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Vince
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« Reply #30 on: March 01, 2008, 02:39:46 pm »

I just played Jade Empire, where the conversational system boils down to Intuition, Intimidation, or Charm.  You click the appropriately labeled dialog choice, make a skill check, and get the desired result on success and the undesired result on failure.  There's really no difference between the options and there's really no difference in how you play the game.
Meaningless options are a standard Bioware design.

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persuade the guards to let you in: Hi there! I'm with the Tavern Food & Service Inspection Agency. We've heard rumors that you have rats running around in every cellar. Well, it's fucking better be a misunderstanding because if I see a single rodent-looking motherfucker - which includes this rat-faced bastard over there - I'm shutting this evil fortress down TONIGHT! Now open that fucking door already!
-This just feels like a skill-check to me.  Maybe if you need to hear about how there's been a rat problem and then make a skill check, I'd be fine with it.
Definitely.

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create a diversion - Look behind you, a three-headed monkey! - and sneak inside. Or hire some thugs to attack the guards and while the guards are busy breaking some heads, sneak inside.
-Hate the "look behind you" option, love the hired thugs option.  Look behind you is just another skill check, at best.  The thugs involve using something that might otherwise have been a problem to your advantage.  Very creative.
Thanks. The "look behind you" thing was a joke, a Monkey Island reference. In AoD you'd be able to use a black-powder bomb to create a diversion. Or to use the thugs.

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wall-climbing text-adventures are fun and very ninja-like: your dagger blade snaps with a loud noise and you plummet to your death cursing stupid non-combat gameplay.
-...and reload and click the right options. 
Sure. Text-adventures could be solved by trial-and-error, but:
a) it's better to have a text-adventure option than to have your thief stopped by a 3-meter wall. "Sorry, bro, it's the wall. I hope you understand. You can save the world and travel to the fiery pits of hell, but you are powerless against those cursed walls."
b) skill checks! If you aren't fit enough, it doesn't matter if you know the right combination.
c) text-adventure games are awesome.

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impersonate an officer - Atten-hut! Is that how you salute an officer of the watch, swine? Stop eyeballing me! You're not worthy to look your superiors in the eye. Stand straight, eyes forward! What is the name of your commanding officer?
-Depends.  Simple skill-check and I hate it.  If you're impersonating a specific officer, it could be a lot of fun.  Let the player talk to the officer beforehand, then try to copy their mannerisms in the dialog tree.  Only let the player know if they've succeeded at the end, so dumb reloading and trying the other option isn't such an obvious solution unless they're prepared to hit every combination.
If you read our in-game example, it requires the uniform and the in-game knowledge. If you don't know who the general is, his name, his involvement with the plot, you don't get this option.

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bribe your way in.
-Wallet-check?  Meh.
Persuasion mostly.

You make small talk with the gate guards. There isn't a lot of traffic these days, so the guards are bored and grateful for the company. Turns out the guards' captain had recently lost more than he can afford in a game of chance; the guards are underpaid (you note that you've never met anyone who thought he's being overpaid); the Imperial Guards are pretentious bastards; and all women are whores. Strangely enough the last statement is based on the unwillingness of several women to share the guards' beds.

1. So, did the captain pay his debt?
2. I can't believe that the guards who risk their lives to protect us all are underpaid! That is the real crime.
3. What do the Imperial Guards do anyway?

***each line leads to a different solution to a smuggling problem***

If 2:

*the guards enthusiastically agree*
1. [persuasion] You know what, I have a shipment leaving Teron tonight. Instead of paying tax to the Merchants Guild, I'll pay it directly to you. I think that would be fair. 50 imperials each?

If successful:
- 100 coins each, and you can ship anything you want.
- [trading] 75 and we have a deal.
success - Alright. 75 then.
failure - Didn't you just say that underpaying guards is a crime? 100 coins each or you can deal with the merchants.

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forge a fake pass using your knowledge of what a real pass looks like and skills (lore, literacy, scribing, etc)
-Knowledge of what a real pass looks like could make this interesting.  I'd be more interested in making the player realize that they could convince that monastic scribe to put his skills to a more practical application.
How about both?

