Experimental Art


In the age of film, we were comfortable with a lack of control. Shooting a double exposure, for instance, required that you document your shots -- even sketching them out; and then re-load the same film into the camera to shoot the super-imposing image. While you tried to impose some level of control this kind of endeavor was always experimental. Success was always part accident. The artist took some of the credit, but acknowledged that they simply brought elements together in one place and imagined that when the film was developed something else would be revealed.
If we flash-forward to today's age; where so much is pre-processed and post-processed, we find the middle being squeezed. That is the sense that I get when I read modern modules.

I believe that role-playing is experimental art just like my photography example, and just like when I used to glaze pottery for the kiln. I didn't know what I was going to get until it was fired in the heat; and then I opened the door. It was true discovery. Part Art. Part hope.

Modules can irk me. With their splat text (a format that has not evolved in 30 years) and epic quests, they post-process the game away. Whenever I GM a pre-gen I always find myself having to re-insert the players into the module at various points to counter-act the diversions and explorations taken by the players. You see, they don't know where it is supposed to end up and they have amazing ideas about what their characters would do and how to engage the game. I don't want to take them on a train ride. I want them to seize diversions. I want my game to be experimental.

How do you like your games? Experimental or tightly focused?

Glad to see you're still around Gilgamesh. I hope you have been well.

I feel essentially the same about modules and pre-gens. Beginnings aside, I have always found them to be a bit too stiff and rigid. It's hard to fit players into a mold that can follow the campaign towards a single end result. I would say personally, I like a blend of experimental and tightly focused. I like to have an end result in mind when I craft a story, but I prefer that the path my players' characters take to get there to be a bit nebulous. It's a bit more work for sure to craft a story that contains contingencies for what characters might do, but the thing I like about it over modules (and I imagine it might be very much the same for you) is that the extra effort results in a more interactive story where you create a story together with your players in a way, where modules always seemed to me to be very structured stories that you experience as a group rather than create and discover together. Not to mention that modules and pre-gen are a bit too much on the game side and places less emphasis on roleplay. But that might be me just thinking in the traditional Wizards D&D formula.

Hopefully you are still tramping around and we can have a discussion! I've been away from this site too long.

Good to hear from you too. It sounds like we are on the same side. I like modules that have work done for the GM: Maps, Furnishings, Schedules of the guards watch, economies, crests and heraldry, histories, and a lot of the stuff that tends to end up on the cutting room floor of the modern pre-gen.

They replace it with half a dozen new monsters, new magic items, and detailed descriptions of characters. Why do modules list all the statistics of adversarial NPCs? Why list strength? Can't they just one line their attacks, AC, saves, HP's? The modifiers don't matter; the stats don't matter. The loot matters 'cause the players are going to steal it when they kill them though. That is the purpose of an NPC you see -- they hold the player's treasure. They are all mimics -- pretending to have purpose and pretending to have goals.

"I would say personally, I like a blend of experimental and tightly focused."
Yes, a hundred time yes. I am beginning to gravitate to a "golden mean" too. Not in the sense that we find an average. That is boring. A good adventure should have some strict details and politics, as well as some loose bits that can form around the players and shape to what piques their interest.

For example, if the story calls for a spy from a foreign land, set up three non-player characters who each have a secret that indicates that they are the spy. Give each one an alibi. As the players build their relationships with the three NPC's they may come to suspect each one. The players may ignore two out of the three NPC's without missing the adventure. You hook them onto the story-line when they learn the first secret about the NPC they are interested in (hate/love/friend/enemy). Whether they are the spy or not can be decided later.

Modules don't seem to give the GM credit for being able to run the game. Is it right that the module can capriciously decide who has good motives and who has dark ones? The creator of the modules all seem to overstep their mandate and try to complete the game rather than prepare for it.

I ramble.

"Modules don't seem to give the GM credit for being able to run the game. Is it right that the module can capriciously decide who has good motives and who has dark ones? The creator of the modules all seem to overstep their mandate and try to complete the game rather than prepare for it."

