I’ve been avoiding the D&D Next talk. I read some of the blogs who are talking about it but honestly, why bother? WotC will put out what they want to, when they’re ready to. Seriously, until they’re ready to do an honest-to-god open playtest I don’t see the point in speculating (or playing, “Guess if Mike and Monte are crazy?!?). WotC and D&D are pretty much the last things on my mind these days…
But… (there’s always a but with these things)
I was reading some of the blogs about the One-Hour D&D Game and I realized something important about my own gaming. So I suppose I have Mike Mearls to thank for that revelation… I realized that I don’t write adventures. The times when I try to write “adventures” are the times when my gaming goes off the rails and stops being fun. I don’t want or need ‘adventures’ in the sense that Mearls is discussing them and that may have been a big part of my stress in 4E. The encounter design style may have been a big part of why DM’ing 4E made me want to go on a baby-seal punching rampage. (I really hated DM’ing 4E, if you can’t tell.)
Don’t get me wrong, I use adventures and I appreciate my many years of reading Dungeon magazine for all the fantastic adventures contained therein. But I don’t actually run adventures. I could say that my preferred DM style is closer to a sandbox but I don’t really build huge wilderness maps and then turn players entirely loose in them either… Hmm.
Mostly, here’s my play style/DM style. We play. If a session is a four hour talking head session where the PCs sit around and talk to NPCs? That’s awesome. If we raid an Imperial installation and kill stormtroopers? Also awesome. If we do a combination of both? Equally awesome. The point is that I let the players set the pace and only intervene when I see things lagging and need to inject a little life into a session. If the players are doing fine on their own I just sit back and answer questions as needed. We don’t concern ourselves with a formula of interaction, exploration, combat… we do what seems natural that night. If the PCs are tracking down information about a cult they encountered then we might travel to a new city, get in a bar fight, talk to a sage, pick up a side quest on the docks, go back to the sage in a few days and learn what he has to say, then head out and look for the cult again — or maybe we won’t — maybe the side quest on the docks turns into the new quest we think is awesome so we follow it. Happens all the time. We’re not really looking for closure or endings or a tightly contained media experience — I can get that playing a video game or watching a movie. We’re playing to indulge in the fantasy of being someone else and living another life — real life John Carters transported to another place — if only in our imaginations.
When I think back to some of the finest adventures I’ve ever read they all had many ways in and out of them and were defined more by a sense of “stuff’s out there” than “go do this now.” Look at Keep on the Borderlands… yes it’s a sandbox style thingy but it’s also a keep full of people to define, a wilderness full of wacky stuff, and a series of odd “dungeons” to be explored… but it’s also an evocative place defined by its isolation and it’s tenuous connection to an unnamed civilization somewhere else. There are no “goals” in KotB. It is a place with people and things to interact with. Players set the pace of exploration and their own goals. If they want to spend an entire session sitting around the keep talking to the shopkeepers or the priest, or each other, or join the guards, or turn around and head toward that nebulous civilization, they can do all of those things and none are more important than any other…
Another adventure I love, Caravan to Ein Arris defines the other end of the spectrum for me (still in a good way). Caravan is an adventure that has clear scenes, clear goals, clear roles for the party, and a very cinema-inspired feel to it. It reads like the treatment for an awesome desert action movie. But honestly, the pace is very relaxed. If it takes the PCs one session to gloss through a desert trip, awesome… If however they spend two sessions playing out that same desert trip, or three, so what? I love this adventure and I’ve run it more than once and despite its clear structure it comes out very differently each time… (it also, amazingly enough has a couple of social scenes in it that are potential “save or die” situations — it’s an awesome adventure).
I realize that a lot of people are busy and play “restricted” sessions and that public play is all the rage for D&D but seriously — for me — I lose the joy when I’m put on a timeline (or when I put players on one). I’m not saying that play shouldn’t have events, sometimes, where hurrying isn’t valuable but rather that, like all else, those situations evolve themselves naturally. I can’t force a player or a group of players to care about something — they have to come to it in their own time — and as a GM, I don’t mind giving that to them. But I certainly don’t need the dramatic tension of the “one-hour adventure” to remain involved… to me it sounds awful.