Quest Updated: Dice Rolls And Design
Or: How being a Dungeon Master made me better at gaming
My victims squirm in my clutches. They sense a trap, but do not know exactly what kind of a trap it is. Or where. Paranoia-stricken, they carefully check the box for magic traps, mechanical traps, tripwires, wards. Not even one’s preternatural trap-finding abilities detect anything. But everything tells them it is all too easy. Eventually one cracks. “I’ll open it,” he announces in his bravest paladin-voice. And then the Mimic strikes.
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It took me a while to come out and say I wanted to try table-top gaming. Somehow, my litany of nerd/geek (can we please settle this debate sometime?) interests from gaming to knowing obscure planets from Star Wars and snatches of Quenya, still hadn’t quite sunk in. Tabletop gaming, the perceived last vestige of neck-beard-nerddom, felt like a bridge too far. But I decided that, honestly, I did drama throughout high school so I can pretty much hand in my cool cards and give it a try. Within a month I had started running my own game with some friends, and it has become a regular thing. And I feel no shame admitting it.
One of the things running my own game has made me appreciate in video games is design. By design I don’t mean (or don’t simply mean) the way the visuals and aesthetic look. Here I’m thinking more about the nuts and bolts of the game, from bug-free coding to directionality and clarity in level layouts and objectives. Its one of those things we kind of take for granted in gaming journalism. We certainly don’t claim it as a separate field in reviewing, or at least not explicitly. Elements will surely crop up in the discussions about gameplay, but I think it sometimes is valuable to think of it as its own separate category.
You see, the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a DM is this: I lay out a tavern for an introductory bar brawl, where the fight is supposed to escalate until the authorities step in to stop it all. In the first turn, one of the players empties a bottle of wine on a table being used by enemies as cover, and uses her magic to set the tavern alight.
Its something inherent in human beings, and it seems especially in gamers, that makes Occam’s Razor go very blunt. What’s the simplest of the possible options? I’ll do the total opposite. Similarly, any, any weakness in the rules will be exploited by your players. I’ve been in arguments about whether the horse can climb a ladder because “it says right here it has a climb skill”.
Design is difficult and under-appreciated. “Wow, that level was excellently laid out and I knew what to do” is certainly not a thought we tend to have while gaming. But is is painful if you get stuck on a suprise invisible wall, or experience the mild annoyance of going down unmarked tunnel that certainly is “not forwards but goes straight to Sidequest Central” and then have to back track because actually that’s the real legit way to the throne room where the God Emperor is waiting for you. It is only when design has been neglected in certain key areas, especially with the design of puzzles, that you miss it.
This is fundamentally why I never could get into the classic PS2 game, Ico. I had it recommended to me by many, many friends. It should have been wonderful. I mean even Guillermo del Toro holds it in high regards, and I like his work. But Ico frustrated me. The only way I could feel less purposeful would be to lie about drinking wine, speaking with a French accent and affecting a deep state of ennui. I felt entirely directionless in the massive world of the game. I don’t complain about being dwarfed by the castle setting. I complain that nothing I did seemed to in any material way further my cause of getting the hell outta creepy shadow-demon clutches. In fact, I felt suspiciously like I was going in large circles (and not even checking the walkthrough to confirm I was going forwards could shake the feeling).
On the other hand, after playing through Portal with developer commentary on, I realized just why the game felt so polished: the design was nearly flawless. Forwards was always clear, even if the means of getting there seemed entirely arcane. The sign of its success was the kick-yourself feeling I got when I finally made the connection and solved the puzzle. One of the great successes was the use of what Psychology calls “Shaping” – the scaffolded and incremental building on each previous task. The game opens with a portal through which you can travel. This is then developed to include one mobile portal, and once you are comfortable with that, they give you the ability to move the portal yourself. After this has become do-able, you are given the ability to move both. But it isn’t the menial grind of repetition, but it is rather the telescoping of these skills you have mastered in more and more complex ways. Nothing is ever suddenly asked for. It has been carefully designed to lead you on the plot and gameplay trains.
Design is the same thing that should prevent gamers from camping the spawn points in FPS games. It should guide each player to use creativity to maximise his or her chances to pwn n00bz. But naturally this is not only impossible, but also fascist if over-applied. No game can be perfectly designed – bugs will always abound, and most of these can be exploited by a canny gamer. And it would be a mistake to deny a quick-thinking player the legitimacy of their victory for exploiting a chink in the level design to improve his or her tactical position. The challenge for design, and how I’d like to see it applied in critically appreciating games, is to make these bugs harder to over-exploit and rather to become part of the inherent complexity without breaking the game and summoning Cthulhu. Just as my job as DM is fundamentally to balance fun, a bit of silliness, and the rules to maximize both enjoyment and challenge, game design must balance the difficulty of the game (through learning curves as well as enemy strength), the clarity of the levels and puzzles, and an overall fit with gameplay, storyline, themes and design.