Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Some Notes on Adventure Design

I have just worked my way through Lewis Pulsipher’s latest online course, How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games. It was a very enjoyable set of videos, but I could barely listen to them without thinking of all the things I wanted to respond with. I admit, I am biased more towards “real” role playing– I am pretty well at the opposite extreme of the “vidiots” that refuse to even consider anything about the tabletop side of gaming. However, many of my favorite design techniques were developed in the dark ages of computing when 8 bits and 16K were still a big deal. So, with the caveat that I am necessarily coming from deep in left field, here is my initial reaction to the course.

One of the most powerful things in the Learning Game Design course was the moments when Dr. Pulsipher would step out from “behind the curtain,” look you in the eyes, and ask you how your game design was coming along. That by itself got me off my duff and diving into game design with every ounce of effort I could muster. Adventure design, however, is just so bad in general… you need to have the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket step in and scream at anyone that is thinking about making one. You don’t need to encourage anyone to make more adventures. It’s a habit that anyone who gamemasters will pick up in short order. We need public service campaigns set up to tell people to not to even bother.

No, really. They are almost all just so horribly bad.  You want to design an adventure? Put down the pencil and shut up. Step away from the graph paper and pay attention. Here’s the guy from tenfootpole.org to walk you through several years of Dungeon Magazine just so that you can see every possible way that you can screw this up. Now… that horrible sickening feeling you feel…? That’s what the average player feels like coming out of a game. Sergeant Hartman…?

Private Pyle has dishonored himself and dishonored the platoon! I have tried to help him, but I have failed! I have failed because you have not helped me! You people have not given Private Pyle the proper motivation!

Yeah, exactly. I’ve said this before, but all the blog posts, magazine articles, and adventure modules… they’re pretty well all written by game masters for other game masters. And somehow every single game master in the bunch knows more about adventure design than every other game master. You cannot get a fair picture of what is going on in adventure design just by listening to these guys. You need to get someone with a video camera to go to Origins or something and interview the players as they come out the role playing sessions. Nobody cares what these people have to say, but they aren’t stupid. And if they are stupid, it’s because our adventure designs have allowed them to be stupid and get away with it!

Exhibit A is all of those “always go left” people. How is it that there is anyone that can possibly say that about any adventure with a straight face?! I just had a guy at my kitchen table say that some players wrecked an entire campaign by doing that. The party avoided some key encounters, short circuited some important challenges, and generally made a mess of this guy’s painstakingly crafted adventure all just by going left at every turn. I don’t know how this guy screwed up this badly, but let me tell you… you try to “always go left” in my game, I will total party kill you so fast you won’t know what hit you. And when the last player character falls unconscious, his last glimpse of the world will be that of the monsters feeding on the entrails of his comrades– and he will know that it was his own incipience which had ultimately doomed them.

Entire game lines run aground on similar shoals. I hear that at conventions, there is a certain very popular game that will cause dozens of tables to cry out in need of one more player to fill out a party. “Cleric! We need a cleric!” Is that for real? Does that really happen?! What’s up with that? Why is that a problem? Why is it so freaking hard to run a game without a cleric? Like this is the most vexing adventure design problem of our time…. Ugh! I’m telling you, the cleric was the first thing to go when guys like Ken St. Andre and Steve Jackson sat down to develop their own role playing games… and yet we have no freaking idea.

I’m a smart alec, myself. I’d flip it around. No, y’all. At this table… everyone plays a cleric. [Cue screams of horror and torment.] No, come on! Your group is a special order dedicated to exorcism and the eradication of unnatural creatures. The other classes you’re used to, they’re all still in the game, but they only show up as lower level henchmen and hirelings. (News flash, y’all: Ars Magica actually happened and you can do the same thing with other character classes besides magic-users.)

I tell ya…. Adventuring these days. It’s like we’re all getting dumber every year or something.

Okay, maybe bringing on the drill sergeant guy isn’t the most constructive thing I could do here. Maybe a montage sequence highlighting four decades of adventure failure would have been better, but hey… we’re on a budget. Ah well…. Let’s just review the basic styles of adventure structure and kibitz about them.