I can definitely agree. I remember very clearly the first time I ran a pre-gen - I was pretty young at the time and had picked up the generic "starter kit" for D&D 3.5, which had some minis, pre-gen map tiles, and a "starter adventure." And already when I ran it for the first time I could start seeing the problems. What was I supposed to do when my players had questions? If they wanted to examine the room in ways that were not offered up by the pre-gen? And to be fair, it was the starter package, but the sheer amount of inconsideration for the GM as well as the players was staggering. It's almost as if pre-gens are designed in total contempt of the group that purchases it, assuming that "well, we probably ought to hold your hand, since you can't do it for yourself." Perhaps I'm getting a little hyperbolic, but the sentiment, I feel, is there.

And I have to admit, that I think perhaps it extends a little beyond modules in D&D's case and into the game itself. Everything has to be rigid, but in all the wrong ways. I have grown and have since, through a blend of having read more novels, having experienced more of life via growing up, playing more games, telling more stories, and building more worlds of my own, come to be able to construct things to suit my liking and way of storytelling. But someone impressionable and passionate who wants to get into this culture and world of ours doesn't have that experience yet. I would wager that most of them begin with Dungeons & Dragons because that's the biggest name. It's everywhere. They fall into a world of musts and must-nots. Elves must be good. Orcs must be evil. There is no middle ground. You must be lawful good to be this class, otherwise you take a penalty. This NPC has this much money on them, every time, and drops these items like an exploding pinata when they are killed. It drives me crazy. Does it make my job, as a worldbuilder trying to integrate races into my own world, impossible? Not particularly. Does it make my job harder than if they had had the foresight (or perhaps wisdom or both) to instead, as you say, help us prepare rather than mandate? I think so.

I recall reading in a discussion long ago here that the rulebooks are very good at teaching how to play the game, but very bad at teaching you how to actually roleplay in the game. That opinion has stuck with me.

Now I ramble.

It is all very much on point. If we look at the older source material there was less direction. I prefer this.

To your point about rules: Earlier edition RPG's were less refined. As the hobby grew, it split into two camps -- those who wanted to codify everything and tighten up the rules to avoid abuse; and those who wanted simpler less-cluttered games. This wargame-designers (D&D 4.x) had squeezed the narrative so far to the edges of the game it became flavour. Just like the flavour-text at the bottom of a MTG card, the impact of narration on the game was lost. While they were doing this they also balanced the game (the metaphorical equivalent of preparing all meals with a blender). Strategy was now clear and important, but they had to murder the narrative game to do it.
Those who embraced a rules light approach had two paths to walk -- simplify or simplify and abstract. Those who wanted to abstract created novel and fun dice mechanics. Those who wanted to just simplify turned everything into a roll (An off-shoot of these guys invented LARPing with the rock-paper-scissors resolutions). Abstractions take away from the narrative and destroy the verisimilitude of the simulationist. They also place a second game over top of the first. Strategy is sacrificed on the altar of narration.

Neither camp, however, changed the way modules were written. They start with a background, introduce a hook, and use block text to describe the encounter areas. Areas sometimes have an option about who would be here (if the players have already killed Margar the Invincible, the room is empty. Otherwise, Margar is here waiting to be slain.) but most often they are simply static encounters. The module is divided into a two or three sections each of which with a single point of entry. Also, once a section is finished it is rarely revisited.

A module should be:

* Several locations detailed with inhabitants
* Several mysteries surrounding those locations or the inhabitants
* Several explorations of main characters and what they would want from the Player Characters
* Lots of supporting information (Clues, books, songs, items, etc) that allow you to find locations, solve mysteries, and meet people

Give the GM and players credit for their ability to turn this into hours of gaming goodness.

I definitely agree.

It's interesting to see the trend towards very rigid modules being used for RPG-board games like Descent or Mansions of Madness and a trend towards looser modules in games like the Elder Scrolls. Granted, Skyrim had other problems of gameplay design that are irrelevant towards this discussion. But when you examine the module parts, the parts that allow a player to experience its more-or-less open world, it was far more varied than the typical "There's a monster in this room. Unless the party killed it already. In that case, there is nothing" type of module that designers seem to delight in. When you described what a module should have, it perhaps is telling that I immediately thought of the structure that is being more and more embraced by the video game RPG community and less embraced by the large-scale board game RPG and PnP RPG community. Which is not to say that it is outright rejected by the latter communities of course. But it seems that in the VRPG community there is a certain fond remembrance of a time without so many constraining rules that they wish to emulate in the things that they make. There appears to be a lack of this in mainstream PnP companies (Wizards and the like of course).

