Iron Tower & Wormwood Studios
Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Mark Yohalem - Wormwood Studios
Vince D. Weller - Iron Tower Studio
Interview by Chris Picone, 03 February 2018
I have a special treat for you all today. Joining me is Mark Yohalem, writer for Wormwood Studios, and Vince, writer and designer for Iron Tower Studio, to give their views on some of the finer points on modern RPG game design. Using details from upcoming games Fallen Gods, The New World, and Iron Tower’s as-yet-untitled Inquisition game as points of reference, we discuss/argue inventory, skill, and combat systems, puzzle design and the lessons that RPGs can learn from adventure games, witchcraft, sanity points, metagaming, inconsequential death, and the save-load dilemma.
Please note the following abbreviations:
AoD – Age of Decadence
TNW – The New World
PS:T – Planescape: Torment
MOTB – Mask of the Betrayer
D:OS – Divinity: Original Sin
DM/GM – Dungeon Master / Game Master
CSH: Inventory management is typically an afterthought in RPGs, but it’s still something that must be considered, and there’s no “norm.” Some are weight-based, some are space-based, and some are unlimited. The main issue appears to be trying to balance realism against convenience, and it is often perceived that micromanaging an inventory can only detract from an RPG’s real focus – the story.
Mark, what inventory management system will we be seeing in Fallen Gods? What are some of your other ideas for inventory management, or what might you implement in future games?
Mark: My usual approach – maybe a lawyer’s approach – is to take a roundabout approach to a question that calls for a straightforward factual answer. That approach feels particularly necessary here.
While there are a lot of things that I could describe as the “inciting event” or “prime motive” that led me to want to make Fallen Gods, one was a sense of dissatisfaction with itemisation and character-building in RPGs. I had long felt that RPG itemisation tended to devalue items; I think I had first written about this in connection with jRPGs because Suikoden took the rare (and in my opinion laudable) step of having the player upgrade rather than replace the characters’ weapons. If you look at mythology, folklore, fantasy novels, comics – or any adventure stories, really – a characters’ items are themselves part of the story. Indiana Jones isn’t always swapping out hats and whips. Indeed, it is particularly the case that a hero’s weapon (whether heirloom lightsaber, phoenix-feather wand, cavalry pistol, vibranium shield, whatever) defines the character and functions as a watershed in the plot. Arthur upgrades swords twice (first with the sword from the stone and then Excalibur), and each of those tells you something about Arthur and changes the plot’s course. This is also true of weapons in most games other than RPGs – consider the crowbar in Half Life, the shotgun in Doom, the spread-fire gun in Contra, the Master Sword in Zelda, etc.
And, in fact, in early RPGs, this was mostly true as well – getting a +1 Longsword was a big deal, and you might not get better for a long time. But in cRPGs, particularly once the 2000s had rolled around, were chock-a-block with weapons; you barely go 15 minutes without getting a new one, and if you factor in hats, gloves, shoes, belts, shields, rings, and necklaces, your character is changing clothes more frequently than a runway model. All of it becomes meaningless. Items cease to be anything more than numerical increments. They lack narrative heft; they lack the “chunky” oomph that they have in stories like Die Hard (“Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho.”) or Tolkien, in games like Metroid and Another World. And they generally break the game’s lore because the sheer ubiquity of magical items and mounds of gold to trade in them is inconsistent with a setting that is mostly “medieval plus” (i.e., that implies that magical enhancements don’t define the basic economy).
Incidentally, and I think we will come back to this repeatedly over the course of our discussion, this is just one place where the uneasy tug-of-war embedded in RPGs – between grognard wargaming and escapist narrativism – is laid bare. The same quantity of items that is not merely a superfluity but a liability in the narrative context provides the kind of strategic and tactical precision (sometimes derided as min-maxing) that enhances wargaming. But the way modern RPGs dispense items robs them of gameplay heft as much as it does of narrative heft. Consider the relative reaction you have finding a treasure chest in Zelda and a container in Knights of the Old Republic. So this is a flaw that drags down both sides of the tug-of-war, even if it can enhance tactics.
Anyway, this simmering grievance boiled over for me when, in circa 2006, I started replaying the Lone Wolf gamebooks on ProjectAon.org. The Lone Wolf games have a very small number of items that you can pick at the start. They aren’t necessarily all sexy; some are very pedestrian. But even the pedestrian ones wind up having oomph because of how the Lone Wolf books are constructed: with so few items, Joel Dever was able to make sure that having a rope really mattered. (A rope really mattered in Age of Decadence (AoD), too, I note!) And the weapons feel particularly chunky, such that losing your weapon is a big deal, not a mere incremental setback, and getting a new one feels extraordinary.
What we might say is that Lone Wolf uses items the way a point-and-click adventure game uses them: obtaining a new one is very satisfying because you know it will unlock good stuff if you use it the right way, and as you use an item over and over (like, I hope, Primordia’s plasma torch), it starts to feel like an important, character-defining tool. This is not how most cRPGs utilise items.
The Lone Wolf inventory was also very easy to manage. There wasn’t the tedious (in my opinion), kill, loot, sort, min-max, sell, buy, sort, min-max, sell loop that is such a big part of, say, Mask of the Betrayer (MOTB). Even though MOTB pulls very heavily toward the narrative side of the tug-of-war, its gameplay has this very boring loop that hurts the narrative (it’s not credible that The Shard Bearer would be screwing around like that). And it doesn’t really enhance the wargaming side because even if you like moving numbers around, it’s not clear that you would like inventory Tetris, or having to highlight all containers and then vacuum them, or having painstakingly to hover over each item to get its stat effects. So Lone Wolf showed that getting rid of the cRPG inventory didn’t just enhance plot and game “feel,” it also revealed that a particularly unpleasant “pillar” of cRPG gameplay is not load-bearing and can be largely eliminated.
So, with Fallen Gods, the idea was to have a small number of items (~25 total items, and you can carry 8 at a time). Items come in three categories: sword, armour, other. Swords and armour can be equipped by the god, and you can only equip one at a time. Other items include things like a helmet (there’s only one) that allows you to dominate weaker wills, a shield (there’s only one) that can shrug off fire, a lur (trumpet) that can stir people to action, a candle made from tallow rendered from a hanged man’s fat that can be used to drive off thieves or others with guilty consciences, a boar haunch that regrows after being eaten, a petrified hill wight skull that can guide you through hidden paths over and under stone, and so on.
These items are principally used in our choose-your-own-adventure type events (as with Lone Wolf), but they also almost all have “passive” statistical bonuses (improved attacking power, better chance at persuasion, extra food each turn, and so forth) so that even if you never come across one of the places where there is a story segment tied to using the item, it still materially improves your power. Also, most of them can also be given to followers, producing various effects. This gift-giving system is a narrative necessity in a saga-inspired narrative, but it also provides another strategic level since you lose the items forever once you give them away. Obviously, giving a weapon to a fighter improves his attacking power. But there are more unusual effects, too. Giving the Eldblood (fermented blood from Orm’s greatest skald, kept fresh in a magical horn) to a skald, for instance, will level him up and make him perpetually loyal. Sometimes items have effects that are more trollish, such as the bad effects that follow from giving the aforementioned Helm of Awe to a churl who behaves exactly as churlishly as you would expect.
Anyway, in my mind the question for Fallen Gods, but I think it’s applicable to any RPG, is whether an item is necessary to fulfil the setting (imagine a cRPG set in Sengoku Japan without a katana), to provide meaningful progression (players do need to improve their gear at least occasionally), or to provide interesting gameplay possibilities (for instance, though not in Fallen Gods, tactical gear loadout decisions or a rich crafting system). Different kinds of games will call for different breadth (i.e., quantity) and depth (i.e., interesting effects) of itemisation. For instance, you really need to have a bunch of crap in a post-apocalyptic RPG in which scavenging and crafting is central to the story and play. But you probably don’t need a bunch of crap in your stock Tolkieniana hero’s journey.
