As a foreword this post is going to be lengthy. It has been edited time and again to be as concise as possible but I have had no help in compiling it. I have been known to type lengthy posts but I can assure you this will be worth your time to read. Please read it's entirety before offering your vote and voicing any concerns you may have.
Without further ado...
As most of you know the engagement system in the Pillars of Eternity Backer Beta is a love it or hate it affair. The reasons are simple. For one, it is simply a new system that the old Infinity Engine games did not have. Like it or not “being new” is another phrase for “completely changes the feel of.” Now, in practice, this is inherently not a bad thing. Games do have to evolve over time but as much of us here can attest and see with our own eyes game evolution is not always a good thing which leads me to the second reason.
The engagement system limits player movement and thus the ability to be active and make tactical real time decisions including the dreaded kiting. This can be a real problem. One of the stated goals of the system was to limit kiting and to pay a cost for disengaging out of melee range. There's a number of abilities very important to their respective classes that give “outs” of the engagement system but in all honesty there is no actual choice in whether you should disengage or not. The answer is always “no.” A fighter engaged to 4 reasonably hard hitting enemies (which is about everything right now) is as good as dropped if he attempts to disengage which leads me to reason #3.
Disengagement attacks are “completely free”; they are completely off the recovery time system. For a game that balances around every single action you take having an associated time “cost” it stands to reason that this makes little sense and can be quite abusable. If I had to guess this is probably Sensuki's biggest gripe with the system in general. No cost attacks of opportunity are indeed quite bad for the balance of this game. So what then do we do? We fix the system.
The premise of this post is simple. How do we make a system that rewards player input, can be simply understood at a glance from the player and is not abusable? Read on to find out!
1) The Zone of Control
The first problem associated with the engagement system is the lack of visuals showing the zones of control that both enemy and player characters exhibit in the backer beta. While it is true that most of the players of Pillars will be able to easily figure out and visualize themselves where this zone of control is, it is inefficient game design to have to rely on that. Tack on the fact that there is at least one ability and weapon that will increase said zone of control and it looks somewhat shoddy to not have these zones shown on day 1. My gut non-ui programmer instinct tells me something along the lines of the rebel takeover shading in FTL upon character/enemy selection would probably be at least a passable workaround for showing these zones while someone a lot smarter than me comes up with an actual solution to the problem.
2) Engagement “Arrows”
The good news is that these are already in the Pillars of Eternity Backer Beta. The bad news is that they aren't visually distinctive and that they instead perhaps add to the “clutter” of some of the choices regarding the Pillars art design. Regardless, it is in the Pillar's art team's best interest to make these as simple and player friendly as possible. Personally, i'd prefer something a little more icon based but it has a number of problems attached to it. It's difficult to show a two way street with an icon. For example, it might show that my fighter is engaged to a nearby spider but does it also show that the spider is currently engaging my fighter? Probably not.. or at least it would be difficult to do so. Some thought, however, does need to be put into this as it will play into the next section of my mini thesis.
3) Disengagement Animation
The last thing that needs visual work is the cue of actually eating a disengagement attack. Currently, disengagement attacks are an invisible damage phenomenon that happen whenever you character so much as shivers. Regarding the zones of control above, it should be readily apparent to the player that you will eat a disengagement attack if you stray outside of an enemy's zone of control. The animations for them should look “BIG” a halberd wielding enemy will go into a full swing animation, a lion or bear will reel back, etc. A mechanic you want to work simply should not be completely invisible to the player.
1) The Zone of Control
Currently in the Pillars beta there are no what I call “zones of control.” After engagement, which happens instantly with no visual or audio feedback to the player I might add, if you take even a millimeter sized step in any direction you will eat one or more disengagement attacks. This makes little if any real sense, not only does it completely limit your movement but it simple is not an actual disengagement (meaning the player is attempting to break off, regroup, whatever). I'm more of a turn based player and even I realize this is unnecessarily limiting in just about every regard. What should be happening is something much like what Infinitron was attempting to convey here:
Visual and mechanical feedback to the player that they actually are engaging in melee and to which enemy/enemies they will be engaged to. I think the best solution would be something involving a really minor movement impairment (something in the 5-15% range) when you start entering a zone of control of an opposing enemy. Once you are engaged, you should be able to freely move within the zone of control without triggering a Disengagement Attack (so basically free movement around an enemy). Zones of control should also be extended a bit outside of weapon range in order to allow more freedom of movement. Pikes and other reach weapons should have a much larger zone of control. Lastly, zones of control should only start taking effect after movement has stopped as this is quite important to a later point I will make.
