Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Adventure Concept - The Ultimate Puzzle

I was putting together a puzzle/investigative adventure, and it occurred to me that there is one concept that I am pretty sure simply would not work.  Does anyone out there think you could convert Da Vinci Code/National Treasure into a workable adventure/campaign?

At first blush, this seems like it might be a cool adventure.  Despite the numerous flaws in both properties, the underlying concept of a super-historian unraveling clues hidden in plain sight sounds like it would be awesome.  Especially with a conspiracy or a rival team providing time pressure and action sequences.  But, I see lots of reasons why it simply would not live up to the ideal.

First, it would require a massive amount of prep work.  Even if you just relied on Wikipedia and are already a pretty well-read historian as a GM, you would need to do a LOT of research.  This is definitely not something you could just wing.

Second, it would pretty much only work in a modern setting based in the real world.  You might be able to pull it off in a super-detailed setting like Forgotten Realms or Star Wars.  But, only if your players are equally obsessive to catch all of your references.  (Though, for a one-shot it might be interesting to do it based purely on fandom references, targeted specifically to super-fans.)

Third, and related to the second, whichever player (or players) is running the super-historian needs to have knowledge of the setting/conspiracy/time period/etc. that is very close to the GMs.  If the GM knows too much more, then references and clues will be missed.  If the player knows too much more, then there are arguments.

Fourth, as demonstrated above, the adventure is going to be driven by player knowledge.  There is no way to make this kind of adventure driven by skill checks without just turning it into a narration.  "Make a History check." "Success!" "Okay, you now know that Benjamin Franklin stayed in this house while he was ambassador to France." "I go look for clues from Ben in the bedroom!" "Make a History check." "Success!" "You recognize a symbol carved into the closet lintel as belonging to the Franklin family crest." "I study it!" "Make a History check."  Et cetera, et cetera.

Fifth, as you may deduce from that chain, the trail of clues is going to be fragile.  A single failed check or player digression can ruin the whole plot.  This is prototypical bad adventure design.  But, a robust, many-branched trail is antithetical to the concept.  Of course, you can always build in loops in which a failed check requires a visit to a library or expert for a re-roll.  Hmm, actually, that could be cool, if it didn't happen too often.  A bit of strong GMing to get a stubborn red herring back on track, and you might be able to fix this issue.

You are going to see a lot of standard adventure design issues exacerbated.  Niche protection and skill coverage are both going to be problems.  Pacing will need a very fine touch.  Avoiding railroading and pixel-bitching will be tricky.

You know, after writing all of this out, I may have changed my mind.  I think that you might be able to put together an adventure like this.  I would almost definitely craft it as a one-shot, not a campaign.  It makes the most sense to use pre-gen characters to ensure a proper skill mix.  And, I think that I would make it fandom related, rather than history related.  Either set it in a popular setting for super-fans, or use a trick where someone has scattered clues through various fan properties that need to be unraveled.  I think that it is beyond my poor abilities to either write or run, but I'm actually thinking that it is possible.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

    I've recently put out an ebook of my writing, called 'The New Death and others'. It's mostly short stories, with some obvious gamer-interest material. For example I have a story inspired by OD&D elves, as well as poems which retell Robert E Howard's King Kull story 'The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune' and HP Lovecraft's 'Under the Pyramids'.

    I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog.

    If so, please let me know your email, and what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy. You can email me ( or reply to this thread.

    You can download a sample from the ebook's page on Smashwords:

    I'll also link to your review from my blog.