the blog. Despite my misgivings about the legitimacy of the playtest Non-Discloure Agreement, I still feel the need to avoid discussing non-public content. Some of this may get slightly vague as I describe my thoughts and impressions of D&D Next.

After writing a great deal about my playtest experience, I realize it would be more useful if I broke it up into different posts. This post focuses on the adventure content included with the playtest. Future posts will address other aspects of my playtest experience.

The Adventure's the Thing

I have come to appreciate that the usefulness of introductory adventures. Oftentimes, the first adventure you play through sets the tone for all future interactions with that game system. When I got my first Dungeons & Dragons Red Box in 1988, the introductory solo adventure was explicitly a room-by-room dungeon crawl. That set the tone for how many people, myself included, interacted with Dungeons & Dragons. In contrast, tthe upcoming RPG 13th Age features an introductory adventure Blood and Lightning that is very loosely organized and emphasizes a lot of the improvisational qualities of the game. Although these introductory adventures are not definitive, as many players will ignore them, they are important as a starting-off point for many players of the game. They are important in shaping how players see the game and, to that extent, how it is played.

One of the things I really came to appreciate in late-era Fourth Edition was that published adventure content provided a variety of interesting characters and scenarios for groups to build adventures around, with focus more on particular events and scenarios than maps of a dungeon are the promise of vast treasures. The Neverwinter Campaign Setting or The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond were both interesting collections of encounters, characters, plots, and schemes that a party could slowly poke their way around and from it build a unique story. They targeted a very different style of gameplay, one that takes advantage of the fact that Dungeons & Dragon is a creative social game. I find this kind of sandbox content very evocative because it provides a wide array of options in which players and DM alike can develop their own narrative.

Lord Neverember doesn't care about exploring dungeons.
He wants you to rebuild Neverwinter with (or for) him.
Given my fondness for this kind of gaming content, it is no surprise that the adventures currently included with the Dungeons & Dragons public playtest worry me. When they included remakes of classic modules (dungeon crawls) like Caves of Chaos and Isle of Dread, I had assumed they did this for purely nostalgic reasons. As I played through portions of Reclaiming Blingdenstone, however, I really got the sense that this classic style of play was the intended direction of the newest Dungeons & Dragons. A direction that, given my own play style, is a disconcerting sign of the future of the game.

The Unfortunate Adventures in Blingdenstone

This guy lives in Blingdenstone
and he probably wants you to gather
ten Kobold scalps or something.
The playtest group I was with had already been playing for two or three sessions prior to my arrival. They were well into the included module Reclaiming Blingdenstone and, as I understood, were quite satisfied with it. With my trusty character in hand, I joined the table in hopes of finding the joy that my old comrades from long ago had found with this new D&D.

I will quickly say that I found the entire session of Dungeons & Dragons (roughly six hours of play throughout the afternoon/evening) to be surprisingly not fun. A significant part of my experience stemmed from my immense dissatisfaction over the adventure, Reclaiming Blingdenstone. It seemed to be steeped in pointless combat with a lot of mundane "quests" to tie it together. To be blunt, it had the feel of something like Diablo or World of Warcraft. "Warden Cardigan wants you to bring back 10 crystals from the Crystal Cave." When you repeat the activity a sufficient number of times and return them to the quest giver, you get a reward and something changes (potentially unlocking another important quest!).

It can be said that I am generalizing the adventure, but as somebody who has taken his Dungeons & Dragons game and influenced it heavily with story games, indie RPG ideology, and other recent ideas within the tabletop RPG scene, I could not help but feel that the adventure was regressive. It felt like the kind of D&D my friends and I played back in 1992, before we had sophisticated dungeon-crawling computer games. The reason I bring this up is that this heavily colored my playtest experience.

[Note: It is worthy of note that the other adventures provided, The Caves of Chaos and The Isle of Dread, are classic adventures from the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. They are even more historical in focus, emphasizing the "dungeon crawl" aspect of the game. From my perspective, I am lucky not to have played that.]

My one major concern with Blingdenstone was that it had such a strong emphasis on wandering through caverns collecting things and killing monsters for experience points and treasure. I suppose my concern rises out of the fact that Blingdenstone was, from all I can tell, written recently. The only writer credits given were Robert J. Schwalb and James Wyatt, both contemporary D&D writers. Given that, it was disconcerting that the provided module would emphasize a dungeon-crawl monster killing style of play.

More or less how I felt after six hours of Blingdenstone.
I do not mean to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with having a dungeon crawl style play experience. Clearly, there are many people that value that gameplay experience. However, the included playtest adventure says more about the design philosophy of the game than any mechanical considerations. As I see it, this is the style of play that they want at the core of the product. And that's what really got me thinking.

Having played games like Descent: Journeys in The Dark and the D&D Adventure System board games, I can appreciate a tabletop dungeon crawl. Both games (and the many related games out there) do well at capturing the dungeon crawl experience in a concise yet sufficient manner. But, in light of the growth in the tabletop role-playing and story gaming industry of the past ten years (including the Indie RPG scene, D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, story gaming, Fantasy Flight's RPG lines, and even the developments of D&D 4E), it seems strange to me that the new D&D would be actively targeting a style of role-playing game that has become somewhat niche.

What's Old is New Again (Whether You Wanted It Or Not)

The Dungeons & Dragons game has been slowly moving away from its old school origins since its early days. Much credit could be given to the work of Tracy and Laura Hickman for making story and plot central to the adventure, elevating it beyond a mere dungeon crawl. To that end, the game has come a far way from its origins as a medieval battle simulator with heavy doses of cartography.

