Friday, December 3, 2010

The Adventure Triad

There was an interesting question put forward in the comments yesterday that got me thinking about the structure of adventures. I was talking about goal-based vs. procedural adventures, and a commenter asked what these categories are. I had never given it much thought, so I chewed on this a bit to try to figure out what categories there might be.

The thing that surprised me is that there were fewer than I expected. Sticking within the bounds of more normal adventures, which is to say I'm excluding meta-play adventures, where the player's role is more akin to an author, and with those aside, there are three big categories - Situational, Procedural and Goal oriented. They're not exclusive (more on that in a minute) but they have different priorities.

Situational play centers around characters inserted into an already-detailed situation, whether dynamic or static, and bouncing around within it, observing, interacting, and often changing the rest of the situation. The GM tends to do a fair amount of work up front, and then depend up skills of improvisation to keep the situation feeling realistic and compelling. A game like Amber, which revolves around the machination of an extended family is a good example of a situational game.

Procedural play is based on the the idea of sequential events, strung together to create a coherent chain of events (or, if you're feeling risky... a story). The GM needs to do a fair amount of prep for this as well, but it's more focused than that for situational play - if you imagine Situational design as a large box full of stuff, procedural play is a series of smaller boxes. It's easier to come up with a procedural game, but the situational material is more reusable. Mysteries are great examples of this.

Goal oriented play is, as the name suggests, centered around a goal the players are looking to accomplish. The framework around the the goal might be loose or structured, but the goal is always the thing that drives play. Leverage is almost purely goal oriented - without a goal, the game doesn't work well.

Knowing these approaches can help prevent confusion when you want to run a game, since these approaches also speak to player expectations. When a player anticipates a situation game, where he's going to have a lot of freedom to wander towards whatever shiny object catches his attention, he's going to get very frustrated if the GM is expecting procedural play.

Now, by themselves, these three elements create a a very limited picture of what's really going on in play. While they are practical methods of play, very few games are going to be purely one thing or another. These ideas inform play, but you start seeing more interesting things in between them, where these ideas combine, and where this:

Starts to look more like this:

So what are those three new categories? Stay tuned!


  1. Good insights Rob. That's a key distinction to help align a group's expectations and keep people happy. I think people could dislike a game style and not think at this level to see why it doesn't grab them.

    You're right about Leverage being goal oriented to its core. I wonder if that will make for deep difficulties trying to use it outside the caper genre, like in fantasy where there would be more situational focus. I look forward to hearing your insights on Sandbox and Quests, because that would be the way I would have to try to lean it.

    Would I be right in putting Smallville RPG squarely at Situational? I wonder if these attributes come more from specific mechanics, or from the assumptions underneath the mechanics.

  2. @Atminn That is definitely how I would categorize Smallville, and realizing that is something that's been useful to me in thinking about what to hybridize between it an Leverage.

    I think going to an open-ended model for Leverage play would definitely create some problems. My biggest fear would be disparity between the roles. If you're just doing whatever, the hitter and grifter can usually stay busy, but keeping the other roles engaged is tough.

    That said, it suggests Leverage might work better for open-ended play with fewer than five characters, so role differentiation is less of a big deal. As an example, in my mind, it is very easy to see Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser being a two-player Leverage game.

  3. Smallville noticeably has Watchtower (the GM) being responsible for framing all scenes, so that controls to some extent the spotlight of various players. You could engineer Leverage in the same way to cover that, if it's an issue of keeping certain Crewmembers busy, but it discourages the Role schema from its best implementation.

    A Cortex Plus iteration I'm working on now draws heavily from Leverage but doesn't use Roles because it's designed to be more Procedural + Situational. But I like how the Leverage iteration handles some things, so I'm keeping those.

  4. Are there any games you know of that are a close to equal balance of all three structures, Rob or another commenter?

  5. @loyd Yes and no. Any game CAN balance these, but to be frank, that's an undesirable outcome. It results in a muddle. The best you can hope for it to have, effectively, parallel games with different structures, as is in the case in many political games - the courtier is playing on type of game, while his bodyguard is playing something different. Tricky to thread them together, but doable.

  6. Rob, were the graphics generated from Omnigraffle on your iPad? If so, how hard was it to wrangle them into this blog post and how long did it take? Thanks!

  7. @Matt Yes they were, and it was super-trivial because I also have omnigraffle on the machine I wrote this on, so I just sent myself the file.

    That said, it's pretty easy to export the image form Omnigraffle to my photos, then insert it directly with Blogpress. And by pretty easy, I mean, very nearly trivial.

  8. @rdonoghue Have you written out anything about your attempts at hybridizing SV and Leverage? I'm currently playing with that myself and I'd love to see your process, problems, questions, ideas.

    Also, with Hacker as "Mage" or something, there will always be plenty for that role, and out of the context of jobs, Mastermind loses a lot of oomph, so I'm toying with a generic "Leader" role that will involve research, knowledge, connections, culture, and teammate buffing. Depending on the type of game this could be very important. In typical dnd tropes I can see Leader pertaining to divine matters (where grifting is unwise), language and decorum among races, and generally keeping the crew's spirits, health, and hopes up. If using Smallville Stress traits, the Leader role would be the predominant "Healer" with the ability to alleviate injuries, fear, anger, self-doubt, etc. better than any other, keeping the Crew on task and alive. That type of activity would matter more in a game that extends beyond episodic jobs and where there is real threat of defeat and dire consequences (death) which doesn't fit in Leverage proper.

    Perhaps Thief and Grifter could be mixed into Rogue. And maybe Leader could be mixed into Grifter as well. Well that leads directly to WR&M discussed below.

    @Cam & Rob - Michael Wolf at Stargazer's World wrote Warrior, Rogue, & Mage which is an open-ended model that uses Roles as the primary (only) attributes aside from what Leverage would call Talents and Specializations (called Talents and Skills respectively).

    Characters in WR&M use point-buy system to take ranks in Warrior, Rogue, and Mage (surprise, surprise) which then covers all areas of action they may take. Running, power fighting, driving, climbing, and enduring poison or heat call for Warrior. Grifting, thieving, sneaking, agility, disguise call for Rogue. Magic, research, history, areas of intellect and wisdom call for Mage and that's that. The game is very intriguing in that simplicity, though I haven't played it. There are other genre variations of its core system coming out soon: Soldier, Agent, Technician (SciFi) and Pointman, Hacker, Thief (Spy genre like 007).

    @Cam I am eager to see your work on Cortex Plus.


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