Loops in RPG Adventure and Game Design
  • Loops in RPG Adventure and Game Design


    Video game designers use two terms worth understanding for all game and adventure designers, "atoms" and "loops". This time I'll talk about loops.


    "In Halo 1, there was maybe 30 seconds of fun that happened over and over and over and over again. And so, if you can get 30 seconds of fun, you can pretty much stretch that out to be an entire game." Jaime Griesemer

    A "loop" in a game is a repeated action that makes up a significant part of the game or adventure. A "core loop" is a part of the game repeated many times during play, or perhaps more than any other loop. Aiming and shooting a gun while dodging in a first-person shooter is a core loop. A loop is somewhat like the chorus of a song, or a repeated guitar or piano riff. Many games (especially video games) amount to little more than the core loop. If the core loop isn't enjoyable, the game fails.

    A vital question in any RPG campaign is the nature of action in the core loop. Is the core combat or some part of combat? Planning? Social interaction? Politics? Exploration? Something else? If a player doesn't enjoy the core loop, that player isn't likely to stick with the campaign.

    If the core loop in your RPG adventures is that players are on the lookout for traps, that's not likely to be enjoyable with most groups. For a hack and slash RPG the core loop is rushing the enemy and chopping them up in melee. I'd guess that's the most common core loop in fantasy RPGs. If your players are primarily interested in story, you probably don't want a core loop that is combat.

    A student in one of my Community Education courses said he started playing the online game World of Warcraft (WoW) as soon as it was released. Exploration isn't the core loop in WoW, but he explored EVERYWHERE. When he finally looked behind the last nook, he stopped playing and hasn't played since!

    For many groups, of course, a mixture of loops with none dominating can be the most entertaining. And for best pacing, you probably want to emphasize one loop or another from one session or adventure to the next. For example, one adventure might be combat heavy, another might be puzzle heavy, another might consist mostly of talking with and persuading creatures, and so forth.

    The most versatile RPG rules sets are going to be ones that quickly enable the GM to run a variety of loops, and adventures where one loop or another is emphasized. Most of us have read RPGs that are all about story, or all about combat (4e D&D?), or even all about politics. These are fine for people who want to focus on that kind of core loop, and not worthwhile for others.

    When you design an adventure, or choose a published adventure to run, you'll likely have more fun if you choose one with loops that your players are likely to enjoy. They still have to do whatever-it-is you require for success, but they'll enjoy the journey.

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 68 Comments
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      IMO in an RPG a mixture is good. Unfortunately the way that a lot of games are kind of relentlessly balanced it's all too easy for a character to be really good in one loop and bad in others. I really think saying "hey there are three pillars of the game, combat, social, and exploration" (to pick the ones from 5E as an example) and that you want to make sure that PCs have something semi-useful to do in all is a good design basis. Otherwise it's too easy for one of those to become a chore that some character has to take care of while the other people sit around being bored or, worse yet, being unremitting liabilities.
    1. pming's Avatar
      pming -
      Hiya!

      This mostly deals with computer games. From an adventure standpoint, as in table top rpg adventure, this mindset doesn't work. It makes for a very linear, repetitive and predictable game. For TTRPG's my tried and true method for adventure creation is what I'd call "site based". Start with an overall 'story' (NOT plot line...just a one or two line 'story'...ie, "Slavers have been increasingly bold in acquiring slaves all along the Woodside Trail! Whats worse is that nobody knows where, or who, the slaves are being sold too!"). Draw rough map. "Stock" the map with logical and interesting people, places and things. Refine map. Refine stocking of said map. Rinse and repeat. Now think about the bad guys would behave, think, act, use, exploit, etc the surroundings in pursuit of their overall story goal (re: "get slaves"). Detail more maps as needed. Detail all the 'other stuff' that DM's are supposed to do in order to cover odd situations and mundane situations (re: encounter charts, new monster or two, perhaps a new piece of equipment, notes about weather patterns, local 'flavour' such as customs, dress and mannerisms...all the stuff that really brings the setting to life, even if there's a chance the players will never encounter/need it).

      Done.

      If you design an adventure around a "loop", all you are doing is playing out the same thing over and over with slight variations. The suspension of disbelief will be weak. The adventure isn't "believable" if the players don't follow the script, so to speak. For example, take the Slavers thing above. If it was a 'loop style' adventure...the PC's are expected to be fighting the slavers, obviously. But what if they decide to 'take it down from the inside'? What if they try and infiltrate the slavers gang as slavers themselves? Well, if the adventure was designed around a 'loop' of, say, fights against the slavers and their cohorts, the DM is basically going to need to rewrite VAST swaths of the adventure. That adventure will then have much of it's page content rendered virtually useless...and the DM is still going to have to come up with all the stuff that was "glossed over" or ignored due to the fact it was written to be using a 'loop method'. If the adventure was written from a Site Based standpoint, however, the DM will have all the information about how, what, why, when and where the slavers are doing their thing...and what the slavers have to avoid in the area in order to be successful. PC's trying to infiltrate them would then be a relatively simple task for the DM as he has all the information he needs to do so. Minor additions can be adjudicated on the fly because the DM has all that "mundane info" that would not be present in a 'loop based' adventure.

