As an addendum to posting the first rough drafts of my town adventures system (such as it is), I though I might share a few thoughts on the design process, just in case that interests anyone else. For me it’s been a very interesting puzzle.
How do you go about simulating town-based adventures? For my part, since I’d already designed a whole system to simulate the narrative experience of a Dungeon-crawl, my first thought was “Well, I’ll just use the same mechanics as my Dungeon system, but reskin it so it feels like town”. But that quickly brought up questions like “isn’t there some deeper difference between dungeon-based adventures and town-based adventures?” Deeper than the mere surface details, that is. Don’t town adventures and dungeon adventures perhaps run according to different narrative structures?
At that point, the puzzle became very interesting to me.
But let’s back up a little, in order to approach this puzzle properly.
Here’s a big question for you: what kind of narrative structures are central to tabletop roleplaying? Let’s review a very short, simplified list of them, roughly in the order in which they became popular in RPGs:
First we have the DUNGEON, in which you go from room to room, encountering a series of more or less discrete situations, hoping to gain things that will grant you ongoing benefits. In the millennia-long history of narrative structures, this is a ridiculously recent development – it was invented by D&D in the 1970s. (I hereby perform the obligatory nod to all the rest of those early ones: Tunnels and Trolls, Drakar och Demoner, etc etc. Yes, there were others. But D&D is obviously the central case).
Second we have the MYSTERY, in which you are presented with a puzzle or question, and then try to find the answer to it by gathering a series of clues, leading up to a final revelation. Clearly, this narrative structure is much older than roleplaying – but it’s not as old as you might think. Mystery plots, in the modern sense, were first developed by late 19th century prose fiction, and then spread to theatre, radio, film, TV, etc. Early D&D (and similar) didn’t really make much use of them. It wasn’t until slightly later games that RPGs such as Call of Cthulu started to assume that the game’s central narrative structure would be the players’ search for clues, pursuit of leads, and so on. So that’s a second narrative structure.
Third we have… well, it’s unclear. I’ve heard some people argue that those first two are really as far as the story has come (for example, I think I’ve heard The Alexandrian saying this kind of thing, though my memory could be playing tricks on me...) – and people who say this have a point, especially if you’re willing to set aside all those blundering sessions in which the players and GM kind of just futz about without really having any clear narrative structure at all. Certainly in my experience most successful RPGs seem to assume that the typical adventure follows either a Dungeon structure, or a Mystery structure, or both. (To take the central example, judging by the published adventures, modern D&D clearly assumes that you’re using a mix of the two).
Having said that, there’s a case to be made that certain kinds of highly simulationist play tend to fall into a third kind of narrative structure – the narrative structure of a (supposedly) “realistic” thought experiment, in which the action proceeds according to the participants’ conception of “what would really happen next.” If that sort of thing interests you, then it can be tempting to dismiss all talk of narrative structures, and instead just declare “There are no rules of genre at work here, man! Here we just ask ‘What would really happen next?’, and do that!” I get the sense that GURPS once attracted many people who wanted (is it too harsh to say “thought they wanted”?) a style of play something like this – and certainly GURPS can do simulation really well. But really, unless you flip a lot of switches, the system as written is better at simulating relatively gritty heroic action, rather than cold hard reality – and gritty heroic action obeys its own rules of genre, which raises the question of narrative structure once again.
Finally, there’s also a case to be made that certain games which emphasize interpersonal drama tend to run according to a different (and wider?) set of narrative structures, beyond just The Dungeon and The Mystery. One key example here would be the old Vampire: The Masquerade crowd from the 1990s (though, as many people observed at the time, the actual mechanics of that system seemed designed to support a different, more Mystery-like investigation narrative than the angst-ridden interpersonal dramas that in fact emerged. (Side note: here I’m just repeating what I’ve read others saying about the V:TM scene in the 1990s; it may be merely a caricature of the real scene; I wasn’t there. I’m interested to hear others’ views on this, if you were there…). Another example, from a much more recent “generation” of RPGs, would be Robin D. Laws’ “DramaSystem”, as exemplified by Hillfolk, in which the primary goal of the players is not to run through a dungeon or to solve a mystery, but to explore the dramatic conflicts between characters.
Right – so we have The Dungeon, The Mystery, and maybe some other narrative structures as well. What’s your point?
Well, I’m not yet 100% certain I have a point, but I may yet surprise myself.
At any rate, I was thinking about all of this as I was trying, in my own much smaller way, to design a good Town Adventures System. What are “town adventures,” anyway? Do they tend to run according to a typical narrative structure? What narrative structure would that be?
Well, in the first place it’s clear that some so-called “town adventures” are really just dungeons in disguise (the classic “Please clean the rats out of the tavern cellar!” and “Thanks! Now clean the bigger rats out of the town sewers!” adventures come to mind). But the more interesting “town adventures” would seem to be more than this. If their underlying narrative structure isn’t just “The Dungeon”, reskinned, then what is it?
The obvious candidate would be the Mystery – and you don’t have to look too far to find all sorts of published “town adventures” which are indeed classic mysteries of the “follow the trail of clues to catch the culprit!” kind. But I don’t think that really exhausts the case, because many interesting “town adventures” seem to follow a different set of narrative structures.