Thoughts on how to signpost choices in a branching sidequest/event chain?

Htlaets

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In a video game design context, signposts are the cues the player is given in order to guide them along, whether it's clues as to how to solve a puzzle, a way through a dungeon, or foreshadowing of consequences of various choices.

Signposting is a hard thing to get right as a creator, since we know our own intentions and direction for plot, puzzles and otherwise. It's easier for us to see the clues we leave since, well, we made them. If we try to be too subtle with signposting, all we do is encourage people to cling to walkthroughs to figure out where things are going.

Of course, on the other side of the spectrum, if you go overboard on signposting, you get a game where you're holding the player's hands and there's nothing to think about or consider when a player is faced with a choice, gameplay or storywise, since the consequences of any given choice will be too clear.

I'll start with an example that I've been considering that made me think about this. In my game I'm currently designing a sidequest chain the goes as follows:

There's a famous blacksmith that is having a sort of midlife crisis. She feels like she wasted her life slaving away making legendary swords and armor, so she decides to become an adventurer (the game's equivalent of that, really). The player can overhear her and her apprentice getting into an argument.

The apprentice is worried about her, his argument is that being an adventurer is dangerous and she'll get herself killed, and the blacksmith's argument is that adventurer's get all the fame and glory while she's basically a nobody who happens to make their weapons, and she's got the strength and equipment to be a great adventurer.

The player can weigh in on the argument, encouraging one side or another, or try to stay away from the argument, and they'll be able to do this multiple times throughout the game.

The quest part of this is that the apprentice will post quests throughout the game to follow her and make sure she's safe (She's generally not, she's technically strong but terrible at hitting moving targets, so the player will have to help her while following her), and the player will unlock more items to buy at some shops as a reward.

To the signposting part of this: choices for this questline, as planned at the moment, will matter in aggregate, depending on how much the player encourages the blacksmith to continue questing.
Possible results of the player's actions are as follows:
If the player always encourages the blacksmith, they'll take more and more risks and eventually die. You'll be able to take damaged versions of her super-legendary equipment from her body and her apprentice will hate you for it and take away the shop-related benefits he gave you.

If the player constantly discourages the blacksmith, the questline will end earlier, thus the player will receive less unlocks from it, but the blacksmith will live and the apprentice will be grateful enough to give the player a pretty good weapon.

If the player always chooses the neither option, the questline will also end early, but slightly later than scenario 2, giving slightly better rewards.

The ideal solution to the questline is to encourage enough to keep going, but stop her from going too far. If she's too encouraged, nothing you say at the point of no return will stop her from dying, but if you've balanced things out, she'll value your advice. She needs to be satisfied with her attempt at becoming an adventurer, but not to the point where she goes all in on it. If the player achieves this solution, they'll get her super-legendary armor and equipment in supreme condition and access to her smithing services.

Basically, to tie it off with this thread, I've been thinking about the best way to signpost something like this, to give enough of a clue that the player can catch on to when to best encourage or discourage her.

No one choice will irrevocably put her on one path, so I'm trying to figure out how best to communicate how unrealistically overconfident or discouraged her state of mind is based on choices made to any given point without being so obvious that players will catch on without giving their choices thought, or being so subtle that even if they give it thought, they won't catch on.

Aka, I'm thinking on ways to signpost consequences in general, hence the thread.
 
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Misaki

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I find that when there's a branching path, people will try to go for the route that feels most optimal unless there is outlying circumstances/importance(story being a heavy one).

Without spoiling although rather old game, I think of Tactics Ogre where there's a major point on the game that has the player make a decision off what they've witnessed, knowing full well there's consequences and benefits on both. But what made the decision strong was not necessarily that there were multiple paths, but that the decision also placed the player into a moral decision influenced by what they've seen in the story. It's a balancing act where there are two completely different issues at hand, but are now placed against each other after being established prior in the story.

I'd suggest reflecting the consequences elsewhere throughout the story. Have adventurers frequently dying be common, or even twist it into the gameplay where you have super-powerful bosses or frequent deaths of characters, and have the player understand the gravity of the situation through how the game plays.

If you want specific points that indicate "hey, don't tip the scale too far!", I think that having it be obvious is arguably better, but perhaps tying it into the suggestion before. A situation that feels like it is the point of no return (e.g the blacksmith going into a dangerous dungeon after surviving weaker situations) should ring some bells in the player.
 

Htlaets

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@Misaki I do love when a game has two non-optimal choices to really make you weigh the decisions, and it's definitely a situation where being absolutely clear about signposting has benefits.

In this particular case, adventurers dying is fairly commo, already have a secondary party character death situation happen in the story.
If you want specific points that indicate "hey, don't tip the scale too far!", I think that having it be obvious is arguably better, but perhaps tying it into the suggestion before. A situation that feels like it is the point of no return (e.g the blacksmith going into a dangerous dungeon after surviving weaker situations) should ring some bells in the player.
That's a good point, but I want the player to at least feel like they're taking a high stakes gamble in this case.

In this case, the example I was thinking of was from Bloodborne (Which usually has very, super-subtle signposting for consequences, but not exactly in this case)
Specifically, I was thinking about the old lady. She's one of the few savable characters in the game, but you can get sedatives from her if you ask. She actually goes off to search for them in the very very obviously dangerous town. From the player's perspective, it's obvious that continuing to ask her for sedatives is a good idea, but you can technically safely do it three times without her dying.
But, without knowing that, it's tempting to just roll the dice, even though you know it's a bad idea.
 

alice_gristle

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I second what @Misaki said, better err on the obvious side! Like, make it really obvious the blacksmith's inept and then make it clear she's about to go into really dangerous territory. The apprentice is a good idea tho, you can make 'em like Sancho Panza, telling the player the truth about the dangers ahead, while the blacksmith is all like, "Yo, Imma go beat some puny monsters, which end of the sword do I hold again?"

Once you've reached the point of no return, you could even make it so the apprentice is dead. Like, the last adventure the blacksmith still survives is the one that costs the apprentice's life.

EDIT: More generally on signposting, from RMing experience I can say people don't usually pick up subtle hints very well. So again seconding @Misaki, make it obvious. :biggrin: Altho, I think that applies mostly with important, story-significant decisions. If ya got decisions where the outcome doesn't matter as much, or it's a minor sidequest or summat, then I guess being more subtle can be O.K.
 
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Tai_MT

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The issue you're likely to run into with this is that most players don't play "wishy washy". That is, the vast majority of players pick "goody two-shoes" options and stick with them. A player isn't going to want to try to manage something like you're describing. How do you manage encouragement, as a player? There is simply no way to know how much is too much and how much is too little. Especially when you don't know how many "chances" you get, and how much each specific choice is worth.

You are essentially asking the player to hit a magical number you thought up in your head and only you know, in order to get the best reward possible.

There's no way to signpost that. Especially with an "optimal solution" in mind. Your players must make the specific correct decisions at the specific correct times or be locked out of the most optimal reward. This is very much a, "How was I meant to know that?!" scenario.

It also flies in the face of players who think they are making "moral choices" here. That is, on the surface, the players will see the whole thing as getting to agree with one side or the other and then following through. A player who thinks a person should always follow their dreams, will let the blacksmith do whatever she wants. They will encourage her as long as there are quests to do so and see it through to the end. They will not moderate this position. They will, instead, be irritated that their hard work leads to the character's death and a "bad ending". Meanwhile, a player who thinks you shouldn't chase dreams you're not cut out for, will always keep the blacksmith from doing more and more and will save their life at the cost of their dream, and never even think twice about the reward. I very much doubt you'll have many players, if any at all, who will turn down the quest. Especially since quests equal money, XP, and loot in games. Heck, Quests even equal "more story content" for those who care about it.

That's probably where your issue lies here. You're framing a moral choice as having meta rewards. People who play games generally do not make "meta" choices like this. You will have some who do, but the vast majority do not. Most people see a moral choice or a choice to express their own philosophies on life and will adhere to those. Think about that for a second. Do you ever moderate your own philosophies on life? Do you moderate what you believe? Do you believe someone should only chase their dreams until the going gets tough? Do you believe it's honorable to fight and die in glorious battle, but you should definitely run away when you have no hope of winning no matter what is at stake?

People do not temper their beliefs. It is too difficult and complicated to temper one's own beliefs. It's why so many people like to call out "hypocrisy" and why it's so easy to do. You can take the belief of any person, no matter what that belief is, and find loopholes where they won't apply that belief. Or, you can find exceptions that they don't apply that belief to, because of another belief they hold, or because they learned some life lesson there.

You are, effectively, asking your players to walk on a tightrope and telling them that the decisions they would make in such a situation don't matter. You have a "win" state you want your players to reach, but you have no way of communicating that win state without outright telling them exactly what to pick. It's that "win state" that is going to be your problem, especially since it's meshed with a "moral choice" in here. People who make choices don't see their choices as "winning" or "losing". They see their choices as "the right thing to do". How do you communicate to a player that moderating their choices between two extremes is "the right thing to do"?

With all that out of the way, I would like to address one final issue.

It looks like you're committing one of the fatal sins of RPG's. That is, you're designing things backwards. You created loot first, then this quest as a means of getting that loot into the hands of the player. That's not how good quests are designed. Designing quests like that is how you get the "kill", "fetch", "gather", and "press a button" quests.

Quest design needs to work like this:
1. You have a story you want to tell, it's related to the game world you've created, so you create a Quest to tell that story.

2. You spend time telling the story and getting the player to engage in the quest with good dialogue, interesting choices (if you have choices), and maybe party interaction.

3. You decide on a solution for the Quest or a few solutions if it has multiple ones, and implement them.

4. You create loot for the Quest that feels "in line" with the difficulty of what the player just accomplished. Did the player solve a murder mystery? How long did that take? Was it challenging? What's that worth? Did the player resolve a dispute between a guard and a beggar? What's that worth? Did the player keep a blacksmith from getting herself killed? Is that worth the best equipment in the game? Does that feel like an epic adventure where the player feels like they earned it?

If you design quests "backwards" you are going to have issues with "power creep" and these sorts of Quest problems of signposting. After all, you're worried about signposting the rewards to the player rather than what the "morally correct" thing is to do with your Quest. In that first step there, part of telling the player a story is deciding what you want the player to learn, consider, interact with, or feel.

With this quest you've designed here, what is the player meant to get out of it other than loot? Are they meant to reconsider their life choices? Are they meant to be told they're wrong? Are they meant to feel bad for crushing someone's dreams or getting them killed? What is the point of this quest other than to deliver loot to the player?

If it's only reason for existing is to deliver loot to the player, then you can resolve the issue in a single step and not multiple ones of having to keep making decisions to get the loot. You have 3 options, you have 3 rewards, easy peasy to get that loot into the hands of the player. Sure, it might not feel satisfying... But is it going to feel more or less satisfying if the player is told a character they enjoyed is now dead and their point of view is wrong in exchange for some higher numbers? What about if they're told they crushed someone's dreams in exchange for higher numbers? Or, that they missed the best loot possible because they didn't have a guide to figure it out?
 

Quexp

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I just want to chime in to say thank you for this post. I not only learned something new about game design (signposting) but this was a super interesting thread to read. Great thread!

I have several choices throughout my main questline but the closest thing I have to "signposting" are cues for what the next step/goal is.

As for giving your game user foreshadowing hints, does he/she ever talk to himself? Maybe when the blacksmith starts cutting it too close, the player can show doubtful thoughts on choice? Or maybe the player runs into a reputable/wise NPC who notices blacksmith is setting herself for fatal consequences.
 

Trihan

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The issue you're likely to run into with this is that most players don't play "wishy washy". That is, the vast majority of players pick "goody two-shoes" options and stick with them. A player isn't going to want to try to manage something like you're describing. How do you manage encouragement, as a player? There is simply no way to know how much is too much and how much is too little. Especially when you don't know how many "chances" you get, and how much each specific choice is worth.

You are essentially asking the player to hit a magical number you thought up in your head and only you know, in order to get the best reward possible.

There's no way to signpost that. Especially with an "optimal solution" in mind. Your players must make the specific correct decisions at the specific correct times or be locked out of the most optimal reward. This is very much a, "How was I meant to know that?!" scenario.

It also flies in the face of players who think they are making "moral choices" here. That is, on the surface, the players will see the whole thing as getting to agree with one side or the other and then following through. A player who thinks a person should always follow their dreams, will let the blacksmith do whatever she wants. They will encourage her as long as there are quests to do so and see it through to the end. They will not moderate this position. They will, instead, be irritated that their hard work leads to the character's death and a "bad ending". Meanwhile, a player who thinks you shouldn't chase dreams you're not cut out for, will always keep the blacksmith from doing more and more and will save their life at the cost of their dream, and never even think twice about the reward. I very much doubt you'll have many players, if any at all, who will turn down the quest. Especially since quests equal money, XP, and loot in games. Heck, Quests even equal "more story content" for those who care about it.

That's probably where your issue lies here. You're framing a moral choice as having meta rewards. People who play games generally do not make "meta" choices like this. You will have some who do, but the vast majority do not. Most people see a moral choice or a choice to express their own philosophies on life and will adhere to those. Think about that for a second. Do you ever moderate your own philosophies on life? Do you moderate what you believe? Do you believe someone should only chase their dreams until the going gets tough? Do you believe it's honorable to fight and die in glorious battle, but you should definitely run away when you have no hope of winning no matter what is at stake?

People do not temper their beliefs. It is too difficult and complicated to temper one's own beliefs. It's why so many people like to call out "hypocrisy" and why it's so easy to do. You can take the belief of any person, no matter what that belief is, and find loopholes where they won't apply that belief. Or, you can find exceptions that they don't apply that belief to, because of another belief they hold, or because they learned some life lesson there.

You are, effectively, asking your players to walk on a tightrope and telling them that the decisions they would make in such a situation don't matter. You have a "win" state you want your players to reach, but you have no way of communicating that win state without outright telling them exactly what to pick. It's that "win state" that is going to be your problem, especially since it's meshed with a "moral choice" in here. People who make choices don't see their choices as "winning" or "losing". They see their choices as "the right thing to do". How do you communicate to a player that moderating their choices between two extremes is "the right thing to do"?

