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Lost in Old School D&D (and other stuff)Jens D.
Updated: 4 days 8 hours ago

It's like Jazz, isn't it? (an attempt of a post about the different types of DMs out there ...)

Mon, 01/20/2020 - 20:50
Happy New Year, friends and neighbors. I hope you had a good one and wish all readers a great year 2020. I'll keep it casual here on the blog and post every once in a while. For now. However, there's hope that I'll get some more time in the very near future and I also might start tackling new designs this year, as Lost Songs is in the final stages of development and Ø is about to get published soon, so the next fresh thing would be exploring The Grind a bit more (D&D steampunk heists with cards!). So excited to finally tackle that one ... Anyway, let's talk about DM styles.

DMing is like playing an instrument ...

... but with words (you can quote me on that one). All right, that doesn't sound like a big revelation, I guess. However, it's in pushing the concept to see what it means in all its consequences and dimensions where the fun is. I came across this very specific issue a couple of times, although from another perspective: that of a producer of content (as a writer and designer, if you will).

Basically I was getting the impression that reviewers in general try to enforce a standard that doesn't necessarily match (or cover) all the different styles of DM
our little hobby must produce by the sheer endless variations of the basic premise that comes from learning to DM.

Now, I have talked about this from very different perspectives over time. I did that (most of the time) based on my own preferences, of course, for the simple reason that I don't know any better. It's also what has to inform my designs, so what I end up realizing ideally should match what I prefer to run. Turns out, the result is not mainstream.

Bad design choices be like ... [sources]
Which I quite like, to be honest, but I have to defend my design decisions occasionally and it's quite the tricky thing to do, as I'm still exploring my position. Well, I'm not shy in voicing my opinion, but I'm prone to make a strong case even if I have no idea what I'm talking about (result of decades of DMing, I guess).

If I'm lucky, I will argue my way to something conclusive and true over the course of such a discussion. Most of the time I have to sit down afterwards and chew on the problem a bit before I can get anywhere with it (sometimes I get to explore it here on the blog, obviously).

One topic like that was my decision to have some empty rooms in a temple dungeon in that module I wrote. Most reviewers will make a strong case that in a "product" ALL rooms should be described, because why else use a module, for instance, if not to have all the "work" been done for you? I wasn't convincing in defending my position there. Only after I read a post about empty rooms over at Delta's D&D Hotspot and wrote a comment in a Mewe Group about it, I realized not only where I come from, but also got a fair grip (I think) on how that relates to other approaches.

Here's what I wrote:
My take would be that really "empty" rooms are best to give that impression that a ruin or dungeon is mostly abandoned and it helps to emphasize that those small areas where monsters lurk are little islands with reasons to be where they are (the goblins only need 3 room, the giant spiders came through a natural crack to the underdark and set up shop because of traffic and so on). Empty Rooms are also a chance to give players some breathing room or room to maneuver or to set the atmosphere for the surroundings (noise, furniture and stuff like that). In that, empty rooms are necessary parts of the "symphony" that is manifesting when exploring a particular dungeon (or dungeon level). The idea that every room needs to have something is not only very boardgamey, it also seems to be connected to that customer's point of view of "completeness" or the demand thereof, which I believe to be problematic ... DMing is, imo, a creative endeavor and the DM should be able to join the melody with his own (like jazz) instead of just making his attempt on the melody given (I can see value in both approaches, though).Getting that far into it, I thought it warrants a post, and here we are. But how many types can we get out of this analogy? Let's see.

Type 1: The Jazz DM

[source]I know I'm not the only one ticking like this. We take inspiration where we can and make them motives for our improvisations. In a sense, those motives can be described as "oracles" (as I talk about here). This style would also heavily lean on sandbox play. DM like this prefer some complexity and depth with the systems they use, but also need a high level of abstraction available (material to riff off of, so to say).

The Jazz DM sees playing the game as a team effort. All contribute to the story (rules, players, setting and DM), everyone brings their own melody, their own ideas and concepts. In that sense, rules could be analogues to instruments, which makes the DM tools the leading instrument, offering specific opportunities for the other instruments to join in. Here's the Wikipedia attempt of a definition for Jazz (as far as it relates to gaming):
A broader definition that encompasses different eras of jazz has been proposed by Travis Jackson: "it is music that includes qualities such as swing, improvising, group interaction, developing an 'individual voice', and being open to different musical possibilities". [source]I think this illustrates how we are not talking about what music is played, but about the approach to play music.

