How much time will a player want to spend talking to a character when playing a module? That's just one question I consider when writing a conversation for one of my characters. This question, however, soon opens into a branch of others:-
1) Should a conversation be succinct or verbose?
2) Should there be many options to choose from or only a few?
3) Is there an option to avoid conversation altogether?
4) Is a conversation even the correct response in a given situation?
Keep To The Point
My wife likes playing adventure games, and I like to join in now and then. Recently, we were playing "The Longest Journey" (which came highly recommended within the adventuring community, scoring around 90%), and I found myself disappointed with the rather wordy and often unnecessary crass comments made by the characters in this game. I suppose some people may consider the responses as "background filling" and "gritty reality", but both my wife and I found them somewhat boring and tedious to work through just to get to the piece of information we needed.
Don't misunderstand me, I enjoy some background conversations, especially if they help me to understand something about the gameplay. However, I believe there is a definite distinction between being verbose (I would even say "babbling on") as I found in The Longest Journey, and giving the player a useful background in as fewer words as possible.
In Better The Demon, background information in conversations is kept to a minimum to avoid "data overload" for the player just trying to get around the environment. However, when it has been "neccessary", I have tried to allow a player to choose options that appeal to them or allow an early exit if possible. Furthermore, I include books (using my Readable Books format) that also cover different sections of background that players can read or ignore as they choose.
Avoid Too Many Choices
Another personal misgiving that I have encountered in many games, is when a conversation starts to branch out in more directions than I can easily remember ... or really need. I know the idea is that the game is offering as much "choice" as the player wants, but there is a danger in this design. For example, many conversations are designed to help move the plot forward and set "flags" along the way to ensure the game moves along as it should. However, if a conversation is both tedious to read and has many branches and options to go down, a critical plot changing flag may be lost somewhere deep within one of the conversation's many branches and be easily missed.
In my opinion, forcing a player to take a certain conversation option to locate a critical piece of information to set a flag and move the game forward can be a real game stopper. Therefore, each option that a player is given should "go somewhere" and not require the player to have to repeat the conversation just to find the option they needed. Of course, there is a proviso here, in that a conversation line that is obviously different from another is not to be considered a "dead option". The guideline here, is to keep conversations focussed on the topic at hand and directly related to what the player is doing or really wants to know. As an example, The Longest Journey also fails in this area, as it often has options where a player can ask characters about each other, and even about themselves! I don't want to read about this sort of thing. This information should be obvious just from my interaction with them. The problem is, as a player, we are forced to follow these lines of conversation because we do not know if the game hides an important piece of information buried deeply down the many layers of conversation.
In Better The Demon, choices are kept to a minimum and cater for skills and/or different plot paths only. In other words, all choices will be relevant to what the PC needs to know, all be it approached by different paths, as opposed to different paths leading to verbose uninteresting babblings ... unless this is a personality trait of the NPC, which the player is trying to "defeat". The point being, the conversation choices will be obvious as to their effectiveness and importance to the situation, and the player will not be overloaded with choices that lead nowhere, or simply try to impart spurious information.
I Don't Want To Talk!
Sometimes, a player may feel like they know what they need to do, and talking is not even an option they want to entertain. In my opionion, if possible, a game should be able to adjust to a player's preferences. In many situations, "talking" should be the default course of interaction between player and non-player character (NPC), to allow the player to flesh out their adventure by learning more about the world in which they are adventuring. However, if during the course of their adventure they have already drawn a conclusion about an NPC and believe a fight to the death is the answer, then hopefully, a system can be included to allow the player to avoid a conversation, be it as direct combat or an option in the conversation simply to say something along the lines of "Attack Mr X". And what about players playing evil PCs, where "killing" and "taking" what they need from an NPC is easier than "talking" and "doing a task" for them?
Now, I am sure any builder worth their salt will recognise that building a module that caters for both good and evil aligned PCs is extremely difficult - especially with respect to such things as conversations and providing the player with the information they need. After all, what happens when a player playing an evil PC kills an NPC before some critical information has been imparted to the player? Regular readers of this blog will know I have touched upon this problem in the past.
In Better The Demon, I have taken as much care as possible to allow as much choice as possible, including the "total avoidance" path wherever possible. This has taken extra time and consideration, and can only be applied to around 90% of conversations. Even then, a player set out to "kill" rather than "talk" will lose out on some XP, simply because they would end up "killing the goose that laid the golden egg". However, for the remaining 10% of conversations where "talking" is required, I have tried to offer a more succinct path where possible.
How Did They Know I was Here?
The last consideration problematic for RPG's in particular, is taking into account actions made by the PC that the builder of the module may not have initially considered, such as a PC being invisible. This is a particularly awkward problem to address, but one that needs consideration if, as a game designer, we wish to ensure logical flow in the game. After all, if a player has taken the time and trouble to become invisible so as to try to sneak past an NPC, what happens if this NPC has been set to "talk" to the PC when they are within range? If the NPC suddenly runs up to the PC and begins a conversation, the logical flow of the game is spoiled.
There is not much to add to this, except to highlight it as a potential issue for all builders and that I have tried to adopt a system to cater for this within my own module, Better The Demon.
The Last Word
The final word on this, however, depends on the sort of game you are trying to build, or, as a player, want to play. However, I do believe that the above guidelines are important for all games, simply because they avoid some of the pitfalls about writing in general. Key aspects such as the following will help to keep the pace of the game flowing:
a) Write about what you know.
b) Use as few words as possible.
c) Show, don't tell.
I have read modules that boast many thousands of words in them as a sign of "depth" and as if a sign of returned hours of "enjoyment" ... which I do hope is the case. I think that as long as the number of words reflects diversion in converstion and viable choices, then the number count can only be a good thing. On the other hand, if it is meant to represent simple length of conversations, then, like The Longest Journey adventure game I describe above, I would be extremely disappointed and may find my eyes glazing over to the point where I would miss a clue at best ... or stop playing altogether.
Have Your Say!
Well, I've waffled on long enough about conversations in this post, and would now like to hear about your own experiences, whether as a player: Tell me of your worst or best experiences with game conversations. Or as a builder: How do you plan your own conversations?
Also, please take your time to answer the poll question this time around: Very simply: (Assuming you will be playing my module) How Will You Be Playing? With respect to single-player (SP), multi-player (MP) or both? And also with respect to a good aligned or an evil aligned PC?