Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Perfect CRPG: Encounters

A consummate encounter. (Screenshot taken from mynameisnotlilly's "let's play" on YouTube.)
In Baldur's Gate, there is a wilderness area south of Nashkel that you have no particular reason to visit in the course of the main plot, but that you might want to visit for character-building purposes. Wandering in the northern part of that map, you'll come across three fighters from nearby Amn: Sendai, Delgod, and Alexander. Sendai does the speaking for the group. She introduces herself arrogantly and refers to you and your party as "stupid northern barbarians" for listening to rumors that Amn is building up troops to wage war on Baldur's Gate.

At this point, you have three dialogue options:

1. "Are you saying that Amn does not threaten Baldur's Gate?"
2. "I am tired of being insulted by every pompous idiot that I come across. Draw steel!"
3. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

Let's pretend we choose Option 3. Sendai responds by identifying herself and her companions and saying that they have come to the area to hunt game, "but perhaps you would make for better sport."

This time, you have two dialogue options:

1. "What kind of monster would hunt his fellow human like a wild animal!?"
2. "Those are fighting words, missy, and I think you'll soon regret that you ever said them."

If you say #1, Sendai is offended that you'd take her literally when clearly she was joking, and she stalks off in a huff. If you choose #2 in either dialogue, you're launched into combat with the trio.

Think for a moment about what dialogue options you might choose in different role-playing scenarios, but now we have to introduce a third complication that might not be apparent if you've never played the game: these are named NPCs, and by now the player will have learned that named NPCs almost always have awesome equipment and are worth ten times the experience of random monsters. Sendai, in fact, carries a long sword +1 (doesn't sound like much, but you could easily get here before you've found anything better, and non-magic weapons break in this game), and even better, wears studded leather +2. Her companions have dozens of magic arrows. In short, you have every incentive to provoke them into combat--except if you care about role-playing a PC who doesn't slaughter people simply for being obnoxious.

This, to my mind, is a near-perfect example of a true CRPG "encounter," and it's one of dozens in Baldur's Gate. Instead of just having "three fighters" appear and immediately attack you, you're introduced to three named individuals, with unique personalities, and you're given the option to fight them or role-play your way out of combat--with real incentives either way. Even better, the encounter is utterly independent of any quest. (Baldur's Gate II is a great game, in some ways even better than its predecessor, but one of the reasons I like the first one better is because of all these fantastic miscellaneous encounters; almost every encounter in II, by contrast, is part of some quest.)
  
Skyrim has a few good examples of excellent encounters, but oddly, most of them are random. If you've played the game, think about the Thalmor, Imperial, and Stormcloak "prison trains" that you frequently encounter on the roads. When you stumble upon them, it puts you in a real role-playing conundrum. Do I hate the Thalmor enough to interrupt my current quest to attack them? Can I even defeat them? Am I just doing this for their expensive armor? When one of them confronts you and demands to know whether you worship Talos, do you tell the truth? Lie and say "no" to save your skin? Lie and say "yes," knowing that it'll lead to combat, because it's none of their damned business?

I always try to free the prisoner, but he always dies.

Moments like this are so good (at least, for a player like me) that when a game doesn't take the time to set up a decent encounter, I find it very disappointing. I can see why draugr just shamble towards me when I enter their ruins, but why does every petty bandit insist on attacking the moment I enter his line of sight? Don't any of them want to bargain for their lives? Why don't the dragons--who are supposed to be intelligent creatures, after all--ever have anything to say before they just start breathing fire at me? Morrowind, otherwise one of my favorite games, is incredibly disappointing for this reason. You'll encounter a group of orcs standing around a Daedric ruin in the middle of nowhere, but they don't have anything to say beyond what every orc says in every town you visit. "What are you doing here?," I want to scream.

These are some other examples of encounters that stand out in my mind, keeping in mind that I haven't played a lot of modern games:
  • Baldur's Gate: You're walking through a forest and you come across a statue. Clearly, it's someone who's been turned to stone by a basilisk. Do you spend the money on the "stone to flesh" scroll to free her? Once you do, do you demand a reward or graciously decline?
  • Skyrim: An old orc warrior approaches and says that he's grown too old to serve his god any more and wants someone to give him a "noble death." Do you oblige him and kill him in combat, or do your personal ethics recoil at such a thing? (And could you defeat him anyway? He looks tough.)

I wish you could convince him to accompany you. What's more noble than death at the jaws of a dragon?
  
  • Baldur's Gate II: You run into a city of sahuagin on your way to defeat the game's main villain, who has literally stolen your soul. Do you stop and get involved in sahuagin politics or just kill anyone who stands between you and your objective?
  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: We all know how vicious the Sand People are. Now you've arrived at one of their enclaves, and you have to convince them to stop attacking some miners. The easiest solution--and the one that gets you the most experience--is just to kill all of them. It might even be the "right" solution. But you can also take the time to carefully negotiate with the leader and understand their perspective and history. 
  • Neverwinter Nights: You're on a side quest to kill some wanted criminals, which you have to prove by bringing back their ears. One of your targets approaches you and seems sincere in his innocence. Do you kill him anyway to complete the quest, let him go, or convince him to hack off an ear? (I love this one because it puts my desire to role-play a "good" character in conflict with my desire not to leave unfinished quests.)

