I’ve been thinking about the difference between the Scenario, as typically seen in TBS and RTS wargames, and the Quests that we see in RPG’s.  Here, I will talk about scenarios, and what makes a good one.

By a scenario, I am referring to a set-up game state, where the game environment, game resources, and victory objectives are all set in advance.  The player enters the a game state already begun, and must use the resources available to complete the scenario.

The guys over at Three Moves Ahead had an interesting discussion on scenario design a while back (last year, I suppose).  To sum up briefly, they were in favor of scenarios that were sufficiently contained to feel like a contained engagement (“The Civil War” is not a scenario, it’s The Civil War!), approved of scenarios where there was some flexibility in how the scenario might play out depending upon player action, and which was not so filled with unknowable traps and impossible situations as to make it into a puzzle scenario.

The idea of the “puzzle scenario” is that a game situation can be designed so that there is only one really good way to ever “win” that scenario.  Move here, put your guys there, wait for an attack here, then take that point – victory is a formula.  To beat such a scenario, one plays through it over and over, slowly figuring out the nature of the situation, until the solution becomes obvious.  They are impossible to beat the first time around by any other than a true mastermind, or one who has learned the designer’s common tricks.  In another genre, think about your average boss battle.  Chances are that it partakes of the “puzzle scenario” to one degree or another.  I’ve played through most of Call of Juarez:Gunslinger, the the boss battles there are little mini-puzzles more than anything.  They are a lot of fun, but a lot of that is because of the very different nature of the game experience in a TBS game and an FPS.

I also think it’s important to mention the issue of balance.  A good scenario should present the player with some reasonable chance of failure, given poor decisions and bad luck.  A scenario in which a player cannot lose is not terribly interesting, except perhaps in the “HULK SMASH!” powergaming sense.  This does not mean that good scenarios can only be made about relatively equal engagements.  Lots of one-sided battles and wars are represented in wargames, but the usual approach is to set victory conditions so that the weaker side can claim a game victory by doing “well enough” or “better than expected.”  It’s a bit gamey, yet, but it also totally works.  Memoir ’44 has a lot of horribly imbalanced scenarios, typically based on horribly one-sided battles in history, but they can be fun to play for a variety of reasons.  First, there are the scenarios that can turn completely around if the underdog player can just take the first step towards victory.  Knocking out the right-flank artillery piece on Omaha is an example.  Taking out that gun before the enemy gets to about 4 medals gives the Americans a real shot at victory.  Second, some scenarios are fun to play by switching sides – who does better as the underdog?

So, to sum it up, a “good scenario” should . . .

  • Give the players meaningful decisions – their approach matters to how the scenario plays out, and may cause them to fail.
  • Be contained enough for the arbitrary start and end point to make sense, and not so long or open-ended as to feel like “the whole game.”
  • Have enough paths to victory or solutions that it does not feel like a puzzle to solve, but rather an engagement with a reasonable enemy.
  • Resources, obstacles, and challenges should be balanced so that the player needs to use some skill to win.

With that said, I want to return to this issue in my next post to consider how RPG Quests, if considered as scenarios, tend to fare under such a rubric.

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