Core Stories In D&D
From Mike Mearls
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #269
- What is a Core Story?
- Core Stories and D&D
- Metaplot and Core Story
- Implications for Designers
- School’s Out Sale!
- The Expeditious Retreat Press Monster Tips Contest
- This Week’s Article By Mike Mearls
- Shadowrun Supplements and Music
- Shadowrun Comments
- Recommended Shadowrun Fiction
- Dungeon Magazine Adventure Index
- The Crafter Character Type
I had hoped to spend this afternoon studying for an upcoming job interview, but alas, this topic drew far more responses than I anticipated. It also helps that this topic has been buzzing in my mind for quite some time. I’m going to break down what I see as a fundamental problem with the Eberron campaign setting, particularly in contrast with Forgotten Realms. I’m also going to talk about metaplot and core story.
This could be quite long, so this post is hidden behind an LJ cut. It’s also helpful to read the responses to this entry, particularly Ryan’s two posts. He nails the D&D core story dead on in his first one, and follows up with an analysis of Eberron that I agree with.
What is a Core Story?
A core story is the stereotypical game experience contained within an RPG. If you read my previous post and its comments, you saw Ryan’s illustration of D&D’s core story. A core story is important for a number of reasons:
- It provides a common, connecting element across your population of users. If I play D&D in Boston, I can move across the country to Seattle, hop into a game, and understand most of what’s going on. Either the game follows the basic core story, or if it doesn’t I can easily understand it in contrast to the core story. There’s a good chance that, unless a new group has a really strange campaign they’ll run a game I identify and enjoy. Note the power of a core story – I’m willing to bet that the phrase “a really strange D&D campaign” conjures up a much more vivid image for most of my readers than “a really strange toaster.” You know what to expect from the typical D&D game.
- It creates a context for a designer’s work. One of the key hurdles in RPG design lies in trying to figure out what your audience does with the final product. TSR died because it lost touch with its consumers. If I know the basic progression of a D&D session, I have a much easier time finding spaces in the system where I can add new options (feats), refine systems to improve their handling time (THACO vs. base attack bonus), and introduce new measures and sub-systems that improve the quality of play (CRs, gp value of treasure by level).
- It creates a road map for DMs. I think that the DM’s role in keeping D&D healthy is oft overlooked. If DMs don’t enjoy running the game, there’s no one to supply a play experience. The easier it is for DMs to create an adventure, the healthier an RPG. A core story gives a DM a basic blueprint for his own adventures.
- It provides focus in rules and story design. I think that while RPG mechanics have improved over the years, story design hasn’t budged an inch (with some notable exceptions). I’ll get into this topic in more depth with Eberron, but I will say that many of the processes applied to RPG mechanics have parallels in story design.
Without a core story, a game flounders. If you look at the history of RPGs, the staggering majority of successful games embrace a core story, either by design or by accident. There are two exceptions I can think of. GURPS lacks a core story, but it’s designed to allow the end user to replicate the core stories taken from other games. Shadowrun had a murky core story in its 1st edition, so its users simply hijacked D&D’s core story, modified it a bit to fit the SR background, and ran with it. (Pun intended.)
Core Stories and D&D
Ryan defined the D&D core story as:
“A party of adventurers assemble to seek fame and fortune. They leave civilization for a location of extreme danger. They fight monsters and overcome obstacles and acquire new abilities and items of power. Afterwards they return to civilization and sell the phat loot. Next week, they do it all over again.”
This is dead on. There are a number of common variations, mostly dealing with how a DM unites each session into an arc of stories, but that’s D&D in a nutshell. Ryan’s assessment of both Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms is also spot on.
If you look at the Realms in terms of the core story, the true genius behind it becomes apparent. In the misty days of the late 70s/early 80s, Ed Greenwood developed his game world in response to the activity in his D&D games. Adventuring companies, the ruins of Undermountain, the sprawling streets of Waterdeep, the multitude of possibilities for adventure – I believe all of these have the fingerprints of D&D’s core story inflicting itself on Ed’s creation.
