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Screw player agency... how about some NPC agency instead?

quest agency npc pc choice consequence

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#1
zain3000

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TLDR: Scroll to bottom for main points.

I've been playing through Fallout NV recently. It's excellent quest design has brought to my mind a few points I'd like to share about NPC agency.

Let's talk about the oldest trope in fantasy RPGs - that of the "quest".

Usually a PC is given quests that entails "solving" problems for NPCs. If the player accepts a quest, then directions to complete said quest and possible rewards for doing so are made clear. If the player chooses to ignore the quest, then not much of anything happens (more on this point later).

This plays into the power-fantasy that these games have historically filled. The player is either a White Knight travelling from town to town solving problems or an Evil **** (my own label) who benefits from said problems. This has always struck me as shallow and ultimately conceited; the White Knight's motivation is seemingly helping others in need but in actuality, his/her true motivation is the feeling of power gained by doing so. And if the player chooses not to engange in a quest (for whatever reason) then nothing changes because the NPC is incapable of handling the problem without the player's intervention.

In my opinion, Kreia (from KOTOR 2) is the best NPC character I have ever encountered in any game. Her interactions with the player shred all the preconceived notions about being both a White Knight or an Evil ****. The conversation where she tears the player a new one for the ostensibly "noble" act of charity toward the traveller trapped at the port in Nar Shadda is permanently etched into my mind.

 

"Such kindnesses will mean nothing, his path is set. Giving him that which he has not earned is like pouring sand into his hands."

 

The notion that simply doing good deeds for others is the end-all cure to their problems was in desperate need of being thrown out with the rest of the simplistic moralism espoused by a lot of fantasy games - and Kreia was the one that did it for me.

Back to New Vegas - one aspect of the quest system that really stood out to me was it gave the player the choice of not only solving the problems of NPCs but empowering NPCs to actually solve their own problems. A great example is one of the first quests you receive: Ghost Town Gunfight. Instead of merely eliminating the Powder Gangers and "solving" the problem, the player is put in a postition to empower the people of Goodsprings to help themselves. Rally the troops and have them play to their strengths in order to fight off the invaders. There is certainly a sense of satisfaction to be had from helping people help themselves.

Sadly, this was not done nearly enough (even in NV). By declining to do a quest, the NPC would usually see you off with a "I'll be here if you change your mind" and then simply wait around for you to return and help him/her out of the problem. The quest that comes to mind is the one where the Brotherhood of Steel initiate asks you to return the laser pistol he dropped in the wastes while running from Radscorpions. I wanted to tell him that if he snuck out of the bunker for target practice, he can certainly do it again to retrieve his pistol, and if he's too cowardly to do so, he can talk to the quartermaster, admit his mistake, and bear the consequences of his actions. In short, he should SOLVE HIS OWN DAMN PROBLEM. Sadly, this was not an option provided in the dialogue tree. I left that quest undone on moral grounds, even though to complete it would have probably netted me some free supplies from the quartermaster.

For those of you who are still with me, here are my simple recommendations for dealing with NPC agency in quests:

 

  1. Ensure that there are noticeable outcomes (positive, negative or otherwise) for both choosing to accept a quest and NOT choosing to accept it.
  2. If possible (because it isn't always possible) enable player to help NPCs solve their own problems.

Seeing as how both the games from where I have taken ideas are Obsidian games, this is probably already well understood by the devs. I'd simply like to see more of it.

 


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#2
PrimeJunta

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Damnit, what a great post. All I can really say is "hear hear." Also in re Kreia, I loved the way KoTOR 2 subverted the whole light side/dark side dichotomy in general.

 

Of NV characters, I especially enjoyed Boone's story, and liked Rose's story least, largely for the reasons you describe -- Rose was basically sitting there drinking waiting to be rescued, whereas Boone had some heavy **** to deal with which he eventually dealt with himself, with you just the catalyst. Veronica was a close second to Boone.

 

In fairness, though, I think e.g. the laser pistol quest reflects more the massive breadth and ambition of the game. I thoroughly agree that it would have been much better if there were other options than a simple treasure-hunt, but with a game that size, some of the sidequests are bound to be less fleshed-out than others.

 

I'm optimistic about this with P:E. For one thing, many of the writers who've written this kind of thing are involved, and Josh has explictly stated that he's not a fan of ego-stroking as narrative technique, and doesn't want to encourage it. So yeah, I will be disappointed if this ends up as another biowarian egotrip.

 

But it won't. It may fail in many ways, but that's not one of them.


