Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kill and Deliver: Are These the Only Types of Quests?

Good day, hero. The acorns you are holding are magical and may only be planted in a specific grove. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to deliver said acorns to our queen at the Windspear Hills. She will know where to plant the acorns. As always, should you or any member of your party be killed on your way there, we will not recompense you for your carelessness. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.


All right, that’s not exactly how my player character received this quest in Baldur’s Gate 2, but the gist of it is there. The type of quest described here, which is known as the delivery or Fed Ex quest, is a staple in many role-playing games. It is often done poorly, which is probably why players complain when their characters are asked to fill in for the mailman.

Another common type of quest is the kill quest, which involves having player characters kill one or more creatures or NPCs. Because a typical role-playing game is already brimming with hostile creatures, kill quests tend to feel like more of the same to players.

It would be great to spice up the role-playing experience by varying the types of quests that player characters receive. As an aid to accomplishing this, I created what I believe to be a complete list of quest types to draw upon. It may sound audacious of me to claim that my list is complete, but as of this writing, I haven’t found a more extensive list anywhere in the World Wide Web.

A Complete List of Quest Types

In the list below, I make references to characters that are the object of each quest type. In this list, I make no distinction between persons or monsters, lumping them instead under the category “characters.” These are almost always non-player characters, although I imagine that in a multi-player environment, player characters might be the object of some quests.

  1. Kill, incapacitate, or apprehend one or more characters.
  2. Destroy one or more objects.
  3. Find one or more characters who may be heavily guarded or well hidden (or both).
  4. Find or acquire one or more objects that may be heavily guarded or well hidden (or both).
  5. Go from Point A to Point B (preferably in one piece). In situations such as races, the PCs have to arrive at their destination before other characters do.
  6. Escort or follow one or more characters from Point A to Point B, with or without their knowledge and without getting them killed.
  7. Bring one or more objects from Point A to Point B or to another character without getting the objects destroyed.
  8. Change the physical or mental state of one or more characters (e.g., by casting a spell to heal them or talking to them in a manner that would change their minds).
  9. Build, modify, activate, or deactivate one or more objects (e.g., a bomb or a power generator), possibly at a specific location.
  10. Occupy an area for a specified period of time and prevent enemy characters from occupying the area during this period.
  11. Prevent one or more enemies from achieving their objective, which may be any of the above.

Building Interesting Quests

Most quests are built from more than one quest type. For example, to rescue a princess from an evil wizard, the following quest types may be used:

  • Enter the wizard’s castle without getting killed.
  • Find the princess.
  • Release the princess from her prison – pick locks, deactivate traps, or maybe bash the prison door in and try to heal whoever gets caught in the traps.
  • Escort the princess out of the castle without getting her killed.

Some quests may have a time component to them. For example, a bomb may be set to go off in one minute. The player character has to find the bomb, dispatch enemies that get in the way, and deactivate it within that period.

With all quests, especially those of the Fed Ex type, game designers must try to minimize the back-and-forth traveling that the PC has to do. Keeping everything needed to complete the quest in one area helps. If travel between areas is necessary, one may have “portals” to reduce travel time. These portals may be as fantastical as teleportation nodes or as mundane as horses that bring the PC to other areas when interacted with.

Some quests are deliberately designed so that they cannot be completed but must be replaced by some other quest. This is done to throw in a complication that adds dramatic tension to a game. Let’s take my earlier example of the princess who has to be rescued from an evil wizard. The quest may be scripted so that by the time the player character arrives at the prison, the princess is already dead, and the wizard has taken her memories and physical form. The wizard escapes through a passage that he seals, but not before summoning a bunch of monsters to fight the player character. In his new form, the wizard can get close enough to the king to assassinate him. The PC’s quest may then be changed to neutralizing the wizard before he leaves his castle. Of course, the PC may have to dispatch those pesky monsters that the wizard summoned first.

Every quest must have an appropriate motivation for PCs to engage in them. I’ve seen some quests that involve two or more NPC strangers bickering with each other over something that is of no concern to the PC. What breaks my suspension of disbelief is when the NPCs allow the PC to step in and settle the argument for them. In real life, if I were to attempt to resolve an argument between two strangers, I would probably be told to shove off.

The PC must have a stake in seeing the argument resolved (other than to get experience points) for the quest to make sense. In fact, all quests must have an appropriate motivation for participating in them. The profit motive is valid, of course, but if the motive can be made personal, players may appreciate the quest even more.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Linking Stories and Games, Part 4: A Brief Example

This is my fourth and final post in a series on linking stories to games. Readers may want to read my three previous posts to put this into context.

A few years ago, I created a hakpak for NWN1 called the Vampire Hak Pak. Included with the downloadable file was a short demo module entitled “Vampire Kobolds from Outer Space.” I deliberately made the module silly because I didn’t want to waste my better ideas on a mere demo. Nevertheless, the plot follows the basic formula that I outlined in an earlier blog post on story writing.

Act 1. A band of wights attacks everyone in the village where the PC is staying. The PC has to find out where the wights are coming from before more of them return.

