Friday, August 15, 2014

The Way of the DM (Random Ramblings About Game Design, Sandboxes, Gary Gygax and the OSR)

DisclaimerThis is not the ultimate truth (as if something like this could exist without suffocating), but only my take at several ideas floating around our little corner of the woods. As always, I might be on the wrong track, hoping that the wrong way might lead to some interesting conclusions, too. This being an exorcism of ideas, it's bound to be a bit incoherent, but maybe readers'll find some interesting bits and pieces ...

I'd like to challenge your perception of what a (sandbox-)campaign/world-engine really is ...

Why? Because mine was challenged by testing the ideas that echo through the OSR blog-o-sphere like hungry ghosts of a past that never was. But let's start at the beginning.

The game, the rules, the preparation and the result.

At the very beginning is the idea of what a roleplaying game is. At it's very core it's an attempt to simulate skirmish scenarios with individual characters instead of units, that led to adding aspects of exploration and social interaction as part of the game. This is the first stage.

How to implement something like this introduced several sets of rules that resulted in D&D as a first remarkable (and recognizable, I guess) peak, but never stopped developing alternatives. This plethora of game-options (be it genre, theme, rules, flavor, hybrids of those things, etc.) is the second stage.

Either which of those options is our first encounter with this hobby defines how we prepare the game in the beginning and, to a certain degree, how we grow with it. This investment in the hobby allows for different levels of  commitment, which, again, results in an even wider array of interpretations of what the game is. This I'd like to call the third stage.

Now it's the level of commitment that might let a hobbyist go full circle by questioning the rules he is using and starts making his own, ending, in it's extremest form, back at that first question: what is a roleplaying game? The resulting process might lead to a full (individual) understanding of all aspects of a game and an opinion of how those options should be interpreted via rules, adding to the abundance of rules in the second stage. 

Eventually the own result might be challenged, closing a circle, starting another one ...

A Zen Circle (Public Domain)
You get the idea. Where we are in our understanding of the game and how we recognize that standing will inform our opinions about the hobby. As with all things, no opinion mirrors another, but there's most of the time enough overlap to communicate those interpretations and form alliances of consensus (like the OSR).

The Result And The Right Questions

One iteration of the above described stages is the public (online) part of the DIY-movement: a huge variety of small publisher's, presenting their ideas online (for a price or not). If it has legs, it will get an audience and, even better yet, will find some use. How is this important? Other than giving a creator the chance to see if he is on the right way, it allows access to the diversity of aspects the game has to offer. It's like the collective conscious is chewing all those ideas, spitting out results every once in a while, ever searching for a new and better interpretation.

This is of course a good thing (and what I described as the second stage). But it's way more important for a DM to realize that he has to make the game his own. It's something most product won't deny but will merely suggest, neglecting to show what this really means: a DM should design his own game!

There is no sandbox without the OSR ...

I mulled this over and over, always following some bread crumbs that ended at the wrong destination or lead to more questions  (as it should be, I guess). At some point the following occurred to me: depending on your point of entry in the stages described above, several aspects of the game are already done for you. The rest is what generally is perceived as either fair game for a DM to develop himself or something that might be completed with some supplement or another.

This gets problematic where the already established parts and the parts missing are never really defined, leading not only to discussions of what is missing and lacking, but also (often enough) to the wrong conclusions about what should be done about it.

Feats in 3E might be a good example for this ...

Again, even further back to the basics. The original D&D rules were never assumed to be complete and a DM was encouraged to make his own game out of the guidelines presented in the first books. At the time, Fantasy was just assumed to be the default setting, but everything else proposed as a possible follow up in future campaigns. Here are some quotes from the third print of the 1974 edition of D&D:
"These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity ..." (OD&D, Men & Magic, Introduction, p. 4)
"With the various equippage listed in the following section DUNGEONS and DRAGONS will provide a basically complete, nearly endless campaign of all levels of fantastic-medieval wargame play. Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future, but such expansion is recommended only at such time as the possibilities in the medieval aspect have been thoroughly explored." (OD&D, Men & Magic, Scope, p. 5)
So every decision in the game starts with the reflection of what is proposed and the addition of what a DM might want/need in his campaign. The sky is the limit and all that. Here are the closing words from the OD&D Underworld and Wilderness book:
"There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing." (OD&D, Underworld & Wilderness, Afterward, p. 36)
Arduin and Empire of the Petal Throne are prime examples of early attempts to do just that (but really every published role playing game that followed was written in that spirit). They all started from scratch and went on from there.

