Sunday, 16 December 2012

Inspirations: the Sands of Time, part one

I’ve recently been playing Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time. While I had a distinctly mixed reaction to it, I enjoyed the ambience and style of the game, and I thought it had a very intriguing main gimmick. With that in mind, I started wondering if you could introduce something similar in an RPG context, and how. Obviously, such a project should be attempted in public, for maximum potential humiliating failure.

This idea is, of course, completely unoriginal: it’s inspired by both Shannon’s Game Translation series, which discusses ways to bring narrative and stylistic elements of computer games to your tabletop, and Dan’s Reimaginings series, which is also inspired by Shannon but takes a more mechanical approach. I really enjoy both of these and am a shameless copycat. This project will probably end up falling somewhere in the middle: apart from anything else, I don’t have Dan’s knowledge of game mechanics, nor Shannon’s experience of GMing. At the same time, I’m not strictly trying to create POPSOT The RPG, I’m just seeing if there’s something fun I could hack out from the ideas and feel of that game.

A brief summary of POPSOT for those who haven't played it (oh, and spoiler warning for ten-year-old game). The eponymous prince's father's army invades an Indian city with the help of a treacherous vizier, promising to give him his pick of the treasure within. The prince runs off alone to loot the vaults, seeking glory. He loots the fabled Dagger of Time and finds a magical hourglass alongside it. The company return to camp, where the prince is praised and the vizier immediately cheated, denied both the Dagger and the Hourglass despite the earlier promise. They journey to Azad in Persia to show off their loot to the king's old friend, and cunningly get the vizier to demonstrate the power of the Sands of Time. Astonishingly, he betrays them and transforms the palace into a broken, twisted mockery, while all its inhabitants are mutated into bizarre sand-monsters. The prince, a captured Indian princess and the vizier alone are spared, each protected by an artefact: the Dagger, an amulet and a staff respectively. The prince flees without giving up the dagger, fighting through a horde of sand-monsters, while the vizier has the hourglass transported to a preposterously high sinister tower. For the rest of the game, the prince and the princess make their way through the palace ruins and environs with a mixture of acrobatics, puzzle-solving and combat. The Dagger of Time has the power to finish off wounded enemies by draining the sand from them, and can use the captured energy to rewind time briefly, to freeze enemies in time, or to slow time. Eventually he reclaims the hourglass, and travels back in time to prevent the whole business.

It looks like this:

Let's have a quick look at some major elements of POPSOT, which I think can be broken down into gameplay:

  • Climbing, swinging, jumping and running on things
  • Defeating waves of enemies through tactical combat
  • Rewinding time to negate setbacks
  • Highly discrete chunks of gameplay
  • Quantitiative health tracking

and stylistic elements:

  • Prodigious (but not superhuman) athletic, martial and acrobatic feats
  • Interpreting your environment as a series of challenges
  • A linear narrative that links puzzles
  • Heroic struggles against sinister forces

In the game itself, these fit together to produce a cinematic puzzle-platformer. Limiting you to human athletic potential, or introducing exhaustion, or specific injuries, or long-lasting injury, would just get in the way, and so you’re a tireless acrobat who’s fully refreshed by a long drink. The combat is really another obstacle to be overcome, and needs to be flashy and stylish to fit the exaggerated style of the game. Checkpointing makes sense (to some extent, at least) because each section is a discrete puzzle with absolutely no relation to the next, and having you fully healed means you’re starting each puzzle from scratch.

General issues

Handily, some of these are easily adapted into RPGs. Hit Point-style health mechanics are widespread, poetic licence for physical feats is common, and pretty much everything has time-travel nowadays.

Wait, that's not right.

Okay, so the time-travel bit is going to require some work. I'd also say the checkpointing isn't really an issue here, since tabletop RPGs don't do saving. The platform-heavy feel of the game is a gameplay style issue rather than a mechanical one. Another point is that we're probably not looking at a strict puzzle-solving exercise, since that sounds fairly boring to me, to be honest.

A faithful replication would also involve over-long, repetitive brawls against groups of the same four enemy types, relying on timely deployment of specific instakill attacks against each enemy type. I'd rather not have any boring elements. Matching attacks against appropriate opponents might be an interesting mechanic, but grinding has to go. I'll also say no to enemies spawning behind you from thin air, and to unlimited perfect teleportation for all enemies; neither felt remotely justified, both were irritating, and both restricted your options for interesting play by making movement and terrain irrelevant.

There are some other issues in terms of turning the existing story into an RPG session. As it stands, it would have to be extremely railroady, because I really can't see the players - knowing full-well it's an RPG, and being familiar with widespread tropes - agreeing to take instructions from a totally trustworthy vizier who betrayed his sworn liege to you for the sake of getting a powerful magic artefact that you're now refusing to hand over on the grounds that you nicked it first. In any case, it would be quite easy to derail the storyline purely by accident because the players did something unexpected. For example, they could end up without the Dagger of Time to protect them from the Sands of Time, bringing the whole thing to an unfortunate and early conclusion. So a new storyline background and plot hooks would be needed to set up the premise.

