Thursday, 20 October 2016

Interactive Fiction and Restricted Geography

For a short period of time, I'd say around 2008 or so, I got into what was in my youth called "text adventures" but is nowadays called "interactive fiction" or IF. As with lots of nerd pursuits, it turned out that somewhere between 1985 and 2008, people got a bit serious about what had hitherto been perceived as a childish thing, and did some quite innovative and artistic things with the form. I strongly recommend having a look at some of the work of Adam Cadre and Emily Short, for example. ("Photopia" and "Shrapnel" by Cadre are particular favourites.)

For that short period I tried to experiment with writing my own IF using the natural language programming tool Inform 7. I didn't have the patience for it, though, mainly because I think I was too ambitious and always ended up biting off more than I could chew: too many rooms, too many items, too much detail, too much to keep track of.

Which brings me to what I always rather liked about IF: restricted geography. A good short and interesting IF game works by giving the player a number of room-like locations (these could be natural or artificial) - certainly no more than, say, 20, and enough for the player to get to know and memorise into a mental map. There are a similarly restricted number of NPCs, items and puzzles - again, enough for the player to get to know and work out the relations between. There is skill in doing new and interesting things in that restricted literal and conceptual geography (you can only visit a certain number of places; you can only speak to a certain number of people, etc.), but there is also a certain value added for the player too: getting an intimate and detailed knowledge of place is itself, in its own way, fun. There is something almost territorial about it: the human need to get to know a certain area around you very well and force it to be familiar.

(Think of the last time you went to a new town or city, even if it was just a business trip for a few days, or whatever. What was the first thing you did? For me after dumping my bag in the hotel it's to walk about the neighbourhood and figure out what's what and where's where - to make it mine.)

This is why I like the idea of a location-based adventure or even campaign: a manor house, a cathedral and cloisters, a village, a palace, a castle, a tower and its grounds, and so on - an area which the PCs can really get their teeth into, and whose restricted geography facilitates that. (Of course, the key to any good location-based campaign is that the PCs are free to leave if they want to - but it's too interesting for that to happen.) A place which, through repetitive visits, the PCs get to know and understand in detail.

The Seclusium of Orphone should really have been a way of facilitating that sort of game - and does to a degree (I was surprised how well that book worked in practice to create a gameable location with a bit of work) - but I think there is space for something better and more expansive. Something which provides tools for coming up with restricted but detailed geographical spaces for a more small-scale and detailed type of game.


  1. Interesting.

    Isn't that sort of what the "Platonic dungeon" of classic D&D was supposed to be? By which I mean it wasn't the Mines of Moria (sneak through, avoiding the baddies if possible, and hope to survive), but an environment to be revisited.

    In that vein, I've always thought that this craze-surfing book of the 1980s was interesting:

    What interests me most about it is the (obviously Mos Eisley-influenced) bar in a couple of the pictures. It seems to imply that the environment has a place where off-duty orcs and dwarves and even adventurers can just *hang out*. (I see that the adventurers appear to be disguised, but anyway ...)

    So, while you might fight the orcs if you venture into their bit of territory, there's a neutral space where you could perhaps have a drink with them and learn some secrets or bribe them or whatever. And there's a sense that this is an intimate environment: you might spend the night drinking with the orcs, then turn up to burgle their headquarters down the tunnel when they're trying to sleep it off on guard duty the next day ("Terribly sorry about this, old chap ...").

    It might be a misinterpretation by the illustrator of the game, or my misinterpretation of his intent, but even if it's accidental, it's quite a good little pointer to how adventures could be run. It indicates - and here's where it's at least tangential to your post, I hope - that the dungeon is a space not just to be visited but to be revisited.

    That in itself is a great prompt for referees to come up with interesting environments: caverns where the fungus changes colour with the seasons; guardian monsters that have peculiar lifecycles ("It's nesting season for the gnolls, so they are particularly territorial ..."); or strategic changes ("The Red Hand orcs have been sent to the northern frontier, so all your good work with them is undone. The new garrison is made up of the Squint Eye tribe, and they're veterans of the Great Cave Wars and altogether less amenable to settling differences over a drink. But I hear that they've got an old score against those nasty hobgoblins in the citadel ...."

    And of course - and more in line with your post - it might not be "orcs" but the "occupant of room ten" in a tavern ("He's been there for months and is all out of credit, but he helps out with the dishes now and then. And no one else has wanted room ten since that nasty business with the poltergeist ...").

    Actually, wouldn't an inn with peculiar patrons and residents be perfect for this sort of thing? Something like the Prancing Pony, but with opportunities to interact with Strider AND Bill Ferny AND the half-orc spy AND a good few more characters and subplots. It would certainly provide a twist on the "you meet in a tavern" starting point.

    1. I absolutely love that sort of ur-D&D and its implications. Sign me up.

    2. Down In The Dungeon is a great book (& and yours is a great comment). It reminds me of "What is Dungeons and Dragons?" by John Butterfield, Philip Parker and David Honigmann which was another craz-surfer paperback of the 80s. This book had some great quotes on the dungeon as a living space, which always stuck with me, but I can't find a PDF of the book to quote them.