Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Frayed Knights 2: Stripping!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 27, 2012

Judge:Sergeant Highway. Drunk and disorderly, assault on an officer, urinating on a police vehicle?
Highway (Clint Eastwood)
: Well, it seemed like the thing to do, sir.
— Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

Hindsight is a great thing. Sometimes it reveals that the thing that seemed to be the thing to do, maybe wasn’t the best thing to do. Which is useful if you find yourself in a similar situation in the future. Like if you are making a sequel…

I had a lot of very cool ideas when I started work on Frayed Knights.  By “cool,” I really mean, “naive,” “stupid,” “impractical,” “useless,” “boring,” “unnecessarily complicated,” or flat-out “wrong.”  Fortunately, I weeded out the worst of them pretty early.  Things like having “only” seven different cities your party would visit. Or having really complex conversation systems with a detailed reputation and knowledge-transference system (across said seven cities).

But a lot of over-design still made its way to implementation – at least partially.  I never came close to really meeting the potential I spent so much time trying to manufacture. And in retrospect – though it seemed to be the thing to do at the time – it’s probably better that I never took advantage of it. Just ‘cuz you can do something doesn’t mean you should. For example, the ability to ‘stack’ armor. I thought it made sense that you would be able to layer on armor that was historically worn that way – like wearing a padded gambeson under chain mail, which was in turn under plate mail.  Yeah, I totally went there. It’s in the code – partly – in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon. Thankfully unused.

That’s not to say I can’t envision a game where that wouldn’t be a cool – or even critical – element. But Frayed Knights was not that game. And in retrospect, I put a ton of effort into things that were more in danger of distracting the player from the core gameplay than improving it.

Sometimes – such as with the spell system – I made a sincere effort to take advantage of the complexity and flexibility of the system. I don’t know if anyone playing Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon – other than myself – has ever cast all of the available spells (or had them cast upon them). People pick a few and stick with them – especially in a system that allows you to “upgrade” spells quite a bit, as Frayed Knights does. And as a designer, I didn’t create a compelling need for all of those spells. I took pains to make them all different, but those differences tend to get lost in the jumble of numbers and heat of battle. Equipment and enemies were in the same boat.

While having all kinds of intricate detail sounds good and works well in a game where you may only have a dozen spells or items, it scales poorly. And in reality, in order to have a prayer of keeping things remotely balanced, I ended up with a ginormous spreadsheet full of formulas that I used to help me keep everything more-or-less balanced. In a sense, it calculated all the stats for me based on certain parameters, and then I’d fiddle with the final results. That was still a ton of work for a game with spell and item counts well in the triple digits (and monster counts very near to that).

But in the end – does it really matter than this spell does 5% more damage for 5% more endurance cost, with a -1 to its attack chance, over another spell? Not really. It was cool that I could do that (and a WHOLE LOT MORE), but those kinds of subtleties aren’t very interesting to players. To be honest, that’s not all that interesting to me, either, and I’m a junkie for that kind of detail. In many ways, my efforts to add so much flexibility actually obscured my end-goal: It’s easy to lose the forest for the trees when you are overwhelmed with stats, particularly when you (the designer) are up against deadlines and have to re-balance a bunch of monsters and equipment to fill a “hole” between levels 5 & 6 where there isn’t enough going on, etc.

After a lot of effort put into getting the technology for Frayed Knights 2 up-and-running on a new engine, I’m finally to the point where I’m starting to “port” the actual game mechanics from the old codebase.  This is actually way more fun than it sounds, as it’s going faster than expected; it helps when you are working in familiar territory. But it is also giving me the opportunity to correct some of these problems, strip out a bunch of useless / boring / non-functional / obsolete / poorly implemented stuff, and clean things up. I get to address these kinds of problems, as I am in the midst of creating a bunch of new content for a whole new level range that I’d barely touched before (Frayed Knights 2 is currently addressing a level range of around levels 10 – 20, with an upper cap currently set at 24).

One approach I’m moving to is to take all those separate formulas from my ginormous spreadsheets, and put them in-game. So instead of calculating and tweaking and transcribing tons and tons of stats from spreadsheet to game, it’s all built into the game rules, and all I have to do is define these game elements by their deviations from the “norm” for a particular type / level.  Not only is this tons easier to create, balance, and maintain – but it really helps me focus on the important aspects of the game. It’s easier to avoid getting drowned in subtle differences, so I can really focus on the role of that element in the game, and how it remains interesting.

