Friday, February 16, 2018

Adventure Design in RPGs

I am a lover of Zelda. Like most DnD players I've tried to design Zelda dungeons in my tabletop games, but have always found them to be lacking. Now, some (most) of this has to do with the fact that I'm not a very experienced dungeon designer. I don't put in proper rest points and, regardless of layout, I always manage to make the Gauntlet from Hell that makes my players ragequit. I also try these things out on newbies, who group wipe every time. But regardless of that there was always something missing in these dungeons, beyond the amateur hour showcase that they were. A spark was missing, the thing that always made me think while playing Zelda "Wow, this is amazing!"   

Then I watched this episode of Gamer's Toolkit.  

What I got out of the episode was not that we should all be making games like Pikmin and Mario, which are story-lite. That approach doesn't work in a table-top RPG. Table-top is a very different animal from video game RPGs. But there's a key that Nintendo has found: the mechanics of the game are levers for the GM, not just the players. The mechanics on your players' sheets are built-in hooks. The more dense the game, the more hooks at your disposal.

Take, for example, the Saving Throw of DnD. It comes in many flavors: from the catch-all of Whitehack to the Fortitude-Reflex-Will line up of 3.5 and its ilk and beyond. Saving Throws are quite prolific. They're also generally not understood very well, and I certainly didn't use them very well when designing adventures back when I ran 3.5. They're supposed to be used as a reaction against an unexpected threat. The idea, by and large, seems to be that they're lower than skills with toughter DCs. That means you don't want to be caught  by surprise. If you have to roll a Saving Throw something has gone wrong.

You know what would be fun to do with that? Make a situation where players can't make a skill check when they decide to do something, turning it into a Saving Throw instead. Like slick ice that, each time you try to do something Dexterity-related, forces a Reflex saving throw instead. It's vague, but the beauty of this little lever is that, since it's a tabletop game, the rule can be adjusted on the fly by the GM for differing situations. Let's say some rogue decides he's going to pick a lock while on this ice. The GM immediately forces a Reflex Saving throw and the Rogue fails it, falling flat on his butt (rules like Fail Forward, where failures aren't allowed to dead-end but instead frustrate the original intent, and Let it Ride, which prevent rolling ad-nauseum for the same thing, are crucial here). Falling on his rear would inflict a condition of some sort like Distracted or Angry, penalizing the Rogue, even though he got the door open. Someone else may try to throw someone on the ground and, instead of making a Strength check, has to make a Reflex Saving Throw which, if they fail, makes them prone as well.

All of a sudden there's a complication that speaks to the mechanics of what's on the sheet and players have a hook they can work with. Let's go back to that first example, with the Rogue and the door. The Rogue's tired of getting that condition each time he falls on his butt, so the Fighter decides to bash the door down. Turning to the GM he announces he's going to run at the door and bash it down, using the ice for momentum. When the GM points out that tripping might mean that he hurts himself to bash down the door the fighter flexes his muscles and starts talking about what a big boy he is. The  GM, rolling his eyes, gives it to the fighter, because if the failure isn't a psychological threat to the player there's no point in inflicting it on the character. But the thing is that the GM succeeded. He made something interesting the players had fun interacting with. In the second example, with throwing the target, the smart-ass bard, who's constantly touting that Indiana Jones whip that everyone tells him is useless, pulls the sucker out and lashes the target's legs, calling for a Strength check.  The GM grants the chance to him and the bard pulls the big tough orc off his feet without breaking a sweat. Again, the GM made something fun that required the players to think outside the box.

Notice that no solution has been thought of by the GM. He merely made a problem that had a mechanical hook and the players responded with something in the fiction that would address the problem. Of course, the problem must be couched in story terms. That's too much of a break in the fiction in my opinion. But, unlike most video games, no one set answer is necessary to making this work well. All the GM has to do is plop the problem in front of the players. He can then start adding more rules as they progress. Each time a Strength check is attempted a Reflex save must occur (bull in a china shop with stalactites), Athletics and Acrobatics type checks now require tools (slippery floors and endless chasms and smooth walls), HP loss incurs extra conditions that are harder to get rid of, and whatever else you can think of. Unfortunately this has to be game-specific; I plan on making several suggestions for mechanics as time goes on, in different games.

Vincent Baker had it right when he said that Role-playing games are a conversation. His Apocalypse World (and the powered by the Apocalypse imprint) are an embodiment of this philosophy. I may not be the only one to say it, but I posit that this conversation is essentially two-sided: a game played by conversation that creates a story. Without those mechanics the story does not surface in a fun way, otherwise why make it a game? Thinking of mechanics first may not be something to straightjacket to but it's always good to have another tool in your arsenal.

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