Naked Man asked me a question today that I thought warranted a post here. In essence, he wanted to know what it is I want out of a roleplaying campaign. Currently he is running a 5th edition DnD campaign that I am playing in and he has correctly noticed that my level of engagement could really be higher. So why is that, and what could change to fix it?
I think primarily my struggle is that we are running a published adventure that is a serious dungeon crawl. Underground complexes themselves aren't an issue but a lot of dungeon crawls really end up not being to my taste at all. The main thing that gets me about them in general and this module (Whispering Cairn) in particular is one word: Magic.
How did that elevator appear from nowhere? Magic. Why did a massive wind blast out of a solid wall to try to murder us all? Magic. How the hell did someone build this gigantic rainbow clock elevator thing? Magic.
The answer to everything is Magic. Obviously some magic is good, as I like fantasy games with fireball chucking and teleportation and all that stuff, but I want it to be sciency magic. That is, I want a magic system I can read about in the manual and understand. I want something I can make predictions about, and something that is concrete. When in a Magic dungeon the designers just come up with whatever nutty concept they like and nothing needs to make any sense... you just say Magic a lot. The players can't predict what a thing will do, because everything is Magic. To me, such a design is basically just sloppy work. It is a sign that the designer doesn't want the player to think because the designer knows that everything is ridiculous. Workarounds are often confusing and random because everything is Magic so nobody has any idea how it actually functions. When I face a lock or a regular tripwire or something like that I can tell what sort of thing might work against it and it gets me interested, but when everything is just 'this stuff just happens magically' then I check out.
If it is a tripwire then I could see it, or throw stuff down the corridor and trigger it. If I notice it I can try to trace it to figure out what it does. If it is a magic trigger then I have no idea what it does, why it does it, or even what steps I might take to prevent it.
In a dungeon where the wall can randomly create an unstoppable wind to try to blow you all off a cliff, we have *no* reason to doubt that in the next corridor a random wall will slam down behind us and we will all be murdered by poison gas. Or the ceiling will simply collapse, instantly killing us. Or the entire dungeon will be filled with fire. There is no rational explanation for why all of the traps just happen to be barely survivable to a party of our level, and no reason for our characters to think that they have any chance of surviving the next ten feet of exploration.
I want a world where if I encounter a magic thing I can look in the book to figure out how it might work, or at least make reasonable deductions. Sure, maybe the villain has access to a nasty Ritual that isn't in the book, but at least I know it is a Ritual. That means *I* can learn it if I can find a copy, and I can potentially counter it with a Negation Ritual. I know what I am dealing with. I like magic like that, where rules exist and they are obeyed. It creates a world I can believe in, a world where puzzles feel like they have value. It immerses me.
On the other hand when magic can do absolutely anything, has no consistent properties, and does different things for players and non players, then I can't get into it. It is just an excuse for lazy, half assed design.
Similarly I like campaigns where there are problems to solve and I can figure out my own solutions. Magic dungeons are the opposite of this, because nothing follows any rules so I just have to wander in and do everything in order. For example, if the evil king is at his summer palace and I want to go assassinate him there, I might try to sneak in at night, bribe a guard, dig a tunnel, or build a glider. Heck, I might just decide to storm the gate. Give me a problem and a bunch of obstacles and I will have a blast trying to figure out a way to use my abilities to solve that problem.
This is rarely the case in published adventures. There is usually a set of things you have to do, and you have to do them in order. If you try to get too creative there just won't be anything written and the GM will have to make it all up. This is a big part of the reason that so many adventures are Magic dungeons - you can be sure that nobody can come up with good alternative solutions when they don't know how anything works because Magic. Dungeons full of Magic provide great rails to keep the players under tight control.
I like an adventure where I truly can get sidetracked and skip out on plot points that aren't panning out. I love wandering about, discovering things and taking on challenges as my character's motivations dictate. The freedom to just head out on the southern road to see what there is to be seen is fantastic, and clearly you don't have that in published adventures. Some amount of railroading is necessary, but usually I like a lighter hand than adventure writers really can get away with. The kind of railroading I like is goal based, rather than process based. If I know I need to get into the tower to kill the evil naga sorceress then I am happy to try to figure out puzzles and look for answers. If I am just trying to get into the tower because that is the next step on the adventure and I have no particular reason to do it except for "the rest of the world is blank" then it has little appeal.
I want a living world. One where there is a town over the next rise, and it has problems. Maybe I will solve those. Maybe I won't! If I go somewhere else, I want those problems to continue to evolve, so that my decision to ignore it matters. I want to be able to influence events in a world that draws me in, gives me real options, and makes sense.
It is a tall order.