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Monte Carlo

Elegance in CRPG rulesets

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Hi Obsidian developers.

 

Most of us have now played Dragon Age and enjoyed it to varying degrees. For me it was great fun despite the ruleset not because of it. Quite an achievement if you think about it.

 

I'm not asking you to comment on DA whatsoever (unless you'd like to :) ) but if you were to make a similar game with an original IP then what principles would you follow? Would you choose to abandon classes? What other games have got it right and which have got it wrong?

 

Am interested in your thoughts.

 

Cheers

MC


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I'm starting to become a fan of "class-less" rulesets (S.P.E.C.I.A.L. for example.)

 

I find the flexibility very nice, although the obvious potential problem is allowing one's character to become a "jack of all trades" type if restrictions aren't put into place (Fallout 3 w/ Broken Steel suffered from this, and especially Oblivion.)

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Short answer: pretty much all games get it wrong IMO. I'll write up the long answer later.

 

 

XCOM got it almost totally right, except psi powers were unbalanced and made the game ridicolusly easy once you got them and ridiculously hard until you did.


Notice how I can belittle your beliefs without calling you names. It's a useful skill to have particularly where you aren't allowed to call people names. It's a mistake to get too drawn in/worked up. I mean it's not life or death, it's just two guys posting their thoughts on a message board. If it were personal or face to face all the usual restraints would be in place, and we would never have reached this place in the first place. Try to remember that.

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made the game ridicolusly easy once you got them and ridiculously hard until you did.

 

lol. That sounds pretty far from "almost totally right".

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Whilst Sawyer burns the midnight oil, committing his thoughts to papyrus with the ink made from the ichor of a ****atrice egg, I shall say what I'm getting at.

 

Developers have written frequently of the need to escape the orbit of pen & paper game mechanics to properly fit the medium of computer gaming. And they're right. The tricky bit is, how do you do this yet retain the soul of what CRPGs are? After all, it's a bit like modern artists building installation scultpture and saying they need to escape paintings by Pollock or Warhol - when by a process of osmosis that's partially where they've come from themselves.

 

Dragon Age is, in a sense, immensely disappointing from this POV. It comes across as a hard-hearted decision - make a game familiar enough to MMO / twitch / console gamers but with a hat-tip to old school CRPG players. And the result is strangely lacking in flavour, and (crucially) seems semi-detached from the setting. What is a rogue in Ferelden FFS? Where do the little sub-classes fit in? Why with so many options are classes forced into little boxes like sword and shield or two-handed fighter?

 

I only mention DA because I imagine it was a pretty good place to be for Bioware designers - original IP, your own ruleset, your own world to tinker with.... and yet they came up with this. Like I said, I actualy really enjoyed the game. I like Dave Gaider's thinking man's Ed Greenwood mish-mash of Celtic & Dark Ages mythos. But the ruleset... it's like making a soup with stuff from an expensive farmer's market but using powdered stock from the budget store.

 

So my question to the Obsidian guys, whose work I know and trust, is what would you have done? Not specifically to DA, but in that fantasy football scenario where you pick your own new game with all that clout behind it. How do you capture the spirit of the genre, break new ground and make a more satisfying experience... and still shift units?

 

Cheers

MC


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Basically I think that most designers are overly concerned with what's come before when they sit down to write CRPG mechanics. When looking at mechanics that typically go into CRPGs, it's pretty hard to reverse-engineer a plan of intent. The conclusion I'm usually left with is that they wanted the system to "look like an RPG" on a UI screen. They have classes and stats and skills and skill/talent trees and a ton of derived stats when probably not all of that is necessary.

 

I believe that game designers, whether working in the RPG genre or otherwise, should establish what they want the player to be doing within the world. That is, they must ask themselves what they want the core activities of the player to be. Within those activities, the designer can find ways to allow growth over time in a variety of ways. How they want that growth to occur and what sort of choices they want to force the player to make -- that's what should drive the design of the advancement/RPG system.

 

Instead it usually seems like most designers sit down and say, "Well what are the ability scores going to be?"

 

RE: Moving units: Nobody cares enough about the advancement mechanics to make or break sales. Mass Effect and Oblivion both show that you can have extremely simple (from a player perspective) advancement mechanics and as long as people enjoy the core gameplay, the apparent simplicity/non-traditional nature of the mechanics doesn't matter.

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I believe that game designers, whether working in the RPG genre or otherwise, should establish what they want the player to be doing within the world. That is, they must ask themselves what they want the core activities of the player to be. Within those activities, the designer can find ways to allow growth over time in a variety of ways. How they want that growth to occur and what sort of choices they want to force the player to make -- that's what should drive the design of the advancement/RPG system.

