On the Digital Creation of Worlds for Play

I have been coping using video games, not just mediocre ones like the PathfinderAdventure Game.

I did a fair bit of programming in the past. I got into programming because I was worried that they wouldn't make the kind of games I liked it the future. It was around 2004 when I realized that I didn't have anything to worry about.

The game industry is huge. Like, billions huge. Much like role-playing games and tabletop games, the return on your investment in video games can usually be pretty large. You can play a game for hundreds or even thousands of hours with a single purchase. The value there is pretty high. Even if you buy new AAA titles and just play them to completion, you're often only paying a dollar or so an hour of gameplay.

However, I find that the actual time I spend actually playing the game is simply a fraction of the time spent sitting in front of the game. Is this true for other people? I find it's true of most games for me, though not all. It certainly isn't a bad thing.

Playing the game means making significant choices. Just walking from one place to another in the game isn't really playing. Waiting for loading screens isn't playing. Micromanaging things isn't playing.

Hearthstone is the type of game where the gameplay is nearly as full as it can be of significant choices. Sometimes it can take people a long time until they even realize what significance their choices make.

Hearthstone is an exhausting game to play.

I can manage an hour before I have to quit. To wit: I finish each season between ranks 8-5. I keep a win rate around 65-70%. It's only that good because I don't start climbing the ladder till the good players have already done it, and generally am playing bad players during that climb. It also helps that I play almost exclusively late at night, when I'm fresh and other players are tired. Things change around rank 5. Not only do you need to play as many games to get from rank 5 to legend as it took to reach rank 5, the quality of play is superlative.

You have 90 seconds on your turn and 90 seconds on your opponent's turn to decide amongst all the lines of play. For the entire length of the game you are thinking.

So with most games, I'm not looking to make significant choices every second. I'm looking to relax. There's a lot I don't want to think about.

That's why I have so many hours in Grim Dawn. It's a meditative exercise.

Grim Dawn is an action-rpg in the vein of Sacred or Titan Quest. There's no randomization of environments. You make all your choices about what kind of character you want within a few hours and the rest is filling in the points and constellations as you acquire them. Most of the game is filled with trash mobs that you only kill to level your character. There's a lot of farming involved for materials and favor with certain groups.

But that's the point. The farming isn't to be avoided. The farming is the point of play. Those systems exist to give you a reason to farm. Moving across the map and killing trash mobs is rhythmic calm, punctuated by the occasional rewarding event.

The shield warden moves like this:
Forcewave, charge, shieldbash, orleon's rage, hit, hit, hit, forcewave, shieldbash, hit hit hit.

Forcewave damages the armor, charge closes the distance, shieldbash stuns, rage does massage damage against a single opponent and each hit adds a charge on savagery. That motion, that rhythm.

Each combination of classes has their own hypnotic rhythm. This is. . . incredibly difficult to pull off from a game design standpoint. There are a lot of action-rpg's out there, and very few that master making the sequences and feedback so rewarding.

It's good in a lot of ways others aren't. It isn't endless. Characters have an end (level 85). Unlike Diablo 3, you can't just keep going forever and forever. Being able to finish a character and move on is a good thing, leading you to new experiences. It has a significant amount of hidden content. Because the entire game is crowd funded over the course of several years, they weren't beholden to a board of producers, allowing them to create large hidden areas and dungeons.

It's also not embryonic. They just released a small free expansion and more are coming, but it feels like a complete game. They don't always.

Total War: Warhammer came out recently and barring a rocky few hours after release, is a real pleasure to play. There are a few minor bugs and quibbles. For example: reinforcements come from a random direction which ruins the replay function. But it allows you to have large warhammer fantasy type battles, while moving around and leveling up your leader guy. It's well done and a lot of fun.

But even so, it seems a little empty. Clearly the 9 free downloaded content's planned, plus whatever other dlc and content they release points to that. You can play as the dwarves, vampire counts, orcs, empire, or chaos. But where are the lizard men? Where are the squigs? Where are the skaven? Where are the wood elves? Where are the beastmen? Where are the other mages?

They know those things are missing, because a lot of those are already announced to be downloaded content.

It's a good game, you can really tell they poured their heart and soul into it. Each race flings different items from the city towers. Dwarves fling kegs wrapped inexplosives.  and brettonia, well, fires this. Sometimes when the orcs sack your settlement, they leave you a present.

Another game on the not ready for prime time side of empty is Stellaris. I have no doubt they will continue to update it as time goes on, with a new patch coming out every month. But right now, the game is a bit of a mess, with some wild balance issues. It also contains one of my biggest issues with space game, the lack of terrain. It leads to a certain playstyle. 