      My 2¢ anyway.

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by pming View Post
      This mostly deals with computer games.
      It can make for a mighty boring and repetitive video game, too, if there aren't a useful variety of challenges and approaches. Even a good FPS will often have several different kinds of foes that feel different. The cited example HALO 1, had several different kinds of enemies (Covenant and Flood), a variety of vehicles (Human and Covenant), a variety of weapons (Human and Covenant), and some pretty big maps with unusual features. Sure you're shooting and dodging but still, there's variation and choices you need to make due to the fact that you can only carry two weapons.
    1. pming's Avatar
      pming -
      Hiya!

      @Jay Verkuilen, yes, exactly. For a video game this is fine, the "loop method" works...minor variations of the general 'thing'. Different weapons, enemies, etc...but it's still very much the same thing: combat and tactics. Toss in a little bit of percieved overland travel to break it up, maybe a cutscene or two, but it's still a loop of "fight, fight, fight, fight, end, roll credits". This works for a lot of video games...even MMO's where people do the same "boss fights" over and over to get specific rewards. If you know what you are going into, this isn't a problem, it's a feature. In a First Person Shooter, I'm expecting to be doing a lot of shooting bad guys.

      For table top RPG's, however, using the loop method just isn't going to work. Well, I suppose it could if everyone at the table is going for this sort of game. The only time I can remember doing this was when we played the Street Fighter RPG when if was first released. Then again...it's a TTRPG based on a video game, so...uh...yeah.

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Quote Originally Posted by pming View Post
      For table top RPG's, however, using the loop method just isn't going to work. Well, I suppose it could if everyone at the table is going for this sort of game. The only time I can remember doing this was when we played the Street Fighter RPG when if was first released. Then again...it's a TTRPG based on a video game, so...uh...yeah.

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
      I disagree that it does not work in RPGs you just have to make sure that everyone agrees what "loop" they want to play. If Players just want to play the "kill the Kobolds" loop and the DM wants to play the "travel through the wilderness" loop then you dont have to be a Computer programmer to realise why the Players are not so engaged with the game.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      I am also in the camp that this is a poor comparison for RPG's.

      A much better analogy is that of the cinema, utilizing 'scenes' and 'story arcs'. Successful RPG adventures have a ton in common with movies. The action/significant events tend to happen in scenes (busting into a room, interacting with an NPC, etc). Plot points are developed across the adventure path, usually resulting in a climactic resolution. There is usually minor conflict and resolution throughout the path. The difference in play styles also correlate well to movie types such as action, drama, etc.

      The list goes on and on, but there is a great deal of overlap. It is possible to make an RPG adventure that has nothing in common with movie style storytelling, but I think most of the successful adventures have a great deal of similarity.
    1. Lord_Blacksteel's Avatar
      Lord_Blacksteel -
      I loved Lew's work back in Dragon, and this is a nice "video game design 101" kind of nugget but this is a pointless, useless article on a tabletop gaming site. Here's one example why:

      Quote Originally Posted by Shasarak View Post
      I disagree that it does not work in RPGs you just have to make sure that everyone agrees what "loop" they want to play. If Players just want to play the "kill the Kobolds" loop and the DM wants to play the "travel through the wilderness" loop then you dont have to be a Computer programmer to realise why the Players are not so engaged with the game.
      How on earth does anyone assume that all of the players want to play the same thing? That they are looking for the same "loop"? You can go all the way back to "Strike Force" from 1988 to see a discussion about identifying different types of players and how a GM can include elements to keep their interest.

      In fact, I'd say the position presented in the above article is based on designing single-player videogames and is the WORST approach to take when working on your tabletop rules system or campaign with a DM and multiple players. D&D and every other long-lived RPG has not survived for 40 years on a 30 second loop.

      "For many groups, of course, a mixture of loops with none dominating can be the most entertaining. And for best pacing, you probably want to emphasize one loop or another from one session or adventure to the next. For example, one adventure might be combat heavy, another might be puzzle heavy, another might consist mostly of talking with and persuading creatures, and so forth."

      Is this supposed to be insightful? This is basic GM advice in every RPG I can think of for at least the last 25 years. "You might even considering adding in many of these loops in different parts of the same adventure" - look now I've really sent it over the top!

      "The most versatile RPG rules sets are going to be ones that quickly enable the GM to run a variety of loops, and adventures where one loop or another is emphasized. Most of us have read RPGs that are all about story, or all about combat (4e D&D?), or even all about politics. These are fine for people who want to focus on that kind of core loop, and not worthwhile for others."

      What is the point of this paragraph? To state the obvious? There is nothing in these words - it's just a cluster of generalities. At the very least how about some examples? Good and bad? An old game that did this well that's maybe fallen out of the spotlight? A new game that exemplifies this? Maybe some reasons why?

      The one example that was included is even debatable as while 4E did focus on combat it also brought us the skill challenge which was a pretty innovative way to handle the "group skill check" with specific mechanics and a framework to use it as an "encounter" instead of using yet another fight.