Inventory management itself can be fun in limited circumstances. For instance, handling item wear-and-tear and maximum carrying capacity and so forth is pretty good in Realms of Arkania or Betrayal at Krondor, though candidly I like it more as a concept than a practice. But it seems like most of that should be automated so that the player’s time is spent deciding and not implementing what to put in his inventory. Inventory management in Fallen Gods is basically all automated.
Vince: Are you paying Mark per word?
CSH: As if I could afford to! Do you know much lawyers charge? Your turn. As far as I can tell, AoD’s inventory management system revolved around limiting item cycling, single-use items, and junk or loot, rather than through the inventory management system itself. This worked due to the nature of the game but I’m not sure if it would have worked as well for a more traditional RPG. So, what are your thoughts on inventory management, and what system will we be seeing in The New World (TNW), and the as-yet-untitled Spanish Inquisition game?
Vince: Unlike my esteemed and learned colleague, I’m a sucker for the traditional “start with a rusty sword and worn out pants and look for a treasure chest with an old sword and worn out shirt” setup. Can’t get enough of it.
RPGs are many things to many people. For example, I know a guy who thinks that RPG’s real focus is the story, which, of course, is a bunch of malarkey. Other people are convinced that RPGs are about combat and the rest is just window dressing, but the true intellectuals among us figured out a long time ago that RPGs are about a level 1 character’s epic quest to become a level 20 character.
The hero’s gear represents important milestones on this journey, allowing the player to witness the transformation of the hero who once had to look for discarded garments in dumpsters treasure chests, into a knight in shiny, limited edition Armani armour.
You can’t take that away from us, can you?
PS. AoD has 252 unique items, not counting metal upgrades. TNW will have a lot more (guns, tactical vests, trenchcoats, gas masks, boots, goggles, gadgets, implants, etc.). The state of the art ‘all you can carry’ inventory system will be grid-based and feature filters and possibly even a sorting button (sold separately).
CSH: Is there a way to make inventory management a useful feature that actually serves to enhance the game instead of just an interface option?
Mark: Of course; almost any game system can be mimetic to some real-world activity, and in that way the frustration of struggling with the system bridges the player-character divide. For instance, suppose you had a game in which a character had to unpack and repack suitcases in a limited amount of time (to catch flights or whatever). Then struggling with inventory Tetris would be a kind of mimesis: a skilful player would be able to retain more of his items between trips and keep his clothes from getting rumpled or fragile items from breaking because they were packed haphazardly. In fact, you see that mechanic, in a minor way, in 80 Days. And maximising inventory space that is too limited to hold everything you want or need – and the resulting joy of finding new ways to store your stuff – would fit well in a game about a hobo or drifter. In fact, you see that mechanic in Neo-Scavenger. You could also build meaningful gameplay around loading up supplies given weight limits and perishability, as in The Oregon Trail or, in different ways, Realms of Arkania.
But these seem to me special cases. The common, default experience of RPG inventories is that wrangling with them serves no legitimate purpose. The idea that The Nameless One from Planescape: Torment (PS:T) or The Shard-Bearer (MOTB) or the fledgling (V:TM:B) or the Jedi Exile (KOTOR2) would be concerned about how to pack their belongings is absurd; as absurd, in its own way, as the heroes stopping to play Triple Triad in Final Fantasy 8; in a way, more absurd. There’s no skill or accomplishment in sorting items in those games – perhaps it feeds (with temporary pleasure and long-term neurosis) some part of our brain the way “idle games” do, but it’s not meaningful.
To me, the default inventory Tetris just represents a series of “well, I guess then” kind of decisions: “Isn’t it weird that players can hold infinite items?” Well, I guess then we should have some kind of weight limit. “Isn’t it weird that a sword looks the same size as a ring?’ Well, I guess then… Etc. No one at the start said, “This system will enhance the game because it gives the players meaningful and rewarding ways to engage with it.” It just grew, and became ubiquitous, and persisted because what is ubiquitous becomes an essential baseline feature.
Vince: I must confess that I didn’t study the esoteric philosophies surrounding inventory, so I don’t have much to contribute here. In RPGs you obsessively collect all kinds of junk the way a serial killer collects trophies from his victims and carry it around (or find an abandoned house with a chest and make it your hoard).
Since you mentioned Realms of Arkania, I’d say that it’s the traveling system rather than the inventory system that put the extra emphasis on non-combat items. You had to carry a cauldron to cook food (eating raw food increased the chance of getting sick and since traveling was dangerous, getting sick and growing weaker with every day was the last thing you wanted), boots and cloaks to ward off cold, food and water, herbs to heal various diseases you could easily catch, etc.
Essentially, what was cool about it is that it introduced a realistic non-combat threat (aka a survival element) that required non-combat items taking up limited space. I wish more RPGs had it but I understand why they don’t – it’s yet another system that needs to be well-designed (i.e. have depth and complexity), properly integrated, and balanced.
CSH: In a “traditional” (read: combat-based Western) RPG, pacing and tension seem to be managed by increasing the combat density or difficulty or interrupting combat encounters with dialogue and exposition. Vince, I would argue that you’re leading the way for meaningful non-combat encounters in RPGs at the moment, and I want to look at what this change in approach means for RPG game design. There were many different ways to play AoD through to the end without ever engaging in combat, but there was certainly no lack of pacing or tension. What methods did you use? Will we see more of the same in TNW and the Inquisition game?
Vince: By escalating events and raising stakes. For example, in AoD things are relatively quiet in the beginning of the game, so you deal with relatively simple local problems. By the end of the first chapter the local garrison of the Imperial Guards either has taken over or died trying. Either scenario causes ripples and forces different factions to act. Lord Gaelius has to seek questionable allies, which in turn forces lord Meru to abandon caution and accelerate his plans to bring back the Gods, etc. Each action has a reaction and things escalate very quickly, dragging you along.
I think it worked fairly well and we’re planning to use the same approach in both TNW and the Inquisition game. Plus, it’s fairly logical as it’s much harder to convince a general to side with your faction and either break the siege or take the city than to convince a disgruntled soldier to tell you what you need to know.
In TNW, the Ship’s factions are blissfully unaware of your existence in the beginning of the game, which makes your life uneventful and safe. When you find a certain object and start looking for the highest bidder, you draw attention to yourself and each step you take will cause the ripple effect and a tension headache.
CSH: It hadn’t occurred to me at the time but, thinking back, that’s exactly what happened. Unlike Baldur’s Gate, Pillars, etc., the gameplay in AoD never really changed from one act to the next, so the tension was created purely through escalation of risk and reward in an abstract sense. It’s an interesting notion, but you’ve proved that it works.
Mark, the methods I originally mentioned seem to be replicated somewhat in adventure games, in the sense of puzzle density and difficulty. What will we be seeing in Fallen Gods?
Mark: Actually, I’m not sure if the premise of the question is correct with respect to adventure games (and it may not be true with respect to RPGs, either). Because adventure game puzzles (particularly hard ones) stop the game’s momentum, they tend to reduce the pace and sideline tension. With Primordia, when we needed to increase the excitement, we tended to focus on a single puzzle, often a fairly simple one (e.g., get out of the courthouse with SCRAPER in your way) and clear out a lot of the underbrush of filler puzzles (e.g., after the showdown in Calliope Station). By contrast, high puzzle density and difficulty tended to correlate with more contemplative stretches of the game (like when you’re trying to piece together the Council Code).
With RPGs, as I discuss below in connection with PS:T, filler combat often is a way of reducing player tension because it is so low stakes and immediately gratifying (enemies die right and left). AoD’s combat isn’t filler, but if AoD had filler combat like most RPGs do, then the combat would been less tense than the consequence-laden choices.
With Fallen Gods, I would say that the events are probably high tension relative to exploration and combat – because you’re making consequential choices. The costliest events (i.e., events that tend to degrade rather than enhance your warband’s strength) occur in caves and marshes (our “dungeons”), which are really just a stack of obstacle events followed by a culminating potentially rewarding event (usually involving a “miniboss” like a wurm, witch, wizard, mighty draug, outlaw leader, or what have you). So dungeons, being a continual stack of demanding events one after another leading to a big opportunity, are where I expect there to be the most tension.
