Held With Hope!: An Intro Game’s Flow
When I was younger, I was terrified of flow. When I’d write games, I’d desperately try to avoid thinking about flow. I’d build everything that I could first, and then awkwardly stitch together some scenes in a linear order in order to create a flow. I knew about the concept of Diamond Flow, certainly, but I didn’t really understand how to apply that to make a coherent story. And I know I’m not the only person who felt that way. When we’re in High School Lit, we read about the Hero’s Journey. The hero is chilling at home, when all of a sudden they are called to action, and must embark on an epic voyage, which leads them through much pain and trouble. At the end, they fulfill the call (or fail miserably trying) and try to return home, but things have changed, and nothing can quite be the same. While not all stories follow this structure, it’s true that there is a certain group of stories which adhere to this narrative style (especially in modern Western literature). Intro Games, in addition to the visual and setting similarities, also follow the same narrative structure. But story narratives are different from character narratives – in the Hero’s Journey there’s only one protagonist, but in an Intro Game there are fifty! How do we make this work?
The Players’ Journey
We’re going to take the players on a journey. This journey won’t be individual, as players will be given plenty of chances to make their own stories and discover their own adventures. This journey won’t be paced the same every time – each Adventure Game would like the journey to focus more on different sections of the path. Not every game follows this journey – there are plenty of reasons as to why you’d want to change things up and mix it around. But this is a journey where every step follows the one before it very comfortably, and if you follow it, I promise you your game will at the very least make coherent sense and allow the players a sense of satisfaction.
So often we talk about Diamond Flow in Intro Games. In fact, that article I just linked to is required reading, in order to understand the rest of this article. It describes perfectly how to use Diamond Flow and how to use it well. However, it is a popular misconception that Diamond Flow is the core of an Intro Game. In fact, Diamond Flow is merely a tool you can use in order to make your narrative make sense. While it’s not the only tool available to a gamewriter (Jeremy Gleick and I used the “final battle” tool over and over again in The Horned King to great success), it is certainly the most reliable one for generating games that are the proper length of time and maximally empower players without spreading staff resources too thin.
You take your diamonds and you apply them to the journey, generally with some padding in between. You want two diamonds per game segment, generally, and an Intro Game at a day camp has two game segments. Diamonds fit into and augment the journey, helping to break it up into manageable pieces and helping it to feel less like a big mob of people walking from one location to another. Done smoothly, players will never even notice the journey is there. But what is the journey, and where does it begin?
Ah, the beginning. The PCs set up camp, explore the main space that Sets & Props has so lovingly built, and interact with each other in-character for the very first time. The Beginning is vital for making everyone feel at home in the world. They don’t know what craziness they have to look forward to until they know what it’s like to be normal. The Beginning doesn’t need to be long, just long enough that the players get to meet one another and establish some basic dynamics. The Beginning concludes with the players engaging in some kind of ritual or activity. The classic example is a wedding – the four teams from the four kingdoms arrive, shake hands, smile to one another, thank the gods that the evil necromancer isn’t here to spoil their fun, and commence with the wedding festivities under the watchful gaze of Grandmother Oak Tree.
Enter the Threat
Oh no! It’s the evil necromancer, with an army of Zooombies! The Big Bad and their monsters arrive on the scene, and disrupt whatever activity the players are engaged in. They chase the players away to a location which can be fortified against the monsters (the main space). This is how it looks when the Threat is being Active. When the Threat is more passive (for example, monsters devouring townsfolk near the wedding), then the players will come upon the Threat engaging in evil (hearing the screams and running to investigate), at which point the players will return to the main space of their free will (how do we fight off the monsters?). Either way, this introduces players to the Threat and sets the tone for their interactions with the Threat. A diamond can be inserted here by having the Threat be in multiple locations, and players have to split up to go deal with it.
The Messy Middle
So this is the part where you get to have fun. The general trajectory for this portion of the journey is that players will push back against the Threat, learn how to defeat the Threat, and acquire tools to defeat the Threat (be it internal or external). These three sub-parts, Pushing Back, Receiving Guidance, and Acquiring Tools can happen in any order, and some can happen multiple times throughout the middle. In some form, every step of flow in the middle of the game can be described as one of these three elements.
This is an excellent time to draw upon your Mission statements mentioned in the last article (you read the first part of this article, right?). What do the players do to accomplish Pushing Back? Well, perhaps they plan tactics, or cast cool spells, or one of your other Mission statements.
The players now must turn to some other force, in order to receive wisdom about how exactly to defeat this new Threat. Perhaps they call upon the spirit of Grandmother Oak Tree, or they consult the Book of Ancient Lore, or they discuss amongst themselves the best solution. This is intended to guide the PCs on what their next course of action is, and help them understand what exactly is going on. This is a good time to provide the PCs with an explanation, or prepare them for what’s coming next. A diamond can be inserted here by having each team seek advice from a different individual or source, and come back together to combine that information.
We’re not strong enough to defeat the Threat on our own. If we were, we would’ve defeated it the moment it arrived, way back in Part 2. The players are going to need to craft artifacts, prepare spells, or go forth and acquire relics in order to muster the strength to actually defeat the Threat. To do this, the players will need Tools and probably seek more Guidance. These tools are magical enchantments on their blades that let them kill the monsters, or a ritual which remotely disables the Emperor’s arcane shields. They are objects or actions which allow the players to actually be able to defeat the monsters, not just fight them. The guidance of this part is the instruction on how to use and apply these tools. A diamond can be included here by having the players acquire tools from multiple locations, or have to work together by combining discrete objects in separate rituals (The soldiers enchant their blades, the healers study under their god, the wizards learn a new spell, and the thieves sneak in and steal the necromancer’s phylactery).