There's others of course. X-Com 2 is basically a version of X-Com that fixed the satellite problem, more customizability, and better mod support. Fallout 4 is the most linear fallout yet with pretty significant changes in design philosophy. I'm also happy I finally get to play with the international version of Final Fantasy X, using the international sphere grid. I remember looking online and trying to figure out what I would have to do to run a European copy.

Like I figured out earlier. I didn't have anything to worry about.


Hack & Slash 

On the Monster Conversation

I read an excellent post on Dungeon Fantastic by Peter V. Dell'Orto about players negotiating with monsters. 
  
GURPS uses an objective mechanical interface for social encounters. This isn't too common in the old school world. It was really refreshing to hear from someone else using objective social mechanics in play. What's interesting is the wildly different experiences he has.

It, ostensibly, is about errors players make during negotiations with monsters. This is a whole knot of complexity, but I don't think anything players choose to do in play is an error because I don't have an outcome in mind.

Errors players make during negotiations:
  • Not negotiating
  • Negotiating from imagined strength
  • Negotiating from weakness
  • Demanding one-way trust


These points are expanded on in his post. Not negotiating is always fighting to the death. Negotiating from imagined strength is acting as if the monsters can't challenge the party. The original article is worth reading.

This doesn't match my experience of play at all. And it's not just with the groups that know me. My players are constantly aware of dangers. They know they can't do the above things. Well, they can, but it probably ends up with someone in the party dying.

Critical hits did this also this week with their piece "Realism vs. GenreConventions" by guest poster Jon Lemich. He says:

"There’s an illusion of threat, but how often does the party really lose a fight? Even if the GM doesn’t fudge any die rolls, they’re still building encounters that are designed for your party to win. That’s illusionism, too; and so is fudging die rolls: The decision not to flee from combat against the wandering monster has no consequences if the GM fudges the dice to prevent a TPK from a pointless random encounter, but rolling behind the screen, the players don’t know you’re fudging the dice, so you preserve the tension if you do it we."

I feel like an alien on an alien planet.

Let's start at the top. How often does the party really lose a fight? I've been part of two total party kills since spring. Once as the Dungeon Master and once as a player. So, like, frequently?

Who is still building encounters designed for the party to win? I mean, pathfinder players, sure. Anyone who wants to run a combat gauntlet. But what part of "the party should win this encounter" is part of the design? The introductory adventure for 5th edition contains multiple deadly encounters. No one was expected to win the Venomfang fight.

Have we not exhaustively covered the territory of why random encounters aren't pointless? Haven't we exhaustively covered the topic of how players can tell that you're fudging dice, because you're not a trained actor/liar?

Negotiation


My experiences with the players and monster negotiations have been different. First, players talk with anything that isn't immediately attacking them, because talking is safer  and more productive than fighting. They don't have to be encouraged to negotiate. It's usually the first thing they try to do. (In more than one instance, players have said, "It's attacking us? Are you sure we can't talk to it?". Once they even used their turn in combat, just to make sure that it wouldn't converse.)

Even when vastly outnumbering the opponents they choose to parley because of the risk that reinforcements could be called. They know they have a reputation and that even if an enemy is weak, there's always more enemies than party members.

Players are nervous around monsters because they never know what they can do. When you randomize abilities and have creatures like undead and dragons that can have unknown abilities players become very cautious.

Second, they never feel like they are so much stronger than the monsters that they can 'not negotiate'. I give them the target number of whatever they are trying to negotiate for; they don't choose to negotiate from imagined strength. And because of the way relationships work, I've seen them build trust with factions and individuals.

I'm not putting the blame on Peter here. Clearly the baseline expectation of most gamers is different and somewhat shocking when exposed to this different playstyle. Someone out there is creating encounters that the players are designed to win.

Even in my set encounters, there's a high variability in encounter numbers. It's possible they might run into only a few creatures, or maybe a lot of them. This isn't even counting wandering encounters from creatures nearby that might be attracted to the sounds of a fight or people talking, nor random encounters from creatures indigenous to the area.

I don't know about other people, but specifically what and how many are encountered is unknown to me. I decide the creatures, yes. But generally the range of the encounter goes from completely trivial to unwinnable fight.

What I am saying is that these aren't mistakes. They are natural outgrowths of behavior in the players due to their environment. I'm assuming Peter talks about these being mistakes because they aren't successful tactics for the players. But as a Dungeon Master, that's not my problem. My problem is running a responsive and living game world, which very quickly visits negative consequences on people who do such stupid things when talking about monsters.

I'm not talking about punishing anyone or playing "mother may I" or any of the other quick accusations. Sometimes mechanically the players can get away with tactics such as these. But, much like other things you can get away with, the cost comes around sooner or later, just due to the way the world works.