3. The Imperial Guards have a special shipping mandate. It keeps the local guards away from their shipments. Would be nice to have one.
....

*** you have three options here: steal the real mandate, talk to a loremaster about forging one, and forge one yourself if you have the skills and knowledge:

You spend an hour turning a blank parchment into a document mentioning the Imperial Guards, urgent matters, and free passage. You add a fancy looking seal as a finishing touch and give the scroll to the guildmaster.

You spend an hour turning a blank parchment into an official document stating that the Imperial Guards are given free passage. You accurately copy the seal of House Daratan and give the scroll to the guildmaster.

You spend an hour turning a blank parchment into an impressive looking document granting the Imperial Guards the right of free passage and requesting full cooperation from Teron's guards and guilds' authorities. Your seal of House Daratan looks more authentic than the original you copied it from. You sign the mandate and give the scroll to the guildmaster.
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Astargoth
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« Reply #31 on: March 01, 2008, 06:29:08 pm »

Do you need to have a copy of a Dalaran seal before you can forge it, or is it flavor?
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Vince
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« Reply #32 on: March 01, 2008, 07:08:48 pm »

Need to have a document with the seal.
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Saint Genesius
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« Reply #33 on: March 01, 2008, 09:27:32 pm »

Thanks. The "look behind you" thing was a joke, a Monkey Island reference. In AoD you'd be able to use a black-powder bomb to create a diversion. Or to use the thugs.

Yah, I know it was a Monkey Island reference.  On the topic, Monkey Island's combat system is one of the most awesome things ever to exist and might be the only good thing Orson Scott Card has written (controversy!).

I liked the longer examples, though the text-thief seems like a patchwork solution to a real problem.  I agree that it's better than thwarting thieves anytime they hit something waist-high, but unless you can get around the disconnect between text and visual, tactile reality, choices in that decision tree might as well be arbitrary.  I'd have to see it to know for sure.  What I'd do here is make all decisions result in success for a skilled thief, but have the ramifications of those decisions be slightly different.  One choice causes more guards to search around the next area, for instance, while another causes someone to lock their door.
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Priapist
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« Reply #34 on: March 02, 2008, 08:38:26 am »

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What I'd do here is make all decisions result in success for a skilled thief, but have the ramifications of those decisions be slightly different.  One choice causes more guards to search around the next area, for instance, while another causes someone to lock their door.

That's poetry, and the sort of thing most, if not all games are sorely lacking. While I wouldn't go with "success for all!", a broad range of possible outcomes is so much more interesting than an obstacle that is either in front of you or behind you. Simple generic behaviours like guards that will walk through the streets spreading the word that a hostile intruder is in hiding somewhere coupled with dynamic responses from NPCs, like locking their doors, carrying a weapon, having a lower threshold to become hostile and so forth provides a great deal of dimension to the already interesting multiple approaches to a specific obstacle.
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Briosafreak
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« Reply #35 on: March 02, 2008, 01:35:17 pm »

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Vince D Weller Watch: The Age of Decadence lead designer writes an essay on Non-combat game-play in RPGs, noting that “You can often see “Different ways to play the game!” on a game box. 12 out of 10 it means “different ways to kill things.”. Which is a tricky one to argue with.

From RPS
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Vince
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« Reply #36 on: March 02, 2008, 02:30:07 pm »

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The Vince D. Weller speech - he could sum all that up with his own statement - “Go and play Fallout”. Otherwise, once again, he’s villianising people who use combat in games. I’ll tell you why we use combat in RPGs - because it’s reliable and catered for. Dressing in disguise, talking my way through it, finding the pre-made hole in the wall are all just key finding things that may or may not work and will end up a complete waste of time as a game will never map what you’d do in your imagination. Combat, however, is always the most reliable (and engaging) answer. Killing people presents a challenge, other methods just rely on you having a big stat in your pocket.
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Spoon
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« Reply #37 on: March 02, 2008, 04:01:01 pm »

