Saturday, 24 February 2018

Questing in Elfgames, and the games we aren't playing

I have to admit to a little dissatisfaction at the moment.

Not with my players or the campaign - things are going about as well as they can, people keep coming back, the players are getting really involved in things that are going on (hunting for beetle-glands for local wizards, rescuing Gnome-slaves of the nefarious Orcs, searching for ancient weapons mentioned by shady 'legitimate businessmen', and whatnot).

Nor is it really the ruleset. For me Moldvay Basic is the single best introduction to D&D. Things will be added once the PCs get past 3rd Level for sure, but for the moment almost everything is handled through that slim red book. It's a simple, flexible system, and I think it does what it does really well.

But it doesn't do what it doesn't do.

It's great for dungeon-bashing. That is what the party is up to. In the setting that the PCs are in, there is a cave-complex about two miles from a largish but very recent town - a kind of gold-rush sort of place, built on adventurers exploring the caves. There's scope for the party to get involved in 'the town game' if they want, with factions, feuds, guilds, politics, weirdness and shenanigans should the PCs want to scratch the surface. If they don't, that's also fine, they can play using only the surface and concentrate on the nearby caves (a sort of megadungeon). In other words, the 'town game' can entirely be used to generate rumours and hooks for more dungeoneering (where is the stolen loot from the merchant caravan? Somewhere in the caves! What's this about a kidnapped noblewoman? She's somewhere in the caves! etc).

And that's all great. That's totally in line with how the campaign is supposed to run. I set it up like this to be an open table where players can drop in and drop out, and that dictates the structure. Every 'morning', the PCs troop out of Rift City and go to the Rift where the monsters are. They explore, fight, loot, puzzle and ponder, fight some more, hopefully find more loot and don't die too often, then come home of an evening after a hard day at the Orc-face and take their boots off in front of the fire. If they can be bothered, in the 'evening' (ie, between sessions) they message me to say 'Noggin the Dwarf goes to an inn where adventurers gather and tries to find out if anyone knows about Ulfang the Kobold Lord', or 'Crimp the Thief talks to Madame Nightshade about the poison he found', or 'Jorgar the Fighter goes to the weapon-dealers' shops and tries to sell the armour we looted' or whatever). That generates further involvement in what's going on - more rumours, more gold, more contacts. It's all working pretty well, I think. But if they want to, they could completely ignore the caves and just get involved in what's around town. It's pretty robust and gives a lot of choices to the players. That's obviously all good.

What I'm dissatisfied with I think is D&D. But, honestly, I don't know anything better. It remains the game I've played longest, and most, and am most familiar with, and my players are probably most familiar with (though a couple of them haven't played Basic before, and some started with Mentzer not Moldvay, so... I dunno, maybe it's just me that's most familiar with Moldvay).

What I want - and this is why 'games we aren't playing' - is not a game where players are pest-controllers who 'go to work' in the dungeon, but a game with something of the epic scope of the fantasy literature that supposedly inspired the game. Conan didn't start by clearing all the ruins/dungeons/temples in a 5-mile radius of some town; the Fellowship didn't set up camp outside of Moria and raid it every day, returning back to camp at night. Perhaps the closest match to the way D&D is generally played is the Lankhmar series, where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser often travel out of Lankhmar to kick monster-butt (though I'm totally prepared to accept that D&D is nothing to do with fantasy literature and much more to do with a 'heroic' tactical-simulation wargame as this post on Unbalanced and Pointless argues - this is very much related to my point that D&D is perhaps not the game I want right now. It's also perhaps related to noisms asking 'what's the blogosphere for right now?' in this post).

