Happy Megadungeon Monday!
This is going to be another lighter, fluffier, more conceptual one. Sorry. But it’s really your own fault because it sort of started in the comment section of last week’s article. Actually, it REALLY started with an internet video. The trouble is, I can’t remember the video and I’m having trouble tracking it down. But it doesn’t matter. Someone was talking about some video game. I watch a lot of videos about video games, okay? It’s how I maintain my level of utter genius about how to put together actual good games.
Now, as some of you may know, nothing drives me more insane than a misused or misspoken idiom. For example, if you ever say to me “the proof is in the pudding,” I will probably punch the every-loving crap out of you. And if you ever say “that’s the exception that proves the rule” in an ironic way, I’ll rip out your thorax. That phrase is not ironic. The word “prove” is an old word that used to mean “to test.” Like a proving ground. And like proof of concept. Yeah, you’re not trying to provide EVIDENCE your concept works. You’re TESTING your concept. But there are dumba$&es out there who think “well, it was pretty cold today so global warming must not exist” is a funny example of the “exception that proves the rule,” like that phrase is a joke. The “exception that proves the rule” is the situation that arises that makes you reevaluate whether the rule really works. And “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” See, European puddings are big, fancy affairs that look really pretty. But it doesn’t matter how pretty the pudding looks. The actual TEST of the pudding is how it TASTES! The test of the pudding is tasting it. See? SEE?!
So I was watching some video on YouTube and some reviewer or critic or whatever was saying “these are the carrots on sticks” of the game, referring to a thing as an incentive. You know, like how you tie a carrot to a stick and dangle it in front of a donkey to make it move forward. And lots of people think of the phrase as “carrot on stick.” But it actually isn’t. The phrase is “carrot AND stick.” And it refers to the practice of dangling a carrot in front of a jacka$% to make it do what you want and beating it with a stick to make it stop doing what you don’t want.
See, the thing about driving behavior is that rewards are only good to drive people along the right path. Punishments are also needed to get people off the wrong path. At least, assuming the people are jacka$&es. And we’re talking about players here. So…
Anyway, several commenters last week took exception to the idea of including a wandering monster mechanic in the megadungeon at all. They noted that I, myself, have admitted that a wandering monster mechanic is basically a nuisance mechanic. It’s basically a punishment. If the players spend too much time away from the dungeon or don’t push forward or try to rest or are loud and stupid, minor encounters pop up randomly to waste their time and energy and offer very little reward.
Why, asked some of my readers, am I including a punishing nuisance mechanic? Isn’t there some other, more rewarding way of accomplishing my goals? And the answer is no. Because you can’t just get by with the carrot. Sometimes you need the stick. And THAT is why we need to discuss incentives and disincentives (rewards and punishments) in game design. And ultimately, it’s going to lead us to decide to do something absolutely crazy with XP in our little megadungeon. Let’s get down to it.
The Tyranny of Fun
It is quite common nowadays for game designers to labor under a thing I like to call “the tyranny of fun.” Basically, the assumption is that if there is a particular game element that isn’t, of itself, fun, it does not belong in the game. And that SEEMS reasonable. I mean, why include something in the game that isn’t fun? Don’t we do this whole thing for fun?
No. No we actually don’t.
Take, for example, Dark Souls. Dark Souls is a game a great many people love playing and a great many people absolutely hate. The haters decry it for its punishing difficulty, it’s obtuse to the point of almost nonexistent storytelling, and its refusal to explain anything or hold your hand in any way. It’s basically a meat grinder and the only way to beat it is to keep throwing meat into it until the gears get clogged and stop working. One reviewer once described Dark Souls as “banging your head repeatedly against a wall with a scary monster painted on it.” And that’s pretty apt. Meanwhile, those of us who LOVE Dark Souls – you know, the people who are RIGHT – love it for its punishing difficulty, its obtuse storytelling, and its refusal to explain absolutely everything.
If the game designers of Dark Souls had decided that nothing unfun could exist in Dark Souls, it would absolutely suck. At least, for those of us who love it, it would absolutely suck.
