Friday, June 10, 2011

Let's Kill Monsters and Take Their Stuff

Existensialism and the dungeon - confessions of a knuckle-dragger

For me, Dungeons & Dragons is all about going into dark holes in the ground, kicking open doors, killing the monsters, and taking their stuff.  I'm here to say, I am a role playing knuckle-dragger.  But go with me here for a bit, because there is a method at work.

Looting places is the default paradigm of most of the golden age modules - check out this list below:

B1 In Search of the Unknown
B2 The Keep on the Borderlands
B4 The Lost City
B5 The Horror on the Hill
X1 The Isle of Dread
T1 The Village of Hommlet
S1 Tomb of Horrors
S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

None of these adventures have over-arching plots or storylines, or intricate plot hooks to get the players started.  They are all simple site-based adventures with not much more to them than "Here's an interesting place to find adventure, ready-set-go".  You may say, "Beedo, when I played that module, we helped so-and-so, or we discovered such-and-such evil plot, it was a great story, it had nothing to do with looting."  Yeah - but it didn't need to turn out that way - that was your choice to make it about something, not the DM's plot.

This is the strength of site-based adventures, of sandbox play, the reason I'm still playing D&D 30+ years later.  Compelling stories emerge through play.  Story and plot isn't forced onto the game from the outset.

When I've played a plotted a game, I've had the experience of leading the players through the story.  It is fundamentally more passive than presenting a locale and turning over decision making authority to the group.  For the players, gaming in a sandbox goes from passive entertainment into an exercise of existential choice.

And this is where the idea of heroism in D&D should really matter - forget about making the premise of the game, "You're a hero".  Make the premise of the game, "You're whatever you want to be", and let the players be heroic or villainous or amoral through their choices.  If they choose selflessness over self-interest in a sandbox game, now you have heroism with meaning.

I've played B2 with multiple groups (mostly younger) where they tried to sack the Keep on the Borderlands.  Or the group attacked the (good) Cynidicean factions in the Lost City to loot their golden masks.  Or they tried to rob Rufus and Byrne in the Village of Hommlet.  And I've played with groups that made heroic choices in the same circumstances.  But the difference in an old school game is the players have that choice to decide.

You'll note that I'm equating old school play with free form dungeons and site based locations (sandboxes).  There's an implicit idea in these adventure structures that the DM presents a location, and the story emerges from player choice and interaction with the setting, and the sum is much greater than the parts.  And this is why D&D is still my game of choice 30 years later, and despite dabbling in scripted, plotted games, I come back to the sandbox and the basic dungeon delve over and over again.

And yes, a corollary statement is you can play a new school style plotted story adventure with old time D&D rules, and I would say it's not an old school game - old school is as much about adventure style as it is about the rules system.

Tying this back to DCC and yesterday's "You're No Hero Post".  The issue I can see with the DCC ad copy is the explicit statement "You're not a hero", as opposed to saying something like, "You could be a hero, or a reaver, or a thief…"  I certainly don't think it's a fatal mistake, people!  Let's read it and discuss the game on its merits.

Note - thanks to Stuart over at Strange Magic (again) for providing the motivation to defending the killing of monsters and taking their loot, and to Limpey for putting the focus on heroic choice.


  1. Nicely said.

    Although, "Take their stuff"? Oh, how you wound me, good sir. Such a slander to my wonderful characters' professions.

    We rescue the gold and liberate the magic items from their avericious overlords! It's for their own good... :)

  2. Great post! So true, good sir!

    "Compelling stories emerges through play." - cannot be stated enough!

  3. None of these adventures have over-arching plots or storylines, or intricate plot hooks to get the player's started.

    B5 and U1 do.

  4. One of the things that I've noticed over the years is that players will choose morally questionable and interesting over noble and boring. If they are bored, they will start trouble.

    Sometimes players aren't too inventive in searching for fun. Perfectly rational people will set a town on fire if there is nothing else to do. Sometimes a DM needs to put a neon sign over some of the more 'noble' options in a sandbox to give the players meaningful choices.

    I run a non-evil game zone. I'm not really comfortable with baby killers as it is, but with my son playing, I really don't want my friends setting an example of genocide. But that bulging purse dangling off the drunk guy at the bar . . . well . . . that certainly is an option. :)

    - Ark

  5. Larceny is alright, some felonies and murder are okay, but we draw the line at genocide. :)

    Players do experience a certain amount of moral liberation. Perhaps this is one reason Gygax wasn't big on the deep role-playing aspects of RPGs. It's a slippery slope. One has to consider how mature the group of players are.

    And mixing children and adults? Double jeopardy! Sometimes. But, you probably have more to worry about with media and movies, etc effecting his judgement than your gaming friends (hopefully).

  6. Stuart - there is no plot to either B5 or U1. They're presented as simple descriptive locations, providing no motivations for exploring the locations other than basic adventure (ie, kicking in doors and looting monsters).

    As the characters begin to explore and interact with the location, a story might emerge - but I'd hope that's the case with any adventure site.

  7. @Beedo: Maybe you have different versions than the ones I have. :)


    In the B5 I own there are multiple plots (side quests in videogame parlance) with a central plot of investigate the mysterious hill and uncover the Hobgoblin King as the army he's building up to invade Guido's Fort. If you read the parts before it gets into the room by room description and after the end you'll see this more. If you have the In Search of Adventure compilation it cuts a lot of that out.

    In U1 the Town of Saltmarsh hires the adventurers to investigate the spooky haunted house on the edge of town. There are mysterious lights there and nobody wants to go near it. The party uncovers the Smuggling operation taking place there and it leads them to the Smuggler's ship and the follow up adventures that deal with why the Smugglers are supplying arms to the Lizard Men.

    There's no set timeline, and the players are free to make their own choices about where to go and what parts of the narrative to engage with... but those modules definitely have more than "kick in the doors, kill the monsters, take their stuff".

    Both are worth a second look if you haven't seen them in a while. They're both high on the list of "favorite D&D modules" that get posted online from time to time.

  8. I just ran B5 recently (last year recently) and didn't present anything about a hobgoblin king or army up front; the players investigated the hill because they knew it was a place with monsters, and as they discovered information, starting planning their own deeper investigations.

    If players discover information during their free-form exploration, and they decide to act on it, it's still 100% player agency driving the game, as opposed to plotting it out. I expect a good site-based locale to generate potential side quests (B5 is pretty underrated - it's really large!)

    On the other hand, I haven't played U1 in many years, and went back to check - sure enough, the recommendation is to have the group hired to investigate the house - a much stronger push than I prefer.