D&D Phase Shifts

Image from Wikipedia

JB over at Blackrazor has been writing (one, two, three, four, five) about the phases of D&D (dungeon delving, wilderness exploration, and domain endgame) and how the traditional D&D incentive structure works well for the first, okay for the second, and not so well at all for the third. I more or less agree with his overall analysis. New incentives need to be discovered for domain play, and not just collecting taxes (because that is boring).

As idle thought experiments, here are two variations on the traditional phase-based D&D game. In the first variation, you tell the story backwards. You already have a lord or wizard with a stronghold and followers, and the game is to figure out how they got there. Unlike standard D&D, final death can’t be a danger because you already know that your character makes it to name level. Also unlike standard D&D, the game would end when you reach first level or 0 XP, rather than potentially going on indefinitely.

Would there be a way to make D&D played backwards interesting? I’m not sure, maybe 1d3 adventures per level, with each “death” leading to some sort of complication that would draw out the particular adventure. So getting from name level back to the beginning with the fewest complications would be the achievement. I feel like there is some connection here to the idea of planning out build options up to high levels like is sometimes done in 3E and 4E.

Now for the second variation. What if players started out with a stronghold? Either one per player or collectively. I feel like this would probably feel very different from D&D, despite the fact that all the rules would be identical for things like classes and spells. I’m not sure exactly why this would be the case, except perhaps that in the standard dungeon to wilderness to domain play (assuming a relatively deadly and impartial referee), everything is earned, whereas in this proposed structure you get everything for free. Also, people would not be as attached to their individual characters and thus perhaps not care as much about their advancement.

I imagine such a game progressing by first setting a basic stage (surroundings, stronghold capabilities, followers) and then advancing domain turns (probably one month per turn) to see what happens, based on some series of event tables. Scope could be zoomed in or out as necessary, so for wilderness expeditions, the players would zoom down to the perspective of questing knights and their squires (or magic-users with warders seeking rare spell components).

What would the overall motivation be to keep playing? Perhaps, like Dwarf Fortress, to see how many domain turns you can keep the whole thing going before being overwhelmed by an orc invasion or releasing some nameless menace from a long-sealed tomb? Individual characters need not gain levels (knights could just be level 4 fighters, for example) but I could see gaining powerful magic items still functioning as a reward of sorts. Does this just turn into a war game? Perhaps, but I’m not sure; especially if there are not opposing player-controlled sides.

Beginning complexity would also be higher than traditional D&D (and thus character/domain generation requirements would be heavier), but since there would be multiple characters (a lord, knights, spies, dungeoneers), lethality would not be problematic like it is in heavy chargen systems that make you put all your eggs in one basket. Such a basket is easily sent to the grave with a bad save versus poison roll.

Part of the tension here might be that when playing D&D, people want (or at least expect) to play an individual, whereas the domain level game is really less about individuals and more about collectives. This is why the incentives at the individual level don’t seem to make as much sense. Thus, maybe Game of Thrones style intrigue from the beginning just doesn’t work as well in a game, or at least not in the compulsively obsessive way D&D does.

7 thoughts on “D&D Phase Shifts

  1. Timeshadows

    I have been running that sort of game on Monday nights on Google+.

    Duke Barclay’s character, eldest child and daughter of the Duchess, inherited the decrepit Frostward Keep, and has been expanding her reach and relations from that base of operations outwards to the neighbouring superpower, providing both relief to scattered settlements in the Demesne, and uncovering and foiling plots that would have opened up the frontier to invasion.

    In the course of the games, the PCs have uncovered secrets of the Keep (some, shocking), explored the frontier and battled Humanoids, Demihumans, and Witchcraft, etc.

    We started out with Palladium FRP, but have since switched to my Urutsk system, as it is set there.

    1. Brendan


      That sounds like an interesting game. Do you take drop-in players? Unfortunately, I run my G+ game on Monday nights too, but I might shift that time around every once in a while.

  2. Matthew James Stanham

    Well, I read through that series of articles, and the linked one for Noisms as well. It all seemed rather “square peg and round hole” to me, and I had to forcibly remind myself how useless it is to get involved in disagreements in blog comments, especially over historicity!

    For what it is worth, I usually find that serious stronghold building starts at around seventh level or so, and level advancement slows to a virtual crawl at the same time. The players are interested in the campaign world, and level advancement is just one means toward affecting it (and not much of one for fighters, but more so for spell casters).

    At high levels and with territory development players need objectives and structure. That is what the dungeon provides, and to some extent settlements and wilderness environment do the same, as they are defined and limited areas. One mistake that it is easy to make is making territory development world or campaign shaking, it does not have to be any more than adventuring.

    So, to sum up this long winded comment, I do not really think there are three distinct phases of play, just a gradual increase in the significance of the characters in the campaign setting.

    1. The Recursion King

      I completely agree. In a good campaign, it is continuous and not split up into 3 distinct phases. When the party returns to town from level 5 of the dungeon carrying a sword of legend, people start noticing, word gets around and the town mayor wants to see it for himself… and meet these ruffians to determine how they might be useful to him… Then the party go back into the dungeon to carry on their quest, perhaps with some political clout and financing behind them now. As their fame spreads, more and more powerful people become interested in them until they are hobnobbing with the royals (on occassion), owning their own strongholds and worrying about their domains, the country and the world as a whole…

    2. Brendan


      There are lots of individual points within JB’s larger argument that I might take issue with, but looked at in a larger context I still think the issues he raises are interesting. It is possible to play against the assumptions of the game at whatever level, but I am in the camp that believes that incentives matter, even if you can choose to ignore them if you know what you are doing.

      In my experience, some players are interested in the campaign world from first level on. Some players become more interested as they become more tied to it (which is as you describe). And some players are only ever interested in level progression and loot acquisition. I don’t think any one of those sets of concerns is superior or more admirable. Adjusting the incentives can make the overall game work better for all kinds of players.

      Also, the nature of play really does change in some concrete ways, most specifically timekeeping. A combat turn is anywhere from a few seconds to a minute, a dungeon turn is 10 minutes, a wilderness turn is one day, and a domain turn is one month. I am coming more and more to think that timekeeping really is the essence of the game, in many different ways.

    3. Brendan


      See the point about timekeeping in my response to Matthew.

      I agree with you about good campaigns (obviously, even in a high-level campaign, sometimes you shift down to wilderness or encounter time). But this presupposes someone who already knows the potential games contained in D&D. The books and systems could do a better job about teaching the various types of play (though as ckutalik noted on G+, this kind of separation is sort of artificial, and was probably introduced by Mentzer for pedagogical purposes).

      This is still a very open line of inquiry for me. By no means do I claim to understand completely how all these things fit together, and sometimes experience playing can obscure things rather than making them clearer, if that makes sense (like, how many of our assumptions are in the rules, and how many are in our gaming culture?).

    4. Matthew James Stanham

      Whilst I do not want to be too dismissive of what was said, there was nothing particularly new or interesting there for me, so we may be coming at this from different contexts. I do think the accumulation of ability levels and treasure for their own sake is an inferior play style in the sense that it is less than the same with a purpose (however meagre). That does not make it less valid, of course.

      The time keeping aspect is interesting, because in AD&D the “domain turn” is present from the very outset with the monthly upkeep costs. A discrete allocation of time units to different modes of play separated by level may be more of a B/X or BECMI construct, which would explain why it seems to me these three distinct phases of play are phantoms of the mind.

      Certainly, when we were children, we moved from “Basic” to “Advanced”, so it may be I never saw much of this BECMI structure.


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