On Dominion

This post is not about the excellent game from Illwinter (which I'm sure I will cover in a later post) but on the excellent tabletop card game Dominion!

This is not a collectible card game, one purchase nets you everything you need to play. It is a game about deck building. Everyone starts with the same 10 cards, and attempts to acquire the most victory points.There are lots of descriptions of play available for perusal.

It is an open game. All of the available cards are face up on the table, and everyone can see each of your plays. The only hidden information is what you are holding in your hand, and the card order in your deck and discard pile. This effectively means it is your own fault when you lose the game.

There are 10 supply piles of cards to purchase used in the game, and there are 25 available in the box. We played four or five times last night with 3 players who had never played before (each game takes about a half hour) and selecting randomly did not get to try out all the different kind of cards. What's more, is that the card's value changes within the game based on what other cards are available. No witches makes the chapel useless.

There, replayability, without gouging your players. I'm not surprised that this isn't the model that WotC follows for its planned expansions. There is nothing wrong with card games as the long history of mankind has show us.

The other entertaining aspect is how your deck building plans immediately get trashed as soon as someone else starts buying cards. It is so difficult to stay on track and not react to the plays of other players.

It's a different game every time you sit down to play. We had a lot of fun and I'm sharing so that everyone can check it out. I imagine we'll play it for another week or two before heading into one of the expansions.

On Time Structure and the Schedule Style in Adventure Design

This is part three of a multi-part post discussing adventure design. The first post covering Line Structure is here. The second post covering Space Structure is here.

The third structure of adventure design is time.

Time Structure or "Schedule Style" is a more complex and less effectively used style than either Linear Structure or Space Structure. What is Time Structure?
It is a linear description of changes or events that occur at specified temporal intervals both independent of and dependent on player activity.

Geeze, no way to spice up those definitions is there?

The fact that Time Structure resembles a schedule is really going to knock your socks off. Because what's sexier than a schedule?

Every relationship that's ever had to schedule sex is the healthiest relationship in the world. That's because nothing is more exciting and spontaneous then a schedule, right? Oh. Wait. They are the opposite of that. Then if they are so boring, why bother with them at all?
What's sexier than a schedule?

Because just like with monsters, dungeons, and wildernesses; temporal events are another important factor in the adventures of the characters - not just for book keeping, but for dynamism!

Schedules, boring as they are, are the largest key factor in making the players feel as if they have an effect on the world.

Gygax has this to say:
Game time is of the utmost importance. . . One of the things stressed in the original game of D&D was the importance of recording game time with respect to each and every player character in a campaign. In AD&D it is emphasized even more: YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT. -Gary Gygax 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide
Those caps are his, from the original text. Time Structure is similar to our usage in Line Structure; it can work like a simple flowchart with different options.*

The classic example of Time Structure is the Wandering Monster encounter table:
Every so many turns (10 rounds) the Dungeon Master makes a periodic check to determine if a wandering monster has appeared. These types of encounters are much maligned (wrongly) in modern systems. What purpose do they serve?

Before my own discussion, I direct you to the  posts over on The Alexandrian where he is discussing wandering/random encounters in the context of a mega-dungeon.

First, and most importantly, they indicate to the players that the world is not just sitting around, waiting for them to interact with it. This is the key factor in the Time Structure!

It insures that the players actually have to pay a resource cost in their back and forth travel to their location. This explicitly keeps the balance in power between the classes. It turns the decision 'do we pack up and leave, or check out one more room' into one of real weight.

The encounters are random because the results are not known ahead of time not because the encounter has no meaning. It is the job of the DM to provide a valid reason for encountering the monster. These are actual creatures in the area that the players are encountering. There are several ways to create this dynamism.

First, you may have entries in the wandering monster table be actual keyed encounters that move. This is done to good effect in U3: The Final Enemy. If the monster is encountered randomly, be sure to remove the keyed encounter. And in the spirit of "anything the player doesn't see or experience doesn't actually happen" it's a good idea to tie these encounters in some way to the environment or local where they normally reside.

Second, be aware that there may be wandering monsters within the adventure site as well as the place the adventure site resides. Hackmaster has 2 different encounter checks - wandering monsters which take place every 3 turns and represent the monster population within an adventure site, and random monster checks which take place every 6 turns and represent the monster population of the surrounding area. So every 6 turns, 2 checks are made and if they both succeed, the players may actually come upon an encounter with more than one party of monsters.

