Parallel Paths: Or, Why Dishonored Needed A Club

This week we’re going to talk about player choice, and making sure that you’re prepared for the ones they make.

For starters, I want to clarify that I’m not talking about choice as it pertains to letting the players do whatever they want. If you’re running a D&D campaign and the players decide they want to open a ladder re-purposing Ten Foot Pole Emporium rather than actually play out that cool story with the dragon and the intrigue and the world ending terror you have prepared, then you may as well just ignore them, because they clearly did not show up to play the same game you did.

What I’m talking about is making sure that your game, be it a video game, tabletop RPG, or board game, supports a reasonable number of parallel paths to victory. These are all fairly straightforwards, so I’m going to touch on each of them in turn. I’m also going to focus largely on single player or cooperative games, as with multiplayer games this strays more into a discussion of game balance.

So, to finally get to what could easily have been the opening line of this post, the most important part of presenting a game in which parallel paths are implied is to make sure they are all supported. They don’t have to be equally difficult, but they have to function.

Let’s talk about Dishonored for a moment, if only because I put it in the title. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Dishonored is a first person stealth and action video game about betrayal, revenge, and absentee parenting. The core choices of the game, the ones presented during every moment of game-play and not just during the major moral choices towards the end of each level, are whether you are playing a stealth game or an action game, and whether you are a big murdery murderer or not. Overall, at least in the experience I had, the game does a good job of making both of these choices a great deal of fun, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t let itself down in a few key areas, notably by rather limiting to player to being an action murderer or a nonlethal sneaker. By and large most of the choices the player will make in the game, from the use of either normal crossbow bolts or more limited sleep arrows to the decision of whether to stab a major villain in his neck meat or decipher a fairly elaborate puzzle to send them to a nonlethal fate worse than death, the dual focus design rewards more murder prone players with a quick and easy solution while providing nonlethal players with a more complex but perhaps more rewarding alternative. There are two notable exceptions to this ethos, however. When presented with an unaware enemy, one has the option of loudly and messily stabbing them to death while simultaneously alerting all nearby enemies or quietly strangling them into a restful sleep. While the murder option is quick to reward the player with more murder, something the player may or may not be thankful for, it is something of an issue when the nonlethal option’s only downside is a minor increase in the time it takes. So you have the potential to be spotted, which is a moot point with the other option is to always be spotted. Simply allowing the stealth kill to actually be stealthy would have solved this discrepancy, although combining that with making the strangling somewhat alarming to nearby guards would be more in keeping with the game-play philosophy, if not as balanced.

And then there’s the club I teased you with. Or, rather, there isn’t the club. There is no nonlethal melee weapon in Dishonored. This seems like a severe oversight when every other piece of game-play has a lethal and nonlethal option (for the sake of this argument, the sleep darts from the crossbow are also an alternative to the pistol). It seems like a rather easy fix, simply giving the player a nonlethal melee weapon usable in the same manner of their sword, possibly with a reduced reach and definitely with requiring them to land a few extra blows, and thus not completely removing the nonlethal gamer from the action half of an action stealth game. It could even be upgraded, as with all the other equipment in the game, perhaps adding taser like stun charges and such.

Alright, so that was video games, but what about tabletop RPGs, I hear you ask. Well, the good news, is that I’m not going to ask you to completely rewrite all of your favorite systems in order to cater to as many potential player actions as possible. That way lies madness, and as such has already largely been done. I’m also not going to sit here and tell you that if you were planning a game of courtly intrigue, you have to let Krod the loin-clothed barbarian swing from the rafters and throw axes at the punch bowl. The object isn’t to cater to the players, but to create a story with them. If you’re playing a game of courtly intrigue, and the viscount is holding a piece of important information, make sure that it’s not kept in a mental chest with a single lock. It makes no sense if a character would spill their darkest secrets for five gold, but will resist weeks of torture or the threat of a scary man standing over them with a knife in the middle of the night. If the players want to get into the ancient tomb of a long dead king, and the front is guarded by living statues who ask you three questions about your deepest fears, it’s understandable that they might want to just figure out around where the tomb is laid out and start some exploratory strip mining. Remember, the important thing is not that the players follow your story, no matter how cool you think it is. If you build a world and it reacts to the players actions appropriately, you will find all manner of fun and exciting role-playing opportunities crop up over the course of game-play. Maybe Krod wasn’t a good fit for courtly intrigue, but if he’s allowed in as an amusing oddity, he might just overhear some interesting rumors from folk who don’t believe he can understand them.

