Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 15, 2012
I guess I really am a game designer. I can’t resist the urge to tinker with game mechanics.
While I’m quite proud of the old-school feel and the depth and playability of the combat system for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, I am still not satisfied. In spite of the more abstract tactics, I still want the combat in the Frayed Knights series to feel more like a game of chess. Or, better yet, Magic: The Gathering. This has bugged me for a while, and I think I may have come up with a solution for the sequel.
The old system reflected an old-school approach that was designed for multiple players… everybody (usually) played one character, and you got “your turn” as a player, took your action, and then waited for everyone else to take their turn (including the enemies) until it was your turn again.
In our dice & paper games, with a very large group (at one point we had 11 players – plus a Game Master – which was insane), we had a problem with this system. In an average combat, with people often taking a minute or more on their turn (it sometimes involved looking up the rules), plus bad guys doing their thing, it meant that players were only “playing” once every fifteen or twenty minutes or so. This led to lots of distractions, lots of chatter that in turn slowed down the game, etc. It got especially complicated as players started changing their initiative order to go before or after other players – for example, letting the wizard throw the fireball BEFORE the melee characters charged in to mix things up.
One thing I tried – and really liked – was a change in how the initiative system worked. To keep things simple, I usually had enemies act as a “group” – at least groups of similar opponents. So against a single opponent or a collection of uniform opponents, all that really mattered (as a player) was whether you went before or after the bad guy(s). Really, since you could change your initiative freely *down* to coordinate your approach with other players, why not just open that up completely and call everybody who goes before the bad guys “group 1,” and everyone who goes after the bad guys “group 2.” And if there were two bad guys going at different initiatives, then the players might be divided into three groups. If more… well, frequently even a group our size would have one empty “group”, which allowed me to regroup enemies and… well, it may sound complicated, but in practice its pretty easy and intuitive.
As a further plus, this kept players more involved in what each other was doing. Suddenly the talk turned to who should go first, and people got a chance to coordinate tactics rather than simply “reacting” when their turn came around. I liked the change. Things were simpler, players were more involved in the game, and tactics were more interesting when players could coordinate their actions as a group.
No, that’s not how initiative works in FK2. I’m just explaining how all this came together. That’s one piece. Here’s another:
While pondering how to improve the combat system – and in many ways, streamlining it, as one of the more consistent criticisms of the game was rooted – if you drive down deep enough – in the sheer breadth of choices to be made each round. I LOVE that depth and breadth, and don’t want to lose that. Comparing this to Magic: The Gathering, I thought about deck-building. I haven’t played the game for many years, but back in the old days – when the game was more free-form – we’d build decks out of available cards rather than buying decks pre-built with particular strategies. I think deck-building was my favorite part of the game. Early on, I’d play with far too many colors, and far too many cards. I had to learn to cull out everything that wasn’t key to my strategy (or at least as far as my card library would allow me to serve my strategy). With a large enough library, I felt like I wasn’t hemmed in by lack of choice, but I had to be very careful to self-cull my selection to keep a tight, competitive deck (competitive enough for the small group of friends I played with, at least).
So I took these two ideas – from our home dice & paper game, and early Magic: The Gathering, and probably a little bit from D&D miniatures and 4th edition, but I hit upon an approach to handling combat in Frayed Knights 2 (and most likely 3) that will improve upon the experience in the original. I thought I’d run it past you for additional feedback. So here we go…
The general play changes to this: The player takes a turn. The AI takes a turn. This continues until the end of a ’round’ where round-by-round effects take place. For their turn, one side can play an available character in their group, and / or (in the player’s case) choose a drama star effect, attempt to flee, or even pass. In fact, near the end of a ’round,’ if one side has a lot more characters than the other, that side may get a few extra turns in a row, though at this point I’m not guaranteeing that every character will get a chance to act every turn. At the end of the round, certain effects (like durations) are updated, and the combat continues with a new round.
Okay, when you choose a character to act this turn, you get to choose from a palette of actions that you will have selected in advance. You can change these outside of combat, but once the fight has started, you get what you get. Here’s a VERY VERY Work-In-Progress shot that’s really not much more than a mock-up. You guys know how that works, right? You pick an action, it happens, and that character is now inactive for a period of “time.” Of course, since this is a turn-based game, time is measured in number of moves / rounds until the character is re-available. Generally speaking, they’ll be unavailable for more actions until the next round under normal conditions.
