Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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The Challenge of an Episodic RPG

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.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 14 Comments to Read

  • Xenovore said,

    If your party was outside of the level range, they’d be automatically boosted or reduced to fit.

    I’m dubious. Boosted, maybe; reduced, no thanks. GW2 does this and it’s just annoying. If I’m level 10 and I go to a level 5 zone, I expect to be able to whup some ass, but instead I’m nerfed to level 5? No! No, no, no.

    What comes to mind for this sort of thing is Borderlands; I think that’s the way to do it. There the DLC (effectively the same as “episodes”) is added on to existing game content. Players can choose to go to the new areas, and if they find their characters are under-powered, they can return to other areas and gain some XP and/or better gear. Or they can carefully ease into the higher level content, getting (much) better XP in return, and hopefully even better gear will drop, improving survivability. And they can go back and forth between the two if they choose. The key to it working in Borderlands is the interconnectivity of the new content; players can choose which, when and how much to interact with, unlike with completely discrete episodic games. And there are no artificial/arbitrary adjustments to character abilities; the player is allowed to choose how challenging the game-play will be.

    So, in a nutshell: have a central hub (or hubs; e.g. BL2’s Sanctuary) where additional content can then be hooked to via new quests, or new paths (e.g. a previously barred gate is now open).

  • Flux said,

    Here are a couple other possibilities that may or may not work:

    – Base progression primarily on equipment. Items can be stolen, boosted, nerfed or whatever the situation demands. However, this may end up looking too much like normal character progression. I suppose you could also have items that are situational, and depend primarily on the current episode. For instance, a mace could be incredibly good in an episode loaded with undead, but much less useful in any of the others.
    – Tell the same story, but from different points of view. Say you have 5 different characters, each with their own take on the story. Starting another episode would have you take on the role of a different character, so having the character weaker or stronger than a character in another episode wouldn’t really matter.
    – Each episode (or some other interval), additional characters are added to your team. In the first episode, you’ve just got the one. But in the sixth, maybe you’ll have four. If the player goes back to an earlier episode, some explanation is given for some or all of the extra characters for leaving.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Can’t say I’m a fan of episodic gaming… mainly because it hasn’t been done very well so far.

    There have been several RPGs which have allowed importing of characters, but they usually scale up each time, have some way of reducing your stats between games, or just make the stats far less important to the gameplay.

    I like the hub idea (that Xenovore mentioned above), but perhaps you could have a series of hubs, each with a certain amount of content (say, three episodes per hub?). Once you have completed that area, you move onto the next. So instead of playing any episode in any order, you group them by difficulty/character level.

    You could still allow for a free upgrade if the player character hasn’t got a high enough level for the next hub area content, or make a new character.

    Actually as I write this I’ve just realised I sort of described Neverwinter Nights. Only it doesn’t upgrade your character between hubs, and for some reason people hated the main campaign (It was no Baldur’s Gate 2, but I found a lot to like about it. Certainly more so than the NWN2 main campaign).

  • Maklak said,

    To me this sounds like you want something very sandboxy, like a TES game or Dwarf Fortress adventure mode, except with separated towns and dungeons and quick-travel in-between. There isn’t any level-scaling necessary as long as there are some hints about the relative difficulty level and the player can go try his luck somewhere else after having his ass kicked.

  • Olly said,

    As an alternative you could go completely against the modern tradition of PC RPGs and make a game in which character “growth” is very limited. So characters wouldn’t gain levels, boost stats to ridiculous levels, gain a multitude of skills, etc. The game could instead (crazily) focus on the actual role-playing side and not the character sheet improvement side.

    Sure a character could gain knowledge and skill at things between episodes but this wouldn’t be represented by a “stat boost”. For example, Lucy is a highly proficient computer user and in Episode 4 she finds a document that tells her how to bypass a certain type of security system. She can now use this knowledge to help her out in Episodes 2,5, and 7. She doesn’t pick up the document, hear a metallic ding noise, and get a permanent +1 to Computering.