Remember, a good encounter is distinct from both a good quest and a good combat. A good encounter might be part of a quest, and it might lead to combat, but it is a fundamentally different phenomenon. It is a moment that forces you to pause, think, immerse yourself in the game, and (often) make a role-playing decision. You might think of encounters as existing between quests and combats, between the broad story and the individual rolls of the dice that determine the outcome of a fight.

So far in my chronology, only a few games have rated high in the "Encounters" category. Starflight is one, because it gave you real options when dealing with the various alien species. Pool of Radiance and Wasteland are the only games so far in which we see encounters that approximate what I've listed above (though Wasteland got a lower score in the category because of the "foes" aspect). I think Pool of Radiance did it best. As I wrote in my "final rating":

I can't think of any other game so far with so much variety in the types of encounters that you face. There's a traitor chained to the wall: do you free him, kill him, or interrogate him? Your mission is to stop the lizard man menace: do you do it by championing the old lizard man against his rival, or by just killing them all? You need to rescue a little boy from the buccaneer den: do you pick the lock and sneak out with him, free some nearby zoo animals to create a distraction, buy him from his jailers, or just kill all of the slavers? This is one of the only games to allow real role-playing options in the way you handle encounters, both quest-based and non-quest-based.
Pool of Radiance's dialogue options during dinner with the Zhent commander are the closest thing we've had so far to modern, pre-combat conversational encounters.

Unfortunately, the default in this era is simply to be walking down a corridor and suddenly face a party of "6 orcs" with no intervening context, dialogue, or decision-making. Partly for this reason, I've been regarding puzzles as a type of "encounter" although they don't precede combat. I also have "foes" as the second half of the GIMLET category for encounters, and you might think this is a strange combination, but fundamentally what I was trying to do with the "Encounters and Foes" category was rate the quality of the obstacles the game puts in your path.

In thinking about the dimensions that make up a good encounter, I came up with four distinct "levels," with level 2 split into two equal halves.

Level 0: The completely random,  non-encounter. The player is simply thrown into combat with a foe, more or less randomly, with no context, notice, or choices ahead of time. Such encounters exemplify the earliest CRPGs, like Ultima or Wizardry, when the player is simply wandering through a forest or hallway and suddenly meets a random enemy.
 
A whole series of non-encounters in Ultima II

Level 1: The contextual encounter. The encounter is preceded by some kind of introductory screen that gives the player a chance to review the foes, make plans, and perhaps make a basic choice about whether to stay or flee. Wizardry offered this type of encounter sometimes, with enemies who appeared as "friendly." More recently, we've seen these encounters in The Dark Heart of Uukrul, where a cut scene and some descriptive text preceded many enemies simply attacking you.
 
Uukrul preceded almost all of its major battles with brief contextual cut-screens.

Level 2A: The conversational encounter. This type of encounter includes some dialogue options before combat begins. It's not the same as "NPC dialogue" because most of that takes place in cities and towns with non-combatants. Think of it as "NPC dialogue" with lives on the line. There haven't been many examples of these in my playing so far; the closest approximations are the "attitudes" that you could adopt in Pool of Radiance, and there was one specific conversation in Pool of Radiance (with the commandant at the Zhent outpost) that comes close.
 
Good encounter dialogue has always been a staple of the interrelated Black Isle, Bioware, and Interplay games, starting with Baldur's Gate and continuing through DragonAge.

Level 2B: The choice encounter. In this version, you might not have any dialogue, but you do have some role-playing choices. In a combat-related encounter, these choices might determine whether the combat even occurs and, if so, what it's parameters are.
 
There were places in which Wasteland offered some pretty good encounter options.

Level 3: The consummate encounter. This blends context, conversation, and choice into a single event in which role-playing dictates the result and combat might be averted. All the examples I listed at the top of the posting are consummate encounters. I can't recall any of these in the 75 games I've played so far, although some have come close, and it is possible that I'm forgetting one or two.

Through my perusal of postings and reviews on other sites, I've been more aware that many players actively dislike these elements in CRPGs. They like the puzzles, equipment, gold, and combats but would rather not have the artifice, the pseudo-immersion of the "encounter." I think their reasoning goes something like this: since no computer role-playing game will ever approximate the freedom of a tabletop role-playing game, why pretend that it will by offering a bunch of quasi-encounters in which you have limited choices? (If you dislike encounters in CRPGs but this isn't your argument, please comment below so I can understand it better.) While I understand the point logically, I don't understand it viscerally; these players are looking for an entirely different experience than I'm looking for in a CRPG.
 
But I admit there are plenty of "good" games with no good encounters. They haven't shown up in any roguelikes so far. The Ultima series has plenty of NPC dialogue, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a single good "encounter." The Might & Magic series is excellent for its plentiful side-quests, but lousy for any real role-playing in its various encounters. But in a "perfect CRPG," I want to see Level 3 encounters, and plenty of them.

What are your favorite "encounter" moments from CRPGs, and when do you think I'll start encountering them more often in my chronology?

72 comments:

  1. My best guess is that that kind of encounter won't start being a regular thing until Fallout. I'm not very familiar with early nineties CRPGs though.