Third, you can limit the number of times an encounter may be had to represent the limited number of creatures in an area. I made a mistake in the last game I ran because I set these limited numbers of creatures too high with too many different kinds of creatures for the players to notice a difference. If they had spent a much longer time out in the wilderness it would have been apparent.

So what other types of Time Structures are there?

The Fantasy Calandar:
This is a large part of what Gygax was talking about when he said it was important to keep track of time. The value of this time structure of "creating magic items" and "training for your next level" is more than just the verisimilitude of the fantasy setting and a technique to keep power levels in check. It is not just about making sure the wizard is out of the game for six months while he does spell research or creates a wand.

It removes the players from the game environment allowing the Dungeon Master to make changes within that environment that feel realistic. This gives the players the feeling that the world does not revolve around them. If they go back to town and instantly level, then when they return to the dungeon 12 hours later, it's silly for the various tribes to have already called in reinforcements.

The Schedule . . . Schedule:
Uh, yeah. So at it's most basic the Schedule Style can be an actual Schedule. This is interesting for several reasons. One, the Dungeon Master can get away with actually not ever preparing these. It's 9 PM at night - the blacksmith is at his home, not his forge.

Second, it is this tool that allows some of our more complex examples of multiple styles existing together to work. Later, when we are looking at the integration, without this tool we  This gives us the tool we need, in a simple form (known as . . . the list!) that allows us to inject an element of dynamism into our scenarios.

Can Time Structure be used in a traditional sandbox environment or Megadungeon? 

Absolutely! The examples above (particularly the random/wandering monster encounter table are key for that interaction).


What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Time Structure?

The foremost advantage is that fact that it helps to create a living breathing world for the player characters. It combats several vicious problems such as spellcasters being overpowered when they nova, the players feeling like the world is on pause until they arrive, and boredom.

The largest disadvantage is that it is necessary to accurately track time to make use of many of its functions. This can be particularly difficult because the GM has more than a few different responsibility during the game. I recommend a sheet filled with 0's. I've provided a simple time tracking sheet for rounds and turns here. 

Time Structure Pros: Provides dynamism to the world, a little setup provides dividends at the table, helps balance the game, makes things more exciting for the players

Time Structure Cons: Can be difficult to keep up with in play, for more complex uses requires a lot more set up then is ever used

What about our final structure? What could possibly be used as a style of game that we haven't already covered? We'll take a look at that next time when we dissect Power Structure or "Node Style"

* In general we are still limited to a linear form, because time moves in only one direction. If you were to run a time travel campaign, then you could actually use one of the other structures for the linear aspect of time structure, but that's an edge case.

On Shooting Yourself in the Foot

I really need to get to sleep since I have to be back at work in like six hours, but again, I feel the need to pass this on. The eponymous Cyclopeatron of the excellent Cyclopeatron blog brings us the news that Pathfinder is outselling 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons.

I mean, I wouldn't want to show up to work on this Friday at Wizards of the Coast. It sucks for them. But like most of America, the bloodlust in their eyes at the thought of monetizing Dungeons and Dragons like Magic:the Gathering made them kill the goose.

Perhaps they need to learn the lessons that the great business men in the early 20th century knew.

"A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business."
Henry Ford

The D&D Community Episode

There's a show I've seen that contains some of the very best, and very worst television I've ever seen.

 "Community". 

The surreal claymation episode where Abed discovers that the meaning of Christmas is a present of the first season of Lost on DVD (i.e. "Unfulfilled Expectations") is one of the most entertaining and brilliant episodes of television I've ever seen. The one where they get trapped in a Kentucky Fried Chicken space simulator bus is possibly the most insipid, monotonous half-hours of television ever made (though it does sound funny on paper, now that I write it out). There is very little middle ground. Zombie episode good, Britta becomes Abed's mother bad, conspiracy episode good, confessing to cheating in Spanish episode bad.


I mention it here, because in an upcoming episode, they will play a game of Dungeons and Dragons for the whole half-hour. When asked about it, the show's creator said, "They're just sitting at the table playing," which means that it might actually be an honest representation of Dungeons and Dragons on national media. There is no word on which edition they will play, nor when the episode will air. When I acquire this information I will publish it here, as well as a review of the episode after it airs.