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#3
Volourn

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"In my opinion, Kreia (from KOTOR 2) is the best NPC character I have ever encountered in any game. Her interactions with the player shred all the preconceived notions about being both a White Knight or an Evil ****. The conversation where she tears the player a new one for the ostensibly "noble" act of charity toward the traveller trapped at the port in Nar Shadda is permanently etched into my mind."

 

EPIC FAIL. While Kreia has her good points, she is nowhere the best npc ever. Maybe top 100. She doesn't tear anyone anything. All she spams is juvenile  limited editiion pyscho babble.  If I were rating characters out of 10, I'd give her a 6/10.Slightly above average that's it.

 

I do love the Goodsprings example. But, it shouldn't be over done.

 

 

"This has always struck me as shallow and ultimately conceited; the White Knight's motivation is seemingly helping others in need but in actuality, his/her true motivation is the feeling of power gained by doing so."

 

Only one being shallow is you. Why are you putting your own motivation on other players' characters. Stop trying to think you know what player A's Charcetr D motivation is. You don't know. Also, don't confuse the players' desire for ph@t lewt and levelling for the character's potential desire for being a 'white knight'. You also forgot a third option,  the PCs are adventurers trying to survive a dangerous land. or maybe  the PC is a victim of assasination attempts and needs to find out why people want to skill him (or her) and put an end to it.  Games have given all sorts of motivations for characters as has players. It's not just a) or just b). It's like saying a doctor who accepts money to ply his trade only does so because he's greedy and wants to get rich and not also the fact he became a doctor to try to save lives. Only shallow people limits others' motivation to just one thing. That's silly talk.

 

I do agree that npcs should be more pro active at certain times though (however, kreia never was until end game because she was the lame big bad which hurt her character imo but that's a whole 'nother subject).


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#4
teknoman2

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what it all comes down to, is giving the player more than 1 choice and a reason to pick B instead of A, besides the simplistic "im evil, i dont help"


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#5
Suburban-Fox

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Only one being shallow is you. Why are you putting your own motivation on other players' characters. Stop trying to think you know what player A's Charcetr D motivation is. You don't know. Also, don't confuse the players' desire for ph@t lewt and levelling for the character's potential desire for being a 'white knight'. You also forgot a third option,  the PCs are adventurers trying to survive a dangerous land. or maybe  the PC is a victim of assasination attempts and needs to find out why people want to skill him (or her) and put an end to it.  Games have given all sorts of motivations for characters as has players. It's not just a) or just b). It's like saying a doctor who accepts money to ply his trade only does so because he's greedy and wants to get rich and not also the fact he became a doctor to try to save lives. Only shallow people limits others' motivation to just one thing. That's silly talk.

 

Not so much about 'desire for ph@t lewt and levelling', more about pandering to the player's power fantasy of being the super awesome hero for whom the entire world stops, and everybody needs to solve even the simplest of problems. Although I think the reason is more of making it easier for the writers, I agree with the OP in that it does make the world feel very contrived when every quest is designed for you, and you alone, to solve at your convenience.

 

Consider the classic 'fed-ex' style quests - you know, where you meet the person who needs an urgent delivery across town, and is willing to pay an arm and a leg to get it done asap (and can't do it himself for some reason) - in fact it's so urgent that, if you decide to do it, you'll have an indefinite amount of time to do it in, and if you decide not to do it, it will not get done until you change your mind. In fact, you can come back next month and the urgent delivery will still need to be done there and then...this man won't be in the job very long if he constantly relies on passing adventurers to do his job for him!

 

I understand the need to conveniently have these quests become available when you reach it. After all, the game won't be much fun if you can only get this quest (which you don't even know about yet) if you arrive in town between 10 and 11 am on the 7th day of this month, otherwise you don't get the chance to do it. But, I don't think it'll hurt the game if, once you've encountered the quest and rejected it, you only have a relatively small timescale in which to change your mind before either somebody else takes care of it, or the consequences of it not being done are realised.


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#6
Nonek

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I would say no to forsaking player agency OP but I am sure you are just exaggerating for effect there, however on everything else I fully agree with you, and I too believe that Kreia was an excellent example of this. Someone who questions and asks you to think about your actions rather than simply doing as the code of the Jedi or Sith demands, or even buying into the whole binary tyranny of the Force that sees no victor and ultimately gives no benefit to either side, through courage and experience she has worked out that the only path to winning is to simply not play that game. In a way I believe hers is the only morale path in the whole game, and personally i'd have liked to see her win, but obviously Obsidian could not go that far.