But because events are much slower paced than exploration or combat (being text and choice-heavy), we have a slightly weird inverse relationship where the game moves at its fastest clip (both in terms of using up the player’s turns and in terms of just action happening on the screen) when it is at its lowest moments of tension. This actually might be true of turn-based combat, too – the hardest fights are the ones where you think the most, take the most time between turns, etc.
CSH: While on the topic of puzzles – aside from being core to adventure games, they’ve also long been a hallmark of pen and paper RPGs. However, their digital counterparts are usually fairly uninspired and are almost never integrated properly. The other issue is that cRPG puzzles tend to bypass character statistics and rely on player intelligence to work out. So, what makes a good puzzle, and what lessons can RPG developers learn from adventure games?
Vince: I like puzzles in adventure games but I’m indifferent to them in RPGs for reasons I can’t really explain. Maybe it’s because they are usually uninspired and almost never properly integrated, like you said.
Mark: Like Vince, I’m generally underwhelmed with RPG puzzles – I enjoy riddles for their own sake (they were very clever in Betrayal at Krondor), but puzzles rarely fit plausibly within the gameplay or lore. Also, I think RPGs work better when there are a lot of ways to move forward – the interesting part to me in RPGs is deciding how to move forward, rather than figuring out how to move forward. To me, at the level of success/failure, RPGs are more about managing short-term attrition and long-term growth in terms of gameplay, and about exploring decisions and their consequences in terms of narrative. An RPG with a powerful story makes that exploration emotionally engaging rather than just experimental, but even RPGs with goofy stories can be fun to experiment with. Puzzles are more about stopping the player unless he makes one particular choice, which is contrary to these values.
There are basically no puzzles in Fallen Gods. In fact, puzzles would be especially hard to do well in Fallen Gods because it combines procedural world generation with premade content. Hand-building puzzles that would be engaging no matter how stuff was strewn around the world is beyond my pea-brain. Either you need to do physics-type puzzles or you need to have more control over placement.
That said, I do think that RPGs can learn from adventure games, and have learned from them, insofar as adventures are often about giving players a limited number of actions but with really meaningful engagement. To me, Quest for Glory, which situates RPG rules within adventure game sensibilities (or is it vice versa?) is the closest experience I’ve had in a game to feeling like there was a DM/GM creating interesting encounters around my choices. Typically these involve using an item or a skill to unlock an additional opportunity to use an item or skill, and so on.
This is something AoD obviously does, and in many ways the combination of lock-key narrative options and handmade content feels a little adventure game-y to me – very much like puzzles, just not the way puzzles are usually presented in RPGs. Along these lines, I guess you could say that each event in Fallen Gods has puzzle-ish dimensions (in that you are trying to figure out an optimal path given your items, skills, and followers).
CSH: Speaking of player intelligence, have you taken any steps to prevent metagaming, or do you just leave it up to the player to play the game as they please? I bring this up because I finished playing Divinity: Original Sin (D:OS) 2 not so long ago and I got to thinking about the way Larian Studios actually embraced metagaming (more-so in the original D:OS), allowing the player to complete puzzles in any manner they could come up with – or dodge them altogether, and even kill bosses without engaging them in combat. The execution wasn’t perfect, but I think planning for metagaming as a design element is potentially a step in the right direction to creating that “DM/GM creating interesting encounters around my choices” feeling in a cRPG.
Mark: I’m not sure the D:OS example is metagaming in the way I normally think of it. It does implicate the question whether RPGs are really determining success via character skill, as opposed to player skill, but that question is true with respect to combat strategy and tactics in general, and we don’t really consider those things metagaming. So I’m not sure player creativity should be considered metagaming in exploration or puzzles.
To me, the real metagaming issue is whether you build systems around the idea that players will make apparently suboptimal choices – or choices about which there is apparently no optimality – based on outside information. Sometimes that outside information comes from game guides, sometimes it comes from player experience. If I had to impugn AoD, I’d probably criticise it for this kind of metagaming. A lot of choices a player makes in allocating skill or attribute points are basically meaningless without that kind of metagaming foreknowledge. Of course the answer is that there’s no sin in suboptimal builds, but various aspects of how AoD is constructed (and this is not unique to AoD to be sure) push toward optimisation and thus metagaming.
That said, it’s really hard to define the shape of this problem, and to decide whether it’s a problem at all. Because a lot of players love learning and “solving” complex RPG systems.
In fact, it seems clear to me that some kinds of metagaming can yield wonderful gameplay experiences. Some of my favourite games are built around a mechanic of playing, losing, and using what you learned in losing to advance: Adam Cadre’s Varicella, Don Bluth’s Dragon’s Lair (maybe not “wonderful gameplay,” but certainly memorable to a kid), Thomas Biskup’s ADOM (indeed, arguably the whole Rogue-like genre and the current Rogue-lite genres) all employ varieties of it. (Andrew Plotkin’s Hadean Lands absorbs metagaming into the game itself.) But it seems to me that what those games have that, say, AoD doesn’t, is a framework in which the expected player behaviour is many, many playthroughs. With AoD, I suspect that the ordinary player goes in expecting to build one character, play until winning, and then not play again.
Fallen Gods employs Rogue-lite design. The expectation is the player will play, lose, play again, lose again, etc., slowly developing a body of knowledge that allows him to plan a strategy and predict what path is most likely to yield what he needs to execute that strategy. It’s also, like AoD, a game about narrative exploration in the sense that every event is built around choices, many of those choices being locked behind items, skills, followers, etc., so that a player will hopefully want to replay not just to optimise his path but also to stray from the optimal path and see the sights. “Dwergs grovel before witches? Whoa! Now that I have a witch, I want to go find some dwerg events to see what happens!”
One example of that is the lur – you can blow it, vuvuzela-like, in the face of just about every disheartened or muddled character you encounter. It’s not always an optimal solution, but it’s tempting all the same. For instance, in the “Unminded” event, if you want to play Gandalf versus Theoden, you can use the lur on a senile jarl who refuses to believe that his middle-aged son is plotting against him:
You lift the Lur to your lips and blow a mighty blast straight in the old jarl’s face, waking his mind from slumber. His bleary eyes blink and a great shaking overtakes his limbs. Then, with long-forgotten strength, he yanks a knife from his belt and sinks its length in his son’s neck. Every beat of that false heart spills more blood on the lord’s furs. He casts them off and stands, a man again, clasping red hands around your wrists. “Give this god gold,” he tells his men, “and let the flesh of my flesh be burnt in offering.” It is as good an end as you could hope to get.
Or there’s the “Windfall” event, in which you come across a field full of dead birds, likely ritually killed by Orm’s eagle fetch. A player who has a wurmskin cloak (which lets you understand birds) and the Death Lore skill (which lets you call on the dead to speak) can achieve an interesting outcome – a possibility that might be apparent to a player the first time he stumbles onto the event, but as a lock that requires two rare keys to unlock.
So my hope is that while metagaming may initially be about min-maxing and beating the game, it will ultimately be more about plumbing its secrets (which, of course, is true of AoD as well).
My worry is that we currently have no good sense of how long a playthrough will take. Early on I had thought something like an hour; but now I wonder whether it might be very much longer than that. Unfortunately, we can’t really test right now because we need the content to be more complete: until the events are written, you can’t really know how long it will take to read and navigate them.
Vince: I concur. First, the outcomes of your choices can’t be equal by default, not to mention it’s highly subjective, so some players will metagame to get the desired outcome and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it short of eliminating the choices entirely.
Second, many gamers are hard-wired to seek the most optimal, max content path and your first playthrough is sub-optimal by default because you don’t know anything about the game, including Things That Really Matter.
I remember when Icewind Dale 2 was released back in 2002. What everyone on the Interplay forums wanted to know is whether or not the Holy Avenger is a longsword or a two-hander like in Baldur’s Gate 2. Imagine specialising your paladin in greatsword like an idiot only to discover mid-game that the Holy Avenger is a longsword!!! This cosmic injustice can shutter your mind and turn you into a broken, bitter thing. I bet that’s what really happened to Gollum.
