The Gothic Pedigree of Vampire

I thought of being forced to witness the unnatural revels of a diabolical feast, of seeing the rotting flesh distributed, of drinking the dead corrupted blood, of hearing the anthems of fiends howled in insult, on that awful verge where life and eternity mingle, of hearing the hallelujahs of the choir, echoed even through the vaults, where demons were yelling the black mass of their infernal Sabbath.

— Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

Over the past several months, I had been exchanging social media drive-bys with John Garrad, who has been doing some academic work on the representation of the gothic in games. He shared some slides of his work in progress on Twitter, which I thought was interesting, so we talked a little further, and he agreed to let me share some of the contents of that conversation.

 

Gothic-Punk: do you see it as an evolution of a wider, long-term Gothic tradition, or a product of the 1990s cultural circumstances, or as a collection of what the developers over time have deemed relevant to the project, or… something else that I haven’t thought of?

Part of Vampire’s longevity, in either Masquerade or Requiem formats, is that the gothic trappings it affects are tied to an emotion rather than an era. Vampire wouldn’t have survived long if it was quintessentially 80s or 90s. (You can see a parallel evolution here in technology, in that V20, released in 2011, doesn’t bother to account for the prevalence of smartphones or of wide-scale surveillance, either of which would pose massive Masquerade threats. We just handwaved them away.)

While the early material deliberately attached itself to a specific subculture, social scene, and music expression, it slowly pulled itself away from those over the progression of developers, with the intent of opening itself up to a greater breadth of players. Even through that extrication of itself from a defined “scene,” it kept the literary component of the gothic movement throughout because, again, those transcend decade. I don’t know if it’s still out there, but I recall one of my style guides that hammered on the point “gothic, not goth.”

The big one on this front: how do you feel VtM goes about making its Gothic credentials concrete and real to players? I’m particularly interested in mechanics here — which aspects of the game create a Gothic ‘feel’ when people are sat down playing.

The big three for me:

Game Structure: The game was built in literary “units of play,” as opposed to the traditional RPG structures derived from wargames. We still had turns, just because they were atomic, but Vampire intended to wean storytellers away from tactical encounters and frame things more dramatically (whether literary or stage) in terms of things like scenes, chapters, and overall chronicles. The overarching story container was not a “campaign,” with its military-conquest connotations, but a chronicle, a record, a retelling of events that happened. And in so doing, it relied very heavily on unreliable narrators, so you were never sure you were getting a clinical accounting of events as much as you were getting a definitely biased perspective of events, unless you were there, and even if you were, you’re not unbiased yourself.

b8c18df250726478f42e09020c6c5884

Cultural Touchpoints: Vampire heavily invoked western, Abrahamic traditions, akin to the gothic movement’s reliance on religious and feudal motifs to carry its themes of superstition and relative primitivism. It leaned on straight-up gothic notions of madness and romance (themselves not very progressive…) and gave systems for them in terms of things like Humanity, Derangements (sometimes incurable…), and maintaining distance in relationships. The classic image of vampire lovers feeding from each other is actually a peril in Vampire because it can create a blood bond, which has all of the outward appearances of love, but strips away the (religious alert!) Free Will of the lover to exercise choice when it comes to the beloved. All of this is great stuff and immediately transgressible for players who have felt marginalized, in whatever context or extent, by traditional societal expectations, and provides mechanics by which one can express that transgression.

In more than one case, Vampire had intended to “open things up,” but when it showed rather than told, those showings became the default rather than a single expression. For example, the Caine myth was intended originally to be a myth, but it quickly became the predominant myth (IMO because it was so relatable, and because it gave a religious structure that players could rebel against and be rewarded for so doing. Instead of degenerate priests and corrupt churches, Vampire makes the religious institution part of the origin story and encourages players to break from their obedient relationship to it.) The Prince and Primogen structure in Gary and Chicago were originally intended to be a political situation, but over time they became the political default. (Again, IMO, I think this is at least partially because it provides an example that storytellers can depart from as they will, as opposed to having to define their home chronicle whole cloth — which Requiem demanded.)