 

But even here I believe that developers can go further, and that NPC's can undertake their own tasks without the protagonist, as has been stated above the urge to make everybody but the "special" main character an incompetent, idle and unmotivated servant is something I find far too devaluing to the gameworld and the characters of it. It also robs the antagonist of any potency, if one is defeating a pathetic foe where is the challenge?

 

As you say Obsidian is better than many developers in this respect and its NPC's and antagonists are usually more realistically implemented, so I too have high hopes for even more independence and self motivation in Poes cast. And of course less blatant hero worship and ego stroking, in fact I personally would not mind playing as an utterly despised character who maintains a mask to try and conceal his actions, like Nameless' lack of identity for instance or Ravel's many branchings.


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#7
Walsingham

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Very interesting post no doubt. However, I have to wonder whether agency underpins the core appeal of RP gaming.

 

We live our  lives with at least the presentiment of a lack of agency. For me gaming reminds me of the potential for seizing agency.

 

Simple point probably kept simple. :)

 

EDIT: rereading your post I take your second point about leaving quests open. Rightly or wrongly many of my friends who game get bloody angry if they can't come back to a quest. Elevating the art is all well and good, but people ultimately have to buy it in large numbers.


Edited by Walsingham, 17 April 2014 - 11:44 AM.


#8
teknoman2

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Very interesting post no doubt. However, I have to wonder whether agency underpins the core appeal of RP gaming.

 

We live our  lives with at least the presentiment of a lack of agency. For me gaming reminds me of the potential for seizing agency.

 

Simple point probably kept simple. :)

 

EDIT: rereading your post I take your second point about leaving quests open. Rightly or wrongly many of my friends who game get bloody angry if they can't come back to a quest. Elevating the art is all well and good, but people ultimately have to buy it in large numbers.

i like to be able to leave quests for later sometimes, however if the system is made so that not doing a quest when offered, causes a change to the events to come it's fine. 



#9
constantine

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It can be as simple as such: some quest givers leave when you refuse the quest, never to be seen again, coping things on their own. This is sth I believe we might exp. in the game.

 

Seeing the results of not you doing the quest and leave things develop on their own, although I'd love to see it happen, I don't believe we are gonna get that.


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#10
Volourn

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"In a way I believe hers is the only morale path in the whole game,"

 

You believe the one who mass murders in cold blood and enjoys inflicting pain on others intentionally is the 'only' moral path? Are you on crack?  Kreia is one of the most evil , delusional, corrupt, pyschopathic scumbag characetrs ever.  Jon irenicus has more of a soul, more humanity (and he's not even human!), more morality than kreia does. LMAO



#11
Nonek

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Are you on crack?

 

Not this evening, milk of the poppy and Courvoisier tonight old boy.


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#12
Lephys

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It can be as simple as such: some quest givers leave when you refuse the quest, never to be seen again, coping things on their own. This is sth I believe we might exp. in the game.
 
Seeing the results of not you doing the quest and leave things develop on their own, although I'd love to see it happen, I don't believe we are gonna get that.


Yeah. I was gonna add a #3 to the OP's bullet points at the end: "(When applicable) have something happen/change even if you simply refuse to help with their problem.

One of the biggest things I see as a concern with that is the ability to sort of put that off until later (there's usually abstracted time in game worlds, because it's pretty tough to have an entire world worth of stuff all marching to the exact same, constantly ticking beat -- there would just be so many deadlines, you'd hardly get to do anything). BUT, the thing is, if you, say, don't help someone raise the money necessary to pay their taxes or something (or help them somehow solve the problem on their own -- if you choose not to even tackle influencing that situation at all), and they get their whole house confiscated and they get thrown in the palace dungeon or something, then that's something that can still be dealt with in the future, and works much better than "Don't worry, if, in 3 in-game months, you decide to come back and help that person, they'll STILL just be there, frozen in time, because their lack of tax money never ever affected anything at all." AND the two are mutually exclusive, so:

A) There's no feasible complaint about not-doing a quest providing extra benefits or something (you can't help them pay their taxes, AND deal with the later situation of them not-having-paid their taxes), and
B) There's no "why wouldn't you always take on every quest/situation that exists in the world, no matter what it is or how much you disagree with it? If you don't, you're just missing out on XP and stuff."

If a great many of the applicable quest situations worked like this, then the whole character-capability-progression aspect (leveling up, improving skills, etc.) would actually directly support simply choosing what to do and what not to according to your ("your character's") tastes/preferences, and not simply shutting a bunch of progression doors just because you're trying to play that way.





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