Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Story Realms Design Goal: Adventuring In About An Hour

By Julian
Hello folks and welcome to the weekly update for Story Realms.  As it has been going, “update” is a bit of a misnomer for these posts.  We should probably start calling them design diaries or something like that.  Our game is still deep in the process of development and we are working hard to get things ready to show, but at the moment we don’t have much in the way of news to offer.  What we can offer is some insight into the game itself and our thoughts behind why we made it the way we made it. 

Story Realms has a few design specifications that we decided were core to the experience.  These are “laws” of the game that we do our best never to break.  One of the most important decisions we made for this game is that we wanted a gaming group to be able to go on a full adventure in about an hour. 

Grand adventure in just one hour?  Can it be done?
I love a good marathon gaming session as much as the next game fanatic, but as gamers who are now working and raising families know, it can be really hard to find the time to play a really long game.  When you do clear out the time, shorter games still tend to sound more appealing because you can play say 6 or 7 games of Dominion in the same amount of time you can play 1 epic game of Through the Ages.  I love that civilization building game, but seriously, when do I have the time?  If you’re a fan of role-playing games, you know this problem well.  Your average Dungeons & Dragons game takes at least 4 hours to have a satisfying session and it can often take 3 or 4 of these sessions to finish off just one dungeon or one storyline.  If you want to get together to make characters, this process can take several hours before you even start the game.  That’s why most adults who want to carry on playing their favorite RPG often have to carve out a weekly or biweekly game night that all the players in the game commit to and are willing to arrange their lives around to some degree.  It can take quite a commitment, but role-players do it because they love the games that much.  Still, if you didn’t get hooked on RPGs in your youth, this kind of commitment can be a real barrier to entry if you’re not even sure you’ll like the game.

For all these reasons and more, it became important for us to design Story Realms so that each adventure you would go on would take about an hour.  An hour is something you can squeeze in and still do something else that night.  An hour is a reasonable commitment to ask your reluctant family members to make to try something they’re not sure they’ll like.  However, a short game wasn’t good enough on its own.  We didn’t want to shorten the gameplay by chopping up a story into a bunch of tiny pieces or by making the adventures small in scale.  We wanted Story Realms to deliver a COMPLETE adventure EVERY time you sit down play.  An opening scene to set up a story, some journeying or mystery solving, and a big climactic scene to bring the adventure to a close.  Cutting a grand adventure down to shorter than a movie while keeping the fun and action intact was not an easy task.  It took a lot of testing and retesting ideas, but always we returned to the principle that getting this thing down to about an hour was incredibly important. 
Do you really want to solve this one turn at a time?
For me, when thinking about this idea, I thought about the movie Labyrinth (a particular favorite movie amongst the Growing Up Gamers crew).  Early on in the movie Labyrinth the hero, Sarah, sees the entire maze off in the distance and it looks like miles and miles of passages and corridors.  By the end of the movie, the audience very much feels that Sarah has journeyed through that maze of corridors, overcome many challenges, and solved the Labyrinth.  However, the movie doesn’t really show her doing it.  At least, it doesn’t show every step of the way.  Instead, it has a few shots and quick cuts of her considering which direction to go and then jumps to the scene where she encounters the next interesting character or worthwhile problem the Labyrinth presents.  Thinking about this and other stories we loved made us realize that a lot of adventure games have an incredible amount of filler.

In Dungeons and Dragons, this Labyrinth adventure would be handled entirely differently.  There would be a map of the entire Labyrinth and generally, the players would wander down each corridor picking left, right or straight and spend hours mostly seeing a lot of nothing while encountering the occasional minor trap or monster meant to fill the space.   This is the common temptation because when the player is the character in the story it feels like there should never be a cut in the scene.  After all, if the players were really there wouldn’t they actually have to navigate each corridor?  If you describe them entering the Labyrinth and then jump to a scene halfway through the maze, aren’t you cheating them of the storytelling agency they are supposed to have?  The answer is, no.  You’re just making them wander a lot of corridors.  No other storytelling medium does this.  Television and movies do not ask the audience to watch the hero walk across the countryside.  Even books which are a much longer format for telling stories don’t fill their pages with countless details of what equipment the heroes purchased or prepared before heading out on every single quest or what the scenery looked like when the hero road his horse to the next town.  Most storytelling mediums break the story down into scenes and, just like the movie Labyrinth, they fill those scenes only with the exciting moments that really push the story forward.  For Story Realms, we thought, why try to reinvent the wheel?  Let’s make the wheel turn for us.  We decided to break it each adventure down scene by scene and set a limit. 
The action rises over three scenes