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The Vince D. Weller speech - he could sum all that up with his own statement - “Go and play Fallout”. Otherwise, once again, he’s villianising people who use combat in games. I’ll tell you why we use combat in RPGs - because it’s reliable and catered for. Dressing in disguise, talking my way through it, finding the pre-made hole in the wall are all just key finding things that may or may not work and will end up a complete waste of time as a game will never map what you’d do in your imagination. Combat, however, is always the most reliable (and engaging) answer. Killing people presents a challenge, other methods just rely on you having a big stat in your pocket.
Comedic gold Vince, you can tell that guy has never played an adventure game before, and his favorite "RPG"s are Dungeon Siege and Oblivion.
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Saint Genesius
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« Reply #38 on: March 02, 2008, 04:36:30 pm »

That's poetry, and the sort of thing most, if not all games are sorely lacking. While I wouldn't go with "success for all!", a broad range of possible outcomes is so much more interesting than an obstacle that is either in front of you or behind you.

To clarify, I mean success in this case as getting past the wall if the minimal requirements are met.  "Success" is a very relative thing and in this case might include having every guard within shouting range camped out on the other side of the wall, waiting for you to finish your inept struggle and giving the player more situations they have to deal with.  Yah, you made it to the other side, but you know what they say about the grass being greener.  I'd rather people deal with the consequences of unoptimal choices than reload or fall down in such a way that they don't have to deal with any consequences at all.  I'm not exactly handing out ribbons for participation, but I do want people to participate in the game.
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Mouse
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« Reply #39 on: March 02, 2008, 11:09:07 pm »

Hey, new here. Found you through Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

To begin: I identify strongly with the aims set out in the first post. It echoes some of the provocative points raised in John Tynes' Power Kill roleplaying metagame:
http://johntynes.com/revland2000/rl_powerkill.html

Even leaving the skewed morality of the computer RPG beside, there's the sheer unimaginativeness of combat stacked on combat to consider. It's a rare computer RPG that has anything to do with roleplaying.

However, before we waste vitriol on big commercial games, it might be sensible to examine some of the difficulties and gameplay issues presented by attempts to make alternate approaches feasible.

Firstly, most obviously, there's dialogue. Trying to represent an actual human-on-human interaction is hard.   If you don't get it right first time - if your explanation to the guard lacks the ring of plausibility - he ought then to regard you with deep suspicion. But then the player appears to have hit a dead end, and many will at that point become a little frustrated. So, many games allow you to talk the most arrant nonsense to NPCs up until you hit on the magic phrase that makes them blossom into friendliness. Gameplay Forgivingness 1, Suspension of Disbelief 0.

On top of this, suspicion is a fairly light consequence of failure. Trying to sweet-talk a noble into believing you're an emissary from Someone Important is fine if it succeeds, but if it fails, swift and serious repercussions are realistic. And if you have to reload and play through again, it can become a game of blindly picking menu options. Not fantastic.

This isn't necessarily insurmountable, with effort; the guard could demand that you show him the Ratcatcher's Guild authorisation, you could make a great show of having forgotten it, and then end up with a subquest to acquire such a thing. The noble could shred your flimsy fabric of lies, worm the truth out of you, and use you for his own ends. But this takes work - every lie told in dialogue means potentially a subquest, another part of the game. But then, with the content developers having put the work into the subquest, games generally then push you into it by providing an NPC who is too tough to fight and too shrewd to believe your lies, diminishing your multiple options to just one.

Game developers barely touch on dialogue because it's hard to do right, adds little if done wrong, and appeals to a narrower segment of gamers than combat. And, frankly, it's not tactical, it doesn't require skill. Dialogue as self-contained problem-solving is uninteresting, and doubly uninteresting if it's deliberately made into a crapshoot (e.g. one randomly picked conversational branch docks twice the resources of another). Dialogue's strengths are to draw you into the game, to create characters out of pixels, to face you with moral quandaries, to immerse you in the world, to push the plot forward. These are narrative strengths, not gameplay ones. Using it as a route past an obstacle in its own right becomes dangerous, because it comes at the expense of gameplay, and, assuming it contains some useful addition to the narrative, the other routes past come at the expense of that addition.

