In my last essay I talked about parts of the RPG experience I love. In the one before that, I talked about how we can put aside standard gameplay tropes if we understand what player experiences are created by that gameplay and do it another way.
Now I'm going to combine the two and talk about a noncombat RPG.
There are few "noncombat RPGs". They are never very good, because the entire idea of an RPG is based around combat.
Sure, all the gameplay loops orbit the concept of combat. Even above that, the way we consider fantasy worlds is through the lens of combat.
For example, I can simply swap combat out with something that is almost mechanically identical. Poker, for example. But the RPG will still end up bad, because the concept of poker players saving the universe is laughable. It actually runs deeper than that: our concept of travel within a fantasy world is linked to the idea of combat. How we judge the merit of characters is based on how they face danger and death, not how well they play poker.
You could make a comedy RPG like that, perhaps. A dance-off RPG. But if you want a reasonably serious RPG (not necessarily dark, but not a straight comedy), you need to deal with this weakness.
As tempting as it is to swap out combat for, say, cooking, you can't do it. You have to rebuild your experience from the ground up. You have to start with cooking, then think about how to build the loops, how to build the experiences, how to build the interactions, how to portray the NPCs...
Let's design a Mass-Effect-like. A game which "feels like" Mass Effect, but has completely different core play.
Our noncombat Mass Effect is about making the horrifyingly complex systems of the science fiction future work. The party repairs, plans, retrofits, and extends infrastructure. They work for the Central Planning Office. We'll call our game CPO for the moment.
The core loop is dealing with specific problems. Rather than cement everything too early, let's just mention some categories of "enemies" you might face: damaged parts, missing parts, misconfigured systems, incompatible hardware, incompatible software, archaic software, daisy-chain failures, missing procedures, and annoying people.
Right away, I can see four basic categories: hardware wrangling, software wrangling, red tape, and people/groups. I can also see various kinds of challenges within those categories: something broke, something crashed, something's missing, something's misconfigured, two things are incompatible, something failed because something else failed (detective work), etc.
Can this be made interesting?
Well, mechanically, anything can be made interesting. The question is whether it can be presented in a meaty way. The big draw of combat is that everyone can feel it. Even if it's presented like an oldschool RPG where someone steps forward, moves slightly, and then steps back, you still understand that there's a monster getting whacked.
There are two things we need in order to make CPO's core loop interesting.
The first is a good presentation. I think this is quite possible. Watching large machines turn on, lights come back, vents start working on the clouds of smoke, water start spraying... these are actually pretty good. You can really feel a sense of accomplishment when you repair a broken thing. This can be further punched up if lives are at risk - genuinely at risk, not just some color text. If you do badly, people will get injured, die, become homeless, or otherwise suffer. Work fast!
The second thing we need is a flexible system. It's easy to make a puzzle game out of this kind of situation - you have a bunch of pieces and you need to arrange them. However, the strength of an RPG's combat system is that it is very flexible. A variety of team builds can take on a variety of challenges in a variety of ways. Even if something is sub-optimal, the team can pull through if you spend a few more resources.
So this isn't a puzzle. Instead, the compromised systems are like enemies to be pounded. You don't just replace a component of a damaged factory: you assault it with ongoing repair attempts. If you have suitable components, it's like having an elemental advantage and your assaults will be much faster/more effective. If software is incompatible, attack with with programming hacks until compatibility is established.
Moreover, in most cases there's cross-compatibility. If software is incompatible, replace hardware modules until you find one with compatible software. If hardware is missing, write software to rebalance outputs and route around the missing piece.
Although I like the realtime combat systems we see these days, it makes more sense for these actions to take many hours or even days. While the player can wander around in real time, the "combat" turns are much slower. This means the exploration loop is actually tighter than the combat loop, because you can explore a whole space station in far less than one turn of "combat".
This is obviously a bit of a concern. Normally you would have combat be the core loop and you would fall into it many times during the explore phase, each time executing a complete combat.
We require a bit of a different approach if we want to do it this "slow loop" way... and we definitely want to do it this way. Aside from combat, there are very few immersive activities that take less time than walking around. Figuring this out would let us build a huge variety of "inverted RPGs" where the core activity iterates more slowly than the support activities.
