Wednesday, 22 April 2015

RPG Adventure design I: replace your dungeon crawl with the Hero’s Journey

When I was a teenager, my gaming group loved twelve-hour sessions in which we killed one beast after another, collecting scads of loot and experience points. Now we are more interested in balancing combat with other aspects of our unfolding adventure story. Role playing vs. roll playing. As a game master, I realise that maintaining this balance begins with the structure of the adventure setting itself. To this end, I have begun adopting the classic Hero’s Journey in my designing phase. If you have no idea what the Hero’s Journey is, or have never considered it when you are designing an adventure, then this post might be helpful to you.

The Hero’s Journey (also called the Monomyth, Hero’s Quest, or Night-Sea Journey) is the standard template for many fairy tales, myths and Hollywood movies. George Lucas was strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s version of it when he wrote the original Star Wars (now known as Episode IV)[1], so I will apply Luke Skywalker’s experience to the Journey as a demonstration. There are several versions by several authors, and none is perfect, but I will do my best[i] using the diagram from Wikipedia.[ii]

The Call to Adventure
In the classic model, the hero is hanging out in a stable setting until things take a turn for the worse, prompting the hero to take action that will restore balance. Luke will never be able to restore his home on Tatooine, but he learns of a greater threat to his world and is challenged to save Princess Leia and prevent Lord Vader from snuffing out the rebels.

In role playing games (RPGs), this step is commonly ignored. As David Ewalt points out his excellent book Of Dice and Men, adventures often begin with characters meeting in a tavern because they are bored or desperate for money, and are actively looking for work. This can be a fun way to start the gaming session once in a while, as it implies that the characters are old hands at this sort of thing – consummate professionals. If this is your go-to opening, however, try something new by pressing the characters into adventure via tough circumstances thrown at them. Maybe the realm is going to be consumed; maybe one of their beloved is kidnapped; or maybe an insane wizard has turned their favourite tavern into a puzzle dungeon (kidding – don’t ever use the insane wizard trope – it’s lazy story crafting and you can do better than that).

Supernatural Aid
Luke had the power of the Force; Frodo had the power of the One Ring. Give the party something that not only makes them special, but connects them to the greater forces in the story (perhaps at a terrible cost, as in Frodo’s case). It can be as simple as a revelation that they are the rightful heirs to a throne, or that only they have the knowledge or talents needed to save the world. This information makes them important figures in the story and it also gives them a special tool to wield during negotiations at pivotal points (thus the “aid” part), though it might also haunt them at times.

Bestowing the party with a key role in the fabula is, of course, a campaign-level tool. Players do not need to learn something amazing at the start of each gaming session, but you might want to further develop at least one new detail to remind the party that they are those guys (and gals).

The Threshold
This is, generally, done well in RPGs. When the characters embark on a quest, they enter an unknown space of danger. Even if they can rest, they are not truly safe and sound. Emphasising the threshold(s) of the adventure not only sets a tone, it allows you to show off aspects of your world that the characters would find eye-opening and that players will appreciate. Don’t just trace a new line on the map; remind them that they are not in Kansas anymore.

Vladimir Propp does a good job formalising this concept (and many others)[iii]. I will use the term “helper(s)” here to mean items or characters that provide aid, but do not supernaturally link the characters to the fabula. For Luke, I would argue that these are his lightsaber, his droids, and Han Solo & Chewbacca. I don’t know when, in cinematic history, certain helpers became comedic, but I’ll cover that in my next post, “Adventure Design II: Using Hollywood tropes”.

In classic fairy tales, this was an easy box to tick because a simple magic item could make a hero noteworthy. In fantasy RPGs, however, magic items are much more common. Therefore, if you want to incorporate this design element into your story, it has to be something really special. This does not have to be terribly powerful, but it should be something specific to that adventure. Giving a character a kick-ass sword just makes them tough, but giving them a key to a special lock that is pivotal to the plot makes them the Key Bearer. Luke had aids that persisted after the adventure ended, but I prefer aids that are used up. These are usually helpful during the Challenges and Temptations phase, but are consumed in the Abyss[iv]. This not only gives each adventure its own flavour, it prevents your characters from becoming Christmas trees over the course of the campaign.

