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Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Game Design

Role-playing Games: When User Experience Departs from Design

This image spawned the following exchange over on Google+. (Given that it’s challenging to get people to a place where they can even begin to start discussing rpg design, I thought it was worth reposting this here.)

Jeffro: This is how the vast majority of people view rpg products. When they pick up a new one, they assume that this will be their overall experience. I don’t think that’s a problem, really, but the tone of most rpg rule sets come off as if the author is completely oblivious to the fact that this is the case. If I’m reading someone’s game book, I’d like to see some indication that they’ve not only played the game themselves, but that they’ve paid attention to other people that have as well. The less actual play is involved in the development process, the more people will have to do without thier genius in favor of whatever actually works.

Lewis Pulsipher: In other words, playtest the game. But RPGs have tended more and more to be about stories, so the game becomes secondary, hence (in the mind of the author) needing less (or no) testing? In great contrast to the “big” RPGs that get lots of playtesting before publication.

Tim Jensen: Wait, we might have to start naming names here.

Most of the small press RPGs I play these days (various Powered by the Apocalypse games, Fate, Microscope/Kingdom, Hope Inhumanity, Dog Eat Dog, Swords Without Master, Itras By) had open playtesting both  at conventions and online, sometimes for years before being published.

The “big” RPGs I play or have played recently (Numenera, Night’s Black Agents, Rogue Trader, 7th Sea, and the World of Darkness games) all suffer from an obvious lack of playtesting. I’ve read interviews with game designers who haven’t played their own games, or who never follow the rules when asked to run them at conventions. Entire game lines have been written by unpaid interns with negligible RPG experience, given a single pass by a line developer/editor, and sent out. I have been in multiple GenCon seminars where RPG developers have said that their games “don’t need playtesting” because they know how to write games so well.

D&D4 skimped on playtesting after level 15, and D&D5 has some striking character balance issues despite their famous playtesting program. Granted, part of the charm of these, Pathfinder and Savage Worlds is finding the exploitable bits to build the most optimized character, but I’m not sure if that’s what the designers intended.

There is also an anti-design, nostalgia movement in the hobby which is concerned with emulating the play experiences with the earliest editions of D&D. DCC has been pretty good with innovation in this space, but the rest haven’t added anything to the conversation that wasn’t said by 1981.

Playtesting is hard. It takes forever even when those who are doing it don’t flake out. And there is an older segment of the RPG designer community that either doesn’t understand or care about game design enough when it conflicts with their livelihood.

Lewis Pulsipher: Different definition of “big” – I was thinking D&D and Pathfinder (and I don’t actually know how much PF is/was tested, but since it’s strongly derived from D&D3 there was already lots of playtesting, practically speaking). The ones you name aren’t big to me, more middle tier.

Yes, playtesting can be hard – or at least, time-consuming.

Note: you can follow Dr. Pulsipher at his blog, on Google+, and on Twitter.

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Book Review: Game Design by Lewis Pulsipher

“It’s great to hit preorder numbers, sell games, know there’s buzz. But if someone were still playing my games 40 or 50 years from now? Even if it were only a couple people? That’s lasting. I work in intelligence. There’s not a lot that lasts in intelligence. All I want is to see people playing. That’s immortality.” — Volko Ruhnke

Consider the work of the best game designers. Gary Gygax’s part in developing role playing games certainly stands out. Steve Jackson’s microgame designs such as Ogre, Car Wars and Illuminati are similarly influential. Steve Cole’s space gaming masterpiece, Star Fleet Battles, has been in print since the seventies and is still being developed. And even before designing the first card-driven wargame, Mark Herman had already left an indelible mark on the hobby. If you ever wanted to understand how exactly these giants of gaming produced their works, you can now learn how with this book. Though the the author isn’t a household name outside of game conventions and role playing circles, he has in fact created work that is on par with the best games ever made.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to prolific block wargame designer Tom Dalgliesh who singled out Lewis Pulsipher’s Britannia for the book Hobby Games: The 100 Best. “Every game has the same events, yet every game is different. And one of the great appeals of Britannia is that you are never eliminated from play. Each period brings you another nation to direct and the final outcome is often in doubt until the very end.” As a four hour tabletop game covering hundreds of years of British history, it’s not hard to imagine Avalon Hill rejecting it as they initially did. Its premise seems impossible… but it works. It is an engrossing game that has maintained a devout following since its release in 1986. Given that there are no signs of Britannia’s appeal dissipating, Lewis Pulsipher is well on his way to meeting Volko Ruhnke’s definition for immortality.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He stands at about six and half feet tall and (though he doesn’t look it) is over 300 pounds. Between his glasses, his mustache, and his wearing a cap to cover up his baldness, he looks about like you’d expect someone to look that has a Ph.D. in military history. (He got his from Duke University in 1981.) If you see him at a convention, you won’t see him playing games, though. Kibitzing with designers and publishers, getting his stuff playtested, and giving talks on game design is how he spends his time. He is extremely approachable. If you press him, he’ll gladly explain to you why your favorite game isn’t that great. However, he’s far more likely to want to pick your brain about why you like it. This is because he makes his games not for himself but for a variety of audiences with different tastes. He’s keen on getting inside the heads of dedicated hobbyists even if they see things differently from him.

