Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Borderlands Style Adventures

I am a terrible blogger. I intended to post here three times per week, but a number of factors combined to undermine that plan almost from the start. I'd say "I promise to post more often," but I'm not sure that's going to hold up.

Tonight is one of those nights where I'm too tired to paint a miniature or read, but I'm too keyed up to slip into a TV assisted, vegetative state. There's also a funny tension in this blog. I've recently been made the lead designer for D&D, so there's less incentive for me to post new rules here. I can use those at work!

Instead, let me ramble a bit about adventure design.

The last session of the Forgotten Realms campaign I play in reminded that, while I love my twice a week, lunch time Greyhawk campaign, there's a lot to be said for a nice, juicy four hour game session. In particular, long sessions are great for what I think of as Borderlands style adventures, adventures that give the PCs a long list of shallow options.

Melan's excellent post on megadungeon mapping has been kicking around in my head since I first read it. In particular, his analysis of Keep on the Borderlands stuck in my head for a while. I really like the idea of an adventure that gives you a lot of places to go, even if those specific places are simple and even linear. In particular, I think such a design shines if those simple, straightforward spots have some level of interconnectivity, again, even if the connections are simple. Those could range from the physical (the ogre's den has a secret door leading to the orc lord's throne room) to the social (the orcs hate the gnolls and are looking for allies against them).

The appeal, IMO, lies in the raw possibilities of bouncing around the map, delving here, allying there, looting here. I think there's some element of sandbox gaming at play, but on a smaller, more focused level. Rather than the world as a sandbox, this style of design focuses instead on a single city or adventure site, with the connections I mentioned above a critical part of the design. The adventure is like a pool table cluttered with balls, with the PCs a cue ball careening across the field, knocking some balls into pockets, slamming others into each other. The key is that with every action by the PCs, the "board" changes.

By keeping the individual components simple, it's much easier to manage the scope of changes and reactions across the entire adventure set up. It's easy to manage changes within the individual caves in KotB because each one is so simple, basic layouts of rooms wedded to rosters of (mostly) homogenous tribes.

The complexity of this design rests in the relationships and interactions between the individual, simple nodes. In addition, particularly in 4e, you need the flexibility to keep each node at least somewhat challenging for the PCs. Given that the characters gain about 1 level for every 10 encounters, you have to balance the number of nodes in the adventure with the PCs' level progression. It'd be great to offer the PCs 5 or 6 places to investigate, but you need to limit each node to 3 or 4 encounters to keep those nodes in a 3 level band.

While the Keep on the Borderlands is the best known example of this design style, I think the approach would shine for urban adventures. The connections between locations can cover a broad range of social, political, and military alliances, both including and forming against the PCs.

It's interesting to me that KotB-style design is relatively rare. Most published adventures rely on a plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, or individual dungeons. A borderlands-style design has the cosmetic flaw of appearing simple, since the individual pieces are simple. The value of the design rests in its emergent properties. It plays, rather than reads, well.

So, that's my rambling for tonight.


Graham said...

If you like that sort of adventure design, I'd recommend grabbing a copy of the Pathfinder adventure #5, "Sins of the Saviors".

It's not without its problems, as I've detailed during our playthrough, but it's a pretty good example of a KotB-style adventure. Only 5 options, instead of KotB's 11, but each is larger and somewhat more interesting.

Alex Schroeder said...

Don't worry about posting regularly. As most readers will be using RSS feeds, they'll read the post when it's ready. I'd rather have more people posting less articles, but each one of them being worthy of my time. :)

Dave The Game said...

Sure, blame the day job! You're one of the few people that I encourage to work instead of blog.

Adventures that have simple pieces but end up having emergent properties are my favorite kind, though I never knew KotB was like that (it was a little before my time.) Hopefully we'll see some more of those.

Windjammer said...

I also think it's a pity that the "shallow, broad tree" design paradigm (to use Melan's image) is so rare these days.

At the top of my head I can only think of H2 Thunderspire Labyrinth (utilizing booklet 1 with the DDI sidetrek), but that's pretty much as far as 4th edition goes. Which is a shame.

Even talking of healthy intermediates, they're mostly gone. When I read H1, I couldn't believe just how linear stuff got by level 2. And how the party has basically got no way to interact with complex locations all way through. Like, you know, they could in Durgham's Folly. Which is the H1 plotline all over, except with the knobs on.

But what really pisses me off are modules like Skyfire Waste. I DMed that last weekend for 8 hours (yes, irregular play, not RPGA), and boosted up the story using elements from Escape from Sembia. Still, my players felt talked down to, with the DM advice "wheel your players from encounter to encounter" in full swing, and forcing the convention Delve module format on home groups (regardless which 4E module they pick up).

I'm sure 4E lends itsel well to sandbox play - heck, this is the first time in years I feel comfortable making up stuff on the fly (as a DM) which is mechanically sound - but as published, it sure is the antithesis to that. Let's hope future modules rebalance this a bit. Can you substantiate such hopes?

PS. Ha! Comparing the old Keep to Sins of the Saviours (railroading the party from one one-room dungeon to another) and recommending it to the Mearls, that's what I call daring.

Mike Mearls said...

Skyfire isn't a good barometer for what 4e can do. It is specifically design as a demo, a zip from place to place series of fights.

Shadowfell was tricky, because it also had to serve a similar purpose.

As for design going forward, I can't say anything definitive. It's definitely a design path I'd like to explore.

Anonymous said...

> In addition, particularly in 4e, you need the flexibility to keep each node at least somewhat challenging for the PCs

In sandbox/borderlands style play you don't need to and in fact shouldn't make everything level appropriate.

Doing that is the first minor form of railroading.

If the players are bored not challenged enough it's their responsibility to get up and go someplace with badder nasties.

If they think they can take on something twice their rating, let them.

But maybe they just want to slaughter their way through a couple of non-human tribes. Sometimes it feels good to totally dominate.