Your characters should have someone to teach them about their supernatural aid (while providing a cheap and easy vehicle for exposition). They should then have the good grace to step away from centre stage, whether it’s by dying (e.g. Obi-Wan, Patches O’Houlihan[v]) or just by making themselves scarce (e.g. Gandalf). Of course, the mentor lives on with the character in the form of their teaching, and this usually shines through at the critical make-or-break moment at the peak of Act II (the Abyss). In an RPG, having the mentor travel with the party is difficult if the mentor is extremely powerful because they will end up taking centre stage. Ways around this include having the mentor only interact occasionally or by having the mentor be knowledgeable, but not powerful. Finally, mentors are probably best used as campaign-level tropes, not as a beginning to every gaming session.

Challenges and Temptations (aka the Road of Trials)
This section will be recognisable as the bread and butter of RPG adventures, filled with monsters, traps, environmental dangers, etc. If your game is feeling stale or a bit too hack-and-slash, ask yourself how many of the players’ decisions and dice rolls relate to situations other than combat. If your characters have loads of skills and backstory that are being neglected, it may be time to nudge some encounters in a different direction. And don’t forget that temptations are a traditional part of this. If you really want to see your characters (and your players) develop apart from just gaining experience points, give them choices to make that involve sacrifice and moral decisions.

Helper(s) (again)
Just before the big trial that will be the peak of the adventure, the helpers (outlined earlier) often make their appearance one more time. In a sense, it is a way for them to have their shining moment in the story before the hero has to enter the Abyss on their own. Luke made it into the Meridian Trench of the Death Star because Han Solo showed up at the last minute[vi]. Note, however, that the Helpers are no help in the Abyss.

The Meeting with the God
This step is not listed in the diagram shown in the blog, but Propp outlines it in his work and it is important enough, in my estimation, to include it here. It is the Boss Fight. Luke meets Vader. In Episode IV, Luke is simply being shot at by Vader; in the following movie, Luke duels with him.

In many RPGs, this is the end of the adventure, which is fine for a single session. If this is the boss fight that ends a large section of the campaign, however, don’t let it end here. Move on to the Abyss...

The Abyss
Also known as the Meeting with the Goddess, it is when the hero must face his demons alone. It takes place in an other-worldy space and involves an internal struggle that follows, and runs deeper than, the Meeting with the God (the physical confrontation of the boss fight). Luke cannot succeed with his torpedoes in the trench until he risks everything and lets go of his technological aids to connect with the ambiguity of the Force. Sitting alone (unless we include Obi-Wan’s spirit), he must enter a trance-like state. In the following movie, he is left dangling above a huge pit to confront the realisation that Vader is his father (the boss fight ended when Vader cut off his hand).

As I stated earlier, you can’t play this card in every gaming session, but it is a fine way to end a campaign or a major section of one. To evoke such an ambiguous struggle, you need to force the players into difficult decisions, preferably as individuals. My most successful use of this was at the end of one of my “dungeons” wherein the characters (and players, importantly) were separated. The voice of a powerful jinn (whom they met earlier) then entered their heads and told them that the party could receive the magic item that would help them to complete the campaign, but only if one of them stayed behind (for 100 years) to become the new guardian of the temple (i.e. that player would have to abandon their well-loved and long-played character to start another). Each player was given 30 seconds to vote, in private and without consultation, on who should stay. It was akin to the classic prisoner’s dilemma, except that there was a non-player character in the party, so there was an obvious choice if the players were willing to target her. In truth, it was a bluff on my part. The jinn wanted to know who was the most pure of heart and could be trusted with the magic item. The neutral-good cleric voted for himself. He was the only one to do so. He was awarded the magic item and was transformed by wielding it.

The hero emerges from the Abyss transformed, often branded with a mark that symbolises his change. Luke leaves the trench knowing that he is a true Jedi and is given a medal. In the next film, he leaves the Abyss knowing that he is Vader’s son and is missing a hand.

In RPGs, characters often “level up” after adventures. While this ceremony marks transformation, you might want to aid the campaign by making the transformation specific to the fabula. What can the characters now do that nobody else in the world can do? If not an ability, perhaps they are simply acknowledged by others for their heroism in tapestry and song, but this makes them feel special beyond just becoming more powerful.  

Atonement and Return
Conflicts are resolved, loose ends are tied up, Luke and Han have a heart-to-heart about their feelings for Princess Leia. The characters can then return to their original homeland bearing the boon of their adventure and may be a master of both worlds (the known and the unknown).

In your RPG, don’t neglect this part. Often, a gaming session ends late and everybody packs it in immediately after the final battle or conflict. If this is the case, send an email to the characters a few days later that explains what happened next. Did they return to their shire as heroes? Did their actions set off any chain of events that will help the players to get their minds ready for the next adventure? Follow up is important to complete the story (this is also a good way to remind everyone of pivotal events throughout the session and to pull it together into a narrative).   