With all that out of the way, I would like to address one final issue.

It looks like you're committing one of the fatal sins of RPG's. That is, you're designing things backwards. You created loot first, then this quest as a means of getting that loot into the hands of the player. That's not how good quests are designed. Designing quests like that is how you get the "kill", "fetch", "gather", and "press a button" quests.

Quest design needs to work like this:
1. You have a story you want to tell, it's related to the game world you've created, so you create a Quest to tell that story.

2. You spend time telling the story and getting the player to engage in the quest with good dialogue, interesting choices (if you have choices), and maybe party interaction.

3. You decide on a solution for the Quest or a few solutions if it has multiple ones, and implement them.

4. You create loot for the Quest that feels "in line" with the difficulty of what the player just accomplished. Did the player solve a murder mystery? How long did that take? Was it challenging? What's that worth? Did the player resolve a dispute between a guard and a beggar? What's that worth? Did the player keep a blacksmith from getting herself killed? Is that worth the best equipment in the game? Does that feel like an epic adventure where the player feels like they earned it?

If you design quests "backwards" you are going to have issues with "power creep" and these sorts of Quest problems of signposting. After all, you're worried about signposting the rewards to the player rather than what the "morally correct" thing is to do with your Quest. In that first step there, part of telling the player a story is deciding what you want the player to learn, consider, interact with, or feel.

With this quest you've designed here, what is the player meant to get out of it other than loot? Are they meant to reconsider their life choices? Are they meant to be told they're wrong? Are they meant to feel bad for crushing someone's dreams or getting them killed? What is the point of this quest other than to deliver loot to the player?

If it's only reason for existing is to deliver loot to the player, then you can resolve the issue in a single step and not multiple ones of having to keep making decisions to get the loot. You have 3 options, you have 3 rewards, easy peasy to get that loot into the hands of the player. Sure, it might not feel satisfying... But is it going to feel more or less satisfying if the player is told a character they enjoyed is now dead and their point of view is wrong in exchange for some higher numbers? What about if they're told they crushed someone's dreams in exchange for higher numbers? Or, that they missed the best loot possible because they didn't have a guide to figure it out?
I can see what you're saying here, and I largely agree with your overall point, but I think in several instances you're approaching this from a platform where you do a massive disservice to the average player and make assumptions that aren't necessarily supported by reality.

One thing on which I don't necessarily concur with you is the idea that players will always choose one option, or kind of option, and never deviate from that. It's a fair general point, but your conclusion that it's *never* a good idea to have this kind of middle-ground is flawed: it depends on *how* the developer presents these choices to the player, and that's the entire reason the post exists in the first place.

In this example, I would at least consider signposting via having the quest just before the fatal one result in the blacksmith *almost* dying, and barely escaping with her life. I believe this will prompt even a player who's been encouraging her all the way to think twice about that last encouragement. There are definitely ways to make this work without scrapping it entirely.

I do think you made an interesting point about designing quests backwards. I completely agree with you on this, but depending on how the blacksmith is introduced and how often you encounter her in the game, I think this subplot already has the building blocks necessary to turn it into more than just a loot pinata.
 

Tai_MT

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One thing on which I don't necessarily concur with you is the idea that players will always choose one option, or kind of option, and never deviate from that. It's a fair general point, but your conclusion that it's *never* a good idea to have this kind of middle-ground is flawed: it depends on *how* the developer presents these choices to the player, and that's the entire reason the post exists in the first place.

The problem you run up against with this is largely human behavior.

If you frame a choice as "good choice versus bad choice", then players almost universally pick "the good choice". Most people want to be good people. They take "the good option" anytime they can in RPG's. They want to be heroes. They want to be paragons of virtue and light.

You might have the few outliers who play "bad guys", but they're doing it largely for meta reasons... and they're not going to pick "good guy" choices because they're already playing meta as bad guys.

Now, if you frame a choice as "there is no right answer", then you run into a different issue entirely. That issue is, "what do I believe, and what choice best reflects that belief?". That's what players do. They will pick the option (always) that best reflects themselves as a person... or best reflects what they perceive their character's personality to be.

This is how people play video games. Or, at least, the vast majority.

The way this quest is set up, the player is essentially being asked a moral decision. That moral decision is, "is it okay to push someone to chase their dreams when it might kill them and people are worried about them?". Almost all of your players are going to answer "no". If you save the "this is bad for the blacksmith to be doing!" late in the questline... then your players are going to feel like they've been making wrong decisions and are being punished for it. Oh, you can pull back at the last minute? Thanks for invalidating every single choice I made up to that point and making sure ONLY the last one mattered! I could've chosen whatever I wanted!

The way this Quest is set up and designed, there is no way you're going to be able to sign post it in such a way that your players don't feel robbed, cheated, or lied to. If all you're looking at is the progression rewards (currency, XP, items), then that is all this quest succeeds in doing. Delivering those things. Players don't typically engage in a quest for the rewards. Yes, they want the rewards at the end, and in an amount that feels reasonable for what they had to do, but they don't typically engage in the content for those rewards.

Here's what the Quest is asking every single player:

Side with apprentice
Oh, this person is worried the blacksmith will die and wants us to discourage the behavior so they don't die.
Side with blacksmith
Oh, this person wants to follow their dreams and chase fame and fortune and recognition, but they're inexperienced.
Ignore the quest
Who cares what the NPC's want? I don't want to do this.

Because the quest is framed in a moral way, and the choices have to do with morals, guess which option most players are going to choose? I'd wager, they're going to side with the, "let's not have the blacksmith die" option. At which point... why is there a choice?

That's actually the crux of the issue.

If the player can save the blacksmith at any point, they will do that. Almost universally. So, why is there a choice to not save them? Why is there a choice to push them into suicidal actions? For loot? Would that make a player feel good? Hey, do this dangerous thing that will get you killed so I can have your stuff!

Most people don't play games that way. Most people will save the Blacksmith because "It's the right thing to do". If the players know they can save the Blacksmith, they will. Doing so invalidates pushing the blacksmith down that road. All the player is being told at that point is, "do the questline however you want, but now you pull back to keep the character from dying".

At which point... I ask you... "What is the point of the quest? What is the point of the choices? What am I meant to be taking away from this quest?"

It might even make a fair few players think, "Well, that was a waste of time." when it's done.

The vast majority of players pick one option and stick with it until the game tells them not to, and then they do what the game tells them... at which point, you've invalided every single choice up to that point.

Then, you've got a very long chain of, "But, Thou Must!"

Not sure about you, but I hate choices like that in video games. The Illusion of Choice. Clemantine Will Remember That. Except she won't. 'Cause it doesn't matter. The choice impacted nothing of consequence. Or, you'd be a monster to make the other choice.
 

Htlaets

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@Trihan My current thought is that she'll be in significant danger in every quest, but get worse and worse as time goes on.

Like, in the first quest, she's trying to clear out a cave full of giant mosquitos, and she has a monstrously hard time hitting them. She manages because she uses the special abilities of her weapons to essentially nuke them and the player helps her through. At some point after the quest the player will be able to comment on her swordsmanship, and the encourage option is to say "You're good enough already!" basically, which from the player perspective isn't so much an "encouraging her to follow her dreams" encouragement so much as a "I'm willfully lying to her to keep this questline going" when instead the player could comment that she needs to do some training as a minor discouragement or flat out say that she's hopeless for a full discouragement.

@Quexp Hey, thanks for posting. Hm, yeah, the player has an internal monologue, and they'll be having concerns about the blacksmith's competence. And the apprentice is one of the major voices of reason in the questline. I have ideas for party member comments once they get into the mix (they won't be for the first few quests, though).

@alice_gristle Ha, don quixote is part of the inspiration for this questline, so it works. In this case, it's a side questline. It's a background thing that has almost nothing to do with the main plot. The entire quest is going to be missable, and the player will get rewards for every section of the entire thing. It's kinda just gonna be one of those recurring questlines where you see familiar side characters that aren't part of the main plot.

@Tai_MT Lotta interesting points to go over, but let me start with this first: the quest in question was not designed because of the loot, the loot was designed because of the quest idea. I had the idea of a "Person becomes an adventurer Don Quixote style and player saves them throughout, their interactions have an effect on the questline, changing between three overarching results" before I thought about the rewards. The idea of a recurring minor character whose journey you somewhat guide on the side is what spurred the thought for the quest before that.

When I thought about possible rewards for the questline is when that morphed into the rewards you see. The rewards are bait, you're dealing with a legendary blacksmith and her apprentice, which becomes a hook for the player both in and out of game to care. It merges the in-game and out-of-game motivation to the player's perspective of: "I'm getting access to some nice weapons because of this apprentice guy, if I keep this going I wonder how much more that I can get". Basically, my goal is to use greed as a motivator.

On the other hand, my goal is also to have every interaction with the blacksmith and her apprentice make it very clear that she's not up to the task, that she's very much in danger. So, from a "I want to be good" perspective, you can either try to help her succeed, or completely shut her down. If you completely shut her down: congrats, she lives, you've gotten a morally good outcome and you get a reward for it.

Sure, it's not the ideal reward and she's not particularly happy, but you didn't gamble with her life for self-gain, so that's a win right? It's not game ending to not get a secret reward.

And, I want the signposting to have escalated enough that if your motivation is to make her happy you start to realize that you're not getting the desired result, but rather getting farther from it.

To use your quest design numbers.
1. Yes, the story I wanted to tell was that being an adventurer is dangerous, while having some fun with some side characters that you have the option of seeing through their storylines on the side.
2. Yes, I designed the quest with having out of quest interactions with the characters involved in mind throughout the entire storyline as a recurring side quest.
3. I decided before thinking about the reward that I wanted it to be a push-pull situation and set things up like that.
4. I did this as well. Because the entire questline takes place over most of the entire game, the final rewards being very powerful endgame weapons makes perfect sense. Additionally, having the reward for earlier quests be access to new weapons in shops allows for the reward to be well scaled. In this particular case, saving the blacksmith near the end of the questline is not going to be a gameplay simple matter either, I plan for it to be an earned reward. Just to make it clear this would be a game spanning questline that culminates in getting a very very good weapon regardless of how the player chooses to tackle it, it becomes a matter of how good depending on choices (additionally, ending it early also means you end it at a point in a game where the apprentice's weapon is the best weapon for a party member for a while).
There's going to be secret boss level enemies at the end of this regardless of whether or not the blacksmith dies.

Anyway, to get at your overarching point: yes, players in RPGs often make choices for either moral or meta reasons, but I disagree with the premise that it's because of the players.

It's more because of certain trends in game design, I think of it as the "bioware effect". Bioware effect choices usually range from:
A: I'm a good person so I'll do all I can to help by choosing the blue "good" option.
and
B: I'm gonna go out of my way to be a jerk and kick puppies cause I'm mean, rawr.

An additional wrinkle to this clear cut dynamic is that choice A usually also has better rewards, whether in the short term or long term, because even in instances where there's a greater monetary reward for choice B, Choice A usually results in more fighting and a harder path with more EXP, and through that, more money long term.

Which means, in the end, the only reason to take choice B is because the player is just having fun seeing the bad option. The bad option in these games is almost never a good gameplay choice, it almost never gets better in game results on a story level.

This is to say, rewards are an integral part that's missed in choice and consequence, I believe. If every time you take the good choice and get a good result, you never have to think about the choice you're making, thus players are conditioned just to stick with on side of the morality scale, cause they're never gonna dislike the results of being a goody-goody and they may often dislike the results of kicking puppies.

Players have been conditioned by how many games are designed. There are plenty of indie games that have choice and consequences that are not so clear cut. Something like Sunless Sea can make a choice to eat your own crew seem like a sensible option, because the alternative can be death because of an ill-prepared voyage. The game forces the player to make decisions that go against their morality because it presents consequences.

It's a game where you can more or less accidentally end the world by being too much of a suck-up goody-two-shoes. And, it's subtle with its signposting, it gives you hints but also red herrings and you have to live with where the cumulation of your choices takes you.

That's just one game, but there are many that force uneven choices like it. And there are players that love those games.

One of the main ways they pull this type of thing off is to have a balanced amount of signposting, so it doesn't feel like that player is cheated for any given result.


It's like @Trihan said: It depends on how choices are presented.
 

Tai_MT

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Anyway, to get at your overarching point: yes, players in RPGs often make choices for either moral or meta reasons, but I disagree with the premise that it's because of the players.

It's more because of certain trends in game design, I think of it as the "bioware effect". Bioware effect choices usually range from:
A: I'm a good person so I'll do all I can to help by choosing the blue "good" option.
and
B: I'm gonna go out of my way to be a jerk and kick puppies cause I'm mean, rawr.

An additional wrinkle to this clear cut dynamic is that choice A usually also has better rewards, whether in the short term or long term, because even in instances where there's a greater monetary reward for choice B, Choice A usually results in more fighting and a harder path with more EXP, and through that, more money long term.

Which means, in the end, the only reason to take choice B is because the player is just having fun seeing the bad option. The bad option in these games is almost never a good gameplay choice, it almost never gets better in game results on a story level.

This is to say, rewards are an integral part that's missed in choice and consequence, I believe. If every time you take the good choice and get a good result, you never have to think about the choice you're making, thus players are conditioned just to stick with on side of the morality scale, cause they're never gonna dislike the results of being a goody-goody and they may often dislike the results of kicking puppies.

Players have been conditioned by how many games are designed. There are plenty of indie games that have choice and consequences that are not so clear cut. Something like Sunless Sea can make a choice to eat your own crew seem like a sensible option, because the alternative can be death because of an ill-prepared voyage. The game forces the player to make decisions that go against their morality because it presents consequences.

It's a game where you can more or less accidentally end the world by being too much of a suck-up goody-two-shoes. And, it's subtle with its signposting, it gives you hints but also red herrings and you have to live with where the cumulation of your choices takes you.

That's just one game, but there are many that force uneven choices like it. And there are players that love those games.

One of the main ways they pull this type of thing off is to have a balanced amount of signposting, so it doesn't feel like that player is cheated for any given result.


