Monday, December 12, 2016

Just Out of Reach

I was only briefly into computer RPGs for a few years in the 80's and 90's, but I learned some lessons about exploring virtual environments that are transferable to the tabletop.  Today I'm going to talk about one such lesson that I haven't yet fully incorporated into my DMing but that, decades later, still seems super important to me.

Back in the 80's the games I played featured two basic approaches to depicting the game world on screen.  The first is the approach employed by stalwarts such as Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, and Might & Magic.  The idea was a straightforward first person perspective, which ended up looking something like this:

I believe this is someone emulating M&M I in DOSBox.

This approach is brilliant in showing the cramped, claustrophobic conditions of many dungeon mazes.  And it easily calls attention to features such as the locked gate in the shot above.  The same deal also works for depicting crowded cities.  Good stuff.

However, this approach does not cut the mustard when one embarks on wilderness adventures.  Behold the majesty of a vast pine forest from the same game (or maybe a sequel, I dunno):

I find it a tad underwhelming.  At no point in such games can your character gaze out into the vast unknown and consider what dangers and wonders might lurk in the distance.  For that, you need the other approach, the overhead view used in games like Wizard's Crown, The Magic Candle, and the Ultima series.  Dig this screenshot:

Apparently the player has taken a moongate (portal thingy) to the island of Skara Brae.  Without a ship, he can only visit the town just to the north of him.  The other islands to the northwest and the shore to the southwest remain visible but tantalizingly unavailable.  Later, perhaps much later, the player will have to return onboard a ship to find out if anything worthwhile is to be found on those other islands.

Here's a similar situation.  The player can see the entrance to a dungeon just two squares southeast of their position, but they can't actually get to it.  The intervening mountains are impassable from all directions.  The player will have to use a ship to get there.  (Black squares appear on the map because those mountains are blocking line of sight.)

Also, I should note that both of these screenshots show the larger waves of the ocean towards the southwest.  Your character here is standing on a coast, peering out towards the horizon, the open sea calling to them.  How awesome is that?

Ultima uses first person perspective for most of the time you spend in dungeons:

The early versions of Ultima dungeons are crude, but they get the job done.  Especially in Ultima III and Ultima IV, where the dungeon soundtracks are hella creepy.

There are some rooms that are depicted in the overhead mode more typical of the wilderness and town areas of the game.  They don't provide the same sense of wide-open spaces, but it does allow for cute tricks like this:

There's no legit reason I can see why the party should be able to view that ladder down.  Those are impassable stone walls in between.  But you can see it.  And you need to go down.  So this screen drives you mad, at least until you figure out the way to open the secret door or whatever.

Or look at this one:

That blue and white stuff in the middle of the screen is 3 squares of lightning-based Energy Field, which in Ultima IV is completely impassable.  If you reach this point and can't cast Dispel, you're just plain outta luck.  Maybe you can get to those bottom three wizards and their treasure from another direction, or maybe you absolutely need to leave the dungeon, get the components to cast Dispel, and come back to this point just to continue your quest.  I can't remember.  Either way, the architecture of the dungeon itself is taunting you.

So what's the lesson here?

If you've ever had kids or spent time with little ones, you've probably encountered a scenario where the wee tot falls in love with some seemingly random object: a set of keys, the TV remote, a big wooden spoon, whatever.  If you try to take it away they flip out, even though it has no real use for them.  They see the thing, they want the thing.  A good deal of roleplaying adventure builds on primal impulses that simple.  Figure out ways to show the PCs something they can't immediately access and many of them will covet it in their hearts.  Make them come back with the right equipment, or find another way to the macguffin.  The basic principal here is dead simple: the delays experienced in reaching the thing that could be seen but not touched make the moment of achievement that much sweeter.

Over the years I've encountered numerous obstacles that allow something inaccessible to be viewed: 
  • open chasms
  • rushing water
  • lava
  • forcefields
  • glassteel
  • changes in elevations
  • overpowerful guardians like golems or summoned entities
  • bars or gates
  • stuck/locked doors with windows
But don't forget the big difference between the use of this trick in the Ultima games versus it happening at your table: in Ultima there was usually one correct way to solve these problems.  The other methods failed or the interface wouldn't even allow them to be attempted.  Tabletop games shouldn't emulate this trait of CRPGs.  Otherwise, why have a DM?

Say you place something shiny just on the other side of a bottomless chasm.  You want them to find the long way around to the bridge and back over to the shiny thing.  But you forgot the party thief has a potion of gaseous form or some other cheap trick to get across.  Guess what?  Players are allowed to short circuit your little schemes.  If being thwarted like that is painful, you may not be in the proper mood for impartial refereeing.

Besides, the thief doesn't always consider how they are going to get back across after grabbing the shiny thing.  That, my friends, is comedy gold.

ADDENDUM: Check out Gabor Lux's follow-up

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