Designing a Better RPG – Part 1

(I mentioned in this post that it’s fun to think of ways to fill the gaps we spot in entertainment. With that in mind, what follows is one of a three-part series (a TBS first?!) about designing a better RPG – or what I currently think of as better – with each post focusing on one unique or not-seen-often-enough game feature.)

(today’s post: 487 words)

My first game mechanic is “exhaustion”.

Most games feature a go-go-go mentality. Characters don’t sleep. They adventure through constant stress for weeks or months on end. Characters come within an inch of their life, pop a potion, and keep going without a care.

I *fully* understand that it’s this way because no one wants to watch their character recovering/eating/using the bathroom/other-non-heroic-activities instead of playing – and that’s good (unless we’re playing The Sims).

But I would like to incorporate exhaustion in some way toward the goal of making you feel more heroic when you overcome it or achieve despite it.

What’s a more powerful image in fantasy stories than the wizard or fighter who exceeds his own limits and battles into unconsciousness, knowing only that he did his best but uncertain if that was enough for survival?

In my immersion post, I talked about my character struggling to stay conscious after in-game days sought trying to escape a dungeon. Knowing my character would pass out at any moment, I gave up the search for the exit, crept into a room, and hoped that closing the door behind me might help in some way to let me survive the night. Whether or not it did anything, my character did wake up. I escaped the dungeon. And I had a gaming moment.

Developers are all for sandbox games that allow gamers to have their own story, so why not give players additional tools to let them add flourishes to their dramas? When a player comes up against a tough situation, instead of the same ol’ boring crutch of the “reload” to try again and hope to do it the way the developer wants you to do it, why not an in-game alternative?

Imagine a battered, seemingly-defeated warrior trapped against a cliff face by overwhelming odds using a “berserker rage” so he has a chance to survive when normally he would not dream of it. Or a sorcerer hunkered down in an abandoned, barricaded cottage, slinging spells well after he normally would have used them all up in the hopes that he can make it another hour or two until daybreak when the zombies will disperse in frustration?

Instead of the player reloading and tension evaporating, the player makes his final move and wonders, as the screen fades, if it will pay off. What if he is afraid that his character might actually die because there is no re-load? What if he is holding his breath, hoping his gambit paid off, as he waits for the screen to fade back in? It could be a winner.

This isn’t an easy idea. It comes with all sorts of issues, balance and otherwise. It needs a lot of attention. But to get “drama,” the alternative is a pre-packaged cinematic coming, predictably enough, at the game’s conclusion – and generally lacking in any real tension. And that isn’t good enough. RPG developers can do better.

Crazy? About time? Let me know what you think and stay tuned for post #2!

4 thoughts on “Designing a Better RPG – Part 1

  1. While the legal department checks to see if papers are due to be served to you…

    In the meantime:

    I had an idea about a game that included death and other unpleasantness.

    The scene is this: generic war story where nation A is at war with nation B. Nation B is written to be evil, but that’s because the only information you are given is from your superiors and local media. This is also a medievil fantasy setting.

    Anyways, so you start as a low rank officer. You begin the game with maybe 10 soldiers to command. You get your first order: knock out the pesky nation B defenses at this certain bridge. You accomplish it! Level up!

    So you progress through the ranks with different missions and different orders. Until you are given one particularly nasty order: raid a nation B to retrieve important item X, and kill any hostiles defending it. You arrive on the scene to find that it’s just a peaceful nation B camp, but the unarmed campers won’t relinquish the item so important to their heritage. Indeed, the item doesn’t seem to have any military value.

    So, what now? To get the item means to slaughter the unarmed defenders. To fail means to be court marshalled. (sound familiar to Last Samurai?). Maybe you want to kill the nation A leadership for putting such a cruel order on you, and you know your soldiers will be with you, but to rebel now would mean 30 soldiers against 10,000 loyal A’ers. You won’t win, and yet you now know that nation A is corrupt and you have to destroy them (the game doesn’t tell you this; supposedly it’s your moral response).

