Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: Returning to Base

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 18, 2011

Many computer role-playing games (CRPGs) have a concept of a “home base” for the player – a safe location to return to in order to rest, heal, trade, advance, acquire and complete quests, and so forth. The actual location may change as the game advances, but these safe spots (which may literally be “save spots” in games with limited save points) get returned to again and again by PCs.

While not universal (especially in modern CRPG design), I’m hard-pressed to think of another genre that commonly features this kind of mechanic.

It originated, as many things CRPG, as a feature of dice-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons. In earlier editions of D&D, starting player characters were so weak that an adventuring foray was rarely expected to be more than a battle or three before retreating for rest and recuperation (and trading treasures for equipment and alcohol) back in town. Adventure modules and the core rulebooks themselves suggested this type of ebb-and-flow, and even spoke of what kind of changes might occur in the dungeon in between forays by the party.

Earlier CRPGs strongly reflected this kind of gameplay. Oftentimes you could not even save the game except while safe in town or in the tavern (Boo!). While it was possible to rest and regain needed spells and hit points in the field, a hike back to town was necessary to do so safely. One rarely “cleared a level” on a single foray into the dungeon. Every venture past the safety of town (even stepping outside the tavern, in early Might & Magic games, The Bard’s Tale titles, or the recent retro indie RPG Sword & Sorcery: Underworld) carried risk, and there was a cost associated with returning to “base” – in terms of time, and in respawning enemies on a return trip. But return trips were absolutely necessary, as spell points, hit points, and other resources steadily diminished out in the field and could only be reliably (and cheaply) replenished back “home.”

Other games – particularly modern CRPGs – have diminished or rid themselves of this mechanic. It still exists in some jRPGs as a save point (which sometimes automatically heals the party, or at least allows the party to rest safely).  There usually remains a need to find a place to trade in treasure for new equipment and supplies, although it may be less centralized and require minimal cost. In Torchlight, you can send your pet to go sell unwanted items for you, and the only cost being without the animal for a short period of time.  Dungeon Siege went even further, allowing you to convert unwanted items directly into gold with a spell. I went even further in my RPG-in-a-week experiment, Hackenslash, where I converted unequipped items directly into their gold value equivalent with no spell required – partly because I didn’t have time to implement a merchant.

Like traditional action games, the player can often expect to ‘clear a stage’ before returning to a home base – which is then done more for bookkeeping: Buying, selling, restocking gallons of healing and mana potions, updating quest status with NPCs, and so forth.

Then you have games like FTL’s Dungeon Master and SSI’s Eye of the Beholder, with no real home base whatsoever except for previously cleared areas of relative safety.

The ease of returning back to “home base” is another aspect that provides a subtle but significant impact on the flavor of an RPG. The availability of “combat teleports” back home in games like Diablo, Torchlight, and Depths of Peril promote a more aggressive style of play, as there’s always a low-cost, and deceptively low-risk escape available – often resulting in frantic, desperate jumps through a portal from overwhelming hordes.

Contrast this with a deep dungeon foray in early Wizardry games or (so far as I can recall, it’s been a while) the old Gold Box D&D games. Resources had to be measured, as a return trip back home could be a dangerous undertaking on its own. A rest in dangerous territory could be interrupted with a surprise attack by monsters, so it was always necessary to keep something in reserve just in case.  Knowing when to pull back was a dearly-earned skill, especially with the punishing death penalties in the first Wizardry.

Din’s Curse is an interesting hybrid. First of all, the home base no guarantee of safety.  You are never very far from a quick trip back to the surface (every level has a teleporter back to town), but it may not always be accessible as an escape point. You may not know where it is (especially if you just arrived in the middle of a level due to a teleport trap), or the way may be barred by enemies and traps. It’s quite possible to push through an entire dungeon without a trip to safety (especially if you find merchants who have set up shop in the dungeon), but in practice that rarely happens. And sometimes, in a role reversal, the home base becomes far more dangerous than the dungeon itself.

The presence, function, and accessibility of a “home base” exerts a powerful influence over the gameplay and character of a CRPG. There are many variants that I’ve skipped over here, particularly when it comes to teleport and other movement spells. And I’m sure there are many other possibilities and subtle variations yet to come.

But – note to indies, in particular – please avoid making those “home bases” the only place you are allowed to save your game anymore, ‘k? It was annoying in 1981, and it hasn’t gotten more forgivable with age.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 23 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    It can be nice to have a safe haven in a game, but I do prefer it if the “base” has a bit of character.

    Ultima V is a truly memorable experience for this, you don’t have a particular base, but each town has it’s own purpose and they aren’t necessarily safe either.

