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.


Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

What is good and evil?

Now, this is another great subject. ;)

And defining good and evil requires a degree of faith. Why do I say this? Because, ultimately, to say anything is "good" or "evil" requires an 'absolute' by which it can be measured.

This could go into a rather deep discussion, but to explain what I mean without getting too wordy: For an act to be deemed good or evil requires someone who knows the absolute truth to look upon the action and be able to judge it accordingly. Anything else is inadequate for the job. After all, one man's "good" is another man's "evil". Obviously, some cases may be easier to deduce (by the avergae onlooker) than others. Although, I would even call this into question.

However, for a module (or D&D as a whole), we have to allow the DM of builder to "act as god" to determine what is a good or evil act in their world according to their design. And this is, in fact, what we do by the use of adjusting teh alignment of a PC as they make judgement calls during play.

As an example (from my own module), I adjust the alignment of a PC to evil if the PC kills an innocent with a "good" alignment. The reason being, in the game, I have already decided that NPC is "good", therefore, any act the PC does against the NPC 'must' be evil. I say 'must' from the DMs perspective and not the players. And this is why good and evil can only really be governed by the DM who builds the module ... in my opinion. :)


Frank Perez said...

Hi Lance,

The question of what is evil was something that I purposely avoided answering in my post. :P I implied that spreading hurt and pain is evil, although that's really a sloppy definition at best. A doctor deliberately inflicts pain on a baby every time he injects the child with a vaccine, but just about everyone wouldn't consider that an evil act. (Some might argue that vaccination is a necessary evil, but I really don't want to split hairs on this matter.)

I suppose I could define evil as the malicious spreading of hurt and pain, but there's really a hidden circular argument there. After all, what is malice if not the intent to do evil?

Perhaps I can define evil as the intentional spreading of hurt and pain. After all, the pain that comes with vaccination is really secondary, the primary purpose being to strengthen the recipient's resistance against certain diseases. Nevertheless, that won't fly in light of the D&D alignment system, where it's perfectly all right for a paladin to slay evil orcs.

In my opinion, the D&D alignment system is simplistic and inane. I seriously do not believe that killing "evil" creatures can ever constitute a good act, but I willingly set my beliefs aside whenever I play D&D-based games. The alignment system will never hold up to serious philosophical scrutiny, which is mostly why I avoided answering the question of what is good and evil in my blog post. Instead, I took the easy way out by providing a few examples of what most people would consider evil without a doubt and left it off at that. ;)

When it comes to creating modules for D&D-based games, I follow the D&D alignment system to the best of my understanding, but I try to add depth to the characters that are important to the story, whether they be good or evil. Does killing a good NPC constitute an evil act? Yes. Does killing an evil NPC constitute a non-evil act? Maybe. Depends on the context, I suppose, but in general, the answer is yes -- but only in D&D and never in real life. After all, there are no such things as NPCs in real life. ;)