game design

class and role

I’ve deleted a post about class “purity”, and how adding more of them — or any asset, really — blurs and devalues the existing ones, but it was too generalized in tone.  To help this time, I will employ some awesome photoshop skills.

Let’s say we’re making an rpg and we’ve established 10 fundamental skills.  These are unique, arbitrary, independent, consistent among themselves, and non-contradictory.  We’ve decided (so again, arbitrary but reasonable) that we will have 5 classes (I – V), each with its own unique pair of skills (A-J).

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rigid but elegant

If this is too abstract, pretend that the skills are things like martial prowess, spellcasting, diplomacy, healing, mechanical ability, stealth, etc.  The only restriction on a “fundamental” skill is that it reside at the lowest tier of definition, so you wouldn’t want a distinction between melee and ranged physical combat ability if you’ve only got a generalized spellcasting skill.  It really depends on how you want to categorize the skills.

Because each skill is possessed by only one class, neither of the pair is seen as “primary” or more important, though one might more align with a preconceived class archetype.  When the classes are as well-defined and unique as this, it is much more likely that an adventure can be constructed that allows each class to fulfill its role, in the true “role playing” sense.  [The transformation of “role playing” from “role played in the party composition” to “let’s play dress-up like I’m on stage” is a totally different rant topic.]  This applies equally to pen & paper, where you will have different personalities with different preferences for what kind of character to play, as well as a crpg, where one player will want to have a different game experience based on playing a different class in subsequent playthroughs, or simply wants to enjoy having to manage party NPCs.

Now let’s do what even 1e did, and start making hybrids with the previous fundamental classes.  We’ll add new class VI, which will have skills b and c.  Instead of 6 distinct classes, we have 3 distinct classes, and a new, higher tier of class that is defined by skills b and c.

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3 hybrids and 3 pures

This new metaclass has a “pure” version, class VI, and two subclasses, I and II.  Adventures must accomodate redundant roles now, and for the same reasons, obsolete roles.  If a balanced party consisted of each of the 5 original classes, you’re now dealing with potential overlap between 3 classes, when at worst only 2 were needed.  Even more detrimentally, you could “waste” a party slot in order to satisfy a required need from a role, using two or more classes to do what one used to or could.

So far, this has been at its simplest.  Now (I wish I didn’t have to use this word so much, but I guess if I’m contrasting like this, it’s unavoidable?) let’s imagine that instead of simple and unique skills, we further break those skills down into their components and make those into subskills (such as the aforementioned melee vs ranged physical combat prowess, or arcane vs divine spellcasting).

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and this is less than 20% of the new “classes”

When the classes simply become varying combinations of arbitrarily defined skills, the “role” the classes could play goes into the toilet.  Consequently, in order to accomodate the virtual inevitability that a limited pool of players (in p&p) or preferences (single-player in a crpg), the adventures will have to be reduced to the lowest common denominating ratio of fun:challenge.  Battles will become more generic and less tailored, requiring increasingly mindless stratagies to overcome.  AD&D was already headed in this direction in 1e, but 2e solidified the bastardization of classes and skills, finally culminating in the robotic 3e and Pathfinder breed of rpg.

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xp

It takes 2k xp for a fighter to get to level 2.  If you take a common enemy at that level, a hobgoblin worth 35 xp, that fighter would have to kill 58 of them.  Now let’s average that out for a generic party of 6:  330 hobgoblins to kill for them all to get to level 2.  At an average encounter size of ~6 hobs, that’s 55 battles.  Even if you mix that up with the other low-level creatures like gibberlings, bandits, and kobolds, those things are really only going to increase the number of trash battles.  Where the most xp gains come from are “bosses” and quests, the latter sometimes worth more than all of the battles leading up to their conclusion.  Even the simplest of fetch quests are considerably more profitable xp-wise than combat.

What combat provides, generally, is loot.  Considering that any particular build of character is only going to progress through, at most, three iterations per equipment slot before achieving end-game gear (for BG1 and BG2 taken separately), the vast majority of loot is either kept as trophies or, more likely, sold in order to purchase consumables or gear unavailable through combat.  In other words, the essence of combat in BG is nothing more than violent haggling.

druid equipment

I preferred 1e druids over 2e, when they were a distinct subclass like paladin, rather than shoved into a cleric with a nature focus.  Oddly, though, some of the characteristics that were carried over intact remained opaque and arbitrary.  One of these is the equipment restrictions. 1e simply states that they have “an inability to wear protective armor of metal” (1e PH, p. 21).  Their weapons, without any explanation, are limited to “club, dagger, dart, hammer, scimitar, sling, spear, staff”.  For 2e, they tried a little harder to justify these same restrictions by stating explicitly a druid can only use “natural” armors, with weapons still unexplained (2e PH, p. 35).

