Taking inspiration from point-and-click adventures

Some of my fondest memories of gaming are related to playing some of the classic point-and-click adventure games, especially during the LucasArts period. I started playing them with Maniac Mansion & Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, but I never could finish those, but starting with the Monkey Island series, I really started loving these games.

For a while I even was a member of the AGS forums, the community around Adventure Game Studio, a tool with which people could make their own point-and-click adventures. I never managed to make my own, but I still have some nice pixel art I whipped up in those days.

The thought that these adventure games could serve as great inspiration for writing & running tabletop roleplaying games is one that I return to every once in a while. In this post I'll try to collect some ways on how to use the classic point-and-click adventure games to inspire your tabletop roleplaying games.

Disclaimer: I haven't played any modern point-and-click games, to be honest, I've got too many creative hobbies to also have time for digital gaming. So, I might miss some of the newer developments in the genre. I'd love some recommendations for newer ones though!

There are a number of ways to emulate point-and-click adventures, and/or to take inspiration from them. An adventure inspired by the classic adventure games could take the form of an expanding point crawl consisting of memorable locations inhabited by colorful characters offering interesting mysteries and puzzles to solve.

An expanding point crawl

If you look at the main structure of the classic games, they're basically a slowly expanding point crawls. For example if you look at the Secret of Monkey Island, you start on a dock, with a few buildings to visit, but if you leave there, you move to a map with only a few of the landmarks possible to travel to. While playing the game more locations open up, either due to learning about locations from NPCs or by stumbling on them on route to another location.

While The Secret of Monkey Island even takes place on a number of islands, each island offers its own point crawl. By slowly expanding the available locations the feeling of being stuck is partly ameliorated. In a tabletop adventure I wouldn't necessarily recommend making it impossible to travel beyond an area, but part of the problems to be solved could revolve around getting the right resources to move to another location (which can then be represented as a new point crawl to discover).

One of the main differences between tabletop roleplaying games and digital adventure games is the openness of the world in tabletop games. Still, getting stuck is always frustrating, even more so when you don't have online forums to tell you how to solve a certain puzzle or unlock a certain object or location. You don't have to make it too easy for your players, while still offering multiple ways to solve problems.

This is a great format to structure (the beginning of) your adventure:

  • Start in an interesting location with a number of NPCs to talk to
  • When the players want to travel, present them with a map with big landmarks visible, adding any locations they have learned about so far
  • Make sure locations can be discovered in different ways
  • Have enough interesting locations within a reasonably small area
  • Add (interesting) hurdles to be overcome before characters can move to another area

Map from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

Memorable locations

As a visual medium point-and-click adventures have an easy way to show you what the interesting parts of a location are (as long as the game didn't fall into the trap of letting you pixelhunt for clues).

In a tabletop game it will rely on the GM to make the location memorable and interesting. Writing long descriptions to read to your players is not the best way though. Keep it simple. As a start a location just needs an evocative name.

Next to that it should at the very least contain one or more of these elements:

  • An colorful supporting cast member
  • A puzzle to solve
  • Access to other locations (a shortcut to another, routes to newly discovered locations, etc)

When describing a location visited for the first time a short description usually suffices. As long as you dangle some hooks in front of your players they'll bite. For your own notes it might be enough to just jut down a few keywords (three being the magic number), and main points of interest:

Temple of Ogantor (overgrown, ruinous, sprawling)

  • big stone doors, closed with a big rusted lock
  • an overwhelmingly sweet smell

The Rubber Chicken Inn (welcoming, ramshackle, loud)

  • At the only table with available seats sits a surly, young woman
  • At least 40 different local beers available

Paradoxically, often the less precise you describe a location, the easier it is for the players to picture it.

Pixelhunting - Some clue might not be obvious to find in a point-and-click game. A player might need to hover over every pixel on screen to find all possible clues and ways to interact with the location. This wasn't fun then, it's not fun now.

Hiding clues just because the players don't know where to look or what to ask has the same effect: it's not fun. Always make sure to mention all elements of a location that can be interacted with. Then again, I'm not a big 5e Perception roll fan. If something is interesting enough to keep the story moving, they should be able to spot it.

When visiting a location for the first time, it might also turn out to be a point crawl of its own, or contain entries to multiple smaller sub locations: a small town street with different shops, or a building with its rooms.

After interacting with the location and its inhabitants, the location might lose relevance. In point-and-click adventures, the location might even disappear from the map. Of course in the open ended nature of tabletop games, your players might find interesting reasons to return a to previous location.