That said, it can have serious drawbacks. For one, DMs like that will have a hard time (or no interest in) DMing most published modules or adventures since they'll find it too restricting (railroady, even) without any meaningful room for improvisation (even if it's just true for the DM-side of the game*). Another thing is that players need to be up to the task (which means they'd have to bring a somewhat similar mindset). Players that go through the motions and hesitate to add their own melody will end up having less fun.

A third disadvantage I can see would be a lack of dedication for a campaign. Other "instruments" may be too tempting and the urge to experiment can result in a lack of consistency (which I try to compensate by writing and designing stuff ... to mixed success, I might add).

Ideally, a Jazz DM will offer a lively game where like-minded players are able to explore and create over the course of small campaigns.

Type 2: The Conductor DM

For me the next logical comparison. Conductors take great and complex works of art and negotiate them with an ensemble towards a performance. Your typical AD&D DM, I'd say. They orchestrate the perfect manifestation of the "instruments" of their choice and prefer rule systems that offer depth, crunch, teamplay and long campaigns (AD&D/HackMaster, CoC, Pendragon, games like that).

They tend to take themselves out of the game as much as possible. If their style emerges, it is through the conducting of the campaign as the players reach their goals from level to level by playing their characters. They'll be (or aspire to be) very savvy in the rules and trivia of the game and their joy is in seeing it all unfold as proposed by the rules.

I'd say DMs like that are good with pre-defined campaign settings (Greyhawk, Ravenloft, the works ... AD&D again, too), but excel when combining it with some campaign spanning module of sorts (Against the Giants, to give one example ... Call of Cthulhu offers some great campaigns like that as well). They'll come preppared either way. With Conductor DMs  you can play campaigns over decades.

Conductor having a moment ... [source]The drawback of a DM style like that would be inflexibility in some aspect or another. Depending on the DM this could be rules or canon. They will also have very concrete ideas how the game is played, which means that it'll need players that are able to play along with that. 

Ideally, Conductor DMs orchestrate epic campaign arcs for players to experience and be a part of over long times.

Type 3: The Band Leader DM

This DM is less about the rules as he is about "personality". It's your typical storyteller DM, if you will (World of Darkness is the base line here, but there sure are more games like that ... 7th Sea, maybe, or Over the Edge and Prince Valiant).

The group dynamic is more towards an assortment of band members that might even have different agendas. Teamplay isn't a necessity as it is more about exploring a selection of themes and concepts. The Band Leader DM offers the stage for the other members to express themselves and shine.

Something like this? [source]DMs like that will tend more towards improvisational theater than indirect narration or even meta play. Plots will be more dramatic and emotional than, say, epic. However, just as meticulously prepared, with the focus more on story, history, background and personal impact.

As far as drawbacks go, I'd say Band Leader DMs can run the risk of having short-lived campaigns (usually purpose build, as in, exploring some theme or another). Another drawback can be the emotional toll of playing that way and conflicts that can result out of it, depending on how mature the member of a group are.

Ideally, Band Leader DMs offer an emotional experience for players that like to express themselves in a more direct, or say, theatrical way. Everyone gets a chance to be part of a big performance.

Type 4: The DJ DM

This might be the GUMSHOE DMs. And maybe most of the indie games in general? Definitely Dungeon World and consorts. And the whole Light rules Movement, I think. It is not as much about offering to reconstruct an experience as it is about imitating one. It follows the idea that you don't play to have a step by step recreation of whatever characters are capable of but instead an abstraction of that to a degree that the process can be evoked instead of produced.

It's a difficult distinction, but nonetheless one worth having. Hear me out here. I've been thinking about this for a while now, because people tend to ignore the difference to, say, all the other games: it's the analogue of dancing to music instead of making music (which is why the DM is a DJ here, duh).

It's games where the player gets the clue and gets to shine while exposing the murder instead of grinding the evidence and hoping for some lucky rolls. It's the games where you don't have to make a calculated risk in a fight to kill the monster, but instead fight to celebrate the action happening. It's about dancing to celebrate the tune the DJ DM is throwing. You know what I mean?

Utz utz utz ... [source] The drawbacks I see in DMing games like this is in the limitations it forces on narratives. You don't play to get there, you play to talk about it, if that makes any sense. It's imitation, so, there'll be no depths to most games, because they quote instead of experiencing ...

Anyway. Ideally, a DJ DM will offer a Best Of players will air guitar to for a couple of evenings. And you can have that like having a night in the club every other weekend. There's nothing wrong with that (but it is a difference).

Type 5: The Composer DM

This is the DM as author. I'm not sure this is a real category or a cautionary tale, but lets go through the motions here. This is the DM that wants to tell a story and goes through the motions of engineering it. Some say, it's the guy that should rather write a book ... However. Role playing games are a new medium and who's to say that an approach like this is wrong? If we can have interactive movies, we sure as hell can have auteur-driven campaigns.

