Saturday, December 18, 2010

It Stands For Death & Dismemberment

Now, I've written a few stories in my time. A few of them even have endings. A few of those actually have decent endings. Something I've never written, however, is a story for a game.
I've always been curious about Dungeons and Dragons, but I've always been turned off by the amount of stat comparisons, difficulty checks, dice rolls and general other nonsense that has to happen in order to have fun. I'm much more interested in the narrative part of the game; it's a video game where almost anything can happen! It's much more of a sandbox than regular games, because you're playing with someone's interpretation of the game rules, not with a computer whose rules are set in stone.
Because of this interest, and because of some new friends who are alright with the idea, I endeavored to create something that I call Dungeons and Dragons Ultra Light, loosely using the naming conventions of fonts, whose weights are measured in degrees from Bold to Ultra Light. That's right, now I'm at least two kinds of geek.

Like the kind of guy who makes a steampunk 20-sided die.

Essentially my game (playfully referred to as D&D Ultra) is the poor man's version of the regular game: There are no game boards, stat sheets, miniatures, and there's only one type of die. The ol' 20-sided, or d20 as it's known to players.
I sketched out some basic rules that made the game play more like an old Lucas Arts adventure game than D&D. It made me realize that the only thing that sets my D&D Ultra apart from, say, Monkey Island or Full Throttle (apart from their games having significantly better writing) is the random dice rolls. In Full Throttle, if you want to open a locked door, you'd click “open” and he'd say, “I need a key for that.” In my game, if you want to open a locked door, I might have you roll the die to pick the lock or use a spell to open it. This is actually what I wanted, because my interest with D&D has always been more with the social interaction than the combat. The dice rolls help keep things interesting.

Rolling dice in this game would only slow down the awesome.

Here's where we get to the portion of the blog that actually talks about writing. When I set out to make a game for my group to play, the first thing I did was search around for a usable pre-made campaign that I could use. Unfortunately the ones I found used a format I wasn't familiar with, and the adventures were far too in depth for some of the people in my group. Although I knew nothing about D&D, let alone writing a campaign, I decided to dive in headfirst and write my own anyway. During one sleepless night, I wrote out the first four areas of the campaign in my head. The next day I sat down and committed my ideas to paper (well, to a word processor) and added enough extra stuff to finish the story. It's very simple, really. As an actual story it wouldn't hold up at all. Frankly I just wanted to make a few interesting areas for my friends to run around in.
Once we actually played it, I learned what I did right and wrong. I previously knew I couldn't anticipate every action the group wanted to take. I naively assumed the group would loosely follow the path I gave them. I had a few interactions and descriptions on paper that I could read off, but 90% of the time I was making things up on the fly, which was immensely fun, but it would have been nice to have something to reference.

For instance, in the first area you have a few people you can talk to: The bartender, the barmaid, an old soldier and a really drunk guy. (It already sounds a little like Monkey Island, huh?) You can talk to all of them, but I had only written responses to one question for each character, and naturally those were the questions nobody asked. I also discovered that my group almost consistently either wanted to flirt with everyone or simply murder them. I was almost prepared; I had written in difficulty rolls for Flirting, Threatening and Bluffing. However, I didn't anticipate the murderous nature of my friends, which in itself is a little frightening.

It turns out that it takes many, many pages of text to be fully prepared for the group's choices. I found a free D&D campaign off the company's website and now I better understand what it says. If you flip to the back there are tons of little paragraphs detailing what happens when a player touches X thing or threatens X person. It's a little bit like programming a video game, except it requires no programming, just a lots writing.
It's a great writing challenge, and yet I find myself wanting to write many, many more adventures.


  1. Yay! I'm so glad it worked out for you. You were so excited about it on Thursday.

  2. One game we played actually had a reactions table for various bad guys and things. We were fighting little rat-kobold things, and at one point, one actually jumped into somebody's backpack mid-fight. It was a hilarious "buh?" moment.

    Keep us posted on your adventures! The stuff the gamemaster intends, and the stuff the players actually do, are so diverse and random that they make great stories.

  3. I agree, it's the character interaction that makes games like that fun, and DnD is more of a mathematical system, like a video game RPG where you have to crunch your own numbers. Regardless of system though, it's the group that makes a game fun or not. I was part of a game where one player became obsessed with this dragon corpse that he was convinced held some treasure that the game master wasn't telling them about and actually stayed behind while the rest of us went ahead and had the actual adventure. It's fun for everyone if the players force the GM to come up with ideas for surprising scenarios, but it becomes a nightmare if the GM and the players start working against each other.