August 9, 2012 by deadorcs
I’ve been DMing for over 12 years now (not including a few one-off games from my youth). While I consider myself a pretty decent DM, I know that not every game can go according to the fine game plan constructed in my head. Sometimes you make mistakes and sadly enough, a good time isn’t really had.
Case in point? Last Sunday’s game. We’re playing 4e DnD, and my players have just recently reached 11th level (Paragon Tier). At the same time, following the relative success of my Myst adventure (based on the computer game of the same name), I decided to try and follow up that success (and maintain some story continuity) by running my next adventure based on Riven, which is the sequel to Myst.
It was an ambitious undertaking. Knowing that using physical terrain would be too time consuming (and hopelessly complicated), I decided to use full color maps (using Gaming Paper and Dry Erase Crayola Crayons) based on the work of Calyxa. I converted the maps to a 1″ = 5′ scale & actually got the first map done in time for the game (yay preparedness!). The game went as scheduled. We had one player missing, but I had everything else in place, and ready to go.
The first hour or so I spent giving my players a pretty lengthy introduction to what was happening on Riven. In the form of narrative, I explained Atrus’ plight, and what he wanted the heroes to help him with. I read some journal entries and I thought the players were immersing themselves into the lore that would help them later in the adventure.
We played the game. Lots of exploration and 1 combat encounter. We wrapped up 3 hours later, everyone said thank you, and split. My wife got out of the basement in a hurry. I could pretty much tell that folks could have had a better time. While Anna made dinner, I asked her how the game session went. I got back answers like this:
“Most tedious game ever.”
“No connection between the 1st part (the narrative) and 2nd part (exploration, encounter) portion of the game.”
“Player X was looking at power cards, Player Y was playing on the iPhone. No one was engaged.”
“It just didn’t feel like DnD”.
Ouch. Now, before I say anything else, I want my readers to know that while I was upset at hearing these things come out of my wife’s mouth, I didn’t harbor any ill will towards her. I was upset, but it was more over the fact that I had apparently done something horribly wrong, and that people didn’t have a good time (a DM’s worst fear). Knowing that I was now deeply immersed into this “sequel”, I started to panic. Would I have to pull a “Patrick Duffy” and retro the whole thing out of the shower? I was at a loss.
The next day I confirmed Anna’s suspicions with another player. He basically said the same thing. He thought the puzzles were great, but without the full on observational power you get from playing the computer game, you lose something in the translation. As we talked, I finally managed to put together all of this input and figured out what happened.
Riven is a little like the television series, LOST. You’re dumped on a group of islands, and your environment gives you clues as to what is actually going on. Each episode of LOST ended with more questions that what it answered previously. Riven is like that as well. You have to really look at the environment to understand the connections that help you solve the few actual puzzles in the game and move the plot forward. This kind of game is fine if you have the same continuity of visual clues as you would get in the computer game.
It doesn’t translate to the table top well at all.
In Myst (the game that preceded Riven), the puzzles were up front and solvable “in place”. You didn’t need to look at the whole environment to draw your conclusions, solve the puzzle, and move on. The puzzle might be difficult, but it’s right there for you to solve. Those kinds of puzzles work great for DnD. My mistake was assuming that the puzzles in Riven would work the same way. They don’t. In addition, any material (such as the journal entries I mentioned above) used to “help” the situation only end up alienating the player further if the environmental clues are not there or not constant (as they would be in the computer game). The result was bored players poking around an island with no real clue what to do and no real way of knowing that what they were looking at (either on the map or in the few handouts – screen shots from the game) would be of any use to them.
It’s not a question of puzzle difficulty or even puzzle subtlety. These translation problems occurred because each format (computer and tabletop) had different pacing. However, despite the problems mentioned above, I think I might have found a way to save the game.
FIXING THE CAMPAIGN
Fortunately, fixing the game doesn’t involve a dream sequence. It doesn’t even involve changing the maps or puzzles. However, what it does involve is taking the material provided by the game and making it more dynamic and flexible for use at the DnD Tabletop. I don’t want to give away any spoilers (my wife & other players do occasionally read my articles), but here are some steps I’m taking to bring the adventure back from the edge.
- Make the puzzles less esoteric. Instead of making the players guess what’s important, I’ll be more direct. This way they’ll know what they’re looking for. Some answers will still have to be discovered, but at least they’ll know to actually hunt for them.
- Allow the heroes to interact with the NPCs more directly. In the original game, the villagers on Riven are basically scenery (they disappear entirely when you first encounter them). Instead, the heroes will be able to interact with the villagers. In fact, they will be able to get major clues (and quests of sort) from the villagers.
- Open up the mapping. During the last session, I was too focused on the players only seeing a bit of the island at one time. I plan to lay out the whole map this time around. Sure, some things will be hidden, but for the most part, the heroes should have some idea where they are going. They can make better informed decisions that way instead of just (wandering around aimlessly).
- Additional encounters. Since you don’t fight monsters in Myst or Riven (in the computer game), these need to be added in key places and make sense given the setting. There are factional groups on the island and this fact can be used to help design encounters that challenge the heroes.
Hopefully, these tactics will reduce the level of “WTF?” my players experienced during the last session. At it’s core, Riven is really a wilderness adventure with a scary bad guy, loyal followers, & native factions all trying to save an island that is basically one big writing mistake. Getting the DMing feedback was painful, but it was so very necessary, and I appreciate my players all the more for providing me with it. I’ve been DMing too long not to listen to it.
My Name is Randall Walker and This Is My Game