Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #66:

Roleplaying and Combat: Events and Choices

by Travis S. Casey
August 29, 2003

Roleplaying often gets thought of as something that gets done outside of combat. To me, though, combat seems to be an opportunity for a different sort of roleplaying — a chance to see what a character acts like in combat.

Note that I'm not talking about characters delivering soliloquies in the middle of combat — you don't need a system for that, and it's somewhat ridiculous anyways. I'm talking about the way that combat is used to show character in movies and books. The way that one character will use "dirty" tricks, attack while opponents are down, and never give anyone else an even break, while another character will let an opponent who's been disarmed in a duel retrieve the weapon, give chances to surrender, etc.

With these sorts of things, combat becomes an opportunity to roleplay in a different way. There are two basic elements involved in this kind of roleplaying in combat — events and choices. Events happen which cause the player to need to make choices about what his/her character will do. Having choices not only allows roleplay, but it can also help make combat more interesting... but for both of those, there's something that needs to be borne in mind:

Choices must be meaningful.

One type of "meaningfulness" has to do with game mechanics. If, out of a set of choices, one is obviously the best choice (or worse, the only reasonable choice), then the "choice" is largely an illusion. For example, consider a system where opponents sometimes fall down, and you have the choice of either attacking them while they're down or staying there and letting them get back up. In a typical "kill the monsters and take their treasure" game, no one's ever going to take the second choice — it offers no advantage, while the other does offer one.

A better choice to offer in such a game would be to either attack the opponent while it's down or run away — this is a more meaningful choice, because there are situations where running away may be the better option.

However, one could also make the choice of "let the opponent get back up" be meaningful by creating mechanics to support it. For example, one might add an Honor score to the game, and designate some tactics as honorable and others as dishonorable. Striking a foe while he/she's down might be considered dishonorable, and subtract from the honor score.

Another way to make such a choice meaningful would be to make it affect the behavior of opponents — for at least some opponents, if you let them get back up when knocked down, they'll let you get back up when you're knocked down.

A second way in which a choice may not be meaningful is for it to be insignificant. For example, from the standpoint of choices being used for roleplaying, it isn't likely to matter whether a character chooses to thrust or swing with a sword. (It might matter to the effectiveness of the sword, but that's another issue.) However, a choice of "dirty" or "clean" blows could very well matter, especially if duelling is a common form of combat.

Another note that should be made is that a choice doesn't necessarily have to matter right now — it can matter later. For example, for a thief breaking into a warehouse, the choice of "kill the guard, or knock him/her out" might not matter right now — either one will allow getting past the guard. However, it might matter later — a guard who's knocked out and no other precautions taken may come out of it and sound an alarm. On the other hand, though, the police might put more effort into catching someone who's a thief and a murderer, rather than just a thief.

At this point, we're taking a broader view of "events" — we started with small events in combat, and now we're moving up to an encounter as an "event". We can keep scaling this up, and also move these ideas of events and choices out of just the arena of combat... and even beyond the genre of roleplaying games.

Consider D&D-style combat, as described in my previous column. One of the primary "events" for D&D-style combat isn't combat itself — but the aftermath of combat, in which the choice of "do we go on or not?" arises. This choice can also be a roleplaying choice — one which characters in the game can argue over. One can increase the meaningfulness of the choice through outside pressure — e.g., if there is pursuit, then a choice to stop and rest carries added dangers. (Note, though, that too much pressure in a particular direction can make the choice meaningless... if pursuit is close behind, wants to kill the characters, and is unstoppable, then stopping and resting is no longer a real choice.)

Any sort of branching point can be considered an event with attendent choices. The classic example here, of course, is "pick-a-path" games like the Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy ones. Here, part of the meaningfulness of choices comes from the player's lack of knowledge — there may be one choice which is definitely the "best" one to make, but the player doesn't know where the choices will lead unless he/she has played the game before. (That brings up the subject of replay value... but I think that's too large for a brief aside.)

In, say, a real-time strategy game, there are also events and choices. Take, for example, WarCraft. Raids by the opposing force are one sort of event, with what forces to send against them being a choice. Discovery of new resources on the map is another event. Depletion of resources is another. The creation of a new orc or human is another, requiring a decision about what task to give it. Then there are strategic choices, such as whether to focus on mining gold or harvesting wood. These aren't directly reactions to events, but they are done with an eye towards preparing for certain events, and/or causing events to happen.

In an online roleplaying game, another sort of choice is the choice of what quests/missions/whatever to have a character pursue. It can be easy to overlook the possibility of making choices at this level be meaningful for roleplaying — but they can be. The classic example of an "unsupported choice" is for a character to decide to join a group of bandits instead of trying to root them out.

Since I'm on the topic of choices, a few words of warning about potential problems with choices:

Choices which don't get noticed. Players can't make a choice if they don't know that it exists. Documentation is one thing which can help here. Popups of menus and the like can also help, or even simple "help blurbs" which come up when things happen.

Having too many choices. On the other hand, when there are lots of options, players may spend too much time pondering the choices, or may be unable to explore many of them. Sometimes breaking down choices step-by-step can be helpful here (again, this applies to situations other than combat as well — e.g., in character creation).

Overly harsh punishments for "wrong" choices. Okay... sometimes there have to be bad choices. Indeed, if there are no bad choices, that's another way in which choice can become meaningless. But not every choice has to be life-or-death, and not every choice has to be undoable. Particularly in situations such as selecting what to carry or to buy, making it easy to "try out" choices and then "undo" them can make things swifter and smoother. Further, if too many choices lead to "dead ends" of one type or another, players may become very reluctant to try new choices.

Last, but not least, I'd like to mention the idea of a "magician's choice" (also known as a "magician's force"). This is something which appears to be a real choice, but actually isn't. For example, a character might see two paths diverging in a forest, and have the choice of which one to take... and the game could be set up so that no matter which one the player chooses, it will lead to the same place. If there's something which absolutely has to happen in a game, this can be a good trick — but since it makes a choice meaningless, it should be used as sparingly as possible.

A similar ploy is branching paths which later rejoin (note that I'm talking here about both physical paths in the game world, and logical paths, such as "this happens if the characters defeat the guards" and "this happens if the characters are defeated by the guards"). A similar warning applies here, but one can make the different paths meaningful by having them affect future events and/or the character's state. E.g., with the paths of "defeated the guards" or "defeated by the guards", they might both lead to the same place, but the situation the characters are in when they arrive there could be very different.

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