    Deus Ex has some great consummate encounters I think. Especially as you near the "breaking point" of your initial associations - I'm not sure how much to spoil. But there are some great opportunities for getting different dialogue and story exposition depending on who you kill/if you kill at all (e.g. when you find the NSF commander in a plane and your fellow UNATCO agent shows up).

    I encountered a great encounter yesterday, not in a CRPG though. I'm currently playing Spec Ops: The Line and hugely enjoying it. There is an encounter where you come upon two people hanging from a large roadsign by their hands (tied with some rope). Snipers are aiming at both of them. At the time you are in radio contact with what I think is the "big bad" (not sure really and don't want to spoil too much) who orders you to decide which of the men should die. One of them has stolen water, which is a pretty bad crime in a Dubai destroyed by mega-sand storms. The other is the soldier sent to punish the thief, but who killed the thief's family of five. There are no dialogue options as such, though I imagine the dialogue differs depending on what you do. At any rate you have four options - shooting either of the prisoners, shooting the snipers, or refusing to shoot anyone.
    I'm not sure how significantly the consequences differ. But regardless I think it worked extremely well as a moral choice and very tense and kind of emotional moment in the game.

    (Still loving your blog, though I rarely post - I'm not yet familiar with the games you play in advance, at most I know the names)

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    1. Thanks! Your anecdote from Special Ops does qualify as good example. I guess a good encounter isn't limited to an RPG.

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    2. Spec Ops: The Line (That is the full name) was created as a response to the popularity of 'Rails shooters' or 'Hollywood shooters' such as Modern Warfare, Medal of Honour and Homefront, which are known for big set pieces, being very linear, and forcing you to complete every task in exactly the way the game designer intended you to. So I can't say I'm really surprised to hear it had something deliberately designed to avoid that rails, no choices, experience.

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  2. What a great article/post! I really loved reading it and the examples containted therein. Encounters with real choices (level 3) is what makes a cRPG replayable for me. It's what makes me wanna say "Aaah I'm going to make an evil character so I can kill or loot those nice people" even before I finish the game with my original one.
    To be honest though, I expected to see some examples from Planescape Torment and Fallout series up there, but I won't complain! :p

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    1. I haven't played either of those, or I doubtless would have cited them. I keep trying to explain to everyone, my experience with games after about 1990 is pretty much limited to the Infinity Engine games (minus Torment), Neverwinter Nights, the last three Elder Scrolls games, and Dragon Age.

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    2. Oh, and Might & Magic VI and after, of course.

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    3. Wow, I can't believe I've been such a loyal reader of your site when you haven't even played the best computer roleplaying games ever made. You are a true dinosaur.

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    4. What are you talking about? He said he's played the infinity-engine games!

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    5. If only we all had the time to truly enjoy the world of games more fully. A decade of full time devotion is what it'd take to document and back up that opinion KP... I don't see anyone more capable of that task than Chet. Maybe one day we'll overcome this backlog.

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    6. Planescape Torment isn't even really a RPG. It's a very linear adventure with stats thrown in with little to no influence on the game.

      And Fallout... is a watered-down Wasteland.

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    7. Yikes! Harsh and unnecessary, man. Planescape Torment is definitely required playing for anyone who loves RPGs (particularly so if one likes the Infinity Engine), but there's no reason to insult someone over having missed it.

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    8. I am more curious what species our online Paleontologist thinks our dear addict belongs to. Is he a Velociraptor, Triceratops, or perhaps a Megalodon? For the safety of all who have promised to share a gimlet or 5 with him we should all know what peril we are in store for.

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  3. To be honest, I can't think of an encounter that particularly impressed me, but I do enjoy them. Also, I don't care for table-top RPGs, I've never played one, so I have no expectation that a CRPG can or cannot replicate whatever table-top RPG mechanic.

    On another note, since you mentioned Baldur's Gate and the three Amnish 'pompous idiots', I admit I recently killed them. My policy is never to attack an NPC just to get his items and especially never to attack a friendly NPC. For example, it is possible to kill Drizzt Do'Urden quite early on in an encounter in the wilderness, if you exploit the AI in your favour and you have someone in your party that you're willing to sacrifice. You would get a large amount of XP and 2 or 3 awesome items. I'd never do that. But the there Amnish fighters, they were asking for it and I gladly dispatched them.

    I haven't played Skyrim yet, but I too am in the habit of freeing slaves/captives in Bethesda games like Morrowind or Fallout 3. There is one difference though - in Skyrim it's pretty obvious the group in front of you is escorting a prisoner. In Morrowind it was more likely that you'd enter some cave not knowing what you'll find; a bunch of thugs would attack you and only later you'd discover that there were slaves being kept there. It's similar in Fallout 3; you encounter a mutant camp in the Wasteland and after you kill them you realize they also happened to have a captive. Of course, unless you've played before and you already know what you'll find in the cave/camp/hide-out :D

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    1. I always liked freeing random slaves in Morrowind. Every time I encountered one, I'd do my best to find the slave collar key, even if it meant killing an overseer.

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    2. My usual stance in Morrowind was if you keep slaves, you deserve whatever's coming to you. Including my blade. Ah, the good old "The Twin Lamps" organization... if I recall the name correctly. There were a few quests related to them.

