Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Module-Based RPG Adventure Design in CRPGs

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 30, 2011

Gonna take a short break in my discussion of skill-based vs. class-based RPG design systems to talk about something of an “ah-hah” moment I had recently.

This isn’t something new or surprising to anybody, but I thought it was an interesting parallel. I’ve found myself enjoying Skyrim a bit more than I enjoyed Oblivion, and I think it is no doubt due to the much more cohesive adventures, Fallout 3 style, rather than the more random dungeons of the previous titles. Though there seems to be a bit of the latter there, too.  A nice mix.

The different quests have radically different flavors, probably due to the different designers who created them. Most stand alone, though some do tie in to the overall plot thread.  This has kind of been the style since Baldur’s Gate, which to me marked the first of the narrative-heavy sub-quest designs in CRPGs, although it was still pretty much an evolutionary rather than revolutionary step with that game.

But the organizing of these adventure “modules” into one game reminded me of something else… which some of you old dice-and-paper gamers have probably already figured out by the way I’ve worded it. Once upon a time in the early days of the dice-and-paper RPG era, a company called Judges’ Guild had the bright idea of creating packaged adventure “modules” for game masters for Dungeons & Dragons. At first, TSR was happy to give them free license to do so, because the point of the system was to let players and game masters create their own adventures.  However, the idea of canned adventures – which a game master could pick and choose from and customize and fit within their own campaign – filled a need.

I took a little bit of that “feel” and apply it to Frayed Knights. Each “dungeon” had a different flavor and mostly stands on its own, though they are not quite as narrative heavy as Bioware’s games or the most recent Bethesda offerings. And of course, I was the only designer (although the physical environments were made by three different people),  so there’s probably a bit more of a cohesive feel in the adventure design. Or not, as I found my own techniques and style evolving and changing as I played.

Anyway, going back to the pen-and-paper module idea… they were all (mainly) stand-alone adventures, though many “series” of modules were designed to link together into larger campaign (but could easily me adapted to work as a stand-alone adventure). A game master’s campaign using modules from different authors would keep players on their toes, as each module might have a different feel. In fact, two play-throughs of the same module run by two different dungeon masters could have radically different feel from each other.

Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Skyrim really have a feel of being a “grab-bag” of semi-isolated adventures to choose from. Again, this is hardly unique… we were being sent out on random sub-quests since at least the days of Akilabeth: World of Doom (AKA “Ultima 0“).  The only real difference is the scale of both the surrounding narrative / quest structure, and the extremes of the optional nature of such quests. The latter was a hallmark of the earliest Elder Scrolls games, where players might only be vaguely aware of some kind of structured quest series leading to any kind of “conclusion.” Hey, I worked hard to “win” Daggerfall, dang it, and I remember how hard and seemingly useless it was to try and follow the storyline. It felt like an afterthought for both the designers and players, though the bizarro alternate-dimension dungeons of the endgame were pretty cool back in the day. I remember running and fighting alone a giant sword surrounded by a starfield skybox….

Once upon a time, there was a text-based CRPG game system called, I think, Eamon, in which you could have the same character play multiple modules. And of course, we’ve had other RPGs follow suit with user-created modules, from Bard’s Tale Construction Set (could you carry characters over from one adventure to another in that one), the Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures, and the Neverwinter Nights series.

My minor little “ah-hah” was just rediscovering that feeling I’d had playing pen-and-paper campaigns using modules (as both player and game-master) and noting that similarity. I don’t know if designers at Bethesda actively recognized that link from RPG heritage as they were making the game, or if it was just driven by necessity to come full-circle. Whichever the case, it’s interesting to think that they are really just carrying on the pen-and-paper tradition in their own way.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Rubes said,

    I believe the old Wizardry games also let you carry over your characters to their new games, IIRC. Not quite the same as user-created modules, though.

  • Gareth said,

    I rather like the idea of releasing an RPG as a sort of ‘adventure base’, with regular new adventure modules released as DLC or expansions. Essentially what NWN could have been, if the devs had continued to support it with regular releases.

    I think the return on investment in that model is too low AAA devs. Once the initial hype for your game dies down, it’s probably a better expenditure of time just working on the next title. But for an indie, it could be a sustainable model.

  • Dan said,

    Although I’ve yet to actually finish a game I started working on, I always thought it would be a cool idea to make the game’s story as modular as possible, as you mentioned. I’ve always thought that if enough modules could be made and constructed in such a manner that not only could a world be procedurally generated, a story could too.

    Something that Ian Bogost mentioned in his book Unit Operations is that analyzing the individual aspects in games might be the same as looking at them from the object-oriented programming model (i.e. everything is a unit of something else). I’ve been considering ways to break down a story into its smallest units and then trying to think of ways a player might able to mix and match them per playthrough.

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