D&D (2024) DMG adventure design advice - a bit contradictory?

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
If, rather than "determine X", what is meant is consider a range of possible Xs (as per @I'm A Banana's post not far upthread), then it's not hard to write that instead of what has actually been written.

Agreed!

Also, I think the instructions are really two different play modes, so they're really talking about two different things.

First, you have the "preparing the adventure" mode. That's a play mode that the DM usually does on their own. Imagining the arc of the coming session, creating some narrative or spatial branches, giving future you enough info to be a good improviser - that's considering a range of possible encounters. You'll use things like random tables, lists of monsters you'd like, your PC's and their capabilities, notes from previous sessions, etc. Some DMs need a lot of this, some DMs need a little, and how much a DM enjoys this phase is up to personal preference, really. For this mode of play, it'd be good if the DMG included like, a detailed way of doing it, and an expedited way of doing it. Here is also where the game could talk about things like random encounter charts, or how to "theme" a dungeon, how to tie character motivations to obstacles. Act structure might also be a useful touchpoint (and I'd love if we talked about things beyond 3-act structure! Like Pledge/Turn/Prestige, or like the 4-panel structure of Kishtōenketsu or how emergent storytelling works). Figuring out your "villain" could be a nice thing here.

Then, you have the "running the adventure" mode. In this mode, you're letting the players lead the charge and using your preparation to help guide your response to them. Here's where you might talk about the "theater" of TTRPGs, about tone and voice and "say yes." When to hand out Heroic Inspiration, how to make NPC's on the fly, how to deal with "ruined plans," etc.

These things are very distinct exercises, and someone can be VERY GOOD at one of these and VERY BAD at another. Someone who is good at running but not prepping, for instance, might be a very good improvisor with a knack for knowing when to call for checks and how to play with the PC's intentions. Someone who is great at prepping but not running might build grand plans that never see the light of day in an actual session. Probably the latter skill is more important for a DM, but the former can help make the latter easier.
 

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I was looking at the preview page from the DMG on adventure design, on this website - The new D&D core books feature nearly 400 spells and over 500 monsters, but disappointingly few new ideas - and to me it seemed a bit contradictory.

Here's what I mean:

Follow these steps to create an adventure: . . .​
Step 3. Plan Encounters. How does the adventure play out? Determine the encounters or events that take the characters from the beginning of the adventure to the end.​
Step 4. Bring It to an End. How do you expect the adventure will end? Think about possible endings as well as rewards for the characters. . . . .​
[W]hile it's worthwhile to compare an adventure to these other forms of storytelling [novels, movies, comics, TV], remember that an adventure isn't a complete story until you play. . . . the events of the story shouldn't be pre-determined: the actions of the players' characters have to matter. For example, if a major villain shows up before the end of the adventure, the adventure should allow for the possibility that the heroes defeat that villain. Otherwise, players can feel as if they've been railroaded - set onto a course that has only one destination, no matter how hard they try to change it.​
You might find it helpful to think about an adventure not as a narrative that arcs from beginning to end with little chance for deviation, but more in terms of situations that you are presenting to the characters. The adventure unfolds organically from the players' responses to the situations you present.​

The stuff about not railroading, and about presenting situations (to the players, really, even though they say "characters"), seems at odds with the advice to plan how the adventure will play out and end, and what the encounters/events will be that take the characters from the beginning to the end.

It takes some creative interpretation to not read the above as a straightforward manual for Railroading101.

There are multiple iterations (both contemporary and dating to 20+ years ago) of words and sentences to communicate to the GM (a) an anti-railroad ethos and (b) how to pull that off. The above? That ain't it.

I think the most important area of examination in terms of GM Force (which subverts system or player input, controls instances of play, and compels overall play toward a Railroad paradigm) are:

  • Who decides what play is about; who has the breadcrumbs, the players/system or the GM?

  • In the blow-by-blow of play, is the GM framing situations and decision-points in response to players' breadcrumb-trails or in response to hitting GM-conceived waypoints and/or endpoint?

