Regular readers of the blog will be aware that I’ve been diving into first edition lately. On PHB page 107 I found a novel section I swear I browsed as a child (I’ve never been good at reading in a straight line) but that hit hard when I read it thoroughly: Successful Adventures. It mostly validates things I’ve always done instinctively, but not having found anything like it in 5th edition and seeing some of these things so rare at modern tables, I thought it merited a summary.
Why Does it Matter
To begin with, I’m going to quote the last paragraph of the section: “Superior play makes the game more enjoyable for all participants, DM and players alike. It allows more actual playing time. It makes play more interesting.” (Player’s Handbook Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, page 109, emphasis added) It goes on to make the case that as players play well, the DM will rise to the challenge to create problems worthy of them, driving a virtuous cycle to raise the experience to greater and greater heights of enjoyment and produce stories that are shared in decades to come.
I myself have credited the DM with the responsibility to ensure everyone at the table has a good experience, but after reading this section, I couldn’t help but imagine the power the game might have if the players spent just a fraction of the time the DM spends preparing doing their own prep for the session. With group chat and email, the steps here prescribed are infinitely easier than they were when they were written. How lazy we have become!
Step 1: The Objective
The first point raised by this section is something I think is often far from the players’ minds, but still something I as a DM (and it seems to me all the DMs I’ve played with) would love to see: communicating away from the table to establish a “firm objective” for the coming session. So often (and I have been guilty of this myself) players come to the table proud just to have remembered where they are, what happened last session, and what they wanted to do next.
If you’re jumping to defend the merit of this achievement, consider that this is akin to returning to a book you are reading, remembering what you read last time, and finding your bookmark. Good enough for reading a book, but a somewhat sorry mindset to bring to what we tout as an interactive medium where the players are purported to play as much a role in crafting the story as the GM. If you’re arriving at the table excited to see what happens this chapter, you aren’t pulling your weight and you’re not getting the most out of the medium.
Communicating amongst the players (and the GM) to plan the party’s goals for the coming session allows the GM to know what notes to review and what prep is lacking if players choose an underprepared area to explore. On the player side, having a “firm objective” helps know what preparation is needed and guides decisions once play has begun.
Step 2: Party Composition
Once the party knows their objective, the players should consider how well-suited their party is to achieving the objective. In Jazz Band style campaigns, this consideration can of course lead to mixing up the party, but even when the party is fixed for narrative purposes, examining the party composition can allow the players to see what resources they are lacking and hire mercenaries to fill roles that will be needed or buy the correct potions, scrolls, climbing equipment, and other tools specific to the task ahead. Furthermore, where party members have overlapping roles, they can coordinate who will focus on what.
I’m all for the GM examining the party and making sure that the session provides something for everyone to do, but I also consider there to be great potential for satisfaction when the players recognize a gap in their expertise, fill it, and see their preparation pay off.
Step 3: Equipment and Spells
Where encumbrance is tracked and meaningful challenges are presented, it is important that the party coordinate amongst themselves both to ensure that the party has sufficient equipment (food, water, light, warmth, shelter, and the miscellaneous accoutrements of dungeon exploration) for their mission, but also to avoid redundant equipment that causes an unnecessary burden. Yes, the party might end up being glad they brought twice as many tents as needed if something should happen to their tents, but is it so likely that it is worth extra pack animals and the feed they require?
Even if your campaign doesn’t concern itself with such logistical considerations, you probably do have characters who prepare their spells each day (right?) who could coordinate with each other to make sure they have the right combat and utility spells for the challenges you anticipate and that spell slots aren’t being thrown away duplicating preparation across multiple characters when something else might be needed. Of course, this may be a big ask in the gaming atmosphere where I frequently see players forgetting to even choose their spells until the first occasion to cast one has arrived, just as common are players who only ever really use the few spells they have always prepared. There is a fertile field of opportunities of choice here that I rarely see plowed by players new and experienced alike.
