Horizon: Zero Dawn was a huge hit on the PS 4 game console. I got hooked on it a fews years back while convalescing from knee surgery.
You begin the game learning that you are an outcast of a primitive tribe in the far future where animal like robots roam the land performing various terraforming tasks. People hunt the robots and use the parts to make weapons, armor and tools. Some tribes dig in the ruins of the ancient world and salvage the materials for their own inventions. Others have reinvented the foundational technologies of civilization like stone working, pulleys, and farming.
You travel from settlement to settlement trying to unravel various mysteries. What were the circumstances of your birth? Why is a group of cultists are trying to kill you? What caused the fall of human civilization? What’s the deal with these robots?
Horizon: Forbidden West is the sequel to Zero Dawn. After discovering the answer to those mysteries and saving the day, you learn that one of the villains of the game has carried on with his sinister activities. You dealt with the problem but not all of it. New challenges stand in your way as you do some heavy duty thwarting of evil.
Both are open world games with a number of side quests that you can play or ignore if you want. There is a primary storyline that you can follow while ignoring the side quests. Ignoring the sidequests would make the primary quest harder because you gain experience, weapons and gear by doing the quests. As you progress through the story, new areas open up and new side quests are revealed. New robots to hunt are discovered, new traders with different weapons and equipment also become available.
I liked Zero Dawn better than Forbidden West. Since this isn’t a review, all I’ll say that I enjoyed both games and recommend them if you have a PS4 or PS5.
Here are three lessons I learned about world and scenario design from the Horizon video-games that apply to tabletop role-playing games.
Lesson 1: Problems > Puzzles
Puzzles have only one solution. Until you discover the pattern, eliminate other possibilities, or look in the right place, you can’t solve it. Forbidden West has lots of puzzles; way more puzzles than Zero Dawn did, though it had plenty.
A problem is a situation causing difficulty. Problems have multiple possible solutions. Some solutions are easy, others are harder to implement and often a solution to a problem doesn’t completely solve the problem but neutralizes it for a time.
Takeaway for game masters: Limit your use of puzzles (a situation with only one correct solution).
Problems are more engaging for players and offer them a much greater range of role-playing opportunities. When developing adventure scenarios, create obstacles to the players objectives that have many possible ways of being addressed. Be open to solutions you didn’t envision. Clever players can come up with great ideas that may make the problem easy to deal with. Let them. Come up with harder problems next time.
Lesson 2: Respawning resources are useful adventure objectives.
In both Horizon games, there are a number of resources you gather as you travel across the map. There are healing plants, parts from machines, and animals that give you meat or skins. These resources respawn when you leave and come back later. They are commodities. You can collect them, trade for them, or find them in hidden caches.
Some of the resources have direct value to you like the healing herbs or the machine parts required for crafting ammo. Other resources are trade goods, and still others are materials needed for crafting better weapons or increasing storage capacity.
Takeaway for game masters: Create locations and opportunities for some sort of respawning/renewable resource your players can acquire and use in a variety of ways.
This will advance a feeling of being in control of their own destiny and provide repeat adventure locations which reduces your game preparation efforts. If players keep coming back, you don’t have to make new maps or design new challenges unless you want to throw in a twist.
The human adversaries, robots, plants and animals in Horizon all have resources. When you collect a plant, salvage from a machine, loot from a cultist, some resource that you can use, sell or trade is found. Different weapons, armor, or equipment you can buy has specific prices which may be a specific item from a particular type of machine. You have to travel to an area where that machine is found, and acquire the part.
These are not missions the designers made part of the main story line. You will acquire enough loot during the normal missions to pick up the minimum equipment you need to progress through the game. If you decided you want better armor or weapons, you have to do a little extra hunting. The game isn’t requiring this. It is making it available to you if you decide to pursue it. That autonomy is important.
If the player just isn’t into multiple back to to back hunting challenges, you can progress through the game without taking the time to do that.
Here is an example of how you can do that for your fantasy adventure game.
Tim Shorts and Rob Conley created a substance called Viz for their fantasy games. Viz is a solid form of concentrated magic that bubbles up in certain places. It can be used to power spells or it could be used to trade. It only occurs in specific places. I’ve used it in my games after learning about it in one of Tim’s micro adventures. It produced the exact effect that I’ve had playing the Horizon games. Players would return to some of the same locations over and over to gather the Viz. I was able to tie Viz into a number of other adventure locations and NPCs. If players said they were going to the Viz pool, all I had to do was figure out what had changed since the last time they were there, add a monster to a random table or work up a faction that had taken over the spot.
Lesson 3: Let the players know about big challenges before they are ready to take them on.
The machines in the Horizon games are monsters. Some are easy to take down, even early in the game. Others are hard even after you have gained more powerful weapons, armor, and skills. Sometimes you come across machines that you can’t handle for a variety of reasons. You might not be able to sneak past, don’t have the weapon or the ammo resources you need to defeat it; your hit points ar too low or it’s just more machine than you’re able handle at this level.
Some of those machines are specifically placed in areas where you can see them, become aware of how nasty they are but still avoid them. The parts on those machines are valuable so there is a reason to hunt them. What’s great about this is that you know where that thing is at. You know the first time you tried to kill it, it murdered you in seconds. You know if you can come up with the right combination of weapons, ammo, and buffs that you might be able to take it down.
Monsters, NPCs, factions, or other obstacles that the players are aware of, and have a good motivation to take down will probably be addressed eventually. If a monster or NPC is irritating, has stolen from the party, or otherwise makes their problems harder to deal with, they will eventually want to deal with the problem.
The ancient green dragon that lives in that forest is a pain to avoid. We have to travel days out of the way and the ogres that demand a toll on the bridge really suck too. Someday, we’ll do something about that.
Steal from video games.
I came across a number of interesting ideas playing Horizon: Zero Dawn and Horizon: Forbidden West. The three I shared will enhance your sandbox games and there are many more lessons. Some of those lessons are negative, like avoid long sequences of exposition (cut scenes). Others are positive like, creating helpful and quirky NPCs to give the players a reason to want to come back to a certain location.
You probably have some of your own favorite video games that have something you can steal for your tabletop games. If there’s one that you love to gush about I’d be glad to hear about it in the comments.