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Vince
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« on: August 06, 2008, 12:50:14 pm »

Obsidian's Josh Sawyer has kindly agreed to have a chat about character systems with me:

* * *

Let's start with attributes. What are your preferences? DnD-like 3 physical, 3 "mental" stats or something more complex? Should you be able to increase them through levels, trainers, or gadgets or not? Why? How should stats affect gameplay? Which character systems influenced you?

These days, I tend to err on the side of simpler, more abstracted systems.  I try to think from the perspective of player action as the foundation for the system.  That is, I think "What should the player be able to do in this environment?" and "What will the player want to be able to do in this environment?" and then try to build a system to support it.

For example, in the Aliens setting, there is a heavy emphasis on a character's ability to deal with stress. So I've thought about that in terms of the differences between learned skill and something innate to a character in the setting. It's arguable that the ability to resist the sort of mental trauma in the Aliens setting is a learned skill (the equivalent of Combat Cool in Cyberpunk 2020's "Friday Night Fire Fight") and some of it is more inherent to the character, a fundamental part of who they are that isn't likely to change much over the course of the character's time in the game.  So I think "Should this be represented in the game?", "How should this be represented in the game?" and "By what mechanics can the player mess with this representation?".  You can see a similar sort of approach in games like Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu and even in the 2nd Edition AD&D Ravenloft supplemental rules.  But in other settings, those sorts of mechanics and stats aren't really necessary.  The specifics depend entirely on the game, though I approach those specifics from the practical perspective of supporting low-level core gameplay instead of satisfying a high-level set of mechanical ideals.

  • While settings/environments should influence character systems to some degree (Piety is useless in a setting without religion), the basic stats determining how strong, fast, tough, smart you are, are the universal foundation. Strength and Intelligence should have a place in every setting, wouldn’t you agree? Surely every game designed by you would have some standard set of physical and mental attributes. The only question is the level of details and depth. Is 4 standard attributes (plus setting specific ones) a preferred number? Or 6 (DnD), 7 (Fallout, Elder Scrolls), 8 (Arcanum), etc? How much room, basically, do you need to make a character system? Are you ok with what the standard DnD-like stats or would you prefer to create something different and unique. Something like this, perhaps?

    http://www.rpgcodex.net/phpBB/viewtopic.php?t=22501


    The preferred number of attributes is the number that accomplishes what you need in terms of setting and mechanics, that’s it.  To that end, I think fewer are generally better, since games that set out to accomplish less typically have a higher level of overall polish.  However, there is one more thing that I’d like to say about attributes: I believe it’s easier to balance individual attributes against each other when they are divorced from skills.  That is, I think the relationship that many RPG systems establish between skills and attributes can make it very difficult to achieve balance between attributes – especially when the attributes can affect other aspects of the game.  For example, the effect of AG on Action Points and a variety of skills in Fallout practically made it a no-brainer.

In terms of advancement mechanics, I have stronger guiding principles that I do believe carry from game to game.  I used to be a big fan of "learn by doing", but in practice I think it really works best in tabletop games where the GM can adjudicate exactly what's going on.  Now I favor systems where an abstracted earned currency is used to advance the character's stats -- in other words, typical XP systems, whether level-based or not.  However, I am strongly against awarding experience points for "ways and means".  I.e. killing monsters, picking locks, scribing scrolls, etc.  Not only is it extraordinarily hard to balance for designers and QA staff, but it inevitably leads to nasty metagaming that, in my opinion, runs counter to some of the guiding principles of many RPGs.  Unless combat is the sole focus of the game, we need to keep the player's focus on achieving a goal in whatever manner he or she sees fit.  The accomplishment of the goal, not the method itself, should net the main reward.  The reward for "ways and means" is usually self-contained.  E.g. monsters drop monster bits, opening locked rooms gives access to otherwise unavailable equipment, hacking a computer gives some interesting data that can tie in with another game system.  And really, the biggest reward has already been granted to the player: you allowed him or her to play the game in the manner he or she wanted.  There's an idea I don't subscribe to -- that players need to be given tiny rewards for everything they do.  If your gameplay is actually fun, you shouldn't need to bribe them!  When gameplay simply becomes drudgery motivated by a desire to gain a bonus that makes the gameplay easier, I feel that we have failed as designers.