2) Engagement Limit
The above is a term most beta players should be familiar with as it is simply the number of enemies any particular unit can be engaged to. The mechanic itself is certainly completely functional but I find it somewhat odd that there is almost no player agency involved in it. If an enemy engages you or you engage an enemy those small lines indicating engagement for the most part completely stay that way. But the question is... should they? As of right now engagement is simply another form of crowd control (and a particularly nasty one at that). It's similar in a sense to a knock down or a petrification effect in that you sit there and endure. Actually, there is perhaps a little more player agency involved in the crowd controls as a player can cast Suppression Affliction or use some of the other suppression effects to weaken or remove the crowd control.
The only current way to break off engagement is one of the “hard” crowd control effects and only really for a short time. If this is the case then something much worse than a taunt like ability is already in Pillars of Eternity. This can be changed and the engagement limit is the answer. Engagement can and should be a two way street. What I mean by the this is it should be a dynamic experience that resembles reality. Assume that an enemy boss with a 2 engagement limit is currently engaged to 2 of your melee. You send a 3rd party member into the brawl and he also starts attacking the boss and becomes “engaged” into the melee. Your fighter is taking one hell of a beating so he attempts to disengage why then should he eat a disengagement attack? This makes little rational sense. Although it would be true that an enemy that turns his/her back to you becomes rather exposed to some brutal retribution this doesn't necessary apply to a melee fight with multiple opponents. Extending your attack(s) to include the fleeing enemy allows for a very real possibility to get flanked by the remaining two. An experienced fighter that can masterfully keep track of only 2 targets would not want to leave an exposed back to attack an enemy that will be leaving the engagement anyway. This should be reflected in game. As long as an enemy can engage up to it's limit of engagement (meaning there are enough targets within the zone of control) then it should not apply a disengagement attack to any fleeing parties.
Further expansion of the concept would involve engagement limits nullifying each other in a plus minus system. In this case, a fighter with an engagement limit of 2 and a boss with the same engagement limit would tie each other up. Party members that aren't the fighter would be able to engage in and leave engagement freely similar to how it is presently. If the fighter wished to disengage, then 2 party members with an engagement limit of 1 would have to engage in melee in order to occupy the boss enough for your fighter to retreat (thought he still might die to things that aren't disengagement attacks). So what about multiple enemies? Well there's always...
I always found it slightly strange that there were abilities that could allow you to disengage and ignore engagement but not ones that could temporarily nullify an enemy's engagement outside of hard cc. The truth of the matter is that it should simply be a lot easier for the player to manipulate the engagement mechanics to his/her benefit as it promotes player agency and generally should contribute to actual fun. The reason is simple, players simply do not like being unable to do anything to address issues that effect them. If this was not true, then players would enjoy things like being in perpetual stun lock, watching their character get petrified and then instantly get smashed into rocky chunks, observing their characters completely ignoring their orders and beating on their own party members, etc. For engagement to be meaningful it has to continue to be something players can affect.
With that in mind, the addition of null-engage abilities would have to be implemented. Null-engage abilities would simply be abilities that subtract a single engagement limit from an enemy for a short period of time. This would allow a short reprieve for a character that may need to “abandon ship.” There are even abilities already in Pillars of Eternity that putting a null-engage debuff on would make sense. Wounding Shot and Crippling Strike are 2 such abilities. Take that boss example above, if he had 2 minions each with an engagement limit of 1 but you only had 3 melee and needed to get one of your “off tanks” out of engagement with a minion then firing a Wounding Shot at the one who is engaging the character that needs to pull back would be a temporary solution to the problem which would also allow the hobble on the Wounding Shot to actually influence the battle. While I realize currently it can be very hard to do well timed abilities that is a problem with the recovery time system and does not have anything to do with engagement. Lastly, there are a couple final glaring holes I need to address.
