This posting is about a special kind of puzzles, namely conversation puzzles. For all the environment interaction puzzles you’d normally find in a dungeon, look here: Puzzles (I)
Morrowind was one of the last major RPGs with a keyword-based dialogue system
(Skip to (B) if you don’t care.)
Conversations with NPCs serve many roles in RPGs. Sometimes, they only serve as introductions to shop, training or similar functions. They are the main way of providing the player with quests and information about the game world. And often, they are vital for story progress.
Especially in JRPGs (RPGs of the Japanese tradition like Final Fantasy, which differ from “western” CRPGs in many subtle, but noticeable aspects), conversations between the various characters also serve to define those characters’ personalities, with the purpose of increasing the emotional connection between the player and those people on the screen. This goes so far as to disallow player input in this regard, because this is seen as the only way to ensure that the hero’s responses fit his or her personality.
The debate about the advantages and disadvantages of this approach could fill yet another posting (personally, I think this is quite the incorrect way). One problem, however, has nothing to do with storytelling: Without interactivity in conversations, we deprive ourselves of the option to include dialogue puzzles.
Dialogue puzzles had a highpoint during the days of the venerable Ultima series, especially parts IV-VI. Instead of going through a series of limited choices, as is now common, the player would have to freely type conversation answers. While this had the advantage of challenging the player’s attentiveness and creativity, the obvious downpoint was that the player could easily get stuck if the correct keyword evaded him. The evolution was to present all the keywords the player might have learned about (whether she realized it or not) in a list – the main difference to modern answer lists was that this list carried over between different NPCs.
Of course, if the player could just click through keyword after keyword, what was challenged was the player’s patience instead of her wits. Recognizing this, several developers tried to introduce subtle barriers, but by then CRPGs were going into hibernation. When Baldur’s Gate revived them, pretty much everyone followed the choice list approach. When full text voice acting became a thing and “moral decisions” took the place of puzzles, no one even thought of going back to the keyword model anymore, even though many players clearly preferred the deep keyword conversations of Morrowind to the reduced, but fully voiced, conversations of eventual successor Skyrim.
As indie developers, we don’t have to concern ourselves with these restrictions (well, like we could afford full text voice acting). I think there is tremendous design space available in RPG conversations, much of which is not yet being used. A major upside of making conversations a little more “puzzling”, so to say, is that NPCs with habits of all sorts can easily be integrated into just about any scenario, whereas the traditional puzzles as described in the previous post often feel forced or nonsensical.
(B) Adding Complexity to Conversations
The following is a collection of methods to make conversations more challenging without going back to the “type in the keyword” approach. Note that all of these only become actual puzzles if the player has a way of roughly predicting what is going to happen (known as “hints”). Otherwise, much as with traditional puzzles, we’re instead looking at trial-and-error roadblocks, which nobody really enjoys.
- How dare you: There is no guarantee that the NPC willingly responses to every question the hero might have, and in some cases mentioning a certain topic might have really negative repercussions, such as a merchant not selling items to the hero anymore (maybe unless a quest is performed to regain his favor). This is the basic convention that the player should be aware of, if it is present in your game; there are enough games out there where NPCs are nothing else but questgivers and information dispensers.
- Of course I’m honest: A negative reaction is obvious, but what if the NPC just lies to the hero to protect his own interests? Works best with either dialogue-relevant skills, spells etc. (“Amulet of Truth”) or in a web of conversations where the player can get other NPCs to either confirm or deny other people’s statements. Be careful of having too many relevant NPCs at the same time.
- Attitude: The NPCs disposition towards the hero changes the available topics or the NPC’s answers themselves. The disposition may result from the hero’s general reputation, her charisma stats, gifts or the player’s navigation of the conversation: First talk about topics the NPC likes, agree with her positions, then her tolerance for uncomfortable questions or anything that requires effort to answer will be higher. Maybe the NPC is an avid historian, and will only take the hero seriously when she can talk knowledgeably about the era of the lizardmen empire. Hints that reveal the NPC’s mood are helpful here; Oblivion had a simple stat, a changing face picture would be more subtle.
- Time & Place: The NPC is more willing to talk when met in a place where no guards are listening. Or in the evening hours, when he’s in the bar, after a wine or two; or maybe the bar is where the NPC likes to play cards, and he’ll definitely be in a better mood after having won against the hero several times? (If you don’t want to implement a minigame, the simple dialogue option “lose on purpose” does the trick as well…)
- Absent-minded: Works best in choice series; if the player does not stay on a certain topic, the NPC grows disinterested and either quits the conversation or (more devious) only babbles nonsense to make the hero go away
- Limited Patience: The player is free to choose from the list of topics, but the NPC will only answer a certain number of questions before he is fed up or has to depart. Which are most important to the player?
- Enemy of my Enemy: As if only the hero could talk to different people. If you suspect a council member of a crime, but don’t want him to notice your investigation, maybe telling his best friend on the council is not exactly a good idea?
- Something from my Backpack: You can use lockpicks to open doors and scrolls of doom to defeat a monster. How about a potion of persuasiveness, a ring of detect lies or a simple gift to give you an advantage in conversations?
All of this sounds like it could amount to a lot of work – and that is indeed the case. But your game and your world will seem that much more interesting if NPCs aren’t just the guys with a floating exclamation mark above them and there’s something else to do than just grindy combat. Give it a try.