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Skills and balance in PE

skills balance non-combat

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#1
Sacred_Path

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SO we're very early in development, but we've already heard a bit about skills in P:E so I'd like to ask everyone about their preferences.


Going by what Josh Sawyer and Tim Cain have said so far they'll try to balance skills very well. They'll try to make them equal in terms of both power and opportunity. That's fine. In fact, from a professional designer's standpont that's probably what comes to mind first as an ideal. After all, you're literally selling your mechanics to the customer. If you give the player options, better make them balanced.

Recently Josh made an example by giving two choices of skills (Read Ancient Poetry and Lockpicking). His point was that, if you offer the player this choice, Read Ancient Poetry should be a real viable alternative to Lockpicking.

Personally, my preferences are a little different.

Let's assume for this example that we're in a bit of a realistic Late Dark Ages/ Early Middle Ages setting, where locks are rather rare, and the players aren't swimming in gold. When there is a lock though, a container should usually hold something valuable. Due to this, Lockpicking should be one of the most powerful skills in the game.

To balance this, different skill point costs should be attached to Lockpicking (i.e. it costs 3 points per rank), while Read Ancient Poetry should be a cheap skill to raise (costing 1 point).
That way, you make it clear from the beginning that Read Ancient Poetry isn't going to pay off as much as Lockpicking.
I'm not talking about totally gimping the player; practically, there MUST be instances where Ancient Poetry is useful in the game, otherwise it's bad design. However, I don't see the need to make both skills equally useful.

It wouldn't make you a bad gamist if you put some points into Ancient Poetry instead of Lockpicking; it would simply make for a different and, possibly, more difficult playthrough.
If you decide to spend all of your points on Ancient Poetry, this might make you a bad gamist, but a good roleplayer. Simply make the game play out realistically with this decision (in a single player game, this character might not be able to finish the game). That's not a bad thing at all. You tried a character build and it failed. It's not the designer's responsibility to make the game failproof IMO, and thereby make choices meaningless.

Several skills come to mind that could be potentially very powerful but also expensive:

- Alchemy

- Lockpicking

- Trap Disarming

- Medical

All of these potentially pay high dividends. Lockpicking can make you rich. Trap disarming can save your life. Alchemy produces spell-like or unique effects. Even if I don't get the chance to use them all the time, they could be v. powerful. Specializing in them (mastering them) should take serious dedication and limit your character building options accordingly.

Some skills might be potentially powerful, but with some greater limitations (these cost 2 points per rank):

- Sneaking

- Pickpocketing

- Smithing (Repair)

While sneaking is useful for scouting and therefore potentially very powerful, it's not as great as it could be in a game with bottlenecks where you have to fight in the end anyway. Pickpocketing is usually only very powerful if you meta-game it (knowing which NPCs carry good items
and reloading on failure). Consequences of failure are usually stark. Repair is v. useful if gold is rare or weapons get damaged in the middle of a dungeon, but potentially
not as powerful if it can be done via NPCs.

OTOH, cheap skills should not be as powerful, even though they might be more frequently used:

- Herbalism

- Heraldry

- Read Ancient Poetry

Herbalism could be used frequently throughout your travels, but be not very powerful on its own (it takes Alchemy to brew potions and herbs can also be bought).
With their low cost these skills offer room for character diversity (even though you can also specialize in them).

You will have 6 characters who can spend their non-combat skill points freely without losing combat effectiveness. So let's say there should be 6-8 skills in each of these categories to allow for some good character diversity. You get 2 or 3 skill points per level to spend on these.

What I'd like to achieve that way is the following:

- Party diversity. You probably won't have a specialist in all of the most powerful skills (and if you do, you'll have to completely neglect the other two categories).

- Make some skills as epic as they deserve to be, not a grey mass where every skill is somewhat good and somewhat 'meh'.

- Avoid certain pitfalls that come with trying to make all skills equal. (Limiting Alchemy to mimicking spell effects. Finding contrived reasons why Read Ancient Poetry is just as powerful as Lockpicking in your game.)