4) The Disengagement Attack
The disengagement attack system as of v364 is currently very broken. For one, i'm not even sure there is an actual disengagement attack system in place. The reason I state this is simply because it triggers rather randomly. This might be due to bugs or it might be due to an overarching system not actually being in place. In my playthoughs i've seen a great many disengagement attack procs that simply would not be called a disengagement. Anything from watching an enemy spider get hit with a disengagement attack for engaging my Fighter with my Paladin standing nearby to eating procs when my Fighter switches enemy targets (no actual movement involved). The second problem is disengagement attacks are “free.” Disengagement attacks do not have a cooldown. This goes against the entire Recovery Time system where every action has an associated opportunity cost. Prebuffing was handily removed because of this aforementioned system so why then would you add a (broken) form of attack that is easily abused and doesn't abide by one of the overarching balancing systems? Problem #3 is that there is no cooldown on an act of reengagement. Reengagement is basically immediate which means another disengagement attack is also almost immediate. The good news is these problems can be fixed.
The first problem is solved with the zone of control mechanic I outlined above. This would definitely require a bit more programming time but I believe it would be a more than worthwhile investment. A well intentioned form of movement system should be a big priority if engagement is to stay as currently players know little if really anything about the interaction between movement and disengagement. Gone are the bygone days of 20 something years ago where game systems were as archaic as they were opaque. It needs to be known to the player what does and does not trigger disengagement.
The second problem can be resolved with two easy fixes. First, disengagement attacks should have an internal cooldown which would only really be put into play to avoid abuse. It is an exception but self buffs are also one such exception (they needed to be useful and thus are now instant cast and don't trigger the recovery timer). Second, disengagement attacks should lengthen your recovery time as if you had attacked (which you did). This is already in the current Pillars of Eternity in the form of weapon swapping.
The last problem can be addressed as stated above. Only stationary characters/monsters should be able to trigger engagement and engagement should not be immediate. Thus, there should be a short engagement cooldown that works interactively with the player showing that they are in the process of engaging much as Infinitron stated in the linked post.
5) Targeting clauses
One of the lesser known things about the engagement system is that it comes with a set of targeting clauses. What this means in practice is that both enemies and player characters have to abide by a form of taunt mechanic. It might not be called a “taunt” but it functions like one all the same. This is essentially what some players do not want to give up but at the same time is one of the systems if not the system that can be the most irritating for a player. The reason is simple, remember that one time you issued a knockdown command to your BB Fighter only he didn't actually do it? That was due to what I just stated. The recently added auto attack clauses function the exact same way. They both overwrite any action you might have input to your character. I do not believe it to be a stretch for me to state that this should not be the case for a player. For one thing, I do not believe engagement was ever stated to be a hard cc. Second, I do not believe that the general consensus was that there should be a taunt mechanic but rather simply one that made it non-trivial for an enemy to run past your melee to engage your backline. Engagement targeting clauses need to not effect the player. With the zone of control mechanic outlined above and better visuals for the player to see what is engaged to whom the visual feedback it provides would be unnecessary. There is no sound reason for these clauses to override player action.
If you've made it this far then I offer my thanks for reading this post in it's entirety. It took me a great deal of time to actually get this thing typed out. More than once I realized in retrospect that i'd forgotten a section or two or three or five and would have to then go back and edit it into the appropriate place. This post was an attempt to come up with sound logical ideas to fix engagement that would abide by the already established balancing systems, be easy for the developers to implement, use existing systems to create greater cohesion, enhance player input and fun and solidify the game as a whole. At the end of the day however, I am simply one man. My (as well as others) ideas are simply the ideas of a single fallible individual but it was a labor of love to come up with, as well as present, them so I would be remiss to admit that it would be nice if engagement would get a reevaluation. As of v364 a few of these ideas are being looked at by the developers themselves and I hope more will be done to fix what could be a functional system. However, as of now I cannot say that it adds anything to the current game.
I don't state it enough but thank you Obsidian Entertainment for attempting to bring back a game series that seriously that changed my life forever. Keep moving forward... and please... continue to take such “risks.”