    On the subject of save points, I always preferred those games without, and I’m not entirely sure why so many people thought they were a good idea.

    Mind you, I think Alpha Protocol had save points, but they were of such regularity that it really didn’t affect me (and with the modern propensity for auto-saves, too).

    I recall often trying to find the nearest save points in Final Fantasy VII, which was quite sparing at certain times with such points. In that particular case, it was a console-based hangover. It wasn’t good when you wanted to quit but had no idea how long it would be before you could save (using an emulator and the ps1 version was often better…)

  • Ben McGraw said,

    One of the Breath of Fire games had this, IIRC. The home base was a town that you built up and which got more elaborate as you met refugees and craftsmen to send there while you were on your journey.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The Ultima games (at least the middle ones) came to mind as ones that didn’t quite have the ‘home base’ mechanic. I mean, to a degree they did – they were multiple ports in storms, and as you said, they each had their purpose. You stayed close in the earlier Ultimas so you could flee to them from monsters when the going got tough in the wilderness, but that was only a temporary reprieve.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Never played Breath of Fire, but I do remember building my castle in Suikoden.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Building a castle makes me think of the NWN2 main campaign, in which the actual castle building was woefully under-used in my opinion.

    I’ve not played Breath of Fire either, but I do like the idea of building up your base. It would be nice to see all those weapons and armour you sell going to the local milita or army, to see the money you spend actually improve a city. Basically, I’d like to see some sort of actual economic system, as opposed to the usual broken one you find in the majority of crpgs.

  • Menigal said,

    I’m with you on the save point thing. I have (and certainly will again) not bought games because of limited save systems. I’m not young anymore and have other things to do besides playing games. When I’m out of time, I need to be able to save it RIGHT NOW and get on with my life. Likewise, if something goes wrong, I don’t have the time to replay long stretches I’ve already done at least once. If I ever have to spend five minutes redoing something I’ve done just because I wasn’t allowed to save before heading into something I knew was dangerous, then I’m more inclined to put the game down and never come back to it.

    More on topic, I quite like having a home base to return to, but I like it to be dealt with quite subtly. Let me get back to someplace safe and sound relatively easily, when it makes sense, but I don’t really want to see flashing neon signs pointing at it saying “Home base here! Do you like your home base? Your home base is so cool.”

    Having a nice little town or village nearby where I can get the services I want is usually good enough for me. I do like seeing people trying new things with this concept, though, even if it doesn’t always work out. Hinterlands is a good example of a game that tried some new stuff, but it wasn’t deep enough in any way to hold my attention for long.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how Dins Curse works.

  • EHamilton said,

    Even since the abandonment of limited save games, it seems like every designer has needed to cope with the “save and reload” mechanic of bypassing challenging encounters. This means that lots of possibly interesting pen-and-paper mechanics (surprises, randomizations, traps, random encounters during withdrawal from dungeons) have basically fallen by the wayside.

    I’m not out to convert anyone, just to point out why I personally haven’t felt anything that produces the same level of excitement as trying to escape from the Mad God’s Temple in BT1, in virtually any modern game. If a game has a good enough storyline and narrative flow, that can turn RPGs into a different kind of game entirely with other sources of excitement, but I miss the option of playing the old way and feeling the excitement arise from a genuine sense of danger.

    Limited save games are basically dead outside the console world, and so I feel like indie developers shouldn’t be too critical when a few of them have the audacity to continue to exist for the benefit of weird masochists who enjoy them. At the very least, it’s nice to see the playstyle acknowledged by the existence of options toggles or achievements.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    There are a lot of games that preserve that without limiting where you can save. I mean, for that matter, play Hardcore in Din’s Curse (or Diablo 2) – or non-hardcore, either way. You can quit anywhere, and the game saves when you quit, and continues when you resume. Simple & effective.

    The save POINT thing is really an artifact of old technical limitations — you were guaranteed limited meaningful variables to preserve a reasonable save game state. For example, you wouldn’t have to worry about the position of a moving platform the player might be standing on. If the platform isn’t in exactly the same position, big deal.

    But designers built around that limitation, as it forced players to replay parts of the game several times. Do it right, and you can make a 10-hour game last 20 hours!

    Anyway, that’s the part I object to. I can accept some limitations to where you can save (say, not in combat, or in the middle of a cut scene). But as a general rule, I need to quit when I need to quit, and I don’t want to have to re-do progress I’ve made when I do that.

  • Menigal said,

    People who want limited saves can easily choose to play that way. It’ as simple as only letting yourself save once at the start of the dungeon/each floor/when the stars are right. Those of us who want to play the game on our own terms don’t get an option like that when the designer sticks to a system that was outdated before most gamers now ever picked up a controller.