It's like @Trihan said: It depends on how choices are presented.

I am going to have to disagree that it's because of "trends in game design". The vast majority of players will pick the "good option" even if it's not highlighted. The problem with your example is that in Mass Effect 1, the choices were just labeled "Paragon" and "Renegade" and weren't flavored "Good" or "Evil" yet (It would take the craptastic Mass Effect 2 and beyond to adopt this idiocy). "Paragon" Shep would be as diplomatic and non-violent as possible to get things done. "Renegade" Shep just didn't tolerate your nonsense and felt no need to "capitulate" to people who had done wrong or who were knowingly doing wrong. The choice was largely in what option you wanted (unless you were chasing achievements). You missed out on basically no rewards and no fights if you went "all in" on one side. Fights you could stop via Renegade options were ones that were caused by your Paragon options and vice versa. You might skip 3 fights as Paragon Shep, but if you played Renegade, you would skip a completely different set of 3 fights. It was possible to fight everyone or skip all the optional fights by "mixing it up".

With that said, the issue lies largely in the default state of most people wanting to be good people. They want to make the right choices in life. They want to get the right answers. They play a game and want to be the hero (most people do, anyway). The differences in these players is when you begin giving them choices that have nothing to do with morality, but rather the nuances of a position.

It doesn't help that the world at large conditions people to "do good" either. Games tend to just reinforce that. How?
1. If you do the right thing, more NPC's like you. Adoration and people appreciating you are something most people seek in real life.
2. NPC's tend to respect you and not treat you like d-bag. It's beneficial to not have everyone on the street call you names, hate you, or tell you that you're a bad person.
3. More characters tend to live if you do good options. This usually results in more gameplay as well as the "warm fuzzies" from saving so many lives.
4. Game rewards are often less valuable regardless of the choice. The Quest Reward for things like this, even if they're better for the evil side, are usually thrown by the wayside after an hour of gameplay for something even more powerful. Rewards are temporary while the benefits of being a "good character" are fairly permanent. Players get attached to characters, not to swords (well, if you're a good writer, anyway).

So, unless your choice is "nuanced", all you're going to get is probably a large amount of people doing whatever it takes to save the life of the blacksmith, regardless of the cost. The problem is that your choice is binary. Blacksmith dies or blacksmith doesn't die. Who would go into that scenario and pick to kill the Blacksmith except people who were curious to see what would happen when they did?

I realized this issue very early on in my project (which has its entire theme be choices, so I've run a TON of playtests on players and a lot of deep dive into human behavior and player behavior to figure out WHY my players were doing the things they were doing) and ended up changing the entire focus. It went from a "you can pick to be good or pick to be evil, and there's a different story for each" type game to a "there are no good options, only options you can live with" type game. That's not to say that my game doesn't have "a happy ending", because it's meant to satisfy any player regardless of their choices. But, it's a balancing act to make each choice "nuanced" and to then make the player feel guilty about what they did after the fact. The players are meant to understand that being "the good guy" and clinging to "high morals" and "paragon" type thinking inevitably creates a lot of conflict, a lot of strife, and ruins a lot of people's lives. The players are meant to consider that until they get the pay-off of what their efforts lead towards... which is a good ending.

See, "It's easy to be a saint in paradise.". When you make a good decision and have immediate results that satisfy and reward that good choice... players will continue to make it. But, is it easy to make a good decision when you know it will hurt a great many people and might even cause you resentment later? Is it easy to make the right decision if it gives you guilt afterwards? It's difficult to "be good" when you have to carry those burdens.

That's the point of the moral decisions in my game. I had to make it as "nuanced" as possible in order to get players to pick some of the more terrible options. Or, rather, even consider the terrible options. Namely, I had to get players to stop looking at the choices as "moral" ones and instead as "personal" choices.

The first choice in the game tells you everything you ever need to know about making decisions afterwards in it.
You have married someone who is the enemy of your nation. Not just the enemy, but someone who possesses enough power they could destroy the continent if they want to, and that race of people have previously used such destruction twice before, both times against your people. You are the leader of one of the armies of your nation. Your best friend taught you all about fighting and is your mentor, comrade, and confidant. But, the nation you serve found out what your spouse is and to prove your loyalty, you need to kill them. So, an army of the men you lead into battle regularly shows up at your front door in the dead of night, headed up by your best friend. He gives you two options. Kill your spouse or stand aside so they can kill your spouse and say you did it so that you are cleared.

Your actual options are:
1. Kill your spouse and children as ordered.
2. Let your men and your best friend kill your spouse and children while you do nothing.
3. Try to escape with your spouse and children.

What happens with each of these scenarios?
1. This act hardens the main character and turns them into a revenge hungry zealot bent on destroying their own nation and taking the spot as king. This character seeks to fix the nation by overthrowing the tyranny.
2. This act haunts the main character and turns them into a "Yes Man" for the crown, not getting involved in anyone else's problems. They resent every single one of their men and eventually plots their deaths for what happened.
3. This act kills your best friend and dooms every single man under your previous command and their families to death, slavery, and other unsavory things. The women are sold off to foreign nations for the usual reason, the children are used for experiments or sold directly into slavery, and the men are slaughtered in place of you and your family and their failure.

The "good choice" here of saving your family (which almost every single player of mine would do before they were signposted consequences) is now a hard moral choice to make. Sacrifice the many for your immediate family? Sacrifice your family for the many?

This simple choice at the beginning of the game let the players decide if they wanted to be good or evil resulted in almost everyone picking, "I save my family, kill nobody, and run away from my nation". After all, that's what a hero would do! A hero would try to save everyone!

Plus, there's the expectation that "doing good" in a video game always results in a good ending. That is, an eventual reward, right? Eventual 100% Perfect Ending, right? You saved everyone! Just this once, everyone lives!

You are dealing with players who innately think that "you should save everyone who is nice and kind and good". With a quest where the choices are, "the blacksmith dies" or "the blacksmith lives", there isn't really a choice here. Your players are going to always pick "the blacksmith lives". No consideration. No "picking a little of both". It will be, "I want the Blacksmith to live, because good people deserve to live and not die".

You are fighting human nature here.

If you are comfortable with all your players picking that option, then by all means, implement it and keep it. But, all the signposting is going to do is push your players towards the option of making the blacksmith live.

The game might actually be better served if you didn't signpost it at all and let the shock of what the player has been doing sink in once the blacksmith is dead. If the player unknowingly pushes the blacksmith into taking unnecessary chances, continues to push them into it, and only realizes AFTER the consequences have come down on their heads what they did wrong... then you probably have something fairly compelling there. After all, you've just subverted expectations. You just told the player that they were turning someone into a reckless person and that they didn't care about what might happen to the blacksmith. It might be a lightbulb moment if some players realize they were making the blacksmith do what they do because of their own ego. Forcing their own beliefs on someone else, and it killed them. Reinforcing the beliefs of the NPC to placate them, and it caused their death.

Or, you know, the player will just feel like they should never get the bad ending and "how was I meant to know I was being the bad guy here?!". Because people also hate being wrong and admitting they've done bad things.

Depends on the emotional maturity level of the player involved.
 

Trihan

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I am going to have to disagree that it's because of "trends in game design". The vast majority of players will pick the "good option" even if it's not highlighted. The problem with your example is that in Mass Effect 1, the choices were just labeled "Paragon" and "Renegade" and weren't flavored "Good" or "Evil" yet (It would take the craptastic Mass Effect 2 and beyond to adopt this idiocy). "Paragon" Shep would be as diplomatic and non-violent as possible to get things done. "Renegade" Shep just didn't tolerate your nonsense and felt no need to "capitulate" to people who had done wrong or who were knowingly doing wrong. The choice was largely in what option you wanted (unless you were chasing achievements). You missed out on basically no rewards and no fights if you went "all in" on one side. Fights you could stop via Renegade options were ones that were caused by your Paragon options and vice versa. You might skip 3 fights as Paragon Shep, but if you played Renegade, you would skip a completely different set of 3 fights. It was possible to fight everyone or skip all the optional fights by "mixing it up".

With that said, the issue lies largely in the default state of most people wanting to be good people. They want to make the right choices in life. They want to get the right answers. They play a game and want to be the hero (most people do, anyway). The differences in these players is when you begin giving them choices that have nothing to do with morality, but rather the nuances of a position.

It doesn't help that the world at large conditions people to "do good" either. Games tend to just reinforce that. How?
1. If you do the right thing, more NPC's like you. Adoration and people appreciating you are something most people seek in real life.
2. NPC's tend to respect you and not treat you like d-bag. It's beneficial to not have everyone on the street call you names, hate you, or tell you that you're a bad person.
3. More characters tend to live if you do good options. This usually results in more gameplay as well as the "warm fuzzies" from saving so many lives.
4. Game rewards are often less valuable regardless of the choice. The Quest Reward for things like this, even if they're better for the evil side, are usually thrown by the wayside after an hour of gameplay for something even more powerful. Rewards are temporary while the benefits of being a "good character" are fairly permanent. Players get attached to characters, not to swords (well, if you're a good writer, anyway).

So, unless your choice is "nuanced", all you're going to get is probably a large amount of people doing whatever it takes to save the life of the blacksmith, regardless of the cost. The problem is that your choice is binary. Blacksmith dies or blacksmith doesn't die. Who would go into that scenario and pick to kill the Blacksmith except people who were curious to see what would happen when they did?

I realized this issue very early on in my project (which has its entire theme be choices, so I've run a TON of playtests on players and a lot of deep dive into human behavior and player behavior to figure out WHY my players were doing the things they were doing) and ended up changing the entire focus. It went from a "you can pick to be good or pick to be evil, and there's a different story for each" type game to a "there are no good options, only options you can live with" type game. That's not to say that my game doesn't have "a happy ending", because it's meant to satisfy any player regardless of their choices. But, it's a balancing act to make each choice "nuanced" and to then make the player feel guilty about what they did after the fact. The players are meant to understand that being "the good guy" and clinging to "high morals" and "paragon" type thinking inevitably creates a lot of conflict, a lot of strife, and ruins a lot of people's lives. The players are meant to consider that until they get the pay-off of what their efforts lead towards... which is a good ending.

See, "It's easy to be a saint in paradise.". When you make a good decision and have immediate results that satisfy and reward that good choice... players will continue to make it. But, is it easy to make a good decision when you know it will hurt a great many people and might even cause you resentment later? Is it easy to make the right decision if it gives you guilt afterwards? It's difficult to "be good" when you have to carry those burdens.

That's the point of the moral decisions in my game. I had to make it as "nuanced" as possible in order to get players to pick some of the more terrible options. Or, rather, even consider the terrible options. Namely, I had to get players to stop looking at the choices as "moral" ones and instead as "personal" choices.

The first choice in the game tells you everything you ever need to know about making decisions afterwards in it.
You have married someone who is the enemy of your nation. Not just the enemy, but someone who possesses enough power they could destroy the continent if they want to, and that race of people have previously used such destruction twice before, both times against your people. You are the leader of one of the armies of your nation. Your best friend taught you all about fighting and is your mentor, comrade, and confidant. But, the nation you serve found out what your spouse is and to prove your loyalty, you need to kill them. So, an army of the men you lead into battle regularly shows up at your front door in the dead of night, headed up by your best friend. He gives you two options. Kill your spouse or stand aside so they can kill your spouse and say you did it so that you are cleared.

Your actual options are:
1. Kill your spouse and children as ordered.
2. Let your men and your best friend kill your spouse and children while you do nothing.
3. Try to escape with your spouse and children.

What happens with each of these scenarios?
1. This act hardens the main character and turns them into a revenge hungry zealot bent on destroying their own nation and taking the spot as king. This character seeks to fix the nation by overthrowing the tyranny.
2. This act haunts the main character and turns them into a "Yes Man" for the crown, not getting involved in anyone else's problems. They resent every single one of their men and eventually plots their deaths for what happened.
3. This act kills your best friend and dooms every single man under your previous command and their families to death, slavery, and other unsavory things. The women are sold off to foreign nations for the usual reason, the children are used for experiments or sold directly into slavery, and the men are slaughtered in place of you and your family and their failure.

The "good choice" here of saving your family (which almost every single player of mine would do before they were signposted consequences) is now a hard moral choice to make. Sacrifice the many for your immediate family? Sacrifice your family for the many?

This simple choice at the beginning of the game let the players decide if they wanted to be good or evil resulted in almost everyone picking, "I save my family, kill nobody, and run away from my nation". After all, that's what a hero would do! A hero would try to save everyone!

Plus, there's the expectation that "doing good" in a video game always results in a good ending. That is, an eventual reward, right? Eventual 100% Perfect Ending, right? You saved everyone! Just this once, everyone lives!

You are dealing with players who innately think that "you should save everyone who is nice and kind and good". With a quest where the choices are, "the blacksmith dies" or "the blacksmith lives", there isn't really a choice here. Your players are going to always pick "the blacksmith lives". No consideration. No "picking a little of both". It will be, "I want the Blacksmith to live, because good people deserve to live and not die".

You are fighting human nature here.

If you are comfortable with all your players picking that option, then by all means, implement it and keep it. But, all the signposting is going to do is push your players towards the option of making the blacksmith live.

The game might actually be better served if you didn't signpost it at all and let the shock of what the player has been doing sink in once the blacksmith is dead. If the player unknowingly pushes the blacksmith into taking unnecessary chances, continues to push them into it, and only realizes AFTER the consequences have come down on their heads what they did wrong... then you probably have something fairly compelling there. After all, you've just subverted expectations. You just told the player that they were turning someone into a reckless person and that they didn't care about what might happen to the blacksmith. It might be a lightbulb moment if some players realize they were making the blacksmith do what they do because of their own ego. Forcing their own beliefs on someone else, and it killed them. Reinforcing the beliefs of the NPC to placate them, and it caused their death.

Or, you know, the player will just feel like they should never get the bad ending and "how was I meant to know I was being the bad guy here?!". Because people also hate being wrong and admitting they've done bad things.

