So back to the discussion on non-combat skill systems in MMOs. Or maybe not... see there isn't much to talk about. A few posters responded with examples from Vanguard and Eve, but there really isn't much in the MMO world not related to combat & crafting. That is the state of the games we play -- no one has figured out how to do a skill system in an MMO.
Now, I have a solution... not a perfect solution, mind you... but a starting point for us to discuss the Next-Generation of MMOs. And to discuss this exciting new, revolutionary system, we are going to have to change our clocks and fast forward them to...
Yes 1992, the year when Microprose put out an ambitious CRPG called Darklands. If you've never heard of Darklands before, here is a link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darklands_%28computer_game%29. If you are interested in game design, or the history of CRPGs, or just cool games in general, this is definitely a game to check out. In its time, Darklands was noted for its open-ended gameplay, its unique setting, the character generation system and its combat system.
The skill system was also interesting in that quite a bit of the interaction between player and the system was through text descriptions and multiple choice responses.
No really, stick with me here...
So, I might be traveling through the wilderness with my team of medieval German adventurers when we would be confronted with the following scenario:
You hear the snap of a twig and an chorus of low, angry growls all around you. Peering into the trees, you see a dozen pairs of eyes glinting with your torchlight. You have stumbled upon a pack of hungry wolves that pace in an ever-tightening circle around you. You have only a few moments before they attack. What do you do?
A. Have Hans use his Animal Handling skill to offer the starving beasts food so as to distract them long enough to make your escape.
B. Have Deiter cast a Fireball at the alpha wolf hoping to scare the pack away.
C. Have Agathe use her Theology skill to pray to St. Ailbe, patron of wolves, and petition him to send the pack away.
D. Prepare to fight!!
For choices A and C, the character in question would make a skill roll and if successful, the combat would be avoided. Choice B would probably apply a flat chance of avoiding the battle. Of course, choice D, or a failure on the other options, would start the combat sequence.
This is a simplistic example, but you can imagine a system in which these "Skill Segments" would appear like cutscenes at certain points in a mission or instance. A Skill Segment would have a descriptive text and a list of powers, abilities and skills that would become the basis for the prompts. Every prompt would then start a bit of logic that would adjudicate the skill test and its results and change the scenario accordingly before putting characters back into the "normal" game.
So, you are playing Generic Fantasy MMO #5028 (GF for short) and you take a quest to from a merchants' guild to punish a local merchant that was late on his dues. You enter a building which spawns an instance (instancing is not necessary, but we'll assume it here to make our "design" easier to picture) and just inside that instance is another door with two burly guards blocking the way. As soon as you approach the guards, you get a skill segment. The two guards block your way. They are very tough and could possibly be a match for your party... I will not assault your eyes by trying to write flavor text for the scene, but you get the idea. How are you going to get around these guys???
The game then checks through the list of skills (or powers) that the quest designer has listed as active. For our hypothetical example, let's say the designer has listed bribery, deception, and streetwise as the skills and has also marked the spells/powers create illusion, invisibility and sleep as active. Your group consists of a burglar with the skills deception, stealth and streetwise, a mage with invisibility and sleep and a couple fighters, one of which has the bribery skill and tactics.
The players might see this list:
A. You can bribe the guards. FighterGuy is uncertain of success, but thinks that 200 cp is a good price to start.
Choosing this option has FighterGuy roll a skill test against his bribery skill. If successful, the guards disappear. Otherwise, the group might lose more than the 200 cp, the bribe might be rebuked (meaning you go back to the options screen, but with option A greyed out), or the guards might be incensed and attack.
B. ThiefGuy can trick the guards into chasing him, leaving the door unguarded. These guys look dumb, ThiefGuy is fairly certain of success.
If ThiefGuy makes his deception roll, the guards disappear, or perhaps even start to chase ThiefGuy (who must then evade them the normal MMO way) while the rest of the group continues on. There would have to be some benefit to taking the skill option as opposed to simply attacking the guards. Perhaps the guards would chase ThiefGuy, but be slowed so as to give the PC an advantage...
C. Perhaps there is another way into the merchant's house? ThiefGuy could ask around.
Success here takes the group to the back door, or some other unguarded entrance that is otherwise unaccessable.
D. MageGuy can try to cast invisibility, turning the entire group invisible. This will take a great deal of effort, but will allow you to get past the guards.
Since invisibility is generally self-only, this will cost MageGuy a ton of mana, and perhaps some kind of skill roll to make it work. Success puts the group beyond the door with the guards none the wiser.
E. MageGuy can cast sleep on the guards, allowing you to walk past them. If the guards resist the spell, they will certainly attack.
The guards would get saving throws and if they succeeded, they would attack.
F. The group charges the guards... but FighterGuy notices (tactics) that they have horns on their belts. Is it possible they will call for reinforcements?
This puts the group into combat with the guards who unless silenced, or otherwise disabled, blow their horns and call more guards to the scene. In this case, the system made the tactics roll beforehand and because FighterGuy succeeded, put that warning in the last option.
So, here is a start... something to think about and discuss. I will continue with this line of thought in my next post. Is this sort of system actually possible in an MMO? Interesting? Not worth it? What do you think?