Building Better Campaigns Using Puzzle Game Design: Lesson 4

Intro

Welcome back! I feel at this point there’s little value in preamble so I’ll just get on with the piece. To re-cap where we currently are, the last 3 parts have discussed world structures for our campaigns that are informed by puzzle game design.

So if there’s one thing I wish I could go back and change from part 1 of this series (which was posted before the series was reworked) it’s that I wish I could categorise the Hub-World/Sub-World separately from the Overworld/Dungeon structure (which it was originally lumped in with). This part of the series is going to specifically focus on this Hub-World/Sub-World structure and how to use it in DnD.

The Hub-World/Sub-World Structure

The games I used as examples of Hub-World/Sub-World structures in the first part were Myst and Crash Bandicoot: Warped. At the time I was treating them as a subcategory of the Overworld/Dungeon structure as they follow a similar pattern of having a main connective area which has attached to it a number of discrete areas which are the main locations of most of the game’s challenges.

In truth though there is a tangible difference insofar as the Hub-World’s purpose within its structure is very different to the Overworld’s function within its structure. Where an Overworld is the majority of the game space (with Dungeons being the minority of space but with a higher density of challenge and action), a Hub-World is often the smaller portion of the game’s overall world. Many of the Sub-Worlds will be at least equal in size to the Hub-World, and in many cases will be much bigger. Indeed, where an Overworld can itself contain challenges and space for grand sprawling narratives a Hub-World is by contrast almost exclusively there for the purpose of connecting the Sub-Worlds.

This isn’t all to say that Hub-Worlds can’t serve any other purposes, but their primary function is not as a space for challenge to take place, and what few challenges they facilitate are often exclusively related to accessing more Sub-Worlds.

Examples and Their Meaning

Let’s go ahead and analyse a few examples so we can better understand the workings of this world structure. After that we’ll set to understanding and actually implementing the different parts of this structure in our campaigns.

First of all let’s look at Crash Bandicoot: Warped. In this example the Hub-World serves solely as a way to navigate your way to the various Sub-Worlds. This is the more extreme format of this structure wherein the Hub-World is only a linking location for the Sub-Worlds. Unlocking additional Sub-Worlds is tied to actions taken within other Sub-Worlds and not within the Hub-World. A DnD equivalent of this might be a campaign set in a Wizard’s Tower that contains a number of portals to pocket dimensions, and each pocket dimension contains part of an item which will unlock the next floor of the tower.

The second example I gave earlier in this piece was Myst. Myst’s Hub-World is a little more on-par with its Sub-Worlds in terms of size and content. Again though the difference between the Hub-World and the Sub-Worlds is that the Hub-World exists solely to access the Sub-Worlds (from a structural point of view). The other feature of this example is that in contrast to our Warped example the Sub-Worlds are accessed by completing tasks within the Hub-World of Myst.

It’s also worth noting, as far as strong examples go, that the plane of Mechanus serves as a functional Hub-World for all the other planes. As much as it is a plane in itself and in that regard ‘equal’ to the other planes (which goes somewhat against the definition we laid out in the section above), it is the perfect Hub-World for inter-planar campaigns that want to utilise the Hub-World/Sub-World structure. Indeed we could create something Myst-like using Mechanus as our Hub-World. The plane has been thrown into turmoil with invading forces having closed off and locked up the portals to the other planes. The party must find ways to re-open the locked portals to certain planes so that they can retrieve items from them which will help repel the invaders.

Hub-Worlds

So it’s been made clear that Hub-Worlds need to link to our Sub-Worlds and that is their primary purpose in the structural sense. In the narrative sense though they serve a different primary function. They must serve as the anchor for the narrative through-line of the campaign. While Sub-Worlds provide the majority of our gameplay challenges, our Hub-World is actually the locus of our narrative motivation. Indeed we are only visiting the Sub-Worlds because of some need within the Hub-World. In our Wizard’s Tower example from earlier that need may be reaching the topmost floor to confront the newly-formed Lich that used to be the resident Wizard, or it might be reaching that floor to obtain a treasure the now-deceased Wizard left to the worthy.