Hack & Slash 

On the Coming Hell

Perdition is coming.

Soon, possibly even as soon as you read this. So far, I've done a lot of playtesting. My Sunday group, who I have been playing with the longest, had a few things to say.

"Cleaning up trash turned out to be way more fun then I ever thought it could be," and "I was kind of surprised that there wasn't more brimstone and hellfire."

You see, Perdition isn't about a medieval version of hell. Not only is that not very frightening, it's almost like a theme park for modern gamers. Demons to kill, cool backgrounds, etc.

Perdition is about hell.

Perdition is about being in line at Starbucks, while you are late for work and the lady in front of you is getting out her checkbook.
 Perdition is being camping and having 8% charge left on your phone and getting into a fight with your girlfriend over text.
 Perdition is about living in america and getting sick.

Perdition is about real hell, and like my players said: It sounds terrible, but it's way more fun then it has any right to be.

I'd like to talk about specifics.

Specifics


I'm a huge fan of hirelings and henchmen in play. I've often discovered, once characters reach the middle levels (5+) they tend to slow down and complicate play. (E.g. "Hey, can't bob's four guys take a swing at this thing too?") This isn't a new insight, modern D&D hasn't encouraged retainers, hirelings, and henchmen since first edition.

But I really like them.

So, originally I came up with the Strong and Weak Henchmen Force, which retains the usefulness of hirelings while reducing the upkeep involved. This evolved into an entourage system. Simply, your retainers provide mechanical advantage, your henchmen, companions, and other high tier followers provide additional actions that their controlling player shares as a group in combat. This turned into something I really like!

Charisma becomes a statistic on par with physical and mental characteristics. Your hirelings get to die bloody deaths as monsters target them trying to make you an easier target to hit. You still get to use them logistically, making Tod the elf walk down the hall first, if he likes you enough. And, you support pet/summoner/necromancer playstyles without the player overshadowing the action economy.

Perdition is idiosyncratic Dungeons & Dragons, so things like this steal very easy into other games.

Another thing that's exciting to me is how exploration, stress, and the overloaded encounter die work together to enforce interesting decisions often overlooked in basic/expert or 1st edition style play.

Did you know you're supposed to rest one turn out of six while exploring in basic? I've played a lot of basic/expert in my time and I don't recall that ever happening.

In Perdition, your carrying capacity is limited by your strength (the OSR equipment slot system). And as you explore and roll the encounter die, you acquire stress. As stress accumulates, you become more aware of your environment, quicker to act and respond, and more prepared for unforeseen events. Left unaddressed this stress can explode during certain events or die rolls. This can give characters with weak minds certain permanent negative traits, such as paranoia, gluttony, or claustrophobia.

How do you get rid of stress? Taking a turn to rest and consume rations. After several thousand rolls of the encounter die, this turns out to taking about one turn out of six to rest, and makes the decision about what you're actually going to carry (considering you need to carry rations, light sources, etc.) much more meaningful. There's also this wonderful push-pull that goes on, where stress provides a natural escalation in combat. As things get worse and people die, stress goes higher and helps you (mechanically) in combat, but when it explodes it can cause a cascade of negative effects, ensuring even powerful characters have to be mindful.

It makes exploration harrowing because it should be, players never forget about it because of the bonuses, it increases engagement and reduces complacency because of the risk and escalation possibilities.

You know what I hate? Character builds.

Why? Because the whole point of a "build" is that it leads to some sort of leveraged advantage. Basically, before the builds 'come online', you are just sort of a normal party, fighting encounters. But once the build activates, whole sections and types of challenges become trivial. This forces the game master to continue to look for ways to challenge the party that don't all walk into the ginsu of the build, and also avoiding sending encounter after encounter that just happen to strike at the parties weakness.

But players love fiddly bits, so I put fiddly bits in for the players! They don't slow down character creation, and if you can take a type of fiddly bit, you can take any one of them. All characters start off doing whatever it is they do effectively. They don't need to find some "build". When they level up, they get to pick new things.  No prerequisites. No level requirements. No building. Just new toys. Players love new toys.

How is this possible? The game is based off Basic/Expert. The rules for the gameplay in Perdition take up less than 30 pages. The math is very flat. Characters can get whatever new abilities they want, because it doesn't make them suddenly overpowered. It just gives them a new thing they can do or allows them to do something a little better. Part of the reason this works so well are all the different vectors available to the players. Do you want to smash things? Blast them with magic? Talk them down? Strike at their mind? It's unlikely that you'll be good at all of those things, or protected from all of them. Those vectors make encounters and combat interesting.

