Wizards HATE Her! How to Play D&D for Free, Part 1: Structures & Routines

I don’t know how much I’ve ever spent on TTRPG materials in total. I’d probably put it under $200 [1], with the most expensive (yet worthwhile) being physical copies of Old School Essentials, Wanderhome, and White Hack Third Edition. It doesn’t come as a shock to me, though, that none of the things I’ve bought have ever made their way to a table with my real-life friends (in fact, I think the only thing I’ve played that I’ve also bought was Wanderhome and, I guess, B/X since I own OSE). I’ve played most of my home games using free materials--we’re cheap/poor college kids--or using homemade, cobbled together rulesets for more complicated things. I also like digging for digital materials online. I wouldn't download a car or whatever, though. Pinkie promise.

I’ve told the story before how when I was setting up a D&D campaign for my friends [2], I put together a combination of Knave and Here’s Some Fucking D&D with some common house rules. My motive was twofold. First, character creation is a bit much in Fifth Edition, both with respect to player effort and also with how fully-formed characters turn out at the start of the game. Second, as a game master, Fifth Edition has too many bells and whistles for session preparation, and yet it also has too little structure for actually running the game. I like repetitive cycles, call them procedures or routines or whatever, which restrict action and proffer interesting decision-making. I don't like complicated monsters or mathematical balancing. I like things happening and all of us figuring out what to do next on the spot. I don't like planning stories or even, to an extent, locations.

Here’s the secret to all this, why I think it worked. There is a cultural idea of D&D and what it entails. You have a character, and they're some fantasy adventurer. You roll twenty-sided dice for some reason, and occasionally six-sided dice, and less often dice of other, weirder shapes. Your character has numbers that you add to your dice rolls to make them more likely to succeed at things, or just better. Your character’s background or skills should also inform their strengths and weaknesses. There’s dragons and, ostensibly, dungeons. When you want to play D&D, i.e. the idea of D&D that exists as a cultural phenomenon, any D&D will do. You can criticize the D&D of the collective imagination as much as you want—God knows I have. That's not the point here.

The more important thing is that you don’t need anyone’s rulebook to play this D&D, much less do you need an official edition of D&D published by Wizards of the Coast (or an ancient one by TSR, or a retroclone published by someone else). Few people like officially-published D&D. There is a D&D which we learn about from cultural depictions of D&D and which we mostly learn to play from other people. Few people learn D&D from a book, even if you’re in a group of people all playing for the first time. So, this is my attempt to outline the ruleset for the game I ran for my friends with a view towards what constitutes D&D as a cultural thing rather than as a series of book editions published by this or that company.

The Game

D&D is a cooperative adventure game where players narrate the actions of imaginary characters in a fantastic world. These characters have a goal they’re working towards; this might be accumulating treasure, or it might be saving their village [3]. There is a non-player participant who simulates the game-world and figures out what happens when the characters do something, and also acts on behalf of non-player characters as extensions of that game world. This participant, called the dungeon master or game master or referee or whatever, does not have a goal but mediates between the players’ characters and the world. Meanwhile, the players figure out how to navigate that world and its inhabitants as they work towards their characters' goals.

In our game, the characters owed a debt to their housing contractor (Animal Crossing: New Horizons had just come out) and they could pick from a couple of different heists or dirty work opportunities nearby their town. They could steal rare animals from a charismatic preacher’s arc, deliver furniture to a werewolf colony, or investigate demon hauntings in a forest. The plan was that as they paid off their debt, they could upgrade their home with increasingly elaborate features (and then accumulate even more debt). They also spent what little money they had on equipment to help them with their jobs [4].

Now, that's just the premise for (1) the world that the characters inhabit and (2) what the players will drive their characters to pursue. Those things are essential to establishing the players as the subjects of the game they'll be playing. By 'subject', you might think I'm getting things a bit confused. Aren't the characters the subject of the game? Like, they're the main characters and the focus of play? That's true, but it's not what I mean by 'subject'. I mean instead that the player is the one who injects their character with a desire or objective, the one who makes decisions for the character. As a player, you are sort of like your character's unconscious. The character might not know you exist (do they?), but it is still your decision-making and your desires that underlie the character.