To make this work, we have to create offramps from combat into exploration, then from exploration back into combat.
Functionally, this means that as you explore a place, the details of the place change. This is obvious: you are changing the place with your repairs. Moreover, the people who live in the place (or the weather or whatever) are also changing over time as their condition progresses.
Exploring becomes less about discovering new terrain, and more about discovering and taking advantage of these changes. Did someone regain consciousness? If so, you can ask them how the vent systems work, and get an "extra attack" in your combat against it. Did one of your people score a "critical hit" on some incompatible software? If so, use partial compatibility to help fuel your assault on the reactor repairs.
Exploration is no longer exploration, it's "resource management" - finding new resources.
With that in mind, we can expand it. Resource management includes blunting or evading new resource drains. It includes deciding to spend resources in a new way (for example, giving a colonist expensive medical treatment if his condition worsens). It includes moving resources - bringing supplies to your NPC team mates, or switching out which shipboard reactor you're using so you can swap out the nuclear core...
In turn, we begin to see this double-loop emerging. There's a lot of resource management happening on the "fairly fast" level. Perhaps each "combat" turn takes four hours, and at the end of each turn you can choose to wander around if you like. The resources supporting you may change a bit, but the big issue is the very predictable ongoing consumption of resources. Power from a limited power bank. Oxygen from a limited life support system. Food from a limited cabinet. These are resources you will wrangle between turns - negotiating for more oxygen, switching to backup power, going on limited rations...
By changing how our resource management system works, we can completely change the feel of our game and get a really good heartbeat going.
For example, we have a bank of 3D printers to print hardware components for us. Hardware work is therefore limited by the max output of these printers. However, you can also "prep". A turn (4 hours) spent prepping will add output to the total, allowing you to stockpile parts for really big job. These parts cannot be kept: they are special-purpose. So most of the time, you'll be working within the constraints of the printers, but it's flexible if you have time and good planning skills.
Hackers will want to combine their efforts with that of the shipboard computer. But that's a limited resource. Programmers only require a computer assist when using an advanced move, such as password cracking or database filtering. Rather than being a specific cap amount that is available, using the computers aboard the ship takes electricity - and not on a linear progression. Getting 10 points of computation is much more than 10x as expensive as getting 1 point.
Of course, electricity is obviously also a component. You have two shipside reactors, but the power output isn't fantastic and you need to keep swapping out fission cores, which takes a turn (4 hours). It's obviously nice if you can pull power from the facility you're repairing - colony reactors are much more powerful. But if the problem is that the colony's power is not working right, well!
But maybe the colony has computers, or 3D printers. Maybe the colony has batteries that you can charge up.
You can see - we can mix the resources you bring with the resources available on site. And they change in predictable ways turn to turn, so you can optimize your efforts.
It's beginning to sound like a fun game to me. You land at a dark space station, go aboard with suits. One party member spends every turn ferrying oxygen to the others, while they struggle to repair the power systems. One is elbow-deep in the reactor, the other is underneath the main breaker, swapping out conduits. The power system comes up, and you watch their faces look up as the lights shudder to life. They high-five.
The station is full of smoke, which causes the newly-resurrected life support to seize up. You use the station power to hack the central database of users, so you can program a new "smoke compatible" life support mode - one turn per action.
Twelve hours have passed, and you can finally take off your life support suits. You're all pretty tired from your twelve-hour shift, so maybe it's time to sleep. Some other party members from your ship step in to keep working while your "A" team sleeps.
They discover some colonists in cryo pods...
That is the basic format: turn-to-turn resource management combined with extended activities. You don't even need a hard party number cap, because party members use resources. It's self-balancing.
In current RPGs, resource management is long-term. You horde potions and mana and health over the course of a dungeon. We've inverted that: the resources are short-term. Each turn is a question of how to arrange them, how to refill them, how to spend them.
The way the two loops relate has been changed. Previously, the combat loop only had one "off ramp" - combat ends, you go back to exploring.
But our combat loop is slowed way down. Our players will take too much time to loop through until completion.
So we have to offer many off ramps. Combat doesn't "end" in exploration. You shuttle back and forth between the two.
The connection between the loops is much tighter, which should make the game quite immersive.
And that's the start of my design.