The book isn't short by any means. There's 15 pages of devil/demon specific rules, 10 pages of equipment and ('ahem') nearly 150 pages devoted to spells, summons, classes and class abilities for players. All idiosyncratic and unique. You're not getting another copy of the same spells and classes that you already own. 

I also had to make room for all the art by Heather Gwinn, Matthew Adams, Russ Nicholson, Michael Ralston, and Marcin S. Look at that amazing list of artists!

It's exciting! Fiendish patrons, wards, sigils, and breaking magic, critical ruin and derangement, mutations, unique summons, shapechanging, psionic powers, social attacks, titanic agonicmorphs, fighting styles, summoning and binding demons, politics managed by the vile conclave, hats, social influence, possession, alchemy, and, well, lots more!


Because it's a clone, conversion is trivial, and can be handled on the fly. So any of the great adventures or settings released interface just fine with Perdition, for what might be a Spicy Meatball

I'm excited to see you in hell!


Hack & Slash 

On the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

Going to be a little bit negative today, but that's been a little bit of a theme in my life lately. I'm sure you can handle the salt. 

Let's talk about the Pathfinder Adventure Card game for a moment.

Do you like the card game war? You know, you and a friend each take half a deck of cards because you are out of whisky and flip them over until someone gets a high number?

What if you could skin the card game war with a pseudo-renaissance fantasy skin, and have one side use dice to get a higher number than the card side? What then? Wait.

Hold everything.

I've got it.

You tell game stores that they can't hold organized play events unless they also devote a night to playing your adventure card game!

Starting


Some people are into long linear sequences of combat with the game master as ad hoc computron resolution system. But what if, you know, you could remove the game master?

Well with the Pathfinder adventure card game you can!*
*Sort of!

Technically anyway. You don't need anyone to run the game. You do need someone to stand their and watch the players and write down what they do. Or at least, that was the expectation at Gencon.

Why am I talking about this? A digital version came out, and it's of a place near to my hard cold heart. So I gave it a download.

I'm not really going to give myself any accolades. I did well in school, did exceptionally well on standardized tests. I'm a published writer. I've done computer programming, I can play guitar, I graduated college with a bachelor of Arts in Art. I'm a smart enough man to pay attention to smarter people and see what they are doing. I've been playing games for too many decades.

I spent over an hour playing the tutorial on how to play this game and couldn't figure it out. Then I googled for answers and couldn't figure it out. Finally, after watching a 90 minute introductory video, I understood the basic mechanics enough to play.

Keep in mind, the basic mechanics are the card game war.

I'm sure people who don't like me (of whom their are more than a few) are out their snickering. For them, this is my favorite example of someone providing a helpful tutorial about the game.


Yep. Super basic.

The faq has over 100 questions and and is 18,000 words in length.

Rules

I went through all that, played the rise of the runelords basic adventure, and around 40 hours of quest play in the digital game. I'm currently getting level 1 cards, and in another 20-30 hours I can finally reach the level 2 cards in the quest mode. There are 6 levels of cards.

You have an idea, now. Let's talk about specifics.

There is a 30 card deck used as a timer. Each time a character takes a turn, one of these cards is discarded.

There are two 10 card stacks +1 per character. If you run one character you have three sites made of 10 card stacks to explore. Thirty cards. If you have 4 characters, you have six 10 card stacks to explore. Sixty cards. If you have 6 characters, you have eight 10 card stacks to explore. Eighty cards.

You have the same 30 card timer. With six players, after everyone takes one turn, you'll only have 24 cards left on the timer.

Yes, the game varies wildly in difficulty with the number of players. It also matters what class they are, because the optional classes are of course more powerful than the base classes. The sorcerer is clearly superior to the wizard in play.

When you flip a card, there's a difficulty number on it. You roll dice depending on the base stats of your character and what cards you want to spend from hand to "beat" it.

A dagger has a difficulty of 4, and you roll your strength or melee. 1d4 for the wizard, 1d10+2 for the fighter. A bunyip has a difficulty of 9 combat. Roll your combat dice + your weapon or spell to beat the bunyip! Your reward? Your turn is over. If you lose, you have to discard. Once all your cards are gone, you are dead.

War. With dice.

Sites are closed when you beat the mini-boss and then succeed at a roll. If you find the main boss, they will run away if their are any open stacks and they lose. They also reduce your turn count by the remaining number of open stacks.

The game is highly, highly, luck dependent. One could say very random.

Presentation


See the lines of composition?
The strong curves that lead you back into the art?
Perhaps you're a fan of Wayne Reynolds. Or maybe you really, really, like buckles and pouches. There isn't anything wrong with either of those things. And perhaps it works well for the tabletop version of the card game.