After all, as a player, I am rarely concerned with subtle differences in an enemy’s hit points or chance of resisting spells. What is interesting to me is how I have to alter my tactics to best deal with the threat. It’s even more interesting when I’m dealing with a mixed group of enemies with complimentary special abilities.

So while there’s still a lot of numbers going on in the background, the focus right now is on me stripping away the obscuring variables and getting down to the essentials. A lot of this can be done with zero impact on the player – the game still looks and plays the same – but they provide me with an easier interface as a designer.

Some things, however, should be done which would have an impact on the game. For example, in Frayed Knights 1, there were lots of pieces of equipment that offered very little difference from each other. The differences were so subtle as to be completely uninteresting.  Ditto for spells. Should I reduce the number of spells, feats, and items available in the game, to make things much more straightforward for the player?  I’m still mulling this one over.

The challenges here include:

1. I don’t want to “dumb it down.”As an RPG fan, I tend to prefer the games with deeper mechanics. I like exploring the gameplay possibilities, and testing out weird builds. That’s fun for me. That’s where Frayed Knights got its complexity, and I don’t want to lose where it came from. But complexity for the sake of complexity is not “smart” – it is its own brand of dumb.

2. It must remain compatible with the original game. Characters from game 1 can be imported into game 2, and while I’ve always acknowledged that they may undergo some changes in translation, I’d rather it not be too extreme. The core of the system must be intact.

3. I’d like to preserve (and enhance) some of the cool side-effects of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink in the original design. For example, having a gazillion spells meant that I could make several spells completely optional in the game, and let players find these spells by having them taught to them or learning them from scrolls. If anything, this would be enhanced by fewer overall spells (so it’s less of a “ho-hum, yet ANOTHER spell” feeling when you acquire a rare spell).

4. Part of the charm (IMO) and genesis for Frayed Knights was in its homage / parody of the RPG hobby, which often included an overwhelming plethora of options (particularly as the games matured, and the publishers kept wanting to crank out more source material for players to buy). Will I lose that by streamlining things? Did I take that too far in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon? Did anybody even appreciate the joke?

5. If I keep things the way they are – well, how can I improve the player’s experience? I caught a bit of grief with interface design that I ended up optimizing for the “worst-case scenario” – but I don’t know if anybody other than my testers ever came close to a worst-case scenario, and instead found themselves frustrated by what felt like an unnecessarily cumbersome approach for what should have been pretty straightforward (for example, Arianna using active feats).

These are all things that I would appreciate feedback on.

If you haven’t played Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, you can get it here. There’s even a free demo. Even better, to see what I’m talking about when I mention the depth and tons of detail and content, you can check out the free strategy guide. Yeah, there’s a ton packed in there. I’m rather proud of all that, really… but going forward, I want to make sure I’m truly improving things.



Filed Under: Frayed Knights - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • Rachel said,

    I played most of your demo right around the time you released the game. I liked that my party members talked to each other and that they had personalities. The complicated UI was a problem though… I can’t remember how it worked exactly, but it seems like I had to click multiple times to attack or cast a spell.

    I was pretty intimidated by all the numbers/systems early on, although I know that the depth of combat/traps/etc is what most people love about your game.

    Did you end up doing the conversations/knowledge-transference system? Because I would love to play a game with just that and some story.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Nope, I realized early (fortunately) that while it – and a great number of other ideas – were high on my list of Things I’d Like To See Done in an RPG, Frayed Knights was not the place to do it. Although – adding to the clutter – I do have some early code in FK1 for handling it.

    Really, my hope is to keep the depth – and not necessarily do away with the numbers, but make it less dependent upon the numbers.

    While I don’t think I can do it perfectly, my semi-new philosophy with FK2 is that if you have to compare numbers and do math to make your point, you’ve already lost the argument. I love the subtleties of the system, but I’m going to try to make things more obvious.

  • Maklak said,

    As for spells and feats one way to make them more straightforward would be to put all the related numbers in the descriptions and not “hide them away” spread between the manual and the guide.

    Layering armour works perfectly fine in Dwarf Fortress, but doesn’t lend itself too well to a game with AC (defence, whatever) and damage reduction. Putting on more and heavier armour should have diminishing returns.

    Well, on one hand with computers, sky is the limit for how complex a game can be, on the other it is frustrating to the player to stare at a huge spreadsheet and still have no clue what is better for his character.

