In the 80s into the 90s, I would see convention panels or magazine interviews where game professionals said that their game writing left them no time for game playing. Those writers might admit to an occasional session of Call of Cthulhu—that was the role-playing game the pros played once they felt too mature for bashing monsters in dungeons. But writers of the era’s countless Dungeons & Dragons setting books rarely seemed to play the game much anymore.
Prolific adventure author Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Especially in the third-edition era, some Wizards staff seemed not to play their own game and seldom saw it played. In the Living Greyhawk community (a 3E organized play campaign) there was the sense that a large portion of new rules needed errata solely because the designers weren’t familiar enough with the game to see (obvious) exploits and problems.”
For many of the game products of the time, play experience mattered less. People bought game books to read. RPG writers could succeed by satisfying game readers more than players. See “How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books.”
Speaking in an episode of the Misdirected Mark podcast, veteran RPG freelancer Shawn Merwin said, “One of the criticisms I’ve had in the past of [D&D] staff, especially through third and fourth edition, was that they would sit in Renton, Washington and create this game, but they never really got out and saw how the game was played by the different kinds of fans, or the fans that may play a little bit differently than the designers’ own home games or their games within their company.”
The designers of fifth edition play more with the D&D community, and the edition benefits. “We know that D&D is a big tent,” explains lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford. “Not only do people of many sorts play in the D&D, but also people of many tastes play D&D. We know some people really love heavy improvisational role-playing and other D&D players, for them, that’s all about the tactical nuances of D&D combat, and everything in between.”
Over the past few years, I‘ve seen D&D designers at conventions run games for random tables of Adventurers League players lucky enough to draw the celebrity DM. Speaking in the podcast, Teos Abadia said, “This is a really important thing for Wizards to do. To meet with players and see how players play [the designer’s] game in this kind of environment.”
In a convention game, you will join players who may play differently. “You’re just randomly dipping into the pond to see who ends up at your table and to see how they play the game that you create. And I think that’s very important,” Teos said. “For me as a fan, I want to see Wizards involved with fans in this kind of way as much as possible.”
The D&D designers play with non-designers even more on liveplay streams. “One of my favorite parts of the rise of RPG celebrities running liveplay games is that they have to then play their games with other people,“ Teos writes. “I really think it is fantastic that so many at WotC have run and played in the games.” Of course, streamed play intends to entertain an audience, making these performances different from most D&D sessions—the ones at basements, kitchen tables, or game stores‘ back rooms.
People who think about D&D’s future wonder how livestreams will influence designers to change the rules, and whether streaming should shape the rules. Jeremey Crawford says, “We’re concerned about supporting traditional tabletop play well, but also the types of D&D experiences people have in streams.”
Streaming certainly affects the interests of new players discovering D&D. Traditionally, new D&D players tended to focus on the joy of bashing monsters and developing more powerful characters. Those same new players found acting in character off putting. Before steaming, virtually nobody new to D&D spoke in character. The prospect of adopting a funny voice seemed odd and potentially embarrassing. Now, new players typically want to play the sort of personalities and scenes they see in streams. (In my experience, new players act in character, but they still hesitate to use a funny voices. Perhaps the vocal talents of actors seem unreachable.)
Based on experience running games at conventions, the people guiding D&D’s Adventurers League organized play campaign work harder than ever to accommodate different play styles. The recent League seasons have encouraged authors to welcome the three D&D pillars of exploration, roleplaying interaction, and combat when designing adventures, and to especially consider non-combat answers to encounters. The league’s Ravenloft: Mist Hunters campaign aims to “focus on story, atmosphere, and immersive interaction.”
If you want to write games and adventures for strangers to play, then you benefit from playing with strangers. Every regular group settles into a play style. Do they play recklessly or cautiously? Heroically or ruthlessly? How do they settle conflict between PCs that pull in opposite directions? Regular groups seek activities they all enjoy. A group’s style makes them predictable. When we play long enough in one style, we tend to forget other ways.
DMs who operate in public eventually see groups that defy even the most common customs of D&D. New players love to split the party. Authors with experience as dungeon masters for strangers become better at anticipating what random players might do, and do better at writing scenarios that account for players who veer off the path.
Organized play authors understand the challenges of running an adventure from a text. Their adventures sometimes even include troubleshooting sidebars that help DMs account for actions that threaten to break an adventure.
Every group is different. You can’t play with everyone, but if you want to write games for everyone, you benefit from reaching out to game with random strangers.
This post revists a topic from 2016.
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Thanks for the kind mentions, David! I’m very passionate about this topic, because it is fundamentally hard for a lot of designers/companies to see how important it is. Many designers aren’t comfortable putting themselves out there and joining a random convention table. And yet, it is really vital.
This past weekend I went to GameHole con (required vaccines and masks), and it was fantastic for me as a designer. I played Aliens, Savage Worlds/Deadlands, Call of Cthulhu, Shotguns & Sorcery, and D&D. I ran two games of an adventure I will soon kickstart, for groups I didn’t know. I had two streams and attended and gave panels. All of it was super educational, helping me think about different ways to design and how DMs and players approach the game. Invaluable! Really, because there is no course or online video or mentor that can teach me these things. You have to show up and play.