Lessons learned from Super Meat Boy, Part One

Super Meat Boy is one of the top Indie game hits of the last few years. It arguably shares the position at the top of the tree with Minecraft, and as I have already looked at lessons we role-players can learn from that utterly lovely game (here and here),  let’s take a look at what we can learn from its uglier, more brutal (but no less cute) cousin.

Welcome to the world of Super Meat Boy!

smbreal

The shorter the campaign premise, the better

Super Meat Boy is a game where you play as a boy without skin whos girlfriend who is made of bandages gets kidnapped by a fetus in a tuxedo wearing a top hat and a monocle.

Your campaign premise is your sales pitch. It is your ten-seconds of time trapped in an elevator where you have to convince your players that This Is What They Want To Play.

GMs are all too easily sucked into prepared huge and convoluted story arcs covering events that happened eons before the players are even born. There’s a time and a place for such ramblings, but if you can’t distil it all down to a single badly punctuated sentence, it ain’t worth a damn.

The campaign premise has to be easily understood by all of the folks around the table otherwise you’re going to spend half the session saying “No! The lich is the good guy!”, and have to start explaining things all over again. It doesn’t matter how awesome the backstory sounds in your head if you can’t get it across to a bunch of tired Dorito eating dice monkeys.

 

Gore is good

There’s no getting around it. Super Meat Boy is a messy, visceral game. Your hero will be splatted against walls, chewed by giant cogs, shot, lasered, irradiated, blended to a paste and worse – and each death will leave its blood splat on the level, a constant gnawing reminder of your past failed attempts. You end up wearing those blood splats like medals – there’s a real sense of achievement when you finally complete a level that is utterly soaked in the blood of a thousand previous deaths.

Super-Meat-Boy-3 

D&D, generally speaking, is not like that. But it should be.

Our dungeons should be littered with corpses of past adventurers (or parts of them, at least), and blood stains serve as mute warnings that Something Wicked This Way Came. The adventuring party is entering a hive of evil, not some sterile hospital corridor where Jermlaine clean up the mess and spills of dungeon life.

The presence of blood and gore can act as a useful clue, if the players think to use that information. I remember one adventure (Classic D&D ftw!) where the corridor was marked on the map as having a pit trap. This is what happened:

Me: The corridor goes on into the darkness. On the floor you see…. a finger.
PCs: Ewww! Ok, we examine the finger.
Me: It is neatly severed and there is a blood stain on the dungeon floor where it lays. It appears to run across a crack in the floor that goes from one wall to the other.
PCs (after some discussion): Strange. Ok, we carry on.

The floor slid away, they fell – then just as one of them was climbing out, the trap reset, neatly severing a couple of their own fingers in the process. Silly adventurers.

I’m not saying that your dungeons should be sheathed in blood, but…… ok. I am saying that.

Moving on.

 

Your hero is not like other men (or women)

Super Meat Boy is a boy made of meat (well, duh); he is clearly not your ordinary dude. Your hero should be the same. I don’t mean he should be made of meat (which would be cool. Messy, but cool), but that he should stand out from the crowd. When he walks into a Tavern, the Peasant Minions fall silent. When he walks across the street, dramatic music plays. And when he dies, entire planets bow their head in grief.

 

Super_Meat_Boy_Dave_Rapoza_Cover

 

While it’s fun to play Yet Another Human Fighter who was the son of a peasant and just looks like a Peasant In Armour, it’s better still to mark him in some way as different, as being cut from a different cloth to his siblings. Maybe he was born with a strange tattoo (no mean feat for the tattooist!), has a raven scar on the back of his neck, golden eyes or some odd uncontrolled precognitive ability (GM controlled for plot feeding goodness, of course). Maybe he (or she) was booted from their village for “being different”, and is now forced to live by their wits and their blade.

That’s at the bottom end of the weirdness scale. If you want to turn up the volume, have your hero be a half-Warforged with no memory of his past, a Dwelfling (don’t ask), intelligent Skeleton Wizard (Liches have apprentices too!) or a Blink Weredog. If you can think it, and the GM says yes, there’s always a way to turn your strangest character ideas into reality.

It’s only inevitable that they end up with a group of similar misfits to roam the world seeking adventure, right?

 

Vertical dungeons

A level in Super Meat Boy looks like this:

smblvl

Remind you of anything?

moldvay1

 

That is the sample dungeon map from Moldvay Classic D&D! Vertical Dungeons have a long and noble history in D&D, but they are all too often side-lined in favour of their battlemat friendly horizontal cousins. The advantage of using a vertical dungeon is that you can really put across the feeling that the adventurers are plunging deep into the unknown earth. The alternative is just descending a flight of stairs, taking the next left and killing some kobolds.

And that will never do. 

 

Simple can be complex too

Levels in Super Meat Boy are wonderful things. On the one hand, they are elegantly simple, using just the bare minimum components required in keeping with that Chapter’s theme. And on the other hand, they are guaranteed to make you say "”HOW THE FOOOOOOK???!!!…..” the first time you see them.

SuperMeatBoy-1

Whether it’s in a computer game or a dungeon map, level design is an art. I think it’s fair to say that most DMs are merely averagely talented at best, which is why most online random dungeon generators do a statistically better job of it 50% of the time.

I cheerfully put myself in the “merely average at best” crowd when it comes to dungeon design, and would love to hear suggestions and advice how to Build A Better Dungeon.

Over to you!

 Coming up: Part Two!

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3 Responses

  1. danvolodar says:

    When I design dungeons (or any places my players can venture into, for that matter, too) I first think of their function, and then design the space to fulfill it. So, if it’s an underground temple we’re looking at, and it’s far from any settlements, it’d have living quarters, a prison for sacrifices, possibly, a lot of storage space… That kind of thing.

    Now, making the results interesting is just a question of putting the right furniture. A giant ominous statue here, a fire extinguisher the opposition turns on as the runners walk under it, the works.

  2. Fascinating article. I posted a follow-up question on “tactile history in environments” over on RPG.stackexchange.com (basically asking how we can use your recommendation of a gritty visceral tactile history of an environment beyond the dungeon?

    (I’d love your take there, too. :) )

  3. mxyzplk says:

    I like the “gore” point. It’s not applicable to just blood, but I have some basic dungeons that I reuse over the years, and when each PC group goes in I make a note of the actions they take that affected the environment and update the dungeon for the next run. It’s entertaining to see the next group try to make sense of it. “Why would someone set fire to a couch?” It makes the areas seem very organic and “busy” – people have clearly been here before.

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