Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fleshing Out Missions

Part three in a weekly(!) devlog.

Standard development disclaimers apply. This is pre-pre-pre-Alpha content, everything is subject to change, features may not be present in the final version, there's a very strong chance none of this will ever be released, etc. etc.

There shouldn't be any plot spoilers in these posts, but there may be occasional discussions related to characters, locations, mechanics, and other aspects of my potential upcoming Shadowrun campaign (tentatively titled "CalFree in Chains"). You may want to skip them if you want to be completely surprised.

This week was mostly focused on missions. Earlier in the process, I had mapped out the entire campaign's flow from a high level: identified the number of missions you would go on, locations for each, and how they would tie into the overarching plot. Now, I'm taking those earlier pithy statements and transforming it into an actual design plan.

For each mission, I define the following.
  1. The setting / maps that you'll be exploring.
  2. The enemy faction(s) you'll be facing.
  3. Any significant NPCs who will appear.
  4. The choices you will make in this mission that will produce consequences later in the game.
  5. Consequences that will appear in this mission based on previous choices made.
I have these additional goals; not every mission will have all of these, but the more the better.
  1. At least one environmental puzzle to solve (as distinguished from skillchecks).
  2. A pacifist path to follow.
  3. World-building lore about the situation in the California Free State.
  4. Etiquettes and/or skills that can be used to overcome obstacles or achieve bonuses.
  5. An appearance from a villain.
  6. A "boss fight" that provides a particular tactical challenge with unique mechanics.
 Some more details on each of these follow.

Setting and Maps

My rule-of-thumb has tended to be two locations per mission. For example, the Dorbi recruitment mission in Corona started on The Five and ended in the Scrapyard; the train-acquisition mission in Caldecott had scenes both on the island of Alameda and within a bar on the island. It isn't a hard-and-fast rule, just my most common design choice.

One thing I'm doing a little differently this time is trying to create single-scene missions instead of splitting into multiple scenes, following HBS's newer convention in Hong Kong. I'm having second thoughts about that now: one of the persistent criticisms of SRHK is the long loading screens, which is a direct consequence of this design. But there are benefits as well: total loading time is less (as long as you don't reload saved games), and a lot more flexibility in mission design since you can easily move back and forth between locations instead of only supporting forward progression.

I also have an unsubstantiated theory that having multi-scene missions in SRHK is the root cause of the crew equipment duplication bug. If so, making single-scene missions is the only way to avoid that problem. I'll find out later whether that fixes it or not!

Anyways: even if a mission is technically in a single scene, it can still have multiple maps within it. The most common scenario is both an outside "street" map and an inside "building" map, though I'm trying to switch that up.

I prefer to model my locations off of real-world sites, as noted in my earlier post on the Sutro Baths map. But I'll also include a couple of unique imaginative locations or more generic sites. I'm pretty sure it's against the law to release a Shadowrun game that doesn't include at least one mission where you infiltrate an office building!

Enemy Factions

All missions will have at least some optional combat, and more often a lot of mandatory fighting. It's boring if you fight Generic Lonestar Cops over and over again, so I try and switch it up from mission to mission. At the same time, having the same faction reappear in later missions is a great basis for choice-and-consequences, since they can react to your earlier behavior.

My faction choices are driven by a combination of available 3D models, the maps for this scene, and the overarching campaign plot. If you're in the wilderness, you'd expect to encounter wild animals; if you're in a crypt, you would see ghouls or mummies.


Missions are MEGA-BORING if you just go to a place and kill everyone there. At a minimum, you'll want someone to provide a goal for you to accomplish. Better, you'll have someone providing context and flavor for what you're witnessing in this location. In the best-case scenario, you'll have multiple NPCs with varying objectives trying to manipulate you into furthering their agendas.

Some NPCs will be one-shot affairs who just provide the grease to move you through this particular mission. But I've found that it's a lot more interesting if they pop up multiple times, giving you more opportunities to form opinions about and relationships with them. One recurring trend of all my campaigns to date has inevitably been character consolidation, as I realize that various parts written for one-off NPCs can be reassigned to existing characters to make them more interesting.


