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Railroad to Awesometown
D&D Outsider
Jared von Hindman

Trivia Time: Way back in Dragon, there was a column called "The Role of Computers" which was TSR’s response to role-players fearing that gaming and technology were simply incompatible. That’s completely untrue, of course—but the column did exist and it reviewed old computer games and even a few Nintendo games (Shadowgate, anyone?).

Following up last month's anniversary issue of Dragon, we harken back to "The Role of Computers," with a look at Castle Crashers and why it could make you a better Dungeon Master.

No really, I’m serious. Maybe.

(With special thanks to Tom Fulp.)

For those out of the loop:

What is Castle Crashers?

Castle Crashers is a video game (on Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network) created by “The Behemoth,” or more specifically Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin (of Valor). The game, as best as I can explain it, is a beat-‘em-up game in the vein of Double Dragon, Turtles in Time, Gauntlet, or… well…. whatever game you used to play where you moved a little guy around, beat people until turkey fell out of them (which you ate off the ground for health), and started blocking when the boss got bloodied and turned red/angry.

In the game, you play medieval knights with elemental magic, kill things for gold and experience points, and fight to save the princess/kill the bad guy. All the characters are pretty much the same with the exception of their special magic and… ok, it’s a video game where you kill stuff. And it’s hilarious. It’s hard to explain without just playing it, but Castle Crashers is off-the-wall insane when it wants to be. Giant Godzilla-sized troll about to attack? Then jump on deer that won’t stop pooping, turning them into rocket powered escape steeds! Want to beat thieves to death (that is “until they turn into health/gold”) with a fish? Sure, we all do. Giant demon armed with a sock puppet? Good times.

Ultimately, here’s what you need to know about Castle Crashers: It’s constantly surprising because it’s almost impossible to predict what’ll happen next… and now we’re getting to why I’m going to talk about it.

Let me walk you through the moment of Castle Crashers that made me realize they were onto something.

You’re a knight, trying to rescue a princess (one of four) from a castle. You don’t really know more than this, besides that you had to load yourself into a catapult to make it onto the castle walls. After a hectic roof battle, you fall through a stained glass window… onto a giant wedding cake.

Suddenly you’re crashing a wedding… an evil knight (with tuxedo) plans to force marriage upon the lady fair! You corner him before the church organ… which is also a musical cannon that fires explosives. As you defeat him, a bathroom door opens and out steps a cyclops. It cries at the sight of the dead evil groom knight (trust me, this matters later), snatching the body and the captive princess, and running out the door before you can do anything.

The screen fades to black, then opens to the groom’s intended wedding carriage being driven full speed by the cyclops. Where are you?

We pan back to the castle. A cannon barrel breaks through stained glass and fires… it’s you! Brilliantly you loaded yourself into the cannon and just manage to land on the carriage’s roof for high-speed adventure….

Ladies and gentlemen, many roleplaying games are on what folks call “rails”. It’s often heard in disparaging tones because it means the adventure really only has one way to go… and can only be derailed by players not doing what they should.

Forget the train. Think rollercoaster; they have rails too. Look at the above example:

You’re hired to save the princess. Catapult in… no research, just forward momentum. Suddenly you’re falling into a wedding scene, with flowers and insane artillery hidden in a church organ. Just as you win, a new villain arrives and hints at something (more on that in a second) before thwarting you.

Instead of waiting for players to make Athletics checks to run, Thievery checks to re-adjust the cannon, or Insight checks to see why the cyclops had tears in its eye… we just fade to the cyclops escaping. The players are told they hear the sound of stained glass breaking followed by a loud “click”. Suddenly the players find themselves rocketing through the air towards an ever-approaching wedding carriage.

And then the giant Godzilla-troll shows up again.

Or translated into D&D?

You catch up to the thief you were chasing across the city… only it was a trap! Draconians swoop in, attacking you in the creaking warehouse of ill-gotten goods. If the players hit the goods, they’ll explode. They’re ill-gotten! As the draconians die, they turn to stone, putting too much weight on the floor which shatters… sending the entire party into the city’s sewer system. The thief has been swept away (begrudgingly in poop) to become King of the Sludge Trolls two encounters later, but now it’s time to navigate the septic rapids of Waterdeep and survive the wererats who are wondering where all these ugly statues came from. Roll initiative.

Oh, and then a giant draconic-gelatinous cube shows up.

Just to give an alternative term, let’s try using “Accelerated Storytelling”. You don’t stop. There’s no time to breathe. I’m not saying that a game of Dungeons & Dragons needs to have choice removed to this degree, but here’s the thinking: If you’re going to have a game on rails, no one’s going to complain/fall out of line if you crank things up to 11 and then never let up. Everyone loves the railroad to Awesometown.

Practical Ways of Doing This? (Which are Crazy and Against the Rules)

Ditch Short Rests. If an encounter ends, wave your hand and say “Short Rest”. If the orc marauders are menacing the village maiden three rooms further into the dungeon, why wait five minutes? There are other reasons short rests can break down the momentum of an action adventure.

