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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Should a "Good Adventure" Tell a Story or Enable One?

Alright, so my assumption that the next great D&D release is going to be a railroad got lots of
"hurrumphs!" about railroads and sandboxes and my general predisposition D&D Next.

Now, I'm not going to be making ANY assumptions about the Tyranny of dragons in this post, except that it has something to do with a "tyranny" and perhaps "dragons" are involved. Might even involve Tiamat, who is certainly an underused property by the fine folks over at WotC. But I digress.

No, I'm thinking about adventures that were written to tell a story. We don't have to look in the recent past - we have it in the glory days of gaming. I'm not even going to focus on Dragonlance, the "Big Daddy" of telling a story at the expense of player empowerment.

I'm thinking of the horrid 'Time of Troubles" storyline that brought the Forgotten Realms from AD&D 1e to 2e in the most heavy handed manner possible.

No more "assassins" in 2e? Let's do away with those pesky assassin cults. Change the bards while you are at it too.

Throw in wild magic, spell plague, gods walking the realms, replace certain gods with characters from the books that are telling the same story as the series of adventures - oh, and don't allow the player characters within those adventures to have any real effect on the progress of the story...

I could write more, but someone else has already done a better job than i ever could. I'll wait.

You read it, right? Shit is spot on.

Yes, Shadowdale could very well be the worst adventure ever, at least as far as TSR put out. The fiction trilogy wasn't much better, either.

So, "tell a story" or "enable a story"? Rails and sand are inconsequential in the larger scope of things.


  1. I'm a big fan of letting the player's make choices that have a large impact on the game world. That usually means that your campaign is going to go off on weird tangents, your NPC plots won't ever mature, and the tavern that you planned to use as a home base will get burned down over an argument about a serving wench.

    So be it.

    I do not like the assumption, whicht many in the OSR make, that exploring dungeons and hexes isn't necessarily a railroad. You don't need a huge storyline to constrict player choice. All you need is a linear adventure.

    An old man that wants the party to recover the Gem of DoubleAnal from the local 10 room crypt is a railroad. If the players choices revolve around checking for traps, fighting monsters, and looting treasure...well it's a railroad.

    In that case you might as well play Heroquest to save some riles overhead.

    The heroes need a chance to impact the larger game world, and not just the giant centipede population.

    1. If the players "choices" all lead to the same pre-determined station, it's a railroad.

      If the players don't want to do what the old man wants, but he turns out to be an archmage and puts a geas on them, it's a railroad. Likewise if the players decide to ignore the old man and leave town, but an overwhelming force of monsters herds them in the direction of the crypt, it's a railroad.

      If the players choose to go recover the gem and succeed, maybe that DOES impact the larger world, depending upon just what the gem does and what the old man plans to do with it. Maybe the old man becomes an ally or information source, maybe the village is freed from a curse, etc. Influencing the game world does not have to an earth-shaking thing all the time.

      Just operating in a somewhat limited environment (like a dungeon) is not a railroad. However, if every room has only one way to proceed in a purely linear fashion to some pre-determined ending, it is a railroad.

      It's the difference between the GM preparing an "adventure" and preparing a "scenario / situation."

  2. Got no answer for your rhetorical question, but I need to thank you like 4.3 billion times for that link to the "Time of Trouble" reviews. That's awesome stuff! It also distills my "hatred" for those times down rather nicely, reminding me why 2e still doesn't sit right with me today. On the other hand it also makes we want to run an FR variant in which Elminster is level 5 and actually quivers in fear at the sight of an ogre. Not sure where that came from, but hey, there it is. :-)

  3. I'm not sure what conclusion you're trying to make, except that Shadowdale was a) really bad, and b) a "tell a story" module. You don't connect the two points, or extend them to anything else, though.

    I think Fate of Istus was even worse in its way, though. Same effects as Shadowdale, except with the potential to affect other classes, and ... it was just a slapshod job with no logic.

  4. Your nomenclature spells it out very well. Telling a story is an active process, the referee seeks to engage the persons sitting at his table. Enabling a story, on the other hand, is passive and reeks of the whole "if you participate you should get a trophy" generation.

    1. I think you're reading that exactly the opposite I am, Gene. The Dragonlance modules told a story and took the players along for the ride. Riverwind was originally an NPC specifically to drive the story in certain directions, including his sacrifice.

      _Shadowdale_ and some of the other adventures mentioned were much the same, aimed at specific conclusions. These modules all _tell_ stories.

      A module that _enables_ a story, on the other hand, provides the pieces, a situation that needs resolution, but does not force one solution or path to that solution over another. A module that enables a story should be able to have a conclusion that surprises the DM.

    2. Perhaps the blog author meant to write something like "enabling the players, through their choices and interactions with the game world, to create their own story?" From the player's point of view, the GM "telling a story" is passive on their part, while enabling the players to engage the game world and create their own story would be active on their part.

    3. that's how I read it, @almostoldschool

    4. Nothing to be ashamed of. With maturity and experience you'll be better able to discern the difference.

    5. Gene, I think that you've got it backward as well. The question is who is telling the story. If the DM is telling it, then then players are sitting back and passively receiving it. If the DM is enabling the players to tell a story, then they are actively creating it. To my way of thinking, it is better for the players to be telling the story than the DM.

    6. "Telling a story is an active process, the referee seeks to engage the persons sitting at his table."

      I think you meant to say "Telling a story is an insufferable process, the referee seeks to make up for the fact that he is a failed novelist who still sleeps in mom's basement."

  5. Lots of these modules always struck me as DM sourcebooks more than adventures.

    They are better reading than playing.

  6. As an old fart of a GM, I don't have a problem with a module that wants to tell a story, just as long as it provides enough information for me to 'run with' once my players de-rail it - no good plan survives contact with the enemy, etc.

    I prefer adventures to be along the lines of:
    1. OK, here's what's happened so far
    2. Here's what the (bad guys/plan/event) is aiming for and what will happen if the players do nothing to prevent it
    3. Here's some things that they might try and what you can do about that
    4. Here's some suggestions about alternative endings/outcomes

    Beyond that, everything gets taken with a pinch of salt and the players should (within reason to retain playability) be allowed to at least TRY whatever they want. I find the more leeway you give players, the more they can screw themselves over, which cycles around again to them becoming more cautious, because they KNOW I will allow stuff to happen that may kill them all. I try not to, but it happens.

    My gaming credo is: Without fear of consequence, there is no challenge in playing. Without free will, there is no point in playing.

  7. Bad adventure design is bad adventure design, but don't use a packaged module adventure that's part of a series as an indictment of any game that doesn't allow players to completely run the game. Published stuff is supposed to do some hand-holding and give some direction, otherwise why bother publishing adventures. It's theoretically written so that any group, not just your group, can play it.