It’s been a little over four months since I
last looked at the dynamic narrative design of Reluctant Hero, our next
computer role-playing game project with 3D People. The last post on Dramatic
Role Proxies summarised my position at the time, and the issues I was dealing
with. Before proceeding, it is worth going over some of the (tentative)
decisions I have made in the interim:
- The game will be narrated by the player character, provided we have the budget to record both a male and a female voice over.
- All the game dialogue will be delivered as narration, although not all will necessarily be recorded.
- The narration will be written as if it were a journal entry: “I made it across the mountains” or “He told me where I could find the bridge.”
- We will likely use a role proxy system of some kind, but probably less extensive than previously outlined. In particular, the key Enemy (Nemesis) characters may be set and selected from a pool of options – generic foes run the risk of being narratively insipid.
The purpose of this post is to get straight
in my head some of the main issues of the story mechanics, in order to lay down
this framework of the game. Let us start at the top and work our way down, as top
down design tends to be more robust.
Chapters & Paths
Any game of Reluctant Hero is divided into
a certain number of Chapters, according to the game length the player
has chosen. Each Chapter must necessarily have its storyline – that is, each
Chapter begins with the activation of a particular Scenario (or, if you
prefer, Quest). This is vital: the player is free to do what they wish, but for
players requiring instruction, there must be a general path for them to follow.
Therefore, one of the first tasks is to establish the answer to the question:
how are Scenarios selected?
(Why Scenario and not Quest? For a start, the term has greater RPG antiquity,
but more importantly visiting your sister is a viable Scenario, but it doesn’t
sound like much of a Quest!)
The answer to this key question depends in
turn to how the Scenarios can be grouped, and in particular whether or not
there is a distinction between what we may call Arc Scenarios (those
that form part of a wider story) and Incidental Scenarios (“one off”
quests or stories). Let us presuppose this distinction, for we can surely
eliminate it later if it becomes troublesome.
Arc scenarios must then be grouped into Paths,
of which I can see four options:
- The Adventurer Path is explicitly chosen when the player chooses to run away from their arranged marriage. It favours seeking lost relics and tomes, and the ultimate goal of finding the artefact that your father could not.
- The Noble Path is explicitly chosen when the player chooses to go along with their arranged marriage. If favours a more domestic life, trying to invest the family fortune in suitable businesses and defend them from the attacks of brigands, monsters, and the pitfalls of misfortune.
- The Family Path can go in parallel with either of these paths, and relates to the story of the protagonist’s Sister.
- The Parent Path can go in parallel with any of the other paths, and relates to the problems that will be encountered should the player try to conceive children.
From these four Paths, all the Arc
Scenarios can be selected. (Note that the player can still find the relics and
artefacts of the Adventurer Path as a Noble, and can still run businesses as an
Adventurer; they are just not asked to do so).
Additionally, we require Incidental
Scenarios to fill the gaps between the Arc Scenarios. Most will doubtless be
“Monster of the Week” stories, but there are certainly other possibilities such
as journeys and curses.
But how will these many different Scenarios
The easiest way to solve the sequencing
problem is to specify an Act framework. Act I represents the story up to the
point that the player either accepts or flees from their arranged marriage. Act
II through IV are the main part of their life. Act V is about their death and,
if they should cheat death, Act VI is about their life after death (where
tragedy surely awaits).
Act I, I already know, has 3 Chapters in
it. The final Acts (V and VI) should be similar in length, although this has
yet to be determined. It follows that depending upon the number of Chapters the
player has chosen (i.e. the game length) there will be different numbers of
Scenarios in each of the other Acts, as follows:
- The shortest possible game is 12 Chapters (3 in Act I, 2 in each middle Act, 3 in the final Act or final two Acts).
- With 3 Chapters per central Act we get 15 Chapters (3:3:3), with 4 we get 18 Chapters, with 5 we get 21, with 6 we get 24 and with 7 we get 27 (3:7:3).
- Finally, the longest game has 8 Chapters in each central Act for a grand total of 30 Chapters.
(It should be noted that the player will
select the game length and approximate number of Chapters – some
latitude may be inevitable.)
On this schema then, the shortest game
consists of just 2 Chapters per central Act. I have to wonder if 3 central
Chapters (one each per central Act) will be enough to develop the main Path
stories, or whether we will need all 6 central Chapters (both in each central
Act) to get a reasonable story… More narrative design is needed to answer this
At the other end of the scale, the longest
game will consist of central Acts of (say) 2 Chapters from the main Paths, 1-2
Chapters from the side Paths, and then another 4-5 Incidental Scenarios. That
requires at least 5 Incidental Scenarios for each central Act, but on the other
hand almost all of these will be quite simple to implement.
It strikes me from examining this that we
can have broadly linear sequences of Arc Scenarios (with some parallel or
contingent elements) that occur at the start of each Act, and then again near
the end of each Act, if there are two per Act. The Arc Scenarios from the side
Paths can be randomly allocated to the central Chapters in each Act, with the
remaining Chapters filled with Incidentals.
Incidental Scenarios can be chosen more or
less at random, although some contingency as to the nature of the player’s current
Location (and the Culture they are living in) along with the Act should be
taken into consideration. A minimum of 15 are needed; I suspect we’ll make more
like 45-60 or more (although many will be variants of one another). The
important thing is that there needs to be enough to allow every game to be
(I’d also like to give some Incidental
Scenarios “sequels” in later Acts, as I suspect players would enjoy that).
