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As someone who grew up on the single-digit Final Fantasy games and AD&D, there are few ways of solving an rpg problem as fun as a fight. Different streams of accomplishment (object acquisition/crafting, skill trees, puzzles, player strategies, team combination/synergies, etc) all go into a few minutes of frenetic action, allowing for the feeling of accomplishment and progress via stat increases as the game progresses.

That said, we tend to characterize rpg players as murderhobos for good reason. When you incentivize killing things, it's not long before all problems start looking like something to hit with your sword. And when you're able to steal anything not nailed down, why not do it?

While other kinds of conflict-resolution can be fun when in their element (farm/ Civ/Sim games for the sense of building something, spy/ninja/assassin games for deftness and exploiting situations, social games for roleplaying a character or out-thinking the other guy), they're often not fun outside their very narrow venue. And because we're limited to conversation with a computer (at least in single-player games), social games can't even explore the whole of their venue.

I'm racking my brain trying to figure out how to properly gamify the societal ideals of don't-kill, don't-steal in such a way that attacking or stealing becomes a conscious choice, not just a default means of action...but at the same time keep the same diversity of fun-inputs that fighting/stealing games have. Most games just code in consequences: the town guards are sent after you and/or some faction is less willing to deal with you. But this feels unnatural, and only invites further gaming of the system, producing better murderhobos at the end.

My reason for doing so? The main theme of my game is a heavily philosophical one(think a halfway-understandable Xenosaga) on how morality might play out in the post-post apocalypse. While killing and stealing would be a part of that, I feel that our natural tendency as gamers wouldn't allow this question to play out 'fairly'.

Any idea on how to put killing and stealing on a truly equal playing field with other forms of conflict resolution?

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    \$\begingroup\$ obligatory "have you played Undertale"? \$\endgroup\$ – Jimmy Mar 5 '18 at 21:34
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Why don't we constantly steal and murder in the real world?

  1. We have empathy with other people and don't want them to feel bad.
  2. We are afraid of getting caught and punished.

Why do games often fail to convey these hinderances to committing crimes?

Creating empathy

There are actually quite a lot of games which manage to create empathy for NPCs, but usually only for a sub-class of the NPCs in the game. Most games clearly separate the world population into those NPCs you can murder and steal from and those you can not.

In the Elder Scrolls series, for example, the player will get punished if they commit crimes against NPCs in a city (and get caught). This punishment might be a game mechanic (like guards hunting down the player) or a meta-mechanic (quests become unavailable when the player kills key NPCs). So most players will only do this when they want to experience the fantasy of playing an immoral thief and/or assassin (which isn't wrong per-se as long as the game handles this well).

But there are no repercussions whatsoever for going to a bandit camp, killing everyone there and stealing all their possessions. Even players trying to roleplay a "good" character will do this, because the game communicates to them that this is something they are supposed to do. Is this a moral thing to do? No, most societies would prefer to catch those bandits alive and put them on trial for their crimes. And even if they approve this kind of vigilante justice, they would at least expect that the things they have stolen get returned to the rightful owners. But most games do not care about this. Bandits are just moving targets to hit and their loot is the reward for doing this well.

If you want to avoid this, do not have such a class hierarchy of humanized NPCs and dehumanized NPCs. Make sure that criminals are people too. Give them names, backstories, friends and families. Also give the player some other meaningful ways to interact with them besides fighting them.

Fear of punishment

Your conscience is the voice in your head constantly whispering to you that someone might find out what you have done.

In order to invoke this feeling in your game, you need to make sure that committing crimes against people is handled in a plausible way. Many games will give you an immediate feedback if you get caught. But that's not how crime works in the real world. If I steal something from a friend's house, they might not catch me immediately. But over time they might notice that their stuff goes missing everytime I was at their place. They might call me out on this, but I will deny. Then they see their stuff in my possession and won't want to be my friends anymore. Then they murder me. It might take years until the police finds my body and locks up the murderers. This delayed form of punishment is one important reason why we are afraid of committing crimes in the real world.

