How can we design an engaging dialogue system in computer Role Playing Games?

Can we ever make dialogue a meaningful part of RPGs, rather than something which can easily be ignored?

This post was inspired when I was writing about the dialogue system in my first impressions of SWTOR. There I mentioned that I liked the idea of the NPC dialogue with multiple players involved, but felt that it looks like so much lost potential given that the results of the dialogue are decided with a simple random roll which has little relation to how strong personality a character has, or how skilled in social relations they are. A misanthropist Sith has the same chance of affecting the dialogue progression as a charismatic smuggler.

It is perplexing to me why role-playing games don’t introduce their usual set of mechanics into social aspects as well. Why are skills only relevant to how well you can shoot or protect yourself, and not how well you can convince or manipulate? Sure, some role-playing games have tacked on some traits  which can affect dialogues, but the functionality of those is not engaging in the slightest, and they feel more like a random roll, rather than a sustained and challenging process.

And I’m not talking about silly mini games like the Oblivion wheel, I’m talking about making dialogue more like combat. But of course, before we see how, we need to look into what makes combat in role-playing games engaging and interesting.

Combat is not presented as a simple attempt at an attack, but rather a sequence of such attempts, using a variety of skills and tactics to overcome an enemy’s defenses. In most RPGs, an enemy’s first line of defense are their hit points/shields (i.e. how many successful hits a player needs to defeat them), but just HP are usually boring as the player feels like they’re just fighting a punching bag. So dodge chances, covers, armor/shield reduction/penetration, magic resistance and a host of other subdefences are added to different enemies, forcing the player to adapt their strategy in order to find the weak spot they can exploit.

The trick here is that while enemies of the same level as the player always take more than one simple attack to take down, if the player ends up with an enemy who is resistant against his usual attacks, and the player does not have a way to exploit their weaknesses, then it can suddenly become a very difficult battle, forcing the player to struggle with it or even lose. This created the rush of excitement which makes combat so engaging, as players move from enemy to enemy looking for more such rushes. This is why “boss” enemies exist, along with various “lieutenants” who suddenly spike the difficulty and force the player to stress, think and adapt.

And then, there’s also the dynamism of combat, where you don’t simply stand around whacking each other’s head with a club until one falls down  (OK, in some games you do, but those are generally considered very boring) but rather run around, jump to cover, throw fireballs and grenades and generally have a lot of activity peppered with special effects and explosions. In short, mindless action fun!

These two combine to make combat something which keeps the player engaged, from thinking about their next move in split second times, to looking at the beautiful effects their previous action achieved and how brilliantly they outplayed their opponent. Thus combat in RPGs stays fairly interesting throughout the whole game, simply by incremental additions to strategy and difficulty.

So now that we know what recipe makes combat engaging, we can immediately see the flaws that make dialogue distinctly less so. In dialogue as implemented in most CRPGs, it is a matter of simply selecting whatever option your character would say. On occasion there’s an option to utilize a “persuasion” skill, like threatening them, or charming them or whatever. This is done dryly, once off, and most of the time, using it or not, has no significant effect in the dialogue, except perhaps to give you some small reward. But game designers shy away from opening quests, or progressing currents quests through such skills, because if the player fails them, they would be left stranded and frustrated.

However this frustration does not exist when a quest progression is blocked by some enemy the player cannot defeat. Why is that? The answer is that even against an enemy that is too strong, the player is allowed to try, and if they discover in practice that it’s not possible, they can retreat (and death is treated in MMORPGs as a retreat basically, with some minor loss of wealth) and either grind for levels and better equipment, or purchase a number of strong one-use items to use specifically for this battle. Thus an impossible battle becomes simply very difficult but still within the capabilities of the player, who will have a nice challenge. And if they are defeated at this stage again, they can either replay it if they thought it was a close one, or go back to grinding a bit more. Whatever happens, the player does not feel frustrated by being thwarted by things they cannot control. Things such as random rolls on a statistic.

And this is the root cause why a dialogue loss based on a simple statistic such a persuasion would be frustrating if it ended up blocking progress in a quest. Not only does the player not have any skilled input in avoiding the loss, but retrying the attempt is either going to be stopped altogether, or be retried in such a heavy-handed way that it actually breaks the player’s immersion (for example, allowing the player to restart the conversation as if it never happened).

But what if instead of a simple skill roll to achieve the dialogue attempt, there were more than one. Not just skill rolls but skills as well. What if a player had different skills of persuasion and charisma that they can use in dialogue and convincing was not a case of a random roll, but a persistent attempt to sway the opinion of your opponent?

Lets try to see an example of this to see how it could work.