5d43471903762c6a0fc94a5ae7cbcda9

Supernatural Prevalance: This is obvious, but Vampire: The Masquerade wouldn’t have taken off if it was simply GOTH: THE VENDETTA. Giving players access to abilities beyond mortal ken isn’t just a game design call to action, it puts the tools of gothic literature into their hands. They’re the ones able to drop the helmet on Manfred’s son, they’re the ones able to call forth the children of the night, they’re the ones able to shroud men’s minds. And the framing isn’t “with great power comes great responsibility,” it’s “you are the monster,” and it expects some concomitant moral failure and abuse of those otherworldly powers in pursuit of selfish goals (which can themselves be regretted or indulged, back to the system above). Without powers, Vampire could have been Mad Men, with bitchy people doing awful but mundane things to one another. Instead, it’s a passion play on a deliberately lurid stage with an infinite special effects budget that flirts with the forbidden when engaged.

Did you strive for a different kind of Gothic with Revised? (I’ve been fascinated by the ST Vault submission guidelines, which really make plain the differences between the editions that I’ve always felt were there but never really articulated — and I wondered if any of the Revised development fed into the game’s genre positioning.)

I don’t know if it was a deliberate striving for a specific kind of gothic so much as it was an evolution. It became its own thing, with definite gothic influence, and true to itself. For my own part, I think this is a maturing and finding one’s own voice over the course of developing and writing the amount of books I did. I remember one of my earliest writing projects for school, which might as well have been a Lovecraft manuscript with a hasty find-and-replace, absolutely a pastiche, and early in Vampire, I was similarly attempting to copy influences. Over time, I thought it definitely took on its own voice, its own life. You can easily pick up a Vampire book and identify its gothic parentage, but on a more substantial reading and use, especially for the Revised and V20 material, you find that Vampire is consistent largely with Vampire, while still acknowledging and even revering the movement that helped it get there.

And finally: V5 aligns the Gothic-Punk with prior editions. I wondered if you had any insight about why that point was made, and if V5 is consciously trying to distance itself from something in the tradition?

On this one, I don’t feel qualified to render an opinion. By conscious choice, I haven’t been a part of V5, primarily because, as they’ve wanted to create a new envisioning of the game, I didn’t want to encumber that with assumptions that I carry, having developed and written for it for two decades. It’s others’ exercise to determine whether V5’s vision is an evolution for Vampire or simply another perspective on it, and whether that’s for better or worse, but none of my input is there. A different creative vision requires a different expression.

Despatch

In late May of 1984, a night-mist rolled inland to Somerset, leaving in its wake a horror.

Few noticed immediately. Those who did, though, acted swiftly. Within hours, a small boat troop of SAS agents performed an insertion mission to Somerset, but only two returned. They were unable to make a final report, and could only rave about some sort of cannibal bloodlust. Aerial surveillance of Somerset revealed innumerable motionless bodies lying all about the city of Bath and surrounding landscape, many of which had been stripped of flesh.

brixton

Field research revealed that a blood-borne “entity” was to blame. Those “infected” became ravening monsters, losing all sense of self and self-preservation and seeking only to kill and feed on… human flesh.

The Prime Minister passed the Special Citizens’ Act in an emergency session of Parliament. This measure gave Special Branch the authority to detain — or liquidate — any citizens suspected of having a connection to the disaster. Paranoia spread as quickly as the tragedy, and hastily built detainment facilities teemed with thousands of prisoners across the country. Special Branch arrested anyone and everyone, victims of the horror and suspected conspirators alike.

It wasn’t enough. The horror spread too quickly. The detainment camps collapsed. Terrified people rioted, looted, and destroyed places suspected of being havens for the infected. The cities, towns, and countryside were a ruin.

toxteth_rioter

The World Health Organization and the United Nations quarantined the entirety of the United Kingdom. International forces established three camps, one in Liverpool, one at Aberdeen, and one in London, where they could evacuate those who proved to be untainted by theentity. A broadcast transmission implores survivors to seek the quarantine camps if they can make the trip.

You are one of those survivors, still clinging to life two weeks after the disaster. You and a few other individuals have convened in the basement of a block of council homes in Birmingham. The closest camp is Liverpool, just under a hundred miles away to the northwest. It’s by far too dangerous a trip to make by oneself, especially since it’s unknown what obstacles lie between here and there, but with the safety of numbers, it just may be possible.