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    3. The first slave, or slaves - I can't remember, I encountered in Morrowind was in a bandit cave near the Silt Strider in Seyda Neen. I remember the awe I felt the first time I ventured out of Seyda Neen, across that small wooden bridge, and headed towards Balmora in a dark, rainy late afternoon. A dark, rainy in game afternoon, that is.

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  4. I'll always remember those early moments in Baldur's Gate when you're trying to figure out what to do. You feel weak and every encounter is mysterious, each character you meet may have ulterior motives. The assassin attacks in particular let you know that there are forces that want you dead. It perhaps would have been nice to be able to pay or talk your way out of them though.

    The way it handled party NPCs was rather good too, and I later came to appreciate the way they were never forced upon you. In later games (such as NWN2 and Mass Effect) when you encounter certain NPCs, they are part of your party no matter if they fit in with your plans. The best example from BG1 would be Minsc and Edwin, who are both possible companions but are distinctly non-compatible!

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    1. It's kinda funny if you have Minsc, Dynaheir and Edwin in your party.

      One minor gripe I have with Baldur's Gate is that, while it gives you plenty of opportunities to be 'evil', I get the feeling the game pretty much assumes you're playing a good, particularly a neutral good, character. It doesn't really bother me, because I usually play reasonably good characters - someone that does good, but sometimes might not shy away from being a bit vicious with whoever may deserve it - but that's what I felt when I first played Baldur's Gate.

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    2. It can certainly be more difficult playing an evil character, and chaotic evil in particular. I've not tried to play the whole game through in that way though, preferring to go for a neutral or good character.

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    3. It doesn't even really make sense in BG--first, that Gorion would raise an "evil" ward to maturity, knowing what he does about the child's background; second, that an evil PC would really care enough about the problems plaguing the Sword Coast to even engage in the main quest.

      I find that most games are like this. Look at BG2. If you're role-playing an evil character who doesn't really care about Imoen, the purpose of the main quest (not to mention the PCs you start with) is a little dodgy.

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    4. Yeah, that's basically it - the game always you to be evil, it doesn't really do much with it, because the quest lines assume you're good and there are some quite severe penalties for being evil. If you try going for being the 'ultimate' evil character - reputation 0 - "The player can no longer buy items. Whenever the party enters a new area, a group of warriors will spawn and move toward the party. The player always receives a hostile reaction from NPC’s." And even neutral characters break from your party, despite the fact they don't do the same if you have a perfect reputation of 20, which in theory should be equally undesirable to them. By the way, the above quote is from the game manual.

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    5. The BG games were poor "role playing" (in the broader sense of the word) games, since there really isn't much room to role play an evil or selfish character. But they had the best encounter design of any CRPGs I've played. Not only the pre-combat stuff (scouting and "parlay"ing,) but in which other games do you meet other bands of adventurers, and not just mindless monsters?

      The opposite of the BG games is perphas Might&Magic 2. But I love that game too, but for different reasons. I like the total unpredictability of encounters and always having a chance of finding new loot, and (unless you grind) constantly facing new monsters, and possibly not seeing all, before you finish the game.

      So to me the BG games are the pinnacle of games where most or all the stuff is hand placed and carefully designed, while MM2 is the pinnacle of games where most of the stuff is randomized.

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    6. Petrus, I agree. As much as I loved BG and the other Infinity Engine games, I thought they were a little too deterministic. Always the same encounters and the same items in the same places. It feels like it should have been possible to introduce a LITTLE randomness. MMVI and MMVII are fantastic on the equipment but lousy, as you say, in the encounters.

      I don't know that I agree about BG and BG2 being poor "role-playing," though. Even though being an evil character is tough, there's almost always an "evil" option to the quests. Some of the quests have three or four possible resolutions of different combinations. Compared to them, I feel absolutely straightjacketed by games like the MM series and even The Elder Scrolls. But then again, as I've covered elsewhere, I don't have a lot of breadth of experience in modern games. What IS a good game for the "role-playing" aspect?

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    7. Well, as I see it you can play any type of character you like in TES 4-6, especially if you ignore the main quest(s). Especially Oblivion has a poor main quest which, if you play a character that actually cares, forces you into the main quest without seeing much of the rest of the game. The Knights of the Nine expansion is even worse, because if you role play an honest character you will say you have some fame (which you will have unless you use a mod that starts you in Anvil) and you end up with the absurd situation that you can get this quest for a "pure, noble, honest knights" only if you lie to the prophet.
      But if you ignore the main quests in Oblivion, you can role just about any kind of character.

      In the BG games OTOH there just isn't much room for diversity. I tried playing an evil character, and a druid, but it wasn't very satisfactory. BG1 was fun playing an evil character when I had Monty and Xzar in the party, thanks to the BG1 NPC Project, but BG2 was rather hopeless and after a while I didn't feel my character had any "character" left and just did what was expected. The absolute highlight as an evil character was goading Anomen to "the dark side" in BG2, though. Many people hate Anomen, but I think he's the most interesting of the companions in BG2, with the best and most complex quest/story line.

