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Gamism In Action or Why I Hate Arts and Crafts

Started by jburneko, December 12, 2001, 07:05:00 PM

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Hello All,

First off, I'd like to state that this post is an account of my personal experiences as filtered through my personal biases.  Nothing I am about to say is supposed to represent the sum totality of similar or like experiences.  It is provided for consideration and discussion.

With the renewed discussion on Gamism up in the GNS forum I was reminded of something that I posted on and then was promptly attacked for.  I think it will receive a much more subdued response here so I will try it again.

Quite a number of months back I started a D&D3E campaign that was meant to be a very basic kind of game.  I looked at D&D3E and saw Gamism written all over it and so I planned to try and run it that way.  The game is best suited for explorative treasure hunting adventures.  I planned to use a very simple and cliche story structure to justify the individual adventures and unify them into a coherent whole.  The first part was simply a long journey with many trials and tribulations.  The second part was a series of quests to find five lost artifacts.  And the last part was the completion of a prophesy that brought back a great evil into the world and the struggle to destory that evil.

So, I sat down with graph paper, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual in hand to write the first adventure.  The first trial on the long journey portion of the campaign.  The players had recieved a letter stating that they were urgently needed at a distant city and that if they took the normal travel routes they would arrive too late.  The letter informed them that near the village the players inhabited was an old keep that had long fallen into disrepair but used to house a gateway that would transport merchants between the village and the city.  The letter speculates that the gate might still be working and the players should try to locate it and get it working again so that they can arrive as quickly as possible.

So this was the setup to the first adventure.  The players were of course 1st level.  So I sat their with my graph paper and books and I suddenly felt the shift.  This isn't how I normally plan my games.  At this point I worked largely with scene based/clue-chain/event trigger adventures.  This was going to be a location based game but not only that it was going to be challenge ladden GAMIST style adventure.

And it was HARD.  I mean DAMN HARD.  Go ahead and draw the map of a standard 3 story keep.  You've probably got about 75 rooms on your hands.  Now a certain percentage of those rooms will be empty.  Probably about 10 to 15. The rest you actually have to fill with something.  And it can't just be room after room after room of monsters because that will get old.  You at least have to give some variety to encounters.  I mean even if the whole place was filled with Kobalds, you've got to make each Kobald encounter unique some how.  You have to vary the parameters of the challenge.  Maybe the Kobalds are armed with special weapons.  Maybe you have to fight the Kobalds in and around some traps.  Maybe you have to get involved in a three way fight between yourselves, goblins and kobalds.  And of course it can't be all fighting either.  So you throw in some traps but, man, trap creation is a subtle art I tell you.

And that's where the bigest shift came in.  When I plan either my Simulationist style games with their focus on Character and Situation or my more recent Narrativist games I feel like I'm writing or directing.  I'm imagining individual scenes, characters and conflicts.  I think from a writer's perspective.  I tend to write up large amounts of backstory and character descriptions.  I create clues based on the needs of pace and tension.  I try to time my event triggers for highest dramatic effect and so on.

With this attempt at Gamism it felt more like CRAFTING than writing.  First I constructed the shell of my keep.  Then I gave a purpose to each room and decorated them with furniture.  Then I had to decide what 'adventure elements' would be placed in each.  I had a gazzillion variables to check and keep in place.  My mind just does not work this way.

When I was growing up I hated arts and crafts in elementry school.  Scizzors, Glue, Construction Paper, Crayons and Me just don't mingle.  And that's how planning that adventure felt.  I had this big messy mob of 'game material' that had to be molded and constructed into something that was tactically unique, challenging and non-repetative.  I think for that first game I succeeded.  It took well over 16 hours of grueling planning that, for me, was just no fun at all.

The whole campaign was like this and each new adventure kept getting weaker and more repetative and finally my players caught on to this and told me to stop trying to kill myself and so the campaign ended about 3/4 of the way through the second part of the campaign.

On the flip side of this I find that Gamism either as a player or as a GM running a pregenerated adventure is the lightest most relaxing form of roleplaying.  Everything is very objective and laid out and straightforward.  The fun comes from just straight up playing the GAME.  It's fun to watch what clever combinations your fellow players will come up with in order to overcome whatever obstacle lies before you.

So valuable lessons learned from the experience:

1) Don't knock a good a gamist scenario when you see one.  There's a real subtle craft and art there that's just plain beyond me.

