Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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The High-Level Game: More Than Just Bigger and Badder

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 11, 2013

necropolisMany years ago, when the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons was still current and even kinda new, Necromancer Games created a revision of a Gary Gygax module called “Necropolis” (or, officially, “Gary Gygax’s Necropolis”). This was a massive revision and expansion to an original module created for his “Dangerous Journeys” game system, following his departure from TSR.

I have a soft place in my heart for that one, as Necromancer Games ran a contest for creating a module to take a party from a more traditional setting to the land of “Khemit” (an ancient Egyptian analog). I won, and they produced my module as a free PDF download (you can download it out here if you are interested in checking it out in all it’s 3rd edition D&D glory).

Now, Necropolis was described by many people (including, I believe, Gary Gygax himself) as being “Tomb of Horrors on steroids.” For those unfamiliar with Tomb of Horrors, it was an early module in D&D’s history (also written by Gygax) that had a reputation for massive character mortality rates.  What’s more, it did so with very little combat – it was all traps and puzzles. Oh, there were a couple of nasty fights, but even those were more in the form of puzzles. Trying to brute-force the final battle against a demi-lich (which didn’t exist until that module) would kill the party in a hurry.

Necropolis was a bit like that, but with more combat. And it had a dungeon the size (and lethality) of the Tomb of Horrors or larger inside almost every chapter.   Fun stuff, right?

My players were warned about the lethality levels of this dungeon in advance, so they came to it with a healthy dose of paranoia. (Is it paranoia if it really is out to get you?) It was a departure from my usual style of adventure, so they altered their approach appropriately. They succeeded – though only barely, in a couple of cases.  As the guy running the game, I learned a lot more than they did. I learned some lessons in game design – particularly for ‘advanced’ higher-level characters – that hadn’t quite sunk in by that time.

One of the faults with third edition Dungeons & Dragons and its descendents was accidental, in that it contradicts its own stated philosophy (as embodied by “Rule 0″ – The GM’s word always trumps the written rules). As with all editions of D&D, the actions of players are supposed to be relatively unbounded, with the rules working to map these actions into mechanics. But the rules system did such an extraordinary job of defining so many actions that it took on the feel of being a constrained system, like a computer game. The games seemed to portray a menu of available actions which players can choose from, rather than simply guidelines and rules for the most common actions. Again, this runs counter to the designer’s wishes, but it seemed to be a philosophy players adopted – and (to me) it got worse with 4th edition.

Going into the module, I reiterated my usual rules orientation: If it’s not forbidden by the rules (or logic / common sense), I allow it. I thought it pretty important given the challenge of this module, and this approach encourages players to think outside the box.

They did not disappoint. Neither did the module. It was a fascinating experience.

There are all kinds of things in Necropolis that can kill high-level characters very, very quickly. My players’ characters were at around 17th level at the time, so they were quite powerful, generally resilient to damage, and had access to a ton of magic and special abilities.  But the module was still plenty deadly.

The adventure did have its share of “bigger, badder” challenges – simply scaled-up encounters suitable for high-level characters. That’s fine. Sadly, in too many CRPGs, that’s all you get. If that’s all, the game feels like a treadmill. Your reward for gaining additional power is encountering more powerful enemies, forever. But many of the encounters in Necropolis took a different approach. They’d just kill ya. Or otherwise ruin the party’s day.  Many of these traps / puzzles were of the kind that have been complained about for decades by D&D fans.  Really nasty stuff that leads to… bu-bu-bu-BOOM… CERTAIN DEATH. Oooooh!

But here’s the thing. At least most of the time, these particular puzzles weren’t as unfair as they seem. Yes, against third-level characters, they’d have been horrible, arbitrary, and not much fun at all.

But at 17th level, things are different. First of all, “certain death” is often more of a painful setback than a game-ender.

Secondly, most of these situations were either telegraphed in advance, or the players were given a chance to respond before the consequences took effect. So as in the Labyrinth clip above, having one door randomly lead to certain death would be incredibly un-fun, but telegraphing the possible consequences in advance changes everything. Especially at 17th level.

