Rats in the Basement

Design theory demands approaching even a simple problem from a lot of different angles. When I was working on my own world in Neverwinter Nights one summer, I came to a point where it was time to actually add some monsters for new characters to kill to level up. The first thing I made were rats in the inn basement.

Looking back, among my circle of friends in the NWN community we have a good laugh whenever killing rats in the basement comes up, because it seems to be a common enough thing to find nowadays. I don’t know why I chose to make an inn basement with rats to kill, but it seemed natural enough to warrant doing – I might have gotten the idea from Morrowind, or somewhere else. I laid out a basic tileset, worked up a rat creature that would present a decent enough challenge to a low level character, and threw some spawn points for them down. But I learned pretty quick from playtesting that even something as mundane as killing rats in the inn basement has to be approached more intimately if the aim is to provide the player with an immersive experience. Liz England describes this paradigm in her blog as the “door problem.”

If the premise is that there are rats in the inn basement that need to be killed, we have a lot of questions that need answering before the problem is a believable one.

  • Why should people care that the rats are there?
  • Where do the rats come from?
  • Why the inn basement? Why not any other basement?
  • Who, apart from players in this game world, would notice or care about the rats?
  • How big are the rats? How fast? How strong?
  • Are the rats diseased?
  • Are the rats a new problem, or an old one?
  • How many rats are there? If they keep coming back, how?
  • Will the rats always be a problem, or is this temporary?
  • Why haven’t the rats been dealt with already?
  • Is there only one kind of rat?
  • How do the rats behave? Do they attack on sight, or do they have to be engaged first?
  • Do the rats have any special magical abilities? Are they enhanced?
  • Is there any loot to be gained from killing rats?
  • How rewarding is it to kill a rat? What’s the benefit?
  • What other aspects of the world might be affected by rats being in the basement?

Looking at this list, which only covers the basic premise of there being rats in a basement, there’s a lot to consider. With each question comes an answer, which refines and tempers the idea into something that players can get along with, and be excited to participate in. We’ve all played a game where certain types of creatures just seem to have been thrown in willy nilly – but ones that have been considered more carefully will feel like part of the world, and less like a haphazard means to gaining EXP/Gold/Items.

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