      This looks like an outline of an article waiting to be fleshed out rather than something one would publish. I would really expect more from someone with Lewis Pulsipher's track record.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      A student in one of my Community Education courses said he started playing the online game World of Warcraft (WoW) as soon as it was released. Exploration isn't the core loop in WoW, but he explored EVERYWHERE. When he finally looked behind the last nook, he stopped playing and hasn't played since!
      I have the same story. I got all the exploration banners/achievements, and then I was done. The Core Loop in WoW - which is often little more than a loop of repeating, well-timed, keystrokes - wasn't in and of itself enjoyable enough to sustain the game.

      As for loops in D&D, they look almost nothing like video game loops and - while tabletop games can learn a lot from video game design theory - loops are one area that can't be ported into tabletop games.

      The reason is that video games with their immediate feedback, reflex based mechanics, and their visual and auditory effects are visceral in a way that tabletop games never can be. Those 'loops' in a video game activate primal centers of the brain down in the Amygdala that in return pushes out adrenalin and thereby creates addictive pleasure and excitement. You can engage the adrenalin of a player of a table top game but not so much with a loop per se.

      To the extent that there is repeated satisfaction in a tabletop, it's often in character development which happens much less frequently than any ordinary loop. But cashing out and getting their XP is something players typically look forward to. The experience of leveling up is common to both tabletop RPGs and video games. One area that treasure as XP really hooked into back in the 1e AD&D days was the loot drop.

      But really, what tabletop RPGs bring isn't the loop, but that thing that I was looking for in World of Warcraft and which caused me to quit as soon as I could no longer find it - novelty.
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lord_Blacksteel View Post
      How on earth does anyone assume that all of the players want to play the same thing? That they are looking for the same "loop"? You can go all the way back to "Strike Force" from 1988 to see a discussion about identifying different types of players and how a GM can include elements to keep their interest.
      Yep, and yet here we are again. It is almost like some kind of.... loop.
    1. pming's Avatar
      pming -
      Hiya!

      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      I am also in the camp that this is a poor comparison for RPG's.

      A much better analogy is that of the cinema, utilizing 'scenes' and 'story arcs'. Successful RPG adventures have a ton in common with movies. The action/significant events tend to happen in scenes (busting into a room, interacting with an NPC, etc). Plot points are developed across the adventure path, usually resulting in a climactic resolution. There is usually minor conflict and resolution throughout the path. The difference in play styles also correlate well to movie types such as action, drama, etc.

      The list goes on and on, but there is a great deal of overlap. It is possible to make an RPG adventure that has nothing in common with movie style storytelling, but I think most of the successful adventures have a great deal of similarity.
      Ok, perhaps the computer RPG comparison is/was a bit weak...maybe. A bit.

      I think a cinema/movies comparison is equally as weak. The reason I say this, is that in a movie, the "movie" is written first. The characters are developed. The scenes are meticulously laid out. In a TTRPG, this isn't...or shouldn't be...the case. It's like when I hear people trying to justify a DM keeping PC's alive because otherwise the story "gets messed up". Arguments like "Han has to live because he saves Luke's bacon when Darth Vader has him in his sights in the death star trench"...not realizing that if Han died earlier on (or was otherwise 'not there'), then something else would have taken his place as the deus ex machina pawn. It would have been another x-wing pilot, or maybe a random piece of debris acts as a shield just in the nick of time, or something else...or Luke dies. In that case, the story doesn't "end", it would have just been completely different. (Or, in the case of a Star Wars D6 campaign we never got to start, I had a write up wherein Luke misses and the death star destroys yavin IV; the campaign premise is that the Rebels have been almost completely destroyed and it is up to the PC's to save the galaxy from the tyranny of the Empire; there is no Luke, there is no Han, there is no Leia).

      The point is that a movie (or novel, or virtually any other form of storytelling) is "pre-determined". With TTRPG's, the unique thing about them is that the story is NOT pre-determined. It unfolds naturally, organically, and yes, randomly, based on the players choices, the DM's reactions, and the results of the die rolls.

      If an adventure is written like a story, IMHO, it isn't a 'true' TTRPG adventure in the sense that the story is already determined and the only thing to find out is how the PC's make that story happen. If, however, an adventure is written the way I write them (my "site based" method), the overall story is the loose guideline, but the actual story is almost entierly decided on by the players choices, my reactions, and the results that come up on the dice.

      Lastly, imho, the most successful adventures are the ones that have been talked about and played and re-played over and over. The more "old skool" adventures fit this definition (and are closer to my site based style). You are always hearing DM's talking about how they played The Village of Homlet, The Forbidden City, Keep on the Borderlands, White Plume Mountain, etc...often how they played it again. I don't think I've ever heard of someone "re-playing" Out of the Abyss, The Savage Tide, Second Darkness, etc unless it was never finished in the first place. This attests that writing a TTRPG adventure with a more "loop based" or "movie-style" is FAR less effective at creating unique, lasting, and re-playable "site based" adventures of old.