In Conclusion:
George Lucas didn’t read The Hero with a Thousand Faces until he was already working on Star Wars, at which point he realised he was writing in accordance with the Monomyth, even though he had not intentionally set out to do so.[2] You may find yourself doing the same when you design your adventures. If you have not intentionally compared your story with the Monomyth yet, try doing so. Create an adventure using your gut instincts but, then, take a look at the classic structure of the Hero’s Journey and ask yourself if your design could be improved by including some classic elements (you should also consider adding some classic Hollywood tropes, which is the subject of my next post). If you use every one of them every time, your game will become predictable but, if you space them out over the course of your campaign, it should resonate with truthiness[vii] and feel more satisfying to your players.

 Works Cited
B. Moyers, Director, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth - Season 1, Episode 1: The Hero's Adventure. [Film]. Joan Konner and Alvin Perlmutter, 1988.
S. Larsen and R. Larsen, Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind, Inner Traditions, 2002.

[i] Anthropologists and literary scholars have studied the Monomyth exhaustively. I have not. While I try to do it justice in this article, you should really go and read some of the key authors if you want to develop a deeper understanding of the Hero’s Journey. The most common reference for this is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
[ii] Wikipedia user Slashme redrew this diagram. It includes and simplifies features from Campbell, Propp, and others.
[iii] It’s a shame that the Propperian random fairy tale generator run by Brown University no longer works (unless I am just not able to find it?). The idea is that fairy tales are so generic that you can mix and match random bits, as long as they are placed in the correct category.
[iv] For Frodo, the One Ring serves as a supernatural aid, but also fits into this category.
[v] I can’t help it. I actually think DodgeBall is a funny movie.
[vi] In doing so, Han Solo completes his own journey. He emerges from his own Abyss wherein he had to decide what kind of person he really was. When he chooses loyalty and valour over self-preservation, he redeems himself and becomes transformed.
[vii] Merriam-Webster’s 2006 word of the year, truthiness, describes that which “feels right”, even if there is no other supporting evidence. In this case, I am using it to describe what makes a story satisfying as opposed to the most realistic way in which it might go (e.g. when Luke is being shot at by numerous storm troopers, he gets hit in the chest and the story ends there, unceremoniously, before he even gets the chance to utter any heroic dying words).

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Using dice as reminders (or as choice-limiters)

Player: "Oh, crap! I forgot that my character could have used that special power!"
Game master: "Let's call it even -- I forgot that I was supposed to be penalising you for difficult terrain."

Does anything like this sound familiar? There are certain situations that, for some reason, cause us to forget about modifiers. It seems to happen when we are focused on the results of a roll and it can be really annoying. My friend and I are designing a dungeon crawling game in which characters have special abilities and magic items but, for some reason, we never remembered that they were there until a battle was finished. How did we solve it? We added a reminder system into the dice themselves. In our case, we replaced one of the blank sides of each die with a question mark. Whenever one of these faces appeared, a player could use their special power. I am also toying with similar mechanisms for various boardgame designs in which instructive icons printed on the board fail to remind players of their options. 

I found the use of a special (reminder) die to be so successful that I adopted it for my role-playing system. Alongside the basic attack die, a player simultaneously throws a die that has a few icon-based faces. This die tells the roller whether or not they can modify their attack with a special feat. This has pros and cons, but I think it works well on balance.

Of course, this prevents a roller from ever forgetting about a special ability, but that's not the only reason to adopt such a mechanic. It also allows the game master to pump up the special attacks so that they actually do something really cool. In some role-playing systems, characters can attempt special attacks (e.g. a targeted strike) but, for the sake of game balance, they need to suffer some kind of penalty (e.g. a reduced chance to hit) so that this ability is not used all the time (another way to reduce it is to limit that special attack to once per battle or some other such anti-thematic nonsense). By simply allowing the player to use an ability on randomly determined occasions, you can get rid of the niggling balancing mods and, perhaps, even beef up the special attack so that it may provide a significant alteration to the battle. A third reason that I find a special attack die useful is that it can provide clear cut decisions for the game master. 

