Friday, March 20, 2020

Image by Michael Whelan

Playing the Long Game - Ongoing Campaigns in D&D

It’s not always the case that you will be able to play D&D long term with a group. One shot games and the necessities of life make it such that many of us don’t have the opportunity to run extended campaigns.

However, if you do get the opportunity I have some suggestions for you based on 3 decades of running ongoing campaigns. These suggestions won’t apply to every group, but I think they might be useful to some of you. Today’s suggestion is this: play the long game.

I’m going to start with a few examples.

My Thursday after school group has been together for a year and a half of regular weekly gaming. I run the XP and progression pretty much BTB for 1e, so levelling is fast for the early levels then slows down after that. I also run treasure pretty much BTB for 1e, which means I roll randomly for all treasure when it is found, so sometimes you get nothing.
What this means is that after a year and a half of gaming (approximately 60 sessions) the average level of the party is 5th-6th, and they have about one permanent magic item (usually armor or weapon) and 1-2 temporary magic items each.

This past September, approximately 26 sessions ago (we play once a week) the party thief decided he wanted to dual class to fighter. During the discussion I casually mentioned that a fighter/thief can eventually become a bard. In 1e you are supposed to do up to five levels as a fighter, then at least five levels as a thief, then you can start as a bard. I wasn’t fussed about the order, so if he wanted to he could progress as a fighter to at least fifth level and switch to a bard. I didn’t expect him to do it, in 35+ years of gaming I have NEVER seen a player create a bard this way, it’s a lot of work.

Well, his face lit up at the suggestion, apparently he was super interested in the idea of being a bard, but he didn’t know it was a class in 1e. So I told him he would have to get to at least 5th level in his new class to become a bard. He decided he wanted to go for it, so he has been on the road to becoming a bard since September. The next level up he gets he will be a 5th level fighter, and will be able to start as a 1st level bard thereafter.

Last December the party druid was slain by an owlbear. In my game death usually leads to rolling up a new PC, but in this case the player was quite attached to his character, and he asked the group if they would be willing to try and get him back. They all agreed, and they went to the Temple of Horus to get him resurrected. 

In 1e resurrection magic is powerful but costly. It’s a 7th level cleric spell, so it requires at minimum a 14th level cleric to cast it, and the cleric is unable to cast spells or do any combat for one day for every level of the target resurrected. In this case it would be 4 days out of commission.

So it's a pretty big ask, particularly as the dead druid was not a worshipper of Horus (he was a worshipper of Osiris, so that got him in the door for consideration). The priest of Horus agreed to cast the spell, but the cost was extremely high. The party did not have the gold to pay for it, so they offered their services to the Temple as payment. 

The temple priest agreed, the payment was that the party would have to find the Lost City, somewhere in the Sea of Dust, and retrieve the Mask of Horus, an artifact of the cult of Horus that had been lost for hundreds of years. 

They set off on their quest as soon as the druid was returned to life, and they have crossed Greyhawk getting there, by horse, ship and anhkheg. Last week they finally arrived at the Lost City, so about 14 sessions of gaming for them to get to their destination.

Last example, last November (about 16 sessions ago) the two party thieves conducted a raid on a warlock’s tower. During that raid one of them shot a warlock in the eye, blinding him. The raid was a failure, and the thieves escaped with their lives. Fast forward to three sessions ago, and the warlock who lost an eye caught up to the party in the Sea of Dust. 

While they were camped down the warlock and his fighter companion approached, and the party member on watch saw them in the distance with his spyglass. The warlock began casting  a spell and the watch woke the party and they gathered to attack.

The warlock summoned an earth elemental, and there was a short fight before the party realized they were outclassed and stood down. The warlock demanded retribution for what was done to him, and the thief who put out his eye agreed to submit to the punishment to save his fellow party members from being ground to paste by the earth elemental.

The warlock took out his dagger and blinded the thief in one eye as retribution, and they left.

