On the way to GDC China and then to GenCon. Will update as wifi permits. Game on, peeps!
On the way to GDC China and then to GenCon. Will update as wifi permits. Game on, peeps!
One of the phrases that rouses my ire: “Endgame.” Especially when it’s touted as where a game truly comes into its own, the content shines, or the player-to-player interaction is most meaningful. Endgame. “Oh, World of Warcraft really gets good once you hit level max.”
What the… if I’m supposed to enjoy your game, why on earth would you make me muddle through 65 to 80 levels of treadmill before I get to the enjoyable part? Why do I have to prove myself in your velvet-roped crucible to get to the fun stuff that I’m paying to enjoy anyway?
I found Age of Conan to be a serious offender in this category. It’s ultimately a game about building cities and outposts, claiming territory, and defending those assets against hostile rivals. However, you have to trudge through 20 levels of carbon-copy MMO generica to get to the point where you’re even allowed to start sniffing around the territory control game. (Compounding the crass feel is that everyone has the same introduction to the world and has to grind the same treadmill content. Whether you’re a Stygian necromancer, an Aquilonian assassin, or a Cimmerian shaman, you’re always a shipwrecked slave who’s the property of the same guy, and you have to kill him to earn your freedom. There are a million ships wrecked off the coast of Tortage, all the humble origins of an ultimate Chosen One….) By contrast, Guild Wars lets you skip all that and go directly to the competitive arenas, if that’s the portion of the game that excites you. If you choose, you can undertake the quests and storylines and engage the world exploration, or you can dive into the PVP arenas on an equal character footing with everyone else in a test of competitive player skill. And look at the business model: Age of Conan is a monthly-fee model, while Guild Wars is a one-time purchase. Age of Conan dangles the (purportedly) richer competitive game over the subscriber’s head, while Guild Wars says, “It’s cool; go play.”
Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about the endgame scenario of a finite game experience. Game narrative, like all narrative, needs a conclusion, so the logical end on a story within a game is an eminently reasonable thing. I’m talking about the hurdles developers put in place to slow the player’s progress toward the place where the game “gets good.”
As well, a good MMO should scale complexity, growing its options so that an advanced player is just as challenged as a new player. The difference is that he’s challenged with more options, finer granularity of choices and outcomes, and almost certainly a greater risk. Like in EVE, when you lose a tricked-out ship, for example.
I’m talking about starting characters all being homeless bullies with rusty swords and frayed pants because heroes have to earn their power, dammit. While there’s nothing wrong with a level progression if you choose to have level progression, just assuming that level progression is the answer because that’s how other games do it is sloppy. It’s not design, it’s emulation. It’s letting someone else make a design decision for you and it’s an absence of critical review. Worse, imposing level progression to hold the “good stuff” over the players’ heads in order to pad subscription-model time is the height of design cynicism. It’s an admission of greed.
(And, in defense of World of Warcraft, the perceived endgame described by players who tout it in this way, isn’t really an issue. Warcraft is entirely honest with its gameplay, and what you’re doing in its endgame is very much the same as what you’ve been doing for the whole of the game up to that point. It’s just a game for which many players trot out the “you just haven’t reached the good stuff yet” chestnut. Of course, that, “I’m enjoying this more than you because you haven’t reached the point of proper enjoyment” self-aggrandizement is a whole separate peeve.)
So, as I mentioned before, I’m working on an old-school adventure game setting. I’m planning to publish it, but that comes later. For now, I’m writing the thing from scratch. Here’s the outline.
Campaign Introduction (1,000 words)
Discuss core setting principles.
• Setting is a northern expanses environment, with much ice and snow and cold-environment severity.
• “Island frontier”: an undiscovered land where little law holds sway and the landmarks in the environment are relics of previous civilizations. Players are the first to rediscover their world. Spread out over multiple islands, giving plenty of opportunity for wilderness, seafaring, and dungeon exploration.
• Much of the geography is deliberately left unnamed, so the PCs, as part of the reward for (re) discovering it, can name it what they wish.
• Further, in the manner of the original rulesets, discuss the ability for the PCs to carve their own domains out of the environment. As they gain levels and explore, they should keep an eye out for potential locations for their own strongholds.