If we look at Darklands as an example, you could choose certain professions that favored certain skills while neglecting others. Therefore, you could build a master alchemist who was brittle and bad at combat. This was offset by the fact that Alchemy was probably the most powerful skill in the game. It was also ok because it's a party based game and there one-dimensional specialist characters aren't a problem; they're only weak/ annoying in single character games or MMO's.
Now in P:E, the problem of being entirely one-dimensional won't even exist because every character will be combat-able. But it would still be very nice to be able to say 'not every party will have or need a master alchemist. If you have one, that can be very helpful at certain stages in the game, but you'll have one less diverse party member'. Also, no matter how goofily you spend your non-combat skill points, it probably won't ruin your party entirely because they can still be good at combat.

I'm coming exclusively from playing/ contemplating CRPGs. If you have played with systems like this or something similar, or if there's a consensus on wether it's good or bad, feel free to comment, or post your own preferences. :)

#2
PrimeJunta

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There's a lot of Sawyer hate around, these days. I don't really get it. From where I'm at, what he's saying appears to be, well, common sense really. Why would you even bother implementing a "ride" skill if there are no horses in the game?

That said, there is a trap there -- an overly enthusiastic attempt at balancing everything can make everything the same. For example, an "open locks" spell that opens all locks is probably a bad idea if your rogue's raison d'ĂȘtre is an open locks skill. Going by what JES has said, though, I think the P:E team is entirely aware of this potential problem and quite capable of avoiding it.

What I would like to see is a very broad take on what constitutes challenges and rewards. It's too common IMO to view these through a powergaming lens. I.e., if, say, Read Ancient Poetry doesn't net you an item of at least as awesome power as Open Locks, [or XP, or whatever] then it's a bad choice. The payoff for that skill could be a really cool twist to a story. Or even <gasp> Ancient Poetry -- say, background lore that deepens your experience of the game.

Similarly, I think it'd be cool if the game had a solid variety of different types of challenges -- combat challenges, for sure, but also dialog challenges, puzzles, traps, intellectual challenges, and so on. [In fact IMO this would mean that characters who are less strong in combat would still be viable choices, if they would be commensurately stronger in the non-combat challenges.]

I also think that it would be kind of dim if every character and every party was equally awesome. A part of the fun of playing games like this is to figure out how to make the awesomest character/party you're able. That said, I would like to have enough information from the get-go to be able to make an educated guess about how to make an awesome character. Case in point: the archery mechanics in DA:O are extremely counterintuitive: it doesn't make much sense that your awesomest archer has maxed-out INT and shoots a shortbow. So please don't do that. If I want to make a fabulous archer, I would expect to need DEX and a longbow, TYVM.

I'm not sure that skills should be balanced by the designers by making the more useful ones cost more. I think it's more important that the game telegraphs the usefulness of the skills it offers, either explicitly or implicitly. I would be bummed if it turns out that all the points I invested in Open Locks were wasted once a mage with the Knock spell joined my party a quarter of the way through, for example.

#3
Jobby

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I can see where your coming from Sacred, although i very much doubt they'll manage to make every skill equally useful no matter how hard they try, I've yet to play a Crpg where every skill is perfectly balanced and nor would i want to otherwise i might aswel play WOW.

From what they've said though they may mean something akin to what you've suggested in that a level 6 in Read Ancient Poetry may be just as useful as level 2 in lockpicking as both cost the same number of skillpoints to reach that level.

I think Sawyer was implying that he didn't want more casual gamers to gimp their characters early on, which was something that was very possible in the BG series especially if you decided to dual class (Fighter/mage cant wear armour... pointless lol), there is a flip side to this argument however in that the dual classing system did allow for some pretty epic characters to be built if you knew what you were doing.

PrimeJunta - "I'm not sure that skills should be balanced by the designers by making the more useful ones cost more. I think it's more important that the game telegraphs the usefulness of the skills it offers, either explicitly or implicitly."

Surely having one skill costing more than other does telegraph the skills usefulness, assuming ofc the developers design it properly and dont have a cheap mechanic that can completely undermine a skill.

