Once upon a time there was an MMORPG called Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. It wasn’t the most popular MMO, but it did cultivate a loyal fanbase due to its innovative features that attempted to push the genre forward rather than slavishly copy successful models. And out of all of its features, the one that seems to get remembered the most was one that never quite caught on.
The developers had an idea that every conflict with NPCs shouldn’t be resolved solely through combat. To offer a different tactic, they created a diplomacy system to simulate the struggle to come out on top of conversations. By plunging players into so-called “social dungeons,” Sigil Games created a situation where strategy rather than brute force was the path to winning the day.
When a player engaged in a round of “parley” with an NPC, he or she would use collected cards to attempt to move a token down to the player’s side of the board. If it got to the bottom, the player ended up successfully winning the engagement and special information, permissions, or rewards were granted. But if the token was maneuvered up to the NPC’s goal, then all was lost.
There was a lot of strategy for which cards to employ, especially since your cheaper cards would give extra resources to the enemy, while your more expensive cards might have a greater cooldown. The cool part of this is that while the board/card game was happening on the right-hand side of the screen, the left-hand side would feature a pop-up with an ongoing dialogue story that unfolded as you tried to win the counter.
So it was a bit of a card game, a bit of a puzzle game, and a bit of a board game… all connected to a storytelling system. Yeah, it was pretty cool.
Unfortunately, with Vanguard gone many years now, no other MMO has stepped up to either iterate on this system or attempt some other form of social jujitsu. That’s a real shame because Vanguard identified an untapped area of gameplay that tied into the “roleplaying” aspect of MMORPGs. In tabletop games with a GM, players can simulate social encounters simply by talking in-character and making certain dice rolls. But how do you simulate that in an MMO — and make it fun?
I truly believe that this is worthy of serious consideration by studios because this genre needs to move past seeing NPCs as nothing more than pincushions or vendors or occasionally companions. Involving them in missions — especially when certain characters are brought back regularly — is a good step to making them more than a cardboard cutout. But we can do better.
Even if Vanguard’s diplomacy system isn’t copied in its execution, its general concept should be. Two characters struggling to dominate in a conversation isn’t as visually striking as, say, blasting them with ice shards or cleaving them in twain with a greatsword. And here’s where I think Vanguard didn’t do so hot: Its presentation was highly cerebral and lacking that visual oomph.
So let’s posit that a potential “social combat” system will be, at its core, strategic. You’ll still be trying to out-maneuver your opponent to get them to spill the goods, be intimidated, be blackmailed, be charmed, or what have you. Collectable cards or skills are fine, but I see this as an opportunity to create social sub-classes for characters that you can pick and play. Maybe you’re a smooth talker, a growly brute, a slimy negotiator, or a seductive siren. Each of these would give you a different set of skills — with some overlap — that you could employ against your foes.
And then it would be pretty imperative to jazz up the visual presentation in some way. Rewarding players with small cutscenes or chunks of animated story would be nice, for sure. Skills should be paired with some sort of visual feedback so that players can see how they’re fairing. Maybe if you strike the fear of god into NPCs, they start sweating and fidgeting. Maybe you can see a blush on their cheeks if your flirtation is highly effective. Or maybe your character starts stammering when you’re hit with a flustered debuff.
I’ve been playing a whole lot of Marvel Snap over the last half-year, and I’ve noticed that while it is, at its core, a basic card game that relies on math and strategy, there’s a tremendous amount of visual flair that makes playing every card very satisfying. There’s a visual language that imparts information to the user, and that’s something that could be put to great effect in a social combat situation.
I can even imagine a particularly daring MMO that would make this system so deep and integral that if a player wished it, he or she would never need to engage in combat at all. An entire career might be spent in a city, attending social functions, working one’s way up a social ladder, and engaging in all manner of Games of Thrones-like machinations with a crafty mind.
MMOs are starting to get experimental and daring again, so why not take a risk — and take a page — from one of the most innovative systems that this genre’s produced? Steal it, I say, and improve it. Use it as a launchpad for something far better and more engaging, and people will show up to play it.