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Shasarak View Post
      I disagree that it does not work in RPGs you just have to make sure that everyone agrees what "loop" they want to play. If Players just want to play the "kill the Kobolds" loop and the DM wants to play the "travel through the wilderness" loop then you dont have to be a Computer programmer to realise why the Players are not so engaged with the game.
      Some people play that way, and more power to them, but I think many players will get bored with "loop" design. I generally think a good game has some options that are a bit more simple than others for different tastes among players. Just looking at the fighter in 5E, for instance, the Champion archetype is much more of a "I hit it with my sword" kind of class while the Battlemaster and Eldritch Knight are both more fiddly. IMO this was a real weakness in 4E's original design because very few characters functioned well with the "I hit it with my sword" approach.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      A much better analogy is that of the cinema, utilizing 'scenes' and 'story arcs'. Successful RPG adventures have a ton in common with movies. The action/significant events tend to happen in scenes (busting into a room, interacting with an NPC, etc). Plot points are developed across the adventure path, usually resulting in a climactic resolution. There is usually minor conflict and resolution throughout the path. The difference in play styles also correlate well to movie types such as action, drama, etc.
      I'm wary of the RPGs as novels or movies comparison. Similar tools like tension and release in storytelling definitely fit in, as do plot arcs of some sort, but the problem with a novel or movie is that the authors have freedom to do what they want for the most part. If it makes sense in the story, a character might just die abruptly. Also, movies are often not as "ensemble cast" as an RPG will almost necessarily be, with no one clear protagonist. I'm not saying one can't learn from movies, but the thing about an RPG is that the players will contribute to the story and we need to expect and anticipate not only that they'll go in unexpected ways but that some of the best moments happen precisely when they do that. A collaboratively written TV or anthology (e.g., Thieves' World aka "D&D for authors") show might be a better analogy.
    1. GreyLord's Avatar
      GreyLord -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lord_Blacksteel View Post
      How on earth does anyone assume that all of the players want to play the same thing? That they are looking for the same "loop"? You can go all the way back to "Strike Force" from 1988 to see a discussion about identifying different types of players and how a GM can include elements to keep their interest.
      I actually think there were quite a number of RPG players that wanted to utilize this loop method, but not necessarily as you think.

      4e focused on combat, but let's be honest, combat was no 30 second loop in 4e most of the time. Thus, that's NOT the loop you are looking for.

      The loop 4e utilized started all the way back in 3e. That loop was the D20. It was the idea that people had fun rolling a 20 sided die. Thus, for almost every resolution except for damage, it was resolved via the 20 sided die.

      The loop therefore, was rolling a d20 and seeing what the pay off was, whether you had a success on the d20, or a failure. This loop was replicated not just for battle, but for saves, for skills, and for almost everything.

      That's the loop that is in D&D now.

      Previously, many of the D20 things were ruled by other ideas, such as percentile thief skills, d6 or d10 initiatiave, and various other subsystems cobbled together.

      5e has differented a little bit, but it still seems to keep that d20 loop to a great degree, probably because they found that this loop was a great success in the D&D system.

      Others have similar types of loops (where in FATE I think you roll the same type of dice for task resolution, or the old 1e and 2e warhammer where you roll the percentile dice for almost everything, or Shadowrun where you have dice pools for task resolution...etc...etc...etc).

      I think now days, you can see that the idea of the loop, where you have the task, you get to take action and then you see the reward which is success or failure, by doing the same exact action (d20 roll in D&D) is actually highly successful in D&D and many RPGs these days.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Quote Originally Posted by pming View Post
      Hiya!



      Ok, perhaps the computer RPG comparison is/was a bit weak...maybe. A bit.

      I think a cinema/movies comparison is equally as weak. The reason I say this, is that in a movie, the "movie" is written first. The characters are developed. The scenes are meticulously laid out. In a TTRPG, this isn't...or shouldn't be...the case. It's like when I hear people trying to justify a DM keeping PC's alive because otherwise the story "gets messed up". Arguments like "Han has to live because he saves Luke's bacon when Darth Vader has him in his sights in the death star trench"...not realizing that if Han died earlier on (or was otherwise 'not there'), then something else would have taken his place as the deus ex machina pawn. It would have been another x-wing pilot, or maybe a random piece of debris acts as a shield just in the nick of time, or something else...or Luke dies. In that case, the story doesn't "end", it would have just been completely different. (Or, in the case of a Star Wars D6 campaign we never got to start, I had a write up wherein Luke misses and the death star destroys yavin IV; the campaign premise is that the Rebels have been almost completely destroyed and it is up to the PC's to save the galaxy from the tyranny of the Empire; there is no Luke, there is no Han, there is no Leia).

      The point is that a movie (or novel, or virtually any other form of storytelling) is "pre-determined". With TTRPG's, the unique thing about them is that the story is NOT pre-determined. It unfolds naturally, organically, and yes, randomly, based on the players choices, the DM's reactions, and the results of the die rolls.

      If an adventure is written like a story, IMHO, it isn't a 'true' TTRPG adventure in the sense that the story is already determined and the only thing to find out is how the PC's make that story happen. If, however, an adventure is written the way I write them (my "site based" method), the overall story is the loose guideline, but the actual story is almost entierly decided on by the players choices, my reactions, and the results that come up on the dice.

