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.

Advertisements

Rallying Round The Banner

This has been a long time coming, but I need to talk about Banner Saga, storytelling, and integrating game mechanics with story.

Starting off with what I liked, Banner Saga is a lot of fun. It manages to marry turn based strategy and choose your own adventure game play around a core of Oregon Trail but with magic. The core resource, Renown, is used to pay for both supplies and character upgrades, so you occasionally have to choose between everyone being able to eat and leveling up your heavy hitters. Granted, that’s an odd situation to be in, but it definitely serves the game-play well. The interplay between story choices and turn based strategy is mechanically one-sided, as your decisions will change who joins or leaves your party, but those choices are in turn informed by your tactics and which characters you are most attached to. More than once I made what was in retrospect a poor decision and lost a character I had invested a lot of time and Renown in, but the events always felt like a natural progression of the story.

The turn based strategy itself deserves a special mention, as it incorporates a couple of fairly interesting mechanics. Opponents alternate moving a single unit at a time, unless one side only has one remaining, and unit health is measured both by an ablative layer of armor and the unit’s strength. Damaging armor is largely inconsequential, while damaging strength reduces an enemy’s capacity to damage others, but remaining armor reduces strength damage. It’s a very interesting interplay, and the leveling mechanic ensures that it’s possible to build any character in a variety of different ways, as a character’s stats are leveled individually and each have a specific function (Armor, strength, ect.). If I have a gripe about the combat system, it’s that there is almost no randomization, which I tend to prefer in games simply for the sour losses and epic but unlikely victories chance can bring. More than once I ended up in a situation where the exact outcome was a foregone conclusion, but of course I had to play out the remaining turns anyways.

Now, to get into the things I did not like as much. When I mentioned earlier that there was no effect from the battles on the narrative (Other than winning or losing), that was not strictly true. In many battles, you are tasked with choosing an overarching tactic for your forces, and that combined with how well you do in your ensuing match helps determine the outcome. The issue I have with this, is that I had no idea in what way my actions were effecting the outcome. There was no indication I could see for which tactic was the correct choice, so I simply picked the one I liked the name of best, and there was no feedback on how that effected how many of my warriors survived. On the subject of surviving warriors, I was initially very enthusiastic about making sure as many people made it through my play through as possible, but as their numbers dwindled, I stopped seeing a reason to care about them. I didn’t experience any negative effects, not even really any grumbling despite the amount of time we spent without food. Even just a few messages or the idea that they might want to take my inept, fumble-fingered self out of command would have been nice.

The big issue that I have, though, is that at the end of the game they changed the rules on me. The game comes down to a final climactic battle, which is beautifully set-up and upon which the fate of every person and place I had seen in the game rested. And then they forced me to take a character with me I had never used, had no idea how to use properly, and had specifically told not to come with me. With my limited for selection, that was crippling, in the face of a legitimately challenging boss battle. That honestly soured me on the whole experience, although it’s a testament to how good the rest of the game was that WAS legitimately upset when it buggered me.

In conclusion, this game is not without flaws, but I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re looking for a good blend of narrative and tactical game-play.

You win some, you lose some

Ok, there’s something I want to make clear, as I feel like it has been falling out of favor.

Loss is story.

As a player, it’s natural to want to win. People play games for an myriad of reasons, but I think it’s safe to say that a large amount of people play games to win them. But the thing is, the difference between a game and a puzzle is that you can lose a game. A puzzle, for instance a sudoku or a jigsaw puzzle, you can sit in front of and systematically try every possible solution until you finally succeed. Given enough time and effort there is no way to lose a puzzle. Not so with games. Games tend to require a player to compete, either with other players or with the game itself, and it is possible to reach a section of a game you cannot beat without getting  better at the game.

The problem, in my mind, comes from turning a game into a puzzle. Using an example from my own life, I’m guilty of this with regards to the Fire Emblem games. For the unfamiliar, it is a turn based strategy game series chock full of swords, sorcery, and interesting characters. Fire Emblem has a number of interesting facets, but the two that are of interest for this discussion are the support conversations, that unlock additional story and dialogue between units, and the fact that units who are eliminated from a battle are permanently removed from the game. Together, this could make for interesting and poignant story, as characters develop interpersonal relationships and have to deal with the tragedies of war. The problem arises with the trivial ease with which a level can be restarted if things go wrong, to the point where it is more a matter of dedication and patience to beat the game rather than skill. When you can try any action an infinite number of times, the statistics that determine success lose all meaning.