So here's my thinking: a DM like that would be driven to tell a grand story and the players are merely audience. It'd need players going along, but those players exist, I'm sure of it. This isn't even about quality, I'd say, as long as the illusion of quality is agreed upon, everyone is having a good game (I'm thinking about a vibe like Gentlemen Broncos for some reason ...).

What I'm saying is: it can work. DMs like that are about controll and will most likely claim authorship of the rules as well (playing something obscure, if not entirely DIY). However, players into emerging themselves into that private canon, will most likely reap the benefits of indulging the Composer DM.

Make it artsy, baby ... [source]Well, the drawbacks are obvious, I think. If the composer isn't any good, players will ride that wave of hope to be close to an undiscovered genius until they crash on some neurotic cliff incident of sorts. You'll have DM player characters and calls towards the narrative anmd all those bad habits.

Ideally, the Composer DM will do a great job to please an audience that accepts that the DM is in controll. I believe it's rare, but if you can make it work, it might actually be exceptional.

Can be, but needn't be ...

Well, that's 5 styles right there. I'd go as far as saying, it covers a lot and that the analogy goes a long way. Is it definite? No, it's most likely that people will read it and find themselves a bit here and there. It's a spectrum, maybe. Is it complete? I couldn't say. Maybe not? I sure as hell have gone as far as I dare to push it. But I could very well have missed something crucial (you tell me).

That said, I see myself in most of the above to one degree or another. I think I'm the Jazz DM right now, but I would love to be the Conductor (for some proper AD&D/HackMaster campaign, man), I've tried and failed to be the DJ (but will take that approach for some limited D&D one-shot convention gig), I was the Band Leader for a while (oWoD, for real) and the Composer .. well, who doesn't like groupies :)

Another possibly interesting take-away would be that the standards we are mainly talking about right now don't pander to all the possible styles to DM a game. They mainly pander to two (I'd say). Just food for thought.

So where do you guys see yourselves? Anything I missed? Any more benefits or drawbacks to the styles I describe (I'm somewhat biased, for sure).

What's your style?! Huh! [source]* Uuuh ... now there's a topic I haven't seen anyone talk about: railroading gamemasters. My immediate take would be that it can be just as bad (for the same reasons) as railroading players (wrote a defense about railroading once that'd apply here too, if you are interested). I'd also say it happens far more often than player railroads ...

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Star Wars Episode 7: TBA (exercise in reimagining the story never told)

Sat, 12/21/2019 - 17:25
First of all: I have no idea what I'm doing here. Is this an attempt in fan fiction? No. Well, yes, but more like the outline of a campaign if what Lucas started had been a campaign for a a role playing game and I were to finish it (which will never happen and has happened, but might also really only happen like below in a parallel universe). What follows are the outlines of a script or the re-telling of a movie that never existed.

I couldn't help but imagining this

[skip this part if you just want to read what I imagine Ep. VII could have been like] SWIX is all the hype now. People love hating it and making that public. I saw Ep. VII once and didn't bother afterwards. From all I heard, it turned out to be a re-imagination of the original material with the same score, better visuals and worse stories telling the same and with very bad decisions about the original cast.

I can't help but think that Lucas did make a mistake when he abandoned his vision like that. However: 1. Who could blame him after the blind hate people voiced about the prequels (unjustified, imo) and 2. I guess he didn't think it'd turn out as ugly as it did (there're rumors that the evil mouse promised him creative agency and forgot about it before the ink was dry on the contract).

Anyway, I don't go to see the movies, but I follow the discussion. Mainly because lots of people have interesting opinions and insights on the subject. There's nostalgia in there, too. I love Star Wars and its Expanded Universe. I've played the games, read some of the books (intending to read more of the old ones) and I will never cease telling people that they can have all the Star Wars they want and the way they want it FOR FREE just a download away.

Enough SW for several lifetimes [source]In a way, this is the peanut gallery talking here, but my point is that we shouldn't be afraid to tell those stories the way we want them to be told, especially after a soulless corporation had made a public sacrifice of the franchise to their god Mammon.

I know this isn't something I do often on the blog, but I am a DM and a storyteller. Things like this happen in my brain every so often and since this specific story came together over the course of a couple of hours without me doing anything but writing down some highlights, I couldn't help but sharing it here.

I'll add that this is written under the assumption of fair use: it earns me nothing and it teaches the reader about how to structure a story (for movies or books or role playing campaigns).