At the high-level game, players have access to all kinds of powers that can change the game.  This was always by design, from the early days prior to even the first edition D&D rules. Does one door lead to certain death? Okay, well, the players should have all kinds of divination spells to learn what is behind each door. They can cast disintegrate spells on the doors (or the walls next to them) to bypass whatever might be on the doors themselves. They can teleport to where they want to go, bypassing the doors altogether.  They could animate an object or summon an extra-dimensional being to do the job for them.  Or they could try far more mundane tricks to figure things out. Simply tracking footprints to learn which door has almost all of the traffic could solve the problem.

That’s exactly how my players operated – with a combination of character abilities and their own personal problem-solving (and trying to see patterns everywhere to give them further clues).

I think that’s how the high-level game in RPGs should go, in general.  At high level, characters should be able to change the rules of the game, to make the unfair reasonable. In a fantasy game, maybe it’s using magic to warp reality in their favor. In a science fiction RPG, maybe it’s calling upon powerful (perhaps alien) technology to do the same. Or in a more mundane setting, it’s calling in contacts and favors and paying bribes to redefine the problem. ‘Cuz sometimes nuking the site from orbit is the only way to be sure.

RPGs at high level should demand that the players do the impossible.  Not just beat ever-tougher bad guys.

In my perfect world, CRPGs would be exactly the same way.  The only way to do this is to create a more open-ended design, and to make what some games would term bugs or exploits to be perfectly legitimate approaches to solving encounters.  Think less Dragon Age and more Minecraft.  It’s the approach Richard Garriott seemed to embrace back in the earlier days of creating the Ultima series.

What would a CRPG need to accomplish this?

#1 – A very strong, if simple rules system.

#2 – A very flexible quest / plot progression system that makes no assumptions about the manner in which quest goals are achieved. If the scepter is in deepest dungeon of the Fortress of Horrible Death, the quest to obtain it shouldn’t break if the player simply tunnels under the fortress and grabs the scepter in five minutes.

#3 – Lots of player-acquired high-level abilities that change or break the rules.

#4 – An open-ended approach to creating challenges, including a willingness to make them completely unfair against a “brute force” approach, and a willingness to let the player ‘cheat’ his way to victory. And no more making ‘boss monsters’ impervious to the most debilitating spells!

#5 – Some cool acknowledgement of the player’s clever actions periodically. Was the player able to obtain the Sword of Thumb-Smiting from Lord Gregor the Thumbless without killing poor Gregor over it? That’s quite an accomplishment no matter how it was achieved, and surprised NPCs should make a note of it.

It’s possible. It’s even been done, to one degree or another. But we could do much more. I feel this is an area where indies could really exceed in, because the plot-specific voice-overs and cut-scenes and unique animations that are the hallmark of mainstream, high-production-cost gaming are a poor match for the more open-ended world design this entails.


Filed Under: Design, Dice & Paper - Comments: 6 Comments to Read



  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Ah, now this is what I love about PnP gaming. As someone that doesn’t game in a group anymore and has to make do with CRPGs for my fix, I’d really love to see this work in computer games.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much it would work – or how. I think a LOT of it boils down to acknowledgement from the game system for your actions. Using a clever cheat or exploit to bypass an obstacle or achieve a goal often feels just like that – a cheat – unless someone is there to ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ over your cleverness.

    Tunneling under the dungeon to grab the scepter in a CRPG would feel pretty unsatisfying if the game just flipped a quest flag and you won. Ideally you’d want to see the scepter guardian or the quest giver absolutely go nuts over the fact you skipped all the hard work and dungeon delving to succeed. But this get pretty hard to do with procedural content or not accounting for all the possible ways a player can succeed. A generic, “Wow! You did that really easily!” isn’t near as satisfying as a, “You avoided all those mazes, monsters, and traps by just … digging under them? Why didn’t we think of that?!”

    And it is going to be especially difficult to have puzzles like that door puzzle in Labyrinth. It is a binary choice, and an interesting and fun logic puzzle – unless there is no consequence for death. Then it becomes a simple matter of save scumming and guessing. I love logic puzzles, and even I admit this is a temptation in CRPGs when I encounter something like this. Yes, I spend several minutes trying to figure it out, but there is always the devil on my shoulder making me impatient – why not guess, and reload if I’m wrong? That’ll solve it in seconds!