  • Can you elaborate on your position on the “learn by doing” systems? While it’s easy to design one poorly, opening the gates for all kinds of abuse, I think the system itself shows promise. I’d say it was implemented very well in Stonekeep, no?

    People wind up effectively “grinding skills” instead of just playing the game.  I’d like to keep people focused on accomplishing things in the setting instead of meta-gaming stats in the world.  I don’t have anything against people powergaming or min-maxing, I just want to keep that sort of activity out of the game world, if that makes sense.  When it’s time to advance your character or equip gear, go bonkers.  But flailing away with a crappy weapon skill or jumping up and down in place just to advance a skill – frankly it just seems like degenerate gaming to me.

The character systems that have most influenced me are the ones in Darklands, Fallout, Mass Effect, and Oblivion.  There are things that I utterly despised about the character systems in all of those games, but they were moving toward an ideal that I believe in very strongly: a shallow learning curve that expands into thought-provoking depth.

  • Thought-provoking depth? Mass Effect? Oblivion? You simply HAVE to explain that.

    Mass Effect starts out with a very simple character creation process.  You pick your sex, appearance, background, and class, then you’re off.  I’d prefer more depth and choice in that process, but it’s very easy to get into.  When you start advancing your character, you aren’t overwhelmed by screens and screens of options, and more importantly, most of the skills that you can advance are – wonder of wonders – actually worth buying.  Over time, you gain more skills by two methods: a) advancing base skills to a certain breakpoint or b) being Shepard.  I think it fell apart in two ways.  First, there’s no weighting to skill progression, so there’s almost no incentive to diversify skills within a common pool.  Why pick up points in other weapon skills when you can just blow through one tree?  Second, there’s very little long-term strategy to the advancement system and no choice outside of which skill to advance.  In the mid-game, I found myself considering what skills to buy at every level (which honestly is more than I can say for most other RPGs I play).  In the long run, I just kept slamming the same skills over and over again.  Why not?  Starting over in Shotgun would just be a waste of time when my Assault Rifles skill is through the roof.

    Oblivion allows you more choice early in the character creation process, and it gives you templates as well as a custom character class option.  It’s a fully skill-driven game, which is something I also love about Fallout and Darklands.  It also features a “not completely terrible” learn-by-doing system.  It can result in some degenerate gameplay, but it’s not as bad as a lot of other learn-by-doing systems I’ve seen.  Where it falls apart is in the mid-game, where players inevitably realize how broken the advancement system really is.  And they also miss an incredible opportunity for player choice by taking away benefit selection from the player.  Every character that reaches second level in Marksman will get the exact same benefit.  The player is effectively removed from the advancement system process unless he or she wants to engage in horribly broken metagaming.

    I think both of these systems could be fixed easily.  Hopefully we’ll see some revisions to the systems in Mass Effect 2/TES 5.

I want more people to play RPGs, but I don't believe that making the games thoroughly shallow is a great way to do that.  I want to be able to introduce a fledgling player to simple concepts that gradually expand over the course of the game.  By the same token, I want veteran RPG players to jump in a game and immediately recognize that they have hard choices to make between equally rewarding character builds.  Frankly, this is how I look at things: if you have an advancement system where people regularly use the "recommend" button, you have made some collosal errors.  You have both failed to engage the player in what is supposed to be an element of gameplay and you have designed a system in which certain character builds are so obviously superior that you'd be stupid not to take them.

Weapon skills. Would you group them or not? How? One-handed, two-handed? Class like Swords or Rifles? Subclass like Short Sword, Long Sword, etc? Damage type like Cutting or Laser? Something else? How would you keep investing into combat skills interesting or meaningful?

I have to go back to my cornerstones of general simplicity and supporting the action.  When I was working on Van Buren, I struggled a bit with breaking down the skills because of conflicting traditions within the setting and system.  Melee weapons, unarmed combat, and thrown weapons were all supported in Fallout and Fallout 2, but those skills sat alongside three separate firearm skills -- and I didn't like how the firearm skills had been broken down into essentially "poor", "good", and "awesome" categories with intentionally phased obsolescence.

Combat skills really dominated the original list, and I thought it was a pretty obsessive focus.  So I  thought that we needed to support all of those combat styles, but they needed to feel disctinct and useful enough that each could stand alone as a single skill (though Throwing was rolled in with Melee because that was just too small of a niche to stand alone).