  • Episodic design — Tracy Hickman gets the blame for this, but it’s arguably right there in the original “adventure path” starting with Gygax’s Giants module series. You can pull the same thing at different levels of resolution, of course: a strict series of encounters that make up a convention scenario. A series of plotted out scenarios that make up a campaign. Whatever. The bottom line here is that players can do whatever they want within a given unit of adventure as long as everything ends in the required manner. This will drive some role players to distraction, but text adventure designers will simply put a puzzle in front of the players and then not move the story along until they solve it. The graphical adventure Syberia is rigged that way as is the real time strategy game Starcraft.
  • Choose Your Own Adventure — This is about the crudest form of interactivity. Every role playing game has this as an implicit part of its arsenal. Indeed, game masters that don’t even understand their rule set can ad lib this sort of thing no matter how broken or incomprehensible their game is. The problem for the designer that tries to nail down every conceivable path is that you end up developing all of this stuff that no one ever sees. Also, the number of branches grows exponentially if none of them end in arbitrary death. However, if this is done right it can give your adventure something that more episodic structures tend to lack: replayability. Battle for Wesnoth uses this approach to link up a series of battle scenarios. When you finish, you can find yourself immediately restarting not just to try out new tactics, but also to explore the paths you didn’t take before.
  • Text Adventures — These are stories that are told in the form of a set of puzzles. You unwind them like someone solving a Rubick’s cube. At their worst, playing them can be like debugging a computer program. At their best… they can put you literally inside a story. These are now relatively obscure, but I think it is instructive to look at some of the great examples of the form: Zork, Enchanter, Wishbringer, Adventureland, Pirate Adventure, Strange Odyssey, Jigsaw, and The Meteor, the Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet. From a design standpoint, it is interesting to see that in some cases, the greatest treasure in an adventure is often a doorway to a crucial unexplored area or an object that solves a known problem that was previously impossible. Text adventure puzzles always stop the narrative. The default state is “stuck.” At the tabletop, this does not tend to go over too well. I tend to apply these sorts of things such that they are optional unless I am specifically corralling the players in order to control the pace.
  • Hybridized Sandbox — The older computerized role playing games  provide you with a very large world to explore. Although you can go wherever you want and play it your own way, you do not have the option to develop your own victory conditions the way real life role players would. The usual pattern was to encourage the player to “grind” the game until he was powerful enough to find and kill the game’s boss monster. The “quests” that are in Ultima I basically amount to finding a king, asking him what he wants, going into a dungeon to find the monster that he dislikes, killing it, and then returning to him for your attribute bonuses. These “microadventures” are far more simplistic than even a Scott Adams text adventure! Still, they illustrate how basic text adventure forms can be grafted onto a sandbox type setting in order to give the players something to do. The complexity of the world simulation and the variety in the characters tends to just obfuscate the simplified challenges that are incorporated into the game, but even at the tabletop there are very strict limits on the complexity of the adventure plots that you can throw at the players. A lot of people don’t want to be able to do anything. They want to know what they are supposed to do so they can get on with it!
  • True Sandbox — Traveller is the quintessential tabletop example of this. “Megadungeon” style play accomplishes about the same ideal without a gazillion worlds and stars. Elite managed to translate the former to  even 8-bit computers while NetHack pretty successfully captures the spirit of the latter. This type of gaming is not about collecting the eight pieces of the Coconut of Quendor in order to reverse the spell and defeat the evil wizard. It’s about immersing yourself in a fabricated reality and then doing whatever strikes your fancy. If getting there is half the fun, then this type of adventure poses the question, “why should we ever stop?” There is no end game state. You do not “beat” this sort of game. At some point, you might retire and bore people with your war stories, but that’s your business. The game space here is often so large, it has to be generated on the fly. (Elite does just that by doing a few tricks with pseudo-random number generators.) Player autonomy is sacrosanct in these games, and railroading is the most egregious sin conceivable.

This is the part of the post where I’m supposed to get all ecumenical and pretend like none of these particular design approaches is superior to any of the others. That’s crazy. I like awesome stuff and if you don’t like what I like that must be due to a deficiency on your part! And everyone is like that. Most people aren’t as nice about it as I am, either. If you want to design adventures for other people, then you need to be aware of this and cater to the prejudices of your audience.

I will say this, though. In role playing games, we tend to use all of the above approaches in tandem. When I ran Keep on the Borderlands, I explained the general campaign state in the first five minutes. They could go to the Caves of Chaos, track down a dragon that was stealing sheep from area farmers, look into some bandit attacks that were messing up the local mercantile groups, and so on…. I was using “Choose Your Own Adventure” in order to make it completely clear that the players were in control. Of course, when they went to the caves, things shifted to more of a sandbox type of situation. The players were confronted with an elaborate place that they could tackle in any order that they chose. Between sorties, I would hint that they really did have complete autonomy and that they really could go anywhere and do anything– the module was part of a larger world whether they went out and engaged with it or not.