Depends on the emotional maturity level of the player involved.
Going by your response, I'm not sure we're all operating on the same understanding of precisely what "signposting" is or entails. You appear to be considering it from the perspective of "battering the player over the head with exactly what their actions will do" but I think Htlaets is thinking more along the lines of "subtly indicate that this action *may* have consequences".

You are right in that players will tend towards picking the "good" options, but I'm not sure there is one here up until the climax of the questline. If you discourage the blacksmith from her adventuring, you're stifling someone's ambitions and dreams. If she knows the risks, if she's aware that she might die, but she wants to experience the adrenaline rush and euphoria of combat anyway, keeping her safe is the "moral" option, but not the one that best serves her. On the other hand, encouraging her is actively putting someone in a dangerous situation, and her apprentice is obviously concerned so you're going against his wishes too.

I actually think that what will likely happen with this is that if you show the player right off the bat that she's in over her head but she *doesn't die*, they will continue encouraging her because they probably won't expect the game to go the whole hog and kill her, especially if she's someone you've been interacting with a lot over the course of the game.

I disagree with your expectation that killing her off after this would cause the player to feel cheated. If I experienced a questline like that in a game I was playing, and I went down the route of encouraging her adventuring, and she died at the end, it would be quite a poignant moment for me and I wouldn't think the developer cheated me; the outcome would be a consequence of my own actions. Honestly, in that case I would feel cheated if she stayed alive no matter what I chose, because that would truly be a choice with no actual changes to outcome.
 

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@Trihan Nope, I'm operating under the definition of signposting that applies to game design. The problem is that you're not going to be able to be "subtle" about this in any way if you're trying to convey what the original post is.

Signposting, by and large, is helping the player make an informed decision through overt or covert means. It is player manipulation. If you are too subtle, the signposting may as well not be there. If you are too overt, then you are essentially railroading the player into doing what they should. "Signposting" is basically the art of nudging the player in the direction you want them to go.

If you create a road, a player is likely to follow that instead of diving into an untamed forest, because the road is easier travel, usually leads to civilization, has longer sight lines, and has less chance of you getting lost. A road is effective signposting in games because of this. Players can still ignore this road, but most will not, because the road itself is a signpost that manipulates the player into the desired behavior.

Now, the OP wants to signpost the 3 choices and the 3 rewards for those choices. That is, they want the player to be informed that helping the blacksmith will kill the blacksmith and result in the rewards they get for the blacksmith getting killed. They want the player to be informed that helping the apprentice saves the blacksmith and results in the rewards for that. They want the player to be informed that moderating both sides of that coin result in the best overall outcome and the best loot.

To do that, you need to:
1. Tell the player that the blacksmith can die so that there are no illusions that the game will pull back at the last moment. Which means, the longer the questline goes on without the blacksmith dying, the less you are actually signposting this. Which means, the player isn't actually being informed that the blacksmith can die, and is instead being informed that it's dangerous and the blacksmith will continue to live until suddenly they don't.

2. Tell the player that saving a life isn't the best option in the game. Fight human nature. If the player is signposted that the blacksmith will die and the game isn't going to pull punches and will definitely kill the blacksmith... then all your players are going to crush the dreams of the blacksmith in order to save that life and be "the good guys".

3. Tell the player that they somehow have to balance both options enough to hit the magic number of the variable in play in order to get the best reward and best outcome... or miss out. If you have 5 encounters and the magic number that needs to be hit is 3, gaining 1 point for each time you help the apprentice, and no points for helping the blacksmith, then the player has a 1 in 5 chance of getting this result BY ACCIDENT. If a player does get this outcome, it will be by accident. Likewise, you would have to event out a bunch of "if/then" scenarios for the quest in which it changes based on which times you helped and which times you didn't. Dialogue would need to change and new signposting would have to be implemented for each possibility. What do I mean?

Scenario 1:
Sided Apprentice, Sided Apprentice, Sided Apprentice, Sided Apprentice, Sided Apprentice.

Scenario 2:
Sided Blacksmith, Sided Blacksmith, Sided Blacksmith, Sided Blacksmith, Sided Blacksmith.

Scenario 3:
Apprentice, Apprentice, Apprentice, Apprentice, Blacksmith.

Scenario 4:
Blacksmith, Blacksmith, Blacksmith, Blacksmith, Apprentice.

Scenario 5:
Apprentice, Apprentice, Apprentice, Blacksmith, Apprentice.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The scenarios are too numerous for me to list and count for how you'd have to change it each time. How you'd have to signpost it again at each new choice.

It isn't as simple as, "only the last choice matters". Especially since the OP posted that the quest length varies depending on the choices you've made. Which, begs the question, which times do you have to be nice to the blacksmith and which ones do you have to be nice to the apprentice? Does the dialogue even change to indicate who you've sided with before and in which situations? What happens if you end up on one of the longer chains of the quest and then go back on what you were doing in order to support the other party again?

There is no way to signpost this. It is not hyperbole. It is based on the way the quest is likely designed, the means by which it is tracked in the engine, and how it would need to be written in order to be compelling/satisfying to a player engaging in it. You would burn so much dev time on this one quest that it would practically be a game in and of itself at that point. Especially if you signposted each decision and branch.

This task gets easier to do with the less choices you have to make. Even with 3 choices available, you're looking at least at 7 outcomes (or 8? Maybe more!). With 2 choices, you have 4 outcomes. This gets a little weird when the OP says that no matter which choices are picked, there are only 3 outcomes. So, which ones result in which outcomes? How do you signpost those to the player?

Imagine a branching quest with 5 decision points and there are still only 3 outcomes. The OP would literally need to decide which outcomes result in which 3 rewards/results of the quest. Are all the choices important? Only some of them? Which ones? How is the player meant to know at WHICH POINT the option is important? Which options lead to the middle road?

AAA
AAB
ABA
ABB
BBB
BBA
BAB
BAA

Which options up here lead to the middle ground and the best rewards and which ones result in death? Do you know? I don't know. How is the player meant to know? How do you signpost which combinations result in which outcomes? I know that 3 doesn't go into 8 evenly, so this is going to be skewed. Is it the first 3 that result in the Blacksmith not dying? If so, then the first choice is most important and none of the other choices really matter.

Then, you get into "game design 101" type stuff where if you're offering the player a choice and the outcome of that choice doesn't matter... why did you offer the player a choice? Never offer the player a choice if the outcome of that choice didn't matter and didn't change anything. That's bad game design.

The problem that you're having is that you're analyzing one tree. One choice. OP has stated that there's multiple decision points and that the optimal route is to side with either of them a set amount of times (we don't know how many, I've been assuming this is tracked via Variable, so the order of the choices doesn't matter, only the amount of times you've sided with someone does). I'm looking at the situation from a "forest" perspective (this is how I always look at things, I'm the sort of person who sees all the moving parts and all the trees in the forest, and doesn't see the details of any individual tree).

Now, if the OP were to take my advice and leave it at one choice (which you seem to be advocating for as well, since your arguments work based on a single choice only, especially in terms of signposting), then the signposting is easy enough to do, to carry out, can be subtle or overt, and convey exactly what the OP wants. But, the more choices we add, the muddier it gets. The more difficult it becomes to signpost things. The more difficult it becomes to get players to "take the middle ground" unless you get overt in your signposting and eventually telling the player, flat-out, that "if you make this choice, the Blacksmith will die". Why is that?

Players are genre savvy. The longer a character lives, the more they tend to think that character will survive. Especially if they're making choices related to whether or not that character survives. If you're 12 choices deep into a chain and nothing you do has resulted in a character dying... the player is likely to think that they're just boosting the ego of the character and not playing with life or death. Then, when suddenly that character dies, the players will wonder if there was a way to save them. What was that way? When was that decision point to save their life?

How does a dev even communicate to a player that "this is the point of no return" for their choices in such a quest? What if they were locked into the blacksmith's death around choice 3 and no other choice mattered? How is the player meant to know that? How is the dev meant to signpost that to the player? What if they were "locked in" by choice 7? If only the last choice matters, how do you communicate to the player that the last choice IS the last choice? How do you maintain investment or not retroactively ruin your questline by communicating that this is the last choice and it is the only one that matters?

Especially when in a scenario such as this one, anyone would think, "Um, adventurers travel in parties, not solo. Why doesn't the blacksmith recruit a party of adventurers and friends to avoid death like everyone else?" But, there's no option to pick it.

You're going to run into the Mass Effect 3 ending. That is, none of the choices you made in any of the 3 games mattered... only the last one mattered, and none of the endings is satisfying if you think about it for more than 30 seconds.
 

Trihan

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@Trihan Nope, I'm operating under the definition of signposting that applies to game design. The problem is that you're not going to be able to be "subtle" about this in any way if you're trying to convey what the original post is.

Signposting, by and large, is helping the player make an informed decision through overt or covert means. It is player manipulation. If you are too subtle, the signposting may as well not be there. If you are too overt, then you are essentially railroading the player into doing what they should. "Signposting" is basically the art of nudging the player in the direction you want them to go.

If you create a road, a player is likely to follow that instead of diving into an untamed forest, because the road is easier travel, usually leads to civilization, has longer sight lines, and has less chance of you getting lost. A road is effective signposting in games because of this. Players can still ignore this road, but most will not, because the road itself is a signpost that manipulates the player into the desired behavior.

Now, the OP wants to signpost the 3 choices and the 3 rewards for those choices. That is, they want the player to be informed that helping the blacksmith will kill the blacksmith and result in the rewards they get for the blacksmith getting killed. They want the player to be informed that helping the apprentice saves the blacksmith and results in the rewards for that. They want the player to be informed that moderating both sides of that coin result in the best overall outcome and the best loot.

To do that, you need to:
1. Tell the player that the blacksmith can die so that there are no illusions that the game will pull back at the last moment. Which means, the longer the questline goes on without the blacksmith dying, the less you are actually signposting this. Which means, the player isn't actually being informed that the blacksmith can die, and is instead being informed that it's dangerous and the blacksmith will continue to live until suddenly they don't.

2. Tell the player that saving a life isn't the best option in the game. Fight human nature. If the player is signposted that the blacksmith will die and the game isn't going to pull punches and will definitely kill the blacksmith... then all your players are going to crush the dreams of the blacksmith in order to save that life and be "the good guys".

3. Tell the player that they somehow have to balance both options enough to hit the magic number of the variable in play in order to get the best reward and best outcome... or miss out. If you have 5 encounters and the magic number that needs to be hit is 3, gaining 1 point for each time you help the apprentice, and no points for helping the blacksmith, then the player has a 1 in 5 chance of getting this result BY ACCIDENT. If a player does get this outcome, it will be by accident. Likewise, you would have to event out a bunch of "if/then" scenarios for the quest in which it changes based on which times you helped and which times you didn't. Dialogue would need to change and new signposting would have to be implemented for each possibility. What do I mean?

Scenario 1:
Sided Apprentice, Sided Apprentice, Sided Apprentice, Sided Apprentice, Sided Apprentice.

Scenario 2:
Sided Blacksmith, Sided Blacksmith, Sided Blacksmith, Sided Blacksmith, Sided Blacksmith.

Scenario 3:
Apprentice, Apprentice, Apprentice, Apprentice, Blacksmith.

Scenario 4:
Blacksmith, Blacksmith, Blacksmith, Blacksmith, Apprentice.

Scenario 5:
Apprentice, Apprentice, Apprentice, Blacksmith, Apprentice.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The scenarios are too numerous for me to list and count for how you'd have to change it each time. How you'd have to signpost it again at each new choice.

It isn't as simple as, "only the last choice matters". Especially since the OP posted that the quest length varies depending on the choices you've made. Which, begs the question, which times do you have to be nice to the blacksmith and which ones do you have to be nice to the apprentice? Does the dialogue even change to indicate who you've sided with before and in which situations? What happens if you end up on one of the longer chains of the quest and then go back on what you were doing in order to support the other party again?

There is no way to signpost this. It is not hyperbole. It is based on the way the quest is likely designed, the means by which it is tracked in the engine, and how it would need to be written in order to be compelling/satisfying to a player engaging in it. You would burn so much dev time on this one quest that it would practically be a game in and of itself at that point. Especially if you signposted each decision and branch.

This task gets easier to do with the less choices you have to make. Even with 3 choices available, you're looking at least at 7 outcomes (or 8? Maybe more!). With 2 choices, you have 4 outcomes. This gets a little weird when the OP says that no matter which choices are picked, there are only 3 outcomes. So, which ones result in which outcomes? How do you signpost those to the player?

Imagine a branching quest with 5 decision points and there are still only 3 outcomes. The OP would literally need to decide which outcomes result in which 3 rewards/results of the quest. Are all the choices important? Only some of them? Which ones? How is the player meant to know at WHICH POINT the option is important? Which options lead to the middle road?

AAA
AAB
ABA
ABB
BBB
BBA
BAB
BAA

Which options up here lead to the middle ground and the best rewards and which ones result in death? Do you know? I don't know. How is the player meant to know? How do you signpost which combinations result in which outcomes? I know that 3 doesn't go into 8 evenly, so this is going to be skewed. Is it the first 3 that result in the Blacksmith not dying? If so, then the first choice is most important and none of the other choices really matter.

Then, you get into "game design 101" type stuff where if you're offering the player a choice and the outcome of that choice doesn't matter... why did you offer the player a choice? Never offer the player a choice if the outcome of that choice didn't matter and didn't change anything. That's bad game design.

The problem that you're having is that you're analyzing one tree. One choice. OP has stated that there's multiple decision points and that the optimal route is to side with either of them a set amount of times (we don't know how many, I've been assuming this is tracked via Variable, so the order of the choices doesn't matter, only the amount of times you've sided with someone does). I'm looking at the situation from a "forest" perspective (this is how I always look at things, I'm the sort of person who sees all the moving parts and all the trees in the forest, and doesn't see the details of any individual tree).

Now, if the OP were to take my advice and leave it at one choice (which you seem to be advocating for as well, since your arguments work based on a single choice only, especially in terms of signposting), then the signposting is easy enough to do, to carry out, can be subtle or overt, and convey exactly what the OP wants. But, the more choices we add, the muddier it gets. The more difficult it becomes to signpost things. The more difficult it becomes to get players to "take the middle ground" unless you get overt in your signposting and eventually telling the player, flat-out, that "if you make this choice, the Blacksmith will die". Why is that?