In many ways, I see FR as the iconic example of the typical DM’s home campaign – a fantasy setting influenced by post-Tolkien fantasy, pounded into its final form by the demands of the D&D game. (How do adventurers fit into society? Adventuring companies! Where do all these treasures come from? Undermountain! Myth Drannor! The Haunted Halls of Evening Star!) Add in Ed’s rare combination of a vivid imagination, considerable writing talents, and boundless productivity, and you have the Forgotten Realms.
As Ryan mentioned, Greyhawk is the setting of choice for DIY [Do It Yourself] DMs who don’t want to draw a world map, or who need the basic tableau set up for their own works. Greyhawk has many similar features to the Realms – fallen civilizations with lots of ruins and forgotten treasures, a teeming underdark, points of civilization contrasted with wild, deadly wilderness, and so forth. Greyhawk merely lacks the Realms’ detail. It waits for the DM to step in and stamp the core story upon it.
Which brings us to Eberron. What is Eberron’s core story? From my current vantage point, I can’t really say it has one. Even the Eberron text itself is never really clear about what the story is, and I think this problem extended to the marketing campaign waged to launch the setting. Aside from the scattered story elements that make Eberron unique, there is no single thread or vision that ties it together. The core story of Eberron seems to be D&D’s core story, but that’s almost by default.
The ECS talks about Eberron in terms of other media – film and print – but it never really addresses the core story issue. Aside from Eberron’s setting elements – warforged, undead worshipping elves, air ships – there is no fundamental shift between Eberron and the existing properties. The presence of action points almost makes Eberron feel like it’s a different game trying to function within D&D. The message in Eberron seems to be “This isn’t your father’s D&D!” but in practice, it’s the same thing.
I think it’s possible to use settings to introduce new core stories that exist besides D&D’s core story. Dark Sun is a good example of this (though more on it later, when I talk about metaplot). I think, were I in charge of Eberron, I would hijack the Star Wars RPG’s core story, filter it through Shadowrun, and come up with:
“The heroes are independent operatives who accept commissions from powerful merchant families to infiltrate exotic locations, accomplish a goal to defeat a rival or evil organization, and flee to safety as the location either blows up, collapses, or falls into a volcanic rift.”
Complete with a tip of the hat to [info]anacrusis. I think this core story plays to Eberron’s strengths – it has a number of competing, though not necessarily “evil” factions, and the modes of travel within it make hopping around to distant locales relatively easy. It would be, in essence, Star Wars space-fantasy without the space.
Metaplot and Core Story
We cannot talk about metaplot and D&D without talking about Dark Sun, perhaps the best example of a metaplot gone wrong. Dark Sun started out with a brilliant core story that wrapped all the exotic elements of the setting into one, easy to understand idea:
“The heroes are the oppressed people of Athas who rise against the forces that would enslave them, battle against the minions of the wizard kings, and push back the yolk of tyranny.”
The problem with Dark Sun is that the designers decided to solve the core story for the players. In the first series of Dark Sun novels, the protagonists followed the core story to its logical conclusion. They defeated and overthrew a wizard king and established a free state on Athas. The heroes weren’t left with much to do – the novels had trampled the core story.
A good metaplot, on the other hand, strengthens and enforces the core story. Look at the Forgotten Realms – RA Salvatore’s Drizzt character has become an icon of gaming, and in doing so he created an entire new vista for the core story in Menzobaranzzen and other locales of the underdark. What was once a big dungeon became an exotic region where you could set and run entire campaigns.
Despite the core changes wrought to Faerun, the setting as a whole continued to offer the core story in an intact form. Drizzt showed gamers that they could play a cool drow ranger armed with two scimitars who… left civilization in search of adventure, battled monsters, collected loot, and sold it in town for a tidy profit.
