Friday, August 12, 2016

Glass Ravens, Combination Locks, and an Unseen Terror

If Blogger’s pageview counter thingy is even slightly accurate, then people reading this are aware that Patrick Stuart has again taken this glass dungeon mapping style (coined by him) I’ve been fucking around with and run with it.

Several features of this new concept jump out at me and scream MAKE ME REAL AND COMPLETE ME I MUST LIVE:

1) The dungeon changes completely based on the characters’ actions.
  -(corollary) The main navigational challenge is figuring out how those changes work and how to direct them with specific intent.
  -(corollary) Certain areas would be impossible to access from certain others, depending on which configuration is currently active.

2) At least one of the dungeon’s reasons for being is to imprison a powerful demon at its center. This is a trope, obviously, but combined with some other elements of the concept, it hits a very particular nostalgic note for me. I’ll explain this in a bit.

3) Whenever the dungeon shifts around them, the party remains stationary in relation to it. As Patrick explained it, room 12 is still room 12.

4) Despite this, the overall nature of the dungeon changes so drastically that the usable features of room 12 in one configuration will be different from its features in any other configuration.
  -(corollary) This concept would require a greater variety of maps and mapping styles than any single adventure location I’ve ever seen. A tower might work better, in terms of clarity, as a cutaway side-view, for example. Which means the whole thing will be super fun to map out.

5) There’s an implicit timer involved, because there’s a chance of some terrifying outsider finding its way into the dungeon every time everything shifts. An adventuring party could theoretically just wander around in there getting more and more confused forever, but in practice they’d eventually be overwhelmed by all the crazy monsters they’re letting in.

Some of the points that occurred to me while I was reading his post:

1) Variable topology can be used to make the entire place function as a giant combination lock, in which every dungeon shift basically maps to a number in the combination lock metaphor. This is related to the nostalgia I mentioned.

2) Whatever features the PCs have to interact with to change the dungeon can be made possible in only one possible configuration, and merely hinted at in all the others. These “switches” could be designed to match the configuration they work in thematically, so they act as clues as to which configuration allows you to use each switch.

3) This whole concept can easily incorporate Patrick’s original glass dungeon post, simply by using that concept for one of the configurations.

4) These mechanics can be used to forcibly split the party and make reuniting them into another challenge all its own. For example, let’s say they want to get from configuration 4 to configuration 10 for some reason or other, but they can’t do so directly because of my second point. They need to activate some sort of switch in room 3 configuration 4 to get to configuration 6, where they can reach configuration 10 using a switch in room 8. But there’s no path between rooms 8 and 3 in configuration 6. So they’d have to split up, with one or more of them (let’s call them team A) moving to room 8 in configuration 4 while team B goes to room 3 to shift over to configuration 6, so team A can hit the switch in room 8 and move everyone to configuration 10.

I’m not sure I’d understand that example at all if anyone said it to me so here’s a quick topological diagram:


So here’s the nostalgia thing I promised to explain. The name of my blog and the banner at the top are references to the shared universe of Zork and Enchanter, two series of text adventures published by Infocom in the 80s. These games did a MUCH better job of simulating the most interesting aspects of D&D than any computer games TSR or WOTC ever published.

They did this by focusing on the real core mechanic of every single TTRPG ever made: the DM (or in this case the computer) describes your characters’ immediate surroundings, and prompts you to take some action. You couldn’t get far without gathering more information by examining just about everything your in-game avatar saw. The games are all available to play for free these days, and walkthroughs are a google search away if you get stuck. You know, if you’re interested.

Anyway, there’s one particular puzzle in Enchanter (probably the easiest and trope-iest entry in either series, if you’d like to try these games out and are wondering where to start) that I couldn’t help thinking about, reading Patrick’s post.

As I remember it, there’s a hidden area under a castle that contains 1) a powerful spell you need to learn to win the game, and 2) an invisible apocalyptic threat known only as the Unseen Terror. This area was a complex of several identical rooms, cut off from the room containing both the spell and the Terror.

There are an old scrap of parchment and a well-used pencil on the floor of the entrance room to this complex. Examining the parchment reveals a flowchart-style map of this small area, with connections between the rooms drawn in pencil. The map shows the treasure room with the spell and the Terror, and is really the only way you’d know that room was there at all. The pencil and its eraser are both nearly spent, with only three uses left of each.

the map on the parchment or paper or whatever it was as viewed through a modern emulator
If you connect the treasure room (P) to the rest of the complex (which you must do to get the spell you must learn), the Unseen Terror immediately takes advantage of this and tries to escape, moving from room to room at the same speed you make your own moves. This, plus the worn out pencil, means you have a very limited number of moves in which to connect that room, get the spell scroll, and re-imprison the Terror without also trapping yourself. Variable topology as a combination lock.

Now, I haven’t played this game since I was a little kid. I couldn’t tell you exactly how old I was, but I was young enough that I was playing the game with my older brother because I couldn’t read very well yet. And I don’t remember much of anything from my childhood. And I didn’t need to look up any of that description except for the screenshot of the map. This puzzle made such an impression because it left me wanting so much more.

And this Glass Ravens concept of Patrick’s can be built up using a much more complex version of the same basic puzzle mechanic as a framework. Fuck yeah.

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