Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rotted Report 08: Watch your mouth!

My last report ended on a cliffhanger, with me wondering whether I should substantially change my mod to avoid comparisons to Dragon Age 2 plots and themes. Fortunately, I think I've hit on a way forward that requires no more work than the rewrites I was already planning. In fact, I'm now slowly making my way through the revisions - creeping along with an hour here, an hour there - and the more I do, the more I come to believe I've chosen the right course.

Since I'm back on writing, it seems like a good time to talk about something I've been meaning to discuss for a long time - the dialogue. If you've followed the blog for awhile, you might remember that I did a series of posts on dialogue trees. Now I'm going to tell you how I'm putting those opinions into practice.

Specifically, let's talk about how The Rotted Rose will track what you say.

One question I ask myself every time I create a set of player responses is: How can I make this choice meaningful for the player, so it's not just something to click on to get through the conversation? The obvious way is to make each option lead to a unique response from the NPC. However, while I think it's important to do this as much as possible, it's not a perfect solution. It certainly adds heft to the choices to have them (slightly) alter the course of the conversation, but really, how much does that matter if things just reset afterward?

What I've decided to do for TRR is categorize every Roleplaying Response into an appropriate "personality trait" and, using scripting, make the scores in those traits potentially alter the course of the game in the long term. If you must have a comparison, it's kinda, sorta similar to the Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect, or the alignment tracking in Neverwinter Nights. But it's different in some key ways that are best expressed by telling you what the system is not.

It's not a scale
Rather than placing the PC on a scale somewhere between two extremes (Paragon/Renegade, good/evil, lawful/chaotic), the mod scores the PC in four different personality traits:
  • Arrogant
  • Funny
  • Noble
  • Violent
Notice that there are no opposites in there - thus it's possible to have a high score in more than one category (in fact, I think it would be easy to come up with examples of characters from books or movies who combine any two of those characteristics). There are also plenty of neutral responses mixed in, so it's possible to have a low score in all the traits.

It's not a morality system
Morality systems attempt to define your character, and in doing so, they tend to assume that what your character says accurately reflects what your character believes. There's no allowance for ulterior motives - the possibility that you're only making the PC act a certain way in order to achieve some larger goal. This can get annoying if the game continually misinterprets your character's intent.

By contrast, the TRR system is only to track outward appearances - in other words, it's a measure of the PC's reputation. NPCs, to the extent that they know or have heard of the PC, react to this reputation accordingly. But aside from that, the game doesn't attach any internal significance to the scores.

It's not minigame
All of this scoring happens under the covers. In other words, there's no meter, or any other mechanism, to tell you exactly where you stand. This isn't just because TRR's scope is relatively small and I'm too lazy to create a GUI for it (though there is that). It's also because some things defy accurate measurement. While I understand the importance of giving the player useful information and feedback, I'm not a fan of having meters for everything, especially things the PC couldn't logically know with any certainty (yes, I'm thinking of the relationship meters in Dragon Age).

Instead, the personality tracking in TRR is a way for the story to respond appropriately to the player's words and actions. If an NPC accuses you of "never taking anything seriously," you'll know you have a high Funny score. If an enemy refuses to negotiate with you on the grounds that you're "notoriously bloodthirsty," you'll know that your Violent score is elevated. It's the type of thing that may not be obvious to a player - at least on a first playthrough - but I think it pays off in a more natural-seeming narrative, and a better experience overall.

The Rotted Report is a periodic update on my upcoming standalone adventure for Dragon Age. Feel free to stop by The Rotted Rose project page on the Bioware Social Network.