One of the other big changes that I want to make from the standard RPG system has to do with the way character progress is handled. Leveling up is so much a part of the role-playing genre that when they other types of games started adding levels, they called them RPG elements. Many descriptions of the RPG genre actually say that the single most important aspect for a game to be considered an RPG is that is has a leveling system. There are many reasons games do this, and I plan on addressing those, but if you just want to see my proposed alternative, you can jump right to it.
People like to feel powerful. Games let us escape from our mundane world and enter another world where we can feel empowered. This has to be balanced with the difficulty of the gameplay though; a character who trounces all of his enemies from the outset gets boring very quickly. Having the characters grow in power through the game does a really good job of accomplishing this in a game where player skill is almost irrelevant. This is especially true of role-playing games, where the standard story line starts with something mundane that we can relate to, but inevitably turns into a quest to literally save the world. There are few situations that make us feel stronger than being the only person capable of saving the entire world.
There are other ways to achieve this feeling, and there are many successful games that get by with the characters ending the game with the same skills and equipment they had at the start. These types of games tend to rely on play elements that require precision from the player, and as the player gets better at performing them, the increased skill will achieve the same effect. Since the type of RPG combat I’m most interested focuses on strategy, it becomes difficult to recreate that feeling based on player skill alone. Sure a chess match between players of drastically different skill levels tend to be quick and easy for the master, but when the difference is only a matter of a few dozen hours of experience, things tend to still be evenly matched.
One of my biggest complaints with the leveling system is that while it felt great to get more hit points and strength the first hundred or so times, after a while it all just kind of blended together. What’s the difference between having 100 hit points and 1000, when enemy damage scales the same so its always 10% of your max? Having this arms race between player and enemy stats requires meticulous balance on the part of the game designer, or the result is either the character levels being too high for an area and the game being boring because it’s too easy, or even worse, the character levels being too low, which forces the player to grind for experience just to catch up.
The benefits of the leveling system must be pretty great, as gamers have put up with all of these drawbacks for decades just to keep them. Our urge to feel empowered by the games we play, and not just that to have it feel like we earned that power, is a strong one, and to try and take that out of a game in this genre would be foolish. I could have simply chosen to make sure I keep a close eye on balance in my game, or put in arbitrary caps and experience boosts to force the player level to be where I expected it, but my past issues with game balance have assured me that statistical balance is not easy, and without a dedicated testing group it might be downright impossible. Instead, I looked to some of the great games out there that don’t have levels to see how they solved the problem.
One of the common features of action games of the 16-bit era and modern-day FPS games is that your character seems to acquire quite the bag of tricks throughout the course of play. The characters start the game with a few basic commands; slash your sword and block, shoot your gun and jump, fire your pistol and take cover. As you play through the levels, you get new items or skills, that while not statistically better than your existing skills make certain situations, or sometimes the whole game, much easier. Super Metroid’s ice beam may not actually do more damage, but being able to immobilize your enemies absolutely trivialized a number of encounters of nightmarish difficult prior to acquiring it.
The question remains, can this style of progression work in a turn-based game? Many games give the players more skills as they progress, but most do so with statistical upgrades available to those skills as well. Sure you might get a spell that applies some status effect to your enemy, but in most games those skills have a niche use at best, and quickly fall by the wayside when a greater fireball becomes available. This leaves one final hurdle to this revision of the advancement system becoming viable, and that’s making sure the tricks that are placed in the player’s bag are actually useful.
In most games that have them, these utility spells rarely see use for two main reasons. The first is that in a standard enemy fight it is almost always faster to just use brute force to kill the targets as quickly as possible. Part of this is due to the nature of many random encounter fights being too simple, which I addressed in an earlier post, the other is that often times the turn spent to apply the status effect is not worth the loss in damage. What good is a 50% damage boost if the fight only lasts two rounds?
The other issue is that almost every fight that lasts more than the few rounds given to a random encounter is a boss fight, and as we all know, bosses are immune to all status effects as a general rule. There is good reason for this; boss fights are the climax points of each chapter and having them vulnerable to a skill that removes the tension from the fight break the pace of the game. If the boss has a single mechanic and the player can disable that mechanic, or use a spell to kill it outright, then something has to be done, and the easy answer is immunity. The better answer, I think, is to have better bosses who adapt, and if there is an instant death skill it should be hard enough to set up that its use becomes a strategy instead of an instant victory.
- Characters have no level. This means that a fight against a bandit at the beginning of the game has the same effective threat level at the end of the game. Your skills will let you get in more hits and evade more attacks, but the numbers will stay the same.
- New skills are gained as the story progresses. This is how most action games handle it, and in the absence of levels it just makes sense. This would take the form of acquiring a new unique item to use or receiving special training from someone.
- Utility skills will be useful. With the longer random fights, their utility will already be higher than usual. Since the fights are more about creating the openings, effective use of skills will always result in a shorter fight. Boss fights will not rely on a mechanic that can be shut down with a few utility skills, allowing them to be vulnerable to these skills.
- Money is earned from story events. Since there is no incentive to grind for experience, making fights the primary means of income seems out of place. Towns will have a variety of mini-games that players can engage in to earn extra money. A coliseum will let players use combat as their mini-game of choice.
- Training modes give passive traits and stat bonuses. These will be almost like classes, though dealing exclusively with passives. There will be a few tiers of each of these which become available as the game progresses. Once unlocked, players can activate them either by spending time playing the mini-games or paying for training.
With this setup, I believe I can achieve a good feeling of progression without the need for mindless repetition, while still providing players with a sense of accomplishment as they progress. This will eliminate the need for level grinding, and even the benefits that it usually confers that make it so useful it becomes almost mandatory. With the coliseums in each town, players will have a safe way to test their fight strategies quickly, which should eliminate any possible use the fodder encounters might provide.