Familiar Territory, Unfamiliar Experience
As I explained in my previous post, my game design project is a campaign module for the renowned tabeltop RPG — Dungeons & Dragons, using the Fifth Edition ruleset. Because this is my first time at the other side of the table as Dungeon Master, I’ve enlisted the help of experienced friends and online resources to inform my design. In this post, I will outline my progress in designing this adventure so far.
Theme and Narrative; you all meet in a tavern…
I chose a setting that I’ve wanted to explore in a fantasy RPG for a while; a group of outcast adventurers in a travelling circus troupe that tour from city to city for money, while also encountering different subquests along the way. This general plot may sound familiar to Critical Role’s Mighty Nein campaign, and that’s because it is in a way. However, I want to set it apart as its own story by making the many quests and encounters within the module have narrative depth and weight that affects each character in the party significantly. In order to achieve this, I decided my module would come with pre-made character sheets that are highly recommended to use in the adventure. Each city on route for the tour of Mahléza Miserion’s Travelling Menagerie will have a plot hook directly relating to each character’s backstory, something that a DM usually does not know much about for a player-made character until their first play session. I spent a lot of time developing different characters based on circus acts and performances, while brainstorming a cultural conflict for my adventure world that would place them as outcasts within the game world. For this story, that conflict would have the mixing of different races be a taboo topic, leaving half-human children rejected by society and living on the outskirts of privileged lifestyles.
>>Click here << to see the finished (tentative) character sheets for this module
While I’ve made significant progress in my narrative by finishing each pre-made character sheet (using modular, class-based character sheet templates from DM’s guild), I’m yet to begin fleshing out the world around them and giving names to different places referenced in their backstories. I plan to now begin my write-up about the world as an introduction to the campaign, as well as develop a continent map for the game world. There are many resources online about map-making for fantasy RPG’s that I will make use of for this task. Once this is done, I can start creating encounters and quests to fill out each town on the character’s tour route.
Game Mechanics and Rules; proficiency in homebrewing
“A thematic mechanic, or a thematic mechanism, is one that is so integrally tied to the theme of the game that if you were to remove it, it would change the experience of the game itself. If you want to retain your theme, try to tie it in as tightly to the mechanics of your game as possible.”
Scott Rogers, designer of Rayguns and Rocketships.
First and foremost, I decided to adopt a milestone level system for this module rather than the default experience point system in D&D 5e. My reason for this is the narrative pacing of my campaign; there are certain story beats that require the heroes be a certain level to experience them fairly. In order to allow the players freedom to move the plot forward without needing to grind experience points first, they will level up to pre-determined milestone levels when reaching specific locations on the tour.
Something else that will set this adventure apart from the Critical Role campaign is that the circus troupe’s performances will be more integrally tied into the game mechanics with a few homebrewed rules and systems of my own. Each performance on tour will have a result determined by pre-requisite quests and a rolling system. This means the players will gain a different income and quest opportunities in that area based on how they go in their acts.
Apart from this planned feature, I have already homebrewed five new character backgrounds to fit the narrative and character backstories in my adventure module. I determined proficiency bonuses in two skills and two tools for each background, except for the Troupe Acrobat background designed for the character Lucia which instead has two skills, one tool, and one language. This is another example of designing my game mechanics with their relationship to the adventure’s theme and narrative in mind.
— Troupe Leader
— Skills; Performance, Persuasion
— Tools; Land Vehicles, Thieves’ Kit
— Beast Tamer
— Skills; Performance, Animal Handling
— Tools; Leatherworker’s Tools, Herbalism Kit
— Troupe Brawn
— Skills; Performance, Athletics
— Tools; Cook’s Utensils, Drums
— Skills; Performance, Sleight of Hand
— Tools; Dice Set, Calligrapher’s Tools
— Skills; Performance, Acrobatics
— Tools; Weaver’s Tools
— Languages; Celestial
Initial Playtest and Feedback; my plan from here onwards
I put my newly designed character sheets to the test with a small one-off play test. It involved about 30 minutes of general character roleplaying, then 1.5 hours of a test encounter with bandits ambushing the troupe’s caravan. The footage above is a small taste of that session, which was done over discord using a dice-roll bot and microsoft word as an encounter map with character tokens to keep track of combat. My playtesters commented that they really loved the characters, both in their gameplay/mechanics and backstories. Some advice I received as a first-time Dungeon Master and module designer was to reduce the number of enemies in the encounters to avoid lengthy and confusing combat. I was also told I needed to flesh out the starting village, which I fully intend on diving into now that I’ve sorted out my characters and general plot points. I think that for my next session of playtesting I will enlist the help of a more experienced Dungeon Master and see if my module is sufficient enough to be easily picked up and used by someone other than myself, especially one with the skills and game knowledge to make the most of the material given.
