Thursday, November 5, 2015

Super Mario Maker meets Dungeons & Dragons

"If you have time on your dance card, I built you a prison."

That was the message Griffin McElroy sent Patrick Klepek in mid October. At the time, I didn't know anything about either Patrick or the game Super Mario Maker. However, Griffin McElroy is one of the funniest people on the planet and I am continually delighted by the things he creates. He is one of the three McElroy brothers on the widely loved My Brother, My Brother, and Me podcast. He is the Dungeon Master of The Adventure Zone podcast (featuring his father and his brothers as the players). He is also an editor at where, among many other things, he creates Monster Factory (also with his ridiculously funny brother Justin). In short, I will consume anything Griffin McElroy creates. But I had never heard of Super Mario Maker.

Super Mario Maker does what it says on the tin. It is a game level editor that gives the user the power to build interesting (or dull or impossible or fun) levels of Nintendo's Super Mario. And people have been making a lot of Mario levels since it's release. Patrick Klepek is a senior reporter at Kotaku and he streams on Twitch (which archives to his channel on YouTube). For the last few months, Patrick has spent his mornings before work streaming levels of Super Mario Maker in a series he calls Mario Maker Mornings. He is engaging and charismatic and complimentary to well-designed levels. In late September, Giant Bomb senior editor Dan Ryckert and friend of Patrick, fed Klepek a truly outrageous level dubbed "The Ryckoning". This was following a series of other challenging levels coming from the Giant Bomb region of the internet that Patrick also defeated.

The results were entertaining. But I came to that well after watching and re-watching Patrick attempt to decipher the monstrous prison constructed by Griffin. Watching Patrick twist and turn through a scenario that started at zero information beyond the known capabilities of Mario was fascinating. Since devouring the Hypercube episodes of Mario Maker Mornings, I have dipped deep into Klepek's archive. I watched all of The Ryckoning, I watched him work through the Giant Bomb levels. I have watched Patrick work through a ton of puzzles.

I like puzzles. I especially like puzzles in my twice monthly 5th edition D&D campaign. Currently the party (attendance waffles between 4 and 8) is working their way through C2: The Ghost Tower of Inverness. My campaign has blended themes and tropes I enjoy with 35 year old 1st edition modules. Previously, they have worked through a fast bastardization of L1: The Secret of Bone Hill (one of my favorites), the "good parts" of I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City, the lower half of C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, and have now found their way into the Ghost Tower. One of the hazards of uplifting ancient modules is a lack of puzzles, so I find ways to mix in things that interest me or currently have my attention. I also tend to drop campaign plot points and boss fights of my own design into the mix whenever it seems appropriate.

I have thrown puzzles at them inspired by my love of the Legend of Grimrock. I have hit them with encounter set pieces aping the Punisher battlefield in Heroes of the Storm (yes, they played a MOBA as D&D characters and it was awesome). The intersection in my mind of Griffin McElroy Dungeon Mastering a Super Mario Maker level somehow made total sense to me. In the most recent session of the campaign, I slipped a Mario puzzle into one of the blank spaces on the map.

In Super Mario Maker, a lot of the puzzles revolve around being Big Mario or Small Mario.

The method I used to put the puzzle together worked along the same mental pathways I use when I am designing text adventure puzzles. There is an ultimate goal which has requirements. Along the path to each of those requirements are sub-goals and sub-requirements and false trails. The primary constraints on the puzzle were:
  • It had to be fun for the players (eventually - some front-loaded frustration is ok)
  • It had to be solvable in about an hour of game play (we all have work in the morning)
  • It had to entertain around six players
  • It needed to use some Mario tropes like a climbing vine, a star, and big/small interactions
  • The internal rules had to be consistent (inconsistency leads players down the wrong track)

To hit that last point in more detail: Internal consistency means your players are going to formulate rules according to their observations, the knowledge of the game environment, and their knowledge of the bullshit their GM likes to throw at them. These can be incorrect rules and assumptions! Internal consistency which leads players down the "wrong" path toward incorrect conclusions are great. Especially if the clues to the correct path were there to be seen. Inconsistency, on the other hand, is going to lead to disengagement, random experimentation, and an overall sense of "just try whatever because there is no rhyme or reasons to this". When you are operating on a timed schedule (We try to wrap game by 10:30 PM), inconsistency is going to burn time you don't want burned.