In conclusion, make sure that when the player has a choice of paths, each one is worthwhile to walk.

Down with classists!

Ok, I talked about the reasons roles exist and how to define them, now I’m going to talk about how to present them to players.

For this to work, first you need to figure out what level of freedom to allow your players. The spectrum runs from games that allow a player to build whatever character they see fit, as exemplified by games like the Elder Scrolls series and GURPS, or force them to progress along a very specific route, showcased nicely in games like pretty much every game ever without those nebulous “rpg elements” in it that still has power progression. If you’re making one of those, that’s awesome, but this isn’t the post for you.

So let’s look at an example of the middle point. Pathfinder (and several editions of D&D, the game it was based on) has a system in which players choose a class that defines the basic nature of their character. A fighter fights, a wizard casts magic, a rogue stabs people in the back and takes their shiny things. But within that structure, there exists a lot of customization options. Some classes allow you to select from a suit of abilities, and all classes receive a number of skill points to be spent on non-combat related skills, like opening locks and professional home decorating, and a number of special abilities, called feats, that they can choose from a largely universal pool. Characters are also free to combine classes, gaining additional benefits at the cost of not increasing their starting class.

The question becomes, as a designer, how much do you trust your players and yourself? A game of complete freedom might make for very interesting character creation and some very interesting characters, but you run a grave danger of players creating characters who are completely unsuited for the game ahead. For an example of this, the latest Deus Ex tried to follow it’s predecessors freeform progression system, but had segments where a character without significant combat capabilities could not progress. This could have been solved by toning down those sections, allowing a way around them using the same methods the character had been using to progress through the rest of the game, or (and this is the game design aspect we are focusing on here) they could have separated the progression of the character in such a way as to not force the players to choose between competence with weapons and the ability to read your boss’s emails.

The more freeform your creation and progression system, the more hand holding you need to do. Shadowrun does an excellent example of this by providing a series of premade characters with descriptions of how to play them and why they are effective, and the player can use these characters straight off the rack, customize them, or just use them as inspiration for their own characters. Alternatively, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (the second edition) forces characters to progress in very very straight lines, and only needs to provide one sample character who is only used as an example to show how to apply the character creation rules.

The opposite of this, of course, is the more constrained your character creation and progression is, the less unique and interesting the characters made in it are. Rules exist, in GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System, to allow players to create magic using dinosaurs who, over the course of the game, learn how to hack computers and craft elegant herbal teas. The level of player freedom can be as great as the player’s imagination, which simply cannot be said about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. But if the focus of your game is supposed to be very tight, that might be fine for you.

So remember, with great freedom comes imagination and occasionally stupidity and with great focus comes reliability and occasionally boredom.

On a Role

I’m going to talk about the division of player roles in games, and how they affect game play.

Let’s start this at the most basic possible level, which everyone is probably familiar. Almost every game that includes either multiple players or players controlling multiple characters generally divides the character into a couple of different roles. Most generally these roles fall under the triad of offense, defense, and support. Most of the time, if you’re playing a game that requires these roles, and you don’t have one, you’re going to be handicapped in one way or another.

Let’s define a role, before we go any further. A role is a specific set of actions a character preforms to benefit the party has a whole. A healer heals, a tank defends, a face talks to people, and so on. A character can have multiple roles, and a NPC is perfectly capable of filling a role, although it’s probably best if they do so off camera. Roles can be almost infinitely specific (i.e. backstabs orcs who look crosswise at the party wizard) and can be combined together up to the point where one character can do everything. A good role has a specific mechanic associated with it, although it doesn’t have to be incredibly different and unique. The rogue can roll the same dice to open a door that the fighter rolls to stab an orc, but the rules have to be there for both of those things.

