Sunday, March 25, 2012

A problem of layout

The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons provides excellent rules for what I would call a turn-based tactical RPG, in pen & paper form. In fact it is a pity that turn-based games have fallen out of favor on the PC, because 4E would make for an excellent turn-based tactical RPG on the PC. Instead we get lame real-time and action RPGs calling themselves "Dungeons & Dragons" but having very little to do with it. But also on the pen & paper side of things 4th edition doesn't have the best of reputations. And I think that might be a problem of layout.

4th edition Dungeon & Dragons adventure modules have a very distinctive style, very different from previous editions. Every encounter takes up 2 pages, on which everything a DM needs to know is described: The map, the monsters and their stats, tactics, terrain effects, descriptions, treasure, everything. The DM just opens his adventure module on the double-page for the encounter and he can run the whole thing without ever flipping a page.

Thus if you try to read a typical official 4E adventure, flipping through the usually 32-page booklets, you will see one encounter after another. Mostly combat, with a few skill challenges mixed in. And it is easy to imagine that somebody with not much experience as a Dungeon Master would run the game exactly like that: Set up the map for the encounter, run the combat, hand out treasure, and proceed to the next map with the next tactical combat encounter. And as good as the tactical combat rules are, that makes for a rather dry game.

More experienced Dungeon Masters will notice that at the start of the booklets there is all the other information to turn the game from a dry sequence of tactical combat encounters into a real role-playing game: Description of NPCs and their motivations, story outlines, lore, sequence of events with decision points, and so on. If you prepare the adventure properly and fully read and understand the part printed before the encounter descriptions, you can combine the two parts into a good adventure: Role-playing dialogues with NPCs, decision making, telling the story of a coherent and believable world in which the actions of the players matter. All the stuff in fact where pen & paper games tend to shine and computer games tend to be somewhat weak.

Unfortunately you'll need to good DM to turn the printed adventure into a great story. New Dungeon Masters receive a lot of help on how to run the tactical combat encounters, but very little help on the story-telling side. That is somewhat understandable, because it is easier to write down the instructions for the technical side of the game, while the story-telling is more of an art, and art is hard to teach in writing. Nevertheless I think that the layout with double-page after double-page of combat encounters is kind of a trap. It is what you will see if you randomly open an adventure booklet. And it contributes to the false impression that 4th edition D&D is just tactical combat and nothing else. While helping the DM to run a combat encounter without flipping pages, the DM is forced to flip pages and search for information whenever the players do anything but combat. If the role-playing information was better organized and presented, the information linking the encounters printed between the encounters, people wouldn't get the impression that D&D wasn't about role-playing any more.

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