Oh, and the popular choose-a-response-from-the-menu system does much to stop the player actually thinking about dialogue. If you learn some juicy piece of gossip, and when next you talk to the guard you've got a new dialogue option, you click on it even if you didn't remember the information before you clicked on the guard. If dialogue is to have any validity at all as a solution, it should require you to volunteer the response that will let you through, not be prompted for it.

Sadly, the same content explosion thing that applies to the failure of deception in dialogue applies also to some of the other approaches you mentioned in your first post. Trading for the pass becomes a subquest in its own right that will never be visited if another route through is used; or, if the pass is necessary in a number of places, then whole swathes of other subquests will fall into silence. Finding someone willing to create a distraction is a subquest that, again, requires coding and is likely to go completely unused if another route is found. And lest we forget, none of this is non-linear in a big way - there are no major branches yet that affect the rest of the game, these are throwaway quests to add options, possibly doubling or tripling the workload on each main branch and shortening the game by half or two-thirds. This kind of solution must therefore be used sparingly, and only at points that deserve the extra attention.

Bribery is also an option, but a dangerous one. It's hard for games to prevent players who're often diverted from the beaten track from getting rich, and if money is generally unimportant to the player then bribery offers a challenge-free pass. Conversely, you need to consider the end-game for naive players who've not picked up all the cash they could have done, and spent much of what they have done on bribes - will they be able to equip themselves appropriately, or use money for whatever important tasks they might have to use it for?

More interesting are options such as impersonating an officer, (presumably using an officer's uniform), climbing the wall or forging a pass. These hold out the possibility of a more general-purpose solution that could be used in a variety of situations - more options for less work. I'm reminded of Deus Ex, which did a relatively good job of providing multiple useful paths past obstacles: assaulting an organisation's stronghold, you could navigate their trapped back entrance, deactivating these with electronics wizardry and your small collection of multi-tools or draw on your equally precious stock of grenades, placing these with care; alternatively, you might take a more straightforward tack through their main building, evading the guards with stealth, if you were patient, perhaps finding a vent that eased your unseen progress, or instead going in guns blazing. Hacking, electronics, stealth, use of resources and violence all had useful roles to play; and best of all, each of these solutions was easily generalised by the game designers to other areas. Provided that approaches such as scaling walls, lockpicking and forging either necessitate drawing on carefully husbanded resources or lead to mini-games with some entertainment value, they can provide extra options that just keep giving, with relative little cost to the content developers.

Why do I suggest resource management and mini-games? Well, with neither required, the game becomes an unchallenging cakewalk through areas where the player has a useful skill. It does indeed become all about having a huge stat in your pocket. Having to balance resources required by different approaches results in varied gameplay, and the trade-offs themselves give purchase for tactical thinking. Mini-games make the skill use itself entertaining - and, after all, what is combat but a mini-game? Its prevalence reflects that more love gets lavished on making it fun than any other mini-game aspect of an RPG.
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andrewdoull
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« Reply #40 on: March 03, 2008, 12:47:19 am »

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Why do I suggest resource management and mini-games? Well, with neither required, the game becomes an unchallenging cakewalk through areas where the player has a useful skill. It does indeed become all about having a huge stat in your pocket. Having to balance resources required by different approaches results in varied gameplay, and the trade-offs themselves give purchase for tactical thinking. Mini-games make the skill use itself entertaining - and, after all, what is combat but a mini-game? Its prevalence reflects that more love gets lavished on making it fun than any other mini-game aspect of an RPG.

Have to agree with Mouse on this one. Mini-games and resource management are the way to go. I think mini-games would only work if you already have a mini-game mechanic in place elsewhere e.g. Puzzle Quest.

However, I can see phrases and conversation techniques could be a resource that you can manage. Collecting phrases and information which you can use once in a conversation might be a concept. It'd need a lot more testing/prototyping as to how it would work though.

Regards,

Andrew
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Morbus
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« Reply #41 on: March 03, 2008, 03:37:59 am »

NOT having minigames is a must in any "true" RPG, at least in any RPG that's good enough NOT to take player skill into consideration. Just as you'll want turn based point and click combat so your own skill doesn't affect your character's, you'll want skill checks (maybe not dice rolls, but skill checks, yes) in non-combat activities, no matter if it is lock picking or persuasion. And I don't agree that there's no "tactic" in skill checking a line of text, because there is. Not in the sense that you go all "oh, should I use it, should I not use it?" but in the sense that it's rewarding in itself that you can use the line, and, in the end, it's role-playing, you make a choice in developing that skill, and your character is good at it. For all I care, a RPG can have no dialog choices at all and still have lots of role-play, just as long as you are given the choice to make your character the way you want, it doesn't matter if it is during or before the dialog.

In the end, making a challenge out of dialog may not be the best design when you are trying to eradicate player skill influence, and bring out his choices instead of that.

So, no, no mini-games for Age of Decadence or any other serious RPG please. Besides, they are frustrating and boring and immersion breaking. It's your character's skill that's supposed to be tested, not yours sucka!
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« Reply #42 on: March 03, 2008, 06:29:04 am »

Hey, new here. Found you through Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Welcome aboard.

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To begin: I identify strongly with the aims set out in the first post. It echoes some of the provocative points raised in John Tynes' Power Kill roleplaying metagame:
http://johntynes.com/revland2000/rl_powerkill.html

That is an interesting piece. Provocative even. Still, I'm dubious of it's worth trying to translate an alternate world with alternate laws and morals into our own, and the transposition of an act the gameworld considers heroic into an act the real world considers criminal is completely artificial. The onus is really on the GM to establish and evoke a world with more interesting moral texture, rather than simply dress up D&D as a real world allegory where "monsters = ethnic minorities". It would be far more interesting to explore the morality of whether monsters and humans deserve equal rights, rather than simply making the jump to "yes they do".

Still, I guess the idea is to provoke your players into thinking in moral terms, and the "psych ward" RP is a pretty cute way to dress it up. I'm pretty sure my RP group would get a kick out of it.

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Game developers barely touch on dialogue because it's hard to do right, adds little if done wrong, and appeals to a narrower segment of gamers than combat. And, frankly, it's not tactical, it doesn't require skill. Dialogue as self-contained problem-solving is uninteresting, and doubly uninteresting if it's deliberately made into a crapshoot (e.g. one randomly picked conversational branch docks twice the resources of another).

I think that's being overly dismissive. It's certainly true that dialogue presents a lot of difficulties for a developer, but that's no reason to ignore it entirely. Human intelligence is orders of magnitudes more complex than just dialogue, and that doesn't stop developers striving toward more complex artificial intelligence that realistically, resembles nothing of the sort.

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Dialogue's strengths are to draw you into the game, to create characters out of pixels, to face you with moral quandaries, to immerse you in the world, to push the plot forward. These are narrative strengths, not gameplay ones. Using it as a route past an obstacle in its own right becomes dangerous, because it comes at the expense of gameplay, and,

I have to agree here, for the most part. Dialogue is fairly crucial in narrative terms, for the reasons listed above, but I don't think any of those reasons necessarily exclude gameplay, or come at gameplay's expense. Most often, they do, but I think there are (evasive) solutions that can preserve the narrative strengths and build gameplay around them.

 
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assuming it contains some useful addition to the narrative, the other routes past come at the expense of that addition.

That's making the assumption that all branches ought to co-exist as part of a single unified narrative, or at least, the assumption that the best method of development is a single minded push toward efficient use of content. A character expressing affection toward you could be considered a useful addition to the narrative. So could that same character expressing disgust toward you. There's no reason for a character to remain consistent across exclusive dialogues, and one of the great strengths of gaming as a whole is that it permits a mutable narrative with player authorship, and it's worth sacrificing a certain degree of efficiency to achieve this goal. But of course, it's a diminishing return, so the concept of dialogue trees needs to evolve.

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And lest we forget, none of this is non-linear in a big way - there are no major branches yet that affect the rest of the game, these are throwaway quests to add options, possibly doubling or tripling the workload on each main branch and shortening the game by half or two-thirds. This kind of solution must therefore be used sparingly, and only at points that deserve the extra attention.

That's a problem, but it's one that's perpetuated through a complete lack of effort on the behalf of developers. Combat is, in theory, vastly non-linear and dynamic. What happens if I kill this guy, and then that guy? What happens if I swing high? Swing low? Cast a spell? Etc? And at some point, someone had to sit down and nut out a way to model combat in an abstract manner using a variety of generic interactions to achieve a system that readily encourages permutations and adapts to them. There's no reason why a system with generic elements to abstract the many ways of getting past guards couldn't be implemented, though you'd probably have to consider it as an investment for multiple games, unless you had an industrial espionage focus with as many guards to get past as monsters in a typical combat RPG. Even better, have the "gate entry" quest become a product of existing generic systems. Have a climbing system that can be applied in towns, dungeons, ruins, forests, etc. Have a stealth system. Establish some social mechanics in a town, where anyone of a certain caste/profession has a gate pass, which is an item they'd willingly barter with anyone, albeit for a ridiculous sum.

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Bribery is also an option, but a dangerous one. It's hard for games to prevent players who're often diverted from the beaten track from getting rich, and if money is generally unimportant to the player then bribery offers a challenge-free pass. Conversely, you need to consider the end-game for naive players who've not picked up all the cash they could have done, and spent much of what they have done on bribes - will they be able to equip themselves appropriately, or use money for whatever important tasks they might have to use it for?

Anything to do with money generally becomes a risky proposition simply because economies are given precious little thought. The biggest problem I see with game economics is that the concept of "disposable income" doesn't really exist, so you end up with a situation where characters who work hard and become rich translate those riches into functional improvement. But this isn't an insurmountable problem either. Much of this disparity comes from time having little consequence. A character might do a single quest in a day, or they might spend ten days doing ten - in most cases the world remains static, and the character rarely has any kind of ongoing expenses, so you have one guy who has earned x dollars, and another who has earned 10x dollars, and you have to try and establish a market that suits both of them. Of course that's going to fail.

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Why do I suggest resource management and mini-games? Well, with neither required, the game becomes an unchallenging cakewalk through areas where the player has a useful skill. It does indeed become all about having a huge stat in your pocket. Having to balance resources required by different approaches results in varied gameplay, and the trade-offs themselves give purchase for tactical thinking. Mini-games make the skill use itself entertaining - and, after all, what is combat but a mini-game? Its prevalence reflects that more love gets lavished on making it fun than any other mini-game aspect of an RPG.

Very true. If a developer expects a non-combat option to be as compelling as combat, they need to put the effort into developing it as a gameplay option and not just a bypass. "Minigame" is probably not the best terminology though. It's kryptonite to RPG geeks, and implies a disconnect from general play.

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So, no, no mini-games for Age of Decadence or any other serious RPG please. Besides, they are frustrating and boring and immersion breaking. It's your character's skill that's supposed to be tested, not yours sucka!

Here we go with this again. Combat uses player skill in pretty much every "RPG" except Dungeon Siege. Most commonly, the player's tactical skill. The character(s) determine what tools are at the player's disposal, but it still requires intelligent manipulation of those tools to succeed. "Minigame" doesn't necessarily imply anything to with action or reflexes. As I said above, it does imply a disconnect from general play, but what is combat in Fallout if not a turn-based tactical combat minigame in an otherwise real-time game?
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aVENGER
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« Reply #43 on: March 03, 2008, 06:40:58 am »

So, no, no mini-games for Age of Decadence or any other serious RPG please. Besides, they are frustrating and boring and immersion breaking. It's your character's skill that's supposed to be tested, not yours sucka!

That pretty much sums up my stance on the issue as well. IMO, while player skill can be emphasized to a certain degree, a good RPG should primarily focus on the choices that you make when you create and develop your character. In short, character skill > player skill.

BTW, great write up VD.
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Mouse
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« Reply #44 on: March 03, 2008, 07:31:52 am »

That is an interesting piece. Provocative even. Still, I'm dubious of it's worth trying to translate an alternate world with alternate laws and morals into our own, and the transposition of an act the gameworld considers heroic into an act the real world considers criminal is completely artificial. The onus is really on the GM to establish and evoke a world with more interesting moral texture, rather than simply dress up D&D as a real world allegory where "monsters = ethnic minorities". It would be far more interesting to explore the morality of whether monsters and humans deserve equal rights, rather than simply making the jump to "yes they do".

Still, I guess the idea is to provoke your players into thinking in moral terms, and the "psych ward" RP is a pretty cute way to dress it up. I'm pretty sure my RP group would get a kick out of it.
I think Power Kill is pretty much a thought experiment by Tynes. Most RPGs do after all let the wholesale murder of sentient beings pass by without batting an eyelid. In the RPG he's most famous for co-writing, Unknown Armies, violence is potentially fatal no matter how good you are and players have psych gauges which can acquire "hardened" and "failed" notches in different areas as their characters get battered with highly stressful situations (such as killing someone in combat). And it would be nice to see more RPGs concentrate some effort on the consequences of charging into battle against everyone you meet.

I think that's being overly dismissive. It's certainly true that dialogue presents a lot of difficulties for a developer, but that's no reason to ignore it entirely. Human intelligence is orders of magnitudes more complex than just dialogue, and that doesn't stop developers striving toward more complex artificial intelligence that realistically, resembles nothing of the sort.
There are entire fields of AI which explore language specifically - machine translation being one, but the chat bots, the attempts to beat the Turing Test, being perhaps the most interesting. These are still some way off realism though, and it's always going to be hard to handle the open-ended nature of conversation in a way that doesn't jar human sensibilities.

It's perhaps because we've realised that human intelligence is not going to be replicated by AIs any time soon that game developers aren't trying to come up with Turing-test-beating conversationalists (though it's worth mentioning one game which did make the attempt: Starship Titanic).

I do agree though that well-done dialogue is worth the effort, though lengthy dialogue requires strong writing ability to hold interest. Planescape: Torment may have had the limitations of other menu-based dialogue systems, but its conversations made the narrative shine.

There's no reason for a character to remain consistent across exclusive dialogues, and one of the great strengths of gaming as a whole is that it permits a mutable narrative with player authorship, and it's worth sacrificing a certain degree of efficiency to achieve this goal. But of course, it's a diminishing return, so the concept of dialogue trees needs to evolve.
Agreed that evolution on this score is necessary. Not sure I understand the "consistent across exclusive dialogues" thing.

That's a problem, but it's one that's perpetuated through a complete lack of effort on the behalf of developers. Combat is, in theory, vastly non-linear and dynamic. What happens if I kill this guy, and then that guy? What happens if I swing high? Swing low? Cast a spell? Etc? And at some point, someone had to sit down and nut out a way to model combat in an abstract manner using a variety of generic interactions to achieve a system that readily encourages permutations and adapts to them. There's no reason why a system with generic elements to abstract the many ways of getting past guards couldn't be implemented, though you'd probably have to consider it as an investment for multiple games, unless you had an industrial espionage focus with as many guards to get past as monsters in a typical combat RPG. Even better, have the "gate entry" quest become a product of existing generic systems. Have a climbing system that can be applied in towns, dungeons, ruins, forests, etc. Have a stealth system. Establish some social mechanics in a town, where anyone of a certain caste/profession has a gate pass, which is an item they'd willingly barter with anyone, albeit for a ridiculous sum.
Absolutely, this is the kind of thing I touched upon in the second last paragraph - the generic solution that keeps on giving. It is desirable to have options that are available with relatively little content creation, which broaden the scope beyond combat.

Very true. If a developer expects a non-combat option to be as compelling as combat, they need to put the effort into developing it as a gameplay option and not just a bypass. "Minigame" is probably not the best terminology though. It's kryptonite to RPG geeks, and implies a disconnect from general play.
Good point. What shall we call it? Tactical simulation?

Combat self-perpetuates precisely because it's had a lot of work over the years, and has become the most engaging solution to problems in most games. Developers understand how to do it adequately. A game that put effort into making other approaches equally engaging would I think see a sharp shift towards more non-combat gameplay. And the discussion on how to make such approaches engaging for the player deserves a number of topics all by itself...
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