September 24, 2010 by Jeff
First off, let me begin by laying out what I have identified as key assumptions in D&D.
1. D&D is a cooperative game wherein the protagonists work together to overcome challenges that arise as they pursue an objective.
2. The game has several variables: party composition, objectives, setting, and opposition. Each variable is defined by a combination of player and referee interests.
3. Under normal circumstances, the DM decides objective, setting, and opposition, while the players determine party.
In my experience, most D&D games function with the above assumptions firmly in place. The Dungeon Master decides the campaign’s overarching objective, paints the background in accordance with his or her own interests, and then creates a series of challenges that hamper, slow, or frustrate the attainment of those objectives. It falls to the players, then, to identify what roles they will play within the party framework, a construct designed to let the players engage the story’s unfolding narrative through cooperative decision-making, teamwork, and collective interest. This arrangement is, in my mind, the default for most gaming groups.
Is it possible to shake up this arrangement? In some ways, it already has. The publisher is a third force. The publisher determines the objectives through print and digital adventures. The publisher creates setting where the action takes place. The publisher presents opposition in the various bestiaries. And finally, some publishers go so far as to determine the party construct with pregenerated characters, archetypes, or something similar.
But of more interest, at least to me, is in growing player responsibilities to attend other game elements. I think it’s possible players can define setting, objective, and even opposition (to some extent). And if this happens, what role does the DM play?
Player Defined Setting: Historically, campaign settings feed the DM’s creative needs. The DM determines the racial selection, geography, political circumstances, gods, and so on. From scratch, this is an astonishing amount of work. Publishers provide settings as DM tools to define some or all of the setting. The trouble with the traditional approach is that the more detail given to the setting, the steeper becomes the learning curve to know the setting. The less familiar the fantasy world, the harder it becomes for the players to immerse themselves in it.
Again, publishers, at various points, have provided setting manuals for players, wherein all the necessary “crunch” is defined along with world overview, and so on. While this effort is laudable, it’s an extra financial investment at the gaming table, one only the most invested players will purchase, read, and use the book sans some gimmick that expands the core material such as new races, classes, etc.
Ultimately, I feel the best solution to realizing a setting and investing the players in it depends on tapping the players’ creative energy. If the players are building the setting, the DM can focus on plot, narrative, and adventure design—all of which are the things keeping the players coming back to the table again and again. Furthermore, player-driven setting design also narrows the focus on the world. Rather than create entire continents populated by peoples, nations, and the ruins left from war and calamity, the setting is only defined to the extend that it’s needed. Who cares if a great battle between gnomes and kobolds happened four thousand miles away in a place that has no bearing on the campaign’s story? And if it does, a DM (or player) can bring those elements to the table when needed.
How does one go about this? Well, the easiest solution is to simply discuss with the players what kind of world they want to play in. One player has an interest in urban adventures, so maybe that player sketches out some ideas about an important city in the setting. The player might decide how many neighborhoods are present, the various movers and shakers, and the some identifying qualities about the community. Then, with these simple notes, the DM can step in to add detail and color as needed to suit the adventures.
Another player might play a horse barbarian. OK. It’s up to the player to decide where these barbarians live, what they do, their cultural idiosyncrasies, and so on. A player running a dwarf fighter could supply the same information about his or her clan, while a halfling rogue might set up the ideas behind a thieves’ guild operating in the first player’s city.
The takeaway from this approach is that the players gain intimate knowledge of the setting, freeing you from didactic exposition about geography, history, and politics so you can put your focus where it counts: the adventure and overarching campaign.
Objective: Andy Collins’ recent post about character design is a revelation that I hope lots of folks read. Static backgrounds and personality parameters do establish behavior patterns for PCs, however they are poor grist for the DM’s mill. This idea ties in neatly with shifting campaign responsibilities to the players. Rather than reiterate Andy’s ideas, I’ll simply say that a player character with concrete objectives determines the campaign’s destination, or, at least, one destination. A player who decides he wants to go back to the drow city where his character was born and wipe out the Lolth priesthood, tells the DM to create a situation where this is possible and where this end can be achieved.
Opposition: Players who take the time to establish the setting and their characters’ objectives have also made great strides in determining campaign opposition. The player in the above example who wants to get vengeance against the dark elves has already chosen drow as the principle antagonists for at least part of the campaign. Another player who wants his dwarf fighter to reclaim the sunder halls of Tolkien-esque fortress implies both that the halls were taken and that they were probably taken by a people or group normally identified as antagonists for dwarven peoples such as goblins, orcs, giants, and so on.
Armed with these cues, the DM can tailor the campaign’s growth to the players’ interests. Drow, then, are early paragon-tier heroes so the party will need to handle this objective then. Reclaim the lost hall could occur in the low-Heroic (goblins), mid-Heroic tier (orcs), or high paragon tier (giants). Maybe there’s a connection between the giants and the dark elves (clever huh?) and now connection is something the DM can use to drive the adventures that link these destinations while also connecting them to the campaign’s ultimate villain.
It seems I’m about out of words, so I’ll wrap this up as quickly as I can. In the end, the best campaigns are ones where the player investment is equal to or greater than the DM’s investment. Allowing the players to make key decisions about the environment, their goals, and the types of foes they will face create key opportunities to draw the players into the game and keep them coming back week after week.Robert J. Schwalb is a game designer who is well known for his work with Green Ronin Publishing before working as a full time freelancer for Wizards of the Coast.