      Lastly, imho, the most successful adventures are the ones that have been talked about and played and re-played over and over. The more "old skool" adventures fit this definition (and are closer to my site based style). You are always hearing DM's talking about how they played The Village of Homlet, The Forbidden City, Keep on the Borderlands, White Plume Mountain, etc...often how they played it again. I don't think I've ever heard of someone "re-playing" Out of the Abyss, The Savage Tide, Second Darkness, etc unless it was never finished in the first place. This attests that writing a TTRPG adventure with a more "loop based" or "movie-style" is FAR less effective at creating unique, lasting, and re-playable "site based" adventures of old.

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
      I agree and you probably actually read more into my post than I had intended. As with any analogy, some aspects line up and some don't. I would never suggest the results of a D&D adventure pre-determined or set-piece. The aspects of cinema I meant to correlate were 'scenes' and the 'plot development'. Clearly there are many other aspects that do not apply.

      But it does open up a larger adventure design concept 'what exactly is sandbox?' In theory, sandbox style DM's (of which I am one), often claim that characters can do anything, anywhere, anytime. While this is technically true, it is more often the case that the DM is following a rough adventure outline. Realistically, a DM will spend a great deal of time developing an adventure and will generally steer the party onto that path. This is akin to your 'site based', which is equivalent to my 'scene'.

      I actually think 'scene' is better term. For example, an adventure calls for the PC's to interact with some NPC, getting a vital piece of information, at a local Inn. As a DM, the important aspect is the transfer of the information, not being in the Inn. The PC's could ignore the Inn and meet the NPC on the road, in a prison, etc. They may even not meet the NPC at all, maybe he was killed as a result of their prior actions, but to keep the adventure moving forward, I would still need to get the piece of information to the PC's in some manner (unless I wanted to abandon the adventure path because they allowed the NPC to die, which could also be the case...i.e. sandbox). So...the aspect of the adventure that is important is the 'scene' where the PC's learn the piece of information, resulting in plot development.

      The details of the adventure may vary, but it is in the GM's best interest to draw upon material already prepared if possible (otherwise, why even bother preparing). Can groups totally ignore every adventure hook? Sure they can, but I would argue that is sort of a jerk move as, at a meta-game level, the players know the DM has spend time and effort preparing the adventure for them. Could the players veer off the planned adventure path requiring the DM to ad lib and create in the moment? Most definitely! This is a critical aspect of TTRPG's and is really what differentiates it from any other game.

      Personally, my perspective on adventure design has evolved over the past 38 years and the most significant development occurred in 1989 when I began to look at adventures in terms of 'scenes' (a concept I gleaned from Shadowrun, it was likely present in other systems prior to that).
    1. pming's Avatar
      pming -
      Hiya!

      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      I agree and you probably actually read more into my post than I had intended. As with any analogy, some aspects line up and some don't. I would never suggest the results of a D&D adventure pre-determined or set-piece. The aspects of cinema I meant to correlate were 'scenes' and the 'plot development'. Clearly there are many other aspects that do not apply.

      But it does open up a larger adventure design concept 'what exactly is sandbox?' In theory, sandbox style DM's (of which I am one), often claim that characters can do anything, anywhere, anytime. While this is technically true, it is more often the case that the DM is following a rough adventure outline. Realistically, a DM will spend a great deal of time developing an adventure and will generally steer the party onto that path. This is akin to your 'site based', which is equivalent to my 'scene'.
      Not quite my 'site based'...close though. For me, I don't follow any outline. I have a background 'story' that is essentially "This is what is going on, this is how that is going on, and this is the ultimate goal of why it is going on". Then I let my players loose, so to speak. They get to decide what they want or don't want to do, follow, or ignore. At each choice or specific time (if there is a time-oriented aspect), I adjudicate "the world at large". I don't steer the PC's 'back towards the adventure'...the 'adventure' keeps on running at it's own logical pace in the background if the PC's decide to do nothing.

      It reminds me of one adventure for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay that we did way back when. My best friend is very much the same style of DM as I am. He was DM'ing and we were playing "Shadows Over Bogenhafen". SPOLIERS!..... In it, the PC's start to get embroiled in a secret chaos cult that has members of the upper class and government in it (rich folk, the mayor, etc). The story is basically the PC's following clues to the ultimate conclusion of a showdown with the cultists before they can open a hell portal to let a hoard of chaos daemons through and turn Bogenhafen into a writhing crater of Chaos spawn. We, iirc, got about 1/3 of the way through the adventure; we then got beat up real bad. We decided to take some time to rest and recouperate. Alas, we missed one or two clues and so the ritual had begun. We were having breakfast at the inn when all of a sudden the center of town errupted in a fountain of chaos, spewing forth chaos spawn, chaos warriors, and all manner of baddies. We didn't make it out of town...we, and everyone in the city, died screaming.

      Y'see...the clock keeps ticking. We (me and my friend) don't "pause" or "guide the PC's back to" the adventure story/plot. So, no, there is no "general steering" of the PC's back. With a site based adventure, the PC's are thrust into something ongoing. Something that doesn't care what they do...unless what they do specifically screws up the bad guys plans/time table. In a site based adventure, the PC's can do enough damage to a "plot" that they don't even have to get to the end of it to stop it.

