JP On Gaming

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Secret Project X: Thoughts on Game Design, Part 1

Most recently at Winter Fantasy, I got drawn into a number of discussions about game design. Not really the nuts and bolts of it, but really the philosophy behind it. Now I know many will disagree with the positions I will take in this post, but my approach is rooted in gaming history.

When I first started writing seriously (for Helios 2000), I would come up with complex stories, big secrets, and a final reveal, much like whodunits. Once the players had played through the adventure, I would be able to reveal "this is what the secret plot really was." I could sit back with a smug, content smile on my face as my players went "That's a cool story".

Throughout my time in France and Ireland, I wrote events with that method. I enjoyed writing a number of adventures, many of which I still enjoy to this day. The "big reveal" model worked for me well enough.

Then in 2003, I started working on Living Greyhawk adventures, and that model began to feel flat for me. I guess the adventure that brought this problem to me was VTF3-01 Nor Crystal Falls. In the adventure, PCs traveled to Verbobonc and went after the Cult of Elemental Evil.

Once they entered the temple itself, (under a waterfall), they traveled down through levels that each had an identical map. Each room had a priestess of the Water Cult, complete with a half-page of background for the character. Why they joined the Cult, who they were, their current goals. The stories brought a lot of flavor to the adventure.

BUT the players never got any of it. Why? Because for every room, the scene went like this:

GM You enter this room in the temple. There is a statue of a water elemental in the center. On the other side of the room, there is a woman in blue robes.
Player Does she have a symbol of the Cult?
GM Yes.
Player starts counting squares for movement and waits for initiative, oblivious to anything else. Offer of talk were met with axes or charge movement...

That's exactly how that adventure went, floor after floor. I pondered on this adventure. "How can I make it better?"

The answer I had took a long time to find out, but implementing a fix took much longer.


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