Die Pädagogik der Volksmärchen

… “the pedagogy of folk tales,” or at least, of playing them. Johann’s game in design, Im Reich der Nibelungen (“in the realm of the Nibelungs”) draws on Germanic folk literature, including twisted forests, lost children, laws of magic, and monsters you can talk to. Its procedures begin with a smoothish hack of older forms of D&D, but firmly grounded in the travails of young, impoverished knights. It has a lot more to do with glory and marriage.

This consult also showcases one of the features of Scorching here, which is that I only consult about design, not publishing. I’m not going to talk about marketing, packaging, economizing, et cetera. So – as I have learned the hard way – when someone brings me a game that’s pretty much finished, I say, “find someone else.” In this case, when I perceived that the topics and procedures of play seemed pretty well-set, I asked about the latest, final, edge-at-done, barely possible thing that I was still willing to consult about.

And that paid off tremendously. There is a concept between design as such and publishing as such which is generally quite terribly lost and even ruined throughout most of role-playing’s history: a given game’s pedagogy. What you do in order to learn it. It presupposes that you do not in fact know, that you are willing to know, and that the thing to know is not (shock) obvious. There is no “I know kung fu!” This is a distinct activity.

I hope you’ll enjoy watching Johann and me discover this as our topic during this first session. More shall follow!


27 responses to “Die Pädagogik der Volksmärchen”

  1. Converting D&D modules for my game

    Our consulting session has me fired up about becoming aware of, refining and communicating my process, particularly about converting D&D modules for use with Im Reich der Nibelungen.

    I was planning to write an introductory module, and I might still do that, but our conversation has made me realize that it is far more important to show how I convert modules:

    First, I do not have the time to write a ton of modules for my game (or campaign), so it will lack support in this sense anyway.

    Secondly, converting modules is a chance to grapple with the setting and make it your own, at least the corner you are detailing for play. If I give prospective GMs (like my friends, some of whom will hopefully run the game as well) the tools to do this themselves, it will draw them in that much deeper — and give me the pleasure of being surprised!

    • This makes me think a bit

      This makes me think a bit more about the term "converting." Oddly, it can mean two very different things:

      • Altering the form of something so drastically that it does something else, or the experience of using it is unmistakably different. Successful conversion means the function of the original is absent, having been replaced.
      • Altering the presentation of something so that it's branded differently but operates similarly. Successful conversion means the function of the original is celebrated by seeing its presence in the form of the other.

      The first one is more literal, if one is inclined to dictionaries, but the second is more prevalent when we talk about role-playing materials.

      It's relevant here, because as I understand it, converting a D&D module I happen to own for this game's purposes … means the module stops being itself as my new materials have leaped into a new function.

      We didn't discuss specific content for our next session, but the obvious choice is to see what you do with such a module and for you to teach me how to do it.

  2. Am I repurposing modules here?

    Hmm. I don't feel as if I'm repurposing modules with what I have in mind.

    Sometimes, converting a module will mean little more than a paint job, e.g. replacing orcs with bandits.

    Sometimes, converting a module will entail more meaningful changes, e.g. replacing kobolds with enchanted, feral children, i.e. turning a kobold lair into a dark version of Never Never Land (or Home Alone, if the module has all those traps typical of D&D kobolds). This will change the psychological, ethical and tactical parameters a great deal.

    In any case, I feel the purpose of a module will usually be the same, essentially, namely a place full of potentially hostile creatures and dangers and which needs to be infilitrated, diplomatically approached or assaulted to achieve a specific objective (loot, hostages, whatever). In other words (and given the probably isolated nature of the location and the characters), the target of a small commando operation.

    This does get me thinking of a what I get out of modules.

    First of all, I need a map, including the location of creatures (2 trolls in Area 5, a 50% chance of 2d6 lizardmen on patrol in Area 17 etc.) and treasure (or hostages etc.).

    I can generate these sorts of things on the spot in a pinch, but it takes time, particularly as I value the GM-as-neutral-referee above all else, so no pulling details out of one's ass (at least not without certain procedures or principles).