      I actually think 'scene' is better term. For example, an adventure calls for the PC's to interact with some NPC, getting a vital piece of information, at a local Inn. As a DM, the important aspect is the transfer of the information, not being in the Inn. The PC's could ignore the Inn and meet the NPC on the road, in a prison, etc. They may even not meet the NPC at all, maybe he was killed as a result of their prior actions, but to keep the adventure moving forward, I would still need to get the piece of information to the PC's in some manner (unless I wanted to abandon the adventure path because they allowed the NPC to die, which could also be the case...i.e. sandbox). So...the aspect of the adventure that is important is the 'scene' where the PC's learn the piece of information, resulting in plot development.
      In my site based adventure writing, no. The important aspect is not the transfer of information. The important aspect is that the PC's don't get that information. If there is a drunkard who is happy to relay some info to anyone who will buy him drinks, and the PC's decide to camp outside town and never go to that inn...well, then they never get that info. I don't change it so that a wandering hobo finds their camp and relays the info, nor do I have a travelling bard or ranger, nor do I put it in a note that some random bandit the PC's kill on the roadway two days later. They simply do not get the info. With developing and adventure in my site based manner...doing this doesn't "wreck" the adventure. It just changes the PC's story.

      The details of the adventure may vary, but it is in the GM's best interest to draw upon material already prepared if possible (otherwise, why even bother preparing). Can groups totally ignore every adventure hook? Sure they can, but I would argue that is sort of a jerk move as, at a meta-game level, the players know the DM has spend time and effort preparing the adventure for them. Could the players veer off the planned adventure path requiring the DM to ad lib and create in the moment? Most definitely! This is a critical aspect of TTRPG's and is really what differentiates it from any other game.
      And herein lies the rub. With a site based approach, all the work a DM has put into it is almost always useful no matter what the PC's do...because the 'adventure' doesn't rely on X happening, then Y, and then Z. There is very little in the way of "useless information" because the vast majority of the information is written with the assumption that the PC's aren't there. A group that ignores every adventure hook, imho, isn't a jerk move simply because they know that I (the DM) didn't write the adventure "for them". I wrote it "for the campaign world", so to speak. If the PC's don't get involved, so be it. It doesn't mean that the 'adventure' suddenly pauses and waits for them to become interested in it again (see the Warhammer example above; the adventure didn't "pause"...we did...and we paid the price).

      Personally, my perspective on adventure design has evolved over the past 38 years and the most significant development occurred in 1989 when I began to look at adventures in terms of 'scenes' (a concept I gleaned from Shadowrun, it was likely present in other systems prior to that).
      Ahhh...well, when dealing with certain other RPG's, I can totally see your more "scene based" approach working much better. Shadowrun would be one of those, as would most Super-Hero RPG's, and some of the more "cinematic" sci-fi games like Star Wars or Star Trek. But for "D&D"? I'll stick with my site based design.

      Thanks for the conversation! Always nice to hear of how other experienced DM's run their games.

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
    1. R_Chance's Avatar
      R_Chance -
      Quote Originally Posted by pming View Post
      Hiya!

      This mostly deals with computer games. From an adventure standpoint, as in table top rpg adventure, this mindset doesn't work. It makes for a very linear, repetitive and predictable game. For TTRPG's my tried and true method for adventure creation is what I'd call "site based". Start with an overall 'story' (NOT plot line...just a one or two line 'story'...ie, "Slavers have been increasingly bold in acquiring slaves all along the Woodside Trail! Whats worse is that nobody knows where, or who, the slaves are being sold too!"). Draw rough map. "Stock" the map with logical and interesting people, places and things. Refine map. Refine stocking of said map. Rinse and repeat. Now think about the bad guys would behave, think, act, use, exploit, etc the surroundings in pursuit of their overall story goal (re: "get slaves"). Detail more maps as needed. Detail all the 'other stuff' that DM's are supposed to do in order to cover odd situations and mundane situations (re: encounter charts, new monster or two, perhaps a new piece of equipment, notes about weather patterns, local 'flavour' such as customs, dress and mannerisms...all the stuff that really brings the setting to life, even if there's a chance the players will never encounter/need it).

      Done.

      If you design an adventure around a "loop", all you are doing is playing out the same thing over and over with slight variations. The suspension of disbelief will be weak. The adventure isn't "believable" if the players don't follow the script, so to speak. For example, take the Slavers thing above. If it was a 'loop style' adventure...the PC's are expected to be fighting the slavers, obviously. But what if they decide to 'take it down from the inside'? What if they try and infiltrate the slavers gang as slavers themselves? Well, if the adventure was designed around a 'loop' of, say, fights against the slavers and their cohorts, the DM is basically going to need to rewrite VAST swaths of the adventure. That adventure will then have much of it's page content rendered virtually useless...and the DM is still going to have to come up with all the stuff that was "glossed over" or ignored due to the fact it was written to be using a 'loop method'. If the adventure was written from a Site Based standpoint, however, the DM will have all the information about how, what, why, when and where the slavers are doing their thing...and what the slavers have to avoid in the area in order to be successful. PC's trying to infiltrate them would then be a relatively simple task for the DM as he has all the information he needs to do so. Minor additions can be adjudicated on the fly because the DM has all that "mundane info" that would not be present in a 'loop based' adventure.