Campaign Hacking: Tomb of Annihilation

Some posho’s flunky comes up to you and offers to strand you in a malarial jungle swamp, in which you must busk for enough money to outfit yourself for an expedition into a death-god’s lair and smash an artifact so the posho can have her hit points back. When you’re done, abase yourself before the merchant prince’s manor where she’s staying to let her know she’s good to go home.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an unfair summary of the framing device used to kickoff Tomb of Annihilation — but it’s not too far off course. For the record, I really like a lot of what ToA has to offer in terms of gameplay, but some of its setting assumptions rub me the wrong way. I’m planning to run it, but not stock out-of-the-book.

jungles-of-chult

It’s no secret that I love exploration campaigns.

When preparing a new campaign, perhaps the most important ingredient is the call to action. Your “elevator pitch” to the players should suggest to them exactly the sorts of adventures they’ll be having, and they’ll imagine characters they can project into that expectation of action. Everything in your preparations should point back to that question: How will the campaign use this detail?

Luckily, I recently ran across this tweet, which prodded me in the right direction, I think, for a game more in keeping with my tastes, and also that empowers the players more than making them thralls to a fantasy one-percenter.

Yes. Excellent. Flip the assumption.

With that principle in mind, I bashed together the campaign notes below. So how, then, can I frame the events of Tomb of Annihilation so that they can be used in the context of a reverse-grave-robber premise?

Anti-Imperialists

The PCs are members of a sociopolitical faction known as the Reclamationists. They can be native Chultans with an interest in protecting their own destiny, or they can come from abroad, acting against exploitative interests seeking colonial dominance of the jungle. The PCs are rebels, a resistance faction, heeding a moral mandate.

(GM Notes: I actually probably won’t set this in Chult, as I’m more attracted to other campaign worlds, but I leave it untouched here for the sake of clarity.)

blackpanther-lupita-3-1001932

Playable characters. Okay, maybe this is a still from Black Panther. You get the point.

Beliefs

  • An ecological interrelationship exists between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings.
    • “True freedom lies where folk receive nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.”
  • Economic value derived from land (including natural resources and natural opportunities) belongs equally to all members of society.
  • Cultures and communities make sovereign decisions for themselves, and outside influence intrudes upon that sovereignty.

(GM Notes: This is swiped almost whole cloth from the Wikipedia entry for the Diggers, which seemed like a good conceptual fit.)

History

The most commonly accepted origin of the Reclamationists is the unification of a druidic circle and a locality of tenant farmers. With the spiritual guidance of the druids, the land-workers rallied to a common cause, giving rise to the faction’s motto, “All who believe are together and have all things in common.” Reclamationism spread among numerous land-working classes, and various offshoots of it exist, from deity-aligned dominionists to secular humanists and everything in between. It is a form of agrarian populism and often finds antagonism from traditional feudalists, across numerous nations.

(GM Notes: This section is pretty weak. It needs more supportive, actionable detail. It does, however, indicate some potential conflict, whether internal to the Reclamationists or from external entities trying to hinder opposition.)

Objectives

  • Occupy! Reclaim public lands that have been privatized.
    • Dig them over, pull down hedges, fill in ditches, etc. to plant crops.
  • Return any items of cultural significance to the cultures that claim them, if such cultures are still extant
  • Ensure that any items taken for academic purposes are taken by reputable academics — none of this “sell it to a museum or private collector” nonsense
  • Harry the efforts of factions seeking to exploit the resources of Chult
    • Ex.: The Merchant Princes are speculators intending to profit from colonial interests plundering the resources of Chult
    • Ex.: The Flaming Fist at Fort Beluarian is a rent-seeking organization extracting revenues from those who would themselves explore and exploit the lost regions of the jungle
    • Ex.: The Order of the Gauntlet may have some admirable aims in opposing the undead, but it may have more imperialistic aims, and cannot be completely trusted until any other objectives have been discerned.
  • Act in opposition to those entities that extend their influence at the expense of others
undead-of-chult

Expect a great many undead foes. Undead are an inarguable call to action.