Who needs a story when I have a gridded map
to sketch based on vague DM description alone!
By the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the game openly addressed different styles of play and welcomed story and narrative based play in the introductory chapters of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Even more interesting in the progression was the less popular Dungeon Master's Guide 2, co-written by RPG design guru Robin D. Laws. Although a bulk of the book focused on more mechanical considerations, from monster themes to trap designs, it featured several sections providing guidance and suggestions for DMs new and old. Among other things, it discusses the ideas of collaborative campaign design, having encounters matter, cooperative world building, and other interesting ideas that felt more like they came from the indie RPG community than ivory tower of the D&D Old School.

The reason I mention this, in light of Blingdenstone and its potential progeny, is to highlight how big a step away from those ideas this new material seems to be. For example, consider this paragraph on how to use encounters in a D&D game:
A well-crafted encounter is a key scene in the story of your adventure and in the overarching story of the characters in your campaign. If you build your adventure like a structured fantasy story, sharing a similar dramatic structure with novels, movies, and plays, then an encounter equals a scene in that story. The encounter acts as a discrete element in which tension builds in steady increments toward the climax of the adventure.
That is guidance taken from the second page of the DMG2 chapter on building encounters. Now, contrast the with these two excerpts taken from Chapter 6 of Reclaiming Blingdenstone:
The trip [to Mantol-Derith] takes twenty hours of travel. Every eight hours, whether the adventurers are traveling or resting, roll 1d10. On a result of 1 or 2, consult the “Underdark Encounters” table in appendix 1.
The return from Mantol-Derith takes as much time and has the same potential for random encounters as the trek to the trading post. 
Having a collection of random encounters with trolls, orcs, and giant centipedes seemed anything but relevant to the plight of the deep gnomes. As a player, the only relevance the random encounter served was to waste time and resources. I honestly cannot imagine a legitimate reason why running into a grey ooze or a pack of centipedes would be especially important in advancing the situation in Blingdenstone. Granted, a more astute DM could have implemented a more interesting, engaging encounter that somehow tied to the story and purpose of the adventure, but the fact that the adventure as written suggests a flurry of random encounters as bookends to an essential chapter of the adventure says a lot to me about what the new Dungeons & Dragons is going to be about.

The end of my D&D Next playtest experience, as
presented by the Frost Wizards of Irvine.
Adventure Design: Conclusion

Reclaiming Blingdenstone is not necessarily representative of the new direction of Dungeons & Dragons. However, when you consider that all three adventures provided for testers to use follow a similar format, it does suggest that it might very well be the new (old) direction of the game. I can only hope that future iterations of the playtest begin to include adventures more geared towards an engaging and interesting storytelling experience and less on the amount of treasure and experience a player can amass in a four hour period. To that end, only time will tell.

Luckily, as with any tabletop RPG, what you get out of it depends a lot on what you put into it. Designing a game that is focused on trolling through dungeons looking for monsters to slay and treasures to gather will not impact my ability to play the game I want to play. But, as several friends continue to remind me, the new D&D is not being designed for people like me. That only raises the question of what motivation do I have to stick it through to the end?


  1. I've played and run this at conventions and not had anyone at all feel it played like a video game. It was the opposite: very open play where the PCs could decide what was important in order to restore Blingdenstone and how to approach it. For many (not me), 4E was the edition that felt like a video game. The encounter focus could make it feel like artificial prescribed scenes rather than the collaborative narrative which _could_ happen in previous editions. Now, that was often a shallow promise. Few campaigns, let alone published adventures, actually capitalized upon the potential of open play.

    That's where I agree with you. Caves of Chaos has a default mode of 'boring reasonless dungeon crawl'. It can be fantastic, but that's what is most likely. From that perspective, I want interactions to change that and encourage the potential of a dynamic narrative. And now I have to disagree, because I think Blingdenstone did that pretty well for a playtest adventure that was to run at public events. In home play, a DM can really change Blingdenstone to have the aspects an individual group wants. For its intended audience, it works (in my experience) really well as written. (Though the Gen Con slots were far too short).

    1. As a 4E DM, I typically run sessions where roughly 33% of the time is spent in combat. Usually, combat is a set piece to the session, but sometimes not. The rest of the play time is usually an extended collaborative narrative with some skill checks, usually focusing on what the characters are doing to solve whatever problem has arisen. With Blingdenstone, I spent well over 75% of the session engaged in combat. The rest of the time was mostly either "turning in quests" or "getting new quests" from the characters of Blingdenstone.

      I've spoken to several people about Blingdenstone and it is quite possible that my negative experience came more from the group I played with rather than the adventure itself. To that end, I may be too hard on the adventure based on the style of the group contrasted with my own personal style.

      Perhaps I may give Blingdenstone another chance, but it would involve a serious amount of re-working for me to get it to align with my D&D play style.

    2. I've actually thought about this quite a bit. I'm trying to determine what "makes it feel like a video game" for people. It's also interesting to me how some people *dislike* the idea of it feeling like a video game while others enjoy it. Spending a great deal of time in my local game store, I am always amazed by the difference in opinion as to what made D&D4E "feel like a video game," as I had assumed that it would be a constant, single feature.

      I also think it's interesting that D&D spawned an entire genre of video games. Games like Ultima, Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, and Wizardry were all, in some way or another, derivative of Dungeons & Dragons. Crawling through dungeons killing monsters is very much what my early D&D experiences were and I'm very much glad to have moved beyond that because I think the tabletop RPG is weakest in that capacity. My experience with D&D Next was akin to those games insomuch that most of the game seemed about killing monsters to get experience points and leveling up and the adventure narrative was just a device to provide a venue for monster killing.