But one thing about the work of Wayne Reynolds is that he's very focused on composition. Each of his artworks have strong lines of motion that move throughout the picture.

Now what happens with a compositionally busy piece of art that is covered with no less than six overlays, with art either by Wayne Reynolds or inspired by his style?

Your game looks like a hot mess is what.

Conclusion


The game just isn't very good. It's not bad. It's a lot like solitaire.

Can you play solitaire with 4 other people? Welllll, yes? You can?

Have you ever played solitaire? Are you counting down the minutes until you can again?

Wait, what if it cost 60$ for just the base solitaire box! And what if you could only really play that game of solitaire six times before needing to buy a new deck for 60$?

It has the same problems as all cooperative games. If the game lacks a random factor, then no one is really taking their own turn. You all work together to find the best move. If the game has a random factor, then success or failure is heavily dependent on luck. You can't win every game of solitaire.

So why did I play so many hours? Well, it's effectively the card game war with a pseudo-renaissance fantasy skin, which, as we already know, is near and dear to my hard, cold, heart. And the digital version only costs 24$, as opposed to the 60$ the boxed set will run you. And it has quest mode, which randomly generates adventures from the available cards.  So if you often find yourself with a lot of time to kill, it is an enjoyable albeit pricey game of solitaire. It tracks your progress, gives you nice shiny things when you win, and you could grind out the in game purchases for free. Also, it automatically takes care of the management of thousands of cards for you, without having to try to fit it all in a box.

My characters are all around level 15 in quest mode. It should only take me another 20 or so hours to get them all up to level 20, at which point I can access the level 2 cards!

I wouldn't hold my breath on that happening anytime in the near future.


Postscript: Xaos, a reader wrote in and asked if I'm ok. Yes. I'm doing fine. Things were and are in fact up, and they did affect my productivity. So did finishing Perdition. I didn't go anywhere. You'll see more of me in the future. I'm lucky to have the readers I do. (Points blatantly at flashing Patreon link). Also: if you're reading this in a feed, the site has been redesigned for the current decade.

Hack & Slash 

On Campaign Design Patterns II

A Quest isn't a design pattern. It's a definition, but because it's complicated and needs discussion, we're going to treat it like one.

Quest: A task accomplished by the players for a reward.
Design and Scope: A quest is the basic unit of gameplay. It is something that must be accomplished that provides some reward for the players.
Use: The quest is ubiquitous. All game action is driven by reward and quests formalize and increase the default rewards gained from playing the game such as character experience and player fun.
Consequences: Player driven quests are the most engaging quests. Dictates enforced from kings and geased by wizards are the most frustrating.
Related:

Quest Fan (or Array): giving players 2 or more quests simultaneously.

Design and Scope: The creation of the quest fan is to give players meaningful options. The problem with the quest fan is making sure the quests are meaningful. If it's just a list of quests and the order you complete them doesn't affect the other quests or the rest of the game, it's effectively a linear sequence. The quest fan is effective when completing one task means you can't finish or complete another. The quest fan is very effective when the order in which you complete the tasks opens and closes different options based on how they are completed.
Role playing is not a video game you can complete 100%. When you run a game that way, the game becomes tedious.

Use: This is common to anyone who's ever played an older bioware game. You have a start quest, then you reach a base, from which you have three quests you can complete in any order before you can advance the plot. In a video game, it's fine because the purpose of choosing a quest is to play the video game.
A classic example of a quest fan is the three-pronged quest in S2, White Plume Mountain. Characters are tasked with retrieving three weapons that have disappeared, each in a different location in the adventure and each with a different clue. There is a minimal amount of interaction between the three quests, each following a different direction in the dungeon and only affecting each other prong in the most direct way (i.e. slain guards remain slain). There is some interaction based on the order in which the players leave, retrieving wave last can cause the players to exit via the geyser, allowing them to avoid Nix and Nox and Keraptis's recruiting attempts. 

Consequences: Using a quest fan allows players to meet their own needs during play, based on what type of gameplay they are interested in. It allows the Dungeon Master to then alter play based on the choices of the player characters. Simply having a list of tasks to complete that do nothing but reward you doesn't work as well in a tabletop game and certainly doesn't leverage the strength of infinite play available from a live human Dungeon Master.
If you have a selection of quests available and the order you complete them in is irrelevant, it's might as well be a linear sequence pattern. No action the players take can affect the outcomes of the quest fan, they are just a list of tasks that can be completed in any order.
This is why "Retrieve all parts of the Rod of Seven Parts" are such bad campaign ideas. It's removing all the meaningful choice from the players. That doesn't mean such a quest can't be done in a good way. Pirates of Dark Water had such a quest, and it seemed like it was going to be tedious. From the very first in that show, the treasures rarely stayed with Ren for very long. Sometimes captured by Bloth, sometimes stolen. At the end of every show, there was a possibility that they had to acquire the treasures by some means other than simply heading to the next location the compass indicated. Also, the show moved at a very brisk pace. In 21 episodes (six months of play) 8 of 13 treasures were acquired. An entire campaign could be handled in 9 months, which is about the reasonable outer limit for a single quest or goal.
An extremely effective way to use the Quest Fan is to mix the quests with some time structure. If you give the players 3 quests, whenever they complete the first one, the other two get worse by some significant margin. This simple pattern of having unattended things grow more complicated, naturally leads into an organic campaign that drives creative play as the players struggle to put out or control multiple fires at the same time.

