Friday, March 29, 2013

How Do I Design a Dungeon?


I hadn't planned on posting this article for quite a while, but it turns out that two days ago Alex Shroeder just started this year's One Page Dungeon Contest.  If you want to take a look at some past winners, click here.  I've been secretly working on my own dungeon game for the last nine months, and have accumulated a lot of good advice.  Not all of it is applicable to the one page dungeon contest, but I feel it has helped me in my quest to make a better game.  I will share that advice with you here: 

  • Dungeons ought to have an area where lack of light is an issue.  For example, dripping ceilings that get torches wet or wind that blows them out or even low oxygen areas or flooded tunnels.
  • At least 1 item/effect per 2-3 levels should have some kind of lasting and tangible effect on at least one PC.
  • Add ledges, overlooks, and peaks to create three dimensions in your design.  This will also give your players a chance to exercise their cleverness to get around.
  • Don’t aim for the stars on your first dungeon design.  You will build up ideas and the ability to create more elaborate maps as you go thru the process several times.
  • Don’t get too caught up in making your dungeon subtly random, irregular, or odd.  Be obvious with what’s unusual.
  • Food and drink should be fairly abundant for the most part, but it doesn’t have to be delicious.  Mmmm…Rats!
  • Make your dungeon used.  Have sections where there is some obvious repair/expansion work being done or evidence of a collapse.  This will break up the monotony and provide cover during fights.
  • If this is your 1st time, or even your 20th, there’s nothing wrong w/looking at old dungeons you love & copying features.
  • Implied threats are as effective at real threats at times.  Create false leads and ominous doorways that make PCs think twice.
  • Items found in dungeons are not meant to be permanent.  Find ways to keep a circulation of items going- whether that’s sacrificing them to earn favor with a subterranean race or to an idol to get a better/different item in return.
  • Mini-goals and side quests are necessary for design.  Keep the people outside the dungeon important to what’s happening inside the dungeon.
  • Monsters can and should retreat- not everything should be a pitched battle to the death.
  • Most of the sentient races are far more interested in having a slave than killing adventurers.
  • Not everything should cost blood or gold.  Things can cost honor, time, obligations, and other resources.
  • Propose lots of different problems- including coins and items that can’t be easily divided among the group.  Making these decisions is part of the dungeon-delving experience.
  • Realism: for some groups this really matters, for others it’s superfluous.  Know your audience.
  • Resist the temptation to maximize the use of your graph paper. There should be plenty of it that can’t be explored (i.e. solid rock).
  • Re-use old space.  Make items, objects, and locations that are in the upper levels relevant to what’s in the lower levels.
  • Show the players they aren’t the first ones there- have bodies/treasure of other dead heroes placed in your dungeon in various places.
  • The entrance does not always have to be at the edge of the paper.  Start in the middle sometimes.
  • There should be no need to hyper-charge the monsters in your dungeon.  The additional difficulty of your encounters should come from the hazards & relationships innately present in the dungeon.
  • Think about what other monsters might join a fight or run to sound an alarm.
  • Think logically.  Many dungeons will have a common, public area with “work” areas or “living” areas as off-shoots.
  • Thresholds are important in mythology and in RPGs.  There should be hard challenges that unlock the next area/level.
  • Understand that details will change over time.  Don’t be afraid to retcon something to improve the campaign if everyone can agree to it.
  • Understand that some of your mysteries and plots won’t be followed by the players. That’s okay, proceed with consequences.
  • Variety is critical: don’t put 1 monster per PC in every room.   Make most encounters lopsided for one side or the other.  This will stretch your players- and reward them!
  • Wreck your own dungeon: have explosions, traps, cave-ins, wars, experiments, etc. permanently alter the geography of the dungeon during play at least once.
  • Your dungeon will feel more immersive it if looks like it was designed by nature or for a specific purpose by an intelligent being and not designed just for a game.
There ya go!  If you’re a dungeon style gamer, hopefully these will help.  Comments and questions, as always, are welcome.



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What are the Different Types of Rules?


Recently, in an article entitled “What are the Three Timescales in RPGs?” I tossed around a couple words without defining them.  I’ve gone back to that article and linked it to the future, to this article where I explain them.  I should have defined them then, so I’m making up for it now.  The two terms I’m talking about are Directives and Procedures.

Directives, or directional rules, are general guidelines for play.  Basically, directives answer the first question of the Big Three: What is this game about?  Directives rely on a player’s ability to cooperatively work with the group toward a mutual goal.  They set up the parameters in the Social Contract for what is acceptable play and what is not.  Some directives are big.  They give advice on how to play the game from a top-down point of view.  I call them macro-directives.

