Story vs. Theme

I suppose that I’m a weirdo. I play older edition classic modules with 2e Core Rules, but is it really that much of a stretch? I mean, as long as we are playing within our comfort range, right? I just feel that 2nd Edition has the most complete rule set of any edition, without losing the freedoms taken away from later editions of the game. I’m not all that into crunch either, but I understand that that is definitely a personal preference because lots and lots of folks are all about the rules, and all the power to them!

Why do I run the older dungeons? Well, the answer is pretty simple. Back in the day I didn’t understand. I thought that the older editions were crap and ignored them completely. Stupid, I know! But now is the perfect time to go back and reexamine these wonderful things.

I’m going to use some terms here, which to the average reader will appear to be bizarre. I am going to call 2e modern, and it is, compared to the modules that I’m running and which are influencing my games and how I play. That said, I hope that, at least for the time being, we are all on the same page here.

Modern games are overly complex, they are story based, and unfortunately, this slavery to story corrupts how we think of the game when we are writing our own dungeons. Modules are not just games, they are teachers, they teach us how to design our own games and give a format for us to use to keep everything in order. At one point I thought that this was the way. The very word, “Modern” implies that it is better and more advanced then the predecessor, but I feel that the game of Dungeons and Dragons defies this logic.

I’ve been studying the classic modules, breaking them down into what makes them unique and special. How do these things effect the reader? How do they effect the game itself.

A friend of mine picked up a classic mod and gave me his feedback to his impression of it. In a nutshell, he didn’t like it because it didn’t go anywhere. It was incomplete and he felt that he couldn’t work with it. Now his intention for borrowing the classic was to strip out a map or two, but he is conditioned and expecting a modern module. One with a story, which something in his head is also fighting against. Regardless of his intentions, he still felt that the mod was incomplete.

Story? What is story? I think that if one is an artist, the medium that he chooses to express himself should be appropriate to the feelings that he want to express. You can do some really cool things with this medium, but because you aren’t the only person working on this story, it is impossible to create many of the stories which professional writers of modern D&D tried to accomplish. We’ve got player characters who may or may not take the game seriously, and we also have the random nature of the dice itself. If Lucas decided to make Star Wars a game, instead of a movie, chances are very likely that it would have failed. Luke would no doubt fail some important roll, such as making a DEX check to cross the chasm in the Death Star safely, sending both he and Leia to their deaths.

Where does story belong? Does it belong? If you were to ask me this question a couple of years ago I would have given you a completely different answer, and I’ll be the first to admit that it would be out of my own ignorance. Today I am securely confident that story is a byproduct of gaming, not the cause.

Let me explain, because that just sounds crazy. What I mean is that if we start a project with a specific story in mind, then chances are we are going to fail. Characters die, they come up with ideas both brilliant and insane, and the game is one of random generation. If we create a story which is to set in its ways then this will encourage us, and our players to cheat in order to feed the needs of the story-line. This defies the meaning of the game, and signifies that maybe the DM should be writing a book instead of a dungeon.

So what does a classic module have? Well, the answer is fairly simple, but is brilliant in its simplicity; a classic mod has a theme. A theme! It supplies the DM with just the tools that he needs: maps, keys, and perhaps major NPCs, but the most important thing that these tools give you is a theme which ties it all together. It doesn’t have a story in the modern sense of the word, but this wasn’t done out of lack of creativity or shear laziness on the part of the writers, it was done because they took the laws of encounters seriously! A game should be 100% tailored to the characters and to the people playing them, why then, should they even bother tempting the DM with one single storyline to pull it all together?

My distaste for modern modules is not new, it began years ago and may have contributed to my quitting the game entirely. This stupid trend which said that it allows the players to “experience” major events in the setting. Experience? This simply says, in black and white terms that these events are going to happen anyway. If you put the players in the same story as Straud Van Zarovich and the Arch-Lich Azalin, then the players have lost before the game even started. What is the point of that?

