Bruce Lee and Dragon Tides: Playing the Dragon, Part 3

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?

CYOA Cave_of_timeI 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.

Shakedown Flowchart ImageAt 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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

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Penalties Over Rewards

A wonderfully lively discussion has arisen around the “Rewards, Not Penalties” column.  It’s been particularly difficult to remain quiet while knowing that today’s column was coming.

You see, Luther read my last article before I posted it.  Two days later, he sent a rebuttal.  The italicized paragraphs which follow are entirely in his words.  This rebuttal is a testimonial to the nuances of in game design.  The post was written to share his “rewards over penalties” philosophy with the world. Luther stepped in to remind me that there are absolutely no absolutes.

Penalties Over Rewards

I wanted to expand some on the idea of “bonuses are better than penalties.” Reading your writing about it had it back on my mind, and I was reevaluating my thoughts about it. I still agree with the general idea that bonuses are more emotionally pleasing than penalties, but I wanted to think about “okay, when are appropriate times to use penalties?” I came up with three major categories.

1) Clarity

Sometimes it’s way easier to express a mechanic as a penalty than as a bonus. If you have a game where you move slower for each wound you’ve taken, it’s much easier to express that as a penalty than trying to say you get a speed bonus for every wound you haven’t taken. Other times it’s more about frequency; if you need an attack that does less damage to blue monsters, it’s awkward to say “bonus to non-blue monsters”.

2) Using bonuses with penalties

Using a bonus along with a penalty takes a lot of the sting out of the penalty. If your sword is +2 against fire but -2 against water, or your shotgun is minus accuracy but plus damage, that can use penalties to massage a mechanic without just “feeling bad”, because hey, check out that upside right there.

3) Evoking emotion

This is the big one, I think. The major issue with using a penalty instead of a bonus is that it evokes negative emotions instead of positive. If you’re a mighty superhero, you want that player to feel powerful and strong. Sometimes, though, it makes sense to try and evoke a different feeling in the game mechanics. In a gritty zombie survival game, where you’re accruing penalties left and right, it’s going to feel tough. You’re going to feel like it’s harsh. And that’s the way the game wants you to feel.

So yeah. Generally I still feel like if a penalty can be rewritten as a bonus, that bonus should be the default. But there’s certainly appropriate times to use penalties too. They’re all tools in the toolbox, and there’s no shame in being an Allen wrench instead of a screwdriver.

How do you employ rewards and penalties in your games?  Which do you employ more?  Which do you prefer?  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.