Friday, June 22, 2007

Adventure Construction

Ported from here.

The original Dragonlance modules are both awesome and terrible. On the awesome side, they were a story of a scope that had never before been seen, and they put the players in the center of events, rather than watching them unfold from the sidelines as much Cooler NPCs do the important things. It was, at least on paper, exactly what every young D&D player wished their games could be.

On the downside, they show their age pretty clearly these days. The strong railroading of the early modules, the oversized cast of PCs (far in excess of any gaming group I know of) and the kind of weird all-over-the-board-ness of events over the course of the modules make it much easier to appreciate than to actually run.

Now, what's interesting is that as much as DL had railroading, and is vilified for that, it doesn't really have any _more_ railroading than some of the adventures that have come out for, say, Eberron, which are hailed as marvels. From this I conclude a few things:
1. People have been told the DL modules are railroady, so even people who have never read them feel strongly about this.
2. As gaming technology has improved, we've made railroading either more tolerable or better hidden.
3. One man's railroading in another man's clear sense of direction.

Which explanation I favor most changes with the weather and my level of cynicism.

Railroading, for those unfamiliar, basically means an adventure which "runs on rails" - the characters have no meaningful choices, except how to address the problems they encounter, and often even those are strictly curtailed (the green Froglord can only be slain by the Blue Sapphire Sword!). It's often used in a purely pejorative sense, but that's unfair - train rides can be a lot of fun. Most Video Game RPGs, for example, make heavy use of railroading, but are still enjoyed by many folks.

Now, the complete opposite of this is the totally open world. Go anywhere, do anything, any decisions made are entirely organic. Again, this can be fun, but the danger is that without some direction, a game gets unfocused and boring fairly quickly. To get a sense of why, imagine a book or movie which is basically "Just wander around, doing whatever." (Now, I can think of a few movies which sort of fit that model, and they're interesting but not necessarily exciting.) In purely practical gaming terms, it often ends up with the players sitting around wondering "Ok, what do we do now?" which is a kiss of death.

Now, folks playing this at home can usually adapt either of these things to their needs. A good GM can hide the tracks so players have no idea their railroading, or can improvise so furiously that wherever the players go, there's something interesting to do. I appreciate the level of skill that requires, but it's hard to write adventures with those GMs as the target audience, partly because they're rare, and partly because they may have the least need of your product.

So when you sit down to write an adventure, or series of adventures, the challenge is to provide meaningful choices (to avoid railroading) while still providing clear direction (so players don't sit on their hands). The traditional solution to this is the dungeon. There's a reason that dungeons (albeit with different trappings) show up in space, in cyberpunk, in spy games and in almost anything else - not only is it a comfortable model (thanks to the universality of D&D) but it's practical. It creates _limited_ meaningful choice (Do whatever you want, but only within the bounds of the dungeon) while providing clear direction (Kill things, take their stuff). The latter gets so much attention that people tend to overlook the utility of the former.

Unfortunately, the natural limit on the Dungeon is scope. With some mind boggling exceptions, it is hard to put an entire campaign in a dungeon. Eventually, you've killed everything, leveled up, and need a different challenge. Again, the easiest way to deal with this is to have a campaign simply be a way to string dungeons together, which occasional forays into the Big Blue Dungeon that you or I like to call "outside". Unfortunately, you then tend to end up back in the land of railroading, where there is no meaningful choice but to go from dungeon to dungeon.

So why is this all so problematic? Well, because there's still no really strong alternative model for published material. But alternatives are what we seek. Why? Well, here's the thing - I'm pointing a finger at dungeons and all, but really, how many people's games genuinely feel like they just keep going into dungeons and killing things? Very few, I think. GMs and DMs and Storytellers and Mythguides (snerk) and whatever's bring these things to life by bringing in context and characters and motivation. My thinking is that most GMs already have the tools needed to try another model, they just don't have the support.

Now, there have been other models.