Here's where I found out about the news, from Alan Sepinwall's excellent TV blog.

Here's an interview with the cast about the Dungeons and Dragons episode.

Enjoy!

P.S. I promise I'm not trying to monetize my blog. (Clearly, you may note I don't have adsense turned on). ;-p I just figured, since I happen to have posts about media this month, that I should point people towards where they can acquire said media. I usually do not post about media, and hope the gesture is taken as a service. Thank you very much for your patience.

On Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim.

So I've been diving a bit into the Elder Scrolls series lately. Specifically Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. My initial forays were triggered by two articles; the first "I Will Not Play The Elder Scrolls V: Why Morrowind is Better Than Oblivion" at The Big Pixels by Mike Rougeau. And the second "Old School Play - Explore It" by the Eponymous ChicagoWiz of ChicagoWiz's RPG Blog.

If you're not familiar with these games, they are lore rich adventure games where the player is free to exist within the world doing what they wish. They have deep character customization systems, and the worlds are lovingly crafted by hand. (I found myself in a merchants shop and opened his locked back door and there was a meticulously stocked storeroom. Someone had to build that by hand.)

In "Why Morrowind is Better than Oblivion" Mike brings up the point that Oblivion's leveling system is "broken" in the sense that everything always levels up with you. Now this is trivially fixed by mods if you're on the PC. 360/PS3 owners aren't so lucky. (And I say trivially somewhat lightly, though easy to install, I'm running close to 40 mods and have yet to begin the game.)

His point stands because anything you can "just fix by rule 0" doesn't magically make the rule not broken in the first place. Primarily the game is set up that way for the casual gamer - the guy who wants to go where he wants to go, and win all his fights and basically wants to feel like an awesome superhero.

Uh, a lot like new school role playing games actually.

That's sort of the point though; the above has a broader spectrum of appeal then a more challenging game. And that style is consequentially is less rewarding. It is not inherently containing of less value; in fact, the opposite could be argued because of the number of people it brings into the hobby (of being various shades of a fantasy and gaming nerd) bringing with it more money and attention. In addition, and this is key, the creators have given us the tools to correct the situation for ourselves.

The second point I'd like to discuss has to do with the lore. One of the most beautiful things about the game is the rich depth of history and the interesting (and confusing take) on the various factions and how this is completely irrelevant to the player of the game. One of my friends recently said, "I'll play Skyrim when it comes out, but I'm not sure I'll replay Morrowind and Oblivion" and I responded with the advice that he absolutely should not!

I have never seen anyone say "I can't go to the mall because I don't know the intricacies and minutiae of the American Revolution!" The games are about exploring, running around casting spells and stabbing stuff while looting dungeons and being the prophesied hero of legend. No reason to delve into older less fancy versions unless you're into that sort of thing. I am and there are a great many enhancements that make them look like the fanciest modern games, and with good reason. Interestingly enough, both games, Morrowind and Oblivion, use the Gamebryo Engine.

The lore is there if you want it. And it's good lore. It contains all the fantasy stables such as Dwarves (the Dwermer, a mechanically skilled class of elves that experimented with the heart of a god in an attempt to become immortal and all disappeared, turning into dust, except for one who was not in the plane at the time, and resides as a half-man, half-machine diseased with the incurable corpus in the corprusarium of the Telvanni mushroom tower of Tel Fry) the Mer (Altmer, Bosmer, and Dunmer, - High, Wood, and Dark elves respectively) Orcs (Orismer, corrupted elves) and Men (Bretons, Nords, and Imperials). It has magic, enchantment and monsters. And it even has the Aedrea and Daedra (obstinately Angels and Demons, but more complicated than that. Let us just say that mighty extra-dimensional powers must set your pants on fire, because they are lying liars, the lot of them).

It's good lore because it contains a bunch of the standard tropes, and yet each is changed and unique enough to be genuinely interesting. It is also awesome that all the lore comes to you from independent agents in the game (people, authors, etc.) Each of whom have their own agenda, so the truth is often left open to interpretation. (i.e. There is a series of books on the Dwermer by an author who only desired fame, so he just rewrote other common fables and changed a few names so that he could sell more copies). It rewards paying attention to detail.

