Posted 24 June 2005 - 01:32 PM
8. Character skills vs. player skills
Based on my previous description of what I would like an RPG to be defined as, the details of this section should already be somewhat foreshadowed. A character's skills should reign supreme over a player's skills. If you want to have fun pitting your skills against someone else's skills, go shoot 'em up in Quake 3 or CounterStrike or any of a number of other such games. The point is, it's all been done before. The same can not be said with as much overwhelming certainty about the roleplaying establishment's providence of complete immersion into roleplaying. When you control the actions of a character, that character's skills and abilities should be the "height and breadth of the window" through which you may act upon the game world. No matter how awesome you are in the real world, you don't live in the game world; the character does. You should be restricted to your character's capabilities, even if they are initially worse than your own. Key word: Initially. This opens up a whole avenue of enjoyable subtlety.
First of all, you get to experience the rewarding and almost palpable sensation of the progression of your character's skill as it approaches being equal to your own. Secondly, your character's skill can be made to surpass your own reflexes or accuracy by using increasingly accurate auto-aiming and prediction algorithms. This is applicable even if you ARE already so awesome that you can take on sixteen godlike bots by yourself in Unreal Tournament CTF and still win. At some point, a computer is going to be able to outshoot, out-think, and outperform any human, given sufficient programming and processing power. We humans just can't have a thought, no matter how basic, once every millionth of a second or more. So we can put that to our game's advantage when designing a system that starts a character out with less skill than a player, and ends him or her up with far more skill than the player could ever actually possess unaided. Many people would still argue that they wouldn't enjoy playing the character while his or her abilities are less than their own, but they are forgetting that there is much more to a fantasy world than just character abilities. A game world can present a player with so many possible courses of action, eye candy, bizarre encounters, and heroic situations that their character's skills are only the tip of the iceberg. Additionally, a reasonably realistic skillset distribution must be maintained for each character. A player needs to feel that his or her character is not starting out with ALL skills being below average for even a normal real-life person. As long as that is true, only progress matters, not absolute skill level at any given moment. One of the basic formulas of successful game programming is "Overcoming (usually by killing) = Reward".
9. Quantization of skills and attributes
This is a very important topic. This relates directly to making the numbers feel more intuitive. How do we split up the spectrum of "skill" so that it is simple enough to be intuitive, and yet complex enough to be motivational? It has already been discussed how not fun it would be to only be able to progress through 5 or so levels of skill to achieve mastery. I tend to agree with this sentiment. However, I also think that if the character had to transition through five thousand subtle levels of skill, that it would devalue the attainment of each level, since it is such a small step toward eventual mastery. In other words, the larger the number of steps between beginning and end, the less and less the human mind can even wrap itself around any sense of appreciation of progress. (Just exactly how much better is 517/5000 from 516/5000? Please.) Still, the general rule would seem to be "more is preferable to less" when it comes to levels of skill. One of the problems many people have with using numbers visibly in an RPG is that the feeling it creates is too granular or stair-stepped. This is especially noticeable in the case of "leveling up," where suddenly the character can run, jump, fight, or hide, etc significantly better than he or she could before, even though only a little bit more experience has been gained (enough to level up).
This problem of creating the feeling of aliasing in the player's mental graph of progress can be alleviated through creating more levels of differentiation. This is actually a problem that exists not solely for the game programming culture. The world in general is also very discrete and packetized, on a very small scale. That which appears to be analog (continuous) is actually made up of a bunch of individual particles, be they atoms, electrons and protons, or quarks, etc. Anyone who has ever seen a highly magnified image of the surface of almost any smooth-looking surface will know how truly not smooth the world actually is. Every property (or entity) has a maximum resolution beyond which you cease to deal with the property itself. On a fundamental level, everything perceivable is digital (meaning in this case "able to be delineated into discrete elements"). In other words, smoothness and continuity are the illusions, at least when dealing with distinct objects or properties. So if the real world seems more realistic than the numbers we are employing, it is not the fault of numbers in general, but in our poor use of them. We are entirely defined by our relationships with everything else in our environment, and these relationships can be quantified, even if the resultant numbers are meaningless except in relation to other numbers.
It would seem like anywhere from 300 to 1000 gradations would be sufficient for the average imagination. For my own game, I will be using 400 to start out, as an experiment. On the matter of rounding floating point remainders, I always round in the player's favor as per the axiom of fun. The only exception to this is calculation involving a partial skill level, in which case I round down, since I don't want the character to receive the benefit of a skill level not yet achieved. In practice, this is achieved by keeping an integer record of skill level, and a separate variable containing experience earned toward that skill. That way, no floating point rounding down is necessary. Now, if you're anything like me, this part is pretty obvious. I'm just taking the time to be more precise and methodical when the limitations of my experience will allow it.