    So you slaughter the innocents, telling yourself that you’ll avenge their deaths by rising in the ranks until you have a force loyal enough to you to defeat the king of nation A.

    Nation A’s king is impressed with your duty to his command (and is unconcerned, apparently, by your failure to your duty to mankind). You continue to be promoted and gain more responsibility. You are finding over time that nation B is also pretty corrupt and through various plot narratives, you are discovering that they are murdering their own people as well. You are first getting the notion of usurping king A and then using your new command of nation A to destroy king B and unify both nations in a better world…

    Then you meet a romantic interest. It’s the princess of A who has taken a liking to you, and she seems to empathize with your situation. You empathize with her, because even if she shares your beliefs, what can she do about them? You are both trapped. Soon, you both fall in love and a hot coffee scene ensues (you repeatedly hit X on the controller for about 30 seconds).

    A few game months later, your offspring is born…

    The war drags on. Your son/daughter starts to grow into a child and you continue to carry out the morally difficult orders of A against B. You start to believe that the king of A is actually well meaning, and just has the philosophy that ends (a unified A/B) will justify the means.

    Then you get the Order. Scouts report nation B is about to hit a soft spot in A – a bridge that leads to the heard of kingdom A. The A defenses are weak. If the attack is successful, it will be the turning point in the war and B will win. On a personal note, B hasn’t forgotten about your little slaughter of their civilian camp, some 10 game years ago – they will certainly destroy your family with cruel vengeful malice. So, forgotting your Alan Alda M*A*S*H opinion of the whole stupid war, you have a personal incentive to not let them win.

    King A, who has come to trust you above every one else, recognizes the severity and orders you to hold the bridge at all costs. You arrive there with all your forces.

    Nation B attacks. It’s more than you expected. You dig in. You are losing. You get word that king A is sending reinforcements, but they aren’t here yet. You continue to lose – but you can’t yield the bridge. Your soldiers are with you; they’ll die to the last man on your order, and they’ll retreat just the same.

    There is a break in the battle. B has retreated to regroup and no doubt to bring the final hammer strike in the morning. You just have a few game hours to make up your mind. There are no signs of reinforcements.

    What do you do?

    You decide to spend that time writing a note to your son that chronicles your life and what you’ve seen. You write another note to the princess, expressing your affection to her. You dispatch the notes with a scout. You tell your soldiers that you are staying put and holding the bridge.

    Morning comes. B attacks. You put up a valiant resistance but you are all killed. Every soldier, and you. The screen fades to black as the complicated life of the protagonist ends ala a scene like from Gangs of New York (“look who lies beneath my knife!!!”).

    The player wonders if he made the right decision. The screen is still black. Did he advance the plot? WTF?

    The screen fades back in, and now the protagonist is the son/daughter. Ten years later now, with his/her own Command. Always carrying the note his/her father wrote him/her.

    And the game carries on through the next generation until king A is usurped and the nations of A and B are unified.

  2. While the legal department checks to see if papers are due to be served to you…

    In the meantime:

    I had an idea about a game that included death and other unpleasantness.

    The scene is this: generic war story where nation A is at war with nation B. Nation B is written to be evil, but that’s because the only information you are given is from your superiors and local media. This is also a medievil fantasy setting.

    Anyways, so you start as a low rank officer. You begin the game with maybe 10 soldiers to command. You get your first order: knock out the pesky nation B defenses at this certain bridge. You accomplish it! Level up!

    So you progress through the ranks with different missions and different orders. Until you are given one particularly nasty order: raid a nation B to retrieve important item X, and kill any hostiles defending it. You arrive on the scene to find that it’s just a peaceful nation B camp, but the unarmed campers won’t relinquish the item so important to their heritage. Indeed, the item doesn’t seem to have any military value.

    So, what now? To get the item means to slaughter the unarmed defenders. To fail means to be court marshalled. (sound familiar to Last Samurai?). Maybe you want to kill the nation A leadership for putting such a cruel order on you, and you know your soldiers will be with you, but to rebel now would mean 30 soldiers against 10,000 loyal A’ers. You won’t win, and yet you now know that nation A is corrupt and you have to destroy them (the game doesn’t tell you this; supposedly it’s your moral response).

    So you slaughter the innocents, telling yourself that you’ll avenge their deaths by rising in the ranks until you have a force loyal enough to you to defeat the king of nation A.

    Nation A’s king is impressed with your duty to his command (and is unconcerned, apparently, by your failure to your duty to mankind). You continue to be promoted and gain more responsibility. You are finding over time that nation B is also pretty corrupt and through various plot narratives, you are discovering that they are murdering their own people as well. You are first getting the notion of usurping king A and then using your new command of nation A to destroy king B and unify both nations in a better world…

    Then you meet a romantic interest. It’s the princess of A who has taken a liking to you, and she seems to empathize with your situation. You empathize with her, because even if she shares your beliefs, what can she do about them? You are both trapped. Soon, you both fall in love and a hot coffee scene ensues (you repeatedly hit X on the controller for about 30 seconds).

    A few game months later, your offspring is born…

    The war drags on. Your son/daughter starts to grow into a child and you continue to carry out the morally difficult orders of A against B. You start to believe that the king of A is actually well meaning, and just has the philosophy that ends (a unified A/B) will justify the means.

    Then you get the Order. Scouts report nation B is about to hit a soft spot in A – a bridge that leads to the heard of kingdom A. The A defenses are weak. If the attack is successful, it will be the turning point in the war and B will win. On a personal note, B hasn’t forgotten about your little slaughter of their civilian camp, some 10 game years ago – they will certainly destroy your family with cruel vengeful malice. So, forgotting your Alan Alda M*A*S*H opinion of the whole stupid war, you have a personal incentive to not let them win.

    King A, who has come to trust you above every one else, recognizes the severity and orders you to hold the bridge at all costs. You arrive there with all your forces.

    Nation B attacks. It’s more than you expected. You dig in. You are losing. You get word that king A is sending reinforcements, but they aren’t here yet. You continue to lose – but you can’t yield the bridge. Your soldiers are with you; they’ll die to the last man on your order, and they’ll retreat just the same.

    There is a break in the battle. B has retreated to regroup and no doubt to bring the final hammer strike in the morning. You just have a few game hours to make up your mind. There are no signs of reinforcements.

    What do you do?

    You decide to spend that time writing a note to your son that chronicles your life and what you’ve seen. You write another note to the princess, expressing your affection to her. You dispatch the notes with a scout. You tell your soldiers that you are staying put and holding the bridge.

    Morning comes. B attacks. You put up a valiant resistance but you are all killed. Every soldier, and you. The screen fades to black as the complicated life of the protagonist ends ala a scene like from Gangs of New York (“look who lies beneath my knife!!!”).

    The player wonders if he made the right decision. The screen is still black. Did he advance the plot? WTF?

    The screen fades back in, and now the protagonist is the son/daughter. Ten years later now, with his/her own Command. Always carrying the note his/her father wrote him/her.

    And the game carries on through the next generation until king A is usurped and the nations of A and B are unified.

  3. It’s all gone open source. I’m putting my money where my mouth is. Information transparency is freedom! Haha. 🙂

    As for your comment, wow – sign me up. I’ll play that game right now.

    I especially like the fade-to-black ending because it ties into my 2nd post. 🙂

    But yeah, that game sounds fun. There’s a huge hole for military/political intrigue ala the Gladiator and such. I think that would be awesome. Which reminds me that you always had a ton of good ideas. We need a rich sugar daddy.

  4. Pingback: TrickyBuddha Studios | Designing a Better RPG - Epilogue

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