In the article he points out that Cyrodiil (the location covered in Oblivion) is a lot more "boring" (i.e. less visually interesting, more like medieval England) then Morrowind (an quarantined island in the Vardenfell province). As any fan of the game knows, that's because Cyrodiil, the seat of the empire, containing the capital city is a lot more western European then the isle of Morrowind home of the Dunmer (dark elves) where the heart of a god fell into the earth creating Red Mountain.Cyrodiil never had a Dwemer occupation in the past, so no Dwemer ruins. No repeated invasions, so all the architecture is Imperial, hence consistent and classical.

I'm not saying he's not correct, that a more alien environment can be more interesting then a more classical one, but their staying true to the lore is quite rewarding. I would feel a bit betrayed if they shoehorned in something just because they wanted to make it 'cool'. There is plenty of interesting stuff already. And to Oblivion's credit, the dungeons and their integration into the environment is very well done, much nicer than Morrowind's "Door in the side of a hill" technique.

One of the most entertaining parts of the game is how it models the leveling process. In the beginning when you are building your skills, every adventure is a challenge. Then, once you become more powerful, instead of exploring random dungeons, you're challenged to a greater degree by the quests, and the tasks given to you by quest givers. This is interesting because it closely mirrors the experience of old-school table-top play. The first levels are focused on survival, and the later levels completing quests that grow organically out of your earlier choices.

My own opinion is that Morrowind is a better game then Oblivion. It's more complex - it is not possible to complete every quest in a single play-through, because completely some quests set you at odds with other factions; whereas in Oblivion you can complete every quest line on a single play-through. In Morrowind, you can kill anyone you wish, even if that would prevent you from completing the game; whereas in Oblivion, killing a critical NPC just knocks them out for a bit (10 seconds). The cities are part of game world cells instead of interior cells in Morrowind, allowing spells like jump and levitate. The skill system is larger with Major and Minor skills, along with more skill divisions, making each character more unique versus Oblivion's system of "pick 7 skills". Also, I'm fairly certain it's a longer game. My play-though of the original oblivion clocked in at around 60 hours and I completed all the quest lines (mage/fighter/thief/darkbrotherhood). There were lots of places I left unexplored however, and I didn't complete any of the unoffical quest lines (Daedra temples, etc.) I'm at more playtime than that in Morrowind, and have yet to complete any quest line.

Regardless of these differences, both are excellent games and are worth your time. With Morrowind Graphics Extender and the various Oblivion mods, both games act and look like modern games containg hundreds of hours of play. Most importantly they contain that exploratory old school spirit.

I can't wait for Skyrim. :-)

On Space Structure and the Sandbox Style in Adventure Design

This is part two of a multi-part post discussing adventure design. The first post covering Line Structure is here. The purpose of the structure and style posts is to improve your game design.

The second structure of adventure design is space.

Space Structure or the "Sandbox Style"

So what is Space Structure?
It is a bounded abstract region containing places, items, and people of interest that has minimal restrictions of any kind on movement.
Six Flags! America's Theme Park. (never been)
A good example of a Space Structure is an amusement park:

It's pretty clear what we mean by a "Bounded abstract region". It's our physical structure of our space. It's also fairly clear what we mean by "places of interest". But what do we mean by "minimal restrictions of any kind on movement". Isn't the whole point of sandbox play freedom? Isn't one of it's strongest traits it's 'non-linear' nature?

Open unrestricted creativity is actually limiting. If there are no restrictions of any kind, then you will actually make it more difficult for your players to make decisions.  Having some restriction doesn't mean that freedom doesn't exist - the freedom is the player makes the choice based off their own feelings, priorities, and thoughts. It's not decided for them. Having freedom to make a choices doesn't mean they can do whatever they want when they want.

Second, even in a very open Space Structure there are going to be dozens of limitations of all kinds. In this amusement park example, there are paths from various areas to another with fences, trees and other annoying stuff standing between them. In a traditional hex-crawl, there are differing kinds of terrain, political boundaries, wandering monsters, and more. All of these exert various resistances and cause the movement of the players to be restricted. This is neither negative or positive but is a factor you should be aware of when designing these spaces

Each of these causes a restriction or resistance to player movement, making their choice one of the cost of travel. We know that in life, often the thing on the other side of a stupid big mountain is a crappy swamp valley, but since we're playing in a game, there should be some sort of awareness between the cost of traveling to an area, and the results thereof.

