Outside Perspectives on Campaign Design
The Internet is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you see optimization forums drive players to all pick the same PC options... on the other, you can get some really fantastic ideas. Of late, idea sharing has really started to take off. I am seeing some really nice examples of campaign design thoughts that start with one blog post and then find their way into others. The result can be really helpful to DMs that want to find new tools, techniques, and tips for their campaign.
Here are some links with a few comments.
Nolorfin does a great job talking about some of the problems with Sandboxing. Sandboxing is the concept that the PCs can do whatever they want. Penny Arcade had a few posts that started a lot of discussion on the subject. Nolorfin tells us to railroad the present but to sandbox the future.
In a home game one of the best DMs I know experimented with using Pathfinder's Kingmaker series (using a 3.5 4E hybrid rules set!). The mod is all about the PCs choosing where to go. Almost every player felt it was fun as a change but lacked direction. And that is really the problem with Sandboxing. You want players to feel connected to a central story as well as to sense that what they do matters and see the story respond to them. (I will discuss this more in future blogs).
I highly recommend Nolorfin's blogs; they are amongst the finest on the WotC community.
WotC_Huscarl writes (last year!) about 4E's fantastic combat system and posits that it overshadows other parts of the game. They are so easily "good" that they entice us into focusing on combat. This is certainly true from a publishing standpoint. It was common to have a low combat/rooms ratio but many adventures are now almost 1 combat for every room... which robs us of space to be creative. Similarly, in RPGA organized play almost every encounter is either a combat or a skill challenge... forcing a very dice-oriented experience.
Wrecan is also one of the finest bloggers the WotC community has. He writes almost a year ago about how the issue with low RP might be due to how much we now invest (as both players and DMs) in preparing for combat. From PC builds to encounter building, we are often spending a lot of time on combat.
I am torn on the culprit. I think they are all symptoms. I think the whole of 4E is filled with usually subtle incentives to focus on combat and away from RP. It isn't deliberate. I know enough WotC guys to know they love RP. I think RP was taken for granted and it is just a big surprise that this happened. I think right around now WotC is waking up to this, or at least some key designers. Rob Schwalb's post on reexamining dungeon design, which I talked about recently, is one of those lightning rods to the issue, but we can see in these two blogs I linked above that many fine minds have been wrestling with it. The RPGA's LFR campaign has been fighting this since they started.
As I wrestle with the issue I end up wishing 4E had a written system that encouraged different types of encounters. There should be some sort of codification that sets DMs on the right ratio of combat to RP/exploration/story. In a home campaign you can just do this, but that assumes you have been playing in great campaigns and know what to do. For new players... they can be completely unaware of what a great campaign feels like. A brand new LFR player may not believe you if you tell them that the RPGA Living Greyhawk campaign had adventures that reduced players to tears because of how the story impacted their PCs... and even the players.
If I could rewrite two core concepts, they would be Skill Challenges and Quests. I think both of these come across as dry mechanical tools that could instead be dynamic systems for bringing a lot of story, RP, and player involvement/PC empowerment to the game.
Back in April, The Jester writes about the same topic Rob Schwalb addressed. Jester bemoans how easy it is in 4E not to focus on exploration and discovery. It made me recall being a player in the Moathouse (before the Temple of Elemental Evil) and being so afraid of entering a room. We would throw rocks, prod with 10 foot poles, take turns being he first one in... And when we did find the room empty, we would move shelves, rip pillows, consider whether a faint painting meant something. It was a lot of fun! We want players and their PCs to have a sense of wonder and to look in the nooks on crannies of the campaign world. This is not done to the point of boredom but exactly the opposite - because the world (the DM) often places important bits there.
Unbloodied Heroes 1: An Introduction (the noncombat system of D&D)
In a way cool series, Wrecan explores diceless ways to explore, enjoy story, and have non-combat fun. If you just read the first post it will be time well spent. Read more for some great ideas.
Nolorfin's comments can easily come off too strong to the average reader, but he has a great point regarding how treasure can be completely mechanical. I recall fondly in AD&D that each treasure I found was a mystery and an opportunity. There was no crafting, no wish list, no demands on the DM, no build optimization. There was simply the gleam in our eye as we opened the treasure chest. With my current Dark Sun campaign I am using Inherent Bonuses and really freeing myself of a lot of treasure issues. I can adjust the throttle on campaign difficulty to match the PCs, and treasure will be infrequent but mean a lot to each PC. And when they find things, they will really treasure that moment.
Campaign Components (Story Backgrounds)
This one is a segue to my next blog topic: PC backgrounds. Rob Schwalb presents a cool look into his Greyhawk campaign. He drew on classic Greyhawk stories and awarded each PC a background aspect filled with rich mystery and promises of things to unfold in the campaign. I can't read that pdf without wanting to be in that campaign.
Goken100 beats Rob by a few days in posing a similar solution. I like his thoughts on how to involve the PCs in the plot. We are thinking on similar lines. Players that are emotionally invested in the setting will react to plot more and will also want to be a part of plot more. They will want to RP, want to explore, want to learn... which in turn draws them into being heavy participants in non-combat events.