Also remember the last section: Criminals are people, too. When you harm a criminal, then lawful people might forgive you or even approve. But criminals also have friends and families... and mob bosses who dislike people who interfere with their business. The punishment for harming a criminal might be even harsher than anything you might expect from a court of law.

Most games do not simulate this because it can become quite complex.

One problem is that it is very difficult to communicate to the player which acts exactly lead to bad consequences at a later point in the game. When a game punishes the player but they have no idea what they did wrong, then the player can't learn from this experience. So you should invest quite a lot of resources into communicating this well. One way I could think of would be to replay a flashback of the player committing the crime to remind them of what exactly they did wrong.

This whole mechanic goes against the usual expectations of the player. So you need to teach the player early that their actions have delayed consequences. Tempting the player to commit a petty crime and then calling them out for it a few minutes later should be part of your tutorial.

Another problem is that when you allow the player to antagonize every single NPC in the game, then they might break the plot of your game. This is why I would rather recommend to experiment with this in a game where the plot isn't pre-written but rather created through emergent gameplay.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To add: It's good to remember just because something is illegal, doesn't mean it's morally wrong. Most games say all illegal activity is morally wrong. But maybe the thief was stealing because his daughter is starving/sick/etc. Maybe you pass the funeral procession and overhear the people talking about her father not coming home. The bandits were actually only robbing the tyrant king's convoys. Maybe with his safely transferred gold, he buys more thugs to harass the beleaguered townsfolk. The player doesn't always have to be directly involved in the consequences to feel the impact. \$\endgroup\$ – Stephan Mar 5 '18 at 21:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Two parts I love about this: first, about the humanization of people. A lot of my game is based on this, extended further into the what-makes-a-man question of monsters and if there even is anything special about us, or if we're just working from a tribal mindset? But yeah, a lot of the nuances get lost when you have to code them into a game. And second, yeah. The consequences delaying enough to foil those who would reload a save-game over and over until they manage to get away with something...makes it very difficult to make morality 'teachable'. \$\endgroup\$ – Carduus Mar 7 '18 at 19:50
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The core of most RPGs tend to be around their combat system, items increase your ability to fight, progress depends on winning fight, classes and levels focus on combat ability.

But the mechanics of turns and use of items and abilities don't need to be only useful in a system to represent an abstraction of combat, similar mechanics could be used to apply to dealing with characters in other ways,

Rather then dialog trees, use the mechanics of combat in RPGs.

Example :

A guard blocks the entrance to the castle, the party engages the guard, in conversation, he has high resistance to intimidation and medium resistance to persuasion and deception

The party members can have turns to use abilities that can affect different 'health' bars representing how close they are to being persuaded/intimidated/deceived/cheered up;

Abilities could be depend on non combat classes a [Deceptive] character could use 'Confusing' to do deceptive damage and make the guard miss have next turn encourage your party rather then its intended result.

The guard could have 'Threaten' which intimidates your party, and could result in losing the encounter. Special abilities could include calling in more guards.

There could be healers ('Reassure') buffers, and equipment and stats that buff your characters, a large strong character might have high intimidate, and stacking it with gear like could be used to increase. (Could be easily confused by deceptive characters)

Collecting items, giving gifts that have high persuasion (or 'knowledge items' that work on specific characters') like finding out a characters secret and using it in a fight as +X intimidate).. or using gold to bribe

All of this would allow non combat situations to have the addictive elements of an RPG (leveling, progression, strategy, collecting)

Also unlike combat there is a bit more room for different outcomes,

If you're party loses to a guard by intimidating it could lead to them being imprisoned and having to escape;

If they intimidate the guard they might be able to get in the main gate, but have to deal with different encounters then a persuasion might (an escort to another npc) and the story branches are determined by mechanical results

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Rewards

One approach might be to make the NPCs themselves, and their support, resources worth acquiring. Design the incentives and core resources around things that only other characters in the game world can provide. Focus on mechanics that require the NPC to remain alive and friendly towards the player.

  • Perhaps the player has an agenda they need to push, a religion or philosophy they promote, or they're just looking to become famous. Every friend or follower gained increases their influence, which is tied to the main objective(s) and/or character progression.