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    8. IMHO, the gold standard for RPG non-combat encounters is Planescape: Torment. You can play a character of any persuasion (evil, good, selfish, conflicted, insane) in that game and still finish it and do all of the main quests and most of the side quests.

      Star Wars: the Old Republic and its sequel were pretty good in that area too, but they suffered from the Light Side/Dark Side dichotomy. I always ended up on the Grey Side of the Force: locked out of some powers and class options by the end because I was selfish but not "evil".

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  5. One of the first encounters not on the main line that I recalled vividly for awhile afterward in a game was the encounter in BG1, in Beregost, where you meet with Silke.

    Thank you also for posting from mynameisnotlilly! Here are my favorite of his excellent videos:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOujhV7m1eU (Baldur's Gate in 15 Minutes or Less)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKJSn7Mbs1A (Baldur's Gate 2 in 15 Minutes or Less)

    Enjoy! :)

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    1. Is that the one where you have to decide whether to kill her or the three obvious patsies she's sent at you? I liked that one, too, although I think it could have been a little less obvious that she was scamming you.

      I didn't realize "mynameisnotlilly" was famous (or a guy for that matter). It was just the first LP I found that included that scene. It's remarkably difficult to find a particular screenshot from a game unless you're willing to play it yourself to that point.

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    2. Agreed; it isn't so much the actual quest that I remember, it's that it took me forever to figure out how to kill her, since I was such a low level person; her lightning kept taking us out. Now I can do it easily, but at first, I had to reload several times from death on that fight. There are much more memorable battles, but that one sticks out as one that is not mainline that I have memorized word-for-word. It's really insignificant in the scheme of things, though.

      I don't know that mynameisnotlilly is really famous, but he *should* be, based on those two amazing Baldur's Gate in 15 Minutes or Less series he did :) They are relatively little-known, but quite well done. You can tell he put a lot of work into the script, and has mastered the art of screenshots that tell the story. Amazingly, he covers it all in 15 minutes or less for both of them, hitting the all of high points of the main quest, plus many of the side quests...with some witty humor intended for those who have played the game woven throughout :)

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    3. Interesting thing about "mynameisnotlilly," whose real name is Tord - I knew him in real life from 2003. He was part of my D&D group at the time. We actually played at his house for awhile. The group folded and we fell out of touch. Then I started doing Let's Plays, and basically ran into his Wasteland LP. His voice sounded so familiar! I eventually found a video in which he told the viewers about himself, for all those who had been asking. I was floored. What are the odds?

      By the way, Chet, I recently did set loose a prisoner near Winterhold, and he lived. I had an option to give him something, and I just so happened to have a non-magical axe that I didn't want (it was a quest reward). I was pleasantly surprised, since all the other prisoners had died like yours did. He didn't so much as say a word to me in thanks, though. He just ran off. Ingrate.

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  6. Seriously - this is an excellent article and really gets at the heart of a lot of my favorite RPG moments. I'm someone who, like you mentioned in reference to yourself, has an almost overwhelming compulsion to finish every-last-quest. I try to eek out all of the experience I can at every turn. However, more often than not, I play a 'good guy' or at least someone who's shade of gray is lighter than darker. :P I also value my storyline above both the experience and the quests, so when those key moments come along, it's definitely a personal challenge for me.

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  7. One newish game that has some great encounters is Alpha Protocol, a game you should get to in about 12 years! But an example from this game is an oil baron in the middle east that you are sent to kill offering you an alternate deal just before you pull the trigger, which if you accept changes the game fairly significantly.
    Also the Fallout games, as some have already mentioned, are excellent for encounters. The fact that you can complete them without killing anyone should give you an idea of the breadth of solutions for most encounters. We have all hyped up Fallout so much it now risks failing to live up to expectations.

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    1. I did try to play Fallout, but there was a glitch in my version in which the screen kept going black. It was annoying enough that I put off playing it any more and never really got back into it. There are probably dozens of games like that, where I would have really enjoyed them but some trivial thing at the beginning kept me from playing them.

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    2. *Cough* Moebius *Cough*
      : )

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    3. Yeah, I think I even violated my six-hour rule on that one.

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    4. I experienced the same black screen glitch a number of years ago when I tried to play it, but the GOG version works without any problems.

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    5. The original Fallout series was notorious for its game-ruining bugs, so I feel for you. It was easy to lose 10 hours of gameplay if you played an unpatched version as there were several bugs that could corrupt your saves.

      Fortunately, the GoG versions are all patched up and ready to go.

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    6. On the other hand, the GOG version of Fallout 1 WAS the slightly censored European one, and now the sale of Fallout 1 and 2 is even discontinued.

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    7. I almost forgot, of course Fallout is currently discontinued everywhere due to ongoing legal dispute who owns the franchise.

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  8. My argument against having this kind of encounter in a game at all is that the encounter wouldn't be based on simple game mechanics, but rather be artificial and scripted. I want the things that I deal with in a game to be an integral part of the game world and respond to the basic rules of the game. If I get a special item from one character just because the people who wrote the story of the game decided that that character should have a special item, then it doesn't feel real.

