Why “The Carrot” Makes or Breaks a Dungeon Crawler

By Dustin Freund @theghostsbetwixt or theghostsbetwixt@gmail.com

The reason I got into tabletop gaming five years ago was to recapture that special feeling found in video game dungeon crawlers. You know the feeling I’m talking about, when you first fell in love with Final Fantasy, Diablo, Earthbound and World of Warcraft. You couldn’t get enough either, could you?

Today’s video games have passed this 36-year-old codger by. What they are missing is what I’ll refer to as “The Carrot.”

What the hell is the Carrot?…

It’s what you dangle in front of a horse to get it to continue moving. Or, what you dangle in front of a player to get them to keep playing.

The Carrot, in the gaming sense, is the product of countless variables, each of which contribute to that feeling of motivation, excitement, ownership of one’s character and addiction only felt in truly special games.

Personally, I believe the Carrot has only been successfully achieved in a few tabletop dungeon crawlers. I think as gamers, and dungeon crawl fans, we’ve settled for average. I think we should demand more.

Let me tell you more about the Carrot and why I believe it is missing from some of our favorite tabletop dungeon crawlers.

Loot System

It’s the most obvious variable of all but difficult to get right. If Diablo or World of Warcraft removed its loot system, what would be left? Would their stories and lore be enough to excite players to continue grinding the same dungeons over and over again? Of course not.

Many table top dungeon crawlers I’ve played have plenty of loot. But, they don’t necessarily have a compelling loot system.

I’ll pick on Shadows of Brimstone because I honestly do love it. In SoB, there is essentially one fat Gear Deck and an equally fat Artifact Deck. Now, they can slightly change based on the world you’re in, but that doesn’t affect my point.

Here’s the flaw: From your very first draw from the Gear or Artifact Decks, you have just as good of a chance drawing the best weapon in the game as you do the worst. This is fundamentally different from the games we grew up playing. In Final Fantasy, a lowly imp doesn’t have a chance to drop an Excalibur.

So, if I’m playing SoB and I draw that awesome Void Pistol in Mission 1, I’m not psyched – I feel cheated. I want to feel like I’ve earned it. I want to experience all the other weapons in between my starting pistol and the Void Pistol.

What needs to change: Tiered loot systems. Slowly introduce higher leveled loot as the game progresses. I have plenty more to say about loot but perhaps will save it for a future blog post.

Surprises

Legacy-style games have opened up a whole new layer of creativity for dungeon crawl designers. Look at what Isaac did with Gloomhaven.

While yes, Gloomhaven is undeniably fun and engaging, I’m mostly driven to see what new characters await in those sexy little tuck boxes. They not only serve as surprises, but more importantly as motivation to keep trekking through its 100+ missions.

What other ways are dungeon crawlers truly surprising its players? Outside of the excitement of new loot or the next mission, I can’t think of any. When unboxing most dungeon crawlers, all the monsters, loot and map tiles are all sitting there staring back at you. And they don’t even have the decency to provide a spoiler alert!

What needs to change: Tabletop dungeon crawlers need to remember what video games have done forever – kept its disgustingly fun bosses, its awesome loot, its new characters and its end-game environments secret until you earn the right to see them.

Ownership of Character

I’ll never forget my first six months of playing vanilla World of Warcraft. It was pure magic. I felt alive in its vibrant world. I felt like I could actually carve my little niche in its lore. The thing I’ll remember most is not the epic pieces of loot I found or the raids for which I tanked. No, what I’ll always remember was the effort I put into being able to craft a Phantom Blade.

I spent hours mining the countryside and looking for rare mats, simply to get just a little bit closer to my goal. Ironically, the Phantom Blade wasn’t even that great. But, I was one of the only ones on my server who could craft it.

I felt a deep connection with my character. I not only chose his direction, but I spent hours of time achieving the goal I’d set for myself. Why should tabletop dungeon crawlers be any different?

What needs to change: Perhaps such an in-depth crafting system isn’t feasible in tabletop dungeon crawls. But, that sense of choice to make your character whomever you wish should be felt from the first level up. Whether it’s weapon proficiencies, multiple skill trees, crafting systems, RPG elements – anything that allows players to make decisions that not only affect the gameplay but a connection with their characters is missing from many of today’s dungeon crawlers.

Feeling Stronger in Relation to Others

I bought a game on PS4 a few months ago called Swords of Ditto. Cute graphics, Link to the Past-inspired gameplay, fun loot—it looked like the game I’d been looking for for quite some time. But it has one inherent flaw, so unbelievably crippling that I haven’t played since I realized it.