When players consciously make meaningful choices about their equipment and spell preparation, the satisfaction when the fruits of that preparation become apparent is far greater than the fruits are gained in spite of lack of preparation.
Step 4: Delving Roles
The Successful Adventures section next discusses certain party organization considerations that I have found to be instrumental in lifting the party to new heights of efficiency.
First, it recommends establishing regular marching orders (for various common scenarios). This eliminates the constant need for the GM to ask who is where as the party is on the move and ensures that the party is always arrayed in a fashion previously considered and not whatever lackluster arrangements are declared when the GM asks.
Next, it suggests that one player be the designated leader (one of the characters in the front rank or able to see over the front rank) who is the one who calls out to the GM what the party is doing when they are moving as a whole. This is important to prevent bystander syndrome when the party is called upon to make a decision: one person knows that they are the one to make the call. It is recommended that they consult with the party when necessary to ensure the best decision is made.
While the leader of the party is instructed to keep a rough map for his own use in leading the exploration, it is also recommended that the party have a second dedicated mapper who is responsible for a more detailed and accurate map to be used as a reference when planning future adventures in the same area. These two maps help ensure that the dungeon is accurately remembered and ensures that the party has a backup if something should happen to one map or the other before they attempt to withdraw.
Step 5: Delving Discipline
Finally, the section touches upon several rules the party will want to follow to help ensure their success in the objective. The first is aimed at reaping the benefits of all of the above prep: with everything so well prepared, the party can set out as soon as play begins, not needing to tarry in a place where wandering monsters might be rolled as the party knows exactly where they are headed and in what manner.
Connected to this benefit of not tarrying is the advice to “avoid unnecessary encounters” whenever possible. Often parties look upon all encounters as necessary, else why would the encounter exist in the dungeon? The fact of the matter is that wandering monsters within the dungeon are rarely in their lair, and therefore rarely have any significant amount of treasure with them. Confronting such extra enemies expends the party’s resources without directly helping to achieve the objective without any significant reward.
Even creatures that do appear to be in their lair that don’t directly pertain to the party’s objective should be avoided lest the party expend precious resources obtaining an ad hoc objective and thereby fail to achieve the goal at hand. Having read the Dungeon Master’s Guide recently, I feel the need to add a warning here that not only might unnecessary fights prevent obtaining the established objective this delve, but they may make it harder in future delves as conditions within the dungeon are changed by stirring a hornet’s nest and alerting forces in the dungeon to an opportunity to expand and reinforce spaces thought to be cleared.
These enemies within the dungeon need not be ignored forever. The mappers will want to note these creatures on the map and they may become part or all of a future objective within the dungeon when the party is specifically prepared to return and deal with them.
It lastly indicates two possible times when it is right to deviate from the established objective. First, if the party becomes lost (whether due to fleeing enemies or relocation traps or any other reason), then the primary objective must become to finding a way out. Similarly, if circumstances (bad rolls, unexpected obstacles, etc.) consume enough resources that the party is no longer able to achieve their objective, they must become focused on escape. It makes particular mention that fallen companions (whose bodies become a burden moving forward) may necessitate immediate withdrawal to protect the party’s trust that each of them can count on the party to do what they can to restore them if they fall.
The opposite reason given to deviate from the objective is if it has been achieved! If the party finds the objective easier than anticipated and with it finished still has significant strength and resources available to it, then new objectives can be chosen rather than using the remaining energy to return safely to their staging point.
The section ends with “If you believe that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a game worth playing, you will certainly find it doubly so if you play well.” (PHB 109)
If you have access to the PHB, I recommend giving this a read, both as a GM and as a player. I’ve covered the things I consider the highlights, but I’ve also skipped whole sections and summarized mostly the low hanging fruit. Reading this section makes me aspire to be a better player and thereby elevate the quality of my games.
I’ve been surprised by the extent to which studying 1st Edition has made me think about the way the game is played. I have a bunch of posts I’m hurriedly loading into the hopper for the next couple weeks before LTUE.