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We're about halfway through our Kickstarter and we're incredibly pleased with the response. We hit our funding goal in less than 24 hours, and we're now working toward stretch goals. If you haven't had a chance to see the Kickstarter project page, check it out!
What you're about to read represents the current ideas in the game design. They're subject to change based on development, testing and community feedback. As always, we're interested in your suggestions and comments. Please let us know what you're thinking on the messageboards!
How do two (or more) anonymous players in an MMO make an agreement that is meaningful to all parties, and that creates a system where people will fulfill their commitments even without real-world social pressure or legal consequences?
The solution we have evolved is to have a variety of contracts tailored to various purposes. Characters can enter into contracts specifying various aspects of their deals, the rewards for success, and the penalties for failure.
You can think of these contracts as a questing system hidden in plain sight. In most MMOs, an implicit contract is formed when you accept a quest—if you do the thing that the questgiver requires, you'll receive the offered reward. The trust that you must extend is to the development team: they would be unlikely to have the quest giver cheat you; if they did, nobody would accept those quests, and word would quickly spread that the quests are scams. Other than occasional bugs, NPCs who give quests in MMOs always stand behind their offers.
In Pathfinder Online, the dynamic shifts from NPCs giving quests to players interacting with each other to advance their own agendas. However, without the good will of the developers standing behind the deal, odds are that many people would renege on a deal, or in some way scam or steal from the other parties. Unlike NPC quests which have virtually no security (but very high trust), PC-to-PC deals have to have strong security to overcome very low trust. The metagame solution to this problem is to simply say that such schemes are violations of the code of conduct for the game and will not be tolerated. Rapid and effective enforcement of such a policy will substantially reduce the number of people who try it.
We have four in-game tools at our disposal to build security into player contracts.
If you wish to undertake a contract, you may be asked to place a certain amount of valuables into "escrow." An "escrow" account is managed by the system, not by any player. Getting something out of escrow requires that a set of conditions defined in the contract be fulfilled.
Escrow systems assume that enough valuable material can be assessed so that the pain of cheating on the deal is high enough that most people simply won't do it. The risk is that a contract taken in good faith may prove impossible to complete, and the escrow may be forfeit even though the player had no intention to cheat on the deal. Classic examples of this are setting up arrangements to have someone take something to a specific location, which turns out to be a trap. The transport fails, the escrow is forfeit, and the transporter pays whatever associated costs there are for being waylaid.
That the person you're taking a contract from is known to be someone who is safe to do business with raises a high bar for folks who want to engage in shenanigans. Your reputation will have a big effect on the price paid for hiring services—the worse your rep—or the absence of a rep—the higher the price people will demand for taking the risk of dealing with you. And without a decent rep, many people won't deal with you at all.
Violating the terms of contracts is a fundamentally chaotic act. Doing so repeatedly will have effects on character's alignments. Alignments have meaningful consequences that affect the way characters interact with the world and the way the world interacts with them. The availability of some services, especially those related to the intervention of divine beings, will be keyed to alignment. And you can expect that players will form opinions of who your character is and based on alignment. Someone who has become chaotic evil is going to have a hard time hiring others to perform various tasks, and that character is likely to find it hard to get work from those who need a reliable and trustworthy hireling.
The Long Arm of the Law
Breaking certain kinds of contracts can flag a character as a criminal. Criminals will have a hard time finding anyone to offer or accept a contract—there's no honor among thieves... or murderers.
NPC settlements have an automatic mechanism for enforcing law in the River Kingdoms. Criminals will be ruthlessly pursued and killed when they commit criminal acts in areas under NPC settlement security. Player settlements will likely want to create their own enforcement systems: player characters specifically developed to track, engage, and destroy criminals. These PC enforcement agents will have to evolve over time and will be less efficient than automatic systems, but they'll still be a credible threat, and the more organized a settlement becomes, the bigger that threat will be.
Not all characters can offer or accept a given type of contract. Engaging in some contracts may require skill training, merit badges, and specific character abilities.
Contracts are transparent to all parties. When a contract is offered, all the terms of that contract are set and made visible to anyone who can accept the contract. When you take on a contract, you're doing so with full advance knowledge of the terms you're agreeing to. Once made, contracts cannot be changed.
