Tuesday, 6 September 2022

On Adventure: Risk as Its Own Reward

 


There is a great deal to be said for thinking of D&D PCs as, essentially, glorified tomb-robbers - adventuring to gather treasure and hence XP. Indeed, if the 'OSR' can be boiled down to any single principle it is probably this one: if you create a dungeon and/or hexmap and populate it with troves of treasure then the game thereafter more or less runs itself. The players have every incentive to explore and the DM basically just watches them go. (Anybody reading this blog will almost certainly consider that observation to be old hat, of course.)

There is a lot less to be said in my view for thinking of D&D PCs as going out and Saving the World, either literally or in microcosm (Saving the Village), primarily because it places too much of a burden on the DM, but also because it ends up depriving the players of agency. With all of that said, these objections are largely a matter of taste, and I don't doubt that many people have fun playing D&D in this way, running this type of campaign. 

These two different ways of playing D&D, which we can very roughly divide into 'old school' and 'new school', result in very different outcomes at the table in my experience, but they do have one thing in common: they postulate largely extrinsic motives for adventure. In the former, the PCs adventure because they want to get gold and hence XP and hence advance in level. In the latter, they adventure because, well, they want to be the heroes of something resembling a high fantasy novel or film; they want to Do Good in the world.

Neither does a very good job of capturing the fact that adventure often has an intrinsic motivation - that it is indeed something worth doing for its own sake, and which therefore is its own reward. (Nobody who has travelled anywhere even slightly off the beaten track can possibly dispute this.) In fact, achieving this kind of mood or vibe may be among the hardest things to do in the RPG hobby; however much D&D's art might channel that kind of feeling, the fact is that at the table very few DMs are capable of doing so and very few players are capable of allowing them to. 

By definition, fiddling with the XP system to incentivise exploration - something I have toyed with in the past - cannot be the answer, because that simply returns us to the world of extrinsic motivations for adventure. The only true method must be precisely by making adventuring in a campaign setting intrinsically appealing - in other words, something worth doing in its own right, irrespective of the extrinsic rewards (such as treasure) that might be available.

Creating such a world is probably the holy grail of anybody toiling over their own precious Fantasy Hearthbreaker setting, though I think only Tolkien's Middle Earth - and maybe Jack Vance's Gaean Reach - comes anywhere close. 

17 comments:

  1. The other day I wrote about a LotFP adventure in my blog, and said that the reward in this, like other LotFP adventures, is not the treasure, because not onlt there's little and at great risk, but the amisement of players watching (or listening) their characters suffer and die in terrible ways.

    Perhaps LotFP has the best adventure adventures, because they're not about silver nor they are about saving the world. They are abiut screwjobs. You play these adventures because you enjoy the adventure, the serring, the situarion, not because you want to a 9th level Fighter and a stronghold.

    Of course, the characters want to become rich, but in normal D&D, it's both the PC and the player who want to be rich or save the world.

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    1. I follow your reasoning but I think LotFP adventures are too bleak and meaningless to really capture the 'love' of adventure. It's more like a sardonic exercise in exposing the desire to adventure as fundamentally pointless?

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    2. Well, yeah, but I mean you the player enjoy the adventure, not your character.

      PD. Damn! I made like a hundred typos in too few lines! Shame on me.

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  2. honestly feel like this might be the only legitimate driving force for anything resembling a "trad" ttrpg. everything else is either just a glorified Skinner box or some failed-novelist shit. (storygames, of course, tap into an entirely different justification of play lol)

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  3. This post seems to line up with the widespread idea that the DM is an entertainer of the players. While that is surely true to an extent, being a skillful player in social games like these also means finding ways to engage with the game and make it meaningful. A skillful player finds a way to motivate the character to take action, any action. Unskillful players sit there and say, "Why should my character care about anything in this setting?"

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    1. Yes, I agree, although ultimately it is the DM who has to create the setting itself.

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  4. I think the closest I've ever come to this ideal was at the very beginning of my D&D "career" when my players and I had no deeply ingrained feel for the math and mechanics of the game, no encyclopedic knowledge of the monster lists, and no goals other than playing the game. Just playing it carried the thrill of discovery and venturing away from the beaten path, but it's a hard thing ever to recapture.

