Areala's "What If..." Game Design series is a partially-serious, partially-tongue-in-cheek, completely-hyphen-laden look at what would happen if things that are not currently video games were turned into video games under her supervision.
In Part One of this series, we talked about the history of the Tomb of Horrors adventure and we picked our perspective choice. If you haven't read it, please start there. All others, ignore that "Abandon All Hope..." sign hanging in front of the tomb entrance and walk with me. Hope you brought a torch or something, it's dark inside.
In this post, we'll take a look at the difficulty of the adventure and discuss the pros and cons of something so nasty and why players would want to play it. Knowing what you're going up against as a player is important; as a game designer, it's even more important than that and can be the difference between your game getting branded with a "Greatest Hits" moniker or urinated on by the gaming press.
The most important part of converting the tomb is to decide whether or not we want to blindly copy everything in a picture-perfect fashion from the original module into our pretend game. Something with a history as grand as the Tomb will no doubt have been played, read, and experienced by tens of thousands of people over the years, and each and every last one of them is going to have an idea of what our version of the Tomb should be like. A straight conversion, while perhaps the simplest way to go, would really serve only one important point: absolute compliance with the source materials. This will satisfy any gamer with an encyclopedic knowledge of the adventure, but satisfying them may not be the best choice. To be sure, a foot-for-foot conversion of the map will be the simplest task for our intrepid team of mappers and room designers, but it will then put our game at the mercy of anyone who has ever set foot in the Tomb outside of our game. If all that is required to walk through the Tomb is a copy of the original adventure to refer to, any gamer would be capable of besting the Tomb in under an hour by avoiding all the traps, pitfalls and decoys that make Acererak's lair so dangerous. Without that thrill, the game will become little more than a chore and replay value would be virtually nil.
For these reasons, I believe we can look to another dungeon crawler adventure for inspiration: the original Rogue (or, for those of you who are too young to remember that, we can pick on its 1990s graphical retread, Diablo). Rogue takes a set of simple rules and randomly generates content, ensuring that the game changes each and every time you start your quest. Diablo likewise follows this route, only it utilizes certain internal sets to ensure that given areas are always laid out in a similar fashion. What this means is that major areas of the Tomb could be mapped out, but those rooms, all the corridors, treasure, and traps in other locations could be randomized. While a given room might always have a weapons rack on the wall, the item it contained could change from game to game, and in one version it might be guarded by a ghost, in another version it has no guard at all, and in a third version the room can only be found by discovering a secret door. This has the advantage of staying true to the spirit of the original source materials while allowing the letter of those materials to be changed from game to game. Traps won't always be in the same places, corridors and doors will not always face the same way or open into the same rooms, and some treasures may not be in the same locations, but everything an explorer needs to survive and win would appear within each game.
If nothing else, a minor change to the source materials would be necessary just to ensure that the game was playable from the start. In the original adventure, the player characters (PCs) arrive at the location of the tomb to find nothing more than a rather desolate-looking, weed-encrusted flattop hill with some large black boulders and shrubs as the lone points of interest. In order to even get into the tomb, the characters must probe into the ground deeply enough and high enough on the hill itself to dislodge significant amounts of dirt and sand to uncover an opening that can then be expanded into a crawlspace or a full entryway with enough digging. And while this may seem bad enough, there are actually 3 different entrances to the Tomb, only one of which is the proper way in. The other two are trapped in such fashions that it is possible to suffer a total party kill before anyone even steps foot inside the dungeon. Asking modern-day video gamers to accept this sort of start is a recipe for disaster, so at the very least, the player should be started off at the entrance to the tomb proper. There are plenty of ways he can go about getting dismembered once inside, but let's at least play somewhat fair, eh?
Or not. Suppose that we offered some options for our game? What if, instead of hand-holding players, we embraced the idea of players who wanted a serious challenge (with a suitable merit reward at the end) for those who attempted the Tomb with no holds barred? The gloves come off, anything goes, and just like the Rogue-like games of old or a Hardcore game of Diablo II, if your character bites it, that's it: no save game, no tapbacks, it's just like real life: mess up, and you die. Offering levels of play that cater to beginner and expert gamers alike will increase the playability of the game within our community, and ensure that nobody feels the game isn't playing fair enough, or is using kid gloves. We'll do it, then: a hardcore option for players who think they are bad enough to handle it. On the PS3 or 360, completing the game in this fashion would grant a trophy or achievement showing the world what you had done, a true badge of honour any hardcore gamer would be powerless to resist, but one that could be safely ignored by more casual gamers without dilluting the final product in any way.
That's all for this entry. Tune in next time when we look at character creation options, playable characters, and discuss the mechanics of single character vs. multiple characters playing through the Tomb all at the same time!