  • While I somewhat agree with your assessment, don’t you think the most logical conclusion would have been balancing all firearms and making them equally useful instead of getting rid of this “feature”? What are the benefits of a single firearm skill comparing to the three original skills? Would you agree that your approach didn’t give players interested in gunfighter-type characters much to work with?

    (Disclaimer: it’s not about Fallout, but about design in general.)


    Some people complained about rolling the firearms skills together, but I didn’t think it was a sound criticism.  I think it’s short-sighted to look at a single skill and say, “Well, that doesn’t give a person much to work with,” – unless that skill is the only one that defines an entire character concept.  You could say that about virtually any skill category. Saying it about firearms, which usually have more tools at the player’s disposal than almost any other skill in the game, seems strange to me.  Seriously, Fallout 2 had over 50 firearms and over 20 types of ammo, not to mention all the firearm-related perks – I think gun fans had a lot of stuff to play with in that game, and I don’t think that having three skills made it particularly great.

    Having the Firearms skills rolled together meant that a character who wanted to be good with firearms could also focus on other skills without needing to regularly “switch over” to a new skill set at various points in the game.  There were a lot of perks on the Firearms skill branch in Van Buren, so players still could pick various specialties, but they would always keep a core competency with guns.

For hand-to-hand combat to be useful in a game where firearms are relatively common, both melee and unarmed had to have some contrived game mechanics -- but I think that's fine when you're trying to achieve a specific feel for the setting.  It's fun to suffer the bullets slamming into your character as long as you get to totally pound on the guy once you finish running up to him or her.  More variable weapons and moves, area effect "combo" attacks, and the ability to learn variant unarmed styles were all part of fleshing melee and unarmed out more, to make them feel distinct, cool, and valuable in the setting.  The last one was particularly fun, because I tied the unarmed styles to groups you would meet in the setting.  For example, the style practiced by the scribes of the Brotherhood of Steel was very defensive but did low damage.  The style practiced by NCR Rangers penetrated armor easily but was slow.

In comparison, Aliens doesn't have the same expectations.  It's a setting in which the characters use a lot of conventional firearms and improvised weapons to deal with the threat.  Melee isn't a very successful option in the films, so the expectations are skewed away from a "traditional" RPG mold in which rolling in with fists and clubs is a sound tactic.

Defensive combat skills. Let's start with armor class. What are your thoughts on this element? Does it make sense? Would you go with an armor class system or something different? What skills, if any, would you include into the defense group and why?

I like armor.  I think it's great both as a gameplay element as a visual "upgrade".  Getting armor in a game like Darklands felt huge.  When your party was strolling the Holy Roman Empire in plate mail, the game felt very different and it was awesome to go into your character sheet and see your characters in the height of Medieval armor.  Similarly, snagging some combat armor in Fallout felt like a huge step up.  You had moved from scavenging scraps to being a proper tough guy (or girl).

I don't like armor class = hard to hit for a lot of reasons, but what it fundamentally comes down to is this: systems that treat armor as damage reduction usually wind up being easier to grasp by players and making more sense overall.  On a computer, you can also do all sorts of easy bookkeeping if you want to implement armor degradation.  Darklands did a great job of this, and maintaining/buying new armor was a constant (and good) money sink.

I also like active dodge mechanics, though they are admittedly harder to implement in a game that emphasizes player-driven action.  I am fond of the idea that you can trade off brute protection for higher agility: the difference between the armored knight and the mythic rogue.  And of course, it isn't realistic, but it fits a pretty common fantastic vision and desire that players want to emulate.  I want to be the swashbuckler, or the wily assassin that can deftly roll out of the way of dozens of knightly broadsword blows only to finish the battle with a few good thrusts of a poisoned stiletto.  D&D 3.5 came closer to supporting this than any previous edition of AD&D, but I still think they're fighting an uphill battle against the most problematic component: armor class.

  • Purely out of curiosity (since the paragraph above pretty much describes our system), how would you implement the active dodge system and what would be the issues to watch out for? Also, do you feel that being able to dodge attacks is enough compensation for losing the "upgrade and look for better armor!" minigame?

    Active dodging can either be abstracted (as it might be in a game like Fallout or most D&D games) or it could be player-driven in an action game (though that gets tricky).  Representing abstracted active dodging in real-time is hard because it can interrupt player action, but there are ways around this (ghost images, blending animations, etc.).  This is sort of the traditional style of RPG dodging, which can work very well if set up properly.

