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.

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.

What Makes a Game a Home

I want to take a minute and talk about the way mechanics influence the feel of a game.

The way a game plays mechanically affects the way a game feels emotionally. Hopefully that made sense, but if it didn’t, what I’m talking about should become clear pretty fast. Let’s discuss specifics and how you can change the mechanics of your game to make it feel different. To use the grittiest, most granular examples of this possible, I’m going to start talking about the various RPGs from fantasy flight we’ve seen in recent years, specifically Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, and Only War. If you’re familiar with these games or the Warhammer 40,000 universe, you shouldn’t have trouble following along, but stay tuned if you aren’t because this should be pretty easy to swallow

All four of the games I just mentioned run off the same core mechanics. You roll the same dice to shoot people with lasers, you have the same stats and skills, and you exist in the same universe. That said, they are all very different games. Dark Heresy is a game about being the most expendable possible pawn in a shadowy world of intrigue and corruption, as well as the core game of the series. Characters in this game start at the lowest point power wise of any of the games, and have the life expectancy of a cat in a blender. In fact, a lot of people play this game just for the messy and interesting way your characters will go the the great reroll in the sky. Next up we have Rogue Trader, a game about being interplanetary nicknack merchants and privateers in possession of a massive ship and thousands of loyal(?) crew. In Deathwatch, you’re super soldiers wearing armor better suited for starships than people and firing warcrimes at uncountable waves of gibbering alien monstrosities. And Only War treats you as a single cog in a massive warmachine weighted down with bureaucracy while you reach into an increasingly large number of piles of goo that used to be your best buddies faces.

Fluff aside though, how are these different games? Couldn’t you just buy one of them and use it to run all the others? Well, yes, clearly, but that’s not the point. The big difference, oddly enough, is the way NPC’s treat the character and the manner in which equipment is requisitioned. In Dark Heresy, the players are given a monthly wage, and are expected to live off of that and whatever they can beg buy or steal. The characters are often on their own for extended periods, and are expected to be able to survive autonomously, for the most part. This is represented both by the very specific monetary system, where every dollar counts, and in the predilection towards non combat skills and roles presented for character creation.

The opposite of this is Deathwatch. You are given a suite of bionics and implants, a suit of basically invulnerable armor, and the massive weapon of your choice when you create your character. There’s very little in the way of interpersonal skills as the most you’ll ever have to talk to an NPC is a well delivered one liner or a demand that they get the hell out of your way. If you want extra equipment, you ask nicely, and an army of municipal drones fall over themselves to bring it to you. This is a game that is all about murdering enemies. It even has a special suite of rules devoted both to how well your party’s supersoldier are working together and another explaining exactly how to kill hundreds of aliens in one round.

Then we have Rogue Trader. This game is very focused on the acquisition of filthy lucre, but in a nontraditional way, in that you’ll rarely have to fight a dragon for it. During character creation, the party collaborates to create the space ship on which they will be traveling. Note: Never, ever underestimate the positive effects on party cohesion of collaborating in the creation of something. Anyways, this gives the players a joint sense of ownership, a mutual interest in eachother, and access to a vast, VAST fortune and a massive cadre of loyal minions. It’s a big spaceship. You might imagine that having a massive fortune would make most equipment trivially easy to acquire, and you’d be right. The challenge in Rogue trader comes from keeping your ship alive and running in the vastness of space and acquiring even more filthy lucre to add to your vast fortune without getting shoved out an airlock.

And finally, Only War. I’d almost say Only War is a toned down version of Deathwatch, but that isn’t quite true. You start with a predetermined pack of items, to be sure, but instead of giving you everything you can ever need, the municipal drones hate your thieving, equipment losing, paperwork generating, needy, selfish guts and want you to die in whatever manner leaves your equipment intact so it can be put back in the storehouse with a minimal of fuss. Suddenly, interpersonal skills are important for things like convincing the commander you’ve always had this powerfist, or that your squad deserves to be one of the ones with armor instead of one of the ones providing ablative biological cover to the tanks. The focus is on the people, instead of the combat, and your party is even given a passel of NPCs to herd around, in the form of the remainder of their squad, who provide both mechanical benefits tot he party members they are assigned to as well as many intangibles, such as spotting sniper bullets with their faces.

So that was a long and unruly talk, but the point I was trying to make is that it’s important to think about more than just combat mechanics in your game. Where the PC’s gear comes from and how people treat them is just, if not more, important to making a game fun and deep than a well thought out system for shooting faces. A character with a support system, however inept or insular, feels very different to one floundering on their own.

So remember, the way characters interact without murder is just as important as the way they do with it.

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.

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.

All’s fair in love and game.

Today we’re talking about logic in game progression.

Have you ever been in a game and found you just couldn’t proceed? You hadn’t found the secret code that told you in which order to ignite the thirteen pyres, or you didn’t know you had to use the ball of yarn to pacify the three headed lion, or maybe you just never bothered picking up a silver sword back at the market and now werewolves are eating your face? There’s very few situations more frustrating and less immersive than having to run through your entire inventory twice, before carefully re-exploring the entirety of the game looking for the single item capable of advancing the plot. This is not a situation that can ever be entirely planned for, but there are a few simple things that make it much less likely your player is going to end up running a fine tooth comb over the entirety of your carefully crafted world trying to find the last seal to defeat the god-king.

First, give your players a small toolbox. This is significantly easier in video games, where you can just not give players the option to talk to people, or pick up objects, or attack, or any other action that you never want to be the solution to a problem. An FPS generally doesn’t have to deal with players trying to solve their problems through peer mediation, just like a puzzle game tends not to have players attempting to kill all of the other denizens. Unless it’s Gyromancer or something similar, of course. This can be accomplished similarly in pen and paper games by limiting the player’s access to extraordinary items and abilities. If there are multiple Bid Bads, it is entirely feasible that one super weapon will work for all of them. Likewise, the Space Ranger doesn’t need a gun that shoots fourteen different types of laser, when the only ones he needs are laser and improbable stun laser. The player’s are always going to either fight, talk to, avoid, or some combination thereof every encounter they face, so it’s easier on everyone involved if they don’t have to choose between a hundred variations of each.

Second, remind them how the tools work. If you have a game about shooting people in the face, and inviting others to candlelit dinners to hold urbane conversations, those two mechanics need to be introduced in the beginning of the game, and repeatedly established. If you focus on the candlelit dinner aspect, and it turns out the end boss was susceptible only to bullets applied liberally to the face, it’s going to take your player a few tries to remember gun violence is a viable solution to his problem. It’s important to keep no more than a 70/30, and preferably more of a 60/40 split between the time your player should devote to each mechanic. This is not saying that your combination brawler/egg painting sim should have you kill two people for every egg you boil, but rather the time spent painting your eggs should not greatly outweigh the amount of time spent smashing faces into the ground.

Third, and most important, make sure the answer makes sense to people who aren’t you. Sure, you know the dread lich has always secretly wanted a puppy, and that makes him incredibly susceptible to lies told about the fluffiness of puppies, but how would your players be expected figure that out? A good solution is often just to ask someone from outside your sphere of influence if they will come in and read through what you have. Chances are, someone without your encyclopedic knowledge of your own characters will find at least a few things that don’t make sense, and that’s what you have to look out for.

Remember, give them the tools, make them shiny, and don’t over-complicate things.