 

This gave me quite strong Quest for Glory vibe.


This post is not to be enjoyed, discussed, or referenced on company time.

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Thanks for your thoughts Josh. Briefly, would that perspective influence the way you guys look at design in the future?

 

For example, I know it's S.P.E.C.I.A.L. but I liked the origin route in FO3 where you made decisions as you grew up in the Vault, i.e. the character generation felt more organic to the gameplay. TES did this too, but not as well. And, hey, the Dragon Age origins would have been fantastic had you designed the character in the tutorial.

 

Cheers

MC


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I can't speak for all system designers at Obsidian, but what I described is my outlook on system design and it always drives the process. Core gameplay prototyping should define the basic style and flow of gameplay, with character advancement being developed from that core.

 

I think F3's opening did a better job than most at integrating a relatively elaborate CC process into a narrative framework. By comparison, for example, Mass Effect basically just has you build an appearance, select a class and background, and sends you on your way. NWN2 allows you to define a lot of things about your character, but ultimately it's a pretty boring CC experience.

 

Of those, I think NWN2's CC was the worst overall. You had a ton of fiddly options, but those options were presented poorly; you had no connection to the story; and generally it felt like you were interacting with an interface instead of playing the game. Mass Effect's CC was short and to the point. It was somewhat bland, but at least it explained the basic options clearly, got you into the game quickly, and immediately referenced your background. F3's took a while, but it was well-integrated with the Vault 101 sequence. My biggest issue with F3's CC sequence is that it did not give you an opportunity to use all of your skills in Vault 101. When you finally escape, there are several skills you've had no opportunity to use (e.g. Barter, Big Guns, Explosives, Science [i think] etc.), which makes it difficult to re-evaluate your character before exiting.

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OTOH FO 3's CC couldn't be skipped/fast forwarded, which was annoying sometimes.

I liked NWN 2's CC, even if it was more pragmatic. A small background to liven it up, character's clothes changing based on class, details I enjoyed.


"Bones heal, chicks dig scars, pain is temporary, glory is forever."

What is glass but tortured sand?
Never forget! '12.01.13.

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The game would let you change any stat right before the vault exit, if you wanted to skip character creation you could use a save at that point.

Not that stats and skills made much of a difference.

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I thought FO3's CC was a tedious hellish nightmare of horrible voice acting, bad dialogue, and general idiocy. It ranks right up there as one of my most unpleasant gaming experiences. The game itself wasn't nearly so awful; I don't know why they insisted on dragging me through that. To me it just seems to indicate that Bethesda is far more convinced of their own epic writing skilz than they have any right to be.

 

IMO, Oblivion's was pretty bad too, but it wasn't quite so teeth-grindingly insipid.


Notice how I can belittle your beliefs without calling you names. It's a useful skill to have particularly where you aren't allowed to call people names. It's a mistake to get too drawn in/worked up. I mean it's not life or death, it's just two guys posting their thoughts on a message board. If it were personal or face to face all the usual restraints would be in place, and we would never have reached this place in the first place. Try to remember that.

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The PnP systems I started with were all attribute and skill based instead of class and level based. This is probably why I never liked the class based systems that much. I accept them as reasonable simplification on some PnP systems, but always disliked how many CRPGs use them. My reasoning is that you don't need that much simplification when computer is doing the "under the hood" calculations. My thinking is that CRPGs use levels because they are familiar and they give that reward that player craves every once in a while for clicking the mouse X times.

 

The idea of binding it all to gameplay is interesting, but the implementation has proved... challenging so far. Within reason, I like fiddling with stats. It's part of the gameplay for me.


SODOFF Steam group.

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I don't know, I just suspect that it's time for a game where you choose a gender, appearance and a background that fits into the the game and... go. Your character develops within the game.

 

Stuck in a forest surrounded by wolves? Try and sneak and you become a bit better at sneaking. Attack a wolf and perhaps get a bit better at fighting. Pet and feed the wolves and become a bit more attuned to nature. I dunno. Later on you bump into a druid. Want to spend a load of time and resources learning about that? You can. Now or later. Learn enough to heal an injury and move on or put more effort into it and learn to summon a bloody great thunderstorm. Perhaps you won't have as much time to learn Cool Sword Moves but, hey, that's life.

 

I think people are more than ready for such a game, if the core purpose of that game (as J.E. describes it) is to build a cool character in a fantasy game world and Do Stuff.

