Friday, September 24, 2010

Plot Elements in D&D

Recently on the gaming blogs there have been discussions of sandbox vs. railroading, and how a story isn't an adventure.  I maintain that there are elements of a story that can make a classic adventure.  You just have to remember that prompting is good, railroading is bad.  

In this post, we will examine the standard plot elements found in fiction, and discuss how to apply them to a D&D adventure (or any fantasy game, I'll just be using D&D in my examples for the sake of brevity).  This might be especially important for the novice DM. 

For my example of each, I'll use Star Wars: A New Hope in the bullet points.  The italicized text will explain how to use this plot element in a D&D module.  

This shows off the setting, characters, and other things that are needed to understand the story.  It also sets the tone.

- Darth Vader is a bad dude -- snapping the neck of a soldier on the blockade runner
- Luke Skywalker feels trapped on Tatooine
- Ben Kenobi is a Jedi Knight hiding from the Empire
- Lasers make noise in space in the Star Wars universe
- The tech level is ray guns and spaceships. 

This would be simple enough to set up in D&D adventure.  The trappings of the characters and the place they're in would be sufficient. 

This gives you some kind of hint or clue that will figure more prominently later on as the story progresses.   
- It didn't make the final cut, but there was an encounter with Luke's friend Biggs Darklighter, who was heading off to join the Rebellion, and tells Luke how bad things have gotten.
- During the encounter between Han and Greedo in the cantina, both of them mentioned Jabba the Hutt, who is a major character in the third film, Return of the Jedi.  

The way Foreshadowing usually turns up in a D&D adventure is with a dream or vision.  In some cases rumors are gathered.  They could happen on the scene in the middle of a battle with raiders or orcs or monsters.  Or, in some cases, the dark citadel on the hill is enough to foreshadow evil and danger.

This is a person, place, thing, or event that starts the conflict. 

- The Trigger would be Darth Vader and the Death Star.  More the Death Star, though Vader was a compelling enough villain. 

TSR wanted a villain in every module, at least during the days of 2nd Edition.  This is proven by one fact and one anecdote.  Fact: In the Dungeon Master's Design Kit, you need to to know who your villain is.  Anecodote: A friend of mine submitted an adventure to Dungeon Magazine in the 90s, and it was rejected because it had no villain.  Even though it was an excellent adventure, there was no villain, so it couldn't exist in the D&D canon (grumble).   

You don't need a villain for the trigger.  Events, such as war, famine, disease can be triggers.  A place, for example a Wizard's Tower can be a trigger.  Or how about an evil ring, which turns its wielder invisible? (grin)

A struggle of some kind.  For our purposes, the conflict is usually expressed as X vs. X.  Man vs. Nature, Woman vs. Machine, Man vs. Nature, Outcast vs. Society, Man vs. Self, Man vs. Demon, Man v.s the Gods.  I purposely restructured this classic element to help further define the conflict.

- The conflict in Star Wars is the Rebels against the Death Star, the Rebels against the Evil Empire. 

The conflict in a D&D adventure is the main point of the adventure.  Goblin raiders, bandits, warlords, battling against the unknown, rescuing a kidnapped princess, vengeance, sacrifice, errors in judgment, H.P. Lovecraft-inspired monsters threatening to return, etc.  
Rising Action
A sequence of events based on the Conflict,  starting with the Trigger and ending with the Climax.

- Princess Leia Organa is captured, believed to be carrying stolen plans for the Death Star.
- An escape pod is ejected from the Blockade Runner that contains two droids, one of whom is carrying the stolen plans.
- Luke finds the message from Leia in R2, and asks an old hermit, Ben Kenobi, about it.
- Stormtroopers trace the droids to Luke's Aunt & Uncle, and kill Owen & Beru.
- Luke agrees to accompany Ben Kenobi.
- The group, now including Han Solo and Chewbacca take off from Tatooine and discover the Death Star.  - They are drawn in, but the ship remains captured while they look for Princess Leia.
- Ben Kenobi turns off the tractor beam, but is drawn into a fight with Vader.  Ben loses the fight and is killed. 

Rising Action would be the sections in a D&D module where things really get moving.  The raiders beset a caravan and the PCs draw arms and stop them, the disease claims more lives, a kingdom falls, a warlord marches on the town, assassins come after the PCs, etc.

It is vital to remember that in a story, the events take place in the most dramatic order.  It is necessary in a story for this order of events to be maintained.  Not so in a D&D adventure.  The players should have multiple exits from every encounter, so that they don't have to be "herded" from one scene to the next.  Of course, each scene should also contain clues that help move the action forward.  If they find out that their friend was murdered in such and such a district, they could question neighbors present now, possible witnesses down by the docks (for example), enter the local bars to find out if anyone saw anything or knows anything, talk to their friend's former housekeeper, interrogate their friend's former bodyguard, or question the guard commander who didn't seem too interested in solving the crime. 