Act 2. In a nearby cave, the PC discovers a large group of vampire kobolds from outer space led by Count Alucard, another vampire kobold. The kobolds plan to turn all the villagers into undead creatures and have been creating wights for that purpose. While trying to chase down Count Alucard, the PC steps on a magical trap that divests him and his cleric henchman Virginia of all their items. Without armor and weapons, the PC and Virginia will surely fall to the touch of the vampires.

Act 3. Virginia calls upon her deity, who grants them a powerful weapon that is especially lethal to vampires. With it, the PC can dispatch the remaining vampire kobolds and their leader with ease.


Because this was a demo module, I did not provide multiple endings for this story. As an exercise, we can do this now. Here are the ones I came up with:

  1. The PC kills all the vampire kobolds, thereby making life at the village safe once more.

  2. The PC willingly allows Count Alucard to turn him into a vampire and leads a fresh pack of wights to transform the villagers into undead.

  3. The PC willingly allows Count Alucard to turn him into a vampire and, with the help of Virginia, dispatches Alucard and his minions, thereby paving the way to becoming the vampire lord of the village.

Considering the small scope of the story, three alternative endings should more than suffice for the module. In addition to the above, I thought of a fourth ending in which the PC flees the village, leaving it open to Count Alucard’s depredations. I eventually rejected this idea because having the PC give up without a fight is ultimately unsatisfying. If I’m going to make a few alternative endings, I might as well stick with the ones that are interesting.

Having come up with the above endings, I have to check which portions of the plot need revising to accommodate them. The first ending I listed above already goes with my original plot, so no changes are needed there.

The second ending suffers from a lack of motive, however. Why would the PC hunt down whoever was creating the wights, only to join forces with the enemy? I need to provide the PC a suitable motive. Perhaps the villagers are xenophobic and immediately treated the PC with suspicion and contempt upon the latter’s arrival. Perhaps the mayor and his bodyguards extorted a significant amount of gold pieces from the PC to allow this complete stranger to roam around freely instead of rotting in jail. Despite this ill treatment, a good-hearted PC may still save the villagers from the undead, but an evil PC will now have the motivation to give the villagers their comeuppance.

On the other hand, why would Count Alucard agree to this plan instead of turning the PC into a more dispensable wight? This is where the PC’s skills may come in. The PC can probably make a Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate check to convince Alucard that his abilities would go to waste if he were transformed into a wight. As a vampire of no mean skill, however, he can make himself exceedingly useful to Alucard.

This module is too short for me to show the consequences of the PC’s evil deeds. Had the module spanned several quests, I would have made the PC’s dialog sound more paranoid over time. I would also have added different kinds of vampire hunters to vex the PC.

The third ending has a similar problem to that of the second one. It’s easy for a power-hungry PC to find the motive to become a vampire lord, especially if the villagers haven’t been kind to him. The PC will need the aid of his henchman Virginia to pull this off because once he becomes a vampire, he will never raise a hand against the one who turned him. But why would the undead-hunting cleric Virginia agree to the PC’s plan?

Convincing Virginia to go along with the PC won’t be easy. Nevertheless, if Virginia is blinded against her better judgment by her love for the PC, she may be compelled to do whatever the PC wants. This means that opportunities for romance are in order.

As may be seen, coming up with alternative endings requires that some groundwork be laid out to accommodate them. If too much work is needed for a particular ending, a developer may choose to scrap it. In the above example, I’m thinking that the third ending and the requisite romance seem like too much work to handle. If I were to accommodate alternative endings in my demo module, I’d probably implement only the first two.

This concludes my series on linking stories with games. I hope these musings have been helpful to the game designers among us. As always, the things I write are just suggestions that readers are free to apply or ignore. I make no claim to being an expert, but I do have a few ideas that may be helpful to others.

Happy modding, everyone.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Linking Stories and Games, Part 3: Evil Choices

This is the third in a series of posts on linking stories to games. Readers may want to read my two previous posts to put this into context.

Game designers don’t seem to have much difficulty in coming up with meaningful choices for good-aligned characters. Creating dialog options and story endings for evil PCs, however, has been something of a challenge. Few game designers seem to understand how to come up with evil options that aren’t petty and nonsensical. Because of this apparent lack in designing well-thought-out evil options, I’d like to tip the balance by sharing a few insights on creating them.

The first thing to understand is that evil manifests in different ways. Serial killers are not the same as spree killers, and both are completely different from terrorists, even though they all kill large numbers of people. What differentiate “evil” people from each other are their methods and their motives.

For example, spree killers don’t go on a rampage for no reason. Over a long period of time, something ticks them off. Perhaps it’s a long-standing frustration over being socially rejected at the school they go to. Maybe it’s the hurt that they have suffered through years of verbal abuse from co-workers and customers at the postal service. Whatever the reason, these people have been simmering in their own stew for years until finally they explode in a murderous rampage that ends with the spree killers’ capture or death. Often, the targets of their attacks are the kinds of people who, in their minds, have been oppressing them for years. There is method in the madness of spree killers, and more importantly, there are motives behind their seemingly random acts of violence. It is unfortunate that some people who just happened to be in their way get killed as well.

