Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 14, 2011
Colter Cookson continues his thoughts on character creation and development in today’s post. Part three will arrive tomorrow around this time… and at a point where I should be somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. But today, Colter goes from rationale to some (hopefully) practical ideas for RPG design. I’ll let the rest speak for itself.
In my previous post, The Case for Choice in Character Development Systems, I argued that character development systems that require difficult choices can broaden a game’s appeal by:
- Increasing players’ sense of accomplishment by allowing them to take credit for their characters’ power;
- Giving players who enjoy thinking a problem they can tackle when they’re away from the game;
- Providing material for debate, causes for questions, and an excuses to write guides that enable the game to meet different needs (e.g., my need to write and help people);
- Enhancing replayability by giving players an obvious way to vary the gameplay;
- Allowing players to enact the fantasies they find most compelling; and
- Allowing players to adjust the gameplay to their strengths or preferences.
These benefits can be enough to justify a choice-driven character development system despite the demands it places on developers, who must balance the system, and players, who must design effective characters. However, for every two or three character development systems that work well, there is at least one that falls flat. With that in mind, I would like to offer a few guidelines on designing systems to provide these benefits.
Most importantly, the character development system needs to matter. A fighter should be able to stand toe-to-toe with a monster that would send the party thief running, an archer should be able to make shots that would put even the nimblest fighter to shame, and a cleric should be able to heal more efficiently than even the most skilled paladin. If the player can’t tell the difference between development choices, they become no more important than picking her character portrait.
To inspire thinking and out-of-game interaction, the character development system needs to involve real tradeoffs. If you want players to think about which weapons to specialize in, axes should be stronger but slower than swords. At the same time, the players need to encounter situations where strength matters more than speed or speed matters than strength. Otherwise, players will quickly discover which choice the game favors and focus on that.
To encourage thought and discussion as much as possible, specializing in one or the other should be a long-term decision, or at least one that takes time to reverse. If players can switch between specializations at need, they will have no reason to carefully consider their characters’ path or discuss it with others unless they’re facing a particularly tough challenge and want a quick solution.
For a character development system to encourage replays, the players’ decisions need to alter the way they play the game significantly enough for it to offer a new experience. For example, the fighter that specializes in axes over swords might need to time his attacks more carefully to ensure he can complete them before he needs to dodge. However, he might be able to take enemies down quickly enough to keep from being swarmed, an issue the swordsman can only avoid through quick movement and careful planning.
For a character development system to appeal to different fantasies, it needs to offer options that strike a chord with different people. Instead of giving players a choice between a fighter that has mastered the sword, a fighter that specializes in bows, or a fighter that specializes in axes, let them choose between a clever duelist, a nature-loving archer, and a fearless barbarian. If you do that, you’ll draw not only the players that love weapons but also those that want to pictures themselves as clever and quick, defend nature, or charge even the deadliest foe without fear. While you might turn a few players off–say the ones that want to play a ranged character but don’t like rangers’ nature theme–I suspect you’ll attract far more than you lose, especially if you employ proven archetypes.
For a character development system to cater to different strengths or preferences, it needs variety. In an action game, allow players to acquire abilities that reduce the importance of otherwise essential skills, such as aiming and dodging. As I mentioned earlier, the sorceress in Diablo II does this well. So does the necromancer, who can reduce the number of projectiles he needs to dodge by blinding archers with curses and absorb the damage from the ones that hit by conjuring bone armor.
In a turn-based game, provide character development paths that suit different playstyles. Final Fantasy Tactics does this well. The players who love thinking about every move but want quick and easy combat can use the mighty calculator, whose abilities take planning but can decimate enemies (or so I’m told; I’ve never had the patience to build one). Players who like to think about the game’s initiative system can go to town with high-level spells that deal massive damage but take time to cast, while others favor quick and dirty attacks. And players who want a challenge can try to beat the story battles in quick succession while their peers accumulate strength in random battles or rely on extremely powerful characters like Cid. I’m sure this flexibility helps explain the game’s success.
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