    An example of a good encounter would be the other pirates in Sid Meier's Pirates, as far as I know (and what I don't know doesn't harm me), these competing pirates are sailing around on the see just like you. Struck by disaster or happening upon serendipity, and then when you encounter these other pirates the amount of gold they have would be determined by for how long they've been out there pillaging. Normally in rpgs though, the competing pirates would be scripted and the amount of gold they have, as well as everything else about them, would be determined by some hard coded script, and that doesn't seem real.

    In short, I want it to be real, not scripted. The best encounter is encountering someone with a mission of their own, not someone who exists for the sole purpose of for the hero to interact with him.

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    1. I see what you mean, and I guess that would be a Level 4 or something, but you have to admit that these types of encounters are exceedingly rare in CRPGs. I do like the way that Pirates! has things happening in the world regardless of your actions, but there is nonetheless a notable lack of depth to the encounters. You either fight or you don't.

      These are not horribly dissimilar to the Thalmor encounters I praised in Skyrim which, although they offer some choices, have a similar lack of depth. Because there's NO scripting, every Thalmor says the same things every time, and the outcomes to your responses are always the same.

      Some merging of randomness and scripting is, to me, necessary for a perfect game.

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    2. I agree with innategamer. These encounters are too scripted. I'm often faced with choices that don't quite fit with how I want to play. I usually end up going through the different options to get the most benefit because in the end; the choices I make here are isolated from the rest of the game.

      Take the BG example you illustrated. The options are overreact or fight. There's no option to laugh it off, or simply ignore the comment. Also, fight or not, this encounter probably has no bearing on the rest of the game except for the items gained.

      In many of these games what you get outside the main quest (some times even in the main quest) are a set of unrelated choices that are isolated from the rest of the game. Other games will have a "karma" value that somehow translates to everyone in whole world knowing how good or evil you are. Each encounter is objectified into either, "what choice gives me the most benefit," or "what choice gives me the best karmic reward for how I'm playing," instead of "what would my characters do" because there's no reward for that.

      Even when there are lingering effects from past encounters, they're so deterministic that the game often draws the line for you in case you want to go back and change your mind.

      I hope your next experience with Fallout is better. I think you'll like it if you can get into it. The encounters are much as you like them. Just be sure to have a high enough intelligence and wisdom to have all the options. Once you get there, I'm going to play through with low intelligence just to have the conversations be babble. Also, from what I've seen and heard, you'll get some good encounters in Albion. I haven't played it myself.

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    3. You will get this kind of encounters in Wizardry VII: multiple adventure parties sent out by the competing political factions in the game are travelling the planet just like you do, trying to retrieve the quest items necessary to solve the game. They can actually find these items before you, so you have to track them down and either barter with them or fight them. To my knowledge, these competing parties also can fight each other over the quest items, creating a unique dynamic in the game.

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    4. That sounds pretty awesome. I look forward to it!

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  9. Xenoblade Chronicles: it might be a bit too "anime" for you, but I say that if a game is fun, how it looks and sounds does not matter. It has what you want in an R.P.G: Enemies of every level attack you; the battle system and story are unusual; most quests do not give you any directions; and it is challenging despite appearing to be forgiving at first.

    There is a moment where after destroying an enemy base, you get back a character who is very important to the main character. She is at the same level as your other characters, but she does not have ability points, meaning that she is very weak. You have a choice: Use her in your party, crippling you but appropriately role-playing the main character, or leave her in the reserves and be powerful.

    I just got to the part where the above happens, which I am guessing is around 70% into the game, and here is my GIMLET:

    Game World: Colorful, varied, and very open--a nice change from the brown and linear nature of most of today's games. All the stages are large, have many paths and multiple planes, and are filled with enemies who are often way above your level. Has an unusual premise in which life on a planet evolved around a dead robot, one that the humans believe to be God and the afterlife. Score: 9.

    Character Development: Deceptively complex: At first, it seems to be a simple level up system; but if you look further into it, you can buy skill books, apply experience to specific skills, and set columns of skills to develop. It uses a relatively small number of skills, but most games that use lots of skills only require a few of them. Score: 7, maybe 8

    N.P.C.s: A nice variety of N.P.C.s: Humans, robots and weird furry things. They have clear motivations, some humor, and a sense of fun. Most of the interaction is yes or no, but occasionally you get choices. Score: 6, although if I was going by my standards, it would probably be at least 7.

    Encounters: Lots of enemies, in a wide and colorful variety. Each area has different types of enemies, and the enemies change based on the time of day. Score: 9.

    Combat: fun, fast-paced and exciting. It encourages the use of a variety of a skills: You have to switch quickly between healing, hitting and shielding in order to survive, and the equipment you use does affect your tactics a bit. Score: 10.

    Economy: Simple money and trade-based system, one that requires you to maintain a good amount of money as the equipment and skillbooks become increasingly powerful. You have to make some tough choices, as some of the equipment strengthens some stats but weakens others. Score: 7.

    Quests: Like I said, a good variety with some humor and good characters. Most quests do not give you any sort of direction or markers, so you have to search those big, colorful stage in order to complete them. Score: 8

    Graphics, sounds, inputs: Graphics are pretty simple, sound is good but I think a lot of it is copied from other sources. Its interface is a little awkward, but better than most of the interfaces in these old games. Score: 5.