You see the same thing in something like Starcraft. This is an example of episodic design taken to an extreme. And yet, within each stop on the railroad, you can run into all kinds of stuff. The archetypal Starcraft scenario is basically a 4X driven stand-up fight. But there’s so much going on when all the technology and factions are in play that the episode sequence allows you to learn it one chunk at a time. And more than just these glorified tutorials, you can even see actual dungeon type scenarios implemented here with the level maker!

Probably the key thing I would tell would-be adventure designers is that you need to be able to communicate what type of adventure you’re dealing in rapidly. Each time you shift styles, you will also be dropping hints about the overall situation and giving the players something else to interact with. I think novices have a tendency to just brain dump on the players at times like this, but really… it’s much more important to communicate what type of game you’re setting up than it is to pile on more and more extraneous details. Game masters  will often take a page from novelists and try to “show not tell” this crucial piece of information, but that’s a surefire way create frustration at the tabletop. You have barely two minutes to explain everything anyway, so it’s usually best to just come right out with it.

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9 responses to “Some Notes on Adventure Design

  1. Chris Mata March 19, 2014 at 6:40 am

    I would like to see your review of the Night Below: Underdark campaign setting. It was my favorite all around box set for adventures. We ran the first third of it and as much as the writers crammed in for me, I always was going off script following the players around. It never seemed to interfere with the overall story and was segmented in a way to allow just about whatever you wanted to do. It seems like it was one of the best blends of all types of campaigns.

  2. Jimmy Anderson March 19, 2014 at 6:48 am

    My comment assumes that someone likes Star Wars…

    We have been playing Edge of the Empire. I’ve been GM’ing this and learning the system at the same rate as the players. We played through the HEAVY railroady Beginners Box, which does a GREAT job of introducing the rules. We went from that to the “free follow up” Long Arm of the Hutt. It wasn’t really railroady, as the players could choose to follow the “carrot” or not.

    But the real reason for my comment is to say that this system allows for elaborate design, but encourages LESS design! The “narrative dice” allow for the GM (me) to have a basic outline and then see what the players decide to do. The system is a “yes and” and not a “no you can’t do that” system, so it’s wide open.

    Bottom line – you might want to give it a try… The dice system could potentially be adopted for any game system.

  3. PeterD March 19, 2014 at 11:48 am

    It’s interesting that you bring up tenfootpole’s reviews. I commented on a lot of the Dungeon magazine reviews he did – because adventures he often singled out as bad, bad, bad actually played very well. They were very memorable and fun adventures, and includes ones we still talk about today literally decades after playing them. Some he mentioned as better didn’t always play well when I tried to run them. Not to pick on those reviews, really, but it reinforces the value of your idea of interviewing players post-adventure. An adventure might read poorly but be fun, or read well but not be fun to play. What might seem like a frustrating gotcha in print might be a fun hook when it’s actually done to you, and what may seen like a brilliant use of a sandbox environment might just leave players feeling undirected and bored. The play is what matters most, and the brilliance of an adventure is really how players feel having played it.

    • jeffro March 19, 2014 at 12:03 pm

      I completely agree with you on this. How something works at the table is the ultimate test of any adventure design “rule.” Thank you for articulating the point!

    • bryce0lynch March 21, 2014 at 9:58 am

      Really? Cause I completely disagree.

      Your underlying point is correct but absolutely meaningless when it comes to adventure quality. “But a good DM could …” if the absolutely worst response possible. Yeah, of course a good DM could. We all know that. And we all know that a bunch of fun loving folks with a couple of drinks in them are going to have a blast playing the My Little Pony RPG.

      That sort of response is completely meaningless and adds nothing to the conversation.

      Now back to pain, snow, cold, and mosquitoes.

  4. lewpuls March 19, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    At Origins a few years ago, Monte Cook observed that published adventures seem to be much more story-oriented than in the “old days”. I agree. Partly that’s because players are more likely to enjoy being led around the nose in a particular story, but I think there’s another reason. So many adventures are published that no one is going to be able to run them all. Moreover, there’s an accumulation of years of adventures with the new ones piled on. Many people don’t get new adventures to play them so much as to READ them. So adventures are written as much to be read as to be played, and stories read a lot better than situations do.

    • Jimmy Anderson March 24, 2014 at 1:50 pm

      I had not heard this, but I can definitely see this… I have read all of the modules for Edge of the Empire that I have acquired. Even the two or three that do no fit our group I’ve enjoyed reading and pulled some nuggets from them as well…

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