What happens when you slam LFR and then are challenged to work with a game designer to come up with the best LFR experiences ever? You end up interviewing the author in question and working with him to understand the adventure’s potential. You get an exciting session of LFR available as an actual play podcast. And finally you get honest and critical afterthoughts from the DM who ran the adventure and the players who ultimately judged the success of this project.
In September I wrote the article 7 Reasons I Hate Living Forgotten Realms and it generated a lot of discussion about LFR. The article received many great comments in support of my criticisms and just as many well-reasoned arguments contrary to my own.
Three months later, after the discussion on this topic had cooled considerably, I received an email from Ben McFarland. He’d sent me an LFR adventure. I didn’t know him at the time, but you might recognize the name from his work with the Kobold Quarterly, Rite Publishing or the Ars Magica Fanzine. Most importantly for this discussion, he wrote the LFR adventure DRAG2-1: Discomfort which was published by Wizards of the Coast.
McFarland read my article about why I hated LFR and believed that by sharing his original draft of Discomfort with me it might address some of my concerns about LFR. He wanted to show me just how good LFR adventures could be and he felt Discomfort, a complex and subtle adventure driven by narrativeand interesting characters above D&D game mechanics was just such an example.
I read the adventure and took an immediate liking to it. I replied to McFarland’s email and requested an interview. It would give me an opportunity to stand by my original article while allowing McFarland a chance to talk about being an author working in the medium. Through this discussion we could figure out how to make Discomfort the best realization of the adventure he wrote.
During the interview McFarland and I discussed how to run the encounters, D&D in general, adventure design, the reality of being a writer for LFR and its stumbling blocks, as well as his insights on how to run this adventure. The entire discussion was recorded and is available for download as a podcast on The Shattered Sea.
DMs, if you have the opportunity to speak with the author of an adventure you’re planning to run, you should do it. I had a lot of good ideas on how to run Discomfort, a gritty political intrigue that places the party between two self-serving criminal organizations, but it was nothing compared to the author’s own ideas.
Restricted by a reasonable word count, LFR authors can only include so much in the body of an adventure. However, after talking to McFarland at length about his adventure I was able to learn so much more than what was made available from Wizards. As you’ll hear in the interview between McFarland and I, he had insights on everything from what the feeling in the City of Westgate should have been like, to which people he pictured playing the NPCs as if they were cast in a film.
In the end I still exercised my editorial license as a DM, but the author will always be the person with the most knowledge of the work. Get informed and when possible go to the source.
If you can’t get in touch with the author try to find other examples of their work. Read their adventures and blogs and you will get a chance to garner an understanding of their philosophy and writing style. Get informed.
Beyond discussing the tone that would be appropriate for a city of the verge of a gang war, McFarland and I discussed the mechanical considerations and encounter design at work in the adventure. It’s one thing to imagine the right tools for the job, it’s another job to design and fabricate them. Often times what is written into monster stat blocks or in the box text of skills challenges is difficult to interpret. They don’t come with instructions.
For example, in Discomfort one of the monsters is the Slaughterstone Slicer, a large construct that calls to mind visions of a walking electric carving knife. At first glance this creature seems ill placed in an urban environment. The mayor of a city isn’t the mayor for very long if a mechanical monstrosity is allowed to wander the streets, processing citizens all the while. The Slaughterstone Slicer isn’t ill placed though, it’s actually a clever plot element that speaks to the degree of corruption in the city of Westgate and of how volatile the situation between the two gangs is. The fact that one of these organizations could hide this mechanical mincer is evidence of a long series of injustices. Furthermore, with animate unthinking weapons such as this, the death of innocents is a given. To any conscientious PC this creature is evidence that the gang war needs to be prevented immediately.
The more we talked the more the overall adventure made sense to me. I had a lot of really good advice from the man who wrote Discomfort and thus I was ready to prep my ideal LFR game. I have to be honest though, in this situation I had the leading edge because in my hands was a copy of McFarland’s personal draft, not the one published for living campaign play.
What’s troubling is that between the draft I was working with and the final product there where a lot of discrepancies. McFarland’s approach to skill challenges had been trimmed down considerably. The number of possible conclusions was limited and the NPC presented were watered-down. The result was that the strength of the political plot was weakened by forcing more black and white solutions. The corrupt city was de-clawed to a great extent as well. Many gruesome details, such as dying bodies grasping up from the cobblestones, were also removed from the adventure.
