Monday, 3 March 2008

Being diplomatic

Ever since someone pointed out to me that there was a diplomat option in Incursion, I've wondered how playing as a diplomat in a roguelike works. I've never found out, because I don't have time to play the game. But I've just read an article that has at least inspired me to think about it a little more.

The writing in question is this article on non-combat game play by Vince D. Weller, one of the developers of Age of Decadence. It includes a number of amazing stories of some real people who've successfully used diplomacy in RPG-like ways. Vince then goes onto elaborate how you could implement alternate ways of handling encounters, other than using combat.

He makes the mistake of suggesting using dialog trees.

The dialog tree is one of the most boring mechanics that I can think of. It's a regression back to pick-a-path adventure stories. Remember those? You'd make one of several choices, and depending on the whim of the author, you'd either end up making the right choice, or die unexpectedly.

That's my key criticism of dialog trees. There's not enough information in the trees themselves to suggest which option to take. It might be the limited exposure I've had to this game mechanic. I found some of the Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines dialog interesting, particularly when it involved very deep dialog trees with some well written and ambiguous responses (and deliciously damaged female characters).

So maybe dialog trees are just limited by the strength or weakness of the writing involved. But I suspect it's more than that.

Dialog trees are one-dimensional. You don't have the ability to back-track, unless the speaking option is included by the dialog designer (And how many times have we experienced repetitive dialog) - instead, it's just a choice of a few options, usually cut down because of constraints of screen space and sentence complexity. You don't know what the ultimate goal of the conversation is to start with, whereas in combat it's clear - kill the opponents. So you don't know which approach to the conversation is best.

Compare this to the multiple options made available in combat, and the complexities of range and terrain that complicate it. Dialog trees just don't have the same level of sophistication.

So how can we improve the diplomacy mechanic? I suspect turning dialog into a mini-game of some kind is the right way. But every mini-game mechanic I've come up with so far makes me cringe even worse than dialog trees.

Do you have any suggestions? Keep in mind that this is a roguelike design website, so I need something that's entertaining while remaining repeatable and random.


Ryan said...

I've completed Incursion using diplomacy. It was actually much easier than fighting my through the dungeon, as 'quelling' a monster also quells everyone else in its party, and you get full experience for each monster.

If you come across a vault full of demons and dragons, and quell just one of them, you get something like 12000 experience points, and safe passage to pick up all of the shiny loot.

Oh yes, since diplomacy is based on a skill, you can get a focus feat for that skill and get a re-roll if you fail the first time.

Finally, paladins use charisma for their powers, and start off worshiping a god. One of these gods happens to like it when you use diplomacy, so you can get even more powerful!

Most things you can't quell can be kept at bay with the Zeal spell. (I think it was Zeal... Basically, it's like Sanctuary, except the target you cast on can still attack you without a saving throw.)

I'd say there are some balancing issues there. :)

Davzz said...

It's not quite as interesting as it sounds, you have Diplomacy as a skill, when you talk to (sentient) enemies there is an option to "Quell" them and succeeding on the D&D D20 style dice roll turns them peaceful and grants you EXP as if you had killed his entire group. You only get one chance at this but using something like a Halfling with their bonus to Charisma and Diplomacy makes it easier than it seems.

It's kinda broken but there are a few disadvantages. You don't get the items from their bodies (unless you buy it from them, which takes another diplomacy check so they might not want to part with it) and having the monsters around mean they'll do stuff like stick around to block your way through narrow passageways or hinder your efforts to use Area of Effect spells without hitting them as well.

If you attack anyone who is turned peaceful this way due to pure frustration/annoyance or by accident, you should also expect to anger your god (in general, the good gods who love peaceful solutions hate it when you backstab like this)

Gavin said...

Conversation mini-game.

Ok, this is only a half-assed idea, but that's brainstorming, right ?

I'm picturing a board with conversation options ranging from nasty to nice. Your character (on the evil to good scale) determines your control over the pointer. Now you know, perhaps, that to soothe a specific NPC you need to say something nice, but being such an evil (Knievel) your mouse shakes like something else when trying to touch that option, corresponding to your mind just not working like that (and feeling much better about the "Screw You" option.) Getting the picture? I don't think it's a particularly good idea, but maybe somebody can bounce off it (or think of something better in criticizing it.)


Ryan said...

Actually, that sounds like a neat idea.

Maybe the player's mouse could be attracted to a certain item, and you need to struggle to get it away long enough to click. If you take to long, you look insincere, or something.

Craig Perko said...

This is a point of interest for me, too.

Because you're doing a Roguelike, the scope of the conversations would be pretty limited, wouldn't it? Just trying to keep monsters from eating you?

In that case, the only variation possible is in the method of keeping the monster from eating you. Normally, the two options are to have a more adventure-like system (Dragons like you if you feed them beef) or a more skill-like system (you have a charisma of 14 and are wearing alligator-hide boots). The other options I can think of don't work for Roguelikes.

