Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Good and Bad in Adventure Design

In my last post, I was reaching for a something that would hopefully be a universally agreed upon example of the bad in adventure design… and I fell on my face. Peter V. Dell’Orto had to go and point out that even though many of the adventures might look lame to modern reviewers, he had a heck of a time playing them with his friends back in the day. Now who can argue with that…? Ah, but it takes the steam out of my gaming rant and it stings….

A similar thing has happened within the text adventure scene. You see… there are people that are so into text adventures, that they play them all. And they make up new ones. And they hash them out and criticize them. And they have nailed down a bunch of do’s and don’ts that you have to follow… and they generally seem to think that they are light years ahead of Infocom in terms of design. Maybe they are… but (and I hate to say it) none of the new games have had near the impact on me that Enchanter had.

Now, this is not entirely the same thing as the Dungeon magazine adventures, but let’s break this out:

  • Infocom did groundbreaking work, they made several masterpieces, and they deserve a great deal of respect for what they accomplished.
  • But the good old days weren’t always good: there are many things in the “don’t” list that Infocom did routinely. There is an ongoing food and drink problem in Enchanter that would never fly with today’s text adventure audiences, for example.
  • But the overall structure of the game is sound: there is a variety of difficulty to the puzzles, there is a lot to do at any given time even if you’re stuck on one of the puzzles, there are hints that are integrated into the setting in a very clever way, and the game is paced such that everything doesn’t hit you at once.
  • And the tone and the style is exactly what I like. This isn’t really nostalgia because I didn’t play this particular game as a kid. But this game was engineered to target kids of my generation. Like Car Wars, it has a fairly straight-ahead setting that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Almost every fantasy setting made since then strikes me as strangely earnest and over the top. Meanwhile the text adventure scene has been trending towards more “serious” attempts at art or making a statement– and I just can’t get into most of it in spite of their supposed technical achievements in the form.
  • And then there is greatness. Enchanter has puzzles in it that are simply astounding. The designers have anticipated almost every wrong way to go about solving them… and have coded in hilarious fail-sequences that demonstrate why what you’re doing is incorrect or dumb. They are pitch perfect. Modern text adventure authors would criticize these because you have to “die” in order to figure out how to solve these things, but I don’t care. Infocom nailed this one. The puzzles are like nothing I’ve seen in any other game, there a layers to them, and they are just frustrating enough to keep a player challenged, but not so hard that you give up. When you finally solve them, the answer looks obvious in retrospect– there is a rightness to the problems that you are posed that fits in with the overall theme. This is what makes it a masterpiece!

Of course, as a game master, I know to not even try to do what Enchanter does at the table. Oh, there are things in it that I might borrow and repurpose. Sort of like how I might borrow a general sense of form and balance from the Parthenon. I am honestly in awe of that game.

You know… I was intending to get back to making a point about Dungeon magazine… but those adventures in there are just silly in comparison to Infocom’s best work. Still….

  • Dungeon magazine authors all got paid by the word. It freaking shows, too.
  • A good measure of the “badness” of the adventures in it are due to presentation and format alone. They are not engineered to be useful in the heat of a game to a harried dungeon master. (There has been a lot of innovation in this particular area since the time of the magazine’s heyday.)
  • Another chunk of the “awfulness” of the adventures is in the tone. The first adventure in the first issue of the magazine features an entire dungeon in which the monsters are magically charmed and supplied so that they stay in their rooms. This sort of thing is an unforgivable sin in many circles.
  • A chunk of the “good” is when something in the adventure can easily be lifted out and dropped into other campaigns. “Oh look… a town! I can use that!”
  • Another chunk of the “good” is due to the alterations that a dungeon master makes when he runs these sorts of things for a real group of people. An example of that would be in module G1 where I tuned up the intro in order to be both understandable and acceptable to my particular group of players. All dungeon masters have an instinct for this sort of thing and few are even going to be capable of running the magazine adventures without making more invasive changes.
  • Now… Peter has said that some of these adventures in fact worked out really well at the table… but what are the chances of anyone finding that out today…? Does anyone actually look at these things and think, “I gotta play that!” If not… then that is a huge problem that B2, X1, Stonehell, and Barrowmaze don’t have.

Well, having said all of that… are we any further along than when we started? I don’t know. We sure have muddied the waters here. But I guess… as we continue to delve into this… I’d like to focus just on the design and actual play factors. Presentation and tone can certainly make or break an adventure product. Of course, a game master just has to make things work at the table for his own players– those guys really can get away with just focusing the play of the thing. But I’m certainly not focused on writing adventures for people that just plan on reading them or even just plundering them…. No, the play really is the thing as far as I’m concerned.

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6 responses to “Good and Bad in Adventure Design

  1. PeterD March 20, 2014 at 7:06 am

    If you’re looking for some kind of universal truth in adventure writing and text game writing, it is this: What looks good or bad on paper isn’t as important as how it plays out in practice. You must playtest with actual play to know.

    Also, a corollary to that: Not everyone will agree on all of those points even during actual play, so know which part of the audience you want to please.

    • jeffro March 20, 2014 at 8:00 am

      Which is of course the first thing taught in Game Design 101. And with good reason.

      • PeterD March 20, 2014 at 9:37 am

        If you want more specifics, I wrote a post about what I learned re-playing Ultima IV. It executes some things extremely well, and some things (food, for example) just added drudgery without fun. It’s possible to react to far to that – the examples of text adventure writers taking out those “figure out the puzzle by failing and dying” bits. It’s on the surface a flaw, but in practice it’s amusing and useful. But it’s audience dependent if that’s fun or not.

        [Jeffro: That was a really good post! Gaming Lessons from Ultima IV]

      • PeterD March 24, 2014 at 4:50 pm

        Thanks. I should follow up on that and discuss what’s actually really fun in Ultima IV, too. Needing spell components in the game is pretty cool – it drives a lot of fun adventuring and makes you conserve spells and explore and talk to people to learn mixes to cast the powerful stuff. That’s one that on the surface looks to be the same as food (bled, managing resources) but it’s not at all. It’s quite fun, despite the superficial resemblance to the not-fun food issue.

  2. Oniisama March 24, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    I really liked your comment about the failure sequences in old Infocom adventures and how they’re a) amusing and b) help teach you what you’re doing wrong. It reminds me of the video games Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, where you are expected to die consistently and repeatedly as part of learning how to make your way through the game. Many contemporary action-adventure video games provide cinematic experiences where you will die rarely, if ever, so the way the Souls games force you to painstakingly learn each portion of the game is decidedly archaic, but they’ve gained a cult following for that very reason.

    I also agree that what really made the classic Infocom games was their house style, especially for the games that took place in the Great Underground Empire. There’s a dryly humorous whimsy there that is unlike almost anything else I can think of.

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