So what do we mean when we talk about "Bounded abstract regions" and "places of interest"? Well, lets look at some examples of different sandboxes.

First, the classic wilderness hex map:
This is the traditional fantasy example of the sandbox. This example contains a variety of encounters keyed to the hexes, a selection of terrain, resources for players and all the elements of a campaign. This particular picture was taken from an excellent article from the Welsh Piper. It is related to an article from Microlite20. Please use these resources to discover how to go about producing a map in this style. Note this also works in an identical manner for a science fiction game, allowing you to produce star charts with a variety of planets available for the players to visit. The skin of the environment is irrelevant. The difference between those two options (terrain and star system) is too minimal to note. Both are representations of physical lands the players travel through, marked with sites where encounters or adventures take place.

Be sure to consider the scale of the sandboxes also. Instead of each of those sites being Line Structure: Traditional Mode they could be miniature sandboxes of their own.

So what other kinds of sandboxes are there?

The big party/ urban city:
In this the bounded abstract region is a setting instead of terrain. I doubt there are modifiers in game for hardwood floors versus carpet. And the places of interest are people who are attending the party. The important factors are that the players may choose to approach anyone they wish and start a conversation.

This also works for city environments. Why use the Space Structure for a city instead of Line Structure: Menu Mode? Well, one good reason would be that you intend on the city being the site of adventures. If the players are never going to have an encounter in the city, then just design it as a menu. If however you lay out a map for the players of the city, expect them to treat it as any other sandbox. They will spend table time walking around and poking into things. If you don't have a peasant there to have them kill rats in her basement, then they might very well get bored.

The signal you send when you create the sandbox is "Explore here".

 The Open Plot sandbox:
One of the key features of sandbox play is it's non-linear aspect. This works equally as well for an evenings adventure when the bounded abstract region remains abstract and the places of interest have to do with the character backgrounds. If you want to get technical, this is our first explicit example of a combined style. (The implicit example was the classic wilderness hex map, with each encounter possibly being of a different style).





This combines a three step scene flowchart with a scene based sandbox. How does this work?

Well, the very first thing after everyone gets settled, is the GM handles the scene with Mr. Johnson giving the players their job for the night. Then, the players, each representing real people with their own bills, problems, issues and needs sets out in whatever order they wish to accomplish as many as their goals while also taking the time necessary to prepare for the mission. They may take on these scenes in any order, and may leave out any of them that they wish. Then, once everyone is prepared they go do the job. 

The Player Preparation box is the sandbox - it's an extremely player driven selection of scenes that they may approach in any order.

Disscussion

As we've looked at the Space Structure we've seen the start of a continuing trend that none of these stand on their own.

It is trivial to realize that the Space Structure sandbox can contain Linear Structure styles as dungeons and adventure sites.

Can a Linear Structure contain a Space Structure

Absolutely. In this case the bounded abstract region is the dungeon and the places of interest are the various monster groups, colonies, and adventure zones within the dungeon.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of Space Structure? The most important factor in any space style is player motivation. Because there is no overarching drive forward such as in Linear Structure, it is important that the characters have a clear list of motivations and interrelationships in order to have some metric for weighing decisions within the sandbox - even if those goals are as simple as "get rich".

If your players have no interest in the sandbox or are uncomfortable with the amount of freedom they are given then they may wander aimlessly around your setting looking for the next train (i.e. those that run on railroads). Working with them to find goals and other ways to make the players agents is a good way to combat this situation. The sandbox is about openness, non-linearity, and player driven game play, so you may spend some time listening to your players during character creation about what the would like their goals to be, and in play when they attempt to accomplish various goals. Adopt a permissive attitude and you will see empowered players. Don't answer "no", answer "yes, with this cost".

Space Structure Pros: Players given ultimate agency. Easy to prepare for a lot of sessions ahead of time. Non-linear structure is organic, doesn't feel 'forced'.

Space Structure Cons: Lots of pitfalls in running the game. If the players lack goals, they may become bored. possibility for a lot of wasted time at the table for an unfocused group.

What about more complex structures? What about a world outside of the actions that the players take? We'll look at that next time on Time Structure or "Schedule Style"

On Victory

Today I'm going to talk about danger.

If you follow the dice, and put your hands in fate, without cheating or fudging or saying "I didn't really want that to happen to them",  then what happens really matters. It isn't a question of what you decided to have happen, it's an experience of finding out what did happen and having that mean something; because you put some serious time into Ytol the Elementalist, and if he dies, then that investment is gone.

