As a game designer, I’m a complete novice. More of a novice than I thought I would be, actually. After rebuilding every game I’ve ever played so many times, researching game design theories, and running this blog for a year, I thought game design would come a little more naturally to me. I didn’t expect to be some kind of prodigy or anything. I’ve been alive long enough to realize that every new venture will prove more difficult than it seems from the outside looking in. All the same, I’ve been surprised by the challenges of designing a game from the ground up.
What I’ve learned is that even though I have a solid grasp of some elements of game design, there are others which I’ve simply never tried fiddling before. Yes, I’ve rebuilt Pathfinder a dozen times, but I only changed the parts that I was interested in improving. There’s a lot more to the game which I never had to think about, because I never felt like it needed to improve. I let the game’s original designers handle those elements for me. Now that I’m trying to build a game from scratch, I’m ill prepared for the task of building a fresh approach to these elements.
Dungeons, for example, have proven to be a larger problem for me than I suspected they would. When I was originally deciding what my goals were for the Legend of Zelda Adventure System, I knew that dungeons would be a large part of it. In a Zelda game, most of the play takes place within dungeons, so it makes sense that much of the LOZAS system would be dungeon focused, yes? But a Zelda dungeon isn’t like a D&D dungeon, and I would like that to be represented by the system, rather than simply letting the game become another D&D clone.
I recognize that I’ll need to make compromises. As I’ve said before, throwing pots and pushing blocks doesn’t translate well to tabletop. A lot of Zelda dungeons have “timing” challenges, where you need to move through the room at a certain rate to avoid obstacles like monsters, spinning blades, or bursts of flame. Challenges such as those won’t function when the game isn’t being played in real time. However, in other ways, I think there are elements of Zelda dungeons which can be translated to tabletop. For example, many Zelda dungeon have a focus on traveling between sub-levels repeatedly in order to progress through to the end. There’s also the tradition of a dungeon requiring multiple keys, as well as including a map, compass, and ‘big key.’ These are things which could work well as a tabletop challenge.
What I would like to do is create a simple method GMs could use to build dungeons in this style. Something not unlike Gary Gygax’s “appendix A” in the DMG, which could be used to randomly generate dungeons, although this would not be entirely random. Ideally it would require a little more time and decision making on the part of the GM, while still streamlining the dungeon building process enough that it doesn’t require hours to accomplish the task. But this is new ground for me. I’ve never been the greatest at designing dungeons in the first place, so completing this aspect of the game has proven to be a challenge. Maybe I’ll scale back on just how ambitious it is, but I’d like to give my vision a solid try before I start making concessions.
Another element of the LOZAS system which has been something of a puzzle to me is combat. I’ve already posted a collection of notes I have for the system, but in many ways I’m not satisfied with them. As one commenter pointed out, combat in Zelda isn’t like combat in existing games. It is neither combat as sport nor is it combat as war. It’s combat as a puzzle. Enemies move in a very particular way and have a particular method of attack, and the goal of the player is to get past them, either by avoiding them or by killing them. But killing them is only a single method of completing the puzzle, and not always the best one.
Like the timed obstacles I mentioned above, I don’t think there’s any real way to translate this style of combat to tabletop, because again, it’s not in real time. However, I would like to capture its spirit as best I can. At present, the system which has developed from my notes is the best I’ve been able to come up with. but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better option out there. Something which further reduces combat time, while still forcing the player to think about combat enough that it isn’t something they can simply skip over.
I like the idea of having numerous monsters which are used sparingly, and having each monster require the players to come up with some kind of tactic to defeat it. Hitting it with swords will work eventually, but it would never be as effective as coming up with a clever solution. Such as, in the case of a leaping skeleton, tricking it into leaping off of a cliff or into a pool of lava.
So yeah, these are some of the problems I’ve been encountering lately as I work on the Legend of Zelda Adventure System. And just so we’re clear:
I love it.
I won’t deny that there was a certain satisfaction to the early stages of the design process, when ideas for how to improve the game were just falling out of my head faster than I could write them down. But this, honestly, is better. Even if it’s a little less fun in the short term. Hitting a wall and learning how to climb over it, that’s REAL problem solving. That’s how I know I’m not just retreading old ground. I’m not regurgitating something I’ve seen before and simply forgotten about, or combining elements from other more successful games. I’m learning.
And if you ask me, that’s the whole point of doing anything in the first place anyway.