The other thing I cherish in my puzzles is just enough deception and misdirection so that the players feel clever when they beat it. Fortunately, my players love puzzles. They love levers and switches and are willing to take risks for the pittance of treasure I give them (Sorry, folks, I'll get some more goods in there, I promise). When I sit down to put together a puzzle, I typically start with the very end and try to determine what the perfect route would be toward that end. Ok.  With all that background and sideground and meandering done, here was how my 5th Edition Super Mario Maker Puzzle Room played out.

In Super Mario Maker, a lot of the puzzles revolve around being Big Mario or Small Mario. Big Mario can take one hit before becoming Small Mario. If Small Mario is hit, he dies. I wanted passageways that took advantage of this and I wanted to use that effect to set the tone as quickly as possible. Therefore, the entrance corridor became "spiked" as a player crosses it. Everything around them expands to twice the normal size! (Everyone else sees that player become "Small". If a Small player takes another hit, they are reset to the entrance and lose 10% of their max health (irreducible) … if I wanted to, I reserved the right to make it unhealable until the puzzle was abandoned or solved.

Upon entering the room (about 50' by 50'), the players see a small raised dais in each corner, large enough to stand on and only a few inches off the floor. Every round a blue ball of light shoots down from the ceiling over each dais and "pops" on impact. Between each dais from floor to ceiling is a shimmering thin curtain of blue light.

Predictably, once several of the players entered the room (and all but one did), they start messing with the balls of light. The light proves harmless and mysterious. The balls are catchable. Once caught, new balls do not drop. A Perception check reveals a small block in the center of the ceiling out of place with the rest of the stone. Once all four balls have been caught, the block falls to the center of the floor, leaving a "Small" opening in the ceiling 50' above. However, on the block is a large animated vine monster with a snapping mouth for a head. Roll for initiative.

The Dragonborn crits the thing for something ridiculous. Viney "dies" and becomes a dead, heavy plant strewn about the floor like jumbled rope - still attached at its base to the block. Very mysterious. Close examination of the plant shows that the thick strand has lots of accessible purchase points for easy climbing. Except, of course, the thing is dead.

More experimentation with the balls of light. Some consideration of using a potion of flying to zoom up and slip through the hole in the ceiling. The concern about the reverse journey at a faster and uncontrolled rate sidelines that avenue of thought. The party tosses the balls of light clockwise through the blue curtains. Nothing happens. As it turns out I had five patterns and only needed three. Clockwise was one of the ones I tossed out at the end of the design process. Fortunately, they tried counterclockwise and a passageway opened in the wall nearby. The passageway looked safe, but it closed after a few seconds. It took the party a bit to realize they had to keep tossing the balls counterclockwise to maintain the opening. They did so and the Monk scurried down the small hallway into a room. There was some side talk of sealing the passage and leaving the Monk there. I love my players.

In the room with the Monk was a giant flugelhorn / pipe thing. Too large to fit back down the passage, but obviously meant to be blown. The Monk stepped up and blew out a few notes and ta-dah! The dead vine rose like a snake until it stretched from the block to the ceiling and through the small opening. By this point several of my players had keyed into the Mario tones. Currently, there was one player in the hall outside the puzzle room. There was a player blowing undead notes on a giant horn. Four players were playing catch, leaving one player available to act … the trap-springing, act-first, tried to kill him with a 10d20 lightning bolt trap a few sessions ago and he lived, fighter.

The Fighter climbs Viney and slips into the chamber above the room. He finds a lever behind a glass wall just after moving through the small hole. He fails his Perception check to notice the small mushroom sign near the lever. The vine continues for a short bit before stopping. Well above him is the dark end of an ominous pipe. Just above him and to the east and west is a "small" passage carpeted in spikes with a lever at each end, about 30ish feet away. The Fighter attempts to put down some armor over the spikes and crawl. He gets spiked and returns to the entrance. He comes in and tries again, with a shield. I say he brushes up against the wall accidentally and is returned to the beginning. He considers using a flying potion to slip down the hall. At this point (group Insight check) I let the players know that blowing that level of resources isn't going to be useful or wise (it wouldn't work, they would have felt cheated of the item, and time was going to be a factor if they started down that road).

This is where it almost went off the rails for me, because I had miscounted my player requirements.