Dragonlance suffers similar problems to DS – the novels typically present a core story, then resolve it before gamers can latch on to it. The best game fiction (in terms of core story) doesn’t star the characters – it stars the setting.
Implications for Designers
When building story elements for an RPG, you need to keep your game’s core story in mind. The best example I can think of is the development of the Red Wizards of Thay for the 3e version of the Forgotten Realms. In third edition, the Red Wizards gain their power by crafting magic items and selling them across the world. Not only does this fit in brilliantly with the core story (the PCs need a place to buy new items and sell the ones they recover), but it illustrates the Realms’ ability to take elements of D&D and absorb them in a manner that the game’s mechanics neatly fold into the game’s story elements.
Of course, the Red Wizards are powerful – they make a fortune selling magic items. Of course, the Red Wizards are everywhere on Faerun – they have a massive trade network. And of course, the governments of Faerun tolerate the wizards, despite their tendency toward evil – who else can produce magic items on the same scale?
By filtering story elements through the core story, we can see which parts of a setting are likely to see use (and thus need detail, testing, etc.), which ones are superfluous (and thus occupy time and resources best spent elsewhere), and so forth. Here’s a mental exercise – try going through the Eberron core book armed with the core story I propose, and look at which setting elements support that story and which ones don’t.
Look at existing elements and think of subtle or major changes that could make them better suited to the core story. IMO, this process is the key to building a viable, popular, and sustainable game setting.
The “core story” of D&D is:
A party of adventurers assemble to seek fame and fortune. They leave civilization for a location of extreme danger. They fight monsters and overcome obstacles and acquire new abilities and items of power. Afterwards they return to civilization and sell the phat loot. Next week, they do it all over again.
(Note: This can be reduced to: “The party of adventurers kicks down the door, kills the monster, takes its stuff, and powers up.”)
(Note the 2nd: This is the basic formula of virtually every popular (A)D&D scenario ever written….)
The core story for the Star Wars RPG is:
“A team of heroes goes to a space-based location, infiltrates it, and accomplishes a goal before fleeing to safety.”
(Note: This is a central component of Star Wars Episodes I, III, IV, and VI!)
(Note the 2nd: I don’t think that there are any published d20 SW adventures that exploit this core story….)
I’ll expand on your comment one more step.
Both the d20 version of Greyhawk and the d20 version of Forgotten Realms have explicit descriptions of their utility.
Greyhawk is “stone soup”: The bare minimum is provided, and the expectation is that the DM will add ingredients to taste, with little regard for the impact that design will have on other DMs’ expressions of the world, or other Greyhawk materials.
Forgotten Realms is “cup-o-soup”: Everything is provided, and the expectation is that the DM will just “add water” – the bare minimum required to get a game up and running. Because so much is provided, the flexibility of the DM to make changes to the world and remain consistent with other DMs and with other published material is minimal.
These two approaches are designed to target two specific DM psychographic profiles we uncovered as a part of our market research. And WotC has done a good job, by and large, of staying on these targets.
The purpose of Eberron, however, is much more murky. Rather than existing to fit a need that consumers have, it exists to fit a need that >WotC< has – a need for a new property to base novels and computer software on to replace flagging interest in Dragonlance.
If Eberron is to survive and grow, it needs to locate a consumer psychographic that it delivers extremely high utility for. Or, either Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms need to be dropped, and Eberron retooled to fit the utility premise of that older brand.
This is a closely related parallel to the “core story” of RPGs in general. RPGs that spawn campaign settings need to have “core stories” for the campaign settings too. Not having one means that the setting has a fundamental flaw that is likely to become an Achilles’ heel.
School’s Out Sale!
Save 15% on all products in June!
- d20: Book of Roguish Luck
- World of Darkness: City of the Damned – New Orleans
- L5R RPG: Third Edition
- Forgotten Realms: Champions of Ruin
- And more!
