Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ivory RPG - Example: Fantasy Expedition

When it comes to expeditions, the fantasy expedition has all other expedition beat in terms of popularity and word count. There are entire games wrapped around exploring dungeons, mapping them, detailed survival, and even kingdom building.

Explore, kill, loot, repeat.

I have no ill will with this sort of game. My only issue with them is that the presence of combat, along with its huge focus, inherently distracts the players from the exploration elements. Yet, we cannot speak about expedition without confronting such games and such experiences.

With the introduction of magic, what is possible in any expedition changes. The very nature of optimal must change as well. Where knowledge was a mystery before, now you can speak with the dead and get answers. Where places were far away before, teleportation can bridge the vast distances. Where food was a limiting factor, now you can magically create food. And those are just a few of the possible interactions of magic with the environment.

The supreme example of a fantasy expedition that focuses on exploration over combat is Gary's Gygax's Tomb of Horrors. I recall being disappointed in this module in my youth, as it hardly had anything to fight. Yet, it stands as one of the great modules because it set up a situation then left everything to the players to solve in any manner that they pleased. There are stories of players who raised the hill off the top of the tomb, tunneled, and did any sort of wonderfully tangential thinking to avoid the lethality of this tomb. Quite simply, the module was not player vs. anything, it was about putting players into a sandbox and letting them go. If the players accept the sandbox mentality, then this module became manageable. The rules proved less important than how the players approached the problems before them.

One of the great benefits from an exploration game is that it doesn't matter how cool your characters are or what their special powers might be. In many ways, those story and power elements detract from the exploration game. They are suboptimal. Those seeking power raid tombs to gain XP and seize treasure, but those who enjoy exploration enjoy gaining an understanding. The power way can be counted and assessed. You know how much XP is awarded and how much gold. For the explorer, answering the question, "What's there?" is the reward.

A tried and true approach to a fantasy exploration game has two main thrusts: discovery and management. The discovery phase centers around finding out what is out there and documenting that knowledge. The management part consists of building a castle and holding territory. This is the basis of the classic kingdom building game. You can split the game into pieces, such as just exploration or just construction, or into smaller parts of a kingdom, such as a tower or a temple, but the drivers remain consistent. It is up to the players to set the agenda, overcome emergent challenges, and determine their own win criteria.

A similar genre is the quest centered game, but this similarity is misleading. A quest centered game focuses on finding an object/persona/idea, which usually takes a great deal of running around the countryside. Although the quest has many superficial similarities to an exploration game, such as research and logistics, the quest itself acts as a driver for a series of stories, which is not what Ivory is about. A quest is really just a framework to hang stories from. Exploration for knowledge and self-appointed logistical goals do not figure prominently in such a genre. If you can eliminate all the logistics and discovery and still have a genre, such as the quest genre, then you don't have a true exploration game.

The fun part about an fantasy exploration game is that you can be as wacky as you want to be. The problem with a fantasy game is that the changes in sandbox physics produces unexpected results which may not suit the original vision of the game.

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