This article is going to be talking about pen & paper role-playing games such as D&D. If that all sounds like a load of jargon to you might I suggest taking a look at one of my previous articles: D&D and Modern Game Design.
If this isn’t your first time rolling a D20 or any other kind of funny shaped dice then you’ll fit right in.
So, you want to get experience in narration or design or maybe narrative design but, like me, you’re not a computer whiz who has a decent command over programming languages like C# or Java Script. Well, you’ll probably have to deal with those things someday, but it doesn’t have to be now. In fact thanks to pen & paper role-playing games you can actually start designing right now.
For this article, in particular, I’m going to be using Dungeons & Dragons or D&D as an example, but this applies to any and all pen and paper role-playing games. I’ve just picked D&D for this example because it is what I’m most familiar with and because there is a free lite version of the rules that you can download and use by clicking on this link. The Basic Player’s Handbook and the Basic DM’s Handbook should have downloadables at the bottom of the page.
Okay so you have the rules, but now what? Well reading the Player Handbook and DM Handbook both is a good start. You don’t need to read them cover to cover, although you should read both in their entirety later down the road. For now start by getting a feeling for how the game is run, the introduction section of the player handbook is a great place to start as it acts as an overview as to what D&D is. You’ll also want to keep these on hand when you play to consult the rules.
(Sidenote: I almost forgot, but you’ll need to pick up various polyhedral dice: a d6, d8, d10, d12, and a d20. You can get these at a local game store or download one of the free dice apps on either the android or ios app stores)
Okay, so now that you’ve looked over both handbooks maybe you’re starting to see how this could lead to learning about narrative and design. Dungeons and Dragons is a series of systems you can use to create not just a story, but an experience that is realistic in the fact that it simulates a universe governed by various laws and properties not too dissimilar from our own and allows players to interact with that universe in any way they see fit. Open world sandbox games attempt to do the same thing. So in essence, DM-ing a Dungeons & Dragons Game is like being the designer of your own open world sandbox game. Neat, right!?
As a DM you’ll be the judge of the rules as well as create the games: setting, non-player characters, determine loot, create combat encounters, traps, puzzles, ect. Most of those fall under aspects of game design. So, what I would encourage you to do, starting out, is focus on the aspects of design that interest you the most the ones you are really good at working with.
What do I mean by that? Well, I mean focus (initially) on the elements in games that you love the most. I’m a fan of narrative, so I’d make a narrative-heavy adventure with a grand over-arching plot, a cast of colorful characters, vibrant locals, and maybe some romance for good measure. You, on the other hand, might really love games like Dark Souls with really tight level design and grueling, but not impossible combat encounters. So, you’d then focus on creating an adventure with plenty of traps and difficult encounters with monsters using grid paper and battle mats to map out the exact positioning of each monster and trap. And if you’re the kind of person that likes to design mechanics over experience then try and change the rules a little bit or create a new class. Playtest them with friends and try and figure out what’s fun and what’s broken.
Remember, this is just where you start, you’ll want to work on all aspect of design in a campaign as you will have to work with all of these aspects and make them work together in a cohesive manner in order to create a truly great experience. And don’t feel bad if you’re lacking in one area or another; we all have our strengths and weaknesses. That’s why there are often multiple designers working on a game and why dev teams have the various leads that they do. Focus on just becoming proficient in all aspects of design, not perfect, practice makes that, or so I’m told.
Thanks for reading the article. I hope this inspires you to try playing pen & paper role-playing games and use them as a tool for learning game design while also having fun. If you’re having trouble making a campaign or just want to know more about D&D and how you create and run games I’ll post a few resources below that’ll be able to help you out.
As always leave your thought and opinions in the comments.
Game Blurb is another column about smaller talking points regarding games and design. Basically, they’re just me trying to collect and publish some loose thoughts rattling around in my brain. This one, in particular, can be translated into a lot of mediums other than game design, but I’ll be strictly talking about it in those terms for the sake of staying on topic.