2) Gamism even at it's simplest dungeon crawl/treasure hunt form can be fun and rewarding and still be quite mature and not at all munchkiny or power gamey.

Don't know if this was in anyway useful or insightful.  I thought I'd just share.



Let me just say up-front that I agree with what I think you're essentially saying:  Good dungeon design is hard, both in the sense that it's intellectually challenging and that it requires a lot of extensive work.

I will disagree that D&D3 is well-suited for dungeons.  Now, I know, I know, WotC is trying to get "back to the dungeon," and everyone and their mother is dying to hack some kobolds, but I think that I've got good reason for believing this.

  1.  D&D3 has more and better-integrated support for non-combat gaming than any previous edition of D&D.  Evidence:

    • The skill system.  It's much more robust and capable than any previous D&D skill system, and it allows classes who had, in previous editions, strongly focussed combat abilities to diversify.  Note that it also allows Rogues to get away from dungeon-useful skills.

    • The reward system.  Much more explicit non-combat XP rewards.

    • The Cleric and Sorceror (and Wizard) classes.  All three are allowed more diversity in their spellcasting (the Wizard only through greater numbers of spells per day plus cantrips, granted) which encourages use of non-combat/healing spells.

  2. What combat there is in D&D (and there is a lot, sure) isn't geared towards "a succession of small, meaningless fights."  Evidence:

    • Combat is complex.  Players have a larger number of options and a greater number of factors play into their combat choices.

    • "Monsters" are complex.  As Jesse has lamented before, it's difficult to properly stat up an NPC (and there's little to no distinction between NPC's and Monsters, anymore) in D&D.

    • Damage is higher, hit-points aren't.  At the levels most people play at (3-10), hit points aren't going to be meaningfully higher than they were in AD&D2.  However, damage is slightly higher (Bastard swords do d10 damage instead of 2d4, Strength-based damage bonuses begin at 12 (instead of 16), and are available to "Monsters," Armor doesn't stack well with Dex anymore (making PC fighter-types easier to hit), etc.)

Thus, while D&D3 supports combat-oriented games well, I believe that it best-supports a few planned, meaningful encounters, not "another room, another fight" dungeon-style play.

And I think that this difference is something that's excaberating the difficulty you had in creating a dungeon-style adventure for D&D3.


Hey Epoch,

I think you're absolutely correct.  I think given the extraodinarily complex and involved and variable combat system the game is more geared towards having a medium-sized "meaningful" combats that are interspearsed among other things such as diplomacy, mystery solving and other role-playing concerns.  Also given the details of the rules there are other kinds of great obstacles such as balance, climb and swim checks for other kinds of challenges than just combat.

This is getting off of my main point which was the Crafting vs. Writing sensation I was having but for the record here was basic problem I was facing.

1) I wanted the game to start at first level.

2) The End-Game was a show down between the players and an ancient council of liches.  That is, the final fight was going to be between the players and 8 10th Level Liches.

That means the players HAD to be between 10th and 15th level to even have a chance of surviving this encounter.

3) I had 10 adventures to do it.  The journey consisted of 4 adventures.  The middle section consisted of 6 adventures.  And then the third part consisted of pretty much just the finale.

That means at MINIMUM they would have to be gaining a level an adventure.  The XP system in D&D3E is designed so that there will be 13.3 encounters of equal level challenge between each level.  This is okay at low levels because usually the climaxes are of a challenge rating slightly higher than your level and so the actual number of encounters between levels is around 8 or 9.  But once you're in the higher levels say 8, most of the enounters start being slightly LOWER than the appropriate challenge level and so you end up needing MORE encounters between levels.

Basically, I had a SERIOUS pacing issue on my hands.  There are a lot better ways I could of have done things.  I could have done one or two really thought out clever encounters per adventure and I think that I as the GM would have been fine, the game would have been more enjoyable AND as you pointed out we would get way more milage out of the system.  However, the players would never have been able to survive the climax of the campaign.  Yet alone the DracoLich I had planned as an element of part two.  So, I was kind of forced to pad out each core element with some rather watery dungeon crawl stuff because I didn't have the stamina to do it correctly.

If I ever try this again, I'm thinking about delving into the world of Ravenloft.  I will probably do it the other way.  I will have a small to medium number of meaningful battles surrounded by a much richer more invetigative/negotiative situation and on top of that pace the campaign to the players progression rather than trying to lay the whole thing out in advance.