Note that a spree killer’s suicide, which sometimes occurs at the end of his rampage, is as much an indictment on himself as it is a way to escape the justice and retribution of others.

Here’s another example of an evil person, one who does not stoop to killing. A powerful noble may balk at murdering her enemies because it goes against her values. Nevertheless, she is vengeful toward those who oppose her and will use the criminal justice system to send her enemies to jail. She’ll dig up whatever dirt she can find on the targets of her ire. If none can be found that is sufficiently damning, she will manufacture the evidence and bribe “witnesses” to the crime. The thrill of the hunt tingles throughout her body as she lays out the web that will ensnare her victims. With the influence and resources at her disposal, it is not wise to get on her bad side. This noble’s methods – and to a certain extent, her motives – are different from those of a spree killer, but both may be considered “evil” just the same.

This noble is a master of manipulation and deceit, but there is a price to be paid for her sins. She is forever uneasy at the prospect that she might one day be caught or, worse yet, have to face trumped up charges from someone who beats her at her own game. Each person she unjustly sends to jail fuels her paranoia, causing her to see intrigue and betrayal where there is none. Her anxiety might make her careless someday. Perhaps then, she will be reunited with the very people she has sent down the river.

Those are just two examples of “evil” people. There are many more that writers and game designers can come up with. If you’re fishing for ideas, just read the papers, and try to identify with the people you read about to see what made them do the things they did.

The next thing to understand is that if you want to offer player characters evil choices that make sense, you’ll also have to provide them appropriate motives in the game. Allowing PCs to go on a killing spree just because they are evil is inane. If murder is an option for your PCs, you may create one or more NPCs that can tick the PCs off. Over time, the abuse that evil PCs receive from these NPCs will eventually provide the motive for them to exact vengeance.

If you want to go the extra mile, provide different methods for PCs to manifest their evilness. A killing spree is one option, but it isn’t particularly creative. Logically, the keepers of the peace should be mobilized in large numbers to take down spree killers, so you may want to script this event in case a PC goes on a rampage. (Incidentally, a good reason for not encouraging PCs to run amok in your game is that there should always be large armies and bands of renowned heroes that are ready to take down spree killers.) A better option may be to allow the PC to plan the perfect murder, one that cannot be traced back to him. Alternatively, digging up dirt and manufacturing evidence to frame NPCs can be fun if done right.

Finally, consider that any truly evil act comes with the anticipation that what comes around goes around. Those who spread hurt and pain may not admit it, but the fear of having to pay for their sins will always be with them. For example, street thugs with their extortion rackets will be on the lookout not only for cops but also for other gangs looking to muscle in on their territory. It is often the case that those who prey on others will themselves be preyed upon. Game developers may take this into account by scripting in appropriate consequences for the evil that PCs do. They may also reveal the evil PCs’ descent to ever-increasing levels of paranoia, angst, or self-loathing through the dialog options that are open to them.

Next up is a brief example on making an interactive story. Hopefully, this example will clearly illustrate what I’ve been trying to say since my previous blog post. Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Linking Stories and Games, Part 2: Creating Meaningful Choices

This is my second blog post in a series on linking stories to games. Readers may want to read my previous post to put this into context.

Few Branches

Role-playing games from Bioware and Black Isle/Obsidian are noteworthy for allowing players to affect the outcome of the games’ story. Nearly all of the opportunities for directing the flow of the plot are presented through dialog. Most conversation options don’t affect the story, though. If we set aside conversation nodes that deal with gathering information from NPCs, much of what we’re left with are there just for flavor. For example, in the official campaign of Neverwinter Nights 2, PCs may speak with Daeghun bitterly or kindly, but none of these dialog options will affect how the story turns out. They give players the impression that they are role-playing their characters, and a good number of these dialog options may change the PCs’ alignment. Even so, few of them will affect the story in any way.

In the OC, how PCs treat their NPC companions does affect the story in small ways. By conversing with their companions over time, PCs affect which companions turn on them or abandon them. PCs may even affect whether one of their companions switches to a different class. PCs also affect the story when they choose to side either with the city watch or the shadow thieves. This decision is made in the middle of the game and is one of the determinants of the game ending that the player sees.

Ultimately, however, the number of significant ways that the story branches out is few. This fact is apparent when you consider that there are only a handful of possible endings for the OC, almost all of which involve rocks falling on the PC’s party. Because of constraints in the game production process, players’ ability to affect the story is necessarily limited and mostly illusory.

Even with these constraints, there are ways to make players feel as if they have greater control over the plot. To tweak a story for more interactive control, begin with the endings in mind.

Begin with the Endings in Mind

A story where players can make meaningful choices will generally have multiple endings. The word “multiple” in this case can mean as few as two or as many as seven. Designers might never finish making their game if they have much more than that.

When you’ve outlined your basic plot, think of the different ways that the story may end. For instance, you might take inspiration from the D&D alignment system and make an ending for each of the alignment extremes: chaotic evil, chaotic good, lawful evil, and lawful good. Alternatively, you might focus on how the PC may turn out in the end – an iron-fisted baron, a weak and paranoid ruler, a happy-go-lucky adventurer, or a lonely and misunderstood nomad. The types of endings you come up with will depend on your story, of course. Try to make the alternative endings varied enough that playing through them will generate different experiences.

From there, examine the plot to see what branches may lead up to each ending. This is where you put your story-affecting decision points. If you can incorporate these decision points in your story without too much difficulty, well and good. If it looks like putting them in will require you to write a whole new story, however, consider dropping the alternative ending. It may not be worth the effort to implement it.

That’s all there is to it. If you were to start from the beginning and work your way toward the alternative endings, you run the danger of making your endings either too similar to each other or unsatisfying to players. By focusing on the endings, you can ensure that they are divergent enough to be interesting while giving a proper sense of closure.

My next blog post in this series will focus on creating role-playing options for evil PCs, something that I believe has been poorly implemented in many computer RPGs.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Linking Stories and Games, Part 1

Players of the Neverwinter Nights games sometimes complain when the role-playing choices open to their characters are limited. They want their characters to act the way they imagine they would when faced with the situations that the game presents them with. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, the options they would have wanted to take are sometimes not available to them. Perhaps the game designers had not thought of making those options available, or maybe they deliberately left them out because these options would have led to certain defeat. It’s also possible that time constraints prevented the creators of the game from implementing them.

The question of what story choices to present players with is not a simple one to answer. With the current state of game technology, it is impossible to implement all possible choices that players may want. Nevertheless, this question has to be answered during the design phase of each game or module.

This blog post is the first in a series wherein I attempt to show how game designers may handle the question of story choices.

No Story-Affecting Choices

The term “computer role-playing game” has been loosely applied not only to games such as Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2 but also to the likes of Diablo, Final Fantasy 7, Jagged Alliance, and X-Com: UFO Defense. As long as player characters have stats that may improve over time and that affect their in-game abilities, the game that these characters appear in are described as “role-playing.”

The last four games that I mentioned above have two things in common: (1) they were hailed as great games during their time; and (2) none of them presents players with meaningful choices that affect the game’s plot. Of these four, only Final Fantasy 7 was commended for its story. Like the other three games I mentioned, however, Final Fantasy 7 does not have options for changing the direction of the story in any significant way. There is no good or evil ending for Cloud Strife, just one successful ending. The game does not even allow players to create their own characters. You always play as Cloud Strife, although you can choose what abilities and stats to improve as the game progresses.

It’s all right to produce games in which the story is not interactive. In fact, the game may still come with a great story, albeit not an interactive one. Some players may complain if you create a Neverwinter Nights module where story-affecting choices are not presented to players. Nevertheless, if the module is done well, those complaints may be few or non-existent.

One of my favorite NWN1 modules is Bone Kenning I: Art of the Thanaturge by Wes Lewis. To date, this module has an average rating of 9.65 compiled from 361 votes. With over 42,000 downloads, “Bone Kenning I” has earned its rightful place in the Neverwinter Vault’s Hall of Fame. The atmosphere in this module is wonderfully eerie, and the gameplay is great fun. The story isn’t interactive, however. Player characters will always be power-mad necromancers of sorts, and there is only one successful ending to the game. I honestly don’t know if anyone has ever complained about the lack of story-affecting choices in “Bone Kenning I.” I’ve no interest in sifting through all 670 comments on the module to find out.

In the next blog post in this series, I will describe what goes into an interactive story and how such a story may be designed.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas to One and All

After a quick spurt of posting tips on story writing, I haven't been updating my blog lately. Much of my time has been spent trying to learn how to create new creature models. So far, my progress has been slow but promising. I'll be sure to document my model-making process in the hope that others may pick up on it and create creatures of their own.

Anyway, I interrupt my blogging silence to wish everyone a merry and joyous Christmas. May you receive great video games this season, and may you find the time to play them.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Story Writing, Last Remarks: Where to Go from Here

This is the fourth and final chapter of my three-part series on story writing. (If that sounds confusing, let’s just say that I should have planned my blog posts better.) The content herein does not list all the techniques that I use when creating interactive stories. Nevertheless, there is enough material in this series to set aspiring writers on the path.

Everything that I’ve written in this series of blog posts counts as suggestions. If my techniques don’t work for you, ditch them and try something else. Those who are serious about writing may want to buy books on how to craft fiction. Although most books on this topic deal with writing non-interactive fiction such as novels and screenplays, much of the material therein is applicable to interactive fiction as well.

It helps to read a lot of fiction with an eye toward studying what the authors did that makes their work effective. Even if you aspire to write exclusively in the science fiction or fantasy genre, include a lot of mainstream fiction in your diet of books. My favorite novels include Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Shella by Andrew Vachss, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (not to be confused with the movie of the same name), and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (a surprisingly brutal novel from a 19th century country girl). In the fantasy and science fiction genre, my favorite books include Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Doubtless, you’ll have your own list of favorite books. One can learn much by studying the works of the writers you admire.