    Gameplay: I think I have explained why this is so good, and the game is very challenging without being exasperating. Replayability: I doubt you can change the story much, but you can switch characters and try to use different skills, so you might be able to replay it. Score: 9.

    Final Score: 71, but I am going to give it ten bonus points for just being unique and fun, and because graphics and sound are minor things. This gives a final score of 81, 12 points above your favorite, Ultima V. I think that is good, because I think I enjoyed this more than any Western R.P.G--yes, I did like Ultima, Wasteland, Baldur's Gate and Wizardry, but for some reason I liked this more--with the exceptions of the Elder Scrolls: Arena, Redguard, Daggerfall and maybe Skyrim; the Quest for Glory series; and maybe Ultima 7 when the quests were not too ridiculously overcomplicated.

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    1. I don't think Chet is going to get a Wii.

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  10. Isn't that Skyrim orc encounter merely a reprise of Umbra from Morrowind, where you find an old orc warrior named Umbra east of Suran and he wants you to kill him? Morrowind contains a variety of interesting miscellaneous encounters, from a woman asking you to retrieve a ring from a pond (after which you're attacked by the woman and her associate) to an unclothed Nord asking your help in recovering his items from a witch (who then gives you her side of the story, and you must choose whose side to take).

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    1. It's similar, I grant you (I had forgotten about Umbra until you commented here).

      Morrowind does contain more interesting encounters than I gave it credit for in the posting. I criticize it because, despite these, the majority of encounters are still pretty shallow and don't offer many choices. But it's a light criticism because Morrowind is otherwise one of my Top 5 favorite games of all time.

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  11. You're walking through a forest and you come across a statue. Clearly, it's someone who's been turned to stone by a basilisk. Do you spend the money on the "stone to flesh" scroll to free her? Once you do, do you demand a reward or graciously decline?

    I remember this. But for me, "role-playing" in any pure sense didn't enter into it; it was entirely a matter of "dammit, my party needs a cleric." A purely pragmatic decision.

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  12. I love when you write posts like these. It helps me think about how I approach things while I write my own old-school style CRPG. This is something I will definitely think about.

    If anyone wants to see what I'm working on, feel free to check here:
    http://landsadventure.blogspot.com/

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  13. Level 4: encounters in Space Rangers

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  14. Nice article! I heartily concur with your differentiation in four levels of encounters. From all the cRPG's I played, I remember Planescape: Torment as standing out in diversity and depth of encounters. From non-lethal solutions to valid evil roleplaying options and deep-branching conversations which demand multiple replays to fully explore all the options. Only in the latter third of the game, combat becomes more prominent and offers opportunity for some level-grinding.
    I thought Skyrim took a step in the right direction when they placed enemies at the outer entrances of dungeons who warn you before attacking instead of blindy going after you when they spot you. I would like to see some even more advanced AI where enemies assess your threat level and respond accordingly (flee and/or get more friends to join the attack when you are high level for example). When you whittle down the health points of an enemy to the minimum in Skyrim they ask for mercy, that should open conversation/ roleplaying options instead of them recovering and attacking again.

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  15. "Good encounter dialogue has always been a staple of the interrelated Black Isle, Bioware, and Interplay games, starting with Baldur's Gate and continuing through DragonAge."

    Um, hello, if you're going to mention Interplay, you should really be starting with *Fallout*, not Baldur's Gate -- especially when you're talking about dialogue-driven encounters!

    Sorry, I'm being a fanboy :)

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    1. As I mentioned above, never played any of them, so I couldn't comment. I was actually under the impression that Baldur's Gate preceded Fallout until I just looked it up. Sorry about that.

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    2. Fallout preceded Baldur's Gate, but BG was the most influential of the two for several reasons - NPCs and encounters being one of them.

      The Fallout series has some interesting aspects in terms of dialogue, including the possibility to defeat bosses by speechcraft/charisma.

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  16. I don't like it when evil equates to shortsighted sadist as is the case in many games that give you the good/evil option. An opportunistic manipulator would be cool to roleplay, a moronic bully is not.

    The evil playthrough of KotOR is quite fleshed out, yet it has too many wince-worthy moments and still makes no sense from a story perspective. It ends up making the decision to train Anakin in Ep1 look positively enlightened.

    I like the response options in Mass Effect, they're varied but still in keeping with someone for whom saving the galaxy is the number one priority. That said, an opportunity to install yourself as the new big bad would not have been unwelcome.

    The Geneforge series has the best implementation of the moral dilemma in my opinion. You have many options regarding who to sign on with and they all make coherent arguments. The game provides constant opportunities for backstabbing and the entire setting revolves around the concept of trading sanity for power.

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    1. I agree. Personally, I find having lawful/chaotic options more interesting than good/evil options.

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    2. Have you read the works of Mr. Moorcock, Chet?

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    3. I have not. I just looked him up. He seems to have written a lot of stuff.

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    4. Yes, he does a bit much acid and gets into symbolism to an impenetrable degree in his later books (I never did figure out what the hell was going on in some of the Count Brass ones). Corum and Elric are some of the best books around though, and inspired a lot of D&D.

