A new story arc – Project Serpens
One of the gameplay aspects of City of Heroes/Villains I have not written much about is to create story arcs. A reason for that has been that I do not want to spoil the story in case someone would play these arcs.
But frankly, who am I kidding? The five story arcs I have published in the game so far are not played much. The number of times I have received a rating and/or comment this year on any of those can be counted on one hand. So the rest of the post here is about creating a new story arc (my sixth). If you are one that actually might play it at some point – you have been warned!
My starting point when I have decided to created a story arc has generally been either the main enemy or the main enemy group. In this case it was a single enemy, the Snake “god” Stheno. I have not played the regular mission to defeat Stheno in the game, but I saw it a long time ago in one of the quick&dirty story arcs that fill up the Mission Architect system. I thought it was a pretty neat and not so used arch-villain, so I wanted to do something around that.
Next decision was the morality the mission – should it be heroic, villainous or something else? This will affect the style of writing and what kind of missions to do, so this is something I want to decide early. I changed one of my earlier story arcs from being villainous to heroic 2-3 months ago and that was more effort than I had initially anticipated. In this case I decided to go with a villainous approach to the story – there are not that many MA story arcs that focus on the villain side.
Story arcs that just have a simple goal of “go and defeat X” are not particularly interesting IMHO, so obviosuly there should be something more to it. A reason should be built up that leads to the result of defeating Stheno. And preferably there should be some kind of twist in the story – the end result should not be obvious from start (IMHO).
Since the story has a villainous approach I was thinking may be I could include some kind of betrayal as a twist? The idea then popped up that the player character(s) could have some kind of sidekick that would turn on them. The sidekick’s capabilities would increase during the course of the story arc and in the end turn on her/his former “master” – the player. The player must still have a chance to win here, but the actual final battle would not be with Stheno – it would be with the former sidekick.
At this point I started to think more about what the sidekick should look like and the powers/capabilities he/she should have. As a starting point I often look at the various characters I have created and played and this time I picked my martial arts/regeneration scrapper, Tsu Hon. Since she should evolve though her looks should change. At first I was thinking to just re-use the different costumes I had created for Tsu Hon, but that would not reflect any progression really. So I started from one of the original costumes of Tsu Hon and then tried to make her a bit more plain. The powersets I changed to martial arts/willpower though – this should hopefully allow for a bit more balanced power set-up.
Creating a custom character implicitly means that you have to start with the story arc itself also, since it is from there you can create your custom characters. So this was the first time I actually used the Mission Architect interface and just created a dummy story arc – no proper name or description or anything.
Initially I set up my new Tsu Hon sidekick as the contact for the story arc. But I realized quickly that this would not work out so well. The contact will look the same throughout the arc; but the sidekick should evolve. And either the player should already know the contact as their sidekick or they should be introduced wanting to be their sidekick. In both cases some text introduction would be needed and on top of that some mission introduction should also be included – preferably without a wall of text.
So I scrapped the idea with the sidekick as a contact and instead choose a computer. As an evil mastermind the player should of course be on top of what is happening in the world around him/her. So the idea was then formed that the contact should be the player’s interaction with his/her computer system for planning evil deeds – the Crime Computer (yes, term borrowed from Champions Online).
With the sidekick gone from the contact position, the first mission should then introduce the sidekick and introduce the player to the main story – the one that should lead to fighting Stheno in the end. My thoughts here then was perhaps to introduce some kind of ancient artifact related to Stheno for the main story. The player would discover the artifact, buit the reason for the player being there in the first place would be something different.
So then the idea was formed that the player would be raiding perhaps a warehouse for some lucrative loot and by chance discovered this artifact. There would be others also looking for that artifact and thus there would be some conflict. Maybe the player should discover some ancient cult that wanted to wake up Stheno and try to stop them? That one was thought of, but discarded. It would be a bit cliché and it would also be a heroic mission. This is supposed to be a villainous story – no saving of the world from evil cults! (starting an evil cult would be a more interesting topic though)
Power and Profit should be the main motivations for the player villain. The warehouse was kept; this was set up to contain some ordinary loot. The ancient artifact would be searched for by some other faction, but the player would steal it and use for his/her own benefit. If the loot belonged to some ordinary and simple gang, then the to-be sidekick could be a member of that gang and thus have a reason for being in the warehosue in the first place.