    Secondly, I'm looking for a sense of place (via an inspiring concept, evocative descriptions – not read-aloud text, mind you – or images), interesting architecture (rope bridges etc.), creatures and treasures, as well as potential for dynamics (factions, battle plans, motivations).

    • My point may be better

      My point may be better handled in direct dialogue, but's try a bit here. I'll focus on two details of your comment.

      • The desire to avoid GM improvisation during play regarding specific variables.
      • The commando/tactical context for play.

      Regarding the first, you refer to this as neutrality, which I think is mistaken. Even if you use a module completely off the rack and adhere to every detail and direction in its text during play, there is nothing neutral about your having chosen to use it, and definitely nothing neutral (trustworthy, tactically sound, intelligent) in what the author put there, especially since they are nothing and no one more expert, informed, or better at play than you are.

      More specifically, if you as the GM in play do not, for example, suddenly decide there are twenty kobolds instead of ten, or vice versa, it doesn't matter if you are using a module or not. This decision, including the desire never to entertain any such decision in play, is exactly the same whether you are using your own preparation or someone else's preparation. Using the module doesn't make any of the preparation more objective or more resistant to improvisational change, and despite one's hope otherwise, the decision not to fiddle with prepared content is ongoing and real, and in this conversation, a determined "no" rather than an absence.

      In my terminology regarding play, you're describing a constraint, specifically a technique: "I use my situational authority subject to the constraint of prepared text." Totally acceptable and understandable, with specific benefits, with specific impact on play. Since it's the same with or without a module written by someone else, the benefit of such a thing can only be found in two aspects: your judgment that a given module is any good, and the labor-saving that someone else drew a map and wrote a bunch of stuff.

      I hope that clarifies why I am saying this first bullet point is non-neutral and why that's relevant to your game design. I'll frame it as a question: what makes a published module good to use for your game? In full awareness that (1) many are not!, and (2) you are actually not saving any labor – everything in that module must be assessed for its suitability in this new context (your game), so the GM in prep is effectively re-writing it even if they change nothing.

      Given the density of this point and its potentially disorienting content, I think I will leave the second bullet point for later discussion. Fortunately it's easier and mainly just a subset of this first point.

  3. Trying to say it for myself…

    Players ask me all the time "I want to jam that door. Which way does it open?"

    If I am reading you correctly (here and elsewhere), it does not matter whether I answer according to how I visualized that door on a bus drive on Monday, what I've read in the module's text a minute ago, or improvise right now — as long as I respect the chosen constraints (e.g. "query the fiction first, then flip a coin if you come up blank"?).

    Also, adhering to the chosen constraint 'abide by the text of the module' does not allow me to disclaim responsibility by exclaiming "Gygax says right here the trap does not allow a save!". The moment I propose Gary's conception of that trap for inclusion in our shared imagined space, it necessarily passes through my mind and out of my mouth. Hence, I own it (and am not a neutral party anymore).

    (And the other participants have to accept my proposal for inclusion in our shared imagined space, effectively having veto power at all times.)

    I hesitate to agree with your claim that a constraint like "I use my situational authority subject to the constraint of prepared text [..…] doesn't make any of the preparation more objective or more resistant to improvisational change".

    I'll hold off on this and my answer to what makes a published module good to use for my game for now.

    • I could see the rabbit holes

      I could see the rabbit holes open up all around me throughout the text of my comment, so I'm not surprised. My only question was "which of these is going to seem awfully weird or even wrong to Johann?" We'll have plenty to talk about in our next session.

  4. Oh weh! Is it this bad?

    I feel like my current campaign has a coherent (gamist) agenda which is well-supported by our system (rules, procedures etc.) so I'm a tad worried we might get side-tracked here. But then, I may be at it again right now, throwing around possibly misunderstood Forge terminology — and I am interested in learning about unexamined assumptions and faulty reasoning (and, to a lesser degree, imprecise and misleading phrasing on my part). So let's schedule our next talk…

    • I have no conversions yet …

      I have no conversions yet … and I'm not sure I'll be ready in part 2.