An adventure in Story Realms is played across three scenes.  Usually, there is a scene to set up the adventure, a scene to show the heroes journey towards the goal, and a final scene to show the big, climactic finish.  To accomplish this, we had to cut out a lot of waste.  No unimportant side quests, random encounters, or filler rooms to make a place feel big by using up time.  This has the benefit of always keeping the game on the most interesting parts of the story and never burning up play time with repetitive mundane tasks like searching corridor number 37 to find another small room with nothing in it.  At one point we were worried that slimming an adventure down to three scenes would make it feel like the quest was “on rails”.  Would the players feel as though we had taken away their choices?  After playtesting numerous times, it became obvious that this would not be a problem.  While we removed the illusion of choice to go in any direction you wanted, we replaced it with much more freedom for the players about how a scene plays out.  I say the illusion of choice because while a D&D adventure will let the players choose to go off in any random direction, it doesn’t really accommodate that choice well.  The Dungeon Master has an adventure in mind and if the players try to chuck that adventure to the wind and set off on entirely their own task, the adventure tends to go right off the rails with them and quickly crashes to a halt.  The fun choices are not about whether you go on the grand quest, but HOW you go about accomplishing it.

This is where Story Realms shines.  The rules are designed to be flexible and allow for just about any creative choice a player can think of to try out to solve the challenges presented in each scene.  One scene in our opening adventure involves the straightforward task of getting to the bottom of a waterfall (well there’s a bit more going on in that scene, but the basic task is descending the cliff where the waterfall flows).  We have had players climb down with ropes, build flying machines, glide down on wings and freeze the waterfall and use magic to fashion it into a zigzagging ice slide.  None of these were predetermined options written into the adventure.  They were all just different ways players thought of to get down a cliff.  This is what we are aiming to keep the focus of the game on in Story Realms.  Allowing each player to use their heroes powers and skill as creatively as they can to solve the big challenges and play out the meaningful and exciting parts of each adventure they go on.  That is how we let the players experience epic quest after epic quest in about an hour each.  The heroes are always running away from “the cleaners”, escaping the bowels of the oubliette, fighting the goblin hordes in the goblin city, and confronting the wicked goblin king in the room of Escher-like staircases.  They are never simply wandering corridor after corridor of the endless Labyrinth. 

Of course, the scene structure isn’t the only thing that helps keep the play time down.  Our challenge/combat system is an important factor in that as well.  But that’s a story for another time.


  1. Wow, this looks awesome, Mr. Newnham. Mind if I link to it on my blog?

    Your idea for Story Realms sounds a lot like what I was trying to do when I created my own free RPG "Challenger" (which you can download pretty much anywhere).

    However, you seemed to have focused 'even more' on the flexibility and ease of use. Making it playable in under an hour (most games I run tend to stretch to two or three).

    I'm also sensing your game will be better suited to younger audiences. Yes?

    Any idea where I can get a copy? Or, are you still in the design phase? Would love to hear more about Story Realms. You can contact me at: challenger_rpg(at) if you want to swap game design stories or just old gaming stories. (I always love to hear from fellow gamers.)

    Regardless, I think you have a great idea here and I hope you do well with it!

    Best Regards,

    David L. Dostaler
    Author, Challenger RPG (free)

  2. David, link away! :) I am definitely interested in Challenger and will need to follow up on that and read through it. It is designed to be playable by a younger audience, but to be fun for any age group. A test group of guys in their twenties and thirties loved it!

    Story realms is currently still in development and is not yet available. We will be running our preorders this summer via Kickstarter.

    If you want more detailed info, I invite you to contact Angie and Julian at if you would like to discuss more! Thank you for linking to us, by the way!