If you are just looking for a good read, then Lewis Pulispher’s book will take you behind the scenes and show you exactly what goes on in the game design process. I’ve read countless designer note articles, read a half dozen books about game design, and poured over dozens of gaming blogs. Though I see a lot of the same overall tips and principles recurring here and there, I haven’t seen anyone give as comprehensive of a treatment of this topic as what is in this book. Even if you don’t intend to design games yourself, it can really open your eyes to what motivates differing types of gamers both at the tabletop and in front of the computer screen. It’s especially enlightening to see what underlies your own biases, particularly if you have strong opinions about gaming.

The true value of the book will of course be had by aspiring game designers. Playing games and writing about them was my primary hobby for ten years and I was stunned to find out just how little I knew about actual design. All those hours spent tinkering with games gave me a notion of the possibilities. And sure, I had ideas… but I knew nothing about the actual process of design. It wasn’t long after I began to apply what was in the book that it became clear why it was I had never succeeded in designing a game of my own.

You see, on several odd occasions over the years I had attempted to make computer games. A minor byproduct of my struggles was that I managed to get enough skills to land jobs as a computer programmer, but I never did end up with a working game. There are just so many pitfalls! The novice will tend to want to do all the wrong things and will only do the right things by accident. That’s how it went with me, anyway. But game design is more than just doing a few right things. You have to get several different ideas going at once because you don’t know at what point any of them will be revealed to be unworkable. It’s not always possible to frame your ideas into a working prototype. If you do get something moderately playable, it’s not always clear just what you need to do to turn it into a good game– if it is indeed possible to do that. Once you leave the brainstorming phase, game design rapidly evolves into raw problem solving. Because of this, people have a tendency to work on any aspect of a game except the actual design: it’s that grueling!

Fortunately, Lewis Pulsipher has described each phase of the the design process in such a way that he can save you countless false starts and make you productive almost immediately. People that are familiar only with video games will struggle with the amount of material in the book covering the tabletop side of the hobby. But tabletop games do not require any special technical skills to create and do not require teams of programmers and artists to make them work. Tabletop games have no hidden parts, no black boxes, and can have their rules changed even in the course of play. That last feature is critical. It means that you can rapidly iterate through successive ideas and combinations of ideas so that you actually have a chance of developing a good, playable design. Insert hours of programming between each of those steps and you are unlikely to get anywhere if you don’t already know what you’re doing.

Back when I attempted to implement my own computer games without the benefit of a book like this, I ended up getting things that looked sort of like games, but for which no real design work was done. Even after fumbling along for weeks on end, I’d failed to realize that I hadn’t solved any of the essential problems implied by my ideas. If you want to have something to show for your early game design efforts, you would do well to avoid programming and art related aspects for as long as you can. Choose tightly scoped, completable goals… and start finishing games. Read Lewis Pulsipher’s book for a smorgasbord of options and tips that can make you more effective at every stage of the process. There is no better resource that focuses on design in this level of detail.

Due to the fact that I blog regularly, I have a complete and public record of exactly what I did and thought as I went through the process of trying to master the material in this book. When I describe what this book can do for the aspiring designer, I can actually show my own work as an example and let you judge for yourself whether or not you’d want to go down a similar path. While I learned from Lewis Pulsipher’s video courses, it is pretty much the same material as the book just in a different format. (Though there is stuff in the book that is not in the videos and vice versa.)