To summarise, my main agenda right now is this;
— Create a continent map for the adventure that names and outlines all significant locations from the narrative.
— Start fleshing out each town and village with NPC’s and sidequests to be done, including those relevant to character backstories.
— Homebrew a rolling system for the troupe performances that helps determine degree of success and income for the party in each leg of their tour.
List of sources and resources used;
Stackexchange: ‘Is homebrewing D&D okay?’
Board Game Design Lab: ‘Intertwining Theme and Mechanics with Scott Rogers’
DM’s Guild: ‘Class Character Sheets Bundle’
Avrae Discord Bot
Critical Role Wiki: ‘The Might Nein’
WASD20: ‘How to Draw a Fantasy Map (Part 1: Landmasses)’
My group is designing and pitching a party game about crazy conspiracy theories under the working title That’s Whack! We were inspired by Cards Against Humanity and other similar party games involving cards such as What Do You Meme?, Search History, and New Phone Who Dis? We want our game to encourage players to make each other laugh and have fun, while being simple enough to quickly learn and play in large groups.
We have separated the presentation of our design into four different categories and will tackle one each; genre (party game), theme (conspiracies), mechanics, and the game rules. We plan to do our own research, writing, and presentation slides for our section, then come together before presenting to combine our work and make sure it flows from start to finish. Our aim is to finish our own individual contributions by week 10, and then bring them together into a presentation in time for the due date in week 11. My contribution to the presentation will be researching and determining the core game mechanics.
What are mechanics? Miguel Sicart defines game mechanics as “methods invoked by agents, designed for interaction with the game state.” Those that are repeatedly used by an agent to achieve the game’s win condition are considered “core mechanics.” Basically, they are the parts of a game that allow a player to interact with and change the state of the game itself, and therefore are key to the process of game design. That’s Wack! is based on the system of mechanics in Card Against Humanity, but with some slight tweaks that set it apart as its own game. Here is an outline of my contribution to our game design presentation, identifying and discussing the game mechanics;
Drawing and Playing Cards — the means of taking actions on a turn
There are five card piles; one big pile of prompt cards containing blank spaces, and four smaller piles of answer cards separated into the categories people, places, events, and things. Players will draw answer cards and play them in response to prompt cards to fill in the blanks. The cards work well as a game mechanic because randomising the prompts and answers is made easy by shuffling the piles, they are re-usable without needing pen and paper, rounds are quick as players do not need to come up with their own answers (instead selecting from pre-made ones), and the modular design of the cards allows for future expansions.
Card Czar Role — determining unique actions for specific players
Players are sequentially assigned this special role each round. The Card Czar, or in this case Master Conspiracist, draws and reads aloud the prompt card for that round. They do not participate in drawing and selecting answer cards for that round. The Master Conspiracist can reward just one of the other players with a point for that round. Allowing this role to be rotated through all players helps to reduce biased voting that favours a specific sense of humour.
Point System — facilitates the game win condition
The first player to reach a set number of points wins the game.
Rounds and Turns — segments of the game in which predefined actions can occur
That’s Whack! Has three turn phases within a round;
— Turn 1; The new Master Conspiracist is appointed, the prompt card is played and read aloud.
— Turn 2; Players simultaneously draw and play their answer cards.
— Turn 3; The Master Conspiracist selects their favourite answer to the prompt, that player is rewarded with a point.
I love playing tabletop role-playing games with my friends, so I wanted to incorporate the genre into my game experience design project. TRPG’s fall under the niche/hobby category of games and are about face-to-face, collaborative story telling aided by dice rolls and the guidance of a ‘game master’ moderator. Players act out their character roles and engage in different facets of adventuring determined by the game master’s chosen rule system. It’s a fun way to bond with friends while also experiencing escapism through fantasy, becoming fully immersed in the imagined play space.