Some examples:
-Dungeons and Dragons: Kill monsters and take their stuff.
-Dogs in the Vineyard: Rid a town of sin and vice.
-Sorcerer: Feed your demon while not sacrificing your humanity.
-Prime Time Adventures: Explore a theme using a TV/Movie as inspiration.
-Vampire: The Eternal Struggle: Explore what it’s like to be a vampire.
-My Life With Master: Escape from a dysfunctional relationship.
-Apocalypse World: Decide what you’re willing to sacrifice to get what you need.
-Inspectres: Solve a supernatural crime while competing against other agencies.

This can sometimes be called the “object” of the game, but I think some designers would have a problem with the connotation of that word. 

Directives give context to all the other rules.  Combat mechanics in D&D wouldn’t make much sense without a dungeon to explore.  The humanity rules in Sorcerer are empty without the demon your character bound. 

Directives can also be advice on how to portray something on the micro scale.  For instance, think of the reams of literature about Forgotten Realms.  There’s plenty of advice out there on how a DM should play someone like Elminster or Drizzt.  Alignment rules in AD&D is another example of a micro-directive: “This is what Lawful Neutral means…”  For a more indie-centric example, think about resorting to your pistol in Dogs in the Vineyard: it is a big deal and the rules say you should only do it when something is VITALLY important to you.  The mechanics on what to do when someone loses their Humanity in Sorcerer are also micro-directives. 
Sometimes, directives are called “play advice” or “guidance” within a text.  If you know them by that name, you should understand what I’m talking about.

I think directives are the hard part of an RPG.  If the combat rules don’t work, it’s easy to see.   If you accidentally skipped a step during Chargen, the oversight will become evident during play.  But missing that DitV is not a guns-blazing style western RPG or that if you are playing Prime Time Adventures to see what it would be like to live in the Buffyverse, you’re doing it wrong are easy mistakes to make.

Procedures, on the other hand, are much more concrete.  Procedures are step-by-step mechanics that lead the players through some kind of process in order to produce something.  Chargen is an example.  So are combat mechanics, task resolution, conflict resolution, spell casting, recuperation, leveling up, conch shell narration, and so on.

Some examples from games:
-D&D: Combat
-Capes: Narration Rules
-Call of Cthullu: Sanity Checks
-Dogs in the Vineyard: Town Creation
-Shock: Conflict Resolution
-Rolemaster: Resistance Roll
-Ars Magica: Troupe Generation

That list is hardly exhaustive, even within those games.  The typical game will have many different procedures, each with its own end product. 

I think procedures are easier for new players to grasp since they are (usually) laid out in a coherent way with bulleted lists, numbered steps, and sometimes visual representations.  Small aspects of procedures can be confused by players at first, but after a few sessions they will usually iron out all the bugs.

So what are the pitfalls of each?

For directives, you must be consistent and your procedures must support them.  You cannot tell the players to portray their characters one way then give them mechanics that incentivize doing the exact opposite.  The classic example of this is D&D and the number of Heartbreakers that imitated it.  Let me cite an example from one of my own games.

In the Core Rules for Ember Twilight, we include a play advice section.  In that section we talk about heroes are flawed people in literature and legend.  Then we admonish players to keep that in mind as they play.  But we didn’t give them any mechanics to support that play.  Consequently, this advice was almost always ignored by the players.  When they did follow it, it was usually just by accident.
For procedures, you must be clear and they must reinforce your directives.  Making procedures understandable is one of the hardest parts of game design to master because it requires good writing skills.  I’ve talked about how to design good mechanics in “How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics” part 1 and part 2

Procedures often benefit from having examples, anecdotes, charts, and/or illustrations to help.  Not everyone can learn just by reading a set of instructions, so including fun anecdotes or graphics can be a big help. 

Also, you must design procedures that actually do what you want them to do.  If you want negotiation to be a big part of the interaction between players at the table, you cannot have a procedure for checking the success of a negotiation be something as simple as “Roll a d100.  If the result is less than your Charisma stat, you succeed.”  You need to set up a procedure that creates a back-and-forth dialogue between two or more players and incentivizes them to narrate what their characters say.  Always go back and double check your procedures to make they actually support the kind of play you envisioned for your game.



Friday, March 01, 2013

Spell Books - A Lament


I’m not sure how many more Laments I have left (which is a good thing!).I’m not done, but I’m getting close.If you have not read my laments on Spell Components, Alignment, Troupe Play, and Magic Items, I would encourage you to do so. They aren’t required reading for this article, but all of them go together.

On to my topic!

Aren’t spell books the most iconic and at the same time least iconic thing in fantasy gaming? Think of all the genres of fantasy games the incorporate spell books in a significant way: D&D, EverQuest, Magic: The Gathering, etc. But in the end, what role do these prodigious tomes actually play in a typical gaming session? Answer: almost none. In fact, they are sometimes more of an inconvenience than an important feature of play.

That’s what I’m here to talk about today- how spell books are a key component of the fantasy RPG genre but at the same time almost universally marginalized during the action at the table. So what can spell books do? Historically, spells books in the most popular FRPGs (fantasy role playing games) have just been a collection of spells a wizard character memorizes at the beginning of the day then is stuffed in the backpack and left unused until the next morning. It always bugged me that spell books were treated this way.For characters with remarkably high Intelligence stats, wizards seemed to have really lousy memories.

I’ve considered this problem many times. There are three interesting ways I think spell books could be used that I want to touch on today: focus items, absorption devices, and advancement tools.

The first way is probably the simplest and least original, but at least it’s something. Spell books can be used as focus items. What this means to me is that when the character is reading from the spell book as he casts a spell, the player gets some kind of bonus. This could be a bonus toward success, an augmentation of the spell’s mechanical effect, an augmentation of the spell’s fictional effect, and/or the preservation of some other consumable resource. In these cases, the spellcaster should probably have to hold the book in both hands. Thus he is giving up the ability to hold weapons, shields, potions, or other items that might come in handy. The book provides a bonus, but it also has a cost- an opportunity cost. This is a simple thing that most FRPGs could add without significantly changing the game’s mechanics.

The second way is for the spell book to be a type of absorption device.Magic is brutal. It is primeval. It should not be benign in its use. One way to represent that is to have magic require some sort of tribute. The best way to explain this, maybe, is with examples.

Imagine a wizard wants to cast a healing spell. Rather than memorize an incantation and a few hand gestures from his spell book, imagine if the wizard had to go and find a plant with healing properties. Like aloe or athalas. The wizard would then dig up the plant, mix it with some kind of reagent, and then place it between two of the pages in his grimoire. The properties of the plant would then be infused in his book for a one-time use later. If he wanted to have five healing spells available, he’d have to kill five plants.

Let’s take this a step further. Imagine a spell casting duel.One wizard casts a fireball at the other.The target of the fireball chooses to try to block with his spell book. With specially prepared pages open and ready, he holds the book in front of him to block the orb of flame. If the player’s roll (or currency spending, card flipping, or whatever) is successful, the fireball will have no effect and is instead inscribed for a one-time use later.

Let’s take it ANOTHER step further. Let’s say our wizard friend wants to be able to cast a resurrection spell. What kind of tribute would the spell book require then? Interesting to think about, eh?

Finally, spell books could be used as actual books of knowledge.Character advancement can be a tricky thing. In many FRPGs including my own Ember Twilight and of course classic D&D, your character gains a bunch of XP then one day, boom!, he’s leveled up and better than before. This is just fine for games with a more tactical focus.Who needs in-game causality? But for some games, where the fiction is important, spell books (and their kin) can play a role.

What if characters had to accumulate the spell books of other wizards to learn new spells? Or study tomes and manuscripts from philosophers, naturalists, and sages gain a better understanding of the arcane arts? Spell books could then form a library the player-character uses to improve his craft. It would make the ever-present but barely justified “wizard’s library”motif more meaningful for the players. The books would have some mechanical weight rather than a place to find clues to the next encounter or quest. Wizards would have a reason to pile up tomes on nature, minerals, anatomy, and mysticism that are often thrown into campaigns without any explanation of how all these encyclopedias are actually used.

It would take some work by the designer. And it would take a lot of buy-in by the players to accept such a narration-centered method of character advancement, but I believe it could be fun. And at the very least, it would make the PC’s collection of books more personal and meaningful.

Are these ideas the only ways to make spell books more mechanically significant in an RPG? Nope! I could write for days about different ideas. This article is not prescriptive so much as it is descriptive. I’m describing how something can be important and yet barely used in many FRPGs, and then suggesting that designers do something to change that.

Oh, and one more thing. This idea is not limited just to spell books. What about technical manuals in a sci-fi or post-apocalyptic setting? What about lore books in a contemporary vampire setting? What about lab reports in a mutant/superhero RPG? All of these things are takes on spell books and can be used in ways similar to what I’ve described above.

When designing spell books (or their kin) in your RPG, think about how you can make them more personal for the players. How can you make them care about their tomes more than other games?  How can you make them special or memorable? If you can answer that question, I think your game will be improved.