DMing philosophy, from Lewis Pulsipher

pemerton

Legend
I don't know what mechanical resolutions were typical for social deceptions back then.
There was a reaction table, influenced by CHA. Otherwise, I think the norm was free roleplaying.

His DMing advice requires the players to only act within the framework that the DM has pre-established. What is causing them to do that? Are they being forced in some way to go to the dungeon and not do something else? Is there a mutual agreement beforehand that this is what everyone wants to do and they won't do anything else?
Yes, there is a mutual agreement. "Playing D&D" means turning up with your PCs ready to enter a dungeon and explore it.

Gyagx's PHB (1978) makes a similar assumption (p 107):

[A]ssume that a game is schedule tomorrow, and you are going to get ready for it . . . [T]alk to the better players so that you will be able to set an objective for the adventure. Whether the purpose is so simple as to discover a flight of stairs to the next lowest unexplored level or so difficult as to find and destroy an altar to an alien god, some firm objective should be established . . .​

Exploring a dungeon is the default assumption for play. Hence the short ranges on spells like Locate Object, and the inclusion of otherwise quite baroque magic items like Potions of Treasure Finding and Wands of Metal and Mineral Detection.

Why try and parse statements written 37 years ago, particularly in a fairly negative fashion?
I don't think this was particularly directed at me, but as OP I thought I'd say a bit more about why I posted it.

I think this advice is interesting, and potentially helpful. It sets out a particular approach to play quite clearly (I think with greater clarity than Gygax does) and advises the participants on how they can best do things that way. It also diagnoses, 7 years before Dragonlance, the threat of railroading that comes with more story-oriented play. I think the diagnosis is sound, and I have suffered under GMs who would have benefitted from reading this.

That's not to say that I'm against story-oriented play. As I said in my OP, there are techniques that can make it work. But that doesn't change the fact that Pulsipher has accurately diagnosed a problem that was very real - and virtually dominant in the hobby from the late 80s through the 1990s.

Anyway, just to highlight some diversity of approaches from the early years, I'm going to start another thread with advice on similar topics from Roger Musson, another inveterate contributor to the early White Dwarfs.
 

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pemerton

Legend
I never knew of the author but his playstyle is exactly mine.
I well remember Lew Pulsipher's articles, especially one of my favorites, the "be aware, take care" article from Dragon Magazine

<snip>

I also think there needs to be a little MORE of that thinking returning to the table
Thanks for the posts. Even though the article is very old, I think it still has relevance, and feel somewhat vindicated in that view by these responses.
 

pemerton

Legend
Although he's not really into "story", Pulsipher does recognise the importance of what now would be called "fictional positioning" - ie the players engaging the game world as if it were real, and extrapolating from the imagined reality in thinking through what is feasible, what would be sensible for their PCs to do, etc.

Consider, for instance, the following:

One of the most destructive notions I've encountered in D&D is the belief that "anything goes". This is fine for a pick-up or silly-fun game, but contributes to an air of unreality and recklessness which can be fatal to a campaign . . . [A]n "anything goes" campaign tends to be one in which player skill counts for little . . . [because, inter alia] players have no foundation to base decisions on; never knowing what to expect, they cannot plan a rational response. . . . Even fantastic fiction, despite the name, possesses an internal self-consistency . . . Each referee must ask himself as he sets up his campaign what rules and items would seem believable if he read about them in a fantasy novel. . . .

Just because D&D is a fantasy game doesn't mean you can forget logic. Don't put five Balrogs [in a] 20 by 20 foot lair. . . Pretend you're a monster looking for a lair that is convenient and defensible, but you don't know specifically what might attack - men, animals, monsters, who knows? . . .

Many dungeons are full of occupied room which can be reached only through other occupied rooms. One wonders why none of the monsters fight each other . . . I have yet to hear a believable reason why they wouldn't fight; usually the excuse is that a thirtieth-level something-or-other runs the entire dungeon and won't let them. This is tantamount to saying that God Almighty has ordained that they shall not fight each other and shall only fight intruders. Why? No, it does not seem real.​

It seems pretty clear to me that the reason for emphasising "realism" is not aesthetic - it's not to improve the "story" - but rather as an element of game play. Skilled players engage the game via reasoning and problem-solving, and they can't do this if they can't reasonably extrapolate from the ingame situations that the referee describes to various possible courses of action. "Realism" in the set-up facilitates this.
 