      I wonder which module or type of module I should convert first…

      Generally speaking, 'vanilla' modules are easy to work with. By 'vanilla' I mean the use of standard D&D monsters like ghouls (from the Monster Manual rather than other books) as well as tropes like a rickety rope-bridge guarded by enemy archers. However, they may fail to inspire.

      I'm rather ambivalent about Dyson's Delve, for instance. It's a well-known and free (multi-level) vanilla dungeon, some of you are probably familiar with. I found it quite bland but it's competently laid out, nicely drawn, and well stocked. (My group has played through all of it, so it's not under consideration but there are other dungeons by Dyson Logos I'm eyeing.)

      When I consider more idiosyncratic and/or tightly integrated modules (e.g. a dungeon with Egyptian floor plans, Egyptian treasures, Egpytian monsters and spells and what not), I fear I might be fighting (and violating?) the artistic vision.

      Dungeon Crawl Classics #77.5, "The Tower Out of Time" oozes flavor but stripping it of the alien-structure-stranded-on-this-world premise robs it of a lot of appeal and would probably be a lot of work.

      I'm considering the classics T1 Village of Hommlet and B2 Keep on the Borderlands, too. They define vanilla, after all, but are quite inspiring even today. (And none of my players are familiar with them.)

  5. you tickled my curiosity

    I do make differences between fairy tales, folk tales and sagas, so maybe the question(s) I have are a little bit off topic. In your discussions I could see fairy tale elements like rules about the number of magical items you can have or that they will loose their magic when examined or questioned critically, but also depictions of mythical beings based on the depictions in the Niebelungen saga show up.
    I understand from the introduction that you base your design on early D&D which I'm not very familiar with, but I what I heard in your discussion to me seems not really restricted by that, which I like.
    What I'm interested in is what is your motive for trying to pull these elements into your design/play and what do you want to achieve by it. Are they mainly meant as backdrop – that is give the game a certain flavour different from the “usual Fantasy”? Are you looking for additional/different rules to guide play? Are they simply another set of monsters/spells/items to pick from instead of the “common” ones.

    • Those are excellent questions

      Those are excellent questions!

      The Song of the Nibelungs is a multifaceted beast, merging two tales (the heroic legend of Siegfried and the destruction of the Burgundians by the Romans and their Hunnish allies) and two traditions (heroic legend and chivalric romance), so even classifying my source material is quite the (academic) challenge.

      The Song of the Nibelungs is easy to use as a backdrop for 'dungeon crawling' because the fantastic content is mostly background: How Siegfried slays the dragon is merely recounted by Hagen in four verses from hearsay, so it's easy enough to inject various ideas about dragons here.

      (Less so if we turn to the sources or to Wagner's interpretation of them.)

      In any case, I can say that my game Im Reich der Nibelungen is not about creating or recreating fairy tales or chivalric romance or even heroic poetry. I think the resulting tales are their own thing (and a byproduct), owing to the nature of dungeon crawls (an ever-changing cast of characters due to deaths, anticlimaxes, retreats and so forth).

      The 'magical laws' I mention in the video are key to my vision. They serve the dual purpose of evoking a particular feel – can't quite put that into words yet, but your questions sure make me think about it a lot! – and guiding play (or fostering the kind of play I like).

      For instance, when a character captures an intelligent non-human creature (e.g. a dwarf or dragon) and spares its life, he or she is owed a single service.

      This is in keeping with the Song of the Nibelungs, where the dwarf Alberich must serve Siegfried, or The Lord of the Rings (based on many of the same sources), where Gollum must honor the result of the riddling contest.

      I also hope this will lead to interesting interactions and tactical considerations (not least because of limitations due to a creature's Need as well as a party not numbering one, three or seven incurring additional risks — another magical law).

    • It occurred to me that the

      It occurred to me that the consulting sessions for Heroic Dark provide some solid context, especially for dead and replacement characters. It's a very different sort of game and system, which is probably good for this purpose, because the solutions are different. What matters is to see how its particuar framework leads to those solutions, so that understanding your framework will lead to yours.

      I posted these before I understood the YouTube system well enough (and it was being upgraded at the time anyway, so changing as I tried to learn it), so it's probably easier to provide the posts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. The most relevant section is Part 3, but I also think it won't make much sense unless you follow Dustin's process from the start.

