Thursday, July 4, 2019

Choose Your Own Story, or Stop and Smell the Slimes!

TLDR: avoid linearity in your adventures, yes, but also learn how to make recursiveness not tedious.

I have a mild addiction to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. They are an early example of what we refer to now as Interactive Fiction (IF) and share a lineage with the text-based adventure games of old: Colossal Cave and Zork, for instance. As such, they are role-playing games that evolved along a different path from tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, it works like this. You begin a story and, after a few pages of text, are given a choice like "If you go decide you can't delay in finding your lost dog and go down the stairs into darkness turn to page 114. If you decide to go back for a light source and supplies first, hoping that Spot can take care of himself for a while, turn to 32." As you read you are offered choices and follow the branching story path until you reach a passage that culminates, for good or ill, in "The End."

[If you find the CYOA books fascinating, there is an interesting (and freely-available) role-playing game – or perhaps story-telling game, if you make such distinctions – called Cheat Your Own Adventure. It is based on the story-telling style of CYO and the experience of reading the books with a thumb-in-the-page to mark options you didn't take.]

As I read the CYOA books, I map them to keep track of storylines I have abandoned with my choices and want to follow up on later. I keep reading through to various ends until I know I have visited every passage in the book. Here are three books by Edward Packard that I have read in the last year or two, and what I learned from mapping them.

CYOA 12: UFO 54-40 (1982)
You are abducted by aliens while traveling on the Concorde. Will you get along with the aliens or will you be brain-wiped? Will you find human allies to help you escape? Will you reach the paradise planet, Ultima?

I mapped this one some time ago and used a method that later evolved into something more data-oriented and less visual, as you can see. If I were to re-map it like the others, it would look more like #18 than #45, which is to say less recursive.

Whether intentional or through a printing error, there is a thread of the story you can't reach without cheating in this one.

Lift on left is cut off, let me know if you have a use for the full data

CYOA 18: Underground Kingdom (1983)
You enter the hollow earth through a fissure that seems to be rapidly closing. At the core you discover a black sun, mysterious golden birds of high intelligence, and warring tribes of furry people.

Green = redirect to target (boxed), Red = ending, Gray = no choice

CYOA 45: You Are A Shark (1985)
You enter a temple where you find yourself trapped by a chimeric idol. A seated monk leads you through meditations in which you experience many lives as different animals. (Or maybe just one, depending on your choices.) The not-subtle subtext is that humans are jerks.

This is the most "recursive" CYOA I have read to date, with many ways to loop back through the story. I was surprise that, for me, the recursiveness did not make the story better. For one thing, there are fewer endings because different lines end up merging into the same track.  I suppose the upside of is that you can experience most of the book in a single read with the right choices – looping back naturally and choosing a different path each time. In some ways, I felt like I was robbed of the many-stories-in-one-book nature of earlier CYOAs.

Green = redirect to target (boxed), Red = ending, Gray = no choice
Same data, but visualized in tree form

How This Relates to Tabletop Role-Playing Games
It seems that over time Packard worked fewer endings into the books. UFO 54-40 has 30 endings. Underground Kingdom has 21. You are a Shark has only 14! This may have been a reaction to readers frustrated by very short story lines – in Underground Kingdom you can die in four pages, having only made two choices. And some of the endings are abrupt and disappointing. Very few take up more than half a page. The trade-off is that a lot of the story-lines, instead of ending, loop you back to an earlier point. 

This brings to mind some essays I read a while back on Jaquaying the Dungeon. The reference is to Jenell Jaquays, who wrote The Caverns of Thracia (1979) and other classic RPG modules under the name Paul Jaquays. 

Turning Jennell's name into a verb, the author, Justin Alexander, contends that dungeons should be looping, not linear. That's a gross over-simplification of what is spelled out over five essays, but it relates to the CYOA structures above. If we can think of non-looping, branching paths as linear – and I think we can – "Jaquaying" would mean to mix it up a bit by having multiple ways to progress through the story that aren't mutually exclusive. In You Are A Shark, you can take a "left-fork" that later returns you to the same fork, allowing you to go right (or left again). When it comes to dungeons, you can add the idea of multiple entrances (beginnings) as well as exits (endings), and I generally agree with Justin.

However – and I think you knew there was a "but" coming – re-treading the same old paths can be tedious. So how do we design dungeons that are "Jaquayed" without being boring?

Recursive, not Repetitive
First of all, we don't have to work too awfully hard at this. There is an inherent interest in "the road not taken." Players will naturally want to return to areas where they skipped over a door or turning, just to see what they missed. And humans have a kind of completist itch in any case; they want to know they have set foot in every available square foot of dungeon.

So really the tedium of going back through the same areas is about the signal to noise ratio. Think about your drive to work, there's nothing qualitatively positive about the repetitive part of it. You've seen those roads a million times. So how do you keep the drive fresh? Well, nature helps. An unusually lovely sunset, the change in seasons and conditions, the random appearance of interesting animals. All of those things can make "the same old drive" eventful. And there are things you do yourself to break up the drive, you play different music or an audiobook. You play games with license plates, doing math or trying to make words out of the random letters. You call an old friend or parent.

These same tricks work in the dungeon. The GM can change the conditions or introduce new creatures into old areas, of course. Instead of a pretty sunset or a flight of geese, the dungeon has become smokey with accumulated torch use and stings your eyes, or the sounds of the party has drawn a patrol of bugbears into the area, or killing the displacer beasts on the way in now means the kobolds can lay claim an area they long avoided. 

The GM can also throw up detours. Perhaps there is a new cave-in or hastily thrown up barricade. Maybe a shifting hallway trap or an illusion makes the characters believe they are in the same hallway when they really aren't. 

To complete the analogy, the party can play "road games" to pass the time, perhaps with some encouragement from the GM. Not fighting their way through the halls and rooms this time might give the party more time to explore on the way back/out. Maybe there were runes they didn't notice before which help fill in some of the dungeon's history, or they could use the time to search for secret doors (again). I generally use the "you get one attempt" rule unless the fiction changes. So here it is; the fiction changed – the characters are traveling through the hall way at a later time, or in the reverse direction, or after having cleared it out. The GM might even let them find the secret stuff automatically this time, or at least throw out really pointed hints and reduce all the difficulties by a step or two.

Stop and Smell the Slimes!
This advice might take a little effort to employ, but it's worthwhile. I'm as guilty as anyone about short-handing things that are repetitive in role-playing. After a while it's natural to not describe the same halls or the same attacks and just say things like "you go north for 40 feet" or "I attack the kobold." But it's a quick death for a game to indulge in this form of abbreviation. After all, you are playing the game to experience the excitement and the wonder of being a different person in a different world. Don't rush through it! Take a moment to stop and smell the roses: admire the dwarven stonecraft or collect a sample or two of various useful slimes and molds.

Unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure, you can change the "text" of the game as you go. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure, the fun is in the journey, not the end.

1 comment:

  1. Hopefully the players are appreciative of the variety and dynamic nature of the road revisited. This can be more work for the GM.

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