Healing, for instance. If you’re familiar with Gamma World, you already know how this could work. After a short rest, you get your hit points back (I’m not suggesting this, but it is what those mutants do in Gamma World). You might also get an extra arm or tentacle, but that’s neither here nor there.

You can also convince your players they don’t have to “harvest” dead bodies to get their loot. It’s narratively bizarre to think that most heroes have rifled through the pockets of hundreds of fallen enemies, like an ancient soldier trying to pry jewelry and gold teeth off the dead. Inherent bonuses are a nice option, but really… if you let your players know they don’t have time to pat down every rotting orc they meet (this is why most of my characters wear gloves) it’ll help them break their dirty orc corpse habit. Maybe you even embrace the video game sensibilities and have enemies “drop” their loot in combat, handing it over to the player immediately. Or not.

The above are just off the cuff suggestions on how to pull off the rollercoaster rails effect in a campaign. Castle Crashers keeps things interesting and different at all times. There are few “filler” encounters, and even when you get those, they’re ramped up to something surreal.

Plot Through Narrative. Let’s get to the other highlight: You see, Castle Crashers also has a plot. It’s not the Tolkienesque epic that one aims for in a fantasy tale, but it’s a narrative all the same. It has character development, plot twists, tragedy and pathos, betrayal, and a lot of other sly story flourishes you wouldn’t expect to see in a game where a giant barbarian pukes fire beer all over you. If you don’t pay close attention, you could miss it.

Let’s be academic again and call this the “Implied Narrative”. Remember that cyclops who cried earlier? When you finally catch up to her (as I assume), she’s built a shrine to the dead groom. Later on, an evil wizard brings both the cyclops and the groom (who is obviously loved) back as zombies. When you kill them again (as heroes do), they both float up, re-united with one another.

The idea of an implied narrative really goes back to good filmmaking. Show, don’t tell. Don’t let your villain monologue or read a paragraph of text explaining their motivations. Just as things are in reality, let things develop without forcing it. In this case, I’m suggesting Insight checks rather than exposition.

In Castle Crashers, all of this is done with a satirical nod, but the tools are still there. At the end of the game, for example, you see weeping bearfolk crying over their god which you slew. The joke is that the bearfolk had feelings—but if you step back? The world is more well-defined without having to prove it to you. The surprise and joy of figuring it out is part of the charm.

Video Game Sensibilities

Again, we’re really talking about applying video game sensibilities to Dungeons & Dragons. Castle Crashers is a great example for this because it’s so easily accessible. Creating a series of encounters that have cinematic cutaways between them might undercut some aspects of your game, but obviously there are benefits. As a DM, you have more control than ever, but don’t forget about the pressure to perform. You’ll be expected to keep things intense if your players are going let you “black box” what happens between combats. It’s a trust thing.

There’s more to be said about video game sensibilities in D&D. Castle Crashers is both a competitive and cooperative game. The player who kills the most will level faster as well, and is more likely to get the loot dropped by enemies who are, as aforementioned, killed. Just like olde school D&D, right? At the same time, when another player drops to 0 hit points, any player can bring them back to life by doing chest compressions. No, really… knights do chest compressions in combat. In D&D terms, this just means that while you want to be the one hitting enemies, you’ll do it better with help from your friends.

As tempted as I am to go on about other video games, this was “Role of Computers” and it’s all about the castles and who may or may not be crashing them. If you haven’t played the game, I recommend trying it out, particularly with its implied narratives and rollercoaster/accelerated narrative madness.

At the very least you’ll wish your D&D campaign had a session where you murdered trolls until a giant chased you through a mill, and you could only escape by jumping off a cliff and floating down the river until you fought a giant catfish, and then washed up on a strange shore surrounded by storm-worshiping Care Bears. Well, that might be an exaggeration. Just don’t forget that an adventure on rails can instead be a rollercoaster.

Please keep your hands inside the module at all times.

Speaking of which, Tom Fulp and I agree: There needs to be a D&D Castle Crashers adventure. Write to your Congressman or find a forum (if you must) and post loudly that you want your fighter to gain proficiency with “A Carrot” and your party wants to fight a giant ear of sentient corn. Or maybe that you were interested in that other narrative stuff I was talking about? The Carrot/Corn motivation is good too. I guess.

--Jared von Hindman
D&D Outsider

PS: If anyone knows a wedding planner who can hook up an organist who can play the artillery, let me know. My sister-in-law is looking.

About the Author

Jared von Hindman is an artist and sometime comedian who "dug too deep" while researching Stupid Monsters of Dungeons & Dragons. He awoke something Dire and horrible (perhaps Fiendish, even) and now he spends his days playing with plastic elves and illustrating new and creative ways to kill goblins. Currently he resides in Berlin with an older woman and a snake named Slinky. He’s not sure why his pet needs to be included in his bio, but all the cool kids seem to be doing it and Jared's a sucker for peer pressure.

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