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.
Tabletop RPGs aren’t the first thing that probably comes to mind when you think about animation. There’s a lot of stuff going on at any given time and humorous or action-filled moments are often dispersed among hours of the player characters shopping or doing other tasks that don’t translate well to being encapsulated in a short spurt of animation. But over at Gee Whiz Productions, those drawbacks to a tabletop RPG session haven’t really been drawbacks at all. They’re doing amazing work in taking scenes from longer sessions like Critical Role and transferring them into animated gold.
So far, we’ve covered the role of action throughout Dungeons & Dragons’ storied history. We’ve seen how it shifted from a heavy emphasis on combat and puzzle solving to one that balances many different kinds of conflict reflecting the enigmatic and intricate ways we as humans come across conflict in our own lives. In this article, we’ll take a look at adventure, the second pillar in my analysis of the Dungeon Master craft.
One of the best sources of inspiration for creating content as a Game Master I’ve found is art. Doesn’t matter what the subject matter is – fantasy, science fiction, or otherwise. Looking at a beautiful piece of art and really studying it to extract as much information as possible is a huge part of my own creative process as a GM, and I know this is true for many others. I can spend hours on end perusing the old art sourcebooks for AD&D, looking at the same paintings I’ve seen dozens of times. And inevitably I’ll find a detail I hadn’t noticed before or find something new that speaks to the story that the painting tells.
This article is meant as a continuation of my introductory piece on the three Pillars of the RPG Craft: action, adventure, and association. In that article, I established what I meant by each of those components and how they related to each other. As a quick summary, action deals with conflict, adventure fills the gap between action, and association is interaction by the PCs with the world that cycles back around to create more action. All of these components form the backbone of narrative development in a tabletop RPG, in my humble opinion.
“Immersion” feels like a worn out word in the modern sphere of nerd culture. Video games belabor it as a tagline as often as they use “visceral” to describe combat or “realistic” to describe environments or “Dark Souls-like” to describe difficulty. We’re beset on all sides by virtual reality headsets claiming to be as immersive as real life, story-oriented video games touting their immersive open world experiences, and all manner of other advertising exploits of the word.
In a recent video from Nerdarchists Dave and Ted, they explored the question of why we Game Master. It’s a fantastic video if you haven’t checked it out yet, and it gave me a lot to think about for my own motivations. In this article I’d like to explore a topic that runs parallel to theirs but at a higher level of generality: why the differences in motivations between being a GM and being a player leads to most conflicts at the table.
If you’re a part of the Dungeons & Dragons community and actively keep up with the content Wizards of the Coast is putting out on YouTube or Twitch, you’re probably aware of the incredibly named Mike Mearls Happy Fun Hour. But if not, you really should be. On a weekly basis over on D&D’s Twitch channel, co-creator of fifth edition D&D and Franchise Creative Director Mike Mearls gets on for an hour or so and just designs stuff for the game.
There comes a point in every Dungeon Master’s experience with Dungeons & Dragons when they think to themselves “I wish fifth edition did X better” or “I wish fifth edition had rules for X”. If we’re completely honest with ourselves, fifth edition D&D is by no means a perfect system. But recognizing that and wanting to remedy it for your specific group are two different viewpoints entirely. You can begrudgingly admit the faults in the mechanics of the system and carry on, all the while realizing what you want to achieve isn’t explicitly written. Or you could work on the problems you see in the context of your individual game and try to fix them.
There’s a vast underground network of tunnels, caverns, halls and ruins. There are evil monsters, wicked traps, and devious tricks waiting to disembowel or otherwise harry ill-prepared adventurers who wander in. Hope is a foreign term to the grizzled veterans who approach the entrance to the limitless depths. They’ve abandoned the word in favor of more appealing ones, ones they’ve come to be fond of.
Combat. Glory. Treasure.
This is Rappan Athuk. This is the Dungeon of Graves.
The number of tabletop roleplaying game systems in the modern era astounds me. Variety abounds throughout the mechanics, settings, and systems that have been published by big names and indie developers alike. But they all have certain pillars in common. In my opinion, the aspects of an RPG that form the foundation for all those that have been, that are, and that have yet to be developed are: Action, adventure, and association. Some games may focus on these pillars with greater or lesser emphasis. But I think it’s fair to say that these are the core elements that constitute an RPG experience.
Tabletop roleplaying games, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, are experiencing a resurgence in popularity due to many factors: live streamed content, ease of access, online resources, YouTube channels devoted to helping Game Masters new and old hone their skills and get groups together. But with more people joining the fray, there’s also a sizable portion of groups that stay together for a few months and then fall apart. We live in a modern, global world with lots of outside factors that constantly vie for our attention.
Whether you’re a budding Game Master or you’ve been playing roleplaying games on a regular schedule with a group of people for years, there’s one common thread underpinning the entire tabletop RPG hobby: narrative. Even if your game is centered around murder-hacking your way through dungeons and grabbing loot, there’s still a story in some form or another being told.
The RollPlay Roundtable Discussion: Part 2 with Matt Colville, Matt Mercer, Adam Koebel and Mike Mearls
In October of last year, itmeJP gathered together some of the best known names in the Dungeons & Dragons community and put them in a video call roundtable together to talk shop. Adam Koebel moderated the conversation between Matt Mercer, Mike Mearls, and Matt Colville. Topics ranged across many different aspects of the game: criticisms, advice for Dungeon Masters, why we play the game, and many more.
Today, we’ll take a look at The Lost Kenku. This is a short nine page adventure for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, which can be purchased for $4.99 on Dungeon Masters Guild. Both the writing and illustrations were done by Shawn Wood, in house concept artist for D&D who you may know from some of the illustrations in The Tortle Package, Encounters in the Jungles of Chult, and The Risen Mists, also available on Dungeon Masters Guild.