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.

Edition Wars? Huh! What are they good for?

Alright, I’m going to talk Fifth Edition D&D. Hold on to your hats, it’s going to get old school in here.

First question, just to get it out of the way, is 5E a good system?

Yes.

Second question, will you like 5E?

Yes, again.

Third question, should you switch over to 5E from your current system?

And there, mysterious hypothetical questioner, you have hit the nail on the head. 5E brings a lot of really good, really fun stuff to the table, but whether or not it’s for you and your group remains to be seen. I can break it down for two groups who are going to absolutely love it, but otherwise it’s going to be a case by case decision. First off, if you’ve never played D&D before, or your group is going to have a lot of people who are new to tabletop, this is absolutely the game for you. Second, if you’re in a D&D group, or you have friends who enjoy D&D, but you cannot decide on an edition to play, pick this one.

Fifth Edition plays smoother than absolutely any other version of D&D or similar RPG while still retaining the freedom that makes pen and paper such a marvelous method of mutual entertainment. Streamlining efforts have been pushed to the brink, tying almost every action directly into a stat roll, one way or another. Stats pour directly into attacks, skills, and saves, without any intervening stage such as Reflex Saves or Pathfinder’s Combat Maneuver Bonus, making number crunching far simpler. Most bonus and penalty stacking has been replaced with an intuitive advantage/disadvantage system that translates to rolling twice and picking the higher or lower dice depending upon whether the circumstances are favorable. In fact, there are fewer steps all around between the player declaring an action and the results being known. There’s also a straightforward system for replenishing abilities, as resting for a day tends to put everything back to normal. I was initially skeptical of this, but upon experimentation, players burn hp at an alarming rate, and playing well enough to survive to rest is worth the benefits of resting.

That’s just mechanics, and while mechanics are important, they aren’t why we play these games. So let’s talk about narrative. 5E bakes narrative right into character creation, with every character picking a AD&D-style background that grants both a non-numerical mechanical ability (such as contacts in the underworld for a criminal) and forces the player to think about who their character is and was. This also benefits the canny game master who can use their player’s actually existent backgrounds as a source of plot hooks and immersion as characters interact with friends and family from their pre-adventuring days. The Monster Manual includes at least a full page of background and setting detail on every monster, the Dungeon Master’s guide is as bountiful in role playing advice, alternate rules, and magic items as it’s AD&D 2E grandfather, and, this is the kicker for me, the DM screen has a random name and random “Something happened” table on it.

If you’ve got a favorite previous edition, you’ll recognize the bits in 5E, like a much saner version of 3.5’s feats or spell casters keeping one or two tiny spells they can cast forever, a la 4E, and if you’re new, this will come easier to you than any of the other options.

In conclusion, this isn’t my new favorite system, but it might be yours. I’m glad I picked up the books either way.

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.

Are you sure you want to be here?

This week we’re talking about making sure you’re playing the right game.

Sometimes, you get a character that just doesn’t want to play the game. I’m not talking about a player who doesn’t want to play the game and has either been dragged there by a best friend or significant other or just dropped off by someone you owe a favor. I’m talking about an honest to goodness player who just so happened to accidentally make the wrong character. Maybe you’re running a pirate campaign and the player made an extremely law abiding pacifist. Maybe there’s a chaotic evil barbarian who is now stuck dealing with courtly intrigue for the rest of conceivable future. Maybe you just ended up diametrically opposed to the rest of the party on some crucial issue, such as whether or not prisoners should be sacrificed to the dark gods. Whatever happened, the Game Master and the player are both saddled with dealing with a character who should probably not be in this game.

There are a couple of good ways to deal with this. The best one, for everyone involved, is to find a good, story specific reason for the character being there and to make sure everyone involved gets interesting role playing experiences. Perhaps the pacifist has been kidnapped by the pirates for his useful skills and is undergoing Stockholm syndrome? Maybe he will even have to chose between defending himself from an attacker using lethal force or having his character killed, both of which are interesting and flavorful steps in the story. Perhaps the barbarian was hired as a bodyguard, and is playing the imbecile in order to gather information. Throw him a few combat encounters against people attacking his charge and maybe a whirlwind romance with a promiscuous noble, and he will probably end up happy with the campaign. If you can fins a solution that makes sense, and everyone is happy with, and especially if it furthers the story, use it.