I also think there needs to be a little MORE of that thinking returning to the table - not to the "insane paranoid" level of "checking all coins in a hoard for numismatic value" or "prepare poison and smoke powder for the wizard to save spells through the power of suggestion" - but so many groups have been raised on the "guided tour" philosophy that if you present them with the smallest mystery, or one of the old Gygaxian puzzles like the circular stone holes with splinters in them from the AD&D 1 DMG, many players go blank, and just stop thinking.

Many, many, MANY parties of players i've seen wont even talk to form a coherent battle plan, they go in, each pick a separate enemy, and do their own thing, sometimes even getting in each others' way. Pulsipher in the Dragon Mag article used example of a group of fighters who charge into a grassy field to the enemy, another subgroup of the fighters and thieves sneaking in the grass, and a group of magic users who turn invisible and move around shooting fireballs. In his words, without communication, or even setting code signals or rendezvous, the enemy could leave the field and the party still might have friendly fire losses. I've seen this level of cooperation in actual play, and it's disappointing! For goodness' sake, even Monopoly needs more system mastery than that.

Henry, I feel you on this, but you offer zero reasoning as to why people should be forced to deal with "Gygaxian puzzles" (which were largely junk, in my experience, and designed to be metagamed by people who knew the solutions from previous, dead, characters, according to actual first-hand accounts of Gary's games), when they apparently want what you call "guided tours"?

I'm also curious, how have you come across these players, such that they cause you concern? Is this a "Kids today..." thing? ;)

Further, preparation and cooperation are two different things. I've seen groups who could form insane, terrifying ambushes with battle plans, but once things got real, none of them cooperated (they just trusted the wizard not to kill them, even as they stymied some of his plans by their positioning), and I've seen players who don't ever express a plan beforehand but cooperate magnificently and save the day in actual combat.

In fact, my experience is that people who are "planners" and people who are "team players" are actually opposed personality types for the most part, when it comes to D&D (less so IRL, but there's still a tension there).

But like I said, I feel you on this - I could see some more planning come back, some more equipment mattering, and so on (it's been largely irrelevant since 3E), I just wonder at the "why" on forcing tourist-y groups into Gygax-y situations, and how you've experienced that.
 

Ahnehnois

First Post
Yes, there is a mutual agreement. "Playing D&D" means turning up with your PCs ready to enter a dungeon and explore it.
Pretty much what I thought.

GX.Sigma said:
Even in a modern roleplaying context, I don't think it's at all unusual for a GM to say up-front: "This campaign is about [x], so make characters that fit into that."
Sometimes, but I get very nervous about doing that. The character creation process is the part of the game where the characters have the most control and exert the most influence, so taking that away from them is a potentially tyrannical approach that will infuriate a lot of players.

That's why I think the advice is unfeasible in the modern age; how many people see D&D as being a game where you sign up to explore a dungeon anymore?
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
That's quite a lot of planning. It's a luxury. I wish I had the same luxury, but I haven't for quite a while.
This is why I tend to prep for my games far in advance of running one. I may work six months on a campaign before even discovering who my players will be. I put out a notice that I'm running a game and here is the flavor and ground rules. Those interested opt-in. I always have plenty wanting into the game. I believe there are many ways in roleplaying to have fun so I'm not criticizing other approaches. I am saying that my own style matches up with what Pulsipher says and I do that style really well. I base that upon the demand to get into my campaign.



I don't know about that. Hewing to preconceived notions of what the game is another kind of bias, and those preconceptions may very well relate to metagame concerns like the kind of DMing under discussion. Which maps to what we call railroading.
I do a sandbox and I never force my players down any path. It's just like our real world. I know if I jump off the roof I can't fly. It's not a limitation on my freedom that gravity pulls me downward. I present the players with a world. It has rules and it works in a certain way. I fill that world with interesting NPCs and monsters who have their own agendas. The PCs are then totally free to do what they want within the context of the design of that world.

Balancing the need to think things out to avoid bias with the need to be flexible to avoid railroading is quite a challenge. It's part of learning to DM. A big part.
When I talk about thinking out things, I'm not talking about designing a single adventure that the group has to play. I'm talking about designing and NPC and making sure that NPC plays appropriately to his intelligence and has a set of preplanned actions given certain events so that I am not tempted to unconsciously make a biased decision. That NPC may never appear on stage in the game. If the PCs turn left they might meet a totally different NPC and the first is never met. I have no agenda when it comes to what the PCs do. In fact I avoid like the plague any scenario like a "save the world" scenario. I want the world to operate with or without the PCs input. I want the PCs to affect the world but in the manner of their own choosing.