So, first off, you have to figure out what roles are relevant and important to your game. Let’s use D&D as a test case, because it provides a great deal of diversity in both game structure and player options. The standard D&D dungeoneering group is four players characters, the warrior, thief, mage, and healer. Any party that tries to go into a dungeon without one of those  is going to be in a lot of trouble, whether the squishy members get slaughtered because they don’t have a warrior, the group gets overwhelmed without a mage, they get killed by devious traps with no thief, or they have to rest in every room because they don’t have a healer.

But maybe you don’t want any healers, or thieves, or warriors, so you change the game. A D&D game without healers is a game where healing comes from some other source. Maybe the game is set in a city with easy access to clerics, maybe the heal skill can be used to restore actual hp, or maybe the adventurers are tough as nails and recover quickly naturally, so they only need a few minutes of rest before they can fight again, no matter how bad they’re hurt. Without thieves, the game also needs to do away with traps and treachery almost entirely, and focus more on straightforward combat and adventure. It’s important to make sure that your players aren’t punished for playing the game the way they want to.

So remember, make sure you have a game that suits the characters in it. Next, I’m going to talk about getting the players into their roles.

The one you love to hate

This week we’re talking about sympathetic villains.

Making the players emotionally invested in the villain is a tough task. It’s easy to say “Hey, this is the lord God-King of Chaos-Death, and he is nasty and you should hate him”, but nobody wants to punch cardboard cutouts with dastardly mustaches all day, so it’s essential your villains have some depth. One fairly standard trick is to make your villain’s motives and past something the players can relate to.

This is, admittedly, a fairly standard ploy, but at the same time it can be a remarkably effective one. The Necromancer who overthrew a corrupt governor through the only means at his disposal because they were trying to take his daughter away to work in the coal mines is significantly harder to axe than the Necromancer who thought he could make an all skeleton (and one human head) production of Hamlet if he just had a few more helpless villager shaped bodies.

The trick, however, is not to overdo the sob story attached to the bad guy. Preferably, the villain will have been someone whose position your players could see themselves in, and was pushed to the edge and had to make a choice. The absolute best uses of this are the genuinely good villains who were simple men or women caught up in a bad situation, such as the above necromancer. The plot of basically any action movie revolving around someone out for revenge works well for this.

The problem with sympathetic villains is that they are a gun pointed at your player’s psyche, and you need to figure out what you want them to do before you commit one to your campaign. Are they secretly the hero and you want the player to side with them against the evil king? Are they double secretly actually just a villain tugging at the hero’s heartstrings? Are both sides good people but someone is still going to die and it’s up to the PCs to decide who? That’s all up to you, but you better pick one before you throw something like this into a game.

Remember, sympathetic villains are dangerous, but effective. Handle with care and make sure you know why they’re there.

What is your favorite color!?!

This week we’re talking about well developed characters.

The most important part of a character is their story. This seems like it should be obvious, but to really know a characters story, you have to get into the finer details of it. Take, for example, the noble knight trying to save the fair princess from the dragon. Why? Is he fighting for her hand in marriage? If so, is it because he is in love with her? If so, why? Does her beauty entice him, or is he thrilled by the idea of being a prince or king in a few years? Did he decide to rescue her because he couldn’t find real work or has he been training to fight monsters for years?

Even that, though, is just a framework. What a character did is nowhere near as important as why a character does what they do. Ask your character questions about how they think, and the whys of their life will become clear. Does the warrior who became a warrior because he was naturally gifted and never excelled at intellectual pursuits fob any thinking heavy tasks off on someone else and have a hard time empathizing with those who aren’t as physically fit, or does he work hard to overcome his shortcomings and protect his weaker friends. Does the character with the hard knock life scrimp and scrounge to horde every penny or work hard to make life better for those who are growing up in situations similar to his own.

In Arcanum, in the first town the player visits, there is a blacksmith. Of course there is, the player needs swords and they have to come from somewhere. The blacksmith is surly, as they are stereotypically, but generally helpful. However, if the player is an elf, the blacksmith reveals himself to be a bitter racist who nigh throws them out of his store, although a sufficiently charismatic character can convince him to aid them. Well developed, interesting characters don’t necessarily take a long time to make or to convey, but they make or break a story.