If you can’t find a good solution, and there is no way the barbarian can stand sitting around with a complete lack of social skills and glaring at nobles every session, make a new character. If the player made someone who didn’t fit, just have them make a new one who does. They obviously wanted to play your game, just give them the opportunity to do so properly. Obviously, this is not an option undertaken lightly. If the situation is going to change for the character very soon, and they will suddenly make a lot more sense within the story, tell them to tough it out. If you do decide to take this option, and it has to be a mutual decision between the Game Master and the player, try to either keep the character in the story or allow the player to bring them back later. Perhaps the barbarian is still around as a bodyguard, or the pacifist is a merchant in one of the towns the pirates will visit. Whatever happens, the character’s continued existence in the story will give the player a sense of closure, and disappearing or murdering the character in question will leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

Resist the urge to either make or let them keep playing their character. No matter how interesting that character is on their own, the damage to the cohesion of the story is not going to be worth it in the long run. Plus, the player will end up either repeatedly derailing the story or being completely irrelevant for large portions of it, and not only are the two of you not going to enjoy that, it will ruin things for the other players if it gets out of hand. As a rule, it is a good idea to let players know the kind of campaign they will be taking part in ahead of time, and work with them in character creation, to make sure that their characters are going to fit in to the campaign you have planned.

All this being said, I should reiterate that quirky characters are generally an acceptable and fun addition to a group, as long as they were either planned to be or are still a working character. Every group has the “Don’t look at my sheet” guy who is secretly playing an assassin, and that’s not really a problem as long as the rest of the group either doesn’t find out or doesn’t mind. Everyone has had the psychotic neutral character who laughs at your human “morals” and hurls people out the airlock whenever it’s convenient for him, but while he doesn’t exactly fit in with a group of merchants, he’s still capable of being a part of their game. It’s only when a player shows up with a character who’s entire life plan is to build a ten-foot-pole emporium and the rest of the party really wants to get on with saving the princess that problems arise.

So remember, Game Masters make it clear what kind of game you’ve created, and players make sure your character has a valid reason to be there.

Gather round the campfire

Today we discuss the concept of single player stories with multiple people.

Many times over the course of your life as a game maker, there will come times when you want to relay information to your players that deals only with a small number of the characters in your game. Perhaps one of your players is attempting to pass the tests of knighthood, maybe an intense bit royal planning is going on and only one player is of high enough social class, or maybe it’s just a bit of backstory about how one of the players got drummed out of the space marines. Whatever the case, the point is you have a story that needs to be told, and not all of the player characters can be active participants in it. This can leave you with several players with nothing to do, which leads to dice towers, missing snacks, and the occasional combusted pet.

The initial reactions to this problem tend to be either of the “send the rest of the party anyways” camp, which leads to things like the half naked barbarian squatting in the corner of a fancy ball, or the “idle players” camp, which leads to food runs and empty chairs next week. There is, however, a remarkably simple solution to this problem, and one that tends to be equitable to the entirety of the party. Give them all characters. Telling the story of the grizzled veteran’s last days in the space marines? Everyone else is get’s to be a member of his squad. The aspiring knight is fighting in a tournament to prove his worth? The other PCs watch from the stands while their players take on the roles of rivaled and allied knights. Fancy dress dinner where the noble player is attempting to bend the ear of the king in support of his plan? Everyone else is a minor noble of one faction or another, and the original has to convince them to assist him. Make sure, when doing this, that the players you hand the new characters to understand their responsibilities and will be expected to behave in character, but this should be a fun experience for them as it allows them to take a small break from who they are used to being and try something new. The stealthy character get’s to play a boisterous and massive knight in the tournament, the diplomat can play a space marine, and the warrior can finally try his hand at talking to someone. Be prepared for them to take their character’s in a very different direction from what you had envisioned, but you can work with whatever they end up doing. Even if the fighter managed to use his throwaway noble character to incite rebellion among the masses, you just got a new main villain for your plot line.

This technique is even applicable in video games, allowing you to replace single character focused back story cut-scenes with a gaming experience a cooperative group can share. Whether traditional or electronic, this will allow you not only to keep the entire group entertained and prevent a lot of negative feedback, but will also increase the likelihood that your players will develop attachments to characters other than their own. A player is much more likely to feel sympathy for the priest whose family was killed by goblins if they played as one of his erstwhile cousins and were mercilessly cut down than if they heard the story over the campfire one night.

Remember, keep everyone involved in a way that makes sense. And it’s fun to take the occasional break and run a different character.

So that’s how it is.

This week we’re talking about how smart players are. Sorry, but this one is mainly focused on tabletop games.