McFarland reflected that such editorial measures were made to make the adventure more widely appealing. I understand Wizard’s reasoning but disagree with it wholeheartedly. Why would you want to play a game set in the midst of a pillow fight between hardened criminals? It makes the adventure somewhat of a farce.
The LFR adventure that was produced for public play wasn’t really the same one that McFarland wrote. The gangs were made softer, the dynamic encounters were streamlined by reducing the moral tension they floated in, and in editing a great adventure it became very ho-hum – all to make it more enjoyable for the greater public.
This acts as a huge disincentive for writers to try new things and explore new ideas. Instead it encourages the run of the mill type writing that is featured so prominently in LFR adventures. In my now infamous 7 Reasons for Hating LFR I put the onus for these lack-luster stories on the writers, but now I think it’s better to place this mantle on the heads of the editorial staff who seem to have created an artificial atmosphere wherein mediocrity is prosperity. Add to that the fact that LFR writers don’t get paid and you find further disincentive to produce great work.
One of my biggest gripes about LFR has always been encounter and skill challenge design. Discomfort does a good job of avoiding the flat line challenge, there is no ogre standing in front of the only entrance to a cave (because something needs to stand in front of the cave). Instead the combat encounters are highly affected by the role-playing decisions the party makes. Depending upon which of the three main groups the party opts to side with in the gang war they will engage in up to three of a possible nine combat encounters.
Taking cues from game designer Robin Laws, creator of the Gumshoes system, McFarland’s approach to skill challenges avoids creating a bottle neck that forces the party to a specific conclusion. The battles the party chooses to fight are determined not by what was the most likely action, but by the fights the party themselves choose.
While the adventure’s layout as a physical document leaves a lot to be desired, such a choose-your-own-adventure style presentation lets the party make major choices in the plot arc and makes it easy for the DM to fine tune any extra subtle points in the plot that no amount of planning can ever account for. I feel that part of the reason for the adventure text’s considerable girth is that the encounter set up in LFR adventures is standardized. This makes an adventure a DM is not familiar with easier to read due to the consistency in presentation, though the template just isn’t setup to accommodate the skill challenge philosophy that’s furthered by Discomfort.
Rather than just anticipating likely actions and describing their terms of success, the skill challenges presented within describe the state of affairs within the walls of a city where tension is mounting. They’re skill challenges where the DM has to understand how the party’s personalities and actions would fit within the grand scheme of the city, and whether or not the hero’s efforts would rub the denizens the wrong way. This set up requires a DM to spend more time doing prep work than the average LFR adventure. You can’t really run this one cold. It forces the DM to do the prep we all hope that all DMs plan to do anyway (although we know that’s not always the case).
The encounter design did fail to present adequate challenge for my party of power gamed characters, but this will likely forever be a problem with public play. It’s an impossible task to balance an encounter against an unknown enemy and retooling encounters on the fly will always be a skill LFR DMs need. This adventure suffers in the same way that all the others in parceling out loot as well. There’s a template that is applied to all LFR adventures and this one is no exception.
This adventure promotes role-playing unlike any other that I’ve played or run. Most LFR adventures have an indicated drama section that more or less stands independently of the rest of the story and can be removed without notice. Because the party has been hired by bad people to fight bad people and in doing so have made themselves responsible as power players in the beginning of a gang war, they can’t just go on to the next fight. There is no linear progression. They have to make a choice or the game can’t go on.
See, LFR doesn’t have to be so bad. It doesn’t have to be all the awful things it has always been for me. I don’t have the reference point needed to be able to say why things got as bad for LFR as they are, but I know they can be a lot better. There’s no reason an LFR session can’t be as good, or better, than any game of D&D you’ve ever played.
What’s the solution? Getting a writing staff back would be my first step, though at this point the main issue seems to be securing funding with which to hire staff. Without people on the payroll how could you ever expect to generate content that meets creative objectives as part of an ongoing story line? If you don’t have writing staff then how can you maintain creative control? It seems as though the folks at LFR are more or less stuck with what the public submits or they’ll have their editors functioning in a dual role as writers. It’s a situation so bizarre it makes my head hurt! I concede that I can’t really propose a meaningful solution.
I learned a great deal as a DM from this adventure. I know most people like to think of D&D as “just a game” but engaging in this process as I did, writing the initial article, dealing with the criticism, talking about an exemplary adventure with a talented author, and then realizing the adventure with my own twist taught me a lot about the art behind telling a good story. If you’re willing to put in the energy and put your heart into it a game of D&D can really be a work of art in its own. This project was a real treat and I have to give many thanks to each and every person involved in this effort.