Monday, February 21, 2011

When Labyrinths Go Wrong

I've been busy recently writing content for a game that is in pre-release development called Elven Fire. It is a table-top rpg game, similar to the popular Dungeons & Dragons game, but more family friendly. One problem they've been encountering is that they know the game so well that they have designed characters with such clever features and abilities, exploiting loopholes and such, that challenging them can be difficult. Other that just assassinating them, maybe. I suspect Desdra's player would find a way through even that.

So, with this in mind, I set out to design a fun labyrinth that would challenge these "Masters of the Game". Let me tell you how well that worked out. In the game, a dragon is a pretty strong opponent, even the small ones. Sizes in the game are measured in hexes, and dragons run from one hex up above 20. It is generally assumed that the biggest of the dragons could just step on the whole party and then wipe them off on the grass and complain about litterers. Plus, dragonskin is valuable for armor and, the creatures are just plain fun. So I decided to make them the focus of the labyrinth.

Welcome to the Temple of the Dragons. Plot/motivation: two little kids have gone missing and were last seen playing in that general direction. The party follows the path and reaches a meadow at the base of a mountain. In the meadow stands a large (7 hex) statue of a dragon with a welcome sign that basically reads "Show respect or run away."

Let me stop here and explain something about this crowd. Respect is not an ability any of them have invested points in. Historically, their first response to finding a statue that is likely to be special is to pee on it. This particular statue, if one is disrespectful, turns into a real dragon and starts spitting boulders. So I was expecting, counting on, a fun little battle with one character's RPG pants down! Instead, I get "Hello, honored dragon, may we respectfully pass?" Then, just to be safe, they toss him some gold coins. Nix the expected pissing match; room one: fail.

That's ok, I think, I have more surprises. They decide to take the low road into the caves instead of the higher road along the outer edge of the cliff face. A short distance in, the cave path becomes an unsteady-looking stone bridge crossing a great chasm the bottom of which slopes away out of sight. Hanging from the roof are sleeping bats. This room is just full of fun. In this game, there is a Movement Phase where everyone takes what steps they may or like, and then an Action Phase, when characters do things other than walk, like fight. After each Movement Phase, I would roll to see which piece of the bridge would crumble and fall. If someone happened to be standing on that spot, well, physics takes over. Also, any bats near the falling bridge piece would wake from the sound and attack the party. Any damage from bat bites would come with a roll to see if the bat also knocked them off the bridge. Now, I'm not as mean as it sounds. Everyone would scramble to save them from certain death, but if they did fall, I had a surprise set of rooms hidden down below, though their party would assume them dead until later. That was the plan.

This crew? Of course not. One of them had not long ago discovered a giant flying carpet big enough to carry the entire team. So of course, the team just floats on into the cave.
•Crumbling bridge? Who cares; we're on a flying carpet.
•Bottomless pit? Wow, guys, look at this view! Anyone got a camera?
•And the bats? Without the falling bridge, they just hang asleep from the ceiling. Think carnival shooting gallery. I think the old batling won the cupie doll. Room 2: fail. But I banned the carpet for the rest of the labyrinth.

Well, the next room should be really fun. No way they'll get through that without a fight! The next room on this path is the Nursery. I created the concept of dragon eggs (where do YOU think all those big dragons came from?). Dragon eggs are worth loads of money, but hatch into baby dragons that don't like you. Baby Dragons just being the smallest of the available dragons in the game. Still nothing to sneeze at. So, this room has 6 clutches of dragon eggs (about 5 eggs each), guarded by two golems. Touching the eggs would result in a roll to see if they hatch, and missed shots were opportunities for hatching eggs, too. In addition, if you nabbed an egg and it didn't hatch on the spot, but you wanted to take it to market, every room we enter, there'd be a roll that might have a baby dragon hatching in your backpack. This one was going to be chaos. Greed may be one the Seven Deadly Sins, but in this game, it's a character trait! 15k in silver multiplied by 30 eggs would be better than Vegas.

Unless you're playing with these loophole-exploiters. They open the door, look in the room, look at each other and say "Let's come back when we're done and take these to market." Then they close the door, and walk away. With this strategy, they don't have the risk of little dragons popping up as they fight through the other rooms. They'll have one shot risk and then safely carry the rest to market, at 15k each.

Let's recap the first few rooms of the labyrinth.
Room 1, they walk past the statue, smile and wave.
Room 2, they float right over the bridge and the abyss, taking target practice on the conveniently hanging bats.
Room 3, they quietly close the door and move on.

So far, this is going great! :) *cheesy, sarcastic smile with a double-thumbs up* But those were all traps and sneaks. The next room should be straight up battle. Let's see them ignore half a dozen young (3-4 hex) dragons and two lizardwomen attendants!

They walk in the room, and as is their custom, they take quick stock of the opposition. Against the 8 occupants of the room, the party consists of 5 warrior-players, one of whom also has a trained octopus and a goblin slave, by virtue of various Amulets of Control. (Watch for Ringwart the Goblin Slave's Web comic, coming soon!) Once they have assessed their enemy, they take stock of their own weapons and abilities. Kind of a 'which weapon will be most effective against these guys,' thing. Then the pixie-sorceress looks up across the table and exclaims "I've got an Amulet of Control Dragon!" The old batling across the table looks up and replies "me too!" and I just lay my head in my hands with a sigh. They proceed to capture/enslave two of the 6 dragons (both happened to be green dragons, which breath poison gas). So now the battle stands 9 to 6, with two of the dragons ready to fight on our side. The odds are now vastly in our favor. The two newly acquired dragons don't even fight. The group mops up the rest of the room, collects their treasure and moves on, a much larger dinner party than before.

With the added dragonic firepower, the three-hex octopus, and the two hex centaur-lizard-girl, plus the other five characters, our band of warriors can barely fit in the next room, nevermind the several 5-6 hex dragons that were working on target practice. In addition to the regular treasure in this room, they find one of the two kids they were looking for. A successful room for the group, complete failure for the training dragons.

It is about this time that we break for the night and plan to return to the labyrinth a few days later, with the more experienced GM taking over the labyrinth I wrote, to test playability and let me focus on my own character.

Tune in next week to read how THAT turned out.


  1. Wow, I'm tired just reading all the design phase. You've really put a lot of work into this. Even with the frustrations, sounds like you're having a lot of fun, and workingup an excellent game.


  2. Thanks, Donna. I can't take credit for the game itself, though. My wife's family has been developing the game over the last 20 years! They are working on getting the game/manual published, so it should be available publicly sometime this year (We hope).

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