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Light Side/Dark Side tracks and the metagaming conundrum...

6 replies [Last post]
bbblackwell's picture
Joined: 10/23/2013

The question:
How can a thematic game implement a good/evil track in a satisfying way, while avoiding the push toward metagaming where players make choices based on statistical (rather than roleplaying) considerations?

Further discussion:
Star Wars: The Old Republic is an MMO game that makes use of a Light Side/Dark Side meter with the intent of adding a roleplaying element to the game...

The player is confronted with choices woven into the storyline, and based on those choices, their character will move progressively toward the Light Side or Dark Side of the force. This Light/Dark status allows the player to gain certain bonuses, like equipment only available to one side or the other.

The problem is that the player feels compelled to always make the choice that will progress him/her further toward one side of the track, because languishing in the middle yields nothing. Clearly this undermines the viability of a player making choices based upon their vision for the character, and it interrupts thematic immersion as the player considers the statistical ramifications of their actions.

I have not played in a while, but I heard that the developers introduced "Neutral" gear. However, once the player makes a choice to go Light, Neutral, or Dark, they still must attempt to maintain that status in order to prevent their acquired gear from being rendered useless.

In any case, it seems that metagaming wins the day...

How can a designer implement a morality/reputation system like this that is relevant (offering some mechanical reward/effect for the choices made) but avoids this troublesome pitfall?

Thanks for checking in!
B. Brian Blackwell

radioactivemouse's picture
Joined: 07/08/2013

I suppose the easiest way to do this is to have a game board track that has the varying levels of "light" and "dark" in terms of levels. You can go one of three routes:

1) Actually seeing the effects on the game board. The game board would have every level with a certain effect (i.e. +1 to attack, but -1 to morale for 1 level towards dark), so everyone knows what kinds of consequences/benefits you can have during the game.

2) Embed effects into cards/actions/events. Instead of putting effects on a game board, you can have an effect on a card that says "If -2 on Dark, then X effect occurs". It allows for very customized effects, but no one will know the real effects until the card is revealed.

3) Combination of both. This will allow for customization while giving the players information about what happens when you go light/dark as well as customized effects. The problem lies in content and play testing. It will be hard to explore every single combination of cards with a board and some combinations may be overpowered or underpowered.

Anyways, that's what I have.

bbblackwell's picture
Joined: 10/23/2013
Mock Choices

Hey R.A.Mouse, thanks for giving this topic so much thought!

Now, if we enact these benefits/penalties in the way you suggest, how do we dissuade players from feeling like they MUST make choices to further them down a given path in every case, as opposed to doing what they feel their character would do in a given situation?

In other words, these bonuses would likely get progressively more substantial as you progress up the track (+1 at level 1, +2 at level 2, or some such...), and to make a decision against the direction you're going would set you back. If you're at level 2, getting +2 to attack, the next time you are presented with a choice you will be thinking "If I help the pilgrim, I will go down to a +1 bonus, but if I kill him I will go up to a +3 bonus" and so you will be compelled to kill him, regardless of story elements, or your vision for your character in this type of situation.

Players are driven to extremes -- to be a seething evil beast, or an angelic protector of the helpless -- and are not truly free to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. They are being penalized for immersing thematically, and are subservient to the game mechanism. These decisions become "mock choices" because there is only one choice that really makes sense.

Now even if we have hidden effects, and the players had no idea what the real consequences were, they would still be robbed of choice because if you are blind to the consequences, all choices become equal.

If they know the consequences they are compelled to metagame; if they don't know, they are robbed of true choice. A combination just gives us a little of both problems...

So how can we circumvent these issues and create meaningful, thematically authentic choices within this light/dark framework? Or is it simply not a viable game mechanism under any circumstances?

radioactivemouse's picture
Joined: 07/08/2013

Maybe you can use dice as a modifier. So not a direct influence, but a modifier on dice rolls. a +1 to a result if you're light +1.

You can also assign dice by applying the bonuses on the die itself and possibly using a table. Roll the die, compare the die roll with the level of good/bad and the result is a modifier to the battle or check.

Ultimately, it's a game. It's something a person can "master" as far as knowing what the consequences of light and dark are. However, I would encourage that every level has a benefit and a disadvantage.

Just ideas...throwing them out there.

escapistBob's picture
Joined: 10/20/2016
As a storyteller, I think the

As a storyteller, I think the challenge is that you need to create compelling self-consistent story paths. The difficulty in most heavily structured games (most video games and board games) is that it's really hard to create story content that anticipates all the possible combinations of events, so the writer must choose to wear a couple of grooves in the ground the player is encouraged to slot into. Loosely structured games (pen and paper) avoid this problem, but depend on a narrator to reactively adapt the story as play proceeds.

Thinking of how to emulate that, what pops to mind is a "consequences" deck. When the player takes a "light action" they take a light consequence card and the same with dark actions. The consequences are revealed through other gameplay, like when you attack, you draw a card from your personal deck and it reacts with whatever you're doing. Something like: "the darkness thrums inside of you, +2 to dark powers and -2 to light"

Gabe's picture
Joined: 09/11/2014
What if you give players lots

What if you give players lots of choices that don't have clear outcomes or have unexpected outcomes. (kinda like real life)

For instance, what if helping that sweet, old lady turns out causing others to die. What if harming a cuddly animal prevents a major tragedy.

Mix in lots of straightforward situations as well, of course.

And there could be some situations that only have bad outcomes. And vise versa.

This might help the players act more with their gut than their meta-gaming mind.

Joined: 05/11/2010
I like how Arabian Nights

I like how Arabian Nights handles it, with various adjectives that are added to your character, but there is such a high variability in the future encounters and ways those skills will affect future encounters that you can't plan for a specific outcome very easily. If you help the old lady, you may get an attribute "helpful", which may come up as a positive or negative thing to have later on.

I think that having a gradiated meter cripples your ability to have nuance - once a player sees a meter, they are going to be inclined to make it go up and down. Multiple meters, multiple axis of development, will obfuscate this. Arabian nights kind of has a high number of meters that go from 0 to 1. Another approach may be to have a smaller number of attributes, that still have some gradiation. There are the virtues in ultima for example. Your actions may make some of them go up and some of them go down, but you have more flexibility and it is not so black and white as having ONE meter in which you can go positive or negative. A single nuanced action may increase both some of your darker as well as some of your lighter natures.

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