A Study In "A Study In Sable"
Developer Knockback gives us a behind-the-scenes look at quest creation! Knockback is a Senior Content Designer who has been in the game industry since 1995 and on DDO since 2008. Among the things he’s worked on in the past are the Red Fens adventure area, the Eveningstar public area, and the quests “The Snitch,” “Missing,” and “Army of Shadow.”
Dungeons and Detectives
When we decided we wanted to do something different with one of the Update 20 dungeons, I jumped at the chance. I’d wanted to do a mystery-flavored dungeon for a long time. A mystery would give us a chance to explore all sorts of classic tropes that meshed nicely with D&D - haunted mansions, interrogating NPCs who are not quite what they seem, searching for clues, and uncovering hidden secrets.
A brainstorming session with the other designers revealed all kinds of possible inspirations for our mystery dungeon. We talked about classic horror and mystery stories (the title “A Study in Sable,” for example, is a reference to the first Sherlock Holmes story,) old-school adventure games like Deadline and The Colonel’s Bequest, party mystery games like Mafia/Werewolf, and, of course, the boardgame classic Clue.
We faced a variety of challenges in transforming our ideas into an actual DDO dungeon. In a traditional mystery, one specific person is the culprit and all the clues lead to that person. If we followed that single-solution model for our dungeon, it wouldn’t have much replay value. We also wanted to incorporate different degrees of success for the player. We didn’t want missing one clue or failing a single interaction with an NPC to cause you to fail the entire dungeon.
Wrestling with these issues led us to adjust our ideas. We randomized the item locations and victims, so that each replay of the dungeon would be slightly different. And instead of making the dungeon about finding the culprit, we tell you who the culprit is up front and ask you to keep potential victims out of the vampire’s clutches. Saving each of the four potential victims is an optional objective. This gives us different degrees of player success - though it does transform our whodunit into a howmanycanyousave!
The last major challenge was time. What we were contemplating was creating an entire old-school adventure game inside DDO, but in a matter of just a few weeks. As often happens with DDO, it was a race against the clock to see how many of our ideas we could fit in.
Making a Mansion
I started work on a multitude of tasks such as implementing the randomized quest structure, creating NPCs, and making topiary lions stand still. Meanwhile, level designer Enosity started building Sable Manor. He transformed my dry list of locations - “The Conservatory,” “The Great Hall” etc. - into one of the most intricately decorated quest areas we’ve ever done.
Amazingly it was done using almost all art assets we already had on hand. Enosity was able to creatively recombine things that had been built for Eveningstar and Wheloon in new ways, creating a working kitchen, a suite of bedrooms, a wizard’s attic, a creepy cellar and so on. (The only new art assets for this dungeon were the hedge maze and the skin for the topiary lion.)
Lighting the level gave him a special challenge. The quest design called for night and day to alternate. Outdoor areas in DDO such as the Stormhorns support a gradual day/night cycle, but Sable Mansion wasn’t really built in the outdoors. Instead it was built in interior space, with certain areas cleverly decorated to give the illusion of being outdoors. (We’ve used this technique in other places, such as “A Stay at the Inn” and “A Lesson in Deception.”) Interior spaces, alas, don’t support day/night cycles. So we created script system to switch between times of day – and then hooked up dozens of lights to toggle on or off when the time of day changed.
People, Places, and Puzzles
Interrogating suspects and finding clues are the key components of any mystery. We knew that interrogating NPCs would be text-heavy, and that reading a bunch of text is not to everyone’s taste. So we decided to alternate interrogations with exploration and combat, in the hopes of creating enough variety within the quest to keep things interesting.
It soon became clear that this quest would involve much, much more text than the average DDO dungeon, so I enlisted DrOctothorpe’s aid as a co-writer. The good doctor created the dialogue for two of the NPCs and wrote Lucille’s “vampire diaries,” which explain how she imprisoned Lord Sable in his crypt at the cost of her own life.
We created four different exploration areas, and populated each of them with different types of monsters. So, for example, the attic was where Lord Sable used to conduct wizardly experiments, and thus was home to magically animated weapons and books.
We also included a hedge maze. After all, it would be inconceivable for us to do a mystery set at a country manor and not include a hedge maze! The hedge maze in turn naturally led to the inclusion of the topiary lion. (It is, by the way, an official D&D monster – see “topiary guardian” in the 3rd edition Monster Manual III, page 175.)
The original plan called for each of these exploration areas to have a two-step adventure game-style puzzle you’d need to do to obtain the items required to save a guest. In the end we only had time to do one such puzzle, the one involving the rat. So the quest ended up as more of a tribute to the spirit of adventure games than an actual adventure game.
After a dungeon full of exploration and conversation, we knew we needed to end with a strong, exciting battle against Lord Sable.
But it had been a long time since we’d done vampires in DDO. (I think the last one we did was Varney, back in Mod 8’s Eerie Forest.) Our vampires needed a makeover to update them for the modern game.
The first thing we did was chop off their heads - literally. The old vampire heads were attached to very specific body meshes. We wanted to be able to have vampires use any of our male human models so that we could, for example, have our vampire spawn wear doublets instead of robes or armor.
Next our AI wizard, Developer No_Dice, went to work. Our old vampire AI scripts were tied to specific bosses, so he created a new, generic script that could be used for all our future vampires. He fixed a bunch of bugs along the way, such as making the vampire’s Dominate scale properly with the vampire’s level and changing the vampire’s death animation so it will no longer be confused with the vampire teleporting away.
Then we added special touches to Lord Sable, making him unkillable in the dark but vulnerable when exposed to sunlight. We also made his flesh smoke when he’s in the sunlight, partly as visual way of signaling when to attack … but mostly because it just looked cool!
To re-purpose a famous quote about filmmaking, dungeons are never finished – only released. In the end we came up with far, far more ideas for “A Study in Sable” than we were actually able to squeeze into the time allotted to make it.
Some of those additional ideas were referenced in the quest but never fully explored – the djinn’s mysterious past, for example, or the artifacts Lord Sable used to escape from his tomb (you can, by the way, see the artifacts in the game, placed on his coffin.) Other things were never implemented at all – the additional puzzles, breaking through the hedge maze using a Strength check, sneaking past the butler at night, vampire spawn attacking Sir Ebermund in the Conservatory, or making the guests walk around the mansion on a schedule.
Still, we hit our main goal: making a dungeon in the spirit of classic mystery and horror tales that appealed to a particular kind of player. And good ideas never go to waste. Just wait until you see what we have planned for Update 21!