Motivations - One method that gets some miles is to simply frame the situation and resources as well as the motivations and agendas of all of the parties involved in a given situation. The GM is basically given all this an told to just let it loose, making decisions about what happens based on this information - NPCs will pursue their agenda to the best of their abilities, and PC action will impact their ability to do so. A lot of Amber plays this way, and it's a common model for Mysteries, and it is probably the most potently dynamic way to do things, but it has drawbacks. It's hard to convey all of this information in a useful way, and providing direction for how NPCs will respond to PC actions is hard, if only because PCs are strongly unpredictable. An adventure can be written with any depth of contingency planning, but the deeper it is, the more the GM needs to keep in mind, so it's a tricky balancing act. The cheat for dealing with this is to make players ineffective - as many companies do - so that their actions don't derail the actions of the much more interesting NPCs who you get to watch.

The other issue is that it needs player buy in - players need to care about what's going on, otherwise all the complexity of events is just background noise. Similarly, the goal of play needs to be worked into this complexity - if the players can just smash and grab the McGuffin, they're less likely to spend their time negotiating among factions. Sometimes setting (like Amber) provides this buy in, but often it must be created, and that tends to fall down flat because most publishers equate "Strongly motivated NPC" with "NPC cooler than your LAME PC", which is pretty sad. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of bad examples of this model, but almost no good ones.

Hard & Soft Points - This model opens things up by saying "Ok, here is the general thrust of what's going on, and here are about 20 scenes that you could play out in resolving it. Scenes 4, 7, 11, 15 and 20 are mandatory, but the others you can take or leave as you see fit." The mandatory scenes are "hard points" and the optional ones are "soft points."
Since "scenes" can be anything from an encounter with an NPC to a chase across the countryside, this creates a framework that can cover a lot of ground. What it has effectively done is recreated the dungeon on a much broader scope - the bounds are now much larger, and the rooms are now scenes, but the design is the same. What's different is that the openness means players can step "out of frame" and go visit their uncle on the coast unless there is some pressing issue not to. Of course, while it's awesome that players have that freedom, this sort of design offers no help for dealing with that, except for motivations to scare players back into the framework.
To date, I've only seen this model in adventures from Alderac, most notably in their 7th Sea products. It's an interesting model, but I feel it really needs to be layered on top of something robust enough to handle characters stepping out of the framework. I suspect, on some level, it lead to the thinking behind the Location Game.

The Location Campaign - I am, in this case, speaking of a specific product: 50 Fathoms, a campaign book for Savage Worlds. I have literally never seen anything like it, but I would like to see more. The basic model is that they wrote the adventure into the campaign setting, so that each location that players go to have something going on. Some of these things tie into a larger plot and point to other things, but those things are just presumed to be "out there" for when players decide to get to them, if ever. Aside from the specific adventure hooks, there's a core underlying game of sailing your ship around and trading to make money, so there's incentive to travel. Additionally, new adventure material can be inserted into the existing framework rather than being a free-standing thing that happens to be set in the world.

The net result is something that feels like the more open computer RPGs, where you can explore, but there's something to do if you want to, which is pretty freaking awesome. The drawback is that, well, the adventure is the setting. This means the setting only has so much depth beyond the planned adventures, which means it's possible to "use up" all the cool stuff in the setting. So it's dynamic, but only to a certain point. Now, that's bad if your group likes an existing world, or doesn't mind scrapping a setting when the campaign is done, but it's fine if you like the idea of a setting existing to tell a particular story, and even great if you enjoy viewing the setting as a skeleton and building onto it over play - though that last group tend to make their own fun.

Flowcharts as Dungeons! - Another specific one. An early D&D 3.0 adventure, Speaker in Dreams took the risky step of taking place in a city rather than a dungeon, and I applaud the choice. One of the things they did to try to smooth over the confusion was to write up a flowchart of events and present it like it was a dungeon the players were moving through. I'd be curious what others thought of it, but I walked away with a "Neat theory, not so much in practice" impression. That said, it did inform on some of my subsequent thinking.

So now what? Well, the direction I'm going with this comes to an odd revelation. There is a discipline that may help us address all the points that we need to consider in writing adventures, including directed openness, flexibility, and presentation of information. That discipline is Project Management.

Weird, I know, but project management is the art of juggling uncertainty in pursuit of a goal. You have no real control over the folks in your group, you can't make concrete predictions of how things will go or how long they'll take. Unexpected events can cause everything you've planned to cascade horribly.

I dunno about you, but those sound a lot like the same challenges I deal with when GMing.

Anyway, this means the next question is "how do you plan an adventure like you would plan a project?"

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