CSH: Unlike puzzles, combat is a crucial element of cRPGs - even AoD, which possessed possibly the most thorough and flexible non-combat encounter system I’ve come across in a cRPG, had a combat system in place. And although it was a comparatively simple system, with no special abilities or magic and very little item use, it still featured tactical elements such as positioning, ranged and reach weapons, and different attack modes. On the other hand, Primordia was an adventure game and as such featured no combat, at least in the traditional sense. So, Mark, I’m particularly curious to hear your thoughts on combat systems in cRPGs. What can we expect to see in Fallen Gods and why did you make those choices?
Mark: The tug-of-war again!
I myself am not a huge fan of cRPG combat. I can’t think of many cRPGs in which I found the combat itself (the playing of the combat – more on this in a moment) engagingly fun. I’ve sometimes found it mindlessly fun because of neat visuals (like in Fallout or PS:T) or ego-stroking power-gaming, but as a mental puzzle, it’s never appealed to me. That’s odd because I quite liked tactical games like X-Com back when I was a kid, and I was pretty good at RTS games like Warcraft II, C&C, and Starcraft. (I’m not sure one could really be good or bad at Warcraft I.)
That said, even bad combat in RPGs plays an important role. As I mentioned recently in connection with PS:T, many people derided its “trash combat” but it turns out that this combat did several important things:
· spacing out long, text-driven narrative sequences;
· giving the player very low-stakes interactions for rest and relaxation between high-stakes encounters and important choices;
· demonstrating the power progression from levelling up;
· stroking the player’s ego by letting him kill many weaker beings;
· dramatising key aspects of TNO (his power and his immortality) and other characters (for instance, a non-trivial part of Dak'kon's character is defined by the way he fights; Suikoden is a great example of how trash combat defines an otherwise very thin cast of 108 characters);
· providing fun visuals in a game with otherwise fairly static art.
While you can have a cRPG in theory without combat, I’m not sure it would be very good. (Note: playing through a cRPG without fighting is not the same thing; the background possibility of fighting makes that eccentric path interesting. Just because beating a level in Doom without shooting is fun doesn’t mean the game would work if you took out the guns.)
That said, the worst scenario is bad combat that is unreasonably intrusive. Not to pick on the same game (and I do it only because it’s one of my all-time favourites), but MOTB’s combat is not just bad, but it also has all kind of intrusively annoying things – pre-buffing, annoying target selection, annoying status effects, absurd spell effects that obscure the action, etc. Rather than being a kind of mindless R&R, it is a demanding but trivial exercise in low-scale annoyances.
With Fallen Gods, our goal is to have beautiful combat that reinforces the world’s danger, the god’s strength, and the player’s progress up the power scale. We want it to provide an interlude from the events, which use static illustrations and text. We also need it to provide a way to let players choose to enter battles they might, but wouldn’t necessarily, lose, without having it as trivial as a dice roll. So if you want to challenge a centuries-old, poison-breathing wurm to a fight rather than handing over your maiden, so be it, but you’re likely to lose. That works almost infinitely better as a “miniboss” fight than it would as a dice roll.
The current combat engine is not particularly tactical and is a kind of real-time-with-pause system. Fallen Gods was modelled on Barbarian Prince and Lone Wolf, which had absurdly simple combat systems. While our combat has always been a little more complex, the idea was to keep it simple and fast. So, as of now, the tactical level is really figuring out which enemies to match your followers and god against, when to use the god’s very expensive soul-fuelled skills, and when to run.
That said, we aspire to make it a more tactical, hex-based combat system. But even then it would still be very simple – more Ultima IV than AoD. Whether we’ll ever have the resources (coding, especially) to make that happen, I don’t know.
CSH: Vince, what was the thinking behind AoD’s combat system? The brutal lethality made sense in light of the setting, but why did you opt for a turn-based system in an otherwise real-time game? Why tile-based? Can we expect TNW and the Inquisition game to feature similar systems?
Vince: Absolutely. It’s safe to say that all our future games will be turn-based RPG with grid-based movement, action points, and different attack types with pros and cons. The way I see it, an ideal combat encounter in an RPG is a tactical puzzle with different solutions. If you mindlessly click on enemies, you die, turn off autopilot, and start figuring out how to even the odds and increase your survival chances which seem awfully low at the moment.
I prefer Turn-Based to Real-Time as Turn-Based’s strengths are better suited for RPGs. Real-Time is about thinking fast, making decisions on the fly and under pressure, reacting to things not going as planned, etc. The chaos of war, basically, which is why it works best in strategy games. Turn-Based is about taking your time, slowly considering your options and what your enemies might do during their turn. There is a reason why chess is a turn-based and grid-based game, even though your units don’t have any special abilities or magic.
CSH: I actually quite enjoyed the tactical element of combat in AoD – in one scene I was ambushed inside a building. I recall I had a reluctant ally, but he wasn’t a particularly strong fighter and there were three enemies. I remember backing myself into a corner so that only two of them could attack me at any given time, and relying on my praetorian armour to deflect enough of the damage to give me a chance to survive. There wasn’t a lot to it, but the dialogue lead-up to the scene and then the way it played out stuck with me as a memorable experience. If you see combat in an RPG as a tactical puzzle with different solutions, do you have any plans to expand on that tactical puzzle? Maybe make the terrain part of the puzzle, or include objects that can be interacted with? I haven’t seen it done well in any traditional cRPG, D:OS2 included, but Daedelic had some success with it in Blackguards 2.
Vince: Ideally, yes. Unfortunately, what we can do is limited by the budget, one way or another, and our budget consists of revenues generated by AoD and Dungeon Rats. These revenues are enough to keep us afloat until we release TNW on Steam’s Early Access but not enough to expand the team in a meaningful way. Without expanding the team, we can’t expand the design scope.
CSH: I actually thought there would be more scope for improvement, since you're recycling AoD's combat system and therefore don't need to spend resources designing it?
Vince: We've changed the engine so we have to re-code everything, which puts more pressure on the programmer. Not everything can be transferred easily, such as our dialogue editor with over 200 built-in scripts, for example, which was the key tool. Essentially we start from scratch but with the knowledge and experience this time around so we don't have to waste time on trial and error. And we’ve made other changes. The combat system is different since the focus is on ranged, so the AoD mainly melee system is about 30% of it. There's cover, futuristic gadgets, different grenades modifying the battlefield effects, etc. The AI would have to be redesigned from scratch as well. We're also adding a proper stealth system with noise, detection AI, etc. We wanted to have it in AoD but didn't have time to do it, so that's the new big feature that should make our game well-rounded with 3 main paths through the game: combat, stealth, diplomacy. Plus we have 12 party members, meaning 12 different situations and reactions x 8-10. That's a lot to write and script.
So we really don't have room for anything else. Once this is done and we have the engine we can keep for the next 3-4 games plus all the working systems, then we can consider new challenges (such as more complex dialogue system that lets you feel like you're fighting your opponent rather than clicking on lines to pass checks or a proper survival system).
CSH: What are your thoughts on magic and other special abilities in cRPGs? I occasionally enjoy playing magic users, but one thing I take major issue with is that, no matter how well developed the magic system is in terms of spells and player interaction, magic is almost never integrated into the setting properly. Most of the time, magic is just a different way to attack in combat. Occasionally, it also acts as an alternative to skills outside of combat. Very rarely does the setting seem to even recognise let alone respond to the fact that it has magic users or fantastic creatures living in it.
Vince, magic didn’t really fit in AoD’s setting, and I can’t see it fitting in TNW, but might we see some in the Spanish Inquisition-based game if it’s going to feature witchcraft?
Vince: It goes without saying that magic should fit the setting and be a lot more than a colourful way to kill an enemy. In other words, magic should be magical and allow you to do things that a fighter can never do, preferably at a cost greater than rechargeable mana points.
Since the Inquisition game is inspired by Gothic novels like The Manuscript Found in Saragossa and Melmoth the Wanderer, it will feature the old-fashioned magic: pentagrams, rituals, witchcraft, exorcism, summoning, etc. No fireballs and the like.