Up through the final set of missions, you should be able to make at least one decision during a scene. I try to mix this up, so it isn't always "Do you kill Mr. X or spare him?" over and over again. It's best if there's a mixture of tones and stakes. Ideally this will have both roleplaying implications for the player character, as well as mechanical implications for their run.


Players REALLY enjoy feeling like their choices are being recognized and honored. As noted in my previous post, I've learned to be very explicit about these linkages. Particularly in a less-linear game where a lot of time may have passed since an earlier scene, it's helpful to jog their memory about what prior action of theirs has led to the events they're now witnessing.

Not everything needs to be major or earth-shattering. Just raising something in dialogue or providing a cute or funny environmental shift can bring someone a smile.


I made a lot of these for Antumbra, and honestly feel like I'm running out of ideas, but I'm still making an effort to create new ones. It adds another dimension to the game beyond just "talk and shoot".

Pacifist Options

My favorite part of Shadowrun Hong Kong was its mission design. They're incredibly varied and clever, and many of them have a wide array of possible solutions. A few missions can be won without firing a single shot, and even more allow you to bypass a great deal of combat.

Just to set expectations: my missions will not be that good. But I'm aiming towards the high bar that HBS has set and using it as inspiration to improve my own mission design. The goal that I've set for myself is to have two missions that can be completed without any combat. It's proving to be very hard! A pacifist run is no fun if you just walk to the far end of the map and click to win: I need to go overboard with dialogues and puzzles and skillchecks so that it still feels like a full mission with its own challenges. So there won't be many of them! But hopefully a couple.

After starting on this initiative, though, I've decided that I want to make the decision to follow a pacifist route even more of a roleplaying choice, and not just a mechanical option. Personally, I always pick non-lethal options whenever they are present in video games, and they almost always feel like the superior outcome. It might be interesting to complicate that narrative a bit, though. Shadowrun has a lot of awful people in it, doing some very negative things, and ideally players will at least think about the implications of letting such people walk away.


I don't want to overload players with this stuff, but I think it does strengthen the overall power of the story if players feel invested in the broader political and social issues facing future-California. I also don't want to do massive info dumps on them each time they return to the hub. So, when it makes sense, I want to take advantage of missions to provide more flavor and context. Maybe they can chat with refugees living on the streets, or read internal emails about a megacorp merger, or listen to their companions' opinions about the enemies they're facing.

Ideally, this stuff will provide a little more flavor and motivation within the specific mission the player is in, while also contributing to the bigger picture of the meta-plot.

Etiquettes and Skill-Checks

These are great ways to reward players for their Karma investments and help them feel like they're taking a unique path through the game. Most often, these will provide straightforward solutions to obstacles that the player encounters; occasionally, they may be used to unlock additional rewards or lore.

Crucially, the player must always have a path forward regardless of build. That might mean that, if they don't have the appropriate skills, they need to fight their way through, or take the long way around, or backtrack to find an alternate solution.

As in Caldecott (and unlike in Antumbra), I'm planning to allow your companions to clear skill-checks if they meet the requirements themselves. I've been ambivalent about this in the past. Particularly since I have such a limited team roster, odds are high that the player will bring along the "right" companion, making it a little too easy to pass the test (and thereby diminishing the value of players who made those skill investments themselves). But it's something that players seem to really want, and it does make sense in-universe. I've decided to treat it as a bonding exercise and another way to increase the value of companions to the player, so they always get a little extra dialog or something when tapped to do this work. And, on the other side, your companions may praise your character if he or she succeeds in a challenge based on their own skill alone.


A "big bad" doesn't need to be physically present, but it's good to at least hear from one over the course of the mission. I think this helps the campaign as a whole cohere, so it doesn't feel like a collection of random runs but like one big story. And, much like choice-and-consequences, a lot of real-world time might have passed since the villain's previous appearance, so I think it helps players keep track of the big picture. Otherwise, when the big climactic battle at the end comes, they might be left scratching their heads wondering "Wait, who is this person again, and why do I care?"