Internet, desktop publishing and the OGL finally brought (among others) the OSR to live and with it a very specific access to the hobby. As I understand it, the OSR discusses all role playing games as potential material to loot for all DMs. This includes that a DM is encouraged to build his own game from all the parts available or completely new. It's not so much about creating simple or complex rules, it's about offering a hub to exchange ideas to help producing a diversity of games that are all more or less D&D as outlined above (that means, an interpretation of the first stage, not a brand).

Everything is fair game in the OSR ...

To build a roleplaying game from the very beginning, one does not assume a specific setting or genre or set of rules. Sure, you can just take what's there and be done with either or all aspects of the game, you might even take D&D as a default and go from there, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about conscious and informed decisions to produce systems that, to some degree, produce reliable and repeatable results of a general nature (weather is an easy one, random histories or cultures would be far more complex).

Now, one interesting effect of this was that some very old ideas got new impulses. Two of those are the megadungeon and the sandbox.

It turned out that how to develop rules for either of those goes far into uncharted territory, because it touches on very underdeveloped areas regarding a DMs work. And this is not about inventing some kingdoms and politics, but (as far as I'm concerned) about finding some underlying patterns and randomize them in a way that produces a set of rules that work like an engine to produce coherent random settings without much effort.

In other words: the structure we assume to be the starting point for creating our own stuff within what we know as D&D, is actually several steps ahead in the process. Sure, you can take a random hexcrawl and make it work, you might even do your own from scratch and it's good to go. Nothing wrong with that.

But there are, for instance, several rules still active in D&D that are relics from the war-gaming heritage of the game, like Movement Rates and Alignments (to give but two examples) and ability scores are way to fixated on a human range instead of making fair estimations for every creature (like giants, dragons,etc.) easy to access (as it should be). NPCs are a big problem, as in you just can't have the same effort and depth as a character has. The list goes on and it all leads back to sandboxes/world engines/etc..

Where now, in my opinion, is the problem with sandboxes?

So what's really lacking is a game in the game, a part of the rules that are only for the DM, an analogue world-engine, that, when started, will first create and then shift power balances, alliances (and in general builds some surroundings that the DM didn't tamper with) as a starting point to build on.

I'm not saying this is an easy task, I'm not even saying it is possible (although I've seen it done with Vornheim). All I'm saying is: question what is being done and ask yourselves what could be done instead. Build your game from the very beginning. Let cities evolve, kingdoms rise and fall, all that good stuff. And then propose it as a campaign and start playing.

Because that is the thing to do. It's the Way of the DM.


  1. Interesting.

    Some time ago, I was wondering about the possibilities of integrating the old MERP game with other forms of Middle Earth gaming, including the LotR miniatures battlegame, Lord of the Rings Risk, and some LotR Top-Trumps. I could never quite see how all the parts would fit together and how the different scales would interact (large to small is easy, small to large is much harder). But the point was specifically to create that kind of 'world engine' - to produce events that were a changing backdrop to the actions of the players, to produce 'history in the making' around them as they produced history themselves through their activities. I was lloking at LotR because I have access to games set in Middle Earth across a variety of 'scales' from the individual to the continental; but in principle there's no reason not to try something like in another setting.

    I was also working on some random rules for plague/weather/acts of god on a continental scale for my D&D setting (and have iterated these for about 1700 years of historical events). A combination of something like this with a country-level strategy game, and an army-level battle game (as the existence of the Chainmail battlegame was apparently implicit in the earliest version of D&D) would perhaps go some way to producing this total-world history.

    Or, some simple rules derived from the growth of mould cultures (analogue of the influence of a 'seed' city) might give a tolerable indicator of the rise and fall of empires, I don't know.

    1. Thanks for commenting and in such detail! Good stuff! Funny thing is, I was just reading your post about dungeon ecosystems. I believe we ask some of the same questions. For me it was the Rules Cyclopedia (which, luckily enough, delivers fragments of all those things you mentioned, some of it is even connected!) instead of MERP. Same difference.

      Birthright was an attempt on a country-level strategy game. ACK is supposed to do some of this (didn't read it, though ...). The list goes on and most of those games work on their own and produce good results for the whole.

      But is that really what is needed? That's what I was trying to say, I guess. Where do we start to do our own thing? As a DM, what kind of output would you need? Which must be followed by the question, what is needed in the game. One aspect being what the characters need to hear, the other being what a DM needs to know to get there. You know what I mean? A game of risk could help getting a picture of what is going on on a continent, but it takes time and you'll need some rules to translate the results to the game. I guess this could be done, but, ideally, wouldn't it be more useful to decide a complex game of risk in just one roll of the dice, if you could get the same result, but with an output that is directly connected to what you need?