Opportunities for Action

  • Smash colonials, especially where they conflict with indigenous communities
  • Expand knowledge of indigenous entities
  • Recover items of cultural significance from those who would exploit that cultural significance for private gain
  • Explore the unknown

(GM Notes: Note the strong verbs in these last two sections, the calls to action. Most of them stand on their own, but some could use some touch-up. “Ensure,” “act,” and “return” can probably be replaced with more robust actions that are more engaging on their own.)

A Simple Narrative Model

In my day job working on computer games, I’ve been looking into a number of games that have procedurally generated features. From algorithmically built worlds to randomized characters, the computer creates various components and turns the manipulation of them over to the players. The result is an emergent narrative of the players’ story. Consider this in contrast to a more heavily scripted game structure in which the narrative beats are specifically planned. In games with key procedurally generated components, the heaviest decision making and the consequences imposed on the world are driven by the players’ choice, as opposed to the narrative designer’s (or in this case, the GM’s). While the GM always arbitrates the rules, some amount of outcome is always dictated as a result of player choice — because interaction is what distinguishes a game from more traditionally consumed media.


Heat Signature features procedurally generated characters and game spaces, and this critical video posits that three questions form the basis of the player’s interactions with and investment in the game. A simple expression of these three questions translates into the medium of tabletop RPGs, as well (and isn’t contingent on procedural generation).

SimpSymm_06

Example procedurally generated 3D geometrical prints.

What do the players have?

In this case, “have” is a broad understanding of the characters’ capabilities. This can include everything from their equipment to their skills to unique powers or functions. D&D’s class features, Vampire’s Disciplines, Mutants & Masterminds’ Advantages: These are all under the umbrella of what the players have, and they go a long way toward satisfying the essential experience of the game. The players can have much or they can have very little — the story of the game is about using what they have to effect change.

What do the players want?

At its simplest, what the players want is their immediate objective. Save the princess. Slay the dragon. Intercept the shipment. Beyond that, the game grows in complexity and the story grows in meaning as the players layer their characters’ personal desires with the shared narrative goal. The archetypal adventuring party is the most common example of this, and Vampire made much of subverting common goals and interleaving them with conflicting personal goals. Most games build upon the relatedness of goals by constructing the players’ various aims that can be represented as Venn diagrams, and groups that have good dynamics often see player characters assisting each other in achieving their personal objectives.

Venn.001

An example of where a party’s interests and goals may overlap. Note that Limahl later went on to a musical career with Kajagoogoo.

What happens next?

This is up to you. This is the intersection of what the players have, what they want, and how the game systems model their attempts to achieve their goals with the tools at hand. This is where the verbs happen, this is where the static scene becomes a dynamic story. This is why everyone gathers around the tabletop.

Writing Characters for WoD One-Shots

I often run one-shots for the World of Darkness. Whether I’m doing demo sessions or running games for the local RPG club, I find the setting of the World of Darkness and its essential experience are very well suited to single-session stories for a variety of reasons.

  • The session can address a specific topic without having to sustain a full chronicle
  • Players can satisfy and gain feedback on short-term goals
  • Players can indulge intra-player treachery and intrigue without jeopardizing their relationships to one another over the long term

This last one is probably the most important. Treachery and intrigue are built into the DNA of the World of Darkness. A unifying theme across all of the WoD titles is the presence of a secret history and wheels that turn within wheels to satisfy the inscrutable goals of often unseen engineers. This is great stuff and it makes for marvelous conflict in stories around the game table — and conflicts are the stuff of which stories are made, of course.

With that in mind, when I set out to write a one-shot for the World of Darkness, I try to satisfy the following objectives.

Create Pregenerated Characters

Pregens are almost a must-have for a one-shot. At the table proper, they save session time that would otherwise be spent in character creation. Most importantly, they can be written to guarantee the presence of the themes and elements you construct your story to demonstrate. A wise Storyteller will create pregenerated characters with dependencies on each other and with complementary traits, which you almost certainly won’t get with an open-table approach to characters. Indeed, pregenerated characters let you manage some of the players’ expectations, which can be a huge deal if you’re not personally curating who’s at the table. (Seriously. I ran a demo game at the Essen Spiel once for a group of players that included a guy who wanted to fight everything with his claymore and a woman who wanted a session of pure gothic romance. And never again did I run demo sessions without pregenerated characters. Not because these concepts or expectations were bad, but because attempting to appease them both just left each of them disappointed.)

