Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Megadungeons: On the virtues of episodic games

But at my back I always hear, time's winged chariot drawing near...
 I find myself pleasantly surprised by the inherent utility in some of our game's earliest forms.  If you've been exposed to the latest incarnations, you are likely familiar with the concept of the "Adventure Path"; the publisher generates an extensive campaign covering a wide range of levels through a series of linked adventure modules building one on the other.  The modern versions tend to have very high production values, compelling stories, and intricate plots.  Paizo's work, specifically, I found to be very well done.

One argument against the adventure path approach is they tend to be 'railroady'.  Player choice is abrogated by the story; if the players don't follow the carefully laid out plot hooks, they're off the adventure path and the game is over.  Railroad tends to be used perjoratively.  Whatever.  If everyone agrees a story-based game is how they want to play, and they don't mind being lead around, I don't see a problem with a railroad game.   Most players would rather be on the Orient Express than standing in the station waiting for something to happen, as Ken Hite would say.

But I've discovered a different issue with the modern approach to adventures.  And I didn't even realize it was a problem until I experienced a better way.  Here's the problem:  the stories tend to range far and wide and cover a lot of ground.  It's assumed the group is moving through the story more or less as a unit.  And a good story is a feature, not a bug, right?  Hmm.

As we get older and the burdens of family, work, and kids eat into our gaming time, it's harder and harder to get my five current players together each and every week.  We have trouble getting everyone to 'move through a story as a unit'.  We set a 3-player quorum (less than three, and we postpone the game) - as most of the time we achieve our quorum, most weeks the game happens.  Last week's game was the first time in about a month we had all five of the same players together in the same room.

Part of the reason I'll be committing blog-time to the megadungeon* project is because I've seen the value in episodic play.  Every week is a new cast and a new story.  I discovered this hidden feature running a kid's game.  I run a second game for my son and some neighborhood kids (and the dads).  We play every few weeks, and the group is fairly transient.  Every week the game starts in town at "The Borderland Tavern"; the players agree on a destination in the nearby dungeon (Stonehell: Down Night-Haunted Halls); then off they go.  My rule is that each week, they need to leave the dungeon when time is almost up and retreat to the town.

The obvious benefit of this approach is that it doesn't matter who shows up each week.  Everyone has a character; if they miss a game, the player knows their guy decided to stay back in the tavern the week they missed.  No one plays other people's characters.  No one "dies" when they miss a game.  And you certainly don't get experience and treasure while missing.

One of the issues we had running 4E and adventure path games was that any time we ended a session,  it was in the middle of things; when a player missed the next game, it burdened everyone else to play the missing characters.  Gah, I still remember the pain when my group reached "Paragon" levels and players had to try and learn someone else's 5-page 4E character on the fly, with all those intricate power combos and feat interactions.  Combats ground to a halt with the learning curve.  :shiver:

Schedules are tight, gaming time is precious, why waste time canceling and rescheduling gaming sessions when you could be playing an episodic game using an old school megadungeon / campaign dungeon?  You think those 1970's DM's with 8-10 players at the table canceled any time someone missed?  Heck, West Marches was built on the premise of a transient group - it provides evidence that even an episodic hex crawl could be built.  There are a number of reasons why MMO's are so widely popular; I'm sure one factor is the ease of firing up the computer and always finding willing guildmembers online and ready to head out there.  We can do it too.

I've learned to fall in love with the old school megadungeon; stay tuned as the project gets underway and enjoy the journey.

*A dungeon expansive enough to accommodate an entire campaign of substantial length, Melan