10 DMing Tips for Exploration Games Inspired by Super Metroid
Look, I have a huge ego. In addition to all the tweeting, this blog, that DM Word of the Week thing, tweeting on a separate account when I want to talk about video games, and handing out advice on ask.fm, I also ask the Internet watch me play video games live on Twitch while I spout out whatever random crap comes into my head and then ask everyone to watch it all again on YouTube. What I’m trying to say without actually using the word “whore” is that I like the attention. And that’s good for you because I’m absolutely brilliant and tremendously funny and incredibly handsome. So, its win win.
Recently, all of my various worlds crossed when I started replaying Super Metroid for Twitch and commenting on how the game was put together to entice the player to freely explore an alien environment without getting lost, frustrated, or feeling railroaded. Now, it might occur to you that exploration is one of the ways people engage with Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games. And there’s a lot of good stuff in Super Metroid. While it is by no means as perfect as some people claim, it is pretty damned good at the exploration thing.
Obviously, after I finished the first half of my live playthrough (here’s a link to Angry Plays: Super Metroid, pay attention to me!), my thoughts to turned to writing up an article about exploration in RPGs. It is actually a surprisingly complicated topic and a few recent conversations have revealed a lot of people have a pretty f$&%ed up idea about what exploration is and how to actually shove it into your RPG and get it to work right.
The thing is, that’s going to be a long article. Hell, it gets down to the heart of adventure design, not just dungeon design, but all adventure design. Exploration can be as much a part as a murder mystery or diplomatic missions as it is a dungeon if you think about it the right way. So, that’s going to be a little while in coming.
Meanwhile, in the course of exploring Planet Zebes, I ended up with a few really good little bite-sized tips to help engage your players’ desire to explore your world. And frankly, they aren’t just about exploration. So, in this short little post, I’m going to share Ten Things Every DM Can Learn from Planet Zebes. Sound like fun? Good. Let’s get to it.
1. People Don’t Want to Explore, They Want to Discover
Most people are naturally curious and, given half a chance, they will put aside their goals temporarily to satisfy their curiosity. People are natural explorers. And many DMs recognize this. But they only get half the answer. See, people don’t want to explore, they want to discover.
When we explore, we hope to find something new, something unknown, something unexpected. If people don’t make discoveries, eventually, they stop exploring.
2. Discovery Feels Good and It’s Good For You
I had this clinical wording for this tip about extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, but I don’t want to plunge down that particular rabbit hole just yet. I’m going to have to, someday. Its a useful thing for DMs to understand. But for now, we’re going to do the short version.
Some rewards are only rewarding because they give us a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Giving money to charity is a warm fuzzy thing. We do it because we feel good doing it. Solving a Rubik’s Cube makes us feel smart. We don’t get anything but a warm fuzzy feeling.
Some rewards are rewarding because of the rewards themselves. The reward for going to work is a paycheck. Your job may not give you a warm fuzzy, but it gives you something you want or need.
Discovery is one of those cool rewards that can be both. On the one hand, making discoveries just feels good. Its a way of conquering and controlling the world. You reduce the number of things you are ignorant of. Metaphorically, you are pushing back the darkness. You feel more powerful even if the discovery isn’t particularly powerful.
But sometimes, you discover something actually useful. A vital piece of information or a useful tool. Adventurers who explore every nook and cranny of the dungeon might find hints at a powerful monster’s weakness, they might find an alternate way to approach a problem, they might find a map that reveals secrets, or they might find piles of gold or powerful magical items.
DMs often undervalue the “interesting, but not useful,” and load up the discoveries with “useful.” But good DMs know the value of mixing it up. Sometimes, discoveries should be “useful but not interesting,” sometimes they should be “interesting but not useful” and sometimes they should be “interesting and useful.” Mix it up. Because…
3. Get Them Addicted to Exploration
Do you gamble? Do you grind for loot in World of Warcraft or Diablo? Do you buy Magic: the Gathering boosters or Hearthstone packs or random miniature boxes or even Lego Minifigures? All of these things share two important qualities. One, they are highly addictive. Two, they have a random payoff. They don’t payoff every time to the same degree. Sometimes, you get crap. Sometimes, you get gold. Sometimes, you get something in between.
If you want to get someone to do something over and over and over, you don’t pay them off every time. The rewards have to be random and unpredictable. It’s insidious. For two reasons. First, if we know something is always going to pay off, it is easier to decide not to do it today. Imagine a world where the M:tG booster packs psychically knew which cards you needed and you were guaranteed a useful rare card you wanted in every pack. It would actually be easier not to spend your last $5 on a booster because you know you can just wait until you have $5 or $10 or $20 and still get the useful things you want. Random payoffs make you afraid to pass up opportunities because this might be the one. It becomes really hard to say no if you’re afraid an opportunity will never come up again.