I don’t see how iron is any different in “naturalness” than leather.  The distinction they seem to want to make is “organic” or “biological”, so let’s treat that as the reason.  Either way, it still shines no light on why this would apply to armor, when weapons like scimitars still violate the rule.  This is another example of trying to retrofit a somewhat rational design scheme onto a hodge-podge of peremptory rules:  It is incomplete, inconsistent, and unsatisfactory.

Magic Combat and AI

There are things that devs and modders have tried to implement, but haven’t really come close to being successful at.  One of the most obvious and saddest examples is the AI versus player’s spell protections.  When the AI casts a spell like Spell Deflection, the player sees both the name of the spell as the enemy’s action, and can tell by the graphic overlay if the spell is still functioning in later rounds.  He also knows whether this spell is deflection, reflection, or absorption, and can act accordingly.  He can also easily keep up with how much of a beating the protection has taken, and can tailor his actions.

Sadly, the AI cannot come close to this level of knowledge.  BG only has two conditions to check for spell protections, HasBounceEffect and HasImmunityEffect.  The first returns true if the target has any reflection effects; this would be fine, except that this also includes spells that reflect physical projectiles like arrows.  The AI can’t tell the difference between the 6th level priest spell Physical Mirror and the 5th level mage spell Minor Spell Turning.

The second trigger, HasImmunityEffect, is even worse.  It returns true if the target is immune or protected, not from just spells, but from secondary applied effects like icon displays, visual effects, and display strings.  This means that HasImmEff will return true even if the player has only cast Remove Fear on himself, since part of that spell is protecting from the Fear visual effect, the string that says “Charname panicked”, and the Panicked icon.  The AI is unable to distinguish between Remove Fear, Minor Globe of Invulnerability, Spell Immunity, or Chaotic Commands.

In many effects exists a hardcoded setting of a variable, either as STATE or STATS (IDS files), that can be checked by a script to help with targeting.  For example, charm effects automatically set the STATE_CHARMED as true, so that when the charm is ended, whether by duration or dispelling, the STATE is also reset to zero.  Spells that apply an effect that does not have this hardcoded convenience can use the simple workaround of manually setting a STATS as a part of the spell.  There’s even enough room in the STATS and STATE IDS files to add new entries.  The venerable Detectable Spells mod, in use by many AI mods, does this with Spell Deflection for the various deflecting anti-magic spells.

The problem with this — and it’s a big one — is that it cannot account for the spell running out by decrementation (being used up by spells cast at it), and so only resets by either duration or dispelling. What you get is the ultimate in inefficiency:  You’ll see AI mages wasting a 6th level Pierce Magic spell to take a down a 3rd level Minor Spell Deflection that only has 1 spell level of protection left.  These are crippling mistakes that only the AI can make, not the player, and as such, are yet another opportunity for the player to inadvertently (or not) exploit the suboptimal AI.  Even the better AI mods are unable to overcome this deficiency.

terminology, history

The “long sword” in D&D is misnamed.  What it should properly be called is an arming sword, or broad sword.  Historical longswords were designed for 2-handed use, and are nearly synonymous with greatswords.

Splint mail shouldn’t even exist in a world with full plate.  It’s the equivalent of muskets alongside AR-15s.

Why is it so?  Remember the freedom of 1e that I praise?  Well, sometimes it works against itself.  In the 1e PH there’s several pages of equipment listings, costs, and statistics.  What was supposed to represent what might be available in a game setting was taken as what should always be available.  This is why there is no accounting for obsolete weapon and armor forms.  Sure, someone ignorant of the evolution of armaments wouldn’t notice, and there’s always the fallback of “it’s just a game, don’t care so much”.  But to me, it stands out like someone with so little knowledge of baseball, that he keeps the glove on while at bat.

Fortunately, BG is already very limited in its animations, so pruning the excess of items won’t be a problem visually.

weight, encumbrance, inventory

This is one of those areas where I definitely want to effect a change, but the manner for doing so is slightly unwieldy.  Let’s define the terms.  Weight is simply how heavy an object is.  Encumbrance describes how restricted you are by a combination of an object’s weight, its fragility, and the ease with which it is carried.

A small metal vial containing poison antidote might weigh about half a pound.  In BG, there are no fractions.  This potion has to be either weightless or twice as heavy.  Its encumbrance is almost negligible.  These facts combine to make this potion more encumbering than it should be, a due paid for its translation into a computer game.