Players are genre savvy. The longer a character lives, the more they tend to think that character will survive. Especially if they're making choices related to whether or not that character survives. If you're 12 choices deep into a chain and nothing you do has resulted in a character dying... the player is likely to think that they're just boosting the ego of the character and not playing with life or death. Then, when suddenly that character dies, the players will wonder if there was a way to save them. What was that way? When was that decision point to save their life?

How does a dev even communicate to a player that "this is the point of no return" for their choices in such a quest? What if they were locked into the blacksmith's death around choice 3 and no other choice mattered? How is the player meant to know that? How is the dev meant to signpost that to the player? What if they were "locked in" by choice 7? If only the last choice matters, how do you communicate to the player that the last choice IS the last choice? How do you maintain investment or not retroactively ruin your questline by communicating that this is the last choice and it is the only one that matters?

Especially when in a scenario such as this one, anyone would think, "Um, adventurers travel in parties, not solo. Why doesn't the blacksmith recruit a party of adventurers and friends to avoid death like everyone else?" But, there's no option to pick it.

You're going to run into the Mass Effect 3 ending. That is, none of the choices you made in any of the 3 games mattered... only the last one mattered, and none of the endings is satisfying if you think about it for more than 30 seconds.
It's not a zero sum game though. Signposting doesn't need to point to what *will* happen, it can point to what *might*. Making the player aware that there will potentially be real consequences to these decisions doesn't mean the player needs to be told specifically what those consequences are.

The player doesn't need to know that a certain choice or set of choices will result in specific outcome A, and another set will result in outcome B, and a mix will result in outcome C. What they need to know is that encouraging the blacksmith in adventuring moves her progressively closer to her fatal encounter, and discouraging her keeps her safe but unhappy and potentially not gaining the materials or whatever she needs to make the party better equipment from her adventuring.

And take this from a gamer who will always take the non-signposted path because I want to experience everything. If I see a road with a defined path and an exit that's less obvious or in some underbrush or otherwise indicative of a path you don't need to take to progress, I'll go that way first.

It's also interesting that you think every choice available necessitates a completely different overall outcome; life doesn't even work like that. The outcomes of your decisions can be a combination of the decisions you made before that, with the only interim difference being some dialogue, and there's always a possibility that the ultimate outcomes will be fewer in number than the choices that went into it.
 

Htlaets

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I actually think that what will likely happen with this is that if you show the player right off the bat that she's in over her head but she *doesn't die*, they will continue encouraging her because they probably won't expect the game to go the whole hog and kill her, especially if she's someone you've been interacting with a lot over the course of the game.

I disagree with your expectation that killing her off after this would cause the player to feel cheated. If I experienced a questline like that in a game I was playing, and I went down the route of encouraging her adventuring, and she died at the end, it would be quite a poignant moment for me and I wouldn't think the developer cheated me; the outcome would be a consequence of my own actions. Honestly, in that case I would feel cheated if she stayed alive no matter what I chose, because that would truly be a choice with no actual changes to outcome.
That's kinda what I'm going for, but I'm sure there will be a certain amount that will feel cheated regardless. My goal is to leave enough clues that when people get a negative result they'll look back at what happened and go "Oh, yeah, I guess there were enough clues to figure out that things could end this way." and that it's also possible to see your way to a positive result if you aren't reckless.

@Tai_MT Re: Bioware: I was referring to Bioware in aggregate post BG. KOTOR dark side is just comically evil and the good choices usually has objectively better rewards and you lose party members, exp chances, more rewards by going all in on dark side, Jade Empire tries to balance it out some but still leans on comic evil, ME 1 is better than 2 and 3 but even still Renegade is basically the "be a jerk" option, just not comically so, without any tangible benefits (though, some of the major choices as renegade are basically genocidal even in ME 1 so...). Dragon age origins and, ironically, Dragon age 2 are the most morally gray choice and consequence spreads that Bioware has done in their post BG era. Also, just to prevent misunderstandings, I love KOTOR, Jade Empire, ME 1-3(Definitely not that ending), I just hate the way their binary choice systems pan out.

I don't quite agree with the human nature perspective of this, either. I do agree that players will often choose the goody-goody front-facing moral choice often if they care about the consequences, for the aforementioned reason, that being said, it depends. Your example was an immensely personal one. It's asking the player "Do you want to play as someone who'd kill their wife and child for their country?" which most would choose no even with signposting. Because, ultimately, the fate of your best friend in that scenario isn't caused by you, it's caused by the state of your country, you aren't the ones killing them or letting them be killed.

It's a bit of a trolley problem, but in the basic trolley problem you have no relation to the one person who would be killed, so it is easier to make the "greater good" choice. But if that one person is personally more precious to you then the five who would die, more people would allow the five to die because, in the end, they wouldn't die as a result of their actions, while the alternative is being personally responsible for killing the person precious to you.

In the case of my own side quest, the blacksmith and her apprentice are not people who are precious to the player. Sure, over the course of their journey the player will hopefully grow to like the characters in question, but they're completely unconnected to the main story, and are tertiary characters at best. The player may not want them to die, but they ultimately will probably be not as invested in their success and safety as they would be for a main character, which brings in greed and wanting to see more content as a motivating factor. It's a side quest chain, people do side quests for side story content + rewards to use in main content + gameplay loop + completionist drive.

Anyway, as for why players gravitate toward morally 'correct' choices, I'd consider these three situations:

A: Someone tells you to punch a person in the face. They make it clear there is no benefit to you for punching this person in the face.

B: Someone tells you to punch a person in the face, or else they'll burn a prized possession of yours they got their hand on. (This is fundamentally a less extreme version of the choice your example lines up with)

C: Someone shows you a case full of $1000 and they credibly say they'll give you the 1k if you punch someone in the face.

C? You'd probably get a lot of bites. I mean, it's not like you're killing someone, just punching them in the face, and you're getting $1k. Even if a person refuses for one reason or another, most would seriously consider doing it. For B I'd say it'd be more of a mixed bag. The person is presenting you with a negative consequence for not obeying them, so you're more motivated to spite them. If they're gonna threaten you to get you to punch someone, you'd seriously consider just punching the asker instead and taking a chance to get your item back. At the same time you'd at least think about giving in to their demands because you would not like the result they're threatening you with.

However, only a psychopath would submit to A in real life. But a lot of the big games with choices have a lot of Choice A type choices, where not doing A will normally cost you nothing or next to nothing, but is nonetheless a jerk move. Sometimes they try to dress up the choices as Choice B or C, but they've conditioned their players such that they know better than to fall for that, they know they can have their cake and eat it, too, by choosing a good option.


On the quest length permutation thing: It's not as difficult as you present. I plan for dialogue permutation but not for every choice, but rather the sum of them. Sometimes an individual choice will change dialogue choices, sometimes it won't by itself. Dialogue will be granular.


It's not a matter of:
AAB
vs
BAA
or
BBA
etc.

It's a matter of, in this case, of how many Bs the player has chosen by the fourth choice. In this example if the player chose BBB then they cannot choose A in the last choice.

On top of that you're also assuming that the choice to encourage will always come in the same form and always be presented in the same way. Sometimes the encouragement will come in the form of cheering on improvement or fishing her out of depression, other times it will come in the form of outright lying to her about her abilities. It won't always be a binary matter of siding with the apprentice or the master here. Sometimes the apprentice won't be around when you make a decision that matters here. And sometimes the master won't be around.

The permutations on possible outcomes are basically:
End early V1: Completely shut down the blacksmith. This will end the questline 3-4 quests early, it's still somewhat near the end of the game.
End early V2: Player mostly let the apprentices points stand by trying to stay out of the argument and never encouraged the blacksmith directly. This will end the questline 2-3 quests early. Very near the end of the game.
Blacksmith lives and is satisfied with the outcome: Player did not outright shutdown the blacksmith, but gave some input throughout the questline, for an example of how this will be determined: aggregate encouragement is greater than 1 but some amount less than the sum of all possible encouragement.

This will allow the player to choose to allow the blacksmith to go on a quest that will certainly get her killed.

This will not end the questline early, as the player would take the quest in her place.

Blacksmith dies: Two ways to get here. Either A the player gets the choice on the final quest and decides to let her go, or B the player chose nearly every encouragement option. The way this will be determined will separate the numbers the player will get based on the following:

There will be two types of encouragement that will both add to encouragement score: cheering encouragement and BS encouragement. BS encouragement will be signposted as basically the player lying about her abilities, giving her false confidence. Cheering encouragement is more of "You can do it, you can get there" variety.

The amount of encouragement that is too much will be (Just a guess for the moment) basically taking 60%+ of the BS options + 90% of the cheer options. Yes, any combination of BS and cheer can lead to allowing the choice for the most positive outcome in this case. I'll be keeping track of enough of those choices to have a dialogue change for it, but I'm not gonna create THAT many permutations of results.

As far as permutations go, I have a minor convo side event that's long been finished with 20 different outcomes, several significantly different based on previous choices, I can handle the minor dialogue changes necessary to convey that the NPCs are listening to the specific things the player says.

And I'm not trying to spell out the final reward here, but rather that there are rewards in this questline, and thus a motive in-character and out to continue pursuing it.

Either way, most of the choices in my game so far are less about straight-up good evil choices and more about understanding the situation, and there's often no objectively optimal choice, but for this particular side quest I do want an objectively optimal route.

-------------------------------------
I am starting to wonder if I should have some permutations within individual quest results based on previous choices, though, to signal that it's not exactly the same until major decision points. Something where the results of a couple of quests branch individually because of how much the player encouraged the blacksmith. How those individual quests branch ultimately wouldn't matter much to the ultimate result but it could be a good way to signal where the players choices have taken them so far and be foreshadowing of how things will go if the player doesn't make adjustments.
 

Tai_MT

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@Trihan

I would like to point out that it's a basic tenant of game design. It's as old as time. Heck, D&D uses a form of it. The "If you don't have a consequence, don't make the player roll" rule. It applies to games with choices. If each choice does not have a consequence, don't give the player a choice.

It's a means of "cutting the fat", "dumping the bloat" and "removing the pointlessness to make room for the fun".

This basic tenant would state that once the player reaches the "point of no return" in a choice chain... the choices end because no further choice would influence the outcome.

It's easier to think of it as a "Best of 3" scenario. If one person wins 2 of the 3 events, then it's a waste of time and effort to play the third event. One side is already guaranteed to win, so it doesn't have to try as hard, and the other side is guaranteed to lose, so it has nothing to gain by winning or even trying at all.

Once a quest has a "forgone conclusion", it should end there, or remove all future choices as you're "locked in".

Personally, I'm just a firm believer in KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). If you can simplify something and reduce your workload while increasing efficiency and you lose nothing by doing it... then do it. No need to keep extraneous nonsense around or create more work just for the sake of ego or to try to appear more clever than you are. But, that's just me. Some people love to create bloat and inefficiencies 'cause it makes them feel productive and accomplished. Or... they just don't know any better.

Anyway, onto the rest of your points.

You spend some time telling me that it doesn't need to be signposted that the characters will die, but then spend time telling me it needs to be signposted that they might. Which is it?

You then run into the issue of "the longer there is no consequence for the actions, the less likely the player is going to consider there even is the consequence". That is, if you tell a player every few hours, "Hey, this character could die if you make this choice" and continue doing it... You're doing absolutely nothing except desensitizing the player to the possibility. In short, you're undermining your own authority. If you tell your audience that a character can die, but you never kill that character until the moment when you decide the audience needs to finally have that character die... you're typically going to be hitting the "Jump the Shark" moment. That is, most people will think you ran out of ideas for how to make things exciting or interesting and so you killed a character you had never planned on killing because... well... drama. It feels "artificial" at that point. Forced. After all, you spent the better part of 20 hours basically signposting to the player that even though they were picking the bad decision, a character wouldn't die, and you'd keep swooping in to save them. You know, until suddenly the signpost is wrong and you'd been signposting something else all along that the players disregarded because you had plastered a different message over the original.

Imagine a sign that says, "you might die if you take this road". So, someone walks down that road. There's a second sign that says the same thing, but there's another sign nailed on top of it that says, "Nothing dangerous so far". Then a third sign a mile down the road that says the same as the first, but the second sign nailed on top of the first gets a little bigger and says, "Nothing dangerous so far". Then a fourth sign another mile down the road, the nailed sign says, "Is this road even dangerous at all?". Then a fifth sign that says that continues to say, "You might die if you take this road." and a bigger sign nailed on top of it, obscuring some of the writing that says, "Seriously, this road isn't dangerous at all!". Then a sixth sign. A seventh. The signs nailed overtop of the warning asking more and more whether or not the road is even dangerous until the final sign declares "This road isn't dangerous at all!" and the person on the road agreeing because they've run into no trouble at all on the entire road. So, the person walks to the 9th sign... and is promptly shot in the head, because it's near a gun range and it's a stray bullet.

You can't signpost overtop of your signpost. If you do, you wind up in such situations with the signs and the gun range. When all evidence and signs point to the contrary of something the player is told... the player tends not to believe what they are told.

As a result, you need to keep your chains fairly short in order to not desensitize the player (giving the negative consequence sooner), or you need to basically tell the player exactly what is going to happen to begin with and leave no ambiguity in order to prevent them from accidently wandering onto a gun range that "they might die" on.

By the by... you're not the only gamer who does that with the "non signposted path". I'd wager most do it because they think they're being clever and trying to get away from the "obvious" correct path. You see this all the time in D&D. In fact, I anticipate this, and the "going on the non-signposted path" in my D&D games is actually the signposted path most of the time. That is, I've created content for the "path my players think they are being clever by taking instead of the obvious one", but no content for the obvious path that I nudge players towards.

It may sound weird, but players are fairly predictable. Just like most people are. Input X, get out Y. Are there exceptions? Sure. But, exceptions don't disprove the rule. Exceptions only prove that there are outliers. We don't design games for outliers and exceptions.