    In this case and in the moer common PC RPG case it would still be possible to ensure sufficient character improvement before the fixed final episode by requiring certain actions to unlock it. So the player would have to find the location of the Acme Evil Lair ™ and interrogate at least 2 of his senior hench-thugs. This could be achieved in any 3 of (say) 6 possible episodes and to have met these objectives the player will have definitely reached a certain skillset or level of ability. The player can then play more episodes to gain moer power before the final confrontation if they wish. Further to this, the final episode could be adjusted to reflect those episodes that the player has completed. Lucy has hacked her way through the Undernet, battled Hench-Thug Richter on the roof of Wakahomi Plaza, and blackmailed the dirty police sergeant into giving her the plans for the Senmat-o-Tron. It makes sense (from a gameplay perspective) that her final chapter should be the proving ground for the skills she has gained and it makes sense that the final episode should reflect the results from completing each episode. So in this example Lucy could have the option to use her newfound hacking tricks to bypass an outer security fence, she could deploy the Senmat-o-Tron to knock out the patrolling cyber-hounds, and she could bring out the Stupifier-SXB Shotgun she used to defeat Richter when excrement starts to hit the spinning bladed air circulation device.

    Lots of words I know, but in essence my thoughts are:
    – Limit character strength growth in episodes, attempt to focus more on the role-play than on the RPG,
    – Make optional episodes have a greater impact on the final episode than they do on the other optional episodes,
    – Spend a fortune on making all of the myriad episode adjustments that would be needed to make this work.

  • Xenovore said,

    Another thought: With the game already designed to be episodic, you can design your quest chains with future episodes in mind — your hooks into new content can be anywhere, you just end a quest chain with some sort of cliff-hanger.

    Simple example: The party is sent to acquire a powerful relic that will allow them to stop The Bad Guy; upon successfully returning, they discover than the relic is only half of the actual item. The End. Next episode: Acquire the other half. Join halves together, creating the Hammer of Bad Guy Vanquishing. Go after The Bad Guy (which could even be another episode).

  • Darklord said,

    Hmm would be willing to try it, specially if it meant we got to play a good game quicker. Has the advantage of a smaller buy in.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Since it sounds like you want the character progression aspect of RPGs (as opposed to just the literal role-playing element of adventure games), but don’t want that to force players to tackle the episodes in a certain order (like picking from sets of adventure modules based on the party’s level)…

    Use a load-out mechanic. At the start of the episode, the characters can choose from a selection of the trophies, items, and abilities they’ve acquired in previous episodes. Then they just bring those with them. Lots of games do this by limiting spell or equipment load-outs, requiring players to swap stuff out between missions — or in this case, between episodes. This lets you give players more options as rewards for beating episodes, rather than more power. You just have to tie this to loot, spells, abilities, and so on, rather than intrinsic attribute points that don’t make sense to swap out.

    Unless the characters are robots, of course.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Collectible card games work on this idea, basically. Your improvement comes in terms of skill and options more so than it does just from increasingly powerful passive bonuses. Though you sort of get that from cards that are just plain better in more situations, you don’t get a, “You have now won 5 matches. All your creatures get +1 power!”

  • Cuthalion said,

    It occurs to me that this also means that players will be inclined to develop certain styles of play with favorite load-outs as they get more options. This more closely mimics the way episodic content works in other media, with the characters having a particular way of doing things that may become more defined as a series goes on, and may get shaken up every once in awhile, rather than simply getting physically and mentally better each episode.

    This does all lean it a bit more toward an adventure game rather than a traditional RPG, but I think it can still feel like an RPG.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Really awesome ideas across the board!

    Then again, I kinda expected that. 🙂

  • poopypoo said,

    i also really dig the ideas here. my favorite may be Olly’s, I imagine it as overleveled chars may blitz through the main hub of each adventure, but every episode contains special (hard) content that is unlocked by – effectively – having lots of experience. This gives the double bonus of encoraging hardcore gamers to buy all your episodes, to see what might be missing in episodes they already have.

    That said, my idea was just to make a really good, broad game – lots of classes and races (or equivalent) to encourage replay – and have players roll new characters for each episode. So the stories are linked, but new characters (and their classes) are explored each time. This would work really well with a diverse universe, a la TES or Stone Soup, much less well with an inflexible class system a la DA2.

  • Tom H. said,

    This was explored a bit during the 1980s by Eamon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eamon_(video_game)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I played a bit of Eamon waaay back in the day (and I knew a guy who was active in developing it, or developing adventures for it, but he wasn’t the original creator I don’t think). Eamon had persistent characters, but I thought the adventures were all completely stand-alone. Maybe I was wrong.