There's also the complication of adapting the story for multiple players. In the original, the prince can fight back because he's the one who picked up the Dagger, but you'd need to somehow equip your whole party with the means to survive and use the Sands of Time, preferably without seeming so contrived that the players actually revolt. Now that's not necessarily a problem, but it might mean changing the way the story develops. Another option would be to steal the basic ideas of the game but swap in a different plot entirely, so long as it gives some basis for the PCs and nobody else to have Time-Faffing powers.

Tabletop conversion

So, how to model the important aspects in an RPG? From a gameplay perspective, I think the time travel is a bit secondary. It needs careful consideration, sure, but it's something to implement rather than a key feature, if I'm interested in a game that feels a bit like POPSOT. The most important aspect is the tone and feel of the game, which basically boils down to "heroic badassery". Okay, from a strictly accurate point of view, the Prince of Persia in the game could be rather more heroic with less of the unprovoked invasion, pillaging and kidnapping. But you're setting out mostly alone against a numberless horde of sand-monsters, a vast array of traps and a massively dangerous landscape, in order to prevent the evil plans of an evil wizard, so it still counts. To retain that feel, the protagonists need to be basically in the right, and any moral quandaries or grey areas that arise need to not interfere with the main "good vs. evil" dichotomy.

In badassery terms, the prince doesn't have any kind of levelling curve to worry about, or slowly rise from being a weakling with a rusty dagger to being a terrifying avatar of death. Pretty much the first thing you do in game is wipe the floor with a group of four armed warriors, with a shiny array of parries, thrusts, reposites and dodges that involves attacking in several directions at once, rebounding from walls, and running right up people before vaulting over their heads and running them through. On the other hand, it doesn't really get any better from there, until the actual finale where you simply obliterate enemies with a new magic sword. In a straight replication of the game, we'd be looking at a non-progressive system, or at least a system where no meaningful progression took place over the course of the adventure. I think this fundamentally boils down to "don't start at 1st level". In a system without meaningful levels, like BRP, this won't be an issue, but if I wanted to try this as a Pathfinder game, we'd need to be talking about picking PC and enemy levels where PCs can regularly take on multiple opponents at once.

The other major aspect of the game is its narrative and atmosphere. There's a fairly strong Persianesque aesthetic to the game, and a rigidly linear plotline that serves to lead you from one puzzle to the next. However, neither of these is necessary for tabletop play.

There's also a mystical tone to the setting, with magical relics, fabulous technology, and the vizier having limited magical powers; but there's no actual spellcasting and magic plays no direct part in the game at all.

So roughly what we're looking for in Time Faffers is:

  • A heroic, cinematic feel
  • Protagonists that start out already awesome, with little levelling
  • Navigation and pathfinding as a significant part of the game's challenge, including some puzzle elements
  • Time-faffing abilities

Another practical issue is the game setting. While it's not essential to retain the Persian setting, I think we probably do want Time Faffers to be quite a lot like the setting of Sands of Time, for a few reasons. One is that modern technology would offer new transport options that overcome navigation puzzles: if you can get to a vehicle or call a helicopter, things look a lot easier. Communications technology allows you to call for help, or for enemies to monitor you and keep in contact.

Also, firearms complicate matters in dealing with sand-monsters. For one thing, if you can fight effectively at range, you just hunker down and blast away, or pick them off at long range. I'd be happy with that as an occasional option, but I don't want it to be the main playstyle, because it sounds boring. It also makes it more difficult to implement sand-gathering, which in POPSOT involves downing an enemy and then draining the magic out of them with your knife; you can't do that at long range. Obviously, though, the mechanic could be changed. Or players could take down enemies with suppressing fire, then rush in to drain them, I suppose?

To me, though, keeping it as a mostly melee-based game just feels more appropriate to the heroic, athletic style. It also handily means not worrying about ammunition, firearms in melee, reloading or firing into combat. At the same time, it means PCs won't face enemies with firearms either, so it's only people who can reach them they need to worry about. This should allow a fairly loose playstyle, where it's not that important how long activities take, or whether you'd technically be visible to some distant guards, and where athletic PCs can readily evade lumbering monsters simply by getting out of reach. Finally, it should mean I can do some interesting things with time-faffing in combat, which is easier to justify if you can physically reach enemies to affect them.

If we're looking for an athletic sort of game, there's a potential pitfall in creating physical challenges for them. How much planning is needed to create the appropriate level of detail, where they'll face problems in negotiating the terrain and seek solutions to them? In the game itself, you're frequently looking at quite complex puzzles, involving Wall-of-Deathing along some wall before pushing off it into empty space to grab a swinging rope to reach a beam you can walk along to rebound your way up a stone chimney. For tabletop, I'll need to think about the appropriate level of abstraction. This could effect the choice of game system, as well as being a headache for GMing.

Next time I'll start looking at implementation.

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