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Short Thoughts on cRPGs

Reluctant Hero: Story Mechanics

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 be sequenced? 



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 question.

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 sufficiently different. 

(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.


Chapter Prologues 

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 it. 



How are the individual Scenarios to be specified?

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 to. 

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 following elements: 

  • 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 practice. 


Example Scenario 

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 rye?” 

The first Events to be activated are as follows:

  • 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!


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