Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How Do I Make Them Do What I Want?

Today my elbow got seriously jogged by this post by James at A Dungeon Master's Tale.  I had been meaning to write on the subject proposed there, specifically the concern that a party could ask for something through an interactive mechanic which would be unreasonable to ask of an NPC.  The problem is similar to the ever-ongoing charm person debate, in which a spell designed to control the mind of an individual is consistently challenged in terms of "How much power do we dare give the caster?"

It is always presumed, of course, that you can't enchant an orc, wiggle your fingers and have the orc turn and march off a ledge.  This, it is generally agreed, is TOO MUCH POWER.

There are legends, of course, of powerful cult leaders ordering their followers to commit suicide on command without the need for any kind of spell whatsoever ... but although such legends have been in existence for thousands of years, we know them all to be completely false through the all-knowing brilliance of modern scholarship, which assures us that such legends were just made up to make non-European peoples look silly.  But then there's this story.

The question remains - for the game, mind, and not the real world - how much influence can you have over other peoples, how do you measure it, and where do you draw the limits for what a party is allowed to do?  It cannot simply be a question of right or wrong ... it must be a measure of degrees, whereby what you ask for must be measured against what is reasonable to get.

Concentrating on the game, it absolutely and must be possible to ask for someone to A) commit suicide or B) commit murder, or any other horrendous crime.  Obviously, from events surrounding the 20th century it is possible to take a perfectly normal person, give him or her a reasonable feeling of security and direct him or her to execute or see executed tens of thousands of people.  It is equally possible to encourage people of certain character to give away their own lives.

But it should be difficult!  The party cannot be wandering aimlessly through the city streets as the Wizards of Death, bending over and whispering a few words to passersby who immediately pull of their belts to be stuffed down their own throats in an orgy of self-destruction.  Therefore, I propose a scale that restricts how much can be expected ... but before I get onto that, a word about morale.

The 'scale' that would usually be invoked from D&D would be that of various sad - even pathetic - Loyalty Charts that have been created to go along with the game.  They are all very heavy on the "we've known you a long time" element, and are to some degree correct in putting a lot of emphasis on years of acquaintance.  But as any good salesman knows - the kind of salesman who can talk you into selling your house in an afternoon - time doesn't pass in monthly or yearly increments (the same must be said of confidence artists).  A week, or even a few days, can be enough to dupe even the brightest pennies in the box, if the circumstances have been set up just so.  What's more, being known by people and winning over their loyalty can prove to be rather appallingly easy.  Rules for that in D&D have always been based on followers and henchmen - they're not very practical for total strangers who are now going to bribe, persuade and lie their way right into the Sanctum Sanctorum.

The gentle reader can go on using these charts, them's the breaks - and after all, I haven't read any chart in existence, maybe there's a really brilliant one that you have.  But for the purpose of this post I'm going to scale the response of people according to four categories:  appreciation, friendship, admiration, and love.


Appreciation is what you feel when the person next to you just does what they have to do without making your life harder.  You'll back up and make room for them, but you don't really care what they do.  If you're a guard, you'll let them into the town, but only because there are other guards standing around the things in town where just anyone shouldn't enter.

Friendship is what you feel when you feel honest concern that the person next to you gets done what they need to do.  You'll lend a hand, just so long as it doesn't put your own needs on the line, like your job, your other relationships, your hard-earned money, etc.  If you're a guard, you'll help them get where they're going, so long as they don't want to go where they shouldn't.

Admiration is what you feel when you start to seriously question not doing what you're doing now in favor or doing something like what the person next to you is doing.  You'll ask questions, guage the consequences of changing your mind and starting a new life, and probably do so if you get the chance.  If you're a guard, you'll ask what they'd be willing to pay you.

Love is what you feel when you realize this person you've met is it, the real deal, the one person you've searched all your life to get next to.  You'll sacrifice, change yourself, brave dangers, whatever it takes.  If you're a guard, you'll walk them right through the town as far as you can, no matter what they wants to do.

Two points.

First off, every loyalty/reaction system I've seen seems to occur inside a vacuum where the character and the reactee are the only people in existence.  The tendency is to think that the party need only get the above-described love response, all from there on the rest is easy.  It is rarely taken into account that the guard described - or anyone else - has probably already fallen in love, or that they are already possessed of deep admiration for someone else.  Relationships are complication.  I may fall in love at first sight with that woman using the leaf blower to dry the ice off her car's doorhandle, but that doesn't mean I automatically forget that really marvelous woman I live with who has the black leather corset.  "Love," along with admiration, friendship and appreciation, can be very fleeting.  I am often in the situation where a girl gets on the bus wearing some rather attractive little ensemble that suggests her having a bit of sense, only to have her pull a self-help book out of her bag and destroy my appreciation.  A guard may fall in love with a member of the party upon letting them through the gate, and may follow along enfatuated as the party makes their way forward to assassinate the high mucky-muck, but chances are something or someone is going to pop up along the way to remind the guard that he loves said mucky-muck too, in that all-too-familiar "My God Isn't He Grand" sense.  And then the guard might vigorously encourage the party member to change their mind, and might fail, and might find himself standing helplessly in the street, unable to help or hinder the party's quest.  It really depends on how the DM wants to handle it.