A Brief Word From Johnn
The Expeditious Retreat Press Monster Tips Contest
It’s contest time again and Expeditious Retreat Press has kindly agreed to sponsor it! Entry is easy; just send in a monster, alien, or critter-related tip: how to build, how to roleplay, tweak tips. combat tips, encounter tips, and so on.
Multiple entries are allowed, and each tip you send in (in a single e-mail or multiple) counts as an entry, so feel free to send in as many tips as you like. Publishable tips will all be posted in this e-zine, so everyone will benefit.
Contest Deadline: Saturday, June 25, 2005
Contest Entry: e-mail your monster tips to me at:
[email protected] (Multiple entries are allowed.)
- 5 PDF versions of Expeditious Retreat Press’ Beast Builder http://www.exp.citymax.com
- 4 licenses for Milenix MyInfo software http://www.milenix.com
- 2 Roleplaying Tips GM Encyclopedias https://www.roleplayingtips.com/encyc/
Good luck! E-mail me if you have any questions.
This Week’s Article By Mike Mearls
I found this week’s article on Mike Mearls’ blog, and he kindly gave me permission to reprint it here. Mike has just been hired by Wizards of the Coast as an RPG developer. Congrats Mike!
You might or might not agree 100% with Mike’s analysis of core story (as comments in his blog reveal), but regardless, I think it’s an awesome GM tool that’s easy to wield for the benefit of better session design. Mike’s article fills up this issue, so I’ll be posting my tips and thoughts about core story in a future issue.
Have a game-full weekend!
Looking for Something a Little Different?
Check out Expeditious Retreat Press, an RPG company of two publishing useful and affordable products for gamemasters. Producing aids and supplements in PDF and print, take a look at our lines. Magical Society- Build Your World. Better. Monster Geographica- Thought it was safe to adventure? Party of One- Roll the bones when you’re all alone. NPC Files- NPCs with backstories statted from levels 1-20. 1 on 1 Adventure- Adventures designed for 1 GM and 1 player.
Readers’ Tips Of The Week
Shadowrun Supplements and Music
From Joseph Peabody
I’m glad to see another person has gotten into Shadowrun! I’ve noticed there’s not a lot of support for Shadowrun in the mainstream of role-playing; I just wanted to address the issue. I’ve GM’d and played a number of games and Shadowrun has been in and around my group of friends for a long time. I’ve compiled two tips that I’ve handed down to other players and GMs who have put them all to good use.
My first Tip is in regards to anyone playing third edition Shadowrun: pick up second edition supplements if they can find them. The rules may not be up to date, but the content of many of these books or ripe with fodder for players and GMs alike. Two titles in particular – The Fields of Fire and The Street Samurai’s Guide – make excellent use of the Shadowrun world.
The books are printed in the context that they’re actually documents floating around in the Matrix. The text is filled with comments from Deckers and other Runners, much like a living message board, and the equipment guides are actually illegal copies of Ares Security Catalogues, making the comments even more poignant as to the actual function of the equipment in the Shadowrun world.
My second tip is for the music of Shadowrun. Anyone who plays music to set the mood for their game knows how difficult it can be to find the proper CD. My group searched a long time until we discovered the kind of music that fit well with the future punk setting of Shadowrun.
We found that musical scores from Japanese anime works best for a lot of the chase scenes, intense hacker moments, and gunfights that we encountered. Some of the anime we took from is the Armetige series, as well as Akira. The combination of techno and metal music worked well, and the music helped us pace the session throughout the night.
Well, I believe that’s it. I hope this comes in handy for new Shadowrun players out there!
From Deformed Rabbit
Something I found a year or two ago when I got back into Shadowrun was a series of articles that were part of Dumpshock – a Shadowrun archive – called the C.L.U.E. files, written by a lady by the name of Karen.
The first file can be found here:
And further files can be accessed by switching the casefile number, up to about 30 files. They can be a bit jittery on loading, so give each one a couple of tries if it resists. They explain themselves and broke me to gasping hysterics the first time I read them.
