Thursday, January 05, 2017

Stats, Classes, and Fantasy Races

In Ye Olden Days of RPGs, you would roll stats straight. Only then would you start thinking about who the character was. You would choose a class to leverage whatever decent stats you had, and you might choose a race to push your understrength stats into a viable range. So the races and classes were less about building a character you wanted to play, and more about coping with brutal random chance.

These days, we build our character stats along whatever paths we want. There's no need to cope with randomization, but we still have the same fundamental structure. We've gotten used to it, but it's pretty bad. The added complexity doesn't serve any real purpose aside from making the game's high-level play be almost entirely about knowing which stats and classes and races interact in which ways.

If we want to make our game more approachable, that is a useless kind of skill. We want our players to excel at playing the game, not excel at setting it up.

This is a common concern, and many modern RPGs reflect this tendency. We've begun ripping out stats or classes or both.

But there is power in the gap between stats, classes, and races. The way they augment each other is quite dense and interesting. Just ripping out those cornerstones means you lose all that depth!

Without the resonance between the layers, you end up with a very shallow approach and extremely straightforward builds.

Easy example: Skyrim. No stats or classes, just a few skills. Worse, improving any skill is incredibly expensive, since the enemies scale with the number of skill points you earn, not your maximum combat skills. This means your approaches are going to be both extremely basic and extremely focused. Moreover, many approaches seem viable at first but at midgame peter out entirely - for example, pure archers don't end up working out, and having to fall back on melee means you're better off just building a melee character.

A few recent games have tried to keep the complexity of stats, class, and race, but they tend to end up feeling mishmashy and sodden. Pillars of Eternity is a good example: their attempt to make all builds viable results in all builds feeling largely the same.

Statistically speaking, that's what they have to do. Otherwise you're back where we started: learning to minmax would be the primary player skill, rather than learning to play.

Is there any other approach?

Sure! Here's a simple idea:

Stats and classes, basically normal setup. However, the stats don't give bonuses. Instead, they are capacity.

For example, if you have 8 strength you can carry 8 points of gear. Say, leather armor (6 points) and a broadsword (2 points). 10 intellect? You can focus on 10 points of passive skills. Say, detect hidden (3 points), monster lore for crits vs monsters (4 points) and deflect criticals (3 points). 6 points of spirit? You can equip 6 points of spiritual gear/enchantments/spells. Magic deflection (4 points) and a ring of sparks (2 points).

This is just one idea, but the core here is that stats don't have to offer statistical effects. By splitting the class and stats into orthogonal concerns, we can give both a much wider range. A magician with a high strength might seem like a waste, but in practice it allows her to carry 3 staves and 4 wands. She can just pull the right one out in any given situation!

It also allows for midgame optimizations. You want to shave a point off the strength price of that spear? It might be more important than giving it a magical +2 damage bonus! You want to merge a bunch of magic rings into a single artifact set with a lower total spirit cost but ruin them as separate objects? Sure, sounds good!

Races? Sure. Lower the price for specific categories of gear. Elves get bows one point cheaper. Dwarves get armor one point cheaper. Maybe you have a family heirloom? It's not great, but it's super cheap for you alone. No need to modify the stats!

In addition, I find this just flat-out makes for more memorable characters: their equipment variation will be cleaner and sharper.

If you're only controlling a single character, this kind of approach is a bit iffy. If you make it light enough for a beginner, it will usually be uninteresting after a session or two. Make it heavy enough, and people will forget their setup after a week away. But if you're controlling a party, it's very easy to make it work out.

The lightweight approach combined with gear serving specific roles means that players can tell who a character is and what a character does at a glance. Even after a week away, the gear will still be easy to see and you can slip right back into the flow of things. If you're worried about stagnation, a steady trickle of new gear variants or abilities that change the prices will keep things swirling nicely.

Anyway, I thought I should mention it.

Stats vs classes vs races: it was originally built for a completely different purpose. It's ok to not do things that way. It's ok to reinvent the wheel.

Just make sure your new wheel turns, or you'll end up with an oversimplified pile of mush.

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