But again, for the millionth time recently, people shouldn't be ashamed of their APs and their Railroads. There is obviously an abundance of GMs and players who want to run/play a Railroad and aspire to run them/play them well. If I was designing advice for such GMs and players, the above advice in the quote is very solid toward achieving that end.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
I haven't used the word "plot", and it doesn't appear in the passages I've quoted.

I'm just saying that it's not possible to follow an instruction to determine X while also heeding advice that one should not determine X.

If, rather than "determine X", what is meant is consider a range of possible Xs (as per @I'm A Banana's post not far upthread), then it's not hard to write that instead of what has actually been written.
The problem is the text isn't talking about X, it is talking about X and Y. Which seems clear enough from just thus page, but no doubt will be fleshed out in the full chapter and examples.
 

pemerton

Legend
It takes some creative interpretation to not read the above as a straightforward manual for Railroading101.
Well, this is where I think it is just flat-out contradictory.

Determine the events and encounters, the beginning and the end does seem like Railroading 101.

Don't pre-determine events and present situations could be close to the opposite. (I mean, there is language like that in DitV.)

I don't see how you can do both at once!

I think the instructions are really two different play modes, so they're really talking about two different things.

First, you have the "preparing the adventure" mode. That's a play mode that the DM usually does on their own.

<snip>

Then, you have the "running the adventure" mode. In this mode, you're letting the players lead the charge and using your preparation to help guide your response to them. Here's where you might talk about the "theater" of TTRPGs, about tone and voice and "say yes." When to hand out Heroic Inspiration, how to make NPC's on the fly, how to deal with "ruined plans," etc.
Key to the second mode - "running the adventure" - is how to incorporate the output of the first mode. D&D has, traditionally, tended to be very coy about this, just assuming that it is obvious.

It would be good for the DMG to actually discuss it.

For instance, if prep is mostly drawing and keying a map, and then the way that stuff gets used is by being "triggered" by the players saying that their PCs go to such-and-such a place on the map, that could be explained. There can also be a discussion of what sorts of fiction the GM can use to prompt the players to declare that their PCs go here or there on the map (these are @Manbearcat's "bread crumbs").

If prep is mostly about preparing a list of interesting events that might, or that probably will, happen, then some discussion of how the GM decides to initiate those events would be useful. The passage of in-game time is often assumed to be key here, but it is far from the only possibility!

And prep can take other forms too, such as preparing a list of interesting people and their motivations and goals, that are broadly antagonistic from the PCs' perspective. In which case good advice on how to bring those people onto the "stage", and how to decide how far they have progressed with their goals and how that relates to what the players have their PCs do, becomes very useful.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
It would be good for the DMG to actually discuss it.
I find this is a general criticism of the 5.0 DMG. It does not discuss things in most cases. Occasionally it actually does do so. The vast majority of the time, its advice boils down to, "You can do X. Or, you can not do X! You decide." Which isn't a discussion. It's barely even a reference.

The worst cases (which are unfortunately common) are where it actually does give "advice"...that is essentially useless. Like the part where it talks about giving XP for non-combat encounters. The sum total of that advice is, "Pretend that it IS a combat encounter, and decide how much XP it should give based on that." Like...what??? How do you do that, designers? For God's sake, it's like telling someone to draw a giraffe by pretending it's a horse!
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
I was looking at the preview page from the DMG on adventure design, on this website - The new D&D core books feature nearly 400 spells and over 500 monsters, but disappointingly few new ideas - and to me it seemed a bit contradictory.