Recommended Shadowrun Fiction
From Martin Cubberley
Saw your note about Shadowrun in Issue #267 and thought I’d recommend the books Burning Bright and 2XS. Both excellent Shadowrun novels are that involve my absolute favourite enemy for a Shadowrun game (of which I am currently running).
You might want to check with your GM first, as all the novels are tied in with game world stuff, and it could give away some things that your GM doesn’t want you to know.
Happy hunting, and never deal with a dragon.
Dungeon Magazine Adventure Index
I just finished up my downloadable Dungeon Magazine Adventure Index, which covers every 3rd Edition issue (#82 through #124). It’s in the form of an Excel 2000 file, and you can sort the index by level, level range, setting, and other criteria. I’ll be updating it every time a new issue comes out.
The Index’s page is here
The file itself (100+ kb) is here
I built this index because I was tired of sifting through my collection to find adventures, and because I couldn’t find one online that did exactly what I needed it to do. I would love to get feedback from other folks on the utility and presentation of this index — if you have a chance to look at it, or wind up using it, let me know what you think!
The Crafter Character Type
From Layne M. Allen
Kendall Bein mentioned several archetypes or stereotypes in #267 that find common uses in most groups. Another archetype that I find fun is the “Crafter.”
The Crafter can be a unique character. A Crafter isn’t just the fighter who can sometimes sharpen swords and repair nicks in armor, and they aren’t just the mages who can repair old books or brew some potions. They specialize in one or more methods of building, designing, or crafting items, or sometimes disassembling them. The Crafter may be considered part “Sneak” at times, but truly, these are the people who totally devote their character to being a walking tome of hands-on knowledge. Crafters hunger for specialized equipment, whether to use, study, or even reverse engineer.
A Crafter relies on his or her skills. The “Sneak” in your party disabled? Good thing the Crafter took locksmithing. The “Brawler” took a hit? Well, we can patch that armor up no time flat. The “Big Gun” or “Seer” need a special plant from the forest? It’s nice to talk to someone else who understands herbology. It’s also good to have someone that can expand your item list.
Many games give bonuses for having a helper. It’s nice to have someone by your character’s side who you don’t have to pay or worry about talking later. Sometimes, it’s nice to have someone in your party that is a legitimate merchant as well.
Making the Crafter shine:
To make a Crafter character shine doesn’t take much. Designing or producing a new item that another character wants has big paybacks, in-game and out. While building rapport with the other PC it gives a new toy to someone else in the group, which can help them shine too.
There are few things as rewarding as competing and finally winning the title of Journeyman Crafter, or even Master Crafter. Also apply the prestige that comes along with the position. Remember what Kendall also wrote, “The fish out of water — anyone can shine anywhere,” as this is extremely applicable to this character.
What a GM will want to avoid is trying to please a Crafter with a glut of menial work. Sure, it’s cool to fix armor or weapons, but that isn’t the only skill this character type usually has. Try to figure out an approximate of what the character can do in daily menial terms and go with it.
Also remember the downside to many skills and professions this character type might choose. The clanging of a forge or glow of a torchlight or even smell of plants and herbs or bubbling alchemical mixes can attract NPCs’ attention, whether for good or ill, as many reading can imagine. The weirder the place, possibly, the more attention you can get.
Plot hooks for a Crafter can be as interesting and varied as other characters. A “Seer” or a mage “Big Gun” will probably have to quest for items for spells or visions. A Crafter quests for item components, designs, or even legendary tools of production. A “Brawler” or a “Big Gun” may compete against others to prove themselves better than the competition, and so would many Crafters. And maybe that old manual that their master left them had a clue on how to operate that massive door or chest’s lock…. Where did we leave that again?
D&D Heroes of Battle – Wizards of the Coast
Prepare for War. This supplement for the D&D game reveals the pivotal roles characters can play in the midst of great battles. With rules and options for creating or playing adventures on and around battlefields, Heroes of Battle plunges characters into wartime situations and challenges them with climactic battles of epic proportions.