game beta; the adventure begins

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.

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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

— Musician
— Skills; Performance, Sleight of Hand
— Tools; Dice Set, Calligrapher’s Tools

— Acrobat
— Skills; Performance, Acrobatics
— Tools; Weaver’s Tools
— Languages; Celestial

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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)’

Tabletop Trials; the art of social deduction

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 SalemPersonally, 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.

 

Ultimate Werewolf 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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