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    1. Yes, definitely, and maybe this is why we all seem to think the edition of D&D we started off with is the best!

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  5. With the understanding that you are talking about the art of DMing and making players want to explore a world, I want to take this a little further and focus a bit on the last paragraph and comment about what sorts of worlds draw DMs in, what kinds of settings make DMs excited to introduce to their players, and that have the right ingredients to go on to be “successful” - because “fantasy heartbreaker” is such an apt phrase.
    What we’re looking to do in creating an RPG setting is to create a dopaminergic imagination engine. I think what is really difficult (Holy Grail is the right word for sure) in writing such a world is achieving two things – one, the kind of intriguing specificity that pulls people in and makes them want to take a closer look – that gives them the kind of natural dopaminergic rewards that come with exploring something new – and two, an openness in the setting that gives them room to author new material and gives those who author new material the same level of dopaminergic reward as those who explore. That’s REALLY hard to do – or at least I don’t think I’ve really been successful at inventing my own quite yet! I think that’s what gives some RPGs (like D&D) such staying power whereas others seem to wither on the branch. I could drone on and on about this, probably, but I’ll stop now, hopefully before I’ve annoyed anyone too much!

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    1. No, that is a very helpful comment and absolutely on the money. A world like Tekumel has the former but not the latter, whereas most of your bog standard fantasy settings have the latter but not the former. Finding the balance is very tough and a good way to conceptualise that 'holy grail'.

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    2. Blackout's reply touches on this, but I think the dopamine reference is apt. The more settings you play, and the more fantasy you read, the harder it is to get that hit. Ditto the longer you play a setting.

      I'm not saying it can't be done, but I think writing that fantasy heartbreaker setting is harder than it used to be. Middle Earth is such a well-crafted example, it's almost cruel that it's one of the first settings we all encountered.

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    3. Tekumel is a GREAT example.

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  6. One relatively lazy way I've found that works for a more plot heavy game that doesn't rob players of their agency is to shove the PCs in the middle of a story. If it's a detailed story you can imagine how the PCs fucking with things will alter what's going on.

    Just make sure that the NPCs are powerful enough that the PCs can't just bully everyone. Having a dynamic of powerful NPCs who area all squabbling with each other and not really prioritizing smacking down the PCs creates a fun dynamic.

    One way of doing this that has worked for me in the past is have the PCs be hired on as thugs by a character (with names filed off) in a Shakespeare play and then have the plot kicked off. PCs generally hate being underlings so they inevitably go rogue and try to steer the whole clusterfuck of a Shakespeare plot to their benefit and I can mostly just sit back and manage the chaos.

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  7. Interesting idea. And one of the tropes of King Arthur Pendragon is just that. During the reign of King Arthur (after the realm is more or less secured) you get time off from your manor each year to go and Adventure! You do not have to save the world and, as a knight you are already (more or less modestly) rich. You just have time to explore new sights, meet new friends, and foes, just for the heck of it! And you get Glory for it, so that your name, and that of your family, will live on in memory.

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  8. I feel that PCs should have extrinsic motivations, while players should have intrinsic motivations.

    XPs, finding powerful items, levelling-up, etc. is nice stuff and scratches the game itch, but ultimately we play this adventure tonight because we agreed this is the fun we genuinely want to have.

    Characters on the other hand? If we're talking about typical OSR adventures, they're dangerous stuff. Deadly dangerous. Intrinsic motivations can't be enough for PCs (unless they're psychos that genuinely love to risk their lives murdering creatures in dark undergrounds, I suppose).

    In my opinion, of course.

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  9. There is no tomb robbers. Just treasure recovers.

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  10. Very good point. In part, some "xp" systems like those in Call of Cthulhu or Cyberpunk - rewarding usage of talents as players will - are better in this than the traditional D&D ones, though, yes, even those do use external incentives to a degree. Keeping up with internal incentives of the characters, of course, requires significant amount of DM's skill and effort - but it's very rewarding when/if it works. Still not sure how much it can be formalized...
    Mike

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