Choose Your Language

Friday, 13 November 2009

Plot Twists By Player Freedom (POLL: Plot Considerations)

I am not talking about the normal twists one might expect the module builder to include, but I refer to the twists that players may add of their own. You know the type I mean, when they manage to do something completely unexpected and "break" the module. The difficulty for the builder comes as they give the player more freedom, and the player eventually uses that freedom to get around a plot "choke" point in a way the builder may not have first thought of. A simple example may be when the player discovers a way into an area before they are supposed to. On the face of it, that may be a fairly easy thing to fix, but "fixing" it so the player does not feel cheated or forced in a certain direction is a much more difficult task to pull off.

In the next few sections, I have tried to discuss various aspects of PC freedom and what might be done to help overcome the type of problems I mean both for the builder and, therefore, the player as well. And because when we design a module we tend to have the outcome in mind, I will start off by giving my overall conclusion to act as a governing point to all those I am making, but will include individual suggested solutions for each problem along the way as well.

Plot Considerations Poll

As a result of my pondering this week, I thought I would submit another poll to find out what other builders and players alike thought about the problem. Please submit your answer and add any comments that you think might be useful. (Top left of the page and entitled, "How Much Freedom do You really Want?")

Overall Conclusion

In the end, I concluded that it all depends on how much the module builder wished to prevent the player "messing things up" whether deliberately or unintentionally. BUT, to the defence of the player, the more we (module builders) try to do this, the more the player may feel they are not playing the game the way they want to, but may feel railroaded down a certain path. Therefore, I recognised the builder needs to carefully weigh the level of freedom they offer the player in their module and then ensure the players recognise and accept to co-operate within the limit before they start playing it. However, once the terms of the gaming have been accepted, it is the responsibility of the builder not to backtrack on what they have offered, or, to put it another way, not to forget what a player might like to try to do within the capabilities you have allowed them.

For my own module, Better The Demon, I have set the level of freedom quite high (too high?), which has forced me to look at these points differently as I have gone along. I share them with you now, hoping they may help other builders.

To Plot Or Not To Plot

Does the builder make items "plot" or not? Doing so ensures the player cannot destroy an item and can always work with it (cannot sell it), but does that always make for fair/free play? For example, if a player casts a fireball in a room, should it be allowed to destroy the frail ancient book that holds the answer to the quest they have been working on or not?

Suggested Solution: Personally, I prefer to remove this particular "freedom" from the player and make the book indestructible, simply because I like conclusion in a game. However, are there any "purist" players or builders who think they would prefer otherwise? Furthermore, I like to change the state of this type of plot item after it has served its purpose. Once the PCs no longer need the ancient frail book, maybe it can crumble, burn or even be sold.

Other Points: What if the book represented the start of an adventure? What if it is only one book in a collection of books? Should a plot item be made undroppable as well?

A Key Is Required

Are there times when only the key will unlock the door? The player starts the game and finds a locked cellar door. They start to pick it, only to be told that only the key will work. The wizard tries the knock spell and likewise cannot get past. The fighter tries to bash it down, but the door refuses to budge. So the party walk away from the inn's cellar door mystified and disappointed. The point I am trying to make here is to avoid misuse of this facility.

Suggested Solution: I find this one of the more difficult problems to overcome within reason. My own conclusion is that most (if not all) doors should be possible to pick, knock or bash and that requiring a specific key should be reserved for special fortified entrances and exits only. However, this can be difficult to govern as there are a number of variables that a clever player can add to their chances to bypass a lock. It only takes one miscalculation by the builder and the player suddenly has access to an area before they should have. There is no easy answer to this one, except for the builder to be ready with a very good reason as to why a door is impassable without its key (E.g. The cellar door actually led to a wizard's dungeon and was protected with magic.) or be prepared for a change in the story and events if the PC is resourceful enough to get through to an area before events would have otherwise transpired. To make a plot still work requires a greater number of plot status checks (as I have discovered). Even using a monster as a guardian comes with risks.

