Monday, July 4, 2016

Top Nine Things We Can Learn About Dungeon Design From Video Game Platformers

Top Nine Things We Can Learn About Dungeon Design

From Video Game Platformers

By: Jesse C Cohoon

The video game industry has many classic platforming franchises under its belt: everything from Super Mario Bros and Sonic the Hedgehog to Castlevania and Jak and Daxter. Adapting the concepts and style of play of these games can be a fun and interesting challenge to give your players.

1)    Collectibles: I don’t mean things like Sonic’s rings or Mario’s coins, or even Jak and Daxter’s precursor orbs. Those types of collectibles would make no sense in an RPG, and only serve to slow down the action while the players hunted every nook and cranny for such things (and ultimately frustrate the players). In an actual platform game, these types of things make sense, as they’re typically connected with quests to buy stuff from other characters, increasing life, etc.

What I mean by collectibles is something it makes sense from a character point of view to collect, such as monster parts for spell components, priceless pieces of art, books on increasing skills, etc. It could even be things to make into other useful items like the item combination idea in The Last of Us, among other games.

2)    Varied types of transportation. In the Mario Bros series, you have the various suits which help the titular characters have various suits: the Tanooki, frog, hammer, etc., as well as Yoshi. In Jak and Daxter games the characters are given a dune buggy, prototype plane, a hover board, hover vehicles, a mecha suit, and some sort of riding animal. Even the Zelda franchise has the hookshot, and the two-dimensional wall crawl from the game “A Link Between Worlds.” Far too often in RPGs the mode of transportation is afoot, on horseback or other bland mount or teleporting from place to place. Change it up!

3)    Weapon upgrades though not necessarily magical or something flashy. If done properly upgrades to a weapon’s magazine capacity, range, and type (fire, frost, shock, etc.) and amount of damage is just as important to players as the standard “+X” weapon. Also, you might want to think about letting the weapon grow with the character so that they can specialize in it as well. Think about what you want to accomplish instead of handing out “standard” magic weapons that don’t add anything to the storyline.

4)    Multiple ways paths of character growth. I know several games have feats, character levels, etc. While these are all fine and good, they can be too linear. Get experience, increase: HP, fighting, spell casting, or rogue abilities, skills, etc. While this makes the game easy to understand, easy to judge in terms of level, it leaves little in terms of creativity – even counting in things like choosing other classes. Some video games and even tabletop RPG systems short circuit this whole “getting better by leaps and bounds” by limiting character experience and having multiple branching paths to get to the same goal, and it’s up to the player to determine how s/he wants to level.   

5)    Three-Dimensional Movement:
in an open world as some of the latest platformers, there is lots of three dimensionality. Characters have to swing on poles to get from one place to the next, leap from place to place in a puzzle or drop to their deaths, hang onto crumbling edifices by their fingers, and get a running start in order to roll safely onto the next platform. Even things like elevators, stairs, and areas of water players need to swim under can enhance this. All of these things are well within the rules of RPGs and used in VERY specific circumstances, but are used far too little. Figure out how to add more though puzzles, exploration, and battle to make games more exciting, thrilling.  
6)   Traps need not be expensive, or even elaborate to be effective. It can be as simple as a platform being rigged to drop after so long of being on it, a grill that sends fire into the air, dangerously ice-coated platforms or rotating, turning platforms or conveyer belts that send those onto it into danger. Just because the PCs can see it and know it’s there doesn’t make it any less problematic of a hazard to pass.

7)    Vehicle or Animal Races can be as simple as needing to get from point A to point B under a certain time to win a trophy or prize to needing to get somewhere to cure someone who’s sick to being able to prove your worth to a person or organization. One of the neat game mechanics video game races have is that the racers have to go through various checkpoints on a counting down stopwatch. As they reach each of the checkpoints, more time is added to the clock. Another neat idea is to have areas of acceleration that speed up whatever goes through them – be they represented as rings or as strips on the ground. Now keep in mind duplicating such a things would be difficult to do so in tabletop RPGs, but the concept is useful to keep in mind when creating exciting races.  