This should all have the desired effect of
making each game of Reluctant Hero something akin to a season of a TV
show, with a mix of long running and “one-off” stories.
Before looking at the Scenarios themselves,
an aside on the prologues is in order. Each Chapter will need to begin with
dialogue (strictly speaking, monologue) that sets the scene. The Scenario that
is chosen can specify either a Domestic Prologue or a Peril Prologue,
which in turn will vary according to game state, the season or the month.
A Domestic Prologue might be something like:
“I have not seen my sister for some time now, and I wonder how she is doing,”
or “My son has grown so much these past few years”.
A Peril Prologue might be something like:
“Spring has brought fresh tragedy,” or “I guess it was too much to hope that
Summer would pass without incident.”
These would then follow with the Scenario
introduction. I need to plan this out some more, but this isn’t the place to do
How are the individual Scenarios to be
Firstly, each must specify a Problem,
which becomes an entry in the Journal, and also a topic for conversation with
other characters. The Problem may be “How do I open the gate to the
Reliquary?”, “What can be done about the blight in Corwenth?” or “What is
attacking the merchants on the west road?” Without getting too sidetracked,
this token can be used to initiate conversations which in turn will guide the
player to a solution through perseverance and finding the right people to talk
But below this, we need to specify the
atomic elements of the story.
Anything that happens, from a line of
dialogue to the setting up of a future battle can be considered an Event.
Events can be in three essential states – inactive, active and occurred.
Only certain Events are active at any given time, the others are inactive
(haven’t yet become active) or occurred (have already taken place).
Events will need to consist of the
- A unique ID that identifies this particular Event.
- The Condition that triggers the Event (if any). When an Event is activated, it will sit in a “watched list” until its Condition is fulfilled; then it ‘occurs’.
- The Line of dialogue (if any) that plays when this Event occurs.
- Any Actions that take place when this Event occurs (such as the placing of new monsters, the addition of locations to the map and so forth); probably a LUA script.
- The Next Event, that is, the ID of the Event (or Events) to activate (enter the watched list) after this Event has occurred.
- A Deadline (when applicable) that determines when this Event expires (becomes inactive again).
- The Expire Event, that is, the ID of the Event (if any) to activate after this Event expires.
Note that sometimes the Next Event will be
‘Chapter End’, that is, the current Scenario is concluded, and that many
different Events may lead to ‘Chapter End’.
Without getting into too much detail,
looking at the Conditions will help clarify how Events will function:
- Unconditional Events just take place automatically
- Destination conditions initiate a Event when the player goes to a certain place.
- Persona conditions initiate an Event when the player goes to the place where a specific Persona can be
found, or begins talking to said Persona.
- Item conditions initiate an Event
when the player acquires a specific item.
- Practice conditions would initiate an Event when the player uses a specific ability (currently known in the
game as ‘Practices’)
- Neutralise conditions initiate an Event when the player befriends, kills or causes to flee certain Monsters or Personas.
- Wait conditions initiate an Event
at a specific juncture, such as dawn, dusk, or the start of a particular season.
We are now ready to explore these ideas in
Let us take for our example something very
simple, namely an infestation of parasitic hexapods near a farmstead (a type of
vicious insectoid critter peculiar to the Heretic Kingdoms). Initially, the
player will not know what the cause is, they will only find out the nature of
the problem, which in this case is that the crops are being eaten by something.
The Problem is “What is eating the
The first Events to be activated are
- An unconditional event creates new hexapods and places them into a Lair (a type of Site in the game world) near the farmstead. This in turn triggers a Neutralise event (see below).
- A Destination event is activated for the campfire in the field at the farmstead. If the player camps at this point, it will trigger an
event that waits until the early hours of the morning and moves some
hexapods into the field, and updates the Problem to “Where is the hexapod lair? (This simulates the player camping out to try and catch whatever is responsible).
- A Destination event is activated for the Lair which updates the
Problem to “Eliminate the hexapods”. In effect, if the player discovers the Lair (which they may do by exploring on the map), they deduce the critters are eating the rye and they become the new focus of the Problem.
- The Neutralise event for the hexapods has as its Next Event ‘Chapter End’. If the player eliminates them by whatever means (including hiring someone to do so), that will suffice for this Chapter. This event has a deadline of one year, with an Expire Event which waits until the next winter and kills them all off in a harsh winter frost. (All Chapters must end eventually).
This is a simple example, and omits the
details of how the player could also investigate in dialogue (as this concerns
the dialogue engine, not the story mechanics), but it demonstrates how this
Event system can be used to build Scenarios.
The dynamic narrative system proposed here
is not especially ground breaking; certainly more ambitious and impressive
proposals could be conceived. But it is a realistic proposition to implement
such a system, it should be comparatively robust, and it is not much more work
to execute than a conventional static quest system. Yet it does allow for some
dynamic narrative, and any amount of this that can be placed into a cRPG
without excessive development overheads is, I believe, worth considering.
Much of what will make it interesting will
be the nature of the Scenarios themselves, but I will need to pin down the
mechanics confidently before this work can be done, and I need the okay from 3D
People on the basic approach. Oh, and naturally I won’t be sharing the main
story details on the blog, of course – you’ll have to play the game to find out
the whole story!
Naturally, I welcome discussion in the
comments. Let me know your thoughts and opinions!