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Areala's "what If..." Game Design: Tomb Of Horrors (Part Three)




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.

Part Three

In part two of this series, we looked at the problem of difficulty, and the pros and cons of a straight-up room-for-room conversion of the original Tomb of Horrors module. This part will look at the persona that the player will take on when he or she attempts to best our digital version of the Tomb, as well as what happens and what considerations must be made if additional players are allowed to join in the adventure.

The primary thought to keep in mind is that the Tomb of Horrors is an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product, and as such was meant to be played by characters who were somewhere between levels 10 and 14 and created under those rules. First- and second-level characters would have no chance taking on this kind of dungeon, and only a truly sick game master would subject low-level player characters to such a thing. In addition, the fact that it is a Dungeons & Dragons property means that it was meant to be tackled by a party composed of multiple characters, all of whom were specialists in some field or another (fighting, thievery, healing, offensive magic and so forth), and were meant to work as a cohesive unit instead of taking an "every man for himself" approach. Keeping faithful to the original source materials, then, would dictate that the Tomb of Horrors should be a multi-player only game, as no single character class in D&D exists as a jack-of-all-trades, especially under 1st edition rules. On the other hand, Gary Gygax himself has written (in the Introduction to its sequel/offshoot product, Return to the Tomb of Horrors) that he personally took two single characters through it on two occcasions, both of whom worked without the help of a party, and both of whom managed to best everything he threw at them. In light of this revelation, it seems that maybe the Tomb would work just as well as a single-player experience, provided that the player was of sufficient level and skill (as a player and not just as a character) to crack it.

In addition to this, the Tomb of Horrors as it was originally conceived was a one-shot adventure and did not function as the lynchpin dungeon of an entire campaign. For this reason, the traditional CRPG trope of starting characters at level 1 and having them work their way up won't really work for this adventure. A Fallout 3 or Oblivion style of character development that relies on the character being in a living, breathing world and growing with it then is completely out. At the same time, players of role-playing games (and D&D especially) truly enjoy watching their characters grow and change; denying this in a product based on the D&D license would be a terrible mistake. So, how can we merge the action/adventure aspect of Tomb Raider (where our protagonist knows everything she can do right from the start of the game) and the slow advancement of traditional D&D via level gain and selection of new powers? In addition, how would we deal with a single-player game where the player may very well need to be a jack-of-all-trades in order to advance?

To answer the first question, we can look to any action/adventure title where the protagonist gains additional weapons, armour, treasure and the like simply through exploration. Deathtrap Dungeon, while a terrible game in many respects, gave players a character with a fixed moveset but the ability to find different melee and ranged weapons, magic items, and spells that could be read off of scrolls. By its very nature, the Tomb of Horrors would be a very limited scope video game, and this system would serve to keep that in place. After all, the Tomb isn't a 30-level underground dungeon under a large city, it's a large but mostly single-floor crypt built out of the way of civilization housing one major nasty and a few lower-level adversaries. There aren't going to be mountains of orcs, clusters of goblins, or legions of skeletons sweeping out the corridors, because combat isn't the point of the game, puzzle solving is. Any given character with a means of defending himself or herself will be able to best the normal baddies who serve more to wear down a party than to serve as a means to their complete demise. Only Acererak the demilich poses that level of a threat, and direct combat with him is a difficult-to-impossible proposition at best. Giving the player the resources, then, to power-up without dealing with levels and stat points is a simple way of handling this issue.

The second question is, in a way, answered by the first, but not completely. Class in D&D, if we are sticking to the rules, is imperative to observe and monitor. Thieves may not be able to cast healing spells or throw fireballs, but they can disarm traps, backstab enemies, climb walls, and disappear into the shadows. Mages might not be able to stand toe-to-toe with a troll, but they can bake an entire group of them with a couple of well-placed Fireballs. One way to handle this is to tailor the game to a single-player profession, and have the items discussed above drawn from tables specific to that player's character. In other words, Fighters won't benefit from clerical scrolls, but they can benefit from a cache of healing potion. Mages, by contrast, won't be able to do much with that magical longsword, but a nice Ring of Protection or a wand of Magic Missiles would go a long way. Providing a balance while helping the character make up for deficiencies through limited-use items (a potion of Spider Climbing would allow anybody to climb walls like a thief, but they could only do it once while a thief could attempt it multiple times) will permit any character a more solid chance to meet success in the Tomb. It will also force strategy via the use of objects to solve puzzles instead of just relying on a Fighter being able to hack his way out of every situation. That Ring of Invisibility only has 2 charges; is it worth burning one off to slip by something undetected, or should he rely on his force of arms and save the ring for something later? In this way, we can remain true to the spirit of D&D while allowing the player to customize his or her character and know that their dwarven thief has just as much a chance of getting through the Tomb as a half-elven cleric, a human paladin, or a gnomish wizard.

Actually creating the character should be similar to the rules for character creation in D&D. These were well-implemented in the early SSI games such as Dungeon Hack, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Eye of the Beholder and the like. Rolling up a character, then picking a race, class, alignment, starting equipment, and spells is a simple matter of checking a few boxes, fiddling with the stats to your liking, and hitting "Go" when ready. Players could be offered a "Favorites" menu as well, so that if they enjoy playing an elvish mage every time, they can very quickly load their favorite template and go without having to roll a character every time. Alternately, each class could be given a flat set of stats so that all Fighters have 17 Strength, for instance, much the way that Diablo II does it, and have the equipment found and treasures looted through the game come to define how that fighter grows out of the mold he was grown in.

What of multi-player though? Most games these days offer it as an incentive to increase replay value or a means to make the game more social. Diablo II is fun, but the real meat of the game is found in pulling seven of your friends into the game, representing all the major character types, and going to town on enemies that are now 8 times more difficult than they were when it was just you alone. The Tomb of Horrors was meant as a multi-player game to begin with, so denying that would be a serious mistake. I believe the way forward is to treat difficulty the way Diablo II does: the more people you have along, the easier it may be to overcome obstacles and monsters, and so the deadlier the encounters will wind up being. A four- or six-player game will allow every major class to be represented, but it will also present four or six times as many targets and opportunities for the players to fall victim to something evil. A pit trap, for example, can catch four characters just as easily as it does one. So implementing a scaling system of difficulty for multi-player games is of paramount importance. If the game goes from a serious challenge for one player but turns into a cakewalk with four, it isn't any fun. In addition, a multi-player system of play eliminates a key single-player advantage: the save-and-reload-until-I-get-it-right strategy. In a single-player game of Diablo, if you get killed, you can reload your last save and try it again. In a multi-player game, you have to respawn and hope somebody is guarding your body. In a multi-player Tomb of Horrors experience, the group might have to pay a price in terms of gold, magic item charges, or loss of a bonus somewhere in order to resurrect that player. In D&D, if your character died, you were out of the session temporarily until the means could be found for your group to bring you back to life. This isn't fully acceptable in the gaming world, but free respawns aren't the answer. If part of the strategy of the game is deciding whether it's worth making the sacrifice to bring back Player 3, then it makes the game that much more real and forces each player to consider his or her role carefully. A party with three fighters can probably get by with just two, but a party that just lost their only cleric is going to be far more apt to make the sacrifice to get their primary source of healing returned to them.

That's all for this entry. Come back next time and see what else Areala has in store for our poor, unfortunate souls who seek to defeat Acererak (the fools...)!



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