And two, "Love" is not quite so blind as the above description.  Sacrificing or changing one's life is a circumstantial thing: "Okay, I understand, you want to kill Lord Roderick of Symposium, but does it have to be today?  The sun's out, there's a little fair being put on by the Baker's guild and maybe we could grab a blanket and take a walk out of town.  We could kill Rod of Symp tomorrow.  My brother's cousin who is the apprentice clerk to the town's water overseer says the junior deacon who regularly purifies the city's water supply predicted it would rain tomorrow.  Surely that would be better, no?"  There is usually plenty of room to make excuses, cajole, argue, discuss and otherwise drag feet where it comes to obeying the wishes even of the people we love.

But of course, if circumstances right now say that the guard's lady love is an inch from death right now, then the sacrifice comes off forthwith.  But how often is his lady love an inch from death?  I mean, actually?

Reconciling a conflict should be seen as billiard balls hitting and bouncing off ... sometimes scoring a point or two, knocking this ball to the other side of the table or rebounding back to the place where the cue ball started.  Eventually the perfect shot is lined up and the balls all fall in line just so; but the game is never won in one shot.

If the players want something easy and uncomplicated, the yes or no of getting it can be sorted out in one dialogue, yes.  But just because Urk the Ogre says "Fine, walk through my land" today doesn't mean he won't rethink that when he tells his wife Flawgurl a few hours later.  Nothing, where it comes to human interaction, is certain.  Just ask any salesman.  Close the deal, get the hell out of sight and don't let them find you.


ckutalik said...

It's an old saw but relationships are indeed dynamic, they do change over time and circumstance.

Many rpgs do a lousy job of modeling the complexity of human relationships in general. Divided loyalties, as you point out, aren't just limited episodes (the conflict of duty over friendship for a charmed guard) but an everyday experience.

About a decade and a half ago I developed a few board and card games to simulate political-military conflicts like the "little wars" of the early 19th century.

One of the main mechanics was a diplomacy track where the various forces pulled population groups back and forth into concentric rings of influence (from a slight influence to hegemony to domination).

I have been trying to wrap my head around how to introduce something into my roleplaying games to give more dynamic relationships--a tough thing to model at least for my limited creative capabilities.

Sorry for the aside, I am curious to see where you are going with this. (That is, if you are going somewhere with this.)

James C. said...

Here's where the IMech bumps up against the old limitations of the medium, but I think (hope?) that this is truly a bump and not a hard stop.

How does one model something as complex as personal interaction and make it playable? With combat in D&D, we mostly hand-waive the complexity away, but many, many have gone down the path of complex, detailed combat. I spent (wasted?) a lot of time in the late eighties/ early nineties making heads and tails out of systems like GDW's for Twilight 2000 and Dark Conspiracy. I'm hoping for something more elegant but just as complete for the IMech.

Alexis said...

I really have no hope in creating 'NPC-relationship tracks' as an IMech system. It is entirely out of my agenda. D&D has always had this problem and always will have this problem.

The system I am developing exists to put a structure on the actual interactions themselves, so that in the given moment the NPC's opinion is swayed this way or that, according to the circumstances. It is up to the player to then sustain a relationship that develops according to the interactive mechanic by NOT making irrational or far reaching requests which would then affect other individuals who would then oppose the player.

My point in writing this post is, I suppose, that it isn't just that the player wheedling his or her way into the fortification has to take account for the possibility of failure, but for the responsibility of success - in that pushing through outer rings awakens inner rings.

I could have called this post "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" ... as an NPC that does a good deed for the party could get the party into more hot soup than an NPC that said "No."

Alexis said...


To speak specifically to your last point about elegance:

There are elements in the system I'm designing that would allow a DM to get more detailed in the overall character-driven personalities of NPCs, given the application of a possible host of modifiers.

But just to remind you, the real problem Conflict! was meant to solve was to impose a limitation on game-savvy roleplayers while elevating the power of game-deficient roleplayers, to put both groups on the same playing field where it came to character-to-NPC interaction. This is what the system was tested for, and at this the system excels beyond my expectations.

It is only that there is an opportunity for some people to think that an interactive mechanic equals potential rulership over NPCs - which you advanced as a problem on your blog - and I wanted to discuss some elements that would restrict that kind of thinking.

James C. said...

It's not an NPC-relationship track that I'm after either. Consider the example provided before where an NPC may have competing loyalties or the idea you forwarded in the comment to my blog related to a justice system having an agenda and exerting agency in an IMech encounter... ideally this level of complexity in interactions would be addressed somehow either with the cards themselves or how they're played.