Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Screwing Around with Players and Map Qualities

I have Session 6 of the Insect Shrine in about 90 minutes, I'm behind on several things, like Part 2 of my Horror post and getting GDF #4' s formatting complete, I need to get the Old Miner's Shame text finished, and emails to answer.

So, of course, I'm doing a blog post!

I've received, through trade and usage of royalty payments, five adventures in the past week or so. All of these were published 2006-2009. This is OSR stuff, not olden days originals (well, as far as publication date, anyway). I don't want to name names because there will be some critical sniping outside of the context of a fair review, and comparisons between them-and-me on specific issues and not products-as-a-whole.

First, maps.

I am not a Mythic Underworld guy. There, I said it. When I've tried to make such things for my own use, I fail, as the dungeons seem more like random blah blah blah with a monster here, a treasure there, instead of something magical and wondrous.

What I excel at, if indeed I excel at anything, is creating an adventuring environment which follows a theme and has internal logic. The players might never be able to see it, but I must know the ins and outs of the location - who built it, why, what's happened to bring us from then til now - in order to make it sing.

One way this manifests in my work is the maps. Generally, if I'm screwing around with mapmaking and come up with ideas based on the maps, then I run into the Mythic Underworld problem, and all the problems that result when applied through the Raggi filter.

If I have the idea first and make a list of what should be there, and then make a map based on that... then I'm more satisfied with my work. I can look at it and think, "Huzzah!" I can look back on it months later and say, "That's a cool place."

But I often think of Melan's analysis of dungeon maps. While I often wonder if "making sense" hurts "gameability," for some reason when making maps, my Mythic Underworld could-be-the-start-of-a-megadungeon compare favorably to Melan's essay. When I go for "function defining the form," things seem to be more compact and linear. I know he's stated (on this blog, even) that the essay was in no way supposed to be some sort of manifesto on what good dungeon design looks like, I do take what he writes to heart. "Gameability" versus "verisimilitude" is a constantly raging war over here at Command Center Theta and at times I don't know if I'm a double or triple agent, and I'm always looking for the doublecross.

And you know what? I'm fine with that. When I make maps, both for my game and for publication, it's a concern of mine. But if I worry about linear dungeons and still say, "Well, this is the way it's got to be," then I stand by it as a conscious decision.

Looking at my published, and to-be published maps so far:

Death Frost Doom looks linear in design, and I suppose it is, but it's not "must go through room A, B, and C in order to get to destination D." There are many distractions, many things to do, and meaningful choices to make (my playtesters proved that!) along the way. Reaching Point D is in many ways an indication that You Screwed Up.

No Dignity in Death: The Three Brides has one dungeony place, and it's pretty linear. However, there isn't a succession of locations that are required in order to get to Point D. If the surface area is included as part of the "dungeon," then it isn't linear at all, with the house being a completely different branch with fun stuff all its own, the maze and graveyard being small branches, etc.

And that is all only one-third of the adventure anyway. The other two parts have so many variables and ways to tweak them that there is not a "Start Here and End There" situation at all. Then again, they're not dungeon adventures either, so...

The Grinding Gear is probably the most truly linear of the bunch, which superficially improves somewhat if you include the surface area as a different "branch." But the theme of the adventure is thoroughness. Making different branches or alternate and circular routes wouldn't actually be introducing choice, based on what the adventure is. It's a focused adventure and I think the layout of the environment strengthens that focus.

The Old Miner's Shame (title subject to change) is more along the lines of Death Frost Doom in the way that you start at Point A, and there's a Point B out there to get to, but there's all sorts of fun stuff along the way that can be, but doesn't have to be, interacted with. But of course there is some stuff that does need to be interacted with in order to continue - the location wouldn't make any sense otherwise.

There's also a totally different Point C that is possible to reach, so it's not exactly the same formula as any I've used before. Think of it as a White Plume Mountain with only two branches instead of three. I looked at a gap in the map and thought of doing a third branch, but the adventure as-is has been taken entirely from actual play, and is already two locations put together. Would a third branch really make the adventure better, or just bigger?

I decided that even if the answer was "better," since it would be an after-the-fact kludge I might as well kludge it somewhere else in the future then.

