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Are the paradigms of role-playing outdated?

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Are the paradigms of role-playing outdated?

Editorial - posted by Role-Player on Mon 6 August 2007, 17:44:38

Next-Gen Role-Playing Design: Are the paradigms of role-playing outdated?
This is part 1 of our latest feature, "Next-Gen Role-Playing Design", where we will be discussing ideas on where we think current cRPG design could go without losing sight of its role-playing foundations. Today's article is about dialogue conventions.

It's an unfortunate reality that the persistent debate as to whether the latest videogame releases are "next-gen" and "really RPG" or if it simply amounts to what most people who have seen some of the best cRPG development companies of the 90's die out deem "hype without substance" fails to define any kind of gamer mindset as well as gaming in general. But is there a better term to capture the disenchantment an entire generation of gamers feels when they are told the landmarks of the genre are dead and outdated, and that every other game that came afterwards and imitated - rather than innovated - the formula is new and defining of the next generation of videogames?

That it and other similar buzzwords are often used in a vague context by videogame journalists who try to mythologize their opinions rather than learn about the genre's history isn't really solving the issue. Gamers who celebrate the very concept of next-gen gaming while ignorant of what came before firmly oppose those who are spurned by community and developer alike by fighting the uphill battle that is simply saying "we've been there before".

However, there seem to be one aspect where next-generation seldom seems to be evaluated. In an age where it is generally believed that what characterizes next-generation games are larger environments, more complex animation routines or higher quality graphics, no one seems to be asking about next-gen design; in particular, cRPG design.

Except games outside the genre.

This may seem a weird notion; yet, games outside the genre seem to offer more appetizing variations on traditional play mechanics of computer role-playing games. It would be easy to attribute this feeling to how the barriers of genre definitions are eroding in favour of more sandbox experiences or how the lack of a formal, universal definition that accurately characterizes the genre and its play mechanics lead many to take the genre at face value. But is this the whole story? Why do some people hold the Thief series above role-playing games when it comes to presenting stealth mechanics, and why do developers like Jeff Vogel seem to have been swept away by the concept of character progression in action titles?

Could it be that the role-playing paradigm is becoming outdated by better alternatives? And if so, what alternatives could we look at?

Talking numbers

If you've had any kind of contact with the more niche, hardcore gaming communities who swear by their D&D books and cult classics that a myriad of statistics are imperative to classify a virtual extension of the player, then you can imagine how suggesting changes to the status quo of cRPG design may turn out. As an example Charisma and Intelligence are, or should be, very important in a role-playing game for social interaction. They help define a persona outside our own and are what complements a character's role and helps conceive the notion of role-playing someone other than you, instead of simply playing as yourself through an avatar with powers. Consider then what would happen if someone were to suggest that certain play mechanics, such as Intelligence or Charisma in particular, should have their ties with dialogue severed.

Speaking of which, that's exactly what I'm going to do now.

Get rid of Intelligence and Charisma as a play mechanic that influences dialogue.

Some might be quick to denounce that such a change to how these rules work may dilute a cRPG or steer it outside of the genre, but here's something to consider. Fallout and Arcanum delighted several gamers for presenting special dialogue and consequences - as well as undeniable flavour - for characters with incredibly low Intelligence... But are games like Planescape: Torment and Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines worse role-playing experiences because they did not offer this option? How much does the role-player hubris stand in the way of redesigning these concepts?

Fallout 1 and 2 provided dialogues that reflected dumb characters, but they were largely a humorous gimmick.

While in more traditional computer role-playing games your character's choices in dialogue are often defined by gaming mechanisms which attempt to simulate intelligence and charisma, those concepts rarely play into the game. An intelligent character who expertly discusses scientific knowledge does so because the player has been involved in the time honoured metagaming tradition of adjusting numbers - rarely because the expertise has actually been acquired by the character. Die rolls may factor into the discussion and reproduce failure to suggest chance and some likeness to human dialogue but the problem of statistics often working as simply on/off switches has long been making its way deep into the base design.

Or maybe it's been there all along.

This is an example of where cRPG developers have failed to distance themselves from the probability and randomization necessities of the original medium. While role-playing has evolved into a form of collaborative and reactive story-telling based on social network layers, computer role-playing game are still busy trying to copy and tweak the statistical and combative elements that permeated the genre in its humble foundations. The dungeon crawling mentality of the old days still applies - after a trifling gain of experience points, you are suddenly able to improve whatever value you want on a character's spreadsheet. And the character that has been making a living stomping on sewer rats for the past weeks is now suddenly able to do something completely different such as discussing quantum mechanics, quoting the works of Rimbaud or find the cure for cancer.

On the other hand, while these play mechanics may seem blunt and sometimes inadequate they actually serve a purpose. The industry's shift into the realm of believable virtual actors who attempt to mimic human emotions with breathtaking detail through lip synching and other such aesthetics are clearly leaving an impression on many gamers - but what are they doing for the character you're trying to role-play? You can tell through a virtual character's expressions when he is lying or feeling troubled but can your character do the same? Can he react to this without that level of abstraction that tries to translate this kind of perception into numbers? Conversely, is your character's intelligence doing anything that your own intelligence can't? Is it more rewarding to adjust a value to gain an immediate benefit than it is to work for results?

It's arguable whether such an abstract method of character representation is quintessential to the genre. But while the precision of numbers when defining non-qualitative elements of a character are hard to argue against and skill checks are still a welcome genre staple, nomenclature such as "INT 15" or "CHA 7" certainly fails to convey much about a character except for his chances to cast a spell or of being given an extra option in a specific dialogue tree. So instead of a static attribute determining what your character can and cannot express, why not have past experiences influence your character's conducts? What if convincing someone of your intentions stops being based on incremental changes to a spreadsheet and promotes the experiences and interactions your character has accumulated throughout his time in the gameworld as the primary way under which he evolves?

Now, the gamers who rank among those I referenced in the starting paragraphs will no doubt speak up and say this concept isn't particularly new. While true, it hasn't been particularly well developed either. So where do we go from here? What would be a good starting point?

I have no mouth and I must explain why my CHA matters

Ion Storm's Deus Ex - as well as its sequel, Invisible War - are examples of taking it to the next level. The basic concept behind their use of dialogue is one where statistics as we normally find them in traditional cRPGs are absent. There is no tracking of a character's intelligence or charisma, and new options made available in dialogue trees are governed by the character's past interactions in the gameworld. This results in a more organic relationship between the player and character insofar as the type of role that can be played, since the player can more easily determine what has influenced the choices given to his character and finds added incentive in interaction and exploration for his character to undertake. To that end, it is closer to the basis of interactive story-telling where the gameworld tells a story based on the player's own in-game experiences rather than someone else's story you have no choice but to follow through.

But it also lends itself to a simplistic approach to how each role is actually played. In other words, the consequences of interactions with surrounding entities define what the character will be able to learn and subsequently express, but until this type of interaction occurs every single character has the exact same personality with the same predefined choices. Since the ability to differentiate one character from the next by defining their attributes (and consequently, their personality) is gone, two very different characters will have the same dialogue options open to them. This also brings up another issue: if the concept of charisma is of no importance to the system then any character can choose certain dialogue options without fear of ever failing to convince an NPC, unless this involves success or failure of a quest or an answer that blatantly antagonizes or flatters the NPC.

To illustrate this, at one point in Invisible War the main character - Alex D. - is tasked with assassinating a lawyer. When confronting the lawyer, the player is given two dialogue choices sometime during the conversation. One involves telling the NPC his usual contact has been replaced; the other involves telling the NPC his usual contact has been replaced, while also posing as his new contact and asking for a monetary reward to make reparations. In the latter, both the improvisation as well as receiving the monetary reward is always automated, successful endeavours. Here, the results are illusion of choice (since both answers lead to the same outcome), illusion of role-playing (since the actual role is automated and left outside the player's field of decision), and illusion of goals (since the reward as a goal is always attainable and requires no effort on behalf of the player). While these flaws can be fixed, they are still a possibility inherent in it.

The highlighted choice on the top image is only available after the main character is told how to approach the target.
The highlighted choice on the bottom image however, will always be there regardless of whatever you may (or may not) do.

But the system shows promise, specially in doing away with another low point of cRPGs - intelligence applied to problem solving and deduction skills, where it's not uncommon for players to have their progress stunted because the character is unable to piece together something the player has long understood, or when the character suddenly solves a problem the player had no idea how to. Some will argue that much like physical skills, the mental faculties of a character should have a say in his interactions and options available to him. I agree this does define the kind of gameplay we've come to expect in a traditional cRPG - but what are these mechanics doing that they cannot be replaced with the player's own perception, intuition and intelligence?

In situations like these, there seems to be little reason to force the character - itself a logical extension of the player's personality - into a frustrating situation where his advancement is halted by rules which are looking at a static value rather than the player's own reasoning and deduction. This isn't to say there should be no method of evaluating a character and what options are open to him, but the concept of primary statistics has largely become an expected feature of the genre rather than a defining element of its gameplay. When it comes to statistics that attempt to simulate personality, abstracting the concepts of critical thought and willpower doesn't always work in a satisfying way. Role-playing will always require that its participants will process the information given to them and act accordingly - and a background simulation mechanic that halts your character's advancement to perform flat stat checks doesn't always translate into a better role-playing experience.

The dice are a terrible thing to taste.

But what about the statistics themselves? Are they worthwhile? How often have players invested in them? How often are they perceived to be as important as, say, Strength? Admittedly, this can be chalked up to a designer's own lack of vision and knowledge on how to maximize the use of Charisma - if not an outright problem in defining just what it is and how to implement it as a play mechanic with social ramifications. For the most part, current cRPGs will relay to players that strength and power are achieved by combat and progressive power scales that cover various stages of character development. Meanwhile, the notion that a skilled diplomat bending a nation to its knees could be seen as a powerful presence - and therefore strength of character - is often met with "no seriously, where my Mace of Fiery Bludgeoning +13 at?".

But can you blame them? Developers have broken down these concepts on grounds that the genre can never be fully recreated in electronic adaptations. Intelligence outside of social interaction is often delegated to skill point gain, allowing seemingly "smarter" characters to gain and spend more points in their attributes than others. Charisma stands on peculiar ground as well, many times downgraded into a simple way of checking how many NPCs should follow the main character or of convincing a character to do something that may even contradict his own reasoning. These outdated conventions in contemporary cRPG design masquerade a very simple conflict in the genre, one that fractures character development in a social context - it should rely on the player, not a statistic. Even if a character reaches the highest possible INT value of the game, his interactions are still going to be dictated by how intelligent the player controlling him is. And an incredibly low INT value isn't effective in dealing when the player is quick-witted to deal with problems his character would not have been able to. Charisma is a different beast but shares the same issue - there are other, more dynamic methods of character interaction with the gameworld and NPCs, and of representing personality and influence.

Unlike physical stats, which can be fitted into the system through much more meaningful ways even if they can succumb to the same issues, social stats like Intelligence and Charisma cause more problems than those they set out to solve for a very simple reason. You can not force players to role-play their stats, and you can't force those stats to help players role-play. This dredges up an earlier point - the absence of a direct mental link between player and character ends up rendering the adherence to social stats trite and ineffective. In the long run, the impact of mental and social stats that limit a character's progress becomes either negligible or a hassle since you can not code personality traits the player does not have the ability to play nor can you give gamers a personality trait they have no idea of how to role-play. And in terms of how storylines are advanced, this causes a great rift as well considering many times players can see right through plot twists or narrative directions before the characters do.

With that said... Get rid of Intelligence and Charisma as a play mechanic that influences dialogue.

Deus Ex's character progression uses ancillary skills and abilities, but it is primarily focused on how players interact with the gameworld and its entities.

I think there is a compelling argument for the use of these statistics in traditional cRPG, but it is possible to suggest distinct personalities through dialogue instead of occasional sentences that showcase the value behind the character. Are we so against change that we accept average dialogue that only very sporadically reflects the character's statistics? Look back to your experiences with the genre - what was the last cRPG you've played where your incredibly intelligent character spoke like he was actually intelligent? More than likely, you can't remember because he spoke like everyone else except during situations where the designers thought a stat check was necessary or "cool" to gleam some information or reward, or add some flavour to dialogue.

The odd stat checks in dialogue aside - which can be handled by skill checks, anyway - are not as defining of a character's role as most other actions players can execute, and they say nothing about the character itself in the long run, other that you've been fiddling with the character spreadsheet. On accounts of play mechanics, they can be rendered obsolete as well since it's fairly easy to design alternatives to the methods mentioned beforehand such as different ways of acquiring skill points, gaining followers or influencing other characters. The best way of achieving this is to have a system that tracks individual character interactions, and correlates them to the NPCs the players encounter, effectively assigning or removing dialogue options depending on the player's past experiences instead of having to deal with the determination of these primary statistics, creating a world with open-ended goals and reactive NPCs that can track your actions rather than your numbers.

The part where he shuts up and puts up. Maybe.

I believe there are various ways of achieving this.

1) One method I believe to be interesting is to have dialogue track specific actions and emphasize not how the player has developed his character statistically, but how the character has done things in the gameworld. To illustrate this, here is a scenario. In the fictional world of the role-playing game "Adventures of Adventurous Jim", a devastating war is ravaging the east coast of the continent where the bulk of the game occurs. You have the chance of being temporarily hired to sort out some guerrillas in the city of Ascaron, located right at the centre of the east coast. You accept and proceed to help out your employers... But at the cost of a pyrrhic victory - you and a scant few others defend the city from nomadic hordes but are the sole survivors. Further down the game, you come across a situation where a group of robbers has cornered a child.

Traditionally, you'd have several dialogue options - complete with stat or skill checks - determining if you could influence the robber to leave the victim alone. In here, I suggest that the character's past interactions - namely, the experience with Ascaron - influence the options available. Instead of the dialogue system tracking down the character's Charisma values and offering a canned dialogue option, it uses the character's past experiences to determine what he can say. In this case, the character would not need to make a roll to determine choices - the game would offer the character the option of saying "You will suffer by my hand as the Nomads did at Ascaron". Behind the screen, what the game is doing is assigning certain types of labels, which can then be given to the character to use in dialogue. The player could "earn" different labels (which would simply translate into different dialogue options) and decide which to use in certain conditions. The same line could be stored and used somewhere else, or another completely different line - that showcased the character's experiences - could be used in its place.

Moreover, a label could have various strings attached to it so that one single experience could give more than one option. When the character experienced a particular event, the same experience could 'unlock' various dialogue options. So while surviving the battle of Ascaron could allow the PC to use his experience to scare robbers away, he could also use "The pain I inflicted to the Ascaron Nomas pales to the one you are about to feel" to intimidate an NPC to do his bidding.

2) Another option is to have dialogue work as a modular system which tracks a character's skill value in specific instances of dialogue and introduces variations to its structure when necessary. To illustrate this example let's envision another scenario. Shadow Bob is someone who has poor knowledge of bartering and academic studies but is trying to purchase a technological item for a low price. His dialogue option would be the same for every other character who, like Bob, wasn't particularly well versed in science or economics:

*"Would you be willing to part with that metallic, LED-incrusted gun for 1200 coins?"

Notice the underlined words? The idea here is to have them reflect the character's current knowledge in a given topic, skill or situation (or any combination of these). Since Bob is lacking in both scientific and economic knowledge he doesn't know what the object really is nor is he aware of what would be a better price. But let's assume Shadow Bob doesn't make the purchase and travels somewhere else where he gains more knowledge about scientific apparel (such as a university) and bartering techniques (with merchants whom he may find work with). Upon returning with more knowledge, the dialogue to purchase the same item would change to:

*"Would you be willing to part with that Ion Repeater Rifle for 750 coins?"

This would apply to as many dialogue options as possible. The key advantage of this system is that it lets writers focus on more important dialogue events, while not having to worry with more mundane situations such as these since the system would automatically track which part of the sentence structure would need to change to better reflect the PC's skills and knowledge (as well as specific details of the current interaction - a shop's inventory, in this case).

3) Alternatively, let players determine a character's social behaviour during dialogue through a specific set of stances that would emulate personalities or intentions, whether by means of special speech or activities during social interaction. "Activities" isn't meant to suggest we veer into the abysmal pie chart nonsense that is the Oblivion dialogue system, however.

Dialogue can be conveyed both textually and visually, and that is what this system attempts to do by giving "attitude packages" players can choose from. This means that while influencing an NPC will require dialogue, it would no longer require a flat stat check. Instead of threatening a character through a canned dialogue line, players could instead choose an aggressive stance which would then see the PC draw out his weapon and threaten the NPC with it. Other means would include spell casting during dialogue in order to alter the NPCs perception or disposition towards the player instead of having to cast it outside of dialogue.

This system could have other uses, such as stealing from characters through dialogue - an example of this can be seen in Planescape: Torment - which has the benefit of not requiring compartmentalized actions outside of dialogue (i.e., navigating the interface to enter a "Stealth Mode", getting near the character, accessing the interface again to click on the NPC, and hope he fails an Awareness check so you don't have to reload and try again). You could easily increase the simulation aspect and require the player pull off certain manoeuvres to steal from an NPC such as misleading him, and go for the theft when he is distracted (the specifics can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be, depending on the situation). Other options include asking for higher rewards when tasked with retrieving items - you can, for instance, accept the quest reward... Or ask for a better one by threatening to destroy the object you've just been tasked to recover.

Enough with the yadda yadda yadda, already.

I hope everyone enjoyed the controversy.

Regardless of what readers may think these clearly aren't the be-it-all, end-it-all possibilities for where dialogue could go and neither are they trying to be. These suggestions are made from an enthusiast's point of view and that's all they are - ideas for design that are meant to raise discussion about the genre's traditional play mechanics, and whether an adherence to said elements are invigorating or stifling. The important thing here is to look at what the genre has offered and honestly ask if that's all it can ever aspire to.

This was part 1 of our latest feature, "Next-Gen Role-Playing Design", where we will be discussing ideas on where we think current cRPG design could go without losing sight of its role-playing foundations. Next article will deal with combat mechanics.

Thanks for reading, and don't forget to leave feedback in our forums!

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