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.
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.