#4
PrimeJunta

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Surely having one skill costing more than other does telegraph the skills usefulness, assuming ofc the developers design it properly and dont have a cheap mechanic that can completely undermine a skill.


Sure! I just think it's a bit of a brute-force way to do it.

#5
DreamDancer

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Hm, I think I usually encounter exactly the problem sacred describes when it comes to cheap/RP skills vs "good"/useful skills. For example there is always one character in my party, who is completely specialized in all the fluff skills that do nothing for combat but a whole lot for lore and dialogue/Rp scenarios. Guess what, that character is always my own. So when I gather a party around me it is nice to imagine they are there to protect me. All the great gear goes to my companions and compared to my PC they are way above my league.

And I am totally fine with it, because I can play exactly the role I want within a game like this: that of a diplomat, a counselor, a scholar and explorer. So yeah, bring on the cheap skills please! I'll pick them all and be happy with it :D

#6
Jobby

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Maybe so but it would certainly be clear, I'd rather not have disclaimers such as BGs "this weapon is very rare, dont put any points in it, infact i dont even know why we made it a seperate skill"

I guess it's a fine line between holding a players hand and dumping them into an entirely new system with no advice, at the end of the day i think most of us will agree that we dont want a system where every character is equally powerful but nor do we want a system where we get shafted for thinking that "reading ancient poetry" might be useful and suddenly we have a character who can do nothing but read hyroglyphs.

On that note however i'm pretty sure theyve said that combat skills and non-combat skills will be completely seperate, so we can finally create a poetry reading badass! :D

#7
Sacred_Path

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There's a lot of Sawyer hate around, these days. I don't really get it. From where I'm at, what he's saying appears to be, well, common sense really. Why would you even bother implementing a "ride" skill if there are no horses in the game?


No Sawyer hate from me. Like I said, his opinion is entirely understandable in his position. And if it should so turn out in the end that every skill is as powerful and as frequently usable as any other, I'm certainly not gonna bitch and moan. I do have a different preference personally though.

Surely having one skill costing more than other does telegraph the skills usefulness, assuming ofc the developers design it properly and dont have a cheap mechanic that can completely undermine a skill.


Sure! I just think it's a bit of a brute-force way to do it.


True, it's probably not the most elegant way to do it. Though, if I had to choose between the elegant and the functional, I'd choose the latter. At least it's not overly convoluted (I think)

Hm, I think I usually encounter exactly the problem sacred describes when it comes to cheap/RP skills vs "good"/useful skills. For example there is always one character in my party, who is completely specialized in all the fluff skills that do nothing for combat but a whole lot for lore and dialogue/Rp scenarios. Guess what, that character is always my own. So when I gather a party around me it is nice to imagine they are there to protect me. All the great gear goes to my companions and compared to my PC they are way above my league.


Absolutely, I think the fact that we have a 6 person party calls for some radical way of enforcing choice and consequence of skills. I dimly remember IWD2, and IIRC the very useful skills were far and few in between. All of my parties usually turned out the same, skill wise.

#8
Sharp_one

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I don't think that Sawyer meant to say that if we have 100 locks to pick in the game then we have to have 100 traps to disarm. He meant that they will be close numbers of pick and traps. To avoid situation like in Fallout 2 when you could use traps skills in like 4 places (one of them the first location) and in one quest. That made the skill redundant unless you wanted to assassinate one of the family heads in Reno with 80% traps skill check.
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#9
rjshae

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There's a lot of Sawyer hate around, these days. I don't really get it. From where I'm at, what he's saying appears to be, well, common sense really. Why would you even bother implementing a "ride" skill if there are no horses in the game?

Where are you getting that "Sawyer hate" impression from? I think it's incorrect. Most of the grumbling is coming from a few squeaky wheels.

As to your other points, I'll just be happy if there isn't an "ideal" build from a power-gaming perspective. I should be able to stumble my way through much of the game even if I have a crud PC; it would just take longer and be more challenging to finish.
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#10
PrimeJunta

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Where are you getting that "Sawyer hate" impression from? I think it's incorrect. Most of the grumbling is coming from a few squeaky wheels.


