How to Design Game Levels &Adventures for Video and Tabletop

How to design entertaining episodes for video and tabletop games: levels, stages, adventures, scenarios, missions . . .
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Instructed by Lewis Pulsipher Design / Game Design
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  • Lectures 73
  • Length 10.5 hours
  • Skill Level All Levels
  • Languages English
  • Includes Lifetime access
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    Available on iOS and Android
    Certificate of Completion
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About This Course

Published 3/2014 English

Course Description

(Note: This course will never be deeply discounted: it is not part of Udemy's "kamikaze marketing." If it were, I'd have priced it three or even four times higher.)

This is a class about how to design episodes for games (both video and tabletop) - call it level design or adventure design - rather than how to program them. (Level design is a subset of game design.) There is no instruction in using specific software, for example, but a lot about what to put in the level (and not put in it). Adventures (for D&D) preceded video game levels, and levels follow the same principles as those adventures.

In games that require episodes (stages, missions, levels, adventures), the episode designer is the person who delivers the enjoyment to the players.

Entire books have been written about level design, though much of the material in these books describes how to manipulate a specific level editor such as Unreal III. There's not so much in these books about the actual design of levels/adventures. This course is strictly about design, not production, though we do discuss documentation.

Udemy says the course is 8 hours. It's actually half that, they count as four hours the file I supply that contains all the slides used in the videos.

What are the requirements?

  • You need to have some knowledge of game design, e.g. from my book or Learning Game Design audiovisual class
  • You need to know how to play games that use levels/adventures

What am I going to get from this course?

  • What it is and isn't - and why you'd do it
  • Questions you must consider when you make a level/adventure
  • Producing the goods - obstacles, objectives, scale, linearity, style, mood, etc.
  • Documentation
  • Campaigns

Who is the target audience?

  • There are two major audiences: those who want to make levels for video games,
  • and those who want to design adventures for tabletop RPGs
  • It may also help those making scenarios for wargames

What you get with this course?

Not for you? No problem.
30 day money back guarantee.

Forever yours.
Lifetime access.

Learn on the go.
Desktop, iOS and Android.

Get rewarded.
Certificate of completion.


Section 1: Introduction
What you'll discover
Introducing your teacher

You're autonomous in this class, which is much like a big lecture class at a university: an oral book. But you have the opportunity to ask questions.


This class is about design, about how to specify what is in the adventure and where things are. It's not about software, or about learning software. That's relatively easy, and the programs used change from time to time, for that matter individual programs change as they're updated.


Because I cannot teach you game design and level design both in a course this size, you'll be better off if you know some game design, e.g. from my book, from my "Learning Game Design" class, or from making and completing games.


This class is not about platformers! Though a considerable part of my advice and observations will apply to platformers. Alternatives:

  • There’s a class on titled “Platform Game Creation with Construct 2 (HTML5)” How much of that class is about Construct 2, and how much about platforming, you’ll need to discover for yourself.
  • There’s also “Build a Side-scrolling Platformer with Gamemaker: Studio”. Same place. Same question.
  • Blogs:
  • –Platformer level design for 2D:


    –How to design levels for a platformer:



    If you're not writing down your ideas, you're screwing up.

    Anonymous Entry Survey
    Section 2: What is level/adventure design?

    There are lots of reasons why you might design adventures, from personal pleasure up to a full-time job.


    When you create levels or adventures, what are you really trying to do? In a word, you're trying to help the player(s) enjoy playing the game, nothing more, nothing less.


    The two most important questions in game design: who is your audience, and what are the player(s) going to DO? Mess these up and nothing can save your effort!

    1 page

    Constraints promote creativity. So I tried writing what's important in game design in one page.


    The process of creating a level or adventure isn't much different than the game design process in general. There are more constraints, however, but constraints can breed creativity.


    Some "design documents" - the concept document and treatment - are more marketing than design documents. The actual design document tells programmers and artists how to make your level. Whether they'll read it, or just ask you, is another question.

    Don't think you should write enormous detail. Here's a comment about game design documents from Christorpher Natsume: "I hope I am not the first person to tell you this, but nobody reads design documents. In fact, when working at larger studios, I made a habit of inserting the line “I will pay $5 to anyone who reads this sentence” into the center of any document over 50 pages. In 10 years of development nobody ever asked for their money. That’s a true story. Problematically, the industry has solved this problem by holding meetings. Lots of meetings."


    I've added this screencast to emphasize that you don't need to aspire to be a professional, to enjoy creating levels and adventures for games.

    Section 3: Questions you must consider when you make a level/adventure

    When you start to create a level/adventure, There are questions you have to ask yourself, and then you'll look for a hook or starting place, something to be the core of the episode.


    Most games using levels or adventures are for an avatar-based, tactical level. But wargames may have scenarios, which are also episodes, and even avatar-based games can include strategic considerations in adventures that are mostly tactical, in cases where a long trip is involved, or a long quest.


    There's a big difference between overcoming obstacles - problem-solving where there are usually multiple ways to succeed - and solving puzzles, where there's often only one solution (that always works). What kind of challenges are you going to make?