  • If the game allows for it, let most NPCs be recruited as followers, temporarily or permanently. Balance the difficulty around the player having followers.

  • Let friendly NPCs provide resources or items that are otherwise scarce, and need to be "refilled". Depending on your settings that might be necessities like food and shelter, healing potions, ammunition etc. Make reputation a resource the player can spend on this or resrict access to a positive reputation (as opposed to "they didn't hurt me yet so I guess they're alright.")

  • Tie experience or skill upgrades to bits of information obtained (primarily) from NPCs. Maybe a lot of knowledge has been lost in the apocalypse and most people only know fragments. For example, each NPC could have 2-3 skills they could increase by one point, or a single magic spell they know. If you want to master a skill, you'll have to persuade a lot of people to teach you.

Creative interaction

Some open world RPGs allow you to invest in NPCs to improve their services or make them stronger followers, but that's usually reserved for e.g. store owners or designated party members. You could allow the player to shape most NPCs or factions by "giving back". Allow them to build or name things, give equipment to NPCs, claim areas for them. Most players will care more about a town they helped design than one they're just passing through, and later on, when the villain convinces everyone they're a criminal, they might be more inclined to persuade the guards to let them speak to the council and prove their innocence than to burn it all to the ground.

It's not necessarily either-or

Many games allow for social encounters to progress into combat ("The bandits seem unimpressed, they draw heir weapons") but not the other way around. Allow the bandit leader to negotiate their surrender after the player kicked a few asses, and give a substantial reward for capturing criminals. Give the player the same option if they end up in a tough spot. Make the difficulty of a fight something that's hard to assess at a glance, but give hints in conversations.

Tweaks for "social combat" systems

Physical combat in most games has a few aspects, for example terrain and positioning, that are easy to intuitively understand and can be used without much effort to add depth to a combat system. These aspects are lost if you just copy and "reskin" the same system for social encounters, and technology isn't yet at the level where we can randomly generate compelling dialog (while generating a tilemap is easy). Most (video) games that use this kind of mechanic handle it in a very abstract and often repetitive way.

I'd recommend looking at card games for elements that add a degree of guessing and puzzle solving to your system, or even base the system entirely on a card game (with or without actually rendering/refering to any cards).

Classical card games combine a tweakable randomness with the ability to "out-think" your opponent and can be complex enough to be engaging to play against an AI.

TCG style systems allow the player to collect "cards" (secrets, skills, information, a specific reputation) and use them in combination for synergy effects. Perhaps executing the thief, bringing her to the authorities or letting her go will each give you a different, unique card that can be played later when you encounter the thieves' guild?

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I'll go into a few details to supplement the other answers.

Don't let NPCs be dehumanised

Games aren't made in a vacuum. Through our experience with the medium we have been trained to expect certain things, one of them being that certain NPCs are important while others are nameless background characters. We assume that a named NPC has a role in the story or a quest while someone just called "guard" or "merchant" is simply a hull for their function and can otherwise be treated with impunity (Philipp said as much).

If you want the player to treat NPCs more like people, one possibility is to subvert this expectation - either by giving every NPC a name, regardless of how irrelevant they are or - possibly more powerfully - naming every NPC after their appearance until the player character learns their name, thus suggesting that behind everyone's apparent meaninglessness is a person.

Let actions have consequences not just for the player

Everyone knows that when you're caught committing a crime the guards will be after you, but little consideration is often given to the victim. If you break into someone's house unnoticed and rob them blind, they'll now be poor, they may become homeless and starve along with their families. If you kill someone and nobody catches you, their family will grieve and if that person was their breadwinner, they will fall into poverty again. This can have mechanical consequences (the merchant is bankrupt and there's no trader for you to sell to now), but the surprise of a player returning to the city and finding the house empty and the family begging in the streets may have the greater emotional impact.

Keep in mind that this requires a significant investment in terms of development. I would suggest simplifying the reaction as much as possible by creating a few trigger conditions (death of X, net value below Y) and a few consequences (grieving dialogue, possibly just with the names adjusted, new NPC locations with begging dialogue) and try to apply them as broadly as possible. A player who tries to play around with the system may notice that the depth is limited, but the reaction you strive for is for the player to be shocked, feel sorry and not do it again, so the majority shouldn't have this experience.