So far, I have been discussing skill quantization. Now to address attributes -- this includes things like stats, damage dealt, durability, armor, etc.
As with most things in life, it is easier for me to say what ideas I don't like about this topic than what I do like. I remember someone suggesting an open-ended system of skills and attributes. I have had this thought myself at various points. Logic keeps bringing me back to the same conclusion: this would be a bad idea. This would be for primarily two reasons. First, there is a limit to the human experience. A human can lift only so much weight, run only so fast, fire only so quickly, be only so observant. Beyond those limits, a human ceases to be a human, and either spontaneously combusts, converts to pure energy, becomes a god, or some combination of the three. A lot of what goes into deciding what system to build up around your numbers has to do with applying the calculus concept of limits, especially as it applies to what it means to be human.
Let's take the "best case" of becoming a god (since that could still involve a corporeal form). If your character becomes a god (or so close to one as for the difference not to matter), what fun is that? Defeating evil becomes like housekeeping at that point, which is comprised of chores. Chores != Fun. In order to maintain the feeling for a player that they are still playing a game (i.e. having fun), this "becoming godlike" scenario must not be allowed to happen. There should always be the option of struggling to overcome some obstacle, even if the player has reached the pinnacle of a character's power.
When considering how to prevent this problem, another argument that often arises is what I like to call the "Diablo dilemma." It goes thus: if you ensure a constantly available challenge for the character, how will the player ever feel a sense of true progress or growth? This problem can be addressed from two angles. For starters, let's remember that games like Diablo 2 are very linear. You must move from one predetermined area to the next. In each new area, the monsters must be harder than the preceding area's monsters, so that the character can continue to level up. Terrain and obstacles don't provide much of a strategic advantage. The nature of the game is such that the character can pretty much either wade into his enemies and eventually prevail, or he will die outright. It's a war of attrition. If you can create ways in your own game world for monsters of lower levels to team up and work strategically with monsters of higher level, you can suddenly have an altogether different challenge. But this time, it's a challenge where the player can feel the power of his character play out especially well against those lower level monsters. A situational experience bonus can be awarded when and if the character can manage to eliminate or bypass the monster group. This will make up for whatever experience the player missed out on by having to fight creatures with lower experience rewards. The reward will be justified, since the player will have to use strategy to overcome the group. Secondly, the player begins to perceive his or her character as being more worldly as they are slowly able to extend their explorations out across the entire worldscape. In this way, leveling up provides access to an increasingly larger real estate. A larger domain means more challenges, more adventure, and more chances for reward.
The other way to address the Diablo dilemma is to remember that there should be much more to an RPG game than just combat. Historically, very few kings have become kings by their own hand. Even those who have did not usually remain kings for long, unless they had more going for them than the ability to swing a sword harder or faster than anyone else. Even in the mundane real world, there are spies, assassins, poisoned food, changes of allegiance, random unlucky arrows through vital organs, etc. In an RPG, this is even more true since typically, magic threats also exist. A person must be more than a good fighter in order to be a great warrior. RPGs allow for the incorporation of this inherent real world fact. While I'm thinking about it, it should also be more important what kinds of skills and how many different abilities a player has, as opposed to how many skill points a player has in any one skill. This will help to eliminate unbalanced character creation. As long as you have enough different skills and abilities available in your game, then two players can have characters with completely different skill sets, which are nonetheless still balanced relative to each other. A character's skills and abilities, (and not primarily their stats), should give the advantage over any monster (within a reasonable level range), especially when used wisely in conjunction with other skills and abilities. Certain stats could be used to augment certain skill sets.
This would be viable only so long as you make sure the differing skill sets still allow characters to solve similar problems, just in different ways. This will dramatically encourage players to role play, instead of roll play. Gone will be the days of thinking, "Oh, I can't take on that big group of monsters. I wish I were playing my paladin (or druid, or whatever)." Your rogue will just have to figure out how to sneak up and "silent kill" them one at a time, or use shadows or a smoke bomb to slip past them altogether. A mage could perhaps teleport past them, or cast an illusion and walk right by them. Every type of character will have one or more solutions to every problem, even if you don't have distinct character "classes", per se. Some players who prefer fighter characters might say this is unfair, because the mages would have it too easy. But if the game system is engineered properly, mages will have much less health and armor than a fighter, and will only gain skill in the specific school or category of magic involving teleportation. (Or perhaps mostly in teleportation itself and only slightly in the generic type of magic.) This way, they don't suddenly level up from teleporting and also become better at offensive spells they never use. I don't think I've expressly stated it before now, so I will here: A character should only improve in skills or abilities that they actually use. This drastically reduces the antirealism involved with leveling up as handled in classic RPGs.
