Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Drama stars

There's an interesting set of discussions going on at Tales of the Rampant Coyote and Blog of War about how to crack the save game problem, that problem specifically being that, in a situation where the outcome is dependent on a roll of the virtual dice, players will save and restore until they get the desired outcome. Sometimes it doesn't actually involve a save game - lots of old school RPGs encouraged obsessive-compulsive rerolling of stats and balanced the game accordingly.

I've done this before, Fallout 2 being the most egregious example to come to mind. There, I played my typical scientist/diplomat main character (because I like having as many dialogue options as possible), only to find out that, unlike the first game, you can't talk your way out of most fights. So instead, I just did a lot of save-scumming, restoring the game on a per-combat-round basis, to get through the tougher fights.

There have been plenty of methods employed to limit this behavior, the most common being save points, prerolling and "roguelike" saves (i.e., where quitting automatically saves, saving automatically quits, and dying forces you to start over). Save points are often annoying because they parcel out the game into chunks that aren't always manageable (if I have 20 minutes of free time, there's little point in playing a game that spaces the save points around 30 minutes apart), and because they can give away the pacing of the game. Prerolling involves making decisions involving randomness far in advance of when they would actually be checked - for example, determining the contents of a treasure chest at the start of a level rather than when the chest is opened. If the player wants to try for better treasure, he or she will have to replay the entire level. This works tolerably well for something like treasure, but not at all for something like combat, where there's not much way to determine outcomes in advance. Roguelike saves work for roguelikes because those games involve randomly generated content; for a story game, replaying the beginning stages will quickly become repetitious.

The Rampant Coyote has come up with an alternative mechanism to discourage save-scumming: "drama stars." These work analogously to the "drama points" used by many tabletop RPGs - if you engage in what the game deems risky behavior (e.g., "dangerous" dialog choices, and presumably anything requiring a nontrivial skill check with consequences for failure) or when bad things happen (e.g., a character getting knocked out or killed in battle), you accumulate "drama stars" which can be redeemed for in-game benefits like reviving a fallen character.

The system reminds me of a variation I thought up a while back of a battle system proposed by Shamus Young for lightsaber duelling, wherein the concept of "hit points" was stupid (nobody gets scratched by a lightsaber). My system had various types of analogues for hit points, from armor that took damage to magic potions that wore off over time (I aimed for "interesting" and "varied" more than "realistic"), but the version that applied here was a character whose survival was based on "luck." "Luck" was a kind of RNG karma; unlucky circumstances (e.g., failing to hit an opponent) would build up karma and lucky ones would build karma. Enemy attacks, however, would always miss, using up karma dependent on the likelihood of hitting and the ferocity of the attack, until the character's luck ran out. Under such a system, you don't want to be the golden boy/girl who succeeds all the time, because that'll deplete your karma and you'll lose faster. (I'm not sure how one "recharges" one's fortune - perhaps going to a casino in town and losing money?)

The tricky bit in the "drama stars" system, though, and the one that really discourages save-scumming, is this: drama stars aren't saved. You restore your game, you're back at 0. Thus it's arguably better to play out poor consequences, because the drama stars earned more than negate those effects. However, this creates a new challenge: how do you maintain game balance when some players play in 20-minute "coffee breaks" and others play marathon sessions? One suggestion in the comments was to allow a "progress save" that works like a roguelike save - you want to stop playing, you save and exit, and when you come back your stars are intact. If you restore any other save, though, you're back at 0.

All in all, it's an interesting concept, and I can't wait to see more about Frayed Knights. (Why does this sort of thing only seem to show up in indie-game discussions, anyway?)

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