Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: The Dungeon as Simulation

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 20, 2015

men-and-magicI kinda missed the earliest days of “0e” Dungeons & Dragons (meaning the original, pre-1st edition game) and similar role-playing games. By the time I got into D&D, 1st edition was The Thing, but it – and the community, such as it was back then – still contained vestiges of that old style of play that refused to completely fade. You couldn’t read through the original books and modules, or especially older copies of Dragon Magazine or Judges Guild supplements, without getting a feel for that older style of play.

It was that classic, original style that inspired the earliest computer role-playing games (CRPGs), on which our hobby is based today. Sure, things have changed a lot since then – CRPGs have become their own thing and followed their own path independent of their dice & paper cousins, although the two styles still continue to borrow ideas from each other.

What I’ve tried to do with the Frayed Knights series is to get in tune with the old style, and try to borrow – wherever feasible – the flavor and ideas of not only classic western-style computer RPGs, but the dice-and-paper gaming that inspired them. In fact, a lot of the character dialog in the game is inspired by “table talk” of players around a table joking around with each other as they play.

But delving into the old-school gaming culture reveals a lot of things that might seem strange or even alarming to modern players. Even the idea of “role-playing” is something of somewhat more modern origin. It was applied to the game style after-the-fact, and wasn’t perfectly appropriate (which is why I reject categorization of the genre based on how well they fit some definition of “role-playing”). One aspect that really struck home to me is the idea of the game being more of a simulation. This isn’t the same as it being fair or realistic – not even close. The dungeons in the old D&D games were in some ways pretty actively hostile towards the players in somewhat arbitrary ways.

But it was fun.

In the old days, this simulation was done with charts and random percentages and some standard rules defining the behavior of an adventuring area. It wasn’t something that required a ton of number-crunching. What made it “fair” was the consistency of the rules, I suppose. Navigating the environment was always half the battle. Doors would automatically close (and in some cases, re-lock or re-stick) a round or two after the players went through it. Slippery angled floors didn’t require coefficients of friction, exact angle, speed of crossing… you just required a Dexterity roll.

underworld_sm This was something I was kind of hand-waving around to someone when we were discussing the differences between Ultima Underword and its spiritual descendants, Oblivion and Skyrim. In the Elder Scrolls’ dungeons, there is dynamically generated content, and some pretty decent AI and physics. From a purely technical standpoint, it is far superior to what the 1992 game could provide, and theoretically a better “simulation.” But that’s not the focus, and that’s not the feel.

Just like how the simple charts and tables in D&D provided some simulation-esque feel to the dungeons, the simple rules and calculations in Underworld worked with the dungeon design to provide some semblance of a complete, self-contained world with its own ecology and purpose. You had the warring factions, you had food and water sources, and you had navigational challenges. And – maybe most importantly of all – you had a sense of history. This wasn’t just some set of tiles stocked with bad guys for you to take down. You were (especially in the original Ultima Underworld) an interloper who was bringing about massive change to this world. You weren’t the first, but in a major way, you would be the last.

But you had to start by simply learning how to survive, which meant a lot more than simply optimizing your combat actions to beat your foes into a bloody pulp. The idea of a simulated dungeon means – in concept if not so much in practice – a lot of interaction, with those interactions being connected; having consequences. In the Ultima Underworld dungeons, you had to make allies. You had to negotiate. Otherwise, you’d be incapable of winning.

This is entirely possible with dynamic content – Minecraft has a little bit of that feeling, as well as some roguelikes (Dwarf Fortress & the like taking this to extremes). But really the only required “dynamic content” is a flexible system that can handle a wide range of interactions and have the world things respond accordingly. And of course, a design that really emphasizes and takes advantage of it. And that might be the most challenging part, in a world where game design is increasingly focused on hand-delivering cinematic ‘experiences’ to the player.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    Some of the best games, like Morrowind, were basically fantasy world simulators. Sure, there was the main quest, but it wasn’t in my face all the time, unlike in say, Bioware games. I enjoy simulation and exploration more than I enjoy combat (which is good in moderate amounts, but it becomes a chore and filler fast).

    I’d like to see something that’s essentially an RPG with strong economic elements. Well, less impersonal than Eve Online, but different regions should have different prices to the point where it is possible to make profit as a merchant. Bonus points for seasonal changes and price and demand (so it is possible to buy flour in autumn, then sell it in early spring for profit). Extra bonus points for economy actually influencing people’s lives, so that food shortages cause starvation and unrest.