    • I said my game’s title might

      I said my game's title might be misleading. I'd like to correct that: I think any reference to the Song of the Nibelungs is liable to conjure all manner of connotations and expectations (at least for a German audience). After all, the poem is equally 'about' the love story of Siegfried and Kriemhilt, the downfall of the Burgundians, rousing tales of adventure, perhaps even the tragedy of Gunther, and so on.

      [Gushing love letter to the Song of the Nibelungs coming up…]

      I think the poem is an awesome backdrop for a campaign:

      Its grand yet, limited scope – the downfall of one people, the Burgundians, in a much larger world – offers a lot of room for one's own creations (and spawned a sequel and spin-offs by other authors in the Middle Ages).

      It's grounded in real geography and events and pretty darn close to the origins of German(ic) legends because it spearheaded their transition from oral tradition to written versions in the High Middle Ages in Germany (the fact not withstanding that we have access to or can deduct some of its sources and influences such as the Edda). I've had quite enough D&D fantasy myself.

      It is rich in imagery (Siegfried holding Gunther's stirrup), memorable characters (Kriemhilt coldly sacrificing her child to draw Attila into the conflict), accurate psychology (The Queens' Quarrel) and heart-wrenching scenes (such as the deserved but terrible murder of Siegfried). There's also the hard to stomach portrayal of the brutal gang rape of Brunhild. None of that content is even remotely what I expect to see in my games, though.

      My game directly references / leverages only bits and pieces of the Song of the Nibelungs and arguably less central ones (e.g. Siegfried's prior exploits) but (a) these are solid gold in their own right and (b) the rest forms a rich tapestry in the back of the participants' minds.

      Finally, Siegfried fits the stereotype of the 'murderhobo' to a tee… I use that as a term of endearment here, but all that is a topic for another day.

  6. Tons of interesting points in

    Tons of interesting points in the Heroic Dark videos, from your take on fandom (identify by buying) to moves ("talking" next to the sleep spell) and perks for replacement characters other than effectiveness.

    I adored Dustin's actual play example where the PCs win the struggle … and then inadvertently convince the neo-Amish women to never ever return to their community. No punches pulled and different meanings of 'success'.

     Anyway, the takeaways for my design so far:

    1. I considered the question of whether "advancement" benefits my game (nevermind that it's almost certainly in there as I'm writing a supplement for older D&D).

    – Crucially, it gradually decreases lethality (more hp) so that you may hope to eventually retire the character (i.e. marry a princess, get your own fiefdom). The risk of dying for low-level characters is not sustainable.

    – It expresses / justifies increasing social rank (who gets to command, who gets to even meet a princess etc.). I've mostly seen this as a byproduct so far, but it's exciting to consider this in more depth.

    – Increased effectiveness. Enjoyable, but a bit a bit of a red hering, as skeletons give way to ghouls and liches, for instance. So my comment in part 1 that the higher-level PCs get to face more powerful enemies with new and interesting abilities is crap.

    – More tatical options (invisibilty etc.): Nice, but probably not that important.

    2. You asked Dustin, "[Will] someone else find it too lockstep or scope to be creative"? I ask that question myself. At the moment, I'm a bit worried that I do not offer enough constraints to make converting adventure modules creatively exciting. Too many or too hard, and you can't breathe. Too few, then where's the energy coming from?

    • I agree that increased

      I agree that increased effectiveness as an isolated variable isn’t doing much, given the resolution system. To illustrate that point in needless but fun detail, consider a system when it does make a difference: two opponents in classic RuneQuest.

      If they each have 40% in attack and 40% in parry, then the chance to damage the other guy is 24%, with a 24% chance of notching your own weapon and 16% of notching theirs, and 36% of “nothing happens.” An attack will impale at 8% and critical at 2%, and a fumble is at 8%.

      If they each have 80% in attack and 80% in parry, then the chance to damage the other guy is 16%, with a 16% chance of notching your weapon and 64% of notching theirs, and 4% of “nothing.” An attack will impale at 16% and critical at 4%, and fumble is at 4%.