Reading will not get aspiring writers anywhere unless they set themselves working on their own fiction. Don’t worry if your first stories are amateurish. Even the masters started with baby steps on their path to greatness. They got better with practice, and you can too. So dust off your favorite game toolset and start making the interactive stories that you’ve been wanting to write.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Story Writing, Part 3: Little Computer People

This is the third part of my series on story writing. To put this blog post into context, readers may want to refer to my two previous posts.

Having created the plot and decided on the setting of our module, we writers started pitching ideas for the main NPCs. By this time, we all had an idea of what types of non-player characters we needed; e.g., town mayor, companion #1, villainous mastermind, etc. All we needed was to provide specifics on personality, background, and character classes.

At the bouncyRock website, the members of our team have a private forum for discussing all matters related to our project. We created a thread in this forum for anyone to post their character write-ups. Although we stated that more than one writer may post different write-ups for the same character, in actual practice, hardly anyone provided alternatives for characters that had already been suggested. If we had more than one candidate for each role, we could have chosen the one we liked best or maybe even merged some qualities together. Perhaps most people have difficulty creating intriguing characters. If so, this blog post may help to illuminate a few mysteries of character design.

Entire books have been written on developing fictional characters, but I won’t even begin to touch the surface of this topic. Instead, I’ll provide only a couple of tips on character design. Don’t be misled by this seemingly meager offering, however. When applied properly, these tips will add considerable depth to any character concept.

Two Tips

Here’s my advice to beginning writers on how to create characters:

1. Write a back story for each significant character with a focus on the emotional problems that the character faces, how and why these emotional problems came to be, and what it would take for the character to resolve them.

2. Put your characters in situations that force them to confront their emotional problems in a way that will advance the story.

Significant characters are NPCs whom the PC will probably interact with more than once to move the story along. A character whom the PC will meet only once (and possibly kill off in the same encounter) does not count as a significant character, even if that meeting advances the story. Other NPCs that are not vital for moving the story along also do not count as significant characters, even if the PC will probably interact with them several times. Most merchants are a common example of this type of NPC. Writing back stories for such characters is completely optional, although better use of one’s time may be found elsewhere.

Not all significant characters are equally important. The PC’s companions would rank high in significance, but NPCs involved in minor side quests may be at the bottom of the scale. The more important an NPC is, the more detailed that character’s back story should be.

Back Stories

A back story should be focused on the emotional problems that the character is currently facing. Problems that have an impact on how the character relates with others are especially interesting. The back story should explain how and why these problems came to be. Details such as the name and breed of the character’s pet dog when she was ten years old, if they don’t shape the characters present emotional problems, are trivial and may be left out.

The ability to write a convincing back story requires empathizing with the characters to be created. It’s probably easiest to do this with characters that are pleasant or likeable, but most people seem to find it difficult to empathize with psychopathic characters. Consequently, these characters appear two-dimensional at best and cartoonish at worst. For me, Xzar the wizard from the game Baldur’s Gate is one of the worst offenders. Xzar objected to every good deed that the PC party did for seemingly no other reason than that his alignment is evil. If that isn’t a cartoonish character, I don’t know what is.

When people hear about random acts of violence that someone else has committed, most of them explain these actions by saying that the perpetrator is insane. As an explanation, insanity is woefully inadequate. It makes about as much sense as saying that the reason why a ball bounced off the floor is that it’s made of rubber. That may be so, but that fact does not tell us what motive force had set the ball bouncing. Did someone throw it to the floor, or did an earthquake dislodge it from a high shelf, or did Godzilla lash it with its tail? Besides, not all rubber objects bounce. My son has a toy monkey that’s made of rubber, and it rolls, not bounces, when thrown to the floor. Similarly, not all people who are mentally ill kill people. While I don’t have any statistics to back me up, I believe that most people with mental illness are not a danger to people other than perhaps themselves. Writers worth their salt had better find a deeper explanation for why their villains are “bad.”

Think on why your fictional characters act the way they do. Is your serial killer’s inability to relate to other people a result of being raised as a ward of the state during his formative years? Were the older boys violent to the younger ones when adults were not around? Did the adult caretakers abuse their wards? Was there a particular type of girl that the serial killer yearned for but who was repulsed by him?

By the way, please note that I am not implying that a person raised in a particular manner will always grow up to be a menace to society. A person’s free will and perspective in life may in fact be more important in determining one’s outcome. I once read the true story of two brothers who were raised in the same poor and violent environment. One grew up to be an outstanding cop, and the other acquired a long list of criminal charges. One’s past is not an accurate predictor of one’s future, but it is usually a major influence on how a person changes over time.

I realize that it can be very disconcerting to get under a psychopath’s skin, even a fictional one. To see the world through a murderer’s eyes, to think what he thinks, to feel what he feels – what sane person would want to do that? Writers, that’s who. Anyone who wants to write believable scenes of senseless violence will have to be the perpetrator – momentarily, of course, and never in real life. Don’t act out those evil thoughts, please. Save them for your fiction.

