10 May, 2010

Vector Theory #19: Components of Path Design

There's an old school of game module design which incorporates flowcharts.

Each scene or critical decision point in a story is a flowchart junction box, with arrows leading to one or more other junction boxes until a terminus point is reached ("Choose Your Own Adventure" books can be plotted in much the same way).

While roleplaying games allow far more diversity of choices for their participants, this remains a valid method to construct games in the traditional way.

You fight the dragon. Generally, there are three possible outcomes:
1. You beat the dragon. Go straight through to the next encounter/scene.
2. You are beaten by the dragon. Maybe your story ends here, or maybe you are at the mercy of the dragon and must face an alternate conflict before you can continue the story.
3. You run away. You must find an alternative path around the dragon, this might require going back to pick up items/clues that you didn't possess the first time.

That in essence is the conflict, and that's how it can be resolved.

This can be broken down into discrete tasks...

You attempt to hit the dragon.
1. You hit it and deal damage to it. If you have done enough damage to it, the dragon is vanquished.
2. You hit the dragon but deal no damage. Depending on the system (and the GM, this might make the dragon mad and thus present new mechanical or story opportunities).
3. You miss the dragon completely. The dragon now has a turn, unless you're really quick and you might get a second strike.

This type of simple task flow allowed roleplaying games to become prevalent on early non-graphical servers. I remember playing MUDs in the early 1990s. You could hit things, manipulate objects, pose to one another...not much has really changed in the computer roleplaying scene since then, except a gradual improvement in graphical interface.

But tabletop pen and paper gaming has so much more potential.

Each of the components capable of interacting with a vector may be introduced to a story by several means. Traditionally, the GM would write up a predetermined series of mirrors to weave the characters through a specific tale, they could set up filters to accelerate the characters toward their finale.

A second option introduces elements through procedures of the rules. Good examples of these include the way many combat procedures instantly follows up a roll to hit with a roll for damage. That's just the way the rules work. Some games have other trigger conditions, perhaps a humanity test once a certain type of action is performed, or a fatigue check when a spell is cast. These rules set the tone for the gaming system being played. They might introduce reactive mirrors to affect the ongoing storyline, filters to affect the mechanisms, or maybe both.

A third option to appear in recent games is where players take control of their character's destinies through mechanisms such as Otherkind Dice, Keys (from The Shadow of Yesterday) and various "Step On Up" rules. We even saw this in a crude form through the "nature and demeanor" rules of White Wolf's old World of Darkness storyteller system. Bonuses are gained for following your own agenda, if you are willing to take a stand for it, or play it out in character. Similarly, there are a few games starting to appear where players police one another (introducing mechanical or narrative effects to make things more dramatic/interesting for their companions). In these games, story is generated on the fly, and no-one can be sure of the path it might take until it has already made it's journey.

Unless there's any more feedback about the general structure of the theory, I think it's time to start grounding the theory back into reality by looking at specific gaming mechanisms and how they work within the context of Vector Theory.
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