Musings about (statistical) Character Development in an RPG

Spankers and Spankees,

The following post is just some musing about game design. No updates of either the Let’s Spank or Potion Wars. Just some Etrian Odyssey inspired musings about game design. So feel free to ignore this. It’s mostly here for my self 10 years in the future. Hi 10 years older self! Nice to see you’re still developing spanking games. You need a life.

So I’ve almost beaten Etrian Odyssey (just have the final boss left, who like every JRPG final boss ever, is 2 orders of magnitude harder than the rest of the game. I lasted all of 2 rounds the first time we fought, despite obliterating all the FOES and random enemies on the final stratum. So I’m stuck in a tortuously boring grind fest right now. Stupid JRPGS.). And I have been enjoying it, however there are a few things that really piss me off about the game. One of those is the skill system.

In Etrian Odyssey, every time your character gains a level you gain one skill point. You can then put this skill point to improve one thing. Maybe it’s something generic, like how much damage you do with a Whip, or maybe it’s something specific, like improving one of your character’s special abilities.

This kind of system is usually advertised as “Complete control over how your characters develop! Choose any one of dozens of paths to powerful characters!” and yeah sure that’s theoretically true. However in practice it’s bullshit. Why? For a couple of reasons:

0. All paths are not created equal. Admittedly, Etrian Odyssey may be the exception to this (I haven’t tried every path), but I find it highly unlikely. Every game has useless skills, or skills that should be awesome, but are inflicted with so many downsides that they’re not worth it. Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing which skills are which until you find yourself forty hours in and swearing viciously because your Protector maxed out Provoke only for you to discover that it never triggers fast enough, and your enemies almost always ignore it anyway (I didn’t max out Provoke so I don’t know if that’s true. However, one point of Provoke on floor 1 was pretty useless, so I figure it’s a reasonable hypothesis). Meanwhile, she’s still ten levels away from unlocking Smite, so after she’s invoked Defender, she can’t really do much against the boss.

1. It discourages versatility. Ten skills with 1 point in each are useless. One skill with ten points is godly. So the best way to succeed in this kind of situation is to have 5 one-trick ponies. One-trick ponies are boring to play, and they’re boring to develop. I hate it when games force me to do that.

2. It discourages experimentation. You have no way of knowing if a skill is worth using until you’ve already invested a significant number of precious skill points in that ability. As a case in point, consider my Hexer. A Hexer essentially has three paths: A binding path (binding enemies arms, legs and head to keep them from using special abilities), a crowd control path (sleep, paralyze, curse) and a control path (Evil Eye plus the curses that allow the Hexer to “control” any enemies that have been terrified by Evil Eye). Now of these, the Evil Eye path is very brittle. If your enemy is resistant to Evil Eye, you could find your Hexer contributing nothing to battle. Furthermore, considering the fact that the control curses are guaranteed to effect anyone who is inflicted with Evil Eye, I find it hard to believe that any of the bosses would be susceptible to it. Otherwise, boss fights would be a cakewalk, and game designers don’t like it when boss fights are cakewalks. Evil Eye and its control curses are too prohibitively expensive to use in regular fights, so they’d be the heavy artillery. Heavy artillery that probably doesn’t work, because that’s not how RPGS work in most cases (especially JRPGs). Similar, the crowd control spells while ostensibly useful in regular fights, would probably be pretty useless against bosses for the same reason as the control curses. 99.999% of RPGS make bosses absurdly resistant to paralyze/sleep/etc. However, while crowd control can make regular fights easier, they aren’t necessary. The bosses however are pretty challenging. I can’t afford to have a character whose borderline useless during boss fights. Therefore, I sent my Hexer down the binding path. I knew from experience that bindings are actually pretty useful against all enemies, including bosses, and they’re dirt cheap.

However, all that reasoning about Evil Eye and crowd control? Total speculation. For all I know the final boss’ greatest weakness is Evil Eye, and if I’d invested in Evil Eye I could invoke Evil Eye then tie a rubber band around the Gameboy’s A button and take my dog for a walk. Why? Because I didn’t dare risk investing in Evil Eye only to discover that it’s totally useless. Then I’d have to sacrifice 10 levels just to reorganize my skill points. Ten levels is a lot. After gaining five levels, enemies that were dangerous are a cakewalk. My characters gained a little over 10 levels per Stratum, so resetting my skill points would set my Hexer back almost a full Stratum. The fact that I was forced to add her very late in the game for stupid reasons of stupidity just adds salt to the wound.

