**Disclaimer** The following blog is a parody. For avoidance of doubt, Otto von Quarzis is NOT a prophet and his former Rules Firm is NOT a law firm, does not provide legal advice, and, you know... isn't real. Carry on.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Episodic Adventures

First, I will acknowledge that this is one of the least inspiring blog post titles ever.  Hopefully, inspiration will strike, and I will re-title this post in the coming days. (hm... does that count as a new blog post?)

In tabletop role-playing games, adventures tend to be split up into episodes.  Each adventure is its own self-contained story, but makes up a much larger story arc.  Some of these individual episodes are tightly bound together (such as a multi-level dungeon, in which the adventurers explore one level per game session), and others are more like a long running plot arc.  However, the episodic nature allows a full story to be told in the span on one session, while simultaneously providing the players with an overall sense of connecting adventure.  It is very much the way television shows tend to be distributed to the viewing public - bite sized chunks of a story every week, culminating in a grand "plot finale" and the obligatory "start of the new season" teaser.

Computer Role-Playing Games "sort of" do this too - but the issue tends to be pacing.  The "boss battle" is the CRPG version of the episode.  Finish the boss battle - okay time to go to bed.  The problem is that there is no grand director to make sure the adventure is on track and within the time limit.  Designers can only do so much to guesstimate average play times and design their levels to these estimated times.  Because players tend to (a) get off track (and this applies equally to table-top RPGs) and (b) try to pick up a game with less than the designed time (this tends to be a CRPG specific problem, but can apply to table-top RPGs as well), the episode system doesn't work as well.  In a table-top RPG, the GM can adjust on the fly to accommodate the party and keep them on track.  If the game starts late (i.e. pick up a game with less than the designed time), the GM can adjust the number of battles/encounters accordingly.  Designing a computer game to GM this type of flexibility is a lot harder.

While great advances in AI and computer game design have been made in the past 20 years, it has not even come close to a human GMed table-top adventure.  Someday, we may have an IBM Watson running a computer role-playing adventure.  However, until that day, it is my belief that computer game designers need to come up with some new design tricks specific to the platform.  At this point, many game designers are rolling their eyes and saying "Hey! That is what the <save game> function is, dummy."

My critique of the "save game" function is that it breaks the natural flow of the episode.  In a table-top RPG, the party may decide to stop at some point in what would normally be a one day adventure.  For whatever reason (they took too long at parts of the adventure, they started late, they rolled so poorly that a battle took twice as long as expected (Roll20 dice hate me), etc.), the players need to stop the game mid-way and so "save" the game for next session.  However, the GM can pick a natural stopping point and create two separate, logically concluding episodes (much like the dreaded to be continued... TV episodes).  In a computer role-playing game, the stopping point becomes a much more difficult issue.

There are two main types of "save games" for CRPGs - the Tomb Raider (speaking of the reboot) style checkpoint system, in which after specific "episodes" (usually of her solving some riddle) you are allowed to continue at the next portion of the story and the save anytime and anywhere system (like Baldur's Gate).  In between these extremes are many different variations.  I have a lot of respect for Tomb Raider's implementation.  It allows you to break off easy to manage "chunks" and come back later - although, not too much later or you're likely going to forget what the heck the main point was.  However, that is true for any game - even the tabletop RPGs.  The save anywhere system is the most disruptive, in that it stops the flow mid-way, and in my opinion does not allow the player "closure" on what is going on - unless they choose to save only at distinct points.  However, those distinct points tend to be spread pretty far apart, and thus brings one full circle back to the main issue, which is pacing.

I believe the checkpoint system could be effectively integrated into MMORPGs (which moving forward will be the main focus of this blog) and provide a more compelling experience for the players.  They key of course would be how to integrate this in with the multiplayer - and perhaps on multiplayer quests, this just isn't possible or feasible - in which case, is there a better way to create pacing for those players that can't devote five hours to solving a quest.  Perhaps breaking the quest into smaller component pieces and making each level of a dungeon (for example) a quest in and of itself.  You can then have agreement between the party members on whether they want to "go it alone" in the next level or wait for other party members to be able to do it.  Integrating character entrance and exits in this type of scenario would be the trickiest part, if you wanted to have a game reason for the change.  This brings me to a anecdotal tale:

I played in a tabletop campaign during a period of time when work was extremely busy and I was usually getting home after 9 p.m. (1/2 or 3/4ths into the adventure).  We came up with an "in game" way to allow me to pop into the game late.  I was a weird necromancer type character, and spent most of my time folded up in the backpack of the vampiress warlock.  The idea was he came up with a spell that allowed him to feed on the soul power of the dead to feed his spells, but the process made him a bit "bendy" (sort of stole the idea from he that shall not be named - from THAT book).  It really had no "in game" affect, except that it allowed me to explain both a source of my power and how it was I was able to just pop into the game (without using the old... DM runs as NPC bit).

Bringing those types of options to MMORPGs would open up many different possibilities and, I believe, enhance the role-playing potential.  It would also allow more options for pacing within the game to accommodate players' very different time commitments.  These concepts are some that I plan to think about closely as I work on my new project - an MMORPG, because as I will detail in a future post - you can never have enough of.

As always, thank you for reading.  May your virtual dice roller not get stuck rolling 1s.