Flows for Algernon
What actually happens in your game?
Tonight we’re talking about the structure of an adventure game. The individual scenes that compose it must spring from your imagination. But because games which are well-organized tend to run well and games which are poorly organized don’t, it’s useful for us to think about the order of events and plot it out.
We refer to the plots of our games as “flow,” and I don’t claim to know why. But I have some handy explanations I’ve made up for myself:
- To remind us to go with the flow
- Because the plot has to be malleable and accept and build on player actions.
- Because it is often easily mapped as a flow chart.
Technically, in a flow-chart, that middle square should be a diamond, but this is a blog about making elves and goblins happen, not programming.
We’ll talk about, in concrete terms, different flow styles. We’ll start by talking about the Diamond Flow and flow diamonds in general, then move on to the looser kinds of action that we often see in games for more advanced players.
THE DIAMOND FLOW
There is a singular game structure we use, with some variation, for almost all of our intro-level games. It is the product of decades of trial and error, with regards to plotting out adventure games, and the result is a very stable flow which runs for a (comparatively) predictable length of time, ensures player activity at every stage, and can reliably carry both the meaning of a story and the immersion of its players.
Here it is:
Note the annotations on the left. Anytime the players are in the same place, then diverge to perform separate objectives, then reconverge, is referred to as a “diamond.” Most games (or game segments, in the case of intro camps where there’s both a night game and day game) consist of two of these diamonds stacked on top of each other, book-ended by exposition on one side and a conclusion on the other. This satisfies a classic western trope where the heroes must overcome three trials– the two diamonds, and the bad guy– and conveniently tends to take somewhere between 90 and 150 minutes, depending on the land, the players’ initiative, and mid-game decisions made by SPCs about how to spend the time.
Note that the first diamond has three objectives, or “facets,” and the second diamond has only two. Really, a diamond can have any number of facets, with a few considerations:
- A diamond can’t really have one facet. A game where the players never split up, but travel in one massive mob? There will be fewer opportunities for each player to be empowered, their individual game experiences won’t feel unique, and roleplaying in a large crowd can be difficult because the focus is so diffused.
- The more facets there are, the more opportunity there is for player empowerment. It just makes sense that if there are more riddles to answer, duels to fight and items to steal in a game, more players will have a chance to be the one who beats them. But also, in transit along the path to an objective, smaller groups are easier for PC Leaders to empower.
- Every facet of the diamond requires a commitment of personnel. You have a limited number of SPCs to work with. When you consider that (A) at a camp with newer or younger players, every group needs a PC leader to chaperone them and make sure they’re both having fun and making progress and (B) most quest objectives involve fighting/riddling with/evading some kind of SPC, a diamond with more than 5 or 6 facets starts to look unwieldy, and a diamond with more than 8 is just plain inadvisable.
So, that flow is an incredible formula for success. But it looks kind of rigid, doesn’t it? I bet you’re thinking of some elements of a game you’re writing or have an idea for that don’t quite fit into the equation I’ve presented. And the truth is, for more advanced players, Wayfolk who have seen a handful of games, this style of game can begin to feel stale. Just like any connoisseurs, they begin to recognize the underlying foundations of this style of story, and it can seem repetitive to them.
I know that when I first started feeling this way, I wrote a bunch of games that jumped off of the deep end and didn’t follow a diamond structure at all, and I think that the tendency of gamewriters who get bored of the diamond flow is to run straight for the diving board and go head first into uncharted waters (mixed metaphor, shaken, not stirred).
Of course, my deep end games didn’t get accepted, and with good reason: They were chaos. The flow was lopsided and it was unclear if there was enough activity in the game to actually keep the players occupied. All of which is not to say that non-diamond games don’t work; but that they’re way harder to devise and communicate. So before we talk about freer flow games or (shiver!) scenarios, let’s talk about…
ADAPTING THE DIAMOND
So the classic diamond flow is pretty predictable. It’s closed-ended, which means that to get to the end, every point on the flow must necessarily end in success for the players, and one side will certainly triumph over the others. What if you want the fate of the world to be actually hanging in the balance? You can add a separate flow for the bad guys. But if those bad guys are sympathetic? Well, maybe you have two (or more) teams with their own flows… in which case you can still use the familiar diamond flow model, twice. Having certain scenes overlap will ensure that both groups are aware of each other.
But things become more interesting when you give two teams overlapping objectives:
In this example, we’ve got two overlapping diamonds, where teams will be heavily competing for most of their objectives. This is exciting, dynamic, and most importantly, unpredictable. Unpredictable for your players, but also unpredictable for you, the game writer– which is not the best. There are lots of ways to take this open-ended diamond and put controls on it to make the game go more smoothly.
First, remember what I said before, about every point in a basic diamond necessarily ending in success for the players? Well, when you introduce a real chance of failure by having players compete (rather than merely defeating monsters who know to work with them as scene partners)… you have to introduce FAILURE PATHS: if there’s no way forward for a player team that just got whupped, they’re going to either disengage and stop having fun, or go harass the team who has the thing they want until everyone is dead.