Macro-Structure

However, a fictional world and a desire does not make a game. It's a great start, and you can totally improvise a game from that (which is sort of our goal here). That doesn't make it in itself a game. A game is, or I consider a game to be, a situation where you make decisions whose outcomes depend on the circumstances surrounding them. Classic D&D works fine as an example since I assume most of you are familiar with it. The premise is that your character is sort of a nobody who wants wealth and social status in a fantasy world. The game is you go to a spooky dungeon and try to steal treasure; more formally, you're navigating a space and trying to maximize treasure for time and resources spent navigating. You can see that your character's desire--which is your own--is the aim of the game, and the fictional world allows you to contextualize the game with relatable images. What is at the root of a game, though, is that situation where you make decisions with your mind set on an outcome.

It's at this point we should consider what structure our game should have. I've written before that part of what makes D&D what it is is that it can be played for, basically, an infinite amount of time; see the link in footnote [3]. There is no ending to the game, or rather the goal of the game is not one that's end-all-be-all. Your party cooperates to accumulate treasure; as you make it to the goalpost, it's moved farther away so that you have to keep moving towards it. There's no singular enemy to defeat, and there's no point where you stop unless you just want to. Consider in contrast something like chess, where you win when you checkmate your opponent's king. Consider even the board game Dungeon!, where you compete with other players to accumulate the most treasure and to make it to the end of the dungeon. D&D is more like real life, so to speak, since it doesn't end when you're done with a dungeon. The main difference is that real life ends when you die, but D&D ends when you stop playing.

Another aspect of D&D is that it has an open set of interactions, which you can look again at the link in footnote [3] to read more about. This is in contrast to a closed set of interactions, which might be easier to grasp at first. In chess, your only options are to pick one piece and to move it the way it is supposed to be moved. In Dungeon!, your choices are limited to moving your piece on the board and fighting monsters by rolling dice. In a video game, your choices are basically limited by what the developer has implemented in the game as a digital program. A closed set means that there are no more options than what has been given to you; your interactions have been hard-coded. In contrast, D&D has an open set: your options are limited only by the language you use to describe them and, as Chomsky says, language has an infinite capability to encode meaning. You don't have to roll dice to confirm your likelihood of successfully searching a wall for a hidden door; you can describe how your character feels along the wall, looking for indentations or other markers of a secret passage. Although this relates more to individual interactions of the game than to the game's structure of activity, it's a structural feature of the game's relationship to its own 'grammar' that informs how you participate in it.

Micro-Structures

The more minute aspects of the premise will inform what shape the game takes. What I mean is, for example, if your game involves something like dungeon crawls or heists, it's fruitful to structure the session to facilitate that activity. The typical structure for a dungeon crawl is that players dictate their characters' actions, and each time some unit of time passes in the game-world (where this time-unit is small enough to happen frequently, basically per significant action), the referee checks for a random encounter. The effect is that each significant action risks being discovered by an enemy, so you don't want to waste unnecessary time. People often focus on timekeeping as an end in itself, stringently defining a turn as 10 minutes and a watch as 4 hours. What does that even mean? The more important part is realizing that these are just the imagined premise of the turn structure; they exist to ground the turn in a perception we can grasp, making it more interesting (and understandable) to us [5]. A totally abstract game isn't that interesting, of course, but neither is pure aesthetic definition without purpose.

Another aspect to game structure is resource management. We see this in dungeon crawls where most often you'll be spending a torch per 6 turns (1 hour) to be able to see your surroundings. Likewise, in hex crawls, you'll most often be spending a ration per day because otherwise you'll not eat and then starve. Again, this is a case where you risk missing the forest for the trees. You might mistake that the function of these things is because they're realistic like, duh, of course you need light to see underground and of course you need to eat everyday. However, their real purpose is to introduce interesting decision-making. The typical way it works is your character is limited in how much they can carry on themselves or in their backpack. This means you're going to be making tradeoffs between what you're carrying. More resources to spend, heavier sticks to bash with, more treasure to make you rich? 

Time is another resource that you run out of. At least, that's the idea--if you want time to be interesting, you have to make time an expense which you have to choose how to spend wisely. The typical dungeon crawl accomplishes this two ways: random risk via wandering monster checks, and deterministic clocks via light source depletion (since a torch or lantern only lasts for so many turns). More recently, people have shifted to using the hazard die (as per Necropraxis [6]) or the event die (as per Errant [7]) which make all such risks or expenses random rather than constant or deterministic. A torch going out, for example, is now one random outcome out of six alongside the wandering monster outcome, not a scheduled event. I used the following d6 hazard die for my game, for every other turn:

  1. Setback: An NPC appears 2d6 x 10 feet away from you. 2-in-6 chance of awareness either side.
  2. Fatigue: You become tired. Rest now or take one exhaustion. Ignore if stationary.
  3. Expense: Your light source or spell extinguishes. Lanterns have a 1-in-4 chance at this point.
  4. Locality: Doors close behind you. Water levels rise. The ceiling collapses. Et cetera.
  5. Percept: You perceive a clue of recent activity in the area. Footprints. Ashes. Humming.
  6. Vantage: Less time had passed than you thought, so you get a free exploration turn.

