Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Text to Tabletop 4: Clues

From the coda to my Crimes Against Mimesis essays, writing about computer games:
Consider four identical doors, one leading onwards, one concealing a lethal explosive. In the story that would result from solving this puzzle, it would be much more satisfying to the story reader and the game player if there was some way to tell which door hides the ticking bomb, rather than having success come only from a lucky guess. The clue may be difficult enough so that the player opts for the brute-force, save-restore-undo method (who would think to "listen to north door"?), but at least it is there to explain the story protagonist's actions in a fictionally satisfying way.
In a role-playing adventure game, there is no save-restore-undo (apart from overly generous referees), and this is well and good. Players have to know that their actions can have permanent and fatal consequences, and that their decisions are for keeps. All the same, the above advice holds in all adventure games for a different reason. The key word is "satisfying."

Satisfaction with the problem-solving process comes from the belief that you, the player, had - or could have had - something to do with it. This is what divides a random "trick" from a solvable problem. While a few completely random effects like the four-door problem are fine, and in fact almost mandated in old-school dungeon design, a little bit more thought applied to them can make the experience more memorable for players. It will seem like a fairer test of their problem-solving skills - and anyway, aren't combat and saving throws random enough?

Again we return to my mythed-up Wheel of Fortune from a previous post (near the bottom). As written, this trick is manifestly random and unfair. It comples Chaotic characters within 10 feet to spin it, with the usual die-roll results on a table malevolent and benign; Neutrals get a save and Lawfuls are only tempted by their player's curiosity. Here's one thing I would add:
Chaotic characters who gaze on the Wheel from a distance of more than ten feet feel a strange attraction to its idol all the same, as if approaching it is something they have wanted to do all their life, but they are not compelled to act on it until they approach within ten feet. Neutral characters must save to see if they feel and behave as Chaotic characters or not while in the room with the Wheel. 
That "strange attraction" should be a red flag to good players, warning them they may lose control of their character if they approach any closer. Once again, for player skill to count, there have to be some clues to work from.

One more observation regarding clues from my old essay:
If we see the game as more than a collection of puzzles, though, a game feature can have nothing to do with any puzzle and still contribute to the atmosphere or the storyline. "Smart red herrings" like the gargoyle and the chapel in Christminster strengthen the background of the game with additional information (even if the meaning of the initials on the gargoyle is somewhat, ahem, obscure). At the same time, they effectively rebut the creeping suspicion that all the features in the environment are dictated by one puzzle or another, and serve notice that the fictional milieu has a life outside of the mere game which is being played out inside it. Even the "shadowy figure" red herring in the original Adventure is eventually explained in terms of the game's rudimentary background (those vain dwarves!) Consequently, the player feels satisfied, rather than frustrated, when its true nature is revealed. To sum up, in the well-written IF game, every item and location should still serve some purpose; but the puzzle-game shouldn't be the only purpose.
In my design code, dungeon dressing should be informative, and even empty rooms usually will contain at least a "smart red herring" of some kind. Going with the scheme in my previous post in the series, this feature can contribute to an understanding of the history and workings of the place (naturalistic); can contribute to atmosphere and poetic meaning in the place (mythic); or can simply be amusing with a dark undertone (gonzo), like the clown murals scattered throughout Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage dungeons.

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