In the room, the ball throwers switch back to clockwise. I decide to flip the effect I was reserving for east-west over to the clockwise to speed things along. The glass wall in front of the level disappears. The Fighter pulls the lever and a mushroom falls from the pipe overhead. It hits the Fighter and he becomes Big. He jumps up on the spikes heading east, the spikes turn him Small, and he runs over to the east lever, pulls it and runs back to the vine. How did he survive the spikes? Invincibility Frames. In Super Mario, when you are hit by an enemy, you have a few seconds of invincibility before another, deadly, hit can register. My players picked up on this rule instantly. The Fighter pulls the mushroom lever again. Uh oh! The east lever reset! He becomes big and runs over to the west lever anyway, but clearly a slightly different approach is needed.
No problem! The Cleric waiting outside makes his entrance, and scoots up the vine. This is where it almost went off the rails for me, because I had miscounted my player requirements. With six players, one player has to do the upstairs work. There isn't enough time with Invincibility Frames to get both levers with one player. With a seventh, suddenly they could both make a move at a lever. Fortunately, a piece of the puzzle just over the horizon saved my bacon. They both mushroomed, ran for the levers, pulled them, and then Stomp Blocks overhead smashed them into paste. A grinding, door-opening noise starts but then cuts out. (They reappear at the entrance down 10% of their max HP).

Use this one secret trick ... 

Somebody in the room says they should throw the balls across to each other instead of around in a circle and see what happens. Behold, they toss the balls north to south and back and another passage opens! Yes, the Monk is sealed in his little room, but he seems to be ok so far.  The Druid wonders what happens if they throw in an 'X' pattern, avoiding the blue curtains completely. !!! This was the super secret trick !!! But nothing visible happens. They hear something, but don't see anything. Mysterious. The party goes back to north-south pattern and the new path.

The new path is spiked! Very dangerous to enter, deadly if you are small. The Fighter climbs down the vine until he is just inside the room (just below the ceiling). The Cleric pulls the mushroom lever and gets out of the way. The mushroom falls through the hatch and hits the Fighter. Now he is Big inside the main room.

The Fighter runs down the new passage, getting spiked and becoming small. In the room is a pedestal with the Helmet. He took too long, and now his is trapped Small in the room. If he had run in, grabbed the Helmet and run out, he could have framed through the spike floor. Unwilling to take another death, the Fighter calls out for the 'X' pattern. The party complies. The spike passage closes, and a new, small, secret passage opens in the Helmet room. It is a safe path that leads to a small room with a potion. The Fighter collects the potion, walks into the Helmet room and calls for a clockwise exit.

The passage out opens and he drinks the potion. Suddenly his whole world is fast intense music and glowing star-like wonder! Without waiting around, the Fighter dashes into the main room and ascends the Vine (the poor Monk has been playing music this entire time). He runs east to the first lever, then west to the second lever. With both pulled the Stomp Blocks smash down and bounce off the Helmet. The grinding, door-opening noise turns into an actual large, safe passageway opening in the main room. Beyond is gleaming treasure and that is where the session ended for the night - the Super Mario Maker puzzle solved and the party eagerly awaiting the next session to discover the contents of the treasure room.

The session ran a bit long, but the players put together to puzzle without too much hand-wringing. The Druid's sudden inspiration to toss the balls in an 'X' short-cut the biggest false lead, and that is 100% fine in my book. I love it when players use their minds to cut corners off of my puzzles. If the party had encountered the room earlier in the evening, I might have done more to make the ball throwers have a harder time, like taking a point or two of damage on every toss or having some sort of chain chomp enemy harassing them into crazy stunts to keep the balls unbroken.

Thank you Patrick Klepek and Griffin McElroy for the wonderful inspiration to put this together. If you would like to watch any of the interesting bits I mentioned at the start of this article, you can find Griffin (@griffinmcelroy) here:

MBMBAM (My Brother, My Brother, and Me podcast)
The Adventure Zone podcast
Monster Factory

And you can find Patrick (@patrickklepek) here:

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Geek - Gamer - Librarian - Writer. Only awesome at one of those things at a time, unfortunately.

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After writing op-eds and travelogues for several years, after finishing a few books, and after failing to get the ball rolling with project after project I stumbled into an idea that might just hold my interest long enough to enjoy some level of satisfaction with my writing.