Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Guest Post: Guidelines for Designing Choice-Driven Character Development Systems

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:

  1. Increasing players’ sense of accomplishment by allowing them to take credit for their characters’ power;
  2. Giving players who enjoy thinking a problem they can tackle when they’re away from the game;
  3. 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);
  4. Enhancing replayability by giving players an obvious way to vary the gameplay;
  5. Allowing players to enact the fantasies they find most compelling; and
  6. 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.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Yo'el said,

    Nice article. I’m currently the programmer and mechanics designer for a Tactical RPG I’m working on with some friends. The approach I’m taking is to separate characters’ personal and mechanical traits. So, you can make a party based on which characters you like rather than, “Oh, but if I don’t pick the annoying guy, I won’t have a healer,” or, “Aw man, I’ll have to use the boring one to get enough meat shields.” Characters can change classes from what they come with and pick abilities as the game goes on based on what players like.

    This is a fairly common approach for tactical games (FFTA, Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis), but some of them neglect it (Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance) and force you to pick characters that don’t resonate with you in order to make sure you don’t die.

  • Yo'el said,

    ( Oops. Thought of something and can’t edit. Oh well, double post. ^_^; )

    Another thing we’re doing is to make sure each stat is relevant to every class. This is a bit more unusual, but allows us to give certain characters more of a stat that fits their personality, giving them a bit more flavor without restricting them to certain ability sets. (Though a faster character will still have a bit of a different role than a tank, I’m hoping this system will prove to offer lots of flexibility.)

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    Good points mostly. A bit sad that one even has to mention such seemingly obvious points, but looking at some recent releases… Let’s just say that every AAA RPG developer should be emailed a link.

    I disagree a bit on the emphasis put on archetypes – those may be favorites, but a good “free” character system should not only allow for the standard archetypes, but also for experimentation that breaks them. That is, I prefer if there is a lot of modularity in the elements that make the character, so that I can combine things in new, unexpected ways. It’s a big reason why I tend to favor skill-based (and perk-based) systems over classic class-based systems, I suppose.

  • Colter Cookson said,

    Thanks for the comments.

    Yo’el, if you have a website for your game, I’d be interested in a link, especially if it’ll be playable on Windows. I’d love to see more tactics games there.

    I haven’t played Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. What makes some of the characters annoying or dull?

    GhanBuriGhanm, I agree that most of my points are obvious. I wrote this not because I see games ignore them but because I wanted guidelines for my own ideas. I’m hoping these guidelines will help designers avoid pitfalls (e.g., items so powerful they make character development choices irrelevant) and determine whether their character development system is achieving its goals.

    I recommend using archetypes primarily because they’re a proven way to strike a chord. I may not get excited about dual-wielding rangers or raging barbarians, but from their popularity in Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy settings, I know other players love them. If I tried to come up with different concepts, I might end up with an idea that only resonates with a few people.

    As you say, you can get the same effect with a skill or perk-based system that can recreate several archetypes. The trick is to make the most common archetypes reasonably easy to create. If I have to dig through the manual to figure out how to make a paladin, healer, or archer, something is wrong.

  • The RPG Reporter » RPG Coverage Round-up said,

    […] Kingdoms of Alamur preview on RockpaperShotgun […]

  • Yo'el said,

    This is a very late response (I didn’t think to check for replies to my comment, and I only just happened to see this post again), but maybe you’ll see it anyway at some point.

    We don’t have a website yet. I think we’re going to start publicizing it in the coming months, since we’ve got enough momentum and a good enough team going now to have reasonable odds of finishing. The game is currently concluding what might be called pre-production: choice of mechanics, concept art, plot outline, etc. I’ve coded to the point where you walk around, can collide with things, and can switch to a battle mode where you click to be moved along the isometric grid. So it’s not nearly done yet. However, it’s being written in Java and I’ve tested a build successfully on Windows 7, Windows XP, and OS X 10.5 (on a 64bit Mac) so far. I hope to ensure a final release works on at the very least Windows XP and newer and OS X 10.5 (64bit) and newer. Hopefully the more popular Linux flavors, too.

    For now, anyone who’s interested in following the project, shoot me an email at: hippo at oatmeal.afewmoore.net . I’ll let any interested parties know once we have something posted publicly!

    Apologies to the Coyote for plugging the project on his site, but in my defence, he did ask!