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 setting books rarely seemed to play their own games much anymore.
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.”
After D&D’s headquarters moved West from Lake Geneva, more designers played, but with a small cadre of friends and co-workers.
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 3rd and 4th 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 their own home games or their games within their company.”
At the 2016 Dungeons & Dragons Open, D&D designers served as celebrity dungeon masters. The star power added excitement for players, but it also should benefit the designers. Speaking in the podcast, prolific adventure author Teos “Alphastream” 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.”
If you want to write games and adventures for strangers to play, then you benefit from playing with strangers.
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.”
How does a private game among RPG professionals and their friends differ from the convention games I frequent? I can think of two likely differences: The players in the designers’ private groups act more predictably and they favor more role playing.
Play style and predictability
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.
Organized play adventures tend to come from veteran convention dungeon masters who branched into writing. I think these authors do better at anticipating what random players might do, and do better at accounting for players who veer off the path.
The foibles of full-time designers
In general, full-time professionals do worse at predicting how players will act, and they seem less interested in helping DMs account for unexpected actions.
The pros play their own material. They enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than anyone can gain from the text. This mastery makes improvising changes and additions easy. If their players go off book, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot printed in the adventure’s next 5 chapters. So pros underestimate the difficulty other DMs face when ad-libbing changes to a published adventure.
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.
What do the pros do better? In general, their adventures feature more polish and a greater mastery of the game’s rules, history, and lore. When the designers add new monsters and magic, the additions work without upsetting game balance.
The joy of role playing
Remember the first time you sat down and played? How you had such a blast rolling dice and killing monsters? Remember the time you stayed up all night doing it? Every day, new players discover D&D and find just as much fun in monster slaying. On the other hand, many new players find speaking in funny voices odd and potentially embarrassing.
Meanwhile the pros have faced every monster countless times. Routine combat scenes lack their former excitement. Between those past battles, the pros learned to love playing make-believe in the guise of a fairie-tale creature. They relish a chance to role play. They play with folks who share this passion.
In my post on preparing to run adventures, I grumbled about how the authors of Hoard of the Dragon Queen assume that PCs will spend weeks traveling with cultists and wagons loaded with treasure instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold like every D&D player ever.
But obviously not like every D&D player. The authors’ groups saw a chance to travel with the cultists, uncover their secrets, and savor a session full of role playing and intrigue. Authors Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur read their groups’ tastes and catered to them. I rarely get to play with groups with the same patience for intrigue, so a strategy that seemed inevitable to Steve and Wolfgang struck me as far-fetched.
Every group is different. You can’t play with everyone, but if you want to write for everyone, you benefit from reaching out to game with random strangers.
This an issue near and dear to my heart, David! It really surprised me, especially in the 3E era, that 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. When you did hear about designers playing D&D, their campaigns sounded vastly different (often, the PCs were anti-heroes weaving a path of destruction and very heavy on roleplaying).
I think that really changed in 4E, and I’m always curious if it may have started with a few people. Maybe it was the makeup of Chris Perkins’ Iomandra campaign, featuring more influential designers? Maybe it was Greg Bilsland focusing on a better way to tackle errata? Maybe it was several players who started to play other RPGs regularly? Maybe it was the organized play background of Mike Mearls? Maybe it was editors like Tanis O’Connor, who played D&D organized play regularly and had to correct other designers, pointing out why 4E material had to be changed prior to publication? Or maybe it was a bit of all of these, but steadily D&D designers’ Twitter feeds were reporting plays of D&D, of other RPGs, and of mixing it up with more groups. Greg taking on errata, or Perkins and Jeremy Crawford answering 5E questions on Twitter, means they had a personal stake in the rules making sense not for them but for the greater public. They also have to know the rules to answer them.
One of the great changes for organized play, and not just for D&D but for all RPGs, is that RPG designers are starting to see OP as normal and critical. Up until maybe early 4E, most designers seemed to think of organized play not as truth, but as a false way of playing (perhaps due to the incorrect reputation of min-maxing?). That change has been terrific for RPGs, validating the time they spend with the public.
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. I really think it is fantastic that Perkins’ job includes running liveplay games and that so many others at WotC have run and played in the games. You see Emi Tanji (who works on art direction for all releases) play in several games. That’s truly fantastic because it can only help her capture the vision of the game at a level that is more in-tune with the wider audience.
I played D&D with a pick-up group (and my son) two days ago at a local gameday. It was interesting to see that the DM handed out Advantage to every player after their character introduction (cool trick!) and every single player seemed to use it as a reroll. It tells you a lot about how others play. And, I was playing an adventure I had played before (but with another character). Seeing a different DM run it and how a different set of players react to it was very educational. It gave me a host of ideas on how to write scenarios of that nature – in this case around how to keep player agency high.
Does the D&D Open happen at Origins every year? Life circumstances have joyfully given me a bit more free time than I have had historically and I’m looking around at which conventions might be the most awesome. PAX seems to sell out too quickly, although my wife and I would love to see Acquisitions Inc. in-person…and GenCon seems like it might be a madhouse. I am loving 5th edition and the opportunity to play with the designers seems like it would be really cool.
The current plan is for the Open to be at Origins, but it isn’t ironclad until we see the announcement! 🙂
PAX is a brute… unless you sign up to DM. You do have to do a fair amount of DMing, but it is a really fun place to DM and then you get a badge, hotel room, and events don’t have a cost!
Gen Con is fantastic – the biggest feeling from an RPG standpoint. But, landing a hotel within walking distance is tough. If you are okay with commuting on shuttles from a hotel, then Gen Con is really a great pick.
The other one to consider for D&D Adventurers League (and a small selection of other RPGs and board games) is Winter Fantasy. No hotel issues, no badge issues. Super intimate feeling but still big, and there is a ton of D&D with excellent judges and players.
Thanks, alphastream. I have two copies of your Fathom Events adventure; my wife and I each got one when we saw Acquisitions Inc. in theatres. Hoping I’ll get to play it at some point; it looks like fun. Origins looks like it might be the best bet in terms of distance and accessibility; we’ll see. Thanks for the run-down of the convention scene.
Absolutely, and I am always eager to learn from anyone playing something I write or help write. You can reach me at my blog anytime with questions or feedback. Thanks!
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