Players will almost always try to think ahead of their Dungeon Master. If they can out think you, they can predict what you’re going to do next, and be prepared for it. And if they’re prepared for it, they stand a much better chance of surviving it. Probably, at least. The thing about players, though, is that they generally have to discuss their theories with each other, and considering they’re generally sitting across the table from you, you generally get to hear both what they’re planning, and what they think is going to happen.  A bad dungeon master will take this information and use it to thwart their players at every turn. That is the sort of behavior that leads to players communicating with each other only in whispers, passed notes, and semaphore. As a rule, if your players decide to leave the room once in a blue moon because the ultimate battle of ultimate destiny is about to happen and they want to keep their preparations secret, let them. But, if they leave the room when deciding what route to take to the store, you need to reevaluate your table dynamic.

That being said, one of the greatest thing a DM can do is steal from the players. They are going to be coming up with all kinds of ideas about how your game world works anyways, you might as well use some of them. If you’ve come up with an explanation for something, like why the chancellor is plotting his revenge against the king, and the players have decided he’s out for revenge over the perceived slights the king has been heaping upon him for the last thirty years while you decided he was being mind controlled, incorporating the player’s idea will only enrich the story. Perhaps the demons in his head found firmer purchase thanks to the years of abuse he felt he had suffered. Storytelling is a collaborative effort, and it pays to get help with it. That being said, don’t tell your players you’re doing this, as it detracts from the feeling that the game world is a concrete place. Letting players know you changed your mind about why the great space war was fought based solely on an offhand remark one of them made about how funny it would be if the space elves had masterminded the whole thing will draw unwanted scrutiny to your universe and make it seem far more fluid than it should be. Also, while blending of ideas can be done fairly regularly, such as the mind controlled chancellor example, outright stealing of ideas, such as the space war being masterminded by the elves and not starting over a mineral dispute in Alpha Centauri, should not occur with any kind of regularity. Players love to find out that their suspicions were right all along, but it doesn’t do to let them think they’re smarter than you are, unless they do actually guess what you are planning, in which case they earned it. Quick little explanations, such as the shop keeper being prejudiced because he hates elves, are generally fair game though.

In summary, your players sometimes have good ideas. Just don’t ever tell them that.

I didn’t need to know that.

Today we’re talking about explanations.

Many times, while you are running a game, players will demand to know the rational behind a certain choice. Why did the orc choose to stab the rogue instead of the fighter? Why did the designers of this warehouse decide it needed an acid pit in the center? Why did the quest-giver decide that the fate of the world/universe/kingdom was best left up to a team of murderous vagabonds? And no matter what explanation you give, they will endlessly question and debate your reasoning. As a rule, if you’re players are asking such a question, it is because they have come up with a separate, and in their minds far better, explanation for why whatever situation has just occurred should have been resolved differently. The orc clearly should have stabbed the more dangerous looking party member! That acid pit is a workplace hazard and OSHA would never have stood for it! Fighting the inescapable horror from beyond the universe threatening the world/kingdom/universe should really be someone else’s problem!

And you will want to argue with them! It’s only natural, they are impugning your ability to craft a believable universe, it’s only right that you feel the need to defend your handiwork. You might even start trying to explain things ahead of time, in an attempt to forestall argument. The orc realizes the rogue is an elf, and takes a swing at his hated racial enemy! Do not do this! Your players don’t need an explanation, it’s enough for them the things their characters see and hear. It’s perfectly fine to give them hints, along the lines of “The orc snarls as his eyes fall on your pointed ears and takes a swing”, and it definitely provides an enriching experience for the player, but refrain from telling them why YOU are doing anything. Maybe that rogue is getting stabbed because he’s tactically the most dangerous, or because the player is getting on your nerves, or because the fighter is completely untouchable. It doesn’t matter, because you’re not going to tell them. They are living in the world you establish, and it is up to you to make sure that world makes sense, not them. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use player input, which I will cover later, but it does mean you shouldn’t discuss the rational for game decisions with your players.

If you’re players ask within the confines of the game, though, that’s a different story. If they subdue the orc, kidnap the building designer, or make demands of the ruler, they deserve an answer. They may even do some research into their questions, searching the infoweb or ancient libraries for reasons. This is a good time to get in your backstory, give out the thought processes behind the NPC’s decisions, and put a bit for realism into your world. That being said, I’m not in any way suggesting you have to tell them the truth, just that they deserve to know something. Remember that NPC’s are allowed to be just as untrustworthy as your average player.

Remember, don’t explain yourself, don’t have your NPC’s explain themselves unless someone asks, and don’t forget to lie to the player when appropriate.