If you look back in the history of this blog, you can see that while I was able to create a proof of concept for a game design last year, I showed little interest in developing the idea any further: I never followed up on it. After taking Lewis Pulsipher’s course, I took a more modest game idea and developed it to the point where a playtester actually asked to play it again. (This post has links to everything related to that first project and the other exercises for the class.) After that, I tried my hand at a variety of smaller projects with an eye towards producing complete games. When I couldn’t think of how to complete my first adventure fragment, I created a set of “old school” dice tables to sketch out the rest of it. That wasn’t quite a completed game design, but I was heading that direction with something that was at least a fanzine level of accomplishment; my subconscious was better informed about things that could potentially paint me into a corner.

My next move was to go back to my old notebooks and completed a character generation idea that was half finished just so I could have something that was done. After that, I worked out enough stuff for an original adventure design (detailed here, here, and here) that I am ready to take it a con and run it with a group of random players with only a few minor changes. With multiple projects in a working/usable state, I can afford to be a little more choosy with regards to which ones I go back and perfect, hone, and polish. This is a very exciting position to be in– so much better than wasting years plodding around with something that’s never going to amount to anything.

While a lot of people have criticized him for destroying kids’ dreams, I would argue that in spite of his no-nonsense curmudgeonliness, he really does equip you so that you can make your game design dreams a reality. But setting your sights on things that you can reasonably accomplish early on is going to be hard for the sort of people that want to skip the work and go directly to being a superstar. I can tell you from experience, though, that it is far more satisfying to get well into the process of developing a modest portfolio than it is to sit around daydreaming about being the next Reiner Knizia. It’s true, you can make more money for your time by picking up cans on the side of the road, but there’s nothing like seeing people laughing and having a good time and begging to play something that you designed.

It’s work… and the design process is often tedious and frustrating. But I can see now why it is the Lewis Pulsipher says that his favorite game is the game of designing games. With his book, you can find out for yourself how well you like it in a matter of months. It won’t be painless, but your chance of getting results will be far stronger than if you attempt to strike out on your own without the benefit of this kind of direction.

Adventure Fixins: Hooks and Patrons

A one-shot adventure will often consist of nothing more than a keyed dungeon map. But there’s a lot more stuff you’ll need to actually run the game in practice. A good adventure design will not leave something major for the novice game master to improvise while under pressure, so I’ll use worked examples here from the Goblin Adventure I’m currently working on.

The Hook

Box text is almost universally hated by seasoned game masters. These read-aloud sections are invariably overwrought and usually bring the game to a halt. The game master is looking at the module instead of paying attention to the situation at the table. The players zone out and maybe only catch 20% of what is said. It’s a mess.

If there’s one place where prepared text is a good idea, though, it’s the initial hook. There’s a whole lot of information about the basic constraints of the game that you need to get across in a very short time. On a really good day, you’ll have the players’ attention for about two minutes. The ideal is to give just enough information that the players respond with a couple of questions. That is instant engagement that allows for the players to step in and begin to take control of the game. The opening hook is sort of a necessary evil, but it’s still an evil. The game master can just put it out there and then step away as quick as possible!

Here’s an example:

You set sail from Major Port City in search of fabled treasure, but ended up shipwrecked in a strange new country. The Momerati– builders of many fantastic, towering spires– seem friendly enough and are both advanced and civilized. But now that they’ve helped you repair your vessel, they have a modest proposal for you…. You see, goblin raiders have been harassing their coastal cities for some time now. They’d like you to attend to them and in return, they offer you all the supplies you need for you trip back– and a full load of trade goods.

This is not a novel. This is a hand off. Note that I didn’t bother answering any of the “how come?” type questions. How come these advanced people need a ragtag group of adventurers to go after some wimpy goblins? How come goblins are such a problem here anyway? How come the offer is so generous…? Players will hopefully respond to this with additional questions about the campaign setting in general. They may ask what the town they’re in is like and so forth. Try to answer these in just a sentence or two– don’t give in to the temptation to launch into flowery monologues.

For the questions that are tied more closely to the details of the adventure, you may want to use the device of a patron to convey answers to the players….

