"Choose Your Own Adventure" books are bad for DMs to emulate

Part of the reason why I struggled with prepped games growing up was that I loved CYOA books. And I believed that the prep should be like that — scenes! Boxed text! If this then that!

And railroading was bad so I needed to prep many contingencies!

Instead, I think first-time DMs should be given locations with situations

Comments

  • I agree about your recipe for improvement, although I didn't get caught into emulating CYOA books myself as a GM early on. (I was more of the mystery cult illusionism persuasion than a railroader, being the lazy prepper I am.)

    Note that you weren't alone in believing in that recipe: traditional-style rpg products routinely use the exact same conceits as CYOA books do. TSR particularly made a point of having explicit and rather verbose read-aloud text boxes in their adventures during the heyday of the D&D middle school. And these were written by adults, presumably experts of the rpg form, technically speaking not that much less clueless than we are now, having caught up in age and experience. Makes one think - I suspect that it was a profound type of intellectual laziness that made some pretty clever people conclude that this is the way to deliver adventure content.

    And yeah, just dropping the plot as an organizing principle works wonders here. It almost doesn't matter what you do instead, it's bound to be better. You could just alphabetize all the tropes (locations, perils, NPCs, other ideas) that go into your average trad adventure text, creating a little dictionary of sorts, and it would still be much more constructive for roleplaying use than a plot railroad is.
  • what a bad post I wrote. I wish I could convey what I mean

    I was writing text adventures for the computer growing up and they were very "if this, then that"-style. Later I found out that good text adventure games are more about describing locations, objects, and rules for interacting with those objects

    Eero's post is good tho
  • Oh, that's a good point about text adventures - I know what you mean.

    Sandra is referring to the recommended methodology to use in scripting an old-fashioned type of video game. The play experience with one of these text adventure games is somewhat linear, a little bit like reading a book. It is also a form of game that, just like roleplaying games, got very wrapped up in the literary plot ideals over time.

    However, when you look at the way the earliest text adventures were written, and how the form was originally developed and conceptualized by creators, it's surprisingly not at all like a CYOA book: the advice and design theory that I've read has always been very up-front about a sort of a "setting first" structuration of the game: a text adventure consists of locations with connections to each other, and items that exist in those locations to interact with. That's the game, the plot thing is essentially a distraction in game design terms. You can't ignore the location map and how you make the item interaction interesting and pleasant for the player - not without stilting the game.

    A strange tidbit about this: the licensed Hobbit text adventure game (from the early '80s?) has a random encounter with a wolf. The wolf might or might not be encountered in all sorts of places. Think about that: a game that is literally just supposed to be a rerun of the book in a video game form was nevertheless designed in a way that I can only describe as uncompromising in its dedication to being a game rather than a linear multimedia puzzle: no rail-roading with that wolf, you'll roll the dice and see what comes up. Maybe you'll have found the wolf-killing items when it comes, maybe not. In fact, it's not just the wolf: that game has a crazy amount of freedom and emergent combinations of how it might go, because most of the other NPCs are mobile as well, just like that wolf. The creator was not thinking of telling the Hobbit's story at all when developing this game structure.

    Understanding the text adventure game in terms of linear plot experience and puzzle gates to be jumped through is a disappointingly narrow and static vision compared to what some of these guys were up to early on.
  • Yeah! Thank you for explaining this so well.

    Here's the source code to Cloak of Darkness, scroll down to Inform 7.

    This was such a fundamental, like, uh, "shift" in my thinking. I guess the mirror story helped even though I was well familiar with Inform 7 by then, since several years.

    I'm trying to teach one of my players to DM and he's so steeped in 90s games that it's hard to get through to him with this fundamental point. And, like, I can't blame him.

    I went so many years knowing that a puzzle piece in my comprehension was missing, but not finding it until that day
  • Like the book Robin's Laws is really really bad advice from beginning to end (that's not meant to be a slight on the remarkable and innovative design ideas in games like Feng Shui and Hillfolk).
  • I also have my ambiguous relationship with Robin Laws - just as you say, his advice and theory are boils upon the face of an impressive ludography. I suppose it is inevitable that when you're really good, you won't conform easily to other people's ideas.
  • Oh, that's a good point about text adventures - I know what you mean.

    A strange tidbit about this: the licensed Hobbit text adventure game (from the early '80s?) has a random encounter with a wolf. The wolf might or might not be encountered in all sorts of places. Think about that: a game that is literally just supposed to be a rerun of the book in a video game form was nevertheless designed in a way that I can only describe as uncompromising in its dedication to being a game rather than a linear multimedia puzzle: no rail-roading with that wolf, you'll roll the dice and see what comes up. Maybe you'll have found the wolf-killing items when it comes, maybe not. In fact, it's not just the wolf: that game has a crazy amount of freedom and emergent combinations of how it might go, because most of the other NPCs are mobile as well, just like that wolf. The creator was not thinking of telling the Hobbit's story at all when developing this game structure.

    Understanding the text adventure game in terms of linear plot experience and puzzle gates to be jumped through is a disappointingly narrow and static vision compared to what some of these guys were up to early on.

    The Hobbit was developed in Melbourne and I know some of the developers and one story they tell is that there was a bug that they never worked out in the code that very occasionally would produce "The cupboard goes west" :-)
  • An interesting and ambitious game. I was reading one of the books about it after Eero brought it up.

    But that interaction is the perfect example of how these games were not set up in terms of scenes, but in terms of locations, objects and "physics".
  • Lords of Midnight has a world that is complex snd always changing. I would not want more than that from any sandbox rpg. Im trying to emulate it since ages but even this relatively low level of interaction is too much for my brain capacity. Somehow I think tabletop sandboxes should use totally different approaches and procedures than (even very old) crpgs.
  • Of course but even more different than CYOA!!
  • Yeah, the way computer does things (brute force calculations over large tables) gets old really fast for people-brains. An efficient sandbox-on-human-brain relies on the mental capacities that humans are actually good at, such as pattern recognition, complex logic (fuzzy logic included) and analysis. A good design on these precepts quickly starts looking nothing like the relationship tables that Lords of Midnight runs on.

    That is not, however, the same thing as making it into a linear story. Human brains can comprehend and run more complex structures than just a linear theater piece when properly organized.
  • it's especially important to leverage that you have several brains combined around the table

    i really really really want a time machine and destroy the 90s games :( :( :(
  • Yes, get those multiple brains working. That's my secret plan for our 4th edition D&D campaign: when I give the monster stat blocks to the character players, and teach them all the rules, and have the draw the battle maps, I will ultimately be relieved of everything that makes life unbearable. The only task left for me is, as Confucius teaches, to be the unmoving figurehead that the players can look upon and see their own order and intentionality reflected back at them.
  • Yes, get those multiple brains working. That's my secret plan for our 4th edition D&D campaign: when I give the monster stat blocks to the character players, and teach them all the rules, and have the draw the battle maps, I will ultimately be relieved of everything that makes life unbearable. The only task left for me is, as Confucius teaches, to be the unmoving figurehead that the players can look upon and see their own order and intentionality reflected back at them.

    Eventually the players will realize that you're in the other room making a sandwich and the "GM" is a cardboard cutout of Eero. :smile:

  • Yes, that is the endgame. They look upon the cutout and see me smiling in an enigmatic way, and they know in their hearts that what they are doing is good and just. And the ill-doers look upon me, knowing that it is useless to try to whine or whinge, for I am always watching.
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