Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Ongoing Campaign as Competitive Advantage

I've played many other RPG games through the years, and still like to run one-shots of other systems from time to time, but I keep returning to D&D as my primary game, particularly when it comes to running an ongoing campaign.  I'm finding there are elements D&D brings to the ongoing campaign that other game systems don't match.  Many of these game mechanics that support the ongoing D&D campaign are the same elements decried as "unrealistic" or "artificial and gamist" by D&D's detractors; however, they're the foundation of D&D's endurance in the hobby.

I'm sure I'm not the first blogger to highlight these properties, but it's important to establish my thoughts here as it will have implications for structuring this "wide area sandbox" about which I've been musing.

Class Structure
The confluence of classes and levels creates forward impetus for the players.  Characters grow in power incrementally with each level gained.  Class differentiation supports archetypes and simplistic character niches; class differentiation creates roles, propelling an adventuring party towards team-based play and group strategies.

Americans crave incremental advancement, and the class and level system is a powerful psychological pull towards repeated play and the importance of an ongoing campaign.

Adventure Structure
The level structure intrinsic to D&D also supports a diverse and hierarchical bestiary that makes it easy for the dungeon master to populate adventures with monsters appropriate for specific character levels; the estimable nature of these threats make it easy for players to gauge the types of challenges their group can handle.

The story structures most common to D&D - the dungeon and the hex crawl - are easy to create and populate within the fantasy genre.  The limiting nature of the dungeon geography forces the player group to consistently make micro-choices during exploration from a finite number of options. This is an important feature to ensure timely decisions and a fast-moving game.  Even a hex crawl structure, which seems to imply wide open choice, only allows 6 options to leave a hex, and it's likely the group will have basic information about the terrain in the surrounding hexes to inform the decision process.

Objectives in D&D are also simplistic; advancement happens through the accumulation of experience points, and experience is awarded primarily through the recovery of treasure.  Both the dungeon and hex crawl structure are intended to provide exploratory environments that facilitate the discovery and recovery of treasure.

A series of consecutive D&D adventures form an ongoing campaign.  The advantages of the class and level system emerge in campaign play; incremental advancement encourages players to stay with the same characters over time.  The transparency of threats within the D&D adventure structures allow group decision making on the macro scale as the group weights relative risk versus reward.  It could mean choosing one adventure site or another in a hex crawl setting, or choosing one dungeon level over another in the dungeon setting.

As a community, one of the strongest arguments we've been promoting in favor of old-school gaming is how a properly structured D&D campaign empowers player choice.  The level structure allows players to manage the ratio of risk versus reward for themselves; this supports a player-driven game that allows the players to plan and execute their own agendas.

Concept Games
Most other games do not copy D&D's structure of classes and character levels on the player side, or the strong hierarchy of threats by level for the game master to employ.

Here I'm speaking of all those strongly typed games that emulate specific genres - whether it's the various superhero games I've played (V&V or Mutants & Masterminds), the Sci Fi (Traveler), or horror games (Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, Vampire or Werewolf).  In most of these genres, it requires the DM to prepare a much stronger story in order to engage the players.  Only the Sci Fi games support creation of a "sandbox" similar to D&D, but lack the transparency of threat analysis inherent in D&D's bestiaries that support a simplistic evaluation of risk versus reward.

Concept games are plenty of fun, but I find the burden they place on the DM for story is something that pushes me away from using them in long campaigns; I much prefer running one-shots or short campaigns that focus on specific story arcs for other RPGs.

So now we come to the reason for laying out my argument for D&D's strengths vis a vis other games; as I'm thinking through the Library de la Torre concept as a wide area sandbox, I'm pondering what aspects of that campaign structure do or do not take advantage of D&D's competitive advantages.

Unfortunately, Sunday chores beckon, and the NFL games are just starting up, so I'll need to continue this line of thought tomorrow!


  1. Very astutely assessed! I look forward to more of your musings.

  2. Eh, I would argue that games in a modern setting (such as Mage, which I'm currently running) support sandbox play quite well, as long as "hexcrawl" isn't the only way that a sandbox can be defined. In such a game, the GM treats a large cast of NPCs as another kind of terrain to explore.

    Other than people and their web of connections, my players are also exploring the esoteric locations and history of the city's neighborhoods - the last session was a straight-up dungeon crawl, including traps and animated suits of armor. My players are just beginning to explore, and typically at their own pace, the weirdness of M:tA's Boston and all that goes on there.

  3. Agreed, a Vampire or Werewolf sandbox would also work well - but still, D&D seems to be more structured and, by its system, better fitting player-driven gameplay (whereas the above mentioned games better support character or story driven game).