At the other end, we have a suit of plate mail:  large, heavy pieces of thick metal.  It is exponentially more encumbering to carry than to wear, but there is no way to represent that in BG.

Then we have BG’s inventory system.  On one hand, it wants to be realistic:  STR-determined carry limits, a finite number of slots for equipped items, and a finite number of slots for carried/unworn items.  For convenience, they also allowed for the stacking of certain items — ammuntion for missile weapons, scrolls, and potions mostly.  Unfortunately, the limitation of the engine once again makes something inconsistent, and both unrealistic and inconvenient.  You can stack arrows, but only arrows of the same type.  You can stack spell scrolls, but only of the same spell.  Unique scrolls, such as quest clues or notes, can’t be stacked at all.  Then they added in portable containers, where like-item-stacking was not a concern, but also completely obliterated the point of limited carrying capacity in the first place.  In other words, it’s an incoherent mess that serves no purpose other than to clumsily and impotently limit what and how much a character can carry.

There are very good reasons for wanting to limit how much a character can carry.  You don’t want them to be able to horde potions and spell scrolls, saving them for the otherwise really tough encounters, by deliberately not using them for the numerous token battles.  But inventory restriction is the wrong place to address this.  The encounters should be designed to need those assets more often, and they should be harder to come by.

On the other hand, in P&P, players would have the option to hire porters and henchmen, hirelings that wouldn’t necessarily affect the outcome of an encounter, but would allow the party to lug around much more loot and equipment.  As it is in BG, one of the biggest restrictions on this — the weight of coinage — isn’t even an issue.

I’m not quite sure why I would restrict inventory, even if I can figure out how, but I do know I don’t like the idea of a character carrying multiple suits of armor, or an entire collection of weapons like a portable armory.

weidu

The first computer I played BG on only had a 2gb hdd.  I didn’t even install the movies.  Until weidu came along, mods were usually pure overwrites.  If you wanted to revert to the pre-mod state, you had to make your own backup of the relevant files:  bgmain.exe for any kind of hacks (no cd, or Taimon’s early stuff), dialog.tlk (most likely for the Baldurdash fixes, though other mods also used that as a base), and the override folder.  Besides requiring a strict mod install order (similar to Elder Scrolls modding), the mods would necessarily be independent of each other:  Later mods could only ignore anything already present.

Weidu was a remarkable advancement in BG modding because of two characteristics:  it was non-destructive, and could account for other mods already installed.

Non-destruction meant that reverting to a prior state was as simple as running the installer again.  Every file changed, including dialog.tlk, was automatically backed up, so reverting was simply a matter of taking that backup and throwing it back in the override folder to overwrite the mod’s now-unwanted file.  With some of the larger mods, this can certainly produce space concerns.  In some cases, maintaining the mod’s backup takes up more space than simply keeping a backup of the game’s pre-mod state.

Accounting for other mods seems to be the holy grail of the current scene, with such a variety of mods, all with different focuses.  Now your item mod can play nicely with your NPC mod.  The still painful exception is that AI mods, by necessity, cannot account for the innumerable variability of item and spell mods that might be installed.  Besides that, most mods are compatible, and install order is rendered somewhat less important.

Sometimes, though, with weidu making these two things possible, mods utilize these features even when it doesn’t make sense to.  Let’s use the BG2 Fixpack as an example.

For all intents and purposes, the FP is both the literal and spiritual successor to Baldurdash.  These pages, from way back in 2001, show how the game was patched up fairly quickly by the community.  Over the years, more things have been fixed — not without controversy in some cases — but the function remains the same.  What also remains the same is the requirement for the FP to be the first mod installed post-official patch.  This means that, other than for language translation, there is no need to use weidu to patch the files.  The old method of blunt file replacement would work just as well, and faster.

The second issue is its backup:  it is huge.  This is where keeping a backup of the three targets mentioned earlier is better than keeping a backup of everything the mod changes.  When you factor in how well-discussed and thoroughly tested the FP is, there’s certainly not the same likelihood of uninstalling as a kit or NPC mod.  The final nail in the coffin is FP’s status as essentially an unofficial patch.  Barring some real concerns over its more subjective changes, or duplication by multiple other mods, this mod is almost a required install.  The ability to cleanly uninstall it is virtually superfluous.

The point is that the larger comprehensive mods, those that make wholesale changes to one class of assets like items or spells, do not need to use weidu.  These mods are making changes to the fundamental resources of the game, not adding extraneous content that can exist outside of these changes.  Further, these types of mods are the ones that still need to pay attention to install order;  and even then, there will be cracks in the pavement.  An item mod that applies a change to longswords will not account for a later-installed NPC mod that includes a new longsword.  The only advantage weidu had in cases like these mods were the decreased size of the download, a minimal concern nowadays.