Loss is meaningless if it can be immediately reverted.

This philosophy is already prevalent in most pen and paper role playing games, but it occasionally gets subverted. Let’s look at D&D. In, say, 3.5 D&D, if a character is killed after a certain level, it is actually more likely for them to come back than not. Once the players have access to high level divine spells, they will not stay dead. They just won’t, unless their enemies go significantly out of their way to make it so, either by disintegrating every part of every party member, or killing everyone who might eventually raise them, or any equally outlandish solution.  Once a player knows for sure that if they die they’ll come back the next day, what is death but a nap, occasionally paired with XP loss? It serves a story’s tension to have some measure of chance for failure, It serves a character’s humanity to have some fear for their own mortality. Life or Death engagements have little meaning when Death is just time out. By the same token, the story itself should be able to survive the death of a character. I’m not saying there should be no means of reviving a character, if it serves the story you are all telling, but there’s a difference between finding the right horn of the fabled blue minotaur to trade to the queen of the fairies to get her to fulfill the death oath sworn between her court and the father of the PC and going to see Jim’s brother, who’s a decently high level cleric of Pelor and will probably even spot us the gold if we tell him the quest is epic enough.

Video games find it harder to implement this idea, simply because a player who loses will restart, most of the time. That said, players have been trained to accept a win ending and a game loss, or at most a plethora of win endings based upon their morality choices. But what about basing the ending on their qualitative choices? The S.T,A.L.K.E.R. games embrace this idea to an extent, offering the player a number of epilogue scenes depicting the consequences of their actions, ones they may not have thought twice about. Fallout games also generally do this, although the game itself generally makes it clear which actions are choices that will effect the course of the game. The trick is to give the player choices during game play, and not show the effects until after the game is finished. A game wherein you fight the final battle and that decides whether you win or lose can have an epic finish, but a game in which the entire shape of the final battle is determined by the outcome of a hundred skirmishes you breezed through earlier is a game whose story the player has an impact on, and vice versa. It’s also a where the player will be incapable of simply skipping back a checkpoint and saving that one NPC who matters to the story.

It’s worth noting that this advice can easily be applied to traditional writing as well, as writers should not be afraid to kill characters, break objects, or destroy places that haven’t necessarily served their narrative purpose if it serves the story. It’s much more jarring to lose a character in the middle of his quest than once he’s finished all his relevant story functions.

So remember, plot armor is your enemy, and make your story strong enough to survive breaking.

Getting your hooks in

This week, we’re talking about making the player care about story conflict.

It’s always tough to make a player emotionally invested in a fantasy world, but that’s a enough material for a whole series of posts, so today the focus is on making threats the players will care about. A villain is no good if the goal of their dastardly plan is to destroy something the player doesn’t even like in the first place, or overthrow a far away kingdom, or raise the price of space beets. The logical solution to this is to threaten something the player likes, but this is not as easy as it seems.

First, you have to actually figure out what the player likes, and is willing to sacrifice for in your game world. A helpful NPC, a kindly old lady, the town the player grew up in, or a relative selected at random are always good choices, but they are also the obvious choices. Players will fight tooth and nail to keep their favorite bar in business, to protect their alma mater from being overrun by demons, or to stop the murder of a government official they actually care about. Make a clear threat on one of these and you’ll have the players up in arms in no time.

Second, you can’t overdo it. Sooner or later, players will stop caring about something if it turns into a constant source of grief. A relative who is always in trouble tends to get ignored rather quickly, kindly old ladies are only worth so much trouble, and that school never washed it’s toilets properly anyways. And then there are the things you can only do once. Only once can you threaten the place the players feel safe, or the NPC the players are truly attached to. This may seem like a hamstringing rule, as what could the players care about more than what is most important to them, but if the players secret stronghold is ransacked twice, or the sweet little girl they take turns babysitting turns out to be a demon and a werewolf, they will never let their guard down again. Which might be what you want, but otherwise is to be avoided.

Remember, threaten the things players care about, but don’t go overboard.

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.