    Player-driven active dodging can give the player a window to dodge via a generic interaction, or can simply give the player a dodge button that reacts with variable speed based on the character’s stats.

    E.g. in the former case, the player has an interact key or button that is used for a variety of generic interactions.  In the game, when an attack (or perhaps a specific type of attack) is imminent, the player gets a “Press [ ] to Dodge” button with a variable window based on the character’s stats.  A character with a 5 Reflexes gets half the window to react as a character with 10 Reflexes – 20 frames vs. 40 frames.

    In the second case, the player always has a dodge mechanic available, but the character speeds up the animation as the character’s Reflexes (or Agility, or Dexterity, or Dodge skill, etc.) advances.

    And to be honest, no I don’t think it can compensate entirely for losing the gear aspect of the game.  Even though D&D’s armor system has some balance issues, “unarmored” wizards and monks can get items to make them harder to hit and change their appearance.  In Van Buren, there were four armor advancement paths.  The extremes were ultra-heavy (which ended with Power Armor/ATHENA) and ultra-light (which ended with UAC Armor/Hei Gui Armor).  The ultra-light path was for stealthy characters.  It offered pretty wimpy protection, but granted some alternate bonuses and didn’t give any penalties.  It also would have offered the character a much different appearance than the ultra-heavy armors.

Non-combat skills. I guess the real question is what would you like your character to do when he/she is taking a break from killing things. Any personal preferences? What skills you'd throw in this group and why? Any interesting skills from other games that you liked, perhaps?

Btw, how do you see non-combat gameplay? Is it a viable alternative to combat or gravy on the side? In other words, do you believe that a game that's not focused on combat can appeal to more than a handful of gamers?


I think of non-combat skills the same way as combat skills: I want them to support the player's desired actions in the setting.  Want to build a bunch of robots?  Well, you'll probably need a Robotics skill.  Want to scour the wilderness for goodies?  Maybe there should be a Survival or Outdoorsman skill.  Even though I didn't like the UI for it, I thought the alchemy in Oblivion was great.  I honestly loved running all over the countryside to find herbs.  It reminded me of Ultima in some ways, and I liked how it would draw me into exploring areas that I wouldn't have seen otherwise.  In a way, all of this stuff has to be oriented toward some sort of fantasy fulfillment within the setting.  When I played KotOR, I was kind of annoyed by the lockpicking.  I'm here to play a Jedi, dude.  How many Jedi pick locks?  In my mind, zero.  It would have been better if another party member were geared toward that and my character were geared only toward a) lightsabering fools in different ways, b) force x-ing various things in the world, and c) being a conversational mastermind.  That's what Jedis do, that's the fantasy I want fulfilled.

I think non-combat gameplay is great as long as good effort is put into making it fun and rewarding.  I love sneaking around, picking locks (when I'm not a Jedi), fixing gadets, building/repairing gear, and engaging in meaningful conversations with NPCs.  I think combat should be an option for most players, but in my opinion it's very important to support non-combat options in RPGs.

Do you prefer a class-based or skill-based systems? If class-based, what game, would you say, had the best implemented class-system and why? How would you organize and design classes? Also, Icewind Dale 2 was supposed to have 2E class kits like Landsknecht and Kensai, but ended up with more flexible 3E classes. Since you were able to compare both systems, what do you think is a better way to design classes?

Generally speaking, I prefer more open systems.  The more the game is oriented around strict classes, I feel it becomes harder to achieve and balance.  I like skill-based systems a lot, though there is something to be said for the idea that in most games, combat skills are practically always going to be more valuable than other skills -- and that can present some challenges in a "truly" open system like Fallout's SPECIAL. 

My favorite class-based system is Oblivion's/TES's because it's total B.S., just a fakey layer thrown on over the skill system.  I'm not a fan of the advancement mechanics, but the classes gave new RPG players a really easy way to comprehend the core idea of a character.  "Want to play an assassin?  Just pick this."  Awesome.  And if you were more used to RPG mechanics, you could just dive in and make whatever you wanted.  And the thing was, most skills in Oblivion felt pretty good to use.  So it didn't fall into a common RPG trap of, "Oh, you took the crappy skills."  It's a great feeling as a player to know that, while your selection of skills might be disadvantageous at certain points in the game, it's supported robustly throughout the game.

