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Article - Player vs. Party

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Like it or not, the party of adventurers/soldiers/whatever that you control in a scenario is a character in that story. Now, there are good characters and bad characters, shallow characters and deep ones. I'm not necessarily saying that you need to make the party have a complex past and internal struggles - generally, that's a pretty bad idea - but decide what kind of character the party in your scenario is going to be and know why you made that decision.


One very typical example is the "Faceless Party". Words are never put into the party's mouth, and the party is never faced with any real choices. The party just does what anyone would do, so can be anyone.


Designers use this when they want the player to feel like he is actually in the scenario. They kill off anything that might make the player realise that he isn't actually the one saving the day. If the party says something the player didn't decide to say, or does something the player didn't decide to do, the bond between player and party is broken.


At the Gallows does this a fair bit, to it's detriment. All through the scenario you've controlled a facelees party. Then the Bad Guy shows you his point of view - a fairly compelling one - and asks you to join him. At that point your party speaks up and refuses, carefully stating their reasons why not (oddly enough, not including the fact that he's a soul-devouring Lich). Suddenly having 'yourself' say something when you didn't choose to say it is disorientating and pulls the player out of the scenario. There's a lot of things that At the Gallows does well - but this isn't one of them.


If you can keep the association between player and party strong, the faceless party is often a good way to go. But this is far from being your only option.


Another (fairly) common example is where you allow the player to choose what kind of character his party is going to be. This can work very well. You can allow the party to make real choices and do things that you couldn't force the player into with a faceless party. They are free to walk the straight and narrow or explore their darker side.


The big drawback here is the amount of work this involves. If you're going to give them choices, you have to let them play out the consequences of those choices. This means you're doing twice, three times, maybe six times as much work as you would otherwise. And sure, they might replay it to see what would happen if they acted differently, but if you're going to give them real scope, you have to accept that most people won't walk down every path you write.


A great example is Of Good and Evil. You are given one key, vital choice that splits the scenario in two - and a host of smaller choices. Perhaps you're a loyal soldier who simply follows orders. Perhaps you followed orders, but because you thought it was the right thing to do, not because they were your orders. Perhaps you disobeyed orders - and are prepared to do it again. I think there's about six endings to this scenario, and all depend on the kind of character you play.


Compare this to Spears. There's a similar major choice - but no minor ones after that. You can choose to follow orders and help the Undine, or disobey and help the Sliths - but you don't get to decide why your party did it. Perhaps you think the Undine are monsters and just want to kill them (understandable)? Too bad. You're going to find yourself fighting to supress the rebel sliths who don't want a peace treaty. If you're going to let them disobey one order, why not another and let them help the rebels? Again, It's a scenario that does some things well - but not this.


And then, there's a trend that's becoming fairly pronounced in recent BoE works. You're given a character that you control - but no attempt is made to pretend that he is you. He's usually given a name and he makes his own decisions. You're more an observer than anything. This can work very, very well.


Look at Emulations. Your character becomes possessed by a mad Demon-thing and you go on a killing spree, absorbing strength from your helpless victims. You couldn't do that with a faceless party - sure, there's always a few who love to kill anything and everything, but for the most part they'd feel very guilty. As is, it's way cool and very fun.


The key here is to do everything you can to divorce player from party. Don't use phrases like "you say" or "you feel". Let the character suprise and intrigue us, but don't pretend he is us.


Quintessence is in some ways a warning against this. We don't watch poor Jonah fall in love - we get told that we are in love, and our immediate reaction is "Huh? No I'm not.". We start thinking "How can I be in love with her? I've seen her for maybe ten minutes." Sure, we can buy that someone else might experience love at first sight, but don't try to tell us that we're feeling it ourselves.


I'd really like to see this sort of thing taken to greater extremes. In The Last Express (not a Blades scenario!) you play a young man named Robert Cath. He finds his friend murdered and instead of alerting the authorities, he throws the body out the window and takes on the dead man's identity. We don't understand why. Then we find out that he's being pursued by the police. It's not until late in the game that you discover whether or not he's actually guilty - and you're controlling him the whole time! I'd love to see something like this done for Blades.


And still, there's another choice. You can try to combine player and party, you can try to keep them separate - or you can bring them into active conflict.


The only existing example I can think of is Johnny Favourite, a scenario I hated. Not that it's necessarily a bad scenario - other people love it, and for the exact same reason that I don't. But leaving arguments about quality aside, let's focus on technique. Spoilers here.


In Johnny Favourite, people are being butchered horribly in your hometown. You try to find the killer. When nearly everyone is dead you realise who it is - yourself. You kill yourself, the scenario ends.


As I said, not my favourite scenario, despite the title. But imagine playing a cowardly Dr Jekyll-type character - trying to find a way to destroy the Hyde in you without killing yourself, all the while avoiding getting caught by the guards. In the hands of a good designer, this could be an awesome scenario.


Ultimately, the decision belongs to the designer. Go the traditional way if you like that best, or perhaps try to be cutting edge. Whatever your choice, be sure it's the right one for your story and be sure that you do it the whole way.

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As a related point, think about the number of people in the party. Many scenarios just make the party consist of one mind, one identity, one person. ("Your friend, who you've known since the two of your grew up together in [X] says [Y].") This is one way to do it.


Another idea is to use the fact that the party consists of 4 people (unless you're Drakefyre :p ). Either have the player choose one character to identify with, or allow the different members of the party to have different opinions, or work with this detail of the system in other ways. The BoA engine makes neat things possible that weren't possible in the BoE engine (text bubbles over specific party members, etc).

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