Other Points: In my opinion, there really should be no reason for relying on a required key within a fantasy environment in most circumstances. Furthermore, difficulty settings should not be unreasonable for the door in question. After all, how many doors have super locks? For Better The Demon, I have used other reasons why PCs cannot bash at a door or even enter certain areas after picking it, like using witnesses and NPCs who prevent the PCs from doing so. However, even this method can come with potential issues. (See next.)

Attacking Neutrals

Why can't the PC attack the NPC who holds the key? The NPC in question does not have to be holding a key specifically, but can be said to have anything the PC requires but won't part with it until the PC has performed a certain task, or are preventing a PC from doing something just by their presence. Would not an evil or impatient PC just simply want to attack the NPC and take the item from them or get past them?

Suggested Solution: Make it so NPCs can be attacked by enabling the option in the campaign settings. This, however, is easier to enable than it is to support. For example, the PCs meet an innkeeper who has a number of tasks for them, but a "twitchy" assassin gets a little frustrated with the innkeeper's lack of co-operation and decides to kill him before all tasks are delivered and met. Now, in this case, I believe the player should "suffer the consequences of their actions" and perhaps miss out on certain quests and results. That said, however, I would recommend having a backup plan to help the player achieve any main quests. Good writing may even allow the player to achieve even minor quests, but this would involve a lot more effort from the builder. The main issue one is trying to offer to the player here is freedom of choice once again. Here, however, it is the ultimate freedom of choice of whether to co-operate with people and society or go against it and risk becoming an outcast.

Other Points: Balance and plausibility are the key factors to account for here, and even the player must co-operate to a degree. After all, while they may potentially end up being able to kill everybody in the module, what would be the point of it? The odd discreet assassination or random kill reflecting the role of the PC is one thing, but even the best written module must reach a point where it recognises a maniac PC who must be destroyed by the world's inhabitants at all costs. There must also be recognised limitations with respect to killing traders. If achieved, a player should not expect to recover all store items, and even find themselves short of a way of trading items. However, a builder must be ready to consider allowing plot item drops that they may have only otherwise created at a conversation time. Lastly, systems need to be taken into account that can restore factions between PCs and targets if attacked by accident or if accidentally damaged by spells.

Pick A Pocket Or Two

Should plot items ever be pick-pocketable? The player knows the NPC carries the key they need and decides that they want to pick-pocket it rather than do the task asked of them. (They have learned that attacking the NPC is a bad idea.)

Suggested Solution: This one really depends on the item more than anything else in my opinion. Not just from a perspective of size, but also of relevance to the NPC and where the NPC is likely to store the item on their body. E.g. The key to the NPC's treasure chest is likely to be very well concealed on their persons in a place that cannot be pick-pocketed. Whereas, a few gold coins in the outer pocket may be easy to reach. NB: Some NPCs will ensure even this may be too well hidden to pick pocket, subjct to their own values and character. Things like armour and swords should never be pick-pocketable in my opinion.

Other Points: What happens when a PC pick-pockets in public? Does the victim stand mute if they discover the theft or shout for help? Does every potential victim have anything worth pick-pocketing? After all, what is the point of having the skill if the module does not cater for potential benefits of that skill?

What About You?

The plot points raised above are the ones I consider the most important. However, there may be more I have missed and if so, please let me know. And don't forget the poll!

BUILDERS: How do you plan your plot paths and balance that with freedom for the player? Do you prefer to write more streamlined interaction for your players or have other ways of offering an illusion of freedom?

PLAYERS: Do you prefer the DM to restrict certain aspects of reality to ensure a plot can be resolved. (E.g. Prevent a plot item being destroyed.) Or do you believe that every action should bring about its own consequence? How much "freedom" do you really want as opposed to a tighter story? It's an age old debate, but maybe in the light of a builder's problem, it may have you re-evaluate your own previous decision?

The Module

I managed to do some more conversations this week to do with a side quest. It was while writing this quest that I discovered the potential issues I raised above, in particular the problem of a player working their way into an area before I had originally planned. In the end I added many more checks and story paths to accommodate the player freedom of overcoming the challenge, but even so, I eventually had to reach a "stop point" to manage the coding. (From all the paths, I imagine this final point will never be found.) It does mean that the module's completion percentage could be upped. ;)


Shaughn said...

This is an interesting post.

For me I like the freedom that some games offer but I also must look at what can I realisticly provide to a player. Sure I could take the time and write all different paths but will the time I spend making all options avaliable be worth it when only a small fraction of players will take advantage of these options.

The approach I take is to break everything into one of two categories. Stuff that will break the game and stuff that will stop a single story line.

The game breaking stuff I set as plot. While I allow the player to attack nuetrals the main plot characters are immortal. They will drop to 1hp but eventually kill the player. Other characters that offer advise or side quest can be killed. I do the same with items and placeables.

Your example of the ancient artifcat if it was needed to continue the main plot line I would do one of two things. Make it a plot item or let it be destroyed but with it's destruction let that the player know they just destroyed their one and only hope of endning the game.

Something like that should be hinted at before the player enters a battle like that. Not only does the player need to survive but their tactics require that the artifact needs to survive as well. It would be an interesting approach and require the player to be a bit more careful.

Checks need to be added at game breaking points. It would be unfair to the player to be allow edthem to destroy something and not be informed until hours of game play later. "Yah, you know that artifact you blewup like 7 1/2 hours ago, you need that now."

Side quest I like the idea that choices will change how the quest is solved as well as maybe it can't be solved.

So my thoughts are: Main game line needs to be plot protected. Either by making items undestroyable or be informing the character after they make a bad choice. Much like Torment when you replace the undead king or something and have to spend the rest of eternity sitting in that seat.

For side quest, no limitations. If they want to try something different and it goes horribly wrong fine. They will have the journal entry to remind them "next time lets try to reign in those fireballs so we don't burn up that ancient tomb of whatever."

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Shaughn,

Thanks for your interest and comments. :)

You make some interesting comments and I definitely agree about ensuring the player knows they have "blown it" before letting them play for another few hours.

I was also pleased to read you also allow players to attack neutrals. I am glad I am not alone taking on that monster. ;)


Anonymous said...

Voted for minimal help.

The "cannot upset NPCs" can very easily get ridiculous and destroy the atmosphere of the module. The same happens when a locked door suddenly needs a key to be unlocked (unless it's magical or the key is some strange item and there's no keyhole).

But I find destroying plot items a bit too much. Imagine the scenes

Module: The guy with the ancient book appears in front of you.
PC: Fireball!
Module: The book you needed to save the world is burned by the heat.
PC: oops!


Module: The guy with the key to the archmage's secret vault charges!
PC: Melf's Acid Breath!
Module: The key is mutilated(is that the right word?).
PC: oops!


Module: The guy with the ancient crystal of wondrous power is waving his hands...
PC: Magic Missile!
Module: The crystal is shattered by the force.
PC: oops once again... wonderful.

In the end you have a paranoid pc who is afraid of dealing lethal damage to anyone. These are extreme examples but you get the idea. Some plot must be kept intact.

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Anon,

I came to the same conclusion as you did - and so far the poll is in agreement with all responses to date.

It will be interesting to discover if there are other ways players prefer to play. My wife comes from an "adventure" style gaming background and has said that she quite likes the idea of "cannot fail" and prefers the help along the way, but I suspect the more RPG background a player has, the more they ill prefer less plot, up to a point of it "spoiling the game".


Anonymous said...

I went with minimal. However, that's mostly how I design things--I tend to think that "good is good" and you should stick to your guns, whatever they might be.

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Chaos Wielder,

"Minimal" does appear to be a current favourite leader. I suppose by making neutral NPCs attackable (which this option means) it does open up a new path for a player who wants to play an evil path, even if it is very hard to code for.