The Value of Waiting
All four of these examples share a common theme: taking your time. In each case I was sorely tempted to speed things up. To use “milestone” leveling to have the PCs level faster and get access to new abilities and powers sooner. Players LOVE to level up and gain new goodies, and they did wonder more than once why they were leveling so slowly. They also LOVE to get new magic items, so rolling randomly for magic didn’t always give them what they wanted.

The player who wanted to play a bard was also in for the long haul. It would have been so much easier to just let him start as a bard right away, there are plenty of published bard classes that don't’ require the dual classing to get there, and it would have given him what he wanted immediately.

The quest to pay back the Temple of Horus has essentially been our campaign for the last half year, and will probably continue to be the focus until it ends this June. The party spent months of gaming time travelling just to get to the Lost City, one of them has even kept a travel log of every place they have been to along the way, it’s a long list! There was a strong temptation on my part to just transport them to the Lost City, or at least to the Sea of Dust, I was allowing resurrection magic after all, why not teleportation too?

And the revenge encounter with the warlock really came out of nowhere, after the botched raid they assumed that the encounter was over and that was that. 

So why bother making them wait? Why not level up faster, get more magic items, switch classes immediately, get transported to the destination, or have the revenge occur immediately? What is the value of waiting?

There are a few rewards to taking your time.

The first is immersion. One of the aspects of the game that is inevitable is that you are going to have to “hand wave” some things. You can’t run everything “real time” as you would sit for hours while the PCs slept when they camped overnight. 

The game is a simulation of a sort, you can’t just do everything as if it were happening real time, it just isn’t practical. However, hand waving things, to some degree, drops you out of the immersion, it takes you out of the moment and makes you realize you are gaming. That’s inevitable, and not entirely a bad thing (you are gaming after all, you aren’t your character!), but taking your time helps to counteract this somewhat.

Immersion isn’t losing touch with reality, it’s being so into the game that you are focused on it to the exclusion of other things, and you lose yourself in the moment. It’s being fully into the process, whether you realize it’s a game at the time but you are just way into it, or you are fully immersed in your character so it feels like their actions are yours to some degree.

Immersion is one of the rewards of playing TTRPGs. Making players wait for things makes the game more immersive, as the game world seems to some degree independent of the players, just like reality is to some degree independent of the players. When games model the “resistance” of reality to our machinations the game seems more real, and more immersive as a result.

We live in a distracted, multitasking world where tons of stimuli compete for our attention. There is growing evidence that the inability to stay focused is a huge problem with this generation of kids, and many adults as well. Though being focused is not the only important goal for life (happiness, empathy, meaning, there are a lot of other goals that matter), creating opportunities for people to exercise focus is important. The inability to focus is making it harder for people to read, to think, and to come to measured, reasoned conclusions about important matters. 

In short, increasing immersion in TTRPGs helps players to focus, and this is a big plus for a generation that is increasingly distracted by social media to the point that they don’t want to read anymore. So one big benefit of ‘making them wait’ is that they are learning focus and experiencing immersion in the game.

One of the most common complaints I see about TTRPGs like D&D is that they can very quickly become boring. The rapidity of leveling up and the proliferation of magic items means that even a mid-level party can become quite powerful in a short period of time, and then the challenge and excitement of the game starts to wane.

In short, if you take away the challenges, and waiting is one of those challenges, then the game loses a lot of it’s excitement. 

If you slow down the process of levelling and magic item acquisition and you make it a longer process to achieve goals then players can’t rely on tricks to succeed, they have to get creative and use their skills as players to achieve their goals. 

Magic is a kludge, it can short-cut any process in the game and make it “easier”, so you don’t have to get creative to solve problems. The bag of holding is a great example of this. You don’t have to make any resource management decisions or figure out how to get the gold out of the dungeon if you can just toss everything in your magical bag and move on.