Related to this is the issue of level restrictions on items. I have always found fault with this. There needs to be some specific reason why a character cannot even try to wield some weapon (like maybe it's ethereal and the character has to have at least a certain amount of experience with magic to even perceive the weapon). If there's not such an explicit reason, then the character needs to be allowed to wield the weapon, no matter how powerful it is in the right hands, or how badly the character might use it. That's something the player needs to observe for him or herself. We might even design our game to give the player some pre-indication that the weapon is a bit much for them to handle, like a text or voice comment, maybe a grunt or a "whoa..." Regardless, the character should be able to pick up and try to use pretty much anything in the game world if they so choose. Of course, there could be significant penalties for doing so, such as slow attack or movement speed, reduced damage or magical benefits, lack of awareness of some of the more subtle magic abilities of the item, etc.
Speaking of which, there is the issue of identifying magic items. The method you choose to use to allow the player to discover the properties of a magic item depend largely on how populous magic items are in your game world. Personally, considering how even the most powerful of spells eventually expires or comes to conclusion, I would think that if magic really existed, magic items (and especially weapons) would be rare. I suppose you could argue that maybe some mage schools have developed a potent art of item embuement, or something like that. Regardless, I have long felt that RPG gamers in general (and this includes PnP) do not have a big enough appreciation of the magic items they find. This is probably due in large part to the spoiling influence of many games which reward magic items like popcorn. Let's be honest here -- if magic items were really that prevalent, nobody would ever use anything else. Proof of this is how we don't still use an abacus to do calculations. It would just be stupid to have a normal sword, or to be a vendor selling normal swords, when any average Joe can go out and get in a fist fight with a zombie and potentially receive a +1 magic sword as loot. Especially after several generations of living in a world like that, you wouldn't be able to find any serious non-magic weapons for love or money. There is also the issue that we call them "magic" items. We forget sometimes that magic is supposed to indicate something special, rare, unique, or arcane. Technically, magnetism is a miraculous invisible force, too. However, we call it "magnetism," and not "magic," for exactly the fact that it is so common and relatively well-understood. If magic were equally as common, we would call magic weapons "energy weapons" or "force weapons" or who knows what. But it wouldn't be called magic.
So if we design a world in which magic items are much less common, this reduces the ease of identifying magic items. Big demand and small supply of identification means big prices to get things identified. That's simple, real-world economics. However, I don't think that being able to identify something should be dependent solely on bank account. For many (or perhaps all) magical properties, if they have some effect that is even remotely relevant to the life of the person wielding them, that person will eventually notice them. After all, (in theory) how did these professional item identifier NPCs get started? So it would be a good idea to let a character wield a magic weapon even if he or she doesn't know what that item does; through use, the character would be able to discover what the magic attributes of that item are. This could be represented by a limited list of magic properties being displayed when the cursor is put over a partially unidentified item. This would be especially useful to us when we want to introduce truly unique magic items to the player. These would be items for which there has potentially been no prior experience by any person. Therefore, these items could not BE identified with money. A character would have to experiment with it, knowing beforehand that it must be a really powerful and special item if he or she could not even get it identified by someone else! There could also be some kind of "magic lore" skill which would aid the character in identifying magic properties, either immediately or through use. This could be a skill earned through training, and/or by direct experience over time.
On the topic of skill, all skills should require training of some sort in order to progress beyond a certain point. That certain point should be determined by some kind of intelligence stat. There could be several intervals at the end of which training is required. An example of this in the real world is: you may be smart enough to teach yourself to use a computer, you may even be smart enough to teach yourself to repair and upgrade computers, but at some point you are going to need to be shown how to do certain things. You would need training on how to design your own CPU or operating system, for instance. Nobody is born being able to do those things by tinkering. They must collaborate with and be shown by those who have gone before them. This concept should be especially pervasive in cases where a character is dealing with an arbitrary system (such as a trap or lock) set in place by some other NPC or group of NPCs. Unless the system in question is exceedingly intuitive, intelligence != luck. In other words, your characters' intelligence scores can only take them so far without explanation (training) of some kind. I suppose this would still be true even if you allow luck to be factor.