It's also what I'd like to see, not necessarily what others would have liked to see (ok, so it is fanfiction :P ).

A long time ago, in a Galaxy,  far far away ...

Setup - The story is set 20 years after the death of emperor Palpatine. The Republic is in a bad state and still hasn't recovered from the war and the harsh rule of the empire. They have made the public trials, they've hunted down some of the perpetrators but billions of credits are missing and the Dark Sith Lord had left some very effective contingency plans that resulted in a dangerous Deep State manipulating and pushing the new Republic to make all the bad decisions they could make.

People are unhappy. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer and all injustices are disguised as well intended or the right thing to do. Corruption is a massive problem.

Politics was a big thing in the prequels and the EU (Clonewars, for instance), so this would be an opportunity to add some more perspectives. I call it The Deep State Arc and some of it would the classic Star Wars Prologue (the yellow floating text disappearing into the distance ... you know the drill), some of it would serve as the stage for the story.

Galactic Senate, reinstated [source]Story 1 - This would be the main story. It'd be about Han, Leia and their daughter (let's just call her R. for no particular reason). The family is all but broken apart. Han is in prison for a crime no one talks about (which will be hinted towards and get important in Ep. VIII, for now he's just bitter and broken and old). He ignores the Hologram messages Leia is smuggling in there (with a cute little robot that might have a little arc himself, obviously) and seems to grief (for reasons explained later in the story).

Princess Leia is back in politics and tries to fill the shoes of her mother, which is the main reason for the scorn she receives from her daughter (who is around 20, a student and activist).

In the beginning they just have video conferences where they don't get along while being busy doing what they do (the princess being in the senate, the other being on demonstrations against one injustice or another). In the best sense they offer "show don't tell" as the reader/viewer/player explores the changes in the universe through their eyes and conflicts (instead of just being told).

Anyway, this changes as some assassins try to kill R., who barely gets away (she has a Jedi protection detail getting the job done ... first time lightsabers should make an appearance). It'll get obvious that R. is not taught how to be a Jedi but instead forbidden to even address the topic.

Well, after the assassination attempt she is sent home to her mother. There, surrounded by pictures and signs of a happy childhood (with a father and an uncle and a happy mother), the rift between her and Leia will be all the more obvious. It escalates one evening when R. confronts her mother about not being allowed to use the force.

Turns out, Leia had to make political concessions that denied the Skywalker bloodline access to the Jedi order. Gaining the knowledge from anywhere else would be considered a crime. It's another reason for R. having a Jedi Protection Detail: they keep her in check. It also forced Luke into exile. He and Leia parted in bad blood over this, it seems.

While this happens, R. decides to stay true to the rebellious daughter theme and starts investigating the attempt on her life. She goes places she shouldn't and asks questions she shouldn't, all without supervision, of course. That'd be the middle part of the story. A bit of action, some close calls and little revelations to keep the tension up.

Her first big clue is a guy she keeps recognizing being close to her in all the footage she can gather (she starts with the night they tried to kill her and works her way back to public announcements and demonstrations and all kinds of places where she was in public and filmed ...). He's the pattern and a ghost. Information about him seems to be protected by the Jedi order (which makes her distrust the order even more). He's about her age, has a limp and features a mean facial scar (let's call him K. for no obvious reason).

The guy is an enigma. What she can glean is ambivalent. He seems to be a good guy, but his hate towards her is also proven somewhere down the road (it'd be one of the revelations, maybe a room he had rented with lots of pictures of her, some mutilated ...).

She's also followed by a hooded figure. One time she sees the figure by chance, a second time she follows him (or her) but he escapes.

Somewhere in between it'll become obvious that she has talent in the force, but keeps it hidden, mainly using it when she is on her own.

All the way through someone is planning another go at killing her. K. seems to be involved, but there's also a figure in the shadow pulling strings.

So there's a lot going on. At some point she decides that she wants to set up a trap for the guy she is convinced planned her death. She makes contact with some of her activist friends and organizes attending a demonstration (setting: a continent devastated by a fallen Imperial Star Destroyer // Ruins of a City, leakage and radiation zones and wreckage).

Something like that ... [source]K. appears and follows R., being all sinister and shit. She dupes her detail, making sure he follows. She confronts him in [some iconic piece of a Star Destroyer] and asks him why he wants her dead. He tells her that he had survived her grandfather's attack on the Jedi temple (BIG revelation, shifting the perception the readers/viewers/players have of the character ... there should be a flashback to that scene in there somewhere). Barely so, as proven by the scars. His parents had not been so lucky, and he wanted revenge. He planned revenge ... but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

So the next thing we learn is that he wasn't the one behind the assassination attempt. He tried to find who it was, but couldn't find the culprit (maybe he has another piece of the puzzle, but it tells us nothing without context). Both leave the encounter confused. They have some chemistry, but he is a monster and hates her.

