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The Avalon Team

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 04, 2013 4:43 pm 

Joined: Sun Feb 12, 2012 2:43 pm
Posts: 230
The Difficulties of Making an Adventure for a Party Controlled by a Solo Player

By AJ Kenning

On the surface, it might seem like a solo party-based game would play out just like a regular campaign. It has all of the elements of a regular campaign, after all. But the difficulties arise as soon as one starts designing the game.

Eons ago, I spent a great deal of time (too much really) with the random dungeon generator that can be found in the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide© and the random overland generator of the Wilderness Survival Guide©. Those generators were, in fact, the method I chose for learning all of the ins and outs of the D&D game, which I did in order to prepare myself for being a Gamemaster.

Both of those random generators were fairly basic, just random terrain generators with random monster encounters and random loot, with none of those things tied together in any way. The systems were functional, nothing more. And the more time I spent with them, the more I wanted some kind of structure to the whole thing.. Something more than just endless randomness built on randomness. And I even came up with a few simple plans for giving the systems that structure.

So, I already had some basic ideas in mind when Avalon Games™ asked me to take on the project of the solo-party questing game that is Avalon Quests©. And I already knew what some of the difficulties of having a solo party-based game are. And I also already knew what the most troublesome of those difficulties was going to be for most people playing the game: repetitive dice rolling.

Where solo one-on-one combat is fine, and even one-on-three combat goes fairly smoothly when controlled by a single person, a full party continuously facing a full assortment of enemies can quickly devolve into something quite tedious. Think about it. The one Player of the game rolls for each party member and for each enemy for every attack and for every action, and keeps doing so for every round for every combat. That's a whole lot of dice rolls and a whole lot of recording of roll results.

After a while of doing that, it can start to seem like you were put on this earth for the sole purpose of being a dice roller statistician for some vengeful, yet highly anal, god. Which can, in turn, lead to the Player performing the battles by similar rote, just to get them over with in as quick and efficient a manner as possible. And that is in no way a good result for the game.

In order to steer Avalon Quests© well away from that territory, this game was designed from the get-go to have both fixed and random encounters, and to have several different ways that even those random encounter can proceed. To that end, several concepts were introduced to the game. There is Negotiations, which can lead an encounter to a peaceful outcome. There is the ability to hide or sneak away from encounters. And finally, there is a Morale system, so that every single battle doesn't have to come down to the very last man, as occasionally, the enemy will simply run away.

In that same vein, combat has been designed to allow for multiple possibilities. Random map placement for the enemies and a system for initial enemy formations based upon their intelligence level ensures that even during those situations where the party has a second encounter with a set of the same creatures as they have met before, those creatures won't be met and fought in the same exact way.

Or to put all that another way, variety was the watchword in the design of Avalon Quests©. In order to ensure that combat never devolved into boring routine, as much variety as possible was inserted into the game.

But that mention of Negotiations brings up another point of difficulty: Or more specifically, it highlights a thing's absence – the loss of game focus on a single character. In a solo party-based game, there is no moment where the Player identifies with their character so much that they say: “I do this.” That aspect of the game is simply gone. Quite naturally, of course, since the Player is controlling a party, not an individual

However, what disappears along with that is the set system that governs how the characters interact with the friendlier NPCs of the world. The question immediately arises: just which party member does the talking? And which party member does an NPC choose to talk to when it is the NPC who starts the conversation? And what happens if the Player wants a different character to say something than an NPC chose to talk to?

With this issue, I simply rolled with things as they stood, and had the NPCs speak to the entire party as a whole, rather than individuals. The Player chooses a spokesperson for the party, and that character does the actual speaking, but the spokesperson is always speaking for the party, never for themselves. The Player can switch out which character is the spokesperson for different encounters, choosing the best person for the anticipated needs of the moment, but cannot switch spokespeople during an encounter. That way the game doesn't get bogged down in the minutia of trying to decide who is talking to what, when, and why, and the dialogues just play out smoothly and simply.

Minutia is a much broader issue, as the amount of a paperwork involved in a solo party-based game can be phenomenal. And thus, there's the question of how to ease up on all of the paperwork and administration that would normally be foisted on a solo Player controlling a party. After all, the solo Player has to keep track of hit points, ammunition, diseases, spells effects, spells per day, and all else and do so for every member of the party AND every single enemy faced. Then, on top of that, there's travel times, the effects of differing terrains on travel, travel abilities, buying & selling of equipment, healing, resting, and so on. It's a lot of details to track, for anyone.

For Avalon Quests©, this issue was tackled on two fronts. First, I made use of a hex grid for the overland map, and then implemented a hex-based travel and resting system oriented around 4-hour increments. This way, the party moves so many hexes during each time increment, and travel thus becomes merely a matter of counting hexes. Resting, in turn, simply meshes straight into that same increment structure. And in that way, the Player can move the party from one location to another with a minimum amount of fuss.

Secondarily, several aids have been included with the game that keep track of much of the information for the Player, such as a quest tracker, goal markers, and a calendar with which to record the dates of status effects and events. These tools move as much of the gruntwork as possible onto the paperwork itself, requiring the Player to only record a few details in order to update the sheets as needed.

And yet, while the above three difficulties are likely to be the ones most recognized by the Players of Avalon Quests©, those issues are probably not the most serious difficulty for a solo party-based game. That difficulty comes in a more abstract form, lying as it does in the loss of the other Player at the table, the one not yet mentioned – the Gamemaster.

With the Gamemaster also gone, the solo Player naturally must pick up some of the Gamemaster's duties. And many a Player will be ill-prepared to do that, having never GM'd before, and thus never having had to administer the game's rules upon a party. Indeed, a number of Players won't have ever even read any of the Pathfinder books, including the Core Rulebook©. (You know who you are.) Such Players can't reliably be just dropped into a game where they have to take on part of the work of being a Gamemaster. Not without disastrous results.

If this were a solo character game, it would be simpler, since the game could easily be styled after a Choose Your Own Adventure book. But for a full party, that just isn't realistic. A simple random poisoning would take pages of detail in a party-based CYOA game, and a full campaign would thusly end up being the size of the Oxford English Dictionary©.

So, the Player is going to have to learn how to implement status effects, govern travel, apply enemy abilities, and administer weather results for themselves. Many Players may have suffered the effects of these events, but have never had to know the details or the process of administering them upon the party.

Because of this particular issue, I included an introduction explaining the use of hex maps, how to travel, and how to administer the various events and encounters the party may meet during an Avalon Quests© adventure. This section is, essentially, a rudimentary introduction in how to be a Gamemaster. I did attempt to keep this section as short and breezy as possible, since it is meant to be a light introduction to the material, and not a full-on lesson in Gamemastering. But, it is there, and it will prevent newcomers to this type of game from simply being thrown into the deep end without even a manual.

Now, those four difficulties are just the main highlights on the road to crafting a solo party-based adventure. There are a thousand more such difficulties, especially arising out of the removal of the Gamemaster. The above are merely the big four that center around a solo Player running a full party of adventurers.

But what does all this mean to you? Well, for one, it gives you a number of things to think about if you ever decide to make a solo adventure of your own. And more importantly, it offers insight into the thoughts of the designer as he made a particular game, which will reflect greatly upon the resulting game that was made.

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