Monday, October 14, 2013

Thinking Out Loud Some More - Adventure Design

I had a draft of the first issue of Army Ants Adventure Journal about 3/4 written, but decided I didn't really like the direction it was going, and have been going back and forth about the direction for the development of the game going forward.

See... this is the thing. There are three basic audiences to which I am marketing my games:

1. People who like reading and collecting RPGs, even though they rarely (if ever) have a chance to play them. (I'd estimate 40% of the people who have purchased my game fall into this category).
2. People who want to support and collect RPGs, even if they never even find time to read many of the RPGs they are supporting. (I'd estimate another 40% of the people fall here).
3. People who plan to actually play the durned thing! (I'd estimate this at less than 20% of the people who purchased my game).

PLEASE don't take this as a criticism, regardless of which category you fall into. It's not. It's a reality of the situation. For the record, I fall into the first two categories almost exclusively for my own (limited) RPG purchases. I have little time to play, and what time I have gets devoted to developing my own brand. This applies to most of my hobby purchases - I might take a year to put together a LEGO set I get for Christmas, and a new video game could sit in a drawer for 6 months before I get around to actually trying the thing (I purchased the first Force Unleashed game at a garage sale in June, and I have yet to crack it open and try it out).

So, how do I do something about this? How do I encourage people to spend more time in my imaginary worlds? People with degrees and tons of experience in marketing and promotion are attempting to solve the same problems in the world of RPGs, and are having limited success, so I won't presume to have better answers. However, here are a few things that I have to consider...

1. Since the time people DO have is mostly on their own, and time with an actual gaming group is exceedingly valuable, it behooves me to make that time between reader and book as valuable as I can make it. This means that the books themselves should be entertaining.
2. As an even better solution, you should be able to play the game by yourself. I've read some solo scenarios (and I've even written one myself), and I think there's some fun to be had here. Ideally, the solo adventures are constructed in such a way that adapting to traditional group play is seamless.
3. I want to make sure that the experience of gaming in the world of MTDAA contains some parallels to the comic. The game should enrich your reading of the comics, and the comics should enrich your experience with the game. In theory, there's a distinct overlap between the two.

The problem I have had with solo adventuring is that is tends to be inherently limited. You don't have the open game world and rich character growth in solo gaming that you do with collaborative play. You almost need some form of built-in AI in the game itself in order to create an organic experience of the character interacting with the game world.

One way to do this is through the idea of factions, which I plan to steal from MMORPGs... in fact, there are probably several things that I should consider stealing from MMORPGs... for example, the environment (and I'm thinking of a megadungeon sort of thing right now - the Termite Mound), has several factions of termites within. You have faction ratings with each of the three factions; as you interact positively with one faction, you could increase your ability to leverage that into getting things from them. Your negative faction means that you have been identified as a threat, and the faction would mobilize to find you.

The other consideration is building the story itself as a 'lost story' of the MTDAA comics world. By and large, the most popular character is the enigmatic commando Zak. He never speaks, so this could be a problem in terms of interactions with others. I'd have to find some way for him to interact with others, or for a surrogate to do this for him... but I think that a solo mission into a massive termite mound that develops a mega-dungeon over time would be a fun way to approach this. The adventures would have to be relatively open-ended (not quite as formalized as the standard 'choose your own adventure' paths - 'if you pull your weapon go to 14, if you try to talk to the perp, go to 27'). Each encounter has several paths it could travel down, but your movement through the environment would be open-ended. The dungeon itself becomes a story path, but you aren't limited to only the 2-3 options that appear at the end of the entry.

Hmmm. I'll let this percolate for a bit and see what comes up...


  1. This is just ballpark customer feedback, but a Thing I only noticed about your game when I Actually started was how quickly insects die on the great field. Your background stories were a joy to read (especially what happened to the humans) but a lot of the book looked like a jumble of useless info until you play- and get mowed down by MG's (oh how I rave about 'To Take the Tower') I'm actually quite surprised about the quality of your leveling system- our group has seamlessly reached the 'pretty good at stuff' level, and going from the one hit=gibed level 0 ants we started as, you actually get a journey of ability and not just three different levels (meat sack, average,bad-ass unstoppable) for players to pick up and start off as to suit their needs (although this is achievable.) So thanks.

  2. At points where I was building the game and I felt tempted to allow characters to grow to great power, I reminded myself that they are bugs - they can only get so powerful! I'm glad that you're finding the level progression smooth.

  3. I find your thoughts on your audience thought-provoking. I'm in the first camp, with a foot in the second -- I almost never get to play RPGs (except occasionally online), but I enjoy reading them, and imagining how a campaign might play out. That and your comic was one of the first memorable sites I ever ran across back when I first got on the Internet, and I wanted to express my appreciation for what enjoyment your work has given me.

  4. Hey Mike,
    I am also sliding from 1 to 2 The Splintered Realm is still my favorite setting but I get to play less and less. 1 product and 1 company have approaches to Solo gaming you might want to check out. The company is Dark Horse Games who publish nothing but Solo adventures for Melee/Wizard/The Fantasy Trip they have the standard if you do this turn to page blah blah with the addition of keyword you can pick up through different actions which changes the outcome of certain encounters. There is a free set of rules and 2 adventures. The product which I have been using is The Ruins of the Undercity by Kublia Khan (maybe writing this on my desktop and its on my laptop) which is a much expanded random dungeon generator from the back of the 1st ed DMG. Come to think of it Avalon Games' Dark Dungeon mini-game is also a solo system with an actual story, I think I only got so far before someone made me a playtester a couple years back :). Hmmm, Ruins is an OSR generator but I bet I could use it for Mythweaver but which version?