Now for some non-realistic but fun elements: An RPG should not include stamina as a depletable character resource. There's nothing more annoying than wearing big armor that your strength should allow you to wear unencumbered, but for some reason, you keep having to walk everywhere or drink lots of stamina potions because you keep running out of stamina. The character should also not be required to eat, sleep, drink, or shower. Anything that reeks of maintenance is going to be a pain. Sure, those elements would be realistic if present, but who wants to stop fighting monsters because the game is making them lose health until they eat something or go pee, etc? Let's face it, you can't introduce such requirements into your game unless you're prepared to have penalties to the character for not observing them. Unnecessary penalties = pisser = no fun. Besides, if the game world is big enough, having to spend time running or riding across it from one place to another would be penalty enough.
A sole exception to this no-maintenance rule is item durability. All items capable of being physically degraded over time should have durability. The benefit to gameplay of item durability is that it forces the player to interact at least somewhat with towns and cities. The player could minimize this requirement by having their character learn smithing and item repair. Still, eventually the character is going to start finding items that are magical. The more powerful they are, the less likely that the character will be able to repair them single-handedly. Item durability is also a benefit because it causes the player to realize that they have been using an item a lot for it to be worn out. Either that, or they must have been getting beaten up pretty badly for their armor to be in such bad shape. It can also be used as a device by the programmer to give the player a feeling for when a certain item is especially wimpy (as with wands) or tough (as with demon armor or something). This creates in the player a rudimentary tactile perception of the game world. Physical durability should only degrade through physical use in a destructive situation. This is to say that the weak wands mentioned above would last practically forever as long as they are used only for casting spells. They would only risk breaking quickly if your mage panicked and started beating an orc over the head with it. Only armor and perhaps jewelry (rarely) should be degraded by getting attacked, unless an item is used to parry. Low remaining item durability enhances player awareness of tribulation and accomplishment.
Concerning number meanings for weapons and armor:
It seems like whatever number system you create for dealing damage with weapons could be applied equally well to describing magic damage. This is because once you decide how to represent damage numerically, you can simply equate more vague sources of damage (like magic) to the amount of damage that would have been done if a physical weapon had been used to create the same amount of damage. It should be made clear that in these cases amount of damage is not to be confused with the type of damage. Different types of damage can also have different debilitating effects on the character, such as cold slowing the player down. This also removes from us the need to try to conceptualize damage in the game world as being a function of something intangible such as magic.
That having been said, we need to base a damage number on the characteristics of the weapon dealing the damage if we want the number to have any chance of feeling intuitive. Different aspects of a weapon that allow it to deal damage have already been touched on by other posters. These aspects include:
- Impact force
Sharpness would be largely for edged weapons. It could apply to missile weapons such as bows and crossbows, although in all cases it would still be describing slashing damage. Pointedness would describe the acuteness of the angle between the two edges of a weapon as measured from its tip to the point along the blade (or arrowhead) where the angle widens, if applicable. Pointedness could also be used to describe the acuteness of the angle of the cone described by any spiky projection coming off the weapon. The reason to differentiate between slashing and thrusting (piercing) damage is that, except in cases of dismemberment, piercing generally causes more damage and disruption to internal organs than slashing does. This is especially true when a target is wearing metal armor, since slashing could be deflected by it. Considerations of mass would apply for all weapons, but especially blunt melee weapons; mass could be derived from a density factor. Impact force would largely be a function of strength or bowstring tension (either way -- force) multiplied by mass in some fashion. The length of an edged melee weapon should figure into impact force as a function of the extra mechanical advantage the length provides. Hacking damage (like with claymores) could be derived by multiplying impact force by blade length and a portion its sharpness. Magic damage could be broken up into almost any number of categories, such as fire, ice, electrical (or lightning), pure magic, plasma, acid, poison, disease, sonic, magical keenness, vorpal tendency, etc. Magic damage could be added on rather arbitrarily, since it is impossible to prove that some magic force couldn't double or triple the destructive power of a weapon. Obviously, for the sake of game balance, it would be a good idea to act judiciously when assigning magic damages to a weapon. Different weapon types should inflict differing amounts of damage when pitted against different armor types and monsters. For example, chainmail is more effective against slashing attacks than piercing attacks. Shooting arrows at a skeleton probably won't hurt it very much.
