Behind the Curtain: Mapmaker as Entertainer

by Charles Watkins

Part 1: Discovery

As a game begins, most of the map is shrouded in darkness and the player can only wonder what is out there to be discovered. Part of the fun is not knowing what lies in the great darkness--and later, what may be covered by the Fog of War. Success depends on finding resources, locations, armies, and treasures, so players naturally set out to discover where these might be located.

Often players begin a game by sending out scouts in all directions in order to learn the lay of the land, the locations of key resources, the presence of threats, and potential avenues for further exploration. Placement of monsters, barriers, and movement modifiers can be used to push players in one direction or another, and anticipating which way players are apt to go allows mapmakers to heighten the fun of discovery.

Use of Foreshadowing

One way for a mapmaker to create and amplify the joy of discovery is foreshadowing, a technique borrowed novels and movies, to give the player a taste of what lies ‘out there,’ promising something the player wants while delaying gratification until some challenge is met.

For instance, someone playing Order would surely like to obtain the Tome of Order and learning that one is available to the East would motivate the player to go out in that direction to search for it. Finding the Tome after making a concerted effort is far more satisfying than simply coming across it while wandering around. The mapmaker can begin with a ‘teaser’ that suggests that some Order-related artifact has been discovered and follow with another that identifies the object as the Tome. When the player visits a nearby library, additional details become available regarding the origin of the Tome and its likely whereabouts. Later, the player learns about its guards and what actions may be required to obtain it. By the time the prize is near, the player may be drooling with anticipation and when it is finally in hand, the player gets a real sense of accomplishment.

Element of Surprise

A second way to tap the player’s enjoyment of discovery is surprise. In some ways, surprise is the opposite of foreshadowing, but it shares in the use of anticipation to heighten the fun. A surprise needs to catch a player off guard and often involves the same sort lead up as foreshadowing. But this time it is the unknown that serves as the attraction. In the ‘real’ world, surprises are both pleasant and unpleasant, maybe with more of the unpleasant sort. But in the game, most of the surprises should be pleasant or else players gets a sense of being abused by factors that are beyond their control. Nobody likes maps where you never know when you’ll be jumped by a legion of Bandits or whatever. (But most everyone likes it when the Bandits offer to join.) A mapmaker can get away with some unpleasant surprises, just as long as they do not cripple the player’s prospects for success. You can even combine a few small, unpleasant surprises with a larger pleasant surprise to heighten the effect. In the Bandit example, a series of smaller ambushes may lead the player to the Bandits’ treasure trove.

Setting Expectations

Both foreshadowing and surprise depend on the mapmaker’s ability to shape players’ expectations. Consistency must be well established before inconsistencies can begin to be noticed, and in Heroes this means carefully managing the use of random elements in the game. This applies primarily to the selection of monsters and treasures placed on the map. If monsters are generally random, then the presence of some particular monster will not be taken as significant, but if there is some consistency in monster selection, the exception tends to stand out. The same goes for treasures—who wants to go on a quest to obtain an important artifact when it might just as easily be found in a random treasure pile?

Internal Consistency

A world filled with random monsters and treasures usually makes no sense, apart from the mechanics of the game itself. When all kinds of monsters are scattered willy nilly across the landscape, players won’t consider why they happen to be where they are. And random monsters are impossible to judge as friendly or not, so without cause or reason, players find themselves attacking everything in sight. Alignments also become unimportant, for instance, as Angels must fight other Angels.

By matching monsters to the areas they inhabit—dwarves in the hillcountry, for instance, or hydras in the swamp—the mapmaker creates an ambiance that is impossible with random monsters. And providing some logical consistency, the mapmaker lays a foundation for players’ expectations. By making the fantasy world a little more real, the mapmaker gives players a better chance to become immersed in the experience. When monsters appear outside their logical habitats, players will wonder why. If there’s no apparent reason, players become less involved as they are reminded that they are just playing a computer game.

Some random monsters in ‘Sarawak.” What exactly is going on here?
What are the Leprechauns doing at the Ore Mine?
Why are the Barbarians guarding the Surefooted Boots?
If the world does not make sense, players see a gameboard, not a fantasy world.

Random monsters

Should every monster be hand picked for its location? In my maps almost all are, because I want the world to make sense. In fact, I even take the monster’s facing into account, so that when they are encountered, the players will meet them head on. I admit that is somewhat extreme, but when I create a setting I like to arrange all the elements as naturally as possible.

So what about replay value? After all, if players learn what to expect, wouldn’t that diminish the surprise factor? Of course it would, but the really entertaining surprises lie in the rewards and locations they player finds. Going down a trail and coming across a pack of Efreeti where before there was a pack of Trolls does not strike me as being that different or that much fun. But if it is necessary to use random monsters, it could help to rationalize their appearance in some way – maybe a prison ship has washed up or a change in climate caused a general migration.

Another argument against random monsters is balance. I know I’d rather fight a group of Zombies than a group of Elves, even though they are both possibilities from a Monster-2 token. And with WOW, the difference has gotten greater—consider Trolls vs. Goblin Knights, or Megadragons (ouch) vs. Hydras. At very least, mapmakers should avoid placing random monsters at choke points or critical treasure sights.

So in conclusion, when the selection of monsters fits the terrain and landscape, the mapmaker can provide players with a fantasy world that is self-consistent, which enables players to make successful inferences about how things work. This gives them more pleasure when they make discoveries based on such expectations and increases the impact of surprises because they are not watered down by random occurrences.

Plot twists

Surprises can also be embedded in a storyline. Judicious use of CHANGE COLOR scripts can shift the balance of power. There are countless variations on the “Old Switcheroo” where things turn out not to be what the player expected. To work, there ought to be some previous indication that may be only partly noticed in passing, but which can be recalled as a pertinent clue after the surprise comes out.

Sometimes mapmakers like to compete with each other in finding clever ways to exploit little known features or outright bugs to produce various effects. This may be why some mapmakers keep their projects secret, particularly if there is a contest involved. The impact on players can vary. Some never notice. Others are astonished to discover that the game does not work exactly the way they expected, setting them up for additional surprises.


One more source of enjoyment based in discovery is when the player sees something new in game. (When I get to the discussion of ADVANCEMENT, I’ll talk about ways a map can train the player to play a better game.) Mapmakers can entertain players by giving them access to new or rare elements in the game. The first of these I encountered was “Dragon Rider,” the prize winning user map from Heroes1, where the player got to start with a single Dragon and set out to take a castle before time ran out. I had enlisted Dragons before, of course, but I’d never had one to start with. On the negative side, I also recall a Heroes2 map where the player got to start out with a ghost. It grew to thousands by the time the game was over, rolling over all opposition. Resistance was futile, as the poet said.

As supplements come out, there are often opportunities to feature some new element introduced into the game. Of course, this means limiting the audience to players that have that supplement. And the maps that come with supplement usually incorporate the new features.

There are often odd artifacts available in the editor that are not normally encountered in standard maps. I liked to use the Market of Time in my Heroes3 maps – along with the three “Kick Ass Artifacts,” my favorite being Mired In Neutrality. Since they were pretty much duds, they did not have much consequence to the game, but I wanted to mess with the players’ minds so they might start to wonder what else might be out there that they had not seen before.

In conclusion, there are many techniques for using DISCOVERY to heighten players’ enjoyment of Heroes maps. These all revolve around the principle of establishing internal consistency within the fantasy setting, playing off of player expections to build anticipation and surprise.

Next time: Success...

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