Adventure’s Procedural Game Design: The Bat on the Atari 2600

Adventure cover artWarren Robinett‘s early videogame Adventure for the 2600 is mostly remembered for including the first known easter egg, and indeed was the example that caused the term to be coined in the first place. Adventure was a remarkable achievement by any standard, but especially for a platform with 4kb of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM.

One of Adventure‘s signature characters was the Bat, and the Bat was both elegant in its simplicity and awesome in its impact. In short, the bat would fly randomly through the game’s screens and would pick up and drop items. The bat’s movement and item actions were simulated even when the bat was off screen, meaning that while you traversed the world the bat was always out there doing its thing. (By contrast, the dragons only did two things: charge you when they see you and try to kill you, and run from you if you had the sword.)

Besides being an autonomous and persistent actor whose behavior was highly randomized, the bat had two unusual abilities:

  • When it arrived on the same screen as you, the bat could choose to steal the item you were currently carrying and drop whatever item it previously had in its place.
  • The bat not only could pick up and drop items, it could also pick up and drop dragons.

With this basket of behaviors, the bat was a true agent of chaos who was neither your enemy or your ally. And its unpredictability and broad freedom to act resulted in a variety of delightful procedural outcomes:

  • You are looking for a crucial item. The bat flies by carrying exactly what you need. Argh!
  • You are carrying a crucial item. The bat steals it from you and leaves behind something useless. Argh!
  • You are carrying an item. The bat flies by with a better item and swaps it with you. But the item she drops is on the other side of a wall because you’re in a maze. Argh!
  • You are running from a dragon. The bat picks up the dragon and flies away with it. Yay!
  • You are in the invisible maze with the sword. The bat enters carrying a dragon. The bat takes your sword and leaves you with the dragon and you now have to escape the dragon within the maze. Argh!
  • You are running from a dragon. The bat flies in carrying the sword and flies over the dragon. The sword kills the dragon. Yay!

This, of course, repeats, and to be clear none of the above examples were deliberately coded scenarios. They simply arose naturally out of the behaviors.

The combinatorial outcome of items, locations, player goals, and creature behaviors resulted in a highly replayable experience that could repeatedly surprise, delight, and aggravate you. Adventure was a fun and innovative game, but the bat is what pushed its gameplay over the top.


Narrative Sandboxes in Delta Green: The Labyrinth, CoC, and Gumshoe

Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu was the first investigative roleplaying game and arguably the first to really expect and deliver a recognizable plot for every adventure. By the time I launched The Unspeakable Oath magazine and started Pagan Publishing in 1990, Chaosium’s published adventures were increasingly plot-driven. They were typically composed as a linear series of canned scenes which the players were expected to progress through in order. The transition from one scene to the next was frequently triggered by some kind of investigative skill check such as Spot Hidden or Library Use. You played through the scene, you hopefully acquired the clue through the skill check, and the clue led you to the next scene.

The more I played and ran Call of Cthulhu and the more I wrote and edited adventures at Pagan, the clearer it became that this linear series of scenes had a lot of problems. While they initially appeared to make the Keeper’s job easier, since you could run the adventure scene by scene, they frequently broke down whenever an investigative skill check failed. This then made the Keeper’s job substantially harder as they were required to improvise new scenes or discoveries on the fly and stitch the investigative thread back together.

Introducing Narrative Sandboxes

Pagan staffer John Crowe was instrumental in recognizing this issue and pushing for a better approach. His landmark campaign Walker in the Wastes was our first big attempt at what I’ve come to think of as a narrative sandbox where the adventure consists primarily of character agendas and location descriptions. Because when you know what the NPCs want, and you know the relevant locations, the actual scenes of the story can emerge organically from the actions of the players. If the players took an unexpected action, good or bad, the story could continue because the Keeper understood the agendas and timetables of the NPCs.

Our approach to narrative sandboxes was focused on giving the Keeper more information and giving the players more freedom. And it worked, but it was in its own way very demanding. We expected players to actually solve mysteries through investigation, interviewing NPCs, and making intuitive leaps. Our own playtest sessions were quite lengthy and much of the time was spent in discussing the investigation and coming up with theories for what was happening. It was an intense intellectual exercise interspersed with violent action when we’d succeed in disrupting the villains’ plan. We had far fewer investigative die rolls but required the players to be much more thoughtful and thorough in their exploration of the mystery. We relied on clear character agendas for the NPCs to drive the action at the table.