What I want is a game where PCs have 'quests'. PCs (who cannot then just be selfish) involved in epic world-spanning plots. How to marry this to player agency? I don't know. How to marry it (even more importantly) to busy lives and uncertain schedules, well I don't know that either. But I want something that puts 'dungeoneering' in the context of a bigger story. Thorin's Company went into the Goblin-tunnels sure (though not by choice). But they didn't even know they were there. They were journeying from one side of the mountains to the other. The Goblin-tunnels were not 'the point' - taking back Erebor for Durin's Folk was the point, travelling through the Goblin-tunnels was an incident on the way.

Same with the Fellowship - the journey through Moria (and Sam and Frodo in Shelob's Lair, and the Grey Company at the Paths of the Dead) were the result of trying to do something else. Jill and Eustace and Puddleglum in Bism; Taran and co in the passages under Spiral Castle or the mines in the Eagle Mountains; Dolgan and his companions in Magician; were going through the caves and tunnels of the underworld because they were trying to go somewhere else to do something more important. They all had quests that compelled them to go to dark and dangerous (and wondrous) places, rather than those places being the reason for their quest. The 'dungeons' were a means to an end (travelling for the sake of the greater quest) rather than the object of the quest itself.

So what would this 'quest' game look like? I'm not really sure. Of course that means I'm not sure I can't do it with D&D. But it would be D&D with a particular set of assumptions in place. First, that play is directed to a particular goal, which would progressively change. Second that players would generally stick to that goal (PCs might come and go but 'the Quest' must continue). I don't even know yet what other assumptions I need but they're sufficiently different to how D&D is usually played that they'd require a lot of thinking about before even commencing.

Maybe the PCs need to take a message in person to the King of the Elves or deliver a young noble to a distant castle to be married or transport three dragon-eggs to a Princess of the Horse-People. I don't know. But there must, surely, be a way to generate over-arching narratives to make play more than just violent shopping at the local cave-mall.

More will come (that's a prophecy)...


  1. I don't think D&D is the problem, it's rather (from what I can gather) a too linear approach to the stories that emerge at the table. I had some of the same problems a couple of years ago and what changed everything for me was the implementation of the Random Narrative Generator (you've probably read about that one more than once, because I won't stop blathering about it). It turned out to be the single most effective tool to force me to think in other directions for the stories we told. I think this is mostly due to the impulse to bring story threads to an immediate end or at least to have an end in sight. It's interesting how difficult it is (for me at least) to twist a story into the unexpected and beyond what I can foresee. However, I found it the way to be.

    Example from our D&D game yesterday (this had 3 rolls on the Narrative Generator): Characters had just arrived in town. It's late summer and the town gets ready for the apple harvest and the fair because of it. Two characters are there for the famous apple wine they have here. It's established that there is a quasi criminal apple wine cartel doing politics in the area while the baron isn't looking. It's also established that the most exquisite apple wine (called "Goldspritz") is extremely expensive and out of reach for those poor level 1 noobs ... Now we start the game. The characters literally just arrived with a caravan, didn't even have a place to stay, so they just randomly went into town to get a first impression. The first result had indicated some form of interdiction. Someone became careless, a villain is lurking and "a force of tradition, that is mean and aims for peace" is involved. I immediately decided that the force involved had to be the apple wine cartel, "a villain lurking" and someone careless, that sounded like an ambush ... so that's what the characters got front seats in. They get nosy and lucky enough to see one of the culprits (a giant black widow fleeing the scene, also a random result), but the watch catches them as persons of interest and they get taken away for questioning. With the encounter done, I roll the second time: another interdiction, but the scene is different. A force of nature is involved and aims for peace, that's the weather getting worse (my interpretation). The villain up to something in this case would be the watch (also established early on: the watch is in the pocket of the cartel), maybe they'll need some fall guys and the characters come in handy? Not sure, not important, as their ploy is interdicted by "someone close to the characters". There aren't many options for that this early in the game, so I decide that their way leads them back to the place where the caravan has landed and the leader of the caravan (a nice guy that got along well with one of the characters ... a cooking skill had been involved) sees the characters led away by the watch, so he gets a couple of his guys and intersects the party. He talks to the captain of the watch, some money is exchanged and the bad weather (aiming for peace) did the rest: the characters are free to go. They still want something to drink, so they go for the next tavern, still feeling like tourists, but happy.