See, the word fun is kind of a useless word. It’s vague and general, but we generally associate it with a positive experience that leaves us delighted and happy. Dark Souls isn’t that. And that’s because games can shoot for lots of other emotions and engagements beyond the nebulous concept of fun. Dark Souls is designed around a specific form of engagement and everything it does, fun and unfun, is designed around that engagement. It is designed around providing an extremely challenging experience, but it is also designed to be extremely fair. That is to say, it’s mechanics are understandable and once you understand what it’s doing, it doesn’t break its own rules (mostly). But part of that challenge is figuring out the rules its playing by. And the same goes for the story. If you want to know what the story is, you damned well better piece it together because it sure isn’t going to tell you. The elements that aren’t “fun in the moment” are important to create the specific, satisfying experience that it sets out to create.
And THAT is why the dumba$&es petitioning for the designers to waste resources to put in an “easy mode” to help it cater to fans who aren’t seeking hardcore challenge literally DO NOT GET IT. That’s like saying “this horror movie would be a lot better if you removed the axe murderer, added a romantic plot, lightened the tone, and added a few jokes.”
Now, let me sound like an elitist douchebag for a moment. I mean, like MORE of an elitist douchebag. Chasing “fun” is pretty much chasing the lowest common denominator. If you just fill your game with “in the moment fun,” yeah, people will have fun with it for a while. But the experience will be shallow, it will lack depth. Anyone seeking a deeper or more specific experience will quickly wander away. Worse yet, it won’t lack staying power. Because the people who are there for simple escapist fun – abnegation as elitist douchebag game designers call it – they get bored quickly. They tend to flit from experience to experience. They are like drug addicts. They build up a resistance and constantly need more or better drugs or higher doses. The highs stop being as high and the lows drag out.
You are almost ALWAYS better off tailoring your game to a SPECIFIC experience and then building to that experience than walking to the table – or designing your product – with the idea of just clowning around chasing fun.
The megadungeon project isn’t just a “fun” dungeon crawler. It’s designed to create a specific experience. Not EVERYONE will like it, sure. But I do believe that it will have pretty broad appeal because the things it does are things that I think a lot of D&D gamers are drawn to. But, of course, that’s the risk with ANY design. On the one hand, a specific experience is always better than the vagary of “fun.” On the other hand, too specific an experience limits your audience. Dark Souls surprised a lot of people because it did so well. It was a very experience, it was designed as a budget title, and it was designed as a spiritual successor to a game that – at best – a niche game, a cult game. Its success surprised a lot of people. Because it turned out a lot of people were looking for just that sort of experience. Basically, it got lucky.
And that is why, in the end, the best thing a creator can do is assume that SOMEONE out there likes the things they like and consequently design something THEY want to play. The megadungeon is the sort of thing I’d love to play and run. I’m assuming there’s other people out there like me. So, by designing for me, I’m designing for them.
Teaching People How to Enjoy Your Game
Now, here’s where things get tricky and where I start to offend a few people. Not that I care. I’m always offending people. Here’s the deal, no matter how broad your appeal and how general the experience you are trying to create, there is ALWAYS a best way to play your game. See, people want to believe that things, especially role-playing games, can and should be everything to everyone. But that falls us right back into the trap of vapid, shallow experiences. Specifically, that’s how you create experiences that are okay at a lot of things but that don’t stand out any anything. Jacks of all trades, masters of none. The primary example is, of course, Dungeons & Dragons. Because, of course, there is no one right way to play D&D. But the thing is, there are lots of BETTER ways to play D&D and there are also lots of BAD and DUMB ways to play D&D. Which is why other role-playing games even exist.
But even within D&D, different adventures and campaigns work differently and do different things and emphasize different forms of engagement. Our megadungeon is not going to play anything like, say, Return of Strahd Ravenloft or whatever the current new hotness is. As if I give a s$&% about “Twilight meets D&D” which is just an update of “Interview with a Vampire” meets D&D.
For example, our game is basically action archaeology. Explore the ruins, overcome the obstacles, piece together the backstory, delve deep enough, find the final boss, and win. And for the players to get the most out of it, we need them to play it a certain way. Our game is about exploration and challenge. So, they need to be willing to wander, to push forward, and be driven by a desire for answers. And they need to face the games obstacles, individually and collectively, as challenges to be overcome as efficiently as possible. If they waste too many resources, they have to retreat and rest. Retreating and resting comes at a cost, an increased chance of random encounters. Those waste more resources. Likewise, exploration is good when it is pushing forward, but the party should also be efficient. Always push forward, don’t dawdle or wander.
