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The Lunch Break Blog

For those of us who would rather be leveling right now.

Author: cmagoun

Non-Combat Skill Systems Part 2 (Or The Winner Is... Darklands???)

Posted by cmagoun Monday August 18 2008 at 2:43PM
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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...

1992??????

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?

Daelus writes:

It's possible, but the problem is how to create this kind of content and still make enough to keep people occupied until the end of time.

You can create this kind of stuff, and in almost all MMOs there are a few (Stress on few) quests that have depth and intelligence behind them. To create a quest with seven ways through it takes seven times as long as one with one way through it, yet it takes the same amount of time for the player to complete either example.

Personally I've always been an advocate of making less content but making it more interesting and deep. Quality over quantity. I'd rather spend ten minutes doing something fun than two hours doing something monotonous.

Tue Aug 19 2008 12:46AM Report
Daelus writes:

Also to expand, there have been many single player RPGs that did this (Fallout, Baldur's Gate and company, Planescape), MMOs were basically the pioneers of the "Kill 10 rats quests". Before MMOs, these sorts of things were completely unheard of in RPGs.

Tue Aug 19 2008 12:48AM Report
cmagoun writes:

Daelus,

I think it depends on the game. Games with heavy instancing, or mission-based games like CoX could drop in a system like this fairly easily. All the mission maps are randomly created, you would have to have certain map pieces that included various skill segments. For instance, the warehouse map might have a chance of containing a "Mysterious Shipment" skill segment. The Cray Lab map might have a possibility of containing a "Vault Door" segment. You would just have to change the map creation logic a bit.

As for creating enough content... well that is always hard, but I don't think it is an all or nothing proposition. There is nothing to say you can't have 70% of your content be the typical "Fetch the Woozle" quests and 30% be more interesting stuff. As for more quest paths taking more time to create, I think you are correct, but I am not entirely sure the argument applies to this proposed "system".

Good points though. Please keep up the discussion.

Tue Aug 19 2008 6:50AM Report
Tamon writes: Darklands is a true classic. I'd love to see a remake! I don't think the system that you mentioned would translate that well in an MMORPG but the genre does need a lot more skills besides heal/damage/stat alteration/stealth. Sat Feb 28 2009 7:01AM Report
xS0u1zx writes:

Well like I said in part one eve online yet again.  Spec for electronic warfare you fly in disable the opponents on board systems and disable  their ability to move.  Then you get your friends to come in and destroy them.   Or you can fly logistics and repair your team's shields and armor while they are in combat *similar to a healer in per say wow*.  The choice is yours really.

Wed May 13 2009 11:54AM Report
Reborn17 writes:

I think in order for the players to appreciate their success the path shouldn't be laid out too easily, I mean each individual knows what they are capable of and by allowing them to say "Hey I could blah blah blah" it creates communication and activates thought processes in the minds of his/her teammates as to how they can work this out in the most effective and/or fun way possible, adding to thier team dynamic and comraderie.

Wed Jun 10 2009 7:36AM Report

MMORPG.com writes:
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