    Linear adventures force player(s) along a particular path, often associated with a story imposed on the level/adventure. Open (or sandbox) levels allow the player(s) to write their own story.


    Every level/adventure has a purpose, whether the designer's or the player(s)'. Sometimes it will be completion of a quest. Sometimes it will be related to a story. But don't get hung up on story, most people play games for the gameplay, not for the story.

    The Role of story - from my "Learning Game Design" course

    Video game levels are often full of fighting rather than role-playing. Role-playing requires interaction with humans, not computers, usually humans who are in the same room (MMO players are unreliable at best). Furthermore, it requires non-combat situations.


    Unless you know your target market wants to be told a story, to be "led around by the nose", don't take control of the game from them unless you absolutely have to.


    Realism is still important to some players, but fewer each year as TV and movies contribute to our credulous society. Belief in magic and aliens (and vampires) among us is rife, and plot holes big enough to drive a truck through are common. But it doesn't hurt to try to encourage that willing suspension of disbelief.


    Insofar as level design is a subset of game design, this fundamental game design question applies to you. In a level that is part of a larger game, there's even more reason to be on the game design rather than the fiction writer side, as the designer of the game as a whole is in charge of the fiction (whatever that amounts to).


    Style - the kind of tactics and strategies the player(s) use - and mood - what the players feel - plays a big part in adventures.


    Tutorials are mainly a problem for video game levels; in RPGs there's a referee to help anyone who needs it.


    Aspiring level/adventure designers aren't likely to be writing for "PvP" (player versus player) or for multiplayer (two sides in teams). So I keep my observations about this aspect of level/adventure design brief.

    See Multiplayer Level Design In-Depth, Part 1: The Specific Constraints of Multiplayer Level Design

    for more about mp mapping.

    Self-assessment at the halfway point
    10 questions
    Have you been writing things down?
    Section 4: Producing the design

    An adventure or level could be characterizes as the player(s) overcoming obstacles. Here is a discussion and listing of the kinds of obstacles you might use.


    Maps are always important in game episodes, but especially in video game multiplayer (two teams) where players may play the same map hundreds of times. Maps can provide a great deal of variety (replayability) and memorability. Lots of advice here.


    Games are about opposition, not always-correct solutions. Always-correct solutions are part of puzzles. Don't use puzzles heavily unless that's what your target market likes.


    Not every level/adventure is part of a quest, not every quest is executed through a level/adventure. But quests are very much a part of MMOs and other video games. What are quests, categories of quests, etc.


    Video game levels focus on boss fights as the big climax; tabletop RPGs are much less boss oriented.


    "Bosses" is a video game notion that does not quite work in tabletop. In video games, you can play a fight over and over again. So we expect bosses to be very tough, to kill the player(s) several times. You can't do that in tabletop because, if you die, you're (mostly) dead, you don't get multiple tries.


    Any fool can give away piles of loot - money, gems, jewels, items that increase capabilities. Your adventure or level should be enjoyable because of what the player does and experiences, not what he or she gets. Keep the well-being of the entire game/campaign in mind.

    Practice: list the elements you'll use in a level/adventure
    1 page
    Tips based partly on my own experience (which includes contributing monsters to the original Fiend Folio, and to Dungeon and White Dwarf magazines), and what I gleaned from a GenCon panel that including Wolfgang Baur and Jeff Grubb. Part 1.

    Tips based partly on my own experience (which includes contributing monsters to the original Fiend Folio, and to Dungeon and White Dwarf magazines), and what I gleaned from a GenCon panel that including Wolfgang Baur and Jeff Grubb. Part 2.

    Map-drawing Practice

    Games (like life) benefit from variation in tension/relaxation. The contrast makes both more intense and enjoyable.


    Many people think there's an ideal way to construct stories, though they cannot agree on what that ideal is. Here are some possibilities. But games are mostly about overcoming obstacles, not about stories, and when there's a big story in a game, a studio hires a writer to write it, not a game designer.


    There needs to be a "fair" relationship between effort/skill and rewards in games, but the old style (earn it) is being displaced by the reward style (awarded for participation).

    Example of a fantasy game level overview
    2 pages
    Practice - write your own overview of a level/adventure

    Co-operative play is the norm in tabletop adventures, where no single character can survive for long, but in video games the tradition has been single player, mostly because the technology couldn't handle more. Co-op is now technically possible and widely popular as attitudes of video gamers change.


    Here are lots of Do's and Don'ts (and in part 2, some Principles) for level design. Many have been discussed in other videos, some have not.


    Here are lots of Do's and Don'ts (and in part 2, some Principles) for level design. Many have been discussed in other videos, some have not.


    When Warren Spector was developing the famous video game Deus Ex, he wrote "rules" for his team. Explained here (by Lew, not by WS, from an article by WS).


    Unless you're making a tabletop adventure to run for friends, you need to playtest your work before it goes out to the public at large. That means gathering people who were not part of the development, but who are representative of the target market, to play the level/adventure. What you think you've made will turn out not to be what you actually made. There's no substitute for playtesting.