The Patron

While it is true that the truly great adventures all begin with the little old man handing the player characters a treasure map at the local tavern, there is, of course, more than one way to do it. A good patron character gives the game master a way to justify the adventure and give the player characters whatever they need to get started. A patron also provides an avenue for the game master to shift from an omniscient voice to speaking more in the context of the game and in the perspective of its non-player characters.

Patrons will have their own motives and are liable to be incorrect about the finer points of the information they give. If you are starting a brand new campaign, you will want them to appear as reliable and as trustworthy as possible. If play continues, you’ll be able to introduce more than one patron representing conflicting interests from levels of power and influence above that of the players. The players will ultimately get to choose which faction they help or perhaps even become a power in their own right. For an introductory adventure, however, all you’ll need is a means of facilitating the adventure.

It’s conceivable that the players are so gung ho about diving in that they push to go directly to the action without consulting this character. This is fine, but they are liable to find out a few things the hard way. In any case, you don’t want the patron chasing after the players to give advice. If the players happen to fall on their faces and come back to town empty handed, you can always introduce the patron at that point in order to get the game back on track. Ideally you should never be afraid to let the players take control of the pacing and the depth with which they engage the setting.

Here’s an example:

Balthazar is a satrap of the northern province. He has  been chosen as a representative of his people because of natural ability to master languages. After a couple of weeks, he seems to speak fairly decent common… though his vocabulary is necessarily limited at this point. He indicates that the goblins have four ships and that they are armed with some kind of fire-rain.

That will hopefully get the players asking some clarifying questions!

Note one trick here… if they players ask something the game master hasn’t prepared for, he can always just say, “Balthazar doesn’t understand what you mean.” If play continues in further sessions, the game master will have time to flesh things out… and the patron’s fluency can grow right along with the player’s and the game master’s. For everything else, though, don’t be afraid to allow him to say or provide anything that helps get the game going!

Wm. John Wheeler and Steve Jackson on Adventure Design

The debate between proponents of “sandbox” and “railroad” design have long been a mainstay among gamers.  Of course, the argument is not nearly as cut and dried as we tend to make it. In a section on adventure design in FASA’s Doctor Who Role Playing Game, Wm. John Wheeler describes precisely how both linear and free form scenarios can be put together for a more entertaining and robust design:

The best published scenarios combine the two types, using some linear encounters and some free-form encounters. Linear encounters are used to introduce the scenario, drawing the players and the characters into the action, giving them a reason to enter the scenario environment and meet the scenario NPCs. After the ‘hook’, as the introductory encounter is sometimes called, the linear encounters lead the player characters into a situation that gives them free choice about where they will proceed. The actions in each of the free-form encounters affect the players in the short term. In the long term, another set of linear encounters lead the players into yet another area of free choice, perhaps the climax of the scenario. Linear encounters are often used to wrap up the scenario, bringing it to a satisfactory conclusion.

Using encounters of both types is like building a structure with tinker toys, with the sticks being linear encounters and the knobs being the free-form encounters. The linear encounters give some structure to the free-form encounters. The combination allows the scenario to have a well-defined story line– not as well-defined as purely linear scenarios, but much more defined than those that are purely free-form. The combination also allows players freedom to choose their action– not as much as in purely free-form scenarios, but far more than in those that are purely linear.

He follows this up with a breakdown of three campaign types:

  • Ones “where the players characters are all the same even though the scenarios do not have much to do with one another.”
  • Ones where “the scenarios all have to do with the same topic, perhaps approach it from different angles, possibly with different characters.”
  • Ones where “the same characters follow the same plot from adventure to adventure, solving puzzles along the way and discovering more and more about the plot as the adventure scenarios progress.”

Wm. John Wheeler’s remarks on adventure design are about as cogent as any that I’ve seen. What he is describing here is what I call situation oriented play. It’s a natural fit for creating adventure in the context of an otherwise infinite universe. A certain segment of players don’t want to be able to go anywhere and do anything– they want to, as the old Infocom ads put it, “get inside a story.” Indeed, you can see the tinker-toy structure quite clearly in many of their games. Planetfall, for instance, opens up with a linear sequence that leads in to a more free-form situation.

