6 Things Divinity II Taught Me About Running a Better Game
From Hannah Lipsky
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #479
I received a review copy of Divinity II a while back. It’s a game with an interesting premise: your character starts out as a dragon slayer, and eventually becomes a dragon. You can find out more of it here: http://www.divinity2.com/
As always when playing an RPG, I looked for ways I could use the lessons of the game to improve my own. While it was a good game and some of the things I learned I gained from the good parts, I found more lessons in the few things it did wrong than the many it did right.
It’s Possible for XP to Make Sense
One real suspension of disbelief issue I have with RPGs is that within your first couple weeks of adventuring, your character has doubled in power. A couple more weeks, and they’ve far surpassed even soldiers who’ve spent a lifetime in battle.
How does this make sense? Especially if your character’s backstory has them spending years training, the sudden power jumps caused by most games’ XP systems are just strange. What did three weeks of clearing out kobolds teach you that a decade of perfecting techniques at the monastery while battling border raiders couldn’t?
The closest anyone gets to offering an explanation is, “That’s the special characteristic that makes PCs PCs instead of just another warrior.”
Divinity II is the first game I’ve seen that actually takes a stab at explaining this in the game world. Right off, your character is told he or she is about to lose all the memories of the years of dragon slayer training you’ve undergone. This is so there is room for the dragon’s memories to fill your mind. But no worries – your training will come back to you, slowly at first, and then more quickly.
Now it makes sense. You’ve trained for years to be the best, but you can barely kill vermin. Why? Because you forgot it all. A couple weeks later, you’re back to bashing skulls with the best of them, and soon after that, you’ve surpassed all but the finest of the warriors who haven’t received your elite training. Why? Because all those years of training are coming back.
It’s not an explanation that will work for every campaign. But it is a reminder that even the most meta game mechanics can have a solid in-game foundation if you try hard enough.
Mind Reading Doesn’t Have to be Game-Breaking
Divinity II has an interesting mind reading system, where you trade XP for the chance to catch someone’s stray thoughts. It’s a low price for unimportant NPCs, and a high price for more powerful characters.
I know plenty of DMs – I’m one of them – who sometimes flat- out disallow psionic powers like mind reading because of the extra work they entail. PCs can circumvent plots and derail elaborate schemes with a properly timed, “I read his thoughts.”
Divinity II’s solution to this problem is threefold. First, the aforementioned XP penalty. When you have to give something to get something, reading minds is less of a panacea and more of a strategic choice.
Second, not everyone is always thinking about important things. Just because an assassin is after you and has already killed many of your soldiers to get to you, it doesn’t mean you can’t spare a few moments to admire your new cuirass.
If that’s what you happen to be doing when the PC tries to read your mind, too bad for them. They’ll have to find out more about the assassin some other way.
Third, news gets around. If people find out you’re a mind reader, they’ll deliberately think about irrelevant things when around you. They might still slip up sometimes – try not thinking about an elephant – but if enough of them can focus often enough, your mind reading becomes a far less perfect solution to every information-gathering problem.
These three solutions, even in combination, don’t render mind reading useless. But they do keep it from breaking the game. Having NPCs be thinking about other things, either deliberately or incidentally, adds back in a crucial element that mind reading usually takes away – DM choice.
Now the DM can decide if an attempt to mind read means that important information is revealed, or if that new cuirass looks incredibly dashing in the sunlight.
NPCs as Motivators: Use with Care
A good way to get the party to solve minor problems is by having said problems afflict interesting NPCs.
Who cares if there’s an army descending upon us? We don’t really know much about geopolitics; maybe they have the right of it. But this guy seems like an all-around decent fellow: we should probably find out what happened to his livestock.
On the other hand, the fastest way to get the players to want to burn the world instead of save it is by having the main NPC interested in keeping them on track be a screeching harpy.
Sure, sure, we’ll leave the livestock where we found it and go ambush the scouts or what have you. If it will make you be quiet, our pleasure. But as soon as we’re done saving civilization, we’re throwing you off a cliff.