People wonder why their players are stymied by puzzles and traps, why they don’t know how to look for traps other than to make a roll, or to persuade NPCs to do things other than to make a persuasion check. One of the reasons for this is that, as a DM, or as a group, you don’t want to “wait” while the player tries to persuade a NPC, or tries to locate a trap. 

But making them wait forces them to figure out how to do things, rather than just casting a spell or making a skill check to speed things up. My players are GOOD at the game, not because they have the best toys (though they do have SOME toys, and they are helpful) but because they have had to figure things out WITHOUT too many toys.

This is one of the pillars of old school play, challenge the player, not the character, and I would maintain that it makes for more enjoyable and more skillful play.

Which brings me to my next topic. There is a pervasive tendency for referees to want to ensure that all of their players enjoy each and every session. If they leave the table frustrated at not achieving a goal, or upset at a setback, some DM’s take that as an indictment of their game, that somehow they have failed as a DM because the players hit an obstacle they couldn’t overcome. 

Making players wait is not always popular. They will push for faster advancement, faster magic acquisition, to get to their destinations faster (“can’t we just hand wave the travel?”), etc, etc. And I get the temptation to give in, there are many of them and one of you, and after all, you do want your players to have fun, right? 

Well, here’s the thing, waiting can be fun too. In our culture of immediate gratification and an almost exclusive focus on “efficiency”, that may seem like a strange claim to make, but if I’ve learned anything over the last three decades of gaming it’s that there are LOTS of ways to enjoy games, and taking it slow has its own rewards. 

I think it would do everyone in the gaming community some good to remember that there is more than one kind of “FUN”. The point isn’t to bend the game world to the whims of the players so they maximize their immediate satisfaction. That’s one way to have fun, and it’s great, but there are other ways to have fun too. 

Earning Your Rewards
The biggest benefit of taking your time in D&D is this: the rewards, when you get them, feel earned. Ask yourself this, after gaming for a while has the bloom come off the rose? Does leveling up, finding magic items, switching classes, being brought back to life, that sort of stuff, seem mundane or dull? It it all “too easy” in some way?

If so, it may be because you are not taking it slow. 

My players are on average level 5, for the first month or so of gaming they lamented their slow advancement, and slow acquisition of magic items. But I noticed something else happening after that first month or so had passed. Namely, when they DO level up, and when they DO find magic items of note, it feels earned, not given. They have an immense feeling of satisfaction when they achieve a goal. Because they KNOW they put in their time, they KNOW they have earned what they now have. 

I didn’t make it easier, or faster for them, they took the hard road and it paid off. This has really given back some of the “fantastic” to the game, every time we level up or magic is found the group gets really excited about it. It is an event, not just a happening. Do you remember the last time your group got excited about this sort of thing?

It has been a similar experience with the quest they have been on to get to the Lost City. When they finally realized they had found it two sessions ago the screaming was deafening. We had a member of the community center staff come in to see what the hell was going on as they were cheering and jumping around the room. They spent a half-year getting to their destination, they were PROUD of the achievement, they had EARNED it. 

And it’s the same thing for the player about to become a bard. They talk about it most sessions, about how he is just about to make it to 5th level and start on his career as a bard. I made it a point to tell the player that in 3 plus decades of playing D&D this is the first time I’ve seen a player run a PC to become a bard using 1e rules. When he gets there, and I’m pretty confident he will, it will be a genuine achievement, not just in relation to his fellow players at the after school program, but in gaming in general. I know grognards that haven’t been able to pull this off, and he will be able to say with no trace of hesitation or exaggeration that he did this the hard way and pulled it off.

You can’t put a price on a real sense of achievement, of reaching a goal that you have genuinely earned in the face of adversity and challenges. This is one of the real rewards of long term TTRPG play that very few other games can give you. I encourage  you all to consider slowing it down and not giving in to the natural impulse to give the PCs an easy out on things. Make them work for it, make them wait for it.

When they get there, and they will eventually, it will be all the sweeter.

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