    If you're writing something for others to read, you need to be as clear as you can. There's a process involved, you won't get it done all at once, and you'll revise it later (if it's a document for programmers and artists to use).


    In the modern world we don't do thing by pencil and paper, we use computers with all their advantages. Here's software (much of it free) that can help you design levels/adventures.

    Section 5: Campaigns, and Conclusion

    Story takes a more important place in a campaign/series of levels. You have the major story arc, and possibly subsidiary ones that last two to X number of adventures/levels.

    5 pages

    From my book "Game Design" (McFarland, 2012)


    Text adventures, though old-fashioned, still exist. And present somewhat different problems to designers.


    A brief discussion of how to think about designing scenarios for wargames.


    When creating a level or adventure, do you set up a situation and let the players make of what they may, or do you lead them specifically from one thing to another? Do you want them to act independently, or do you in effect hold their hands? There's no pat answer other than "whatever your audience prefers".


    The state of the tabletop RPG market can be described in one word: poor. The only way to make anything close to a living is to work full-time for one of a few companies, with few openings and lots of competition. Crowdsourcing is one reason, an accumulation of decades of adventures is another.

    An icv2 report about the state of tabletop games (Dec 14) shows how small the RPG market is. RPG market ($15M) is one fifth the size of boardgames ($75m), which in turn is only 1/6th of CCGs ($450m).


    Monte Cook observed several years ago that adventures seem to be much more story-oriented than in the past. Here's my suggestion for why that may be so.


    End of the class, and what's next for you as a level/adventure designer: make complete levels and adventures!

    Want to see what a one-day "boot camp" for level design looks like at GDC (Game Developer's Conference, San Francisco)? Here's a summary:

    Self-assessment (five questions)
    5 questions
    Exit Survey

    Part 1. General tips for those intending to design RPGs.


    Part 2. General tips for those intending to design RPGs.


    Tastes in games vary so greatly that it's impossible to make a universal list. There is no universal "fun", there are so many ways that people enjoy games. So here's my list for hobbyist games, games for adults that play games as a hobby. Part 1


    Part 2. Tastes in games vary so greatly that it's impossible to make a universal list. There is no universal "fun", there are so many ways that people enjoy games. So here's my list for hobbyist games, games for adults that play games as a hobby.

    266 pages

    All the slides used in the course, excluding Bonus material.

    Section 6: Bonus material
    14 pages

    Lew's online courses and information resources


    While this video discusses game design portfolios, the same applies to level design, if you want a commercial job as a level designer. You have to let people, especially potential employers, see your work. If you're really interested in working in the video game industry you might want to try my "Get a Job in the Video Game Industry" course.


    The video game industry is both unusual and unstable. Here's how it works.


    This is closely related to open versus linear levels.adventures.


    Why write a book in the 21st century, an era when people rarely read non-fiction books? And why a game design book? Here's why…

    Lew's Games, as of August 2015
    20 pages
    What makes my game design book unusual or unique

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    Instructor Biography

    Lewis Pulsipher, Commercially Published Game Designer, College Teacher

    Dr. Lewis Pulsipher (Wikipedia: "Lewis Pulsipher"; "Britannia (board game)"; "Archomental" ) is the designer of half a dozen commercially published boardgames. His game "Britannia" is described in an Armchair General review "as one of the great titles in the world of games." Britannia was also one of the 100 games highlighted in the book "Hobby Games: the 100 Best". He has over 17,000 classroom hours of teaching experience including teaching video game design and production, and over 20 years of part-time graduate teaching experience.

    His book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" (McFarland) focuses on practical advice for beginning game designers, about how you actually create and complete game designs. He also contributed to the books "Tabletop: Analog Game Design," "Hobby Games: the 100 Best," "Family Games: the 100 Best." His game design blog has been active since 2004, and he is a contributor and "expert blogger" on Gamasutra, the #1 site for professional video game developers.

    His latest published game is the 2011 reissue with additions of "Dragon Rage," originally published in 1982. Three new versions of Britannia, including a 90-120 minute version and a diceless version, are forthcoming, as well as several other games from Worthington Publishing and others. His Viking adventure game "Sea Kings" was published by Worthington in August 2015.

    Lew has a Ph.D. in military and diplomatic history from Duke University, from ancient days when degrees in media, computer networking, or game design did not exist--nor did IBM PCs. In 2012 he was a speaker at the East Coast Game Conference, PrezCon, Origins Game Fair, and World Boardgaming Championships. Long ago he was contributing editor for White Dwarf and Dragon magazines, and publisher of various game fanzines. In 2013 he was Industry Insider Guest of Honor at GenCon, and in 2014 is again speaker at the ECGC.

    Game design blog and teach game design blogs are on blogspot

    "Expert blogger", Gamasutra

    former contributing editor, White Dwarf, Dragon, Space Gamer, etc.

    former publisher, Supernova, Blood and Iron, Sweep of History, etc.

    "Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest." --Mark Twain

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