Some contracts are offered from one character directly to another, usually when those characters are in the same area. Other contracts may be posted on centralized notice boards, and will be visible when a character visits the location of that board.
The person who issues a contract has several options that determine who can accept it. It can name a specific character, a chartered company, a settlement, or a kingdom. Further restrictions can be imposed: required or prohibited alignments, required or prohibited races, required or prohibited archetypes, etc.
Contracts cannot be available forever; they have a limited duration when they're available to be accepted. This will keep the contract system from becoming glutted with old, forgotten contracts.
Contracts are always in one of several status types:
You'll be able to see all the contracts you've offered and/or accepted, and their current status, at any time.
We're currently envisioning several different contract types:
The accepting party agrees to kill a target player character. Can be accepted by more than one party. No time limit to complete. No cost for abandoning the contract. The amount offered for the assassination is placed in escrow on creation of the contract. Completing this contract is a criminal, evil act that will result in an alignment shift. The contract automatically closes on completion.
Assassinations themselves require a whole dev blog to discuss, and most of the ideas we have for them are still very formative.
Auctions have their own special systems. We'll write more about the way markets and auctions will work in an upcoming dev blog.
The accepting party agrees to kill a target murderer. Can be accepted by multiple parties. No time limit to complete. No cost for abandoning the contract. A bounty contract is automatically completed when the target of a bounty is killed. The bounty amount is placed in escrow on creation of the contract. These contracts can only be created after a character has been murdered. Automatically closes if the murderer is killed, though the bounty may be renewed.
This is the mechanical expression of the idea of the bounty discussed in the dev blog To Live and Die in the River Kingdoms.
The accepting party agrees to be logged in and present at a designated location during a specified time frame. Can be accepted by multiple parties, up to a limit specified by the terms. Abandonment of the contract or failure to fulfill the terms forfeits an amount of coin held in escrow as defined by the contract. The party offering the contract specifies an account to fund the contract when the contract is created. The agreed fee for the guard is placed in escrow each time the contract is accepted. If the fee cannot be put in escrow, the contract cannot be accepted. Can only be seen and accepted at the location where the contract is offered.
On acceptance, an amount of coin, as described in the contract, is transferred from the offering party to the accepting party. The accepting party agrees to transfer another specified amount of coin to the offering party within a specified time frame. Can only be accepted by one party. The coin to be loaned is placed in escrow on creation of the contract. The contract can also specify a manifest of collateral items which must be provided by the accepting party and which are placed in escrow on acceptance. If the contract is abandoned or terminated by the accepting party, characters in the accepting party will gain a 30-day criminal flag, any items in escrow will be transferred to the offering party, and the alignment of characters in the accepting party will shift towards chaotic. Can only be seen and accepted at the location where the contract is offered.
In practice, the difference between the amount offered and the amount repaid is the effective interest on the loan.
The accepting party agrees to sell a designated manifest of gear or other items at a specified price. Can only be accepted by one party. Completes automatically on acceptance. Cannot be accepted unless the items on the manifest are immediately available to meet the contract terms. Delivery is at a location specified in the terms. The purchase price is placed in escrow on creation of the contract. Can only be seen and accepted at the location where the contract is offered.
The accepting party agrees to buy a designated manifest of gear or other items. Can only be accepted by one party. Completes automatically on acceptance. Cannot be accepted unless funds are immediately available to meet the contract terms. Delivery is at a location specified in the terms. The items in the manifest are placed in escrow on creation of the contract. Can only be seen and accepted at the location where the contract is offered.
The accepting party agrees to move a designated manifest from one location to another location within a specific time frame. Can only be accepted by one party. Abandonment of the contract or failure to fulfill the terms forfeits an amount of coin held in escrow as defined by the contract. The items on the manifest are placed in escrow on creation of the contract and are delivered to the storage of the accepting party on acceptance of the contract at the defined location.
We expect that characters will be constantly offering and accepting contracts, and that they'll be the mechanism by which a lot of player interaction happens. Ideally, most of the commercial, diplomatic, and adventuring activities in the game will develop through player-to-player contracting. If somebody offers you a reward for bringing them 10 rat tails, it will be because another player needs 10 rat tails for some reason, not just because an NPC has an exclamation point bobbing over his head. We think that will make questing much more meaningful and interesting to everyone.
Discuss this blog on paizo.com.