Boss Fight

Much like environmental puzzles, I feel like I exhausted most of my tricks back in Antumbra, but I'm still making an effort to think of creative things to do here. Particularly if the boss is a named NPC who has been present earlier in the mission, and offers a challenging fight at the end, it can make for an especially memorable experience.

I don't think I can say much about the specific mission I'm working on now without spoilers, so as an example, I'll go over a similar process back in Caldecott. In my initial game design, one mission was, in its entirety:

You go to San Francisco, break into the Shiawase Matrix, and download [plot] for the train robbery.
 That's all I really needed in that early phase, when I was mostly concerned about the high-level shape of the plot and game design. During the fleshing-out phase, I ultimately came up with the whole sequence of events that the player would experience, so the final outline for that mission became:

  • Nautical insertion at Potrero Point.
  • Check-in from base (Persi or Kora) recapping your objective.
  • Encounter Native Californian paramilitary fighters, exchange insults, kill them.
  • Reprimand from Colonel Saito's Imperial Marines.
  • Start objective to infiltrate Shiawase.
  • Ambushed by Zielor of the MPA. CONSEQUENCE: Refer to your decision at the Raiders hideout to back the MPA or not, but always fight regardless.
  • Create a diversion. CHOICE POINT: Back up Zielor or hand him over to Shiawase.
  • Eavesdrop on Ava Montalvo's keynote address. CONSEQUENCE: Refers to your actions on board Persi's ship.
  • Find or forge a pass to access the upper floors. CHOICE POINT: May expose your status or get an NPC in trouble.
  • Sweet-talk your way past the guards (etiquettes) or fight them.
  • Hack into the Matrix (Sable required if you are not a decker).
  • Optional: Take over building security, download paydata.
  • Fight your way back down to the ground floor.
  • Reinforcements at the main door, extraction through the Muni Metro tunnels.
That's a whole lot more! In terms of my checklist, it would break down like this:
  • Location: Potrero Point and Shiawase. (In my initial design pass, I was calling this "Shiawase HQ"; in the final game, I realized that the building I'd created didn't look nearly impressive enough to be the headquarters for Shiawase's entire North American enterprises, so I just made it a general office of theirs.)
  • Factions: Native Californians, MPA, Imperial Marines, Shiawase Corpsec.
  • NPCs: Major recurring: Zielor, Ava Montalvo, possibly Kora via commlink. Minor speaking roles from: NC thug, Marine captain, door guards, receptionist, Taylor Minami.
  • Choices: Dealing with Zielor (affects future recruitment); forging a pass (causes difficulty on the heist); impersonating Taylor Minami (cause trouble that you'll hear about later).
  • Consequences: Dialogue from Zielor and Ava referring earlier actions. (Consequences were pretty light in this particular mission; in others, they could provide new allies, alternate solutions to obstacles, or other mechanical impacts.)
  • Puzzles: None. :-( I'd planned to do an environmental puzzle on the middle floor of Shiawase, and even set aside space on the map for it, but never came up with anything fun to do.
  • Pacifist route: Not available. :-( You can potentially skip combat with the guards on the second floor of Shiawase, although you might face them anyways during your later descent.
  • World-building: Observe Saito's anti-metahuman curfew in San Francisco. See Shiawase's corporate culture: lots of meetings, presentations, graphs, and other ephemera.
  • Etiquettes and skill-checks: Corporate or Academic will help you convince Taylor to give you their pass. Quickness allows you to pickpocket the pass. Security and Corporate etiquettes will help you avoid combat on the second floor. Hm, I think that's all...
  • Villain appearances: Zielor and Ava. You may not think of Ava as a villain at this point in the game, which makes her appearance even more important.
  • Boss fight: No special mechanics, but Zielor is a particularly strong opponent with a unique weapon who summons multiple waves.

Anyways, that's basically what I'm doing now, just for new missions.

No screenshots or anything to show this week, sorry. I'll be in writing mode for a lot longer, so I'll try and get some spoiler-free snippets to share in the future.

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