Put a little music on.

This week we’re talking about setting the mood. Awwww yeah.

It’s important to make sure players understand the mood of the game they are taking part in, and it’s your job to make sure they do. Tailor your portrayal of the game world to the type of mood you wish to project to your player. If a town is full of poor peasants, perhaps they are wearing ragged clothes and looking gaunt in a relatively bright world or maybe they are wasting away by the side of the road, rattling begging cups with the stubs of missing limbs while flies buzz around their filthy rags if the world is altogether darker. A fighter’s strike can cripple and enemy’s leg, sending it crashing to the ground and granting the warrior a great advantage, or maybe the blow sheared through the beast’s leg, spraying blood everywhere as the monster collapsed in a mewling pile in a puddle of it’s own blood, bearing it’s unprotected neck to the fighter. In both examples, the same situation is being described both to different extremes and with different tonal details. A thesaurus is your best friend in a situation like this, and I honestly suggest looking up a couple of words you might use (dirty, poor, wounded, broken) and finding the synonyms that best fit your tone.

The way you choose to describe or show scenery also affect the mood of the game. A building collapsing, spewing dust and debris everywhere as it topples to the ground, can be either majestic or terrifying. A building collapsing on a crowded street, with the still trapped people inside desperately banging on the glass is a gut wrenching idea. An audience with the king inside a regal, gilded hall full of retainers in fine clothes is much more uplifting then the same audience with a king in an ill-lit hall of fading tapestries, dirty fixtures, and sneering courtesans.

Out of character things can also be a major factor in the manufacture of mood. Most horror games are best played with the lights down low, with occasional segments of brightness, while a game of adventure on the deep desert might stay brightly lit as much as possible until the in-game night fall. Sounds are also important, with good background music greatly enhancing the power of the storytelling. A spooky, low track is perfect for exploring a haunted house, something fast paced and high simulates an epic battle quite well, and it’s even possible to get one’s hands on the sounds of crowds, forests, and similar settings should they be present in the game.

So remember, use words that reflect the mood, describe things that reflect the mood, install a dimmer switch, and get speakers for your iPod.

Learning all the time

This week we’re talking about methods of advancing your players.

I’m planning on being relatively quick this week and returning to this idea in depth later. Anyways, I’m going to start by explaining the two main forms of experience point distribution, story based and challenge based.

Challenge based experience is dolled out, fittingly enough, after every challenge. Every pie eating contest you win, every minotaur you kill, and every princess you save all give you some amount of experience. This is the traditional method used in Dungeons and Dragons, most MMORPGs, and notably (for the purposes of this article) the first Mass Effect. This is an effective method as it allows players to feel like there is a direct correlation between their actions and their rewards.In Mass Effect, every time you shot someone in the face, you were one step closer to being more effective at shooting people in the face. The problems this sort of system can run into is that story can take a back seat to experience acquisition. If not handled properly, it is very easy to find your players slaughtering their way through everything in their path because it is the optimum route to power. A game where the solution to not being able to beat a challenge of wits is to go shoot giant scorpions for an hour is not a game whose narrative is completely entwined with game-play (I’m looking at you, Fallout). By a similar token, if the criteria for defeating a challenge is loose enough, the players will simply find an easy challenge, such as sneaking past someone, and farm it until they have all the experience they can possibly want (now I’m looking at the Elder Scrolls games).

The opposite of this is setting progress based rewards. Whether time or story based, these are experience points (which I’m using as a catchall term for advancement, if that hadn’t been noticed) given to the player when they reach a certain point in the story. Perhaps after the quest to rescue the princess has been successfully completed, or the player is now pie eating champion of the local bar, but they have finished a leg of their quest and have thus gained experience. This system allows you to tailor more effectively the levels of advancement your party can reach, as well as timing them more accurately. The downside of a progress based rewards system is that your players can end up feeling unfulfilled. Maybe they were supposed to escape from the castle overrun by ghouls and instead they killed all of them, and yet they got the same measly rewards. Players like to believe they are getting better because they have been working at it, not because it was time for them to get better. Good examples of this type of experience system can be found in most White Wolf games, Mass Effect 2 (compare the two to see the differences), and most games where you get an unlock able at the end of every level.

That’s it for this week, I’ll be tying it together next week.