One game to maybe have a look at for this is This War of Mine.

Create fitting mechanics for the philosophical underpinnings of conflict resolution methods

That's a mouthful, but anyway: the others have already made the point that every method of conflict resolution needs to be mechanically interesting in order to be worth using. Games that have a deep and visceral combat system encourage the player to use it. I would go a step further: try to design the mechanics of each method to make the player feel a certain way according to your message.

For example: If you want your players to try and understand the NPCs in order to convince them in dialogue, take a look at the social bossfights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. You have a few character types/traits that influence how characters react to certain approaches. A proud character will react positively to flattery, while a fearful one will dismiss it, but can easily be pressured. Essentially what you're creating here is a system similar to turn-based combat with elemental weaknesses and resistances, but you need to actually listen to the characters in order to find out what they're susceptible to, humanising the characters in the process. Take care to give most characters more than one trait, otherwise it becomes formulaic.

If you want to expand on such a system you can introduce more complexity for important NPCs by giving them hobbies ("Did you paint that waterfall in the dining hall? That's pretty amazing!"), relationships ("I know this is a lot to ask Mr. Bert, but Ernie told me I could trust you with this.") and desires ("I know it's a risky proposition, but if you want to win Princess Buttercup's hand in marriage you'll need to convince her father and I'm told he's a big fan of pirate novels"). This further encourages not just talking to the person in question but to explore their social environment.

Similarly, if you want to communicate that solving problems with violence is barbaric and cruel, design your combat system accordingly. Have combat itself be frantic and stressful through high speed and high lethality. Let weak enemies try to run away and miserably beg for mercy. Have injured opponents bleed to death in whimpering agony or even beg for a finishing blow to not lie dying for hours and days (I think there were a few FPS games about the world wars that tried to depict how horrifying these injuries can be). Then reference the point about consequences above for further fallout.

This can still lead to a kind of power fantasy for the player, but one that is stained and dirty. The player may enjoy it in the moment, but they should feel guilty afterwards as if coming from an eating binge and feeling the nausea or having masturbated to some really effed up porn and wondering where their life went (no kink-shaming intended).

Offering options takes lots of work

An unfortunate reality of game development is that resources are limited. If you want your player to be able to talk their way through every quest, fight their way through every quest, have a few solutions for stealth and crafting as well and maybe magic on top you'll quickly run out of time and money. Not every method will work for every quest (some people just won't listen), but even then you should probably decide on a few main methods (e.g. combat and conversation) and use the others as supplements (e.g. stealth to find information to use in conversation). In the end a game is supposed to induce a certain experience in the player and that experience should determine the core concepts and mechanics and the corners that can't be cut.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I'm realizing that it comes down to that extra work. Combat is just number crunching and has been done enough before that it's no problem to copy another game's fighting tropes without looking like a hack. Doing dialogue trees takes for freakin' ever, in part because there are very few who have decided to take it to its logical conclusion. \$\endgroup\$ – Carduus Mar 12 '18 at 17:45
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Objectives.

If what you have is a mission you have to accomplish then defeating enemies might not be an advantage, it might even be a cost of resources.

Combat encounters can be about suppressing the enemy enough to buy time for your objective.

In Mordheim: City of the Damned the whole game is built around getting resources, you lose the game if you don't get them. It's less about defeating the enemy team and more about achieving your objective as efficiently as possible.

I am thinking along the lines of a game like Silent Storm where you can infiltrate bases stealthily, cause distractions with your team as well as investigate clues and deal with NPCs.

You can also have levels of hostility and access restriction as well as neutral hubs you can work with like in a Deus Ex game. This will give you exploration and NPC dialog alternatives to your mission objectives you can use.

NPCs are poorly underused in most games but in a game like this it can have an essential role in reaching your objectives. It can serve as functions from which you can manipulate the game world and open new paths and add new variables to give rise to new opportunities to exploit.

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