I like everything I do to be an improvement on what I've done before. That means I study a lot, and often in directions that don't immediately apply to board games. For Dungeons & Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil Board Game, I challenged myself to design a better story. This entry is about what I learned and how the study of story structure led to a better game.
SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to talk about the structure of the Temple of Elemental Evil board game's story, which may be considered spoilers. For those of you who want to experience the story first, I would suggest waiting to read this until after you've played through the campaign.
Let's set the wayback machine to July 2013. During a vacation to the midwest culminating in the annual Minneapolis convention CONvergence, I read through Blake Snyder's amazing book, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. In one of those odd coincidences of the universe, one of the guests of honor that year was Lou Anders, author and then-editorial director of Pyr books. Mr. Anders gave several talks throughout the weekend on story structure, and I was highly fortunate to be able to speak with him throughout the convention. (If you have children aged 8-12, Lou's Thrones & Bones series might interest them; the first book of the series is named Frostborn. Check it out!)
Lou gave an interesting talk that showed the evolution that a character makes throughout a story. A character goes through four stages: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, and Martyr. These transitions typically occur in the act breaks, with the second act being split into two halves.
In Act 1, your protagonist is an Orphan. This can be either a literal or a figurative orphan. All that matters is that the hero of your story is isolated from something. For example, Luke Skywalker is a literal orphan, living with his aunt and uncle and feeling detached from their farming lifestyle. Tony Stark is not a team player in the beginning of The Avengers and is emotionally isolated from the rest of the team. Near the end of Act 1, the hero must make a decision that forms the core of the story and transitions him or her to the next stage.
In the first half of Act 2, the hero is a Wanderer and is not sure what to do. This stage is about the hero learning what he needs to do to answer the central question of the story. For example, Luke Skywalker spends the first half of Act 2 wandering around Mos Eisley, traveling to Alderaan, and eventually infiltrating the Death Star. A big event at the midpoint of the story transforms the hero to the next stage.
In the second half of Act 2, the hero becomes a Warrior. This is a big change for the Hero. He or she is no longer a passive observer, but is now an active force in the world. Luke Skywalker takes command to rescue Leia. Tony Stark vows to avenge the death of a beloved character. At the end of Act 2, an event rocks the hero and forces the character to fully commit to the task at hand.
In Act 3, the hero becomes a Martyr. He or she must be ready to sacrifice something important to accomplish the final task. Luke discards his reliance on technology and fully embraces the Force to destroy the Death Star. Tony Stark prepares to sacrifice his life to help his team by riding the missile into the portal. At this point, the hero (probably) accomplishes his goal, and the story ends.
This progression works for so many stories. Try to apply it to the protagonists in the following movies: Harry Potter (the entire series follows this arc), Big Hero 6, and Wreck-It Ralph.
Application to the Game
In early 2014, we started sketching out the story for Temple of Elemental Evil. We knew we wanted around thirteen Adventures, and I realized that this story structure would function within the game. We needed to spend some time in each part of the story, so certain adventures mark the transition of the characters. We decided this transition would occur around Adventures 3, 7, and 11. That means Adventures 1-3 are Act I, Adventures 4-7 are Act 2 part 1, Adventures 8-11 are Act 2 part 2, and Adventures 12-13 are Act 3.
One important part of the original Temple of Elemental Evil TRPG adventure was the village of Hommlet. We felt the interaction of the elemental cults with the local populous was an important part of the story, so we wanted to make sure our story had the same resonance. Since our story is set in the Forgotten Realms, we picked the city of Red Larch as the focal point of the three transitional adventures.
We've never set an Adventure System game in a city, and it took a bit of a leap to figure out how this would function in the game. Since the town was going to be a separate area than the dungeon, we were able to use the back side of the five double-sized tiles which we haven't been able to do in previous Adventure System games. I've tried to make town tiles before and failed because the completed town always looked odd when compared to the scale of the dungeon. The town worked once we changed the scale of the tiles from the typical 1 inch = 5 feet scale that we've used for the rest of the tiles.
At this point, we needed to pick the primary conflict that the characters were facing. The obvious question was: "Can the heroes defeat the cult of elemental evil?", but that has issues. In a game, it is best if the motivations of the characters align with the motivations of the players. If the motivation of the heroes do not match the players, you end up with "ludo-narrative dissonance" — a fancy description for the feeling you get when immersion is broken in a game because the hero is forced to go down a path that you as player don't want to do. "Can the heroes defeat the cult of elemental evil?" doesn't take into account the player's needs.