Not only should you provide multiple exits, you should also perhaps alter the scenario so that it better fits the PC's actions.  What if the scenario called for them to visit a specific graveyard, and yet they end up visiting another?  Maybe you can subtly alter events so that they can do whatever they were supposed to do in that graveyard.  Maybe the scene doesn't call for them visiting a graveyard at all, and they get a wild idea about searching for clues there?  Maybe you can arrange for them to find a clue there (logically placed, of course), or even invent a clue out of whole cloth to put the adventure back on track.  Never push the players, always subtly guide them.  If the scenario is a chariot driven by the player's actions, if they think it was all their idea in the first place, you've succeeded.

The turning point of the conflict, when enemies meet and the intensity level is cranked up.  This occurs before or simultaneously with the climax.   

- The Death Star travels close enough to Yavin to blow it up.  
- The plans are taken to the rebel base at Yavin, analyzed, and a plan is formed to fire blasters into an exposed exhaust port.
- The X-Wing fighters take off and fend off TIE fighters while heading into the trenches to find the exhaust port.

At this point in the D&D module, it's the endgame.  It's when everything comes to a head and sets up the climax.  The heroes enter the bandit fortress, they have dispatched all the minions and the "boss" shows up, they have the cure or the components to dispel the curse and must now race to a particular location to use them, etc. 

The end result of the crisis, and the high point of the adventure.  This is where the intensity level rises to 11.  It's when the outcome can usually be predicted.   

- Luke hears Ben's voice in his head, and uses his Jedi training to hit the exhaust port square.
- Death Star blows up 

The D&D climax is the battle with the boss monster, or the rescue of the princess, vengeance on the big baddie for the murder of their friend, whatever high octane point you want to make.  Everything is fine once the climax is passed.  It almost always takes place close to the end of the adventure. 

Falling Action and Resolution (Denouement)
These are the events immediately after the climax.  Sometimes combined with the resolution for the end of the story.  This is where the hero goes home, couples marry, a ruler is restored, etc.  "And they lived happily ever after" is a classic example of Denouement.

- They are decorated as heroes. 

In a D&D adventure, this is where the heroes celebrate their victory and mourn their losses.   

This is simply a skeleton that a GM can follow when constructing his adventures.   There shouldn't any issues with story vs. sandbox.  Because, just letting the players run all over willy-nilly can get really old after a time, because the game can degenerate into "let's see how much use we can get out of random encounter tables this session."  Plot is important, but it's also important to let the heroes react to the plot however they wish (as long as the intent is not to wreck the plotline, campaign, or the GM's good graces). 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review - Hazen: The Dark Whispers PC Game

Hazen: The Dark Whispers (PC Game)


Minimum Requirements:
CPU:    Intel Pentium 4 2.0 GHz/AMD Athlon SSE2
RAM:    1 GB RAM (1.5 GB for Vista)       
VGA:    128 MB with Pixel Shader 2.0
Direct X version 9.0       
OS:      Windows Vista or Windows XP SP2       
HDD:    3 GB    
Sound:  DirectX compatible sound card

CPU:    Intel Core 2 Duo/AMD Athlon X2 family
RAM:    2 GB RAM (3 GB for Vista)
VGA:    NVIDIA 8800/ATI 3850 (512 MB)
OS:      Windows Vista or Windows XP SP2
HDD:    4 GB 

Hazen is a Diablo clone with some noticable differences.  

First off, it saves it exactly where you left off.  This is important and addressed to all game designers who will be designing games from this day forward: Stop putting us fucking back at the beginning when we save!  It was a quantum leap forward when you could boot up a game and not be back at the inn (like in the Wizardry games of the early 1980s).  With Diablo II, Dungeon Siege II, and other games, the designers decided that if you saved it, it would throw you back in town.  What's more, the monsters would respawn, so you'd have to fight your way back through again, possibly at reduced effectiveness with broken items and lost hit points or attributes, etc.  Apparently the game designers' dump stat was Wisdom.  In Hazen, if you're in the middle of a bridge fighting skeletons, if you save it, you'll be right where you expected to be, in the middle of a bridge fighting skeletons.  Wow!  What a concept!

The skills are not restricted to character classes.  As interesting as these classes are in the Diablo series, Hazen pretty much lets you learn any skill, the only restrictions being level.  While I don't care too much for the level limit theory, I like more open-ended skill systems.  The skills sound kinda cool too, with evocative names like Deathbringer and Evoke Guardian.