Wm. John Wheeler’s outline here is practically a template for how many of the adventures that were written for second edition GURPS. Given that his game was published a year beforehand it’s interesting to see how his views compare with those of Steve Jackson. It’s odd, but he spends more time in talking about the wrong way to do it than he does in spelling out actual techniques and design principles:

  • “In children’s fantasy games, every encounter may be rolled randomly!” He’s calling out the random dungeon generation sections of Advanced and Basic D&D here without any any recognition of how these sorts of techniques are essential to creating more sophisticated, free-form play in a notionally pure sandbox.
  • He makes snark at the “hack and slash” dungeon in which the rooms are stocked willy nilly with no thought given to why the monsters are there or what motivates them.
  • He sneers at the “plot of the story” of the typical dungeon adventure even though a session where only one player character makes it back can be quite engaging, generating narratives that are told and retold at conventions.
  • He hammers the point that earning character points for good role playing is far more sensible than XP for the “amount of wealth you drag home.”

Steve Jackson must have been traumatized by some pretty awful D&D sessions! A lot of digital ink has been spent since then explaining why his views here are wrongheaded. He just didn’t seem to “get” old school play… even though he was involved in the industry at the dawn of the hobby! He can perhaps be forgiven for this due to the fact that the case for why things were being done the way they were was never made plain in any of the rule books for the games that he was reacting against. In any case he certainly spoke for a lot of people that had a similar reaction and that wanted something more.

What was his ideal for good adventure design then? Given the thrust of GURPS design, it’s clear that he was really taken with making it easier to move characters between different game worlds and campaigns. He practically describes the structure of Infocom’s Deadline when he discusses more advanced adventure plots that have things going on apart from the player characters while they engage in the situation. His best advice centers on nailing down the climax of the adventure, but leaving the players to get to it whichever way they choose:

The players earlier actions affect the details of the finale, but its basic nature remains the same. If the players make “wrong” decisions along the way, it will take them longer to finish, and they should have a harder time dealing with the situation — but they should make it to the finale eventually. The exception might be a case where they have blundered so badly that the finale would certainly kill them all — in which case, the merciful GM will drop a hint that they are over their heads, and let them give up and run for home.

A more sophisticated adventure will have several possible finales, depending on decisions made by the players during the adventure. This sort of “branching path” adventure is harder to design, but sometimes easier for the GM to run — less improvisation is needed. Such an adventure can be played several times, making it especially suitable for “programmed” adventures.

Taken together, Wm. John Wheeler and Steve Jackson provide a comprehensive breakdown on how to craft an adventure plot that typifies the sort ideals that mid-eighties gamers were looking for. This type of game is very different from the older “sandbox” style of the seventies. While not necessarily better or more mature, it does acknowledge player autonomy while creating something much more recognizable as being a story. It accomplishes this without having the more blatantly obvious “rails” of something like Tracy Hickman’s infamous Dragonlance series.

Goblin Adventure

This is my crappy playtest map.

This adventure is clearly derivative the kind of lairs you see in B2 and the overall plot of G1. I mix in elements of stuff like Zork, too. The goal here is more to create a dynamic situation that has multiple outcomes and degrees of success. The main thing I want to nail down here is a sense of the monster’s behavior– they’re not just sitting in their rooms waiting to be killed. This post is based on my son’s campaign setting. The system used here is Heroes & Other Worlds, but there’s not a whole lot of system in this post.

Entrance — In keeping with tradition, there are multiple paths from the start– three different passages, not counting the main cave opening back out. There is a goblin guard here that will fall back to the river area at the first sign of player characters. If he makes his morale check, he will report a head count to his mates. (If his mates make a morale check then they will send a detachment to go harass the player characters, otherwise they will merely call for reinforcements and prepare an ambush at the river area.) Scouts, thieves, and point-men have a chance of noticing this guy trying to slip away.

If the players ask about the passages, then they notice that they have different characteristics. The left passage has kind of a rank smell. There is wind coming from the central passage. The right passage smells like sawdust and apples.

Mildew — This section is my punishment for the people that think they can “always go left” and get away with it. It is rank, humid, slippery, and there are pools of water here. Individual scouts will hear dripping sounds and have a chance (3/IQ) of noticing that something is amiss. If the party spends time searching this room, then they all get Cave Rot. If they only spend a brief time running through here, then they can resist it on 3/EN. If the players have alerted the guards and the guards have sent a detachment out to harass them, then they won’t come into this room. But they would love to cause the players to “hit the deck” and suck mildew, so the goblins would like to shoot them up by surprise as the players come into this area on their way out of this section.

