Tuesday, February 25, 2014

High-Level Plot Writing

Quite some time back, I talked about the problems of high-level gameplay in D&D and made an assertion that the concepts weren't the problem, and that it was easy to scale up to higher fantasy and power on the story front. This assertion was not supported in the comments. It comes up now because of a prompt from one of my readers to suggest some plot seeds for interesting high-level play. Faced with thesis and antithesis, I intend to attempt synthesis, showing that pure concept needs just a few seeds of ideas. My guess as to the source of the problem - contradict me as needed - is that once you've gotten to the mid-levels of a campaign, you've explored most of the content that you really laid a foundation for in early exposition, and it's hard to figure out how to start up a new storyline that fits with what has gone before.

I'm speaking mostly from my own experience of running games. I've run a number of games from first level (or whatever the starting stats are) up to the threshold of high level - 9th level in 2e, 13th level in 3e, 13th level in 4e (not a good example... 21st is the true "high-level" for 4e), and 5 dots in a primary Arcanum in Mage: the Awakening. My common pattern is that low-level sessions are single-session or two-session adventures (for the obvious reason that the PCs don't have the reserves of power to do more). Low-mid adventures start stretching out a bit more in scope, with mini-arcs of 3-6 sessions. This continues into "mid-level" adventures - yeah, I know the terminology is imprecise. All throughout these adventures, I've been seeding other things, usually far more than I could reasonably run; this means the PCs have plenty of choices of things to pursue, or not. Finally I run a big storyline that takes a whole heap of sessions; in D&D that single goal might take three or more levels to complete.

When it's done - and I've been lucky that games have lasted long enough to finish their "big" stories - I have a bit of a problem. The players have solved the major problem that they invested time and energy into resolving. The central questions of the campaign are answered, and I have built all that I readily can on the foundation that I've laid. That is, my problem is how to cross the bridge into high-level play.

What I need to do, but never seem to consider when I'm on the spot in a campaign, is flash the timeline forward six months or a year, so that the characters rest on their laurels a bit and enjoy the fruits of their victory, rather than trying to have them move to the next thing in-character. This makes sense to the English majors out there who think of Freytag's pyramid. The adventure that ended mid-level play was a climax. I need to embrace the denouement and let the tension ease off for awhile. This doesn't have to last long - even one whole session might be stretching it. Once the tension has tapered appropriately, I should start in with new exposition, either picking up on earlier threads or introducing new ones. Instead, I try to jump from the climax to a new rising action.

A campaign's structure plays into this dynamic as well. For these purposes, I think there are four structure choices (if you can think of more, tell me):

  • Serial Drama: This structure has fallen a bit out of favor in the online communities I frequent, where it's seen as an invitation to railroading. It can be that, if the GM isn't careful, but there's still room for intricately-plotted games. In some of the best games, players gradually solve the GM's intricate puzzles and hurl themselves against challenges that push both players and characters to their limits. (For more about the virtues of this style in contrast to pure sandbox play, read here.)
  • Character Drama: This kind of game is driven by the drama of the primary characters rather than external conflict. Hillfolk and Smallville are notable cases of this kind. The GM may be little more than an impartial adjudicator of conflicts. There usually are still NPCs (in the tabletop implementation of this structure); their main point is to apply new pressures to the relationship dynamics between the main characters.
  • Procedural Drama: Depending on how you look at it, a lot of dungeon crawls could just about slide into procedural structure, but GUMSHOE-family games like Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues are great examples of this. (If you're noticing how much Pelgrane shows up in these categories of structure, then you've got a pretty good understanding of what makes Pelgrane tick: experimentation with structure is their bag.)
    • There are a lot of good and useful advice about procedurals to be gained from just watching TV shows with an eye toward structure. You're in luck, though: Leverage exists. Also, the show is fucking phenomenal and John Rogers can teach you everything you need to know about building a reversal into every procedural story.
    • Also, Shadowrun. SR, in its many incarnations, is one of the best-known and most popular examples of a game built from the ground up to embrace this structure.
  • Sandbox: The OSR has waxed eloquent about sandbox play, and other bloggers have excessively conflated sandbox with the West Marches style or huge wilderness hexcrawls. The only obligatory element of Sandbox structure - at least as I'm using the term here - is that the GM seeds plots rather than planning outcomes, and lets the currents of emergent play do whatsoever it will (with a judicious eye toward making sure things stay engaging and fun for all involved - Sandbox is not code for absentee GMing).