      An example, taking a work-in-progress I started last year:

      The idea is to take already existing rules and interpret them in another context. Once you got the basics down, scale is no longer an issue. You can take a big city and defrag it to a point were it just was a village or start the settlement from the very beginning and let it evolve.

      Now for the ability scores. If you have them, you can establish ways to alter them and let that reflect in-game events. Let's say a villages Dex is low and it needs to be fortified when some orcs arrive to level it. If you now know what damage a horde of orcs deals as a group and if you have some fair estimations of how long it takes to fortify one point of an ability score, you can, as a DM, gather enough data to make this work on what you call a country level and have it easily enough translated in either direction. At least this is the theory and only one aspect of it AND how I see it.

      The idea with the growth of mold is quite interesting, really. How much of your prepared stuff did you get to use?

  2. Thanks for the very interesting reply.

    I think you're absolutely right that playing a whole game of Risk (which perhaps simulates several years of game time) is not a viable way of producing 'in-game' events. What it might be useful for is, at the beginning of a new campaign, establishing 'what went before'. In terms of LotR, one could use it to establish which faction controls which areas in a Fourth Age campaign, for example; this would generate the 'starting conditions' for the campaign. Likewise using conventional Risk could be used to generate a near-future setting for modern warfare/diplomacy games, etc. There's nothing to stop us producing our own Risk-boards of our fantasy continents and putting them to war too. But as I say, more use I think for generating 'starting conditions' than in-game events. It might perhaps give players a sense of involvement in the 'history' of the world if they are a steppe-nomad shaman, and they know that 200 years ago the steppe-nomads sacked the Cities of the Great River - because before the campaign started, the player did just that in a game of 'Game World Historical Risk'.

    I'm very interested in the idea of using 'stats' for settlements. It seems like it would be a simple way to run encounters between different groups. I haven't absorbed everything yet, however. I need to think about the implications, and how I would do such a thing.

    I suggested the idea of simulations of competing mould-cultures because I've seen programs that simulate them, and they can produce complex patterning from simple initial conditions. Whether they're manipulable enough to use, or whether one would have to take the basic concepts and then retro-fit them to the setting, I don't know; but depending on how you map your 'stat-stadts' (couldn't resist that) you might find you're re-creating the results of such simulations.

    As to how much of this has actually ended up in my games, I've taken my 'Acts of the Gods' tables (which include phenomena such as droughts, plagues, floods, fires, and infestations of normal and magical monsters) and applied them as random events to 'the history of the world'. This is on a regional scale with extra weighting for heavily-settled areas, so for a steppe-region I'll make one roll, for a region with three major cities, I'll make four rolls. However, this was only about a month or so ago and I haven't yet worked through all the implications (for instance, if a great fire ravages a particular city that might cause a great many people to seek to appease the fire god; or it might cause them to regard the fire god as an evil force; either way, the city is likely to increase its public water supply, numbers of people trained in fire prevention etc).

    1. Excellent, I love the idea to involve the Players in pre-game world-building processes (also, maybe, in the mid- and high-level in-game ...) and for exactly the reason you give: to let them have some real information of where their characters are coming from. Very nice, it's a thought I had and had lost again some time ago. It's also one of those missing subsystems I was talking about!

      Your table sounds great! And your example might help me illustrating my point a bit further. That's exactly the problem I'm talking about. You have a fantastic table with random events, you use it and you end up thinking about what consequences it's result will have by using narrative solutions. That's what I mean when I'm writing that the systems we use leave us to early in situations where we, as DMs, have to make narrative decisions where a good sub-system might produce results that give implications of how the effect of an event carries out.

      So if you assume ability scores, saves, alignments and HP for the burning city, you'll have several already established system that might help producing some reactions that bring a DM in a position to narrate without inventing the outcome of an event. Using HP you will not only know that people died, but how many died. It'll also remind you that some "healing" might be needed, etc.. Using Alignments would help giving some indications how the population in general reacts to the great fire, ranging from "Let it burn" over "Let's go somewhere else ..." to "Let's save this city at all costs!", which will inform you if the city will burn to the ground or have a whole lot more firemen in the end. A save vs. might tell you how long the fire will last ... I'm not saying it's the only way to do such a thing, but I believe it's one good way to fill this special gap. But I'm, too, still thinking about all the implications and aspects of such a sub-system ...