The Players, having gained wisdom in order to fight against the Threat, now finally have the ability to stand up against it. This doesn’t mean they win, definitely not, but it means they have the chance to stand up for themselves and gain some ground. Sometimes this is literal, where the players literally push back the monsters, and sometimes it’s more metaphorical, where they win over neutral parties or take back sacred relics. A diamond can be included here by pushing the monsters back on several fronts, or for multiple confrontations.
Confront the Threat
Finally, the players are on an equal footing with the Threat. They can strike against evil, and defeat the darkness. Generally, this is the conclusion of the game, as the players march into the final battle, weapons drawn, and fight mano-a-mano with the monsters of nightmares. Once the Threat has been defeated (most often in a flurry of swords, although they can also be stopped with a ritual or the detonation of a bomb, for example), then the players get to celebrate and enjoy their freedom from evil. There’s already an excellent article on ending games written by Books, which can be found here. But wait! Is this truly the ending?
This narrative journey is good in a long, sweeping fashion, and in vague terms if you follow it you’ll get a good game (which might lean a little on the short side). However, the real funkiness begins once you introduce hiccups in the plan. False Starts can occur at any point along this journey, as just when the PCs think they know what’s going on, an even bigger Threat appears! This Threat makes the previous Threat look totally unimportant, and now the PCs have to start all over in order to defeat it. The classic Intro Game with two game segments works with this – the players think they’re fighting the evil necromancer, when suddenly their goddess turns out to be trying to destroy them, and they have to spend the second half of game dealing with that. You can also use False Starts when the guidance fails to work, the tools don’t do as expected, or the PCs accidentally give the current Threat new powers. If there’s a plot twist in an Adventure game, generally that’s a False Start, and generally, False Starts are plot twists.
Tasks and Garnishes
As mentioned, you position Diamonds at various points throughout the Flow. Often, a common challenge in gamewriting is what exactly to have at all those diamond points. If you have three PC teams, and four diamonds, that’s twelve unique plot points you have to come up with! Don’t worry though, there’s a lot of tools available to you in order to adorn your Diamonds and make scenes interesting.
The first place to look when coming up with Tasks is to consult your Mission statements. Are there any that apply to making cool Tasks? If one of your Mission statements is “performing rituals”, perhaps squeeze some interesting different rituals in to accomplish tasks. This is the advantage of your Mission statements – they give you a way to identify what you want your flow points to be, and create a cohesive experience.
We also have a huge variety of “generic” tasks you can insert into your Flow, that we have used countless times over the years and can create cool and empowering scenes. Some of the classics include performing a ritual, solving a riddle, defeating a champion, performing a distraction, stealing an artifact, convincing a nobleperson, or fixing a device. An entire article could easily be written about all of these options and choices, so I’m not going to get into the details here. What you can do, is think about what tasks connect to your Mission statements, perhaps in unconventional ways. These tasks should involve a PC or multiple PCs performing a “verb” (fighting, solving, performing, building, etc) in a scene, with the support of an SPC (either a PC leader or a unique character). The Introduction to Flow article mentioned earlier goes into more detail regarding the purpose of these Flow points, and how to apply them within the narrative.
Here is a chart explaining the flow of Marathon Wakes (which can be found here, with flow under the document “Marathon Wakes”). This graph shows the entire flow, mapped out, with different colors indicating the six different parts of flow, and little explosions to mark major points of conflict. I encourage you to go along with the flow document and compare it to the notes I took.
This is both one of the most straightforward and also one of the best Intro Game flows I’ve ever seen, and critically examining it has only made me more confident in that. The only deviation from what I’ve outlined above is the use of only one diamond in the first segment, however this is cleverly intentional. You’ll notice that there’s four significant points of conflict in the first game segment – this allows the game to continue and make sense time-wise without creating unnecessary distractions before Jeriko (the Big Bad) arrives. There’s also a cool scene at the beginning where each team has to present someone who is worthy, which creates drama and empowerment without violence or diamonds.
What’s also important to note about this game, is the lack of False Starts. While False Starts are useful in creating a twist halfway through the game, Marathon Wakes succeeds in making the plot stretch out by devoting a ton of time to the Beginning and a full two scenes to the Threat’s entrance. By dragging out the entrance, the players are given time to become very scared of Jeriko, and once Jeriko takes away the figure they thought was going to be the Big Good (Torrus), the players are shaken and totally disoriented.
Once the action starts, it’s really, really going, and the remaining four parts of game are all pushed through in the second game segment. However, nothing feels rushed – each part has its own space to breathe and is clearly marked out. The discovery of hope, that they do in fact have some way to kill Jeriko and that they can The first game segment is a slow burn, and while it ends on an “uplifting” note, that’s directly counter to the desolation the players have suffered. Meanwhile, the second game segment ends in a frenzied chaos, followed by a moment of pure celebration. The kids love it when one of them gets to become something special.
The End of the Journey
So, that’s a very unexpected way to talk about flow. It’s certainly not conventional, and it’s also not applicable for every game! This isn’t intended to provide a comprehensive way to talk about all games, this is specifically intended for Intro Games and making Diamond Flow into a narrative arc, not just a tool for making flow longer. Thanks for coming with me on this journey, and I hope you learned a lot about how to tackle one of the most exciting parts of writing an Adventure Game.
By Jay Dragon
Jan. 2nd 2018