Five Lessons of RPG Design

Because character growth and creation becomes a completely different mechanic when you take away it’s permanence. Like Zylon said, equipment fills the changeable attributes mechanic within an rpg. Sure you can meld them into one, or dress it up into a skill tree but you are now missing one of the most compelling (imo) mechanics of rpg’s.

Take Dungeons of Dredmor, for example. You could make bad decisions, yet character creation and leveling was a blast.

He was talking specifically about mechanics that are a substitute for player skill. People understand that a shotgun is less accurate at range than a rifle. What drives people nuts is when your rifle skill starts out with a crazy inaccurate reticule because you haven’t “leveled up” enough to aim with it.

Using your Borderlands example, sniper rifles were just as accurate skilled or unskilled, but a Roland with the skill that made sniper rifles steadier was better and the player didn’t feel cheated because of it.

Pretty much, yeah. One may as well ask why flight sims usually involve airplanes (or helicopters)-- that’s just what they are.

Okay fine, so the question becomes whether permanent choice is a good thing. I say it is. Permanent choice is a large part of why western RPGs are one of the most replayable genres around. You decide who you want to be, and every challenge in the game becomes a reflection of every decision you’ve made to that point. It gives the player a sense of accomplishment, of having worked their way up to something. By the time you’re near the end, you have a real sense of ownership of your character. Free respeccing strips all that away. It robs the game of the proverbial meaningful decisions, and encourages you to adopt the optimal character build for every phase of the game, leading to playthroughs that are nearly the same every time. Any given character build has about as much emotional investment as your current hat.

Also no, I have not played Bastion.

Permanent choice is ok, but RPGs tend to suffer from two pitfalls. One is how do you know if you’ll like that skill/spell/talent/feat? You have to choose it before being able to use it, and even then, it could be good at level 1, but doesn’t scale well and is crap at level 10, even if you put a point in it every time you leveled.

And then there is often the problem that if you had chosen skill A instead, you would just be better off. It was hands down the better choice. Sorry, you chose poorly. Oops, your skill in X weapon? Well its mostly pointless since those are much more rare, while if you had chosen foozles, the story will give you the best of those in the game later after doing quest Q.

Yeah, it was basically that the baseline skill level in Borderlands was competent, unlike most RPG shooters like the first Deus Ex or AP. This isn’t just FPS games, I got annoyed at Silent Storm for having to get within like three squares to hit anything with the starting soldiers.

Borderlands did suffer from the skill trees not always being that meaningful though.

Clearly, any game system can be implemented badly.

/puts another point into Swimming

Perhaps weirdly, I completely agree with him on the problems he points out. We just disagree 100% on the conclusions he draws from them. Indeed, I believe it is entirely accurate to pin those problems and a host of others, on CRPGs trying to not be RPGs.

Which is why I’d like to see a game really move to a system where your character skills are largely based on what you do and not on what you choose. It’s stupid that I can kill 100 orcs with a sword and become a better archer because I decided to spend my “points” on that. Or shoot 100 molerats with a gun but become a better medic as a result. Once we get away from that artificial aspect of RPGs, things will be much improved.

And then we can get to a more realistic inventory system as well, one that realistically penalizes my quick footed rogue for carrying around 9 giant hammers and two complete sets of heavy armor.

Those games already exist. They’re called “All games that aren’t RPGs”.

Designing action-RPGs is always going to represent a sword-edge dance between a satisfactory mix of player skill and character skill.

EDIT: Crap, nevermind, I misunderstood what you meant here.

The thing with strategic choices is that they should never be punished. You should never find out later that you’ve made a ‘bad’ choice. You may have a slightly harder time of it, or be sub-optimal, but I should never feel like I’ve made the ‘wrong’ choice.

Tactical choices, hell yeah. That’s where choices and consequences shines. But if the Consequence of a strategic decision is that my ability to succeed in the game is permanently hindered, then that’s bad design.