In fact, that came up in the comments too. It was mentioned that I’ve built a dungeon that REQUIRES backtracking and also PUNISHES backtracking. Yes. Yes I have. Sometimes, the party has to return to a previously explored area because the next way forward lies in that direction. For example, after they defeat the plant monster, the next way forward requires them return to a side path that is now open to them.
If the players are attentive and the game telegraphs itself well – and it will because I’m good at this – most players will remember where they saw a path that is now opened by the dead plant monster. For now, you’ll have to trust me on that. But I WILL show you how we’re going to pull that off. But anyway, ideally, the players have already seen the path that killing the plant monster clears. And when they kill the plant monster, they will remember where it was and return to it. That’s efficient backtracking. But some players won’t. Some players will forget or they will miss it the first time around or they will get lost or keep bad notes or be inattentive. And those players will end up wandering and wasting a lot of resources on fighting rats and oozes and other obnoxious vermin. Because they are being inefficient.
Players who play the game well will find it the most satisfying. Players who don’t figure out how to play it well won’t find it as satisfying. And so part of the game’s job is to TEACH the players how to play it well. The carrot-and-stick approach of rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior not only creates an experience where playing the game the way it was meant to be played is immensely satisfying, it also TEACHES the players how to play the game well.
Sure, we COULD just sit down and say “okay, guys, this game is about being a bad enough dude or dudette to win this dungeon and also being a smart enough dude or dudette to understand the story of the dungeon, and this is how to approach that,” but that’s a sucky approach to introducing a game. Instead, designing a game that dangles carrots and threatens sticks and makes both the carrots and sticks clear, THAT leads to a much better experience. But, of course, clarity is complicated too.
Bunny Farts (And Beaver Farts)
There’s a joke that goes “what’s invisible and smells like carrots?” The answer has already been spoiled by the header. Sorry about that. Also, for the purpose of this paragraph, assume there is another joke that goes “what’s invisible and smells like sticks?” Because we need carrots and sticks and so we need carrot farts and stick farts.
The point is that, while the players do need to be AWARE of the carrots and the sticks, awareness is a tricky beast. We tend to think of awareness as consciously KNOWING something. But there are other levels of awareness too. It’s kind of tough to explain without just providing a list of examples, but carrots and sticks can be pretty subtle. In fact, they are often more effective if they are subtle. That’s because subtle carrots and sticks tend to become more emergent features. They are something that the players only become aware of after playing for a while. And long before the players become consciously aware of them, they are already unconsciously aware of them.
If you want an example of bunny farts at work, go play Portal with the designer commentary on. One of the things the designers of Portal and Portal 2 did was to playtest the games to an obsessive degree. They observed absolutely everything every player did or even looked at. And if too many players focused on the wrong detail for a few seconds too long, they fixed the problem. For example, if they found the players paused too long on entering a space in the game, they would add extra lighting to show off a particular game element like a button or box to hedge the players in the right direction. In the end, players didn’t notice this sort of crap, but it was all driving the experience.
The point is, carrots and sticks don’t need to be explicit or obvious to work. They just need to exist in a way that players will eventually spot the pattern. Basically, the players need to be able to smell carrots and sticks. See? Bunny farts and beaver farts. So, for example, after the players clear a room in the dungeon, that room won’t necessarily stay empty. Instead, sometimes, something new will appear. The players will KNOW they cleared a room. So, if something new appears, they will know the dungeon is alive and backfilling itself. That’s why it’s a waste to have random encounters in unexplored rooms. Because the players won’t be able to tell the difference between a random and an emplaced encounter anyway. So random encounters won’t do any good in unexplored rooms. Thus, it’s a waste of the GMs time to roll for random encounters.
As for random encounters triggered by loud players doing stupid things or sleeping in the wrong spot, it’s obviously important for the players to pick up on that crap, right? After all, those are CLEARLY stick moments. As in, moments where we want to beat them with a stick. How will they know about the stick if monsters never show up? Easily. Because every time they do something stupid or take a nap, the GM rolls a die. And then, eventually, something shows up to find out what all the racket is about.