I have developed a bitter taste for important NPCs. If an NPC is so important that his survival is key to your setting, then it compromises your setting and weakens it. I know with my own games, if I’m too attached to an NPC then I won’t use him. If my game would be ruined by his death, then screw it!

Classic Mods are just as guilty of this, I mean what would be the implications if the characters actually slew Goddess of the Drow? In “Against The Spider Queen”, was this truly Lolith or was it an imposter? This character is important to the Drow, an excellent D&D villain, what happens to them? If I’m not prepared to compromise my setting to that point, I am not going to endanger her until I get absolutely sick of Drow adventures, which I really don’t see happening.

I have strayed from my original topic, Story vs. Theme. Classic Mods don’t depend on a story-line to further the game, story for classic games is a bi-product which is only important when the player is talking about the game, or trying to figure out how the characters past is going to effect his thought process or influence his reactions. The story will happen if we want it to or not, but by keeping things neutral (which is our job as a DM) then we won’t need to focus any energy on actually setting out to write something.

Not to say that we don’t tell a story, because we do. We hide everything, when we are writing our own keys, we are telling little stories which the players uncover by looking for clues. I think that it should be the characters that tell the story, the DM simply provides the tools that they need to do it with. Exciting encounters are different for each person, and a good DM knows how to mix them up to keep a game interesting. By running modern, pre-written encounters, we are ripping ourselves, and our players off.

Take the box set “Night Below”, and the combined modules “Temple of Elemental Evil” and “Scourge of the Slave Lords”. Night Below is written for 2e, and the other two are written for 1e. Both are considered Mega-Dungeons as they are huge!, however Night Below is more of a guided tour, where Temple and Scourge is more of an open pit, begging to be explored. It requires more work on the part of the DM, as he’ll have to draw up all of the major encounters, but the potential for an honestly rewarding experience is more available based on the Dungeon Masters skill, as well as the skill of the players.

While Night Below is probably the only 2e game that I would ever consider running again, an idiot can run it. It leaves nothing really for the players to do, it runs smooth and fast but at the expense of meaning encounters. On the same token, the lack of a streamlined story which is common in the classics, demands the interaction between the players and the game itself. No matter what the players decide to do, or how they go about handling the situations put before them to accomplish the goals of the dungeon, you have all the tools necessary to get it done as effortlessly as possible.

THIS is how dungeons are suppose to be written. Not story-based, but themed. All the DM needs is a map or two of where he wants his players to go, and let the characters themselves determine the story by their actions, successes and failures.


DMWieg said...

I used to dig story heavy modules, though I found as time went on I was modifying them so much that having a module was pretty much a moot point. Now I only use modules as an inspiration...maybe take a neat room or just the map.

Also, I don't really see 1st and 2nd edition AD&D as so different from one another that you couldn't use the modules interchangeably. Heck, it wouldn't really take that much effort to also switch in and out of OD&D.

Anonymous said...

I think you're on to something very fundamental about module/world creation, and you gave examples which helped flesh it out. However, could you give examples of the "Theme" of 1e dungeons? This could help flesh out what you mean by the "Theme".

Brooser Bear said...

I think there is a difference between Theme and Setting. "Sandbox" D&D Adventure is about setting. In Lit, theme is the point of the story. A short story should have a one sentence theme, a novel, maybe a paragraph. For instnce: Soldier loses is mother and thinks that it's a mistake and he is getting out of the mud and the rain until he gets home and finds a funeral. A Tobias Wolff story. Five WWI soldiers are kicked out into the no man's land between the trenches as punishment for various crimes along a particular sector of the front. How long they survive and what becomes of thse men. Theme from "No Man's Land", an award winning Lit novel.

So, in OLd D&D modules, are we talking that these were Theme or Setting heavy as opposed to story driven modern modules?

Nope said...

I've never been a fan of story driven modules. It always feels like a choose your path adventure book, or a video game. I like setting books that set up scenarios with potential for adventures, joining factions, carving out your own territories, negotiating and settling disputes, earning friends and making enemies.

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