One way of dealing with this is to allow for different strategic choices to result in different game paths. If choosing the “Mega-Bastard Electro Ray” skill means I won’t be able to join the Paragon Group and take part in their awesome quest series, that should be made obvious to me. In addition, I should also be able to join another group (The Motherfuckers) that offers fully-fleshed out and hopefully awesome quest lines.

If strategic choices lead to serious consequences, they have to be as engaging and fully fleshed out as any other choices.

Also, Sarkus, have you PLAYED the Elder Scrolls games?

I got that this was the issue he was mainly thinking of, but he lays the blame on randomness in general. I think that’s a dangerous way to present the idea, because it’s eliminating a really valuable mechanic because some designers have abused it by tying it to character skills rather than weapon characteristics.

I agree it’s important to look carefully at where a die roll is appropriate. One thing I liked a lot better about New Vegas was that the replaced random speech checks in Fallout 3 with straight minimum skill checks. This kept the importance of the Speech skill without encouraging save / reload. The main drawback is that New Vegas doesn’t factor in Charisma into the check as Fallout 3 does, so you can be a silver-tongued devil with Charisma 1 as long as you have the points in Speech. In Fallout 3, Charisma effectively multiplied your Speech skill in Fallout 3, so high Charisma was fairly important for playing that kind of character.

Which does go to one of his other points - the effects of Charisma in Fallout 3 weren’t all that visible to player, to the point where the Wiki page has all sorts of tips for reaching Speech 100 with Charisma 1, even though that is not a good idea.

I’ve played games like that. They suck. Dungeon Siege comes to mind, but I never liked Runequest either.

RPGs where you learn earn points in a skill by doing that skill, rather than allocating points, have two main problems: you end up grinding skills, doing stuff you don’t really want to do just to improve that skill, and it’s very difficult to expand your character into a new area. To take your sword / archer example, if you can arbitrarily allocate points from killing things with a sword into archery, you usually end up in a situation where you can’t improve your archery skill. The stuff you’re fighting will kill you if you try practicing your novice archery on them. Or alternately, you end up at 40th level going back and grinding 1st level monsters just for skill, which is tedious.

This is exactly how weapon skills work in WoW, by the way. Does anyone find it fun that, as a warrior, when you pick up an unfamiliar weapon type, you have to spend a bunch of time killing stuff 10 levels below you, just to grind up the skill to a point where you won’t die when facing your normal opponents?

No, it isn’t. You’re nine months out of date.

Well, it was that way for years so close enough for me. =P

But one thing I wonder is that if people’s main complaint about skills that improve as you use them is that it takes too long or presents barriers when shifting equipment around, then why can’t you tweak the numbers and throw in a little extra design there to prevent things like that from happening?

I’ve always hated it that in RPGs skills don’t carry over at all. If you know how to use a longsword, then you may not be amazing at a shortsword, but the basics should carry over. Same with say, rifles and pistols.

Sounds like a typical skill tree. Basic swordplay, then specialize into a particular sword type, etc.

For that matter, GURPS had the concept 25 years ago, where many skills (such as Shortsword) had default skill levels based on related skills (such as Longsword).

EDIT: In any case, that doesn’t address the problem of it being difficult to expand a character when the system relies on learning-by-doing rather than point allocation. Archery and Swordsmanship are not going to share skill points, let along Swordsmanship and Medic.

Exactly, which is why it always bugged me that videogames ignore their roots that can help solve some of these problems.

Eh, it seems like videogames often draw from the wrong roots: i.e. D&D. D&D is a popular system, but it isn’t a particularly good one.

As far as I’m concerned, it all boils down to a couple of things: transparency, and meaningful choices.

Transparency applies to things like damage formulas and AI behavior, and it allows players to understand why some choices are better than others.

When I say meaningful choice, I really mean “no bad choices.” Sure, this can come off as hand-holding in certain situations, but if the player isn’t getting some enjoyment out of a choice, then why offer it at all? As mentioned, if it’s a random outcome, the player will find ways to circumvent it (e.g. reloading the game).