Let’s say you had a guard who was blocking your entrance to a compound you wanted to infiltrate. In most RPGs in the market today, the process would go approximately like this. You approach the guard and a discussion starts. She asks what you are doing there and you have the option to attack or talk further. If you attack, you get entrance in the compound but an alarm sounds so you get more enemies (i.e. failing the dialogue still allows you to progress at a higher difficulty). If you try to bluff your way inside, you will get a few options and (depending on the game) either you will convince her, or she will call your bluff and sound the alarm, at which point you end up at the first scenario anyway. If you manage to find the correct discussion path, you can enter without an alarm, at which point the game goes back to combat mode inside the compound, albeit with fewer enemies. If you have some ability such as Force Talk (or something), you might be given an option to use it in the dialogue, and if the random roll succeeds, you might either get in without going through the special dialogue path, or you might also get some small bonus, such as, say a key card to open some doors with extra loot.

Now lets take the same scenario, but in a game where the dialogue system has been advanced to be more engaging:

Of the three skill trees for dialogue, you have invested points in Quick Talking, rather than Charisma or Manipulation, so you’re well equipped for this scenario. The conversation starts and the guard asks for the reason of your presence there. As the discussion starts, you do not know much about this enemy, so you first need to understand their defenses before you can exploit them. So you select a Bluff attempt as an option and open up  with your bread&butter Quick Talking skill, the “Quick Bluff”. It uses no energy and the game informs you that you pretend to have important business with the leader of the compound. The guard’s Conviction bar takes a hit of 20 points and they now have 80 more left. If the guard was a simple mook, it would only take 4 more bluffs to gain entrance, so in this way it would seem like a normal combat, where you simply used your basic skills.

But lets assume that this is a more advanced guard as they are more important, and after the second bluff, they activate their defense skill, lets call it “Guard’s Caution” which damages your “Bluff Consistency” bar by 30 points. So now the situation is more urgent and you need to use some more powerful skills to overcome. So you bring about the “Force Talk” if you’re a Jedi, or you could see that the game has now revealed that the guard has the “loyal” trait (lets say that the more you talk, the more details you glean from your opponent), so you can fire up your “Military etiquette” skill from the Manipulation tree and exploit that weakness. If the guard’s defences manage to deplete your “Bluff Consistency”, your bluff is ruined and the guard can either raise the alarm, or become impervious to further attempts from you, forcing you to resort to weapons or sneaking (depends on the game).

Once in the compound via bluffing now, instead of passing onto combat, you simply have to bluff your way to the objective. So rather than fighting the random mooks in the state, you can talk to them, something which should be easier than the guard. In case of victory you could manage to make them leave the compound on some wild goose chase or just leave you alone. Finally you reach the “boss” and there you have a true challenge, where all your speech skills will be put to the test and you may actually lose. Losing might lead to combat, or death. But in the end, your success is actually in your skills, rather than one random roll.

Now the above scenario is simply a theoretical rule set for such game. It might not sound perfect but it’s just a sketch of just how such mechanics might work, while giving the player actual tactics to work with during such dialogues. This could then be combined with the group dialogue that SWTOR is using, to thus allow players to coordinate in tackling on more difficult opponents, by using their skills in combination. Or this could also be used to see who is going to speak in a conversation, by comparing perhaps the relevant stats of the players or allowing them to use some skill to take the initiative.

Now, it’s fairly easy to craft rule sets for such a system, but the largest problem in crafting a dialogue system that is engaging, is finding something to actually show to the player while they’re talking. As we said before, combat is dynamic and with a lot of sound, movement and assorted wow factor. Even the silliness of SWTOR where both sides just stand around shooting each other has a lot of pew-pew at least. Unlike that, a dialogue by itself does not have anything exciting to show, which theoretically might make people avoid it (not sure, it might be a great success that nobody expects. We won’t know unless some game tries it in practice), so the question then becomes, how to make discussion look exciting enough. Perhaps something like Ace Attorney, with a lot of strong gestures and flashing background might be employed if the style of the game permits it, but what else? Then there’s also the issue of sound. You can’t voice all such discussion without either being using an extreme budget, or using some way of cycling phrases, which will quickly turn repetitive. While the player tunes out or get’s used to blaster shots, explosions and grunts of pain, specific line of dialogue become very quickly recognizable (“Hold right there, criminal scum!”). I’ll admit that I’m really at a loss and I do believe this is going to be a strong block in implementing a dialogue system in RPGs that is engaging. Perhaps I’m wrong or perhaps someone more inventive than me can imagine something and implement it and revolutionize RPGs. I can only hope.

But certainly, if such an RPG came about, with a dialogue system that can be as useful and engaging as combat or stealth, it will have managed to add the aspect most RPGs are missing. Meaningful dialogue choices and play, which allows the player to stay true to their role.