      In this game, two experienced opponents present a very different profile of possible outcomes even when they’re evenly matched. Whereas in all the iterations of D&D that I know, improving evenly-matched opponents just moves both the attack bonus and the target number for a net flatline for any difference in effect. To change that you’d need to break into an entirely different resolution system.

      However! I think there’s a lot more content than you are seeing in increased options/tactics, especially considering several player-characters at once. If each has several options concerning what to do, and if many effects change-up the situation rather than merely grind down a point or two, then a couple of rounds of a confrontation bring us to very different collective approaches or responses to danger.

      The design issue here is what kinds of diverse options are we talking about, and especially how they relate to the timing of combat-scale actions. (This sort of thing is on my mind especially since I’m about to teach Action in Your Action.)

      With that in mind, then increased hit points do more than just bloat resolution (more HP + more damage, yawn), because they give you more time to employ tactics at all, instead of just gazing woefully at whatever the dice do in the first round.

      The final consideration regarding improvement is to consider not merely the success or failure of confrontations, but what they are about. Specifically, not merely increasing the scale of consequences (saving an orphan, saving a village, saving a kingdom), but about re-positioning player-characters’ social circumstances of all kinds. The effects of such things swiftly become highly individualized, ranging all the way from retiring a character (“this is what they wanted, they’re done”) to sparking extremely proactive action (“now that I am the duke, it’s time to slay that wyrm”).

    • – More tatical options

      – More tatical options (invisibilty etc.): Nice, but probably not that important.

      Consider increased effectiveness as something that widens and intensifies the character options; if this means that the player will have different stimuli and opportunities in how to approach his current situation, then I think these options become incredibly important.

      I think I mentioned this before, but I had the most persuasive experience with this playing D&D4E, in particular relative to a player who decided to pick the Assassin's class from the Heroes of Shadow.

      I didn't think much of it at the time; in fact, I found the class rather uninspiring. But seeing it in play and re-reading it in retrospective has made it the one go-to example on how to design class/character features in a game that involves the notion of increased effectiveness and levels.
      Every single new power or talent the player picked had immediate and wide-reaching effects on how the character was played, his decision making, often even his relationships with others. The process that went from "now I can do this" to "this is how my character sees the world and thinks he can affect it now" was often jaw-dropping for us. I can provide examples of play if it's any way interesting to your reasonings.

      It also provided an interesting contrast for us with other games we were playing and that we had been playing, because we found that the variety of options and the impossibility to foresee all of their immediate applications were fundamental to how we were enjoying it as we discovered what Leontes would do. Most of the time, the player's agency manifested in him being able make some radical choices because he figured ways to employ his options in ways that defied the expectations of society or even his enemies – obviously the character concept was particularly synergic to this type of play, but I don't think the applications of these concepts are particularly narrow, if at all.
      So, where is the contrast? It's between the idea of being able to play what you want to play, and to get exactly what you want to do, possibly shaped through keywords or short sentences that apply to and are applied when you fundamentally decide, and character features that are to be chosen/received and then explored to gain meaning through play.
      Both approaches allow the player to use what's on their character sheet to influence play, in valid but different ways and to different effects, and here lies (in my opinion and experience) the purpose of creating a game in a way or another.

    • Exploding possibilities

      Exploding possibilities

      I think you and Ron are right about the multiplying effect of options — complexity explodes, leading to unforeseen situations, challenges and opportunities.

      I've read your posts featuring the assault on that shrine — fascinating stuff! Far from my own 4e experiences — my last 4e DM was married to that grid and didn't even allow my character to use a running start on normal ground to then slide across a frozen lake (on his feet or in an uncontrolled tumble, I didn't care) — see, entering a 'frozen' square (1) made you fall down (unless you succeeded at some roll) and (2) ended your movement no matter what…

      Im Reich der Nibelungen offers two new and broad opportunities for all characters: obtaining a service from a defeated creature and getting an extraordinary effect for succeeding at something risky thrice. I'm eager to see how this will play out. I've got no idea, for instance, if the former (with some side-effects in place) will lead to a Pokemon-like approach (Catch 'em all!). But it's certain to lead to interesting negotiations and interactions.

