In my posts here on HLG, I like to talk about theory of worldbuilding, or game design theory, or sometimes both, such as with settlement building. As much as I consider myself a world builder foremost, the ability to use game mechanics to evoke a “sense” of a world is something unique to tabletop, and so I enjoy exploring that design space. This time, I want to talk about “The Crawl”. The most common Crawls to my mind are Dungeon Crawls, Hex Crawls, and Point Crawls. There are better articles that define and discuss these concepts that you should read if you aren’t familiar, but I’ll briefly summarize a Crawl in the abstract. As defined in this article, a Crawl is a way to parameterize the game environment, and how players can interact with it. Dungeon Crawls are for navigating within a specific location, Hex Crawls for navigating a wider and more varied (but generally still thematic) area, and Point Crawls are more about abstracting at an Event level, rather than spatially per se. While not every tabletop RPG is trying to do Dungeons & Dragons-style Traditional Fantasy, often games in other genres are, from a design-level, doing very similar things to D&D. Alternatively, they operate in a more story-telling fashion where “The Crawl” may not be as prevalent or relevant (although I believe this distinction has more to do with dice probabilities than anything else, but that’s a separate topic).
I recently published my first game as part of DREAMJAM on itch.io, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG. I describe the game as attempting to simulate the feel of retro 2D platformer video games, implementing what I’ve called a Platform Crawl design. The game in its current form still needs lots of playtesting and additional content, and currently does not explain the Platform Crawl design as in-depth as I would like (although I’m expanding upon this in the devlog), but if you enjoy my articles, I would encourage you to give it a look! In this article, I’ll outline a few other concepts for unique Crawl designs. Try them out and let me know what you think, or share your own Crawl designs!
1) Environment Crawl
This is mainly just a variation on the Hex Crawl, although it could be adapted to other kinds of Crawls as well. A fellow blogger friend of mine has started a cool series for a Wilderness Crawl. Essentially, it’s an old-school D&D-style hack, with fairly simple game mechanics, meant to gamify the difficulties of wilderness traversal. There are mechanics for stumbling, traveling at different paces, foraging, exploring through brush, etc., and he’s also experimenting with giving character classes unique abilities for wilderness traversal. With a rules-light system such as old-school D&D, this doesn’t even need to be a separate game as much as a bolt-on for an ongoing game. I think this kind of thing could really spice up a game, so that an Arctic Crawl isn’t just a Wilderness Crawl with another paint of coat, but actually has unique features the players must contend with. Even an otherwise “standard” Crawl, from a worldbuilding perspective, can be made unique and interesting, if the ways the players can interact with it is suitably unique and interesting. Just imagine an Oregon Trail tabletop RPG! Speaking of video games...
2) Video Game Crawl
Pixels & Platforms would fall into this category, but I think there’s a lot more to mine with video game genres in tabletop than has currently been explored. The trick is in figuring out what makes a video game genre work, and how to make that work in a tabletop format. For instance, for most platformer video games, much of the fun comes from the real-time, “tactile” action of pressing the buttons at just the right time to make the jump or dodge the enemy attack. Trying to simulate that phenomenon exactly is unlikely to be as fun in a turn-based tabletop game, since the result is determined by a random dice roll or flat stats, rather than player skill per se. However, by creating circumstances in which the challenge is not about making the jump or dodging the attack, but about how to position yourself on the “Screen” to make the jump, and also avoid the attack, and also protect your party members, then it becomes more of a puzzle platformer-like challenge: a Crawl. The player skill is in the tactics, and the randomness from the dice rolls is something to be accounted for, not the core appeal of the game.
In addition to the platform crawl, another video game crawl is the beat-em-up crawl. This would be a type of point crawl, where the emphasis would be placed on fighting relatively large numbers of mostly weaker enemies, who have the ability to swarm characters and knock them down, making them vulnerable. The crawl becomes more of a tactical positioning game, without necessarily being a complicated Warhammer-style wargame. Some of these ideas end up being almost more like board games, and if you really wanted to get wacky with it you could attempt to integrate an actual board game as the resolution mechanic (but that might be for a future article)! In any case, there are lots of video game genres, many of which may require much more thought, creativity, or hard work to make as a functional tabletop game, but I think designing these Video Game Crawls is a fun exercise in how to challenge preconceived notions of tabletop game design.
3) Combat Crawl
I generally prefer rules-light systems with minimalist combat mechanics, where much of the variation is abstracted. That being said, whether in literature, movies, or video games, different kinds of combat can be evocative in different ways, and it’s worth exploring this in tabletop. However, rather than trying to create a really granular game, with very specific statistics for how every kind of weapon could operate, another approach is just to compartmentalize and gamify these kinds of combats into Combat Crawls. For instance, I’m currently running a campaign for the tabletop RPG Tunnels & Trolls, and as part of that campaign, I’ve developed a unique combat system for Dueling, for Massive Combat, and for Mech Combat.
These rules aren’t intended to simulate hard physics of the world, but to evoke a certain feel. Dueling removes most of the random chance, playing out more like a game of Rock Paper Scissors or even poker, which to me seems evocative of a duel. Dueling could be integrated as part of a Western Frontier Crawl, or maybe even a Trench Warfare Crawl, which seems really well suited for tabletop (I’m surprised not much has been done with that). In the anime Attack on Titan, soldiers use “omni-directional mobility gear” to rapidly traverse environments and gain verticality to strike at the titular titans (giant humanoid monsters). The massive combat rules, in combination with some unique traversal mechanics, could make for a Scout Crawl. The logistics of traversal and maintenance with a mech could make for an interesting Mech Crawl. Unlike the other Crawls, this is about designing a combat conceit, and building the Crawl around that conceit. The RPG Deadlands also includes some unique mechanics for dueling and spellcasting, the latter of which actually plays out like poker, and a generalization of those mechanics for other systems could make for good Combat Crawl mechanics as well.
All of this is to say that the intersection between game design and worldbuilding can and should be explored further. It is possible that some of these ideas just won’t work, or will require significant consideration and refinement, but to move the medium forward, we should be thinking about new ways to design games. In video games, there is a concept of ludonarrative dissonance, immersion breaking effects of a game and its story being at odds, such as a game where the “Hero” regularly goes on massive killing sprees. However, I think the idea of ludonarrative dissonance / consonance is just as, if not more, relevant to tabletop. I enjoy “story games” and rules-light systems that make it easier for me to tell a particular kind of story, but I also think that a game can be used harmonically with the world and the story. That being said, not every game is or should be like a Traditional Fantasy Dungeon Crawl, so let’s design some new Crawls!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds and design games. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations! He also published his first game, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG, and would encourage you to give it a look!
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