game pitch; a new adventure

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.

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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.

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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

References;
Cover, J.A.G., 2005. ‘Tabletop Role-Playing Games: Perspectives from Narrative, Game, and Rhetorical Theory’.
Delmas, G., Champagnat, R. and Augeraud, M., 2009. ‘From tabletop RPG to interactive storytelling: definition of a story manager for videogames’. Joint international conference on interactive digital storytelling (pp. 121-126).

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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