Our topic for today is experience and no I’m not talking about points used to level up a character in a Role-Playing Game or an MMO, but instead about life experiences in general and how they have inspired games and their design. It’s actually pretty amazing how much of the games creators goes into the games they produce.
One of the earliest examples of life experience being translated to a game that I can think of is Shigeru Miyamoto’s inspiration for the original Legend of Zelda game which was inspired by his exploration of the hills, caves, and woodlands surrounding his hometown. Translating these experiences into a game is what drove Miyamoto’s design and the games early concept. Link, like young Shigeru Miyamoto, would wander and explore various areas. One of the most important elements of this exploration Miyamoto wanted to convey was a sense of discovery, hence all of the secrets that players can stumble across while exploring the game’s world.
Quantic Dream CEO, writer, and director, David Cage created Beyond: Two Souls based on his experiences with the loss of a loved one. He took a highly personal and heartbreaking experience and turned it into a touching and thrilling experience in which protagonist, Jodi Holmes, explores feelings related to death and loss throughout her story within the game.
“But the more I wrote, the more I realised I was writing about what I had experienced. Writing is a strange process, because you don’t always know what you have to say when you start. It’s only when you read yourself that you realise ‘okay, this is what my inner voice had to say” – David Cage
Lastly, we have Uncharted 4, which I recently wrote about in a previous article. In a Game Informer interview with Uncharted 4 game director Bruce Straley and creative director Neil Druckmann. The two talk about the development of both Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and the previous game they developed The Last of Us, but in the interview, they also touch on the relatability of the characters and what has inspired some of their narrative choices. Neil Druckmann talked about how his passion for making games mirrors the main character, Drake’s, passion for adventure. Both of them struggle with sacrifices in the pursuit of their passions, specifically a sacrifice of family. Neil mentioned that he hasn’t been able to spend as much time with his family as he’d always like because he is working on games. So then the game’s narrative ended up exploring obsession and passion. Can it go too far? What would you sacrifice? What should you sacrifice?
Pulling from experiences such as those above adds greatly to the narrative and design of any game. They add a level of relatability and honesty that only comes from conveying a true experience. If you’re thinking, “We’ll I want to make a game about a secret agent or a samurai, but I don’t know anything about that experience.” Then I would advise you to find the relatable experience from what you do know about the game or narrative you’re creating. Maybe you know or are someone who leads a double life of sorts. You could convey that experience in the creation of your secret agent game. Or maybe you have a strong sense of integrity and honor or live by a code of some sort, you could relate that to your samurai game.
What I guess I’m trying to say is that you can inject personal experience into games in a lot of ways by drawing from not only events but feelings as well and then translate them into your games creating an honest and relatable story. Easier said than done, but I think that’s part of the trick, part of the magic of narrative, especially in games which are, in a way, synthetic experiences.
Hope you gained something from the article, I know I did.
If you liked what you just read feel free to come back for more. I have new content towards the end of every week. Also feel free to leave your thoughts opinions in the comment section bellow.
It’s games like, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End that make me glad that this is a small blog and not a large and professional site. Why? Because I can take a moment to gush at how good this game is and all that it does well. That’s why!
I recently started playing the Uncharted series over these last few months and I haven’t regretted it one bit. The series as a whole deserves all of the acclaim it has gathered and is definitely a series I would recommend looking into.
I just finished the last game in the series, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, a week or two ago and was thoroughly entertained; especially by the deep and rewarding narrative woven by the game. That being said:
THERE ARE LOTS OF SPOILERS BELOW. READ AT YOUR OWN PERIL.
Uncharted 4 brilliantly develops a series of themes that stay consistent throughout the game’s entire narrative all while having players reflect on the characters and the history of the series. I cannot think of a more proper send off for a series.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End starts in media res, a fancy term I’ve decided to use to make myself look smarter than I actually am, meaning to start in the middle of the narrative. The game starts with an action sequence with Nathan Drake, driving a boat towards an Island with his brother, Sam, all the while fending from pursuers. The use of media res in this entry is done better than in most and lends itself nicely to the narrative by giving players a new context for the events when presented again in chronological order.