    Logistics should also play a big part. There should be a way to get a cart, pack mules, non-combat followers, and set up camps, but it takes more food ans stuff to upkeep a group than a lone traveller. Sid Meiner’s Pirates was a bit like that, but the combat it had was too hard for me. In DnD I’m actually tempted to take a horse so I don’t have to walk, a cart to carry equipment for the expedition (and expeditions take a lot of supplies) and do smart things, like using tame animals to explore dungeons and check for traps. Also, have some guard dogs and hirelings (they cost like 3sp/day). Sadly, GMs tend to hate this kind of creativity and want to just get on with their story, keep things balanced, not ruin their campaign and stuff like that.

    I got bored by mass murder simulators where you kill thousands of enemies, 80% of which have a few coins and 10% of which have one piece of equipment that you can salvage (and usually something random, not the weapons and armour they’re using). Then you upgrade your own equipment to the next of about 10 tiers and sell the rest for about 5-10% of what it would cost to buy. It is just too unreal, unfair and unlike where money really comes from (production and distribution of goods and services). I realise this kind of economy is necessary in a game where you basically go on a killing rampage and steal people’s stuff, but it isn’t working for me.

    DnD is a big offender here. It says that unskilled labour is 1 sp/day, skilled 3 dp/day and highly skilled 1 dp/day, yet it has rules for PCs making 10*lvl gp/day for taking various jobs in cities. Heck, a land owner gets maybe 5k gp/year and a king maybe 5M gp/year, but with all of this in mind a caster will charge some ludicrous price for a spell, simple alchemist’s items cost 50 gp (that’s right, this is two months worth of income for said alchemist), simple items, like bandoliers and pouches cost 5 gp per piece of decent quality. The DnD economy is so broken and so player-centric that it’s a big turnoff for me and don’t even get me started on the loathsome wealth per level.

    As much as I like sandbox simulator RPGs, one problem with them is lack of direction. When I can do almost anything, I often don’t know what to do. And the story approach to RPGs works in that it keeps me slogging through combat on easy mode just to know what’s next. Heh, come to think of it, some woman who wrote stories for RPGs said she wouldn’t mind a “autoresolve combat” button, like in Betrayar at Krondor and was scolded and possibly fired for it.

    As for DnD, my favourite books are some adventure modules and the rare books on GMing. I’ve seen one describing how to create a fantasy word, including how weather and geology work in our world (and doing a better job at explaining it than a school thextbook). There was also a book on cities, how they form, that they usually have at least one abundant resource, how various factions form from economic interest and how they struggle. There were even some numbers for corruption, security, commerce and so on.

    So I wonder. Adequate simulation does take some genius, but is it really harder than hiring like a 100 people to make pretty graphics and quests, while completely neglecting multiple aspects of realism?

  • McTeddy said,

    Hey, Maklak. You may want to check out Uncharted Waters online. It’s based on a old KOEI sea-trading RPG and might be up your alley.

    Economy is THE major mechanic, and non-combat skills are equally important. My own character was a biologist and linguist. Half my time was spent translating languages for my friends in foreign ports. (The other half running from pirates)

    It’s a painfully slow, hard to learn, and very niche but it’s a great world and the community is fantastic. It was one of the few games I saw strangers working together and trading seafaring tales.

    Sorry for the derail Jay. Your mentions of simulation and Maklaks economy talk just reminded me of it. Amazing… amazing game.

  • Anon said,

    > Some of the best games, like Morrowind, were basically fantasy world simulators.

    True. They are what I like to call “databases with 3D rendering and an action ruleset”. Just take a look at the construction set and you see what I mean.
    This of course gives you lots of flexibility and people have proven so by making total conversions.

    But this flexibility indeed needs direction as there is not much value in being able to take each and every spoon from the table and sell it for 1 gp…

    So the usual triggers are used to advance the main plot or sidequests:
    – Reaching a certain location on the map
    – Handling items (taking or using them)
    – Killing NPCs or leading them to a certain location
    – Game time triggers

    Of course you can make it more complex by connecting those (having a certain item when in a certain location) but the basic triggers are almost always the same.

    In the Thief games, for example, every item can be made into a key or a lock. So simply “using” item 1 on item 2 can result in an action.

    The real creativity is what the designers do with the triggers and if the result is fun for the gamer.

    But sometimes you don’t even need triggers: My enjoyment from the Elder Scroll’s series comes mostly from the world exploration and the “microstories” I can find there.
    What they do is put stuff into the world and let the player create the “story” in his head.
    A famous example is finding the corpse of a wizard and some levitation or flying spells/potions beside him. Seems like he tested his spell/potion, took off but the effect lasted only a short time! So better keep that in mind when taking the potions…

    Another example would be a blood smear and round scratchmarks on the floor next to a cupboard. This would indicate that the cupboard works as a secret door and that somebody was either killed next to or dragged through it. Whatever the case: This cupboard is suspicious enough to be examined…

    If you manage to open the cupboard/secret door the game then may (or may not) trigger something behind it or advance the plot/quest.