Here.

As to your other points, I'll just be happy if there isn't an "ideal" build from a power-gaming perspective. I should be able to stumble my way through much of the game even if I have a crud PC; it would just take longer and be more challenging to finish.


I'd take it further than that; I don't have any problem with being able to roll up squibs that hit a brick wall at some point, at normal or harder difficulties anyway. However, I'd think it unfair if you end up with a squib even though you made reasonable assumptions about what your choices do.

#11
Somna

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If Lockpicking and "Read Ancient Poetry" are actual choices (and yes, I realize they are examples), the simple balance between the two is that while Lockpicking unlocks the obvious chests and doors, Read Ancient Poetry unlocks information and destination choices.

For example, you could have an old statue in town commemorating some event that has an inscription in the "modern" language of the game, followed by the original script below it. Without sufficient ranks in the "Read Ancient Poetry" skill, the original incription just means what the translation is. With sufficient ranks, the character realizes that the inscription has two messages due to (omitted) word choice, formatting and because of what the statue represents -- the secondary message there directs him to a location entrance and how to enter.

#12
rjshae

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Where are you getting that "Sawyer hate" impression from? I think it's incorrect. Most of the grumbling is coming from a few squeaky wheels.


Here.


Meh. A handful whiners doesn't equal "a lot". On the internet you can find anonymous posters to grumble about virtually any position. I think it's reasonable that Josh Sawyer has a philosophy of game design and is is willing to post his views. I'm not sure I completely agree with him on everything, but I'm pretty comfortable with most of his concepts. Time will tell whether he's right or not.

#13
KaineParker

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I think that skills should all cost the same amount of points per rank, and all should be about equally useful in the game.

I also don't get the Sawyer hate. We don't really know enough about the mechanics to start hating at the moment.

#14
Kaz

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Where are you getting that "Sawyer hate" impression from? I think it's incorrect. Most of the grumbling is coming from a few squeaky wheels.


Here.


Skimming though that link I thought the user Mrowak had a cool idea and wanted to share. Hope s/he doesn't mind me quoting here

While listening to the podcast I had an idea. One thing they could work on is synergy between classes and members of the same class. For example, two wizards may gain some cool abilities when they cast spells together, but would be hopeless against brute force. Two paladins could be better at destroying the undead, but would not do well against mages.

You could even apply it to "pacifist" skills Josh talked about e.g. two engineers are better at fixing stuff than one and therefore have access to options unavailable to a single enginner. On the other hand that one extra engineer takes place of a diplomat, so your options in conversation become limited.


I've had a similar idea before about skill overlap within the party. Take lore for example, traditionally if a mage had high points in lore, none of the lore possessed by other party members mattered. Mechanically it's saying
  • Char#1 knows about A, B, C
  • Char#2 knows about A, B, C, D and E
  • Char#3 knows about A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I
In this model the party knows about a total of 9 unique things.

When in the real world there isn't as much overlap, especially if you come from different professions.
So the lore would be distributed as such
  • Char#1 knows about A, B, V
  • Char#2 knows about A, B, C, J, K
  • Char#3 knows about A, B, C, D, E, F, I, L, O
In this model the party knows about a total of 12 unique things.

A and B represent things that could be considered common sense but a game doesn't have to model that kind of detail. My point is it might make sense for some skills to look at the sum of the party's capabilities when making checks, to avoid scenarios where overlapping skill/specializations go to waste. Summing the points might make it hard to balance the game, so in the lore example it might make sense that you take the highest lore score, then add 50% of each characters lore to the pile.

Edited by Kaz, 13 December 2012 - 10:41 PM.

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#15
JOG

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If the incentive is to bypass the locked door, you could

A) Pick the lock
B) Break the door
C) Kill the owner and take his key
D) Charm the owner's daughter by citing ancient poetry and have her open the door for you
E) Climb trough the window.

