6 Things Divinity II Taught Me About Running a Better Game

From Roleplaying Tips #479 https://www.roleplayingtips.com/

6 Things Divinity II Taught Me About Running a Better Game 
by Hannah Lipsky

I received a review copy of Divinity II a while back. It's a game with an interesting premise: your character starts out as a dragon slayer, and eventually becomes a dragon. You can find out more of it here: http://larian.com/

As always when playing an RPG, I looked for ways I could use the lessons of the game to improve my own. While it was a good game and some of the things I learned I gained from the good parts, I found more lessons in the few things it did wrong than the many it did right.

1. It's Possible for XP to Make Sense

One real suspension of disbelief issue I have with RPGs is that within your first couple weeks of adventuring, your character has doubled in power. A couple more weeks, and they've far surpassed even soldiers who've spent a lifetime in battle.

How does this make sense? Especially if your character's backstory has them spending years training, the sudden power jumps caused by most games' XP systems are just strange. What did three weeks of clearing out kobolds teach you that a decade of perfecting techniques at the monastery while battling border raiders couldn't?

The closest anyone gets to offering an explanation is, "That's the special characteristic that makes PCs PCs instead of just another warrior."

Divinity II is the first game I've seen that actually takes a stab at explaining this in the game world. Right off, your character is told he or she is about to lose all the memories of the years of dragon slayer training you've undergone. This is so there is room for the dragon's memories to fill your mind. But no worries - your training will come back to you, slowly at first, and then more quickly.

Now it makes sense. You've trained for years to be the best, but you can barely kill vermin. Why? Because you forgot it all. A couple weeks later, you're back to bashing skulls with the best of them, and soon after that, you've surpassed all but the finest of the warriors who haven't received your elite training. Why? Because all those years of training are coming back.

It's not an explanation that will work for every campaign. But it is a reminder that even the most meta game mechanics can have a solid in-game foundation if you try hard enough.

2. Mind Reading Doesn't Have to be Game-Breaking

Divinity II has an interesting mind reading system, where you trade XP for the chance to catch someone's stray thoughts. It's a low price for unimportant NPCs, and a high price for more powerful characters.

I know plenty of DMs - I'm one of them - who sometimes flat- out disallow psionic powers like mind reading because of the extra work they entail. PCs can circumvent plots and derail elaborate schemes with a properly timed, "I read his thoughts."

Divinity II's solution to this problem is threefold. First, the aforementioned XP penalty. When you have to give something to get something, reading minds is less of a panacea and more of a strategic choice.

Second, not everyone is always thinking about important things. Just because an assassin is after you and has already killed many of your soldiers to get to you, it doesn't mean you can't spare a few moments to admire your new cuirass.

If that's what you happen to be doing when the PC tries to read your mind, too bad for them. They'll have to find out more about the assassin some other way.

Third, news gets around. If people find out you're a mind reader, they'll deliberately think about irrelevant things when around you. They might still slip up sometimes - try not thinking about an elephant - but if enough of them can focus often enough, your mind reading becomes a far less perfect solution to every information-gathering problem.

These three solutions, even in combination, don't render mind reading useless. But they do keep it from breaking the game. Having NPCs be thinking about other things, either deliberately or incidentally, adds back in a crucial element that mind reading usually takes away - DM choice.

Now the DM can decide if an attempt to mind read means that important information is revealed, or if that new cuirass looks incredibly dashing in the sunlight.

3. NPCs as Motivators: Use With Care

A good way to get the party to solve minor problems is by having said problems afflict interesting NPCs.

Who cares if there's an army descending upon us? We don't really know much about geopolitics; maybe they have the right of it. But this guy seems like an all-around decent fellow: we should probably find out what happened to his livestock.

On the other hand, the fastest way to get the players to want to burn the world instead of save it is by having the main NPC interested in keeping them on track be a screeching harpy.

Sure, sure, we'll leave the livestock where we found it and go ambush the scouts or what have you. If it will make you be quiet, our pleasure. But as soon as we're done saving civilization, we're throwing you off a cliff.

4. A Little Encouragement Goes a Long Way

Divinity II has no falling damage. On the one hand, this is great, because you can climb a lot of tall things, and climbing tall things is fun. On the other hand, once you've climbed towers and cliffs and the like, you start eyeing everything that way.

Climb over lava? Why not. Over a dragon's nest? What could go wrong? Jumping off a cliff while turning into a dragon mid-air is exciting - until you realize that failing to transform lands you on the ground in perfectly unharmed human form, instead of as a red splattery mess.

If you're thinking about changing the laws of physics to support a player's acrobatic style, it's worth considering what that will look like when taken to the extreme. Sure, it's cool that he can pull off awesome stunts without the rules getting in the way. But just what level of unrealistic badassery do you want in your game?

It's easier to take away penalties than add them, and easier to add bonuses than remove existing ones. Consider softening penalties for things like stunts and falling damage. If those don't encourage characters to be more acrobatic, you can remove penalties entirely. But first try a less dramatic solution, just to keep things from getting silly.

5. Shooting Barrels: A Poor Economic Model

Players like shiny things. Put a few gold coins in a few crates, and your players are going to check every crate and barrel they come across on the off chance it has gold in it. In some games, like Zelda, this is part of the fun. But in epic fantasy quests?

It's cool to reward players for going above and beyond in terms of examining their surroundings. But if they don't have too many other ways of getting treasure, this close examination can easily turn into behavior more closely resembling obsessive-compulsive disorder. And does that really add to the fun? 

6. Motivation Works Both Ways

If you have players who like to explore the motivations of their characters, do them a favor and let the NPCs' motivations be similarly detailed.

As I mentioned, you start out as a dragon slayer, and end up as a dragon. Unsurprisingly (minor spoiler), the dragon slayers have a problem with this.

But there's something else they might also have a problem with: the giant invading army, which you're dutifully fighting off. Hordes of enemy soldiers fall before your might, keeping the land safe for all. And yet, somehow this minor point escapes the slayers entirely in their utter dedication to ridding the world of dragons.

This makes sense for a group of fanatical cultists, but you'd expect even cultists to at some point justify themselves - armies come and go, dragons are forever. Something like that. The fact that none of the dragon slayers so much as mentions the army is a little jarring.

Copyright 2010, Johnn Four, RoleplayingTips.com

All Rights Reserved.

e-mail: johnn@roleplayingtips.com
web site: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/

#4 Racine Court, Beaumont, AB T4X 1L4, CANADA

Turn Watcher™. Let it Roll.