Once you’ve described the emotional and psychological issues that your characters bear, add a sentence or two on what it would take for those characters to resolve those issues. It’s entirely possible and maybe preferable that those issues will never be resolved in your story, but it helps to hint at possible avenues for growth to help understand your characters better.

The Emotional Journey

People are not static. They change. They grow. Life hammers them with emotional pain the way a sculptor chisels on marble. If people can see their lives the way an art connoisseur appraises a marble sculpture, would they like what they see? Might they see that a few changes here and there would make their lives more pleasing to them?

People acquire and carry a lot of psychological issues as the years go by. Some learn to let go of those issues and come out better for it, but not everyone does. The ones that cling to their pain are the ones that are most hurt by it.

Like their real-life counterparts, fictional characters that readers or gamers can empathize with undergo an emotional journey of sorts. The problems that beset them as they live out your story should strike them where it hurts most – at the emotional or psychological issues described in their back stories.

The back stories that you write for your characters are not for them to launch into long expositions on why they grew up to become the persons that they are now. That is seriously boring stuff.

Criminal Mastermind: Wanna know why I became the way I am? It all started when I was a newborn child swaddled in a basket at the steps of an orphanage. Nobody loved me. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.

Hero: Cry me a river. Wake me up when we’re about to fight.

Please don’t even think of writing conversations like that. Long conversations with hardly any point to them are not what make role playing games exciting. Back stories are there to provide the motive force that explains why your characters act the way they do. Much of the material that is in your back stories may not even be revealed in your fiction. Make sure that every portion of a character’s back story that makes its way into your main story is used to advance the plot. Everything else should be kept to yourself.

Let’s take an example from the Harry Potter series. (I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but those who haven’t read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are hereby warned that this paragraph has a few of them.) In the first four books, Professor Snape’s contempt for Harry Potter is obvious, but it wasn’t until the fifth book that his attitude was explained. When Harry took a magical peek into Snape’s past, he found out what a bully his father had been to the young Snape. This revelation isn’t just filler. When Snape caught Harry indulging in magical voyeurism, he was so enraged that he refused to help the boy resist the mental manipulation of Lord Voldemort. Until Order of the Phoenix was published, Professor Snape’s back story served only to shape his attitude toward Harry Potter. Since revealing it would not serve to advance the plot of the earlier books, this back story was kept a mystery. It was only later that J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, revealed this back story in a significant manner. If Snape had volunteered this portion of his past early on, the revelation would have been inconsequential to the plot of the earlier books. It may also have puzzled readers as to why Snape would reveal such an embarrassing story to young Harry.

Part of a character’s emotional journey involves confronting the issues that are causing him or her pain. Those issues may or may not be resolved in the course of your story, but they will have to be faced if doing so will advance the plot. Issues cause characters to behave in ways that may not be in their best interests. They may inspire some interesting sub quests or may even take the story along alternative branches.

Consider Gann, an NPC companion in Mask of the Betrayer. Gann had a major issue that stemmed from his hatred for his mother, a hag who abandoned him when he was a child. A number of psychological studies have shown that the quality of a mother’s bond with her child during the first two years of its life has far-reaching effects in the child’s ability to relate with other people later on. Gann’s issue seems to have engendered a number of personality quirks, including his callousness toward other people, his inability to feel attached to any place long enough to settle down, and his desire to wreak mischief in the dreams of farm girls everywhere. In the game, the PC has a chance to either feed Gann’s hatred or to slowly wean him away from it. Gann even has a chance to confront his mother. What the PC says determines the outcome of this encounter. How the PC deals with Gann affects what bonus feats the PC may attain and what branches of the story the PC takes. Gann clearly undergoes an emotional journey in MotB. Regardless of how players may have felt about this character, the way the writers handled Gann makes a very good case study on creating NPCs.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Story Writing, Part 2: The Plot Thickens

When it comes to writing plots, I have some very definite views on the matter. I count myself fortunate that Dirtywick, Anduraga, and Indira Lightfoot have indulged me in expressing these views and applying the structure that I advocate. Here, I share the plot-writing method that I use. Readers who find this technique useful are free to apply them to their own work. Please note that this is not the only way to write a plot, but it is the method that I personally use.

I once wrote in this blog that regardless of a story’s length, I find it useful to structure its plot as a three-act outline. In fact, I have a specific formula for how the acts are written.

Act 1. The hero (that is, the PC) becomes aware of a problem to be resolved.

Act 2. The hero tries to attain an objective, to which a strong antagonist is opposed. At this point, the hero gets a complication that makes it more difficult to attain the objective.

Act 3. It seems that the hero has no chance to defeat the antagonist. Nevertheless, the hero can still prevail, but only with the help of one or more third parties that tip the balance in the hero's favor.

The three acts, as written above, are expressed in general terms. Nevertheless, writers need to make their plots more specific. Where does the hero come from? What is the problem that the hero seeks to resolve? Why would the hero care to resolve this problem? Who is the antagonist, and why is this person opposing the hero? These questions and more need to be answered.

