My examined Dragonlance campaign

By | June 19, 2011

At around age 10, I read the Dragonlance Chronicles, my first real introduction to the world of fantasy fiction. When I discovered they were based on a series of D&D modules, I immediately wanted to run them.

In 2000-2002ish, Nick did just that. I played, along with the usual suspects, and though the game was excellent, it was different to what I expected. For me, the books were emotionally saturated with in-character tension, atmosphere, and tragedy, while the campaign ended up emphasizing combat much more than the intense characters and grand scope I remembered.

Looking back, I think this was just the type of game we wanted to play. I recall the group’s preferred style being fairly humorous and oriented towards tactical combat, with in-character interaction being fairly rare and mostly reserved for critical plot elements. Characterization in such a game still happens, but it tends to focus more on individual characteristics than on relationships, often centering around combat roles or special abilities. Furthermore, D&D 3 had just come out, and we were enthusiastically exploring (and breaking) its rules, and since the bulk of D&D 3’s rules focus on combat, so did we.

None of this is to criticize Nick’s handling of that game – as I said, it was an excellent game, with some fantastic and memorable moments. Nor am I trying to say that there’s something wrong with tactical play (there’s not – it’s a lot of fun). It’s just that it was different to what I thought playing the Dragonlance campaign would be like.

I think this partly stemmed from the way in which the experiences one has when one is young and impressionable are indelibly etched in one’s emotions with a nostalgic perfection, and it’s simply irrational to expect that adult experiences will as easily match up to them. Furthermore, while I think role-playing games as a medium are certainly capable of such emotional saturation, I think D&D is less so, for several reasons:

  1. Its rules focus attention on characters as collections of abilities rather than as people – it’s about what your character can do much more than who they are;
  2. Its rules are robust, rigorous, and all-encompassing, which doesn’t match well with the arbitrary and complex nature of emotional storytelling – time spent worrying about the rules will always detract from flow and the feeling of being in the moment, while rules consistency will often necessarily interfere with the storyteller’s ability to bend reality in the service of creating compelling scenario;
  3. It requires a lot of book-keeping and superstructure that can interrupt and interfere with the flow of play – there’s always spells to keep track of, magic items to identify, treasure to count, maps to draw, and inventory to manage, not to mention hit-points, sundry modifiers and abilities, and all the trappings of a combat character.

One reaction to this, of course, is to do away with a lot of this detail with a low-mechanics system like Savage Worlds, or similar. That works great, but the problem is that there’s a lot of good, fun, things that come out of the complexity and rigor of D&D, and I very much want my games to include the best of both.

I want to be able to run games where the arbitrariness and fast flow of rules-light systems allow me to play fast and loose with details in favor of atmosphere and story, but I also want the rigor and detail of a game like D&D to lend structure to my environments, to create consistent and realistic confrontations, and to more firmly establish the game world as a shared place that the whole group has in common, rather than a set of lightly related games limited to each player’s interpretation and memory of what I told them the weeks previous.

A couple of months ago, I began running the Dragonlance campaign with my current group of players. So far, it’s been an immensely rewarding experience, precisely because I’ve gone into it with the goal of finding ways to fuse these two styles of play. It’s not that I’ve never tried this before, or that it’s a new idea, but that I’m taking such a conscious attitude towards doing so that I’m finding rewarding. It’s like that quote of Socrates, applied to games – ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ – except that I’ve played plenty of games unexamined that were certainly worth playing.

Anyway, I’ve been learning a lot from running this game, and plan to think, and hopefully write, more about it. Here’s a couple of topics that are on my mind:

  • Emotional salience – For me, creating great and memorable moments in gaming is all about creating emotionally salient experiences – experiences that directly change how you feel in some way. This seems to apply to everything from free-form narrative games, to D&D, right down to abstract games like chess and soccer. I want to unpack what I mean by this in the context of my game, and hopefully get some reactions from others, too, as this is, I think, the key question in determining what games are good, and what games are not. Note that I’m pretty much ignoring psychological flow in this concept of good game design (maybe this tension is a topic unto itself).
  • Creating a sense of place – Places act as emotional anchors; like smells, places can evoke an emotional state fully formed and specific to that place. While others have done a much better job than I can at articulating why this is, I want to take a stab at it, but more importantly, I want to talk about the role of maps and other game-aids in creating that sense of place; the ways they detract, and the ways they enhance.
  • Inter-character conflict – Conflict between characters is challenging stuff, mostly because it has the potential to roll over into inter-player conflict, and that’s no fun for anyone. Regardless, I think it can add an awful lot to a game. One interaction, peculiar to tactical combat games, is when the attitudes of characters to one another affects their tactical decision making – real world combat can hardly follow the same near-optimal decision making of players sitting around a battle-map, and furthermore, this adds to the complexity, intrigue, and emotional saliency of encounters. This is an area I’d like to explore more in my play, but it depends a lot on the willingness of my players.
  • Maintaining atmosphere and flow in the face of meta-game interruptions, such as discussion of rules, or getting the pizza, or whatever. This seems to be a common topic in guides for GMs, but the advice usually seems limited to being prepared, minimizing interruptions or doing things like dimming the lights. It seems that there’s more than can be done to make the context switch smoother by making in-game events and material more resilient. Battle maps, for example, help immensely in maintaining tension and atmosphere during combat, because it’s so easy to regain a sense of how everything fits together following an interruption. Can this sort of resilience be created outside combat? How?
  • Table top RPGs as literature – I’ve not taken a serious literature class since high-school, so maybe I’m not the person to talk about this sort of thing, but I’ve found that my reaction and thinking about the games I run and play has taken a very literary bent of late. I spend a lot more time thinking about narrative structure, the negotiation of shared setting and story, the range of GM roles from an disinterested, absolute arbiter, to an active, democratic, story participant, and the things that gaming can teach about what it is to be human. I want to do more reading before diving into this too deeply, but it’s a topic of interest.

I’d very much welcome suggestions and reactions to all of this. Hopefully you’ll see some posts from me getting into it more in the weeks to come.