The game then flashes back to Nathan’s childhood in an orphanage giving players more backstory on Nathan’s character and his history. It more importantly, begins to set up Nathan relationship with his brother, Sam. The scenes establish Nathan and Sam’s relationship setting Sam as a mentor and powerful force in Nathan’s formative years.
This scene then transitions to both Nathan and Sam as adults in a Panamanian Prison, a clever nod, and development on what was most likely a simple throw-away joke from the first game. Now the prison is the setting for a crucial moment in Drake’s life where he witnesses what he believes to be Sam’s death during an attempt to escape the jail.
The game then shifts gears from the intense high action scenes to the story of Drake’s life in retirement. Now settled down at a steady job at a marine salvage company and married to long time love interest, Elena Fisher. From here the writers set up a normal life for Drake. One with no action or intrigue, it’s steady but dull and uneventful. The scene working for the marine salvage company mirrors this excellently by making players work and get excited about the find only to realize it is just a bunch of copper wires.
From here the game transitions to a scene with Drake cloistered in the attic of his house surrounded by objects from his old adventures. You can, as a player, look over these object wistfully in-game looking back fondly on adventures from earlier Uncharted titles. You can also shoot some targets with a toy gun for kicks, which narratively is important because it shows Drake’s yearning for action and adventure.
This section of the game’s narrative demonstrates his new relationship with Elena as husband and wife. Players can judge the relationship by observing various mementos and photos scattered across the house and come to the assumption that this is most likely a happy marriage and that Nathan and Elena really do love and care for each other. However, we as players come in at a point where Drake has become slightly distant towards Elena due to his dissatisfaction with his current lifestyle placing a small rift on their relationship.
I really enjoyed these moments of the game even though they didn’t feature much in the way of gameplay because it expanded upon Drake’s character in a way the series had never really done before making him more human than ever before. It showed him as an average person and made his character all the more relatable through this series of slice-of-life vignettes.
The game then cuts to Drake doing paperwork in his office when he hears a knock on his door only to find his long lost brother, Sam. The two rekindle their relationship by having a humorous dialogue about Drake’s previous adventures before Sam sets the game’s plot in motion by telling Drake that he now owes money to an infamous drug lord for busting him out of jail and that the only way to collect that money is by retrieving the lost treasure of infamous pirate Henery Avery.
This creates an extra layer of conflict as Drake has promised Elena that he would leave his life as a treasure hunter behind as a condition of their marriage. These themes of greatness versus simplicity and a normal life versus one of danger and adventure is constantly repeated throughout the game.
We see this a lot through the interactions of both Nathan and Sam as Sam continually pulls Nathan further and further back into his old life as a treasure hunter making the temptation of adventure harder and harder to resist even to the point where Nathan is given several outs from the adventure, but opts to stay regardless because of his enjoyment.
During the game, the story of St. Dimas the penitent thief or good thief who asked Jesus for forgiveness on the cross and Gestas the impenitent or bad thief who mocked Jesus on the cross, is related as it ties into the treasure of Captain Avery. The story draws a nice parallel to the brothers in term of the penitent thief and the impenitent thief as Nathan has left behind this life of treasure hunting, he is penitent, while Sam has yet to escape his obsession for Captain Avery’s treasure and his own desire for a life of adventure and greatness.
If you’d like to learn more about both Nathan and Sam’s relationship in the game there is a great interview with both Nathan’s voice actor (Nolan North) and Sam’s voice actor (Troy Baker) where the two discuss their thoughts on the relationship of the brothers. They make interesting points about a role reversal that goes on with Nathan the younger brother taking on the role of the older brother and becoming the mentor.