I don't know if I got those specific descriptions from anywhere, but the names of the events at least come from Necropraxis. Anyway, I ended up not liking this. It might have been because I rolled a lot of sixes, but I didn't like having to constantly roll for a random event and then justifying what turned up. It looks like, at some point, I switched the order of things, switched to a 2d6 table, switched to a d6 table with only 4 outcomes, and finally deleted it and replaced it with just a 1-in-6 chance of a wandering monster per turn. I don't remember if this was before or after we stopped playing, though.

Outside Dungeons

I think all the above examples, even if they are shown in the context of the dungeon crawl, represent principles of interesting games in the universal sense. These principles are looping procedures, resource management, time management, and risk avoidance (or, perhaps, risk taking). It is worth thinking about how other games structure their play on the smallest unit of action.

Many people are used to how Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition handles sessions: that is, very little. You usually carry out the game on a scene-by-scene basis, often loosely related to the course of a day. The game gets going when you zoom in on an encounter, to a time scale of tens of seconds (I think?). This is where everyone rolls initiative, and then everyone takes turns to act per round of the encounter. The encounter is finished when one side gives up or, more often, when one side is defeated. Encounters in this regard have the most structure to them; outside of them, you're mostly linking together encounter scenes and non-encounter scenes. These are often punctuated by short rests to heal, one hour long, and long rests which represent sleeping before the start of a new day. The effect is that the game is for the most part pretty free-form, except once you get into an encounter where a formal procedure takes hold.

I recently played a chapter of Yazeba's Bed & Breakfast, an interesting game book that is divided into dozens (?) of chapters each with their own minigame. You play a 'pre-set' character who lives at a witch's bed and breakfast, and your actions during the course of a minigame chapter will inform that character's development in chapters played later. We played the chapter where the ex-knight frog chef was going grocery-shopping, while the teenage girl wants to buy a dress but has no money. The minigame was that you have participants with money (the 'haves') and participants without (the 'have-nots'), where the have-nots are able to spend narrative tokens to attempt to bother the haves into giving them money. It costs both 1 money token and 1 narrative token to purchase an item, so the have-nots are fumbling over themselves trying to get money while everyone is fumbling over themselves trying to spend it. It's an interesting competitive game. It's worth noting here that something like this works because it has a definite conclusion (i.e. the end of the chapter), but it's fun and worth keeping in mind as a way to structure an activity.

Without the money game, narrative tokens still serve as fun training-wheels to understand how to tell a story collaboratively with ups and downs. I've discussed this with respect to Wanderhome [8], but I think it works especially well for YB&B because the characters have their own specific 'bingos' and 'whoopsies'. Imagine if you were playing Sailor Moon with your friends, and you know Usagi getting negged by the guy on the street sets up her to get help from Tuxedo Mask later on. You get what I mean? It's really engaging for playing like you're participating in a procedural TV show where the fun comes from engaging and messing with the formula.

Time, Place, and Structure

Another aspect worth considering is how the structure of play informs the duration of a session. Without fail, I think a D&D session (or whatever else like it) takes at least 3 hours. This is for different reasons between different editions of D&D, which are all basically different games with respect to the aims and interactions of players. You spend a lot of time fighting things in Fifth Edition, and I think that it's not necessarily the time that's the issue but how much lag time there is between actions. Compare to a classic dungeon crawl where you're engaged for most the time because you're involved in turn-by-turn decision-making. YB&B's chapters are written to resolve within the span of an hour, whereas Wanderhome took maybe 3 hours. I prefer the former because of how modular it is, in that you can play one chapter or many at a time to play for a desired length of time.

When it comes to a D&D--and I think this is something not often acknowledged--often the 'physical structure' of a locale goes on to inform the 'play structure' of the game. Usually, we think of mechanics or procedures being the prime mover, but you need to consider how also the dungeon is itself a set of circumstances that, when combined with a set of interactions, becomes part of the 'grammar' of the play activity. It feels like I've stumbled onto a large point here, and it's one I want to maybe discuss later in my post about procedural game materials, but this pertains directly to how it's possible to structure things to take as long as you want them to, and that location is a part of that.