  • Most skill based systems are great for making jacks of all trade, but don’t do very well when it comes to specialization. I’d say that class kits like the ones used in Baldur’s Gate 2 were infinitely more interesting and deeper than any Oblivion character. Freedom to do whatever you want is great when you have enough meaningful choices, and I think that Oblivion’s system was geared toward creating the same “fighter/mage/thief” character. What are your thoughts on that?

    I strongly believe that the key to creating a skill-based game system that rewards both the jack-of-all trades and the specialist is to increase the cost of advancing the skills while increasing the value of things that can be unlocked by high skills only.  Well, that and I think the benefits granted by those “unlocks” (perks, feats, whatever) should be orthogonal to the benefits granted by the skill itself.  In that way, the jack-of-all trades may be able to spend half the points to achieve 75% of the benefits granted to a specialist for maxing out a skill, but the specialist gains access to more cool “tricks” that the high skill unlocks.

    That’s the only way I can think to do it.  Otherwise, simple mathematics usually kills the jack-of-all-trades.  When you’re 1st level in D&D, the potential skill range is small – zero to ten (let’s be optimistic about these powergamers).  It’s relatively easy for the DM to set skill difficulty checks.  Now let’s look at 15th level D&D characters.  Between items and other goofy bonuses, a specialist could be pushing +30 in a skill.  The minimum that a character could have is still zero, and the jack-of-all-trades is likely to be… where, maybe 12?  15? The die range has exceeded the potential skill range.  It’s okay for a tabletop DM to balance on the fly, but potentially difficult for a CRPG unless we introduce that dreaded monster of Auto-Balancing.

    That’s why I think it’s good for systems to start weighting skill progression near the mid-game while giving increasingly beneficial unlocks toward the upper end.  The specialists get their cool exclusive stuff, and the jacks-of-all-trades are able to remain competitive and flexible.
« Last Edit: August 11, 2008, 04:54:51 pm by Vince » Logged
Wrath of Dagon
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« Reply #1 on: August 11, 2008, 10:21:00 am »

I don't get the window to dodge stuff. If at the beginning of the game you can dodge in 20 frames, why would you need 40 frames at the end? That would just make the game easier and nothing else. I think the second alternative is a lot better, your dodge gets faster as you advance, but the enemies will also strike faster.
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« Reply #2 on: August 11, 2008, 02:24:42 pm »

Video games are typically gonna have a much narrower focus than P&P systems, so paying a lot of attention to paring things down for game-relevance makes a lot of sense.
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« Reply #3 on: August 11, 2008, 03:54:52 pm »

Great interview.  Hearing more about Van Buren makes me regret Herve canning it and the steaming pile Bethesda is throwing our way, but the Aliens RPG sounds like the most promising thing on the mainstream market except for this...

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the player gets a “Press [ ] to Dodge” button with a variable window based on the character’s stats.  A character with a 5 Reflexes gets half the window to react as a character with 10 Reflexes – 20 frames vs. 40 frames.

Too much power is given to twitchers with this.  5 frames is a lot to anyone who plays stuff like Ninja Gaiden or Street Fighter, and if it sticks in an actual "do-able" range like this, a twitchy RPG gamer like myself might be able to use reflexes as a dump stat, get the same results, and end up having a more challenging, fun time.  Seems a bit counter-intuitive, but that stuff tends to happen when you mix twitch and RPG....it doesn't go well.
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« Reply #4 on: August 11, 2008, 04:26:32 pm »

Completely agreed.

That's what happened with Oblivion.

Also, Ninja Gaiden is not that twitchy. I play it and it's a hell of a game, and I suck at twitching... But the again, I pwn ass at CS:S, but it's not THAT twitchy either... NG is more about coordination and sense of occasion. Very quick mental reflexes.
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« Reply #5 on: August 11, 2008, 05:25:43 pm »


Interesting interview. I wonder why NWN2 has not been mentioned though. I thought Mr. Sawyer was NWN2 lead designer, no?
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« Reply #6 on: August 11, 2008, 05:38:08 pm »

"Well, that and I think the benefits granted by those “unlocks” (perks, feats, whatever) should be orthogonal to the benefits granted by the skill itself.  In that way, the jack-of-all trades may be able to spend half the points to achieve 75% of the benefits granted to a specialist for maxing out a skill, but the specialist gains access to more cool “tricks” that the high skill unlocks."

