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.

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.

Right to Die

It seems only fair that if I do a post about killing players, I should do a post about player’s right to control their character. Just as it is the DM’s right to kill the players when they decide to kill the king in the middle of his throne room, it is the player’s right to try. Whether you’re playing a pen and paper or video game, the PC is the player’s only method of interacting with the world around them, and you cannot take that away from them. This isn’t to say that their characters can’t be forced to do things they don’t want to do, but the player has to be the one that does it. Kidnapping, extortion, blackmail, and even guilt tripping can give a player motivation to do something he doesn’t want to, but it must be his choice. A good way to think about it is “keep it first person”. Games like Bioshock, anything from Valve, and even most Call of Duty titles have pivotal moments that reach out to the player because they happen under player control. In Modern Warfare One, YOU die of radiation, not some random soldier, just as every Valve game cut-scene is performed with you still in control of your character. It is even admissible to mind control a player in some fashion (as long as you roll for it), but make sure the player is still in control of the character. Bioshock is a good example of forcing a player to do things he wouldn’t actually want to, but never taking away control.

But this is a digression from the point I was making, which is the player’s right to break things. It’s been said that players hate the railroading, but it’s more correct to say players hate obvious railroad tracks. And this is understandable, as the DM is trying to impose their ideas on the players story, however necessary that is. The player is allowed to buck the tracks as much as they can, in an equal degree of severity to the amount of railroading. Let’s say a player needs to go into a room to talk to an important NPC. If a large man pushes you into a room, break out the window and flee. If, on the other hand, a small man mentions that there is free cake in the room, go inside and grab a slice. The DM can do their story either way, but the player gets a better deal if he got to choose. I talked last week about the detriments of killing quest givers, but the player has the right to try, especially if it makes sense to them. A Crimelord hands the player a gun and tells him to kill a rival in exchange for his family’s safe return? Shoot the Crimelord and roll them into a ditch. If the DM didn’t see that coming, it’s their own fault. King sending you on another suicide mission? Fireball the throne and leg it. You might even get away with it if you can escape before the DM manages to come to terms with what you did. I understand that these are hard to escape in video games, where the game designer cannot plan for every contingency, but the easy rule of thumb is to have a plan for every NPC the players can kill.

The player’s most important right, however, is the right of suicide. A PC, being the only thing a player can control in a game, is also the only thing a player can be sure to destroy when they need revenge. When the DM has committed some completely unjust act, such as saving the day again with their precious DM PC, the players have the right to kill themselves in any way they can. Often, this involves attacking whoever just wronged them in game, which almost always means death. Sometimes they don’t have a plan beyond charging the throne and taking as many with them as they can. Sometimes they just turn on each other, and the party descends into madness and bloodshed. Whatever they do, a good DM will take note of what caused it and discuss it with the players later, when cooler heads have prevailed.