As an example of this, my special attack die is a six-sided die that actually has two active faces. One indicates primary special attack and the other indicates secondary. Most monsters (and characters) only have primary special attacks and the secondary face is ignored when it appears. Many monsters, however, have both. A crocodile, for example, rolls its victim in its locked jaws (if the regular attack die indicates a hit) when the special die indicates a primary attack, and it uses a tail sweep if the secondary side appears. This helps me to create flavourful battles without having the players concerned that I am picking on them by always using the monsters' special abilities. I am considering the inclusion of a tertiary face on the die, with only occasional monsters having such abilities. Giving characters secondary and tertiary abilities is tempting, but I find that it slows things down too much and reduces the excitement of using special abilities, since there are several characters attacking every round. In cases where there is only one monster, however, multiple chances of special attacks should work well.

Perhaps the greatest feature of many games is that they give the players ownership of their decisions. If those choices are too obvious or mandated, then it is much less interesting. A player may feel frustrated that they can't use a special attack whenever they want to do so. Likewise, a game master might feel limited in their creativity. The way that I deal with this is in my role-playing system is to always allow special actions if the players really want to use them, but to only apply the typical limits if the die turns up blank (i.e. the special face removes penalties and stipulations). As far as board games go (such as the dungeon crawler that I mentioned earlier), players are much more willing to accept themeless balancing rules than they would in an RPG. In our dungeon crawler, however, we still try to maintain theme by suggesting that the special attacks are only applicable when the opportunities present themselves (which, it turns out, happens one out of every six rolls). 

Perhaps these machinations seem overbearing or unnecessarily complex for your game design. If that is the case, then ignore them. If, however, you find your players forgetting to use certain abilities, then give it a whirl. Please let me know how it works out for you either way.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

getting the most from your dice

As the dragon bears down on you with open jaws, you have only one chance of survival -- you throw your Orb of Retribution straight at him. If you are successful, it will explode in the dragon's throat, killing him instantly. If you fail, you will be devoured. Roll the dice...

Every gamer has been here. Whether you are attempting to survive a dragon or hoping not to land on Boardwalk. These are the 'stand up' rolls. The ones that make you dance around and recite various incantations before throwing the dice. The game mechanics that build up to this point are varied, and the stakes need to be high, but I want to explore something particular about these rolls: the best way for a game designer to deliver that tension-releasing moment to get the highest volume cheers and groans.

Whether these types of high-stakes resolutions are done by rolling dice, flipping a card, or drawing something from a bag, I think there are two important ingredients to consider: transparency and immediacy.


This is the most obvious one: the mechanics of the system must be transparent to the players. They need to understand what results they might get and what their chances are for getting them. If, in my opening example, the player is told that she needs to roll the dice to defeat the dragon, but the game-master has a secret result table that will need to be consulted to determine what happens, the player feels frustrated because they cannot "try" for a certain result (I say "try" in quotes here because, let's face it, they player cannot affect the dice, but that's certainly not how it feels when she throws them). In summary, don't have players roll dice if they don't know what numbers they want to get.


This one is more subtle, and is more commonly neglected. To get those cheers and groans, the result should be immediately understood. If the player fighting the dragon has to pile on modifiers to figure out whether the roll was successful, it squelches the moment. I designed a role-playing system in which the attacker and defender each rolled a die and compared them. A bad idea. Each player knew they wanted to roll a high number, but they did not have a threshold in mind (a number that they were trying to beat). Better to figure out ahead of time, complete with all modifiers, what number a player needs to beat, and to let the roll resolve the tension immediately. If a player ever asks, "so, did I make it?", after they roll the dice, then you know that your game design needs tweaking.

As icing on the cake, immediacy can be enhanced even further by sticking to another rule when choosing designs for your dice: qualitative icons for qualitative results. It is the final step that seems to push the immediacy factor straight past the thinking portion of a player's brain and into their reward centre. Putting it simply, pictures on dice (or cards, or tokens) are better than numbers if you are generating a qualitative (not quantitative) result. If the player fighting the dragon knows that she needs to roll a 12 or higher using 3 six-sided dice, she can quickly add up the pips to see if she got it. If, however, she rolls 3 dice, each of which has a "hit" symbol, which will either appear or not, she immediately knows whether or not she was successful. Furthermore, this seems more powerful when a player has a literal vision of what they are hoping to see (graphic icons work well for this, though hoping for a specific number (like a "6") also qualifies). Slot machines come to mind as the most successful exploiters of this concept. It just seems much more satisfying when you can visualise exactly what symbol you need in the final column, and you wait impatiently for it to appear as you mutter, "Oh, please... oh please...".