I think the big challenge with this is making the Jack-of-all-Trades viable by using cross-class synergies; when a medium level, say, mage skill enhances and complements a medium level rogue skill, and don't just work as separate effects.  Probable easier said than done- it seems like this could add a staggering level of work for the industrious developer.
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« Reply #7 on: August 11, 2008, 05:43:28 pm »

@ Ellorien:

He took over when the game was almost done. Ferret Baudoin was the lead designer, but he was offered a position at Bioware. If you are interested in Sawyer's involvement with NWN2 and other games, here is a good interview.
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« Reply #8 on: August 12, 2008, 12:50:43 am »

@ Ellorien:

He took over when the game was almost done. Ferret Baudoin was the lead designer, but he was offered a position at Bioware. If you are interested in Sawyer's involvement with NWN2 and other games, here is a good interview.

Thank you for the link. He was quite frank.
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« Reply #9 on: August 12, 2008, 06:22:20 am »

Great interview, and agreed on many of the points.
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« Reply #10 on: August 12, 2008, 08:21:49 am »

Another great interview Vince. I love the way this place is evolving a real treasure trove of indepth analysis, by so many of the big (and little) names in the genre.

I'll be very interested to see what Mr. Sawyer does now he's finally got creative lead on a project right from the start. I'm quietly optimistic about the Aliens RPG, as silly at that is given the dearth of information.
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« Reply #11 on: August 12, 2008, 09:08:08 am »

Yes, that link is very good too. I especially liked this statement:
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I think strategy elements are great. They add another layer on top of all the "in the field" party management and tactical combat. But strategy elements have to make changes that are a) visible and b) meaningful.
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« Reply #12 on: August 13, 2008, 07:40:21 am »

I like his focus on creating the system for the setting, but found this bit from VD to be really strange:
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While settings/environments should influence character systems to some degree (Piety is useless in a setting without religion), the basic stats determining how strong, fast, tough, smart you are, are the universal foundation. Strength and Intelligence should have a place in every setting, wouldn’t you agree?

If strength and intelligence aren't relevant to what the game is about, what's the good in making them key stats? Not every game is going to need these things to be modeled in some way, and I think it's limiting to stay within that frame of reference pretty much because that's how it's always been done. There's plenty of room for innovation in cRPG systems - there's just a few sacred cows that need to be taken out the back and shot first.
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« Reply #13 on: August 13, 2008, 09:12:39 am »

If strength and intelligence aren't relevant to what the game is about, what's the good in making them key stats?
How can they not be relevant? These are your basic physical/mental stats. Why shouldn't Intelligence be in every game? What setting it won't fit into and why? What setting makes intelligence an irrelevant stat?

Strength is typically associated with melee damage, carry weight, and use of heavy items. Needless to say, most setting (99%) have room for melee fighters. That's a basic choice that shouldn't be denied to players. In the Aliens setting melee is useless due to the acid nature of the aliens, but that's just one aspect of STR. Remember Vasquez and that huge machine gun that was attached to her waist? That looks like something that requires some strength to carry and use effectively. Carry weight is an all-time favorite derived stat. RPG players are known for picking up anything that isn't nailed down, so it's an important factor. Last, the Strength upgrade in Deus Ex was fun to play with, showing that a lot could be done with STR even in a futuristic setting.

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Not every game is going to need these things to be modeled in some way, and I think it's limiting to stay within that frame of reference pretty much because that's how it's always been done. There's plenty of room for innovation in cRPG systems - there's just a few sacred cows that need to be taken out the back and shot first.
I don't believe in doing something because it's always been done and I have no problems with shooting sacred cows, but you have to prove that Strength and Intelligence are cows that need to be shot first.

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« Reply #14 on: August 13, 2008, 11:03:19 am »

I think the point was that there might be a game whose story and setting doesn't care about strength and intelligence, and if one finds himself designing such a game then they shouldn't just assume they'll have to include the four basic physical and mental attributes.  Such stats are obviously nearly universal, and I think Aik is just asking for a little bit of wiggle room so we can acknowledge they are not absolutely universal.

An RPG could have you playing as some kind of phantasm, in which case your not corporeal and therefore strength doesn't really exist.  Another might have a story and setting that needs to assume a particular level of intelligence or strength for some reason, so they simply do away with them in favor of specific stats and in-game choice.  A more typical RPG's setting might simply be more fun to play in if everything is skill based and that particular game does away with all attributes. 

And, of course, you have RPGs where you begin with a given character who is not simply a blank slate.
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