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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.