Now, you might argue that this is clearly a case of metagaming, where the players are using information the characters couldn’t have. And if you do, I’m going to have to slap you. Because, first of all, we don’t USE that word like that on this site because we’re better than that. But second of all, we’re actually using the mechanics to tell the players something the characters SHOULD know. That is to say, the characters – as practiced adventures – should have the good sense to move quietly in hostile territory and not have loud arguments about treasure divisions. And they should have the good sense not to curl up and take a nap behind enemy lines.
In terms of design, we might say that the die roll is telegraphing. That is to say, the game element is sending a signal about a potential outcome in the game world.
If the players only f$&% up once in the rare while and never have a random encounter triggered by their f$&% ups, they might never know what those die rolls are for. That’s fine. But note that the chance of random encounters WILL increase as factions become more active. That is to say, by the mid game, if the players haven’t learned how to play smart, they very likely WILL get beaten by the stick and figure out.
So, the wandering monster mechanics are not necessarily an overtly visible stick, but the players can smell them like beaver farts. They will see rooms they have already explored suddenly become occupied by nuisance enemies. And they will see die rolls when they do stupid things and eventually, if they do too many stupid things, recognize what those die rolls are about. They may never understand absolutely every aspect of the mechanics. Some stuff, like the increased chance of random encounters after leaving the dungeon for “too long” might be too subtle for them to pick up on. That’s okay. The players only have to get the gist of things. But very attentive players and might realize that the dungeon becomes a lot more active if they return after being gone for several days instead of just one night.
Now, there is another part to teaching players how to play properly. Carrots and sticks are nice –whether they are visible or whether it’s just the whiff of bunny and beaver farts – but it’s also useful to create opportunities in the game to show off the carrots and sticks. Now, this isn’t something we’re going to go into a great deal of detail about right now. But it deserves a mention. One of the things we SHOULD do when we design the actual dungeon proper is to make sure we create a few situations in which the players will be exposed to the random monster mechanic. For example, we could create a noisy obstacle early in the dungeon, like a wooden barricade the party has to break down or an encounter with a shrieker that will trigger a random monster roll. With the right bit of flavor text and a visible die roll, this will telegraph to smart players that loud noises might attract monsters.
Of course, we’re going to be doing a LOT of telegraphing as we train the players to play our dungeon AND train our GM to run our dungeon. But that’s something we’ll focus more attention on later.
Right now, though, we have another problem.
The XP Carrot
One of the primary carrots in D&D, one of the few carrots built directly into the system, is experience points. Whenever the players overcome a challenge, they earn XP. When they earn enough XP, they gain a level. When they gain a level, they become more awesome. This feels good. Which is why GMs who dispense with the XP system because they don’t want to be bothered with math are complete dumba$&es.
See, if you look at video games, you’ll notice that every video game that involves leveling and XP does the same thing: they always prominently display XP. There’s a bar or meter right on the screen that tells you how much XP you have and how much you need. And every time you gain XP, there’s a visual cue. And there’s a very good reason for that. Players LIKE gaining XP. And, as a result, XP is a very strong incentive to get players to play the game properly and to reward them for playing well.
Of course, D&D doesn’t USE XP very well and, consequently, most GMs don’t realize that XP COULD be very powerful if they used it better. But then, GMs are also mostly lazy s$&%s who hate math and just want to hand out levels whenever because that’s just as good.
But we’re smarter than that. In fact, we’re PURPOSELY using XP as both a carrot and a stick in our megadungeon. XP encourages the players to clear rooms and overcome obstacles. It also encourages them to clear obstacles completely rather than merely bypassing them. It also rewards interacting with the dungeon and learning the backstory. And XP in our dungeon also makes random encounters feel worse because they give crap XP compared to real encounters.
But here’s the problem: the players probably won’t see any of that s$&%. And that completely ruins everything.
Let’s look, again, to video games to demonstrate what I mean. There is a series of absolutely great RPGs called Paper Mario which take place in a pop-up book version of the Super Mario Brothers universe. The second game in that series, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is simply the BEST Mario role-playing game ever published. Yes, f$&%ers, it is HANDS DOWN BETTER than the Super Mario RPG by Square for the SNES. If you disagree, you’re wrong.