Armor rating numbers should be a function of the sturdiness of the intrinsic materials, as well as the body surface coverage that type of armor would or should provide. A full suit of brass armor would still provide better protection than a single mithril gauntlet, because of coverage. As for the purpose of an armor rating number, it should indicate how much to reduce any attack damage the wearer takes. Armor rating should never serve the purpose of determining whether an attack hits at all or not. Armor might reduce a hit to zero damage, but that's still damage reduction, not hit avoidance. The only thing that should realistically be able to provide hit avoidance are dexterity (agility, etc) and magic. Shields and parrying can provide damage avoidance, which is different in the sense that the enemy still technically hits you. Blocking chance should be a function of speed, strength, possibly magic, blocking skill, and enemy level, and should be affected by the weight and size of the shield. Parrying chance should be a function of speed, dexterity, possibly magic, parrying skill, and enemy level. Successfully blocking or parrying should reduce the durability of the shield or parry weapon, respectively.
The possibility to deal subdual (knockout) damage should exist, instead of just killing damage. This would provide for wider variety in quest content and multiplayer roleplaying. All melee damage above a certain amount, and especially critical hits, should have a chance to stun the target, unless the target resists being stunned due to constitution and/or stun resist skill. Needless to say, fighter characters would end up with much greater stun resistance skill than anyone else, but they would also need it the most. Leveling up stun resistance skill would be a function of successfully resisting being stunned, or surviving being stunned. All skills should increase at least a little when failing at them. We learn just as much from our failures and mistakes as we do from our successes, if not more.
The way health is affected by leveling up and magic items in most games is absurd. If the maximum damage a sword can do is 15, let's say, and you start out with 50 health points, that means you can take about four "strong" hits before dying. At level 60, you now have 2000+ health, and can take so many strong hits from that same weapon and not die that it's ridiculous. This should not be. In the real world, you'd be doing great if you could ever work yourself up to being able to take ten times as many hits. The way things should work is that a human character cannot gain more than a certain maximum number of health points, ever. Period. And make it something realistic. If he started out with 50 health points, he shouldn't ever have more than about 250 or 300. Exactly what the upper limit of health points is would be determined by race and the character's initial constitution or vitality stat. Increasing constitution at level up would determine how quickly a character reaches their maximum health. Beyond that, constitution would mainly serve to determine healing rate and resistances to shock, poison, disease, and being stunned by an attack. The way game balance would be maintained is that the character would vastly improve his or her skills, abilities, armor, weapons, and items over time. You don't need massive amounts of health if your armor keeps you from being hurt much. Conversely, some players might prefer to shun heavy armor for the sake of mobility and thereby be able to completely avoid most attacks, diminishing the need for damage reduction. Getting rid of the possibility of massive amounts of health points can only be a help in ridding the player of the feeling that their character is prohibitively unrealistic.
In retrospect, I probably should have broken this category up into several categories. Ah, well. This really is the meat of the original question.
10. Character knowledge/memory vs. player knowledge/memory
This is pretty simple. The player should not be made responsible for remembering things that the character could remember. The player should especially not be punished by the game system, directly or indirectly, for forgetting some little detail of location, politics, questing, etc. The player could be coming back from a month of not playing; there's no way they're going to remember everything, and the game design shouldn't expect them to! A good RPG should have a detailed quest log that allows filterable searches. There should also be maps that become more "filled-in" as the character explores an area. These maps and logs could represent the character's memory, not necessarily actual pieces of paper. This is all part of the player/character awareness merging.
11. CRPGs vs. PnP RGPs (including text-based CRPGs)
I lump PnP RPGs together with text-based CRPGs because they both have to rely solely on numbers and text (or spoken) descriptions of what's happening. This can be quite nice, as the best 3D video card ever made is the human brain. While this may encourage player imaginations, it doesn't do much for immersiveness or ease of play (either because of having to imagine everything or having to keep track of all the math yourself). It can be a lot of tedious and time-consuming work. Therefore, the CRPG is perfectly poised to pick up the slack and provide a far superior level of immersiveness if done correctly. While numbers themselves should not be avoided, all calculations should be handled (and perhaps even hidden) by the game program. Whatever is the most convenient and least distracting.
12. Role playing vs. min/maxing and munchkins
Ultimately, min/maxers and munchkins have no place playing a real RPG. If a good RPG happens to give them certain things on which they can focus, so be it. But by and large, a good RPG should minimize artificiality (or even just the feeling of it) and maximize role-playing. As of right now, it doesn't seem as though such an RPG has yet been made to this full standard. Certainly no FPS RPG has yet been made to these standards that also includes a cooperative multiplayer capability. Key word: yet. Anyone can kill other players, but it takes a real warrior to work together well with others to achieve a common goal. I am aware that these two posts of mine did not focus enough on number specifics, but I have always felt that such decisions should be left up to each individual programmer. Guidelines are about the only thing I can safely contribute without mentioning number values that someone else will end up changing anyway.
~Ranger Meldon~ M.M. .: