Saturday, 31 March 2012

Rising Tensions (Part 4) - Settlers of Catan

OK, wow. That was a vacation away from the blog much longer than I expected. But now, I'm finally through the first four books of Game of Thrones (with a little detour to read Divergent) and my new Dragon Age campaign is well underway. So I'll take a break from burst reading to deal with the rest of life. So for all my hundreds of fans  all my dozens of fans  my fan, (hi Mom!) let's get back to what's really important- games about make believe.

Alright, what was I writing about - oh yeah. Building tension. Look at that- it's right in the title and everything. So far, we can build a good encounter to build up tension, but over the course of the adventure, we're still stuck with just a string of encounters. If we're lucky, the last one will be exciting if everyone's resources are exactly where I expect them to be.

So this week, I'm looking at Settlers of Catan and what I can use to make my adventures as a whole better. Settlers of Catan is the go-to game for anyone starting to dabble with board games outside of Risk, Monopoly and Candyland. It's the poster boy for euro games. Going on nearly 20 years of popularity, Settlers of Catan is responsible for many of the current day board game enthusiasts.

Multiple Paths to Victory
To win Settlers of Catan, you need to gather 10 victory points. However, there are many ways to acquire those victory points, and they require a different method of play. You can build lots of roads and settlements, build lots of cities, get the longest road achievement, the largest army achievement, or gather development cards.

In D&D encounters, I want to make sure there are multiple paths to victory in an encounter or during an adventure. This is not just about railroading versus sandbox. This is making sure that players have a choice, or at least an illusion of choice, about how the encounter unfolds. A lot of tension comes from agonizing over the choices you need to make, and then seeing the result of those choices. Your final goal might be to stop the evil duke from conquering the kingdom. But do you assassinate him in his castle? Gather an army and meet him on the field of battle? Find his half-celestial Mom and tell on him?

Besides just giving these options, there should be hints afterward that their decision had a definitive effect on the adventure. Once upon a time, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Ryker is offered command of a vessel. He refuses because he's figures the old, bald guy running the enterprise has GOT to retire sometime soon. Later on that same episode, the ship Ryker was to command is destroyed by the Borg. And then even later, Ryker gets to command the USS Enterprise, smack down the Borg and save the earth. Good decision! Except the old guy came and took his job back. (just kidding -you know I love you, Picard - I don't send those photos to just anyone you know!)

Nobody Dies
In Settlers of Catan, a major paradigm shift that occurs for first time gamers is that in this game, nobody dies. Everyone has a chance to win right up until the end, though some players are in a much better position than others. Nobody gets wiped out by massive surge of red cannons from Kamchatka. Landing on Boardwalk doesn't mean handing over all your property to that smug Top Hat. (I hear he's really a Tam that thinks he's too good for the rest of the clothes in the closet)

In 4E, skill challenges were introduced as a stepping stone to next part of the adventure. Skill challenges were not to be used as a dead end. They were not to be used to kill characters. You always got to continue with the adventure after a skill challenge, though the effects of a skill challenge could make the rest of the adventure much easier or harder.

For whatever reason, combat is nearly always an adventure roadblock. Win this combat or die, game over. I've already discussed alternatives to the win or die scenario. But the real advantage of this is that adventurers can pass or fail the combat encounter and still continue on. Life may get easier and harder for them, but they will get to move on to that final encounter you had planned. And if they failed a lot in the early parts of the adventure, this will be really tough on them. Tense, even. Which is the whole point.

Cause and Effect
So if combat isn't a literal dead end, what does it do? It ties the encounters together and gives them a purpose besides surviving this encounter because I want to live. Each encounter should affect another encounter later on in the adventure. Defeating the guards at the front gate is easy. The characters can't possibly die here. Defeating them before they sound the alarm ... not so easy. If the alarm is raised, the next few encounters will see tougher opposition. Which leads them to an easier or tougher fight when freeing the prisoners in the basement, but only if the head jailer doesn't slip out of their grasp first. Freed prisoners mean the evil Duke won't have any reinforcements to call on because they are out chasing escapees. Or he'll have a squad of elite guards on alert with him at all times.

In most adventures, this kind of progression is virtually unheard of. Encounters are set pieces that are completely independent of one another. Outside of trying to drain your hitpoints, it is rare to have any encounters in a dungeon or adventure have any effect on each other.

In my example, each of the previous encounters will determine how the final encounter plays out. None of them are particularly dangerous to the party, but there will be a clear line between the players' decisions, their successes, and their failures on the result in the final battle. All of these encounters can be tense without lethality because the players are still invested in the outcome. And further, players can choose to weigh the expenditure of their resources against success in this encounter, as opposed to always ensuring success and doing whatever it takes to win, because failure means death. Hard decisions like this bring good tension to the table.

In Settlers of Catan, you build settlements and cities to not only gain victory points, but because doing so gives you more power. That power lets you buy settlements and cities even faster now, so you have even more power. Every turn, the ability to affect the outcome becomes greater and greater. Small victories in the earlier rounds lead to larger gaps in power later on. As the game continues, a setback or loss takes much more work to overcome.

In addition to making each encounter have an effect on later encounters, the impact of each encounter should grow as the adventure continues. For the tension to continually build, the stakes must be increased at every stage. Each success or failure will have a greater and greater impact on your potential success, with the last encounter being an all-in affair, for life or death or possibly even more. With this type of structure, each encounter will pick up from the tension of the last encounter, instead of starting over.

At the end of the day, our adventure model would look more like this. A constantly building tension that increases not only throughout an encounter, but throughout an entire adventure. And that's all the thoughts I've got on this. Hmmm, except I didn't really follow my own advice. I mean this article should have been the final encounter, the ultimate build up to make all of this go "Wow". Heck, I'm just happy to have written it so that I can continue blogging again and not keep getting distra .. wait, is A Dance with Dragons on sale at Chapters?


  1. Hey Quirky,

    Really like this one. I've use modules quite a bit and they don't have many encounters that influence one another. This type of chaining is probably best accomplished by an experienced DM who knows his or her storyline cold. In the few times that I have seen the chaining type of storyline laid out it is often restrictive and doesn't deal with all the ways that the PCs can drive a story forward . . . "Free the prisoners?? They might be transmutated demons laying in wait!! Better kill em first!!"

    Finally, I think that part of the challenge is giving the PCs insight to the potential outcomes (without just out and out telling them) in order to make them really think about the decisions they are making.

  2. Thanks, Fan #2. It's good to be back.

    Good point about insight into potential outcomes. If there's no way to distinguish between the choices, then you can flip a coin and the choice is just as meaningful. Sure, coin flipping may have been the technique I used when the priest asked "Do you take this woman ...", but I generally enjoy more control over my choices.