Monday, March 28, 2016

Standing out

What sets D&D apart from any other game is that you, as a player, can do anything, bounded only by the parameters of the campaign world and the limits of your own imagination. RPGs have always been distinct from other games, whether board, card, video, or pen-and-paper in this way; it's the primary reason we choose to play them.

Every D&D game I've ever run or played in has been a learning experience for me as a DM, and often, it's the latter that tends to be the most eye-opening. DMing is a fantastic way to gain comfort with the mechanics and managing the logistics of a complex, fantasy RPG. But it's the rare occasions where I get to step in and be a player that I'm truly enlightened to what elements I like and dislike in a game, whether it's the style, the setting, the edition, or anything in between. Those experiences are taken back and folded into everything I do as a DM going forward.

Most recently, it was the chance to play in Jason's play-by-post that showed me the real potential of a sandbox style game. I've always liked the prospect of a player-driven campaign, but have never been great at stopping myself from weaving elaborate narrative plots with pre-staged and scripted climaxes. And once you make the effort to come up with and start running through the scenes in your head, you develop a bias toward ensuring that they materialize at the table. While some players really like being a pawn in the DM's story, what Jason's game taught me was how much I, as a player, didn't.

In the play-by-post, my character Raith's future wasn't going to get pulled out from under me or dangled along by a string. The other players and I were in control, and this was of paramount importance to my emotional investment in the setting, which soared from the moment we started and for the duration of the time we played. This is the fundamental experience I want to deliver to my players.

To this point, I've done a good amount of stringing along, and have done so openly, to give the players a chance to meld and familiarize themselves with the game world. Now that this has been accomplished, however, and the PCs have found a measure of local notoriety defending a small fiefdom, I'm dropping the tethers and allowing the campaign to unfold as the PCs see fit. The options before them are endless.

More importantly, the choices are theirs.

At the risk of tainting the notion described in the opening paragraph of this post that the players can do anything, I'm going to enumerate a handful of the possible paths before them now. This is most definitely not to persuade or to suggest that these are the only courses they might follow, but rather to give the group a taste of its freedom. The characters could...
  • delve into the Witherwood to battle gnolls and see what else they might find;
  • stay hither and fortify Brithem and its surroundings;
  • research the curious map given to Wren by an ex-shipmate;
  • go after the bandits that robbed them along the road;
  • travel to the city of Longsaddle and seek out the renowned wizard family that resides there;
  • return to Luskan and become pirates;
  • venture further north to Mirabar or Icewind Dale;
  • set out for some faraway, famous location like the great library of Candlekeep
How do I prepare for such an array of possibilities? That's better a subject left for another post - after I figure out how to do it. It's a natural thing as DM, I think, to strive to control the direction of the party. To railroad; to set short- and long-term campaign goals, rather than let the characters define these for themselves. Relinquishing that control makes the DM's job both easier and more difficult at the same time. Easier in that plots need not be preconceived nor interwoven; harder in that there's much more pressure to exhaustively detail the landscape of the campaign world and how its regions, settlements, and populations subsist and interact.


Ravenloft is the sadomasochism of D&D. In Ravenloft, the DM teases, torments, and defiles the party not only to cause anguish but ultimately for the players' enjoyment. Ravenloft is a ticket that grants the DM free reign to wrest control from the characters at all times; to tear them away to new domains at the crack of a whip; to lead them along by a carrot that remains ever out of reach. Ravenloft is a diabolical, deceitful, and magnificent campaign setting. But it's also an excuse, and a crutch.

They didn't even need to tie him up...
That's the main reason in the end that I elected to stay away from Ravenloft, as much as its allure still calls to me at times. I wanted to give the players something they could truly make their own, without the mists always encroaching and threatening to intervene. There's a far greater challenge and much more to experience this time around.

Let's have at it.

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