So remember, make a character a person, and when you know who they are you’ll know how to write them.

Puttin’ yer time in.

This week we’re talking about story based advancement systems and possibly the astonishing revelation that I am lazy.

The polar opposite of the challenge based experience system is one where advancement is keyed into certain advancements in plot or story and progresses regardless of the players actual accomplishments. Games that reward the player with experience for time spent playing, such as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, or with a set amount of power after every mission regardless of what took place during the mission, such as Jedi Knight Jedi Academy, are premier examples of this system.

As a rule, storytelling based games work well with systems such as these, ditto games with a vast array of play styles. It is far easier to determine how many points it’s worth for the player to rescue the princess and then let them decide if they want to mow down every guard with their vast array of deadly weapons or sneak through the sewer systems and spirit her out the window without ever alerting a soul. For the more time based systems, such as the aforementioned Warhammer, it allows both players and Game Masters to focus wholly on the telling of a good story and stop them viewing any portion of the game world in the context of it being worth experience.

On the flip side, a strictly time based system can fail to account for behavior in a player that should, perhaps, be rewarded. If the player faces insurmountable odds and elects to defeat them all using some unexpected tactic, they would be rewarded in a challenge based system, but not in a strictly storytelling or chronological system. Mass Effect 2, for instance, has a set amount of experience earned for the completion of every quest, no matter whether it was solved with the utmost care and diplomatic tact or by shooting aliens in their heads until they all fell down. Solutions to this can be found in a more hybridized system, but I’ll get into that later. As a rule, storytelling advancement provides for a very rich setting and roleplaying experiences, but can occasionally stifle interesting play by making the risks not worth it.

This was a short one, but remember, if you don’t want everything dead, try a storytelling advancement system.

Kill it! It’s how we learn!

This week we’re covering the benefits and drawbacks of a challenge based advancement system.

Challenge based experience systems are a staple of most any game with “RPG Elements” and many table top RPGs. This is mainly because they are remarkably easy to use. If every monster, trap, angry mob, and belligerent mechanical chicken are worth a set amount of experience for defeating, then the Game Master doesn’t actually need to do a whole lot of work determining the rewards the player gets from them. Dungeons and Dragons is a terrific example of this, where every monster and trap has a “Challenge Rating” that determines it’s worth in experience points and a convenient table detailing the amount of treasure it ought to be carrying at time of death. This sort of system is very good at forestalling arguments among the players and the game master over rewards, as it’s very clear what rewards a player should gain after every challenge is surmounted. All in all, it is a very clean way to handle advancement. Shoot X number of monster Y until they fall down, receive Z experience and A fancy new hat.

There are, however, a number of drawbacks to that system. The main problem with a challenge based experience system is that it has a tendency to encourage bloodthirstiness among it’s players. When players have spent their entire gaming career becoming more powerful by slaughtering droves of enemies and laughing at their widows (role-playing is always good), they often develop a Pavlovian response to challenges. Many an interesting and pace changing social encounter has been ground beneath the boot of a kick in the door party because they had no idea the concept of dialogue with foes existed. Worse than that are the games and game masters who penalize their players for attempting a creative solution to a problem. As the Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 books state, the player should get the same experience for sneaking past a sleeping minotaur that they should for fighting it, as either way the challenge of the minotaur is defeated. One can make a decent argument for the players only really learning through combat, but only a fool treads this path. As soon as you do this, the players can simply hire local adventurers to duke it out with them until they level up. It becomes even harder to compensate for this sort of thing on the video game front. In games such as Fallout, one often has the option of negotiating with an enemy or attacking them. This is a trick, however! The most experience, and therefore the most power, can always be had by negotiating with an enemy and THEN killing all of them! The flip side is that every creature not brutally murdered becomes a chunk of experience they will never see again. The same can apply back to tabletop games in the more extreme cases, where not brutally murdering the kobolds and their children becomes the difference between being able to throw fireballs and being able to turn air itself into fire.And no one wants to have to look into the teary eyes of a baby kobold and make that choice.

So that’s killing stuff for advancement, next week we’ll do telling a good story for advancement. And then I’ll talk about a good mix.