Those options should be equal in terms of short-term reward, long term consequences could include a happy carpenter, a murder inquiry and a pregnant daughter.
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#16
J.E. Sawyer

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I can see where your coming from Sacred, although i very much doubt they'll manage to make every skill equally useful no matter how hard they try,

We're not attempting a mythical perfect balance. We're attempting to make all of your options potentially appealing both before you play and after you've done a playthrough.

I'd say it's difficult to avoid a significant difference in the number of times any given option can be applied during a game, so a certain amount of "impact scaling" has to be considered. If there are 100 locks and only 10 ancient poems, designers should probably try to make the impact of those 10 ancient poems (readable only through the Read Ancient Poetry skill, naturally) proportionally larger. You can't really quantify that difference in any objective way, but I think you can account for it in your scenarios.

That said, I do think there's probably a minimum density you want to hit, especially in any game where a lot of content is optional or can be played in any order. If you only have 5 Ancient Poetry checks in such a game, there's a really good chance a player could miss the majority of of them.

You can also have options cost disproportionate amounts of points, as suggested in the OP. Personally, I am not in favor of this. I would rather have the design team discuss the implementation considerations of each skill, how dense the application of those skills should be, what the benefit/payoff for using the skill should be, and then build the content to support a more-or-less egalitarian application of those skills. This allows us to keep the "buy rate" of those player resources uniform.

In the case of marginal skills like D&D's Use Rope, the evolution of the skill in 4E and Pathfinder was not to contrive applications of Use Rope, but to distribute the benefits of that skill into other skills and checks (which, in turn, made those skills marginally more useful).
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#17
Sacred_Path

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This allows us to keep the "buy rate" of those player resources uniform.


Yes, I thought there would be balance issues.

TYVM for your feedback!

#18
Hormalakh

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You can also have options cost disproportionate amounts of points, as suggested in the OP. Personally, I am not in favor of this. I would rather have the design team discuss the implementation considerations of each skill, how dense the application of those skills should be, what the benefit/payoff for using the skill should be, and then build the content to support a more-or-less egalitarian application of those skills. This allows us to keep the "buy rate" of those player resources uniform.

In the case of marginal skills like D&D's Use Rope, the evolution of the skill in 4E and Pathfinder was not to contrive applications of Use Rope, but to distribute the benefits of that skill into other skills and checks (which, in turn, made those skills marginally more useful).


Thanks for the response Josh. I imagine you've thought about increasing the cost of purchasing skills as skill level increases - higher levels cost more skill points, like in Fallout where anything above 100% cost 2 skill points and so on.

I imagine that since skill buying can still be kept proportional for all skills, it's another level of complexity added on to make continued improvement in a single skill balanced against purchasing new skills.

It could also be used to increase the reuse of certain portions of the maps, since you couldn't really unlock certain content until you've reached a minimum level. Therefore, only those who choose to really invest in a skill can reap the benefits. This was sort of how Arcanum did its Master-level quests, which were only unlocked if a character invested heavily in a skill.

Any word/thoughts on this?

Edited by Hormalakh, 15 December 2012 - 05:26 PM.

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#19
Zenning

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Wow, reading through the RPG Codex forums, I didn't realize just how bad some of this hate is. I mean, one guy just goes on and on about how everything that J.E Sawyer touches sucks, or is good despite his influence. That doesn't even make sense!

As for the balance issue, I remember in Alpha Protocol I'd play the game a number of times with completely different skill points, and I'd always think "Hell yeah, I'm so glad I picked these skills" for everything I ended up doing. At no point did I ever think "What the hell is the point of (x) skill anyway?" I didn't need any of those particular skills to get passed through the game, but every single one of em felt important as I used em. Hell, the coolest part is that I'd never think going through the game a second or third time "Why didn't I get y skill this time? BLARGH!". It was great. If Obsidian can manage to give me that magic again, I'll be more than happy.

Err, execpt get rid of those stupid bossfights that require a certain character layout to not be annoying as goddamn hell.

#20
Sacred_Path

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One more question Josh,

with 6 party members and non-combat skills separated from combat skills, how will you avoid every party looking the same skill-wise (non-combat)? Skill point scarcity? Skill synergies? Or will attributes also factor in somewhere?





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