On to our story:

BEHOLD, BAENTHRESIR MOUNTAIN And the Dwarven hold DWEGYRHALL!


Within these depths lie death!

So we were exploring the crypts, and found strange deciduous leaves near a doorway marked on my map here:
Click to enlarge
Examining closely there were two small tunnels near the ceiling. Climbing up, we traversed those tunnels to discover a giant tree within a huge chamber within the dungeon.

In this room stood a Frost Giant, the bane of the ice trolls we had been slaughtering. We talk to him a bit, and he likes us at first, because of our slaughter of the trolls. But we begin to notice that he speaks as though his grasp of sanity is tenuous. Being a Neutral Evil Grey Dwarf, and fearless due to my clan standing between under-dark horrors and my surface brothers, I edge close to the side of the room and throw my darts at his head because he's crazy.

I am a level 1 dwarf elementalist. We also have a level 1 "elven" Ranger, and a level 1 gnome Cleric/Thief.

A frost giant has 15 hit dice (plus the 20 hitpoint kicker in hackmaster) and hits our best armor class (the thief with his gnome bonus versus giants) on a roll of 3 or better. How much damage do my darts do against giant size creatures?

1 point of damage.

In retrospect, this was not one of my most brilliant moments.

All of our dice (DM included) are rolled in the open. The story is that 4 fumbles from the giant later, and 12 called shots to the head later (Darts have a 3/1 ROF), I finally got my first dart critical. Rolling for severity, I burn 10 points of honor to add my honor die (d3) to the severity roll (d8). The giants head is unarmored (+10) I'm attacking from the rear (+2) and my base severity level is -5. In Hackmaster if you roll a maximum on a die, it explodes and you roll it again.

I toss the dice with baited breath and:




That, for those of you keeping track at home, is an 8 and a 3, *both* of which I got to re-roll.

BOOM! (Sound of frost giant skull shattering)
That's my pack goat, Winter, behind me in the corner. Yes we pulled him up into the tunnel. Winter had this to say about it. "Maaahhh"

One "Skull crushed" critical severity 23 roll later, we had a dead frost giant and more treasure then we could carry.

But if I hadn't scored that critical, we'd be dead. Finished for reals. Kaput. If I had even rolled one lower on my severity, there is a possibility he still could have killed us, for we were but first level, and he was a mighty titan of frost.

Today we won. We won a victory that was real. One that mattered.

Tonight we sup on the riches of plunder.

How was your game this weekend?

On Line Structure and the Flowchart Style in Adventure Design

This is a continuation of my multi-part post discussing adventure design.

The purpose of the structure and style posts is to improve your game design

The first structure of adventure design is the line.  

Linear Structure or the "Flowchart Style".
Linear does not mean that there is only one path. It means options are limited in each scene as in a flowchart. Like in a flowchart a Linear Structure adventure with only one path can exist (Railroad Mode), but ones with many different paths and choices also exist (Jaquays Mode coined by the Alexandrian here)

So what is Linear Structure?
It is a structure made up of containers representing a place or scene from which there are limited but very specific paths or choices leading to the next place or scene. 
This can be a dungeon or a collection of scenes.

Since we're talking about adventure design in this post, we're going to avoid the specifics of the encounters that take place within these containers and instead focus on structure. We are going to examine several modes, or ways this structure may be used. In each one we'll discuss some examples of different types and the pros and cons of each. These modes are Railroad Mode, Traditional Mode, Jaquays Mode, and Menu Mode.

Railroad Mode:
Railroad Mode has few to no options within the given containers.

Players have little choice in what happens next, basically reduced to moving forward or sitting down and pouting. Even though this mode is traditionally reviled, it is not necessarily bad.

 First, you are guaranteed that the players will see every container. This means no wasted work; you're not spending your time on something the players never see.

Second, just because they have no option on where they are going next does not mean the players have no choices - what happens within the container may affect many many things besides what happens next (e.g. a final reward, the character's stats, or in-game knowledge).

It is important to note that this mode is often heavily disguised. WotC is exceptionally good at this.
This:
is just as much Linear Structure: Railroad Mode, as this:
which is just the same as this:
Giving players a side passage that they can travel down and either choose or not choose to kill more of a monster does not provide a significant choice. The container is the one that holds the whole area - you're still being led down a very specific path to the next place.

