Thursday, July 11, 2013

I Played Dishonored Wrong, And So Are Your Players

I spent a recent weekend playing Dishonored, a stealth game with a cool setting and a few neat powers. I had a great time playing it, but I finished in just over 8 hours. Now, I am not one to rush through games... I am typically not even that good at games, so 8 hours seemed very short to me. I searched "Dishonored short" on the internet to see if other people had the same experience I did and indeed, I found that many people complained that Dishonored was too short. I also found something else very interesting...

I had totally played it wrong.

I mean, I played it right. I had been told by a friend that the more people you kill, the crappier ending you get, so I was stealthy and pretty non-lethal. I moved to my objective efficiently, getting in and out with little trouble. When I was cornered and detection was imminent, I used my abilities to neutralize the threat. I got the happy, "You Are Awesome" ending. I was a freakin' ninja!!

But, I played the game horribly wrong. See, there are dozens of little nooks and crannies on the mission maps, and those nooks and crannies contain various NPCs, challenges, side-quests, objects to collect, and so on... probably another 8-12 hours game play if I "did it right."

Dishonored sort of misled me. I went into it thinking it was a stealth game. Indeed, the game rewarded me for being stealthy and punished me when I wasn't. Part of being stealthy is not subjecting yourself to undue risk of exposure. If you are in the mansion to kill the duchess, and you find she is in the basement, you don't wander through the third floor looting the place, because that gives you a much higher chance of being detected. So, you go to the basement, kill the duchess, and get out of Dodge... and miss half the game.

That got me thinking about how often as game designers and GMs we pull a "Dishonored" and mislead players. Not deliberately, of course, but by not being clear about our vision for the upcoming game. So, I think the lesson to be learned is to be clear and communicate with your players about your expectations. For instance...

Be Clear About Character Concepts

I admit I have a problem. As a GM of over 30 years, I have gotten lazy and one of the ways this laziness manifests is at the very beginnings of a campaign. I will usually email a quick paragraph or two talking about what the game will be about and then I let people disappear and create characters. Invariably, someone will end up with a character idea that doesn't quite fit, and I will be uncomfortable, but probably allow it anyway, hoping to make it all work later. Now, I have a PC that I as a GM am not thrilled about, and I have a player who thinks his character is fine, won't fix it, and as the game goes on, will be disappointed that his story lines aren't as well developed as the other players'.

My new strategy is a two-pronged approach. First, I will sit down before character generation and create about 2 or 3 times as many quick concepts as I will have players in the group. A quick concept is a one or two sentence character idea that fits with the idea I have for the game. So, "young farmboy longing for adventure among the stars", "charming rogue pilot who says he is in it just for the money, but really has a heart of gold", "noble senator on the run from agents of the Empire" would work. When it comes time to create characters, we all sit together as players choose their concepts, flesh them out, and start rolling stats.

Be Clear About Power Levels

I have seen many a HERO System game turned sour because differing levels of character-building skill led to wildly varying power levels in the game. Similarly, D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder GMs can sometimes find themselves the victims of supplement creep, where players cobble together juggernauts by cherry-picking powers and feats from dubious sources. In the new Traveller 5th Edition, stats play a heavy part in your character's chance to succeed at tasks, so someone with a 12 in an attribute is going to be way better than someone who ended up with an plain old 7.

More recently in one of my games, a player ditched his moderately powered, thiefy character to bring in a min-maxed, over the top, barbarian death machine... which usually isn't a problem, except he now overshadows the other two fighters in the group. And that sucks. And that is my fault for not being clear with the player about what was appropriate given the current makeup of the adventuring party.

So, before your game starts, hash out what you feel is an appropriate power level for the game, communicate that to your players and stick with it. If you are running Pathfinder, what starting stats, powers and feats are appropriate? What supplements are available for players to build their characters? If you are running a point-build system, check characters for poor builds, or cheesy hyper-optimized builds. If your game gives character points for "flaws", make sure no one is piling on flaws to farm character points. If your game has random stats, consider going with an array, or a point-buy system instead.

It is hard to give general advice, but take some time to understand where you want your characters to start in terms of power level, and then be clear and firm to the players.

Be Clear About What Skills and Powers Are Useful

Games that have lots of skills (GURPS, I am looking at you) tend to have an interesting problem. In a given campaign, not all skills will have the same value. If you are playing a game that takes place in medieval Europe, then your Latin skill is great; in post-apocalyptic Australia, not so much. That is a pretty easy example, so let's be a little more subtle. If we are playing a game in post-apocalyptic Australia, should I spend my last few points on Animal Husbandry, or Auto Repair?

That depends on the campaign, of course. If we are drivers who travel from town to town to compete in deadly arena races, repairing cars might be a big deal. On the other hand, if we are playing settlers who are trying to restore civilization to the wasteland, I would want both skills in my group.

The clearer you are about the concept behind the campaign, what type of adventures you can foresee and what kinds of activities you'd like to see the players do, the more likely it is the players will choose useful abilities for their characters. As best you can, narrow the concept and get a handle on what specific types of adventures are you going to run.

  • Post-apocalyptic game set in Australia
  • Characters are members of a "road team" that drives from town to town to compete in races
  • PCs will be drivers, mechanics, and booking agents
  • Adventures will consist of PCs interacting with local townsfolk, trading their services for repair parts and supplies, interacting with other teams, fending off/sabotaging other teams, collecting special parts for their cars, battling bandits in the wild, righting local wrongs when the locals cannot, full-combat races through hostile terrain
  • At some point, I would like to have the PCs stranded in the desert without their vehicles and they have to somehow make the long, dangerous trek back to civilization

So, most of that indicates driving, mechanics, and heavy weapons. But there is also a heavy trading and social aspect as well, so skills like converse, carouse and trade will be needed. Screwing with other teams seems to be a part of the game, so brawling and stealth might be useful. Presumably someone has to get you from place to place, so navigate might be good... and since you think at one point, they will be stranded in the middle of nowhere, you might hint to someone that they should pick up desert survival.

Be Clear About Where They Should Go

I once knew a GM who ran a campaign and he often bragged about how "open" his game was. "Players can do anything they want," he would gleefully tell us. Sounds great, but he ran into a snag at one point and told the story about how foolish his players were being, because instead of following his clues and heading for the city in the mountains (where the bad guys were holed up), they insisted in chasing his red herring and searching for the baddies downriver. He complained that his game had devolved into a camping simulator as the PCs searched for the enemies they would never find.

"So, what did they find downriver?" I asked.

"Nothing! That is the point. They were supposed to go to the city. Dude, were you even listening?"

I love sandbox games, since I feel they embody one of the coolest things about tabletop gaming, the feeling of being able to do anything you can imagine doing. This guy wasn't running such a game. He was running a linear game with a lot of floundering (and camping) as the players tried to discern what was in his head.

Don't be that guy. If you are running a linear game, be clear about it and make sure players know where to go next. If they mess up and head the wrong direction, put a new clue in their way that will right their path. If they follow your clever false clue, have the villains gloat about it. If they are stuck and looking bored... ninjas work wonders. Deception is only fun in a game AFTER your players figure it out, so make sure they ultimately figure it out.

Now if you truly are running a sandbox game... that is a whole other post!