Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Adventures That Assume the Party Will Be Foolish



Many old school D&D adventures from back in the day were written with the clear assumption that a party would go up to a door, make little effort to discover what might be behind it, open it, and all bumble into the room beyond the door.  I say "bumble" because this is a good way to get dead, whether you're clearing houses in the Middle East or exploring dungeons in a fantasy setting.

It's also the easy way to write D&D adventures.  If you start by assuming that the adventuring party is going to do something stupid, it's a lot easier to endanger them.

Now granted an awful lot of D&D adventuring parties do behave in foolish ways with regularity.  The typical adventuring party in D&D is a gang of Chaotic-Neutral thugs, slightly homicidal muggers, looking for creatures to beat up and rob (and kill, if they can get away with it).  (See http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2011/10/thugs.html ) They would never think to do something like take prisoners to gather information, and the very idea of running away from an encounter, especially one that isn't necessary, seems to be foreign to most parties, even those who are not thugs.

But this kind of foolish behavior is not inevitable (nor is everyone a thug) and should not be treated as so by adventure writers.

What precipitated this rant was a session at "D&D Encounters" recently.  We were led out of the sewers by some guard/guides to an open area in a town, a town known to be a very dangerous place.  The referee, evidently following what was written in the adventure book, said we could set up only in a particular very narrow area in the middle of a broad thoroughfare.  I supposed he would then let us do our due diligence about spreading out--an absolute requirement in a world of area-effect spells and ambushes-- before having the encounter start.  When that wasn't forthcoming I protested at being required to be in the small area when there was lots of room to set up some kind of defensive perimeter.

But then the person we were following, the nominal heir to the throne, but who we knew had been acting erratically and dangerously, turned up and gave a brief badguy's speech and then blasted our entire party from a distance with an area-effect spell.  We had been confined a small area so that everybody could be hit by the spell. No initiative was rolled and we weren't given a chance to react.  This was true even though I said, as she was giving the speech, that I had tried to bail out of the way (spread out).

You might expect the "D&D Encounters" adventures to be written more realistically and intelligently than old-time dungeon crawls, but perhaps not.  We still have the same old assumption that the players are foolish if not stupid.  I asked the referee if indeed his adventure book specified that we should all be blasted like this, and he said yes.  (It's worth noting that our guides/guards were all killed in the blast, conveniently getting them out of the way.)

The equivalent of this in a video game is a cutscene that makes the player(s) do somethng he or she would never do, in order to advance the plot.

But what if the party just won't do what you have planned for them?  If you're a referee, you can wing it (sometimes), make something up that ultimately gets back on track.  If you're an adventure writer for other referees you don't have that option.   In the end you have a different choice: make the party do something that, for some parties, will annoy them no end because whatever-it-is is foolish; or let the referee go "out of character" and say, "if you don't choose to pursue this adventure, the entire sequence is over".  If the players decide they don't want to go further, then your linear plot may not be as good as you thought, and in any case no matter how good a story is, some people won't like it.

What might be my more general advice for adventure writers?  Well, my first bit of advice is don't write a linear adventure that has to follow a particular story.  But that's exactly what a lot of people want to or even need to do.  In that case I suggest that even if you're writing a linear story try not to suppose that the adventurers will do exactly what you expect.  Anyone who has reffed a lot of D&D knows that the party is more likely to do what you don't expect than what you do expect.  There are ways to canalize a party, to force it to follow particular path, without assuming that it behaves foolishly.  Find and use them.  The more often you assume that a party will do a particular thing, the more often your adventure will go awry.

6 comments:

Joseph said...

What precipitated this rant was a session at "D&D Encounters" recently.

Well, see, there's your problem right there.

Guy Fullerton said...

"Many old school D&D adventures from back in the day were written with the clear assumption..."

I'm curious which of the old modules you feel were written this way. Many/most of the published by the big guys (TSR, Judges Guild, GW via White Dwarf) during the era in which you were authoring articles (late 70's through the very early 80's) are implicitly quite open to varied avenues of approach.

That is, while one might describe a site and the occupants of that site, its text doesn't make assumptions that the characters will take particular actions. Keep on the Borderlands is a good example: The fact that the keep itself is well detailed in terms of its occupants and loot suggests that any given party might be just as likely to adventure in the keep as they are the caves of chaos.

I wonder whether your memory of that earliest era of modules was distorted by memories of modules from later eras?

Lewis said...

Too long ago to remember specifics, though I do recall the Judges Guild stuff seemed dumb and unbelievable.

Do you think later era modules were more guilty of what I'm talking about?

Gary as a GM tended to give players lots of rope rather than lead them on, so his modules may not have made such assumptions.

Guy Fullerton said...

I've generally only read Judges Guild stuff that was recommended by others: Caverns of Thracia, Dark Tower, Tegel Manor, bits of Thieves Fortress of Badabaskor, and similar. I don't recall any glaring problems of the sort you noticed in the Encounters game. As with Gary's modules, these are the "give the players lots of rope" sort.

Railroading isn't necessarily limited to later era modules; it's probably arguable that mainstream railroading started in the early 80's with modules like I3 Pharoah and I6 Ravenloft, and became well established in the Dragonlance series:
http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2009/01/retrospective-pharaoh.html
http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2008/04/how-dragonlance-ruined-everything.html

IME, plot-centric and/or linear modules seemed to become more prevalent as time went on. I wish I could give you some concrete examples supporting the increase in this type of design, but I try to avoid wasting my time reading those types of products.

Lewis said...

Linear, perhaps "railroading" adventures that make players follow a story, are not the same as adventures that assume the players are going to behave one (not wise) way. Monte Cook observed a few years ago at Origins that there seem to be a lot more story-oriented adventures published, and I think that's because there are so many adventures that most are bought to be read, not to be played.

Practically speaking, though, since I don't use published adventures much, most of the ones I've read are from way "back when". And what was in Dungeon magazine until it was dominated by 3e adventures.

Guy Fullerton said...

Yes, I agree that railroading/linear adventures are technically different from ones which assume the players behave foolishly.

But I think the railroading style of design leads naturally to the other. The referee's vision of where the railroad should go (whether dramatically, strategically, tactically, or otherwise) could be perceived as requiring foolishness by any given player.

Foolishness is only one manifestation of the, "but that's not what I want my character to do" feeling.

The reference to Dungeon magazine is interesting. Dungeon didn't start until late 1986 – long after railroading became prevalent. So if Dungeon strongly colored your impression of modules, that could potentially explain the disconnect between our memories of "back in the day." (That is, I personally wouldn't consider Dungeon to be old school.)


In any event, the discussion jogged my memory! I remembered a concrete instance of forcing foolish player outcomes in a later era module:

Either Scavenger Hunt (most likely) or Otherspace for WEG Star Wars d6 system started off by assuming the characters would be unable to sneak weapons aboard some ship, and IIRC it asked the referee to simply disallow any attempt to get weapons aboard, even though there was no game-world rationale for disallowing it. These were from 1989.

I was the ref, I did what the module told me to do, and the player running a bounty hunter was aggravated! Sigh.