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.

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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.

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.