Over on his blog today, Coyote gets into the mechanics of conversation and social skills in RPGs. We all know how poorly these are usually handled in games. Is there a better way? Do we want one?

As he points out, most dialogues with NPCs reduce to either (a) obtaining information or (b) taking on some silly job. Boring and predictable activities at best.

On the other hand, do we really want/need a more complex method of conversation? Coyote suggests modeling dialogues on the combat system. After all, he says, this is what often works best in games: the fighting.

Which doesn’t mean that every chat with an NPC is a verbal duel. But the interactions between player and NPC would be more variable, possibly more like a real conversation.

The difficulty I see here is that most players aren’t all that interested in talking to NPCs. Conversation is a halt in the action. The longer you’re talking to someone, the less you’re doing “out there”, be it hunting for bandits or eviscerating orcs.

I know people who just skim through these dialogues, looking for the key words. “What has to be done? Where do I go to do it? What’s in it for me?” Everything else is considered just fluff and pretty much ignored.

Such players wouldn’t be happy with extended or “tricky” conversations, particularly if there were a lot of them in a game. Even those who would enjoy a change from the “old routine” might lose patience after awhile.

On the other hand, the “old routine” is pretty old by now, and we do need a better way of handling conversations with NPCs. Adding complexity, however, is not a good way of doing it.

Nor are “mini-games”, as in Oblivion, the answer. They didn’t seem like conversations at all, and I avoided them as much as possible.

For that matter, relying on “social skills” such as diplomacy, fast talk, persuasion, intimidation, and the like, along with the generic “charisma”, tends to be useless, as they are generally poorly-implemented.

Perhaps, instead of focusing on mechanics, designers should consider: what is the purpose of this conversation, or indeed, any conversation in the game? What do we expect the player to get out of this? With thoughts in that direction, maybe developers will come up with a viable system or two.

Charisma The Dump Stat on Coyote’s blog