Tavern Crawler post-mortem (hangover?)

I started working on Tavern Crawler in the summer. It ended up being about 65,000 words in total. I didn’t have as much time to work on it as I wanted, so I took a pretty strategic approach to using my time to create something I was confident would at least be enjoyed by the IFComp community.

Goals I had for Tavern Crawler:

  • I wanted to make a Twine game that played, at times, more like a parser in terms of its complexity and the way you navigated the world. This felt like the best way to go in a competition where light-hearted parser games have performed strongly in the past.
  • I wanted to make a choice-based piece that heavily surfaced its divergent paths, through stats, locked choices, notification text, and achievements at the end of the game. After making some professional interactive fiction this past year and participating in extensive UXR/focus group sessions, I saw how even significant branching in most IF can go completely unnoticed if too subtly implemented, so I purposefully swung (probably a little too) far in the other direction for this piece.
  • I’ve also observed that the first choice in a piece of choice-based fiction is very important for players. A choice that’s too soft often signals to them that choices won’t matter throughout. One of the things I wrote about 2/3rds of the way through development that really made the game come into focus was the encounter with the soldiers in The Hub-And-Spoke at the very beginning.
  • I wanted the majority of material to be visible to players in one playthrough so that my limited time wasn’t spent writing branches that were far off the critical path. This lead to the “open world with storylets where the major choices are at the end of the first and third act” approach.
  • I wanted to have a companion die and then be optional throughout the rest of the story to cement the impact of player’s choices. (See more on this in the “Fun stuff” section.)
  • I wanted to keep a light, goofy tone, in keeping with previous games that have done well. This goal kind of went off the rails, as the further I got into development, the more I found myself trending in a dramatic direction. Weirdly, I think the mix of tones in the game now makes it feel more like a tabletop game, where silly improvisation often bumps up against a serious fantasy world.
  • I wanted the world to feel large enough to explore but small enough for me to manage as a creator.
  • I wanted to have a strong mix of long-term and short-term goals for the player. I broke this down to one “game-length” goal (find your patron and collect your pay), multiple “village” goals (goals you have to travel across a few locations to solve), and multiple “tavern” goals (goals that could be solved within the same location they were encountered).
  • I wanted to make something with understandable tropes and structures in a familiar environment so it would be easily digestible for players. This allowed me to spend time on the narrative design elements more than worldbuilding or characters. (More on that in the shortcomings section!)
  • I wanted to make something that had a core loop I love in other games – do quests, unlock more conversation material with your companions, unlock more quests.

Fun stuff I want to call out:

  • There are multiple places throughout the game where I use the “(either:)” macro to swap between a bunch of different lines of text at random – ie, a barkeep might be wiping off a mug, shooing some rowdy patrons out the door, staring off into space, etc. I wanted to keep nodes that you were visiting multiple times fresh and alive, even if you didn’t consciously notice it. The most obvious example of this is your companion dialogue in each location, which there are about 4-5 versions of their lines about each place.
  • There is significant difference in how your companions address you when you speak to them depending on your affinity score with them.
  • Allowing you to have a poly relationship with your companions if you’d romanced both was a suggestion from a playtester, and the last part of the game I implemented.
  • Ford being either alive or dead throughout the story was a huge pain to implement, with basically every scene needing alt-lines. A lot of players probably don’t even realize Ford can die, but I think a lot of the writing on the branch after his death is some of the best in the game, and the branches where Aurora reflects on him really helped her character come into focus.
  • In my heart, Ford’s take is probably the right one on Ibb and Amati. They were sleeping together, and it meant more to Amati than it did to Ibb.
  • In my opinion, the hardest choice in the game is whether to tell Anicca to leave her husband or not. I can think of a lot of different compelling arguments on both sides.

Shortcomings and What’s Next:

  • The blurb gave away too much about the game and mislead about the tone. I think in some cases this probably worked in my favour, with players coming in with lowered expectations and judging the game more favourably based on that. But I would want to improve this and have a more appealing, shorter blurb if I did another IFComp entry.
  • The gold economy in the game is somewhat bonkers. Playtesters often ended the game with either a ton of gold they didn’t need and their key stat maxed out, or no gold at all and unable to get their stats high enough to enter the Eventide. I had reviewers reach out to me with both criticisms. It’s something I’d like to tune for a post-Comp release, but luckily it didn’t seem to affect people’s overall enjoyment and people typically figured things out after some frustration if they were in the latter camp.
  • The save system will be improved in a post-Comp release to add more slots.
  • The random dice rolls throughout encouraged save scumming. I think this was probably fine for Tavern Crawler, but in my next game the consequences of failing random rolls are intended to be more significant and interesting, so I’m implementing a solution for this.
  • The familiar fantasy world and tropes in Tavern Crawler make it easily digestible, but they lack the inventiveness that a lot of other games in the competition had this year – I was totally dazzled by some of the stuff you all came up with. I think Tavern Crawler is very well-calibrated to be a game that many people will enjoy, without a ton of huge glaring flaws, and that helped it win in a competition based on weighted ratings, but it probably doesn’t stick out as many people’s absolute favourite game of the competition. My next game is going to be something a bit riskier that takes the systems and interfaces I’ve built for Tavern Crawler and explores a world that’s more uniquely my own, with characters who are less trope-y.