Thursday, October 26, 2006

Designing Levels

There's a very interesting article on Gamasutra about multiplayer level design.

Of course, he starts with: "The rules that govern single player level design are becoming more and more well known."

Known by who? Actually, the rules governing single player level design are still in their loose primordial stages. Some of the basics are well-known, such as "you need big/long/open rooms for long-range conflicts" and "jumping puzzles in FPS games need to be extremely forgiving". But aside from the obvious stuff, there are a lot of conflicting "cross your fingers and hope" methodologies.

That doesn't keep the article from being insightful, though: there's a lot of good data. But I would like to talk briefly about designing cooperative levels instead of competitive levels.

There is a steady rise in the number of cooperative computer games, and there are hella lot of cooperative tabletops and LARPs. But I find that, with few exceptions, these games simply don't support the rich tactical play that they should.

I've written on this basic concept before, but kind of tangentally. One of the things you might remember me talking about is how to make combat in tabletop games extremely fast yet tactically very strong.

Aside from optimizing for speed using chits, cards, and anything other than a fistful of dice, one of the most critical things mentioned was maps. Very few things communicate tactical play as quickly, naturally, and in as much detail as a map.

But a map isn't a level.

We're talking about cooperative level design. But when the players get into a firefight, the map they play on is a tiny subset of the "map" of the area they are in. It punches up the tactical play, but it isn't a "level". It's an encounter.

The "level" is how they play through that chunk of session. In a tabletop, we frequently pass on level design, preferring to wing it with vague blockades and challenges such as "there's security goons in... whatever hall it is that you're in" and "the elevator is broken". It is pretty damn rare to, say, draw out a compound or building map. If we do, it's just a quick overview: "the lab is here, the barracks here..." Otherwise, it's too much effort.

In a LARP the situation is even worse: it's extremely rare for a LARP to have levels at all. LARPs usually exist with a few specific places and anybody can really visit any of them at any time. I did get to see a LARP which used a whole building as a kind of "Aliens" run, and it looked incredibly fun. But we normally don't see that, because it takes up too much space.

In a computer game, you definitely have a level. But the level is hardcoded, so it suffers from the exact opposite problem. You give the players their strategic data, but the level cannot stretch to suit the players.

Okay, so, let's think about what we want in a cooperative level.

The purpose of having a slightly more "rigid" level is to give the players a range of strategic options and challenges, instead of limiting them to a few generic challenges tossed out by a GM. A level can tell us that not only is the elevator stuck, but the situation all around us is X, Y, and Z.

We want a level which can support a range of players. Say, 2-8. The level needs to be able to "stretch" or "shrink" to facilitate the greater threats required for larger groups. In addition, some thought needs to be given towards splitting larger parties while leaving smaller parties more whole, and to the fact that secondary challenges with less players are likely to be extremely difficult. After all, with eight players you'll probably have someone who can do anything. But with three, you'll be missing huge chunks of secondary skills - the players simply won't be able to complete objectives that require skills they do not have.

(Obviously, that last bit isn't a problem if you're running a game with no secondary skills. But that sounds like kind of a dull game.)

Okay, the level polymorphs to suit the players. Right there, that says "no map". How in the world could you build a map?

But how can you build complex strategic situations without a map? Even if you could, how could you get the players to remember the situation?

So I thought: card game.

I build a lot of crappy little games, and recently I've been dabbling in "build the board as you proceed" games. It seems to me that this dynamic is perfectly suited towards building levels.

Lets say we start with a deck. The cards in the deck represent challenges and challenge modifiers of various kinds. Guards, computerized doors, dragons in 10' rooms, whatever. Each challenge has a skill which applies and a difficulty rating.

Lets say you build a character. For every point of a skill you buy, you make a card that is a challenge of that type and hand it to the GM. For example, if you buy combat skills, you pass the GM "mook" cards, at a difficulty level of twice the skill level you just bought. If you buy science skills, you pass the GM "scientific mystery" cards. And so on, for each point of each skill you buy.

Challenging a card is simple. Each round you fight a card, you reduce its difficulty by your combined skills of that type. And each round you don't kill it, everyone involved takes a point of exhaustion. If you run out of exhaustion, you die.

Every round, you do one of three things. You can choose to fight a challenge (you must have at least a 1 in the suitable skill), in which case you draw no cards. You can choose to move, in which case you draw and place a location card and draw and place a challenge card for it. Lastly, you can just bide your time or move on existing terrain, in which case you draw a challenge card. Most challenge cards are discarded if not drawn in regards to a location, but some aren't.

Every time the GM's turn comes around, he may adjust one challenge per two players, moving it one tile if it is mobile. He may not adjust challenges currently in conflict.

Different kinds of challenges can react in different ways. For example, mooks won't attack you if the alarm hasn't gone off. This offers multiple strategic options. And, of course, challenges you "leave behind" aren't exactly inactive, as the GM can move them and specific challenge cards can turn them monstrous.

Of course, this is just a rough idea. It obviously needs tweaking. For example, hidden challenges, the set-up phase, a third deck for corporal form of challenge, goals, escape routes...

But the basic idea is that you build the level as you proceed, and have a strategic set of options.

It's not suitable as is for anything other than a simple game, but it could be modified and used for a backbone for a more serious RPG.

Anyhow, just kind of muddling along. Feel free to comment if you had a thought.

I find posts ramble more the sicker I am. I'm not entirely sure I've ever had a week where I've slept more. :P

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