What Do I Know About Gameplay? D&D Published Adventures and Tools at the Table

The following is based on a thread I originally posted elsewhere on social media, pulled together and modified a bit to preserve the thought process.

I just listened to Down with DnD today where Shawn Merwin and Mike Shea were discussing the D&D Essentials Kit. Some of that discussion sticks with me, especially when comparing D&D with other games.

Combined with this quote from DM Samuel on Twitter, it triggered some thoughts:


Replying to @newbiedm @ChrisSSims

Can someone please tell WotC? I’m so unable to run these long hardcover adventures… and I read them cover to cover when I review them… but way too much detail to run at the table.

3 5:31 AM – Feb 28, 2020

The Essentials Kit, Basic and Advanced D&D

The Essentials Kit has cards included for tracking the jobs that player characters can pick up from the job board. We treat tools like that as “beginner” items, because “advanced” players don’t get special pre-packaged handouts to help them keep track of things.

Except, there is a whole secondary market for things like spell cards and monster cards, that make it easier to have reference ready at the table, because books aren’t the best “active” tool for running a game.

Sometimes it almost feels like a throwback to the marketing plans of ages past. If the core game gives you extra packed in tools, it’s a “basic” product for beginners. If everything is expressed in a hardcover book, and you must choose to intentionally buy additional products to supplement that format, it’s “advanced.”

A Tour of The Modern Hobby

Beadle And Grimms are doing amazing work breaking down the hardcover adventures, creating handout and visual aids, and separating larger books into smaller, more manageable reference guides, but that’s a premium product that remains outside the budget of a lot of gamers.

Scratchpad Publishing’s RPGs are designed as games, not as books that are used to express games, as an example. There are components that exist to facilitate play, and the books are kind of a necessary evil for when you have more information than you can slap on a card.

Fate has been leading the charge by explaining more complex details with aspects for a while now. Sometimes you just need to make an impression, without a lot of extraneous details. Aspects for an NPC are going to make a bigger impression than three paragraphs of description.

Several Powered by the Apocalypse games, like Night Witches or The Watch, do an excellent job of conveying what should be going on by clearly defining the phases of a session of play. Why are we in this scene, and how does it fit into the wider cycle of play for this game? Forged in the Dark games, with items like crew sheets and clocks, do a great job of conveying incremental progress, the passage of time, and the acquisition of situationally useful resources.

Adventures in Middle-earth does a great job of mechanizing travel, and honestly, probably a better job of gamifying downtime than D&D‘s assumed baseline. The starting adventures for Pugmire and Monarchies of Mauhave bullet points at the beginning of scenes asking How did the players get to this scene? What do they need to accomplish here? What is keeping them from doing this? What scenes could they go to from here? Those summary bullet points may feel redundant or even perfunctory in some scenes, but they serve a vital function in reminding you why you are in the scene you are in, and where you can go from here.

Enjoying Things While Accessorizing

The problem is, as I’m saying all of this, I can also hear the gathering storm of “yeah, D&D is bad, & you should play those other games,” and that’s not actually what I’m saying here. I’m saying that the core rules of D&Dcan be kept pretty much intact because people enjoy them.

However, what I am saying is that all the above games create tools that bridge the gap between core rules and play experience. The biggest advance in D&D adventures in the modern era isn’t in expressing the adventure. The biggest advance is in not assuming that the DM needs to be adversarial for the game to be fun, and to encourage DMs to customize content.

The problem is that mindset is great, but again, having tools to solidify that philosophy would be great. Fifth edition D&D has had a lot of great, imaginative adventures. The number of people with shared experiences is a testament to how strong many of these adventures are. But the flaw still lies in translating the concept of a great plot to something usable at the table.

Tradition and Inertia

As an example, D&D adventures still, after all this time, do things like saying “after 60 minutes have passed, the reinforcements will show up,” but in order to track that 60 minutes, the DM ends up looking up movement rates and character speed.

The adventure could say, “for every six rooms the PCs enter, reinforcements arrive.” It’s more abstracted, but it’s a clear trigger for when the event happens, and it’s not completely divorced from the progression of time in the adventure.

Storm King’s Thunder expects you to either handwave long-distance travel, or to engage in measuring exact distances between locations, and tracking rations and random encounters day by day. But for all the movement rates and rations and encounter charts, the game never really gives you a procedure for those days. What are they supposed to look like or feel like? Is it just supposed to be dice rolling and bookkeeping until they reach their destination?

There is a great opportunity to gamify travel when it is needed for the adventure’s tone. Storm King’s Thunder would have been a great adventure to say “when you travel more than X miles, another event related to the giants triggers.” Most of the giant based events aren’t triggered by time, but rather are keyed to a few cities and towns that the PCs might wander into. Having some kind of clock that ticks off based on clear triggers would have been great.

Emerging Expectations

D&D creates some great adventures, and builds some great tools, but then fails to create some of the connective tissue between the literal thing that the rules model, and how to bring that to the table in a clear, actionable model. To some extent, this is very much the long shadow of the earliest adventures in the game. Often, early D&D adventures were “here is a mega-dungeon, and here are some rules for adjudicating wandering around that dungeon,” and “here is a wilderness area, and here are some rules for wandering around the wilderness to see what’s out there.”

It didn’t take long for the game to develop scenarios that were more dependent on interaction, investigation, and reacting to the actions of proactive villains, but those adventures didn’t add a lot of new solutions for resolving those styles of adventures.

What Would I Like to See?

  • More bullet points explaining what the takeaway for a scene or encounter area should be
  • Distinct, clear statements about what an encounter is about, and what other adventure elements it may be tied to
  • Pertinent information formatted to underscore important information—information in the middle of a paragraph, without anything to make it stand out, isn’t idea for reference
  • Visual representation of trackers for the passage of time and what consequences trigger when those trackers fill up
  • Clear triggers that don’t rely on the DM shifting their brain from “game space” to “simulationist space” to track actual time or distance
  • Parallel development of ancillary product that serve as tools for running adventures, rather than second party development after the adventure has been developed

I’m going to throw this out there, but honestly? Adventures should be boxed sets. I don’t know how feasible this is, but it does allow for more build in tools that are developed as part of the adventure creation process.

D&D isn’t a bad game, and it’s got some great designers and some wonderful idea people.

This isn’t their shortcoming, it’s part of the culture around D&D that is resistant to change. D&D builds awesome structures on either side of a metaphorical ravine. Since it’s not THAT far across, it’s always assumed people will either learn to climb down one side and up the other, or get a running jump, but that gap was never part of the assumed design space of the game.

The traditional solution for this has been to look at the people that can’t climb or jump that far, and have people that know them offer to help, rather than developing a default procedure for building a bridge that might benefit everyone, with the knowledge that people that still want to climb or jump can live their dreams.

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