Edit: See my post about proceduralism, and the difference between structuring activity versus structuring place! [9]

In Practice, What I'd Do Differently

I think you need the benefit of having played in a couple of different contexts with different sets of rules to have the flexibility to say, "I don't need a rulebook; I'll just wing it based on my experience." This is sort of my issue with the Free Kriegsspiel Revolution (FKR) scene--although it's not an issue except in the practical sense. I appreciate the desire to run something without player-facing rules or taking more cues from non-gaming materials, but I don't think it's much else besides a relationship to rules or a lack thereof. I think it's important to better understand things we already play just so we know how to apply the same principles of those games to new contexts.

So, dungeons. What would I do differently? Lately, I've been writing a lot about the origins of the typical features of a dungeon crawl procedure [10] [11] [12], so you might already know my about current thoughts. I tend to like the plain random encounter roll because it's just one condition you look out for. The tradeoff is always, "The more time you spend in here, the more you risk meeting a scary monster." That works for me. I think countdowns are fine if they make sense; if torches matter, they'll count down at one per turn rather than one per 6 turns. That makes it easier to track. I didn't mention rests in this thing, but I think it's fine to handle rests in a way like D&D Fifth Edition does, except costing a resource. It's nice to have more things be handled on the initiative of the players rather than forced onto them as a matter of, "That's how it is." Besides, if fighting is expected to be a key aspect of the game, I don't think it's wrong to introduce a way to recuperate your fighting longevity at a cost.

My caveat is that I think many of these things, rather than being planned systematically ahead of time, should be mostly ad hoc unless it constitutes such a primary activity of your session that you'll be doing it for most the time. That isn't at the detriment of the dungeon crawl, but for the benefit of everything else. I think it's best to approach all activity as something which can have tradeoffs on the level of action-to-action. For example, when my partner ran You Awaken in a Strange Place [13], she ad-libbed a sort of heist situation where she told us that we had like six turns to make it to the top of a building before something bad happened. I forgot what it was exactly, but that enticed us to make it up there quick. I don't see a situation where making up circumstances or conditions like this worsens the game. Of course, this should all be negotiable and maybe discussed before playing, but that's neither here nor here. Structure makes things more interesting because it contextualizes our decision-making. It makes playing more fun.

(Next post!)

 

[1] Yeesh, that much?

[2] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2021/11/on-knave-and-old-school-rulebooks.html

[3] I’m not actually that picky when it comes to character motive. Treasure hunting is interesting because it formalizes the characters’ motives in the same way that, in a one-to-one analog, Friedman’s doctrine formalizes the motive of a firm. Early on, I think this drive is what characterized D&D as something different from a war game, in that players strive to increase their characters’ wealth constantly and ceaselessly. This is different from a war game where, as it were, your goal is to protect things you already have or own.

Anyway, I don’t think formalizing character motive is particularly important unless you also incorporate that within the ruleset as a formal system, e.g. gold pieces for XP. This is all something worth discussing rather than imposing, I think. You can read more about my thoughts on character motivation here: https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2021/06/critique-2-old-school.html

By the way, in case this is important: to formalize something means to basically phrase it in terms of a strict math problem. For example, when I say that Friedman's doctrine formalizes the firm, I mean that it designates formally the goal or output of the firm (i.e. to generate maximal revenue for shareholders) with respect to whatever inputs the firm has.

[4] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2022/05/theoretical-practical-proceduralism.html

[5] One thing I think is fun is sussing out a place first and then buying equipment to do what you’re wanting to do. My friends, as their characters, also did research by finding knowledgeable NPCs in town and sneaking into the preacher’s old house (they did the animal heist) to learn what they could about the arc.

[6] https://www.necropraxis.com/2017/11/22/hazard-system-v0-3/

[7] https://errantrpg.carrd.co/#procedures

[8] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2022/01/wanderhome-rulebooks.html

[9] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2022/05/theoretical-practical-proceduralism.html

[10] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2022/02/double-feature-movement-light.html

[11] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2022/03/double-feature-encumbrance-metric.html

[12] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2022/04/cyclical-resource-management.html

[13] Are you a fan of Drawfee? https://tummy-boy.itch.io/you-awaken-in-a-strange-place

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