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  17. Ah you made me start playing baldurs gate again :) Wasn't sure how I wanted to play it, so rolled a d8 for class and then alignment (theres 9 but some classes preclude an alignment and I chose to veto one if there were still 9 options). Chaotic Evil rogue it is! Got in trouble once already in candlekeep but not disastrously. Back on subject, I do like a few of the encounter options in Neverwinter Nights, a few options have come back that I have been too funny not to choose. One cool one is finding a bunch of villagers and having an option to say screw it, can't be bothered rescuing you, will just kill you all instead. A nice touch is this lowers your alignment even though it turns out they are actually monsters anyway (but of course you didn't know that at the time(nor did I, was my first playthrough)).

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    1. I completely don't remember that from NWN. But I agree there were a lot of good encounters in the game and in its expansions (perhaps even more so in its expansions). I only played them once, though, so I couldn't recall them all.

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    2. Mostly the expansions. The original campaign was easily the laziest, least competent one Bioware has ever released (and I include Dragon Age II here, which has severe issues). Heck, even Bioware assumed you'd be continuing into the second expansion, Hordes of the Underdark, with a character from Shadows of Undrentide and not the original campaign. They barely even reference the original campaign in that expansion - there's a couple of characters that come into play, but they're introduced as though you'd never met them before.

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    3. It was a little nonsensical and disjointed. It was too bad, because I thought Neverwinter itself was interesting an atmospheric.

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  18. There was a truly memorable encounter in the otherwise lamentable "Descent to Undermountain." Let me preface this by telling you that "Descent to Undermountain" is an absolutely horrible game, and is nearly impossible to play... never the less, I found a certain sick satisfaction to it.

    In the encounter that I am thinking of, you encounter a ghoul that is beating its head into a wall. This is not entirely unexpected, the game has some truly frightening clipping problems, but in this case it is intentional, which becomes clear when you talk to the ghoul.

    (this was years ago, and I am paraphrasing)
    Player: What are you doing?
    Ghoul: I have a headache.
    Player: That’s because you are beating your head into a wall!

    Anyway, long story short, you can either convince this ghoul to stop beating its head into the wall, or you can encourage it to beat its head into the wall faster and harder. Besides being hilarious, it allows you to beat the foe without exposing yourself to its level-draining powers.

    They later re-used the idea in Icewind Dale. I believe it was supposed to be a reference to this encounter, but since nobody besides me played Descent to Undermountain and lasted far enough to get this encounter, nobody but me got the joke.

    P.S.
    When you eventually get to the point that you are going to play Descent to Undermountain, I would be very interested in knowing where I can get a copy again. Attempting to play it again is probably a sign of a dangerous mental imbalance, but… *shrug* Nostalgia.

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    1. I'll look forward to it in 1998. Although it seems to be presented humorously, there is actually a real moral decision here. The ghoul is an evil creature, but convincing a creature to kill itself by beating its own head against the wall is probably an evil act.

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    2. Ahhh DtU. I agree, a terrible game, but cute nonetheless. I liked how your hub was a tavern and you took an elevator to the different Undermountain levels/quests.

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  19. Other games with good encounters not mentioned yet: Arcanum and vampires: the masquerade - redemption.

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  20. BG1 is one of the very few RPGs where after two playthroughs I still haven't bothered to explore every map screen.

    The forest areas in BG1 are all made the same way: draw a massive splotch of green or brown ground, copypaste trees all over it, fill it with spiders, ghouls and basilisks that come for your nuts, and finally put two or three NPCs in there. These will

    1) attack,
    2) say something useless and then vanish, or
    3) give you a fetchquest that can be solved in ten minutes if you know where the item is, or one hour if you have to scour the whole area searching for it while Vampiric Wolves try to eat your gonads.

    I guess it gives you freedom, but it's freedom to waste your time.

    (Still better than NWN2, where wasting time is mandatory.)

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    1. Whereas I *loved* exploring all the regions. The art is beautiful and handdrawn, unlike today's procedurally generated areas. There are all sorts of hidden things, and little mysteries (I still remebered that sunken house when I started playing BG:EE a few days ago, despite first finding it in 1999 or 2000.

      Also, they aren't all useless. For example, the Hermit near Bergost can say some things that reveal a lot about you if you are nice (or very rude) to him. You'd have had to read one of the books to understand it though ('The Fateful Coin' I think is the name). Cleverly, if you go to Firebead Elvenhair's house in Bergost he gives you a fetchquest to get this book, which makes it more likely that you will have read the book when you meet the hermit and thus understand what he has to say.

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    2. Yeah, that was an utterly baffling attack on one of the few games that allows relatively meaningful encounters across a varied landscape. Anonymous, even in your invective, you point out that NPCs have three basic stances when you encounter them, which is two more than the average game. Pray tell, what games do you think offer BETTER exploration and encounters?

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  21. I liked the encounters on fallout 2 and Planescape:torment, But I think your dislike for goofy humor and monty python will bother you on fallout 2.

    regarding non-CRPG encounters, final fantasy 7 and 8 had a few interesting ones.

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  22. Well, IIRC Fallout is not the first game I played with Level 3 encounters. (You should rename it to 'Encounters of the third kind' ;) ). I'm pretty sure Ultima Underworld also offered these. And to some extent I think also Ultima VII.

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