D&D DM pillars

D&D Association: Pillars of the DM Craft, Part 3

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Here we are, the last article in the Pillars of the DM Craft series, where we’ll talk about association: the activities in the game world that deal with cycling back into action when the party of characters is finding their way and seeking a new goal. In many ways, association is the most nebulous of the three pillars. As I mentioned in the introductory article, it’s a catch-all for the actions of the characters that don’t directly fall into the categories of action or adventure.

D&D DM pillars
The stories of campaign characters that emerge between the action and adventure are the juice! Volothamp Geddarm’s stories gotta come from somewhere. [Art by Tyler Jacobson]

Building on the pillars of D&D

But it’s much more than that. Association encompasses the vast majority of the roleplaying and the interaction with the setting that takes place in order to drive the narrative to its next stage. Without association, we couldn’t create layered stories with multiple moving parts because there would be no way for the characters to unveil those moving parts and dig deeper into those layers. Without association, the players have no reason to buy in to the narrative and engage with the world, because then it’s just killing monsters and taking their loot, not creating a narrative together.

So in order for the Dungeon Master to achieve greatness in narrative development and worldbuilding, association is the keystone. It’s also something the players must be willing to do. This is the key difference between association and the other pillars: players taking the initiative and engaging with it. Tabletop roleplaying games are predicated on the assumption that action and adventure, the other two pillars, will take place. Often, players are perfectly willing to engage in conflicts and venture through the ambient setting when they have a quest or a goal in mind. But once that goal is completed, there’s either a lull in the action where players are indecisive about what to do, or players are just less comfortable poking around, roleplaying, and engaging to look for new things to do.

And then we get an impasse: does the DM provide the necessary information and skip the necessity of association? If they do, then it feels like railroading because they’re presenting the players with the next steps without much agency on the part of the players to decide for themselves what those next steps are. If they don’t, then the game screeches to a snail’s pace while the players find their footing, and it feels like the DM’s fault. After all, it’s up to the GM to provide the players with the narrative and keep them active.

It’s a tough question. And the answer depends heavily on the group dynamic present at the table. Strengths and weaknesses of the human beings behind the characters correlate to the strengths and weaknesses of the pillars at play. This is why all the pillars are important for the DM to know and understand. Realizing what each of them does and why each of them is important better equips the DM to handle points when the players become aware of their weaknesses, whether they’re cognizant of it or not.

From first beginnings…

The fact that this question exists and is so difficult to answer is largely due to the lack of rules structures present throughout Dungeons & Dragons history to handle association as a pillar. The underlying assumption present throughout most of the early development of D&D as a game was that the DM would provide adventures and modules, and that this provision was essentially immediate once the party had finished their previous dungeon crawl or other adventure. Not much emphasis was placed on what kind of lives the party led outside of their adventuring careers.

And this made sense based on the priorities of the game. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, the reward structures in early D&D were action-centric. This meant that players had little to no impetus to actually care about the activities that could take place in the interim between bouts of action. Granted there were rules in place for crafting, gaining hirelings, developing regions, etc. But they were largely jargon-heavy and mechanically clunky, contributing little to narrative development on the whole.

D&D DM pillars
In the Birthright Campaign Setting, the players take on the role of the divinely-empowered rulers, with emphasis on the political rulership level of gameplay. Click the image to check it out on DriveThruRPG and use Nerdarchy’s exclusive one-time coupon code DTRPG-Nerdarchy for 10 percent off digital orders of $10 or more.

One of the campaign settings that did this quite well was Birthright. In this setting, characters could assume control of a domain, like a feudal lord might, and they would manage it by accumulating resources, hiring troops, fleshing out the region with buildings and improvements, and dealing with diplomacy between other domains.

In this sense, Birthright had a component to it that felt like a 4X strategy game: building up an empire and watching it prosper or succumb to darkness based on player choices that were made outside of the other pillars. (Incidentally, Birthright had a mechanic called the “Domain Turn” that was one of the first instances of factions taking turns after player action had taken place in the game setting, very reminiscent of the “Faction Turn” mechanic in Stars Without Number.)

Even as late as D&D 3.5 edition, the only advice given to DMs regarding how to handle the space between adventures and after goals had been accomplished was as follows:

“When an adventure comes to an end, you should always handle a few tasks before proceeding to the next one…Award experience points…Update PC information…Update your records.” – From the 3.5 edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Notice the phrasing here and the emphasis on mechanical information and reward structures. The assumption is that the DM should take all the information about the previous adventure, collate it, distribute experience, and then proceed to the next one. As always, the DM’s actions and mindset toward the game informs the way the players approach the table. So, naturally, the players would simply seek to move on to the next piece of content, taking their cues from the DM’s actions.