Anyhoo, the point…
Oh, wait. If you do go look up the Paper Mario series, don’t bother. Because after Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, the series took a complete and utter nose dive into a flaming pile of horse manure. Unless you’ve got a Game Cube on hand, don’t bother.
Anyhoo, the point is this. In Paper Mario, you required 100 XP to gain a new level. Every time. That amount never changed. Which made it very easy to tell when you were getting close to a new level. And that helped keep the momentum in the game up. If you’ve ever played ANY RPG, you know how the game feels when you are getting close to a new level. Now, because it always took exactly 100 XP to gain a level, you might be tempted to hang around in an area that was beneath you and keep fighting less powerful enemies to efficiently gain XP. But the creators thought of that. And they didn’t want you doing that. Because that isn’t a mode of gameplay they wanted to encourage. So, as you gained levels, individual enemies that were less powerful than you gave less and less XP.
Now, if Paper Mario handled XP like D&D does, you’d never know what was going on. Because, in D&D, you get all of your XP at the end of a session or at the end of the adventure or whatever. And the GM usually just gives you a big ole pile. “You got 50 XP tonight, good job!” And you can only wonder what you did to earn that XP and why it wasn’t more.
But, in Paper Mario, as in most RPGs, the game literally shows you each point of XP as you earn it. In combat in Paper Mario, enemies literally explode in a spray of XP which is then tallied at the bottom of the screen. And it is then counted up at the end of each battle. No mystery there.
If we want XP to work as a carrot in our megadungeon, we’re going to have to make it visible. We’re going to have to build a mechanic for it. Except… well, we probably can’t. That is to say, there really isn’t a way we can easily rewrite the XP rules to have some kind of visible XP meter. We’re stuck with D&D’s rules for XP.
So, what to do?
Soft Mechanics: Appealing to the GM
There’s a mechanic built into D&D that most adventure designers never think to play with: it’s called the f$&%ing GM. See, an adventure or campaign or game supplement is really just a set of instructions to be executed by a human GM. So, if we want to affect the game without rewriting the rules, we’ve got to work through the GM. And, honestly, if you are transparent in your design, most GMs will go along with what you say. And the ones that don’t, that’s their problem.
So, simply put, in our introductory instructions to our megadungeon project, we tell the GM how XP is important to drive player behavior and tell the GM how to award XP and then we make it as easy as possible to award XP.
For example, we tell the GM to appoint a player to keep an XP record for the session. Each time the players do something to earn XP, the GM tells the player to record how much XP was earned. At the end of the session, the record keeper can add it all up and dole it out. That’s easy enough. The players can now see exactly how much XP they are earning for what and they get the warm fuzzy for doing the right thing.
Now, this system only works if it doesn’t become a speedbump. One of the big problems with handing out XP is that the GM generally has to add it all up. And then divide it by the number of players. Of course, if OUR system is based on fixed XP totals that are already figured on a “per player” basis and can be easily included in the text of the adventure, then the GM just has to say “you got 150 XP for clearing that room” or “you got 15 XP for killing the rats” or “you learned that the dungeon was built by elves, have 75 XP.” That’s quick and easy. It doesn’t detract from the game.
And since our random encounters are already designed on a per faction basis, even that stuff is math free. We can simply say “this vermin encounter is worth 20 XP.” We could even say “all random vermin encounters are worth 20 XP on the assumption that they are all around the same power level.”
The Best Invisible Carrot of All
And that brings us around to the best invisible carrot of all: if the best way to play the game is easy to do, people will play that way. Thus, if we ask the GM to dole out XP a certain way and then present out game in a way that makes that the EASIEST way to dole out XP, the GM will do it. Because, remember, the GM is a player too. And the GM needs carrots and sticks too. And that’s something a lot of game designers forget.
The simple fact of the matter is that the GMs dispense with XP math and just dole out levels do so because the XP math is time consuming and it doesn’t appear to offer any rewards. More transparency in the system, more ways to use XP to drive engagement, and a simpler overall method of handling XP could change all that. But, in this case, we’re stuck with what D&D has done forever.
So the best we can do is offer our own set of instructions within the system and design our product so that that’s the easiest way to do it.