Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 20, 2013
Making Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon was a learning experience for me, of course. It’s funny how you can think you know what you are doing after decades of playing games, and even years of experience making games, but when it comes down to actually implementing a design and making it fun… it throws you. Some things that sound like the best idea ever on paper don’t work out. And then there are some design ideas that you look at much later and wonder what the hell you were thinking of when you did that.
And sometimes you just have something that started out simple that grew way out of control.
In Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, the “Feat” system was that latter sort of beast. I’m not exactly sure where it all came from, to be honest. By what I can recall, it started out as just a supplement to increasing your main attributes (Might, Brains, Charm, Luck, and Reflexes – which sounded funnier when I first designed the stats). It was perhaps a misguided attempt to make sure the non-spellcasting characters had something to do other than just attack and defend in combat, and ways of adding a little bit of customization to their party. I opted not to do a full-fledged, detailed skill system. While that’s great if you are only controlling a single character, with a whole party of characters it gets to feel micro-manage-y. So I opted for doing a small list of one-off “feats” that could be purchased on leveling up in addition to raising your stats.
Good in theory. In practice, during the course of development, three extra-fun things happened that greatly enlarged the list of feats:
#1 – My own natural tendency to feature creep.
#2 – A desire to poke a little bit of fun at the overwhelmingly huge lists of abilities found in larger dice-and-paper RPGs (even though, by emulating that, I got sucked into the same behavior I was sending up… )
#3 – Second-guessing my design out of peer pressure.
Number three might take a little bit of explanation. I started design on the game back when there was a dearth of classic-style western RPGs. Remember that? It’s kinda awesome that’s been changing – not that they are super-common yet – but at the time, new ones of that style were in very short supply. Anyway, Frayed Knights came about out of my love for not only those old games, but dice & paper gaming. While there are some parody aspects, a big part of it was an emulation of those games, and in some ways the kind of game I wanted those older games to be – at least as far as my capabilities and resources could take it at the time.
But I still hold fast to the belief that it’s not enough to simply re-create the past (albeit with higher-res graphics and a cleaner mouse interface). The past classics are a foundation, a starting point, not a final destination. We’ve already played those games. Modern game developers need to keep exploring new ideas. In the case of Frayed Knights, my focal point was on the party – a very specific party of misfits with adventures that bordered on situation comedy.
But as its roots were still firmly in the hardcore old-school RPG camp, that was my initial audience, and I remain deeply thankful that many of them took an interest in my game early on, and provided all kinds of opinions, ideas, suggestions, and a bit of an anchor to remind me of what they had come to expect in their games. Several, however, were (and remain) resistant to the idea of not being able to create entirely custom characters for their party. Of course, that flew completely counter to the entire “hook” of the game. But especially without a game already out there to demonstrate the concept (beyond the “pilot” prototype), it was rough sailing.
Fearing that I was going to lose that crowd, I expanded on the feats a lot, reasoning that if I couldn’t provide the ability to create characters from scratch, I could at least allow players to customize the hell out of the party they had.
It turned out to be a gigantic effort – much greater than I expected. And in the end, while I know some players really loved this, the vast majority didn’t really take advantage of it. In fact, based on (too little, I admit) information I’ve gotten back from players, the real problem was that the dizzying list of feats, dependencies, and lack of full clarity as to their exact effects just confused most players. Most players stuck with the basics.
So that left me wondering. I mean, could all that time have been better spent somewhere else? Like improvement of the UI? Better spell effects? An extra few quests?
Of course, that also left me in a little bit of a quandary in the development of the sequels. Theyare using an entirely new engine and a brand-new code base. This means I’m rewriting everything from scratch, and that offers an opportunity to revise some design decisions. It’s not like Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon sold a million copies or anything, but I still don’t want to mess with the things that made it unique too much. The whole combat system and interface is so radically redesigned as it is.
For Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath, the “feat” system is getting replaced with somewhat more conventional skills, which progress linearly (which is effectively what many of the feats did, with their dependencies). Some of the more complicated abilities are going away or being changed to something easier to use and understand. And yeah, some streamlining is taking place. After years of being promised “streamlining” by mainstream game developers and only receiving what I’d call a “dumbing down,” I’m loathe to refer to what I’ve done as “streamlining.” I like my RPGs thick and chunky, full of all kinds of interesting ways of exploring not just the game world, but the game system. That’s really not changed. I think the more annoying, confusing, and hard-to-use stuff has been removed or replaced by more interesting options.
You are still going to be able to turn Arianna into a spell-slinger if you so desire. At this point, I don’t want to change that. In fact, it may be even easier to do so now without it being a major hit to her fighting ability. So – Arianna as a paladin, whipping out divine priest spells in addition to being a reasonably potent butt-kicker? You bet.
To provide examples – Sorcery is now a skill, and the four levels increase the limits on the spell level you can cast with it. Chloe (and all sorcerers) start with the skill maxed as a class feature. “Armor” is now a skill, with three levels – for light, medium, and heavy armor. And – as of this week – all the melee weapon proficiencies are now lumped into a single “Melee Weapon” skill. No skill is necessary to equip and use bludgeoning weapons or thrown weapons. The first level of melee allows the use of all melee weapons, and the rest combine and replace weapon expertise bonuses for all melee weapons and skills like “Lunge” and “Size Doesn’t Matter”. This means that you don’t have to worry so much about being specialized in the “wrong” weapon when you see a cool one in the game.
How will this affect the ability to import your party from FK1 into the sequel? I haven’t gotten there yet. My best guess is that importing the party will require a full “respec” – which is probably going to be preferable for most players, anyway.
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