Have Players Suggest a Character Type or Concept

Here, you should expressly communicate that your pregenerated characters are just that — pregenerated, so there’s not a lot of ability to make a whole lot of tweaks on the spot without compromising the story’s plans. Players can certainly change details like their name, Nature and Demeanor, and maybe a trait or three, but you likely will have made certain considerations with the characters that are required by story elements (see below). Maybe you’re bold enough to let people adjust their clan or Disciplines, and if you are, bravo.

Myself, I ask players to write down a list of three adjectives that describe the type of character they’d like to play. With that sort of coaching from the players, I can usually get a pretty good match for at least two of those adjectives per player. And the players also feel like their desires have been considered, as opposed to just taking what was left over.

Build Relationships Between Characters

coterie.001

Remember the old coterie charts from the classic Vampire supplements? They depict visually a snapshot of who feels what about whom. You don’t have to go so far as to draw a coterie chart yourself, and you don’t have to connect every player’s character to one another, but you should definitely build opportunities for interaction between the characters. In itself, this serves two purposes:

  • It proactively prompts players to action
  • If you build antagonisms and contrasting goals into the relationships, it lets you shine a light on the themes of treachery and intrigue

Provide Goals for Each Pregenerated Character

If you’re writing the pregenerated characters, you probably have at least a hunch of how the characters you conceive would act. Players, however, haven’t incubated those thoughts yet, so you should provide them with a list of things the character wants to accomplish. The player doesn’t have to use these, but they’re a good way to jump-start the players into activity.

Make these goals obvious. (May you eventually enjoy the discovery of self-starting players and  their capacity to surprise you with the tools you provide them!) Don’t bury the provided goals in paragraphs of background. Bullet point these mofos in a separate section of the pregen materials and call them out with their own header. If the player reads literally nothing else on their character sheet, working toward these is enough to get them participating.

In scripting the events of the one-shot — whether you do this in-depth or as little more than notes or an outline — relate at least one the character’s goals to the primary conflict of the story. All of the characters should have something investing them in the central plot component so as to bring them all together. This is also a great opportunity to foster those greater WoD themes of treachery and intrigue because here’s your chance to set some of those character goals in opposition to one another. Maybe one character wants the diabolist brought before the Prince to answer for their crimes while another player wants to enact retribution upon the diabolist and yet another character wants to take advantage of the Lex Talionis and diablerize the diabolist.

Providing contrasting and even exclusive goals does more than emphasize the themes of the game. It provides the impetus to disagree with other players, act against them (whether overtly or in secret), and takes some of the burden of being the focal point of player interactions off the Storyteller and onto the players themselves. They’re the leading characters of the story, after all, so let them celebrate interacting with one another. Beyond the role-based dependencies facilitated by more tactical situations, these personality-driven interactions make the characters themselves feel more vital, and they make the story more than a series of external obstacles to be overcome.

Provide Secrets for Each Pregenerated Character

ArtVampMascarad02-1

Sharing secrets — whether accurately or falsely — is the currency of a World of Darkness story.

Add value to individual players’ characters by taking advantage of information disparity. Everybody should know at least one thing that others don’t. Privileged information makes the player feel powerful. Unique information also makes them valuable to the big picture (whether they share the info or act on it as part of a personal goal.

If you craft them wisely, a player’s secrets can:

  • Provoke conflict or cooperation with another player
  • Provide insight into how to resolve one of the plot conflicts
  • Function as leverage over another character in order to stimulate the social dynamic
  • Tip the balance of power in the story’s climax

Example Materials

Here are some links to planning materials for games I’ve written in the past.

The Apostate’s Wish

Chicago, 1896 — three years after the World’s Columbian Exposition. Three short years ago, the world marveled at the wonders of science, industry, and architecture on display at the expo. The now-abandoned fairgrounds of the grand exhibition harbor a darker side: The remains of the expo have become a stalking ground for a more insidious and decidedly less human horror — albeit one that poses no less a threat to the world of mortals. Into these long shadows steps a team of investigators, their fate as yet unknown….

