Saturday, February 18, 2012

Single Player Games, Bioware-Style RPGs and Savage Worlds

Obviously, I like RPGs. I mean, look around the site. I do not, however, tend to like video game RPGs. The BIG exceptions to that rule have been Knights of the Old Republic 1 & 2, Jade Empire, Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II. What do they all have in common? Aside from KOTOR 2, they were all made by Bioware (and KOTOR 2 was made by Obsidian, specifically trying to emulate the aesthetics of KOTOR).

Anyway...Bioware RPGs tend to run along the same pattern: You have your character, you recruit (or get stuck with) companions who tag along, each of whom has their own backstories and sidequests that need to be unraveled...sometimes with game changing consequences and sometimes just fun character development...and your decisions tend to have an impact on your character or your relationships. For instance, KOTOR 1 had a Light Side/Dark Side track. KOTOR II went a step further, where you could influence your companions and their placement on the Light Side/Dark Side track. By Dragon Age, this had been replaced with a relationship meter...your actions were no longer inherently good or evil, but different teammates would react the point of leaving the team or gaining ability/skill bonuses due to their growing loyalty.

For the most part, this model has no place in your average RPG, because you're usually looking at four or more players (including the GM), so robust use of NPCs isn't terribly necessary. However, I don't heavily recruit players (as in at all), and so I tend to find myself running games for three players or less, and have run solo games more than the average GM. Now, I get quite a bit of enjoyment out of solo games, but they have a few inherent problems, like drawing from a much more limited skill set than with a full group, and fewer goals and motivations, thus fewer plot seeds.

This is where the Bioware inspiration comes in. A solo game with the sole PC as the driving focus in a party of NPCs can be a great way to account for a light game table, but there are a few big things you have to look out for:

- The first, and most important part, is ensuring that the NPCs don't overshadow the PC. They will obviously be better than the PC in some areas...that's kind of the point...but you don't want the game to be nothing but the NPCs bailing the PC out. Luckily, there are a couple of ways to avoid this:

  • Make sure the player is the leader. When I have ran games like this, I did the role-playing for the NPCs, but it was always at the direction of the PC. They would occasionally offer advice, arguments and witty banter, but the decisions were ultimately made by the guy across the table. In combat, the player called all the shots and rolled the dice. As the GM, intervene if the player is trying to force the NPC into a suicidal situation (unless it would be in character for the NPC to go along with it...and sometimes it would be).
  • Make the PC more powerful than the NPCs. They don't have to be equals, ya know. They aren't as important as the PC, they certainly shouldn't be more powerful...just cover extra deficiencies.
- The other biggie is to make sure that the game system can accommodate this. If a character sheet is a pain to distill down to an index card, it may be way too much work for the player to track multiple characters in combat. I love Marvel SAGA to death, but the card based system makes it a pain to run multiple NPCs as anything more than a quick card draw and hand wave. I've tried tracking multiple hands of becomes a nightmare, quickly. That said, I've ran a couple of games just like this in Savage Worlds, and it was a delight every time.

- NPCs are still NPCs. That is, you don't have to have everything about them on their character sheet...just the important stuff. Don't outright LIE (unless there's a justifiable reason), but you don't HAVE to list Secret (Planning To Stab The PC in the Face) on the shorthand sheet you're handing them.

Not surprisingly, for a game like this, I'd go with Savage Worlds over most of the existing options, in part because I have done it before. I ran the Savage Worlds of Solomon Kane with a single PC and three NPCs that I roleplayed but the player rolled dice for in and out of combat. The player, who normally played scrapper types, took it upon himself to make a snarky sorcerer who served in a support role in combat, whie the NPCs included his swashbuckling sister, their butler who swore to protect the siblings in the wake of their parents' deaths and a samurai bodyguard who had growing feelings for the sister. The Savage Worlds ally sheets provided ample information for the PC to handle everyone in combat, the miniatures system ensured that no one was ever overlooked (a problem we have sometimes had with companion NPCs in non-miniature using games) and the companions provided ready-made sources of conflict for the PC to deal with (like the old colleague of the butler who had gone quite insane, and the sister's attempt to hide the illness that was slowly killing her)...when the NPCs earned advances, the player would typically make the selection, with advice from me if something seemed appropriate that they may have overlooked.

Alas, real life intervened as it often does, and the game has been dormant for some time now, but I've incorporated similar approaches to other solo games, including a Clone Wars-era Star Wars game with my son (using Star Wars Saga Edition, which is fun but not QUITE as user friendly as Savage Worlds) and a homebrew fantasy setting for Savage Worlds. Anyone else have any experience running single player games? What approaches did you take?