So when is Linear Structure: Railroad Mode useful?

The chase scene - running out a pre-planned pursuit can be an exciting thing for both players and DM's alike and lends itself well to the Railroad Mode.

Chase Example
The first step is to create the impetus for the chase. Let's say your players are on a conveyance that is being chased by robbers. As in all Railroad Mode situations the players have the option to stop and not engage in the mode (e.g. "We pull over and fight them") but it is trivial to provide some motivation not to stop (e.g. put them on an actual railroad, make the cargo 'time-senstive', have there be a bridge or pass ahead that will allow them to escape what they cannot fight).

Then to use the Railroad Mode, as with any Linear Structure entry, lets use a flowchart:
1. Bandits appear, chase begins. Players have to defend for three rounds until reaching 2.
2. The path splits - they players may take the high road or the low road.
2a. The high road - Rocks fall! Defend from low-road bandits.
2b. The low road - Path is out, jump it! Defend from high-road bandits.
3. Path rejoins, five more rounds of fighting.
4. Obstacle! Pilgrims and innocents are carrying glass panes across the path!
5. You reached the pass. Victory!

The five room dungeon. This is simply the dungeon version of a traditional fictional structure. This is a very satisfying structure to use because it is a complete fictional arc and can often be completed in one session. The five rooms are:
Room 1: Introduction (Entrance & Guardian)
Room 2: Rising action (Puzzle or Challenge)
Room 3: Red Herring or trick
Room 4: Climax
Room 5: Denouement or Plot twist.

5 Room Dungeon Example
Here is an example of a 5 room dungeon, killing Coldscale the White Dragon (apologizes to Randy Maxwell)
1. Players are paid by the townspeople to kill Coldscale the White Dragon.
2. On the way to the lair the players fight two frost giants.
3. In the lair they see a sleeping white dragon on treasure. The dragon is actually a corpse and the treasure is illusionary
4. Coldscale is near and watches the party enter from a hidden ledge above. He attacks while they are distacted.
5. Denouement and distributing treasure OR they get back to town and someone else has taken credit for their kill.

Railroad Mode Pros: It can lead to exciting adventures because you know where the players are going to be, you can control pacing very well with such an adventure, you don't waste any effort.
Railroad Mode Cons: It removes all player agency, done poorly it's super annoying, and it is a trademark of people who want to author a story and fill it with DMPC's. (Cause seriously, f&%k you and your stupid DMPC.)


Traditional Mode:
In this mode there is a starting container and an ending container and many options in between. It is not Railroad Mode because there may be more then one separate and significantly different paths to the end and it is not Jaquays Mode because of its single entrance and single exit.

It is Traditional Mode because of its single explicit directional focus.

The traditional dungeon models the clearest and simplist example of this mode. Take the starting dungeon examples in the DMG and you'll see that that is the start of your traditional flowchart. One entrance to the area, but many pathways once inside. You simply follow the flowchart generator, er, I mean the random dungeon generation tables all the way to the final boss room and you have a Linear Structure: Traditional Mode style adventure.

How does this type of of dungeon work in a scene based game?
Traditional Mode Example
Let's use a private detective story as our game model for our scene based example.

1. Girl enters office. She tells sob story of dead husband. She describes a mean fight with his business partner, and that he borrowed money from the mob.
2. The players have three choices. Tail the girl, talk to the partner or talk to the mob.
2a. Encounter with partner. Claims they had a fight because he felt entitled to some of the money the husband came into. Points the players in the direction of the money
2b. Talk to mob. They tell the players that the husband paid all his money back because he won big. Mentions that the girl is having an affair on the husband and he planned to leave her. Point the players to both the money and the boyfriend.
2c. Follow girl, see her meet up with the boyfriend.
3a. Find the money
3b. Find the boyfriend.
4. Climax. Boyfriend goes to money.
5a. Let money, boyfriend, and girlfriend go.
5b. Kill/Imprison boyfriend, take money.
6. End

Traditional mode Pros: More player agency, yet still able to have a directed story. drama and pacing is still tight, yet retains traditional momentum.
Traditional mode Cons: Weaksauce approach, need to plan for all reasonable actions, more difficult for players to see the path in a scene based game and more disruptive if they try to leave the path. Still DM driven, not player driven.