A colorful supporting cast

Another keystone of the genre are great supporting characters. Point-and-click adventures expose a lot of the mysteries and backstory through dialogs with fun characters. So, how do you make these characters fun and memorable?

As with locations, a great name is a good place to start. Follow it with a simple description based on some keywords. Next up, mannerisms you can actually bring to the table. Not everyone is an improv actor, but some tricks go a long way. A number of ways to make character stand out:

  • Give them one or more catch phrases
  • Talk a little higher/lower/softer/louder than your usual speaking voice
  • They gesture a lot when talking
  • Give them an accent (bad accents are still accents)

It doesn't have to be an Oscar winning performance, it doesn't have to be big or well executed, as long as the character is different enough from the others.

I will always stan Stan from *the Secret of Monkey Island*. I will always stan Stan from the Secret of Monkey Island.

What's the role of the supporting cast? Each NPC needs to offer something to advance the plot or give the players something:

  • Comic relief can sometimes be enough, but usually better combined with one of the options
  • Delivering information and clues. Some of this might be dependent on asking the right questions or helping them out first.
  • Giving new mysteries & problems to solve
  • The source of objects to use solve problems

Make sure you add which knowledge each NPC has. I always make sure multiple characters can give crucial clues and information to the players.

Unlocking dialog options - In point-and-click games you usually have to pick from a number of dialog options, each one potentially unlocking a complete dialog tree. Sometimes learning something elsewhere will give you new options to talk about.

Emulating this can be done by 'locking' some of the clues an NPC might have behind either asking the right questions, but often this will play out naturally: the players won't ask certain questions until they learn about certain topics. And one great advantage of tabletop games: you don't have to repeat the same dialog trees every single time...

Problem solving

A point-and-click adventure is really a web of interlocked and nested puzzles. To solve the game you need to solve different acts, each with their own smaller mysteries and puzzles. The amount of puzzles to solve might be a bit much for a tabletop game, but having a more problem solving than combat oriented game can be a lot of fun.

A web of puzzles - In The Secret of Monkey Island Guybrush wants to become a pirate. To achieve this he needs to pass three (a return of the magic number!) trails: he must beat the sword master, find a treasure and steal an idol.

Each of these is basically a fetch quest that needs to be solved. Beating the sword master requires beating the sword fighting mini game. Both finding the treasure & stealing the idol are a more traditional mysteries which focuses on finding the right clues and interpreting them creatively. Quite a bit of the clues, or needed objects can be only collected after solving earlier fetch quests and puzzles.

Different types of puzzles can enhance the game:

  • Fetch quests: find and bring one or more objects to an NPC to retrieve new quests, information or clues.
  • Timed puzzle: perform certain actions successfully within a certain timeframe. Can be emulated using progress clocks or tracks.
  • Mini games: the boxing from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, the sword fighting from The Secret Monkey island. This can be done as separate card or dice games, or using progress clocks.

Hacking inventory puzzles - Inventory puzzles are a classic part of point-and-click games where the players need to combine different objects to solve a problem or create a new item.

A bit harder to emulate, considering the open ended nature of tabletop games. It's not too convenient to assume the players will find all relevant objects and will try to combine them to get past an obstacle. Also, having just one solution to get past an obstacle feels counter to tabletop roleplaying games.

The following steps will help you emulate these kinds of puzzles without creating dead ends. When creating obstacles, try to think of multiple ways to get past it, and seed the needed clues and items over multiple NPCs. Give each NPC something they want, so when the players need something from them, a web of puzzles is created organically.

Allow creative solutions to your obstacles, even if it's not one of the solutions you thought of originally.

Side quests should not just be a side dish: you need to solve problem A to get an object to solve problem B. Multiple puzzles can be worked on at the same time.

Both puzzle design & mini games are topics that deserve a complete follow up post. Keep an eye on this space!

Practice what you preach. Right?

I don't have adventures written in this style available. Yet! My main motivation for writing this article was for me to create a framework for future adventures. Hopefully this also sparks some reactions and feedback.

These are two adventures I wrote which were inspired by point-and-click adventures, but more in theme then in adventure design:

Map from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

Appendix N

Remarks? Additions?

If you have comments, or resources to recommend, let me know! I don't have comments on this blog enabled (yet), but I can be found on Twitter, BlueSky and Discord (username: jimmyshelter).

Want to be the first to know when there are a new blogposts or games? Subscribe to my newsletter