    1. (Part 2, because length, sorry) A third roll indicates a "rescue as alliances shift" with a "force of love involved that is forgiving and looks for compensation". I decide that's a nice cult and they were the one that ordered the Goldspritz delivery the characters saw stolen ... Somehow lots of people think the characters are involved and the priestess approaching the characters tells them not only just that, but also offers the cults protection against (unknown) parties that had other (unspecified) goals with them. The characters agree and the priestess give a man in black a nasty smile as she leaves. That guy, in turn, give the characters the evil eye and also leaves ... Three rolls, 3 hours of play and a nice little noir story emerging and all that in D&D. At that point the players wanted to be involved and the story happened all over the place. I don't know where it will lead (well, I have an idea, but I'm willing to let the dice decide). Anyway, I can really recommend you trying it (or something like it) in your game, because I really think it'd be a good fit for what you are describing above. Here is a link to the post:

      If you get to test it, I'd totally love to hear about is, too :)

  2. Thanks Jens, as usual you're way ahead of me. Of course, I read this post at the time... I even thought it was brilliant, but it seemed so far beyond where I was then that part of what I'm thinking about now probably relies on having had two years or so to slowly stew this in my brain. I have to admit though when I was putting together the original post I was thinking about the systems you use in Lost Songs. Particularly, however, it was your 'family connections' generator I was thinking of. I'm working on a follow-up post on this same topic, starting with analysing Lord of the Rings as a D&D campaign. My point of departure for all of this is a feeling that we can more closely tell stories like fantasy literature but there are certain problems I think with D&D in this regard. In D&D (especially the 'old school' systems) there is little thought given to how characters relate to the world as a whole and this is a major theme (and plot-driver) in literature. Your work on trying to find a way of developing connections procedurally I think is a great breakthrough... if only I could find a way of applying it!

    Simply, and going back to LotR, Gandalf knows everyone's uncle/dad/foster-father and as a result people get caught up in quests. How to do that in D&D? What are the connections between the microcosmic (actions of players) and macrocosmic (world-changing events) and how do you plug one into the other without removing agency from the players?

    I'll have another try with the narrative-generator, and I'll let you know what comes out of it. I'm not certain but I think we may be at different 'scales' here but it may be possible to scale it up from the local to the global. I'll see...

  3. In my experience, it will apply itself. The result will ask questions (it's very open to interpretation) and the setting will answer them through you (you have all the pieces). I think the trick is to just offer the result, as you will have results that are above the characters' power level (or below). If you tell the story as it emerges, the players will find a way to interact with it. The beauty of it is, they don't have to, but still have the experience of a living and breathing campaign. Maybe the sandbox part of it is crucial, too, as you'll have all the pieces lying around for the generator to trigger on all scales you desire. Another thing the Narrative Generator will do for you is summoning the family ties the characters bring to the table. This has a stronger emphasis in Lost Songs, but works very well with D&D as well. It'll also offer conclusions to lose threads, followed up or not! Here's a collection of links and ideas for easy reference:

    That scheme is the thing, I think. Story happens where the characters are. Also: embrace the random :)

    And my offer stands to have a powwow at some point. We currently plan to visit the UK in June, btw, so maybe we could arrange to meet for a pint and a burger (or something).

    Also, I'm looking forward to part 2 here.

  4. I shall see about the question of scale, but part of the reason I'm interested in the background generator is from thinking about the pre-existing relationships in LotR (Bilbo-Gandalf, Frodo/Merry/Pippin-Bilbo/Gandalf, Gimli-Gloin/Dain-Gandalf, Aragorn-Gandalf/Elrond, Legolas-Tharanduil-Gandalf/Elrond, Boromir-Denethor/Gandalf, Boromir-Faramir/Gandalf...) - finding links between PCs, and from PCs to the wider world, is important I think for generating the 'big scale' of plots I'm thinking about. Of course, all the LotR 'PCs' except Sam are also members of important families: this isn't something that happens so much in D&D I think.