Wintergris Home Base (4,500 words)
People and places: Quick, one-line synopses of notable people and establishments in Wintergris. Hit their central function, and flesh them out with open-ended interests or functions to allow players to “explore” local establishments and people. Give GMs plenty of gaps to fill, but don’t leave useless voids.
Cover Castle Wintergris, Wintergris town, and Potter’s Camp. Castle Wintergris is the seat of local power, though it’s a fiefdom granted by a distant authority that doesn’t really devote much attention to this border territory. Wintergris town has a frontier feel, more of a permanent trading camp than a civilized city. Around 3,000 people. Harsh climes make for spare amenities. Potter’s Camp is the disenfranchised “quarter,” where refugees, the destitute, and those fleeing something on the mainland have their makeshift homes.
Detail hints and rumors that can be obtained in the community. Likewise, allude to storied treasures that might exist out there in the island frontier.
Encounter Descriptions (8,000 words)
A collection of point-of-interest single-encounter descriptions. These include the location title, map reference, encounter description, creature or circumstantial challenges to overcome, and any relevant treasure.
Emphasis here is on the unique, alien, weird, and intriguing. Examples might include a long-defunct alchemist’s laboratory, a mountaintop preserve of some interesting creature, a dragon’s rookery built into the chimney of a volcano, or a shrine to a dead culture’s god and what’s nearby. Examples of what not to include are “common” or staple fantasy campaign ideas. Feel free to include common ideas, but focus on the details that make them unique or interesting. No “goblin camp,” for example, but it would be okay to describe a colony of grotesque, debased humanoid creatures dwelling in the hollowed-out ruin of an enormous collapsed statue. Make exploration that reward, and punctuate it with a challenge to overcome. Reskin some of the classic monsters to make them fresh again (leave their mechanics unchanged), but also indulge those iconic monsters that represent the hobby by their presence.
Not all challenges must be monsters, but most should be. make exciting use of consciously built traps, but also include dangerous or difficult obstacles that are simply part of the environment, from aggressive plants to natural phenomena to curiosities unique to the landmarks.
Remember to use the “island frontier” and cold-weather setting elements.
Dungeon Locations (12,000 words)
These are the longer-form encounter environments. They don’t have to be huge, but they do need to be thematic, and they need to present unique play episodes — nobody wants to pay for run-of-the-mill setting material that anyone could create.
This is also the place to evoke the literature that inspired the original game. Avoid homage, but create the same feelings of wonder, dread, and weirdness that the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy did. Some environments to include:
• The temple of a horrific cult. This should have a creepy feeling; the place should exude the malice of its evil rites. Avoid splatter and schlock eeeeevil, but make it plain that the world is a better place without this cult.
• A dungeon environment that hits the ice-and-snow set dressing heavily. I have a thing for white dragons, but it doesn’t have to be that.
• An aquatic stronghold of some sort that showcases aquatic combat and the benefits that a native sea critter has therein. This is a great place to get exotic and put the players in weird situations, such as walking on the sea floor, breathing water, moving in three-dimensional space, observing the alien beauty of the frigid seas, etc.
• A dungeon environment in which social interaction and/ or morale becomes a central challenge. Over the course of play, this “dungeon” might actually become of some allegiance to the PCs — it may become a trading outpost, a lookout against mainland intrusion, or something else. Build the dungeon so that players can use charm or reasonable diplomacy to overcome its threat
• Pirates! Use the 90/10 rule to make this more than just a generic pirate port, but also, let’s be honest, let us have fun with the pirates. This can be a cove hideout, a shipwreck, whatever, but do something interesting with the idea of pirates in a permanent winter environment.
• A “crashed spaceship.” Obviously, the PCs won’t know what this is, but its alien origin and incongruity with the world provide a sense of otherness.
• An introduction to a megadungeon. A later supplement can cover the whole complex, but establish a place in the world for it, and give enough basic detail with which the GM can flesh it out himself if that supplement never materializes or if he just wants to build this part of the world himself.
