The Story So Far…
Luther Bell Hendricks V and I just completed development on the Dragon Tides core game set. Now we’re sharing the experience with you.
We knew immediately that we wanted Dragon Tides to promote the image of its stars, to have characters at multiple levels, a campaign mode, and action movie flavor. With these objectives in place, we developed a core engine that would support them. With our core engine in place, we set to differentiating the characters through their Stats up and through their Signature Moves. But what are action heroes without movies to star them?
Choose Your Own Adventure Action Movies
We thought Dragon Tides would benefit from a campaign mode. Since all our characters came from action movies, the clear approach was to structure the campaigns to look like the source material.
Some say that a story is only as good as its villain. We cast one player as the Master Villain–an active player who was playing to win. This player was sure to be even more devious than any AI our team could ever dream up.
All the other players in the game are cast as Dragons–the heroes of the movie.
Each movie is a series of scenes. The first scene in each movie is an action sequence. If James Bond can start all of his movies in media res, why not us as well?
I had fond memories of the Choose Your Own Adventure books from childhood road trips and convinced Luther to let me put a similar mechanism into our game. Now the aftermath of each scene could flow into a different narrative, depending on who won or by how much. At critical moments, the game additionally gives players the choice of how to pursue a given challenge and each choice leads to a different scene.
Room to Grow: Scene Rewards
Players want to see improvement. They want to see their characters get stronger as they play. Instead of playing a static character throughout the movie, we start each character with only three of their six signature moves. At the end of each scene, rewards are given out. Characters recover from damage (have you ever seen an action movie character stay hurt for long?), gain items, gain additional Signature Moves, or even gain Stat bonuses. Even the Villain player gets a share of the action, earning extra minions to bring to the final showdown in additional to rewards similar to those of the Dragons.
Scene Rewards are a bit of a Skinner Box, of course. These rewards kept our players engaged with their characters; eager to see what rewards come next. We game designers must always be careful to use our powers for good.
Shakedown in Little China: A Sample Action Movie
So you can see all the parts in action, here is our working-draft flowchart for the second movie we wrote.
At the end of each scene, the story forks depending on how the scene resolved.
Did our heroes best those thugs and protect the owner in the opening scene? If so, they interrogate one of these thugs and learn his next target. Did the thugs in the first scene get the best of our heroes? The Dragons can still intercept them on their way to the garden shop.
And some scenes give players their choice of path.
The Dragons have dealt with the threat to the neighborhood garden shop but now two targets are threatened at the same time–shall they protect the neighborhood dojo or the neighborhood market? Either way, they leave the other one relatively undefended.
Notice finally that no matter which branches your narrative follows, they are always nudged toward the final showdown. Action movies needs their climax and we wanted to make yours would have one as well.
Through a solid game system, a variety of characters and adventures straight out of action movies, Dragon Tides became exactly the game Luther and I wanted to create. It has been a big project. But it has also been a satisfying project, rewarding our effort with a fast and fun action game.
And if you’re interested in getting a copy of Dragon Tides for your very own, Artistic Justice is accepting preorders until the first week of March.
What do you think of the rewards structure in Dragon Tides? Or of its Choose Your Own Adventure model? What other games used these approaches? Which ones used them best? Why? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.
6 thoughts on “Bruce Lee and Dragon Tides: Playing the Dragon, Part 3”
The CYOA mechanism is interesting. Seeing it in the flowchart is a little jarring: it makes it feel like the players don’t get meaningful choices, because they’ll end up at the Showdown no matter what they do. But the perception of choice is more important to the players than actual choice: if they don’t feel railroaded, it should be fine (and players can feel railroaded even if they DO have real choices.) So how is the story presented to the players? How have they responded to it?
It can look that way at first. Certainly, all paths start and end at the same point but the experience through the middle can vary quite a bit depending on the group’s approach.
We have done a couple of blind tests and in each case, the players reported that the plot did feel like that of an action movie. Hopefully, the market will respond similarly.
I should probably mention also that the game set does not ever show this flow chart to the players. We scripted from this flow chart but the actual book would say something like, “if you decide to guard the dojo, go to page 18,” or “if the villain wins this scene, go to page 11,” or the like.
Shiny! That sounds good.
Correct me if I’m wrong, Kevin, but to elaborate on how the middle can vary regardless of the start and end points: in my play testing experience, certain levels cater better to particular characters, and each area has its unique rewards.
One play-through, I was a character adept at moving through objects and crowds – so suggesting we go to the marketplace with the expectation for board-clutter involving stands and vendors wasn’t unwarranted. In fact we were rewarded by the advantaged provided to me specifically. Had we a more defensive lineup, protecting the dojo would make more sense to our group. So it felt like (and may have actually been) an important decision being made.
Losing a scene meant not carrying over as much health, or not building up enough toward a super-ability. So even though we’d ultimately fight the final boss regardless of methods used to reach him/her — if we didn’t choose to optimize our path based on abilities and theme, we’d knock down the front door to the boss’ lair with an already broken arm. And if we lost the first scene, the second was harder. Losing 2 scenes would spell trouble for the penultimate scene, etc. Of course it’s possible to make it through without putting thought into those few binary decisions… but I’d prefer to take the path of least resistance.
Regarding the story of the game, I’ve only played the prototype, so it was difficult to discern what the overarching objective before reaching it. But to be fair, the game is supposed to be about action actors in fight scenes – that said, it has the feel to me of the old side-scrolling TMNT or Simpsons beat-’em-up arcade games with added content for variety, context, and flexibility. It was difficult to know what the end goal would be apart from not dying, but having a rulebook with information to supplement the actual scenes most likely fills in the gaps and makes the story easy to follow along.
However, each scene its own narrative with associated decisions to make: e.g. protect this store from destruction (which we could then do by focusing the one guy breaking things, or defeating the mooks attempting to hinder us first), navigate a crowd to apprehend the informant on the run (where we could rush the guy at the risk of leaving our team mate with the lowest movement in peril), or even escorting NPCs (where we could decide how many if any to risk for the greater good).
The play test felt like we were along for the ride, but there was never a feeling of being railroaded toward anything. Opportunity for differences in play-style really made the game interesting to me. It’s possible to avoid fighting head on by picking a character that aids their allies, or elect a more defensive team and make safer level choices overall. We could make an all out effort to safeguard the defenseless NPCs or forsake them for a risky chance to potentially thwart the mini-boss preemptively. Illusion or not, ample opportunity is presented for decisions that dissuade the notion of being railroaded.