Hub-Worlds are also excellent locations for other critical campaign infrastructure. Our players need to be able to reliably access places like smithies and general stores, which means Hub-Worlds are the ideal place to put them. Once these things are in place we can also lean on them for a sense of progression. Finding a rare mineral in one Sub-World and knowing that we can take it back to the smithy in the Hub-World to gain a cool piece of armour or a weapon creates a very satisfying gameplay beat. Similarly, having people in the Hub-World asking the party to keep an eye out for special items or rare ingredients inside the Sub-Worlds can help increase the variety in what takes place within the Sub-Worlds and what tasks need to be completed within them. Additionally, tying the retrieving of these extras to the party getting a reward gives us that same satisfying gameplay beat as before. An example of this would be an Apothecary asking you to grab them some rare mushrooms within one of the Sub-Worlds so that he can brew some potent healing elixirs, and as payment he’ll give you each one of the elixirs.

Repeated interaction with the people, establishments and creatures within our Hub-World also enhances our narrative through-line as there is potential for progression within the Hub-World unrelated to our party’s ultimate goal there.

Sub-Worlds

So we’ve said that Sub-Worlds should hold the majority of our gameplay challenges and interact the most with DnD’s standard gameplay loop of adventuring days, but what exactly does that mean?

Well, put simply each Sub-World acts like a microcosmic campaign setting in its own right. The size of these may vary from campaign to campaign. In one campaign your Sub-Worlds may just be single dungeons that must be beaten in order to prove your worth back in the Hub-World, while in another campaign your Sub-Worlds may be the size of an entire plane of existence (a-la our Mechanus-based inter-planar adventure example from above). It is important though that there is some consistency. Players should, after completing their first Sub-World, have a fair idea of how big and expansive each other Sub-World is going to be.

The reason for this again ties to having a sense of progression. If our first Sub-World is the size of a town with 3 dungeons around it but then our second Sub-World is just a single 5-room dungeon, then our third is a megadungeon that takes a dozen sessions to complete then the player’s sense of progression is going to be all over the place. This dampens overall satisfaction. If you find a rare mineral you know you can take to the smithy in the Hub-World then it’s only really exciting if you know roughly when that’s going to be. If you have no idea then it’s more than likely you’ll just forget about it (unless it happens to end up being really soon after finding it).

I’ve harped on about this when discussing our other world structures, but the players feeling that they are constantly and consistently progressing is super important to their enjoyment of the campaign and their willingness to come back to it. If you remove either one of those two factors (i.e. progression is either inconstant or inconsistent) then enjoyment quickly grinds to a halt and you’re relying on the session-to-session gameplay loop to keep your players engaged. If that’s the situation you’re in then you might as well run a bunch of one-shots rather than a whole campaign.

Also, just to quickly give some examples, inconstant progression would be the players finishing their task in a Sub-World after spending a couple of sessions inside it and having there be no meaningful result from it. Inconsistent progression would be the same amount of narrative change occurring after a 7-session Sub-World as there was after a 2-session Sub-World. This second one is why it’s so important to keep the sizes of our Sub-Worlds roughly consistent.

The other important structural aspect of our Sub-Worlds is having a clear goal for the party. If the party know they need a relic from each Sub-World then the goal when they’re inside one is clear (find the relevant relic and return to the Hub-World). If the party go into a Sub-World purely because it was the next one that unlocked and they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing there then again our sense of progression and satisfaction is going to grind to a halt. The exception to this is if we are using this as a device to subvert expectations (i.e. the goal has been clear for each Sub-World before this but for this one it isn’t clear so as to shake up the campaign’s gameplay loop and keep things fresh.)

With these key things in place we can build our Sub-Worlds based on what we need them to do. The simplest example would be an ‘Obtain the Essence of the 4 elements’ campaign goal wherein each Sub-World is one of the 4 elemental planes and within each is a powerful creature who currently possesses the relevant Essence. Depending on how long we want our campaign to be the players might get transported directly from the Hub-World into the lair of this creature (from which point we do a standard dungeon crawl), or the players might get transported to a random town within that plane from which point they have to first learn who in that plane has the Essence, then learn where to find them, then track them down, then confront them. Each of those steps may contain several challenges and side-quests in their own right.

The Whole Campaign

I’ve used a few examples here and there throughout this piece but now I’d like to collate them in one place to give you an idea of what sort of campaigns you can run within this structure.

