Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Frayed Knights: Starting In the Middle

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 20, 2014

Original D&DHere’s a cool thing about RPGs in general, which has been true since the first “white box” D&D books were released to the public:  They are designed with built-in character progression that matches the player’s learning curve. At first level, or the early stages of the game, your character isn’t very powerful, and doesn’t have many options. If you played the “Fighting Man” in original D&D, most of the time your practical options consisted of moving somewhere and / or trying to hit something with your weapon. Later, you’d get some more interesting choices, like whether or not to drink a healing potion or which of your godlike weapons to use against which monster. Still, pretty straightforward stuff, but with the fun of role-playing a character, and the idea that you were still pretty open to try anything to be adjudicated by the Dungeon Master (the person running the game), it was pretty good.

It’s my understanding that the cleric and magic-user classes were intended for more advanced players, who had probably already mastered the limited choices of the “Fighting Man” (I’m glad they changed the name to “Fighter” in AD&D), and were ready to begin an all-new learning curve. The cleric was almost as good in a fight as the fighting-man, but additionally had spells to master, and some abilities to give the party a fighting chance against the horrendously powerful undead. Finally, for the expert player, the magic-user was a character with extremely limited fighting potential, an absolute wuss at lower levels, but with a far more potent array of magical power that they could master as they increased in power (and climbed up the learning curve).

Regardless, there you had it – a game that was designed to build on the player’s capabilities as he mastered the previous ones. That’s good game design right there.  I don’t know if Arneson and Gygax consciously planned it that way, or that’s just how it evolved through play prior to their commercial release of the game. Probably the latter. Either way, I think the enduring success of role-playing games on computers and consoles over forty years has been due in part to this fundamental game design pattern.

Frayed_cover3With my decision to released Frayed Knights as a trilogy where you can carry on your progress through all three games, I’ve gone and royally screwed that all up. Players jumping into Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath without having played the first game will be controlling well-developed characters.

Crap. I’m not the first. Not by a long shot (Hello, Wizardry 2 and 3!). Nor will I be the last. But it’s definitely a design problem. In FK2, I’m kinda working around this by starting with a flashback from earlier in Arianna’s career, which acts as a tutorial. It’s a little cheesy as a game design aid, but hopefully it will help. I fully expect (in fact, I fervently hope) that there will be a lot of players trying our Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath who have never played Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, and I want to make the learning process go as smoothly as possible.

Another challenge to this process is that, way back when I made the decision to turn this into a trilogy, I hadn’t planned on changing engines, or making as many changes to the game system as I have. So now, the jump from FK1 to FK2 is not even going to be the smooth continuation that I had anticipated. I think almost all players who enjoyed FK1 will find the sequel to be a significant improvement over the original, but it’s still going to be a transition. So even experienced players won’t get the full advantage of having already made their way through the learning curve.

There’s another element alluded to in that last bit – the reasons things have had to change. While I had plans for the Frayed Knights game system to “work” all the way to somewhere past level 30, it was pretty fuzzy. Obviously, it’s only gone through fair testing through about level 13. But some of the rules I put in place in the first game didn’t scale too well. There were also not enough guidelines to help make sure things scaled reasonably well. I’ve not traditionally been a fan of purely linear level-scaling, but when you are talking about balancing out 35 levels instead of just 12, it’s really difficult to avoid. Whether it’s a level-based game like D&D, or a points or skill-based game, at some point things start getting weird. A very specialized character in a skills-based game can be phenomenally over-powered in some situations and useless in others, whereas an extremely “well-balanced” character might just be universally useless. Anyway, some changes have had to be made to the fundamental rules. I truly doubt I’m done changing them.

There is one tempting proposition that I’ve tried to resist for a long time, because it violates a promise I made to players with FK1 – to hit the reset button and start the party over at low level again. It also doesn’t make sense from a story perspective. I have what I think is an amusing revelation in FK3 as to why the Knights – who are supposed to be pretty experienced adventurers – start out at low level in FK1. But I wouldn’t want to do that to them twice!

fkaxeWhat I’d LIKE to do is to have my cake and eat it, too. Since so much is changing and a lot of character and item stats are going to be “re-scaled” anyway, it might not be too much of a stretch to “re-scale” things. I could divide the imported characters’ levels by 2, allow players to reallocate improvement points, and make the equipment from FK1 ‘scale back’ in relative power to their new level. The Axe of Fiery Microdoom is already going to be changed under the new system, so maybe under the new scale of epic awesomeness it’s not quite so epically awesome? I dunno, it’s kinda cheesy, but it’s an option. It’s not like numerical ratings are embedded into the narrative or anything. If I did this, I could include some quick-leveling “bunny-slope” adventures for new players to get them up to 5th or 6th level and move on from there.