The monsters level up alongside you. When you reach level 3, they instantly reach level 4. When you reach level 12, they are all the sudden level 13! In fairness to Ditto, I remember a similar problem in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

So, what is the point of leveling up? And how do you ever feel that sense of growth, that feeling of, “Hey monster X, I remember when you pounded on me about 20 hours ago – now try to mess with me, ya scrub.”

Some tabletop dungeon crawls suffer similar issues. When your character’s level up, or your party level increases, you are directed to a chart which dictates the level of the monsters. I think we can be more clever in the future.

What needs to change: Tabletop dungeon crawlers must provide counterpoints so you know where your character stands in its world. And if those counterpoints aren’t static, your sense of growth and accomplishment is fleeting. Whether it’s recycling some of the lowly monsters in later missions, or being able to revisit some old stomping grounds (pun intended), I think it’s important you have the ability to feel your character’s newfound strength.

Quick Play

I’ll make this one…quick. One of the brilliant elements to Diablo and World of Warcraft was the ability for a college student to kill a few baddies in between classes. Or sneak in just one last 30-minute dungeon right before dinner or bed.

There’s that feeling of just one more treasure, just one more boss.

Tabletop dungeon crawlers often take a good 20 minutes to set up, 20 minutes to tear down, and three hours on average to complete a mission. The fun is usually worth it. But undoubtedly, it’s a time commitment.

What needs to change: Give players the ability to play half of a dungeon or a short side quest. Let us players briefly jump into the world without it being an all-night ordeal.

Uh, so what is the Carrot, again?

Glad you asked. The Carrot is an undefinable, immeasurable summation of these points—and many others. It’s that reason you think of your favorite game as you try to fall asleep; it’s that reason you can’t wait to get home to fire up your computer or unbox a game.

The Carrot plays with our addictive nature as gamers and dungeon crawl fans. As soon as you find a new piece of loot, you get a high. But, you don’t just get that high from drawing a loot card. No, you get that high from all the work that preceded it. It’s that experience, those hours of playing your character well and “winning” at the game, that has to be meticulously crafted by the designers to make that reward mean something.

And then, you cannot wait to do it all over again.

That’s when you know the game you’re playing, or better yet, the game you’re designing, has that delectable Carrot that you just can’t get enough of.

Comments 4

  1. Wow this is a great piece and fun to read. You are on point with so Many things. The only part I am missing is looks off the game. I loved the looks of final fantasy, wow or diablo. Heroes poppen off your screen and the ability where strong. The feeling you had when a character got a new spell is another factor.
    Game components and looks are the first thing my group will look at. If the stuff ain’t on point it better be a really really good game (gloomhaven tbh the card board is rubbish).
    If you are designing a game with these points in the back off your head and your score above average on all off these you got yourself a hit.
    Ps: sorry for my english but it’s not my first langauge.
    Greetings robin

    1. Post
      Author

      Robin – such a great response, thank you for it.

      I agree with you, art is KEY. It not only draws new players into its world, but helps to keep them there.

      I’ve been playing games with a critical eye for such a long time I feel like I have a PhD. Finally, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and designing my own. The Ghosts Betwixt has been in development for over two years. I’ve really tried to incorporate some of these elements I spoke about in the post. Things like a tiered loot system that naturally expands as the game progresses; monsters naturally becoming stronger with the inclusion of “Monster Weapons”; surprises in the form of monsters, environments and weapons being hidden from players until they reach that point in the game.

      I really appreciate your thoughtful response. If you aren’t yet following The Ghosts Betwixt Facebook page, I’d invite you to do so. Lots of exciting things are in the works that I can’t wait to share. And, if you and your group are ever interested in playtesting, I should could use the help!

      Thanks again!

      Dustin

      1. Hi Dustin,
        No worries it was very nice to read. My advice would also be look at the critism that other top games get. For me is Gloomhaven the one at the moment and my go to game in the game group and the game where i think about when I go to bed. The only real critism I have is repeating alot off goals. This makes that scenario without the kill all enemies the best scenario’s. So if you making a dungoen crawler be sure that your end scenario goals are different or atleast more diverse then just killing everything.
        Greetings robin

        1. Post
          Author

          I’m very glad you said that. It’s something I’m striving for when designing all of these missions.

          Each mission in TGB is broken up into multiple objectives. In that respect, it’s a bit similar to Imperial Assault.

          The players only know of their next objective. Once they complete it, the next objective is revealed. And of course, it’s all wrapped around a story I’ve been working on for years.

          Anyway, you’re so right about the importance of not divulging into “kill these monsters.” Monsters should usually serve as the obstacles between you and your objective – they shouldn’t always BE the objective.

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