 

I too had my best pen & paper experiences with class-free rulesets - your character could be good at a couple of things or a jack-of-all-trades. Just like in reality, you could pick up skills along the way as you need them, some of them being contradictory (a priest who learns to steal, a barbarian who learns art appreciaton). Why not? It anchors you so much more into the game and increases immersion. Rather than win a pretty 'achievement' pin on a website for stealing fifty items why not get a real in-game skill, consequence, nickname?

 

As long as you aren't guessing all the time then it would be fun, rather than choosing to be a rogue on day 1. look at Dragon Age and it's much-vaunted origins. My character is a noble in a castle... why is he a rogue? How did he learn to pick locks rather than fighting with Big Swords? Why doesn't anybody mention my ignoble class decision?

 

You see, it's just odd. It's a set of mechanics, not a story. At least FO3 tried to do it differently - it didn't bother me because I only played it once.


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I think I actually prefer the NWN2 way of doing it, even if it is indeed rather "fiddly". It could've been better presented probably, with a better overview of everything.

 

I can see that Fallout 3 tried to improve the system of creating a character but I just don't think it works well, and I didn't think it would before the game was released either (when it was revealed that the tutorial *is* the character creation). I mean, gaining familiarity with the vault is a good idea, but I just have such a hard time going through the "OK... now carefully push the W button to move forward. CONGRATULATIONS!" stuff.

 

I think the NWN2 tutorial was well-done because it presented the player with the option to play it fully, play it without the tutorial pop-ups or skip it all-together. While the tutorial itself wasn't the epitome of fun gameplay and/or story, I really wish more games would use that basic "setup" so to speak.

 

But ultimately, I prefer it when the game really starts right away. Give me a well-presented character sheet to fill out at the beginning, and send me on my way. While it's not a RPG (nor does it have a character sheet), it was so nice in STALKER in that the game just sends you away on the first mission right away with a few brief, easily ignorable, floaty text pop-ups on controls. And that mission could very well kill you. Same when you replay something like Fallout 1. Sure, I guess the rat caves could somehow count as a tutorial area, but the transition from starting a new character to that character entering the gameworld in full effect is very quick overall.

 

I never liked this notion of the tutorial sorta being seperate from the rest of the game, and it being super easy (which is the case for most tutorials). Like in Fallout 3 where you murder a bunch of guards *really* easily when you escape. It just starts the game off on a weird note.

 

I do agree with Josh on how to design the attributes and all that though. Asking stuff like "What is this gameworld? What should the player be able to do in it? What is the lore? How technically advanced is it?" is an excellent start when designing the character system.


Listen to my home-made recordings (some original songs, some not): http://www.youtube.c...low=grid&view=0

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But ultimately, I prefer it when the game really starts right away. Give me a well-presented character sheet to fill out at the beginning, and send me on my way.

This is something Morrowind did really well. No boring rat/goblin killing or dungeon crawl, no hand-holding, no lame speeches, but just filling out a form, stamping some papers and you're on your own... possibly dying 5 minutes later in the first bandit cave or ancestral tomb.


The ending of the words is ALMSIVI.

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Ugh, lost a long, detailed post on this. I'll be more brief but still try to make the point.

 

Along the lines of what Josh is saying, I don't believe there are any real rules as far as RPG design goes. It's very hard (and maybe foolish) to isolate an individual mechanic away from the game and try to evaluate it qualitatively.

 

Instead, you have to identify what kinds of things you want the player to experience, and then craft an RPG system that achieves those goals. It's very difficult, as Josh mentioned, to try to determine the intent of many PnP/Computer RPG systems because I do not think they are designed this way. Instead, they are designed piecemeal, with each mechanic attempting to simulate a particular event or refine/react to a particular system that existed in a previous game.

 

This is why a lot of PnP RPGs, if you play with all the rules, grind to a halt in practice - the rules, while possibly individually perfectly fine and balanced - don't in practice result in a compelling play experience.

 

Of course, each individual designer has preferences for some mechanics over others. As an example, (not to speak for Josh and he can correct me if I'm wrong) Josh has a general preference from Damage Threshold systems and I generally prefer percentile damage reduction systems. Meaning that, if we were designing in a vacuum, we'd each be more likely to pick the system we prefer. But you're never designing in a vacuum in practice.

 

We both have our reasons for preferring each, but I think what makes a good system designer is being able to set your preferences/distaste for specific mechanics aside and evaluate instead which mechanics best result in the kind of gameplay you are trying to create.

 

It's a lot like engineering or technology programming in a way. If you ask a good tech programmer or engineer what the best car/game engine design is, they'd respond "depends what the car/game is supposed to do".

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I never liked this notion of the tutorial sorta being seperate from the rest of the game, and it being super easy (which is the case for most tutorials). Like in Fallout 3 where you murder a bunch of guards *really* easily when you escape. It just starts the game off on a weird note.