Insect Shrine of Goblin Hill will be much different. In addition to the wilderness area and the "sandbox" quality of the adventure, the main dungeon area is frickin huge. There are two entrances to the whole thing, and three areas that each can support more than one session of play. Of the three distinct areas within the larger dungeon, two have two connections to either other parts or the outside, one has only one such connection (but has two different ways to play through), and one has a branch to a distinct fourth area that I actually don't ever expect to be found. Nobody should have issues with this map.

Then again, nobody should have issues with anything about it, the length of time it's taken to come together... ay ay ay

Death Ferox Doom (title subject to change) just has an outline and a side-view dungeon sketch at this point, but I'm already cognizant of dungeon layout issues from the start. The dungeon will have three entrances, all equally obvious and accessible, with several levels (current sketch has seven, that probably will change, and in any event they won't be very large levels - this will be a "standard" size adventure) that will all be readily accessible by an elevator-like device (the details are in mind, but no spoilers this far out!).

Then I look at some of these other adventures and wonder why I'm worrying.

But that took a long darn time to write about. Mapping wasn't supposed to be the point of the post!

Screwing around with your players is supposed to be the point of the post. The players will be here in 40 minutes, so I have not much time left to talk, so most of the sniping will have to wait...

... except for one point: Reaching 0 degrees Fahrenheit is not nearly cold enough to cause a 20% die-off, especially when it's already winter and people are already hunkered down! 40 degrees is damn warm for "Dead of Winter" in a snowy north! This Finnish resident runs naked through your wintry landscape, suffering 20% shrinkage but no population loss! :P :P :P

One of the adventures I bought was Kuntz's Original Bottle City. While I like knowing about the history of the hobby for the simple fact that it is my hobby and it's damn foolish to not be interested in something you're interested in (that's not as Captain Obvious a statement as it seems...), I don't buy products for their historical value. I buy products to use for gaming. Now. In 2009 and beyond, not 197whatever.

Bottle City satisfied me (although there's no chance in hell I'm ever going to be able to do anything with all those empty rooms to keep up a consistent Kuntzian atmosphere, and I wouldn't have bought the thing if that's not what I wanted from the adventure) in this regard. It is a viable gaming product right now, and not just a historical curiosity.

But one aspect of history, the methodology of what was done "back in the day," is I think quite valuable for everyone. And one phrase strikes me as awesome from the adventure:

"I simply loved these encounter types, and the players despised them..."

This was obviously valid scenario-building back then, and certainly I design areas with the idea that "This is going to drive the players nuts!"

But I suspect that new-schoolers would go into prophylactic shock (sorry, in-joke after mishearing a line on House) at that line.

The commentary in Bottle City is full of fun stuff where Kuntz just talks about things he did to mess with the players (changing the effects of pulled levers from pull-to-pull in a non-random way, for example).

I love it. Love it.

Too bad my players won't be seeing 9th level anytime soon (minimum recommended level for the adventure). We started in July 2008 and I think the highest level character is 7th. Might even be 6, I'm not sure.

But yeah, I have to hit the shitter and the shower and welcome the players. Maria baked gingerchocolate brownies for them today! Later...!


  1. I think the choice between the realist and gamist methods of dungeon design is a false one. You want to make something that plays to your strengths as a DM. For some people this is going to be a free form Mythic Underworld style dungeon. For others this is going to be a dungeon that could have realistically been constructed.

    I am an engineer, since I will have to improvise based on my dungeon design, I design dungeons that have a reason for being built the way they are and some kind of meaningful ecology. This helps me when I have to work on the fly. I can figure out the effects of the players' actions on the rest of the dungeon much faster. My dungeons tend to be very small. I can't justify a giant underground complex.

    I know that for other people a theme is more important to them. Their brain just works a different way. I have played in games run by people like this, and they were awesome.

  2. For what it's worth, I like both kinds of dungeon: some of them 'mythic underworld' and some of them more 'realistic' or lair-style.

    I also think that mythic underworld style doesn't lend itself to published products. Maybe for sublevels (e.g. Bottle City is a sublevel or 'special level,' though definitely a big one), but I think a lot of the 'magic' of a great big underworld comes from developing and shaping it through actual play, and that doesn't translate well to a product-format. (Then it really does come off like a big list of monsters and treasures, without any of the context that actual play brought to it when it was being developed.)