      My 2¢ anyway.

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming

      I agree, at least partially, but...

      There are areas within an RPG that are "loops". The classic dungeon with monsters, treasure and random encounters for example. PCs enter dungeon, explore, encounter monster, overcome monster, find treasure, wash, rinse, repeat until they leave it or die. I still have "dungeon" style areas in my 43 year old game. With thought, planning and history (of the setting) behind them, they work and are reasonable parts of the setting. I also have what I call "kernels" (sites for you). Go to location, find an adventure possibility, choose to follow it or not. If not, you move on. If you follow it you journey to other locations and pursue the adventure until you complete it or abandon it. Kernels can be found in any place, in a town, a village in the wilderness at a location or a dungeon. They might be specific to a location (or might be accessible from multiple locations) or to a specific NPC (or type of NPC). Combine the dungeon, the adventure kernel and ordinary interactions (shopping, worship, bar hopping, gambling, etc.) and you get a living, interesting, campaign.

      Comparisons of video games, movies, or books to tabletop RPGs always fall flat to me. There are, very rough, parallels, but tabletop games are far more complex and have more variations possible. Books and movies (and television) are static. Books can bring more detail than movies or television, and television series can do more than movies, but, in the end, they are static. What happens, happens without choice. You are along for the ride. And how often have you said "you idiot, why didn't you..." during a movie, television show, or book? Your'e intervention and agency and the reaction of a "living" world make RPGs more complex, and interesting. Computer and video games have limited choice, just not at the level of tabletop RPGs. Tabletop RPGs are replete with a huge variety of choices and interactions. Somewhat less so in adventure paths, but even then, there are many ways forward. A good sandbox campaign is like the gift that keeps on giving. That's what makes it fun. And different, in degree anyway, from the others.
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      Loops and even rules miss the whole point of RPGs. RPGs are at their best when the players are in character and interacting "naturally". It doesn't matter if the scene is a combat or the scene is a royal dance or the scene is a small pub in a backwater village. RPGs are best when all of that drops away and the players are in the moment. The more you can keep them in the moment, the better the "game" is. Without intra-party interaction that persists from game to game, you may as wlll be playing a solo-RPG. People who really loved MMORPGs, didn't really love the game, they loved their clan/crew/whatever. They liked logging in at 9pm and meeting up with that crazy dud RL_Evan and quiet, but funny $&$_FACE_%&%, and going raiding with them. But even on night when a raid did not happen, they still talked about Football or Hockey with their best clan budds.

      RPGs are all about socializing. The game itself is just a pretext for meeting and provides structure for the gathering. Otherwise you would have to talk about real world events and doing that will just devolve into arguments about politics and whose football team rocks best. But no one argues about slaying the dragon.

      It's not in the rulebook. You can't put it in a box. But it is what RPGs give you. Time with friends bonding over killing things and taking their stuff.
    1. pogre's Avatar
      pogre -
      Quote Originally Posted by pming View Post
      Ahhh...well, when dealing with certain other RPG's, I can totally see your more "scene based" approach working much better. Shadowrun would be one of those, as would most Super-Hero RPG's, and some of the more "cinematic" sci-fi games like Star Wars or Star Trek. But for "D&D"? I'll stick with my site based design.

      Thanks for the conversation! Always nice to hear of how other experienced DM's run their games.

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
      Funny thing is I'm pretty much in your corner on adventure design, and yet, I started playing in one of AriochQ's campaigns and his approach has made for a fun and engaging game. I joined the game to liven up my DMing skills, to see things from the other side of the table for once, and was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed the game.

      I imagine I would have a good time in your campaign too.

      I know you were not suggesting there is only one way to skin a cat, but wanted to share my experiences.

      BTW - Shadows Over Bogenhafen is my all-time favorite fantasy adventure to run. It often is quite fun when the party comes up short as yours did!
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      Most of us have read RPGs that are all about story, or all about combat (4e D&D?), or even all about politics. These are fine for people who want to focus on that kind of core loop, and not worthwhile for others.
      To be honest, this makes me wonder whether you have any experience of, or even first-hand knowledge of, 4e.

      Here is a link to just one actual play post from my main 4e campaign. It describes exploration and fighting. You'll see that much (not all) of the fighting is itself "story", in the sense that the opposition between the PCs and their opponents isn't based purely on expedience but is groudned in the deep commitments of each.

      Upthread, @Lord_Blacksteel said that the "core loop" in modern D&D is rolling the d20. As a variant on that conjecture, I would say that the core loop in 4e is the same as the core loop in any "indie" RPG: the PC (and thus the player) is confronted with some obstacle to getting what s/he wants, and the player therefore has to declare an action for the PC that might overcome that obstacle. And rolling the d20 is central to resolution of those action declarations.