Character Background Materials

Character Sheets

Storyteller Notes

Undying Ambition

A mysterious missive arrives in the night promising the auction of an incomparable prize: A staked and torpid Methuselah. Those accepting the invitation to the auction each have their own reasons for seeking the torpid ancient, but their true opponents may not be their rival bidders. Are the players masters of their own destinies? Or are they pawns in the War of Ages?

Character Background Materials

It’s Worth It

It sounds like a lot of work, and, honestly, it is, but when you plan your story and assemble the characters with attention to their polish, the players truly appreciate it. Overall, it makes for a stronger story, and it ensures that players have ample ways to impact the story (even if it’s not the core plot over which they have the most influence). And you don’t have to restrict it to the tabletop: You can develop LARP characters or characters for boutique events the same way. Ultimately, it’s about creating opportunities for action, because players want to see the results of the choices they make.

Before the Game Becomes a Game

http://www.hellblade.com/unseen-ninja-theory-razer/

Once game-making reaches a certain scale, the process of game-making becomes front-loaded with the process of convincing someone to pay for the development of your game.

If you play games but don’t make them, you may find this enlightening. I know that when I was younger, and particularly before I chose to make commercial games as my career, I took games for granted. As in, “I want to play a game, so I’ll go buy a game.” It never occurred to me how much decision-making went into the process. And now that I do this for a living, I feel a sense of kinship when I see someone else’s efforts in the process. Post-mortems and development conferences are fascinating, for example.

So here’s a look at the sort of thing I do all day when I’m not engaged in the nuts and bolts of actually making the game: I’m trying to convince someone who has the means — financial, labor, distribution — to make an idea become more than an idea, and begin its metamorphosis from idea to playable experience. (This isn’t a proposal I worked on, but it’s a good template for or inside view of the process.)

This sort of thing is usually hidden behind NDAs and other proprietary screens, but Ninja Theory has published some of its preproduction documentation that shows just how substantial and detailed pitching and pre-production can be.

GM Quickie: No Null Turns

When you’re running* a game, avoid making a player lose a turn. Game design doesn’t have many universal truisms, but this is one.

Players play games to fulfill needs. And when you prevent a player from taking an action, you’re literally preventing that player from having any ability to satisfy those needs. Paralysis, fear effects, stunning, etc. are all conditions that sound cool or thematic, but actually undermine the reason people play games to begin with: to see the outcomes of their actions, to improve at the actions in play, to relate to one another, and to exercise choice.

lio-lose-turn

Lio by Mark Tatulli

Instead, consider the following when you intend to create tension or anxiety by restricting a player’s ability to act:

  • Consume a resource to perform an action (which at least allows the player to decide whether acting is worth spending that resource)
  • Take actions at increased resource costs
  • Act at reduced efficiency or effectiveness (e.g. move or attack but not both, attack at a damage penalty, heal using a die one step down from the standard die, draw one fewer action card, etc.)
  • Act as normal with the input of another player (e.g. The cleric demands the player “Snap out of it!” which allows players to decide upon their own criteria for allowing each other to exchange a less effective action for a greater one)

If you’re not letting a player play, why are they at the table?

Note that, in most cases, it’s perfectly acceptable for a player to deprive a GM character of an action. The GM is often in the position of taking actions for multiple entities, and the nature of the GM’s participation is different from the way the player interacts with the game. Indeed, games that rely on creating strong tactical advantage (D&D 4e, Pathfinder, etc.) can actually benefit from depriving GM entities of their actions, as it streamlines play and hastens decision-making back into the players’ hands.

* or designing!

Branching the Flow Lines, Pt. I

“Getting into the dungeon” is usually a straightforward affair, and one without a huge amount of significance. It’s often glossed over; on occasion it’s used as a change to spring a tone-setting trap on unwary players or to deliver an ominous expositional portent. Moving through a dungeon is often similarly linear, offering a few more choices, but modern design by and large drives players through a series of escalating challenges to an ultimate “boss fight” or consummating set-piece conflict.

thracia-new-cover-c-red-66

Movement into and through contained physical spaces can be so much more than this, however. One of my favorite classic modules, Caverns of Thracia, provided numerous avenues of approach from the surface into the dungeon environment itself, as well as from within it to the lower levels. The eponymous Castle Ravenloft consists of a variety of branching hallways and catacombs. In general, when you branch the movement opportunities of a physical space, the emphasis of the game session becomes one of volitional exploration over overt conquest. Finding how and why to move where takes precedence over how to overcome what. (Which isn’t to suggest removing fights or other encounters, it just shifts the emphasis.)