Gumshoe and What to Emulate

Game designer Robin Laws took a different approach in 2007’s Gumshoe. He kept Chaosium’s more plot-driven style but ensured that all crucial clues could be discovered without die rolls. As long as the players are in the right place and are generally asking the right questions, they will get the right clues. Instead, Robin puts the emphasis on interpreting the clues so that the players get the fun of solving the mystery without the random pass/fail that skill checks enforce.

Robin’s approach is based on his long-time interest in translating the audience’s experience of genre entertainment into RPGs. I would argue that before Robin, RPGs took the basic D&D model and wedged in genre elements such as spaceships or detectives or whatever. But with his 1995 Feng Shui RPG Robin bent the entire game design and adventures around replicating the experience of watching a Hong Kong action movie. When he did Gumshoe years later, he wanted to give players the fun of solving a mystery within the framework of a tidy, dramatic narrative with ready-to-run scenes that looked and played just like scenes from mystery movies or novels.

Our two approaches to investigative scenarios are fundamentally different, even though both set out to solve the same basic problem. At Pagan we wanted to simulate the experience of conducting an investigation. Robin, I believe, wanted to translate the experience of watching or reading investigation-themed entertainment.

I think both approaches are great. I believe it’s fair to say that our approach is more cognitively challenging for the gamemaster and for the players, while Robin’s approach is likely more reliably satisfying as a group storytelling experience. Neither is better or worse and it comes down to what a group of players and the GM want to do with their time.

Designing Delta Green: The Labyrinth

So how does this get expressed in my new book Delta Green: The Labyrinth? It’s definitely not a collection of adventures, but I have tried to bring this narrative sandbox approach to how I design the organizations profiled in this book. Primarily this manifests as a three-stage progression for each org.

The bulk of each org’s text sets out their history, agenda, resources, and important individuals. But once the org starts to interact with Delta Green, it begins to change. Whether an ally or an enemy, no org stays static. Each one begins to corrode in some ways and strengthen in others, either becoming more focused on its mission or being diverted towards a new agenda. I wanted to ensure these orgs were not targets in a shooting gallery, maintaining a looping state until disrupted, but that they would instead react, change, and even instigate new events in the campaign.

Once an org gets into your campaign, it has a life of its own. As you continue running adventures, the org is doing its own thing and reaching back into the campaign. The Agents will find themselves getting phone calls from an org they met two adventures ago, dangling some new opportunity or challenge before them. They may suddenly find themselves attacked mid-adventure by a third party completely unconnected to current events all because of agendas set in motion earlier. And the more they connect with these orgs, the more the rewards for doing so are balanced by new and increasing risks of exposure, moral failure, madness, and death.

My overall approach for this book is still very much rooted in Pagan’s style. I want to challenge players to investigate mysteries and make intuitive leaps. I want to keep the emphasis on character agendas rather than on plot. But to take a page from Gumshoe and from Chaosium’s now-classic adventures, I want to provide clear dramatic beats for each org that will drive new scenes and surprises.

It’s been great to come back to designing mysteries for players to investigate after so many years away. And I can’t wait for this book to reach Handlers worldwide so they can lead their players through dramatic journeys rife with strong characters, dynamic agendas, and spectacular action.

Why Smartphones Are Bad for Writing

I began living a novel today.

At a bookstore I stumbled across an old paperback horror novel about Satanic skullduggery called The Druid Stone by Simon Majors. And I thought, “Hmm. Simon Majors sounds like Simon Magus, the folkloric occultist/wizard from the Bible. I bet that’s a pseudonym.”

And at that moment this should have kicked off a globe-trotting adventure novel in which I sought to uncover the truth behind this mysterious author and learned what mystic secrets he had laced into the pages of his book, all while I was being pursued by agents of an ancient conspiracy.

And instead I pulled out my smartphone and in twenty seconds learned that yes, Simon Majors was a pseudonym for Gardner Fox, a prolific comic-book and fiction writer from the last century.

And so the novel ended, scarcely after it had begun.

This is why smartphones are bad for writing.

Incursion R&D: The Daisy Chain

For my current fiction project, The Incursion, I have done a lot of research into particle accelerators, topological quantum computing, microscopic black holes, and other topics. It’s fun stuff, with the caveat that my project is science fiction and I’m cheerfully extrapolating well beyond what science says is possible.