As the game goes on Elena finally catches on to the ruse Nathan used to go on this adventure and she finally confronts him forcing him to deal with the fact that he lied to her. This goes back to the theme of family and what’s important to Nathan and he’s forced to choose between both his brother, Sam and his wife, Elena, and in part adventure as well. Nathan ultimately chooses to help Sam and Elena walks out.
The two brothers then leave alone to pursue the lost treasure of Henery Avery. As their situation gets increasingly dire Nathan tries to talk Sam out of hunting for the treasure. This is due to Nathan realizing just how important Elena is to him and the fact that he might have lost one of the few things in his life worth caring about. Again we see Nathan in a role of penitence.
Eventually players reach a scene where the two are cornered and Sam is forced to reveal that there was never a drug lord that he owed money to. Sam lied to his brother in order to get him to join him in this treasure hunt. Nathan nearly gets shot by, Rafe Adler, and is knocked off of a cliff unconscious.
The scene then transitions to a flashback of Sam and Nathan when they were both younger. The two discover documents relating the story of their deceased mother’s archeological expedition to find Henery Avery’s treasure. This then ties back into the theme of family and it increasingly becomes apparent why Sam is so obsessed. It isn’t about the wealth, but instead about having something to prove. Nathan and Sam in their past were considered nobodies and they never really had any family, except each other. This treasure in a way would not only reunite their family but, finally prove both of their worth in Sam’s eyes. It would validate the two of them. This is simply good storytelling that really ties together with metaphors and themes just like a piece of good writing you would find in any other medium.
After this flashback we witness Elena nursing Nathan back to health as he recounts the flashback player had just seen. The next few scenes nicely work together as Nathan and Elena try to find and save Sam all the while the two reconcile their relationship. In the process, it is ever so slightly revealed that Elena had missed their former life as well. The two have a good deal of romantic moments that definitely pull on the heart strings of hopeless romantics such as myself.
Eventually the gang manages to rescue Sam and begin to head back abandoning the treasure and hopefully Sam’s obsession with it, but it doesn’t pan out. Sam darts headlong toward the treasure first chance he gets. Nathan eventually catches up with him aboard Avery’s pirate ship and is forced to confront Rafe Adler after the ship is set on fire by his partner. During the fight Sam has been trapped under a large pile of wood and players are led to believe that Nathan will have to leave his brother behind as he dies for a second time. It is during this that Sam reveals that all he really wanted was for the two of them find the treasure and that he can now die happy, fortunately, Nathan cleverly uses a canon to free his brother at the last second. The two narrowly escape as the surrounding environment crumbles around them.
The game then transitions to everyone saying their goodbyes and parting as everybody goes back to where they belong. Sam goes with Nathan’s mentor and father figure, Sully, to continue having adventures of his own and Elena and Nathan head home. In the next scene, it is then revealed that Sam managed to sneak a sizable amount of treasure into Elena’s pockets allowing Nathan and her to buy the salvage business and travel the world looking for artifacts legally and safely leading an adventurous life while simultaneously settling down.
The game then fades to black and cuts to what I think is one of the best epilogue chapters of a game. In this epilogue chapter, you control Nathan and Elena’s daughter years after the events of the game. You explore their familie’s home and get to not only know, but experience the idyllic life Nathan and Elena have won for themselves. In a medium that is saturated with tragic heroes and ill fates befalling our protagonist towards the end of their journey it is nice to see the classic: happy ending. It was especially worrisome in this entry since it was subtitled: A Thief’s End. But knowing the ending the title is oh so fitting as it is a thief’s end and the start of a new life for Nathan as both a husband and father.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has a fantastic narrative thanks to skilled writing and intuitive design choices working together in tandem. The game explored themes of family, sacrifice, and the virtue of a simpler life. The game also successfully brought about a satisfying end to a beloved series for fans old and new.
In the next installment of this two-part Case Study, we’ll look at the gameplay elements that helped to make this game as fun to play as it was to experience.