Game Development Reference
feature is to just allow random slaughter and put the onus on the player to accept
the consequences if the plot breaks as a result. This is exactly what the Baldur's Gate
series did, as did many of the games in the Elder Scrolls series. The decision to just
let the players run amok and suffer the consequences slides uncomfortably toward a
“let the buyer beware” school of story design, however, and breaks one of the core
tenants of game and story design listed above: every choice should be a valid choice.
Actions that bring the plot to a screeching halt are not valid choices.
There are three great ways to allow self-destructive behavior without letting play-
ers simply turn the game into a slaughterhouse: alternate paths, punishment, and
penance. In the alternate paths model, there is simply a separate—and usually more
difficult, supporting the thematic consequences of having gone “bad”—path that can
be used to accomplish the goals that can no longer be accomplished because of the
deviant behavior. The alternate path could even be the “good” path in a game focus-
ing more clearly on the battle against a player's internal evil, making players work for
their moral high ground. In the punishment model, there are consequences that stop
forward progress but do not break the plot. Examples of this would include being
thrown in prison, hated by a particular group, or having certain stores or resources
closed to the player. Each of these could be further enhanced by the third choice of
penance. In heroic myth, a misdeed can often be expunged by some great bravery.
Allowing players to experience this cycle can be extremely compelling, whatever the
magnitude of the misdeed. A farmer's wife that you tried to bully now won't help
you, until you help with her concerns. A kingdom whose prince you killed forces
you to defeat the dragon he trained his whole life to slay. At the end of the day, the
player has freedom to push against the edges of the story but still stays in the world,
and the story stays intact.
2.4 Keeping Players in the Moment
You can give a player all of the brilliant choices in the world, make him master of
his own destiny, and litter his path with great accomplishments, but if he doesn't
escape himself, if he doesn't lose himself in the story, then nothing else matters. That
is why it is vitally important to, at all times, pay attention to the little details that
make the world seem solid, predictable in its rules (though never its outcomes) and
even in its delivery of information. Techniques to keep players in the moment must
be practiced and perfected as they require a precise touch that only constant use can
Ground the Player
When the player encounters a new situation, take a moment to ease the transition.
Remember that RPGs are comprised of several different player states—combat, ex-
ploration, dialogue, mercantile—and that state changes are jarring. Unlike a book or
movie where the inactive audience is fully tuned to the story unfolding before them,
an RPG player is just as likely to have been thinking of combat strategies, experience