    That said, a save system like the one in Arkham Asylum could work for keeping some suspense. You had to play each room through without saving, but it was rarely too much of a problem due to the way it was paced. Some of the forced stealth areas could get annoying, though. And when you wanted to quit, all you had to do was find a door and walk through it to force an autosave.

    I still would have preferred a modern (or should that be old-fashioned now?) save system.

  • Demiath said,

    As for other genres with home bases, most open world action games such as Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row and Assassin’s Creed – also Far Cry 2 if you count multiple interlinked home bases – have some clearly defined, often upgradeable base of operations. Thus, the concept has certainly spread to other genres in recent years.

    When it comes to modern RPGs both Dragon Age and Mass Effect (both games in both series) are obviously centered around home bases, but in this genre in particular I suspect an increasing focus on narrative, storytelling etc. is driving this trend today rather than any strictly gameplay-related functions. If nothing else, realistic protagonists need to be rooted in physical reality somehow no matter how much travelling they do in their demanding day jobs as world saviors.

    As always, though, unapologetically hardcore PS3 RPG Demon’s Souls is the exception to the rule; since the home base in that game truly is the one and only safe haven (as well as the primary save location, the place where you level up your character etc.) in its relentlessly hostile world.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Just reading Richard Cobbett’s “Gaming Made Me” article about Quest for Glory IV over on Rock Paper Shotgun, and it made me think about how they handled the home towns.

    Each game was slightly different, but it’s the second game in particular that stood out in that respect.

    In the second part of Quest For Glory II: Trial By Fire, you make your way to Rasier, a city that is quite different in feel from the starting city (Shapier). The game really makes you feel like Rasier is an unwelcome and dangerous place, with no friendly safe area to retreat to.

  • MalcolmM said,

    I didn’t mind the home base concept in Wizardry, it sure made for some interesting combat decisions. When I have the ability to save at any time, combat becomes less interesting to me. I know you can force yourself not to save, but I guess I’m too weak willed.

    There is another approach that can work well, I think the Nintendo DS game Etrian Odyssey used this idea (it’s been quite a while since I played the game). You still have the home base, which is the only place you can do permanent saves. You can also save anywhere you want in the game, but these saves are one time only, when you reload from one of these saves it is gone. This works better on a game system like the DS, where you don’t have access to the file system.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I’m fine with the idea of saved games that can only be loaded from once. That’s no problem at all for me.

    The thing I have a problem with is – when you have to quit – realizing that you haven’t been able to save your progress for the last while, and can’t save where you currently are, so you are going to have to re-play through the same stuff next time you play.

    That kills my enjoyment of a game in a hurry. There have been a couple of console games that I rented with intent to buy (that sounds like a felony, doesn’t it?), but got so infuriated at the checkpoint / save point system that I quit in disgust. (And why wasn’t there a save point at EVERY checkpoint? No clue! Aside from a bad designer who preemptively wanted to inflict pain on anybody wanting to quit playing his game for a few hours.)

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    The thing I have a problem with is – when you have to quit – realizing that you haven’t been able to save your progress for the last while, and can’t save where you currently are, so you are going to have to re-play through the same stuff next time you play.

    So, what you’re really complaining about is having to re-play content after playing it once but not being able to save. This doesn’t preclude only being able to save in town, but it does mean there should be a way to save at a moment’s notice.

    I’m playing the game Etrian Odyssey on the DS where you can only save in town. But, you can buy a (relatively expensive at lower levels) item to warp you back to town. That’s a nice happy medium, where you can get back to town quick if absolutely required, but there’s a cost. (The DS can also be closed to go into lower power consumption mode and retain game state as well.)

    Anyway, I think this design option gives the player another interesting choice. But, if your life is full of distractions, this probably doesn’t work so well. 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yup, that works too.

    Although Nihilistic tried that with their initial release of Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption, and players hated it. I was fine with it, personally, but I was apparently in the minority. They upgraded it with a more conventional save system in a later patch.

  • McTeddy said,

    Etrian Odyssey (At least the later ones) also have quick saves. If you use these you say exactly where you are inside the dungeon… though it can only be loaded once. Saving in town on the other hand allows repeated loading.

    I’ve found that to be my favorite system of saving. I had the ability to pick up and stop whenever I needed to… yet I still needed to think before I acted. Do I risk fighting the boss now, or flee to the campsite to heal? With unlimited saves, there is no penalty for mistakes and therefor less tension regarding my choices.

    I understand that people don’t want to replay sections if they lose… but, in my opinion, that is no excuse for auto-saving every 3 steps like modern games seem to enjoy.