She is about to leave the wreckage they have met in, when the true assassins make their move. The odds are against her, but K. comes to her aid and they can overcome the mercenaries sent to kill her. That's, of course, when the puppeteer makes an appearence, lightsaber and all. It's a Sith and he makes known how annoying he thinks they are. Takes his time, too, maybe tells some of his plans.

K. is paralysed, almost catatonic when confronted with a lightsaber. R. makes an attempt to attack with the force, but is shut down hard, K. tries to overcome his fears and charge, but is stabbed and stays down. Before the Sith (S. seems to be appropriate, for no reason at all), the last little mystery is solved and the hooded figure intervenes.

It is a Jedi and there'll be impressive and brutal swordplay and force shenanigans, escalating to an explosion that causes a panic at the demo. S. is killed. The Jedi is, of course, Luke Skywalker, protecting his niece.

L. Skywalker, Mickey Rourke version [source]He tells her about the Deep State and about the conspiracy's plan to annihilate the Skywalker bloodline for good. They are all in danger, but he says the time to wait is over. She wants to go with him, learn how to use the force and find the fuckers responsible for this. They leave in the chaos and take the unconscious K. with them.

I call this The Beauty and the Beast Arc and it will carry into the next Episode.

Now, that was the climax of the first part. Let's set up the next.

Leia is told by the Jedie protection detail that her daughter is lost and most likely died in the explosion. It's unclear why they don't know better or why they are lying. She is distraught and goes to a place where she can be alone (what place this woulod be should be established some time before). Here she can let go and cry. But she is a Skywalker and the force is with her. She has a vision of her daughter and her brother (maybe training?) and it gives her hope.

The last scene of the story/movie/campaign would be her and Lando helping Han escape from prison ...

Story 2 - This basically sets up part of Ep. VIII and builds the mystery about why Han went on that last mission, how he ended up in prison and what happens there. It's not a lot I have there, but main reason for his grief is that Chewbacca died because of it. I'm thinking, they went after a politician that was big back with the empire but it went horribly wrong. His reasons would stay iunclear, though (it's that trope where what he did seems wrong, if seen out of context, a bit like what with K. happens).

Story 3... - There could be other side-plots that establish characters that might get important later on. From what I've heard, Lucas planned this thir trilogy to be a spiritual journey, so that would be a place to start. But I'll leave it at that for now. However, to give this the space opera fee, it'd be necessary to have spectacular settings, weird customs and interesting cultures and a huge cast (imo).

Well, ok, that's that. I needed to get this out of me, so to say. It has conflict over 3 generations, it has potential and tension, the old characters are still around and have to work a little for another happy end, the new characters are set up for a journey and the world is in enough turmoil to go several directions.

An Episode 8 would have the spiritual awakening as a theme and how R. and K. find each other. It would prepare and end with a huge escalation of the conspiracy, definitely gearing towards some sort of war. The 9th would be the final confrontation and the redemption of the Skywalkers. Maybe Anakin gets to apologize to K., wouldn't that be something?

[source]Depending on the medium this would play out in, you'd have to focus on several different things here. A book would need more expostion and more characters and more arcs and introspection. Film would need lots of set design and effects and choreography, computer games would need several outcomes and an adventure structure and a combat system, skills, the works. A role playing campaign would need opportunities for the players to accompany the main characters (assuming taht the main arcs play out as the characters are around to have an impact on things).

But in the end, that'd be the story I'd have told. If you've read this far, I hope you've enjoyed it.


I know, this was strange. As I said above, I don't do this often, and don't think I'll do it more often in the future ... but I keep thinking that doing something like that can help setting the world a bit right after the injustice big corp did the franchise.

Actually, it's a well ignored fact that the original Star Wars rpg had a crucial part in keeping the franchise alive. More so than anyone would have (or could have) imagined. 

So I'd go one step further and offer that I'd be interested to flesh this out for REUP, make it a campaign for real, with the story above being the stage for the characters to make a difference and bear witness how the Skywalker saga ends. I just wouldn't do it alone. It'd need art and editing and all that jazz, even if it just were to publish this guerilla-style and for free (because, the law).

Since I don't think that that's going to happen, I'll leave it at that for now and hope you found some enjoyment in my take on how one could have spun that story beyond episode 6. I sure as hell liked the theatre in my mind more than what I've seen from the official version :)

The true story ... [source]
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs