Sunday, October 10, 2010

Personal Review: Alignment Roleplaying

Something I have to consider as a modder and aspiring game developer/designer are my previous creations and the design choices that I made for them.  In this post, I'm going to concentrate entirely on my Neverwinter Nights 2 (NWN2) module Fate of a City and discuss a core part of its design philosophy.

Fate of a City (FoaC) was highly roleplay focused, in no small part due to my initial idea for the module being entirely roleplay based. I'd first imagined it being more like an adventure game than anything else. I figured this probably wouldn't actually be terribly popular amongst the NWN2 community, so ditched that idea, but instead decided to focus heavily on alignment based roleplaying. D&D has two separate alignment axes, good and evil versus law and chaos. It is also possible to be neutral in either axis, giving a possible 9 alignments.

D&D's alignments meet Batman

In light of this, I decided to base most conversation choice around 5 possible options: Good, Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic and Evil. These options were presented in that order each time (thus giving the player some meta-game information about the tone of their choice), and every choice would modify your character's alignment in that direction to varying degrees. This did not extend to conversations where the player was simply gathering information or other factual situations - only conversations where the player was expression an opinion about a subject or making a choice. This was a core part of the module as a whole, almost every significant action or choice that the player could make was able to be tied into one of these alignment categories

This system allowed me to have players make a decision, but provide an emotional or thought process behind each choice that they could roleplay. There was a difficult balance in making the choices apply to the specific alignment while not prescribing an exact reason for a decision. Even better, because of numeric system of 0-100 in each axis used to implement alignment within NWN2, I could let the player know exactly how far they were modifying their alignment to let them know if they were perhaps drifting away from what the player considered to be their "core" alignment. I was also able to use the alignment to dictate how people in the city reacted to the player in general - a character who had an evil alignment would have an equivalent reputation because this would almost certainly be as a result of their misdeeds within the game. The alignment even affected the overall outcome at the end of the game, as the player's demeanour had a significant effect on the ending of the game also taking into consideration their other actions within the game. I'm going to pick on Fallout 3 again and say that it probably had fewer endings than FoaC, or more accurately, fewer meaningfully different endings.

Using different pictures is not providing a different ending

However, while this system had a great many benefits, it wasn't perfect. Some players did not agree with the "tone" of some of the decisions, and I received some complaints about the severity of some of the alignment swings that could occur as a result of player actions. I feel I could happily defend my choices (I think murdering people in cold blood should demand a fairly serious alignment change), but it doesn't change the fact that some people disliked them. However, more importantly, the some of the reason for this dislike is that some class choices demand that characters adhere to specific alignments: Barbarians cannot be lawful, druids must always be at least partially neutral, Warlocks must be chaotic or evil, etc, etc. By tying choices to alignment, it meant that I was tying specific classes to particular roleplaying choices within the game.

There were plenty of choices to modify a player's alignment during the game, allowing them to quite easily go from one end of each axis to the other and then back again. However, some players may have been stuck making decisions they weren't necessarily happy with because I was forcing the D&D alignment system on them and forcing them to adhere to it. While this is arguably sticking to the spirit of alignment as it is used in D&D in that it forces players to adhere to those limitations, they are precisely that: limitations. By implementing choice within alignment, I was effective limiting player choice. From a setting and D&D system point of view, it was somewhat purist, but this doesn't work as well within the context of a computer game because of those limits you are placing on the player. Sure, it prevents the paladin player from going around kicking puppies, but it also potentially prevents the warlock having a slight benevolent streak without penalising them.

Is forcing alignment a bad idea?

In hindsight, it may have been better to implement two different axes of "reputation" or something similar to keep track of the player's decisions (in a general sense rather than dealing with specific choices), and have NPC interactions be affected by these scales rather than those that could actually have an effect on core game mechanics. It is an interesting case of setting/lore consistency versus gameplay enjoyability, and one that I may have been better erring on the side of "fun" rather than the side of "mechanic correctness".

To highlight this in the context of a commercial game, a similar argument has also been raised in regards to Mass Effect 2, where players have voiced concern about being forced to pursue either the renegade or paragon path in an almost exclusive manner if they wish to be able to use the associated speech skills to obtain desirable outcomes during conversations. Players who attempt to cover their bases or maintain somewhat of a middle ground will actually end up being unable to persuade people, including party members, which will potentially result in squadmate deaths. Is this a bad thing, or is it simply providing consequences for the choices the player is making?

1 comment:

  1. The positioning thing is best practice in any case, IMO. Grats on implementing it yourself without needing to see ME or Alpha Protocol first ;)

    I think your instinct to use the system in place was good, it's just that when working with more complex systems you have to spend more time thinking about all the places the tentacles of those mechanics go. Or build on a smaller scale first, get player feedback and then iterate, but that's rough for modders.

    Interestingly enough the 4E alignment system doesn't penalise drift like that anymore. It's possible WotC felt that restricting the fun of player choice and RP wasn't worth whatever value the consequences were adding. And that's tabletop! In our context, the player can reload...