Monday, December 31, 2012

The Save Point Concept

The Save Point Concept
by Tobie Abad

I've been running a fan-written Final Fantasy RPG for my office mates at Indigo-Entertainment Philippines and one of the little add-ons I've given the game is the Save Crystal which is clearly present in the video game.  The earlier presence of save points in the Final Fantasy series was through the use of Inns or Tents which were meant to allow the players to recover both lost HP and MP and save the game.  Later versions of the game allowed the save point to double as the place to purchase items.  In table top games, the concept of a Save Point is nonexistent, given most games approach the narrative as a story unfolding.

The joys of having a Save Point in a game meant being able to take frighteningly dangerous risks, fail, and reload to the previous point and play on. This meant players did not have to fear making an absolutely wrong mistake.  This also meant the system could be incredibly challenging and allow the player to keep trying until he succeeds.

Clearly, for a table top game, the need for a Save Point seems nonexistent.  The games are meant to simulate a certain degree of danger and risk.  Having the chance to just "start over and try again" sort of invalidates the risk.  Having a place that allows the instant recovery of one's health seems contrary to having such risks exist.

But what if we were to find a way to incorporate the beauty of the Save Point?  That being, giving players a chance to take those risks without necessarily losing everything?

Mummy the Resurrection approached this concept by having the character always have a chance to be brought back to life, but at the cost of a Power Stat that gets permanently reduced.  It allowed players to go all out and take risks, but not necessarily lose everything in the process.     Adventure!  approached something similar with the Knack called Death Defying, which allowed a player to "die" for a scene, and return in a later scene apparently alive.  The knack allowed the player character to mimic scenes where heroes like Indiana Jones seemingly falls to his doom, only to turn out still alive somehow.  In Nomine represented this by having three ways to "die" given each character was composed of three Forces.  A physical death meant merely the death of the vessel and not the final death of the Celestial being.  Dungeons and Dragons also did something similar in certain editions with Resurrections reducing the Constitution stat permanently, suggesting death can be evaded but at a huge cost.  So clearly, the idea of death being the end isn't something all games actually want.  Allowing players a second (or third, or fourth..) chance is not just feasible, but actually already being practiced.

So why not make it an actual system?
Save the Death for Drama

For games that aren't all about being gritty and realistic, why not allow every player to "load back" an earlier scene if the results of an action turn out to be something that leads to their death.  No, the rewind should not allow players to just cancel out the consequences of a bad decision, but it should allow them to avoid that dying moment.    The cost?  They must then work with the GM on a later scene, be it in this or later game session, where the character dramatically and more appropriately bites the dust.

For example:
Your group is playing a Lord of the Rings inspired fantasy game.  As the group journeys up the mountain side to search for the hidden entrance to the dwarven keep, one player finds a cave entrance.  Rather than calling for the others for help, he slides inside and stupidly calls out, "Anyone home?"   Having mapped out a monster to be living in the cave, you have the monster give you growls and a threatening pair of glowing eyes come into view.  The player, being very unwise, charges forward rather than back away, and in the ensuring combat, he dies.   He could have retreated, called for the others to help out, or even hid somewhere until the monster moved on, but he decided to fight and came out the loser.  An anticlimactic death if anything.

The old me would have said, "He was being stupid so you pay the price."  The new me, however, realizes it would be better to go win-win on this, so I pull the player aside and tell him, "I'll have you survive. For now. But your character still has to die.  Decide now:  Is he actually poisoned and due to pride does not tell the rest, and later at the point when they're all rejoicing, have you die and give a dramatic death speech?  Or do we just have you later dramatically die as you heroically protect one of them from a killing blow?"  The player likes the second one, and we continue the game.  Everyone has more fun, and we have a great dramatic twist coming up that will floor everyone else too.

So yeah, win-win.  The Save Point was established.  The Death averted.  But the fun is kept alive.

The Save Point Warning
Fantasy worlds and the like may benefit from the concept of an actual Save Point in the game.  These can be massive crystal structures (like those popularized by Final Fantasy ) or just an OOC moment where you tell the players, "Save Point" and you have them spend all existing experience points and similar adjustments before the big bad battle.    Tactical games would greatly benefit from this, although most would say it would remove the impact of losing with bad tactics.   But this way, knowing danger is ahead, the players are given the cue to "spend what you can and beef up" for what could be a battle that kills a character.

There are few things worse than losing a character and realizing you still had so many already present points to spend to advance him but didn't get to do so.

The Save Point Check Point
Groups engaged in a nicely written narrative game might benefit from having the option to say, "Wait, can we go back to this point..."  Sort of like those old Choose Your Own Adventure books where you turn to a page and discover it leads to death, so you turn back to the last decision-making moment and choose a different path.  You can allow the group to have a total of "reloads" equal to the number of players present in the group and the reload point can still remain under your control, avoiding abuse of the system to go far too back to undo too many bad choices.

Likewise, you can even deem certain events where the Check Point is inactive, giving players a taste of even greater tension since they realize this is definitely a major point where losing cannot be turned back.

So yeah, while many of us table top gamers might be a tad purist when it comes to role-playing games and whether or not computer role-playing games are indeed worthy of being called rpgs, there's no denying you can draw inspiration from them to find new ways to make your games more fun.

note:  Sadly, if you feel this article was a waste of time, you cannot reload back to the check point before reading it.  
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