Often we see RPGs revolved around killing and only killing, with every possible situation having the same brutal solution. Things have gotten to this point due to the fact that the only solid part that can stand on it’s own in RPGs is the battle system, any other system is half-baked at most and never as compelling or challenging. The most notable offender is the dialog system.
We brutally murder everyone in our path because that’s the most compelling and challenging way we got to deal with all issues. When a game tries to give different options to the player besides fighting, most of the time these options don’t even come close in terms of depth. If you have enough charisma and inteligence then you can pass this battle with just selecting an option correctly from a menu. Does that sound exciting from a gameplay perspective? Sure, the setting and actual dialog can be mind blowing but we are asking the player to sit there, read and select from a menu what’s the right answer.
Great characters and great writting are fundamental to dialog but these alone can’t go too far, there must be some way we can get the mechanics to shine as bright. We have to enrich the dialog system in orther for it to really feel like an attractive alternative to battles. Here’s a few ideas that I can think of:
– Knowledge is your most important asset, so your character should learn about the quirks of the king before trying to convince him to start a war on the all powerful neighbours. Every meaningful conversation can go better if the player character had previously learned the weaknessess and flaws of the respective NPCs. To get the information he needs the player character can talk, threaten, trade, bribe and even torture (*shudder*) the town’s people. This encourages experimentation and exploration, which is a good thing mind you, but the amount of additional development needed might get a little out of hand: If the player knows this and this then he get’s this conversation but if he only knows this and that then he get’s this one, but if he… ad nauseum; so it is recommended that this feature should only provide a small amount of possible knowledge.
– The conversation flows like a cutscene but with an added layer of interaction: Every wave of the conversation affects a bar at the bottom of the screen. This bar has a zone in green and the surroundings in red. As the conversation flows, a mark that shows where you are in the bar is affected in it’s position by the reaction of the NPC you are talking to. Stay in the red zone for a while and things turn ugly. The green zone would be as big or small as the array of non incorrect responses. The left and right sides of the bar could be associated with lying and telling the truth so it can become natural to know where the mark should go next. Later in the game the green and red zones start to fade away since by now the player would be comfortable with moving around the mark and predicting where to go next.
Another solution in this vein would be to show time sensitive, short responses that the player can select with a key mapped to each response. The player isn’t required to do anything, but if he wants to succeed he will have to eventually. For instance the player character may screw up and if the player doesn’t help him lie the NPC reads his intentions like a book. This would require to warn the player beforehand so it doesn’t become a distraction from the conversation. For instance make the player character go ” uh … mmmhhh… I …. ” while the options are available.
– Have the options be icons instead of actual words. A few of these icons are always available, such as a greeting, an insult and a goodbye. This is not a great option all by itself, but combined with some of the others it can add a little flavour to the mix.
– Some options of dialog show only when some skill has reached a certain level. This is particularly awkward most of the time since normal conversation doesn’t improve the skill required but killing rats does. So our hero kills an army of rats and from the massacre he sharpened his wit and improved his social skills. Then again, improving the skill through normal conversation would degenerate into a mindless different kind of grinding. The only way this could work is if the exp linked to the skill advances according to the options chosen by the player in previous conversations. That is, the options shown in conversations give different amounts of exp, and conversations cannot be repeated so the exp is only given once per topic. It’s of note that if the game features quick saving and loading this option is useless: the player could mindlessly choose random options and write down which are the better ones so he get’s the max exp everytime without even reading a single line of text.
By giving exp for good dialog choices the skill of the player is involved in the matter; the problem lays in that this measures the past skill instead of the present one. It measures progress rather well so this idea should not be dismissed that easily.
– All of the above. Every system has it’s weaknesses and all of them share one: they get old rather fast since there’s no real depth to the mechanics, unlike a good battle engine that get’s more complex as the player advances. Here’s an idea, start slow with just yes and no options, then add more things the player can say, then take into account the character’s charisma or skill and finally add the bar of truth/lie.