I think you're right, zeroing in on pacing as the main issue here.  You had the conflicting goals of (1) working a really nice story arc and (2) playing by the (D&D3e) rules.

I think one of the reasons I remember (or don't) countless hours of good ol' DnD is that it *takes* countless hours to get to the good stuff.  By the time 8th level rolled around, we'd logged (infinity-2) manhours.

In a film, Our Heroes might be newbies at the beginning, but a few hours later, they're ready to go toe-to-toe and save the day.  In a game focused on the flow of the story, the same might happen.  But shift the focus and suddenly the satisfying story arc takes a back seat.

For campaign two, it seems to me you have two options.  The first is to pace the story to fit the charaters, as you suggest - perks include *lots* of play time by the time the world-saving occurs, possibly making that world-saving a richer experience.  

Option two would be to pace the characters to fit your story arc.  I don't remember, but I would guess that Dragonlance did this.  I'd be surprised if Tanis Half-Elven and the rest earned the XP to justify the leveling from module to module.  Perhaps more in line with your goals, though, would be to start the characters at level 3 or 5.

This gives a little more story-sense to first adventures ("We're a bunch of 2XP schmendricks, but lets go clear out that den of thieves/goblins/Evil Wizards that's been plaguing the region for years!"), and also allows for more interesting baddies.  Your Ravenloft idea, for example - the party won't be a bunch of pushovers, but still will have to watch out (esp. in Ravenloft...).

If you take this route, I'd recommend giving the players XP in discrete chunks and ask how they improve.  Not knowing where the process will end might make more stable characters.  Perhaps ask for backstory justifying each increase...  Again, enriching the character ideas while staying in the bounds of D&D.



In one of my more successful D&D campaigns, I just advanced everyone one level per session.  It was fast-paced, but it worked surprisingly well.

You can also borrow the "And, two years later" technique.  It works like this:

PC's start out as 1st level.  They advance to 2nd level naturally.

...And two years later, they're fourth level...

And they advance to fifth level naturally.

...And two years later, they're eighth level...

And they advance to ninth level naturally.

...And two years later, they're twelfth level...

And you begin the campaign showdown.


The DMG has a lot of tricks for handling the "levelling up" tactic, one of which is the recommended wealth for starting PCs of higher levels, and the Leadership feat, and... Well, there's lots in there, and I used it once to good effect.  

The key, as somebody else said, is to make sure you have a backstory for how the PC got to where she is.  If she's the Laird of MacInnis Loch, how did she get there?  How did she get her followers, how did she amass the 12,000 Gp she's had to spend?  By answering these questions and using the Wealth and Follower rules, you could play 1 adventure each at whatever levels you want to hit and still have the PCs end up balanced for the final showdown with the Lich.  (If play-balance matters.)

As far as this goes in practise, I've always wanted to run something like "Drachenfels," (written for GW by the guy who did the Anno Dracula series.)  It was neat and took the characters from a 1st level adventure and then jumped them to something much higher--after the players made their fortunes as young heroes, they would be able to define what they did with the rest of their life until the Final Showdown.  It would make a great two-shot, especially if you handled it like Drachenfels and made sure all of the original PCs died messily as the arch-villain took his revenge, leaving the players using lower-level, but still feasible, PCs.  The players would have to be in on it, but I think if they knew the PCs were going to die, they'd make sure that what the character did between those two stories was dirty or noble enough that their death would be suitably tragic or eminently appropriate.

Hope this helps--

Ben Morgan

There's something that always bothered me about (A)D&D, and I'm not sure if it's a problem with the game, or just how "the majority of players" perceive it (most of the problems I have with Vampire are actually the latter).

I own both 2nd and 3rd Edition PG & DMG (and MM), and though I haven't had the time or inclination for a completely thorough inspection of the material, I have read through them. Is there anything that says you *have* to start new characters off at 1st level? Because I haven't found it yet. And still, that's where every DM that I've known starts off his players' characters.
-----[Ben Morgan]-----[]-----
"I cast a spell! I wanna cast... Magic... Missile!"  -- Galstaff, Sorcerer of Light


No, there's nothing that says you "have" to start characters at 1st level.  And I'll presume to speak for Jesse, and suggest that he knows that.

I personally never do start people at 1st level anymore, especially with the new edition.  I think that 2nd or 3rd level is much more interesting for a low-end start, particularly if you insist that one of the levels bought has to be from an NPC class.