A Little Encouragement Goes a Long Way
Divinity II has no falling damage. On the one hand, this is great, because you can climb a lot of tall things, and climbing tall things is fun. On the other hand, once you’ve climbed towers and cliffs and the like, you start eyeing everything that way.
Climb over lava? Why not. Over a dragon’s nest? What could go wrong? Jumping off a cliff while turning into a dragon mid-air is exciting – until you realize that failing to transform lands you on the ground in perfectly unharmed human form, instead of as a red splattery mess.
If you’re thinking about changing the laws of physics to support a player’s acrobatic style, it’s worth considering what that will look like when taken to the extreme. Sure, it’s cool that he can pull off awesome stunts without the rules getting in the way. But just what level of unrealistic badassery do you want in your game?
It’s easier to take away penalties than add them, and easier to add bonuses than remove existing ones. Consider softening penalties for things like stunts and falling damage. If those don’t encourage characters to be more acrobatic, you can remove penalties entirely. But first try a less dramatic solution, just to keep things from getting silly.
Shooting Barrels: A Poor Economic Model
Players like shiny things. Put a few gold coins in a few crates, and your players are going to check every crate and barrel they come across on the off chance it has gold in it. In some games, like Zelda, this is part of the fun. But in epic fantasy quests?
It’s cool to reward players for going above and beyond in terms of examining their surroundings. But if they don’t have too many other ways of getting treasure, this close examination can easily turn into behavior more closely resembling obsessive-compulsive disorder. And does that really add to the fun?
Motivation Works Both Ways
If you have players who like to explore the motivations of their characters, do them a favor and let the NPCs’ motivations be similarly detailed.
As I mentioned, you start out as a dragon slayer, and end up as a dragon. Unsurprisingly (minor spoiler), the dragon slayers have a problem with this.
But there’s something else they might also have a problem with: the giant invading army, which you’re dutifully fighting off. Hordes of enemy soldiers fall before you might, keeping the land safe for all. And yet, somehow this minor point escapes the slayers entirely in their utter dedication to ridding the world of dragons.
This makes sense for a group of fanatical cultists, but you’d expect even cultists to at some point justify themselves – armies come and go, dragons are forever. Something like that. The fact that none of the dragon slayers so much as mentions the army is a little jarring.
A Brief Word from Johnn
Quest for a second editor
To keep the ezine rolling out (pun barely intended) and to make its production a bit faster and more efficient, I’m questing for a second editor.
You would be taking a first draft of an issue and going through it with an eye for readability, confusion and ambiguity, and tricky grammar items like missing plurals, subject agreements, homonyms.
You would not only enjoy, and have time for, reading 3000 words or so of game master tips and advice each week, but you have an eye for detail to catch the little gotchas in the text. As opposed to an editorial role, you would have more of a proof-reading role.
This is a volunteer request, as payment will just be good karma, and hopefully fun because you like proofreading.
Drop me a note if you’re interested.
In conjunction with GatorGames.com, I’m running a contest this week with a hardcover copy Martial Power 2 for D&D 4E up for grabs. For details, visit:
(Note: this contest is restricted to North America. I’ll be running future contests, though, that will be available worldwide.)
Welcome to new advertiser: NBOS
A quick thanks to NBOS for supporting the ezine. Readers, Ed is offering you 20% discounts on NBOS software, which is a good deal. Look for The Keep ad after the feature article in this issue for the link.
If you already have a lot of experience with Fractal Mapper, Astrosynthesis, The Keep or Screenmonkey, please send me an email.
100 NPC Descriptors For Your Game
By definition, urban settings in fantasy RPGs are filled with people. Only a handful of the non-player characters in a given city are sought by the heroes, so the remaining inhabitants are reduced to generic townsfolk status.