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Dungeon Remodeling Projects

Not very long ago, I posted a lengthy praise of Below, and in that post I talked about how much I liked the way it lets adventurers alter parts of the dungeon to their own convenience. I may have even waxed a touch loquacious about it. I can't remember the last time I was accused of being concise, though. Anyway, I like the idea enough that I want to suggest more things in this vein that one might use in other dungeon crawls. (These aren't specifically for Below, just dungeon-crawling games in general.)

First, Some Theory

For me, the underlying theory is that making a lasting change in the world emphasizes agency and ownership. The second encounter that takes place in a location takes place in the context of the first, resulting in a richer experience of expectation and informed decision. Film criticism often talks about the setting as a character unto itself; in games this takes on a functional truth, if the players its observe its development over time.

The other great thing about this is that changing the environment can be the main reason for the whole exploration of the dungeon, instead of murdering the inhabitants and gathering up copious lucre. (Because I bet your players have done every possible variety of Just Murder Everything That Moves, and some variety would be nice.) This could be a strong move toward greater campaign themes of repair and renewal. Surprisingly, these are lessons that video game level designers (the Overlord franchise and the Legend of Zelda franchise come to mind; The Sword of the Stars: The Pit touches on these ideas without a full exploration) and Hollywood action flicks (the climax of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug) have implemented most impressively, and now it's time for tabletop games to explore this space. (On the LARP front, Eclipse does some incredible work in exactly this vein.)

Some of you are saying to yourselves, "I go into dungeons to explore - to see new things. Going back to a location and having more encounters there is exactly counter to my goals as a player. Once a room is cleared, why should I have to clear it again?" To this I say a couple of things.
  1. Why are you even mapping this joint if you never care about where you've already been?
  2. I bet you also want the GM to make the dungeon feel "alive." Discovering that monsters can move from one room to another, even rooms you've already seen, is the minimum expression of that point. A dungeon that the players can actively modify is another step on that path.
Anyway. I'm also on record as really liking terrain powers. This is all a continuation of that point.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Module Construction: LARP and Tabletop

In response to this post+Matt Lichtenwalner asked:
LARPing's not my bag, but I am curious about the module building and how it relates to 'traditional' module building.
I don't believe that the main issues I discussed in my previous post (about controlling party size and staging repeaters) matter... really at all to a tabletop module writer. In a tabletop game, 100% of the party usually goes on the module, and they're certainly not going to proceed through the content more than once in anything but outright Groundhog Day plot. The really staggering difference between the adventure writing for LARPs and tabletop games is that LARP modules really don't want to go much past 3-4 encounters, or one running battle with a lot of small encounters. It's just too draining on NPC resources. A tabletop adventure of 3-4 encounters would generally be considered pretty short - enough for one session, or two if your sessions are short. In my experience, tabletop gaming doesn't make heavy use of breaking encounters into multiple waves - something that can be hugely beneficial if the PCs are deeply enamored of alpha-striking or AOEs.

LARP modules also tend to be smaller because the physical locations are smaller, and there are only so many ways you can explore one 40x40 building in a single setup. Of course, some sites are better for module buildings that others - I can't say enough good about how various campaigns have used Indian Springs' barracks buildings, which are large, heated, and have a lot of sturdy walls and posts to anchor tarp and wires. Other sites have pavilions - less in the way of internal anchor points, better for open fighting space. Eclipse and DtD have gotten creative with constructing additional anchoring emplacements, using free-standing PVC pipe structures. Setup takes time and effort in a way that a DM's description doesn't, so having an awesome new idea on the fly is more like l'esprit d'escalier than an opportunity for a new twist. (Sometimes.)

