Platformers Never Fall Flat

As you might have guessed from yesterday’s review, I’m a fan of platformers. When they’re well-made, they can be some of the most rewarding single-player games out there, in my opinion. They provide the opportunity to tell wonderful stories through the visuals and the interactions between characters in the game without getting bogged down by complex levels or difficult controls. For some platformers, the whole point of the game is the controls, telling a passive story as you move through levels expanding your ability to explore as you go. There’s so much variety out there that I can’t cover them all.

While most of my favorite games are not platformers, it is easy to say that it is my favorite genre of game. Ever since I played Math Blaster as a kid, I have enjoyed working my way through levels by solving simple puzzles and jumping from one bit of safe ground to another. The various Super Mario Bros games, most of the Game Boy games I enjoyed that aren’t Pokemon, tons of great indie games now, and so many easter eggs in bigger-budget games.

Platformers have been in the news a bit more than usual lately. With the advent of Super Mario Maker and games like Cuphead, platformers are getting a lot of attention as a result of their often higher-than-average difficulty. In a lot of games the difficulty is adjustable, making the enemies tougher or weaker, or by giving you more or less information for solving the puzzles. Platformers, though, don’t always have adjustable difficulty. Celeste, for example, did not. There are levels you can unlock, though, that are basically more difficult versions of each level.

For a lot of platformers, the difficulty is set by the precision with which you must control your character. There are Mario Maker levels that require you to pretty much get your timing and movement down to the pixel in order to succeed.  Cuphead is notorious for difficult fights due to the shifting nature of the boss battles, which require you to constantly stay on your toes. Celeste requires you to repeat the puzzles until you succeed, trying to navigate around barriers and use the various game rules and moves to figure out how to move through the stage. This includes adding in a few false-leads that require you to fully consider your actions before you take them. Even replaying levels doesn’t necessarily make them easier because knowing what you need to do doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to do it. I ran into that a lot. I’d get 90% of the way through a screen, die, and then struggle to get past the 50% mark all over again.

I really enjoy platformers because of this. I get frustrated, sure, but it feels super rewarding to be able to zip through a screen by nailing every move perfectly. I’m not terribly discouraged by failure, so it is easy for me to sit there and attempt to pull of the same sequence of moves for five or more minutes if I encounter a particularly difficult puzzle. My main problem with most platformers is that they’re often on the computer and I don’t really enjoy playing them on the computer. Getting Celeste for the Switch instead of my PC was the best decision I made in the last month. Being able to pick it up for only five minutes and then being able to put it down without worrying about accidentally closing the game is invaluable. I own a bunch of PC platformers that I’d probably re-buy in an instant if they made a version for the Switch.

I’m no platformer god. I’m persistent and I learn by doing, which means I tend to think better by making split-second decisions without too much time to analyze. This gives me an advantage because that’s what platformers, especially ones based on momentum, need most of the time. Only a few times has Celeste given me the opportunity to look ahead so I can determine what I need to do and it is the only platformer I’ve ever played that lets me do that. I enjoy the challenge of momentum-based games, even if I often flub the ending of individual challenges because I continuously forget to watch where I land instead of the difficult bit I’ve just navigated. I’m pretty sure this habit of mine accounts for at least half of my deaths in Celeste.

Tabletop Highlight: Dungeon Building for D&D

I’m not very good at building dungeons, though I should probably add that I’m also not bad. I’m alright. They take a long time, compared to preparing story elements, planning cities, and making up characters. It takes a whole lot of work to get a dungeon built, if you want it to feel customized and unique. Don’t get me wrong, it is probably the most fun I have as a DM, preparing for a session. It just takes a whole day of work or several evenings. Trap assignments, copying stats down, finding references, creating custom traps, designing passageways and rooms, filling the dungeon with residents, and then coming up with any puzzles. Treasure and stuff is usually an after-thought, since I usually just keep refreshing a random treasure generator until I find a hoard I like.

One of the easiest things for me is the entrance. Setting up a dungeon entrance depends on how the party is going to encounter it. Are they going to stumble across a random dungeon? Are they looking for it because they heard a rumor or were sent to find it? For the former, perception checks work great and all you need is some place that the party would reasonably go that not a lot of other people would. If you’ve ever played D&D, pretty much every party is constantly going places no one else would, so that’s easy. If they’re looking for it, that’s even simpler since they’ve got a general location and will be making skill checks until they succeed. After that, you just need some flavor about how they found it, what the door is, and then a hurdle for them to overcome before they can enter. Like spotting a secret door in what otherwise appears to be a simple hidden outpost that hasn’t been used in centuries or having the lookout notice that the sand dune they’re looking at isn’t shifting like the other ones.

After that, my struggles usually start. What traps are appropriate? How many are appropriate? I like undead dungeons, because you don’t really need to think about how dungeon creatures or NPCs would get around. Undead just stand around until they spot something to attack and even the intelligent ones don’t need food or air. My favorite dungeon was actually a tomb built to keep the undead inside it, and the party didn’t realize it until they’d set off or disabled all of the traps at the door to the boos room. More recent dungeons have involved intelligent creatures that need food and water and sometimes air, so I’ve had to be very careful with trap and puzzle placement. How is a gaggle of kobolds supposed to bypass a 30-foot pit trap without some way to go around? Also, how are the lizardfolk supposed to go through the puzzle-door unless they know the answer to the puzzle? Solving these problems would make it easy for the party to by-pass the actual traps and puzzles because they’ve got high perceptions and at least one of them isn’t afraid to do a little torturing if he wants some information.

There are, of course, other ways around this. Labyrinthine dungeons. They’re a pain in the ass to build and draw on a map, but they can be so incredibly rewarding. All of the creatures that live in the dungeon would know their way around and could find the easiest passageways, while the party is stuck trying to muddle their way through without running into another dead-end filled with the newly animated corpses of the last group to fall to the poisoned needle trap the party just set off. Once you’ve figured out the best way to build them (and start saving parts the party didn’t explore for future dungeons), the only real problem is drawing them out so the party has some kind of physical space to move through. Sure, there are any number of software programs that would allow this, but I prefer a more tactile experience when I can get it. Wet-erase markers, a play-mat, and one of my players as the map-maker since it makes more sense to have the players draw the map based on your descriptions rather than to do it yourself and try to guess on their sight-lines/spacial reasoning abilities.

As for filling a dungeon with creatures and NPCs… Well, that’s usually a bit easier since you’ve probably got a themed based on the location or the reason the party is there. Build a few encounters, stick them in the dungeon’s rooms, and then add a few advantages to them to reflect the fact that they’ve had time to prepare for invaders. Also, remember that just because a large creature takes up a 10-foot space doesn’t mean it can’t also squeeze through a 5-foot hallway. Dungeon Master’s Guides and/or Player’s Handbooks should have some rules on how squeezing works, so maybe sticking a large creature in a medium hallway could be a lot of fun for you! It’d be super interesting for a bunch of snakes to show up in the hallway. They’d be able to manage it fine and could maybe use their size to shove the party around as they slithering through the halls.

Just, you know, make sure to build your dungeons a few sessions in advance of when you think you’ll need them. Chances are good you’ll wind up wanting a little more time than you planned to finish building your dungeon and it is usually worth taking the time to do it right rather than rushing it. You’ll feel a lot better about it, that’s for sure.