Imagine dangerous witches (think Planescape’s Ravel – not someone to be crossed lightly or at all) and necromancers, Lucifer corrupting souls and commanding agents, scheming Dukes of Hell straight out of On the Tricks of Demons, a 1563’s best-seller, the Christian faith being a shield against darkness, the Spanish Inquisition fighting a war of attrition, cursed places abandoned for a reason, forbidden knowledge, supernatural creatures, that sort of thing.
Instead of being primarily a combat art, magic will be used to explore this “world of darkness”, survive where the uninitiated will not, protect yourself when dealing with beings who could unmake you with a word, bargain with Dukes of Hell, etc.
CSH: Mark, I expect to see some in Fallen Gods – gods and “magic” tend to go hand in hand, after all. How will you manage magic use, and how do you plan on integrating it into the world?
Mark: The Ormfolk, the reigning gods of Fallen Gods and more or less our Aesir, can use “souls” (a measure of faith) to do various feats. In game terms, these feats are burning enemies and removing curses (Soulfire), controlling animals and speeding through woods (Wild Heart), healing wounds and curing diseases (Healing Hands), speaking to the dead and dealing with undead (Death Lore), and scrying the world and the future (Foresight). This is the closest thing we have to a magic system. And the items are often magical, but in a fairly low-magic way (like a pot that holds fog inside it, rather than a wand of magic missiles).
The old gods, the Firstborn, could do stuff too. For instance, Trund’s spit could quicken stone, and that’s the way he licked trolls to life (something like how medieval folk thought bears licked cubs from a blob of meat into bear shape). But for the most part, the Firstborn no longer have their magic, since they have lost the souls usurped by the Ormfolk.
Witches and wizards have magic, inspired by Norse myth and Icelandic folklore, but it’s not fireball type stuff, more on the order of curses and summoning the dead. They are essentially wicked beings, though you can take on witches as followers as they are quite powerful helpers.
Witches are probably my favourite “characters” in the game, as they have this wildness, wickedness, and hunger to them that I think brings them closer to the folkloric brand of witches than what we mostly see in modern stuff. If you think about the stuff that witches do as a matter of course in old stories (eating babies, causing family members to kill each other, impersonating wives to sleep with their husbands, interfering with good governance, curdling cows’ milk in the udders) it is utterly at odds with them as just, like, cackling old ladies on brooms. They attack the things that we hold most sacred precisely because we hold them most sacred. But by living outside social norms, they also play the role of the wise fool or iconoclast who’s off the grid, so there can be something appealing about them. Here’s an example of an encounter where a witch saves you from a wizard (disguised as a humble hermit) who has tricked you into spending the night:
An unholy howling rouses you from your rest, and in the dark you spot a loathsome bulk astride the balking hermit. Hag-ridden, he cries for help, a call only half-heard with all the caterwauling. Before your mind can make head or tail of this unseemly tupping, the witch leans down and seems to suck the very sound, and life, from his lips. She turns to you and spits, muttering that she’s sprung you from a wizard’s trap. Striking a light, you see scattered tools and runes that do indeed bespeak black spells. You leave the dead man and his hut without waiting for the dawn.
Anyway, I think it’s pretty hard to convey magic in a narratively interesting way in RPGs because an essential part of magic – its terror and uncanniness – just can’t be conveyed. A player might (but probably wouldn’t) avoid going into a gorge said to house an unholy witch. Sounds like a great gameplay opportunity! And if he elected not to, it would be only because the witch might kill him (requiring him to reload). That it might simply be too horrific to try is meaningless to the player.
While you can impose sanity and fear checks on the character, I’ve never played a game in which those were anything more than annoying. So it’s ultimately hard for magic to have the kind of role it has in The Lord of the Rings, where it is a kind of supernatural force that affects courage, will, faith, etc. (Though I note that Gandalf actually does basically throw fireballs in The Hobbit, albeit with the help of pinecones.) I think AoD handles magic about as well as can be in that respect.
I do think magic in most RPGs introduces a lot of fun mechanics into combat that I miss in Fallout and AoD, especially having area-of-effect considerations that are common rather than super rare. But it’s hard to avoid having it seem kind of ridiculous how the available spells (the most obvious being resurrection) never intersect with the plot (often involving tragic death). Fortunately, players are trained to compartmentalise this.
Vince: First, I completely agree with your thoughts on witches. In the old, much darker folklore the witches are presented as extremely powerful and vindictive. If you offended a witch by mistake or even caught her attention, which is an equally big mistake, you’d better run or try to make amends. Trying to kill a witch is the biggest mistake of them all because your entire village would pay for it.
However, I think that Fear and Sanity are interesting mechanics that are worth exploring (not sure about fear yet but Sanity will be one of the stats in the Inquisition game), because:
1. Your character doesn’t fear anything because the player doesn’t. Thus your character will gladly try things that no sane person in the game world would ever consider, so the only way to factor in fear and sanity (i.e. normal human responses) is via character’s stats. We define our characters physical and basic mental abilities via stats, so why not expand the character system a bit?
2. When it comes to “Things Man Wasn’t Meant To Know,” a sanity meter is a very interesting concept that can track your descend into madness and loss of humanity as you accumulate the knowledge (which explains the witches’ behaviour in the old tales as they’re no longer sane or “normal”). Do you value your sanity more than your crave forbidden knowledge? Would you take all you can while losing control over your own character?
Mark: Conceptually, I agree that sanity can be really cool. I do worry, though, about how well it can be done in practice given the player-character dichotomy. Getting the player to actually credit his character’s delusions (or at least play along with them) rather than metagaming around them is tough. And when you reduce it to “shoots his allies” or “drops his weapons and runs away,” I find it a drag.
The only truly mimetic experience with fear that I ever had in a game was in the Aliens TC for Doom. The first time I came across an alien-infested area, I actually ran directly out of it, and formed the express sentence in my head, “No way am I going in there.” Of course it only lasted a few seconds before I went in and started playing again. But it was a powerful moment.
By contrast, mind-control and panic were far and away the worst parts of X-Com in my opinion. (The DOS one. I never played the new one.) Most of the time I used a hack to disable them.
Vince: Exactly! We all had these moments but they don’t last because unlike your character you are never in any danger yourself. Yet these are vital emotions and it would be good to find a way to reproduce them in a meaningful way on the character’s side.
I agree that mind-control and panic in X-COM were extremely unpleasant, yet they introduced a new element, a nasty alternative to being killed or wounded. The new XCOM treated it like a joke, of course, but that’s a different story.
Anyway, we don’t have to go to extremes here. Losing Sanity can be a transformation (unlocking new abilities and losing some of the old ones) rather than punishment.
Mark: Ah, that jogs my memory of another brilliant, just utterly amazing bit of design in Fallen London. The game itself has all sorts of awful grind/microtransaction-based mechanics and we could have a large discussion about worldbuilding and so forth, but one quest line is immaculate: It’s a long quest chain where you have a series of interactions with a devil who is obviously trying to steal your soul, but you keep having skill checks where you can outwit the devil in various ways to get the rewards she’s offering without losing your soul. Eventually the biggest reward comes, but you have to sign a written contract to give her your soul. If you have high charisma and intelligence, you can see that it’s actually a pretty easy trick to outsmart the devil again and negotiate some new terms into the contract. Obviously you take that choice, confident you’ll win!
Only you don’t: the game is lying to you. All along the rolls you think you’ve been winning, the devil has just been pretending to be persuaded to flatter your vanity into wagering more and more with her. In the end you lose your soul, which creates some new gameplay opportunities but takes away others.
What I love about it is the way it hides in plain sight: of course you can’t outsmart a devil in negotiating a contract for your soul. I would like it if more games do this. (The arcade beat ‘em up Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom had something like this where you were warned up and down that one of two paths led to a dragon that would kill you easily; and, in fact, that dragon ate like ten bucks worth of my friends’ and my quarters.) The problem is that save-scumming can mean that even the dragon that kills you 99/100 times will be overcome 100% of the time by a persistent player.