    • That sounds extremely

      That sounds extremely interesting. I think all character abilities and options that stem from actual play and that directly tie to the character having done something and thus having now this new resources or perk or ability are inherently more fun, at least for me.


  7. Heartening feedback

    That's heartening feedback, thanks! I've never looked at it this way. Obtaining and especially earning something in play really is great fun!

  8. Session 3!

    I started our final session with the hard question: why call this mythic heroic personal adventure a "dungeon crawl?" How does it relate to Swords & Wizardry, and why adopt or conform to this particular D&D homunculus as opposed to another? It might be surprising, but these general or principled questions flowed directly into discussing procedures for subduing foes, retiring characters, and adapting old modules.

    Here's the link – I hope you enjoy it, it was very enjoyable to be in.

  9. Offering multiple adventures and loaded terms

    I have quite a few comments, so I'll focus on Session III, Part 1, for now.


    It's true that there won't be enough time to get into a second dungeon if the players abandon the first (e.g. due to heavy losses). I haven't seen this in the eight years of my current campaign. However, I have seen decisions and preparations regarding what to do next, which I encourage or even ask for.

    Come to think of it, though, having additional adventures hasn't played much of a role here, as play has generated all sorts of adventuring opportunities by itself (e.g. finally going after a nasty NPC for revenge, retrieving a magical sword recharging in the underworld etc.).

    I also hope that the mere presence of additional adventure options communicates that it really is okay to turn back. It's not that poor Johann has to scrap this module and scramble to get next week's game going — I already have something cool I'd like to run!

    This, by the way, is a big reason for my preference for converting modules over writing my own: If I have poured my heart's blood into crafting an adventure myself and it is abandoned, I can't help but be disappointed.

    (Same thing if they short-circuit it for an easy win or if everyone dies. These situations have been much easier for me because I have some distance to the material.)


    I appreciate your warning about the likelihood of wrong expectations rising with the use of terms like "OSR", "dungeoncrawl", "retroclone", "D&D" in describing my game. I can't quite get rid of the last (inasmuch as the game requires a D&D-ish set of rules which I am not interested in writing myself) but I can certainly step away from the others. "Challenge-based", "episodic", "forays into the deep forests and caves of Germanic legend" seem to say less or require too many words to me, but that's precisely because I have all these preconceptions about what 'OSR' etc. means.

    • I think these are useful

      I think these are useful musings with no need for further thoughts of mine. I'm here for whatever is to come next, whenever it's best for you.

      However, the main priority at this point – speaking as consultant – shouldn't surprise you at all. It is merely to play and to play some more.

  10. Conclusions

    I enjoyed Ivan's and your train of thought in part 3.3 regarding those homunculi of D&D, and yeah, I cherish mine and proudly cradle it in my arms!

    I'm also happy with the possible design spaces you pointed out for further consideration.


    I came to you with a game far in development yet without even a draft, but neither has been an impendiment to the consulting process as far as I can see.

    Your well-structured questioning has allowed me to air and better understand my thoughts and our talks have been enjoyable throughout. I especially liked how you get what I'm aiming for and delightfully envision how it might go (rather than someone getting killed, someone gets "an oaken spear through the chest" etc.).

    Our sessions led to a major insight early on, namely that it is worthwhile to analyse and teach my procedures regarding adventure design.

    My friends have occasionally run my various homebrews in the past and this time around, I have analyzed and refined my process with an eye towards teaching it (in a way, I hope, that will support them in their creativity). That doesn't change the game as such very much but will certainly pay dividends. Can't wait to run AND play this!

    You have been very encouraging throughout (a recurring theme with Adept Play in general) and offered plenty of food for thought. Thank you!


    We'll start playing Im Reich der Nibelungen in less than a month (or after the summer break at the latest). I maintain a blog about the game (in German) and will hopefully find the time to post some actual play at Adept Play eventually.

    • Thank you for the kind words!

      Thank you for the kind words! It has been a pleasure.

Leave a Reply