Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 13, 2013
I’ve had an idea for an episodic RPG for a long time. A very long time, actually – since before Frayed Knights. I actually put a great deal of time and research into the design. One day, I plan to revisit it – with a vengeance. After Frayed Knights 2 and 3 are out the door.
The kicker is that it would be episodic. This is something that has never been properly solved, though we do have a several examples of larger RPGs broken into serial parts (ahem – Frayed Knights), and games called episodic that were really serial and sequential (like Siege of Avalon).
What I’m talking about here is an honest-to-goodness episodic RPG, loosely connected in perhaps a seasonal story arc. But, except for perhaps the final game of the ‘season,’ the episodes would be relatively stand-alone and playable in any order.
That’s the real trick of it. This is the part that flies in the face of traditional RPG mechanics, which are fundamentally based on character progression.
To really pull it off and to make the episodes really work in any order, a game would have to incorporate the oft-dreaded technique of scaling to the player’s level. This would be (in my old-school, dice-and-paper perspective) the equivalent of a gamemaster customizing an adventure for his existing party. The problem is that level scaling can really rob a game of a lot of any feeling of progression. It enforces the ‘treadmill’ feeling.
Another option would be to have each episode support a level range. If your party was outside of the level range, they’d be automatically boosted or reduced to fit. This is really just another version of level-scaling, and on top of that reinforces the feeling that the episodes are really intended to be played in a particular order. Also, it feels terrible to have your character robbed of their achievements, even if only for a little while.
A third option is to tightly limit progression, so a character at the beginning of the season isn’t too different from the same character at the end of a season, and make sure each episode can accommodate the full range of progression. This might be realistic, but is not very satisfying. Too much of this, and you really just have an adventure game with combat.
Then there are some other problems, like what objects should carry over between episodes. Would an artifact discovered in Episode 9 be able to resolve the entire quest line in episode 2 in five seconds? Careful writing and planning could resolve this, but it’s still a concern.
Another question is what to do if a player re-plays an episode with the same character. Is that even an option? If so, how would it work? Would the experience and items he or she obtained be cumulative, like a re-enterable dungeon in some RPGs? Or would the game track what you made on the previous run, and let you keep only what you accumulated in excess of your previous profits?
Again, from the writing perspective, how much should the continuity of the episodes be suggested? Should the episodes be so completely stand-alone that nothing but a repeat of the introduction is necessary? Or should there be a “Previously on…” summary of the salient arc development points necessary to bring a player up to speed enough to understand the episode? Would that dissuade a player from wanting to play an episode until he or she has played all of the previous episodes (thus really undermining the effort to make them episodic in the first place, as opposed to serial)?
I had partial answers to these questions at one point, but I doubt there’s any single “right” answer. And while I’m a long way from revisiting the design (Frayed Knights is kinda all-consuming), it is still something I plan to address at some point. I figured I might as well poke the local experts here and see if you had any thoughts on the subject.
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