It occurs to me that perhaps in the light of VRPGs, something interesting happened. Games like World of Warcraft perhaps remember fondly the time of roleplaying blended with adventure. Perhaps they looked at that and said "how fun would it be if we could visualize it as well as 'live' it, now that we have this technology?" And so games like WoW and The Elder Scrolls attempted to create interactive roleplay-able worlds. They were imperfect models sure, but I feel that they might have attempted to strive for worlds structured in modules you have described, albeit in a video game and not a tabletop PnP storytelling experience.

But now comes Wizards, contemplating its 4th ed, and they see the popularity, the wild success of WoW and the Elder Scrolls and all that and think "What if we made an edition like that? Surely it would appeal! Look at how popular WoW and other RPG video games are!" And so they create a set of rules paired with modules that are rigid in design and, upon inspection, would probably fit into a video game structure fairly well (especially with all the "powers" in 4th ed). After all, I have found that pre-gens are fairly similar to that of a VRPG generated "quest" - do one thing, then another linearly, and make sure you don't stop to see what that mystical tree is all about, we put that there just for description, not content. Yet in doing so, perhaps they only achieved a failure to communicate. Perhaps I am reading too far into the matter, but perhaps what has occurred is a somewhat redundant creation - a copy of an inspired copy.

I oftentimes absentmindedly describe some of the board game RPGs or even D&D 4th edition as "playing a video game without the video game." Perhaps that too is telling. Because when I step back and think about it, it both is and is not like playing a video game. Video game RPG 'modules' if you will, have evolved in a way that PnP modules have not. They have, in some respects, come closer to the ideal modules you outlined. And somewhere along the way, maybe PnP companies have looked at that and missed that nuanced change. Because where in a PnP module I would have to kill Margar the Invincible, collect his treasure chest of enchanted swords and valuable jewels, and save the king, I can instead, in a VRPG, see what's in this cave, explore this ruin, and run amok and see the world.

Which is not to say that there aren't PnP stuctures that let you do that. But I think that for the most part, there has been a bizarre reversal of roles, where we have become accustomed to varied and 'living' modules in one medium, and rigid linear modules in another.

As a bit of an aside, I recall hearing that Wizards releases updates and fixes to the rules of 4th ed, which I just found downright bizarre. Sure there were erratas for 3.5 as well, but I more or less ignored those too. Treating written rules for a game that should already be incredibly flexible and (in my case) filled with house rules as something that can be 'patched' every now and again with feedback from players is a concept I can never comprehend.

That's really interesting. I hadn't thought of it before, but you are right about the role-reversal. A video game is inherently weak at being able to provide an open game world where you can do anything. The designers of video games spent much of their time breaking down that wall in every way they could. PNP games are inherently weak at structure and controlling the rules. Those designers spent much of their time ensure that you couldn't "break" the rules and ignored open play.

I'll think on it some more.

"As a bit of an aside, I recall hearing that Wizards releases updates and fixes to the rules of 4th ed, which I just found downright bizarre."

Smirk. That is bizarre when you think of it. It is evidence that they think of it like a video game. They have to make a game where there is one linear interpretation of every scenario. No effort is made to make the game compatible with the narrative. They resolve the natural tension between playing styles by declaring the "gamer" the winner and taking him out to dinner.

The gamer at the table should be able to sit at the table and engage with the rules. He uses the rules and they turn into narration for all to hear.
The narrativist at the table should be able to engage with the story and respond with story. The narration transforms into the mechanism and is resolved to the satisfaction of the gamer.
The simulationist at the table drives the adoption of more complicated "rules-modules" that simulate certain kinds of actions with greater verisimilitude.

Hasbro doesn't understand the genre.

Essentially. I think we've nailed the topic pretty well. I would like to discuss storytelling with you, because you are a wonderful conversationalist and also because there's really no one else in the area to discuss it with, but perhaps a new thread would be appropriate before this one is completely derailed.