See part 1 here.
Burning Dungeon & Wheel Dragons
As Wednesday night was ticking by, a dangerous new idea about the way to run a D&D adventure came up…
You see, like many gamers unused to indie RPG designs, I read Mouse Guard with voracity but finished it with the feeling that while I had likely touched game design genius, I had absolutely no idea how to run the damn thing. (I’m exaggerating… somewhat).
The one part about Mouse Guard that really blew my mind was the way adventures were designed (I assume that this also applies, by extension, to Burning Wheel, which is the engine MG is based on). A 4 hour Mouse Guard adventure fits on 1 sheet of paper. The trick to that is that each adventure has a mission and the players are required to come up with personal goals that will, at least tangentially, move the story toward achieving the mission.
Play is achieved by setting out a simple scene where some sort of skill/ability roll is called for to allow PCs to achieve their goals. On a success, the scene moves to the next one but on a failure, the GM is free to add a complication to make the scene ‘more interesting’ or give the PCs a success but impose a negative condition on one or more PCs (Tired, Sick, Injured, Angry, etc).
There’s more to Mouse Guard than that, but these ‘Goal driven scenes’ and ‘Failure = complication’ concepts lit up a fire in my usually dormant Game Designer boiler…
There’s a method to my madness, behold!
What if… I was to replace minor quests with PC-specific goals that are chosen by the players at the start of an adventure?
Thus, each player would chose a goal that is related to the major quest (the game’s mission), either to help achieving it, to explore the adventure’s story in more detail or to help develop a character’s backstory more?
Now instead of having City of the Overmind be a site-based or event-based adventure (both requiring me to create scenes), why not have a goals-driven adventure based on a mission and the city’s map I drew?
I would asks players what goals they wish to work on first, then I would assign a complexity for attaining these goals. Each goal would set the basis for a freeform skill challenge. Each success that need to be rolled becomes a mini-scene to play out with the PCs, including player and DM narratives.
In other words, in a scene, players would describe what they do to progress toward their goals and I would do my usual job of bringing the scene to life. Then a skill check would be rolled based on what feels most natural for all. On a success: we describe the success and move forward to next sub-scene (or attain the goal).
But here is where it gets real interesting. On a failure, I would introduce a complication. For example, I could say that the PCs were spotted by the Overmind’s goons and I could either create a Chase skill challenge, or chose from my Depth of Madness encounters that are already prepped and make a fight.
In that sense, I would stop using the 3 strikes mechanic of skill challenges. If players fail their rolls, they get more/harder challenges to deal with. If they overcome the complication/challenge, they get to move to the next scene, regardless of the number of failed skill rolls.
Of course, I would award treasures based on the completion of goals…
It worked wonderfully on paper. I could sense deep in my guts that I was on the verge of a breakthrough in terms of adventure design, minor quests and skill challenge mechanics.
I just needed to validate this feeling in the arena of Actual Play…
Info dump Warning! The Warden Priest’s Tower
I knew I could not send my players blind into such a new way of playing. I needed to immerse them rapidly in the setting and give them all the info they needed so they could take the reins of the adventure from my hands and go.
Not being one to let much to chance, I had prepared the floor and built in some contingencies. First, I told Yan about my plan for the game. Not the content, but the whole Goal-to-Skill-Challenge to Failure to Complication thing. I wanted to know if he “got” what I wanted to do or if the whole thing was just my creative madness drowning common sense.
After wrapping his mind around the concept, he got it all right. I knew that I could trust him to act as a ‘change agent’ in the group later when I made the pitch. Just in case, I also had a contingency should players feel too uncomfortable with the change or were too tired to understand all my excited gibberish.
The first scene had several goals:
- Introduce the new setting through vivid descriptions
- Give the PCs a nearby ally and a home base so they could anchor themselves in an otherwise hostile environment.
- Share the city’s map with the players to help them plan
- Give them the adventure’s 2 missions
- Find a way to enter the Overmind’s Castle
- (Optional) Recover the 4 parts of the Overmind’s key and find out what it can be used for.
I described the city (imagine a ruined Erelhei-Cinlu, plus add a huge portal to the Far Realm and a dozen of floating, insubstantial Lovecraftian horrors ‘haunting’ the city’s roof) , the story of their Warden Cleric ally, his cult infiltrating the whole city and the political situation of the city. Once I was done, I explained my new approach to the game and asked them for the goals.
With gentle nudges from Yan and myself, they eventually formed a set of 6 goals that were… just plain awesome:
- Math (Corwin Sorceror of Chaos): I’m going to go and get the 4 parts of the key. It’s too crazy, it just might work!
- Yan (Nanoc, Barbarian): I’m going to investigate the city to find the probable locations of the key parts.
- Stef (Rocco, Rogue): I’m going to break the Overmind’s hold on the city’s citizen and end this fascist regime!
- Eric (Fangs, Shifter): I will destroy the city’s Vats and put a stop to the Overmind’s mutations of hapless monsters
- Franky (Dworkin, Shaman): I will bind a nature Spirit near the destroyed Vats to prevent the Overmind from reclaiming them and help protect the citizens.
- Mike (Usul, Invoker): I will bring the Gods’ influences (and Kord’s in particular) back to this city after the Overmind’s control is broken.
Chatty: So Mike, what you’re saying is that you want the citizen to be freed of the control of the Overmind… so they can become followers of the Gods?
Mike (showing a pained look): Essentially…. yes (smirking).
I really didn’t expect as much. What I absolutely loved about those goals was that they came from the players, they weren’t scenes that I implanted in their minds, the train track had ended some time ago and this was all virgin territory for everyone at the table.
Those goals were beacons telling me what each player wanted to do in the game! All I did was connect a few goals (thanks to the 5X5 method) by putting a few coincidences here and there. For example, I put one key part in the Vats.
What was really funny is that Yan noticed me doing that and mimicked someone knotting some ropes together, but I think that this is a crucial part of the model as it allows goals to be tackled together and creates a more cohesive adventure.
So we set out to play this game out… I really was curious to see how it would play out.
Up next: So Chatty, are you ever going to tell us if your method works or not?
Image Credit: Archaia Studios