I don't know how interesting you could make it, but it would be interesting to see.

Just remember that talking can be done at more than one square of range!

Andrew Doull said...

Craig: I've already got plenty of dialog at the moment. Monsters talk to each other about the player state, which if the player understand's the monster language, they'll hear.

e.g. A monster may say 'The elven wizard resists fire.' after casting a fire spell at the player.

What I'm interested in is a nice diplomatic system to allow the player to avoid having to fight monsters. It has to be interesting though. I think just using a 'quell' effect is not enough. You need to then be able to do something with the quelled monsters (trade, find out information, get quests etc), while not making them push overs.

Equally, I think the 'quell' effect could be a lot more interesting in itself. Hence the mini-game suggestion.

I really do think having a deck of diplomatic effects is the best way. You could play cards like 'Long lost relative', 'Distract', 'Riddle', 'Flatter' and so on to overcome monsters.

Gavin said...

You forgot the "I'm selling these fine leather jackets" card.

But seriously, isn't Charisma exactly what we're looking for? Higher charisma, higher influence on monsters. For it to be balanced, 'monster languages' would have to be a character track. So your character is an expert in monster culture and language but he doesn't know his sword from his elbow.

Robert said...

In the Dungeon, the winner of a fight is usually a little more powerful for having won, given some turns to heal. So the only incentive two parties otherwise inclined to mortal combat have to refrain from it is if they both believe they might lose.

An array of interesting options could be built on "bluffing" ... ways that it can be easier to look powerful than to be powerful.

Of course, this demands an AI that is willing to run away (or at least hang back) if it suspects it is overmatched.

Ryan said...

I disagree. The player may want to trade, recruit the other character, or just be a pacifist.

Ben said...

Fallout is a good example of a game with non-boring dialog trees. The text for each of your character's choices is typically long enough to convey a good bit of meaning, and the choices are usually comprehensive for what you might want to do. The existence of some choices is tied to your intelligence and charisma stats, as well as barter and speech skills, your reputation (good or ill) in a town, your karma, your interactions with other characters, etc. Fallout benefitted, however, from having a very skillful and dedicated writing team.

esden9 said...

You could have a diplomacy state for each mob. The dialog/diplomacy options available can be based on this state.

For example, against a hostile mob you might have an option like "warcry" in which your character lets out a bloodcurdling battle cry. In reaction, some mobs may flee (kobolds), others may become further enraged (orcs), while others might become more cautious or even impressed to the point they initiate an attempt to reach a truce (human fighter).

In the above example of the fighter, impressed by your bravery he halts his advance and enters a guarded state. Now you have new options, perhaps something like "boast".

Impressed even further the fighter returns your boast with a tall tale of his own and now he is in a friendly state. And in the friendly state you've got things like "recruit" or "ask about inventory item".

alex dante said...

The utterly surreal 1988 game Captain Blood was pretty much entirely diplomatic; it was a French production, so no surprise there :)

You had to hunt down aliens from different species and communicate with them via a pictographic language, generally in order to find the next alien to hunt down and etc etc.

While the pictographs were always the same, each species had a different "grammar" which you had to solve in order to get the correct response from them.

Just more fodder for consideration :)

Shoku said...

Here's a minigame you could use for diplomacy that everyone playing and RPG would be sure to at least tolerate: RPG combat.

When you look at a roguelike the combat is so abstract anyway (I move in that one's direction to attack it. I shoot my wand in that direction.) that it wouldn't have tovisually change other than the words you stick on the screen to describe it.

*Well, the "they die and leave their money/items on the ground" bit would have to change but maybe not even that much.

This sort of implies a second type of hitpoints (verbpoints?)but if you stop thinking about writing the dialogue for it and just swap out "kobold lunges at player's throat but player blocks it" to "kobold says the plan isn't very solid but player counters calling logic fallacy on it" you don't even need to make it a different thing.

The method of "damaging" the player back is where you've actually got to think of something. Usually "failing" dialogue just means getting into a fight but that's expected in the dungeon anyway.

If it throws the character into a bit of a berserk state where they can't focus enough to run away without killing the monster that upset them (or using some potion to regain their wits,) it might work pretty well.

Something like a mind flayer might even be particularly well equipped for diplomatic-damage where if the player loses they don't just have a tantrum but instead go insane gibbering to themselves with the obvious game over following quickly.
(The genre is pretty unforgiving but I don't think verbally losing to a rat would make someone insane- they'd have to have already been to lose in the first place.)

Also instead of always converting a whole pack of monsters you could designate one of them as the leader and have it be required that you either convince it to convert the group or convince enough of them to betray it. As leader it would obviously be of a different difficulty to convince as it would (usually) be thinking about it's subordinates.