I’m still  mulling this over. If you Frayed Knights veterans or RPG design experts have some good ideas, I’m all ears. Things are definitely not set in stone, yet, and I really, really want this game to shine.

And if you haven’t checked out Frayed Knights yet or have any idea what I’m talking about – it’s right here. Free demo and everything:

Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon

Also, if you’d be so very kind to give the Steam Greenlight an upvote, I’d ‘preciate it…

Frayed Knights Greenlight Campaign

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

  • Infinitron said,

    The idea of “class as difficulty level” isn’t very popular nowadays. The idea is that all classes should be viable options for all players, to increase choice.

    The removal of this in Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity has caused some outrage among D&D purists.

    Arguably though any class which requires more player intervention to use (ie, picking, aiming and casting spells) will seem more “difficult” for a newbie to use, no matter how much you beef them up or streamline their spell resource mechanics.

  • McTeddy said,

    From what I remember*, Dave told us that the wizard was intended to be a more “Tactical Playstyle”. The fighter was intended for people who want to brute force the problem… while mages needed to think them through.
    But to be fair, he also told us that the original game was crazy. They apparently had everything from superheroes to cyborgs fighting through the dungeons.
    Even in his 3.5 games, Dave had his heroes fighting dinosaurs.

    * Dave’s class was MANY years ago… so my memory could be wrong by now.

    – – –

    As for your design problem use the universal RPG solution. Benjamin accidentally brewed a potion of amnesia… moments after getting robbed of all their epic gear!

    Seriously though… I have no idea. My first instinct would be to use some sort of a formula to convert your skills into approximately the same type of character… but that could be a pain.

  • Maklak said,

    I would prefer it if you didn’t “pull Eschalon” and decide that a certain magical explosion reset the levels and destroyed the items.

    I also don’t like what WoW does with items: Every time a new expansion comes out, endgame equipment from previous part instantly becomes fairly weak. Making magical weapons (such as the fire axe in FK that was also part of a quest) stronger should be a result of finding magic dust and a crafter who can apply it for a price… or simply finding and buying better items.

    I’m not a fan of DnD. It has some good stuff in it and tries hard, but it has just too many rules and books full of new classes, feats and monsters. I especially hate the wealth by level and level-scaling challenge ratings, which force me to munchkinise my character just to keep up with DnD’s expectations. However, I’ve seen E6 modification of DnD (stop levelling up at level 6 and get extra feats for each 5k XP afterwards, spells from 3rd to 7th level become rituals instead). It simply doesn’t scale to ridiculous proportions where humans can have as much HP as Dragons, but still has some sense of character advancement.

    Heck, Pathfinder forum is full of complaints that DnD falls apart numerically somewhere between 10th and 13th level. For example AC can’t keep up with attack modifiers and roll modifiers become so large that the die rolls hardly matter anymore. For example with +10 strength modifier and +3 enhancement bonus, a d4 dagger, d6 shortsword and d8 longsword or even a 1d10 katana aren’t that far apart in damage output. But then that’s well beyond what normal humans should be capable of.

    I find point-buy systems more versatile and they defend themselves from min-maxing by increasing the cost for higher levels of skills and stats. They have their own problems too, but for me the fact that XP just keeps coming and I can spend it however I want, instead of having 2 + int modifier skill points, an extra feat and a statpoint every so often and a few more hp is a huge win.

    Anyway, I don’t think it is possible to have a well-balanced DnD-like linear growth system that would scale well from 1st to 30th level. I’ve even seen some space sim (Space Empires 4?) that had weapon technologies in 1-100 with more advanced techs costing better and levelling up a tech costing progressively more. It was best to just level the cheapest projectile weapons, because they were weak at first, but later could be researched faster than anything else and kept powerful by the sheer virtue of more powerful weapons lagging 20+ tech levels behind. The solution (in Kaptain Kwok’s total rebalance mod) was to limit all techs to 20 levels, so they scaled better and capped sooner. Anyway, I don’t think a linear system can be made to scale well. At some level it has to introduce corrections to what used to be constants, just to break apart a few levels later.

    One option to handle a total reset would be to give each character several pre-generated feat progression paths. For example Arianna could have several weapon specialisations, with feats chosen for her “sword + shield”, “spear”, “2h sword” and so on. Or just pick “I want to do this myself”. While it wouldn’t really help with learning curve and could still have some non-optimal selections, it would be less daunting than building a level 13 char from scratch. So just look up how people built their characters in FK when they weren’t trying to do something crazy. Importing characters should do a good job of translating them into the new system too.