Tables and Appendix (3,000 words)
Support material including:
• Random encounter tables
• Random ruin and landmark tables
• Pregenerated characters for use as drop-in PCs or members of an NPC party
• A section offering the GM advice for expanding the adventure beyond the written text here, and further encouraging stronghold construction
• Any new monsters, spells, items, or whatever that need their own descriptions
Here’s something: As of late last week, Asterion Press has optioned the Italian translation and edition of my novel Demimonde. As a writer, I find this very exciting. Someone out there thinks what I have to say is cool enough that they want to bring it into an entirely different language for the enjoyment of an entirely different culture. The fact that it’s Italian is the icing on the cake. (If you haven’t yet bought an English-language copy, there’s a link up there in the navbar that contains excerpts and links to retailers.)
Here’s another thing: I’m putting my money where my mouth is. With all the talk I do here about building a setting and wanting a specific (tabletop) gameplay experience, it’s time to pony up. As such, I’ve undertaken Wintergris, an old-school mini-campaign setting compatible with the retroclone (or original ruleset) of your choice. I’m using the pink and blue boxes you might expect of me. I’m aiming for under 28,000 words to cover the whole setting, which should tell you that I’m aiming for the broad strokes and “gaps in the details” that made my introduction to this hobby so fun. It’s a labor of love, a mash note to my gaming origins. I plan to drop bits and pieces of it here for additional playtesting and critical feedback, so if you’re into that sort of community contact, consider this your invitation to be heard.
Tangentially, I know a lot of you are here to sneak a little insider dirt on an unannounced project that you all know I’m working on but that I’m not expressly allowed to say that I’m working on. To that, I say thank you, please be patient, it’s all part of the plan. I know you’re itching for some new info. I’d love to share it with you. But now isn’t the time, precisely. I do promise that you’ll hear something soon.
With that said, my convention schedule for the year is pretty heavy. I’m attending the Digital Entertainment Expo in Shanghai at the end of the month, then coming back just in time to head to GenCon, then relax a bit before PAX, and finally tear it down to the foundation at the Grand Masquerade. Oh, and somewhere in there I have to find the time to keep working on that unannounced project as well as write and play Wintergris. Limitations? Boundaries? I scoff at them. Scoff, I say.
I’ve had the ol’ boxed sets out recently, reading them to compare them to the games of today and to plan a bit of old-school fun. It’s amazing how complete these old games are while, at the same time, leaving a massive amount to the imagination. In particular, while reading the blue-box D&D Expert Set edited by David Cook and Steve Marsh, I came across this fantastic little example. If you want to follow along in your primer, class, I’m on p. X19.
EXAMPLE: [A buncha characters] decide to go on a journey to the city of Specularum.
There is no road that goes directly to Specularum, and none of the party has been there before. Theodorus tries to question some merchants, but finds their directions vague. Rothgar looks for a map showing the route, but without success. In the end, the party decides to hire a guide and two retainers. (As it turns out, the DM will allow only one retainer and the guide to be hired.)
The example goes on a bit, mostly about supply logistics and travel times, but we have a lot to work with here. What a wealth of gameplay this both describes and offers! Looking at the example, what do we learn about the game world and how the rules are supposed to work?
When I was developing tabletop Vampire, my intent was always to answer a question with another question, and this philosophy was very much influenced by my earliest experiences with hobby gaming. When you’re preparing a game for publication and sale, the answers are never as important as giving players new questions, showing gamemasters how to create new questions, and building the systems for both players and gamemasters to resolve those questions. When you’re printing a game commercially, it’s not about the story you want to tell — if you want a controlled narrative environment, write a short story or a novel. In a game, it’s about the interactions, the new vistas, and the putting players together. When you put forth a question, as a designer, that’s an interaction waiting to happen. The greatest games provide an infinitude of interactions, whether openly asked or subtly implied.
It’s no wonder I looked at D&D as such a boon to and outlet for my creativity when I was younger. Even though I didn’t necessarily know the writing techniques being used to stoke my fecund wee mind, they had their effect, and they’re still inspiring me, 25 years later.
Yesterday, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was the featured entry at Wikipedia. That sort of profile is pretty cool, but the module itself is one with which I have a patchy history.
I first started playing D&D when I was nine. It was the standard (for the time) introduction to the hobby: My cousin had the boxed set, I played in his parents’ basement, and I was immediately hooked. Cut to a year or three later, when I had blossomed into a full-blown nerd, and I read good ol’ S3.