The manual leaves A LOT to be desired.  It's fucking thin.  It's got a spot to show off the interface (including a topic heading by that name), but its blank.  Fortunately, the interface is fairly straightforward, but I would have liked some explanation of hotkeys, at least, and maybe a map to go along with the descriptions of the areas I'm supposed to go to.  The in-game automap seems fairly sparse and next to useless.  

The fighting is fairly simple.  Just click on enemies until you or they are dead.  Right-click on items, and left click on items in the game world.  Quest areas often have a floating question mark over them, and so do quest givers.  The journal lets you know when to head back to town, but you have to read it to find this info.

The graphics aren't exactly light years ahead of their time.  They're fun, with the particle effects, ripples in the water, and reflections you'd expect to see, but some landscape items are cartoonish -- which is okay.  The graphics and sound pretty much let you know what's going on.

Here I come, charging against the Death Cows of the Wild Frontier!  Whee!

If there was one thing I could wish for it would be something more like Divine Divinity.  If you're going to make a Diablo clone, maybe have a huge well-thought out storyline behind it.

I think that's something that we as Game Masters and Players can take away from this, as well.  That window dressing is all fine and good, but what engages us most is a compelling story.  A story isn't just something that breaks up endless hordes of monsters to fight, it engages us, challenges us, and inspires us.  At least it does me.  Fantastically well-played characters, successful adventures, layers of plot peeled back, and like an onion, there's always more to peel.  At the end of a day of gaming, what makes you feel good?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I Write Like H.P. Lovecraft

Odd, I always thought of myself as more like Hunter S. Thompson, but there you have it. When I was younger, that would have sent me into an ecstatic state for months.

You can find the analyzer over at I Write Like

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Review : Blind Guardian -- At the Edge of Time

Blind Guardian - At the Edge of Time (2010)
   1. Sacred Worlds - 9:17
   2. Tanelorn (Into the Void) - 5:58
   3. Road of No Release - 6:30
   4. Ride into Obsession - 4:46
   5. Curse My Name - 5:52
   6. Valkyries - 6:38
   7. Control the Divine - 5:26
   8. War of the Thrones - 4:55
   9. A Voice in the Dark - 5:41
  10. Wheel of Time - 8:55 

The last few years have been barren ones for Blind Guardian fans.  In 2006, they released A Twist in the Myth; while there were a few standout tracks, it was quite a departure in sound, particularly in tracks like Fly and Otherland.  It felt overproduced to me, and lacking in energy and inspiration.  Its predecessor, A Night at the Opera, was a much finer album, in my opinion.

Now it's 2010, four years since A Twist in the Myth.  I've been waiting for this album for ages, listening to the 30-second samples on, monitoring YouTube for videos and finding not one, but two of 'em in HD!  It's hard to contain my elation.  Once I finally unwrap the thing, I give it a spin.

I have to admit, I didn't expect much after ATITM, but I was blown away.  The opener is Sacred Worlds, written by Blind Guardian for the video game Sacred 2: Fallen Angel, and it starts out with a symphonic score.  The score builds in energy and urgency, with occasional flashes of epic.  But it isn't until 1:26 that we finally enter the song with an energetic and insistent guitar.  The song proceeds with Hansi KΓΌrsch in fine form, with a particular epic part at 6:26:  "My eyes are the eyes of a dead man/I feel the unholy stream/The source of my power/T-Energy/I'm in control!"  The song outros with a symphonic score increasing in calmness eventually fading to silence once more.

The next track is Tanelorn (Into the Void), which is the second song they've done concerning Michael Moorcock's Eternal City from The Elric Saga and other works.  This song takes BG back to their speed metal roots, as it hits you hard and never relents, with the classic Blind Guardian epic chorus we've come to expect since Nightfall on Middle Earth. 

After Tanelorn is Road of No Release, based on The Innkeeper's Song, by Peter S. BeagleIt starts with a piano riff, and then a military march, and then Hansi's clean vocals begin.  Each verse is told from a different perspective, the different characters in the story.  It drags a bit, but there are times where I love it.

The fourth track is Ride Into Obsession, with lightning fast riffs and Hansi's amazing voice carrying it.  This song is based on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.

Track 5 is Curse My Name, which fits in nicely with their other medieval-styled ballads, such as The Bard's Song, A Past and Future Secret and Skalds and Shadows.  With songs like these they re-establish themselves as traveling bards.  Another fantastic track, with a serious and dark chorus: "Let them call me a tyrant so cruel/Let them Curse My Name but remember the truth!"  Curse My Name is based on a political tract by John Milton.  In the book, he claims that kings who fail to carry out their duties should be killed.    

Next comes Valkyries.  It starts slow, then builds to a metal crescendo, and from there we have the familiar layered vocals and Blind Guardian chorus.  It has a definite catchy melody.  It has its basis in Norse Mythology and references the Valkyries, warrior maidens on winged horses who appear after a battle.   They carry those who fought with honor and valor to a great Feasting Hall in the Afterlife, Valhalla.  

After Valkyries comes Control the Divine, about Lucifer in Milton's Paradise Lost and his motives and feelings.  It starts with an epic riff and continues with a pounding rhythm reminiscent of thundering destriers.  "How can we take it away from someone who has no right/No right to Control the Divine?"

The eighth track is War of the Thrones, inspired by the series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.  It has a strange dichotomy to it, where the verses are melancholy and slow, and the refrain is more upbeat.  It refers to the war between the different noble houses over the throne and the vast Wall of Ice at the northern border that separates the men of Westeros from savages and horrors.  Unfortunately it gets a tad repetitive, and doesn't quite match the rest of the album.  It is not one of my favorites.

Track 9 is A Voice in the Dark, and it returns to the melodic thrash they perfected on Imaginations from the Other Side.  Technically perfect, energetic and epic, it compels you to contract a bad case of "Slayer Neck."  I got chills and elation the first time I heard the song.  This is also themed around A Song of Ice and Fire, and tells story of how Bran, one of the characters, lay with a broken back after being pushed from a high tower he was climbing, and in his coma was tormented by visions and prophecies. 

The final track, The Wheel of Time, starts out with almost a middle-eastern groove, before the crescendo into the main part of the song.  It, too, drags a bit, despite the frenetic orchestral interludes.  The song takes a bit to pick up the pace.  The subject matter itself is from Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, and is about males and saidar, the magical power that drives them mad.

I have listened to this album practically nonstop since its U.S. release, banging my head in ecstasy as the band kicks ass again and again.  This is a very strong album, a much finer effort than A Twist in the Myth, and most tracks are very reminiscent of earlier releases such as Imaginations from the Other Side and A Night at the Opera.  I love the energy and feel to this album, even if the subject matter is entirely derived from other people's works.  It holds together well, and renews my hope in a band that I thought had lost its magic.  Well done, Blind Guardian!  May you continue to rock well into your golden years.  You are indeed worthy of Valhalla, all of you! 

Drakensang vs. Dragon Age

After my laptop died, I didn't hold much hope for computer gaming, but my wife kindly let me install some games, so I can while away some time here and there, having some good high-tech fun.

I installed Drakensang, in a wistful fit, revisiting the world and making different choices.  During combat, I had a few epiphanies that made me realize that another game I own, Dragon Age: Origins, was completely inspired by other things, and that it was so transparent it hadn't hit me until now.

Everyone who owns Dragon Age: Origins who is a fan of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series knows that the computer game is highly derivative of that series, especially if you play a Human Noble.  The betrayal of the King by one house that has designs on the throne, the eradication of other houses loyal to the King, an organization dedicated to fighting back the forces of darkness, etc.  Almost slavishly derivative.  I didn't have a chance to replay before my laptop died, but I finished one game, so I got a chance to experience everything first hand.

What hit me playing Drakensang is that combat in Dragon Age is identical, and yet Drakensang was out for several months before Dragon Age went gold.  Here are the similarities:

1) The auto-pause option to issue orders.  Not unusual in and of itself, but taken with everything else it tends to look bad for EA...

2) Once you issue your orders and unpause the game and your orders are carried out in realtime.

3) Everyone has a few special abilities that can be brought to bear on the foe.  These options can be trained and new options are bought in a skill tree fashion, where once you have one combat ability new ones are automatically unlocked.

4)  Characters can fall unconscious during combat if they take enough damage, and if everyone falls unconscious the game is over.

5) When the characters who fell unconscious get back up, they have wounds that must be healed manually, usually by some manner of "Treat Wounds" skill or similar.  Unhealed wounds cause penalties to everything, particularly fighting. 

Both games have all 5 things there in common.  So, not only did one of Dragon Age's stories come straight out of fiction, its game play came straight from another video game!

True, there are some things about Dragon Age, the interactions among the characters, that were truly humorous and in many cases genuinely moving, and in a few cases outright disturbing.  I have to give it kudos there.  Few other games I've seen captivated me like Dragon Age.  Other games that gave me similar "must play" compulsions were Redguard, Arena, and Morrowind.

But this new revelation has challenged my belief in the creativity of the designers.  Was it intentional?  I dunno, I've come up with original mechanics and settings only to see them surface in published works weeks, months, or even years after the fact.  But, on the other hand, I'm not under a deadline, and I game for the love of it, not money or any other discernible reason.

I'm not saying that there is a clear case of plagiarism, but I'm merely musing about it.  It's a question I will probably never have an answer to.