“Alright, we got our XP, gold, and treasure. That’s all we care about. Let’s move on. What other monsters are out there for us to kill, DM?”

What about character development? Narrative progression? Relationships with NPCs? Relationships with the locales and the regions? Not even a factor in the established DM’s guide. Mere obstacles in the way of the next adventure.

…to great heights…

Fourth edition D&D, and more specifically the fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide II, introduced the most fleshed out advice thus far for the aspects of association that take place behind the DM screen: worldbuilding, narrative structure, and involving players in the setting, not just the conflicts. Fourth edition gave DMs the tools to analyze their style and see where they could improve and what aspects they were carrying out well. The supplement to the DMG devoted an enormous amount of page space to worldbuilding and narration. These ingredients are what make association possible.

This is an important point to make because there was nothing stopping DMs from doing these things in previous editions. The difference is the amount of advice given to DMs from the writers of the rules themselves. That might seem like a small point, but for DMs who read the rules, however briefly, there’s something subconscious that’s transmitted via the way those rules are presented.

…and beyond

In the modern age, fifth edition D&D is where association really shines. An entire chapter in the DMG is devoted to the time between adventures. We received rules for downtime activities, tracking the campaign, linking adventures together to create fluidity and increase immersion. Later in the book, we also see information about social interactions, how the players express their goals and desires in the game world by interacting with NPCs that have been crafted for that expressed purpose.

Association is heralded as a key component to the game nowadays. This is no more evident than in the various livestreamed or recorded content that exists for fifth editino D&D, whether it’s Critical Role, the shows on D&D’s Twitch channel, games run by the Nerdarchy, games on RollPlay, etc. Players in those games and their respective DMs place emphasis on character development as seen through interaction with the setting irrespective of the party’s involvement with quests or goals. Often the crucial component of those games is, in fact, the narrative of the game as a whole. It seems as though everyone at the table in those games is conscious of the stories that they’ll tell once the session, or the entire campaign, is over.

How did their characters change over the course of the campaign? Which NPCs were most interesting or had the most heart-wrenching stories? What inter-party relationships were developed in the most interesting ways? How did the setting and the ways in which the party interacted with it create memories? [NERDITOR’S NOTE: This observation definitely tracks with my experience! Character development and growth feels much more important and engaging than any larger plots or more accurately how the characters growth informs what the narrative arc becomes.]

Of course, all of these questions could very easily have been in the minds of players and DMs of earlier editions. But the point is that these questions and the desire for answers were telegraphed to DMs via the way the DMG was written. Again, as with the other pillars, there was a shift in philosophy that altered the presumed mindset that DMs were supposed to bring to the table.

Putting all the pillars together

In this series we’ve analyzed the pillars of being a DM, as I see them. We’ve looked at how they relate to the art of storytelling and how, at their core, they represent the elements of a good story. And we’ve placed them all into their historical contexts over the course of D&D’s development.

The upshot of this entire discussion is to see how they’ve been synthesized into the modern version of D&D as we know it. We have before us in fifth edition the most well-rounded D&D experience in its history. It’s simple and streamlined, as compared to earlier editions. It’s focused on narrative and collaborative storytelling, with rules structures in place to inform the way those stories are told.

And rightly so, it’s viewed as the most successful iteration of D&D. Period. But why? It’s because the pillars are all there. And it all boils down to the primal human desire to tell and hear and experience good stories. That innate urge to take what’s in our heads and realize it drives us to play tabletop RPGs. The pillars are there to enable that. It took 50 years and multiple versions of the game we love, but D&D and its influence on the rest of the hobby have made those pillars clear over time, to the point where we recognize when a pillar is absent, or when one is too dominant in a game.

Being a DM is a delicate balancing act and it takes a lot of work, but when it all falls into place, when the pillars are there to form that sturdy foundation, it feels amazing. Kind of like hearing or reading a great story and remembering it for the rest of your life.

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Follow Austin Rodgers:
Graduate student in pure math by day, avid tabletop gamer by night. Austin is a lifelong gamer who enjoys writing fantasy and science fiction, and musing about all things tabletop roleplaying, from classic hidden gems to modern powerhouses like 5e D&D.

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