At the time, I loved it. I was all of 12, and the genre mixture really struck me as cool, not to mention the hella new potency of the science fiction weaponry available as treasure. I had also been introduced to Gamma World by that time, and the mixture of chocolate and peanut butter drew me in like no previous module had. (Well, maybe Tomb of Horrors.) At this point, I hadn’t read the legitimate literary classics of fantasy and science fiction, so I hadn’t any inkling that S3 was homage to those forebears. The cool part was that my fighter could have a freakin’ laser gun.
When I was older, in my mid-20s, the very idea had lost much of its allure. By then, I was familiar with Vance and Smith and Wolfe and the golden age of scifi. But I was also very much into the sovereignty of a single genre during those days, working as I was on the setting-trumps-all Vampire: The Masquerade. While I knew perfectly well that those original scifi-slash-fantasy stories were, well, the originals, and that Smith and Vance were writing before chain-store fiction had forced such a demarcation between the genres, S3 still struck me as an example of the excess of the hobby in those early days. It seemed cavalier, reckless, gaming without having a sense of those undeniable Game Principles that… well, they’re important, dammit. The wahoo! of it all struck a sour chord with me. It also made me kind of mad (then) that someone could have had fun playing this obviously-not-entirely-serious riff on the young hobby and on its inspirational literature. You know how twenty-somethings are, mad at the world for coming before them and simultaneously leery of the next generation of young folks who obviously know nothing.
Now, I’ve come back full circle. I like to think that my appreciation for Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a little more sophisticated than it used to be, given that I now have the grounding in the literature that preceded it. But if my appreciation of S3 isn’t all of the sudden superlatively mature — we’re talking about a module in which a gnome illusionist can throw an antimatter grenade at a goblin made of plants, after all — who cares? It was a promotional tie-in module intended to be run at a convention tournament, so it’s well nigh a miracle that it’s any good at all. But it is good. I’m going to try to run it again soon. And maybe we’ll preface it with a quest for Blackrazor from S2.
One of the keys to making a weird environment interesting is the 90/10 rule. No, this isn’t Sturgeon’s Revelation, but rather a way to keep your project — whatever it is, from a game campaign to an MMO design to a novel or short story — both accessible and intriguing. I talk about this a lot when I do panels at conventions, but it’s just as relevant here.
The 90/10 rule states that when executing a given concept, 90 percent of that concept should be what your audience expects, and 10 percent should twist that expectation or provide a permutation that throws the situation for a loop.
Now, this isn’t license to bust out all your dick moves and be antagonistic just because you can. Remember, you’re there to play with them, not against them. If you line up something deadly, they need clues beforehand. If you’re just setting tone or highlighting weirdness, you can spring it on them with little forewarning. If one particular piece is a climactic part of your campaign, foreshadow the weirdness with both a bit of the expectation and a bit of the swerve.
A few examples, both original and borrowed from friends:
The premise: The village on the bluff overlooks a massive expanse of verdant forest.
Weird it: The forest is actually a massive, sprawling field of giant mushrooms.
The premise: The characters encounter a group of pilgrims en route to visit a holy shrine.
Weird it: The pilgrims are actually apostates, fleeing from a pogrom against their heresy. They’re not necessarily evil, just those whose faith diverges from an official canon.
The premise: The craggy mountain is the stronghold of an ancient, wicked dragon.
Weird it: The dragon is actually a prisoner of the mountain, having nested in it when he was young, but having grown too big to escape via the aerie. The dragon is either mad with hunger, or magically spreads tantalizing rumors, tricking adventurers and monsters into investigating or lairing so he can devour them.
The premise: The bizarre, ruined castle is a relic of a bygone age.
Weird it: The castle is actually an edifice from the far future, temporally misplaced, and within its walls, time rolls backward from the outside world, leaving the PCs younger than they were when they entered.
The premise: The dungeon chamber has a huge, central fountain spewing noxious water.
Weird it: The dungeon chamber has a huge, central fountain that has been overgrown with beautiful, precious flowers unseen anywhere on the surface world that grow in the dim light of the subterranean environment.
The premise: The megadungeon is a massive structure that looms centrally in its environment, such as a tower, a mountain fastness, or a sunken ruin.