Finally, as for your choices observation...

It's inherently flawed. The right words at the right time can change minds, shift governments, and alter human actions. Every choice a person makes in their life matters. Each choice changes our trajectory. Your viewpoint of most choices not changing where you end up likely stems from watching people who aren't actually making choices, but just stating that they're making choices and have made choices. If you usually eat breakfast and decide not to tomorrow, it will affect your entire day. You will be hungry before lunch, being hungry will affect your cognitive abilities, probably even your mood. Effects on cognitive abilities and mood can affect your job, your schoolwork, effects on your mood can have effects on your interpersonal relationships or even professional relationships.

But, then you have people who say they've made choices, when they haven't. "I cut so and so out of my life!" except they didn't. They still think about them. Still revolve a portion of their life around them. Still sometimes try to contact them. Or, they replace that person they cut out with someone who is nearly exactly like them and therefore they've not really made any choice at all. They've merely made the effort to produce an illusion of having made the choice. Or rather, they've made the choice and then went back and reversed their choice by doing the exact same thing they did when they initially made the choice to begin with (in this instance, the choice to make a toxic person their friend, then cut that person out, only to replace that person with another toxic friend who is pretty close to exactly what the initial person was... the only choice that was made was to "stay the course" and not actually make a choice).

When a person actually makes a choice, it changes everything. When that choice is "temporary", it changes nothing.

I think you know a lot of people who make "temporary" type choices, and so they end up where they were always going to end up. Self-fulfilling prophecies.

I'm the opposite. I know a lot of people who make "permanent" choices and push my friends to make those types of choices rather than continue a farce of making choices when they never do.

But, this is likely just a difference in our personal experiences which have lead us to these conclusions (after all, you seem to be a "can't see the forest for the trees" person while I'm a "can't see the trees for the forest" type). You see people as making choices and still ending up where they always would have, because it didn't matter. I see people as making choices and drastically altering their trajectory in life.

Now, as for games needing each choice to have a different outcome... Well, if you're a good writer, they should. If you're phoning it in and getting lazy... then they won't. But, I mean, if you're lazy enough to phone it in and create the same outcomes and dialogue for completely different paths through the game... then why do those different paths even exist to begin with? I mean, you weren't too lazy to create the separate paths, but you suddenly got lazy when you realized it would be actual work to pave those paths, signpost them, and make them different enough to make them valuable. It's the difference between paving two identical roads to the exact same place that take the same amount of time... and paving two different roads to the same place with different draws... like say one is very scenic while the other has more rest stops and nice places to eat.

A good writer will make each step and previous choice reflected in the characters, dialogue, and events that came before to acknowledge to the player that they were important. A bad writer doesn't do any of that and just goes, "Yeah, there's only a few dialogue differences here and there based on how much of the meter is filled".
 

Htlaets

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@Tai_MT
There's a lot of assumptions about thought process and life experience based on very little information here and I'm not quite sure why you would make such a wild chain of assumptions, but regardless.

Either way, to your points, a good writer makes content engaging. If you're interact with an NPC throughout a story, your interactions throughout should have an aggregate effect on the nature of your relationship and on the effect your actions have on.

The benefit to having an NPC you interact with throughout the story is that it allows for permanence of the character, if that character serves a recurring function while you interact with them it furthers player investment with a character, even if they're just side characters. A one-off sidequest npc is not going to be that memorable 9/10 times even if the sidequest itself is well-written.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, I have instances where I actually do that, with immediate consequences. But, I feel it's rather two-dimensional to consider that the only viable way to write.

Anyway, as you say having every choice be individually significant in a long questline will create an expotential number of permutations, to the point where it's impossible to keep up with and not even infinite budget AAA games can really do something like that. Even the best Choice and Consequence indie games rarely do "literally all choices individually change outcomes" thing, though they often have more granualarity where the choices come up more often. The most significant throughout the game choices are aggregate choices more often in those games. That's why you have stuff like Pathfinder Kingmaker using the DND alignment system and having your shift, even though it keeps track of many choices, it still uses your alignment as shorthand a lot of the time.

On top of that, some of my favorite indie games do a thing called delayed consequences. Not 'X NPC will remember that' type "consequences" but more like Chekov's Gun ("If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act") type consequence. Which is to say, the gun hanging around in the first act is likely to be forgotten in the last, but having it in the first act, glancing at it in the second if the scene goes to the same room, seeing it again in the third, lays the breadcrumbs for that shot to be fired. The same can apply to choices. A fairly innocent choice in the first act can manifest itself in the third so long as you leave enough justification for it in the writing that it's possible to have seen that as a possible outcome even if it's not the only possible outcome.

Anyway, to get to your DND point: if you're having your characters RP, they will RP conversations, and they're actively making choices in those conversations. Most of those choices will seem insignificant. A good DM will keep in mind the NPC's personality and how the players interacting with them will effect their view of them. Most of the time this won't lead to immediate consequences. Often it won't lead to any. But context should matter.

I've DMed sessions, for example, where making a recurring NPC angry that has sensitive information about the characters has come back to bite them later because of how the plot progressed.

Either way, your overarching point is sounding like "don't have aggregate conversational relationships between characters have aggregate consequences later or your writing is shoddy" which... is an opinion I guess?

I mean, as an example, there are things that felt like a step down in Mass Effect 2 from 1 but...
the suicide mission having characters live or die based on your relationship with them throughout the story was definitely not one of them
.

Or, in ME: 1 having the option to talk that one character down peacefully if you have a good relationship with them, but having to kill them if you don't, was also a good example of aggregate choices.
 
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Trihan

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@Trihan

I would like to point out that it's a basic tenant of game design. It's as old as time. Heck, D&D uses a form of it. The "If you don't have a consequence, don't make the player roll" rule. It applies to games with choices. If each choice does not have a consequence, don't give the player a choice.

It's a means of "cutting the fat", "dumping the bloat" and "removing the pointlessness to make room for the fun".

This basic tenant would state that once the player reaches the "point of no return" in a choice chain... the choices end because no further choice would influence the outcome.

It's easier to think of it as a "Best of 3" scenario. If one person wins 2 of the 3 events, then it's a waste of time and effort to play the third event. One side is already guaranteed to win, so it doesn't have to try as hard, and the other side is guaranteed to lose, so it has nothing to gain by winning or even trying at all.

Once a quest has a "forgone conclusion", it should end there, or remove all future choices as you're "locked in".

Personally, I'm just a firm believer in KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). If you can simplify something and reduce your workload while increasing efficiency and you lose nothing by doing it... then do it. No need to keep extraneous nonsense around or create more work just for the sake of ego or to try to appear more clever than you are. But, that's just me. Some people love to create bloat and inefficiencies 'cause it makes them feel productive and accomplished. Or... they just don't know any better.

Anyway, onto the rest of your points.

You spend some time telling me that it doesn't need to be signposted that the characters will die, but then spend time telling me it needs to be signposted that they might. Which is it?

You then run into the issue of "the longer there is no consequence for the actions, the less likely the player is going to consider there even is the consequence". That is, if you tell a player every few hours, "Hey, this character could die if you make this choice" and continue doing it... You're doing absolutely nothing except desensitizing the player to the possibility. In short, you're undermining your own authority. If you tell your audience that a character can die, but you never kill that character until the moment when you decide the audience needs to finally have that character die... you're typically going to be hitting the "Jump the Shark" moment. That is, most people will think you ran out of ideas for how to make things exciting or interesting and so you killed a character you had never planned on killing because... well... drama. It feels "artificial" at that point. Forced. After all, you spent the better part of 20 hours basically signposting to the player that even though they were picking the bad decision, a character wouldn't die, and you'd keep swooping in to save them. You know, until suddenly the signpost is wrong and you'd been signposting something else all along that the players disregarded because you had plastered a different message over the original.

Imagine a sign that says, "you might die if you take this road". So, someone walks down that road. There's a second sign that says the same thing, but there's another sign nailed on top of it that says, "Nothing dangerous so far". Then a third sign a mile down the road that says the same as the first, but the second sign nailed on top of the first gets a little bigger and says, "Nothing dangerous so far". Then a fourth sign another mile down the road, the nailed sign says, "Is this road even dangerous at all?". Then a fifth sign that says that continues to say, "You might die if you take this road." and a bigger sign nailed on top of it, obscuring some of the writing that says, "Seriously, this road isn't dangerous at all!". Then a sixth sign. A seventh. The signs nailed overtop of the warning asking more and more whether or not the road is even dangerous until the final sign declares "This road isn't dangerous at all!" and the person on the road agreeing because they've run into no trouble at all on the entire road. So, the person walks to the 9th sign... and is promptly shot in the head, because it's near a gun range and it's a stray bullet.

You can't signpost overtop of your signpost. If you do, you wind up in such situations with the signs and the gun range. When all evidence and signs point to the contrary of something the player is told... the player tends not to believe what they are told.

As a result, you need to keep your chains fairly short in order to not desensitize the player (giving the negative consequence sooner), or you need to basically tell the player exactly what is going to happen to begin with and leave no ambiguity in order to prevent them from accidently wandering onto a gun range that "they might die" on.

By the by... you're not the only gamer who does that with the "non signposted path". I'd wager most do it because they think they're being clever and trying to get away from the "obvious" correct path. You see this all the time in D&D. In fact, I anticipate this, and the "going on the non-signposted path" in my D&D games is actually the signposted path most of the time. That is, I've created content for the "path my players think they are being clever by taking instead of the obvious one", but no content for the obvious path that I nudge players towards.

It may sound weird, but players are fairly predictable. Just like most people are. Input X, get out Y. Are there exceptions? Sure. But, exceptions don't disprove the rule. Exceptions only prove that there are outliers. We don't design games for outliers and exceptions.

Finally, as for your choices observation...

It's inherently flawed. The right words at the right time can change minds, shift governments, and alter human actions. Every choice a person makes in their life matters. Each choice changes our trajectory. Your viewpoint of most choices not changing where you end up likely stems from watching people who aren't actually making choices, but just stating that they're making choices and have made choices. If you usually eat breakfast and decide not to tomorrow, it will affect your entire day. You will be hungry before lunch, being hungry will affect your cognitive abilities, probably even your mood. Effects on cognitive abilities and mood can affect your job, your schoolwork, effects on your mood can have effects on your interpersonal relationships or even professional relationships.

But, then you have people who say they've made choices, when they haven't. "I cut so and so out of my life!" except they didn't. They still think about them. Still revolve a portion of their life around them. Still sometimes try to contact them. Or, they replace that person they cut out with someone who is nearly exactly like them and therefore they've not really made any choice at all. They've merely made the effort to produce an illusion of having made the choice. Or rather, they've made the choice and then went back and reversed their choice by doing the exact same thing they did when they initially made the choice to begin with (in this instance, the choice to make a toxic person their friend, then cut that person out, only to replace that person with another toxic friend who is pretty close to exactly what the initial person was... the only choice that was made was to "stay the course" and not actually make a choice).

When a person actually makes a choice, it changes everything. When that choice is "temporary", it changes nothing.

I think you know a lot of people who make "temporary" type choices, and so they end up where they were always going to end up. Self-fulfilling prophecies.

I'm the opposite. I know a lot of people who make "permanent" choices and push my friends to make those types of choices rather than continue a farce of making choices when they never do.

But, this is likely just a difference in our personal experiences which have lead us to these conclusions (after all, you seem to be a "can't see the forest for the trees" person while I'm a "can't see the trees for the forest" type). You see people as making choices and still ending up where they always would have, because it didn't matter. I see people as making choices and drastically altering their trajectory in life.

Now, as for games needing each choice to have a different outcome... Well, if you're a good writer, they should. If you're phoning it in and getting lazy... then they won't. But, I mean, if you're lazy enough to phone it in and create the same outcomes and dialogue for completely different paths through the game... then why do those different paths even exist to begin with? I mean, you weren't too lazy to create the separate paths, but you suddenly got lazy when you realized it would be actual work to pave those paths, signpost them, and make them different enough to make them valuable. It's the difference between paving two identical roads to the exact same place that take the same amount of time... and paving two different roads to the same place with different draws... like say one is very scenic while the other has more rest stops and nice places to eat.

A good writer will make each step and previous choice reflected in the characters, dialogue, and events that came before to acknowledge to the player that they were important. A bad writer doesn't do any of that and just goes, "Yeah, there's only a few dialogue differences here and there based on how much of the meter is filled".
You've just used a lot of words to repeat some of my own points back to me and more or less agree with what I was saying but from a different direction. :p

Though amusingly, having just reread the comment thread I misread something someone else said about taking the path less travelled as having come from you when it was someone else, for which I apologise.

To answer your direct question, though, "will" and "might" are vastly different things. Signposting the possibility of an outcome is not the same as signposting its certainty.
 

Tai_MT

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There's a lot of assumptions about thought process and life experience based on very little information here and I'm not quite sure why you would make such a wild chain of assumptions, but regardless.

Thought process and life experiences are based fairly heavily on a number of factors. They may seem irrelevant to the topic at hand, but they tend to inform someone why a person thinks the things they do and holds the beliefs they hold.

It's not a scientific method I'm employing. Think of it more like... Cold Reading? It's pretty close to that. Small information given, extrapolated out to decently accurate assumptions based on reasonable assumptions.

This involves words used, how your phrases are formed, the ideas you're expressing, the portions of my points a person clings to and which ones they ignore (often informing me of what viewpoints of my own are producing a knee-jerk reaction or that these are the only points disagreed with). It also involves analyzing the personal belief systems based on points raised/made and any personal information volunteered.

Again, highly unscientific, but makes me fairly good at reading people and predicting behavior in games or most given situations. It's... rare someone does something surprising to me. But, what do you expect of a skill born of being an eternal wallflower who studied people in order to better understand their wants and needs?

It also helps that I find human behavior fascinating, so I tend to study it any chance I get.

Either way, to your points, a good writer makes content engaging. If you're interact with an NPC throughout a story, your interactions throughout should have an aggregate effect on the nature of your relationship and on the effect your actions have on.