One of the fundamental concepts in my project is that the Superconducting Super Collider was actually built instead of being canceled in 1993. This in turn accelerated the discovery of the Higgs Boson by twelve years and led to the spontaneous creation of microscopic black holes, which even at 40 TeV speed could only be possible if there were more dimensions than we know exist — meaning the SSC also proved the practical existence of higher dimensions!

I’m wandering even further ahead of the science here by positing in turn that the ability to create microscopic black holes, on a structured and repeatable basis, led to a new form of quantum computer that used these black holes as a computational medium. A particle would enter the black hole and the Hawking Radiation that was emitted as the black hole collapsed a fraction of a moment later would provide the result of the computation. Essentially, we could now perform calculations across dimensions at incredibly high speed.

Structuring what was effectively a quantum computer made of millions of microscopic black holes that each existed for such a brief time as to be non-existent to conventional physics was beyond any mathematical capability we possessed. A data-carrying particle would need to be passed from black hole to adjacent black hole, passing its state through the black hole to a particle in a higher dimension via quantum entanglement, and then allow itself to be modified by the ensuing Hawking Radiation emerging from the same black hole as it collapsed before being pulled forward by the gravity of the adjacent black hole without actually being consumed, while new black holes at precise coordinates would have to be continually created to replace those already collapsed. This was known as the Daisy Chain.

The solution turned out to to be creating a very simple black hole quantum computer that would self-expand. Starting with a small set of black holes within the accelerator ring, the quantum computer could calculate the next set required to extend the system. With that additional set, its increased capability could then calculate the next set. Iteratively, therefore, the Daisy Chain could build itself into a dense mesh of black holes created over and over in the same locations around the accelerator ring until the computational power was beyond anything previously achieved. A built-in limiter in the algorithm prevented the calculations from creating a Daisy Chain bigger than the ring that contained the system.

At least, that was the idea . . .


Introducing The Incursion

By Ich weiß es nicht at the English Wikipedia project. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Bomazi., CC BY-SA 3.0,

In 2018 I will launch The Incursion, a new fiction podcast in ten chapters. Learn more here.

I’ve been working on this project for most of 2017. I’m eager to tell this story in a new medium, one based on performance and on the intimate relationship between storyteller and listener.

To get updates on the project, please subscribe to future blog posts using the form on this page.


My new virtual reality ghost story, Séance: The Unquiet

Today my team at Holospark released a free preview of our current virtual reality project. Séance: The Unquiet is a ghost story in VR for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets. The preview is now available for download from the Oculus Store and from Steam.

This project is not a videogame. It’s very much a movie that uses virtual reality as its native medium. We built it using the Unreal game engine with a lot of videogame tools and techniques, but all in the service of delivering a cinematic narrative.

About VR Cinematic Storytelling

I’ve written a series of four blog posts on Gamasutra sharing what we learned:

Part One: Composition

Part Two: Music & Sound Design

Part Three: Character Presence

Part Four: Anatomy of a Scene


The excellent VR industry website UploadVR posted a really thoughtful look at what we’re creating:

Séance: The Unquiet is a harrowing ghost story focused on you

We put a ton of work and experimentation into reaching this first preview and I’m very happy with the results.


Peanuts: The Inner Life of Marcie

This article by Kevin Wong is the best thing I’ve read about Charles Schultz’s Peanuts in years:

For many years, I thought that Marcie, the bespectacled, book-obsessed girl in Peanuts, was Asian American. It wasn’t just about how badly I wanted an Asian American in my favorite comic strip; it was about how much I identified with her. Through Marcie’s various story arcs, Charles Schulz depicted the struggles of a shy person who learned her self-worth by reaching her breaking point.

I read a lot of Peanuts when I was a kid and then again when Fantagraphics began reprinting the entire series. It’s a remarkable work and I think one that people find many different paths into. Taking a fresh look at Marcie and realizing where she and Pepperment Patty fit into the context in which they emerged in the strip gave me fresh appreciation for Schulz’s work.

Thought for the Day

“All of nature in its awful vastness and incomprehensible complexity is in the end interrelated — worlds within worlds within worlds: the seen and the unseen — the physical and the immaterial are all connected — each exerting influence on the next — bound, as it were, by chains of analogy — magnetic chains. Every decision, every action mirrors, ripples, reflects and echoes throughout the whole of creation. The world is indeed bound with secret knots.”