  • Symbiode said,

    To me, levels are more of a relative power-level gauge. If I’m level 10, I would feel extremely confident fighting something that is level 2 or 3. If you’re worried about the in-game narrative not supporting reducing an imported party’s level, what about having the Knights fight a “level 1” enemy in the The Kahn of Wrath, but barely be able to defeat it? The Knights could then realize that the new “game” has a whole different power scale, and choose to refer to their current power as the new “level 1”?

    (Confession: I haven’t actually played Frayed Knights, but from reading your blog this seems like it could fit the humor/tone of the game)

  • McFunkypants said,

    One thing to consider: for me (and perhaps others) the most FUN part is going from level ONE cannon fodder to level FIVE mediocre. The fun slowly diminishes over time, as it is the “we’ll never make it out alive!” nephyte fear that really compels me. Start me off in the midrange and I might also have midrange enthusiasm.

    I personally would prefer to start from zero again. The “discovery” of each skill and item along the way is the fun part, not actually having them.

  • McTeddy said,

    I actually love that idea. “Is it just me or are the rats much bigger in this part of the world?”

  • Galenloke said,

    What about separating the characters at the beginning of FK2 for a short bit. That’s much easier to explain than amnesia, and at least lets new players master one character at a time instead of 4.

  • Noumenon72 said,

    Honestly, I barely remember the leveling choices or gear I made from way back then, I’ve played so many games in between.

    If you said you wanted to restart a D&D campaign, I would be sad, because there were really amazing things to look forward to at every level. Like building a fortress made of stained glass, or being able to phase through walls. If you wanted me to make a new Skyrim character for DLC, I’d be sad because I’d been working toward those level 100 perks for so long. But if you asked me to restart a Final Fantasy game, I’d be like “whatever” because the perks are mainly just higher numbers of damage. And in Ratchet and Clank I don’t want to be able to blow everything away right from the start, I want to get strong and try the new weapons. So I didn’t see anything so awesome coming in the tech tree that I would mind starting over from 0.

  • Davzz said,

    For all the RPGs I’ve played, I never liked “classes as difficulty level” balance in just about every of them.

    Not that said design concept will never work. For example, it works perfectly fine in Fighting Games, where you have characters like Ryu who are more simple to play compared to others like Dhalsim.

    I think the big difference would be the skill cap in “piloting” a character and the end result of “power level”. A good Ryu player can beat a good Sagat player with proper skill because at a basic level Ryu still has the solid tools he needs to pull off the victory, while at high level games a Fighter has no chance of beating a spellcaster barring extreme circumstances like being in an anti-magic field with magnets pulling both characters together. Not helped by the fact that Fighters toolset tends to be pretty lacking tactically.

    Come to think of it, if I had to use an RPG example, while it’s not the most “traditional”, I guess it works for Desktop Dungeons, because just like the Street Fighter example, even though classes like the early game Fighter/Thief has more simple class powers than later unlocks like Assassin/Bloodmage, each class still has a very competent core set of tactical options.

    As far as character transfers go in RPGs, I honestly don’t think it’s ever worked well. Resetting to level 1 may be “lame” for the storyline but it’s probably the best bet compared to trying to balance fresh characters with returning ones. At best I think the best way to do it is to maybe just carry over a handful of unique, magical items from 1 game to the sequel.

  • Maklak said,

    Please don’t reset to level 1. Even FK1 started at level 3, I think.

    > What about separating the characters at the beginning of FK2 for a short bit. That’s much easier to explain than amnesia, and at least lets new players master one character at a time instead of 4.
    This is an interesting concept, but I think they should start together. The beginning of FK1 worked fine.

    I still think, it would work out to provide several pre-built options for each character, in addition to importing from FK1.

  • McTeddy said,

    To be honest, I think Maklak might be the closest to a workable solution. Allow new players “Pick an Archetype” for each hero.

    As for the imports, why not automatically sort characters into a mid-level archetype based on their stats and give a few bonus points/higher level items as their “Import Bonus”.

    #1 This separates the old game balance from the new one and lets you focus on your current game.
    #2 You have a new core design… so skills won’t match up even if you did import directly.
    #3 Building both sets from the same archetypes will allow you to have a balanced beginning either way.

    On a slightly related note… add a bit of special dialog for import characters. Those always make an import worth it.