There is nothing wrong with generic townsfolk living in an RPG setting. Having prominent NPCs quickly enter the story helps players distinguish between NPCs who are clearly to be part of the story and the nameless NPCs who aren’t. It also helps players avoid wasting time and energy on an NPC that won’t be able to further the plot.
But it is important to remember that the background details make an RPG setting more believable to players, and having such details on hand – even if the players never ask for them – is part of being a well-prepared DM.
The following list of physical and behavioral descriptors was compiled so that a DM can provide better descriptions of generic folk with a handful of percentile rolls, whether in response to a hero stopping passerby to ask questions or just to provide better background imagery when describing a street scene.
This list has been exported as an Adobe .pdf file, and can be downloaded by visiting the Free Downloads page or here: http://rpgathenaeum.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/npc-descriptors.pdf
Roll percentile dice to determine that the NPC:
- Has missing or crooked teeth
- Walks with a limp
- Is unusually short
- Is unshaven
- Has a pet ferret
- Gestures often when talking
- Has unkempt hair or beard
- Has freckles or moles
- Is blind
- Has a pot belly
- Wheezes when breathing
- Wears an unusual hat
- Has a pet ferret
- Is deaf
- Has hairy knuckles
- Has a prominent, bulbous or hooked nose
- Has watery eyes
- Suffers from intestinal gas
- Has an unusual eye color
- Is exceptionally handsome or beautiful
- Carries a sachet of fragrant herbs
- Has breathe heavy with the stench of garlic
- Has a bandaged wound
- Speaks very loudly
- Is missing one or more fingers
- Is gaunt or thin
- Smells of manure
- Talks to his or herself
- Wears well-made or finely-tailored clothing
- Carries a small pouch of sawdust for good luck
- Has ink stains on his or her hands
- Frequently interrupts others during conversation
- Smells of ale or malt
- Likes to eat or is eating carrots
- Is unusually tall
- Sings or hums to his or herself
- Tends to spit or drool while talking
- Just had a bath
- Has extremely bushy eyebrows
- Has large ears
- Wears a ring on every finger
- Wears muddy footwear
- Carries a small mirror, in which the NPC frequently checks his or her appearance
- Is balding or bald
- Frequently chews mint leaves to freshen breath
- Wears a necklace or brooch bearing a religious symbol
- Is pigeon-toed
- Laughs easily and heartily
- Is playing a musical instrument
- Wears an old cloak, like those issued by the army
- Has fleas or lice
- Is overweight
- Is sweating profusely
- Has perfect teeth
- Wears simple or homespun clothing
- Is barefoot
- Wears perfume
- Has calloused hands
- Has bloodshot eyes
- Obviously bites his or her fingernails
- Has sores on his or her face or lips
- Talks with a lisp or slurred speech
- Has a severe cough
- Whistles constantly
- Wears mismatched clothing
- Walks with military bearing
- Has numerous, visible tattoos
- Has one or more gold teeth
- Wears hobnailed boots
- Smells like fish
- Has a fine pewter stein tied to his or her belt
- Is heavily muscled
- Wears threadbare clothing
- Carries a weapon of high quality
- Has a thin layer of soot covering clothes and exposed skin
- Has several skin piercings or nose rings
- Talks very quickly
- Laughs nervously between sentences when speaking
- Smokes a clay pipe
- Wears a backpack
- Has profuse nose hair
- Is sun tanned or sunburned
- Carries a pet snake
- Wears a dead rat around his or her neck to ward off evil spirits
- Talks to his or herself
- Doesn’t seem to blink (at least not often, anyway)
- Cracks knuckles often
- Sneezes frequently or suffers from allergies
- Has a high-pitched voice
- Has ornately braided hair or beard
- Grumbles to self
- Has very long fingernails
- Is bow-legged
- Has a habit of picking his or her teeth with a knife
- Is very affectionate, and punctuates most conversations with hand-shaking, back-slapping and hugs
- Has sausage fingers
- Likes to eat or is eating sardines
- Has hives or a skin rash
- Has full lips
- Has visible bruises