The big lesson that tabletop games can learn from LARPs is that padding an adventure out with fights isn't worthwhile. (I don't know your gaming tastes personally, Matt - this is scattershot commentary on published modules that I've read.) You can have a great module with no fights at all, if you can give the players a clear feeling of both player skill and character skill bringing about victory.

LARP adventures have an advantage of immediacy and tactility. This isn't about how one gaming medium is better than another - they have their strengths and weaknesses, though. Among tabletop games, 4e D&D and Fate are probably the two best for making space and terrain a part of the game the players can really engage and manipulate. LARPing does this intrinsically, though Plot committees are well-served to consider "amplifying" the terrain by adding more features that combatants can manipulate.
Side note: Most of the really obvious uses of modifiable terrain involve moving or upending tables. Safety second first, y'all. Marking areas on the ground, or using clearly pre-defined areas (such as "everything inside the building") is smart - though I'm pretty sure "To the Room" as a targeting tagline is pushing 20 years old now, which makes it one of the oldest tricks in the book that doesn't get all that much use.
The lesson that I would offer to both tabletop and LARP adventure writers is to keep changing it up. There are times when an adventure can involve a string of fights and that's all you need. Mostly, though, a certain amount of variety is everything. As a general rule, avoid using the same kind of encounter twice in a row. The boundaries between one encounter and the next are sometimes hazier in LARPing - for example, the difference between one large trap encounter and two consecutive trap encounters is academic.
Trap encounters: A room crammed with traps is a lot more fun in a LARP than in a tabletop game, because you only bring the trappers (and maybe one dedicated healer) on such an adventure. In a tabletop game, it usually means everyone else catches forty winks while the one rogue in the party rolls a bunch of dice. What I'm saying here is that tabletop games need to get better at making traps interesting at the table - 4e did a bunch of pontificating about this, but didn't fix the problem.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Barrows: A Dust to Dust Boardgame

With constructive and much-appreciated feedback from friends, I've created another boardgame for Dust to Dust. As with its predecessor, and the Duel Arcane, the goal is to create uniquely setting-appropriate ways to pass the time with your friends, mostly using pieces that characters already have a reason to carry on them. Both games use colored stones or beads, and dominoes.

The games mostly see use at in-play parties and our yearly Beerfest event. Yesterday marked our third annual Beerfest, in fact! On such occasions, players also play poker, tarocchi (using DtD's Tarot of Dust - it works fine despite the differences), Liar's Dice, Go, classic dominoes games, Three Stones, and Cornhole (better known in DtD as Choke the Dragon... ahem). Anyway, the point is that we set out to make games-within-the-game a significant part of world culture. On one hand, it's convenient if players have ways of staying in character and entertaining themselves at the same time, and if that inspires them to stage tournaments or do some betting, so much the better. On the other, we really like to challenge player skills in as many different ways as possible, and establishing competitive games as part of the world's context means that rivalries with NPCs and some other conflicts can be resolved through games - a tolerably common device in other media. It has the benefit of being incredibly clear who has won.

Having lots of games that specifically involve dominoes is useful as protective camouflage for secret ritualists. Carrying dominoes isn't evidence of wizardly ability in the setting.

At the start of our third season, I would say that a few players have bought deeply into these peripheral games, but most of the players have played only rarely, if at all. Games that aren't DtD-specific have a slightly better penetration rate among the playerbase, for obvious reasons of familiarity; also, games that support large numbers of players are fated to do well, while the games I've created are two-player games by default and we haven't really tested their expansibility. I have been happy to hear that people enjoy Stones of the Wall; its mental gymnastics are kind of interesting from turn to turn.