CSH: Since we’ve been talking about magic and sanity points, I’d like to talk briefly about rest, recovery, and regeneration, both in and out of combat. We’ll logically expand this to include health points, stamina, and anything else you feel is relevant.
Mark: In many (most?) RPGs, resting merely contributes to things I hate, particularly the loop of pre-buff, crawl, fight, rest, pre-buff, etc. The risk of ambush and the material costs of resting (if there are any) are too low, the passage of time never matters, and resting spots are too easy to find (or if they aren’t, this limitation just adds backtracking to the loop of tedium).
In Fallen Gods, resting consumes your most precious resource (time), and characters generally heal pretty slowly, so resting can be very expensive. This seems to me helpful, but it’s not a solution that would work for most games.
Conceptually, I like the idea of elaborate resting (like in Realms of Arkania or the upcoming Pathfinder RPG) where you assign jobs, and characters bond over fireside chats, and so forth. But most of the time that’s likely to be more of a chore than a useful mechanic.
While I am a deep believer in Chesterton’s fence – and enough of a neophyte in cRPGs, despite playing them on and off for 25 years, to be reluctant to urge the knocking down of any particular fences – I do think that there features that exist because of the “Well, I guess then…” lack of critical reflection I talked about earlier. For instance, early RPGs had food because it seemed like a good simulationist thing to do. But food couldn’t plausibly be very expensive in a setting where you had also could buy Flaming Swords of Doom, so it was trivially easy to avoid running out of it. Well, I guess then we should limit how much you can carry. Then someone wondered whether it might be weird that all your other items appear in an inventory but food doesn’t. Well, I guess then we’ll put food in the inventory. And the huge annoyance of feeding party members in Ultima VII followed. Eventually someone developed the critical eye to eliminate food altogether, and now, thank goodness, it’s only present in games where it plays a meaningful, thematic role (like a post-apocalyptic scavenging game, say). (NB: We have food in Fallen Gods because money is much more limited, and a big part of the game is trading – trading time for food (by hunting) or gold for food (by buying); trading food for health (by throwing food to a pack of wolves rather than fighting it).)
I think Vince made the right call demolishing the resting fence altogether in AOD.
To me, the question with an RPG system – whether it’s inventory management, item variety, crafting, resting, whatever – is whether it gives the player interesting, meaningful, and enjoyable ways to engage with the game. If a mechanic doesn’t, if it only feeds player mania or encourages degenerate play styles (like rest-pre-buff-fight crawling, save-scumming, paper shuffling, shuttling back and forth from town, etc.), it shouldn’t be in the game even if initially players will note its absence with dismay because of weird endowment effects. I don’t view this as a matter of streamlining or simplification because you can, and should, use the added bandwidth (in developer time for design and balance, in player attention for learning systems and engaging with the game) on other, more valuable complexities.
Vince: It depends on the design goals. Health is a resource that needs to be restored after battles and rest/recovery (via potions, spells, and events)/regenerations are different ways to restore it. I don’t have a strong preference but when resting/healing yourself is too easy and has no real cost, it becomes meaningless. Might as well switch the focus to a single fight and auto-heal the party after.
Overall, I prefer limited HPs (can’t raise them when level up and become a 300HP behemoth), no healing during combat, no rest or regen, so you have to pay a healer to restore HP and stat damage. I’m also very fond of throwing several fights in a row at the player, so in order to have a chance during the second fight, you have to be in a relatively good shape after the first fight.
CSH: AoD was the first cRPG I’ve played in a long time where you’re totally on your own and not part of some adventuring party. I thought it odd at first, for no other reason than that it’s no longer the done thing. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. In AoD, if you played as a fighter, you would experience a combat-heavy game and a number of experiences simply were not available to you since your character lacked the means to engage in those opportunities. Similarly, if you played as a merchant or lore master, you were forced to get creative about solving your problems because combat was not a feasible option. This concept was the foundation of pen-and-paper roleplaying because although you were part of a party, you normally only controlled one of those characters yourself, but is something that modern, party-based cRPGs seem to lack. The modern cRPG gamer is used to having their cake and eating it, too, but I feel like we’re losing out on some of the core roleplaying experience in the process. Is there a way to have a party-based cRPG and still have that character-centric experience?
Mark: Players love party-member interactions, which have grown in prominence and complexity as time has gone on. Certainly, they are among the most memorable and likable parts of RPGs for me. There’s a reason why Primordia features a “party,” and Clarity has intra-party dialogues that are modelled on the Biowarean (was it Bioware who came up with it first?) approach where you can talk a bit more every time you’ve made some main-quest progress.
Fallen Gods has a party, but it’s not the kind of party that people are used to. It is something more like the Clan Ring in King of Dragon Pass; maybe even thinner in terms of characterisation. Your followers have unique names, but currently generic portraits and sprites (one for each of the follower types: churl, woodsman, fighter, priest, skald, berserk, maiden, witch). While they chime in during events, and can be asked to undertake tasks during events, this chiming in is also generic. While only one of each follower type will quip per event node (the happiest of that type, typically), it’s not as if Ragnar the Fighter will ever say something different from Hrut the Fighter. And you don’t really interact directly with them – they speak, but you can’t talk back to them. You can give them items, as discussed above, which can make them happier, but it’s not like, say, Dragon Age: Origins where this unlocks deeper interactions. It’s all very superficial.
There are a few reasons for this. The first is that when I was working on the now-abandoned (and pre-empted by FTL) predecessor to Fallen Gods, Star Captain, I tried writing events where the crew (still fairly generic) were heavily integrated into the text and story. It turned out to ramify into impossible-to-imagine complexity very quickly. The second is that I wanted to keep the focus on the eponymous Fallen God, rather than the earthbound beings helping him. Said god is something of an egoist, anyway, and would not be interested in learning about Skadi the Churl’s tough childhood.
Third, another lesson I learned in working on Star Captain – a lesson that I think RPGs could often benefit from – is that it’s better when events or dialogue keep moving forward. The “hub” model of dialogue so common to RPGs, especially to lore dumpers, totally kills the game’s momentum. Because Fallen Gods is meant to be pretty quick-moving, it would be antithetical to let you go on a random dialogue digression with a follower. Finally, having the followers thinly characterised works well in a procedurally generated setting where followers die a lot. As noted earlier, FG is procedurally generated in terms of selecting what goes where, but the content is all pre-designed. Since there are dozens of followers to hire in a given game session, trying to make each one unique would be a huge amount of work. And it would actually tend to highlight the smallness of the game’s content when you encountered Bjorn the Berserk twice in a row, and he was exactly the same each time.
Anyway, I think this is one of many ways that Fallen Gods is likely to disappoint many players – especially fans of Primordia – who expect rich characterisation in an RPG. The characterisation is either non-existent (for many followers), generic (for, say, berserks and witches, who have strong but non-character-specific voices), or indirect (as with the god). And the NPCs you meet are really going to be characterised in at most a couple nodes of text, maybe a few words of dialogue. I think we’ve done a pretty good job with making that little bit count, more because of our great artists, narrator, and composer than because of our middling writer, but the proof of the pudding will be in the reading.
Vince: AoD was a solo game because working your way up in a faction to secure your future required a single character. You don’t show up for work with your five closest friends who don’t have anything better to do today.
TNW is more about adventuring and dealing with multiple factions at once (to ensure your own survival) which does call for a band of like-minded individuals. Not sure about the Inquisition game yet but we’re leaning toward party-based as well.
As for having that character-centric experience in a party-based game, it depends on the design and goals. For example, in games like Baldur’s Gate or Pillars of Eternity there are no non-combat classes, so any character you pick will be handy in a fight, thus a party of six will be able to kick a lot of ass regardless of its makeup.
Our approach is a bit different. In TNW you’ll increase skills by using them instead of gaining skill points and distributing them as you see fit.
Let’s say you’re a talker accompanied by three brutes waiting for your nod to crush your enemies. The problem is that unless your brutes get a regular workout, they won’t be very skilled. So you’re mostly talking your way through the game, your brutes won’t get regular workouts and will never be as skilled as a combat-focused party. They might be able to get you out of trouble but you won’t be able to fight your way through the game.