Likewise, humans get acclimated to stimuli. One jelly donut is a tasty treat. And you really enjoy it. But two jelly donuts? Five? Imagine if you had three jelly donuts every single day, delivered free. It’d be easy to just throw them out when you weren’t in the mood. You’d get tired of them.
So discoveries need to be far more rare than opportunities to explore. You need to find the sweet spot. Sometimes, the party just finds nothing. Sometimes, they find something interesting, but not useful. Sometimes, they find something useful, but not interesting. And sometimes they find the totally awesome thing that is both useful and interesting. The trick is to mix it up.
You’ll know when you hit the sweet spot because, one day, the party will be sitting there debating whether to put their urgent, time-sensitive on hold “for just a little while” so they can satisfy their curiosity and they will be having a hard time making the decision. That’s exploration addiction.
4. Empowerment is Better than Improvement
Okay, that was all some broad, high-concept s$&% about how discovery feels. Let’s get down to the nitty-f%$&ing-gritty. Let’s talk about your vocabulary. In game terms, your vocabulary is all the things you can do. All the actions you can take. At the start of Super Metroid, for example, Samus has a limited number of ways to deal with her problems. She can move around. She can shoot her gun. And she can jump. Any problem she encounters, she’s got to deal with it with one of those tools. That’s her vocabulary.
Now, in table-top RPGs, vocabulary is a little less clear, a little muddier. In theory, PCs can try almost anything they can describe, right? But, there is a short list, of useful, practical things they can do in a given situation. And when they encounter an obstacle, they are going to consider that list first before they start thinking outside the box. “I’ve encountered a goblin and it wants to kill me. Well, I can fight it, I can run away, or I can try to negotiate with it.” That’s how problem solving works. You cull the list of possibilities down to a short list of practical options and you pick from them.
In Super Metroid, many of the things Samus discovers add words to her vocabulary. The first thing you encounter is the Morph Ball, a device that allows Samus to roll up into a tiny ball to squeeze through small passages. And suddenly she can use that to explore small passages or roll under enemy attacks.
All the big, powerful, good feeling, useful discoveries Samus makes – the ones that feel like victories – are the ones that add to Samus’ vocabulary. There is very little in there that just makes a number bigger. Even when Samus acquires the powered up armor called the Varia Suit, it adds an option. Sure, it decreases the damage she takes, but it also allows her to explore superheated areas without burning to death. It opens up more of the world to her.
The best discoveries add new tools or new opportunities. This is why people are down on things like +1 swords and +1 armor in D&D lately. Those things don’t add new tools or new opportunities. The PC can already attack. The PC already has armor. A ring of jumping is less exciting than boots of levitation, even if they both get PCs over the same pit, because one adds new vocabulary. The other just improves what PCs can already do.
And opportunities need not be new abilities. The discovery of a secret door or a key to an interesting door are both great discoveries because they promise new opportunities. They are kind of like winning free scratch off tickets. Information that lets you approach a challenge from a different way are also exciting, and more exciting than information that makes a challenge easier.
Of course, like with everything else, you want to mix things up. But always err on the side of adding new tools and new opportunities for the big stuff. That is the stuff that feels good.
5. Always Show the Players the Lock Before they Find the Key
While we’re talking about discoveries that empower and create opportunities, let’s talk about locks and keys. If you’ve got a obstacle that requires something special to get past it, make sure the players encounter the obstacle BEFORE they find the solution.
For instance, before you find the Morph Ball I mentioned, you encounter two or three passages too narrow for Samus (depending on how much poking around you do). I even keep count in my video of how many times you encounter a ledge that is too high for you to jump up to before you find the Hi-Jump Boots. I think I found four.
The reason is psychological. Unsolved problems linger in the brain. The brain keeps them available and keeps working on them. They stay fresh. So when you have an unsolved problem and then discover a thing that solves it, your brain can make the connection pretty readily.
On the other hand, if you find a weird key (or a thing that isn’t a key but is a solution), it doesn’t stay as fresh in your mind. It is easier to forget about it because it isn’t connected to a goal. So, when you encounter the lock (or the problem), you might not remember the solution you found in your pocket.
So, always make sure you let the players see the lock before they find the key!
However… when it comes to interesting tools that just make problems easier, it is okay to let the party find those before the problem. Here’s a great example.
In one corner of your dungeon is a hallway that is filled with magical super fire that can’t be extinguished by normal means. Hidden away somewhere else in the dungeon is a magical horn of ice that extinguishes magical fire. Also in the dungeon is a room filled with terrible fire elementals that can be killed through combat but who are paralyzed by the horn of ice.