All this means that if it’s the first time playing, you’re forced to give all your characters one trick (well, maybe two), all while praying fervently that the trick you choose is actually useful. In other words, most of the strategy in this game is wound up in character development, but you have no way of evaluating your strategy until it’s too late. This ties in to a wonderful blogpost by Spiderweb Software game developer Jeff Vogel. Some of his ideas I don’t agree with (guy puts way too much emphasis on boss fights), but this one I agree with completely: Don’t Ask Questions Until the Player can Answer

At the beginning of the game, Etrian Odyssey asks me the question: How would you like to specialize each character?

However, I’d never played this game before. I had no idea what would be involved, so all I could say was “I dunno. Let me explore alright?”

And now, Etrian Odyssey is going “Hahahah! Fuck you! Now you have to grind because you wasted so many of your skill points actually having fun instead of specializing everyone into one-skill-spammers muahahahah! Well except your Dark Huntress. You got her right at least. Muahahahah!”

Of course all this is exasperated by the heavy emphasis on boss fights, which are battering ram fights in Etrian Odyssey. Etrian Odyssey has six mandatory boss fights (1 per stratum except stratum 3, which had 2). For perspective, Wizardry’s 1 and 5 combined only have 6 boss fights, 4 of which are in Wizardry 5. Furthermore, the Wizardry boss fights really aren’t so much more challenging than the regular battles that you need to worry about optimizing for them. If you’re beating the enemies before the boss fight without much trouble, you shouldn’t have many problems with the bosses. Not so in EO. In EO the boss fights are so much harder than the regular battles that you have to cater your character development to whatever is most likely to be useful against the next one time big battle I’ll never have to fight again but I know nothing about right now, rather than which is going to be the most useful against the monsters I already know about, and that I’m going to be fighting over and over again.

Now, this led to much fuming on my part. I prefer most of my strategy to be wound up in the battles not in trying to prepare my characters for battles I haven’t fought and have no way of knowing anything about. When I have control over how my characters develop, I prefer to acquire/improve skills that will make it easier against enemies I am currently facing. That’s my favorite part about a good RPG. Encountering a new enemy, trying different skills and spells, getting some idea of what works and what doesn’t, then improving those abilities that work against those enemies. In other words, I like catering my characters to deal with the current situation. That’s what makes levelling up exciting: “Alright! Now I can finally learn ice ball and obliterate those fire demons that were giving us so much trouble! Suck ice Satan!”

Then I started thinking about how I would implement a skill system. Because a good game with a horrible development system is a double waste if I can’t learn something from it and become a better game developer myself. I came up with the following system:

On the surface, it’s the same as Etrian Odyssey’s. Each level up you gain some number of skill points, which you can apply to improve your skills. However, there are two key differences:

1. You are free to rearrange your skill points at any time with no penalty.

2. You can save skill point configurations.

So for example, you could have a “dungeon exploration” skill set that focuses on crowd control spells, light spells, secret-detecting spells and the like. Then you could have a “boss fight” skill set that focuses on all of your expensive, heavy hitting skills.

You could have a “balanced” skill set that evenly distributes your skill points across all your abilities (this would be used at the beginning of each floor, when you’re not sure what will work and what wouldn’t). You could have a “fire-focused” skillset that emphasizes the fire spells a given character can learn. Similarly with the other elements. Each time you level up, you’d be able to improve one skill in each set.

This I think would be fun, because it can open the door for all sorts of things. You could have an ice-focused level, or a fire-focused level. You could have a boss fight that is a standard tank and spank, and you could have a boss fight that is nigh impenetrable, but is susceptible to status effects, even instant death attacks! At the beginning of each boss fight, you’d be given the choice to select your desired skill configuration (or tweak one, or create a new one). Then if you die you get the option of starting that fight over again with a different skill set. So each boss fight is a search for the best strategy. Hell, there’s no reason why there would have to be only one best strategy for each fight. So the search would be for the best strategy that you like the most. Maybe a spell-focused tank-and-spank. Or a physical attack focus, or a focus on using spells that reduce stats, or improve your stats. Or skills that fiddle with the game engine (i.e. turn order, combo attacks, number of hits per round, etc.). Or a focus on skills that improve the impacts of your spankings 😛

Meanwhile, when you’re exploring each floor/dungeon, you’re focusing on experimenting with different spells and skills, trying to figure out which ones will work best for the obstacles (monsters and otherwise) on that level. So at first, each floor/dungeon is kicking your ass and it’s a struggle just to stay alive. But then as you get a better handle on your enemy’s weaknesses, you start to breeze through them, without having to grind ten levels.

Thoughts? Does that sound like a good idea? Or does it sound stupid?

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