Thursday, March 30, 2017

Design Talks: Content Distribution

By Michael “Swoop” Zajac

Greetings! Welcome to a new article series where we will discuss various facets of game design in relation to our game. One of the key aspects of our community is the ability of any person’s ability to host an event. Due to this, any person who will be hosting will need to design activities for players to participate with, otherwise known as content. Great effort goes into great events, and the design and planning of these events are no exception. Keeping some principles of game design in mind while designing encounters and dungeons will aid greatly, which we will break down here. While not every person may go on to hosting an event, learning about how content can be designed and structured as a player can help give a vocabulary to any player to express and critique events and guide them towards events that cater to their needs.

Content Distribution
So you’ve decided you’re going to throw an event. You have a story you want to tell, have some cool ideas for some fights, maybe some interesting mechanics to mix up some aspect of the game. But how will players find your content? Will it it walk up to them, punch them in the face and scurry away, begging to be chased? Is it out in the world, needing to be found through investigating or talking to the right people? Whatever it may be, how your players reach the content can be just as interesting as the activity itself, and while some styles lend themselves to a certain style, an event holder can vary their distribution style to offer variety and choice to the players. Here I will offer three, each with its own pros and cons, but these can overlap and are only guiding archetypes that can be mixed and matched to offer new styles.

  1. Linear Progression
    The “Fight Down the Path” style quest
This style of questing should be familiar to many who have braved a few quests in the Realms. Whether it be fighting down a path to an objective, completing that objective, then moving on to the next objective farther down the path, or maybe a classic Riley Commons dungeon crawl, engaging in an interesting encounter in the main room then squeezing into the side rooms while the next room “loads”. Whatever form it may take, linear progression is popular in our game for a few possible reasons. Basically, you have a long path or series of rooms for your players to traverse with interesting encounters or things for the players to interact with at certain places. They achieve the objective, then move on to the next room in order predesignated by the event holder, progressing to an end goal, which may be a boss creature or some other summative test of the players.

Pros: This is likely one of the easiest styles to design, as it gives the EH the highest medium of control over the event, including things like pacing and resource (aka NPC) management and also narrative. This control lets EHs play with some effects and ideas that would not be feasible without this level of control, such as time sensitive effects or having dedicated NPC(s) be present when players arrive. Getting the players to the content is easy, as once they’re on the path there is a singular direction to move for progression and the next objective is usually within sight. Barring time constraints, this also guarantees all of your content is utilized. Setting the order in which players access the content also allows the EH to structure the progression in a logical way, gradually increasing in complexity and difficulty.

With great control comes great responsibility, and in this medium it is no different. While this style allows for great control over pacing and other aspects, because there is only one source of content  it also demands strength in logistics like organizing NPCs into their new roles and setting up the next objective and necessary props quickly to minimize players waiting around doing nothing. This can be tough both on the NPCs and EH, as they will constantly be bounding from objective to objective with little time to recuperate, which can cause both parties to diminish in effectiveness. There is also the problem of the fail state; can your players actually fail the objective? Since there is only one path of progression, the whole party dieing or some similar state can leave the EH and NPCs in a tough place. Do you give the party a Deus Ex Machina and Cry of Life them back, or do you tell your NPCs to back off if they killed too many players even the monsters have no tactical reason to let some PCs live? What if they get off track and take so long the EH would have to cut content that is integral to the plot or progression of the event? Not allowing a fail state can make the PCs feel their actions have no impact on the event, which can lead to disengagement. Speaking of engagement, one of the biggest problems with linear quests are issues with engagement. When you have one path of content, all the players will go down this path. It can very challenging to engage 30-50 players at a time, as most events will not have a 1:1 NPC to PC rate for combat modules and most puzzles or people to talk to can only handle a handful of people engaging with it at a time. This problem manifests in another classic Realms trope: the Questing Blob. A line of fighters, a line of support casters, then a bunch of people being jostled along in the middle, not interacting with anything and possibly waiting to get a chance to interact with some content. Seeing how the two rows of active participants are often only a portion of the questing party, this means usually the majority of your PCs are not being engaged with the content.

When Designing

Take Advantage of Space: If you are using a repeating area for a dungeon crawl, such as Riley, consider utilizing the space to its fullest potential. Speakers can be placed throughout the area for music and sound, access to electricity can allow special effects like lights or other props. On open event sites, consider what props can be preloaded at the beginning of the day to cut down on loading time between loading times.
Delegate: While we won’t discuss the logistics of running an event often, because pacing is key to engaging play, delegating responsibilities can be an important part of the design process. Designing with a head NPC or a team dedicated to setting up props in mind can free the EH up to make sure everything's running smoothly, allowing for smooth transitions between modules.
Flexible Modules: Sometimes, things don’t go to plan. Players quickly breeze through a room, or more likely, players take more time than anticipated. While some rooms always need to be in a dungeon in for various reasons, having extra rooms that can be added, cut or rearranged during the crawl can help keep timing and pacing on track. The key point is to see the problem coming early by putting time checkpoints in your event plan, as it’s much easier to choose which room to cut early in the day than when there are only a few key rooms left.
Optional Objectives: When there is one path that players must progress down in order to make progress, it can be a tough balance between making it easy so that every room can be passed in a decent time while also offering satisfying challenge to encounter. One possibility is to add optional objectives to each room. Timed challenges, random townspeople that need to be saved with some challenging twist, killing a monster in a specific way to gain more treasure, these are all optional challenges that still let the quest progress, but gives more skilled players a deeper challenge to gain more rewards. This lets PCs choose their difficulty level yet cater to multiple levels of skill, a key aspect of differentiated play.

Example Events: W.I.G.O.H 2, Ashen Bounty, Bind the Tide

The above are merely a few observations and suggestions for running an event using this style, and by no means cover all aspects. What are some suggestions for running a linear event that weren’t mentioned here? Have a pro or con that you think is should be mentioned? Feel free to drop a comment and ask questions, this is a talk! Next installment we will discuss open world style questing.

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