8)    Keys, access:
This has been a staple in platforming games ever since Super Mario Bros 1, where you learn “the princess is in another castle.” The idea has been upgraded in that there are games that give you access to different areas for doing certain things, defeating certain enemies, or find laying around or in chests. Gaining access to different areas without having to worry about messing with the locks, and alerting others you’ve broken in – either by them hearing characters use lock-picks to open the lock – or worse yet, show proof of tampering due to the fact that it’s broken is a benefit. Also, there may be locks that are too tough to open, mage-locked, etc. Having the PCs be able to find the key may be easier than to have them grind a few levels only to come back to that one stubborn lock they couldn’t open.

9)    Dungeon design: This one I’ll admit is a subjective category and consists of location, enemies and treasure.

a.    Location. Dungeons can be there for a variety of different reasons: a prison for a powerful entity, a test to prove one’s worth, a grave, an abandoned city, an old mine, a bandit’s or cult’s hideout, an abandoned shrine, etc. Yet oftentimes as not, they’re dropped into a game without thought as to why they should be there, in relation to the rest of the game’s geography. Instead of dropping it into the middle of nowhere, in the mountains, or deep underground, consider dungeons that are closer, underneath the character’s feet, or at that specific location for some logical, in game reason.   

b.    Monsters/ denizens. If something is inhabited by a certain type of a monster, there should be some reason for it to be there. Are they there for political reasons? Meaning a treaty forces them to be there, unable to leave? Are they being controlled or manipulated by a more powerful monster? Was it home to something else prior to this, and the previous denizens were displaced or killed off? Or did they vanish for some unknown reason, or even die of a plague? For the most part, a dungeon in the middle of nowhere should be either inhabited by insects, things that are self-sufficient, such as a powerful mage, or something that doesn’t need to eat (or eat much), such as undead, golems, plants, insects, wild animals that happened to stumble into the location and the like. There are a few caveats to that, fortunately. Whatever’s there could subsist on raids to reasonably nearby towns or caravans traveling through the area, and rarely hit the same place twice, so there wouldn’t be suspicion as to where they were. They could be cannibals and eat their own species. There could be plenty of game in the general vicinity and know how to make the best out of wildly growing fruits, nuts, and seeds. 

c.    Treasure. What types of treasure do monsters have on them? Why? Is it their body parts that are valuable? Do they have gold coins, artwork, or works of literature in their possession or nearby in treasure trove? Or is the treasure a key to something else, for instance another piece of the key that will open the vault that holds the ancient enemy the PCs are to defeat. Or maybe the treasure is the knowledge and powers of an ancient civilization, and only those that are able to pass its tests can obtain it.

Next time you’re looking to spice up your game, take a cue from these platforming classics and see how it can improve your game for the better.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

P5 Primer, Part 2 Possessions

P5 Primer, Part 2:


By: Jesse C Cohoon

The P5: People, Places, Possessions, Powers, & Plot RPG engine is not meant to replace other roleplaying systems, but to help you by giving ideas as to what you might need and further define what is there providing the people, places, powers, possessions and plots for your game. It’s designed to streamline worldbuilding by helping to create vibrant locales, interesting characters, and complex, crazy plots for your games, both traditional and nontraditional. By using the P5 system, you’re able to take your world from concept to fully fleshed out form in five easy steps that should make world creation a breeze.

Possessions are the things that characters, towns, and companies own. Usually possessions don’t have a mind of their own, but they can, such things as animals, sentient monsters (think stuff like Digimon and Pokemon), and AIs/ robots in futuristic settings. If there are a class of beings who are enslaved, those would go in the “people” section, talked about last time, because while they’re technically “owned” no one really wants to be thought of as an item to be bought and sold. Possessions can be as large or as detailed as you want them to be. They can be individual or corporate as you want them to be. It’s everything from the pair of socks that’s has a hole in each toe the orc wears to the suit of armor that the party’s fighter wears. It’s the scrolls, rings, and wands the sorcerer has on their person. But equally, the wealth contained in safe that is behind the painting in the study (and if the players are ambitious enough, the safe itself!), the sculptures that decorate the garden, and the library of books of the sage. It’s also the items the secret organization owns, the beer mugs and tables and chairs in a bar, and the religious books and hymnals in the pews of the church’s sanctuary. The key point in remembering when making lists of items that the person or organization owns is to think of them of things that are:

  • Important to the storyline: This can be anything from the lines of a clue which would lead to the ultimate antagonist, to a red herring to a piece of the puzzle that will be needed later on. Video games excel at these types of things. Truly excellent DMs are able to spin the most insignificant of items to become the clue that solves the whole mystery, the key to defeating the ultimate antagonist, or the missing piece that allows them entry into the treasure room.
  • Interesting to note: this can be everything from the style of clothing the person or those in the organization wears to the type of books that they read to some personal effect they always have with them.    
  • Valuable: This would be where all the coins and gems, jewels and trappings of royalty, works of art and literature would end up. If armor or weaponry is more decorative or ceremonial than practical, it would fall into this category as well. 
  • Transportable: if it’s too big, most of the time the players aren’t going to bother with it. A single suit of masterwork armor is OK to take because someone can wear it out. An entire collection of empty suits of armor (unless one enchants them to follow the players along) is another matter entirely. And while the mad sorcerer might have a tower in the middle of nowhere that the PCs cleared out, no one’s going to shrink it down to take with them.  
  • Practical & useful: these would be things like items of everyday use: china, tea sets, rations, and any sort of kits, armor and weaponry the PCs can use. 
  • Magical: This would be the belts, rings, armor and weaponry of a magical nature. (the powers such items possess would go into the next section)    

These categories are entirely artificial, and there are lots of overlap between them, but they are good for determining what types of things you might need to describe for your game.

One interesting thing might be to have there be too much stuff (possessions) to take with them, even if they have magic or technological devices that would normally allow them to do so, and have the stuff that the PCs chose not to take with them at a later point in the campaign.

Another thing one might do with possessions is somehow mark them as belonging to a specific person, either with magic, or a characteristic that is theirs alone, and anyone who knows who it belonged to would know it was stolen or that the party in question has been defeated.

More on the P5 worldbuilding system next time.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

P5 Primer, Part 1 People, & Places

P5 Primer, Part 1
People, & Places
By: Jesse C Cohoon

The P5: People, Places, Possessions, Powers, and Plot RPG engine is not meant to replace other roleplaying systems, but to help you by giving ideas as to what you might need and further define what is there providing the people, places, powers, possessions and plots for your game. It’s designed to streamline worldbuilding by helping to create vibrant locales, interesting characters, and complex, crazy plots for your games, both traditional and nontraditional. By using the P5 system, you’re able to take your world from concept to fully fleshed out form in five easy steps that should make world creation a breeze.

At the broadest sense, people are the characters that are in the world – both player characters (PCs) and non-player characters (NPCs). These are the roles, traits, and types of people that make your world truly alive. But when examining P5, don’t limit yourself to one type of personality type. People are very complex and may have many facets. Use as many as you think helps to describe the person you’re portraying – but keep in mind that more may not necessarily be better. It’s better to have more characters with fewer traits than to have fewer with more because the more categories a character can fit into, the less you’re able to make them shine because the few you have can do it all. 

When doing your own people for the P5 engine, think of all the appropriate types and broad categories of people that exist within the world that you’re creating and list them out, providing a short description for each. As you’re making these categories, try to make sure that there’s no significant overlap (there may be some in that categories are artificial and don’t exist in real life).  

Also, keep in mind that people aren’t limited to humanoids. This includes all the sentient and non-sentient monsters in your game as well.  

Once you have the people figured out for your campaign, you can start to give them stats, if your system uses such a thing. If you’re the type of a GM who has difficulty making names, nicknames, and or titles for the characters in your game, it’s also useful to provide a name generator there as well.

Places are the locations in your world. But don’t think of strictly outdoor places such as forests, mountains and streams. Places can also be movable things such as the tinker’s traveling wagon, the touring circus’ Big Top, the revival tent set up at the edge of town. They can be the rooms of the inn, the campfire around which they tell scary stories, the kitchen of the inn, and the grand ballroom of the duke. Places can be as specific or as broad as you want them to be, but the common thread when trying to pin down places to list for the P5 engine is to ask yourself:

  •  Where are the PCs likely to visit?
  •  How important is this place?
  • How much detail do I need to provide?

Answering these questions can be as simple as figuring out where the NPCs the PCs will be able to interact with to as complex as defining the rooms and parts of a castle and its surroundings or the layout of a dungeon. By doing so, you’ll know the necessary level of detail you need in order to provide your characters. In doing the P5 books, I base locations off of what’s absolutely necessary for the subject matter and present the information in broad strokes, as I figure that the individual DMs can provide the needed details when necessary.

 Next time, more about my P5 RPG engine.