Essentially, you’ll have four types of parties:
· The warband (your typical western)
· The grifters (while you don’t need two talkers, you might need people with the right connections or ideas, think traveling with Miltiades in AoD)
· The infiltrators
· The jacks (of all trades), who won’t be as good at combat, diplomacy, or stealth as the specialist parties.
Plus, your Charisma determines how many followers you can inspire to tag along. If you want 3 party members, you need to have CHA 8 (out of 10), which is a significant investment.
CSH: I’ve played games before, where skills are gained through use rather than through levelling up and experience point distribution, and I’ve had dramas with the system creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Usually, you can’t spread your points wide at the start because you’re too weak in any given field. So you create a fighter or thief or whatever, which is fine. But then, because you’re only good at one thing, that’s the only skill you use, and as such is the only skill you develop. It makes sense in a way, but it’s also very limiting in that it prevents you from trying to branch out and learn new things throughout the game, so you end up just doing the same thing over and over until the game ends. Do you think that having a party who all develop in the same way (but probably in different areas) will alleviate this issue?
Vince: My experience is the opposite. Most games that had an ‘increase skills by use’ system pushed you toward mastering all trades/classes. Dungeon Master, Stonekeep, the Elder Scrolls games, etc. Wizardry 8 increased the focus on specialisation, practically eliminating player characters with 100 in every skill, so it definitely works on the design level.
If the opportunities to increase skills (i.e. filler combat) are unlimited, maxing all stats and skills is simply a matter of time. Since our games don’t have any filler content, the player won’t be able to grind for hours to increase skills, which solves problem #1 and brings us to problem #2 (your original question) - how to provide the player with opportunities to branch out?
I think we’ll leave it up to the player. Considering that most quests have multiple solutions, it would be very hard to restrict the player and split quests into combat, stealth, and diplomacy. Thus, if the player wants to solve all problems with violence and become a specialist, then that’s his or her business. We’ll provide bonus, extra challenging content for the specialists and call it a day.
If the player wants to branch out and play a ‘hybrid’ character, then he or she will decide how to handle quests and where to draw the line between combat and diplomacy, for example. Naturally, the player’s understanding of the combat system will always be a factor there. Some people can do more with less, others feel that they have to min-max to stand a chance.
CSH: Mark, what are your thoughts on gaining skills and experience points?
Mark: I think levelling and character progression are great. Maybe the greatest thing that RPGs ever introduced to gaming, and now they’re widespread. I loved it the first time I learned a new spell in Dragon Warrior, I loved improving player stats in the NES games Baseball Stars and Ring King, and I loved unlocking new abilities in Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. The concept is great.
But it is dangerous as well. Part of the danger is, as “incremental” or “idle” games prove, that the progression mechanic stimulates something in the human brain even if the progression is meaningless. Whether you can call it an “addictive” quality, I don’t know. But it is a masking quality. The mere presence of progress, like the addition of salt and sugar to food, can mask the fact that something is bad. That means that you can get players to play games that degrade, rather than enhance, the quality of their lives and their appreciation for games. And when you degrade your players, you degrade yourself, because you’re simply creating an audience that will be indifferent to the things you care about as a creator (if you care about anything other than money, and most people, even most greedy or desperate people, do). And the masking also makes it hard for designers to judge their own systems because players will superficially react the same way to good and bad design provided both of them offer a progression loop.
In my opinion, a great many RPGs, most RPGs, have experience/levelling/progression systems that aren’t actually very good. The fact that the player sees particle effects when he gets a number high enough, and then other numbers can be increased, and boxes can be checked, and new boxes can be unlocked later to check, and new epithets appear – all of that is enough to stimulate the player’s brain into feeling like the levelling is meaningful, even if it is in fact meaningless because (for instance) the obstacles are also scaled up such that it doesn’t matter.
One example of this, in my opinion, is Neverwinter Nights 2 (and MOTB). Often I would level up without getting any at all that I really wanted. I would dump more points into the same skills, advance the same stats incrementally, adding HP and lowering THAC0, etc., but none of that actually let me do something rewarding. Adding Paragon or Renegade points in Mass Effect is another example.
If you compare that to the Lone Wolf game books, a key inspiration for Fallen Gods, the opposite is true. Everything you can get with respect to a stat, skill, or level-up is a huge deal. Every skill is awesome, and so the possibility of adding a new one is amazing. You aren’t just going from 37 to 38 in the Jumping skill (increasing your jump height by a pixel or decreasing the stamina drain from jumping by a point), you’re adding the power to talk to animals or conceal yourself from enemies or heal yourself or others. The same is true of adding a skill level in, say, System Shock II or Deus Ex.
Advancing a character in an RPG should be like gaining a new ability in Metroid or a new item in Zelda, but all too often it’s more like picking up a missile pack in Metroid or a heart in Zelda – things in the game might (for a little while) get slightly easier, but they don’t get better, richer, deeper.
So my opinion is that you should make skills (and inventory, as noted above) much “chunkier.” In Fallen Gods (as in Lone Wolf’s initial book run), skills are simply binary: either you have them or you don’t. And stats (there are only three: might, wits, HP) and are in a very tight range (1-10). And if I could figure out a way to make them even tighter, I probably would.
Fallen Gods is ultimately a pretty small game focused on short runs, and its character depth and progression are not particularly good or important to what I’m setting out to do with the game. But if I were making a bigger RPG, I probably would do it a little differently, but not that differently. I think my approach would be that the player basically has traits that he can get, some are assigned at the outset (like “Fighter” or “Wizard” or “Smart” or “Strong” or “Fast”) and some that you can add throughout the game, perhaps at level up, perhaps from encounters, and some of those tags would require you to have other tags. I gather than DOS:2 does something like this. In my mind, the difference between a fighter with 10 strength and a fighter with 9 strength is not very interesting but can be very time consuming to design around and mentally taxing to choose between as a player, whereas the difference between a “Fighter” who is “Strong” and one who isn’t can be engaging on the player side and interesting on the design side. Along the same lines, a limited number of spells and combat abilities that unlock new and different tactics seems better than incremental changes that, if carefully measured by the player, suggest that one approach is more likely to succeed than another.
I assume most players come to an RPG run with some sense of what kind of character they want to play. So really character creation should be about allowing them to pick the broad traits of that character, while character advancement should be an opportunity to elaborate on that character, and to pursue a particular play style, as the player learns more about the game’s content and context. Many RPG character systems, in my opinion, make it hard for the player to express his initial concept of his character because it is not obvious what combination of stats, skills, and perks actually yields that concept.
For that reason, I tend to think the move toward class-less, free-build systems is not so great. I mean, I think it’s really neat as a theoretical matter that you can do all kinds of zany builds in AoD that unlock strange possibilities that aren’t obvious at first pass, but I generally think it would work better if a player who wanted to be oriented to archaeology didn’t lock himself out of content because he didn’t grasp the nuances of the system at the outset.
At the same time, I think that many class-based RPGs tend to offer pretty boring progression when compared to class-less RPGs, but I’m not entirely sure why that should be the case. For instance, advancing in Dragon Age: Origins is way less fun than advancing in AoD. Still, I think the model can be improved upon overall by focusing more on interesting opportunities and less on progression for its own sake.
Vince: I’m changing my response to, “What my friend said.”
CSH: I’ve left the best question to last. In a past life as Marty M. O’Hale, Mark wrote an article for Escapist on how “inconsequential death” was taking the fun out of gaming, and went on to describe what he called the “save-load dilemma.” Mark, would you like to summarise the dilemma and the five principles you’ve recommended to help fix it? And tell us what you’re doing about it in your own game?