Constructing location-based adventures with multiple choices and multiple points of ingress offers a host of satisfying decisions to players, and are equally as fulfilling to GM while watching the deliberations ensue.

  • Players can pursue an immediate short-term goal of discovering all the points of entry to the location
  • Players can choose their approach to the environment so as to best suit the party composition and strategy
  • Players can “shortcut” to deeper levels when they’re ready to undertake those challenges without retreading already cleared ares — unless a clever GM wants to repopulate the cleared areas to offer additional challenges and rewards

As you can see this provides a wealth of significant decisions for the players to make during gameplay, and it provides them numerous opportunities for action. Stuff like this is why people play games to begin with as opposed to consuming more sttaic media: to see the outcomes of what they do.

Practical Application

Dungeons in fantasy games are the most immediately obvious example.

The original Succubus Club for Vampire was set up with an “open floor plan” that allowed players to move through it and claim micro-territory in this most prestigious of Kindred hangouts, and even included a basement “labyrinth” for clubgoers who deliberately wanted to lose themselves in its environs.

succubus_club_dance_floor

Bars, dance floors, VIP booths, cocktail tables, the DJ booth, the coatroom, etc. can all be locations in a modern “dungeon,” with numerous ways to approach them.

Multiple choices can also capitalize on the themes of fear present in horror games, whether being lost in the caverns where a cult of Deep Ones worships in Call of Cthulhu or searching for your beloved in the mall’s service tunnels and boiler rooms in Monsterhearts.

Games like Spycraft, Night’s Black Agents, and Leverage can have “dungeon crawls” through environments like corporate skyscrapers, fallout shelters, derelict churches, apartment high-rises, and warehouse complexes.

Mazy spacecraft, military outposts, and planetary strongholds can translate the experience into games like Star Wars, Stars Without Number, and Starfinder.

And of course, post-holocaust games can adapt any of these locations and more, whether as leftovers from collapsed civilizations to new constructions erected by dangerous mutants or reavers.

While Designing…

The following techniques can help you design game spaces that offer a great deal of autonomy.

Make use of vertical space: Level one can have a staircase that goes down to level two, a sinkhole that connects level one to level two from a different room, an airshaft that leads directly to level four, and an elevator that stops at all levels. Giving players options for not only their route but their destination affords them the opportunity to challenge themselves and set their own goals. Used wisely, you will get a lot of mileage out of this design principle. In computer games, level design is a entire discipline, making extensive use of this technique. (And it’s no coincidence that Caverns of Thracia‘s original author, Jennell Jacquays, is an accomplished level designer for computer games.)

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-1-14-16-pm

A cross-section of vertical space arrangement in Swords & Wizardry

Favor authenticity over realism: You can enter and exit the monster’s pit by being dropped through the trap door in the throne room floor… but also through the tight, twisty tunnels the vermin in the kitchen have burrowed. Who cares if the vermin don’t actually burrow and that it doesn’t make sense that the kitchen is next to the monster pit? What’s important are the choices and the thematic consistency, and to suggest that someone else down there has an interest in smuggling food to the pit monster….

Staged complexity: Not everything has to be available to the players immediately. Oftentimes, players will enjoy a chance to revisit a known, “mastered” portion of the location that poses new challenges. Over the course of the players’ exploration of the site, open additional options to them. Pulling a lever on level three opens an additional entrance to an unexplored section of level one. A room on the surface that’s initially inaccessible can be unlocked with the password offered by an NPC encountered in a lower level.  An entire floor can rotate, changing the layout of a “known” location and granting access to previously unknown areas. With weird magic or superscience, entire portions may even vanish or be revealed “when the stars are right” or other criteria are satisfied. Thus the additional options open to players once they’ve already been introduced to the location, so they’re not overwhelmed by it.

Designing for Resource Requirements

Blog necromancy! This entry is a few years old (cross-posted here from an older blog), but remains valid in terms of design philosophy.