Hopefully she's finally happy
Jaquays Mode:
This is the most open mode available. At its most extreme it resembles the Space Structure. The key components of this third mode are multiple starting and ending positions as well as frequent interconnections between paths.

Good examples of this type are Gygax's classic module Keep on the Borderlands, Caverns of Thracia by the eponymous Mr. Jaquays, or in a scene based game the structure of a Dogs in the Vineyard town (Mormons, I know).

The Dungeons in the first two examples have multiple entrances, many end points and numerous connections between the different sections.

In Dogs, you have a selection of scenes in which to start each town (e.g. talk to the people, talk to the stupid guy in charge who's always useless, etc.). The next one will lead you to a different selections. Occasionally you'll backtrack, or you'll have a scene caused by your previous one. This continues until a final decsion of what to do is made by the players, at which point several endings are possible.

Jaquays Mode Pros: Players have maximum agency within certain well defined limits (the dungeon, the town), and the game is primarily driven by the players and their choices.
Jaquays Mode Cons: A substantial portion of your labor will not be seen or have to be reused later. Also although the players have a lot of control, the next city or dungeon has to be their destination.

Menu Mode:
There is a final mode of Linear Structure that must be considered. That is Menu Mode.

This mode is very useful for areas the players may spend a lot of time in, but that contains little of novel interest (e.g. the city over a megadungeon or purchasing goods during character creation). In this mode there is a list of containers, each with a series of options. This mode is very useful for saving time and keeping the focus of the game on the chosen focus of the game (i.e. we're here to kick orc ass and take names, not act out the shopping network). Here is an example of Menu Mode applied to the town of a megadungeon.

  • Clan
    • sell goods (consignment)
    • research spells
    • repair gear
    • request assistance
    • get rumors
  • Inn/Bar
    • rest
    • recruit henchmen
    • rest
  • Store
    • purchase/sell goods (on the spot)
  • Civic
    • locate sage
    • receive quests


So how does Linear Structure help you out as a DM? Several ways. Often being explicit about these structures can make it easier to lay adventures out and let you see where you might have problems. Also, using these structures are fast. The limited paths and outcomes can help you during each container play up the options the PC's have and it can help keep the PC's focused on what's important instead of getting distracted. The downsides of Linear Structure is that even in the best cases it limits player agency in some way, sometimes invisibly (i.e. you can't walk through dungeon walls) and sometimes not (i.e. "Get in the damn car already or there won't be an adventure")

Next time: The Space Structure or "Sandbox Style"

On True Grit in Pacing and Story Development

I saw True Grit in the theater the other day. It is an excellent film by excellent filmmakers who love film. The Cohen brothers are in my opinion one of the rapidly dwindling numbers of people who both know how to make films, and still love to do so.  It shows in every frame.

The thing that struck me about it is when Mattie was in town asking about the various badge men to go after the man that killed her father. I thought, any of those could be PC's, which one would it be? (I am regrettable unfamiliar with the source material, so I had no clue it would have been one of them over another). They then began (bit by bit) to introduce the character that the story would eventually be about. The Cohen brothers make very lean films, and every shot builds towards an eventual goal. They don't waste a lot of screen time on someone who's not a main character or one who's arc won't come to fruition.

In role playing we don't have that luxury. Now this is an advantage - it's a game and not knowing who's going to live or die is what provides some of the excitement. However, you do have people playing characters and you do have a certain length of spotlight time during your game that you can set aside for those characters. And because you can't know the future the amount of story threads and screen time may be disproportionate to the eventual fate of a character. This is less of an issue in a one-shot, but comes up again and again in campaign.

If you're playing the same character for six months, ten months, fifteen months, or even years and years, plot thread after plot thread may get tied into his life. And when they randomly die, due to bad decisions, or just rotten luck, how to pick up all those threads and make them meaningful? How to not waste that screen time?

I'm interested in opinions on the subject, but I have my own ideas. My first goal, lately, is to make the story arc of any one individual less important. What's important is the sandbox. The tales of who lives, wins, loses, or dies is where the drama comes from. How many people have actually experienced a total party kill? Is there anyway to turn that focus time lost on death into an advantage of the medium? I'll be thinking on it and will post some thoughts at some point, I'm interested in what you're thinking.
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