But why would the sidekick switch side? Power and ambition, join the winning side. But why would the player want a sidekick in the first place, especially one from a less powerful group? The idea was then formed that the sidekick would try to prove herself to the player, but the player should not have a reason to keep the sidekick – yet.
A low level gang like the Hellions would be great – but Hellion enemies are all low level and would not scale up. So then the idea was formed that Hellions would use the warehouse for storage, but it was raided by the police. Police forces are available pretty much through all level ranges. That could work out well with the sidekick being a captured Hellion in the warehouse.
But why would the player go into the warehouse if it were full of cops? And the cops raided and found the stolen goods etc, would they not just bring it with them? Here I modified the story a bit so that the police had only discovered by chance in a routine investigation that there was a lot of stolen good and drugs in the warehouse. They thought they had things under control fdor the moment, but had called for backup to take care of the goods plus also have extra forces in place, in case the Hellions would come to defend what they considered theirs. A time limit was set up for the player to collect what was needed from the warehouse before the police backup arrived.
It would not make sense for the future sidekick to be in the warehouse waiting to become a sidekick before the player entered. So I added the sidekick as two separate objectives and two separate characters:
- Initial one is the sidekick as a Hellion girl captured by the police, a rescue objective (mandatory). She sees the player and gets all excited – one of her idols has just stepped into the warehouse! She begs if she can become a sidekick and rushes off briefly (says she will be back)
- The sidekick is now dressed up a bit to try to look a bit more like a villain (not a complete success) and begs if she can follow and be a sidekick (Ally objective). She is very weak at this point (minion) and will likely be killed. But the mission will not fail for killed allies and it will not matter for the completion of the mission. Dialog aims to portrait a character that has more ambition and enthusiasm than capability, but is willing to improve.
For the main story I wanted to place an artifact somewhere also. But again, who would the player compete with for that and if it was not to worship Stheno, summon Stheno or defeat Stheno, why would they want it and why would the player want it instead?
The competition could of course be another organisation, also looking for Power and Profit. At this point I had been thinging a bit more on level ranges for the story arc and decided to look for an enemy group with a somewhat wide and high level range. Crey seemed to fit quite fine (level 30-54), so I decided to use them. And why would Crey get involved with the Snakes and Stheno? Biotech research and trying to make superpowered or improved humans would be one plausible reason.
So then came the idea with Crey humans (agents and soldiers) that have been enhanced through Snake DNA. They were in a special project or program to develop superhumans. They might have a reason for getting these artifacts.
So said and done, I started to create Snake-DNA modified Crey. The first approach here was to simply take standard Crey mobs and change their skin colour. To complement those I created a few custom character also with reptilian heads and with outfits looking similar to what Crey mobs are using.
I then set up a defendable object (the box for the artifacts) which then the snake-like Crey would be trying to get to. A problem with this was though that the ambush triggered for it was the police, not Snake-like Crey. This did not seem quite logical, but I left it as is for the time being.
Sometime around this point is when the trial&error sessions start to see how this looks in reality. An initial selection of a map has been made that supports the number and type of objectives needed and also that looks af if the player might find and see things “naturally” in the right order. This is especially important of there are multiple phases in a single mission.
Unfortunately not all maps works as documented. Also, not all maps supports the right combination of objectives in the locations you want them. So there can be a bit of experimentation before one finds a map that is suitable.
Most of the text writing had gone into this first mission now. The whole artifact part was still a bit fuzzy, but I decided to wait with that and sort that out once the later stages had been detailed a bit more.