Cave Locusts — This room is meant for teaching the players about a dirty trick that could come back to haunt them in a later adventure. As they come into this room first they notice mushrooms everywhere. Next they notice large Cave Locusts. If the bugs are disturbed in any way, then they make really loud chirping noises. There’s no real consequence in this adventure, but if there were wandering monsters about, this would surely get their attention. The mushrooms are edible if anyone takes the time to investigate them.

Sinkhole — There are some interesting crystalline rock formations here, but otherwise not much of interest. Each person that comes into this room has a 1-in-6 chance of falling down a sinkhole to level three. The fall uses up all EN automatically and does an additional 1d6+2 damage against ST. (Roll 4/Acrobatics to take half damage.) If the players work together quickly to tie a rope around someone and lower them into the sinkhole, then the lost player character can be fished back out. If that happens, he will report ominous sounds of large creatures stomping in his direction just as he was being rescued. Otherwise, he is never heard from again.

Ship’s Stores — Everything the goblin raiders need to supply their ships are here– barrels of apples, tar, turpentine, canvas,  etc. There is a lever that opens a large trapdoor in the floor. This leads to a small underground lake that feeds back into the main river.

River Area — Depending on how alert the goblins are (see entrance), there are either five or twelve goblin guards here. They are on the other side of the river and keep rafts with them for ferrying people back and forth. These goblins are dug in and are equipped with gonzo energy weapons that are supplied to them by evil elves. They like to hide until the party comes up to the river edge– hopefully to argue about the best way to get across– and then open fire in surprise.

Intersection — There are double doors leading to the goblin king’s throneroom. There is a rough door leading to the goblin living quarters. There is an open passage leading east and another passage leading to the river area.

Goblin Living Area — If the goblin guards fail a morale check, then all the goblin women and children here will be alerted to flee as best as they can. They will go to the goblin equivalent of Helm’s Deep and hunker down to lick their wounds and replenish their numbers. The purpose of the commotion as these monsters exit in panic is to give the goblin king time to make an intelligent move while the player characters are distracted.

Bicycle Room — There is an exercise bicycle connected to a washing machine type of device. The goblin’s energy weapons are powered by 10-shot power cubes. Place an empty cube into the machine and ride the bike for two hours and the cube will be fully recharged. There are no intelligence or skill checks for solving this– the players just have to put two and two together here.

Locked Grate — There is a large locked grate across the floor here. (The key to the grate is around the goblin king’s neck.) Stepping on the grate cause it to clank. Spending any amount of time here beyond that first clank sound will cause a tentacled horror to reach through the grate and attack the players.

Guard Room — The king has three body guards here that will fire through arrow slits at anyone that comes into the intersection. These guys will not panic if the guards break and the women and children flee. They get a bonus to morale checks beyond that.

Goblin King’s Throne Room — This is where the king hangs out with his harem. He has the elaborate elven gate device… the whole crux of the adventure. Depending on his coolness under fire, he will either attempt to escape with it or (more likely) attempt to summon help from the evil elves. The machine takes time to operate, however… maybe ten turns or so. If this process is interrupted, then the king has been instructed to destroy the machine.

King’s Quarters — The usual loot and not much else! Enough stuff is here to get a B/X party of eight half way to level 2. There’s enough GURPS loot to score five character points for each player character. In H&OW, there is maybe 100 experience points for each player character. (If you track tick marks per successful skill check, you can use those to weight the final award.) This is the scenario objective, so this is the only place in the adventure that scores the players any kind of experience at all. If the players don’t get this far, but capture some of the goblin’s energy weapons, then they have a marginal achievement. The players are doing pretty good (+50% XP bonuses) if they figure out the bike. Total victory and a perfect score is possible only if the players have prevented the goblin king from summoning aid and kept him from destroying the machine. (They’ll have to figure out how to turn it off in that last case.) A perfect score earns triple XP.

Okay, that’s the basic thrust of the scenario. The key elements are intelligent monster tactics and optional puzzles that yield varying degrees of success. More stats are needed and the timing system has to be looked at, but this should be enough for a competent game master to run the adventure.