      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      I'm wary of the RPGs as novels or movies comparison. Similar tools like tension and release in storytelling definitely fit in, as do plot arcs of some sort, but the problem with a novel or movie is that the authors have freedom to do what they want for the most part. If it makes sense in the story, a character might just die abruptly.
      RPGs can play in a similar fashion - as in, a necessary condition of a character dying abruptly is that it makes sense in the story. How that story is established is the key to this.

      4e actually comes closest to this style of RPGing, of any edition of D&D.

      Quote Originally Posted by pming View Post
      I have a background 'story' that is essentially "This is what is going on, this is how that is going on, and this is the ultimate goal of why it is going on". Then I let my players loose, so to speak. They get to decide what they want or don't want to do, follow, or ignore. At each choice or specific time (if there is a time-oriented aspect), I adjudicate "the world at large". I don't steer the PC's 'back towards the adventure'...the 'adventure' keeps on running at it's own logical pace in the background if the PC's decide to do nothing.



      The important aspect is not the transfer of information. The important aspect is that the PC's don't get that information. If there is a drunkard who is happy to relay some info to anyone who will buy him drinks, and the PC's decide to camp outside town and never go to that inn...well, then they never get that info. I don't change it so that a wandering hobo finds their camp and relays the info, nor do I have a travelling bard or ranger, nor do I put it in a note that some random bandit the PC's kill on the roadway two days later. They simply do not get the info. With developing and adventure in my site based manner...doing this doesn't "wreck" the adventure. It just changes the PC's story.



      With a site based approach, all the work a DM has put into it is almost always useful no matter what the PC's do...



      There is very little in the way of "useless information" because the vast majority of the information is written with the assumption that the PC's aren't there. A group that ignores every adventure hook, imho, isn't a jerk move simply because they know that I (the DM) didn't write the adventure "for them". I wrote it "for the campaign world", so to speak. If the PC's don't get involved, so be it. It doesn't mean that the 'adventure' suddenly pauses and waits for them to become interested in it again
      This is one way to referee a RPG. It works well for PCs who are rootless wanderers with little connection to the campaign world and backstory. I think it will not tend to produce "story" in the standard sense of dramatic needs => conflict and rising action => climax and resolution.

      Quote Originally Posted by pming View Post
      because the 'adventure' doesn't rely on X happening, then Y, and then Z.
      This sort of railroading is not the only alternative to the "site based" adventure design you describe. (Eg the actual play post I linked to earlier in this thread did not invovle either "site based" or "X, then Y, then Z-based" refereeing.

      We can't really talk about the "loops" in RPG play and design without looking at a reasonably representative range of ways that RPGs can work.

      Quote Originally Posted by R_Chance View Post
      Comparisons of video games, movies, or books to tabletop RPGs always fall flat to me. There are, very rough, parallels, but tabletop games are far more complex and have more variations possible. Books and movies (and television) are static. Books can bring more detail than movies or television, and television series can do more than movies, but, in the end, they are static. What happens, happens without choice. You are along for the ride.
      When comparing RPGs to books, movies etc the comparison is not to post-writing consumption,. The comparison is to authorship.

      A book is not "static" for its author. It admits of the same range of variations as does a RPG.

      The challenge in RPG design, if the goal is to achieve the same sort of story as authors do in those other mediums, is to (i) reconcile the roles of multiple authors, and (ii) to find some way to deal with the lack of opportunity to edit/revise.

      The allocation of distinct functions to GM/referee and to the other players is a traditional way, in RPG design, to handle challenges (i) and (ii).

      Obviously if you take Paul Ming's pre-authored "X, then Y, then Z" approach you have given up on trying to deal with challenges (i) and (ii): there is a single author (the GM) and the author has already revised/edited the story in doing that pre-authorship. But that is not the only way to run a RPG intended to yield story.
    1. R_Chance's Avatar
      R_Chance -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      When comparing RPGs to books, movies etc the comparison is not to post-writing consumption,. The comparison is to authorship.

      A book is not "static" for its author. It admits of the same range of variations as does a RPG.

      The challenge in RPG design, if the goal is to achieve the same sort of story as authors do in those other mediums, is to (i) reconcile the roles of multiple authors, and (ii) to find some way to deal with the lack of opportunity to edit/revise.

      The allocation of distinct functions to GM/referee and to the other players is a traditional way, in RPG design, to handle challenges (i) and (ii).

      Obviously if you take Paul Ming's pre-authored "X, then Y, then Z" approach you have given up on trying to deal with challenges (i) and (ii): there is a single author (the GM) and the author has already revised/edited the story in doing that pre-authorship. But that is not the only way to run a RPG intended to yield story.
      The book (etc.) is static once the author has committed it to paper - for the reader and the author barring future revision. There is no input from the reader (other than perhaps criticism). I was referring to the interplay of the GM and players as providing variation. The author / GM has to deal with the input of others, making it less... controlled. The PCs may take a GM in other directions than he had originally planned. Your points "i" is what makes for the uncertainty that makes RPGs (for me) more interesting. As for the goal of an RPG compared to a book (etc.) is, at its broadest, identical (entertainment), but the players (and GM) may have considerably different goals (especially given the social nature of RPGs) from the author of a book.
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