Agreed, they should, but if you have a lot of choices, your "aggregate choices" are going to change the nature of that relationship based on any number of minor and minute factors. After all, a person can respect you, but also not like you in any way, based on your interactions with them. A person can value your point of view, but also not trust anything you have to say, based on the interactions you've had with them.

You cannot have "shorthand" for relationships or they feel shallow and meaningless and your player won't care (or your reader). After all, how you treat your acquaintances, friends, lovers, spouses... affects how they view you, how they interact with you, and what they think of you.

This is the nature of relationships. They change as you interact with someone. Therefore, you cannot have a "duplicative" aggregate response. That is, you can't take a different set of actions and behaviors and conversations with someone and have them come to the same place. Basically, they're "non reproducible results". The results you get are based entirely on the person and all their quirks and beliefs... and the way you've interacted with them. I cannot give someone a free bag of candy one day and have them think the same of me as I did when I gave them a free bag of candy on a day they didn't want it or care about it. People do not work this way.

A good writer realizes this and writes it into their characters and stories. A bad writer makes broad generalizations about how people work and assigns them their tropes.

That's not to say tropes are a bad thing. They have their purpose. However, it is more difficult for an audience to "engage" with a trope or feel "emotionally invested" in a trope. Tropes are fantastic shorthand for people the audience is never really going to interact with all that much, or spend time getting to know. Tropes fill the purpose of acknowledging to the audience that something is going to be cliche, but also not all that important to the story. Or, rather, that you can skip filling in a ton of backstory so the player can just make a ton of assumptions needed to get the story rolling.

But, that's neither here nor there.

If your conversations do not acknowledge what you have and haven't done and have changed the relationship at each stage... Then it isn't "aggregate choices". It is, "I'm lazy and using tropes because I can't be bothered to provide characterization for a story so massive it encompasses the entire length of the game".

The benefit to having an NPC you interact with throughout the story is that it allows for permanence of the character, if that character serves a recurring function while you interact with them it furthers player investment with a character, even if they're just side characters. A one-off sidequest npc is not going to be that memorable 9/10 times even if the sidequest itself is well-written.

Not necessarily. Depends on how well the character is written. I loathe Clementine and most of the characters in "The Walking Dead". They're written like garbage, so is the main story. At every opportunity, I tried to get them all killed as often as I could. Too my chagrin, there is no way to get Clem murdered in any way.

Frequency of interaction doesn't make any player "invested" in them what-so-ever. Good writing of your characters makes a player "invested". That is, the player cares about what happens to them beyond the meta reason of "I get XP and loot".

There is no guarantee that having a ton of interaction with any character "endears" you to them. Just look at Anikin from Star Wars as a child. Or even as a teenager and adult. Or... I dunno... Jar Jar Binks. Or... any character that Shia LeBouf plays in a movie. Are any of them "endearing" to you? Are you EVER invested in them as characters? Or, do you just wish they'd go away and never exist?

That's the difference between good writing and crap writing.

Good writing is about the characters, not the story. This is why you can tell the same story a hundred different times. If the characters are compelling, interesting, and not two-dimensional, your audience cares about them.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, I have instances where I actually do that, with immediate consequences. But, I feel it's rather two-dimensional to consider that the only viable way to write.

What is written is based on intent and purpose of the thing being written. No, the audience does not have to be invested in every single one-off character.

That's not what you have here though. You have a recurring character with a game-spanning questline the player is meant to interact with a bunch of times and make life-changing decisions for those characters.

To write that as anything less than the character piece it is... is disingenuous at best, ignorance at worst. After all, the point of the quest is to interact with these characters and meddle in their affairs. The player HAS to care about them, so you WILL need to be in-depth about them and not do something and make it so generalized that it's buttered bread.

Now, if the point of your quest was the quest itself and what the player gets out of it... then sure, be as tropy as you want. As generalized as you want. After all, the quest is about the player. They aren't changing the lives of anyone else. They are on a quest for the sake of wanting to be on the quest and to see where it goes and what they'll have to do. They don't need to be invested in the quest giver or any NPC along the way. It's not about those NPC's. It's about the PC.

But... that's not what you have here. Intentionally or not.

If you want to be lazy about it, just keep it set to one or two decisions, end the quest quickly, and move along. You're doing yourself a disservice by promising the player something grand and then not even making the effort to deliver on it, because you couldn't be bothered to put forth the effort.

Anyway, as you say having every choice be individually significant in a long questline will create an expotential number of permutations, to the point where it's impossible to keep up with and not even infinite budget AAA games can really do something like that. Even the best Choice and Consequence indie games rarely do "literally all choices individually change outcomes" thing, though they often have more granualarity where the choices come up more often. The most significant throughout the game choices are aggregate choices more often in those games. That's why you have stuff like Pathfinder Kingmaker using the DND alignment system and having your shift, even though it keeps track of many choices, it still uses your alignment as shorthand a lot of the time.

And yet, Alignment is the most frequently fought about thing in D&D ever... with people unable to agree what it's even shorthand for... To the point that even the designers of the game put in their Dungeon Master Manuals to ignore the alignment unless it's important for some reason, because it's shorthand for a miniscule amount of situations.

I'm not saying your choices have to take you to vastly different locations either, or vastly different outcomes. You can reach the same generalized place, but with personalized results. That is, your aggregate choices flavor the ending choice, rather than change it. At which point, your choices still mattered. The Fallout games tried to do this early on, but kind of fail at it, though they were on the right track. Mass Effect mostly failed at it all through the series, though they made an interesting attempt at it. Having a choice means the player who picked one option will experience something the player who picked the other option won't experience. Having a series of choices means that players shouldn't have the same experience unless they picked all the same options. That is what presenting a choice in a game setting means. If two separate choices deliver the same piece of dialogue, then what is the point of those two choices? Why isn't it just a single choice? Why bother with "The Illusion of Choice"?

On top of that, some of my favorite indie games do a thing called delayed consequences. Not 'X NPC will remember that' type "consequences" but more like Chekov's Gun ("If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act") type consequence. Which is to say, the gun hanging around in the first act is likely to be forgotten in the last, but having it in the first act, glancing at it in the second if the scene goes to the same room, seeing it again in the third, lays the breadcrumbs for that shot to be fired. The same can apply to choices. A fairly innocent choice in the first act can manifest itself in the third so long as you leave enough justification for it in the writing that it's possible to have seen that as a possible outcome even if it's not the only possible outcome.

This is different than what I've been describing. You're describing a form of foreshadowing. I'm describing what I call "Investment Fatigue" (Others tend to call this "Your emotional well running dry").

If you wish to foreshadow that the gun will be used, you can do so. But, that's not what you're doing. What you're doing is saying to your audience, "That gun might be fired at some point. Who knows?" and then never pulling the trigger. Never pulling the trigger. Never pulling the trigger. Until like... 5 movies in where suddenly you pull the trigger after the audience stopped believing the trigger would ever be pulled and then they go, "Well... that came out of nowhere and seemed pointless". Or, maybe something more apt is that the characters keep making a move to grab the gun off the wall and then grabbing something else as a "fake out". This happens so often that when the gun is finally pulled off the wall and fired the audience breathes a collective sigh of relief that you're done jerking them around and they can finally move along.

If you want to see this in action...

You should watch a movie called "Poseidon Rex". I'm not really spoiling the movie, it's SyFy Shlock that's entertaining because it's... well... stupid. The movie foreshadows a character dying all through the movie. He hits all the usual tropes. Unlikable, selfish, unconcerned with his fiance dying, wanting to get rich quick, being cowardly, and saying very selfish frat boy things. All through the movie you go, "Okay, I know you're dead meat and the monster eats you... but WHEN?". Well, in the final act, the character is eaten. It's exactly as tired and boring and unclimactic as you would think it would be from dragging that on so long. Especially when said character has so many "close calls" through the movie. They try to tease "oh, he might live!" through the whole thing only to kill him and the audience just goes, "Finally, now we don't have to tolerate the nonsense around this character anymore".

Anyway, to get to your DND point: if you're having your characters RP, they will RP conversations, and they're actively making choices in those conversations. Most of those choices will seem insignificant. A good DM will keep in mind the NPC's personality and how the players interacting with them will effect their view of them. Most of the time this won't lead to immediate consequences. Often it won't lead to any. But context should matter.

This is exactly what I've been telling you, and you've been telling me having things change based on decisions made and conversations had isn't a sign of "good writing".

A good DM keeps in mind exactly what the players did and said for the quest you want to run and have the flavors of the endings as well as each new interaction change appropriately to reflect the choices and conversations had.

So, are you trying to argue for wanting to be a bad DM? I don't know what your point is now in arguing that you don't have to write like that.

Either way, your overarching point is sounding like "don't have aggregate conversational relationships between characters have aggregate consequences later or your writing is shoddy" which... is an opinion I guess?

Nope, quite the opposite. Every choice should have a consequence. Don't have aggregate consequences. Have aggregate relationships/conversations.

Which, you know, leads to what I was telling you about.

AAA
AAB
ABA
ABB

Etcetera ad nauseum. First choice affects the conversation of the next choice and how the characters view you. Might even change what your next choice makes, depending on what it is you did.

You know... GOOD WRITING. REALISTIC writing! Writing to get players INVESTED in the characters! Or, even their plight!

You know, beyond meta reasons where they don't even care what the outcome is, only that they get the loot and XP.

But, I mean, if your quest is just a means to deliver loot and XP... it doesn't need to be long or complicated or try to get the players invested at all. Just deliver the loot and move along.

Or, in ME: 1 having the option to talk that one character down peacefully if you have a good relationship with them, but having to kill them if you don't, was also a good example of aggregate choices.

That's... not really how or why that works. The meter itself is based on your "reputation". That is, how much characters respect you and will trust what you have to say in a given direction. If you're known for being diplomatic and reasonable, you can make a diplomatic and reasonable argument to diffuse the situation. If you're known for being a "no nonsense" and "bad people got to pay" type character, then you can make arguments to that effect and people will side with that point of view.

The meter was really always meant to simulate two things at a time. The first is a general personality of your character. The second is a "galactic reputation". That is, if you're known for doing one thing and solving the issue, when you keep doing it, others will trust that you're in the right when you talk about it. If you're "wishy washy" and aren't known for solving the issues in any specific way, it is difficult for anyone to trust that you're "in the right" when you approach the problem from any given perspective.

This is why I hated that they turned the meter into "good points" and "bad points" in later games. It destroyed all the actual nuance and reasoning behind what the meter ACTUALLY represented and did. You can't talk characters into doing things they view as "unreasonable" unless you've got the reputation of actually being right in those situations and solving other situations with those same methods.

You can't talk that character down unless you're known for either being ruthless against all your enemies and destroying that character's dreams and life goal for crossing you.... or you're known for being reasonable, diplomatic, understanding, and willing to hear people out and solve problems. Otherwise, you're just a wishy-washy person who probably just doesn't want shot and will say whatever it takes to not be, and not mean it and will never take action they promise to take.

And yes, you can talk that character down with Renegade options. And no, they won't die if you do so. They will even understand your position later if you talk to them. Though, they will still be upset at what you said and did.

And yes, there are several options to talk him down, even some that don't require you use Paragon or Renegade options to do so :D

Sorry, seven full playthroughs of that game have left me... almost an expert. I've heard every single piece of dialogue in the game. I've solved every problem in every conceivable way. Mass Effect 1 has a TON of leeway in terms of choices and how they flavor the playthrough (which they throw away at the end... and then completely abandon in Mass Effect 2). You never get this same level of leeway again in the series for solving problems again.
 

Htlaets

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Thought process and life experiences are based fairly heavily on a number of factors. They may seem irrelevant to the topic at hand, but they tend to inform someone why a person thinks the things they do and holds the beliefs they hold.

It's not a scientific method I'm employing. Think of it more like... Cold Reading? It's pretty close to that. Small information given, extrapolated out to decently accurate assumptions based on reasonable assumptions.

This involves words used, how your phrases are formed, the ideas you're expressing, the portions of my points a person clings to and which ones they ignore (often informing me of what viewpoints of my own are producing a knee-jerk reaction or that these are the only points disagreed with). It also involves analyzing the personal belief systems based on points raised/made and any personal information volunteered.

Again, highly unscientific, but makes me fairly good at reading people and predicting behavior in games or most given situations. It's... rare someone does something surprising to me. But, what do you expect of a skill born of being an eternal wallflower who studied people in order to better understand their wants and needs?

It also helps that I find human behavior fascinating, so I tend to study it any chance I get.

I'll just politely say that you really ought not to trust that too far, definitely not far enough to make fundamental assumptions off people who you only have a couple of posts on an internet forum to go off. I mean, your first post assuming I'm making the quest because of the reward was flat out wrong from the get-go and you're still continuing to make the insinuation despite the fact that I am fairly certain I know the order of my thoughts, especially since in this case I wrote them down in order in my own notes, makes me very highly doubt your ability to cold read, though I have little doubt in your confidence in your ability to do so, and I have very little doubt me telling you your cold reading is wrong would make you consider that possibility, if I had to "cold read" what your reaction to such a reaction would be it would be "Well, that's exactly how someone incapable of real choices would react!" I could be wrong, though.

Agreed, they should, but if you have a lot of choices, your "aggregate choices" are going to change the nature of that relationship based on any number of minor and minute factors. After all, a person can respect you, but also not like you in any way, based on your interactions with them. A person can value your point of view, but also not trust anything you have to say, based on the interactions you've had with them.

You cannot have "shorthand" for relationships or they feel shallow and meaningless and your player won't care (or your reader). After all, how you treat your acquaintances, friends, lovers, spouses... affects how they view you, how they interact with you, and what they think of you.

This is the nature of relationships. They change as you interact with someone. Therefore, you cannot have a "duplicative" aggregate response. That is, you can't take a different set of actions and behaviors and conversations with someone and have them come to the same place. Basically, they're "non reproducible results". The results you get are based entirely on the person and all their quirks and beliefs... and the way you've interacted with them. I cannot give someone a free bag of candy one day and have them think the same of me as I did when I gave them a free bag of candy on a day they didn't want it or care about it. People do not work this way.
No matter how much effort someone puts into a game with choices, they're still going to be shorthanding human relationships. You're not going to be able to give a player infinite choices to simulate organic conversations like you can in a DND session, they can't play their character an infinite number of ways.