    It needs perhaps a certain mindset to have fun with this and ignore the main plot of the game for a moment but that is exactly what happens when I play such an immersive title.

    I also tend to comb a specific location very thoroughly before I advance in the plot. I try to speak with every NPC, find hidden stuff etc.
    In some games this can result in too many sidequests (like the first city you visit in Baldur’s Gate II, for example) so there is a downside to it.

    A last point I want to make: Game physics.
    The more advanced games become the more game physics are added to games. Some of those are only used for effect (explosions or rag-doll bodies for example), while others enhance the immersion by letting the player construct small bridges or towers to reach another location.

    Sometimes, the effect wasn’t even expected by the designers! Warren Spector once told a story about Deus Ex where he discovered that players had used sticky mines to climb a wall! Normally you stick one of them onto a wall to damage a robot that passes by it but the system was so flexible that the players exploited this feature for their own purposes. Of course they had to be quick as the mines also explode when the player is in their vicinity too long…

    Hmmm… must play Deus Ex again! 😉

    > Heh, come to think of it, some woman who wrote stories for RPGs said she wouldn’t mind a “autoresolve combat” button, like in Betrayar at Krondor and was scolded and possibly fired for it.

    Some gamers can be quite nasty and also surprisingly conservative. Yet, everybody demands new stuff at the same time!

    As a non-commercial game designer I thankfully don’t have to care too much about them… 😉

  • Guest said,

    I think concepts like world-building, simulation, and emergent story are largely missing in modern RPGs, and game design in general.

    In games, relationships between the player and various factions of NPCs are pretty much binary (friendly/hostile) with no room for tweaking or change. This is boring after you’ve played a few games like this.

    Skyrim made me pretty sad for this reason. It’s like having a really nice Lamborghini.. and all you do with it is make routine trips to the grocery store. They could have done so many things with the engine to create a meaningful story experience, and they wasted it on throwing fireballs at thousands of skeletons over the course of a playthrough.

    Just think how much more interesting Skyrim would be, for example, if you could choose to affiliate with all the crazy undead Vikings scattered throughout the setting. You find an ancient object that allows for communication with the dead, or strike a bargain with a Dragon Priest.. et voila! The entire game is turned on its head, and you chose to do it. Maybe give the PC some glowy blue eyes to commemorate the occasion, have some angry skeletons follow him around. The assets are already there, it’d be a minimum of effort from a technical standpoint. And yet…

    What happens if you give the players the option to actually side with Alduin, or betray him at a clutch moment after leaving the powers that be in ruins? That playthrough would be dramatically different from playing the typical ‘vanilla’ storyline.. and in the grand scheme of things, probably not that much extra content would have to be added to accomodate it. Certainly not when you consider the overall mass of sheer story content in Skyrim. But instead we see lots of deliveryboy quests. Why? Because the game is designed to only play out a certain way, from the outset, and the rest is just flavor and filler.

    My point is that players are nowadays shoe-horned into a multiple choice identity (with very few choices) when it comes to the typical modern RPG. “Thief, Wizard, or Fighter?” “Good or Evil?” And that’s about it. Some of them give you small bonuses to stats for certain dialog options or niche playstyle choices (charismatic vs intimidating, etc), but it rarely goes beyond that.

    The ‘ending’ and ‘what happens after’ parts of the RPG are often given an extremely minimal treatment anyway (Mass Effect 3, anyone?), so why not mix up the story? But again and again, we find a linear approach to story-writing that only offers two or three fundamental choices across an entire game. Do you side with the Romans or the Vikings or neither? Are you the hero or the villain or the anti-hero? And that’s about it.

    My point is that this blindness is structural. It’s the same blindness that informs both the loss of characterization in the modern RPG, and the ‘combat to meaningful dialogue’ ratio which I’ve come to measure good RPGs by. Game design in RPGs is way too often done backwards: ‘Let’s tell the story of the siege of a castle in which the king dies and the hero rescues the king’s children!’ Every important event in this example is a ‘fixed point’, the outcome is predetermined as long as the player is not incompetent at the game mechanics (And even then he’ll just be loading from saves until he finally succeeds).

    Would it be much more effort to say ‘Let’s make a game about a castle siege where the player gets to determine major story events and the ultimate outcome?’ Not really, I don’t think. You’d have to include more simulation elements than a typical RPG (which only needs combat and treasure looting systems, really). You’d have to think of interesting possible story decisions and interactions between NPCs and the central conflict that the player could be involved in. But I don’t think this is ‘more’ effort, just a different kind of effort. The old GM kind of effort, the one involved in real world-building, not just thinking about sweet ways to hack the head from the next bloke’s shoulders.

    Until we can get away from our biases about what modern RPGs ‘should be’, I doubt we’ll see any real innovation in the genre.