“Basics of t-RPGs are to let a set of players share the creation of their own story, where they interpret the main characters. T-RPGs mix dynamics from both society games (for the ludic aspect) and improvisational theatre.”
Delmas, G., Champagnat, R. and Augeraud, M., 2009.
My TRPG of choice is Wizard’s of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. I have the most experience and knowledge with this rule system, though truthfully I’ve never run my own campaign as the game master and will usually take the role of player character instead. Regardless, I want to create my own D&D module to be used by myself and other game masters as an adventure guide. I’ll be brushing up on the official Dungeon Master’s manual and asking for help from some of my experienced game master friends. My goal will be to design a game experience that is immersive, compelling, fair for all players and, most importantly, fun.
“One of the distinguishing features of the RPG genre is its ability to immerse the
player in the world and story that the game creates. The example from a D&D adventure in the epigraph addresses the readers in the second-person, pulling them directly into the story world, situating them in a place, and immersing them. “
Cover, J.A.G., 2005.
There are countless resources online that will assist me in creating this adventure module, including many video tutorials and forum discussion posts over at r/DnD. The website Dungeon Masters Guild also has a variety of templates and game materials that can be downloaded for free. Creating an adventure for D&D involves planning and preparing the narrative, setting, combat encounters, exploration and non-playable characters of an imagined story, then organizing these elements into a document that can be easily applied to the official D&D rule system. I might also attempt to design new gameplay features for my adventure module under the framework of the D&D rule-set, a practice known by TRPG fans as ‘homebrewing’.
The most important factor to consider when designing an adventure module is that it first and foremost acts as a guide for game masters to follow when running their own D&D campaign. This means that my target audience when designing is not just the players but also the game master, as they enact the most important role in determining the players’ overall experience. So, while I may want to consider how the adventure can appeal to both new and veteran players, I should also keep in mind whether or not my module design is effective in aiding the game master’s efforts to run a campaign; having the document be easy to understand and convenient for the game master is key.
“The game master is both a referee and a story director. On the one hand, he checks
the player characters’ actions. He validates actions and their results according to
game’s rules. On the other hand, he is responsible for story’s unfolding. He has to
describe the environment and to interpret the set of non-player characters (NPC). As a consequence, he produces a frame for the story and adapts it to player’s actions.”
Delmas, G., Champagnat, R. and Augeraud, M., 2009.
The theme of my game design project will be based on the existing lore of the D&D universe, which takes inspiration from Tolkien fantasy. I’m currently dreaming up a world and narrative for the adventure module and seeking inspiration from online campaigns that are live streamed or recorded and uploaded by the game master. One of my favourite online campaign series is Critical Role, run by voice actor Matt Mercer. I’m definitely interested in creating some pre-made character sheets for new players who are unfamiliar with the D&D system, or veterans who would like to jump in straight away without needing to create their own character first. I’m interested in a narrative that involves a band of outcasts or misunderstood ruffians who come upon the dark secrets of a sleepy village (or two) by chance. They’re left with a choice of covering up the corruption, or putting an end to it. D&D’s alignment system will be handy in this situation.
My main concern with this project was the logistics of testing the adventure module and receiving feedback while in self-isolation due to the current global pandemic. I’ve been looking into online solutions, including the virtual tabletop website Roll20, and a variety of D&D bots for Discord servers. I plan to test combat encounters and exploration sections of the adventure with friends, and get feedback about my module manual online from other TRPG fans through discussion forums like Reddit. Since I plan to keep the adventure as brief enough to fit a ‘one-off’ campaign, meaning it can be completed over one or few play sessions, I may also be able to do complete play-throughs with different groups of players. Then, from those experiences I can flesh out areas I feel required more preparation and planning that I had not previously considered.
General Project Timeline
Week 6 – 7: Apply pitch feedback to my project and develop the game narrative + explore resources and tutorials for creating a D&D adventure.
Week 8 – 9: Start prototyping and testing the adventure module.
Week 10 – 11: Apply beta feedback and findings from the first rounds of testing to the adventure module.
