Want to see a really neat dungeon? Well, I am going to show it to you. But I’ve got my reasons and you need to understand them. I have a point. I always do. And it is always brilliant. So, settle in for a few thousand Angry words. And then, maybe, if you are good, I will show you my really neat dungeon.
We gamers talk a lot about story and collaboratively story-telling experiences and there has been an explosion of innovations about storytelling in RPGs. And, despite my jokes, I don’t hate story. No one who pays attention to me can seriously believe I do. I am very interested in telling an interesting, engaging story with a group of emotionally invested players. But the phrase “role-playing game” is made up of two words. Well, one word and one compound word. Or word-phrase. Whatever. We have “role-playing,” which is all about the decisions the characters make and how they change the world and we have “game,” which is about… well… it is about a game. And a game is about working to overcome challenges to ultimately win. And it is that word there (challenges, if you can’t see where I am pointing), that I’ve been thinking a lot about. That is our topic, kids: challenge.
But two little caveats.
First, I know there is a disdainful view that the game and the story are opposites. That is, you can’t tell an engaging, immersive story and also have something that functions as a challenging, winnable scenario. And that’s absurd. In fact, the risk of loss and the price the PCs have to pay to achieve victory are as much a part of the story as their choices. More generally, story and challenge are two axes on the same graph. You can have something that functions as a good game and something that tells a good story, you can have something that tells a bad story and is not a very good game, and you can have something that does one but not the other. Sure, sometimes we have to decide which is more important and sometimes story tugs us one way and the game tugs us another, but the game works best when the two work together.
Now, if you are one of those people who says the only reason people play RPGs is to tell a good story together or if you are one of those people who think challenge and the risk of loss or the unpredictable nature of the game ruin the story, get the f$&% off my website. You will get nothing out of this and I don’t feel like explaining in the comments why you’re wrong. To quote a great, challenging game: “leave and be gone!… c:\”
All right, is anyone still here? Good. You guys are the smart ones.
Second caveat: there is a difference between challenge and difficulty. I am not here to talk about making hard games, but understanding challenge is key to making good hard games. This is about creating satisfying challenges. I ain’t here to talk about Fourthcore or Tomb of Horrors. I want to talk about challenge in a general way, which is not the same as difficulty.
I guess we should probably define challenge, then, huh? A challenge is a situation in which victory (defined as achieving one’s goals) is not assured and that the players must create victory by making choices, taking actions, and applying skills. That is pretty straightforward, right? A challenge is a situation in which the players might succeed or fail and the power to succeed is in their hands. Difficulty refers to how likely the players are to succeed or fail or how hard they have to work to achieve success. An easy challenge is still a challenge as long as the outcome is uncertain and the players have to create success. And what is a satisfying challenge? A satisfying challenge is one which, whatever the outcome, leaves the players feeling satisfied. If they succeed, they feel as if they created that success and deserve it. They can be proud of themselves. If they fail, they feel as if they deserve that failure and that they can learn from it and move on. A satisfying failure is one that leaves the players knowing they could have done something differently to make it a success.
As to why I’ve been wasting time thinking about it? And writing thousands of word about it? And conducting experiments with hyperbolic names like “The Perfect Dungeon?” Well, there are three reasons.
First, it is fun. I like the topic and I like writing thousands of words about things and I like ridiculous, hyperbolic names. Remember “Project Slaughterhouse?”
Second, because I think it is relevant to a lot of games. I have pretty good reason to believe that there are a lot of players out there who WANT a challenging game as well as one that provides an engaging story. I actually did a poll not too long ago on Twitter and Google+ about the possibility of defeat in games. Of the pool of 3,500 people I can reach, over the course of a week, I got 120 to 150 responses. Only about 5 indicated that failure and defeat have no place in their games. Beyond the poll, my personal experiences line up with these ideas. I’ve run games for about fifty regular players over the years (not all at once). In the last ten years, I’ve started talking to my players a great deal about what they want, what they don’t, what makes them happy, and what doesn’t. I have experimented a great deal with my style. And none of this considers one-shot games, convention games, pick-up games, and so on. Nor the numerous gamers I now talk to on a regular basis. Basically, I am quite confident that I’m not just speaking out of my ass here. I think this is a topic relevant to a lot of games and a lot of game tables. I think a lot of players really do enjoy being challenged and DMs owe it to their players to provide that.
The third reason I have been thinking about challenge and the way it is presented is because it seems like very few other people are. For all that we talk about story and narrative mechanics and innovating in terms of interactive storytelling, we seem to be ignoring the idea of presenting challenges. Sure, we try new mechanics, but mechanics are not challenge. Challenge is the way obstacles and problems are presented in the game and how players (and characters) are empowered to overcome them.
You can see this by looking at one of the most rigorously “game-like” RPGs: Dungeons and Dragons. At its core, D&D is about a team of heroes overcoming obstacles to achieve their goals. The entire game is structured around that experience. It doesn’t have much to say in terms of story and in terms of role-playing. It is all about: heroes overcoming adversity to win. And yet, since 2000, D&D has gone through several iterations and the basic methodology for building a challenging combat encounter has not changed. Not in 13-years. Pick whether you want an easy combat, a medium combat, or a hard combat. Now, plop down enough monsters to meet that budget based on some assigned metric. Done and done. Sometimes, D&D will get brave enough to make a token mention about how terrain can nudge the difficulty, but that’s it. If D&D is to be believed, we hit the pinnacle of combat design 13 years ago and haven’t looked back.
Every D&D DM worth his salt knows (or eventually figures out) that the Encounter Budget method is a load of bulls$&%. It is a lie. Terrain, strategy, and synergy play a role. And as the game has become more tactically rigorous, they play a larger and larger role. The balance of the tools a given group of PCs have at their disposal (say melee vs ranged combat tools) and they types of foes they face have a huge impact as well. Player skill is always a factor, for everyone, despite how much we blame min-maxers or decry the idea of challenging players instead of their characters. As soon as you give the player free will and control over the character, the player’s decisions (and therefore, their skills) are going to impact the outcome.
But you can’t really blame the designers. Something we often forget is that the designers are not really building a game. They are building a game engine or a game console. D&D is not The Last of Us or Batman: Arkham Origins. D&D is a PS4 or an XBox One or maybe it is the Frostbite 2 engine. The games are the adventures and campaigns we run. Some are published by game designers, of course, but others are built by basement game designers like you and me who create original material for our players every freaking week.
Now, we can condemn the system for not explaining its tools better and we can demand that D&D (and all RPGs, really) do more to empower DMs to use the system’s tools. And we should be willing to. Apart from Dungeon Magazine, D&D 4E had an aggressively small library of published modules and adventures and it claimed that one of its design goals was to empower DMs to build and run games more easily. But did it empower us to run better games? I don’t think it did anything different than 3E and D&D Next looks like more of the same. Pathfinder is doing the same thing. And D&D and Pathfinder are the games that really devote the most time to encounter building and presenting challenge. It is no less relevant in any other RPG, but Savage Worlds doesn’t spend any time on the subject. 13th Age mostly follows the Encounter Budget model. What gives?
So, it falls to us, the DMs. The basement game designers and also the people who want to write adventure modules for D&D and 13th Age and Pathfinder and all the others. We’ve got to work this out if we think it’s important. And I do.
Hence The Perfect Dungeon.
See, in addition to being an obsessive gamer and Dungeon Master, I am also a video gamer. And in some ways, video games have come farther in about the same length of time as tabletop RPGs. Working within their own limitations (they cannot offer the freedom that TTRPGs do), some of them have nonetheless made tremendous strides in how they present stories and invite their audiences to participate in them and how to present satisfying challenges. Now, I am not saying that every video game does a better job than TTRPGs, but I’m saying there is a a lot of artful design out there if you are willing to play critically. On balance, I think most DMs would benefit from spending at least as much time with a controller in their hands as they do enjoying non-interactive media like movies, books, and television shows.
There are several advantages video games have over RPGs. For example, despite their beginnings as a niche product much like tabletop RPGs, video games have exploded in popularity and now make up a huge part of the entertainment industry. That means huge amounts of money and time get poured into designing new and better games. In addition, video game design, as both an art and a technical skill, has become more and more legitimized. And that means there is a lexicon and people can talk about it and exchange theories about it. While they haven’t reached the level of critical analysis that film has just yet, video games are still thoroughly deconstructed, analyzed, criticized, overthought, examined, poked, prodded, folded, spindled, and mutilated.
And one of the things video games have been working hard to perfect is the presentation of satisfying challenge. Not just in terms of mechanics, but in terms of level and scenario design. There are concepts in video game level design (such a “flow” and “difficulty curve”) that we could certainly learn a lot from in adventure design. And I don’t just mean in terms of, say, dungeon design. After all, there is no real difference between a dungeon and an investigation except the connection between the scenes. Instead of hallways and locked doors, you have clues and leads. Instead of monsters and traps, you have interactions and research. Even the freeform nature of the game need not be an issue. Video games have been solving the sandbox problem for years. Hell, Megaman figured out how to overcome the basic structure and difficulty curve problems inherent in a sandbox style game back in 1987.
But this is not a tribute to how wonderful video games are and a statement that all of our answers lie in video games. For TTRPGs to advance as a medium, we also have to do things that only our medium can do and perfect those. But, as I’ve said, when it comes to designing and presenting challenging scenarios and encounters, we’re way behind. It is time to start cribbing.
The Perfect Dungeon is one of those science kits you get as a kid. An electronics kit. A chemistry set. I want to fiddle with the ideas about challenge and game presentation that other media (like video games) have been refining over the years and see what works and what doesn’t. I want to learn to build a game that is a satisfying challenge as well as a good story. I want to see what works and what doesn’t. Mostly, I want to play. Because I’m sick of living the lie of “cram five level one monsters in a room and that’s all it takes,” but I want to replace it with something better.
It just so happened that, recently, my group of players decided to spend a few of our weekly sessions on a second game. Something more casual and less deep and serious than our primary game. Mainly, we wanted to shake down a new system. But we also just wanted to have fun adventures. And I saw my opportunity. I decided it was time to bring The Perfect Dungeon to life.
In the game, The Perfect Dungeon is a network of ancient catacombs and labyrinths beneath the the cosmopolitan trade city of Maridia. The shameless name theft seemed appropriate for many reasons, not least of which because, whatever its true purpose, we all knew the location was just a shameless excuse for adventure. We named the campaign Plunderers of Maridia so there would be no illusions. You are adventurers. Not heroes. Not chosen ones. You are just a bunch of glorified tomb robbers and monster hunters. Down there is adventure. Go have it.
Outside of the game, though, on my desk, The Underhalls of Maridia are jars of sodium carbonate and litmus, resistors and capacitors, springs and weights and motors, and all sorts of delightful toys. But I am not playing, I am doing science. I want to see how I can arrange all the pieces to build better challenges and what rules of thumb I can follow. As much as I claim that story and challenge ultimately have to work together, I am not worrying about that as much here. The dungeon is a perfect setting for tinkering with the game as a game. Players will accept strange constructions of questionable purpose and bizarrely complicated door locks and puzzles and monsters that come out of nowhere and, as much as those things wrankle me, I’m not going to apologize too much. Likewise, as much as I claim that you can apply the same theories to any part of the game, I’m keeping it simple.
I have told my players that I am doing something and they have some sense of where my current interests are, but I’m not pointing out the specific parts. See, the tricky part about fiddling with challenge building is that it is subtle. Good scenario design is the sort of thing that happens in the background. Worse yet, if you see it happening, it ruins the experience somewhat. So, apart from some ideas my overly analytical, clever players (most of them are DMs and many of them are interested in theorycraft like me), we’re not discussing what actually I’m doing. Instead, I’m just polling them about how things feel. What they like, what they don’t, and watching their behavior, and watching for signs of elation and frustration. At the very least, I won’t be building anything worse than the games we’ve all already built. But I’m curious to see what happens. Will it be better? More exciting? Will I be able to pit my players against bigger, better challenges than I used to because they are more well-put together?
And I’ve decided I’m going to share. That is what all of these thousands of words have been building up to: I’m inviting you along for the ride. As my players clear rooms and deal with obstacles and challenges, I’m going to put my designs up here and talk about what I did and why and whether it worked. Basically, while my players Plunder Maridia, we’re going to come here and Ransack Maridia.
Because my players love the theorycraft as much as I do, they will want to read this stuff. So, I will be hiding some things behind spoiler tags like so: if you can read this, you’d better not be one of my players!. If you are one of my players, read what is under the spoiler if you want, but know that you may be ruining some of the surprise for yourself because the spoiler tags will usually hide things things you haven’t seen yet or discuss future plans.
Now, some ground rules. Except where it is absolutely necessary, I will not be discussing the rules system. Even then, I will only be discussing it in vague references. Don’t ask what it is. I won’t tell you. One of the reasons is to emphasize the fact that these ideas are not about mechanics or system. The rules system is ancillary. We’re playing with The Metagame here (*gasp* Angry said Metagame!). There are other reasons, though. I just can’t talk about them. So don’t ask me for game mechanics or system details. Sorry. You have to take what I give.
I may or may not discuss what my players did or did not do or how they reacted to situations, but understand this: my players are my friends. While it may sound like I view them as lab rats, I love them dearly and I am doing this because I think I can provide them with a better game as a result. They are clever, experienced gamers. Their actions, their choices, and their skills are not under anyone’s scrutiny and I will not tolerate any criticism of their actions. What we’re examining is my decisions in building challenge, not their reactions to them and I will only discuss their actions insofar as it demonstrates something significant that I did right or wrong. Remember that hindsight is easier than sight and reading something from behind the screen is a lot different than playing it with the limited knowledge of a player.
Anyway, if you’re interested in exploring the Underhalls of Maridia and deconstructing adventure and scenario design elements, let’s get to Ransacking.