The players should find the hall of fire BEFORE they find the horn of ice. Problem before solution. But with the elementals, it is okay for them to find the horn before they encounter the elementals because that isn’t really a lock-and-key situation.
6. Be Repetitive and Give an Orgy of Evidence Because Everyone Loves a Good Orgy
If you want players to notice something and figure something out, don’t be subtle. Don’t be coy. Dungeon Masters have a hard time with this. They are always afraid of being too obvious. But it is impossible to be too obvious. They forget that everything they see in their head and everything they know has to be translated into words, briefly and clearly, understood by the players, and then translated by the players back into an image in their brain. A lot more information gets lost in translation than most DMs think.
Again, let’s look at good old Super Metroid. I saw four situations in which I explicitly needed more jumping than I could muster before I found those damned Hi-Jump Boots. There were three or four spots where I saw places where I needed to move faster or places marked with a “speed” symbol before I found the Speed Booster (which bore the same symbol).
There’s also a spot in the game where an optional path is hidden and there are three or four different clues you have been trained to notice all in the same spot. Strange floor texture. Unusual blocks. Signs of another room off screen. We call that an orgy of evidence.
When it comes to picking up on clues, you can never rely on the players picking up on just one clue unless it is a really, really powerful clue. For instance, in Super Metroid, there is a spot early on where your lack of speed gets you trapped in a room and you have to hunt for a way out (during which you might panic). That’s a powerful clue. That sticks. Nearly losing the game? That’s a powerful hint.
So, repeat yourself. Don’t just have one wall of fire. Have several, even if some are just block side passages. Or have the players end up trapped by walls of fire and force them to find a secret passage to get out. That way, that horn of ice immediately suggests its usage to them. Contrary to what you may think, they won’t notice the repetition, but they will feel smart and excited for figuring it out.
7. Never Make the Players Guess Whether they are Making Progress
Shortly after recovering the Missile Launcher in Super Metroid, you encounter your first red door. Red doors can only be opened by shooting them with five missiles in succession. You’ve seen a few red doors at this point (repetition, showing the lock before the key), so you try your missile launcher out. And the door warbles and lights up. It doesn’t open (it needs five missiles), but it makes a noise and glows. It reacts.
Imagine if that didn’t happen. Imagine if the door did nothing. How long would it take you to figure out you need to shoot five missiles at the red door? Would you even shoot a second missile? You have limited missile ammo after all.
The point is clear: if you want players to continue down the right path, especially if they have to expend resources or take risks, they have to know they are making progress. They have to know that their attacks are having an effect. They have to know their flowery words are gradually swaying the king to their side. If they don’t know they are making progress, they will assume they are not. Then, they will back off and try a different strategy instead.
8. Let the Players Get Comfortable, Then Take Away Their Comfort
Super Metroid has great pacing. What is pacing? Pacing is how tension, excitement, and engagement vary over time. Amateurs assume that you want to keep ratcheting up the tension and excitement until the climax and then let it all fall down into the ending. But that just exhausts your audience (the players) or makes them feel stressed and frantic. Pacing rises and falls.
Here’s an example. Super Metroid is divided into different areas, each with its own separate map. Once you reveal a lot of the map of the area and start to feel comfortable with the layout and the gimmicks and enemies of a particular area, you get thrown into a new area with a blank map and no clue again. It lets you get familiar, then forces you into the unknown, then allows you to return to the familiar then hits you with the unknown. Up and down.
Adventures – site-based and otherwise – should be a roller coaster, not a ski-lift. They need to up and down. Easy and hard, fast and slow, familiar and strange, calm and noisy. After a really tense combat, the next scene should be something slow and cerebral, or a nice easy combat. After the party fight a few encounters with kobolds, throw something new at them. You have a lot of variables to work with: the type of the encounter, familiarity with the situation, difficulty level of the challenges. Vary them up.
9. Don’t Let the Players Desires Align All the Time
In one room of Super Metroid, you have to make some jumps on narrow platforms over spiked pits while flying enemies buzz around. Shoot the enemies then proceed, right? Wrong. The enemies are glowbugs. And the room is dark without them. Every time you kill one, you make it harder to see the platforms you are trying to jump between. So, you have to decide which one you can do: navigate barely visible platforms or dodge enemies while jumping around.
There’s no right answer. That makes it a choice, not a puzzle. Choices have no correct answers. DMs forget that a lot. You can see it every time some DM tries to hamfistedly set up a “moral choice” that is basically “here’s an opportunity to do evil, I bet you really want to do evil, don’t you.” A real moral choice is choosing between what is just and what is right, for example, or choosing which evil you are more willing to live with.