So for the next mission, what should happen? The player would know there were some sort of Crey involved, so he/she would naturally want to find out more on what this was about. So the player needs to find them (Crime Computer to the rescue!). The player probably would like to steal the research. But why would the player become interested in defeating Stheno, the original end result?
Next idea here was then that the DNA-modified Crey actually were controlled by Stheno and the Snakes. In search for the improvement though Snake DNA it had backfired and now the Snakes gained control (yes, it is a bit cliché). That idea became the setting for the second mission in a Crey facility. The sidekick had to be included again also, although a bit stronger/better this time (learning from experience).
In this case I also used a multi-phase pattern for the sidekick:
- Sidekick is encountered in the beginning, captured by Crey. A cooler outfit this time. Instead of wanting to run head first into battle though, she wants to show her brainy side and offers to hack the computer systems (runs off).
- Sidekick reports though local hacked systems where snake-like Crey “and something else” is located.
- Sidekick appears as captured and tortured by Crey in the same area as the end objectives. It is optional for the player to rescue and help her at this point. If rescued, she will try to help in fights, but with more restriction than in previous mission. She is a bit more powerful (Lieutenant)
The initial map I used here did not have a linear progression – there were essentially three different paths the player could take. Most of the sidekick related activities I wanted to keep optional, but still likely that the player would do them or at least get the opportunity to do them “naturally”. I also wanted to introduce the Snakes. And there was still the primary objective to find out more about the Crey research.
The research information I set up as a two-phase objective:
- Rescue a scientist from the snake-like Crey or Snakes, he would reveal the location of the research data after being able to safely exit the facility.
- The player picks up the research data (collection)
The initial idea here was though that the scientist would not lead the player to the actual research data, but instead to an ambush and from there after defeating the ambush get the research data. But in order to do that, the enemies that the scientist would lead the player to would have to exist as a mandatory objective. Thus it would have a visible objective text which would defeat the purpose with it in the first place. So it was changed to the above, with the clue from the rescue describing where the research data was located.
I also wanted the Snake presence to be a surprise, although players should have figured out by this time that Sankes might be involved in this arc. So I set up a boss which was optional to defeat (no navigation text), placed in the same location as the final research data and tortured sidekick. I only wanted the Snake to appear after Tsu Hon’s report though the hacked computer, but the computer was already used to spawn Tsu Hon.
So what I did then was to add a couple of body bags with dead Crey, optional and with no navigation text. This assumes that the player will be curious enough to investigate them. Some of the mandatory objective descriptions were also made a bit vague so that the player might want to investigate any object in case that one would be the right one. One of the body bags has a clue which indirectly points to the Snake presence and is also used to trigger the Snake objective.
Testing with this mission revealed issues with where things spawned – it would simply not end up in locations that would be “natural” for the player to encounter in a proper order. So a few trial & error attempts were made and a new map was found, which was more linear in nature.
So at this point the player would know about the Snakes and possibly figure out something about Stheno. The Snakes would likely not be using computer systems etc, so the normal Crime Computer search might not be suitable to find them. But since Arachnos have had to deal with them a lot they would know. And somehow I had to get those artifacts into the story – still had not quite solved that.
Being a villainous arc I had the idea then that the player would trick Arachnos into retaliation towards the Snakes, by setting up an attack towards Arachnos that indicated Snake responsibility and in particular those Snakes that were in control of the converted Crey. If there were a few snake-like Crey bodies and Snake bodies found after the raid on Arachnos, then they might believe that.
It was at this point I also decided to research a bit more on Stheno and its motivations and looked up some information in the Paragon Wiki. it was then I discovered that the only mission arc in the game that involved Stheno had a definite similar flavour to my story… In the regular arc it is discovered (by Arachnos and the player) that there is a tougher breed of Snakes; there is secret Crey laboratory with Crey working on DNA research where the people are mind-controlled by the Snakes. The player stops this and then puts a stop to Stheno.