    And yes definitely meeting up would be great. June 10th is our open gaming table if you want to/can come to that, you'd be most welcome - otherwise another evening might involve more discussion and less playing but perhaps more beer.

    Part 2 will be accompanied by Part 0, which is a draft I re-discovered which pretty much starts 'Inspired by Jens over at Disoriented Ranger...' again discussing the idea of using the 'Gold' roll as a background generator, that I started soon after posting this about using the information contained in ability scores to do something similar.

  5. Either way, I'm curious to see what you come up with :) I've moved somewhat away from that granular thinking for campaign worlds, tbh. It doesn't matter as much how everything is connected in preparation and more how it connects through play while staying consistent and offering choice. But it's all pretty vague for me at this point and I could only point you to fragments of what it actually means for me in the game ... I'm working on that part for Lost Songs right now and it turned out to be difficult. Just as magic did. Anyway. Solid idea for the character generation in that post you linked, but I agree, could be too busy to be useful. You know I work with bloodlines, status and a simple point-buy for equipment, advantages and skills, right? It pretty much does the trick for me and is very quick at the table.

    Not sure we can make the 10th, but it is possible. We'd need to get in touch somehow for the particulars. You have my email address, right?

    1. Nor sure I do - mine is redorc01(at)

      The 10th was just a suggestion, because I know I'm DMing that weekend - if you can perhaps make another day instead that's cool. Depends I guess on where you're planning to be, and when.

      I ran the Narrative Generator yesterday - I got 9, 4, 2/6/6, or 'Mediation - people have lost their homes and need help as a force of nature engages and seeks contact'.

      I see what you mean about scale: at 'right here right now', things got out of hand and a Treant has wrecked a house but is open to a peaceful solution if the party can negotiate; at a 'world historic' scale, an entire forest is attacking the city and it's up to the party to find a successful resolution. Because generator just gives the conflict the 'scale' is something that can be plugged in as appropriate - I'm giving Treants as the example because I know there are some to the south of the PCs' hometown, which is nice because they 'seek contact' so they aren't just evil destructoids... so it seems there's a situation where there is right and wrong on both sides and the party needs to try and find a way through. Or can totally side with one group or the other of course! But the situation itself is not dependent on scale. Very neat!

  6. Exactly right! You'll find results fitting immediately or on a broader scale, depending on what the players are doing and where the characters are. The generator basically moves the toys in the sandbox in relation to the characters. And since it also produces solutions or the shift of problems, even introduces different problem solvers, the character interaction only matters as far as they want to get involved. Needless to say, this doesn't produce unnecessary results, everything relates to the world and directly to the characters and resolves as stories would ... Plus: this is based on Vladimir Propp's work on how fairy tales work, so you actually got Tolkien covered within the possible results! D&D plays very, very differently with this, as you see with your result above. It gives the surroundings purpose and meaning. Bonus: with this you just need to have the sandbox prepared and up to date as the campaign emerges, everything else comes with the game. I never know where the story will go and it is kind of liberating while challenging (in a good way).

    Email is on the way with the particulars.

  7. I think for a start, I will roll once on the narrative generator every campaign day, and see where that takes us. The first result can be the one I've generated above... probably at 'local' scale to begin with, so the PCs can have a choice of dealing with the Treant or just going adventuring in the caves... and I'll build up to more epic stuff.

  8. In an unrelated note (no it is related really), I've worked out a way of doing divination/foresahdowing in your games of Lost Songs, using FUTHORC (Anglo-Saxon version of FUTHARK) runes (FUTHORC because it has more). You may have realised this already but I think it's groovy.

  9. I'm working on the very same thing right now! Now we definitely need to talk :)