Fortunately, the structure of the Adventure System saved us. Since the Adventure System games are cooperative games, the primary conflict for the heroes needed to reinforce that. Therefore, we made a small tweak to the primary conflict: "Can the heroes work together to defeat the cult of elemental evil?" It's a subtle change, but it was a guideline that would help us with design.
The miniatures for the game were drawn from the first two sets of D&D Miniatures from WizKids Games. We wanted a few monsters and one figurehead for each elemental cult. We chose Velathidros, the black dragon, as the primary antagonist for the game. The antagonist is that character that puts up barriers that make it difficult for the protagonists to accomplish their goals. The most important part of the primary conflict is if the characters can work together; therefore, the antagonist's primary function in this game is to stop the heroes from working together.
Since the launch of the fifth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, Chris Perkins and his team have prepared story bibles for each D&D season. A story bible contains important concepts for the season. The Elemental Evil story bible contained a lot of great ideas to help flesh out the story. For example, the names of the four elemental cults were pulled from this document. We also featured magic items, locations, and characters that you might see in other Elemental Evil stories this year.
One of the most important concepts is the devastation orb. A devastation orb is a single use weapon of mass elemental destruction. Each orb contains a small part of the essence of one of the elemental princes. (Old school D&D fans might remember the elemental princes from the Fiend Folio.) A devastation orb takes on the elemental aspect of the prince that created it. For example, a devastation orb that contained the essence of Imix, the elemental prince of fire, would create a volcano or massive heat wave when it detonated.
Designing Act 1
All the adventure system games start with a solo adventure so the person who bought the game can sit down and learn how to play, making it easier for that player to teach the rest of the group. Since the heroes at this stage of the game should be orphans, we started the heroes off as the only survivors of a failed adventuring party. This also establishes that the heroes are characters that aren't proven to be able to work together yet.
Beyond setting up the heroes as orphans, Act 1 needs to introduce the cult of elemental evil to the players and the town of Red Larch. Episode 2 introduces one of the elemental cults, and Episode 3 introduces the town and the troubles that it has. The goal of the first town adventure is to establish that the cults are an active threat, which pushes the heroes to start exploring the main temple.
Finally, as there are four parts to the story and four elemental cults, it makes sense that each section focuses on one of the four element cults. The order that the cults are encountered was dictated by the miniatures we had available. Since we don't have a monstrous leader of the Cult of the Howling Hatred (Air) that became the cult for Act 1. The salamander Arkashic Thunn is the least imposing of the three main villains, so the Cult of the Eternal Flame (Fire) is the main enemy for the first part of Act 2. The ettin Swerglemergle is next, so the Cult of Black Earth (Earth) is the main foe for the second half of Act 2. Finally, the black dragon Velathidros is the final villain and part of the Cult of the Crushing Wave (Water).
Designing Act 2
In the first part of Act 2, the heroes are wanderers. They start exploring the temple, but they don't quite know what they are fighting toward. While the main enemy for this section is the Cult of Eternal Flame, we did want one adventure that had strong replay value, so Adventures 4 and 6 focus on fire, while Adventure 5 features all the elementals.
Adventure 7 is the midpoint of the story, so this needs to transition the heroes from being wanderers to warriors. In response to the heroes (presumed) success against the Cult of the Eternal Flame in Adventure 6, the cult decides to retaliate against the village. Villagers are taken hostage, and that pushes the heroes into the second half of Act 2.
At this point, the heroes become active participants in the story. They now see the cults as an active threat to Red Larch, and need to bring them down a peg. They turn their attention to the Cult of the Black Earth, and eventually destroy the earth node.
Designing Act 3
For the final act, the tension needs to be further increased, and it starts with an attack on the town by the dragon. The final two adventures result in hunting down the dragon. Remember how I said that the primary role of the antagonist is to split up the party? So far in the game, it's only been evident in encounter cards. Some cards physically separate the party, such as Windswept and Trap Refresh. Others can drive wedges between unsuspecting players, such as Dark Gift and Hidden Betrayal.
For the final encounter, we break the rules of the cooperative game by having the dragon tempt the party: One of the players can choose to switch sides and join the dragon. This is the final expression of the antagonist's role in the game. Can the heroes (and players) defeat the dragon by working together — or does one of them falter?