Grapevine: A pattern for characters to acquire tangentially related background information, quests, and world flavor. 

Design and Scope: This is a method such as a local news sheet, bulletin board, town crier, or rumor mill that provides quests and information to the players.

Use: Chris Kutalik provides an excellent example here on his blog about how he uses this design pattern to not only help provide cohesion to the campaign experience, but also to further his ends as Dungeon Master. His article talks about providing plot hooks, quests, background information, and flavor.
I'm quite fond of literally bulletin boards being in towns, created as physical artifacts I can hand my players. Not only can I then have plot hooks, but I get to use the best techniques of Craigslist and classified ad posters.
This is by no means a new technique. The most classic use of the grapevine pattern is the vintage rumor list. Examples can be found in any classic module, many also include grapevine patterns from a variety of sources, the church, thieves guild, quartermasters posting bounties, etc.
The grapevine pattern is a pristine opportunity for driving complex rumors that engage players in play through multiple dimensions. You can use the grapevine pattern to extend rumors to function as foreshadowing as I talk about here. Here I talk about using the grapevine pattern to create campaign mysteries and adventure.

Consequences: The largest consequence is the amount of time such a technique can require. Even going through weekly and writing a news brief on four or five items or two or three sentences each is going to require about 30 minutes, as well as the creative energy before hand. There's quite a list of standard options (such as bounties for bandits, missing people, looking for monster lairs), but the downside is that those are standard options.
However grapevines can rapidly expand play in a very natural way, which eases your work on the backend. The results are entirely driven by player activity and because you're writing the grapevine, it dovetails into the adventure you've prepared.
Related:



Hack & Slash 

On Reader Mail, A Quantum Quandry

Dane writes in and says:

"I'm a student of Games Art currently working on my dissertation. . .my question is this;

Assuming you have Woods A and Woods B as 2 separate paths the players can take but that regardless of their choice they will encounter the Ogre at the end of either; would player agency still have been removed if the journey through Woods A and the information or experiences therein painted the Ogre as an enemy, while the journey through Woods B sympathized with the Ogre, thereby changing the players perception of the Ogre based on the route they chose?"

Oh, how we complicate things that are simple. Player agency isn't removed in either of the situations. The players take no action that the Dungeon Master subverts. There's no action taken that impacts agency. The players make a choice with no information and one of two encounters is presented.

If they had taken some action before, investigating the woods, looking for tracks, etc. and had an intent that was subverted ("We want to avoid the ogre") that would be a different situation. Picking between two doors with no information about either and having one of two encounters has nothing to do with agency.

But wait, there's more!

Linear or Sandbox

"The reason I ask this is because player agency seems to play a significant roll (sic) in whether a game could be deemed as linear or open world and a point of debate seems to be having multiple routes to the same objective. From the bigger picture, 2 paths between point A and point B could simply be seen as a single path with a large obstacle in the middle and the 2 paths simply being the way the player chooses to go around it. However, on a closer look, if each path grants a different perspective on point B, or simply provides a different experience, then the player's choice retains its significance and could also determine how the player chooses to deal with the Ogre therefore preserving the players agency despite the inevitable encounter with the Ogre."

There is a real question here. Dane is talking about video games (the thrust of his research), but his question is applicable to both agency and design.

Player agency, whether the player can take action that matches his intent, is only tangentially related to the linearity or sandboxness of an environment. That is a spectrum determined literally by whether the avatar has choices of where to go. If you have two routes to the same objective, that's not strictly linear but I wouldn't be looking around for sand.

If 2 paths are given, and each has a different perspective or experience, and this is communicated to the player, then as long as the expectations are maintained; agency is maintained.

Let's drill down on this example a little bit:

Two paths diverge in a wood, at the end of both (where they meet again) there is a boss fight with an ogre.

If the left path is creepy and spooky and the player takes the left path and it's filled with skeletons, agency is maintained. If the left path is creepy and spooky and then the player walks down it to discover rainbows and unicorns agency is not maintained. The same as if the path were bright and sunny, and you keep getting attacked by ghosts and undead. Players were unable to take an action that matched their intent.

