Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Reputations in the Solitaires Method

This post describes my approach to numerical reputation scores as they appear in the Solitaires Method. These opinions are based on my personal experiences of designing and implementing relationship mechanics in text RPGs. My approach is also influenced by the broader discussion of numerical reputation happening in the video game space for the last 30 years.

Renown is an optional mechanic described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It gives the party a set of faction-specific numerical scores starting at 0 and rising as high as 50. Faction quests (and downtime actions) affect these scores. With higher numbers, the party can win titles and support from the factions they help.

The Solitaires Method varies this system in a few ways. It allows the score to drop into negative numbers that represent lower-than-neutral reputations. It also abandons the 50-point maximum in favor of a scale that better matches a single-player, multi-book campaign.

If you are writing in the Solitaires Method, or you are interested in using reputation scores in your own text-based RPG or solo gamebook, these systems can help you extend choice-based consequences into the future. Importantly, they are one of the tools you can use to empower players to change the story as they go.

Why Renown?

Although the renown system tries to enforce consequences, it also tries to be realistic. It is not a piety or karma system because it doesn’t tally every good or bad action. Renown is a system by which the player’s deeds—when witnessed and passed on—alter faction reactions in some scenes.

The Solitaires Method also prefers reputation (renown) over karma for the reliability and realism of it. Reputation does not assume that every “good” action will accrue adjustments. Instead, these actions must be witnessed in a way that will spread among the relevant factions. Players should be able to rely on their ability to get away with various misdeeds if those go unseen. (See also, Simulationism.)

Another reason for reputation is that its adjustments can be subjective. This serves as a safety net for when—inevitably—the protagonist gets an adjustment that wasn’t earned or deserved. Perhaps the player’s route to that point in the story only marginally touched upon the relevant event or moral question from whence came the adjustment. Perhaps—in the player’s mind—the protagonist only rescued the kidnapped orphans to get the reward. When an unearned adjustment occurs, it is the NPCs’ misperception of the character’s actions that triggered it, not the writer’s inability to equally weight the consequence of every story route or failure to see into the protagonist’s heart.

From Simple to Complex

Early video games used simple reputations scores that went up and down. However, even simple video games now tend to track reputation along dual axes. Rather than a single number, computer games can track good and bad deeds separately. A character with good deeds and bad deeds is treated separately from a character with all good deeds or all bad deeds. Unfortunately, this abstraction doesn’t go much farther than a jump from binary to trinary results, letting factions have a good, bad, or “mixed” reaction to the protagonist.

In the Solitaires Method, renown scores remain numerical along a single axis. When I want a mixed reaction, the method leans upon another of tool, event codes. A character that has worked hard to serve a faction might have a high renown score but also possess negative event codes. For example, having “killed the mayor’s horse” or “burned the town,” the protagonist may have difficulty getting aid from the mayor, regardless of the protagonist’s renown. If a high renown score in this case does win an offer of aid, it would come only grudgingly or perhaps at a cost.

It’s also important not to overuse this second tool. Event codes should only stand in for renown adjustments when (1) the affected NPCs do not represent the faction as a whole, (2) the adjustment is so deep as to warrant references in future dialog, or (3) there is some other reason to want a mixed reaction. Otherwise, numerical adjustments to the score are preferred for consistency and to ease the chore of tracking persistent event codes.

Primary Measurements

Renown ratings let players feel the consequences of their actions, in the short term and the long term. They are tools that make the world more responsive to the player. They don’t fit every story. A solitary adventure with no NPCs or supporting characters can’t use—and doesn’t need—such tools. Renown ratings are only useful in stories where other people matter. However, it is my opinion that stories should include people that matter. Without spectators or people to help, stories tend to feel less meaningful.

In the short term, the immediate display of a renown adjustment punctuates a player’s action; the result is felt on a personal level and a mechanical level. Even though the number doesn’t have a concrete meaning in the moment, it portends a future consequence.

“Kenny will remember that.”

If you want to avoid the metaknowledge of an immediately-signaled renown change, you can apply a temporary event code that will later lead to a renown adjustment, probably in the moment the adjustment is felt most poignantly.

In the long term, renown makes that future consequence real. You don’t have to write apologetically if criminals “randomly” come after the protagonist; you know the protagonist went after them first.