    There is also the every present siren call of the internet for solutions. Neither of these temptations or flaws exist when PnP gaming with a group. There is no saving, death always means something, it is fun to solve problems as a group, and you have witnesses to prevent you from cheating with the internet.

    Some CRPG puzzles even seem to assume you WILL cheat with the internet, and are impossibly hard. They’ll then make a glib statement about you going online for help if you DO solve it. When you are playing with a group and game master, the puzzles are always going to be tailored to the group and what the GM thinks are reasonably solvable based on the people who are gaming. You can’t really match that with a computer.

    Okay, now will some game developer prove me wrong?! Please?

  • Eric said,

    As usual, this is all because most RPG developers only have the time, budget or care to create combat-focused games. Combat itself takes so long to design, implement, balance and so on that any other options really are just secondary, even in games with strong non-combat components (Fallout, Arcanum). No developer is going to make non-combat choices that are each as individually compelling as combat itself – while it can be done, a large percentage of players are interested in fighting (not to mention the marketing department), and taking resources away from building “the thrill of combat” in order to work on more compelling speech options or tunneling skills isn’t exactly something most developers, even the most old-school, are going to do, unless they truly do have no obligations towards a large fanbase, publisher, or making money.

    That’s not to say these are all good reasons or that it’s forgivable to have bad gameplay options which don’t grow horizontally as the game goes on. On the contrary, I applaud developers who try to break out of the mold and do something interesting with universal rulesets – Fallout: New Vegas being one of the most recent games to still highlight it. But just like you can’t really replace a human DM with a computer, you can’t create infinite custom content and compelling gameplay out of something that probably doesn’t have too much mechanical potential in and of itself.

  • alanm said,

    Great post. I was musing on the old dnd divination-type spells the other day… surely a canny text parsing engine over a good data model could achieve something similar? Your post framed this thought well in a wider context.

  • Craig said,

    Good point. If my character has 100 HP more at level 10 but the monsters all have 100 HP more then what was the point of levelling?

    As for combat, I remember many arguments with NWN1 persistent world GMs over this very issue. One posted in a forum that if a thief sneaked past all the monsters and looted a chest then that was cheating – they were supposed to fight the monsters. They didn’t accept “but that’s what thieves do!” as an acceptable reason.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Argh, Craig, that response from the GMs you mention is something that really, really steams me! While exactly what I’m talking about, this was an issue with me back when I started playing D&D, too. And the thing is, I still feel that this was still “official” – Gary Gygax wrote extensively in the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide about this when he was defending the practice of rewarding experience points for gold pieces looted. In retrospect, this was an embryonic version of Quest XP, in as unbiased and straightforward a form as they could come up with. D&D has a reputation for body counts, but if you played it *right* in my mind (and, I believe, in the minds of Arneson & Gygax and that core ‘team’), kill XP was actually a secondary mechanism for advancement.

    Gygax in fact lamented in the late 2E days about how players had totally lost their skills in navigating challenges, because they *expected* to defeat all of the monsters in a level head-on (and before moving on to the next level). In the old days, much of the treasure was simply hidden or obtainable by solving puzzles or traps, and many of the monsters were too powerful to be taken by brute force – you had to resort to trickery, stealth, negotiation, bribery, or whatever else to win the day. The party who went for the brute force approach might get a few more XP, but they’d need it because they’d have lost half their party and needed to get a bunch of 1st level characters up to a reasonable level…

  • Xenovore said,

    I’m going to (yet again) point to the skill-based system as the solution. When playing a RPG, you should get experience for completing actions, not some arbitrary thing like kills or gold pieces. With a skill-based system, all possible actions are covered by their relevant skills. (Or if not, it’s typically easy to invent a new skill and add that in.) Then there can be a direct one-to-one correlation between player actions and rewarded experience.

    I also think skill-based systems allow players to think outside the box more often. E.g. if the first thing presented to me by the system is combat (D&D), then that is likely what I’m going to focus on. On the other hand, if a variety of skills is presented (Cyberpunk), I’m more likely to look for and see alternatives to combat.

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