 

It sounds like you don't like the notion of it being integrated with the rest of the game - or, just that you don't like tutorials.

 

For instance, if instead of F3's tutorial, it had an optional tutorial that was a seperate level (think of the tutorial in Deus Ex) then it doesn't seem like you'd be as concerned with it? Maybe I'm reading what you're saying wrong.

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Yeah, I have no idea what I was typing there. I think the main complaint I was trying to get through in that particular quote was the difficulty level of escaping the vault. Where you, as a 19 year old kid, easily dispact the Vault security and runs away. While Fallout 3 isn't an extremely hard game, it still clashes with the rest of the game I think. This is obviously due to it being the tutorial area, but the tutorial is still the start of the story in Fallout 3. I mean, you can punch your way through basically even if you haven't put anything into Unarmed. It sets a weird tone for the story's plausability right from the beginning.

 

But you are right in that I don't mind tutorials that are a seperate entity and not vital to the story (I know, I basically said the opposite in your quote :)). But I do mind when the tutorial is integrated into the story/the game overall, and in *that* situation is a very seperate entity in terms of gameplay and feel.

 

But yeah, I'm not a fan of the tutorial in general. I guess it can't be avoided these days but I much prefer it when you have the information in the paper manual, in a pdf manual and, best of all, available in-game somewhere where you can quickly check up info if you need it. I find it extremely annoying to go through the "press left mouse button to fire your weapon" stuff. I've played games for quite a while now thank you, they are generally not hard to figure out. If new players need to go through it then I'm sure there must be good ways to present the information to them without slowing down the experience for everyone else.


Listen to my home-made recordings (some original songs, some not): http://www.youtube.c...low=grid&view=0

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Yeah, I have no idea what I was typing there. I think the main complaint I was trying to get through in that particular quote was the difficulty level of escaping the vault. Where you, as a 19 year old kid, easily dispact the Vault security and runs away. While Fallout 3 isn't an extremely hard game, it still clashes with the rest of the game I think. This is obviously due to it being the tutorial area, but the tutorial is still the start of the story in Fallout 3. I mean, you can punch your way through basically even if you haven't put anything into Unarmed. It sets a weird tone for the story's plausability right from the beginning.

 

But you are right in that I don't mind tutorials that are a seperate entity and not vital to the story (I know, I basically said the opposite in your quote :shifty:). But I do mind when the tutorial is integrated into the story/the game overall, and in *that* situation is a very seperate entity in terms of gameplay and feel.

 

But yeah, I'm not a fan of the tutorial in general. I guess it can't be avoided these days but I much prefer it when you have the information in the paper manual, in a pdf manual and, best of all, available in-game somewhere where you can quickly check up info if you need it. I find it extremely annoying to go through the "press left mouse button to fire your weapon" stuff. I've played games for quite a while now thank you, they are generally not hard to figure out. If new players need to go through it then I'm sure there must be good ways to present the information to them without slowing down the experience for everyone else.

 

I think the way Left 4 Dead handles that stuff is really cool. They have some things that essentially detect whether the player is getting stuck performing necessary actions and then tells them what to do if so. For instance, if you start a game and don't move for a while, it says "Press WASD to move" or if you stare at an item and don't use it it will say "Press E to Use".

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or if you stare at an item and don't use it it will say "Press E to Use".

 

What if you were staring at a plastic bag caught in an updraft because it was the most beautiful thing you'd ever seen?


"It wasn't lies. It was just... bull****"."

             -Elwood Blues

 

tarna's dead; processing... complete. Disappointed by Universe. RIP Hades/Sand/etc. Here's hoping your next alt has a harp.

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^ That would be an awesome design decision, maybe a CRPG set in the empty carpark of a suburban supermarket?


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You know, there's something I never got. Namely ability costs in some games. For example, the Berserker ability in Dragon Age.

The talent, like every other, has a stamina cost. Then when you use it, you get a stamina regeneration penalty.

What for? Why is there a cost to an ability when you get a penalty for using it anyway? Shouldn't the stamina cost be the effin' penalty?


"Bones heal, chicks dig scars, pain is temporary, glory is forever."

What is glass but tortured sand?
Never forget! '12.01.13.

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I suppose there is elegance and elegance...

 

So far, I had only one wallbanger on Dragon Age. The whole system is geared toward combat, giving each class a very specific role in the fights. But then, why is the lockpicking ability considered an ability and not a skill??? That is the only set of abilities that is of absolutely no use in combat! It's like they threw away their whole design philosophy for that particular ability, probably to ensure that everybody will try to have a rogue in their party. That is freaking stupid!

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