The fact that both paths end in a boss fight with an ogre is meaningless, especially in a video game. Chokepoints with boss fights are basic expectations in video games.

Significant Choice

The significance of the choice the player makes is not related to the agency of the player. What determines if a player has agency is if they A) have an intent and B) are allowed to take action that matches that intent. That is the determinator of agency.

What's important here is that they, on some level, understand the consequences of their choices beforehand. That allows them to have an intent. They have (or gather) information that allows them to make a choice where they have some idea of the outcome.

It's very important that we don't fall down the hole of endless strawmen in response to this answer. Yes, you can subvert player expectations. Yes, you can give misleading information. No, that doesn't impact agency as long as you don't take action to prevent the players from investigating further or taking precautions.

If they don't have information, then the choice is random. There are very few circumstances where this is appropriate. In Super Mario Brothers 3, when you were given an option of 3 chests to pick, the contents of the chest you pick were decided when you entered the room. This is widely regarded as a complete dick move by the programmers. It is literally illusionism where the cost is precious moments of a player's life.

Ultimately it isn't the ogre that's always in the woods that impacts agency. If the player doesn't want to fight the Ogre, they can always stop playing, get up, and walk away. It's when you remove meaning from or in response to the choices the player has already made that it turns into a bad experience for them.

Thanks for the question Dane. If anyone has anything they want to ask, feel free to write me at campbell at oook dotgoeshere cz



Hack & Slash 

On Campaign Design Patterns

In my personal experience most people are very, very, bad at campaign design. It's one of the reasons that gaming over hangouts has been such a positive experience. It's one of the only ways to get to play with high quality, high skill game masters.

What's my metric for high quality, high skill game masters? Do you have an online game with over 100 players signed up to play? Does your real life player pool exceed 20 people who want a spot at your table? Do players you do not know in your local area contact you to run games for them? Have you been running a game for the same people for over a decade and they are still excited about playing? These are some signs you are a high quality, high skill game master.

I've already addressed the cohesive theory behind campaign design. Now we are going to look at specific design patterns, putting that theory to concrete use. I am doing this so you can link this article to people who are bad at campaign design so they can read this and not be bad anymore because of how concrete and helpful it is. Please. I'm not begging, but let's help people! Right now so they can stop making me sad!

Note that unlike software (or architectural) design patterns, the following patterns all are methods of solving the same problem: How do I structure a campaign at the table with real players? They are all different patterns of solving that single problem rather then a collection of patterns to deal with a large variety of problems, as in code or architecture.

Campaign Design Patterns


Linear Sequence: A series of scenes/rooms/events that follows a sequence in sequential order.
Design and Scope: Linear sequence is the single most important campaign design pattern. It is simultaneously completely necessary and often terribly misused. Your campaign right now is completely linear, if you believe accurate time records must be kept for a meaningful campaign. The key factor in the design is that the sequence of whatever is in the campaign must be sequential.
The scope of this pattern is the broadest of all patterns which is why it's so important. Most campaigns only allow time to flow in one direction and do not use flashbacks, time travel magic, or other dilation effects. Time and its inexorable path forward is the most common use of the linear sequence in role playing games.
Linear Time
There are lots of reasons outside chronomancers that a campaign might not use linear time. Many classic first edition campaigns did not use linear time, due to training rules. Sure, the fighter might be out for several weeks training, but players often had alternate characters and might go on adventures that would take them out of the local space for months at a time. Their adventure would move forward and the characters back at the base wouldn't. Then the campaign would jump back in time to deal with the adventures of the other characters. This is one of the reasons for the strict admonishment in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide about keeping time records for a meaningful campaign.
And, of course, there are always chronomancers.

When discussing space, it refers to a sequences of encounters (rooms, scenes, etc.) that can occur in only one order or sequence. Note that providing side passages that can be explored do not undo a linear sequence. If the characters enter, and there is only one way between the starting scene/entrance to the final scene, then the linear sequence pattern is in use, even if their are side rooms and closets to explore.

Use: The linear sequence is by far the most common structure used in adventure materials sold to the public. Everything from the first major adventure for fifth edition, Tyranny of Dragons, to many Dungeon Crawl Classic dungeons, to Pathfinder adventure paths primarily uses the linear sequence. 

Why? Because people don't live, eat, and breath role playing. Linear adventures are easy to prep and easy to use at the table. It's a way for Dungeon Masters to prepare and run a campaign without a significant amount of work. It allows the Dungeon Master to open up the module or adventure path and go "Where were we?" and simply respond to player actions and direct his players to the next encounter area. The linear nature guarantees that set-pieces and "designed memorable encounters" will occur at regular intervals.

What's more, is that adventures and campaigns that are designed around linear sequence are often purchased by collectors, not by people ever intending to run them. The linear modules or adventures read in sequence with good imagery, and function as a form of entertainment for those who don't have a group to play them. An adventure that isn't linear and is instead a toolbox full of things that interact in strange ways has less of a traditional story structure and (generally) makes for less entertaining reading.

In small doses linear sequences are critical for successful adventures. Small sites such as monster lairs are an example of linear sequence being put to great use. Having a strict linear time sequences avoids heinous complexity, of time moving forward but party members not having spent their time yet. The outcomes of some player choice allows linear sequence to be used as an effective tool, e.g. the player makes a choice triggering a linear sequence of events.

Consequences: The largest consequence of linear sequence is the inability of the player to affect the outcome. It's most useful when focused on allowing the character agency in "character builds" and combat for tactically focused games and providing agency in the choice made during the scenes.
Although simple for busy players who want to get a game in, linear sequence over the course of a long campaign is soul-crushingly terrible. It is a very reactive style of play. Players show up and wait to be told where they go and what they do next.

The reason this is a real consequence and not a preference is that the primary advantage of role playing games over other media (such as video games or board games) is agency and infinite play. In campaigns that use only the linear sequence design pattern, both agency and infinite play must be limited or eliminated in order to retain the advantages of ease of use. In the likely case of a player looking for those specific things, a long linear campaign (i.e. adventure path) can seem like a slow, painful, death by one-thousand cuts.
Related Patterns: (Forthcoming)


Base: A safe place where adventure does not occur.
Design and Scope: This can be a building, headquarters, or even a city that the player's have their character's retreat to between sessions. The key factors in the base design pattern is that it is not a location in which gameplay occurs. It is the assumed location of characters before play begins. Use: The base is a crucial part of constructing a campaign, especially at low levels and for beginning players. We are playing a game, and as is useful in any game, it's important to have a line between where the gameplay begins. This base/game divide is as important as the overworld/mystical underworld divide in communicating to the players what their expectations should be. It's important that there's a clear delineation between what's a site for gameplay and what's not. Having a base is essential to that.
Base Camp
If you're having trouble wrapping your head around why this is so important, imagine sitting down at the start of your next session and saying "While you were sleeping, someone snuck into your room and stole several of your magic items." What does this communicate to the players?

  • I'm not safe anywhere. 
  • I don't have any expectations that gameplay ends anywhere. 
  • I'm going to have to describe where I keep all my things
  • I have to spend a non-trivial amount of time each session explaining the steps I take to insure that I don't ever leave myself open to this. 
  • Since their aren't any safe areas, I should make a list of precautions I have to take at all times.
The question that needs to be asked is: Is this what I want gameplay to be about?

Later, as the game progresses, and the characters increase in power, the focus can shift to them creating a base (Building a castle, et. al.) once they have the resources to do so. Gameplay concerns (enemies, rivals, etc.) drive the need to create a safe place.

An excellent example of this progression is Dungeons & Dragons basic module B2: Keep on the borderlands. It's clear from the setup and introduction that the Keep is not a base, but rather itself a site for exploration and adventure.

Within it, it provides opportunity for the players to acquire their first base at areas 7 and 14. Private apartments at number 7 are available for the well to do, and there is an inn with private rooms for a gold and a public room for a silver. Page 7 further notes the progression continues as they may eventually be allowed into the inner bailey upon completing a quest, and eventually once they've reached a certain level of power and dealt with the internal forces in the keep,

"After the normal possibilities of this module are exhausted, you might wish to continue to center the action of your campaign around the KEEP by making it the base for further adventures which you may devise. For example (assuming that the group has done good service for the Castellan), have a large force of bandits move into the area, and then appoint the group to command an expedition of KEEP troops, mercenaries, and so on to drive them away. Or the party might be-come “traders” operating out of the KEEP, hoping to find adventures as they travel in the surrounding area. . ."

Consequences: Having a base is entirely about communicating effectively with your players about where the gameplay lies. It answers questions so they can enjoy making meaningful choices, rather than being on the defensive and not knowing where to focus their energy. It isn't necessary to provide an area without risk, but is very useful for low level groups as well as helping players focus their energy on the gameplay you've prepared. Being clear about the relative danger levels in housing options also fosters an area of trust at the table and allows players to make informed decisions. Do I want to spend 1 silver to sleep in a common room, or pay 1 gold to sleep in a private one? Related: (Forthcoming)


We'll look at some more design patterns Wednesday.


Hack & Slash 

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