Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Tower of the Faceless Clock

Or Challenges Extracting Rules Text from Solo Adventures

My discussion of the difficulties extracting system from setting in roleplaying game supplements reminded me of an abandoned project. It was an experiment to design a programmed solitaire adventure (with numbered paragraphs, like the
Choose Your Own Adventure books) to present a specific setting without reference to a specific rules system. Having written plenty of solitaire tutorial adventures intended to teach game mechanics along the way, designing one without considerations for typical rules – how to run combat, procedures for skill checks, how to make saving throws, etc. – proved challenging.

I’ve designed plenty of solo adventures in my time, particularly ones intended to introduce new players to a new set of rules and game world. The earliest solitaire tutorial adventures I remember playing as a kid I found in the second edition of West End Games’ Paranoia; I’m sure my character met a gruesome end, but I recall my admiration at how well a simple programmed adventure could impart both core rules and a solid sense of the setting. (I came to Basic/Expert Duungeons & Dragons before the red box BECMI D&D and its solo programmed scenario.) In hindsight I regret not finding such solitaire fare in games like Call of Cthulhu, Space 1889, and Cyberpunk 2020 to set me straight about the setting’s central themes (as well as the game mechanics). Certainly the “Regina Cayli” adventure in West End’s Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (first edition) also stands out in my mind for teaching the rules and imparting the excitement of the setting (though I didn’t need much of the latter). I’m honored to have designed the solo tutorial adventure for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game’s second edition revised and expanded version. I’ve enjoyed playing and designing numerous solo adventures without game system tutorials, but the form appeals to me in its ability to walk a new player through rules and setting, letting them in essence play the game on their own without waiting to gather other players around the table.

So when I started developing
The Infinite Cathedral medieval fantasy setting years ago, I always had in the back of my mind offering a solitaire adventure as a free teaser to introduce the core themes underpinning the environment. I’d written system-neutral material before – Pulp Egypt, Heroes of Rura-Tonga, The Greydeep Marches – each with adventures referencing some descriptive framework for determining stats for adversaries and difficulties for overcoming other challenges. But with the hand-holding a solitaire adventure offers players, I realize how much we rely on some rules framework to add some drama to the game in the success/failure mechanics. The difficulty of taking the system out of a setting manifests itself anytime I as a gamemaster would turn to game processes to determine how well a character performs an action with some level of risk. Removing game mechanic language in the solitaire narrative often sent me scrambling to parse rules concepts in generic terms. Fight the monster (using descriptions from my Any-OSR Key). Test a particular skill. Avoid a trap.

As it stands my system-neutral solo adventure relies a lot more on the player’s honor system than most solo game endeavors. I realize I’m giving players agency to determine how they manage their character within the scenario situations according to their favorite rules engine, much as a gamemaster would if using any other system-neutral resources. Hopefully I’ve provided enough narrative and descriptive framework to guide them in enjoying the few programmed solo encounters in a setting I’d hoped to develop.

You can download Tower of the Faceless Clock here. If you enjoy it and want to leave me a tip of some kind, head over to DriveThruRPG and pick up one of my pay-what-you-want offerings, leaving a small gratuity to show your appreciation.

I’m not happy Tower of the Faceless Clock leads down a regrettable cul de sac at the moment. The completed text has sat in a dusty corner of my hard drive for more than 18 months as I tried moving forward from an impasse with The Infinite Cathedral setting. The stresses from the pandemic didn’t help. Development and writing became mired in my self doubt. In a way the solo adventure was a break for me, a diversion from hammering out source material to work on something demonstrating how key aspects of the setting operated on a character level. And even then I set the solo adventure aside when, in its completed form, it still failed to motivate me into returning to work on a setting that felt stale. The illustrations, cobbled together from images found on Pixabay, do an adequate job accompanying the scenario, but not quite what I’d want if it were to really represent my vision for The Infinite Cathedral.

I was, in part, motivated to dust off this solo adventure by the discussion of extracting game elements to enable a setting to stand on its own without ties to a particular set of rules. This, of course, stems from Hasbro/WotC’s recent nonsense with the Open Gaming License (OGL), which has little practical effect on me beyond the status of OpenD6 (made available through an OGL arrangement). I have, however, followed relevant news and discussions to stay informed of the various developments despite having no interest in writing material tied to the D&D rules. I realized long ago the risks of chaining my creations to other game systems, whether D&D or D6. Although I find OpenD6 – or whatever evolved iteration finds its way to Creative Commons – ideal for my occasional forays into standalone solitaire adventures (such as The Asturia Incident and Trapped in the Museum), I prefer my other releases to avoid specific game systems and rely on generally descriptive terms gamemasters can interpret as best fits their game style.

1 comment:

  1. Huh...this looks pretty interesting. I'll try to read through it as/when I have time.

    Man...I understand the whole "dusty-project-taking-up-hard-drive-space" thing. Best thing (in my opinion) is to clean it up as best as possible and release it 'into the wild.' Just helps clear the mind.

    [...he says as he looks at his own too full laptop]


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