Week 12 – 13: Final testing of the prototype and working on the project dossier
Cover, J.A.G., 2005. ‘Tabletop Role-Playing Games: Perspectives from Narrative, Game, and Rhetorical Theory’.
Social deduction games are games in which some or all players’ roles are unknown. While the win condition varies from game to game, players can use logic and deduction to figure out the roles of others and gain a tactical advantage. This means players will often bluff to prevent suspicion.
I have a close friend who loves tabletop games so before commencing my study of game experience design I had already played a few social deduction games; The Resistance, Coup, and of course the popular party game Mafia using a deck of standard playing cards. I had also played an online variant of Mafia called Town of Salem. Personally, I have never been a big fan of this genre. I realise that this is probably because I am terrible at the strategic aspects of social deduction, so I almost never win these games (and, really… who doesn’t want to win?). However, I can still enjoy myself while playing some variants of social deduction games without winning. I tend to favour hidden role and deduction games with more mechanics and structure, instead of a game like Mafia where I have to simply talk my way out of suspicion.
The game experience closest to Mafia was a popular variation called Ultimate Werewolf designed by Ted Alspach and published by Bézier Games. There are two teams; the villagers and the werewolves. The villagers’ goal is to ‘lynch’ all werewolves that have invaded their village, and the werewolves’ goal is to ‘kill’ villagers one at a time until they are outnumbered. Each player is given a hidden role that is aligned with either the villagers or the werewolves, and some will have special abilities or unique motivations to win. There are ‘day’ and ‘night’ turns in which players discuss and eliminate other players based on their assigned role. The game is run by a moderator who does not play for either team.
The mechanics of the game can be very complex when multiple special roles are introduced, but we played a simplified version with only werewolves, villagers, and a seer. There are not many physical pieces in this game; only a deck of role cards to be distributed to players. Gameplay is enacted through discussion and collective player choices that are facilitated through the game moderator.
On the box, this game claims to be for “up to 75 players”. Having played hidden role games like this one before, I found that the larger group was way too chaotic and confusing for me in comparison to the usual 5-10 players. This made it difficult to feel meaningfully involved in the game, especially as a villager with limited agency. That said, I am not a huge fan of Mafia, or in this case Werewolves, as a hidden role game to begin with which may have already predisposed my game experience. I found the artwork and theme of Werewolves perfect for the mystery and hysteria of a hidden role game like Mafia, and its villager-versus-supernatural-threat narrative is similar to Town of Salem and the witch trials.
Coup is a hidden role game designed by Rikki Tahta and published by Indie Boards & Cards. It requires revealing all other players’ roles, referred to as ‘influence’, to win. Each player is given two influence role cards with their own set of unique abilities and take turns to enact various actions with those cards or ‘coins’ accumulated on previous turns. Players can also choose to bluff which cards they have in their possession to gain an advantage. Each action taken by the player gives others the opportunity to ‘challenge’ and catch their bluff, resulting in the loss of one influence card.
Coup can be played using high-risk, high-reward mind games, or with a more safe but slow method. There are many different mechanics and combinations at play that reflect good strategic depth. Although the rules may seem complex at first, once the initial entry barrier is overcome the game’s effective simplicity becomes more apparent.
Because I had played this game before, I had the task of explaining the gameplay to others in a way that was easy enough to understand. I described Coup as “kinda like the game Cheat (read; Bullshit) but with more steps”. Although the experience was great overall, I found that I again had a similar preference for smaller groups of players, just like I had with Werewolves. I personally find that tracking and deducing is just much easier with less players on the board. The artwork and theme of this game are also well-executed and would be especially interesting to any fans of The Resistance universe, though I feel as though the way gameplay mechanics are tied into the narrative could be improved. While playing this game, I don’t get as immersed in the playspace and role I have been assigned as I do in Werewolves or Town of Salem.
Takeaways from this experience
There were aspects of both social deduction games that I liked and disliked. While I preferred the gameplay of Coup to Werewolves, I enjoyed the theme and collaborative roleplay aspects of Werewolves much more than the lacking narrative-gameplay relationship in Coup. If I were to design my own social deduction or hidden role game, I would like to focus on creating something with the depth of strategy and simplicity of Coup that also has the fun, immersive aspects of Werewolves by encouraging players to really get into character.