    As for the interface… Well, you should optimise for common cases, not for worst case scenarios. Make the frequently used things simple and the others doable. If I use some feat or spell often, it makes a huge difference if it takes 1, 2 or 3 keystrokes to do so, whereas for things I seldom do, like setting up quick slots, the number of clicks has much less of an impact.

    As for importing, you could add an option to reset skill points on import. This would have to take into account who used a few items that permanently raise stats and weather a certain quest was done, everyone’s levels and that’s it.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I agree with Maklak. For actions you do constantly, they should really only be 1 click. The interface was the big downer for me playing Frayed Knights. Like was said, for actions I’ll only occasionally need to do, multiple clicks and menus is fine, but for actions I do every couple of minutes or every round, things really need to be streamlined.

    And as for the spells . . . I really didn’t like the huge spell list. Choices don’t make a game good. Interesting choices make a game good. Picking between an ice spell that does less damage but slows enemy attacks versus a fire spell that does much more damage is interesting. Picking between ice and fire spells that only do small differing amounts of damage is not.

    300 spells was simple overkill. Like you said, no one can objectively balance that many spells in their head, especially when the differences between them are small. It felt like you had more spells than Dungeons and Dragons does. I would drastically cut down the spell list for Frayed Knights 2 to make it much more about interesting trade offs and choices than damages numbers 1 versus damage numbers 2.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The click thing is an advantage of RPGs have that only let you play a single character instead of a party… Having to select who is doing the action is one extra click right at the get-go.

    I’m still wrestling with ideas there (also for retro-fitting FK1) — there are a number of choices to be made there for casting a spell:

    A) What are you doing? (Casting a spell)
    B) What spell are you casting?
    C) Who are you casting it on?
    D) How powerful do you want it?

    One simplification I’m doing is the old trick of having an “active character” outside of combat… so that way there’s a default choice. Hotkeys would be based on active character, which could get confusing… F1 for Chloe might be a fireball, but for Benjamin it would be a heal. Make sure you have the right person selected, I guess…. 🙂

  • LandDweller said,

    I liked the system of Baldur’s Gate: a very restricted set of quick select spells could be made per character with a magical ability.

    Or go the NWN (the first from Bioware) option: multiple quick select slots: one linked to the numbers, CTRL + numbers and SHIFT + numbers (or something like that, it has been a while since I played through it).

    Also possible:
    – restrict said NWN system to the enitre party (1 is Chloe’s Fireball and 2 is Benjamin’s Heal)
    – Add in the tactics system of Dragon Age (1 is health potion and you can set whether to drink one or not for each character individually)
    – …

    I really should play the demo to give better feedback regarding this.

  • Irien said,

    I found the spell system a bit over-labourious in FK1, with lower levels spells feeling a bit under-powered (or over-expensive) even against lower level monsters. I suspect that the idea was to use a variety of the spells, but really I always find myself using a fairly basic set of spells (heal, nuke, slow/haste, sleep).

    FK offered many ways to upgrade spells, but a bit like the metamagic stuff in D&D games, it seemed overkill. Either go with a small number of spells that can be powered up in interesting ways, or go with spells which replace older ones at higher levels (eg. spark, fireball, flame strike, dragon breath).

    The old “Tunnels and Trolls” dos game had an interesting system – only about 8 or 9 base spells, each of which could be powered up to (I think) 9th level, at which point they were devastating. I recall a one-on-one encounter with a bridge troll, which I couldn’t win with my (until then unstoppable) fighter, but a hasted mage with a powered up “Take-that-you-fiend”…

    Might and Magic games also provided ways to simplify buffs as levels went up. Separate heroism, bless, etc spells were replaced by more expensive “day of protection ” or “day of the gods”. This was pretty much indespensible, and was the only worthwhile buff. It might be worth looking at that and reducing the total number of buffs vs more integrated ones.

    Benjamin’s nature magic was a curious inclusion as starter magic – I still don’t know whether I liked that, but it was in-character. I’d have felt more comfy with a traditional cleric, but that would have been more cliche.

    Skills/feets etc didn’t seem too complex to me (I rather liked lockpicking), but I think it would have been better to allow faster gaining of feets at early levels. I felt like I had to plan everything 6+ levels in advance, and that to get certain skills would mean major sacrifices later due to limited availability of levels etc. That was quite a turn-off, as part of the appeal of a *Party* RPG is seeing how your team (between them) can become godly masters of all aspects of the game.