In the first act, heroes may or may not be aware of their antagonists. They may not even know what their objectives are at this point. Nevertheless, antagonists may make their influence felt in Act 1 even if they don’t make an appearance yet. By the second act, however, heroes usually know who their antagonists are and will take on a number of increasingly difficult challenges to thwart them.

The complication that occurs in the second act is a curve ball that gets thrown to the hero. It is an unexpected event, one that the hero may not be prepared to deal with. Complications make it more difficult for heroes to accomplish their goals and raise the level of excitement in stories. They can drastically change the relationship of certain characters with each other. The betrayal of a trusted ally, for example, is an oft-used complication in many stories.

The third party that helps the hero in the third act is not necessarily a person, although in non-interactive stories such as movies and novels, it generally is. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, Frodo would never have destroyed the One Ring without the unwelcome intervention of Gollum. In video games that make use of this plot device, however, the third party is often an object that makes the final encounter with the antagonist easier. In the NWN2 OC and in MotB, this object may have been the Sword of Gith, although for many players, it is actually the set of items that the player creates that help save the day.

In non-interactive stories, if the hero loses, it’s usually because of some tragic flaw in the hero’s personality. In video games, however, the hero losing is generally the fault of the player, a situation that is easily resolved by reloading a saved game.

To some degree, plot structures can be sort of fractal in nature. Writers can add more depth to their plots by putting miniature three-act structures within each main act. Some of the mini-acts may also have their own three-act structures within them. How far to take this is up to the writers to decide.

So far, this discussion has been very abstract. I’m going to make it more concrete by providing an example. Here is the top-level three-act structure for the movie The Matrix starring Keannu Reeves.

Act 1. Neo becomes aware of mysterious agents trying to capture him.

Act 2. Neo seeks to awaken his power, of which the Oracle has foretold. Agent Smith seeks to stop Neo by killing him. Cypher betrays Neo and the rest of the Nautilus crew by attempting to kill all of them while they are helpless.

Act 3. In his final encounter with Agent Smith, Neo almost dies. Trinity confesses her love for Neo just as he is dying, thus inspiring him to unleash the power of The One.

In the above example, Neo is the hero, and his objective is to awaken his power. His antagonist is Agent Smith, with whom Neo has a series of encounters. The complication comes when Cypher manages to kill some of the members of the Nautilus crew but is fortunately thwarted before he can kill Neo. Their numbers reduced, Neo and the Nautilus crew stand less of a chance against Agent Smith and his cohorts. In their last fight with the agents, Neo almost dies. It is only when Trinity confesses her love to Neo that he becomes The One who is able to single-handedly defeat Agent Smith and put the entire Matrix at risk.

The formula for creating plots that I expounded on here is one that I have observed in many non-interactive stories. It is possible to deviate from this formula, but whoever does so had better be a very good writer to pull it off.

Since plots are situated in time and place, the setting naturally arises out of the development of the plot. Most of the time, writers create their plots with a specific setting in mind, but sometimes, a better setting might suggest itself as the plot is created. This was what happened in the course of our discussions. Although we had initially set out to create a module in the Forgotten Realms, we eventually wound up creating a custom setting.

Stay tuned for the final chapter in this story writing series.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Story Writing, Part 1: Storming the Brain

For the upcoming module from bouncyRock Entertainment, our writers’ first task was to come up with the story premise, from which the plot, setting, and characters were eventually created. The initial story development involved Dirtywick, Anduraga, and me. Eventually, we were joined by Indira Lightfoot, as well as a couple of other writers who later bowed out because of real-life commitments. One of these writers was ScarlettThorne, whom I feel deserves to be listed in our credits. ScarlettThorne created an intriguing non-player character that we will be using in our module. (Thanks for your contribution, ScarlettThorne, and best of luck in all your endeavors.)

As may be guessed, having several minds trying to bring the story together was tough. Each of us had our own ideas on where to take the story, and since we had never worked together on a story prior to this, we had difficulties trying to develop it. I won’t go into all the details of what happened at our meetings. Instead, I’ll discuss the techniques and concepts that worked well for us over three blog posts, of which this is the first. These may be of interest to those who would like to learn more about creating stories, particularly those who need to do so in a collaborative setting.

To decide on our story premise (in other words, the general idea of what the story is about), Dirtywick, Anduraga, and I agreed to hold a brainstorming session. We gave ourselves twenty minutes to generate as many ideas as we could, during which no idea would be criticized. We allowed ourselves to suggest any idea, even those that were deliberately silly, in the hope that these may lead to better ones. Afterward, we voted on three of the ideas that we liked best. We then picked the idea that was chosen by most of us. In case of a tie, we’d find a way to break it somehow. Our lead writer could choose which idea he liked most. We could also nominate whoever seemed to be the most impartial among us to break the tie. Alternatively, we could simply discuss the ideas that we had at that point and eventually come to an agreement.

Later, we used brainstorming to get us out of any form of writers’ block, whether while hammering out the plot or deciding on the module title. We’ve found it to be an effective technique to use during our group discussions, but only when we were stuck in a rut. Otherwise, it's better to let the flow of our discussions take us along its natural course.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Mystery Group Unmasked

Yesterday, I asked the project leader for the new module that I’m working on if it’s okay for me to reveal who the rest of our group members are. He said yes. All this time, I had kept everybody else’s names secret because I wasn’t sure if those can be made public knowledge. Since I’ve been given the green light, I shall now unmask the perps. (Drum roll, please.)