I suspect most of us must run games that are "good enough" for our groups. Whether they would match up to the Pulsipherian ideal I doubt.
I think you are over thinking. Many of us aim for perfection but no one hits it. That does not mean though that that is not our goal. I honestly believe that from what I read of the article that my game is very much the sort of game he is talking about. I realize that I learned my playstyle from Gary Gygax and people of his philosophy (during the late 70's and 80's). I made it work and work well so I haven't wanted to change it since.

I want my players AND characters challenged. I love puzzles and traps. I love when the players figure out a way to totally turn a tough fight into an easy one. I love when they use the dungeons traps against the inhabitants. All of that sort of play is exactly the game I love. I'm not saying others can't enjoy their own approaches. I just have one that for me works great.
 

Ahnehnois

First Post
This is why I tend to prep for my games far in advance of running one. I may work six months on a campaign before even discovering who my players will be. I put out a notice that I'm running a game and here is the flavor and ground rules. Those interested opt-in. I always have plenty wanting into the game.
That's another luxury in some ways. For me, and for a lot of us, we have a different luxury, which is that we have "the" players. Which is nice, but also means that when they show up, we have to work for them specifically, which is very different than having a static prepared game that people can choose whether or not to do.

I do a sandbox and I never force my players down any path. It's just like our real world. I know if I jump off the roof I can't fly. It's not a limitation on my freedom that gravity pulls me downward. I present the players with a world. It has rules and it works in a certain way. I fill that world with interesting NPCs and monsters who have their own agendas. The PCs are then totally free to do what they want within the context of the design of that world.
That really doesn't sound much like the Pulsipher idea wherein the players play within a fairly narrow framework. He doesn't sound like he's talking about a sandbox.

When I talk about thinking out things, I'm not talking about designing a single adventure that the group has to play. I'm talking about designing and NPC and making sure that NPC plays appropriately to his intelligence and has a set of preplanned actions given certain events so that I am not tempted to unconsciously make a biased decision. That NPC may never appear on stage in the game.
That on some level is an ideal, but one that's very difficult to meet. To me, I look at an NPC as something that if I spent time on it, I damn well plan to use it. Now, I might not know when or how I'm using the character, but I don't consider the NPC as a static part of the game world who may or may not be in the players' path, because that is simply too much work on my part.

I want my players AND characters challenged. I love puzzles and traps. I love when the players figure out a way to totally turn a tough fight into an easy one. I love when they use the dungeons traps against the inhabitants. All of that sort of play is exactly the game I love. I'm not saying others can't enjoy their own approaches. I just have one that for me works great.
That's fine; no argument there. For my part, I ran one real dungeon and have no desire to do it again, my players hate puzzles and traps (and so do I for that matter), and I run a wildly different game, both in process and content.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
That really doesn't sound much like the Pulsipher idea wherein the players play within a fairly narrow framework. He doesn't sound like he's talking about a sandbox.

I only read the snippet in the first post so if he said more elsewhere that is another matter. Based on what he said in the post, he didn't address sandbox or not sandbox. I was saying that if you play sandbox it can fit what he did say in that snippet very well.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Many, many, MANY parties of players i've seen wont even talk to form a coherent battle plan, they go in, each pick a separate enemy, and do their own thing, sometimes even getting in each others' way.

*shrug*. My experience is the opposite - parties that generally do too much planning, and then fines their plan falls apart in the face of the enemy. sop they used up a whole lot of game time in something that turns out to be useless.
 

Sadras

Legend
*shrug*. My experience is the opposite - parties that generally do too much planning, and then find their plan falls apart in the face of the enemy. So they used up a whole lot of game time in something that turns out to be useless.

It might be bad of me, but I generally enjoy when that happens. It's hard to remain impartial all the time. I keep failing my will save. :devil:
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It might be bad of me, but I generally enjoy when that happens. It's hard to remain impartial all the time. I keep failing my will save. :devil:

My players don't enjoy it (either the process or the results) so I don't enjoy it. It means my friends are not having as good a time as they otherwise might have.

