Friday, August 22, 2008

Adventure Paths, the Old School, and Fun

Once again, as I read Grognardia, I'm thinking to myself "yes, yes, YES!"

Modules D1 and D2 provide nothing in the way of a "plot." They are simply descriptions of locales and encounters along the way to the drow metropolis of Erelhei-Cinlu. Along the descent into the depths of the earth, the characters might make various friends and enemies to aid them in their explorations, but none of these encounters is part of a grand plot as such. Instead, what we get is a subterranean "wilderness," with many different monster lairs, along with the usual tricks and traps. Even the fabled Shrine of the Kuo-Toa is mostly a dungeon without any greater significance, although the characters may loot from it drow brooches and clothing to aid them in infiltrating the Vault of the Drow.

D2: Shrine of the Kuo-toa is a great example of old school adventure design. Here's the thing: if the PCs are lucky, observant, and polite, they can pass through the entire shrine and never once draw their blades. Seriously. It's not so much an adventure as a locale. The DM and players can do anything with it. Wholesale slaughter, polite but aloof anthropology, or even forging an alliance with the kuo-toa are viable possibilities. The players could spend as little as an hour or two real time as they pass efficiently through the lands of the kuo-toa, or use the shrine as a base of operations to explore the surrounding subterranean wilderness, or even get embroiled in local politics, spending multiple sessions within the shrine itself.

This lack of assumptions is, I think, key to old school adventure design. What I find even more interesting, however, is how invisible such things can be to the players:

My memories of these modules were quite different than the reality. My recollections were of a number of memorable encounters with various antagonists, strong connections between the various groups of evildoers, and an overall coherence that simply isn't there. But then I was the referee for all these modules and ran them many times. I provided huge doses of "connective tissue" based on what my players did and how well they succeeded (or failed).

The good DM creates plot and conflict from the diverse parts and tools the game and adventures provide. Running through the Giants/Drow series of adventures feels like an adventure path because the players only see the logical progression from one part of the adventure to the next. But what they don't see is the open framework the DM has to play with. This openness is vital, however, because while they may not see it, they certainly enjoy it. In the hands of a clever, imaginative, and flexible DM, this framework allows the DM to customize the adventure towards the preferred playstyle of the group. Do they want to engage in diplomacy? Or do they prefer James Bond style infiltrations? What about straight-up hack-and-slash? The adventures work best when these different styles are combined, but the DM is open to emphasize each in whatever combination is most enjoyed by the group. They're even flexible enough to allow the group to change their style for an evening if things start to get stale.

And this, more than anything else, is the glory of old school play. It doesn't assume to know what fun is. Instead, it gives you the tools you need to create what is fun for you.

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