Now, it goes a little bit deeper. When a character first becomes available (again, generally speaking – exhaustion and haste or high reflexes will modify this a little bit), they’ll have access to a set of abilities that are “Tier 1.” These are the lowest-cost, cheapest, most straightforward abilities. In combat, this includes “Attack,” “Defend,” and “Swap Weapon” (which doesn’t count as an action – it’s a freebie), plus six user-defined actions which include low-impact feats, and “easy” spells (generally single-target defensive spells), drinking potions, etc.
If you leave the available character idle for a move (or more, depending on … factors), then they have access to a second tier of user-defined abilities. These are your mid-level feats and spells (generally speaking , single-target offensive spells and group defensive spells), and using certain items.
Finally, if you leave that character idle ANOTHER move or two, then they have access to Tier 3 – the heavy-duty stuff that cost the most endurance – things like group-based offensive spells. Again, these are all user-defined hotkeys reflecting that character’s abilities, and there are only six. As of this point, I expect to make it possible for lower-tier actions to be placed in a higher-tier slot, but not the other way around.
This system replaces the short-term endurance mechanic, while effectively causing the same effect. In FK1, you’d have to periodically rest more frequently while using higher-cost abilities. Now there’s just a bigger delay. Now, there’s still a cost on exhaustion, which will cause your character to recover availability and move onto the next tier more slowly – which can only be recovered via “Liquid Nap” potions or actually sleeping in a safe place. But the quick “taking a breather” resting is gone.
There are undoubtedly a few wrinkles I haven’t run into yet, but that’s where things are heading. So here are a few specific points of interest for players of the original game:
Q: Will it take longer for a character to become available after using a Tier 3 ability than a Tier 1?
A: Don’t know. Right now that’d represent a “double-cost” of taking more time to use the ability, and more time to recover. I’d rather keep it simple, but I’m leaving that open for a possible balance option.
Q: If my character is on Tier 3 and I only want to use a Tier 1 ability, can I do that?
A: Absolutely. The character’s “tier” represents the maximum action category they can use, not the only one.
Q: Is this interface used outside of combat?
A: Yep. Though the basic actions change (you get “Search” and “Inventory”, for example, instead of “Attack” and “Defend”).
Q: So will pre-casting defensive spells before combat (like right before opening a door) affect my character’s action level at the beginning of combat?
A: Still subject to change, but the answer is tentatively “yes.” If you just barely buffed the moment before you opened the door, your characters may not be immediately available. Or you can wait before opening the door, but then the durations of the buffs will be that much closer to expiration…
Q: But otherwise I can basically open up with Chloe launching a Hellacious Fireball at the start of every combat?
A: Yes, if you want. Though you effectively could do that in FK1, also, if you put enough points into giving her a good initiative. Same deal. And the bad guys can do the same. Expect to see spellcasters whipping out the big guns on the first or second action.
Q: How does this affect enhanced spells?
A: You now enhance a spell when you add it to the tier list. So you have to define your enhancements in advance.
Q: So a higher reflex score or initiative feats no longer affect your characters?
A: These may affect the speed at which actions become available, and also which tier is available to the character at the beginning of combat.
Q: Why is swapping out weapons “free” and take no time?
A: Because I want players to feel free to experiment with different weapons versus different monsters. Otherwise any “better” choices get invalidated with the loss of an action induced by swapping weapons.
Q: Can a character act twice in the same round? Like, could I use Dirk, Arianna, Chloe, and then Dirk again on the same round without using Benjamin at all?
A: If a character has a magical haste effect, definitely. Otherwise, I’m not sure. That’ll come out in the playtest. But certainly you could go a round without using a character (possibly because you are letting them stay idle long enough to get at their Tier 3 abilities).
Q: Will using a Drama Star ability use up a “move?” (allowing the AI to go next)? What about fleeing?
A: Drama stars do not – those are “free.” Attempting to flee will use up an action.
Q: So if I go, then the enemies go, what happens when parties of unequal numbers fight?
A: The one with more members has more actions, taken at the end of the round. Again, this is heavily subject to balancing and tweaking, so I’m really interested in seeing how that all pans out.
Q: Will I always have a party of four characters, like in the first game?
A: Resoundingly, “nope.”
Q: If a character doesn’t act, will they still get exhaustion?
A: Nope. A character has to act to acquire exhaustion points.
Okay. So… there’s the direction the game is progressing. It’s a whopper of a change from a user-interface perspective, but the underlying results will probably not be too different.
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