By way of improving my own capacity to design in the existing constraints, I have some thoughts on what is holding back player adoption. I recognize this as a revolting level of navel-gazing, but for God's sake, it's a blog. If I weren't a raving egotist I wouldn't have started it, much less maintained it this long.

I think the main problem is that, while dominoes and colored stones are accessible and portable, they're sort of a lot of work to set up if you might need to drop what you're doing at a moment's notice - rather worse than a deck of cards, though definitely not worse than a deck of cards plus either chips or cash. Bones-and-stones are bulkier to carry around than a normal deck of playing cards, and those who aren't playing ritualists probably haven't customized their costuming to make sure they can comfortably carry bones. These points we could nominally address by placing complete game sets in common areas, though the odds are reasonably good that we'd have to replace the sets of bones because one or two would go missing if those using them weren't careful.

If I come up with more games - and that is by no means guaranteed, I just make new games when I have new ideas - I might try to improve portability somehow. I'm not sure how I'd do that, other than making a new Tarot card game. That, of course, runs into the fact that there are still relatively few Tarot of Dust decks in circulation. I have comparatively little interest in making a game that uses a 52-card deck, as that has no particular connection to DtD; even the use of four suits clashes with DtD's 3/5/7/9 numerology.

I would like to use things that the player adventuring types are likely to have on them anyway. That was the initial idea behind using dominoes, of course; I'm not sure there's anything equally universal without making a game out of coin-flipping (as I seem to recall Daniel Solis may have done). Maybe spell packets or rope (well, a few characters carry a classic fifty-foot coil).

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Below: A StoryNexus Dungeon Crawl

The Bellringer's Tomb

For the past few weeks, I've gotten back into Below and Fallen London (formerly known as Echo Bazaar), two browser-based choose-your-own-adventure games. I've mentioned Echo Bazaar reasonably often in this blog, though it's been awhile; I think my hiatus from the game ran nearly two years. I had a "first round" with Below as well; it impressed me at the time, but I've gotten a much deeper sense for it this time around. It's still in Beta; I've been admitted to the Closed Beta (all it takes is asking, because the creator seems pretty relaxed and groovy), and with permission, I'm commenting on it here. I want to emphasize that its Closed-Beta state and, apparently, some of the StoryNexus engine limitations are a full and sufficient answer to the criticisms I have of the game.

The general structure of Below's conditions and items has a certain sympathy - not 1:1, but sympathy - with the rules of Mouse Guard and Torchbearer; more distantly, also a modest connection to Dungeon World. Its tone is probably closer to Mouse Guard than anything else; it decisively does not share Torchbearer's sense of inevitable failure. The game has an interesting approach to achievement-based advancement: experience points come from a variety of sources (especially failure), while achievements in the game grant the right to purchase benefits. Most of these purchases don't improve ability scores at all, but reduce the cost of various actions or grant benefits under certain conditions. Character class advancement is a bit more of a direct upgrade, though the ability score increases are punishingly expensive.

The Good

Let's see. Well, the price is right, that's for sure. Like all StoryNexus games, the game is free-to-play, with the option to purchase "Nex" and spend it on extra actions. The pressure to spend, such as it is, comes from 20-minute action timer (but in a lot of cases one "action" is actually three separate events). I appreciate free-to-play games that take a casual approach to their sales drive; if your content is worth my money and you haven't ruined the experience with badgering me for my precious lucre, I will part with it and thank you for the privilege.

Below is a game about dungeon-crawling, but not about combat. The world is a dangerous place - there are creatures that might kill you, among other problems - but there are no random combat encounters, and it's generally easier to solve the major quests without violence. Paradoxically, this makes the dungeon more frightening - the tension-release of victory over an enemy is rare, and I found the whole approach surprisingly immersive. Ultimately, your life and death are determined not by injury, but by courage - this lets the writers phrase failures as something other than injury, and recovery as something other than physical healing.