The new module (whose title shall not be revealed at this time) is being developed under the banner of bouncyRock Entertainment. Only two members of the group working on this module are members of bouncyRock, however. The rest of us were recruited specifically for this project.

To the best of my knowledge, I was the first person recruited by the bouncyRock guys. Over the past two months, more people were recruited to the group. Only yesterday, we welcomed a new team member, and there’s a chance that we’ll be recruiting at least one more. A few people were recruited but had to bow out later because of pressing commitments. There were also a couple of promising individuals who were interviewed for scripting positions, but because we realized that the scripting assignments were very light relative to the number of scripters we already have, it was with much regret that we did not bring them aboard.

Without further ado, here are the current developers of this new module. (I apologize if I missed out anybody and will immediately rectify the error in case that transpires.)

  • Dirtywick: Project Leader, Lead Writer (member of bouncyRock)

  • Anduraga: Area Design Manager, Writer (member of bouncyRock)

  • Elysius (aka Frank Perez): Scripting/Programming Manager, Writer, 3D Artist

  • Barry the Hatchet: 3D Artist

  • Chaos Wielder: Area Designer

  • Gallaen Frost (aka Jaesun999): Composer

  • Indira Lightfoot: Area Designer, Writer

  • Nytir: 3D Artist

  • Orion1966 (aka Man_From_Geldar): Scripter

  • Palafoxx: 3D Artist

  • Telanor: Scripter


Special thanks go to Jonny Ree and Liso66 for their guidance in this project.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Rammaq's Theme

Admittedly, I haven't been busy with Faithless lately, but fortunately, Henry Solberg continues to compose music for my module. Some time ago, he created a somber piece for an NPC who made his first appearance in Mask of the Betrayer. This NPC's name is Rammaq, of whom I shall say no more.

I feel that Henry's music captures my version of Rammaq perfectly. Those who want to listen to the music may download it from the following link.

Rammaq's Theme

Monday, December 1, 2008

Teamwork

In my last blog post, I mentioned that I have been recruited to work with a group that is building a new NWN2 module. To the best of my knowledge, nearly all of us have not worked with any of the other group members before, so some of the growing pains that we’ve been experiencing involve learning how to work together. The fact that the members of the group are scattered across several states or even countries doesn’t make it any easier.

In this group, I’m the head of the scripting team, but I have also been deeply involved with creating the story, painting concept art, and making 3D models. (More on those in a later post.) During our meetings, a lot of ideas get bandied around, most of which are rejected in the course of our discussions. Only a few ideas are eventually approved, usually with modifications suggested by other team members. As a member of the writing and art team, I’ve had my share of rejected ideas as well as approved ones, although there seem to be more of the former than the latter. As head of the scripting team, I’ve had to accept and reject the ideas of other people.

The way I see it, the key abilities of the lead position in any team is being able to discern what ideas to accept or reject and being able to convince the rest of the team to follow one’s lead. In both cases, having a proven track record for delivering quality products is a must, whether those products be scripts, writing, area designs, or art work. The team lead must have a very good feel of what works and what won’t and must be able to motivate the rest of the team to do what needs to be done. Considering that we’re all unpaid volunteers, these are challenging tasks indeed.

Thus far, we’ve employed two methods of decision making: voting on which of several suggestions to implement and having the team lead make the decision after hearing the pros and cons of each issue. Each method has its place. When getting the support of the team is at stake or when trying to get a sense of whether a new idea will be widely accepted by our players, putting the issue to a vote is a good way to resolve it. On the other hand, if a particular decision will have a significant impact on the work that other people produce, or if there is a risk that some part of the module may become incoherent if the wrong decision is made, the team lead has to make that decision after due consultation with the group members who will be affected by it.

In both cases, it is the team lead who chooses which method of decision making to employ. The leader calls the shots, but if the other members of the team aren’t happy with those decisions, they just might quit. For the team lead, it isn’t enough to be competent in one’s field. It is also important to keep open channels of communication with the rest of the team. Each time a command decision has to be made, the team lead must make a check on his Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate skills.

Working in a group entails sacrificing one’s independent vision and direction to accommodate those of other group members. Make no mistake about it; this kind of sacrifice can be painful, especially to a creative person. Nevertheless, when the people who comprise the group are very talented, that sacrifice is worth it. Even a module of moderate size can be done much better and faster with several people working as a coordinated team.

I have high hopes for this new group I’m in. If our first module is well received by the NWN2 community, it might be the start of more modules to come.

Picture Credits
The painting in the pseudo-motivational poster shown in this blog post is by Dieric Bouts, a Dutch painter from the 15th century. The quote at the bottom of the poster is attributed to Doug Smith. I'm not sure who he is, but I think he's this guy. Combining the painting and the quote to make this motivational poster is the work of my twisted mind.