This is not to say I care whether their plan will succeed or fail. But they can fail without spending a third of the session figuring out exactly how they'll fail.
 

As often happens, this debate is an example of deliberately taking an extreme position, and choosing to 'misunderstand' what others are saying. There is a certain amount of fun in assembling a dungeon randomly, but isn't 'designing' a dungeon instead of rolling it randomly cheating? ;) All depends on how strict an adherent you want to be to the idea of "No DM interference." There is a certain amount of fun in running a dungeon by rolling for everything that happens. But that can get dull for everyone. Playing a game, even a wargame, is fantasy. Escapism. With rules to make it somewhat more predictable than 'make-believe' games we played as children. Playing a fantasy is story-telling. Role-playing games are story-telling with rules. The goal of playing games is to have fun. "Fun" will be defined in different ways by different groups of people, who will gravitate to like-minded players. So, this group thinks it's fun to actually tailor an adventure to its liking. A different group wants everything randomized. Each can start with the same rpg, and take in their own direction. Honestly I don't see how one group can criticize another. Lew Pulsipher is a member of the industry with an august track record, but in the end, his tastes are subjective. And this is true of everyone. Personally, I find that a conscioiusly-desiigned adventure is preferable, rather than something generated randomly. That includes trap placement, treasure, monster generation, background rationales, personalities and all. When it comes to playing it through, I as a DM feel that 'the play's the thing.' If I need to tweak something in play, I will. Everyone should have fun, and fun means overcoming obstacles, risking death, for rewards like victory, fame, fortune. I will not be a slave to the dice.
 

Storminator

First Post
That's a perfect explanation of the perspective, and one I can see working very well. It puts the emphasis on the game as "the players vs. the dungeon" and puts the DM purely in the role of referee. I've played games like this, admittedly not with D&D, and had a blast doing so. I think Pulsipher did a fine job of explaining the approach to take for that type of game.

The only thing I don't like about Pulsipher's comments are his stance that other ways of playing the game are inappropriate or not enjoyable.

I hadn't really thought of this before, but the "players vs. the dungeon" style has an interesting dichotomy of strategic thinking.

The DM expends all his tactical thinking in the set up, scripts monster/NPC actions, places loot and environment ahead of time, then minimizes adaptation. He's all strategic.

The players spend a small amount of time and energy planning and preparing, then execute their dungeon run reacting to the dungeon. Most everything they do is tactical.

Interesting.

PS
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
My players don't enjoy it (either the process or the results) so I don't enjoy it. It means my friends are not having as good a time as they otherwise might have.

This is not to say I care whether their plan will succeed or fail. But they can fail without spending a third of the session figuring out exactly how they'll fail.

If planning doesn't improve the groups chances of success then of course it's not worth any time. In my games with my players, planning is well worth the effort because it produces better results. I'm not sure why the difference.

Is it because my players are smarter and come up with better plans? Is it because I play the monsters straight and don't use metagame knowledge that those same monsters don't have? Is it because I let the dice fall where they fall?

I'm not sure. It might be interesting to figure that out. I mean when you think about it, planning seems intuitive if you want to win and you have the time to do the planning.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If planning doesn't improve the groups chances of success then of course it's not worth any time. In my games with my players, planning is well worth the effort because it produces better results. I'm not sure why the difference.

Is it because my players are smarter and come up with better plans?

Do you really want to open this with questioning my players' intelligence? Really?

Is it because I play the monsters straight and don't use metagame knowledge that those same monsters don't have? Is it because I let the dice fall where they fall?

I fudge only rarely, and I make sure my antagonists behave in ways that are entirely reasonable, given the information they have, thank you very much. I try to pack my metagming into the design end, not the runtime end, as much as possible.

I'm running classic Deadlands. The combat dynamic is much different from what you may be used to in D&D - the action economy is unpredictable, and without D&D's ablative hit points, combat is extremely swingy. This leads to things more than very basic plans tending to fall apart upon contact with the enemy. The mechanics make Deadlands combat less about planning up-front, and more about adapting to change and new information mid-combat.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
Do you really want to open this with questioning my players' intelligence? Really?
Actually I thought I'd start with the absurd choice (still theoretically a possible one though) and work my way through the reasonable ones.

I fudge only rarely, and I make sure my antagonists behave in ways that are entirely reasonable, given the information they have, thank you very much. I try to pack my metagming into the design end, not the runtime end, as much as possible.
Good that is exactly how I do it.

I'm running classic Deadlands. The combat dynamic is much different from what you may be used to in D&D - the action economy is unpredictable, and without D&D's ablative hit points, combat is extremely swingy. This leads to things more than very basic plans tending to fall apart upon contact with the enemy. The mechanics make Deadlands combat less about planning up-front, and more about adapting to change and new information mid-combat.
Well based on what you've said I suppose it could be the system. I was honestly curious. Let's make the question more straightforward to eliminate side distractions. Suppose you played a traditional game of OD&D like they routinely played in the 70's. Do you believe that planning would help or not? If not then I am curious as to why it seems to be worthwhile in my case and not yours given we seem to have the same approach on so many things.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
I hadn't really thought of this before, but the "players vs. the dungeon" style has an interesting dichotomy of strategic thinking.

The DM expends all his tactical thinking in the set up, scripts monster/NPC actions, places loot and environment ahead of time, then minimizes adaptation. He's all strategic.

The players spend a small amount of time and energy planning and preparing, then execute their dungeon run reacting to the dungeon. Most everything they do is tactical.

Interesting.

PS

I think though that the players are often put in a situation where strategic thinking on their part was called for and paid off. The group goes into a room and gets their butts kicked by the bad buy and has to flee. When they get somewhere safe, they regroup and try to come up with a plan where they can mitigate the enemies advantages. Pure strategic and very much a key part of the playstyle Pulsiper seems to be advocating for in that snippet. It was a key style in the 70's for sure regardless.
 

Sadras

Legend
My players don't enjoy it (either the process or the results) so I don't enjoy it. It means my friends are not having as good a time as they otherwise might have.
This is not to say I care whether their plan will succeed or fail. But they can fail without spending a third of the session figuring out exactly how they'll fail.

The above sounds a lot more serious than I was anticipating. My line of thought was as an example, and it doesn't happen often, the party is aware of a BBEG and his crew is on the other side of the door, they decide on tactics (which is never a completely unanimous decision) and execute plan A, only to discover that the tactics utilised were not ideal. One player will humourously bitch at another player for coming up with the decision, there will be some light ragging about how the "party leader" is incompetent, some laughs and play continues.

I'm running classic Deadlands. The combat dynamic is much different from what you may be used to in D&D - the action economy is unpredictable, and without D&D's ablative hit points, combat is extremely swingy. This leads to things more than very basic plans tending to fall apart upon contact with the enemy. The mechanics make Deadlands combat less about planning up-front, and more about adapting to change and new information mid-combat.

As @Emerikol mentioned perhaps our different experiences is a result of different systems. Even though we have curbed D&D's ablative hit points somewhat and reworked the healing spells, it might still be more swingy than Deadlands. Sadly, I'm not familiar Deadland's system.
 
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lewpuls

Hero
30-some years see lots of changes

Two and a half years ago I completed my book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" (McFarland, 2012). Whenever I have occasion to look up something in it, I've been happy to find that I still agree with myself!

But agree entirely with something I wrote 30-some years ago, when game players had a different mind-set than nowadays? Not so likely.

What do I mean when I say a different mind-set? Hobby game players then (as opposed to mass-market/party gamers) mostly played games to overcome challenges and to earn what they received. Most players now, especially influenced by video games and free to play video games in particular, play games to be rewarded for their participation. In other words, consequence-based gaming is being replaced by reward-based gaming. People play not to gain something but to receive something. A secret door is not a situation to cope with or a clever obstacle, it's a dirty trick by the GM because it interferes with rewards. The old-school movement is one reaction against the newer point of view. My old view of D&D-as-wargame doesn't fit the newer point of view *at all*.

I'd expect a forum like this one has a higher-than-industry-standard proportion of people still interested in consequence-based gaming.

Someday I'll combine all those old articles into a couple PDF books (100K words each, it appears). But I haven't played RPGs (with one exception for old times' sake) in more than five years.

Lew Pulsipher
 

pemerton

Legend
[MENTION=30518]lewpuls[/MENTION]

Thanks for dropping by the thread!

For what it's worth, I still re-read those old columns every now and then and find interesting ideas in them. (Hence this thread.) And that is despite the fact that I probably count as more of a new-style than old-style RPGer.

So thanks, too, for a lasting contribution to the hobby!
 

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