The Next D&D Living Campaign: Living through Today’s Organized Play Challenges

Today we have our last article in the “D&D Next Living Campaign” series, this time by Teos Abadia. Stay tuned though, because on Thursday, we’ll be posting a podcast which also discusses this topic. I’ve started a forum thread over at the Wizards LFR forums to discuss some of these ideas. Feel free to weigh in there, or in the comments here, or both.

Organized play (OP) programs exist for two basic reasons. One is to create ways for gamers to come together. The RPGA (Role Playing Games Association) began with this purpose as a sort of club to create gaming opportunities (especially at conventions), mirroring groups that existed in the ‘70s for miniature war games. Another reason is to promote an RPG product and encourage sales. Both can involve money – the RPGA used to charge a membership and many companies promote OP campaigns to sell product. The goals often intertwine. For example, D&D Encounters does a great job at bringing disparate gamers together that would otherwise be unable to find a weekly game, all while making sure those gamers know about (and hopefully buy) the latest books.

Inevitably, there is change. Change occurs both from within and without, creating challenges. And while it may not be apparent to the casual observer, the history of D&D OP is filled with innovation. By examining the changes and innovations that have taken place, along with OP’s challenges and misconceptions, we can identify opportunities for the future.

Tournament Scenarios

The RPGA’s start was far from humble, creating admirable success and impacting D&D from the very beginning. Any list of favorite AD&D and Basic adventures will likely include ones that began as RPGA tournament scenarios, because the first OP was built around timed adventures that pit the players and their PCs against a challenge. It is a testament to the quality of the program that so many of those scenarios became classic adventures – despite bearing a multitude of authors.

This early phase of the game already points to some of the long-standing criticisms of OP – that it caters to the experienced and to those that optimize. Surviving an adventure like the original Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan was likely to be easier if you were an experienced RPGA player, knew the rules well, and showed up with a table of buddies. The same remains true of winning the D&D Open today, or of doing well at a Living Forgotten Realms battle interactive. These events can be downright intimidating for someone that has not played before. Many of the scenarios (though not all) stressed combat and puzzles over role-playing. This is another common criticism – that OP is focused on mechanics over role-playing.

Living City and Living Greyhawk

The innovation of the RPGA leapt forward in the ‘90s and ‘00s with Living City and later with Living Greyhawk, creating “living” campaigns where the adventures took place in the same world and focused on particular regions. Adventures furthered the plot as they were released, mimicking a home campaign (but with thousands of people). As a player’s PC adventured they learned more about the setting. Most players eventually learned a staggering amount of information about their world! You could even manage to retire into the setting or have your deeds (either heroic or nefarious) become legend. On message boards we saw thousands of gamers sharing PC backstory, trying to resolve plot points in character, and adding to the lore of the world through their actions. I joined the RPGA in 2000 because I traveled heavily. I wanted to be in a campaign but couldn’t play on a regular weeknight. I could play adventure 1 and then resume with adventure 2 whenever I was next in town (or even play it on the road with an entirely different group).

We could talk extensively about LG, because it had almost countless innovations (adventure format, distribution, battle interactive, LARP play interactive, metaregionals, use of volunteers, certificate types and PC tracking, rewards, etc.). We also saw living campaigns like Green Regent and Eberron Mark of Heroes, all providing a slightly different experience and new innovations. It also bears mentioning that along with LC and LG there were a multitude of smaller programs, including RPGs by other companies. Living Shadowrun, Living Spycraft, Living Death, Kalamar, Arcanis… the list is extensive and each brought different ideas to the table and appealed to different gamers. This is also the time when companies launched their own programs, independent of the RPGA but mimicking the successful model. Today we see independent OP programs such as Shadowrun Missions, Heroes of Rokugan (for Legend of the Five Rings), and Pathfinder Society. It is a testament to all of these smaller programs that many of us in OP borrow from their innovations heavily.

This success, as impressive as it was, created new challenges. LC had severe problems managing growth and record-keeping and handling the changing of editions. LG had trouble with the invested – those already in the program were far more adept at the game than a new player could ever hope to become. “No, your PC wouldn’t do that. See, as a druid you should be following the Old Faith. Thus, you would instead…” Those playing longer also had far more power, such as certificates and reward cards that could thwart death.

Managing the programs was exhaustive work and a nightmare for Wizards (who had very little creative control at times). While successful at attracting hundreds to thousands of volunteers, LG was a beast to administer and quality between regions varied between shameful and fantastic. The issue of administration and creative control is a thorn in the side of any program. We see it today, where LFR struggles to provide adventures on time and to coordinate well between all volunteers.

Today’s Programs – LFR

Wizards currently places emphasis on three official programs. Living Forgotten Realms was extremely innovative, changing the LG model in various ways in attempts to be more appealing to a wider audience, to make DMing more favorable, and to prevent invested players from dominating the game. Replay, wide and immediate access to nearly every sourcebook (instead of months of delay to allow just some content, as in LG), a focus on keeping setting minimal so new players could join, and the ability to play any adventure anywhere are just a few of the huge changes LFR instituted.

However, LFR also came with challenges. Keeping the setting light worked at first – initial play numbers were off the charts and the game was truly accessible. However, that light setting also made gaming feel more like a one-shot disposable experience than a “living” one. Many LG players left LFR for other programs run by other companies. Wizards made some other changes that reduced the appeal to different demographics. For example, they deliberately removed LARP play because it was seen as hurting marketing. The loss of LARP-styled interactives where PCs could marry, pledge themselves to their King and Queen, and solve missions entirely in-character all removed a demographic and changed play. It was common just a few years ago to see some players dressed in costume at conventions or for players to post in-character on forums – this is practically nonexistent today. Wizards also reduced rewards for play and judging, eventually turning off all player rewards and reducing rewards to just the kit at Encounters sessions.