[edit]  Someone wondered why I was criticizing the FP.  I think the text contains sufficient explanation, but I’ll reiterate:  An early or first install mod doesn’t need to use weidu, and in some cases, is less efficient for both the player and the modder.

you can’t just evolve from a flawed ancestor

This is from the Character doc, in the same rambling style as the rest of the docs.  It’s at least 6 years old, but I’m sure its points have been stated before.  Yet, here we are in ’16 and we still ignore them:

I want to rant a bit on the existence of the paladin concept in the first place.  It’s from a time when the game was absolutely human-centric, as easily seen in level caps for demihumans and some classes being human-only.  But it’s more than that.  Even its brand of LG is an extreme version, and one implicitly religious in nature with its demon protections and evil detections.  Holy warrior, indeed, but did it need to be its own class?  Why not just a role-played fighter?  Surely if the religious aspect were made explicit, any extraneous benefits could be given both variety and consistency.  As it is, it’s a class very limited in what cultures it would exist in without heavy modification.  Moreso, it forces a definition of LG that is horribly arbitrary;  witness Keldorn who knows he must kill the man who “cheated” with his wife, and put his wife in jail, all for “adultery”?  What kind of stereotypical patriarchal bullshit is this?  Is it Lawful because he’s obeying his order’s, or Amn’s, laws?  Is it “good” by any definition at all?  That these are even questions, nevermind unignorable and quite legitimate ones, shows that the paladin concept needs to be separated from its antiquated “historical” inspirations if it’s going to stay in this mod.  Hypocritical, self-righteous religious freaks doling out paranoid justice with swords need to meet the same fate they all too willingly mete out to everyone else.

Is it possible to make a paladin a viable subclass and not just the obvious cleric/fighter hybrid it currently is?  Is it possible to give it abilities and restrictions that do not explicitly rely on religious affiliations?  The most consistent characteristic of the paladin ideal is Lawfulness.  They all give reverence to a code of behavior and enforce that code through violence regardless of its nobility or righteousness.  I’d strongly argue that they need to be Good;  Keldorn himself personified the adage that “Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you’re told;  religion is doing what you’re told regardless of what is right,” if you treat his Order as a religion (and it certainly qualifies).

the summoning-oning-oning

I’ve been making up games and rules since I was a kid.  The thing I’ve always understood is that while you are free to make anything you want to be possible (This is magic”), you should still try to have internal consistency.  If your game is meant to be an alternative version of reality, like a medieval analog of our world except magic exists, then it should still conform to reality outside of the alternative aspects presented.  It’s fine to say “The king was assassinated by a spell,” but you better have some sort of logical reasoning behind how that spell works if you expect your players to be able to investigate the assassination.

Given the bugbear in the room regarding the concept of summoning spells, the best way to reconstruct them is to start with where we got the concept from in the first place:  consorting with demons.  Accepting and henceforth ignoring its religious origins, the early demon summoning spell itself was a drawn-out ritual, requiring obscure research and meticulous preparation.  The spell was intended to summon one specific creature, that would be trapped by the use of sigils and runes, and obligated to negotiate for its release by performing a service for the wizard.  There was an unstated understanding that, much like the power of words used in spells, words used as vows also had power, and that the Universe enforced or punished those involved.  Cf to 1e spells Suggestion, Geas, and Quest.  Note that the service might still not have been entirely paid for by releasing the demon.  Either way, the two big takeaways are that it was a tremendous effort, cost, and risk to the wizard, and that it was a unique event (although there might develop a “professional” relationship between the demon and wizard).

1e at least had it as a ritual spell with all the prep and risks.  2e pretty much avoided any talk of demons, having kowtowed to religious fundamentalists.  So too with demon summoning, removing (at least initially before its horde of DLC handbooks were published) the 7th rank spell Cacodemon.  Gate was already more of a generic “outer plane” summon spell, and so didn’t need further toning down. If someone can clue me in when TSR or WotC brought back demon summoning spells, I’d appreciate it.

Still, there at least was a bit of hope introduced in 2e, where in one of the MS descriptions was an indication that sometimes adventurers were whisked away, and not just monsters or evil humanoids.

back to school(s)

My current idea for mage specialists is to make them more special, but I wonder if just abandoning the school specialization completely wouldn’t be better.  Schools as the basis is less meaningful than weapon specialization for fighters.  Most other kits are based on roles, rather than some arbitrary characteristic.  Sage/researcher, battle wizard, necromancer (classic), etc.