When you set up an encounter (combat or otherwise), try to play goals or desires against one another. Don’t let the PCs goals and desires align. Or make them risk more if they want bigger prizes. Make the path through the room easier than the path to the treasure. Don’t let the players have everything they want.
10. Optional Things Are Good, But So Are Things that Only Seem Optional
I fully admit that, in order to accommodate my arbitrary decision to put ten things on this list, I’m cramming two different ideas together. If you don’t like it, write your own f$&%ing article.
First of all, in video games as well as in RPGs, there has been a huge turn away from the optional thing. We don’t do missable things anymore. As DM’s, we balk at the idea of spending any time designing something that might not come up in the game. And many video games follow that same mentality. Look back at Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. You could miss half that f$&%ing game (the inverted castle) if you didn’t scour the game for secrets well enough. You’d never know. No video game would do that nowadays.
But, exploration has to be a choice. And it has to offer rewards. And the downside for not exploring is not discovering. That means, exploration requires optional things. If you want to have exploration and discovery in your game, you have to also accept the possibility of not-exploration and not-discovery.
So, hide some stuff away. Make it hard to find. Make it optional stuff, not required to proceed. The secret backstory of a terrible NPC. A powerful magical relic that is useful but not required. A hidden area that is really different from the rest with a unique battle and treasure inside. Yes, that means some of your work will never exist in your world, but no one ever said being a DM is easy.
But then, there is the non-optional optional stuff. And this is where Super Metroid shines. There’s a whole bunch of optional crap hidden around planet Zebes (mainly increased health and ammunition pickups). You don’t need them. You can win the game without them. But they make life easier. And then there are a few optional tools you don’t need, like the Spazer and the Charge Beam, both of which upgrade your primary laser gun. You don’t need them, they are totally optional, and they are both slightly off the beaten path. In theory, you could walk right past them. But, in practice, most people don’t. Most people find them. Because…
F$&% it. You know what, you get an eleventh tip because this one is going on too long and I really need to break this down. So call number 10. It’s Okay to be Optional.
10. It’s Okay to Be Optional
11. Use the Player’s Natural Habits to Help Them… and Hinder Them
So, there are these two optional things: the Charge Beam and the Spazer. And one of them is actually really hard to miss. It is hidden off the main path, and you might never know it is there, except that the game has been training to notice certain details about your environment and the Charge Beam is hidden behind a giant clump of three or four of those details (an orgy of evidence). You would have to be pretty obtuse to never find it. Spazer is a little harder to notice, but not much harder.
The thing is, a lot of the things in Super Metroid that seem optional aren’t. The game trains you to behave a certain way and then uses those habits to lead you to things that you really don’t need to find. It creates this nice reward for paying attention, reinforces the habit, and makes you feel like you found something through your own cleverness that lots of people would miss. Even though most people don’t miss it for precisely the same reasons you didn’t.
So, step one, pay attention to how your players behave. Players have natural tendencies to begin with and they tend to adopt habits over time that are easy to observe. For example, here’s a couple of things. Players tend to explore open pathways before they will open doors. That is, if they are in a room with a closed door and two open doorways, they tend to explore the open doorways first. This is especially true if you are mapping on a battle grid. If players are in goal-pursuing mode, they will tend to follow any obvious path through a site, even if that path has no clear connection to their goal. So, if the players are hunting a specific monster on a strict time limit (so they are focussing on their goal) and there is a river running through some of the tunnels of the dungeon, the players will tend to follow the river even if the monster is not a river monster. When they have a goal in mind, they want to follow a path, and it doesn’t matter what path they follow. On the other hand, if they are in exploration mode and want to “reveal the whole map,” most players tend to follow obvious paths last. So, if the players are exploring the same dungeon trying to find treasure and adventure, they take the side passages that lead away from the river before they follow the river. In general, they want to clear everything before they progress. This is especially true of stairs that lead to different floors or passages that clearly lead to geographically different areas.
Now, these habits can vary from group to group and they are only tendencies. But if you want to put an optional thing in your dungeon, putting at the end of a hall behind an open doorway rather than behind a closed door will funnel players to it. If the players are hunting for a goal and they are very focussed, you can put them into exploration mode by making the path impossible to follow and forcing them to sidetrack. Bioshock (the first one) uses the “critical path/sidetracking” model as basically its core gameplay element.
So, observe your players, watch their habits, then use those habits to design better sites and better adventures. And, like all of my other advice, this is true of non-site-based adventures too. Players on a murder investigation tend to follow any clear path of clues even if it is not immediately obvious that it ties to the murder. You can use this to your advantage.