    Good ol’ Mass Effect saving before and after every battle. “Oh my god… if I die I may have to fight these 3 guys again!”… now that was really tense.

  • Maklak said,

    I savescum a lot. I don’t really want it any other way, but “hardcore” mode, where I can save and reload anywhere, but only once might work for me as well.

    As fo home base it is always nice to have a place to dump your stuff. A room or house in a town will do, but there are other possibilities: A hidden dungeon with chests in a game that has multiple mark-recall teleportation (like runebooks from UO). A spaceship or a trailer also works. I don’t particulary like the idea of moving my base to another town, as that usually means picking up all my stuff, and moving it.

    In all sorts of PRGs I tend to collect random stuff, I might use later. Hm, this looks weird. Maybe it is a quest item? Oh, this throwing dagger has +3 bonus. I don’t have skill in thrown weapons, but I’ll keep it anyway. I might use it one day. I Neverwinter Nights I had enough inventory space, to carry all this useless junk around. In games with smaller inventory or encumberence rules I definietely want some kind of home base.

    I also hate unexpected events moving my character to some new area, from where I can’t return to where I was in reasonable amount of time. I hate to part with my hoard.

  • MadTinkerer said,

    Minecraft always had a sense of marking out your own territory: monsters only spawn at night in the dark, so lit areas are safe… but the only artificially lit areas are places you put torches yourself, and night always comes quickly. This unique* mechanic is now joined by the long-due addition of beds, which finally allow players to have a proper place to rest and skip nights.

    Since beds are made from wool, and wool is not found underground (unless the player crafts a specific grassy area underground by exploiting the rules… which is more effort than making a bed anyway), beds generally distinguish further the difference between temporary shelters underground and one’s super-castle-project on the surface. (One can bring a bed underground, but it takes up precious inventory space, and a bit of effort to craft a proper resting space where you won’t be woken by wandering monsters if you try to sleep.)

    I remember playing Ultima Underworld 2, which had a whole castle as a hub area, and your own private room to store things. You were expected to use a “bedroll” when away from the castle to recover health, but like in Minecraft, if you slept too close to where monsters wandered you would be woken up to a sudden combat encounter. Unlike Minecraft, in UW2 you could track monsters back to their lairs, kill them all and sleep safe in the knowledge that no new monsters would spawn once you cleared out a particular area (with a few plot-related exceptions).

    *Thanks to many developers’ obsession with graphic quality, this mechanic is impossible in most FPS engines due to the needs of precomputed light maps. Newer engines are implementing features which may allow for an unlimited-torch-placement mechanic in future non-Minecraft games, but for now Minecraft is way ahead of everyone else in terms of using lighting as a game mechanic as opposed to an artistic tool.

  • Steven Fletcher said,

    This may sound more than a little odd, but I want a game with the following 2 properties:

    1) You only get one saved game. It automatically saves wherever you’re at in the game.
    2) There’s very low risk. If you die, it’s inconvenient and may cause you to lose resources. But you don’t actually “die” die.

    Keep in mind that I want to play a game that’s more-or-less an adolescent power fantasy. I want to be able to just go constantly. Death should only be a speed bump on my journey.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    @Steven Fletcher:

    You might want to take a look at the Ultima series.

    Doesn’t do the save thing, but death is certainly nothing more than a speedbump in most instances, and you can become the big damn hero too.

    I’d recommend Ultima IV to Ultima VII in particular.

  • Xenovore said,

    @Mad Tinkerer:
    Quote: “…Minecraft is way ahead of everyone else in terms of using lighting as a game mechanic as opposed to an artistic tool.”

    It’s cool that Minecraft uses lighting as it does, but it’s hardly “way ahead of everyone else”! Plenty of games have used lighting to directly affect game-play, in particular, games that have a stealth dynamic often incorporate lighting (and the lack thereof) directly into the game-play.

    And there’s Alan Wake, which — if we’re going to say that any game is “way ahead of everyone”, Alan Wake qualifies.

    And going way back, Zork: “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.”

  • Juno said,

    Dunno what the fuss is about minecraft, I bought it for myself and another copy for a friend. After playing for few hours that is it, never touch it again…

    Personally I prefer old school isometric rpg games like Depths of Peril / Din Curse etc. Didn’t play much games this 2011. Hope there will be some good ones like 2010 when Eschalon Book II released…

    Any interesting ones coming this 2011 especially from indie front, besides Avadon: The Black Fortress?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Like maybe a little title I’m calling Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon? Or pretty much everything on this list. 🙂

    I think 2011 will be rockin’ as far as indie RPGs are concerned.