In game design, “too powerful” is a misleading phrase. The actual design should reflect “It needs to cost more.” A power or effect should remain pretty true to its original design. Mind control needs to feel like mind control — you can’t take a little bit away from it and hope to elicit the same in-game effect or the same player enthusiasm. A lightning blast needs to be a levinbolt that electrocutes its target, not a wee spark that sizzles foes for a li’l bit of damage. Hyper-speed needs to be fast… no, faster than that. David Bowie’s cone of frost breath weapon needs to crystallize targets caught in the blast radius.

This isn’t to say that there’s no place for low-powered effects. Those certainly have their place, particularly in level-based systems* that gradually step up the potency of what players can do. In these cases, the price is still important, and they still need to be relative to the effect, so it stands to reason that the costs should be commensurately lower.

One of the design philosophies that resonates with me is that all special effects should feel overpowered. As the player, I’m the coolest thing in the game, so everything taking place in the game should reward me for being there. When I do something — particularly something that my character has as an edge, such as a superpower, special skill, or supernatural ability — I should say “WOW!” when I use it. This engages me and empowers me. This is one of my rewards for spending time with the game. This can be a visual effect in a video game, a chance to spend a unique resource in a board game, an effect only my character type can create in a tabletop RPG, or the ability to use a special type of card in a card game.

My choice in choosing a play style contributes a lot to this. If I’m a psychic spy, my WOW! moment might be using my psychic powers to command or confuse my enemies. If I’m a wizard, it could be an icy blast that freezes my enemies, causing them damage and immobilizing them. A fighter type can stun an opponent with a rabbit punch or disembowel him with a dagger.

The fact that it feels overpowered doesn’t mean it should be overpowered, though, and that’s where the cost to create effects comes in. A particle effect and some audio feedback in a video game can provide that overpowered-feeling WOW! for even an average effect. Rockets and missiles in EVE, for example, land with a resounding explosion that feels very satisfying. They don’t do inordinate amounts of damage, but they feel exciting when they hit. Every character class in D&D 4e has nifty “at-will” powers that feel unique and exciting, even though they really amount to little more than a basic attack with a minor bell or whistle attached. The Disciplines in Vampire make the Kindred a cut above mortals, and since there are way more mortals in the world than there are vampires, Disciplines are both rare and empowering. The prices to invoke all of these effects, whether it’s ISK-per-missile, blood points, or frequency, keeps everyone important — players — on the same playing field.

That’s the challenge — creating the feeling of awesome while still preserving the integrity of play through managing the cost of effects in resources.

* (Now, one of the perils of level-based systems is that the mathematical challenge increases in sync with the ability of the character, so that things often don’t really become more difficult, the numbers behind them simply become greater. In many of these cases, the character’s frequency of success remains about the same — he’s trying to reach a higher threshold, but his bonus modifiers to get there are higher.)

Design for Dependency

Class-based game systems are occasionally described as offering “niche protection” as part of their design. The cleric is a healer, and no one else heals as well as the cleric, for example. The rogue excels at dealing damage; the fighter withstands punishment like no other. The wizard controls the crowd and/ or damages wide areas. Each of these roles has a thing it does well, so the “niche protection” statement is true.

But, in a larger design sense, what niche protection actually offers is an ecology of dependencies that build relatedness between players. A party of four fighters won’t fare as well as a more rounded party, because many of the things fighters depend on aren’t offered by other fighters. (Of course, some systems offer ways to vary the makeup of various classes, but these variants are rarely as potent in their variant role as the core class structured to meet the dependency.) The cleric’s job is to keep everyone standing, something that no other class does as well; the other players depend on the cleric for this, accordingly. The fighter’s job is to keep threats focused on him; the other classes depend on the fighter taking the most heat so they can perform their functions. The rogue is augmented by sneak attack damage, so she eliminates threats quickly, but she relies on the cleric to keep her standing and the fighter to keep enemy attention on him.

classdependencies

Designing for these dependencies not only helps the player group maximize its effectiveness, but also helps strengthen the relationships between players. And since games are a social endeavor first and foremost, rewarding those relationships is ultimately a proven method of keeping the players engaged for the long term.