Weird it: The megadungeon consists of several isolated clusters of small environments scattered over a broad surface area, though they’re linked by passages too small for most of the regular denizens to traverse.
The premise: The haunted ruin is a bastion of wicked creatures who lurk beyond the fringes of civilization and occasionally venture forth to terrorize the good people of a nearby settlement.
Weird it: The haunted ruin is a bastion of wicked creatures, alright, but when the sun sets, something… changes… in that ruin that leaves even its monstrous occupants petrified with terror, and they hole up in their rooms to hopefully wait out another night’s horrors.
The premise: In the vaults and cisterns beneath the city streets, an unspeakable cult practices rites venerating hideous cthonic entities.
Weird it: That cult is actually a very beneficent faith, driven into hiding by a more predatory official faith or political movement. (Odd that “the good guys lurking in the shadows beneath the city streets” is the alien concept, isn’t it? If gaming has done nothing else, it’s established some principles of weirdness that have become the rule rather than the exception.)
The premise: The horde of orcs and goblins advances on the beleaguered town, intending to siege it.
Weird it: The horde is actually a group of orcish and goblin celebrants, harmlessly re-enacting a historical raid on the city, but it’s really just an excuse to march and get drunk.
Swerve it again: Only this time, a faction of hobgoblins among them is serious, and turns the revel into a bloody riot and actual raid.
Credit where it’s due, James over at Grognardia recently did a piece on the fantastical feel of giant mushrooms, and it tickled me. Also, I shamelessly stole the orc-raid scenario from John Nephew of Atlas Games.
Ultimately, all of your efforts to weird things are their own stories, mysteries to explore. All you need is that single line of description as to how they’re weird and that’s both a great hook for curious players and a broad stroke that allows you to evoke an “other” feel without tying yourself down to a very specific conclusion. (This last is important because it allows your players room to come up with their own explanations, which you can appropriate if they intrigue you. Thus, you can glean a bit of entertainment from the players it’s your job to entertain as GM.) Whether you intend to make your world idyllic, grotesque, exotic, wondrous, alien, or any other form of novel, the key to doing it is in the details, but not overburdening those details.
Part of the reason I love the Wilderlands of High Fantasy so much is that its broad geography includes lots of little weirdnesses. Here lies an ancient sculpture of a two-headed goat that’ll turn your head into a goat’s head if you steal it’s treasure. There lies a wrecked hot-air balloon with a still-functioning astrolabe. The Wilderlands have a decidedly old-school fantasy mix of anachronistic technology and “modern” fantasy staples like swords and magic. It’s truly a fantastical place, with plenty of those gaps in the setting I lke so much that allow my imagination to run wild in them. What the hell is that goat-thing? Did someone make it? What possible reason could they have had to do so? Is it the result of hostile magic? Some bizarre technology my character doesn’t understand? What about that hot-air balloon? From what civilization did it spring? Were there more like it? Is it a crazy tinker’s construction, or did some bygone culture produce significant quantities of these? If it’s the latter, why haven’t I seen more? If it’s the former, where’s his workshop? (I want to plunder it.)
By contrast part of the reason I don’t have the same level of enthusiasm for places like the Forgotten Realms or Eberron is that the worlds feel more “known” and inherently less wondrous. Vital civilizations own the world maps, and the only places that feel foreign, alien, and dangerous are designated, contained areas, “danger gardens” where the world-spanning cultures have agreed to let the crazy flourish to bleed off some of the overabundance of adventurers that seem to populate their cities. Granted, Fourth Edition D&D is much better about these sorts of things, given the economy of words it uses in its support material, but it’s just impossible to escape the feeling that someone has already overturned every rock in these worlds and painstakingly catalogued their contents.
To me, the beauty of the exploration campaign is having the sense that my group is the first to find a location, or if that’s not the case, that we’re the first people here in eons. While I’m certainly able to enjoy a more cosmopolitan campaign (you know how I loves me some politicking, backstabbing, and concocting long-term plans, all of which are key components of Vampire), when I’m after exploration, I want to be dazzled and endangered. When I’m running an exploration campaign, I want my players to feel like they’re discovering or re-discovering something awe-inspiring or curious — but it has to be memorable.
Now, none of this is an attempt to enforce a One True Way. It’s rather an exercise in building setting from the perspective of knowing what I want in that setting and understanding how to achieve that result by design. There are amazing cosmopolitan fantasy game city-settings out there, like Ptolus and Sigil. (Perhaps paradoxically, I’m not all that interested in the Wilderlands’ City-State of the Invincible Overlord.) Plenty of genre fantasy has its adherents, or it wouldn’t sell and it wouldn’t be the standard it is today. But those aren’t the worlds I want to build or the purposes to which I want to use those worlds, so I need to know how to avoid the methods by which they’re constructed.
I know why I have the tastes I do. They’re my favorite parts of all the genre fiction I enjoy so much, from back when fantasy meant fantastical instead of a publisher-mandated trilogy with li’l kids in a reliable Western Europe pastiche and, oh, here’s your frontispiece maps. Instead, I want the weirdness of Clark Ashton Smith and the decadent ruin of Robert E. Howard. Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar feels like an opium dream. Jack Vance’s world careens toward the end of its history, and labors under the shame at having forgotten much of that history. I apologize for sounding like a broken record, but the reason I enjoy these pioneers so much is that when they were writing, much of this was new stuff, and hadn’t yet become a by-the-numbers department of the book store. (I don’t want to come across as a purely curmudgeonly advocate of bygone days. I’m rereading some of the Elric tales right now, and they don’t do a whole lot for me, nor does the saga-homage of Tolkien.)
Along those lines, I want the games I play and run to have that feel for the player of being a visitor in a strange, often hostile land. That means I have to challenge my players’ sense of comfort with the world that surrounds them. However, I have to do it in a manner that makes them want to accept that challenge and bring the world to heel. I can’t be so weird with the world as to alienate them, disconnect them from sensory understanding, or risk ridiculousness.
The most magnificent fantasy creature I’ve experienced to date is the alzabo from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. I won’t spoil it for you, because those books are damned well worth reading, but it’s a dangerous, horrifying, alien, otherworldly thing that is going to wreck your shit unless you’re extremely clever or insightful. Contrast that with, say, the garden-variety goblins that populate so many ersatz fantasies, which are so commonplace as to be known quantities. There’s no horror, no wonder, no fantasia at all, even though we’re supposed to be dealing with Others or monsters.
It’s possible to take horror, wonder, and fantasia too far, of course. The D&D monster I hate with the heat of a thousand suns isn’t the goofy flumph or the preposterous flail snail (You know what? I actually kind of dig the flail snail). It’s not even the hokey nilbog. It’s the goddamn rast. The rast isn’t weird or alien, it’s just gibberish, a grab-bag of dumb-looking critter bits and screwy game effects. It’s a trans-dimensional, fire-aspected, dog-headed, blood-drinking, paralysis-causing-when-it-looks-at-you, clawed volcanic spider oh, God, make it stop already. It’s the opposite of an alzabo. It’s just a pile of stupid.
That’s why, in my current worldbuilding exercise, I strip the comfortable stuff out. In my Wilderlands campaign, which is under revision, I’ve tried to capitalize on that brilliant original Judges Guild material and I’ve pulled out the parts that don’t hit the themes I want and have replaced them with the ones I do. Included among the things that had to go were all the stock fantastical races, the elves-n-orcs-n-dwarves-n-gnomes. Instead, I replaced them with things that are either one-off mysterious entities of wholly inscrutable origin like the psychic fungus that had symbiotically attached itself to a ruined tower. I didn’t have any idea what the symbiosis with an inanimate structure might be, but the idea felt out-there enough to tantalize me. Alternatively, I’ve left the critter cultures there, but pulled them back from common contact with the world. You don’t meet an orc, you meet an odd humanoid with violent tendencies and bestial features that perplexes you with its similarity to you but puts you off with its bellicose nature.
I don’t overload the detail. I don’t write encyclopedia entries for encounters. I give enough sensory input to create an impression, and I let the unspoken aspects of creature encounters resonate with my players. They can’t all be perfect encounters, but that’s okay. I ust don’t want any of them to be run-of-the-mill.
Next time: Building accessibly weird places.