Dungeons & Dragons

Play Styles and Rules

Do most people who play Dungeons & Dragons play delves, adventures, or campaigns? What style of play best fits the design of D&D? Would the game be better if it focused on a single style of play, or does it benefit from a fit-any-style approach?

Those are some of the questions that have been bouncing around my head for the past couple weeks. Part of the reason this is interesting me is that I’ve been thinking about mechanics to make the three tiers more distinct, but most of the ideas that I’ve been looking at would only apply to campaigns. That train of thought now has me thinking about other mechanical systems in D&D and how they affect different play styles.

First, we should all be on the same page for what I mean by play styles in this post. I’m just talking about the timeframe and scope of the game. I’ll be using three terms to describe different play styles:

  • Delve: A delve is a quick game played in no more than a few sessions. The party has straightforward goals and it is mostly focused on overcoming several combat encounters. The adventures in Dungeon Delve played as one-shots, games at cons, and seasons of Encounters likely fall into this category.
  • Adventure: An adventure is a longer game that spans several sessions but still focuses on a single main goal. Playing through a single published adventure falls into this category.
  • Campaign: A campaign is the longest form of game and can have an open-ended length. During a campaign, a party will pursue many different goals and players will have more influence over the direction of the game than when playing delves or adventures.

So, which play style does most of your D&D play fall into?

I’ve mostly run campaigns in D&D, and have been somewhat dissatisfied with how the rules interact with that play style. As a result, I’ve been modifying some rules (see here for an example) and also thinking about switching to running and playing shorter adventures and delves instead of starting a new campaign when my current one reaches its conclusion.

Experience Points and Character Advancement

The rules for character advancement in D&D really only seem to matter in long adventures and campaigns. Those are the only games where characters will gain enough experience to actually advance a level, and I’d argue that only campaigns really span enough levels for the character advancement to be a meaningful part of the game.

For a delve and short adventures, the rules really only offer a gradient of 30 possible power levels for the characters. In a game system focused on only those shorter games, it would be possible instead to focus on a smaller number of power levels that each offer a distinctive feel. This could be as simple as rules allowing the players to build characters at a single power level or one power level per tier.

Character Balance

Balancing the impact of various character classes in combat seems like it is most important for a delve style game. For longer games, the party is more likely to encounter a wider variety of challenges which allows for balance in a broader sense with some characters shining in combat while others perform best when faced with social or exploration challenges. The idea of balancing characters over the lifetime of a campaign rather than at each level, such as the fighter and wizard in previous versions of D&D, also only makes sense if the game is going to span enough levels for each character to have its time to shine.

Non-Magical Treasure and Commerce

Excluding useful magical items, treasure found during a game is only useful if the game is going to last long enough for the characters to spend it. That means that giving out anything other than useful magic items in a delve game is pretty pointless. Even some adventures assume that players will spend their time entirely within a dungeon or exotic locale away from friendly shops and markets.

Another effect of not having the opportunity to visit shops in short games is that the party doesn’t have the same opportunity to react to unexpected situations. For example, a delve that hinges success on the party having a certain ritual is bound to cause problems, but in a longer running game the party will be more likely to be able to purchase equipment and rituals tailored to the problems they face.

Back to the Questions

So, back to the questions at the beginning of this post. I’m left with the impression that D&D has historically targeted the campaign and adventure play styles, but D&D 4E made changes to better support delves. I think that shift in focus has had an effect on how longer game styles are supported, and I’d definitely be interested in seeing ideas for how D&D could look if it had a more focused approach to a single play style.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

6 replies on “Play Styles and Rules”

Character balance is important in any of those forms.

I rarely find non-magical treasure even slightly interesting anyway. One could just assume that adventuring brings in enough for a comfortable lifestyle and never mention money again and I’d be happy.

I still like gaining experience points and advancing my characters, but it’s falling out of favor with a lot of people anyway. It’s not hard to find DMs who just level-up their groups whenever it suits the table.

I didn’t vote. I mostly run adventures, and drop seeds within those that I can expand into a larger campaign on the off chance that the group holds together. Because, you see, that’s the real issue for me: group coherency. I’ve been very lucky with my face-to-face group. We’ve been playing together since 4E came out and we even added a player. I dare say that many groups aren’t that lucky and have trouble getting everyone together consistently. I really want to shift entirely to a mode in which the characters deal only with delves-type games, but those delves are related, like episodes of a TV show. I could still drop the hints I like to drop, but if someone couldn’t make it we could still get together and have a fun time.

And even though most delves are three combat encounters with maybe a skill challenge combined with one of them, that’s not all they have to be. Every chapter in Dungeon Delve gives ideas on how to expand it and infuse it with more story. The encounters in the delve might be miles or even planes apart. As in a TV show, there should be time pressure so they can’t take a proper extended rest (unless the adventure accounts for that otherwise). They wrap things up and pat themselves on the back, but they’ve picked up hints of a larger threat or greater reward. Tune in next week!

I guess that’s sort of modeled on Living Forgotten Realms, but I think it’s got potential for use in home games, where there’s more trust and flexibility.

I agree that balance is important in any of the play styles, but what changes is the scope of activities that can be balanced against each other. For example, in a delve style game, most of the game will be spent on combat encounters with little in the way of social or exploration challenges. This means that character options need to be balanced within combat rather than being able to trade off effectiveness in combat for extra abilities towards different types of challenges.

The three categories I gave also definitely don’t capture every way that you can play the game. Your idea of connected delves for instance doesn’t really fit into either the delve or the campaign bucket.

I am running a campaign in 4E. I do not believe it is making a difference except for the amount of preperation time I need. My players and I are having fun. No one is saying, “this would be better if we went back and ran it in (your pick) edition.” Why do you think 4E is not good to run a campaign with?

I think 4E is good for campaigns and I prefer it to the previous editions that I’ve played (3.X and AD&D 2E), but I’m left with the impression that a significant portion of the changes that went into 4E were aimed at improving the delve play style rather than longer adventures or campaigns. I also think that some of those design decisions ended up making 4E less effective for campaign-style games than it could have been otherwise.

I couldn’t vote either.

Just as during each session I poll my players and throw at them whatever they need right at that moment; I poll the adventure’s too and switch it up based on what the story/group needs right at that moment. The campaign is the over-arcing goal, the adventures/delves are just chapters of a greater story. The length of the story is completely up to you, but it shouldn’t change the need to poll your players or sessions.

Characters don’t need levels to shine, just moments.

As for leveling, I’m with the “when the story demands it” group…

I do give xp, but not treasure. I’m pretty sure I “fixed” the rewards system in 4e.

I feel that 4e did a lot of work to balance traditionally squishier characters up front, and moved a lot of the late game “power” of those classes into rituals (which are arguably attainable by anyone). The main element of longform balance that seems to have been bled out of the game by this edition is the Leadership concept, which provided a balance between martial and magical characters in earlier editions because a wizard might get a few apprentices in his tower, but a fighter of similar level was commanding an army.

Fortunately, that’s exactly the kind of narrativized incentive that someone who already enjoys running long campaign-form experiences (like myself) is going to have an inclination towards providing characters with anyway. Granted, we’re no longer provided with the tables to balance that between classes, but I still think that was always a matter of feel more than mechanics anyway.

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