Wizards itself seemed to care little for OP toward the end of LG and the start of LFR, openly questioning the RPGA, slowly removing rewards, and even shelving the term RPGA. Thankfully, Wizards support for OP reversed when staff played through the various offerings at DDXP 2010. Perhaps it was the success Chris Tulach was having, or feedback from players to Wizards, or even having Mike Mearls (a former LG admin) now leading D&D. Before that DDXP there were many that thought Wizards might shut down OP or change it into something barely recognizable. That threat seems less likely now, but it hasn’t faded completely, especially because administering programs is expensive.

We also see current programs such as Ashes of Athas (run by Baldman Games for Wizards) and Living Divine (a for-profit venture). Ashes of Athas and Living Divine administrators deliberately experiment and innovate, and place an emphasis on story. Other programs are the reverse: one-shot classics, short delves with no RP, and challenge-type events.

Encounters and the Shift to Store Programs

Encounters is revolutionary and extremely successful, bringing many players that would never have considered the RPGA into stores each week to play short sessions of D&D with beautiful color maps and low-level adventures by seasoned authors. Lair Assault is the latest program, creating a challenging experience for players and stressing tactics, working as a team, and character generation.

These programs are a tremendous shift in emphasis from the convention and homeplay to the store. For some, this is a problem, especially if they don’t have a good store in their area or want a reason to play at conventions. The degree to which all locations are represented will in turn influence demographics. Interestingly, most locations see very little overlap between LFR and Encounters. These programs are operating in parallel rather than both being appealing to the same demographic.

Encounters also has some challenges. There are signs that much of its base is tired of playing from 1st to 3rd level repeatedly, but if Encounters goes higher level it will stray from its goal of being accessible. The seasons are often too long for some but offer too little depth and choice for others. The short (1-2 hour) sessions are better for casual play than 4 hour living adventures but also result in predictable play patterns.

The Future

Organized play is no longer some D&D club operating on the fringes. It is now an integral part of how Wizards attracts new players, promotes products, and encourages play. It is now far more visible and subjected to far more scrutiny.

At the same time, we can see that OP is subjected to increasing scrutiny by gamers. Many gamers still have reservations and even some misconceptions. The announcement of D&D Next will likely bring changes to organized play, and those changes have the opportunity to either cause some treasured forms of play to fade out (perhaps even in response to misconceptions) or could instead allow Wizards to bring many demographics together while still holding on to prior successes.

Solutions

Programs in the future would do well to respond to the challenges of the past and present. The “negative” items mentioned above can be turned into positives:

  • OP should be as enticing and approachable for new players as for those mechanically inclined or experienced
  • Balance mechanical/tactical fun with role-playing, depth, and choice
  • Create continual on-ramps so the campaign is as easy to pick up for new players as for those already invested in the campaign
  • Allow sufficient resources and realistic goals so it can be properly administered. Allow for the proper creative control by Wizards while still bringing in outside innovation and a sense of ownership by the player base.
  • Have one-shot experiences, but balance that with opportunities for players to see characters be part of a true living experience with depth, story, and interaction with both the setting and other players
  • Proper rewards for play and judging, such that gamers feel their time is valuable to Wizards and that there is a reason to go beyond a low level of dedication. Create a sense of prestige for those that help the campaign grow.
  • Ensure that OP is valuable to Wizards so they support programs and promote them
  • The program should help create revenue (even if just through product promotion) such that the benefits balance out the cost of administering programs
  • Allow for gamers to become part of OP regardless of whether they play at home, in stores, or in conventions. Keep a focus on revenue and promotion, but let everyone play.
  • Ensure the program is always accessible – new players need to be able to join easily, catch up to the experienced, easily learn about the program, be able to form tables in their home towns.
  • Ensure that play is entertaining and stimulating for all demographics, from casual to experienced, from LARPers to miniature war gamers, regardless of gender and race, and appropriate to all ages for which the game is designed.

This list may seem daunting, and it clearly is challenging. It may not be a single program that achieves all of these. Nonetheless, it is possible for OP to provide these aspects in the future. The history of innovation speaks to this capability.

The Final Ingredient

The final ingredient, and perhaps the key ingredient, is the individual. When you support OP, when you offer constructive ideas, when you participate in its programs, when you bring your energy to the table as a player and DM, when you help an author or take a turn authoring, when you help an administrator, you become a positive agent of change. The future depends on individuals, like you, that can help OP realize its goals.

-Teos Abadia is an Ashes of Athas campaign administrator. He can be found on Twitter at @Alphastream, and you can find his blog here.

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2 Responses to The Next D&D Living Campaign: Living through Today’s Organized Play Challenges

  1. Alton says:

    I think another thing that wizards has to cater for also are the product prices. A lot of students these days cannot afford a 45$ book and if they could afford it cannot keep up with all the stuff that comes out.

    On the other hand wizards cannot give away the product. As much as I love D&DI, sometimes I think they shot themselves in the foot. With all the errata out there most of the books are outdated. All someone has to do is pay 70$/year and they get all the content for next to nothing.

    I wonder what they can do to encourage purchases from the younger demographics without breaking their banks, and make money at the same time?

    Just wondering.

  2. Alphastream says:

    It is a good and important question. Finding small purchases that are worthwhile but don’t break the game or alienate current demographics is a tough challenge!

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