Building a way for them to recover and move forward into each scene that they might fail is important, and if it gives them a slight boost that raises their chances in future conflicts, that keeps the game interesting. You could have a whole game about villains being forged by oppression, just by giving out evilish powers and transformations for failing to get objectives.
Second, depending on what you envision for each scene that’s in conflict, you can give specific orders for your SPCs. Maybe Blue Team should succeed at winning by the pond and it just makes sense for Red Team to take the objective at the parking lot. By giving your PC Leaders, particularly, specific ideas for how those scenes should go, you can pre-plan certain elements of the game– leaving that one last objective as the tiebreaker.
Third, we have to accept that, the more complicated a flow becomes, the more susceptible it becomes to being broken entirely. Diamonds are hard and unyielding, but occaisionally, we manage to shatter even the most basic of flows. In the above example, at any point, one team could simply wipe out the other and game will be over way ahead of schedule, before any of those cool scenes could happen. We should identify the flaws in our flow and make note of them, so that our SPCs are wary and we can create backup plans for the inevitable.
So sometimes a game flow is so complicated that a chart would turn into a sloppy mess of arrows. Sometimes the story itself is too post-modern for a beginning, middle and end with three trials and a classic flow diamond. Sometimes the game’s overall goal doesn’t fit it, either– do you map out all 32 diamonds the PCs can find in the world, when they need to find at least 10 to end the eternal winter? You do, but not in diamond flow format. What about when, despite the PCs being grouped up, they’re all individual characters with their own sheets, personal objectives, and goals? Well, then you’re adrift on the sea of innovation. Thankfully, though, we’ve been experimenting with these types of games for a while, and even if we don’t have a map for you, we’ve got some guiding stars.
First and foremost, ask yourself the question when you look at the game, over and over: Does everyone have enough to do? Look at every group, every character. List the things they have available to do, in game. Note, conservatively, how much time each activity will take. If some of them are optional, count those for only half, or a quarter, of the time they’d take. Are there two hours of gameplay there? If there’s less, they might be able to make their own fun, but you should consider adding more. Having more than enough to do, on the other hand, will never hurt a player in a game.
As a second piece of advice, please consider the ending of your game. How do we know when it’s over? Can you create a scene that puts a nice tidy wrap-up on the game to finish it off? If possible, most players should be present for that moment.
Rogue games have fallen somewhat out of favor, for whatever reason, in recent years, but in a rogue game, the vast majority of PCs are roguish characters, and the objectives are almost entirely stealth and wit based– part of the difficulty of mapping flow for games like these is that, rather than being reactive, responding to threats, the heroes are actively seeking wealth or powerful items, and the challenge of the game is how to get those things.
You’re setting up bowling pins for them to knock down. You may have a solution in mind for a puzzle, but the PCs will likely find alternate routes to their goals… which is to be encouraged.
So the first question is: Is there enough stuff worth stealing in your game? And the second: Are the security measures in place sufficiently interesting and engaging for the players?
We’ve had a rash of political games, where the players are all high-status characters with their own objectives and motives, trying to use influence and subtler methods to get what they want.
Schedule out the event that the players are attending. If it’s some kind of council, give them an agenda, and make sure it has plenty of recesses and space for player input. There is a tendency in these kinds of games for the highest-status characters to dominate the scenes, and breaking it up both adds time for conspiracy and for the other players to pursue their goals.
Give players bargaining chips. It’s well enough to have goals, but if they’re forced to accomplish them on charisma alone, only the better-spoken players have a shot at achieving their objectives. If, however, they have leverage over other characters, “off-stage” resources, or even just connections outside of their group, they have much more freedom in how to go about playing the game.
Link players into other people’s objectives, and give them reason to care about them. That way, if they accomplish their goals, they’re still an active piece on the chessboard.
Survival-Horror is another popular genre that defies classical attempts to map out flow. Because, ideally, players have scattered and are running through the woods in terror or hyperventilating in some hiding place, it is hard to give them a pre-ordained sequence of events. But it’s still important to ensure that there is predictable player activity in game!
Force them to venture out. Fear will motivate people to huddle together in one brightly-lit place, which good monsters will know to avoid. Give the PCs objectives that require them to leave comfort and safety behind– whether it’s to fetch more logs for the dimming fire or to find clues as to what’s going on or to run for a chopper that can whisk them away. You need to give them compelling reasons to become vulnerable.
Or, you know, you could just turn out the lights. Give them a safe haven and then tear it away mid-game. The point is, there should be a sense of escalation of fear, and some distant hope to reach for. If it’s hopeless, people stop being afraid and begin to make peace with their characters’ demise, which is anathema to this game style. For these games, the flow is more about pacing and creating opportunities for scares than controlling player actions or outcomes.
GAMEWRITING IS HARD
Writing a good game is difficult, as it requires a strong grasp of organization skills, the logistics of employing all the players during game, and an ability to imagine fun plots and scenes. But it’s important not to get overwhelmed by all the intricacies. When it comes time to put pen to paper, focus on one scene at a time, and get your friends to help you look over the broader picture. You’re going to have to explain what happens in game multiple times, so work through it with them.
Original post 1/7/14