On top of that, an interactive medium will always have to take some amount of shortcuts if it doesn't want to create exponential permutations.
A good writer realizes this and writes it into their characters and stories. A bad writer makes broad generalizations about how people work and assigns them their tropes.
That's not to say tropes are a bad thing. They have their purpose. However, it is more difficult for an audience to "engage" with a trope or feel "emotionally invested" in a trope. Tropes are fantastic shorthand for people the audience is never really going to interact with all that much, or spend time getting to know. Tropes fill the purpose of acknowledging to the audience that something is going to be cliche, but also not all that important to the story. Or, rather, that you can skip filling in a ton of backstory so the player can just make a ton of assumptions needed to get the story rolling.


That's not to say tropes are a bad thing. They have their purpose. However, it is more difficult for an audience to "engage" with a trope or feel "emotionally invested" in a trope. Tropes are fantastic shorthand for people the audience is never really going to interact with all that much, or spend time getting to know. Tropes fill the purpose of acknowledging to the audience that something is going to be cliche, but also not all that important to the story. Or, rather, that you can skip filling in a ton of backstory so the player can just make a ton of assumptions needed to get the story rolling.
This is a common mistake I see. Trope != generic or cliche, there is literally no story written on the planet today that avoids all tropes, because tropes cover every written human story, and there is no such thing as a 100% original work.

Star wars was considered unique when it originally came out, it literally redefined the term space opera to mean something entirely different. But the OT's basic plot structure is the Hero's Journey but in space. It's trope filled, follows the formula to a T, but is nonetheless considered a pioneering work in its genre.

Even if you avoid writing based on any experience or knowledge of movies, books, games you've played, etc. you'll inevitably have tropes within your story to some extent. Even trope subversions have been done enough to be considered tropes, and some of the worst large scale writing disasters have been caused by writers trying too hard to subvert tropes and expectations (Looking at you GOT season 8).

In the end you're going to fall into any number of tropes, the real key is how they're arranged to make a unique pattern.

But, that's neither here nor there.

If your conversations do not acknowledge what you have and haven't done and have changed the relationship at each stage... Then it isn't "aggregate choices". It is, "I'm lazy and using tropes because I can't be bothered to provide characterization for a story so massive it encompasses the entire length of the game".
I'm not sure where this "if you base ultimate outcomes on aggregate choices, that means the characters show no depth and you're a lazy bad bad cliche trope writer" take is coming from. And... frankly you contradict yourself further down.
Not necessarily. Depends on how well the character is written. I loathe Clementine and most of the characters in "The Walking Dead". They're written like garbage, so is the main story. At every opportunity, I tried to get them all killed as often as I could. Too my chagrin, there is no way to get Clem murdered in any way.

Frequency of interaction doesn't make any player "invested" in them what-so-ever. Good writing of your characters makes a player "invested". That is, the player cares about what happens to them beyond the meta reason of "I get XP and loot".
There is no guarantee that having a ton of interaction with any character "endears" you to them. Just look at Anikin from Star Wars as a child. Or even as a teenager and adult. Or... I dunno... Jar Jar Binks. Or... any character that Shia LeBouf plays in a movie. Are any of them "endearing" to you? Are you EVER invested in them as characters? Or, do you just wish they'd go away and never exist?

That's the difference between good writing and crap writing.

Good writing is about the characters, not the story. This is why you can tell the same story a hundred different times. If the characters are compelling, interesting, and not two-dimensional, your audience cares about them.
There is no one thing that guarantees that people will like a character. If a character is poorly written it doesn't matter if the interaction with them is short or long, obviously the player won't care as much, that's not the point I'm making.

The point I'm making is far more specific. If your player cares more about/is more invested in a character that appears in a single side quest than your party members, I'd say the problem is that your party members are poorly written. I'd continue this and say that if your players care more about that character from a single side quest than they do about recurring side quest characters, the problem is that your recurring side quest characters are poorly written.
What is written is based on intent and purpose of the thing being written. No, the audience does not have to be invested in every single one-off character.

That's not what you have here though. You have a recurring character with a game-spanning questline the player is meant to interact with a bunch of times and make life-changing decisions for those characters.

To write that as anything less than the character piece it is... is disingenuous at best, ignorance at worst. After all, the point of the quest is to interact with these characters and meddle in their affairs. The player HAS to care about them, so you WILL need to be in-depth about them and not do something and make it so generalized that it's buttered bread.
My point is that the player will not be as invested in them as a party member or someone within the main plot, it is not that I'll be making them so generic as to have no character moments or to not make the quest line about them. Which... my main plot would be rather crap if people were more interested in the fate of tertiary characters than the fate of characters involved in the main plot.

I'm also recognizing that there is more to character motivation than other characters.
Now, if the point of your quest was the quest itself and what the player gets out of it... then sure, be as tropy as you want. As generalized as you want. After all, the quest is about the player. They aren't changing the lives of anyone else. They are on a quest for the sake of wanting to be on the quest and to see where it goes and what they'll have to do. They don't need to be invested in the quest giver or any NPC along the way. It's not about those NPC's. It's about the PC.

But... that's not what you have here. Intentionally or not.

If you want to be lazy about it, just keep it set to one or two decisions, end the quest quickly, and move along. You're doing yourself a disservice by promising the player something grand and then not even making the effort to deliver on it, because you couldn't be bothered to put forth the effort.
There's a lot of assumptions about the presentation and promises of a side quest here.
And yet, Alignment is the most frequently fought about thing in D&D ever... with people unable to agree what it's even shorthand for... To the point that even the designers of the game put in their Dungeon Master Manuals to ignore the alignment unless it's important for some reason, because it's shorthand for a miniscule amount of situations.

I'm not saying your choices have to take you to vastly different locations either, or vastly different outcomes. You can reach the same generalized place, but with personalized results. That is, your aggregate choices flavor the ending choice, rather than change it. At which point, your choices still mattered. The Fallout games tried to do this early on, but kind of fail at it, though they were on the right track. Mass Effect mostly failed at it all through the series, though they made an interesting attempt at it. Having a choice means the player who picked one option will experience something the player who picked the other option won't experience. Having a series of choices means that players shouldn't have the same experience unless they picked all the same options. That is what presenting a choice in a game setting means. If two separate choices deliver the same piece of dialogue, then what is the point of those two choices? Why isn't it just a single choice? Why bother with "The Illusion of Choice"?
....... So, let's cover this. I've already stated that dialogue will change based on several specific choices. You're literally outlining the entirety of my posts here: that the overall outcome will be based on aggregate choices with different dialogue based on individual choices.
This is different than what I've been describing. You're describing a form of foreshadowing. I'm describing what I call "Investment Fatigue" (Others tend to call this "Your emotional well running dry").

If you wish to foreshadow that the gun will be used, you can do so. But, that's not what you're doing. What you're doing is saying to your audience, "That gun might be fired at some point. Who knows?" and then never pulling the trigger. Never pulling the trigger. Never pulling the trigger. Until like... 5 movies in where suddenly you pull the trigger after the audience stopped believing the trigger would ever be pulled and then they go, "Well... that came out of nowhere and seemed pointless". Or, maybe something more apt is that the characters keep making a move to grab the gun off the wall and then grabbing something else as a "fake out". This happens so often that when the gun is finally pulled off the wall and fired the audience breathes a collective sigh of relief that you're done jerking them around and they can finally move along.
While the quest itself will take place over the course of the game, I have it more planned that if you played all the quests back to back (impossible, due to them happening during different portions of the game), it'd only be about an hour or two of investment and most of that will be gameplay. That is not "5 movies later" or a massive fake out. The player will not be constantly wondering throughout the game "I wonder what's going to happen to the NPCs from that one side quest chain I was doing", or at least I hope not, as that would mean the main story is being overshadowed by a minor side quest.
It's more of a "Hey, there are those NPCs I did those quests for before. Wonder what they're up to now" intention.

Again, this is a side quest.
If you want to see this in action...

You should watch a movie called "Poseidon Rex". I'm not really spoiling the movie, it's SyFy Shlock that's entertaining because it's... well... stupid. The movie foreshadows a character dying all through the movie. He hits all the usual tropes. Unlikable, selfish, unconcerned with his fiance dying, wanting to get rich quick, being cowardly, and saying very selfish frat boy things. All through the movie you go, "Okay, I know you're dead meat and the monster eats you... but WHEN?". Well, in the final act, the character is eaten. It's exactly as tired and boring and unclimactic as you would think it would be from dragging that on so long. Especially when said character has so many "close calls" through the movie. They try to tease "oh, he might live!" through the whole thing only to kill him and the audience just goes, "Finally, now we don't have to tolerate the nonsense around this character anymore".
Comparing a side quest with tertiary characters to a movie is kinda pushing it, isn't it?
This is exactly what I've been telling you, and you've been telling me having things change based on decisions made and conversations had isn't a sign of "good writing".
That is not what I said. I said, to paraphrase, limiting yourself ONLY to having individual decisions in short bursts with their consequences is a restrictive, two dimensional way of approaching a story. I also literally said I have many choices exactly like that: the choices have immediate consequences and then are specifically referenced! I have dialogues with dozens of branches in various events precisely because of this!

A good DM keeps in mind exactly what the players did and said for the quest you want to run and have the flavors of the endings as well as each new interaction change appropriately to reflect the choices and conversations had.

So, are you trying to argue for wanting to be a bad DM? I don't know what your point is now in arguing that you don't have to write like that.
As with this entire exchange, you appear to be taking a few too many assumptions about what people are actually saying.
Nope, quite the opposite. Every choice should have a consequence. Don't have aggregate consequences. Have aggregate relationships/conversations.
Which, you know, leads to what I was telling you about.

AAA
AAB
ABA
ABB
Etcetera ad nauseum. First choice affects the conversation of the next choice and how the characters view you. Might even change what your next choice makes, depending on what it is you did.
... You literally said before that just having changes in dialogue isn't enough.
You know... GOOD WRITING. REALISTIC writing! Writing to get players INVESTED in the characters! Or, even their plight!

You know, beyond meta reasons where they don't even care what the outcome is, only that they get the loot and XP.
...............................................................
I think you're confusing me saying "rewards have an effect on in-character and out of character behavior and side characters generally don't have the same priority as main characters, so rewards have a bigger motivational effect than they would otherwise in this case" with "Side characters should not be fleshed out, players should not grow to like side characters."
But, I mean, if your quest is just a means to deliver loot and XP... it doesn't need to be long or complicated or try to get the players invested at all. Just deliver the loot and move along.
It... really isn't. If I was only thinking about the loot side of this I would not have bothered even posting this thread, but the fact that I even posted about the loot has you convinced that that's the only goal of the quest despite repeatedly saying that that's the last thing I thought of.


Also Re: Mass effect: You're seeming to make a fundamental wrong assumption there as well: I was referring to the fact that you don't need to make the paragon/renegade choice at all if you help Wrex, and the Paragon Renegade choice is also based on aggregate stat allocation.

Let me also put it this way: I've probably played through ME 1 more than you, for the record. I think I'm 10+ on it but it's been a long time since I've played through, and I've done renegade on it.
 
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Depending on how clearly you want to actually signpost what may happen when you make a choice, you can go all the way up to what Slay the Spire does:
5459820881516287978gol1.jpg

Your choices are pretty clear. Get a relic called Golden Idol and "trigger a trap" where something bad will happen to you (when you select this, you find yourself with another choice of three actions, each with the description of exactly what will happen to you if you choose it), or forego the relic and avoid the negative consequence as well. You understand well that the first option is a dangerous game of risk and reward, though in your first playthrough you won't know exactly what those risks and rewards might be, and that the second option will keep the status quo. Your choices for the blacksmith might have notes like "Increases risk blacksmith could get hurt or die; Blacksmith will be willing to make nicer things for you" alongside the dialogue option.

In an RPG where you want the flow of events to feel more natural, you may not want to signpost things this obviously (or you may, if it's highly gameplay-focused and wants to encourage intentional specialization - you find that dynamic in rogue-lites a lot, for example). After all, seeing with your own eyes and ears how the events unfold as a natural reaction to your decisions can - when it feels like a reasonable chain of cause and effect - be a more powerful experience than any amount of loot, cutscenes, or interesting combat mechanics! So in your Blacksmith example, you might have three (or even five) sets of dialogue for some of the later nodes in the chain, based on how much encouragement you've given the Blacksmith along the way, to signpost the possible consequences. If you've encouraged the Blacksmith nearly every time and it's getting to the point she's overconfident and may die, her dialogue would be brash and boastful, saying there's nothing that can stand in her way, and she's willing to take on anything - even a dragon, even a god! - all thanks to you. If you've discouraged her a lot to the point of ending the quest series, perhaps after a fight she confides she's not feeling confident in herself, and she doesn't think she could do it alone and everything is too big for her. If she's in that sweet spot of a middle ground, the dialogue will sound more healthy, confident, wise. Not only does this give the player a bit of a hint of what might happen if they keep going down the path they're on, but if you're a good writer, you can also use it to play on psychological impulses and nudge the player towards the most rewarding choices - for example, if it sounds like the Blacksmith is just a human being that needs some encouragement right now, the player will be more likely to give that encouragement to them even if they're the type that would normally advise caution over bravery.

Keep in mind that the above is really about signposting the consequences of decisions. Signposting where to go, what to do, etc. for objectives that must be completed to move the narrative forward (especially if there's only one way to do it) should generally be more obvious. While players will notice when you're holding their hand too firmly, you also never want them to get completely lost for more than a few minutes. Something I like to do is have multiple hints (NPC dialogue, notes in a quest journal, etc.) scattered around, and if the player gets too far off course (roams multiple towns/dungeons away, wanders for 20 minutes without completing anything, etc.), party members will literally chime in and give the player (more and more obvious) hints about what they should be doing - at first maybe pointing them in the general direction of where they need to go and reminding them of the objective; later on actually navigating through a dungeon and mentioning how they think you might reach a switch.
 

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