      The only problem I see with a system imitating the growth of mould cultures is that it might lack accessibility. So you might have a beginning and some growth in the end, but no way of accessing and interpreting isolated parts of that complex structure anywhere in between. Worth reflecting, though :)

  3. I'm sorry it's taken a few days to get around to replying.

    Glad I could remind you of something you'd already thought about! Getting players to help with world-building is something we do anyway of course - every time a player says 'I want to be a barbarian from a tribe where everyone has neck-tattoos' or any other detail we should be feeding that back into the process but generally these are small things. Allowing the players to do this on a bigger scale would definitely be interesting.

    I see what you're getting at with the table. Instead of applying the results to a static category, eg 'the City of Selenica' it's a process more like an encounter: my result would be something like '1127 - fire devastates the city of Selenica' almost like an entry in a medieval chronicle, your method would be more like 'generate a fire in the city of Selenica, see if it makes a save versus Dragon Breath, roll on the reaction table to see what the morale effect is' and repeat for any and all subsystems you're including. I'll agree, it's much more dynamic and also, as you say, less 'narrative' (perhaps it seems more dynamic because it's less narratively driven).

    The same reasoning was behind coming up with my table in the first place. I could have just written a history that said these cities had fires and this region had bad weather and this place flooded and there were these plagues - but I thought doing it all 'narratively' would rapidly become uninspired. I would undoubtedly begin to let my own preconceptions and laziness dictate 'results'. No way would I have put in so many monster infestations that seemed to turn up fairly often. Now, why several cities should have been plagued by minotaurs or whatever, I'm not sure, but I probably wouldn't have made that up if I'd been working through it narratively. I just wouldn't have been able to sustain the imagination over 1700 years over ten regions of a continent and maybe 20 major settlements.

    1. Not to worry! I'm glad you answered and in such detail :)

      1700 years over 10 regions and 20 settlements sounds like a huge task. Really impressive! When all is said and done it comes down to scope and the willingness to put the work into it, I guess. To produce a huge history is one thing, to produce a huge history connected to relevant gaming data is a totally different matter and might be way to much of an effort to realize. I'm, as of yet, undecided if it's the rational thing to do.

      Anyway, I still think it might be a good idea to develop a game where the players and the DM create a huge amount of relevant data (that is: connected to D&D's mechanics) for a gaming world before they start their first game of D&D. Maybe with the DM adding some 100 years of history between the development game and the role-playing game (this way, knowledge about the gaming world is still relevant without giving the players a meta-gaming edge and a huge part of the work load is shared). It's like establishing the board, so to say, but on a much bigger scale and in a playful way ... Ah well, someday. Maybe. On a much smaller scale I'll try and do this for Goblin-tribes.

      I hope you'll share those tables at some point. I, for one, would be very interested in seeing them.

  4. I like most of the post but I don't follow how you arrive at the last point (the "game in the game" bit).

    1. I'll admit it seems a bit arbitrary, but it's not as far fetched a conclusion as one might think. The basic idea behind that statement is the discrepancy between what we think we might need to make the game work for us and what is actually possible. The "game"-aspect I'm talking about is actually crucial (at least in my opinion) give some directions in this.

      The Red Orc in the comments above gives a good example of this with using a game of Risk to set up the political structure of a campaign world, but I'd argue it goes even further than this. Take a standard Campaign Setting you buy somewhere. It's all set and done. You got maps and NPCs, all that stuff. The work a DM needs to put in it is as minimal as he'd like it to be. No gaming aspect there. But it only leaves the final product as main impression, not so much the process how the setting was generated. So someone building a campaign from scratch might think it's enough to accumulate all that information and maps and what-have-you to get a similar result. This is, of course, true. But most of the time the won't go "How would a game look like that produces a random campaign world in a fun way while producing a huge amount of gaming material compatible to the system I'm using?" because that's just not done that much. And I'm not just talking random tables here. More like an intensive domain game that builds a history with the players, using the mechanics the game already delivers. If it's the sensible thing to do is a matter of taste, of course, but I for one would like to be able to start my next D&D campaign that way.

      So "the game in the game" is all the stuff a DM usually does before he gathers people to play (and some of the work he'll do between sessions). It doesn't need to be something you bought or read online, not even something completely derived from your imagination, but (to some extent) one more aspect of actually playing D&D ...

      I hope this helped getting a better picture of what I was aiming for. The comments above might help, too. If you still disagree with my conclusions, I'd really like to hear where exactly we disagree. Different perspectives are always welcome.


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