Mark: When RPGs rely upon death (via traps or combat) as the main penalty for failure, that penalty is trivial for the character within the context of a free-save/free-load game, since the player will just rely on frequent quicksaving and quickloading to undo character death. The result is what should be the ultimate penalty becomes meaningless; it is only a penalty on the player’s time (sitting there watching a save/load progress bar). Moreover, by incentivising a quicksave culture (my article notes how many cRPG walkthroughs direct you to quicksave constantly because you could die at any time), these games also tend to negate other kinds of failures (like dialogues not going perfectly). This is the exact opposite of P&P RPGs, where you’re always getting little or even big setbacks (level draining in D&D still boggles my mind) that you’re expected to live with as the player and work into the story as the DM/GM.
I proposed the following five principles:
1. The player should never be expected to save except when ending his play session. (Note, I say “expected” not “allowed.” This is a designer-side balancing decision, not a player-side time-management or lifestyle constraint.)
2. The player should receive significant long-lasting penalties much more frequently than he should die. Small permanent penalties should be frequent and essentially unavoidable (but seldom imposed due to pure chance), to accustom the player to weathering setbacks rather than undoing them.
3. The player should never die (or receive another substantial penalty) for anything other than an elected risk. That means it should be possible for a player to see when he is getting in over his head, there should almost always be a way to get out of a potentially deadly situation, and random chance should have little influence in dying.
4. Accordingly, it should be possible for combat to end some way other than every enemy or every party member dying. Retreat should be reintroduced as a viable strategic option with more upside than reloading. Furthermore, the player (and the enemy) should be able to negotiate or surrender when doing so is plausible.
5. Failure should create possibilities rather than merely foreclose them.
I wrote that in early 2007, and I think in the subsequent decade RPGs have generally gotten much better in these respects. I mentioned AoD specifically back then, and I think it delivered (mostly) on what I was hoping in this regard. Most of these were design principles on Torment: Tides of Numenera without my ever having mentioned them. I’m sure no one read my article.
Anyway, Fallen Gods somewhat cheats here. First, the eponymous god is mostly immortal, so most of the time when he dies, he respawns. The real problem is that you have to win in a certain number of days, and dying costs you time directly (to respawn) and indirectly (to regather resources you may have lost, like followers). In that sense, death is actually a sub-death consequence in the sense that it’s not game over. Second, FG is not a game you’re meant to play once and beat the first time. It has the “rogue-lite” qualities where you’re supposed often to lose. You can’t save and reload at will, either. Barbarian Prince was a big inspiration in its design, and these qualities were true of that great board game.
But still, we have tons of sub-death consequences. You routinely lose followers (to death, which can be undone if you have the right god power, but it’s very expensive; to desertion; to capture), and followers and the god get perma-weakened all the time. Also, status ailments (like crippling) are kind of a pain to take care of. You can lift them with a god power, but it’s very expensive, and otherwise you have to shlep to a shrine, or perhaps invoke the help of a priest or witch follower. You lose gold and items in tolls and thefts. Your items can hurt as well as help you, like the cursed Karringold coin, an item that’s like Draupnir (in that it spawns gold) forged from Andvari’s gold (in that it drives you mad with fear and greed; the One Ring is another comparison). And you lose time – not player time, but character time, those precious 90 days you have to get back to the Cloudlands.
We are usually pretty good that death follows from an elected risk, like trying to jump across a chasm, but occasionally it happens as an unjust surprise to remind you that the world is dangerous. Various items can save you from such surprises – for instance, the wizard who tries to kill you in your sleep will be stopped by a witch (in the rather horrific fashion quoted above) if you have one in your warband. But otherwise he would just seem a friendly old hermit offering you a meal and bedroll. And you could, with dumb luck, stumble into fatal fights from which there is no escape, like if you accidentally enter the hex where Amarok, the Great Wolf, is hidden. Finding and slaying Amarok is a goal, but if you just blunder upon him, you’re probably doomed to lose the game then and there.
Like I said, I think it’s more forgivable in a rogue-like game. And maybe also more forgivable in a game like AoD where the battles are really tactical set pieces and replaying them over and over again is a bit like trying to solve a chess puzzle.
CSH: Vince, what’s your take on the matter?
Vince: While I agree with Mark that death is only the beginning an invite to reload the game, I disagree with some of his conclusions.
From the narrative point of view, death is both necessary and unavoidable. It’s a fitting (even if somewhat frequent) end to Stupid or Reckless Hero. Let’s say your band of adventurers runs into a Balrog. The two basic options are Fight and Run Like Hell. Let’s say the developer wants to spice things up and adds option #3: Step forward, look the Balrog in the eyes and say, “You shall not pass!”
There is a good chance that it’s the last thing your character says and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it’s accompanied by an entertaining description of what happened next. Is this absolutely necessary? Of course not but it adds to the atmosphere, which brings us to the next point.
Frequent death is the only way to illustrate the dangerous nature of the world (assuming it’s dangerous, of course). You can’t say that the world is harsh and unforgiving and one wrong word can end your life if your character never dies. Thus death, when done right, can be a good tool to create a good atmosphere and reinforce the setting.
For example, there is an area in TNW called the Wasteland:
Yet those who survived the dangers of both the Wasteland and their murderous colleagues returned with accounts of more than just mummified soldiers and half-melted energy rifles. They told tantalising stories of security doors with loaded and operational turrets, of functioning retinal scanners blocking access to forbidden vaults, and of the Holy Grail itself: Admin Center, the very brain of the Ship, sealed from within at the height of the Mutiny and never breached. They also spoke of cadavers seemingly unharmed but drained of blood, of mysterious floating lights more terrifying even than the darkness of the void, and of Beelzebub himself. Called Ol’ Bub for short, this terrifying beast was said to dwell deep within the ruined complex, and to feed on any weary prospector foolish enough to let his guard slip.
You’ll hear a lot of tales about both the Wasteland and Ol’ Bub, so by the time you reach it, you’ll know what to expect (i.e. nothing good). Obviously, we can’t let you explore it unmolested, so you will die a lot and often because that’s the nature of this place. On the plus side, it’s an optional location, so you’re free to turn back at any point.
As for the Inquisition game, dealing with Lucifer’s minions and seeking forbidden knowledge is a dangerous game where on misstep can be your last.
Mark: Eh, I don’t know. I mean, the Sierra adventure game death sequences were fun – modern gamers have totally missed the point of these death sequences, which were largely there to provoke a wry smile or chuckle, or even to provide the player a clue. I guess that “You shall not pass!” can serve the same role. But to me, it’s just kind of dumb. How many players will actually run from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm if they have the option to fight and know that they can reload and try again if they die? Because standing and fighting carries literally no cost (other than the player’s time) and few people play games in order to live out fantasies of practical cowardice, the prevalence of death and availability of reloading actually makes that scenario lose its epic quality.
The experiences I’ve had playing NEO Scavenger or ADOM are just utterly different because of the risk of perma-death or other lingering harms. Perhaps it encourages too much cowardice. But figuring out a way to make “You shall not pass!” mean that you might really lose something you want as a cost of doing the heroic thing is a better approach than just kill, funny death screen, and reload. At least in my opinion.
Vince: Sure, they will be brutally slaughtered and they will reload but the memory of that death will live on, becoming the story of that one party that got butchered by the Balrog. Throw in a poetic description of that cautionary tale and the player will treasure this memory for a long time.
A great (video game) victory can’t exist without countless deaths and failures. Nobody remembers a fight they won on the first try but everyone remembers that super hard fight they won after twenty reloads, each reload teaching you something new and forcing you to try different tactics.
CSH: I had better stop you there, before someone starts throwing punches. And so for now, the dilemma continues. Once again, thank you both for your time and your insight. That was an epic interview, Tolstoy would be proud.
In case you still haven’t had enough, I’d like to direct your attention now to some other interviews and articles that might be of interest:
Mark’s article on inconsequential death and the save-die dilemma.
Another epic interview between RPG Codex, Mark Yohalem, and Steven Alexander (Infamous Quests)
Mark’s article on Freecell, and the four virtues of good game design.
Mark’s article on character-driven stories in videogames.
Mark’s article on Vince and Age of Decadence
Iron Towers’ Design Brand
Vince’s interview with Chris Avellone on choices and consequences.
In fact, Vince has a whole host of interesting interviews and articles here: