Exploring D&D at DDXP

With the D&D Experience (DDXP) and the first public play of the new D&D rapidly fading away in the rear-view mirror, I have reams of topics I want to discuss. And, of course, 99% of them are in one way or another protected by the NDA that all participants signed. The open playtest announced by Wizards of the Coast is on the horizon though, and then informed discussion is going to pick up dramatically. Until then, there are still aspects of D&D that we can still explore with an eye toward the future.

What I learned—listening to the seminars, playing and DMing, and just sitting and talking with all sorts of people—is that for me the best part of gaming (and the best part of life) is the exploration. During one of the seminars, the D&D Next design team talked about the three pillars of the game: combat, roleplaying, and exploration. I had been thinking about the game in similar terms since the new iteration of D&D was announced, but I never broke it down into that precise configuration. When I started thinking about it in those terms, I realized what I had missed most from my D&D play experience since Second Edition: exploration. But it wasn’t really just about a single form of exploration: the one most commonly associated with the phrase “exploration” is when the players delve into a strange dungeon and draw a map as they go. But there are countless forms of exploration in the game, and the sense of wonder that each form of exploration provides can build a multi-layered experience, taking a roleplaying game from good to great. But I will come back to exploration later.

A Little Bit of DDXP

Some parts of the D&D Experience I can talk about. The most important and exciting of those topics is not necessarily the game itself, but the gamers. I know I’ve probably said this before, but I am nothing if not redundant: I love gamers. Sure, some of us are tools—or can exhibit tool-itude when certain events align, like when we are conscious and in front of a keyboard. But for the most part, everyone I played with was in the “non-tool gamer” category. Everyone was excited to talk about the new rules and the feel of the game during the D&D sessions, but everyone also rolled some dice, acted a little goofy, and contributed to a fun story experience for everyone else at the table. When managed properly by the DM, each player’s exploration of the game and his/her own character’s exploration of the game world adds to the story and the fun.

The convention and the exploration started for me before I even arrived at DDXP, as I shared the six-hour ride from my place to Fort Wayne with fellow Critical-Hitter Phil “ChattyDM” Ménard. I had met him only once, at this past GenCon for a total of 90 seconds. Within an hour we were in tears of laughter, sharing thoughts and ideas about game design, life, and the joys of a single store that can offer the best of America: pepper spray, stun guns, and sugar-free fudge. (The difference among the three? Stun guns don’t leave you retching and gagging while it incapacitates you!) Also, from this moment forward the “orc and pie” trope shall be known in my games as the “orc and wedding cake.”

After a fun first game of 4e D&D in the Ashes of Athas campaign with my fellow members of the Ravenous Halfling Horde (“Halflings always tell the truth because their bodies are too small to contain lies”), it was exploring all of the editions of D&D all the time.

A Great Deal of Exploration

Based on my experiences with previous editions, I wanted to look at how exploration has been a part of the game throughout its history. At DDXP I made a point to ask people about their experiences with the versions of D&D that they have played, and how they interacted with the rules in their games. Talking to people who played before the release of Third Edition (and especially those who played AD&D and those various editions that preceded it or ran parallel to it), a common thread ran throughout their experiences. They admitted happily that they really didn’t know or understand the rules when they first started playing, but that didn’t stop them or their groups from having vast amounts of fun. Even those who did strive for a full understanding of the rules confessed to changing or ignoring large parts of the rules sets. These changes were generally done by consensus between the DM and the players, striving to make the game more appropriate to the wishes of all involved.

This, I realized, is really an exploration. It is an exploration of not just the rules, but more importantly an exploration of the relationship between the DM and players, and a mutual pact to address the goals and desires of each party. At times this exploration leads to the premature end of a game or campaign, and the lack of a well-developed and balanced rules set in those early editions contributed to the problem. But paradoxically, the need to “fix” certain rules encouraged communication, which helped the parties in this game of storytelling form a stronger bond.

Other types of exploration are important to the game. Most campaigns I have run over the years began on a mostly blank map of a home-brewed game world. The characters start in a rather small and isolated part of the world, and the best they have is rumors of other nations, second-hand information on what the capital city is like, a fleeting memory of the one time the princess of their kingdom took a tour of their small town, etc. Their adventures see them exploring not just dark groves and dangerous caves, but the world at large. Like a dungeon map, the world map is expanded only as the PCs move upon it. This is exploration of the game world, and it spurs the characters to succeed in their current location, with the hopes of getting a chance to succeed at the next one. I have never enjoyed much, as a player or a DM, knowing everything about the game world from the start of the campaign. I want the map to expand at the same speed as the story. The exploration of the world becomes part of the game.

I’ve always felt the same way about a different form of exploration: the exploration of the rules. Some knowledge of the rules that are coming is obviously unavoidable and sometimes important. However, even during Third and Fourth Edition, I wanted my character to change and grow with the story. I didn’t want to know the exact path my character would take from level 1 through level 20, pre-selecting each feat or skill or power choice. I understand that some people like this, and I do not begrudge them that desire. In essence, that is their own form of exploration, and while it focuses on a different part of the game, it is still a part of the game for them.

A Game with No Limits

In every edition I have ever played, my favorite phrase as a DM is “don’t look at your sheet, but tell me what you want your character to do.” For players who only took part in later editions, that is sometimes a very difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around. The more detailed and codified the rules become, the greater tunnel-vision one might get on the character sheet or on the battlemat. Clinging to the letter of the rules code is totally understandable, especially if one is punished by a DM (or yelled at by other players) for not doing so. I have had to bite my tongue (not easy for me at times) when a new player wanted to do something cool like have his fighter roll a barrel at oncoming foes, only to be told dismissively by the DM or other players, “Just take a regular attack with your javelin. It’s right there on your sheet.” What a moment of potential exploration lost!

Exploring the interaction with the environment, exploring how the rules cover certain situations, and exploring a fun, imaginative solution to a problem should never be dismissed so easily. Even if the solution is ridiculous or wrong-headed, there is the potential for a good DM and willing players to discuss the situation and form an imaginative and relevant consequence. What separates a good RPG from a board game is the ability to do anything, even things not written in the rules (or on character sheets).

Somewhere between the exploration of rules and the exploration of the game world is a middle ground where, for me, the crux of the game lies. When I play, I try to keep my focus (and my mind’s eye) squarely on the exploration of what my character’s life and experiences are like—put most simply, it is an exploration of an adventurer’s life. This is what each edition seems to have moved further away from, until it is almost hand-waved. I understand that some people do not want to deal with the minutiae of tracking every copper piece and every bolt shot from a crossbow. I respect that. But I also want a game where interaction with the environment is important, whether that environment be a monster-filled dungeon or a town full of merchants. I want to avoid using the term “simulationist,” because I do not want rules that attempt to simulate how every single element of the game world works. But I want the game to simulate how my fantasy character lives her life.

Where From Here?

When asked what my favorite D&D editions were, I answered AD&D (First Edition) and Fourth Edition. I like the way the former encouraged the forms of exploration that entertained and challenged me. And I like the way the latter expanded the utility of the classes, so that none were necessarily pigeon-holed as only effective in combat or only effective in certain situations outside of combat. If the new D&D is going to meet the goals of the designers and the wishes of the players, it is going to have to support both the very freeform game where the game takes place in the players’ minds as much as on the gaming table and the character sheets. It is also going to have to appeal to those who wish only to explore feat trees, power cards, and five-foot squares. I think the design team knows this. I believe they are working in the right direction.

The D&D fans who anxiously wait for the open playtest also have to understand that we are in the first step of a very long and complicated process. To make a judgment on D&D at this point is like saying a cake’s frosting is horrible when there is only eggs and flour in a bowl—and those eggs might not even be eggs. What the design team is currently trying to determine is how to make the flour, the base of the cake. We are all going to get our chance to taste the cake batter, and the flavorings, and the icing, and the toppings. We will get there. Keep it in perspective. Keep talking about what you like in a cake, because in the end we are going to be making the various recipes that the designers must work toward.


  1. I so dig your writing style, Shawn! And I also found that as I read I really identified with the core feeling of wanting more exploration and improvisation. It is an almost intangible thing that I had in my mind wrestled with as to how to properly describe. You captured it really well. It is very hard to describe what I like about open play without sounding like I don’t like crunch or that D&D Next won’t have crunch. The most plausible defense I have is that I love crunch and 4E is my favorite edition by miles… and yet I see at table after table these missing elements that I just know can be recaptured as part of the game. Seeing the types of imaginative and exploratory play taking place at playtest tables really gives me confidence for the future of the game. Not just its longevity, but its ability to reset/rekindle our skill sets. I feel at times like 4E is this fantastic rules set that requires prior knowledge to execute brilliantly… but that doesn’t itself generate that knowledge.

  2. CrowOfPyke says:

    Once again Shawn, you nail how I feel about the situation rather expertly. Also strange that I find my favorite editions of DND are 1st and 4th, like yourself. Well said.

  3. The ride from Western NY through 4 other states was awesome Shawn! I shall forever remember Pennsylvania for the rich bounties it offers or porn stores, fireworks and sugar-free fudge!

    I too felt that the return of Exploration was strong and all over the place. The sheer sense of freedom brought by the experience was amazing. I don’t know if it was the barebones rules we used, the setting of the Caves of Chaos or the urge players had to “break the system” that caused that… I suspect it was all three.

    I look forward to further discussions of game design, life and orcish weddings!

  4. Nice article. Exploration is exactly what I’ve been missing in 4E – we stopped playing this about a year ago. To me there is no sense of what an adventurer does between fights. Of course there is NOTHING in 4E that prevents role playing or haggling with merchants in town, but as a practical matter the combat mechanics force fights that are too long. In our typical after work game session of four hours, it is extremely tough just getting through the three or four encounters recommended to challenge a party. Forget designing a mysterious ruin that player’s can delight in exploring even the empty rooms. We end up hand waving the journey to the dungeon, the search for the entrance(s), and anything else that isn’t trying to eat your face. I think 4E makes a GREAT table top wargame, but I won’t use it as my main vehicle for RPG again.

    Everything I’m hearing about D&D Next so far has me very excited to see more…

  5. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Alphastream – Thanks Teos. I think you touch upon an issue that I was trying to get across. It’s not that 4e is a bad rules set–on the contrary, I like it. But there is something that it does not do as a game that previous editions did. And that part of the game can certainly be added, but unless you had experience with it, adding it is very counter-intuitive.

    @CrowofPyke – It was interesting to talk to people about their favorite editions, and the range of people at DDXP were wide and varied. I talked to people who favored each and every edition, and sometimes like different things about each. I had one player who favored AD&D, but liked the mechanics of it more than anything else: his group played on a grid and used all the fiddly rules that my groups ignored. And I had a 4e player who had never played previous edition but was chomping at the bit to play an edition that supported a more narrative style rather than a tactical one. It is a game that has reached out to different audiences, and I am eager to see how the designers plan to bring everyone together.

  6. Shawn Merwin says:

    @ChattyDM – The pleasure was all mine! I am looking forward to gaming with you. Hopefully at GenCon!

    @Quindia – I’m glad others see the same issues with exploration that I have been thinking about. I fear that some 4e enthusiasts think that old school gamers want a game where the non-combat stuff is forced upon the players and DMs. That is very much not the case. I think what people like me want is a way for some of the rules to support that part of the game, because we have seen how much fun that can be if supported well by the rules. There are certainly parts of exploration and non-combat rules that I handwaved even if AD&D and 2e, and it is not wrong to want a completely streamlined game that only involves balanced combat. It is just not how everyone wants to play.

  7. Hey Shawn –

    You bring up a lot of very valid points in a way that I think a lot of us had been thinking, but not necessarily able to state as eloquently as you have. I echo each and every point you’ve placed above and have always enjoyed your work. You’ve been a hell of an influence on me.

  8. Shawn Merwin says:

    Wow, Alan, I appreciate the kind words. That means a lot, knowing all that you have contributed and continue to do for OP campaigns. Keep up the great work!

  9. You know, not even I have really mentioned to anyone I know who loves RPGs that I participated in XP because I want my opinion untainted.

    But you hit the nail on the head – exploration has been missing in most of the DnD I’ve been involved in since 1998. A lot of set-ups for the game have been in a wierd stretch of modules and somewhat slim world books. Gone were the days of large expansive boxed sets that had entire worlds encapsulated in books and maps that were mostly for the DM’s eyes only. This departure made most of my groups just focus on a dungeon to dungeon experience, which slowly dried up my enthusiasm for the game. Strangely enough, something like Warhammer Quest was a trick to get my companions back into caring what happens between quests.

    I realize no one wants anything forced on them – overwhelming combat encounters, role-playing, etc. – but the reality is that the game should not focus on one aspect. DMs should get the ENTIRE toolbox at the start and work their way from there. Not ten DMGs. So XP has given me some hope that we’re now moving in the right direction again, and it’s rekindling my old memories of when we used to play AD&D, creating our own world as we went. Hopefully. Hopefully.

    Your article is great, keep writing.


  1. […] article is inspired by a very cool article by Shawn Merwin over at Critical Hits. He reflects on his experience at DDXP and how the DnDnext design team is focused on the three […]

  2. […] how those exploration bits have been supported. I put my thoughts in a Critical Hits article: Exploring D&D at DDXP : Critical Hits Exploration was perhaps the best part of the AD&D campaigns I played and ran over the years. […]

  3. […] I attended the 2012 Dungeons & Dragons Experience convention  in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I couldn’t afford to fly there so I decided to drive my dirty blue Hyundai Accent to a place near Buffalo, NY -a 7 hour drive from my native Montreal- to meet up with fellow Critical-Hits writer, WotC freelancer and all-time superstar Shawn Merwin. He drove the rest of the way and much fun was had. […]

  4. […] how those exploration bits have been supported. I put my thoughts in a Critical Hits article: Exploring D&D at DDXP : Critical Hits Exploration was perhaps the best part of the AD&D campaigns I played and ran over the years. […]