The game's setting, though, is what has grabbed my attention by the throat. It is strongly realized with bold strokes: a fantasy setting closely modeled on Saxon England (but touching on all of the parts of Saxon England that Tolkien didn't), under the threat of Danish raiders. There are monsters as well: talking wolves who love riddle-games, the Morlock-like scarrow who crave the scent of gold and steal memories from the marrow of bones they consume, giants in the earth. There is a deity called the Lord of Tolls, a pastiche of medieval Christianity; the first dungeon (there will be several someday, but right now there's only the one) focuses on the story of the god and his most notable saint, the Bellringer. A "pagan" god also features centrally in the tale, a bull-of-kingship type that creates, let's say, an awkward situation for one of the playable characters (a young priest of the Lord of Tolls). The setting is a well-rendered pastiche that establishes its own idioms, in the way that Astro City is a pastiche of comics.

As a dungeon crawl, the action obviously takes place in the dungeon, with occasional withdrawals to the nearby village to recover from conditions and spend experience. At the same time, the character recovers from loss of Spirit (courage, that is) by experiencing flashbacks of home and childhood, recalling bonds with family and a tutor. These flashbacks allow the broader setting threat to advance, as the passage of time allows the Sea-Kings (the aforementioned Vikings) to demand tribute, creating complications in the tale. The character can also attend an althing, celebrate at a summer fair, or visit the witch that Harrow's Hill, all of which can affect the character's statistics after the fact. In itself, it is an interesting non-linear story; for the game as a whole it provides emotional contrast and explores what the character is struggling to save.

The two characters currently available for play are very cool: a male priest (or maybe a monk, I'm a little hazy on that) and a smith's daughter who has learned her father's trade (in some contravention of social norms, apparently). The two characters have their individual strengths, and thanks to the game's card-driven exploration mechanics, a number of cards open up options unique to one or the other. Thus far I've only played the cleric, but Kainenchen has been playing the smith and I've gotten to hear about some of her escapades.

The thing that kind of blew my mind might be common in tabletop games, but if it is, I haven't heard about it: there are fixed points in the dungeon that the player can modify and upgrade. The sense of player ownership is something new and different to me, especially powerful for its contrast with the foreign, unknowable, uncontrolled nature of the rest of the dungeon. This is the number-one point that other games should explore; if you're interested in Philotomy's ideas on the dungeon as a mythic underworld and wellspring of chaos, this emphasizes the explorer as an agent of order, creating definition from the void. Returning to a place you've been before extends its feeling of objective reality.

Even bad things are still indirectly good in the game, because there's no such thing as bad content if the point is to explore. Dropping to 1 Spirit is good for you, if you can escape the dungeon, because it unlocks a useful Reputation; dropping below 1 Spirit kills you, but death is an interesting state and doesn't lock you out of playing the game, even if it does make the game a little harder. Letting the Sea-Kings advance and do terrible things to your home village causes Complications in your quest, so it slows down your completion of the game... but this is not a good game to try to speed-run, and it seems like it also unlocks alternate and better versions of some Surface cards. I've had a hard time learning this lesson in the game, because twenty-one years of gaming has taught me to look for "optimal" play and to assume bad things happening will spoil my fun - but that's just not how it works here.

It is a social game, but in a very laid-back way: Surface cards and map cooperation let you and a friend benefit equally (if not identically). Its only problem is the same in Fallen London - there's no way within the game to meet people you don't already know. Below works perfectly well without any interaction with other players; the content that you miss is minor. Having played a lot of games that put hard barriers in your way that can only be resolved by pestering your friends, I appreciate this immensely - and no matter what Marketing says, don't underestimate the power of players feeling genuine goodwill toward the game. Think of all the games whose praises I have not sung in this blog! (It should be obvious enough that mention in this blog is the best and highest goal of game developers everywhere. It's not "barely known," it's "rarefied.")