• Designing RPG systems

    The following are some musings on how to make good RPG systems, and which mistakes or pitfalls to avoid, based on the systems I’ve seen in various roleplaying games.

    Note that I am talking specifically about RPG character progression systems, and not the other staples of the genre such as dialogue, choices and consequences.

    I feel that a character system should:

    • Have interesting and meaningful choices
    • Differentiate gameplay between character builds
    • Feel satisfying
    • Avoid offering truly bad choices which only act as traps for inexperienced players
    • Not get in the way of normal play

    Levelling systems

    No bonuses that need to be kept until the end

    It feels bad to get a bonus or reward and be unable to use it, because the bonus will be better / stronger if used much later in the game.
    For example, if you find a potion that can permanently increase your Strength by 1 point, if feels bad if you use it only to realise that it would have been more effective if you had used it when you already had much higher strength, due to the cost of increasing strength being exponential, or the attribute having a hard cap.  Such a system just leads to the player hoarding such bonuses until so late in the game that they don’t even get much use out of them, which lessens the impact of the reward.
    In this example, a better solution would be to make such a permanent stat increase act as a permanent bonus which isn’t counted in the normal skill calculations for costs and limits.

    Another example to avoid is a allowing the player to make a permanent choice which initially only offers bad or lower-quality options, but allows them to choose a much better option later (provided that they didn’t pick a poor option for the “slot” earlier.)  The weaker options just act as traps for inexperienced players.


    Progression systems should align with normal gameplay

    The player should generally be able to progress by playing the game normally.  Avoid systems where the player needs to vastly change their play style in order to get the maximum benefit from the progression system, and especially where the best progression is rewarded for really bizarre and unintuitive behaviours.

    The best example of what not to do is the old attribute-levelling system from The Elder Scrolls games Morrowind and Oblivion.  In those games, each time you level up, you can choose to upgrade three of your statistics, with the amount of points gained for a stat being dependant on how much you used the skills associated with that statistic since your last level-up.  This was combined with your health gain being based on your current Endurance stat, so the ideal way to play was to increase Endurance as fast as possible, which required getting 10 points of Endurance-based skills per level.  The end result was a wizard character spending most of their early levels practising with spears and heavy armour, just so they could get a decent Endurance score and get decent hit points.

    Another common example is games which reward players with XP for defeating opponents, which can lead to players wandering the world murdering or beating up everyone, allies and enemies alike, for the XP.  That can work perfectly for heavily combat-focused games where murdering everything to build up your character is the normal gameplay, but might not fit in other types of roleplaying games with a more heavy narrative focus.


    Avoid use-based skills

    Skills which improve as you use them seem like an obvious and realistic approach at first glance, but they don’t work well as a game system.  There is little in terms of interesting choice for the player – they merely become more powerful at doing what they were doing as they play.

    A point-based system, where you gain a fixed number of upgrade points as your character improves, gives the player far more interesting choices in terms of character development.


    Fewer, more impactful options

    Generally, the difference between having 43/100 and having 44/100 of an attribute is fairly negligible, unless that number happens to be the minimum requirement for something.
    Giving the player fewer, more meaningful and impactful choices is far more interesting than giving them a lot of points but where individual points don’t have much value.
    This depends a lot on the specific type of progression system being used – if upgrade points are acquired constantly but in small numbers (such as being able to spend XP directly as soon as you gain it), then having smaller-granularity upgrades is more reasonable, to give a feeling of constant progression.
    If upgrading is instead done in terms of a larger number of points all received upon levelling, then it feels much better to give a smaller number to allow for more impactful upgrade choices.


    Reward for progression, not method

    In a game which has multiple methods of approaching a problem, there shouldn’t be a vastly different XP reward for the different paths.  Rather than giving XP for specific actions performed during a sequence, such as killing or evading enemies, instead give a fixed reward for completing the overall objective.
    That way, players can find their own path, and don’t feel compelled to “game” the system by performing the actions that give the most XP (such as massacring every living thing in the area to maximise XP gain, or always using the weapon or takedown method which grants the most XP.)


    Avoid arbitrary and unrealistic restrictions

    While it might make sense to not be able to cast a fireball before you have learned how to do so, it makes a lot less sense to be unable to fire a gun or hold a sword without a requisite skill level, because those are actions that anyone could perform – albeit poorly.
    Favour (possibly massive) penalties instead of outright restrictions.  Allow anyone to fire a complex gun, but have an inexperienced user get far worse recoil, terrible aim, frequent jams, less damage, and/or other penalties for their lack of knowledge.  Allow a weak character to try to swing a heavy sword, but end up with incredibly slow and unwieldy swings that make the weapon too cumbersome to use effectively.
    Make the player gradually able to use the weapon effectively as their skill increases, rather than a single hard point before which they cannot use the weapon at all, and after which they can use the weapon perfectly.

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