Not exactly the same as my story, but close enough that I considered dropping the whole thing. I decided to adjust the story a bit though and acknowledge the other story as something that happened in the past.
So what I did here then was to introduce the contract that provided the original arc (Operative Grillo) into the story. The player would do all the set-up work believing that Arachnos would fall for it. But at the end of the mission Operative Grillo appears and gives the player an ultimatum – defeat Stheno for us, or face the wrath or Lord Recluse. Arachnos has already been through this process before and have no interest in sacrificing troops if some free-lancing villain can be made to do it.
For the set-up the player would use snake-like Crey and Snake bodies. The snake-like Crey bodies would be available from the previous mission, but where you the snake bodies come from? For this part I used the sidekick Tsu Hon. Her presence in this mission would be that she had lured some Snakes and which then would be killed (by the player). The objective to place Snake bodies appears after that encounter is completed.
The sidekick at this stage has recovered a bit from the torture in the previous mission and is stronger (she is a boss) and more determined than before. She now has reached a point that she pretty much sees herself as equal to the player rather than a subordinate and the dialog is intended to reflect that. She also has fixed her apperance a bit to look more “cool”. Still a bit restrictive in fights, prefers the player to take the initial hit.
In this mission I added some Snake artifacts that the player would find “by chance”. These are intended to provide some motivation for the player to defeat Stheno besides avoiding to piss off Lord Recluse – there may be some lucrative loot to get from Stheno.
I decided to change the first mission also for the artifact part, and get rid of that entirely. Instead I set it up so that the police had captured one of the snake-like Crey. When rescued, he promises to lead the player to some “special merchandise”, but instead triggers an ambush upon arrival. Not a perfect solution, but perhaps ok as an introduction to these Crey.
As usual, finding an appropriate map for the spawns here provide to be not so easy. The snakes ended up together with an Arachnos spawn pretty much all the time, which made it both a bit more challenging to fight and a bit weird – why would they be friendly with each other? In the end I selected the enemy spawns on the map to be “Empty” (no automatic spawns) and placed some patrols and a boss encounter in different sections of th map – they are not that likely to end up together.
The fourth mission then becomes the final mission where Stheno shall be defeated. Defeating Stheno is the only initial objective. The first map I used was the map that the regular mission likely uses – Stheno’s Lair. However, the spawn locations are pretty much totally random for everything, which made it difficult to have any sort of phased progression. At the very least the player should pick up sidekick Tsu Hon again before running into Stheno.
So I switched to one of the other Snake maps – one with a statue of Stheno. This map worked much better for spawns. In addition to Stheno the caves were filled with Elder Snakes and Snake-like Crey, including 3 bosses (2 snake, 1 Crey) – all optional to fight.
Tsu Hon is also inside the cave this time as an Ally objective and is at this point in the dialog a bit arrogant and quite powerful (elite boss). The idea is to portrait her as considering the player to be somewhat inferior but she is along for the ride…for now. I also added 2 optional collection objects, each which will spawn an Arachnos ally. They are presented as “Arachnos observers”. The game purpose with these are that if the player would need some extra help at some stage, he/she can call for assistance.
When Stheno is defeated a new objective to look for Stheno’s treasure pops up. This will initially lead to an empty chest and will set up a new objective with the real chest. At this point Tsu Hon will betray and become the enemy. The idea with this to avoid betrayal right after Stheno’s defeat – the player might want to heal up etc. By setting up an intermediate chest the betrayal will trigger before the mission is completed also, otherwise the player could just leave directly.
This is pretty much the stage the story arc is at the time of writing. I have played it with two different characters so far, one in the lower end of the level range and one in the higher end. It is now published, but is flagged as “work in progress”. Next steps are to try it out with more characters in more “real” conditions, try to find spelling mistakes and other errors. At this stage any major restructure is not planned, at least not until some feedback from other people is received.
It will likely be made official at some point later in this week.
If you actually have read all the way here – thank you very much for your patience and hopefully it was not too boring to read…