Here's what I mean:

Follow these steps to create an adventure: . . .​
Step 3. Plan Encounters. How does the adventure play out? Determine the encounters or events that take the characters from the beginning of the adventure to the end.​
Step 4. Bring It to an End. How do you expect the adventure will end? Think about possible endings as well as rewards for the characters. . . . .​
[W]hile it's worthwhile to compare an adventure to these other forms of storytelling [novels, movies, comics, TV], remember that an adventure isn't a complete story until you play. . . . the events of the story shouldn't be pre-determined: the actions of the players' characters have to matter. For example, if a major villain shows up before the end of the adventure, the adventure should allow for the possibility that the heroes defeat that villain. Otherwise, players can feel as if they've been railroaded - set onto a course that has only one destination, no matter how hard they try to change it.​
You might find it helpful to think about an adventure not as a narrative that arcs from beginning to end with little chance for deviation, but more in terms of situations that you are presenting to the characters. The adventure unfolds organically from the players' responses to the situations you present.​

The stuff about not railroading, and about presenting situations (to the players, really, even though they say "characters"), seems at odds with the advice to plan how the adventure will play out and end, and what the encounters/events will be that take the characters from the beginning to the end.
I find it contradictory only if you read 3 as preplan all encounters before the adventure begins. If one is planning encounters in response to player actions then one is doing it right (and most the time the game will feel like it’s playing itself if you do this).
 

Iosue

Legend
The guidance is contradictory only if you isolate two sentences out of the entire context.

Look at the example: "For example, if a major villain shows up before the end of the adventure, the adventure should allow for the possibility that the heroes defeat that villain."

Step 3 concerns the determination that the major villain will show up in a particular encounter. However, that is not the full "story," which they point out is only complete when played out. And so the DM has to account for the possibility that the players may defeat the villain at that point. The DM determines the Event: Villain Appears, but they cannot (or should not) determine the outcome of that encounter.
 

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
It would be good for the DMG to actually discuss it.

Yeah, I think "coy" is a nice way to put the attitude that D&D DMGs have had toward this. Especially, I think, the "running" side of things. DMGs have been more weighted to the "preparation" side, typically.

Part of this is probably a bit of unstated "whatever works for your table!", which is a good instinct, but is entirely useless for a first time DM who maybe is picking up D&D for the first time. If the goal is to prep a new DM, that advice is useless.

If I were to make a first-timer's guide, I think I'd recommend the traditional dungeon map with keyed encounters + table you can roll on for random events as far as prep goes. Put a McGuffin in the hands of a monster, populate maybe 3-7 rooms, and be prepared to roll on a table, and you'll have a pretty good initial session. If you're a first-time DM, we don't need to get fancy - we can use this first session to figure out what you like and what you don't like, maybe see what's easy for you and what's hard, and to get to know your group and the characters.

For a first-time DM, empowering them to figure out what they want to spend their energy doing is probably the most important thing to get out of the first session. That, and avoiding any obviously poor DM choices (ie, session zero advice about what topics to avoid, broad advice on not taking control of PC's, how to just ignore rules that don't work for you like alignment or encumbrance, how to encourage the party to cooperate rather than fight each other, etc.).
 

pemerton

Legend
The guidance is contradictory only if you isolate two sentences out of the entire context.

Look at the example: "For example, if a major villain shows up before the end of the adventure, the adventure should allow for the possibility that the heroes defeat that villain."

Step 3 concerns the determination that the major villain will show up in a particular encounter. However, that is not the full "story," which they point out is only complete when played out. And so the DM has to account for the possibility that the players may defeat the villain at that point. The DM determines the Event: Villain Appears, but they cannot (or should not) determine the outcome of that encounter.
But in that case, the GM can't determine the end of the adventure either. Yet that is precisely what they are being told to do.

As per my exchange upthread with @I'm A Banana, there are things that could have been written that aren't contradictory. But those aren't the things that have been written.
 

pemerton

Legend
I find it contradictory only if you read 3 as preplan all encounters before the adventure begins.
I think it's far and away the most natural reading of the 4 steps that they are things the GM does when they create the adventure prior to running the adventure. After all, Step 4 comes after Step 3, and is about working out how the adventure is expected to end - that seems to build on Step 3 telling the GM to determine the events and encounters "that take the characters from the beginning . . . to the end."

If the intended advice was something like after each encounter, consider what would make for a good next encounter then they could have written that. If they're trying to say that with what they've actually written, then I have to say it's the most oblique set of instructions I've ever encountered.
 

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