    I should probably say that after following the game for a few years, I only reach about half-way in the final game (maybe a bit further), although I intend to finish when I have time. I found the difficulty curve a bit bumpy, too, with some really tough encounters pretty much at random.

  • jeffsullins said,

    Couple of comments, somewhat at random.

    “Power word: defenestrate,” I still laugh when I think of that one. About fell out of my chair at the time when I first saw it!

    More generally, I did feel that there was redundancy in the spell choices. Perhaps more variety in spells is still a good thing, but with a goal of less redundancy. Strive for a feeling of diverse AND different. For example, a fireball damage spell and an iceball damage spell. Both might do comparable damage, but fireball continues to burn and ice also freezes in place. Stuff like that.

    At any rate, I did find myself picking only a few spells out of the many to use, but this did not detract from my enjoyment of the game. Really, I just felt like I should be exploring those unused spells if I wanted to be a better player, but I never made the effort.

    I did play the game all the way to the end, and enjoyed it.

  • Xenovore said,

    Regarding spells: I prefer systems where spells have composite elements that can be customized by the player in some way, rather than rigidly predefined by the designer. In other words, I like it when spell characteristics — power, range, effect, etc. — can be fully and dynamically controlled by the player.

    One of the best examples is in the Elder Scrolls games, particularly Daggerfall and Morrowind. Here, the basic spells can be purchased or found as loot, but the player can still create new spells with fully customized effects (and stack them too, e.g. you can create a spell that not only sets an enemy on fire, but simultaneously heals the PC). However, it’s still lacking; spells aren’t dynamically adjustable at cast-time, but must be entirely predefined at creation-time.

    In Dungeonmaster and Grimrock (and Arx Fatalis to a lesser extent), the system provides some immediate control, since spells are improvised from runes. E.g. if you’ve got a fire bolt ready but come up against a fire-immune creature, you can switch out the fire rune for a poison rune, and you’re good to go. The problem with these games, however, is that although the spells can be improvised on the spot, the underlying spells definitions remain fairly rigid — only the power can be scaled, and then only by a few predefined increments.

    I’d like to see a system where the spells can be fully customized to the extent of the Elder Scrolls games, but dynamically defined at cast-time like Dungeon Master or Grimrock. Obviously, a really good UI would be required, perhaps with the capability of pre-casting spells (a la Arx Fatalis).

  • Holsety said,

    I’d keep it simple.

    The first Dragon Warrior game and the first Phantasy Star had less than a hundred different pieces of equipment PUT TOGETHER.

    Compare that to Borderlands 1/2, which has an infinite number of guns with different stats…

    On one hand you have the system where you upgrade your items at set intervals, but there’s a genuine feel that you got stronger because of it.

    On the other hand you have a system where everything kind of starts blending together and oh my god I can’t tell which of these goddamn guns is better.

    They’re both great, in their own way! But I prefer having FEWER items in a RPG, while still keeping the ones that you DO have diverse.
    (Ie. choosing between a whip that hits multiple people or a lance that hits people in a row or a regular sword OVER choosing between a silver-inlaid bastard sword +2 or a bronze rapier +5 etc)

  • Attila said,

    Some games to think about:

    Conqueror AD 1086 – The gambeson stacked with any other armor you wore, so that if you had a full plate armor, but sold the gambeson, you had less than max armor. That was the only element of it. I’d love to see realistic armor stacking. It would set your game aside from most every other rpg.

    Lords of Magic (Special Edition) – A really wicked spell system. Every faction had the basic bolt spells, but they all felt different and the higher level spells were unique…Chaos had the spinning blades ‘vortex’ spell which could work wonders plus a lot of random bless spells which could either power up your units or make them weaker, Order could possess enemy units or use heroic demise to dramatically boost a character for the combat, but they would then die. Life had great blessing and healing spells…Death had a spell which created a shadow of an enemy which would instakill the unit if they touched…earth had the sands of sleep which froze entire groups of enemies…air could speed up units and wreak havoc with chain lightning…

    Seriously check out the Lords of Magic spells list…They did it right.

    I’m just really worried you’re going to make your game the standard spells. Look at Grimrock for example…fail of a spell list. It has 2 combat spells and a create arrow spell per school of magic.

    Lords of Magic Spells