We’ve talked about a Wizard’s Tower with portals to pocket dimensions on each floor wherein each must be cleared to progress to the next floor.

We’ve talked about having an inter-planar adventure based out of Mechanus with resolving some crisis within Mechanus being the ultimate goal.

We’ve talked about travelling to the four elemental planes to retrieve primordial Essences from powerful creatures, perhaps on behalf of some mysterious and powerful employer.

You are limited purely by your creativity.

What I will say of this structure though is that it requires the most contrivances of any structure for a campaign to function within it. That is not to say that they aren’t fun. If anything I think this structure has the potential to be the most fun, as the nature of Sub-Worlds being discrete locations from one another gives us the opportunity to explore far more varied locations and meet far more varied people and adversaries than what is often possible in more conventional campaigns. When we set our entire campaign in the Underdark we’re only going to encounter things native to the Underdark. When we have a campaign that involves robbing the Drow Queen, the Emperor of the Cloud Giants and the right-hand-demon of Asmodeus we’re going to encounter a much wider variety of beings and creatures.

Puzzles Though

As for integrating puzzles into this structure there are two main ways we can approach things. The first is to have the solving of puzzles be what unlocks additional Sub-Worlds. These puzzles may take place entirely within the Hub-World, entirely within the preceding Sub-World, or some combination of the two (i.e. part of the reward for completing a Sub-World is the missing piece of a puzzle in the Hub-World which in turn unlocks the next Sub-World).

The other main approach would be to have each Sub-World be the host of some grand puzzle which must be solved (a-la our Glyph example from Part 2). It is the solving of this overarching, multi-location puzzle which completes the Sub-World and takes us back to our Hub-World.

Again, we can have a mixture of the two. Indeed, for the sake of variety you may wish to have some Sub-Worlds be accessible by solving puzzles and others be accessible by completing other challenges. Likewise you may wish to have the completing of some Sub-Worlds be entirely about solving a puzzle and the completing of others be tied to tackling something else (such as defeating a certain creature or unwinding some political intrigue). Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

An Outro For Now

Oh yes, there’s still more to come. By now though we’ve covered the three main world structures we can use for campaigns inspired by puzzle games. To summarise, they are:

 – The Overworld/Dungeon structure
 – The Subdivided Contiguous Overworld structure
 – The Hub-World/Sub-World structure

Now we begin to move beyond these structures in their purest forms and will start talking about what lessons and ideas we can draw from each to create even more dynamic campaigns. But that all begins in the next part…

Again, thanks for reading what has turned out to be the longest part yet. Also thanks for coming here to my blog to read my content!

See you next time!

2 thoughts on “Building Better Campaigns Using Puzzle Game Design: Lesson 4

  1. I find in the example you gave I would run into more of a pacing issue than anything else. Having smaller Sub-Worlds with smaller rewards is fine from time to time, but there inherently needs to be a norm that is being deviated from in my experience.

    The main issue with varying Sub-World sizes is that players lose their sense of what to expect from any one area and player expectation is an important thing to manage as a DM.

    If every Sub-World is roughly 3 sessions long with a relatively standard level of reward, then one Sub-World is only 1 session long with a smaller reward, then the players understand both what is a normal length sub world (and what sort of reward it might entail) and what a deviation from that norm (and its respective reward) might look like.

    Conversely, if each Sub-World is of wildly varying length then even if rewards are relative to length the players will start to lose sense of where they are pacing-wise. Each new Sub-World will have them wondering things like ‘How long will we be here for?’ and ‘What sort of progression can we expect out of this’?. These questions can leave players feeling very lost in your campaign from both a gameplay and a narrative perspective if they come up too often.

    That being said, this isn’t inherently true of all players and I’ve definitely seen the lack of predictability of Sub-Worlds within this structure be used to great effect. I can give what has worked for my campaigns and respective tables, but as always Your Mileage May Vary.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You mention keeping Sub-Worlds roughtly the same-ish size for progression, so players know what they are getting into with each one.

    Do you find that having varied sizes of Sub-Worlds with varying rewards does not resonate as well with players? Example of a smaller one making a small narrative change, which a huge, multi-session Sub-World ends up making a major impact. Thinking you definitely need to give players a heads up of one being bigger/smaller, but also the corresponding reward tied to that size.

    Like

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