Mechanic Overview: Shadowrun Returns Etiquettes

I didn’t really have a theme in mind when I started this blog. The impetus to create it can be summarized as “I keep writing essay-length comments in reddit and other places, so I may as well put them somewhere actually fit for essay-length writing.” Recently, I’ve realized that while I didn’t intentionally create a theme, it still has one.

cRPGs have become an obsession of mine in recent years. They’re my favorite genre of videogame and my favorite pastime period. It’s showing in this blog, which at this point is nearly 100% posts about cRPGs I’ve played and a little about a toy one I’ve made. To that end, I realized that there’s some interesting conversation to be had in good mechanics even if I don’t have a reason to talk about the entire game in detail.

Today we’ll be looking at the Shadowrun Returns trilogy (Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and Shadowrun: Hong Kong). Specifically, a dialog mechanic called Etiquettes:

The original seven Etiquettes, as seen in Dragonfall.

The Shadowrun returns games use a dialogue system very similar to the one seen in classic isometric WRPGs like Fallout and the Infinity Engine games. Characters say things and your character has the option to click on one of several dialogue options. Often certain options are locked behind stat gates, which more often than not relate to Charisma.

Where the etiquette system differs is that most of these checks are of the form “Does the player have the right etiquette for this situation?” So you might be able to probe a scientist for details about her research, but only if you have the Academic etiquette. Or maybe you can bluff your way past a police or corporate security checkpoint, but only if you have the Security etiquette.

This particular check is from one of the most difficult achievements in Dragonfall.

It’s not obvious at first, but etiquettes solve some very real problems in this genre/dialogue system. The idea goes something like this:

  • We want a mechanic based on Charisma that lets the player talk their way out of certain situations.
  • There’s not really a way to add player skill to the mechanic, as the player is just clicking one button. This tends to create an all/nothing situation.
  • We could avoid the all/nothing problem by giving a random chance of failure and reducing that chance as Charisma gets higher, but players will hate you for making them save scum every time they have an important conversation. If you find a way to prevent save scumming, they’ll hate you even more for not letting them save scum.
  • Since we’re using a point buy system where the player can increase their Charisma as the game progresses, there are really only two reasonable strategies: Buy no Charisma at all, or buy exactly enough to keep up with all the Charisma checks in the game. It’s a total dump stat unless you’re a Charisma Character.
  • And that’s the best case scenario. Make Charisma checks too low, and everyone sinks just enough to pass all the checks they want to pass and the game feels too easy. Make them too high, and you get players either complaining that only Charisma Character gets to play the real game (a common complaint about the Torment games) or that Charisma players are skipping “the real game” (a complaint sometimes leveled at the likes of Fallout: New Vegas)

This isn’t the only advantage of this system, but it’s the largest and most surprising: Etiquettes mean you can invest in a little Charisma and have it mean something. For less than a tenth of your Karma points, you can make your Street Samurai schooled in Gang/Security and get the occasional dialogue opportunity while still being able to focus most of your effort on being able to kill things. It’s nice to see a game that lets us have these options without falling into the God Stat/Dump Stat dichotomy.

The etiquettes themselves also add a bit more personalization to the player character in general; our Gang/Security Street Samurai above implies something very different from using the same 4 Charisma to roll an Academic/Socialite Decker.

That said, this does lead into some pitfalls. The first of which being that there’s no real requirement that the etiquettes chosen make sense. I’m not so much talking about the fact that a player can choose something like Academic/Gang at character creation; you can headcanon a story, and even if you can’t, then I’m fine saying it’s the player’s responsibility not to ruin their own immersion with nonsensical builds. What I’m really talking about is the fact that these etiquettes are not only chosen at character creation; the player gains Karma points throughout the entire game, and it’s expected that they will put points in the stats that matter to them. If your plans involve upgrading Charisma after the opening, then that means you’ll have the situation where you’re tasked which choosing which Etiquette you spontaneously learned after a mission that probably had nothing to do with your social skills (how did I learn Academic from killing a room full of Yakuza?)

On a similar note, it also constrains the player character’s backstory a bit. This actually comes up in Shadowrun: Hong Kong. The game quickly reveals that your character was adopted at a young age, got into trouble as a teenager, was sent to prison, then started the main plot almost immediately upon release. I’m not sure where you were supposed to pick up, say, the Academic etiquette but the option is there.

It’s also harder to balance. If you resign yourself to the all-or-nothing Charisma model, you just have to decide what kind of rate you’re assuming on point accumulation and balance the dialog options around that. With Etiquettes, you now have to worry about the options afforded to seven distinct (and disjoint, at least in this implementation) options per playthrough. On one hand, it’s probably not required that they be perfectly balanced; on the other hand, the fact that point gain is spread throughout the game means that you have to balance the options over time as well as against each other. Players will be miffed to start with an Academic choice and pick up Shadowrunner later, only to find out that Shadowrunner is really mostly good for bonus rewards on a couple very early quests while Academic is negligible until a dialogue with a boss in the final dungeon. This particular problem is probably part of the reason the Street etiquette was removed from Hong Kong; it proved too hard to balance that many options.

Several of these concerns could potentially be fixed by baking Etiquittes into character creation, though that would require a complete overhaul of the Shadowrun leveling system. The closest thing I can think of in another game is Mass Effect’s character history options (e.g. War Hero, Sole Survivor), although that game did so little with it that most people wonder why they bothered, if they even noticed it at all.

Ironically the greatest barrier to using this mechanic in other games may be the fact that some people want to play Charisma Characters, and this system is perhaps too resistant to that. This is especially pertinent to the Shadowrun setting; Shadowrunners are teams of short-contract mercs who regularly slip into places they aren’t supposed to be. Charm and subterfuge are such valuable skills that “The Face” is considered a perfectly valid character type, one that isn’t mechanically acknolwedged in this trilogy but was given a nod in Shadowrun: Hong Kong‘s DLC:

“Don’t worry. I know a face-man when I see one, and I have no interest in giving you away.”

Shadowrun’s point system means that the last few points in a stat are far more expensive than the first few. This means that committing to any stat beyond about 3 or 4 points requires a very hard, character defining commitment. To make matters worse, the character type most able to use Charisma in combat is also the worst character archetype in the game for combat (Shaman). I’ve noticed a number of people picked up these games and then recoiled when they found that they wanted to optimize for dialogue trees and found that they couldn’t build their character like they wanted.

It’s one thing if some players don’t like your mechanic. It’s another if a dialogue-based mechanic is specifically chafing the people who like dialogue. I’d still like to see more stuff like this in other games, but I hope anyone iterating on it can tackle that particular problem.

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