Secondary Measurements

In the Eight Petals Argent series, the protagonist can gain and lose renown points relevant to four different factions. These include two sets of “opposite” groups. Many of the reputation-affecting decisions are binary in that the protagonist will gain or lose reputation with one faction or with its opposite, depending on the option selected.

The four factions in the Eight Petals Argent series are the Waterdeep Watch, the [Xanathar’s] Guild, the Slipstone Gang, and the Crimson Perytons. The first two of these represent a nebulous, high-level conflict between law and chaos in Waterdeep. The second two are more personal; smaller-scale factions that represent the tensions inside the protagonist’s friend group.

It’s useful to cast these factions as opposites to support the story’s theme and to help the protagonist “advance” along certain conceptual lines. By tying these developments to the factions, I can reward players for playing within their (very broad) archetypes.

My first pair of factions recognizes that D&D characters are particularly defined by their desire to operate within the law or outside it. By reporting to the Watch, the protagonist is preparing to walk in the sun, to collaborate with authority figures, and to manage conflicts with straightforward dialogue or combat. A low score with the Watch occurs when the protagonist commits crimes, disturbs the peace, or otherwise acts in a shady manor. Naturally, these criminal actions are admired by the Guild and will increase renown with that faction. A protagonist liked by the Guild has opportunities to buy poisons, learn details known only to criminals, and approach problems from the shadows.

The second pair of factions is the character’s gang of friends, the Slipstone Gang, and their rivals, the Crimson Perytons. The protagonist gains renown points with the former by making wise, friend-helping choices, and loses it by opposing the gang’s interests or acting against their “good” morals. Renown with the Crimson Perytons comes from making peace with individual members—though the Perytons leader is always antagonistic—and it is lost by killing members of that gang. A low score with the Perytons is easy to get if the protagonist kills a lot of that gang’s members, making it secondarily a measure of the character’s willingness to fight and kill opponents.

Although these four factions represent developmental directions for the protagonist, their renown adjustments are not independent of their own stories. They are living factions first, thematic tools second. This means the renown scores primarily represent the work the player has done with those factions. They only “secondarily” measure these other factors, the character archetypes and behaviors.

Downtime Adjustments

My use of the renown system allows the player to improving ratings with downtime. This is conceptually consistent with the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, but I use an altered mechanic for this activity, one that better reflects the scale of a single-player gamebook.

The use of downtime further degrades reputation ratings as a secondary measuring tool for player proclivities since any player can modify the ratings regardless of choices made. This is both good and bad; a player committed to a faction can wipe out an accidental loss by spending downtime to affect that renown score. The protagonist gets to stay on the track its player imagines, but the world is less accurate in its responsiveness to past deeds. This is another reason that persistent event codes are necessary to track exceptionally-influential deeds.

Tracking across books

In a series that uses renown, tracking the range is very important, as is tracking the reasons for the adjustments. Here is an example of the renown adjustment possibilities in book 1 of my series. (“DT” means downtime.)

Before the end of the book (before downtime options), I can use any negative renown rating with the Slipstone gang as shorthand for the one event that can cause it, killing a youth hired to serve as a rival gang’s scout.

As the books progress, this sort of fine detail gets lost in the numbers. However, each time I need to set a renown range as the trigger for certain events or reactions, I’m not looking at raw ranges. I’m looking at all the events and imagining different combinations of them that should trigger whatever I’m planning. I then translate those combinations using their combined numerical ratings.

Other Options

If you want a karma system, Dungeons & Dragons has in-built alignment mechanics you could track along the good-evil and law-chaos axes as seen in various CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate. However, the protagonist’s alignment doesn’t affect the game world; alignment-referential mechanics are almost entirely absent from the game’s current edition. The player might appreciate a mechanic that changes the protagonist’s alignment, but the effect isn’t visible outside that character’s brain. Rather than enjoying a character’s arc through alignment change, I think you will find players unreceptive to it.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide also includes an optional “loyalty” mechanic. If your story doesn’t have persistent factions, but it does have persistent, independent NPCs, the loyalty rules can be leveraged with similar result of renown.


If you’re writing gamebooks for D&D, feel free to find my Facebook group and engage in the discussion with us. Comments here aren’t likely to be noticed.

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